How to do things with metaphors: engineering life as hodgepodge

Matthew Kearnes, Declan Kuch, Angus Johnston

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleOtherpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This paper presents a collaboration between social scientists and a chemist exploring the promises for new therapy development at the intersection between synthetic biology and nanotechnology. Drawing from ethnographic studies of laboratories and a recorded discussion between the three authors, we interrogate the metaphors that underpin what Mackenzie (Futures 48:5-12 2013) has identified as a recursive relationship in the iconography of the life sciences and its infrastructure. Focusing specifically on the use of gene editing techniques in synthetic biology and bio-nanotechnology, we focus our analysis on the key metaphors of 'evolutionary life as hodge-podge' within which 'cutting' of DNA and the 'sticking' and 'binding' of engineered particles to proteins can be performed by researchers in laboratory settings. Taken together, we argue that these metaphors are consequential for understanding metaphors of life-as-machine and the prevalence of notions of 'engineering life'. Exploring the ways in which notions of cutting, targeting and life as an evolutionary hodgepodge prefigure a more contingent notion of engineering and synthesis we close by considering the interpretive implications for ethnomethodological approaches to contemporary life science research.

Original languageEnglish
Article number22
Number of pages17
JournalLife Sciences, Society and Policy
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 17 Sep 2018

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