Goetheanistic biology or materialistic reductionism? A review of Brian Goodwin's How the Leopard Changed Its Spots

By Johannes Wirz

Forshungslaboratorium am Goetheanum
Hügelweg 59 CH4143
Dornach, Switzerland

NOTE: Text of review translated from the German by David Heaf. Goodwin's How the Leopard Changed Its Spots was published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 1994, ISBN 0 297 81499 0, h/b, £18.99

Nowadays it would take a fair measure of courage and insolence to try and shake the solid foundations of modern biology. One would also need a wide knowledge of the facts as well as plenty of research experience to confront with alternative approaches neo-Darwinism and the ideology of molecular genetics. Brian Goodwin has both these qualifications and develops his arguments with unusual clarity and succinctness.

The leopard in the book's title is a metaphor for the Darwinian theory of evolution. In the course of the book the predator not only loses its spots, but it also has to relinquish its very existence. Goodwin develops approaches to a new biology which he likens to the Copernican revolution in astronomy. As with the latter, this transformation is a case not so much of making new observations as putting already known findings and observations in the form of new concepts and ideas.

As Goodwin sees it, modern biology holds the unshakable belief that understanding genes their products and their interactions offers insights into metabolism, how form comes about and processes of consciousness. With this belief goes the opinion that a historical consideration of living organisms provides a satisfactory explanation of the underlying laws or 'mechanisms' of their phylogenetic evolution. The arguments of classical evolutionary theory remind the author of the claim that the sun rises today because it rose yesterday, an assertion without scientific value, because it gives no insight into the active principles involved.

Goodwin raises many of the usual arguments against evolutionary theory. His description of the development of neo-Darwinism is worth the read. In it is the surprising and provoking thought that Darwinian principles of evolution are connected with the myths of the mankind's fall and redemption. The motives for the struggle for survival and the competition between organisms are, in this interpretation, to be found in the oldest Biblical sources.

Goodwin introduces his new theory with detailed descriptions of many chemical and biological phenomena. The author describes fully the results of his investigations into whorl formation in Acetabularia, an organism which he has studied in detail during his research work. He shows that calcium transport in cells, cytoskeleton, etc. provides the conditions necessary for 'leaf' formation and arrangement in this alga, but allows no satisfactory explanation of the formative processes.

The development of form can be understood if it is treated as a non-linear dynamic system based on symmetry-breaking processes (bifurcations) and local interactions of the components. Mathematical analysis shows that stable structures and forms arise when the conditions, i.e. the parameters, in the complex equations are set accordingly.

The temporal (kinetic) and spatial framework of relationships describes a field in which order 'arises' through self-organization. The order is emergent: 'These systems produce something out of nothing' (page 49). The conditions of a field which lead to stable forms are termed 'generic'.

Complexity of a higher order arises through an interaction of excitable dynamics and its resulting form, which in turn presents new boundary conditions for an immediately subsequent formative process. From this results a hierarchy of morphogenetic changes.

The theory of non-linear dynamic systems enables a description of a multitude of chemical changes and biochemical processes: the Beloussov-Zhabotinsky reaction; the life cycle of Dictyostelium; the regulation of the human heart beat; brain waves; the sense of smell in rabbits and the formation of ant colonies.

However, the theory also sheds new light on the evolution of living organisms, the arrangement of leaves on plant stems, the geometry of petals, limb form in vertebrates and even eye formation. They all result from non-linear dynamic processes. Genes, which are normally considered as causes of formative processes and of the variety of forms, stabilize the developmental trajectory. They represent boundary conditions limiting the multiplicity of possible manifest forms.

The last part of the book is devoted to a wonderful overview of a science of qualities in which the principles of a dynamic formative process are revealed in social and cultural contexts. Goodwin shows how their main feature stands in polar contrast to the Darwinian theory of evolution: Instead of competition, cooperation arises!

The concept of emergence can lead to the view, made more explicit by other supporters of the theory of non-linear dynamic systems, e.g. Roger Lewin (c.f. 'Complexity - Life at the edge of chaos'), that complexity and order are the result of chance material processes. Morphogenesis and structural development 'from below', i.e. from the interplay of chemical elements, is possible and thinkable. In this form, materialism finds a new foundation in chaos theory. Although the methodological reductionism of cause and effect has been overcome, the ontological one remains.

Yet this view contradicts the assumptions of dynamic morphogenesis. Boundary conditions or parameters are just as much part of its mathematical description as the often complex equations with which the calculations are performed. The equations can be multidimensional and one can of course think them out, but one cannot picture what they entail. The choice of parameters leads to concrete solutions which can however be pictured. The parameters are conditions for, not causes of, the solutions.

In this respect, the mathematical treatment of morphogenetic processes comes close to the Goethean idea of type. The equations, as too the idea, exists in all living forms, without reaching full realization in any single one. Both exist in designs which are developable, but not predictable. The reason for this is revealing: The appearance to the senses of a phenomenal form is dependent on conditions which are external to the idea or the equations. Goethe called them 'external circumstances'. For Goodwin even genes, gene products and environmental factors are parameters. The new theory of morphogenesis is Goetheanistic so far as it recognizes the laws which make form appear. It becomes materialistic when it considers the parameters to be causes of the morphogenetic processes.

It remains unclear to which of the two views Brian Goodwin subscribes. He describes himself as a scientist who is continuing Goethean science. Yet I have the impression that he ascribes the power of creativity to matter.

In my opinion this ambiguity has to do with the fact he indeed refers to the relatively complex equations and mathematical formalism, but above all he reviews and discusses the parameters, i.e. the boundary conditions, which underlie the calculations. Just as it is correct that without the appropriate setting of parameters no concrete solutions are possible, so too it is true that without the necessary system of equations, no simulation would be possible. Thus emergence, or, 'Order out of nothing' has to mean: Order in the sense-world from spiritual principles.

Only when this is realized, does a comparison with the Goethean idea of type make sense. What the mathematics of non-linear systems encompasses is the ideal (conceptual) side of an idea in action. Both are dependent on external physical, chemical, biochemical, molecular, etc. conditions if they are to succeed in appearing to the senses. An identity of mathematical principle and active idea can be produced when attention is directed not only to the mathematical contents and results, but also to the person's spiritual activity which underlies them.

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