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In Context #8 (Fall, 2002, pp. 3-4); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

Do Organisms Merely Survive?
Stephen L. Talbott

In recent conversation with a friend, I voiced the thought that "every organism strives to express its own wholeness." The response I received was that this statement is "meaningless," and that it would be much better to say, "Every organism strives to survive." But could any statement be more hollow? What does this say, beyond "every organism strives to keep on striving"? However true this may be, it tells us very little about the positive character of the organism. Who or what is doing the striving? Does the organism really have no recognizable nature—is there nothing that integrates and unifies the various aspects of its life—apart from a devotion to survival? Are we left with no meaningful way to distinguish one organism from another, except by looking at the differing "mechanisms" they employ to survive and reproduce?

How to Miss the Organism

I'm not sure any serious biologist would actually say that organisms strive to survive. What most of them do say, however, is that an organism's traits can be explained through a process of random variation and survival of the fittest. But this, too, has a hollow ring to it, and for the reason we just saw: it doesn't tell us much about the character of any particular organism (or species) we might want to understand.

Here's an analogy. Suppose an artist, faced with a block of marble, wants to express something sculpturally. Whatever he or she comes up with, you can be sure it will be "determined" by the marble. The artist's idea can only take shape insofar as it is compatible with marble. But this statement hardly captures the full, or even the essential, significance of the finished work. What the work says will likely be different from all the other things that have been said with marble. So, surely, in explaining the particular sculpture, we have to appeal to something beside the marble itself. If we recognize the work as a Michelangelo or Rodin—or as a depiction of bravery or the agony of death or the freedom of childhood—we are recognizing something in addition to the marble as such.

The traits of an organism must be compatible with survival, just as the traits of a sculpture must be compatible with marble. Any organism that got into the habit of gnawing on its own liver or dancing into the lair of its predators would not be here today. To one degree or another all traits have to pass the negative test of not leading the organism to destruction. Every trait must allow for survival. But this doesn't get us very far. To explain the traits of an organism solely in terms of the requirements of survival is to ignore whatever is doing the surviving, just as to explain the traits of a sculpture in terms of the requirements of marble is to ignore whatever has been sculpted.

If, like the sculpture, an organism is found to have its own distinctive unity—if, furthermore, it has a recognizable and characteristic way of being in the world, expressed physiologically, morphologically, and behaviorally, a way in which all its parts "hold together" by virtue of the common qualities running through them—then this distinctive unity sets it apart from every other organism. Clearly, in this case, a principle of survival that applies equally to all organisms cannot by itself help us much to understand the unique character of any particular organism. And even less can mere random variation explain the kind of qualitative unity we are talking about.

Life's Exuberant Performance

Conventional biology avoids this problem simply by not looking at the organism in the qualitative and non-mechanical way required in order to grasp its unity of character. Those who do look, however, inevitably report a story much larger than the impoverished tale of random variation and survival. For example, in his classic work on The Organism, neurologist Kurt Goldstein argued that merely staying alive may play "a prominent but by no means the essential role" in the self-realization of an organism. After all, in some circumstances the organism may voluntarily renounce life, as happens among humans for ethical reasons. More generally, "preservation of material existence becomes 'essential' only after defects set in, and possibly in certain emergencies."

Whereas, according to Goldstein, the concern for self-preservation is "a phenomenon of disease," the tendency of normal life is toward "activity and progress." That is, the organism "is governed by the tendency to actualize, as much as possible, its individual capacities, its 'nature', in the world." Goldstein sees this nature displayed in the coherent pattern, character, and constitution that the organism attains in the course of its life (Goldstein 1995, pp. 47, 162, 337).

Working with very different evidences, the great zoologist, Adolf Portmann, was led by his morphological studies to conclude that "the production of forms of the animal body goes far beyond the elementary needs for preservation" (1967, p. 201). This is seen, for example, in the elaboration of shells among molluscs, and of horns or antlers among ungulates—and nearly everywhere else, once you begin to look. In the plant world, Portmann notes the profusion of different leaf shapes, which are not in general the result of selection by animal feeding.

Drawing an analogy parallel to the one I offered above, Portmann puts the organism's "genetic machinery" (the supposed basis for all survival mechanisms) into its larger context:

Genetics allows us to look behind the scenes of the theater. We may watch the way in which the actors get ready, how the machinery produces the effects of thunder and rain; how everything works together so that, by the complicated action of many invisible helpers, a play having an intelligible sequence is finally unfolded before the spectator. But such a glimpse behind the scenes tells us neither the gist of the play nor its significance. (p. 161)

It's a Matter of Looking

There is a simple truth in all this that is not widely appreciated. If there is a play going on in the theater, and if (in Goldstein's terms) the organism manifests its nature in the coherent pattern of its life and constitution, then the claim to explain the organism as a collection of survival mechanisms is hopelessly inadequate. The machinery in the background, as Portmann noted, does not tell us about the content of the play. There is nothing about the mathematics of random variation, survival, and reproduction that explains the coherent, expressive form of a particular species.

Furthermore, there is no argument from within the mechanistic point of view that can militate against the contentions of Goldstein and Portmann. Only by stepping outside the mechanistic framework can you even address the question. If a play is going on, you will remain oblivious to it until you attend to the proceedings in a way differing radically from your previous attention to the stage machinery.

But, more positively, there need be no great philosophical debate here. If there is indeed a "gist and significance" to the activity in the theater, this gist and significance can be recognized by anyone willing to watch and listen in the right sort of way (Talbott 2002). To whatever extent we can actually see a distinctive, characteristic, and expressive unity of the organism—as opposed to mere functional efficiency—we have already demonstrated the inadequacy of the "collection of survival mechanisms" view.

But you cannot force anyone to see what they refuse to look for. If, in our rather anthropomorphic way, we choose to see organisms only as survival mechanisms—that is, only as one-dimensional reflections of the machines we have learned to build—well, then, that is what we will see. But if we must think anthropomorphically, why not view the organism more as a work of art than as a machine? This would be a much less artificially constrained view—and also (for anyone who has bothered to look at nature with the eyes of an artist) much closer to common sense.


Goldstein, Kurt (1995). The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man. New York: Zone Books. (Originally published in 1939.)

Portmann, Adolf (1967). Animal Forms and Patterns: A Study of the Appearance of Animals. New York: Schocken Books.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2002). "Of Ideas and Essences." In Context #7 (Spring). Also available at


For some attempts to understand the organism in the way suggested here, see the "whole-organism studies" by The Nature Institute's Craig Holdrege.

Original source: In Context #8 (Fall, 2002, pp. 3-4); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Do Organisms Merely Survive?

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