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James MacAllister


Since you have asked me,  I will attempt to condense Maturana and Varela’s thesis and explain why the new paradigm, the Third Way of Evolution and the new Integrative Biology turns what we have long considered the truth on its head.

Humberto Maturana, biologist and philosopher, and Francisco Varela, biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist, have worked on life and sensing. They  came up with the concept of autopoesis in reference to life.  Autopoesis is often referred to as “autonomous”, “self-making” and/or “self-maintaining”. However, in their book, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, they make it clear that autopoesis is much more “world-making” or “Universe-making” if you like. They lay out a very logical scientific argument about life (which is more of a verb than a noun), knowing and follow that to human consciousness. All of this argument is as cellular phenomena. So this would be the first point I would make about what life (living) is: it is a cellular process. I would also point out that we are dealing with a definition for life or living which should distinguish it from things that are not alive. The difference between a person and a corpse, for example. I think we can all agree that there is a difference even if we might not be able to describe exactly what it is.

Maturana and Varela begin their book with some words about what they call the “temptation of certainty”.  I will say that certainty is the opposite of science. To quote George E.P. Box, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”  I would expand that and say that we could replace Box’s word “models” with “theories” or “physical laws” or “first principles” or “paradigms” or “facts”.  This is because scientific knowledge is at best an approximation of reality or the truth. Maturana and Varela will use their argument to explain why this is so.

Maturana and Varela first take on what knowledge is and they do this in an evolutionary context. They begin with the original cell. Not its origin, but what the cell needs to survive. These requirements have not changed in over 3800 million years. Cells need a source of electrons, a source of energy, a source of carbon, and a terminal electron acceptor. Cells get these from their environment. In addition to Carbon, other elements, such as Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus,and Sulfur (together abbreviated as CHNOPS) are also essential for biosynthesis of proteins, etc. How do they get these things?

In science, it has long been assumed that there is an objective reality, that is, a reality that we observe directly. But here, Maturana and Varela have a great insight: you have to approach the problem of how cells structurally couple  to the environment–not as an observer from the outside, but from the perspective of the cell that “brings forth its own world”– inside of the cell through its sense or senses, however basic. So far, the “cell” and its sense(s), advanced molecules, bi-phospholipid membranes, etc. likely originate as a result of physical and chemical evolution—much like viruses—a kind of “near life”.  Life happens through structural coupling that allows metabolism (getting and using what it needs to survive).  Maturana and Varela argue that knowledge is action to gain and maintain structural coupling. We even have a name for this kind of knowledge, instinct, and we connect it to action, instinctive behavior.  Here would be another point: knowledge is a cellular process (action).

I want to switch tracks to deal with the new paradigms in evolution and biology and the effects they are already having in medicine. biology and other fields of natural science. When I say new, I mean newly accepted. This new paradigm has a scientific history more than a century long, much of it done in Russia. Most researchers who are currently doing research in things like the Human Microbiome Project are unaware of the history of the ideas in their own fields. In TED talks they will state that these ideas arose 20 years ago with DNA sequencing. Most scientists who are specialists within very narrow disciplines of reductionist science have no idea of the historical context of their work, much less the history of science as a whole.  Being a scientist does qualify anyone as an expert on any kind of “big picture” or systems science or on science out of their field. For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, presents the Modern Synthesis explanation of evolution and genes in the 2014 remake of the Cosmos series. Tyson is an astrophysicist, he is not an expert on biology or evolution. Every rule and assumption of the Modern Synthesis has been broken. Paradigms don’t shift. They fade out as those that were certain that the old paradigm was right die off and a new generation of scientists and new textbooks with new facts replace old textbooks with old facts

Lynn Margulis did not originate the ideas that she championed but she was a polymath with wide ranging expertise across disciplines and she had the vision and genius to recognize that these ideas made sense and she gathered evidentiary support when the consensus of science was certain that the models, theories, statistical proofs, just-so stories, assertions, such as the Weismann barrier, and misinterpretations of Crick’s “central dogma of biology” proved that her ideas and those of Barbara McClintock were impossible, crazy and ridiculous.  Consensus and authority are not evidence. Correlation is not causation. McClintock was right: the genome is dynamic—part of a dynamic organelle of the cell, the nucleus. The genome is  rearranged  in response to the environment. Margulis was right: mitochondria (the energy producing units of nucleated cells) and chloroplasts (the photosynthesizing organelles of algae and plants) were once free-living bacteria that were incorporated into the cell, not the products of random mutation. Now microbiology is revealing that changes in the genome that are not random in relation to function, non-random changes are the rule. Margulis championed a view of the world that was the opposite of the “big-like-us” zoological model of evolution popularized by Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) that omitted 7/8ths of deep time where all of the important events in the evolution of life happened. Bacteria invented almost all of the important stuff in evolution. Margulis realized that the Earth had always been a bacterial world and that microbes still play the essential roles in the Biosphere, not the megafauna and, as disappointing as it may be to our egos, not us. Now that micro biomes are finally being recognized by science they are revolutionizing our understanding of growth, development, health and disease and opening new avenues for research. They were the top science story in 2013.

James Lovelock is another polymath and extraordinary scientist (an atmospheric chemist who discovered the hole in the ozone layer) and an inventor (microwave oven, electron capture device, instruments for NASA) who “discovered life on Earth” while coming up with a test for life on Mars that did not rely on Martian life resembling life on Earth. Lovelock’s test that revealed “life on Earth” led to his formulation of his Gaia hypothesis and with much work, revision and collaboration—primarily from Lynn Margulis—Gaia theory (a theory that is almost sure to be wrong in some detail, but nonetheless useful).  Margulis supplied the microbial underpinnings for Gaia theory. Margulis is now recognized for the Serial Endosymbiosis Theory (SET) on the origin of nucleated cells from the symbiogenetic merger of eubacteria and archaebacteria, for her work in taxonomy, and she is acknowledged as “the master architect for rethinking biology in terms of interacting consortia [symbiosis]”.  Lynn Margulis referred to Gaia (the Earth system) as “symbiosis seen from space”. Evolution and Gaia are processes, but they are not limited to cells. They involve abiotic processes, the structural coupling of cells to the environment and the interaction of these processes. They also include  influences, forces, energy, matter, etc. from the Solar System and Universe on the Earth system. For this reason, Lynn Margulis never used the metaphor of a superorganism when describing Gaia.  Lovelock used the metaphor because the Earth exhibits evidence of regulation (“a tendency to homeorhetic regulation within physical limits”) over 3800 million years and much of this regulation appears to be a result of the presence of life on Earth.  The Earth with life is a dynamic complex system far from equilibrium unlike Venus or Mars. It appears that these anomalies including the presence of large amounts of water, continents, tectonics, a reactive gas atmosphere, carbon sequestration, deep time temperature regulation in spite of a Sun that has grown 25-30% hotter are the result of the life process.  This theoretical Gaian regulation is the direct result of cellular processes, structural coupling or the combination of those with non-living thermodynamic, physical and chemical processes.

This view which is just beginning to be adopted by mainstream science, social science and human culture will take a long time for us to wrap our collective heads around.  It is a view that turns most of our worldview on its head. Lynn Margulis used to put a slide up during her talks on which was written the ancient Indo-European word, “dghem”. She would explain that it was the common root for Earth, humus, human and humility.  We humans need more than anything to learn that we are of the Earth, dependent on the microorganisms that transform regolith to rich soils and the air we breath. We need desperately to be learn humility. We suffer from anthropocentricity and delusions of human exceptionalism.

Maturana and Varela were colleagues of Lynn Margulis and some have questioned whether their concept of autopoesis,  defined as “autonomous, self-making and/or self-maintaining, needs to be revisited in light of the new Integrative or Symbiotic Biology which has completely undermined the idea of animal individuality.  The animal eukaryotic cells are now seen as the “holobiont” and the persistent microbial symbionts (the microbiome) that outnumber the animal cells in animals 10 to 1, make animals a composite or collaborating community.  Another blow to our egos, “I” is “us” and our idea of self turns out to be a kind of neurosis.  Maturana and Varela argue that to a cell, the environment can be the physical environment or other cells. In meta-cellular organisms many cells have environments that are made up of extracellular fluids, specialized nerve cells that act to perturb the environment, and neighboring cells. Meta-cellular organisms have developed systems, including nervous systems, to coordinate the action of cells to maintain structural coupling.  The more elaborate the nervous system, the more the system organizes from a decentralized network toward a center: a nerve chord or brain.  These more elaborate systems and senses “bring forth” worlds that contain more information and more choices of action in forms of mind or consciousness. Organisms add learning to instinctive behavior as a recursive function of structural coupling, mind and consciousness. 

In humans, our elaborate languages have produced the illusion of the individual or independent “self”.  Language facilitates learning, reflection, invention, imagination, simplification, social organization, culture, agriculture, technology and other methods that maintain structural coupling.  These elaborate levels have extended beyond cellular processes to the use of tools (in the broadest sense of the word) and the archiving and transmission of proxies for knowledge.  They have had a darker side seen in human history as struggles for power, god-complexes, wars, inhumanity (an ironic term if ever there was one) and the suicidal despoiling of the Earth. It is evident that we humans are incredibly gullible and prone to denial. Mark Twain probably made the most astute comment about what distinguishes humans from other animals when he observed that “Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.”

Maturana and Varela are not supporting a solipsistic view or an entirely representationalist view.  Their’s is a middle path.  Cells “bring forth” the world with which they couple through their senses and actions, but the world that they sense is out there.  Because we view reality through our senses and actions, we can be fooled—as any magician or optical illusion will demonstrate—we cannot be certain that our descriptions of reality are more than approximations. That said, science is still the best way of knowing because it is based on best evidence. Sometimes certainty masquerading as science has us believing things based on consensus or authority, but that isn’t science.

Maturana and Varela end their book on a note that I find interesting because their argument parallels Buddhism in some interesting ways: certainty can easily be seen as attachment, their argument is a middle path, and their conclusion is mindful and compassionate:

“In this book we have harked back to the “tree of knowledge”. We have invited the reader to eat the fruit of that tree by offering a scientific study of cognition as a biological phenomenon. If we have followed its line of reasoning and imbibed its consequences, we realize that they are inescapable. The knowledge of knowledge compels. It compels us to adopt an attitude of permanent vigilance against the temptation of certainty. It compels us to recognize that certainty is not a proof of truth. I compels us to realize that the world everyone sees is not the world but a world which we bring forth with others. It compels us to see that the world will be different only when we live differently.” 

Do we inhabit a Living Universe? Given just those things that I have discussed above, which would not be a complete scientific definition of life, I think the answer would be that the known Universe (about which we know so little) is not living because it does not fit even these parts of a definition.  However, I am in total agreement with  J. B. S. Haldane who remarked, “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”