Saturday, 2 October 2010


I have been reading The Whole Creature. Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. ( Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2006) by Wendy Wheeler, a reader in English at London Metropolitan University

I found this a quite difficult book, often with very long, jargon-filled sentences that were difficult, for me, to understand. Nevertheless, it gave me a better idea of what biosemiotics, a relatively new field, is all about (though everyone knows that animals, including ourselves supremely, communicate by signs). What Wheeler sets out to do is to explain that culture is part of human evolution and that Cartesian dualism, scientific reductionism and individualism, though very productive in many fields, can also be inhibiting and damaging to human creativity and sociality. “No man is an island” etc.

The book reinforces the fact that their are two scientific schools of thought in the field of evolution, one that argues that the mechanisms of evolution by natural selection and adaptation are well-understood and, as it were, tell the whole story and can provide an explanation for the characteristic of any species, and another that argues that Darwin's ideas, though very brilliant, are only part of a theory and there is still a great deal that we do not understand about the way species have come to be as they are.

The mainstream evolutionary scientists, if I can call the first group that, seem to be inordinately scared of the supporters of creationism, intelligent design and other theories that claim supernatural causes for the diversity of life and the wonders of the universe. However, constantly to be attacking these people seems to me to be a distraction that can all too easily to drift into an assault on one or another aspect of religion, selectively reporting the worst they can find and using this as an argument for condemning any kind of spiritual manifestation. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet "the lady doth protest too much, methinks."

However, here are a few passages from Wheeler's book I thought interesting:

Page 29: Reductionism has expanded enormously our knowledge of biology, and, as in the science of genetic modification, our ability to interfere with biological life, but it is still the case that absolutely no-one understands with any precision how the complex life of the cell uses DNA and mRNA to ‘tell’ some cells to turn into, say, the liver, and others to turn into the heart or the skin.

Page 81: Politics, itself, is not to be progressed by ignoring the affective intimations of the millions of our fellow beings who find both solace and joy in the appearance of order in the universe, who express this in forms of sacred belief or the wish that natural environments be preserved for solace as well as sense, or who insist that life, in all its forms, is valuable in and of itself.

Page 147: .... creativity doesn’t seem to come to us by consciousness and memory alone. Curiosity and openness means that we have to remain receptive; and very often this means that we seem to have to hang around, being diligently indolent, or reading books, or doing the washing up, or going for a walk, or getting on a bus, or falling asleep, while some other process goes on of which we are quite unconscious.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


I am a great enthusiast for houseleeks (Sempervivum species and varieties) and, in the main, my pleasure comes from marvelling at the symmetry of their leaf rosettes.

I have not really speculated on this arrangement of leaves, except to appreciate that it is a widespread phenomenon in nature and something to do with the Fibonacci sequence. However, today I came across a proper explanation in Michael Ruse's book The Evolution - Creation Struggle (Harvard University Press, 2006): "A popular example [of self-organization] is the widespread phenomenon known as phyllotaxis - the spiral patterns that one sees ordering the parts (seeds and flowers) of many plants, for instance, the head of the sunflower. One might think (Darwinians have thought) that this phenomenon is produced by natural selection, to maximize exposure to the sun while minimizing the amount of space needed to gain this benefit. In fact, one can show that such spirals have little or nothing to do with biological processes and are simply the results of the way in which seeds and other parts are produced. Seeds, such as those of the sunflower, are made in the center and then pushed outward. Simple formulas drawn from the branch of mathematics known as lattive theory show how these spiral effects are produced."

Ruse goes on to point out that much of what we see in the natural world that appears to be created or organised is, in fact, a natural outcome of chemical and physical processes.