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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 and Technology. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-74804-3_3
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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. A combined morphometric and statistical approach to assess non-monotonicity in the developing mammary gland of rats in the CLARITY-BPA study

    A combined morphometric and statistical approach to assess non-monotonicity in the developing mammary gland of rats in the CLARITY-BPA study

    Environmental Health Perspectives


    We can and should take advantage of nonmonotonic properties to perform statistical analysis rigorously by new statistical and morphometric methods.

    Abstract

    We aimed to a) determine whether BPA showed effects on the developing rat mammary gland using new quantitative and established semiquantitative methods in two laboratories, b) develop a software tool for automatic evaluation of quantifiable aspects of the mammary ductal tree, and c) compare those methods. Conclusions: Both the semiquantitative and the quantitative methods revealed nonmonotonic effects of BPA. The quantitative unsupervised analysis used 91 measurements and produced the most striking nonmonotonic dose–response curves. At all time points, lower doses resulted in larger effects, consistent with the core study, which revealed a significant increase of mammary adenocarcinoma incidence in the stop-dose animals at the lowest BPA dose tested.

    Citation
    Montévil, Maël, Nicole Acevedo, Cheryl M. Schaeberle, Manushree Bharadwaj, Suzanne E. Fenton, and Ana M. Soto. 2020. “A Combined Morphometric and Statistical Approach to Assess Non-Monotonicity in the Developing Mammary Gland of Rats in the CLARITY-BPA Study.” Environmental Health Perspectives 128 (5): 057001. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP6301
    Manuscript Supplementary Citation Publisher Full text
  3. In search of principles for a theory of organisms

    In search of principles for a theory of organisms

    Journal of biosciences


    Lacking an operational theory to understand life cycles hinders progress in biology. We discuss elements towards such a theory, such as inertia and thermodynamics.

    Abstract

    Lacking an operational theory to explain the organization and behaviour of matter in unicellular and multicellular organisms hinders progress in biology. Such a theory should address life cycles from ontogenesis to death. This theory would complement the theory of evolution that addresses phylogenesis, and would posit theoretical extensions to accepted physical principles and default states in order to grasp the living state of matter and define proper biological observables. Thus, we favour adopting the default state implicit in Darwin’s theory, namely, cell proliferation with variation plus motility, and a framing principle, namely, life phenomena manifest themselves as non-identical iterations of morphogenetic processes. From this perspective, organisms become a consequence of the inherent variability generated by proliferation, motility and self-organization. Morphogenesis would then be the result of the default state plus physical constraints, like gravity, and those present in living organisms, like muscular tension.

    Keywords: Animals, Biological Evolution, Biophysics/methods, Cell Division, Mice, Models, Morphogenesis, Thermodynamics

    Citation
    Longo, Giuseppe, Mael Montevil, Carlos Sonnenschein, and Ana M. Soto. 2015. “In Search of Principles for a Theory of Organisms.” Journal of Biosciences 40 (5): 955–68. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12038-015-9574-9
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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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