What’s a science historian doing in the field of synthetic biology?

Dominic Berry’s essay on why he, a science historian, is involved in a synthetic biology project takes some interesting twists and turns, from a Sept. 2, 2016 news item on phys.org,

What are synthetic biologists doing to plants, and what are plants doing to synthetic biology? This question frames a series of laboratory observations that I am pursuing across the UK as part of the Engineering Life project, which is dedicated to exploring what it might mean to engineer biology. I contribute to the project through a focus on plant scientists and my training in the history and philosophy of science. For plant scientists the engineering of biology can take many forms not all of which are captured by the category ‘synthetic biology’. Scientists that aim to create modified organisms are more inclined to refer to themselves as the latter, while other plant scientists will emphasise an integration of biological work with methods or techniques from engineering without adopting the identity of synthetic biologist. Accordingly, different legacies in the biosciences (from molecular biology to biomimetics) can be drawn upon depending on the features of the project at hand. These category and naming problems are all part of a larger set of questions that social and natural scientists continue to explore together. For the purposes of this post the distinctions between synthetic biology and the broader engineering of biology do not matter greatly, so I will simply refer to synthetic biology throughout.

Berry’s piece was originally posted Sept. 1, 2016 by Stephen Burgess on the PLOS (Public Library of Science) Synbio (Synthetic Biology blog). In this next bit Berry notes briefly why science historians and scientists might find interaction and collaboration fruitful (Note: Links have been removed),

It might seem strange that a historian is focused so closely on the present. However, I am not alone, and one recent author has picked out projects that suggest it is becoming a trend. This is only of interest for readers of the PLOS Synbio blog because it flags up that there are historians of science available for collaboration (hello!), and plenty of historical scholarship to draw upon to see your work in a new light, or rediscover forgotten research programs, or reconsider current practices, precisely as a recent Nature editorial emphasised for all sciences.

The May 17, 2016 Nature editorial ‘Second Thoughts’, mentioned in Berry’s piece, opens provocatively and continues in that vein (Note: A link has been removed),

The thought experiment has a noble place in research, but some thoughts are deemed more noble than others. Darwin and Einstein could let their minds wander and imagine the consequences of certain actions or natural laws. But scientists and historians who try to estimate what might have happened if, say, Darwin had fallen off the Beagle and drowned, are often accused of playing parlour games.

What if Darwin had toppled overboard before he joined the evolutionary dots? That discussion seems useful, because it raises interesting questions about the state of knowledge, then and now, and how it is communicated and portrayed. In his 2013 book Darwin Deleted — in which the young Charles is, indeed, lost in a storm — the historian Peter Bowler argued that the theory of evolution would have emerged just so, but with the pieces perhaps placed in a different order, and therefore less antagonistic to religious society.

In this week’s World View, another historian offers an alternative pathway for science: what if the ideas of Gregor Mendel on the inheritance of traits had been challenged more robustly and more successfully by a rival interpretation by the scientist W. F. R. Weldon? Gregory Radick argues that a twentieth-century genetics driven more by Weldon’s emphasis on environmental context would have weakened the dominance of the current misleading impression that nature always trumps nurture.

Here is Berry on the importance of questions,

The historian can ask: What traditions and legacies are these practitioners either building on or reacting against? How do these ideas cohere (or remain incoherent) for individuals and laboratories? Is a new way of understanding and investigating biology being created, and if so, where can we find evidence of it? Have biologists become increasingly concerned with controlling biological phenomena rather than understanding them? How does the desire to integrate engineering with biology sit within the long history of the establishment of biological science over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries?

Berry is an academic and his piece reflects an academic writing style with its complicated sentence structures and muted conclusions. If you have the patience, it is a good read on a topic that isn’t discussed all that often.

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