Social studies of engineering have dedicated little attention to the question of epistemology. Although considerable attention has been paid to the growth of knowledge in science, surprisingly few authors have considered the development of engineering knowledge, and while much is made of emerging technologies, emerging knowledge is still associated with science, not engineering. This disparity is justified to the extent that science aims at the development of knowledge and understanding, while engineering aims at the making of things. Nonetheless, much is missed by engineering studies devoid of epistemic concerns. This essay develops an epistemological analysis of an emerging field of engineering: synthetic biology. Drawing lessons from Walter Vincenti's historical epistemology of aeronautics, I discuss contemporary knowledge practices in synthetic biology. My argument focuses on: the relationship between theory-based knowledge and empirical experience, the setting of requirements and parameters to guide design and fabrication, and the relationship between engineering knowledge and technological artifacts. Having thoroughly examined each topic, I discuss what this epistemological study teaches us about synthetic biology. Importantly, I consider the role that knowledge-making plays in the emergence of engineering disciplines. Finally, I note implications for broader work in engineering studies and posit directions for future research.
- synthetic biology
- engineering knowledge