Chapter 4 "BIOLOGY IS JUST A DANCE"

Brian Goodwin [5.7.96]
Topic:

Francisco Varela: Brian should be described as a theoretical biologist. He was introduced into biology from early days, but more recently he has had a structuralist perspective, reaching for fundamental patterns on some expression of life. In that sense, he has come in with a new message, into a biology that's more or less fixated on components and molecules.

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BRIAN GOODWIN is a biologist; professor of biology at the Open University, outside London; author of How the Leopard Changed Its Spots (1994).

Brian Goodwin's Edge Bio Page


[Brian Goodwin:] The "new" biology is biology in the form of an exact science of complex systems concerned with dynamics and emergent order. Then everything in biology changes. Instead of the metaphors of conflict, competition, selfish genes, climbing peaks in fitness landscapes, what you get is evolution as a dance. It has no goal. As Stephen Jay Gould says, it has no purpose, no progress, no sense of direction. It's a dance through morphospace, the space of the forms of organisms.

Will biology join up with physics, take on its flavor, have this notion of rules, organization, regularity, order? The new movement is transforming biology from a historical science, which is what it is at the moment, the objective of Darwinism being to reconstruct the history of life on Earth. Well, that's not the style of physics. Physics is about laws, the principles of organization of matter. We're doing the same thing in biology; we're looking for the principles of organization, the dynamics of the living process. Once that's understood, you're in a position to say, "Ah! History followed such and such a course in expressing and revealing the subtle order in this particular type of organization of matter we call the living state." Thus, the first thing is to understand the living state.

I'm interested in the organization of the living state, which is what theoretical biology is about. How do you define the living state as a dynamic system?

My first contribution was to show that organisms are essentially rhythmic systems accounting for the universality of biological clocks. But I was interested in the spectrum of frequencies showing that control systems oscillate, they have rhythms, the whole organism is an integrated dynamic system that works on many different frequencies. This results in the notion of homeodynamics instead of homeostasis. Instead of having physiological variables that are constant, you have variables that are rhythmic: your temperature, concentrations of substances in the blood, your heartbeat, your respiration, circadian rhythms, menstrual cycles — what is now known as chronobiology. I didn't invent the term, but I gave a strong impetus to the dynamic view of organisms as rhythmically organized entities.

In medicine, chronobiology is regarded as the new wave in treatment of any kind of disease, because you have to be able to tune into the system at the right phase, at the right time. Then there is the notion of dynamic disease. The theoretical biologist Arthur Winfree has developed these ideas — for example, showing why perfectly healthy people suddenly die of heart failure. The reason is that the heart has switched into an alternative dynamic mode — ventricular fibrillation, which is perfectly natural to the heart; it's one of its available dynamic modes. Fibrillation is oscillatory, it's rhythmic, but it just doesn't happen to pump blood very well. You keel over and die of anoxia. The body is a very robust system, all its components interacting with and reinforcing one another. But you can get sudden switches into other states. What may be perfectly natural in terms of the dynamics of the system can be bad news for the person who's experiencing it. Holistic therapies seem to work by keeping the different rhythmic systems tuned to one another.

After working for a number of years on biological rhythms, I switched to the study of biological form. Work on form is going to change the focus of evolution. Instead of being concerned with genes, it's concerned with whole organisms, their transformations, their shapes and forms. We're going to get back to where modern biology started, with Linnaeus and the classification system of different species, relationships of similarity and difference. We'll recover the whole organism as the real entity that's undergoing evolutionary change. It's not the only one; there are ecosystems and other levels. But the organism is absolutely primary. We've lost it and we need to recover it. We need to recover it in medicine, we need to recover it for environmental studies, for ecosystems, for planetary dynamics, for the whole Gaian spectrum of interests. It seems to me that this is where the action is. One of the buzz words I don't particularly like but which has a certain currency is "holism." We're now recovering a holistic view of biological systems.

The small-scale variation and the detailed adaptation of organisms to their habitats are very well explained by neo- Darwinism, but the global problem, the large-scale evolutionary problem, is unsolved. How do you get evolutionary novelty? Emergent order? The difference between squids and fishes and penguins. That's what the science of complexity is beginning to address — to demonstrate how emergent qualities can develop out of complexity, so that you get the emergence of order. The difficulty is making the theoretical work connect with the biological evidence. Most of the modeling currently done on computers is still very abstract, and there's not a lot of detailed evidence as to how that translates into what actually goes on in organisms.

I've always felt that genetics was not going to give me the answers to the problems I was interested in. I know about Dobzhansky, R.A. Fisher, and Ernst Mayr. I went to meetings that the British embryologist, geneticist, and philosopher of science C.H. Waddington organized, and Ernst Mayr was there, so I've discussed these issues with him. I have a great deal of respect for his ideas. He's taken important steps, and made important contributions, but I don't think he's explained the problem that I'm interested in, which is the problem of biological form. It goes back to this original question: How do different types of organisms arise during evolution? That's the question I'm fascinated by. I don't think that any of these people have an answer to it. What they're all talking about is the small-scale, adaptive changes we see in organisms.

This is where Darwin started. He looked at people breeding pigs and cats and dogs and horses. He pointed out that they were selecting on spontaneous variations, producing a great range of forms. Look at the variety of dogs. But they're still dogs. You never go beyond canine characteristics. The question is, How do you get something different? It's generally assumed that if there's an accumulation of enough genetic difference you'll get something qualitatively different. That's a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, but nobody has shown how it works. There seems to be something basic missing. That's what interests me.

At the University of Sussex, I had the good fortune to interact with John Maynard Smith, who had worked with J.B.S. Haldane, one of the founders of the modern synthesis. John was originally a civil engineer. He started his career designing aircraft, but he found that a bit boring, so he became a biologist. He worked with Haldane in London. John says that from casual conversations with Haldane it was clear that he'd thought about the problem that William Hamilton, at Oxford, became famous for, and had provided one of the early solutions to it. That doesn't in any sense discredit Hamilton, it's just that the basic idea had been anticipated by Haldane. Hamilton did not work with Haldane, so he got the idea of kin selection and inclusive fitness quite independently, and he developed it. It was in the air. Hamilton's work is not an area that I follow particularly closely. I don't rank kin selection as a particularly important theory in relation to the problems I'm interested in. Even in relation to problems of organization in social insects, I don't think it's very important.

It's often argued that the reason social insects — ants, or bees, or termites, or whatever — are all so cooperative is that they're all related. They all share the same genes, so they cooperate. If you don't belong to the same family, you're not going to cooperate. That's the basic idea behind Hamilton's notion of inclusive fitness. This isn't a satisfactory explanation of cooperative behavior, because it doesn't show you how the phenomenon arises. It's the same sort of proposition as the genetic argument about form.

People assume that because genes can alter form, therefore they cause it. But they don't actually explain how the form comes into being. Similarly with the patterns in social insects: you have to go further than just to say that they're related to one another and so they cooperate. That's a bit of a trivialization of Hamilton's thesis, but nobody from the Oxford group, as far as I'm aware, has ever demonstrated how the actual phenomena of cooperation emerge from the dynamics of group interaction.

George Williams is very important, because of his work on the evolution of sex. Sex is a big problem for neo-Darwinists, because organisms that reproduce without sex — such as strawberries making new plants from runners — are much more cost- effective than having two plants, or two organisms, that need to come together to make one of their progeny. Why have sex, when it's more efficient to be without it?

Williams has very sophisticated arguments on how this came about, and what the advantages are in terms of diversity and variation — mixing the genes in populations. It's the genetic algorithm. Organisms are more effective in exploring the potential space of genes if they mix different genomes together. Dawkins was strongly influenced by Williams' arguments, as was Maynard Smith. Within the terms of neo-Darwinian axioms, Williams gives plausible arguments.

Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould brought people's attention back to the problems of large scale changes in evolution. How do you get new species? Their notion of punctuated equilibrium addresses a real problem here. Eldredge and Gould looked at the fossil record. What happens? It's absolutely startling! You don't get one species turning into another. A species emerges, it lasts for several million years, and it disappears. Five hundred million years for some of these species, a few million for others. Species emerge suddenly, not slowly. Punctuated equilibrium keeps these problems of emergence in focus. Of course, Eldredge and Gould got a lot of flak; they were accused of being Marxists. They were talking about big changes that happened, biological revolutions. Eldredge is no Marxist, but Gould has a Marxist background. More power to him. He was accused of actually smuggling revolutionary doctrine into biology. Absolute crap! What he was doing was looking at the evidence.

In Britain, the cladists, who construct taxonomies by detailed computer studies of character distribution in species, faced similar criticism. They used the following argument: to understand the relationships of similarity and differences between organisms, you must use strictly logical criteria that are independent of history. That was regarded as heresy, because it was considered that the whole of taxonomy, of classification, was based on history, on descent with modification. The cladists were accused of abandoning Darwinism, just as Gould and Eldredge were accused of abandoning the fundamental principles of Darwinism based on the accumulation of small adaptations. But Darwinism itself fails to explain evolutionary novelty.

There's also some misunderstanding of the role of physics in biology. With a focus on genes and how they change in time, there's a tendency to ignore the spatial dimension of organisms. But organisms are spatially organized systems, and to describe their spatial patterns you need field theories like those used in physics to explain spatial order. In a developing organism, these are morphogenetic fields, the fields that generate form during embryonic development from the egg to the adult. Biologists do encounter this concept of field, but it isn't developed. One of the reasons for this is that a biological education includes very little physics and mathematics, which are necessary to understand how complex forms can arise from initially simple beginnings, such as a fertilized egg. There are laws — principles of morphogenesis — involved here.

There's a difference between these laws of form and principles of engineering. Principles of engineering are structural principles; they don't tell you how things spontaneously change and develop. They tell you how to put things together so they'll have certain properties. What you need in order to understand how form emerges in a developing organism is something much more like the physical theory of the origin of the cosmos — something like Hawking's ideas. Or the origins of the planetary system, where you start with a mass of gas, and out of that you gradually get condensation of the planets orbiting the sun. That's a real evolutionary problem of form. How does the elliptical form of the planetary orbits emerge? That's the kind of problem you deal with in developing organisms, except that living organisms are much more complex than planetary systems.

To understand morphogenesis you need field theories that deal with relationships of processes and structures in time and space, and how these can change. That's why, for me, physics is absolutely fundamental. But it took me a long time to understand what was required, and I didn't do it by myself. There's an old tradition of doing biology this way. This approach can now take off with the power of computers, because these fields in biology are mathematically very complex.

To introduce the problem: I like to compare morphogenesis with hydrodynamics. Suppose you have a fluid, and you want to understand why it takes certain shapes and forms: wind passes over it and it goes into waves, or you get whirlpools at the bottom of waterfalls. Why do liquids take these forms? What you need is a physical theory of fluids, which are a state of organization of matter. It's the same type of problem with organisms. Organisms are states of organization of matter. There are certain principles of spatial order in organisms, in cells, in the way cells interact with one another, and these can be written down as rules or equations, and then you can solve the equations on a computer and find out what shapes emerge, exactly the same way you can with liquids.

The hypothesis here is that life is a particular state of organization, a physical and chemical system. The problem is to find out what the rules are that apply to this state of organization of living systems.

So I see myself more as a physicist than an engineer, involved in a new synthesis of physics and biology. It's been attempted before, most notably by the Scottish zoologist D'Arcy Thompson, in his book On Growth and Form, in 1917 — an amazing achievement. He single-handedly defined the problem of biological form in mathematical terms. It's changed now, because we have new mathematical tools and a lot of new knowledge about organisms.

The metaphors I use are related to emergence and creativity and the concept of a creative cosmos. Evolution is an aspect of this creativity. Alfred North Whitehead was a wonderful philosopher of process and creativity. The central metaphor I feel is emerging in the new biology is all connected with creativity. You see in genetic reductionism Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness, par excellence. Genes are not themselves creative but function within the context of the organism, which is.

Whitehead's phrase for evolution is "the creative advance into novelty." This dance of creation is a never-ending dance that goes nowhere but is simply expressing itself. In the postmodern age, we can let progress go and talk about process as a creative dance. That's what evolution is about. Evolution has no point, no meaning, and no direction. It's just itself. Gould celebrates this in Wonderful Life. He goes over the top in certain ways, but the basic message is a celebration of the unbridled creativity of life.

As I see it, each species has its own nature, its own characteristics. What organisms are doing is expressing a particular type of order and organization that's deeply within their own beings. All organisms are basically equivalent, because we're all part of the same process, as Darwin described. What doesn't come out clearly in Darwinism is the notion that what happens in evolution is that organisms express their own natures, so that they are to be valued for their being rather than for their function.

Darwinism stresses conflict and competition; that doesn't square with the evidence. A lot of organisms that survive are in no sense superior to those that have gone extinct. It's not a question of being "better than"; it's simply a matter of finding a place where you can be yourself. That's what evolution is about. That's why you can see it as a dance. It's not going anywhere, it's simply exploring a space of possibilities.

There's a focus on competition in Darwinism because of the notions of progress and struggle. Now we get into theology and how it influences Darwinism, through the Calvinist view that people who have the greater accumulation of goods have proved themselves superior in the race of life. That for me is a whole lot of garbage that can be chucked. Once you get rid of it, you're into a different set of metaphors, related to creativity, novelty for its own sake, doing what comes naturally. Instead of the image of organisms struggling up peaks in a fitness landscape, doing "better than" — which is a very Calvinist work ethic — there is the image of a creative dance.

There's still struggle, in the sense that if you're going to be creative you have to believe in your ideas and struggle for them. Every single species has a struggle. But because there is as much cooperation among species as there is competition, the struggle is to express your being, your nature. These are metaphors whereby science can begin to connect with the arts: people being creative and playing. There's nothing trivial about play. Play is the most fundamental of all human activities, and culture can be seen as play.

There's too much work in our culture, and there's too much accumulation of goods. The whole capitalist trip is an awful treadmill that's extremely destructive. It needs to be balanced out. This is why indigenous cultures are beginning to be recognized for their values — because they were not accumulating goods; they were living in harmony. They were expressing their own natures, as cultures. Nature and culture then come together. This is what I refer to as the science of qualities instead of a science of quantities — that is, accumulating things, accumulating genes, accumulating gene products, balancing out your costs and benefits, always trying to accumulate more. Instead of those images, we have images of qualities, which include esthetics, relationships, creativity, health, and quality of life.

These conclusions are the result of attempting the unification of biology, play, and mathematics. Mathematics is a tool for exploring what constitutes the nature of something. If you're interested in nature, mathematics is terribly good at uncovering the nature of something in a particular form. But it's a third-person or "objective" perspective, whereas the first- person, experiential component is what goes with play. Mathematics is a tool for exploring generic forms, natural forms, and a way of looking at their stability and their dynamics and their change, and so on. But you have to couple that with the internal, experiential aspect of creativity. This is what the postmodern science of qualities is about.

I understand "postmodern" in this context to mean that you don't have competing paradigms, you simply ha ve different paradigms. In postmodern science, you have alternative paradigms, and you have a sense of values. Depending on what you want to do in the world, you'll choose one paradigm or another. Therefore values come into the choice of paradigms — values determined by what your goals are.

There are many other qualities that go with postmodernism. I stress the ones most germane to a science of qualities — a way of looking at biology in which you recognize the intrinsic value of organisms. And that connects with environmental action, by which you respect other organisms, other species. This leads in the direction of valuing biodiversity, preservation of the environment, validation of indigenous cultures and their ways of doing agriculture, instead of the monoculture mentality that goes with our agricultural system. Monoculture is at variance with indigenous agriculture, which preserves biodiversity and is more productive, because, given a fluctuating environment, diversity copes with the variations from year to year.

This shift of values in biology represents an alternative to neo-Darwinism. I don't want to eliminate neo-Darwinism — the view that evolution occurs by random genetic variation and natural selection of the superior variants. Competition, climbing fitness peaks in fitness landscapes, monoculture — it's always a notion of what's the best, of designing the best species. If you want neo- Darwinism, there it is. You use it. I don't like it. I like the alternative that's emerging in a science of qualities.

Stuart Kauffman went to Santa Fe, and he invited me to visit. I met Doyne Farmer, and I met a bunch of people at Los Alamos. This was just before the Santa Fe Institute was established. It was being talked about, but it didn't have a site. Then I visited during the institute's first year, and I thought, This is a fantastic idea! Stuart invited me to serve on the science board, and I was very pleased to do so. From then on, I've visited Santa Fe once or twice a year and taken part in that enterprise. It was a brilliant vision. It was Murray Gell-Mann's vision, and the chemist George Cowan was the guy who implemented it — the guy on the ground. George was great, because he combined a visionary perspective with a practical orientation; he knew how to get there. It's fortunate that so many different types of individuals come together in that Santa Fe enterprise. I've never seen anything succeed so quickly in my life.

What I find remarkable is that the new paradigm is both mathematically more rigorous and fits the phenomena of biology better than neo-Darwinism, which leaves out development and organisms. We now have mathematical models that allow us to show how development occurs. Everybody acknowledges that evolution must include the evolution of development, because you don't get organisms without their development. When you put that into evolution, the whole scene changes. You get a shift of perspective, because organisms become real entities again, living in their own space, so you suddenly recognize them as equivalent beings to yourself. Not just because we're all the results of the same evolutionary process but because of their intrinsic values. The result is that you value nature the way you value works of art.


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Excerpted from The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, 1995) . Copyright © 1995 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.