Theoretical contributions

The achievements and limits of experimental biology and the theory of integrative level units

(A summary of an unpublished note by Faustino Cordón, with a brief comment by FIBE)

Empirical and experimental biology: its achievements and limitations

Empirical science becomes experimental science when humans learn to analyse the results of their activity on natural processes in order to understand them better. The scientist analyses the experimental data in two complementary ways: 1) by immobilizing all the variables that influence an experiment in order to discover two that are quantitatively correlated, and 2) by starting to measure these two variables as quickly as possible. In this way, experimental science makes abstraction of human activity and establishes relationships between causes and -effects that are quantifiable- mathematically predictable.

The development of experimental science has had two essential consequences for understanding nature: first, the discovery of the coherence of reality, which makes it possible to refer to a real process in terms of other real processes; and, second, the discovery that what is seemingly continuous is made up of units of different levels (subatomic particles, atoms, molecules and -among living beings- proteins, cells and animals), because only between the units of each level (i.e. between homogeneous units) can one establish relationships that are quantifiable and that can be expressed by mathematical relationships.

The discovery of chemical atoms in the 19th century made experimental scientists pay more attention to the interior of their objects of knowledge (though this study could have ended with the history and the environment of the objects, as suggested by historicism and evolutionism, which were born at the same time) and led to a change of meaning in the investigation of the relationship between the object of knowledge and the particles of which it is made up. Instead of attempting, like Aristotle, to understand the internal process from which something emerges (especially in living beings) in terms of what that something seems to us, scientists now sought the key to a being in the knowledge of the smallest stable particles of which it was made up. Paradoxically, at the same time two discoveries deprived the “atom” of its nature as an absolute, eternal unit of matter: 1) in about 1860 units of two levels were distinguished, atoms and molecules, the latter being composed of atoms and defined by the specific chemical reactions by which they are transformed (and in which their atoms do not change); and 2) in about 1900 it was discovered that, in turn, atoms were composed of subatomic particles of a limited number of species, and that atoms can also be transformed with the emission or capture of particles.

Turning now to biology, the taxonomists of the 18th century undertook the empirical work initiated by Aristotle of describing the animal and plant species and classifying them into separate systems. The classification of animals established an objective system (without alternatives) in which the characters are subordinated so clearly that they constitute the essential evidence that animals were differentiated into species in their process of evolution in their specific environments. Darwin definitively established this concept of the evolution of animals in 1859 in his work On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection.

During this period, coinciding with the differentiation of the molecule and atom, Virchow rigorously established the concept of the cell as a living being. He stated that animal and vegetable cells were of the same nature, and that all cells came from other cells. However, with what we might call an atomist prejudice, he also thought that the cell was the absolute unit of life (the “atom” of life). Against the evidence that had until then led scientists to relate the concept of life to animals, Virchow considered animals merely as reproducible associations of cells (which plants do appear to be). Also, he implicitly fell into another reductionism when he considered that there was no other type of living being between the molecule and the cell.

All modern schools of experimental science, including biology, know that each unit that they are studying consists of lower units, which are the ones that are really examined analytically, and thus avoids explaining where the individuality of the unit lies. Now, while scientists fail to face the question of the individuality of the type of unit that they are studying (how a set of units results in a qualitatively higher unit) on the basis of modern experimental sciences, including biology, the classical underlying concept of the “atom” will continue in internal contradiction with the facts, which show that all known units consist of other, more simple units, in turn composed of simpler units.

Thus, the branches of biology that were born in the 20th century (biochemistry and genetics, which converge in molecular biology, immunology, etc.) have progressed subject to the contradictions of experimental science, driven by technological development but not by interpretive development. Consequently, they have given rise to research areas that are isolated from each other, often incompatible with each other or with any previous branch of biology (such as genetics and embryology). They have accumulated a large number of empirical observations but without a satisfactory explanation.

The need for an evolutionist biology: the theory of integrative level units

Thus, in the mid -20th century experimental science has already differentiated units of different levels -subatomic particles, atoms and molecules- and has obtained abundant data on proteins, cells and animals. And the accumulation of data acquired on each type of unit imposes -with increasing urgency as time passes- the need to change the point of view of science, from the quantifiable relationship between units of the same level to the relationship between units of two successive levels.

The units that are the object of study of biology have a feature that should be noted. The evolution of inorganic levels -governed by the molecule on Earth- is maintained in a stable equilibrium at the scale of biological evolution, because the evolution of the atomic and subatomic levels began and continues to occur in areas of the universe beyond the Earth’s evolution. By contrast, biological evolution is distinguished by the fact that, in the small molecular area of the Earth’s surface, living beings of three levels -the protein, the cell and the animal- have emerged and now co-exist with the molecular basis that is common to all of them. Hence, in the study of the protein, the cell and the animal it is especially urgent to interpret the way in which each type of living being emerged in relation to its environment from the set of living beings of the lower level that constitute its soma, in the process of evolution of the biosphere.

Addressing scientifically the question of how a soma emerges from a unit (experience) surprises the biologist because of the widespread prejudice that this subject is in itself not scientific, i.e. it is by its essence beyond the scope of science. However, the evolutionary coherence of reality rules out the possibility of a real phenomenon or process that does not refer to another phenomenon or process of reality. The action and experience of the biological units are no exception, and we have unequivocal evidence of their real existence through our individual experience as units of the animal level. The erroneous assertion that it is impossible to scientifically explain how a unit (experience) capable of controlling its environment emerges from its soma should not be attributed to the unreal nature of the problem but to the difficulty of solving it through a theory and a method that orders and interprets properly the empirical and experimental data that the various branches of experimental biological sciences have obtained.

In 1980 Cordón already had very firm convictions on his concept of the unit, the integrative unit, which is radically opposed to the classic concept of the “atom”. He also had an order of concepts for reconstructing, from the current data, the process of phylogenic origin of an integrative unit, a process that must also explain how the unit emerges, in its ontogenesis and in every moment of its life, from the units of the lower level of its soma.

Cordón thought that the process of origin of the unit of each level takes place in the same way in phylogeny, in ontogeny, and instant by instant. At this time he put forward a detailed model of the integrative unit that explains:

1) the emergence of a unit in phylogeny from an evolved association of units of a lower level, and how, and through what selective advantages, this unit evolves in relation to its environment in successive phylogenic stages;

2) the emergence of a unit in its ontogeny, and how it changes in its ontogenic development until its death.

3) Cordón based his interpretation of the phylogenic and ontogenic process of each type of unit on the way in which in each instant a unit (experience) emerges pulsatilely, perceiving its environment directly through the joint activity of the units of the lower level that form its soma.

Cordón put forward his concept of the integrative unit in the course of fifty years of intense biological work, thanks to his firm grounding in experimental chemistry. It would therefore be impossible to summarize the concept of the integrative unit rigorously without distorting it. The introductions to Cordón’s work presented here continually force us to present some of his basic concepts succinctly, but in no way do they attempt to offer a summary of his biological theory. They are merely intended to guide interested readers towards his main original works.

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