I was recently reading a short story by Samuel Delany, which included the statement
“The reproductive function, was it primary or adjunctive? If… you
consider the whole ecological balance a single organism, it’s adjunctive, a vital
reparative process along with sleeping and eating”
This has been bugging me somewhat ever since, and I believe I’m starting to get a handle on why.
We are in the habit of treating reproduction as the primary function of an organism; it’s a time-honored Darwinian argument, it fits with our models and understandings of natural selection and the like, and it’s seeped fairly thoroughly into even our political discourse — vide arguments that various behaviors are “unnatural” because they’re non-procreative.
However, there is a substantial problem with considering the reproductive function as primary: it implicitly is considering the species to be a natural division of life, and treating this function as its core repair and development mechanism. However, I suggest that this is a bad division to make.
Part of the problem can be thought of by considering cells – one does not speak of their “purpose” as being to reproduce themselves, but rather of their function within the body. We consider them (for the daily purposes of macro-biology) to be important because of their functions in the body as a whole, their transport of products, their structural effects, and so on, most of which happens far outside their reproductive cycle. When we consider them microbiologically, on the other hand, they make a very natural division; each cell can be thought of as a more or less monolithic object, interacting with the outside world but complete in its own right.
I suggest that the points at which we draw divisions and say “one of these things is a unique object” has to do with strengths of coupling. I say that two people are two separate organisms because the coupling between people is much less than the coupling between parts of the same person, by several orders of magnitude; thus animals make a good boundary point. Cells and mitochondria do as well. But not, I suggest, species.
The reason is that the inter-species coupling strength is equal to, or occasionally much greater than, the coupling strength between the individuals which make up said species. (As an example, consider the effect of removing one’s children versus the effect of removing one’s gastrointestinal flora – or any other organism with which one has any strong connection, as predator, prey, parasite or symbiote) If I could come up with a good quantitative measure of coupling strengths and plot it over scales, I would expect to see a substantial discontinuity at the scale of an animal, but little or none at the scale of an entire species.
And this, I suspect, is the philosophical trap hidden in Darwin’s approach. (Not to say that I disagree with the ideas of natural selection – they are predictive and good models of a wide variety of phenomena. My argument is with the philosophical approach that comes from in effect moralizing the existence of species and the notion of their reproductive competition) The next largest scale which seems to be significant after an organism is a biome, not a species; and in this context the reproductive function of the organism cannot be interpreted as primary, any more than eating or sleeping, since they are all repair and renewal mechanisms of a subsystem, more or less on a par. The “primary purpose” of an organism in such a context would be in terms of its operation on the rest of the biome to which it belongs.
I wonder if this idea can be made more systematic. It may give better modelling explanations for anti-procreative behavior (e.g. nonzero occurrence of homosexuality, locked adolescence in orangutans) in species than this very reproduction-oriented model which is so in favor today; it may also give some clearer pictures of what is a necessary component to animal (and human) behavior and what is accidental.
OK, end of random thought. Anyone have thoughts on this?