The Same Idea?
Reflections on the Concrete and the Abstract in Theoretical Biology
aCenter for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies, Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark
published pp. 187-197 in: Jerry L. R. Chandler and Gertrudis Van de Vijver (eds.), 2000: Closure: Emergent Organizations and Their Dynamics. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences volume 901. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences.
The aim of this brief note is to consider partly hidden ideas about theoretical biology and its subject matter, living beings, organisms in their ecosystems -- which means beetles, cows, worms, bacteria cells, green algae, and dinosaurs, their history and interactions, their development and evolution, their structure and function, their origin, self-organization, the extinction of individuals as well as species, and the genesis of higher modes of life. In other words, an extremely multifaceted subject. First, however, recall an observation on the fate of general systems theory, which in the 1960s and 1970s had the ambitious goal of synthesizing the general fields of cybernetics, information theory, operation analysis, and specific fields, such as evolutionary theory and thermodynamics. That goal was not achieved and various reasons may be given for the failure, but an important factor might have been a too high level of theoretical generality in accounting for the highly different types of systems included in the ambitions of systems theory . With this in mind, we could ask for the possibility of facing a similar situation with respect to the current trends in systems thinking.
Experiential, experimental, and theoretical biology
We commence with the epistemology of evolutionary systems theory (complex
adaptive systems, developmental systems, self-organizing systems, etc.). This
idea may be called the hidden prototype fallacy. It focuses on the risk of
becoming seduced by our own theoretical creations, blinded by the life of
abstractions, and it asks if we all commit a fallacy of presupposing certain
characteristics of the class of systems under investigation (e.g., evolutionary
systems), even though these are not accounted for by the theoretical apparatus
of our theory. The argumentative rhetoric found in many discussions within the
field of self-organizing systems theory (and others) tends to hide basic
connections between folk biology, theoretical biology (e.g., evolutionary
systems theory), and experimental biology in one of its disciplinary
normal-science forms. We tend to neglect the deep role played by real
biology as a reservoir of experience and knowledge about living systems. I
claim that we should more explicitly cultivate such connections between
experiential, scientific and theoretical biology; but also that we should be
critical about the limits of such connections when they are hidden to explicit
discourse. To explain this idea, I have to give some definitions and
(a) self-organization (or emergence, autopoiesis, autocatalysis)
(b) evolution (or development)
(c) communication (or semiosis, information processing)
(d) living (or feeling, acting, learning)
To the extant that we, within a given paradigmatic frame, can use these terms
in a coherent way, we are also able to decide (within the limits of some
ambiguities) if a concrete specimen of life, or a physical concrete dynamic
system, instantiates one or more of these concepts. E.g., from my understanding
of the original theory of autopoiesis , I happen to be able to
decide that a single E. coli cell is an autopoietic system, whereas my
bicycle, a piece of cake, or my home city are not. I even know that a
multicellular organism may be more a problematic case, it may be a higher order
autopoietic system, but there is the possibility that "the observer is
mistaken" [Ref. 3, p. 108]. From reading selected thoughts about
self-organizing systems (from e.g., Simon, Prigogine, Jantsch, Salthe,
Kauffman, and Gell-Mann), I really know that a tornado, a bamboo plant, and a
city are examples of such systems whereas a watch, a dish, a rock, or a carbon
atom are not; and furthermore, that there seem to be borderline cases such as
the Earth, the solar system, a three-dimensional globulin macromolecule, and a
piece of crystal, all of which may be or may not be (considered as)
self-organizing, depending on the specific conditions. The reason for calling
attention to prototypes (which are normally considered as pertaining to pre- or
non-scientific contexts) is the suspicion that in some of the abstract
theorizing, the base exemplars are not described much better than by everyday
prototypes, and the pool of paradigmatic exemplars  indeed has a
"What is in this egg? An insensitive mass before the germ is put into it ... How does this mass evolve into a new organization, into sensitivity, into life? Through heat. What will generate heat in it? Motion. What will the successive effects of motion be? Instead of answering me, sit down and let us follow out these effects with our eyes from one moment to the next. First there is a speck which moves about, a thread moving and taking colour, flesh being formed, a beak, wing-tips, eyes, feet coming into view, a yellowish substance unwinds and turns into intestines--and you have a living creature.... Now the wall is breached and the bird emerges, walks, flies, feels pain, runs away, comes back again, complains, suffers, loves, desires, enjoys, it experiences all your affections and does all the things that you do. And you will maintain, with Descartes, that it is an imitating machine pure an simple? Why, even little children will laugh at you, and philosophers will answer that if it is a machine you are one too!"Diderot's appeal to the experiential biology of a chicken in formation is of double interest here: It illustrates the point, that in the discursive context of very theoretical arguments about system types and how to explain them, we make use of more intuitive kinds of knowledge when we examine the merits or the failure of such theories (whether they are mechanist as in Diderot's case or not). The sentient living thing, like the chicken, or like you and me, becomes a prototype of a complex system that has not yet been explained by mechanistic principles. The fact, that even children can tell the difference between a watch or other artificial devices and living beings, is a fact of folk biology; and the capacity to make that distinction, to recognize a system as alive, is constitutive for the very concept of an organism. Furthermore, in other passages in Prigogine and Stengers' book, we can observe the tendency to blur that distinction, to hide the pheno-ontological difference between the prototypes of eddies, plants, and animals, by emphasizing that they all are 'dissipative structures'. This hints at a general point:
When discussing the theoretical ideas of self-organizing selective systems, developmental constraints, biosemiosis and autocatalytic systems, there seems to be an underlying reference to a shared pool of imaginable system-types, that are used conveniently to `ground' the abstract discussion in real biology or material instances of physical, chemical and biological systems. It is this ground of pre-scientific experience with various types of concrete (or quasi-abstract) systems (e.g., plants, animals, humans) that I suggest plays a hidden cognitive role as reservoir of prototypes for the discussion. Thus we can formulate
Example 1. The theory of autopoiesis, developed in the 1970s, was framed, in its core, (almost) with no reference to the rich biochemical and molecular biological concept of cellular metabolism, that is, framed in purely abstract organizational (and mechanistic) terms. Nevertheless, it seems to be almost inconceivable that the theory could get formulated without all the previous work in experimental biology on metabolism and physiology. It is hard to imagine how to comprehend the notions of this theory without the possibility of imagining certain prototypes of living systems as concrete instances. If one reply, from the stance of the theory itself, that it is indeed a generalization over these instances (a natural objection, though not in strict accordance with the theory itself) to focus on the universal aspects of living systems as autopoietic systems, then the logical-semantic link from concrete instances to the theory's construal of autopoiesis as a general mode of organizational stability remain unclear, partly hidden, and not reflected in the theory itself.
Example 2. Non-equilibrium thermodynamics as a theory supposed to explain or cover the origin of life. This example concerns claims that to understand the origin of life (as the emergence of biological order from disorder) it is central to deal in general with the irreversible emergence of dissipative structures that self-organize matter and energy into stable patterns -- known from the eddies and vortexes of streaming water, or the spiral waves of the chemical Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, or the spirals of the slime mould Dictyostelium. In this example, the water vortex, the BZ reaction and the Dictyostelium pattern (at least on the superficial level) take the form of prototypical examples of emergence of organized systems. It is like a simple syllogism: Premises: an organism is an instance of a dissipative structure; the BZ reaction is another instance; non-equilibrium thermodynamics explains the existence of order (as in the BZ-reaction). Thus, conclusion: non-equilibrium thermodynamics possibly explains the origin of organisms.
Example 3. Dual mode theories of life (e.g., the biosemiotics of Refs. 7 and 8; the linguistic-dynamic complementarity principle of Ref. 9). The biosemiotic approach to living organization can be formulated in various ways (which I cannot discuss in detail here), and some of these may give the impression that this approach constitute a separate scientific theory of life -- that considers life not as organized molecular systems but as semiotic processes -- and thus it might be thought of as an alternative to the traditional 'paradigm' of molecular biology. Why this is a misleading formulation of an otherwise promising perspective is because, first, the real challenge is to investigate the relation between the molecular and semiotic aspects of life processes; second, because the formulation of the biosemiotic perspective (as with the theory of autopoiesis) is very much dependent upon what the discipline of molecular biology has revealed about the intricacies of cellular life during the past 50 years (for details see Ref. 10). Furthermore, the notion of code-duality as well as the notion of linguistic-dynamic complementarity must be suspected to have as a more or less hidden prototype the classical genotype-phenotype duality in classical genetics.
Example 4. Complexity studies, e.g., complex adaptive Santa Fe systems (e.g., Ref. 11). Science, throughout its history, has studied the complex phenomenal world to reveal the secrets of is appearances, thus it should not surprise us that complexity itself could be a subject matter. However, from a certain local perspective, it might seem a bit bizarre to imagine a truly general scientific concept of complexity. In specific fields such as evolutionary biology, molecular genetics, or the computational study of life-like automata within Artificial Life, one finds precise and even operational concepts of complexity for specific scientific purposes. However, again, the point of departure for these concepts is often rooted in everyday notions of complexity, and the concluding insights drawn from such studies may also interfere with pre-scientific everyday ideas about the subject. From a scientific point of view, doubts can be raised about the use of any general notion of complexity. Natural science is partitioned into a set of very specialized methods and approaches -- why then, should not every particular concept of complexity have a very restricted scope, relevance and validity? For instance, if one wants to test claims about the rising complexity in evolution, one has to design special measures of complexity tailored to cope with the empirical class of systems that are to be the test material (see e.g., Ref. 7 and 12).
Example 5. Artificial Life research (AL). As a general theory of (or conceptual frame concerning) life as an emergent self-organizing phenomenon that may appear in quite variable media, AL presupposes the prototypes of growing plants (in the algorithmic models of growth), moving animals (in robot studies), and metabolizing cells (in various computational models of life). As a research programme, it aims at liberating us from the too restricted conception of "life-as-we-know-it", but one does not have to look very deeply into the assumptions involved in its quest for "life-as-it-could-be" to realize that the escape from folk biological notions of life is never complete, and that the issues about the so-called reality of the simulated creatures recourse to our precious prototypes of the kind of life we know from biology and folk biology .
Observing all these specific theories of self-organizing and developing systems, one is tempted to ask "Why is it that all these good old fashioned organisms -- concrete instances of mosquitoes, influenza viruses, jackdaws, bananas, fruit flies and Neanderthals -- seemingly play such a little role in theoretical biology?" A possible answer is simply that theoreticians don't care about specific organisms -- or that, apparently, in the Platonic way of doing biology, a bamboo plant cannot tell anything significant about self-organizing systems, because even thought it may be an instance of one, it is simply too concrete -- or, that theoreticians pursue generality to such an extent that differences between biology and physics seems to disappear at the cost of recognizing the uniqueness of organisms, which exactly is their historicity, contingency, biochemical peculiarity, functionality and purposefulness -- and sign functions. It may be an illusion to think that a new deeper understanding of self-organizing living systems will come from theorizing alone. The base type of systems are often defined and well described as concrete instances of living organisms of a specific species within a specific experimental and/or experiential frame.
Is our concept of an organism a closed one?
Having considered a peculiar epistemological aspect of the abstract nature of
the new complex-systems theories and their relation to concrete instances of
known species of life, the focus can now be directed at a related though more
intrinsic-theoretical question about the attempts to characterise complex
1 Function as an explanatory tool of experimental biology and a philosophical argument for the autonomy of biology (or an embarrassment for some philosophers of science);
To jump to the conclusion of this comparative analysis: It is conjectured that
biosemiosis presupposes functionality, that functionality is only possible
under a closure of operations, and that this closure is an emergent phenomenon
of a semiotic character. (If this is so, a synthesis is needed, and also an
I'll express my thanks for inspiration to contributors of the evolutionary systems volume  as well as the participants in the closure workshop in Ghent in May 1999. I claim no special novelty of the ideas expressed in this note and take the sole responsibility for its opaqueness and incompleteness.
[*] [note added in proof]: I mean scientism in the usual sense of "these doctrines, outlooks and associated forms of social practice extending to science an authority beyond its legitimate scope" (from the entry on scientism in: W.F. Bynum, E.J. Browne & Roy Porter, eds. (1981): Dictionary of the History of Science. Macmillan Press, London.)
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