September 20, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich


Loewenmensch1The Nuffield Foundation on Bioethics will soon report on a project that critically explores “how current public and political bioethics debates are affected by ideas about naturalness and how this correlates with academic discussions relating to the concept”. This made me think, especially as I am working now as a social scientist with a team of people engaged in ‘synthetic biology’. Some definitions of synthetic biology say that one group of synthetic biologists “uses unnatural molecules to mimic natural molecules with the goal of creating artificial life” and another group “uses natural molecules and assembles them into a system that acts unnaturally”.

Thinking with categories

Human beings are thinking beings. Thinking needs some sort of scaffold to happen. For a long time one of the scaffolds has been our ability to sort things into categories and in particular to make binary distinctions. That seems only logical and indeed natural. As Claude Levi-Strauss told us “culture is organized around pairs of fundamental polarities”, such as nature and culture, and “its myths (we would say its value system also) attempt to mediate those polarities” (Veatch, 1971, 1).

For a long time we have been happy thinking and living with or, if you like, cursed by what appear to be ready-made (natural) categories with hard and fast boundaries. They enabled us to distinguish clearly between life and death, male and female, humans and machines, Gods and humans, good and evil, nature and culture, the natural and the artificial…. This type of thinking scaffold has served us quite well. Up until now.

Advances in science, especially the biological sciences, seem to be blurring these categories and one can even venture to say that these categories have now gone. But this also means that a particular kind of logic has gone. We live in a world of artificial intelligences and technologically enhanced bodies, one even where Barbie has artificial intelligence and tries to make (artificial) friends….. To be able to live in this ‘brave new world’ of ever-blurring boundaries and categories, people might have to master ‘fuzzy’ (non-categorical, boundaries-blurring) thinking. That can be quite frightening and disturbing.

The problem is that human beings are still better at traditional logic based on (hard) categories than at fuzzy logic. They want to hang on to categories and binaries, even when they dissolve under their feet. They still want things to be either dead or alive, male or female, natural or artificial, and so on.

Of course, there have also always been people who have strayed beyond the boundaries or tried to subvert them. Art is full of hybrids, chimeras and monsters and so is our literature. The problem is that nowadays these mixed up beings are appearing in science (and reality) instead of in fiction and in art and are therefore seen as much more threatening.

Thinking beyond categories

As soon as science began to emerge and challenge the constraints imposed by traditional thinking during the Enlightenment, philosophers began to dream about artificial bodies and artificial minds and to ask questions about the ‘unnatural’. And so did in fact many early ‘science fiction’ writers who began to question and probe the artificialisation of nature. These discussions and speculations should be revisited as they laid the foundations for modern debates about similar issues – and structure them all the time, whether we want to or not. Creating an awareness of pervasive metaphors, images and scripts and about where they came from and how they shape our thinking and acting, may help overcome some still existing barriers of communication between ‘experts’ and ‘lay people’ – another binary we think with.

In 1769, Denis Diderot, the famous editor of the Encyclopédie and paragon of the Enlightenment, speculated about the origins of life and the creation of ‘artificial life’ in his essay The Dream of d’Alembert. As Gordon Rattray Taylor summarised it in his 1968 book The Biological Time Bomb, Diderot “described how one day human embryos would be artificially cultivated and their hereditary endowment predetermined. His hero saw ‘a warm room with the floor covered with little pots, and on each of these pots a label: soldiers, magistrates, philosophers, poets, potted courtesans, potted kings….’” (Taylor, 1968: 9). Taylor predicted that this vision would come true in the year 2000. We are not quite there yet (fortunately).

Of course, Diderot was not the only one who dared to dream beyond established categories. He had predecessors in medieval alchemists and the clay Golem of Jewish folklore and he had followers in Frankenstein’s monster and the babies in jars of Huxley’s Brave New World – a topic explored in depth by Philip Ball in his 2011 book Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People. Surprisingly, Ball points out that “the idea that making life is either hubristic or ‘unnatural’ is a relatively recent one”. I am looking forward to the Nuffield report to tell us when it became natural to think such ideas were unnatural.

Embracing ambiguity

It’s interesting to note that ever since such philosophical or fictional speculations are turning into scientific realities, there has been what Robert M. Veatch called in 1971 “a cultural stampede back to the wilderness” (1971: 1) and people have tried to cling to the “simplistic ethical notion that if something has been artificially processed it is intrinsically evil” (ibid.). In his insightful article “Doing what comes naturally”, Veatch asks us whether it might not be “better to face these technological breakthroughs for what they are: ethically complex and ambiguous phenomena, simultaneously offering great hopes and great threats to mankind” (p. 2). He exhorts us to avoid dichotomisation and polarisation, especially between ‘humanist’ and ‘scientist’, as well as between ‘scientist’ and ‘non-scientist’. He warns us that “when roles are stereotyped and polarized, the ethicist is limited to criticizing dubious intervention, while the scientist can only defend his realm against onslaught.” (p. 2) These are insights and warnings we should take to heart.

Provocative question

I’ll end with a provocative (and probably silly) question. Walking through town the other day, I saw a poster in front of a café which said: “Fresh, made from scratch, natural”. This made me think. Would cells freshly made ‘from scratch’ by synthetic biologists therefore be natural, even more natural than natural ones?? (If you put in ‘from scratch’ and ‘synthetic biology’ into Google you get 42,600 results; if you put in ‘life from scratch’ you get 440,000 results; 18 September)

[This Making Science Public post also contributes to my social science work on the BBSRC/EPSRC funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre. You can find other posts on synthetic biology here]

Image: Lion man (wikimedia commons)

The choice of this image was inspired by Adam Rutherford‘s lecture on synthetic biology and hip hop; if you want to meet Adam, come to our synbio and responsible innovation debate in Nottingham on 9 November as part of the ESRC Festival of Science; you can get free tickets here: eventbrite.




Posted in ScienceScience Fictionsynthetic biology