Biological Emergence and Pan-selection Hand-Waving

Epigenetic Algorithms

Mechanical metaphors have appealed to many philosophers who sought materialist explanations of life. The definitive work on this subject is T. S. Hall’s Ideas of Life and Matter (1969). Descartes, though a dualist, thought of animal bodies as automata that obeyed mechanical rules. Julien de la Mettrie applied stricter mechanistic principles to humans in L’Homme machine (1748). Clockwork and heat engine models were popular during the Industrial Revolution. Lamarck proposed hydraulic processes as causes of variation. In the late nineteenth century, the embryologists Wilhelm His and Wilhelm Roux theorized about developmental mechanics. However, as biochemical and then molecular biological information expanded, popular machine models were refuted, but it is not surprising that computers should have filled the gap. Algorithms that systematically provide instructions for a progressive sequence of events seem to be suitable analogues for epigenetic procedures. (Reid 2007: 263)

A common error in applying this analogy is the belief that the genetic code, or at least the total complement of an organism’s DNA contains the program for its own differential expression. In the computer age it is easy to fall into that metaphysical trap. However, in the computer age we should also know that algorithms are the creations of programmers. As Charles Babbage (1838) and Robert Chambers (1844) tried to tell us, the analogy is more relevant to creationism than evolutionism. At the risk of offending the sophisticates who have indulged me so far, I want to state the problems in the most simple terms. To me, that is a major goal of theoretical biology, rather than the conversion of life to mathematics. (Reid 2007: 263)

Robert G.B. Reid (2007, 263) Biological Emergences: Evolution by Natural Experiment. The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology.

If the emergentist-materialist ontology underlying biology (and, as a matter of fact, all the factual sciences) is correct, the bios constitutes a distinct ontic level the entities in which are characterized by emergent properties. The properties of biotic systems are then not (ontologically) reducible to the properties of their components, although we may be able to partially explain and predict them from the properties of their components… The belief that one has reduced a system by exhibiting [for instance] its components, which is indeed nothing but physical and chemical, is insufficient: physics and chemistry do not account for the structure, in particular the organization, of biosystems and their emergent properties (Mahner and Bunge 1997: 197) (Robert 2004: 132)

Jason Scott Robert (2004, 132) Embryology, Epigenesis, and Evolution: Taking Development Seriously

The science of biology enters the twenty-first century in turmoil, in a state of conceptual disarray, although at first glance this is far from apparent. When has biology ever been in a more powerful position to study living systems? The sequencing juggernaut has still to reach full steam, and it is constantly spewing forth all manner of powerful new approaches to biological systems, many of which were previously unimaginable: a revolutionized medicine that reaches beyond diagnosis and cure of disease into defining states of the organism in general; revolutionary agricultural technology built on genomic understanding and manipulation of animals and plants; the age-old foundation of biology, taxonomy, made rock solid, greatly extended, and become far more useful in its new genomic setting; a microbial ecology that is finally able to contribute to our understanding of the biosphere; and the list goes on. (Woese 2005: 99)

All this is an expression of the power inherent in the methodology of molecular biology, especially the sequencing of genomes. Methodology is one thing, however, and understanding and direction another. The fact is that the understanding of biology emerging from the mass of data that flows from the genome sequencing machines brings into question the classical concepts of organism, lineage, and evolution as the same time it gainsays the molecular perspective that spawned the enterprise. The fact is that the molecular perspective, which so successfully guided and shaped twentieth-century biology, has effectively run its course (as all paradigms do) and no longer provides a focus, a vision of the biology of the future, with the result that biology is wandering will-nilly into that future. This is a prescription for revolution–conceptual revolution. One can be confident that the new paradigm will soon emerge to guide biology in this new century…. Molecular biology has ceased to be a genuine paradigm, and it is now only a body of (very powerful) technique…. The time has come to shift biology’s focus from trying to understand organisms solely by dissecting them into their parts to trying to understand the fundamental nature of biological organization, of biological form. (Woese 2005: 99-100)

Conceptualizing Cells

We should all take seriously an assessment of biology made by the physicist David Bohm over 30 years ago (and universally ignored):

“It does seem odd … that just when physics is … moving away from mechanism, biology and psychology are moving closer to it. If the trend continues … scientists will be regarding living and intelligent beings as mechanical, while they suppose that inanimate matter is to complex and subtle to fit into the limited categories of mechanism.” [D. Bohm, “Some Remarks on the Notion of Order,” in C. H. Waddington, ed., Towards a Theoretical Biology: 2 Sketches. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press 1969), p. 18-40.]

The organism is not a machine! Machines are not made of parts that continually turn over and renew; the cell is. A machine is stable because its parts are strongly built and function reliably. The cell is stable for an entirely different reason: It is homeostatic. Perturbed, the cell automatically seeks to reconstitute its inherent pattern. Homeostasis and homeorhesis are basic to all living things, but not machines.

If not a machine, then what is the cell?

Carl R. Woese (2005, 100) on Evolving Biological Organization

(….) When one has worked one’s entire career within the framework of a powerful paradigm, it is almost impossible to look at that paradigm as anything but the proper, if not the only possible, perspective one can have on (in this case) biology. Yet despite its great accomplishments, molecular biology is far from the “perfect paradigm” most biologists take it to be. This child of reductionist materialism has nearly driven the biology out of biology. Molecular biology’s reductionism is fundamentalist, unwavering, and procrustean. It strips the organism from its environment, shears it of its history (evolution), and shreds it into parts. A sense of the whole, of the whole cell, of the whole multicellular organism, of the biosphere, of the emergent quality of biological organization, all have been lost or sidelined. (Woese 2005: 101)

Our thinking is fettered by classical evolutionary notions as well. The deepest and most subtle of these is the concept of variation and selection. How we view the evolution of cellular design or organization is heavily colored by how we view variation and selection. From Darwin’s day onward, evolutionists have debated the nature of the concept, and particularly whether evolutionary change is gradual, salutatory, or of some other nature. However, another aspect of the concept concerns us here more. In the terms I prefer, it is the nature of the phase (or propensity) space in which evolution operates. Looked at one way, variation and selection are all there is to evolution: The evolutionary phase space is wide open, and all manner of things are possible. From this “anything goes” perspective, a given biological form (pattern) has no meaning outside of itself, and the route by which it arises is one out of an enormous number of possible paths, which makes the evolution completely idiosyncratic and, thus, uninteresting (molecular biology holds this position: the molecular biologist sees evolution as merely a series of meaningless historical accidents). (Woese 2005: 101)

The alternative viewpoint is that the evolutionary propensity space is highly constrained, being more like a mountainous terrain than a wide open prairie: Only certain paths are possible, and they lead to particular (a relatively small set of) outcomes. Generic biological form preexists in the same sense that form in the inanimate world does. It is not the case that “anything goes” in the world of biological evolution. In other words, biological form (pattern) is important: It has meaning beyond itself; a deeper, more general significance. Understanding of biology lies, then, in understanding the evolution and nature of biological form (pattern). Explaining biological form by variation and selection hand-waving argumentation is far from sufficient: The motor does not explain where the car goes. (Woese 2005: 101-102)

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