Organisms in Their Niche: Passive Modeling Clay or Problem-Solving Entities?

One person’s cultural background can bias their view about people from other cultures…even before they have ever met. Could people also have a bias about how they think about other creatures? It may even be possible that scientific culture could prejudice the way researchers see creature-environmental relations with the potential to bias whole research programs.

Last November, Great Britain’s prestigious Royal Society held a conference to deliberate if evolutionary theory needed an “extension” to accommodate fresh ideas from new discoveries. Nature had also opened the question for debate (Fig. 1). Supporters of status quo evolutionary theory held that new findings could readily be explained within the current structure. While an advocate of the new “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis,” Gerd Muller of the University of Vienna had previously stated that one value of the extension would overcome the “restrictions” of “externalism.”[1] Externalism is principally a way to think about how organisms formed, yet it may bias how we think and write about a creature’s behavior. What is externalism supposed to explain for evolutionary theory and what elements of it does Muller hope to escape?

Fig. 1: Nature recognized the growing number of researchers dissenting from aspects of the Darwinian model and opened a discussion in 2014. Laland, K. et al. 2014. Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Nature. 514 (7521):161-164.

As it turns out, disputes over whether the source of an organism’s form derives from external or internal causes have been longstanding. Stephen Jay Gould frames this historical discussion: “The designation of one principle or the other [internalism/structuralism or externalism/functionalism] as the causal foundation of biology virtually defines the position of any scientist towards the organic world and its causes of order. Shall we regard the plan of high-level taxonomic form as primary, with local adaptations viewed as a set of minor wrinkles (often confusing) upon an abstract majesty? Or do local adaptations build the entire system from the bottom up?...This dichotomy continues to define a major issue in modern evolutionary debates: does functional adaptation or structural constraint maintain priority in setting evolutionary pathways and directions?”[2]

In this case, the phenomenon most in need of explanation is: why do organisms appear to fit their environments so well? They have traits that seem to precisely relate to, and even exploit properties of nature (e.g., inertia and gravity) and other external conditions. Externalists, see these traits as imposed on organisms from the outside. This generally happens by the very external conditions, designated as “selective pressures,” which match so well to the trait. Michael Denton explains that according to the paradigm “often referred to as functionalism, the main designs of life (pentadactyl limb, body plans, etc.) are not the result of physical law, that is, not immanent in nature or arising from intrinsic physical constraints inherent in biological matter, but rather the result of specific adaptations built additively by selection during the course of evolution, to serve particular functional ends, ends that are imposed by the environment and that are external to the organism itself.”[3]

Few people recognize that in the externalist approach organisms are viewed essentially as passive lumps of clay being molded by their environment. In fact, two researchers stated that is exactly how Charles Darwin’s theory encapsulates the organism-environment relationship, “He [Darwin] accepted the view that the environment directly instructs the organism how to vary, and he proposed a mechanism for inheriting those changes…The organism was like modeling clay, and remolding of the clay meant that each of the billions of little grains was free to move a little bit in any direction to generate new form…If an organism needed a wing, an opposable thumb, longer legs, webbed feet, or placental development, any of these would emerge under the proper selective conditions with time.”[4] Which Marta Linde Medina, another leading theoretician in this field, sums up, “as a result, organisms are as passive as the matter that forms them.”[5]

Externalism has a strong philosophical appeal to those who advocate for explanations of biological phenomena that are fully naturalistic. It is certainly not teleological. Externalism also can feed into the view that if God didn’t create nature, nature can somehow create itself—including crafting living things. Interestingly, externalism is analogously central to both Darwin’s theory of evolution and influential psychologist B.F. Skinner’s theory of human behavior. “First, both theories draw on an externalist or ‘outside-in’ pattern of explanation, in which the structure or behaviour of living things is seen as a consequence of their environments. Second, both rely on a process that can be described loosely as ‘trial and error.’”[6]

Externalism is currently the dominant view in biology. Denton elaborates on the probability that any view other than externalism would be “very alien” and essentially “inconceivable to most English-speaking biologists.”[7] But what if it is wrong in the sense that it has identified causality backwards? This updated insight may be indicated by waves of discoveries documented by Gerd Muller and others. They’ve found a principal role for internal factors.

What if populations of organisms could be seen from a design-based perspective as traveling through diverse environments just as human-designed vehicles do? Designed capacity of an entity is always an internal feature as designers build into their craft the ability to successfully engage all anticipated external conditions. Similarly, innate self-adjusting capacity should be true for organisms. Thus, intrinsic design could control both its basic body plan and 100% of its ability to adapt itself to external conditions. Internal programming also specifies certain external conditions to be a stimulus or a cue for both man-made things and organisms. Inherently designed systems control detection of challenging exposures and would specify internally driven self-adjustments primarily as targeted solutions to environmental challenges and rarely, if ever, by “trial-and-error.” Individuals (or populations over multiple generations) could actively detect environmental conditions and could express a spectrum of phenotypes from a relatively stable genotype controlled by innate systems.

Enriching the phenotypic panoply is the capacity of several biological systems to “learn” from environmental interactions by processes similar to IBM’s “Watson” computing system; meaning, organisms are designed with a nature already devised to be nurtured. It may be demonstrated that organisms are causal for the successful fit of their traits-to-exposures, rather than externalism’s notion of personified environments seeing, selecting, and saving traits to build organisms.

Perhaps, the tight organism-environment relationship may be explained by populations of active, problem-solving organisms continuously tracking environmental changes via innate mechanisms to express heritable phenotypes bearing problem solving potential—which already precede environmental challenges. This is worth thinking about as an internalist approach may well be confirmed by continuing research.

Randy J. Guliuzza, P.E., M.D. is a licensed professional engineer and medical doctor previously Board Certified in Aerospace Medicine who now specializes in researching engineering principles of biological adaptation.


[1]Muller, G. B. and M. Pigliucci. 2010. Evolution—The Extended Synthesis. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, p. 13.

[2]Gould, S. J. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p. 252.

[3]Denton, M. J. 2013. The Types: A Persistent Structuralist Challenge to Darwinian Pan-Selectionism. BIO-Complexity, (3):1−18. doi:10.5048/BIO-C.2013.3

[4]Kirschner, M. and J. Gerhart. 2005. The Plausibility of Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 3. 31.

[5]Linde Medina. M. 2011. Reply to the Comments on “Natural Selection and Self-Organization: A Deep Dichotomy in the Study of Organic Form.” Ludus Vitalis 19 (36):387-397.

[6]Godfrey-Smith, P. 2010. It Got Eaten. London Review of Books. 32 (13):29-30.

[7]Denton, M. Two Views of Biology: Structuralism vs. Functionalism. Posted on February 3, 2016 accessed on March 28, 2017.