The Nature Institute: Biology Worthy of Life

Quotes of the Week

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

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 the guarantor of this unity if we are unwilling to commit the obvious error of making a particular part of the organism — or an ever-varying 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”)