This chapter is about the problem (as McGilchrist sees it) with biology, biologists, and the life sciences – namely that they view the world as inanimate and mechanistic, and until very recently have ‘been stuck in a mid-Victorian mechanistic vision that physics abandoned over a hundred years ago’ (p.431).
At the beginning of this chapter McGilchrist is at pains not to comes across as attacking life scientists, writing:
‘Please don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the ingenuity and hard work of my colleagues in the life sciences, and am exhilarated by the ever-growing body of knowledge about the natural world. It manifestly proves itself to be useful in myriad ways and, fairly obviously my thinking too depends heavily on the broad reliability of recent scientific evidence about the brain and mind. Nevertheless there is a problem’. (p.432)
And nevertheless for me the chapter comes across as ‘having a go’ at life scientists, principally for their view of the organism as a machine. This is not a surprise. I have often heard McGilchrist criticise the life sciences. He feels there is a mental apartheid between what they see and describe, and officially what they are allowed to describe and imagine. Scientists should be describing what they see rather than what they think they ought to see. This mismatch in language arises, McGilchrist says, because life scientists persist in describing organisms using the language of machines, the language of programmes and codes. ‘… if you ask biologists explicitly, they will, with a few exceptions, cleave to the machine model; but when you listen to what they are saying, implicitly they abjure it.’ (p.436). Normative terms full of value laden ideas pervade the whole of the discussion about life. The life sciences have been captured by the left hemisphere, which views the world as a machine.
The main bulk of this chapter is devoted to exploring and explaining why organisms (that includes us!) are not machines. I first heard McGilchrist discuss this in 2018. In this chapter he greatly expands on what he said then, citing many biologists, positively and negatively, but the list of main points remains almost the same, if slightly re-ordered and re-organised.
Why organisms are not machines
An obvious point but so little talked about is that an organism cannot be turned off. If an organism is ‘switched off/stopped’, it dies. It is more like a flame than a machine said J.B.S. Haldane. It is more like a process than a thing.
Organisms are not made. They become. You can take them apart, but you cannot put parts together to make an organism. All machines must have instructions that pre-exist their making. A machine does not generate instructions to make itself in the process of becoming itself.
McGilchrist spends some time debunking the idea of genetic programming and that heredity is defined by genetics, saying that DNA is one of the most inactive of all proteins. It is a storehouse on which the cell can draw. The cell is not a blind robot doing the bidding of the DNA. It draws on DNA to make intelligent decisions. We know that genes are not always main players by observing that fruit flies in which the genes for development of eyes have been removed, will after a few generations of interbreeding develop eyes once more, despite not having the gene. (p. 466)
McGilchrist does not support Dawkins’ idea of the ‘blind watchmaker’. ‘… organisms are not at all like a watch; and evolution ‘simply does not proceed like a watchmaker, blind or otherwise’ (Nicholson, 2014). (p.485).
To remain the same, an organism must change all the time. Organisms are stable metabolic flows of energy and matter. The metabolism of a cell is the way in which it remains the same. A machine is static until it is switched on, but an organism is in a state of constant flux. Process and flow are at its core. ‘Life is not a rearrangement of already known nuts and bolts, but the constant creation of something radically new.’ (p.447)
Machines follow instructions in a sequential way, but living things are complex non-linear systems, that are constantly correcting themselves. An organism is not pushed from behind following a sequence of pre-determined steps but is constantly unfolding itself and constantly correcting itself.
‘In a classical mechanism, causation is linear and can be clearly outlined. However, in biological systems, causation tends to follow not straight lines, but spirals, involving recursive loops, and multiple causes leading to multiple effects across a network, with sometimes competing factors cross-regulating one another, reciprocally interacting, and in ways we do not understand taking information from the whole. …. Context is everything.’ (p.447/8)
‘A machine is a chain and is dead’. ‘An organism is a flow, and is alive’. (p.449)
- Not one-way action – maybe not even interaction?
Cause and effect in organisms are not one-way, but reciprocal. The process is reverberative, back and forth. In the video where Alex Gomez-Marin and Iain McGilchrist discuss this chapter (see below), Iain refers to the microbiologist Kriti Sharma, describing her book, Interdependence, as fascinating, and quoting her as writing that ‘the cell is not exactly reacting to an environment, but is reacting with an environment, as oxygen reacts with iron and where both are transformed.’ (p.453) Sharma describes this process as mutual constitution – each becomes what it is in the act of creation, each is causative of the other, causality is reciprocal.
- The ‘parts’ are themselves changing
In a machine the parts do not change with their context. The machine changes when switched on, but the parts do not. In an organism the parts (if you can call them that) are constantly changing according to the context. They respond to different environments to produce different effects. Organisms are ‘antifragile’ systems functions just the right side of chaos. ‘… antifragility, which thrives on flexibility, makes small adjustments and thereby not only survives but evolves.’ (p.457). Living beings perhaps should be called living becomings, always in process, always in flow.
- The influence of the whole
An organism is a process, which unlike a machine, has no clearly defined parts. An organism in reality is an indivisible unity. The influence of the whole on the parts can be seen in the case of injured organisms that can heal and regenerate their injured parts. One of the most extreme examples of this is in the case of flatworms, which have a centralised brain with true synaptic transmission. If these worms are decapitated, then not only can they grow a new head and brain, but the new brain preserves the memories of the decapitated brain.
Another striking example of the influence of the whole given by McGilchrist is in relation to the structure of the heart and the development of the septum in the foetus. McGilchrist quotes biologist Craig Holdrege (p.445)
‘Before the heart has developed walls (septa) separating the four chambers from each other, the blood already flows in two distinct ‘currents’ through the heart. The blood flowing through the right and left sides of the heart do not mix, but stream and loop by each other, just as two currents in a body of water. In the ‘still water zone’ between the two currents, the septum dividing the two chambers forms. Thus the movement of the blood gives parameters for the inner differentiation of the heart, just as the looping heart redirects the flow.’
The structure of the heart is as much a result of flow as the cause of it.
A machine has clear boundaries and distinctive parts, but processes do not have boundaries; they overlap. Symbiotic life forms are the rule rather than the exception and this require collaboration and cooperation, two of the main characteristics of life and its evolution. Organisms are complex systems involved in a combination of competition and cooperation. ‘Such a relationship in which division and union are fruitfully balanced, is what we mean by collaboration.’ (p.471)
This point repeats what was briefly mentioned above. Machines do not and cannot make themselves. ‘… the instructions for making the machine cannot themselves be the product of the very machine they are designed to make.’ (p.471), but as Griffiths and Stotz (2018) paraphrasing Oyama (2002) write (quoted by McGilchrist on p.472)
‘… the developmental information expressed in the organism is not present in the starting point of development, but is itself created by the process of development, through feedback from the current state of the organism to the states of the resources that will influence future development.’
McGilchrist goes on to complete this chapter (another 30 pages) with a discussion of why the machine model has proved so attractive, the dreadful question of purpose, attempts to save the machine model in biology, and the question of whether the stream of life is a better model.
Very briefly the machine model is attractive because of its simplicity, familiarity, ease of use and past success in delivering the goods. It ‘encourages the sense that we can easily understand what life is and learn to control it.’ (p.474).
The dreadful question of purpose (teleology) is a problem for the life sciences. Haldane is quoted as saying ‘teleology is like a mistress to a biologist; he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.’ (p.477). The purpose that McGilchrist is talking about ‘is nothing extrinsic, but rather intrinsic potential that is fulfilled within a process as the process unfolds.’ (p.479). This idea of teleology requires biologists to focus not on things but on processes, in which there are no plans or predetermined steps. ‘A purpose here is not a plan. It is a tendency inseparable from – woven into, as it were, the fabric of – a life, which leaves all the detail, and even the final outcome, undetermined’ (p.478) just as a woman can purpose to be a mother but cannot determine or predict the path that will be taken. In attempting to save the machine model, orthodox biologists attempt to brush the issue of purpose under the carpet.
Finally, McGilchrist returns to his argument that the trouble with biology is that it focusses on things rather than on processes and flow, quoting von Bertalanffy writing as long ago as 1952, ‘…. In biology there is no rigid organic form as a bearer of the processes of life; rather there is a flow of processes, manifesting itself in apparently persistent forms.’ (p.490)
This is a long chapter, about 70 pages, in which McGilchrist provides a lot of evidence and notes to support his arguments, more than I personally needed, but perhaps enough to convince biologists that there are problems with the machine model for the study of life. There is a suggestion towards the end of the chapter that ‘we should banish from our speech and writing any use of the word “machine” as an explanation or definition of anything that is not a machine.’ (p.496).
I have barely skimmed the surface of the content of this chapter in these notes, and any errors in this post are mine. The videos in which Alex Gomez-Marin and McGilchrist discuss each chapter of this book, The Matter With Things, provide helpful in summaries of the key points. I find it useful to watch them alongside reading the chapters.
McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.
Mackness, J. (2018) E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine (Blog post)