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Synthetic Biology and the Distinction between Organisms and Machines

Marianne Schark

Environmental Values 21 (2012): 19-41. doi: 10.3197/096327112X13225063227943


In the context of synthetic biology, scientists and bioengineers talk of living beings as being 'living machines'. This categorisation of the envisaged new life forms has given rise to the ethical concern that their moral status may be seen as different from that of natural or only partially artificial living beings (GMOs). The paper discusses the notion of a living being and the notion of a machine in order to arrive at a conclusion to the question of whether this categorisation is warranted or not. For this reason, it also looks back to the history of the comparison of living beings to machines and tries to show what motivated the analogy. In the end, though, it is argued that one should stop short of categorising living beings as machines, even if there are areas of analogy between living beings and machines. Finally, the idea that the envisaged artificial synthetic living beings could be regarded as some kind of machines is rejected.


Machine, living being, life, synthetic biology, synthetic organisms

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Editorial: The Ethics of Engineering. John O’Neill

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