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Not a Machine

Against the backdrop of context-dependent phenomena such as this, it is hardly possible to contend that we consist, from the bottom up, of machine-like devices. The idea reflects a dogma crystallized from a rarefied mesh of abstractions rather than an engagement with actual organisms. You might just as well find “machines” in the currents of a river. When scientists write that “Clock genes are components of the circadian clock comparable to the cogwheels of a mechanical watch,” it ought to be scandalous. Yet such machine language is universal, is heavily relied on by otherwise rigorous scientists in their attempts to explain the organism, has no evident, serviceable meaning, and working biologists rarely if ever make a serious attempt to justify or even define it.

Nor are the points at issue even particularly subtle. Here is the heart of the matter: The parts of a clock are put together in a certain way; the parts of an organism grow within an integral unity from the very start. They do not add themselves together to form a whole, but rather progressively differentiate themselves out of the prior wholeness of seed or germ. They are growing even as they begin functioning, and their functioning is a contribution toward their growing. The parts never were and never are completely separate, never are assembled. A specific bit of food taken in from outside never becomes some new, recognizable part, added to the rest; rather, it is metabolically transformed and assimilated by the ruling unity that is already there. The structures performing this work, such as they are, are themselves being formed out of the work. Does any of this sound remotely like a machine?

— Steve Talbott, “The Unbearable Wholeness of Being”  <link>