February 20, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Synthetic biology, metaphors and ethics: An emerging topic of international interest

Downing College Library

Maitland Robinson Library at Downing College, Cambridge

As some of you know, I have been interested in metaphors for a long time and more recently have become intrigued by metaphors used when talking about synthetic biology, gene drives, gene editing and so on. This has led to a meeting in Cambridge (Downing College) between Steven Burgess, who edits the PLOS Synbio community blog, Carmen McLeod and myself to talk about a little project we are hatching together (more about that soon).

A few days before the meeting I started to dig around a bit more to see whether other people had written about synthetic biology and metaphors. I knew, of course, that my old friend and colleague, Martin Döring, had done so some years ago, around 2012. He has, for example, contributed a chapter on metaphors in systems biology to a book edited by himself and his colleagues in 2015 and he has also written a wonderful chapter on metaphors and morals relating to synthetic biology in 2014 – a systematic metaphor analysis, including reflections on ethical implication, normative assumptions etc. However, I didn’t expect to so many other German scholars in particular to home in on the topic.

In this short post I just want to start a little list of books, chapters and articles that deal with metaphors and synthetic biology. There are probably loads of others around which I have overlooked and I would be grateful to readers for sending me references to put on ‘the list’.


The first book I found is entitled Genetic Transparency? Ethical and Social Implications of Next Generation Human Genomics and Genetic Medicine. It appeared in 2016 and is edited by Malte Dreyer, Jeanette Erdmann, and Christoph Rehmann-Sutter, whose work I knew from the time we were both interested in stem cells and in the ethical challenges of communication the biological sciences. Here is the blurb for the book: “Genetic Transparency? tackles the question of who has, or should have access to personal genomic information. Genomic science is revolutionary in how it changes the way we live, individually and together, and how it changes the shape of society. If this is so, then – the authors of this volume claim – the rules that regulate genetic transparency should be debated carefully, openly and critically. It is important to see that the social and cultural meanings of DNA and genetic sequences are much richer than can be accounted for by purely biomedical knowledge. In this book, an international group of leading genomics experts and scholars from the humanities and social sciences discuss how the new accessibility of genomic information affects interpersonal relationships, our self-understandings, ethics, law, and healthcare systems.”

Christoph and Malte Dreyer have contributed a really interesting chapter to this book, which deals with the idea of ‘genes’ – a sort of intellectual history of the word, with a lot of metaphorical reflections on the way. It also discusses modern and metaphorical ramification around gene editing, but focuses of course in particular on new ways of ‘inspecting’ ones genome and the promises and pitfalls of this new transparency. Well worth reading!


The second book I found has the word ‘metaphor’ in the title: Synthetic Biology: Metaphors, Worldviews, Ethics and Law. It is edited by Joachim Boldt and appeared in 2016. Here is the blurb: “Assessing synthetic biology from a societal and ethical perspective is not only a matter of determining possible harms and benefits of synthetic biology applications. Synthetic biology also incorporates a specific technoscientific understanding of its research agenda and its research objects that has philosophical and ethical implications. This edited volume sets out to explore and evaluate these synthetic biology worldviews and it proposes appropriate governance measures. In addition, legal challenges are discussed.”

The book contains a chapter by Joachim Boldt himself, entitled “Swiss watches, genetic machines and ethics: An introduction to synthetic biology’s conceptual and ethical challenges”. The concluding remarks are intriguing and really worth thinking about: “When we, literally or conceptually, aspire to turn living nature into our tool, we ultimately turn our own origin into a tool. The inconsistency of this project comes to the fore most clearly when we direct it at our own nature. We are, and must always be, simultaneously the subject and object of our nature. By being unaware of this reality we risk fixating our own development on arbitrary ends. The effect would be that we would become prone to falling victim to those arbitrary ends. Setting ourselves apart from the world of non-human life is easier. But still, that very world has given birth to us. It contains the seeds of all of our highest human abilities. We do not know what other valuable states it may lead to. If we attempt to fixate nature’s ends on our own, we may, to our own disadvantage, miss important developmental properties of living beings and hinder the evolution of many sources of unexpected value. That is not what synthetic biology need or ought to be about.”


A third book I found is entitled: Ambivalences of Creating Life: Societal and Philosophical Dimensions of Synthetic Biology. It was published in 2015 and has been edited by Kristin Hagen, Margret Engelhard, and Georg Toepfer. Here is the blurb: “’Synthetic biology’ is the label of a new technoscientific field with many different facets and agendas. One common aim is to ‘create life’, primarily by using engineering principles to design and modify biological systems for human use. In a wider context, the topic has become one of the big cases in the legitimization processes associated with the political agenda to solve global problems with the aid of (bio-)technological innovation. Conceptual-level and meta-level analyses are needed: we should sort out conceptual ambiguities to agree on what we talk about, and we need to spell out agendas to see the disagreements clearly. The book is based on the interdisciplinary summer school ‘Analyzing the societal dimensions of synthetic biology’, which took place in Berlin in September 2014. The contributions address controversial discussions around the philosophical examination, public perception, moral evaluation and governance of synthetic biology.”

This book contains a fascinating chapter by Daniel Falkner, based in his PhD thesis and entitled “Metaphors of Life: Reflections on Metaphors in the Debate on Synthetic Biology”. We even get an appetising abstract: “Metaphors play a constitutive and mostly underestimated role in science in general, in the modern life sciences and bio-technologies in particular, and also in the accompanying ethical debates. The current discussion on synthetic biology can be seen as a prime example for the different ways metaphors enter into an area of conflict between science, technology, society and ethics. There seems to be a connection between the paradigm shift in the epistemological approach, the technological development, the societal discourse and the metaphors that have been used to describe, explain and argue the new field of synthetic biology and its revolutionary nature. The goal of my paper is to outline an analytical frame to determine and decipher the specific role and functions of metaphors in the intersection of science, technology and society. I aim to analyze and criticize the innovative, critical, and argumentative functions of metaphors of ‘life’ in synthetic biology. This analytical frame will then be applied to the example of the metaphor of the genetic code which is the common reference point and driving force in a reconstructed story from Erwin Schrödinger to Craig Venter. This leads to a reassessment of synthetic biology between science and art and focusses on the obscuring and ideological dimension of metaphorical speech about the revolutionary nature of synthetic biology.”


There seems to be quite a wave of interest, especially in Germany, in the ways that metaphors frame synthetic biology and in exploring the ethical, legal and social implications of such framings. This is a topic that began to intrigue me in around 2008/2009 and led to a chapter by Andy Balmer and Camille Herreman (“Craig Venter and the Re-programming of Life: How Metaphors Shape and Perform Ethical Discourses in the Media Presentation of Synthetic Biology“) which I included in a book co-edited with Richard Elliott and Brendon Larson on Communicating Biological Sciences: Ethical and metaphorical dimensions. It would be nice to revive that project in light of all these new and fascinating developments and in view of the new interest in ‘responsible language use’ that Carmen and I have developed in our work for the SBRC here in Nottingham.

As Martin Döring said in his 2014 chapter: “Es metaphert gehörig im Kontext biotechnologischer Innovationen, und umso erstaunlicher ist es, dass selten eine kritisch-diskursive […] und systematische Analyse moralisch-ethischer Implikationen und normativer Annahmen […] in Metaphern vorgenommen wurde.” (It’s metaphorising immensely in the context of biotechnological innovations, and it is therefore quite surprising that the moral and ethical implications of and the normative assumptions inherent in the metaphors used are only rarely studied systematically.” (pp.216-217)

[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: Photo taken of Downing College library on 19th February, 2016

Posted in Metaphorsresponsible innovationsynthetic biology