History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 413–429 | Cite as

Is synthetic biology mechanical biology?

  • Sune HolmEmail author
Original Paper


A widespread and influential characterization of synthetic biology emphasizes that synthetic biology is the application of engineering principles to living systems. Furthermore, there is a strong tendency to express the engineering approach to organisms in terms of what seems to be an ontological claim: organisms are machines. In the paper I investigate the ontological and heuristic significance of the machine analogy in synthetic biology. I argue that the use of the machine analogy and the aim of producing rationally designed organisms does not necessarily imply a commitment to mechanical biology. The ideal of applying engineering principles to biology is best understood as expressing recognition of the machine-unlikeness of natural organisms and the limits of human cognition. The paper suggests an interpretation of the identification of organisms with machines in synthetic biology according to which it expresses a strategy for representing, understanding, and constructing living systems that are more machine-like than natural organisms.


Rational Design Living System Synthetic Biology Machine Analogy Ontological Commitment 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The research for this paper has been supported by the Danish Research Council for Culture and Communication grant number 4180-00146.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy Section, Department of Media, Cognition, and CommunicationUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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