I've been discussing with a friend about Earth Day and at a certain point came out the question

What do you call "nature"?

He said that he considers "nature" basically all matter, including plastics and all kind of man-made materials.

I said that as far as I understand, "nature" is the ensemble of all Earth's ecosystems, thus if something is not part of an ecosystem, it is not "nature".

Is there an official definition of what is considered to be "nature"? If yes, what is it? If no, is there a reason?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why was the question downvoted? Please leave a comment. I personally think it is a good question $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Apr 22, 2016 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Remi.b I guess we'll never know, but I have seens on several SEs people that think a question to be "unanswerable" and downvote without thinking too much about it. $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Apr 25, 2016 at 14:05

2 Answers 2


Is there a definition of "nature"?

I don't think there is any commonly accepted definition of "nature" in biology. To my experience, the term "nature" is actually relatively rarely used in conferences or peer-reviewed papers.

Why is there no formal definition of nature?

The concept of "nature" has been developed outside the field of science or philosophy. As often concepts in the popular culture are used without a proper, complete definition. Even if there is an vague intuition that correspond to a concept, it does not mean that there is any way to make an objective definition of this concept. I think the absence of formal definition of nature mainly come from the fact that nature as used in the population culture does not mean much.

Is the term "nature" used in Biology and with which definition?

I just did a quick review of the use of the term "nature" in peer-reviewed articles. It seems that the term "nature" is rarely used or only in the abstract r in the first two paragraphs of the introduction to convey very general (and somewhat inaccurate) ideas.

Often, the term "nature" holds for "essence", "origin" or "intrinsic characteristic" rather than referring to "outside the lab", "landscape" or "ecosystems". Here are some examples of where I found the term nature

"Nature" as "Essence"

From the abstract of Gibson and Dworkin 2004

[..] we highlight recent progress in determining the nature and identity of genes that underlie cryptic genetic effects [..]

From the first paragraph of Woolhouse et al. 2002

Failure to recognize the dynamic nature of the interaction could result in misinterpretation [..]

"Nature" as "outside the lab"

First sentence of the second paragraph of Elena and Lenski 2003

Since Darwin’s day, many examples of evolution in action have been studied in nature [..]

Note btw that there is no good (objective) definition of life either. One might want to have a look at Why isn't a virus alive? for a discussion on the definition of life.


The meaning of words depends on how people use them. However it would appear that your friend is in a minority applying the word ‘Nature’ to man-made things. Thus,

The OED definition includes:

The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations

and Merriam-Webster:

the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people


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