“It’s common to think about the world as containing things, sometimes assembled into bigger things, all obeying a set of physical laws. I want to propose a wholly different worldview. Think instead of a lawless world of chaotic and entangled process. In this chaos eddies emerge, with the ability to channel some of the energy in the surrounding chaos into the maintenance of pattern or order. Organisms are a prime example of such processes, and humans, as organisms should also be understood as processes,” said STIAS Donald Gordon Fellow John Dupré in the first STIAS public lecture of 2023. “In this talk I will describe two kinds of process, the organism and the lineage, which interact with one another in a process of mutual stabilisation. I shall try to illustrate the value of this perspective on human life, by showing how it provides insight into the ways we distinguish kinds among humans, including kinds sometimes thought to be biological, notably race and gender, but also indisputably cultural kinds, such as nation, tribe or religion.”
“Looking at species and lineages in a process way has implications for humans – how we think of humans as well as their specific properties like class and race,” he added.
Dupré is Professor of Philosophy of Science – specialising in the philosophy of biology – at the University of Exeter. He is former director and current Consultant Director of Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences, which explores the socio-political, ethical, and epistemic repercussions of the life sciences. His main research focus for the last 15 years has been developing a process metaphysics of life, resulting in his 2018 anthology, edited with Daniel Nicholson, Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology. Dupré is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Past President of the Philosophy of Science Association.
Describing this as a debate dating to the dawn of Western philosophy, Dupré pointed to Greek Philosophers writing around 500BC, Parmenides who claimed change is an illusion, and Heraclitus who claimed nothing endures but change, and later Democritus (460 – 370 BC) who introduced the idea that nothing exists except atoms and empty space, which arrange themselves to form different things. By the scientific revolution in the 17th century this was broadly accepted and became decisive for the study of biology.
Comparing things and processes, Dupré said that the world is generally thought to be composed of things with essential properties that define a thing as what it is. Properties other than the essential properties can change but a thing is autonomous, has clear boundaries and its default state is stasis – “it doesn’t do anything until something makes it”.
“Process, by contrast, is dynamic. Its stability is dependent on other processes, its boundaries vague, and it requires change for continued existence.”
So how do organisms (including humans) fit these descriptions?
Dupré described organisms as constituted by metabolic, developmental, or lifecycle, and symbiotic processes. “Organisms are thermodynamically open systems far from equilibrium. They are not autonomous and require input from the environment. They are not stable but persist though causal continuity. The organism can be identified with its lifecycle and its properties change over the lifecycle – for example a tadpole changes to a frog.”
Organisms also carry symbiotic microbes (trillions in the case of humans) “Symbiosis is everything in life. It’s about co-operative relationships with other organisms. Few, if any, organisms are autonomous.”
“It’s all about entangled processes constantly constructing and repositioning their boundaries as they interact with the environment.”
Evolving lineage and species
“Another key process in biology is the lineage or species,” continued Dupré. “Lineages have evolved to become increasingly coherent processes, notably through sexual reproduction and sociality. Humans are part of such a process – the lineage out of which they evolved stretching back through the millennia.”
“No one human evolves,” he added. “It happens at the level of a series of populations where properties in a lineage change over time. Species are individual branches of the phylogenetic tree. But, like organisms, individual processes not things. Evolution is the change within such processes. It happens constantly in response to the environment with which it is entwined.”
He explained that species become organised through cooperation – something at which humans actually excel. “The human species has evolved a unique kind of cooperation, taking cooperation to the extreme. Humans are the most cooperative/organised form of species.”
We are also good at change. “Plasticity is a characteristic of all organisms,” he said. “Humans are an extreme example of developmental behavioural plasticity.”
But we don’t do it alone – many factors influence the development of behaviour including genes, upbringing and social interactions. “The behaviour of the developing human is influenced by the wider social and physical environment.”
“The human species evolved in a unique direction,” he continued. “Features like behavioural plasticity and division of labour permit unique sociability and social cohesion. No organism is more dependent on its conspecifics.”
“Division of labour requires developmental plasticity in behaviour capacity,” he added. “Unfortunately many political and social problems arise because the division of labour is interpreted in terms of kinds of people rather than developmental histories.”
Human kinds – sex/gender, race and culture
Tackling the always controversial area of sex/gender, Dupré noted that the standard biological picture is that different evolutionary processes led to sexually specific genes which led to sexually different brains which led to gender-specific behaviours. The assumption was that male and female brains are wired differently – epitomised by the often-quoted ‘Men are from Mars, Women from Venus’. But, he asked, is brain wiring a cause or an effect?
“Stereotypes are snapshots in a highly varied process of gender differentiation. There is lots of variation in the trajectory and different outcomes. There are many social and environmental influences,” he said. “Brains produce behaviour in combination with environmental influences. The model marginalises environmental influences and is hopelessly linear – biology is not like that.”
Turning to race, he highlighted the 2002 paper published in Science by Rosenberg, et al. which was widely taken to show race has a biological base (notably in the 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History by Nicholas Wade) but pointed out that this was really only about mapping the history of human migration and historical origins. “It was about tracking movements and reifying that into different kinds of people. It’s only a partial picture, people move all the time. Migrant populations are a transitory lineage and generally merge into the wider population. And sorting people into race only actually tells you very little about their genetic origins.”
“We know now that most human genetic diversity is in sub-Saharan Africa because only a small population left Africa. There are at least 13 ancestral populations in Africa.”
“Race is a reordering of ancestral origins. Biological race is a static, frozen legacy of historical processes. Racism causes race not vice versa.”
“There are also countless ways to classify people culturally but there is much internal variation. You only get a stable lineage through isolation, which allows systematic difference in experience and hence behaviour. Only a very isolated lineage allows us to predict specific properties for humans from their membership in a cultural lineage. Prior to globalisation, there were more robust, stable cultural lineages.”
But, he asked, could the human species become a cultural lineage? Is it possible for a human group to direct its own evolution? Could an entire species do it? “It’s unlikely perhaps but it may be the only condition under which humanity can survive the current existential threats like climate change.”
In discussion, he addressed reductionism and human exceptionalism.
“Since the discovery of the structure of DNA, genes have dominated biology. We need to get back to whole-organism biology. Genetics are only one perspective. To understand life you need to look at the whole hierarchy of levels of organisation.”
“We have also taken human exceptionalism too far in some respects. Humans are not an autonomous process, they are dependent on other species. And we have overvalued individual diversity. We need recognition of the social context and massive interdependence. We need to reconcile notions of the individual with the cooperative nature of human society.”
“Everything is just contingent,” he said. “But that idea is not to everyone’s taste.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer