Is synthetic biology mechanical biology?


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.

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  1. 1.

    For an excellent overview of the heterogeneity and unifying features of synthetic biology research approaches see O’Malley et al. (2008). In this paper I focus on the guiding aims and ideas of what O’Malley et al. refer to as “genome-driven cell-engineering” and “DNA-based device construction”.

  2. 2.

    The quote is from an interview with Drew Endy in the online magazine Edge. (accessed January 15, 2015).

  3. 3.

    The registry can be found at

  4. 4.

    This is a feature that enables reliable modelling and simulation, something which is also highly desirable for efficient design of biotechnological systems (Heinemann and Panke 2006, p. 2796).

  5. 5.

    The quote is from an online interview with Drew Endy. For reference see note 2.

  6. 6.

    Nicholson references the papers by Andrianantoandro et al. (2006) and Endy (2005) in support of his claim that synthetic biology is driven by a mechanical understanding of life and assumes the ontological identity of organisms and machines. In Sect. 5 I show that this conclusion is not warranted.

  7. 7.

    The references to Descartes are to Oeuvres De Descartes, 11 vols. edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery,  Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris 1983 (AT) and to The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes, 3 vols., translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1988 (CSM).

  8. 8.

    The criticisms presented by Nicholson summarizes arguments and objections found in important work in the organicist tradition (see Nicholson 2012 for references).

  9. 9.

    This idea goes back to Kant and his characterization of organisms as “natural purposes” (Kant 1790/2000, Sect. 64).

  10. 10.

    An informative presentation of some of the challenges confronting synthetic biologists is given in Kwok (2010).

  11. 11.

    See Lewens (2013) for the notion of a design continuum.

  12. 12.

    Let me note that when I equate degree of machine-likeness with degree of rational design I do not want to rule out a priori the possibility that highly predictable and modular (machine-like) systems can result from “irrational” or “blind” evolution. My point is simply that synthetic biologists who aim to rationally engineer organisms do so partly because they aim to construct living systems that are more machine-like than naturally evolved life. Hence, there seems to be an assumption that rational design and machine-likeness as a matter of fact are correlative. I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  13. 13.

    Ablondi (1998).

  14. 14.

    And in the letter to Pollot we were told that the living automata composed by nature turned out to be “incomparably more accomplished” than the automata constructed by the man who had never encountered natural living animals. This thought is echoed in Leibniz’ remark that “each organized body of a living being is a kind of divine machine or natural automaton, which infinitely surpasses all artificial automata” (Leibniz 1989, p. 221).


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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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Correspondence to Sune Holm.

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Holm, S. Is synthetic biology mechanical biology?. HPLS 37, 413–429 (2015).

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  • Rational Design
  • Living System
  • Synthetic Biology
  • Machine Analogy
  • Ontological Commitment