Read an excerpt from “Nature Remade: Engineering Life, Envisioning Worlds” | Chicago Blog
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Released in July, Nature remade: engineering of life, vision of worlds is the fourth installment of Convening Science. In it, fourteen original essays trace the material practices of the engineering of biology from the development of field experimentation sites to the new frontiers of synthetic biology, each demonstrating how tinkering with life involves the (re ) fabrication of biological and social order. Read on for an excerpt from the introduction from editors Luis A. Campos, Michael R. Dietrich, Tiago Saraiva, and Christian C. Young.
“Engineering” has become firmly entrenched in the tangled bank of biology even as proposals to remake the living world have sent tendrils in all directions and on all scales. Nature remade explores these complex perspectives from a decidedly historical approach, tracing cases across the decades of the long twentieth century that span the many levels at which life was conceived – molecule, cell, organism, population, ecosystem and planet.
When biologists (re) created nature, they either acquired a knowledge of life which resulted in its engineering, or their attempts at life engineering posed new ideas about what can be known. Both efforts have been intertwined with visions of a better world and efforts to recreate living systems. But, like all reconstructions in the world, the engineering of life has never been just a technical matter. Every effort to remake the nature around us, even the most seemingly future-oriented efforts extending to Earth itself and beyond, inevitably occurs in a particular social and political setting. Trace the material practices of engineering of biology through concrete historical cases ranging from the development of field sites for the experimentation of new test organisms to the hybridization of game and wildlife species, or the development of genetic modification at the new frontiers of synthetic biology, highlights how tinkering with life involves (re) ordering both biological and social.
Divided into three parts, the cases considered in Nature remade interrogate the control technologies channeling the expression, suppression and interaction of life; offer examples of material practices and infrastructures involved in the (re) creation of living things in the laboratory and in the field; and imagine the possible futures that result from it. The three parts of Nature remade focus on themes of control and reproduction, know how to do, and consider.
While there is a great deal of academic work on the technological dimensions of biological research, none deliberately opposes different historical approaches to the engineering of life at different scales, in different biological systems, and in different social contexts. More than just a metaphor for some kind of biological practice, engineering ideals and practices have had multiple achievements across generations of biologists in different sub-disciplines. The attention paid to these multiple dimensions of living engineering makes it possible to write the history of biology in an ambitious way, but also, and above all, more accessible to general historians.
As engineers, biologists have manipulated model organisms in elaborate laboratory experiments to uncover hereditary mechanisms; they produced viruses on an industrial scale to discover vaccines; they study and conserve wildlife using surveillance technologies. Discovery and understanding in the history of life sciences are inseparable from handling, modification, industrial production, control and maintenance, all activities falling within the field of engineering. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s “experimental systems” (1997) or Hannah Landecker’s “living matter as technological matter” (2010) are exemplary cases of scholarship exploring the material dimensions of knowledge production in science. life. Paul Rabinow (1992), discussing the Human Genome Project, had already drawn attention to the importance of considering its technological characteristics beyond the mere recognition that it made heavy use of machines. He preferred to highlight how the project illustrated a form of knowledge that produced its own research object, a seminal approach for many science researchers. In this volume, we seek to understand not only the importance of the use of technologies in biological research, but also the broader historical importance of the consideration of the engineering framework in modern attempts to (re) create life. Taking life engineering seriously – as a motivator, ideal and lived reality – highlights how engineering approaches bring into play new forms of life knowledge as well as new socio-technical imaginaries.
Conceptualizing organisms as technical systems – reworking their physiology, mode or mode of reproduction, their genetic heritages – has been at the forefront of both new biological discoveries and new ways of training biological systems to ends desired by man for more than a century. As Nobel Prize-winning geneticist HJ Muller once noted, “the duty of biology” was not only “to” make us all healthy, vigorous, and happy, “but also” to study, understand and to reach the heart of the organic world and radically reshape it for the benefit of man. Philip Pauly (1987) referred to the “biological modernism” of the early 20th century, in which the work of life scientists was determined by “the framework of engineering”. Building on Muller’s assertions, Pauly’s insight, and adding clues from engineering studies and the history of technology, we attempt an updated and more comprehensive exploration of how the attention paid engineering can open up new and ambitious avenues for writing biology stories. In addition to the more obvious dialogue with the vast body of literature devoted to the material dimensions of the production of knowledge in biology mentioned above, this engineering axis allows us to engage in more unexpected literatures such as those crossing the history of environment and scientific and technological studies (STS). As suggested by Sara B. Pritchard (2013), the “broad temporal and spatial scales” typical of accounts by environmental historians have challenged STS researchers who tend to be more site-limited to engage on subjects such as imperialism, slavery or industrialization. Our full embrace of engineering in this volume aims to produce analogous effects for the history of biology.
Fourteen contributions from the history of science, STS, environmental history, art and design are articulated in this volume, engaging the centrality of engineering to understand and imagine modern life.
Some readers might view such an artistic intervention as a critique of the engineering motif in the life sciences, following the lines of traditional oppositions between what engineers do and artistic reactions to it. But if one embraces the methodological proposal of this volume to seriously engage the history of engineering in order to rethink the history of biology, it must be recognized that the romantic notions of the sublime which historically challenged simplistic versions of progress human have been put forward not only by poets and musicians. As a prolific historiography devoted to romantic science and technology from the first half of the 19th century has suggested, engineering practices must also be understood as romantic cultural interventions aimed at exploring new forms of feeling: machines. steamers were also romantic machines through which one could experience the underlying unity of movement and heat, the underlying unity of nature sung by the romantic poets of the sublime. More prosaically, engineers designed elaborate city parks featuring ruins of bygone civilizations amidst carefully cultivated nature. More than artists reacting to the futures proposed by biologists as engineers, we are faced with a continuum of practices where art and engineering weave together to experience our common future.
Nature remade is available now! Find it on our website, online at any major bookstore or at your local bookstore.
Luis A. Campos is a Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor of History of Science at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of Radium and the secret of life, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Michael R. Dietrich is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. More recently, he is co-editor of Dreamers, visionaries and revolutionaries in the life sciences, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Tiago Saraiva is Associate Professor of History at Drexel University. He is the author of Fascist pigs: technoscientific organizations and the history of fascism. Christian C. Young is professor of biology at Alverno College. More recently, he is co-editor of Evolution and Creationism: A Documentary and Reference Guide.