Networks, the vital principle (excerpt)

Diego Rasskin-Gutman and Ángela Delgado Buscalioni


In the early 20th century, modern biology experienced a series of great discoveries; the theory of evolution had established itself in textbooks, Mendelian genetics had been rediscovered, and cellular theory provided a coherent foundation to the substrate of living beings. Many of the ideas and concepts of this time rested on the intuition of the researcher, who despite his lack of knowledge was eager to probe and discover new horizons. The nature of the phenomenon of life was the stuff of scientific, metaphysical and religious debate. Answering the question “what is life?” was a task that seemed increasingly possible as discoveries succeeded one another. Two opposing theses dominated this debate, offering two fundamentally different answers to the “issue of life.” On one hand, the vitalists supported the existence of a substance or some other indeterminate source of the vital phenomenon, one completely unrelated to the subject matter of physics and chemistry, the “élan vital” of Henri Bergson. On the other hand were the mechanists, scientists convinced that biological complexity could be reduced to the physico-chemical study of its components. The debate dwindled gradually as the 20th century unfolded. Molecular biology has taken on the task of ridding the inside of cells of all its mysteries, and has been unravelling the biochemical components that place the phenomenon of life in the domain of natural phenomena. Mechanicism has won the battle. Yet, any biologist would admit that living organisms have a structure and functioning that cannot be reduced to or fully accounted for in molecular terms. This singular structure of the vital phenomenon is its organisation, the interconnections between the elements that make up cells.

Networks, interconnections, relationships established between the parts of a system. Events take place, possible elective affinities in the words of the great German poet, the result of the synchronic and diachronic repetition of these relationships.

To individuate the parts, there is more individuality within a context of sympathetic individualities. How can an affinity be recognised if not through the establishment of relationships? Networks provide an identity to the parts of the system. We are built, life is built, organised and selected in the rhythms of the system’s relationships.

How not to see life, this phenomenon that drives us to pursue knowledge and know each other, as a web of networks. Networks. Networks of networks. Meta-networks. The world is defined by facts rather than things—this time our motto comes from the Vienna of positivism—and facts are what happens, what takes place and what occurs. In the language of science, which may always seem cryptic and needlessly defiant, it is processes, and not patterns, that make the machinery of the vital phenomena run its endless course. Come to think of it, it is a true perpetuum mobile. Life as a continuum is a process whose motion started thousands of millions of years ago, and it is still revolving. All of it thanks to networks.

But networks are not organised matter, they are but a pulse, a message, differences in energy potentials, information bits, a series of functions. They are the lights and shadows that rhythmically draw the various routes in time and space that a system can follow. Yes, they are part of the vital phenomenon, but would there be infinite networks if they were not limited by patterns or matter? Networks are trapped in the material patterns of natural forms, those patterns that have been recognised as the parts of a system. Our beliefs and social networks are restricted in the ways in which individuals are organised within a society, or in the way in which we define individuality. We could incorporate to our beliefs each of the animals in nature and we would have a network of the spiritual world with a cosmogony different from monotheism.

The notion that networks have no structure could be challenged, and depends on the level of biological organisation of which we speak. A network of interaction among genes is an information transfer network, but a network of interacting cells is a properly differentiated structure, and the network of the circulatory system, or neural networks, or the connectivity networks in the skeletons of vertebrates all present a defined structure that mediate their functionality.

In the definition we are constructing of how networks are structured by the dynamics that they can generate, the object (or individuality) that generates the network is in turn influenced by it, even in the case of cellular interactions. However, an organism is an open system since its inception, so if only to consider the degree of complexity in which we operate, we should also mention the role played by the fluctuations and the noise of the environment (physical, chemical and spatial) in which these interactions take place.

Every organism, from bacteria to animals, including seaweed, fungi and plants, have clearly delimited parts composed by highly specific chemical entities known to all of us: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, DNA, RNA, and hundreds of minerals and other special molecules that are repeated over and over, that are being built constantly within the living unit par excellence: the cell. These parts and these compounds are organisational levels of organisms. They are modules with a specific structure and function which derive from the interaction of those components. They are networks. And when an interactive network pursues a behaviour defined by properties generated by itself in a process that we define as self-organisational, this gives rise to the phenomenon of stability, of repetition, of circularity, and of behaviours that recur with alarming precision (…)