Whence “Synthetic” in Synthetic Biology

by jeeg 1. October 2010 00:04

In his essay on Nature, John Stuart Mill describes the essayist’s task as “dissecting large abstractions of this description [i.e. Nature]; fixing down to a precise definition the meaning which as popularly used they merely shadow forth, and questioning and testing the common maxims and opinions in which they bear a part.”[1] It is the charge of any writer to provide definition, for it is with definition that all discourse must begin. To properly define a term, however, is no mere chore of reference. To grasp the meaning of a word is to understand not only what it denotes, but also what it connotes. To know how a word is used is to comprehend how it has been used through time. In short, definition lies at the intersection of denotation, connotation, and etymology.

It is useful to attempt to draw a distinction between what it is that a term denotes and what it connotes. What it is that a word denotes is “a certain set of things in the world which it stands for and points to.” What it connotes, on the other hand, refers to “a set of feelings and associations which it arouses in the people who use it.” [2] For example, “home” denotes “the place where a person (or family) lives,” but also connotes “such things as warmth, intimacy, security, comfort, familiarity, and peace.” “In ordinary discourse,” it can be said, “connotative meanings are projections beyond denotative meanings.” [3]

The metaphor at the heart of this claim—the equation of meaning with physical space—hints at the deeper connection between these two types of meaning. One is liable to find both denotative and connotative senses of a term in a dictionary, though definitions of the former type will often outnumber those of the latter. But the example on point “suggests that connotations may have an effect on denotations, that what is more or less vaguely suggested by a word may in time affect the meaning of the word itself.”[4] Home has indeed come to signify a place of peace and warmth, not simply where someone lives. The progression from the concrete to the figurative, with the latter shifting from the connotative to the denotative over time, is a core process in the evolution of language. Linguistics teaches that words have a so-called “core meaning,” which in many cases is its oldest and most common meaning. As usage shifts through time, however, there are examples where the oldest, literal sense is less frequent than the figurative one.[5] This is true of the word synthesis.

The principal English sense of the word synthesis is “[t]he putting together of parts or elements so as to make up a complex whole.”[6] The primary usage of its adjectival form synthetic, however, is in the sense of “artificial” or “man-made.” Synthesis derives via Latin from the Greek σύνθεσις, meaning “a putting together, composition, [or] combination.”[7] The Greek σύνθεσις is a derivative of συντίθημι, from which also comes the closely-related cognate σύνθετος “put together, compounded of parts, composite.”[8] Moreover, σύνθεσις is itself a combination of σύν “with, along with, together,”[9] and θεσις, a derivative of τίθημι “to set, put, place,”[10] meaning “a setting, placing”[11] or “putting.”[12] Through a secondary definition σύν carries the implication of a “necessary connexion [sic],” and often applies to “things that belong, or are attached, to a person.”[13]

It is with these latter senses that the term entered Latin as synthĕsis, which means “a putting together of several things . . . which belong together,”[14] or “[a] set of matching articles,”[15] especially “a suit of clothes.”[16] Suetonius writes that Nero often wore “synthesinam indutus ligato circum collum sudario prodierit in publicum sine cinctu et discalciatus.”[17] In Liber Medicinalis, however, Serenus Sammonicus calls a compound of pennyroyal and anise an effective composite or synthesis.[18] He later employs the term a second with the same meaning:

Antidotos vero multis Mithridatia fertur
consociata modis; sed Magnus scrinia regis
cum raperet victor, vilem deprendit in illis
synthesin et vulgata satis medicamina risit,
Bis denum rutae folium, salis et breve granu
iuglandesque duas, tereti tot corpore ficus.

When Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, fell to Pompey’s Army in 63 BCE, “the medicine found in his casket was worthless,”[20] Sammonicus relates, it was only “a cheap mixture” (synthesin et vulgata).[21] The term carried this second sense, especially in medical discourse, into Medieval Latin.[22]

At the turn of the 17th Century when the term entered English in the context of philosophy, its meaning had shifted toward the figurative. In 1653, Thomas Hobbes wrote that synthesis is reasoning “from the first causes of [a] construction, continued through all the middle causes till we come to the thing itself which is constructed or generated.”[23] In other words, as noted, synthesis is a method of reasoning that runs from general principals to specific cases, from complex systems to their constituent parts. At first blush this may seem contrary to the Greek roots of the word, wherein individual parts are combined to become a σύνθεσις. This is not the case. In Plato’s Phædo, Socrates asks: “Ἆρ᾽ οὖν τῷ μὲν συντεθέντι τε καὶ συνθέτῳ ὄντι φύσει προσήκει τοῦτο πάσχειν, διαιρεθῆναι ταύτῃ ᾗπερ συνετέθη?”[24] Socrates’ question turns on the connection between συνθέτῳ, that which is put together, and διαιρεθῆναι, that which is taken apart. Here is Hobbes’s notion of reasoning by synthesis: the interrelation between a whole and its parts—one causally following from the other—permits one to reason from the former to the latter.[25]

Hobbes’s classical definition of synthesis—which accords with one of the two fundamental methods—is no longer the principal usage of the word, especially in its adjectival form synthetic. It was not until the 19th century, with the explosion of the science of chemistry, that synthesis acquired its most common modern meaning. In the context of chemical synthesis, “[t]he formation of chemical compounds from more simple compounds” or elements, that meaning of synthesis shifted towa
rd its Greek cognate σύνθετος, “compounded of parts.”
[26] As chemists produced increasingly “new” compounds, the term synthetic came to describe the product of their efforts: that which was produced by man. Many of these “new” compounds were not to be found in nature. Their creation was, in this sense, unnatural—a term that had meant abnormal and monstrous since medieval times. Hence the modern usage and connotation of synthetic: the figurative “projection” of the concept of chemical synthesis onto the realm of all human artifice.

While the roots of unnatural’s monstrous meaning are beyond my scope, it is likely this association between the synthetic and the unnatural that lies at the root of the negative connotation synthetic presently carries. The West’s shared cultural iconography of unnatural life is literally dominated by a monster: the creature created by Dr. Frankenstein. This powerfully image brings to life the metaphoric linkage between synthetic (or man-made) and unnatural (or monstrous). But does one follow the other? Is the synthetic (read artificial) just another species of the unnatural (read ethically-suspect)? Or is it possible to rehabilitate the primary, methodological meaning of synthetic in the biological context?

[1] John Stuart Mill, Three Essays on Religion: Nature, the Utility of Religion, and Theism 4 (3d ed. 1885).

[2] John C. Sherwood, Discourse of Reason: A Brief Handbook of Semantics and Logic 4 (1964).

[3] Harold C. Martin & Richard M Ohmann, The Logic and Rhetoric of Exposition 24-25 (rev. ed. 1965).

[4] Id., at 26 (internal quotations omitted).

[5] Murray Knowles and Rosamund Moon, Introducing Metaphor 11-12 (2006).

[6] OED (online 2010?)

[7] Henry G. Liddell & Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon 1492 (1897).

[8] Id., at 1493.

[9] Id., at 1470.

[10] Id., 1552. The Greek τίθημι is a descendent of Indo-European root *dhê- “to put, place, set,” with cognates including Latin faciō, Sanskrit दधाति (dádhāti), and Old English dōn (English do, deed, and doom). Semantically, the root means to establish something in its place: “the strict sense of *dhê- is to put, in a creative way, establish in existence, and not simply to leave an object on the ground.” Emile Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society 381 (Elizabeth Palmer trans., 1971) (internal quotations omitted); Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary 513 (1964).

[11] Lidell & Scott, supra note 11, at 671.

[12] Id., at 671; Walter W. Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language 620 (2898).

[13] Lidell & Scott , supra note 11, at 1470.

[14] A New and Copious Lexicon of the Latin Language 877 (F.P. Leverett ed., new ed. 1853).

[15] The Oxford Latin Dictionary (P.G.W. Glare, ed., 1982).

[16] D. P. Simpson, Cassel’s Latin Dictionary 591 (1968). For an extended discussion of synthesis as a garment worn in classical times, see Ethel Hampson Brewster, The Synthesis of the Romans, 49 Transacs. and Procs. of the Am. Philological Ass’n 131 (1918).

[17] Suetonius [Nero 51] 180 (J.C. Rolfe trans., 1920). Nero “generally appeared in public in a dining robe, with a handkerchief bound about his neck.” Id. at 181.

[18] Serenus Sammonicus, Liber Medicinalis, in Poetae Latini Minores 103, 133, [L. 572-73] (Aemilius Baehrens ed., 1881) (“Puleiumve potens et agreste iugatur anethum: / synthesis haec prodest unda mollita calenti.”)

[19] Sammonicus, supra note 22, at 156 [L. 1061-1066].

[20] Normal Moore, The History of the Study of Medicine in the British Isles 27-28 (1908).

[21] “Mithridatium, afterwards called Theriaca, contained opium. It began with thirty-eight ingredients, then had fifty-three, and later still seventy five, and continued to be made and prescribed long after the identify of many of its ingredients had been lost.” Id. at 28.

[22] Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources 473 (R.E. Latham ed., 1965).

[23] The English Works of Thomas Hobbs 312 (William Molesworth, ed., 1839).

[24] Plato 272 [78c] (Harold N. Fowler trans., 2005). “Now is not that which is compounded and composite naturally liable to be decomposed, in the same way in which it was compounded?”

[25] Describing Egyptian custom regarding swine, in Book II, Chapter 47 Herodotus observes that “ἐπεὰν θύσῃ, τὴν οὐρὴν ἄκρην καὶ τὸν σπλῆνα καὶ τὸν ἐπίπλοον συνθεὶς ὁμοῦ κατ᾽ ὦν ἐκάλυψε πάσῃ τοῦ κτήνεος τῇ πιμελῇ τῇ περὶ τὴν νηδὺν γινομένῃ, καὶ ἔπειτα καταγίζει πυρί” [“[T]he sacrificer lays the end of the tail and the spleen and the caul together and covers them up with all the fat that he finds around the belly, then consigns it all to the fire.”] Here, even in its most literal form, συντίθημι refers to parts of a constituent whole: the organs of the swine to be sacrificed. Herodotus 334-35 (A.D. Godley trans., 1975).

[26] A Dictionary of Chemistry; See note 12.


By Andrew D. Thibedeau


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