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Translation by AB – October 14, 2023
We have chosen to translate the French substantive “vivant” (what lives) in “living”. Thus, we will use “the living” (substantive) to mean “anything that is living” as well as “life as a phenomenon”.
[…] postulate that inert and living bodies are not different in nature: this is the Cartesian project1
What Is Life?
For the past two thousand years, we’ve been stumbling over the definition of “life”, and in particular over this simple question: what is living? It’s hard to answer this question without resorting to the anthropomorphism that associates the living organism with an “I” and, by induction, with an individual detachable from its environment, in short, with a being. An endless trick of language, the “living being” thus tautologically answers the question and becomes the rebus: what is its own essence, in other words what is its “intensive” part? (Miguel Benasayag and the question of the “living”) Could it be, for example, the “vital heat” according to Aristotle, the “soul” according to Descartes, the “vital orgasm” maintained by a “subtle and expansive fluid” according to Lamarck, the “resistance to death” according to Bichat, or the “vital impulse” according to Bergson? Language does not seem to provide any remedy for fixing anything based on this question of being. On the other hand, we can say that the living constantly updates itself and is remarkably subject to the contemporary dissolution of beings in processes (The Informatization Age (2) Process). Wouldn’t it be more reasonable, then, to set out in search of “vital processes” rather than “living beings”, or at least, if we insist, to set aside the quest for the essence of the living to legislative fields such as morality, law or religion? This is where, as usual, science comes in.
It wasn’t until the early 19th century that biology – a new discipline so named by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck – took control of the subject from the real world, gradually uncovering the mechanisms and structures of these elusive vital processes. If biology was thus allowed to follow a path parallel to the so-called “exact” sciences, it’s because these mechanisms, even when “exactified” by biochemistry, didn’t seem able to explain the emergence of life in the classical way. This mysterious causal link between the microscopic and the macroscopic living was therefore the field of exploration reserved for this discipline, which was called upon to identify the new laws by which microscopic structures and mechanisms, however complex, combine to constitute the scientifically intensive characteristics of living beings. This problem remains unresolved, and biology still seems to be struggling with the question of its true purpose (The “Individual” in the light of information theories).
This exploration looks back at a very special epistemological moment in the question of life, which we owe not to a biologist but to the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), one of those great scientists who deciphered the language of the microscopic world with quantum mechanics. In 1944, Schrödinger publishes a book of reflections about the living, entitled “What Is Life?”. This theoretical meditation by a genius of the exact sciences deals precisely with this mysterious hiatus between the microscopic and the macroscopic. Schrödinger does not, however, introduce any new concepts relating to the intensiveness of the living, and remains within his usual field of investigation: that of matter. In this way, he leads us rationally to his main conclusion: the essential and necessary intensive feature of living beings is the DNA molecule, that ultrastable “crystal” distributed identically and in a single copy in every cell of the organism.
We will complete this reading with a little analogical game: aren’t the company and, above all, the “technical system” (more or less) “alive” within the meaning of Schrödinger?
I – Erwin Schrödinger and the question of the “living”
Today, thanks to the ingenious work of biologists, mainly of geneticists, during the last thirty or forty years, enough is known about the actual material structure of organisms and about their functioning to state that, and to tell precisely why, present-day physics and chemistry could not possibly account for what happens in space and time within a living organism?2
The question of the “living”
Consider, if only for its “musicality”, Newton’s first law:
A body remains at rest, or in motion at a constant speed in a straight line, unless acted upon by a force.
This kind of principle, precise and implacable, succeeds in the tour de force of explaining all observable movements, however diverse they may be: pendulum oscillations, falling bodies, planetary trajectories… As Galileo claimed, the world thus seems to be “written” in front of us in a rigorous language that we are gradually learning to practice: the mathematical language. The slightest dynamic, even microscopic, has to answer for it. But “vital” dynamics (the ability to think, to will, to move…) resist. Indeed, how can it emerge from fundamentally inertial principles and passive matter, subject to the transcendent determination of the “straight line”? This problem has never ceased to captivate physicists, philosophers, doctors… without ever finding a definitive solution.
The general feeling that persisted right up to the 20th century was that life was ruled by specific principles, additional to those of physics, which scientists would never cease to clarify3. It had to be admitted that inert and living bodies had to remain epistemologically separate when it came to examining their principles, even if the Cartesian project that did not admit their “difference in nature” was not called into question. As Newtonian mechanics failed (temporarily) to account for the living, biology was “authorized” to establish itself as an autonomous science at the beginning of the 19th century4. Eventually, the living would join the mathematical sciences…
But at the beginning of the 20th century, classical physics was suddenly turned on its head by Max Planck and his discovery of the astounding “quantum” characteristics of the microscopic world. This new quantum mechanics disrupted the pure straight lines of Galileo and Newton, parasitizing reality with radical indeterminacies and discontinuities. A tiny, very strange space – dare we say a space of “freedom” – then appeared, and put all our representations back to work, in all fields, right up to metaphysics itself. So, it was inevitable that the living itself should come back into the question from physics.
Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger took up the subject during the Second World War. In 1943, he shared his thoughts at Trinity College Dublin during three public lectures, and the following year recorded his work in a small book of around a hundred pages entitled “What Is life?”. Let’s not forget that Schrödinger was celebrated, not for this foray into biology, but for his earlier work in quantum mechanics, which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1933 for the invention in 1925 of the powerful “wave equation” () that “speaks” the dynamics of matter at the microscopic scale. It’s hardly a question of simple straight lines anymore… At this scale, phenomena are so alien to our everyday experience that they go beyond comprehension5.
A question then immediately arises: if the microscopic is so different from the macroscopic, how can the latter be entirely based on the former? On what scale and by what miracle does matter stop moving quantumly and adopt the stable and reasonable behavior that we know?
In a now-famous thought experiment that predates “What Is Life?” by some ten years, Schrödinger already imagined a cat whose life was suspended from a quantum randomness by an ingenious device. This (macroscopic) cat would then behave like its (microscopic) quantum counterpart and, under the precise conditions of the experiment, find itself simultaneously dead and alive. This quantum aporia, and many others besides, revived all the questions left unresolved by the natural sciences. Could it be, in particular, that the laws of life lie in that strange interstice between the microscopic “quantum” and the macroscopic “classical”?
Schrödinger carried out a real investigation, gathering clues from the natural sciences of the time, in particular biology and genetics.
Taking as his starting point the posture of the “naïve physicist” accustomed to considering the scale of phenomena, Schrödinger poses this simple question6:
Why must our bodies be so large compared with the atom? […] Must that be so? Is there an intrinsic reason for it?
First of all, he observed that quantum physics hardly alters this classical observation: atoms collide randomly in all directions. Thermal agitation dominates. Each atom blindly follows its own dynamic, colliding with its congeners, bouncing… Nothing organized or predictable can manifest itself on a microscopic scale. But when we consider sufficiently large sets of atoms (several billion atoms), regular macroscopic statistical phenomena appear, obeying very precise laws, of which Schrödinger gives a few examples (diffusion phenomena, heat transfer…). Statistical mechanics explains how, according to one of the book’s central formulas, “order arises from disorder”7. And yet, he tells us by means of a reflexive and therefore, admittedly, anthropomorphic induction, these regularities are indispensable to the living organism for stabilizing “thoughts” and shaping an “idea” of the world around it. The organism thus requires sufficient size for its environment to “appear” reasonably stable and therefore statistically regular. A human body is made up of 30,000 billion cells (to which must be added some 38,000 billion bacteria), and each cell contains an average of 150,000 billion atoms. Note that this statistical-dimensional reasoning owes nothing yet to quantum mechanics.
Schrödinger then draws on the biological knowledge of the time concerning in particular ontogenesis (development of an entire individual from a single zygote) and heredity. What did he particularly notice? Each complete set of chromosomes (46 in humans) is replicated in each cell and carries the entirety of what Schrödinger calls, a term already in vogue, the “code-script” of the human body. This code-script is materialized by gene sequences whose size, according to various cross-checks, was predicted to be of the order of 300 cubic angstroms each, or at most a few million atoms per gene. If we add other physical considerations concerning genetic mutations by ionization (X-rays…), the gene structure even seems to involve far fewer atoms than that: of the order of 1,000. But, as Schrödinger observes, this order of magnitude (1,000 to 1,000,000) is far too small for these genetic cohorts to obey statistical physical laws such as those mentioned above. So how do we explain the fact that these tiny assemblies, which defy the laws of statistical democracy, can fix and carry from generation to generation, sometimes for thousands of years, the complete and hyperstable phenotype of a species? What substance makes up this microstructure, which resists thermal agitation and replicates itself identically over very long periods in an enormous number of copies?
[…] the mechanism of heredity is closely related to, nay, founded on, the very basis of quantum theory.8
These structures can only be, he says, molecules, groups of atoms linked together. But “linked” doesn’t mean rigid (think of a bicycle chain, for example: the links are joined together, but the chain can take many shapes). Molecular stability can be explained by the stability of atomic bonds, which are locked in specific configurations according to the principles of quantum theory. Schrödinger can then compare this “genetic molecule” to a kind of quantum-locked “crystal” that constitutes this microscopic but hyperstable “hereditary substance”.
Despite appearances, not all the inert matter that surrounds us has the immutability of crystal, far from it: over a long period it flows, it corrupts, it fragments… Schrödinger never ceases to emphasize the miracle of those microstructures of living matter that defy the principles of thermal agitation and that can be compared to “micro-diamonds” occupying the center of each of the 30,000 billion cells in the human body. But unlike diamonds, these crystals must be aperiodic (not repeating themselves) and large enough to carry the “code-script” of the organism and its phenotype.
Schrödinger’s reflections fed the thinking of a small group of English biologists who, a few years later, discovered the structure of DNA, that “aperiodic crystal” first isolated in 1869 by Swiss physicist Friedrich Miescher. On April 25, 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson published the results of their research in Nature, revealing this famous double-helix structure9. It should be noted that they also credited Maurice Wilkins, who shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine with them in 1962, and, above all, Rosalind Franklin, who died prematurely in 1958 and whose equally important role in this discovery was not officially recognized until very recently10. Science is human…
Now that quantum mechanics has “solved” the mystery of the hereditary crystalline matter that makes up the code-script, it remains to explain how this code-script enables the unfolding of a complete, stable organism, eventually capable of saying “I”. Let us remember that on the scale of life, the physicist can only rely on the laws of statistics. However, these laws indicate that the “natural [inertial] tendency of [macroscopic] things is to go over into disorder”11. Left to their own devices for more or less time, a wall will collapse, a piece of metal will rust then disintegrate, a star will explode and disperse, a living organism will succumb and decompose… and the more ordered and complex a system is, the more its dislocation is rapid. But unlike the wall or the piece of metal, the living organism constantly fights against disorder, which physicists call “entropy”, by extracting order from its environment like the bee collects its nectar12:
How does the living organism avoid decay? The obvious answer is: By eating, drinking, breathing and (in the case of plants) assimilating. The technical term is metabolism.
This is why, incidentally, there can be no living organism without ambient order, in other words, without a biotope. In this way, the organism feeds on organized substances, of a molecular order if you like, and constantly returns its perpetual “disordering” to the biotope in the form of heat. In the very long term, it’s easy to see that if the biotope were a totally closed system, it would itself eventually die a thermodynamic death, potentially accelerated by the consumers of order that are living beings. The biotope therefore also needs a source of negentropy. Only one is immediately available on earth: the sun13. This entanglement can be illustrated as follows:
Thermodynamics, however, is only a description of the statistical behavior of billions of atoms, which can explain “order from disorder”. On the other hand, it cannot explain the “[macroscopic] order from [microscopic] order” that seems to characterize the living. Schrödinger remains convinced that the exact sciences will eventually uncover these unprecedented laws, thus dissolving biology into the Cartesian project14.
Order from Order
But is this principle of “order from order” really typical of living organisms? Schrödinger points out that the regular motion of planets and clocks is not a matter of statistical mechanics, but of Newton’s relentless mathematical principles. But the correctness of these principles only holds true in a world free of thermal agitation, i.e., at the imaginary temperature of “absolute zero”. In our “hot” world, the clock needs a spring to fight against the agitation that constantly slows it down (and if the temperature rises, the clock ends up softening and evading the laws of mechanical order!) This is why all our machines are equipped with rudimentary negentropic devices.
In both inert and living bodies, order is always only apparent and provisional. For both, Schrödinger holds the possibility of their macroscopic dynamic order to the “quantum” firmness of the molecular floor. In the case of the clock, this firmness traverses and unifies the entire macroscopic volume; in the case of the living being, it freezes the DNA molecules alone, removing them from thermal agitation (at a reasonable temperature). According to Schrödinger, the difference between inert and living bodies is therefore structural.
The organization of the living
Schrödinger thus identifies the very special arrangement of the “solid” parts of a multicellular living organism15:
The most striking features are: first, the curious distribution of the cogs in a many-celled organism, for which I may refer to the somewhat poetical description on p. 79; and secondly, the fact that the single cog is not of coarse human make, but is the finest masterpiece ever achieved along the lines of the Lord’s quantum mechanics.
Without insisting further on this “single cog” that constitutes the DNA molecule (nor on the very Cartesian allusion to the divine principle), its “curious distribution” in the organism is in fact absolutely remarkable. As always, physics is ultimately a matter of numbers and dimensions (additions in square brackets)16:
In the following stages of a higher organism the [DNA] copies are multiplied, that is true. But to what extent? Something like 1014 in a grown mammal, I understand. What is that! Only a millionth of the number of molecules in one cubic inch of air. Though comparatively bulky, by coalescing they would form but a tiny drop of liquid. And look at the way they are actually distributed. Every cell harbours just one of them (or two, if we bear in mind diploidy). Since we know the power this tiny central office has in the isolated cell, do they not resemble stations of local government dispersed through the body, communicating with each other with great ease, thanks to the code that is common to all of them?
Schrödinger’s purely inductive reasoning thus leads to a generalization that he himself sometimes describes as “poetic”, in which biology and chemistry, with which he was otherwise sufficiently familiar, play no essential explanatory role. In short, living matter is radically distinguished from inert matter by: 1) the “aperiodic crystal”, a microscopic hereditary material stabilized by quantum laws, which acts as a “code-script” for the deployment and functioning of the organism, and 2) the very particular configuration of these tiny crystals, identically distributed in each cell of multicellular beings17, to which we must add the local functional character of the crystals, with the overall coherence deriving from their strict identity.
Thus, the DNA molecule is the intensive and exclusive character of living organisms. We still need to understand how it works and the specific laws of life, which computerized biology is now undertaking to resolve.
II – Are organizations “alive”?
The “Schrödingerian” organism
Schrödinger’s attempt to reduce the living to the order of laws (by the sheer force of language) is obviously exposed to the a posteriori scrutiny of new scientific facts. These facts cannot be said to validate Schrödinger’s view that, for example, heredity consists in the “transmission of a physical order through the transmission of a physically ordered substance”18 that holds its code19. This vision, like many others, still stumbles, among other things, over the systematic reduction of the living organism to a detached individual, certainly dependent on its environment to pick up “order”, but generating itself purely internally (Biotechnologies, Eldorado of the century).
Be that as it may, the Schrödingerian organism is indeed a particular structure synchronously displaying two essential traits, which we recall once again: 1) this structure is reducible to a connected set of microscopic components sufficiently extensive to inhabit a world of (statistically) regular phenomena, 2) each component possesses an identical and unique replica of a “code-script” which, at the very least, acts as a model – or memory support – for the component’s functioning. There’s no doubt that this is a very special way of organizing matter that is always on borrowed time, indifferent to finality, non-technical because it is unspeakable (and therefore unspecifiable). The Schrödingerian living being is radically different from the machine, at least in this respect. A machine is the result of a plan or intention (“top-down”), and must therefore be segmented from its conception (its statement) into parts, each with its own function (like the segments of a sentence), and cooperating with each other according to rational laws (a syntax). In other words, a machine does what it is “told” to do, and can only do what it is “told” to do. Schrödingerian living beings, on the other hand, are sheltered by their unspeakability, and therefore literally “do” nothing.
Wouldn’t some human organizations, just as unspeakable, conform to the Schrödingerian schema and, in a way, be “alive”?
Is a company “alive”?
We had observed here some changes in companies having to adapt to a technical and therefore unstable environment. Let us recall them in a few words (the references cited are accessible through the articles in question).
Dalio’s Machine (2017) explored the model of Bridgewater, a hedge fund founded by Ray Dalio in 1975. In essence, Dalio had come to envision his company as a kind of cybernetic system based on a principle of “radical transparency” (all information is available to all “components” of the system, thus including humans) and a foundation of 200 “principles” of operation automated through “artificial intelligence” devices developed by IBM. In Companies: changes in the face of complexity (2019), we compared this “Dalio’s machine” with three other models: 1) the “smart simplicity” advocated by Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman of the Boston Consulting Group, leading to 6 “Simple Rules to Simplify Everything”; 2) the Haier model of Chinese Zhang Ruimin, who divided his company into cellular micro-entities; and 3) the “posthumanist” current, which studies the “enterprise-organism” as a prototype of an autopoietic “viable system”.
To varying degrees, all these models have structural similarities with the Schrödingerian living. Generally speaking, the aim is for the company to better represent the world around it, so as to better embrace its phenomena and adapt to them more rapidly. In this way, the company must move away from the purely mechanical model of the system specified in functions (the famous “organizational silos”). Indeed, we know that a technical object specified in this way depends entirely on the characteristics of its “associated milieu”, in the words of Gilbert Simondon. If the environment changes, the object cannot adapt purely internally, and ceases to function. But this “de-specification” can only work if the company has full access to the surrounding world (which is then radically transparent), i.e., is fully informed by it, and can fully act on it in “real time”.
This movement, which began in the 1960s, takes various forms: Morieux and Tollman’s “give people more power” (everyone can decide at their own level what they think is best), Ray Dalio’s “radical transparency” (everyone has all the information they need to make the best decisions), Zhang Ruimin’s “RenDanHeYi” or “rainforest” model (everyone is directly dependent on his or her own decisions) or, last but not least, the more theoretical posthumanist syntheses that directly envision companies as forms of “artificial life” (without, however, having taken care, it seems, to scientifically describe the criteria of the living). In all cases, these forms accompany the movement towards corporate horizontality that began in the 1960s.
All these attempts seem to us to take up the same challenge: to say – so to speak – the living, and we note that they always consist of very general axioms, rules, principles… which are specifications of “microscopic” operation, on the scale of the agent, human or not, as if they were indeed genetic codes. Specification is “microscopic-generic”, and ontogenesis does its “macroscopic-specific” work of emergence. Nevertheless, there is one essential difference with the Schrödingerian living: the company’s DNA (i.e., missions, culture, procedures, documentation, etc.), its “intensive” character if you like, is specified, usually by the CEO or his advisors. While there is undeniably a structural resemblance, the company remains the more or less distant emanation of the same human representation, which lacks the universality of physical or chemical laws to be truly “Schrödingerian”!
Is the technical system “alive”?
Finally, a more ambitious and “poetic” analogy concerns the human system as a whole, or more precisely the “technical system” understood here as the complete system made up of technical devices (tools, processes, organizations…) and ourselves, identically qualified as “individuals” or “technological existing beings” (The Informatization Age (2) Process). Is this technical system “alive” in the meaning of Schrödinger’s? Let’s take a look at some of the structural movements that have taken place since the Informatization Age.
Firstly, the condition of “technological existing being” seems to permeate and homogenize individuals throughout the world, creating the conditions for similar local functioning from one end of the planet to the other20 (paradoxically also spreading an epidemic of solitude in the most technically advanced environments, such as cities). Global transportation and digital flows are bringing into contact myriads of regions of interiority that were more or less foreign to one another, and which are tending to homogenize (A reading of Philippe Descola).
Secondly, we don’t identify any technological islands. Some states and tech companies protect their secrets and know-how, but technology ends up the same everywhere, whether it’s digital, AI, quantum, medical, space…
Thirdly, despite appearances, information is tending towards the radical transparency so dear to Ray Dalio: everyone who wants to and can take the trouble has access to more or less the same information. This is why, incidentally, powerful, even violent counter-narratives are now needed to maintain the hypernormality of certain political and ideological regimes that are inevitably doomed to disappear (Adam Curtis and the strange world), undermined by a “truth” more powerful than ever.
The technical system thus seems to be traversed by a wave front of “crystallization” that fixes a similar “code-script” in each existing technical system, even if its “transcription” remains locally singular21. Is it comparable to a living organism? In any case, the technical system as such is facing existential peril for the first time in its young history, as its biotope gradually sinks beneath its inextinguishable need for order. But its “DNA” is nothing like a molecule hyper-ordered by quantum laws: it consists, at best, of a semblance of order (which is ultimately the language by which our technical system specifies itself). And with this semblance of order comes, deplorably, a perilous disorder.
1. ↑ (in French)Fabien Chareix / Methodos 3 | 2003 – 2003 – La maîtrise et la conservation du corps vivant chez Descartes
2. ↑ Erwin Schrödinger / Cambridge University Press – 1944 – What Is Life? p.4
3. ↑ Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), observing the fermentation of fruit (transformation of sugar into alcohol), came up with the idea that vital processes were based on chemical reactions. Nevertheless, this microscopic level of organization of phenomena was ultimately based on Newtonian mechanics.
4. ↑ We refer you to this fascinating reference work (in French): François Duchesneau / Vrin – Mathesis – April 1998 –Les modèles du vivant de Descartes à Leibniz
5. ↑ How, for example, can an individual particle behave at the same time like a wave, i.e., occupy more or less all of space?
6. ↑ Ibid.2 p.8
7. ↑ Ibid.2 p.80
8. ↑ Ibid.2 p.47
9. ↑ Francis Crick, James Watson / Nature – April 25, 1953 – Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid
10. ↑ Matthew Cobb, Nathaniel Comfort / Nature – April 25, 2023 – What Rosalind Franklin truly contributed to the discovery of DNA’s structure
11. ↑ Ibid.2 p.68
12. ↑ Ibid.2 p.70
13. ↑ One of the problems we face today is the difficulty our biotope, roughly speaking the oceanic-atmospheric zone, has in dissipating the heat generated by our negentropic needs due to its enclosure by the aptly named “greenhouse effect”.
14. ↑ In the meantime, it is being “dissolved” into the informational project. We’ll come back to this in a later exploration.
15. ↑ Ibid.2 p.85
16. ↑ Ibid.2 p.79
17. ↑ Or in duplicate in diploid cells.
18. ↑ (in French)André Pichot / Esprit n°297 – 2003 – Mémoire pour rectifier les jugements du public sur la révolution biologique
19. ↑ We’re thinking in particular of the large portions of DNA referred to as “junk” (Junk DNA) or, more recently, as “fuzzy”. See for example: Eugene V. Koonin / Philosophical Transactions – March 13, 2016 – The meaning of biological information
20. ↑ Even if, to give just one example, the “digital divide” (“Digital Divide”: outline of a concept) still excludes a third of the world’s population from the Internet
21. ↑ Technically speaking, we can now draw a parallel with the “foundation models” of the major language models