The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Enframing the World II:

Design for a Philosophy of Biotechnology

Harry Hillman Chartrand

Presented to the

Biotech & Society Seminar Series

College of Biotechnology,

University of Saskatchewan, October 25, 2005



In the paper I demonstrate that knowledge about biotechnology and its causes (or a philosophy of biotechnology) should, following Michael Polanyi, include focal as well as subsidiary knowledge.  Focal knowledge concerns the tools, standards and techniques or praxis of biotechnology.  Subsidiary knowledge concerns the context in which praxis takes place.  Focal knowledge, for purposes of the paper, includes biotechnology as an enabling technology & general purpose tool and as a form of instrumental realism working with epistemic objects.  Subsidiary knowledge, for purposes of the paper, includes biotechnology’s location in the causal hierarchy from the geosphere to the biosphere to the noösphere; its status in economics and law; and, its ethics including the problem of dirty hands and its position relative to religion.  With respect to the causes of biotechnology, it is demonstrated that as ‘biology’, biotechnology is subject to what Kant called ‘natural purpose’ reflecting the play of formal and final cause.  As technology, it involves enframing and enabling the environment to serve human purpose cum Heidegger.  This is the technological imperative.  It is also, however, demonstrated to be a biological imperative of the species, i.e., not only to adapt to an environment but to adapt the environment to our wants, needs and desires.  Arguably, therefore, biotechnology involves the redirection of natural to serve human purpose. 


1.0 Introduction                                                                             

1.01         I begin with the first word of my title ‘enframing’ which, as it happens, also defines its last word - technology.  Enframing is the essence of technology according to Martin Heidegger, father of post-Marxian philosophy of technology (1955).    Humanity enframes and thereby enables its environment making it ready at hand as a standing reserve to serve human purpose.  This is the technological imperative.  It is also, as will be seen, a biological imperative of our species.

1.02         The third word of the title, ‘world’, has three dictionary meanings as: “I. Human existence; a period of this… II. The earth or a region of it; the universe or a part of it… [and,]… III. The inhabitants of the earth, or a section of them” (OED, world, n).   For my purposes, however, I will define the world as composed of the three spheres of theoretical biology.  These are: (i) the geosphere, the world of physics and mechanics; (ii) the biosphere, the world of biology and life; and, (iii) the noösphere, the world of human thought and ideology.   Ideology is, however, like technology on a higher plane.  It enframes and enables us but instead of matter and energy it enframes human thought – scientific, religious, economic, political, et al.  It makes ready at hand pathways of communication between minds.

1.03         ‘Design’, the fourth word of my title, brings me back to Heidegger and his argument that the essence of the contemporary world is objectivity resulting from the triumph of ‘representation’ in the arts since the Renaissance and in the sciences since Descartes in the 17th century.   In effect, it is our ability to model or imitate nature, especially using mathematics or in the case of the visual arts of the Renaissance, geometry, that brings certainty of knowledge and perspective.  Through representation everything in and of the world is brought before us from the perspective of object.   Such representation is, of course, the product of Design.  The result, according to Heidegger, is that we live in “The Age of the World Picture” (Heidegger 1938).  This iconic conclusion is also found in the natural and engineering sciences where confirmation through picture or graph literally means ‘seeing is believing’ constituting what Idhe calls “instrumental realism” (Idhe 1991).

1.04         The seventh word, ‘philosophy’, means love of knowledge or “knowledge of things and their causes, whether theoretical or practical” (OED, philosophy, n, 1a).  It is primarily with respect to ‘causes’ that I focus.   To Aristotle, there were four causes: material, efficient, formal and final.  Arguably, the geosphere is governed by material and efficient causes, i.e., when-then or billiard-ball causality.  In the biosphere, however, formal and final causes or ‘causality by purpose’ rules while in the noösphere all four are at play.

1.05         ‘Bio-’, the ninth word of my title, or rather word fragment, refers, of course, to ‘biology’, the science of life.   It is one of the three elemental natural sciences, the others being chemistry and physics.  Arguably, chemistry bridges the gap between the inorganic world of physics and mechanics, i.e., the geosphere, and that of the life sciences, i.e., the biosphere.  In this regard, Stuart Kauffman (2000) argues that life is the natural outcome of chemical complexity, i.e., the tendency of inorganic matter to react chemically leads, given the proper environmental conditions, to increasingly complex molecular structures that inevitably lead to life.  In this regard, while it was Immanuel Kant who gave us our modern concept of causality as cause-and-effect, he also saw in the complexity of life a form of causality so complicated that he claimed there could never be a Newton of a blade of grass (Grene & Depew 2004).   Arguably, biotechnology will prove him wrong.

Having introduced my principal terms I now turn to the design of a philosophy of biotechnology drawing from the philosophies of aesthetics, biology, science and technology for nutrients as well as from economics and law.   I begin by asking: What is Design?


2.0 Design

2.01         “The tradition that there is a non-rational kind of knowing that rivals or even surpasses rational knowledge is as old as philosophy itself” (Dorter 1990, 37).  These two realms – the rational and non-rational – have been at odds since the beginning of Western thought.  And while the rational is embodied in our contemporary concept of Science, the non-rational has remained a wraith taking many forms, assuming many names and evading systemic identification.  To Plato it was Art or, more properly, techne; to the Church Fathers it was Revelation; to the Scholastics it was analogy; to Adam Smith, it was moral sentiments; to Kant, it was productive imagination; to Michael Polanyi, it was subsidiary or tacit knowledge; to Thomas Kuhn, it was aesthetics, gestalt switching or intuition with “scales falling from the eyes”, “lightning flash” and “illumination” (Kuhn 1996, 155, 111, 123, respectively).  To Erich Jantsch, it was Design (1975). 

2.02         Design is a complex of human capabilities that finds highest abstract expression in aesthetic/intellectual/spiritual experience and highest concrete expression in works of aesthetic and “technological intelligence” (Aldrich 1969, 381).  In brief, it invokes pattern construction and recognition.  It is, however, linked to a form of causality utterly rejected by physics and any positivistic philosophy of science – teleology: “the doctrine or study of ends or final causes” (OED, teleology).   It is also linked to the European Renaissance.  When the Renaissance artist/engineer/humanist/scientist applied the newly invented ‘perspective’ they successfully approximated the original (natural or ancient).  The Arts, specifically the visual arts, ascended to a higher epistemic status and the visual artist attained celebrity as ‘genius’.   Recognition reflected, however, not just the results but also the method: geometric perspective.  The Renaissance genius was a geometer, a mathematician, an image captured in Dürer’s 1514 engraving of Melancolia holding a protractor in his right hand and his chin supported by his left, a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s much later statue The Thinker (1880).  

2.03         Design is about purpose and intent.  As noted above, among his many contributions Immanual Kant (1724–1804) established, as a law of nature, that the formal notion of the if-then relationship corresponds to the concept of cause and effect and that there is a single direction to causality, i.e., Time’s Arrow only moves from cause to effect, from the past into the present and then out into the future by means of prediction (Grene & Depew 2004, 93-4).  This law, however, was limited by Kant to matter defined as lifeless stuff (objects) pushed or pulled by measurable forces through space/time, i.e., the geosphere.  This limitation was required because it was apparent to Kant that material and efficient causes (cause and effect) were insufficient to explain living things, i.e., biology. 

2.04         Kant addressed the question of biology in his Critique of Judgement (1790) which is divided into two parts.  The first is the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment”; the second, the “Critique of Teleological Judgment”.  The ordering is important.  While works of technological intelligence, or artifacts, have purpose, works of aesthetic intelligence have purposiveness or meaningfulness but no purpose, i.e., no utilitarian function.

2.05         There were three aspects of living things that demonstrated to Kant that teleological or final causes were at play.  I will call these: ecology, metabolism and ontogeny.  First, he could see that the web of mutually supportive relationships between various species of plants and animals constituting an ecological community was so complex that linear ‘when-then’ causality was simply insufficient to explain its existence.  Second, in the metabolism of living things “each part is reciprocally means and end to every other.  This involves a mutual dependence and simultaneity that is difficult to reconcile with ordinary causality” (Grene & Depew 2004, 94).  Third, in ontogeny, or development of the individual, the future mature end-state apparently guides successive stages of development.  This is a clear case of formal and final cause.

2.06         Having found teleological processes in living things Kant was concerned to distinguish between Design and designer.  This is, of course, a question that continues to trouble contemporary society.  To do so, Kant distinguished between works of technological intelligence and living things.  Quite simply, parts of a machine are put together by people and parts do not bring other parts into existence, i.e., a machine is not a self-organizing entity.   By contrast: an organism is “a product of nature in which everything is both an end and also a means” and in which the parts are “reciprocally cause and effect of [one another’sl form.” (Grene & Depew 2004, 98-99)

2.07         For Kant all works of technological intelligence are finally caused by human purpose.  Living things, however, do not require human or divine purpose but rather reflect a ‘natural purpose’.  Kant called this form of causality purposiveness.  He was so convinced of the inherent complexity of living things that he claimed:

it is absurd for human beings even to attempt it, or to hope that perhaps some day another Newton might arise who would explain to us, in terms of natural laws [cause and effect] unordered by any intention, how even a mere blade of grass is produced. (quoted in Grene & Depew, 2004, 94).

As will be argued below, this ‘natural purpose’ may in fact be reducible to chemistry through a fourth law of thermodynamics tentatively proposed by Kauffman (2000).  The tendency towards molecular coevolution finds ultimate expression in DNA, the object of the emerging science of genomics and of biotechnology.  According to Kauffman, this law ascends upwards through both the biosphere and noösphere, e.g., into what he calls “the persistently innovative econosphere” (2000, 211-241).

2.08         Today, Design is also operative in psychology, economics and engineering.  With respect to psychology, the compositional unity identified by Baumgarten’s 18th century philosophy of aesthetics - his new science of sensuous knowledge to balance logic as the science of intellectual knowledge (Kristeller 1952, 35) - arguably led to the formation of a new school of psychology in the 20th century.  Gestalt psychology was founded by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler in Germany in the early 20th century (Köhler 1959).  The word gestalt derives from the German meaning “a ‘shape’, ‘configuration’, or ‘structure’ which as an object of perception forms a specific whole or unity incapable of expression simply in terms of its parts (e.g. a melody in distinction from the notes that make it up)” (OED, gestalt).  If one looks at a tree one sees a whole, an entity, not a composite of leaves, branches, trunk and root.  If one shifts attention to a part, the whole is lost from view.  In effect, it is perception (knowledge) without reflection or projection.  By reflection I mean interpretation or ‘thinking about’ the meaning of the image.  By projection I mean ‘reading into’ the image an ex poste interpreted meaning.  Or, as Jung says: “image and meaning are identical; and as the first takes shape, so the latter becomes clear.  Actually, the pattern needs no interpretation: it portrays its own meaning” (quoted in Hillman 1980, 37).  Here is knowledge without reason.  Any attempt to analyze it, i.e., to reduce a work to its component elements, sacrifices knowledge of the whole.  Analysis is reductionism, not composition.

2.09         In economics, Nathan Rosenberg has made explicit and extensive use of Design in his studies of innovation  and ‘the black box’ (1974, 1976, 1994).  He also complains about “academic snobbery” regarding “matters involving ‘hardware,’ including techniques of instrumentation, [that] are often dismissed as constituting an inferior form of knowledge” (Rosenberg 1994, 156).  Similarly, Dasgupta and David identify the concept of “technological knowledge” which they argue should not “be assigned a subordinate epistemological status” to scientific knowledge, i.e., that derived by linear cause and effect (Dasgupta & David 1994, 494). 

2.10         Ekkehart Schlicht, for his part, identifies pattern recognition as the means by which human institutions, customs and traditions are formed and maintained.  These emerge, he argues, according to “rule preference” which “is of an essentially aesthetic nature” (Schlicht 2000, 40).  Schilicht also notes that “customs, habits, and routines provide the bedrock for many economic and social formations yet our understanding of the processes that underlie the growth and decay of customs is very limited.  The theory of social evolution has hardly commenced to evolve” (Schlicht 2000, 33).  

2.11         Brian Loasby (2003), in turn, replaces the calculatory rationalism of marginalist economics with pattern recognition.  The energy efficiency of pattern recognition compared to continuous calculation has, in evolutionary terms, made pattern recognition the dominant mode of human knowing according to Loasby.  In the simplest terms, pattern recognition is dependent on the quality not the quantity of data.  It is relational not reductive.  According to Loasby, such patterns form ‘connections’ altering the structure of the brain itself.  Such patterns also characterize human behaviour which, when followed by many individuals, becomes what Loasby calls ‘routines’ or I call ‘institutions’, i.e., routinized patterns of collective human behaviour.

2.12         With respect to engineering, Edwin Layton stresses Design as a form of knowledge distinct from Science and highlights the central role it plays in engineering (Layton 1974).  In fact, the earliest expression of engineering knowledge in the West takes the form of design portfolios and the “natural units of study of engineering design resemble the iconographic themes of the art historian” (Layton 1976, 698).  Derek De Solla Price similarly notes that what I call ‘tooled knowledge’ appears first as an artifact which must then be transliterated into a written format that has the “savour of the antiquarian” (Price 1965, 565-566).   Price also highlights the distinct cognitive impact of scientific instruments compared to reason and theory.  This is captured in his description of the impact of Galileo’s telescope as “artificial revelation” (Price 1984, 9).  In fact, works of technological intelligence are recognized or ‘known’ by their function, purpose or intent (Polanyi 1962a).  In the philosophy of technology this sense is captured by ‘instrumental realism’ (Idhe 1991) and ‘instrumental epistemology’ (Baird 2004).  Baird, for his part, explicitly identifies the “design paradigm as the most promising recent development in the epistemology of technology” (Baird 2004, 149).

2.13         Arguably, technology represents the ultimate in human Design.  As Heidegger (1955) suggests technology enframes and enables human life.  In effect, it constructs a distinct human ecology growing ever more distant from Nature as the knowledge explosion continues to expand.  Consider coming home from the office in a car, unlocking the door to the house, turning on the lights, making supper using appliances, watching television, checking one’s email then driving to the local mall to shop.  All is technology.  Technology enframes and enables us, defines and patterns life in the human ecology.  And technology is Design which, perhaps, can satisfy Kauffman’s hope “to glimpse a constructivist companion to the reductionist thesis” (Kauffman 2000, 268).


3.0 Science

3.01         The unprecedented evolutionary ascent of our species to global dominion, achieved in some twenty-five generations, arguably resulted from the institutionalization of a new way of knowing - the experimental method, or, as it was originally known, ‘experimental philosophy’.   Today, it should be called ‘experimental instrumental science’.   Developed by craftsmen of the late or High Middle Ages of the western European civilization (Zilsel 1945), it was first fully articulated by a late Renaissance genius, Sir Francis Bacon in his Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Humane, published in 1605.  According to Bacon, human dominion was to be achieved by reducing Nature’s complexity through instrumentally controlled experimental conditions forcing her to reveal her secrets.  She did.

3.02         Since the beginning of Western civilization, logic has been accepted as the preferred path to knowledge (Dorter 1990, 37).  It distances us from our passions; it frees us from the distracting world of sensation and emotion.  In the hands of the Romans the Greek logos became ‘reason’ derived from the Latin ‘ratio’ as in to calculate (OED, reason, n 1).  And from the Romans we derive Science from the Latin scire “to know” which, in turn, derives from scindere “to split” (MWO).  Science today is accepted as the epitome of reason deriving knowledge by splitting or reducing a question into smaller and smaller parts or elements until a fundamental unit or force is revealed, e.g., Bentham’s utile or Newton’s gravity.  Until innovation of the experimental instrumental scientific method, however, such splitting and reducing was restricted to words.

3.03         Reductionism extends to epistemology, i.e., the theory of knowledge.  Knowledge itself has been split into domains, disciplines, faculties and forms with an inevitable increase in incommensurability.  Reductionism has, however, a significant advantage.  It strips away secondary phenomena distinguishing cause from effect revealing, in the natural sciences underlying ‘laws of nature’ (Taylor 1929, 1930; Zilsel 1942).  Its metaphysical legitimacy rests on the testing of cause and effect, or when-then causality with Time’s Arrow moving out from the Past into the Present and then into the Future by way of prediction.

3.04         Arguably, Science is, however, but a special case of Design.  First, experimental instrumental science is, in fact, an organized and routinized pattern of human behaviour, an institution that has been called ‘The Republic of Science’ (Polany 1962b).  This pattern, however, crystallized only very recently (about four hundred years) and remains fragile (Kuhn 1996, 167-168).   This pattern of thought is in fact so recent that Joseph Henderson in his analysis of the four primary psycho-cultural attitudes - social, religious, aesthetic and philosophic – concludes: “we cannot claim for science… the same epistemological authenticity that we can demonstrate in the four basic cultural attitudes” (Henderson 1984, 77).  He suggests, however, that a ‘scientific attitude’ may be emerging as a hybrid of the philosophical attitude “to limit man’s subjectivity to a minimum in observing the nature of man or God” and aesthetic objectivity in “observing nature and man from a significant distance” (Henderson 1984, 77).  This aesthetic distancing, in the hands of the German poet Goethe in fact generated an alternative science.  Known as ‘Goethean Science’, it is exemplified in his Theory of Colours (Goethe 1810) written to refute Newton’s materialistic analysis.  The power and intensity of aesthetic observation is succinctly demonstrated therein.

3.05         Another facet of being a special case of a higher order is evidence of that higher order operating within the special case.  Sparkes thus concludes: “pattern recognition is undoubtedly a deeply ingrained human capability, and that it should be used for the kind of information processing which goes on in science seems beyond reasonable doubt” (Sparkes 1972, 41).  Similarly, the repeated use of the terms aesthetics, design, gestalt and intuition by Thomas Kuhn (1996) in explaining The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is also evidence of the operation of Design within Science itself.

3.07         In summary, experimental instrumental science is a special case of Design, an incredibly productive one in terms of generating knowledge about the geosphere and biosphere even if less productive with respect to the overall noösphere.  Arguably, its success can be attributed to three factors.  First is the Pythagorean Effect, i.e., exploitation of the cognate relationship between mathematics and the world of matter and energy.  Second is the Instrumentation Effect, i.e., scientific instruments generate evidence not requiring intermediation by a human subject and provide readings at, above and below the threshold of the native human senses.  In effect, this lends metaphysical legitimacy.  Scientific instruments in fact realize the Platonic “belief in a realm of entities, access to which requires mental powers that transcend sense perception” (Fuller 2000, 69).  Furthermore, the language of scientific sensors realizes another ancient Greek ideal, that of Pythagoras, by reporting nature by the numbers.  Third is the Puzzle-Solving Effect of paradigmatic ‘normal science’ (Kuhn 1996) which permits vertically deep insight into increasingly narrow questions, i.e., depth at the cost of breadth of vision.   Arguably, however, it is Science by Design that is at play in the sense that Science occurs by way of or is a progeny of Design.


4.0 Philosophy

4.01         Philosophy, in the dictionary, literally means love of knowledge or “knowledge of things and their causes, whether theoretical or practical” (OED, philosophy, n, 1a).   James Hillman, however, reminds us that to the ancient Greeks “philosophy begins in a philos arising in the heart of our blood” (Hillman 1981, 3) connecting us not to the level-headed Athena or Minerva but to her passionate sister, Aphrodite or Venus.  It also:

refers to Aphrodite in another way. For sophia originally means the skill of the craftsman... Sophia originates in and refers to the aesthetic hands of Daedalus and Hephaistos, who was of course conjoined with Aphrodite and so inherent in her nature... Aphrodite gives an archetypal background to the philosophy of “eachness” and the capacity of the heart to find “intimacy” with each particular event in a pluralistic cosmos.

Now the organ which perceives these faces is the heart.  The thought of the heart is physiognomic.  To perceive, it must imagine.  It must see shapes, forms, faces - angels, demons, creatures of every sort in things of any kind; thereby the heart’s thought personifies, ensouls, and animates the world.  (Hillman 1981, 30)

4.02         Hillman goes on to note that it was Aristotle who separated the meaning of philosophy from its aesthetic base giving it:

the abstract sense of “knowledge of highest objects” and “truth about first principles’”.... This split between wisdom and practical action still detrimentally determines all later Aristotelian-influenced metaphysics, whereas sophia originally implies that thought and action lie together in any single move of the aesthetic hand. (Hillman 1981, 30, ff 39)

4.03         Arguably, it this original linkage of thought and action that grounds Michael Polanyi’s philosophy of science, especially his masterwork Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy ([1958] 1962a).  It is therein that he introduces the concept of tacit knowledge which, today, lays at the heart of a public and private policy controversy concerning the knowledge-based economy (Cowan, David & Foray 2000) which intimately involves biotechnology (Cambrosio & Keating, 1988).  The conventional interpretation is that tacit knowledge involves knowing-how to do a task, i.e., “in any single move of the aesthetic hand” (Hillman 1981, 30, fn 39).   Such knowledge is tacit in that it cannot be codifed, i.e., written down.  It is involves practical action, not thought.  There is to my reading, as will be seen, much more to Polanyi’s meaning than is captured by this conventional interpretation.

 4.04        If we are to have “knowledge of things and their causes” specifically about biotechnology then on at least two levels we must account for Design.  First, the object is biology, i.e., living things and their processes, which exhibits Kantian ‘natural purpose’.  This purpose, according to Darwin, is survival and reproduction through natural selection.  To this Kauffman adds symbiotic coevolution including that of predator and prey, with each organism trying to make a living in the biosphere and/or econosphere (Kauffman 2000).  They exhibit purpose and intent. 

4.05         Second, biotechnology, as technology, involves enframing and enabling the environment to serve human purpose.  This is the technological imperative.  It is also, however, a biological imperative of the species.  According to Grene & Depew (2004), all organisms live in an active environment, enframed by invariants, and faced with affordances - opportunities and dangers – that constantly challenge the organism in its purpose – survival and reproduction.  In any environment, all knowledge is orientation. Invariants act like a picture frame defining one’s field of vision becoming subsidiary to our focused attention on affordances.  Many organisms do not, however, simply adapt to the environment.  Some actively seek to adapt and modify it to better satisfy their needs, e.g., the ant, bee and beaver.  Essentially this involves constructing new invariants, e.g., colonies, hives or lodges. 

4.06         Of all organisms on Earth, humanity has had the greatest success in structuring its environment.  Tools, specifically the tooled knowledge they contain, are the means by which it animates and organizes Nature.  They move, shape and change it to suit human purpose.  In fact, before art, culture or language, there was tool making.  Tools provide primae facia evidence of the arrival of our species: artifacts left by our first ancestor, homo habilis or the ‘handy man’, some two and a half million years ago (Schuster 1997).   Using its opposable thumb, humanity reached out to shape the material world to compensate for its frailty – no great size, no claws or talons and tiny canine teeth.  To eat and survive predation, the human brain reached out with finger-thumb coordination to grasp and shape parts of the world into tools with which to then manipulate other parts, e.g., to kill game, plant seeds, build shelters.  It appears, from the fossil record, that the opposable thumb preceded and, in a path-dependent manner, contributed to the subsequent and rapid growth and development of the human brain itself.  

4.07         According any philosophy of biotechnology cannot exclusively rely on reductive methods and the when-then, billiard-ball, material/efficient causality of the geosphere.  Equally, it cannot rely exclusively on the formal/final or causality by purpose of the biosphere.  Its meaning must also be found in the noösphere, where all four forms of causality are at play.  Such a philosophy would also recognize our unique contemporary situation: We can now inject (or infect) ‘natural’ with human purpose.  We are arguably beginning the final chapter in human dominion over the Earth extending our grasp out from the geosphere to the living core of the biosphere, its DNA.   One practical implication is that “it has become possible to think that biology can, for the first time, join physics and chemistry as a ‘technoscience’” (Grene & Depew 2004, 345).   And this, of course, brings us to the question of biotechnology.


5.0 Biotechnology

5.01         If there is to be a philosophy of biotechnology then we must have knowledge about it and its causes.  First, I will provide the dictionary definition of biotechnology to serve as a commonly accepted base line and sum up what we know about its causes so far.   Second, I will use Michael Polanyi’s philosophy of science to define what we mean by knowledge.  Third, I will extend definition beyond the conventional using Polanyi’s philosophy to reveal a richer and more detailed meaning to biotechnology and its causes.


a) Conventional Meaning and Causes

5.02         The word ‘biotechnology’ is first reported in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1947 with the meaning: “The branch of technology concerned with the development and exploitation of machines in relation to the various needs of human beings” (OED, biotechnology, 1).   It was only in 1972, however, that biotechnology obtained its conventional  contemporary meaning: “The branch of technology concerned with modern forms of industrial production utilizing living organisms, esp. micro-organisms, and their biological processes” (OED, biotechnology, 2).

5.03         As demonstrated above, biotechnology, causally, involves the marriage of natural and human purpose.  Biotechnology, in effect, redirects the natural purpose of living things to satisfy human wants, needs and desires.  Unlike conventional technology through which matter and energy of the geosphere is enframed and enabled to externally serve human purpose, e.g., the automobile and electric lighting, biotechnology can internally enframe and enable the subject itself - humanity.  This juxtaposition of object/subject is not to be found in the natural & engineering sciences of the geosphere but is the norm in the humanities and social sciences of the noösphere.  And, of course, such a juxtaposition resonates much more forcefully in the halls of the noösphere than say development of a new battery technology.


b) Michael Polanyi’s ‘Philosophy of Knowledge’

5.04         Polanyi’s epistemology is explicitly rooted in gestalt psychology (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 605).  Three central concepts define and delineate Polanyi’s ideology: subsidiary/focal knowledge, indwelling and displacement.   First, according to Polanyi, we know in an integrated stereoscopic manner invoking a combination of subsidiary and focal knowledge.  Thus we know “subsidiarily the particulars of a comprehensive whole when attending focally to the whole which they constitute” (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 601).  It is subsidiary knowing that is called “tacit, so far as we cannot tell what the particulars are, on the awareness of which we rely for attending to the entity comprising them” (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 601).  In fact, to the degree that we focus on the whole, its parts cannot be known at the same time in themselves.  In very gestalt fashion, Polanyi concludes:

We may call the bearing which a particular has on the comprehensive entity to which it contributes its meaning, and can then say that when we focus our attention wholly on a particular, we destroy its meaning. (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 601)

Polanyi’s focal/subsidiary knowledge is ideologically commensurable in aesthetics as figure/background or melody/note, in Grene & Depew’s biology as invariant/affordance (Grene & Depew 2004) and, in Heidegger’s enframing/enabling technology.  Arguably, Polanyi would include all as “variants of the same organismic process” (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 610).

5.05         Critically, Polanyi concludes it is:

appropriate to extend the meaning of “tacit knowing” to include the integration of subsidiary to focal knowing.  The structure of tacit knowing is then the structure of this integrative process, and … we shall say that, ultimately, all knowledge has the structure of tacit knowledge. (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 602)

5.06         The integrative or constructionist power of tacit knowing, as defined by Polanyi, is also apparent with respect to the subsidiary or background role played by ideology and technology in our daily lives.  If technology cum Heidegger (1955) tacitly enframes and enables us as physical beings within a human built environment then ideology (inclusive of religion) tacitly enframes and enables us as mental beings within a network of local, regional, national and global communities of ideas.  It is this enframing and enabling of minds within systems of ideas (ideologies) that forms, in part at least, the noösphere.

5.07         Second, according to Polanyi, the ultimate in tacit knowledge is the human body.  Everything we do in, and know of, the world is through our bodies – seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling.  The body, however, is normally transparent to the mind in its doings and knowings.  This transparency Polanyi calls “indwelling”:

Tacit knowing … appears as an act of indwelling by which we gain access to a new meaning.  When exercising a skill we literally dwell in the innumerable muscular acts which contribute to its purpose, a purpose which constitutes their joint meaning.  Therefore, since all understanding is tacit knowing, all understanding is achieved by indwelling.  (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 606)

5.08         Indwelling characterizes not just physical performance but also aesthetic distancing and ‘objective’ scientific observation.  Polanyi concludes that “it bridges the gap between the I-It and the I-Thou, by rooting them both in the subject’s I-Me awareness of his own body, which represents the highest degree of indwelling” (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 606).

5.09         Third, indwelling has a powerful corollary that Polanyi uses to treat experimental instrumental science: displacement.  And it is here that Polanyi meets Heidegger.  A characteristic of human being is displacement of sensation from point of contact to distant source.  Thus, in the use of a hand tool such as a hammer: “the impact that their handle makes on our hands and fingers is not felt in itself at the place where it happens, but as an impact of our instrument where it hits its object” (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 607).  This displacement allows humans to indwell in their tools and technology in what I call, existential phenomenology.

5.10         Conspicuous by its absence in all of Polanyi’s epistemology, however, is any reference to codified knowledge.  He treats language but only as an example of tacit knowing.  Fixation of semiotic code in an extra-somatic material matrix does not arise anywhere in his work.  The opposition, if any, is between focal and subsidiary knowledge, not tacit and codified.

5.11         Equally conspicuous by its absence is the term ‘personal’ in discussion of ‘tacit knowledge’ in the current debate about the knowledge-based economy (Cowan, David & Foray 2000).  Arguably, this reflects capitalization of labour in market economics in response to the ‘humanisation’ of labour in Marxist economics  It is clear from Polanyi’s usage that tacit knowledge is ‘personal knowledge’.  Put another way, personal knowledge is living knowledge, knowledge fixed in an individual natural person.  From whence it comes – demonstration, experience, experimentation, intuition or reading – does not change its personal nature.  In fact, codified and tooled knowledge take on meaning or function only when mediated by a natural person.  I therefore insist upon the phrase ‘personal & tacit knowledge’ to highlight its root in the natural person.  If, from time to time, I slip and use ‘tacit’ alone, I ask the reader to please implicitly add ‘personal’. 

5.12         The question remains, however, what physical form does personal & tacit knowledge take?  It comes in two distinct forms.  The first is the matrix of neurons that fix memories (knowledge) as part of one’s voluntary wetware, i.e., that part of the nervous system subject to conscious control, specifically, to recall.  Memories can usually be described and codified, i.e., spoken and transcribed into language or drawn as a picture.

5.13         The second are reflexes (part of one’s involuntary wetware) composed of “the connected set of nerves concerned in the production of a reflex action” (OED, reflex, n, 6 b).  Reflexes refer to the memory of our limbs and digits of how to do something, e.g., ride a bicycle.  Etymologically it is relevant that the word ‘reflex’ derives from ‘reflect’ in the sense of ‘to remember’.  Knowledge is fixed in one’s body parts and nervous system.  This may be the fine practiced motor skills of a brain surgeon or those of a professional bricklayer.  What they share is that such knowledge is tacit, i.e., not subject to articulation and codification - spoken, transcribed or drawn.  It can, however, sometimes be transferred through demonstration, repetition and practice.

5.14         Ultimately, however, all knowledge is personal & tacit.  Coded and tooled knowledge always lead back to a person acting as agent to decode or activate it.  Personal & tacit knowledge is also one-dimensional, a monad: it is known by only one mind.  It is the sum of what an individual knows.  If one is what one knows then personal & tacit knowledge is the definition of the individual human being.  And, only the individual can ‘know’.  Books and computers do not know nor that they know that they know, nor, arguably, does any other species on this planet.  Companies, corporations and governments or, in Common Law, ‘legal persons’ cannot know (Graf 1957).  Only the solitary flesh and blood ‘natural person’ can know.  This is why Polanyi’s masterwork is entitled: Personal Knowledge.


c) Beyond the Conventional

5.15         Polanyi’s theory of knowledge requires stereoscopic consideration of focal and subsidiary knowledge about biotechnology.  Focal knowledge concerns the tools, standards and techniques or praxis of biotechnology. Subsidiary knowledge concerns the context in which praxis takes place including its location on the causal hierarchy of the geosphere, biosphere and noösphere.  Before doing so, however, it is necessary to establish some elemental or foundational knowledge of contemporary biotechnology – genomics.

5.16         At the heart of contemporary biotechnology lays the code of life itself, DNA.  This appears to be the elemental carrier of Kantian natural purpose in each organism, at least on this planet.  It is the decoding and manipulation of this molecular-readable code that constitutes the emerging science of genomics.  DNA is based on combinations of four nucleotides made up of adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C).  These are always paired A-T or C-G.  A sequence of three pairs is called a codon encoding an amino acid.  Amino acids, in turn, combine to form proteins “the molecular machines of life” (Hood 2002).  That the genomic qubit or four-fold unit of information is not just theory is demonstrated by efforts to develop DNA computers which run “more than 100,000 times the speed of the fastest PC” (Lovgren 2003).  The genomic machine-readable code is also, of course, used to manipulate the chemical bonds of atoms and molecules to analyze or synthesize biological compounds and living organisms themselves with intended or designed characteristics.  Such code is fueling, as will be seen, development of a vast new spectrum of scientific instruments (Hood 2002).

5.17         Different sections of code generate specific proteins, either natural or artificial, i.e., not existing in nature, or not naturally produced by a given organism.  It is production of specific proteins, their higher order constructs (such as enzymes) and the pathways of production that are the instrumental objectives of genomics realized in its sister science, proteomics, i.e., the science of proteins.

5.18         Another elemental distinction must be made between technology as ‘wetware’ and ‘dryware’.  Living things can, using genomics or traditional cross-breeding, be designed to serve a utilitarian purpose, e.g., gene therapy (BBC News April 2002), or, a non-utilitarian one, e.g., genetically engineered fish that glow in the dark (Shaikh 2002).  These constitute wetware, i.e., ‘living’ tooled knowledge.  Traditional instruments are constructed out of inanimate matter, usually minerals, and constitute dryware.  Both, however, are hard-tooled knowledge, i.e., knowledge fixed or enframed in a material matrix as function.  Using this distinction, plastics are a cross-over, i.e., they are organically-based but generally derived from non-living sources, e.g., petroleum.  The borderline between wetware and dryware, however, is becoming increasingly obscure as the sciences of genomics, proteomics and nanotechnology mature.  Thus, in theory, the genetic code used by marine organisms to produce biosilicates, i.e., a shell, may someday be used to make silicon chips for computers.

5.19         Given the vast array of living things on planet Earth and the different proteins developed and coded by each in its evolutionary struggle for survival, there exists a veritable cornucopia of possible codes that may be transferred from one organism to another and/or between species (transgenetic).  Human ingenuity may also introduce novel variations not existing in nature.  This implies the ability to enframe every evolutionary success story of every organism on the planet to serve human purpose including the designed evolutionary destiny of humanity itself.


i – Focal Knowledge

5.20         For purposes of this paper I restrict myself to two facets of focal knowledge about biotechnology.  These are biotechnology as an enabling technology & general purpose tool and biotechnology as a form of instrumental realism working with epistemic objects.


An Enabling Technology & General Purpose Tool

5.21         A distinction must be drawn between a specific purpose and an enabling or general purpose tool, or what Paul David calls ‘general purpose engines’ (David 1990).  A specific purpose tool has but one purpose, e.g., a hammer or a drill press.  A general purpose tool is one that has multiple applications which “give rise to network externality effects of various kinds, and so make issues of compatibility standardization important for business strategy and public policy” (David 1990, 356).  Modern general purpose tools also generate “techno-economic regimes” involving a web of related installations and services.  Such is the case, for example, with the internal combustion engine.  When embodied in an automobile it requires manufacturing plants, refineries, service stations, parking lots, car dealerships, roads, insurance, et al.  In temporal succession, general purpose tools include the printing press, steam engine, electric dynamo, internal combustion engine, radio-television, the computer and genomics

5.22         Biotechnology already spans at least eight sectors of the economy including agriculture, art, defense, the environment, health, informatics, justice and materials technology (Chartrand 2003).  It gives every indication of spreading to all sectors, directly and indirectly.  As it does so another aspect of general purpose tools and their associated techno-economic regimes will inevitably appear.  Such regimes display path dependency.  Specifically, once introduced all subsequent additions, changes and/or improvements to a general purpose tool must conform to existing standards.  The example of 110 versus 220 voltage used in North America and Europe, respectively, serves as a case in point.  Any electric appliance – new or old – must be tooled to operate using the appropriate current; otherwise it will not function.  What standards will become established for biotechnological products and processes that move out of the lab into the world of commerce and consumerism remains an open and hotly debated question.


Instrumental Realism & Epistemic Objects

5.23         Price has argued that the relationship between science and technology is that of the research-front of one related to the archive of the other.  Thus science operates with the previous generation of technology while technology operates with the previous generation of scientific knowledge (Price 1965, 568).  The critical epistemological difference between ancient, medieval and modern Science, leaving aside mathematics, is the scientific instrument, a piece of human technology that forces Nature to reveal her secrets.  Epistemologically, Idhe calls the result ‘instrumental realism’ (Idhe 1991).  It is the design, development and operation of instruments of ever increasing sensitivity that has allowed humanity to pierce the veil of Nature, of appearances, and establish human dominion.  Such instruments are not verbal constructs; they are tangible works of technological intelligence that measure and manipulate matter and energy.

5.24         Beyond the knowledge embodied in scientific instruments and the new knowledge they produce, their metaphysical importance lays in consistent objective evidence about the state of the physical world, i.e., about the geosphere.  Such evidence is objective in the sense that collection is not mediated by a human subject.  Instruments extend the human senses beyond the subjectivity of the individual observer.  Once calibrated and set in motion a clock – atomic or otherwise – will tick at a constant rate per unit time until its energy source is exhausted.  Again, such measurement is ideally achieved without mediation by a human subject.

5.25         In this regard it is important to note that instruments also pattern our modern way of life.  The simple household thermometer is an example.  Prior to its invention what was hot for me but cold for you was determined hierarchically.  With the thermometer, however, whether king, pope, priest or philosopher, it is 20 degrees Celsius.  In daily life it tells us when we have a fever and when to seek medical intervention.  In turn, a medical thermometer is used to monitor the progress of such intervention (Shapin 1995, 306-307).  Put another way:

By encapsulating knowledge in our measuring instruments, these methods minimize the role of human reflection in judgment.  They offer a kind of “push-button objectivity” where we trust a device and not human judgment.  How many people check their arithmetic calculations with an electronic calculator?... Putting our faith in “the objectivity” of machines instead of human analysis and judgment has ramifications far and wide.  It is a qualitatively different experience to give birth with an array of electronic monitors.  It is a qualitatively different experience to teach when student evaluations – “customer satisfaction survey instruments” - are used to evaluate one’s teaching.  It is a qualitatively different experience to make steel “by the numbers,” the numbers being provided by analytical instrumentation. (Baird 2004, 19)

5.26         Scientific instruments also highlight Heidegger argument that we live in “The Age of the World Picture” (Heidegger 1938).   Quoting Ackerman, Idhe observes:

Visual thinking and visual metaphors have undoubtedly influenced scientific theorizing and even the notation of scientific fact, a point likely to be lost on philosophers who regard the products of science as a body of statements, even of things.  Could the modern scientific world be at its current peak of development without visual presentations and reproductions of photographs, x-rays, chromatographs, and so forth? ... The answer seems clearly in the negative.” (Idhe 1991, 93

5.27         The history, philosophy and sociology of science are replete with allusions to the role of scientific instruments.  Experimental science was, is now, and probably always will be, rooted in tooled knowledge (Price 1984).  For example, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider will begin operation in 2006 while the recently upgraded Fermi National Accelerator Lab’s “Tevatron” is already sensing nature at levels beyond the sensitivity of previous instruments.  The ‘Canadian Light Source’ synchrotron at the University of Saskatchewan is an example of increasingly common sensor/tool crossovers serving both research science and industry.  These are ‘Big Science’.  The size and complexity of such instruments, the range and diversity of knowledge embodied and the cost associated with their design, construction and operation may, as suggested by Fuller, limit any future scientific revolution in physics (Fuller 1992, 252).  Without doubt, however, they impose a strong path dependency on the road to future knowledge about the geosphere (Rosenberg 1994, 1-6).

5.28         By contrast, instrumentation costs in biotechnology remain comparatively modest.  Their current state of development has been expressed as the movement “from art to science” (Cambrosio & Keating 1988, 256).  This transition has been more recently documented by Hood (2002) with respect to experimental techniques or protocols.  Such protocols generally begin as the unique personal & tacit knowledge of a single researcher.  This is called ‘magic’ by Cambrosio & Keating in their study of hybridomass technology.  Over time, this tacit knowledge becomes embodied in an experimental piece of hardware, i.e., tooled knowledge.  This stage they call ‘art’ because operation of the prototype requires a high level of tacit knowledge or skill.  In turn, the prototype may be commercially transformed into a standardized instrument requiring less skill of its operator who, in effect, transforms from a scientist into technician (Rosenberg 1994, 257-258).  This, according to Cambrosio & Keating, is the ‘science’ stage when the now standardized instrument can be routinely used in the ongoing search for new knowledge.  The original protocol, however, becomes effectively embodied in the now standardized, calibrated scientific instrument.  Put another way:

In the language of technology studies, these instruments “de-skill” the job of making these measurements.  They do this by encapsulating in the instrument the skills previously employed by the analyst or their functional equivalents.” (Baird 2004, 69)

5.29         Focal knowledge about biotechnology is therefore a form of instrumental realism with machine-readings feeding iconic representation of results cum Heidegger.   Hans-Jorg Rheinberger (1997), a molecular biologist and philosopher of biology, has proposed that what scientists in fact discover using “experimental systems” are not facts or truth but rather “epistemic objects” whose meaning changes between experimental situations.  In a rather long but convincing quote he demonstrates his point with respect to the term ‘gene’:

For a biophysicist working with a crystalline DNA fiber, a gene might be sufficiently characterized by a particular conformation of a DNA double helix.  If asked, he or she might define a gene in terms of the atomic coordinates of a nucleic acid.  For a biochemist working with isolated DNA in the test tube, genes might be sufficiently defined as stretches of nucleic acids exhibiting certain stereochemical features and sequence recognition patterns.  The biochemist can reasonably try to give a macromolecular, DNA-based definition of the gene.  For a molecular geneticist, genes might be defined as instructive elements of chromosomes that eventually give rise to defined functional or structural products: transfer RNAs, ribosomal RNAs, enzymes, and proteins serving other purposes.  Molecular geneticists certainly will insist on considering issues in terms of replication, transcription, and translation and will require examination of the products of hereditary units when speaking of genes.  For evolutionary molecular biologists, genes might be the products of mutating, reshuffling, duplicating, transposing, and rearranging bits of DNA within a complex chromosomal environment that has evolved through differential reproduction and selection.  Therefore, they will rely on concepts such as transmission, lineage, and history.  For developmental biologists, genes might be sufficiently described, on the one hand, as hierarchically ordered switches that, when turned on or off, induce differentiation, and on the other hand, as patches of instructions that are realized in synchrony through the action of these switches.  Thus, developmental biologists are likely to refer to the regulatory aspect of genetic circuitry when defining a gene or a larger transcriptional unit such as an operon.  We could go on and add more items to the list. (Rheinberger 1997, S248)


ii – Subsidiary Knowledge

5.30         Subsidiary knowledge about biotechnology and its causes concerns the context in which it is practiced.  For purposes of this paper I will restrict myself to three examples of subsidiary knowledge about biotechnology.  The are: (a) its location in the causal hierarchy leading from the geosphere to the biosphere to the noösphere; (b) its status in economics and law; and, (c) its ethics including the problem of dirty hands and its position relative to religion, specifically Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


Causal Hierarchy

5.31         As noted above, there are four traditional kinds of causality: material, formal, efficient and final.  Since the initial Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, knowledge about the geosphere – physics and chemistry - has very effectively been acquired using a combination of material and efficient causes, or ‘when-then’ causality (Grene & Depew 2000).  Ideologically justified by Robert Boyle, mechanical causality formally freed knowledge about the geosphere from subordination to Church and State with the royal charter to The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge in 1660 (Jacob 1978; Jacob & Jacob 1980).  The mechanical or billiard ball causality of the new experimental or natural philosophy, expressed in Newton’s calculus, gradually spread as a distinct episteme to moral philosophy where in the 19th century it spawned a new epistemic species - the social sciences.  

5.32         Knowledge of the biosphere, however, especially of human nature, remained outside the orb of mechanical causality and subject to Church and State.  It was a hundred years after the initial Scientific Revolution that Kant, in the late 18th century, at least partially liberated biology.  Relying on a combination of formal and final causes, Kant explained biological entities as subject to a ‘natural purpose’ that required no ongoing divine intervention or explanation.  In effect, his teleology is what I call ‘causality by purpose’.  It should be noted, however, that Kant priorized these two forms of causality - mechanistic and purposive – always allowing mechanistic explanations, when available, to trump purposive causation.  Thus he restricted the term “explanation” exclusively to mechanistic causality (Grene & Depew 2004, 107).

5.33         Biology thus remained a descriptive science of taxonomies and forms of living things.  It was not a logical or mathematical science until Darwin, in the mid-19th century, introduced ‘natural selection’ as the mechanism of evolution.  In effect, it is the ‘natural purpose’ of all organic entities including humanity – no God subsequently required.  From this insight biological statistics arose applying the law of large numbers and probability rather than the calculus of mechanics as the mathematical foundation of a new biology.

5.34         In the late 19th century and early twentieth century, however, the nature of knowledge about the geosphere itself began to change.  There was, in effect, a second Scientific Revolution.  The foundation was no longer seen as consisting of indivisible billiard balls but rather of probabilistic quantum states.  The law of large numbers and probability rather than calculus became the mathematical foundation of both physics and chemistry.  It was with this tectonic shift that Edgar Zilsel parted ways with the Vienna Circle and Logical/Empirical Positivists as well as Betrand Russell’s Logical Atomists because:

the so-called law of large numbers… states what at first glance seems to be a rather truistic statement of probability theory, namely that “with a large number of repeated throws of a chance game... the relative frequency almost equals the mathematical probability.”  Nature, however, could be rather different.  She could produce frequencies quite different from the expected result.  It is therefore not at all trivial to ask why the law of large numbers is applicable at all.  Zilsel construed this problem as being part of a wider one: how can rational mathematical constructions apply to a vague and irrational nature?  This is what Zilsel termed ‘the application problem’. (Raven & Krohn 2000, xxxix)

5.35         Furthermore, it was clear to Zilsel from the historical or ‘empirical’ record that it was the increasing sensitivity of scientific instruments as the praxis of science that generated the numbers necessary for such probabilistic calculation. This is especially true in the emerging science of genomics where the concept of life is rapidly changing from a mystery into ‘testable’ probabilistic equations of molecular biology and organic chemistry measured and manipulated without human mediation by increasingly sophisticated instruments.

5.36         Arguably in the noösphere all four types of causality are at work.  With respect to knowledge, for example, it can be argued that the biological need to know (material cause) is pursued through Science by Design (efficient cause) which generates personal & tacit knowledge (formal cause) as new memories and/or reflexes, the content of which (final cause) satisfies a specific human need to know – aesthetic, physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual.  Similarly in economics, it can be argued that economic inputs are the material cause out of which a thing is made.  Economic outputs are the formal cause, i.e., the form or shape of the final thing designed to satisfy a consumer’s needs.  The efficient cause, or initiating agent, is the firm that makes the thing.  And the final cause of economic activity, its end purpose or teleos, is the profit earned by firms in satisfying human wants, needs and desires. 

5.37         Arguably, one can therefore identify a causal hierarchy.  In the geosphere, material/efficient or mechanical causation still rules, at least at the mesoscopic engineering level.  In the biosphere, formal/final causes or causality by purpose still dominate but is rapidly being complimented by an emerging genetic mathematics which in effect simulates material and efficient cause.  In the noösphere, all four causes are arguably at play in varying combinations and permutations, only some of which, however, can ever be expressed in mathematical terms.


Economics & Law

5.38         Economics is concerned with the satisfaction of human want, needs and desires subject to limited means.  Satisfaction, in what I will call the Standard Model, is obtained when consumers consume goods and services supplied by firms.   Firms generate such goods and services using a ‘production function’.   The concept of the production function is perhaps the most elegant contribution of economics to human thought.  It is the recipe of inputs (factors of production) to maximize the output of a firm or nation.  It is defined “by a given state of technical knowledge” (Samuelson 1961, 570).  In symbolic form, a production function can be expressed as:

Y =  f t  (K, L, N)


Y = output

f = some function of …

K = capital

L = labour

N = natural resources

t = time

This reads: Output (Y) is some function (f) in a given time period (t) of capital (K), labour (L) and natural resources (N).  In effect, the state of technical knowledge, or technology, is implicit in the ‘f’ of the equation.  It is the recipe.  How much of each input, in what combinations and under what conditions can ingredients be mixed to produce maximum output and minimize cost?  This is technology.  It is also time specific, i.e., it has vintage. 

5.39         It is in economics, oddly enough, that knowledge as an abstract Platonic noun finds its most explicit expression in the guise of ‘technological change’.  Technological change in the Standard Model refers to the effect of new knowledge on the production function of a firm or nation.  The content of such new knowledge is not a theoretical concern; only its effects on the production function.  In economic theory, therefore, it does not matter what form new knowledge takes; it does not matter from whence it comes; the only thing that matters, in terms of calculatory rationalism, is its mathematical impact on the production function.   Accordingly, biotechnology does not have any special or unique relationship to theoretical economics.  It is just more know-how about combining factors to produce goods and services to satisfy consumer wants, needs and desires in order to make a profit.

5.40         Even as an industry, however, biotechnology has not been the subject of significant economic investigation.  In a JSTOR title search for articles, reviews and opinion pieces containing the word ‘biotechnology’, only seven entries (5 articles and 2 reviews) were found in the major economic journals between the 1880s and 2000.  It is important to note that JSTOR posts only issues that are at least five years old, i.e., articles published in 2005 will not be available online until 2010.   It also excludes newer and more specialized economic journals.  Nonetheless, it is clear that 20th century mainstream economics did not focus significant intellectual resources on the question of biotechnology.

5.41         Of the five articles, four concern the central entrepreneurial role of academic scientists in the formation of the American biotechnology industry (Arora & Gambardella 1990; Audretsch & Stephan 1996; Lerner & Merges 1998; Zucker, Michael, Darby & Brewer 1998).   In other words, economic interest focused on the efficient cause of the industry, the entrepreneur, not on its material (biotechnology), formal (biotech goods & services) or final (profit earned from satisfying different human wants, needs or desires using biotechnology) causes.

5.42         Kauffman, working out of molecular biology, is, however, critical of contemporary economics for its treatment of compliments and substitutes in what he calls the technological adjacent possible (Kauffman 2000, 224).  Quite simply, the Standard Model offers no explanation for the emergence of compliments or substitutes or for the increasing diversity and complexity of new goods and services, e.g., the book versus the DVD player.  Kauffman uses the classic example of the automobile replacing not just the horse but also the network of goods and services associated with it.  He points out the new web of compliments that followed innovation or emergence of the automobile.  These included paved roads, garages, gasoline stations, parking lots, car insurance, the drive-in, then the drive-thru, etc.  Such ‘Kauffman webs’ are, at least in part, commensurate with Paul David’s “network externalities effects” in economics (David 1990, 356).  Kauffman would have us, however, look much deeper into the adjacent possible for compliments and substitutes.  Given that biotechnology is an enabling technology and a general purpose tool, it can be anticipated that many new substitutes and compliments will be thrown up transforming the economic landscape.  Unfortunately, mainstream economics does not appear theoretically prepared to deal with the rising tidal wave of biotechnologically induced economic change.

5.43         The relationship between the law and biotechnology is somewhat better defined yet many questions remain unresolved, even unasked.  The primary relationship takes the form of intellectual property rights such as copyrights, patents, trademarks, ‘know-how’ and trade secrets.  For purposes of this paper, I will not consider the nature or limitations of such rights nor the fact that law is a cultural artifact that varies significantly between Nation-States.  Rather I will consider the American experience to serve as a rough benchmark for all Anglosphere countries applying Anglo-American Common Law.  I will consider three cases: genetic patents, copyrights and sui generis or ‘one-of-a-kind’ rights

5.44         In the case of genetic patents, the U.S. Patent Office denied patents to living material including genes until 1980.   The Patent Office, among other things, believed that because genes were not visible it was not possible to assess originality.  In 1980, the Supreme Court in Diamond v Chakrabarty reinterpreted existing law, i.e., there was no change in the law itself.  The case involved a patent for a genetically engineered microorganism that breaks down crude oil.  The Court observed that Congress had the power to limit such patents but by failing to legislate specifically about genetic patents it had, in effect, allowed gene patenting.  The Court’s rationale was based on the term ‘manufacture’ in Section 101 of the U.S. Patent Act: “the production of articles for use from raw materials prepared by giving to these materials new forms, qualities, properties, or combinations whether by hand labor or by machinery.”  Genes, the Court concluded, were material, i.e., they had tangible material form, even though invisible to the naked eye.

5.45         As with computer program copyright, legal questions are arising about genomic copyright.  There are two levels of concern.  First, copyright logically adheres to genomic databases as documentation - hard-copy, electronic or fixed in any future matrix.  Second, copyright may, or may not, be determined by the courts to adhere to gene segments themselves.  The question in law appears to be originality.  Naturally occurring sequences, according to some observers, are facts of nature and hence copyright cannot adhere.  In the case of original sequences, however, i.e., those created by human ingenuity, a.k.a., artificial, there appears no reason for copyright not to adhere to genomic programs as they do with computer programs.  Whether this is appropriate is another question. 

5.46         Genomic programs, however, may be non-utilitarian in nature, i.e., they serve no higher purpose than themselves.  Thus in the fine arts, one author - David Lindsay (Lindsay 1997) - has tried to copyright his own DNA with the U.S. Copyright Office (without success) and mounted a web page: “The Genome Copyright Project’.  Since his initial effort in 1997 a private firm - the DNA Copyright Institute – has appeared on the world-wide web (DNA Copyright Institute 2001).  It claims to: “provide a scientific and legal forum for discussion and research, as well as access to valid DNA Profiles, among other Services, as a potential legal tool for deterrence and resolution of situations where there is suspected DNA theft and misappropriation.”

5.47         Steve Tomasula speculatively writes about the rabbit Alba, the first mammal genetically engineered as a work of art in “Genetic Arts and the Aesthetics of Biology” (Tomasula 2002).  He compares incipient gene artists with Marcel Deschamp (1887-1968).  While the above remain speculative, the fact is that Mike Manwaring, a graduate student at the University of Utah created the first piece of genetic art in 2002: a version of the Olympic Rings entitled “the living rings” made from nerve cells (BBC News On-Line, January 15, 2002).  And at least one geneticist, Willem Stemmer, vice president for research and development at Maxygen, is considering transposing genomic code into music to create ‘DNA ditties’ and thereby gain copyright protection (Fountain 2002).

5.48         Finally, sui generis in Latin means “of its own kind”.  There are a number of recognized sui generis intellectual property rights applicable to biotechnology.  The United States, in particular, has made extensive use of such rights including: breeders’ rights for lines of plants and animals generated using pre-genomic selective breeding technology as well as a special depository right for microorganisms in lieu of traditional patent requirements of a written description and drawings.

5.49         The long-run relationship between biotechnology and the law will, however, have to account for ethical questions coloured by cultural context.  Biotechnology is not a single technology but rather a multi-purpose tool or engine, like the computer.  It has the potential of affecting every sector of the economy and society.  Resistance tends therefore to be sectoral and selective rather than general or across the board.  This is evident with respect to fetal tissue research.  Sweden has embraced it; Britain regulates it; the United States rejects it; and, Canada hasn’t made up its mind.  Similarly, xenogenetic transplants to humans, especially from the standard animal surrogate, the pig, will not be accepted in Islamic or Jewish cultures.  The fact that the European Union is resistant to genetically modified foodstuffs but accepting of medical biotechnology while the reverse appears the case for the United States highlights the potentially selective nature of rejection.  In competitive terms, the cost of rejection may grow through time as a knowledge base matures and application spreads among innovating Nation-States.  Similarly, benefits of rejection, e.g., maintaining traditional cultural values and life ways, may decline overtime due to trade and exchange with innovating States.  An example is suppression of ‘rock n’roll’ by communist governments during the Cold War which proved untenable as radio broadcasts from and trade with the West grew.


Ethics & Dirty Hands

5.50         There is an old adage: Knowledge will set you free but first it will hurt you!  With the Cambrian Explosion of knowledge following the initial Scientific Revolution, this adage arguably applies to all knowledge domains and practices.  The perceived misuse of ‘new’ knowledge is known as ‘the problem of dirty hands’.  Originally coined to describe physicists spawning the atomic bomb (Fuller 2000), there are lots of dirty hands to go around.  Pre-genomic biology suffers from embracing eugenics giving birth to its demon child, the Holocaust.  Thus behind front page opposition to ‘genetic engineering’ of any kind – GM foods, fetal tissue research, et al, lays the specter of the gas chambers and smoke stacks of Auschwitz and the smiling face of the all-knowing biologist.  Arguably, economists are responsible for the Market/Marx Wars that for half a century threatened thermonuclear winter over a dispute about private property.  Religion, of course, bares responsibility for the slogan: Burn the body, save the Soul!

5.51         Biotechnology, unlike nuclear or previous enabling technology, is unfolding in the full glare of public scrutiny.  Its development is subject to an evolving set of public licensing, patenting and regulatory controls never experienced during any previous technological revolution.  These controls, and especially their cultural and political elasticity, means the economics of biotechnology must engage not just production cost and price, but also cultural, moral and religious values that vary dramatically between countries and cultures

5.52         And it is with respect to religion that biotechnology faces its greatest hurdle to widespread global market acceptance.  Unlike traditional ‘dryware’, biotechnology promises (or threatens) to change the nature of humanity itself, to tamper with the human soul.   The creation myth of the world’s three great monotheistic religions (or theistic ideologies) – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – share, among other things, the belief that humanity was created from the earth.  It is from this cultural root that our species receives its name - homo sapiens – which literally means ‘the wise earth’.  These ‘people of the Book’ share the First Book of Moses called Genesis in which it is written:

Genesis 1.26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Genesis 1.27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

5.53         It should be noted that dominion was granted to ‘them’, male and female.  It is only later in Genesis (2.22) that a splitting off of the original androgynous Adam (male and female) produced a submissive and passive Eve.  Before the appearance of Eve, however, God created, for Adam a Garden of Eden in which there was “the tree of life … and the tree of knowledge” (Genesis 2.9).  God permitted Adam to eat of all the trees in the garden but warned: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2.17). 

5.54         The serpent, the story goes, convinced Eve that instead “in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3.6).  And when Eve, in turn, convinced Adam to eat of the fruit, “the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3.22) expelled the duo from the garden and “placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cher’-u-bims, and a flaming sword which turned everyway, to keep the way of the tree of life” (Genesis 3.24).

5.55         Significantly, there was no injunction against eating of the tree of life before the Fall from what traditionally is called ‘innocence’ but which, in this context, is ignorance.   Dominion over Nature was not, however, withdrawn and its key was found by Francis Bacon in the instrumental experimental scientific method.  Arguably, this leads us back to the tree of life in the guise of the DNA helix promising, if not life everlasting, then a significant increase to the three score and ten years granted to the fallen Adam.  This explains, in part, resistance in the religious West, and elsewhere, to human stem cell research.  The flaming sword of God still bars the way to the tree of life.  Alternatively, we can follow the advice of the German playwright Kleist:

Consequently, I said a bit distracted, we would have to eat again from the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence.  Indeed, he answered, this will be the last chapter in the history of the world.  (quoted in Jantsch 1975, 263)


6.0 Conclusions

6.01         If there is to be a philosophy of biotechnology we require knowledge about it and its causes.  In this paper I have demonstrated that such knowledge should, following Michael Polanyi, include focal as well as subsidiary knowledge about biotechnology.  Focal knowledge concerns the tools, standards and techniques or praxis of biotechnology. Subsidiary knowledge concerns the context in which praxis takes place.

6.02         Focal knowledge, for purposes of this paper, has been demonstrated to include biotechnology as an enabling technology & general purpose tool and as a form of instrumental realism working with epistemic objects.  Subsidiary knowledge has been demonstrated to include biotechnology’s location in the causal hierarchy leading from the geosphere to the biosphere to the noösphere; its status in economics and law; and, its ethics including the problem of dirty hands and its position relative to religion.

6.03         This way of knowing – focal/subsidiary – can arguably be called ‘gestalt knowing’ and is ideologically commensurable in aesthetics with figure/background or melody/note, in Grene & Depew’s biology with knowledge defined as orientation in an active environment composed of invariants/affordances (Grene & Depew 2004) and, in the philosophy of technology as Heidegger’s enframing/enabling (Heidegger 1955).  Arguably, Polanyi would include all as “variants of the same organismic process” (Polanyi Oct. 1962, 610).  The fact that all three named authors share this common epistemology may, or may not, reflect the fact that Grene studied under Heidegger in the 1930s and later worked with Michael Polanyi in the 1950s (Cohen June 2005). 

6.04         With respect to the cause of biotechnology, it has been demonstrated that as biology it is subject to what Kant called ‘natural purpose’ reflecting the play of formal and final cause.  As technology, it involves enframing and enabling the environment to serve human purpose.  This is the technological imperative.  It is also, however, a biological imperative of the species, i.e., not only to adapt to an environment but to adapt the environment to our wants, needs and desires.  Arguably, therefore, biotechnology involves redirecting natural to serve human purpose. 


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