Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 7)

Robert Steigerwald

It should be mentioned, finally, that theories of self-organization do not at all maintain that, in principle, the way would be open in any direction at a bifurcation point. If they said this, all self-organization conceptions would fail in regard to one principal question. The abstract mathematically defined possibilities to synthesize living substances from the available atomic materials are so many that the time since the big bang would not have been sufficient to try them all. These abstract possibilities, however, are limited for mathematical reasons.

The transition from prebiotic to biotic macromolecules

The source of the origin of life is also an old controversy between materialism and idealism. It is no wonder that among natural scientists, materialists have tried repeatedly to solve this problem. And indeed, the materialist position has essentially been substantiated by Manfred Eigen’s discovery of macromolecules with the ability to store the information necessary for their self-reproduction. Thus they possess the basic qualities of living matter. Eigen was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discoveries. In the chemical development of the earth, two groups of chemical substances provided the essential combination for the origin of life. One were the nucleic acids that were the precusors to RNA (ribonucleic acid), and the other the amino acids that could be catalyzed into proteins (chains of amino acids) by the RNA. The chemical and physical properties nucleic acids and proteins are rather well-understood. It is generally believed that the further development of RNA led to the formation of the self-reproducing molecule of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). The elaboration of DNA and the processes associated with it have earned several Nobel Prizes. Although we do not yet have all the answers to questions about the origin of self-reproducing molecules, the principle issue of the way living matter arises from nonliving has been clarified.

Reproduction, in which DNA, RNA and proteins are involved, is complex and is an example of the interdependence of many processes. Natural biochemical and biophysical laws are the basis of these processes, but the ways in which reproduction takes place and the resulting new organisms are related to the evolutionary and individual history of the organisms involved. These processes are worthy of a dialectical-materialist analysis that could prove important in the further development of the philosophy.

The process of biological development

Living matter obviously has a great potential for change, the characteristic of all matter. In the adjustment of the organism to continuous changes within itself and in the environment in which it lives, the changes that promote the integrity of the organism are likely to persist and result in structural and functional changes of the organism that may affect the reproductive process on all levels, including the biochemical, that is, genes and proteins, so that offspring are also changed in relation to the characteristics of the environment. These changes in the genes and proteins are also affected in the new individual by the environment in which it lives, so that those changes may or may not remain active. In all the integrative effects of changes within and outside the organism, the activity of the organism is potent in the processes of change and persistence in the species. Changes in genetic material favorable for the organism’s interaction with its environment are carried forward genetically and thereby remain available for subsequent activities. This means that organisms undergo a kind of learning process. They are thus the subjects and objects of evolution. They remain within environments that offer them favorable conditions, which implies a sort of recognition of such conditions, in contradiction to the autopoiesis conception.

The Darwinist view of survival of the fittest has been entrenched as indubitable knowledge, as was the case in an earlier time when the overturning of the Ptolemaic system by Copernicus collided with mass consciousness as well. New thinking about the evolutionary process has questioned whether natural selection is the only fundamental process in evolution. Developmental processes as focal points in the process of speciation, the activity of the individual organism, and the concept of epigenesis as incorporating environmental as well as developmental histories of change have been stressed by a number of investigators. The positing of a mechanical materialist dichotomy between genetic (sometimes termed “evolutionary”) factors and environmental factors is decried by many, but the persistence of a genetic-determinist view is evident. “Pure environmentalism” and “pure hereditarianism” are denied, but the search for genetic bases for complex human behavior is supported financially by genomic programs. Neither the materiality of the environment nor of the organism are being challenged by the aforementioned reference to a kind of learning process. Only another subject-object relationship is being elaborated, or more accurately, the internal conditions of the organism are seen as determined. This is only part of the old dialectical thesis that development arises from the inner contradictory moments. The dialectical thesis also sees development as arising from external contradictory moments.

Important new neuroscientific research on the mind and the brain

Neuroscience has been able to show that our sense organs transmit chemical/electrical signals to the brain, not pictures or copies of environmental stimuli. The dominant view is that the brain is autonomous, responding to the environment on the basis of its internal processes and according to them only. The brain “makes” the environment. I am speaking about the conceptions of Maturanas, Varelas, von Foersters, and others.

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1. Reference to a German poem by Christian Morgensternm “Die unmögliche Tatsache” (The Impossible Fact) in which a man named Palmström is run over and killed while improperly crossing an intersection. Upon contemplating the circumstances of his death, he reasons that the car that ran him over should not have legally been there. He then concludes that he is not dead because “what must not be, cannot be.”—Ed.

2. Translation of quotations from non-English sources in the Reference List were made by the translator.

3. In the discussion that follows, I do not deal with differences in the kinds of models or the difference between material and theoretical models.

4. The author is referring here to the historically dominant variety of critical realism in Europe, which is akin to a form of neo-Thomism. See Hörz, Röseberg, et al. 1980, 165-77).

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