Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Conceptual similarity of biological and cultural development

I found this brief essay by Brian Goodwin fascinating. I tried to reduce it to a few excerpts, but end up wanting to pass on the entire piece:
I anticipate that biology will go through a transforming revelation/revolution that is like the revolution that happened in physics with the development of quantum mechanics nearly 100 years ago. In biology this will involve the realisation that to make sense of the complexity of gene activity in development, the prevailing model of local mechanical causality will have to be abandoned. In its place we will have a model of interactive relationships within gene transcription networks that is like the pattern of interactions between words in a language, where ambiguity is essential to the creation of emergent meaning that is sensitive to cultural history and to context. The organism itself is the emergent meaning of the developmental process as embodied form, sensitive to both historical constraint within the genome and to environmental context, as we see in the adaptive creativity of evolution. What contemporary studies have revealed is that genes are not independent units of information that can be transferred between organisms to alter phenotypes, but elements of complex networks that act together in a morphogenetic process that produces coherent form and function as embodied meaning.

A major consequence that I see of this revelation in biology is the realisation that the separation we have made between human creativity as expressed in culture, and natural creativity as expressed in evolution, is mistaken. The two are much more deeply related than we have previously recognised. That humans are embedded in and dependent on nature is something that no-one can deny. This has become dramatically evident recently as our economic system has collapsed, along with the collapse of many crucial ecosystems, due to our failure to integrate human economic activity as a sustainable part of Gaian regulatory networks. We now face dramatic changes in the climate that require equally dramatic changes in our technologies connected with energy generation, farming, travel, and human life-style in general.

On the other hand, the recognition that culture is embedded in nature is not so evident but will, I believe, emerge as part of the biological revelation/revolution. Biologists will realise that all life, from bacteria to humans, involves a creative process that is grounded in natural languages as the foundation of their capacity for self-generation and continuous adaptive transformation. The complexity of the molecular networks regulating gene activity in organisms reveals a structure and a dynamic that has the self-similar characteristics and long-range order of languages. The coherent form of an organism emerges during its development as the embodied meaning of the historical genetic text, created through the process of resolving ambiguity and multiple possibilities of form into appropriate functional order that reflects sensitivity to context. Such use of language in all its manifestations in the arts and the sciences is the essence of cultural creativity.

In conclusion, I see the deep conceptual changes that are currently happening in biology as a prelude and accompaniment to the cultural changes that are occurring in culture, facilitating these and ushering in a new age of sustainable living on the planet.


  1. What essay was that? I haven't been able to find it.

  2. Sorry about that. I forgot to put in the link.