Saturday, December 8, 2012
The transient emergence from lower-level assemblies (genes, cells) to individuals like us assumes that the ensembles of such assemblies function as a hierarchy of forms which leads to the whole. This view is, prima facie, a reductionist one, which would lead us to believe that the living system first embodies the sum-of-its-parts and the evolutionary forces subsuming these parts act on more than one level of resolution. The distinction that Godfrey-Smith has made between an organism and a Darwinian individual seeks to go past the living system as a sum-of-parts towards clarifying the phenomena of selection acting upon collectives, whether very small or very large. In this respect, a “dynamic linking” of organisms and Darwinian individuals becomes context-dependent upon the scale of interaction at which evolution unfolds.
I extend the binary distinction and dance between the two and place them within the context of a Kantian whole, where the parts exist for and by the means of the whole, and the whole for and by the means of the parts (2). The Kantian whole itself is the phenomena of biological evolution, where biological species falling under the organism/Darwinian individual dualism are characterized by the observation of the interactions between material objects in our reduction-materialist domain of knowledge. The emergence of novelty in the physical world by those things we cannot see or touch, but may be real in its pressure upon this Kantian whole is manifested in the actual Universe (i.e. accessible by our senses), although somehow immaterial as well and still enacting upon the biological evolution of species. Homo sapiens devise an ever-increasing number of virtual realities; whether in silico, our social structures, and civilizations and the subsequent memes developed within them. Subsequently, these virtual realities also allow us to dominate and manipulate the land around us – and perhaps it is the bacteria! The superstructure which consists of all the domains within the web of evolution takes into account these types of non-material realities, and the scales of resolution at which we operate upon is that context-dependence which the organism/Darwinian individual dualism recognizes as far as being under one law binding all of them together. Other examples of this are the dance of honey bees
and mating rituals between peacocks that could have mathematically well-defined dynamics, but go beyond the interaction of the inner-machinations of individual members of that organism set. For the peacocks to mate, they would have to lock eyes, and the eyes are connected to the brain, which “processes” the photons perceived as images. However, recently the link between photons and colour has not been so clear*, and the brain is not an information processor as given by the computational theory of mind (7). Even the dynamic linking the quantum effects as applied to the photon do not necessarily entail or integrate with the physics at the level of a protein encoded by sexual mating signals in the genome, although specific mechanisms do link components such as electrons with pathways, as in the case of electron chain transport in the plant. This is what is meant by the whole being greater than the sum-of-parts. The mixtures of these virtual realities, the interactions that emerge from the materialization of lineages in time, constitute the web of evolution which I have recognized as a Kantian whole. Darwinian individuals and organisms co-create instances in which they interact as observers and being observed as well, manifesting their own domain of knowledge upon the world around them through their behaviour at all the scales of existence we have recognized. The success of an idea, a creature, a kind – and the exchange between these classes – in maintaining their own existence, is that selection pressure which ensures the continued existence of the Kantian whole as well. This process also includes destruction if it has to; the destruction of stars, self-sacrificing ants, suicide, warfare and the like.
When implementing a biological theory such as classical Darwinian selection, these considerations must be taken into mind as well. Although Godfrey-Smith’s model does well to classify the distinction between the non-mating mule as an organism and sexually reproducing mammals, he does not consider the Darwinian legacy that organisms may leave behind. In this sense, the boundary he purports fails, since the conditions of the niche in which the unique Darwinian individuals perpetuate their coil to an offspring generation is influenced by such Darwinian legacies. There is evidence (4, 5), for example, that the food tastes of a human father are epigenetically imprinted into his daughter through a methyl-tag. The legacy of a mule is the methyl-tag which encodes for a father’s taste in food, which passes onto his daughter, who later goes on to become a mule breeder. In a sense, this could be kin selection; the mule has ensured the success of his species, albeit non-sexually, nor even asexually in the sense of a yeast budding. If that epigenetic mark is embedded within the mule that would go onto the daughter, but the mule was merely an organism acting as vehicle to that mark (the Darwinian individual), then whence came the residuum of the mule enacting itself as a replicator (6) upon the world around it despite its status as a eunuch? To place the distinction of organism/Darwinian individual under the enablement of Kantian wholes avoids this dangerous reduction-materialist game and allows us to focus on the generation and implications of useful results in analyzing nonconventional phenomena in the biosphere otherwise not riddled onto the biologist.
1. Godfrey-Smith, P. (2011) “The Evolution of the Individual.” The Lakatos Award
2. Weber, A., Varela, F. (2002) “Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic
foundations of biological individuality.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1:
3. Dennett, DD. (1993) “Review of F. Varela, E. Thompson and E. Rosch, the Embodied
Mind.” American Journal of Psychology, 106: 121-6.
4. Landecker, H. (2011) “Food as exposure: Nutritional epigenetics and the new
metabolism.” Biosocieties, 6: 167-194.
5. Muhlhausler, S., Ong, Z. (2011) “The Fetal Origins of Obesity: Early Origins of Altered
Food Intake.” Endocrine, Metabolic & Immune Disorders, 11(3): 189-197.
6. Dawkins, R. (1990). “The Selfish Gene.” ISBN-13: 978-0192860927. Pp. 15.
7. Horst, S. (2005). “The Computational Theory of Mind.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of
*“The same is true of the color of objects: they have indeed coevolved with the color-vision systems of the organisms that
perceive them, but, except on an evolutionary time scale, they are in the main imperturbable by organisms' perceptual activity.
Once we have this metaphysical point duly corrected and secured, does it play much of a role in ongoing cognitivist research?”