A Biological Conjecture - Point 20



General Elaboration


This Page, this Point:

General Elaboration



Statement of Point


Further Considerations



"This problem [deciding whether a given biological theory is primarily or wholly internalist or externalist] raises an important possibility.  Perhaps the idea of adjudicating between internalist and externalist perspectives on the mind, or on evolution, is nonsensical.  Perhaps we are futilely trying to decompose phenomena which we know in our hearts cannot be decomposed in this way."  Godfrey-Smith, Peter.  Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature.  Cambridge University Press.  1996. p. 52.

"The essay 'Gene, Organism and Environment' takes up two fundamental metaphors that inform theoretical, experimental, and natural historical practice in biology.  These are the metaphors of development, which carries the implication of an unfolding of unrolling of an internal program that determines the organism's life history from its origin as a fertilized zygote to its death, and the metaphor of adaptation, which asserts that evolution consists in the shaping of species to fit the requirements of an autonomous external environment. That is, both in developmental and in evolutionary biology, the inside and the outside of organisms are regarded as separate spheres of causation with no mutual dependence.  The burden of the essay is that these metaphors mislead the biologist because they fail to take account of the interactive processes that link the inside and the outside."  Oyama, Susan, Paul E. Griffiths & Russell D. Gray.  Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.  2001.  Lewontin, Richard.  "Gene, Organism and Environment: A New Introduction"  p. 55.

“Contrast two evolutionarily distant relatives: the intestinal bacterium Escherichia coli and its host, ourselves. We span the spectrum of complexity in living organisms. The bacterium has minimal capability for perceiving and reacting to short-term changes in its environment, whereas the major portion of our body is devoted to these tasks.

Escherichia coli cells commit less than 5% of their molecular machinery to motion and perception, allowing only the simplest of responses....”

“Our bodies, in contrast, are built for specific, directed motion under the control of detailed perception. The bulk of our body weight is dedicated to sense, reaction, and motion.” Goodsell, David S. The Machinery of Life. Springer Verlag. 1998. p. 50.

"The question 'what is life?' has been posed in one form or another since the beginning of modern science. Is living matter basically the same as nonliving, only more complicated, or is something else required? Descartes placed living matter firmly within the ken of the laws of physics, or more specifically, mechanics. Since then, generations of vitalists, including the embryologist Hans Driesch, the philosopher Henri Bergson, and the physiologist J.S. Haldane, have found it necessary to react against the mechanical conception of life by positing an additional entelechy, or elan vital, which is outside the laws of physics and chemistry.

"The vitalists were right not to lose sight of the fundamental phenomenon of life that the mechanists were unable to acknowledge or to explain. But we no longer live in the age of mechanical determinism. Contemporary physics grew out of the breakdown of Newtonian mechanics at the beginning of the present century, both at the submolecular quantum domain and in the universe at large. The full implications for biology have yet to be worked out; although some major thinkers like Whitehead already saw the need to explain physics in terms of a general theory of the organism, thus turning the hierarchy of explanation upside down. Whitehead's view is not accepted by everyone, but, at least, it indicates that the traditional boundaries between scientific disciplines can no longer be upheld, if one is to really understand nature. Today, physics has made further inroads into the 'organic' domain, in its emphasis on nonlinear phenomena far from equilibrium, on coherence and cooperativity which are some of the hallmarks of living systems. The vitalist/mechanist opposition is of mere historical interest, for it is the very boundary between living and nonliving that is the object of our enquiry, and so we can have no preconceived notion as to where it ought to be placed.

"As a first tentative answer to the question of 'what is life,' we propose that life is a process of being an organizing whole. By 'whole,' we do not mean an isolated, monadic entity. Instead, it is an open system that structures or organizes itself by simultaneously 'enfolding' the external environment and spontaneously 'unfolding' its potential into highly reproducible or dynamically stable forms." "Biological Organization, Coherence, and Light Emission from Living Organisms," Mae-Wan Ho and Fritz-Albert Popp, Thinking About Biology, Edited by Wilfred Stein and Francisco Varela, Addision-Wesley, 1993, p. 183-4.

"Regular vigilance gradually turned into regular exploration, and a new behavioral strategy began to evolve; the strategy of acquiring information 'for its own sake,' just in case it might prove valuable someday. Most mammals were attracted to this strategy, especially primates, who developed highly mobile eyes, which, via saccades, provided almost uninterrupted scanning of the world. This marked a rather fundamental shift in the economy of the organisms that made this leap: the birth of curiosity, or epistemic hunger. Instead of gathering information only on a pay-as-you-go, use-it-immediately basis, they began to become what the psychologist George Miller has called informavores: organisms hungry for further information about the world they inhabited (and about themselves). Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett, Little, Brown and Company, 1991, pps. 180-1.

"Ecologists, geobiologists, and plant pathologists, awe-struck by the diversity and complexity of species interactions, are frustrated by the paucity of information available about natural communities. Given the fact of differential growth rates, it can be demonstrated mathematically that in a constant environment and in the absence of interrelationships among organisms, some one species should always predominate and outgrow all the others. Observations of natural populations, especially in freshwater environments, show the opposite to be true: rarely does a single species exclude all others. Why stable dynamic equilibria of many hundreds of species in the various niches of the marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments persist is not entirely understood. In spite of the nearly infinite biological potential for reproduction, balance is maintained. No matter if one frog lays 10,000 eggs or one mold disseminates 1,000,000 spores in a season; in the following season, only one frog lives and only one mold disseminates spores.

"Natural selection acts relentlessly throughout all stages of the life cycles of all organisms, yet all organisms are dependent on others for the completion of their life cycles. Never, even in spaces as small as a cubic meter, is a living community of organisms restricted to members of only a single species. Diversity, both morphological and metabolic, is the rule. Most organisms depend directly on others for nutrients and gases. Only photo-and chemoautrophic bacteria produce all their organic requirements from inorganic constituents; even they require food, gases such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, which, although inorganic, are end products of the metabolism of other organisms. Heterotrophic organisms require organic compounds as food; except in rare cases of cannibalism, this food comprises organisms of other species or their remains. Many heterotrophs are extraordinarily particular about their food sources; for example, some opisthobranchs choose only certain species of algae for their food and will starve rather than attempt to eat other, closely related algae. The lines between nutritional fussiness and dependency, parasitism, symbiosis, and other associations of different species are very fine; such interrelationships are always modulated by the environment. Many terms that distinguish different kinds of symbiosis have been defined--for example, mutualism, pathogenicity, commensalism, parasitism, parasymbiosis, phoresy, and biotrophism. So far as they describe only interspecific ecological relationships, they are misemphases--they obscure the genetic nature of the associations." Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, Lynn Margulis, W.H. Freeman, 1981, pp. 162-4.

“An autonomous agent must be an autocatalytic system able to reproduce and able to perform one or more thermodynamic work cycles.” Kauffman, Stuart. Investigations. Oxford University Press. 2000. p. 49.

“Cognition is useful in an environment which is characterized by:

(i) variability with respect to distal conditions that make a difference to the organism’s well-being, and by
(ii) stability with respect to relations between these distal conditions and proximal and observable conditions.”
Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature. Cambridge University Press. 1996. p. 118.

“At first glance, scepticism about a principled internal/external boundary looks absurd. Organisms are enclosed by physical structures. These barriers are essential for the metabolic integrity of the organism. From the point of view of physiology, the organism/environment distinction is both sharp and important. It does not follow that the boundary is principled when we consider development and evolution. Oyama is sceptical about the importance of the organism/environment interface in developmental biology because she does not think development is driven by discrete chunks of information, some of it internal and guiding the development of genetic traits, and some of it external, guiding an organism’s learning. In her view, the information needed in the development of every trait is constructed from both internal and external sources. Oyama might be wrong, but she cannot be refuted by appeal to the boundary’s importance for metabolic integrity.

“If the existence of a principled boundary is an open question in developmental biology, it is even more open in evolutionary biology. The metabolic argument for the boundary has even less grip. For the ‘organic systems’ in question do not have skins. For when Godfrey-Smith talks of organisms, he has in mind not single organisms but organism lineages. For example:

“‘... the organic system in question does play a role in determining whether... a given environmental pattern is relevant to it or not.... But the properties of the organic system that make the environmental pattern relevant need not be the same properties that the environmental pattern can help to explain.... The organism, by virtue of one set of organic properties, makes it the case that a given environmental pattern is relevant.’

“Lineages do not have skins. They have no metabolic integrity to preserve. It is not at all obvious that there is a principled demarcation in the causal history of an evolving lineage into external and internal factors. For example, Godfrey-Smith counts game theoretic and other frequency dependent effects in evolution as external factors. But these equally well can be thought of as internal to the lineage; they are after all features of the evolving population. So the set of evolutionary causes may not divide in any clean way into internal and external factors.” Sterelny, Kim. The Evolution of Agency and Other Essays. Cambridge University Press. 2001. p. 187. Subquote is from Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature. Cambridge University Press. 1996. p. 155.

“‘The organism which adjusts its behaviour to circumstances, but which does so in a rigidly pre-programmed way, has a first order property of complexity in its behaviour.

“‘Such an organism is inflexible in contrast to an organism which is able to modify its behaviour profile in the light of experience, an organism which modifies what behaviour it is that is produced in the presence of a given condition.... This is a second order property of complexity.’

“However, second order complexity is satisfied trivially by an organism with substantial first order complexity. A fish that changes sex in response to size cues will change its behavioural profile too: other stimuli will induce new responses. I have defended the idea that cognitive representation requires more than complex response to a single specific proximal stimulus. Ant hygiene, for example, is switched on by a specific proximal stimulus, oleic acid. Contrast the ant with the anti-predation responses of ravens, who recognize both different dangers, and the same danger through different cues. An organism that genuinely represents a given feature of its world must have several informational routes to that feature. There must be multiple channels between mind and world; organisms so equipped get behavioural feedback.” Sterelny, Kim. The Evolution of Agency and Other Essays. Cambridge University Press. 2001. pp. 191-2. Subquote is from Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature. Cambridge University Press. 1996. pp. 25-6.

"Another coined term, albeit proposed no more than half seriously, was endosemiotics, 'which studies cybernetic systems within the body.' Clearly, man's semiotic systems are characterized by a definite bipolarity between the molecular code at the lower end of the scale and the verbal code at the upper. Amid these two uniquely powerful mechanisms there exists a whole array of others, ranging from those located in the interior of organisms to those linking them to the external 'physical world,' which of course includes biologically and/or sociologically 'interesting' other organisms, like preys and predators. Semiotic networks are thus established between individuals belonging to the same as well as to different species. Jacob, who has more succinctly stated that the 'genetic code is like a language,' goes further: if they are to specialize, he points out, 'cells must ... communicate with each other,' and, at the macroscopic level, 'evolution depends on setting up new systems of communication, just as much within the organism as between the organism and its surroundings.'

"There is no absolute boundary where zoosemiotics abruptly turns into anthroposemiotics. Least of all is this a correlate of 'the appearance of a new property: the ability to do without objects and interpose a kind of filter between the organism and its environment: the ability to symbolize' which Jacob ascribes to mammals in general. So does Washburn, who refers to 'the mammalian brain as a symbolic machine.' In fact, the groundwork for the mosaic of changes that enable organisms to utilize symbols was prefigured much earlier, as Gordon M. Tomkins convincingly delineated, and was sketchily reviewed in the framework of Peirce's doctrine of signs in Sebeok. On the invertebrate side, insects, such as the balloon flies, have evolved a symbolizing capacity in one of their species, Hilara sartor. Also, John Z. Young has recently shown that the octopus deals with the world in a manner that can only be described as 'symbolic.' In a lecture given at the American Museum of Natural History in 1976, he said: 'The essence of learning is the attaching of symbolic value to signs from the outside world. Images on the retina are not eatable or dangerous. What the eye of a higher animal provides is a tool by which, aided by a memory, the animal can learn the symbolic significance of events.' Cephalopod brains may not be able to elaborate complex programs--i.e., strings of signs, or what Young calls 'mnemons'--such as guide our future feelings, thoughts, and actions, but they can symbolize at least simple operations crucial for their survival, such as appropriate increase or decrease in distance between them and environmental stimulus sources." "Zoosemiotic Components of Human Communication" by Thomas Sebeok, from Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology, Edited by Robert Innis, Indiana University, 1985, pp. 301-2.




Statement of Point

From the vantage of society thinking, a conjecture about biology can be made that underweights the reification of the organism alone and proffers a heavier weighting of the social intercourse outside organisms. This conjecture can be shaped thus:

bulletReality as societies is a useful description of both the biological organism and of the complete set of relationships for an organism from/to its niche and food web.
bulletAn organism has both an internal society (physiology) and an external society (mind).
bulletThe origin of these two primary societies comes from the chemistry of reactants and products where the direction of reaction can join in chains that are either looped back to the original reactants to form closed loops (an internal society) or are open-ended from/into the environment to describe concentrations and probabilities of an external society. Reactant-product chains thus form geometries that are either circular or radial.
bulletThe external society (mind) of an organism includes all non-internal pathways and relationships with any part of its internal society that are either probable or prepared for from its history. These relationships are characterized by discontinuities as compared to the more continuous relationships of the internal society. The discontinuities can be of time, distance or signal/noise ratios. Life is then characterized as double-facing societies--internal, circular, continuous and external, radial, discontinuous.
bulletPre-prepared pathways that are outward facing waiting to engage inputs can be said to “expect” the inputs. The discontinuity at the radial pathway often evolves into a cluster of helper paths facing outward in prepared support. Radial pathways and relations thus proliferate (e.g. a sense organ such as an ear). Even neutral elements such as cell walls are outer-directed in resisting external physical forces.
bulletThe evolution of complex societies/organisms results in a proliferation of outward-facing, discontinuous social couplings. Radial pathways can be at chemical, motor, support, perceptual or symbiotic, etc. levels.
bulletOrganisms with outward-facing couplings raise the degree of social couplings across the whole environment of reality to a point where more and more features and creatures in its surroundings become enlaced in their relevance relations or in their external society.
bulletHumans were the first creatures whose external societies attained circular closure so that features of the environment had relevance to each other so that fewer and fewer parts of the environment were without relevance, i.e. were outside the humans’ external society. In other words reality itself, the lightly interacting whole society, became an interacting society as the relevance of human society expanded into it to the point where interactions among relevances themselves were generated.
bulletAs the cultural supraorganisms of societies evolved, the laws of conservation of logic, social hierarchy and science became visible in the overall society of the universe. But even these like all societies are beyond any foreseeable closure.



Further Considerations




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Page updated 3/5/03