29 June – 6 July 2013

Creating Life: From Alchemy to Synthetic Biology

Frontispiece by Theodor von Holst to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

Frontispiece by Theodor von Holst to the third edition of Frankenstein (1831)

Introduction to the theme

In May 2010, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the creation of the first artificial cell. Although this feat relied on active assistance from existing cells, it raised to public attention contemporary efforts to create life artificially. This development is rather unexpected — only a few years ago, “artificial life” was more associated with computer simulations, — and seems to have come about by recent advances in computational power and molecular engineering only. Earlier tales about human ingressions into the divine domain of creating life, like those of Pygmalion, the Golem or Frankenstein, speak of hubris and retaliation and seem to belong to the realm of fantasy. This summer school aims to move beyond this perception by uncovering the long-term history of the human production of life and living beings. Past projects of creating life — such as Jacques Loeb’s attempts at “artificial parthenogenesis” around 1900 or the Cold War race to generate life from a primordial soup, — have to be seen in a broader context of practices that defined the border between the living and the non-living, and hence what it could mean to produce one from the other. Paying attention to the successes and contestations of such projects will reveal important epistemological, ontological, and ethical commitments that have shaped the life sciences historically. By definition transgressive, such projects probe the capacity of the life sciences to standardize, control and manipulate life, provoke discussions about “minimal” definitions of life, and challenge ethical intuitions about the dignity of living beings.

Emblem 21 from 'Atalanta fugiens' by Michael Maier, combining music, image and text to communicate alchemical knowledge to adepts (Oppenheim, 1617)

Emblem XXI from 'Atalanta fugiens' by Michael Maier (Oppenheim, 1617), a multimedia work combining music, image and text to communicate alchemical knowledge

'Le petit animal' from 'Essay de dioptrique' by Nicolaas Hartsoeker (Paris, 1694). Image courtesy of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

'Le petit animal' from 'Essay de dioptrique' by Nicolaas Hartsoeker (Paris, 1694). Image courtesy of the Syndics of Cambridge UL.

It may seem as though the pre-modern world, with its religious and metaphysical belief in a fixed number of species, must have been especially averse to the possibility of creating life by human means. Two arguments cast doubt on this popular notion: organisms were often considered to be made of the same stuff as the surrounding world, and generation was generally conceived to be a creative act; hence what in hindsight seems to be naïve credulity about the spontaneous generation of organisms from non-living matter — maggots from meat, mice from straw, — and the monstrous generation of hybrids between distant species. Alchemy, in particular, modelled its craft on climbing the scale of perfection, and finding the philosopher’s stone, a universal means for the restoration and prolongation of life. Given these pre-modern convictions, was the creation of life indeed beyond the pale of human artifice? Was it really only God who could “ensoul” living beings? How did physicians and their patients view the obvious ability of humans to “make” children? Did horticulturalists and animal breeders think of their craft as subservient to divine powers only, or perhaps as truly creative in one way or other?

Ripley finds deformed copies of herself. Still from Alien Resurrection (1997), courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Ripley finds deformed copies of herself. Still from Alien Resurrection (1997), courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Ironically, it was the rise of mechanical metaphors in the early modern period, with its conception of organisms as automata, which turned the processes of generation and reproduction into “nature’s innermost secret” (Buffon). If organisms were machines, they were peculiar machines, because unlike man-made mechanisms they could reproduce themselves. Efforts to understand, and eventually control and manipulate, this reproductive power tackled the problem either by moving down to the level of the elementary units making up living organisms — tissues, cells, and biomolecules, — or by moving up to the level of interbreeding and evolving populations. The rhetoric of creating life, however, remained as powerful as ever, motivated by successes in bringing life to the laboratory, and the laboratory to the field. Experimental animals were kept alive artificially, and isolated body parts, tissues and cells were cultured, while geneticists working on actual populations liked to compare their work with that of synthetic chemists. Industrial culture and urban life increasingly blurred the border between the natural and the artificial, and inspired utopian ideas of total control over life. How important were these motives in defining the agendas of researchers and their funders? Did they translate into concrete research tools and practices? And what opposition did they provoke?

Still from the first screen version of 'The Island of Dr. Moreau': 'The Island of Lost Souls' (1932)

Still from the first screen version of 'The Island of Dr. Moreau': 'The Island of Lost Souls' (1932)

Following up these historical questions will advance communication in history of biology and beyond to historians of medicine and technology, biologists, sociologists and philosophers, and a broad range of scholars from the humanities. Young researchers will gain a unique overview of the field that will materially enhance their professional development. The school also provides exceptional opportunities to establish international connections. The summer school will add a much needed historical perspective to contemporary debates about synthetic life, by both pointing out that we have in some respects been here before, and providing a clearer picture of how we got where we are.


  • Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (University Paris I — Sorbonne, France)
  • Luis Campos (University of New Mexico, USA)
  • Helen A. Curry (University of Cambridge, UK)
  • Stefan Helmreich (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA)
  • Hiro Hirai (Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
  • Peter M. Jones (King’s College, Cambridge, UK)
  • Wolfgang Schäffner (Humboldt University Berlin, Germany)
  • Joan Steigerwald (York University, Toronto, Canada)
  • James E. Strick (Franklin & Marshall College, USA)
  • Students

Alessandro Allegra, Leah Astbury, Johnny Bunning, Ashley Clark, Lisa Cockburn, Margret Engelhard, Clara Florensa, Cheryl Lancaster, Victoria Lee, Daniel Liu, Alexandra Manta, Agustin Mercado, Rebecca Mertens, Pierre-Olivier Méthot, Rebecca Moore, Lucas Mueller, Martin Müller, Abigail Nieves, Donald Opitz, Neeraja Sankaran, Robin Scheffler, Kaz Shibata, Michelle Wallis, Taemin Woo, and Doogab Yi.

Organisational timetable

The deadline for applications was 15 February 2013; on 29 March the students were notified of the outcome. The preliminary course programme was published on 30 April 2013, and by 31 May the registration fees and/or registration forms were due.

Summer school schedule

Lectures lasted for up to 30 minutes, leaving at least 30 minutes for discussion. Seminars focused on the precirculated texts (see list of readings). Seminar leaders briefly introduced the topic and up to three students prepared informal contributions (2–5 mins). In addition, the summer school was punctuated by discussions of short, primary texts lead by one of the organizers.

Saturday, June 29
16:30–20:00 Registration and welcoming reception at Villa Dohrn
20:30 Dinner
Sunday, June 30
09:00–09:45 Welcome and introductions
09:45–10:30 Introduction to the theme ‘Creating Life’
Staffan Müller-Wille
10:30–11:30 Session 1 (Lecture)
Stefan Helmreich, MIT
What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies
11:30–12:00 Coffee
12:00–13:00 Session 2 (Seminar)
Stefan Helmreich, MIT
The Death of Artificial Life
13:00–16:00 Lunch
16:00–17:00 Session 3 (Lecture)
Wolfgang Schäffner, Humboldt University Berlin
Self-operating matter: convergence of natural and technical objects
17:00–17:30 Coffee
17:30–18:30 Session 4 (Seminar)
Wolfgang Schäffner, Humboldt University Berlin
Self-operating matter: Agential realism and material epistemology
18:30–19:30 Open Discussion
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Monday, July 1
09:00–10:00 Session 5 (Lecture)
Peter Murray Jones, King‘s College, Cambridge
Generation and Ensoulment from Antiquity to the Middle Ages
10:00–11:00 Session 6 (Seminar)
Peter Murray Jones, King‘s College, Cambridge
Visions and Disputations: Medieval Perspectives on Ensoulment
11:00–11:30 Coffee
11:30–12:30 Session 7 (Intervention)
Staffan Müller-Wille, University of Exeter
Generation and Creation
12:30–15:30 Lunch
15:30–16:30 Session 8 (Lecture)
Hiro Hirai, Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen
Generation, Reproduction and ‘Creation’ of Life in Renaissance and Early Modern Medicine, Natural Philosophy and Alchemy
16:30–17:00 Coffee
17:00–18:00 Session 9 (Seminar)
Hiro Hirai, Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen
Homunculus: Artificial Production of Life in Early Modern Alchemy
18:00–19:00 Open Discussion
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Tuesday, July 2: Naples day
08:00–09:30 Transfer Ischia → Naples
10:00–14:00 Visit to the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn:
10:00–10:45 Official welcome and presentation of the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn
Christiane Groeben
10:45–11:15 Presentation
Research project SZN 1
11:15–11:45 Presentation
Research Project SZN 2
12:00–13:00 Group visits
to the Aquarium, Zoological collections, Turtle facility and/or Octopus facility
13:00–14:00 Lunch buffet in foyer
14:00– Free afternoon
Wednesday, July 3
09:00–10:00 Session 10 (Lecture)
Joan Steigerwald, York University, Toronto
Instrumental Definitions of Life in the Enlightenment and Romantic Period
10:00–11:00 Session 11 (Seminar)
Joan Steigerwald, York University, Toronto
Exploring the Border Zones of Organic Vitality in the Eighteenth Century
11:00–11:30 Coffee
11:30–12:30 Session 12 (Intervention)
Janet Browne, Harvard University
Darwinism and the Creativity of Life
12:30–15:30 Lunch
15:30–16:30 Session 13 (Lecture)
James E. Strick, Franklin & Marshall College
Darwin and the Darwinians on the Origin of Life
16:30–17:00 Coffee
17:00–18:00 Session 14 (Seminar)
James E. Strick, Franklin & Marshall College
Wilhelm Reich‘s Synthetic Life Experiments in the 1930s vs the Oparin-Haldane Paradigm
18:00–19:00 Open Discussion
20:30 Dinner at a local restaurant
Thursday, July 4
09:00–10:00 Session 15 (Lecture)
Helen A. Curry, University of Cambridge
‘Evolution to Order’: Plant Breeding and the Production of Novelty
10:00–11:00 Session 16 (Seminar)
Helen A. Curry, University of Cambridge
Captive Breeding of Endangered Species and the Implication of Creative Conservation
11:00–11:30 Coffee
11:30–12:30 Session 17 (Intervention)
Nick Hopwood, University of Cambridge
‘Babies “created” in test tube, scientist claims’
12:30–13:30 Open Discussion
13:30–20:30 Free afternoon
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Friday, July 5
09:00–10:00 Session 18 (Lecture)
Luis Campos, University of New Mexico
n-1: Minimal Life From Radiobes to Synthia
10:00–11:00 Session 19 (Seminar)
Luis Campos, University of New Mexico
Neapolitan Dreams: Creating Life in the Twentieth Century
11:00–11:30 Coffee
11:30–12:30 Session 20 (Lecture)
Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, University Paris I (Sorbonne)
Ethical Perspectives on Synthetic Biology
12:30–15:30 Lunch
15:30–16:30 Session 21 (Seminar)
Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, University Paris I (Sorbonne)
Synthetic Biology as a techno-utopia?
16:30–17:00 Coffee
17:00–18:00 Open Discussion
18:00–19:00 Final Discussion
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Saturday, July 6
Departure Ciao – Arrivederci!


Reading List

Session 02: Stefan Helmreich

  • Stefan Helmreich (2007). An Archeology of Artificial Life, Underwater. In Jessica Riskin (Ed.), Genesis Redux: Essays in the history and philosophy of artificial life. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp 321–333.
  • Steven Levy (1991). It's Alive! Rolling Stone June 13 1991, pp 90–92.
  • John Horgan (1995). From Complexity to Perplexity. Scientific American June 1995, pp 104–107.

Session 04: Wolfgang Schäffner

  • Karen Barad (2007). Re(con)figuring Space, Time, and Matter. In: Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
  • Richard Feynmann (1959). Plenty of Room at the Bottom. Transcript of lecture given 29 Dec 1959 for the American Physical Society at Caltech.
  • Michel Serres (1989). Gnomon: les débuts de la géométrie en Grèce. In: Michel Serres (Ed), Eléments d'Histoire des Sciences. Paris: Bordas.
  • Michel Serres (1982). The Origins of Geometry. In: Harari, JV and Bell, DF (Eds), Hermes; Literature, Science, Philosophy. Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Essential reading was Barad pp 179–185, all of Feynman, and Serres (1989) pp 1–11.

Serres (1982) was only provided as an aid to those that do not confidently read French, since it is a different text on the same topic but in English. [A faithful translation is the third chapter of Michel Serres (Ed; 1995). A History of Scientific Thought: Elements of a HIstory of Science. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell.]

Session 06: Peter Murray Jones

  • Margaret Berger (Ed.) (1999). Hildegard of Bingen: On Natural Philosophy and Medicine: Selections from Cause et Cure. Rochester, NY and Woodbury, UK: Boydell & Brewer, pp 42–51.
  • M. Anthony Hewson (1975). Giles of Rome and the Medieval Theory of Conception — A Study of the De formatione corporis humani in utero. London: Athlone Press. pp 100–117.
  • Plus: one page excerpt of transcribed Latin original, one page original illumination, and a portrait of Giles of Rome.

Session 07: Staffan Müller-Wille

  • William Harvey (1847). The works of William Harvey, M.D.. London: C. and J. Adlard, pp 360–372.

Session 09: Hiro Hirai

  • William R. Newman (1999). The Homunculus and His Forbears: Wonders of Art and Nature. In Anthony Grafton and Nancy Siraisi (Eds), Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp 321–345.
  • A handout with historical images of homunculi.

Session 11: Joan Steigerwald

  • Mary Terrall (2007). Speculation and Experiment in Enlightenment Life Sciences, in Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Eds.) Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics, and Culture, 1500-1870. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp 253–275.

Session 12: Janet Browne

  • Robert Chambers (1844). Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. London: John Churchill. pp 185–191.

Session 14: James E. Strick

  • Wilhelm Reich (1979). The Bion Experiments: On the Origin of Life. New York, NY: Octagon Books / Farrar Straus Giroux. pp 19–33, 64–75, 84–97, 118–121, 128–145, 146–177, 180–192.

Essential reading was pp 146–177, further reading were the other pages.

Session 16: Helen Anne Curry

  • Jan DeBlieu (1991). Remodeling the Condor. The New York Times Magazine 17 November 1991, pp 1–6.
  • Chris Manganiello (2009). From a Howling Wilderness to Howling Safaris: Science, Policy and Red Wolves in the American South. Journal of the History of Biology, 42: pp 325–28, 333–47, 350–54.

Session 17: Nick Hopwood

  • NN (1978). Baby in a bottle. Science News 114, no. 4 (22 July 1978), p 51.
  • NN (1978). And here she is … the lovely Louise. Daily Mail, 27 July 1978, p 1.
  • Nicholas Wade (1978). Briefing: In vitro infant raises tempest in test tube. Science 201, no. 4355 (11 August 1978), p 510.
  • P. C. Steptoe and R. G. Edwards (1978). Birth after the reimplantation of a human embryo. Lancet ii, 12 August 1978, p 366.
  • R. Jeffrey Smith (1978). Fertility groups feud over award to Steptoe. Science 202, no. 4371 (1 December 1978), p 957.

Session 19: Luis Campos

  • Luis Campos (2009). That Was the Synthetic Biology That Was, in Markus Schmidt Et al. (Eds.), Synthetic Biology. New York and Heidelberg: Springer Science+Business Media, pp 5–21.

Session 21: Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent

  • Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (2013). Discipline-Building in Synthetic Biology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, DOI 10.1016/j.shpsc.2013.03.007 (corrected proof), pp 1–17.
  • Marlière, P. (2009). The farther, the safer: a manifesto for securely navigating synthetic species away from the old living world. Systems and Synthetic Biology 3, pp 77–84.