The Nature Institute
(January 30, 2019:) The Organism’s Story. The fact of purposive activity — the obvious play of active agency, the coordination of means toward the realization of countless interwoven and relatively stable ends, and the undeniable evidence that animals perceive a world, interpreting and responding to perceptions according to their own way of life — we can sum up all this by saying that every organism is narrating a meaningful life story.
(November, 2018:) Scenes of Life. Some wonderfully readable vignettes that can remind us of the “miracle” that life can so easily appear to be. The reminder is a useful one, and may stimulate us toward efforts of understanding that are not cramped by prevailing dogmas.
(July, 2018:) Whole Organisms and Their Evolutionary Intentions: An Overview. This is a kind of (very) extended abstract for a book-in-progress. It presents a picture of evolution you have never encountered before.
(May, 2018:) A Physicist, a Philologist, and the Meaning of Life: Do We Have a Home in the Vast Cosmos? We have all heard about the insignificance of human existence in a cosmos that is indifferent, if not alien, to us. But history and language suggest that the cosmos has a different story to tell.
(December, 2017:) Why Can’t Evolutionary Biologists Quit Believing in Intelligent Design? Intelligent design theorists have strongly tended to view organisms as machine-like devices engineered from outside by an external designer. It happens that conventional biologists have a similar understanding, except that they call their designer “natural selection.” Both views share the same central difficulty: organisms are not machine-like devices, and are not engineered from outside.
(Winter, 2017:) Evolution and the Purposes of Life — now appearing in The New Atlantis. This expansive article asks whether evolutionary theory really does explain the purposive activity of organisms, as advertised by the theory’s proponents. Or, rather, does the presence of purposive activity raise fundamental questions about the theory?
(November 10, 2015:) Genes and Organisms: Improvising the Dance of Life — The organism is a living, intentional activity coordinating its parts in relation to the needs of the whole. This truth is made extraordinarily vivid in the regulation of gene expression.
(April 29, 2015:) Where Do Intelligence and Wisdom Reside? — Part 3 of “From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self”. We see nothing but an almost unsurveyable wisdom in the organism. Does that wisdom need explaining, or is it what explains?
(March 26, 2015:) How to Unthink Epigenetics — If you’re confused about epigenetics, you’re in good company.What’s Most Popular?
(April 24, 2014:) Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism
(November 11, 2014:) How Does an Organism Get Its Shape? The Causal Role of Biological Form
(September 9, 2014:) Let’s Loosen Up Biological Thinking!
(November 14, 2013:) The Unexpected Phases of Life
(February 11, 2014:) RNA: Dancing with a Thousand Partners — Or, the Problem of Biological Explanation
(August 1, 2014:) Vladimir Solovyov on Sexual Love and Evolution
[Photo © Ernst Vikne (CC)]
After Crick and Watson unraveled the structure of DNA, molecular biologists were destined, so they thought, to understand organisms as physical mechanisms and nothing more. Instead, ever more sophisticated experimental techniques have been revealing organisms whose wisdom and subtlety, whose powers of development and adaptation, whose embodied insight and effective communication, and whose evolutionary ingenuity far outstrip our current capacities for comprehension. Yes, new molecular “mechanisms”, isolated from the organism as a whole, continue to be proclaimed daily. But when we restore these products of our one-sided methods to their living contexts, allowing them to speak their own meanings, what they actually show us is this: every organism is intent upon telling the eloquent story of its own life. Its living intentions govern and coordinate the lawful physical performance of its body, not the other way around.
No, you have probably not heard about these developments; they don’t make the pages of the New York Times or even Scientific American. Indeed, many biologists themselves lament that their unavoidable focus on the minutia of their own narrow research topics prevents their paying adequate attention to wider fields of discovery. But the reality now being proclaimed from the pages of every technical journal could hardly be more dramatic. Perhaps the central truth is this: we human beings discover our conscious, inner capacities — our capacities to think and mean, to plan and strive — unconsciously and objectively reflected back to us from every metabolic process, every signaling pathway, every gene expression pattern in all the organisms we study. We are akin to these organisms in ways we have long forgotten. This matters in a world whose future has been placed in our hands. No form of life is alien to us.
You deserve to know what is going on — not via the heated and fruitless rhetoric of the science–religion wars, and not through vague references to vibrations, energy fields and quantum mysteries, but rather directly from molecular biologists themselves. That’s what this project is about.
My aim here is to bring some of the current and unexpected trends in biology to a wider audience. I will piece together a broader picture that shows us what the biology of the future may look like, particularly as we can glimpse it through the work of molecular biologists wrestling with the problems of genetics, organismal development, and evolution. The literature today, despite the powerful and still-dominant inertia of old thought-habits, is rife with hints of creative thinking and new directions that would have sounded revolutionary and unthinkable a few decades ago.
What we can no longer doubt is this: every organism pursues its own purposes by means of its active capacities — capacities for developing and shaping its own body, sensing and responding to stimuli, repairing and healing, signaling and communicating. At every level of observation — and all the way down to its molecular structures and processes — the organism displays a plastic, adaptive power responsive to context. The essential elements of the organism are activities and dynamically maintained relationships, not static things.
Through its living activity, the organism speaks. That’s why biologists use terms such as “information”, “code”, “message”, “signal”, “program”, “response”, “communication”, and so on — all in order to express the language-like activity they can’t help trying to describe (even if they prefer to think in terms of computerized rather than living speech). And just as words and gestures carry many meanings, even opposite meanings, depending on their context, so it is with all the structures and processes of our cells, including our genes. The language of the organism is turning out to be vastly more complex, expressive, and nuanced than our old, mechanistic heritage ever led us to expect.
It’s time we let organisms speak for themselves. That is the opportunity and responsibility of the new science of biology.
[Readers Please Note: This entire web page will be radically re-organized and re-written between April and June, 2019. The following references to a “book” and a “work-in-progress” are extremely dated and do not in fact refer to current work. The current book-in-progress (for which many of the articles and “chapters” mentioned below represent merely preparatory research) will be the center of focus for the reorganized page. Until then, you will find a kind of extended abstract for the book in the form of a (rather lengthy) article entitled “Whole Organisms and Their Evolutionary Intentions: An Overview”.]
This project is a work in progress, and all parts of it are subject to ongoing revision. You can peruse the available texts in any of several ways:
The Organism’s Story (January 30, 2019)Scenes of Life (November 29, 2018)Whole Organisms and Their Evolutionary Intentions: An Overview (July 12, 2018)A Physicist, a Philologist, and the Meaning of Life: Do We Have a Home in the Vast Cosmos? (May 15, 2018)Evolution and the Purposes of Life (Mar 31, 2017)Genes and Organisms: Improvising the Dance of Life (November 10, 2015)Where Do Intelligence and Wisdom Reside? — Part 3 of “From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self” (April 29, 2015)How to Unthink Epigenetics (March 26, 2015)Symptoms: Notes from the Biological Literature (3) (January 8, 2015)Of Humans and Our Microbial Guests: A Dynamic and Living Balance (December 9, 2014)How Does an Organism Get Its Shape? The Causal Role of Biological Form (November 11, 2014)Let’s Loosen Up Biological Thinking! (September 9, 2014)Vladimir Solovyov on Sexual Love and Evolution (August 1, 2014)Symptoms: Notes from the Biological Literature (2) (July 3, 2014)Psyche, Soma, and the Unity of Gesture — Part 2 of “From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self” (June 10, 2014)Three Questions for Intelligent Design Theorists (May 15, 2014)Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism (April 24, 2014)Symptoms: Notes on the Biological Literature (1) (March 31, 2014)RNA: Dancing with a Thousand Partners — Or, the Problem of Biological Explanation (February 11, 2014)Who Are You and Who Am I and Who Are We? (January 16, 2014)From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self (December 5, 2013)The Unexpected Phases of Life (November 14, 2013)Why Genetic Synonyms Are Not Synonymous (October 24, 2013)
You will find the complete list of articles at RediscoveringLife.org.
Photo courtesy of Peter Kindlmann. All rights reserved.
The brief introduction linked to below is entitled “A Thousand-Stranded Tapestry: How Organisms Employ Their Genes”.
This document: BiologyWorthyofLife.org
Steve Talbott :: Biology Worthy of Life
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