256 pages, 16 b/w illustrations
In the final years of the twentieth century, émigrés from engineering and computer science devoted themselves to biology and resolved that if the aim of biology is to understand life, then making life would yield better theories than experimentation. Armed with the latest biotechnology techniques, these scientists treated biological media as elements for design and manufacture: viruses named for computers, bacterial genomes encoding passages from James Joyce, chimeric yeast buckling under the metabolic strain of genes harvested from wormwood, petunias, and microbes from Icelandic thermal pools.
In Synthetic: How Life Got Made, cultural anthropologist Sophia Roosth reveals how synthetic biologists make new living things in order to understand better how life works. The first book-length ethnographic study of this discipline, Synthetic documents the social, cultural, rhetorical, economic, and imaginative transformations biology has undergone in the post-genomic age. Roosth traces this new science from its origins at MIT to start-ups, laboratories, conferences, and hackers' garages across the United States – even to contemporary efforts to resurrect extinct species. Her careful research reveals that rather than opening up a limitless new field, these biologists' own experimental tactics circularly determine the biological features, theories, and limits they fasten upon. Exploring the life sciences emblematic of our time, Synthetic tells the origin story of the astonishing claim that biological making fosters biological knowing
"In Synthetic, talented science historian Roosth describes her observations of the field's early evolution [...] Roosth's approach sparks deep questions about the nature of life."
"Synthetic offers a writerly assemblage of our synthetic moment, where densely evocative analytical contributions and cognitive fireworks are juxtaposed with intimate confessions, all in the poetry of contemporary ethnography."
"[A] close-up, wide-angle study of synthetic biologists that tries to understand their perspective on both life and the act of creating it [...] Roosth is after the meaning of life in synthetic biology."
– Daniel Liu, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
"Synthetic is essential reading for anyone wanting to know what's been going on in the exciting and disturbing world of synthetic biology. But it's much more than that. It addresses the current state of a long-standing cultural argument about the conditions in which you can know the world. Does the artificial belong to a different order from the natural, or, as synthetic biologists now maintain, can you only know what you can make? The result is both brilliant anthropology and vivid reporting from the research front."
– Steven Shapin, author of The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation
"This is stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing reading, which combines ethnographic richness with sophisticated theoretical reflection. Every chapter of Roosth's book will challenge you to think about the topic of synthetic biology in new and refreshing ways."
– Jane Calvert, author of Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology's Designs on Nature
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Sophia Roosth is the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor for history of science at Harvard University.