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

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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 th