In my two most recent posts on the science of purpose (here and here), I ended each with a claim. These were, respectively, that “biomolecules must act with purpose,” and that “ententional [in Terrence Deacon’s neologism] properties are foundational. They are the genesis of all purpose in life.”
Here I would like to expand on these two statements and coalesce them under the broader heading of emergence. To do so, first allow me to introduce emergence itself. That term has been redefined or misinterpreted numerous times since it was first described. The originators of the concept were two 19th-century British philosopher-scientists, John Stuart Mill and George Henry Lewes. Even back then, some one hundred fifty years ago, the “irreducible complexity” of organisms was explicitly recognized. The two competing explanations for life, vitalism and mechanistic reductionism, were both deemed inadequate. The concept of emergence was thus invoked, as a middle ground between the two extremes. Succinctly defined, emergence refers to the observation that, as material entities, both organic and inorganic, increase in complexity, unpredictable properties emerge which are a priori inexplicable on the basis of reductionist science.
The most commonly cited example of inorganic emergence is table salt, whose life-giving properties could never be predicted on the basis of its two atomic components, sodium metal and chlorine gas, both lethally toxic by themselves. And of course, in the organic realm, who could predict the emergence of aardvarks to zebras, based on the atomic properties of six chemical elements (CHNOPS)?
However, in the ensuing hundred years, up until the latter part of the 20th century, mechanistic reductionism dominated science, including biology. It has only been in the last 30 years or so that the inability of materialist science to provide an exhaustive explanation of life has become apparent. Thus, the present state of thinking about biology is now quite invested in “the re-emergence of emergence.”
Perhaps the most glaring and well-known failure of reductionism was the lackluster return on the multibillion-dollar investment known as the Human Genome Project. In 1999, many of my MD colleagues naïvely believed what was promised, i.e., that sequencing our DNA would mechanistically unravel many of the mysteries of human illness. Now, 24 years later, I am still seeing as many cancer patients as I did in 1999. Very little has changed, because delineating the component parts of the DNA molecule told us nothing about what really matters: the irreducible, unpredictable properties of the whole organism.
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