What Do Organisms Mean? > The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings > Summary
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

Previous     Next >

The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings


MOLECULAR BIOLOGISTS ARE SCHIZOPHRENIC in their descriptive language. On the one hand, their papers are rife with references to “genetic mechanisms”, “regulatory mechanisms”, “signaling mechanisms”, “circadian clock mechanisms”, and countless other sorts of supposed mechanisms. On the other hand, they employ a language of agency, thought, planning, intention, perception, response, communication, adaptation, error and correction, health and healing, and so on. Whereas the living organism evokes both kinds of language, no one would think of applying the second type of language — a language of life — to a corpse. Something changes at death, although this something is little referred to among biologists.

Despite the insistent drumbeat of the death-like language of mechanism, reality intervenes even in the stainless steel machinery of the laboratory, so that a more life-like language has inexorably been creeping into the literature of molecular biology. For example, the mechanistic, lock-and-key picture of protein interactions has given way to fluid, living, shape-shifting molecules, many with so-called “intrinsically disordered” or “unstructured” regions that are central to their dynamic and plastic functioning. These molecules somehow “know” their business, which may present different sculptural requirements in every different context.

Similarly, signaling pathways, which used to be seen as neatly taking a given input and producing a given output, now consist of molecules that “crosstalk” and look “less like a machine and more like a...probability cloud of an almost infinite number of possible states, each of which may differ in its biological activity" (Mayer et al. 2009).

In general, researchers are increasingly looking at the organism from multiple explanatory perspectives, not merely the genetic one. Chromatin, RNA, membranes, various principles of organization — these and many other aspects of the organism are claimed by different researchers as primary vantage points from which to grasp the nature of the whole. The living unity of the organism seems to preclude trying to apprehend it from the point of view of one part alone.

One thing that emerges clearly from the work of the past few decades is that descriptions of the organism as a machine are hopelessly misdirected. The parts of a clock are put together in a certain way; the parts of an organism grow within an integral unity from the very start. They do not add themselves together to form a whole, but rather progressively differentiate themselves out of the prior wholeness of seed or germ. They are growing even as they begin functioning, and their functioning is a contribution toward their growing. The parts never were and never are completely separate, never are assembled.

Efforts to grasp the nature of the organism as a whole go back to Kant, and commonly involve appeals to (1) a peculiar unity of whole and part, whereby the activities of the parts are in some sense caused by the whole; (2) means-end (“purposive” or “final” or “teleological”) relations; and (3) the mutual (reciprocal) play of cause and effect. All of these suggest the idea of a meaningful coordination of the organism’s activities.

This raises a question about the usually trite saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. The twentieth-century cell biologist, Paul Weiss, gave strict meaning to the saying by pointing out that, whatever our level of description, we find that the vagaries — the degrees of freedom — allowed at that level are disciplined from a higher level so as to achieve a more well-defined result. The continual reshaping — and even dissolution and reformation — of a cell’s organelles does not prevent the cell as a whole from maintaining its proper shape and function, and the same is true of an entire organ as individual cells die and are born. It’s as if there were an active, coordinating agency working from above downward, subsuming all the part-processes and disciplining their separate variabilities so that they remain informed by the intentions of the whole. Ironically, then, less change at the higher level — the ability of the whole to sustain itself in the presence of lower-level variation — is what shows the whole to be more than the sum of its parts.

This disciplining of the parts by the whole cannot be achieved by one of the parts being disciplined, such as DNA. As Weiss pointed out, “Life is a dynamic process. Logically, the elements of a process can be only elementary processes, and not elementary particles or any other static units”. And no more can the coordination of the part-processes be explained by one of the part-processes being coordinated.

Attempts to explain the organism as a result of particular mechanisms are dissolving today into a sometimes bizarre appeal to “regulators” that are “regulated” by other factors that in turn have their own “regulators”...and so on without end. The attempt is still being made to understand organisms by appealing to imaginary, bottom-up mechanisms in disregard of the contextual unities that are unavoidably being cited more and more in the literature. But what we are being driven to is the recognition of living wholes.

bullet Previous Summary     bullet Next Summary
bullet Jump to full text of “The Unbearable Wholeness of Meaning”
bullet Return to “What Do Organisms Mean?” project overview
Selected excerpts from the chapter
bullet Different languages apply to the live organism and the corpse (1)
bullet Different languages apply to the live organism and the corpse (2)
bullet Different languages apply to the live organism and the corpse (3)
bullet Different languages apply to the live organism and the corpse (4)
bullet The direction of molecular biological research
bullet Of cross-talk and “horror graphs” (1)
bullet Of cross-talk and “horror graphs” (2)
bullet Of cross-talk and “horror graphs” (3)
bullet Signals mime their meanings
bullet The virtue of “disordered” proteins (1)
bullet The virtue of “disordered” proteins (2)
bullet Life as flow
bullet The organism grows; it is not assembled
bullet Not even bones are mechanisms
bullet Causes are lifted into service of the organism
bullet An overall pattern governs its own parts
bullet Dead molecules or living processes? (1)
bullet Dead molecules or living processes? (2)
bullet The animistic molecules of conventional biology
bullet Controllers that don’t exist