Per formam enim, quae est actus materiae, materia efficitur ens actu et hoc aliquid.

De ente et essentia


Unpublished research programmes of the CRSH

Antoine Danchin 

At the time when he was developing the details of the concept of allostery, Jacques Monod (1910-1976) played a central role in the creation of the Centre Royaumont pour une Science de l'Homme (CRSH), with the idea of reconciling molecular biology and neuroscience. His ultimate argument was that the link between the two was ethical: knowledge carries its own ethics. Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, who had spent some time in his laboratory, was mainly interested in science and philosophy, and it was only natural that Monod asked him to organise a think tank that would bring together scientists from various disciplines, with a focus on the philosophy of science. This is how the Centre was created, initially with Jean-Pierre Changeux, François Dell, Jacques Mehler (1936-2020) and Dan Sperber. Royaumont Abbey had long been a place where intellectuals and artists could meet and hold meetings where discussions took place in the spirit of the disputatii of the Middle Ages. Together with  Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński (1922-1987), a close friend of the poet Czesław Miłosz  (1911-2004), I was commissioned by Monod to develop new programmes aimed at understanding the relationship between the human body, the brain in particular, and the most evolved and "abstract" characteristics of human behaviour.

When the Centre closed, I maintained for a while a working seminar on memory and learning, every Wednesday afternoon in the lecture room of the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique. tempoThis seminar was closed in 1978 but I eventually resumed it in 1990 at the Institut Pasteur as a philosophy of sciences seminar, initially discussing pre-Socratic philosophy. In the meantime, much of the previous programme had been reactivated by the creation of the Fermo Biennial Meetings, with the historian Ruggiero Romano (1923-2002) and the support of the Einaudi Foundation (developing the Enciclopedia Einaudi, with Fernando Gil (1937-2006), and participation in a research programme on an anthropology of the west by non-westerners based on a concept proposed by Anne Retel- Laurentin (1925-1983), inspired by the importance of West Africa, and later developed in China by an unconventional structure called Transcultura, under the presidence of Umberto Eco (1932-2016) – who had been previously involved in the programme of the CRSH to study the principles of human communication – at the University of Bologna, but curiously never mentioned in his CVs. A first conference was held in Guangzhou in 1990, on the status of science and technology in the Western world and in China. The seminar continued at the Department of Mathematics at the University of Hong Kong (2000-2003) and it is now an open E-seminar, working on information and synthesis of life.

The Unity of Man

In parallel with my work as one of the coordinators of the CRSH, I created a working seminar at the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique, with the mathematician Philippe Courrège, which took place every wednesday afternoon in the conference room on the third floor, rue Pierre Curie, next to the Institut Henri Poincaré. The Cercle Polivanov (a centre for comparative poetics in part derived from the Oulipo) was developing there around Jacques Roubaud, Pierre Lusson, Marcel Benabou, Philippe Courrège, Mitsou Ronat (1946 - 1984) and many others and we had close contacts with their work, and the journal Change (published by Seghers). As a first development we chose to work on the mathematical formalisation of selective theories, initially at the molecular level. After a conversation I had with Jean-Pierre Changeux at the Institut Pasteur, we turned to the analysis of selective theories applied to learning and memory, and in addition to the core group formed with Philippe Courrège, Jean-Pierre Changeux and many mathematicians came on a regular basis to participate in our seminar (François Blanchard, Alain Chenciner, Jean-Michel Lasry, Pierre Lusson, Gabriel Ruget, Bernard Saint-Loup, and even Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010); I have probably forgotten some of the participants). This seminar lasted from 1972 to 1976 on a regular basis, and then slowly died out as the interests of its participants began to diverge. Several publications came out of this work. Because it was linked to reflections on language, the seminar partially overlapped, for a time, with the efforts of the Cercle Polivanov (Jean-Pierre Faye, Pierre Lusson, Jacques Roubaud and others), which explains my contribution to the journal Change, published by Seghers.

The seminar was initiated again after several attempts under different covers, the biennial Fermo encounters, then a transcultural study of the west by non-westerners (1988-~2005), and finally via a seminar in my laboratory (Regulation of Gene Expression, 1990-2000), then a working seminar at the Department of Mathematics of the University of Hong Kong (2000-2003), transformed into an ongoing e-seminar, the "causeries du jeudi" (2003-present).

Fire together, wire together

JP Changeux, P Courrège, A Danchin
A theory of the epigenesis of neuronal networks by selective stabilization of synapses
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A (1973) 70: 2974-2978 pubmed pnas

Abstract: A formalism is introduced to represent the connective organization of an evolving neuronal network and the effects of environment on this organization by stabilization or degeneration of labile synapses associated with functioning. Learning, or the acquisition of an associative property, is related to a characteristic variability of the connective organization: the interaction of the environment with the genetic program is printed as a particular pattern of such organization through neuronal functioning. An application of the theory to the development of the neuromuscular junction is proposed and the basic selective aspect of learning emphasized.

fr A Danchin, JP Changeux
Apprendre par stabilisation sélective de synapses en développement
In: "L'Unité de l'Homme" (Centre Royaumont pour une Science de l'Homme) Le Seuil (1974): 320-350

fr A. Danchin
À propos des poèmes à la manière T'ang
La traduction en jeu
Change (1974) 19: 149-155

fr A Danchin
L'inné et l'acquis: une théorie sélective de l'apprentissage
La Recherche (1974) 5: 184-187 (repris dans des ouvrages généraux, traduit en espagnol et en italien)

fr P Courrège, A Danchin
Apprentissage et changement dans le système nerveux central
Colloque de Cerisy-la-Salle, Change (ed. 10/18) (1975): pp 60-73

JP Changeux, A Danchin
Selective stabilisation of developing synapses as a mechanism for the specification of neuronal networks
Nature (1976) 264: 705-712 pubmed pdf

JP Changeux, A Danchin
Biochemical models for the selective stabilisation of developing synapses
SES Symposium Book (WL Nastuk and GA Cottrell, eds.)(1977)

fr A Danchin
Stabilisation fonctionnelle et épigenèse: une approche biologique de la genèse de l'identité individuelle
In: "L'Identité" (JM Benoist, ed) Grasset (1977): 185-221 pdf

frLe dialogue entre préformation et épigenèse est au cœur de la vie. Ce qui est transmis de façon héréditaire et stable, est une règle de mise en place. Cette règle a la particularité d'offrir des choix multiples. Cela se remarque aussi bien dans le système nerveux, que le système circulatoire ou le système immunitaire. L'interaction  avec l'environnement (qui ne peut être le même pour deux individus), conduit à la sélection, par stabilisation (simple pérennité) d'une partie de ce qui a été offert initialement. On a là la base de l'apprentissage, et de la genèse de l'identité.   ukusThe dialogue between preformation and epigenesis is at the core of life. A construction rule is what is transmitted through heredity. This rule offers multiple choices. This can be seen most easily in the nervous system, the blood system or the immune system. The interaction with the environment (which cannot be the same for two individuals), leads to the selection, by a stabilisation process (ensuring perennity) of a fraction of what has been offered initially as choices. This is the basis for learning, as well as for the generation of identity.

fr A Danchin
Spécification épigénétique des réseaux nerveux par stabilisation fonctionnelle de synapses en développement
In: "Neurobiologie de l'Apprentissage" (R Delacour, ed) Masson (1978): 198-209

fr A Danchin
Comment peut-on parler de l'automate cérébral aujourd'hui ?
Revue Philosophique (1980) 3: 287-304

frDepuis le XVIIIe siècle la philosophie a été envahie par un "biologisme" mécaniste. La Mettrie en est l'un des meilleurs exemples. D'où la tentation de parler de l'automate cérébral comme d'un automate (servo-)mécanique. La science du calcul, qui est en révolution depuis le début des années 1930 ne s'accomode pas de la mécanique, même de sa forme élaborée en servo-mécanisme. Il existe en effet un rôle essentiel du lieu du calcul dans son développement. Si, donc, on devait encore parler d'automate cérébral, il serait essentiel de le placer dans le lieu où il apprend sans cesse, dans son environnement. En quelque sorte les approches kantienne doivent s'incarner pour prendre en compte la réalité de l'objet qu'est le cerveau.   ukSince the time of "enlightment" philosophy has been continously invade by a mechanicist "biologism". Julien Offroy de la Mettrie is one of the best examples of this tendency. Hence the images of the brain automaton as a (servo-)mechanism (mostly controlled by feedback cybernetic processes). In contrast the science of computation, which is witnessing a revolution since the early '30s cannot accomodate mechanics, even considering servo-mechanism. It is indeed imbedded in a development where the situation of computation in time and space plays a crucial role. If, then, one still had to speak about a brain automaton, it would be essential to place it in the place where is learns, in its environment. In a way, the kantian views must become flesh, to take into account the brain object.

A Danchin, AA Fenton
From analog to digital computing: Is Homo sapiens’ brain on its way to become a Turing Machine?
Front. Ecol. Evol. (2022) 10: 796413

Animal communication and human communication

This research programme was set up in 1974 but never implemented. Several working papers in particular by Tom Pitcairn and Scott Atran were written as a preliminary set up of the programme. This situation led me to shift my research programme to a completely new domain, microbial genetics instead of neurobiology. A sequel of the programme was the Chomsky-Piaget meeting organized at the Abbaye de Royaumont in 1975.

The Problem

Extensive use of symbolic language in a creative fashion is specific to Homo sapiens. The concept of communication, however, is a pervasive one, manifesting itself in an extensive variety of ways, from chemical markers among insects to bird songs, from animal signalling to human languages to the sophisticated sharing of cultural inheritance in literate societies.

The quest for the biological basis of language and communication and the search for the possibility of a common root of thes related phenomena in a fundamental anthropology implies a thorough analysis of the most recent findings in the neurosciences and a fresh review of some of the basic mechanisms of evolution. The solid framework of physiology and of the dynamics of evolution lends itself to a re-definition of certain traits in order to account for behavioral adaptation, learning abilities, and symbolic modes of communication. The understanding of the development of structures allowing for the constitution of a great variety of messages based on a combination of discrete units which are in themselves value-free is a major theoretical challenge.

The present somewhat primitive state of investigations in these fields is partly due to the fact that a solid experimental praxis has been developed for animals only, leaving out the most complex and fascinating repository of these phenomena: the human species. On the other hand, anthropology, sociolinguistics and psychology have developed autonomous logics of investigation whose direct application to anatomicla and physiological data is very difficult if not impossible.

Without denying the autonomy of these levels of description and without pretending to reduce linguistics and psychology to neuronal circuitry, a new intermediate level of analysis seems nevertheless to be attainable through a cautious but imaginative cross-confrontation of models, theories, data and techniques.

The initial aim of this project — and the first problem to overcome — is to bring together the enormous and often redundant wealth of data on physiology, anatomy, evolution and behavior of non-human species, and to confront them with the symmetrical but independent theories and experiments in the psycholinguistic disciplines.

As a consequence of these critical confrontations, lines of convergence and divergence will emerge more clearly, hopefully permitting a re-phrasing of the fundamental problems. Once this necessary and comprehensive analysis is acieved, and new investigative strategies and methodologies worked out, lines of development for tuture resarch will be charted and suitable model systems chosen accordingly.

The Approaches

A complementary study of animal and human communication provides a particularly auspicious opportunity for bringing the life sciences and the human sciences into a common focus on an anthropological problem whose biological basis is still at the early stage of exploration.

Five major lines of enquiry are presently envisaged:

a) A study of the development and the structural organization of communication networks along the phylogenetic tree, with special emphasis on the genetic aspects of the problem. The analysis of genetic dterminations on the communication patterns of the various species and the selective pressures that these latter exert on the species' genome can yield new ways of examining adatation and group organization in living systems.

b) The mechanisms of learning and their genetic envelope. Song-learning in birds, and the transmission of acquired skills as a phenomenon of individual-to-individual communication. Learning and communication abilities. Learning and contingent events.

c) The biology of human language with special emphasis on the logic of inference to man of experimental evidence regrading animals. A survey of neuropsychological data (aphasia, alexia, split brain surgery). Voice versus writing, words versus songs, and the role of rhythms on memory and learning in man.

d) Epistemology of communication systems. Need to clarify the distinction between human language on the one hand and communication systems in general on the other hand, from the point of view of the science of knowldedge ("Is the genetic code a language?" – "Is the bee communication system a language?"). The problem of levels of analysis. Context and meaning as categories of linguistic analysis. The debate on semantics and the possibility of a non-semantic approach to linguistics. Independence and inter-dependence of the different levels of analysis (phonological, semantical, syntactical, generative, structural, historical, evolutionary, etc.).

e) Socialization of language and infant-caretaker relationship. Language pedagogy in man, and learning through observation in animals. Comparative study of social dynamics of communication in different societies. The role of random events and of internal constraints in communication systems. The ontogeny of communication.

f) Arts, aesthetics and super-symbolic communication. The artistic and poetic message as a communication device. Individual versus collective modes of elaboration and interpretation of super-symbolic messages.

The Method

As a preliminary step, a small team of rapporteurs will work together for a period ranging from one to three months, eventually paying visits to laboratories and individual scholars in the disciplines involved.

Critical reports elaborated by this interdisciplinary team will then be circulated and discussed at meetings in Europe and America bringing together the original research team and changing groups of senior researchers.

The object of these meetings will be to refine the findings of the original team, to work these existing findings into form for publication, and to lay out new lines of enquiry. In principle such meetings would last two days and would convene 10 to 12 scholars chosen in large part by the members of the original research team.

A possible composition of the original reasearch team would be:

• One neurobiologist with some background in linguistics and experimental psychology: Antoine Danchin, Institut Pasteur
• One ethologist with some background in neurobiology: Tom Pitcairn, Percha (Munich)
• One linguist oriented toward formal approaches: François Dell, EHESS, Paris
• One linguist oriented toward psychological experimental approaches: David Premack, University of California or a young collaborator
• One linguist with special competence in semantic problems: Jerry Katz, MIT, or a young collaborator
• One art critic with emphasis on communication theory: Umberto Eco, Parma, or a young collaborator

Once again, the list of names is tentative and neither exhaustive nor exclusive, designed rather to indicate the kind of specialists we have in mind for the project.

A preliminary list of specialists to be consulted during the planning phase, or who could take part in some capacity or other in the three year project was established. Since then, many passed away:

Several texts were written in support of this programme, in particulat texts by Tom K. Pitcairn and Scott Atran (1952- ).

My own contribution was focused on The Biological Features of the Problem (in French).

The Endicott House meeting on language and neurobiology: « data make no sense »

Not much has been left from that meeting, where Hans-Lukas Teuber (1916-1977) participated. Let me quote Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini:

« This brings me to two curious episodes, both of which involve Jacques [Mehler].
The first happened at Endicott House, a sumptuous residence outside Boston, given to MIT by a rich family of insurers. The Royaumont center, in close collaboration with Chomsky and Luria, organized a weekend-long informal workshop at Endicott House, to explore this famous biological "
envelope" of the mind. If attendance by the senior component was impressive there and then (Monod,Chomsky, Luria, Zella Hurwits, Hans-Lukas Teuber, Vassily Leontieff, Daniel Bell, Michael Scriven, Daniel Lehrman, Edgar Morin), attendance by the young was no less impressive in hindsight (Jacques, Susan Carey, Ned Block, Peter and Jill de Villiers, Eric Wanner, Paula Meniuk).
At one of the sessions, Jacques had just started presenting data from psycholinguistics, including the celebrated archetypal garden-path sentence "The horse raced past the barn fell." A question was asked, and before Jacques could reply, Noam sprang up, went to the blackboard, almost snatched the chalk from Jacques' hand and answered the question at length. The time allotted to the presentation by Jacques was almost entirely usurped by Noam and by the intense discussion that ensued...
» [Piattelli-Palmarini]

Massimo does not remember that I played my role there. As a very young scientist, I was shocked to see the way Jacques Mehler had been treated, and I also went to the board, to try to contradict Noam Chomsky's rebuttal of the semantic importance of language. I reminded him something that I had witnessed not so long ago, when living in a small village of West Africa (Lay, then Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso) in company with my friend Hilaire Tiendrébéogo: children and young adults had the habit, at evenings to convey and begin stories that were clearly organised by rythm. And this organisation of the sentences conveyed, in itself, a particular level of communication, which could be easily caught by ear (perhaps in particular when one had a limited understanding of the language). And Chomsky snapped back at me with a "data make no sense", that I still vividly remember, and which has since then been one of my mottos...

An account of the meeting was to be published, and papers were collected. A major author would have been Teuber, but, unfortunately he died in a swimming accident when on vacation, before the book could be completely assembled.

The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky

« The second episode involves Piaget during the preparation of the Royaumont debate with Chomsky. » [Piattelli-Palmarini] Piaget was opposed to the presence of Jacques Mehler at the meeting...

Based on a work developed within the exploration of the programme "Human communication - Animal communication", Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget were invited by the CRSH to debate on the theme: "Language and Learning" at the Abbaye de Royaumont in october 1975.

On usage of the term phenocopy

Massimo PIattelli-Palmarini
Language, brain, and cognitive development: essays in honor of Jacques Mehler

This debate was paralleled by a reflection to organise further studies in semiology, with Thomas Sebeok, Umberto Eco and others. Kot Jeleński via his collaboration with François Bondy and others subsequently asked me to participate to a meeting of the Aspen Foundation in Berlin in 1975.

fr A Danchin
Note critique sur l'emploi du terme phénocopie
In: "Théories du langage, théories de l'apprentissage" (CRSH)
Le Débat Chomsky-Piaget, Le Seuil (1979) pp 109-114 (traduit en anglais en 1981)

A sequel, Fermo's Biennial Encounters

For some reason the contribution of my work has been perceived in Italy as of some importance in the domain of philosophy. This was certainly the result of the stance I took, derived from the view I had constructed together with Jean-Pierre Changeux and Philippe Courrège, of the human brain and its original properties. Yet, rather than sticking to a mechanical view of learning and memory, I progressively shifted to a view where information is a central currency that has to be taken into account as an authentic principle of Reality. This meant that brain had to be seen as an information trap. But, at the difference of the cell, or for that matter, the organism itself, the brain departs from the standard features of Turing Machines. I perceive the human brain as a Turing-Machine-in-becoming, progressively separating the program from the machine, with language as the coded element of the program.

The interest of italian thinkers for this type of reflection led some to ask me to contribute to conferences and texts in Italy. Ruggiero Romano, as a prominent historian of the western thought, and supported by the Foundation Einaudi, decided to undertake a grand intellectual entreprise, an general encyclopedy of philosophy, Enciclopedia Einaudi. In parallel he discussed with the political authorities of his birth place, Fermo — where sit the fascinating library of Christine of Sweden — of the idea to create on a regular basis an intellectual rendez-vous, on a biennial basis. This was to become Fermo's Biennial Encounters, that he asked me to organise with him.

The adventure resulted in two meetings only, because, supported by the Foundation Einaudi, it could not find further support when the Foundation became bankrupt. The Enciclopedia entreprise (1977-1984) also collapsed and was never completed.

The first meeting, Il Tempo, was held in Fermo in 1980, with:

Ruggiero Romano (1923-2002) ; Giuseppe Papagno (1938-2009) ; Jean-Claude Schmitt ; Fernando Gil (1937-2006) ; Alberto Asor Rosa (1933-2022) ; Krzysztof Pomian (1934-); Jean Petitot (1944-); Giulio Giorello (1945-2020); Antoine Danchin; René Thom (1923-2002); Marco Mondadori (1945-1999); Arnaldo Petterlini ; Eduardo Prado Coelho (1944-2007); Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

The text of the conference was published in Italian in 1981 by il Saggiatore, MIlano, under the title Le frontiere del tempo

The second meeting, Il Sangue, Myti e Realtà, was held in 1982. Another meeting was planned for 1984, but had to be cancelled as the consequence of Einaudi's bankrupt.


italia A Danchin
I principi biologici della comunicazione
Enciclopedia della Scienza et della Technica (Annuaria 75 EST)
Mondadori (1975): 151-160