What does ist mean: To be alive...

What does it mean: To be alive…

Biology on the threshold of a new self-understanding

Author: Prof. Dr. Gerald Hüther
Category: Biology
Issue No: 53

Through a split world view and series of experiments that separated the body from its environment, the biological world view of the determinacy and immutability of genes has crystallized. Today, this is increasingly being called into question. Gerald Hüther pleads for a biology of interconnectedness and dynamic development in the overall cultural context, including all living things.

In hardly any other natural science discipline has the search for new knowledge and the theory building developed from it been so strongly determined by the respective zeitgeist and the expectations of the respective society as in biology. Biological findings have been sought and found to justify that innate drives and instincts determine human behavior, that there are “better” and “worse” people, that the struggle for existence is a law of nature and that “inferior” individuals or even “races” therefore have no right to live. The list of such “biological” justifications for the assertion of certain interests is long and can easily be continued up to the present day: Women are biologically responsible for raising offspring. Men are notoriously unfaithful and interested in the maximum spread of genes, intelligence is innate, that is why we need a tripartite school system …

Such and similar ideas, originating from the last century, have taken root in all areas of our society. They have been adopted by other disciplines of the so-called life sciences, by psychologists, educationalists, medical doctors, even economists and philosophers, and have become the basis of the ideas developed there. They are still taught in schools and at universities and are marketed very successfully in popular scientific form at all levels of the media. They provide “biological justifications” for the fact that our present world is the way it is and that changes in the way we live together and in our relations with nature are only possible within the framework of what our “biological nature” allows. They thus satisfy the need of people who have a special interest in securing their respective privileges and vested interests and not having to question their habitual patterns of thought and behavior. As long as such needs prevail among the majority of the members of a community, there are clear limits to the spread of other ideas about what life is, what all living beings need, what connects them to each other, what potentials are inherent in them and not least in ourselves, and how they can develop.
Nevertheless, the spread of these other ideas can no longer be stopped. This is due to two independent developments that have been gaining influence since the turn of the millennium. On the one hand, there is a profound change in our own self-image.

It is most noticeable in the upcoming generation of young people who, in view of the changes associated with digitalisation and globalisation, have learned much better than all previous generations to deal with a growing complexity of their living environment and the uncertainty that goes with it.
The dissolution of predictable life plans and the disintegration of authoritarian structures are forcing these young people to increasingly take responsibility for shaping their own lives themselves. They no longer need the simple justifications of 20th century biology. For them, there is less and less to hold on to and defend. They are globally networked and feel connected to each other in a way never seen before. And they no longer believe in what is written in the textbooks. Much of what was still important to their parents and grandparents for their own self-image has lost its meaning for this young generation.

Biological knowledge is always knowledge about ourselves.

The second, equally profound change has been taking place in the field of biology itself for some years. The enormous increase in knowledge in this field has led to many old ideas, which were still considered immovable at the end of the last century, now being increasingly questioned. The decoding of our genetic make-up, which was pushed forward with great expectations within the framework of the “Human Genome Project”, turned out to be a flop. Instead of the presumed 300,000 genes that were supposed to control our development, only about 30,000 were found, and thus not much more than in threadworms.

Genetically, we differ from our closest relatives, the apes, by only 0.5 per cent, and since our species has existed, nothing significant has changed in our genetic make-up.

Certain gene sequences also did not turn out to be independent units capable of controlling the performance of a cell or even the formation of complex traits, as expected. Genes are apparently much more strongly interconnected and interdependent in their expression than previously assumed. So-called epigenetic factors, i.e. external influences to which a cell is exposed and internal changes it undergoes in certain phases, are apparently decisive for which genes in its cell nucleus are transcribed and which are blocked. Cells are therefore not controlled by their genes, but cells use the genetic sequences stored in their cell nuclei to find their way in their respective living environment, to adapt to certain requirements, to perform certain services and in this way to create conditions themselves that stimulate other cells to switch certain genes in their cell nucleus on or off.

However, the old ideas that there is always a certain causative agent that produces a certain effect have proven to be inaccurate not only at the level of gene regulation. They have also become useless at all other levels of regulation of living systems. Everywhere, it is not particular performances or abilities of individual components, but it is the relationship of all components of a living system, their interaction, which determines what becomes of a cell, an organism or an ecosystem, how it changes and in which direction it develops.

We begin to suspect what we might become.

Thus a way of thinking is beginning to spread within the biological sciences that is now, however, very fundamentally different from the ideas that the old biology had taken over from the classical natural sciences. This new biology is currently in the process of bringing back to the centre of its considerations precisely that which had always been the focus of people’s interest in the phenomena of the living world: the integration of each individual living being into the overall structure of relationships that connect all forms of life with each other. […]

This is a best-of article that first appeared in Tattva Viveka No. 53.: Was bedeutet das: Lebendig sein? – Tattva Viveka Magazin

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