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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > A man of dialogue
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image image image Date published : 24/02/03
  image A man of dialogue
RTD info 36
  Jean-Pierre Changeux is a man of spirit and surprises. It was exactly 20 years ago that this neurobiologist and humanist first sparked controversy when he published his Neuronal Man. Can we ever again be satisfied with the idea that the human brain simply operates like a machine, governed by electrical and chemical impulses? Since that publication, while continuing to progress in his research on neuroscience, Jean-Pierre Changeux has further pursued his investigations into the superior functions of the brain and the 'big questions' – such as those concerning truth, beauty and good – with are peculiar to our species.

'Following the decoding of the human genome, scientific research now allows us to hope for a better understanding of the brain and its functions, at the level of the individual and of society. Everything which previously lay in the realms of the spiritual, the transcendental and the intangible, is now becoming tangible, naturalised and, dare I say it, quite simply humanised,' writes Jean-Pierre Changeux in his most recent book, The Man of Truth (see box). This is a statement which will not come as any surprise to those familiar with the author of Neuronal Man. Is Changeux an iconoclast? Perhaps, but in overturning beliefs, he is not short of arguments.

He has been working on the brain for the past 40 years. It all began while he was writing a thesis under the direction of one of the fathers of molecular biology, Jacques Monod. 'I learned from him the need to look for the elementary causes – that is the molecular mechanisms – of the phenomena of life, from simple bacteria to the reflective consciousness of the human being.' It was at this time that the young Changeux helped to shed light on the concept of allosteric interaction (the property of certain proteins to be able to change form and function under the influence of signals from their environment). He became enthralled by the prospect of extending this model to synaptic transmission (sending a nervous signal from a neuron to another cell by a neuromediator).

Neurons and synapses

This tireless scientific enquiry – he is currently engaged in innovative research on the nicotinic receptors in the central nervous system and the mechanisms of nicotine dependency – has taken on an increasingly multidisciplinary approach. The Molecular Neurobiology Unit he has headed for many years at the Institut Pasteur includes researchers from many fields, including cellular biology, biochemistry, molecular genetics, electrophysiology and behaviour. But Jean-Pierre Changeux is anything but a scientist holed up in his 'ivory tower'. He is also a professor at the Collège de France, where he turns his attention to a different subject every year, always carefully prepared. Neuronal Man (1983) summarises the content of his first seven courses and has proved a considerable success at the bookshops. This is not a work designed for the hermetic world of the specialist, but one in which the author tries to spread the message of the remarkable progress in our knowledge of the human brain by providing his thoughts on the radical changes which could result. But not without raising a frank and challenging question: 'The possible combinations linked to the number and diversity of connections in the human brain seem to be sufficient to explain human capacities. The divide between mental and neuronal activities is not justified.'

With this declaration, Jean-Pierre Changeux opens up a scientific debate with fundamental philosophical and humanist implications. For him, an investigation of neurone and synapses must be accompanied by an enquiry into the major questions (such as conscience, thought, knowledge, truth, beauty) which constitute the very humanity of our species.

From aesthetics to ethics

This cultured neurobiologist (he believes that science and its history belongs alongside art in our museums in illustrating the progress of civilisation) is familiar with the work of many of the psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers and other experts on the human sciences who are abundantly cited in his works. As an art collector (especially French classicism) and amateur organist, he is naturally inclined to delve into the concept of beauty, and in his work Reason and Pleasure he forges a new research discipline: neuroaesthetics. ('Science does not identify with reason, nor art with pleasure, but there is no science without pleasure nor art without reason.')

His current interest is ethics. He had already broached the subject in Conversations on Mind, Matter and Mathematics, a book of conversations with the mathematician Alain Connes, devoted mainly to relations between the brain and mathematics. A few years later, in 1992, President François Mitterand asked Jean-Pierre Changeux to chair the French Committee of Ethics for Life Sciences and Health. He was confronted by many 'practical' questions (drug addiction, cloning, gene therapy, etc.) during this experience which involved contacts with many different personalities – including the philosopher Paul Ricoeur.

He worked with this moralist, who does not deny the existence of either the 'soul' or of transcendence, in a further work, entitled What makes us think? 'We often found ourselves taking opposing views on scientific questions such as the origins of human thought. But, surprisingly, on matters of ethics and how to debate them in contemporary societies, we based human specificity on common values. That leaves the question of where these values come from.'

Science as an instrument for truth

Jean-Pierre Changeux believes that we must look for the answer in our brain and its epigenetic structuring in relation to the history of morals and of society.

'The mistake is that, very often, there is insufficient distinction between common fundamental ethical dispositions (the representation of the self as another within the social group, the strengthening of the social link through co-operation, the non-acceptance of murder, lies, etc.) and social conventions, myths and sacred texts. The latter vary depending on culture, history and geography. It is important for diverse human societies to come together and to unite around what they have in common rather than concentrating on the differences, while at the same time accepting both the existence and the value of these differences.'

Why is it that the ability to tell the truth is a trait peculiar to the human species? Is this not an activity which can bring our societies together in their quest for truth, namely through progress and science? The reflection and dialogue which can produce authentic agreements must therefore be conducted at global level. Utopian perhaps, but the Fundamental Charter for Human Rights is nevertheless a reality. Why not seek ‘universal ethics’, perhaps by starting with the creation of a World Committee on Bio-Ethics, acting in a consultative capacity and within the UN framework?


A passionate humanist

In his latest book, The Man of Truth, Jean-Pierre Changeux endeavours to establish a 'fresco' of the answers which the immense field of research opened up by neuroscience, genetics and the cognitive sciences could provide to the question of what constitutes the originality of the human species. In his approach, Changeux awards particular importance to the epigenetic hypothesis, according to which the development of the brain involves, in addition to the action of genes, an intrinsic development coordinated by the learning and experience particular to each individual. Our capacities for thought and reflection, our ability to produce, communicate and accumulate knowledge, as well as our constant aspirations to find a common truth or ethics, at the individual and collective level, are all viewed with the scientist's eye. 'Does this lead us to the death of Man? On the contrary. I see in this a prodigious “brew” of vitality,' writes Changeux. Because more than anything else, this researcher – inspired by progress in scientific knowledge but unfailingly lucid about possible illusions – is a passionate humanist.

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To find out more
For details of all publications by Jean-Pierre Changeux see the Institut Pasteur website (click on scientific information – publications)

Jean-Pierre Changeux - 'There will always be a margin of uncertainty, a certain calling into question, in connection with any advance in scientific knowledge. Is this a reason not to try and know more?'

Jean-Pierre Changeux – 'There will always be a margin of uncertainty, a certain calling into question, in connection with any advance in scientific knowledge. Is this a reason not to try and know more?'


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