creative transformation + biology


creative transformation + biology
  ---- by John Protevi
  Biology seeks to explain resemblance and novelty in living things across multiple spatial (molecular, organic, systemic, organismic, specific, and ecological) and temporal (developmental, physiological, reproductive, and evolutionary) scales.
  Deleuze has a strong and a weak sense of the creative transformation involved in the production of biological novelty. The strong sense is novelty that does not produce substantial filiation (i.e. does not produce an organism with descendants); this can be connected to the notions of 'niche-construction' and 'life cycle' in Developmental Systems Theory (DST). The weak sense is novelty that does produce substantial filiation (an organism with desendants); this can be connected to the notions of serial endosymbiosis in the macroevolutionary work of Lynn Margulis and developmental plasticity in the microevolutionary work of Mary Jane West-Eberhard (M 1998; WE 2003).
  The strong sense, which excludes substantial filiation, is expressed in A Thousand Plateaus:
  Finally, becoming is not an evolution, at least not an evolution by descent and filiation. . . It concerns alliance. If evolution includes any veritable becomings, it is in the domain of symbioses that bring into play beings of totally different scales and kingdoms, with no but from which no wasp-orchid can ever descend. (D&G 1987: 238)
  We can connect this to the thoughts of 'niche construction' and 'life cycle' in DST (O 2000). Here, 'niche construction' looks to the way organisms actively shape the environment and, thus, the evolutionary selection pressures for themselves and their offspring. Thus evolution should be seen as the change in organism-environment systems, that is, the organism in its constructed niche. It's the 'becoming' of the organism-in-its-niche that needs to be thought as the unit of evolution (e.g. the wasp-orchid). In generalising and radicalising the thought of niche construction, DST thinkers propose the 'life cycle' as the widest possible extension of developmental resources that are reliably present (or better, re-created) across generations. DST thinkers thus extend the notion of inheritance beyond the genetic to the cytoplasmic environment of the egg (an extension many mainstream biologists have come to accept) and onto intra-organismic and even (most controversially) extra-somatic factors. In other words, to the relevant, constructed, features of the physical and social environments (for example, normal brain development in humans needs positive corporeal affect and language exposure in critical sensitive windows). This notion of 'life cycle' as the unit of evolution encompassing intranuclear, cytoplasmic, organic, and extra-somatic elements comes close to what Deleuze and Guattari refer to above as 'symbioses that bring into play beings of totally different scales and kingdoms.'
  The weak sense of biological novelty is that which does result in a substantial filiation, that is, organisms with descendants. There is still the emphasis on heterogenous elements entering a symbiosis, but the result has organismic form. The foremost connection here is with the work of Lynn Margulis (M 1998) who posits that symbiosis, rather than mutation, is the most important source of variation upon which natural selection works. Her most famous example is mitochondrial capture at the origin of eukaryotic cells. Magulis holds that mitochondria were previously independent aerobic bacteria engulfed by anaerobic (proto-nucleated) bacteria; eukaryotic cells thus formed produce the lineage for all multicellular organisms. Serial endosymbiosis thus short-circuits the strict neo-Darwinist doctrine of mutation as origin of variation upon which we find selection of slight adaptations. Although there is organismic filiation, Margulis's notion of evolution via the symbiosis of different organisms seems at least in line with the spirit of what Deleuze and Guattari call 'involution' (D&G 1987: 238-9).
  We see a second connection with the weak sense of creative transformation in biology in the mircoevolutionary work of Mary Jane WestEberhard (WE 2003). West-Eberhard proposes that genetic control mechanisms can be exposed to selection by the phenotypic adaptation of organisms to new kinds of environment. This is not Lamarckian, WestEberhard emphasises, because there is no direct influence of environment on genotype. Lamarck thought that adaptive phenotypic changes were the source of variants that could be inherited. But West-Eberhard says that some adaptive phenotypic change is the result of developmental plasticity calling upon previously hidden, i.e. unexpressed, genetic variation. In other words, neither the phenotype nor the environment produces genetic variation, but their interaction enables the tapping into of previously unexpressed genetic variation or what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as the 'surplus value of code' (D&G 1987: 53).
  In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze insists that individuation precedes differenciation. Individuation is real material development; differenciation is the relation of differences to each other, that is, how one individuation relates to another. To make the connection with West-Eberhard, recall how developmental plasticity is the creativity of the phenotype and environment (not the genotype and environment). When an adaptive phenotypic change has a genetic component, the distributed networks regulating gene expression (arguably extending to the entire 'life cycle') for this adaptive phenotypic variant will now be selected (if the environmental change reliably recurs). Now these accommodated or now newly/creatively expressed networks regulating gene expression were only virtual, that is, only potentials of the pre-existing but unexpressed genetic variation.
  Here we see the meaning of West-Eberhard's phrase that gene networks are followers as opposed to leaders in evolution. That is, it's the developmental plasticity (in Deleuze's terms, 'intensive processes of individuation') that takes the lead and brings out previously unexpressed potentials of hereditary DNA (strings of nucleotides on chromosomes), that is, they bring out their potential to take part in new regulatory gene networks. But the potential of hereditary DNA to take part in new gene expression networks is 1) dependent on the distributed system (up to the 'life cycle') and 2) not preformed, in the sense that there is no program in the DNA that determines the actualisation of the potential for these new networks. In Deleuzian terms, the virtual realm of potential networks regulating gene expression is not self-determining, it is determined on the spot, each time, by the individuation process. It's the individuation process that takes the lead in creatively producing biological novelty.

The Deleuze dictionary. . 2010.

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