Make your own free website on


that an autocatakinetic system entails. All living things are autocatakinetic, but not all autocatakinetic systems are living. Flames, tornadoes, and dust devils are all autocatakinetic systems, dynamically constituted through the continuous flux of their components in the dissipation of environmental potentials, but they are not living. Living systems are a kind of autocatakinetic system. They are replicative systems-autocatakinetic systems that produce components by replication as part of their autocatakinetic cycles, and the simplest sustainable case, to restate, is a single cell and its nonequilibrium environment. Viruses, biological or computer, algorithms, and so on, are not autocatakinetic systems, and, consequently, are not alive.

The root idea of autocatakinesis goes back at least to Heraclitus (536 B.C.) who characterized the world as a process of continual flow ("all things flow") and its objects as constituted by a generalized metabolism or combustion. Fire, as Aristotle (1947, p. 182) wrote centuries later in De Anima, elaborating on the ideas of Heraclitus, and stressing the active agency and generalized metabolism or self-organizing properties of such systems, "alone of the primary elements [earth, water, air, and fire] is observed to feed and increase itself." The discovery by Priestley, Lavoisier, and Cavendish, in the 18th century, that the metabolism of living things was a form of combustion-that the autocatakinesis of living things was maintained by the burning of organic materials in the presence of oxygen-deepened this understanding. In addition, what Priestley and Lavoisier knew they discovered with the discovery of oxygen was, in fact, as biogeochemical evidence gathered in the middle, and last part of this century has confirmed, only the tip of the iceberg. In particular, the atmospheric oxygen that has kept the fire of life burning, while at the same time paving the way for forms to evolve increasingly farther from equilibrium (e.g., eukaryotes, multicellular eukaryotes, complex eukaryotic social systems, human cultural systems), was put into the atmosphere, and maintained by life itself as an autocatakinetic process at the planetary level.

Returning specifically to Dennett's assertions, and to the absence of a billion year window for the algorithmic world Dennett imagines, there is no evidence that life was or could have been anything but autocatakinetic from its beginnings. Viruses, computer algorithms, strings of DNA, or Dennett's hypothetical macro ancestors do not meet the minimal criteria for living things. As Margulis and Sagan (1995) have rightly emphasized, like the dependency of computer viruses on working computers, biological viruses have no meaning or existence without the autocatakinetic systems within which they are replicated. The assertion of an ancestral world of quasi-living algorithms is a figment of Dennett's imagination that flies in the face of the empirical facts. The claim that your great, great...grandmother's grandmother was a "macro" or algorithm is a category error. Macros and grandmothers are not the same kind of things. Grandmothers are autocatakinetic; macros and viruses are not.

Invoking Algorithms To 'Explain' The Active Agency In The Universe Is Illegitimate Teleology of the Cartesian Kind

As discussed above, the use of active, immaterial, or ideal ordering devices to bring agency, end-directedness, or intentional ordering into an otherwise postulated "dead" physical substrate, goes back at least as far as the Pythagoreans and is the basis in modern times of Cartesian metaphysics and the mechanical world view. Dennett's selfish algorithm theory, an elaboration of Dawkins selfish gene (or "replicator") theory, is this same idea in contemporary packaging. The physical world, the "river that flows downhill", is taken to go spontaneously towards "death", a state of maximum disorder, and the "river that flows up hill", the active, end-directed striving, the telos, of living things and their evolution, is the consequence of the active programming by algorithms, or "replicators", ordering the "dead" physical world towards their own ends. Until the "invasion of human brains" by "memes" (Dawkins' name for cultural "replicators" or ideas), Dennett's explanation for the origin of "mind" or consciousness, "there were no forces whose principle beneficiary" according to Dennett (1995b, p. 370), "was anything else" but genes. "Life," in Dawkins' (1995, p. 19) words, "is just bytes and bytes of digital information...and [evolution] a river of information...of abstract instructions for building bodies, and...all living things...are survival machines programmed to propagate them".

According to Dawkins and Dennett, to use Aristotle's (Grene, 1966/1974, p. 229) words, evolution is "for the sake of something", and that something, the end served, is the replication of genes (and with culture, memes), or algorithms, in Dennett's terms. While such replicators require a material vehicle for their expression (e.g., a DNA molecule), the replicator, per Dawkins and Dennett, is not equivalent to the vehicle. Vehicles die while the replicators that inhabit them, which "live" on from one generation to the next, are potentially immortal. A measure of the success of a gene and "the quantity," according to Dawkins (1995, p.120), "that is being diligently maximized in every cranny of the living world is, in every case, the survival of the DNA responsible for the feature you are trying to explain."
Following the numerous landmark discoveries of molecular biology during the middle of this century, at a time when the computer revolution was getting under way, and given the Cartesian-Kantian background assumptions built into Darwinian theory, it became widespread among the proponents of Darwinian theory to ascribe the active agency of living things to the genetic programs they were said to carry. Mayr (1969, 1976), for example, adopted the word "teleonomy", defined as end- or goal-directedness due to the operation of a program, to refer to the end-directedness of living things. The neo-Pythagoreanism of Dawkins and Dennett, which promotes genes to the status of animistic "replicators", extremizes this already problematic view. While it is presented in such a way as to make it seem to follow from the facts of molecular biology, it does nothing of the kind. Under the rubric of "replicators" ("algorithms", "macros", or "pieces of program"), it takes "abstractions that have been transformed by fetishism and reification into realities with an independent ontological status", in the words of Levins and Lewontin (1985, p. 150), and puts them at the center of its theory. The result of this teleomechanical smuggling is an illegitimate teleology that conjures end-directed agency out of thin air and puts it in the one place it cannot be.