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Selected Writings: On Self-Organization, Philosophy, Bioethics, and Judaism

by Henri Atlan; Stefanos Geroulanos & Todd Meyers, Editors
Fordham University Press, NY, NY, 2011
368 pp. Trade, $125.00; Paper, $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-8232-3181-2; ISBN: 978-0-8232-3182-9.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


Academic trans-disciplinary research and thinking is becoming more common and essential than we ever imagined necessary. If we are to fully comprehend the natural world and our place within it, we need to understand “self-organising living systems and theories of complexity.” Atlan is a pioneer in this area and has been engaged in bridging the gaps, or better, bringing together science and the humanities for over 30 years.

As the title Henri Atlan: Selected Writings suggests, all the essays are written by Atlan himself with the exception of the excellent Introduction by Stefanos Geroulanos & Todd Meyers. The essays are translated, many for the first time into English. For those not familiar with Atlan's massive oeuvre, the introduction is equally an Atlan 'primer' and a description and discussion of the book's chapters. “The present volume aims to introduce a wide readership to the thought of Henri Atlan, who is best known as a biophysicist and whose impressive philosophical, ethical, and political contributions have yet to receive the full attention of Anglo-American audiences” (p. 1).

Atlan's work covers many disciplines, broadly; biophysics, philosophy, ethics, and Jewish mysticism––strange bedfellows we might think on first sight; however, Atlan effectively weaves these together and shows just how important trans-disciplinary research, rather than myopic reductionism, really is. “Atlan has published at length on … complexity and the theory of self-organization, artificial intelligence, parables from the Hebrew Bible, the faults of the ‘genetic program’ theory in genetics, cloning and the possibility of an artificial uterus, Spinoza, scientific mysticism, biotechnology, the figure of the Golem, and the idea of freedom” (p. 2). Whew! Something for everyone.

The book is arranged in six parts, which follow Atlan's own introductory essay, Is Science Inhuman? An Essay On Free Necessity. These are followed by an Index and excellent Bibliography. The section titles will give the interested reader a brief idea of the range of work.
Part One: Self-Organization
Part Two: Organisms, Finalisms, Programs, Machines
Part Three: Spinoza
Part Four: Judaism, Determinism, and Rationalities
Part Five: Fabricating the living
Part Six: Ethics

If I had to select one area of Atlan's work as the most important contribution to contemporary thinking, I would have to say it is his extremely realistic, detailed exposition on ethics. Perhaps it is true that there is “nothing new under the sun,” and, as one of my lecturers insisted years ago, there are no new ethical problems, just old ones in new clothes. Maybe this is so; however, the 'new clothes' require a completely fresh approach incorporating traditional insights to be sure - such as Atlan does with Kant, Spinoza, and Wittgenstein. The problem is that we are facing ethical decisions never before presented to us, such as the possibility of creating artificial sentient life, and more thinkers of Atlan's brilliance are sorely needed.

Atlan is Professor Emeritus of Biophysics and Director of Research on Human Biology at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem. He is also Director of Studies at the Ěcole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

This book is very well written and, though primarily for academic readership, it is also suitable for the general public. I suggest it is essential reading for all those involved with ethics, decision making regarding biotechnology procedures––and of course for philosophy students in general.

Last Updated 1 November 2012

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