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Homeostasis, complexity, and the problem of biological design
Volume: 10, Issue 2
The harmonious melding of structure and function—biological design—is a striking feature of complex living systems such as tissues, organs, organisms, even superorganismal assemblages like social insect colonies or ecosystems. How designed systems come into being remains a central problem in evolutionary biology. The prevailing explanation for biological design rests on essentially atomist doctrines such as Neodarwinism or emergence of complexity from self-organized systems of interacting agents. The Neodarwinist explanation for design, for example, posits that good design results from selection for “good function/structure genes” at the expense of “poor function/structure genes.” Along the same lines, self-organization promises “order for free”—sophisticated structures and behaviors that emerge from simple interactions among agents at lower levels of organization. It is doubtful, however, whether such atomist doctrines by themselves can explain the origins of designed living systems. In this article, I argue that the missing piece of the puzzle is homeostasis, a classical concept that is not itself inherent in atomist explanations for adaptation and design. I couch my argument in observations on the emergence of a spectacular social insect “superorganism”: the nest and mound of the macrotermitine termites, which can best be explained as the emergent product of agents of homeostasis. This poses interesting challenges to the prevailing reductionism that permeates our current thinking on design, adaptation and evolution.