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Naturality and Artificiality

Most of the texts we have been through point to synthetic biology's modification of nature as an ethical matter. Two concepts, naturality and artificiality,are presented as raising an ethical tension. We will, in this section, try to get at why such tension should be analyzed by ethics, what problems both concepts bring and what kind of issues are proposed. In a first look, we can legitimately wonder about the “problem” : what is the point about naturality and artificiality? Indeed, as we already said, our ethical approach asserts a connection with reality, with human actions, with pragmatism. In that perspective, aren't we wasting our energy wondering about a conceptual tension? In other word, we will try to find out why naturality and artificiality are in a certain way, an ethical stake.

The issue through which we will enter that points is : do we have to consider naturality and artificiality as real entities, as the things that science is about? That question will permit us to know if we have to include these entities in our ethical reflexion with practical ambitions.

Our first work has to be in defining terms. I'm about to skip this step, and I'd rather not include it in our reflexion, relying on the intuition of the reader that maybeis precisely the point here. If we admit, from now, rigid definitions of naturality and artificiality, we won't be able to perceive the dynamics of the changes that these terms are about to be under. Dealing with these topics, we also have to face the risk of being too philosophical, understood as more concerned with theoretical structure than pragmatic perspective. The paper Newtons of the leaves of grass, by Joachim Boldt and Olivier Müller is a good example. Because of their wondering about ruptures and continuities from synthetic biology with other biological sciences, they are lee to the question : how can we evaluate the change, the hybridation of the organism? How are continued changes able to make an entity becoming an other? The question about the nature of change in synthetic biology is, in my opinion, more about philosophical concerns than ethical, and, with all our respect about that approach, I've decided not to treat it. But, as we already mentioned through Evelyn Fox Keller's writings, scientific work is not only about material production, neither epistemological. It is also a discursive one. Thus, revising, defining, re-defining, reconfiguring words and, through them, worlds is one of the processes of science. Let's face, trying to be unbiased, unprejudiced, on what nature and device could mean, and try to understand what kind of stakes they are culturally crystallizing to people's eyes (both scientists and non-scientists) to contain or express ethical stakes.

A. From “what” do we have to protect nature?

Most of questions raised by literature about these topics seem already applicable to other contemporary life sciences practices. Thus, when La Note de Veille Stratégique (Suet 2009) wonders about whether “synthesis of the whole or a part of a living organism is ethically acceptable?”, can wonder if that question wasn't already needed in the field of molecular biology or about GMOs. The new waves of questions about naturalness raises as a new stake when we will have to face an entirely synthetic organism as promised by Craig Venter. We will have the occasion to notice that new accusations and charges are expressed against synthetic biology, through new formulations, claiming the “defense of nature” against manipulations by biologists.

B. Performing Lexicon : The playing God issue?

How are these criticisms formulated? What kind of arguments is called up in order to critic manipulation of nature? We will refer to some different kinds of sources and lectures we have encountered during this ethical reflexion. Most of the threat expressed against nature are formulated through two ways, hardly differentiable, fighting against both scientists and scientific productions of the field. Thus, the first are accused of “playing god” by creating the second, feared and treated as monsters. It is that traditional fear of the Demiurge and the Golem, which are reconfigured in a techno-scientific cultural approach. We have to remember that threats and warnings are mostly coming from uninitiated areas and we can find their expression on blogs or comments from popular science papers about the stakes of synthetic biology. Non-scientists’ fears, as already mentioned, don't have to be rejected at the first look but have to be consider precisely as social markers and discuss in order to support our democratic perspective. We will rely on the report of Andrew Balmer and Paul Martin from the Institute for Science and Society from the University of Nottingham (Balmer and Martin 2009). That report relies on another, from the European Union, the New and Emerging Science and Technology program (NEST) written in 2005. The experts (bioethicists and synthetic biologists) recommend and encourage researchers to establish a definition of what life is, in order to rely on it and to show a certain obsolete feature of the threat. As we see it, the main part of the question will be about definitions, but, not only.

What are the formulations of the different fears? Balmer and Martin quoted some :

On the moral front, Mooney [of the ETC Group] says of Venter: "God has competition." To argue that the making of life should remain the province of a divine creator is no argument at all.

Scientists are a step closer to creating artificial life after transforming one type of bacteria into another. … But the announcement has also triggered unease, with some critics warning that the scientists were 'playing god' .

Fears have been raised about the dangers of tinkering with life and releasing malignant bugs. "We don't yet know what are the social, ethical and even bioweapons implications of this research," said Hope Shand of the ETC technology pressure group. The most ominous note was struck by a scientist at MIT: "The genetic code is 3.6 billion years old. It's time for a rewrite."

That list has to be taken into account in order to know if fear about synthetic biology is taking more and more importance for uninitiated people.

In a quite different perspective, we can wonder : “how do we qualify a new organism?” Do we have to distinguish that organism from all “natural living organism”? Thus, Balmer and Martin show us how that organism is qualified by different institutions or personality of synthetic biology.

« Venter’s team calls these minimal genome microorganisms, synthetic biologists more broadly may refer to them as chassis, those in the UK synthetic chemistry field have named them chells »

That different process of discursive marking of synthetic organism will take a part in the debate. Depending on the way we will name it, we will perceive it as organism (conceptually attached to the “living”) or as chassis (referring so to the lexicon of construction, material support) : two ways, two possibilities of perception are offered to us. In the case of using the word “microorganism”, we will include it in the whole group of the living, make it understandable through the evolutionary process or through its autonomy. In the case of the chassis, we will perceive it as something which will help us to build an application, answering to our utilitarian needs.

However, the initial question about naturality and artificiality is still not solved. That point is about to show how the question of qualification is redirected when the debate is happening in scientific or uninitiated field even if the object, the “minimal genome”, doesn't change. When the signified is not the point (which is the point of the biosafety and biosecurity questions), the question of the signifier rises.

C. A false question? ...

The question of concepts of life and nature, the question of the signifier is gradually criticized in Balmer and Martin's report, progressively viewed as a “false question”.

Referring to the work of the philosopher Edward Machery from Pittsburgh University, the authors put into light both the difficulty and, above all, the uselessness of a definition of life. Thus, trying to define life and explain its complexity had face many failures : “This (…) is no surprise and is consistent with a whole programme of “life definitionism” that fails to confine its object”. That point is supported by a quote from a 2007 editorial of Nature showing both the tension and failure expressed by the naturality / artificiality concerns : “Many a technology has at some time or another been deemed an affront to God, but perhaps none invites the accusation as directly as synthetic biology (…) It would be a service to more than synthetic biology if we might now be permitted to dismiss the idea that life is a precise scientific concept ”. Otherwise, authors enlighten the idea that, if we decide to keep that ambition of definition, it has to be interdisciplinary. It leads to other problems, not for scientists but for the observers, ethicists or critics : if definition of life is that complex, unstable and ambiguous, why do we refer to its alteration, manipulation, or its creation, with immoral characteristics?

D. … An ironical answer

Although the idea of the “false question” is proposed, the report relates the answers that were proposed by it. Through these answers, we can find the proposal from the NSF funded synthetic biology Engineering Research Centre, the SynBERC's “Human Practices” project, lead by Paul Rabinow from University of California, Berkeley and Ken Oye from MIT, the PACE consortium and the CHELL Program. First of all, we have to notice that the first question of naturality and artificiality were gradually turned into another : we are not talking anymore about the ethical statute of nature and devices but about what kind of qualification we can put on the productions of synthetic biology.

With the aim to put qualifying “living” or “unliving” to that “emergent scientific objects”, the CHELL Program proposed something interesting. Researchers from the CHELL Program proposed an altered version of the Turing Test in order to question that statute. Alan Turing is the inventor of the first artificial intelligent system. In Computing machinery and intelligence published in 1950 (Strathern 1999), Turing wondered about the same kind of question about machines : “could a machine think?”. The obsolete nature of the question will be enlightened by the pragmatical approach of the engineer in his way to answer it. The test is to establish to what point a machine can pass itself off as a human, in the scope of a discussion with a human. The success of the test is, then, the success for the machine to get the discursive appearance of a human being, succeeding in misleading the human. If I use the word “obsolete” to tell about the question, it is because of the kind of process Turing proposed. Indeed, the realistic imitation of the computer, relying on human failures and mistakes does not answer “directly” to the initial question, or let's say rather, it twists its signification and presuppositions : “could a machine think?” is now become “can we consider a machine as a thinking being”. In other words, the human failure in the qualification process means the success of the machine, now becoming a thinking being.

Picking up that pragmatical model of proof, researchers from the CHELL proposed :

« Their version of life is one that requires individual self-replication, self sustaining systems, and a mechanism that allows for spatio-temporally resolved organisation of information within these systems, though they themselves find this somewhat restrictive [Crowin et. al. 2006]. The equivalent of the Turing test would be one in which the chell was able to interact with natural cells in an appropriate manner so as to be unrecognisable from those same cells. They foresee an ever increasing level of complexity in both their understanding of the cell in its natural environment and their capacity to imitate those processes such that the test for life becomes ever more stringent. »

With the “replication” of the Turing test, the false question from the start is now appearing to our eyes. Indeed, the human process of qualification seems now very related to a certain unreliable perception. Turing's pragmatical approach is, that way, also answering to another question, which is upstream. How can we certify of the “thinking characteristic” of any other thing : machine, human, etc. We have built some cognitive process of recognition of what a “thinking being” is, and, through it, “being able to discuss”. In that perspective, the test is just saying that conditions through which we use to consider something as a thinking being can be fulfilled by a machine. Accepting that, we clearly crossed a huge step : we are forced now to admit that, if a computer can have a discussion with a human such as the human considers that the computer is actually a thinking being (a person), the computer is now a thinking being. In other words, being a thinking being is nothing else but being regarded as thinking. That replication is not without putting some new stakes on the table : as Turing enlightened the obsolete form of the question “could a machine think”, the question “is a synthetic organism alive?” is transformed into “is a synthetic organism able to be regarded as alive?”.

To me, this replication ironically answers the question of the distinction of a living and unliving world, putting into light the subjectivity of qualification. In other words, the validation of our definition of the living doesn't seem able to be satisfied by “unsatisfying” answers such as the Turing test. An other formulation of the logic of the test can be found in the text What is it to be a bat? from Thomas Nagel (Nagel 1974) . In that text, we explore the cognitive conditions of the limit of the qualification process.

The authors remind us of Marchery's arguments about the lake of solidity of a biological concept of life. The uncertainty of the concept shows that the quest of definition can only comfort fears about boundaries between the living and the artificial, that quest being necessarily unsatisfied.

It is with the same problem, now regarded as insolvent, that we finish that brief analysis. That dissatisfaction shows, to me, that the question of naturality and artificiality is also obsolete in the way we figure it. The biological test of Turing is ironical in that way and so distinguishes itself from the lexicon and the justification process of the other actors of the debate. The “playing God issue”, the will of “saving nature from life science” has to face that pragmatical arguments and seems now reduced to an obsolete criticism.

In our pragmatical ethical approach, we now have to wonder if “real questions” can be asked of synthetic biology about the stake of naturality and artificiality. Our own qualification of real and false questions are needed to be criticized, it is not about reliance of fears and tears expressed within, it is a way for us to distinguish the “resolvability” of these questions. The way we've crossed from now was about wondering on “protecting the living from synthetic biology practices”. We tried to show how, without any stable and reliant definition of the life in question, the feedback on the initial concern will be to transform it to a insolvent question.

E. What “real question”? : Practices and alienability of the living.

We can find two set of “solvable” questions which could answer to the reliance of the ethical perspective we are trying to get. These questions will lead us, at first, to the field of practices in synthetic biology. Then, we will wonder about the status of the living, not about its “essence”, but as a “social object” : an object of exchange.

The work of Vivagora enlighten the question of practices. If there is an operative question about naturality and artificiality, practice could be an indicator of it and we can follow our survey by wondering if and how scientific practices are affected by that dualism.

The question of naturality and artificiality makes sense in the challenge of interdisciplinarity the field of synthetic biology implies. Thus, if we leave the literal analysis to wonder about the practices hidden by the term “natural” and “artificial”, we will find a set of stakes, maybe more disciplinarian than ethical. That new entry on practices will also take us to a different goal : we won't notice the trying to oppose naturality and artificiality (by trying to get to the tension between these terms), but, on the contrary, to make them coexist, reconcile, and so, to give up that tension.

As Vivagora show it, the question of the natural and artificial could be reached by the hard attempt of an “engineering will”, used to work with controllable devices and the living, which is aleatory and unpredictable. Without succeeding in defining either concept, we will try to attribute some “quality” to artificiality and naturality. Those qualities are called up to progress in our inquiry, we are neither trying to “fix” what could be natural and artificial, nor to juxtapose it rigorously to the scientific practices we will describe.

We are less wondering about the artificial organism than about practices which, trying to create it, are taking a part in the question of this type. We have to evaluate the canons, the models of engineering : what is an engineer looking for? By roughly relating them, we will discover that they are clashing with some quality we can attribute to the living. Through these canons of the engineering method, we will find the formulation of technical needs, the abstraction of a process in order to replicate it easily, the homogenization and constitution of norms and standards of production and uses of the technology. That brief list, non exhaustive, of the objectives of the engineer's practical and methodological needs seems at work in synthetic biology. These aims are then transformed into ambitions, challenges when they try to apply themselves to the living world. Indeed, after even a rapid talk with laboratory operators, we can realize that the success or failure of a manipulation is quite unpredictable. Even deeper, it will be difficult to figure the nature of it : is it a human error? a failure or the occurrence of a “unhappy hazard” in a manipulation? That point underlines the importance of the steady tracking of the lab notebook. But, even the lab notebook only permits a retroactive reading of the experience and does not permit any prediction. Probable fallibility human handling, the variability of local manipulations (which are often hardly reproducible from one laboratory to another) or the “aleatory” characteristic of the development of the organism or colony in the manipulation process make the engineer's ambition very hard to succeed.

Thus, we have to call up artificiality and naturality, relating each of it to practices, in order to wonder about the making of the aims of the biological applications of engineering. Artificiality, devices will, in that perspective, understood through its controllable characteristic, able to be submitted to the abstract process of the engineer, when the living escape to that logic.

Of course, the fact that calibration, homogenization and grading of the living are now totally improved in the field of agronomic engineering can make us suppose that this challenge could overcome. But, taking into account the genomic scale and the bacterial level of challenge, technical, practical and methodological stakes are numerous.

Beside the question of practices we can find another element which leads us to the question of naturality and artificiality. That reflexion will take us along to our final part, by wondering about models of exchanges in synthetic biology.

The question of exchange will indirectly question the “nature” (or at least, qualify it) of the exchanged good and, that way, could be a good way to clear up the debate.

That question, already opened through debates regarding GMOs is now reconfigured in synthetic biology about animate beings. Intuitively, forms of property that we are used to about animate living are about individuals or groups of individuals. For example, we are proprietary of our dog, or of a herd, etc. That form of property is material and could be compared to land ownership.

At the contrary, the living are seen as “nobody's property”, good of their own (even if we can possess them), or, thinking about species, something close to a patrimony, and in every case, deeply inalienable. The question of alienability of the patrimony brings them close that particular good as national territories (In France, the inalienability of the national territory was in question during the religious war).

That patrimonial status of the living is also what seems to support environmental discourses to defend it. We do not defend in the same way an item of property as we defend a species about to become extinct. In the first case, we are defending something because it is our good, in the second case, we defend it because a moral value makes that extinction unacceptable to our eyes.

Environmental ethics enlightens us with the concept of “intrinsic value” of the living, as distinguished from what could be an “instrumental value”. That distinction permits us to consider nature not only as a resource, or a means, but also as a end. That way, we have to respect the Kantian maxim, already enlarged. Kant, in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals argues fact that every good action has not only a means, but also an end (Kant 1785). With the concept of intrinsic value, environmental ethics permits us to apply that maxim to the living, and assure its inalienability. Nature is an end in itself.

But, what about species built by synthetic biology? The science could, by new production and forms of exchange, call into question that inalienability of the living. The case of Venter's patent is an example of the perspective of a living-good, from its abstract conception, even before its material realization. The form of property applied here is not a material ownership anymore, like the farmer and his or her herd. Because of the invention, the design, it is an intellectual property. Intellectual property, applied to the living-good, upsets totally two sets of elements: our representation of the living and the form of our exchange. Living will be, from that point, able to be qualified as both natural and artificial. It won't be necessarily “given” but could also be constructed, designed. In that second case, it is so attached to intellectual property and will be submit to the forms of exchange of the intellectual goods. But, as we will see later, it will also permit to critics to use the arguments of the opensource and free software movements.

If we add, to that two upsetting point, the trends of costs and the industrialization of the material and intellectual production of the artificial living, we are risking to assimilate synthetic species to exchangeable goods and commercial products. Thus, what kind of property, non already explored, could be reach by these mechanisms? Does every constructed thing have to be understood as product? Don't you think that something like a species has to be defended from that merchandizing by our ethical approach. Can't we do as environmental ethicist with can, enlarging the people and things concerned by the “means and end” kantian maxim or by the intrinsic value?

Most of that stakes will be retaken in our next analyze about opensource but we have to wonder with caution that question of alienability and the patrimonial status of the living. We will see that opensource models will permit us to see how the living, now both natural and artificial, could be understood both as “nobody's property” and as a “common good”.

F. Conclusion

To conclude this reflexion about naturality and artificiality, I want to focus on something quite different. I wanted to reverse our perspective and make an “open” conclusion by rejecting the question “from what and who do we have to protect 'nature'?” in order to reach “from what and who is ‘nature’ protecting us?”. My aim, inherited from the social studies of science and also from gender and cultural studies, will be to put into their light how political and cultural stakes are involved in the construction of a discourse about nature. The stake of naturality will be now considered through that conceptual tradition : the living is natural.

Social parts of scientists regarded as pure decipherers of nature, reaching objectivity and formulating the universal truths they discover is at the heart of the criticism and the deconstruction of science studies. Thus, theoreticians showed the influences of political, cultural and social contexts in the production of scientific facts, practices, discourses and results. The analysis of scientific controversies was regarded by science studies as a better way to enlighten that process of construction. Many analysts showed how scientific research and debates weren’t about discoveries of a natural phenomenon, now visible to the scientist but to a construction of it. The scientist who was the “winner” of the controversy was the one whose story was written and maintained for a long time as History of science. By constructing nature (with the help of facts and results), in a dynamical process, he also constructs new active social critters that reconfigure what is true and false, the objective and subjective, the learned and the ignorant. A very good example of that construction can be found in The Leviathan and the Air Pump of Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer (Shapin and Schaffer 1989). They show how Boyle, winner of the controversy against Hobbes, had built modern criterions of scientificity. The controversy was about establishing, as Boyle defended it, through the air pump, the “nature” of air and the “proof” of the existence of vacuum. Through the model of the air pump, the laboratory became the space of the science, the instrumental experimentation became the scientific method. In the same move, the “pure” literary form and the modesty of scientific witnesses of the experiment (as the insurance of objective certification) had deeply figured the form of modern science. Thus, beside the concept of nature, there are hidden stakes we cannot intuitively imagine. By winning the controversy, Boyle imposed new conceptions of truth, of proof, of scientific literature, of scientist as a “social group”, of objectivity and subjectivity, of gender (as show by Donna Haraway in (Haraway 1997) ). Scientificity and truth are now separated from opinion.

Bruno Latour will call “grand partage” (“big division”) that aim of distinction of entities that compose our world. The “modern challenge” was to oppose opinion from truth, nature from technology, human from un-human, inhumanity of science from humanity of society, scholar from politic... Is our concept of naturality and artificiality not included in that grand partage?

Deeply more political, the theoretical approach of Donna Haraway is to denounce the domination process (both material and ideal) which was constructed in the same dynamic as naturality. The process of essentialization are in the collimator of the philosopher : essentialization of the differences between genders, races, species. Building differences, said “natural”, between these entities show a set of stakes we have to keep in mind in our aim of a fair and responsible knowledge, reached in our ethical reflexion. Through Haraway's works, which I cannot summarize entirely here because of their complexity and importance, we have to consider sciences, in particular life sciences, as deeply political. By ruling about forms of the living, biologist can rule about what is, and so, about “norms of being”. The political characteristic of the scientific discourse has to be related to a standpoint epistemology. Every knowledge is situated : in time, space, culture, history, vocabulary. Words are said by a particular mouth. We have to wonder politically about our own discourses and try to perform that deconstruction of essentialization. These points will have consequences on our subject, through the contradiction Haraway showed in the process of distinction between natural and artificial. Deconstruction is now claiming the hybrid form of entities which surround us. Everything is both “natural” and “artificial”. Natural because it takes a part in our reality and artificial because it is constructed. Nature and device, pure and impure, truth and false, and so many other dichotomies through which we look at the world are now deeply upset.The concept of nature is hiding these mechanisms of construction and of domination. It blurs them to invisibility. Something “natural” is something you can't control but also something you can't fight. Deconstruction and effort of deconstruction must be daily practices for us.

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