Thematic Issue Article: Synthesis (σύνθεσις)

Biological Theory

, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 334-345

First online:

Weak Emergence Drives the Science, Epistemology, and Metaphysics of Synthetic Biology

  • Mark A. BedauAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, Reed College Email author 

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Top-down synthetic biology makes partly synthetic cells by redesigning simple natural forms of life, and bottom-up synthetic biology aims to make fully synthetic cells using only entirely nonliving components. Within synthetic biology the notions of complexity and emergence are quite controversial, but the imprecision of key notions makes the discussion inconclusive. I employ a precise notion of weak emergent property, which is a robust characteristic of the behavior of complex bottom-up causal webs, where a complex causal web is one that is incompressible and its behavior cannot be derived except by crawling through all of the gory details of the interactions in the web. The central thesis of this article is that synthetic biology centrally is the activity of engineering the desired weak emergent properties of synthetic cells. Synthetic biology has many different ways to engineer desired weak emergent properties of synthetic cells, including Edisonian trial and error, standardized parts, refactoring, and reprogramming synthetic genomes. The article ends by noting two philosophical consequences of engineering weak emergence. One is epistemological: synthesis is crucial for discovering weak emergent properties. The other is metaphysical: simple life forms are nothing but complex chemical mechanisms.


Complex causal web Protocell Refactoring Standardized part Synthetic biology Synthetic genome Weak emergence