Monday, March 19, 2007

The World of the Amoeba

Jonas claims that motility, perception and emotion distinguish animals from plants (p. 99). The problem as I see it, however, is how to distinguish animals from other motile, hetertrophic, eukaryotic organisms. I have no clue as to what the actual taxonomy of eukaryotes should look like, but it seems clear that motility and hetertrophy are more primitive than perception and emotion which are clearly evident in only one lineage. Since Jonas has made such an example of the amoeba, I'm dissapointed that he ignores the amoeba when he ties the emotional life of animals directly to motility and hetertrophy, as if all of these characteristics emerged at once in a single lineage. If I'm going to have any use for Jonas' thinking on this topic, I'm going to have to revise and restructure his argument to account for the protozoa.

The autotrophic organism, according to Jonas, doesn't quite have a world. (p. 100). Its environment is directly contiguous with it.

From this original fact of life's having commerce with an environment we should exclude all premature suggestion of the duality of subject and object. The original condition is an environment contiguous with the organism: in this stage environment is nothing but the immedieate surroundings with which the chemical interchanges of metabolism take place. This situtation of material contiguity means also continuity in the process of exchange and thus immediacy of satisfaction concurrent with the permanent organic need. In this condition of continuous feeding there is no room for desire

(p. 102)

So the sunflower, in Jonas' view, doesn't know desire, doesn't relate to things as objects, and, although it has a vital identity, it doesn't have a reflective self and concomittantly it doesn't really relate to a world. If Jonas is right that only animals have a passionate existence (p. 106), or, to be exact, "passionate being," it can't be for the reasons he adumbrates, because by his reasoning the protozoa would also have to be thought of as passionate, even though they lack the ability to percieve or the mechanical means of transmitting feelings.

Does the amoeba after all have a world? Does it relate to objects in its environment even though it lacks the means to percieve them? Is the subject-object duality contingent upon motility, heterotrophy, or upon perception? Jonas views mediacy as the key attainment of the animals, but in the record of life there appear to be different kinds or stages of mediacy–Jonas is not altogether consistent; he recognizes that mineral relations are even less mediate than a plants' relations to its environment (p.107), so in the end it appears to be a question of degrees, and this is a problem for the analysis of mediacy, self-transendence and the notion of activity, an organism's capacity for action over and above basal metabolism, which is in a sense an emotional capacity that Jonas ascribes to animals but not to plants.. What then can we really make of the emergence of mediacies in the history of life, since there has apparently been more than one evolutionary event leading to the kind of impassioned mediacy that Jonas asks us to observe in animal life? Can biology tell us whether an amoeba has a world? If a world is a phenomenon of life, is it the sort of phenomenon that exists prior to and in some cases independently of perception or sentience? If we allow that the amoeba relates to a world rather than simply being in contact with its environment, does this open the door to considering that the sunflower also has a world? On what grounds do we say that the sunflower's movements don't add up to motility? We could adopt a special definition of motility that applies only to animals but not to protozoa, but this doesn't really solve the problem that Jonas creates by linking worldhood directly to motility. Alternatively we could say that Jonas is simply wrong about perception and emotion being coeval with motility, and wrong about the origins of worldhood. However, it does make sense to see worldhood as a elaboration of motility. So either the amoeba has a world, or the elaboration of motility that leads to worldhood happened only once. This puzzles me. How do we imagine nature such that freak occurrences and phylogenetic trends equally belong to nature? (I'm completely ambivalent about the whole issue of teleology. So it goes.)

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posted by Fido the Yak at 1:10 PM.


Anonymous Mr. B said...

I sappose you could say something like, "person 'A' took a right at the light, however not due to some illusiory notion of choice, but because of factors X, Y Z..... so on and so on."
In the same way a scientist might say, "the flower, (because of photosynthesis, 'A')comes into an upright position with the rising of the sun." Or you could say something else, perhaps, "the flower, (because it likes the warmth of the sun), raises it's head and arms in the air to bask in the warmth." This of course doesn't sound right simply because it's too predictable.
Are not people rather predictable as well? Things do what they like, perhaps in some cases what "you do", is more limited relative to species.
People remove desire from things where they can explain the process behind it. Someday, won't they determine that people are simply "processes", albeit more complex.

March 28, 2007 9:54 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I've actually been thinking about the predictability of human behaviour as I've been reading Jonas, esp. his chapter criticizing cybernetics as philosophy or as an approach to explaining the behavior of living things. About desire (and purpose), he is basically saying that while it is wrong to attribute desire to inanimate things, animate beings are precisely desiring. Using your example, we could always ask person A about his decision to take a right. We shouldn't dismiss as illusory person A's understanding of what he is doing without having a very good reason to do so. The belief that desire isn't real or is merely epiphenomenal isn't a very good reason, and I don't see how it leads to any sort of verifiable hypothesis about the absence of desire. Assuming that desire is null, the best that can be done is to show correlations between an action and factors X, Y, and Z. Such correlations may be provocative, but they never adequately explain human conduct in my view, and they certainly do not prove that desire is null, which is a genuine problem, and not something to be brushed under the rug of statistical correlations.

Yes, sometimes people anthropomorphize and attribute desire to things they don't understand or view as mysterious. Like plants. However, to go the other extreme and say that everything is like a machine isn't really productive of genuine understanding. Since there is a demonstrable kinship between human beings and other forms of life, there is some call for a judicious use of metaphor, including the metaphor of the human being. Verily we are great bundles of processes but we can say more than that. We can talk about what it feels like to be. I'm generally in agreement with Jonas that this can be a source of knowledge rather than deception. The issues I have with Jonas are where exactly to draw the lines between experient and non-experient organisms, between feeling and non-feeling organisms, and how best to interpret the meaning of animal feeling.

March 28, 2007 12:19 PM  
Anonymous Mr. b said...

I guess I'm pretty fond of Pinker's term, "meat puppets". Even still I'd be more apt to attribute the "feeling" of desire to everything, whether it be a bi-product of something or not; but that's jsut talk.

March 29, 2007 7:12 AM  

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