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A dying sunflower, wilting in the sun.
Dr. Dan KueblerFebruary 29, 20248 min read

The Ends of Living Organisms

Up until relatively recently, one of the cardinal sins of modern biology was attributing goals or ends to living organisms. Living organisms were simply complex groups of molecules that interact according to chemical rules. These interactions then produce outcomes, albeit sometimes extraordinary outcomes, but organisms were simply molecular machines at the root.

In the past decade or so, there has been a burgeoning realization of the limits of this view of organisms. The main problem with this view is that it encourages one to miss the forest for the trees. Yes, organisms are composed of molecules that operate in accordance with known chemical and physical rules, but what they do is irreducible to these chemical and physical rules. Treating organisms simply as molecular machines misses the key integrative property of living organisms that separates them from non-life: living organisms exhibit the intelligence to harness these molecular parts to achieve goals. Despite the resurgence of this view, the idea that organisms have goals and the intelligence to reach those goals in an ever-changing environment goes against the reductionist philosophy that undergirds too much of modern science.

One of my colleagues over at Purposeful Universe, Maggie Ciskanik, wrote an article about this for the Templeton newsletter. She pointed out the following:

“Years ago biologists concluded that seeing goal-directedness is an anthropomorphic interpretation, not a driving force at work in biological systems. Unfortunately this fear of human bias may blind researchers to legitimate areas of investigation. . . not only does the idea of goal-directedness in biological systems generate useful research questions, the inherent capacities at the molecular and cellular level can be harnessed and manipulated to create desirable outcomes.”

Recognizing that organisms have goals can be useful, particularly in the field of regenerative medicine (more on that below). For starters, though, it is important to establish what it means to say that organisms have goals. To say they have goals is to say that they act toward certain ends in a coordinated fashion using various internal processes. The most obvious goal exhibited by organisms is to survive, to avoid slipping irreversibly back into a lifeless jumble of molecules. Unfortunately, reductionists like to reduce the survival “goal” to nothing more than the genetic manipulation of the organism by its genes. Organisms are seen as lumbering robots devoid of goals: they are simply machines directed by their genes. But such reductionism doesn’t eliminate goal-directed behavior; it simply situates it at a lower level, a level at which it is wholly inappropriate. Lifeless genes can no more have goals than a carbon atom can. As Phillip Ball points out in his book How Life Works, “Genes don’t possess any real agency at all, for they can accomplish nothing alone and lack a capacity for making decisions. They are servants, not masters.”

Living Organisms, Intelligence, and Goals

The genes though can be tools through which an organism, an integrated intelligent whole, can achieve its goals. Organisms turn on and off genes, epigenetically modify them, repair them, and even rearrange them, all to meet specific goals. Of course, defects in genes can alter the organism’s ability to meet its goals, or genetic changes can influence the nature of the goal but remove the gene from the organism, and it is inert. Remove the genes, and the cell can actually survive and perform certain complex functions for a time. Genes don’t live. Organisms do. Any organism, by the very fact that it is alive, has the overarching goal of remaining alive (although sometimes this goal is subservient to the higher goal of ensuring that its offspring survive.)

To have goals, though, requires some type of intelligence, and intelligence is another hallmark of life. This doesn’t mean that organisms “know” things in the manner that you and I do or that all organisms are consciously aware of their surroundings. It does mean, though, that they have the ability to adapt and solve problems and that they have a flexible array of behaviors that can be used to achieve their goals.

Goals and intelligence go hand-in-hand in living organisms. Living organisms have goals, meaning they have ends they are attempting to achieve and the intelligence to achieve them in a changing environment. This does not mean they always succeed, but this risk of failure does not stop them from trying. If one puts barriers in their way, living organisms attempt to re-route themselves around these barriers. Expose bacteria to antibiotics, and they attempt to pump them out into the surrounding environment. Remove the nutrients from the fluid around a flagellated bacterium, and it changes its swimming behavior to match. The same cannot be said for non-living things. The Earth orbits around the sun, but it cannot properly be said that it has this orbit as a goal because it lacks the ability to perform this goal internally. It is being driven by an external force, not from within itself. Disrupt its orbit significantly and it is unable to revert to its proper position.

Recognizing this goal-orientedness of living organisms is not merely a philosophical point. It is something that alters the way one studies and views organims. For example, it is a view that can aid scientists in their work, as the biologist Michael Levin points out.

“No individual cell knows what a finger is or how many fingers you’re supposed to have but the collective absolutely does. The reason we know it does is because if you’re a salamander and some of your fingers are cut off what will it do? It will regrow exactly the right number of fingers. Then the most magical thing of all is it stops when it’s done. In order to stop it has to know what the correct shape is; it has to know that the delta now is zero; the error is very low, now we can stop.  So In development there are absolutely goals like this.”

Cells with Intrinsic Goals

The field of regenerative medicine would like to take advantage of the collective intelligence of cells and their goal of directness to rebuild tissues. The best way to do this, though, is to first understand the goals that these dynamic collections of cells have and then harness this. Cells and tissues are not simply machines we can craft, alter, and shape into whatever we please—they have innate goals and operate in ways to achieve those goals. We must understand those goals and how they are achieved if we are to use them properly in the field of regenerative medicine.

Not recognizing this created serious issues with the use of embryonic stem cells. These cells have intrinsic goals within the embryo: to build all of the adult tissues of the body in a coordinated fashion. When one removes them from the embryo and places these cells in the adult body, these goals do not disappear. The goals are somewhat thwarted in this new environment, but they are not squashed. These cells, which in the embryo act with the goal of producing all the tissues necessary to develop the complete organism, attempt to do this in their new foreign environment and produce teratomas and tumors instead. They have an intrinsic goal they bring with them, a goal not shared by the researchers. While the researchers wanted them to integrate into the adult tissue to help with regeneration, the cells acted with their own intrinsic goal to create completely new adult tissues.

These cells had a “mind” of their own. Of course, this does not mean they had a mind like you and me, but they certainly had goals, and they were goals that thwarted the human goal of using them for therapeutic purposes. (It is worth mentioning that there are innate ethical issues with using human-derived embryonic stem cells as well.)

Wisdom That Has Been Largely Forgotten

The idea that cells and organisms have ends and goals isn’t new; it is merely wisdom that has been largely forgotten. Because it was something that modern science couldn’t measure and fit neatly into the reductionist paradigm, it walled it off from study. But to study living organisms, you must have some notion of what actually makes them living. Strip organisms of goals, intelligence, and decision-making, and you strip biology of its subject matter. Without acknowledging the very thing that makes living organisms distinct, life disappears into chemistry.

But despite the efforts of reductionists, reality gets the last word, and life refuses to disappear into chemistry. The more we know about the organism, the more we recognize that the organism’s goal-oriented intelligence transcends mere chemistry. It gives organisms a freedom that molecules do not have. Granted, the behavioral freedom of a bacterium is not at the level of the freedom seen in primates, but it is freedom nonetheless to act in the world in varied and interesting ways to achieve the goal of survival. With this freedom, though, comes risk, the risk of death, a risk that is integral to life and only life. As the philosopher Hans Jonas stated: “The privilege of freedom carries the burden of need and means precarious being.”

It is this precariousness, this bordering on the edge of death, that separates transient organisms from stable carbon atoms that last eons. Yet the great mystery of life is that from the relationships between carbon-based molecules, goal-oriented intelligence emerges. As such, living organisms are at once home in the chemical universe, dependent upon its matter, but simultaneously distinct, exhibiting behavior not shared with mere chemicals like DNA.

*Originally published on Purposeful Science by Dr. Dan Kuebler. Published with permission. Head over to Purposeful Science for more articles. 

Dr. Dan Kuebler

Dr. Dan Kuebler is a Professor of Biology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He holds a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley and is co-author of The Evolution Controversy, A Survey of Competing Theories.