The order of synthetic biological things

28th May 2010

16:30 - 18:00

Seminar Room, Ground Floor, Chisholm House, High School Yards

Pablo Schyfter is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar at Stanford University's Department of Bioengineering, where he is studying synthetic biology through the philosophies of biology and technology. He is project leader on Synthetic Aesthetics, a joint ESRC/NSF project exploring issues of design in synthetic biology.


Social scientific and humanistic research on synthetic biology has focused quite narrowly on questions of epistemology and ELSI. I suggest that to understand this discipline in its full scope, researchers must turn to the objects of the field?synthetic biological artefacts?and study them as the objects in the making of a science yet to be made. I consider one fundamentally important question: can we properly understand the material products of synthetic biology to be technological artefacts? Practitioners in the field, employing a consistent technological optic in the study and construction of biological systems, routinely employ the mantra ?biology is technology?. I explore this categorization. By employing an established definition of technological artefacts drawn from the philosophy of technology, I explore the appropriateness of attributing to synthetic biological artefacts the four criteria of materiality, intentional design, functionality, and normativity. I demonstrate that synthetic biological artefacts do indeed fit within the class of technological artefacts, although they do so imperfectly. Key difficulties arise in fitting definition to items, and these are discussed at length. In doing so, I draw attention to synthetic biology as more than scientific and engineering practice; I argue that the field is equally busied with ontological craftwork.