Lorentz Center - Synthetic Biology and Symbolic Order from 4 Nov 2013 through 8 Nov 2013
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    Synthetic Biology and Symbolic Order
    from 4 Nov 2013 through 8 Nov 2013


1. Description

Leading natural scientists and scholars from the humanities and social sciences, from different countries, were brought into a dialogue on the relation between Synthetic Biology (Synbio) and the present symbolic order.[1]


Questions: What do the metaphors used in the presentations of Synthetic Biology tell about the way in which reality is constructed, understood and handled? How do these metaphors relate to central elements of our predominant symbolic order? What could be the long term social and cultural implications?


·       State of the art of Synbio; promises and the likely direction of its development.

·       What metaphors are prevailing in the stated aims of Synbio and descriptions of the field? To what extent do we see tensions between these metaphors and distinctions pertaining to our prevailing symbolic order?

·       In light of that: How could Synbio affect the predominant Symbolic Order and what could be the cultural and social implications?

·       What could and should that mean for the public debate and public policy regarding Synbio?


2. Tangible outcome

Better insight into how public discourse on Synbio and public policy should be given shape in order to avoid unfounded polarisation as well as problematic socio-cultural implications (even apart from immediate risks for human life or the environment). 


3. Scientific breakthrough?

An important insight that grew during the workshop, in our view, is:

·         (Many) Synthetic biologists aiming at scientific insight into the physical chemical substrate of life realize that living organisms are never completely predictable and makeable; there is a dimension to them that transcends the purely mechanical. This characteristic can be used in letting certain ‘redesigned organisms’ continue to evolve to optimize some characteristics. Reductive metaphors like ‘living machine’ have a heuristic value in a certain context but should not be reified as true descriptions of reality. 

·         Synthetic biologists aiming primarily at redesigning organisms to produce desired substances more strongly aim at total control and they use corresponding metaphors, like ‘chassis’, biobricks as ‘lego parts’. Such reductive metaphors easily provoke resistance to this work because it challenges the symbolic order (see also below).  


4. “Aha” moments?  

We are not aware of clear-cut Aha–experiences, but the reactions make clear that many participants, both Synbio researchers and philosophers/social scientists, have deepened their insight into the background of the ‘uneasiness’ that presentations of synbio provoke as well as into ways how to avoid that, viz., by also using open, non-reductive metaphors, e.g. ‘nudge life’ instead of ‘remake life’.


5. The format of the workshop

We used a combination of expert lectures, open discussions and group discussions with brief presentations of results. The strong diversity of disciplines (both natural and social scientists and philosophers) required time for explanations but proved fruitful. The strategy of openness to all types of (communicable) arguments and postponing judgement worked well. The content and sequence of the expert lectures was carefully designed in order to develop together insight into the subject.


New was that for the last day of the workshop we invited interested and informed new participants to discuss the preliminary results of our work. This forced us to formulate clearly what we had come up with and, as foreseen, broadened the discussion to the topic of public debate and policy.


For our purposes the format of the workshop was ideal. The facilities, the time span and the

size of the group were perfect for the exciting but uncertain endeavour of this workshop.


We have published and are publishing (some) results in a newspaper article, professional articles and (a) scientific paper(s).


[1] Symbolic order: those notions and distinctions that constitute the symbolic environment in which people in a certain culture live, e.g. the distinctions life - death, biological life – organic material, living - non-living, natural - artificial, (biological) organism – machine.