Forces of Life: does synthetic biology imply the end of vitalism?
Dr. Cecila Bognon (Sorbonne, Paris) about if synthetic biology implies the end of vitalism. Synthetic biology emerged in the last decade, at the interplay of molecular biology and computer science, as a novel and powerful take on the nature of life. The general avowed goal of this program, whose name has been coined as an analogue to “synthetic chemistry”, consists in producing from scratch a living system, endowed with basic living processes. The field itself inherited from artificial life (Langton 1989) as well as from bioinformatics and was developed by scientists trained in engineering science such as Drew Endy (Endy 2005).
It seems that, at first stake, successes of synthetic biology would mean the defeat of any vitalist view. However, many vitalist views have still been defended, no more emphasizing the irreducible nature of living matter, but the complexities of living processes, their subtle organization or self-organization. As theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman writes “Although we know bits and pieces about the machinery of cells, we don’t know what makes them living things.” By considering varieties of projects within synthetic biology, as well as the various possible meanings “vitalism” can have in a philosophical standpoint, dr. Cecilia Bognon will deflate the initial intuition of defeated vitalism.
Cécilia Bognon is a postdoctoral researcher at the “Who am I?” Labex (University of Paris 7, and IHPST – CNRS). In septembre she will join the UCLouvain as a postdoctoral fellow, with a project on the “The classical concept of metabolism, biological identity and the challenges from microbiome research.” Her dissertation (at the Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) was entitled “Between Biology and Chemistry: Nutrition, Organization, Identity” and examined the role played by the investigation of nutrition, and the constitution of the concept of metabolism, in the emergence of biology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She has co-edited (with Charles Wolfe) a book Philosophy of biology before biology (Routledge, 2019) and a special issue of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences on the topic “Organic – Organization – Organism: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Biology and Chemistry” (2019).