New paper (2024): Organisms Need Mechanisms; Mechanisms Need Organisms

Published by Leo Bich and Bill Bechtel in a fascinating volume edited by João L. Cordovil, Gil Santos, and Davide Vecchi, this paper offers new insights into the theoretical interrelations between biological mechanisms and biological organization. Like the rest of the book, it is open access and available here.

Abstract: According to new mechanists, mechanisms explain how specific biological phenomena are produced. New mechanists have had little to say about how mechanisms relate to the organism in which they reside. A key feature of organisms, emphasized by the autonomy tradition, is that organisms maintain themselves. To do this, they rely on mechanisms. But mechanisms must be controlled so that they produce the phenomena for which they are responsible when and in the manner needed by the organism. To account for how they are controlled, we characterize mechanisms as sets of constraints on the flow of free energy. Some constraints are flexible and can be acted on by other mechanisms, control mechanisms, that utilize information procured from the organism and its environment to alter the flexible constraints in other mechanisms so that they produce phenomena appropriate to the circumstances. We further show that control mechanisms in living organisms are organized heterarchically—control is carried out primarily by local controllers that integrate information they acquire as well as that which they procure from other control mechanisms. The result is not a hierarchy of control but an integrated network of control mechanisms that has been crafted over the course of evolution.