Michel Foucault praised The Logic of Life (1970) by French geneticist François Jacob as “the most remarkable history of biology ever written.” In this book, rapidly translated into several languages, Jacob delineates different “stages of knowledge” in the history of biological thought that, he claims, have enabled the study of new “objects” in the life sciences. While commentators have long assumed that The Logic of Life was merely an application of Foucault’s approach to the history of biology, today this reading seems reductive and incomplete.

In “The Logic of Life 50 Years Later: François Jacob and the Historical Approach to Biology,” Pierre-Olivier Méthot, an associate professor in philosophy and history of science at Laval University, will offer a new narrative that deepens our understanding of the book.

Sponsored by the Virginia Tech Department of Science, Technology, and Society, the virtual event — the 17th Annual Burian-McNabb Distinguished Lecture — will be held April 23, 2021, at 1:30 p.m. Registration is available here.

Drawing on archival material from the Institut Pasteur (Paris), Méthot will argue that this influential book was, in part, Jacob’s response to the biological view of scientific growth defended by his colleague Jacques Monod in Chance and Necessity (1970) and elsewhere. This reading of the two books will, in turn, cast a new light on the end of Jacob and Monod’s long and fruitful collaboration, a collaboration that had led to their joint winning of the Nobel Prize in 1965 (with André Lwoff).

Méthot will further argue that Jacob’s change in experimental organism (from microbes to mice) in the late 1960s was an important impetus in writing the book. Only by situating The Logic of Life within its cultural context can we hope to understand how and why Jacob suddenly turned into a historian of biology, and to assess the promises and the limitations of his own historiographical legacy.

Méthot’s teaching and research are in the history and philosophy of the biological and medical sciences in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. In addition, he is a research associate at the Institute for Humanities in Medicine at the University of Lausanne, a member of the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie in Montreal, and an elected member of the Scientific committee of the Archives at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Since 2016, Méthot has been an associate editor of the Bulletin d'histoire et d'épistémologie des sciences de la vie, and he serves on the editorial board of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences (2019-2025).