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Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (2013) 627–631

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Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and


Biomedical Sciences
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/shpsc

Organism, machine, artifact: The conceptual and normative challenges


of synthetic biology q
Sune Holm a, Russell Powell b
a
Philosophy Section, Department of Media, Cognition and Communication, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
b
Department of Philosophy and Center for Philosophy and History of Science, Boston University, United States

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Synthetic biology is an emerging discipline that aims to apply rational engineering principles in the
Available online 28 June 2013 design and creation of organisms that are exquisitely tailored to human ends. The creation of artificial
life raises conceptual, methodological and normative challenges that are ripe for philosophical investiga-
Keywords: tion. This special issue examines the defining concepts and methods of synthetic biology, details the con-
Artifact tours of the organism–artifact distinction, situates the products of synthetic biology vis-à-vis this
Artificial life conceptual typology and against historical human manipulation of the living world, and explores the nor-
Ethics mative implications of these conclusions. In addressing the challenges posed by emerging biotechnolo-
Organism
gies, new light can be thrown on old problems in the philosophy of biology, such as the nature of the
Synthetic biology
organism, the structure of biological teleology, the utility of engineering metaphors and methods in bio-
Teleology
logical science, and humankind’s relationship to nature.
Ó 2013 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

When citing this paper, please use the full journal title Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

Synthetic biology is a new discipline that aims to apply rational ‘the natural’ and ‘the artificial’—ontological outcomes that many
engineering principles to the creation of biological organisms, sub- authors find ethically disquieting. Thus far, however, discussions
systems and their components (Endy, 2005). Significant milestones of these ontological and normative issues have remained rela-
achieved in the field to date include the de novo synthesis of func- tively underdeveloped in the literature. What precisely does it
tional viruses (Cello, Paul, & Wimmer, 2002), the creation of a novel mean for an organism to be ‘synthetic’ or ‘artificial’? How do
lineage of bacterium from a wholly synthetic bacterial genome the processes and products of synthetic biology differ from other
(Gibson et al., 2010), and the compiling of a registry of standard means of modifying, deriving, and understanding the causal
biological parts that synthetic biologists can draw upon as the structure of living systems? Is the engineering approach that is
building blocks for the construction of synthetic organisms de- characteristic of synthetic life science unique, or simply a rigorous
signed for a wide range of human purposes (O’Malley, Powell, application of the technological, artifactual and mechanicistic
Davies, & Calvert, 2008). Techniques that are currently being thinking that pervades much of modern biology? Does thinking
developed in the synthetic life sciences will eventually enable of organisms (synthetic or otherwise) as ‘living machines’ en-
humans to engage in the large-scale design and creation of novel hance our abilities to understand, control, construct and predict
organisms, and perhaps even radically different forms of life, that the behavior of living things, or does it impede progress toward
are exquisitely tailored to human ends. these goals? In what ways does our increasing technological
Authors commenting on the philosophical implications of syn- stance toward the natural living world, as reflected in the
thetic biology have often remarked on its tendency to blur achievements of synthetic biology, have the potential to trans-
boundaries between supposedly discrete ontological categories, form humankind’s relationship to nature, and does this transfor-
such as between organism and machine, living thing and artifact, mation raise ethical concerns?

q
The idea for this special issue emerged from a workshop held at the University of Copenhagen in January, 2011 as a part of the UNIK Synthetic Biology project in
collaboration with the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford.
E-mail addresses: suneh@hum.ku.dk (S. Holm), powell@bu.edu (R. Powell)

1369-8486/$ - see front matter Ó 2013 Published by Elsevier Ltd.


http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2013.05.009
628 S. Holm, R. Powell / Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (2013) 627–631

This special issue works toward answers to these questions by In illustrating this point, Tim Lewens (this issue) draws upon
examining the defining methods and concepts of synthetic biology, an example from the field of evolutionary electronics to show
detailing the contours of the organism–machine and organism– how irrational (or nonrational) evolutionary processes can be har-
artifact distinctions, situating the products of synthetic biology nessed to produce better design than would be possible through
vis-à-vis this conceptual typology and against the deep history of the use of rational engineering methods alone. Blind mechanisms
human manipulation of the living world, and exploring the norma- of variation and natural selection can be used to explore regions
tive implications of these conclusions. The issue is comprised of of design space that are causally invisible or otherwise epistemi-
nine original research papers that engage the above philosophical cally off-limits to forward-looking rational engineers. If nonratio-
questions through theoretical analysis and rigorous argumentation nal design processes have proven their mettle in the
that is informed by the latest work in biological science. By reflect- development of non-living artifacts like computer circuits, they
ing on the conceptual and methodological challenges posed by are likely to play an even more central role in designing the far
emerging disciplines such as synthetic life science, new light can more complicated causal interactions that comprise living systems.
be thrown on traditional problems in the philosophy of biology, In fact, Lewens offers reasons to think that nonrational evolution-
such as the nature of the organism, the utility of engineering met- ary processes will in many cases produce biological design that is
aphors in biological science and science education, accounts of bio- functionally superior to that generated through rational engineer-
logical function and teleology, and the ethical and social ing approaches (for a counterpoint to this view, see Powell and Bu-
implications of the ongoing revolution in biotechnology. chanan (2011)).
Maartin Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci (this issue) also stress
1. The role of rational engineering principles in the the importance of recognizing the limited value of engineering
understanding and design of biological systems concepts, methods and principles in the understanding and design
of biological systems. Whereas Lewens takes a somewhat salutary
A defining feature of synthetic biology is its attempt to apply view of the rational engineering methods deployed in synthetic
rigorous engineering principles to the design of biological systems. biology in light of our epistemic limitations and the programmatic
This involves drawing from an expanding catalog of standardized demands of the discipline, Boudry and Pigliucci are skeptical of the
biological ‘parts’ (e.g., genetic sequences) with well-understood, use of engineering concepts, metaphors and methodologies in biol-
predictable and reasonably isolatable properties that can be ar- ogy full stop, including in synthetic biology. They see rational engi-
ranged in various combinations in the service of preconceived de- neering-type approaches to organismic design as a hindrance to
sign goals. Pablo Schyfter (this issue) documents the importance the creative goals of synthetic biology and as an obstacle to biolog-
of this engineering ideal for the demarcation and evolution of syn- ical knowledge, communication and education more generally. At
thetic biology as an emerging field in its own right. Through a ser- bottom, their worry is that ‘‘the systematic application of engineer-
ies of interviews with practicing synthetic biologists and an ing metaphors to a domain that is fundamentally different from
analysis of ethnographic data, Schyfter shows how the drive to the world of human artifacts may send scientists on a wild goose
make, build and create things—in contrast to the aim of producing chase’’ (p. X).
knowledge claims per se—is a defining feature of the synthetic life While Boudry and Pigliucci concede that engineering meta-
sciences, with significant implications for the methods, organiza- phors may be of some heuristic value, they contend that such met-
tion, epistemology, and ontology of synthetic biological research aphors break down at the molecular level, and emanate from an
and its demarcation from other closely related fields. excessive penchant for molecular-genetic reductionism, a commit-
Unlike systems biology, which has largely epistemic ends insofar ment to unwarrantedly strong forms of adaptationism, and a vastly
as it aims to understand the causal structure of ‘naturally occurring’ over-simplified view of the genotype-phenotype map. Engineering
biological systems, synthetic biology endeavors to construct, out of analyses in evolutionary biology can help us to discern the function
a harvestable biological substrate, novel entities with desired func- (and hence the ‘ultimate’ explanation) of a given organismic fea-
tional properties. And unlike the manipulation of naturally occur- ture, and perhaps contribute to an understanding of how certain
ring systems as effected by (e.g.) genetic engineering, synthetic biomechanical ‘design problems’ were solved. But unlike inten-
biology aims to design organisms wholesale through the applica- tionally designed artifacts, which are constructed with some hu-
tion of rational engineering principles, promising unprecedented man end (and perhaps good) in mind, naturally evolved design
control over organisms and their properties. This control can be will often solve ecological design problems in ways that fail to
achieved either from the ‘ground up’ through the rational composi- make sense to a rational engineer.
tion of basic building blocks (such as BioBricks™), or from the ‘top The upshot is that there are significant limitations on the engi-
down’ by stripping existing organisms to the bare functional neces- neering paradigm as a conceptual and methodological framework
sities—creating a ‘minimal microbe’—and then adding specialized for designing organisms and understanding their causal structure
capacities on top of this basic functional platform. and evolution. There are also strong indications that processes of
Although the engineering orientation serves to demarcate the blind variation and natural selection can tap into subtle causal
field of synthetic biology in the eyes of many of its practitioners, interactions that are invisible to our best models of development.
do the actual practices of synthetic life science vindicate the ra- Our ability to guide these nonrational evolutionary processes
tional engineering ideal as applied to the design and re-design of may prove critical to the success of synthetic biology for the fore-
living systems? Several contributors to this issue are skeptical that seeable future.
rational engineering principles will prove fruitful in the design of
organisms to human specification, given the nonlinear and emer- 2. Machine thinking and artificial teleology
gent complexity of living systems and the ubiquity of developmen-
tal constraints (due, e.g., to epistatic and pleiotropic interactions). Rational engineering approaches in biology are closely con-
The complexity of the genotype–phenotype map presents serious nected to the machine conception of the organism, which has its
epistemic and causal obstacles to modular biological design—and origins in Cartesian natural philosophy. Although biologists are
may help to explain why the actual practice of synthetic biologists well aware of the limitations of ‘machine thinking’ and its tensions
departs significantly from this engineering ideal (see O’Malley, with our current understanding of developmental systems, ma-
2009). chine metaphors continue to pervade contemporary biological
S. Holm, R. Powell / Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (2013) 627–631 629

literature, biology education texts and the communication of bio- capacity to interact in sophisticated ways with the world have lar-
logical research to the general public. One problem with employing gely failed, in part because of the tendency in artificial intelligence
machine thinking, and ‘artifact-thinking’ more broadly, as commu- research to focus on computational, logical and reasoning abilities
nicative tools in biology education and science journalism is that to the neglect of conative capacities. As Hume showed some time
they run the risk of conjuring a picture of organisms that can ago, no chain of pure logic can conclude in wanting, preferring,
encourage or reinforce unwarranted inferences of intelligent de- or caring about anything—and, McShea argues, wanting, preferring
sign. Such metaphors have indeed been coopted in the service of and caring are crucial ingredients in the construction of intelligent
creationist arguments (see Boudry and Pigliucci, op. cit.; see also machines. Whereas Nicholson (op. cit.) focuses on the differences
Nicholson, below). Despite such pitfalls, however, machine think- between divergent types of purposive entities, McShea aims to
ing features prominently in synthetic biology, the products of provide a unified account of teleological systems. He defends a
which are often referred to as ‘living machines’. Are machine met- ‘hierarchical’ account of the structure of teleological systems,
aphors helpful or harmful in our endeavor to understand living according to which teleology involves the movement of an entity
systems and to design them to human specification? within a larger structure (such as a physical space) that contains
Dan Nicholson (this issue) offers a systematic examination of and directs, but (crucially) does not physically determine, its
the ‘machine conception of the organism’. He argues that while behavior. Properly teleological systems exhibit this hierarchical
machines and organisms bear some interesting similarities, they property of containment, which McShea calls ‘upper direction’, as
are fundamentally different kinds of systems. The strongest simi- well as the physical freedom to deviate from organismic goals.
larity between mechanical and organismic systems relates to their Rudimentary teleological behavior, such as that exhibited by sin-
‘purposive’ or teleological nature—and yet it is in respect of their gle-celled organisms, may be guided by simple ‘stimulus fields’ like
respective teleological structures that some of the most significant chemical or light gradients, whereas more complex teleology in-
differences between machines and organisms arise, leading to a volves ‘wanting fields’ the physical structures of which remain cur-
failure of analogical reasoning across these two domains. The key rently unknown. According to McShea, one of the biggest
distinction, Nicholson maintains, is that machines are extrinsically challenges facing the construction of behaviorally sophisticated
teleological, in the sense that the ends towards which they are di- artifices is devising a machine that can not only reason but also de-
rected are determined by an external agent—whereas organisms sire—generating ‘wanting fields’ which, along with impressive
are internally (intrinsically) purposeful, in that their sole telos is computational and epistemic abilities, make for the first truly
self-maintenance. Although both machines and organisms exhibit intelligent machines.
organized complexity and structural integrity, organisms are quite
unlike machines in that they are self-organizing, self-producing,
and self-maintaining systems the parts of which are mutually 3. The organism-artifact continuum
dependent on one another for their existence, maintenance and re-
newal. The crucial difference between organisms and machines is Much of the ethical discussion surrounding synthetic biology
not, according to Nicholson, that machines are intentionally cre- has focused on ‘dual use’ dilemmas (wherein the epistemic and
ated while organisms are not (which would entail that artificially technical fruits of synthetic biology could be used for malevolent
created organisms are machines); rather, the crucial difference lies purposes) and potential unintended deleterious consequences for
in their internal organizational dynamics. Nicholson concludes that human health and the environment (for a discussion, see Douglas
machine thinking may be of heuristic value when the parts of and Savulescu (2010)). There are fairly straightforward biosecurity
organisms are considered in isolation from the larger system in and biohazard risks associated with (e.g.) the dissemination of the
which they are embedded—he claims, however, that engineering genetic sequence information of dangerous pathogens and the pro-
approaches encounter serious theoretical difficulties when applied liferation of ‘benchtop synthesizers’. However, some ethical con-
to the development and evolution of organisms as a whole. cerns regarding developments in synthetic biology do not advert
Boudry and Pigliucci (op. cit., p. X) echo Nicholson’s systems- to undesirable or unforeseen consequences that are likely to flow
based approach to the organism, concluding that ‘‘whatever suc- from the creation of artificial life. They point instead to the intrinsic
cesses [synthetic life] researchers will be able to achieve will be disvalue of converting ‘the natural’ into ‘the artificial’—of bringing
in spite, and not because of, the inspiration provided by the ma- the living world into the realm of human control to a degree that is
chine metaphor.’’ On the other hand, there may be reason to think unprecedented in the history of our technological species. Some
that machine thinking will be more applicable to synthetic biology even worry that synthetic biology and other ‘deep technologies’
than to other subdisciplines of biology, insofar as rational engi- (Lee, 2003) could result in an ‘ontological catastrophe’ by erasing
neering methods lead to the creation of biological artifices mani- the boundary between natural organism and human artifice, bring-
festing design features that we normally associate with machines ing about ‘the end of nature’ (McKibben, 1989) and permanently
but not with organisms—such as extreme modularity of parts, min- transforming humanity’s relationship to the natural world.
imal ‘cross-talk’ between functional components, and so on (see Beth Preston (this issue) takes up the foundational ontological
Lewens, op. cit.). Whether synthetic biology will ultimately achieve issue from which such ethical objections to synthetic biology
this remains, in our view, an open empirical question. spring. First, she argues that the distinction between natural
Machine thinking has also played a central role in artificial organisms and artificial organisms is a spectral rather than binary
intelligence research, where attempts to reverse engineer nonra- one. Lewens (op. cit.) likewise suggests that we consider artificial-
tionally evolved brains have often leaned on analogies to comput- ity in the context of a design continuum: At one extreme are nat-
ers, circuitry, and other machine/engineering conceptions whose urally evolved organisms whose traits have been causally
applicability to organisms is, as we have seen, highly questionable. unaffected by human activities, while at the other extreme are
So far, humans have been unable to construct machines that exhi- wholly rationally engineered biological entities. On this view,
bit the purposeful, goal-directed behavior that is a defining prop- many products of synthetic biology will be located towards the
erty of living things, let alone the more sophisticated forms of rationally engineered end of the design spectrum, while agricul-
teleology that attend the belief/desire psychology of cognitively tural domesticates would likely fall somewhere in between. Tom
complex animals. Douglas, Russell Powell and Julian Savulescu (this issue) also
In a characteristically creative paper, Dan McShea (this issue) wrestle with definitions in considering precisely what facts make
argues that attempts to construct intelligent machines with the a life form ‘artificial’; they explore this question in connection with
630 S. Holm, R. Powell / Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (2013) 627–631

the Venter lab’s recent creation of a novel functional lineage of bac- views on ‘control’’ versus ‘respect’ orientations toward nature,
terium from a wholly synthetic genome. compare Sandel (2007) with Buchanan (2011) and Powell (in
Preston (op. cit.) contends that if it is true that crossing a certain press).)
point on the natural–artificial continuum will result in ‘ontologi- Suppose that synthetic biology does constitute a significant
cally problematic’ entities, then this point was crossed millennia break from, or intensification of, the technologies and associated
ago—in particular, sometime around the Neolithic transition from attitudes of control that preceded it. Why should we think that
hunter-gathering to farming subsistence methods, where pro- such a technological and attitudinal shift would be ethically prob-
grams of selective breeding led to the creation of the first biological lematic? A number of authors (e.g., Boldt & Müller, 2008) have ar-
artifacts. She concludes that gued that synthetic biology presents us with a qualitatively
different ability to control nature than does the manipulation of
Synthetic biology thus does not bring anything new into exis-
existing living beings, and they fear that such a shift in control of
tence from an ontological point of view. It advertises biological
the living world could lead to a decline in human ‘respect’ for nat-
machines, but machines are just a subspecies of artifacts, and
ure. Just what sort of ‘respect’ is due non-rational, non-sentient
biological artifacts came in with the Neolithic. The biological
entities is far from clear, as it is the prevailing view in contempo-
machines of synthetic biology, like the products of genetic engi-
rary moral philosophy that the ethics of respect, which is grounded
neering, may well pose special non-ontological risks . . . But it is
in Kantian theories of the intrinsic value of practical rationality, has
hard to see how the ontology of our world is any different on
no clear applicability to nonrational let alone nonsentient beings.
account of synthetic biology and its sister disciplines. We
Of course, nonsentient entities may possess other kinds of value
crossed a qualitative ontological divide when we started mak-
which derive from how these entities affect or are valued by intrin-
ing biological artifacts upwards of 10,000 years ago—we have
sically valuable beings (such as aesthetic value, eco-value, etc.)—
just been getting better at it (p. X).
and perhaps these derived, contingent values could be undermined
Preston argues that the developing field of synthetic biology, even if by pernicious attitudes of control and dominance toward nature
wildly successful, does not constitute a qualitative ontological or (Powell, in press). But what reason do we have to think that syn-
even ‘cognitive’ break from the more ancient and dramatic transfor- thetic biology or its predecessor technologies actually embody or
mation in humanity’s relation to the natural living world that was encourage such pernicious attitudes toward nature?
wrought by the domestication of plants and animals and the intro- The moral significance of synthetic life is systematically inves-
duction of sophisticated material technologies during the Agricul- tigated by Douglas, Powell and Savulescu (op. cit.), who consider
tural Revolution. In contrast, Lewens (op. cit., p. X) contends that whether the creation of artificial life raises any unique ethical is-
sues, viz., ethical issues that are distinct from those associated with
the long-standing derivation of novel life forms from existing ones
synthetic biology really does offer something new, not because
(through, e.g., selective breeding and genetic engineering). The
it blurs the organism/artefact boundary—that has always been
authors examine three ways in which the creation of artificial life
blurry—but because of its goal of bringing the organic within
may be thought morally problematic in the above sense. These in-
the realm of design, where design is understood to carry all
clude risk-based and attitudinal versions of the ‘playing God’
the connotations of planning, diagrammatic representation of
objection; the worry that the creation of artificial life will encour-
the device to be constructed, standardisation of parts to be
age a ‘reductionist’ stance toward the living world that will lead to
assembled, and so forth, that feature in the engineering design
an unwarranted rejection of the moral significance of life; and the
process.
concern that biological artifacts will have an uncertain moral sta-
Preston, for her part, does not deny that engineering approaches are tus that flows from their uncertain functional status, which could
qualitatively different from the ‘tinkering’ or ‘craftsmanship’ associ- lead to beings being treated in ways that are inconsistent with
ated with other methods of design. She argues, however, that such their actual moral status. The authors conclude that none of these
engineering methods—including the standardization of parts, col- concerns are unique, or uniquely significant, in the context of syn-
laborative decomposition of tasks, and so on— are not cognitively thetic biology.
novel and have been employed in the production of material arti- Douglas, Powell and Savulescu accept that the creation of artifi-
facts ever since the Neolithic revolution, including in textile, pottery cial life could express morally objectionable attitudes of grandios-
and metallurgy work. But even if Preston is right that humans have ity toward nature, or could unwarrantedly risk negative
been creating biological artifacts and engineering material culture consequences—but it is highly doubtful, they contend, that the cre-
ever since the Agricultural Revolution, it clear that genuine engi- ation of artificial life would raise these concerns to a unique or
neering protocols were never applied to the design of organisms un- even greater degree than long-standing methods of deriving new
til quite recently. life forms from existing life. Lewens (op. cit.) also addresses attitu-
dinal versions of the ‘playing God’ concern and reaches a similar
4. The ethical dimensions of artificial life conclusion as the above authors, though for different reasons. He
suggests that synthetic biologists resort to rational engineering ap-
Even if the ability to produce biological artifacts is nothing new, proaches out of an explicit acknowledgment of human cognitive,
it is still possible that synthetic biology marks a shift in human atti- epistemic and causal limitations with respect to organismic design,
tudes toward nature. Preston (op. cit.), however, argues that the not out of a hubristic desire to play God or to master nature. Syn-
‘ideology of control’ as exemplified by the methods and aims of thetic biologists are compelled, for example, to simplify the design
synthetic biology and its predecessor technologies (such as genetic process by dividing it into sub-problems to be solved in stepwise
engineering) is at best an intensified expression of our post-Neo- fashion—an approach to the creation of life that sits in stark con-
lithic stance toward nature, which has involved ever increasing trast to that of an epistemically unrestricted Laplacean entity
control over the ecology and evolution of the organisms on which who would see the optimal solution ‘at once’. Lewens states that
human lifeways depend. Yet if the ideology of control is itself a [I]f humans are to make efforts to alter what nature has given
morally objectionable stance toward the natural living world, then us, or to build new organisms, we are likely to wish to do so
presumably the intensification of such a stance would be morally in ways that allow conversations between designers, the orga-
objectionable as well, even if it is not new. (For opposing normative nisation of design teams, the swapping and transportation of
S. Holm, R. Powell / Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (2013) 627–631 631

effective elements from one design context to another, and so rational design methods. Holm defends an organisational approach
forth. (. . .) Biological complexity is here acknowledged, the bar- to organismic function (also suggested by Nicholson, op. cit.)
riers it presents to human intervention are explicitly admitted, according to which the functions of organismic parts are deter-
and attempts are made to avoid it (in the first instance, at least) mined by their contribution to the self-maintenance of the organ-
via the creation of simpler systems (Lewens, this issue, p. X). ism as a whole—an account of function that applies consistently
across organisms regardless of their design etiology.
Thus, it seems that there is nothing inherent to the practices or
It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that synthetic
goals of synthetic biology that expresses or otherwise implies mor-
biology poses ontological and normative challenges that are ripe
ally objectionable attitudes toward nature.
for philosophical investigation. It is our hope and belief that the
The moral status of the entities produced by synthetic biology is
exemplary papers that comprise this special issue will set the stage
also a matter of some debate, insofar as morally cognizable inter-
for a philosophically rigorous, conceptually rich, and ethically sen-
ests are tied to functions and the functional status of biological
sitive discussion of this new and exciting field of biological
artifacts is unclear. Douglas, Powell and Savulescu (op. cit.) do
research.
not believe that interests which arise from the bare property of tel-
eology are morally significant if they are unaccompanied by psy-
Acknowledgements
chological properties. Furthermore, they argue that the decisive
moral consideration is not how life is created but what non-gene-
Sune Holm would like to thank UNIK Synthetic Biology Copen-
alogical properties it possesses. Thus, they conclude that the ‘arti-
hagen and The Danish Research Council for Culture and Communi-
ficial’ aspect of artificial life is not in itself of moral significance,
cation for their support. Russell Powell would like to thank the
though it could have certain implications for the non-genealogical
National Humanities Center and the American Council of Learned
properties that an organism comes to possess, which in turn could
Societies for their support of this research.
be morally relevant.
In contrast, biocentrists argue that all living beings have inter-
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