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Hi, I'm Maël Montévil.

I am a theoretical biologist working at the crossroads of experimental biology, mathematics, and philosophy. I also work on the Anthropocene, among many other interests.

I am a researcher (Chargé de recherche) in CNRS, working in Centre Cavaillès République des Savoirs USR 3608, École Normale Supérieure.

Key concepts: historicity, organization as closure of constraints, anti-entropy, symmetry changes, biological measurement, disruption


Latest Publications

  1. Understanding living beings by analogy with computers or understanding computers as an emanation of the living

    Understanding living beings by analogy with computers or understanding computers as an emanation of the living

    trópoς. Rivista di ermeneutica e critica filosofica


    A new look at theoretical computer sciences by changing perspective with a biological approach.

    Abstract

    The analogy between living beings and computers was introduced with circumspection by Schrödinger and has been widely propagated since, rarely with a precise technical meaning. Critics of this perspective are numerous. We emphasize that this perspective is mobilized to justify what may be called a regressive reductionism by comparison with physics or the Cartesian method.
    Other views on the living are possible, and we focus on an epistemological and theoretical framework where historicity is central, and the regularities susceptible to mathematization are constraints whose existence is fundamentally precarious and historically contingent.
    We then propose to reinterpret the computer, no longer as a Turing machine but as constituted by constraints. This move allows us to understand that computation in the sense of Church-Turing is only a part of the theoretical determination of what actually happens in a computer when considering them in their larger theoretical context where historicity is also central.

  2. Penser au-delà de l’identité : philosophie et sciences

    Penser au-delà de l’identité : philosophie et sciences

    Philosophy World Democracy


    Si la philosophie est entrée en stasis et se porte vers un nécessaire Autre Commencement de la Philosophie, alors les sciences aussi sont à un autre commencement.

    Abstract

    Ce texte est le séminaire public donné le 31 mai à l’École Normale Supérieure de Paris. Les sciences se sont écartées de la philosophie. Si la philosophie est entrée en stasis et se porte vers un nécessaire Autre Commencement de la Philosophie, alors les sciences aussi sont à un autre commencement. L’Anastasis des sciences exige une enquête sur la persistance des concepts théologiques en leur sein et en même temps la découverte de nouveaux principes par lesquels les sciences peuvent recommencer de telle manière qu’elles soient libérées des fardeaux métaphysiques. Les homologies d’un autre commencement des sciences sont déjà visibles dans les crises conceptuelles, y compris dans les concepts de singularité en physique et d’immunité en biologie. Pour commencer à nouveau, une épistémologie bâtarde est proposée comme nouveau rapport entre les sciences et la famille bâtarde de la déconstruction.

  3. Conceptual and Theoretical Specifications for Accuracy in Medicine

    Conceptual and Theoretical Specifications for Accuracy in Medicine

    Personalized Medicine in the Making: Philosophical Perspectives from Biology to Healthcare


    We question some aspects of medicine from the perspective of theoretical biology, on the one hand, and the technological and social dimension of health and disease on the other hand.

    Abstract

    Technological developments in genomics and other -omics originated the idea that precise measurements would lead to better therapeutic strategies. However, precision does not entail accuracy. Scientific accuracy requires a theoretical framework to understand the meaning of measurements, the nature of causal relationships, and potential intrinsic limitations of knowledge. For example, a precise measurement of initial positions in classical mechanics is useless without initial velocities; it is not an accurate measurement of the initial condition. Conceptual and theoretical accuracy is required for precision to lead to the progress of knowledge and rationality in action. In the search for accuracy in medicine, we first outline our results on a theory of organisms. Biology is distinct from physics and requires a specific epistemology. In particular, we develop the meaning of biological measurements and emphasize that variability and historicity are fundamental notions. However, medicine is not just biology; we articulate the historicity of biological norms that stems from evolution and the idea that patients and groups of patients generate new norms to overcome pathological situations. Patients then play an active role, in line with the philosophy of Georges Canguilhem. We argue that taking this dimension of medicine into account is critical for theoretical accuracy.

    Keywords: Normativity, Organization, Personalized Medicine, Technology, theoretical biology

    Citation
    Montévil, Maël. 2022. “Conceptual and Theoretical Specifications for Accuracy in Medicine.” In Personalized Medicine in the Making: Philosophical Perspectives from Biology to Healthcare, edited by Chiara Beneduce and Marta Bertolaso, 47–62. Human Perspectives in Health Sciences et Technology. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-74804-3_3
    Manuscript Citation Publisher Full text

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Popular Publications

  1. Biological organisation as closure of constraints

    Biological organisation as closure of constraints

    Journal of Theoretical Biology


    We characterize biological organization as a closure of constraints, where constraints are defined at a given time scale and are interdependent.

    Abstract

    We propose a conceptual and formal characterisation of biological organisation as a closure of constraints. We first establish a distinction between two causal regimes at work in biological systems: processes, which refer to the whole set of changes occurring in non-equilibrium open thermodynamic conditions; and constraints, those entities which, while acting upon the processes, exhibit some form of conservation (symmetry) at the relevant time scales. We then argue that, in biological systems, constraints realise closure, i.e. mutual dependence such that they both depend on and contribute to maintaining each other. With this characterisation in hand, we discuss how organisational closure can provide an operational tool for marking the boundaries between interacting biological systems. We conclude by focusing on the original conception of the relationship between stability and variation which emerges from this framework.

    Keywords: Biological organisation, Closure, Constraints, Symmetries, Time scales

    Citation
    Montévil, Maël, and Matteo Mossio. 2015. “Biological Organisation as Closure of Constraints.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 372 (May): 179–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtbi.2015.02.029
    Manuscript Citation Publisher Full text
  2. No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere

    No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere

    Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference


    The evolution of life marks the end of a physics world view of law entailed dynamics. We discuss the notions of causation and of enablement.

    Abstract

    Biological evolution is a complex blend of ever changing structural stability, variability and emergence of new phe- notypes, niches, ecosystems. We wish to argue that the evo- lution of life marks the end of a physics world view of law entailed dynamics. Our considerations depend upon dis- cussing the variability of the very ”contexts of life”: the in- teractions between organisms, biological niches and ecosys- tems. These are ever changing, intrinsically indeterminate and even unprestatable: we do not know ahead of time the ”niches” which constitute the boundary conditions on selec- tion. More generally, by the mathematical unprestatability of the ”phase space” (space of possibilities), no laws of mo- tion can be formulated for evolution. We call this radical emergence, from life to life. The purpose of this paper is the integration of variation and diversity in a sound concep- tual frame and situate unpredictability at a novel theoretical level, that of the very phase space. Our argument will be carried on in close comparisons with physics and the mathematical constructions of phase spaces in that discipline. The role of (theoretical) symmetries as invariant preserving transformations will allow us to under- stand the nature of physical phase spaces and to stress the differences required for a sound biological theoretizing. In this frame, we discuss the novel notion of ”enablement”. Life lives in a web of enablement and radical emergence. This will restrict causal analyses to differential cases (a difference that causes a difference). Mutations or other causal differ- ences will allow us to stress that ”non conservation princi- ples” are at the core of evolution, in contrast to physical dynamics, largely based on conservation principles as sym- metries. Critical transitions, the main locus of symmetry changes in physics, will be discussed, and lead to ”extended criticality” as a conceptual frame for a better understanding of the living state of matter.

    Keywords: conservation properties, symmetries, biological causality

    Citation
    Longo, G., Maël Montévil, and S. Kauffman. 2012. “No Entailing Laws, but Enablement in the Evolution of the Biosphere.” In Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference, GECCO’12. New York, NY, USA: GECCO’12; ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/2330784.2330946
    Manuscript Citation Publisher Full text
  3. Theoretical principles for biology: Organization

    Theoretical principles for biology: Organization

    Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology


    In the search of a theory of biological organisms, we propose to adopt organization as a theoretical principle and define it as closure of constraints.

    Abstract

    Abstract In the search of a theory of biological organisms, we propose to adopt organization as a theoretical principle. Organization constitutes an overarching hypothesis that frames the intelligibility of biological objects, by characterizing their relevant aspects. After a succinct historical survey on the understanding of organization in the organicist tradition, we offer a specific characterization in terms of closure of constraints. We then discuss some implications of the adoption of organization as a principle and, in particular, we focus on how it fosters an original approach to biological stability, as well as and its interplay with variation.

    Keywords: Theoretical principle, Organization, Constraints, Closure, Stability, Organicism

    Citation
    Mossio, Matteo, Maël Montévil, and G. Longo. 2016. “Theoretical Principles for Biology: Organization.” Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 122 (1): 24–35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2016.07.005
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Latest videos

  1. How should we think scientifically about biological objects?

    • M Montévil
      .
    • en
    • Recording available
    • Seminar of the History, Philosophy and Biology Teaching Lab
    • History, Philosophy and Biology Teaching Lab, Universidade Federal da Bahia

    Scholars used Aristotelian reasoning in combination with theology to understand living beings, leading to natural theology, where god was the guarantee of biological norms. Transformism, notably Darwin, provided an alternative to this view; however, this alternative had to be acknowledged by scientists when the model of science was classical mechanics. It followed that thinking about biological objects remained similar to physics thinking, where norms are laws, or at least invariants and symmetries. The recurring analogies with technological objects, recently computers, as viewed by engineers (and not users or anthropology) also contributed to this theoretical and epistemological bias and confusion. On the opposite, we can think about biological objects differently, on renewed theoretical bases, by starting from theoretical principles that are sound in this field. Then, instead of fast analogies, numerous new questions, methods, and reasoning have to be fleshed out.

  2. Pensée théorique et sens des limites en science


    Nous recevons Maël Montévil, chercheur CNRS à l’ÉNS de Paris (République des Savoirs). La science demande une pensé théorique : celle-ci propose un regard sur la nature, oblige à en expliciter les principes, guide l’expérience, pose des limites à la connaissance et à l’action. Elle permet une éthique de la connaissance, c’est-à-dire “savoir faire un pas de côté” par rapport à ses propres conceptions et formuler une pensée critique, pour en comprendre les limites, et souvent ouvrir ainsi de nouvelles questions. Nous comparerons les situations en physique et biologie pour cerner ce qui est science par rapport à une technoscience négligeant la connaissance et déformant l’action sur le vivant. Nous réfléchirons de manière critique sur le rôle des données, leur interprétation et modélisation computationnelles, sur les mythes du génocentrisme en biologie qui rendent difficile de penser l’organisme en contexte. Nous esquisserons des parcours différents en train de se construire.

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  1. screenshot of Philosophy World Democracy

    PWD avatar PWD

    Philosophy World Democracy


    Il ne s’agira pas d’une démocratie mondiale, car il faut que les peuples se composent et se disposent.Mais nous affirmerons une essence démocratique du monde : peuplé par tous les vivants et par tous les parlants, tout entier configuré par leurs existences et par leurs paroles.

  2. screenshot of Groupe cardano

    Cardano

    Groupe cardano


    Nous sommes un groupe de mathématiciens qui dénonçons une mathématisation du monde orientée vers le contrôle, le quantitatif et le réductionnisme plutôt que vers l’invention et la construction de compréhensions.

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