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“Life All the Way Down”: Stephen Talbott’s Biological Vision


Within the last two years, Stephen L. Talbott has published in The New Atlantis four lengthy and critical pieces about modern biology. A senior researcher at the Nature Institute in Ghent, NY, Talbott seems to aim at nothing less that a new paradigm for the study of life. The four pieces, beginning with “Getting Over the Code Delusion” (Summer 2010), amount to a short book, and are not always easy reading. But they are carefully written, free of jargon, and in the end highly rewarding.
In “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings” (Fall 2010) he argues persuasively that organisms are wholes and cannot be thought of as assembled in machine-like fashion — one part mechanically added to another. Whereas “the parts of a clock are put together in a certain way,” he writes, “the parts of an organism grow within an integral unity from the very start.” We see this in a developing embryo.

The parts do not add themselves together to form a whole, but rather progressively differentiate themselves out of the prior wholeness of seed or germ. They are growing even as they begin functioning, and their functioning is a contribution toward their growing. The parts never were and never are completely separate, never are assembled. A specific bit of food taken in from outside never becomes some new, recognizable part, added to the rest; rather, it is metabolically transformed and assimilated by the ruling unity that is already there.

This “holistic” idea dominates Talbott’s overall view and it goes against the grain of the mechanistic picture that has prevailed in the West since the time of Charles Darwin. Furthermore, he places little reliance on the categories that dominate our thinking today, whether secular or (overtly) religious; whether involving chance, necessity, design or creation.
In “Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness” (Summer 2010) he does question fundamental Darwinian dogmas (such as the concept of fitness). In “What Do Organisms Mean?” (Winter 2011) he raises a question about organisms that today’s biologists obviously never ask.
Darwinism, in contrast, attempts to understand organisms as having been gradually assembled — by natural selection. A recent claim, triumphantly reported by Jerry Coyne, showed how little progress the Darwinians have made. Camouflaged moths tend to do better than conspicuous ones in an environment of keen-sighted predator birds. But as Jonathan Wells wrote here recently, Darwinian evolution requires

much more than a shift in the proportions of light- and dark-colored moths. It requires the descent with modification of all living things from one or a few common ancestors. Darwin did not write a book titled How the Proportions of Two Pre-existing Moth Varieties Can Change Through Natural Selection; he wrote a book titled The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Stephen Talbott quotes Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin several times; he seems to be one of Talbott’s favorite sources. Lewontin once described how you can cut out the developing limb bud from an amphibian embryo, shake the cells loose from each other, allow them to re-aggregate randomly, and then put the resulting mass back into in the embryo. A normal leg develops.
“Somehow,” Talbott wrote, “the form of the limb as a whole is the ruling factor, redefining the parts according to the larger pattern.”
Lewontin continued:

Unlike a machine whose totality is created by the juxtaposition of bits and pieces with different functions and properties, the bits and pieces of a developing organism seem to come into existence as a consequence of their spatial position at critical moments in the embryo’s development. Such an object is less like a machine than it is like a language whose elements … take unique meaning from their context.

Talbott questions modern biology’s penchant for looking at organisms from the bottom up — as if that were the way we normally understand life. It’s a mistake comparable to believing that a ship’s destination can be discerned by studying the engine room; or thinking that the message of a book can be deciphered by studying the chemical composition of its paper and ink.
Talbott calls to mind the Gestalt school in psychology, developed primarily in Germany. The whole, it was said, was greater than the sum of its parts. To see what was going on you had to look at the big picture, not the dots on the canvas. Gestalt theory stood in contrast to the stimulus-response approach of the behaviorists but in the end was considered to be less scientific than observing how organisms respond to particular stimuli.
In biology, studying what happens at molecular levels never tells us all that much. What we find are “scraps of machinery.” Yet we are also expected to take it on faith that through the unconscious automatism of natural selection, “these low-level molecular machines slowly evolve into the kind of apparently purposeful, complex entities we recognize as organisms, including ourselves.” It’s mostly a futile exercise.
As to our human recourse to meaning and purpose, including (Talbott adds) “my own intentions as I write this and yours as you read it,” we are urged to shed our prejudices and illusions, and to acknowledge that “we with our intentions somehow arise from more basic, underlying processes that are essentially dumb, meaningless, and mindless.”
Talbott eloquently argues that the Genome Project has not delivered as expected. The most striking thing about the genomic revolution “is that the revolution never happened,” he writes. There has been a flood of new data, and we are gaining, “even if largely by trial and error, certain manipulative powers. But our understanding of the integrity and unified functioning of the living cell has, if anything, been more obscured than illumined by the torrent of data.”
That last is surely correct. Our current understanding of genetics seems to be more confused now than it was a quarter century ago. Talbott quotes Linda and Edward McCabe in DNA: Promise and Peril (2008), as saying that “Many of us in the genetics community sincerely believed that DNA analysis would provide us with a molecular crystal ball that would allow us to know quite accurately the clinical futures of our individual patients.”
But it didn’t work out that way. Genes “for” various diseases have not materialized, and in the case of cancer more and more genes are “associated with” cancer but they are not necessarily causative at all.
As for understating the similarities and differences among humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, we would do better to study the creatures themselves rather than the molecules coiled inside their and our cells. Talbott:

If we had been looking to ground our levitated theory in scientific observation, we would have known that the proper response to the code similarity in humans and chimps was: “Well, so much for the central, determining role we’ve been assigning to our genes.”

After the Human Genome Project revised the human gene count downward from 100,000 to about 25,000, we were also told that much simpler creatures — for example, roundworms — had roughly the same number of genes. A water flea was found to possess 39,000 genes: “Not even the ‘chimps are human’ boosters were ready to set themselves on the same scale with a water flea.”
These figures intimated that there was a serious problem with our understanding of the gene. In fact, it’s not clear that the concept of the gene will ultimately survive. Furthermore, our “decoding” scheme told us that the vast bulk of DNA appeared to be nonsense. Many geneticists were happy to dismiss it as junk precisely because it seemed to demonstrate evolution, a system of trial and error in which the errors accumulated over the ages.
Official science, especially when government funded, hates to admit error. But I think these gross anomalies in our understanding of DNA have been instructive and will (in the long run) lead to a massive revision of genetics. But it will take a generation. Meanwhile a lot of researchers will want to keep doing things in the same old way.
A note on creation and design: Stephen Talbott is critical of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for seeming “fixated upon design, presumably as a result of their severely constraining preoccupation with religion and with the ‘creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’ promulgated by some religious folks.”
In fact, Talbott himself is uncomfortable with the idea of design and his worldview doesn’t seem to include a God, either. “The word [design] has its legitimate uses,” he writes, but “you will not find me speaking of design.” Why not? The following paragraph gives a few clues.
Organisms, he writes,

cannot be understood as having been designed, machine-like, whether by an engineer-God or a Blind Watchmaker elevated to god-like status. If organisms participate in a higher life, it is a participation that works from within — at a deep level the ancients recognized as that of the logos informing all things. It is a sharing of the springs of life and being, not a mere receptivity to some sort of external mechanical tinkering modeled anthropocentrically on human engineering.

Perhaps his real objection, once again, is to conceptual separation: to a division between Creator and created. He may see this as one more exercise in artificiality. It’s a sundering that seems to parallel his distaste for wholes divided into parts. Everything, in his view, is interconnected; it must all to be linked in some glorious whole.
Talbott likes the story of the old lady who believed that the world sat on the back of a giant turtle. When asked what the turtle rested on, she invoked a second turtle. Eventually she insisted: “It’s turtles all the way down.”
He comments: “As a metaphor for the scientific understanding of biology, the story is marvelously truthful. In the study of organisms, ‘It’s life all the way down.'”