From Complex to Affective Biology

Adam J. Nocek
(Philosophy of Technology and Science and Technology Studies School of Arts, Media + Engineering Affiliate Faculty, The Design School Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Honors Faculty, The Barrett Honors College  Arizona State University)

The work of Conrad Hal Waddington (1905-1975) is foundational for contemporary theoretical biology. Not only did Waddington coin the term epigenetics, an area of research that has proven to be a game changer for the contemporary biosciences, but he is also citied as one of the early promoters of complex systems biology, a paradigm that now dominates the theoretical culture of biology. Despite the central role that Waddington played in the formation of contemporary theoretical biology, his debt to the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) is almost never mentioned in the scientific literature, despite the fact that Waddington himself attributes the development of his groundbreaking work in epigenetics to Whitehead’s metaphysics. And while this little recognized genealogy of theoretical biology (from Whitehead to Waddington) has gained modest traction in the history of science and process philosophy, it has been all but eclipsed from the dominant discourse of theoretical biology. This talk examines how both formulations of Waddington’s legacy reveal a much deeper set of commitments to and assumptions about the affective dimensions of biological systems. In particular, the lecture demonstrates how the onto-epistemological framework that complex systems biology  (and the computational biosciences more generally) presupposes cannot accommodate the affective culture of interstices that Whitehead-Waddington make possible.

Adam Nocek is an assistant professor in the philosophy of technology and science and technology studies in the School of Arts, Media, and Engineering and the Design School at Arizona State University (ASU). He is also the founding director of the Center for Philosophical Technologies at ASU. Nocek has published widely on the philosophy of media and science, speculative philosophy (especially Whitehead), design philosophy, and on critical and speculative theories of computational media. Nocek is the co-editor of The Lure of Whitehead and has just completed a manuscript titled, Molecular Capture: Biology, Animation, and Governance. Nocek is currently working on two book projects: the first project addresses computational governance and the emergence of new regimes of design expertise, and the second project reimagines the role of mythology within speculative design philosophy. Nocek is also a visiting researcher at the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Study and is The Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) Visiting Professor.