Worthy of Life
What’s New in This Project?
(May 17, 2016:) 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
If you’re confused about epigenetics, you’re in good company.
What’s Most Popular?
(April 24, 2014:) Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown
(November 11, 2014:) How Does an Organism Get Its Shape? The
Causal Role of Biological Form
(September 9, 2014:) Let’s Loosen Up Biological
(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
Ernst Vikne (CC)]
What Is This Project About?
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.
Letting the Organism Speak for Itself
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.
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
Part 1. Organisms and Their Genes: Molecules, Mysticism, and Meaning
Getting Over the Code Delusion: Biology's Awakening
Research in molecular biology is leading us far, far away from the
simplistic view that the “secret of life” was revealed with the
discovery of the structure of DNA, and from the equally simplistic view
that the Human Genome Project would enable us to read the “book of life”.
Organisms are revealing themselves as
intentional wholes not governed by any particular parts.
The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings
Epigenetics and the organism’s almost unfathomably complex and intricate
skill in managing its genes are finally ridding biology of the notion that
DNA embodies a linear code that spells our destiny.
From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning
If you want to understand living beings, then listen to how biologists
them and ignore how they try to explain
them. Descriptions, based on observation, show organisms to be full of
meaning and purpose, intention and agency. By contrast, explanations
based on philosophical inclination pretend that the organism is really a
kind of machine.
The choice between organisms as biologists describe them (see previous
chapter) and organisms as biologists would like to explain them is often
misunderstood as a choice between physical lawfulness and a “spooky” sort
of vitalism. It’s a false choice — as false when brought to bear upon
molecular biology as it would be if applied to the physically and
chemically lawful, but not physically and chemically explainable
brushstrokes of a Raphael or Picasso. (This chapter was formerly
published as “What Do Organisms Mean?”)
Part 2. Key Themes: Looking More Deeply
How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life — And Are Now
Staring It in the Face
This section picks up some of the topics touched upon in the previous
chapters — topics that prove problematic for biologists — and takes a more
focused and sustained look at them. These are the problems of meaning, of
the supposed DNA “program”, of unconscious purpose (teleology), and of the
nature of biological understanding.
The Poverty of the Instructed Organism
Are You and Your Cells
You don’t hear biologists speaking about meaning — not in their
professional work, anyway. Yet the distaste for meaning is a historical
aberration that can only distort a science that is awash in meaning.
From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self
Understanding organisms on the model of the computer was supposed to save
biologists from facing up to the discomfort of dealing with well-directed
lives. That’s because computers can give the appearance of thoughtful
intention while remaining strictly mechanical. But it turns out that
information-processing machines miss just about everything we have been
learning about organisms in this era of molecular biology.
Biological Truth as Character Portrayal Rather Than Causal
What is the relation between the purpose, meaning, and agency to which we
humans give conscious expression, and the analogous features we observe in
cells and organisms that surely do not have our sort of consciousness?
The answer seems inseparable from various imponderables such as: Where
does consciousness or intelligence occur? What is the relation between
the intelligence, such as it may be, of the individual bacterium and that
of the bacterial colony? Is there such a thing as a pure individual, as
distinct from a larger community, whether we are speaking of schooling
fish or humans? Might our own reasoning powers be a raising to
consciousness and a bringing to individual freedom of the intelligence we
witness in the fashioning of our own bodies? It is important to
acknowledge both the centrality of such questions for biology, and how
little we are currently able to penetrate them.
The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology
Psyche, Soma, and the Unity of Gesture
Where Do Intelligence and Wisdom Reside?
Alien as it may seem to many biologists, their primary task is not to
each organism in physical and chemical terms, but to form an
accurate, observation-based picture
of its unique way of being,
different from other organisms. When we look closely, we see that this is
always the direction in which the science of biology is being nudged,
despite the strong will to gain so-called “mechanistic explanations”.
This chapter has not yet been written. However,
touches some of the relevant themes.
Part 3. Bringing Life to Evolution
Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness
To reconceive the organism more faithfully is to transform our
understanding of evolution in a way that seems far beyond the imagination
of most conventional biologists as well as their opponents in the
“religious wars”. Evolution can be no less a coherent and meaningful
story than are the lives of the individual organisms and the myriad,
diverse communities of organisms whose stories actually compose the
larger, historical drama.
The Truth and Triviality of Molecular Biology’s “Central Dogma”
The modern version of evolution is commonly said to be founded upon
mindless, blind processes, and this claim is rooted in the belief that
mutations are random with respect to fitness. The claim, it turns out, is
the subject of remarkably groundless faith among biologists.
Natural Genome Remodeling
The organism has powers to transform its own genome, involving
a wide range of highly directed molecular processes.
Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory
Is DNA the Decisive
The so-called “central dogma of molecular biology”, first promulgated by
Francis Crick in 1958, holds most importantly that information moves from
the sequence of nucleotide bases (or “letters”) in DNA to those of RNA,
and from RNA to the sequence of amino acids in protein, but cannot move
from protein back to DNA. Not as sequence, anyway. But this truth,
significant as it may be, misses almost the entire literature of molecular
biology during the past few decades, which has laid bare endless processes
of meaningful exchange that are not
based on mere sequence, and
also processes that make something structural, three-dimensional, mobile,
and living out of the otherwise inert DNA sequence. In other words, so
far as it is true, the dogma is hardly central, and the truth it misses
points us toward an entirely new understanding of the organism and its
This chapter has not yet been written.
Selection — or Nature’s Intentions?
Perhaps the decisive misstep of conventional evolutionists has been to
posit evolutionary change while ignoring the organism that, as an agent
, is the central figure in the story. The idea that genes,
not the integral activities of a living cell, are the essential elements
of heredity has greatly supported this disregard of the organism. Yet
the idea dissolves under close examination. Once we free our thinking
from gene-centered habits, not only does much of contemporary Darwinism
lose its explanatory force, but we begin to glimpse evolutionary vistas
that are both more dynamic and more in harmony with the life and
development of the organisms we observe today.
It goes without saying that any organism extant at a given time must,
throughout its evolutionary history, have been fit enough to survive up to
that time. But while this core principle of “natural selection” may be a
truism, it is not a creative
principle. It does not help us
understand the distinct, characterizable ways of any particular organism
— its form and physiology, its goal-driven behavior, the aesthetic unity
wherein every feature is expressed “just like a fox” or “just like a cat”.
Natural selection enables us to say only that whatever features we do
observe must have been consistent with survival. And if it does not
explain the characteristic weave of intention in particular organisms,
even less does it explain generally why
organisms are purposive
agents, although it is routinely cited as doing so. Natural selection
all the complex interactions among purposive agents —
agents seeking their individual and collective ends in environments partly
of their own making — and therefore cannot explain
character of those interactions.
This chapter has not yet been written.
Part 4. The Missing Foundation of Science: How Do We Know the World?
This entire section remains to be written.
The problematic aspects of the foregoing chapters, for most biologists,
are rooted in misunderstandings about the relation between humans and
their cognitive activity on one hand, and the world on the other —
misunderstandings that go all the way back to Descartes and his dualism.
you can look at the two articles listed below. While not written so as to
relate explicitly to the content of this current project, they deal with
themes I will be presenting in this section.
A Modest Epistemological Exercise
Reframing the Mind-Body Problem: An Exercise in Letting Go
of Dualist Assumptions
We must begin thinking about the crucial epistemological questions of
our day — questions that will, in the end, determine the sort of world we
live in. This paper looks at two worlds, the one given through direct,
familiar experience and the other through scientific explanation, and
concludes that one of these worlds is laced with massive confusions. And
it may not be the one you think.
Our ways of imagining our relation to the world as knowers are confused
and contradictory. All scientists believe they can know the world to one
degree or another, but nearly all have failed to reckon with what
immediately follows: the universe must be commensurable with the thought,
will, and feeling through which we know it. It is neither a blind and
mindless, nor a cold and heartless, place. An analysis of our own process
of knowing points us toward the truth of the matter, and enables us to
overcome the Cartesian dualism that has distorted science and culture for
nearly four hundred years.
A (Mostly) Nontechnical Glossary for “Biology Worthy of
How the Organism Decides What to Make of Its Genes
Focusing on genetics, gene regulation, and evolution (and also, as much as
possible, on the human being), this glossary is being expanded as new
material is written. The glossary entries are accessible by clicking on
technical terms in several of the articles listed above, as explained at
the beginning of the articles. But you can also call up the alphabetized
glossary directly and browse it at your leisure.
Place your cursor on any bulleted line below to
click on its link.
Chasing the genetic
The insufficiency of
The meaning of meaning
Contextuality, plasticity, and
The language and wisdom of the
Meaning and causation: Is
biology merely physics and chemistry?
Beyond vitalism: organisms in
a mind-shaped world
Transformation of the
When is an organism fit to
DNA and living developmental
Evolution, inheritance, and
the organism’s agency
Meaning and evolution
This is a rather massive collection of personal notes taken from the
technical literature. It’s rough, informal, and unreviewed — strictly
"buyer beware". Be sure to read the “caveats” in the introduction. The
real value of the collection is that it brings to awareness what has
probably escaped even the attention of most working molecular biologists:
namely, how extraordinarily varied and complex are the processes by which
the organism makes use of its DNA (as also its other constituents). It
is the organism that makes use of its genes, not the other way around
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