Today we have the pleasure to inaugurate Dialectical Systems, a forum where scholars and the general public interested in biology, cognitive science, ecology and philosophy of science can engage in a constructive interdisciplinary dialogue. The forum’s name is inspired by the landmark book The Dialectical Biologist (1985), in which Levins and Lewontin put forward an understanding of biological systems as characterized by the codetermination between parts and whole, as well as between systems and their environments. Dialectical Systems will be a place where interdisciplinary cross-feeding can take place, leading to the emergence of original understanding and theorizing. It is not intended as a hub for Hegelians or dialectical materialists, although contributions from these perspectives are not per se excluded. Reflexions and discussions about the sociopolitical context in which the scientific work is carried out will also be welcome.
In their recent history, the life sciences have imported conceptual tools initially elaborated in other disciplines, most notably the computer analogy and the program metaphor. The adoption of such tools has certainly allowed significant advances in our understanding of living phenomena; and yet, the very fact that they have been forged in other scientific contexts makes them ultimately inadequate to account for the distinctive features of such phenomena. What is needed, instead, is a fruitful interdisciplinary cross-talk, which we see however as a prerequisite enabling the elaboration of original theoretical frameworks to understand and model biological systems.
In recent years, an anti-reductionist, systemic and organicist/organizational stance vis-à-vis biological, cognitive and ecological phenomena has been progressively (re-)emerging. Despite the specificities due to the history and context of each discipline, this renewed interest in organicism is characterized by some shared fundamental motivations. These relate to a gradual move away from mainstream bottom-up conceptions, mostly centered on the machine analogy, which dominated the second half of the 20th century, as geno-centrism in biology, cognitivism in cognitive science and an excessive focus on mechanistic explanation in ecology.
This view was iconically represented by Jacques Monod who, in his famous Chance and Necessity (1970), argues that “through its properties, by the microscopic clockwork function that establishes between DNA and protein, as between organism and medium, an entirely one-way relationship, this system obviously defies any ‘dialectical’ description. It is not Hegelian at all, but thoroughly Cartesian: the cell is indeed a machine.” As argued by Levins and Lewontin, approaches that embrace such a view “practice a science that is truly Cartesian. In the Cartesian world, that is, the world as a clock, phenomena are the consequences of the coming together of individual atomistic bits, each with its own intrinsic properties, determining the behavior of the system as a whole. Lines of causality run from part to whole, from atom to molecule, from molecule to organism, from organism to collectivity.” To the contrary, in a dialectical system “one thing cannot exist without the other, that one acquires its properties from its relation to the other, that the properties of both evolve as a consequence of their interpenetration” (Levins & Lewontin 1985, 2-3).
Understanding dialectical systems requires dealing with circularities. The circularities of living phenomena are at the basis of the self-determination of living organisms as organized, autonomous biological systems. As Kant famously expressed in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, living systems are at the same time causes and effects of themselves. This dialectical conception of living phenomena is at play in various organicist traditions, the theory of biological autonomy being one of its most recent and significant versions. Let us then mention here some of the founding authors, whose contributions in the last decades constitute the corpus on which our community can rely to move forward. To use a famous saying, we stand on their shoulders.
A key reference for the forum is the life and work of Francisco Varela who, building on the work of second-order cybernetician Heinz von Foerster and collaborating with the neurophysiologist and theoretical biologist Humberto Maturana, conceived theory in biology and the cognitive sciences as fundamentally connected, as exemplified in the title of his most iconic work (co-authored with Maturana), Autopoiesis and Cognition (1980), and by two of his key monographs, Principles of Biological Autonomy (1979) and (with Evan Thomson and Eleanor Rosch) The Embodied Mind (1991). Varela’s two-fold legacy has been developed in parallel directions in theoretical biology and cognitive science, where it has been integrated with other converging endeavors. Other relevant contributions include Piaget’s genetic epistemology, Prigogine’s work on dissipative structures, Lovelock and Margulis’s Gaia Hypothesis, Nicolas Rashevsky’s mathematical biophysics, Robert Rosen’s relational biology, Howard Pattee’s and Terrence Deacon’s biosemiotics, Stuart Kauffman’s work on collectively autocatalytic sets, and the enactive approach in cognitive science.
In the writings of these pioneering authors, the tension between dialectical and mechanical conceptions is explicitly and deliberately elaborated, which sets the stage for reopening the debate about the most adequate explanatory strategy in biology, cognitive science and ecology. In this debate, the forum takes side with the dialectical conception, even though the question of its relations with the mechanical one would benefit from further reflection, which we hope will be addressed by future contributions to the forum. Dialectical Systems is meant to be an informal and lively place where ideas on these topics are exchanged and discussed in a way that is complementary to classical academic journals. The forum is open to contributions that constructively criticize and elaborate on the general perspective that sees biological, cognitive and ecological systems as organized, self-determining, autonomous, agential, adaptive and enactive systems. Overall, the editorial policy of the forum will be centered on the following general guidelines.
- Contributions to Dialectical Systems can take a variety of forms, which include written texts expressing an opinion or making an argument, interviews, reports of events and book reviews. Video contributions are also welcome. In the case of written articles, these should be concise and agile (in the style of a newspaper or a gazette), and bring the reader straightforwardly to the main message. They could rely on and refer to academic publications for readers interested in going deeper into the topic. In addition to this kind of contributions, the forum will also aim to collect and make available information about upcoming events, publications, job openings related to the target community, broadly construed.
- The topics of the contributions are expected to be relevant for contemporary debates and investigations in biology, cognitive science and ecology. Of course, this does not preclude dealing with the history of the discipline and discussing past authors; yet, historical hints should make explicit their relevance for current scientific and philosophical challenges.
- Dialectical Systems aims at gathering an interdisciplinary community. Hence, contributions should avoid technicalities and disciplinary jargons as much as possible, and make the “take home message” understandable by scholars (and possibly by the general public) with no specific background knowledge.
Anyone who wishes to contribute is encouraged to write directly to the editors, at the address indicated in the “people” page. A tool for commenting published contributions online will be available, and we hope that it will further nourish the life of the forum. A newsletter service will also be available for anyone who wants to receive a monthly digest of the recent activity of the forum posts. These features, as well as the forum’s design, are aimed at promoting active discussion and exchange within the community.
Welcome to Dialectical Systems!
Matteo Mossio, Andrea Gambarotto & Leonardo Bich