biological modelsOverview

Living organisms may provide better models for artworks than current philosophical concepts or the reductionist approaches of the physical sciences. Living models display two important characteristics. One is a nonlinear nature: their structures are not fixed but continually build on previous states. The other is structural discontinuities: organisms operate on different levels (chemistry, cell metabolism, organ cooperation, interaction with environment, etc.) that are not directly linked.


Because they evolve and influence later artists, we sometimes talk about the 'life' of a work of art or art movement. Before dismissing this as a figure of speech, we might compare the two: {1}



living cell


artistic autonomy

discrete entity


multiplies through reading and printing

multiplies by breeding


controls reader expectations

controls energy transfer


converts reader interest into fascination

converts food into energy


suppresses inappropriate meanings

ejects waste products


understanding of reader shifts in time

grows into maturity


changes with appraisal and context

reacts to changes in its surroundings


expands in consciousness of reader

exhibits motion at some level


interacts with and modifies social environment

interacts with and modifies environment


movement evolves with new writings

population evolves over time

information content

increases local organization/information content

forms local centre of negative entropy

Detailed Comparisons

The analogies go deeper. To look at a few processes:

:Modus Operandi

How do cells carry out their complex processes? Although extraordinarily complicated in detail {1}, the molecular processes have simple strategies. They employ chemical interactions and goodness of molecular fit to create their necessary constituents.{2} When, for example, an enzyme creates a compound from two constituents, A and B, it does so in specific steps. Through its shape and the attraction of surrounding weak forces, the enzyme first induces two molecules to 'dock' on its surface. One is the constituent A; the other is an ATP (adenosine triphosphate) molecule. By careful positioning, the enzyme transfers one of ATP's phosphates to the A constituent, and then discards what remains of the ATP molecule. The enzyme then takes the second constituent B into a nearby docking site, breaks off the phosphate joined to the A molecule, and transfers the energy created to a bond between constituent A and B. The spent phosphate is then discarded (to form another ATP molecule in time), and the new compound, A-B, is released by the enzyme. The process repeats with another AB creation, conducted mindlessly but efficiently by the laws of physics.

Communication between cells proceeds in much the same way, involving interactions between compounds that obey the laws of game theory, and which are governed by flow of information considerations. There is no 'invisible hand' operating at cell level: molecules have simply 'learned' to operate together through trial and error over the eons of geological time. Success on the molecular level is explained by the laws of physics. Success on the species level is explained by the theory of evolution. No other process is needed.

Essentially, we don't know how poetry makes its appeal, or why we find certain things beautiful. We can name certain characteristics that make a poem successful — originality, deep feeling, masterful expression, etc. — but we can only frame these characteristics in words than are used more generally than their deployment in poetry.

Moreover, we cannot by logic convince a skeptical reader that they apply in a particular case, nor use these characteristics to directly build a poem. Composition is invariably by trial and error, the 'rules' of prosody, rhyme, stanza shape, imagination, freshness etc. being applied later to understand why the piece is not fulfilling its potential. As is said in poetry workshops: ' what works, works.'

We respond mentally to poems, through brains that operate through loosely connected units with multiple feedback {3}. Brains evolved like other organs, and natural selection no doubt played its part. It is therefore very unlikely on principle that reductive laws will provide the appropriate model for consciousness, aesthetics and social interaction, living organisms in fact providing closer parallels. Life accepts discontinuities, partial interactions, diversity in representation and chaotic behaviour.

This indeed is what close textural readings of poems disclose. They don't entirely exhibit the organic unity that the New Criticism wanted. Too much can be made of difficulties, but some elements are often discordant, or can only be made harmonious by following cultural expectations. It's at least to the credit of deconstructive critics that we realize how poems can be misunderstood if the social or cultural contexts are removed, or we are willfully perverse in our readings. Appreciation of poetry comes slowly, moreover, and the enthusiasms of youth have to give way to a more measured and generous assessment that gradually involves our whole social being.


Living things are marvellously organized. Hormones, for example, secreted by specific glands, carry instructions to all parts of the body through the blood stream. The pituitary gland receives signals from the brain, and in response sends out its own hormones, which turn on or off the hormone production in other glands. In the growing foetus, compounds called morphogens affect cells over a wide area, directing the preferential growth of limb, nerve or skin cells in accordance with the concentration of those morphogens. These different cells then migrate to their various sites by following chemical pathways, just as ants do to reach a food source. Organization indeed operates at all levels, but is not centrally directed according to some prepared blueprint. The DNA in chromosomes carries detailed instructions, certainly, but these are codes that create proteins, which then cooperate mechanically.

Crucially, DNA also controls what is not produced. Much of the coding produces proteins that switch off other production processes, either altogether or when the right level is reached.

So it is in poetry. No one supposes that even the perfect lyric has an equal organization, but poems do carry instructions for appropriate reading. We see short lines on a page, and do not read them as prose. We hear the rhymes that mark the line endings, and expect the line entity to bear some relationship to the poem as a whole. Many of the instructions use social and cultural codes, but poets often have to attend readings and workshops to ensure that the piece is performing as planned. Proof is in the eating.

:Energy Considerations

Life is a local exception to the Second Law of Thermodynamics {2}, which states that the entropy (disorder or uncertainty) {3} of a system can never decrease. {4} But if life creates local knots of greater organization, the Second Law ensures by way of compensation that byproducts are dissipated more widely. Animals and plants are eaten, their living matter broken down into simpler constituents, which are then absorbed as food, the unwanted parts excreted.

In this connection we note that poetry, and great art generally, is often a wasteful process produced in times of great personal and social upheaval. Chaucer lived through murderous court intrigues. Shakespeare wrote against the deep divisions in the religious and political fabric of his age. In contrast, tutors at adult education classes have learned not to expect masterpieces from law-abiding folk retired on comfortable pensions. Good work usually draws on dangerous matters and entails a high personal investment.

:Information Considerations

Information theory is a branch of mathematics that deals with the problems of transmitting information efficiently. Shannon's famous entropy function {5} represents the least number of symbols required to code for the outcome of an event regardless of the method of coding. It is therefore a unique measure of the quantity of 'information', this 'information' being a decrease in entropy.

Originally developed at the Bell laboratories for electronic transmission, the function has been widely applied to computer science, linguistics, cryptography, cognitive psychology, the biological sciences and sociology. Information approaches can be used to solve hermeneutic problems of manuscript authorship {6}, for example, and to provide measures of the surprising precision of molecular events.

Seen through information theory, living things incorporate an enormous amount of 'information' into their tiny cells. Life seems one of the most information-laden forms in the universe, and it would be laughable to claim the same for poetry. But if poems are seen as knots of higher 'information' content in the web of language then many of the troublesome issues of aesthetics can be sidestepped. We don't have to arbitrate between intellectual content and emotion in a poem, or assess the shaping power of metre and imagery, etc. True, 'information' in this sense is hardly useful to the literary critic, particularly as information theory has nothing to say on the meaning or interpretation of the message transmitted, but the approach does open the door to the questions mathematicians like to ask of life processes — e.g. how is the 'information' content of cells to be measured? why is the metabolism so efficient?

Shannon's key entropy function is fairly straightforward. The entropy is proportional to the negative product of p and log p, where p is the probability that the event observed is purely a matter of chance. How that applies in individual cases can be immensely complicated, but for our purposes we see that lines written in tight rhyme and metre are far less likely to arise by chance than lines of simple prose. Vocabulary is also important. Something like I was at the President's this afternoon is less common in everyday conversation than I was at the drugstore this afternoon. And being less likely, it conveys more 'information'.

Looked at this way, the unexpected vocabulary and fractured syntax of Modernist poetry may be trying to push more 'information' into poetry. When successful, Modernist poems made sense as words on a page, and as references to a wider and more contemporary world. (Green ideas sleep furiously, for example, makes sense in one way but not the other.) They organized on both levels, a difficult undertaking that we applaud with such approbations as freshness, convincing originality, and telling authenticity.

But only on one level do strict verse forms convey more 'information', and allow the better poetry to be written. We have also to consider a second level, that of vocabulary and contemporary relevance. If the besetting sin of free verse is the prosaic, poetry in strict forms tends continually to lapse into verse. Free verse may convey less 'information' on the rhythmic level, but its aims are larger at the level of context. Accordingly, it is judged not on its craftsmanship (which is often elementary, despite protestations to the contrary) but on its organization of everyday language. Tone, naturalness, aptness to the occasion, expression of emotion and motive — traditional aspects of the novelist's and the playwright's craft — become more vital. Done well, free verse comes over better in readings, particularly in our informal age.

Postmodernism is a natural progression. To repair free verse's deficit of 'information' at the rhythmic level, Postmodernist poems may be using a richer rich bric-a-brac of contemporary images. A larger vocabulary, therefore, even if the information' concept requires that vocabulary to say something relevant. When it doesn't — and that is often the case in amateur work — then the poet is forgetting that originality is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Is 'information' a valid concept in literature? Probably, and for this reason. Seen as biological entities, human beings are animals that use language as guides to action. Information is essential to us, and we dislike lies and misrepresentation. Poetry is not exempt from 'Information' demands, though we may look for a tighter fusion of text and context.

: Operation Levels

Is evolution purely blind, just random mutations filtered over time by breeding advantage? Reductionists believe so, but must allow a caveat. At the molecular level (the blind watchmaker view {7}), the process is purely mechanical. Thousands of processes take place every minute in and around the cell, with only the rarest mistake benefiting the organism and so being retained by evolution. But at higher levels the process is a different one, with natural selection applying to the interaction of organism with environment. The two processes operate independently — a point worth emphasizing because current thinking in the humanities has blurred the distinction.

Consider literary theory. Prior to Saussure, linguistics could not account for the random nature of linguistic change, in which there seemed no pattern or purpose. After Saussure, the puzzles remained, but the emphasis was on how languages actually functioned in practice. Like pieces on a chess board, words simply fulfilled certain rules and functions. A language may well have mutated by chance, such random changes being retained because they served useful purposes, but that was beside the point: linguistics did not need to speculate on matters for which the evidence was largely missing.

Unfortunately, Structuralism then applied the reductionist approach, and tried to subsume language under extended binary codes, lumping together the very different modes of communication between human beings as 'texts'. Predictably, Poststructuralism overreacted, still keeping the simplification to texts, but denying that words could have any referential function at all. They argued that Saussure had shown that words fulfilled certain rules and opportunities, and these rules and opportunities were the only reality. But Saussure had not shown this. Like the molecular biologist focusing on cell operations, he had simply concerned himself with how language operates on the level of language. That he had largely left out account the social purposes of language does not mean that those purposes do not exist, and indeed the games that deconstruction can play with meaning shows how truly important they are.

Perhaps it wasn't science that inspired the radicals. The Russian formalists (whose concepts were adopted by Jakobson and Structuralism) studied the ways in which literary language differed from speech and normal prose, but it suited the polemics of the Poststructuralists to ignore those differences. Once flattened into texts, literature belonged to the people and could be removed from privileged groups. From the rules governing all texts could be deduced ways of detecting social, racial and gender discrimination in individual cases, allowing guidelines to be established for political correctness in publishing and the media.

Consider a less contentious example: rhythmic analysis. The aim of Cureton and others is to distinguish between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable as verse. The approach derives from Chomsky's universal grammar, and the end product is rules: the elegant and comprehensive rules that science requires, mathematically expressed if possible. Yet the science here is again reductionist. The life sciences are not exempt from the laws of physical science, but the laws operate differently — over time, with elements of randomness and selection by distinct levels of criteria. Cureton's approach may or may not be successful, but is of limited use to the practising poet. Good lines are not created by rules, but out of the auditory imagination, the rules serving later to check what the ear discerns.

:Feedback and Interaction

Viewed as populations, organisms do not simply occupy an environment, but operate as complex systems that interact with and modify their surroundings {7}. Nowhere is this obvious than with human beings {8}. And unlike other animals, humans have language and consciousness: they create concepts that modify their behaviour.{9}

That is the view of biologists like David Sloan Wilson, {10} who have criticized the 'tough-minded' approaches of recent years that would make genes, and genes only, the determining factors. We should then expect human beings, the most complex of animals, to have the largest number of chromosones. But they don't, far from it. {13} Even the simplest organisms, bacteria, can cooperate so closely that the colony is the only meaningful unit. Altruistic behaviour in groups is also well documented — the lookout animal that gives the warning cry though putting itself at risk by attracting the predator's attention. Reductionist theories provide neat solutions, but life is not so tidy.

It was for this reason that Edwardian literary critics studied poems in the contemporary setting. To judge a particular work, something had to be known of the poet's life, circumstances, and aims. Understandably, perhaps, given the science of the day, the New Critics wanted sharper rules, and appealed to psychology to remove the larger considerations. But whatever the justification, the analyses were not wholly successful, becoming only more ingenuous and artificial. Poems grow in the interconnecting web of words used by living people, and that must always involve issues beyond the mere complexities of language itself.

If poems resemble living organisms, where's the evidence that poems do indeed interact with and modify their environment? First there is the phenomenon of artistic movements: formality in eighteenth century poetry, reflected in architecture, painting and private correspondence, a twentieth century preoccupation with the common man, seen in the debunking of idealism and the preference for the demotic voice in literature. Today we find an eclecticism in architecture, collages of received images in contemporary painting, the abrupt juxtaposition of styles and unliterary elements in Postmodernist poetry.

But if broad artistic movements need no amplification, interaction of those movements with other events is harder to document. Contemporary poetry has become a coterie interest, and we have to go back to Tennyson to see how his Idylls of the King influenced the Pre-Raphaelites, and through them not only styles in interior design but the high-mindedness in civic life brutally extinguished by the First World War.

:Community Considerations

Limited space and food supplies ensures that only a few species will occupy any given ecological niche, and in fact evolution often proceeds by fits and starts. For millions of years species remain unchanged, but then suddenly evolve to take advantage of changed conditions. But though life may repeat itself in general (insects, bats, pterodactyls, and birds all developed flight) the exact same forms do not reappear. New species face new types of competition, and have inevitably to be slightly different.

Literary genres and examples also have their ecological niche. The public has limited time to appreciate an incessant supply of artwork, and the artwork itself must also join a community of interests: what doesn't illuminate that community's beliefs is not accepted. Poems written in outmoded forms may be aired in workshops but are not easily published. There may be nothing intrinsically wrong with them, and it's unhelpful to call them passé or pastiches, but they simply don't draw on the communality of interests and expectations that make up the contemporary literary scene. The literary community is every bit as conservative as the scientific, moreover, and for the same reason. To accept the aberrant poem risks undermining the paradigm of 'right thinking' that presently holds sway, and so weaken the standing of work in which authors, critics and the reading public have invested a good part of their lives.

:Rate of Change

But why are there shifts in taste at all? Why do we value the poetry of Góngora, say, or César Vallejo, far more highly than did their contemporaries? What causes such an evolution in taste?

From a reductionist perspective, no foresight enters into evolution. Populations evolve as genetic variations appear and the ecological niches to be exploited. Nothing more is needed. Each individual of a particular species has its own set of genes, moreover, which permit variety within the general need for interbreeding. The sum of all genes in a population is the gene pool, and it is the change over time of the gene pool that constitutes evolution.

Now the key point. Small gene pools are more readily influenced by genetic change than are large ones — obviously, as the changes are not so easily swamped by others. And since it is overall change in the gene pool that counts, evolution naturally proceeds faster in small populations, which is a theoretical deduction supported by the facts.

That may explain the dizzy rate of change in the twentieth-century. By rejecting the conventional, avant garde artists forced the pace. They restricted what could be accepted, and what sectors of society could be served. Most importantly, they restricted membership, thereby diminishing still further the 'gene pool' of beliefs or practices. It was the very thinness of the work, and its limited appeal, that fostered novelty, therefore, not simply a 'necessary response to a changing world'. Sometimes the movements espoused change for change's sake, when they rapidly burned themselves out. Sometimes they found a congenial niche — generally helped by the media and consumerism — when they became a dominant style, ruthlessly destroying the remnants of earlier standards. In the visual arts the process is much clearer, of course, and critics developed a plethora of labels to protect movements from 'unenlightened' criticism. The work was insubstantial? — minimalism. Only raw daubs of emotion? — expressionism. No focus or seriousness — all over art or Postmodernism. Modernism's aristocracy of taste was extended to the informed gallery-going public, provided that public was ready with its cheque-books.

Philosophical Dimensions

The above is a straightforward reductionist account — though we should note many different views on entropy. Nonetheless, the sheer scale of complexity in metabolism has encouraged the search for alternative outlooks. Some biologists, influenced by complexity theory, see life as an emergent form. Others, usually Catholic philosophers building on the work of Thomas Aquinas, go back to Aristotle's notion of 'substantial form'. {11} The notion is difficult for the modern mind to grasp, but 'substantial form' is the primary actualization of a substance, which combines with 'primary matter' to give the 'unified actual substance'. Substantial form is what makes the substance the kind of thing it is and so act the way it does. And where the reductionist method breaks a substance into simple parts that can be represented mechanically, 'substantial form' takes the complex operating substance (e.g. cell, organism, community) as the primary, irreducible entity.

Of course that helps a rapprochement between religion and science, and there is indeed some awareness that cell operations cannot be understood in isolation. {12} Their individual processes depend on the processes surrounding them, and so on the unified operation of their enclosing cell. The DNA of a dinosaur could be unravelled, for example, but a dinosaur couldn't be grown by inserting manufactured DNA into the cell of a living animal, but only into the cell of a living dinosaur. More prosaically, genome studies have learnt that genes operate in tandem with each other, requiring cells to be studied in their life operations, and computer models built to capture the cyphered text that genes follow. Nonetheless, the individual components, structures and dynamics of genes have also to be identified, so that genomics is not adopting substantial form exactly.

The importance for poetry? Perhaps that the approach of the New Criticism was not essentially wrong, but only much too simple. Living cells are not harmonious structures throughout, but have time-dependent elements that operate in odd ways that can be disruptive. We need to appreciate how and why exactly the various elements of a poem pull together, and for this we need a better understanding of brain physiology, human communication and social behaviour. Nonetheless, until then, we can still grant autonomy to a poem, and perhaps be more cautious in believing that quality is the sole reason for a poem's survival.


These are speculative suggestions, but important ones. As noted in complex systems, sociology, metaphor research, and brain functioning, literature needs to understand the sciences better if it wishes to borrow its methods and kudos.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Any elementary biology textbook, e.g. Michael Roberts, Michael Reiss and Grace Monger's Biology Principles and Processes. (1993), Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson's The Way Life Works. (1995), and Alan Cornwell and Ruth Miller's Biology: A-Level and AS-Level. (1997).
2. Werner R. Loewenstein's The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication and the Foundations of Life. (1999).
3. See Chapter 7 of Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart's The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World. 1994.
4. Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart give some (speculative) reasons why the Second Law is not as usually stated, arguing for a more contextual approach in science.
5. A helpful introduction to Shannon's work, entropy and information measures looked at from the gambler's point of view is given in P. Fraundorf's Gambling Theory Origins of the 0th Law: /sld001.htm NNA. (10/1/2002). A simple mathematical treatment is provided by Tom Schneider's Information Theory Primer at paper/primer NNA.. (Jan. 2002).
6. Chris Hillman's Entropy in the Humanities and Social Sciences. NNA. (5/7/2001).
7. R. Dawkin's The Selfish Gene. O.U.P. London. (1976) and The Blind Watchmaker. (1986).
8. Niles Eldrege's Reinventing Darwin: The Great Evolutionary Debate. Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1995).
9. Walter Truett Anderson's Evolution Isn't What It Used To Be: The Augmented Animal and the Whole Wired World. (1996).
10. Richard Sloan Wilson and and Elliot Sober's Unto Others. Harvard University Press (1999).
11. Michael J. Dodds' Top Down, Bottom Up or Inside Out? Retrieving Aristotelian Causality in Contemporary Science. (Jul. 1997)
12. Our Vision: Genome Studies as a Change of Paradigm in Biology NNA. and Cohen and Stewart.
13. Human Genome, Wikipedia. October, 2013.

Internet Resources

1. Cell Biology. Very fully-featured section with articles and flash demonstrations on all aspects of cell biology.
2. Second Law of Thermodynamics. Brig Klyce. Extended article on common misunderstandings, with extended references.
3. Second law broken: Small-scale energy fluctuations could limit minaturization. Ed. Gerstner. Jul. 2002. Exceptions to the second law at the cell level.
4. Maximum Power. Jay Hanson. Jan 2001. Evolution applied to competitive human societies.
5. A Short Course in Information Theory. David J.C. MacKay Jan. 1995. Mathematical treatmement in pdf files.
6. Introduction to Evolutionary Biology: Version 2. Chris Colby. 1996. A standard but clear account.
7. Evidence for Evolution: An Eclectic Survey. Chris Colby. 1997. A linked series of postings.
8. Saint Thomas Aquinas. Ralph McInerny. 1999. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry mentioning substantial form.
9. Form. K. Knight. Sep. 2003. New Advent entry on substantial form.
10. Meme. Wikipedia entry on memes, cultural information transferable from one mind to another: an analogous concept.