The articles you will find here do not offer profound new discoveries in biology, and do not argue for any point of view requiring new evidences — although you will probably encounter much that you are not familiar with. We will merely ask ourselves, “What are contemporary researches showing us?” Our aim will be to acknowledge without philosophical reluctance what the unquestioned evidences have been telling us — shouting at us, really. We will try to look with new eyes at what everyone can see, and to take seriously even what the intellectual biases of our culture or our personal training may tempt us to ignore. The result is a set of resources unlike any you can expect to encounter elsewhere in the world of biology today.
Imagine that, as biologists, we accepted animals the way we all accept them outside the laboratory. That is, imagine that we regarded them, even for scientific purposes, as beings with their own intentions and meanings, their own sensed worlds, their own strivings and characteristic way of life — beings with whom we can enter into living relationships. Would this not be a revolution to outstrip all scientific revolutions? Would we not find ourselves wrestling scientifically with things we can, in any case, scarcely help believing? — not such an unhappy prospect!
After Crick and Watson unraveled the structure of DNA, molecular biologists were destined, so they thought, to understand organisms as physical mechanisms and nothing more. Instead, ever more sophisticated experimental techniques have been revealing organisms whose wisdom and subtlety, whose powers of development and adaptation, whose embodied insight and effective communication, and whose evolutionary ingenuity far outstrip our current capacities for comprehension. Yes, new molecular “mechanisms”, isolated from the organism as a whole, continue to be proclaimed daily. But when we restore these products of our one-sided methods to their living contexts, allowing them to speak their own meanings, what they actually show us is this: every organism is intent upon telling the eloquent story of its own life. Its living intentions govern and coordinate the lawful physical performance of its body, not the other way around.
No, you haven’t been informed about these developments in the pages of the New York Times or even Scientific American. Indeed, many biologists themselves lament that their unavoidable focus on the minutia of their own narrow research topics prevents their paying adequate attention to wider fields of discovery. But the reality now being proclaimed from the pages of every technical journal could hardly be more dramatic. Perhaps the central truth is this: we human beings discover our conscious, inner capacities — our capacities to think and mean, to plan and strive — unconsciously and objectively reflected back to us from every metabolic process, every signaling pathway, every gene expression pattern in all the organisms we study. We are akin to these organisms in ways we have long forgotten. This matters in a world whose future has been placed in our hands. No form of life is alien to us.
You deserve to know what is going on — not via the heated and fruitless rhetoric of the science–religion wars, and not through vague references to vibrations, energy fields and quantum mysteries, but rather directly from the front lines of biological research. That’s what this project is about.
Much of the work done here is being distilled into a book whose chapters are being made available as they are written. See “The most important thing” below for details.
Perhaps the most efficient way to get an overview and browse this entire site is to visit the topical index. Note that the tags listed at the beginning and end of most articles are links into relevant portions of the topical index, where you can find other articles on the themes treated in the article you are reading.
Another approach is to do a search of the entire Biology Worthy of Life project:
The most recent articles published as part of the Biology Worthy of Life project are available here: (show/hide list).
(November 30, 2022:) The Evolution of Consciousness
(November 29, 2022:) Inheritance (2): Genetics and the Particulate View of Life
(October 28, 2021:) Inheritance (1): The Whole Organism
(August 24, 2021:) Toward a Thought-Full Teleology
(June 15, 2021:) Development Writ Large
(April 15, 2021:) Puzzles of the Microworld
(January 21, 2021:) How Our Genes Come to Expression (It Takes an Epigenetic Village)
(November 10, 2020:) Teleology and Evolution — Why Can’t We Have ‘Evolution on Purpose’?
(June 23, 2020:) Why We Cannot Explain the Form of Organisms
(May 28, 2020:) What Is the Problem of Form?
(April 16, 2020:) All Science Must Be Rooted in Experience
(December 17, 2019:) The Keys to This Book
(December 4, 2019:) Evolution Writ Small
(November 14, 2019:) A Mess of Causes
(August 27, 2019:) Our Bodies Are Formed Streams
(July 19, 2019:) Let’s Not Begin With Natural Selection
(May 19, 2019:) The Mystery of an Unexpected Coherence
(May 7, 2019:) There Is No Genetics — Only Epigenetics
(May 7, 2019:) Context: Dare We Call It Holism?
(May 7, 2019:) The Sensitive, Muscular Cell
(May 7, 2019:) What Brings Our Genome Alive?
(January 30, 2019:) The Organism’s Story
(November, 2018:) Scenes of Life
(December, 2017:) Why Can’t Evolutionary Biologists Quit Believing in Intelligent Design?
(Winter, 2017:) Evolution and the Purposes of Life
(November 10, 2015:) Genes and Organisms: Improvising the Dance of Life
(April 29, 2015:) Where Do Intelligence and Wisdom Reside?
(March 26, 2015:) How to Unthink
A list of the most popular articles is also available to browse: (show/hide list).
Then there is my own pick of the most substantive articles from earlier in this project. Parts of some of these articles are being incorporated into the book described under “The most important thing” below. But those excerpts represent only a tiny portion of the overall contents of these articles: (show/hide list).
Finally, a nearly complete list of articles written since 2009, with introductions to their contents, can be found here.
A great deal of my work on the Biology Worthy of Life project has been distilled into a freshly written, book-length presentation I am calling “Organisms and Their Evolution — Agency and Meaning in the Drama of Life” (previously titled, “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — And the Living Narratives That Tell Its Story”). This presentation now has its own home page.
My aim was to create an imminently readable, compelling text, as free of technical jargon as possible. At the same time, I hope that professional biologists will be able to recognize the force of the strikingly unconventional positions being taken.
The organism and its evolution look dramatically different from the picture given in conventional textbooks once we accept what we all in fact cannot help knowing — namely, that every organism pursues its own purposes by means of its active capacities — capacities for developing and shaping its own body, sensing and responding to stimuli, repairing and healing, signaling and communicating. At every level of observation — and all the way down to its molecular structures and processes — the organism displays a plastic, adaptive power responsive to context. The essential elements of the organism are activities and dynamically maintained relationships, not static things.
Through its living activity, the organism speaks. That’s why biologists use terms such as “information”, “code”, “message”, “signal”, “program”, “response”, “communication”, and so on — all in order to express the language-like activity they can’t help trying to describe (even if they prefer to think in terms of computerized rather than living speech). And just as words and gestures carry many meanings, even opposite meanings, depending on their context, so it is with all the structures and processes of our cells, including our genes. The language of the organism is turning out to be vastly more complex, expressive, and nuanced than our old, mechanistic heritage ever led us to expect.
Every organism’s mastery of its own developmental processes could hardly be more obvious in its relevance to evolution. We routinely observe how a complex, multicellular animal creates 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.
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?
It’s time we let organisms speak for themselves. That is the opportunity and responsibility of the new science of biology.
Experience has shown that there are many uses for the resources found here. For example,
For the intellectually curious and open-minded, altogether new and unexpected points of view may be opened up under the stimulus of the articles contained on this site.
For students, from graduate school on down, there are any number of educational pathways through the material presented here. Teachers could easily adapt these pathways for use in courses aimed at critical evaluation of current topics in biology — especially genetics, epigenetics, molecular biology more generally, and evolution. The topical index may be particularly helpful for this purpose.
All readers may find themselves stimulated toward critical thinking by the articles presented here, and should feel free to “vent” by sending criticisms and comments to email@example.com. I cannot respond in depth to all emails I receive, but will acknowledge and benefit from them through active engagement with your thoughts.
By linking to articles here — for example, those that particularly provoke or interest you — or by sending links to friends and colleagues, you may open up possibilities for fruitful exchange within your own circles.
Steve Talbott :: Biology Worthy of Life