Distraction Free Reading

What Educates in DIYbio?

The Pedagogical Paradox

Two human inventions can be regarded as the most difficult, — namely, the art of government and that of education; and yet we are still contending among ourselves as to their fundamental nature.

– Immanuel Kant

Kant here is referring to the pedagogical paradox presented by education. This paradox of moral authority most often occurs in the context of schooling: How does education, in the sense of external regulation), lead to the internally regulated autonomy of thought and action? Stated more generally, the pedagogical paradox is assuming the existence of something for which education is the precondition. For example, can someone declare oneself to be a biologist and launch an independent course of inquiry without recognized credentials? The pedagogical paradox is also a question of legitimate knowledge; in this case, who may speak the truth of biology?

I am not interested in defining education since, as Kant implies, that is a fool’s errand, but rather in focusing on the ongoing deliberations implied by the verb “educates.” As problematic as education may be, it is an unavoidable constituent of everyday life. This sentiment was expressed in passing by Edgar Hewett in his 1905 article when he wrote: “Pedagogy has no special body of facts or phenomena of its own as material for investigation; it depends for its structure on the conclusions of contributory sciences. Its ‘sphere of influence’ being coextensive with all human welfare, no necessity exists for examining limits, but emphasis must constantly be placed on organization.” Or think here of Garfinkel’s (2002) reworking of ethnomethodology around “instruction and instructed actions.”

Why an old concept for a new phenomenon? Beyond the substantive problems of figuring out how an equipment or recalcitrant bacteria can be made to function (an interesting question in itself), there is the question of which experiences inform the sentiments of technologists. A broad form of this question might ask about the role of the bildungsroman, taken broadly, in the formation of the intellectual sensibilities. One thinks of Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities in which human relations are described in terms of chemical bonding subject to combination and recombination. The metaphor put forth in the early 19th century to explain a fictitious affair of the heart is taken up by Max Weber in the early 20th century to explain the complex interplay between capitalism and protestantism across several centuries. But, the metaphor also thinks its way through our conceptualization of DNA.

A mundane, yet profound, example of how experience informs the sentiments might be: What, if anything, is to be written in a laboratory notebook? As Shapin and Shaffer’s work on Boyle’s (1985) experimental program demonstrates, the success or failure of an experimental program rests on the literary technologies used to effect the virtual witnessing of experiments. Boyles’s literary technology describes how the end of an experiment is to be witnessed both substantively and sentimentally by specifying what should be recorded and what should be excluded, as well as the tone of voice to be assumed and a genre to be used. Taken together, this technology regulated who may, and may not, participate in the experimental program by serving as witness and de facto gatekeeper. This prevented those lacking the sensibilities and social standing of Boyle’s circle, such as Boyle’s technicians (1989) from being credited or participating.

Today in the United States, the common pattern for training laboratory scientists involves a lengthy apprenticeship. This often begins in high school (or earlier through science fairs) and extends through graduate school and post-graduate training, but this pattern was established by Justus Liebig early in the 19th century. In Liebig’s laboratory, apprentices practiced organic analysis using a specific apparatus, the Kaliapparat, to analyze the amount of carbon in organic compounds. This was one of the key breakthroughs that allowed the development of organic chemistry. Apprentices in Liebig’s laboratory used the Kaliapparat to work within experimental programs outlined by Liebig as especially promising, making only small and measured forays beyond the ground prepared by Liebig. Liebig’s laboratory was key to the spawning of the German chemical industry (Holmes 1989). It was one of Liebig’s students, trained in his cautious and thorough approach, who discovered aniline, which would a few years later launch the German chemical industry.

Liebig was an adolescent during 1816, the year without a summer. This cataclysmic year was marked by a volcanic winter precipitated by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. No doubt this formative experience played a guiding role in Liebig’s later experimental program. Space prohibits tracing the contours here, but throughout his career, Liebig pursued scientific inquiry for the manufacture of useful inventions, not for disinterested inquiry. This led Liebig to develop among other products, Oxo cubes and Marmite. But his most influential contribution by far was his discovery of nitrogen’s role in plant growth and his dissemination of Sprengel’s law of the minimum. Without Liebig, modern agriculture could not exist in its present configuration.

Synthetic chemistry is often invoked as a model and precursor for the development of synthetic biology, the most formative discipline influencing DIYbio (Yeh and Lim 2007; Keasling 2008). Synthetic biology has as also positioned itself as a discipline of combination and recombination, using DNA to effect the creation of synthetic organisms (GMOs) to further the useful inventions. The continuation is also seen in DIYbio projects deriving from synthetic biology, the most well-known being the Glowing Plant project. But there are many other projects at varying stages of development, proceeding along the same lines such as: work with algae bioreactors, open source GMO crops with creative commons style licensing, and GMO honeybees resistant to colony collapse disorder.

In an earlier post, I argued that the frontier metaphor loomed large in the controversy over the Glowing Plant project. Anthony Evans, the project founder, explained in the Kickstarter video that “our generation’s frontier is synthetic biology, our guide nature itself.” Evans’ call to let nature be our guide invites us to consider that the nature of Evans’ experience is not the nature of Liebig’s experience. The irony here is that Evans’ 21st century nature has been formed and cultured in no small measure by the work of Liebig and those in his laboratory. Yet, nature, however cultured it may be, is still a force that educates and shapes the dispositions and sensibilities of amateur biologists, as strongly as the events of 1816 shaped Liebig or ideas about the naturalness of class difference shape Boyle’s program.


Edgar L Hewett
Ethnic Factors in Education. American Anthropologist 7(1): 1–16.

Garfinkel, Harold, and Anne Warfield Rawls
Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Holmes, Frederic L.
The Complementarity of Teaching and Research in Liebig’s Laboratory. Osiris 5. 2nd Series: 121–164.

Keasling, Jay D
Synthetic Biology for Synthetic Chemistry. ACS Chemical Biology 3(1): 64–76.

Shapin, Steve
The Invisible Technician. American Scientist 77(6): 554–563.

Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon
Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition.

Yeh, B. J., and W. A. Lim
Synthetic Biology: Lessons from the History of Synthetic Organic Chemistry. Nature Chemical Biology 3(9): 521–525.

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