A project of The Nature Institute
Biology Worthy of Life
Quote of the Week
(October 18, 2021)
Even a superficial acquaintance with the biological literature today makes it clear that the effort to explain the whole organism as a result of self-contained causal parts that do not participate in, and are not sustained by, the life of their larger context is destined to fail. If biologists are going to speak incessantly about the importance of context, then they need to reckon honestly with the problems it raises, rather than immediately change the subject to “controlling factors” — factors that, as the contemporary literature makes so vividly clear, never do control in absolute terms. If all such factors are context-dependent, we ought at least to ask ourselves how this qualification modifies the notion of “control”.
We are, in fact, beset by questions on all sides. What exactly are we referring to when we speak of “context” and “organism”? How can we make these terms, as we are compelled to use them, more than necessary blanks in our descriptive language — blanks about whose necessity we can say nothing? For example, does our actual use of these terms differ much from the way people of an earlier era might have used “archetype” or “entelechy” or “being”?
When biologists speak of the organism’s activity, who exactly do they mean to say is performing that activity? When they acknowledge that something in the organism is context-dependent, what in fact is it dependent upon — what agency, or unified sphere of activity, or principle, or lawfulness, or other reality of any sort are they appealing to? They cannot be pointing merely to a particular collection of objects, because the collection can be endlessly varied or perturbed, and yet the context remains more or less coherent, and the organism more or less maintains its character. What is coherent? What has this character?