Boundary Issues in Bionanotechnology:
That a journal for the philosophy of chemistry
such as Hyle
devotes several issues to nanotechnology does not mean that
nanotechnology would overtake chemistry, as Eric K Drexler boldly
predicted when he claimed that molecular manufacture would relegate
current chemical technologies in the prehistory of mankind, along with
chipping flint (Drexler 1986, p. 4). Rather nanotechnology is only one
potential future for chemistry. In reality, a number of research
pathways developed over the last decades of the twentieth century –
catalysis, supramolecular chemistry, biomimetic chemistry, soft
chemistry, etc. – paved the way for nanotechnology and are
sometimes relabeled nanochemistry. They are of special interest because
they create new interactions with biology.
The interface between bio and nanotechnology
the core of the set of papers here presented. They came out of a
research program supported by the French Agence nationale de la
recherche scientifique called ‘Nanobioethics’ (ANR NT05-4_44955
‘Biotechnologies et nanotechnologies: enjeux éthiques et
philosophiques’). Whilst a second set of papers dealing with ethical
aspects will come in a forthcoming issue, this one is focused on
All scholars concerned with the cultural
dimensions of nanotechnology have pointed out that they blur many
boundaries (Baird, Nordmann & Schummer 2004; Schiemann 2005). They
first blur the organizational boundary between science and technology.
though the French and the British reports maintain the dual name –
‘nanoscience’ and ‘nanotechnology’ (Académie des sciences &
Académie des technologies 2003, Royal Society & Royal
Engineering 2004) – it is unclear where the boundary should be placed.
Whether research is aimed at practical or at cognitive aims, in both
cases, the basic units of matter – atoms, molecules, and macromolecules
– are viewed as functional units: devices, motors, or machines.
Nanotechnology also fostered the Converging Technologies program (NBIC,
for nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and
cognitive science) which seeks to bridge the chasm between man and
machine, in designing hybrid creatures such as conscious robots, or
‘spiritual machines’ with the purport to take over nature’s job and to
continue the work of biological evolution. More generally
nanotechnology challenges the grand metaphysical divide between nature
and artifact. Not only are the building blocks of nature redefined as
machines or devices, also the nanomachines currently designed in
laboratories are often hybrid entities made of raw materials designed
by living organisms (DNA, bacteria, etc.), thus taking
advantage of the exquisite properties of molecular recognition and
self-assembly of structures selected by biological evolution. Nature
and artifact are thus confounded in two ways. On the one hand, nature
has been redefined in terms that belong to the realm of machines and
artifacts. On the other hand, technology itself is presented as part of
the biological process of evolution. This technological view of nature
and the naturalization of technologies seem to be among the major
cultural impacts of converging technologies.
Bio is Nano
The process of blurring the boundaries is
particularly visible at the interface between nano and biotechnology.
With cloning and synthetic biology, bioengineers cross the boundary
between the products of life and the products of human technologies.
They cross the species-boundaries when they design for instance goats
producing spider silk instead of milk. Living matter is
instrumentalized for technological purposes, as a number of
nanostructured materials use components such as DNA or genetically
modified bacteria in order to produce useful artifacts.
Such technological practices are facilitated
the boundary between inanimate and animate fades away at the nanoscale.
Genes are just sequences of macromolecules and proteins are chains of
It seems also legitimate to promote
bionanotechnology as a single entity, when we know that biomaterials
are at the nanoscale made from bottom-up. It is tempting to argue that,
after reading the book of nature (which was the task of modern
science), we are now in a position of rewriting it and that this will
be the main task of the new era of converging technologies. Writing IBM
with 35 xenon atoms on a surface or rewriting the genome of bacteria
are only two icons of the ambitious project of re-engineering nature,
atom by atom, gene by gene.
The convergence between biotechnology and
nanotechnology is therefore a main pillar of the Converging
Technologies program. However, when looking more closely at the actual
practices in research laboratories, the convergence seems less obvious
and the shift from science to technology more problematic.
Metaphysical Assumptions Underlying Research Practices
The papers here presented pay attention to
the practices of research rather than to the rhetoric of research
programs. Most of them rely on visits in laboratories and interviews
conducted with scientists active in various fields of bionanotechnology.
It would be naïve however to think that
empirical this investigation was free of assumptions. Rather we took
for granted the antipositivist claim that there is no science without
metaphysical commitments. As pointed out by a number of philosophers of
science such as Emile Meyerson, Alexandre Koyré, and Thomas
considered that metaphysical assumptions are embedded in scientific and
technological paradigms. Because they determine the sort of issues that
should be addressed by the practitioners and shape a set of values
shared by the community, they are crucial for understanding the
conditions of emergence and the meaning of emerging paradigms.
We therefore tried to identify the
views underlying various research practices, ranging from molecular
electronics to bio-informatics and synthetic biology via biomimetic
chemistry. This approach opens up big questions such as: What is the
meaning of technology in the phrase nanotechnology? What happens to
nature? Will bionanotechnology prompt the postmodernist ‘death of
nature’ (Merchant 1989)? What is the real impact of the bottom-up
approach in the process of convergence? Hopefully the five following
papers provide a few clues on such broad issues.
Académie des sciences &
Académie des technologies, 2003, Les Nanotechnologies:
enjeux et conditions de réussite d’un projet national de
Baird, D., Nordmann, A. & Schummer, J.
(eds.): 2004, Discovering the Nanoscale, Amsterdam: IOS Press.
Drexler E.K.: 1986, Engines of Creation,
New York: Anchor Books.
Merchant, C.: 1989, The Death of Nature:
Women Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, San Francisco: Harper.
Royal Society & Royal Academy of
Engineering: 2004, Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies.
Opportunities and Uncertainties [www.nanotec.org.uk/].
Schiemann G.: 2005, ‘Nanotechnology and
Nature. On two Criteria for Understanding their Relationship’, Hyle,
Université Paris X, 200 avenue de la république, F 92001 Nanterre, France; firstname.lastname@example.org
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