Living Circuits: Contemporary Cybernetic Performativity in the Life Sciences

Workshop under the hospices of the CNRS Interdisciplinary ActionDomestication et fabrication du vivant” and Hosted by The Institute of Complex Systems Paris Ile-de-France
    • WHERE ? : salle 1.1 – ISCPIF – 113 rue nationale – 75013 Paris
    • WHEN ? : On May 12 2015.
  • Thierry Bardini, University of Montréal,
  • David Chavalarias, CAMS, CNRS/EHESS

Cet événement a reçu le soutien du DIM Problématiques transversales aux systèmes complexes


This workshop will be devoted to the relations that currently link cybernetics to the life sciences. There is ample evidence of the existence of these links in the historiographical literature, from the inception of cybernetics in Northern America (Heims) as well as in Europe (Pickering). It is not our purpose to dwell on this here, but only to remember that several doctors in medicine and biologists participated in the first meetings of the cyberneticians funded between 1943 and 1951 by the Macy Foundation, a foundation whose work was mainly concerned with the health sciences.


Recent works have shown more precisely the connections between cybernetics and molecular biology (Fox Keller, Kay, Doyle, etc.), a discipline that appears today at the origins of the dominant paradigm in the life sciences. Lily Kay, in particular, has insisted on the metaphorical nature of these links. According to her, the lexicon of molecular biology (message, code, information) only borrows to cybernetic a set of metaphors rather than implementing a true information theory applied to the living, and especially in the matter of the so-called “genetic code.”

In his book entitled La logique du vivant. Une histoire de l’hérédité, François Jacob also conceded this point. While insisting on the fact that “biology today is interested in the algorithms of the living world” (1970, 321), Jacob concluded by saying that “science is unavoidably trapped in its own system of explanation. Today, the world is messages, codes and information. Tomorrow, which new direction will dismantle our objects in order to recompose them in a new space?” To us, it is obvious that we are not yet “tomorrow” in this sense: cybernetics still rule, and this is specifically the object of this workshop to examine precisely how. A change of focus is thus necessary: away from the question of the metaphor, to that of performativity, i.e. to a pragmatic study of the connections between cybernetics and the life sciences. The question is not anymore “did cybernetics offer their references to the life sciences on a metaphorical mode?” but rather: “what do the cybernetic references, be they metaphorical or not, do to the life sciences?”

In this perspective, the notion of performativity used here is based on Paul Ricoeur’s work on the metaphor (1975, 288): “metaphoric interpretation, in raising questions about a new semantic pertinence on the ruins of literal meaning, also invokes a new referential aim, in favor of abolishing reference that corresponds to literal interpretation of the statement.” What, then are the contemporary referential aims of the uses of cybernetics in the life sciences? In which way, do they allow and constrain the construction of theories and experimental protocols that justify them retrospectively? Do they apply uniformly to the whole life sciences, from molecular biology to the cognitive sciences? And, more profoundly also, to which extent do these referential aims participate in a redefinition of life itself?

The workshop will convene Tuesday May 12 at the Institute of Complex Systems, in Paris, from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. The morning will be devoted to a kind of archeology of the links between cybernetics and the life sciences, featuring recent works from British and Northern American social scientists. The afternoon will be devoted to the presentation of current works in the life sciences showing the performativity of cybernetic referential aims at work.


9h00 - Welcome

Welcome at ISC-PIF with cafe, tea and croissant…

9h15 - Presentation of the "Pépinière Domestication et fabrication du vivant"

By Perig Pitrou.

9h30: Thierry Bardini, Program, Network and Viruses: Cybernetic Performativities in the Life Sciences.

Agronomist (ENSA Montpellier, 1986) and sociologist (Ph.D. Paris X Nanterre, 1991), Thierry Bardini is full professor in the department of communication at the university of Montréal, where he has been teaching since 1993. His research interests concern the contemporary cyberculture, from the production and uses of information and communication technologies to molecular biology. He is the author of Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution and the Genesis of Personal Computing (Stanford University Press, 2000), Junkware  (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and Journey to the End of the Species (in collaboration with Dominique Lestel, Éditions Dis Voir, Paris, 2011).

10h20 : Orit Halpern, The "Smart" Mandate: Algorithms, Design, and Biopolitics in Cybernetics.

Orit Halpern is an assistant professor at the New School for Social Research/Eugene Lang College in History and an affiliate in the Culture and Media Studies Department and in the Design Studies MA program at Parsons the New School of Design. She holds a Ph.D. in History of Science from Harvard (2006). Her work focuses on the histories of digital technologies, cybernetics, the human and cognitive sciences, and design. In 2014, she published at Duke University Press her first book, titled Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945.

11h10: Coffee break


11h30: Andrew Pickering, Cybernetic Life: Grey Walter, Ross Ashby and the Life Sciences.

Andrew Pickering is a sociologist, philosopher and historian of science at the University of Exeter. He was a professor of sociology and a director of science and technology studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign until 2007. He holds a doctorate in physics from the University of London, and a doctorate in Science Studies from the University of Edinburgh. His book Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics[is a classic in the field of the sociology of science. In 2010, he published at the University of Chicago Press his latrest book, titled The Cybernetic Brain.

12h20: General discussion


12h40: Lunch


14h Paul Villoutreix, "Multi-scale approach of variability in the sea urchin embryogenesis weakens the picture of a precisely executed genetic program".

Paul Villoutreix is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Complex Systems, whose research focuses on the study of variability during animal morphogenesis. By studying the inter/intra individual variability in a small cohort of sea urchin, he participated in the elaboration of a prototypical representation of the blastula development. He is also interested in the study of epithelium’s topology, which he describes by adapting the tools of applied algebraic topology, particularly the framework of persistent homology. Finally, he is involved in theoretical reflections on the status of variability and prediction in biology compared to the concept of randomness in physics and mathematics as a member of Giuseppe Longo’s team at the Centre Cavailles in the philosophy department of the ENS.

14h50 : Véronique Thomas-Vaslin, Modelling the complexity of the immune system : immunocybernetics?

Véronique THOMAS-VASLIN, is a researcher in CNRS in Paris, She leads the « Integrative Immunology: Differentiation, Diversity, Dynamics » team since 2009 at UMR7211 CNRS/UPMC Immunology, Immunopathology, Immunotherapy, Labex TransImmunom (Head Pr David Klatzmann). Developing systems immunology approaches to have a global understanding of the immune system as a complex system, she modelled T cell dynamics by mathematical and computational approaches (Graphical ODE and ABM Modelling Language, Software copyright UPMC). She is a member of Complex System Society and Réseau National des Systèmes Complexes and created the ImmunoComplexiT network in 2011.

15h40: Coffee break

16h : René Doursat, "Imagination wanted: How Artificial Life can help biology and cybernetics revisit and expand each other".

René Doursat (BioEmergences Lab, CNRS, Gif-sur-Yvette, France) is a Research Scientist and former Director of the Complex Systems Institute, Paris Ile-de-France (ISC-PIF). He also co-founded the Erasmus Mundus Complex Systems Master’s at Ecole Polytechnique, where he is a Guest Lecturer. An alumnus of Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), he completed a PhD in neural networks in 1991, then two postdocs at the Ruhr-Universität, Bochum and the CREA Lab, Paris. After a segue through the software industry in San Francisco, he resumed academic research and teaching on a full-time basis in 2004. His research interests are located at the interface between computational biology and bio-inspired computing, where he founded the field of “morphogenetic engineering”—an exploration of new methodologies to model and create complex architectures that self-organize from a swarm of heterogeneous agents via dynamical, developmental, and evolutionary processes. He was the General Chair of ECAL 2011, the European Conference on Artificial Life, and is currently on the board of the International Society for Artificial Life.

16h50: General discussion