What is life – in everyday discourse?

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Wolfgang Kerbe

Biofaction, Austria

Social representations of “life” in discourses about synthetic biology and genetic engineering

The debate about definitions of life and its value is very diverse. There are philosophical, biological and even literary definitions of life. Biological concepts of life include a number of necessary traits of organisms that make them living entities. Modern techno-sciences like genetic engineering, stem-cell research and synthetic biology bring new challenges for the expert discourse on life. What is the status of the new life created in synthetic biology laboratories? Are there different levels of life? Shall we standardize/modularize/patent life? However, these are issues in philosophical and biological discourses. What about the public? How are the definition and the value of life treated in everyday discourse and everyday knowledge? The present study investigates into social representations of “life” in discourses about synthetic biology. Focus groups and qualitative interviews were held to shed a light on the role of the term “Life” in laypeople’s understanding and in the context of synthetic biology.

Results show that laypeople understand life in terms of “motion” and intrinsic change, as concepts from naïve biology, combined with the abovementioned lists of traits from later socialisation at school or university. Furthermore vitalist, and within the frame of the “natural”, essentialist views of life can be encountered.

As regards the context of synthetic biology, one can identify an anthropocentric shift within the discussions. Although the stimulus material and the interviewer predominantly spoke about microorganisms the participants of the study often projected the frames of discussion on human beings. Being aware of this thematic gap will help to clarify misunderstandings in the dialogue between scientists in synthetic biology and the public.