Henri Atlan

Postgenomic Life, or What is Self-organisation?) Publication date : January 13, 2011

A physician, biologist, philosopher and author, Henri Atlan is regarded as a pioneer in the area of complexity theory. He served as a member of the French National Consultative Ethics Committee and is a former director of research at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). He is, most notably, the author of Entre le cristal et la fumée, L’Organisation biologique et la théorie de l’information, Les Etincelles de hasard, La Science est-elle inhumaine?, U.A. L’Utérus artificiel and Des embryons et des hommes.

We spontaneously associate the idea of organisation with that of human production: the fruit of artistic endeavour or rational planning. It is hard for us to imagine that a spontaneous order or a functional activity can be produced without human — or supernatural — intervention. This is what leads creationists to reject the notion that life could have originated spontaneously and that the evolution of species could have arisen exclusively as the result of natural laws.
And yet, what is known as self-organisation is possible in nature, without any external form of intervention. Numerous examples can be observed, particularly in living forms, but not exclusively. What logic do such phenomena answer to? What types of models can help us explain such phenomena? These are the questions that Henri Atlan answers here, alternating between theoretical models and empirical examples borrowed from physics, thermodynamics and chemistry as well as from biology and neurophysiology. In the meantime, as a philosopher, he shows how this way of comprehending nature connects with and enriches the fundamental characteristics of the philosophy of a thinker like Spinoza.