Barham, the philosopher who runs The Best Schools, got collared by friends recently, and had to answer some questions: Like, why is he an atheist but not a Darwinist? This is him on the issue of the functional stability of life:
Darwinists are typically quite willing to concede that the origin of life is a mystery, but then they will brush the matter aside as none of their concern. But the problem of teleology and normativity is not just a problem of origins. It’s a problem of how life works, at every moment. It is a deep physical problem, and one that is entirely occluded by the Darwinian way of thinking.
Life is not some rickety Rube Goldberg machine. Living systems are incredibly stable systems. However, their stability is of a very special sort—it is functional stability.
Functional stability has two aspects: the ability of living systems to recover a previous regime of operation after insult and their ability to find completely new regimes consistent with overall viability.
An example of the former capacity—which we may call “robustness”—would be the healing of a broken bone. An example of the latter capacity—which we may call “plasticity”—would be the ability of a dog to find a new stable gait after losing a leg.
“If you take a living animal heart and pass it through a sieve … and then nourish them in a proper medium, the disaggregated cells will seek out each other in the petri dish. Over a few hours, they will form a rhythmically pulsating mass.”
Both kinds of capacities are obviously teleological. They are instances of the living system spontaneously seeking to find a stable mode of functioning following insult. Let us call this general principle, encompassing both robustness and plasticity, “adaptivity.”
Adaptivity is a general property of living systems as such. It of course depends upon the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry, but it appears to be irreducible to them. It seems to incorporate some physical principle we do not yet understand.
The take-home lesson is that organisms are not machines. Machines are not robust or plastic, but brittle. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about.
If you take a living animal heart and pass it through a sieve so as to separate the individual myocytes, and then nourish them in a proper medium, the disaggregated cells will seek out each other in the petri dish. Over a few hours, they will form a rhythmically pulsating mass. True, no fully functioning heart will reassemble itself, but the cooperativity of the individual cells towards the functioning of the whole will be plain to see.
In contrast, if you smash an artificial heart with a hammer, or disassemble it into its component parts, the individual pieces of titanium and Dacron and what-have-you will not budge, much less seek each other out and try to start beating rhythmically again.
Now, this is just one striking example, but the principle underlying it pervades all of biology. We now know, for example, that very many of the macromolecules and even the larger structures such as membranes and organelles, in the cell are not rigid parts, but are assembled and disassembled continuously as needed. The cell as a whole has far greater permanence than any of its component “parts.” Those “parts” cannot explain the whole, as it is precisely the needs of the whole that determines the very existence of the parts at the time and place where they come into existence.
“All of this is not only unexplained by the current Darwinian paradigm, I would go farther and say that Darwinism is standing in the way of our even seeing these facts clearly.”
The molecular biologist Alexei Kurakin has recently put this important point as follows:
To summarize, the newly revealed and unexpected properties—such as steady-state character, transient self-organization on demand, stochastic dynamics and interconnectedness—that characterize cellular structures and molecular machines believed to exist as pre-assembled complexes designed for certain functions according to programs and blueprints, clearly suggest the inadequacy of expectations and assumptions based on the mechanistic intuition.(3)
All of this is not only unexplained by the current Darwinian paradigm, I would go farther and say that Darwinism is standing in the way of our even seeing these facts clearly.
In other words, Darwinism is not only wholly inadequate as a general framework for understanding life and evolution—it is actively pernicious. It is pernicious because it is “blocking the path of progress,” as Peirce liked to say. It does this by systematically concealing the deep and difficult physical problems posed by the existence of life. We wave the magic wand of natural selection, and all painful thinking can then cease.
Once the Darwinian mindset is overcome, new vistas may open up.
James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up #I: He’s an atheist but he thinks reality is real
James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up #II: Folk psychology is basically correct
James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up III: Biology (like the social sciences) is guilty of massive and systematic equivocation
James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up #IV: The theory of natural selection is wholly inadequate to deal with the idea of purpose