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Biology 202
2006 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Teleodynamics: A theoretical romp

Brooks Ambrose

This paper discusses the difference between the methods of reduction and emergence with a thought toward grounding the paradigmatic uniqueness of the analysis of living systems. It introduces the concept of information and gives a preliminary characterization in a functional frame of reference. This paper makes no argument other than those implicit in the theoretical discussions.

Reduction is a method of scientific inquiry in which researchers reduce big things to their "nothing buts"; for instance, one may, by decomposing each level of organization one encounters, reduce the muscle of an animal through stages to the atoms that comprise it (and even further if one desires). This methodology is responsible for many of the scientific advances achieved in modern times. However, on the heels of the success of reduction, a complimentary (yet critical) paradigm of inquiry is gaining prominence. Called "emergence," this methodology asks what is lost at every reduction, that is, it identifies the properties of structures that are defined by particular configurations of component parts, properties that disappear when components are analyzed in isolation.

Emergence is "something more from nothing buts" (1). For example, when reduced, water and ice are both described in terms of the same molecule. However, the property of the buoyancy of ice in water is emergent; it depends on differences in relationships among H2O molecules that vary according to thermodynamic conditions.

In general, emergence is concerned with explaining the hows and whys of structural organization. The reader may have noticed that the difference between water and ice was discovered by process of reduction, by understanding the properties of H2O as an individual molecule. A more appropriate example of emergent methods is explaining why one snowflake differs in structure from another. Researchers suggest that the structure of snowflakes is path dependent; it depends on, among other things, the pattern of temperature change through which the snowflake travels as it falls, with different paths yielding different structures (2).

The careful reader will note that, insofar as they apply to understanding H2O, reduction and emergence are methodological techniques, not theoretical paradigms. At the end of the day, buoyancy and snowflake structure are both explained by theoretical models based on the same thermodynamic (concerning energy) and morphodynamic (concerning matter) principles. Once the correct model is discovered, it makes little difference whether one thinks of the relevant level of organization as emergent or reduced; emergence may be treated as the inverse of reduction and vice versa.

Though the method of reduction has been fruitfully applied to living systems, a serious problem seems to arise when a researcher attempts to achieve an emergent explanation by inverting a reductive biological explanation. To illustrate this point I will rely on a talk given by Ursula Goodenough at a recent forum (1). In her discussion, Dr. Goodenough proceeded to, in a stepwise fashion, reduce a big thing called "muscle-based motility" (the type of locomotion found in animals) to the property of muscle contraction, and then to the structure of muscle fibers, and to that of muscle fiber fibers, and then to the molecular mechanisms of kinesin and myosin motors (3), and on until arriving at the atomic makeup of the relevant protein molecules, and finally to the origin of that atomic material in the death of stars (stopping short of a foray into subatomic particles). Then, to illustrate emergent biological explanations, Goodenough "played the movie backwards," showing how atoms arrange into molecules that arrange into proteins, and then how proteins arrange into molecular motors that allow the contraction of fibers that can be arranged in a series of bundles to produce the muscles that allow animals who possess them to achieve muscle-based motility.

As with buoyancy and snowflake structure, the reductive method yields biological explanations of emergent properties based in thermodynamic and morphodynamics models. Unfortunately, unlike in the cases of buoyancy and snowflake structure, this particular emergent path, even if it provides an excellent understanding of how muscles work, does not seem to exhaust all of the hows and whys about the structural organization of muscle-based motility. While the properties of matter and energy sometimes produce a highly organized structures like snowflakes, biological systems cannot be organized from their components so spontaneously. While it is plausible that certain basic structures of muscle organization are capable of self-assembly, for example, the actin-based myosin motors, at a certain level of organization the muscle (not to mention the whole organism) exhibits a structure that requires additional explanation. Why, for instance, does an animal develop a particular pattern of muscles instead of another? How is the movement of many muscles coordinated to achieve movement of the whole body, and why does motility tend to move an animal toward sources of food and away from danger? The origin and functioning of the structural patterns implicit in these questions do not seem to be fully explainable in terms of the matter and energy constitutive of an organism.

The conclusion that some thinkers have come to is that the improbable structures and functioning of living systems cannot be explained without recourse to the concept of information, another unit of physical reality interdependent with matter and energy (4). The interdependency of this triadic formulation must be appreciated. Information does not exist outside of matter or outside of systems that depend on energy. On the other hand, the majority of matter and energy in the universe exists without information. As a consequence, we must allow two paradigms of physical inquiry: the two-dimensional paradigm of thermodynamics and morphodynamics, and the three dimensional paradigm that incorporates information. However, as the buoyancy and snowflake examples make clear, information should not be identified with all improbable structures in the world, only with a particular type of improbable structure, a living system. Even with reference to its native context, life, information should be treated as the phenomenon that accounts for much, but not all, of the organized structure of living things (remember, much of living structure is still 2 dimensional in origin).

The pervasive quality of life that most confounds analysis is the complex interconnectivity between its own components and with itself as system in the context of an environment. The necessity of treating living systems as wholes requires that they be categorized in a functional frame of reference. Functional propositions require that discrete units be understood in terms of their consequences for the system as a whole. Goodenough uses the term "teleodynamics" to recognize the logical domain of functional inquiry. Information is assumed to be the unit that combines with matter and energy to allow living systems. While the autonomy and independent variability of information is important, within a functional frame of reference we must emphasize the role of information in the context of the whole organism.

Please forgive the cursory nature of this discussion, but I tend to think that the concept of information is easily reified if a theorist is not careful. Without much reflection, I treat information as any structural pattern that is a component to a pattern cascade that resonates through stages of material structures in or adjacent to an organism. As a general property, each stage in a cascade involves the use of energy to restructure matter for the purpose of either maintaining continuity in a pattern or of achieving a new level of organization dependent on a coding structure. During this process patterns tend to decrease in mass or energy during encoding stages and tend to increase in mass or energy during decoding stages. We tend to only refer to the smallest, most densely organized pieces of matter as information, for instance, any coded messages, perhaps because they tend to have the special properties of mobility and storability that allow us to separate them in our minds from the totality of the system. We tend not to refer to the message transmitter or to the decoder as information structures in their own right. Moreover, we do not tend to consider the structural consequences of a decoded message to be an example of information. To use the example of a locked door, we tend to see the pattern of the key as information, but we ignore the patterns embedded in the lock, the position of the deadbolt and the door handle, the actual open or closed pattern of the entryway itself, or the fact that the whole system seems to have been suspiciously designed to accommodate an organism about as tall as your average human adult. The organization imbedded in every systematic component of a pattern cascade fall under the special phenomenological domain of teleodynamics. We should not confuse the resonant movement of a pattern through the matter of an organism using the energy of the organism with a particular manifestation of that pattern in a given location and time.

The implication of the above caveat is that at a certain point the pattern cascade appears to leave the organism, that is, there is a fundamental point where pattern movement takes the form of the organism restructuring the environment at the boundary of the organism. We generally do no refer to the patterns that emerge at this moment as information. However, nowhere in the space between gathering of environmental information and the execution of an information-based command is it obvious where to draw the line between information and energy. It is in this sense that information is a relational unit rather than an essential unit of living organization (5). The significance of these relativistic formulations is to focus our attention on the idiosyncratic nature of the empirical structures under examination.

1) Goodenough, Ursula. "Emergence: Nature's mode of creativity." Talk delivered on April 8, 2006 at the Global Philosophy Forum at Haverford College. A recording of the speech should soon be available in the Haverford library.



4) For a discussion of the pitfalls of reductionism and an alternative paradigm for biological theory, see: Grobstein, P. 1988. From the head to the heart: Some thoughts on similarities between brain function and morphogenesis, and on their significance for research methodology and biological theory. Experientia 44; 960-971. Available online at


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