Importance of Form in Life and Biology

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Stephen Talbott:

"Whatever the level we analyze, from macromolecular complexes, to organelles, to cells, to tissues, to individual organs, to the organism as a whole, we find the same principle: we cannot reconstruct the pattern at any level of activity by starting from the parts and interactions at that level. There are always organizing principles that must be seen working from a larger whole into the parts.


The problem of form has long been central to biology, where each creature so notably reproduces after its own kind and according to its own form. “It is hardly too much to say”, wrote geneticist C. H. Waddington, “that the whole science of biology has its origin in the study of form”. In both their descriptive and theoretical activity, biologists "have been immersed in a lore of form and spatial configuration” (Waddington 1951, p. 43).

“Immersed in a lore of form” is, however, an oddly mild way of putting it. “Hopelessly adrift upon a fathomless sea of mystery” might be more fitting. An observer surveying the biological disciplines today (some seventy years after Waddington’s comment) can hardly help noticing that every organism’s stunning achievement of form has become an enigma so profound, and so threatening to the prevailing style of biological explanation, that few biologists dare to focus for long on the substance of the problem.


There is a kind of causation, somehow active in the larger pattern, that we cannot understand by adding together the causal action of molecular-level entities upon each other. The tissue-wide electric potentials can fairly be said to play a decisive role in stimulating cascades of gene expression on the way toward formation of entire organs. But, in the reverse direction, genes cannot be said to cause, or explain, the patterns of electric potential.


A developing organism’s living “trajectory” results from its growing directionally into its mature functioning. We never see a designing power or force that assembles an organism from pre-existing parts in anything like the way we build tools and machines. Organisms are not designed and tinkered with from without, but rather are enlivened from within. The wisdom we find at play in them is intrinsic; it is their own in a sense wholly untrue of the external intelligence with which our mechanical inventions are structured.

Does this not make a great difference for our thinking about causation in organisms and machines? The act of structuring and programming a physical device such as a cruise missile is our own. The missile itself has no intentions, and is not “aiming at” anything, no matter how great our role as inventors and builders. In this regard it is simply a more complex kitchen blender. We may have gotten more sophisticated in shaping tools to our own ends, but that is our development, not the machine’s."


Organic Form and Machine Models

Stephen Talbott:

"We have been introduced to the problem of form — the problem Michael Levin so eloquently brings to the biologist’s attention. How does an organism move in a persistent, adaptive, and sometimes strikingly novel way toward the realization of a living shape and functioning that are in some sense “given in advance”? Levin has clearly seen that this sort of activity, like purposive or future-oriented activity in general, requires us to recognize a kind of causation that somehow works not only from the present into the future (or, perhaps better, from the future into the present), but also from the whole into its parts.

But we also see in Levin’s response to this problem the remarkable and seemingly unshakable power of machine-based thinking in contemporary biology, especially as exemplified in computers. Having effectively posed questions that could radically re-shape today’s biology, he is content to return to the worst tendencies of the life sciences. As I have tried to show in this and the preceding chapters, the machine model fails the organism at virtually every point of comparison. Nor is the matter particularly subtle. It does not require much insight to see that the notions of wired cells, master controllers, computer-like instructions conveyed from here to there, or inert, unliving, machine-like parts coming together to form a living cell or organism simply don’t carry any convincing weight.

In sum, machine-based ideas are neither revolutionary nor particularly helpful for our approach to questions concerning the character of biological activity.

In the next chapter we will look at another take on the problem of biological form — the one offered by evolutionary developmental biologist Sean Carroll in his book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful. He, too, is enamored of machine- and computer-based thinking. But his way of approaching the problem of form will enable us to get at a rather unexpected conclusion: form is not something we should be feeling a need to explain, least of all to explain with our familiar mechanistic notions. Once we rise above those notions, we may be able to gain our first glimpse of a game-changing question: Might it be that the proper apprehension of form is itself the understanding we were really seeking all along?"

Similarly with the examples in the opening section of this chapter. They all raise the problem of causation from whole to part — and (although this is not a point Levin raises) they all vex our efforts at strictly physical understanding. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: “How can the physical body of a relatively undeveloped organism — a body already exhibiting coordinated physical processes perfectly adapted to the organism’s present state — redirect and transform those well-adapted physical processes so as to conform to a different and more “mature” pattern that is not yet there?”

Why does holistic causation refuse strictly physical understanding? A key difficulty, as I have been emphasizing, lies in the observation that every embryo seems, in its holistic manner, to be reliably guided toward a future state. It is as if that future state were somehow present and influential along the entire path of its own material realization — as if the developing embryo were expressing from the very beginning its own telos, or the essential idea of its ultimate maturity and wholeness, as a very real and present power.

In a moment we will have to ask to what degree Levin clearly recognizes how thoroughly the problem of causation running from whole to part and directed toward the future disrupts conventional thinking. He is, in any case, fascinated by what he often refers to as “top-down causation” — “an important distinct type of causation” in which ”a future state … guides the behavior of the system”. He recognizes the “incredibly tangled details underlying system-level outcomes in biological systems”.



* Source: ORGANISMS AND THEIR EVOLUTION. by Stephen L. Talbott. Chapter 10: What Is the Problem of Form?