1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Events

The Ischia Summer School - Creating Life: From Alchemy to Synthetic Biology

Conference   29.06.2013






Ischia Summer School - Creating Life: From Alchemy to Synthetic BiologyFaculty:

Bernadette Bensaude-VincentLuis CamposHelen A. CurryStefan HelmreichHiro HiraiPeter Murray JonesWolfgang SchäffnerJoan SteigerwaldJames E. Strick

Organised by

Directors: Janet Browne (Harvard), Christiane Groeben (Naples), Nick Hopwood (Cambridge), Staffan Müller-Wille (Exeter)

Funding: Wellcome Trust, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, National Science Foundation, Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn


Villa Dohrn, Ischia, Italy

Event details



Call for applications

The Thirteenth Ischia Summer School on the History of the Life Sciences

Villa Dohrn, Ischia, Italy

29 June – 6 July 2013

Applications are invited for this week-long summer school, which provides advanced training in history of the life sciences through lectures and seminars in a historically rich and naturally beautiful setting. The theme for 2013 is "Creating Life:From Alchemy to Synthetic Biology".

This week-long summer school provides advanced training in history of the life sciences, a lively international field that offers a long-term perspective on some of the most significant ideas, practices and institutions in the world today. The event attracts expert faculty and well-qualified students for a combination of lectures, seminar discussion and student presentations in a historically rich and naturally beautiful setting. We aim to encourage exchange of ideas across disciplinary boundaries, national cultures and historical periods. We can accommodate up to 26 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and also accept established researchers seeking to enter a new field. The biennial school, which looks back on a distinguished tradition of association with the Stazione Zoologica, was revived in 2005 after a break of some two decades and again ran successfully in 2007, 2009 and 2011. It is held in Villa Dohrn, the current Laboratory for Benthic Ecology and former summer house of the founder Anton Dohrn, situated above the port of the island of Ischia and overlooking the Gulf of Naples.

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. In contrast, 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 standardise, control and manipulate life, provoke discussions about "minimal" definitions of life, and challenge ethical intuitions about the dignity of living beings.

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?

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 throughout the modern period, 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? Following up these historical questions 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.

Faculty and programme

The organisers will introduce the theme, chair the sessions, and lead discussion sessions. Each faculty member will give a talk of up to 30 minutes, with equal time for discussion, and organize a one-hour seminar discussion. This will provide the lecture experience that some students particularly value plus plenty of opportunities for interaction and participation, which will be enhanced by student presentations and general discussions. English is the working language and readings will be circulated in advance.

Staffan Müller-WilleIntroduction to the theme ‘Creating Life’

Peter Murray Jones, King’s College, CambridgeLecture: Generation and Ensoulment from Antiquity to the Middle AgesSeminar: Visions and Disputations: Medieval Perspectives on Ensoulment

Hiro Hirai, Radboud Universitet, NijmegenLecture: Generation, Reproduction and 'Creation' of Life in Renaissance and Early Modern Medicine, Natural Philosophy and AlchemySeminar: Homunculus: Artificial Production of Life in Early Modern Alchemy

Staffan Müller-Wille, University of ExeterDiscussion: Generation and Creation

Joan Steigerwald, York University, TorontoLecture: Instrumental Definitions of Life in the Eighteenth CenturySeminar: Generation and Excitability: Exploring the Border Zones of Organic Vitality in the Enlightenment and Romantic Period

James E. Strick, Franklin & MarshallLecture: Darwin and the Darwinians on the Origin of LifeSeminar: The Oparin-Haldane Paradigm vs Synthetic Life Experiments in the 1930s

Janet Browne, Harvard UniversityDiscussion: Darwinism and the Creativity of Life

Helen A. Curry, University of CambridgeLecture: “Evolution to Order”: Plant Breeding and the Production of NoveltySeminar: Biological Innovation in Science and Law

Luis Campos, University of New MexicoLecture: n-1: Minimal Life From Radiobes to SynthiaSeminar: Creating Life in the Twentieth Century

Nick Hopwood, University of CambridgeDiscussion: 'Babies "created" in test tube, scientist claims'

Bernadette Bensaud-Vincent, University Paris I (Sorbonne)Lecture: Creating New Forms of Life: Synthetic BiologySeminar: Synthetic Biology

Stefan Helmreich, MITLecture: What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit BiologiesSeminar: The Definition of Life: Answers from Theoretical Biology Wolfgang Schäffner, Humboldt University BerlinLecture: Self-operating matter: convergence of natural and technical objectsSeminar: Agential realism and material epistemology

In addition, there will be a welcoming reception and other social events, and we will take one day for a trip to Naples to visit the main Zoological Station, a major international institution of biology since 1872, to see its historical collections (a great specialist library for history of biology and important archive), laboratories and famous aquarium.

All participants should be present for the full week in order to facilitate discussions. 29 June and 6 July are travelling days, with no lectures or seminars scheduled.

Further details