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Research

While the theory of evolution has never ceased to be debated since its Darwinian formulation, recent decades have been particularly rich in attempts to reformulate both the history of Darwinism and Darwinian theory. Genetics, evo-devo, and symbiotic phenomena have prompted a rethinking of the epistemic structure of evolution, by attempting to conceive together phenomena that until now were the subject of separate sciences.

Collaborations between biologists and philosophers are multiplying in an attempt to produce a new theoretical framework for synthesising these different discoveries into a more complete and extensive theory of evolution. In particular, these collaborations have led to a reflection on the plurality of levels of biological causality, as well as on the complexity of temporal scales. These different lines of research have led to a gradual paradigm shift.

Today, many researchers are challenging the reductionism of the dominant interpretation of the theory of evolution, and are seeking to incorporate thdiverse phenomena as explanatory factors. In this context, the epistemic tools previously used to understand evolution (probability calculus, optimisation functions, phylogenetic trees, etc.) are being criticised, and are gradually being, if not replaced, at least supplemented by new tools (reticular models of evolution, the modelling of discrete biological agents, the use of the historical method) and new concepts (biological constraints, the agency of organisms, symbiogenesis, etc.).

the limited historical research on the development of Darwinian theory and its interpretations in the 19th and 20th centuries has led us to dramatise the limitations of our contemporary conception, without realising that some solutions can already  be found in the works of evolutionists of that era, including Darwin himself. Furthermore, the success of Darwinian theory after the Modern Synthesis has led posterity to neglect the epistemological criticisms and discussions formulated by biologists and philosophers at the turn of the twentieth century. This is particularly true of Bergson's in-depth critique, which is now considered at best obsolete, at worst completely misguided. The latter point is all the more surprising given that the last few decades have seen a revival of Bergson's works, and have brought to the fore the importance of his thinking on duration.

It is within this dual context, of debate concerning the theory of evolution, and of the renewal of Bergsonism, that my research is situated, research that I am developing along six lines:

  1. Bergson, biology and vitalism

  2. The history of the theory of evolution

  3. Epistemological problems inherent in the Darwinian theory of evolution

  4. Conditions of possibility of crossdisciplinary research

  5. Ecology, evolution and animal agency

  6. Play, inventiveness and adaptability

Areas of expertise

Areas of expertise

Bergson, Biology and Vitalism

Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a revival of Bergsonian studies, which has made it possible to explore in greater depth certain points already known and to discover new aspects of Bergson's work. The political, sociological and moral aspects of his work are reinvested in the more global perspective of anthropology and the philosophy of nature. Some of the debates surrounding Bergson's conception of duration have also been revived, both by philosophers and by a number of scientists. American research has also made it possible to highlight the ecological implications of Bergsonian thought.


However, when it comes to strictly biological issues, Bergson remains little studied, despite the advent of process biology, a form of philosophical thought that emphasises the processual (and therefore temporal) dimension of biological phenomena. There are several reasons for this: his supposed spiritualism, his often misunderstood vitalism, his few scientific approximations, his rejection of Darwinism and his silence on genetics have all contributed to the vision of Bergson as "a good poet, but a bad scientist", in the words of Julian Huxley (Evolution: The Modern Synthesis).

The joint work of Arnaud François, and more recently Emily Herring, Tano Posteraro, Bruno Rates and myself, has helped to change this view of Bergsonism and to (re)discover Bergson's contribution to the biological debates of his time. My research is part of this collective revival.

In one aspect of my research, I aimed to uncover the biological influences on Bergson's ideas and situate his interpretations within the contemporary debates of his time. Through this historical analysis, I sought to clarify the nature of certain concepts associated with Bergson, thereby dispelling the misconception that he was merely a spiritualist vitalist who made no meaningful contributions to scientific discussions. In fact, my research demonstrates Bergson's profound comprehension of the biological debates and his astute analysis of the limitations and flaws in some of their underlying assumptions.

This reappraisal of Bergson's philosophy for evolutionary thought has also led me to examine the reception of Bergson's work by biologists from a new angle. Contrary to popular belief, Bergson has in fact been widely read and sometimes discussed by the theorists of modern synthesis.

Finally, by revealing the epistemological relevance of Bergson's critique of the theories of evolution, the aim of my past and future research is both to show the topicality of the problems raised by Bergson's philosophy and to evaluate the heuristic scope of his concepts in order to pave the way for their resolution.


 

The History of the Theory of Evolution

Part of my research concerns the history of the constitution of biology, and in particular evolutionary biology, from the 19th century to the present day.

The history written by the 'victors' of the modern Synthesis leaves out important texts and epistemological debates that were fundamental to the interpretation of the theory of evolution as we have inherited it. The complexity and nuances that have governed the constitution of certain concepts have been erased. And this leads today to a caricatured vision of the theory of evolution, which is faithful neither to Darwin's vision nor to that of the founders of the so-called Modern Synthesis. This is why part of my research is devoted to the study of evolutionists, dating from the first edition of The Origin of Species until today.

The aim of this historical work is to retrace the way in which evolutionary debates have changed from the nineteenth century to the present day, in order to gain a better understanding of the changes in epistemological structures and the theoretical and ideological choices that have been made and that have led us to the vision of the theory of evolution that is still dominant today (despite its critics): that of genetic reductionism.

Epistemological problems inherent in the Darwinian theory of evolution

The aim of my work is to clarify the contemporary epistemological problems associated with the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution faces several problems today:

 

  1. The complexity of biological interactions, which makes prediction impossible in evolutionary biology, and which results in :

  2. The failure of both determinism and probabilism in evolutionary biology, which suggests evolution should be thought of as a historical process...

  3. The causal force of which must be elucidated: what is the nature of historical processes? What regularities might be discerned in these processes? And how do these regularities channel evolution, which cannot be reduced to a series of random events? This brings us to the fourth challenge facing contemporary biology:

  4. The question of the actors in evolution: who acts? This question is made all the more acute by population genetics models, which understand the organism as a set of traits resulting from the meeting of two causal chains: that of genetics, and that of the selective pressures coming from the environment.

These problems are the consequences of an inadequate conception of biological time, compensated for by an unreflected use of the teleological metaphor (the eye is made for seeing). It is because there is an agency of the living that the teleological metaphor is so seductive, and that evolutionary reasoning consists of thinking in terms of utility for these living beings, without however really questioning the meaning of this agency.

This is why it is necessary to question the recourse to teleology (or teleonomy) that is specific to biology, supposed to guarantee its autonomy in relation to the other sciences.

 Part of my research is devoted to analysing and criticising the teleological mode of thought in evolutionary biology. Far from wishing to reduce biology to a slightly more complex form of physics, I nevertheless argue that teleology cannot guarantee the autonomy of biology. On the other hand, taking the historicity of its objects seriously would make it possible to establish the specificity of biology and avoid the pitfall of anthropomorphism. Defending a symbiotic vision of living things, which considerably complicates both the notion of the biological individual and the analytical understanding of the processes at work in evolution, my research focuses on the concept of causality and the meaning of time in evolutionary biology.

In close collaboration with biologists and philosophers of biology, my research has led me to defend a conception of evolutionary causality as biological normativity and to conceive of organisms as agents in evolution. Over and above the theoretical advantages for the theory of evolution, such a conception of causality invites us to question some of our ecological practices and our overall relationship with the rest of the living world.

 

Research in progress

Research in progress

Conditions for crossdisciplinarity : Biology, History, Philosophy

One aspect of my recent research aims to question the very way in which we should conduct this research, its very conditions of possibility.

If the study of the theory of evolution really does require interdisciplinary work, then we need to devise a research ethic that encourages the decompartmentalisation of knowledge and enables conceptual tools to be shared across disciplines. The aim is to establish the conditions for fruitful collaboration between philosophy and biology, but also between science and the history of science.

Part of my research therefore explores the conditions that allow conceptual resources to be shared between different epistemic fields (history, evolutionary biology and philosophy) and assesses the relevance of certain transfers. The aim is to find out to what extent it is desirable to transpose certain concepts and methodologies from history into evolutionary biology, to study how philosophical concepts can be integrated into biological theories, subject to certain transformations, and also to consider the communication instruments that would enable this interdisciplinary collaboration.

The challenge is to identify the theoretical and ethical foundations of a genuine cross-disciplinary approach that can compensate for the current fragmentation of knowledge by providing a more global understanding of the theories of life. We need to think in terms of collective and cross-disciplinary thinking - a thinking-with that gives us all the keys to becoming-with those other living beings who share our natural history.

 

Ecology, evolution, and animal agency

My research also addresses our place in the living world, the possibilities and limitations of our ecological power, and how we should conceive of our relationships with other animals.

From an ecological point of view, a dynamic conception of evolution, which places living beings as biological agents in the foreground, calls into question the presuppositions of some of our ecological solutions. It encourages us to relativise both the effectiveness of our interventionist technicism and the scope of our conservation policies. Part of my research therefore aims to envisage ecological solutions that would enable evolutionary dynamics to be reactivated, and make room for biological actors other than ourselves, along the lines proposed by Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway.

It also calls for a reconsideration of our attitude towards the rest of the living world. With regard to our engagement with the world and with other species, the theoretical proposal to understand evolution on the basis of the agency of the organisms leads us to rethink the foundations of our relationship with non-human beings. This reconfiguration of our relationships can and must also be seen in the context of our ecological policies. As Jean-Christophe Bailly writes: "the world in which we live is looked at by other beings [...] there is a sharing of the visible between creatures [...] and a policy based on this could be invented" (Le versant animal, my translation).

Focusing more specifically on the question of non-human animals, my recent research questions the active role played by animal behaviour in the directions taken by evolution. By studying the evolutionary impact of animal culture, social learning and behavioural innovations, my aim is both to redefine animal agency in the strict sense of the term, and to attempt to propose modes of collaboration that would make it possible to envisage not only multispecific cohabitation but also new ecological experiments.

 

Play, Inventiveness and Adaptability

My most recent research focuses on a particularly revealing case of animal agency: inventiveness. Inventiveness reveals the animal as an agent in the strongest sense: it is not just the proximate cause of its action, but its complete cause. When an animal invents an action, its behaviour cannot ultimately be attributed to a repertoire resulting from a compromise between genetics and environmental imperatives.

Indeed, through these behaviours, animals can be actors in evolution itself: these inventions can have crucial evolutionary consequences by altering selective pressures, transforming ecological dynamics, and through cultural and genetic co-evolution.

While this is well known in ethology, it is a subject that is still little dealt with in philosophy. Even from the point of view of animal behaviour research, there is a great deal of study into the transmission of these inventions, but little on the process of invention itself. My current research examines this process of invention, with a particular focus on play. In play, animals detach themselves from the imperatives of the environment and demonstrate the ability to operate in a virtual world. Play thus appears to be an ideal field in which to investigate inventiveness and its link with adaptability.

This research aims to understand non-human animals, to take a closer look at ecological and evolutionary processes, and to assess the biological and philosophical consequences of such inventive agency.

Publications
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Publications

Monographs

  1. Tahar, M. Bergson et la théorie de l’évolution. Du finalisme en biologie [revised version of the doctoral thesis]. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, under contract, to be published in 2024.

  2. [Writing in Progress] Tahar, M. Le temps du vivant. Paris : Vrin, letter of intent from the publisher, to be published in 2024.

Peer-reviewed articles
  1. Tahar M. (2023). Agency, inventiveness, and animal play. Novel insights into the active role of organisms in evolution. Special Issue "Levels of Biological Agency", Spontaneous Generations. 11 (1).

  2. Tahar, M. (2022). Biological constraints as norms in evolution. Special Issue “Normativity and the Life Sciences”, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. 44 (1): 9.

  3. Tahar, M. (2022). Bergson’s vitalisms. In M. Tahar (ed.) Bergson and vitalism(s), Parrhesia. 36.

  4. Tahar, M. (2022). The history of the Bergsonian interpretation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Bergsoniana. 2: 73-90.

  5. Tahar, M. (2021). The historicity of biodiversity. A Bergsonian look at the theory of evolution. Thaumazein Rivista di Filosofia. 8: 89-106.

  6. Tahar, M. (under review) “Conscience animale, instinct et créativité : quelques réflexions sur la philosophie animale de Bergson”, Thaumazein Rivista di Filosofia, vol. 12.

 

Co-authored:

  1. Boisseau, A. and Tahar, M. (2022). Remettre à l’œuvre les processus du vivant. Repenser le lien de l’histoire humaine avec l’histoire naturelle : lectures croisées de Bergson et Ruyer. Rue Desartes. 101 (1): 23-39.

Chapters in edited volumes
  1. Tahar, M. (2023). A Bergsonian Perspective on Causality and Evolution. In G. Bianco, G. Van de Vijver, C. Wolfe (eds.) Canguilhem and Continental Philosophy of Biology, History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences, 31, (pp. 251-267) Heidelberg/New York/Dordrecht: Springer.

  2. Tahar, M. (2021). Bergson as visionary in evolutionary biology. In M. Sinclair and Y. Wolf (eds.) The Bergsonian mind (pp. 446-460). Oxon/New York: Routledge.

  3. Tahar, M. (forthcoming). Bergson et Haeckel : enquête sur un silence. In L. Bossi and N. Wanlin (eds.) Ernst Haeckel et les Français. Paris: Gallimard.

  4. Tahar, M. (forthcoming). Déterminisme et liberté de Claude Bernard à Henri Bergson, en passant par la psychologie expérimentale. In L. Loison (ed.) Claude Bernard : Histoire et philosophie d’une théorie physiologique. Paris: Vrin.

  5.  Tahar, M. (forthcoming). Time and evolutionary history. In R. G. Delisle, M. Esposito and D. Ceccarelli (eds.) Deconstructing Darwinism: Toward A New Historiography, Heidelberg/New York/Dordrecht: Springer.

Book reviews
  1. Tahar, M. (2023). Review of T. S.  Posteraro (2022). Bergson’s Philosophy of Biology. Virtuality, Tendency and Time. In Le carnet de la Société des amis de Bergson.

  2. Tahar, M. (2022). Review of E. Kessler (2022). Bergson, notre contemporain. In Le carnet de la Société des amis de Bergson.

  3. Tahar, M. (2019). Review of A. Lefebvre and N. F. Schott (eds.). (2019). Interpreting Bergson : Critical Essays. In Le carnet de la Société des amis de Bergson.

  4. Tahar, M. (2019). Review of M. Sinclair (2019.  Being Inclined : Felix Ravaisson’s philosophy of habit. In Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Other publications

Public philosophy:

  1. Tahar, M. (2023) “Les animaux, ces inventeurs de génie”. The Conversation.

  2. Tahar, M. (2019). “Les mains sales de Bergson”. iPhilo.

Encyclopedia entries:

  1. Tahar, M. (forthcoming). “Henri Bergson. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience”. In E. Ballanfat, A. Benoit, C. Nouët and J.-F. Suratteau (eds.), Encyclopédie des Œuvres Philosophiques, Paris: Ellipses.

  2. Tahar, M. (forthcoming). “Henri Bergson. L’évolution créatrice”. In E. Ballanfat, A. Benoit, C. Nouët and J.-F. Suratteau (eds.), Encyclopédie des Œuvres Philosophiques, Paris: Ellipses.

Lectures & Talks
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Lectures & Talks

International conferences and workshops

  1. “Agency, invention, and play”, Workshop Defining Agency Between Cognition and Biology, Université Paris I, March 2024.

  2. “Agency, Inventiveness and animal play”, Paris Toronto Agency Workshop, IHPST Toronto, November 2023.

  3. “How to account for the unpredictability of evolution?”, Colloquium Open Historicity of Life. Theory, epistemology, practice, Ecole Normale Supérieure, November 2023.

  4. "Does agency always mean goal-diretedness? How to avoid a chicken-and-egg situation", Workshop Reasons for Action in Non-Human Organisms, UK Leuven, October 2023.

  5. "Time(s) in evolutionary biology: the historicity of evolution and the histories of organisms”, Workshop Dynamic Time, Leiden University, December 2022.

  6. "Élan vital et conscience du vivant : penser la créativité non-humaine à partir de la philosophie bergsonienne”, Conference Réceptions de Bergson, usages, controverses, problèmes contemporains, University of Bordeaux Montaigne, December 2022.

  7. “L’évolution par-delà tout finalisme : Bergson critique des évolutionnistes”, Journées Jeunes Chercheurs de la Société Française d’Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques, December 2022

  8. "Time and Evolutionary History”, Deconstructing Darwinism Workshop (online), September 2022.

  9. “Les grands problèmes de l’organicisme aujourd’hui”, Organicism Workshop, Maison des Associations, Castelnaudary, September 2022.

  10. “Individualité et liberté : constitution biologique d’un problème philosophique de Claude Bernard à Henri Bergson”, Conference Claude Bernard, Histoire et Philosophie d’une Théorie Physiologique, University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, September 2022.

  11. “The agency of the living: a creativity at play in evolution”, Bergson Workshop, Fukuoka University, June 2022.

  12. “The élan vital as a tendency. Causality in evolution beyond Aristotelian modalities”, 45th Husserl-Abend lecture, Tohoku University, June 2022.

  13. "Creative consciousness, non-human invention and playfulness: for a new theory of evolution”, Philosophy of science Conference, Tohoku University, June 2022.

  14. “Biological interactions and practices of the living world: for a thinking of normativity”, PBJ International workshop: Time and Biology in Bergson’s Creative Evolution, Fukuoka University, June 2022.

  15. “Teleology in contemporary evolutionary theory”, PBJ International workshop: Time and Biology in Bergson’s Creative Evolution, Fukuoka University, June 2022.

  16. "Bergson’s critique of the theories of evolution”, PBJ International workshop: Time and Biology in Bergson’s Creative Evolution, Fukuoka University, June 2022.

  17. “Bergson, a philosopher of biology?”, Contemporary Philosophy Conference, Kyushu University, May 2022.

  18. “Le problème de l’individuation biologique de Claude Bernard à Henri Bergson”, Conference Claude Bernard, histoire et philosophie d’une théorie physiologique, Université du Québec à Montréal, May 2022.

  19. “Norms and Animal Behaviour”, Morphogenesis in Living Systems, CNRS Conference, Piombino, January 2022.

  20. “A Bergsonian Perspective on Causality in Evolution”, Canguilhem and Continental Philosophy of Biology Workshop (online), September 2021

  21. Keynote “Bergson’s vitalisms ?”, Workshop Bergson and vitalism(s), Ghent University – University of Toulouse 2 (online), April 2021.

  22. “The History of the Bergsonian Interpretation of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution”, Global Bergsonism Project, Penn State University (online), October 2020.
     

Seminars and research groups
  1. “L’agentivité biologique comme inventivité :Repenser le rôle des organismes non-humains dans l’évolution”, Seminar on the living world, Centre Cavaillès, École Normale Supérieure, March 2024.

  2. “Biological time(s), Seminar PhilLiSci, University of Bielefeld, December 2023.

  3. “Biological agency as inventiveness: the role of playful organisms in evolution”, I2SoS, University of Bielefeld, December 2023.

  4. “La philosophie animale de Bergson. Conscience du vivant, créativité instinctive et biologie contemporaine”, Atelier Bergson, École Normale Supérieure, November 2023.

  5. “Gradualisme et variations insensibles : un débat oublié du darwinisme”, Seminar H&P Bio, SPHERE, (UMR 7219), October 2023.

  6. "Teleology and evolutionary biology”, Seminar of the Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des techniques, Université Paris I, May 2023

  7. “The selection of insensible variations: history of a debate from Bergson back to Darwin”, Seminar of the Évo-Éco-Paléo lab (UMR CNRS 8198, University of Lille), May 2023.

  8. “Le pouvoir évolutionnaire des contraintes biologiques, le comportement animal et les explications historiques”, Seminar Philosophie, biologie, écologie : interfaces épistémiques, École Normale Supérieure (Paris), December 2022.

  9. “Le finalisme de la théorie de l’évolution par sélection naturelle et les acteurs introuvables”, Seminar Histoire et Philosophie du vivant, September 2021.

  10. “L’influence rétrospective d’Henri Bergson sur Claude Bernard”, Seminar Claude Bernard, Fondation des Treilles, July 2021.

  11. “La philosophie de Claude Bernard par Henri Bergson”, Research group Claude Bernard, Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques, February 2021.

  12. “La philosophie pour prolonger la science ? Claude Bernard et Bergson”, Research group Claude Bernard, Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques, October 2020.

  13. “La plasticité bergsonienne comme piste de réflexion pour la biologie contemporaine”, Research group Plasphen, Muséum National d’Histoire naturelle, November 2019.

  14. “Bergson et Haeckel : enquête sur un silence”, Seminar Haeckel, Fondation des Treilles, September 2019.

  15. “Les acteurs de l’évolution”, Seminar PhiloDoctes, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, February 2019.

Communication to the general public

  1. “Le jeu animal, laboratoire d’inventions pour l’évolution ?”, ENMI, Institut de Recherche et d’Innovation, Centre Pompidou, Paris, December 2023.

  2. Au sujet du temps, physique, biologique”, Programme ‘Parcours scientifiques’ hosted by Giuseppe Longo, Radio Fréquence Protestante, December 2023..

  3. “Nos sociétés ont-elles encore de la mémoire ?”, De vive voix. Les Voix de la paix (online), October 2020.

Other academic activities

Other academic activities

Organisation of international conferences, seminars and workshops

 

  • Co-organiser (with Caterina Zanfi) of the seminar “Atelier Bergson” (École Normale Supérieure de Paris – CNRS, in the framework of the IRN project “Global Bergsonism”), since 2022 (programme 2022 ; programme 2023)

  • Member of the organisation team of the project Global Bergsonism, with partners in France (SAB/CNRS/ENS Paris), USA (Penn State College), Canada (McGill), Japan (Hosei), Cameroon (Yaounde 1), Brasil (Federal U. São Carlos), Turkey (Yildiz Istanbul), 2019-2024.

  • Organiser of the international workshop “Bergson and vitalism(s) – an online workshop”, Ghent University – University of Toulouse 2, April 29-30, 2021.

  • Co-organiser (with Alexis Boisseau and Jonathan Racine) of the international workshop “Heredity of information and biological innovation, how to think about the emergence of novelty”, University of Toulouse 2, October 7, 2021.

 

 

Supervising, mentoring activities and expertise

 

  • Member of the board of the Société des amis de Bergson since 2019.

  • Member of the editorial board of Bergsoniana, Société des amis de Bergson, OpenAccess, since 2020.

  • Guest editor of the Special Issue on Henri Bergson for Parrhesia, published in 2022.

  • Reviewer for: Bergsoniana; Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal; Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology; Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Reviewer of applications for the National Science Center Poland (SONATA funding scheme).

  • Contribution to the edition of the Leçons sur Aristote from the manuscripts of Jacques Brunschwig, Paris, Ellipses, 2016.

  • Member of the scientific committee Sciences-Éthique-Humanités (Comité Consultatif National d'Ethique – Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris), 2013-2015.

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