Why We Cannot Explain the Form of Organisms
This is a preliminary draft of one chapter of a book-in-progress
tentatively entitled, “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — And the Living Narratives That Tell Its Story”.
You will find
a fairly lengthy article serving as a kind of extended abstract of major
parts of the book. This material is part of the
Biology Worthy of Life
Project. Copyright 2017-2021
The Nature Institute.
All rights reserved. Original publication: June 23, 2020.
Last revision: June 23, 2020.
Questions of form have seemed oddly resistant to the biologist’s quest for
explanation. Darwin himself seemed to sense the difficulty in that famous
instance where he recoiled from contemplating the subtle perfections in
the form of the eye: “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable
contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting
different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and
chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems,
I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree”
(Darwin 1859, chapter 6).
An eyespot in a peacock feather.
Of course, as Darwin quickly added, his theory convinced him that he was
merely suffering from a lack of imagination. All that was really needed
were the creative powers of natural selection acting through eons upon an
endless supply of small, helpful changes. But his underlying malaise was
not so easily vanquished: “It is curious”, he wrote to the American
botanist Asa Gray in the year following publication of the Origin,
“that I remember well [the] time when the thought of the eye made me cold
all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, and now small
trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The
sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me
We can assume that Darwin got over that stage of the complaint as well.
But, thankfully, the biologist is still now and then allowed, if not a
complaint, at least an honest expression of wonder. The great
twentieth-century student of animal form, Adolf Portmann, writing not of
the peacock, but of another bird with a remarkable pattern of coloration
on its wings, helps us to share in his own wonder:
If … we look at the speculum on a duck’s wing, we might imagine
that an artist had drawn his brush across some ten blank feathers, which
overlap sideways — making white, bluey-green, and black lines — so that
the stroke of the brush touched only the exposed part of each feather.
The pattern is a single whole, superimposed on the individual feathers, so
that the design on each, seen by itself, no longer appears symmetrical.
We realize the astonishing nature of such a combined pattern only when we
consider that it develops inside several or many feather sheaths
completely separated from one another; and that in each individual feather
it appears at an early stage while it is still tightly rolled up, the
joint pattern not being produced until these feathers are unfolded. What
sort of unknown forces direct the constructional work in the “painting” of
these feather germs?
(Portmann 1967, p. 22).
Whatever Portmann’s “unknown forces” may be, they seem to work to
perfection. But how are we to understand this perfection? What sort of
explanation are we looking for when we want to make sense of form?
In the case of that patch of color on the duck’s wings, surely we will
eventually be able to trace exhaustively the processes and connections by
which each molecule of pigment seems lawfully “compelled” to take up its
proper place in the various feathers. But where, amid the innumerable,
widely dispersed molecular jigglings, transits, collisions, interactions,
and chemical transformations, will we glimpse the global
coordinating power that guarantees the overall, aesthetically
satisfying outcome in the face of all the degrees of freedom
possessed by the interacting molecules in all the individual and separate
A mallard duck with a speculum on each of its wings (left); and
an individual speculum feather (right).
Looking for physical
explanations of form
Sean Carroll thinks he has an answer to this question. A geneticist and
developmental biologist, Carroll tells the story of the rising discipline
of evolutionary developmental biology in a widely read and beautifully
illustrated book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo
Inspired by work in the relatively young discipline of evolutionary
developmental biology (“evo devo”), he aims to explain “the invisible
genes and some simple rules that shape animal form and evolution” (p. x).
Carroll’s triumphalist narrative focuses heavily on the role of “tool kit”
or “master” genes. (On “master” controllers in general, see
“A Mess of Causes”.) Until the discovery of these genes, he tells us,
biologists had known that “evolution is due to changes in genes, but this
was a principle without an example. No gene that affected the form and
evolution of any animal had been characterized” (p. 8).
That state of affairs apparently ended with the identification of a
relatively small number of genes whose presence, absence, or mutation
turned out to be associated with the formation (or deformation) of
large-scale, discrete features of an organism — and they were often
associated with similar features in widely differing organisms. These
tool kit genes may, for example, produce proteins that are distributed in
bands, stripes, lines, or spots throughout a young insect embryo. This
geographical distribution turns out to be a kind of map of certain,
large-scale features that will develop later.
Carroll reproduces beautiful photographs of fly embryos showing (by means
of technical manipulation) brightly colored regions, where each region —
blue, green, red, yellow — corresponds to the activity of a particular
collection of genes. A couple of hours after fertilization, the oblong
embryo is about one hundred cells in length from end to end (or from
“west” to “east”, as the researchers prefer to say, with west
corresponding to the future head pole). Thanks to the differentiated
activity of tool kit genes, the western, middle, and eastern sections of
the embryo clearly reveal themselves as separate bands.
As these bands fade, they are replaced by seven stripes over the eastern
two-thirds of the embryo. Each stripe, together with the neighboring
darker band, marks out a pair of future segments of the fly larva. Then
these stripes, too, under the influence of yet another group of genes,
give way to fourteen stripes indicating the fourteen segments of the larva
individually. Most of these latter stripes persist throughout
development, and they lead rapidly to actual segmentation of the embryo.
Artificially colored bands on a fruit fly embryo, showing the location of
particular proteins, which in turn result from differential gene
expression and signal the future location of fly segments.
The photographs are spectacular, and leave no doubt in one’s mind that the
early embryo, uniform and undistinguished as it might appear under
ordinary light, is in fact an embodiment of order and form. There is a
head and tail, with degrees of longitude between them, and likewise a top
and bottom (dorsal and ventral regions), with degrees of latitude. And
different “modules” (as Carroll calls them) are already marked out for the
development of specific organs and appendages.
Carroll’s own work has focused on butterflies. Here again the design to
come is signaled by the distribution of tool kit proteins. And here, too,
Carroll produces photographs showing these proteins in the developing
wing, occupying exactly those locations where the beautifully decorative
spots and stripes and rings will eventually appear. It’s as if the
future design were in some way already there.
The Mastery of Genetic Switches
But tool kit genes are only part of the picture. It’s true that the
protein bands in the early embryo are associated with genes that are
activated in those bands so as to produce (“express”) the proteins.
Certain genes that are “on” or “off” within the band, will be in the
opposite state outside the band. But what is supposed to coordinate this
activation and deactivation of genes?
Carroll’s answer is at the same time his central theme: the tool kit genes
are systematically turned on and off by a computer-like “operating system”
— a vast network of switches residing in those portions of DNA that do not
“code” for proteins. Acting, according to Carroll, like a global
positioning system (GPS), these switches “integrate positional information
in the embryo with respect to longitude, latitude, altitude, and depth,
and then dictate the places where genes are turned on and off”.
Each switch, as Carroll describes it, is actually a short stretch of DNA
controlling a particular tool kit gene. Often there are multiple switches
controlling a single gene. Proteins (produced by yet other tool kit
genes) can bind to these switches, altering their state. The overall
pattern of switch states for a particular gene then determines whether
that gene will be activated or repressed. This allows a single gene to be
used in many different ways at different times and places — for example,
in the development of the heart, eyes, and fingers. Everything depends on
the states of its associated switches. “The entire show”, writes Carroll,
“involves tens of thousands of switches being thrown in sequence and in
parallel” (p. 114).
The governing image in all this is that of the computer. He refers to DNA
switches as “fantastic devices [that] translate embryo geography into
genetic instructions for making three-dimensional form” (p. 111). The
computational powers of the controlling network of switches, he tells us,
allow fine-grained management of the expression of individual genes. But
at the same time the switches are the key to a software-like
modularization of the organism, making it possible for entire features (a
spot on a wing, an insect’s eye, a digit on a mammal’s foot) to come or go
— or be modified in dramatic ways — with the flip of a few switches.
Can we trace form to something other than form?
All this raises an obvious question, which, in a way, Carroll himself
acknowledges. Suppose we have a fly embryo divided into three regions
marked out by proteins A, B, and C.
You might ask, where do these patterns of tool kit proteins A, B, and C
come from? Good question. These patterns are themselves controlled by
switches in [the associated] genes A, B, and C,
respectively, that integrate inputs from other tool kit proteins acting a
bit earlier in the embryo. And where do those inputs come from? Still
earlier-acting inputs. I know this is beginning to sound like the old
chicken-and-the-egg riddle. Ultimately, the beginning of spatial
information in the embryo often traces back to asymmetrically distributed
molecules deposited in the egg during its production in the ovary that
initiate the formation of the two main axes of the embryo … I’m not
going to trace these steps — the important point to know is that the
throwing of every switch is set up by preceding events, and that a switch,
by turning on its gene in a new pattern, in turn sets up the next set of
patterns and events in development. (p. 116)
Here, then, is the general thrust of Carroll’s attempt to elaborate “the
simple rules that shape animal form”. But perhaps we may be forgiven a
certain unease at this point — a discomfort, to begin with, about a claim
of simplicity applied to “tens of thousands of switches being thrown in
sequence and in parallel”. Before we can see the exquisitely detailed and
aesthetically satisfying spatial pattern of pigments on the butterfly’s
wings (or the peacock’s feathers), there must be a correspondingly
exquisite and detailed pattern of flipped genetic switches. The one form
must be foreshadowed by the other.
It is no wonder that Carroll says “I’m not going to trace these steps”.
For if the important fact “is that the throwing of every switch is set up
by preceding events”, then it appears that the tracing would not give us
an explanation for the form of development of an organism; it would
simply (and worthily) make that form manifest for us.
Bothersome, too, is the casual assumption that something in fluid,
ever-transforming cells (and in groups of cells, and in the organism as a
whole) operates in meaningful analogy to a computer’s precisely machined,
rigidly fixed, transistor-based, engineer-designed hardware. No specific
support is offered for this critical and wholly improbable fundament of
Moreover, we do know that his language at this point is misdirected. He
speaks as if particular switches “control” genes or “dictate”
such-and-such an outcome. But, as we saw in
(“A Mess of Causes”), such straightforward, machine-like causes are
foreign to the life of organisms. The endlessly expanding sciences of
genetics and epigenetics have shown us that influences flow toward genes
from just about every corner of the cell and organism — and they do so as
all those corners are themselves caught up in the overall developmental
transformation of the whole organism. Contrary to any picture of neat
controlling causes, we are forced to understand the entire organism as
itself the fundamental, rock-bottom, metamorphosing “cause” of its own
development. (See also
“What Is the Problem of Form?”)
Discomfort also arises when we contemplate Carroll’s ever-receding series
of “inputs” that, as we look further and further into the past, finally
peters out in the vagueness of “asymmetrically distributed molecules” in
the earliest stages of an egg’s
Such vagueness at the decisive beginning of the entire developmental
process, when all the organism’s still-to-unfold features lie potent in
the egg, does not say much for our present understanding of the supposedly
“simple rules” that explain the observed complexity and seamless unity of
every unique life form.
So, then, returning to our central question: where in the entire
developmental sequence can we honestly say, “Here we are explaining
the form itself, as opposed to simply describing a continuous
manifestation and transfiguration of form?”
If the arrangement of an insect’s body segments is prefigured by various
patterns of protein deposition, and if the protein patterns are prefigured
by patterns of gene expression, and if the patterns of gene expression are
prefigured by precisely arranged spatial patterns of switches being turned
on and off, then we may be describing a play of form over time and at
different levels of observation, from the molecular level to that of the
whole body part. But if we try to see this as an explanation of how
significant form arises from the unformed, we can hardly help noticing
that we have merely pushed the problem of form backward in time and
downward in scale, until it vanishes from sight, still unexplained.
Endless transformations most beautiful
All processes of development and growth are metamorphoses. If we
were able to view a three-dimensional movie showing the magnified interior
of our developing bodies, the significance of the proceedings would be
overwhelming. We would watch a single zygotic cell reproduce and
diversify, yielding eventually a trillion or more cells proceeding along
hundreds or thousands of distinct trajectories of differentiation.
It would almost be as if we were watching a vast menagerie of wildly
different, micro-sized organisms, multiplying, writhing, dancing, and
contorting themselves in different rhythms and patterns in countless
niches or compartments throughout all the tissues and organs of the body.
Each of those “organisms” has its own intricate form, changing from cell
generation to cell generation, and yet it all happens under the
“discipline” of the larger and unfathomably complex, developing form of
the whole organism.
Every organ would have its own distinct story to tell. In our developing
brains, for example, we would see not only the differentiation of the many
unique cellular lineages in that organ, but also the forming of
significant functional connections and patterns of interaction as the
brain shaped itself (or was shaped) to the form of our cognitive
experience and motor activity. The lungs would likewise be shaped for and
by the air and our eyes for and by the light, just as our bones are shaped
for mobile support under the influence of gravity and our habits of
And, of course, the picture is much the same when we look at any organism
as a whole. Here is the well-known description by Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s
pre-eminent apologist during the latter part of the nineteenth century:
Examine the recently laid egg of some common animal, such as a salamander
or newt. It is a minute spheroid in which the best microscope will reveal
nothing but a structureless sac, enclosing a glairy fluid, holding
granules in suspension. But strange possibilities lie dormant in that
semi-fluid globule. Let a moderate supply of warmth reach its watery
cradle, and the plastic matter undergoes changes so rapid, yet so steady
and purpose-like in their succession, that one can only compare them to
those operated by a skilled modeller upon a formless lump of clay. As
with an invisible trowel, the mass is divided and subdivided into smaller
and smaller portions, until it is reduced to an aggregation of granules
not too large to build withal the finest fabrics of the nascent organism.
And, then, it is as if a delicate finger traced out the line to be
occupied by the spinal column, and moulded the contour of the body;
pinching up the head at one end, the tail at the other, and fashioning
flank and limb into due salamandrine proportions, in so artistic a way,
that, after watching the process hour by hour, one is almost involuntarily
possessed by the notion, that some more subtle aid to vision than an
achromatic, would show the hidden artist, with his plan before him,
striving with skillful manipulation to perfect his
Do we really need some still more subtle instrument that will reveal a
hidden artist working from outside — which, of course, Huxley didn’t
believe in — or do we need rather to credit the capacity of our own,
educated eyes to see, as Huxley did, the inherent artistry that
informs the processes right there in front of us? The embryo plainly and
objectively manifests a power of unified expression, of metamorphosing
organic form — something a child can recognize. Why should we not accept
this power exactly as and where we observe it — as a living power —
just as we accept the very different power of gravity in exactly the terms
of its manifestations?
And, despite Huxley’s reference to “a formless lump of clay”, never in all
this drama of transfiguration do we witness a cell or any other element
being constructed from formless substance (if such substance could even be
imagined) — or being built from preexisting, “plug-and-play” parts. The
parts undergo transformation simultaneously with the whole, and only as
expressions of the whole.
The starting point of it all is the living zygote, and in its flourishing
and wonderfully structured context-embeddedness, its life “overflows” and
multiplies. The zygote’s original, one-celled unity is never lost, but
rather is subdivided and differentiated. It is worked on from within and
influenced from without (that is, from the environment), according to the
unfolding of its governing principles of form.
These principles — those of the type, or species — are regarded by every
embryologist as telling one, unified
from zygote to maturity and senescence. Further, the informing power that
is characteristic of that story remains “in force”, as far as
circumstances allow, regardless of drastically different nurturing
environments, and even in the face of disfiguring insults inflicted by
laboratory technicians. The organism responds to every insult by bending
it, as far as possible, toward the normal pattern of development.
The problem is that, no matter how far “down” we go in pursuing molecular
explanations of form, we find our explanations themselves to be always
based on considerations of form. We never seem able to get beneath or
behind these considerations so as to grasp something more fundamentally
explanatory than form itself.
Even the classic efforts to explain everything based on genes has now
become ever more vividly an elucidation of form — form that is already in
play at the level of genes and chromosomes. For example, some geneticists
speak of “genomic origami”, while others refer to the three-dimensional
“dance” of chromosomes in the nucleus — a spatially significant
performance essential to the expression of the right genes in the right
amounts at the right times
This is a good place to return to the wisdom of the twentieth-century cell
biologist, Paul Weiss, who once remarked:
There would be less room for misconception if instead of referring to
developmental dynamics as “formative”, we were to designate them as
“transformative”, for then the notion that order or organization as such
are created de novo [anew] within a totally random pool of unit
elements could not arise.
(Paul Weiss 1971, p. 39)
We are always watching the transfiguration of existing form — a re-shaping
that can be seen as a further development of the form already there and,
at the same time, as an active movement toward a more fully realized form
yet to be achieved. Existing material resources or obstacles may
constrain the ongoing metamorphoses, but they do not determine its forward
direction. The determination is found in the principles of form governing
the particular biological kind. It seems downright perverse to reconceive
the physical manifestations of this metamorphosis as if they were
explanations of it.
All physical interactions of matter — even the inanimate interactions
often considered most basic or fundamental — already express principles of
form represented by a governing lawfulness. (Think of the elliptical form
of planetary motions around the sun, or the spiral form of many galaxies,
or our ever more complex apprehension of the forms of the atomic-level
play of forces.) Physical laws are never separable from the matter
conforming to them; we never try to explain the laws as if they arose from
interactions of law-free matter.
The moth, Automeris janus, illustrated by George Shaw (1751-1813) in
The Naturalist’s Miscellany.
So it should also be when we look at an organism transforming itself,
except that here we discover additional principles of form superimposed on
those shaping inanimate nature. That is, we always find ourselves
watching how physical processes are not merely physical processes, but
rather are actively enlisted, adjusted, and coordinated in the face of
differing circumstances — coordinated according to a more or less centered
agency and a distinctive,
sort of lawfulness — so as to continue expressing the developing story of
a particular being with the characteristic form of its species.
What then is form, and
why can’t we explain it?
I mentioned above how Sean Carroll, when trying to explain form, found
himself tracking form backward and downward until it vanished from sight
in the presumed asymmetric arrangement of molecules within an egg cell.
But what if the real problem is that the causes he was looking for —
mechanistic causes of form — never were within sight? Maybe we never are,
at any stage of our investigation, tracing material mechanisms that
explain observed form. Maybe apprehending form in its own terms — and
doing so as perceptively as possible — is at least part of the way we make
sense of biological phenomena.
The word “form” has a strikingly wide range of uses. We can, of course,
talk about form in the static sense of “spatial arrangement of parts”.
But we can also talk about the form of a ritual, ceremony, or other
procedure; the expressive or aesthetic form of a great painting; a form of
logic; a form of behavior; or “good” and “bad” form in relation to some
standard of performance.
What is common to all these usages is one or another sort of conceptually
graspable order. Through this order we apprehend at least part of the
meaning of whatever is going on. To see the form of anything at
all is to see significant connections and relations — what it is that
makes something into a this rather than a that, a redwood
rather than a willow, a squirrel rather than a rat, a virtuous act rather
than an ugly one.
This may remind us, to begin with, of the ambiguous images in
There we recognized that the way we thought the Necker cube or the
other drawings — how we conceived the relations between parts, thereby
bringing the figures into significant form — determined what it was we
saw. This in turn can remind us that the form of a thing is not itself
another thing. It is part of the thought-aspect through which the thing
can be realized as an appearance — through which a potential appearance
becomes manifest in a more or less adequate and specific form.
Ambiguous figures are, of course, special cases. In many routine
circumstances we do not have to work at grasping a form, because the form,
or meaning, of a thing just seems obvious, and we are not confronted by
drastically diverging possibilities of understanding. But this
obviousness, as I pointed out in
(“All Science Must Be Rooted in Experience”), shows that we have already
achieved the work of understanding at some point in our lives — perhaps as
very young children. And this work always involves recognizing conceptual
relations that bring a thing to meaningful and reliable appearance.
You will recall from the earlier chapter that the “marriage of sense and
thought” is not merely what gives us our individual, subjective grasp of
things. It is the unity of the objective world itself, which possesses
the experiential character of manifestation. Through this marriage
the world comes to the sensible appearance that constitutes its
essential nature. That is, our inner activity in cognizing phenomena
contributes to an ever greater realization of their intrinsic potential as
In its typical scientific usage, the word “form” can only refer in one way
or another to the thinking that “gives form” to the appearances
constituting the world.
But two caveats are important here. One is that the thinking inherent in
the world’s manifestation must be very different from the ill-defined,
flaccid, and subjective “mental cloud” that we tend to associate with our
own thinking today. Rather, it must be the muscularly effective thinking
that we encounter as the “inside” of every natural phenomenon. Allow me
to offer a brief illustration of the point.
The philologist Owen Barfield, in explicating the thought of Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, ascribed to the nineteenth-century poet and philosopher the
belief that a true physical idea “is at the same time a law of
nature” — it is “nature behaving”. For example (regarding gravity),
Coleridge held that “the very law [idea] itself is also the power”
(Barfield 1971, p. 126).
This is fully in line with Barfield’s (and my) own thinking.
If this point of view seems unbearably strange to you, consider a
statement by Banesh Hoffmann, the British physicist and collaborator with
Einstein. In discussing the achievements of nineteenth century
physicists, he said they appeared to have shown that “the mighty universe
was controlled by known equations”
(Hoffmann 1959, p. 14).
But what can “equations” mean in such a statement? Could it possibly
refer merely to mathematical ideas in the private consciousness of a
limited number of scientifically minded individuals? Or does it rather
point toward the living ideas to which the material phenomena of the
This suggests that we should look into the causal nature of the ideas
“directing” the performances of nature — something we will do in Chapter
The other caveat is that the word “form” is not simply a synonym for
“thinking” or “thought” or “meaning”. For present purposes it is enough
to say that it puts special emphasis on meanings that can readily be
imagined, or metaphorically represented, in ordered spatial terms (which
includes much of our thinking).
The attempt to explain thought can only require more thought
And so we have our conclusion: the reason why attempts to explain form
never seem to get beneath the reality of form is that our elucidation of
the various sorts of organismal form is itself a great part of the
understanding we seek. The aim of biology, after all, is to grasp the
governing ideas of the organism. We achieve a good part of this aim when
we recognize the whole organism as a being of significant form.
This may seem an anemic conclusion to conventionally minded biologists.
But that is because we still need to illustrate as vividly as possible
what it means to gain a profound grasp of an organism’s form, and also
because we need a reckoning with the causal role of form. These
topics will be taken up in the next chapters.
Further, none of this is to say that we should refuse to interest
ourselves also in the chemistry and physics of organisms. But chemistry
and physics are not biology, and the ideas that are physical laws simply
do not have it in themselves to explain the ideas of biological form.
This is why Carroll goes around in circles when he claims to have such an
It is not that biologists altogether miss the thought-aspect of
form. It’s just that they see it half-consciously, at best, and in a
terribly distorted fashion, due to reliance upon mechanistic imagery.
Carroll illustrates this when he, like so many other biologists, adopts
the computational point of view with unquestioning enthusiasm. In this
way he imports into the genes of his butterflies whatever useful
programmatic thoughts and intentions he requires — thoughts and intentions
just like those that have so carefully been imprinted by engineers upon
the structure of programmed devices. He does this without explicitly
acknowledging either his reliance upon those thoughts and intentions, or
their severe incompatibility with the workings of the wisdom embodied in
the simplest of organisms.
And so he tells us that tool kit genes “know” when to act, and that
“operating instructions” are embedded throughout the genome in networks of
genetic switches. By virtue of their finely detailed control,
constellations of these logic switches “encode” the anatomy of animal
bodies. Summarizing his understanding of all those thousands of switches,
Part genetic computer, part artist, these fantastic devices translate
embryo geography into genetic instructions for making three-dimensional
form. (pp. 110-1)
“Fantastic” devices, yes — too fantastic, in fact, to exist as
devices rather than as an activity of living beings.
Apparently Carroll, and all the other biologists who in one way or another
employ the same language, have come to the (perhaps unconscious)
conclusion that we really do need to find Huxley’s “invisible artist” —
but that we must do so mechanistically, re-imagining the artist as a
designer-engineer. It somehow seems too distasteful to take seriously the
artistry we can observe actively at work in the organism itself.
Where are we now?
Is Form a Primary and Irreducible Feature of the Organism?
In the chapter introduction, I asked where we might glimpse the global,
coordinating power that guarantees the infinitely detailed and
aesthetically satisfying form of organisms — for example, the pattern of
color in a duck’s speculum — given that physical laws by themselves know
nothing of the sustained coordination required.
(“What Is the Problem of Form?”) and this one I have argued that
mechanisms do not give us workable models for the play of form in
organisms. In this chapter I have suggested further that the attempt to
explain form seems misconceived in the first place, since we can never get
“behind” form to an explanatory principle more basic. I have also pointed
out that an appeal to form is usually an appeal to some part of the
thinking through which we discover a phenomenon to be understandable.
If the effort to explain form is misdirected, does this mean that the idea
of explanatory causes has no place in our understanding of biological
form? Not at all. Maybe we will be reminded here of the fact that
formal causes have long been recognized as essential for our
understanding, going back to Aristotle. Perhaps the apprehension of
principles of form yields understanding precisely because they themselves
are principles of causation, although in a crucial sense differing from
our usual understanding of causes.
So now we must look at the relation between form, thought, and causation
in biology. But first we need one chapter illustrating in a concrete
manner how the qualitative grasp of form can play a fuller role in the
science of biology than is yet recognized.
The origin of this asymmetry is often assigned by biologists to the
“random movements” of some number of molecules. But such randomness does
not contribute much, if anything, to the sort of scientific understanding
we seek. If we consider the eggs, or germ cells, of species with
radically different forms — say, anteaters and eagles — random movements
in the developing germ cells do not help to explain the specific and
differing character of those forms.
This, quite evidently, was written during a period of much greater
intellectual freedom and honesty than we see today — that is, before the
began to hinder the eyes of biologists, preventing them from explicitly
acknowledging, or even being conscious of, the purposive dimensions of
organic activity. It is worth asking: What is the fear underlying
Today it certainly seems that, at least in part, it is fear of what
intelligent design [ID] advocates might do with “injudicious” language
about purpose and design. And what makes the situation so difficult is
the fact that ID so closely reflects conventional biology. It is very
hard for one antagonist to distinguish himself from the other. There is,
above all, the mutual insistence by both conventional and ID biologists
that organisms are machine-like. Machines, of course, are designed
entities — designed from without by humans. So conventional biologists
have the “devil” of a time distinguishing their version of science from
that of ID theories holding that organisms are designed from without by
some supernatural power.
The argument over ID is easily resolved through scientific observation —
by showing that both sides are wrong in conceiving the organism
mechanistically (a project to which I have tried to contribute in this
book). The essential question is the following (as I put it in
Do organisms show evidence of being designed and tinkered with from
without, or are they enlivened from within? The fact is that we never see
a designing power or force that acts other than through what appears to be
the living agency of the organism itself. Or, as philosopher Ronald Brady
has put it: “We cannot detect, in [organic] phenomena, the distinction
between ‘that which is to be vitalized’ and ‘that which vitalizes’”
And so, despite common assumption, the argument between the two camps has
no bearing on the tenets of true religion. I know of no religion that
does not view divine power, such as it may be, as immanent in the world as
well as transcendent — at least, no religion that I can easily imagine a
spiritually minded person today being tempted to profess. The reigning
conviction of machine-like design in biology is a conviction governed by
materialist and anthropomorphic thought, whether it is pro- or
anti-intelligent design. This thought is capable of conceiving organisms
only as if they were built up through a human-like process of manufacture
— an external assembly of discrete and unliving physical parts — rather
than growing by means of a living power within.
This is not altogether different from the way someone possessing a
profound musical education and sensitivity will, when listening, say, to a
Brahms quartet, bring it to a much fuller “appearance” (hearing) than will
a musically dull and uneducated consciousness.
Barfield, Owen (1971). What Coleridge Thought. Middletown CT:
Wesleyan University Press.
Brady, Ronald H. (1987). “Form and Cause in Goethe’s Morphology”, in
Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, edited by F. Amrine, F. J.
Zucker, and H. Wheeler, pp. 257-300. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel.
Carroll, Sean B. (2005). Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science
of Evo Devo. New York: W. W. Norton.
Darwin, Charles (1859). The Origin of Species. Available online
Darwin, Charles (1860). Letter to Asa Gray (April 3). Available at
Hoffmann, Banesh (1959). The Strange Story of the Quantum, second
edition. New York: Dover.
Huxley, T. H. (1860). The Origin of Species, Collected Essays vol.
II. Available online:
Portmann, Adolf (1967). Animal Forms and Patterns: A Study of the
Appearance of Animals, translated by Hella Czech. New York: Schocken
Books. Originally published in 1952.
Weiss, Paul A. (1971). “The Basic Concept of Hierarchic Systems”, in
Hierarchically Organized Systems in Theory and Practice by Paul A.
Weiss, H. K. Buechner, J. S. Coleman et al., pp. 1-43. New York: Hafner.
Steve Talbott :: Why We Cannot Explain the Form of Organisms