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Organisms and Their Evolution
A book by
Stephen L. Talbott

Chapter 25

Some Principles of Biological Understanding

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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: epistemology; evolution/as mindless process; explanation; inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)

Failure to recognize the reality of the world’s interior dimension (Chapter 24, “How the World Lends Itself to Our Knowing”) is the central fact underlying virtually all the limitations, illusions, and distortions of today’s science. The twelve principles set forth in this chapter represent my effort to suggest some of the biological consequences of our acknowledging the interior dimension of the world.

Everything that distinguishes biology from the physical sciences derives in one way or another from the inner life of organisms. This remains true, I think, despite our difficulty in even beginning to imagine or characterize that inner life, and despite the fact that it must vary almost beyond all possibility of recognition between a one-celled organism and a human being.

Still, even those complex features commonly treated as definitive of life, such as the capacities for reproduction and self-maintenance (which I do not deal with here) are obvious manifestations of a well-directed wisdom, all the way down to the molecular level. This word “wisdom”, when applied, say, to an amoeba, needs to be understood, not as an occasional and foolish eruption of empty sentiment, but rather as a pointer to effective, end-directed, and meaningful life processes that surely must be distinguished from, yet just as surely must be evolutionarily continuous with, conscious human intention and reason. What I mean by this will, I hope, become at least a little clearer in the discussion of the various principles given below.

Here are the principles we will look at:

Principle #1: The world manifests itself, by nature, as a content of experience.

Principle #2: Organisms are focal centers of agency.

Principle #3: Biology, as a science of organized wholes, cannot be understood in terms of mechanized parts.

Principle #4: Every organism is, first of all, a becoming, not a material structure.

Principle #5: Biology requires portraits of specific character, not formulations based on universal law.

Principle #6: Understanding the human self requires us to distinguish our own inner activity from its products.

Principle #7: Organisms in general lack human-like selfhood.

Principle #8: There exists a wide spectrum of consciousness in organisms.

Principle #9: An organism has its own sort of interior dimension.

Principle #10: A healthy science acknowledges the mystery implied by its own ignorance.

Principle #11: The mystery of time is central to the life of organisms.

Principle #12: Humans are a key to evolution.

We have, in the preceding chapter, already articulated our first principle of biological understanding — one that applies to the entire world within which organisms appear. I summarize it here:

Principle #1: Empiricism

The world manifests its true being — gives expression to its reality — in the terms of experience. We perceive things through the appearance of their qualities upon the “stage” of our consciousness. The thinking with which we order our perceptions and render them coherent likewise occurs upon the stage of consciousness. And so our modern human understanding of the world consists of experiential contents, available to the knower within a self-aware consciousness. In the routine practice of our lives, we are all convinced that these experiential contents — however much they reflect our separate vantage points — are mutually consistent and constitute the reality of the world. The simplest assumption is that, whatever else we may say about it, the world itself, in its essential nature, has the character of sentient, cognitive experience. It occurs within an interior dimension. To deny this would be to render ourselves speechless about the world we live in. We were given our birth and our cognitive capacities by this world, and our experiential participation in its reality is our birthright.

I tried to show in Chapter 13 how naturally we are led to suppose that the world available to science possesses the character of experiential content. This content may vary, depending on one’s experiential capacity. It is not that different organisms exist in different worlds, but rather that the world’s potential for manifestation is realized according to the character and capacity of each kind of being, just as two different humans — one of whom may be blind or deaf or lacking an education — can experience the same world differently, yet still find their worlds mutually consistent. We call “objective” that which can be reliably experienced and collectively verified by those with the requisite capacities. Pink elephants don’t count.

Perhaps the truth has simply been too close to us for proper recognition. After all, to seek understanding is already to acknowledge something interior, accessible as a content of consciousness — something meaningful that can take the form of human comprehension while at the same time being a recognition of the truth of natural phenomena.

Then, too, virtually all scientists have long honored, at least in word, the ideal according to which science must be empirical — experience-based and grounded in observation and experiment. Such an ideal could have arisen only from a deep-seated confidence that our experience of the world is indeed an experience of the world. The founders of modern science presumably found the principle too self-evident to require much explicit defense.

And, again, it’s obvious enough that the mathematically expressed regularities of physics are not only ideas (conceived in analogy to human laws by Francis Bacon during the Scientific Revolution) — but ideas we discover in nature. These regularities were the kind of thing that led the twentieth-century physicist, Sir James Jeans, to remark that “the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine”.

Strangely, though, however obvious the fact of the objective world’s collectively verifiable experiential character may seem from some vantage points, any talk of the “experiential” and “interior” side of material phenomena strikes many as impossibly wrong-headed. And there is no denying the power of such talk to disrupt conventional thinking. Just consider its significance for biology. Suddenly endless discussions about the relation between organisms and the inanimate realm — between biology and physics — and, more particularly, discussions about the origin of our own cognitive faculties (how does one get mind from that which is utterly incommensurable with mind?), begin to look hopelessly askew in their materialist starting points.

Similarly, as discussed above: the fact of the world’s nature as a content of experience undercuts the insistent and nearly universal habit of contrasting appearance with reality. What are we to make of this contrast if in fact it lies in the world’s nature to be a world of appearances to experience — if the very substance and reality of the world is the substance and reality of appearances?

Principle #2: Agency

Organisms are focal centers of agency. An organism is a more or less focused center of its own causal agency within a larger world of lawful regularity. This agency is an active, wise, and purposive power of activity reflecting the organism’s needs, interests, and distinctive way of being. We could also speak of the organism as a focused center of self-realization — a telos-realizing being. An organism is a center of its own experience, inseparable from the larger world yet distinguishable from it, with its own way of experiencing and responding to the inner meaning of its world-surroundings. Not one of the key terms here — “agency”, “purposive”, “needs”, “interests”, “way of being”, “self-realization” “experience” — is opaque to routine understanding, but neither is any of them wholly reducible to the conventional terms of physical explanation.

The physicist is always looking for laws that are universal — the same everywhere. Viewing the world solely through the lens of such lawfulness, we certainly cannot expect to find local centers of agency possessing a unique lawfulness. Geological strata, rivers, and solar systems are not actively engaged in sustaining their own existence and do not have anything we would call their own local “need” or “interest” in the sense of an organism. No inanimate object flexibly coordinates physical causes in order to realize its own ends in the face of obstacles and unavoidable detours.

Much of this book consists of descriptions of organisms as agents and centers of their own activity, and these descriptions are presumably enough to give substance to the principle discussed here. We have also seen that many local contexts, including the cells of our bodies, can also be considered as relatively independent agents and centers of activity, while yet subordinate to the organism as a whole. Similarly, populations of organisms, including evolving organisms, may be seen as possessing their own, more broadly focused agency.

It is easy to see the difference between the universal and lawful regularity (mathematical or otherwise) of the inorganic world, on one hand, and the various foci of organic agency, on the other. And so it must be. Without a background of lawful regularity, the agency of organisms, including our own human agency, could not exist in any meaningful sense. If the results of our willed activity in the world were chaotic or unpredictable, then we could never coherently aim at achieving anything in particular. Our actions would make no sense.

Many have argued that the regularities of the universe rule out human freedom or any meaningful agency in organisms generally. But this is based on elaborate and tendential theoretical surmises about the world and its character, and about our relation to the world. Wouldn’t it be much better to stick with the obvious and immediately experienced fact of effective agency, and then recognize that the world’s regularities admirably serve this agency?1

The compatibility of lawful regularity and meaningful agency is displayed right before our eyes in the fact of speech. Speech, as a material phenomenon, arises from perfectly lawful bodily functioning, yet the intended meanings of the speech that employs the physical vocal apparatus cannot possibly be explained in terms of this apparatus.

The principle of agency is at the same time a principle of holism. The primary “unit” of agency is the organism as a whole. No activity of a part of an organism can be given a full or adequate explanation except through reference to this unit — reference, that is, to the purposive, meaningful activity of the whole. One aspect of this activity lies in the fact that parts are very often coordinated in the interest of the persistence of the whole.

This necessity to explain the part by reference to an encompassing unit of agency is absent in the physical sciences. The latter fully accept that the whole and its parts are intimately related, but the prevailing aim (or at least the aim that biologists are primarily aware of) is to reduce the whole to parts that can then be employed to explain the whole. In the kinetic theory of gases, for example, the pressure of the gas inside a bottle is said to be explained by the “impacts” of molecules against molecules. Our understanding of the gas pressure is supposed to derive from our understanding of the molecules and impacts. But we would never try to explain the molecules and impacts by citing the inherent drive of the gas to maintain itself (persist) at a particular pressure. Nor would we try to explain changes in the impacts by citing the gas’ need to achieve a different state.

And this already carries us to our third principle.

Principle #3: Organicism (Non-mechanism)

Biology, as a science of organized wholes, cannot be understood in terms of mechanized parts. “Mechanism treats every whole as resulting, by aggregation, from its parts; organicism treats the parts as resulting, by progressive development and individuation, from an antecedent whole” (Barfield 1977, p. 183). The agency of organisms, and their inner character generally, is intrinsic. We might think of this agency as a local outcropping, or increasingly individuated intensification, of the world’s interior dimension. A machine, as a machine, has no intrinsic meaning or agency. Such agency as it manifests lies in the idea and intention of its designer, imposed from outside through an arrangement of parts — parts lacking any inherent or natural ability to grow meaningfully together in that way. As soon as human maintenance and repair of any machine ceases, the machine progressively deteriorates toward dysfunction.2 By contrast, when an organism suffers injury, it strives from within, as best it can, toward healing.

Numerous biologists, philosophers, and others have enunciated this “organicist” principle, or something like it, over the past few hundred years. Not many biologists can have escaped hearing something like it on one occasion or another — and almost none will have heard the principle flatly disputed, simply because the effort of disputing it appears scarcely credible. And yet the main biological enterprise seems to roll on and on as if such an idea had never been given voice.3

The central problem here is not obscure or difficult to comprehend. Everything we know about living processes is missing in the machine. The parts of a machine show none of the character of an organ, cell, or organelle. They do not come into being organically from the progressive differentiation of an original whole, and do not result from the immanent formative power inherent in that whole. They are assembled by (human) activity external to the machine itself.

For many people, the computer seems to have played a major role in making the mechanical model of the organism more persuasive. Computers make the machine appear more “flexible” and “life-like”. But what we are really looking at in a computer is the remarkably detailed and intricate power of the human mind to structure its own thinking in a machine-like and logically precise way, so as to yield a program.

An inherent requirement of such a programmatic thought structure is matching hardware of the most rigid, precisely fabricated, unlifelike sort ever contrived by humankind. There is a reason why chip manufacturers must achieve extreme levels of cleanliness and air purity. The slightest contamination by an invisible particle of dust or smoke can render a chip — and the massive computer it may be part of — disastrously non-functional.

In a cell, molecules move with a high degree of freedom through a fluid medium. At that scale a computer designer, by contrast, needs to “freeze” movement, eliminating flexibility and free flow to the greatest degree possible. A cell or organism lives by means of the freedom of movement at the smaller scales, which is presumably part of what allows it to yield itself as a plastic instrument for the agency of the larger context — an agency reflecting the organism’s current needs, interests, and way of being.

For more on the fluid, rhythmic, pulsing dynamism of living processes, see for example Chapter 5, “Our Bodies Are Formed Streams”. That chapter, along with the foregoing discussion, suggests that, in organisms, more or less fixed structures take second place to processes of becoming — which brings us to our next principle.

Principle #4: Becoming

Every organism is, first of all, a becoming, not a material structure. Its life is a continual activity through which form becomes embodied in material substance and behavioral pattern. The physical structures of the mature falcon are not already there, materially, in the fertilized egg cell, but come into being through an activity of development and differentiation. This power to form a body — a power to materialize the form of an organism — is not itself a material thing. Its intelligible and functional (purposive) working testifies to the interior dimension of the organism. Material substance, once originated, may both constrain and enable further activity, but is not the source of that activity.

I have mentioned several times elsewhere in this book how researchers can rearrange clumps of cells in many kinds of young embryo, and even insert the clumps in new places within the embryo, and then, through the ongoing developmental activity, those clumps adapt to their new places and new roles. The process of development clearly takes precedence over existing substance in the origination of the material structures of the organism. Once an organ (or limb or whatever) reaches sufficient maturity, it becomes a constraint on further development, which is a very different matter from the origination of organic structures.

Or consider the heart. Embryological development shows that

the body does not behave like a plumber, first connecting the water pipes in a house and then turning the water on … the first blood-like liquid … simply trickles through gaps in the tissues … Preferred channels develop only very gradually as blood cells are deposited along the edges and eventually merge into the beginnings of vessel walls (Schad 2002, p. 80).

The situation loosely reminds one of college campuses when new lawn is laid down. Landscapers typically wait to see where human traffic creates clear pathways through the grass before “solidifying” the paths with concrete.

Moreover, “when blood vessels first start to form, the heart does not yet exist … early blood flow stimulates the development of the heart” (Schad 2002, pp. 82-83). Again, form arises from movement. Thus, the spiraling fibers of the heart muscle that help to direct the blood in its flow are themselves a congealed image of the swirling vortex of blood within. This kind of mutuality holds even for the heart’s basic structural divisions:

Before the heart has developed walls (septa) separating the four chambers from each other, the blood already flows in two distinct “currents” through the heart. The blood flowing through the right and left sides of the heart do not mix, but stream and loop by each other, just as two currents in a body of water. In the “still water zone” between the two currents, the septum dividing the two chambers forms. Thus the movement of the blood gives the parameters for the inner differentiation of the heart, just as the looping heart redirects the flow of blood 4 (Holdrege 2002, p. 12).

For further examples, see Chapter 5, “Our Bodies Are Formed Streams”.

Principle #5: Character

Biology requires portraits of specific character, not formulations based on universal law. We have seen that an organism, as a focal center of its own unique way of being (Principle #2), cannot be understood biologically by means of the kind of universal law or causality we currently look for in the inanimate realm. Our understanding depends, rather, on principles that stand above physical cause and effect in the hierarchy of explanation and understanding — principles of organization and coordination, of intention and purposive direction, of meaning and self-realization. So how do we understand an organism? Through a kind of portrait. Just as we gain our deeper understandings of an individual human being by means of insightful biographies, not notions of physical determination, so we must try to understand any species or individual organism by building up an insightful picture of its character. A portrait, of course, is always aimed at bringing out the interior dimension of a more or less individuated subject, whether that subject is a species or an individual human being.

An organism’s nature is all about qualitative performances testifying to its own, specific way of being. It is about a distinctive character. It requires from us a recognition we can only describe as “holistic”. During the last century the Cambridge University zoologist and member of the Royal Society, C. F. A. Pantin, offered examples from his own experience as a basis for understanding what sort of reality we are trying to apprehend when we are attempting to identify an organism — that is, when we want to recognize it for what it is. He said that recognition in the field “seems to depend on the whole available impression”:

Even a statement such as "The spines of the sea-urchin I am looking for have something of Chippendale about them — whilst that one looks Hepplewhite" may be significant. And if, when we are collecting [the planarian flatworm] Rhynchodemus bilineatus together, I say, “Bring me any worms that sneer at you,” the probability of your collecting the right species becomes high.

A naturalist who is intimately familiar with a given species will recognize it using very different cognitive faculties compared to the novice who is using an identification “key” consisting of a set of yes-or-no questions relating to isolated features. Because the whole impression is an impression of the whole, it does not arbitrarily force us to discard the greater part of what we can recognize in the organism. By contrast, as Pantin observed, once we have run through a key’s list of yes-or-no features, “a very great deal of the impression which the organism makes upon us still remains ‘unused’. This residue is undoubtedly important in our recognition of species even though it cannot be analyzed in just this [yes-or-no] way” (Pantin 1954).

To use an example given by the philosopher Ronald Brady: you find yourself engaging in one sort of activity when trying to recognize an old friend in a crowd, and quite a different activity when struggling to identify a stranger in the same crowd by proceeding through a list of discrete features (Brady 2002). You already have an overall impression of your friend — one perhaps sufficiently rich in its expressive potential to enable nearly instantaneous recognition of him even in postures or activities you have never witnessed before. As you scan the crowd, there are countless possible gestures of form or movement that might tip you off to the presence of the person you are looking for. Each one of them bears, not some literal and specific, easily definable feature, but rather the expressive signature of the friend. That is, they are all shone through by the same qualities, the same unifying character — a fact demonstrated by your ability to recognize numerous outward, novel manifestations as expressing the way of being of one individual.

In the analytical approach, by contrast, you are reduced to identifying, one by one, a set of low-level features described in unexpressive and rather more literal terms. Given a set of successful recognitions, you say, "This must be the person" — but you still do not recognize him in the way you would a friend. Time and familiarity are required before you can experience the inner, expressive unity that raises the particulars into a coherent and multi-dimensioned whole.

It’s also worth noting that an error in qualitative recognition ("For a moment I thought you were your brother") is less clear-cut than an error in applying an identification key. In general, Pantin suggests, there is truth in qualitative misjudgments. We were not altogether wrong. The mistaken impression was more or less like the thing we were after. "You really do look a little like your brother. In taking you for him, I was truly recognizing in you certain aspects of him". We do not have neat, yes-or-no judgments so long as we are reckoning with the qualities of living things.

So it is hard to be altogether and absolutely wrong when assessing the character of an organism. It is more a question of the depth or superficiality of insight, the fullness or vagueness of the depiction, the artistic adequacy or obscurity of the sketch. This truth has come to the fore today in genetics, where movements, rhythms, and contextual “portraits” of the overall current cellular state turn out to be essential to our understanding of the function of specific DNA sequences.

For some wonderful examples of scientifically informative “portraiture” in biology, consult the whole-organism studies in Holdrege 2021, and also the various articles at Whole-Organism Biology: A Goethean Approach on the Nature Institute’s website.

Principle #6: Selfhood

Understanding the human self requires us to distinguish our own inner activity from its products. We observe in ourselves a distinction between all our interior contents, on one hand, and the activity of our own selves from which some of those contents originate, on the other. For example, we can distinguish between thoughts already achieved (which we may recall from memory without having to repeat the original thinking), and the acts of thinking that first gave rise to those thoughts. Our ability, as subjects, to undertake an inner activity as our own and to make its products into subsequent objects of our attention is a mark of our selfhood and our individuation as human beings.

Owen Barfield was making precisely this distinction when he remarked that the break between the human self and the not-self does not occur at the physical boundary of the skin. It is, rather, “the break between the act of thinking and the product of thought … The more, therefore, my thinking is my own act and the less it is mere ‘externally’ induced, passive reverie, by that the more am I an independent and responsible self” (Barfield 1977, p. 163).

Our thinking as self-conscious individuals — when we are truly thinking and not merely free-associating or rearranging old thoughts out of habit — is our own act. We can also say of our perceptions (so far as they are informed by thinking) that they are, in part anyway, our own acts. But this is not to deny that most of our perception is informed by thoughts we first had as children, or as students, or in any case prior to our present perceiving and responding to the world. This is a practical necessity; we could hardly function effectively in life if we had to produce afresh, moment by moment, the thinking appropriate for bringing to meaningful appearance every detail of our raw “sense data”. (See in Chapter 13 the discussion of persons born blind who had their sight restored later in life.)

So the greatest portion of our interior life, at this stage of our evolution anyway, is unavoidably governed by habit. And this in turn points us back to all that we have received, and continually receive, often without consciously reflecting on it, from our natural and human surround. Beyond perception, we can ask how much of all our interior contents are “things already become” rather than expressions of our individually willed, originative activity. Not only things passively perceived, but also mental pictures, fancies, memories, dreams, reveries, automatic associations, old trains of thought — these fill our minds, and often serve for most of our interior life, quite without any genuine creative activity.

How much of our inner life comes from “outside”, so to speak — for example, from our immediate family environment or the wider culture? Whether I am approaching a red light while driving a car, sitting in a corporate work environment, attending a baseball game, or casting a vote in a public election — in each case I orient myself by means of entire worlds of thought and habit constituting elaborate contexts of meaning I scarcely need to take conscious note of. Within each different context I find myself in a markedly different “mental place”, ready to fit myself into the interior shape of the context — and this without any need for much of a fresh effort of thinking.

And yet — crucially — even the conscious or unconscious contents we “soak up” from our environment — contents we cannot claim as products of our own activity — have an interior-originated character. The most tiresome cliché of speech and thought we rather mindlessly toss off was once, in someone else if not in ourselves, a fresh and perhaps deeply insightful turn of phrase. Whatever can live in us as an inner content must have originated from inner activity. And, as I have been pointing out all along, the material world itself is an expression of interiority.

Quite apart from old habit, we are always at least potentially capable of those lucid moments of inner (“spiritual”) activity we can call our own. And, among the range of organisms on earth, we seem to be alone in this. How much grief comes from trying to understand the awareness of simple organisms as if it were like our own creative activity of thinking!

At the same time: how much grief comes from refusing altogether to see the play of meaning, thinking, and intention through the organism — through the perhaps dream-like and “enchanted” flow of its awareness!5 But this is a matter for us to consider only alongside the principles to follow.

Principle #7: Nonselfhood

Organisms in general lack human-like selfhood. Given our powerful tendency toward anthropomorphic thinking, it may be that we can best understand earlier-arriving species, to begin with, in terms of what they lack. They lack anything seriously resembling a human self. We cannot assume that they have anything very much like our own sort of self-awareness or ability consciously to plan, organize, and pursue goals. In terms of Principle #6, they do not make thinking their own act. As we will acknowledge, however (Principle #9), this does not prevent them from living thought-full, well-directed, and meaningful lives. It remains true that their interior dimension is the primary basis for our understanding of their lives.

Once we have distinguished between an activity of a self-conscious being and the products of that activity (Principle #6) — a distinction we can easily observe within ourselves — we can see how an organism might possess a non-self-aware form of inner life. It can be a vessel for thought and thinking that is not its own as an individual organism, and without being an original thinker in the human manner. And we can imagine this to be true in a yet deeper sense of all inorganic phenomena. It is for us, as humans, to investigate what we can do to bring the thinking in all phenomena, organic and inorganic, to conscious, active, and creative reality within our own experience, which is our participation in the creative activity through which the world is sustained (Chapter 24).

So we can say that some of the character of other organisms is accounted for by what they don’t have — namely, a human-like capacity, as self-aware individuals, to carry out acts of thinking, imagination, and willing that are fully and intentionally their own. For example, they do not formulate well thought-out goals and then exercise a conscious resolve to achieve them. This is true despite the fact that their lives, too, are thoroughly end-directed, often in creative and persistent ways. But as for conscious planning capacities the individual organism can call its own, virtually all biologists would rightly say that non-human organisms do not come close to equaling our own abilities in this regard.

Yet the relation between humans and other organisms seems to be a tortured topic for many biologists. For example, they see humans as close relatives of certain primates, and are fond of referring to “humans and other animals” — as if to curb any unfortunate tendencies we might have to claim a high or special destiny for ourselves.

But in other contexts those same biologists are often tempted to “wall off” our human interior capacities — perceiving, cognizing, thinking, willing, imagining — as if they were alien to the larger story of evolution and irrelevant to the functioning of all those nearer or more distant relatives of ours. So humans become both “mere” animals on one hand, and bearers of high, “unnatural” capacities threatening science with dreaded incursions of Spirit, on the other.

The problem here is that many researchers find it impossible to make a proper distinction between human interior capacities and those of other organisms without denying the interior — the thought, intention, and intelligence — of other organisms altogether.

There is a rapidly growing literature today on the role of agency in the life and evolution of organisms. In this literature, a disavowal of anything like human agency, as if it would automatically introduce an unnatural element, is almost a cliché. So it is that, in an otherwise valuable article on “What We Can Learn from a Biological Agency Perspective”, three of our most insightful commentators on evolutionary and developmental biology offer the obligatory disclaimer that agency in non-human organisms is not “an ‘intellectual’ phenomenon”:

Ascribing agency to a system in no way imputes to it intentions or desires. The association of agency with mindedness is understandable, but nevertheless misguided. To be sure, the cognitive and conative [volitional] capacities of humans are paradigms of agency. But thinking is an extremely sophisticated, rarefied form of agency. Genuine agency is manifest in any living system that is capable of responding adaptively to its conditions, including unicellular organisms (Sultan et al. 2022).

That is well and good as far as it goes — and sounds like much of what I have been saying above. But there is no discussion in the paper of what is required for those adaptive responses (which rocks certainly don’t have) or for the agency of organisms in general. More particularly, there is no mention of the non-self-aware ways in which something rather like human mindedness, cognition, and intention must operate in non-human organisms capable of exercising a profoundly wise and competent agency. This is a startling omission if indeed, as the authors claim, the “capacities of humans are paradigms of agency”.

Certainly the thinking self (Principle #6) does display, as the authors say, an especially sophsticated agency. This agency, as I have been pointing out, is associated with our ability to make thinking our own act. But we can distinguish humans from other organisms in this way without introducing unjustified assumptions into the distinction. I mean, for example, the gratuitous assumption that no sort of interiority, no intelligence or wisdom — no significant and guiding imagery taking, for example, the form of cognitive perception, however dulled and dream-like — can play through non-human organisms.

Not even those who set human inner capacities apart as “unnatural” and who fear that those capacities might contaminate our understanding of other organisms are relieved of the responsibility to conceive the effective agency of those organisms somehow. The setting aside of our own self-aware capacities in no way justifies an effort to understand the agency of other organisms without referring to forms of intention, willful striving, perceiving, and the capacity to recognize meaning in the surrounding world. (“Are those dimly lit, half-hidden, motionless canine forms in the distance a real threat, or not?” — the question needs to be answered intelligently.)

When our pet dogs and cats are looking at something and assessing how to respond, they are surely not reasoning like humans. So, then, what are they doing in their perceiving and assessing? The question deserves a frank attempt at an answer from biologists. And there is no answer in the often implied assumption that organisms are like machines (Principle #3).

Those who take the machine as their model always seem to forget that a real intelligence — that of the machine designers and builders — certainly is at work in the machine. But it does not inhere in the materials of the machine, all the way down to the molecular level. Rather, it consists in the externally imposed arrangement of parts. Those who rely on machine models are the ones who contaminate their understanding of other organisms with their own thought-full interiority — and they do so in a way that ignores the fully immanent wisdom of those organisms, which, unlike in machines, manifests at the very roots of their material being and precedes the differentiation of material structures.

We need to distinguish other organisms from ourselves with care, and without drawing absolute lines for which the evolutionary record gives no justification. Our own “paradigmatic” lives would have provided an easy starting point, since only part of our inner activity belongs to our true and innermost self. The rest, in all its organic unconsciousness and material (physiologial) effectiveness, and with all its relevance for other organisms, also needs to be accounted for by biologists.6

We will explore problems related to this in the next few principles.

Principle #8: Consciousness

There exists a wide spectrum of consciousness in organisms. We must think of the unconscious, rather paradoxically, as “consciousness that is not conscious”. That is, the unconscious takes its place within a vast range of possibilities of consciousness. In humans, unconscious contents can potentially rise to consciousness, just as conscious contents can fall into the unconscious. The boundary is extremely porous. No one who is reasonably self-aware can doubt that a good part of the very real meaning and motivation of his behavior is less than fully conscious (even if it may be consciously recognized as such at some later time). This suggests that unconscious contents can in some ways function much like consciously thoughtful and volitional activity.
When a pianist plays a Beethoven sonata, the infinitely complex movements of her fingers, arms, and whole body must somehow express her intentions. On any particular occasion — say, a funeral or wedding — she may inflect her interpretation so as to yield a slight shift of character and mood. This means she will modify all those complex movements in an almost unthinkably nuanced manner, appropriate to the meanings of a particular context.

The result is an utterly refined physiological realization of her intentions, all the way down to the finest details of gene expression. These must vary, for the sake of the performance, from one cell to the next over trillions of cells. And, as I have documented in earlier chapters, there are countless other cellular activities that must proceed in harmony with the performer’s intentions — activities that include those 300 or so cooperating molecules in each of the many spliceosomes per cell, carrying out the intricately end-directed work of RNA splicing (Chapter 8). That is, all those molecular processes must themselves become expressions of the meanings of the context, whether it be a wedding or funeral.

It’s hard to deny the recognizable character of thought, will, and intention along the entire spectrum of consciousness, and we have no reason to think the continuity disrupted anywhere between our fully conscious intentions and the cellular processes that yield with absolute seamlessness to our higher activity. In particular, we do not find any break between the pianist’s conscious effort to realize her expressive intentions, and the unconscious expression of those intentions at the molecular level. Every cell of her body is informed by her thoughts, feelings, and intentions — this despite the fact that no cell thinks, feels, or intends in any way we would want to call “self-aware”.

Quite evidently, then, our cells possess their own meaningful sort of inner life. Whether they are replicating their DNA, or dividing, or dealing with a viral infection, they show themselves to be capable of end-directed, purposive behavior. This is consistent with their lending themselves so naturally to being informed by the pianist’s intentions. And yet nothing in this picture requires us to imagine our cells thinking and willing as their own act (Principle #6).

The widely embraced “psychosomatic” view of the human being is relevant here. It’s not only that cancers, heart disease, peptic ulcers, and other ailments correlate to one degree or another with stress, personality type, or psychosocial circumstances. The effort to distinguish purely physical from psychosomatic disorders is widely viewed as obsolete, since it is now difficult to find any physical illness whose onset, course, and treatment (think of the placebo effect) are not influenced by interior, or psychic, factors. And many of these factors are a long way from being our own self-aware, conscious acts.

There is another approach to the spectrum of consciousness. Whatever process it was by which the original communal consciousness of our ancestors became individuated — by which it gave way to the modern self-consciousness of the human individual — we can be quite sure it was indeed a process, perhaps a long and slow one. Would anyone want to suggest that there was some boundary in time, clear-cut or otherwise, before which individual authorship of our own inner activity was wholly absent, and after which it did exist? Did the individuated human being, possessed of self-awareness, just appear “out of nowhere”? But if the emergence of selfhood was in fact a gradual evolution, we can most easily imagine it as involving a slowly changing balance between those contents lying in the subconscious (or collective consciousness?) and those accessible to the self-aware individual.

Non-individuated communal consciousness, pretty much by definition, is a consciousness in which one lives without its being one’s individual act, and without its being something one attends to in self-awareness. In other words, seen from the stance of our current self-awareness, non-individuated consciousness would have been more like a form of unconsciousness, or dreaming. And it wouldn’t take an overly vivid imagination to extrapolate such primitive human communal consciousness backward in time, and through presumably radical qualitative changes, until one arrived at still less individuated instances of communal wisdom and intention — a wolf pack, a flock of birds, a school of fish, a beehive, a bacterial biofilm, or the way of being exhibited by any single species.

Thinking and intention in general, especially in their less conscious forms, seem to have an irreducibly collective aspect — or, at least, we can say that thinking and intention, in their immateriality, are not respecters of physical boundaries such as the skin of bodies or the membranes of cells. Just as the intentions of the pianist can orchestrate trillions of cells, each with their own, relatively independent life, so also the intentions making a unity of a wolf pack take appropriate form in each individual member of the pack during the subtle interactions of the hunt. The pack as a whole becomes an effective agent.

We have every reason to believe that the distinctive ways of being we recognize in every population, species, genus, family, and so on, are rooted in the (unconscious) thinking and intention playing through such groups. Whether it is one cell or many cells, a single organism or a community of organisms, wherever we see the distinctive interior character of living performance, we must ask what living agency is giving expression to that character.

We are in this way brought to our ninth principle.

Principle #9: Inner Life

An organism has its own sort of interior dimension. Despite its lack of a human-like self, every organism makes of its life a wise and purposeful narrative reflecting its own, more or less centered needs, interests, and way of being (Principle #2). This implies, among other things, a power of perceiving and of responding intelligently to what is perceived. So, difficult as it may seem in terms of contemporary biological thought, we must consider an organism as having an inner (interior) life, however unself-conscious and different from our conscious human selfhood. It is hardly a truth difficult to observe: interior activities involved in perception, intention, intelligence, and purposiveness play through every organism all the way down to the cellular and molecular level, even if that organism is incapable of self-awareness or reflection upon its own interior contents. We can think of it this way: simpler organisms are more possessed by, than in possession of, the meanings of their lives — more caught up in them than originating them. Every organism, even the simplest one, is informed by the thoughts and intentions that define its character as a member of this or that species.

In cutting down trees and building dams and homes, beavers perform work as elaborately intentional and purposive as one could ever hope to see. Similarly with termites constructing their intricately crafted mounds. But citing such examples almost seems foolish, since all growth, development, and behavior, so far as it is understood biologically rather than physically or chemically, is pursued in a vividly end-directed, or (as I have sometimes called it) telos-realizing, manner.

The bird building a nest is not consciously preparing for its unborn offspring. Yet obviously it is preparing for its unborn offspring, and I do not know how we can avoid accepting both statements. The first step to such acceptance may be to see that the bird is possessed by the wisdom that plays through it, rather than possessing it. It’s as if its life is sustained by the voices of a larger wisdom — a wisdom originating from we know not where and communicated upon the eloquent currents of wind and sunlight, the ruling powers of day and night, and the compelling, because unreflective, meaning of songs, drumbeats, and alarm calls.

But this is hardly acceptable language in biology, and many readers, I suspect, will by now have riveted their attention on what will seem to them a decisive problem. Any sort of perceiving seems to imply a perceiver, and thinking a thinker. If an organism is not perceiving and thinking as an act of its own self, then who is responsible for the activity of perceiving and thinking that I have suggested “plays through” or “informs” the organism from its larger environment?

We will take up the problem while considering a further principle:

Principle #10: Mystery

A healthy science acknowledges the mysteries bordering its own understanding. This is especially true when things we very well know insistently point us to gaps in our understanding. It is not wise to paper over such gaps or try to force our way into a mystery, whether by intellectual violence or by appeal to an authority we ourselves cannot fully underwrite, such as that of a person, philosophy, or religious tradition. But even without fully penetrating the mystery, we may find that the mere knowledge of its existence can have a wholesome and liberating effect on our understanding of nearby things.

I do not have any clear or definitive answer to offer in response to the question, “Who is doing the thinking that plays out in the life of an earthworm or clam?” What I do want to offer is some indication of why I remain comfortable with the perfectly knowable things that (1) tell us this is a necessary question, and (2) give us some reassuring context for it.

There have been suggestions more or less aimed at our question. For example, there is the idea that spiritual beings act as “group souls” for different kinds of animals. But the first rule for our inquiry seems to me simple enough: don’t pretend to know about things of which you are ignorant. And the fact is, I have neither knowledge nor experience of spiritual beings acting as group souls of animals, and I never expect to have any such experience. So I am not particularly interested in even addressing the idea.

And that is just as well, since my main interest at the moment lies in illustrating the value of thinking around a difficult question in order to establish related things that one does know and to see whether this knowledge begins to make the question less mysterious. Then it can feel okay to leave the mystery alone and proceed further with what one actually knows, expecting that every additional insight will make a little clearer what kind of thing might possibly fill any remaining gaps of understanding.

So, anyway, drawing on much of what has already been said, here are a few brief suggestions about how we might move “around” the question, “If an organism is possessed by its thinking rather than being a self capable of making thinking its own act, how might we understand the thinking so clearly manifest in its life?”

This question, by the way, applies not only to animals, but also to humans before they became self-aware individuals — perhaps, for example, those humans living in the primary age of mythic consciousness (as best we can understand their minds based on the much later and no doubt distorted records that have come down to us either through literate cultures or through millennia of oral tradition).

*  First of all, the idea that organisms are informed by a larger wisdom in which they are caught up is hardly a strange one in today’s biology. For nearly a century now biologists have demonstrated the need for some such idea by clinging to the severely problematic notion of the DNA sequence as a unique bearer of information that single-handedly accounts for the development, character, intelligence, and life of the organism. This is an attempt to reconceive the intelligence manifested in the organism as a whole, as if it could be said to have originated in a particular bit of well-structured material substance. Such a view is possible only when one forgets that material structure always arises from thoughtful activity rather than the other way around (Principle #4).

*  More generally, the inner being of organisms is a fact biologists are increasingly finding it hard to escape. The focus by a growing number of researchers on intelligence and consciousness even in single-celled organisms and plants may, we can hope, become more discriminating, but it is not likely to go away, as opposed to becoming more insistent. Countless biologists, including many of the most prominent figures in the field, have conceded that organisms certainly appear to carry out lives full of perceptive, thoughtful, intentional, end-directed, meaningful performances — and yet are not selves in anything like a human sense.

Even a look backward through human history reveals an ever less individuated, ever more collective sort of mental condition (Chapter 23, “The Evolution of Consciousness”). So our question about the nature and source of a more collective and less self-possessed conscousness does not seem to be a crazy one. It seems to demand our consideration, and invites our attention even in our own most ancient literature. We saw in that earlier chapter on the evolution of consciousness how Homer’s characters naturally and unreflectively received some of their own agency from “outside” — at the hands of what they took to be gods and goddesses.

*  We today have no grounds for ignoring the distinction between what is more conscious and what is less conscious, or unconscious (Principle #8). This distinction enables us to begin thinking about the inner lives of beings other than humans. These are beings who have not achieved self-awareness or selfhood, but nevertheless show clearly that their lives are a manifestation of interior processes that cannot be described in physical terms, as opposed to the terms of consciousness, or interior activity. This activity may not be their own in the human sense, but it is a real and ongoing activity nevertheless, for we see the meanings in terms of which it is framed.

*  In the example of the pianist (Principle #8), we noted the continuity between the actively exercised intelligence of a self-conscious human being and the “organic” consciousness (or unconscious powers) at work in her body and cells. Here we have an example where the trillions of relatively independent but non-self-possessed cellular “organisms” constituting the pianist’s body participate harmoniously and collectively, and in a perfectly natural way, in her inner life — in her thoughtful and intentional activity.

Surely there is a great difference between this and the wise intelligence through which the countless bacteria within a biofilm achieve a purposive unity. But there remains the general principle of collective participation in a larger governing agency.

*  We do not consciously experience, at its source, our power to move our own bodies, and we have no idea how this actually happens. So, even in explaining our own conscious performances we must appeal to a working of inner powers other than what we can call “our own”. Whatever active wisdom ultimately thinks and moves in our own cells (and the bodies of other organisms, including single-celled ones) must operate at the roots of material causation and manifestation — as we, in our conscious selves, do not.

So we cannot in any case escape an unanswered question about the interior dimension of our own lives — one closely akin to our question about the earthworm and clam. Where does the inner activity come from through which our intended meanings impart appropriate gestural form to our own limbs?

*  Further, all this gains a richer coloring when we take seriously the fact that the material universe already manifests its own sort of interior dimension (Principle #1). The question “Who acts?” or “Who thinks?” then becomes unavoidable and natural (if also sometimes perplexing) in almost every context of inquiry. Such contexts include inanimate ones where we cannot help recognizing conceptual order and ideal law, yet the origin of this order and law remains more or less completely hidden from our immediate experience.

*  This coloring is deepened when we consider that our own language and thought, and therefore our self-consciousess and selfhood, represent a kind of in-gathering of some part of the world’s thoughtful aspect. In this way, the “speaking” through which the world comes to manifestation achieves a bright, wakeful focus in the human individual (Chapter 23, “The Evolution of Consciousness”).

*  Given the previous point, we may perhaps be forgiven for imagining that the thinking at play in an amoeba derives from some part of that same thought-content of the world that has also come to an individuated self-conscious focus in ourselves. But in the amoeba’s case, this distant “dream” of light and understanding is not remotely near kindling into flame as a vivid self-awareness. As I put it in this footnote, every organism is a local blossoming of thought, even if not yet a thinking self.

In sum: the routine biological fact is that a single, unified, organizing intention can play through numerous physical entities, as it does through all our cells during the highly coordinated activity of development. This fact already covers much of the ground necessary for an answer to our question regarding collective intelligence and intention. One thing, at least, seems clear enough: there is in none of this any solace for materialist-minded biologists who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the interior life that every organism so vividly presents us with. This interior life — and the taboo it lies under — seems to be the root problem for most biologists. Once the taboo is lifted, releasing the protected dogma of materialism into the free air of scientific conversation, the things we have been talking about here will not seem particularly remarkable.

Principle #11: Time

The mystery of time is central to the life of organisms. We clearly have little understanding of the nature of time, and this creates many difficulties in our efforts to comprehend the life of organisms. The study of embryology and development shows every organism to be a unity, not only because every part is informed by the coherent reality of the whole spatial organization, but also because every moment is informed by the pattern and character of the whole life cycle. We seem to have few intellectual resources for reckoning with this fact, which threatens to collapse — or transform — all our thinking about organisms.

That bird I have spoken of, in its nest-building, clearly relates to time differently from us. It lives a “well-planned” life without planning anything, as if its future is somehow integral to its present. We humans occasionally have a bare hint of this overcoming of separate moments of time. We have it, for example, in the experience of “flow” when an athlete, musician, or speaker “goes unconscious”, as we say, and becomes so intensely present in the moment that she seems to transcend it without conscious calculation or planning. Things just happen — and in an unusually effective way.

I believe that many Eastern and other wisdom traditions suggest the possibility of deepening this sort of experience by “entering into the moment” with such intensity that it becomes a kind of “eternal now”, bringing with it an ability to act out of a larger, trans-temporal unity. But whatever we make of all that, for the bird it’s as if it needn’t consciously plan for its offspring because the temporal unity of its life, way of being, and consciousness was never fragmented into separate moments in the first place.

It’s not difficult to see the unreality of the common idea of the present as an infinitesimally thin (and therefore effectively content-free) moving line dividing the past from the future. A comment I’ve seen attributed to the physicist David Bohm, but that I find it impossible to verify, is in any case significant: If the present is the point between a past that no longer exists and a future that doesn’t yet exist, it means that the present is a point separating two unrealities. It’s hard to make much sense of this.

Examination of our experience at any particular moment shows that our life in the present is not balanced precariously on an impossibly thin and insubstantial knife edge, but rather transpires within a broader, well-blended temporal context, with an emphasis (but hardly a sole emphasis) on the recent past and the prospect of the near future. Without such a present context of potentially unlimited breadth backward and forward, we would be “lost in time”, never knowing where we were amid the connections of events. We would never be able to relate meaningfully either to what has happened or to the possibilities for guiding events toward fruitful outcomes.

So, if only to a modest extent compared to the bird, our experience shows us living within a holistic, temporal tableau. Moreover, we can always try to expand the “presence” that holds together the near-past and near-future in our common experience. Perhaps there is nothing in principle to prevent this presence from being expanded more and more, until it embraces the remote past and the distant future. What would it be like to live in such a context? Perhaps very hard to imagine — but also very suggestive and fruitful. After all, we’re not talking about a possibility fundamentally disconnected either from our own current experience or from the life we observe in the bird.

There is another way we can recognize a necessity for overcoming the limitations of our current human experience of time. I have in mind our observation of movement in all its forms. For if we manage to see white clouds drifting across the blue sky, it can only be because we have experienced successive moments as a unity — as a single, unfragmented phenomenon. No collection of instants, each cut off from its “before” and “after”, would give us movement.

The same holds true for embryology, as suggested in the statement of Principle #11 immediately above. To talk about any process of organismal development is to recognize a meaningful whole unfolding in time. We can reflect upon such a whole only because the earlier moments are informed by the same larger meaning (which some might reasonably prefer to call an “archetype”) as the later moments. That is, the same meaning, the same lawfulness, playing through time, lends to the entire developmental process a single identity that we have no difficulty recognizing.

This does not imply a conscious “aiming at” a goal, but only a unity of meaning. Biologists have had great difficulty distinguishing between these two possibilities. The meaning, or archetype, at work in development might be understood as a “muscular organism of thought”, a dynamic, generative idea capable of unfolding in time as the form of material substance.7 We looked quite explicitly at such a generative idea in Ronald Brady’s analysis of plant leaf sequences (Chapter 12).

Strange things happen when we start dividing time into discrete moments. The unity and meaning of things is lost, the seamless fabric of reality is torn.8 And yet we must also recognize that the tear in reality between past and future is where our nascent freedom comes alive. This is where we are given an opportunity to pause, learn from the past, and apply that learning to our shaping of the future. We can insist on our own way, for good or ill and in truth or error, rather than be carried along by unconscious currents of life.

In our present stage of evolution, we have mostly fallen out of the time-unity of that bird’s life. We have little choice but to consciously plan things. And so we assemble the disconnected moments of our lives in a pattern of our own choosing, rather as we spatially assemble the parts of a machine according to our conscious purposes. In both cases, our capacities might seem dreadfully artificial compared to the unmechanical life of a bird living each moment as an expression of the governing unity of its life. This artificiality no doubt helps to explain our ability to play the role of Destroyers on earth.

But there is real hope if only we can, in our freedom, recognize the unity from which we have been torn and the contrived nature of our current creations. Might we, in our freedom, eventually move beyond tinkering with things from without? And might we move beyond our isolation in the current moment, where we must plan our future while cut off from the wider intelligence that has nurtured all life on earth?

Whatever our answer to such questions, we must wonder how biologists can possibly pursue their science without at least acknowledging the doubt thrown over all their thinking by the problematic character of the human experience of time in relation to the living kingdoms as a whole.

Principle #12: A Key

Humans are a key to evolution. Given that our bodies comprise vast and diverse populations of single cells, ranging from amoeba-like macrophages (white blood cells) to the various cells forming hard bone; given that our lives are deeply integrated with symbiotic microbes whose numbers match or exceed the number of our own cells; given the sophisticated developmental processes that carry us, in one lifetime, from a single-celled zygote to an exceedingly complex and balanced adult form; given the unique evolutionary achievement of our nascent selfhood (Principle #6), along with our consequent ability consciously to take hold of the thought-full and intentional interior of the evolutionary process and not merely be possessed by it; and given a human culture upon which all life and evolution on earth now depends, we are, you might say, the alpha and omega of the evolutionary story. What seems incontrovertible is that we represent the highest and furthest reach9 of the thinking — which is to say, the ideas and meaning — taking form in evolving earthly life.

There came a time in evolutionary history when life awakened, became self-aware, gained a voice, and began testifying to its own inner nature. The voice it gained was … human speech. Speech and thought. It is strange and ironic that we should step gingerly around these realities as if they were somehow spooky and unnatural. If they really were spooky and unnatural, it would be particularly remarkable that they are the very capacities through which responsibility for the overall meaning and direction of evolution is passing over into humans.

We are beings in whom evolution has brought to conscious flower some part of the wisdom and agency that was already at work in the simplest one-celled organisms. Can we fully understand any process of becoming except in the light of its fullest development? In any case, it seems elementary that we can comprehend evolution only because we are one of those organisms who, alone upon earth, can see evolution, and who can recognize it as having led naturally and step by step to our seeing.

In reviewing a book about the evolution of minds, Philip Ball, the always stimulating columnist for Nature, wrote that the book’s authors placed an unfortunate emphasis on human minds. “The structure of a progression from the seemingly simple minds of bacteria and amoebas to the complex ones of primates”, he said, “makes narrative sense, but recalls the outdated image of evolution with humans at the apex” (Ball 2022).

But perhaps we can be more interested in the truth than in what seems outdated (or trendy). And the truth is that the idea of residing “at the apex” gains a very different coloring when you consider that (1) we humans alone can empathetically recognize, somewhere within our own lives, the definitive way of being of every other form of life; and (2) we alone, among organisms on earth, are able to give full and explicit voice to the needs and interests of all the others.

Further, it is widely accepted that in our day we are witnessing an evolutionary transition whereby the intentional human mind is becoming the primary agent of evolution. This suggests not only a need to recognize the “apex” nature of our minds, but also to accept the ethical responsibility for all life on earth that this implies. (I doubt whether anyone would attribute ethical responsibility to any creature beside humans.) And, moreover, the transition tells us that the ongoing evolution, or self-transformation, of the human interior (that is, the evolutionary agent’s work upon itself) is now the primary task and achievement of evolution. The burden lying upon us is a heavy one.

If our own interior capacities constitute a growing power consciously to direct evolution toward the future, then we have every reason to suspect that the interior capacities so clearly manifest in every unself-aware organism have likewise given expression — albeit unconscious expression — to the driving agency at work during earlier stages of evolution.

The inner life of nature that comes alive in our self-awareness can hardly be fundamentally different in kind from the wisdom that streams to and through the cells of our bodies (Principle #8). Actually, it’s not clear how we might even speak coherently about the presence of fundamentally disconnected wisdoms (or intelligences, or thought-worlds) at play within the unity of an organism or, for that matter, the unity of the cosmos. There is no idea or thought-complex that is absolutely alien to, or cut off from, any of the meanings finding expression in the entire realm of ideas.10

Yet we still need to hold on to the distinction between thinking as my act, which becomes the basis for my human-like selfhood and consciousness (Principle #6), and the thinking that works on and through me (Principles #7, #8, and #9), but is not “my own”.11 Here it is important to acknowledge the limits of our own powers of selfhood. Our creative thinking has not evolved to the point where it can consciously take hold at the root of material manifestation. Of course, we do move our own bodies. But we don’t know how we do so, or with the aid of what unconscious processes. At the same time, we know of no limit upon our evolutionary potential to continue expanding our sphere of intentional activity by raising unconscious processes to consciousness, where they become our own responsibility.

As far as it goes, our distinctive human consciousness can be seen as the highest achievement of consciousness on earth to date. But it is also, in another sense, a form of interior life not yet equal to the unconscious wisdom possessing the simplest one-celled organism. We humans certainly have room for a further evolution of consciousness!

What is certain is that we have been given the miracle of our own self-aware understanding, through which we can begin to understand other organisms — their inner life, their embodied way of being, and their evolution. And so we have the privilege of discovering ever more fully the connections, not only between our highest functioning and the intelligence of the cells in our bodies, but also between our own minds and the entire, far-from-mindless creative drama of life on this planet.


1. If the essence of science is the resolve to stick close to facts, then an acknowledgment of human agency — and, by extension, the agency of all organisms — is much closer to the spirit of science than the denial of any meaningful agency. That is, it sticks closer to the reality of experience. The old idea, still in force within the reigning scientific imagination, that we need to start our analyses with little (falsely) imagined billiard balls and then build up from there, rather than starting with direct experience, is where the trouble arises. The influential, early twentieth-century French philosopher, Émile Boutroux, expressed the key idea in a 1911 address to the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy in Bologna, Italy, in which he defended the claims of philosophy relative to science:

Can we not, giving up to science everything in the nature of explanation, the reduction of this to that, fix ourselves resolutely on the ground of pure experience, and endeavour to show that, like science herself, philosophy aims at unravelling real facts: facts, moreover, which only differ from those which science studies to the extent that they are more primitive, less mingled with explanatory concepts and hypotheses, more strictly conformable to the idea of fact — of immediately given reality? Philosophy [presents] in a high degree, the essential characteristic of every science: belief in fact, in experience. Philosophy would then be an original and immediate experience, while science would be the systematisation of that common experience which is secondary and indirect (Boutroux 1912, p. 109).

2. On problems with the machine model of organisms, see Chapter 10 (“What Is the Problem of Form?”).

3. Consideration of the distinctive nature of organisms often brings one back to Immanuel Kant and his Critique of Judgment, written toward the end of the eighteenth century. In this work Kant spoke of organisms as “natural purposes”, because they are “organized and self-organizing” beings. An organism’s parts, he observed, “so combine in the unity of a whole that they are reciprocally cause and effect of each other’s form” — that is, an organism’s parts (or organs) are always “reciprocally producing each other”, and doing so within the dynamic unity of a whole (Kant 2000, II.1.65).

Kant, as a child of the Enlightenment, had a hard time taking his own words about natural purposes in a straightforward manner, and his peculiar way of approaching the entire subject lent support to the ambiguous modern habit among biologists of thinking that organisms somehow behave only as if they were purposive beings. But it has never been particularly clear how organisms in general — apart from human beings in their more deceitful mode — can behave as if they had certain capacities without actually having those capacities.

4. The twentieth-century American philosopher, Susanne Langer, clearly grasped the essence of the matter in her own discussion of the heart’s development and functioning. The heart, she said,

begins to form early in embryonic life, apparently serving no purpose until the incipient vascular system is ready to act with it. In the earliest phases, however, a characteristic function of periodic contraction, the so-called ‘pulse,’ appears in many evolving tissues, some of which will cease to exhibit it later, while others will join the cardiac development, so their rhythms will become entrained by larger ones and finally by the [entire] circulatory pulse.

This preliminary beating, which comes early in the heart’s formation, “illustrates a basic characteristic of organic function, namely, that its integated activities are often detectable before their special mechanisms have even begun to appear”. This is a powerful reminder that, in an organism’s development, the part “descends from”, or is differentiated within, its larger context, which is ultimately the whole organism. Speaking further of the heart’s development, Langer wrote:

Nothing could demonstrate more aptly the primacy of acts in biological existence, and their gradual concentration in those regions of an organism where they can expand, dominate and integrate most fully. This order of development, from differentiating function to specialized location (tissue determination) and finally specialized form (cell determination), has been noted many times by embryologists. [American zoologist] Charles Manning Child remarked, fifty years ago, that “differences in reaction or in capacity to react very commonly exist in different parts even before visible differentiation occurs, or in cases where it never occurs.”

Langer reinforces these remarks by citing the embryologist and author of Form and Causality in Early Development, Albert M. Dalcq, to the effect that, to begin with, the unity of the nervous system “is not so much spatial as functional … The nervous system does not really originate from a unique and continuous layer of cells.” And the American developmental biologist, Clifford Grobstein, whose life spanned much of the twentieth century, concluded from his experimental studies of development in young embryos that “when nervous tissue ‘self-differentiates’ … the cells themselves have not yet acquired fixity of type as nerve cells. … some stabilization at the tissue level seems to precede stabilization at the cell level” (Langer 1967, pp. 200, 401-2).

For a more recent discussion of the heart, see the impressive evidences and analysis in Branko Furst’s technical treatise on The Heart and Circulation: An Integrative Model (Furst 2020).

5. We might think of this awareness — say, in a bison or alligator — as less a matter of clear concepts than of significant, directive (and sometimes compelling) feeling and image. But such a “dream life” can presumably vary without limit in vividness and distinctness, and we are hardly in a position to imagine its reality in organisms other than ourselves.

6. The University of Chicago legal scholar and philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, has written a stimulating piece in which she points to the various ways in which we discover intelligence, thoughtfulness, feeling, culture, and learning in other organisms. She recognizes that all organisms, including humans, need to be understood in the terms of their own lives, their own sort of striving and flourishing. But in her valuable effort to deny the wrong sort of distinctiveness to humans, she unnecessarily denies what does set us apart — which happens to be the aspect of our being that enables us to understand and protect other species.

Nussbaum refers to “the false lure of metacognition: the idea that reflexive self-awareness is the be-all and end-all of intelligence, and that we humans are unique in possessing it”. She says, in this regard, that “any creature who is capable of deceiving another creature is capable of metacognition, since to deceive you must be able to think about the mental state of another. Dogs, squirrels, many birds, and no doubt a long list of other animals have this ability, which is crucial to survival when you have to hide your food where your competitors won’t find it” (Nussbaum 2022).

But why must we take a dog to be “thinking about” the mental states of other animals in anything like the way we would do such thinking? This is a good place to notice how easy it is to ignore the difference between being a vehicle for the manifestation of thoughtful behavior, and being in the fullest sense the author of one’s own thinking.

I suspect that just about any practical sort of thinking humans engage in is, in one way or another, reflected in other animals. This is true even of the research about human infant intelligence. We can certainly observe a remarkable intelligence in infants — maybe in some ways a much higher intelligence than anything an adult can consciously lay claim to. (We could make the same comparison between an animal’s intelligence and our own.) But this intelligence is not yet the child’s own. It is more like the intelligence of its material and immaterial surroundings — or perhaps we should say, the “trailing clouds of glory” — from which the child progressively draws down its own conscious faculties. (See Chapter 23 on the evolution of consciousness.)

The fact that your dog engages in deceitful activity does not mean it could say to itself in its own dog language, “I think I will pull off a trick”. In fact, most would agree that it never even says “I” — although it certainly possesses an effective awareness of itself as distinct from other dogs. Just as it most definitely “knows” it cannot jump over a house, it also “knows” that there are other dogs that are not itself. But this does not amount to anything like the potentials of human self-awareness. Your dog might smell a truth that you would summarize as “Oh, that’s the neighbor’s Rex”. Its knowing this reflects a kind of thought or intelligence at work. But the dog does not have anything very like your sort of thought, “Oh, that’s the neighbor’s Rex”.

I will have more to say about all this in discussing the following principles. But the crucial thing now is to hold in mind the distinction between the wisdom that plays through us, and the thinking that represents our highest being and is our own act, however infrequently we resort to it.

7. The common conviction among biologists that a term such as “archetype” is somehow mystical or tinged with the occult seems to result from forgetting that all scientific understanding takes the form of ideas. When one forgets this, then any explicit mention of ideas as playing a causal role in nature makes one think that some sort of occult force is being invoked. But in fact the “archetypal” nature of an organism is no more occult or mystical than the laws of physics, even if organic and inorganic ideas both require a method of recognition appropriate to their character.

8. Our fragmented notions of time, whereby each discrete moment of time is thought to contain the cause of what happens in the following moment, may be a serious obstacle to finding our way to holistic clarity regarding matters of causation. Barfield (1963, p. 175) once tried to provoke reflection about the puzzle of time and causation by means of a fictional dialogue between a school teacher (‘A’ in the following) and a particularly open-minded physicist (‘B’):

A:  Does an effect follow its cause in time, or is it simultaneous with it?

B:  It follows; otherwise it wouldn’t be an effect.

A:  I know it wouldn’t. Is time infinitely divisible?

B:  We must assume so.

A:  I know we must. Then what happens in the instant of time that elapses between cause and effect? Alternatively, if we say they are simultaneous, how do we distinguish an effect from a cause?

B:  Aha!

The usual idea of scientific explanation by means of an appeal to causes and their effects has long been recognized as problematic by philosophers of science. And yet simplistic causal notions, not only within the general public but also among scientists, seem extremely resistant to change in any fundamental way.

9. There is something that grates on many people in words such as “highest” and “furthest” when applied to ourselves as humans. And it is indeed hard to be insensitive to the potential for an unseemly arrogance in these words. Yet we can also wonder whether some of the irritation the words arouse is driven, at least in part, by an uneasiness in the face of the burden of responsibility they would impose on us — responsibility, in the first place, for all our fellow beings on this planet who do not possess their own thinking, and whose welfare therefore hinges on our thinking. In any case, it is hard to bear well a high responsibility without first recognizing and accepting just how high it is.

10. Even thoughts that we think of as “absolute opposites” cannot be truly inharmonious or disconnected from each other, as shown by the fact that we routinely bring them into perfectly satisfactory relationship by means of unifying concepts such as opposites or contraries.

One way to approach the unity and interconnectedness of language is to consider the interplay between our hearing of particular words as we listen to speech, and our progressive apprehension of the overall meaning that more and more shines through those words, modifies their identity, and subordinates them to the developing direction of thought. Without the plasticity of words — without the “willingness” of every word to be brought into relation to any other word — coherent speech would be impossible. We could not understand speech without hearing individual words, but neither could we understand the individual words in their current meaning without grasping the overall import of what is being said — an import capable of informing all the words and uniting them in the larger meaning (Bortoft 2012).

The realm of language and thought is remarkably life-like. In any profound speech or text the words (or thoughts) exist in complex, organic, dynamic, and meaningful relations with each other. All possible words (or thoughts) are as if straining in this way toward living interaction with any and all other possible words or thoughts. It requires only a spark of imagination on our part for the relations between particular words to catch fire and throw unaccustomed light in new directions (Barfield 1973).

11. The thinking that is not “my own”, one might be tempted to say, illumines my cells “from outside”. This, however, suggests something machine-like, as if the thinking were coming to bear on cells like the thought of an external designer. But in fact it is a wisdom that expresses itself, as I have already suggested, at the very root of the organism’s material manifestation. It works immanently within, rather than externally upon, the organism. It constitutes every organism as a local blossoming of thought, even if not yet a thinking self.

Tags: epistemology; evolution/as mindless process; explanation; inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)


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Steve Talbott :: Some Principles of Biological Understanding