Life, Biology, and Capitalism
The aim of my work, as indicated by this website, is to develop the core ideas required to solve the ecological crisis, thereby preserving life on Earth to the maximum possible extent. I am therefore strongly motivated to understand what life actually is – that is, to grasp its essential nature. Having pondered this venerable issue for several years, I feel the time has come to present my conclusions. This is my primary motivation for writing this document.
A secondary motivation is to propose the initial ideas for a transformed biology that is consistent with a sustainable economy. For reasons to be explained below, the rise of capitalism has forced biologists to adopt a mechanistic posture that strips life of its distinctive elements. The current discipline does not study life in its entirety, but only the physical processes that underpin life and its behavior. A new biology would move beyond this limited perspective and offer an unencumbered examination of the living world.
I must emphasize that my views are not theistic, supernatural, or transcendental in any way. My conception of life is built entirely on an objective, material foundation. I reject the standard approach not because it is rooted in the physical world, but because it ignores the subjective phenomena that arise from this world. These phenomena are integral to both life and its goal-oriented behavior.
Historical Overview: What is Life?
Charles Darwin, in defending his theory of evolution at the end of Origin of Species, said that, “It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life.” Darwin thus understood that, although he had addressed life’s modifications, its essential nature remained an open question. What is remarkable is that, more than 150 years after the book’s initial publication, this fundamental question remains unanswered.
An example of this ongoing puzzlement was a prestigious 2011 lecture titled “What is Life?” by biologist Paul Nurse. Nurse justified his inability to answer his own question by citing U.S. Justice Potter Stewart, who in 1964 refused to define pornography but insisted that, “… I know it when I see it.” The speaker then laughed off his evasion by stating that the answer to life’s mystery is “42” – the arbitrary number made famous by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. To provide some context for this extraordinary gap in biological understanding, let me outline some of the field’s key developments since Darwin’s time.
The second half of the 19th century produced rapid advances into the material aspects of life, including the development of cell theory, embryology, and biochemistry. However, some biologists refused to believe that life could be explained through physical concepts alone, and thus adopted a view called vitalism. This asserted that a non-physical substance, force, or field underpins life’s unique characteristics. The best-known expression of this view is Henri Bergson’s élan vital, which is variously translated as “vital impetus”, “vital force”, or “spark of life”. Rapid advances in genetics and microbiology soon pushed vitalism off the stage, leaving the mechanistic view – life can be fully explained through the concepts of chemistry and physics – as the exclusive and unassailable paradigm.
A strong supporter of this perspective was Erwin Schrödinger, the brilliant physicist who in the 1920s established the theoretical basis for quantum mechanics. His book What is Life? (1944) proclaimed that, “The obvious inability of present-day physics and chemistry to account for [events within a living organism] is no reason at all for doubting that they can be accounted for by those sciences.” His contribution to this project was to note that an organism’s smallest components, such as its genes, contain only a few thousand atoms and thus cannot achieve the order required for biological functioning through the statistical averages that govern larger structures. This means that life’s order must arise from physical principles that have not yet been discovered. Unfortunately, Schrödinger did not directly address the question posed by his book’s title.
In the decades after Schrödinger’s book appeared, molecular biology increasingly dominated the field, and the question of life’s essential nature was put on the back burner. Nevertheless, a few scattered scientists continued to grope for an answer. One of these was chemist Addy Pross, who in 2012 published What is Life? How chemistry becomes biology. Pross says that because Schrödinger’s question remains unanswered, biology needs a revolution. However, “… modern biology appears to be happily meandering along its current mechanistic path – with most of its practitioners indifferent, if not oblivious, to the shrill cry for reassessment.”
The outstanding feature of Pross’s treatment is his insistence that life’s behavior is purposeful. He therefore employs a term that was coined in 1958, but that has rarely been used in biological discussions: “teleonomy”. This term, says Pross, “… gives a name to a pattern of behavior that is unambiguous – all living things behave as if they have an agenda”. This goal-directed pattern applies not only to complex organisms such as humans and worms, but is also evident at the level of a single cell. This is his summary statement: “The scientific revolution’s overthrow of 2,000 years of teleological thinking has left biologists anxious and unwilling to accept even the slightest vestige of that earlier, misplaced way of thinking. But there is no denying the teleonomic principle. The evidence supporting it is simply overwhelming, all around, literally endless, and cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.”
In the remainder of his book Pross succumbs to conventional thought and returns to a purely mechanistic perspective. Being a chemist, he suggests that life is marked by a special set of chemical reactions that achieve “dynamic kinetic stability”. He also joins thinkers like Stuart Kauffman and Fritjof Capra in asserting that life must be explained not by its constituent materials, but by their organizational complexity. According to this view, such complexity gives rise to the emergent properties that characterize life.
A recent attempt to answer the “what is life?” question came from a young American physicist named Jeremy England. He caused some excitement in 2014 by proposing that life appears whenever certain configurations of matter are especially effective in capturing and dissipating energy. England thus claimed that life is at root a thermodynamic phenomenon. His hypothesis is heavily oriented towards life’s evolutionary adaptation rather than its essence, and it remains controversial among his peers.
Addy Pross is clearly correct when he insists that life is marked by purposeful behavior. An organism's actions, in other words, are driven by its internally formulated intentions. This should be evident to anyone who has thoughtfully observed a bird, spider, or ant, or who knows that botanists have found plant activities to be intensely goal-directed and even intelligent. Purpose, however, is a non-physical factor that cannot be accommodated by mechanism. The question thus arises: how has biology come to be dominated by the mechanistic view of life? (The question of why this occurred is discussed in a later section.)
The key trick, which is widely employed when an obvious reality must be hidden or obscured, is to direct attention away from the reality itself and towards closely related but distinct topics. If enough “serious” people acquiesce in this redirection, the reality is pushed into the background and forgotten. In the present case, this trick is achieved by shifting the focus from life’s essential nature to its various attributes – reproduction, heredity, homeostasis, etc. To illustrate, this is the opening sentence of Jacques Loeb’s influential book, The Mechanistic Conception of Life (1912): “It is the object of this paper to discuss the question whether our present knowledge gives us any hope that life, i.e., the sum of all life phenomena, can be unequivocally explained in physico-chemical terms.”
The logical error in this sentence is transparent: life is defined in circular fashion. Wikipedia explains that, “A circular definition is one that uses the term(s) being defined as a part of the definition or assumes a prior understanding of the term being defined.” Clearly, if life is the sum of all life phenomena, then it must be located and examined before it can be defined. But how can it be located – that is, distinguished from non-life – without a prior definition? Despite the elementary nature of this blunder, Loeb’s approach is virtually universal among today’s biologists. Nurse, for example, explicitly told his audience that he would address the “what is life?” question, “… by discussing the attributes of life.” If you open any biology text you will likely find the same thing: life is defined in terms of life, which means it is not defined at all.
So what’s going on here? My interpretation is that, at the individual level, most biologists fully understand that purposeful behavior is the hallmark of life. They therefore have an accurate internal picture, and apply it daily to guide their work. However, purpose has no place in the mechanistic worldview that underlies their discipline, so this personal understanding must be suppressed in the professional and public realms. Because the only alternative is to define life through its attributes, logic is tortured to make this seem credible.
Briefly stated, biology has been intellectually corrupted, and definitional circularity – life is what life does – is the unmistakable sign of this corruption.
The Essence of Life
In order to escape from the standard view of life and identify its essence, we must examine life in its simplest forms. Confusion is inevitable if we immediately consider complex organisms or advanced features such as the brain, the mind, and consciousness. Among the simplest forms of life on earth are bacteria and other unicellular organisms. In this discussion I am therefore considering a single cell. However, I do not exclude the possibility that life arises at even smaller scales.
A 2013 debate about the nature of life is a useful starting point for this discussion. At the outset Chris McKay, from NASA's Ames Research Center, confidently asserts that life can be detected by its chemical signature: "I don't think we need to define it in order to be able to find it ... we can recognize it by the molecules it leaves behind."
This statement is clearly circular. If life hasn't been defined, there is no way to tell which chemical signatures are associated with "it". Like the biologists mentioned above, McKay is using our shared, intuitive conception of life on the assumption that this suffices for the practical task of finding "it" in the universe. He may be right, but the objective here is a formal definition.
To establish this definition, a distinction must first be made between life and living organisms. As indicated in figure 1 below, life is the property of matter that divides the latter into two categories: living and non-living.
If a unit of matter possesses this property, it is alive; if it does not, it is not. Organisms, on the other hand, are members of the living category. Their matter therefore has the life property, but their structures also have various attributes, such as homeostasis and reproduction, that are required to maintain life. In brief, life is a property of matter, whereas organisms have both this property and the attributes necessary for survival. The core question is therefore: What is the property of matter that makes it alive?
To answer this we must begin with our intuitive conception of life. We're trying to understand what we truly mean when we say "life" or "living" organism, so the real question is this: What property of matter are we actually referring to when we use these words? There is no empirical answer to this, but I submit that the social consensus is purposeful behavior: any unit of matter that acts in a goal-oriented manner is socially deemed to have the property of life.
What could cause such behavior? Why, for instance, would a cell move, ingest, and divide? Somewhere within the cell's matter there must be a source of volition - the will or desire for self-preservation that impels for such activities. What might this source be? Self-preservation implies the existence of a self. This in turn implies the existence of a division between self and non-self. For a cell this division is the lipid membrane that constitutes the cell boundary. A cell's volition is therefore rooted in its capacity to distinguish the internal world within the cell boundary from the external world beyond it, and to interact with the world for survival purposes. This capacity is appropriately called awareness.
How does awareness arise? Although the details remain mysterious, this clearly requires organic structures that respond differently to the worlds inside and outside the cell boundary. Such structures, I suspect, are generated under unusual physical conditions by one of the universe’s most basic activities: self-organization. This property is already evident at the level of the atom, where electrons, protons, and neutrons spontaneously organize themselves into a coherent unit. At higher levels, it is even more prominent. As Stuart Kauffman has noted, “… vast veins of spontaneous order lie at hand. Laws of complexity spontaneously generate much of the order of the natural world.”
The sequence just described is depicted in figure 2.
Let me use this diagram to briefly repeat the above description, but this time by moving in the causal direction: from the physical world to purposeful behavior, as indicated by the arrows.
The physical world, through the pervasive process of self-organization, generates organic structures that could serve as the enclosure and components of a living organism such as a cell. Under favorable conditions these components respond differentially to the worlds inside and outside the boundary, thereby generating the distinction between self and non-self. This is awareness, and it constitutes the initial shift from inanimate to living matter. Thus, awareness is the essence of life. Awareness then generates the volition that seeks to preserve the self, and volition in turn generates the purposeful behavior that achieves self-preservation.
Because the mechanistic view has a stranglehold on today’s biology, awareness is seldom acknowledged as the essence of life and as the source of an organism’s purposeful behavior. Sometimes, however, a hint of the truth slips out. For example, the authors of a book on quantum biology say that, “… a bizarre property appeared in the matter of which living organisms are composed: some of that matter became aware.” Unfortunately this statement appears in the book's final pages, and it is immediately repudiated by their pledge of allegiance to the strict monism of contemporary science: “… mind and body are one and the same thing”.
To summarize my perspective: life is awareness, and a living organism is a unit of aware matter. An organism is a combination of the objective and the subjective in that it cannot exist without objective matter, but it requires this matter to be subjectively aware. Despite the above authors, scientific monism is untenable. Reality has two dimensions, not one, and biology will remain mired in its sterile mechanism until this is openly recognized.
Let me end this section by returning to NASA's search for extraterrestrial life. As described above, the organization is using what might be called an informal life signature: chemicals associated with our intuitive understanding of life. A more sophisticated search would use a formal life signature: chemicals associated with life as awareness, and indicated by the purposeful behavior it generates.
Before proceeding I want to briefly address four methods used to counter the view just presented.
The first is to implicitly or explicitly assert that matter cannot be aware. This is easily refuted. Are you, the reader, aware? Are you composed of matter? The answer to both questions is yes, so matter can be aware. No further proof is required. The only interesting question is where this awareness first arises – at the sub-cellular, cellular, or multicellular level.
Another method used to defend the mechanistic view of life is to disguise awareness as something that plays the same role but goes by a different name. A past favorite was stimulus-response, whereas the modern preference is for information processing. The core idea here, as stated by physicist Paul Davies, is that information is like energy in that it has, "... the ability to animate matter. Patterns of information flow can literally take on a life of their own, surging through cells, swirling around brains and networking across ecosystems and societies, displaying their own systematic dynamics." But Davies never convincingly explains how this "literally" happens, and I don't see how he could. Information is not a real force like energy, and in the absence of awareness there can be data, but no information. Davies also makes a serious conceptual error in failing to distinguish between life and living organisms.
The third method used to counter awareness is the most prevalent. This is to present evolution as the explanation for everything that occurs in living systems, thereby making awareness and volition superfluous. In this perspective the cell is construed as an intricate machine that arose through a series of blind evolutionary steps and operates in lockstep fashion without an explicit coordinating agent. This is barely conceivable, but it is especially implausible today because we understand the advantages of embedded intelligence. A modern thermostat, for example, doesn’t achieve its sophistication by elaborating on the mechanical structure of the past, but by replacing it with software – that is, embedded human intelligence. Why wouldn’t nature adopt the same approach? Why wouldn’t awareness be employed for coordination purposes to keep cell complexity within manageable limits? Evolution would still play a critical role, but it would not be burdened with explaining a vast array of stunningly complex tasks.
Another attempt to circumvent awareness is a philosophical position called panpsychism. This claims that consciousness is a fundamental feature of all matter. Thus, every electron, neutron, and proton has some primitive level of consciousness, and what we experience is a highly sophisticated version of this. In my view panpsychism deserves consideration, but no-one has yet explained how an elementary particle, which presumably lacks a complex internal structure, could interact with the world in a volitional manner. It is one thing to assert that this volition exists, but quite another to demonstrate how it could arise in such a simple environment. Another critical point is that panpsychism, like mechanism, erases the boundary between life and non-life. In mechanism nothing is conscious, whereas in panpsychism everything is. Either way life is nothing special and, as discussed below, can be fully exploited for profit.
Standard and Vital Biology
Standard biology ignores the fact that awareness is life’s essential element, and thus rejects the volition and purposeful behavior exhibited by even the simplest forms of life. It should therefore be superseded by the discipline of vital biology. The main aim of this term is to emphasize that the field should study life as a whole rather than just its physical underpinnings. It also pays homage to the supporters of vitalism. Although these scientists had a confused conception of life, they showed great courage in rejecting the straitjacket of biological mechanism.
Vital biology will explicitly recognize awareness, volition, and purpose. However, these are all subjective factors that fit uncomfortably into the empirical world of science. Because vital biology is intended to be the scientific successor to standard biology, I must address this topic before I proceed.
Dictionary definitions of “science” refer to the systematic arrangement of facts, the formulation of general laws, and the methods of observation and experiment. These are all relevant, but they miss the central point: science investigates the world insofar as it is accessible to multiple minds. Any phenomenon that is inherently limited to a single mind falls outside its scope. Assume, for example, that I decide to investigate my own intellect. I carefully track my thought processes, systematically arrange the facts I discover, and formulate general laws about my mental operations. Would this be science? Clearly not. No other mind has access to these internal realities, so there is no way to construct a corroborated body of knowledge on this topic. Introspection can lead to personal insights, but it cannot produce scientific understanding.
Another way of saying this is that science restricts its investigations to the objective world. The subjective world can be acknowledged as a possible factor in objective phenomena, but it cannot be investigated using scientific tools and methods. If it is necessary to address reality as a whole, science must be augmented by philosophy or possibly other modes of inquiry. As a prospective science, vital biology must abide by this restriction.
That said, figure 3 is a crude depiction of the current discipline, standard biology:
Reality is here divided into its objective and subjective components. As a science, standard biology is correct in limiting its studies to the objective side. However, it incorrectly ignores the subjective component as a possible influence on the objective world. As noted, science cannot study the subjective side, but it can and must acknowledge this component as part of the universe’s overall reality. Based on its narrow perspective, standard biology ignores awareness and volition, and therefore sees an organism's behavior as non-purposeful. In brief, the analytical scope of the current discipline consists of life’s physical processes and the resulting non-purposeful behavior.
Figure 4 below depicts vital biology.
Because the new discipline is intended to be a science, it follows standard biology in limiting its investigations to the objective world. The key difference is that vital biology recognizes the existence of the subjective world, and with the help of philosophy takes this realm into account when investigating the objective side. Based on this broader perspective, vital biology acknowledges awareness and volition, and therefore sees behavior as purposeful. To summarize, the analytical scope of vital biology is life’s physical processes and the purposeful behavior that arises from the organism’s subjective awareness and volition.
The shift from standard to vital biology fundamentally changes the way we look at numerous biological topics. Let me briefly examine just three: evolution, DNA, and the classification of viruses.
As mentioned above, Darwin claimed that his ignorance about life’s essence did not invalidate his theory of evolution. From the perspective of vital biology this claim is highly dubious. Cells are aware, and cooperate with billions or trillions of other cells to produce complex organisms. Entities with this degree of collective intelligence are surely capable of experimenting with new structures and processes in order to improve the organism’s functioning and survivability. It is therefore likely that active creativity must join mutations, self-organization, and other mechanistic factors as a source of the changes that feed into natural and sexual selection.
The vast store of genetic information in DNA is selectively accessed by the cell through various mechanisms that are collectively called epigenetics. According to standard biology, this selection is achieved through gene expression: the conversion of a gene from an inactive to an active state that allows it to be used in the synthesis of a protein or other biochemical material. As in nearly all conventional explanations of biological processes, the choices made in gene expression are vaguely attributed to a coordinating capacity that is never explicitly acknowledged. Vital biology will openly recognize that gene expression is rooted in cellular awareness. In this view, DNA is a toolkit from which the cell intentionally chooses genes based on its biochemical requirements. As an analogy, when a carpenter takes a hammer from a toolbox this is not seen as the mysterious expression of hammer activity, but as the conscious choice of an identifiable agent.
Viruses are today treated as nonliving entities because they lack a cellular structure and require a host cell for reproduction. Historically, however, they were often considered to be alive, and even today the classification is somewhat arbitrary. Standard biology places viruses on the fence between life and non-life because these microbes have some, but not all, of the attributes typically cited by the discipline in its circular definition. This means that the definition’s logical problem is exacerbated by the practical one that now haunts NASA: entities yet to be discovered on or beyond the Earth might, like viruses, have only a subset of these attributes, and would therefore resist classification as well. In vital biology, by contrast, a living organism is seen as a unit of aware matter. Viruses are units of matter, and they exhibit purposeful behavior in their reproductive strategies. Because this behavior can arise only from awareness, viruses satisfy the definition and are unequivocally alive.
The Role of Capitalism
At this point it is necessary to shift mental gears. Above I concluded that standard biology ignores the subjective side of reality and therefore fails to recognize that life’s essence is awareness. As a result the discipline defines life in a circular manner and restricts its analytical scope to physical processes and non-purposeful behavior. The question now is why biology arrived at this untenable position. This takes us out of the scientific and into the social domain.
One of the great illusions afflicting scientists is that their fields were developed in a political vacuum. Some thinkers, such as Ludwik Fleck and Thomas Kuhn, have pointed out that scientific development is heavily influenced by the social dynamics of intellectual communities. However, very few people have seriously investigated the impact of capitalism’s ascendance on scientific thought. Morris Berman touches on this topic in The Reenchantment of the World (1981), but his treatment is marred by a mystified view of capitalism. Unless the system’s intellectual impact is clearly understood, biology’s descent into mechanistic reductionism will remain a perplexing mystery.
Capitalism made its historical appearance in Europe around 1500 and displaced feudalism over the next several centuries. The reason for this epochal shift was that the new system achieved substantially higher levels of economic production than its predecessor. It was therefore better able to satisfy human needs and wants. Unfortunately, harvesting this material bounty entailed the ruthless simplification of scientific thought.
This was especially true for biology, where the subjective side of reality threatened to impede material expansion in two ways. First, subjectivity complicates biology because it extends the discipline into the philosophical realm. This hinders the empirical and theoretical advances required by a capitalist economy to effectively manipulate the living world. Second, awareness and volition have far-reaching ethical implications that could dampen economic growth. A mechanistic ecosystem can be exploited with impunity, whereas one that teems with aware beings invites moral considerations. A mechanistic cow is just meat, but a volitional cow might be worshipped. Berman gets this point exactly right: “… the forces that triumphed in the second half of the seventeenth century were those of bourgeois ideology and laissez-faire capitalism. Not only was the idea of living matter heresy to such groups, it was also economically inconvenient. … if nature is dead, there are no restraints on exploiting it for profit.”
This economic inconvenience led to intense political pressures that profoundly affected biology’s development, and that continue to distort the discipline today. As philosopher Thomas Nagel has stated, “… any resistance to [physico-chemical reductionism] is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect.” Further, “… almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.”
A historian of science, Lily Kay, has found strong evidence to support the view that capitalism played a decisive role in shaping modern biology. In The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology she explains that the turn towards extreme mechanism in the form of molecular biology was not the result of intellectual evolution, but was instead, “… an expression of the systematic cooperative efforts of America’s scientific establishment … to direct the study of animate phenomena along selected paths … “. According to Kay, the aim was to make biology consistent with, “…the material and ideological imperatives of industrial capitalism.”
The rise of capitalism compelled biologists to fixate on the objective side of reality and to ignore its subjective side. This caused them to officially repudiate the purposeful behavior of living organisms and to deny that awareness is the essence of life. The theoretical reflection of this fixation is standard biology, an intellectually corrupt discipline that cannot define its most fundamental concept without evasive circularity.
Given capitalism’s decisive role in shaping standard biology, the field very likely cannot be superseded while the system still reigns. The transition to a post-capitalist economy is thus of the utmost importance, not only to protect the biosphere from the system’s ecocidal logic, but also to permit humankind to fully appreciate the living world’s exuberant autonomy. The other documents on this website are intended as theoretical contributions to this transition.
While these economic and political events play out, I urge biologists to seriously consider the above ideas. Even if circumstances currently prevent their official adoption, they can be privately debated and no doubt greatly improved. Having an embryonic form of vital biology at hand when the transition does occur will significantly speed the intellectual and social adjustments to a sustainable world.
Minor edits: July, 2016
Edits: December, 2019
Edits: June, 2023