Team:KU Leuven/Human Practices/Psychoanalytics



Secret garden

Congratulations! You've found our secret garden! Follow the instructions below and win a great prize at the World jamboree!

  • A video shows that two of our team members are having great fun at our favourite company. Do you know the name of the second member that appears in the video?
  • For one of our models we had to do very extensive computations. To prevent our own computers from overheating and to keep the temperature in our iGEM room at a normal level, we used a supercomputer. Which centre maintains this supercomputer? (Dutch abbreviation)
  • We organised a symposium with a debate, some seminars and 2 iGEM project presentations. An iGEM team came all the way from the Netherlands to present their project. What is the name of their city?

Now put all of these in this URL:, (loose the brackets and put everything in lowercase) and follow the very last instruction to get your special jamboree prize!

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Ethics from our point of view

The psychoanalytical viewpoint is part of our new developed approach, which is bottom-up structured.
The aim of this viewpoint was to use psychoanalytical concepts as a tool to come to terms with synthetic biology as an important component of the current scientific revolution.

On September 26th we organized a seminar and lecture by the Dutch professor of Philosophy Hub Zwart. He is full professor of Philosophy at the faculty of science of the Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. In 2012 he published an article in the journal Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, titled: On decoding and rewriting genomes: a psychoanalytical reading of a scientific revolution. The team members read this article and formulated several questions. During the seminar, the iGEM team and professor Zwart analysed the main thesis and arguments from a philosophical and (exact) scientific viewpoint. The day was concluded with a public lecture by professor Zwart. It was held at the philosophy department of the KU Leuven and was attended by approximately 50 philosophers AND scientists. This get-together between scientists and philosophers to discuss synthetic biology from a psychoanalytical viewpoint is a unique collaboration, reflecting one of the key goals of iGEM : bringing people from different backgrounds together to break down the walls between research communities.

The poster announcing the lecture by Hub Zwart.

Sigmund Freud founded psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. As the name suggests it is about the analysis of the (human) psyche. At first it was used as a therapy for patients for which there were no therapeutic options available at that time, in regular medical practice. However, Freud also used it to analyse society, arts and, to a lesser extent, sciences. Later on, the psychoanalysis is further elaborated by Jung, Adler, Lacan, and nowadays by for example Žižek. However, psychoanalysis has been heavily debated since its birth because of its assumed lack of empirical evidence. Here, it is used as a tool to come to terms with synthetic biology as an important component of the current scientific revolution.

The use of psychoanalytical concepts

Prof. Zwart used the psychoanalytical concepts, “narcissistic insults” and “uneasiness" (Das Unheimliche), to explain what is happening in research laboratories today. He uses these concepts, he tries to make explicit concepts of man, which are employed (most often implicitly) by researchers. We focused on the dynamics of the synthetic biologist in particular.
Freud writes that every new scientific revolution is accompanied by high expectations. The example Zwart gives is the Human Genome Project. In 2000, President Clinton, together with Francis Collins and Craig Venter, announced their new project. A decade later, Nature devoted a special issues on the results of this project. Although a lot of new techniques became available to sequence DNA, the results were rather disappointing compared to the high expectations. The general public and scientists alike expected to collect much more information, at best to exile cancer. Also the number of protein-coding genes was much lower than expected. The strange observation can be made, that scientists do not become more humble due to the results, but rather, new high expectations arise. They are transferred to alluring substitutes or surrogates.

Narcissistic insults

A psychoanalytical concept that can help us to understand the dynamics of contemporary life sciences is narcissistic insults. One of the conclusions of the Human Genome Project was that human DNA does not differ so much from other species. On the other hand we consider ourselves as unique within the evolution of life. We believe our intelligence and creativity is unprecedented compared to other species. We consider it justified to employ the toolboxes of Nature for new purposes. Not only biomimesis, but also to improve nature.
Uneasiness (Das Unheimliche) is a tendency often seen by the laity. The idea of a monster made in the laboratory is ever-recurring. We often refer to a Frankenstein-scenario, in which the product of our laboratory escapes and becomes uncontrollable. In some cases the horror-scenarios disappear, e.g. IVF. A anthropocentric world view lies beyond these observations. In the end it is mankind who tries to be in charge and control their products.

This psychoanalytical reading (in the lecture and seminar with professor Zwart) helped us make the concept of man more explicit. Scientific papers in the field of synthetic biology, the concept of man is most often implicitly present. The psychoanalysis can be used to bridge the gap between philosopher/ethicist on the one hand and scientist/synthetic biologist on the other hand since this approach avoids a third person standpoint. It makes use of a constant dialogue, in which the philosopher/ethicist is not restrictive, but is asking questions out of curiosity and is in constant dialogue with the scientist.