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.
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. 85-6)
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 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 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 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 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 biology
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 conscious willing.
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 Chapter 9, 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: narrative (or story) and blindsight.
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.
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Steve Talbott :: The Keys to This Book