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A Strong Delusion 2.1
The machine metaphor continued.
Continuing from last time where we were going through the chapter Everything Flows: Toward A Processual Philosophy of Biology by Daniel J. Nicholson, let’s continue to explore this idea. And to reiterate once again why I’m doing this, is because the pervasive machine model of just about everything, and especially biology, is part of the grand delusion we find ourselves in.
The machine conception of the organism (MCO) has certainly dominated our view of living things since the seventeenth century but has not been the only metaphor to understand biology. Bertalanffy (1952) in his treatise Problems of Life: An Evaluation of Modern Biological and Scientific Though, appeals to the famous aphorism of Heraclitus that it is impossible to step into the same river twice because fresh water is forever flowing through it. The stream is always changing. Similarly, organisms have a processual nature that is ever changing, as Bertalanffy says, ‘living forms are not in being, they are happening; they are the expression of a perpetual stream of matter and energy which passes the organism and at the same time constitutes it’. He referred to this view as the stream of life conception (SLC).
So what does this SLC give us as opposed to the MCO?
The external form of a stream is stable only because of the constant flow of water molecules that enter into it and emerge out of it. The moment this flow is interrupted, the stream itself disappears, as its very existence depends on the steady movement of water passing through it. In the same way, the physical form of an organism is merely the visible expression of the constancy of catabolic and anabolic processes going on within it. Its persistence through time is entirely dependent on the extremely intricate balancing of these two opposing kinds of reactions. As metabolism proceeds, with the steady import of nutrients and export of wastes, not much remains at a later time of the matter that once composed the organism. The SLC thus embodies two essential and complementary aspects of organismic dynamics: the continuous exchange of matter that lies at the very heart of the concept of metabolism on the one hand, and the surprising stability of form that is maintained in spite of this material exchange on the other. (Nicholson & Dupré, 2018, pp.148-9)
This is a starkly different picture to that of the steady state system of a machine. A processual perspective, like that of a stream, is necessary to grasp the true nature of such thermodynamically open system in a state of continual flux. Another attempt at a metaphor for the living was by Georges Cuvier in 1817 who proposed the following:
Life then is a vortex, more or less rapid, more or less complicated, the direction of which is invariable, and which always carries along molecules of similar kinds, but into which individual molecules are continually entering, and from which they are continually departing; so that the form of a living body is more essential to it than its matter. As long as this motion subsists, the body in which it takes place is living—it lives. When it finally ceases, it dies.
This gives us a sense of the transient nature of what constitutes the organism yet while maintaining its form. Since I wrote the first part of this article about 4 days ago, 1.32 trillion cells have been replaced in my body, about 4% of me. My constitution is not the same as it was 4 days ago yet I maintain the same recognisable form (even, unfortunately, my weight has remained stable). In a years time the ‘stream’ of me will have almost completely changed, yet, bar a few more grey hairs, I’ll be basically the same form (unless I can also get rid of some fat cells along the way). It is both the form and the continual exchange of materials that makes the living, living. With form only and no metabolism, the body is dead. A motor vehicle can be turned off (‘dead’) and yet still keep its integrity as a motor vehicle - my dead body won’t retain its integrity (as any can attest who has worked with dead bodies). The SLC perspective, by the 20th century did have a number of voices:
Lawrence Henderson, for instance, argued that ‘[l]iving things preserve, or tend to preserve, an ideal form, while through them flows a steady stream of energy and matter which is ever changing’. John Scott Haldane also stressed the energetic and material flux taking place in the organism, declaring that ‘organic structure is nothing but a molecular stream’. Charles Sherrington, for his part, described the cell as ‘an eddy in a stream of energy’ and as ‘a stream of movement which has to fulfil a particular pattern in order to maintain itself’. (Nicholson & Dupré, p. 150)
But water was not the only metaphor that proved useful in describing living things. Fire, as a metaphor, was also helpful in illustrating the nature of energy exchange in relationship to stability of form. When a candle is lit the flame settles into a stable dynamic as long as it has the oxygen and wax supplied to continue the combustion. John Burton Sanderson Haldane said that ‘a man is as much more complicated that a flame as a grand opera is more complicated that a blast on a whistle. Nevertheless, the analogy is real… a flame is like an animal in that you cannot stop it, examine the parts, and start it again, like a machine. Change is part of its very being’ (Haldane, 1940, p. 57).
And indeed man is more complicated (and complex) than a flame - organism have a greater de tree of stability due to the fact that they can store energy and manage metabolic needs without a continual supply of external energy. There is also the fact that organisms have physical boundaries and a much greater degree of complexity in functionally differentiated internal workings with complex interactions that also regulate the intake, use, and output of energy.
However the MOC view of biology won the upper hand as research focused on molecular biology’s preoccupation with coding, replication and expression of genetic information - we were more like a computer than a flame, it seemed. But as we progressed in our knowledge there were still fundamental things the MOC could not grasp about the living. In A New Biology for a New Century, Carl Woese points the finger at the MCO as a major obstacle to further progress in biology. He offers the following:
If they are not machines, then what are organisms? A metaphor far more to my liking is this. Imagine a child playing in a woodland stream, poking a stick into an eddy in the flowing current, thereby disrupting it. But the eddy quickly reforms. The child disperses it again. Again it reforms, and the fascinating game goes on. There you have it! Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow—patterns in an energy flow. A simple flow metaphor, of course, fails to capture much of what the organism is. None of our representations of [the] organism capture [sic] it in its entirety. But the flow metaphor does begin to show us the organism’s (and biology’s) essence. And it is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not materialistically, as machines, but as (stable) complex, dynamic organization[s]. (Woese, 2004, p. 176)
Given that the SLC can more accurately characterise living systems, in terms of thermodynamics, than can the MOC, Nicholson offers 3 ontological lessons to illustrate what a non-MOC, processual conception of biology might look like. I’ll try to summarise as briefly as possible here:
1) Activity is a necessary condition for existence.
“Owing to their thermodynamic condition, organisms—like all other dissipative structures—can only exist insofar as they are able to maintain themselves in a steady state far from equilibrium, and this requires a constant expenditure of free energy. “
‘Being’ does not precede activity, but rather activity is part of being. As has been pointed out a number of times now, a machine can ‘be’ without being active and can move back and forth between being active and ‘off’, unlike organisms.
2) Persistence is grounded in the continuous self-maintenance of form.
Remember I’m going to consist of different material in a year’s time, I’m in continual flux, yet my form remains. In fact the flux is necessary, the ‘self-maintenance of form’ or I’ll be dead.
3) Order does not entail design.
“Machines exhibit a static organization, in the sense that their physical architecture—as well as the degrees of freedom of their parts—is fixed upon manufacture. Organisms, on the other hand, exhibit a dynamic organization in the sense that their form reflects a stabilized pattern of continuous material exchange with their environment.”
For the last part, I do not subscribe to the notion that organisms ordered nature has completely and spontaneously sprung out of disorder and therefore have had no order imposed upon them. I believe there is a Creator who created the order we see in biology and not a spontaneous evolutionary process. But I’ve been covering this in other posts.
The machine metaphor has proven irresistible to the biological sciences but falls short on the most fundamental levels. I think we can all benefit greatly from moving away from the machine model when it comes to living things and adopt a model that better represents resilient processes of dynamic systems in biology. Who knows, maybe this will free us up in other areas to not be so deterministic and reductionistic in our conceptualisations of other areas of life? Let’s leave the machine model for machines, and a more processual view for living things.
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Bertalanffy, L. von. (1952). Problems of Life: An Evaluation of Modern Biological and Scientific Thought. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Haldane, J. B. S. (1940). Keeping Cool and Other Essays. London: Chatto & Windus.
Nicholson, D. J., & Dupré, J. (Eds.), (2018). Everything flows: Towards a processual philosophy of biology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Woese, C. R. (2004). A New Biology for a New Century. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 68, 173–86.