The deeply insightful Goethean scientist Steve Talbott continues his exploration of “whole organism intelligence”, the ways in which a vital intention suffuses all life, at every scale, and acts with a sort of purposeful wisdom from the level of DNA all the way to the most complex assemblages.
Following is from his most recent post:
All these elements are simultaneously physical performances and expressions of an inner meaning, which is only possible because the physical by its nature is a bearer of meaning. We can distinguish the two aspects of speech — the physical features of sound and the meaning — but they are inseparable. And can we not say the same thing of every outward physical performance of our bodies? What can we do that is not meaningful gesturing? Our walking may suggest heaviness or lightness (in a psychological sense), it may be graceful or awkward, purposeful or ambling, workmanlike or clumsy. If you stamp your foot in any particular context, you are making a statement. Even if you intentionally move so as to suggest random, meaningless activity, then your movement will indeed suggest exactly that intent and meaning. I wrote briefly about this in How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life. There is nothing we can do that is not a gesture — is not a speaking, in the broad sense of that word. The psychiatrist, the stage director, and, indeed, every human being as an attentive conversationalist, knows that the slightest shadow of change flitting across a face carries meaning. Even our listening is simultaneously a gesturing — a gesturing by which we “speak” in sympathy with the speaker. William Condon, a Boston University Medical Center professor of psychiatry, pioneered the use of sound films to micro-analyze human interaction during speaking and listening. He described as “surprising and unsuspected” the observation that “listeners move in precise synchrony with the articulatory structure of the speaker’s speech” — and do so “almost as well as the speaker does”: This is an incredibly precise and delicate tracking process. Metaphorically, it is as if the listener’s whole body were dancing in precise and fluid accompaniment to the speech (Condon 1988*). Well, not so metaphorical; it’s a literal performance through which the speaker’s expressive gesturing is reflected in the comprehending listener. And this illustrates that our gesturing, too, can vary from a fully conscious expression of meaning — say, when we are playing a game of charades — to the partly conscious hand and arm movements accompanying our own speech, to many forms of which we are scarcely or not at all conscious. I’m not aware of any grounds for claiming a clear demarcation or absolute difference in principle between our speech-related gesturing and the gesturing we can observe at the organ, tissue, cellular or subcellular levels — for example, the change in heart movement that seems itself to be part of our experience of a moment of deep compassion, or (far beneath any conscious awareness) the dramatic gestures of our DNA during cell division, or the mediating movements of the millions of nucleosomal protein cores around which our DNA is wrapped. Of course, our large-scale gesturing already includes — stirs up and brings in its train — massive amounts of activity at lower scales. It’s all part of the same coherent movement, and it extends, for example, to dramatic changes in gene expression. Molecular biologists are right now excitedly documenting how such expression is a well-organized function of the many ways the cell choreographs the “dance” of DNA within the cell nucleus — a dance that brings complex and changing match-ups between vast numbers of partners among the countless significant stretches along the length of our DNA molecules. These movements — and a thousand other sorts of movement — are how the cell tells its own share of the organism’s larger story.