January 12, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

Social, cultural and ethical aspects of synthetic biology: A scientist’s perspective

When you go to the website of the Dymond Research Group at the University of Brighton, you see article titles like this “Lipid Spontaneous Curvatures Estimated from Temperature-Dependent Changes in Inverse Hexagonal Phase Lattice Parameters: Effects of Metal Cations”. That probably means something to experts in the field. It doesn’t mean a lot to me. However, when I scrolled down a bit there was a surprise waiting for me as a social, cultural, language scientist. The group’s leader Marcus Dymond (a Senior Lecturer in Physical Chemistry, multidisciplinary researcher in membrane biophysics and in vitro synthetic biology) has published a chapter (in a book!) entitled: “Synthetic Biology: Culture and Bioethical Considerations”. That made me curious, as I have read a lot of articles and chapters on synthetic biology, culture and ethics, mainly written by social, cultural or communications researchers like myself, but not by scientists actively working in the field.

As I didn’t have access to the book and the chapter, I asked Marcus Dymond (and Darren Nesbeth, as editor of the Synthetic Biology Handbook in which the chapter appeared) for a copy and they kindly sent me one.

The handbook was published in 2016 and the chapter is based on lectures given by the author for the ethics component of a synthetic biology module at the University of Southampton which, it seems, blended science, ethics and popular culture (see p. 26). I wish I had been able to attend those interdisciplinary lectures!

In this post, I want to present some quick highlights and insights from this chapter (just to whet people’s appetite), especially focusing on the relation between science and science fiction on the one hand and the way that scientists raise ethical questions about science on the other. Both topics have impact on how we think about risk and responsibility. There is, of course, much more to this chapter which also deals with the history of synthetic biology, various types of big risks (dual use etc.) and how to deal with them  and much more.

Science and science fiction

Throughout the chapter reference is made to tales from science fiction which for-tale, shape and structure our own thinking about and acting upon advances in genetics and genomics. Dymond points out: “One might even go as far as to suggest that in popular culture the science fiction genre is part of the language of synthetic biology, since it would seem that any discussion on synthetic biology sooner or later makes reference to science fiction as a metaphor for risk, ethics or social responsibility.” (pp. 3-4) This is certainly my view as well and why I am interested in what I call ‘responsible language’ use.

In terms of science fiction, Dymond talks about – and I just mention some titles in random order to show the breadth of the cultural references used in the chapter:  Brave New World, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Andromeda Strain, Splice, Neuromancer and Biopunk, Resident Evil, I am Legend and more. Two recurrent tropes are dissected in more detail, namely Playing God and, of course, Frankenstein (a reference that we won’t be able to escape in 2018, the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s trend-setting novel).

A whole section is devoted to what Dymond calls the “Frankenstein Parallax” and to how scientists try to reassure people that they are neither playing God nor creating Frankensteinian monsters (drawing rightly on Jon Turney’s seminal book Frankenstein’s Footsteps, published 20 years ago, in 1998). In this context, Dymond mentions George Church’s book (with Ed Regis), called, in my view unfortunately, Regenesis, as well as efforts by Drew Endy and others to “lay down a strong public engagement movement in the field” (p. 8).

The chapter was written and published before the current wave of genome editing washed over synthetic biology and with it an effort by one of the founders of the new field, Jennifer Doudna (and Samuel Sternberg), to raise public awareness and stimulate public engagement through a book called, again unfortunately in my view, Crack in Creation: The new power to control evolution. Such book titles just open up a space for thinking of scientists as playing God, in my view…

Science, history and speculation

Dymond comes back to the topic of playing God and Frankenstein on p. 13 and puts things in historical scientific context, explaining how the phrase ‘playing God’ has been used in the past for any effort to create artificial life: “Today, we do not think of a heart stopped and then restarted by defibrillation as reanimation and playing God but in the late 18th and early 19th centuries reanimation by electrocution was at best a social taboo and at worst a contract with the devil. Thus it remains to be seen if in 20 years’ time the labels ‘playing God’ and ‘creating artificial life’ will have any cultural relevance to synthetic biology.” (p. 14)

With relation to Friedrich Wöhler’s 19th-century exploits in chemical synthesis, Dymond points out: “For example, at the time Wöhler’s synthesis of urea gave rise to concerns that synthetic humans might soon follow. In modern times, the image of synthetic chemists creating life in a round-bottomed flask is comical. However, the synthetic biological counterpoint of designer babies does raise some of the same ethical debates about playing God and creating artificial life now as were previously raised in the past.” (pp. 4-5)

Here again, it remains to be seen if in 20 years’ time the label ‘designer baby’ will still have cultural relevance. So far it has survived with all its commonsense and non-sense associations since its inception in about the year 2000. Fortunately, the potentially nefarious impact of that label on debates about ethics and governance is increasingly discussed.

Ethics and governance

Science fiction stories and science fiction labels have ethical repercussions. As Dymond makes clear: “Each of the large number of novels and films in this genre remind the audience that science is a journey into the frontiers of knowledge, where, dimly illuminated by hypothesis, there lurks dystopia and apocalypse. /What these fictional stories tend to ignore is the research governance and risk mitigation strategies of life-scientists who have also tried to learn the lessons of past mistakes, mistakes that occurred when the physical sciences led to industrialisation.” (pp. 5-6)

This is important. Quite often social scientists (science and technology studies scholars) specializing in (bio)ethical critique and reflection seem to assume that natural scientists don’t reflect on such issues and need to be taught or induced to do so (through initiatives such as ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’). This is a new type of ‘deficit model’ – not one where natural scientists think members of the public have a deficit in scientific knowledge that needs to be filled in order for them to accept the science, but one where social scientists think natural scientists have a deficit in ethical awareness and reflection that needs to be filled in order for them to accept that their work has social and ethical implications. (I’ll come back to that topic [and Frankenstein] in my next post!)

Dymond points out the limits of that deficit model when he writes: “Historically, scientists who have pursued answers to the question ‘What is life?’ have in their own lifetimes raised ethical concerns among the society of their time, largely because it has brought science into conflict with other societal groups with their own views of what life is or what is sacred within nature.” (p. 3) (see also my old blog post on the matter)

Risks and societal responsibility

This science-led ‘upstream’ early reflection on social and ethical issues is particular visible in synthetic biology – and this chapter is one example of this phenomenon: “A tradition of engaging the public in the genuine bioethical debates around synthetic biology has emerged among the pioneers of the field. In the hope of fostering this tradition in researchers new to the field, this chapter presents a snapshot of the cultural and political reactions to synthetic biology followed by a discussion of issues related to risk, societal responsibility and governance.” (p. 4)

This means not only reflecting on literature, language and culture but also (and folded into this) reflecting on risks and responsibilities: “By the early 21st century, genetic engineering and cloning technologies had been developed and biology, it seemed, could be creative too but with this creativity there came a new set of risks./ The reaction of scientists to these risks is evidence of a community learning from the mistakes of history.” (p. 6)

Questions that need to be asked by all scientists and members of the public are questions like this: “What is the best way to move forward, such that risk is mitigated and technological progress is introduced in a socially responsible way?” Reflections on risks have to go together with reflections on social responsibility. And I would add: As this chapter has shown, this can only happen if and when everybody involved is aware of the social and cultural backdrop and constraints against which such reflections and discussions unfold.

This chapter brings us one step closer to such a scenario.

Image: Photo of Mary Shelley Blue Plaque, Bournemouth, 2016


Posted in designer babiesinterdisciplinarityLanguageMetaphorspublic engagement with scienceresponsible innovationrisksynthetic biology