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Spinoza and Biology
March 31, 2008 12:35 PM   Subscribe

Public concern over ecological damage inflicted by human activity has led to growing recognition of the general importance of issues relating to biological science. Unfortunately, the dispute between creationists and upholders of the theory of evolution tends to overshadow public discussion of other more pertinent matters. Specifically, there are significant but relatively unpublicized initiatives underway to promote holistic approaches to biology. The Nature Institute in New York is one such initiative...

...providing instruction in holistic approaches to natural science based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, who based his approach on that of Goethe, who in turn was inspired by Spinoza. The centrality of Spinoza for biology is an issue of increasing interest, with Robert J. Richards arguing that Darwin was inspired by the Spinozist doctrines of Goethe and his contemporaries. Spinoza's holistic, naturalistic approach effectively bypasses the creationist-evolutionist controversy, and provides an ecologically sound basis for human activity.

For background, see the work of Robert J. Richards:

The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe.
The meaning of evolution : the morphological construction and ideological reconstruction of Darwin's theory.
Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behaviour.
Darwinian heresies.
posted by No Robots (78 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think it is probably a bad idea to address 21st century biological problems using ideas from before the discovery of the cell.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:59 PM on March 31, 2008


In elaborating on his holistic naturalism, Spinoza specifically envisaged a cell-like organism in the blood.
posted by No Robots at 1:02 PM on March 31, 2008


Isn't a holistic approach to biology called ecology?
posted by Citizen Premier at 1:06 PM on March 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


And there is the example of Spinoza's determining influence on the scientific outlook of Einstein, and hence on contemporary problems in physics.
posted by No Robots at 1:07 PM on March 31, 2008


Isn't a holistic approach to biology called ecology?

Spinoza provides a consistent and coherent philosophical foundation to ecological science.
posted by No Robots at 1:09 PM on March 31, 2008


I have to say, from experience, that creationists are not the roadblock in the debate about ecological damage. Industry and Industrial-Commercial Special Interest Groups are behind this. Cast creationists as the overwhelming roadblock belittles the biblical ideal of stewardship and places undue leverage on faith as a measurement for leadership on environmental issues. If Industry can show that scientists and anti-climate change activists are godless, then they win a battle and we lose the war.
posted by parmanparman at 1:16 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


providing instruction in holistic approaches to natural science

Generally, I prefer a scientific approach to science.

Much of what I read in this FPP is new agey mumbo-jumbo. There is no conflict between traditional evidence-based science and ecology, spirituality, or anything else you care to name (except, I think, traditional religion where science does cause a "god of the gaps" problem for adherents).

In fact, the "Nature Institute" you link to strikes me as flat-out anti-science. The front page is all about deriding biotech and publishing pro-spiritualist anti-science stuff like "Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines"? The site is clearly a bunch of anti-technology, anti-genetic engineering pseudoscience.

Give me actual science over this hooey any day.
posted by Justinian at 1:22 PM on March 31, 2008 [7 favorites]


creationists are not the roadblock

Actually, I would say that Evolutionism is the roadblock.
posted by No Robots at 1:23 PM on March 31, 2008


Spinoza provides a consistent and coherent philosophical foundation to ecological science.

That's a bold statement.

It's more likely that *insert philosophy* is retrofitted to a particular science to try to lend it credibility, for use as a means to effect societal or political change in one direction or another.

Spinoza's holistic, naturalistic approach effectively bypasses the creationist-evolutionist controversy

There is no creationist-evolutionist controversy. Controversy suggests legitimacy. There are no evolutionists. Science is empirical and testable, not spun from whole cloth in the manner of religion or university philosophy classes.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:24 PM on March 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


here is no conflict between traditional evidence-based science and ecology, spirituality...

Then why dump all over attempts, howsoever crude, to correlate these?
posted by No Robots at 1:25 PM on March 31, 2008



Spinoza provides a consistent and coherent philosophical foundation to ecological science.


I have to admit I don't really know what the devil this post is going on about. Seems to me like The Nature Institute is a splinter group, which probably means it's composed of scientists who are sure they have the right approach but unable to articulate why to other scientists.
posted by Citizen Premier at 1:25 PM on March 31, 2008


Actually, I would say that Evolutionism is the roadblock.
posted by No Robots at 3:23 PM on March 31


Is it lending legitimacy and inviting controversy to ask just what this is supposed to mean?
posted by adamdschneider at 1:26 PM on March 31, 2008


There are no evolutionists.

Clearly Richards thinks that there are.
posted by No Robots at 1:26 PM on March 31, 2008


Steiner had some interesting ideas, and I know someone who swears by his planting methods, but he also made all kinds of strange and unverifiable claims about prehistoric races of human antecedents. Claims based on visions. It's a pretty hard sell to expect people to adopt that thinking.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:27 PM on March 31, 2008


Whenever I see the word holistic, I have this knee-jerk urge to cry bullshit. I don't think this post is going to change that.
posted by liquidindian at 1:27 PM on March 31, 2008


No Robots, it's best to not moderate your own threads like that, especially with contrarian assertions that are terse and lack background or explanation. Make a post and it should have a life of its own without the poster having to wildly respond to any disagreement.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:28 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Is it lending legitimacy and inviting controversy to ask just what this is supposed to mean?

Why worry about lending legitimacy to ideas? Why worry about inviting controversy?

Ecology is the most important issue in biology; and Evolutionism, for all its universalizing tendencies, has absolutely nothing to say about it. Don't you find that odd?
posted by No Robots at 1:29 PM on March 31, 2008


Then why dump all over attempts, howsoever crude, to correlate these?

First, I criticized the specific site linked to in the FPP.

Second, if I were to criticize all attempts it would be because "correlating", as you put it, spirituality and science tends to result not in science with a spiritual aspect but in pseudo-scientific gibberish. Science is and should be seperate from spirituality. I said there wasn't a conflict and I meant it. But that doesn't mean that they should be integrated.

There need not be a conflict between church and state but that doesn't mean that trying to integrate the two isn't a horrible idea. Same thing. Don't get your your new agey spiritualism in my science.
posted by Justinian at 1:31 PM on March 31, 2008


Are you a creationist, No Robots? "Evolutionism" is a creationist term. I am no more an "evolutionist" than I am a "gravityist" because I accept the reality of gravity or an "oxygenist" because I accept that we need oxygen to breathe.
posted by Justinian at 1:32 PM on March 31, 2008 [7 favorites]


Clearly Richards thinks that there are.

If Richards claims there is such an entity as an "evolutionist", given his poor understanding of biology and what biologists do, I already wonder what other foolish ideas of his I will need to discount.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:33 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


My crackpot detector just lept out of it's box, hopped on its blinking diodes across the room, went into the bathroom, scrawled a crude note about "No Robots being just too much and I've seen it all" in lipstick and then promptly hung itself.
posted by tkchrist at 1:34 PM on March 31, 2008 [5 favorites]


Whenever I see the word holistic, I have this knee-jerk urge to cry bullshit.

Is that because the father of philosophical holism was also the father of Apartheid?
posted by breezeway at 1:35 PM on March 31, 2008


Is that because the father of philosophical holism was also the father of Apartheid?

Nothing so subtle. Just seen it once too often as a good-sounding word that means absolutely sod-all.
posted by liquidindian at 1:39 PM on March 31, 2008


This is where no one really knows the story and everyone thinks they're an expert.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:40 PM on March 31, 2008


In elaborating on his holistic naturalism, Spinoza specifically envisaged a cell-like organism in the blood.
posted by No Robots at 4:02 PM on March 31


In much the same way that Aristotle envisioned the atom, which is to say, only very generally as a building block of larger organisms. He did not describe them as complex biochemical machines that do work that keep the larger organism alive. There is no scientific problem for which the answer is not "more science".
posted by Pastabagel at 1:42 PM on March 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


I am always suspicious of self-referential "Institutes" that wrap their statements of purpose in pompous obscurantist jargon. Much of the basis of their "message" (ie we must consider wider contexts when dealing with our technological interactions with the planet/biosphere/society) is not new. Biologists and ecologists have debated many of the issues they raise for decades. Essentially, this seems to be a well-meaning coterie of philosophers, engineers, writers and software types who have discovered ecology and turned it into an ideology. Much like Lovelock and his "Gaia" thesis, they paradoxically purport to have a holistic perspective while still overwhelmingly writing about the natural world from a purely human-values stand (can we do otherwise?). In opposition to the straw man: "technology alienates us from the world" they set up their intent to save the world from the dangerous misapplications of our knowledge. From an ecological perspective, very low-tech human activities such as land use, overpopulation, habitat destruction, extinction of species, introduction of alien species, and pollution have a far greater impact on the biosphere than, say, applications of biotechnology in agriculture. And computers give us an unprecedented personal ability to relate to the global village as well as an opportunity to cocoon and isolate ourselves. I'm not sure that an appeal to Goethe is going to convert many people to live more wisely and lightly upon the land.
posted by binturong at 1:45 PM on March 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


The use of the word "evolutionist" is just creationists dog-whistle way to say "belief in evolution is just as much an act of faith as belief in creationism" without actually saying it.
posted by octothorpe at 1:48 PM on March 31, 2008


"Evolutionism, for all its universalizing tendencies, has absolutely nothing to say about it. Don't you find that odd?"

Since capital E "Evolutionism" in this context is a made up scientific movement....... No, I don't find it odd this imaginary dogma doesn't have a lot to say about ecology.
posted by Ragma at 1:51 PM on March 31, 2008


This is where no one really knows the story and everyone thinks they're an expert.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:40 PM on March 31


I also think we should collectively tone down the vitriol and backhandedness (myself included). Cries of crackpottery and bullshittedness are probably not what No Robots expected when he composed this very thoughtful post. I too am guilty of firing off a rather superficial dismissal of the ideas in the post without checking the "background" links, which in retrospect is unfair.

So, I at least would like to retract my previous comments and ask for some more detailed explanation of what it is about Spinoza and Goethe that provide insight into solving current ecological problems. The Nature Institute website provides an explanation that reads more like a guide to living "holistically" with nature rather than how that approach helps deal with specific environmental problems in a proven and effective way.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:53 PM on March 31, 2008


Tell me that picture of Spinoza doesn't look a lot like Cortex.
posted by nanojath at 2:02 PM on March 31, 2008


Cries of crackpottery and bullshittedness are probably not what No Robots expected when he composed this very thoughtful post.

I'm not really seeing how "what the OP expected" is an important metric in judging a FPP. I'm not saying this is a bad FPP, I'm saying the information in the FPP is mostly pseudoscientific nonsense and, yes, I did read it. That's a perfectly valid response and, I think, the correct one based on the evidence I've seen.
posted by Justinian at 2:11 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've read the first Richards book you link to, and have also read a fair amount in the philosophy of biology (Massimo Pigliucci, Marjorie Grene, Michael Ruse, etc) as well as in philosophical ecology and philosophy of science generally. Thinkers like Langer, Whitehead and Bookchin have stimulated me greatly. And too many others to name here. I am familiar with some of the persons linked to the Nature Institute, and many of the ideas presented therein. These are wide and complex topics, and there is a lot of literature on them.

By the way, contrary to what some are saying here, no less than Ernst Mayr called himself "an evolutionist," and others like Evelyn Fox Keller have raised complex questions about biology's position among the other sciences. Biology and the life-sciences generally have often been flashpoints of philosophical inquiry, since the question of mechanism vs. organicism first appeared in the 19th century (in both good and bad ways: see Spencerism, the work of Monod and Jacob, Bergson's "creative evolutionism," etc), but one must distinguish here between methodological and philosophical naturalism. The former is the necessary empirical backdrop of scientific inquiry, while the latter is a long, complex narrative that is a subset of metaphysics from Aristotle to the present day.

So while I am in many ways your ideal reader, I think the case you are making here (to the extent that you are making one) perhaps makes itself too open to misinterpretation. On the Nature Institute website, Stephen Talbott's page references the notion of a "science of qualities." This is precisely what Husserl was after with phenomenology, and the gestaltists and Meinongians were also after. It's the old fact/value distinction, the question of what Husserl called "morphological resonance"--what Wittgenstein criticized when he said that biology was no more philosophical than any other scientific endeavor or discipline, and what Whiethead was after with his "philosophy of organism."

One need not be a mechanist to see how this conceptual cluster of problems causes all kinds of notions to be jumbled and conflated, and one need not be a panpsychist to see how perhaps our scientistic faith in ratiocination has led (to some degree) to our eco-crisis. I think there's a middle ground in here somewhere, but it requires perhaps more than a blog thread to do it justice.


posted by ornate insect at 2:35 PM on March 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


Yeah, Steiner really isn't my go-to guy on science. When I first started homeschooling I was interested in Waldorf methods but my research into their science curricula left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
posted by Biblio at 2:37 PM on March 31, 2008


I'm an ecologist, and I really can't tell what this post is about. Is that because I'm an ecologist? The thesis seems to be something about creationists and "evolutionists" distracting us from holistic ecology, with both painted as bad guys, right?
In my experience, there are two types of people that might be called "evolutionists." One is evolutionary researchers. They are generally engaged in what Kuhn would call "Normal Science"--they are answering a specific small question as defined by the paradigm of evolution, such as purine-pyrimidine biases in the neutral theory of evolution. These questions have nothing to do with the "debate" between creationists and "evolutionists". Evolution to them is water to a fish.
The second type of "evolutionists" are people who care about the debate, and engage in it. They may be scientists, and they may not, but engaging in the debate isn't science, it's education, or it's what they do in their free time.
I think some of the confusion here arises from the conflation of the two types of "evolutionist." I think No Robots is getting confused by trying simultaneously to talk about both social issues and scientific ones. Basically, environmentalism=social issue, evolution/creation debate=social issue, one interferes with the other. Ecology!=social issue, evolution!=social issue, neither interferes with the other, and neither interferes with either social issue. And then No Robots tries to bust out some 17th century science as important to modern science and modern social issues, and mefites laugh.
Also, eponysterical?
posted by agentofselection at 2:38 PM on March 31, 2008


David Sloane Wilson also calls himself an evolutionist, as distinct from an evolutionary biologist or psychologist because he seems himself as bring an evolutionary perspective across disciplines. I stopped reading the site linked because of the overload of jargon.
posted by Maias at 2:43 PM on March 31, 2008


Ecology is the most important issue in biology; and Evolutionism, for all its universalizing tendencies, has absolutely nothing to say about it. Don't you find that odd?
posted by No Robots at 3:29 PM on March 31 [+] [!]


Even if we ignore the presumption in assigning importance to scientific problems, this statement is simply false. OED online defines ecology as, "The branch of biology that deals with the relationships between living organisms and their environment." Evolutionary biologists (which I assume is what you mean by "Evolutionism") are interested in coevolution - the mutual success of insects and angiosperms is a classic example of this, and is easily explainable by evolutionary theory. (Labandeira, 1994 (open access)). Evolutionary biologists study competition for ecological niches, mimicry, and other interactions between species.

I agree with you that modern biologists can seem a little myopic at times. That's the price of rigor and the search for novel phenomena. Luckily, the field allows the very accomplished to publish popular works that think about such big questions. I think that you would benefit from reading E. O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life and Mayr's Growth of Biological Thought.
posted by Jorus at 2:47 PM on March 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


Biodynamic agriculture has its roots in Steiner. It's sort of the elite of organic foods.
posted by stbalbach at 3:05 PM on March 31, 2008


From the post: Specifically, there are significant but relatively unpublicized initiatives underway to promote holistic approaches to biology.

I don't think there is as much resistance to the idea of a holistic approach in the biological sciences as this post suggests. Rather, I find that 'holism' is enthusiastically pursued in most sciences. However it is couched in obscure mathematical and statistical language.

For example, the Santa Fe Institute is a great example of a research institution that is doing *real* science that deals with whole-system dynamics (holistic?). I haven't read Spinoza, or Goethe but I find this type of research to be absolutely invigorating.

As far as the debates go, I think Ecology and Evolution (in the context of the post) are just intellectual place holders that are being used to bridge the gap between the conceptions of society and the issues of Human activity viz the complete destruction of the natural world.

Like I said, I haven't read Spinoza, but I think it's good that people strive to inject the language of Ecology and Evolution into popular awareness. Intellectually, and scientifically, I think our society is slowly coming to grips with the variety of systems that we've put in place; Systems that are running amok, destroying ecological balance. We see this dawning of awareness everywhere, a glacial movement towards "Green" everything, even as we drive our hybrid Chevy Tahoes etc. This process needs to crystalize, or metastasize, or anything, it just needs to damn-well speed up.
posted by kuatto at 3:29 PM on March 31, 2008


B/c I have an interest in meta-ecology, philosophy of biology and the mereological questions of metaphysical holism, I thought it might be worthwhile to those following this thread to point out some thinkers in biosystematics, cybernetics and complexity theory like James Grier Miller, Gregory Bateson, and Stuart Kauffman who warrant a mention...and in particular to mention a book called The Science of Synthesis on the fate of GST (general systems theory) as an integrative and interdisciplinary field that failed to catch on: this book for me showed why certain "grand unifying theoretical frameworks," even ones with impeccable empirical pedigrees, so often (like logical positivism) remain not just heretical, but downright unproductive (scientifically, not philosophically).

The reason that such theory-frameworks never achieve critical mass is that science by now is too far past (historically speaking) the "natural philosophy" stage of rational systemization (what Spinoza, Kant, and Descartes were after)--the same way psychology, to give one example, is past the "faculty" stage of its early development (and past the work of James, Wundt, or the psychophysics of Fechner).

While we can still learn a lot from outsiders and futurists like Buckminister Fuller, and while philosophers of science like Michael Friedman or William C. Wimsatt remain very much worth exploring, the days of grand theoretical synthesis are, for better and worse, no more.
posted by ornate insect at 3:29 PM on March 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Tell me that picture of Spinoza doesn't look a lot like Cortex."

Now it does.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:31 PM on March 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


Whenever I see the word holistic, I have this knee-jerk urge to cry bullshit. I don't think this post is going to change that.

I heard a "holistic" healer on the radio and she kept talking about the holistic part of medicine.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:35 PM on March 31, 2008


One need not be a mechanist to see how this conceptual cluster of problems causes all kinds of notions to be jumbled and conflated, and one need not be a panpsychist to see how perhaps our scientistic faith in ratiocination has led (to some degree) to our eco-crisis.

I'll be damned if I can parse the second clause of that. Perhaps the first clause describes what happened with the second?
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:46 PM on March 31, 2008


Mental Wimp: there is indeed a confuding and implicit tautology there, so to make the sentence less obtuse, let me reptrace what I was after:

somewhere between a strict mechanistic/atomistic view that sees little if any historically suggestive metaphysical value in ecology, and a strict organistic/panpsychist view that obscures all metaphysical/empirical distinctions, might be room for a middle ground.

But this middle ground is difficult to articulate without being misinterpreted. (I think the philosopher Mary Midgley is one of the few who has more or less successfully articulated such a middle ground).
posted by ornate insect at 3:58 PM on March 31, 2008




MetaFilter: Statements of purpose in pompous obscurantist jargon.
posted by rdone at 4:11 PM on March 31, 2008


The kind of philosophical position taken by the Nature Institute, Midgley, Bateson, and others can't help but remind me of that quote from a Bush policy insider who declared that the Republicans now created reality, and it was left to everyone else to discuss it. There is so much talk of "saving nature" and "eco-crisis" while this little old planet really couldn't give a shit what humans think about anything. Was it an eco-crisis when the dinosaurs became extinct?
posted by binturong at 4:13 PM on March 31, 2008


I'm sort of getting the feeling that the point of this FPP is "Forget about evolution and just smoke this doobie, bro."
posted by Avenger at 4:22 PM on March 31, 2008


Is that because the father of philosophical holism was also the father of Apartheid?

Who are you talking about here?

The site linked to doesn't seem too far off the deep end to me - this page regarding their position on evolution seems pretty reasonable, doesn't it? I suppose I'm a prime target for this sort of thing, being a fan of Aristotle, Spinoza & Bergson, and not being bothered by the notion of "holistic" science, but I would be very interested to hear the arguments against it, of course - tell me why these old-fashioned versions of nature are embarrassing and why the compartmentalized, mechanized, post-industrial versions are more accurate descriptions of living things.

From where I sit (which admittedly is not somewhere with a lot of organic chemistry background) there are still some complex and interesting questions in the nature of life that seem to have gotten brushed under the carpet in some cases because of that whole creationism silliness. Maybe it's just that they're unanswerable or too vague for biology, but...

Also, is anyone familiar with D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth & Form? I am curious how that fits in with the other works mentioned here...
posted by mdn at 4:25 PM on March 31, 2008


rdone: I understand the dislike of jargon, and despite what my posts here might suggest, I'm a pragmatist and a realist. Yet as much terms like "paradigm shift" make me bristle, I also think that the ecological crisis human beings now find themselves in may stem in part from an implicit anthropocentric worldview. I'm not advocating a neoromantic view of nature, but I am convinced we need new ways of thinking.
posted by ornate insect at 4:29 PM on March 31, 2008


Was it an eco-crisis when the dinosaurs became extinct?

For the dinosaurs, yes.
posted by ornate insect at 4:32 PM on March 31, 2008


Was it an eco-crisis when the dinosaurs became extinct?

For the dinosaurs, yes.


But what a great opportunity for the mammals!
posted by binturong at 4:36 PM on March 31, 2008


mdn: this book sheds some light on the D'Arcy Thompson book you mention and its relationship to the development of biological theory. Like Haeckel, D'Arcy Thompson was pursuing a line of biological thought that was eventually eclipsed by the revolution in genetics.
posted by ornate insect at 4:39 PM on March 31, 2008


Who are you talking about here?

Jan Smuts.
posted by breezeway at 4:46 PM on March 31, 2008


Oops, meant to say more. Interesting guy, Jan Smuts; lived a long and active life, intellectually and politically. I find it fascinating that the founder of holism was a lifelong racist.

Of course, this has nothing to do with the legitimacy of any scientific, pseudo-scientific, or philosophical path, and is thus almost entirely off-topic here. Ah, well.
posted by breezeway at 4:56 PM on March 31, 2008


breezeway: not off topic, as Haeckel and Spencer were both tied by later racists to their disgusting pseudo-theories. I had not heard of Smuts until you mentioned him (was cuirious to see that his 1926 book "Holism and Evolution" was admired by Einstein), but I think the reason we see morphologism conceptually linked with racist garbage stems from the notion that races are pseudo-morphological constructs (rather than genetically meaningful categories). Just as a misreading of "holism" in the abstract can be applied to bad pop philosophizing, it can also be applied to racist doggerel. But in both cases, I would agree w/you that this does not mean any and all "holistic" philosophies are by extension or definition faulty. A possible systematic holistic philosophy (such as Vico or Hegel had of history) is perhaps totalizing in its aspirations, and is thus perhaps easily misread, but is not necessarily intellectually totalitarian.
posted by ornate insect at 5:11 PM on March 31, 2008


Just another ecologist piping up to say this has nothing to do with the science of ecology. I don't have a problem with environmentalism. I have plenty of friends who are environmental activitists. But I'm a scientist who studies organisms and their interaction with their environment.

Ecologists are, fundamentally, biologists and thus, like all biologists, all of our work is rooted in evolution. If I can't say that all of the organisms in the streams I study evolved there together, and therefore all streams with similar conditions are likely to have similar organisms unless something has impacted them, I pretty much don't have a dissertation and I should just quit now.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:16 PM on March 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the response, ornate insect. Smuts' holism may have germinated in his extended talks while Colonial Secretary with Mohandes Gandhi over questions surrounding Indian workers' rights in South Africa. Of course there were thousands of influences on the man's mind, including an academic interest in Whitman, that would lead an uncompromising guerrilla warrior to such a seemingly humanistic philosophy. But he was a man of his people, his time, and his station, and though he eventually questioned the necessity and efficacy of Apartheid, he never disavowed his racist opinions.

I don't come to this conversation as a scientist or philosopher; I'm a playwright, writing a play about Smuts and Gandhi: the tough questions they asked, the hard answers they found, and the ability for friendship to endure between adversaries. I fear my work will be as laudatory as it is slanderous. Sometimes an apparent contradiction is just the beginning of the story.
posted by breezeway at 6:08 PM on March 31, 2008


Yeah, even as a layman I find the asertion that evolution has nothing to say about ecology to be bizarre. I mean, from my understanding of evolution and ecology the two are quite tightly bound together. An organism evolves to fit an ecological niche, yes? Interaction with other species is a factor in the evolution of any species, isn't it?

True, evolutionary theory doesn't say "don't pollute", but that's hardly a knock against evolution. The theory of gravity also doesn't say "don't pollute" but I don't see anyone claiming it means the theory of gravity is inadiquate.

And, finally, let me add my voice to the "what controversy?" crowd. There is no debate, there is no controversy, there are, on the one side educated, intelligent, knowledgable people practicing science, and on the other side a group of loony tunes shouting weird slogans. That isn't a debate; its an embarrassment to anyone who calls themselves Christian.
posted by sotonohito at 6:13 PM on March 31, 2008


breezeway: not off topic, as Haeckel and Spencer were both tied by later racists to their disgusting pseudo-theories.

Not only not off-topic, but pretty much sitting on the topic's chest and making it hard for the topic to breathe, as Mr. Dr. Robert J. Richards's most googlable academic slapfight was defending Haeckel against an historian who wanted to paint him as some kind of covert intellectual agent carrying the blueprints for the Holocaust straight from Darwin's study to Hitler's Führerhauptquartiere, most likely in a briefcase tastefully dyed with the blood of baby finches.

Thanks for your fascinating comments here, ornate insect. And breezeway: that's a great idea for a play.
posted by dyoneo at 6:25 PM on March 31, 2008


breezeway: glad to be of help. Some variant of "holistic" emphasis in philosophy is alive and well in many guises.
posted by ornate insect at 6:25 PM on March 31, 2008


Most googlable academic slapfight, I should say.
posted by dyoneo at 6:27 PM on March 31, 2008


As one last hopefully relevant aside, Ecological Psychology has been, among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, a tremendously important area of development. I bring this up to show that a too narrow conceptual-semantic construal of "ecology" is not reflective of how the word has developed in the scientific literature.
posted by ornate insect at 6:44 PM on March 31, 2008


mdn, I'm a big fan of Thompson's work On Growth and Form. Perhaps, as ornate_insect suggests, his work has been overshadowed by genetics. However, I still find it is a beautiful illustration of the relationship between mechanism and the teleological manifestations of natural selection. He puts it best in the introduction, as he describes the dynamic relationship between mechanism and the cause:

Still all the while, like warp and woof, mechanism and teleology are interwoven together, and we must not cleave to the one nor despise the other; for their union is rooted in the very nature of totality. We may grow shy or weary of looking to a final cause for an explanation of our phenomena; but after we have accounted for those on the plainest principles of mechanical causation it may be useful and appropriate to see how the final cause would tally with the other, and lead to the same conclusion. In our own day the philosopher neither minimize nor unduly magnifies the mechanical aspect of the Cosmos; nor need the naturalist either exaggerate or belittle the mechanical phenomena which are profoundly associated with Life, and the inseparable from our understanding of Growth and Form.

And just to be clear, he is referring to a teleology "in which the final cause becomes little more, if anything, than the expression or resultant of the sifting out of the good from the bad". That is to say, Natural Selection.

Perhaps, the analysis of Natural Selection by the study of mechanical characteristics has largely given way to genetic analysis. However, the same types of relationships hold. In the case of genetics, these relationship are explored in a more abstract, information-theoretic context. We are still trying to synthesize meaning and cause with regards to genetic structure and a reciprocal, evolutionary dynamic.

With regards to the larger discussion over ecology and evolution (in the colloquial sense), I would hope that illustrating these types of deep reciprocal relationships in the way humans interact with the world provoke, or act as the catalyst for change in perception. I completely agree that 'we all need new ways of thinking', the question is how to provoke insight into these abstract concepts, in a society that is completely inured against rational, nuanced conversation?
posted by kuatto at 6:50 PM on March 31, 2008


Pastabagel Cries of crackpottery and bullshittedness are probably not what No Robots expected when he composed this very thoughtful post.
One rarely does.

Fair enough point, until this little gem:
NoRobots Actually, I would say that Evolutionism is the roadblock.
... at which point, I think he's got it coming.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:58 PM on March 31, 2008


I find it fascinating that the founder of holism was a lifelong racist.

I've never heard of this guy, and attribute "holism" to many other thinkers, so it seems calling him the "founder" of something so vague is not useful.

However, it is unfortunate and I don't think that uncommon that racism and a belief in a biological teleology went together...

and therefore all streams with similar conditions are likely to have similar organisms unless something has impacted them,

So are you saying there is one tree of life which will show up as appropriate in the right places? i.e., earth could evolve the same species on two different continents if the conditions were right? (That almost sounds creationist... anyway very teleological.)

was pursuing a line of biological thought that was eventually eclipsed by the revolution in genetics.

What about the bee article above? Not everything is in the genome, and even the stuff that is, we aren't always sure how or when it got there.

I admit to feeling a little out of my area here, but simply as a student of philosophy with an interest in the nature of life, I have never quite understood why the more holistic theories are immediately rejected when it doesn't seem as if straight natural selection answers all our questions at this stage. It seems sort of like what happens in physics, where quantum mechanics is faced with discarding locality or reality and they choose to discard reality. I'm not claiming that these decisions are crazy once you understand all the reasoning (which level I cannot claim to have reached), but just that it is easy to get intrigued by thinkers who are at least trying to look at a wider screen. I can't help wondering if contemporary biologists are scared off from what could be interesting because it sounds too pseudo religious, or 'philosophical'.

There are no evolutionists. Science is empirical and testable,

The very simplest science is that straightforwardly empirical and testable. But understanding the complex nature of life, growth, form, and evolution isn't the kind of thing that just takes an afternoon in the lab. There is a lot about the nature of life that we know very little about, and killing lots more little organisms to look at them some more may or may not give us the answers we need. We actually need the theories and the ideas as well as the tests, and with the nature of life it seems like a lot of people have just decided it's some random miracle/accident and left it at that (abiogenesis being separate from evolution of life - but this seems to make a big difference to evolution, whether we all originated from one accidental cell, or whether life pops up from time to time and we may belong to different "strains" of life)
posted by mdn at 7:31 PM on March 31, 2008


You're right, mdn. "Founder" was a poor choice. "Father" is more like it, as Smuts coined the word "holism" and defined it as "the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution."

Sure, holism has deep roots in Western and Eastern thought, and plenty of better-known people have contributed to trunk and branch. You may never have heard of Jan Smuts, but he is, in fact, known as "the father of Holism."
posted by breezeway at 8:02 PM on March 31, 2008


mdn: in the mainstream of biological thought, geneticism proved a revolution that tended to eclipse morphological-holistic lines of inquiry, but that has changed somewhat: see, for instance, this book. Biocomplexity, biosystematics, and biometrics have all contributed to an expansion of what biology is. I did not mean to imply a value judgment. Clearly my comments here should indicate I am against a reductionist view of what biology is, or even against an overly reductive view of life itself.
posted by ornate insect at 8:04 PM on March 31, 2008


I don't see how the "ecological psychology" referenced above is any different from the school of ethology pioneered in Europe by Nobel prizewinners Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz except in its trendy name. Or the Naked Ape approach to understanding human behaviour pioneered by Desmond Morris. Perhaps there needs to be more communication between philosophers and zoologists.
posted by binturong at 8:08 PM on March 31, 2008


The main practioners of "Ecological Psychology," J.J. Gibson, Roger Baker, and Kurt Lewin, were all active in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s--and they were not philosophers. Like the Gestalt movement which directly influenced them , they were psychologists. I'm confident the overlap you see here was due to the overall academic zeitgeist and overlap among social scientists, behaviorists, psychologists, cognitive scientists and primatologists/zoologists. These disciplines continue to overlap more than most want or care to admit.
posted by ornate insect at 8:16 PM on March 31, 2008


oops. Lewin died in 1947, so obviously he was active earlier. And it's Barker, not Baker.
posted by ornate insect at 8:19 PM on March 31, 2008


But understanding the complex nature of life, growth, form, and evolution isn't the kind of thing that just takes an afternoon in the lab.

There's not much gained in arguing how long it takes to do an experiment. I doubt the writer of this post, or the ones who run the "Institute" have ever done any science at all, let alone understanding what science is or how it is practiced. The point is that the kind of new-agey bullshit spouted here is something that systems biology can and does get along without just fine.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:29 PM on March 31, 2008


Blazecock, The point you made is essentially correct. But it seems to be 'distant' from a stance that actually engages the issue. Rather than getting distracted by language or notation that is abused in a colloquial context, I would like to see science injected back into the discussion of the problem! Clarify the language, clarify the issue, don't invent a strawman to attack the Scientific Method. Science is not the point per se.

Even if the scientific truths of "Systems Biology" glitter for eternity, it is all meaningless if humanity is collectively slitting the throats of ever major ecological system on the planet.
posted by kuatto at 12:32 AM on April 1, 2008


There's not much gained in arguing how long it takes to do an experiment. I doubt the writer of this post, or the ones who run the "Institute" have ever done any science at all, let alone understanding what science is or how it is practiced.

Well, but isn't it worth thinking about the variance in science when we are dealing with radically different questions? To determine chemical reactions is one thing; to determine the evolution of life is another. We don't have a billion years to reproduce what happened and we we aren't looking at substance A hits substance B causing reaction C. The nature of science is not identical in this case. I feel like people get stupidly scared away from discussing the ways in which it's different just because of creationists. Believe me, I have no interest in a non-theory that turns to mythology.

The point is that the kind of new-agey bullshit spouted here is something that systems biology can and does get along without just fine.

Is it automatically "bullshit" once words like holistic or creative start getting used? Some of the books ornate insect linked to seemed to suggest a more Kuhnian model, that certain semantics have won out not necessarily because they're more correct, but because they fit better with our current social model (mechanized nature goes well with industrial society, for instance). But in some ways we're still trying to find ways to fit the "whole" or the "creative" element back - we just call it something else, maybe 'emergent' or 'complex', but still looking for a broader activity of nature.

I admit to not being well educated in organic chemistry, but I've read a fair amount of the more accessible literature, and from what I can gather, there is still very little consensus as to what gets life started, and what really gets it changing, except for lots of time. I realize vitalism is out of vogue, but I don't think we have to laugh at the the old theories when the new ones don't have better answers yet. To me it seems that people are attached to names as much as the actual ideas. If there's still some worthwhile insight in dead people's thoughts, why not take it into consideration - at least it makes us look at things from a different perspective...
posted by mdn at 9:22 AM on April 1, 2008


To determine chemical reactions is one thing; to determine the evolution of life is another. We don't have a billion years to reproduce what happened and we we aren't looking at substance A hits substance B causing reaction C.

I think you're confusing science with engineering. Both are important pursuits but they are not the same at all. I'm not actually sure what you think the difficulty is with science addressing issues of things happening over large timespans? Do you think that physics has trouble with scales of millions of years? Billions?
posted by Justinian at 11:12 AM on April 1, 2008


It is a very old question: Why is a Chemist not considered a Physicist? Why is a Biologist not considered a Physicist? Ecologist, Botanist, Physician, etc etc... They certainly employ physics...

These are questions that span billions of years and vast volumes of space, as well as uncountable sets of relationships where each relationship is, in some ways, just as vast as the cosmological scales previously mentioned. For some questions, physics can illustrate principles and components, but lacks the ability to address the larger dynamic. Chemistry is a kind of physical shorthand, as well as Botany and Ecology; You could express these larger dynamics in the language of Physics, but to take an anthropocentric point of view, you would be missing the point (and undoubtedly making errors, imagine a Physician expressing a symptom in Quantum Mechanical terms.).

Justinian asked:
Do you think that physics has trouble with scales of millions of years? Billions?

In the context of a densely complex set of relationships, yes. Imagine a historian expressing a complete history of the Byzantines as a series of chemical reactions. Given perfect knowledge of the past, this point of view makes no practical sense. Perfect knowledge is ever fleeting, so what is practical must take precedence. So we turn to the Historian, not the physicist or chemist.

As for the question of How do we address the ecological crisis that is underway?. Well, we need physics, we also need chemistry, ecology, botany, history, ...., we need it all. We need a theory and practice that encompass the entirety and scale of the problems that we humans face.
posted by kuatto at 4:18 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Perfect knowledge is ever fleeting,

Perfect knowledge is demonstrably impossible. Note that perfect knowledge would require knowledge of exact quantities. Note also that between each rational number is an infinite number of irrational numbers (that is, they can't be expressed explicitly but only as infinite series). It is well known in non-linear dynamics that for many (most?) useful situations, the evolution of the system depends upon the exact starting values and small perturbations in the starting values lead to large changes in the evolving states. It is generally believed that complex systems behave in this way. Most of these starting values are irrational numbers. Thus, to perfectly know what will happen requires knowledge of an unknowable, infinite set of digits. Too bad.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:42 AM on April 3, 2008


Perfect knowledge is ever fleeting.

indeed, perfect knowledge of the past ,or anything else, is impossible.
posted by kuatto at 11:05 AM on April 7, 2008


The Complexity of Evolution
posted by homunculus at 8:26 PM on April 15, 2008


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