Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

Do we find scraps of molecular machinery at the bottom?

Daniel Dennett, in one of his characteristic remarks, assures us that “Through the microscope of molecular biology, we get to witness the birth of agency, in the first macromolecules that have enough complexity to ‘do things.’ . . . There is something alien and vaguely repellent about the quasi-agency we discover at this level — all that purposive hustle and bustle, and yet there’s nobody home.” Then, after describing a marvelous bit of highly organized and seemingly meaningful biological activity, he concludes:

Love it or hate it, phenomena like this exhibit the heart of the power of the Darwinian idea. An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe (Dennett 1995a, pp. 202-3).

Dennett’s contention . . . is itself an illusion. Neither he nor anyone else has ever witnessed the birth of such agency through a microscope or any other instrument — a fact that many decades of unrestrained speculation about the creation of life some billions of years ago does nothing to change. What we see through the microscope is what we see with our unaided eyes: life comes from life. Living cells, with all their displays of agency, come from other living cells. Open any journal of any sub-sub-subdiscipline of biology, and you will immediately be overwhelmed by suggestions of agency even at the lowest levels. Molecules, we are told to a fault, are bent on regulating, signaling, stimulating, responding, controlling, assisting, suppressing, healing, repairing, sensing, coordinating — and all in a way that can be understood only contextually. There is nothing at any level of observation, whether above or below macromolecules, that is not caught up in the meaningful life of the organism as a whole.

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