Team:Paris Saclay/Ethics/About Life Art Science



About Life, Art and Science

At the earliest stages of any reflection about Bio-Art, in general or in its particular cases, it is necessary to address the two issues – antediluvian and unsolvable – of Art and Life. Both must be answered on an arbitrary basis, in order to hope for fecund discussions. Nevertheless, to be sure that there is not a privileged answer, several contradictory approaches have to coexist.

Following the completion of this preliminary but non-negligible work, the real issues about Bio-Art will come by themselves. We easily foresee that they will appeal not only to the Art and the Living themes, but also to the harder questions of ethics, laws and religion, that, in the absence of sufficient time, we will only debate in a cursory manner.

It is also notable that the issues of art and life merge early, in philosophy as in the history of mankind. To separate them for a long time is as sterile as artificial. A scrupulous decomposition of tasks must not mask the proximity, even the sameness, of the two bases of our reflection. Art, for example, requiring the subjectivity of human beings, living creatures above all, is particularly dependent on the definition of life we choose.


I. On the Definition of a Living Being

II. About Art and the Expression of Life-Bound Problems Through Art

III. The Human Issue at the Center of Bio-Art

On the definition of a living being

Man has been obsessed by the distinction between life and unlife since time began for us. The animism we can still find in many primeval and current cults, sometimes pushed to view everything in this world as life, shows how serious man is in his efforts to distinguish what things they are similar with from the things they feel deeply different : a dog and a rock. Whatever criteria of evaluation we use, an undoubtedly living being seems to appear that proves them deficient. Therefore, several great minds have been looking for a definition based on abstraction in order to embrace the whole of life in one concept. The summary that follows has no claim to be exhaustive and only claims to give an overview of the evolution of these issues throughout the course of history.

One of the first elaborated and still documented points of view, seminal up until the XIXth century, is the Aristotelian one. It supposes each living being has a « soul » (anima), which at that time had nothing divine nor transcendental. In Aristotle, the soul did not inhabit a body but was a form of the body ; « The soul is the first actuality of a natural body that is potentially alive » (Aristotle, On the soul). He distinguished vegetal souls, «  this means that each of the segments (of the vegetal) has a soul in it identical in species »(Aristotle, On the soul), and the souls of men and animals which are expressed by the power of sense-perception and self-motion.

This primeval point of view did not take into account all the micro-organisms, unknown at the time, but it may encompass them. We can find in several current theses, in particular in the vitalist ones, a strong aristotelian influence. The religious concept of the soul and of life in general in the Catholic religion has even been influenced by scholars like Saint Thomas Aquinas.

The next approach is also prior to microscopes. It has the advantage of including all possible living forms and the disadvantage of being quite inadequate to distinguish in practice between life and unlife. It is the pure mechanistic approach typical of Descartes. It is worth noting that this approach already existed, in a remarkably well developed form for its time, in Epicurus, that conceived the idea of the atom dear to Democrite.

«  Nor will this appear at all strange to those who are acquainted with the variety of movements performed by the different automata, or moving machines fabricated by human industry, and that with help of but few pieces compared with the great multitude of bones, muscles, nerves, arteries, veins, and other parts that are found in the body of each animal. Such persons will look upon this body as a machine made by the hands of God, which is incomparably better arranged, and adequate to movements more admirable than is any machine of human invention » - René Descartes, Discourse on the method.

The Approach of Descartes, albeit settled in the Catholic religion of its time, only makes a difference between man, who has a soul – in a Catholic meaning here –, and the rest. Animals, and all other living things are thus machines. For Descartes, there are man-made machines, and life, the machines made by God whose are, in the quote above : « incomparably better arranged, and adequate to movements more admirable than is any machine of human invention ». The recent advances of synthetic biology, for example the complete and artificial construction of a functional genome ( see Craig Venter et al results), cast doubt on the Cartesian view of life. The problem with this idea, or maybe its strength, is that it does not distinguish the simplest organisms from the erratic machines produced by the laws of physics. By extrapolating from the Cartesian thought, the well-oiled machine of the water cycle, or of the changing of seasons is not less living than replication cycles in viruses and primordial bacteria. The Cartesian approach solve the problem of the definition of life because it denies the problem, deciding only between humans granted a soul and machines or inert things.

The definition of life by entropy is significantly later, but it occurs before the birth of the fathers of thermodynamics and evolution in organisms, Ludvig Boltzmann(1844-1906) and Charles Darwin(1809-1882), in Marie François Xavier Bichat(1771-1802). The latter, sometimes regarded as a vitalist ( something Foucault refuses), considered life as a mysterious principle which fight against an inert environment. He described life by : « All the forces that fight against death ». This definition that can seem like a tautology must be understood with an entropic point of view, considering death being an inexorable future of withering away. Life has thus no sense without the perspective of death and the high lighting of an inert environment (and no an inorganic one). The definition of Bichat has the advantage of describing life as a movement and by the way time act on living beings. Life shall therefore be the temporary exception to the second law of thermodynamics (The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum). This definition is barely not subject to exceptions and classifies without ambiguity Craig Venter machine as life, because, while being artificial, the genome fights against death and entropy with an incontestable efficiency.

This idea comes up again soon after in a new light, with the evolutionary cause, purely mechanistic, served independently by Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, knight of Lamarck and Charles Darwin. Lamarck founded biology as we know it, using a theory that tend to consider life as a notable case of a chemical system. For Lamarck, human beings, and all other life forms, are nothing but machines, made up of particles determined by the laws of physics and chemistry. For him, evolution of species leading to the adaptation to the environment is a theoretical necessity. Darwin read Larmarck but did not use his work that much in the development of a more qualitative theory on the evolution of species by the survival of the more adapted to a given set of environmental conditions ( it is worth noting that the famous book of Darwin was not only named On the origin of species but On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life ). The evolutionist and mechanistic thought does not define living beings by their fight against death anymore, like Bichat used to, but by their capacity of evolution. The point of view went from the fight against entropy at an individual scale to the fight against entropy at the scale of the species or the taxa. Living machines are thus distinguishable from human machines by this criterion of reproduction and surviving of the species. Here again, the bacterial machine of Craig Venter keep his place among living beings.

Nietzsche, still based on a mechanistic point of view, refused this definition of life centered on the evolution and the adaptability of organisms. In accordance with his thought in general, he considered life as the expression of a will of power and assimilation. An organism or a species that does nothing but maintain itself in existence, without growing or strengthening, will be for him a declining thing that is not life. The machines produced by synthetic biology would be for Nietzsche machines or living beings depending on the way we treat them. They would be machines as long as their growth would be controlled and their existence exploited, but from the moment their liberty and independence would be restored, assuming they would survive and grow, they would have for him all the aspects of living beings.

We seems to find, more recently, some examples of vitalism, like in Michel Foucault :

« … death was the only possibility of giving life a positive truth. The irreducibility of the living to the mechanical or chemical is secondary only in relation to the fundamental link between life: and death. Vitalism appears against the background of this `mortalism'. » - Michel Foucault, Birth of the clinic

But a careful analysis of Foucault and his contemporaries lead to think that it is a “superficial” vitalism : the consideration of an irreducible vital element as a consequence of life rather than a cause. The previous quote is best understood in the light of this passage from The order of things :

« vitalism and its attempt to define the specificity of life are merely the surface effects of those archaeological events » - Michel Foucault, The order of things.

Over the last decades, countless contributions have been made, often based on past thinkers, and it would be vain to try to summarise them here. We can however note the “selfish gene” theory, proposed by Richard Dawkins, that put genes at the center of evolution. Life would thus be reduced at an abstract piece of information, coded in organic molecules. Evolution and survival would not matter anymore, only the potential of the information held in the gene would have an importance. This point of view is reinforced by the experiences of Thomas S. Ray, researcher in ecology, who simulated bacterial and viral evolution with a computer program capable of auto-replication. The conception of life as perennial genetic information included the virtual creatures of Thomas Ray.

About Art and the Expression of Life-Bound Problems Through Art

The definition of art does not raise the same issues as did the definition of life, in particular because the question of life does not have as much financial impact. We will not present here the complete history of Art, with its artists. Modern times have split up art so much and denied the legacy of its history – through the modern art especially – that our reflection does not need to involve a precise chronology. It is still interesting to underline the fact that art, very related to the social, religious and political context, has been above all a form of expression to the problems of his time. It has firstly been figurative, and this until the early XXth century. Just the method and the subjects changed, very sensitive to fashion trends, evolving of the mores and of the influences of pioneer artists.

But a big technical and esthetic change like impressionism seems anecdotal alongside the renewal brought by, for example, the surrealism. Art is at least one million years old, but the emergence of abstraction and intent as a visible and primary engine in art is recent. We can, with some boldness, locate it in the early XXth century. The consumer society has also caused the growth of applied arts which are, amongst others, graphics, design, architecture, illustration and advertising communication. Although not considered as art by many people, these applied arts tremendously influence the so-called true Art, as can be seen the Pop Art of Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. Conversely, the art celebrated in expositions and museums influenced the applied art forms.

The entry into art, this second half of the XXth century, of a flock of charlatans raises in particular the question of easiness in art. The current and commonly agreed conception of art put the design at the center of artistic work, to the detriment of technique and aesthetics, opening the door to a sophistry of contingency of the worst kind : I am art because I say I am art and art is art because it comes from an intention of doing art. This Far-Ouest of modern aesthetics has widened the possibility of art and opened the way for a new form of creation : BioArt.

BioArt is a domain of fading borders and consensual in nature. The BioArtists community and its followers define de facto what is BioArt and what is not. The widest definition of BioArt we can take is an Art about living beings. BioArt introduces living beings as subjects, materials and means. In the first case, we modify and expose living beings to raise questions about them, in the second case we use them like a new pigment, in the third one we use their symbolic role for a higher calling. If we assume we know what is Art, we need, in order to say what is BioArt, to know what is living. According to whether we use one or another definition of living, a virus will be a living or not and a work based on viruses will or will not be a piece of BioArt. Without being that extreme, can we consider the spectacle of metallic machines reproducing life aspects as a BioArt work? If we take the mechanistic vision of life of the knight of Lamarck, everything is a more or less sophisticated machine and a work that shows a complex machine can be BioArt if the artistic intention of the work is to make BioArt. But for a vitalist's point of view, natural life, modified and presented by a man is necessary to a BioArt work, as otherwise the work would lack the indivisible vital element of life.

In facts, the most recognized BioArt works do not come from a new research of beauty through biotechnologies but from a deep need of controversy around disturbing topics. BioArtists often want to transmit a message, a fear or a concept. One of the most striking examples of these last years is the rabbit Alba of Eduardo Kac, green and fluorescent under ultraviolet light. This animal was not made with the purpose of revolutionizing beauty in figurative art, but it is a message of fear and defiance addressed to the world.

BioArt should not be reduced to the use of science in art. Since the first color pigments, science has a role in the world of Art ; the rise of new advanced technologies in art is no more that the logical development of artistic technique. It is worth noting that in fireworks the science plays a major role. But fireworks are always intended to be beautiful, and even if they can express an idea, it is through beauty and in the purest artistic tradition, not in a disturbing or provocative way. BioArt is different. It does not seek for beauty or perfection.

BioArt which is known is passionate and alive. Instead of a result, a final scene, a BioArt work is a process, sometimes out of control and submitted to the inherent randomness of biology. However, nothing kept this form of art to be like pyrotechnics, electronic music, digital drawing and all other forms of art based on modern technology. If BioArt is controversial and symbolic, if it favours the process and not the results, it is because BioArt is an outlet for a population anguished by our power.

Art has always mirrored the anxieties of society. For a long time, these anxieties have had a face, so Art has been figurative. We depicted Heaven and Hell, death, wars, diseases... The renewals brought by the XXth century, like surrealism, were bound to the deep social upheaval of that time. This time, fear does not have a face. The anxieties that come from biotechnologies and in particular genetic engineering are inappropriate for the representations we are used to. The catharsis was incomplete. A fluorescent rabbit is a perfect way to express the anxiety about our new power : we can do it. We control the plan of fabrication of living beings, we can have an ear grafted on a human arm, we can change the colour of an animal and create chimeras.

The expressed anxiety by man through BioArt goes beyond the fear of consequences, and it is not because of the fear. There is also a great curiosity in BioArt, a curiosity about the future and the rethinking brought by biotechnologies. We wonder what will be the future in the light of what we currently know by biology.

That being said, to define BioArt as the Art that uses living beings is absurd, because it deprives us of an array of interesting mechanical works. Instead of an art with life, we should describes an art about life. We could define BioArt as the art that uses biotechnologies in order to speak about life and about the relations between mankind and life. Therefore, the definition of BioArt exempts itself from the definition we give to life, because BioArt has now as subject to bring the questions and the answers about the definition of life. The defect of this definition of BioArt is that it deprives us of purely aesthetic biologically assisted works. We can see these two approaches as two categories of BioArt. An art of the living and an art concerning the living, that is to say an art around living. It is with this conception of proximity with the living and the biotechnologies that we can approach more closely the idea of BioArt. It is this conception of BioArt that we will use from now.

The Human Issue at the Center of Bio-Art

As we said, BioArt draw a part of its energy in the new questions man is asking about himself. Mankind developed during the XXth Century a feeling of hatred mixed with admiration towards itself. The conventional forms of Art could barely express that. If BioArt can do it, it is because it has a force of deed. BioArt is a high-technology act performed on a living being, highlighted from the beginning to the end : the stage of modern men realizing the part of their potentiel they are afraid off, proud off or fascinated by.

BioArt works principally intend to deal with hasard, consequences, legitimacy and law. Often, one work deal with all these topics, like Alba the rabbit. If these issues have become essential, it is because biotechnologies are a cause of hazard, a source of consequences, a mean of doing what we do not have the legitimacy for and an endless challenge for the legislature.

The issue of hasard and consequences are the responsibility of risk management centers, like nuclear plants, chemistry, studies on nanomachines or the widely implanted electromagnetic devices. Philosophy does not have so much place in that.

However, the legitimacy and the law are closely bound to philosophy and, as we shall go on to examine, to abstract concepts like the definition of life.

Man usually treats differently what is similar to him and what is different, for example he uses freely mining resources but has much more reservation when it comes to animals – as proves the existence of the Société protectrice des animaux. Therefore the life definition issue has a concrete importance to our society. Biotechnologies enable us to touch at the genome and to make living beings from nature perform a planned task for thousands of generations. The techniques of a near future will enable the creation of a living being from inanimate matter. This organism will be deprived of history. BioArt is a strong way of striking the non-scientist population with the legitimacy issues. Man asks himself how far he can modify living beings and what laws he must write about that. Thus, the definition of life is of tremendous importance. Whether or not artificial organisms will be considered living, this will shape a whole part of the industry of our near future.

Let us look at life from the purely mechanistic point of view of Descartes, Lamarck, La Mettrie and all those in history who have seen in the universe nothing else but the laws of physics applied to matter and energy.

Like all definitions, the life one will have an arbitrary character, because in the great heap of atoms and energy our universe is made off, there is no order but the one we see and no objects but the ones our mind can perceive, name and define. Thus we must choose the definition of life according to the ethics principle that will inform the upheavals in laws about life.

An article by Anna Deplazes and Mark Huppenbauer, Synthetic organisms and living machines, propose as basic criteria the composition, the origin, the development and the purpose. This hierarchy enable us to establish a sort of ladder between what is clearly alive and what is clearly not alive, with a hazy border which hold the debates. This has the advantage of focusing the problem and the inconvenience of an anthropocentric point of view. The mere fact that origin is a criterion shows the human systematic trend of applying human criteria in every reflection. Man is a creature of history, who often judges the value something according to its history instead of considering its present and unbiased qualities. If the definition of a living beings has ethics laws and restrictions as consequences, to base this definition on origin is as absurd as considering that a person born into slavery has no rights.

A debate on the laws about micro-organisms must disregard their origin and focus on their present and unbiased qualities. The judgment criteria for life shall, thus, be abstract ones. We can for example consider life as any entity capable of reproduction in an adequate environment. This simple definition includes viruses and a whole array of computer programs capable of reproduction in a favorable digital environment. We can, in an extreme way, consider a living being the sentence : write, then quote << write, then quote >>, if it is placed in a room with paper, pencils and thorough logicians. Being made of organic matter or not lose thus all importance, and that prevents us from a racism of composition. In a pure mechanistic point of view, whether a thing is made of iron or carbon should have no impact on the status of living being. Subsequently, we can expect of a living being a permanent metabolic activity, where metabolism would be defined without reference at carbone and proteins. The question of viruses and computer programs become litigious, but this definition make more sense in a research of a basis for legislation about life. A virus spends its existence inert like a rock and seems to be inappropriate for consideration and rights.

The more contentious case is bacteria with minimal genome, made in order to serve humans their whole life. This problem is also marked by anthropomorphism. What we find disturbing in a living machine with a controlled genome is the history of that living being we would modify or create. If a living being is naturally willing to serve our species, because of the joint evolution of our two species, like many plants and the micro-organisms of our intestinal flora are, we will not ask ourselves any questions. It is also worth noting that domesticated dogs, genetically modified for thousands of years by evolutionary pressure from men and often incapable of surviving alone, do not bother anyone. We always focus on the history of beings. Excluding hazard and animal suffering considerations, the technique used to modify living beings has no importance. If modifying fruit trees for two thousand years in order to obtain a tree that relies on humans for its survival and uses all its energy to produce our food is allowed, why would the same result obtained in two years with genetic engineering be an issue ? The question of the modification of life by man has nothing to do with biotechnologies in particular. It is a question about the action of human beings on their environment in general. We can note that the use of aphids by ants has never tormented anyone, and that the modification of nature from any other species than ours let us be indifferent. Man, due to his capacity of reflection on his deeds, thinks about morals and ethics. His intelligence imposes upon him the burden of morals and he scourges himself for the extinctions he is responsible for. Some researchers defend the thesis that Methanosarcina bacteria would have caused the worst mass extinction in the history of life, the Permian-Triassic extinction event, about 252 million years ago (disappearance of 95% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species). Following this study, we did not had a moral judgment on this bacterium. This shows how ethic problems with biotechnologies do not come from the acts themselves but from the confrontational relationship we have with our intelligence.

It is what falls under the domain of art and give BioArt its importance, its relevance and its power of alert and catharsis.

However, if we assume that vitalists are correct, and that there is in the living world as it existed before mankind a mysterious vital energy our creations can not have, then the debate changes radically.

As we do not know what life is made of, we have to as a precaution respect life. This mysterious common feature we have with life, the vital essence, is a good reason to apply anthropic principles in debates about life, because we assume without possible verification that livings beings have something in common with humans that demand for moderation and respect.

With this assumption of a common feature that unifies life, we do not have a problem of definition of life anymore, but a problem of understanding of life. Living beings are or are not living beings independently of us and our philosophy. However, the decision making about ethics and use of life is not simpler. Ethics about life can not be determined until all living beings are identified, because a judge can not judge organisms he know nothing about. Before taking any important decision, we must create, study and separate between life and unlife those living machines and synthetic organisms we can produce with computer sciences, biotechnologies and synthetic biology. There is thus a necessity of patience from the industrial sector and of a tremendous investment in fundamental research on artificial and modified micro-organisms. The experiences that will enable us to take decisions about bio-ethics could be forbidden in the future, but their execution in a first time is required. We can also apply a principle of moral precaution and refuse to investigate scientifically on those questions, like some countries are doing on the topic of stem cells.

If living beings are recognised by the laws as holders of an inalienable right to be independent, the creation of minimal genomes will be possible only if these organisms are not considered alive. Therefore, the modification with genetic engineering of entire ecosystems is not only an issue of health and hazard, but raises also several moral questions.

The non-technological methods that modify environment, like evolutionary pressure or plant breeding can also become illegal, but because living beings have a status and a need for respect and preservation, very invasive processes like genetic engineering or directed evolution in laboratories can be the subject of particular legislations.

BioArt is, here again, one of the best means to raise questions. The rabbit Alba of Eduardo Kac play a role on our empathy, being a pet, and leads us to the question of sudden modification of living beings.

However we choose the definition of life, it remains a problem of hierarchy in life. Common sense leads to think that a monkey and a bacteria can not be subjects to the same laws when it comes to biotechnologies. From a mechanistic point of view, hierarchy in life must be based on a criterion, like intelligence, self-consciousness or feelings, but there is a great risk of anthropocentrism. From a vitalist's point of view, to rank living beings is more thorny, but we can discover that some species have a stronger vital essence than others. The question of vital essence and its nature becomes primordial and a scientific and philosophical (theological ?) investigation is required.

The interesting thing with BioArt is that it raise ethics issues and is simultaneously in its existence an ethics issue. Actually, if we assume that modifying deeply living beings is prohibited, we can wonder wether modifying living beings for BioArt purpose is permitted or not. We can also wonder what living beings can be used for BioArt works. If we consider that genetic modifications are enabled only in case of necessity, it brings on the millenary question of the necessity of Art. We can also consider that a genetic modification does not need to be necessary but only to be useful, and it raises the question of usefulness of Art. If it is complex to talk about the necessity of art, its social usefulness makes no doubts, and the fact that art has been kept by natural selection, despite the time it takes to mankind, is a proof of its usefulness at the species scale. This Art raises more questions by its own existence than by its works, and it is a proof of its necessity in a society of people disconnected with the science that makes their everyday life and their future. The use of genetically engineered organisms and biotechnologies in BioArt – from bacteria to humans – is thus no more superfluous, because it is a very good way to protect ourselves against a greater abuse.


  • Aristote, On the Soul
  • Epicure, Lettre à Hérodote (Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus)
  • Bichat, Physiological researches on life and death
  • Darwin, On the origin of species
  • Descartes, Discourse on the method
  • Lamarck, Philosophie zoologique (Lamarck, Zoological philosophy)
  • Nietzsche, Volonté de puissance
  • Foucault, Birth of the clinic
  • Synthetic organisms and living machines ; Anna Deplazes and Markus Huppenbauer, Syst Synth Biol., 2009
  • Methanogenic burst in the end-Permian carbon cycle ; Daniel H. Rothmana, Gregory P. Fournier, Katherine L. French, Eric J. Alm, Edward A. Boyle, Changqun Cao and Roger E. Summons, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A., 2014