The places where dissonance emerges may well be the ones we should explore the most enthusiastically

Nate Johnson

POSTED 16/05/2023

The story of genetics is, fittingly, a story of recombination. At the turn of the 20th century, as scientists struggled with the question of the mechanism behind evolution, Darwin’s theory of natural selection fatefully collided with the rediscovery of Mendel’s genetic experiments to forever alter our picture of biology. Neither idea worked without parts of the other, but together, they transformed the way we think about evolution, heredity, and the fundamental structure of life.

Science follows this pattern. New ideas are rarely entirely new – more often than not, the most exciting and revolutionary discoveries are cobbled together from the bones of others, ad infinitum. The breadth of fields involved in the Biological Purpose Project poses an excellent opportunity for the combination and recombination of ideas that don’t always meet – or see eye-to-eye.

Last year, to mark the start of the Biological Purpose Project -- which aims to bring together scientists and philosophers in order to ask questions about role of agency and purpose in biology – the leaders of the various projects and clusters met at a conference in San Antonio to share their ideas with each other. The conversations between leads of different teams and clusters swirled around sticking points – areas of linguistic ambiguity, opposite perspectives, definitions that varied between fields, and other places where one team’s work didn’t match up with another. The uncertain relationships between projects provide a perfect opportunity to peer deeper into the meaning and origins of agency, past surface-level assumptions and into new territory that can only be unearthed by collision.

Paradox and Purpose

Arvid Ågren is a PI on the Paradox of the Organism project, within the Modeling Agency Formally cluster. Together with Manus Patten, their project seeks to investigate agency in the context of intraorganismal genetic conflicts – things like cancers, transposons, and selfish genetic elements. These rogue bits of the genome raise a plethora of questions about the depths of agency in biology.

“I realized that in evolutionary biology, we are really quite comfortable with agential thinking,” said Ågren, discussing the ubiquity of “agency” in an interview in San Antonio, “So describing a butterfly's wing patterns, it has evolved in order for them to avoid predators, or this antelope is running to to avoid being eaten by a predator. This kind of language is all over evolutionary biology.”

For the team working on the Paradox of the Organism project, refining those metaphors is one of the key tools to be gained from pursuing a biological definition of agency – tools that might help explain their titular paradox, aka, the fact that organisms exist and persist at all when their disparate pieces have a tendency to behave like they have a mind of their own. Resolving the paradox of the organism is not so much about ascribing wants and desires to individual genes as it is having the language to describe why they can manage to undermine those of the larger organisms they reside in.

“I'm kind of quite agnostic about what, actually, agency is,” said Ågren. “I’m more interested in taking tools that people have referred to as agents doing things and applying them to genes. The goal on an organismal level is about maximizing their inclusive fitness; that is the goal that they all should appear as if designed to do. And we're interested in taking that and applying it to genes. So we're thinking of genes having a goal of trying to make it into the next generation.”

But language is a complicated tool, and looking to harness it in the simultaneously messy and precise world of scientific research raises challenges of its own. And as the lively back-and-forth in San Antonio on just what “agency” means highlighted, the same objections that have kept metaphor out of science in the past still remain.

Agency and Scale

Another San Antonio conference attendee, Renée Duckworth, is on the Scientific Board of Advisors for the Biological Purpose project. Her own research revolves around the evolution of complex traits, like behavior, in organisms – a macro-level perspective that means her personal view of agency differs significantly from Ågren’s.

“I think that in order for something to have agency, it really needs to have this sort of cohesive, integrated system,” said Duckworth when asked for her thoughts on biological agency in San Antonio, “That is, sensing the environment, bringing in information about the environment, so the system as a whole can move in a particular direction or make a decision about what to do or not to do. And genes simply don't have that – they're part of that system, but they themselves don’t have that kind of machinery and behavioral responsiveness.”

Duckworth’s own organismal-focused view of agency is clearly at odds with what Ågren and the rest of the Paradox of the Organism team have in mind. If agential thinking is a tool we can use to conceptualize the behavior of even the smallest, most fundamental units in biology, defining agency has the potential to help us learn far more about what genes are and why they act the way they do, particularly in cases where they work against their host organisms. Conversely, if agency is a trait that only begins to emerge at higher levels of organization, the inflection point at which it develops suddenly becomes critical to our understanding of behavior and choice in the natural world.

Ideas in Argument

The strength of the Biological Purpose Project is that it brings together researchers asking different questions on the same topics. Often in science, we focus on the opposite – different answers to the same question, in the form of competing hypotheses to explain the same phenomenon. But by focusing on larger themes and clusters – and by bringing in philosophers, mathematicians, and others alongside scientists – the project opens itself up to different opportunities and unlikely connections. And as the recombinant nature of biology itself demonstrates, science often thrives in the intersections, the in-betweens, and the indeterminable. We are just as likely – if not more – to find answers in the fractures between disciplines, where definitions clash, metaphors fall apart, and questions are raised as we are anywhere else.

In her interview, Renée Duckworth referenced a paper by Chao-ting Wu and James R. Morris which follows the unusual conceit of the authors writing to a time traveler. In it, the pair explain significant developments in genetics since the turn of the century, when the field was just starting to take flight. It imagines a dialogue between past and present where the past, too, has something to say to us, even with all the advances we have made in the intervening years – that these concepts we today think of as having strict, immutable definitions were all far more nebulous at the start, and that there is value in thinking flexibly as we imagine the future of science. too.

While it seems unlikely there were any time travelers acting as fruit-flies-on-the-wall in San Antonio, all scientific research still functions as a blending between past, present, and future, building on the discoveries of those who came before us so we can hand our own off to the minds that follow. As the Biological Purpose Project continues into its second year – with the participants delving further into the disparate questions they have chosen to ask about agency, directionality, and the ways they manifest across the broad tapestry of life – perhaps we would do well to remember the answers they find may be the building blocks of new areas of inquiry, and even consider that the places where dissonance emerges may well be the ones we should explore the most enthusiastically.