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Life forms have a story but rocks don’t

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Maybe rocks have a history but not a story. That fact matters to a discussion of evolution. From an online book in progress by Stephen L. Talbott tentatively titled “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — And the Living Narratives That Tell Its Story” (Overview) at the Nature Institute:

We heard in “The Organism’s Story” that living activity has a certain future-oriented (“purposive” or “intentional” or end-directed) character that is missed by causal explanations of the usual physical and chemical sort. This is true whether the end being sought is the perfection of adult form through development, or the taking of a prey animal for food.

An animal’s end-directed activity may, of course, be very far from what we humans know as conscious aiming at a goal. But all such activity nevertheless displays certain common features distinguishing it from inanimate proceedings: it tends to be persistent, so that it is resumed again and again after being blocked; it likewise tends to be adaptable, changing strategy in the face of altered circumstances; and the entire activity ceases once the end is achieved.

This flexible directedness — this interwoven play of diverse ends and means within an overall living unity — is what gives the organism’s life its peculiar sort of multi-threaded, narrative coherence. Life becomes a story. Events occur, not merely from physical necessity, but because they hold significance for an organism whose life is a distinctive pattern of significances.

Stephen L. Talbott, “The Mystery of an Unexpected Coherence” at Evolution as it Was Meant to Be: A work in progress

Indeed. What’s wrong with so many discussions of animal intelligence is precisely the loss of this perspective, that the animal or plant is part of a story, the theme of which is its own survival.

Thus, slime molds can replicate a highway map of Canada in search of bread crumbs. Are they smart? No. Do they need to be smart?

No. Similarly, plants can communicate with each other and with animals. Are they smart? No. Not in the human sense of consciousness, reason, or moral choice. And they clearly don’t need that in order to aspire to survive.*

It’s not clear that a wholly naturalist (nature is all there is), often called “materialist” approach to life can address the difference this makes. If all these creatures have purpose, it is reasonable to think that the universe as a whole does. But the truth is, many philosophers of biology don’t even appear to notice the gaping hole.

Hat tip: Philip Cunningham

See also: What if there is no genetics apart from epigenetics? Talbott: Not that the gene sequences are themselves mutated in the usual sense. Rather, the researchers found that various epigenetic modifications in the hippocampus alter the way the genes work (Weaver et al. 2004).


Is today’s biology missing a Big Idea? Talbott: Every organism is an entity in which certain ideas and intentions are manifest — observably expressed and realized. We have to be willing to say, as everyone does say, “This cell is preparing to divide.” We would never say (as I mentioned earlier), “This planet is preparing to make another circuit of the sun.”

EDTA, you are correct. It is the same as the old saw, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” But it would be inhumane to deny him the fish while you are teaching him. Brother Brian
First-order help: If someone needs something, you just hand it to them. Second-order help: Teaching people to become self-sufficient. Third-order help: Setting up systems so that a particular type of problem does not keep coming back generation after generation. We give too much first-order help, and not enough second- and third-order help. EDTA
After I finished my post, I was reminded of one of the few specific points I learnt in Theology class in college: In the Roman Catholic Church (the professor was a priest rotated out of teaching at a seminary; the Archdiocese of Chicago regularly used him as an Expert Witness in court cases impinging on Catholic beliefs...), "murder" is the INTENTIONAL taking of innocent human life. So, for example, you can't "murder" a chimp. And, also no, you can't "murder" a salad, even if you freely admit you intentionally killed the lettuce. But you can (and do) "murder" pre-born human babies when you take their lives. vmahuna
Is salad murder?
Only if you willfully kill the person who is going to eat it. :) The Bible says that plants are for us to consume. And without plants we would struggle to survive, right up until we all died... ET
Is salad murder? Yes. Should we make salads anyway? Yes. Why? Because we can. In the real world, humans make lots of decisions every day that cause, directly or indirectly, other life (plants, animals, people) to die. So, for example, we swat flies and mosquitoes because: 1) we can; 2) activity that is normal to them is irritating or unhealthy to us. Jumping up a dozen layers or so, back in the 1970s? there was FAMINE in Somalia because the people who lived in Somalia did not produce enough food (including reasonably intelligent animals such as beef cattle) to feed themselves. So kind hearted Europeans and Americans collected money to buy food available in vast quantities outside Somalia. And the expensive and complicated foreign aid saved some Somalians from immediate starvation, but didn't fix the underlying problems. Jump ahead 40 years (2 generations) or so. Somalians are STILL on the verge of starvation and still receive piles of food from outside Somalia. Why is this happening? In part because the population of Somalia in the 1970s was around 20 million people and the population today is around 40?!! million people. That is: 1. A country on the verge of nationwide starvation has somehow managed to DOUBLE its population. Somalia is in fact one of the fastest growing countries in the world 2. Whilst doubling its population, neither the Somali people nor their various governments have ever managed to significantly increase their ability to feed themselves. And in fact, the number of Somalis who starve to death in 2020 may be higher than the number who starved to death in 1980 (assuming its a similar percentage but of a larger population). So, is declining to send Somalis food murder? Yes. Should we decline to send them food anyway? Yes, because they have a perfectly natural problem that is within their own ability to solve. It's like buying a drunk another drink. vmahuna

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