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Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — An Overview
This article is a preliminary abstract, or summary, of some parts of a
book-in-progress tentatively entitled, “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be —
And the Living Narratives That Tell Its Story”. See also the
Biology Worthy of Life
Project. Copyright 2018-2019
The Nature Institute.
All rights reserved. Date of last revision: April 25, 2019.
Please Note: This article
was previously published under the title, “Whole Organisms and Their
Evolutionary Intentions — An Overview”.
Every organism is continually dying in order to live. Breaking-down
activities are prerequisites for building up. Complex molecules are
synthesized, only to be degraded later, with their constituents recycled
or excreted. In multicellular organisms such as vertebrates, many cells
must die so that others may divide, differentiate, and proliferate. Many
cancers reflect a failure to counterbalance proliferation with properly
directed death processes.
You and I have distinct fingers and toes thanks to massive cell death
during development. The early embryo’s paddle-like hands give way to the
more mature form as cells die and the spaces between our digits are
“hollowed out”. In general, our various organs are sculpted through cell
death as well as cell growth and multiplication. During development the
body produces far more neurons than the adult will possess, and an
estimated ninety-five percent of the cell population of the thymus gland
dies off by the time the mature gland is
Despite all this life and death, I doubt whether anyone would be tempted
to describe the embryo’s cells as “red in tooth and claw”. Nor do I think
anyone would appeal to “survival of the fittest” or natural selection as a
fundamental principle governing what goes on during normal development.
The life and death of cells appears to be governed, rather, by the
developing form of the whole in which they participate.
But this has been a truth hard for biologists to assimilate, since it has
no explanation in the usual causal sense. One way to register the problem
is to ask yourself what you would think if I suggested that organisms in
populations thrive or die off in a manner governed by the
evolutionary outcome toward which they are headed — that the pattern of
thriving and dying off becomes what it is, in some sense, because
of that outcome. It is not a thought any evolutionist is likely to
tolerate. But perhaps the occasional intrepid researcher will be moved to
inquire: “Why not?” After all, we can also ask about the cells populating
our bodies: do they thrive or die off in a manner governed by the
forthcoming adult form? And here the answer appears to be a self-evident
Perhaps, when we have come to accept what we see so clearly in individual
development, we will find ourselves asking the “impossible” question about
evolutionary development: Does natural selection really drive evolution,
or is it rather that the evolving form of a species or population drives
what we think of as natural selection? Are some members of an evolving
species — just as with the cells of an embryo’s hands — bearers of the
future, while other members, no longer being “fit” for the developing form
of the species, die out?
What makes this idea seem outrageous is the requirement that inheritances,
matings, interactions with predators, and various other factors in a
population should somehow be coordinated and constrained along a coherent
path of change. Unthinkable? But the problem remains: Why — when we see
a no less dramatic, life-and-death, future-oriented coordination and
constraint occurring within the populations of cells in your and my
developing bodies — do we not regard our own development as equally
Once we are willing to consider them, “unthinkable” ideas may sometimes
reveal profound truths. My thesis will be that when we look at how
organisms realize their distinctive forms and ways of life — when we look
at all the features of biological activity in general, without ignoring
the inconvenient ones — we can recognize, in the facts we already have,
that evolution has a living, well-organized, well-coordinated,
well-directed character analogous to that of individual development. The
conclusion isn’t even speculative. It requires no new or unexpected
discoveries. It is simply what we find ourselves looking at, if we have
not turned our eyes away.
This is not to say that the direction of evolution is owing either to an
external guiding power, such as a breeder, or to a conscious “aiming” or
planning. Rather, the evolutionary narrative arises from the agency and
developmental powers of organisms and communities of organisms, as they
express their own character and realize their potentials in the presence
of the prevailing environmental challenges and opportunities.
Before we get into it, however, it would be good to have in our minds a
picture drawn from life. I have chosen a 1927 description by the British
naturalist and ornithologist, Edward Max
A scene from life
On the nesting cycle of the chaffinch
“The male must leave the flock, if he has belonged to one, and establish
himself in a territory which may at the time be incapable of sustaining
him alone, but must later in the season supply a satisfactory food-supply
for himself, his mate and family, and for as many birds of other species
as overlap his sphere of influence. He must then sing loudly and
incessantly for several months, since, however soon he secures a mate,
trespassers must be warned off the territory, or, if they ignore his
warning, driven out.
“His mate must help with the defence of the territory when she is needed;
pairing must be accomplished; a suitable site must be found for the nest;
materials must be collected and put together securely enough to hold five
bulky young birds; eggs must be laid in the nest and continuously brooded
for a fortnight till they hatch, often in very adverse weather; the young
are at first so delicate that they have to be brooded and encouraged to
sleep a great part of the time, yet they must have their own weight of
food in a day, and in proportion as the need of brooding them decreases,
their appetites grow, until in the end the parents are feeding four or
five helpless birds equal to themselves in size and appetite but incapable
of digesting nearly such a wide diet.
“Enemies must be watched for and the nest defended and kept clean. When
the young scatter, often before they can fly properly, they need even
greater vigilance, but within a few days of the fledging of the first
brood a second nest will (in many cases) be ready and the process in full
swing over again. All this has to be done in face of great practical
difficulties by two creatures, with little strength and not much
intelligence, both of whom may have been hatched only the season before.”
That phrase, “and not much intelligence”, is perhaps ill-advised. It may
be that in some sense we can say that this bird, typically weighing less
than one ounce (18 – 29 grams), doesn’t possess a great deal of
intelligence. But, at the same time, who will deny the stunning wisdom
playing through all the multi-faceted performances and
accomplishments — the physiology, development, behavior, and entire life
story — of this feathery little creature? Perhaps we need to distinguish
between the intelligence an organism possesses, and that by which it is
possessed — between the intelligence it consciously exercises (if any),
and that which runs deeper than our own reflective awareness. Or again:
between the intelligence employing a brain, and the still more profound
intelligence capable of forming that brain.
Every organism composes its life as
a purposive and living narrative
Lungs develop in the human embryo in order to breathe air that is not yet
there, just as eyes develop before there is light to see. Birds build
nests as a preparation for egg laying, and then raise chicks toward
maturity. Monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles southward from
Canada in order to overwinter in Mexico. Amoebas move toward food
particles as a preparation for engulfing and digesting them. Future
requirements and possibilities somehow play into the present as tasks are
accomplished, efforts rewarded, needs fulfilled, and interests pursued,
from feeding and mating to metabolism and DNA replication.
We know that in all living activity earlier performances are coordinated
in such a way as to prepare for later ones. And the continual adjustments
in response to disturbances along the way tell us that this intricate
coordination is not accidental, but rather belongs to a consistent pattern
through which the meaning of the activity comes to successful expression.
That is, the consistency of pattern lies, not in any necessity implied at
the outset by prearranged physical relationships, but in the significant
ends or purposes being realized. Nothing in the the detailed physical
conditions of a fertilized egg cell — or of any later stage of growth —
dictates that a given liver cell at time A must divide and
differentiate so as to produce a particular new kind of cell that should
migrate to position X in response to a lesion inflicted by a parasite. It
happens, rather, because of the need for healing and the natural movement
Material resources produced by an organism’s activity in the past may
provide both necessary and constraining conditions under which it will
work in the future. But the living activity itself is not driven
from the past in this way. It is purposive — or, more broadly, is a
working out of the organism’s way of being, of the meanings at play in its
life. And therefore the activity always has something of an end-directed
or future-oriented character. The elaboration of meanings in time, like
any story, always holds together as a forward movement.
Every child can grasp it: the meaning of living activity gives
narrative significance to — and, at times, in a rough sort of way, may
predict — a sequence of events. It is what makes sense (including
scientific sense) of whatever is happening. That’s why we always think of
our pets as doing something, even if what they are doing is
resting. There is good evidence that all biologists “get” this
intuitively. But the sense-making, teleological aspect of biological
activity is not thought to have a respectable place alongside other modes
of scientific explanation.
There are, however, no obstacles to characterizing this central aspect of
biology once we are willing to look at it. In 1929 the British
physiologist and psychologist, William McDougall, who had earlier
succeeded to William James’ chair at Harvard, summarized certain typical
features of purposive
He was writing specifically about human behavior, but we can recognize
these features in all biological activity, conscious or otherwise:
• Goal-directed activity is adaptable to one degree or
another. If one strategy fails, the organism may vary it or switch to a
• Goal-directed activity tends to be persistent and may be
repeatedly renewed even after being effectively blocked for a time.
• As soon as the goal is reached, that particular goal-directed
We do not find the same combination of features in the inanimate world.
Yet anyone with a pet dog or cat takes them for granted, with paradigmatic
examples being the quest for food and the processes of
If we cannot make sense of something an animal is doing, our first
question is likely to be, “Why is it doing that?” — with what
purpose? or toward what end? — which is not something we ask of
rocks and waterfalls. In our interactions with other creatures we
encounter one meaningful life story after another, through which we come
to recognize the specific ways of being, the needs, the interests — the
meaningful worlds of experience — that all this adaptable and persistent,
future-oriented coordination is giving expression to.
Molecules under discipline.
Something similar becomes evident even at the molecular level, as the
distinguished, twentieth-century cell biologist and National Medal of
Science recipient, Paul Weiss, showed us. He spoke of
“micro-indeterminacy” and “macro-determinacy”. That is, in the “heaving
and churning” cell little if anything is predictable according to a
machine-like logic. “The detailed states and pathways of the components
not only are so erratic as to defy definition, but, even if a Laplacean
could trace them, would prove to be so unique and nonrecurrent that they
would be devoid of scientific
— devoid of interest, that is, for anyone who wants the microscopic
details to control or explain the meaningful behavior of the whole.
In other words, the cell as a whole exhibits its own specific character
and regularity despite the virtually infinite degrees of freedom
collectively possessed by its molecular constituents within their watery
milieu. The detailed activity, with all its variability and lack of rigid
constraint, turns out to be disciplined in a well-directed way toward
fulfilling the needs of the cell. The details somehow participate in and
reflect their larger context, although not because they are driven to that
participation by physical necessity.
And the same principle holds when we shift levels and look at whole cells
in relation to still higher states of organization. For example, if the
experimentalist removes a limb bud from an embryonic amphibian, mixes up
the entire cluster of cells, and then restores the now disordered group of
cells to its proper context in the embryo, a normal limb will still
develop. Extreme positional freedom among those cells is compatible with
the ultimately reliable formation of the limb as a whole. In organisms
more generally, an astonishing degree of cell-to-cell variation gives way
to remarkably coherent results at the level of tissues and organs.
Weiss summarizes the matter this way:
A unit retains its unity by virtue of the power of subordination which it
exerts upon its constituent elements in such a manner that their
individual activities, instead of being free and unrelated, will be
restrained and directed toward a combined unitary
This is as much as to say: the character of a living context shapes and
informs its parts, and cannot be understood as merely a deterministic
result of those parts. In their own right, the laws governing the parts
simply are not capable of expressing, moment by moment, the meaning of the
activity in which the parts are caught up.
And so, while no one talks in a natural way about animal behavior
without alluding to its meaning and purpose, the more impressive fact may
be that no one can avoid talking in the same way about living activity at
the molecular level. “Impressive”, I say, because this was the level at
which the ultimate reality of “blind mechanism” was supposed to be
established. Yet, despite that expectation — and seemingly without even
noticing the irony — molecular biologists have routinely defined their
subdisciplines and research projects in the only way possible: by
referring to the meaning and end-directed character of the activity they
are investigating. How does the cell accomplish the task of DNA
replication, or the repair of DNA lesions? How does a cell divide?
How does it produce proteins? How does it derive energy for its actions
through metabolism? And how does it regulate all these activities in
relation to the needs of the whole cell and organism?
Here’s just one example. A current challenge embraced by molecular
biologists is to understand how hundreds of diverse and diffusible
molecules in a watery medium come together and coordinate their
interactions in order to carry out the intricate, extended narrative of
RNA splicing. In this process they must remove sections of a
complex RNA molecule and “stitch” the remaining pieces together in the
extremely precise manner required to obtain a functional result. It must
all be accomplished in just the right way to yield (through additional,
equally elaborate processes) the exact form of the specific protein
required right now, in this cell, as opposed to the somewhat different
form that may be required later or in a different cell.
There you see Weiss’ principles of micro-indeterminacy and
macro-determinacy on vivid display. If we had to explain RNA splicing
merely by summing up the individual, law-like behaviors of those hundreds
of molecules, with all their degrees of freedom, we would know beyond any
doubt: the exponentially multiplying random molecular deviations from the
elaborate and drawn-out task at hand would quickly reduce the entire
process to a chaotic mess so far as that task was concerned. This is
simple physics and chemistry, which were not “made” to sustain meaningful
No activity is living except by virtue of its task-oriented,
end-directed, context-dependent, and meaningful character. Without this,
we have physics and chemistry, but not biology. And when we face up to
this defining nature of living activity, we can no longer entertain an
evolutionary theory that ignores the organism’s agency — an agency whose
whole nature is to transform its present existence directionally toward
the fulfillment of future potentials.
Agency is not mechanism.
In citing the organizing, or coordinating, power evident in all biology, I
have just now referred to the organism’s agency. Alternatively, I
could have spoken of the intentional (or narrative) context of its
life. The idea is merely to provide, one way or another, a name for what
we hope to understand more fully. But meanwhile, we have no reason to
ignore what we do know — what all our observation shows us — when
we turn to other topics such as evolution.
Surely we should offer some sort of name — choose your own, if you
wish — for whatever accounts for the organizing of reliable developmental
and behavioral narratives. To leave something unnamed is to exclude it
from science. And the coordinated, end-directed activity being excluded
in this case is not only evident from observation; and it not only poses
what seems a significant puzzle (which ought to interest every
scientifically minded observer); it also appears on its face to be
definitive of living things.
We know enough, however, to reject some explanations for the organism’s
agency. There can be no doubt — despite a certain common abuse of
language — that organisms are not machines, and they are not executing
some kind of program. Unlike machines, organisms grow and continually
transform and even heal their own parts. It is hard to see how such parts
could “mechanistically” explain their own creation.
The functioning of a machine results from the way the assembly of its
preexisting parts was intentionally coordinated by an outside agent in
the past. By contrast, the performance of an organism is at every
moment an internal coordinating activity through which the
ever-changing and maturing parts must be continuously integrated and
re-integrated into the developing whole. If the organism were a
machine, it would be a different machine at every point in its development
— different not merely in the way a computer program’s activity differs
from moment to moment, but also different (to use a remarkably inapt
expression) in its “hardware”, just as a butterfly differs from its
Moreover, at the sub-cellular level we see molecules moving and
interacting within a fluid medium in order to carry out carefully
sequenced narratives — tasks so complex that they challenge our most
sophisticated abilities to unravel and articulate their endless nuances.
These narrative achievements, which might seem to require a remarkable and
practiced synchronization of activities, are accomplished, as we saw a
moment ago, despite the fact that the innumerable molecules involved
possess many degrees of freedom as they diffuse through the cell’s plasm.
And also despite the fact that the context-sensitive task at hand is never
exactly the same in any two of the trillions of cells in our bodies, or at
any two moments of a several-decades-long life. The rigidly defined and
consistent structural constraints necessary for rendering the programmed
operation of a computer reliable and mechanistic are altogether
The “mechanistic” causes to which biologists so often appeal are caught
up in the highly coordinated activity of an organism’s development.
They do not explain their own coordination or their
end-directedness. This truth, which we will try to keep in view as we
move along, places a huge question mark alongside just about the entirety
of current evolutionary theory. We can hardly help doubting a theory that
claims to explain changes in organisms over time while ignoring the
fundamental fact that biological processes in the present are always in
some sense — and in a meaningful (“thoughtful”), non-machine-like manner —
orienting themselves toward a not-yet-realized future.
(For a much more expansive assessment of the machine-model of organisms,
“Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism”,
and also the various articles listed under the heading,
for the Biology Worthy of Life project. And for an evaluation of the
common argument that evolution somehow explains the organism’s
“Evolution and the Purposes of Life”.)
What would an evolutionary
transformation of developmental
processes look like?
No one will dispute that a wolf’s development, proceeding from a
fertilized egg cell through embryonic and fetal stages to the pup’s birth,
and then on through maturation to adulthood, is highly directional. Yes,
it’s a path full of unpredictable variation, never exactly repeated in
different wolves. But this makes it all the more impressive that the
entire trajectory remains persistently wolf-like despite all the
adjustments to disturbances and despite all the adaptations to changing
conditions. The individual wolf, embedded within its physical and social
environment, exhibits its own sort of organizing power, and is capable of
negotiating its own, wolf-like path through the exigencies of life.
The ten-day-old heart of the embryonic wolf differs dramatically from the
six-week-old heart, which in turn differs from the heart immediately
following birth, and this again differs from the heart of the mature wolf.
Every biologist will expect the transformations from one stage to another
to show all the features of organic activity. The development, persistent
and adaptive, will proceed as an intentional narrative, with earlier
conditions responded to in such a way as to ensure a workable path toward
later achievements. It is just a fact (as I tried to illustrate in the
preceding section) that all living activity has this future-oriented
I doubt whether anyone would want to suggest that there are ways to get
from the ten-day-old heart to the mature heart via any pathway not
intentionally narrated in the sense of all development.
But suppose we look at an evolutionary sequence, such as the classic
textbook lineage of the horse. How might we imagine that a heart,
structured that way fifty million years ago in the dog-sized horse
ancestor, Eohippus, becomes this heart, structured this way
in the Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah? Since every difference in
structure must be reflected in how the one organ relates to the rest of
the animal — and since all the other parts are also evolving — the
question is how this highly integrated, whole-organism transformation
could possibly take place.
Can we realistically picture these mutually adjusting metamorphoses being
achieved by processes fundamentally less seamless and integral, or less
consistent with the general character of all living activity, than the
developmental transformations bridging the differences between, say, a
two-month- and five-month-old horse embryo?
It is, after all, the whole nature of a developmental narrative to proceed
from here to there — to wisely improvise now in the face of
unpredictable circumstances, doing so in just the way required for
reaching a future state. We would need a powerful and unexpected
set of arguments to show that nature, employing any conceivable set of
historical processes, could effectively transform such a developmental
narrative other than by fully entering into the natural terms of it. We
should never forget (although a great deal of evolutionary theory
encourages the forgetting): the only biological transformation that
ever contributes to evolutionary change is that which occurs within the
lives and developmental life cycles of specific organisms.
It is true that evolution, by definition, concerns possibilities of change
that go beyond the relatively well-defined stages of any particular
organism’s development. And it is true, as we will see later, that
evolution has a much broader and more collective intentional focus than we
find in individual development. But, as we will also see, this does not
allow us to assume an explanatory stance that ignores the nature of
The lessons of development.
Consider the relatively few cell types in a very young human embryo.
These proceed along pathways of differentiation leading eventually to the
hundreds of distinct cell types in our mature bodies, from retinal cells
to those of heart muscle, from liver to bone, from brain to pancreas. The
differences between these cell types are, in their own way, as great as
the differences between any two kinds of organism.
Yet cellular transformations do not in general arise from gene mutations.
They reflect, among other things, the extraordinarily diverse ways an
animal can employ the single genome it was born
And neither do the transformations result from competition for survival
between cells of differing fitness. As noted in the introduction, what
happens is governed, rather, by the developing form of the organism as a
Evolution: Three Classic Premises
By refusing to acknowledge the living and organizing capacities of
organisms, biologists were left with a problem: how to contrive a theory
of evolutionary transformation in the absence of any transforming agency.
The theory they came up with required a special — one could almost say
“magical” — understanding of genes and fitness, each figuring in a
• Genocentrism. Controlling and shaping genes were the
decisively important bearers of heredity, the innate causes of traits, and
also the substrate for mutational change and evolutionary variation. At
the heart of evolutionary theory, they served as proxies for organisms and
their living activity. And so the organism’s agency as a
self-transforming power was, in effect, reassigned to a single type of
molecule, DNA — which, as various biologists have periodically pointed
out, is, by itself, one of the most inert molecules in our
• Fitness. Some organisms, by virtue of the fitness of
their inherited genes, were judged to be more capable than others of
surviving and reproducing in their prevailing environment. The resulting
differential survival of organisms over time altered the distribution of
genes (and gene-combinations) within a population. And because genes
stood as proxies for organisms, the evolution of organisms came to be
defined by many as “the changing distribution of genes in a population”.
This was the key to natural selection, or “survival of the fittest”, as
articulated within the Modern Synthesis that brought together Darwin and
Mendelian genetics. The principle of selection, then — despite making no
reference to any power of coherent transformation in the organism — became
the primary agent through which new kinds of organism evolved from
These two premises brought along with them a third:
• Stability. Beneficial, heritable mutations, if they are to
contribute to evolution, must be capable of passing down through many
generations unaltered. If they were not stable — if they were too quickly
lost due to further change — then the processes by which patterns of life
and death might spread selected mutations through a population, raising
that population’s overall fitness, would not have time to play out. The
gene, whether mutated or otherwise, is, we have been told, the
overwhelmingly most important thing we know possessing the required
The picture during development, then — and keep in mind that all
evolutionary change must be realized in development — suggests truths
starkly at odds with the first two premises mentioned in Box 1 at right.
That is, it leads us to wonder why anyone would insist on the necessary
role of either gene mutations or fitness differences in producing organic
change worthy of an evolving species. (On the idea of fitness, see the
“Fitness differences are not the key to significant evolutionary change”,
Further, the remaining premise — the necessity for stable mutations in
order for evolution to occur — also begins to look doubtful. The
metamorphosis and diversification of cells teaches us that
stability of inherited features is a peculiar criterion for
organic change. In the differentiating cell lineage of a
developing organism, we see one cell generation succeeding another, not by
preserving crucial change, but by compounding it — changing again
what has just been changed.
In other words, many of these changes are not heritable over any large
number of cellular generations — and had better not be, precisely because
the cell lineage is “on the way to somewhere”, proceeding directionally
along a pathway of change. This shows how differently we must regard
evolutionary processes as soon as we are willing to acknowledge the
organism’s agency. The only transformative biological activity we
ever witness is thoroughly caught up in this agency.
Yet, as a result of their powerful theoretical bias against the idea of
agency, theorists thinking about inheritance and evolution have long
avoided taking up the tools necessary to investigate whole-cell
inheritance, as opposed to genetic
That is, they have not aimed to discover, in an evolutionary context,
anything like the processes whereby change in differentiating cells is
compounded upon change — or, more generally, the processes whereby
organisms, living in time, routinely and in all their activity, are always
transforming themselves toward the future.
The whole organism and its
inheritance. Given that many animal bodies consist of hundreds of
distinct cell types as different from one another as a liver cell and a
retinal cell, any talk about the phenotype of such animals seems a
bit odd. This in turn suggests that overly rigid references to the
genotype are peculiar as well. It is obvious enough that the organism
makes a very different thing of the “same” cellular DNA in different
cells. What is most striking here is not some fixed genetic resource, but
rather the organism’s evident power of creative organization and
coordination. Through this power – and not through any creative capacity
inherent in the bits of stuff we call “genes” — the infinitely complex
flows of activity in each cell shape themselves, and are shaped, to a
particular, specialized outcome in each type of cell.
And what other than this same power of the living organism as a whole
coordinates all those unique cells, integrating them into the effective
unity of an American Pharoah? Still further, we can ask: How many
features of the adult horse are already present in its single-celled
origin? Above the molecular level, virtually none. Where, then, do we
find the power not only to sustain the organic unity of the whole at any
particular moment, but also to bring about the global transformations
through which one kind of wholeness passes successfully, from day to day,
week to week, and year to year, into a different sort of wholeness, from
the earliest embryonic stages to the later adult stages, and all the way
Anyone tempted to scorn references to the “power of a living whole” might
want to pause a moment and reflect upon the directions in which
contemporary biologists are being driven. It is no accident that
references to the “context-dependence” of specific molecular interactions
have now become almost clichés. Or that the focus of molecular biological
research has been shifting inexorably from individual “controlling” causes
to flexible and robust networks that in turn are somehow made to fulfill
the specific requirements of their larger context. Or that “systems
biology”, for all its current mechanistic distortions, has become a major
discipline in its own right.
What is really meant by “the system”, or “the context”, if such terms do
not signal a nascent (if still largely repressed) recognition that the
usual bottom-up, causal style of explanation doesn’t yet bring us to an
understanding of distinctively biological narratives?
These more recent currents within mainstream biology may have failed so
far to overcome the longstanding habit of ignoring the living being in
favor of strictly physical and chemical processes. But they do indicate
the direction in which the biology of the future seems destined to move.
The picture we have, then, is one of an organism that can create radically
different phenotypes within its own body. These cellular phenotypes are
directionally achieved along differentiating cell lineages — and, at a
more complex level, we can say something similar about tissue and organ
phenotypes. Further, all these divergent types are stably and integrally
bound together into the coherent life of one particular creature. And,
finally, this creature as a whole proceeds through continual
transformation from the earliest embryo onward — all while managing to
preserve the unique qualitative substance and character of its kind as it
persists and adapts through all the vicissitudes of its existence.
This description belongs to what it means to be a living thing. We are
looking at clearly directed activity whose fundamental character,
without which it would not be living, enables it to embody a creative
relation between past, present, and future, even as it declares itself a
master generator of diverse phenotypes, modified as necessary in response
to environmental conditions. That all this creative functioning of the
organism — exactly the sort of functioning that, on the face of it, seems
to bear directly on evolution — should nevertheless be declared more or
less irrelevant to the problem of species transformation looks stunningly
Of all the cellular phenotypes, it would be hard to find one whose
differentiation and specialization is more distinctive or more expertly
and intricately contrived than the germ cells of sexually reproducing
organisms. We can hardly help acknowledging that parental organisms, in
carrying out meiosis, genetic recombination, and mating, play a massive
role, not only in preserving the genome, but also in transforming it.
Deeply embedded in time and always facing the future, every sexually
reproducing animal expresses its future orientation most immediately and
vividly in the gametes whose full “self-realization” belongs to the next
The entire drama of the germline has been rapidly revealing itself in
recent years as a remarkable focus of the organism’s creative “attention”.
Are we to believe, then, that this is the one cell lineage in which the
organism’s normal, future-oriented activity goes silent? Or that, with
all the organism’s expertise at producing, adapting, and stably
maintaining diverse phenotypes even without changes in DNA sequence, it
“refuses” to employ this expertise when it comes to the preparation of
inheritances? Or that the power with which the organism conforms all its
cells, tissues, and organs to a unified and integral whole adapted as far
as possible to current conditions is a power lost to it in the management
of its own germline?
We need to look. No one should
think that contemporary biologists have actually spent time looking
for anything resembling directed, whole-cell and whole-organism
inheritance. Even to suggest the need for it is likely to produce a
charge of obscurantism: “How”, the question comes, “can we look at wholes,
taking in everything at once?” Yes, we may indeed complain of the
fact that life is so integral and complicated — so life-like. But,
as I have just pointed out, the need to look at functional wholes is
exactly what biologists are already having to face up to as they try to
understand cell differentiation and development. This effort certainly
requires a great deal of analysis, but the analysis and the integral
vision are not the same thing.
When evolutionists finally decide that the “impossible holistic task” is
worth pursuing — namely, to observe heritable differences as differences
in whole-cell organization and performance, much as developmental
biologists today are being forced to learn about the differences in
differentiating cell types — then (if they can also avoid the misguided
fixation upon endlessly stable variation) they will find themselves
possessed of a basis for understanding evolution that bears little
relation to the mathematized, gene-centric approach that has ruled for so
Actually, the evidence that the answers lie in such a holistic task are
everywhere, not just in the experience of developmental biologists with
cells. Evolutionary theory has been broadening in every possible
direction. To mention a few buzzwords and phrases (no need for the
non-specialist reader to worry about these), we hear prominently of niche
construction; developmental constraints; transgenerational epigenetic
inheritance; lateral gene transfer; endosymbiosis; the microbiome; the
organism’s active management of transposable elements (“jumping genes”);
the role of culture, learning, and unconscious experience; and, most
generally, phenotypic plasticity as a factor capable of leading rather
than following natural selection.
What remains missing, however, is what counts most: an explicit
acknowledgment of the wise and purposive agency everyone at least
unconsciously recognizes in the organism. Without this, we are still left
with organisms that are nothing but playthings of imagined causal
mechanisms, whether those mechanisms happen to impinge upon their lives
from inside or outside their skin. In this sense, even the newer
developments (important as they may be for the future) have so far left us
with the “same old evolutionary biology”, which is a refusal of the
What is the locus of
None of this is to deny real distinctions between individual and
evolutionary development. In the latter case we see (in those organisms
reproducing sexually) a continual merging of separate lineages. There is
also the fact of hybridization across species, genera, and even families.
And some of those features just mentioned above — symbiosis of various
sorts, cultural inheritance, niche construction, and lateral gene transfer
via viruses and microorganisms — also serve to remind us that, while the
communal context can be vitally important even for individual development,
it becomes central in evolution.
This is why even those who might be willing to acknowledge an organizing
and coordinating capability, or agency, in individual development will
nevertheless find the idea of such a capability impossible in the
evolutionary case. What could conceivably coordinate all those communal
interactions, including mating choices and predatorial patterns (and not
forgetting mutational processes), so as to create a coherent evolutionary
narrative? How could an individual organism “know” where its species
happens to be headed in an evolutionary sense? And without knowing, how
could it contribute meaningfully to the unfolding story?
We can agree: surely the relevant populations do not “know” where they are
headed. But here again we can usefully recall the puzzle of development.
For it is also true that the billions of cells in the embryonic horse do
not “know” how to grow, differentiate, interact, and move coordinately
toward the mature form and functioning of the adult animal. And yet —
indisputably — the horse, in its whole being, does know where it
needs to get to, and all its cells participate in that understanding.
For that matter, birds building their nests do not “know” about the needs
of their unborn offspring, the individual wolf doesn’t “know” the
collective strategy for bringing down an elk, and the hundreds of relevant
molecules in a cell nucleus do not “know” how to coordinate their activity
in order to repair a DNA lesion. Yet the relevant wisdom is in all cases
visibly present and active, revealing itself as powerfully effective in
development and behavior.
There is, however, a genuine question about how we are to understand the
relation between intentional agencies observed at different biological
levels. The relatively independent life of the cell is not the same as
the life of the organism that integrates the activity of all its different
cells. Similarly, the development of individual horses does not tell us
all we would like to know about the intentions manifesting in the
evolution from Eohippus to American Pharoah. It would be wrong to
assume that the more or less fixed stages through which individual
development passes give us a neat roadmap for the course of evolution.
intentions. To speak, as in the preceding paragraph, of “different
biological levels” is to be reminded that we confront different sorts of
organic wholeness depending on the contextual breadth of our observation.
We find ourselves looking at wholes embedded within still larger wholes.
The cell is a functional whole, and so is the organ of which it is a part,
and so again is the entire organism of which the organ is a part. But
none of these is a whole in any absolute sense. If the “whole
organism” were an absolute whole, entire unto itself, it would have no
need to engage the world. Not belonging to the world, it would be
unknowable by us.
The twentieth-century botanist, Agnes Arber, captured the relative
character of organic wholes with her usual thoughtfulness:
The biological explanation of a phenomenon is the discovery of its own
intrinsic place in a nexus of relations, extending indefinitely in all
directions. To explain it is to see it simultaneously in its full
individuality (as a whole in itself), and in its subordinate position (as
one element in a larger
Every ecological setting, every organism within that setting, every organ
within the organism, and every cell within the organ is a whole providing
a context for its own interrelated parts, and at the same time is itself
contextually embedded within larger wholes. “Context”, “whole”, and
“part” can never be rigid, absolute terms in biology. They are bound up
with interweaving spheres of activity. Certainly this is consistent with
our experience of our own selves as more or less independent yet socially
This suggests that, however we may eventually come to understand the
sources of biological, end-directed activity, we have no reason to
associate centers of agency solely with “individuals” at any one level of
generality. Just as our observation gives us interpenetrating wholes —
from cells to organisms to populations and beyond — so, too, it gives us
interpenetrating centers of agency. After all, what makes a whole a
distinctive whole is its distinctive agency — the way in which, as a
context, it “disciplines” its parts toward the realization of its own
From flocks, herds, and schools, to bee and ant colonies, to parasitic and
symbiotic pairs, to more or less closely aggregated communities of cells,
to the highly differentiated and elaborately integrated cells of our own
bodies, to earth’s biosphere as a whole — the one thing we can know
directly is that we discover agency and intention wherever we see activity
unfolding according to its own meanings. This includes purposeful,
end-directed activity, whether we see it in bee colony behavior, or in the
cells of a body, or in the facts of individual development, or in the
beautiful evolutionary development of American Pharoah from
Evolution does, however, present practical problems to biologists that
individual development does not. Cycles of development are endlessly and
reliably repeated, so that no one can avoid at least implicitly
acknowledging their end-directed character. Time and again, horse zygotes
lead to adult horses. Evolution, by contrast, encompasses the totality of
life on earth, and occurs only once. No more than in reading a good novel
can we predict, mid-way through the story, its later outcome — just as, if
we were viewing a tadpole for the first time, we could not predict its
further development into a mature
The non-repeatability of evolution makes it all too easy, for those bent
on doing so, to “forget” everything they know about the creative and
end-directed character of all the life processes through which evolution
Evolution as a picture of
creativity and coordination. To speak about the directed and
future-oriented character of evolution is not to suggest that there is any
simple, uniform, linear progress, traceable along a single line leading
from ancestors to descendants. The picture of evolution that has long
been coming into focus is one of great complexity and nonuniformity of
change. Partly in response to environmental novelties, the creative roots
of life “blossom” with an almost incomprehensible luxuriance and diversity
of forms, producing forward glimpses here, throwbacks there, and
extinctions almost everywhere. New developments may be foreshadowed in
very different ways in different intersecting and diverging lineages, with
the various, partially expressed potentials sometimes coming together and
reaching their full fruition in a previously inconspicuous line.
Whole-organism biologist Craig Holdrege points out that even where we have
a rich supply of fossils, as in the horse family, “there is a surprising
diversity in the forms that predate modern horses”. And, regarding human
fossil history, “the more fossils that are found, the less straightforward
the emerging picture of the evolving human form becomes”:
If we consider this feature of the fossil record from a bird’s eye
perspective, it is as if we are seeing hints of what is to come spread out
in various earlier forms, which then become extinct. Eventually new forms
appear, sharing characteristics with various earlier forms but in a new
configuration that could never have been predicted on the basis of what
This nonlinear character of evolutionary “lineages” throws light on the
problem of common ancestors (or “missing
The seemingly erratic pattern Holdrege summarizes makes it hard to see why
we should expect to find unambiguous common ancestors of the sort we might
like to imagine. It is a live question whether there are many — or any —
uncomplicated, smooth pathways from progenitor types to substantially
different descendent types, marked by a straightforward accumulation of
new features, whereby we can witness a single, smooth, continuous line of
transformation. Whatever the nature of the intention we see broadly at
work, it must be a collective intention.
While some might take non-simple pathways of evolution as an argument
against the role of intentional agency, the truth is just the opposite.
For, as we have seen in the lives of individual organisms, it is precisely
the purposive or intentional aspect that accounts for the ultimate
coordination of otherwise more or less free and independent physical
events. In this connection, we might think of evolution as embodying
Weiss’ principle of micro-indeterminacy and macro-determinacy — only now
writ very large indeed. What happens on a broader scale is not a simple
determination or extrapolation predictable from the smaller scale, but is
the result of a coordination of events toward living ends.
Or, again, there is Holdrege’s intentionally provocative and negative
answer to the question, “Do Frogs Come from Tadpoles?” The tadpole is
prerequisite for the frog — it provides necessary conditions for the frog
— but the tadpole does not account for the frog. We do not find
the frog as a necessary outcome “dictated” by the physical being of the
tadpole. The metamorphosis shows us rather, the same creativity evident
in all biological activity. What both the problem of missing ancestors
and the widespread fact of organismal metamorphosis suggest is that we may
as yet hardly have guessed how major evolutionary transformations are
I have heard it suggested that the human individual is more closely
analogous to the typical species than to an individual of such a species.
Whatever one thinks of that, the biographies of human individuals are one
form of evolving life on earth, and they throw useful light on the kind of
evolutionary process we have just now been considering. In a biography we
are not at all surprised by all sorts of subplots, both productive and
abortive, woven together in the most tortuous ways. Yet, when we examine
the biography as a whole, we find that there is a story to be told — one
that, as many excellent biographers have demonstrated so well, can be
presented from diverse angles, while still holding together as one story.
In other words, we are looking at neither a smooth, predetermined logical
progression, nor a mere succession of events without coherence. Rather,
we watch a playing out of interacting meanings, a kind of narrative
What is missing in current evolutionary theory is not, to begin with,
crucial pieces of new evidence (although, given the extent of our current
ignorance about the most basic historical facts, we could certainly use a
few of those), but rather a willingness to look at the narrative tapestry
of life on earth with something like the biographer’s attentiveness.
We should be clear about the real
sticking point for biologists. The fact that most of the cells in
a tightly knit body are physically contiguous and therefore subject to
certain physical causes does not in any relevant sense distinguish the
working of biological intention in such a body from its working in
evolutionary transformation. The organisms in an evolving population have
no fewer causal connections than the cells in an individual. Eating and
being eaten are surely causal! — a fact that, quite reasonably, figures
centrally in conventional theory. And there is also the role of
cognition. If, as many do today, we acknowledge a kind of cognition in
cells sensing and responding to each other, how much more should we
acknowledge the causal (not to mention the intentional) connections
between all those organisms possessing specialized sense organs!
But while physical and chemical causal relations are certainly
prerequisites for coherent transformation, whether in development or
evolution, causal events do not explain their own coordination in extended
living narratives. This is the crux of the matter. The reluctance of
biologists to face the evident reality of evolution as a coherent
narrative does not lie in the very real differences between development
and evolution, but rather in a refusal to deal seriously with the problem
of active biological wisdom and intention in either case.
This wisdom does not arise from physical and chemical interactions, but
plays through them. We have no more reason to consider the guiding ideas
at work in organisms as alien to their material being than we have for
considering the mathematical ideas defining physical laws as alien to
material being. If, in the one case, ideas come into play at the very
root of physical manifestation (we do not have matter first, and
then the lawful ideas it obligingly “obeys”), there is no reason to
view the distinctive ideational content, or wisdom, governing organismal
life in an altogether different way.
And so, just as we cannot separate matter from its ideal lawfulness, we
also (as philosopher Ronald Brady has explained) “cannot detect, in
[organic] phenomena, the distinction between ‘that which is to be
vitalized’ and ‘that which vitalizes’”. And therefore we have no business
“bother[ing] ourselves about how to add the potency of life to the stuff
— no more than we have any business worrying about how to add to matter
the potency of the ideal and mathematically succinct law of gravity.
A few critical observations about current theory — especially the idea of
fitness — may help to bring out the force of all the preceding
Fitness differences are not the key
to significant evolutionary change
To begin with, no one has any clear or fully workable idea about what
“fitness” means. Evolutionary biologists are required to assign numerical
values to fitness — values enabling reasonable comparison of traits and
organisms, so that we can determine which is fitter than which. But how
do we take all the infinitely wide-ranging and interwoven considerations
that might bear on fitness and reduce them to a single quantity? It is a
practical impossibility. As a pair of philosophers put it in a 2005
article, “Suppose a certain species undertakes parental care, is resistant
to malaria, and is somewhat weak but very quick. How do these fitness
factors add up? We have no idea at
John Beatty, a major contributor to the most popular theory of fitness (a
now rather shopworn and probabilistic theory broached in 1979 and known as
the propensity theory), remarked in 1992 that “The precise meaning
of ‘fitness’ has yet to be settled, in spite of the fact — or perhaps
because of the fact — that the term is so central to evolutionary
This is, if anything, even more emphatically true today. The concept
remains troubled, as it has been from the very beginning, with little
agreement on how to make it a workable part of evolutionary theory.
Indeed, the “consensus view”, as Roberta Millstein and Robert Skipper,
Jr., write in The Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of
is that “biologists and philosophers have yet to provide an adequate
interpretation of fitness”.
And Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, along with his co-author,
University of Missouri philosopher André Ariew, expressed the
conviction that “no concept in evolutionary biology has been more
confusing” than that of
Yet, as two other philosophers of biology remind us, “the theory of
natural selection as empirical science" hinges on what we mean when we say
“x is fitter than
How do we account for the arrival of the
fittest? Suppose it had turned out that there is no evolution —
that, as was believed for millennia, each living “kind”, or species,
remained faithful to a statically understood essential nature. It would
still be true that some organisms (the “fittest”) would be most likely to
survive and reproduce, with “defectives” presumably being selected for
elimination. Such a world would in no way contradict the evolutionist’s
idea of fitness, but would remain perfectly compatible with it.
This shows that neither the basic concept of fitness nor the closely
allied concept of the “natural selection of the fittest” necessarily
implies any sort of evolutionary transformation. Everything depends on
what sort of beings organisms are, and what they are actually doing
— in particular, what sort of fitness they might be moving toward.
And if they are doing something transformative, then what
they are doing is the decisive question. In other words, to focus on the
general abstraction of fitness as such is simply to ignore the possibility
that organisms might be in the business of “going somewhere” in an
The lack of explanatory value in the ideas of fitness and natural
selection, when considered apart from the actual sources of
transformation, has, in fact, long been recognized. The problem was given
its most memorable statement by the Dutch botanist and geneticist, Hugo de
Vries, who said during the first decade of the twentieth century, “Natural
selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain
the arrival of the
Or, as that preeminent zoologist of the middle twentieth century, Adolf
Portmann, remarked in 1967: Regarding specific traits, natural selection
“might afford a reason for their preservation, but never provide the cause
And, in 2011, Lynn Margulis, a pioneer in exploring the role of symbiosis
in evolution, said that “Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains,
but it doesn’t
Against this sort of objection, Stephen Jay Gould once asked, “Why was
natural selection compared to a composer by Dobzhansky; to a poet by
Simpson; to a sculptor by Mayr; and to, of all people, Mr. Shakespeare by
Julian Huxley?” The answer, according to Gould, is that these allusions
helpfully underscore the “creativity of natural selection”:
The essence of Darwinism lies in its claim that natural selection creates
the fit. Variation is ubiquitous and random in direction. It supplies
the raw material only. Natural selection directs the course of
evolutionary change. It preserves favorable variants and builds fitness
On its face, Gould’s argument was a puzzling one. He seemed to be saying
that, because organisms are so expert and so prolific at producing new
possibilities of life (“variation is ubiquitous”), we can ignore their
creative achievement when we theorize about the historical genesis of new
possibilities of life. Because organisms so abundantly provide raw
materials for creative work, we are somehow free to declare a pure
abstraction — natural selection — the agent performing the real
biological work. It need only preserve the right collection of all those
freely provided raw materials.
How easy it is, apparently, to forget that the “raw materials” are never
merely raw materials! At the first appearance of any evolutionarily
useful trait, or any modification of such a trait, the creative work has
already been accomplished. We find ourselves looking, not at random raw
materials, but at viable features harmoniously incorporated into living
beings by the only power capable of such incorporation — a transformative
power oriented toward the future while also resistant to whatever does not
reflect the character and developmental potentials of its own dynamic
The concept of fitness conveniently substituted for the bother and
difficulty of having to deal with the complexities (and philosophical
distastefulness) of this creative work. The organism’s agency was now
transferred to the supposedly creative “pressure” of natural selection, a
“force” that acted on random (for example, “cosmic ray-induced”) mutations
to either eliminate them or spread them through a population, based on
The flow of mutated genes through a population had the decisive advantage
that, in combination with a fuzzy concept of fitness, it offered some
convenient rules of thumb that in turn yielded to mathematical treatment,
unlike the organism’s actual creative organizing powers. These rules
applied with rough (statistical) validity to the movement of genes within
a population, and to this day discoveries and theorems about such movement
are widely taken to be a direct demonstration of our knowledge of
evolution. Genes just were, one assumed, the traits of
The credibility of this assumption — if there ever was any — is now long
gone, even if many population geneticists have been extraordinarily slow
in picking up on the relevant literature. And, in any case, the spreading
of well-integrated new traits through a population does not explain the
arrival of those traits in the first place. It explains nothing of the
originating biological powers of evolutionary change.
The virtues of being unfit. As
soon as we recognize the organism as an agent of transformation, we can
see the limited relevance of the concept of fitness in another way. If
organisms really are “going somewhere” — in this direction rather than
that — then their supposed fitness may not only fail to explain the fact,
but a fitness advantage is not even a general prerequisite for organisms
contributing crucially to the success of the journey.
Individual development again provides a useful object lesson. Perhaps
there are not many transformations greater than the one illustrated by
frog metamorphosis. At the critical time of change, a tadpole is losing
its organs for feeding on algae even as its organs for feeding on insects
or other animals are being
And so also with many other organs and tissues. The animal’s overall
condition during this period of intense change is awkward, perilous, and
scarcely “fit”. But it is also the promise of something gloriously new.
The broader truth here is that the “weakest” organisms may at times be
precisely those carrying the heaviest burden of the future.
Transformation of any profound sort, by definition, entails the loss of
past formation, along with consequent destabilization of the previous
integral unity. In a coordinated process of fundamental change, we should
expect that organisms barely able to survive might contribute decisively
important heritable potentials to their offspring.
Actually, given phenomena such as lateral gene transfer and niche
construction, along with the more general role of behavior in evolution,
we can know that not even the ability to leave offspring is an absolute
requirement for those organisms contributing to the evolution of their
So perhaps instead of saying, “The most successful reproducers determine
the future of the species”, we should say, “Those organisms representing
the future of the species determine, over the long haul, what sort of
individuals will become the most successful reproducers”. That
illustrates the way evolutionary thinking will be turned inside out and
backwards as soon as the obvious agency of organisms ceases to be ignored.
Everything I have written here — and critics may wish to take note —
hinges on a single decision point: Are we willing to take seriously the
meaningful and purposeful character of the life we witness in every
organism? Can anyone claim that this is an issue wildly off the main path
of biological science? Denis Walsh, one of our most insightful
philosophers of biology, after noting that “organisms are fundamentally
purposive entities”, expressed his perplexity by asking, “Why should the
phenomenon that demarcates the domain of biology be off-limits to
And the late, widely respected Chilean neuroscientist, Francisco Varela,
wrote in his final paper: “The answer to the question of what status
teleology should have in biology decides about the character of our whole
theory of animate
I have long thought: someone ought to look at what it might mean for
evolution if we were to face up to these fundamental questions by taking
organisms as we actually observe them, instead of pretending we do not see
what is there. That is why I am writing the book so fragmentarily and
cumbersomely summarized here.
A concluding thought
If we are willing to inquire honestly whether evolution presents us with a
meaningful narrative, then we must keep in mind that the later parts of
any such narrative are often the key to understanding earlier parts. The
unfolding reality comes to ever fuller expression. Whether watching a cat
on the prowl, or tracing the unfolding life of a fertilized egg, or
reading a human biography, we do not at first fully grasp what we are
dealing with. As with all creative, future-oriented activity, it is only
as future outcomes are clarified that we can recognize how they have
informed the entire narrative.
When, then, we reflect upon the incredibly complex, end-directed tasks
expertly carried out by vast collections of molecules even in the simplest
and most primitive cells, it is natural to call to mind the eons of
evolutionary transformation that have led from single cells to our own
experience as conscious and willful agents pursuing our own meaningful
tasks. Does the human outcome illuminate primordial origins?
It would, of course, be a fatal error to collapse all distinctions and
talk about those early cells in the same way we talk about conscious human
cognition and behavior. But the error would be equally egregious if we
simply ignored the evident relation and historical continuity between the
earliest forms of life and ourselves.
And, in fact, the evolutionary outcome does throw an intensely revelatory
light upon the earlier circumstances. Our own bodies contain countless
cells that function in many respects just like the most primitive cells we
know. That is, they are engaged in meaningful, future-oriented activity —
as, for example, in cell division — where part-processes are disciplined
by their larger context. But, in our case, there is a still larger
context whereby our highest capacities can, in some limited yet powerful
respects, become the “guiding forces” of all that cellular activity.
Who will deny that our conscious intentions are carried out by our
physiology, all the way down to the molecules in our cells? Everything
shapes itself to our will, whether in the gentlest expressive movement of
a pianist’s fingers, or the herculean effort of a shot putter. How could
this not be a decisively important fact? — our organs, cells, and
molecules capably embody and express our guiding intentions! And this
truth is rendered perfectly natural by the fact that, quite apart from our
conscious intentions, all our physiological activity shows, in its
own right, a task-oriented, end-directed character.
In other words, our cellular activity, possessing a powerful ability to
pursue intentional narratives, bends with exquisite sensitivity toward the
realization of our intentions. Do we have any biological fact more
fundamental than this to guide our scientific explorations?
We can hardly help asking: What are the guiding intentions in those many
end-directed aspects of our physiology that are not now under our
conscious control. And the question naturally carries over to the most
primitive, single-celled forms of life we know, where we find the same
well-coordinated and purposive functioning as in the cells of our own
bodies. What are their guiding intentions?
The obvious next thing to ask at this point is whether our evolutionary
origins can, with any reason at all, be thought of in the usual manner as
mindless and meaningless. Or do those origins express high intentions
that we humans, in consciously mastering our own bodies, and on our
trajectory toward the future, have so far learned to touch only very
lightly, being distracted as we now are by our abilities to toy
mechanically with the exteriors of
Rich, Watson and Wyllie (1999).
Russell 1938, pp. 7-8.
I have added paragraph breaks. The book by Nicholson is entitled How
Birds Live: A Brief Account of Bird-Life in the Light of Modern
Observation, and was published in London by Williams and Norgate, Ltd.,
McDougall 1929, pp. 50-1.
While much of what I say will, with appropriate qualifications, be
relevant to the plant kingdom and unicellular organisms, my references
here to “organisms”, “living things”, and so on, should, for simplicity’s
sake, be taken with animals specifically in mind.
The reference is to what is often referred to as “Laplace’s demon”,
although Laplace himself did not use the word “demon”:
We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of
its anterior state and the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for
one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which
nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose
it — an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis —
it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies
of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be
uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes …
The curve described by a single molecule in air or vapour is regulated in
a manner just as certain as the planetary orbits; the only difference
between them is that which comes from our ignorance.
(Laplace 1951, p. 4)
Weiss 1973, pp. 40-1.
Weiss 1962, p. 1.
It is worth noting here the evidence for the fact that
a human embryo also commonly takes in some cells from other organisms,
particular the mother and the twin sibling, if there is one. But this
does not disturb the general and universally agreed point I am making.
See, for example, Harvard geneticist
Richard Lewontin (1992):
“First, DNA is not self-reproducing, second, it makes nothing, and
third, organisms are not determined by it. DNA is a dead molecule, among
the most nonreactive, chemically inert molecules in the living world ...
While it is often said that DNA produces proteins, in fact proteins
(enzymes) produce DNA”.
There is every indication that this situation will inevitably change, as
is already suggested by the current interest in (as well as resistance to)
the idea of epigenetic inheritance.
Arber 1985, p. 59.
Regarding the frog’s development and the creative element in it, see
Holdrege 2017, pp. 63-4.
See that work for a more detailed discussion of this issue with regard to
Holdrege 2017, pp. 65-70.
See also my much briefer discussion of certain key thoughts in the Brady
article, particularly in relation to the point being made here
Matthen and Ariew 2005.
Millstein and Skipper 2007.
Ariew and Lewontin 2004.
Bouchard and Rosenberg 2004.
de Vries 1906, p. 826.
Adolf Portmann, p. 123.
Walsh 2015, p. ix.
Weber and Varela 2002.
A related question might be: “Do we live in a universe of beings, rather
than things?” The answer to this question given during the past few
hundred years, is, from a historical perspective, eccentric. Readers
interested in such matters might want to read
“A Physicist, a Philologist, and the Meaning of Life: Do We Have a Home
in the Vast Cosmos?”
evolution/as mindless process
inwardness (intention, idea, meaning)
Arber, Agnes (1985). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s
Standpoint, with an introduction by P. R. Bell. Originally published
in 1954. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ariew, André and R. C. Lewontin (2004a). “The Confusions of Fitness”,
British Journal for the Philosophy of Science vol. 55, no. 2, pp.
Beatty, John (1992). “Fitness: Theoretical Contexts”, in Keywords in
Evolutionary Biology, edited by Evelyn Fox Keller and Elisabeth A.
Lloyd. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 115-9.
Bouchard, Frédéric and Alex Rosenberg (2004). “Fitness,
Probability and the Principles of Natural Selection”, British Society
for the Philosophy of Science vol. 55, pp. 693-712.
Brady, Ronald H. (1987). “Form and Cause in Goethe’s Morphology”, in
Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, edited by F. Amrine, F. J.
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