Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Triple Helix

Plundering the life sciences is a tricky business, as Richard Lewontin reminds us. Lewontin remarks on a confusion between "'understanding' in the weak sense of making coherent and comprehensible statements about the real world" and "'understanding' that means making correct statements about nature." Without subscribing to Lewontin's views of science or nature--perfectly respectable views, but ones that can be bracketed out for the moment--, I feel he roughly captures the ambivalence I've been feeling about his book, The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment. On the one hand I'm delighted to learn about the state of the life sciences from one of the preeminent evolutionary biologists of our time. On the other hand I came to plunder, searching for metaphors and ways of thinking that might illuminate problems far afield from the natural habitat of the evolutionary biologist.

The thing is, I can't quite view the latter mode of reading as "weak." And to the extent that it's askance, it's not properly strong. Liken it to bridge building, and then where does its strength or weakness lie? Or think more abstractly of emergent properties. After Mark Bedau, we could say that a weakly emergent reading of evolutionary theory would be the most consistent with Lewontin's idea of "making correct statements about nature." (Is there a problem with treating a model of causality as equivalent to a hermeneutics? It's not the sort of thing that bothers me much.) The weakness or strength of an understanding would seem to be a matter of what you want to accentuate--though I must admit to being intrigued by Lewontin's concept of a living system as "nexus of a very large number of weakly determining forces" (p. 92 and passim).

Three strands:

  1. Words don't spell out meanings. Meanings are spelled out in context, i.e., meaning encompasses everything that goes with saying, including other words. We can view context in three principal aspects: the syntagmatic, the paradigmatic, and the pragmatic. (I'm saying that the semantic realm is contextual quite apart from the pragmatic--isn't that odd? That meaning might be essentially uncontained, or, more descriptively, weakly held.)

  2. Metaphors are constructive. Metaphors may be conceptualized as bridging cognitive domains, but that only tells half the story. Metaphors can shape, delineate, or redefine existing domains of thought. A strong metaphor clears a space for new ways of thinking, laying the groundwork for new cognitive domains. It is a mistake for students of metaphor to regard cognitive domains as a priori, although that appears to be the norm in ordinary discourse, and we cannot yet rule out the possibility that some domains may come with the territory, so to speak. Nevertheless, metaphor never completely loses its creative potential.

  3. Systematic ways of thinking are intermediate in size and internally heterogeneous. As a consequence, ways of thinking are the nexus of a very large number of weakly determining forces. They also take odd shapes.

Just kidding. Kind of. Of course I'm recasting Lewontin's critiques of determinism, adaptationism and reductionism. It's not exactly what I intended to take away from The Triple Helix, but there it is--a dodge, possibly a tell. The questions I put to my reading of The Triple Helix, most inappropriately, revolved around possible conceptualizations of the relationship between existence as a lifeform and existence as a consciousness. Crudely, does our nature shape our consciousness, or does our consciousness shape our nature? It's an absurdly inadequate dichotomy, but as much as I think about it, I can't renconcile the two perspectives, and I see no compelling reason to choose one over the other (heuristics aside).

At the back of my mind has been Grace de Laguna's (in Existence and the Human World, Op cit) call for a phenomenology of the natural world. De Laguna approaches the lifeworld as a realm of culture and social interaction on the one hand, and on the other as the realm of the biological organism's vital activity:

The environment (Lebenswelt) is not to be understood as a spatial region within which it [Dasein1] has a locus, but, like the world, it is constituted by entities insofar as they have a vital bearing, positive or negative, on the living existence of the organism. The ecological situation within which an organism exists is a complex of overlapping environments, each centered in and determined by the ways of being possible to each of the constituent organisms. Surely we must acknowledge that it's possible to undertake an existential analysis of the living organism, and, furthermore, that it is only through such an analysis that we may gain an understanding of the being of living entities.

(On Existence and the Human World, p. 90)

This view seems to accord with Lewontin's view of the environment, but is it merely analogous, or is there a genuine homology between the lifeworld and an organism's natural habitat? Perhaps it doesn't matter; in the former case we can ask whether it's a good analogy, and in the latter we may yet wonder whether the homology is due to one or the other state being primary--i.e., it's conceivable that we model our understanding of the natural world based upon our existential understanding of the lifeworld, or the the other way around-- or whether there aren't alternative third terms that warrant looking into, e.g. the nature of systems, or systematic conceptual thinking, teased apart from the issue of allegorical thinking. And now I wonder whether the eidetic structure of existence might also be thought of as second order, or transcendental, and whether that's consitistent with the claims being made by existential phenomenology. What exactly is the primary reality here?

Variation is a primary reality of the living world. I was struck by Lewontin's insistence on that point (in various manifestations). Variation is not merely a characterization of the way things are, but a conceptual insight into the process that generates new life forms. Once we set aside a transformational model of change in favor of the evolutionary biologist's variational model, we appreciate the diversity of organisms, including Homo sapiens, in a whole new light. Cultural and psychological differences between people don't appear to matter much in terms of evolutionary processes, and lacking firm data on the culture and psychology of non-humans, these sorts of questions are typically beyond the ken of the evolutionary biologist. (Obviously they are within the ken of the paleoanthropologist, but is the paleoanthropologist typical of evolutionary biology? Cultural anthropology?)

What would the conceptual difference be, I wonder, between variation and variability? Do systems possess the quality of variability, or would we be better served to view variability as a capacity of existential beings? I'd want to clarify this point before extending Lewontin's argument qua Lewontin's argument to the notion of variation in social groups and the world of ideas. Provisionally I'll say that the human world is characterized by plurality, and this is a natural condition of the human being. This is almost like the argument Hannah Arendt puts forward in The Human Condition (Vita Activa).

Arendt indeed identifies plurality as essential to being human: "Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived" (p.8). However, Arendt's definition of action is precisely delimited. She distinguishes three fundamental modes of human activity: labor, work, and action. The first corresponds to human physiology and lifecycle processes, and the business of the species; the second to (material) culture; and the third to history. All three modes of activity, she says, are "intimately conected with the most general condition of human existence: birth and death, natality and mortality." Yet she carefully notes that the "human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man" (p.9). That could be taken as self-evident, and Arendt's explication is quite persuasive. However, the question remains as to where exactly we draw the line between what is given to human beings as organisms or as a species of organism, and what is given to humans as agents of culture and language. Once we begin to consider sociality and its correlates in Homo sapiens and closely related species as biological givens, which evolutionary science gives us some warrant for, then we can begin to question whether plurality truly has its grounds for being in a kind of concommitant to a specifically human freedom or ingenuity.

A key aspect of Arendt's thinking about action and the condition of plurality is her concept of natality, which is neither entirely original nor much like the way other existentialists have dealt with the problem.2 The human being (in the mode of action) always has the capacity to be perform the miracle of rebirth, so to speak. Arendt's concept of natality envisions not only our capacity to remake ourselves, but also our capacity to remake our world:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, "natural" ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born.


Speech and action, then, as I'm reading Arendt, are rooted in the conjoint conditions of plurality and natality, each delimiting the other's horizons of possibility, each implying what the other can do. The conditions of human existence cannot explain who we are, Arendt offers, but in studying them perhaps we see why our search for our own natural essence should always end in perplexity--that we are "whos" and not "whats" (pp.10-11). For the most part Arendt seems satisfied to let the natural sciences have their whats, but her description of the conditions of possibility for being a who accord well with what natural science tells us about what Homo sapiens is, somewhat remarkably, and the project she has undertaken in The Human Condition is decidedly more ambitious than mystical, providing ample reason for either the philospher or the natural scientist to be unsettled by it.

In a footnote to her discussion of actuality (energeia), Arendt remarks that "It is of no importance in our context that Aristotle saw the highest possibility of 'actuality' not in action and speech, but in contemplation and thought" (p.206, n.35). Okay, but in our context it's kind of fascinating that Arendt would read Aristotle that way. If we can describe the natural world as an actuality in an Arendtian sense, taking the argument put forward in The Triple Helix as a provisional license--some would say counterfeit, but we'll see if we get away with it--, what would that imply about the kind of activity we call science? How would it then be possible to make a correct statement about nature?

Another way to approach the issue. Is it possible to make a correct statement about nature that is not also a correct statement about the real world? That would seem to be rather schizophrenic, and yet if we acknowledge plurality as a condition of action/speech (hereafter "discourse"), and science as a mode of discourse, then we might be justified in saying that the discursive reality known as "nature" doesn't need to be real in a certain absolute metaphysical sense, nor does it need to have a wide or robust consensus established to define what it is, but it must be real in the sense of being a field of actuality for a natural scientist, or somebody adopting the viewpoint of a natural scientist, "the naturalist attitude." I reckon many scientists would chafe at the reduction of science to "mere" discourse, or the suggestion that one does science for the sake of science. Let me be clear then about my prejudices and the way I'm trying to look at how Arendt's concept of actuality addresses this notion of "making correct statements about nature."

I don't believe that correctness is the sine qua non of scientific statements about nature. Rather I feel that a scientific statement is distinguished by its correctability, and science may be aptly described as a systematic way of making corrections to statements about empirically accessible phenomena. Now, for the system to work properly, the scientist has to assume that his field of study "actually" exists, meaning that anybody similiarly engaged in the practice of science could access the same phenomena and perform the same experiments, and that there is some sort of universally realizable correct statement that could be made about the phenomena at hand. Is this a paradox, or does it simply reflect an ordinary leap of faith? We generally have little problem accepting that art can be simultaneously idiosyncratic and communicative of essential truths about our humanity. The artist evidently, in doing art, gives in to the possibility of being understood. Doesn't the scientist also give in to this possibility, and take with it everything it entails? Including, naturally, the possibility of being misunderstood?

If the givens for any field of discourse are roughly equivalent with respect to the constitution of knowledge--plurality, natality, worldiness and some others I've neglected to unpack-- then perhaps we should want to distinguish fields of discourse by less all-encompassing criteria, such as their genesis of shapes, or processes of shaping. Returning to my original strongly weak reading of The Triple Helix, then, the problem with an existential phenomenology of the living organism at present may not be epistemological at all, but simply that the field has yet to develop sufficiently intricate and compelling shapes for the life scientist to engage with. I'm not convinced that resolves the basic conundrum of what's primary in the shaping of consciousness, but it may offer a more appreciative approach to the life sciences, and the general problem of reading across disciplinary boundaries.

1 Having weighed in on the Heidegger question, I feel obliged to say that I don't regard de Laguna as a cryptofascist, nor do I believe that she adequately addresses the issue of fascism, which she ought to have done at some point given her particular indebtedness to Heidegger's Sein und Zeit.

2 I see "natality" as similar to Heidegger's notion of thrownness. And of course it is a more optimistic emphasis for an existentialism than the whole "being-towards-death" business and such. Arendt's political and philosphical disagreements with Heidegger are widely known.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:53 PM.


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