Whether we think about this butterfly, think about a tree, or think about a person, we know we are not looking at machines.
Yet the reductionist, mechanistic model seems to retain a dominance in our culture.
Here, I think, is a better way to think of living creatures –
Complex, open, dynamic beings.
All living creatures are composed of millions of cells. In each creature, all of those cells develop from a single fertilised egg. All of those cells interact, but not in simplistic, “linear” ways. Instead the interactions can be described as “non-linear”. (Connections such as positive and negative feedback loops which produce exponential changes, rather than simple changes of addition or subtraction)
An assembly of cells connected in a non-linear manner is a complex being. And complex beings have certain characteristics, not least of which are the abilities to self-repair, self-regulate, defend themselves and to replicate.
We can focus down on the individual elements of a complex being, for example on a single cell, or a group of cells working together to form an organ, but we can’t fully understand any of those cells or organs until we consider them again as parts of the whole creature.
An open system exchanges energy, materials and information with the rest of the environment in which it exists.
All living creatures are open systems. They are constantly breathing in, breathing out, consuming and excreting (amongst other things!)
We can focus on an isolated single creature but we can’t fully understand it unless we consider it again as part of the whole environment in which it exists.
Living creatures are dynamic. They are constantly (and I do mean constantly) changing. They change because they are open and they change because they are complex. Every day some cells break down and die, and others are created new, but overall they have a direction of growth – becoming ever more complex and ever more unique every single day.
This dynamism in a complex, open being leads to the manifestation of “emergent” properties. They develop, change and behave in unpredictable ways. It is impossible to know with certainty what changes are going to occur at any particular moment in any single individual.
Look again at that lovely blue butterfly I’ve photographed.
Have you ever watched a butterfly fly?
Would you be able to predict which way it’s going to move next? Have you ever met anyone who can even explain how butterflies manage to fly the way they do?
Look at that lovely blue butterfly again.
Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it a work of art? Isn’t it astonishingly more complex and unpredictable than any machine?
And that’s a butterfly. What about a person?