In Georg Toepfer & Margret Engelhard (eds.), : Ambivalences of Creating Life – Societal and Philosophical Dimensions of Synthetic Biology. Heidelberg: Springer. pp. 275−292 (2016)

Johannes Steizinger
McMaster University
The concept of life plays a crucial role in the debate on synthetic biology. The first part of this chapter outlines the controversial debate on the status of the concept of life in current science and philosophy. Against this background, synthetic biology and the discourse on its scientific and societal consequences is revealed as an exception. Here, the concept of life is not only used as buzzword but also discussed theoretically and links the ethical aspects with the epistemological prerequisites and the ontological consequences of synthetic biology. The second part examines this point of intersection and analyses some of the issues which are discussed in terms of the concept of life. The third part turns to the history of the concept of life. It offers an examination of scientific and philosophical discourses on life at the turn of the 20th century and suggests a surprising result: In the light of this history, synthetic biology leads to well-known debates, arguments, notions and questions. But it is concluded that the concept of life is too ambiguous and controversial to be useful for capturing the actual practice of synthetic biology. In the fourth part I argue that with regard to the ethical evaluation of synthetic biology, the ambiguity of the concept of life is not as problematic as sometimes held because other challenges are more important. The question whether the activity of synthetic biological systems should be conceived as life or not is primarily theoretical.
Keywords Synthetic Biology  Life  Ethics
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