Synthetic Biology and the Problem of Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Knowledge Integration

Thursday 29th June, 2017

Jared Commerer

Following the advent of innovatory genome-sequencing projects during the 1990s, the domain of synthetic biology has emerged as a burgeoning space of scientific inquiry, technological development, and public intrigue. However, since the mid-2000s, the transfiguration of synthetic biology from a field initially constituted by starry-eyed research manifestoes, to one underpinned by actual research programs and practices, has seen the ethically contentious and politically polarising nature of the aspiration to intentionally design artificial biological systems come to the fore.

On one hand, the capacity to direct the functioning of cells can be seen to usher in emancipatory potential with regard to the global crisis in public health; yet, on the other, risks pertaining to bioterrorism concomitantly present themselves.

Situated on the cusp of this unfolding were the bioscientists and engineers at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Centre (SynBERC); at the margins, anthropologists Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett. As outlined in Designing Human Practices, an ethnographic account of the first four years of SynBERC (2006-2010), Rabinow and Bennett, under the guise of the National Science Foundation (NSF), were charged with designing a collaborative ‘experiment’ intended to unite the biosciences and human sciences. In their words, the “challenge was to invent a new way of working that was not simply downstream and outside of the techno-science but upstream and adjacent to this new domain of biological engineering”.

However, this explicit compulsion toward collaborative interdisciplinary research and knowledge production encountered significant constraints pertaining to disparities between, among other things, the contradictory motivations and actions exhibited by the SynBERC colleagues surrounding personal, institutional, and national prosperity, and the ‘ethic of flourishing’ tied to the amelioration of the environment, health, and security that was heralded by Rabinow and Bennett as the prospective raison d’être of synthetic biology.

Ultimately, Rabinow was removed from his position as head of the Human Practices division of the project in March 2010. Thus, the stakes of un-/successful collaborative interdisciplinary research can be seen to be high.

Following this – and with the comprehensive and compelling account of the above socio-intellectual difficulties depicted in Designing Human Practices notwithstanding ­– the remainder of this essay turns to the philosophy of critical realism as an avenue through which collaborative research and interdisciplinary knowledge may be greater achieved and integrated.

More specifically, I draw on Dominic Holland’s ‘ontology of integration to put forward the idea that interdisciplinary research within the context of synthetic biology – if it is to be better-suited to achieving the aims and interests of invested parties – requires an explicit and coherent justification for scientific integration and differentiation that recognises and elaborates on the complex nature of reality. It should be noted that, due to the limited scope of this essay, only the briefest sketch of these complex concepts is possible.

For Holland, the “problem of integrating knowledge through interdisciplinary research is both a problem of knowledge and a problem of knowledge production”. Moreover, answers to two key questions are necessary so that this problem may be fully understood – the first question of which is: What justifies the production of integrative interdisciplinary research?

In short, the justification for integrative interdisciplinary research requires not only the recognition that reality is complex – as reflected in the work of Rabinow and Bennett –, but an elaboration on the nature of that complexity. In the absence of this elaboration, interdisciplinary researchers are often unable sustain a sufficient understanding of what they are integrating. Following Holland, it is the primary critical realist concepts of vertical and horizontal depth that aid in elucidating the complexity of reality, thereby justifying scientific integration and differentiation.

As far as the vertical, or stratified, dimension of reality can be understood, critical realists discern three overlapping domains: the ‘real,’ ‘actual,’ and ‘empirical.’ Holland elaborates:

“The domain of the ‘real’ embraces the structures and mechanisms that generate actual events and states of affairs, which we may experience in different ways and which we may not experience at all. The domain of the ‘actual,’ which embraces the events and states of affairs we may or may not experience is therefore a subset of the ‘real,’ and the domain of the ‘empirical,’ which embraces what we do experience is therefore a subset of the ‘actual’.”

Significantly, understanding ontological depth in this way allows us to recognise that, contra empiricism, the “perceptual criterion for the ascription of reality is distinct from but can nevertheless establish the causal criterion for the ascription of reality”. For example, irregularities identified as the outcomes of scientific experimentation across, on one hand, survey data and, on the other, data obtained by way of participant-observation involving the surveyed population may be explained. Turning briefly to horizontal depth, this notion can be understood simply in the sense that “events are determined by multiple causal objects, some of which may be more powerful in their effects than others”.

These concepts have direct implications for making sense of social practices; implications that relate to both Holland’s second question concerning the problem of knowledge integration (To what extent is it possible to produce integrative interdisciplinary research?) and one of the core obstacles faced by the anthropologists in their intended move from theories concerning collaborative practice to the practice of collaboration. As Rabinow and Bennett state: “The most significant difficulties in our experiment as well as our experiences turned on the attempt to imagine out what collaboration might look like and to turn those thoughts and reflections into practices”.

Taken together, the two questions posed by Holland presuppose the notion that, even if researchers maintain a coherent justification for scientific integration, their social system of knowledge production may constrain their capacities to produce genuinely integrative research. For Rabinow and Bennett, their attempt to ‘invent a new way of working’ within and across the biosciences and human sciences is variously construed as either an ‘experiment,’ ‘inquiry,’ ‘participant-observation,’ ‘philosophy,’ or ‘science’ at any given point.

However, for Holland, this ambiguity is problematic in the sense that philosophical ideas – Rabinow and Bennett draw primarily on John Dewey – are conflated with the practice of, in this case, anthropology and ethnography. Following this, the significance of distinguishing philosophical ideas and scientific practices as causally-related allows Holland to develop a coherent (sociological) theory of knowledge production – as outlined in Chapter 3 of his book.

Thus, in light of the complexity of the scientific and ethical objects inherent to the emerging field of synthetic biology – in conjunction with the particular constraints depicted throughout Rabinow’s and Bennett’s attempt to ‘invent a new way of working’ within and across the human sciences and biosciences – the questions and concepts deployed by critical realists provide a novel way for re-conceptualising the problems of collaborative research and interdisciplinary knowledge production whilst clarifying, more broadly, our understanding of ontological depth and the nature of the complexity of reality.

Jared Commerer is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). His honours research examined notions of interdisciplinarity and critical theory in the sub-field of medical anthropology, and his current interests include political anthropology, the intersection of anthropological theory and critical realist philosophy, and the anthropology of resistance, war, and violence. Jared’s PhD research is centered on human rights abuses in Eritrea and the transnational activist groups that are geared toward addressing such issues. For more information visit

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