Christopher Preston, Synthetic Biology: Drawing a Line in Darwin’s Sand


1.      OVERVIEW

2.      Artefact/nature distinction important to env

         a.      Especially in the form that enviros value wild nature

         b.      But this set of distinctions (humans/nature, artefactual/natural) has problems

         c.      Connection to historical evolutionary processes is a way to support the value of the natural idea

3.      Synthetic biology (=syn bio) is a clear case of producing artefacts that lack the value of the natural

         a.      Synthetic biology builds genomes “from scratch” out of “bio-bricks” (i.e., genes?)

         b.      Create things that are as artefactual as something can be

                   i.       Ned disagrees with this claim

4.      Syn bio is radically different from other technologies, including

         a.      Selective breeding

         b.      All other recent biotechnologies (including creation of transgenic organisms)

         c.      Chemical creation of new abiotic kinds (e.g., plastics)

5.      Only syn bio creates biotic artefacts that do not follow a key feature of Darwin’s natural selection–descent through modification

         a.      For it constructs or engineers organisms, rather than simply modifying existing organisms

         b.      So unlike products of selective breeding and other biotechnologies, they have no causal connection to historical evolutionary processes

6.      Many env ethicists value this historical evolutionary process and see loss of connection to this process as troubling



8.      Moral significance of nonhumanized (or unmodified?) nature for env thought

         a.      Especially for nonanthropocentrists–protect nature for reasons other than human benefit

         b.      Idea that motivates millions

         c.      “Env ethics inconceivable w/o this notion”

         d.      Leopold: “Reappraise things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things wild natural and free”

         e.      Rolston: “No one has learned full scope of what it means to be moral until learned to respect the integrity and worth of those things we call wild”

         f.       Elliott: “We value the forest/river in part because they represent a world outside of out dominion, because their existence is independent of us”

         g.      Katz: Value exists in nature to the extend that it avoids modification by human technology

9.      McKibben’s 1989 End of Nature due to anthropogenic climate change

         a.      End of the idea of nature as separate and wild province, the world apart form man to which he adapted and under whose rules he was born

         b.      Argument only works if nature must be “pristine” “untouched by man” to be nature

                   i.       But this is a peculiar and overly stringent sense of the term

10.    Aristotle on distinction of the natural from non-natural/artefactual

         a.      Natural things have own principle of movement and stationariness; its changes determined from within

         b.      Artefact lacks this source of own production, but has an external source –the intentional action of humans

                   i.       Artefacts display presence of human intention

11.    Keekok Lee on the natural

         a.      Natural not result of deliberate human intervention, design, and creation

         b.      Artefacts embody human intentional structure

                   i.       What about unintentional garbage piles or global warming? This definition makes them natural

         c.      Natural comes into existence and continues to exist and goes out of existence entirely independent of human volition and manipulation

                   i.       This means something must be “pristine” to be natural and this is problematic

12.    Some argue that all human actions are natural because

         a.      Humans have a natural origin

                   i.       Fallacious reasoning: Is X has a property Y (being natural) then anything X does has that property Y

                            (1)    Humans are animals/organisms, therefore what humans do (sleep, play poker) are animals/organisms?

         b.      None of our acts transcend natural laws

                   i.       True. Humans and their acts can’t violate laws of nature and in this sense everything is natural (except the supernatural–ghosts, God, miracles)

         c.      Even if all we do (our acts) is/are natural, the products of our acts may not be

                   i.       I have a property of weighing 10 pounds, so therefore the result of what I do weighs 10 pounds

         d.      Humans could (and in fact do) have a natural origin but what they do might not be natural

13.    Some human acts are natural (eating and digesting)

         a.      Others may not be: talking on cell phones; flying to moon

         b.      Natural as non-technological

14.    Some things created by human intention are env benign (hut made of clay and grass) and some are not Glenn Canyon dam

         a.      Natural as that which does not harm nature

15.    Degree of human intention not acceptable criteria for “unnatural” or env unfriendly

         a.      A restored landscape likely contains more human planning and theoretical sophistication than a Walmart parking lot

         b.      “Measured by the amount of human intention they reflect, environmental blessings such as photovoltaic panels or modern wind turbines have much more in common with PCBs and polluting SUVs than they do with pristine watersheds and free roaming wolves.

16.    The idea of pristine nature unmodfied by man idea ignores the affect native peoples have had on the land for eons

         a.      “Naturalʼ landscapes, apparently unmodified by human activity, are now widely recognized to be an immigrant Americanʼs fantasy, an error that has led to the denial of indigenous histories written across numerous ecologies.”

17.    Nature unmodified by human intention did exist for 4.6 billion years on this planet (before we showed up)

         a.      And it was “ultimately responsible for all that env find of value”

         b.      For 80% of that time, natural historical evolutionary processes created great biological diversity

         c.      Rolston: protect wildlands as the profoundest historical museum, a relic of way world was during 99.9% of past time



19.    Two types of technologies

20.    One: Nature polluting techs

         a.      harm is relatively superficial and we can improve on these to lessen their effects

21.    Two: Deep technologies which are nature replacing

         a.      Molecular nano tech (re-orders nature at level of atom/molecule) and biotech manipulates nature at level of DNA

         b.      Don’t just modify nature, but replace it with something different

         c.      Create a different kind of thing

         d.      Change natural kinds into artefacts

         e.      Structure made out of nanotubes synthesized at the molecular level is more of an artefact than wooden table

         f.       So too Bt corn genetically manipulated to contain a pesticide

                   i.       Has its very genome produced by human intention

         g.      These techs are the ultimate humanization of nature and threatens “ontological impoverishment”



23.    Nanotech is little more than careful chemistry

         a.       Mistake to think that nanotechnology is really significantly different from 2 century old synthetic chemistry which has been creating new kinds at the rate of a million a year

         b.      Plastic is a clear example

         c.      How is plastic “ontologically pernicious?”

                   i.       It would be if we refashioned the whole world out of it

         d.      We have been rearranging naturally occurring materials whether carbon atoms of tree limbs for millennia

                   i.       Ned: but even synthetic biology rearranges naturally occurring materials!

24.    Preston also thinks biotech is not the problem Lee thinks

         a.      Humans have been creating biotic artefacts for 1000s of years

                   i.       Hybridization of crops and domestication of animals

         b.      Lee thinks the difference is degree of manipulative control modern biotech has

                   i.       Quantum leap in level of artefactuality

                   ii.      Rate, scope and degree of transformation are enhanced by modern biotech

         c.      Preston doesn’t believe scale of manipulation of inherited material should make a difference

         d.      Preston also makes practical point that objecting is peculiar as genetically modified organisms are used all over world and especially in US agriculture

                   i.       85% of soybeans and 76 percent of cotton in us are GE

25.    Preston seems to doubts whether the “scale of the manipulation of nature” can make any morally relevant difference

         a.      I think it clearly can, if scale means extent of manipulation

         b.      Perhaps not if scale means what the size of the pieces of nature that you manipulate

         c.      Preston now: “I totally agree with you that Preston is wrong about the degree of difference not being able to ground a deontological objection to GMO. I think it can. But, putting it that way sure seems to set synthetic biology on a different plane.”



27.    Description of syn bio

         a.      Syn biologists “assemble short DNA sequences with known properties to create synthetic organisms that perform desirable functions”

         b.      “Create living systems from scratch and then endow them with new and novel functions”

         c.      E.g., DNA carry out math functions, drugs, bio-sensors to detect env problems, biotic components for computers, env friendly energy sources

         d.      Design bio machine to perform a chosen function–product located in a living cell

         e.      Isolate DNA sequences to be used as “bio-bricks” for constructing future synthetic organisms

         f.       “The engineering of life”


28.    Unedited notes below


29.    Both Callicott and Muir claimed human manipulated animals were “biotic artefacts”

         a.      Preston argues syn biology will reach new level of artificiality

30.    Preston argues syn bio create “de novo synthetic biological kinds”

31.    Preston thinks blur line between living bio organism and purpose built machine


32.    What Preson thinks is unique about syn bio

         a.      “Side-stepping around historical evo processes”

         b.      Quotes Venter “short-circuit millions of yars of evolution and create own version of a second genesis

                   i.       Goal to replace evolution with something better; try to “ou-tdesign evolution”


33.    Dif syn bio and traditional biotech

         a.      Trad biotech started with genes of existing organisms and modify it by deleting or adding genes

                   i.       Take a viable organism and selectively changed it and try not to modify it too much so no longer able to survive

                   ii.      Even true of transgenic organisms

                   iii.     Genome on which mod takes place is eithre product of natural evo processes or descendent of such a product

                   iv.     In each case there exists prior to mod a viable org on which manipulation takes place.

         b.      Not case with syn bio

                   i.       Does not start with viable genome and modify it

                            (1)    but there is a biological given at a deeper level, genes, that is given

                            (2)    don’t make DNA but take given DNA with known properties and make new org

                   ii.      Starts with bio-bricks with known properties

                   iii.     No existing genome that undergoes mod

                            (1)    but is existing genes

                   iv.     Current tech takes puts synthetically engineered DNA sequences into existing single-celled organisms

                   v.      Goal not to preserve properties of existing organism but create entirely new organism with DNA constructed according to human plan

                   vi.     Syn bio guided by idea of leaving evo and existing genomes behind and do a better job in creation with human goals in mind.


34.    Prudential worries

         a.      Could these synthetic organisms survive outside the lab in the wild?


35.    Main worry, objection to syn bio; how it is different from previous techs?

36.    Kind of artefacticity in syn bio is a problem as it

         a.      “Departs from fundamental principle of Darwinian evolution–descent through modification

         b.      Sounds like the problem is that we don’t have modification of naturally selected organisms, or modification of any organism, but construction of an organism


37.    Selective breeding (and even genetic engineering) does much the same thing as natural selection

         a.      Taking an existing viable genome and modifying it incrementally

         b.      All three (natural selection, selective breeding, and late 20th century biotech) work with principle of descent through modification

         c.      They take existing genomes and modify them, either naturally as with NS or intentionally as with selective breeding

         d.      Even true of creation of transgenic organisms

         e.      Here viable genomes are modified by humans sometimes in labs

38.    Because of this, there is a continuous causal chain between genome currently being manipulated and historical evo process

         a.      At each point in chain there exists a viable organism

         b.      No product of 20th century biotech lack this causal connection

         c.      Before syn bio, every organism had ancestors connecting it to historical processes that env value

39.    Syn bio creates genome from scratch

         a.      Builds organism de novo from bio-bricks

         b.      Thus causal continuity with historical evo past been severed

         c.      All traces of descent from naturally selected ancestors been eliminated

         d.      Although contain nucleic acids, biotic artefacts create by synthetic bio borrow none of their genetic sequencing from viable products of historical evo process

                   i.       But they do borrow given genes that code for certain properties

         e.      A genome built from bio-bricks is as complete an artefact as any bio organism can be

                   i.       This is false, for one might imagine new properties of organisms never seen in nature and then construct the bio-bricks, that is genes, that code for those characteristics and put them together

                            (1)    This is much more complete arefactualization.

40.    When humans create new genomes from scratch only then do we have the “supersession of natural evolution”

41.    No longer a chain of viable organisms connecting latest modification to 3.6 billion years of natural evolution

         a.      True, but there is a chain of genes


42.    Why is creating new biotic kinds worse than creating new abiotic kinds which we have been doing for years


43.    Aristotle’s distinction between nature and artefact still viable as based on 3.6 billion years of bio evolutionary history

         a.      Syn bio breaks connection with this

         b.      But there were lots of artefacts before syn bio; namely abiotic artefacts of chemistry


Hettinger objections

1.      Syn bio does not build from scratch

         a.      How is this “By building genomes from scratch out of ʻbio-bricksʼ” compatible with this “Synthetic biologists assemble short DNA sequences with known properties to create synthetic organisms that perform desirable functions”?

         b.      Instead of building genomes or new kinds of organisms “from scratch” they build them from genes (“short DNA sequences with known properties”), that is from given genes or proteins with specific properties/powers. Both the genes/proteins and the properties/powers were created by biological evolution.

         c.      When synthetic biologists think up some new biological property never before instantiated and then construct a protein or gene for that property, then the “from scratch” language will be appropriate

                   i.       I object to folks ignoring the ongoing power nature has in our lives

                   ii.      As if humans do it all and nature does nothing.

                   iii.     Even with syn bio, nature does an awful lot if it provides the genes/properties with which to build an organism

         d.      Preston reply: “Is there such a thing as building from "relative scratch"? The genetic parts are from existing organisms.....but they have never been put together in that fashion. It is a genome built from constituent parts according to human design. I also think they are trying to figure out non-biological genetic parts.....really from scratch.”


2.      Not decent by modification, but construction

         a.      Syn bio is an example of organisms that go against the "decent by modification" tradition.

         b.      This is decent by construction,

                   i.       Though all there doing is messing with bacteria

Questions about Preston’s “Synthetic Biology: Drawing a Line in Darwin’s Sand” and ideas about the natural


1.         What is synthetic biology and how is it scientifically different from both (a) selective breeding by humans of animals and plants and (b) other types of modern genetic engineering, including creating transgenic organisms (and what is that?)?

2.         Preston argues that synthetic biology is also morally different from both of these other ways that humans manipulate genes. What is his reason for making this claim? (Hint: It has to do with severing a causal connection to something.)

3.         Why did Bill McKibben claim in his 1989 book that we were at the “End of Nature?” What does this mean?

4.         Evaluate the idea that nature can only exist if it is “pristine,” that is, untouched by man. Are things only natural if humans have not influenced them in any way?

5.         Provide a counter-example to the claim that anything that is not the result of human intention is natural.

6.         Provide a counter-example to the claim that the greater human intention is involved in creating something the less natural it is.

7.         Evaluate the claim that because humans have a natural origin, that it therefore follows that human acts are also natural. If the origin of something has a certain characteristic (e.g., is evil, such as rape), does it follow that the product of that origin also has that characteristic?

8.         If natural means follows the laws of nature (e.g., gravity), do you think humans and everything we do is natural (in that sense)? Is there anything unnatural in that sense (violates the laws of nature)?

9.         If natural means “non-technological,” give examples of human acts that are natural and acts that are not.

10.       Using examples, explore the idea that if something does not harm nature, it follows that it is natural. Is this what we ordinarily mean by “natural?”

11.       When Western Europeans came to the Americas is it true that they encountered a “pristine wilderness” unmodified by humans?