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Human practice

“Regarding the service done to science, frogs deserve the first place. No animal ever serve more numerous and greater discoveries on every aspects of science, and still today, without frogs, physiology would be impossible. If the frog, as one said, is the Job of experimental physiology, that is to say the most maltreated animal by the experimenter, it is undoubtedly the animal most closely associated with their labor and scientific glory.”

Claude Bernard, 1865 Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale, Deuxième partie, chap. II, VI

The starting point of our investigation can be summed up in one sentence: “Xenopus tropicalis is introduced as new chassis in the iGEM contest”. This introduction appeared to the Evry team members raising important “ethical and maybe legal issues” that should involve the help of a philosopher (or maybe someone else from the humanities). The “need of ethics” is a feeling quite difficult to characterize, we have the idea that something is at stake in what we do but we can’t really formulate what or why. But a tension exists, might exist or should exist, somewhere in the lab or with society. Our sentence, “Xenopus tropicalis is being introduced as new chassis in the iGEM contest” lead us spontaneously toward very difficult issues concerning animal experimentations and GMOs, tricky topics which often bring sterile debates between pros and contras and other caveats that we don’t want to fall into.

It is important to note that the philosopher brought into the team hadn’t studied moral philosophy or animal ethics before joining the team. In that respect he was in formation, as the other team members, trying to understand what could be experimental philosophy or some kind of applied philosophy which sounded quite oxymoronic. Problematizing the human practice needed a lot of discussions and debates, as biologists and modelers didn’t really know what they were expecting from the philosopher, and the philosopher didn’t really understand what “human practice” or the “need of ethics” was. After all, if the problem was the legality of the experimentation or drawing the red line of “when does science stop and cruelty towards animals begins” with tadpoles and frogs, it was not a philosopher that was needed but an expert from an ethical committee stamping “everything is ethically acceptable, you can proceed to the experimentation”.

Thus, after we made sure that everything planned was ethically acceptable from the point of view of laws, we tried to understand what should be a “human practice project” dealing with Xenopus tropicalis. The main point of those discussions was the following, our human practice should not be about convincing people that what we are doing is great, nor posing the basis of a new start-up using tadpoles for various purposes (it already exists), nor trying to rethink categories used by laws on animal experimentation such as “should we extend or restraint the species concerned by the animal category?” or “when does the larvae should be considered as an animal?” etc. We didn’t have time and experience to tackle such issues.

What should our human practice be then? Some kind of a road book, the witness of a self-reflection triggered in the team during May/June 2012 on our practice, concepts and disagreements, on the paths we could open or close for synthetic biology and iGEM contest. The human practice should also be at the interface of the laboratory and society, articulating each other’s expectations and fears. What we deliver here is the organized outcome of the various discussions and debates we had during the summer, the compromises we tried to build and the issues which stay vivid. A posteriori we noticed that those discussions mainly dealt with the sentence previously quoted, “Xenopus tropicalis is introduced as new chassis in the iGEM contest”, and especially around the terms of “chassis” and “genetically engineered machine”, which specially caught the attention of traditional biologists and laymen when referring to an animal. These terms appeared to symbolize the divergence of perceptions and ethical sensibilities we had among the team. In our account of this summer investigation we developed four aspects of the introduction of Xenopus tropicalis in the iGEM contest, aiming at clarifying the range of the engineering metaphors and attitudes applied to living things. The four aspects are the following:

The four aspects are the following:

  1. Why Xenopus laevis is an interesting chassis for synthetic biology? We will have to think through some epistemological principle distinguishing a chassis from a model organism.
  2. Why should we care of animals and human/non-human relationships? We will present some principles of animal ethics and investigate pragmatic approaches giving non-human beings a special attetion.
  3. Why “chassis” is the term of disagreement?
  4. What about Xenopus laevis in the future of iGEM?

Though these aspects are all related, we tried make the parties readable independently from one another, to give the possibility for one another to start with the part he feels the most (or the less) concerned.

A fifth part, more independent of the rest of the work, is an annex summering the legal aspects of animal experimentation, the debates in La Paillasse and the two surveys which helped us start our investigation.

Last but not least, we have to precise that the story is sometimes biased by the opinions of the writer (the philosopher). Though we try reflecting all the opinions of the team members and insisting on the divergences, some conclusions, and the organization of this work, might not be the fruit of a successful compromise.

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