Standing reserves of function: A Heideggerian reading of synthetic biology

by Pablo Schyfter, Philosophy & Technology

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Synthetic biology, an emerging field of science and technology, intends to make of the natural world a substrate for engineering practice. Drawing inspiration from conventional engineering disciplines, practitioners of synthetic biology hope to make biological systems standardized, calculable, modular, and predictably functional. This essay develops a Heideggerian reading of synthetic biology as a useful perspective with which to identify and explore key facets of this field, its knowledge, its practices, and its products. After overviews of synthetic biology and Heidegger’s account of technology, I discuss calculability, utility, function, setting-upon, and ordering, with the aim of discussing the manner in which synthetic biology works to render the biological world intelligible as something to be used, rather than something that is in and of itself. Having developed this Heideggerian reading, I proffer a number of corrections to his account that enable a more accurate, nuanced understanding of synthetic biology. Specifically, I discuss the notion of Ge-stell and submit that multiple systems of “enframing” may help to make Heidegger’s argument more robust. I suggest that synthetic biology may work to reveal the natural world as a standing-reserve of function.