Unnatural Kinds

Thanks to all presenters and attendees! Check out videos of the workshop, linked here and on the Program page.

Categorization and classification are hallmark activities of analytic scientific practice. From biological taxa and the elements of the Periodic Table to the particles of the Standard Model, science has organized itself around discovering, explaining, and controlling the conditions that make something part of a kind. And since at least the time of Aristotle, natural philosophers have made arguments about what constitutes a kind in natural inquiry. Philosophers of science have suggested that members of a kind may share an ineffable, timeless essence; or a spatiotemporally local history; or a cluster of reasonably similar properties. Or, as some have suggested, perhaps the kinds there are, are just the kinds that human beings find useful.

The rich history of the study of kinds in natural philosophy, science, and philosophy of science can reveal much about the ways in which kinds have contributed to the development of contemporary scientific practice. However, most of those discussions have begun from the question of how to define the kinds that are out there, the species and elements and particles. But much of science, and especially of 21st-century scientific practice, focuses on creating new kinds, be they designer pharmaceuticals, novel nanomaterials, cloned cells or animals, or new methods of storing biological or medical information. In this way, kinds have come to dominate not only analytic scientific projects, but also synthetic ones. The pervasiveness of kinds in contemporary synthetic science raises a number of new questions: When, in the course of a synthetic project, can one claim to have made something of a new kind? How do we keep track of exponentially expanding chemical, pharmaceutical, and material databases? How do contemporary information management systems affect how we conceive of classification and categorization? When can (and when should) extra-scientific regulations limit the synthesis of novel kinds?

This two-day workshop will gather interdisciplinary perspectives on the topic of kinds and classification in contemporary synthetic science. In particular, we will address our questions to synthetic nanomaterials and engineered cell lines, as well as focusing on the roles that regulative practices as well as databases, biobanks, information-science ontologies, and other technologically-driven categorization tools all play in the conception, realization, and classification of novel, synthetic kinds.

Speakers: Evan Bolton (Information Science, NIH/NLM/NCBI), Julia Bursten (Philosophy, San Francisco State University), Melinda Bonnie Fagan (Philosophy, University of Utah), Will Fischer (Engineering, Nano Precision Medical), Evan Hepler-Smith (History, Princeton University), Vadim Keyser (Philosophy, Sacramento State University) Jill Millstone (Chemistry, University of Pittsburgh), Ubaka Ogbogu (Law/Pharmacy, University of Alberta), James Overton (Data Science, Knocean), John Rumble (Physics, R&R Data / CODATA), Alok Srivastava (Philosophy, San Francisco)

Organizing Committee: Julia Bursten and Evan Hepler-Smith

Contact: unnaturalkinds@gmail.com