Section IV. Re-envisioning Nature; Re-envisioning Science 

Track 4: Beyond Mechanism: The Emergence and Evolution of Living Agents
(Adam Scarfe)

As our consultation involves a “collaborative endeavour in process” rather than merely a series of papers being read without further dialogue, there will be an expectation for track participants to have reviewed the key materials provided / referenced by each of us prior to the meeting. Please see the materials attached.

Each of the main sessions on the Saturday will consist in up to 30 minute presentations followed by 10-15 minutes of questions / discussion.

The Sunday morning session will involve topical discussions in which each of us will have the opportunity to make shorter presentations (e.g., 10-12 minutes) and to engage in further discussions, perhaps merging disparate ideas and moving beyond our original starting points. Just thinking out loud on the basis of what has been presented by each of us already, for example, one important topic might be a “homeostasis interpretation” of the development of behavioral habits on the part of organisms. Another might be some attempt at the reconciliation of the reductionism – emergentism/holism dichotomy.

Saturday, June 6th, 2015:

Session #3a: 11:00am11:45am

Adam Scarfe (University of Winnipeg) – “Beyond Mechanism: The Emergence and Evolution of Living Agents”


Darwin never explained to us what really transpired in his ‘Warm Little Pond,’ which was the metaphor he gave in private correspondence symbolizing how life might have originated. Nor did Darwin provide any insight into the connection, if any, between his a-biogenetic hypothesis, and Natural Selection, which he held to be the efficient cause of organismic evolution. Taking these Darwinian lacunae as our starting point and considering the hypothesis that organisms are selective agents in the evolutionary process, namely, “loci of valuative-selective activity” (Beyond Mechanism: Putting Life Back Into Biology, p. 264), rather than merely objects upon which Natural Selection acts, the focus of this consultation will be to explore how living agents emerged from so-called ‘inanimate nature’ and how they evolved.

This presentation does three things. First, looking back to Beyond Mechanism: Putting Life Back Into Biology, which saw to the 2013 publication of the “proceedings” of our biology consultation that was held in Claremont in 2010, I ask whether some of its findings be extended? Second, I will summarize some of the main claims of a recent article entitled “On Ethotype, Epigenetics, and Organic Selection: Process-Relational Ontology and Behavior in Evolutionary Biology” (see attached) which points to the key role that behavior plays in evolutionary processes and that organisms are dynamic agents of selection. Third, I will briefly review Addy Pross’ book, What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, examining the notion of “Kinetic Selection” and its possible connections to / discordances with the view that organisms are “loci of valuative-selective activity.”

Session #3b: 11:45am-12:30pm

J Scott Turner (SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry): “The Emergence of Life: Are We Looking at it Backwards?”:

The origin of life stands as a recalcitrant problem for the modern atomist and materialist conception of life. There have been many ingenious attempts to build credible reductionist theories for life’s origin, all of which get us very close to a theory for the spontaneous emergence of life from non-life. None have got us all the way there, however. Nor is there a credible Darwinian theory for the origin of life, largely because modern Darwinism has committed itself wholly to gene-selectionism. Modern Darwinism cannot explain the origin of life, because modern Darwinism has no credible theory for the origin of the gene, or for any form of hereditary memory. I take the reader through these many ingenious attempts, and I make the argument that these attempts have failed because they have failed to appreciate the essential message that it is homeostasis that distinguishes life from non-life. If we are to understand the origin of life, then, the question becomes the origin of homeostasis. The ultimate shortcoming of nearly all extant theories for the origin of life, from Darwin’s own “warm little pond”, to Huxley’s protoplasm, to coacervates, to RNA world, to the recent theory of dynamic kinetic stability, boils down, then, to the failure to explain the origin of homeostasis. These approaches are doomed to fail because they all look for the origin of life from the molecular scale up. At this scale, the ferocious force of diffusion will always subvert the emergence of homeostatic systems. Recent developments in thermodynamics of open system point to an alternative point of view: homeostasis, and life, first emerged on Earth at large scale, perhaps at planetary scale, followed by the subsequent encapsulation and miniaturization of life. Thus, Gaia becomes not only a physiological theory of life, it becomes a theory of the origin of life itself.

Scott has generously enclosed a part of Chapter 9 of his book for our perusal. Please find it attached.

Session #4a: 2:00pm-2:45pm

Gernot Falkner (University of Salzburg) – “The Physiological Requirement for the Evolution of Species”:

An organism is the producer of its own structures. The biochemical manifestation of the relation between producer and its product is revealed in the mutual physiological adaptation of energy converting subsystems, aimed at establishing an energetically favourable structure under the prevailing environmental conditions. In this process the subsystems pass, via an adaptive operation mode, from one adapted state to the next. In adaptive operation modes the cell functions as a producer of the structural components of adequate adapted states. We postulate that the energy flow through a living system serves as a medium for an organism-specific “field of tension,” guiding the potentially useful reconstruction of energy converting subsystems when an external influence disturbs a stationary state of optimal efficiency. This field of tension is energized when the shape of the organism is deformed by an external influence and becomes less energized when the organism returns to its original form. In this coordinated creation and transformation of structures the organism expresses itself physically, in order to exert pressure on its surroundings, such that an adequate environment (Umwelt) emerges. It is explained why the different modes by which organism express themselves become more and more complex in the evolution of species and finally lead to linguistic forms of expression. The fact that all living organisms constantly have to produce themselves by creative processes has far-reaching consequences for theories about the origin of life.

Session #4b: 2:45pm-3:30pm

Lawrence Cahoone (College of the Holy Cross) – “Emergence and Animal Mind”:

Understanding mind is indeed a problem, or rather, a set of problems. But once we accept that reductive explanations and emergence are compatible and mutually required to explain most natural systems, that living systems are teleonomic and purposeful, and that there is no good reason to deny mental activity or states to nonhuman organisms, the existence of a unique “explanatory gap” between mind and a homogeneously “physical world,” evaporates. It is replaced by the problem of explaining how mind arises in neurologically complex animals, and how mental states can play a naturally selectable “downwardly causal” role in self-organizing of neural processes, and thus, how teleonomy can become teleology. The work of Antonio Damasio, Roger Sperry, Fred Dretske, and Alicia Juarrero are helpful in this project.

Please find attached a far more detailed 7-page synopsis of Larry’s work, that he has graciously provided to us, attached.

Session #5a: 4:00pm-4:45pm

Philip Rose (University of Windsor, Canada) – “The Problem of Life and a Plausible Emergence Theory”:

I have been wrestling with questions surrounding the status of living agents and the ontology of mechanism for many years now, and have become more and more convinced that ‘the problem of life’ is itself expressive of fundamental inadequacies and severe limits inherent within the mechanistic model. Nevertheless, there also appears to be some truth within the mechanistic model, for the idea of mechanism does appear to capture or express something important about the order of Nature or world that should not be dismissed or ignored. As a result, any attempt to give an account of Nature or world that goes beyond mechanism would be wise to accommodate those aspects of phenomena that seem to have a mechanistic dimension or character.

My own work in this area draws heavily upon the philosophies of A.N. Whitehead and C.S. Peirce (as well as recent work by Bruno Latour). One of the things that I think is most needed if we are to go beyond mechanism is a plausible theory of emergence. To this end I have been attempting to weave together elements from the evolutionary metaphysics of Whitehead and Peirce, as well as the more ecologically oriented ontology of Latour.

Session #5b: 4:45pm-5:30pm

Roger Briggs (Highland Institute, Boulder, Colorado) – “Journey to Civilization and the Rise of a New Humanity”:

The Evolutionary Worldview has now emerged as a major new paradigm for humanity, rivaling the Copernican revolution in its significance. The Great Story that is now being told through the genre of Big History comes directly from mainstream science and displaces the static view of humanity that asserts a fixed human nature and therefore a pessimistic view of our future prospects. The book Journey to Civilization: The Science of How We Got Here is Briggs’ version of the Great Story and an exploration of the science behind it. In this talk Briggs will focus on the evolution of the Homo lineage that originated some 2.5 million year ago. The archaeological record now reveals clear stages of cultural evolution punctuated by dramatic developmental leaps, and these can be correlated with the cultural stages first proposed by Jean Gebser, and later by Clare Graves, Ken Wilber, Merlin Donald and others. Underlying these stages of culture are structures of consciousness that are also evolving, and all signs point to an emerging new culture and consciousness that became apparent in the twentieth century. But what is it? Synthesizing the work of Gebser and Donald with the wisdom traditions and modern science, Briggs will propose for discussion Seven Markers of Evolving Consciousness to celebrate and support the rise of a new Humanity.

Sunday, June 7th, 2015:

Session #6a: 11:00am-11:30am

Lukasz Lamza (Pontifical University / Whitehead Metaphysical Society in Krakow, Poland) – “The Multiple Origins of Multicellularity – The Individual and the Community in Biological Systems”:

The purpose of the paper is first to quickly review what is known about the five independent origins of “true” (“complex”) multicellularity – in animals, fungi, brown algae, red algae and plants. This review is followed by a synthetic description of those biological processes/cellular activities that are most important for the process of “multicellularization”, e.g. division of labor and proliferation of cell types, intercellular adhesion and communication, coordination of cell division, programmed cell death. Having established that, we may turn our attention to the general idea of solitary/social character of life of unicellular organisms. It is proposed that the idea of solitary life (and of an independent individual) is a fiction – which is evinced by the common presence of the tell-tale signs of multicellular organization in formally unicellular organisms – and that “multicellularization” should be seen as a transition from one kind of social lifestyle to another. This helps us to solve a number of apparent mysteries, such as a lack of apparent revolution in protein export statistics as one moves from unicellular to multicellular organisms. Even more generally, discussing the evolution of multicellular organisms allows us to revisit a number of key problems in philosophy of biology, such as what is the unit of selection, what is an organism and can one consistently and formally treat the whole biosphere as a single organism.


Session #6b: 11:45am-12:30am

Philip Tryon – “Organisms, Memory, Quantum Physics, and Agency”:

It is through memory that past events influence the present. Organisms possess both innate and individually acquired memory in the form of structural, behavioral, and social habits. In the course of prehension, could inherited and individual habits be the sources of inclinations? According to mechanism, inherited habits are based on code in the DNA while individually acquired habits emanate from patterns in the neural structure. Yet the process of embodiment is the same in either case. This appears to violate Occam’s razor. To make matters worse for mechanists, there is often overlap between acquired and individual habits. Ultimately, habit-as-code is inconsistent with process philosophy because:

– Making use of information stored as code requires a decoding system and a central processing arrangement. While compatible with a machine, such a model is incapable of accounting for organic entities where information and agency are distributed among the parts.

– Process philosophy is incompatible with dualism so information and know how cannot always be external to matter.

– Whitehead eschewed explanations based on a rearrangement of the parts.

It is recognized in both quantum physics and process philosophy that a material system with multiple potentials reduces to a concrete outcome when measured or otherwise engaged by an agent. But while q.m. asserts that the result of measurement is randomly selected from the possibilities, process philosophers understand that results may be influenced by inclinations.

In the course of an actual occasion where habits are the source of inclinations, is it not likely that an outcome might be favored if it corresponds to what has happened previously under similar circumstances? This assumption – that under similar conditions an outcome will be favored if it has happened before – not only results in habits, it also provides a basis for explaining agency: Applying a habit in an uncertain and changing world requires improvisation.

Session #7a: 2:00pm-2:30pm


Session #7b: 2:30pm-3:00pm


Session #7c: 3:00pm-3:30pm



Suggestions for further reading: 

1. Henning, B. and Scarfe, A. (eds.). Beyond Mechanism: Putting Life Back Into Biology. Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield, 2013

2. Pross, Addy. What is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012

3. Turner, J. Scott. The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009

4. Briggs, Roger. Journey to Civilization: The Science of How We Got Here. Collins Foundation Press, 2013 

5. Weber, Bruce. “Emergence of Life and Biological Selection from the Perspective of Complex Systems Dynamics,” in de Vijver, S. Salthe, and Delpos (eds.), Evolutionary Systems, Springer, 1998




Turner.Chapter 9 v3

Falkner.Deacon.Discussion: The unsolved problem of the creation and inheritance of organismic forms

Lamza: The multiple origins of multicellularity – the individual and the community in biological systems

Roger Briggs: Journey to Civilization and the Rise of a New Humanity

Rose: The Anthropocene, Cultural-Technological Life, and the Ecological Turn: Rethinking Nature and Humanity via a Real Relation to the Possible

Rose: Peirce’s Cosmology Made Clear, then Extended

Rose: Relational Creativity and The Symmetry of Freedom and Nature

Tryon: Process Philosophy, Memory, and Relationship