Until recently, philosophical perspectives and approaches were only marginally involved in debates on microbiology (compared to for instance environmental philosophy or animal philosophy), but this has changed. Notwithstanding the dominance of the anthropocentric perspective on life, we are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that the earth is basically a microbial planet, while the human body is inhabited by myriads of microbes, responsible for a broad range of physiological processes usually listed as ‘metabolism’.
It is impossible to understand life without taking microbes into account. At the same time, we have entered the ‘anthropocene’, a new geological era in which human beings are having a pervasive and irreversible impact on life, affecting the conditions of evolution on a planetary scale. In our philosophy course, a number of philosophical issues emerging in contemporary microbiology will be addressed.
First of all, the role of microbes and microbiology in our understanding of (the origin of) microbial and multi-cellular life, from the impact of early life forms on the atmosphere up to the role of microbiota in the human body (human beings as ecosystems). Special attention will be given to endosymbiosis, the theory that mitochondria represent formerly free-living bacteria.
Biotechnology: from reading to rewriting / redesigning life?
Around 1900, Jacques Loeb already argued that the objective of biology should not be merely to analyse and understand, but rather to control, improve, resynthesize and refurbish life. Genetic modification of microorganisms led to major advancements in science and industry for example in bio-remediation (e.g. in cleaning up soils polluted by industrial activities), pharmaceutical production (e.g. insulin production) and biotechnology (e.g. insert glucose transporters in a methanogen to increase methane production).
Initially, scientists themselves felt uneasy about the societal consequences of their work. In 1975, Paul Berg, as co-organiser of the famous Asilomar conference, proposed a moratorium on certain forms of recombinant DNA research. Currently, biotechnology is rather seen as an important factor in bringing about a more sustainable, bio-based economy (via a greening or biologisation of industrial production).
Scientists active in synthetic biology consider the possibility of producing minimal synthetic life forms to which various features can be added so that they can be used for the creation of new products and substances assembly line fashion. Thus, humans beings will be able to open up a new chapter in the history of evolution by creating new life forms (a new Cambrian explosion as it were). As suppose a (functioning, self-replicating) synthetic cell can be created in vitro: would that mean that we finally understand life? How will it affect basic conceptual dichotomies such as living vs. non-living, artificial versus natural, technological vs. biological? Or do these bio-engineers underestimate the complexity, recalcitrance and unpredictability of living systems?