Prospective Technology Assessment of Synthetic Biology: Fundamental and Propaedeutic Reflections in Order to Enable an Early Assessment

Science and Engineering Ethics 22 (4):1151-1170 (2016)
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Abstract

Synthetic biology is regarded as one of the key technosciences of the future. The goal of this paper is to present some fundamental considerations to enable procedures of a technology assessment of synthetic biology. To accomplish such an early “upstream” assessment of a not yet fully developed technology, a special type of TA will be considered: Prospective TA. At the center of ProTA are the analysis and the framing of “synthetic biology,” including a characterization and assessment of the technological core. The thesis is that if there is any differentia specifica giving substance to the umbrella term “synthetic biology,” it is the idea of harnessing self-organization for engineering purposes. To underline that we are likely experiencing an epochal break in the ontology of technoscientific systems, this new type of technology is called “late-modern technology.” —I start this paper by analyzing the three most common visions of synthetic biology. Then I argue that one particular vision deserves more attention because it underlies the others: the vision of self-organization. I discuss the inherent limits of this new type of late-modern technology in the attempt to control and monitor possible risk issues. I refer to Hans Jonas’ ethics and his early anticipation of the risks of a novel type of technology. I end by drawing conclusions for the approach of ProTA towards an early societal shaping of synthetic biology.

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