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Organisms as Functional Machines: A Connectivity Explanation

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icb/29.3.1119 1119-1132 First published online: 1 August 1989


Living organisms exist as a complex set of levels of organization arranged in a pattern of strong ordering with none of these levels being more important than others for a full understanding of life. Central to biological strong ordering is the organismal level. Individual organisms are of special interest to biologists because they are relevant to all biological processes regardless of the operational level of the process. This is especially true for investigations of the morphological-physiological properties of organisms. For such studies, living organisms must be considered as complex machines with all of the sophisticated integration and multifarious interactions of component parts typical of complex systems. Understanding of the properties of any individual feature in an organism depends as much, or possibly even more, on an appreciation of its connections and interactions with other features of that organism than on an understanding of its intrinsic attributes. Learning the connectivity skills, including the modes of thinking, needed to comprehend the integration of diverse components of any complex system requires a different training than that needed to determine the detailed attributes of individual parts; both are necessary, however, to achieve proper advances in biological knowledge. Case studies of several vertebrate features will be used to illustrate types of interactions which exist between structural/functional attributes, and how their recognition can lead to new and interesting questions. This “feeling for the organism” may be the major factor separating those biologists who are able to make important discoveries from those who will only provide the subsequent, less exciting details of normal science.

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