The Biologist's Mistress: Victoria Alexander

The Biologist's Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature

By Dr. Victoria Alexander

This book is not about evolution primarily, rather it illustrates how practitioners of the humanities can find new meaning through a joining of art and science. In Dr. Alexander’s hands this joining points toward new ways of understanding the world. These new ways can describe not only the physical world but also the natural world and the world of our conscious experience. Like the worldview typical of working scientists they involve only matter and physical processes, yet they are not totally deterministic, and central to them are meaning and purpose. Key to this worldview is who it’s for. I think it is intended primarily to serve artists, more than scientists; to provide artists with a set of procedures for extracting meaning from the sciences that they can then apply to their creative work. Maybe eventually science will benefit from these new meanings too.

This book is about teleology, the study of the purposes in nature that make life (seem like) a meaningful work of art. … Along the way, I hope to rescue teleology from theology... and reconnect it to artistic practice.

Dr. Alexander’s specialty is literature. She has written several novels. For her PhD dissertation she chose teleology. She is cofounder of Dactyl Foundation, a showcase for projects combining art and science. She aspires to contribute to a “new cultural era, which will, I hope, bring us art that’s meaningful and adds something to what we know about ourselves and our world.”

Alexander brings together several previously unrelated disciplines within the humanities and the sciences: teleology, or the philosophical study of causes, purposes and goals; semiotics, or the study of language, specifically the study of signs and symbols and how they represent meaning; “complexity,” bringing along with it an entire suite of up-to-the-minute scientific disciplines including self-organization and information theory; and “continental” phenomenology. Or, as she puts it, “I tend to favor medieval philosophers over today’s analytic philosophers, pre-Darwinian biology over 20th century developmental systems biology, biosemiotics over teleosemantics, the complexity sciences over general systems theory, neuroscience over psychology, pragmatism over deconstruction, and fiction over physics.”

One of the disciplines coming out of this collision of fields is biosemiotics, or “the study of sign action in biological systems” (email communication). It appears to consist of a system for mapping events in nature in terms of language relations. Agents within this biosemiotic discourse go by the names attractors, constraints, selection, directiveness, design, creativity, interpretation, feedback, and error correction.

The book’s title comes from a saying attributed to J. B. S. Haldane: teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he may not be able to live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public. For Alexander “Teleology is the study of the purposes of action, development and existence. Its practitioners believe nature is purposeful…” For her, though, purpose is not defined in terms of how we might suppose real things to be connected, such as energy gain or loss, or quantum mechanics, but in terms of certain ways they can be thought of as relating to each other. “Teleologists argue that ideas, or something like mental concepts or thoughts, cause events in a way wholly different from the way that objects cause events.” An example is the relationship of parts to wholes: wholes emerge from the parts, the whole then acts back on the parts to constrain them, the parts, acting under these constraints, serving to maintain the integrity of the whole. “Teleological behavior, in my view, is always some kind of self-organized behavior that involves the way the whole constrains the parts…. True teleology requires no further explanation of final cause; it emerges in nonlinear systems through interaction and feedback.”

What evidence is there that this is in fact how the physical and biological worlds work? That doesn’t seem to be the point. What matters is extracting from those worlds narratives involving purpose and intention through which we can feel we understand them. But how do we come up with appropriate relations, such as that of wholes to parts?

What I do share with all teleologists, authentic or so-called, is a deeply felt folk-sense of purposefulness in nature. It is clear to me that many processes and patterns in nature can’t be fully explained by Newton’s laws or by Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection. These are processes that are organized in ways that spontaneously create, sustain and further that organization. Although I believe that mechanistic reductionism is inadequate to describe these processes, I don’t believe that purposeful events and actions require guidance from the outside—from divine plans or engineering deities. Nature’s purposeful processes are self-organizing and inherently adaptive, which is the essence of what it is to be teleological.

To illustrate her use of such terms as “sign” and “purpose” Alexander talks of a lion’s purpose in pursuing a gazelle:

The purposeful acts of chasing, seeking, fleeing and etc. are self-organized responses to signs of self. Think of a gazelle as what the lion’s body recognizes as part of its metabolic cycle. The gazelle is not the real goal. The gazelle is means of survival, which is the ultimate end. So instead of imagining the teleological process going in a linear direction—the lion (agent) chasing the gazelle (goal)—imagine instead the cycle that maintains the lion’s life and the gazelle caught up in that cycle. It is as if the lion’s selfhood extends itself into its environment and identifies a part of itself (potential food) and takes it in. The characteristics of the prey becomes a “sign” of the ultimate end of survival when they interact with the predator’s evolved repertoire of self-organized responses to the world…. Only under these conditions of recognition and maintenance of a cycle, can the lion’s response, chasing, be considered purposeful.

I have a hard time with this definition of purpose. To me it doesn’t apply to the lion or, by extension, to us. Since we and lions are similar creatures I assume the lion experiences what I would call “purpose” in its awareness of the delightful experiences it can anticipate from catching and killing the gazelle. But no. “It may seem to some that conscious deliberation is necessary for intentional actions or ‘free will’ to be exercised…. Being conscious of one’s purpose is not a requirement in my view of purposeful behavior.”

So although the philosophical discourse Alexander employs does include the word “purpose” as one of its terms, this is not ”purpose” as consciously experienced. In fact that isn’t even possible. “I agree with the scientific findings that we do not make conscious choices; rather choices are made as electro-chemical activity in the brain, and we become aware of the choices we have made seconds later.” Purely physical yes, but not deterministic. “I do not believe in a-causality. I argue for a different kind of causality, in which the effectual factors come from emergent holistic features.”

How does Alexander propose we explore these features?

Human purpose is a specific type of a more general purpose in nature. Both can be defined abstractly and generally as forms of self-organized adaptation. But this definition is not intended as an explanation. The structuring process that we call “self-organization” still needs to be understood. With this book, I hope that I can offer some general insights, showing how chance and constraints might work together to make us purposeful beings. What we learn about our own purposeful behavior will help us understand how nature, society, or culture can be said to act purposefully too…. Art and teleology are intimately related. This is so because teleology involves representation, design, and meaning. Perhaps aesthetics and teleology are actually the same formal discipline. To say nature is teleological is to say nature works like an artist. To say something is a work of art is to say it is teleological.

For Alexander this involves a curious combination of chance and creativity.

Nature is creative… When I say “creative,” I mean progressively more able to make more complex and astounding things, like us, not quite by pure accident, but by availing itself, in the way that artists do, of the emergent ordering tendencies of chance.… chance, as I use it, which is to say meaningful chance, is a particular kind of selection process involving constraints and feedback… we may say that chance (whatever that is, for we will need to define it) is final cause…

After the earlier and more accessible chapters I’ve summarized above come technical accounts of semiotics, the philosophy of C.S. Peirce and other thinkers, a long and detailed history of teleological thinking, and accounts of how various artists and writers have responded and added to that history over the past couple of centuries.

What problem is this new discourse being forged to help us tackle? Need for a new discourse was implied by William James “neutral monism” surmise in 1904: “if there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff 'pure experience,' then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter,” almost a prescription for Alexander’s quest. But she appears to want not only the solutions but also the problems to emerge from the quandaries modern writers have experienced in their work, which she reviews in her final chapters. Of a novel by Martin Amis she writes:

As the novel was being written, Self [a character] began to acquire a direction, which Amis came to realize in the process of creating him. This is what selves do, after all. Purposes emerge in the course of the life of a character, an organism, an entity, a system. They are not there from the beginning and they are not defined by the end.

More quotes:

In artistic creations, noise matters. One might say this is the essence of art. I will try to make the case that teleological order—since it can’t be predetermined and it isn’t strictly materially determined, and it’s not a-causal—must emerge out of something like error, chance, coincidence. It must involve interpretation. So rather than subjectivity having only a benign effect on teleological design (not disturbing it too much), it has the utmost importance…

Today, a new understanding of purposeful action as creative self-organization may be used to revise our understanding of telic phenomena and vice-versa. Even so teleology has not and will not stop developing. Its end is still and always will be dynamic, something new, something larger, something greater, something more complex than anything we can measure or touch, something that guides and constrains but never pushes. In describing nature with metaphor [by-chance like] and metonymy [by-chance near], art has explored many of her secrets, showing us her teleological ways.

How, out of all this, does Alexander conceive of the process of evolution?

Purposeful behavior then is defined by the self-organizing tendencies of a selection process that does not involve conscious selection…. In nature, as in the artist’s mind, when one thing is coincidentally near another [by-chance near], or when one thing is coincidentally like another [by-chance like], this may affect or constrain the outcome or the way they interact. This is selection, but not á la Darwin, not quite. It is not selection for reproductive fitness. This kind of selection simply builds formal patterns. The “by-chance” near become like each other through habitual interaction, and the “by-chance” like bond together, forming constrained systems.

In nature, mutations (genetic or other) are generally concordant with the original configurations, very much as with meaningful creative change in art, which is largely metaphoric (similar) [by-chance like] or metonymic (contiguous) [by-chance near]. The repeated production of similar and/or contiguous changes (rather than merely random changes or changes reflecting a much wider range of possibilities) automatically results in structural patterns and associations, the basic building blocks for the creation of systems and sub-systems, that is, for the creation of life, art and language. Look at it this way: if genetic mutations usually result, not in some random group of dissimilar cells all mixed together, but in a group of cells that form some kind of pattern containing different types that might interact and feedback the way black and white daisies do, then mutations might result naturally in a new stable “system” that might produce an effect, as the daisies produced a stable temperature, that might be useful to the organism in some way. Random things aren’t useful in the way that things that change in fairly predictable ways are. Such new forms can emerge without natural selection, which only helps them proliferate and/or stabilizes them in a population.

This kind of process is selection for self-creation and self-maintenance of systems or entities, which we can think of as more or less functionally neutral pattern building and development of stable tendencies, and which must occur prior to natural selection. It is a formal selection process that creates the entities, which natural selection can later favor or not with respect to others with which they compete. A self-organized entity might be an autocatalytic chemical reaction or gradient reducing cycle, any system that forms spontaneously when there is some difference, like the temperature difference of Daisyworld. When these types of self-organized entities are harnessed by life in metabolic processes, allowing the organism to better survive and to develop, there is purpose.

It is because these kinds of creative self-organizing processes are going on in nature, prior to natural selection, that Intelligent Design (ID) people find fault with Darwinism. I think ID people are partly right: an additional explanation is necessary, but a Designer is not the answer.

This website was launched to encourage and equip artists and humanists to come up with their own theories for how we evolved. I’ve come up with one such theory. Now Alexander presents us with the theory I've reviewed here. Together we illustrate not only that it’s possible to come up with alternative theories, but that such theories need bear little relation to those of “hard” science. We can look for meanings in having evolved other than those sought by science. And we can use alternative methods to arrive at those meanings, as Alexander draws on terms of rhetoric such as metonymy and I use storytelling.

Please, more theories.