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Organisms and Their Evolution
A book by
Stephen L. Talbott

Chapter 1

The Keys to This Book

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This is a preliminary draft of one chapter of a book-in-progress entitled, “Organisms and Their Evolution — Agency and Meaning in the Drama of Life”. This material is part of the Biology Worthy of Life project of The Nature Institute. Copyright 2022 by Stephen L. Talbott. All rights reserved. You may freely download this chapter for noncommercial, personal use, including classroom use.

Tags: explanation/biological; inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)

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 late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:

Box 1.1

The Enigmatic Wisdom of the Potter Wasp

An unidentified species of Eumenes

Figure 1.1. An unidentified species of Eumenes.1

“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 satisfactorily provided.

nest of a potter wasp

Figure 1.2. Nest of a potter wasp on top of a concrete wall.2

“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. 85-86).

And so (focusing on the wasp’s offspring) 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 physical feat; how is it done?) because its existence is threatened by larvae far more massive than itself.

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 organisms themselves — and to lay bare as clearly as possible the failure of the reigning 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 interactions.

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 own sort of experience onto other organisms.

On one hand, no scientist would — or should — say, with anything like the human 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, “Some human traits are unnatural and cannot be referred to in a properly ‘naturalized’ science”.

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?

Here I would like to summarize, ever so briefly, certain themes suggesting what sort of book you are reading:

Theme #1: Narrative
Meaningful life stories are the primary subject matter of biology.

Every organism is weaving a life story — or, perhaps better, is actively participating in a life story, a meaningful narrative. The description of the potter wasp above is one episode in such a story. Such stories are future-oriented in the manner of a historical narrative. It’s not for nothing that biologists find themselves speaking so often of an organism’s development — a word they would not use in the same sense for geological strata or clouds. Biological narratives tend at all times to express meaningful activity in which the organism progressively realizes its own potentials.

We may often think of these narratives as thoroughly intentional, task-centered (end-directed), and carefully planned. This is highly problematic, since organisms do not, in the human sense, plan their actions. Nevertheless, there is something unavoidable in this usage. Organisms are not wholly other than humans. We do witness in every organism a striking coordination of diverse means in the service of its own needs and interests — a coordination that is generally contextualized within a larger community of beings and interests.

The capacity for story-like, “directive” activity in living beings (see the definitional hints below) is simply what we observe. 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 something like intention is written all over the potter wasp’s behavior. If our own scientific understanding teaches us to avoid the all too natural but wrongheaded idea of a “goal” being “aimed at”, this should not scare us away from seeing the full sense of the wasp’s performance in its own evident terms, or prevent us from acknowledging the playing out before our eyes of a remarkably apt and moment-by-moment, presently active wisdom.

In Chapter 25 we will look at the distinction between owning one’s intentions in the rather free and conscious way we humans do (when we are fully awake), and (more like the wasp) being owned by them. These are very different conditions, and the difference is one we might want to think about. After all, we ourselves can sometimes become aware of meanings and intentions that once lay far below (or above?) our conscious willing and planning, and that therefore possessed us more than the other way around.

Much of what I have just said requires us to acknowledge the organism — and particularly every animal — as a focal agent, a being capable of weaving and inhabiting its own story, and a being whose causal activity is locally centered and distinct from the more general regularities we observe in the inanimate world. At the same time, every organism’s story is interwoven with that world, taking on its substance and lawfulness as the very means for its own self-expression.

Theme #2: Interiority
Every animal’s life narrative is an outward expression of interior meaning.

It may be that when humans communicate, there is nothing (apart from certain instances of spoken and written language) more richly and specifically informative than the expressions of the human face. Much of our life is shaped and guided by the facial expressions all around us. All that these expressions tell us, however, cannot be encompassed by the physical-causal terms of facial musculature, skeleton, and flesh. That which bears the expression is indeed outward, material, and physically lawful. But what is expressed is, we can reasonably say, interior. Sadness, pensiveness, elation, doubt, anger, vexation, impatience, uncertainty, satisfaction — these possess, at least in part, a non-spatial character. Or again: while the material embodiment of what is expressed is both real and spatial, what is expressed through the outward manifestation is real but not spatial. So the word “interior” is problematic; it typically suggests a spatial relation, whereas I am using it to suggest something like “not out there in a spatially locatable sense”.

We look through and by means of the face as a material manifestation in order to see the interior meaning that is being expressed. It is much the same as with spoken words, whose interior meanings are not revealed so long as we are noticing them only as sense-perceptible sounds. We must “hear through” the sounds so as to grasp their immaterial meaning.

But it is not just humans. All living performance expresses one or another form of interiority. In our own case: if I walk to the corner store in order to buy a gift for a grandchild, what I am doing can never be captured by what we think of as a purely physical description of the movement of my legs and arms, vocal apparatus, and so on. So, too, with an animal engaged in anything we would call “behavior”. The meaning of the behavior — whether a courtship ritual, or burial of food, or tracking of a scent, or digging of a burrow — can never be described in strictly physical terms (if such strict terms are ever possible).

Further, as I try to suggest throughout this book, even our descriptions of cellular and molecular “behavior” refuse to be altogether cleansed of interiority. We can always recognize a meaning — what a biological activity is about (synthesis of a protein, or extraction of usable energy from a substance) — when we look at cellular goings-on, and our biological inquiries are guided by this meaning. Meaning itself is never spatial or sense-perceptible, even if spatial structures are required for giving material expression to meaning.

A dramatic fact about contemporary biology is that biologists seem to have a horror of interiority, or the non-spatial and non-sense-perceptible. Given that the life of animals is through and through an interior business, this horror is not only perplexing, but also devastating for the prospects of a truly biological science.

Theme #3: Holism
The meaningful, narrative character of life demands its own style of understanding and explanation.

If the organism’s life, its biological existence, takes narrative form, then our explanation of its life — contrary to conventional notions of explanation — must also take a narrative form. And since a genuine, living narrative is always a playing out of interior meanings, the explanation must be framed in terms of those meanings.

It could hardly be clearer that the elements of a story, like the elements of an organism’s life, can never be considered adequately in isolation from each other. Nothing is absolutely distinct from everything else. The end of a really great novel will be illuminated by its beginning, and the beginning by the end. This interwovenness of the narrative amounts to a kind of holism, and in this respect might far more appropriately be compared to sketching a portrait than to analyzing a machine into discrete parts and causal relations.

However, it is clear that we cannot have holism without also applying the remarkable analytical skills that we humans have so fruitfully gained. It is hard even to conceive how one might sketch an organic whole without having a lucid and detailed awareness of its parts. The need is to hold together the two movements of thought — the synthetic (holistic) and the analytical.

A supposed advantage of the one-sided striving for a strictly physical description of the world is that it depicts for us (or so we imagine) things that can be separated from each other, physically or notionally — and then counted. This gives us at least the pretense of a quantitative science, free of qualities and meaning. It also lays the basis for a method of reductive analysis. Things are analyzed into discrete parts, those parts are then analyzed into sub-parts, and so on.

Presumably the process stops at some significant bottom. But what if, having gotten there, we still have not characterized anything in its own terms? If our analytical descent hasn’t led us to a fundamental reality of which we can say, “I now know what that sort of thing is”, where would the significance of the entire process lie?

If there is to be a counter-movement to analysis, it depends on things revealing something about themselves, so that we can do more than merely refer them to still other, smaller things. So long as we merely say, “This thing consists of such-and-such other things”, and the other things, rather than being characterized in their own terms, are said to be constituted by still other uncharacterized things, we do not have any this or that at all. If nothing “speaks” to us of its own character — if all we have are words that are our own, bare, meaningless labels for a mute whole and its mute parts — then we have no hope of scientific understanding.

And something like this appears to have happened. Instead of landing at the end of our analysis in bedrock, supportive, and knowable territory, we have actually found ourselves in an alien place, where we can say virtually nothing from experience and observation about what is “really there”. Particle physicists have an interesting story to tell biologists about the perplexities encountered at the bottom — so “interesting”, in fact, that the effort to describe the relevant phenomena in meaningful words is often considered disreputable in physics. As the physicist Robert March put it:

We should never have expected words born in the familiar world readily accessible to our senses, such as particle and wave, to perfectly describe the microcosm. The electron is what it is, and if the words we use to describe it seem full of paradox, so much the worse for those words. The equations have it pinned down neatly (March 1977, p. 235).

Unfortunately, equations alone do not give us a material world, but only a realm of discarnate thought.

The interesting thing, however, is to notice how our science rises above such emptiness. We do say meaningful things in science, and this is because the meaningful counter-movement to analysis is inescapable — although generally not noticed for what it is. After all, in order to analyze a whole into parts, we must first have recognized each part as significant — as a meaningful whole in its own right. This recognition of wholes, however unconscious it tends to be, is fully qualitative, contrary to our usual ideas of science (Chapter 24), and it requires a movement of understanding that runs contrary to analysis.

The synthetic, or holistic, counter-movement to analysis is implicit in the biologist’s frequent reference to the “context-dependence” of biological processes (Chapter 6). The problem is that the implication here — the implication that there is a kind of influence or causation running from a collective, complex whole toward its parts — has drawn little reflection and has had little effect on the underlying assumptions of biologists. “Context” is one of the most common words used by geneticists and molecular biologists. But it seems that no one is at all interested in asking what the term means and implies.

In this manner, “holism” — despite its being hardly separable conceptually from “context” — has become a kind of “devil word” in biology, a fact ironically coexisting with a refusal to consider the issues implicit in current, context-centered biological language.

In this book “holism” — like the the biologist’s more acceptable and virtually equivalent “context-dependence” — will simply be taken for granted from the beginning. But, unlike “context-dependence”, its meaning will be consciously and explicitly drawn out as we go along.

Theme #4: Blindsight
A kind of blindsight is evident in much of biology.

Living narratives, as observed, for example, in all animals, are in fact recognized within biology. For example, they provide the structure for research projects. These typically have to do with how an organism accomplishes this or that function, or task, such as obtaining food, or maintaining bodily temperature at an acceptable level, or, in the case of many cells, achieving cell division. (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 intuitively 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 might 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 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 non-living world.

What is needed, according to the late Harvard geneticist, Richard Lewontin, is for biologists “to take seriously what we already know to be true” (Lewontin 2000, p. 113).

Some definitional hints
about key biological terms

A number of the terms central to this book are foreign to conventional biological usage. The strangeness in this, I dare to say, is on the part of biology rather than this book. In general, I try to employ the following words in agreement with their use in common discourse as far as possible — and not to tie them down with overly artful precision. I hope that the meanings will become more specific — or more flexible — based on their various contexts of use.

Agency. Humans are agents — we possess agency, because we possess an awareness of our world and can act in it. We help to create the situations in which we live, instead of merely being determined by them (Welburn 2004, pp. 263-64n17). The cells of our bodies clearly can participate in our agency by giving expression to it, as when we move our limbs intentionally. But we would never say of those cells as such that they possess awareness or agency, as opposed to moving with an agency not fully their own. This is suggestive of the kinds of distinction we must make between ourselves and, say, single-celled organisms.

I know of no reason not to believe that, just as the intentions of a human individual play through trillions of cells, so also collective intentions can play through the bacteria in a bacterial film (evident, for example, in “quorum sensing”), as well as through the members of a termite colony, or any species at all so far as its members share a common way of being — and indeed in human society in ways of which we are scarcely conscious.

Archetype. The archetypal idea of an organism is its dynamic, adaptive, evolving way of becoming and remaining true to itself.

Atoms/Molecules. You will find comments here and there in this book suggesting something about the unreality of atoms and molecules. The effort is to emphasize that in the submicroscopic realm we are dealing with theoretical constructs that do not have the reality required by an empirical science — the reality of sense-perceptible experience. The problems arise, as physicists well know, when we endow such constructs with imagery derived from our experience of the material world. Then we are dealing with invented unrealities, and these tend to mock us when we try to make sense of our experiments.

I attempt to show in Chapter 24 that we have little choice but to assume that the only reality the world possesses is the reality appearing, and only appearing, in all the possible forms of experience. To make any other assumption is to speak ignorantly — to talk about what we do not know from our own experience or anyone else’s experience. The nice thing is that when we do make the necessary assumption, it begins to justify itself in our understanding with gratifying fullness.

Blindsight. See Theme #4 above.

Directive. E. S. Russell, a marine biologist and philosopher of “organismal biology” during the first half of the twentieth century, adopted the word “directive”, as in the title of his wonderful book, The Directiveness of Organic Activities (Russell 1945). He chose a less familiar word in order to encourage in his readers an awareness of the distinctions between human end-directed activity and the activity of animals. I will, in part, follow suit, although I will also freely use “directed” or “end-directed” in the conviction that we need to cultivate, not only an awareness of the differences between humans and animals, but also of the connections.

Biological activity is directed in the immediate sense of the word — directed in the way the development of a squid or fox or ape is directed from the zygote toward the adult form, and will take extraordinary steps to achieve that form in the event of a disturbance. This remains true even though the process is not at all consciously directed in the manner of our own willed activity. For that matter, neither is our human movement from zygote to adult form consciously directed. See also “telos-realizing” below.

Holism. See Theme #3 above.

Integral unity of the organism. I use something like this phrase often, and intend it as an active concept in Aristotle’s sense of “being at work staying itself” (in Joe Sachs’ translation of Aristotle’s entelecheiaSachs 1998, p. 245). Through this activity, the parts of an organism arise from and are differentiated from out of a whole, not assembled as pre-existing entities in order to build a whole. The integral unity is actively there from the start, and is not at any point imposed from outside. It is a unity because each part reflects — or participates in and remains consistent with — the nature of the whole from which it arose.

Intention/intentional. I try to use these words as far as possible in their routine, day-to-day meaning. We recognize intentions by observing the guiding principles and meanings at work in an activity. It needs noting, however, that we humans can “intentionally” do something not only through careful planning, but also unconsciously, as when we notice a traffic irregularity while driving a car and engaging in conversation, despite the fact that we were paying no conscious attention to the road. It is much the same when we ride a bicycle while quite unconscious of any intention to remain upright and balanced on the bike. So, as in a number of these notes on words, we need to observe a caution: we should never ascribe our own sort of consciousness to other organisms, who seem to function quite well by means of intentions that do not originate in (their own) conscious or self-aware activity.

Interiority. See Theme #2 above.

Material. Accessible through our senses.

Material/physical/materialist. I speak broadly of “the material world” as the world we routinely experience, the world we live and move in. “Material” and “physical” might be taken as rough synonyms, but I preferentially use “material” when speaking about the sensible world as we actually know it, and I use “physical” when emphasizing the habits of thought that come to the fore when, as materialists, we are thinking theoretically about the nature of the world and trying to conceive it purely in terms of physical entities and processes conceived as mindless and having nothing to do with our own interiority. So I might say on one hand that the organism adapts to its material environment, but, on the other hand, that we are commonly thought to live in a world subject only to physical laws. But there is no strict line between these terms, and doubtless no full consistency in my usage. Problems arise because the idea of the physical is incoherent: physical laws are ideal and conceptual, not mindless and physical in the sense of “physical” usually taken for granted.

Meaning. All coherent descriptive content is meaningful, a fact already implicit in the word “coherent”. Meaning seems to us problematic only because we have culturally inherited materialist mindsets, and because meaning is so thoroughly inescapable that we have a hard time stepping back and seeing it for what it is. The sea of meaning is that from which we are born and in terms of which we continue to live and finally die. We cannot do anything or say anything or pursue any science without the doing, saying, or pursuing being an expression of meaning.

Some people have a very difficult time with any use of the word “meaning” in a scientific context. It’s worth setting this difficulty alongside the simple fact that the only things we know about the world are meanings. The idea that we are dealing with genuine meaning, not meaninglessness, is already implicit in the word “know”. Meaninglessness would not yield itself to knowing articulation, as in science. Meaning cannot be questioned. The effort to question or define it — or just point to it — assumes that the person being addressed already possesses a working understanding of meaning, such as the meaning of a pointing finger. Acting out meanings is pretty much the only thing we do with our lives. The same thing is true of organisms generally, all the way down to one-celled creatures — except that they lack the capacity for conscious awareness of the meanings at work in their lives. The interesting question has to do with the different meanings at work in different kinds of organism.

The fact that we are dealing with the fundamental basis of life when we use this term is hardly a reason to avoid it in biology. The (always unsuccessful) effort of avoidance is perhaps the central pathology of contemporary biological thought and practice. In a thousand ways the taboo against any suggestion of meaningfulness makes a fool of scientists and nonsense of their language.

Narrative. See Theme #1 above.

Telos-realizing. Telos (“end”) is often taken to refer to final causation — to the end we humans are aiming at when we formulate plans. But, consistent with the Greek term, it may be more useful to take the “end” as a matter of self-realization, which is the “being at work remaining oneself” referred to under “Integral unity of the organism” above. Or, we might say, “being oneself ever differently”. It’s a matter of bringing what one is to ever fuller expression — taking always a further (new) step in expressing one’s own nature. Only in the human case does this involve a creative awareness whereby an action becomes intimately our own.

Regarding the ideas conveyed by “end”, “self-realization”, and “holism”, we have this incisive comment by the philosopher Ronald Brady: An organism’s biological development “does not proceed towards [a] whole, but rather expresses it” (Brady 1987). It is, however, hard to find words that capture the meaningful coordination of processes in the achievement of a certain result without seeming to imply an external goal, so ambiguity will doubtless remain. The alert reader will need to make an inner adjustment whenever encountering language that sounds external-goal-directed.

See also the word “directive” above.

Where is the evidence?
Two concluding notes

The preceding discussion, especially that of Themes #1 and #2, underscores a truth that is alien to contemporary biology: We meet in the living world something akin to our own inner being. Everything I have hinted at here, however, 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 insight. 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.

A second note is not unrelated to the first. Throughout this book I have, to a degree, tuned my vocabulary to the more complex animals with which we are most familiar, although the language could readily be adjusted to reflect the intelligent life processes in bacteria, plants, and other groups. Many will say that this is to ignore what are by far the most abundant creatures on earth. Perhaps so. But I am convinced that, contrary to the usual intuitions, the “higher” organisms are key to understanding the “lower”, not the reverse.

This is true in the indisputable sense that the kind of understanding we are looking for emerges only in humans, so that we are the only means for understanding other creatures. But I believe it is also true in the sense that those organisms more fully manifesting the potentials of life do in fact more fully manifest the potentials of life.

At the same time, we have no reason to think that the intelligence working through the material limitations of, say, bacteria is a “lower” or less capable intelligence than that which is at work in ourselves — or that the intelligence at work in our cells is lower than what works in our conscious minds. Actually, our cellular intelligence quite evidently far transcends our conscious capacities. We can say this without doubting that the arrival of a self-aware sort of consciousness is a pivotal development in the evolution of life. It’s just that we have no grounds for arrogance regarding our current conscious achievements. These achievements are, in the overall context of life on earth, humble indeed!


1. Figure 1.1 credit: Rama Warrier (CC BY-SA 4.0).

2. Figure 1.2 credit: Pollinator (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tags: explanation/biological; inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)


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. Available on the Nature Institute’s website: https://natureinstitute.org/ronald-h-brady/form-and-cause-in-goethes-morphology

Lewontin, Richard (2000). The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

March, Robert (1977). Physics for Poets. Chicago: Contemporary Books.

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.

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Steve Talbott :: The Keys to This Book