Stephen Talbott: Toward a biology worthy of life

Stephen Talbott of the Nature Institute, former senior editor at O’Reilly and author of The Future Does Not Compute, is organizing his NetFuture writings into a project called, “Toward a biology worthy of life”:

After Crick and Watson unraveled the structure of DNA, molecular biologists were destined, so they thought, to understand organisms as physical mechanisms and nothing more. Instead, ever more sophisticated experimental techniques have been revealing organisms whose wisdom and subtlety, whose powers of development and adaptation, whose embodied insight and effective communication, and whose evolutionary ingenuity far outstrip our current capacities for comprehension.

Yes, new molecular “mechanisms”, isolated from the organism as a whole, continue to be proclaimed daily. But when we restore these products of our one-sided methods to their living contexts, allowing them to speak their own meanings, what they actually show us is this: every organism is intent upon telling the eloquent story of its own life. Its living intentions govern and coordinate the lawful physical performance of its body, not the other way around.

No, you have probably not heard about these developments; they don’t make the pages of the New York Times or even Scientific American. Indeed, many biologists themselves lament that their unavoidable focus on the minutia of their own narrow research topics prevents their paying adequate attention to wider fields of discovery. But the reality now being proclaimed from the pages of every technical journal could hardly be more dramatic. Perhaps the central truth is this: we human beings discover our conscious, inner capacities — our capacities to think and mean, to plan and strive — unconsciously and objectively reflected back to us from every metabolic process, every signaling pathway, every gene expression pattern in all the organisms we study.

We are akin to these organisms in ways we have long forgotten. This matters in a world whose future has been placed in our hands. No form of life is alien to us.


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