Living things and meaning

Carrying on my reading of an inherited set of Charles Dickens’ works over the weekend, I read an account in his travels of a walk up Mount Vesuvius. In itself, interesting enough. But there was a unique layer of meaning for me, since when I first ascended the volcano in 1968, an Italian guide got into conversation whilst I was waiting for the chair-lift (demolished now, sadly). He asked, “Do you like Charles Dickens? I have been reading Nicholas Nickleby. Is England really like that?”

Vesuvius 1845

Vesuvius 1845

Few people can have discussed Dickens’ novels at the top of Mount Vesuvius, and that association, and the consequent consideration of the 120 years between his visit and mine, helps to make my reading of his Travels in Italy unique. But that’s the same for any text, and every reader.

Take a text I happen to have studied in some depth, such as the Revelation of St John. Although you have to start by approaching it syntactically (and even that is hazardous because of the “barbarous” Greek style), it has a huge wealth of allusions to symbols in the apocalyptic genre (and newly-coined symbols that someone familiar with Jewish apocalyptic could unwrap), and literally hundred of references to Biblical texts and their then customary interpretations and associations. It also has hints of now gone contemporary events and places. So to read it with any deep understanding requires quite a lot of groundwork – not impossible, but not easy either.

That is not only true for ancient visionary literature; any human writing has analogous compositional features. For example, a simple word or phrase may acquire the status of a “running gag”, so that you’ll only make sense of it in one place from having read all its occurrences (Dickens loves doing that).

More generally, every sentence of a book contributes to its overall meaning, often by way of reinforcement and reduplication rather than through algorithmic logical development. For instance, I always like to say that Genesis 12.2-3 (God’s promise to Abraham) summarises the entire Bible. So any biblical event or story can be understood in the light of that promise – and yet in itself it’s only understood through all the specific instances. And there are other themes, equally interspersing Genesis and the whole Scripture, distinguishable but not separable from my example and intended by the author to be communicated to the reader.

All that comes before the inevitable personal reading of a text that arises from ones own experience (like an encounter on a volcano or on a spiritual mountain-top), or ones previous study, so that a reading of Darwin’s Origin of Species might mean something quite different for a gentleman who’s familiar with Malthus than a biologist trained in the Modern Synthesis. I’m not pursuing some Postmodern idea that “texts mean only what we read into them”, but simply that there is an irreducible richness in any text that’s intrinsic to the written word – indeed to human language itself. A plot synopsis of Hamlet isn’t HamletGods and Kings isn’t the Book of Exodus.

Stephen Talbott, in a valuable essay that I’ve referenced in the past applies “meaning” in a similar way to living organisms, and with justice. If one applies a “cause” to an animal – say, a sheep seeing a canine in the distance – the response will be conditioned by a whole lifetime, as well as an evolutionary history, of experience (or not) of such predators. It will also be affected by individual physiology (a lead sheep? A timid sheep?), by the social structure of the flock, and by the immediate circumstances (2 canines with shepherd = be wary: 10 canines howling = be very afraid). And the response is seldom likely to be absolutely predictable, though it will always be sheeplike.

One of Talbott’s profound main points is that, whereas in, say, physics, the complications of a real situation detract from the understanding of a physical law, it is those very complications that are the business we are trying to explain in biology:

We have just now noted that, by means of carefully designed closed systems more or less immune to contextual interference, it is possible to say one thing “causes” another, with due caveats. Well-made machines are such systems. But what happens when the biologist attempts to see the organism in the same mechanistic light, making a closed system of it?

The effort fails miserably. For in biology a changing context does not interfere with some causal truth we are trying to see; contextual transformation is itself the truth we are after. Or, you could say: in the organism as a maker of meaning, interfering is the whole point.

The organism, regarded as a closed system relative to the causes under investigation — the only kind of system in which stable causes can even be defined — is forever abandoning its old state and entering a new one. Therefore no cause can reliably be assumed to remain the same cause over a period of time.

It should not be considered that Talbott is simply making a philosophical assertion when he says that seeing organisms as series of closed systems “fails miserably”. In a long discussion he proves this from the very words used universally by biologists:

[B]iologists today — and molecular biologists in particular — routinely and unavoidably describe the organism in terms that go far beyond the language of physics and chemistry. Words like “stimulus”, “response”, “signal”, “adapt”, “inherit”, and “communicate”, in their biological sense, would never be applied to the strictly physical and chemical processes in a corpse or other inanimate object. But they are always employed in attempts to understand the living organism. The prevalent descriptions portray the whole organism as an active unity, with powers of regulation and coordination intelligently directed toward the achievement of the organism’s own ends. Further, I have pointed out that such descriptions, rooted as they are in the observable character of the organism, show no sign of being reducible to less living terms or to the language of mechanism.

All such descriptions are, in fact, words about “meaning”. In studying living things, then, we are studying beings whose determining feature is fluidity and change, and which exist either as an entirety or not at all (since when not entire they cease to be living). One could put detail on that, as I have in my recent piece on the totally intercalated nature of the genome. Talbott adds:

Why do we need causes as an addition to lawfulness and meaning? After all, we have no difficulty understanding all the relationships in a meaningful text, even though we cannot say that one part of the text causes another part.

From what I said at the commencement it is clearly fallacy to say, “A Dickens novel consists of words, so the proper start of literary study is to isolate the words and define their specific function in determining the whole.” In fact it would be interesting to compare the vocabulary of Dickens’ various books, and it would not surprise me if Hard Times were found to be 98% identical to A Christmas Carol, considered at the atomistic level of words. Which is not to say that word studies are utterly worthless in literature, or their equivalent in biology:

Low-level analyses versus portrayal of the whole: it’s not an either-or matter. Because we’re dealing with meaning, the similarity to the understanding of texts is no accident: analyses of individual words and their possibilities of meaning can be essential; without a knowledge of the words, we can hardly grasp the whole. But at the same time, it is only the meaning of the whole that gives the individual words their full and proper significance. This is the truth that has for so long been ignored within biology.

This articulates something that occurs to me regarding an experiment like Lenski’s long-term evolutionary studies on E. coli. The experiment sought to isolate the bacteria’s reponse to one variable – that is, the level of citrate in a nutrient-poor environment – in the manner of a physics experiment. It’s hard to say, in a broad context, whether the small genetic accommodations to citrate metabolism tell us much about E. coli or not.

It’s always seemed to me that a similar experiment on a human – removing extraneous influences by putting him in dark solitary confinement for twenty years – would be entirely misleading about what it is to be a human animal. To continue the allusions to Dickens, when Dr Manette emerged from the Bastille in Tale of Two Cities, he was significantly less than human. His obsession for making shoes (which recurred at times of stress) was of no significance at all to who he was as a person. To account for a monomania does not account for human behaviour at all, which is intrinsically rich and multifaceted.

At the heart of Talbott’s critique of the atomizing tendencies of modern biology is the highlighting of a logical contradiction, one that applies to materialist explanations in general, though most obvious in biology. For if biologists are seeking to understand the biology behind all those “meaning” words – “regulate”, “function”, “communicate” and the rest – then they can only succeed by forming mental concepts whose meaning matches the meaning of the underlying concepts of biological reality. If they believe that these are, at heart, meaningless then they have condemned themselves to searching for what is not there:

The truth of the matter may simply be so close to us — so fundamental and so intimately a part of our nature as understanding beings — that we cannot readily step back and see it. I mean the truth that any understanding of the world, animate or inanimate, must be an understanding — which is to say, it requires a conceptual grasp of things. Whatever is incommensurable with thought and idea will never be contemplated in thought and idea, and therefore will never enter into science. The world we know will always and only be a world in whose inwardness we can participate inwardly — a world whose being can take form as a content of consciousness. We can shape our minds to objects only because the objects themselves are mind-shaped. Without a truth of things that can at the same time be a truth of word and thought, we could have no scientific conversations or textbooks — no science at all.

We’ve touched on mathematics a bit recently on The Hump. Talbott’s analysis deals with that too, in closing:

The physicist has not, as so often claimed, succeeded in presenting us with a world of pure objectivity or outwardness — a “disenchanted” or “disensouled” world. He has only tried to restrict the enchantment to the sphere of mathematics. But mathematical relations or concepts are still ideas, not things, and the universe is, if nothing else, startlingly enchanted by these ideas. The question, “Who is the enchantress?” may be beyond our ken at this time, but this does not remove the facts that provoke the question. Oddly, physicists seem far ahead of biologists in their occasional and explicit openness to these facts. When an astrophysicist wrote an essay in Nature entitled “The Mental Universe”, it produced hardly a murmur of surprise from his peers (Henry 2005).

The mathematical order, however, does tell us that there must be other principles of order. For mathematics alone doesn’t give us any things or phenomena at all; numbers are not things. Whatever the things may be to which our mathematical formulations refer, they either have a qualitative character that we can consciously apprehend in a conceptually ordered way, or they must remain unknown and outside our science. And that qualitative conceptual ordering cannot be predicted from the mathematics. Rather, the qualitative order is the fuller reality that determines whatever we abstract from it, including mathematical relationships.

Vesuvius, March 1968

Vesuvius, March 1968

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.
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4 Responses to Living things and meaning

  1. Lou Jost says:

    Contrary to what you said, Jon, Lenski’s experiment was not aimed at studying the response of E coli to citrate levels. The citrate was a standard ingredient in the medium, and initially no one expected it would play any role at all in the experiment, which was designed simply to study the evolution of E coli over time.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Lou, it’s been going on so long I’d forgotten that. Not that it contradicts the point I made – the interesting stuff only happened where the experimental constraints failed. Otherwise, it really was a case of putting the E. coli in the bastille in order to understand them.

      • pngarrison says:

        If your normal habitat is the large intestine, the Bastille might seem like a luxury hotel. 🙂

        Jon, your focus has been on the most meaningful species of all. I suggest you study something simpler like yeast genetics (E. coli would do, too.) An immense amount has been learned by the simple tactic of knocking out one gene in yeast (which can be done easily and quite precisely) and looking at the consequences. Can they grow? Can they mate? Do they arrest at a particular point in the cell cycle? Can they survive starvation (stationary phase?) What other genes are now expressed more or less as a result? If the yeast can survive this gene being knocked out, are there other genes that can’t be knocked out in combination with it without killing them? (synthetic lethality, of obvious application in thinking about cancer therapy) It’s amazing how much of what has been learned in these simple experiments in yeast applied more or less directly to mammals. One prominent yeast geneticist used to joke that yeast should be made an honorary mammal.

        On the other hand, you are right that the living thing seems always to be more complicated than you thought. I started out studying the cell cycle in a syncytial slime mold. I obsessed about always preparing the cells the same way before allowing them to fuse/synchronize, but no matter how carefully I tried to replicate the procedure, it was never possible to predict exactly what the cycle time would be. If they were really happy, they might get from one mitosis to another in 7 hr, but sometimes it was 9 or 10 hr, and I could never figure out what was making the difference.

        I once encountered another grad student at a meeting who was oriented to field studies, and he couldn’t understand how you could trust anything you observed in cells in standard media in a shaker. I saw it from the opposite perspective. To get largely reproducible results, you have to control as much as you can, but within certain limits the organism has its own agenda. But if you try to be too holistic about it, you’ll never figure out how anything works.

        • Jon Garvey says:

          If your normal habitat is the large intestine, the Bastille might seem like a luxury hotel

          That reminds me of an Incredible String Band line: “Down gallons of glandular corridors of the dark castle…” . Bastille dungeons we’ll put up with, says Escherischia – but for pity’s sake, not the Petrie Dish!!

          But to draw an analogy between that and your yeasts, surgical experiments to see which bits of gut you remove and kill the animal don’t tell you that much about how the gut, or the animal, works. The limits of adaptability, maybe. And one can conceive that the more important the function, the more redundancy is inbuilt, and the more important the organ, the more functions it’s involved with.

          Talbott, as I showed, acknowledges a place for “low-level analysis”, but if life is truly an holistic phenonomenon, it’s likely to be more helpful in suggesting ways to interfere than ways of “figuring out how things work” (ie Baconian rather than Aristotelian science).

          It seems to me that there’s a direct comparison with the imprecision (and some hard scientists would say potential charlatanry) of the social sciences – “direct” because they too are trying to explain the complexity of autonomous (small “a”) human organic beings and their interactions. Social psychology done in solitary confinement – how much true insight would one expect?

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