Salk and the categories of nature

Jonas E. Salk (1914-1995), immunologist and father of the Salk vaccine against polio, has proved himself to be a true natural philosopher in his book Anatomy of Reality (1983). Here, Salk presents a number of conceptual maps showing how evolution as the primary cosmic force creates the order visible in the different categories of nature.

Evolution arises from the interaction of mutation and selection where mutation occurs by chance and selection by necessity for survival. This kind of true evolutionary change is characterized by its irreversibility. Salk uses the term evolution in a universal sense, as a force acting in the prebiological, biological and metabiological eras. These eras exemplify an evolution of the evolutionary process itself, with successively more sophisticated processes and strategies. In his words it is as if ‘the principal preoccupation of evolution is its own perpetuation.’

Figure 3.21 Main eras of the universal evolution.

(From © 1983 J.E. Salk, Anatomy of Reality. Reprinted with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., Westport, CT.)

In the categorization of nature, Salk begins with a definition of the three main eras of the universal evolution wherein the different types of matter emerged. See Figure 3.21.

The period of physical matter is prebiological; matter is successively condensed to a more complex structure. The period of living matter includes the foregoing period and is the same as the biological as life has now emerged. The human matter period, the metabiological, includes all prior periods and extends into the future. In this period, matter can be said to become conscious of itself. Man has thus developed beyond all forms existing in nature but his full potential is still unknown.  The human mind itself is considered to be a reflection of the surrounding cosmos, that is, contains the memory of the total previous evolution.

The era of the physical matter had the overwhelmingly longest duration; the emergence of each consecutive era took place at an increasing pace. The rise of order out of an initial chaos is also implicit in Figure 3.21. The evolution of a manifest order with the three main spheres is further demonstrated in Figure 3.22 (next page).

The universal growth of complexity as part of this evolution is demonstrated in Figure 3.23.

The growing order and complexity has its first manifestation in the coherence of the elementary particles. A contemporary expression is the human mind and its culture, representing the highest degree thus far of complexity. The open-ended nature of the diagram suggests new metabiological stages, possibly a new kind of human morality or superconsciousness, as suggested by Teilhard de Chardin.

A more detailed order, called by Salk the basic anatomy of reality, is presented in Figure 3.24. Central in this diagram is the binary structure of the units at each level of complexity (for example, the relationship between energy and mass). According to Salk, complexity has its  origin in the tendency towards complementary pairing, within networks of pairs in functional relationships. In the right-hand part of the figure  the various academic disciplines concerned with the different levels are shown.

This binary relationship joining inseparable factors is focused in the study of non-physical order in areas such as metaphysics, mathematics, philosophy, religion and art. Physical      order per se is the focus of studies in physics, the origin and development of life in chemistry and biology. Social order, the conditions for survival of both individuals and species, is studied in sociology. Here, the realm of human culture and creativity are the focus of metabiology and sociometabiology.

The concept of relationship is basic in the natural philosophy of Salk. It brings together the three dimensions of space and that of time building a fifth dimension of wholeness. If the fundamental units of the three main phases of evolution are defined as atom, cell and mind, a more detailed table regarding the critical determinants of change can be constructed. According to Salk these are probability, necessity and choice; they are represented by their corresponding attributes for each stage, namely interactivity, procreativity and creativity. See Figure 3.25.

In his examination of the evolutionary process, from the beginning of the metabiological era, Salk found an ever-increasing pace in development. The mechanisms of mutation and selection in biological evolution have now been exceeded by human creation and choice, more rapid and efficient means of adaptation and of transmission to succeeding generations. Just as genes are tested or selected for their adaptive value, ideas have to be tested. An equivalent to the immune system within prevalent paradigms serves to preserve useful ideas. Human evolution will thus be determined in the future by the capacity for anticipation and selection and not by physical/biological mechanisms. Salk stresses the importance of both/and in critical decision making, where either/or has proved to be devastating. Salk’s ideas regarding the supremacy of mental evolution may be compared with Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere evolution (see p. 152).

Salk sees evolution as both a problem-creating and a problemsolving process where new solutions grew out of the merging old solutions. But evolution has no preferences and only supports those species that can help themselves. Another important aspect of the evolutionary process is its correcting capability. Also, imperfect systems with this capability can adapt and survive under all possible circumstances. Correctability implies mechanisms sensitive to feedback, as well as for feedforward or thinking ahead, necessary to effect the best choices. All this is held in the human psyche, designed by the development to correct mistakes in the past and present and to invent strategies for the future.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *