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Book Presentation: "The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick"

Dates:
  • Thu 22 Jun 2017 17.00 - 19.00
  Add to Calendar 2017-06-22 17:00 2017-06-22 19:00 Europe/Paris Book Presentation: "The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick"

Book Presentation by Jessica Riskin in the framework of the cycle “Thinking Sciences at Large. Towards a Connected History of Science”, convened by Stéphane Van Damme in collaboration with the Working Group on the History of Science.


Today, a scientific explanation is not meant to ascribe agency to natural phenomena: to say a rock falls because it seeks the center of the earth. Even for living things, in the natural sciences and often in the social sciences, the same is true. A modern botanist would not explain heliotropism by saying plants pursue sunlight. This has not always been the case, nor, perhaps, was it inevitable. Since the seventeenth century, many thinkers have made agency, in various forms, central to science.
The Restless Clock examines the history of this principle, banning agency, in the sciences of life. It also tells the story of dissenters embracing the opposite principle: that agency is essential to nature. The story begins with the automata of early modern Europe, as models for the new science of living things, and traces questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck and Darwin among many others. Mechanist science, Riskin shows, had an associated theology: the argument from design, which found evidence for a designer in the mechanisms of nature. Rejecting such appeals to a supernatural God, the dissenters sought to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to a “divine engineer.” Their model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines.
The conflict between passive- and active-mechanist approaches maintains a subterranean activity in current science, shaping debates in fields such as evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. This history promises not only to inform such debates, but also our sense of the possibilities of what it means to engage in science—and what it means to be alive.

Sala del Camino, Villa Salviati DD/MM/YYYY
  Sala del Camino, Villa Salviati

Book Presentation by Jessica Riskin in the framework of the cycle “Thinking Sciences at Large. Towards a Connected History of Science”, convened by Stéphane Van Damme in collaboration with the Working Group on the History of Science.


Today, a scientific explanation is not meant to ascribe agency to natural phenomena: to say a rock falls because it seeks the center of the earth. Even for living things, in the natural sciences and often in the social sciences, the same is true. A modern botanist would not explain heliotropism by saying plants pursue sunlight. This has not always been the case, nor, perhaps, was it inevitable. Since the seventeenth century, many thinkers have made agency, in various forms, central to science.
The Restless Clock examines the history of this principle, banning agency, in the sciences of life. It also tells the story of dissenters embracing the opposite principle: that agency is essential to nature. The story begins with the automata of early modern Europe, as models for the new science of living things, and traces questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck and Darwin among many others. Mechanist science, Riskin shows, had an associated theology: the argument from design, which found evidence for a designer in the mechanisms of nature. Rejecting such appeals to a supernatural God, the dissenters sought to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to a “divine engineer.” Their model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines.
The conflict between passive- and active-mechanist approaches maintains a subterranean activity in current science, shaping debates in fields such as evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. This history promises not only to inform such debates, but also our sense of the possibilities of what it means to engage in science—and what it means to be alive.


Location:
Sala del Camino, Villa Salviati

Affiliation:
Department of History and Civilization

Type:
Lecture

Organiser:
Stéphane Van Damme

Contact:
Fabrizio Borchi (EUI - Department of History and Civilization) - Send a mail

Speaker:
Jessica Riskin (Standford University)

Attachment:
Thinking Sciences at Large-Programme
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