Toward a Biology Worthy of Life

From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning

Stephen L. Talbott

This essay (formerly published as “What Do Organisms Mean?”) is part of a larger work in progress currently entitled: Toward a Biology Worthy of Life. Original publication: February 22, 2011. Date of last revision: July 6, 2012. Copyright 2011, 2012 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved.

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If a single problem has vexed biologists for the past couple of hundred years, surely it concerns the relation between biology and physics. Many have struggled to show that biology is, in one sense or another, no more than an elaboration of physics, while others have yearned to identify a “something more” that, as a matter of fundamental principle, differentiates a tiger — or an amoeba — from a stone. The former, reductionist aim can easily seem to ignore what is special about living creatures — and above all to ignore the way meaningful human experience seems to transcend the kind of lawfulness we observe in inanimate physical objects. But, on the other hand, scientists who attempt to articulate a principle differentiating the living from the non-living have all too often posited some kind of special matter or vital force that no one ev