I’ve started working through selections from Synthetic Aesthetics, a 2014 edited volume (edited by Ginsberg, Calvert, Schyfter, Elfick, and Endy) that is the product of a collaboration between social and natural scientists and designers, run by Stanford and Edinburgh Universities. As the title implies, the project focuses on the overlap of synthetic biology (also called “synbio”) and art and design. So far, I’ve read through a few different pieces in this book, including a contribution from on of its co-editors, Drew Endy, who is a professor of bioengineering at Stanford.
Endy, who also co-founded the BioBricks Foundation (which, as I understand it, seeks to standardize components in order to facilitate bioengineering), argues that evolution is already a process of design, and a consistently optimal one at that. Perhaps reading a bit into Endy’s argument, this notion that biology is always-already “designed” carries with it a couple of implications: first, that interventions in the biological are not introductions of design to biology, but merely different forms of biological design (this obviates notions of non-intervention)*; second, that natural selection is a designer of the highest order, which makes the prospect of (re)designing biology especially intimidating; and third, that humans will one day be able to move beyond this intimidation as well as the “practical evolutionary constraints” of natural selection to “explore a new mode of biological design” (2014:85). This is where Endy leaves off, with the specter of what seems like an infinitely malleable recombinant future. This vision is especially interesting given that Endy is fairly dismissive of synthetic biology’s pursuit or more immediate, utilitarian ends. His vision for synthetic biology seems altogether grander, as if he is imagining a world that (to draw on Marxian notions of base and superstructure) we can’t really begin to imagine until we have made biology eminently engineerable. But does this defer responsibility to the future, as well? My sense from some of Endy’s other work is that it doesn’t, but it’s always worth bringing utopian futures back to earth. More to come.
*This piece has an apparent companion chapter that follows, Pablo Schyfter’s “There is no Design in Nature,” which seems to argue just the opposite. I will provide a future update that goes into their different understandings of the nonhuman and of the responsibilities of would-be bio-designers.