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A return of purpose to biology?


A British science writer tells us, “Biologists balk at any talk of ‘goals’ or ‘intentions’ – but a bold new research agenda has put agency back on the table”:

One of biology’s most enduring dilemmas is how it dances around the issue at the core of such a description: agency, the ability of living entities to alter their environment (and themselves) with purpose to suit an agenda. Typically, discussions of goals and purposes in biology get respectably neutered with scare quotes: cells and bacteria aren’t really ‘trying’ to do anything, just as organisms don’t evolve ‘in order to’ achieve anything (such as running faster to improve their chances of survival). In the end, it’s all meant to boil down to genes and molecules, chemistry and physics – events unfolding with no aim or design, but that trick our narrative-obsessed minds into perceiving these things. Yet, on the contrary, we now have growing reasons to suspect that agency is a genuine natural phenomenon. Biology could stop being so coy about it if only we had a proper theory of how it arises. Unfortunately, no such thing currently exists, but there’s increasing optimism that a theory of agency can be found – and, moreover, that it’s not necessarily unique to living organisms. A grasp of just what it is that enables an entity to act as an autonomous agent, altering its behaviour and environment to achieve certain ends, should help reconcile biology to the troublesome notions of purpose and function.

Philip Ball, “Life with purpose” at Aeon

He turns out to be looking for a “bottom up” theory of agency—that is, a materialist one. And he admits that there is no such theory but he offers “a sketch of what a solution might look like.”

One suspects that materialists will be offering such sketches centuries from now.

Hat tip: Pos-darwinista

Ball gets a lot of things right, starting at the start with immunity. Any paid scientist who acknowledges in 2020 that macrophages exist is asking for trouble. Toward the end he slides past the problem with those rule-based simulations. The rule the simulation is following is NOT gravity or energy flow, it's a purpose programmed into the computer. The simulations aren't just electrons pulling toward the nearest positive charge. The overall notion of entropy in thermodynamics is also flawed. Heat often does flow uphill, just as water waves flow against gravity half the time, or electromagnetic waves flow uphill against a charge field half the time. Resonance in heat motion is much less common and much harder to observe than resonance in water or air molecules, but it works the same way. So there's no reason for a law that "explains" why heat can't flow uphill. It can and does. Genetic tendencies work the same way. A tendency establishes a gradient, which is stronger for some tendencies than others; but an animal acting with purpose toward an anticipated goal can flow uphill against the gradient of the tendency. polistra
He mentions Dr Susan Still, she is one worth watching. Belfast

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