Theoretical contributions

An introduction to the order of problems of the theory of integrative level units

An unpublished interview with Faustino Cordón, 1990

What scientific interest does your work have?

An introduction to the protein as an integrative unit of the first biological levelAn introduction to the origin of an integrative unit in phylogeny (as an example, an initial hypothesis of the origin of the animal)An introduction to the emergence of an integrative unit in each moment of ontogeny (as an example, Cordón's model of the cell)An introduction to the reproduction and heredity of integrative unitsAn introduction to the first stage of cellular evolution: the reinterpretation of biochemistryI try to understand every living being as a unit (the relationship between their experience, their soma, their behaviour and their specific environment) and I think this can only be done if one understands, first, how each previous type of living being originated, and, second, how it has evolved in relation to its specific concrete environment. This means having a well-argued order of appearance of the different types of living beings, and understanding the origin, nature and evolution of each of them; that is, using the empirical and experimental data of current living beings (now broken down into unrelated branches of biology) to deduce what the first living beings must have been like and their order of appearance, somatic organization and conduct. Achieving this would lead to the reorganization of current biology. Based on the experimental data of the different branches of biology, we must establish a biology whose guiding thread would be the study, in a coherent order according to selective advantages in specific trophic environments, of the emergence and organization of the successive types of living beings deduced from the empirical and experimental data that we now have on them. To achieve this we have two bases: a) the theory of integrative units and the method that arises from this theory, which enables us to distinguish, among the empirical and experimental data on current living beings, those that are most primitive from those that are most modern; and b) the huge amount of empirical and experimental data on each type of living being, which will confirm or deny, expand and enrich these assumptions, and ultimately provide a concrete model of the origin, nature and evolution of each type of living being.

What is the purpose behind your theory of integrative units of successive levels?

This theory seeks to highlight the unitary process of biological evolution and within it to understand the different living beings by their respective modes of origin. I am convinced that there are three levels of living beings, each of which is essential for the following one: globular proteins, cells and animals.

What brings you to such a clear classification of living beings into just three levels?

Until I was 40 years old, I worked in organic chemistry and then in biochemistry: I was perfectly adapted to the framework of concepts, problems and methods of experimental science. The reason why I needed to reorganize some sets of biological knowledge was an experimental work of mine on immunity that came into conflict with my knowledge of chemistry. The facts finally convinced me that the cell cannot be the absolute unit of life, nor can the globular protein be understood in chemical terms as if it were a molecule: between the cell and the molecule there is a unit of an intermediate level, the globular protein, to which I firmly attach the category of a living being. The globular protein is composed of molecules, the cell is composed of proteins and the animal is composed of cells, and each one is distinguished by the capacity for action and experience of all living beings.

From the above it appears that a basic concept of your biological theory is a certain way of understanding the living being. Can you give us more details?

The concept of the living being is obviously fundamental to biology because it is its object of study. In my opinion the faculty of action and experience that distinguishes living beings is their ability to act on their environment (in a different way for beings at each level) and to perceive the favourable or unfavourable effect of their action: i.e. the ability to compare the expected effect with the obtained effect and accordingly try out a new action.

In this regard, it should be noted that all the living beings of the immediately lower level constituting the soma of the living being apply themselves in coordination to this action and experience and, consequently, the modes of action and experience of each type of living being are characteristic of its level and differ qualitatively from those of the other levels, both in the forces exerted and in the object to which they are applied. Thus, the globular protein governs the joint activity of its amino acids and establishes fields of intermolecular forces by which it controls, one by one, molecules dissolved in still water; the cell governs the associative activity of all its proteins with the joint effect of moving bodies of water that provide dissolved molecules and expel residual molecules; and the animal governs the coordinated activity of its cells with the result of exercising a mechanical movement on the phases of the different states of aggregation of the molecule (solid, liquid and gas) that structure the biosphere.

Notice that I use the word level to indicate what emerges from the associative activity of the units of the immediately lower level, which acquires the nature of a unit: that is, the faculty to realize itself through action and experience. The integrative units of these three levels have nothing to do with the purely descriptive orders of complexity commonly used in biology (organelles, cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, plants, animals, ecological systems, etc.). Above all one must distinguish an association of living beings that has not risen to become an agent, to become the living being of the higher level (e.g. a plant), from a genuine unit (in this case an animal).

What is the essential difference between the current concept of the living being and yours?

Aristotle, and later modern experimental science, seek the key to the living being in its innermost intimacy. Although the concept of evolution became evident in biology in the late 19th century, around 1900 a turning point occurred with the discovery of facts of genetics and biochemistry that, at first glance, are in contradiction with the conclusions of previous knowledge of evolution.

Mendel's experiments, confirmed 25 years later by De Vries, Correns and Tschermark, place heredity in discrete characters of the zygote. Meanwhile, the cytology of the last third of the 19th century discovered the role of chromosomal material of the nucleus in cell reproduction, leading biologists to consider chromosomes as linear series of discrete genes and the variations, mutations, of these genes as the factor that determines changes in the characters of the animal. In my opinion all this is true, but it is not the whole truth. In fact, the reductionist focus on the cell's interior (the genome) by geneticists prevents them from considering that, while the experimental data are true, the basic assumption that genes are the molecular source of the varying congenital capabilities of animals and plants may not be true. I firmly believe that the current theory of heredity of genetics is wrong because it considers that animal heritage is programmed in a sequence of molecules, each of which carries encoded a particular factor of the animal, so the animal comes to be considered as the set of discrete factors of its genome.

Now if nature -and therefore living beings- are interpreted as being subject to a process of evolution, the key to a living being cannot lie only in its interior but requires an understanding of how its mode of action occurs on its specific environment and how its experience regarding this environment is established by comparing what was expected with what actually happened. I think that understanding a living being refers to two complementary questions: understanding its interior, organized into a soma by the exercise -governed by the higher living being- of the associative activity of the units of the lower level (the activity of the somatic cells in the animal, the activity of the proteins in the cell, etc.) and the nature of the relationship between the living being and its environment.

Clearly, both questions require a prior understanding of the nature of the origin of living things, that is, the evolution of the units of the previous level that constitute the soma of the living being studied, and the understanding of the relationship that must have been established and maintained between the action and experience in each soma of a living being. The action and experience are qualitatively different (and therefore directly incommunicable) and yet vitally interdependent between the living beings of two successive levels.

It seems that you are trying to answer problems of a different order to those of present-day biology

There is indeed a subtle difference. Current biological sciences attempt to penetrate the nature of beings, phenomena and processes by observing how living beings respond to human activity in order to induce coherent theoretical answers. Evolutionist biologists must do the same, but from the experimental data they must ultimately try to induce how these beings, phenomena and processes originate, that is, to explain them based on the rest of reality. This forces one to apply all the criteria of rigour of experimental science plus a number of new ones that are being established by the conceptual system of evolutionist science.

Only on the basis of an experimental science that is sufficiently advanced to allow the clear demarcation of the integrative levels can one induce theoretical thinking on which to base evolutionist problems.

Faustino Cordón: Biólogo Evolucionista by Herederos de Faustino Cordón, licensed under a Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional License. Licencia de Creative Commons