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.