Philosophical investigation in synthetic biology has focused on the knowledge-seeking questions pursued, the kind of engineering techniques used, and on the ethical impact of the products produced. However, little work has been done to investigate the processes by which these epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical forms of inquiry arise in the course of synthetic biology research. An attempt at this work relying on a particular area of synthetic biology will be the aim of this chapter. I focus on the reengineering of metabolic pathways through the manipulation and construction of small DNA-based devices and systems synthetic biology. Rather than focusing on the engineered products or ethical principles that result, I will investigate the processes by which these arise. As such, the attention will be directed to the activities of practitioners, their manipulation of tools, and the use they make of techniques to construct new metabolic devices. Using a science-in-practice approach, I investigate problems at the intersection of science, philosophy of science, and sociology of science. I consider how practitioners within this area of synthetic biology reconfigure biological understanding and ethical categories through active modelling and manipulation of known functional parts, biological pathways for use in the design of microbial machines to solve problems in medicine, technology, and the environment. We might describe this kind of problem-solving as relying on what Helen Longino referred to as “social cognition” or the type of scientific work done within what Hasok Chang calls “systems of practice”. My aim in this chapter will be to investigate the relationship that holds between systems of practice within metabolic engineering research and social cognition. I will attempt to show how knowledge and normative valuation are generated from this particular network of practitioners. In doing so, I suggest that the social nature of scientific inquiry is ineliminable to both knowledge acquisition and ethical evaluations.
- Synthetic Biology
- BioBrick Assembly
- Morange 2009a
- Knowledge-making Activities
- Extended Mind Thesis
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Chang has also pointed out the tendency of traditional philosophers of science as well as analytic philosophy in general to use the “just sociology” claim as criticism of practice based approaches to philosophy: “In the typical analytic philosopher’s picture, the scientist only enters as a ghostly being that either believes or doesn’t believe certain descriptive statements, fixing his beliefs following some rules of rational thinking that remove any need for real judgment. All the things that do not fit easily into this bizarre and impoverished picture are denigrated as pieces of “mere” psychology or sociology” (Chang 2014: 70).
Schyfter (2012) considers and evaluates the appropriateness of conceiving the products of synthetic biological research as kinds of technological objects. The discussion here differs from his insofar as I take a practice-based account of kinds that focuses on kinds of modules (see also Sprinzak and Elowitz 2005; Keller 2009).
When referring simultaneously to “Modularity” and “modularity” I will use the admittedly awkward “M/modularity”.
Each of these claims can be either conceived of from a realist, antirealist, operationalist, or pragmatic view as well as either one of monism or pluralism. For instance, one might suggest Modularity is a pragmatic methodology (and that we can be agnostic about whether the world is or is not really Modular). Someone may justify this claim that it is Modular insofar as our best knowledge comes from a working hypothesis of Modularity that is a heuristic guiding synthetic biology research.
An extended discussion of modularity based on this example is contained in Kendig and Eckdahl (2017).
For a recent discussion of evolvability and synthetic engineering that is complementary to the one presented here, see Calcott (2014).
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Research for this chapter was partially funded by the National Science Foundation Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB), BIOMAPS: Modular Programmed Evolution of Bacteria for Optimization of Metabolic Pathways, Grant No. MCB-1329350, Amendment No. 001, Proposal No. MCB-1417799. Thanks to Todd Eckdahl, Jeff Poet, Malcolm Campbell, and Laurie Heyer for sharing their insights and expertise in synthetic biology with me during research for the project. Special thanks go to Phil Mullins for many lively discussions about Polanyi and for encouragement in the early stages of writing this chapter. I am also very grateful to Hauke Riesch, Brian Rappert, and Thomas Reydon for their feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript.
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Kendig, C. (2018). Grounding Knowledge and Normative Valuation in Agent-Based Action and Scientific Commitment. In: Riesch, H., Emmerich, N., Wainwright, S. (eds) Philosophies and Sociologies of Bioethics. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-92738-1_3
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