Emergence in Biology

From organicism to systems biology

Authored by: Emily Herring , Gregory Radick

The Routledge Handbook of Emergence

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138925083
eBook ISBN: 9781315675213
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315675213-29

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Abstract

The idea that a causal system as a whole can have features that no one studying the component parts in isolation would have guessed predates the twentieth century. But the widespread use of the term “emergence” as a name for this idea does not. It derives from a 1923 book about evolution by the British scientist and philosopher Conwy Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution (Morgan, 1923). Nowadays, Morgan’s term leads two lives in biology. One is as the familiar label for an important but, from the perspective of conventional science, unchallenging class of phenomena. Richard Dawkins, the great publicist in our day for a disenchanted, matter-in-motion understanding of Darwinian nature, describes the human capacity to act against the interests of our selfish genes as an emergent property of brains that evolved in the service of those genes (Dawkins, 2017, pp. 3, 39–40). The term’s other life – our main concern here – is more philosophically colourful and, for the likes of Dawkins, disreputable. Following Morgan’s lead, emergence has been a perennially attractive option for biologists and others seeking a middle path between the extremes of what Morgan’s generation called “mechanism” – the view that life is nothing but (and so fully reducible to) complex machinery – and “vitalism” – the view that life is something more than (and so not fully reducible to) complex machinery. Emergence in this anti-reductionist sense has overlapped untidily with a range of anti-reductionist stances and schools, from organicism in the first third of the twentieth century to systems biology in the first third of the twenty-first century. Even a brief history of emergence in biology will, of necessity, be a history of anti-reductionist tendencies in post-1900 biology more broadly.

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