Read an Excerpt from “Nature Remade: Engineering Life, Envisioning Worlds”

June 23, 2021
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For well over a century, the Marine Biological Laboratory has been a nexus of scientific discovery, a site where scientists and students from around the world have convened to innovate, guide, and shape our understanding of biology and its evolutionary and ecological dynamics. As work at the MBL continuously radiates over vast temporal and spatial scales, the very practice of science has also been shaped by the MBL community, which continues to have a transformative impact the world over. The Convening Science series highlights the ongoing role MBL plays in the creation and dissemination of science, in its broader historic context as well as current practice and future potential. Books in the series will be broadly conceived and defined, but each will be anchored to MBL, originating in workshops and conferences, inspired by MBL collections and archives, or influenced by conversations and creativity that MBL fosters in every scientist or student who convenes at the Woods Hole campus.

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Publishing this July, Nature Remade: Engineering Life, Envisioning Worlds is the fourth installment in Convening Science. In it, fourteen original essays trace material practices of the engineering of biology from the development of field sites for experimentation to the new frontiers of synthetic biology, each demonstrating how tinkering with life entails the (re)making of both biological and social order. Read on for an excerpt from the introduction by editors Luis A. Campos, Michael R. Dietrich, Tiago Saraiva, and Christian C. Young.

“Engineering” has firmly taken root in the entangled bank of biology even as proposals to remake the living world have sent tendrils in every direction, and at every scale. Nature Remade explores these complex prospects from a resolutely historical approach—tracing cases across the decades of the long twentieth century that span the many levels at which life has been engineered—molecule, cell, organism, population, ecosystem, and planet.

When biologists have (re)made nature, either they have gained knowledge of life that has entailed its engineering, or their attempts to engineer life have posited new ideas of what can be known. Both efforts have been intertwined with visions of a better world and efforts to remake living systems. But, like all reconstructions of the world, the engineering of life was never simply a technical question. Every effort at remaking nature around us—even those most seemingly future-oriented efforts extending to the Earth itself and beyond—inescapably occurs in a particular social and political milieu. Tracing material practices of the engineering of biology through concrete historical cases ranging from the development of field sites for experimentation of new test organisms to the hybridization of game species and wildlife conservation, or from the development of genetic modification to the new frontiers of synthetic biology, highlights how tinkering with life entails the (re)making of both biological and social order.

Divided into three parts, the cases considered in Nature Remade interrogate the control technologies channeling life’s expression, suppression, and interaction; offer examples of the material practices and infrastructures involved in (re)making living forms in the laboratory and in the field; and envision the possible futures produced as a result. The three parts of Nature Remade focus on themes of control and reproduction, knowing as making, and envisioning.

While there are many scholarly works on the technological dimensions of biological research, none deliberately contrast different historical approaches to engineering life at different scales, in different biological systems, and in varied social contexts. More than a mere metaphor for a kind of biological practice, engineering ideals and practices have had multiple realizations across generations of biologists in different subdisciplines. Paying attention to these many dimensions of the engineering of life makes it possible to write the history of biology in ambitious ways, which are also, importantly, more accessible to general historians.

As engineers, biologists have manipulated model organisms in elaborate laboratory experiments to unveil hereditary mechanisms; they have produced viruses at industrial scale to discover vaccines; they study and conserve wildlife using surveillance technologies. Discovery and understanding in the history of the life sciences are inseparable from manipulation, modification, industrial production, control, and maintenance—all activities within the realm 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 the life sciences. Paul Rabinow (1992), when discussing the Human Genome Project, had already called attention to the importance of considering its technological features beyond the simple recognition that it made intensive use of machinery. He preferred to emphasize how the project exemplified a form of knowledge that produced its own object of research, a seminal approach for many science studies scholars. In this volume, we seek to understand not just the importance of making use of technologies in biological research, but also the wider historical significance of considering the engineering framework in modern attempts at (re)making life. Taking the engineering of life seriously—as motivator, ideal, and lived reality—highlights how engineering approaches enact new forms of knowing life as well as new sociotechnical imaginaries.

Conceptualizing organisms as technical systems—reworking their physiology, their mode or manner of reproduction, their genetic legacies—has been at the forefront both of new biological discoveries and of new means for entraining biological systems for human-desired purposes for over a century. As the Nobel Prize–winning geneticist H. J. Muller once noted, “the duty of biology” was not only to “make us all healthy, vigorous, and happy” but also “to study, to understand, and to reach into the heart of the organic world and refashion this radically to man’s own advantage.” Philip Pauly (1987) famously referred to the “biological modernism” of the early twentieth century, in which life scientists’ work was determined by “the framework of engineering.” Building on Muller’s claims, Pauly’s insight, and adding cues from engineering studies and history of technology, we attempt an updated and fuller exploration of how attention to engineering can open new and ambitious ways for writing histories of biology. In addition to the more obvious dialogue with the vast body of literature dedicated to the material dimensions of knowledge production in biology referred above, this engineering focus allows us to engage more unexpected literatures such as those crossing environmental history and science and technology studies (STS). As suggested by Sara B. Pritchard (2013), the “broad temporal and spatial scales” typical of environmental historians’ narratives have challenged STS scholars who tend to be more site-bounded to engage with topics like imperialism, slavery, or industrialization. Our full embracing of engineering in this volume aims at producing analogous effects for history of biology.

Fourteen contributions from the history of science, STS, environmental history, and art and design cohere in this volume, engaging the centrality of engineering for understanding and imagining modern life.

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Some readers might take such artistic intervention as a critique of the engineering motive 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 of engaging seriously the history of engineering in order to rethink the history of biology one should acknowledge that romantic notions of the sublime that historically challenged simplistic versions of human progress were put forward not only by poets and musicians. As a prolific historiography dedicated to romantic science and technology of the first half of the nineteenth century has suggested, engineering practices should also be understood as romantic cultural interventions aimed at exploring new forms of feeling: steam engines were also romantic machines through which one could experience the underlying unity of movement and heat, the underlying unity of nature sung by romantic poets of the sublime. More prosaically, engineers designed elaborate urban parks staging ruins of bygone civilizations in the middle of carefully cultivated nature. More than artists reacting to the futures put forward by biologists as engineers, we are faced with a continuum of practices in which art and engineering are braided in experimenting with our common future.


Nature Remade is available now! Find it on our website, online at any major booksellers, or at your local bookstore.

Luis A. Campos is Regents’ Lecturer and associate professor of the 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. Most recently, he is coeditor 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 Organisms and the History of Fascism. Christian C. Young is professor of biology at Alverno College. Most recently, he is coeditor of Evolution and Creationism: A Documentary and Reference Guide.

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