Living Circuits: Contemporary Cybernetic Performativity in the Life Sciences

Living Circuits: Contemporary Cybernetic Performativity in the Life Science

Workshop under the hospices of the CNRS Interdisciplinary Action “Domestication et fabrication du vivant” and Hosted by The Institute of Complex Systems Paris Ile-de-France.

Where and when?

May 12th 2015

Institut des Systèmes Complexes – 113 Rue Nationale, 75013 Paris



  • Thierry Bardini, University of Montréal,
  • David Chavalarias, CAMS, CNRS/EHESS


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

9h15: Perig PitrouPresentation of the “Pépinière Domestication et Fabrication du Vivant”

9h30: Thierry BardiniProgram, Network and Viruses: Cybernetic Performativities in Life Sciences

10h20: Orit HalpernThe “Smart” Mandate: Algorithms, Design, and Biopolitics in Cybernetics

11h10: Coffee break

11h30: Andrew PickeringCybernetic Life: Grey Walter, Ross Ashby and the Life Sciences

12h20: General discussion

12h40: Lunch

14h: Paul VilloutreixMultiscale Approach of Variability in the Sea Urchin Embryogenesis Weakens the Picture of a precisely executed Genetic Program

14h50: Véronique Thomas VaslinModelling the Complexity of the Immune System: Immunocybernetics?

15h40: Coffee break

16h: René DoursatImagination wanted: How Artificial Life can help Biology and Cybernetics revisit and expand each other

16h50: General Discussion


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