The Science of Life

Daniel Dennett says biology is engineering. He argues that living organisms are machines, flattening the classical Aristotelian difference between natural and artificial. For Aristotle, natural things had their form and purpose internal to themselves, while artificial things were designed from without for a purpose other than themselves. Of course, the beauty of human art (film, painting, poetry, music, …) is also of itself so, and in this sense participates in the autopoiesis of nature (Plato was suspicious of the muse precisely because it brings the soul back in touch with the body). But can manufactured technologies, like computers, really explain living systems, like us? Is biology engineering, or is Dennett conflating science (i.e., theoretical knowledge) with technology (know-how)?

If my body is the product of a purely mechanical process “as patient as it was mindless” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 188), out of what did this process make the psychological existence that I am? Why was the early earth in such a rush to come to life? How did molecules begin to feel? And why is it that metazoa evolved eyes in at least 40 distinct hereditary lines? It is as though nature’s evolutionary adventure has an aim: seeing clearer in order to feel more intensly. Patient it may be, but now that nature has grown muscles and nerves, innovation has become a regularity.

Darwin wasn’t trying to account for the wholeness of organisms, but for specific differences between them. Dennett has turned this useful heuristic into a “universal acid,” thereby conflating a phylogenetic theory for a theory of ontogeny. In other words, Dennett tries to explain the immanent purposes and holistic form of individual organisms entirely in terms of the differential survival of replicating genetic algorithms. He doesn’t seem to find the question of how a living body continually produces itself particularly relevant to biology, or perhaps assumes Darwin’s anecdotes somehow explain self-organization and production. Certainly, variation and competition are necessary for evolution to occur; but they are not sufficient as an explanation for life. Darwin assumes the existence of autopoietic organisms that can reproduce–they are the underlying momentum powering his theoretical analogy between the domestication of animals via human selection and the entire history of life. The reductionist explanation for living organization cannot come out of a theory that already assumes it exists.

[Also, see my essay On the Matter of Life for the reason the Design paradigm fails from the beginning to approach biology from the proper angle (as physis, rather thantechne — for more on this distinction, see this essay: Unearthing the Earth). This is true whether we’re talking about Supernatural, or Natural selection/design.]

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