Code biology and the problem of emergence

Biosystems 208 (2021)
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Abstract

It should now be recognized that codes are central to life and to understanding its more complex forms, including human culture. Recognizing the ‘conventional’ nature of codes provides solid grounds for rejecting efforts to reduce life to biochemistry and justifies according a place to semantics in life. The question I want to consider is whether this is enough. Focussing on Eigen’s paradox of how a complex code could originate, I will argue that along with Barbieri’s efforts to account for the origins of life based on the ribosome and then to account for the refined codes through a process of ambiguity reduction, something more is required. Barbieri has not provided an adequate account of emergence, or the basis for providing such an account. I will argue that Stanley Salthe has clarified to some extent the nature of emergence by conceptualizing it as the interpolation of new enabling constraints. Clearly, codes can be seen as enabling constraints. How this actually happens, though, is still not explained. Stuart Kauffman has grappled with this issue and shown that it radically challenges the assumptions of mainstream science going back to Newton. He has attempted to reintroduce real possibilities or potentialities into his ontology, and argued that radically new developments in nature are associated with realizing adjacent possibles. This is still not adequate. What is also involved, I will suggest, utilizing concepts developed by the French natural philosopher Gilbert Simondon, is ‘transduction’ as part of ‘ontogenesis’ of individuals in a process of ‘individuation’, that is, the emergence of ‘individuals’ from preindividual fields or milieux.

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Arran Gare
Swinburne University of Technology

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