The Musical Organism: Metaphors and Metaphysics of Biology
Stigt, T.T. van
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Is it useful to think about organisms in terms of music? This thesis navigates a strange territory, where the lands of biology, music, metaphors and metaphysics meet. A recent and popular idea among theoretically-minded biologists is that development is best understood as a musical performance: an open-ended creative act, involving interpretation and improvisation. I argue that this metaphor of musical performance can be a theoretically fruitful one, and that it presents an interesting alternative to dominant ‘machine metaphors’, like ‘genetic program.’ My argument begins with an explication of conceptual metaphor theory and the various functions of metaphors in science. I next identify a clash of metaphor, between machine and music, between genetic program and developmental performance. Musical metaphors in the literature aim to voice ideas about development and evolution that move beyond the gene; ideas from systems biology, evo-devo, and developmental systems theory. Though apparently used for rhetorical purposes, I argue that machine- and musical metaphors make two very different ontological commitments, and that this is key to the musical metaphor’s heuristic and theoretical potential. Namely, it relies on a different ontology of life: while the animal machine is a thing with parts, a hierarchy of substances, the musical organism is a process with relatively stable patterns of interaction. I argue that biology is better served by a processual ontology, and that a musical conception of organisms that relies on this premise can open up ways of thinking about life that the deterministic, mechanistic picture does not capture.