Out of Control
rmhoward at omninet.net.au
Wed Nov 21 17:16:18 EST 2001
I'm not sure where this thread started from but I've been following the discussion
with some interest and I went and skim read through the book which is on-line. My
impressions are that the book rehashes material previously published by a number of
recent authors. (e.g James Gleick's Chaos)
The problem with the paradigm expressed in this book - namely the equating of
information science with ecological theory is that it operates in a transcendent but
Some recent posts quoting Bill Mollinson's critique of the modernist loss of
remembrance points the way out. BUt to understand the full import of Bill's statement
one has to (IMHO) have an understanding of the political history of organic chemistry.
Of all the sciences, organic chemistry has escaped the purview of serious political
critiques - this is not to say that it has been free of criticism. But it's underlying
assumptions have not been understood or challenged. All science is ultimately an
expression of a dominant political and economic ideology and the ideas expressed by
science are constrained by this reality. There is no such thing as an objective
reality. Only enlightened beings could be said to have a grasp on reality - mere
mortals like you or me are constrained by our personal political and economic
Organic chemistry textbooks invariably begin with a statement regarding the overthrow
of vitalism usually quoting Wohler's synthesis of urea in 1843 as the death knell of
the 'vitalist heresy'. Vitalism was the alchemical belief that living things contained
some vital force that distinguished them from non-living things. Vitalist did not
believe that rocks were alive. The force of vitalist heresy was such that it remained
a dominant argument throughout the 19th Century, Louis Pasteur was famous for his
denunciations of the heresy. The standard chemical argument was that - we could create
from non-living things all the elements of life therefore there was no vital force.
The problem with this argument is that it ignores totally the chemical language of
life. A baby's vocalisation includes all possible sounds of all possible languages,
but a baby is not said to be able to speak until it learns to discriminate amongst
those sounds and particularise the sounds of it's mother's tongue.
Similarly, organic chemistry (and here organic means carbon based) involves the
creation of all possible carbon based molecules. However, life does not comprise all
possible carbon based chemicals but a particular subset of these chemicals. Life is a
chemical language. Most obviously that language is chiral - that is - it contains
molecules that are only left or right handed (in a 3 -D sense). Chemists have yet to
demonstrate how to create from non-chiral precursors chiral products. In this sense
the vitalist heresy has yet to be overthrown.
At a more subtle and at the same time catastrophic level life does not produce
molecules containing chlorine or fluorine multiply bonded to carbon atoms. The use of
chlorine(and fluorine) in synthetic chemistry is as a result of another aspect of the
industrial revolution. Chlorine is a by-product of the electrolytic production of
caustic soda. Caustic soda was used to bleach fabric and hence to by-pass a major
bottleneck in the industrialisation of spinning. Fabric was bleached in the sun for
hours at a time prior to the application of dyes.
Chlorine pollution reulsted in the first environmental pollution laws in Britain
around 1850 as a result of it's devastating effect on the countryside.
Chlorine enables chemists to carry out reactions that are not possible in water
(because of its greater electronegativity) as a result a whole range of molecules were
created that could not be created by life.
The resulting gobbledegook of what is today about 60,000 synthetic molecules produced
by industrial chemistry has clearly resulted not just in pollution but also in a loss
of language and pattern.
I would contend that the Islamic fundamentalist response to modernism and it's
products is a logical consequence of this chaos. (I'm not saying that Islamic
fundamentalism is aware of this or that it is itself logical).
A similar linguistic travesty is being foisted upon us by the industrialization of
genetics. The failure to see the linguistic distinction between plant breeding and the
insertion of unrelated genes into organisms condemns us to the same sorts of
consequences as those of organic chemistry.
Much is made these days of artificial intelligence and artificial life. However, the
science of artificial life in particular clearly demonstrates as much our ignorance
about the nature of life as it does our knowledge.
I hope this little essay provides some food for thought.
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