Creating life: from alchemy to synthetic biology

One of the things I’ve learned from the history of science during my academic career is that the historicist critique of presentism — that is, the critique that says that historical actors and events shall be interpreted in terms of their own time horizon and not from the vantage point of the present — is a lofty ideal for historical research, but untenable in practice.

The basic flaw in radical anti-presentist (anti-whiggish) thinking is, of course, that all historical questions are asked from the viewpoint of the present horizon of interpretation. The present situation not only gives us new tools and concepts to analyse the past, but also identifies issues and problems which the actors of the past didn’t pay attention to or didn’t understand the same way as we do.

An example from my world of life sciences is last year’s conference in the series Ischia Summer School on the History of the Life Sciences titled ‘Participation and Exclusion from the Renaissance to the Present Day’. The terms ‘participation’ and ‘exclusion’ are our present terms for celebrating the advances in participatory democracy, and such they are very whiggish: historical actors before the 1980s didn’t think of themselves in terms of ‘participation’ and ‘exclusion’.

I’m not critical of reinterpreting history in these terms (it’s perfectly legitimate) but we shouldn’t forget that when we do so, it is difficult to uphold the radical critique of presentism and whig history.

Next year’s conference, ‘Creating Life: From Alchemy to Synthetic Biology’ too illustrates the impossibility of radical anti-presentism. The 13th in the Ischia series, it “aims to uncover the long-term history of the human production of life and living beings as well as the contexts of practices that defined the border between the living and the non-living, and hence what it could mean to produce one from the other”.

However, for centuries after the alchemistic era, natural history was about classifying the diversity of the living world of animals and plants, and later biology aimed to understand and explain the functions and mechanisms of living beings. Not in order to produce life, but to maintain and govern it.

In contrast, the production of living beings, which is at the center of synthetic biology, is a very late project. Frankenstein and other para-biological figures aside, the possibility of creating life from non-living molecules only became reality in the 1950s with the Urey-Miller experiment. To see a line from alchemy to synthetic biology — a “long-term history of the human production of life and living beings” — only makes sense from the horizon of contemporary synthetic biology.

That said, this sounds like a great conference. If I wasn’t too senior and too addicted to long summer vacations in Sweden I would immediately send my application form off, not least to get an opportunity to meet and learn from the distinguished faculty involved, including Peter Murray Jones, Jessica Riskin, James E. Strick, Helen A. Curry, Luis Campos, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Stefan Helmreich, Wolfgang Schäffner and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (and probably also the summer-school directors: Janet Browne, Christiane Groeben, Nick Hopwood, and Staffan Müller-Wille).

It takes place at the island of Ischia outside Naples, 29 June — 6 July 2013. A detailed theme description and programme will be made available on-line in early January. Applications are to be sent to bvmallinckrodt@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de before 15 February, incl. a brief cv, a statement specifying academic experience and interest in the course topic (max. 300 words), and a letter of recommendation.

(feature image credit: NIH)

 

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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