Cellular Decision Making and Biological Noise: From Microbes to Mammals

Gábor Balázsi, Alexander van Oudenaarden, and James J. Collins Balázsi, Gábor, Alexander van Oudenaarden, and James J. Collins. 2011. “Cellular Decision Making and Biological Noise: From Microbes to Mammals.” Cell 144 (6) (March 18): 910–925. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2011.01.030.

In this review article, the authors discuss a range of research about cellular decision making, "whereby cells assume different, functionally important and heritable fates without an associated genetic or environmental difference" (910). While not well understood, the authors explain that cells from viruses, bacteria, yeast, plants, and mammals all respond dynamically to environmental cues. This includes a variation of cellular response within the same environment, thus stochastic response would also be driven by biological noise. Their consideration of viruses suggests that the term cellular response is a "misnomer," where "decisions are taken by more or less autonomous replicating systems that reside inside and manipulate the behavior of carrier cells" (912). The crux of their argument is that cellular decision making is a fundamental biological property that is highly dynamic and dependent on both the cell's environment and "intrinsic molecular noise" (922). The authors identify cellular decision making, along with "environmental sensing and cell-cell communication" as one of the "three key processes underlying pattern formation and development from microbes to mammals" (922).

This article offers a relational understanding of underlying cellular processes common to all creatures. It is an understanding that challenges strict DNA-as-code understandings of biological life. That these processes are relational and dynamic to the cell's environment would suggest a certain correlation with Simondon's individual-milieu dyad, one which is materially and situationally specific. However, the phrase “decision making” is arguably too closely aligned with cognition. I will use this essay, along with other essays on the dynamics of life in nonhuman entities to further arguments of Simondon's concept of individuation and his individual-milieu dyad.

Cyborg Manifesto

Donna Haraway In this pivotal text Haraway argues for an "ironic myth" of the cyborg as a way to dismantle distinct categories, which is enabled by late twentieth century technologies. She argues that these categories—masculine, feminine, human, machine, physical, non-physical, etc.—are made ambiguous through the technologies of the twentieth century. Haraway argues for a hybrid view of the world and identity built upon both science fiction and social realities. She offers her cyborg myth as a substitute for outdated, exclusionary, masculine narratives. The inorganic cyborg opens new conceptions of being that avoid traditional categories of domination. Even though computers and machinery emerge from epistemologies of code and control, Haraway finds potential for a new, liberating politics enabled by technology and hybridity. Hybridity combats hegemonic dualities, and opens new forms of being. Though somewhat dated, this essay still carries the potential of identity reformation through a consideration of relations as key in the individuating process. There is room for debate on whether or not the technologies of late twentieth century have enabled greater hybridity amongst individuals or more control by existing power structures. No doubt, examples of both instances can be found. However, the strength of the essay is the political potential Haraway finds in the inorganic affecting bodies taken up by society and individuals. I will use this text to describe the potential of technology's role in culture. While Simondon also writes of technological culture, his work comes before global movements of feminism, civil rights and queer theory (to name only a few important political movements). Simondon's ethics must be updated to include issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality and class biases. Haraway's continuing attempts to move away from dualism and into an era of the cyborg are continued in her more recent work and are, I believe, in line with Simondon's theories of individual, milieu and collective.

What is Posthumanism?

Carey Wolfe Wolfe, Cary. 2010. What Is Posthumanism? Posthumanities 8. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

In this book, Wolfe uses systems theory, animal studies, disability studies and artworks to argue that posthumanism is a means of overturning Enlightenment humanism, which privileges a subject endowed with rights. The legal status of this subject, originally biased toward the able-bodied, male human has gradually been expanded to include women, people of color, disabled individuals, and more recently some have even suggested that animals should receive similar, or the same, rights. Wolfe acknowledges the pragmatic need to expand the legal definition of the subject through the law, though he portrays it as an ill-conceived process. Instead, he suggests that we should consider the ways in which embodiment "bring[s] forth a world" (xxv).  All creatures bring forth worlds through the capacities of their bodies, which Wolfe uses as an argument to combat the anthropocentrism (and sexism, racism, abled-body-isms) inherent to humanism. Ultimately, we share with animals an embodied finitude. Wolfe insists embodiment as a way to consider others, both human and nonhuman, as it elides arguments of human superiority to other animals on the basis of language or cognition. Embodiment is an attempt to understand the living, and leads Wolfe, following Jeremy Bentham, to argue that suffering is the key ethical question when relating to nonhuman animals. Suffering, and embodied reality, elides the legal distinction of a rights-holding subject, suggesting that relief from suffering is the ultimate right, and should be shared by all creatures.

Wolfe's book offers a strong vision of non anthropocentric philosophy through which one can consider nonhumans. In so doing, he touches on many subjects germane to my research area, including bioethics, shared experiences between species, and art. He analyzes several individual works of art, architecture, film and music in the last half of his book. Wolfe's work, however, is limited in the strange assertion that interdisciplinary studies are flawed. In his adherence to Luhmann's systems theory, he claims that it is only an outside observer who can recognize the flaws of a system. Therefore, we must be multidisciplinary, for it requires practitioners of one discipline to critique practitioners of another, and this cannot be done through synthesis. The emphasis here is too much on critique, and not on the powerful ways in which practices, when brought together, can create their own energies and potentials to be actualized in new ways.