Monday, April 13, 2015

Synthetic Biology - The Irony That Needs a Narrative

“To inhabit a nomos is to know how to live in it.” - Robert Cover, The Supreme Court, 1982 Term – Forward: Nomos and Narrative. 

We are beginning to understand our interrelated world from an anthropomorphic center. The “normative” – a universal concept of acceptance, is ever increasingly the law. We are more and more reliant on the operations of law (rule by the law) when in fact it is no different than slavery – a form of self-imposed mental slavery. But when the law protects the dissent and preserves the language of progress, we have the rule of law and we are in control and inhabit a nomos – a normative universe. Isn’t this the hope for how law plays a part in our lives?

In a normative world, the “law and narrative are inseparably related.”

Every prescription is insistent in its demand to be located in discourse – to be supplied with history and destiny, beginning and end, explanation and purpose.” Robert Cover. 

Collaborative creativity works the same way doesn’t it? Law on the large scale where we are passive participants, the context is uncertain. Law on the large scale where we are active participants and the narrative is the understood context, certainty comes from a sense of fluid development from crowd intelligence. In the synthetic biology context, where markup language (SBML for example) and open-sourced annotation are community driven, passive participation translates to risks of automation driving innovation that can do more harm and good. But on the other hand, where the community driven initiatives understand the automation as the syntax of a synthetic biology in a narrative of anthropic biology, we are in control of the history and destiny, beginning and end, explanation and purpose of biologic adaptation in the context of evolution.

So, if we are to have an open universal discourse about our biology and shape its future as we do with math and science and our atomic bombs through synthetic discourse, then let’s have a constructive one and build on the past mistakes we’ve made with math – the language of our physical universe. A normative system or language master frame must both ground predictable behavior and provide meaning for behavior that departs from the ordinary. If we are to tinker with the unknown, then we owe the world a diligent and constituted approach. The Chinese word for this is “su-zhi” (素质) – or in English I think “diathresis”.

Su-zhi, or diathresis, depends on three things from which it stands to the test of time: that it is always “open” (open sourced, open accessed, open platform); that it is always evolving (process based and controlled); and finally that it is always altruistic. The open, evolving and altruistic synthetic biology language master-frame is part and parcel of a complex normative world. The master frame includes not only axioms and elements, but also syntax and mythos – narratives in which the synthetic biology is located and can act upon it.

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