Friday, August 29, 2014

Living Organisms, Autonomy, & Lineages

Miranda: you are better than any student I have ever known at seeing what the next question is.  That is the single most important element in philosophy. 
Aristotle considered metabolism (the ability of a living organism to nourish itself and consequently produce waste) as a sufficient condition for life.  He referred to this as "nutritive soul."  Plants have this alone, whereas animals have additional layers (mobility, perception at a distance) and human beings have still others.  These are the elements that define various levels of autonomy.  I don't think that this makes autonomy just another word for life.  The word life points to what we are trying to understand whereas the word autonomy helps us to understand what life is. 
However, I smuggled in an element that does not seem to belong to autonomy so much: the production of babies.  Some philosophers of biology argue that, in addition to autonomy, living organisms have to be part of a lineage.  Every living organism is the offspring of a line of successful replicators. 
I am not certain, but I think that the addition of the lineage as an essential element of life is an attempt to head off the kind of objection that Scott James raises against me.  A political community, for example, seems to display autonomy or something very close to it.  It seems to struggle to maintain itself and it has to feed and produce waste.  Aristotle himself argued that the political community is precisely that human association that works enough dynamic cycles that it is "self-sufficient".  Well, if political communities are self-sufficient are they not autonomous?  And if they are autonomous, are they not alive? 
I think that the self-sufficient human community is a much stronger challenge to my view of autonomy than are refrigerators or thermostats.  It is tempting to talk about the evolution of political institutions and to see, for example, the United States as, perhaps, an example of political speciation.  The American regime broke off from the British regime in much the same way as homosapiens broke off from the common ancestor with pan troglodyte. 
This is misleading.  Political communities do not form lineages.  The Second Continental Congress formed spontaneously, as relations between the continent and the mother country worsened; it had no mommy or daddy.  Regimes form spontaneously all the time.  By contrast, living organisms do not form spontaneously.  They always have at least one biological parent. 
It is a very interesting question (and one that did not occur to me until your latest comment) whether the biological lineage is an element of life distinct from autonomy or whether it is another element of autonomy.  The cells and organs of my body (with the exception of my reproductive organs) have sacrificed any opportunity to reproduce.  Like sterile castes among the ants, they can have offspring only through the reproductive activity of something else (my gonads in the one case, the queen in the other).  Does this compromise their autonomy?  Every cell in my body is robustly alive as is the sister forager feeding on my picnic lunch.  I will have to ponder this one. 


  1. Dr. Blanchard:
    First, thank you for your kind words. Questions aren’t worth much without answers and I am very grateful that you have always been willing to take the time to answer mine.
    Thank you, once again, for providing such a thorough and interesting answer. I am satisfied that a thermostat is not truly autonomous and am reading De Anima to try to understand Aristotle’s thoughts on the soul better. I am looking forward to hearing what you decide about the relationship between lineage and autonomy.
    Above, you write: “Political communities do not form lineages. The Second Continental Congress formed spontaneously, as relations between the continent and the mother country worsened; it had no mommy or daddy. Regimes form spontaneously all the time. By contrast, living organisms do not form spontaneously. They always have at least one biological parent.”
    I have two questions about this argument. First- are we sure that living organisms always have one biological parent? If so, where did the first parent come from and does the fact that this parent did not have a biological parent mean that it was not a living organism?
    Second – are we sure that political communities do not reproduce? If we can say that they eat, though they do not actually consume food and that they produce waste, though their excreta is not really organic, couldn’t we also say that Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis process was the reproductive process of political communities?

  2. Miranda: I beg to differ with you on the status of questions versus answers. It may be that some human being will one day come to complete wisdom. Since that is always the aim of philosophy, the possibility cannot be rejected without reducing philosophy to a farce. In the meantime (meaning, probably, all actual time) questions are worth more than answers. Questions give birth to answers, and the best answers are less durable than the best questions.

    You took the bait on the Ur-organism topic. If all living organisms had at least one parent, what about the very first organism? Unless we are to reject geology and astronomy in toto, the earth and the larger Kosmos are much older than terrestrial life. That means that life emerged at some point after creation.

    It would be a mistake to insist there was a very first parent. That would be to commit the fallacy of the beard. Very probably, the transition from inorganic processes to the emergence of genuine organisms was very gradual over a very long period of time and the point at which we can say "here it is" would be a judgment call. The truth of the matter is that modern biology has no clue as to how this happened. The complexity of the simplest modeled organism is such that its emergence over even geological time seems nothing short of miraculous. Make of that what you will. I would only suggest that the point at which the existence of organism is dependent on a lineage is a good point to say: here are living things.

    On the second count, no. Hegelian world spirit is analogous to the the world climate and political communities analogous to storms. The one produces or at least provides the existential conditions for the other. However, storms to do not give birth to other storms (or at least not in a continuous lineage). Instead, storms form spontaneously again and again.

    It is sometimes said that bee hives or ant or termite colonies are "superorganisms". The individuals are all or all but completely dependent on the group and one bee hive arises only from a previous hive. Herd animals are not nearly that integrated. Herds break up. Chimpanzee groups splinter and individual monkeys move between groups. Groups spontaneously form.

    The empires of pre-Columbian American emerged spontaneously, in isolation from old world civilization and empires. So political communities are not dependent on lineages in the way that living organisms are. This looks more Hegelian than biological.

    I am very interested in what you make of the De Anima. I think it is magnificent.

  3. Dr. Blanchard:

    I have not forgotten about this thread, but was ill this week. I am working on a reply and am sorry for the long delay.

  4. Thanks, Miranda. I have been traveling, so I would have been slow in responding as well.

  5. Dr. Blanchard: Once again my reply is very late. I didn't forget about this thread. It has been on my mind throughout most of the year (and the later half of last year). It made me realize that most of what I thought I knew about the soul I did not actually know and this, for me, was a very rude awakening. It has changed the way I see many things. I have now read De Anima, Maimonides' Eight Chapters in Ethics and St. Augustine's "On the Soul and its Origin" and am now even less sure that I know anything about it. However, De Anima did make a great deal of sense and I am grateful to you for your suggestion. I agree with your point about lineages, but still believe there are exceptions to the lineage rule. Even if we can't necessarily pinpoint the place where living things became living, our inability to isolate that transition would not mean that a single point of transition does not exist.At some point, it seems to me, that something non-living must have started a lineage. If this is so (is it?) can we actually use forming a lineage as evidence of life? I concede the point on Hegel!

  6. Miranda:

    We have to get together to discuss Aristotle, Maimonides, and Augustine. I still think that Aristotle's understanding of soul is the right one. All the material elements in the body are potentially alive. We know this because living animals are actually alive. The soul is then the actually of a body that is potentially alive.

    As for the lineage question, I am still suspicious about a "single point of transition." If we could rewind the tape of time and watch the emergence of living organisms from inorganic processes, we would probably have a very long stretch of molecular replicators that were almost, but not quite, living organisms. Theorists would argue endlessly about where, exactly, to draw the line.

    At present, as I read the literature, the emergence of even the simplest organism looks almost impossible. That doesn't mean that it isn't possible, but it does mean that we are not yet in the position where we can ask useful questions.