Science is a social activity. It cannot be singled out from
other human activities, although it has its own rationality.
The aim of the Causeries du Jeudi (Thursday's chats) is to bring
together scientists, laymen, artists, lawyers, poets, philosophers,
who feel concerned by problems raised by biological knowledge
(and in general human knowledge) for discussions on the chief
concepts that make Biology as we now know it. This seminar runs
under the collective name Stanislas Noria.
language becomes critical when one departs strictly from the
most esoteric science, the discussions use several tongues. Started
in French in the early nineties, they are now held mostly in
English (sometimes in Cantonese!, when held in Hong Kong), but
some discussions still go on in French. It should be remembered
here that, in contrast to Anglo-American cultures, Latin civilisations
(especially in Italy and Portugal, but in France also) do not
split between Science, Arts and Literature
(see CP Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific
It is therefore natural that any ongoing reflection of the very
basis of Science (which is deeply rooted in language, and therefore
in semantics, see Keith Chen for a fairly
extreme but documented view) is pursued not only in English,
but in other languages as well. It should be remembered that
the 2000 Nobel Prize winner in Literature Gao Xingjian 高行健, writes
not only in Chinese, but also in French... Whereas radical empiricism
fits well with English (facts first, demonstration later), the
basis of what makes Science (a kind of rational thinking build
on hypotheses and deductions) is hypothesis-driven, and in this
endeavour languages such as French, Greek or Italian (and in
its own special way, German) may appear to be much more appropriate.
The case of Chinese is very special there, and has to be entirely
re-constructed, from the holistic point of view which is its
own original feature. This is one of the endeavours of the Causeries.
These causeries are a revival of the discussions of the Centre
Royaumont pour une Science de l'Homme, initiated in the early
seventies mostly by Jacques Monod. This Centre unfortunately
disappeared after Monod's untimely death. This took place at
the time of the destruction, in most Western countries where
it still existed, of an education system based on Humanities.
For this reason it became incongruous, if not plainly obscene,
to speak of philosophy (or poetry) inside a "hard-science"
laboratory. However, in the early nineties, there was a first
hint that young scientists became interested again in the reasons
underlying their own endeavours. This is what prompted the organisation
of a weekly meeting in the Regulation of Gene Expression Unit
at the Institut Pasteur of Paris, where people interested in
the nature of Science would come and discuss general issues.
This was at a time when a programme with Chinese Universities,
as well as the University of Bologna in Italy, were experimenting
an unorthodox exploration of anthropological
studies of the West by Non-Westerners. For two years, the
discussion was centered on a presentation of the Presocratic
starting with the observation that the quotation
of Democritus which made the title of the famous book of
Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, was apocryphous,
and entirely foreign to the Greek spirit. Subsequently,
the major theme of the Causeries was the concept of function.
The discussion was initiated by Yves Brette, a former manager
of the Bull Company, who spoke about the nature of the functions
of human artefacts. From then on the discussion focused on many
topics, ranging from Aristotelian philosophy, Cassirer, Leibniz,
to concrete issues in functional genomics, and genome annotation.
At the onset of the founding of the HKU-Pasteur
Centre the discussion
was moved to Hong Kong, where it began with a discussion
about the nature of Science and knowledge in Europe and in Eastern
During years 2001-2002 and until march 2003, the causeries were
held at the Department of Mathematics
of the University of Hong Kong, as Working Seminar - Conceptualized
Biology: first steps to define what life is (2nd Series -
2002-2003). They started again at the Institut Pasteur de Paris
in october 2003. In Paris, this working seminar was temporarily
interrupted. Several ongoing efforts were nevertheless developing
in parallel: the conference Le
Logique et le Biologique held at the University Paris I on
april 22nd 2005 is an illustration (summarized in
our presentation). Since
2006 the discussions have resumed a more regular course, with
conferences, seminars and discussions in Paris and in Hong Kong.
A central focus at the time is Symplectic
(Synthetic) Biology. This work was followed up by the
creation of an open access journal, Symplectic
Biology. This journal
failed to develop in a context where Open Access publication
has suddenly become extremely lucrative (authors pay for being
published, in a move not different from advertisement), so that
hundreds of new journals have been created, and keep being created
(as of march 2013).
Hence this E-seminar is the only ongoing outcome of our effort
to promote Symplectic Biology. After each discussion a summary
is written, sent by E-mail to former participants as well as
to persons interested in the discussion, all over the world,
who wish to participate.
The "causeries" are meant to be an open forum, but
not a chat room or a general unregulated forum where anybody
can attend. In fact, it is expected that there is some participation
of everybody in the discussion - more like mediaeval disputatii -
and we assume that there is some progress made in the definition
of "prospective" notions (to take the word of John
Myhill), coming out from our common work. For this reason, we
must be sure that people connected are really interested, and
that they have a constructive approach to the discussion. This
is why we ask everybody to register, and we discuss whether we
accept any newcomer in the discussion group. It is also admitted
that not all summaries, contents etc will be in English: multilingual
discussions are encouraged... It must also
be understood that, because some may be interested for a while,
then no longer interested, we shall from time to time ask whether
participants are still interested and unregister those who do
not answer positively.
Note that a public (copyright)
summary of the causeries is regularly publishes as articles in
peer-reviewed journals. These summaries began with the text
of the comments on the Presocratic philosophers discussed in
the early nineties (in French), as well as a summary of the discussion
on the scientific method (in English, and hopefully, in Chinese
when the text will be available).