New chapter on “idiots” in the synthetic biology landscape

Last September I participated in a workshop led by the European Academy on the Societal Implications of Synthetic Biology in Berlin. The leaders of our workshop had the bright idea of turning our contributions into a book, and although these ideas are tossed around a lot with good intention but often little return, I’m happy to be able to now say that this one did come to fruition. I am grateful to our editors and to the other contributors – my colleagues from the workshop – for pulling through and making it happen.

The book is called:

Ambivalences of Creating Life
Societal and Philosophical Dimensions of Synthetic Biology

Editors: Hagen, Kristin, Engelhard, Margret, Toepfer, Georg (Eds.)

About this book (from the publisher):

“Synthetic biology” is the label of a new technoscientific field with many different facets and agendas. One common aim is to “create life”, primarily by using engineering principles to design and modify biological systems for human use. In a wider context, the topic has become one of the big cases in the legitimization processes associated with the political agenda to solve global problems with the aid of (bio-)technological innovation. Conceptual-level and meta-level analyses are needed: we should sort out conceptual ambiguities to agree on what we talk about, and we need to spell out agendas to see the disagreements clearly.
The book is based on the interdisciplinary summer school “Analyzing the societal dimensions of synthetic biology”, which took place in Berlin in September 2014.
The contributions address controversial discussions around the philosophical examination, public perception, moral evaluation and governance of synthetic biology.

My chapter is called:

Public Engagement in Synthetic Biology: “Experts”, “Diplomats” and the Creativity of “Idiots”. Sounds a little weird, right? I have the Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers to thank for those terms.

You can read a little more about the gist of the chapter below.


This chapter is an attempt to inspire experimentation with approaches to public engagement about emerging technologies, and takes synthetic biology as a primary site of interest. It does this at a time when the roles of critical scholars in the social sciences and humanities are becoming increasingly well documented for the contributions they make to how synthetic biology is discussed and understood through interdisciplinary collaborations. At the same time, practitioners of diverse forms of public engagement such as artists, designers, and DIYbiologists are not often (though are sometimes) explicitly involved in these collaborative assemblages, despite their abilities to contribute to a diversity of communications within and outside of the field. I connect the communication lessons being learned from interdisciplinary collaborations to public engagement practices on the basis of a “need for experimentation,” that is sometimes more visibly exercised by artists, designers and DIYbiologists. I then use writings from philosopher Isabelle Stengers about the abilities of “expert”, “diplomat”, and “idiot” figures to enable the slowing down of thinking in relation to scientific and technological advances in order to explore such “experimentation” in communication. Stengers’ ideas are connected to public engagement in synthetic biology through creative and “experimental” communication practices that open up rather than close down questions about the field. I argue that public engagement practitioners and science communicators who want to slow down the – at times, misguided – public narratives of synthetic biology can look to controversies in interdisciplinary collaborations, and artistic activities in the field, for examples of communications that strive to create space for emergent, rather than decided, narratives about the field.