An Interview with Professor Brian Goodwin
by Dr. David King
David King is a molecular biologist and editor of GenEthics News.
Professor Brian Goodwin authored How the Leopard Changed Its Spots and is in the Department of Biology at The Open University, Great Britain.
The interview was published in GenEthics News, Issue 11, March/April 1996, pp. 6-8.
What are your criticisms of the prevailing paradigms in biology, particularly Darwinism?
Brian Goodwin: My main criticism of Darwinism is that it fails in its initial objective, which is to explain the origin of species. Now, let me explain exactly what I mean by that. I mean it fails to explain the emergence of organisms, the specific forms during evolution like algae and ferns and flowering plants, corals, starfish, crabs, fish, birds. That sort of spectrum of organism, each of which is distinct from the other. They don't blend with each other, they are distinct from each other. Now the problem is that in order to understand that the kind of distinct structure and form we have to understand how organisms are actually generated, and that means understanding how starting with an egg or a bud, the organism goes through a developmental process and ends up as a particular type of species with a particular morphology (shape and features). So the whole problem then is to try to understand the nature of that process. One of the fundamental issues is whether or not you can get more or less any kind of organism, or whether there are constraints. Darwin turned biology into a historical science, and in Darwinism, species are simply accidents of history, they don't have any inherent nature. They are just 'the way things happened to work out' and there aren't any particular constraints that mean it couldn't have all worked out very differently. An example is the structure of the arm and the wings of birds. There is always only bone at the top of the arm, never two, even though two would be very useful to birds, but it's never evolved. So it looks like this is something that simply cannot happen because there is an intrinsic constraint on that process. Now there is plenty of evidence that that kind of constraint exists through the whole of biology. In other words, the reason why species are distinct is because you have only got certain types of forms, that can actually be generated by the developmental process. That really begins to shift the emphasis with respect to how we understand the different species and how they are related to each other.
In order to get a really firm grip on this, we actually need a theory of the whole organism and its transformation. Organisms are organized wholes. That's why they have these constraints. The sort of theory that you need to understand morphogenesis involves understanding the components which organisms are made. You certainly need to know a lot about molecules, but you have to understand how they are put together and what sort of dynamics is involved. Now this is where these new sciences that are called the sciences of complexity come into the picture, where you actually look at the dynamics of complex systems, and see how emergent order arises, in often very unexpected ways. This happens because of what we call the relational order, the relationship between the components. It doesn't matter so much what the components are, what they are made of. The really important thing is the way they interact, and that is what determines the type of order that is going to emerge. Now what I and my colleagues are trying to do is to, in a sense, make a map between the pathways of morphogenesis that are available to species organized in a particular way, like algae or plants or amphibians, and to map that onto taxonomy (classification of species). In other words, it's trying to make sense of what we see in evolution by having a theory of morphogenesis (development of shape and form), and making a map between morphogenesis and taxonomy. So it's turning biology into a rational science rather than a historical science. There is no conflict. Everything that happens has a history, so in a sense all sciences have a historical component, but physics of course also has a very strong rational tradition. The whole point is to try to understand why certain structures are necessary, and this is exactly what we do in physics and the new biology. We are asking why has this particular structure emerged in the biological world and this makes biology much more like physics than the historical science that we got from Darwin.
How does your new model of biology incorporate genetics?
Goodwin: A major problem is that in contemporary Darwinism, organisms are actually reduced to genes and their products. Darwinism has given us a very good theory of inheritance in terms of a theory of the genes, but what it has done is to sacrifice the whole organism, as a real entity, to this reductionism, genetic reductionism. That means that organisms have disappeared as real entities from biology, and that, I think, this is a fundamental scientific error. There's another aspect of this problem which has to do with the way Darwinists explains embryonic development. They say that there is a genetic program that determines the development of an organism. An organism wants to become a newt, say, or a sea urchin. Because it has particular genes, they say, it undergoes a particular embryonic development and that is sufficient, in other words knowing the genes is sufficient to understand the details of the embryonic development, and the emergence of a species with its characteristic form and behavior. That sounds, on the face of it, plausible because we know that mutations actually cause transformation of morphology. Drosophila can have a mutation that transforms a two winged fly to a four winged fly. Now that is a pretty major transformation, and a single gene can do it. So you might say that's the sort of thing that is involved in evolution. Well, you see, the burden of proof then is on the neo-Darwinists to demonstrate exactly how the genes do this. They use the term genetic programming, and it is a metaphor for what happens in a computer, but if you ask them to use a genetic program to generate an organism, they can't do it, and the reasons are very simple. You need to know more than gene products in order to explain the emergence of shape and form in organisms. You actually need a theory, a theory that involves physics, chemistry, forces and spatial organization. You can have complete details about genes and you are not going to be able to explain how development occurs. So I think that is the fundamental test. When Darwinists say to me 'genes are enough', I say 'Show me.'
What are the consequences of Darwinist reductionism?
Goodwin: Let me pick up again this issue of the disappearance of organisms as real entities. Because this really has quite profound consequences. I think that this precipitates a kind of crisis of understanding of living forms. It's an extreme reductionism that makes it impossible for us to understand concepts such as health. Health refers to wholes, the dynamics of whole organisms. We currently experience crises of health, of the environment, of the community. I think they are all related. They are not caused by biology by any means, but biology contributes to these crises by failing to give us adequate conceptual understanding of life and wholes, of ecosystems, of the biosphere, and it's all because of genetic reductionism. That's a pretty heavy charge, but let me just describe some of the consequences of genetic reductionism. Once you've got organisms reduced to genes, then organisms have no inherent natures. Now, in our theory of evolution, species are natural kinds, they are really like the elements, if you like. I don't mean literally, but they have the same conceptual status, gold has a certain nature. We are arguing that, say, a sea urchin of a particular species has a nature. Human beings have a nature. Now, in Darwinism, they don't have a nature, because they're historical individuals, which arise as a result of accidents. All they have done is pass the survival test. The Darwinian theory makes it legitimate to shunt genes around from any one species to any other species: since species don't have 'natures', we can manipulate them in any way and create new organisms that survive in our culture. So this is why you get people saying that there is really no difference between the creation of transgenic organisms, that is moving genes across species boundaries, and creating new combinations of genes by sexual recombination within species. They say that is no different to what is happening in evolution. Well, you know, in my book that's a bit like saying there is no difference between radioactive decay, radioactivity as you find it naturally in Uranium, and using that for nuclear energy. Once you scale something up to a particular level you are into a totally different scene. Now, I think that there are the same problems that arise with respect to creation of transgenics, and the reason is because of the utter unpredictability of the consequences of transferring a gene from one species to another. Genes are defined by context. Genes are not stable bits of information that can be shunted around and express themselves independently of context. Every gene depends upon its context. If you change the context, you change the activity of the gene. There are particular cases where that doesn't appear to happen. You put the human gene into bacteria and you get insulin out, but as you know, there is a recent case in the States where the insulin has actually modified and it's not working properly. And then you have got the problem of genes transferring from one transgenic to a related species, resulting in the problem of ecological meltdown, or ecological change that can be precipitated by the use of transgenic species in agriculture. I'm by no means against biotechnology. I just think that it is something that we have to use with enormous caution in its application. We need stringent safety protocols. Now those are the issues of safety, and they are very serious, because the rhetoric that goes with biotechnology is totally at variance with reality. The biotech companies don't want to face the consequences of this radical unpredictability which comes from the intrinsic complexity of organisms. But there is also this really thorny question of species as natural kinds. And when you transfer genes of one type of organism to another, what are you doing to the nature of the species, the recipient species? Now I think that's a very open question. I don't have a simple answer to this. I just think that it's again, something very serious. It raises ethical issues.
How would those ethical questions look in the light of your alternative model of biology?
Goodwin: There is a particular consequence of the idea that species are 'natural kinds' that, I think, is very important for a new type of science in relation to the living realm. It works like this. If you acknowledge that species are natural kinds, so they have natures, then it becomes possible to consider procedures whereby we can understand those natures, that is we go through a process of qualitative evaluation of the conditions under which those natures are being expressed, and cannot be expressed. Let me just clarify that in relation to some specific examples. We know when our domestic animals are distressed and in pain, when they are happy and so on and so forth. In other words we have spontaneous intuitive ways of evaluating the subjective state of domestic animals. Anybody who has an intimate relationship with an animal knows what its subjective states are. Now I say know, they would claim to know, and it seems perfectly legitimate, that claim. But the whole question now is whether we can turn that into a science of subjective states because that would then compliment the science of objectivity which is the mode of contemporary science. In other words what we would be developing is a science of qualities, of qualitative evaluation of other species, and therefore a method of deciding when organisms are being denied the opportunity to express their natures. And this is clearly extremely relevant to the way we treat not just domestic animals and farm animals, but the rest of living nature. And it's that relationship that we need, in order to heal these various crises of the environment and of health and of community, because we've even lost the concept of human nature. Human nature disappears as a concept from neo-Darwinism, and so life become a set of parts, commodities that can be shifted around. But the moment you recover this notion of nature, you are into a different world and you operate in a different way. Now this I think is a pretty urgent development, developing a science of qualities, and it's something we are engaged in at Schumacher College. It has to be done with groups, because you have to try to develop methods of qualitative assessment that are intersubjective, just in the same way that in conventional science the evaluation of what we call reality is dependent upon intersubjective consensus. We come together and carry out these procedures, like experiments and observations and so on, and come to an agreement,about what constitutes reality and what doesn't. And I think we can have a parallel procedure to that in a science of qualities. I think that that would be a fundamental contribution to this issue of how we treat other organisms and at what point a transgenic would be losing its nature.
How would the new science affect our social theories?
Goodwin: Well, another consequence of this new view of species and evolution is it does shift the metaphors that are used to understand evolutionary processes. In Darwinism, you know, the metaphors are of competition and conflict and survival, and in Dawkins' writing it becomes embodied in the notion of selfish genes. Well, from the perspective of organisms as complex dynamic systems, with natures and trying to understand the ecosystem from the point of view, what you find is that organisms are interacting with each other in all kinds of different ways. They are as co-operative as they are competitive, and a lot of the time they are simply making a living. In other words, it's not this nature red in tooth and claw, with fierce competition and the survivors coming away with the spoils. In fact, species extinction seems to be as much to do with the lottery which comes from the dynamics of complex systems, as from anything else. The whole metaphor of evolution, instead of being one of competition, conflict and survival, becomes one of creativity and transformation. When you take on that perspective and bring that into society then you say, all right, why don't we use those metaphors in our social system as well. The metaphors of just making a living, just getting by. Not getting profits into double figure percentages. Not survival through serious competition, but making a living and sharing. I'm not being Utopian, I'm not saying we are going to share everything, because there has to be a certain conflict and competition. But instead of making that the predominant mode, we say that's only one of the components of a vibrant creative society. And the sciences of complexity are really taking on this character of illuminating what it means to be creative. This concept of life at the edge of chaos. Now that is a pretty dramatic metaphor, but what it means is that you shouldn't have too much order. You shouldn't have too much chaos. Perhaps you should be at the point where you can move backwards and forwards between the two and actually be creatively responsive to circumstance. Now clearly, that model is very attractive, but when you look at the dynamics of those systems, you find that it is not driven by competition.They have a complex dynamic interaction and it's that which produces creativity. So the whole business about intellectual property rights and competition that we have in our society, people justify them saying they happen in nature. That is not what happens in nature at all. Nature as we read it now is a much more complex, coherent and creative type of process than the one we have in our social and economic system. So we can begin to contemplate the use of different metaphors and different instantiations of these biological metaphors. You always have to be careful with metaphors. You can't say this happens in biology, therefore it should happen in society. You have to examine it on its own merits. But I think that there is a lot to be said for a basic reevaluation of the metaphors we use in describing evolution, economics and social change, that is arising out of the new sciences.
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Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Brian Goodwin interview