Articles and Book Chapters
Experiments are commonly thought to have epistemic privilege over simulations. Two ideas underpin this belief: First, experiments generate greater inferential power than simulations, and second, simulations cannot surprise us the way experiments can. In this paper I argue that neither of these claims is true of experiments versus simulations in general. We should give up the common practice of resting in-principle judgments about the epistemic value of cases of scientific inquiry on whether we classify those cases as experiments or simulations, per se. To the extent that either methodology puts researchers in a privileged epistemic position, this is context-sensitive.
Parke, E. C. (2014). Flies from Meat and Wasps from Trees: Reevaluating Francesco Redi's Spontaneous Generation Experiments. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 45, 34–42. [pdf]
Francesco Redi’s seventeenth-century experiments on insect generation are regarded as a key contribution to the downfall of belief in spontaneous generation. Scholars praise Redi for his experiments demonstrating that meat does not generate insects, but condemn him for his claim elsewhere that trees can generate wasps and gallflies. He has been charged with rejecting spontaneous generation only to change his mind and accept it, and in the process, with failing (at least in some sense) as a rigorous experimental philosopher. In this paper I defend Redi from both of these charges. In doing so, I draw some broader lessons for our understanding of theories of spontaneous generation.
I discuss the 2010 discovery of “arsenic bacteria” in Mono Lake, California, and the ensuing debate about the validity and significance of these results. By situating this case in the broader context of projects that search for anomalous life forms, I examine the methodology and upshots of challenging biochemical constraints on living things. I distinguish between narrow and broad senses in which we might challenge our fundamental knowledge of life, and between different kinds of projects with varying potential to motivate such change. I argue that the arsenic bacteria case, while potentially illuminating, is the kind of constraint-challenging project that could not—in spite of what was said when it was presented to the public—overhaul our knowledge of life in the deeper sense.
An alternative to creating novel organisms through the traditional top-down approach to synthetic biology involves creating them from the bottom up, by assembling them from non-living components. The products of this approach are called ‘‘protocells.’’ In this paper we describe how bottom-up and top-down synthetic biology differ, review the current state of protocell research and development, and examine the unique ethical, social, and regulatory issues raised by bottom-up synthetic biology. We identify six key checkpoints in protocell development at which particular attention should be given to specific ethical, social and regulatory issues, and make ten recommendations for responsible protocell science that are tied to the achievement of these checkpoints.
Parke, E. C., & Bedau, M. A. (2009). The Precautionary Principle and its Critics. In M. A. Bedau & E. C. Parke (Eds.), The Ethics of Protocells (pp. 69–87). MIT Press.
The precautionary principle is a guideline for making decisions when a new technology might pose risks to human health or the environment, but there is significant scientific uncertainty surrounding those risks. In spite of the principle's widespread presence in national and international legislation and policy, there is no consensus as to its exact definition, status, or implications. We explain the variability of the precautionary principle, evaluate a series of problems with it, and identify what is required for its future use to be constructive and compelling.
Bedau, M. A. & Parke, E. C. (2008). Social and Ethical Issues Concerning Protocells. In S. Rasmussen et al. (Eds.), Protocells: Bridging Nonliving and Living Matter (pp. 641–654). MIT Press.
This chapter is part of an anthology on recent theoretical and experimental work aimed at creating protocells: minimal living cells engineered via bottom-up synthetic biology from nonliving materials. We survey the particular risks and benefits of bottom-up synthetic biology, and discuss a series of social, ethical and policy issues. These include the applicability of standard measures for making policy decisions about related technologies (such as risk analysis and the precautionary principle), and concerns about “playing God” and violating the sanctity of life.
Bedau, M. A. & Parke, E. C. (2009). The Ethics of Protocells: Moral and Social Implications of Creating Life in the Laboratory. MIT Press.
This book examines the social and ethical issues raised by the creation of life in the laboratory. Protocells might offer significant medical benefits and new economic opportunities, but they also pose potential risks, and threaten cultural and moral norms against tampering with nature and "playing God." The Ethics of Protocells offers a variety of perspectives on these concerns.
Bedau, M. A., Hansen, P. G., Parke, E. C., & Rasmussen, S. (2009). Living Technology: Five Questions. Automatic Press/VIP.
The phrase ‘living technology’ was coined to refer to technology that is alive as well as technology that is useful because it shares the fundamental properties of living systems. This book presents nineteen perspectives on living technology. Taken together, the interviews convey the collective wisdom on living technology’s power and promise, as well as its pitfalls and perils, from a list of authors with distinguished accomplishments in creating, using, or evaluating living technology.