Synthetic biology and the search for alternative genetic systems: Taking how-possibly models seriously

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Many scientific models in biology are how-possibly models. These models depict things as they could be, but do not necessarily capture actual states of affairs in the biological world. In contemporary philosophy of science, it is customary to treat how-possibly models as second-rate theoretical tools. Although possibly important in the early stages of theorizing, they do not constitute the main aim of modelling, namely, to discover the actual mechanism responsible for the phenomenon under study. In the paper it is argued that this prevailing picture does not do justice to the synthetic strategy that is commonly used in biological engineering. In synthetic biology, how-possibly models are not simply speculations or eliminable scaffolds towards a single how-actually model, but indispensable design hypotheses for a field whose ultimate goal is to build novel biological systems. The paper explicates this by providing an example from the study of alternative genetic systems by synthetic biologist Steven Benner and his group. The case will also highlight how the method of synthesis, even when it fails, provides an effective way to limit the space of possible models for biological systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)493-506
Number of pages14
JournalEuropean journal for philosophy of science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017
Externally publishedYes

Austrian Fields of Science 2012

  • 603124 Theory of science


  • Actuality
  • Alternative genetic systems
  • How-possibly models
  • Possibility
  • Synthetic biology

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