Dr Rachel Jones
Associate Professor and Department Chair, Philosophy
Program Faculty, Women and Gender Studies
George Mason UniversityPronouns: she/her/hers
What is Wrong with the Machine Conception of the Organism?
Daniel J. Nicholson
The machine conception of the organism (MCO) is one of the most pervasive notions in modern biology. To mention only a few of its contemporary manifestations, in developmental biology it equates the embryo with a computer that executes a predetermined set of operations in accordance with a program encoded in its genes, in evolutionary biology it assimilates organisms with optimally-designed artefacts blindly engineered by natural selection, and in molecular biology it identifies the cell as a factory of highly specialized molecular machines. Despite its undeniable heuristic value, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the MCO offers only a partial, and rather distorted, understanding of living systems. The reason is that, some superficial similarities notwithstanding, organisms are fundamentally different from machines. In this talk, I will propose three distinct arguments against the ontological assimilation of organisms with machines with the purpose of establishing the inadequacy of the MCO as a general theory of living systems. In the process I will anticipate and address a range of potential objections that may be raised against each of my three arguments. I will conclude by considering some of the surprisingly wide-ranging philosophical implications that follow from a rejection of the MCO.