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What DO organisms mean? Tom Bethell looks at Stephen Talbott’s work

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In “Life All the Way Down”: Stephen Talbott’s Biological Vision” (Evolution News & Views, March 9, 2012), Tom Bethell discusses Talbot’s recent series in New Atlantis.

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.”


Box, since information is 'transcendent,, I hold the 'expression of' (physical entity of) 'non-local quantum information' to be a more accurate description/representation of information, than encoded digital information is a description, or representation, of information, simply because of the fact that information, in our everyday use of it, is, as far as we can tell, transcendent of time-space, matter-energy:
“One of the things I do in my classes, to get this idea across to students, is I hold up two computer disks. One is loaded with software, and the other one is blank. And I ask them, ‘what is the difference in mass between these two computer disks, as a result of the difference in the information content that they posses’? And of course the answer is, ‘Zero! None! There is no difference as a result of the information. And that’s because information is a mass-less quantity. Now, if information is not a material entity, then how can any materialistic explanation account for its origin? How can any material cause explain it’s origin? And this is the real and fundamental problem that the presence of information in biology has posed. It creates a fundamental challenge to the materialistic, evolutionary scenarios because information is a different kind of entity that matter and energy cannot produce. In the nineteenth century we thought that there were two fundamental entities in science; matter, and energy. At the beginning of the twenty first century, we now recognize that there’s a third fundamental entity; and its ‘information’. It’s not reducible to matter. It’s not reducible to energy. But it’s still a very important thing that is real; we buy it, we sell it, we send it down wires. Now, what do we make of the fact, that information is present at the very root of all biological function? In biology, we have matter, we have energy, but we also have this third, very important entity; information. I think the biology of the information age, poses a fundamental challenge to any materialistic approach to the origin of life.” -Dr. Stephen C. Meyer earned his Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of science from Cambridge University
As to your second question, I'm not quite sure what you are asking, as to your third question (and suggestion of a 'soul' at the end of your question), that is the conclusion (a soul) that I also arrived at. bornagain77
Bornagain77, I have read your 'article' and finally it rang some bells. This is probably extremely important. Some question are: is the expression 'quantum information' accurate when the information is in fact non local - beyond space and time? Quanta just serve as a medium right? What encompasses the information of a person (an organism) - if not the soul? Box
//Follow-up question about the 'sugar code': As we all know, DNA is a remarkable stable structure which is a necessary condition for passing on heritable traits. Now, how can protein patterns in the cell membrane be anything like that? How can these (unstable?) patterns be trusted as carriers of the vital information of the body plan? Box
Thanks Jerry (#12)!
Dr. Meyer, Darwin's Doubt, p.307: "Instead, research suggests that protein patterns in the cell membrane are transmitted directly from parent membrane to daughter membrane during cell division rather than as a result of gene expression in each new generation of cells. Since the sugar molecules on the exterior of the cell membrane are attached to proteins and lipids, it follows that their position and arrangement probably result from membrane-to-membrane transmission as well."
This is all very interesting, however I don't see an answer to my questions yet. It''s hard to imagine that the information for the body plan can be stored on the membrane of one fertilized cell. And even if that is possible which mechanism adjusts the body plan information when it is passed on to daughters cell membranes so that they 'know' which tissue / organ is to be formed? What has the overview? Where is the conductor? Box
Where do these higher orders of organization come from? Where is it stored if not in DNA? What is capable of executing this body plan?
Meyer says it may be located in the cell wall of the zygote as sugars. If you have Meyer's book, go to Chapter 14 and look for the Sugar Code. The potential code is much more complex than that for proteins and amino acids. jerry
Box, those are indeed profoundly deep questions. As to your first three questions, I think a partial answer that will fill in a big piece of the puzzle can be found in this post: https://uncommondesc.wpengine.com/intelligent-design/rabbi-nails-it-origin-of-life-theory-is-a-demolition-derby/#comment-476512 As to the forth question, of course, as Kantian Naturalist demonstrated, there can be a materialistic concept for downward causation (he appealed to loosely defined concepts of self organization), but as to whether there can be a realistic materialistic concept of downward causation I hold the answer to that question is NO! bornagain77
Bornagain77, Thank you for your effort, that was quite convincing!
Dr. Meyer: We now know that DNA alone is not responsible for those higher orders of organization. DNA codes for proteins, but by itself it does not insure that proteins, cell types, tissues, organs, will all be arranged in the body.
SL Talbott puts it like this:
Talbott: If, as usually supposed, the organism’s program is a genetic one, borne by DNA , we might also ask whether there are trillions of programs and computers, located in almost every cell of the human body, with the many stably distinct cell types running stably distinct subprograms executed by stably distinct cellular hardware. If so, what program controls this differentiation of cell types, and how are they all coordinated so as to function as one organism? If there a single, organism-wide computer running trillions of programs simultaneously, where do we find that program?
What Dr.Meyer doesn’t do, contrary to Talbott, is highlighting the fact that we are dealing with a mystery. He dryly lets us know that he is aware of the problem, without addressing holistic questions.
Dr. Meyer: You are not, by mutating DNA alone, going to generate higher order structures that are necessary to building a body plan.
The big questions are: Where do these higher orders of organization come from? Where is it stored if not in DNA? What is capable of executing this body plan? Can there ever be an materialistic concept for downward causation? Box
Dr. Meyer, much like Talbott, holds that the whole of the organism cannot be reduced to a 'bottom up' reductive materialistic view of an organism. Here is how Dr. Meyer puts it:
‘Now one more problem as far as the generation of information. It turns out that you don’t only need information to build genes and proteins, it turns out to build Body-Plans you need higher levels of information; Higher order assembly instructions. DNA codes for the building of proteins, but proteins must be arranged into distinctive circuitry to form distinctive cell types. Cell types have to be arranged into tissues. Tissues have to be arranged into organs. Organs and tissues must be specifically arranged to generate whole new Body-Plans, distinctive arrangements of those body parts. We now know that DNA alone is not responsible for those higher orders of organization. DNA codes for proteins, but by itself it does not insure that proteins, cell types, tissues, organs, will all be arranged in the body. And what that means is that the Body-Plan morphogenesis, as it is called, depends upon information that is not encoded on DNA. Which means you can mutate DNA indefinitely. 80 million years, 100 million years, til the cows come home. It doesn’t matter, because in the best case you are just going to find a new protein some place out there in that vast combinatorial sequence space. You are not, by mutating DNA alone, going to generate higher order structures that are necessary to building a body plan. So what we can conclude from that is that the neo-Darwinian mechanism is grossly inadequate to explain the origin of information necessary to build new genes and proteins, and it is also grossly inadequate to explain the origination of novel biological form.’ - Stephen Meyer - (excerpt taken from Meyer/Sternberg vs. Shermer/Prothero debate - 2009) Stephen Meyer - Functional Proteins And Information For Body Plans - video http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4050681
Of note: I have that preceding quote from Dr. Meyer listed right above this quote from Talbott in my notes:
Getting Over the Code Delusion - Talbot - November 2010 Excerpt: The standard doctrine has it that functionally important sequences, precisely because they are important to the organism, will generally be conserved across considerable evolutionary distances. But the emerging point of view holds that architecture can matter as much as sequence. As bioinformatics researcher Elliott Margulies and his team at the National Human Genome Research Institute put it, “the molecular shape of DNA is under selection” — a shape that can be maintained in its decisive aspects despite changes in the underlying sequence. It’s not enough, they write, to analyze “the order of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s,” because “DNA is a molecule with a three-dimensional structure.”[14] Elementary as the point may seem, it’s leading to a considerable reallocation of investigative resources. http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/getting-over-the-code-delusion
Bornagain77, Obviously Dr.Meyer holds that organisms are designed by an intelligence (God). Darwinists also believe that organisms are designed, however they propose another 'designer' - the 'blind watchmaker' aka 'natural selection'. Apart from the disagreement about the designer, what is the difference in view on the organism? Box
The Return of the God Hypothesis - Stephen Meyer Abstract: Historian of science Frederic Burnham has stated that the God hypothesis is now a more respectable hypothesis than at any time in the last one hundred years. This essay explores recent evidence from cosmology, physics, and biology, which provides epistemological support, though not proof, for belief in God as conceived by a theistic worldview. It develops a notion of epistemological support based upon explanatory power, rather than just deductive entailment. It also evaluates the explanatory power of theism and its main metaphysical competitors with respect to several classes of scientific evidence. The conclusion follows that theism explains a wide ensemble of metaphysically-significant evidences more adequately and comprehensively than other major worldviews or metaphysical systems. Thus, unlike much recent scholarship that characterizes science as either conflicting with theistic belief or entirely neutral with respect to it, this essay concludes that scientific evidence actually supports such belief. http://www.arn.org/docs/meyer/sm_returnofgod.pdf The Return of the God Hypothesis - Stephen Meyer - video lecture http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueEpWIfXao8 Epistemology – Why Should The Human Mind Even Be Able To Comprehend Reality? – Stephen Meyer - video – (Notes in description) http://vimeo.com/32145998 bornagain77
Bornagain77 #5 (...) he [Dr. Meyer] does not hold a reductive materialistic view of life.
Why do you think that Dr. Meyer does not hold a reductive materialistic view on life - apart from life being designed? Box
Box, I'm positive that Dr. Meyer holds a Theistic view of reality in which God sustains the entire universe, and all life in it, in its continued existence, and that he does not hold a reductive materialistic view of life. Also if you notice, Talbott, although he rightly, and very effectively, criticizes the reductionist view of life, he never proposes a specific mechanism for how life might have originated in the Cambrian explosion. Not a minor omission to put it mildly bornagain77
Hello Bornagain77, You may very well be right about Talbott and Pantheism. However, the question is does he have a valid point when he observes that ID and Neo-Darwinism share a materialistic mechanistic perspective on life? Is life analogous to a collection of mechanical toys - made by either an intelligent designer or a blind watchmaker? Is Talbott right and did ID fully adopt this miserable naturalistic view on life? Box
Box, Though I respect Talbott very much, and would love to have lunch with him, I think he is, especially in this instance, arguing for a pantheistic view of reality. bornagain77
In his article ‘A sectarian quarrel? Intelligent design and Neo-Darwinism’ (scroll down to article 10, September 12, 2013) , holist Stephen L Talbott writes about Darwin’s Doubt, Intelligent Design and Neo-Darwinism. He takes issue with the view upon life, shared by ID and Darwinism, as mindlessly material mechanism, ‘a world deprived of meaning, idea, and inwardness — of anything that might manifest itself as a content, or potential content, of consciousness’.
SL Talbott: (…) both Meyer and the neo-Darwinist accept a machine-like understanding of the organism. This goes without saying for the conventional biologist. But Meyer, too, refers freely to “molecular machines” and “protein machines”; he talks about “instructions”, “switches”, and “circuits”; and he imagines “digital” elements of DNA functioning like “computer code”. Part Two of his book is entitled “How to Build an Animal”.
According to Talbott ‘the organism is not machine-like and it also is far from being, in any part, a computer.
SL Talbott: But do not underestimate the common ground underlying these differences. Both Meyer and the conventional biologist see the natural world as mindlessly material. But since they also cannot help recognizing meaning in the world, and particularly in the organism, they both try to avoid contradiction by relocating that meaning as far from natural phenomena as possible — the materialist in the hope of being rid of it, and the intelligent design theorist in order to save it from the reigning mindlessness. And they both accentuate the ambiguity of their position by drawing heavily on the machine metaphor — a metaphor that pretends to speak of dumb mechanism while capitalizing on the hearer’s recognition of both the machine’s design and the designer behind it. Given their shared view of natural process itself, their different approaches to the key question — do we see real thoughtfulness in the organism? — look very much like symptoms of a sectarian squabble. It is a quarrel among the brethren. Many of the greatest struggles in history occur because the antagonists live uncomfortably close to each other. Baptism by immersion or by sprinkling? Meaning smuggled back into the picture by an unapproachable designer or by an ungraspably abstract principle of natural selection?
"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." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5d4wWGK4Ig&feature=player_embedded Axel

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