Dreaming a Recursive Future?

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When I think of the word “synthetic”, I generally think of it in opposition to “natural” – terrible synthetic fibre clothing or other artificial things. But the root of the word actually gets much of its meaning in opposition to “analytic”, particularly in philosophy. Analysis is where we break something down in order to interrogate and understand it; synthesis is where we build a whole up from parts. Analytics explores; synthetics exploits.

Perhaps more than any other area of science today, synthetic biology is brimming with dazzling optimism and excitement about the future. Not only is it leading what has been touted as the “Century of Biology”, it is also at the cutting edge of new scientific engagements with art, education, and social movements. But with mounting questions about whether regulatory systems can keep pace with scientific innovation, what forms of intellectual property rights are appropriate, and even what direction research in synthetic biology should take, there is also a healthy dose of critique. This spirit of contraction was evident last week at Synthetic Biology at the Interface of Science and Policy, hosted by the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP).

Historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have identified an emerging epistemic virtue within science, that of presentation. This is where scientist-engineer-artist merge, shifting from a primary concern with understanding the world through accurate representation to an active participation in creating what we discover. Of course, in science and technology studies (STS) it has long been argued that there is no pure form of representation, that science has always been an act of knowledge creation. Scientists were seen as using specific apparatuses to produce specific representations that are always to some extent a product of their interventions. The scientists themselves, however, often disagreed, seeing “good science” as the pursuit of objective knowledge that accurately represented how the natural world really was, their methods simply acting as a mirror or a lens, not interventions of change. What I find fascinating here is, I doubt any of the synthetic biologists I met would disagree that what they are engaged in is a form of presentation. Synthetic biology is all about doing and creating, where “making” is the new form of knowing.

In an excellent talk given by UCLA research fellow Christina Agapakis, she inverted Feynman’s “What I cannot create I do not understand”, which has become almost a mantra in synbio, to question whether synthetic biologists truly understand what they are creating. She thinks not, and I would agree. One way in which we make sense of the world is through the use of metaphors. J. Craig Venter famously refers to DNA as the software of life and cells as the hardware, using phrases such as “booting up” chromosomes. The key metaphors for synbio being used in the colloquium included a radio, a computer, “plug and play” technology, Lego and a chassis. I started to notice a theme among these metaphors: reductionism and linearity.

A major drive within synbio is the need for standardization of the parts of biology to allow increased creativity through modularity. In true engineering form, life itself is now to be standardized. This requires that parts be interchangeable and perform discrete and identified functions that can be combined in a modular fashion: it is no wonder that Lego is such a common metaphor, especially within initiatives such as BioBricks. But shifting from the metaphor to the material, this is pretty tricky Lego: we heard that currently it takes about 60 days to assemble 21 parts with only a 50% chance of success. The problem as I see it is that Lego, building blocks, and even the concept of standardization, are all based on linear dynamics: the whole is no more than the sum of its parts. Some would argue that it is systems biology – the analytic branch of quantitative biology – that is concerned with concepts such as non-linearity, complexity, and emergent properties, and that as the branch concerned with synthesis, production, and engineering, synthetic biology is right to remain within the realm of these reductionist metaphors. However, there were signs at the colloquium that this may not be the case. For instance, François Képès discussed recent research into the periodicity of co-regulated genes, which indicates multi-scale organization in transcriptional regulation. As both genetics and biochemistry exhibit non-linear dynamics, to achieve synthetic metabolic pathways beyond the currently possible 12-14 steps synbio may need to move beyond linear metaphors.

Furthermore, as STS scholar Donna Haraway has discussed, the metaphors we choose are more than mere metaphor; they allow us to think with things differently, a way of “getting at the nonliteralness of the world”. Synbio reduces life to its base components. But Agapakis critiqued this “minimal life” concept for missing much of the amazing diversity of biology: what she calls the “principle of insufficient weirdness”. It comes down to a question of what kind of future we are creating//what kind of future we wish to create. We use metaphors we are familiar with – mechanization, computing, construction – but what we are familiar with is probably not how we are going to create a new future. Here the concept of critical design becomes key. We need to try to think critically not just about how we design objects, but why we choose to design the objects we do, looking at the underlying framework and questioning assumptions. An excellent example of this was provided by Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, who called us to question if replacing petrochemical products with biologically created oils is really the best society can do? In dreaming a new future we would do well to think outside of the box a little more. How do we wish to live on this planet? What might more livable cities look like? Here creativity becomes essential, highlighting the importance of projects that combine art and science.

I am struck by resonances of recursion between the metaphors used in synthetic biology, and those used within computing as described by Sandra Robinson in her doctoral work. Sandra recently slime moldspoke at the Conference of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts about how predominant metaphors and models within computing and artificial intelligence have increasingly shifted toward life systems and biology – flocking birds and slime molds – placing “biological complexity at the root of network design itself” and emphasizing vitality over mechanistic explanations. She too, sees these metaphors as generative and fundamental to how computer coding and system design is carried out, not mere descriptors added after the fact. But if the metaphors of computing are moving toward biology and the metaphors of biology are moving toward computing, what kind of recursive future are we creating?

If science is our society’s main avenue for thinking about and understanding the natural world, how science imagines the world matters. In a brief exchange over muffins and pineapple at the morning coffee break, a prominent systems biologist told me he doesn’t think synthetic biology will change how we think about life in any fundamental ways, not like the end of vitalism or creationism did. What it will do, he suggested, is force us to change the borders of how we define life. But systems biology, on which much of synthetic biology rests, in many ways does invite us to fundamentally rethink the modern mechanistic worldview that divides the world into parts and calls the sum of those parts reality. By resorting to the same old metaphors of modernity, we deny ourselves the possibility of a more vibrant world of becoming. Here I see the need for more than a bioethics that focuses on questions of terrorism, safety or even environmental harm, but a broader socioethics that calls us to think about what kind of relationships with the nonhuman world we wish to pursue.

I also see the focus on reductionist mechanistic metaphors as underscoring another major issue in synthetic biology: the issue of control. Political scientist Virginie Tournay discussed how the speed of innovation is surpassing even the models to understand its spread: the diffusion-percolation model of innovation only works to describe the movement from knowledge production through governance, social acceptance, commercialization and industrialization, once the object of innovation is no longer innovative. If we are to attempt to regulate life, it is clear it will require different frameworks than are currently in place. Again, complexity must be addressed. Since life itself can be understood as an emergent property, how can we develop adequate ethical and governance systems to deal with this? As Tournay discussed, because life is inherently difficult to stabilize, life-related technologies are inherently hard to govern. Further complicating this problem is the ambiguity between what is natural and what is artificial, and how this should matter or not in regulatory policy. Perhaps reductionist metaphors applied to non-linear systems is our way of tricking ourselves into believing we can ever be in full control of processes as dynamic as life.

The progression of the applied sciences has moved from the triumphs of physics in the Industrial Revolution (think engines and electricity) through synthetic chemistry in the 20th century (like plastics and artificial flavours). As we now ride the crest of the 21st century of synthetic biology, we are dealing with the next scale up – more complex systems –  yet we still have an incredible number of unsolved questions at the very root of our reductionist science, quantum physics. Even as we build on supposed understandings gained through reductionism, at the heart of the matter the reductionist approach has left us with more questions than answers: indeterminacy, entanglement, dark matter and a god particle that may not exist. And as we are now enlisting life in our creative scientific engineering projects, more than ever we need to involve not only scientists and policy makers in these questions. After all, we don’t want to end up in a Jurassic Park scenario of scientists “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.”

In my opinion, the currently dominant metaphors in synthetic biology do a major disservice to the unbounded potential of life to inspire us to live in this world more creatively, with more beauty and grace. Together, let’s see what else we can come up with.

Lisa Cockburn is a doctoral student in science and technology studies at York University. You can find out more about her here.