Iron coli project

Ethics and technique in iGEM

This philosophical essay intends to think about iGEM as a human practice. Indeed it seemed important for the team to better understand its practice. Bioethics is not all about safety, it is also about knowing what we do. Thus, elaborating a team reflection on synthetic biology was an interesting experience of embedded philosophical research and dialogue. In order to enable the reader to get a feel of our debates, we chose to show the team reactions towards philosophical points of view (that are not necessarily those of the writer).

From this collective reflection emerges progressively the certainty that, despite we are only establishing proofs of concept, the best interest of the patients should be our absolute priority. Of course, our project will not enter in a clinical testing phase anytime soon, and it will not have any clinical result, but patients must already be appropriately integrated in it. Competition or not, they remain the only ethically valid end.

Introduction. Synthetic Biology: Science or Technique?

It is obvious that iGEM is about synthetic biology but is it a scientific competition or a technical one? Many members of the team replied simply that iGEM is all about applied science. Though the pertinence of this definition, the difference between science and technique matters to philosophy, because philosophy does not consider science and technique in the same way throughout its history. iGEM requires philosophy to contribute to the reflection on human practice, thus in return philosophy must ask iGEM “what kind of human practice are you”?
Science seeks knowledge and is globally positive throughout philosophy. On the contrary the aim-oriented use of science by technique creates more suspicion for philosophers. To serve the good, technique should use adequate means to reach a determined human end, but technique is often accused of drifting towards becoming its own end. For example, what is the point of creating cars with a maximum speed superior to 250km.h-1 when the drive speed limit is below 130km.h-1? In this simple example, speed is technically researched for itself disregarding safety and human regulations. In its scale of values, philosophy usually places human ends on top, and thus technique presents the intrinsic danger of becoming its own end against human interest. At least,this is the classic philosophical critic of technique.
Then we understand why the characterisation of synthetic biology matters in philosophy. As synthetic biology is a practice that seeks knowledge through applications and vice versa, it is not a pure science. Thus, it seems interesting to address synthetic biology some of the philosophical critics that technique faces (I.). But we must also point out the development of a specific technical culture around synthetic biology, and particularly in the iGEM competition; this emerging culture may be to way to adress these critics (II.).

I. Do the Means Justify the End?

Ethics, technique and alienation

Team discussion

I believe that ethics is always necessary when it comes to science and that it is even more important in synthetic biology. The exemple you chose about cars speed limit is really clever. It illustrates exactly what might happens when we lose sight of what matters. Having a way to do something does not mean that you have to do it. Especially when doing those things have negative consequences. Creating cars with a maximum speed of 250 km/h doesn’t have any sense. Indeed, it is just useless. We don’t need our cars to reach that speed. I guess that would be okay if creating such cars had no consequences but it has : it increases the risks of accidents and implies a lot more pollution. So I think that the means do not justify the end. We have to remain responsible in all fields and especially in ours. If we got a tool that can serves a really necessary and good end, that’s okay, otherwise it has to be left on the side.

First of all, I would say that it’s depend on which field you are working in. A foundamental mathematician will not have such thoughts for example (as there is probably no deontology in this field, my remark is probably irrelevant).
As biologist, we are working on living systems and I think that it’s important to keep in mind why we are doing this or that experiment. For example, animal models are necessary for science, you can’t do all you experiments in vitro or in silico. If you have to kill thousand of mice to develop a new vaccine, well, do it .But if you can do it just killing hundred of mice, it’s better. That’s not because we could do something that we have to do it.

It may be the right moment to ask ourselfs why we pretend doing synthetic biology. According to what you mentionned above, goals are not defined, but the means are very clear. Is it absurd to simply try to push a frontier as far as we humanly can? What if I told you that in my opion, this field is to me a playground where I can be creative and where creativity is rewarded. Playground is obviously a very ‘bad’ word in science, but still, some people just want to experiment a lot.
I have a very simple comparison. Imagine a game where you have a undefined target stuck on a tree. You don’t know what it is, but you aim it. The only thing you have at you disposal is a ball. Remember that the ONLY rule is to hit that target. Now, the most obvious way to hit that target is to practice at aiming and try as hard as you can and you’ll get better and better over time. But wait, you realize that this game is boring, trying to aim straight for that thing in the tree. What if you could reach it with a bounce on the ground? What if you could put some spinning effect in that ball? Oh wait, there are other trees: what if I try to bounce first on a tree on the left? After afew days of training, you start to get this. Your friend comes over and has a boomerang. OH WOW, this gives the game a whole new dimension! After you tried several others projectiles after the ball and the boomerang, you start to be really good at aiming things, not even caring what you hit. Some guys asks you to hit a thing on a roof? No problem, you got this.
This reflexion emphasizes the fact that you can develop a whole art around a technique, not knowing what your aim is. In synthetic biology, a very concrete example (one I did a lot of litterature on), is the CRISPR/Cas system. People knew what it was, it was hype, it was fency, it was new, but we had no clue what to do with it. So people started to inactivate specific parts of the enzyme and figured out you could silence genes. That’s super cool! Then one guy coupled the protein to a polymerase and notice you could ACTIVATE any gene in the genome. And this still goes on as I’m writing this paragraph. People with a purpose in their research may use these technique and refer to the right person who is an expert in the matter. In fact, to me, he’s an artist, exactly like you ask an architect to build you something how you want it because you saw it this way once.

The question “Does the end justify the means?” is central throughout the history of philosophy. Asking: “why are we doing that?” and “is it good to do that?”, is the origin of moral philosophy, ethics and bioethics. The Nuremberg Code (19471), that states that science does not allow anything to do in its name, marks the true beginning of contemporary medical ethics. But now the trickiest part remains: we have to constantly evaluate what we are doing and if it is justified or not to achieve our goal. With modern technique, a new question has arised: do the means justify the end? With the exponential development of new technologies, in particular that of biotechnologies, we start searching what we could do with these techniques. Innovations are no more related to needs.

Team discussion

I agree: The further technique gets, the more things we have to learn to master it. Then, technique eventually reaches a point where classic education is not enough to understand every subtility of the technique. At this precise moment, people would start to specialize, use tools and learning shortcuts, thus not always fully understanding the means nor the end, and “become the means for technique to achieve itself”.

Some philosophers, in particular in the Frankfurt School, claimed that this reversal was a major source of disasters2.For them this way of thinking is extremely dangerous because it is exclusively rational. Everything is a potential tool, which leads the world to its own complete instrumentalization: it means that the world, and hence human beings too, is (and are) perceived as means and no more also as an end. This is the core of the technical alienation theory: technique (opposed to fundamental science) tends to alienate people, which means to use us as means for its own perpetuation. Technique was the means to achieve human goals, humans become the means for technique to achieve itself: to sum up, the alienation theory is the scenario of The Matrix.

Team discussion

The intellectual process should definitely be “we want to do that, is SynthBio a good way to succeed?” etc… But within the competition, these questions are a little bit absurd. The thing is, everyone knows that the goal of each project is (almost) always a lie: the goal of the MIT is clear: enhance synthetic biology’s technique. The goal of each team is even clearer: WIN. (Almost) Every team forces itself to find a problem that would fit a cool construction, but the real end is not the “project’s end”, the real end is to win the competition.

On the other hand, the team yet has to believe in it’s project to succeed. It has to dream a little bit. Thus, a collective chimaera is kept alive, and every team maintains the illusion that it tries to somehow “save the world”.

I agree on this point. I just want to add that if it was a real lab research, we should have think “Is it really usefull to research a new treatment ?” even before ““we want to do that, is SynthBio a good way to succeed?”. But as it was said, it’s a competition and we have to do every part of our project at the same time (bio, modeling, ethics…). It’s a great think that iGEM is not just a biology project and I think that most of us are aware that it is not really how science works.

I partially agree. Actually, the teams’ aim is winning but for each member of a team it could also be: improving oneself skills, strengthening its resume, being a part of a team, leading one’s own project, developing one’s network…
Another interesting point is the (bio)bricks system: this competition allows everyone to be a part of an unknown project, but which would be innovative and flexible.

Does the alienation critic apply to synthetic biology? This specific question can not be answered, because the terms “synthetic biology” refer to many different research activities. Nonetheless, the iGEM competition could be perceived as a dangerous path towards biotechnological alienation because its objective is to develop synthetic biology in itself: the means are the end. The usual answer to that critic highlights the fact that many propositions of iGEM teams seek to solve environmental problems or diseases: synthetic biology is not a science without conscience3! Though, the goal of the competition is to develop and promote synthetic biology by fun experimentation of its possibilities. In comparison, the Solar Decathlon, an architecture competition, “challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive4.” Here the objective is clearly environmental and human: the technique (solar energy) is only a way to achieve it. Thus, if the iGEM competition was an architecture competition its objective would be formulated: “here are some brand new building materials whose possibilities are unknown, have fun!” Curiosity is a powerful motivation, but when dealing with unpredictable biotechnologies, first it is necessary to determine the objective we try to achieve. The intellectual process should be “we want to do that, is SynthBio a good way to succeed?” and not “could SynthBio do that?” or “let's try to make a living thing do that, it would be fun!”
It is ethically relevant, because the risk is then to create unnecessary products with uncertain biotechnology. We have to remember that we are not yet aware of all the consequences that synthetic biology could have on us and our environment. The team was confronted to this ethical problem when most of the hæmochromatosis patients who answered our survey told that they were satisfied with their treatment. We then had to ask ourself if it was really useful to research an unnecessary treatment using genetically modified bacteria that could have emerging proprieties.

Ethics, technique and advertisement

Philosophers' quotes

“In reality, the prayer that suits our time does not come out of our human mouths, because today the products are the ones praying: “Give us our daily eater today.”
[…] Most of them […] are hungry to be consummated, because they have neither the possibility nor the right to rely only on a human hunger coming and meeting them. For them to do well out of it, that is for the production to follow its course, another product must be produced – a product squared – and it must be inserted between the product and the human being: this product is called “need”. Rephrased in our perspective, it becomes: in order to consummate products, we need to need them. […] This industry, that must match the hunger of the goods to be consummated with our hunger for them, is called “advertisement”.
[…] But the needs that the production of human needs has to satisfy are not only those of the products (needs that we satisfy by buying them), but also those of the production technique, since this technique requires continuously that everything it can do was done.”

Günther Anders, The Outdatedness of Human Beings 2. On the Destruction of Life in the Era of the Third Industrial Revolution, unpublished in English. Originally in German. Translated from French.

Team discussion

I would like to highlight something that for me is a problem. Today, marketing creates needs and technique try, and in general succeed in, producing something to meet them. Personaly, I think that the synthetic biology should meet real needs, and not what I call “false needs”. I mean synthetic biology should find easier, cheaper solutions to create molecules or decontaminate environment. For example, with our project we give an easier solution to the treatment of hemochromatosis.

Günther Anders clearly articulates technique, consumption and advertisement. For him the alienation by technique is not produced by economical structures, on the contrary alienation is originally due to technique, producing only then economical structures that suit its needs for development and consumption. Advertisement is the main strategy to ensure an unrestricted development of techniques regardless of their ends. Thus, advertisement becomes an ethical choice: either we accept to serve technique by advertising even its useless productions, or we choose to regain control on it by stopping excessive advertisement.
Synthetic biology has not reached its production phase yet, so “alienating advertisement” is only a threat in the near future. Today synthetic biology is in its expanding phase, it is thus normal for this discipline to test its possibilities. The danger arises when it absolutely wants to make its investments profitable. Then, a research topic becomes a new product or a new technique. If it is really useful it will find its way into the economy, but we should be afraid that it would be abusively advertised. Some philosophers think with G. Anders that advertisement constitutes a moral fault in itself because it transforms human beings in means to support the production of unnecessary technical and biotechnological objects. The French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989) thinks contrary to G. Anders that technique does not necessarily alienate us, but he strongly criticizes advertisement too.

Philosophers' quotes

“Similarly, the machine is an alien; it is an alien that has something of the human is locked in, unrecognised, materialized, enslaved, but human nonetheless. The most powerful cause of alienation in the contemporary world resides in this failure to understand the machine, which is not caused by the machine but by the non-understanding of its nature and its essence, by its absence from the world of meanings, and by its omission from the table of values and concepts that are part of culture.”

Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, unpublished in English. Translation by Mellamphy: Source

“If we treat the object […] as an object where everything wears out at the same time, and thus must be thrown away, there is a fundamental cultural mistake. For example we change our car when it is old-fashioned! And there lies evil. Evil is the fact that at a definite time the object is not known according to […] its temporal lines of evolution, that means the object is not known as it should by the users. Besides, that drives producers, voluntarily or involuntarily, to shroud the technical object with advertisement or appearances that conceal its essential reality.”

Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, unpublished in English. Translated from French.

For Simondon we are collectively responsible for being alienated: we refuse to consider technique properly. Then producers have to use artificial ways to seduce consumers, even if they would not want to. They exploit, willingly or not, the global lack of technical culture. Thus Simondon thinks that advertisement would not exist if we could understand technical objects beyond their aesthetics: we should be able to rationally evaluate the technical pertinence of an object. Alienation is due to the exclusion of technique from the general culture. Nonetheless the advertisement strategy can backfire: in the case of GMOs for agriculture, too much bad advertisement aiming to justify unnecessary GMOs resulted in increasing the defiance against all genetically modified beings (at least in France and some other European countries). This is due to the fact that, if people globally lack technical culture to understand and consider technical objects for what they really are, they are not stupid. They understand pretty well when a producer abusively uses artificial strategies to sell a product, particularly concerning biotechnologies, that have intrinsic risks.

The “hype” discourse, or how scientists themselves advertise technique

Philosophers' quotes

“[The purpose of press releases] is persuasion. They are the productions of research communities seeking to raise the profile of their work as a means of persuading potential patrons of the benefits of investment or sceptical publics of future benefits.
Importantly, press releases that emerge from research communities are characterised by a language and discourse that would never appear on the pages of peer reviewed science journal texts. In particular, much of the careful qualification of scientific texts is abandoned for the more strident language of ‘breakthrough’, ‘the first’, ‘the best’, ‘never before’. In other words, science communities suddenly metamorphose themselves into the highly competitive news conventions of the media code. When press releases arrive on the desks of science correspondents there is often precious little time to interrogate claims about new cures and revolutionary promises.
When we examine the journeys or travel that biotechnology expectations make in their passage from laboratory to the news page, it is absolutely clear that it is no longer possible to go on simply blaming the media for hyping things up. Research communities are crucial participants in the production of hype.”

Nik Brown, “Hope Against Hype – Accountability in Biopasts, Presents and Futures”, Science Studies, 02/2003

Team discussion

Despite some patients’ reserves and questioning, most of them are really pleased that we take an interest in their disease and also conscious that our project will not lead to a real treatment.

The “hype” discourse is another form of advertisement. Its goal is not to find a consumer, but to find investors and/or to gain support in public opinion. It is also a powerful tool to convince politicians of the utility of research. If the target is different, the mechanism is the same: the lack of technical culture of the leaders is exploited in order to seduce them with few scientific arguments and many promises. Neither synthetic biology nor iGEM escape this hype temptation: the biotechnological progress is huge, but the laboratory reality is far from the epic tales of future biosynthetic productions and cures. Our team was confronted to this particular problem when submitting our survey to patients. We chose to present the ideal treatment (that we knew we could not achieve) in order to consult them, but although a large number of patients considered our project with caution, some of them clearly thought that we already achieved it. The hype discourse creates excessive promises that lead to unreasonable expectations. And of course the results are unsatisfying and people become sceptic: it is clear that some of the patients we asked will be disappointed by our results even if they are the best we could possibly wish. But finally who is to blame for the mistrust to which biotechnologies are confronted?

In conclusion, it seems that most of the main philosophical critics of modern technique could be addressed to the iGEM competition: this competition promotes the technique for itself, objectives are only means to advertise the potentiality of synthetic biology, communication strategies are a crucial aspect both inside the competition and outside, thus encouraging excessive promises. To sum up, in iGEM the means justify the end, or rephrased: the goal of iGEM is synthetic biology itself.
Nonetheless, we have to remember that the iGEM competition is only a student competition: none of the genetically engineered biological machines will directly be used. This is an important point to stress: iGEM teams are not in real research conditions. Is it to say that they could then do what they want with no restriction? Of course not. As all the teams are part of society, what they are doing as students has an impact on the public perception of synthetic biology, and moreover during the iGEM competition students learn a specific scientific and technical culture that will probably matter in their professional life.

Thus in the following part we decided to discuss about this technical culture that student learn during the iGEM competition.

II. Creating a Technical Culture to Enhance Responsibility.

“Technical culture” is a specific concept of Gilbert Simondon. Technical culture means more than technical competency or technical knowledge. “Culture” must keep a strong meaning: our culture partakes of who we are. So Simondon considers that we can have a technical culture without being technicians, engineers or scientists, as we can have an artistic culture or scientific culture. We could formulate the difference introduced by the technical culture as this: without it we consume technical objects or technical functions, with it we cooperate with technique.

Philosophers' quotes

“We should like to show that culture fails to take into account that there is a human reality in technical reality and that, if it is to fully play its role, culture must come to incorporate technical entities into its body of knowledge and its sense of values. Recognition of the modes of existence of technical objects should be the result of philosophical thought, which in this respect has to achieve what it analogous to the role it played in the abolition of slavery and in the affirmation of the value of the human person.”

Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, unpublished in English. Translation by Mellamphy.

We have to understand him properly: Simondon does not say that slavery and the current state of the technical objects are equal. The slavery metaphor is only a way to explain that currently objects have no ontological value (it means that, as beings, they have no rights, no moral value, nothing but their materiality), and through an emancipation process they must gain a form of existential and ethical status. In that extent they are in the same situation that the slaves were; but this does not mean that they should be given a status equal to living beings. The technical culture only seeks to give a value to the part of humanity that technical objects bear due to their conception process and their use.

Team discussion

I don’t know which word we should use to speak about E.coli and other microorganisms. But for me, we should keep in mind that microorganisms can be very, very, very dangerous. It means that we must be really careful to modify them. So in a certain way, it’s a kind of respect (the small beast could eat the big one).

I don’t think we have to specially respect E.coli or even S.cerivisae or any other bacteria or yeast that are used in synthbio. If you think about yeast, they were use a long long time ago, for wine,beer and bread as “technical beings” (even if the processes were in fact unknown !) .Well, yes it’s good that yeasts exist for that but respect seem a bit “too far” for me. Is the important point the fact that we use yeast or bacteria or the fact that we modified them ?

I think this is a point where we won’t find any “perfect” answer. In my personal opinion, bacteria are living organisms and as such we should respect them. By respect them I mean that we can’t play with modifying bacteria. They are necessary for us, so it would be silly not to use them. But we have to keep in mind that they are living things, we can’t modify and kill bacteria just to play, just to test things if they are not necessary. Again, the means, the tools, do not justify the end. Even though I truly believe in that, we also have to be aware of the fact that even not considering the synthetic biology field, we kill thousand of bacteria everyday. When we wash our hands, we kill millions of bacteria for exemple. In our daily life we kill bacteria, so the definition of respecting bacteria has a special meaning. What’s really relevant here, I think is, like it was said, that bacteria are dangerous. So we have to be careful with them and “respect” them.

What is the point of speaking about inanimate objects when synthetic biology deals with living organisms? Precisely because, as a technique, synthetic biology treats living systems as objects (living beings are “chassis5” in synthetic biology words). Synthetic biology should thus be very much concerned about the status given to the beings that are used. First they are living beings and as such should be considered properly (even if bacteria are no frogs5), and then they are engineered beings. Thus, according to Simondon, they have two ethical attributes. Actually, as the objects of synthetic biology are living beings, they could quite adequately initiate the development of the technical culture: it is easier to grant living beings (even bacteria) respect than to grant machines respect.

Respect for technical beings (objects or engineered organisms) can be divided in 3 dimensions: the historical dimension, the existential dimension and the potentiality dimension.
The historical dimension is linked to general technological knowledge but adds to it the history and sociology of technique and science; in this dimension a technical being is perceived according to the innovation, the breakthrough, the optimisation it represents; in this dimension the particular being is relevant only as an example of the general engineered being.
On the contrary, the existential dimension is strongly linked to particular and subjective experience of a concrete technical being; in this dimension a technical being is perceived according to its use, its worn state, the human subjectivity (attachment, kindness, both habit and practice, but also hate, weariness, anger) attached to it, the modifications done on it, etc.; this dimension rarely refers to the general engineered being in the abstract but to the particular being we used.

Team discussion

The goal of iGEM is to add more BioBricks each year to the registry and to re-use previous BioBricks in many differents ways. Probably that next year, or the year after, some team will use our promoter Fur for environmental uses for example. The potentialty dimension seems very important in iGEM.

The potentiality dimension refers explicitly to the possibilities that remain in the technical beings; in this dimension a technical being is perceived according to what could still be done from it, in what extent does it take part in future technical evolutions, if it can give away an interesting part, structure or function, or if it can serve as a chassis for a new technical being; in this dimension both particular and abstract beings matters because nothing is completely useless and worthless, neither the old object, nor the old idea.

Philosophers' quotes

“Technical objects which, in their relation with the natural world, essentially involve a recurrent causality must be invented rather than developed gradually, because these objects are the cause of their condition of functioning. These objects are viable only if the problem is solved, that is to say, only if they exist along with their associated milieu.
[…] Only thought that is capable of prevision and capable of creative imagination can bring about this reversed conditioning in time: elements that will materially constitute the technical object, and are separated one from the other, without an associated milieu preceding the constitution of the technical object, must be organized in relation to one another as a function of a circular causality that will exist once the object is constituted; what is involved here, then, is a conditioning of the present by the future, a conditioning of the present by what does not yet exist.”

Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, unpublished in English. Translation by Mellamphy.

Simondon explains here very well that imagination and creativity are essential to invention, but also that the technical object (even biological ones, engineered by synthetic biology) can only result from this complex process of invention. This is due to the particular nature of the technical object: it must enter a world where it does not belong initially, thus all (or most of) its interactions have to be anticipated. The three dimensions of the technical culture are involved in the invention process, because they are necessary to the good understanding of the technical associated milieu. The iGEM competition requires imagination to invent a biological system that can be integrated in other systems (environmental, biological, technical); it requires creativity to conceive the appropriate construct; it requires a vast technical culture to implement it from the beginning to the end.

Synthetic biology is an applied science, this discipline produces a scientific discourse (theories, hypothesis, experiments, results), but does it produce a true technical culture? The iGEM competition promotes synthetic biology practices based on openness and sharing: the research is open-source, meaning that everything is accessible. This achieve a scientific objective: everything is reproducible, and thus experiments can be confirmed or countered. Technically speaking, this openness is crucial: the technical culture requires maximum knowledge, but also maximum reproducibility in order to be shared not only theoretically but also practically. The iGEM competition thus promotes a true technical culture of synthetic biology.
Considering engineering process in synthetic biology, the technical culture is dual: on one hand there are the technical procedures, the machines researchers use, the way experiments are made, on the other hand there are the beings produced, the genetically engineered living machines. In other words: researchers in synthetic biology deal with traditional technical objects (the machines they use) and with unconventional technical objects (the living machines they produce). At this state of development of the discipline, the two faces of the technical culture in synthetic biology are linked: for example, developments of DNA-sequencing and DNA-synthesizing have facilitated the development of the engineered living machines.

Team discussion

A good exemple of technical alientation is computer. Contrary to a dogma, young generations do not really know how to use a computer. Indeed, operating system (OS) are design to be more and more “user-friendly”. 20 years ago, computers’ owner had to put his shoulder to the wheel if they wanted their computer working. This phenomenon is even worse with smartphone: people do not think and do not know how their data transits. On the contrary, free software principle allows informed users to participate to software improvement: they can modify the code and think about how the software works.
To give one light-hearted example , free software principle was originally imagined by Richard Stallman because he noticed bugs in UNIX system . He decided to correct thoses bugs and contacted UNIX developpers. When the developpers refused to let him improve UNIX, he decided to create his own OS : GNU project (GNU Not Unix) and define the bases of free software (use, share, study, modify). Free software are a good basis that allow everyone to share his own improvements but there is a lot of people that use them without understanding them.

Now, the question is: Are standardization, reproducibility and automation creating a true technical culture, or are they leading us toward “user-friendly synthetic biology”? Rephrased: Today synthetic biology is structuring itself, would it choose to share its complex mechanisms, or would it choose simplicity of use? Ideally synthetic biology should be accessible without becoming simplistic. But Simondon explains, that like artistic, scientific or philosophical cultures, the technical culture is exigent: it needs to be learned, it demands efforts. Thus, synthetic biology can not aim to be “user-friendly” without loosing parts of its scientific and technical subtlety. A good analogy could be found in the example of computer science: today computers are really easy to use, but only because the technical process (code and data processing) disappeared behind images serving as translator for the user. On one hand it enables everybody to use computers (and other computing devices), on the other hand, how many people can say they understand how their computer works? “What I cannot create I do not understand.” Richard Feynman. And so, one consequence is overconsumption of computers: Simondon analysed that ignorance leads to incapacity of reciprocally adapting its machine and its use, and leading then to a false obsolescence, and thus to overconsumption.

Today synthetic biology is still in a scientific phase that fits with the technical culture requirements. What would be a “user-friendly” synthetic biology? The technical evolution of the tools (for example of the PCR thermo-cyclers) does not make synthetic biology “user-friendly”: it is just like coding in a more powerful computer, the tool is better, the technique is the same. But if a machine could create engineered living machines at will from a simple interface, that would be a real revolution. And in this case the user could do things that he can not possibly understand. Here lies the main problem: Simondon already thought it was bad not to understand technique properly in the 50's, so what consequences would have a “user-friendly” synthetic biology? Beyond the intrinsic dangers of large-scale synthetic biology (dispersion, contamination, bio-accident, bio-terrorism, etc.), a major ethical problem is raised: could we allow to genetically manipulate living beings with such ease, even if this beings are no more than bacteria? Until now, genetical manipulation has been subordinated to scientific knowledge and purpose, and limited by many legal dispositions. The industrial project that defined the technical development of synthetic biology (standardization and automation), and the DIY-Bio (Do It Yourself Biology) initiatives, partakes both of this “user-friendly” dynamic, even unwillingly. We should be vigilant about this: all simplifications of use are not safe.


This philosophical experience highlights several important points. First of all, we confirmed a converging ethical awareness of all the members of the team: the purpose and the meaning of experiments in synthetic biology is never and for nobody insignificant.
Unsurprisingly the team could not agree with the philosophical hypothesis that technique is intrinsically bad and/or alienating. This philosophical statement was made in another context, and it seems a bit naïve today. Despite this disagreement, it seems that a relative consensus exists in the team around the necessity for synthetic biology not to be used for toyish purposes. Experiments are no game, and creating is not playing.
The team globally agreed with the concept of technical culture: some of the members particularly liked the role given to creativity and invention, some were more interested in the technical understanding of science. It seems that this concept still describes our scientific and technical reality. The analogy with computers underlined converging fears about loosing control on genes’ manipulations through too much technical automation.
It appeared also that there is a kind of circularity from the first critics about alienation and the last ideas about the importance of openness. The respect we have for technical objects goes along with understanding, thus technical culture really appears to be the key element both against alienation and fears. It should also enhance the safety of biotechnologies. Technical culture can belong both to specialists and to average citizens, excluding nobody, creating a common language to communicate. But the condition for this culture to happen is, that the openness ideal remains: secrets and abusive protection of intellectual property only increase fears and incomprehension. The openness ideal and the DIY-Bio initiatives must fight against both the “user-friendly” dynamics and obscurantism.
Last but not least, this experience of embedded philosophy proved that scientists and philosophers can think together and benefit of this cooperation.


  1. Created in response of the barbaric nazi experiments on human beings, abusively called “medical” by the perpetrators. It was a tool to condamn them.
  2. They thought that nazism and the total war were the necessary result from the scientism that had dominated the first half of the 20th century.
  3. This expression refers to the following quote from Rabelais' Pantagruel: “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul”, in original “Science sans conscience n'est que ruine de l'âme”.
  5. Human practice, Evry, iGEM 2012 : Link