ARE WE SPIRITUAL MACHINES? | Chapter 3: Organism and Machine — The Flawed Analogy
June 7, 2001
- author |
- Michael Denton
- year published |
The dream of instantiating the properties and characteristics of living organisms in non-living artificial systems is almost as old as human thought. Even in the most primitive of times the magician’s model or likeness upon which the rituals of sympathetic magic were enacted was believed to capture some essential quality of the living reality it represented. The magician’s likeness, Vaucanson’s famous mechanical duck, which was able to eat and drink and waddle convincingly and was one of the wonders of the Paris salons in the eighteenth century, the Golem or artificial man who would protect the Jews of medieval Prague, HAL the life-like computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, all testify to mankind’s eternal fascination with the dream to create another life and to steal fire from the gods. Ray Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines represents only one of the latest manifestations of the long-standing dream.
At the outset I think it is important to concede that if living organisms are analogous in all important respects to artificial mechanical systems and profoundly analogous to machines—as mechanists since Descartes have always insisted—then in my view there are no serious grounds for doubting the possibility of Kurzweil’s “Spiritual Machines.” The logic is compelling. Conversely if living things are not machine-like in their basic design—if they differ in certain critical ways from machines as the vitalists have always maintained—then neither artificial life, artificial intelligence nor any of the characteristics of living organisms are likely to be instantiated in non-living mechanical systems.
My approach, therefore, is to question the validity of the machine/organism analogy upon which the whole mechanistic tradition is based. I intend to critique the very presuppositions on which Kurzweil’s strong AI project is based, rather than offer detailed analysis of his argument—a task amply provided by other contributors to this volume. Here I am going to argue that there is no convincing evidence that living organisms are strictly analogous to artificial/mechanical objects in the way the mechanist claims and that while certain aspects of life may be captured in artifacts there remains the very real possibility, I would say a near certainty, that elusive, subtle, irreducible “vital” differences exist between the two categories of being the “organic” and the “mechanical.” And I would like to suggest that some of the “vital” properties unique to organic systems, which could well include “human intelligence” and perhaps other aspects of what we call “human nature” may never find exact instantiation in artificial manmade systems—a likelihood which would render impossible any sort of “spiritual machine.”
The Mechanistic Paradigm
The emergence of the modern mechanistic view of nature and of the idea that organisms are analogous in every essential way to machines — the ultimate source of the thinking of Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Ray Kurzweil and of other supporters of strong AI — coincided roughly with the birth of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
One of its first and most influential exponents was the great French philosopher Rene Descartes, for whom the entire material universe was a machine—a gigantic clockwork mechanism. According to this view all of nature — from the movement of the planets to the movements of the heart — worked according to mechanical laws, and all the characteristics of every material object both living and nonliving could be explained in its entirety in terms of the arrangement and movement of its parts. In his own words from his Treatise on Man:
I suppose the body to be nothing but a machine . . . We see clocks, artificial fountains, mills, and other such machines which, although only man made, have the power to move on their own accord in many different ways . . . one may compare the nerves of the machine I am describing with the works of these fountains, its muscles and tendons with the various devices and springs which set them in motion . . . the digestion of food, the beating of the heart and arteries . . . respiration, walking . . . follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangements of its counterweights and wheels.
And in his Principles of Philosophy he explicitly states:
I do not recognize any difference between artifacts and natural bodies . . .
Despite occasional set backs ever since, Descartes’ biological science has followed by and large along mechanistic lines and nearly all the major advances in knowledge have arisen from its application.
Today almost all professional biologists have adopted the mechanistic/reductionist approach and assume that the basic parts of an organism (like the cogs of a watch) are the primary essential things, that a living organism (like a watch) is no more than the sum of its parts, and that it is the parts that determine the properties of the whole and that (like a watch) a complete description of all the properties of an organism may be had by characterizing its parts in isolation.
The traditional vitalistic alternative has virtually no support. Nowadays few biologists seriously consider the possibility that organic forms (unlike watches) might be natural and necessary parts of the cosmic order—as was believed before the rise of the mechanistic doctrine. Few believe that organisms might be more than the sum of their parts, possessing mysterious vital non-mechanical properties, such as a self-organizing ability or a genuine autonomous intelligence, which are not explicable in terms of a series of mechanical interactions between their parts.
Over and over again the vitalist presumption—that organisms possess special vital powers only manifest by the functioning vital whole—has fallen to the mechanist assault. In the early nineteenth century Wöhler synthesized urea, showing for the first time that organic compounds, previously considered to require living protoplasm for their manufacture, could be assembled artificially outside the cell by non-vital means. Later in the nineteenth century enzymologists showed that the key chemical reactions of the cell could be carried out by cell extracts and did not depend on the intact cell. The triumphant march of mechanism has continued throughout the twentieth century and its application has led to spectacular increases in biological knowledge particularly over the past four decades.
There is no longer any doubt that many biological phenomena are indeed mechanical and that organisms are analogous to machines at least to some degree.
Having achieved so much from the mechanistic approach it is not surprising that the metaphysical assumption of mechanism—that organisms are profoundly analogous to machines in all significant characteristics—is all-pervading and almost unquestioned in modern biology.
On top of the undeniable fact that many biological phenomena can be explained in mechanical terms, the credibility of the organism/machine analogy has been reinforced over the past few centuries by our ability to construct increasingly life-like machines.
For most of human history man’s tools or machines bore no resemblance to living organisms and gave no hint of any analogy between the living and the artificial. Indeed through most of history, through the long intermittent colds of the Paleolithic, the only machines manufactured by man were primitive bone or wooden sticks and the crudely shaped hand axes—the so-called eoliths or dawn stones. Primitive man was only capable of manufacturing artifacts so crudely shaped that they were hardly distinguishable from natural flakes of rock or pieces of wood and bone. So it is hardly likely that primitive man—although perhaps as intelligent as modern man—would have perceived any analogy between his crudely shaped artifacts and the living beings that surrounded him. Certainly he would never have dreamt of “spiritual machines.”
It was not until 10,000 years after the end of the Paleolithic era, following the development of metallurgy, the birth of agriculture and the founding of the first civilizations that humans first manufactured complex artifacts such as ploughs and wheeled vehicles, consisting of several interacting parts. By classical times many artifacts were quite sophisticated, as witness the famous Alexandrian water clock of Ctesibus, Archimedes’ screw and the Roman military catapult. Heron of Alexandria wrote several treatises on the construction of lifting machines and presses. The famous device found in a shipwreck off the island of Antiketheria—the Antiketheria computer—contained a gear train consisting of 31 gears compacted into a small box about the size of a laptop computer. This “computer” was probably a calendrical device for calculating the position of the sun, moon and planets.
Although the technological accomplishments of classical times were quite sophisticated, it was not until the seventeenth century and the beginning of the modern era that technology had advanced to the stage when machines began to take on life-like characteristics.
Ten years before the century opened in 1590, the compound microscope was invented. The telescope was invented in 1608 by the Dutchman Lipershay, shortly afterwards Galileo invented the thermometer, one of his pupils Toricelli the barometer, and in 1654 Guericke invented the air pump. Over the same period clocks and other mechanisms were being vastly improved. At last machines, such as the telescope and microscope with their lens and focusing devices, analogous to that of the vertebrate eye, or hydraulic pumping systems, which were analogous to the action of the heart, began crudely to exhibit some of the characteristics and properties of living things. The fantastic engineering drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci, envisaging futuristic flying and walking machines, lent further support to the machine organism analogy.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also saw the first successful attempts at constructing life-like automata. Vaucanson’s duck, for example, which was constructed in about 1730, had over 1,000 moving parts and was able to eat and drink and waddle convincingly. It became one of the wonders of the eighteenth century Parisian salons and represented a forerunner of the robots of today and the androids of science fiction. Such advances raised the obvious possibility that eventually all the characteristics of life including human self- reflective intelligence might find instantiation in mechanical forms.
Since the days of Descartes technology has of course advanced to levels that were simply unimaginable in the seventeenth century. At an ever-accelerating rate one technological advance has followed another. And as machines have continually grown in complexity and sophistication especially since the seventeenth century the gap between living things and machines seems to have continually narrowed. Every few decades machines have seemed to grow more life-like until today there seems hardly a feature of complex machines does not have some analogue in living systems. Like organisms, machines use artificial languages and memory banks for information storage and retrieval. To decode these languages machines, like organisms, use complex translational systems. Modern machinery utilizes elegant control systems regulating the assembly of parts and components, error fail-safe devices and proofreading systems are utilized for quality control, assembly processes utilize the principle of prefabrication. All these phenomena have their parallel in living systems. In fact, so deep and so persuasive is the analogy that much of the terminology we use to describe the world of the cell is borrowed from the world of late twentieth century technology.
From stone axe-head to modern technology mankind has journeyed far, very far since the long colds of the Paleolithic dawn. And given the increasing “life-likeness” of many modern artifacts it seems likely, or so the mechanist would have us believe, that eventually all the phenomena of life will be instantiated in mechanical forms. Surely the day of Spiritual Machines can hardly be that far away?
Organic Form: Vital Characteristics
Yet despite the obvious successes of mechanistic thinking in biology and the fact that many biological phenomena can be reduced to mechanical explanations, and despite the fact that machines have grown ever more life-like as technology has advanced—it remains an undeniable fact that living things possess abilities that are still without any significant analogue in any machine which has yet been constructed. These abilities have been seen since classical times as indicative of a fundamental division between the vital and mechanical modes of being.
To begin with, every living system replicates itself, yet no machine possesses this capacity even to the slightest degree. Nor has any machine—even the most advanced envisaged by nanotechnologists—been conceived of that could carry out such a stupendous act. Yet every second countless trillions of living systems from bacterial cells to elephants replicate themselves on the surface of our planet. And since life’s origin, endless life forms have effortlessly copied themselves on unimaginable numbers of occasions.
Living things possess the ability to change themselves from one form into another. For example, during development the descendants of the egg cell transform themselves from undifferentiated unspecialized cells into wandering amoebic cells, thin plate-like blood cells containing the oxygen-transporting molecule hemoglobin, neurons—cells sending out thousands of long tentacles like miniature medusae some hundred thousand times longer than the main body of the cell.
The ability of living things to replicate themselves and change their form and structure are truly remarkable abilities. To grasp just how fantastic they are and just how far they transcend anything in the realm of the mechanical, imagine our artifacts endowed with the ability to copy themselves and—to borrow a term from science fiction—“morph” themselves into different forms. Imagine televisions and computers that duplicate themselves effortlessly and which can also “morph” themselves into quite different types of machines—a television into a microwave cooker, or a computer into helicopter. We are so familiar with the capabilities of life that we take them for granted, failing to see their truly extraordinary character.
Even the less spectacular self re-organizing and self regenerating capacities of living things—some of which have been a source of wonderment since classical times—should leave the observer awestruck. Phenomena such as the growth of a complete tree from a small twig, the regeneration of the limb of a newt, the growth of a complete polyp, or a complex protozoan from tiny fragments of the intact animal are again phenomena without analogue in the realm of mechanism. To grasp something of the transcending nature of this remarkable phenomenon, imagine a jumbo jet, a computer, or indeed any machine ever conceived from the fantastic star ships of science fiction to the equally fantastic speculations of nanotechnology, being chopped up randomly into small fragments. Then imagine every one of the fragments so produced (no two fragments will ever be the same) assembling itself into a perfect but miniaturized copy of the machine from which it originated—a tiny toy-sized jumbo jet from a random section of the wing—and you have some conception of the self regenerating capabilities of certain microorganisms such as the ciliate Stentor. It is an achievement of transcending brilliance, which goes beyond the wildest dreams of mechanism.
And it is not just the self-replicative, “morphing” or self-regenerating capacity which has not been instantiated in mechanical systems. Even the far less ambitious end of component self-assembly has not been achieved to any degree. This facility is utilized by every living cell on earth and is exhibited in processes as diverse as protein folding, the assembly of viral capsules and the assembly of cell organelles such as the ribosome. In these processes tens or hundreds of unique and individually complex elements combine together, directed entirely by their own intrinsic properties without any external intelligent guidance or control is an achievement without any analogue in modern technology in spacecraft, in computers, or even in the most outrageous speculations of nanotechnologists. Imagine a set of roughly hewn but quite unfinished components of a clock—several dozen ill-fitting cogs, wheels, axles, springs and a misshapen clock face completely incapable of fitting together to make a clock in their current “primary” unfinished state, so out of alignment and so imperfectly hewn, so different in form from their final state and purpose that the end they are intended to form could never be inferred. Now imagine the set to be animated by some magic force and beginning to come together piece by piece, this cog and that cog, this wheel and this axle. Imagine that as they interact together each changes or more properly reshapes its neighbor so that they both come to fit perfectly together; and so through a series of such mutual self-forming activities the whole animated set of components is transformed, again, as if by magic, into the form of a functioning clock. It is as if the original parts “knew” the end for which they were intended and had the ability to fashion themselves towards that end, as if an invisible craftsman were fashioning the parts to their ordained end. It is not hard to see how Aristotle came to postulate an entelechy or soul as the immanent directive force organizing matter to its ordained end.
Such an animated self-assembly process, like the formation of a whole protozoan from a tiny fragment of the cell, is another vital capacity of transcending brilliance absolutely unparalleled in any mechanical system.
Finally I think it would be acknowledged by even ardent advocates of strong AI like Kurzweil, Dennett and Hofstadter that no machine has been built to date which exhibits consciousness and can equal the thinking ability of humans. Kurzweil himself concedes this much in his book. As he confesses: “Machines today are still a million times simpler than the human brain. Their complexity and subtlety is comparable to that of insects.” Of course Kurzweil believes, along with the other advocates of strong AI that sometime in the next century computers capable of carrying out 20 million billion calculations per second (the capacity of the human brain) will be achieved and indeed surpassed. And in keeping with the mechanistic assumption that organic systems are essentially the same as machines then of course such machines will equal or surpass the intelligence of man. My prediction would be that such machines will be wonderfully fast calculators but will still not possess the unique characteristics of the human brain, the ability for conscious rational self-reflection. In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstader—himself a believer in the possibility of strong AI—makes the point explicitly that the entire AI project is dependent on the mechanistic or reductionist faith.
Although the mechanistic faith in the possibility of strong AI still runs strong among researchers in this field, Kurzweil being no exception, there is no doubt that no one has manufactured anything that exhibits intelligence remotely resembling that of man.
It is clear then that living systems do exhibit certain very obvious characteristics including intelligence, the capacity for self-replication, self-assembly, self-reorganization and for morphological transformations which are without analogy in any human contrivance. Moreover, these are precisely the characteristics which have been viewed since classical times as the essential defining characteristics of the vital or organic realm.
Organic Form: A Unique Holistic Order
In addition to possessing the unique abilities discussed above, it is also evident that the basic design of organic systems from individual macromolecules to embryos and brains exhibits a unique order which is without analogy in the mechanical realm. This unique order involves a reciprocal formative influence of all the parts of an organic whole on each other and on the whole in which they function.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant clearly recognized that this “reciprocal formative influence of the parts on each other” is a unique characteristic of organic form. In his famous analysis of organic form in Critique of Teleological Judgment he argues that an organism is a being in which “the parts . . . combine themselves into the unity of a whole by being reciprocally cause and effect of their form. . . . (and this unity) may reciprocally determine in its turn the form and combination of all the parts.” He continues:
. . . In such a natural product as this every part is thought as owing its presence to the agency of all the remaining parts and also as existing for the sake of the others and of the whole . . . the part must be an organ producing the other parts, each consequently reciprocally producing the others.
He then contrasts the reciprocal formative influence of the parts of organisms with the non-formative relationships between parts in mechanical wholes:
In a watch, one part is the instrument by which the movement of the others is affected, but one wheel is not the efficient cause of the production of the other. One part is certainly present for the sake of another, but it does not owe its presence to the agency of that other. For this reason also the producing cause of the watch and its form is not contained in the nature of this material. Hence one wheel in the watch does not produce the other and still less does one watch produce other watches by utilizing or organizing foreign material. Hence it does not of itself replace parts of which it has been deprived.
Kant concludes with an insightful definition of organisms as beings “in which every part is both means and end, cause and effect.” In his view such “ an organization has nothing analogous to any causality known to us.” He refers to it as an “impenetrable property” of life.
Perhaps no organic forms illustrate this unique order more clearly than the simplest of all organic forms, the vital building blocks of all life—the proteins. Proteins are the very stuff of life. All the vital chemical functions of every cell on earth are all in the last analysis dependent on the activities of these tiny biological systems, the smallest and simplest of all the known systems of organic nature. Proteins are also the basic building blocks of life for it is largely by the association of different protein species that all the forms and structures of living things are generated.
It is immediately obvious even to someone without any previous experience in molecular biology or without any scientific training that the arrangement of the atoms in a protein is unlike any ordinary machine or any machine conceived. Indeed the protein is unlike any object of common experience. One superficial observation is the apparent illogic of the design and the lack of any obvious modularity or regularity. The sheer chaos of the arrangement of the atoms conveys an almost eerie other-worldly non-mechanical impression.
Interestingly a similar feeling of the strangeness and chaos of the arrangement of atoms in a protein struck the researchers at Cambridge University after the molecular structure of the first protein, myoglobin, had been determined in 1957 (using the technique of X-ray crystallography). Something of their initial feelings are apparent in Kendrew’s comments at the time (reported by M. Perutz in the European Journal of Biochemistry 8 (1969): 455-466:
Perhaps the most remarkable features of the molecule are its complexity and its lack of symmetry. The arrangement seems to be almost totally lacking in the kind of regularities which one instinctively anticipates, and it is more complicated than had been predicted by any theory of protein structure.
In the late fifties, as the first three-dimensional structures of proteins were worked out, it was first assumed—in conformity with mechanistic thinking—that each amino acid made an individual and independent contribution to the 3D form of the protein. This simplifying assumption followed from the concept of proteins as “molecular machines” in the literal sense. This implied that their design should be like that of any machine, essentially modular, built up from a combination of independent parts each of which made some unique definable contribution to the whole.
It soon became apparent, however, that the design of proteins was far more complex than scientists first assumed. In fact, the contribution of each individual amino acid to the tertiary configuration of a protein was not straightforward but was influenced by subtle interactions with many of the other amino acids in the molecule. After thirty years of intensive study it is now understood that the spatial conformation adopted by each segment of the amino acid chain of a protein is specified by a complex web of electronic or electro-chemical interactions, including hydrogen bonds and hydrophobic forces, which ultimately involve directly via short range or indirectly via long range interaction virtually every other section of the amino acid chain in the molecule. It might be claimed with only slight exaggeration that the position of each one of the thousands of atoms is influenced by all the other atoms in the molecule and that each atom contributes via immensely complex co-operative interactions with all the other atoms in the protein, something to the overall shape and function of the whole molecule.
The universal occurrence in proteins of various structural motifs such as alpha helices and beta sheets conveys the impression that they represent independent or relatively independent components or separable modules. On the contrary, the stability and form of such motifs is determined by a combination of short-range interactions within the motif and the microchemical environment which it occupies within the molecule which is in turn generated by the global web of interactions between all the constituent atoms of the protein. This is evidenced by the fact that the same amino acid sequence often adopts quite different secondary structural conformations in different proteins. The form and properties of each component or part of a protein or group of atoms—whether it is a major structural motif or a small twist in the amino acid chain—is dependent on its chemical and physical context or environment within the protein. This context is itself generated by the summation of all the chemical and physical forces, which make up the whole undivided protein itself.
There is no doubt then that proteins are very much less modular than machines, which are built up from a set of relatively independent modules or compartments. Remove the cog from a watch and it still remains a cog, remove the wheel from a car and it remains a wheel. Remove a fragment of a protein and its form disassembles. What a protein represents is an object in which all the “parts” are in a reciprocal formative relationship with each other and with the whole. The parts of the final whole are shaped and finished by reciprocal interaction with each other.
In the four decades since researchers determined the 3D atomic configuration of the first protein (myoglobin), we have learned much about the molecular biology of these remarkable molecules. Although still widely described in the biological literature as molecular machines, proteins transcend mechanism in their complexity, in the intense functional integration and interdependence of all their components, in the holistic way that the form and function of each part is determined by the whole and vice versa and in the natural formative process by which the amino acid chain is folded into the native function. In these ways, they resemble no structure or object constructed or conceived by man.
What is true of proteins is also true of the other class of large macromolecules in the cell—the RNA molecules. These too fold into complex three-dimensional forms in which all the parts in the final form are shaped by similar reciprocal formative interactions with the other parts of the molecule. Again the distinctive shapes and forms of the constituent parts only exist in the whole. When removed from the whole, they take on a different form and set of properties or disassemble into a random chain.
The next level of biological complexity above the individual protein and RNA molecules are the multiprotein complexes that make up most of the cell’s mass and carry out all the critical synthetic, metabolic and regulatory activities on which the life of the cell depends. These include complexes such as the ribosome (the protein- synthesizing apparatus), which contains more than 55 different protein molecules and three RNA molecules, the transcriptional apparatus which makes the mRNA copy of the gene, which again consists of more than 20 individual proteins, and a variety of higher order structural complexes including the cytoskeleton system, which consists of a highly complex integrated set of microtubules, microfilaments and intermediate fibers.
It is true of virtually all these multimolecular assemblies that the parts in their final form—just like the parts of a protein—have a reciprocal formative influence on each other. So again, in a very real sense the parts do not exist outside the whole. The ribosome illustrates. The assembly of the ribosome takes place in a number of stages involving the stepwise association of the 55 proteins with each other and with the three RNA molecules. As the assembly progresses the growing RNA-protein complex undergoes conformational changes, some relatively minor and some major, until the final mature functional form of the ribosome is generated. The process is cooperative, with all parts of the growing particle having a formative influence on all other parts either directly, because the “parts” are adjacent, or indirectly through global influences.
The next readily recognizable level we reach as we ascend the organic hierarchy is the living cell. Again the parts of a cell, like those of a protein or a ribosome, are existentially dependent on their being “parts” of the greater whole—the totality of dynamic activities which make up the life of the whole cell. Take them out of the cell and eventually all will die and disintegrate, even if some of their activities may persist long enough for in vitro experimental analyses. Every process, every structure exists only as a result of the dynamic interaction of the whole cell in which they function.
The reciprocal formative relationship between parts and between parts and whole which is observed in proteins, multimolecular systems and cells is also characteristic of all higher order organic structures—including organs like the brain and whole developing embryos. Again, in all cases the parts are existentially dependent on being part of the whole in which they function.
Organic Form: The Failure of Reduction
It is primarily because of the unique holistic order of organic form, in which parts are existentially dependent on their being in the whole and have no real existence outside the whole, that the mechanist goal of providing a complete explanation of the behavior and properties of organic wholes from a complete characterization of the parts in isolation is very far from being achieved.
From knowledge of the genes of an organism it is impossible to predict the encoded organic forms. Neither the properties nor structure of individual proteins nor those of any higher order forms—such as ribosomes and whole cells—can be inferred even from the most exhaustive analysis of the genes and their primary products, linear sequences of amino acids. In a very real sense organic forms from proteins to the human mind are not specified in the genes but rather arise out of reciprocal self-formative interactions among gene products and represent genuinely emergent realities which are ever- present—at least in potential—in the order of nature.
And it is precisely because of the impossibility of prediction and design of organic form from below, that engineering new biological forms is fantastically difficult. In these days of genetic engineering we hear so much about “transforming life” and “re-designing organisms” that it comes as something of a surprise to learn that not even one completely new functional protein containing only 100 subunits (amino acids) has been designed successfully, let alone something as complex as a new type of virus or a cellular organelle like a ribosome, objects containing on the order of 10,000 subunits (amino acids and nucleotides).
The total failure of reductionism in the realm of the organic and the total failure to engineer new forms, contrasts markedly with the situation in the realm of the mechanical. In the case of machines from jumbo jets to typewriters, the properties and behavior of the whole can be predicted entirely and with great accuracy from below, that is, from an exhaustive characterization of their parts in isolation. It is because the parts of machines do not undergo complex reciprocal self-formative interactions but have essentially the same properties and form in isolation as they do in the mechanical whole that makes their design possible. Machines are no more than the sum of their parts in isolation. And this is why we have no trouble assembling complex artifacts like space shuttles or jet airliners that contain more than a million unique components. Yet no artifact has ever been built, even one consisting of only 100 components (the same number of components as in a simple protein), which exhibits a reciprocal self-formative relationship between its parts. This unique property, as we have seen above, is the hallmark of organic design.
Organic design is essentially a top-down reality. As we have seen, organic forms are essentially nonmodular wholes and their order is intrinsic to, and only manifest in, the functioning whole. Success in engineering new organic forms from proteins up to organisms will therefore require a completely novel approach, a sort of designing from “the top down.” Because the parts of organic wholes only exist in the whole, organic wholes cannot be specified bit by bit and built up from a set of relatively independent modules; consequently the entire undivided unity must be specified together in toto.
If proteins and other higher order organic forms had been built up mechanically out of modules, each of which had the same form in an isolated state that it has in the final form—rather like the parts of a machine, the cogs of a watch or pieces in a child’s erector set such as Legos—then the problem of predicting organic form would have been solved years ago. By now the world would be full with all manner of new “artificial life forms”
The Organic and the Mechanical: Two Distinct Categories of Being
From the evidence discussed above it is clear that the machine/organism analogy is only superficial. Although organisms do exhibit mechanical or machine-like properties they also possess properties which no machine exhibits even to a minor degree. In addition, the design of life exhibits a “holistic” order which is without parallel in the realm of the mechanical and which cannot be reduced to or explained in mechanical terms. Consequently, no new organic form has been engineered to date. There is self-evidently a gulf between the organic and the mechanical, which has not been bridged.
The picture of organic form that has emerged from recent advances in biology is surprisingly consistent with the pre-mechanistic holistic/vitalistic model, which was first clearly formulated by the Greeks and specifically by Aristotle. According to their view, each organic whole or form was believed to be a unique integral whole or indivisible unity. This whole—in effect a self-sufficing soul or entelechy—regulated, organized and determined the form, properties and behavior of all of its component parts. Taken to its logical conclusion this model implied that only wholes have any real autonomous existence and that the parts of wholes have no independent existence or meaning outside the context of the whole.
Aristotle expressed this concept in The Parts of Animals:
When any one of the parts or structures, be that which it may, is under discussion, it must not be supposed that it is its material composition to which attention is being directed or which is the object of the discussion, but the relation of such part to the total form. Similarly, the true object of architecture is not bricks, mortar, or timber, but the house; and so the principal object of natural philosophy is not the material elements, but their composition, and the totality of the form, independently of which they have no existence.
For the Greeks all natural objects including organic forms were an integral part of the world order, or Cosmos. Each organic whole or form was therefore an eternal unchangeable part of the basic fabric of the universe. Each was “a potential awaiting actualization” “animated by an immanent finality,” in the words of Genevieve Rodis -Lewis. Its design, the purposeful arrangement of parts to wholes, was internal to the organism itself—an outcome of the “inner developmental force which impelled it towards the realization of its form,” [Rodin-Lewis G (1978). “Limitations of the Mechanical Model in the Cartesian Conception of the Organism,” in Descartes, ed. M. Hooker (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, Pp. 152- 170.)] Or in the words of the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle the organic form is “an internal structural principle striving to actualize itself as the fully mature individual.” (Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, Ed. J Barnes, 1995). As Jonathon Lear puts it in his Aristotle: The Desire to Understand: Natural organisms “are foci of reality and self-determination . . . possessing…an inner life of their own organisms occupying a fundamental ontological position: they are among the basic things that are.”
This is not the place for a detailed exposition or defense of the Greek conception of the organism. Suffice to say that for the Greeks organisms were a totally different type of being to that of lifeless artifacts. If we leave out the soul we are left with a holistic model of the organic world, which is very close to that revealed by modern biological science.
In my view the fact that organisms and machines belong to different categories of being is beyond dispute, even if the final nature of this fundamental difference is not yet clearly defined. And surely the existence of this “vital” difference raises profound doubts as to the validity of Kurzweil’s claim. For, if we are incapable of instantiating in mechanical systems any of the “lesser” vital characteristics of organisms such as self-replication, “morphing,” self-regeneration, self-assembly and the holistic order of biological design, why should we believe that the most extraordinary of all the “vital characteristics”—the human capacity for conscious self-reflection—will ever be instantiated in a human artifact?
And it is not just Kurzweil’s claims that are in doubt. If the traditional vitalist position is true, and organic forms are integral parts of the cosmic order, each being in essence an indivisible self-sufficing unity possessing properties and characteristics beyond those possessed by any machine, properties which might include for example intelligent self-organizing capabilities, then all nature becomes re-enchanted. The whole mechanistic framework of modern biology would have to be abandoned, along with many key doctrines, including the central dogma of genetic determinism, the concept of the “passivity and impotence” of the phenotype and the spontaneity of mutation. Moreover all theories of the origin and evolution of life and biological information would have to be re-formulated in conformity with vitalistic principles and all explanations based on the mechanistic concept of organisms as fundamentally lifeless contingent combinations of parts—including contemporary Darwinism—would have to be revised. Even certain traditional design arguments such as Paley’s would have to be reconsidered, since they presume that organisms are analogous to artifacts, being in essence contingent and unnecessary, and thus, like human artifacts, require an artificer or craftsmen for their assembly.
Copyright © 2002 by the Discovery Institute. Used with permission.