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What is Biotechnology and How Has it Managed to Grow
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Dec 16th, 2019

What is Biotechnology and How Has it Managed to Grow

Biotechnology is a broad discipline in which biological processes, organisms, cells or cellular components are exploited to develop new technologies. New tools and products developed by biotechnologists are used in research, industry and the clinic, especially the genetic manipulation of microorganisms for the production of antibiotics, hormones, etc. Philosophy, on the other hand, is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.

Like many domain-specific subfields of philosophy, such as philosophy of physics and philosophy of biology, philosophy of technology is a comparatively young field of investigation. Philosophy of technology denotes a considerable variety of philosophical endeavors that all in some way reflect on technology. I, therefore, argue that philosophy of biology and technology played a vital role in emergence of a recognizable field as biotechnology.

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The origin of philosophy of technology can be considered to be in the second half of the 19th century, its origin often being located with the publication of the Ernst Kapp’s book, Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik (Kapp, 1877). Philosophy of technology continues to be a field in the making and as such is characterized by the coexistence of a number of different approaches to doing philosophy. This highlights a problem for anyone aiming to give a concise overview of the field.

Greek Antiquity

Philosophers in the Greek antiquity already addressed questions related to the making of things. The terms “technique” and “technology” have their roots in the ancient Greek notion of “techne”, that is, the body of knowledge associated with a particular practice of making (cf. Parry, 2008). In classical Greek philosophy, reflection on the art of making involved both reflection on human action and metaphysical belief about what the world was like.

Great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle plays a key role in Philosophy of technology and biology. Plato unfolded a cosmology in which natural world was understood as having been made by a divine Demiurge, a creator who made the various things in the world by giving form to formless matter in accordance with eternal ideas.

According to Plato (Laws, Book X) what craftsmen do when making artifacts is to imitate nature’s craftsmanship – a view that was widely endorsed in ancient Greek philosophy and continued to play an important role in later stages of thinking about technology. On Plato’s view, then, natural objects and man-made objects come into being in similar ways, both being made by an agent according to pre-determined plans, which is the basis for principle of biotechnology.

In Aristotle’s works this connection between human action and the state of affairs in the world is found. Aristotle pointed to a fundamental metaphysical difference between natural and man-made objects while at the same time making epistemological connection between them. Aristotle made a fundamental distinction between the domains of physis (the domain of natural things) and poiesis (The domain of non-natural things). His early work on classification was a major contribution to the field of biology.

According to him, grouping of organisms had to be done on the basis of a number of characteristics and not just one. He is considered to be the first person to come up with a classification. He observed and studied a broad range of plants and animals, taking note of their similarities and grouping those that were alike. His book ‘History of Animals’ is a landmark in the history of biology. His works led to the birth of the philosophy of biology. Hence, Aristotle is considered as the ‘Father of Biology’.

Moreover, Aristotle’s teleological system – “Nature, then, is a teleological system in which each substance is striving for self-actualization” (Palmer, 79). Aristotle normally begins teleological explanation of a living thing with an identification of its goods (reproduction, pleasure, intelligence, etc.). The existence of these goods implies certain requirements or “hypothetical necessity”.

For example, if a fish is to survive and reproduce, it must be able to acquire food, which require that it move, and so it must have fins, which in turn requires tissue, and these must be composed of certain combination of elements. Aristotle goes the other direction and shows how many purposeful human activities happen without deliberation. Thus, Aristotle’s teleological system applies to organisms which leads to philosophy of biology.

Theory of evolution

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is the basis of basis to perform most of the biotechnology experiments in a research lab. Darwin wrote the ‘Origin of Species’, which brought the idea of ‘natural selection’ and provided an explanation for the evolution of species. According to it, when individuals reproduce, some of their traits are better represented in the next generation. This is how species evolve and improve their chances of survival with respect to the environment and the changes that it undergoes. Darwin’s theory though just a theory and not evidence, is the most acceptable theory of evolution.

Darwinism is used in lab’s model organism to find solutions for human. E. coli, Chimpanzee, Monkey are the model organisms used in lab. Darwinism leads to the concept of conservation of biological complexities, according to which, humans and these model organisms share similar genetic and biochemical architecture and thus information from model organism’s biological systems can be used to find out solutions for human. Restriction enzymes (RE) system, Primers, proteins are all molecules we search between organisms. Thus, Darwinism play a key role in research which is a basis of biotechnology.

The combined theory Mendel’s genetics and Darwin’s framework is known as Neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism concepts explains DNA structures and genetic engineering concepts. Today discovery of every medicine is somehow dependent on genetic experiments. Thus, most concepts of modern biology have been developed in light of the evolutionary theory of Darwin.

Biotechnology as Applied Medical Science

For the most part, philosophers of biology, though that subfield flourishing, have little to say about biotechnology. One of the reasons why traditional philosophers of biology have little to say about biotechnology is that because they thought biotechnology as simply applied biology. The philosopher who has identified technology with applied science is Mario Bunge, and he has spelled out this approach to biotechnology explicitly in his magnum opus, Treatise on Basic Philosophy.

Bunge begins “This section deals with biotechnology” (p. 246), where he identifies philosophy of biotechnology with philosophy of medicine. He considers Therapeutics as a branch of biotechnology and medicine can become a science, and medical cures are straight-forward engineering applications of that science (which is the basis of biotechnology). So, the range of medical science to be applied in bioengineering and biotechnology has been broadened considerably.

Ethical concerns

Philosophers, historically, have attempted to tone down heated discourse of the kind that bedevils public discourse on biotechnology; philosophers try to introduce the voice of reason. As one should expect, the bulk of the literature so far falls within the range of ethical concerns, broadly construed in line with the shrill complaints about genetic engineering and other aspects of biotechnology. One of the earliest attempts by a philosopher- an analytical philosopher in ethical concerns is by Jonathan Glover, in his What Sort of People Should There Be? (1984); there Glover gives a cautious green light to some sorts of genetic engineering.

At about the same time, a Heideggerian, Wolfgang Schirmacher’s (1987) endorsement was even more positive, arguing that we have a responsibility to use genetic manipulation to improve human behavior, so often less than moral up to now. There is more works on Genethics (ethics of genetics, genetic engineering and biotechnology) by philosophers. This shows that there has been much work done by philosophers on this topic which is simply philosophy of biotechnology.

In conclusion, philosophical thinking is quite relevant to emerging biotechnological field.

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