Designing Human Practices An Experiment with Synthetic Biology
by Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett
University of Chicago Press, 2012
Cloth: 978-0-226-70313-8 | Paper: 978-0-226-70314-5 | Electronic: 978-0-226-70315-2
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226703152.001.0001


In 2006 anthropologists Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett set out to rethink the role that human sciences play in biological research, creating the Human Practices division of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center—a facility established to create design standards for the engineering of new enzymes, genetic circuits, cells, and other biological entities—to formulate a new approach to the ethical, security, and philosophical considerations of controversial biological work. They sought not simply to act as watchdogs but to integrate the biosciences with their own discipline in a more fundamentally interdependent way, inventing a new, dynamic, and experimental anthropology that they could bring to bear on the center’s biological research.

Designing Human Practices is a detailed account of this anthropological experiment and, ultimately, its rejection. It provides new insights into the possibilities and limitations of collaboration, and diagnoses the micro-politics which effectively constrained the potential for mutual scientific flourishing. Synthesizing multiple disciplines, including biology, genetics, anthropology, and philosophy, alongside a thorough examination of funding entities such as the National Science Foundation, Designing Human Practices pushes the social study of science into new and provocative territory, utilizing a real-world experience as a springboard for timely reflections on how the human and life sciences can and should transform each other.


Paul Rabinow is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written numerous books, including Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology and The Accompaniment: Assembling the Contemporary, both published by the University of Chicago Press. Gaymon Bennett is a senior research fellow at the Center for Biological Futures at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He is coauthor of Sacred Cells? Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research


Designing Human Practices is a very significant, quite brilliantly conceived, at times quite fascinating, and always thought-provoking project. It both documents a particularly complex history of an experimental project in natural/human science engagement and provides a bracing and at times daunting set of schematics for thinking through not only the specifics of the SynBERC project but also its broader resonances.”--Donald Brenneis, University of California, Santa Cruz
— Donald Brenneis

Designing Human Practices is a remarkable and original book. As ‘embedded’ humanists at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett tried to live up to the impossible task of, at the same time, sounding out what synthetic biology might mean for future forms of human life and analytically reflecting, designing, and redesigning their own engagement, which they understood as a kind of real-time anthropological ‘experiment,’ obviously not to the pleasure of their scientist partners. If Michel Foucault, so the authors claim, can be understood as having aimed at shaping the conceptual tools for a History of the Present as a diagnosis of our times, then Rabinow and Bennett see their task, with respect to the sciences of today, as designing an Anthropology of the Contemporary in the sense of a ‘therapeutically’ active, remediative, interventionist, and transformative engagement of the human sciences with the life sciences.”
— Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Max Planck Institute



Introduction: A Productive Experiment

Part I: Human Practices: Diagnosis

1. The Setting

2. Principles of Design 2006– 2007

3. Interfacing the Human and Biosciences 2007

4. Synthetic Biology 2008

5. Lessons Learned 2009

Part II: Human Practices: Inquiry

6. Recapitulation and Reorientation 2009

7. The Second Wave of Synthetic Biology 2009

8. A Mode 3 Experiment: Figuring Dual - Use

9. Toward the Second Wave of Human Practices 2010

10. Lessons Learned 2010