Brian Goodwin: Hugely influential and insightful biologist, philosopher and writer
Friday 31 July 2009
Professor Brian Goodwin, the visionary biologist, mathematician, philosopher and teacher has died at the age of 78. Goodwin was a scientist of outstanding calibre who helped to articulate an intellectually coherent alternative to the neo-Darwinist notion that natural selection, acting on randomly mutating selfish replicators such as genes, is the fundamental process that drives evolution. As a philosopher and teacher, Goodwin in his later years urged us to combine a deeply intuitive approach to nature with an open-ended rationality in service of sustainable living.
Goodwin's life-long dissatisfaction both with neo-Darwinist concepts and with our culture's unsustainable relationship with the natural world began when he was only eight or nine years old; he felt a deep sense of peace in the presence of large boulders in the extensive forests around his home in his native Eastern Canada. These experiences folded themselves deeply into his psyche and gave him a profound appreciation of the intrinsic creativity of the natural world, which, combined with his mother's rejection of patriarchy, would later provide him with the inspiration to question some of the most deeply held assumptions of our culture.
As a teenage schoolboy Goodwin excelled academically and, inspired by his reading of Marie Curie's biography, he felt that he must become a scientist in order to answer the central question that fascinated him then and throughout his long and distinguished career: what is life? While still at school, he was deeply impressed by the underlying principles that so beautifully explain why the chemical elements are ordered as they are in the periodic table, and at eighteen years of age, whilst studying biology at McGill University, he began to ask himself whether there might be equally powerful principles that could account for the awe-inspiring diversity of body forms in the living realm.
In his early twenties, he did a Master's degree in plant physiology at McGill, and even at this early stage in his scientific development he was unhappy with the neo-Darwinist interpretation of evolution. He felt that the coherence, self-organising power and creativity of organisms were seriously missing from this highly reductionist perspective, even though it was a powerfully unifying conception. He went on to a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford from 1954 to 1957, where he studied mathematics in order to further explore his feeling that there must be an intrinsic organising principle in the cosmos that expresses itself everywhere: in crystals, in the flows of fluids and in the forms of organisms.
Goodwin did his Ph.D. at Edinburgh University with Conrad Waddington, the eminent biologist who shared Goodwin's quest to integrate developmental biology with evolution. Goodwin's Ph.D. explored how cells are temporally organised in rhythmically coherent ways that lead to division and to the generation of different forms during development. This groundbreaking work later became the basis of Goodwin's first book, Temporal Organisation in Cells, which, with its highly mathematical emphasis on statistical mechanics and feedbacks involving genetic control loops, influenced other important scientists such as Stuart Kauffman in the US. Waddington, who also had strong interests in the arts and in the philosophical ideas of A N Whitehead, wanted to develop an educational process that went beyond science to include the transformation of human culture and politics. This radically integrative pedagogical approach greatly influenced Goodwin and surfaced in the last phase of his career when he joined Schumacher College.
In 1965, after a three-year post-doc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Goodwin was appointed to a Readership in biology at the University of Sussex. Encouraged by his Dean, the great evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith, Goodwin explored the applicability of his biological ideas to the developmental dynamics of organisms such as Xenopus, the clawed toad.
A key collaborator in these experiments was Gerry Webster, with whom Goodwin wrote Form and Transformation: Generative and Relational Principles in Biology, which laid the foundations of the structuralist movement in biology. The focus here was on how self-organising dynamics at the molecular and cellular levels give organisms their astonishing capacity to generate form with no need for natural selection, at least in the first instance. This emphasis on the wholeness of organisms drew him into debates with leading neo-Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert. It was during this period that Goodwin encountered Goethe's rigorously phenomenological approach to science. This taught him that it is possible to arrive at a correct conception of any natural phenomenon by dwelling with it closely and intimately, with one's intuitive and sensory faculties wide awake.
From 1984 until 1996 Goodwin was Professor of Biology at the Open University, along with Steven Rose. Here he continued his enquiry into the principles of organisation that could account for the forms of life. Together with L E H Trainor and C Brière, he made a highly influential mathematical model that elegantly simulated whorl formation in Acetabularia (a tiny unicellular marine alga shaped liked a miniature umbrella), by invoking the influences of calcium ions on the mechanical properties of the cell. Working with Ricard Sole and Octavio Miramontes, Goodwin developed another mathematical model, this time showing how rhythmical activity emerges in a model ant colony when individually chaotic ants interact with each other at a specific density.
These and other models are described in his popular book How the Leopard Changed its Spots. During this period, Goodwin began a close association with the Santa Fe Institute, a centre of excellence for the study of complex systems. Here he was enthralled by the notion that organisms live at the "edge of chaos", where, in the words of his colleague Mae-Wan Ho, there is "maximum freedom to the individual with maximum coherence to the whole." Influenced by the Santa Fe Institute, Goodwin entered into a deep exploration of complexity theory, and with Sole wrote Signs of Life, which outlines how the mathematics of chaos and non-linear dynamics can be applied to the living world at all levels of organisation.
Through his friendships with Vandana Shiva, Teddy Goldsmith and many other activists, Goodwin had, over many years, become acutely aware of the ecological and social crises that the Western world's severe alienation from nature had created with the often inadvertent help of science. By the time Goodwin retired from the Open University, his search for the organising principles in biology had broadened into a deeper quest to heal this split between human culture and the rest of nature.
In 1996 he came to Schumacher College to give a talk, and soon after became a member of the resident faculty. In 1998, under his guidance, he and I started the world's first MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College, accredited by the University of Plymouth. Together with our students and guest-speakers such as Henri Bortoft, Craig Holdredge, Margaret Colquhoun, James Lovelock and Rupert Sheldrake, we developed a "science of qualities" which aims to help our culture shift its emphasis away from control towards participation with nature by healing the split between facts and values and quantities and qualities. One of these students is the mathematician Philip Franses, with whom Goodwin developed a model of the genome as a text riddled with ambiguity that can be read in a variety of ways by the rest of the cell as an active subject.
At Schumacher College (of which he was recently made a Founding Fellow), Goodwin's gentle nature and diverse insights at last found their full expression, to the benefit of the many people from around the world who encountered him here. He expressed these insights in his last book, Nature's Due: Healing our Fragmented Culture. In the ripeness of his later years his wisdom was prodigious. Recently, Mabel Toribio, an MSc student from Peru, asked him if there were universal truths. She recorded him as saying that "there is truth in each of us, but to see some of it we should be humble enough to accept that it is too big that we should get to see it all". During his final hours, his sense of discovery undaunted, he gently lifted his hands in the air and declared to his nurse that he was "reaching for the stars".
For information about Brian Goodwin's funeral and memorial please go to www.schumachercollege.org.uk.
Dr Stephan Harding
Brian Carey Goodwin, theoretical biologist and holistic scientist: born St. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec, Canada 25 March 1931; married three times, first to Pearl (one daughter), secondly to Hazel (three stepchildren), thirdly to Christel; died Torbay, Devon 15 July 2009.
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