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45 Valparaiso University Law Review 1343 (2011)


This article urges a cautious approach to assessing the promises of synthetic biology based on broad political and economic concerns rather than technical ones. Specifically, I mark three related dynamics which place the current buzz around synthetic biology in a broader context. These dynamics are not necessarily distinctive to synthetic biology, but perhaps for that very reason, they may carry added weight. First, is the place of synthetic biology as the latest entry in the procession of what I call the “receding horizons of biotechnological promise.” Second, is the excitement generated by the related promise of finding seemingly direct technological fixes for otherwise complex and messy social and political problems. Third, the resulting tendency to locate such technological fixes in the marketplace which then leads to a (re)allocation of scarce public goods toward market-oriented solutions to common problems that might be more appropriately and equitably addressed through public initiatives.

This article, then, is less an examination of the promise and perils of synthetic biology per se and more of a cautionary examination of the challenges presented by the claims made on behalf of synthetic biology. It does not critique the technology as such, nor is it meant to be understood as science-bashing in any way. Rather, I aim to locate claims made on behalf of an emerging technology in their social and political context. Science is more than just theories and applications developed in the lab. It is also a social enterprise that makes demands on people and institutions outside the lab. In the regard, my basic concern here is to re-frame or move beyond existing debates over the ethical implication of synthetic biology for society in general, and consider more specifically, the ethical implications of the impact pursuing synthetic biology might have upon other technologies and policies meant to address similar problems.