Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

An overall pattern governs its own parts

In the very young embryo a given cell can be moved from one place to another, resulting in a completely different fate for that cell within the developing organism. This indicates that the cell’s fate is determined “on the fly”: a governing dynamic disposes of each part according to the needs of the overall pattern. The developing relations between the individual cells are more a result of than a cause of the order of the whole.

Evidently, besides its full complement of “genetic information”, each cell needs still additional “topical information” derived from the field structure of the collective mass. How otherwise could any unit know just what scrap from its full grab bag of inside information to put to work at its particular station in order to conform to the total harmonious program design? Clearly, left solely to their own devices, the individual cells and their entrapped genomes would be as incapable of producing a harmonious pattern of development as a piano with a full keyboard would be of rendering a tune without a player. (Weiss 1973, p. 35)

It is crucial to realize what Weiss is not saying. He is not saying that the laws of physics are violated in the formation of organic patterns. He himself spent many years elucidating the play of physical forces in such situations. What is being coordinated is nothing other than this play of forces. His point is that, whatever the level we analyze, from macromolecular complexes, to organelles, to cells, to tissues, to individual organs, to the organism as a whole, we find the same principle: we cannot reconstruct the pattern at any level of activity by starting from the parts and interactions at that level. There are always organizing principles that must be seen working from a larger whole into the parts.

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