Wagner, Andreas. 2009. Paradoxical Life: meaning, matter and the power of human choice. Yale University Press.
[Note: This is a lengthy post. If you did not like the earlier Looking for the Logos of Life, I recommend skipping it]
This book is described as an account for the general reader of a large and complex question of the paradoxical tensions in biology and the way human life has created our world.
At the start, Wagner describes what goes on in a developing embryo as involving communication, which he says implies meaning. So molecules, he says convey meaning. T of human awareness, logos and what goes on in the developing embryo. He is quite bold in proclaiming that all matter conveys meaning and all meaning is material, yet the two are distinct. This seems to be very similar to Spinoza’s different modes of a single substance. Is he aware that he is answering by fiat a question that has been with us since Heraclitus? Is he just tossing out paradoxes for the sake of getting attention?
Another paradox is self versus other, especially in associations, from the cells making up a body to rival nations on the same planet. In the same paragraph, he refers to cells as, “unthinking lumps of protoplasm.” How does that fit with his matter and meaning paradox? Meaning must not imply thought, then.
He is going to maintain, he says, that self and other are inseparable. He also maintains various other paradoxes, which, he says give humans power. Is this an echo of New Organon? He says self vs other has no place in mathematics. Is that true?
He ends the introduction by quoting Lao Tzu. Where is this going?
“The elementary particles of communication are signs, which convey meaning.” Signs may be icons or symbols.
He makes cell surface molecules the exemplar of all he is talking about, but then he overreaches immediately, by saying the receptor molecule “recognizes” the signal molecule. Recognize from cogito, I think, yet he said earlier such communication doesn’t involve thought. He even says the molecules “recognize” the meaning in some molecules but not others.
In his perspective, as he calls it, my TV remote and my TV are conversing.
Does the probabilistic character of human conversation (we don’t invariably understand the other person) really find a useful model in the probablistic character of cell surface protein interactions with molecules in the cellular environment?
He claims that the alternative to his conversation idea is the doctrine of cause and effect, and he says if you can’t see it his way, it is because you are too indoctrinated to the cause and effect perspective. He invokes quantum mechanics to justify his claim that we can no longer assume that cause and effect is the correct perspective, but all his examples are from systems too big to involve quantum effects (note that they are called quantum effects, not quantum messages or quantum meanings). He actually calls his view “logocentric” Why then, I wonder, has he said nothing about mathematics? That would be the bridge between cause and effect and his idea of communication.
His conversational idea makes very little sense to me, if I think of something like weather. Does the sun send messages to earth? Do the oceans and atmosphere get each other’s meanings? The signaling metaphor makes some sense when talking about cells that interact with each other in an organism, or the nerve cells that interact with the environment. In both cases, we can talk about signal transduction, etc. At the actual level of what’s changing, though, we can describe these processes in the language of chemistry, which is that of cause and effect.
The other puzzle is how it helps to understand developmental processes or ecological interactions, which we have a pretty good handle on the basic principles, using a phenomenon like language, and the memory, etc. language relies on. We have no good grasp of basic principles in that case, and only study the higher level appearances. To me he’s trying to use levels of understanding in reverse. I see meaning as an emergent property of complex systems in social animals with highly developed memory and learning, as in Greenspan and Shanker’s The First Idea. I think he’s pushing it down onto levels where it doesn’t belong.
His treatment of altruism in the chapter on self and other illustrates the folly of using value laden words like selfish and altruistic to talk about genetic alleles. It’s another example of trying to apply a concept appropriate to explanation at one level to a much more basic level of phenomena. To his credit, he points out that since genes change over time, even as they retain the same basic function, it is not exactly right to talk about them as isolated entities perpetuating themselves through generations.
The discussion of parasitism in the same chapter concludes that all organisms are parasites. This conflates parasitism with competition, failing to see that one relation is +/- while the other is -/-. He also seems to misunderstand the prisoners’ dilemma.
There is a chapter on parts and wholes, which does not discuss emergent properties. This is strange, because emergent properties like meaning and communication, etc. are used all the time as metaphors for what goes on at lower levels – cells communicating, etc. is this just a consequence of avoiding explanations that are “too technical?” Wagner seems to prefer explanations that work at every level, so for example, his parts and wholes chapter covers everything from subatomic particles to societies. The forest or the trees? According to him it just depends what question you ask or how you choose to look at it. I suspect a strong touch of postmodernism in his outlook: His everything is a conversation” sounds suspiciously like, “everything is a text.”
In the chapter on risk, after an interesting discussion of diminished DNA repair in aging bacterial colonies, he says, “a cell most likely does not benefit from shutting down DNA repair. Most likely it will die. In contrast, the entire colony benefits immensely when one (my italics) cell survives and becomes the seed of new life.” Wait: it seems he doesn’t understand risk. True, the cells are unlikely to survive even if they stop DNA repair, but that slim chance has to be compared to the chance of surviving in a colony that does not stop DNA repair, and hence has fewer mutations. Also, one mutant cell that starts a new colony, certainly does benefit in a Darwinian sense. The rest of the colony may or may not benefit, depending whether cells without the beneficial mutation can 1. mate with the mutants, 2. exchange genes directly with them or 3. use the enzymes produced by the mutants or the enzymatic breakdown products to increase their own chances of survival. There is no noble self-sacrifice necessary. The whole business only works out if the mathematics of probability end up in its favor. How to model a colony that ends up being a group of competing clones? He has a note (24) later, that tries to explain the benefits being shared by the colony, but I don’t find it helpful, unlike the notes on varying mutation rates. Actually, a lot of what he talks about are not what you usually think of as mutations. The enzymes involved seem also to remove blocks to expression of existing genes, thus allowing use of different food sources.
Later on in talking about long term patterns in evolution, he uses words like “learned” and “acquired” with respect to adaptation. He also has cattle egrets originating in the New World, which I think is incorrect.
His chapter on creation/destruction, including apoptosis, is quite interesting. I wonder if apoptosis is a case of parental manipulation of offspring, more than of altruism. In this respect, an organism is much more of a population process than a social insect colony, where often only one can actually make copies. It’s also different from mere herds or aggregated populations. Would it be in any way possible to have an organism if cells competed with each other in proliferating? Obviously not.
Is natural selection “impossible without death?” It would simply require that populations be free to grow exponentially. Wagner doesn’t seem to see differential reproduction of phenotype as the key to natural selection. He also says, “natural selection alone does not create the world of living things.” Pross might object to that notion (see earlier posts Looking for the Logos of Life II-IV).
When he discusses organisms’ ecological niches, which he calls “lifestyles,” he says they amount to a tangible expression of a hypothesis about the world. This is another example of applying emergent properties to a lower level. What useful insight does it provide?
In the chapter on choice, chance, and necessity there’s a discussion of deterministic chaos, in which he asserts that unpredictability and indeterminism are the same thing. This is because he sees no practical difference between them, since sufficiently accurate knowledge of the input values is not possible in a physical system. He denies the reality of infinitesimals, as in calculus, calling it a mental construct. He says that no finite mind can overcome those limits. I guess that’s right, but isn’t nature (or god, which is the same thing) an infinite mind, and don’t I mean by in principle what is possible by nature? Am I just taking Einstein’s(?) position that “God does not play dice with the universe?”
I don’t like Wagner’s way of describing life as making predictions. Organisms don’t predict the future, and except in very few cases, they don’t deliberate about possible courses of action. In his effort to bring mind and meaning down to the molecular level, he’s doing violence to the language of explanation. It may be true that the same mechanisms exist in complex, multicellular organisms with elaborate nervous systems as in a bacterium, but that does not mean that all we are doing is what a bacterium does in response to varying concentrations of food in its environment. For instance, multicellular organisms with complex nervous systems have memory, something he does not talk about a lot. The automatic unfolding of the life cycle of a mosquito depends on certain other things happening around it – rain, food for the larva, vertebrate animals, etc. – but that is not in my view a prediction, except in a very figurative sense. And certainly not in the way that an astronomer, using mathematics, predicts the motion of the stars. One way of seeing that is to think how much we do rely on gut reaction, common sense, instinct, whatever in dealing with everyday life. As Socrates says, most people just act at random, much like the bacterium. So much more important, therefore, to distinguish the few times when action is based on memory, reason or principle. He trivializes this by saying only the individual can decide whether bacteria choose, because it’s just a matter of point of view, not of truth. By calling the set of characteristics that define the ecological niche of a tick, “convictions, assumptions or beliefs about the world,” he is trivializing in a vain and pernicious way the difficult human choices those words refer to. Is he suggesting we can live our lives the way ticks and bacteria do? Of course organisms’ bodies have features that can be explained by natural law. That’s what Darwin says he means by “natural selection.” Wagner is saying nothing more than Darwin said; he just has more experimentally verified examples to back it up. But I do not think Darwin would say that this means organisms themselves are making “predictions.” What do I understand more clearly by saying different genotypes make different “predictions?” He goes further and seems to claim that philosophical disputes are somehow equivalent to these “predictions.” He seems to want his paradoxes to stand, not to be resolved by shifting point of view to another level or way of looking at the problem, but instead to serve as evidence of the world’s fundamental unintelligibility.
He talks about life’s endless creativity in terms of the diversity of species, molecules and functions. The result is a vast array of interactions. Wagner says this creativity is based on the same principles as human creativity. But then he goes off on function, claiming that we can’t talk about the function of the features of organisms. He cites the bee’s barbed stinger as having no function, when there is a perfectly obvious explanation, given that workers are expendable: the potential attacker cannot stop the sting by brushing off the bee. He claims that dead bees and also cancers are the price we pay for not being locked into a world of intelligent design. The price, according to Wagner of being free of predestination is to give up knowledge of the future ( but cf long-term cosmological certainties, even if surrounded by longer term cosmological doubts). In my view all we know for sure about life is that self-replication has led to all the complexity we see. No other purpose seems necessary, but without that, what sense does any of it make? None of it seems to provide an answer to the basic philosophical question, “what is good for…?”
I think he confuses the shortcuts we use to describe our scientific findings with the science itself. Chicks that cower from shadows do not interpret the shadow as a hawk. Parasitic plants do not think that the chemical impinging on their root tips come from a tree. That’s applying concepts appropriate to one level of organization to a level where they make no sense, even if they occasionally allow succinct expression of our beliefs about what is going on. These organisms and the others he cites, except possibly in a few highly debatable cases, do not form explanations, predictions, interpretations. It seems to me his claim is in opposition to his notion that thought such as we have is embodied in material configurations, because in the case of these so-called explanations, where is the embodied form? I think if he tries to say it is in the molecules involved in the events – the retina of the chick, or its muscles, the flagellar “motor” of the bacterium or its cell surface proteins, he’s going to quickly run into a contradiction. My actions are not their own explanation, prediction, interpretation, etc. Those reside in an entirely different place from the physical embodiment of the action itself. Somehow I think he’s making the explanation into the thing explained, the conversation into its own subject, the prediction into the thing predicted or vice versa. That’s certainly a way to create paradoxes, but they don’t seem to be of the enlightening sort.
I also don’t see how describing conceptual advances in science as making choices is really adding anything. His examples actually show that after those breakthroughs, apparent contradictions could be resolved. It’s not like heliocentricity, gravitation, electromagnetism, or relativity are still one among possible choices. The discoveries did not expand choices; they eliminated many alternatives. The only example I can think of is Euclidean vs Lobachevskian geometry. In a way, you can choose either, but that’s how mathematics is. That’s not natural science. If there are choices in natural science it is either because there are different applications where one is more convenient than the other or because one or both are wrong in at least some respects. Things can be useful without being entirely correct. Carnot had his heat engine backwards, but he still developed useful ideas. You can still use Ptolemy to make fairly decent astronomical predictions.
When you see a correct mathematical proof, if you are open to truth, you don’t feel like you are making a choice to see it. You just see it. I imagine that’s how scientists feel about their work. You don’t choose a truth, you discover it, or at least you think you have.
He even invokes Heraclitus at the end, which annoys me even more because he only talks about change and strife and not about logos. He goes on about Godel’s proof and Turing’s halting problem, as if somehow this proved that his so-called paradoxes in biology are unresolvable. Again, he’s taking truths about much different things and willy-nilly applying them to other areas. It is not obvious that questions about life run up against the limits of quantum theory or mathematical decidability. There are limits, set by things like deterministic chaos, maybe, but that is not the same. And do those limit our understanding, or just our ability to forecast?
He paraphrases one article on philosophy of science that claims to refute the notion that scientific theories get closer to truth over time. I expect that there may be a valid point there, but it also seems absurd to deny that we have a better understanding of the origin of species than we did before 1859, so what is it getting at? Of course the more light we shed, the more we can see the darkness around us, but that’s not the same as his lost in the hall of mirrors analogy (p.178).
The Godel’s incompleteness theorem does show that we can’t know everything, which he points out, but I don’t see how it follows that truth is not important anymore. Mathematicians are still concerned with true and false as are scientists. Same with Turing and the computability or halting problem, but they still wanted to know what those Enigma messages really said. The logos is probably beyond our ultimate comprehension, but we don’t know enough yet to take the position that Wagner does. This is just post-modernist conceit.
In trying to argue that material and meaning are just different sides of the same coin, bringing meaning down to the molecular level, I think he confuses the logos with our everyday notions of meaning. He does finally bring in the logos, in a suggestion that we try a “logocentric” perspective as a basis for a worldview (is this an echo of Husserl?) But the notion he suggests as a basis is “meaning.” I don’t recall that as one of the possible definitions of logos, although it makes some sense. Still I doubt that “meaning” in Wagner’s book aligns well with “logos.” His thinker, taking a certain point of view, seems to be saying, “listen to me,” not “listen to the logos.” He’s got the paradoxical part partly right, and he’s right about strife, but I think he has the logos wrong. Only a little bit: he is clear that you can’t simply choose to ignore gravity. That’s apparent in his concluding sections, The solitude of true choice and The choice to choose.
His whole approach seems to lean to much towards making man the measure of things or possibly to blur the distinction between man and the things around him. I think he’s trying to have it too many ways at once.