Science, Technology, and Human Responsibility

Issue #184            May 10, 2012
A Publication of The Nature Institute
Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (

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This issue of NetFuture:

Editor’s Note
How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life (Stephen L. Talbott)
       . . . And Are Now Staring It in the Face
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It’s possible that a considerable number of subscribers did not receive the last issue of NetFuture (#183, posted in November, 2011). The feature article in that issue was entitled, “Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness”. You’ll find the posting here:

By the way, in the natural sequence of articles I have been writing on the organism, the essay below (as well as several yet to be written) would naturally be placed before “Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness”.

Nature Institute Courses. For any of you who, in June or July, expect to be within striking distance of the Hudson River Valley — about two hours north of New York City — you might want to check out our two summer courses. Each is a week long. You’ll find what you need to know at


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Stephen L. Talbott

This article builds on several previous essays. You will find the latest versions of all the currently available articles in this series at the website, “From Mechanism to a Science of Qualities”.

What do we mean by “meaning”? The form of the question already suggests something amiss. Might we end up wandering in circles? After all, we must already know the meaning of a question before we can answer it. And beyond that, inquiries about the meaning of “meaning” might seem to launch us upon a mystifying pursuit of some inner essence or spiritual content we can never quite lay hold of.

Perhaps this explains why so many biologists shun the idea that organisms engage in meaningful activity — that their lives can only be understood as lives of meaning. The idea may seem little more than a subjective and vaguely numinous obfuscation threatening objective description and theory. You would make a rare find if you came upon an entry for “meaning” in the index of a biological textbook. Even in examining a considerable shelf of anthologies on the philosophy of biology — books where difficult and even disreputable issues are often brought up for discussion — I can discover not a single index listing for the word.

And yet, asking about the meaning of things would seem to be the essence of science. Is there a biologist who does not routinely inquire of colleagues, “What do you mean by that?” — and without any hint of irony in the question, or any slight tinge of anxiety about transgressing on forbidden territory? Apparently biologists know quite well what they themselves mean by “mean” — this despite their apparent reluctance to employ the term in their science.

It happens that human language — language in which the whole point is, in general, to learn “What do you mean by that?” — is the vehicle through which all our science is articulated. There could be no textbooks without our ability to “get” meaning as a matter of course. Perhaps the point has been too blindingly obvious to notice: if we understand the world through the meanings of the language we set down in scientific textbooks, and if we believe these meanings to be more or less true of the world, then we must believe that the world is meaningful — that it is in some sense language-like.

If, then, meaning is felt alien to our molecular biological understanding of organisms (my current topic), we might wonder whether the problem really lies with the idea of meaning itself, or rather pertains to an aberrant force of repulsion the term exerts upon the scientific mind — a mind that nevertheless seems intended for nothing so much as apprehending the most subtle and enlivening meanings.

Seeing From Our Own Point of View

Where do we look for an understanding of life? Where, if anywhere, does life put its own meaning on display most forthrightly and clearly?

There is one high promontory within the sprawling panorama of life on earth that does indeed afford a perspective upon the whole — a place from where the unique processes occurring throughout the kingdoms of life become peculiarly visible, manifesting their significance. There is, we can know without a doubt, one evolutionary achievement that offers not only an unlimited survey of the entire drama of life, but also lends itself to the penetrating insight we need for recognizing and expressing the many meaningful aspects of the drama.

This evolutionary achievement lies in the place we know best — in fact, the only place where the necessary sort of knowing occurs at all. It is where life becomes conscious of itself — where the living creature not only acts out its own significant existence, but is capable of contemplating this existence along with that of all other living things. It is the one outgrowth within the great, age-old tree of life where life’s own power of survey blossoms and reaches its fullest fruition: the understanding consciousness of man.

The Mind’s Tragic Refusal of Itself. In man nature herself becomes conscious and finds a voice. The creative forces at work in evolution, whatever they may be, achieve a vantage point of earthly awareness, a place where the intelligence — the thoughts — visible in leaf and worm, in gene expression and signaling pathways, in molluscan responsiveness and mammalian deliberation, can at least begin coming to conscious expression in the lucid and focused understanding of the individual human being.

When, then, we direct our understanding to the very organic phenomena through which it arose, what we see is our own reason reflected back to us in its developing, not yet conscious form, manifesting itself objectively in the material instruments that will become the basis for its future conscious expression. Every biologist who endeavors faithfully to enter into the life of another organism and to offer an account of her discoveries is, in an obvious and straightforward sense, reporting a double content: that of her own mind, which is at the same time a content belonging objectively to the given organism. To believe in the possibilities of science is to accept the commensurability of the two contents.

We have benefited from many conscientious accounts of this sort — for example, from a woman of indomitable spirit — Jane Goodall — who has spent decades living in chimpanzee society in order to enter sympathetically and truthfully into the reality of it; from great entomologists such as Jean-Henri Fabre, who brought the world of insects alive for us, and Karl von Frisch, who patiently deciphered the language of the dance of bees; from Adolf Portmann, the eminent zoologist who, in his Animal Forms and Patterns, taught us something about the language of animal appearance; and from one of the finest observers of all, Charles Darwin, who, among many other studies, once wrote a treatise on the marvelous industry and habits of the earthworm.

These were explorers whose receptive minds were flexible instruments open to the mind-like, the meaningful, the striving, the expressive and purposeful, in other creatures.

But tragedy intervened. For in biology there has also occurred what may be the greatest self-effacement of all time. Precisely at the point in evolutionary history where the understanding consciousness arises and becomes aware of itself, it begins to deny its own powers. We are those who, by grace of our own evolutionary inheritance, can in one way or another enter into the meaning of the life of every living creature and make it our own. Yet, fearing “anthropocentrism” — which is to say, fearing ourselves — we end up belittling the gift of understanding.

In biology, the result is that “meaning” itself has become a forbidden word, a shameful sign of the loss of hardheaded rigor. This is especially true since the discovery of the double helix in 1953 and the triumph of molecular biology. Naturalists have given way to rote data-gatherers and lab technicians. Nearly all the symbols by which we can most richly forge a cognitive connection to the world — by which we can invite the world to speak in us — have been derogated, with only the most de-meaned ones retaining respectability. Mathematics, information, algorithm, code, computation, the abstracted logical structure of mechanisms — never mind that these, too, are expressions of our own consciousness and mentality — have become the only philosophically “pure” terms of biological discourse1. The organism is denied a full voice on earth through our refusal to lend it the full expressive powers of our own voice.

As for the dangers of anthropocentrism: yes, there are such dangers. Projecting ourselves onto other creatures as if they were blank screens is always a temptation. But I would say an equal danger today is quite the opposite. We are oi anthropoi, and it is therefore our obligation to be properly anthropocentric — to exercise our own potentials rather than to project onto ourselves and fellow organisms the character of particular mechanical products of our own activity. Scientists wish to understand life. Wouldn’t it be far better if they brought to bear upon this life the full expressive powers of the living, cognizing thought through which we conceive and build machines, rather than constrain their thinking to the deadened terms of the contrived objects?

It is indeed a tragedy. Where life finally begins to gain self-awareness, that awareness turns against itself, reduces itself to bytes and mechanisms, and employs its cleverest powers of meaning in order to deny the very fact of meaning.

Can We Say What Meaning Is? In an essay dealing with the supposed randomness of mutations relative to evolutionary fitness, I suggested that the importance of randomness in the minds of many “is due to its being the only presumed scrap of a weapon in a compulsive struggle to deny all the obvious meaning of our lives”. This brought the following response from a wise and prominent evolutionary thinker — one who seemed sympathetic to my trend of thought but who also wanted to push me toward greater clarity: “Sorry to be boorish, but is ‘the obvious meaning of our lives’ specifiable?”

If the question turns on whether we can meaningfully describe any person, organism, or thing, then I would answer that we can always make a start at such a description and, happily, we can never make an end of it. In observing the rose, we may note its color and beauty, its water- and sap-transporting processes, its thorny power of rending, its changing appearance under sunlight, shade, and moonlight, its unique relationship with each insect among its circle of animal companions, the scent of its flowers, its way of reflecting the world in a dewdrop, the distinctive pattern of its root growth, its cellular metabolism from one cell type to another, the sour taste of its fruits, and much, much more. And we may hope to glimpse, running through all these features, the unity that constrains the entire ensemble to perform qualitatively and harmoniously as this kind of plant, and not another.

No human biography or characterization of a plant is ever complete, but neither are we absolutely barred from any understanding we may seek. That is the way with meaning; we can always plumb it more deeply or from different angles. Meaning is never a fixed quantity, but always opens out onto the entire universe of meaning. Text and context are inseparable. And if we know enough to ask a half-way coherent question, then in the very framing of the question we have already found our way toward some of the understanding we seek.

But if what my interlocutor was questioning is the fact or nature of meaning as such — “By what right do you use the word ‘meaning’ in science at all, and what exactly are you referring to with the word?” — then we are brought directly up against the problem I mentioned at the outset. How do we talk about the meaning of “meaning” without wandering in circles?

The problem is actually not as difficult as it looks — or wouldn’t be if our scientific culture had not long been fleeing the very fact of meaning so compulsively.

Gestures That Speak

There was a time when I thought the topic of meaning required a deep dive into philosophical subtlety. Such an exercise may indeed be useful, but I now suspect that the more important thing is simply to notice the obvious. Even the most brilliant scientists are human beings who play, work, get married, get sick, get angry, write papers, defend those papers, vote in elections, watch movies, tell jokes, argue for justice, pursue their own projects, join choirs, face death with uncertainty . . .

Any biologists who claim that they, as full participants in, and exemplars of, our planet’s evolutionary drama, spend anything less than full time living out meaning in their lives, or who assert that their scientific work is anything but an elaboration of their own meanings — an extremely disciplined elaboration, which they hope will be faithful to the world’s meanings — well, to begin with, we would have to dismiss their words as gibberish rather than as vehicles of meaning.

We are nothing but creatures of meaning. We never make a movement that isn’t a meaningful gesture — one that the psychiatrist, physical therapist, student of temperaments, sociologist, stage director, and all the rest of us can read with more or less success. Even an infant, in its own way, finds significance in the most subtle human movements. Any infant who is not raised in a speaking environment fails to develop anything like normal human capacities. And speaking environment refers to the meaning implicit in every significant gesture. Before they themselves can speak, infants take an interest in and learn to read gestures — to the point of distinguishing, in silent videos, between speakers of two languages they have never heard before2.

Meaning is just there, whether we speak words or not. Every act of ours is a signifying. And we collectively understand each other’s meanings well enough to engender civilizations that are infinitely complex tapestries woven from those meanings.

Even the bee dance referred to above is purposeful speech, freighted with meaning for the hive, however unconscious and objectified. The way a deer, motionless, gazes at you from a distance while waiting for a sign of imminent danger or a return to normalcy, is meaningful speech — and its meaning is immediately read by other deer in the group, who also cease feeding and take up the attentive gaze. The newborn offspring of many mammals read, and learn from, every slightest behavioral suggestion of their parents or mentors.

Here, then, is my question for the skeptic: Where in the pervasive matrix of meaning I have just characterized do you find an unscientific obscurantism? More particularly, which of the meanings you speak and understand and found your life upon and discover in other creatures is a puzzle to you? I would like to know the precise nature of the disreputable element in these meanings you live by — for example, in all the words you have spoken, understood, and been willing to respond to today. This collection of words, I am sure, goes far beyond the more acceptable technical terms of any particular science. Yet, apart from specially deserving cases, you don’t recoil from such words in disgust.

Escaping Circularity

Perhaps you will insist that I rigorously define the meaning of “meaning”, and will say that until I do, I have no right to make the word part of a philosophical or scientific text. It’s true that we must always work at clarifying our meanings, and I suppose that if this didn’t apply to the word “meaning” itself, I wouldn’t be writing this article.

But to demand a definition at this point — to ask for the meaning of “meaning” — is actually to run away from it. Meaning is where we start from. We cannot define it because meanings are what we employ in order to define things. To ask what “meaning” means is like trying to prove the validity of the logic we use in proofs. As human beings we must — and do every day — simply wake up to meaning. If we possess cognitive capacities, even as infants, it can only be because these capacities are themselves products of the world’s play of meaning — call it the logos if you wish — through which you and I have come into being.

So asking about the meaning of “meaning” does not send us in a circle. It returns us to our origin and to the immediately given character of the world that produced the deer and bee and us.

Even those for whom this is a forbidden truth cannot seem to help confirming it. In 1977 the eminent physicist, Steven Weinberg, uttered what would become one of the most quoted remarks of our day when he said, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”. The statement is startlingly oxymoronic. Things become comprehensible in a scientific sense precisely by losing their “pointlessness”. Their comprehensibility is nothing other than their meaningfulness.

By “pointless”, Weinberg later explained, he meant “not particularly directed toward human beings” (NPR interview, undated). But what does that mean? Surely we do not need, or want, the universe pointing to us in some selfish sense. But when we comprehend things — when we are joined to them in an act of understanding — they lend themselves to the intimacy of our innermost being; their sensibility becomes our own. A universe that gives itself to us in this way does not seem to have the “chilling, cold impersonal quality” Weinberg finds in it.

Actually, you couldn’t find more anthropomorphic — which is to say, more humanly meaningful — terms than “chilling”, “cold”, and “impersonal”. Weinberg, one happily notes, has not entirely fled his own humanity. And we doubtless do run into things we justly describe with the qualities he discerns, thereby relating them to our inner life and discovering something about their character. It’s just that these are not the only or even the most common qualities human beings find when they gaze, fully informed, into a starry sky or the teeming protoplasm of a living cell.

Weinberg’s stance is not at all uncommon. It reminds us how easy it is, today, for scientists to live so hopelessly confined within their own carefully crafted edifice of theoretical constructs — their own intentionally narrowed meanings — that they no longer notice the fullness of the world they started out trying to understand. That world — its tangible, threatening, pungent, inescapable, grounding, uplifting presence — is conjured away by the analytical tools and impoverished models of a one-sided science. The aim of the whole endeavor is forgotten — an aim we might express with T. S. Eliot’s familiar lines:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
     from Four Quartets (4: “Little Giddings”)

Gentle Suggestion

If we cannot define “meaning”, what are we doing when we ask what someone means? Apparently what we’re asking for is not something neatly packageable or nailed down like a ... — well, I was going to say “like a dictionary definition”. But, of course, dictionary definitions do not nail down anything at all. They define words by using other words, and simply assume that we will be able to dance our way into the midst of the circling words by moving in tune with the meanings we already possess and improvising upon them.

Meaning of any significance is never something we can hand someone definitively, because each word we speak depends upon and participates in all the others. We can never say of any profound meaning, “There! I’ve got it!” Meaning is a journey. We can only track meaning as we might track the blossoming of a flower, getting to know it better and better even as we continually lose its old form and must rediscover its truth newly metamorphosed.

The English philologist, Owen Barfield, reminded us that we can suggest meaning, but cannot convey it as though it were a “bit” of the information biologists are so fond of (Talbott forthcoming). This is why, as Barfield magnificently demonstrated, our grasp of new meaning is typically mediated by figurative or metaphorical language — language that can only encourage and assist us toward exercising our own powers for intuiting the content at issue (Barfield 1967; 1973; 1977; 1981). We do not transmit information; we assist at the birth of insight.

Virtually all scientific language (gravity, matter, stimulus), as Barfield illustrates, also originates in figurative usage. We can, for example, watch how the idea of scientific law emerged (albeit in a Latin text) in Francis Bacon’s introduction of the concept. He advised his readers to abandon the conventional “forms” of nature and to think instead metaphorically in terms of humanly legislated laws. The metaphor was, in fact, a real stretch, demanding much of its hearers. In his Novum Organum, published in 1620, Bacon wrote:

It may be that nothing really exists except individual bodies, which produce real motion according to law; in science it is just that law, and the inquiry, discovery and explanation of it, which are the fundamental requisite both for the knowledge and for the control of Nature. And it is that law and its “clauses”, which I mean when I use (chiefly because of its current prevalence and familiarity) the word “forms”. (Quoted in Barfield 1965a, p. 94; translated by Barfield)

We need to imagine the situation. Readers who had never heard of scientific “law”, or anything resembling our modern notion of it, were advised to think for the first time of nature “obeying” something like the acts of Parliament. They were expected to intuit whatever truth might be hidden in that literal “nonsense”.

We can “get” a worthy metaphor only if its way of suggesting is already recognized as a meaningful gesture — that is, only if we not only grasp the literal, untrue sense of the metaphor, but also the necessity for looking through it to the intended meanings toward which it gestures. (Gesture with your finger at something, and your very literal-minded dog will most likely just look curiously at your finger — all the more as you start waving wildly and impatiently.) As always, the apprehension of meaning is rooted in nothing more fundamental than, or prior to, the apprehension of meaning3.

The intended meaning of a novel metaphor may be one we do not already know, and the metaphor certainly does not define it for us. It invites us, through suggestion, to embrace the active possibility (and responsibility) of recognizing new and previously hidden relations between things, which is our birthright and the foundation of all understanding. Relations are not things, but they are nonetheless real. On the other hand, the things we imagine to be real are actually hidden, and dark — except so far as we catch the luminous flicker of thought that runs quickening from the one thing to the other, giving us not only their relations, but the things themselves. There are no things apart from the relations constituting them.

The inability to convey meaning directly from one person to another will not seem unduly paradoxical to anyone who has reflected upon the oddity with which we began: the oddity of asking what “meaning” means. We can’t get around the fact that we must already have a capacity for directly accessing what we are inquiring about — the capacity is already implied in the asking — and any individual who would understand must exercise that capacity for himself. When others try to elucidate their meanings for us, they are simply trying to help us wake up more fully — come to ourselves.

Meaning is a fundamental given of the world we live in. If there is anything in the evolutionary literature purporting to explain the origin of speech that does not already assume a capacity for speech, I would like to know about it. As Barfield has succinctly fingered the matter: asking about the origin of language is like asking about the origin of origin (Barfield 1965a, p. 123). We can speak only because we were first spoken. And before we were spoken, the single cell was spoken, bearing in all the narrative details of its molecular adeptness and harmony the reverberating imprint, the resonance, of the speaking through which it lives. I will have more to say on this theme below.

So, no, we do not require a tortuous philosophical analysis of meaning. We need only wake up to the sea of meaning within which we all swim, and without which we would have no world whatever. We live by grace of meaning; our world is a logos-world. To pretend to refuse this meaning is to attempt a self-effacement (and a world-effacement) we can never fully carry out. It is to refuse to stand awake as human beings.

Meaning never arises from the non-meaningful. The question we should ask ourselves is not whether meaning can arise from what is not meaningful, but whether “not meaningful” makes any sense at all. Which, of course, is to ask whether “meaninglessness” has any meaning. That’s the kind of absurd territory we lose ourselves in when we ask for an informative and truthful science without meaning.

Organisms of Meaning

We saw in “What Do Organisms Mean?” that local, temporary relations of cause and effect in the organism can never be relied upon to repeat themselves from moment to moment. Physical lawfulness is certainly maintained throughout the organism, but no given “cause” is likely to find itself in exactly the same context, or configuration of relations, twice in succession, and therefore it is not precisely the same cause and will not produce precisely the same effects. So we do not witness the kind of reliably repeated causal relations commonly designed into a machine, and through which we understand and explain the machine.

Organisms maintain their own being and character amid a continual kaleidoscopic shifting of causal relations. That’s what makes them organisms. They seem to be more in charge of the causes than the causes are in charge of them.

From Inorganic to Organic. This implies that we must understand the organism in a different way, and when I spoke of “organisms of meaning”, this different way is what I had in mind. Certainly physical causes and effects are already meaningful, which is to say that they are not merely physical in some mindless sense. Causes and laws are relationships, not physical things. They are idea-like or conceptual, which is why the legislative comparison made sense to Bacon. Two masses “obeying” the Baconian law of gravity that obtains between them — however you choose to describe the feat — are reliably adhering to certain mathematical relationships, as if those immaterially defined relationships belonged to their nature. At some objective level, the lawfulness is a kind of understanding.

So when I speak of “organisms of meaning”, it is not to deny the meanings we find in the inorganic world. Nor is it to descry some exotic, previously unknown physical force to be added to the ones we already know. Rather, the aim is only to acknowledge whatever particular sort of meaning we find in whatever context we are looking at, inorganic or organic. And it is just a fact that we can recognize a very different kind of meaning — one more obviously accessible to us in familiar cognitive terms — when we turn from the inorganic to the living creature. The familiarity is not such a puzzle, considering that we are living creatures ourselves. Here — both in ourselves and in other organisms — we find (in a reversal of the mechanistic view) that causes do not so much explain the organism as they stand in need of explaining by the organism.

It is by seeing how the organism is pursuing its own telos (ends) that we begin to understand its way of continually re-shaping causal relations to its own purposes. We certainly must elucidate the moment-by-moment causes and effects, but this is only so that, by recognizing the patterned shifting of causal relations, we can glimpse the meanings, intentional and otherwise, of the organism as a whole. By analogy: in watching a person’s physical movements and activities, we can get an idea of the intentions giving rise to those activities.

When Data Overwhelm Meaning. A particular way of looking is required for this — a way of looking now threatened by the swollen flood of data tending to overwhelm all efforts at meaningful understanding. In their introduction to “The Human Genome at Ten”, the editors of Nature refer to the “mismatch” between the “rapidly increasing ease of gathering genomic data versus the continuing difficulty of establishing what the genetic elements actually do” — a sentiment put in stronger terms by James Collins, a bioengineer at Boston University: “We’ve made the mistake of equating the gathering of information with a corresponding increase in insight and understanding” (quoted in Hayden 2010).

Likewise Nature columnist Philip Ball, citing newer data-gathering projects such as an expensive initiative to solve protein structures, counsels restraint: “Before animal spirits transform this into the next ‘revolution in medicine’, it might be wise to ask whether the Human Genome Project has something to tell us about the wisdom of collecting huge quantities of stamps before we know anything about them” (Ball 2010).

And mathematical biologist Joshua Plotkin, referring to the discovery of vast regulative processes bearing on DNA, concludes: “Just the sheer existence of these exotic regulators suggests that our understanding about the most basic things — such as how a cell turns on and off — is incredibly naïve” (quoted in Hayden 2010).

The insights we seek, as I tried to illustrate in “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings”, have a great deal to do with the way in which almost infinitely complex subprocesses, all of which are subject to every sort of unpredictable perturbation, are nevertheless woven together — coordinated and integrated — into an overall coherence we can only attribute to cell, tissue, organ, and organism as a whole. Not only at the level where they talk about birds building nests, or embryos preparing organs for future functioning, but even at the molecular level, biologists employ a goal-oriented language of means and ends, a language of intention and agency, a language of sensing and responding, a language of meaningful communication.

I will not repeat that earlier exposition here, but will offer a parallel, and with a different emphasis. Everything in the previous paragraph, and everything implied in asking what the elements of the cell are doing, suggests that we are looking at a story. And, in fact, biology is primarily a narrative discipline. Every organism is telling a story. Its meanings are storied meanings. When the stories end, the organism is dead.

The Primacy of Organic Narrative

The fact that life is a set of interwoven narratives is so obvious, so “in our faces”, so implicit in the entire literature of molecular biology, that it manages to go mostly unremarked — this despite its being the single most salient truth about the nature of life. As I was sitting down to write this present text, I was emailed the December, 2011 table of contents of Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, a journal from one of the leading research laboratories in the world. Here is the first half of one abstract from that journal. (“Proteome” refers collectively to all the proteins expressed in a cell or organism at a particular time. “Conserved” refers to the preservation of biological features over some span of evolutionary history, which is thought to yield at least a rough measure of the functional importance of the features. Italics have been added in order to highlight the narrative aspects of the biological knowledge being summarized.)

Maintaining the proteome to preserve the health of an organism in the face of developmental changes, environmental insults, infectious diseases, and rigors of aging is a formidable task. The challenge is magnified by the inheritance of mutations that render individual proteins subject to misfolding and/or aggregation. Maintenance of the proteome requires the orchestration of protein synthesis, folding, degradation, and trafficking by highly conserved/deeply integrated cellular networks. In humans, no less than 2000 genes are involved. Stress sensors detect the misfolding and aggregation of proteins in specific organelles and respond by activating stress-responsive signaling pathways... (Lindquist and Kelly 2011)

The authors go on in their abstract to speak of regulation, of homeostatic mechanisms, of processes going awry, and so on.

There is virtually nothing but story here, with the emphasized terms only being the most obvious contributors to the narrative element. The larger story has to do with the overall life-trajectory (development) of an organism that strives to maintain its well-being (health), inevitably ages, and can become diseased in a way that threatens a premature denouement. But within that story, there is a diverse ensemble of sub-narratives, all being orchestrated into a whole.

And so there are tasks to perform, things that can go well or badly, mistakes and corrections, sensing and responding, and communication in all directions (signaling and trafficking). Even a word such as mutation, in this biological context, implies an expected or normative course of events that has somehow been controverted. And in an inanimate world without biographies we would not extend the story across generations by speaking of inheritance. (We do not say that crystals “inherit” each other’s form, even when a tiny bit of one crystal “seeds” another.)

There are many biologists and philosophers who write off all such storied language, so obviously implying intentions or goals among other meanings, as “harmlessly” metaphoric and not really meant to be taken seriously. The metaphors, they say, could easily be dispensed with even as the scientific truth was retained. This is more easily said than made any sense of. It’s true that words such as regulate, organize, and respond may be — and often are — badly abused, as when they are attributed to particular molecules rather than to contexts and wholes. But such ubiquitous words, fully possessed of their intentional and directive aspects, clearly have a place in our understanding of the life of the organism, if only we recognize the contextual (dare I say “holistic”?) character of their cognitive, agent-like meanings.

Let the person who dismisses the language of meaning and intention as harmless metaphor offer us a rewording that eliminates meaning and intention without sacrificing the observable reality being described!

On Getting a Meaningful Job Done

I would like to provide a few pictures, beyond those in my earlier articles, to suggest something a little more full-bodied and contextual about the kind of meaning we find in organisms.

An editor of Science, summarizing the gist of some recent research, writes: “If you think air traffic controllers have a tough job guiding planes into major airports or across a crowded continental airspace, consider the challenge facing a human cell trying to position its proteins”. A given cell, he notes, may make more than 10,000 different proteins, and typically contains more than a billion protein molecules at any one time. “Somehow a cell must get all its proteins to their correct destinations — and equally important, keep these molecules out of the wrong places”. And further: “It’s almost as if every mRNA [an intermediate between a gene and a corresponding protein] coming out of the nucleus knows where it’s going” (Travis 2011).

As I have just noted, there’s not much sense in saying particular molecules “know” where they are going. But the context they find themselves in certainly embodies and gives expression to a kind of wisdom that proves highly effective in coordinating their movements.

The Physical Organism Is Transparent to Meaning. Bear in mind that where a molecule in a cell is going is decisive for its function. Some molecules, for example, are outward-bound on signaling missions to distant reaches of the body, while others are inward-bound on different signaling missions. Some are headed to a particular locus on the highly differentiated cell membrane, while others are targeted for any of a virtually infinite number of possible destinations somewhere in the “intricate [cellular] landscape of tubes, sacs, clumps, strands and capsules that may be involved in everything from intercellular communication to metabolic efficiency” (Lieberman-Aiden 2011).

Further, the billion protein molecules in a cell are virtually all capable of interacting with each other to one degree or another; they are subject to getting misfolded or “all balled up with one another”; they are critically modified through the attachment or detachment of molecular subunits, often in rapid order and with immediate implications for changing function; they can wind up inside large-capacity “transport vehicles” headed in any number of directions; they can be sidetracked by diverse processes of degradation and recycling . . . and so on without end. Yet the coherence of the whole is maintained.

The question is indeed, then, “How does the organism meaningfully dispose of all its molecules, getting them to the right places and into the right interactions?”

The same sort of question can be asked of cells, for example in the growing embryo, where literal streams of cells are flowing to their appointed places, differentiating themselves into different types as they go, and adjusting themselves to all sorts of unpredictable perturbations — even to the degree of responding appropriately when a lab technician excises a clump of them from one location in a young embryo and puts them in another, where they may proceed to adapt themselves in an entirely different and proper way to the new environment. It is hard to quibble with the immediate impression that form (which is more idea-like than thing-like) is primary, and the material particulars subsidiary.

Two systems biologists, one from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Germany and one from Harvard Medical School, frame one part of the problem this way:

The human body is formed by trillions of individual cells. These cells work together with remarkable precision, first forming an adult organism out of a single fertilized egg, and then keeping the organism alive and functional for decades. To achieve this precision, one would assume that each individual cell reacts in a reliable, reproducible way to a given input, faithfully executing the required task. However, a growing number of studies investigating cellular processes on the level of single cells revealed large heterogeneity even among genetically identical cells of the same cell type. (Loewer and Lahav 2011)

The question they are asking is how cells can do the right thing, cooperating to form the unthinkably complex architecture of a mammal while dealing with the heterogeneity — the continual fluctuation — of their molecular “components”. There is no determinate mechanical or computational rigidity here, no interaction of the parts of a smoothly running machine. Where is the sequence of reliable causes that can account for the predictable outcome of the process as a whole, when all the causal details are so variable and so obviously being shaped to living purposes?

We need to understand all those physical connections. But we get to the living processes only when we raise ourselves above the causal web and view it from a different level of meaning — a level where we can ask: “What is going on from the organism’s point of view”. It’s always that way with meaning. The movements of a ballet dancer can be analyzed in terms of the play of force in muscle, bone, and flesh, but we read the movements only when that play becomes effectively transparent to us — only when we look through it to another level of meaning. This is the kind of thing biologists will always notice themselves doing, if only they observe themselves.

A Form of Knowing. I spoke a moment ago of molecular and cellular movements that seemed to be both meaningfully directed and unprogrammed. Here is a more concrete example. It deals with the fiendishly complex and coordinated response to a kind of challenge — a wound — that is always unique in its countless details. That is, the organism is facing something that neither it nor its ancestors have ever faced before in just this way. The description is offered by English biologist, Brian Ford:

Surgery is war. It is impossible to envisage the sheer complexity of what happens within a surgical wound. It is a microscopical scene of devastation. Muscle cells have been crudely crushed, nerves ripped asunder; the scalpel blade has slashed and separated close communities of tissues, rupturing long-established networks of blood vessels. After the operation, broken and cut tissues are crushed together by the surgeon’s crude clamps. There is no circulation of blood or lymph across the suture.

Yet within seconds of the assault, the single cells are stirred into action. They use unimaginable senses to detect what has happened and start to respond. Stem cells specialize to become the spiky-looking cells of the stratum spinosum; the shattered capillaries are meticulously repaired, new cells form layers of smooth muscle in the blood-vessel walls and neat endothelium; nerve fibres extend towards the site of the suture to restore the tactile senses . . . These phenomena require individual cells to work out what they need to do. And the ingenious restoration of the blood-vessel network reveals that there is an over-arching sense of the structure of the whole area in which this remarkable repair takes place. So too does the restoration of the skin. Cells that carry out the repair are subtly coordinated so that the skin surface, the contour of which they cannot surely detect, is restored in a form that is close to perfect. (Ford 2009)

It is not being radical to point out that we can’t even begin to picture the unfathomable movement of trillions of molecules and millions of cells in the damaged area. The story is directed toward a desirable conclusion that you and I know very well — restoration to normalcy of a damaged body part — but how does the story “hold together” at the level of molecules and cells, which certainly do not “know” what we know? And yet, quite obviously, in some objective sense the necessary knowledge is there in the organism. It knows. It gets the job done.

Distinguishing this knowing from our own is an important task for the biologist4. There can be no thought of our sort of consciousness in the cell, or in the crab, lizard, mouse, or redwood. And yet there clearly is a form of knowledgeable behavior in the cell. This may carry some readers back to the perhaps mysterious remark we heard from Owen Barfield: asking about the origin of language is like asking about the origin of origin. The thought suggests that the meaningful language of things is the foundation of their existence.

Tangentially speaking: it would be well for biologists to pull back a little from the religious wars and realize that the truly fundamental problem most people have with much of the biological and evolutionary literature is rather simple and needs respectful addressing. We read accounts of the organism such as those just given — stories whose meaningful intricacies and coherent, eloquent plot lines never cease to surprise us, far outshining the highest literary achievements of a Shakespeare or Goethe or Pushkin.

And then we hear that all this meaningful activity is, somehow, meaningless or a product of meaninglessness. This, I believe, is the real issue troubling the majority of the American populace when they are asked about their belief in evolution. They see one thing and then are told, more or less directly, that they are really seeing its denial. Yet no one has ever explained to them how you get meaning from meaninglessness — a difficult enough task once you realize that we cannot articulate any knowledge of the world at all except in the language of meaning.

I see no reason why the issue of meaning couldn’t become common ground for reasoned conversation between intelligent design advocates (who, after all, believe in the centrality of the logos) and conventional evolutionary theorists (who commonly grant that natural selection produces at least the appearance of meaning in the world), as well as the rest of us. Taking this meaning seriously and introducing some ways of thinking about it is what I have attempted here. It does not seem ignoble to set out on such a task, however much views — our meanings — may differ.

Taking Responsibility for Our Knowledge

To reconcile ourselves to the full range of meanings we confront in our encounters with living beings is to transform our understanding of life. We discover that our highest capacities — our thinking, our formulation of goals and plans, our strivings and passions, our sense of well-being and illness — are objectively imaged in our own biological organism right down to the molecular activity of our cells, as also in the cells of every other living creature. “Where molecular biology once taught us that life is more about the interplay of molecules than we might have previously imagined”, writes biologist and philosopher Lenny Moss, “molecular biology is now beginning to reveal the extent to which macromolecules, with their surprisingly flexible and adaptive complex behavior, turn out to be more life-like than we had previously imagined” (2011).

But, as we have seen, it is hardly just a matter of macromolecules. It is the entire dynamic society of molecules, membranes, and organelles, with all their diverse conversations coordinated from above, that tells us we are looking at the logos of life, even at the molecular and cellular level.

The supposed “taking down” we humans endured when we were made cousins of the apes should actually have been recognized as a rebirth of the old conviction that we are microcosms of the macrocosm — that Man, as Ralph Waldo Emerson perceived, “is placed in the centre of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him”. We are cousins of all creatures, for in us the reason displayed in every creature flashes forth as conscious understanding. And just as, among humans, to be understood is fully as important as to understand, so, too, our understanding of ape and honey bee and rainforest is today proving decisive for their own being. We have arrived at a time when we can say, consistent with the evolution of a threatened earth: every creature needs our understanding.

We can, of course, hold back from that understanding. We can refuse, out of nineteenth-century philosophical prejudice, to bring all our inner resources to bear in order to establish the bonds of sympathy without which a rich, manifold understanding of our fellow creatures is impossible. But our world is one world, and we stand in a unique position within it. This position is not altogether unlike that of the mythical5 “first Adam”, who was given the insight to name his animal companions appropriately, according to their true nature — doing so, we can assume, more in a dreamlike state than in anything approaching a modern, wide-awake, scientific consciousness (Barfield 1973; 1965a).

In our own, scientifically informed way, we, too, can now discover what it means, both for us and for our earthly relatives, to know them with an open heart and a well-intentioned, selfless spirit.


Owen Barfield and the Origin of Language

I referred above to textbooks containing the thoughts “with which we try faithfully to reflect what we observe in organic phenomena”. I could just as well have said, “the thoughts with which we try faithfully to reflect what is thoughtful in all phenomena, both organic and inorganic”. For surely we can grasp in thought only what is thought-like. Either our thought can at the same time be the thoughtfulness of the phenomena, or we can never understand those phenomena.

If we currently find less meaningful content in the inorganic world — if our most fundamental physics leads to a kind of contentless mathematics, “embodied” only in the most abstract constructs we are capable of conceiving, far removed from our daily experience of the world — then the reason may be precisely that, at this stage of our development, we can only apprehend the inorganic world as inorganic. The deeper springs of life underlying it remain hidden from our view. It was not always so — not for the ancients who lived in an enchanted cosmos — and there is no reason to think it must remain so in the future (Barfield 1965a).

How did we get where we are today?

Ours is a symbolizing intelligence and it creates a freeing, aesthetic “distance” between ourselves and the world. As semantic historian Owen Barfield remarked, “Physical reality recedes in proportion as [man’s] symbolic activity advances. He objectivizes [by means of his symbols] more and more completely” (Barfield 1963, p. 47), until he finds himself standing apart from and “looking out at” what he increasingly experiences as an external, and finally almost an alien, world. In this regard he has dramatically separated himself from the other kingdoms of life — and, indeed, from the world as a whole.

But our objectification of the world in thought is never complete, nor can the psychic distance between ourselves and the world ever become an impassable divide. After all, the distancing symbols that dominate our current inner life are themselves derived from that aspect of the outer world that lends itself to our inner life. Despite our losing awareness of the fact, our thoughts originate with, and are native to, the things we perceive, which is why our perceptions of the world mean something to us rather than remaining a “blooming, buzzing confusion”.

Step outside, preferably into a natural setting, and notice the world you are given. It presents itself, to begin with, as a remarkable unity, despite the diversity, or even the apparent incommensurability, of our senses. What holds everything together so harmoniously is the fluid and largely unconscious weaving of thought, relating one thing to another (Brady 2006; see also Barfield 1965a on “figuration”).

But now, recalling all your experiences of nature, begin to subtract elements from her, one at a time. Take away the storm, with its thunder, wind, and lightning, and how much poorer would our own inner world become? (We would, to begin with, lose a significant portion of the meanings we find in Shakespeare.) Or take away the arching vault of the sky, replacing it, say, with a twelve-foot ceiling. Would our minds retain the same ability to form a concept of the transcendent, the exalted, the superior, the sublime — all those ideas that connote the world’s vertical dimension? (You must actually stand under the open sky and imagine it as a twelve-foot ceiling when asking yourself this question.) Or banish the willow and pine from your world, or the swan and heron, or the gurgling stream and powerful ocean wave, or the radiance of sun, moon, and stars . . .

It becomes clear, then, why those who count the world meaningless have, with some reason, concluded that most human language is meaningless as well. For our language is the world’s language. But, as Barfield pointed out (1977, p. 15), the converse is also true: if our language is meaningful — as everyone in fact vividly pronounces it to be every day of their lives — then the world that bequeaths to us the meanings we speak must also be meaningful.

In other words, our speaking ability represents the “self-gathering of mind within an already mind-soaked world. It was the product of ‘nature’ in the sense that the meanings of words, if you approached them historically, could all — or as nearly all as made no difference — be shown to be involved with natural phenomena” (Barfield 1965b, p. 69). Our own “inner space”, our capacity for conscious, language-informed experience, arose through an intensification and a coming to focus of the world’s meanings — a drama we see playing out in the entire history of life on earth, from the most “primitive” single cell to ourselves.


1. So far as I can see, biologists prefer these terms simply because they find it easy to ignore the decisive fact: there are no mechanisms and there are no programs except by virtue of the ideas — the meanings — invested in them. These ideas may be abstract and one-dimensional, stripped of as much expressive content as possible, but they remain ideas.

2. “Your baby’s language skills may surprise you. Before they speak — before they even crawl — infants can distinguish between two languages they’ve never heard before just by looking at the face of a speaker” — this without hearing the sound of the voice (Fields 2011).

3. Any metaphor may be misleading, or we may construe it wrongly. Much damage may arise from this. We can ask even today whether more of the original image in Bacon’s metaphor — in particular, the element of thought in legislation — should have been retained in the developing scientific understanding of law. Such oversight may explain why the idea of law remains one of the murkier elements at the foundation of contemporary science.

4. I expect to have a good deal to say about this in the future.

5. I use “mythical” in the highest sense of the word.


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Talbott, Stephen L. (forthcoming). “The Poverty of the Instructed Organism: Are You and Your Cells Programmed” (tentative title).

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Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #184 :: May 10, 2012


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