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Journal Articles History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences Year : 2016

From self-organization to self-assembly: A New materialism?


Over the past decades, self-assembly has revived the fascination for spontaneous activities in matter. How molecular units assemble to form an organized structure or pattern without intervention of an outside source is a puzzling process that chemists and physical chemists intensively scrutinize. To what extent did this new research field transform the relation between physics, chemistry and biology? Is it a new episode of the longstanding fight between reductionism and vitalism? Since self-organization has long been considered as a distinctive feature of living organisms, one could think that the shift of attention from self-organization toward self-assembly is one of the outcomes of the molecularisation of life, due to decades of intense research in molecular genetics and genomics. Given the technological connotation of the term assembly (which connotes an assembly line) one could presume that the focus on self-assembly marks the triumph of the mechanistic view of life over the anti-reductionist traditions. Is it the symptom that the enigmatic spontaneity attributed to living cells has been reduced to the mechanical assembly of molecular building blocks? It would not be the first time that chemists challenge the mystery of vital organization. Since early-modern alchemy, many chemists have claimed that they could reproduce life in a test-tube. A major episode in this long tradition was Friedrich Wöhler’s synthesis of urea in 1828, which allegedly destroyed the metaphysical belief in the existence of a vital force. It is a legend forged by nineteenth-century chemists who strove to demonstrate that life consisted merely in a set of physico-chemical phenomena (Brooke 1968, Ramberg 2000). The metaphysical challenge was part of Marcellin Berthelot’s grandiose dream of synthesizing all the compounds made by living organisms, using only elements and the range of known molecular forces (Berthelot 1860). Berthelot boasted that starting with four basic elements—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen—and proceeding systematically from the most simple to the most complex compounds, chemists would dissipate the mystery of life. It was not too difficult for physiologists such as Claude Bernard, to retort to the arrogant claims of chemists that synthesizing a product from its elementary principles did not mean getting the properties of living beings (Bernard 1865). He also emphasized that the synthetic process used by chemists in their laboratories was very different from the one created by organisms (Bernard 1866-. It is thus tempting to adopt the master narrative of the gradual triumph of science over metaphysics featuring the nineteenth-century reduction of biological products to chemical elements as a first conquest followed by the emulation of biological processes such as self-organization and self-assembly by chemical means in the twentieth century. One can still find this sort of claims in recent publications. For instance an editorial in the journal Nature was headlined: “Synthetic biology provides a welcome antidote to chronic vitalism.” Synthetic biology is said to present a powerful view of “life as a molecular process lacking moral thresholds at the level of the cell.” It thus challenges religious dogma about life and the “popular notion that life is something that appears when a clear threshold is crossed” (Editorial 2007). This essay discourages such positivistic claims. Considering the context of research on self-assembly I argue that the shift of attention from self-organization to self-assembly has no anti-vitalist implications. Self-assembly was first and foremost investigated in an engineering context as a strategy for manufacturing without human intervention and did not raise new perspectives on the emergence of vital organization itself. However the emergence of self-assembly as an engineering technique has metaphysical implications that this paper tries to outline. It first describes the emergence of self-assembly as a research field in the context of materials sciences and nanotechnology. The second section outlines metaphysical implications of this research and will emphasize a sharp contrast between the ontologies underlying two current practices of self-assembly developed in the context of synthetic biology. Finally, the third section ventures some reflections about the notion of design involved in self-assembly practices.
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hal-01494485 , version 1 (23-03-2017)


  • HAL Id : hal-01494485 , version 1


Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent. From self-organization to self-assembly: A New materialism? . History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 2016, 38 (3), pp.1-13. ⟨hal-01494485⟩
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