Existential Biology

The science of the nineteenth century was dominated by the perfectibility of knowledge. Fueled by the analytic/systematic distinction provided by Kant, the European thinkers of the day were bent on elucidating all the empirical rules that governed the universe. Even if the universe was infinite everything was potentially knowable and humans were capable of detached observation that could elucidate and name all these facts and rules.

Credit Mike Libby Insect Lab – Click for Link

As the nineteenth century came to a close reductionist empiricism had sown the seeds of its own demise. If human beings were themselves the product of the chance and rational processes of evolution, driven primarily by their own personal struggle for existence, were they really capable of detached observation? Where was the selective pressure for pure rationality? Would primitive man have benefited from quietly contemplating the origin and nature of the saber-tooth tiger while being stalked on the savannah? Certainly not, selection would have favoured those who had a rapid aggressive and emotional response, those dominated by the strong intent to live.

This reality began what would now be called an ‘existential crisis’ in philosophy that would eventually bleed into the natural sciences. Of course one of the major products of this crisis was existentialism itself. Not too oversimplify, but these developments can largely be traced to one very influential thinker: Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche turned German philosophy on its head. A self-proclaimed futurist, his writing defied the analytic methods of the day. Even his more direct exposés relied on allegory and metaphor. Yet some of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century found his philosophy indispensable. Martin Heidegger, the foremost student of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, would write literal volumes on Nietzsche. From this German foundation would grow the French school of Existentialism with Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This school in turn would usher in the most modern era with the likes of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

All well and pretty with a lot of important sounding names being dropped (the neophyte names the thinkers rather than the ideas he can’t understand), but what does it have to do with modern biology? Biology is the science tasked with understanding the nature of life itself. By the early twentieth century the advent of quantum mechanics had provided adequate grounding to explain most commonplace physical and chemical phenomena. Yet even the most advanced quantum theorist was at a loss to explain that most basic fact of human existence: Conscious thought. Husserl went back beyond Kant to the study of consciousness as proposed by Descartes. In his Cartesian Meditations he systematically examined the phenomena of thought and awareness and coined, in a Freudian tradition, the ego cogito. Translated literally as the ‘thinking self’, this conscious self is tied inexorably to the unconscious, and cannot step outside. It is a continual actor and presence in the world. Every step taken leaves a print, and this being is incapable, especially when considering its own self, of not changing the world around it. The twentieth century definition of self had found its birth and would inform a whole generation of philosophers.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, psychologists had begun the struggle with irrationality and identified the hidden unconscious. Yet the natural sciences at that time were still dominated by the Cartesian assumption that humans are a separate class of beings. Whatever may have been deemed necessary for the understanding or explanation of human beings did not have any implications on the understanding of animals or other living things.  As noted above, the understanding of human beings as a product of natural selection that allowed psychology to look more objectively at its subject would eventually find its way into biology. Certain biological phenomena appeared to defy naturalistic explanation. How could a goose imprint on a human being, displaying the non-human equivalents of love and devotion to a being to which it had no real selective relationship? Lorenz demonstrated traits that could not have been selected for directly, but instead required the selection of higher order cognitive processes. For all intents and purposes it appeared that animals were capable of what was a rudiment of abstract thought.

The questions addressed daily in the humanities defy even the most advanced quantum explanation, yet all are products of the human mind. These and all other conscious phenomena are genuine emergent properties, impossible to explain from even the most complete explanation of lower order components. Existentialism – exploring the human actor as embedded in a world that is not of its choosing or creation – is a well developed philosophical perspective that allows for a certain degree of deeper explanation.  That which cannot be addressed by our current naturalistic understanding of the world will benefit from any dissection of their traits that incorporates the phenomenological and existential paradigms,  well developed in the early post-modern era.


Incredible artist website for which I did not feel comfortable using images without permission:

Vladimir Gvozdariki – Mechanical works, all around incredible site and works


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