Reductionism vs. reductionism

This 2004 essay by an evolutionary biologist reviewed his field’s direction in the current century:

“Science is impelled by two main factors, technological advance and a guiding vision (overview). A properly balanced relationship between the two is key to the successful development of a science.

Without the proper technological advances the road ahead is blocked. Without a guiding vision there is no road ahead; the science becomes an engineering discipline, concerned with temporal practical problems.

Empirical reductionism is in essence methodological; it is simply a mode of analysis, the dissection of a biological entity or system into its constituent parts in order better to understand it. Empirical reductionism makes no assumptions about the fundamental nature, an ultimate understanding, of living things.

Fundamentalist reductionism (the reductionism of 19th century classical physics), on the other hand, is in essence metaphysical. It is ipso facto a statement about the nature of the world: living systems (like all else) can be completely understood in terms of the properties of their constituent parts.

This is a view that flies in the face of what classically trained biologists tended to take for granted, the notion of emergent properties. Whereas emergence seems to be required to explain numerous biological phenomena, fundamentalist reductionism flatly denies its existence: in all cases the whole is no more than the sum of its parts.”

Regarding cellular evolution:

“Modern concepts of cellular evolution are effectively petrified versions of 19th century speculations. Try to imagine a biology released from the intellectual shackles of mechanism, reductionism, and determinism.

Evolution, as a complex dynamic process, will encounter critical points in its course, junctures that result in phase transitions (drastic changes in the character of the system as a whole). Human language is a development that has set Homo sapiens worlds apart from its otherwise very close primate relatives, adding new dimensions to the phase space within which human evolution occurs. Another good critical-point candidate is the advent of (eucaryotic) multicellularity.

Nowhere in thinking about a symbiotic origin of the eucaryotic cell has consideration been given to the fact that the process as envisioned would involve radical change in the designs of the cells involved. You can’t just tear cell designs apart and willy-nilly construct a new type of design from the parts.

The organization of the mitochondrial endosymbiont is radically changed during its evolution, but that change is a degeneration to a far simpler “cell-like” design. The mitochondrial design could never evolve back to the level of complexity that its free-living [bacterial] ancestor had.

A common thread that links language and multicellularity is communication (interaction at a distance). In each case a complex, sophisticated network of interactions forms the medium within which the new level of organization (entities) comes into existence.

Our experience with variation and selection in the modern context does not begin to prepare us for understanding what happened when cellular evolution was in its very early, rough-and-tumble phase(s) of spewing forth novelty. Cellular evolution began in a highly multiplex fashion, from many initial independent ancestral starting points, not just a single one.” “A New Biology for a New Century”

I came across this review by it being referenced in this researcher’s blog post:

Chinese Longevity Herb
I often don’t agree with him, but I subscribe to his blog because it’s interesting.


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