Emergence of Life

Life: Self-Actualizing Substance (Aristotle 330 BC)

By far the most complex form of being is that manifest by living organisms.   For Aristotle, living organisms are instances of primary substance.   Recalling that Aristotle defined substance as follows:

Substance (ousia), for Aristotle, refers to a fundamental, primary, independent existent that has within itself its own power or principle of motion, change and generation.  It is independent in that it does not depend for its existence on other higher-order substances, and, qua substance, is characterized as being a particular kind of informed matter (hyle).  … Substances are the base of all being.  All that can be said of the world is said of substances.  Substances are those existents in reality that remain constants through the changes that they may undergo.  They are the invariant centers of all changing being.  — from bioperipateticRecovering Aristotle

Thus, for Aristotle, a living organism is a ‘ fundamental, primary, independent existent that has within itself its own power or principle of motion, change and generation.’  The key concept here is that life is self-sufficient as an agent of its own continued being.  Life exploits the matter in its environment necessary to sustain its life through respiration, a process that manufactures its own energy supply to fuel its own continuous life-asserting engine.

Life: Biomorphic End-in-Itself.  (Aristotle 330 BC)

Aristotle characterized life as self-sustaining form of being that aims at its own subsistence and continuous actualization as its final cause and its own activities qua life as its own end, or final cause.  All organs within an organism must be understood as existing for-the-sake-of  the life of the organism for which they serve.  This is the proper meaning of an organ’s function.  The function or teleological end for the sake-of which the organ exists, defines an internal relationship between the organism and the organ whose functioning preserves the life of the organism with respect to the life requirement served by that organ.

Contrary to widely held opinion in the physical as well as the biological sciences, identifying the principle that each instance of life, each organism, has a final cause, purpose, or end does not entail anthropomorphism.  This is because having purpose does not entail the prior existence of a ‘Purposer‘, to paraphrase Arthur Koestler, who saw the teleological nature of life as appropriately characterized as  ‘biomorphic’:

. . . because it is based on the purposeful aspects inherent in the phenomena of life, as opposed to the ‘robotomorphic’ approach of reductionism. – Arthur Koestler, Janus: A Summing Up,  1978, Chapter XI, p. 212.

Thus purposefulness, having within its very form of being its own self-generated (actualized) end and final cause, was for Aristotle essential to the very nature of life.  Lenny Moss and Daniel J. Nicholson have argued that life is an end-in-itself:

Aristotle founded the systematic study of the living organism upon an understanding of intrinsic purposiveness (or finality) as a natural phenomenon. In Aristotle’s hands, the fusion of form with finality as ‘end-in-it-selfness’ resulted in a highly fecund concept of the suitability (we would now say adaptability) of an organism’s form to a stable way of life that was the lynchpin for elaborating a taxonomy, an anatomy and physiology, and a theory of generation (or, as we would now say, development).    – from ‘On nature and normativity: Normativity, teleology, and mechanism in biological explanation‘ by Lenny Moss and Daniel J. Nicholson, published by Elsevier in  Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 43 (2012) 88–91

Life as a Creative Developing Force ( Bernard 1865)

Claud Bernard, in his classic book, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, (published in 1865) argued that life in its ‘primary essence’ is a developing force, which, whatever its nature, always develops and manifests itself  ‘concurrently and in parallel with the physico-chemical conditions proper to vital phenomena.’

In every living germ is a creative idea which develops and exhibits itself through organization.  As long as a living being persists, it remains under the influence of this same creative vital force, and death comes when it can no longer express itself; here as everywhere, everything is derived from the idea which alone creates and guides; physico-chemical means of expression are common to all natural phenomena and remain mingled, pell-mell, like the letters of an alphabet in a box, till a force goes to fetch them, to express the most varied thoughts and mechanisms.  – from An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, Dover edition published in 1957, translated by Henry Copley Green, pp. 93-94

Although Bernard recognized the creative nature of life and that there must exist some vital force underlying its creativity, he was no doctrinaire vitalist.  He was fully aware that the word vitalism, as such, is vague, carries no clear meaning and is not scientific.  He believed that the underlying creativity of life will eventually be reduced to the principles of physiology.

If I had to define life in a single phrase, I should clearly express my thought by throwing into relief the one characteristic which, in my opinion, sharply differentiates biological science.  I would say: life is creation.  In fact a created organism is a machine which necessarily works by virtue of the physico-chemical properties of its constituent elements. To-day we differentiate three kinds of properties exhibited in the phenomena of living beings: physical properties, chemical properties and vital properties.  But the term “vital properties” is itself only provisional; because we call properties vital which we have not yet be able to reduce to physico-chemical terms;  but in that we shall doubtless succeed some day.   – from An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, p. 93.

That said, Bernard was no Cartesian materialist who would reduce the body to the simple mechanical principles of a clock-work robot, but understood that what made life unique is that it is the product of an idea that somehow guides it creation and continuous functioning.

So that what distinguishes a living machine is not the nature of its physic-chemical properties, complex as they may be, but rather the creation of the machine which develops under our eyes in conditions proper to itself and according to a definite idea which expresses the living being’s nature and the very essence of life. – from An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, p. 93.

Life: Pre-established Unity as a Final Cause ( Bernard 1865)

Bernard recognized the unity and harmony of the parts of organisms, and argued that as physiologists scientists must be conscious of the the organism’s parts as interdependent mutually generative of the organism as a whole and as its own final cause, a clear influence on Bernard of the ontology of Aristotle’s biology.

But physiologists, finding themselves, on the contrary, outside the animal organism which they see as a whole, must take account of the harmony of this whole, even while trying to get inside, so as to understand the mechanism of its every part.  The result is that physicists and chemists can reject all idea of final causes for the facts that they observe; while physiologists are inclined to acknowledge an harmonious and pre-established unity in an organized body, all of whose partial actions are interdependent and mutually generative.  – from An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, p. 89.

Bernard, a holist with regard to organisms, advised the physiologist to avoid the danger of equating the functioning of the whole as the mere aggregate of isolated, separate and independent mechanisms that appear as such under a regime of physicochemical analysis.

We really must learn, then, that if we break up a living organism by isolating its different parts, it is only for the sake of ease in experimental analysis, and by not means in order to conceive them separately.  Indeed when we wish to ascribe to a physiological quality its value and true significance, we must always refers it to this whole, and draw our final conclusion only in relation to its effects in the whole.  – from An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, p. 89.

Life: Emergent Patterns Constrain Evolution (Thompson, 1917):

We are constantly told that all of our biological being, our anatomy and physiology, our structure and function are the product of our genes, more precisely our genotypes, and their expression in our individual being, our phenotype.  But this is not the whole nor the correct story.  For our anatomy, morphology, and its related physiology, are all constrained by predefined (dare I say ‘pre-emergent’) patterns that are imposed on all species at the phylogenetic level.  The patterns of our skeletal structure was deeply studied and articulated by Sir D’Arcy Thompson, in ‘On Growth and Form‘ (Cambridge University Press, 1961).  This fundamental biological work must be read by anyone who wants to truly understand the nature and limits of  the possible forms and growth patterns of living phyla of organisms.

Thus, it appears that certain geometric constraints manifest themselves across all species, allowing variation in size and shape, but not in order or number.  We do not know how these constraints have emerged and been encoded in DNA in such a way that they cannot be overridden by any forces of genetic evolution.  These are  simple and fundamental facts relating to the science of organic morphology.

In sum, the laws of evolution are not the sole forces, whose unlimited random unfolding define the structure and function of organisms, but instead, evolution is itself constrained by the predefined laws of biological morphology.

Life: Its Holistic Evolution (Smuts 1926):

The application of the principle of holism to evolution was first advocated by Jan Christiaan Smuts (a widely read man of the world, but not a professional biologist) in his 1926 book Holism and Evolution, later reprinted by Viking Press, 1961.  Smuts advocated a synthetic rather than an analytic approach to biology and evolution.   Smuts argues that two possible errors emerge from an exclusive analytic approach to the study of organisms:

In the first place, in the original analysis something may have escaped, so that in the reconstruction we have no longer all the original elements present, but something less. … An element of more or less error has entered.  This may be called the error of analysis.

In the second place, we are apt, after the analysis and investigation of the isolated elements or factors to look upon them as the nature factors of the situation, and upon the situation itself as a sort of result brought about by them. …The analytical elements or factors were merely the result of analysis, and might even be merely abstractions. …The abstract thus becomes the real, the concrete is relegated to a secondary position. …This may be called the error of abstraction or generalization. – from Holism and Evolution, pp. 19-20.

Smuts goes on to explain what he means by the whole in the context of the synthetic method:

A whole is a synthesis or unity of parts, so close that it affects the activities and interactions of those parts, impresses on them a special character, and makes them different from what they would have been in a combination devoid of such a unity or synthesis.  That is the fundamental element in the concept of the whole.  It is a complex of parts, but so close and intimate, so unified that the characters and relations and activities of the parts are affected and changed by the synthesis.   – from Holism and Evolution, p. 122.

Life: Organismic Quantification (Woodger 1929)

Moss and Nicholson go on to point out that the very purposive nature of living beings and their organismic activities do not lend themselves to quantification handling.

 To meld biological (including behavioral) form with the logos of self-purpose is however to constitute a largely qualitative, i.e., not easily quantifiable, system of understanding. Aristotle’s doctrine of the natural purposiveness of the living organism was of course entirely consonant with the legacy of Greek cosmology that cleaved to an organismic image of nature as a whole.  – from ‘On nature and normativity

The bioperipatetic agrees with Moss and Nicholson with respect to the above cited article that the properties and principles that characterize life are ‘not easily quantifiable’.  But asks the question, why?  The essence of the answer to the apparent resistance of teleological organismic processes to lend themselves to quantification is primarily an epistemological problem due to the post-Cartesian, Neo-Platonist dualist cleavage of all that is physically extended (res extensa) from all that has purpose most notably mind (res cogitans).   Not to say that life entails mind, for Aristotle knew well the difference, but to say that using the geometric properties of res extensa as the preconditions for defining quantification itself, is one of the fatal errors of Renaissance science which prevented it from understanding how to discover and systematize the natural units of life, its activities, and its properties.

It is the identification of natural or appropriate units that allow one to quantify the properties of any form of being.  That was (until very recently) a failure of biological science, which allowed itself to be fully dependent on physics (and physical chemistry) as its model of quantification and scientific study.  This problem was deeply studied by Joseph Henry Woodger (1894–1981).  For details, read Rethinking Woodger’s Legacy in the Philosophy of Biology, an excellent analysis of Woodger’s biological work and its implications for the entire science of biology, written by Daniel Nicholson and Richard Gawn, publish in Journal of the History of Biology (2014) 47:243–292.  In Rethinking Woodger’s Legacy Nicholson and Gawn write:

Restoring Woodger to his rightful place in the pantheon of twentieth-century philosophers of biology constitutes the first chapter in the long overdue project of rehabilitating the various generations of neglectedthinkers who fruitfully worked at the intersection of biology and philosophy in the decades prior to the professionalization of the discipline.  – Rethinking Woodger’s Legacy in the Philosophy of Biology,  p. 246

[T]he collapse of mechanicism in physics opened up a new way of thinking about biology that denied its reducibility to physics whilst retaining a common overarching view of nature. It was such an organicist philosophy of biology that Woodgersought to develop in Biological Principles, – Rethinking Woodger’s Legacy, p. 253.

Life: Biological vs Physical Dichotomies (Woodger 1929)

Joseph. Henry. Woodger was the first analytical biologist to fully grasp and document the root causes of the crisis between the physical and the biological sciences.  In his famous opus Biological Principles:  A Critical Study, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1929 , his deeply thought-out analysis concluded the the essence of the crisis was epistemological, in that it primarily involved not the content or external facts of biology, but rather the internal way in which biological concepts and knowledge were organized, conceptualized and classified.

Biological Principles is an exercise in what Woodger calls ‘critical biology’, which involves the examination of the epistemological foundations of biological knowledge through the analysis of its central concepts. According to Woodger, a critical study of biology is necessary because it is an extremely fragmented science. The process of subdivision into specialized branches that characterizes progress in any science has not been supplemented, in the case of biology, by generalizations that knit the findings of its various branches into a unified whole. Instead, it has spawned ever increasing divergences in theoretical outlook between exponents of the different branches. These divergences reflect fundamental dichotomies lying at the heart of biological thought. Woodger views biology as ‘‘a science of antitheses’’ (Woodger, 1929a, p. 11), and it is the persistence of these antitheses that prevents the harmonization of its facts. The six core biological antitheses that he identifies are: mechanism versus vitalism, structure versus function, organism versus environment, preformation versus epigenesis, causation versus teleology, and body versus mind. For Woodger, these antitheses are not really ‘out there’ in nature, but result primarily from the ways propositions drawn from empirical data are systematized into a body of knowledge. Strictly speaking, they do not belong to the subject matter of biology (i.e., to the nature of organisms), but to the nature of biology as knowledge.  – Rethinking Woodger’s Legacy, p. 252.

Here we see the fundamental importance of epistemology in properly organizing our conceptual hierarchy within and across multiple disciplines or major subjects.  To mis-classify (in this case) biological concepts by forcing them into mechanistic principles, leads to the loss of the essence of biology and the failure to properly grasp its nature and principles in the external world of biological facts.  In the case of biology we can take from the above quoted passage that there was a tension between ‘mechanism versus vitalism, structure versus function, organism versus environment, perforation versus epigenesis, causation versus teleology, and body versus mind.’   Indeed the first of each of these contrasting concepts is based on mechanistic reductionist principles, the second is based on ‘vitalist’ or ‘organismic’ non-reductionistic principles.  Clearly the latter concepts require different philosophical perspectives relative to philosophy of nature, and are not equivalent to the former opposed concepts.   With the proper epistemology and it biological concepts properly defined, biology can proceed to address the issues of quantification.

Life: The Organism itself as Holistic (Goldstein 1939):

One of the greatest thinkers in the field of theoretical biology is Kurt Goldstein, M. D., whose detailed thesis can be found in his magnum opus: The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology (1939).   Goldstein states eloquently the general problem of scientific studying the organism from the perspective of analytic research into its parts or subsystems.

We have said that life confronts us in living organisms.  But as soon as we attempt to grasp them scientifically, we must take them apart, and this taking apart nets us a multitude of isolated facts which offer no direct clue to that which we experience directly in the living organism.  Yet we have no way of making the nature and behavior of an organism scientifically intelligible other than by its construction out of fact obtained in this way.  We thus face the basic problem of all biology, possibly of all knowledge.  And it is the analysis of this problem, in respect to the living world, which is here my whole concern.  The question can be formulated quite simply:  What do the phenomena, arising from the isolating procedure, teach us about the “essence” (the intrinsic nature) of an organism?  How,  from such phenomena, do we come to an understanding of the behavior of the individual organism?from The Organism, by Kurt Goldstein, (1939) p. 7.

In the first of his William James Lectures (delivered 1938-1939) published collectively as Human Nature in the Light of Psychopathology (1939) Dr. Goldstein wrote:

If the organism is a whole and each section of it functions normally within that whole, then in the analytic experiment, which isolates the sections as it studies them, the properties and functions of any part must be modified by the isolation from the whole of the organism.  Thus they cannot reveal the function of these parts in normal life.  There are innumerable facts which demonstrate how the functioning of a field is changed by its isolation.  If we want to use the results of such experiments for understanding the activity of the organism in normal life (that is, as a whole), we must know in in what way the condition of the isolation modifies the function, and we must take these modifications into account. — Human Nature in the Light of Psychopathology, p. 10.

Life and General System Theory (Bertalanffy 1948):

Before emergence theory, anti-reductionism in biology focused on the idea of general system theory, first presented by Ludwig von Bertalanffy  at the Alpbach College,  and later codified in his book General System Theory: Foundations, Development and Applications (George Braziller, Pub., NY, 1948)

We cannot reduce the biological, behavioral, and social levels to the lowest level, that of the constructs and laws of  physics.  We can, however, find constructs and possibly laws within the individual levels. …The unifying principle is that we find organization at all levels.  — from General System Theory,   p. 49

Hierarchically Organized Metabolism (Grobstein 1965):

In his book  The Strategy of Life, Clifford Grobstein defined life as a hierarchically organized, metabolically continually changing system system powered by a continuous energy flow:

Life — macromolecular, hierarchically organized, and characterized by replication, metabolic turnover, and exquisite regulation of energy flow — constitutes a spreading center of order in a less ordered universe. – from The Strategy of Life  by Clifford Grobstein, W. H. Freeman and Co., 1965, p. 1.

Anticipating John H. Holland’s idea of coherence in the face of change (see below), Grobstein describes life as having continuity within its hierarchical complexity.  It is the process of reproduction that maintains the coherence of the organism and generates from the DNA molecule the full hierarchical complexity characterizing the mature organism.

Continuity, despite complexity, flows by the production of like from like at the molecular level, followed by translation of molecular order through several levels of interaction until the full complexity of the mature organism is regained.   – from The Strategy of Life, p. 71.

Clifford Grobstein also saw the significance of the increased range of freedom resulting form the evolving complexity and phenotypic adaptability of the organism to its biosphere.

First, replication and variation provided a living substrate; then increased size, complexity, and phenotypic adjustment permitted a new range of freedom and movement within the environment.  – from The Strategy of Life, p. 93.

Life: Form Independent of Matter (Jonas 1966):

Modern biologists and philosophers of biology understand that life is emergent and the basis for individuation of organisms as self-subsistent and ontologically isolated.

The introduction of the term “self,” unavoidable in any description of the most elementary instance of life, indicates the emergence, with life as such, of internal identity–and so, as one with that emergence, its self-isolation too from all the rest of reality.  — from “Is God a Mathematician” in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, by Hans JonasHarper & Row, NY, 1966, p. 82-83.

Beyond its self-subsistence, the relationship between matter and form are unique for the ontology of life.  Hans Jonas clearly identified this uniqueness:

It is only with life that the difference of matter and form in respect to lifeless things an abstract distinction emerges as a concrete reality.  And the ontological  relationship is reversed: form becomes the essence, matter the accident.   In the realm of the lifeless, form is not more than a changing composite state, and accident, of enduring matter. … But viewed from the dynamic identity of the living form, the reverse holds: the changing material contents are states of its enduring identity, their multiplicity marking the range of its effective unity.  In fact, instead of saying that the living form is a region of transit for matter, it would be truer to say that the material contents in their succession  are phases of transit for the self-continuation of the form.  — from “Is God a Mathematician” in The Phenomenon of Life, p. 80.

Life: Emergent Biological Freedom (Jonas 1966):

Jonas argues that it is this independence of its form with respect to its matter that imbues life with its freedom from matter-driven determination:

The basic freedom of organism was found to consist in a certain independence of form with respect to its own matter.  According to a strictly material world-account such independence is either an absurdity or a deceptive appearance.  Its emergence with emerging life indeed marks an ontological revolution in the history of “matter”.   — from “Is God a Mathematician” in The Phenomenon of Life, p. 81.

Life: Beyond Reductionism (Weiss 1968):

General system theory had a strong influence on the contributors to The Alpbach Symposium 1968:  Beyond reductionism: New perspectives in the life sciences.  One of the contributors was the renowned professor Paul A. Weiss, then at Rockefeller University in New York.  Before the term constructionism was codified by Anderson, Dr. Weiss discussed the idea of constructionism  in these words:

We are concerned with living organisms, and for those, we can assert definitely, on the basis of empirical investigation, that the mere reversal of our prior analytic dissection of the Universe by putting the pieces togetheragain, whether in reality or just in our minds, can yield no complete explanation of the behavior of even the most elementary living system. – The Living System: Determinism Stratified  by Paul A. Weiss,  published inBeyond Reductionism, p. 7.

Life: Macroevolution from Internal Cohesion (Mayr 1989)

In his book Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist, Ernst Mayr, Harvard University Press, 1989, discussing why “certain lineages evolve rapidly while others remain in total stasis.”   Mayr suggest a “possible explanation” based on a holistic approach.

[P]rovided one gives up the atomistic view that each gene is independent both in its actions and in the effects of selection on it.  If one adopts a more holistic (integrative) view of the genotype and assumes that genes perform as teams and that large numbers of other genes form the “genetic milieu” (Chetverikov  1926) of any given gene, one can suggest an explanation. It is that epistatic interactions form a powerful constraint on the response of the genotype to selection.

Holists claim therefore that much of macroevolution cannot be explained by atomistic gene replacements or by selection pressures on single genes, but only by a more drastic reorganization, made possible by loosening the tight genetic cohesion of the genotype found throughout widespread populous species. Mayr, Carson (1975), Eldredge and Gould, and Stanley ascribe the stability of the phenotype, as observed in static species, to such an internal cohesion of the genotype, or parts of it.  – from Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, p. 471.

Life: Emergent Complex Adaptive System (Holland 1995):

Emergence theory began with the study of complex adaptive systems (cas) pioneered by John H. Holland at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI).  The chief characteristic of cas it their “coherence in the face of change.”

Even though these complex systems differ in detail, the question of coherence  under change is the central enigma for each.  The common factor is so important that at the Santi Fe Institute we collect these systems under a common heading, referring to them as complex adaptive systems (cas). – from Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexityby John. H. Holland, Helix Books, 1995, p. 4

Readers of bioperipatetic may notice the remarkable parallel between the principle of coherence under change, which characterizes cas on the one hand, and the principle of  invariance under transformation, which characterizes J. J. Gibson’s theory of perception (for details , see The Physical Basis of Perception).

Life: Emergent Collective Instability (Laughlin 2006):

It appears that collective instability is an important and pervasive principle operative at the level of cellular metabolism and the replication of proteins.  This collective instability is emergent.  This is discussed at some length in Robert B. Laughlin’s book  A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (Basic Books, paperback, 2006):

Since collective instability is emergent, it is reasonable to ask at what scale collective principles of organization begin to matter in life.  — from A Different Universep. 170.

It turns out that the relevant scale is that of the protein molecule.

There is considerable circumstantial evidence that both stable and unstable emergence occur already at the scale of individual proteins. .. The simple fact that proteins are big, for example, suggests that to work effectively they need to exhibit something analogous to mechanical rigidity, an emergent property that occurs only in system that are large. — from A Different Universe, p. 170.

Life: Emergent, Not Reducible to Physics (Kauffman 2008):

Taking a different perspective, Stewart  Kauffman makes two important key points about the irreducibility of 1. Darwinian selection and 2. organ function:

Still not every causal arrow points downward.  I want to discuss two features of Darwinism that — though they violate no law of physics — are not reducible to physics but are epistemologically and ontologically emergent:  natural selection itself, and the attribution of functions to parts of organisms as due to natural selection.  – from Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion, by Stewart A. Kauffman, Basic Books, 2008, p. 34-35

Discussing the pumping function of the heart, in his chapter entitled ‘The Nonreducibility of Biology to Physics,’ Kauffman writes:

[T]he organization of the heart arose largely by natural selection, which, as we will see, cannot be reduced to physics. Thus the emergence of the organization of the heart cannot be reduced to physics alone.  But it is this very organization of the structure and functions of the heart that allow it to pump blood. Thus the existence of this organization, the heart in the universe,  cannot be reduced to physics.   – from Reinventing the Sacred, p. 36.

Kauffman also identifies the principle articulated by Laughlin, namely that emergent systems manifest new law, and with these new laws, “causal powers of their own.”

But organisms, whose evolution of organization of structures and processes, such as the human heart, cannot be deduced from physics,  have causal powers of their own, and therefore are emergent real entities in the universe.  So, too, are the biosphere, the human economy, human culture, human action.    – from Reinventing the Sacred,  p. 3.

This last statement deserves repeating:”So, too, are the biosphere, the human economy, human culture, human action.”  The profound implications of this statement reveal the exceedingly radical nature of the current program to study and advance the theoretical foundation of emergence theory.

Life: An Expected Emergent Being (Kauffman 2008):

In his chapter ‘The Origins of Life’, Kauffman discusses his Theory of Collectively Autocatalytic Sets  which he prefaces with the following:

Experimental demonstration of collective autocatalysis by small proteins thus shows us that it is catalytic closure of a set of molecules that is the backbone of life.  Below I will describe a theory, now fully open to experimental test, that says the emergence of such collectively autocatalytic polymer systems is to be expected.  If correct, this theory suggest that molecular reproduction may be an emergent property of complex chemical – reaction networks, hence life may be far more probable than we have thought.  In turn, this emergence is not reducible to physics alone. – from Reinventing the Sacred , p. 57.

Life: Emergent Downward Causality (Kauffman 2008):

Kauffman makes the bold statement that life exhibits both classical downward causality from its infrastructure as well as upward causality from its organization dynamics.

These constraints, imposed by the system’s causal topology on the kinetics of its parts, are a case of “downward causation.”  Because these constraints are partially causal, the explanatory arrows do not point exclusively downward to the parts but also point upwards to the organization of the whole.  The whole acts on the parts as much as the parts on the whole. .. Thus, the emergence in the universe of collectively autocatalytic, evolved cells and their “topology” of organization of kinetic – controlled process is ontologically emergent, and the same topology of kinetic control of the “whole” is partially causal in constraining the kinetic behavior of the parts.  The explanatory arrows do truly point upward… – from Reinventing the Sacred , p. 58-59.

Life: Independent of Its Physics (Kauffman 2008):

In his Theory of Collectively Autocatalytic Sets, Kauffman makes another bold statement regarding the independence of life with respect to its underlying physical platform.

The theory is organizational, and, if true, a candidate organizational law that could apply to life universally.  It rests on the mathematics and general properties of molecules, and not on the specific molecular embodiment.  As I mentioned above, the multiple-platform argument comes in, for the theory implies that many different molecular species can achieve collective autocatalysis.  Therefore, it cannot be reduced to any specific underlying physics  – from Reinventing the Sacred, p. 59.

Recapitulation of Key Ideas:

From the above chronological citations from many of the finest minds in modern physics, biology and philosophy, we see that if the phenomenon of life is assessed from the joint perspectives of its substantive nature, we are able to integrate the above cited principles of biology and retain their key ideas:

  • Life as a Self-Actualizing Substance (Aristotle 330 BC)
    • Key Idea: 
      For Aristotle, a living organism is a ‘ fundamental, primary, independent existent that has within itself its own power or principle of motion, change and generation.’  The key concept here is that life is self-sufficient as an agent of its own continued being.  Life exploits the matter in its environment necessary to sustain its life through respiration, a process that manufactures its own energy supply to fuel its own continuous life-asserting engine.
  • Life as a Biomorphic End-in-Itself.  (Aristotle 330 BC)
    • Key Idea: 
      Aristotle characterized life as self-sustaining form of being that aims at its own subsistence and continuous actualization as its final cause and its own activities qua life as its own end, or final cause.  All organs within an organism must be understood as existing for-the-sake-of  the life of the organism for which they serve.  This is the proper meaning of an organ’s function.  The function or teleological end for the sake-of which the organ exists, defines an internal relationship between the organism and the organ whose functioning preserves the life of the organism with respect to the life requirement served by that organ.
  • Life as a Creative Developing Force ( Bernard 1865)
    • Key Idea:
      So that what distinguishes a living machine is not the nature of its physic-chemical properties, complex as they may be, but rather the creation of the machine which develops under our eyes in conditions proper to itself and according to a definite idea which expresses the living being’s nature and the very essence of life. – from An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, p. 93.
  • Life as a Pre-established Unity as its own Final Cause ( Bernard 1865)
    • Key Idea: 
      Bernard recognized the unity and harmony of the parts of organisms, and argued that as physiologists scientists must be conscious of the the organism’s parts as interdependent mutually generative of the organism as a whole and as its own final cause, a clear influence on Bernard of the ontology of Aristotle’s biology.
  • Life as the product of  Emergent Patterns that Constrain Evolution (Thompson, 1917)
    • Key Idea: 
      It appears that certain geometric constraints manifest themselves across all species, allowing variation in size and shape, but not in order or number.  We do not know how these constraints have emerged and been encoded in DNA in such a way that they cannot be overridden by any forces of genetic evolution.  These are  simple and fundamental facts relating to the science of organic morphology. In sum, the laws of evolution are not the sole forces, whose unlimited random unfolding define the structure and function of organisms, but instead, evolution is itself constrained by the predefined laws of biological morphology.
  • Life in terms of  Its Holistic Evolution (Smuts 1926)
    • Key Idea:
      A whole is a synthesis or unity of parts, so close that it affects the activities and interactions of those parts, impresses on them a special character, and makes them different from what they would have been in a combination devoid of such a unity or synthesis.  That is the fundamental element in the concept of the whole.  It is a complex of parts, but so close and intimate, so unified that the characters and relations and activities of the parts are affected and changed by the synthesis.   – from Holism and Evolution, p. 122.
  • Life in terms of Organismic Quantification (Woodger 1929)
    • Key Idea:
      [T]he collapse of mechanicism in physics opened up a new way of thinking about biology that denied its reducibility to physics whilst retaining a common overarching view of nature. It was such an organicist philosophy of biology that Woodgersought to develop in Biological Principles, – Rethinking Woodger’s Legacy, p. 253.
  • Life with respect to Biological vs Physical Dichotomies (Woodger 1929)
    • Key Idea:
      Woodger views biology as ‘‘a science of antitheses’’ (Woodger, 1929a, p. 11), and it is the persistence of these antitheses that prevents the harmonization of its facts. The six core biological antitheses that he identifies are: mechanism versus vitalism, structure versus function, organism versus environment, preformation versus epigenesis, causation versus teleology, and body versus mind. For Woodger, these antitheses are not really ‘out there’ in nature, but result primarily from the ways propositions drawn from empirical data are systematized into a body of knowledge. Strictly speaking, they do not belong to the subject matter of biology (i.e., to the nature of organisms), but to the nature of biology as knowledge.  – Rethinking Woodger’s Legacy, p. 252.
  • The Organism Itself as Holistic (Goldstein 1939)
    • Key Idea:
      We thus face the basic problem of all biology, possibly of all knowledge.  And it is the analysis of this problem, in respect to the living world, which is here my whole concern.  The question can be formulated quite simply:  What do the phenomena, arising from the isolating procedure, teach us about the “essence” (the intrinsic nature) of an organism?  How,  from such phenomena, do we come to an understanding of the behavior of the individual organism? — from The Organism, by Kurt Goldstein, (1939) p. 7.
  • Life from the Perspective of  General System Theory (Bertalanffy 1948)
    • Key Idea:
      We cannot reduce the biological, behavioral, and social levels to the lowest level, that of the constructs and laws of  physics.  We can, however, find constructs and possibly laws within the individual levels. …The unifying principle is that we find organization at all levels.  — from General System Theory,   p. 49
  • Life as Manifesting Hierarchically Organized Metabolism (Grobstein 1965)
    • Key Idea:
      Continuity, despite complexity, flows by the production of like from like at the molecular level, followed by translation of molecular order through several levels of interaction until the full complexity of the mature organism is regained.   – from The Strategy of Life, p. 71.
  • Life as a Dynamic Self-Renewing Form Independent of Matter (Jonas 1966)
    • Key Idea:
      It is only with life that the difference of matter and form in respect to lifeless things an abstract distinction emerges as a concrete reality.  And the ontological  relationship is reversed: form becomes the essence, matter the accident.   In the realm of the lifeless, form is not more than a changing composite state, and accident, of enduring matter. … But viewed from the dynamic identity of the living form, the reverse holds: the changing material contents are states of its enduring identity, their multiplicity marking the range of its effective unity.  In fact, instead of saying that the living form is a region of transit for matter, it would be truer to say that the material contents in their succession  are phases of transit for the self-continuation of the form.  — from “Is God a Mathematician” in The Phenomenon of Life, p. 80.
  • Life as the Manifestation of Emergent Biological Freedom (Jonas 1966)
    • Key Idea: 
      The basic freedom of organism was found to consist in a certain independence of form with respect to its own matter.  According to a strictly material world-account such independence is either an absurdity or a deceptive appearance.  Its emergence with emerging life indeed marks an ontological revolution in the history of “matter”.   — from “Is God a Mathematician” in The Phenomenon of Life, p. 81.
  • Life as a Form of Being whose Nature is Beyond Reductionism (Weiss 1968)
    • Key Idea:
      We are concerned with living organisms, and for those, we can assert definitely, on the basis of empirical investigation, that the mere reversal of our prior analytic dissection of the Universe by putting the pieces togetheragain, whether in reality or just in our minds, can yield no complete explanation of the behavior of even the most elementary living system. – The Living System: Determinism Stratified  by Paul A. Weiss,  published in, Beyond Reductionism, p. 7.
  • Life as a Manifestation of Macroevolution from Internal Cohesion (Mayr 1989)
    • Key Idea:
      Holists claim therefore that much of macroevolution cannot be explained by atomistic gene replacements or by selection pressures on single genes, but only by a more drastic reorganization, made possible by loosening the tight genetic cohesion of the genotype found throughout widespread populous species. Mayr, Carson (1975), Eldredge and Gould, and Stanley ascribe the stability of the phenotype, as observed in static species, to such an internal cohesion of the genotype, or parts of it.  – from Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, p. 471.
  • Life as an Emergent Complex Adaptive System (Holland 1995)
    • Key Idea:
      Even though these complex systems differ in detail, the question of coherence  under change is the central enigma for each.  The common factor is so important that at the Santi Fe Institute we collect these systems under a common heading, referring to them as complex adaptive systems (cas). – from Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity, by John. H. Holland, Helix Books, 1995, p. 4
  • Life as a Manifestation of Emergent Collective Instability (Laughlin 2006)
    • Key Idea:
      Since collective instability is emergent, it is reasonable to ask at what scale collective principles of organization begin to matter in life.  
      — from A Different Universe, p. 170.
  • Life as an Emergent Phenomenon not Reducible to Physics (Kauffman 2008)
    • Key Idea:
      But organisms, whose evolution of organization of structures and processes, such as the human heart, cannot be deduced from physics,  have causal powers of their own, and therefore are emergent real entities in the universe.  So, too, are the biosphere, the human economy, human culture, human action.
         – from Reinventing the Sacred,  p. 3.
  • Life as an Expected Emergent Being rather than Improbable (Kauffman 2008)
    • Key Idea:
      Experimental demonstration of collective autocatalysis by small proteins thus shows us that it is catalytic closure of a set of molecules that is the backbone of life.  Below I will describe a theory, now fully open to experimental test, that says the emergence of such collectively autocatalytic polymer systems is to be expected.  If correct, this theory suggest that molecular reproduction may be an emergent property of complex chemical – reaction networks, hence life may be far more probable than we have thought.  In turn, this emergence is not reducible to physics alone.
      – from Reinventing the Sacred , p. 57.
  • Life as Manifesting Emergent Downward Causality (Kauffman 2008)
    • Key Idea:
      These constraints, imposed by the system’s causal topology on the kinetics of its parts, are a case of “downward causation.”  Because these constraints are partially causal, the explanatory arrows do not point exclusively downward to the parts but also point upwards to the organization of the whole.  The whole acts on the parts as much as the parts on the whole. .. Thus, the emergence in the universe of collectively autocatalytic, evolved cells and their “topology” of organization of kinetic – controlled process is ontologically emergent, and the same topology of kinetic control of the “whole” is partially causal in constraining the kinetic behavior of the parts.  The explanatory arrows do truly point upward… – from Reinventing the Sacred , p. 58-59.
  • Life as Independent of Its Underlying Physics (Kauffman 2008)
    • Key Idea:
      The theory is organizational, and, if true, a candidate organizational law that could apply to life universally.  It rests on the mathematics and general properties of molecules, and not on the specific molecular embodiment.  As I mentioned above, the multiple-platform argument comes in, for the theory implies that many different molecular species can achieve collective autocatalysis.  Therefore, it cannot be reduced to any specific underlying physics  – from Reinventing the Sacred, p. 59.

Given the above joint perspective of the multiple aspects of the phenomenon of life, life as emergent self-sustaining being can be more clearly understood and contrasted with  the inanimate world and its lower level organization of causal principles which, as it turns out, are also emergent (Laughlin 2006)!

Published on July 20, 2014  @ 7:41 pm

Copyright  © 2014, 2015 by  bioperipatetic.  All rights reserved. 

Latest Update:   February 1, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

 

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