Louis Bec
Artificial Life and Russian Biologists of the Early 20th Century (1994)

Язык оригинала: русский

We think that Lui Beck’s article needs some introduction, explaining the contest, in which a French zoosystematics investigated some purely scientific problems and tasks.

The author himself represents a stange for our country position: either an artist-scientist or vice versa. He is a creator of such discipline as zoosystematics and also participates in various projects connected with artificial intellect. In his interview in the magazine “Documents” (no. 3, June 1993) for a question asked by the jornalist Natalie Ergino: “How far are we from a cybernetic myth?” Lui Beck states his position towards new technologies, new thinking, and virtual space. It becomes clear why he is so interested in the work of three Russian biologists: these artists put forward a goal which was much more modern than the time they had been working. The basis and the main goal of their projects is to create a genetic, physiological and biological type. Later his position was evaluated as an utopical and irrational one. Very strict censorship appeared towards the experiments in this field. In fact, these scientists worked with (according to modern philosophical definition) realization of virtual projects, and each of them - in his own field. The main idea of their life is to create absolutely new forms of life, which should be considered as artefacts and not as reality.

At present artificial life entirely belongs to the domain of science. Such prejudice is quite dangerous, for it persists in eliminating aesthetic, artistic, epistemological and ethical dimensions, also underlying this discipline.

Even though artificial life is confined to scientific dogmatism, which more and more tends to assign to it a reductive academic role of quite banal biologic research, it constitutes, taking different forms, a cultural and fantastic foundation of human species.

For scientists, artificial life was born in 1987 in Non-Linear Institute at Santa-Fe.

However, there is no doubt, that the paradigm of artificial life has an older history, that it has developed for thousands years on exteremely diverse epistemological and aesthetic platforms, involving numerous disciplines. One can list a wide range of substitutes of the living, from the art of divination to most recent numeric modelisations, the related artificial constructions, which can be explained with the help of concepts and instruments, pertaining to each of the historical epochs in question.
Now its constituants are right at the heart of evolution, so even considering its actual scientific and technological specificity, the researcher of artificial life couldn’t but mention its foundations and great cultural perspectives.

Doyne Farmer, one of the founders and researchers from the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, inaugurated the Second Congress on Artificial Life in February 1989 in the following way:
“The arrival of artificial life will be the most significant event since the appearance of man. Its impact on the humankind and the biosphere may be enormous, even more great, than that of the industrial revolution, nuclear weapons and environmental pollution.

We must help artificial organisms to emerge, for they may become a terible disaster for the earth, or the most beautifual creation of the humankind...”
Doyne Farmer prefigured, that the efforts of sciences, studying the living (biology, genetics, ethology...), cognitive sciences (neurophysiology, neurobiology, language, informatics and artificial intellect...), sciences, studying the artificial (bio-informatics, cybernetics, robotics...) should be joined to study and develop the conditions for paranatural lives without ruling out their aristic, ethic, aesthetic, social and economic aspects.

Some goals of this discipline could be defined in the following way:
- To extend the knowledge of our biology, banally limited to the imperatives of life on the earth;
- To create Animats, artificial organisms, whose “genetic and intellectual” capacities, behavioural faculties could be programmed in a variable manner;
- To surmount the limitations of the living’s viability, developing profuse biological parallels and “almost living technologies”;
- To consider artificial organisms as the only interfaces with hostile environments and with different forms of life in the universe;
- To model and study other types of possible lives, introducing necessary heuristic and imaginative dimensions.

Here is the thesis, which I am going to oppose to this abusive confiscation.
Artificial life, when it is viewed in its prospective aspects, is a real place of synthesis, in which numerous parametres interlace.
Moreover, when crossing scientific, aesthetic, intellectual and technical activities of all kinds, they preserve their fundamental multicultural characteristics.

It is evident, that throughout the entire history of its existence from the beginning of time numerous researchers, artists, intellectuals and technicians of all origins have made decisive contributions.

Non-occidental cultures have participated and still participate in various ways in this slow and steady construction, even if they seem to align or coincide with the common and direct language of science.
Simply because artificial life is the expression of the human species’ innate phantasmatic tendence to ever try to create the living. Since the beginning of time it makes itself especially conspicuous in the relationship between arts and technologies.

Another founder of artificial life, researcher Christopher Langton, suggested a very vast field of research and exploration, when he determined artificial life as going from the study of life such as it is towards the study of life such as it could be.

I am deeply convinced, that artificial life is not the prerogative of Anglo-Saxon pragmatic scientific thinking. Its positivist ideological foundation seems to contradict some of the described above goals.
So, this message, unfortunately very schematic, must be placed in this context.

I would like to add further, that at present artificial life seems to be reduced by research norms of positivist and pragmatic science, which eliminate all previous influence.

Of course, the epistemological consequences are very important.
The real epistemological place of artificial life is absolutely disguised.
The current scheme of artificial life is seen as retroactive.
It tends to revert and reconstruct the course of the living phenomena.
It simulates the origin of life, theories of evolution, important stages of the conventional animal organization, integrating at each step achievements of cognitive sciences.

Such simulations produce the impression, that only phenomena, which already exist or which are sufficiently close to be simulated may be simulated, ruling out all ungrounded or not verified scientifically extrapolations.

Such position ignores the actual epistemological place of artificial life, which is at the edge of one of the living species, the hominidae, and which relies on superiour cognitive functions of human beings.

Artificial life is the product of the long process of cephalisation, which can be traced on all paths of evolution. So it must prolong the proliferation of the living with the help of operators with heuristic and constructivist intelligence, through rational and logical thinking, as well as through symbolic and fictional thinking.

It must define itself as the place of artificial cognitive prolongation of the living.

That is why today, here in Moscow, I would like to try to show the fundamental contributions of Russian biologists to definition of artificial life.

Theoretical and practical contribution of three Russian biologists of the early 20th century - Pavlov, Oparin and Lysenko - at first sight may seem to be strictly and specifically scientific, but in fact it can be interpreted in a much broader sense.

They operate, it seems, even on more profound levels, in the domain of innovation, of imagination, of utopia, relying on the contributions of the Russian culture of the second half of the 19th century into sciences of the living, with such scientists as Sechenov, Mechnikov, Michurin, Timiriazev...


It is to Oparin, that we owe the first artificial reconstruction of the conditions, in which life became possible, which was made in accordance with norms of constructivist scientific thinking: it is when creating life, that one will comprehend it.

With the theory of spontaneous generation eliminated by Pasteur, there rose the question, if life is a modality, which had emerged from matter’s innate energies and constituents.

Assembling the knowledge, acquired by physical chemistry, organic chemistry, global physics and astrophysics, Oparin announced his theory in the famous book “ The Origin of Life” and in the following “Origin of Life on the Earth”. This theory considered the continuity of the evolution of matter, which resulted in the formation of life. Life appeared as a necessary condition and not as a happy coincidence.

Oparin postulates, that after freeing itself from the initial atmosphere, too rich in hydrogene, the earth contained the four elements, which provided material for future combinations: carbon, hydrogen, oxygene and azote.
From that moment there could form in the atmosphere under the influence of various energies (electricity, heat, radioactivity, ultra-violet rays) methane and ammoniac.

In the ocean they formed new combinations with oxygen, azote and some mineral salts. The ocean became a “pre-biotic soup”, very rich in hydrocabonated elements, capable of forming sugars, fats (lipids), amin acids and nucleotids, and, due to polarised light, levogyrate products, characteristic of organic matter.

In fact, by such approach to experimental conditions of the origin of life Oparin opened the field for modelling artificial universes, permitting arbitrary parametres and simulations.

He suggested, that divers environments and their particular features determined the presence and the progress of the living, and that there may be as forms of life, as there are different environments.
These issues constitute the core of the most recent research in artificial life.

When he published together with astronomist V.Fesenko “Life in the Universe”, he paved the way for exobiology, that is for the existence of life in the universe. Or, more precisely, to life such as it could be depening on the realities and environments, in which it develops.

He relied on working hypotheses of scientific imagination.
Cellular automata, simulating behaviour in algorithmic environments gave birth to Conway’s play of life, now the classics of the research in artificial life.

Present day simulations of the living develop around bio-informatics with genetic algorythms, or robotics with its attempts to transfer biological cognition into technological reality.

However, in cyberspace and its nets it is possible to conceive, as Oparin did, of techno pre-biotic soups, in which artificial organisms emerge and evolve.


Pavlov’s contribution is also quite considerable.
It belongs simultaneously to the most specific spheres of artificial life and to much more general relation man/animal/machine, defining the place of the living within recent technological developments.

Indeed, although Pavlov made extremely important discoveries in the majority of organic functions, it is his studies of cerebral functions, that led him to novel ideas, especially the theory of superior nervous activity.
Thus, he founded psychophysiology as a biological science.

He presented brain activity as a set of reflexive procedures and insisted on tight coordination between all types of interior activity, attributing them to the central nervous system.

Evidently, he relied on the principles of the analytical method, isolating functions to study them through artificial incursions, but in the long run he resorted to the method, very cherished in the research and modelling of artificial life, the method of synthesis.

In a certain sense he developed in his research a systemic vision, considering functions in accordance with their original positions and their reciprocal relations, which opened the way to systemic modelling of artificial life.

He rejected psycological character of simulation, glorifying veritable brain physiology in the relations in the exterior world and in inner processes.
Thus, the basis of Pavlov’s physiology is the conditional reflex. He defined it as a nervous link between innumerable factors of the animal’s living environment, the animal’s perceptive system and the strictly determined activity of the interior organism.

Such trend of thought is central for artificial life. It theoretically and practically prefigures the Animats.

The Animats are artificial organisms, like robots, for example, which engage in apprentice activities, establishing divers relations with their environment.

The conditional reflex is a path between two points: the reception of an impulse and the stimulation of a cerebral function. One can’t overestimate the importance of this precision for new approaches in cognitive sciences, formal languages or artificial intelligence, when the computer defines itself as the place of concretization of symbolic thinking.

Moreover, Pavlov was not afraid to face and defend the consequences of his research in the physiology of brain hemispheres.

It led to materialism, psychic phenomena being considered a by-product of the nervous system with strictly anatomical and physiological basis: a nervous influx through neurons in accordance with certain connections.
He prefigures the present day place of the living and the use of energetic capacities and proprioceptives in interactive facilities, virtual realities, but also in artificial organs, such as communication networks, which are in different degrees technological prolongation of our nerves.


Lysenko brought to light quite a different aspect of artificial life.
It is a more nocturnal aspect, that of ideological and political pressure of a given environment on the forms of consciousness, entailing certain epistemological and ethic consequences.

For artificial life is ambiguous.

It could also be seen as a machination.

It could be considered the last undertaking of the living to catch and renounce itself, in its most devastating aspects.

One can think, that the aim of such machination is to elaborate strategies to deceive the cartesian animal machinery, substituting it by a continuum of living ideological machinations, the norms.

In this case scientific activity of agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko seems quite symptomatic.

The will to force the genetic mechanisms of the living for purposes other than scientific exploration, other than the construction of lives such as they could be, but with the aim to eradicate the recognized knowledge of mechanisms of life such as it is, is a form of predatory imperialism and censorship.

Lysenko will illustrate this form of censorship in different ways, notably in confrontation with geneticists, opposed to his doctrine.

When in 1934 he came up with the critique of the recognized by all of the scientific world classical genetics, formulating his proposals, opposite to the chomosomic theory, which he described as reactionary, idealistic and metaphysical, he didn’t hesitate to present dubious hybrids, and his experiments were declared a fraud.

Here we face important ethic dimension of artificial life, and Lysenko is one of its emblematic aspects.

For the first time a living species has access to its genetic patrimony, so the question of the future of the living becomes extremely topical.

In 1987 at Santa Fe Doyne Farmer, when discussing this problem, commented on how dangerous may be to rule out any of the dimensions, forming the fragile balance of artificial life.

In Russian: Искусственная жизнь и русские биологи начала двадцатого века Павлов/Опарин/Лысенко

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