Pierre-Olivier Méthot

Conférence de Pierre-Olivier Méthot

23 avril 2021

The 17th Annual Burian-McNabb Distinguished Lecture

The Logic of Life 50 Years Later : François Jacob and the Historical Approach to Biology”

Michel Foucault praised The Logic of Life (1970) by French geneticist François Jacob as “the most remarkable history of biology ever written.” In this book, rapidly translated into several languages, Jacob delineates different “stages of knowledge” in the history of biological thought that, he claims, have enabled the study of new “objects” in the life sciences. While commentators have long assumed that The Logic of Life was merely an application of Foucault’s approach to the history of biology, today this reading seems reductive and incomplete. In this lecture, I offer a new narrative that deepens our understanding of The Logic of Life. Drawing on archival material from the Institut Pasteur (Paris), I will argue that this influential book was, in part, Jacob’s response to the biological view of scientific growth defended by his colleague Jacques Monod in Chance and Necessity (1970) and elsewhere. This reading of the two books will, in turn, cast a new light on the end of Jacob and Monod’s long and fruitful collaboration, a collaboration that had led to their joint winning of the Nobel Prize in 1965 (with André Lwoff). I will further argue that Jacob’s change in experimental organism (from microbes to mice) in the late 1960s was an important impetus in writing the book. Only by situating The Logic of Life within its cultural context can we hope to understand how and why Jacob suddenly turned into a historian of biology, and to assess the promises and the limitations of his own historiographical legacy.

Organisé par Virginia Tech University, le 23 avril, à 13 h 30 (heure du Québec)

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