Interdependence: Biology and Beyond

This book by biologist Kriti Sharma is a short mind-limbering exploration of how best to view reality. Iain McGilchrist mentioned it during an interview with Jordan Peterson, and it does sound like it presents one of the key themes of his forthcoming book The Matter with Things.

She starts out with the common phrase “It’s all connected.” This is ubiquitous, she says, and true enough in many senses but ultimately misleading. It’s misleading because it actually reinforces something more opposite: things are independent. In her native field of biology, she says, the data on “the network” of biological entities suggests “that our world is not composed of independent entities at all.” Well, gee, isn’t that just the opposite side of the same coin? Not just. The different emphasis matters. Her book presents “how we might meet interdependence as interdependence instead of continuing to view our world implicitly as fundamentally or ultimately composed of independent entities.”

The key shift is viewing things “as mutually constituted, that is, viewing things as existing at all only due to their dependence on other things.” (page 2)

To illustrate the shift she starts with the example of signal transduction at cell membranes, first in the conventional way which presumes independence of cells and then account that dispenses with these prevailing assumptions. . . .

Such an account offers novel and useful reconsiderations of the relation of objects and subjects; of lower-level and high-level phenomena; of agency and determinism; of stasis, change, and causal relations; and of the relation of physical and psychological phenomena.

page 3

There is a lot of contingency in this book. I’m imagining that that comes from Rorty. She says, “Throughout this book, I use the term ‘contingentism’ to denote a way of understanding existence that differs usefully from the standard essentialist view.” (page 15) This perspective places interdependence center stage.

What can be coherently said about experiences without positing a metaphysical, ghostly, or inherently existent experiencer, is simply that experiences arise–full stop.

page 77

Much of the book reminds me very much of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which made me more receptive to it. There experience, reality itself (as we know) continually arises, and out of that comes everything, absolutely everything. It is the mother of all things, including our “selves”, objects, causality, agency. How do we organisms do this? That is the central mystery.

So what? How does it matter? How does it affect one’s life? This matters to biologists. We are all biologists.