I recently picked up a copy of The New Atlantis and started reading a very intriguing article by Stephen L. Talbott. It’s on the long side, but so far it’s a great read and I recommend it to you.
Most biologists, I suspect, will happily own up to the fact that they think of the organism as engaged in strikingly directed and meaningful activity. The lion stalking the gazelle, the bird building a nest, the larva spinning a cocoon, the rose flowering, the cell dividing and differentiating, the organism maintaining its own way of being amid the perturbations of its environment — they all reflect a kind of intentional pursuit we would never attribute to dust, rocks, ocean waves, or clouds.
Biologists, that is, will acknowledge that, at molecular and higher levels, they see almost nothing but an effective employment of a thousand interwoven means to achieve a thousand interwoven ends — all in an almost incomprehensibly organized, coordinated, and integrated fashion expressing the striving of the organism as a whole. The organism, they will say, as it develops from embryo to adult — as it socializes, eats, plays, fights, heals its wounds, communicates, and reproduces — is the most concertedly purposeful entity we could possibly imagine. It does not merely exist in accord with the laws of physics and chemistry; rather, it is telling the meaningful story of its own life.
And then they will take it all back.
In other words, the routine language of biological description, highlighted in the earlier parts of this series, is fully accepted, only to be effectively disowned. The explanation for this remarkable intellectual flexibility lies in a widespread view that runs as follows. . . .