On the integrity of forms

I don’t suppose any of my American brethren will be posting on Thanksgiving Day, so have a good one!

Here’s a conversation that Werner Heisenberg said changed his life:

Heisenberg: “We cannot observe electron orbits inside the atom…Now, since a good theory must be based on directly observable magnitudes, I thought it more fitting to restrict myself to these, treating them, as it were, as representatives of the electron orbits.”

“But you don’t seriously believe,” Einstein protested, “that none but observable magnitudes must go into a physical theory?”

“Isn’t that precisely what you have done with relativity?” I asked in some surprise…

“Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning,” Einstein admitted, “but it is nonsense all the same….In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.”

einsteinThis profound truth, in the case of these two scientific giants alone, covers both grand theories of physics. Yet it, and its equally profound implications about what we think we know, has been entirely ignored by those of a scientistic bent (including certain scientistic theists who appeal to “The data! The data!” as if they were immune from Einstein and Heisenberg’s self-confessed interpretive blinkers). But actually, the unconscious indoctrination by ones worldview been well-known not only in anthropology but in Christian circles for many years, as I discovered reading both Christian sociology texts and studying missiology, where it is a key component. I guess few scientists read sociology or missiology, to their loss.

I was set thinking about this again by one of the major critiques of ID theory, and of  Paley’s natural theology, made by Aristotelian-Thomists such as Ed Feser. The charge is that they have bought into the materialist mindset that sees living things as no more than natural machines. I think that has some force, though it’s not essentially true of ID, nor even of Paley. Incidentally, the dissimilarity of organisms to machines (usually because they are self-replicating) is also levelled as a charge against ID by secular opponents, but in their case I have to conclude that “they know not of what they speak,” for their own mechanistic mindset is an impregnable assumption.

But the Thomist objection also has force against me, because I find it quite hard to think, with my medical background, in what essential way organisms are not biochemical machines. Is not an arm or a leg a system of levers? Is not the heart a pump? Is not the DNA code a programming language and the genome a program? And are not all of these, in the end, every bit as mechanistic as their artificial counterparts? In such circumstances it is usually better to critique ones own lack of insight than to dismiss the insights of others. What fundamental truths am I not seeing because of the way I view the natural world? I’ll probe a few ideas – maybe you can do better.

The A-Ts say that a machine’s parts have no natural reason to be what they are: they are “coerced” together in the way they are by their designer’s ingenuity, and the parts could easily be re-used in some other, completely different, contrivance. This concept is, of course, the same as Victor Frankenstein’s methodology (as per a previous post). But it also lies at the heart of Neodarwinian evolution: the bacterial flagellum, in order not to be seen as irreducibly complex as claimed by Michael Behe, is explained as an assemblage of parts commandeered from some other (ancestor) organism’s function – the Type 2 secretory apparatus and so on. Species evolve piecemeal, in this view, by the modification of individual parts.

I might also add that this conception lies behind the Semi-deist free creation TE scheme: the old Creator God is despised because he “coerces” nature to become what he wills, like Frankenstein cobbling together bits of corpses. But this too is blind to whatever it is that the A-Ts have understood: that nature is not (only) a machine, and God is not a clockmaker, filing and hammering parts to make them fit it.

Leaving the evolutionary aspect to one side for now, what do people like Feser see as the essential “non-machine-likeness” of organisms? It comes down to the concept that has been intriguing me most recently – that of form. In A-T speak, in the creation of natural things, form is combined with matter, resulting in a substance. “Substance” doesn’t only mean “stuff” as in modern chemistry, but a complete, irreducible entity like an animal or a human being. The modernist in me, I confess, finds it hard to see why this is so significant.

Nevertheless, one aspect of this is observable – though easily ignored, because of our theoretical spectacles. And that is the integrity of organisms, which demonstrates itself in all kinds of ways.

One recent place to start is a Wikipedia article about genetic redundancy. This is stated (currently – such articles have a way of being edited) to be “a Darwinian paradox”. Why do we keep a spare set of keys or a  mobile heater? In case something happens to the usual ones – a deeply teleological, forward-planning idea that’s alien to the concept of natural selection’s “survival now” approach to efficient causation. Regardless of whether an evolutionary explanation for such biological backup systems exists, the fact is that the backups themselves exist, and they exist so that some intangible optimal equilibrium – the organism’s form – can be maintained.

The whole organism is orientated towards that equilibrium. We call that “keeping itself alive”, as if life in the abstract were the “target” – but in fact the central thing in that phrase is “itself”. Speaking anthropomorphically, every organism has a template for “what it is”, and spends its labour preserving it against whatever the world throws at it.

That sense of organismal identity is well seen in every cell – and here’s where the machine metaphor, it seems to me, breaks down. When life begins, the poly-potent zygote soon begins to differentiate into many different varieties of cell, which sacrifice their many possibilities to make themselves parts of mechanical, or chemical, organ systems – the levers, pumps and so on – serving the needs of that mysterious template of “form”. In many cases – such as skin cells, immune cells or even swathes of tissue cells in the wrong place – that means individual cells submitting routinely to cell death for the sake of this mysterious entity, the organism.

That is, unless some biologist finds a way to make them revert to being stem cells and, thence, components of some other organ. Yet that last fact itself shows what a strange situation it is – fake the right chemical signals and a skin cell can become something else – yet still be devoted to maintaining the form of the same organism. Transplants are quite different – both tissue and host have to be fooled (or coerced, machine-like) into thinking they’re on the same side. It’s a very different thing to take on the role of a machine than to be bolted into one.

Genetics seems to be showing a similarly mysterious concept of form. Whereas until recently the genome was seen as the program dictating the organism, it’s now increasingly recognised as a database the organism draws on selectively, and in a pretty flexible way, too. It seems that there are many different pathways that may be used used to the same end – which has been insufficiently recognised, I think, as a metaphysical paradigm shift: this is as teleological as my relative indifference to using Notepad, Word or WordPress to meet the goal of writing a blog.

James Shapiro’s “natural genetic engineering” is another example. To whatever extent it occurs, it shows again that the organism has a sense of what it is, and desperately tries strategies to maintain it. That requires, in the case of ionising radiation, say, possibly sacrificing elements of its form by mutation.

Such prioritisation is seen at the macro scale, too. For example, those stories of deformed goats or dogs, or people, learning to cope by quite major changes in anatomical organisation speak of a sense of true “phenotypic” (or formal) identity, if not necessarily of true selfhood. The physiological changes, over just a few generations, in the gut of lizards introduced into new environments, seem to be a similar example of organisms actively changing to preserve their essential “form” as intact as possible in changed circumstances, as opposed to being gradually and passively changed by the environment.

There are other examples. One that has been pointed out as a shortcoming of the “machine” metaphor is the misleading nature of those wonderful animations of cellular processes like DNA replication or protein synthesis. The most striking example I know is this one in which the machine metaphor is more than prominent (and illustrating a now-challenged axiom, to boot, though still provoking a due sense of awe):

But the same applies to most such videos, because they all omit the fact that these processes are carried out in a more of less liquid state, with the near-miraculous molecular structures being called into being and put back into solution again as need arises. The machines are functions of the cell, not the cell a set of functioning machines. All this is rather wonderful.

There are, of course, complications to this point of view, which require further thought. “Form” is, apparently, a layered phenomenon. Cells have integrity, but colonies of cells forming organisms have it at a higher level. In some species – like bees or ants – the basic form seems to be the community. But then that may be truer than we think of humanity as well – Christ’s primary conceptual “form” is the Kingdom, more than the individual, though it’s hard to persuade a Westerner of that. And then there are species like slime moulds, that seem to have optional colonial forms displaying organismal behaviour. And in all species there is an interesting relationship between ones own form and the form of ones offspring, the latter often being a higher priority.

Now I can’t say I’ve bottomed out this business of forms. But it seems to me to uncover some serious blind spots in the materialist, efficient-cause-only, view of nature. And theologically it is far, far closer to the concept of the Christ whose wisdom forms all that has been made, but whose act of creation is love, and not mechanical coercion.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Philosophy, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On the integrity of forms

  1. Sy Garte says:


    Thanks for the great Thanksgiving piece. As usual you provide more grist for thought than can be absorbed in one reading. I watched the video, and I would like to comment on it, although it might be a bit extraneous to your main theme. I thought that this particular video did not dwell sufficiently on the wonders of translation (Im certain the makers were more interested in transcription). And what was completely missing was the fascinating step by which amino acid sythetase (there are 20 of them, one for each amino acid) recognizes each tRNA and each amino acid, and puts the right amino acid on the right tRNA (the latter containing the anticodon that fits the code found in the DNA).

    Why do I harp on this? Because that is the crucial step in how all cells work that could not have evolved by natural selection. It is (to my mind at least) the basis for the argument that the origin of DNA based life required creation. While some attempts to find evidence for a proto code system have been presented (aptamers) they are totally non convincing. The evolution by small steps of a code that is perfect enough to allow for reproducible transcription and a strong enough link between genotype and phenotype is impossible in any way that can be imagined. Which is why there is no theory of the origin of DNA based life.

    So while that observation is a bit tangential to your post, I couldn’t resist making it here. And Happy Thanksgiving to all.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Ah – I’m glad it’s good holiday reading. Beats old films on TV then. Just another winter’s day here in England, I’m afraid.

      Yes the genetic code is an astonishing problem for biology – or, perhaps, pre-biology: pure optimised, semantic formalism! Hubert Yockey’s book gives an excellent account of its amazing characteristics in relation to information theory. He’s pretty sanguine about evolution’s ability to produce this 5th-extension language by random walk, but he seems to me to have underestimated how once you’re stuck with one programming language, you’re stuck with it, especially when you’re self-replicating.

      Eugene Koonin baulks at the evolvability of another fundamental process, which the video does include (if I remember aright) – DNA replication. He invokes the multiverse to provide sufficient probablistic resources. And yet DNA replication appears, from the variations, to have evolved twice. How that squares with universal common descent is above my pay grade.

      The video’s omission (there are others) is a reminder of just how absurdly sophisticated life is – even more so when you consider the micro scale and the non-machine environment.

      • Sy Garte says:

        Koonin (not a theist) has also lamented in published papers that the origin of a code seems to be beyond any hope of resolution, due to the impossibility of a step wise gradual approach to a working code (which, by definition must be near perfect in order to trigger natural selection). Koonin has also dismissed the aptamer data as being far to weak to explain anything.

        As for Yockey, many of his arguments are excellent related to the unique informational quality of the DNA code, and yet as a non theist, he refused to consider the ID implications of his work.

Leave a Reply