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A Strong Delusion 2.0
The machine metaphor again...
The machine analogy has put us on a wrong scent . . . How long are we to persist in refusing to look sheer hard facts in the face, merely in the interests of a seventeenth-century analogy which by now may well have outgrown its usefulness? Sooner or later biology will have to take account of them if there is to be any theoretical biology.
—Joseph Henry Woodger
One of the great deceptions of the past few hundred years is that of the machine model of everything. I’ve spoken of this in the past and would like to revisit it in this series, A Strong Delusion, because the fallacy of the machine model when applied to the living world leads us away from reality to an easily manipulated abstraction of things. I think if we had more of a grasp of two fundamental principles, namely relationships and flow, we’d have a better time comprehending ourselves and the world. And when I say ‘relationships’ I’m not talking about romance or the relationship you have with your mother-in-law, although those things are part of the bigger picture. I’m talking about the ‘betweenness’ that forges relationship - like the relationship between the notes of a melody, or between firing neurones and a conscious thought, or between one heartbeat and the next. And when I say ‘flow’ it’s not only the notion of a ‘flow state’ but the dynamic and energetic dance of the material, the immaterial, within time.
If you are interested, and a paying subscriber, you can read my earlier take on this machine model topic here:
In this post I’m going to take the lead of Daniel J. Nicholson from the University of Exeter in the UK who was an editor and contributor to the book Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology. The book is a collection of essays by various academics covering the philosophy and science of perceiving and modelling biology. In chapter 7 of this work Nicholson writes Reconceptualizing the Organism From Complex Machine to Flowing Stream, a title that does not leave us guessing as to where he is going and I believe a direction we all need to pay attention to.
The radical shift in our conceptualisation of the nature of things, since the seventeenth century, has so transformed our collective mind that it is difficult to think of the world as anything but mechanical in essence. This would have been rather alien to the ancients but for us in the 21st Century it is a given - everything from the grand procession of the galaxies to life on earth, down to the subatomic world, works like a fine tuned machine.
Metaphors are powerful tools for grasping an understanding of things, and the machine metaphor has had such a spectacular run during our epoch of science that we have forgotten that it is a metaphor at all. The clockwork universe became for us, not a metaphor, but the way things really are. But it had not always been that way:
Many of the pivotal figures of early modern science and philosophy displayed a dismissive—if not downright hostile—attitude toward metaphors, denouncing them as illegitimate rhetorical devices that compromise the clarity and objectivity of rational discourse. Today such views are rare, as there is widespread recognition of the indispensable roles that metaphors play in scientific theory and practice. But out of the endless array of metaphors used in science, it is difficult to think of one that has been more dominant and has exerted a greater influence than the machine metaphor, which provided the basic theoretical foundation for mechanicist natural philosophy in both physics and biology. (Nicholson, 2018, p. 140)
In the world of physics the machine model could not hold up given the discovery of quantum mechanics, although the language still seems pervasive in the field. But for the most part the classic mechanistic metaphor had to be abandoned in the light of something very different in the quantum realm. But for some reason the biologists, except for a short spell in the 1920s, held onto the machine metaphor and actually reinvigorated it with an energetic neo-Darwinian view of living things. Nicholson calls this the machine conception of the organism (MCO), and sees it as the most pervasive metaphors in modern biology. I would have to agree with him and even suggest that the MCO has morphed from metaphor to a perception of reality!
The metaphor in our age has taken on a new level of complexity, flexibility, and adaptability, because of the invention of the computer. Now genes can be thought of as machine code, executing programs that develop an embryo into an adult, each component of which is akin to either the hardware of a computer or it’s software. The cell is a marvellous factory of specialised molecular machines producing proteins and chemicals, with its own power station and coded plans for its minute by minute output.
As natural as this metaphor seems to be to us, Nicholson argues that there are some fundamental differences between machines and living things that need to be re-appreciated to escape the mesmerising grip of the machine metaphor. Firstly living things are intrinsically purposive, their activities and internal operations are about their own maintenance of their own organisation. This is different to a machine that is extrinsically purposive, in that their workings fulfil the functional ends of an external agent. Secondly there is an argument from the perspective of thermodynamics that sheds light on other fundamental differences between machines and organisms.
The science of thermodynamics came about to understand the relationship between heat and work, and very early on in this exploration living things were conceived as heat engines. Antonie Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, characterised respiration as a form of combustion and conducted the first calorimetry experiments likening heat and carbon dioxide produced by an animal to an engine. His thinking went something like this: ‘The animal machine is governed by three main regulators: respiration, which consumes oxygen and carbon and provides heating power; perspiration, which increases or decreases according to whether a great deal of heat has to be transported or not; and finally digestion, which restores to the blood what it loses in breathing and perspiration’
The nineteenth century saw physiology develop along with thermodynamic theories and the two became intertwined with organisms being described as heat engines obeying the first law of thermodynamics - an idea that proved problematic the more we understood the nature of physiology, for example:
In combustion, the surmounting of the energy of activation—which is necessary for the accomplishment of oxidative reactions—is achieved by raising the temperature considerably, whereas in respiration this is not needed. Instead, respiration relies on the enzymatic lowering of the energy of activation. If the transformation of energy were to take place in organisms in the same way that it does in heat engines, then, at temperatures at which living systems can exist, the coefficient of their useful activity would fall to an insignificant fraction of 1 per cent. (Nicholson, 2018, p. 142 footnote)
Applying the second law of thermodynamic to organisms is even more problematic, especially to the theory of evolution. This law negates the possibility of perfect transformation of heat into work. Entropy is at play in this theory where energy to do work is decreasing and dissipated energy is increasing.
Every natural change, whether physical or chemical, exhibits this utterly irreversible tendency—pithily described by Arthur Eddington as the ‘arrow of time’—which results in a net, ever growing increase in disorder. Such an inexorable trend towards a uniform distribution of heat and the consequent ‘running down’ of the universe into a state of dead inertness is diametrically opposed to what we find in the living world, where there is a clear evolutionary tendency for complexity and organization to increase progressively with time. What are we to make of this paradoxical situation? (Nicholson, 2018, p. 143)
Now if you have been following this series you will know that I don’t subscribe to the idea of Darwinian evolution and that there is actually entropy at play in the generational progression of our genome. We started off way more ordered than we are now - the second law of thermodynamics holds true in regards to our degradation of our genetic integrity.
Nevertheless, this inconvenient concept of entropy threw a spanner in the works for the machine model of organisms until a work around was conceived. The response was that although overall entropy in the universe was increasing, at a local level, like the evolution of organisms, there could be an increase in order (negative entropy) as long as the net sum of order versus chaos was an increase in entropy. Schrödinger basically said that living things, to maintain their organised condition, feed on the free energy outside themselves, until they fall prey to the ultimate entropy, death, ushering in local thermodynamic equilibrium as it pertained to that poor soul.
To stay away from thermodynamic equilibrium (death) organisms need to constantly exchange energy and matter with their environment - they are open systems. Machines, however, exist in near equilibrium and do not have to constantly exchange energy and matter with their surroundings (to maintain static stability). Your motor vehicle sitting idle in your garage overnight is in a very different state of stability in the morning than you would be if you spent the night completely shut down (no respiration, no heartbeat, no brain activity, etc). Your vehicle would spark to life at the turn of the ignition switch. You, however, would be off to the morgue.
Organisms achieve a dynamic stability by maintaining a low-entropic steady state through continual use of free energy. And just like organisms, other open non-equilibrium system exist such as flames, whirlpools, tornadoes, etc. If they reach an equilibrium they cease to be. But the organism is the most fascinating open system due to the non-linear, self-organising nature of living things:
lya Prigogine, whose foundational work in establishing non-equilibrium thermodynamics earned him a Nobel Prize in 1977, referred to these open systems as dissipative structures. Perhaps the most significant achievement of this new field of physics has been to show how self-organization arises in nature—that is, to explain how the macroscopic patterns of order displayed by dissipative structures spontaneously emerge from non-linear interactions and become stabilized in far-from-equilibrium conditions through an ongoing flux of energy and matter Organisms, from this perspective, are the most stable and complexly differentiated dissipative structures in existence. (Nicholson, 2018, pp. 144-45)
Claude Bernard, had the notion that organisms maintain an internal state of consistency in contrast to whatever external disturbances are outside of the organism. This, in turn, led Walter Cannon to formulate his concept of homeostasis:
The highly developed living being is an open system having many relations to its surroundings . . . The coordinated physiological reactions which maintain most of the steady states in the body are so complex, and are so peculiar to the living organism, that it has been suggested . . . that a specific designation for these states be employed—homeostasis. (Cannon, 1929, p. 400, emphasis added)
And of course the process that maintains an organisms steady state away from equilibrium is metabolism - using large amounts of free energy to avoid entropy, and thus stay organised, dynamically stable and alive.
But what about an engine? Doesn’t it ‘metabolise’ fuel and appear to have a similar form of stability when running as does an organism?
The engine has a physical frame that remains fixed and the materials that run through it (fuel, air, water, oil) are decidedly separate from the frame. The frame serves to channel the material, house the explosion, and is moved by it. An organism, however, changes in a continuous flow of metabolic activity.
Organisms are constantly being reconstituted from the matter they import from their surroundings, and consequently it is impossible to maintain the distinction between food materials and bodily constituents. As Hans Jonas phrased it, in an organism ‘[t]he exchange of matter with the environment is not a peripheral activity engaged by a persistent core: it is the total mode of continuity (self-continuation) of the subject of life itself’. This is why the fuel–food analogy is so misleading, and why the stability of a machine—despite its apparent dynamicity—ultimately resides in an unchanging material structure. In machines there is a specific ‘inflow’ and a specific ‘outflow’. In organisms everything flows. (Nicholson, 2018, pp. 146)
And even when a machine does reconfigure itself to achieve a certain end (a ‘transformer’ vehicle/robot comes to mind) it does so under rigid, precise and predetermined cycles of operation and is reset to its original configuration to enable it to perform that function again. There is no genuine process of transformation, but for the organism there is a continuous modification of structure in response to the environment. Organisms can heal and adapt in the most flexible of ways, unlike the rigidity of a machine. One example that comes to mind is the case of genetic researchers removing genes from a frog that would give it sight. Once the genes are removed and you have a generation of blind frogs you’d expect every generation after that to be blind. But in an amazing feat of spontaneous recovery a few generations down the line, these frogs regained their genetic attribution of sight. This wasn’t evolution. There was something like a ‘memory’ within the whole of the genome about sight that was then reconstituted. There is a dynamic and plasticity of the organism that machines do not have. Yes we can program a certain amount of self-repair into a machine, but it is a far cry from truly adaptive self-maintenance.
Machines take part in various processes, whereas organisms are wholly the process.
I might leave it there to keep these post relatively short and next time we will touch on how we get to a processual conception of the organism and why you are more like a river than a machine (some are more like thunderstorms, but I’ll leave that for a post on psychopathology).
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Cannon, W. B. (1929). Organization for Physiological Homeostasis. Physiological Reviews, (9) 399–431.
Nicholson, D. J., & Dupré, J. (Eds.), (2018). Everything flows: Towards a processual philosophy of biology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.