Synthetic Biology at the Limits of Science

  • Alfred NordmannEmail author
Part of the Risk Engineering book series (RISK)


What happens when some of the traditional questions and concerns of the philosophy of science are brought to the non-traditional field of synthetic biology? Given that synthetic biology is a very diverse field, this might serve to highlight the many ways in which it is business as usual. However, prominent concepts and research practices of synthetic biology can be seen to confound established ideas of how knowledge is produced and validated in the sciences. By highlighting and readying for discussion the tension between alternative images of knowledge production in synthetic biology, this paper seeks to open up debate among philosophers of science, and within the diverse community of synthetic biologists. With the advance of emerging technosciences like synthetic biology what is at stake is not primarily how they might or might not change the world. At stake, first of all, are epistemic values, the ethos and authority of science, and the relation of knowledge and power. Building on ongoing discussions, the paper begins by exhibiting contested notions of understanding, rational engineering, and design. In a second step, it turns to different conceptions of biological “systems” by presenting divergent accounts of the origin of synthetic biology and of how systems biology gave rise to synthetic biology. Finally, it seeks to focus the debate on a definition of synthetic biology, according to which it builds, for constructive purposes, on achievements of technical control of biological complexity, that is, that it uses these achievements to generate, rather than reduce, complexity.


System Biology Knowledge Production Synthetic Biology Biological Entity Rational Engineering 
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.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für PhilosophieTechnische Universität DarmstadtDarmstadtGermany
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA

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