Synthetic mythologies.

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Gilles Bibeau (2011) reminds us to step down from the altar of genomythology: the dominance of The Gene, fearless flight into a technocratic future, biologist Supermen that save the world. Strip me down to transistors and code and you’ll find the metaphor of our time; “digitality is its metaphysical principle and DNA is its prophet” (Bibeau 355). And profit, lets not forget. A dream in pixelated technocolour. Bacteria more valuable than gold. This is the world inspired and aspiring in Synthetic Biology. If Atlas holds our celestial dreams enduringly, then he stands on this pedestal of life.

Charles Taylor (1971) was concerned with the inhuman and posthuman dismissal of significance: the sacredness and centrality of meaning to humanity. Significance defines us hermeneutically, an interpretation of the ink-stained book of life (so slowly erased and replaced with binary). We began as the text, evolved as the reader, dream as the author. Such logos is epiphany, not epigenetic or epiphenomenal. So Taylor’s humanism rejects the inadequate metaphor that analogizes life as software. Even the bio-oscillator, the simplest of clocks within a cell, the ticking pendulum of life, reinvents time as the stuff of biomechanics. It’s not the striving, creative, synthetic science that’s deficient – it’s the metaphor: the symbolism of progress in cybernetic futures that begs us to rethink the human in humanness. As Lisa fears, the metaphors of biology and computing are merging – and in this our recursive future is emerging. Scientific meaning trickles into the intersubjective consciousness, reinventing how our doctors diagnose, our teachers teach, and our leaders celebrate the soul.

The grand narrative of creation is not dead by science, it’s just been reprogrammed. The villains are the emergent laws of nature, the constraints imposed on life from top down (or is it bottom up?). The heroes are the puzzle-piece modules that build creation in its infinite adaptabilities. And we're the plot. The exposition is drawing to a close, lets see the climax! And hope that denouement is saved by our own deus ex machina: a synthetic god out of the machine. But between the curtains' rise and fall, as Jason notes, the real work is done by the ‘in-betweeners’ who weave the details together with a nuanced punctuation lost to the dreamers.

I (we?) had a dream of becoming Homo faber, the Ozymandias of this postgenomic future: that colossal wreck, boundless and bare. On the pedestal, scratched in chalk: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” God is dead, long live the Cyborg. If the brain is nothing more than a ‘meat machine’ (as Marvin Minsky so mechanistically quipped), then what are we to make of the ‘cell machine’, bastion of the genomyth. Scientists, genotechnicians, and businessmen are the “new caste of priests who perform the genocult” and uphold the stronghold of ‘bioindustry + capitalism + multinationalism = genomyth’ (Bibeau 358). Do we lose humanity in synthesis? Ask the traveller from an antique land:

"Perhaps poetry keeps us human."

Myths wrapped in sequence and rhyme.


Michael Cournoyea is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto's Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.