Alain Prochiantz

The Mind-Machine Publication date : January 1, 2001

In La Biologie dans le Boudoir, a pastiche of a work by the Marquis de Sade, Alain Prochiantz had already suggested that the development of the brain is governed by a few genes, and that, paradoxically, this leads to an assertion of freedom that abolishes the very notion of nature. In Machine-Esprit, his long-awaited new book, Prochiantz adopts a more serious but equally lively tone to confront some of the most significant of today’s biological theories.
What, among all other physical phenomena, confers upon a living creature its particular characteristics? What is biology’s place among other scientific subjects, with which it is often in conflict?
The author re-examines the works of D’Arcy Thompson, Schrödinger, Brillouin, as well as those of Turing and Dawkins, and shows the problems that have resulted from efforts to reduce “life” to mathematical, physical, cybernetic or thermodynamic categories.
What is characteristic of a living creature? Its individuality, says the author. But what is an individual — and, more specifically, a human individual? Prochiantz says the answer can be found by studying development — and not only from an evolutionary or genetic point of view. This leads him to trace the development of the human brain. He concludes with an examination of the originality of the thought process, which, despite its biological basis, is neither a substance nor a mechanism, but the relation between an individual and his or her environment.
There is enough material here to fuel the growing debate on the current efforts to abolish the frontiers between the natural sciences and the humanities, in the name of the oneness of all knowledge, whatever its source.

Alain Prochiantz heads the laboratory on the development and evolution of the nervous system (CNRS) at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He is the author of Les Stratégies de l’Embryon, Claude Bernard: La Révolution Physiologique, La Biologie dans le Boudoir and Les Anatomies de la Pensée.