History and Philosophy of Science Seminar: Pierre-Olivier Méthot

Dr Méthot, from Université Laval, will talk on the following topic: 'Beyond Foucault’s Grip: Making Sense of François Jacob’s The Logic of Life'.

The research seminar of the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science runs fortnightly during term time.

Please note, that this event will be held on Microsoft Teams. Contact e.clarke@leeds.ac.uk for link to join the event.


Beyond Foucault’s Grip: Making Sense of François Jacob’s The Logic of Life

Pierre-Olivier Méthot (Université Laval)

With a few notable exceptions, commentators have systematically observed striking similarities between French geneticist François Jacob’s The Logic of Life – A History of Heredity (1970) and Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). There are grounds for thinking that Jacob was indeed influenced by the work of his colleague at the Collège de France: rejecting a linear view, Jacob proposed a discontinuous framework whereby each historical period is delineated by profound transformations in the nature of biological knowledge itself. He further attended to the “various stages of knowledge” he identified and how they enabled the study of new “objects” in biology, thanks not only to the development of instruments but to new ways of looking at the organism. Unsurprisingly, Foucault praised The Logic of Life as “the most remarkable history of biology ever written” and even used it as a confirmation of his own archaeological approach. This Foucauldian reading, although pervasive, is far too simple and is at best incomplete, however. But if Foucault isn’t the main intellectual source behind Jacob’s best-selling book, then who is? And why did Jacob – a Nobel Prize winner – suddenly turned into a historian of biology? In this talk, I advance a new narrative in order to make sense of The Logic of Life. Drawing on archival material from the Institut Pasteur in Paris, I will argue that the book is best characterized as a response to Jacques Monod’s biological vision of scientific growth. According to Monod, ideas in science follow a logic of mutation and selection, a view rejected by Jacob on the grounds that it takes evolutionary principles beyond their rightful domain. This crucial difference between Jacob and Monod, I will show, can shed new light on the opposition between “history of ideas” and “history of objects”. I will further argue that Jacob’s change in laboratory organism in the late 1960s was an important impetus in writing the book. Only in loosening Foucault’s grip and in situating The Logic of Life within its own cultural context can we hope to critically assess the promises and the limitations of Jacob’s historiographical legacy.