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Biology Worthy of Life
An experiment in revivifying biology

Quotes of the Week

The following texts have been used as “Quote of the Week” on the web page at https://bwo.life. They are arranged here from latest to oldest.

November 29, 2021

How does the cell divide? How is body temperature maintained? How do signals originate, move through the uncertainties of multicellular environments, get transduced, and ultimately produce their specific effects within individual cells? — such inquiries about sustained narratives commonly provide the questions for molecular biological research projects. But the “explanations” arrived at typically abandon the narrative context of the original inquiry and focus instead on isolated physical causes. For example, how does the structure of this molecule fit together with the structure of that one, or which proteins interact with which others? It may be implied that answers to such questions explain the narrative, but they never do. The physical transactions are simply caught up in the narrative.

The truly biological problems have to do with how countless such interactions are woven together as the threads of an integral and recognizable story, when it would be perfectly lawful, in a physical sense, for every one of the interacting molecules to head off in a direction irrelevant to the storyline and engage in any one of a thousand other transactions. No analysis of physical lawfulness can distinguish the different cases, because physical laws know nothing of the organism’s storyline.

What the typical explanations fail to acknowledge, in other words, is the overall, ongoing, coordinated activity — the appearance of purpose — that prompted the very questions the biologists began investigating. The language of physical causes never gets us to the story of the organism — never traces the organism’s unique and colorful path through its own world. Of course, we do need the usual physical picture, but we get its meaning only when we look through it, rather as we “listen through” the physical sounds of speech in order to discern the thoughts and intentions of the speaker.

(from “The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology”, Part 1 of “From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self”)

November 22, 2021

The problem of form in the organism — how does a single cell (zygote) reliably develop to maturity “according to its own kind” — has vexed biologists for centuries. But the same mystery plays out in the mature organism, which must continually work to maintain its normal form, as well as restore it when injured. It is difficult to bring oneself fully face to face with the enormity of this accomplishment. Scientists can damage tissues in endlessly creative ways that the organism has never confronted in its evolutionary history. Yet, so far as its resources allow, it mobilizes those resources, sets them in motion, and does what it has never done before, all in the interest of restoring a dynamic form and a functioning that the individual molecules and cells certainly cannot be said to “understand” or “have in view”.

We can frame the problem of identity and context with this question: Where do we find the context and activity that, in whatever sense we choose to use the phrase, does “have in view” this restorative aim? Not an easy question. Yet the achievement is repeatedly carried through; an ever-adaptive intelligence comes into play somehow, and all those molecules and cells are quite capable of participating in and being caught up in the play.

(from “Who Are You and Who Am I and Who Are We?”)

November 15, 2021

Meaning is a fundamental given of the world we live in. If there is anything in the evolutionary literature purporting to explain the origin of speech that does not already assume a capacity for speech, I would like to know about it. As Owen Barfield has succinctly fingered the matter: asking about the origin of language is like asking about the origin of origin. We can speak only because we were first spoken. And before we were spoken, the single cell was spoken, bearing in all the narrative details of its molecular adeptness and harmony the reverberating imprint, the resonance, of the speaking through which it lives.

So, no, we do not require a tortuous philosophical analysis of meaning. We need only wake up to the sea of meaning within which we all swim, and without which we would have no world whatever. We live by grace of meaning; our world is a logos-world. To pretend to refuse this meaning is to attempt a self-effacement (and a world-effacement) we can never fully carry out. It is to refuse to stand awake as human beings.

Meaning never arises from the non-meaningful. The question we should ask ourselves is not whether meaning can arise from what is not meaningful, but whether “not meaningful” makes any sense at all. Which, of course, is to ask whether “meaninglessness” has any meaning. That’s the kind of absurd territory we lose ourselves in when we ask for an informative and truthful science without meaning.

(from “How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life”)

November 8, 2021

Nothing here implies that humans possess greater “moral worth” (whatever that might mean) than other living things. What distinguishes us is not our moral worth, but the fact that we bear the burden of moral responsibility. That this burden has risen to consciousness at one particular locus within nature is surely significant for the destiny of nature. When Jack Turner suggested that the last ten thousand years of human history may have been “simply evil,” he ignored the worthy historical gift enabling him to pronounce such a judgment. How can we downplay our special gift of knowledge and responsibility without fatal consequences for the world?

(from “A Conversation with Nature”)

November 1, 2021

We have seen that a great unknown presses in upon us from all sides. Despite our impressive technological successes, the fundamental terms of our science remain seemingly impenetrable mysteries. What one physicist wrote in 1985 is no less true today: “As yet no physicist can tell you what sort of world we happen to live in”. Humbling as it may seem in an era so arrogantly dismissive of the past, our current physical science gives us no basis for belittling the ancient human experience of living in something rather more like a universe of beings than a universe of things.

But we have also seen that an intelligible world is more intimately near to us than most of us have dared to hope. If we understand the world at all — and we are all convinced we do — it can only be because it consists, by nature, of qualitative appearances (“phenomena”) available to experience. It presents itself on the stage of our inner being.

And, finally, by looking at the history of language we have seen that the expressive face of the world appeared to our ancestors as a kind of speech, and it was from this presentation that our own powers of speech derived. Like language, every natural phenomenon was an exterior through which there shone interior significances. The essential elements of nature were not mute, expressionless things, but resonant images symbolizing meanings.

(from “A Physicist, a Philosopher, and the Meaning of Life”)

October 25, 2021

We find some sort of reason and intention (or purpose) at all levels of biological description. No explanation of electrical, mechanical, and chemical interactions in a dividing cell conveys the narrative meaning of cell division. Nearly all the specific interactions, considered singly, could occur under other circumstances, or could occur differently in the present circumstances. Their elaborate and magnificently coordinated “striving toward cell division” — a striving that tries to adapt in a consistently directed way to whatever conditions the environment may throw up — does not lawfully follow from the underlying physical lawfulness. The striving and adjustment to circumstances, rather than being explained by the physical lawfulness, gives direction to it.

In one way or another all biologists acknowledge intention or purpose in this inescapable, practical, and descriptive sense. They recognize that the objects of their study are creatures caught up in a narrative — a narrative that is coming from somewhere and going somewhere in a reasonable, means-end sort of way, and not merely a law-abiding way. Organisms live purposeful lives. Yet, it is this narrative stream that the molecular biological literature assiduously ignores.

(from “The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology”, Part 1 of “From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self”)

October 18, 2021

Even a superficial acquaintance with the biological literature today makes it clear that the effort to explain the whole organism as a result of self-contained causal parts that do not participate in, and are not sustained by, the life of their larger context is destined to fail. If biologists are going to speak incessantly about the importance of context, then they need to reckon honestly with the problems it raises, rather than immediately change the subject to “controlling factors” — factors that, as the contemporary literature makes so vividly clear, never do control in absolute terms. If all such factors are context-dependent, we ought at least to ask ourselves how this qualification modifies the notion of “control”.

We are, in fact, beset by questions on all sides. What exactly are we referring to when we speak of “context” and “organism”? How can we make these terms, as we are compelled to use them, more than necessary blanks in our descriptive language — blanks about whose necessity we can say nothing? For example, does our actual use of these terms differ much from the way people of an earlier era might have used “archetype” or “entelechy” or “being”?

When biologists speak of the organism’s activity, who exactly do they mean to say is performing that activity? When they acknowledge that something in the organism is context-dependent, what in fact is it dependent upon — what agency, or unified sphere of activity, or principle, or lawfulness, or other reality of any sort are they appealing to? They cannot be pointing merely to a particular collection of objects, because the collection can be endlessly varied or perturbed, and yet the context remains more or less coherent, and the organism more or less maintains its character. What is coherent? What has this character?

(from “Who Are You and Who Am I and Who Are We?”)

October 11, 2021

If we cannot define “meaning”, what are we doing when we ask what someone means? Apparently what we’re asking for is not something neatly packageable or nailed down like a ... — well, I was going to say “like a dictionary definition”. But, of course, dictionary definitions do not nail down anything at all. They define words by using other words, and simply assume that we will be able to dance our way into the midst of the circling words by moving in tune with the meanings we already possess and improvising upon them.

Meaning of any significance is never something we can hand someone definitively, because each word we speak depends upon and participates in all the others. We can never say of any profound meaning, “There! I’ve got it!” Meaning is a journey. We can only track meaning as we might track the blossoming of a flower, getting to know it better and better even as we continually lose its old form and must rediscover its truth newly metamorphosed.

The English philologist, Owen Barfield, reminded us that we can suggest meaning, but cannot convey it as though it were a “bit” of the information biologists are so fond of. This is why, as Barfield demonstrated, our grasp of new meaning is typically mediated by figurative or metaphorical language — language that can only encourage and assist us toward exercising our own powers for intuiting the content at issue. We do not transmit information; we assist at the birth of insight.

(from “How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life”)

October 4, 2021

When we consider that an almost unfathomable intelligence is already at work in the zygote — for example, in the very processes through which the future brain will be formed and begin to function — it seems rather rash to regard the conscious intelligence with which we employ our brains as absolutely separate from that earlier, brain-forming intelligence. It’s not clear how we might even speak coherently about the presence of fundamentally disconnected intelligences at play within the unity of an organism.

(from “Toward a Thought-Full Teleology”)

September 27, 2021

The well-intentioned exhortation to replace anthropocentrism with biocentrism, if pushed very far, becomes a curious contradiction. It appeals to the uniquely human — the detachment from our environment that allows us to try to see things from the Other’s point of view — in order to deny any special place for humans within nature. We are asked to make a philosophical and moral principle of the idea that we do not differ decisively from other orders of life — but this formulation of principle is itself surely one decisive thing we cannot ask of those other orders.

There is no disgrace in referring to the “uniquely human.” If we do not seek to understand every organism’s unique way of being in the world, we exclude it from the ecological conversation. To exclude ourselves in this way reduces our words to gibberish, because we do not speak from our own center.

(from “A Conversation with Nature”)

September 20, 2021

So far as the historical record testifies, our evolutionary trajectory has not accorded with the usual assumptions. There is no evidence that we slowly ascended from a crude life of material unmeaning to a humanly contrived realm of meaning, value, culture, and spirituality. Our life today, with its materialistic convictions about the meaninglessness of nature, has required a long descent from the living, ensouled landscape upon which our ancestors were nurtured.

(from “A Physicist, a Philosopher, and the Meaning of Life”)

September 13, 2021

Organisms do things; rocks have things done to them. Even at rest a cat is doing something; rocks do not rest, but are brought to rest. An organism is always engaged in tasks, always going somewhere. Its activity is directed and in some sense intentional and purposeful (“teleological”). Its judgments in responding appropriately to environmental challenges reflect a profound biological wisdom.

From the molecular level on up, organisms mobilize their resources in order to achieve things, whether replicating DNA, splicing RNA, orchestrating cell division, forming embryonic organs, healing wounds, breathing, constructing a nest, securing food, caring for offspring, shedding a skin, maintaining body temperature, hibernating, or anything else we can properly regard as biological activity. Such activity is always part of a life story, and the protagonist in that story is in some sense what every story protagonist must be: a reasoning agent.

But you will already have asked, quite rightly, what is meant by “reasoning agent”? And even if we are driven to use such a phrase, how can we distinguish an aphid’s “reasoning” from that of a nuclear physicist? This is the question I will address here. Until we sort the matter out, the language of the preceding paragraphs (and even much of the standard biological literature) invites horrible misunderstandings. Note that I have already twice said, in some sense. We must be on our guard.

(from “The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology”, Part 1 of “From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self”)

September 6, 2021

[Regarding the hair follicle niche in mammals and the primacy of context over cellular identity:] Dramatically, the authors [of a technical article] show that “niche stem cells can be dispensable for tissue regeneration, provided that the overall integrity of the niche is maintained”. When the stem cell population in the bulge or hair germ is destroyed by laser ablation, distant epithelial cells flow toward the damaged compartment and go through a transformation of identity enabling them to replace the lost cells. As the authors summarize it, “The overall structure and function of the tissue is maintained because cells are capable of adopting new fates as dictated by their new niche microenvironment”.

It is impossible to reconcile these goings-on in the hair follicle with the picture of an organism being constructed from an available collection of well-defined parts as building blocks. The larger context helps to “decide” what sorts of elements it will have, how they should be transformed, and how they will come into mutual relationship. Nothing could be further from the common picture of the organism or the cell as a product of bottom-up causation, where the sole basis for understanding consists of putting back together in our minds the parts we have previously analyzed out of — and severed from — their life-receiving connection to the whole.

(from “Who Are You and Who Am I and Who Are We?”)

August 30, 2021

[Regarding physicist Steven Weinberg’s remark that “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”:] By “pointless”, Weinberg later explained, he meant “not particularly directed toward human beings” (NPR interview, undated). But what does that mean? Surely we do not need, or want, the universe pointing to us in some selfish sense. But when we comprehend things — when we are joined to them in an act of understanding — they lend themselves to the intimacy of our innermost being; their sensibility becomes our own. A universe that gives itself to us in this way does not seem to have the “chilling, cold impersonal quality” Weinberg finds in it.

Actually, you couldn’t find more anthropomorphic — which is to say, more humanly meaningful — terms than “chilling”, “cold”, and “impersonal”. Weinberg, one happily notes, has not entirely fled his own humanity. And we doubtless do run into things we justly describe with the qualities he discerns, thereby relating them to our inner life and discovering something about their character. It’s just that these are not the only or even the most common qualities human beings find when they gaze, fully informed, into a starry sky or the teeming protoplasm of a living cell.

(from “How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life”)

August 23, 2021

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.

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.

So tell me: Do we, in this picture, 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? Is not every cell of her body 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 “conscious”?

(from a talk titled “Toward a Thought-Full Teleology”)

August 16, 2021

The classicist, Bruno Snell, somewhere remarked that to experience a rock anthropomorphically is also to experience ourselves petromorphically — to discover what is rock-like within ourselves. It is the kind of discovery we have been making, aided by nature and the genius of language, for thousands of years. It is how we have come to know what we are — and what we are is (to use some old language) a microcosm of the macrocosm. Historically, we have drawn our consciousness of ourselves from the surrounding world, which is also to say that this world has awakened, or begun to awaken, within us.

(from “A Conversation with Nature”)

August 9, 2021

Historically, then, nature presented us with exteriors whose inner significances were, so to speak, written on their faces. Phenomena constituted a living language, rather as, still for us today, the sense-perceptible human face can scarcely be distinguished from its expressive eloquence — from the meaning it communicates. Similarly, it was from the evocative countenances of nature that our forebears discovered, in a living unity, the profound potentials of meaning that eventually yielded our current, analytically refined language.

(from “A Physicist, a Philosopher, and the Meaning of Life”)

August 2, 2021

How, precisely, do we define a protein, when its form and function depend on the molecules with which it associates? How do we understand the identity of a cell in the developing embryo, when it can become any one of many different kinds of cell, depending on where it migrates to? And when we find the same plant with a radically different character in different environments, what are we recognizing as the “same”? How, if at all, can we conceive the separate identity of something that is always taking on the character of its larger context?

(from “Who Are You and Who Am I and Who Are We?”)

July 26, 2021

To demand a definition of “meaning” — that is, to ask for the meaning of “meaning” — is actually to run away from it. Meaning is where we start from. We cannot define it because meanings are what we employ in order to define things. Asking what “meaning” means is like trying to prove the validity of the logic we use in proofs. As human beings we must — and do every day — simply wake up to meaning. If we possess cognitive capacities, even as infants, it can only be because these capacities are themselves products of the world’s play of meaning — call it the logos if you wish — through which you and I have come into being.

So asking about the meaning of “meaning” does not send us in a circle. It returns us to our origin and to the immediately given character of the world that produced the deer and bee and us.

(from “How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life”)

July 19, 2021

It seems that, while we are free to imagine organisms chock full of machines, information processors, and cybernetic devices — all of which import the human interior into the organism — any actual reckoning with this conscious interior is taboo.

(from a talk titled “Toward a Thought-Full Teleology”)

July 12, 2021

[Regarding the view that humans are incompatible with nature and can only harm it:] We do as much damage by denying our profound responsibilities toward nature as by directly abusing them. If you charge me with anthropocentrism, I accept the label, though on my own terms. If there is one creature that may not healthily scorn anthropocentrism, surely it is ó anthropos. How should we act, if not from our own center and from the deepest truth of our own being? But it is exactly this truth that opens us to the Other. We are the place within nature where willing openness to the Other becomes the necessary foundation of our own life ...

There is no disgrace in referring to the “uniquely human.” If we do not seek to understand every organism’s unique way of being in the world, we exclude it from the ecological conversation. To exclude ourselves in this way reduces our words to gibberish, because we do not speak from our own center.

(from “A Conversation with Nature”)

July 5, 2021

The story of the Greek sun-god “Helios” could hardly have originated as an animistic effort to account for a material sun, given that neither the history of language nor what we know of mythic consciousness affords any evidence that a purely material sun had yet been conceived. The sun’s glory, its light and warmth, were directly and non-reflectively experienced as ensouled realities.

(from “A Physicist, a Philosopher, and the Meaning of Life”)

June 28, 2021

What do we mean when, regarding ourselves, we speak, as so many do, of a psychosomatic unity? Who will specify exactly what is meant by the psychological half of “psychosomatic”? And whatever is meant by it, how and in what sense do psyche and soma become a unity? — a question neither biologists nor cognitive scientists nor philosophers have been able to resolve with any hint of consensus, despite centuries of effort. Looking beyond ourselves, in what sense do we find anything like a psychosomatic unity in chimpanzee, nightingale, cricket, or amoeba? If we cannot answer such a basic question despite our being driven to employ a descriptive language that includes both physical and psychic terminology, then what do we understand?

(from “Who Are You and Who Am I and Who Are We?”)

June 21, 2021

We are nothing but creatures of meaning. We never make a movement that isn’t a meaningful gesture — one that the psychiatrist, physical therapist, student of temperaments, sociologist, stage director, and all the rest of us can read with more or less success. Even an infant, in its own way, finds significance in the most subtle human movements. Any infant who is not raised in a speaking environment fails to develop anything like normal human capacities. And “speaking environment” refers to the meaning implicit in every significant gesture. Before they themselves can speak, infants take an interest in and learn to read gestures — to the point of distinguishing, in silent videos, between speakers of two languages they have never heard before.

Meaning is just there, whether we speak words or not. Every act of ours is a signifying. And we collectively understand each other’s meanings well enough to engender civilizations that are infinitely complex tapestries woven from those meanings ...

Here, then, is my question for the skeptic: Where in the pervasive matrix of meaning I have just characterized do you find an unscientific obscurantism? More particularly, which of the meanings you speak and understand and found your life upon and discover in other creatures is a puzzle to you? I would like to know the precise nature of the disreputable element in these meanings you live by — for example, in all the words you have spoken, understood, and been willing to respond to today. This collection of words, I am sure, goes far beyond the more acceptable technical terms of any particular science. Yet, apart from specially deserving cases, you don’t recoil from such words in disgust.

(from “How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life”)

June 14, 2021

[Regarding human manipulation of the natural environment:] There is an alternative to the ideal of prediction and control. It helps, in approaching it, to recognize the common ground beneath scientific managers and those who see all human “intrusion” as pernicious. Both camps regard nature as a world in which the human being cannot meaningfully participate. To the advocate of pristine wilderness untouched by human hands, nature presents itself as an inviolable and largely unknowable Other; to the would-be manager, nature is a collection of objects so disensouled and unrelated to us that we can take them as a mere challenge for our technological inventiveness. Both stances deprive us of any profound engagement with the world that nurtured us.

My own hope for the future lies in a third way. Perhaps we have missed this hope because it is too close to us. Each of us participates in at least one domain where we grant the autonomy and infinite worth of the Other while also acting boldly to affect and sometimes even rearrange the welfare of the Other. I mean the domain of human relations.

We do not view the sovereign individuality and inscrutability of our fellows as a reason to do nothing that affects them. But neither do we view them as mere objects for a technology of control. How do we deal with them? We engage them in conversation.

(from “A Conversation with Nature”)

June 7, 2021

In Odysseus’ day, techne was a conscious resourcefulness that had scarcely begun to project itself into the material apparatus of life. What apparatus existed was an enticement for further creative expression of the nascent human self. While the technology of the Greeks may seem hopelessly primitive to us, it is worth remembering that the balanced awakening heralded by Homer culminated in a flowering of thought and art that many believe has never been surpassed for profundity or beauty anywhere on earth.

Today, that balance seems a thing of the past. The powers of our minds crystallize almost immediately, and before we are aware of them, into gadgetry, without any mediating, self-possessed reflection, so that we live within a kind of crystal palace that is sometimes hard to distinguish from a prison. The question is no longer whether we can use the enticement of clever devices as a means to summon the energies of dawning selfhood; rather, it is whether we can preserve what live energies we once had, in the face of the deadening effect of the now inert cleverness bound into the ubiquitous external machinery of our existence.

(from “The Deceiving Virtues of Technology”, Chapter 1 of In the Belly of the Beast)

May 31, 2021

We have learned, especially since Darwin, that knowledge of the past illuminates the biological present — that, as the mantra of contemporary evolutionary theorists would have it, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. The mantra could serve as Barfield’s theme as well, but with this difference: he did not forget to include consciousness in that which evolves. The omission, after all, looks on its face to be disastrous. If we had no hope of fully understanding the biology of organisms before the idea of evolution dawned upon us, how much more must we remain in darkness while ignoring the evolution of the cognitive instruments through which alone we can grasp that idea — that is, while ignoring the evolution of the instruments of our understanding itself.

(from “A Physicist, a Philosopher, and the Meaning of Life”)

May 24, 2021

In biology, the word “mechanism” today often refers merely to “lawful physical interaction”. This habit of expression makes it easier to associate physical lawfulness with machines. But clouds, though physically lawful, are not machines. Nor are rocks and rivers. Nor is cytoplasm.

If only biologists using the word “machine” were required to say what they mean beyond “lawful physical interaction”! The only thing distinguishing a machine from physical objects generally is the human purpose unnaturally imposed on the arrangement of parts. So anyone who feels the need to draw on the idea of a machine rather than lawful objects unmanipulated by human intelligence, is probably invoking human purposes under the table, even if unwittingly.

(from a draft of a talk titled “Toward a Thought-Full Teleology — Beyond the Hollow Organism”. The talk, not yet publicly available, is scheduled to be delivered at a June 28-29, 2021 conference sponsored by The Linnean Society of London. The conference theme is “Evolution ‘On Purpose’: Teleonomy in Living Systems”.)

May 17, 2021

In every sphere of knowledge it’s easy to put out of mind those questions that are so fundamental and yet so seemingly impenetrable that they leave everything we think we understand woefully ungrounded. Biology is no exception.

Who, or what, is the organism, and what guarantees the remarkable unity of character, the distinctive and recognizable way of being, consistently achieved by the developing individuals of a species? Where do we look for collection of parts — an explanation for the integral performance of the whole?

(from “Who Are You and Who Am I and Who Are We?”)

May 10, 2021

Are the meanings we find in the world specifiable? I would answer that we can always make a start at a valid description and, happily, we can never make an end of it. In observing the rose, we may note its color and beauty, its water- and sap-transporting processes, its thorny power of rending, its changing appearance under sunlight, shade, and moonlight, its unique relationship with each insect among its circle of animal companions, the scent of its flowers, its way of reflecting the world in a dewdrop, the distinctive pattern of its root growth, its cellular metabolism from one cell type to another, the sour taste of its fruits, and much, much more. And we may hope to glimpse, running through all these features, the unity that constrains the entire ensemble to perform qualitatively and harmoniously as this kind of plant, and not another.

No human biography or characterization of a plant is ever complete, but neither are we absolutely barred from any understanding we may seek. That is the way with meaning; we can always plumb it more deeply or from different angles. Meaning is never a fixed quantity, but always opens out onto the entire universe of meaning. Text and context are inseparable. And if we know enough to ask a half-way coherent question, then in the very framing of the question we have already found our way toward some of the understanding we seek.

(from “How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life”)

May 3, 2021

Why, after all, does Jack Turner agree with his opponents that acceptable “messing” with ecosystems would have to be grounded in successful prediction and control? Once we make this assumption, of course, we are likely either to embrace such calculated control as a natural extension of our technical reach, or else reject it as impossible. And yet, when I sit with the chickadees, messing with their habitat, it does not feel like an exercise in prediction and control. My aim is to get to know the birds, and to understand them. Maybe this makes a difference.

(from “A Conversation with Nature”)

April 26, 2021

[Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov remarked that] “The body of the universe is the totality of the real-ideal, the psycho-physical”. Solovyov points out that there can be no such thing as a “material unity” — not, at least, as matter is normally conceived. “Material things”, imagined as empty of thought, just coexist side by side. Any unity must be ideal. After all, even the mathematical laws of physics, which offer one route toward a unified understanding of phenomena, are ideas — but ideas that belong both to our understanding and to the nature of things themselves.

(from “Vladimir Solovyov on Sexual Love and Evolution”)

April 19, 2021

[It would be well to say:] “technology is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy, but as our friend, it will destroy us.” Of course technology threatens us, and of course it calls for a certain resistance on our part, since it expresses our dominant tendencies, our prevailing lameness or one-sidedness. The only way we can become entire, whole, and healthy is to struggle against whatever reinforces our existing imbalance. Our primary task is to discover the potentials within ourselves that are not merely mechanical, not merely automatic, not reducible to computation. And the machine is a gift to us precisely because the peril in its siding with our one-sidedness forces us to strengthen the opposite side — at least it does if we recognize the peril and accept its challenge.

(from “The Deceiving Virtues of Technology”, Chapter 1 of In the Belly of the Beast)

April 12, 2021

According to the evolutionary story that most of us have forcibly absorbed from a young age, humankind somehow raised itself above the beastly, mindless, material substrate of its origin so as to achieve, step by step, the mystifying wonders of language and poetry, music and art, politics and science, and all the other sublimations contributing to high culture. The sea of meaning within which we now swim — without which we would have nothing we could recognize as human life — somehow bubbled up from somewhere, if only as an illusion of the human mind, and cast a kind of spell over the bedrock meaninglessness of brute matter.

“Somehow”, I say, since the meaning at issue, and the question how it could have emerged from an eternal silence of Unmeaning is so great an enigma for conventional thinking that it has received no fundamental elucidation. Nor is it evident that we need to seek an origin of meaning. Perhaps what we will actually discover is a larger, meaning-soaked surround, progressively coming to a focus in human minds.

(from “A Physicist, a Philosopher, and the Meaning of Life”)

April 5, 2021

René Descartes’ cleaving stroke through the heart of reality has been almost universally accepted — perhaps most of all in biology. We live with the violence done to the unity and harmony of the world by that stroke, and merely choose which half of this improbably fractured whole to accept and which half to reject. And so the “material” that materialists accept is dualistic material, just as the mind, or interiority, they reject is dualistic interiority. Instead of searching for a non-Cartesian way forward, we imagine ourselves shut up in suspiciously deceptive minds, looking out at an alien world of mindless extended substance.

(from a draft of a talk tentatively titled “Toward a Thought-Full Teleology — Beyond the Hollow Organism”. The talk, not yet publicly available, is scheduled to be delivered at a June 28-29, 2021 conference sponsored by The Linnean Society of London. The conference theme is “Evolution ‘On Purpose’: Teleonomy in Living Systems”.)

March 29, 2021

Precisely at the point in evolutionary history where the understanding consciousness arises and becomes aware of itself, it begins to deny its own powers. We are those who, by grace of our own evolutionary inheritance, can in one way or another enter into the meaning of the life of every living creature and make it our own. Yet, fearing “anthropocentrism” — which is to say, fearing ourselves — we end up belittling the gift of understanding.

As for the dangers of anthropocentrism: yes, there are such dangers. Projecting ourselves onto other creatures as if they were blank screens is always a temptation. But I would say an equal danger today is quite the opposite. We are òi anthropoi, and it is therefore our obligation to be properly anthropocentric — to exercise our full potentials rather than to project onto ourselves and fellow organisms the character of particular mechanical products of our own activity. Scientists wish to understand life. Wouldn’t it be far better if they brought to bear upon this life the expressive powers of the living, cognizing thought through which we conceive and build machines, rather than constrain their thinking to the deadened terms of the contrived objects?

(from “How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life”)

March 22, 2021

If bird feeders are problematic [because of an unnatural crowding of birds], what was I to think of my own habit of sitting outside for long periods and feeding birds from my hands? Especially during the coldest winter weather and heavy snowfalls, I sometimes found myself mobbed by a contentious crowd, which at different times included not only chickadees but also titmice, red- and white-breasted nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, goldfinches, juncos, blue jays, cardinals, various sparrows, and a red-bellied woodpecker. To my great delight, several of the less wary species would perch on shoulders, shoes, knees, and hat, as well as hands.

But by what right do I encourage tameness in creatures of the wild? The classic issue here has to do with how we should assess our impact upon nature. Two views, if we drive them to schematic extremes for purposes of argument, conveniently frame the debate ...

(from “A Conversation with Nature”)

March 8, 2021

The Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov spoke of a two-fold impenetrability of things: they are separated from each other both in time and in space. “That which lies at the basis of our world is being in a state of disintegration, being dismembered into parts and moments which exclude one another”.

Overcoming this disintegration — re-membering ourselves and the world in which we live — is, as Solovyov saw it, a personal and social task with cosmic implications ... He cited — to give but one example of the principle of unity — a simple, profound, and universal physical phenomenon, one that would change a great deal of modern thought if we would only spend some time contemplating it: I mean the phenomenon of two objects gravitationally attracting each other. In Solovyov’s language: here we see that “parts of the material world do not exclude one another, but, on the contrary, aspire mutually to include one another and to mingle with each other”.

We could not retain our commonplace image of separate parts if we truly reckoned with the mutual participation of two objects gravitationally attracted to each other. It is not a matter of one object exerting an external force upon another “from a distance” (as students are often asked to imagine the matter), but of two entities caught up in a single, unified embrace wherein the being — the very substance and activity — of one is inseparable from that of the other. This truth, evident enough to the physicist, suggests that there is something pathological about our routine habits of perception through which we form our picture of a world consisting of separate and disconnected objects.

(from “Vladimir Solovyov on Sexual Love and Evolution”)

March 1, 2021

Early technological man carved out his civilized enclosures as hard-won, vulnerable enclaves, protected places within an enveloping wilderness full of ravening beasts and natural catastrophes. We, by contrast, live within a thoroughly technologized and domesticated landscape where it is the remaining enclaves of wildness that appear painfully delicate and vulnerable. Today, if we would set bounds to the wild and lawless, it is the ravening beast of technology we must restrain. If nature still threatens us, the threat is that it will finally and disastrously succumb to our aggressions.

(from “The Deceiving Virtues of Technology”, Chapter 1 of In the Belly of the Beast)

February 22, 2021

The question, “What sort of world do we live in?” came to be enveloped in darkness precisely at the point where our science was thought to be most fundamental! We have a physics of light and color framed as far as possible in language suitable for those who cannot see, and a science of acoustics that might just as well have been formulated by those who cannot hear.

The dismissal of qualities from science — which is to say, the dismissal of the world of experience — has meant that physicists, when they venture at all beyond their equations and well-designed instruments, lose themselves in a Wild West of speculation, illustrated by the “many worlds” theories so prominently heralded today. This is high-flying conjecture that puts to shame those medieval doctors whose soaring intellectual acrobatics were precisely what the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution so badly wanted to bring down to earth, where ideas could be tested within human experience.

(from “A Physicist, a Philosopher, and the Meaning of Life”)

February 15, 2021

Where do we look for an understanding of life? Where, if anywhere, does life put its own meaning on display most forthrightly and clearly?

There is one high promontory within the sprawling panorama of life on earth that does indeed afford a perspective upon the whole — a place from where the unique processes occurring throughout the kingdoms of life become peculiarly visible, manifesting their significance. There is, we can know without a doubt, one evolutionary achievement that offers not only an unlimited survey of the entire drama of life, but also lends itself to the penetrating insight we need for recognizing and expressing the many meaningful aspects of the drama.

This evolutionary achievement lies in the place we know best — in fact, the only place where the necessary sort of knowing occurs at all. It is where life becomes conscious of itself — where the living creature not only acts out its own significant existence, but is capable of contemplating this existence along with that of all other living things. It is the one outgrowth within the great, age-old tree of life where life’s own power of survey blossoms and reaches its fullest fruition: the understanding consciousness of man.

(from “How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life”)

February 8, 2021

What must be realized through individual human striving today can be seen as an expression — a further development and transformation — of the very processes that were at work in simpler, less individuated life forms. When we observe animals of increasing complexity, we notice a progressive internalization of function and an expansion of interior, sentient life, culminating in self-awareness. That which worked on the organism throughout evolutionary history to develop this capacity for self-awareness, now works through the human being in the exercise of this capacity. Is there any reason to doubt that it is the same power in both cases?

All of which suggests that evolution has had a certain mindful character all along — or a more-than-mindful character, inasmuch as the power to engender minds can hardly be alien or inferior to the capacity of the minds it engenders.

(from “Vladimir Solovyov on Sexual Love and Evolution”)

February 1, 2021

I’d like you to think for a moment of the various words we use to designate technological products. You will notice that a number of these words have a curious double aspect: they, or their cognate forms, can refer either to external objects we make, or to certain inner activities of the maker. A “device,” for example, can be an objective, invented thing, but it can also be some sort of scheming or contriving of the mind, as when a defendant uses every device he can think of to escape the charges against him. The word “contrivance” shows the same two-sidedness, embracing both mechanical appliances and the carefully devised plans and schemes we concoct in thought. As for “mechanisms” and “machines,” we produce them as visible objects out there in the world even as we conceal our own machinations within ourselves. Likewise, an “artifice” is a manufactured device, or else it is trickery, ingenuity, or inventiveness. “Craft” can refer to manual dexterity in making things and to a ship or aircraft, but a “crafty” person is adept at deceiving others.

This odd association between technology and deceit occurs not only in our own language, but even more so in Homer’s Greek, where it is much harder to separate the inner and outer meanings, and the deceit often reads like an admired virtue. The Greek techne, from which our own word “technology” derives, meant “craft, skill, cunning, art, or device” — all referring without discrimination to what we would call either an objective construction or a subjective capacity or maneuver. Techne was what enabled the lame craftsman god, Hephaestus, to trap his wife, Aphrodite, in a promiscuous alliance with warlike Ares. He accomplished the feat by draping over his bed a wondrously forged snare whose invisible bonds were finer than a spider’s silken threads. The unsuspecting couple blundered straightway into the trap. As the other gods gathered around the now artless couple so artfully imprisoned, a gale of unquenchable laughter celebrated the guile of Hephaestus. “Lame though he is,” they declared, “he has caught Ares by craft (techne).” Here techne refers indistinguishably to the blacksmith’s sly trickery and his skillful materialization of the trick at his forge.

Likewise, the Greek mechane, the source of our “machine,” “mechanism,” and “machination,” designates with equal ease a machine or engine of war, on the one hand, or a contrivance, trick, or cunning wile, on the other. The celebrated ruse of the Trojan Horse was said to be a mechane, and it was admired at least as much for the devious and unexpected turn of mind behind its invention as for the considerable achievement of its physical construction.

(from “The Deceiving Virtues of Technology”, Chapter 1 of In the Belly of the Beast)

January 18, 2021

If we believe that an empirical (experience-based) science — a science grounded in the conceptual ordering of sensible appearances — really does give us genuine knowledge of the world, then a reasonable conclusion is that this world is, by nature, a realm of conceptually ordered appearances possessing the qualities of sense. It asserts its existence and character in the terms of conscious, thought- and sense-derived experience.

(from “A Physicist, a Philosopher, and the Meaning of Life”)

January 11, 2021

[Regarding the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s treatment of evolution:] Consciousness alone is where the evolutionary process is first fully and explicitly realized. Evolution here “comes into its own” and declares itself in human awareness. That which has gone on from the beginning now operates, at least in part, through the conscious choice of the individual and the quest for universal ideals.

In slightly different words: what must be realized through individual human striving today can be seen as an expression — a further development and transformation — of the very processes that were at work in simpler, less individuated life forms. When we observe animals of increasing complexity, we notice a progressive internalization of function and an expansion of interior, sentient life, culminating in self-awareness. That which worked on the organism throughout evolutionary history to develop this capacity for self-awareness, now works through the human being in the exercise of this capacity. Is there any reason to doubt that it is the same power in both cases?

All of which suggests that evolution has had a certain mindful character all along — or a more-than-mindful character, inasmuch as the power to engender minds can hardly be alien or inferior to the capacity of the minds it engenders.

(from “Vladimir Solovyov on Sexual Love and Evolution”)

January 4, 2021

[Concerning the fairly recent researches into “competing endogenous RNAs”:] They participate in a vast “breathing” process, one of whose primary outcomes is the regulation — the balancing and counterbalancing — of the mRNAs themselves in proper relation to ever-changing conditions in the cell and its environment. The challenge for our understanding is considerable when we realize that all these RNAs are (to revise the metaphor only slightly) “swimming” in a common pool, one whose significant eddies and currents can be intricately distinct even as they continually flow one into the other.

The upshot of it all is that protein-coding RNAs are found to share broadly in the fluid life of the organism, and not to be mere cogs in a deterministic mechanism. In particular, they gain additional, noncoding (regulatory) functions, and the sharp distinction between coding and noncoding regions of DNA begins to look even more artificial than it has already become.

(from “RNA: Dancing with a Thousand Partners”)

December 28, 2020

Surely our technological prowess does reflect a practical knowledge of the world. But the pleasure and wonder of it easily blinds us to the fact that we remain infants in fundamental understanding. How often do we remind ourselves that the nature of matter and energy is a mystery to us, or that, when we speak of “the physical”, it is difficult to indicate even roughly what we mean? When we get down to the submicroscopic specifics, we find nothing there, no thing of any recognizable sort. We identify reliable mathematical relations suggesting particular structure, but we do not know: the structure of what?

(from “A Physicist, a Philologist, and the Meaning of Life”)

December 21, 2020

[Owen Barfield, commenting on nineteenth-century philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s view of sexual attraction and evolution, writes that Solovyov] opens with a biological survey which easily, and to my mind irresistibly, refutes the age-old assumption … that the teleology of sexual attraction is the preservation of the species by multiplication. On the contrary, it is apparent from the whole tendency of biological evolution that nature’s purpose or goal (or whatever continuity it is that the concept of evolution presupposes) has been the development of more complex and, with that, of more highly individualized and thus more perfect organisms. From the fish to the higher mammals quantity of offspring steadily decreases as subtlety of organic structure increases; reproduction is in inverse proportion to specific quality. On the other hand, the factor of sexual attraction in bringing about reproduction is in direct proportion. On the next or sociological level he has little difficulty in showing that the same is true of the factor of romantic passion in sexual attraction. Both history and literature show that it contributes nothing towards the production of either more or better offspring, and may often, as in the case of Romeo and Juliet, actually frustrate any such production at all.

Why then has nature, or the evolutionary process, taken the trouble to bring about this obtrusively conspicuous ingredient in the make-up of homo sapiens?

(from “Vladimir Solovyov on Sexual Love and Evolution”)

December 14, 2020

One finds that in once-isolated and sharply focused areas of molecular biological investigation, the focus is rapidly becoming less sharp. Boundaries are becoming more permeable, so that it is difficult to separate one topic from another. Every “classical” function of a molecule or structure or pathway is turning out to be just one of many different and often (at first) seemingly unrelated functions. Every niche is interwoven with other niches, and the play of “causes” and “effects” is more like the flow of a stream with its endless, interpenetrating eddies than an interaction of discrete machine parts

That’s why terms such as “network”, “systems approach”, “interconnected”, “combinatorial complexity”, and above all “crosstalk” and “context-dependence” now show up with such striking frequency in technical papers. The take-home message is that we’re witnessing a transformation in the way we must think of organisms.

(from “Dancing with a Thousand Partners”)

December 7, 2020

Can the kind of agency we witness so obviously in the development of an individual organism be at all applicable to evolution — that is, to vast populations of co-evolving organisms?

When we speak, not about physical processes as such, but rather about an underlying biological agency, intention, and purposiveness, then the distinction between an individual animal as a collection of molecules, cells, and tissues, on the one hand, and an entire population as a collection of organisms, on the other, becomes an open question. The whole business of telos-directed biological activity, wherever we have observed it, is to bridge radically different physical processes. That is, it brings diverse and complex physical phenomena — for example, in the brain, heart, liver, intestines, and skin of a developing mammal — into integral unity and harmony, making a larger whole of them. When we have seen this purposeful coordination and harmonization in one organic context involving many distinct physical elements, it is only natural to look for it in other organic contexts.

(from “Teleology and Evolution: Why Can’t We Have ‘Evolution on Purpose’?”)

November 30, 2020

When we speak of agency, we speak of capacities we ourselves routinely exercise. But at the same time we must admit that our experience of our own agency is closely bounded on all sides by mystery. We do not fully understand where our thoughts and actions come from, or how our intentions move our bodies. It would be a mistake to clothe the mystery of biological agency in the imagined form of a grandly sovereign, all-knowing human individual.

And if we cannot be entirely clear about the sources of agency in our own lives, we can hardly be dogmatic about the nature of the agency — or diverse agencies — at work in a single bee colony, a particular species of rodent, or the biosphere as a whole. Nothing, however, prevents our being good observers of living beings, which is also to be observers of the clear manifestations of biological agency. In this way we become familiar with the complex and perhaps many-voiced character — the way of being — of particular organisms.

(from “Teleology and Evolution: Why Can’t We Have ‘Evolution on Purpose’?”)

November 16, 2020

This sort of interpenetrability [characteristic of biological agencies] is exactly what we find in language — that is, in different contexts, and even in different words and phrases. We can put words together in infinitely varying ways. Any two words or ideas or philosophies, no matter how different, can be brought into meaningful relation, thereby modifying each other. A word is given its meaning by the character of the larger thought in which it participates, just as a heart receives its meaning from the larger organism in which it participates. Neither the word nor the heart thereby suffers a loss of identity, but rather gains in the richness of its meanings and its relational potentials.

(from “Teleology and Evolution: Why Can’t We Have ‘Evolution on Purpose’?”)

November 9, 2020

An animal’s development from zygote to maturity is a classic picture of telos-realizing activity. Through its agency and purposiveness, an animal holds its disparate parts in an effective unity, making a single whole of them. This purposiveness informs the parts “downward” from the whole and “outward” from the inner intention, and is invisible to strictly physical analysis of the interaction of one part with another.

(from “Teleology and Evolution: Why Can’t We Have ‘Evolution on Purpose’?”)

October 19, 2020

Technology is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy; as our friend it will destroy us. If we look to technology for the solution to our problems, we will only worsen our existing one-sidedness and invite the destruction of everything worth saving. If, on the other hand, we oppose technology with what is not machine-like in ourselves — with an ability to read the world instead of merely manipulating it and losing sight of it — then we will receive from technology the gift of our highest selves.

(from “Owen Barfield and Technological Society”)

Steve Talbott :: Biology Worthy of Life