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A "Bioessentialist" View of Life

James Barham is doing something genuinely illuminating and new at his blog, The Best Schools. In his current post he outlines the differences between a Darwinian view of life -- basically where life is reduced to genes -- and what he calls a bioessentialist view where life itself, metabolism, is of the essence and DNA is a "passive" resource of which life makes use.

Fascinatingly, he shows how an organism or a cell is different from a machine. While a machine is kept together and functioning by brute physical forces, a living being achieves "functional stability" through the agency of an essential intelligence operating on the living system:

This terminology makes clear the most distinctive aspect of living beings: What allows them to go on existing as the kind of system that they are is the functional, or teleological, coordination of all the chemical reactions occurring inside them.

Note the difference between this concept of functional stability and the functional organization of a manmade machine. In the former case, the stability arises from within, presumably under some sort of global constraint arising from living matter itself. The stability in question is robust, flexible, adaptive, and -- in a word -- intelligent. The stability and the inherent intelligence -- the teleology and the agency -- are two sides of the same coin, and both must emerge somehow from the physical properties of the living state of matter.

In the case of a true machine, the functional order has nothing whatever to do with the matter out of which the machine is composed. It is imposed upon the matter entirely from without -- by us. The material parts out of which a machine is made are supremely indifferent to the purpose the whole is designed by us to serve. Moreover, the stability of a machine resides in the rigidity -- not the flexibility, much less the inherent intelligence -- of its parts.

In contrast to what happens inside a machine, everything that goes on within a living being possesses an inherent purpose--namely, maintaining the organism in existence. That is the essential difference between living and nonliving things.

And that, above all, is what requires scientific explanation.

* * *

The pseudo-explanation of natural selection has blinded us to the importance of functional stability for too long. But the phenomenon is there, right in front of our eyes -- both in the massive coherence and coordination of the biochemistry of life, and in the amazing adaptivity of living things to perturbation.

All the empirical evidence points to the existence of a fundamental power of intelligent agency underlying life. All we have to do is throw aside our mental blinders and look.

This does not mean that we currently possess the conceptual resources to explain intelligent agency as an emergent property of the living state of matter. It does mean that we need to start trying to develop such resources, if we ever wish to understand life and evolution in a fundamental way.

I like that Barham is comfortable with saying that science currently lacks the "conceptual resources" to explain the source of the "intelligent agency" that holds life together. A colleague and I were talking today about the dogmatic insistence on the part of scientism that on every important question, science has got it all figured out. It then remains for the public, and especially young people, to memorize their scientific catechism and spit back the right answers to all the approved questions -- leaving all the unapproved questions simply unaddressed.

The reality -- and I find this to be true of science but also of religion and other fundamental subjects -- is that the more we learn, the more we understand that we don't understand.