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Foundational document for twenty-first century biology

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Further to: What DO organisms mean? Tom Bethell looks at Stephen Talbott’s work, here’s a comment from Talbott:

Excerpt: The scientifically educated person today, bound by irresistible conviction, “knows” that the causes of material phenomena are rooted solely in physical things, and that the interactions among these causal things explain the forms we see in the world. Any claim that a principle of form can itself be causal — that it explains the appearance of physical things rather than being explained by them — would be met by incredulity.

Such a claim, however, was ventured by the late philosopher, Ronald Brady, in a 1987 paper* that some day, I suspect, will be viewed as a forward-looking and foundational document for twenty-first century biology. …


Abstract: In biology, the problem of the morphological “type”, or characteristic form, raises the question, When can different features be declared in some sense “the same”? Are the fin of a whale, the wing of a bird, and the arm of a primate the same limb? And if so, what are we recognizing as the common identity? We can ask similar questions when we consider the succession of bones along the spine of a vertebrate, or the succession of leaves along the stem of a plant. In what sense, if any, can we regard these as transformations of a single form? And what might that single form be?

In this article I attempt to summarize an exploration of these questions by the late philosopher, Ronald Brady. Drawing particularly on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s work and focusing especially on a leaf sequence along the stem of a single buttercup, he is led to conclusions of dramatic importance. We cannot extract from the leaves a set of common features that enables us to define, in any biologically significant sense, how these leaves “hold together” as a single form. Nor can we find or invent a static schema that generalizes over all the individual leaves. What we actually discover is a unified transformational movement, or gesture, with the individual forms being “snapshots” derived from the gesture.

The transformational movement, as a single gesture, is revealed not only through the sameness of the individual forms in a developmental series, but also through their characteristic differences. A typical or archetypal movement of this sort must continually change in order to remain itself. Moreover — and however much this goes against current thinking — this movement must be regarded as causal in nature. It is the generative principle through which the individual buttercup leaves gain their “buttercup character”.

Brady’s treatment of form and causation contrasts sharply with both conventional biological thinking and the vitalist tendencies that so naturally infect this thinking. It also contrasts with any imputation to organisms of purpose and design analogized either to human purposes and designs or to mechanical operations. (Open access)


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Hat tip: Philip Cunningham


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