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Standing Reserves of Function: A Heideggerian Reading of Synthetic Biology

Abstract

Synthetic biology, an emerging field of science and technology, intends to make of the natural world a substrate for engineering practice. Drawing inspiration from conventional engineering disciplines, practitioners of synthetic biology hope to make biological systems standardized, calculable, modular, and predictably functional. This essay develops a Heideggerian reading of synthetic biology as a useful perspective with which to identify and explore key facets of this field, its knowledge, its practices, and its products. After overviews of synthetic biology and Heidegger’s account of technology, I discuss calculability, utility, function, setting-upon, and ordering, with the aim of discussing the manner in which synthetic biology works to render the biological world intelligible as something to be used, rather than something that is in and of itself. Having developed this Heideggerian reading, I proffer a number of corrections to his account that enable a more accurate, nuanced understanding of synthetic biology. Specifically, I discuss the notion of Ge-stell and submit that multiple systems of “enframing” may help to make Heidegger’s argument more robust. I suggest that synthetic biology may work to reveal the natural world as a standing-reserve of function.

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Notes

  1. For Heidegger, only a dedicated exploration of technology’s essence can free us from the dangerous, obliging relationship that characterizes our interaction with technology (see Dreyfus 1997).

  2. The German Bestand is generally translated as “standing reserve.” Rouse suggests that Bestand describes that which is “standing on call” (1985: 81). Ultimately, the concept refers to resources of which humanity may avail itself.

  3. Quantum mechanics’ focus on probability, rather than complete determinacy, is often employed to challenge this facet of Heidegger’s argument. Nonetheless, quantum mechanics also implies that only what has been measured can be known, thus lending credence to Heidegger’s argument that human metrics are the basis for what is real (see Glazebrook 2000, Chapter 5). Ultimately, my focus is synthetic biology, not quantum physics, so the point is only of tangential interest.

  4. Put otherwise, living things are transformed into things of human artifice with human-specified functions (c.f. Author, forthcoming, for an extended discussion of this particular issue).

  5. While it may be possible to argue that poiesis is synonymous with craft practice, I do not believe that this craft practice is of the kind found in scientific research. Moreover, synthetic biologists explicitly advocate a move away from craft to ‘real’ engineering.

  6. Note that my focus here is technological function, rather than biological function. In other work, I explore the connection between these concepts within synthetic biology.

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Correspondence to Pablo Schyfter.

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Schyfter, P. Standing Reserves of Function: A Heideggerian Reading of Synthetic Biology. Philos. Technol. 25, 199–219 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-011-0053-4

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Keywords

  • Synthetic biology
  • Heidegger
  • Function
  • Calculability
  • Enframing