Ashley Dawson Explores the Uncertain Promises of Synthetic Biology

Ashley Dawson’s paper “Biocapitalism and Culture” – the subject of the Environments and Societies colloquium on March 4 – addresses how synthetic biology (SynBio) operates in a time of environmental crisis and the crisis of capitalist accumulation.

Dawson is a Professor of English at the Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, and he is part of the Social Text editorial collective and former editor of Social Text online.

In his paper, Dawson explains that SynBio “allows scientists to engage in novel and extreme forms of genetic engineering. … Rather than swapping existing genes from one species to another, scientists can now write entirely new genetic code on a computer, print it out using a 3D laser printer, and insert it into living organisms – or even create brand new forms of life.”

Dawson points to the contemporary contradiction of mass extinction (the rapid disappearance of unique species) and de-extinction (the promise of resurrecting charismatic extinct animals, like Wooly Mammoths, from DNA fragments) as an example of how SynBio offers a curative to capitalism’s depletion of the biological world.

At a time when SynBio offers the vision of an inexhaustible future, where new life is made and re-made through genetic “biobricks” in international competitions like iGem, Dawson reminds us to be skeptical of such novelty and promise.

Using the examples of Patricia Piccinini’s sculpture “The Young Family” and Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, Dawson draws attention to how art is distinct from institutionalized forms of critique (like bioethics) in its ability to place the promise of SynBio in a “longer lineage of the colonial appropriation of the biological commons in the global south.”

"The Young Family," Patricia Piccinini

"The Young Family," Patricia Piccinini

At the colloquium event, Dawson’s paper was framed by comments and questions from faculty commentator Hsuan Hsu (English) and graduate student Katja Jylkka (English). Jylkka brought attention to the figure of the pig, which Dawson argued is the “ideal form of biocapital”: pigs are biomodels for human biology and biotechnology, in farming and agriculture pig bodies are machines used to create more wealth through large litters, and pigs are also subject to a range of negative cultural associations, which further separates them from humanity.

In these human-pig relations, according to Dawson, it is quite possible for people to use pigs in a range of experimental biological functions “without feeling any kinship or ethical responsibility for transgenic pigs themselves.”

Hsu noted the role of form and genre – like satire, fiction, and art – in orienting responses to biocapitalism. Hsu joined Dawson in a critique of the apolitical work of bioethicists, proposing the question “what would an anti-imperialist bioethics look like?”

This Environments & Societies colloquium generated several questions from the group – on topics of biocapitalism, of a specifically feminist dimension to the accumulation of bios, of biopower in the global south, and on the fantastical creatures and speculative futures evoked by synthetic biology.

Visit Environments & Societies for a calendar of future colloquia and your chance to be involved in the conversation.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies