Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

A suspicion of vitalism (3)

To think of it positively: we are looking for a way to justify the standard language of biological theory and description. After all, a lot of experiment and observation has led to this language; if we start with it, we will surely gain valuable clues about the being of the organism.

For example, the language tells us that every organism discriminates in many circumstances between health on the one hand and disease or injury on the other, and acts flexibly and intelligently — within its own limits and based on the particulars of its disorder (which may involve conditions it has never encountered before) — to restore health. More generally, it pursues a coherent path of development and self-maintenance, and manages to produce new life from existing life via intricate processes at the molecular, cellular, and behavioral levels.

The biologist’s “being” — the subject of those verbs of agency — is also at home with meaning, or information, continually transmitting and receiving it, extracting it from or imposing it upon the environment, interpreting it in light of its own needs, acting on it, distinguishing the relevant from the irrelevant. If the biological literature is to be believed, the organism is a being who in some sense perceives, knows, and responds appropriately to the meanings of diverse stimuli.

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