Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology
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In 2006 anthropologists Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett set out to rethink the role that human sciences play in biological research, creating the Human Practices division of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center—a facility established to create design standards for the engineering of new enzymes, genetic circuits, cells, and other biological entities—to formulate a new approach to the ethical, security, and philosophical considerations of controversial biological work. They sought not simply to act as watchdogs but to integrate the biosciences with their own discipline in a more fundamentally interdependent way, inventing a new, dynamic, and experimental anthropology that they could bring to bear on the center’s biological research.
Designing Human Practices is a detailed account of this anthropological experiment and, ultimately, its rejection. It provides new insights into the possibilities and limitations of collaboration, and diagnoses the micro-politics which effectively constrained the potential for mutual scientific flourishing. Synthesizing multiple disciplines, including biology, genetics, anthropology, and philosophy, alongside a thorough examination of funding entities such as the National Science Foundation, Designing Human Practices pushes the social study of science into new and provocative territory, utilizing a real-world experience as a springboard for timely reflections on how the human and life sciences can and should transform each other.
Questions concerning what it means to make life diﬀerent, what it means to make living beings be er, and what metrics and practices are appropriate to these tasks can best be addressed in real time as challenges arise and breakdowns happen. e knowledge needed to move toward the desired near future will be developed in a space of relative uncertainty and contingency. Adopting a vigilant disposition that is a entive to a mode of emergence is at the core of our work. In sum, our equipment must be
into these potential (or virtual) entities. Given that we had privileged access to observe the eﬀorts (biological and institutional) where this work was taking place, it seemed to us that it was scientiﬁcally more instructive to focus on what was happening in the laboratories and institutions rather than on metaphysical debates about Nature or God. Of course, we know full well that such metaphysical debates have other functions than the ones they announce, as well as ramiﬁcations that their
(through ﬁguration), it is logical and even imperative to mobilize resources to ensure that the good can be distinguished and segregated from the bad and thereby contained. By making these connections, the ﬁguration is given form materially, organizationally, and infrastructurally. e reasons for the ready acceptance of the dual-use framing of biosecurity are various. However, none of the reasons, upon reﬂection, are obvious. None of the reasons, upon even closer inspection, are compelling.
need to be changed or maintained on the part of those observed as well as those observing. Such observation, as dispassionate or prosaic as it might be, is likely to provoke a reaction on the part of those observed. In our experience and the experience of others, this Lessons Learned 2010 179 reaction, at least initially, oscillates between the poles of indiﬀerence and violence. One must remain alert to the fact that frank speech entails real dangers. By speaking the truth frankly, however,
(2006): article number 45, published online August 22, 2006, doi:10.1038/msb4100090v. 18. h p://arep.med.harvard.edu/. 19. h p://www.jcvi.org/. 20. Forster and Church, “Towards Synthesis of a Minimal Cell.” 21. J. Tian et al., “Accurate Multiplex Gene Synthesis from Programmable DNA Microchips,” Nature 432 (December 23/30, 2004): 1050–54. 22. Craig Venter, A Life Decoded (New York: Viking, 2007), 356. 23. Existing structures and processes can be either directly taken up or refashioned. Like