Since the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, we have seen the resurgence of a Victorian economic ethos, tight-fisted and pusillanimous. Whether tricked out in the technocratic jargon of neoliberalism or the truculent bromides of the Tea Party, this outlook depends at its core on the complementary assumptions that the poor have no one to blame but themselves and the rich are rich because they deserve to be. Such notions are rarely uttered out loud, but they animate the muddle of entrepreneurial fantasy, techno-utopianism, and money-worship that governs our public discourse. We have reentered the moral universe of Samuel Smiles (Self-Help) and Russell Conwell (“Acres of Diamonds”). Put those Victorian success ideologues in skinny jeans and untucked shirts and provide them each with a Frisbee and a few pat phrases about globalization and technology, and they would be comfortable peddling their rhetorical wares in Silicon Valley. Despite the endless chatter about “innovation,” our dominant ideas about success and failure have returned to the nineteenth century and remain stuck there.
But what is remarkable about our historical moment is that the return to nineteenth-century modes of thought is not confined to the ideology of success. We have not just resurrected the Victorian age’s moralizing homilies; we have also reconstructed its intellectual architecture, its habits of mind. Consider the “New Atheism.” Its chief representatives are the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the geneticist Richard Dawkins, and the philosopher Sam Harris—with political fervor provided by the deceased Islamophobe Christopher Hitchens and conceptual support by the psychologist Steven Pinker. These men have revived a critique of religion worthy of any village atheist in Sherwood Anderson’s Ohio or Edgar Lee Masters’s Illinois. Their ideal is not science but positivist scientism—the redefinition of science from a method to a metaphysic, promising precise answers to age-old ultimate questions. In this view, science is a source of certainty rather than an experimental way of knowing, and the only knowledge worth having is the kind obtained by quantifiable measurement. Scientistic thought is usually accompanied by a reductionist habit of mind, which ruthlessly pares down complex events to a single mechanistic causal explanation. (Two playful dogs are merely establishing dominance and subordination; human institutions from politics to marriage and childrearing are but fig leaves covering the eternal battle for access to scarce economic resources, etc.)
Scientism reached its prior apogee at the end of the nineteenth century, before its positivist certainties fell victim to challenges posed by thinkers in disciplines ranging from psychoanalysis to physics. But now scientism is back, coexisting comfortably—at times interdependently—with neoliberal capitalism and its promoters, whose only standard of value is quantifiable utility. The positivist impulse is most dominant in areas of inquiry that purport to illuminate the mysterious workings of the human mind. In this popular discourse, which infiltrates our public life at every pore, the most influential idioms are pop-Darwinism (known to its adherents as “evolutionary psychology”) and cognitive science. Despite their differences in conception and approach, these idioms have sunk in concert into the morass of half-baked ideas and stale buzzwords that constitutes science journalism.
Cognition, Ergo Sum
The resultant sticky mass is everywhere. Parts of it are available for purchase: National Public Radio features programs sponsored by Lumosity, the business that has promised to help you reach your “full potential in every aspect of life” as well as “stave off dementia, memory loss, and even Alzheimer’s disease” by selling you cognition-enhancing exercises based on the latest discoveries in neuroscience. (Recently, the company paid $2 million to the Federal Trade Commission to settle with customers bilked by its bogus claims.) The internet, too, is awash with smart pills and other cognitive breakthroughs. In the supposedly more sober realm of public affairs, the taglines of reductionist neuroscience provide faux-explanations of political events. At least once a day, somewhere in America, Donald Trump is described as appealing to the “reptilian” portion of his supporters’ brains. When the reporter is applying a thicker patina of expertise, Trump’s ability to “hijack the amygdala” is noted. This is the reduction of politics to pathology, reminiscent of Richard Hofstadter’s dismissal of the 1964 Goldwater campaign’s “paranoid style”—a favorite strategy ever since of self-styled “pragmatic centrists” patroling the boundaries of responsible opinion. Scientism depoliticizes political debate by bleaching it with bland claims of neutral expertise.
Positivists have always feared ambiguity. This visceral fear is a prescription for
But the greater dangers of scientism are subtler. It is an impoverished way of knowing, and the particular form the impoverishment takes depends on the idiom that its practitioners deploy. At this mass-market level, evolutionary psychologists reduce human actions to their supposedly adaptive purposes by imagining what life was like on the savannah thousands of years ago, while cognitive scientists equate the brain with a computer and the mind with its software, reducing thought to computation and intelligence to problem-solving. To be clear: these phrasings are the pet locutions of popularizers and propagandists and constitute the language that makes it into the background noise of conventional wisdom. This is not the discourse of serious scientists. These methods seek the simplest, most easily quantified answers to fundamental questions about human conduct; they produce sweeping generalizations devoid of idiosyncrasy or history.
Consider Pinker’s claim that Big Data has answered Big Questions that have (he assumes) troubled historians for some time: “Do democracies fight each other? What about trading partners? Do neighboring ethnic groups inevitably play out ancient hatreds in bloody conflict? Do peacekeeping forces really keep the peace? Do terrorist organizations get what they want? How about Gandhian nonviolent movements? Are post-conflict reconciliation rituals effective at preventing the renewal of conflict?” This is a TED-talk version of Big Historical Questions with either-or answers. Most serious historians would find Pinker’s to-do list of historical inquiry dualistic, formulaic, and stuck in the utilitarian present. But Pinker has no use for historians. “History nerds,” he writes,
can adduce examples that support either answer, but that does not mean the questions are irresolvable. Political events are buffeted by many forces, so it’s possible that a given force is potent in general but submerged in a particular instance. With the advent of data science—the analysis of large, open-access data sets of numbers or text—signals can be extracted from the noise and debates in history and political science resolved more objectively. As best we can tell at present, the answers to the questions listed above are (on average, and all things being equal) no, no, no, yes, no, yes, and yes.
Well, that’s a relief. In the face of Big Data, all the traditional tools of humanistic inquiry—archival research, close reading, attention to variety—can apparently be tossed aside. Particularity and contingency are submerged by “objectively” measurable Forces that are “potent in general.” This is what happens when scientism encounters history: it creates what Bill Gates, following David Christian, calls Big History—a pseudo-discipline that disregards how human beings engage with specific historical circumstances and remains indifferent to subjective experience.
Whether they favor a biological or a computational theory of thought, scientistic thinkers all depend on a behaviorist vision of consciousness, which cannot account for the visceral longings, anxieties, and aspirations that we call subjectivity. Behaviorists, in the positivist tradition, reject any attempt to understand the mind through introspection; inner life is simply off the table. Indeed, for Auguste Comte, who founded the philosophy he called Positivism in the 1830s, introspection was “merely a way to get lost,” as George Makari writes. The formulation is revealing. Positivists—whether they embraced Comte’s philosophy or simply shared his intellectual style—have always feared getting lost, feared ambiguity. This visceral fear is a prescription for reductionist explanations.
Contemporary theorists of mind are squarely in the positivist tradition. They have taken to putting scare quotes around “introspection,” as Dennett sometimes does. Such rhetorical tics betray a deeper unease with the raw material of consciousness. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel has written: “All these [reductionist] theories seem insufficient as analyses of the mental because they leave out something essential . . . The first-person, inner point of view of the conscious subject: the way sugar tastes to you or the way red looks or anger feels.” From the behaviorist view, consciousness is something that someone is doing, rather than a state of being in which the conscious person may seem to be doing nothing but is in fact engaged in anxious yearning, rigorous logic, ecstatic fantasy, meandering reverie, or some or none or all of the above. Consciousness has to be expressed as action; otherwise, it cannot be observed, measured, and counted.
The reductionist model of mind requires its devotees to reject any vestiges of vitalism they can sniff in the cultural atmosphere.
This behaviorist worldview is common to Artificial Intelligence researchers as well as to computer scientist Ray Kurzweil’s cult of Singularity, which anticipates the overtaking of human minds by computers in 2045. (Mark your calendars!) For the behaviorist, thinking can only be inferred from observable action in the world: this is how intelligence becomes equated with problem solving. When that troubling subjective dimension of life drops out of the picture altogether, it becomes easier to claim that computers can think. This is what passes for the contemporary science of mind at the level of popular discourse.
Thanks to books like Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (University of Chicago Press, 2015), we are beginning to discover that the propaganda peddled by Pinker, Kurzweil & Co. is not “science” per se but a singular, historically contingent version of it—a version that depends on the notion that nature is a passive mechanism, the operations of which are observable, predictable, and subject to the law-like rules that govern inert matter. This is the de-animated, disenchanted universe Max Weber associated with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of scientific rationality. It is also the universe inhabited in our own time by pop-Darwinian evolutionists, whose strict adaptationist program underwrites faith in automatic progress through natural selection—a process that operates independently of any individual organism’s desire but always evolves toward greater “fitness.” (The parallels this outlook shares with the Christian ideas of Providence and the humanist ideal of progress are striking.) Passive-mechanistic accounts of reality and experience did not mandate reductionist scientism, but they did make it the only alternative to transcendental religiosity—i.e., the belief in an immaterial soul or mind. This either-or assumption has characterized theories of mind down to the present. The passive-mechanist worldview, by eliminating purpose and agency from the nonhuman world, allowed Christians to cling to their belief in the uniqueness of the human soul and humanists to cling to their belief in the uniqueness of the human mind. Those beliefs die hard, even among behaviorists.
But as Riskin shows, the tradition of passive mechanism was never the only game in town, even after its triumph in the seventeenth century. For her, the key conflict is not the familiar one between transcendentalist and mechanist points of view but rather the tension between passive-mechanist and active-mechanist perspectives. Recuperating the tradition of active mechanism—the vision of an animated yet material universe—Riskin demonstrates what a powerful challenge it poses to contemporary modes of thought that claim the authority of science. Ultimately, The Restless Clock offers nothing less than an alternative way of seeing the natural world, and being in it.
Riskin begins with a joke told by Thomas Henry Huxley, popularizer of Darwin and enthusiast of positivist progress, at the height of passive mechanism’s Victorian cachet in the late 1860s. Huxley was lecturing on protoplasm, “the physical basis of life.” We ought to be able to understand its extraordinary qualities, he said, including its quality of being alive, merely in terms of its component parts, without invoking any mysterious force called “vitality.” After all, Huxley said, water has extraordinary qualities too, but we do not explain them by assuming—and here’s the joke—“that something called ‘aqueosity’ entered into and took possession of the oxide of hydrogen . . . then guided the aqueous particles to their places.” Of course, he admitted, we have no more discovered how water’s properties flow from its chemical composition than we have determined how protoplasm becomes alive, but when we do, the discovery will come from understanding how the component parts of water or protoplasm work together—just as we now understand how a watch operates by learning how its parts work together. However amusing Huxley’s audiences found the concept of “aqueosity” to be, his main point was clear: there is no active power that inheres in water and enables it to be watery. Nor is there any such power in protoplasm that enables it to be alive. The nonhuman, natural world is passive; it lacks agency. This was the claim that active mechanists rejected.
By agency, Riskin means “something like consciousness, but more basic”—“a thing cannot be conscious without having agency, but it can have agency without being conscious.” Expressions like “self-organizing” and “self-activating” and “self-transforming” catch aspects of agency; the important thing is that the impulse comes from within the organism, perhaps even from within the individual cell. Banning agency in nature was the key to making a passive-mechanist model of it, and this model, in turn, would become the foundation of both theology and science in the modern West.
Passive-mechanist assumptions underwrote the British clergyman William Paley’s argument from design, which he made in Natural Theology (1802), a book that remains a centerpiece of “intelligent design” creationism today. Paley imagined a Watchmaker God, whose existence could be inferred from the organized, clocklike operation of the universe he had created. But, Riskin asks, what if one had a more animated notion of clocks and of machines in general? What if one believed, as the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz had argued a century before Paley, that to be clocklike was “to be responsive, agitated, and restless”? Riskin shows that, for centuries, many scientists and philosophers shared Leibniz’s view. The restless clock becomes her key metaphor for understanding the tradition of active mechanism.
From the active-mechanist view, machines were not mere inert matter; they could be self-changing and self-correcting; indeed, humans and animals could be characterized as “thinking machines.” Champions of passive mechanism viewed the eye as a lens; their activist counterparts saw it as a receiving, perceiving mechanism. The issue was not materialism per se but the endowment of matter with agency. Active mechanism was an animist alternative to dualities of body and mind or body and soul—as well as an alternative to traditional, supernatural animism. Yet this complex and influential intellectual tradition has been rendered nearly invisible, as if in confirmation of the complaint that history is written by the winners—in this case, the passive mechanists. Riskin’s great achievement is to revive the active-mechanist tradition and demonstrate its relevance to the present, deploying an extraordinary range of evidence, from philosophical treatises and scientific papers to chess-playing automata and robotic tortoises.
According to Riskin, the triumph of dualist ontology began with the Protestant Reformation. Medieval Catholics used hovering angels, howling devils, and other automata in churches as forms of religious theater. These figures infused matter with spirit. In the medieval imagination, they became “holy machines” and signs of human closeness to the spiritual world, sources of amusement as well as awe. Protestant reformers, intent on separating the divine and material realms, emptied the machines of spirit and made them targets of iconoclasm. By the 1600s, machines were associated with dead matter, devoid of spirituality.
René Descartes stepped in to save spirit from flesh, but not by denying flesh agency. His notion of the body as an animal-machine, Riskin writes, left it “warm, fluid, responsive, mobile, sentient, and full of agency”—and yet wholly distinct from the soul. Aristotle had postulated three souls: the vegetative, the sensitive, and the rational, with only the last immortal and divine. Writing in the mid-1600s, Descartes dismissed the first two souls and made the rational soul peculiar to humans. This conceptual move created a modern, autonomous self with an objective, God’s-eye view of the physical world. The severing of soul from body marked a departure from the traditional Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, but the unintended consequence of Cartesian dualism was even more significant: by stressing the uniqueness of the human soul, Descartes’s followers drained the vitality from the rest of creation.
Despite the rising prestige of passive mechanism, not everyone was persuaded. Leibniz was one of the skeptics. To him, nothing lacked a soul; what he called vis viva, or living force, was a metaphysical principle, without which (he believed) nature was unintelligible. Leibniz wanted a fully mechanical account of nature that included this active force, anticipating a tradition in physics that culminated in Hermann von Helmholtz’s concept of energy in the nineteenth century. Leibniz traced the source of matter to perceiving spirits he called monads, which were “brimming with life and sentience in every part.” As Riskin writes, for Leibniz “the tiniest particle of matter contained whole worlds of living beings.” Everything in the cosmos was in a state of flux, flowing like a river. Amid the flow “certain souls rose ‘to the degree of reason and to the prerogative of minds.’” Leibniz’s active mechanism included “the generation, over time, of a thinking mind.” Consciousness arose from animated matter.
To Voltaire and other dogmatic rationalists, this was all romantic nonsense, but in fact, Leibniz’s thinking was compatible with some of the leading ideas in natural philosophy during the middle and later eighteenth century. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, observed an “active power” at work in nature—the tendency of living organic matter to organize itself. Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, advanced the notion of a vibrant, growing cosmos where living organisms, including humans, could be the result of a gradual process; nature could be a kind of self-renewing machine; and humans had sentient self-development in common with the rest of brute creation. “Go, proud reasoner, and call the worm thy sister!” Darwin wrote in Zoonomia (1794). Neither he nor Buffon nor their other proto-evolutionary contemporaries viewed humans as the unique culmination of a linear, progressive process. About progress, they were agnostic.
Perhaps the most famous—or notorious—proto-evolutionist was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who in 1802 adopted the word biologie to describe the study of living beings and postulated an intrinsic pouvoir de la vie that animated them. Enacting this life force, plants and animals composed themselves, elaborating and complicating their organization across generations. This process unfolded over an “incalculable series of centuries,” Lamarck wrote, beginning with an “animated point” that he, following Leibniz, called a monade. All plants and animals developed and transformed as a result of the movements of fluids within them, Lamarck theorized. The more complex animals added will to the mix, forming “habits” and “ways of life” in response to circumstance.
Emphasizing what human beings have in common with the rest of the natural world does not reduce humans to passive mechanisms—not if the rest of the natural world is active.
This was an essentially historical view of nature, in keeping with the broader sense of history emerging during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: “a secular, material transformation driven from within by internal agencies,” as Riskin writes, rather than by God. History was a way of knowing the natural world, as well as apprehending the nature of past human societies—a focus on purposeful actions in a web of interdependent contingencies.
For Lamarck, the habits adopted by humans and higher animals led to changes in their bodies—including the brain, which, “like any organ, differed according to the uses and exercise it got,” Riskin writes. “The brain of a man of labor, who spends his life building walls or carrying burdens,” was not “inferior in composition or perfection to that of Montaigne, Bacon, Montesquieu, Fénelon, Voltaire, etc.,” said Lamarck: it simply had not been exercised in the same way. So living beings were not quite like watches set in motion by a watchmaker, as the argument from design held. The analogy between a living thing and a watch made sense only if one viewed the spring as “the exciting cause of the vital movements,” Lamarck wrote. Without the spring, the mechanism would be useless; without the mechanism, the spring would be useless. But together they composed an animated machine. By the early nineteenth century, for Lamarck and his followers, any living being was an agent, capable of constant, self-generated motion and the transformation of its material parts.
For decades, if not centuries, these ideas have been consigned to the dustbin of failed science. Lamarck himself has been dismissed as “not just wrong but absurd, laughable, beyond the pale,” Riskin writes. One of her great accomplishments is to go back to the sources and demonstrate that Charles Darwin was a good deal more of a Lamarckian than contemporary passive mechanists have acknowledged. He was torn between the mandate to banish agency from nature and the impulse to make agency synonymous with life. In key passages of his On the Origin of Species, Darwin postulated an innate power of transformation within organisms. Indeed, as Riskin writes, that power forms “a subterranean, dynamic presence periodically bursting up through the limpid surface of Darwin’s prose.” In Origin, he discussed how difficult it is for breeders to maintain the traits they want in a given population, describing what he called “a constant struggle going on between, on the one hand, the tendency to reversion to a less modified state, as well as an innate tendency to further variability of all kinds, and, on the other hand, the power of steady selection to keep the breed true.” Later in the Origin he labeled this innate tendency “generative variability.”
Darwin’s emphasis on innate variability intensified and grew more explicit as the Origin moved from its fourth to its sixth and final edition. This tendency to vary was not something he could equate with development in a particular direction, let alone a teleological scheme of progress. Instead, adaptation was a haphazard process, dependent in part on contingent circumstances that changed over time. Yet despite Darwin’s persistent (if ambivalent) attachment to active-mechanist ideas, he became the poster-boy for the passive-mechanist worldview.
Riskin traces this transformation. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a new generation of biologists had turned their science into a passive-mechanist, anti-historical enterprise. They held that nature was rote and timeless; evolution involved a combination of random and determined events, but no contingency—no limited agencies working in particular, changing situations. As Charles Darwin was remade into a passive-mechanist, Lamarck became a joke: a romantic, vitalist strawman to contrast with real scientists. The German biologist August Weismann epitomized the new attitude, attacking a caricature of Lamarck by ridiculing the inheritance of accidental deformations (severed tails, twisted limbs, etc.) and ignoring the fundamental point of agreement between Lamarck and Darwin: that the habits and circumstances of animals reshape their organisms over time. Weismann debunked purposefulness in nature even as he insisted that variations were not random but directed by utility and movement toward greater fitness. If this sounded suspiciously like a Darwinian version of Providence, the resemblance was not accidental: like other German Protestants in the early twentieth century, Weismann banished agency from nature to make room for a supernatural agent, a divine designer.
The Grand Scheming of Things
Thus were the ideas of Providence and progress married to the strict adaptationist program, which became the core of the twentieth-century neo-Darwinian synthesis. Weismann also helped shape that synthesis by distinguishing between somatic cells and heritable germ plasm. (The word “gene” had not yet come into use.) This, the “Weismann barrier,” appealed to modern geneticists like Watson and Crick: for them, it meant that bodily changes could not inscribe themselves in DNA. An anti-Lamarckian version of heredity became conventional wisdom, based on the (allegedly) complete inability of the organism to influence genetic material passed on to the next generation. It was another nail (if one were needed) in the coffin of active materialism.
Yet some scientists still tried to restore agency to nature. The biologist T. H. Morgan theorized a “power of self-adjustment” in organisms, a capacity that paralleled the work done by a thermostat or a flywheel governor. The notion of internal feedback appealed to cyberneticists like Norbert Wiener, who were merging the new computing technology with robotics, exploring the manufacture of artificial intelligence. What is surprising is how many of them thought they had actually accomplished their goal.
As Riskin observes, “cybernetics did not so much explain the agency of a living creature as explain it away.” Wiener, Alan Turing, and their colleagues set about “reducing agency to behavior” that was “both observable and fully mechanistic.” When they embarked on the quest for “how learning might be directed from the outside in,” they described the initiative of the purportedly intelligent machine in the passive voice; it was, Riskin writes, not “actual initiative . . . but rather the appearance of initiative.” Turing’s inability to conceive of inner life was symptomatic of the shared cognitive style in the AI community. He described thinking as “a sort of buzzing that went on inside my head.” No wonder he was as lost in introspection as Comte had been; no wonder he felt more comfortable with the view of the mind from outside in, from the behaviorist vantage.
Who knows? Maybe scientists will have something to learn from historians, as well as the other way around.
This is where the continuity between then and now kicks in. Most contemporary theorists of mind, whether they view thought as information processing or as physical engagement with the world (or both), share a common passive-mechanist view of mental life. According to Dennett and his philosophical compatriots, “agency can only be apparent.” This is also true of intelligence, in the sense that it can only be expressed in observable action. “One had to equate appearance with reality,” Riskin writes, to accept the behaviorist model—to believe that the problem-solving, chess-playing computer is more intelligent than a human being, even a smart one.
The reductionist model of mind requires its devotees to reject any vestiges of vitalism they can sniff in the cultural atmosphere. As Pinker says, “intelligence has often been attributed to some kind of energy flow or force field”—a point of view he derides as little more than “spiritualism, pseudoscience, and science-fiction kitsch.” Pinker is here playing the classic custodian of conventional wisdom, policing the boundaries of responsible opinion with any ideological weapons available, including the rhetoric of scientific expertise. But the reason for Pinker’s disdain, as Riskin observes, is simply that the view he is dismissing “violates the classical mechanist ban on agency in nature.” Pinker is a faithful servant of intellectual fashion.
The Heart of the Matter
It would be easier for the reductionist worldview if its defenders faced opposition from a handful of New Age airheads, clinging to their ridiculous ideas with sentimental tenacity. But in fact the notion of agency in nature has gained extraordinary ground among scientists themselves in recent decades. The Viennese physicist Erwin Schrödinger pointed the way in 1944 by asking What Is Life? He proposed a quantum theory of evolution, and speculated that mutations were “quantum jumps in the gene molecule,” rather than the millions of tiny accidents imagined by neo-Darwinians. In this version of evolution, natural selection worked in collaboration with the behavior of individual organisms, which would reinforce and enhance the usefulness of the mutation, leading to further physical change. Natural selection was “aided all along by the organism’s making appropriate use” of the mutation, Schrödinger insisted. Selection and use “go quite parallel and are . . . fixed genetically as one thing: a used organ—as if Lamarck were right.” The complicating force at the heart of evolution was the organism’s inner tendency to use what it had—its agency.
Schrödinger’s “as if Lamarck were right” has acquired more palpable meaning in recent decades with the rise of epigenetics. This field emphasizes the whole context in which genetic material functions, from the cell outside its nucleus to the organism and its environment. Several decades ago, the biologist Barbara McClintock discovered what she called “transposons”: mobile elements in a cell’s genome that respond to stress such as starvation or sudden temperature changes by rearranging the cell’s DNA. McClintock first found transposition in maize, but it has turned out to be important in other organisms as well. Current research suggests, according to Riskin, that bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics “not through a purely random process of mutation followed by natural selection, but in important part by moving their DNA around.” James Shapiro, a bacterial geneticist at the University of Chicago, has extended McClintock’s work by showing that nearly all cells possess the biochemical tools for changing their DNA, and they use them “responsively, not purely randomly.” Epigeneticists are moving toward the ideas of adaptive or directed mutation, but cautiously because such notions breach the Weismann barrier between somatic and genetic change—a breach that in Dawkins’s view would open the floodgates of “fanaticism” and “zealotry” (by which he means Lamarckism). Somewhere, Lamarck is smiling.
In recent years, epigeneticists have begun addressing larger ontological questions. Eva Jablonka has emphasized “the restlessness of matter,” while Gerd Müller and Stuart Newman have gone further, arguing that random variation and natural selection alone do not account for the presence of organic forms in nature. Instead, they invoke an “inherent plasticity” in living matter, an active responsiveness to the physical environment. Plasticity and responsiveness combined to create the capacity for generating new organic forms, though in more complex organisms these “inherent material properties” may have ceded importance to genetic factors, which have obscured the importance of earlier, more primitive epigenetic mechanisms. Given this possibility of change over time, the effort to locate the sources of organic form requires an archeological, historical dimension. As Riskin concludes, Müller’s and Newman’s “approach to the history of life assumes inherent natural agencies whose action over time has produced a history that is neither designed nor random, but contingent.”
The implications of this conclusion are fundamentally transformative. Emphasizing what human beings have in common with the rest of the natural world does not reduce humans to passive mechanisms—not if the rest of the natural world is an animated, active mechanism. And a clearer understanding of our relationship to that world requires more than masses of Big Data; it also demands a sensitivity to the ways that organisms engage with the contingent circumstances of their environment in historical time. That environment includes religions and ideologies and economic systems as well as air and soil and water. Who knows? Maybe scientists will have something to learn from historians, as well as the other way around.
The consequences of a fresh perspective might be political and moral as well as intellectual. A full recognition of an animated material world could well trigger a deeper mode of environmental reform, a more sane and equitable model of economic growth, and even religious precepts that challenge the ethos of possessive individualism and mastery over nature. Schrödinger’s question—what is life?—leads us to reconsider what it means to be in the world with other beings like but also unlike ourselves. The task could not be more timely, or more urgent.