Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rachel Armstrong, Architecture & Synthetic Biology 1

What kind of relationship should we have with life?  Is it there for us to use like lego blocks to rearrange and design and own at will?  Is there another possible approach?

This is a transcription of a lecture delivered by Rachel Armstrong on June 15, 2011 recorded and posted by iaiTV.  Dr. Armstrong words will be in italics, while any annotations we place will be in regular style an color.

I am Rachel Armstrong and I guess my particular story is what I'm going to talk to you about today.  Professionally, I trained as a medical doctor and I'm currently working in architecture doing a Ph.D., bringing together two completely different fields that would otherwise not normally sit next to each other - architecture and chemistry.

The idea of this is to create a technology that helps us connect with the environment so that our buildings have a positive impact on our environment rather than the current negative impact that they have.  But I'm going to tell you about my personal tale in this talk, because it's not a common career decision that people make.  I would like to talk about this particular aspect of my work, which is about making life in the laboratory, which is an ethically and morally, reprehensible thing to want to do.
...the feeling is that by the end of the 20th century, we've got this idea that somehow or other we've managed to subordinate or domesticate in a way that gives us some kind of control.

From a very early age, I knew that this was the stuff I wanted to handle.  My earliest memories were of being completely covered in mud with jars and spoons digging in the soil, realizing that there was some creative potential of the material on Earth that I actually wanted to work with in a literal way and not just figuratively and metaphorically.  I remember that as being a very strong childhood memory.  And I guess that the feeling is that by the end of the 20th century, we've got this idea that somehow or other we've managed to subordinate or domesticate in a way that gives us some kind of control.  This is what I'd like to question today, because I feel that science has a very particular world view, that has established itself, certainly over the last one hudred and fifty years. And I think that there is a paradigm shift that is actually happening right now which gives space to people like myself, which I guess you could call me a kind of renaissance person, existing between arts and sciences, occupying a more complex identity, within a global field of emerging practices or cultural connections.

The answer that contemporary biologists assume, because they have presupposed it, is that the organism is a machine.

Mary Shelley
The way that I started to understand what I wanted to do was through this very literal investigation of the processes of life was completely at odds to the kinds of stories that I was seeing on the media.  The whole Frankenstein tale for example, was nothing like what I wanted to do.  I did not see myself as being some kind of institution that was going to manipulate power in a way where I could get my own way. It gave me a particular perspective on literary commentary on what making life in a laboratory was actually about.  So I actually felt that Shelley was making some poignant comments about institutions, about the way that science was emerging, about the way that control was actually being influenced and enacted on technology through science.  It seemed to me to be really unfair that any scientific practitioner who engaged in these kinds of questions and processes came to such terrible ends.  I really wanted to tell a story that comes from a science perspective and I think that there are mixtures of past and present and an emerging future that enrich and complicate this particular quest of mine, which was to examine what these forces are that we've been so engaged through practices like alchemy. through practices like medicine.  The practice of medicine itself is somehow restorative, if not to improve, certainly to enhance life.

Joseph Wright, alchemist
So what does all that mean?  A lot of the imagery and models we work with in science come back to a very particular world view that science currently holds.  I've just taken a quote from a conference in artificial life 11.  It is a biennial conference.  I thought this was quite an interesting comment to make, particularly as the comment was so contemporary.
Despite all it successes, modern biological science has done remarkably little to tackle the fundamental question at the heart of biology, which is what is the nature of the living organism?
Rene Descartes
The answer that contemporary biologists assume, because they have presupposed it, is that the organism is a machine.  And for going back to where the idea that life and organisms and the whole world is a mechanical entity originates with Descartes, whom very simplistically kind of described two aspects to being.  In one, he takes the particular example of the body, which he proposes works like a machine and is made up of discrete material components,  and that a secondarily connected by the law of physics. So relationships between objects is secondary.  And this of course, communicates with an ephemeral essence, the spiritual the soul, a non-material entity that communicates specifically through the pineal gland.
animal as a machine

I think this is very interesting because science having adopted this particular world view, it completely writes out the ethical dimensions, particularly of the quest of the investigation of life itself.  I am particularly referring to Socrates' notion of bios, the idea of a good life, these other qualities that come with living essentially, not just being alive as any animal could do, but the kind of quality that is embodied in aspects of being.  Particularly those human aspects that animals do not possess.
I believe that life is actually not mechanical. It's complex. Mechanistic models sit within a more complex field.

Coming to this notion of what then is life, if the pursuit that you are now engaging in actually kind of revolves around this idea, I've come to my own understanding which is what I am going to show you.  I believe that life is actually not mechanical.  It's complex.  Mechanistic models sit within a more complex field. It's actually not about objects at all, it's about systems and relationships, between what could be described as "organizing centers" or "hubs of activities."  So the materiality of life is actually secondary to the framework in which the possibility of something more curiously phenomenological emerges.  So the very particular aspects that I wanted to examine in my own area of practice was this ability for life to be capable of evolution, to change with time.  It has peculiar qualities that machines did not have.  It has a robustness, a flexibility, an unpredictability that machines themselves do not embody.  With this unpredictability there is this capacity for surprise that our machines do not possess.  We include a short video which might help explain Dr. Armstrong's views on this subject.  If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link:

With all these characteristics, you have a very unique quality to life being able to respond to ongoing changes in the environment in real time, which I think is exactly what life does.  Life has persisted for 4.5 billion years.  As soon as it was able to persist, when the asteroids from the Hadean period stopped bombing the surface of the Earth, life took hold.  It was almost like an imperative.  It was something it could do to negotiate the real time.  It doesn't actually have any model of the future, but it has this plasticity in the eternal now that somehow or other gives this pervasive context, which I think is a very valuable thing, when you start to look at the relationship that we have with the world and how we can actually explore this particular relationship, maybe to address things that we're not doing very well using the mechanical model that is essentially the dominant way that we practice science.

So my particular study is to look at those qualities that machines do not possess, which is how I've managed to sit comfortably with my own ethical practice, having been very aware of ethical dimensions to science, having practiced medicine for about four years, after qualification.  I've got my memberships of the Royal College of General Practitioners of New Zealand.  I'm very concerned about to what ends am I doing this.   I've actually thought very long and hard as to why I think life could be used in a technological context, because essentially that is my enquiry.  I am looking at the nature of life.  I'm looking at why I want to use it's very unique qualities.  And to what ends am I engaging in this, without being a moral philosopher.

We post the lecture so you may hear Dr. Armstrong for yourself. If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

We will continue this transcription of her lectures in part two of this series.

No comments: