Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 29-48

First online:

Technological biology? Things and kinds in synthetic biology

  • Pablo SchyfterAffiliated withDepartment of Bioengineering, Stanford UniversityESRC Centre for Social and Economic Research on Innovation in Genomics, University of Edinburgh Email author 

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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 artifacts—and study them as the objects in the making of a science yet to be made. I consider one fundamentally important question: how should we understand the material products of synthetic biology? 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 artifects drawn from the philosophy of technology, I explore the appropriateness of attributing to synthetic biological artifacts the four criteria of materiality, intentional design, functionality, and normativity. I then explore a variety of accounts of natural kinds. I demonstrate that synthetic biological artifacts fit each kind imperfectly, and display a concomitant ontological ‘messiness’. I argue that this classificatory ambivalence is a product of the field’s own nascence, and posit that further work on kinds might help synthetic biology evaluate its existing commitments and practices.


Synthetic biology Biological engineering Technological artifacts Natural kinds Ontology Classification Philosophy of technology