Stephen L. Talbott

Stephen L. Talbott

The Nature Institute; Ghent, New York

After many years working in the engineering organizations of computer manufacturers, Talbott joined The Nature Institute as Senior Researcher in 1998. He has long been concerned about distortions introduced in biology by technological thinking. He attempts to show how our understanding of the organism and its evolution is transformed once we recognize and take seriously the organism as an intelligent agent meaningfully (though not necessarily consciously) pursuing its own way of life.

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When molecular biologists formulate their fundamental questions (how are DNA breaks repaired? how does the cell divide? how are RNAs localized in the cell? how are protein amounts regulated?) they seem to believe that the organism is actually capable of solving such problems.  That is, they believe it engages in the pursuit of ends, organizing its activity according to the idea or logic of the tasks at hand. But they commonly try to answer these questions merely by tracing and adding together local causes — showing how one thing controls another, how this makes that happen. Such making, however, never reaches to the biologically and contextually expressed intentional activity that informed the original questions. Causes by themselves do not pursue tasks. The always lawful molecular proceedings in the organism are vital to analyze, but to offer these proceedings as  explanations of a living performance is misguided. If the organism is able to coordinate physical causes for the satisfaction of its own needs and aims, then it governs those causes at least as much as it is governed by them.

How should we understand this governing? We need a reconciliation of the causal and intentional ways of thinking — a reconciliation that does justice to them both without a dualistic cleaving of the world.

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"We cannot understand evolution without understanding the life of the organism. This life is expressed in well-coordinated processes; organisms are not mere collections of molecules, “informational” or otherwise. What is inherited, then, are ways of doing things with the available resources. If an organism can differentiate and organize its tissues to form liver and skin, retina and endothelium, brain and heart — and if it does this adaptively and improvisationally amid the not always predictable conditions in which it finds itself — then why not assume that these same well-directed powers of adaptation and improvisation are brought to bear also upon the formation of its gonads and germ cells? The validity of this assumption is rapidly being confirmed today. It may be argued that organismal performances (ways of doing things) cannot figure in evolution because they do not offer a sufficiently stable content for natural selection to work on. But this is, first, to accept the incoherent notion that the environment, as the “grim reaper” of natural selection, is the creative agent in evolution, and, second, to deny that organisms, in responding to this environment, are the capable agents we observe them to be in all aspects of their own development. But if organisms are capable agents — agents harmoniously demonstrating their intention to live a life of a certain character even when this requires overcoming aspects of their environment — we should ask, not only how they may accidentally contribute to the fitness and survival of future generations, but also how they may creatively contribute to the evolving character of those future generations. DNA sequences are appealing as the sole or primary materials of inheritance because they give us conveniently and quantitatively trackable things. But stable things and our own mathematical convenience are not necessarily the best guides for understanding life and change. What if the more pressing need is to learn to track a qualitative and coherent organizing reality we have hardly yet begun to recognize because we haven’t yet even thought to look for it? "

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