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Prion-Like Phenomena Mediating Between Modes of Individuation


Prions, prion-related diseases and prion-like phenomena are not only the subjects of rapidly growing scientific research interests, but also appear to be interesting from a philosophical perspective. In this study, we first present a brief review of the current prion research that includes a conceptual expansion of the notion of “prion” as a pathogenic conformation of a specific mammalian protein, towards more general “prion-like phenomena”, that can sometimes assume important beneficial functions in a broad range of biological contexts. Next, we introduce Gilbert Simondon’s theory of individuation, which is a philosophical framework applicable to all possible domains of becoming. In contrast to the common approach of dividing the realm of ontogenetic processes into distinct domains and treating them separately, Simondon distinguishes between different modes of the same process: i.e., the physical, vital, and psycho-collective modes. His theory thus appears relevant with regard to the notion of prion-like phenomena in the extended sense, which seems to provide a useful metaphor for better understanding different modes of individuation and transitions between them. In particular, the transition from the physical to the vital mode is closely related to some core questions of biosemiotics such as the emergence of life from non-life, as well as “how a molecule became a sign”, which today constitute blank spots where the classical specialised disciplines of natural sciences fall short of satisfactory explanations. When recent scientific findings on prion-related phenomena are interpreted in the context of Simondon’s ontogenetic framework, the question related to the origin of life in our provocative title gains a different meaning.

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  1. Indeed, there do exist earlier publications in the literature stressing the same idea, for example (Jarrett and Lansbury 1993), but we preferred to quote (Jackson and Krost 2014), as their way of expression fits extremely well with Simondon’s theory that we will introduce below.

  2. In fact, the inheritable character of prions has been drawing the attention of scientists who mention prions as an alternative mechanism among various biological information processes (Wills 1989; Jablonka 2002; Jablonka and Lamb 2014).

  3. As long as the low oxygen concentration persists, all cells should participate in the mat-formation to avoid leakage, which would result in a nonfunctional mat. Only the all-or-none characteristics of the non-Mendelian, self-perpetuating nature of prionic inheritance can guarantee such collective behavior without exception, as explained in Halfmann (2014).

  4. For an excellent overview of such prion-related phenomena, we recommend the online lectures of the eminent prion researcher Susan Lindquist, who recently passed away at a quite early age, leaving behind an admirable body of intellectual heritage. For a quick overview, see. Lindquist (2015, 2016).

  5. Simondon’s serious engagement with various scientific disciplines is emphacised in Illiadis (2013, p. 2): “Simondon was incredibly well-versed in fields that lay beyond the ken of most practicing philosophers. In a brief interview he conducted with the French magazine Esprit late in his life, he spoke about his philosophical approach, yet the interview is peppered with references to a diverse array of scientists, engineers, and inventors, including Albert Ducrocq, James Clerk Maxwell, Allen B. DuMont, Robert Stephenson, Michael Faraday, and others.”

  6. In the (still rather limited) English literature on Simondon, one can encounter alternative translations of the last two modes as “biological” and “psycho-social”. In both cases we have adhered to Simondon’s original French expressions, mainly because they allow for a wider range of interpretations than these alternatives, which invoke well-established disciplines (i.e., biology and sociology) together with their rather restrictive assumptions. In case of the former, we are aware of the fact that the term “vital” runs the risk of association with vitalism, and would like to refer the reader to (Barthélémy 2015, p. 19) for a lucid explanation of how Simondon himself avoids the “vitalist risk”. Regarding the latter, Jean-Hugues Barthélémy has pointed out in a personal communication that “psycho-social” is a better translation of the Simondonian term “psycho-collective” because the “collective” (noun) is, for Simondon, the “social solution” of the psychic problematics”. Nevertheless, we prefer to keep the term “psycho-collective” because of our future intentions to elaborate on this mode from a biosemiotic perspective, where we will need the full range of associations in the notion of “collective”.

  7. It should be noted that the supersaturated solution serves as a metaphor for a metastable preindividual being only when seen at the macro-scale; at a closer look one would recognise the fairly individuated micro-scale structures of atoms and molecules. Strictly speaking, any real physical entity we can encounter today is bound to be partially individuated. In that sense, an absolute preindividual being could perhaps only be found at the beginning of the universe.

  8. If we consider, for example, the very similar case of “under-cooled water” (water gradually cooled below 0°C, while still preserving its liquid phase), we can say that it harbours the possibility of ending up with different ice forms, depending on the crystal seed we would drop into it. Here, it is exactly this initial diversity of alternatives that we could consider as metastability, and which is lost in the course of the crystallisation process.

  9. Importantly, if one mistakenly interprets the state deprived of metastability as identical to ‘thermodynamic equilibrium’, then this statement would seem to contradict the spontaneous formation of ordered structures observed under certain physical conditions. Such phenomena have drawn the interest of various scientists, from Alan Turing, with his reaction-diffusion model as the chemical basis of morphogenesis in living tissues (Turing 1952), to Ilya Prigogine with his Nobel-winning contribution on nonequilibrium thermodynamics that demonstrated how so-called dissipative structures can emerge in open systems kept far from equilibrium via the flow of matter and/or energy (Prigogine and Lefever 1973). From the Simondonian perspective, such a dissipative structure – for example a vortex that has emerged from and is stabilised in a stream – would be fully individuated, and thus deprived of metastability.

  10. This statement is indeed reminiscent of Schrödinger’s description of life as a perpetual effort to avoid and postpone the decay to the equilibrium (Schrödinger 1944). But an exact translation of Simondon’s philosophical notions into thermodynamic parlance is not possible: neither should vital individuation be understood as life (which blends physical, vital, and in some cases psycho-collective modes of individuation), nor the loss of metastability as convergence to equilibrium in the thermodynamic sense.

  11. The co-evolution of the geosphere and the biosphere as explicated by Hazen accounts for how increasingly complex topologies – ones that harbour niches of diverse physico-chemical conditions – allowed for the formation of new and more complex minerals, eventually leading to the emergence of primitive organisms, which catalysed the production of even more complex minerals, on one hand, and contributed to the macro-scale transformations of the geosphere, on the other hand. Hazen’s theory is reminiscent of some suggestions made in the earlier work of Graham Cairns-Smith (Cairns-Smith 1982).

  12. Such a relational system can be regarded as a very primitive forerunner of signification, which connects with one of the fundamental questions of biosemiotics how a molecule becomes a message, which will be further discussed in the next section.

  13. We will not go into the discussion of the third mode of individuation, the psycho-collective mode, because it is beyond the scope of this article. But suffice it to say that Simondon introduces it as a mode that emerges out of the vital one under very special conditions.

  14. As a matter of fact, we have been recently informed that a very similar opinion has been defended by Michel Morange as cited in Barthélémy (2015, p. 31, footnote 33) although his reasons for criticising the usage of “information” are not identical to ours: “Some people have taken this notion of genetic information literally, tried to determine it quantitatively and to compare it to the quantity of information necessary for the creation of different living forms. This approach has a double weakness. The first is to imagine that genes, the genome, would by themselves be capable of allowing for the production of living organisms. [...] The second weakness of the notion of genetic information is that it describes badly the fundamental relationship connecting the sequence of nucleotides of DNA with the protein structure. [...] So we see how badly chosen the term information is for designating the role of genes and DNA, and how much better the term memory suits” (italics ours).

  15. See, e.g., the quotation from Simondon (2009, p. 7) in Section 3, and the related discussion there).

  16. Here, we would yet like to remind the reader that the physical and vital modes of individuation do not have a one-to-one correspondence with the classical realms of physics and biology, respectively.


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We would like to thank Jean-Hugues Barthélémy, the Director of the Centre international des études simondoniennes, for his very attentive and heedful guidance regarding the usage of Simondonian notions.

We are also indebted to Alexei Sharov, who –with his fruitful questions during the Sixteenth Annual Gathering in Biosemiotics (2016) and the valuable literature he has provided us with– has instigated us to a deeper discussion of the origin of life.

Finally, we want to express our gratitude to Fatima Cvrčková for bringing to our attention the very relevant publication on prion-related phenomena in the plant kingdom (Chakrabortee et al. 2016).

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Correspondence to Yagmur Denizhan.

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Karatay, V., Denizhan, Y. Prion-Like Phenomena Mediating Between Modes of Individuation. Biosemiotics 11, 85–103 (2018).

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  • Prions
  • Prion-like mechanisms
  • Simondon
  • Individuation
  • Origin of life