(Spring, 2002, pp. 3-4); copyright 2002 by
The Nature Institute
You will recall that Craig and I had a feature article ("Sowing Technology")
in the July/August Sierraa special issue of that magazine
dealing with biotechnology. Subsequently a Sierra reader, Kerry
Knudsen, wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that part of the environmental
movement "is developing from a cultural romanticism into an eco-mysticism."
This trend is evidenced by an "essentialist philosophy"an "unscientific
and idealist philosophy that is irrational because it is based on an essence
of Nature, a typological Nature, which does not exist" (Knudsen
It's a safe bet that Knudsen's concern about essentialism was fueled
by Craig's and my reference to the "nature" of particular organisms and
by comments such as this:
Only a grasp of the integral unity of the organism (we were saying) can
enable us to recognize whether an engineered trait would be harmonious and
consistent with the organism, or else arbitrary and clashing.
Instead of a coherent whole expressing an organic unity through every
aspect of [an organism's] being, the engineers hand us a bag of separate
traits. (Holdrege and Talbott 2001,
Since the charge of essentialism seems to be a standard occupational
hazard for the Goethean scientist, we should try to understand what lies
behind it. And the first thing we notice is that those who raise the alarm
about essentialism seem to be preoccupied by old debates between science
and religion. In particular, they assume that anyone speaking of the "nature"
or "unity of being" or "integral wholeness" of the organism must be arguing
for something like the metaphysical "essence" that was supposed to constitute
each created kind of Genesis. This essence was unchanging and eternaland
therefore was unacceptable to the evolutionist, whose kinds (species)
certainly are not unchanging.
But this has little relevance to what Craig and I wrote in Sierra.
Our remarks arose from the context of Goethean science, and here (with
extreme brevity) is one way to summarize the relevant aspects of this
** The Goethean researcher is interested in observable phenomena, and
has no desire to press behind the phenomena to some sort of metaphysical
** The Goethean researcher who speaks of the nature of an organism is
referring to its inner unity of being"inner" because this unity
** "Conceptual" does not mean subjective. When one struggles to conceive
the nature of the organism, one is struggling to find the concepts (the
ideas, the interior being) that belong to the organism and are,
as formal cause, generative of its unity. (This, however, can hardly
make much sense so long as one is bound by our culture's normal rendering
of terms such as "concept," "cause," and "idea.")
** There is no reason to take the observed unity of the organism as
unchanging or incapable of evolution. The nature of an organism just is
what it is (what it is observed to be), and if it evolves with time, this
can be seen as part of its dynamic aspect. The potential for continually
transformed expression is, after all, intrinsic to any truly vital idea.
Machine and Organism
A mechanically literate individual can often look at a machine and,
by considering the various parts and the way they are articulated together,
grasp the basic functional idea of the machine. The use of the term "idea"
in this case is hardly controversial. The idea can be derived from observation
and is objectively describable. It really does characterize the machine;
our understanding of the machine would not be complete without our apprehension,
through thinking, of its idea.
In his commentaries on Goethe's scientific writings, Rudolf Steiner
(2000, pp. 43-44ff.) points out that the
idea of the machine is impressed upon it from without by the designer.
The machine and its idea are wholly explicable in terms of parts relating
to each other in an external manner. Of course, a part may present itself
to immediate observation as a "black box" concealing its internal operations.
But in this case our full grasp of the machine's functional idea depends
upon our breaking open the box and finding subparts that do relate
The organism, Steiner goes on to say, is a different matter. Its overall
functioning cannot be understood through the external, machine-like relations
of its parts, nor is its idea impressed upon the organism from without,
by a designer. Rather, the idea works generatively from within so that
each part comes into being as an expression of the whole.
Coleridge was approaching the same set of distinctions when he said:
whatever is organized from without is mechanical; whatever is "mechanized"
from within is organic (1848, p. 42n1).
And, again, Peter Kindlmann, a professor of engineering design at Yale
University, has written, "My own very practical work in electronics design
over more than thirty years has ingrained in me a modular approach." This
entails "partitioning a larger whole into functional modules, each described
by an input/output `cause and effect' behavior." There you see the machine
conceived as a collection of parts (modules) with clearly defined external
But, Kindlmann continues, "nature does not `design' this way." Instead,
In a "totally integrated system" where the functional idea informs every
part, making it an expression of the whole, it becomes impossible to speak
of separate parts without some falseness. The part, when isolated from its
whole and conceived merely as a part related externally to other
parts, is no longer the same part. By analogy, a word conceived in isolation
based on its dictionary definition is not the same as the word incorporated
into a meaningful text; in the latter case, the word is informed (and therefore
transformed) by the meaning of the text as a whole.
a total fusion of function and form that we are right to admire aspiringly,
but can seldom take as a direct lesson [for engineering]. A blade of
grass is a totally integrated system of structure, fluid transport and
chemical reactor. (Kindlmann 2001)
Looking for the Idea
The philosopher of science, Lindley Darden, writes that
neither the theory of natural selection nor the Mendelian theory of
the gene could have been formulated had organisms been viewed as having
"essences" rather than as being composed of independently variable characters
[that is, traits].... (Darden 1992,
By all means, let us be done with metaphysical essences. But this need
not force us to the mechanical view implicit in Darden's "independently
variable characters" and in the reigning conception of the gene. The parts
of a machine can be independent of each other, relating only via external
cause and effect, but the parts of an organism cannot. If geneticists
had kept this more clearly in mind, they would not now be reeling from
the string of revelations showing that genes do not "cause" traits. Everything
now being discovered in genetics testifies to the fact that what goes
on with the genes cannot be separated from what goes on with the rest
of the organism (Holdrege and Wirz
Those who want to escape machine models often try to do so by complicating
things. They try to overcome the isolation of the part by allowing all
the parts to affect each other. They invoke feedback loops and call on
some sort of "systems theory." These steps may indeed help us design more
sophisticated machines. But they buy us little advantage in approaching
the organism if we continue to think of all the new, complex relations
in the same old mechanical, external, cause-and-effect fashion.
The alternative is to seek the unity of the organism in its inner
nature, its governing idea. You cannot simply dismiss this as a hankering
for metaphysical essences. It is, of course, possible to keep repeating,
"I don't see any such governing ideathere is no such thing in nature."
You could, indeed, say this about the externally imposed idea of a machinefor
example, a kitchen blenderand the only response one could offer
would be, "Please, look again."
The same is true of the organism, where the idea works in a rather different
and less immediately obvious fashion. But the critic should at least recognize
that we are saying, "Here, look again"and not asking for belief
in some sort of metaphysical entity. SLT
Coleridge, S. T. (1848).
Hints Towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive
Theory of Life. London: John Churchill. Available in reprint from
UMI Books on Demand, http://www.bellhowell.infolearning.com.
Darden, Lindley (1992).
"Character: Historical Perspectives" in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology,
edited by Evelyn Fox Keller and Elisabeth A. Lloyd. Cambridge MA: Harvard
University Press, pp. 41-44.
Holdrege, Craig and Steve
Talbott (2001). "Sowing Technology," Sierra (July/August, 2001),
pp. 34-39, 72. Here is an online
version of this article.
Holdrege, Craig and Johannes
Wirz (2001). "Life Beyond Genes: Reflections on the Human Genome Project,"
(Spring, 2001), pp. 14-19.
Kindlmann, Peter (2001).
Posting to EAS-INFO list: http://www.yale.edu/engineering/eng-info/msg00807.html
Knudsen, Kerry (2001).
Letter to the editor, Sierra (November/December, 2001), p. 14.
Steiner, Rudolf (2000).
Nature's Open Secret: Introductions to Goethe's Scientific Writings.
Great Barrington MA: Anthroposophic Press.
Original source: In Context (Spring, 2002, pp. 3-4); copyright
2002 by The Nature Institute
Steve Talbott :: Of Ideas and Essences