Unreal Nature

July 26, 2009

Moral Distinctions

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:11 am

The quotes below are from the book, Shapes (from the trilogy, Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts) by Philip Ball 2009. They are meant as follow-up to my previous post:

… organisms are not just genes and the proteins made from them. There is all kinds of other stuff in the cell: sugars, fatty acids, hormones, small inorganic molecules like oxygen and nitric oxide, salts, and minerals such as those in bone and tooth. None of these substances is encoded in genes (that is, in the structure of our DNA), and you will never guess, by looking at the genome, that they were required at all, let alone what roles they play. And yet these substances tend to be highly organized and orchestrated in their interactions and their structures at the level of the cell (and at larger scales too). Where does that structure come from? Proteins often play a role in building it, but so too do physical forces, such as surface tension, electrical attraction, fluid viscosity. Gene-hunting tells us nothing about such things.

In short, questions in biology of a ‘how?’ nature need more than genetics — and frequently more than a reductionist approach. If nature is at all economical (and there is good reason to suppose that is often the case, though not invariably so), we can expect that she will choose to create at least some complex forms not by laborious piece-by-piece construction but by harnessing some of the organizational and pattern-forming phenomena we see in the non-living world. Evolution, via genetics, can exploit, tame and tune such phenomena; but it does not necessarily generate them. If this is so, we can expect to see similarities in the forms and patterns of living and purely inorganic systems, and to be able to explain them both in the same manner.

However, Ball quickly adds:

… I should add a cautionary note …

… It is popular, in some circles to denounce the so-called reductionist science of molecular biology and imply instead that the universe is somehow imbued with a creative potential that operates in a ‘holisic’ way. The fad for the notion of ‘complexity,’ which shows that sophisticated forms and patterns may emerge spontaneously from a miasma of interactions, may sometimes veer towards a kind of neo-vitalism in the way that it invokes a cosmic creativity. Worst of all is the tendency to make moral distinctions, so that ‘holistic science’ becomes good and ‘reductionist science’ meretricious. While I applaud a perspective that broadens the horizons of ‘black-box’ biology and argues for a role of spontaneous pattern formation in the living world, there is no getting away from the fact that most of biology, particularly at the molecular level, is hideously complicated. In distinction from complex, this means that the details really do matter: leave out one part of the chain of events, and the whole thing grinds to a halt. In such cases, one gains rather than loses understanding by turning up the magnifying power of the microscope. Until we get reductionistic about, say, the body’s immune response, we won’t know much about it, let alone develop the potential to tackle pathological dysfunctions such as AIDS. A reductionist view won’t necessarily provide an explanation of how it works, but without it we might not know quite what needs to be explained. Reductionism can be aesthetically unattractive, I know, but it is wonderfully useful.

I agree with his last bit (you may be surprised to hear), but I think he is doing what he claims to be warning against; he is strongly implying that he “makes a moral distinction” against the idea of ‘holistict science’ in general and complexity in particular (by italicizing and using single quotes around it). Both holistic and reductionist science are valuable and should be approached without prejudice.

I hope that I have not given anybody the impression that I ever “veer towards a kind of neo-vitalism.” Veering in general is to be discouraged (except on Saturdays and when discussing boogers or bananas or anything else that I feel like veering toward).

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

2 Comments

  1. “If nature is at all economical (and there is good reason to suppose that is often the case, though not invariably so)we can expect that she will choose to create at least some complex forms not by laborious piece-by-piece construction but by harnessing some of the organizational and pattern-forming phenomena we see in the non-living world.”
    I guess at the very beginning, one would have to postulate such a process by which, in the primeval soup, a self reproducing molecule began the whole shebang. This would, perforce, be an inorganic reaction. Certainly between that step and the complex (complicated?) cell that we know, many inovative steps involved reactions other than those catalyzed by enzymes. But, I’m not sure that the process was quite like he describes. If I every finish this damn book I’m reading about evolution (grumble, grumble) I hope we can revisit this. Its actually pretty neat!

    “Worst of all is the tendency to make moral distinctions, so that ‘holistic science’ becomes good and ‘reductionist science’ meretricious.”
    Actually, I would argue that the set “reductionist science” does not overlap the set “morality” at any point. But that is also another discussion. Neo-vitalism? Veered is right. (Actually the word “veer” is quite beautiful. It may be close to “cellar door” as the most beautiful word(s) in the English language.)

    Comment by Dr. C. — July 30, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  2. Last night, I had something I wanted to say in response to your comment … but I seem to have completely forgotten what it was.

    Not only that, but I seem to become paralyzed every time I see “perforce” in your comment. “Perforce!” I say, raising my finger majestically, and … where was I? (I am not making fun of Dr. C — I am trying to distract from the pitiful state of my memory.)

    I shall have to settle for a formal “thank you” for your comment and I will look forward to what ever happens when you finish the damn book you are reading. I am also reading (several) damn books.

    Comment by unrealnature — July 31, 2009 @ 12:32 pm


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