Biology Recapitulates Cosmology
19 November 2012
An idea that has had a great influence despite being at very least misleading and more often completely wrong is that of recapitulation — also called embryological parallelism or the biogenetic law (the latter by Ernst Haeckel, who was also the originator of ecology). Recapitulation was most famously summed up in the phrase:
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
The idea here is that the development of the individual organism recapitulates, or reproduces in miniature, the phylogenetic history of the species to which the individual belongs. The often mistaken idea of recapitulation as it has been applied to biology, however, did have fortunate although unintended benefits, because in looking for evidence of recapitulation biologists began seriously studying developmental processes. Early on this primarily took the form of experimental embryology, but later become more sophisticated. This developmental interest eventually led to the study of evolutionary developmental biology, which is now usually referred to as evo-devo.
Quine took up the theme of recapitulation in order to cleverly skewer metaphysics in the best tradition of Post-Positivist Thought, which he formulated as follows:
Ontology recapitulates philology.
In other words, ontology, in presuming to detail the structure of reality, just gives us back again the structure of language by which we have attempted to describe the world, however imperfectly. The implied corollary here is that different languages with different philologies will yield different ontologies (an idea better known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis).
So what has evo-devo and Quinean post-positivism to do with biology in relation to cosmology? We can understand the traditional recapitulation idea as a variation on another ancient human idea, that of the microcosm as a mirror of the macrocosm: the development of the individual as the microcosm mirrors the development of the species as the macrocosm. Similarly, terrestrial biology, as a complex ecological system on Earth, can be understood as the microcosm of the complex ecological system of cosmology, which here becomes the macrocosm. Thus as biology is the microcosm and cosmology the macrocosm, is it the case the biology recapitulates cosmology?
But do we even know, can be even say, what biology is or what cosmology is? Is it possible to make any generalization as sweeping as this without falling into incoherency? Generalizations are made, of course, but there is a question as to the legitimacy of any such generalization. The most common generalization about the whole of biology or cosmology is that they exhibit progress. Because this is one of the most common overall interpretations, it is only the interpretation that has been most refuted and has come under the heaviest attacks.
Stephen J. Gould has most memorably be associated with a consistent refusal to see progress in the history of life, and he expressed this forcefully in one of his later books, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, in which he returns time and again to the theme that life is overwhelmingly simple, and the human tendency (which we would now call anthropic bias, following Nick Bostrom) to see progress in this history of life is to distort the history of life by interpreting the whole of life in terms of a thin tail of complexity that emerges merely because life has a minimal bound of complexity. Since life cannot become less complex and still remain life, the essential variability of life will, with time, eventually blunder onto greater complexity because there is nowhere else for life to go. But that does not make greater complexity a trend, much less a driving force that results in ever more complex and sophisticated life forms.
“…I can marshal an impressive array of arguments, both theoretical (the nature of the Darwinian mechanism) and factual (the overwhelming predominance of bacteria among living creatures), for denying that progress characterizes the history of life as a whole, or even represents an orienting force in evolution at all…”
Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
Gould writes a bit like Darwin, who called his own Origin of Species “one long argument,” so it can be difficult to get just the right quote from Gould to illustrate his argument and his point of view, so the quote above should not be considered definitive. Thus the following quote also cannot be called definitive, but it does give a sense of Gould’s “big picture” conception of his work, and even suggests an approach to cosmology consistent with Gould’s ideas:
“…this book does have broader ambitions, for the central argument of Full House does make a claim about the nature of reality… I am making my plea by gentle example, rather than by tendentious frontal assault in the empyrean realm of philosophical abstraction (the usual way to attack the nature of reality, and to guarantee limited attention for want of anchoring). I am asking my readers finally and truly to cash out the deepest meaning of the Darwinian revolution and to view natural reality as composed of varying individuals in populations — that is, to understand variation itself as irreducible, as ‘real’ in the sense of ‘what the world is made of.’ To do this, we must abandon a habit of thought as old as Plato and recognize the central fallacy in our tendency to depict populations either as average values (usually conceived as ‘typical’ and therefore representing the abstract essence or type of the system) or as extreme examples…”
Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
Gould, as the great enemy of progressivism (and, as we see in the above passage, a passionate advocate of nominalism), may be contrasted with Kevin Kelly’s explicit defense of progress in his recent book What Technology Wants (which I have written about in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium). In Chapter 5 of his book, “Deep Progress,” Kelly takes the bull by the horns and against much recent thought and much well-justified cynicism, argues that progress is real. Aware of the difficulties his argument faces, Kelly states up from the expected objections:
“Any claim for progressive change over time must be viewed against the realities of inequality for billions, deteriorating regional environments, local war, genocide, and poverty. Nor can any rational person ignore the steady stream of new ills bred by our inventions and activities, including new problems generated by our well-intentioned attempts to heal old problems. The steady destruction of good things and people seems relentless. And it is.”
Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5
Despite these difficulties, Kelly soldiers on finishes his chapter on progress as follows:
“…there will be problems tomorrow because progress is not Utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except Utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expanding possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now.”
Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5
It is admirable that Kelly makes a distinction between progress as a direction of development and progress as an end or aim. What Kelly is doing here is to posit non-teleological progress, and this is an idea that deserves attention. Non-teleological progress only partially blunts the force of Gould’s determined opposition to finding progress in history, because Gould often assumes without stating that progress implies a goal toward which a progress of development is developing, but whether or not it answers all of Gould’s objections, it deserves attention if for no other reason than that it confounds expectations and assumptions about historical thought.
Kelly, in arguing for increasing complexity against a tradition denying historical progress or trends as anthropocentric, is himself part of another emerging tradition, that is the growing discipline of Big History. In the works of David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Fred Spier, inter alia, the central theme of history conceived as a whole from the big bang to the present day is the theme of increasing complexity.
Does the universe, on the whole, exhibit increasing complexity? We could bring to cosmology essentially the same arguments that Gould used in biology, especially since Gould wrote that he had wider ambitions for his ideas. It would be easy to argue that the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium, in the same way that life is overwhelmingly composed of bacteria. Just as life has a minimal bound of complexity, and only blunders into higher complexity because it has nowhere else to go, so too matter has a lower bound of complexity — ordinary baryonic matter composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons doesn’t get any simpler than hydrogen — and it could be said that it is only with accidental variation over time that complexity emerges in the universe because matter has nowhere else to go except in the direction of greater complexity.
Thus we can admit the existence of greater complexity in biology or cosmology, but it would be a mistake to argue that this complexity is the telos of the whole, or that it is a trend, or that it is even predominant. In fact, we know that bacteria predominate in life and that hydrogen predominates in cosmology. The later emergence of complexity does not alter the overwhelming predominance of the simple, and to judge of the whole by a long and very narrow tail of complexity is to allow the tail to wag the dog.
Between the inner intimacies of biology that transpire unnoticed within our bodies, and the distant and impersonal life cycles of stars and galaxies and the cosmos, unnoticed by us because it is too large and too slow to play a role in human perception, there lies the broad ground of human history. Even if biology and cosmology can be interpreted in terms of overwhelming simplicity and the absence of any trend or progress, does this have any relevance for human affairs?
It should be evident that human history, the macroscopic doings of human beings on a human scale of time, can be interpreted either according to the Gould model or according to the model of progress that one finds in Kevin Kelly and Big History.
I have mentioned in an earlier post, Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, how I came to realize that history can be a powerful method of conveying an interpretation, and it is wrong to understand history in the sense of a list of names, dates, and places in the spirit of what might be called histoire vérité.
This is a sense of historiography most famously attributed to Leopold van Ranke, who wrote:
“History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the account for the benefit of future ages. To show high offices the present work does not presume; it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen].”
Later historians have endlessly debated what exactly Ranke had in mind when he mentioned showing that actually happened; even if Ranke thought (as he is usually interpreted) that there is a single unique and correct account of history, there is no single and unique account of Ranke.
There is an Hegelian interpretation of Ranke’s much-discussed aside on showing what actually happened (“wie es eigentlich gewesen,” which has, of course, been translated in varying ways), according to which “gewesen” must be understood in an essentialist sense, so that to say what really happened is to give the essence of what happened — and this, I hope you will agree, can be very different from giving “the facts, just the facts.”
This Hegelian-essentialist interpretation of Ranke is illuminated by a famous aphorism of Hegel’s such that, “The real is the rational and the rational is the real.” When this is read through contemporary spectacles it doesn’t make any sense at all, because we tend to think of the “real” as that which really is or really happened, and we know very well that the world as it is has no end of irrationality in it, so that to say that for Hegel to say that the real is the rational makes Hegel look like a fool or worse. If, however, we understand the “real” to be the essentially true, or even the genuine — so that Hegel’s aphorism can be rendered, “The genuine is the rational and the rational is the genuine” — it suddenly becomes clear how the real and the rational might be systematically interrelated.
Here we encounter the deeper ontological substratum of these divergent interpretations of history, whether natural, human, or cosmological. The difference between the orientation of Gould and the orientation of Kelly and others is the difference between nominalism and essentialism. Nominalist historiography can give us all the facts, but ultimately cannot do anything more than sum up the facts. If you sum up the totality of life or the totality of matter in the universe, you are forced to acknowledge that life is overwhelmingly bacteriological in nature, and the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium.
There is, for the nominalist, nothing to say beyond this. The essentialist, however, finds a narrative buried within the mountain of facts, but there are many essentialists, and they all have their own narratives. And essentialism is weakened by the one thing that can never touch nominalism: underdetermination. All essentialist accounts are underdetermined by the evidence. Nominalist accounts on principle never go beyond the evidence, and for that reason they are not underdetermined by the evidence, but they are also unable to say anything relevant about the meanings and values that constitute the daily bread and butter of human life. And so our strict conscience may suggest to us that we ought to stop with nominalism, but our less-than-strict human conscience suggests to us that there is something more than an undifferentiated mountain of facts.
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