Fields of Danger

In science, the concept of a field is used to describe patterns of order in systems that are extended in space and show regularities of behaviour in time. They have always expressed ideas that are rather mysterious, but work in describing natural processes. The first example of a field principle in physics was Newton's celebrated gravitational law, which described mathematically the universal attraction between bodies with mass.

This mysterious action at a distance without any wires or mechanical attachments between the bodies was regarded as a mystical, occult concept by the mechanical philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. They condemned Newton's idea as a violation of the principles of explanation in the new science. However, there is a healthy pragmatic element to scientific investigation, and Newton's equations worked too well to be discarded on philosophical grounds.

Another celebrated example of a physical field came from the experimental work of Michael Faraday on electricity and magnetism in the 19th century. He talked about fields of force that extend out in space from electrically charged bodies, or from magnets. Faraday's painstaking and ingenious work described how these fields change with distance from the body in precise ways, as does the gravitational force. Again these forces were regarded as mysterious since they travel through apparently empty space, exerting interaction at a distance that cannot be understood mechanically.

However, so precise were Faraday's measurements of the properties of electric and magnetic fields, and so vivid his description of the fields of force associated with them, that James Clerk Maxwell could take his observations and put them directly into mathematical form. These are the famous wave equations of electromagnetism on which our technology for electric motors, lighting, TV, communications and innumerable other applications is based.

In the 20th century with Einstein transformed Newton's mysterious gravitational force into an even more mysterious property of space itself: it bends or curves under the influence of bodies with mass. Einstein's relativity theory did away with a force of attraction between bodies and substituted a mathematical relationship between mass and curvature of space-time.

The result was a whole new way of understanding motion as natural, curved paths followed by bodies that not only cause the curvature but follow it. The universe was becoming intrinsically self-organising and subjects as observers made an entry into physics.

As if Einstein's relativity wasn't enough to shake up the world known to science, the next revolution was even more disturbing. Quantum mechanics, emerging in the 1920s, did away with the classical notions of fields as smooth distributions of forces through space-time and described interactions at a distance in terms of discrete little packets of energy that travel through the void in oscillating patterns described by wave functions, of which the solutions to Schrödinger's wave equation are the best known.

Now we have not only action at a distance but something infinitely more disturbing: these interactions violate conventional notions of causality because they are non-local. Two particles that have been joined in an intimate relationship within an atom remain coherently correlated with one another in their properties no matter how far apart they may be after emission from the atom. Einstein could not bring himself to believe that this 'spooky' implication of quantum mechanics could possibly be real.

The implied entanglement means that there is a holistic principle of connectedness in operation at the most elementary level of physical reality. Quantum fields have subverted our basic notions of causality and substituted a principle of wholeness in relationship for elementary particles.

The idea that I have pursued in biology for much of my career is the concept that goes under the name of a morphogenetic field. This term is used to describe the processes in space and time that organise and coordinate the various activities involved in the emergence of a whole complex organism from a single cell, or from a group of cells in interaction with each another.

A human embryo developing in the mother's womb from a single fertilised egg, emerging at birth as a baby with all its organs coherently arranged in a functioning body, is one of the most breathtaking phenomena in nature. However, all species share the same ability to produce new individuals of the same kind in their processes of reproduction.

The remarkable organising principles that underlie such basic properties of life have been known as morphogenetic fields (fields that generate form) throughout the 20th century, though this concept produces unease and discomfort among many biologists.This unease arises for good reason. As in physics, the field concept is subversive of mechanical explanations in science, and biology holds firmly to understanding life in terms of mechanisms organised by genes.

However, the complete reading of the book of life in DNA, the major project in biology during the last two decades of the 20th century, did not reveal the secrets of the organism. It was a remarkable achievement to work out the sequence of letters in the genomes of different species, human, other animals, plants, and microbes, so that many of the words of the genetic text of different species could be deciphered.

Unfortunately, we were unable to make coherent sense of these words, to put them together in the way that organisms do in creating themselves during their reproduction as they develop into beings with specific morphologies and behaviours, the process of morphogenesis. What had been forgotten, or ignored, was that information only makes sense to an agent, someone or something with the know-how to interpret it.

The meaning was missing because the genome researchers ignored the context of the genomes: the living cell within which genes are read and their products are organised. The organisation that is responsible for making sense of the information in the genes, an essential and basic aspect of the living state, was taken for granted. What is the nature of this complex dynamic process that knows how to make an organism, using specific information from the genes?

Biology is returning to notions of space-time organisation as an intrinsic aspect of the living condition, our old friends morphogenetic fields. They are now described as complex networks of molecules that somehow read and make sense of genes. These molecular networks have intriguing properties, giving them some of the same characteristics as words in a language.

Could it be that biology and culture are not so different after all; that both are based on historical traditions and languages that are used to construct patterns of relationship embodied in communities, either of cells or of individuals? These self-organising activities are certainly mysterious, but not unintelligible. My own work, with many colleagues, cast morphogenetic fields in mathematical form that revealed how space (morphology) and time (behaviour) get organised in subtle but robust ways in developing organisms and communities.

Such coordinating patterns in living beings seem to be at the heart of the creativity that drives both biological and cultural evolution. Despite many differences between these fields, which need to be clarified and distinguished rather than blurred, there may be underlying commonalities that can unify biological and cultural evolution rather than separating them.

This could even lead us to value other species of organism for their wisdom in achieving coherent, sustainable relationships with other species while remaining creative and innovative throughout evolution, something we are signally failing to do in our culture with its ecologically damaging style of living.