The Scientific Misconception of Life

Sea Life (William Dickes, 1873)
Sea Life (William Dickes, 1873)

Part of me is reluctant to write this, because it is like biting the hand that feeds me. Science is my profession, which means I make a living playing the game that I am about to criticize. By day I run a federally-funded lab doing experiments on microscopic marine animals in order to learn how a single cell—the fertilized egg—uses its genetic inheritance to reproduce, through a process of cell division, growth and differentiation, a complex multicellular organism that looks very much like its parents. It is one of the most amazing facts of life, and because of the work that I and my scientific colleagues do, we now have a detailed picture of how it works.

But, with a few exceptions, this picture (and biomedical science in general) is based on, and propagates, a fundamentally misconceived view of life. The misconception is that living systems—cells, organisms, and ecosystems—can be adequately understood as mechanisms. They can’t. Mechanisms (i.e. machines ) are not alive. While it is true that mechanistic determinism explains much that is predictable about anatomy and physiology, mechanisms left to their own devices do not do any of the things that distinguish life from non-life, the quick from the dead. They do not reproduce themselves, and they do not self-organize. Machines are, in essence, dead.

To see this all we need do is consider an animal at the moment of death. What is different? Within the dead body the parts are all the present and more or less in working order. So what is different is not a loss of underlying mechanisms, or even their failure. Broken mechanisms can be fixed. If your car dies chances are that all you need do to get it running again is to repair it. If life were strictly mechanical then Victor Frankenstein’s quest to reanimate a dead body would be a real possibility. But it doesn’t work that way. As far as we know the dead cannot come back to life; everything (and everyone) that is alive today is the continuation of something that has been alive since life began.

And yet biomedical science is obsessed with the metaphor of mechanism. This obsession extends to the point of denigrating phenomenology and rejecting out of hand any non-mechanical explanation. In my field it is not possible to publish a paper that is deemed merely ‘descriptive’, i.e. one that does not elucidate the molecular-cellular-genetic mechanism underlying a given biological phenomenon—at least not in a top-tier scientific journal. And as you have probably heard, the game is one of publish or perish. For biomedical scientists, finding a ‘mechanistic’ explanation is the be-all and end-all of the research enterprise.

But life is clearly not a machine. So why then do most biologists insist on explaining life in terms of mechanisms?

The answer to that is a long story that I won’t tell here. Suffice it to say that it is a metaphysical position that was historically adopted by western philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment, motivated in part with a desire to unburden thought from religious dogma. It is truly ironic, because the obsession with mechanism is a legacy of Isaac Newton (1643-1727)—a devout (if unorthodox) believer who viewed his work as being a rational exegesis of God’s design. But Newton’s successors used his work to argue that a supernatural being is entirely superfluous in a deterministic universe that is causally closed. According to the great mathematician and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), all that is needed to both explain the workings of nature and accurately predict the future (the job of scientists) are the laws of motion and sufficient knowledge of the state of things (basically, positions and momentums) at any given time. When Napoleon asked Laplace about his failure to mention God in his book explaining the universe, Laplace famously answered “I had no need for that hypothesis”. This point of view allowed biologists in the 19th century to reject vitalism, the doctrine that life is motivated by a vital force that is not found in non-living things. The implication was that a sufficient understanding of life requires only (1) the parts list of the system (e.g., for an organism this would be the organs, tissues, cells, and molecules—DNA, RNA, protein, lipid membranes, etc), and (2) knowledge of how the parts are put together to constitute a functional mechanism.

To be fair, this approach to understanding life has worked medical wonders. It is in fact the basis of the drug industry that runs modern medicine. But it doesn’t explain life. It doesn’t even really begin to get at life. As I said, mechanisms aren’t alive. Trying to understand life in terms of molecular mechanisms is like trying to understand a hurricane by mapping the positions and momentums of the air molecules getting sucked into the vortex. That’s not going to tell you what causes a hurricane, or even give you much insight into what a hurricane is all about.

Moreover, it can be argued that, for all the good it has done, over the long-run the mechanistic paradigm of biomedical research (like the industrial revolution in general of which it is but part) has produced an equal if not greater measure of harm. Don’t get me wrong—I am not arguing that we should do away with reductionistic biomedicine—it is a necessary part of the picture. Nor am I an anti-industry Luddite. I like the economic privileges granted by industrialized civilization as much as the next guy. I am only saying that the blinders imposed by our narrow fixation on mechanism cause big problems. The mechanical mindset underpins a way of life that is way out of balance with nature. To see that one need only think of the environmental catastrophes that beset us (remember DDT and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring?), or follow the news of the latest drug recalls.

Not all biologists are obsessed with mechanism, and some have developed models of life that are more organic. This group includes Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who, while inspired by Newton, paved the way toward a scientific understanding of life based on an evolutionary (i.e. historically contingent rather than mechanically deterministic) explanation that begins to address the question ‘why’ (as opposed to the ‘how’ addressed by mechanistic determinism). But Darwin didn’t go far enough—although he reinvigorated scientific appreciation of the fundamental role played by random chance and history, his theory remains limited in explanatory scope. One of its biggest limitations is that it does not readily explain how life developed from a pre-living organic chemistry, a problem that remains unsolved by science, which unfortunately fuels the fires of creationist “intelligent design” sophistry.

To overcome that mental block science needs a new paradigm that transcends Darwin, much as the work of Einstein and Heisenberg transcended Newton. Fortunately such a paradigm appears to be developing from within the field of complexity research, drawing from the conceptual frameworks of thermodynamics, information theory, hierarchy, category theory, cybernetics (feedback-based causality), ecology, and semiotics (communication through signification). In this formulation the key to life is not its underlying mechanisms, but the relational context (organization) that affords the feedback necessary for emergence of information, coupled to a structural template (e.g. a complex polymer) that can store and reproduce that information, allowing for selection.

Here are some of my favorite books that introduce this promising new way of investigating life:

A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin
A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin

Robert Ulanowicz is a theoretical ecologist who uses information theory to model the growth and development of ecosystems. In this book he presents a compelling argument for why the monistic determinism of Newton and Darwin does not suffice to explain the inherent creativity of life. He then develops a case for a new dualistic science of 'process ecology', based on random chance and the selective agency of autocatalytic cycles.

 
Development and Evolution: Complexity and Change in Biology
Development and Evolution: Complexity and Change in Biology

This book by Stanley Salthe completely changed my way of thinking, and is a must read for anyone with an interest in Natural Philosophy. Salthe revives Aristotelian causal categories (including final cause, cast in an entirely materialistic framework), melds thermodynamics and information into a process of 'info-dynamics', and shows how scalar and specification hierarchies inform our understanding of complexity and change in nature.

 
Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry Into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life (Complexity in Ecological Systems)
Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry Into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life (Complexity in Ecological Systems)

Pioneering theoretical biologist Robert Rosen shows that reductionism cannot explain life, as it dispenses with the definitive organization of living systems. To understand complexity Rosen develops mathematical formalisms based on set theory and category theory. The advanced math makes the second half of the book a difficult read, but it is worth the effort.

 
Global Insanity: How Homo sapiens Lost Touch with Reality while Transforming the World
Global Insanity: How Homo sapiens Lost Touch with Reality while Transforming the World

My own book written with Don Mikulecky, a theoretical biologist who has made seminal contributions to physiology, network thermodynamics, and complexity science that elucidate and extend the work of Rosen.

 

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Comments 19 comments

sid_candid profile image

sid_candid 6 years ago

Interesting Hub with lots of useful information.


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 6 years ago from SE MA

It's physics. Everything is: mechanics, biology, whatever, it all comes from the underlying physics of our universe. Life IS machinery - complicated, but just machinery.

What is the difference between a working computer and a dead one? I can rewrite your words: Within the dead computer the parts are all the present and more or less in working order.

The only difference is that we don't understand the complexity of life well enough to repair it. Not yet, anyway, but we move closer to that every year,and we WILL get there.

There is no magic in life. It's just physics.


Gerry Hiles profile image

Gerry Hiles 6 years ago from Evanston, South Australia

Mechanism is not due to Newton.

Mechanism has been attributed to Rene Descartes, but then go read his discourse on the soul.

Sorry mate, but you have no understanding of "Western Philosophy", which goes way back to Plato and his (or Socrates) "Theory of Forms".

Pcunix:

The difference between a computer and life - including you - is that we have passions and emotions.

Go read David Hume.


Gerry Hiles profile image

Gerry Hiles 6 years ago from Evanston, South Australia

Further:

Newton was a VERY spiritual man.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 6 years ago from SE MA

Passions and emotions are nothing but electrical current and chemistry. You can manipulate emotions with drugs and even with simple electrical stimulation. It's just feedback, nothing more.


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 6 years ago from Eden Author

Ahh good; as expected I seem to have struck a nerve...

Pcunix: I tend to agree with your last comment--feedback is indeed key. What is amazing to me however is how few biologists appreciate its importance. On the other hand, I disagree with your position that it is nothing but physics and chemistry. Biology transcends those fields by way of its emergent properties (organized relationships), which are strictly biological (and not at all magical--that was certainly not what I meant to imply!). Otherwise the field of biology would not exist. The same is true for life. It manifests emergent properties that cannot be explained by physics alone. Maybe I'm wrong but it seems that dead computer can usually if not always be brought back to life with appropriate repairs and/or replacement of parts. That cannot be accomplished with a dead animal. Yes, life is machinery, but that is not all it is, and when you leave it at that you miss the essence of what life is all about.

Gerry: I never said that mechanism is due to Newton. My point was that it was Newton who codified the laws of motion that allowed mechanistic science to develop to its present state of ascendancy. Descartes was indeed the father of mechanicism, but this mindset would not have developed to its present state without Newton. You also mis-interpreted my statement that alluded to Western philosophers. I am well aware that western philosophy can be traced back to Plato (or Socrates). My point was that during the enlightenment western philosophers made a concerted effort to break free of the constraints of religious dogma. Newtonian mechanics was instrumental in allowing it to do this (even though, as I stated in the hub, Newton himself was a devout believer). So, sorry mate, I think I do have quite a good understanding of Western philosophy (although perhaps I can do a better job of expressing it!).


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 6 years ago from SE MA

Emergent properties? A magnetic field is an emergent property. The field of biology is merely a subset of the field of physics. If I want to pretend that an Objective C program has emergent properties, I can, but in fact, when it executes, it is nothing more than the operations of logic gates.

A dead human could be restored to life if we understood the underlying physics. Right now people are working on bringing ancient DNA back. We are just beginning that journey; there are mountains to climb, but it IS only physics and (if the dullards of the world don't stop us) we WILL eventually understand it just as well as we understand that computer.


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 6 years ago from Eden Author

A magnetic field is indeed an emergent property. And biology is indeed a subset of the field of physics, as shown by the specification hierarchy: {Physics{Chemistry{Biology}}}. So, physics is implied by biology; without the former you would not have the latter. But the converse is not true: biology is not implied by physics. Therefore, to get biology you need additional rules and special circumstances (formal causes) that cannot be deduced from a knowledge of physics alone. It is conceivable that some (if not many) of the special circumstances that led to the development of life were low probability chance occurences, never to be repeated. It remains an open question as to whether life is an inevitability in the universe, or is a singular event.

We may indeed understand life as well as we understand that computer (I certainly hope so!--that is my life's quest at any rate), but such an understanding won't come from physics (or mechanics) alone.

I do admire your faith that a dead human could be restored to life if only we understood the underlying physics. Not sure what that has to do with bringing ancient DNA back though--that's pretty trivial, and really no different than digging up fossils. Fossils of rock or DNA are essentially the same--just recorded information. You need more than that for life.

When it comes down to it I don't think we really disagree. Life is indeed physics and chemistry. But what distinguishes it as life is the relational context within which the physics and chemistry operate. The job of biologists should be to figure out what that context is, which they can't do if they remain fixated on reducing everything to molecular mechanisms.


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 6 years ago from SE MA

No. Biology is implied by physics; we simply don't understand the physics well enough yet. That used to be true even for far more simple chemistry, but we are slowly gaining on that.

Whether life is inevitable will have to wait until we understand more about chemistry in space, but it is certainly starting to look that way.

If you actually understood all the chemistry, the DNA is all you need. Of course we are a long, long way from that.

Yes, biologists will need to work at a more clumsy level until physics is less vague. There's nothing wrong with that. But eventually it does resolve to particle physics, just as a high level computer language has to resolve to nothing but logic gates. That doesn't mean that working at that level is always the place to be - but it does mean that you can predict behavior if you do understand what lies beneath.

You are correct - we probably are not disagreeing. Just clarifying.


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 6 years ago from Eden Author

Well, if we don't understand the physics well enough yet, then biology is not at present implied by physics. You accept as a matter of faith that it will one day be, but I don't believe it. I am NOT saying that biology involves anything other than the material world, which is governed by the laws of physics. But life has its own logic that cannot be reduced to the rules of chemistry (as summarized in the periodic table of the elements) or the laws of motion and electromagnetism. My argument is based on combimetrics, a la the biotonic laws of Walter Elsasser (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_M._Elsasser): when complexity crosses a certain threshold, the number of possibilities becomes astronomical, making predictions based on physical laws alone impossible.


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 6 years ago from SE MA

It's possible that the predictions are impossible :) Or that they will forever require more computational resources than can be deployed, anyway.

I just hate to see arguments of complexity picked up by the religious and used as arguments for their even more complex fantasies.


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 6 years ago from Eden Author

I agree. But the religious will grasp at whatever straws they can; if it's not complexity, then it's something else. For them complexity is just another excuse for turning off their brains in order to maintain the fantasy. They don't try to understand it, and their arguments are nothing but sophistry, an intellectual cop-out. I am trying to understand complexity and its implications for the natural world.


Baileybear 6 years ago

You sound like a frustrated scientist, that wants to use your intuitive thinking rather than be restrained by prescriptive scientific method. Am I right?


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 6 years ago from Eden Author

Hi Baileybear--yes, to some extent I suppose that's true, although I think all the best scientists are incredibly intuitive (Eistein being the prime example). But the rank and file tend to react negatively to that kind of thinking, which is good in a way, as science is supposed to be inherently skeptical. So, the only scientists who get away with breaking the mold are those who are so brilliant that there is no denying them; or, who become famous for making big breakthroughs and/or through very effective self-promotion. But yes, the resistance I often feel from colleagues to new ways of thinking can be frustrating....


Baileybear 6 years ago

Yes, a lot of academics are "fossils", stuck in their ways. I come from a small country where science wasn't very impt, and didn't use what I learnt at uni. I trained as an analytical chemist, but ended up being a lab technician, which got boring (plus I'm sensitive to chemicals, would you believe?). Came across some very arrogant people with over-inflated egos


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 6 years ago from Eden Author

The halls of academia are full of stuffed shirts with little imagination. And unfortunately, the game of science selects for arrogance: to succeed you have to excel at selling yourself. It's an interesting social phenomenon (a subject for a future hub!).


kentuckyslone profile image

kentuckyslone 5 years ago

"The halls of academia are full of stuffed shirts..." Right on Joyus! I wasnt sure what to say in a comment here but when I read your last comment I had to just say I agree completely. It is truly a shame that the "status quo" can hinder the advancement of knowledge.


Widhalm19 5 years ago

Joyus,

Excellent essay. Thanks for posting it.

I have longed opposed the mechanistic analogy of life. From my point-of-view, there exists at least three complimentary perspectives to understanding:

analytical - by reduction

holistic - by relationship

dynamic - by recognition

All three perspectives inform us in different ways. Analysis fragments the evolving whole into comprehensible bits. Language being an excellent example. The holistic perspective affirms the emergent properties in physics, biology, human emotions, etc. And, by dynamic recognition I mean comprehending the ever-evolving whole through our senses without breaking the experience into thoughts followed by words. As you suspect, dynamic recognition is a difficult concept to describe with words derived from reductionism!

My own background is in wilderness conservation and range management. I hold a graduate degree in environmental science from the University of Colorado. Anyway, for many years, I have witnessed the consequences of reductionist reasoning applied to biological evolution as it unfolds on the landscape. Clearly, there is no "balance of nature" but an ever-changing harmony of co-evolutionary factors. It's an amazing process to witness.

Again, thanks for writing such an excellent essay.


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 5 years ago from Eden Author

Widhalm: good point about different perspectives. Biological evolution is indeed an amazing process to witness. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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