Sunday, September 2, 2007

Reductionism in biology

It is a matter of great faith among many science bloggers and fellow travellers that reductionism has made great strides in explaining many of the mysteries of life in terms of physical causation. While they admit that reductionism has, thus far, failed to explain consciousness, memory, and perception, they maintain that the reductionist program has essentially solved the mysteries in biology. Sadly, this is yet another example where an assumption of knowledge impedes actual knowledge.

Yes, we do know about DNA, transcribed to RNA, which codes for the sequence of amino acids in proteins. What we do not know about biology, however, vastly exceeds what is actually known. While there is a great faith among reductionists that biology can all be explained in terms of contact mechanics, molecular machines and chemistry, the actual explanations are sadly lacking in just about every case. For example, we do not know:

  • Why do proteins fold so quickly into a characteristic shape when there are millions of thermodynamically equivalent conformations that a protein could take?

  • What controls the unfolding of complexity in development in each case for millions of different species?

  • How exactly do acquired characteristics like knee callouses in camels, migration patterns in birds, and predator fear behaviors (which are learned) turn into "hard-coded" behaviors based solely on genes that exactly duplicate the learned / acquired characteristics?

  • How do organisms based on blind/dumb contact mechanics "regulate" during development to overcome problems?

  • How do organisms heal (which amounts to many of the same processes as development, only in response to particular injuries)?

  • How does a single-celled organism like paramecium display complex behavior, including learning?

  • How do organisms perceive, which ones are conscious, and how do they learn?

  • And on and on. . .

It is obvious at this point that boasts like Eliezer's claiming that biology has been explained reductionistically are almost entirely empty.

Readers who have grown tired of the endless promises of reductionism coupled with an apparent inability on the part of their adherents to notice the lacunae of materialist theories would do well to read Rupert Sheldrake's book on field phenomena in biology, which points towards a very different understanding of morphogenesis, regulation, healing and behavior.


TGGP said...

I don't think Eliezer said biology had been completely explained, there is still research in biology going on. He was saying we now consider vitalism to be silly.

Anonymous said...

"He was saying we now consider vitalism to be silly."

Umm...that is exactly what Matthew was attacking. Is biology reducible to the known principles of physics and chemistry? People like Driesch, Bergson, and Sheldrake were never given a fair hearing.

M.C. said...


It's pretty clear that Eliezer thinks that biology has been understood, at least in general terms, reductionistically. Read this comment from him from his latest blog post:

If Science struggled for over a century to answer a question, such as "What is life?" or "What is fire?", then it should always be a grand mystery, forever and amen, to all who do not know it.

Obviously Eliezer is thinking that life has been "explained" in the same way that fire has been explained, and that it is no longer a grand mystery. Unfortunately, that is just an illusion of knowledge. We do not understand life reductionistically! The fact that there is chemistry going on as part of life, and that we have solved the genetic code, does not mean that life has been understood.

I can only recommend reading Sheldrake's book, which points out quite clearly the lacunae of materialistic explanations of biology. Sheldrake is a world-class biologist with impeccable academic credentials, including multiple publication credits in Nature.

Greg said...

Hi Matthew,

Spot on with the question on 'hard-coded behaviour'. That's a question that I've been interested in for some time, but not many people seem to want to address it.

TGGP said...

I'm still a bit confused on your differences with Eliezer. Do you believe in vitalism? What experiences do you anticipate that Eliezer does not?

M.C. said...


There are a whole host of phenomena that Eliezer denies can occur, that in fact do.

In terms of biology, an organicist / field theory like Sheldrake's allows for Lamarkian-style inheritance, provides a clear mechanism for the conversion of learned behaviors to instincts, and predicts that new populations will find it easier to learn widely-practiced skills as more and more individuals learn them. For more about the predictions and tests of Sheldrake's theory, read his book, it is available in most university libraries.

And, of course, the whole host of other subjects I cover on this blog, that Eliezer denies occur, and yet do happen.

M.C. said...

BTW, this is the paper where Ho et. al. proved experimentally that Lamarkian-style inheritance does occur: Ho, M.W. , Tucker, C., Keeley, D. and Saunders, P.T. (1983). Effects of sucessive generations of ether treatment on penetrance and expression of the bithorax phenocopy. J. exp. Zool. 225, 1-12.

TGGP said...

What does Eliezer deny? Could you link to where he denies it?

M.C. said...


Eliezer denies psi phenomena could possibly exist, for starters.

TGGP said...

Link or quote. Here he lays out requirements for him to start taking it seriously, not insisting it can't possibly exist. "You want me to believe precognition as been scientifically established? Give me one single research protocol which reliably (90% probability) produces results at the p < 0.01 significance level for events 30 minutes in the future. If the effect is real, however small, there will exist some number of subjects/trials that reliably amplifies the effect to any given level of statistical significance."

M.C. said...

In another quote, he mentions that psi effects always disappear when investigated by scientists (absolutely incorrect). In any event, his demands for a particular kind of evidence (ignoring the fact that the psi hypothesis demands large experimenter effects) and a refusal to look at any of the evidence that does exist indicates a lack of interest in discovering the truth here.

TGGP said...

In another quote, he mentions that psi effects always disappear when investigated by scientists (absolutely incorrect).
Saying evidence in the past has not supported the existence of psi is quite a different thing from denying "psi phenomena could possibly exist".

In any event, his demands for a particular kind of evidence (ignoring the fact that the psi hypothesis demands large experimenter effects) and a refusal to look at any of the evidence that does exist indicates a lack of interest in discovering the truth here.
Is he applying a different standard of scientific evidence when it comes to psi compared to other things?

Anonymous said...

(This is Hopefully Anonymous, commenting on comparatively unfriendly blogger userware.)

I've got to ask, why use words like psi and precognition to describe particular experimentally observe phenomena?

It seems to be baiting controversy.

Why not give it a good descriptor, removed from the controversy, and bang the podium for further investigation of it?

I think tactics should be about promoting enlightenment here, not arbitrary dialectics.