“Continuing to think of the living as a resource is a huge bug”
Researcher at INRA and professor-researcher in animal genomics at AgroParisTech, Thomas Heams wants to direct our gaze on the living.In his latest book “Infravies, the living without borders”, the biotech specialist challenges the binary classification between the living and non-living by ceasing to give the living world a fixed definition. Whilst the English researcher Nigel Thrift speaks of “sentient city”, Thomas Heams raises the issue of drug-enhanced humans.
In your last work, you call to abolish the categories and perimeters of the living as if imposing a border with the non-living would be a philosophical and even scientific bug. Why?
It has long been recognised that it is difficult to give a convincing definition of the living as opposed to the non-living. There are entities that stay a bit on the side-lines, for example viruses are often not considered as livings for the lack of metabolism (even if it is sometimes disputed). Yet, they have the ability to divide and evolve as a living being.
So, I thought there would be other ways to imagine that definition, including looking at life as a long adaptive movement of matter. Life on earth as we know it, consisting of cells and DNA, is one of the forms that can take this adaptive setting. To summarise, life would not be a category as that would be very difficult to define the specifications; it is however, rather a dynamic state that would intensify gradually.
I think this way of thinking might be useful for something else besides biology. This work of deconstructing borders could be applied in the social sciences where the question of gender boundaries is sensitive for example. We could also reconsider the boundaries that differentiate us from animals … I participate in a general movement of questioning boundaries as a criterion for scientific understanding.
When you say that life does not exist, do you knowingly bug the classic codes of scientific and philosophical thought, which have hitherto framed these boundaries?
Yes, I am a biologist, I am very enthusiastic about life and I am happy to be able to study it. When I say that it does not exist, I say so provocatively indeed, stating in the book that it does not exist as a category. This is actually to cause a bug of thought. Even semantics refers us to the problematic equivalence made today between the living and computers, which would be the last avatar of the “living-machine”. We use a computer lexicon to talk about the living, for example with the genetic code, the genetic programs and therefore the bug. In the book I also try to deconstruct this parallel between man and machine.
We arrive at very high levels of technology that nourish the dystopia of a future in which machines will be dominant and will become a living, able to produce what only Man can produce today. Do you think this is a fantasy and are these new technologies already blurring the boundaries between the living and non-living, especially in the so-called "sentient city"?
I do not exclude the possibility that we will one day create a machine so powerful that it turns against humans. Because we are capable of designing extremely powerful machines. On the other hand, I do not think it would be relevant to call them alive because precisely they have a very deterministic functioning that living beings do not have. Even if in some ways they have characteristics comparable to the living. We do not imagine a machine to use a fragility to become more flexible and more adaptable, yet it is one of the unexpected features of the living. Individuals can be very fragile, but life has this resilience that a machine does not have.
To answer your second question, I think that by integrating all these connected objects and all these detection systems in smart cities capable of transforming variations into digital data, one could indeed have the impression that it looks like what we feel as living through our senses. We will transform molecules into odour, light signals into visual information and in this sense it’s a bit the same process. Now we have to keep in mind that we can do anything with algorithms when we give them enough data to work with. The result may be very similar to human logic, but we must not forget that this remains a sham. In the end it is a succession of logical operations that apply and unlike humans or the living, the unexpected does not have its place.
As a scientist we imagine that there are rules of operation in a population, but the living is not only about regulation. This is a nuance that really matters because it differentiates life from an algorithm. That said, making connected objects more sensitive to their environment is something that certainly inspired by the living and in this characteristic of its own: adaptability. When we adapt, we remain the same, but there is a little something in us that has changed and allows us to maintain our continuity. This observation introduces a philosophical question that is quite basic: what does it really mean to remain oneself?
In this logic of "sentient cities", do you think that Man will create a framework to exacerbate his senses? Today it does not yet exist, but it could tomorrow reduce even more the border between living and non-living!
For me, you are talking about the enhanced Man. The desire to integrate more environmental data, through prostheses or sensors, for example to detect infra-red in addition to our usual visual information. The very notion of the enhanced Man implies that the present Man is not complete. That he is in part, empty. This justifies the superhuman project, carries hopes but especially fears because this topic, from mythology to the tragic experiences of the last century, is very ambivalent. It opens new horizons but at the same time can lead us to socially appalling ends.
In addition, this idea of worsening the senses rests on a creation of the living as a system to which we could graft additional modules, almost independent of what exists before. And it’s strange: our senses do not work independently of each other; they are interconnected with each other and with the environment. It is an evolutionary and adaptive work that has not been done by successive additions and we know nothing about the cascade consequences that would result from the integration of a module added to our physical balance.
If we consider ourselves as a little computer, then there is no problem, it is just data added in a big algorithm that would be our brain. But this is not the case, our brain does not work at all like a computer. It does not calculate. The case of smartphones that bombard us with information all day that can make life easier on certain aspects; but it can also spoil the way we “connect” with each other. This is not a question of rejecting everything or being smug about it. But it must be understood that this causes psychological and physical consequences, which are still to be studied.
By envisioning to redefine the boundaries between living and non-living, will there be a transitional period that will basically be a big bug since we will have to deconstruct to rebuild?
In my book I make a proposal that is not entirely new since it is based on the scientific publications of my colleagues, which I obviously looked at with a certain prism. Can this proposal be useful to the biological community to change our way of thinking about life? I think there are good reasons for that: we try to create life in the laboratory, we try to find life on other planets, so a more open way of thinking about life can help open new avenues for experimentation.
Basically, when you carry an idea perceived as new, you put your discipline in a situation of upheaval. I don’t know if we can call it a bug because it’s something that happens regularly in the history of the disciplines. This can cause a degree of tension and contradiction, upset conservative conventions and ideas. Conversely, we can also show you that you were a little excessive, that you took it a bit too far. So, this point of tension can be fruitful, if the idea is considered relevant by your peers, they will rally to this new paradigm, give it substance and turn it from hypothesis to theory. It may be a bug but, in any case, it is how science functions, as it has always been.
Unfortunately, today we are witnessing the living being at a sensational race in the world of research. In fact, it jostles the boundaries between facts and a promise. For example, you can find many titles titled “we created life in the laboratory” when it is not yet the case. This is the economics of the promise: by writing the article we bet that it will happen, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a matter of fact, when you have a new idea, it falls into this complex environment that wasn’t here a century ago.
Are transhumanism and biomimicry today the fundamental levers or bases for redefining the boundary between living and non-living?
I am stern with transhumanism because, in my opinion, it is a strategic operation that has been reclaimed by Silicon Valley to precisely blur the boundaries between what is possible and what is inept. When you promise, for example,to cheat death by transferring people’s consciousness to computers, you assume that the memory of computers has something in common with that of the human. Nothing proves it. I think that at best transhumanism is a sham, at worst an inegalitarian ideology serving the interests of the richest.
Biomimicry is rich with promises, supposing that we create what does more than merely performing the same function of an organism. I would like a biomimicry more open to the originality of life, which is not so much the performance but an interface between fragility and apparent disorder.
Thomas, we end this interview with the traditional epilogue of Bug Me Tender. What is your personal definition of a bug and in your domain, what is the biggest bug, potential or real?
A bug is a variable in a world that is, sadly, predictable. And in my field, the biggest bug is to continue to think of the living as a resource and to behave like a species that could exhaust this resource without seeing to diversify it.