The Keys to This Book
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: December 16, 2019.
Last revision: May 22, 2020.
We begin with a vignette drawn from a single activity of just one
from among the millions of species with whom we share the earth. This
description is taken from the biologist, novelist, and science
philosopher, E. L. Grant Watson, who in turn is compactly summarizing
observations by one of the world’s great entomologists, who lived during
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:
1.1. An unidentified species of
“Among the fascinating stories of animal life told by the French
naturalist Henri Fabre is that of the [potter wasp] Eumenes. The
fertilized female builds a little domed house of sand spicules on some
stone or rock foundation. The foundation ring is traced in minute pebbles.
On this she builds a series of concentric rings, each diminishing in
circumference, so as to enclose a domed space. At the top she leaves a
hole. She then begins collecting certain species of small caterpillars.
She stings these into a partial paralysis, but does not kill them, for
they will be needed as fresh meat for the young she will never see.
“When the wasp has collected either five or ten caterpillars, she prepares
to close the dome, reducing the size of the hole. She now goes through a
complicated process which would seem to indicate foresight on her part.
Yet she has no foresight, only a highly developed instinct. From her
ovipositor she excretes a juicy substance, working it with her legs into a
narrow, inverted cone. With a thread of the same substance, she stitches
the cone to the top of her domed building. Into the inverted cone, she
lays an egg. She then seals up the hole, leaving the egg safe within the
cone, suspended on a thread. This done, she goes off and builds another
dome to repeat the same cycle of events.
“In a short time the egg hatches into a tiny, white grub, so helpless and
delicate that if placed among the still-living caterpillars on the floor
of the dome, it would inevitably be injured. In its cradle it is safe.
When hungry it spins a thin thread of its own, on which it descends and
takes a bite of caterpillar. If the wriggling caterpillars appear
threatening, it can retreat up the thread, and wait. In this way the grub
spends its infancy; but, as it grows stronger, it risks a final descent,
and devours, at its leisure, the still living food that mother has so
1.2. Nest of a potter wasp on top of a concrete
“From the domes that contain five caterpillars male wasps emerge; from
where there are ten caterpillars, the larger female wasps. This raises an
interesting question: Does the amount of food determine the sex? The
mother wasp, who appears throughout her lifetime as a highly nervous and
brilliantly alive creature, has built just the right sort of houses for
the offspring she will never see; and has provided just the right amount
of food. She is singularly well-adapted for her life; she stings the
caterpillars just enough to keep them quiet, but not enough to kill them;
she packs each dome with the right amount of food for male or female grub.
The suspended cradle protects the tender infant from the rough reactions
of the caterpillars while being eaten. Everything is in order, and as the
emerging wasp dries her wings in the summer sunshine, she must surely feel
that God is in his heaven, and all is well with the world. The
caterpillars might harbour different sentiments …”
(Watson 1964, pp. 85-6)
And so we picture in our imaginations a minuscule creature, with the
nascent intelligence of an insect newly hatched from its egg, immediately
setting out upon a journey by descending an almost invisible, yet reliably
strong thread spun by itself — all because it needs a bite of food.
And it then quickly retreats back up the thread (a remarkable feat!)
because its existence is threatened by larvae far more massive than
That word “because” — due to the cause of — is central to a science
concerned with the causes of things. But the usage here, referring to a
creature’s need and its effort to preserve its own existence
— is as far removed from the word’s preferred scientific employment as the
little drama of the potter wasp’s performance is from the events of the
nonliving world. Purely physical stuff is not characterized by need,
effort, or a drive toward self-preservation.
This difference between living and nonliving is not one that many
scientific students of life are fond of. That is why they have invented
an abstract evolutionary drama of miraculous character in order to explain
the difference away. As Lila Gatlin, a prominent biochemist,
mathematician, and shaper of evolutionary theory in the twentieth century,
once acknowledged, “The words ‘natural selection’ play a role in the
vocabulary of the evolutionary biologist similar to the word ‘god’ in
ordinary language” (quoted in
Oyama 2000, p. 31).
In effect, the organism’s living wisdom was transferred to an omnipotent
“force” of evolution, where it could be kept safely out of sight, obscured
behind an elaborate technical and mechanistic terminology.
An aim of this book is to recapture the drama of life in the place where
it actually occurs — in the organism itself — and to lay bare as clearly
as possible the failure of evolutionary theory to explain the special
qualities of that drama. This will be a matter of showing that, in a
primary sense, the life of organisms explains evolution, rather than being
explained by it.
Meanwhile, all may agree that our wonder at the potter wasp’s behavior is
perfectly natural. So also is a strong sense of recognition: we have
learned to expect such astonishing achievements in the living
kingdoms. We know that every sort of organism, if only we observed it
closely enough, would reveal fascinating and almost inconceivable
capacities to thrive in its unique life circumstances. Even staying with
the potter wasp, we would rightly be confident of the further marvels we
would encounter if we looked into its mating and reproductive processes,
or inquired how it perceives a world and effectively navigates the
features of that world. Or how it searches out prey for its young. Or
how its body gains and sustains its staggeringly intricate and complex
physical form, all the way down to the pattern of its molecular
We find ourselves woven into a fabric of earthly life so diverse and
luxuriant and nearly incomprehensible in its wondrous displays that we
cannot survey or even imagine a billionth part of it. But then, too,
there is this: the wasp’s capacities, like those of countless other
creatures, seem in some regards wholly routine, familiar, and even
human-like to us. In fact, they so powerfully remind us of our own skills
and intelligence that we are continually tempted to project our experience
onto other organisms.
On one hand, no scientist would — or should — say, with anything like the
common meaning and feeling of the words, “The potter wasp takes great care
to make thoughtful provision for its young”. On the other hand, we can
hardly avoid our scientific responsibility to ask, “How is it that the
performance of the potter wasp so forcibly reminds us of what, in our own
evolutionary development, has become ‘taking great care to make thoughtful
provision for our young’? Do the two kinds of behavior arise from wholly
disparate roots in the history of life on earth, despite appearances?
Perhaps the best place to start answering that question is with a resolve
not to compromise any side of the truth merely because we are
philosophically uncomfortable with its apparent implications. In
particular, we ought not to twist our understanding out of shape due to a
historically conditioned revulsion against anything like a purposive
dimension to life processes. Nor should we be unwilling to acknowledge
the ways in which all organisms behave as more or less centered agents in
the world. Nor again ought we to respect any presumed rule in biology
that says, “In the case of some human traits, we are forbidden to
recognize their reflection or prefiguration in other beings”.
Oddly, those who most eagerly remind us that “humans belong to the animal
kingdom” often seem the ones most reluctant to embrace the flip side of
this truth: all animals have arisen within the same drama of evolving life
that, we now know, also happened to be in the business of producing
humans. If we want to say that humans share in the nature of all animals,
how can we then turn around and ignore the obvious implication that all
animals share something of the nature of humans?
Now I have already hinted at the two central themes largely determining
what kind of book you are reading. Here is the briefest possible summary
of these themes, followed by an equally brief mention of a fundamental
conviction underlying just about everything I will say:
Theme #1: Meaningful narratives are the primary subject matter of
Every organism is weaving a life story — or, perhaps better, actively
participates in a life story, a meaningful narrative. The description of
the potter wasp above is one episode in one life story. Such narratives
are future-oriented in the manner of a historical narrative. They tend at
all times to be task-centered (or end-directed), and are thoroughly
intentional. By this I mean that every organism displays an ability to
coordinate diverse means in the service of its own needs and interests.
And, so far as circumstances allow, it sustains this coordination along
whatever winding pathways lead toward the intended end. Just as
important, it ceases this particular effort when the end is achieved.
This capacity for story-like, directed activity is simply what we observe,
and it remains there for us to observe regardless of whether an organism
conceives intentions for itself in a human-like fashion. The bare fact of
intention is written all over the potter wasp’s behavior; without an
understanding of the “goal” being “aimed at”, we cannot make scientific
sense of the pathways leading to it. But those scare quotes result from a
very good question: Does the wasp own its intentions in the rather
free and conscious way we humans do (when we are fully awake) — or is it
instead owned by them? These are altogether different things, and
the difference is one we should be learning to think about. After all, we
ourselves are familiar with meanings and intentions that lie far below our
Quite apart from the question of full consciousness, every organic
narrative looks very much like the expression of a being possessing
agency. Particularly in the case of an animal, we say that it
acts, and we interpret its activity to reflect a play of
meanings both richer and more locally centered than those we
observe in an outer (mineral) world governed by universal laws. An
organism’s narrative therefore demands a style of explanation and
understanding radically different from that employed by the physicist and
chemist. As I point out in
we would never be comfortable saying, “This planet is preparing to make
another circuit of the sun”, but we would laughably miss the essential
biological story if we did not recognize (as we all do) that “This potter
wasp is preparing for the needs of its offspring”.
Theme #2: The field of biology suffers from blindsight
Living narratives, as observed, for example, in all animals, are in fact
recognized within biology. For example, they provide the structure for
research projects, which typically have to do with how an organism
accomplishes this or that function, or task. (Rocks and streams do
not have tasks.) But something rather like a taboo seems to require
biologists to ignore all this in their scientific explanations. They are
allowed to discuss only physical “mechanisms” that make no inherent
reference to — and therefore do not explain — the task-nature of the
problems that prompted biological inquiry in the first place.
In fact, most biologists speak in many contexts as if they were unaware of
what they actually know about the organism’s end-directed activity. This
is understandable: it is easy to see how the cognitive dissonance between
what they know of organic agency and what the taboo allows them to say (or
think) in their biological explanations might prove intolerable if brought
fully to mind.
This might bring to our minds the curious and well-known phenomenon
called “blindsight”. It works like this. Suppose there is a certain
life-sized statue on the floor of a museum I am exploring. If I suffer
from blindsight and am asked about the statue, I may truthfully reply,
“What statue? I don’t see anything there.” But then, in wandering about
the room, I am observed always to walk carefully around the statue
rather than bump into it. Clearly, in some sense I do see it, even while
remaining consciously unaware of (and even denying) what I see.
My suggestion, then, is that something analogous to this phenomenon — what
I will refer to as “the biologist’s blindsight” — works powerfully within
biology today. Biologists carefully walk around the fact of the
animal’s narrative agency, even while every biological (as opposed to
physical and chemical) question they ask affirms their knowledge of
this agency. One result is that much about the true character of animals
(and organisms generally) comes through in the biological sciences despite
the biologist’s explicit denials. Bringing attention to the great mass of
obscured truth already “seen”, if only blindsightedly, is a lot of what
this book is about.
But another result of blindsight is that, so far as explicit theory and
philosophy are concerned, biology suffers from the deepest possible
distortions. We end up with living processes theoretically stripped of
their life — this despite the fact that we ourselves know this life more
directly and intimately than we know anything about the unliving world.
What is needed, according to Harvard’s Richard Lewontin, one of the deans
of contemporary biology, is for biologists “to take seriously what we
already know to be true”
(Lewontin 2000, p. 113).
Perhaps even more important than these two themes is an underlying truth
as fundamental to all science as it is alien to contemporary habits of
thought: We meet in the world something akin to our own inner
being. One aspect of this truth, which will require fuller treatment
later on, can be stated this way:
It is the nature of the world to present itself in thought
All peoples, prior to the influence of modern science, have lived in a
meaning-filled, or (as some ancient Greek philosophers might have put it)
logos-filled world — a world that, in one way or another spoke to
them and made sense. And it is the scientist’s discomfort with
this speaking that seems to trigger the most fundamental blindsight of all
— namely the inability, or unwillingness, to see the world as meaningful.
It is an astonishing lacuna in the fabric of scientific understanding, and
not only because the world’s speaking comes to such obvious and focal
expression in all the stories that organisms tell. Beyond biology, all
scientists strive to make sense of the world by discovering
meaningful patterns. They seek to formulate thoughts, whether laws or
descriptions, that are true to the world — that are embodied in the
world’s performance. The only scientific texts we have, or ever will
have, are attempts to conceptualize the world — to conceive it,
which is to say: to find the thoughts capturing the secrets of the world’s
form and patterned activity.
It is obvious enough that I understand another human being only so far as
I succeed in accurately re-thinking his thoughts. But, difficult as it
may be to grasp in our current era, the basic principle applies to
anything we would understand. Who would deny that our
understanding works by apprehending the ideas of things? If a phenomenon
is not given its form by apprehensible thoughts (whether we apprehend the
thoughts as geometrical principles or equations or qualitative
descriptions revealing essential relations), then the phenomenon remains
impenetrable to us. If there is a part of reality that does not manifest
itself, or exist, in conceptual terms, then we cannot even conceive it.
So why pretend we can actually talk about such things?
In sum: If physical phenomena exist that are incommensurable with ideas,
we can have no idea of them. Yet — and this is telling — my very
suggestion here that “it is the nature of the world to present
itself in thought” will strike many readers today (and perhaps most
scientists) as bizarre, if not worse. When we do come around to welcoming
this truth, our science will diverge from that of today in ways we can
hardly now imagine.
All this desperately needs expansion, which is why this book was written.
But while the themes and underlying convictions shaping the character of
the book lie far outside mainstream thinking, I offer no new or
revolutionary findings in biology or evolutionary theory — and would lack
the qualifications for doing so even if that were my inclination.
Instead, I merely ask: What would biology and evolutionary theory look
like if we overcame our blindsight and reckoned with the stories of
organisms as we actually observed them? Can we allow ourselves to see
with restored vision?
And so there will be no occasion for readers to ask, “Where is all the new
evidence?” The evidence supporting my contentions here — as I try to show
chapter by chapter — amounts to just about everything biologists
have already recognized as truth, however much they might prefer not to
acknowledge the gifts of their own sight. This is why you will not find
me straining toward the fringes of biology, but rather citing, with very
few exceptions, one fully accredited researcher and theorist after
another. The case for a thoroughly disruptive re-thinking of organisms
and their evolution has long been staring us in the face.
So there you have the keys to this book. I will, throughout these pages,
keep the two major themes in the forefront with special typographical
emphasis, like so:
Figure 1.1 credit: Rama
[CC BY-SA 4.0].
Figure 1.2 credit:
[CC BY-SA 3.0]
inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)
Lewontin, Richard (2000). The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and
Environment. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Oyama, Susan (2000). The Ontogeny of Information, 2nd edition,
foreword by Richard C. Lewontin. Durham NC: Duke University Press. First
edition published in 1985 by Cambridge University Press.
Watson, E. L. Grant (1964). The Mystery of Physical Life, Hudson
NY: Lindisfarne Press. Originally published in 1943.
Steve Talbott :: The Keys to This Book