Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is vitalism back? James Shapiro's response to the charge that his view is indistinguishable from vitalism

Today at his Huffington Post blog, Shapiro responds to Barham's challenge to distinguish his view from vitalism of one kind or another.
Shapiro responds in part:

Unfortunately, scientific vitalism, as championed by serious people like Hans Driesch, acquired a bad name in the early 20th century. Reliable observations definitely indicated sensory and control processes at work in embryonic development, wound healing and regeneration following experimental disruption. But the vitalists had no objective way to describe the cellular "home" of these capabilities.
Molecular biology has pointed us toward solutions by uncovering complex arrays of sensory, signaling, and decision-making networks in all living cells. In many cases we can enumerate network components and interactions, although in no case can we be sure the list is complete.
How these immensely sophisticated analog molecular networks operate is still a mystery. We can look to electronic computation systems for models and ideas. But I am not aware of any truly original conceptual understanding of how cell circuits operate that goes beyond the limits of current digital computers, which have neither the flexibility nor robustness of cell networks (let alone the capacity to reproduce).


B. Prokop said...

I recall the popular science author Arthur C. Clarke once writing that a single cell is not just more complicated than a car, it's more complicated than General Motors! (And we now know that he underestimated it. It would be more accurate to say that it's more complicated than the entire automobile industry.) But don't anyone try to turn that into an "argument from complexity", because we really don't know what a reasonable level of complexity is. We may indeed discover someday that spontaneously arising, self replicating automobile corporations are found all over the place in the universe. Or we can just as easily be all alone. There's just no data at this point.

William said...

The big, big difference between 21st century biological knowledge and the old vitalism is exactly that incredible complexity of interlocking functions is a large part of what makes things alive. When Aristotle said man's essence was rational animal, that really was all there was to the essence. Not so with Shapiro, not in any way.

rank sophist said...


Vitalism is a crude caricature of Aristotle's views. The two should never be conflated.

Bilbo said...

"Houston, this is the U.S.S. Enterprise, calling you from planet X-1573. We just discovered an uninhabited series of what look like factories, complete with assembly lines."

"Ignore it, Enterprise. No doubt they just spontaneously popped into existence. That sort of thing probably happens now and then."

William said...

"Secondly, all motile bacteria and archaea, whatever their relation to the kingdom Animalia and whatever their differences from each other, are animals"

Oderberg, David S. (2009-01-22). Real Essentialism (Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy) (p. 190).