Synthetic Biology and Synthetic Knowledge

Biological Theory (8):346–356 (2013)
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Probably the most distinctive feature of synthetic biology is its being “synthetic” in some sense or another. For some, synthesis plays a unique role in the production of knowledge that is most distinct from that played by analysis: it is claimed to deliver knowledge that would otherwise not be attained. In this contribution, my aim is to explore how synthetic biology delivers knowledge via synthesis, and to assess the extent to which this knowledge is distinctly synthetic. On the basis of distinctions between knowledge-how and knowledge-why, and between syntheses that succeed and syntheses that fail, I argue that the contribution of synthesis to knowledge is best understood when syntheses are construed as experimental interventions that aim at probing causal relationships between properties of the entities that are combined through these syntheses and properties of their target products. The distinctiveness of synthetic biology in its quest for knowledge through synthesis stems from its ability to sample at will a space of empirical possibilities that is not only huge but also that has been so scarcely sampled by nature.
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