Between the possible and the actual: Philosophical perspectives on the design of synthetic organisms

Abstract : A number of research projects in synthetic biology funded by public institutions sound like science fiction: for instance DARPA Biodesign project in 2011 aimed at eliminating "the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement, and designing proteins with a 99.5% precision. How should we take such claims? Are they just fantastic visions or hype meant to impress funding agencies and the public or are they symptoms of a specific epistemic attitude? In considering the visions of the future developed in synthetic biology the paper attempts to evaluate the research agendas of synthetic biology from philosophical perspectives. It will first characterize the ambition to re-engineer life and distinguish the visions of the future underlying the various research agendas assembled under the umbrella synthetic biology. Then addressing the question 'who actually believes in such futures?' the paper contrasts the complicit belief of ethicists and critical activists with the doubts occasionally formulated by synthetic biologists. Doubts however never generate scepticism within the synthetic biology community, which develops an epistemic opportunism. Finally the third section discusses to what extent, and in which sense, the futuristic visions of synthetic biology belong to the genre of techno-utopia. It concludes that imagined futures are integral part of the techno-epistemic culture of synthetic biology and that the tension between the possible and the actual is a criterion of distinction between the various trends that constitute synthetic biology.
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Bernadette Bensaude Vincent. Between the possible and the actual: Philosophical perspectives on the design of synthetic organisms. Futures, Elsevier, 2013, 48, pp.23-31. ⟨hal-00939903⟩

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