Culture Machine, InterZone

CMInterZone Article: Ingber

Interview with Donald E. Ingber

Donald E. Ingber and Diane Morgan


The idea that Life, stretching from the smallest of organic elements to the cosmos itself, is governed by universal rules and basic principles might sound quaintly Augustan to cultural theorists more attuned to 'postmodern' analyses of contemporary indeterminacy.1 The further proposition that geometry, that alleged realm of Platonic eternal shapes, could hold the key to understanding nature might also seem to put definite limits on a conception of evolution as dynamically creative, 'as an unforeseeable and unpredictable process of invention'.2 However, a radical variation of these ideas is indeed developed by Donald E. Ingber, member of the Department of Pathology and Surgery at Harvard Medical School and established researcher into cell structure, in articles such as 'The Architecture of Life' (Ingber, 1998).3 He suggests that tensegrity4 is 'life's primary organizing tool', that a 'universal set of building rules seems to guide the design of organic structures - from simple carbon compounds to complex cells and tissues'.

It should be pointed out straightaway that, for Ingber, Life negotiates a shifting boundary with the lifeless (it is 'context-dependent': see below), and that he has no difficulty in postulating a continuum between the inorganic and organic worlds. Indeed, Life he tells us can be regarded as the 'maintenance of pattern and architecture' and death largely as a question of the destructuration of cells. Ingber also insists that the nature of Life's overall formation can certainly not be understood if it is reduced to the level of genes, that 'Holy Grail of molecular biology'. Genetics analyses 'parts' whereas the architecture of tensegrity is regarded as the potential key to understanding how the whole system of Life works, 'in structures ranging from highly regular crystals to relatively irregular proteins and in organisms as diverse as viruses, plankton and humans'. Life is an emergent factor, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, yet, claims Ingber, we can hope to 'understand fully the way living creatures form and function' if we are able to 'uncover [the] basic principles that guide biological organisation'.

Buckminster Fuller, the name most obviously associated with the term 'tensegrity', often inveighed against the trend towards narrow specialisation in modern, technologised society which he conceived as crippling, even as ultimately destructive, for humans as a species.5 Ingber's work, and the ratification of Fuller's ideas about tensegrity it represents, further encourages us to think beyond partiality towards comprehensivity; Ingber obliges us to think of a vast range of biological diversity within a flexible framework informed by universal laws. In the conclusion to 'The Architecture of Life' he writes:

. . . Fuller himself went so far as to imagine the solar system as a structure composed of multiple nondeformable rings of planetary motion held together by continuous gravitational tension. Then, too, the fact that our expanding (tensing) universe contains huge filaments of gravitationally linked galaxies and isolated black holes that experience immense compressive forces locally can only lead us to wonder. Perhaps there is a single underlying theme to nature after all...

Fuller thought it was incumbent on us humans, the astronauts of Spaceship Earth, to conceive an entirely new relationship to ourselves and to the universe. The planet should be regarded as 'an integrally-designed machine which to be persistently successful must be comprehended and serviced in total' (Fuller, 1976: 47, my emphasis). Such a thinking of the whole - beyond the individual, beyond the divisions of nationality, creed, class, race and gender, beyond the limits of the species, beyond even the limits of this planet and yet further, beyond this particular universe - opens up the sublime prospect of an emerging cosmopolitics, yet to be defined, to be sure, certainly not as yet realised, but perhaps faintly detectible in this science of intrinsically dynamic wholes, which undergo permanent morphological transformation, not arbitrarily, but in accordance with universal laws.

Question One:

Postmodernism 'a process of contagion - a viral loss of determinacy'? (Baudrillard, 1993: 7)

DM: Buckminster Fuller suggested that design thinking could no longer be locally restricted in theory and application but had to be thought in terms of world needs. In 'No More Second Hand God' he wrote:

The Law of the whole system states that, given the sum of whole system pattern conception, its component behaviours may be differentially discovered and predictably described as required by the already evidenced behaviour functions implicit in the apriori-definitive experience and conceptioning of any given experience-verified system. (cited by McHale, 1962: 117)

The complexity theorist, Stuart Kauffman, also discusses 'an emerging global civilisation' that we have to come to terms with but, in contrast to Fuller, he imposes the caveat that 'we must give up the pretense of long-term prediction' precisely because globalisation is an emerging effect (Kauffman, 1995: 29). You drew on the work of both these thinkers of structure in your talk at the Cité universitaire. Where do you stand in relation to complexity theory? Would you agree with Kauffman in ruling out teleological certainty in the world in which we live? I ask you this question as in your article 'The Architecture of Life' (1998), you present Fuller's tensegrity model as the key to being able to predict ';many cell behaviours', taking into account local forces and their wider general effects. Evidently in your work as a medical doctor you are interested in positivistic interventions in the biological field (e.g. your research into cancer as a 'progressive loss of architectural principles' in cell structure might well turn out to be a constructive contribution to fighting that disease. . .), but do you ultimately conceive of the (our?) world as one built on certainty? How much comfort for us homo sapiens should be drawn from the 'singly underlying theme' of nature, the 'universal set of building rules' you so convincingly evoke in your writings?

DI: In general, I am very enthusiastic about the approaches pioneered by Stuart Kauffman that come under the general description of 'Complex Systems Science' or Complexity Theory. There are elements of this work that are familiar, even 'old hat', to many biologists and there are others that seem off base. However, for the most part, I believe that the focus on how complex behaviours emerge through collective interactions among different components and how life emerges out of hierarchical arrays involving these types of interdependent multi-molecular systems is right on the mark. One weakness of most of the current complexity approaches is that they fail to incorporate structure or mechanics which are so critical for the form and function of all living creatures. Here is where tensegrity has much to offer and, in fact, I recently published a theory of the origin of life which combines tensegrity with Kauffman's concept of 'autocatalytic sets' (Ingber, 2000: 1160-1170): my description of how life originated begins with the atom and moves up the different hierarchical levels to the first self-replicating cells. My group also has recently begun to explore the importance of dynamic networks in control of mammalian cell behaviour and functional genomics. Our results suggest that the different functional states that cells exhibit - growth, differentiation, programmed death - represent 'attractors', another key feature in complexity theory (Huang & Ingber, 2000: 91-103).

As to whether I side with Kauffman in ruling out teleological certainty in the world in which we live,I agree that there is no certainty when it comes to the individual. However, there are fundamental design principles that can predict the behaviour of the population, on average, or the likelihood (probability) for a particular behaviour in a particular physical context. For example, my work predicts that living cells stabilize their shape using tensegrity architecture, which our experimental work confirms. While we can predict fundamental rules that will guide the behaviour of living mammalian cells a priori (starting from first principles), we cannot predict the specific three dimensional form of that particular tensegrity array de novo. However, this is a classic feature of fundamental design principles in Nature. A good analogy can be found in the rules by which soap bubbles coalesce to form a 'foam'. There are fundamental design principles that govern that, in any three dimensional foam, the bubbles will on average have 14 sides; this is well accepted and confirmed experimentally. Yet, some bubbles have 13, others 15, other 12, etc.; the shape of any particular bubble is impossible to determine. Nevertheless, on average, they always come out to 14. Thus, one can deduce fundamental design principles that are certain in an 'uncertain' world.

As to whether I 'ultimately conceive of the (our?) world as one built on certainty', I provide a detailed description of how our 'world' evolved from atoms on up in my recent paper on the origin of life (Ingber, 2000). In my Scientific American article, I described how a form of geodesic building rules based on tensegrity architecture may guide hierarchical self-assembly at all size scales (Ingber, 1998: 48-57). The more recent article on evolution explains how when tensegrity is combined with other fundamental design principles (e.g., energy minimization, topological constraints, structural hierarchies, autocatalytic sets), it provides a physical basis to explain how atomic and molecular elements progressively self-assembled to create hierarchical structures with increasingly complex functions, including living cells that can self-reproduce. Again, there is certainty in the design principles, although many of the local interactions are stochastic and indeterminate on the local scale. At each level in the hierarchy of life, the multi-variability of the smaller level disappears and instead may be characterized by simpler rules and behaviours. To me, there is great comfort in the existence of unifying principles that guide natural forms at all size scales; it is a great counterbalance to the cacophony of life that seems to overpower all of us in our daily lives.

Question Two

The body needs to be repositioned from the psycho realm of the biological to the cyber zone of interface and extension - from genetic containment to electronic extrusion. Strategies towards the post-human are more about erasure, rather than affirmation - an obsession no longer with self but an analysis of structure. . . (Stelarc, 1995: 91)

My own conclusion is that man has been given the capability to alter and accelerate the evolutionary transformation of the a priori physical environment - that is, to participate objectively, directly and consciously in universal evolution. . . all of which we speak of as universe and may think of intuitively as God is an intellectual invention system which counts on man's employing these qualities. . . (Buckminster Fuller, cited in McHale, 1962: 118)

DM: In cultural studies there is much discussion of the status of the human in contemporary society: are we living in a post-human or a transhuman age? What does the future hold for us as a species? When I was reading Kauffman's At Home in the Universe (1995) I was interested by the way he definitely rejects the conception that we, homo sapiens, are the product of an evolutionary fluke ( we are not the result of a 'chain of random mutations', à la Monod, Jacob, Margulis & Sagan. . .), and yet he is far from being anthropocentric in his theorising of our place in the world. Such a thinking could maybe pave the way for a reconfiguration of humanist ethico-political concerns (I cannot help noticing that Kant and Goethe feature prominently in the writings of complexity theorists). I'd be interested in hearing what you have to say on this issue. What for you is the phase-space, what are the virtual futures, of the human? Whither humanism?

DI: In my work at the interface between cell biology, engineering, and information technology, I get glimpses of things to come. Most think the big jump will come when we break down the 'man-machine' or 'bio-silicon' interface. However, I believe that the major leap forward in terms of our power to manipulate the world about us - for better or worse (hopefully, the former) - will come when we understand the fundamental principles that guide how information is processed and managed in living systems. If we can create virtual machines driven by software that can mimic the information-processing capabilities of the biological world to handle multiple simultaneous inputs, store visual memories, create emotion and use it as an amplifier, etc., then life as we know it will change. But this will take many generations to come about. In the near term, there will be a lot of cool games available at ever lower prices.

Question Three:

[Viruses] stand at the border between the living and the non-living. . . defying any tidy division [between the organic/non-organic]. . . (Ansell Pearson, 1997: 133)

DM: Still harping on about At Home in the Universe, Kauffman defines viruses as 'low energy equilibrium systems' and differentiates them from cells which are free living systems, i.e. not parasitical (1995: 20-21). By contrast (if it is one), in your article 'The Architecture of Life' you highlight the structural principle which ensures continuity between vastly different natural forms (living and non-living). For example you write :

An astoundingly wide variety of natural systems, including carbon atoms, water molecules, proteins, viruses, cells, tissues and even humans and other living creatures, are constructed using a common form of architecture known as tensegrity.
How do you conceive of the relationship between viruses and other life/non-life forms? Do you agree that they encapsulate the difficulty of separating life from the lifeless?

DI: I believe that there is a continuum between the inorganic and organic world and that they share common design principles that guide how three-dimensional structures stabilize themselves in space. Again, I describe this continuum in specific terms in my recent essay on the origin of life. The definition of 'life' is human-made and hence, will always be a source for argument and opinion. We tend to think of living creatures as autonomous entities that exhibit the ability to self-reproduce. However, it is the architectural form of the multi-molecular array that we call life, not the components of the system. For example, a cell may be alive, but mix it up in a blender and it is not, even though it has all the identical parts. So we need to take into account the property of the 'system' and the relation between its three-dimensional form and function at the appropriate hierarchical level when attempting to define something as living.

Viruses are simple multi-molecular systems. Because viruses require the machinery of another living cell to carry out their reproduction, they are viewed as parasitic by some and living by others. In this context, it is important to point out that humans are obligate parasites as well: we require living bacterial cells in our gut in order to gain certain nutrients required for life. Similarly, spores may be 'dead' for all intents and purposes for a thousand years; however, put them in the right moist environment and life emerges. Thus, life must be defined in context of the physical environment in which that entity exists at any particular time. In short, viruses do encapsulate the difficulty of separating life from the lifeless. But the important point here is that we must view the definition of 'life' as one that is entirely context-dependent.

Question Four:

. . .thus in setting forth a morphology we should not speak of Gestalt or if we use the term we should at least do so only in reference to the idea, concept or empirical element held fast for a mere moment of time. (Goethe, 1994: 64; 1998: 55-6)

DM: In your talk at the Cité universitaire in Paris,6 you suggested that tensegrity, the structural principle of discontinuous compression and continuous tension, is the way nature builds, 'hierarchically, layer upon layer'. Indeed, (following Fuller) you even ventured to suggest that the universe itself is also constructed in this manner. This building method produces a robust, self-stabilising, economical and therefore efficient system. Is evolutionary change for you always systematic and gradual? According to Gould (but do you agree?), d'Arcy Thompson's theory of form favours the 'punctuationalist' view of change: 'structure is primary and constraining and change is a "difficult" phenomenon, usually accomplished rapidly when a stable structure is stressed beyond its buffering capacity to resist and absorb. . .' (Gould, 1982: 383). Is this a difference between you and d'Arcy Thompson on the question of mutation through symmetry breaking and change in general? In his article 'Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory', Gould readily admits that his distinction between the gradualists (those for whom the world is in 'constant change (with structure as a mere incarnation of the moment)') and the punctuationalists is oversimplified. Indeed the quotation from Goethe above perhaps illustrates this inadequacy: Goethe was a thinker both of metamorphosis and of primary forms (Urphänomen), of ceaseless transformation and of primary origins, for whom gradual reform in the socio-political realm was preferable to sudden change, and yet he was radical in his dismissal of any attempt to constrain nature and art to teleological ends and purposes (an exponent of Zweckfreiheit). Any reactions?

DI: For me, evolutionary change is absolutely not systematic and gradual. It is episodic, exhibiting slow phases and abrupt advances at different times. This relates, in part, to abrupt development of new structures when a new system (Gestalt) emerges that exhibits enhanced properties or the ability to accelerate existing functions. An example would be when self-assembling molecular systems that developed as a result of the synthetic production of simple biomolecules by clay, then developed their own catalytic capabilities which exhibited the ability to produce even more complex biomolecules with much higher efficiency. Another jump came when 'solid-state biochemistry' emerged, that is, when molecular scaffolds oriented and positioned related enzymes and substrates in close apposition, thereby accelerating chemical reactions. And so on. Thus, I agree with D'Arcy Thompson once again.

Question Five:

In an all-motion universe, all phenomenon interactions are precessional; lines of force are not straight but tend to curvilinear paths. These paths are inherently 'geodesic', i.e. the shortest distance between points on a curved or spherical surface. With the automatic tendency of energy in networks to triangulate, Fuller assumed that the most economical structural energy web might be derived through the fusion of tetrahedron and sphere. (McHale, 1962: 30-1)

[Structures] form a particular category of technical objects: they are pure artefacts, premeditated before being constructed bit by bit. . . Structures will be defined against natural organisms (which are the result of aleatory action and physical or biological laws). A mountain, a skeleton, a tree, even though satisfying the criteria of solidity and stability, are not premeditated. The mechanical principles or laws governing their growth, which generate their specific shapes are not to be assimilated to Structures. They stem from the matter itself rather than from a process that has managed to subject the matter to a particular form. These principles constitute an environment, a material milieu within which the natural object takes on its shape together with an irreducibly aleatory element. By defining Structure this way, against the type of organisation at work within the natural object, I am going against the prevalent belief that natural formations have Structures. . . (Vaudeville, 1999: 96)

DM: If nature builds everything from crystals to humans using the (flexible, efficient, economical) principles of tensegrity, why don't we? Might it not be that we as a species ('denatured' by culture?) need more rigidity than geodesic domes would permit us? What is to be made of the mismatch (indicated by Vaudeville) between our constructed Structures, domestic and other, and the 'universal set of building rules' you show to be at work within inorganic and organic nature (including, of course, within humans themselves)?

DI: There are examples of primitive huts made of palm froths in Polynesia that are in the form of geodesic domes. When we wind rope into string or make balls of twigs, these too take on geodesic forms (if they are stable). Although we often build square or rectangular structures, we often have to triangulate (put a geodesic line) across the corners to stabilize those inherent unstable forms (e.g., triangular braces in a picture frame). However, there are many answers to this question. For example, materials that exhibited good tension-bearing characteristics (e.g., high-tension cables) were not available for many years and thus, we did not build tensegrity structures on a large scale until very recently (e.g., suspension bridges). It was also very hard to seal the triangular seams in geodesic domes when Fuller made them (it is easier now) and thus, many of these domes leaked when it rained. But, in the end, when it came to us all 'living in geodesic domes', it was the human esthetic - whether natural or learned based on our experience in a rectilinear world - that killed the geodesic branch of the architectural evolutionary tree. People just did not feel comfortable living and trying to fit their rectilinear furniture in a round geodesic space

I disagree with Vaudeville that there is a 'mismatch' between our constructed Structures, domestic and other, and the 'universal set of building rules' at work within inorganic and organic nature. He is apparently unaware of how Nature builds, especially in biological systems. It builds hierarchically using rules of self-assembly and the structures emerge through interplay among multiple parts interacting in a particular chemico-physical environment. Clearly, there are general 'body plans' and determinants of particular 'structures' that are encoded in specific cascades of genes and the molecules they encode (e.g., femur versus tibia), as we can show they are inheritable. However, as clearly explained by Kauffman, the 'blue prints' lie in the system of interactions among all these components and not in the parts. There is a blue print; it is just in the form of a dynamic conversation between different contributing designers and builders (molecules in this case), rather than in a single hard copy. Because of this, each structure will be slightly different depending on local interactions and the physical context in which it is built. But, most definitely, living materials are both 'structures' and 'premeditated'; so I totally disagree with Vaudeville here.

Question Six:

Life is not located in the property of any single molecule but is the collective property of systems of interacting molecules. Life in this view emerged whole and has always remained whole. Life in this view is not to be located in its parts but in the collective emergent properties of the whole they create. Although life as an emergent phenomenon may be profound, its fundamental holism and emergence is not at all mysterious. . . No vital force or extra substance is present in the emergent, self-reproducing whole. But the collective system is alive. Its parts are just chemicals. (Kauffman, 1995: 24)

DM: In the above quotation Kauffman discusses how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Whilst the emergence of life is not to be considered 'mysterious', his book does endorse a quasi-spiritual view of the 'deeper order inherent in all life'. You too quoted with approval d'Arcy Thompson's closing lines about Plato and Pythagorus, who 'saw in Number le comment et le pourquoi des choses and found in it la clef de voûte de l'Univers' (Thompson, 1966: 327). The possible fact that 'the Book of Nature may indeed be written in the characters of geometry', does this for you inspire the same 'awe and respect' that Kauffman evokes?

DI: Yes, and I agree with every word of the quote from Kauffman that you cite here. Again, the only difference between my view and Kauffman's is that he tends to focus on the informational content and regulatory/logic interactions between components whereas I believe that structure and mechanics also must be integrated into his view to fully explain how things work. When you put it all together, Nature seems truly elegant in its simplicity while still exhibiting its ostensibly infinite capacity to create every increasingly complex forms.


1 Hence my first question to Donald Ingber about Baudrillard's proposition that contemporary society is characterised by 'viral indeterminacy'. For a counter-conception of viruses as being structurally very much predetermined, see Stewart (1998: 66): '. . .Another thing we learn from viruses is that geometric constraints at the molecular level are very strong: Mathematics places stringent limits on the range of possible virus architectures'. Confirmation by researchers investigating the geometrical structure of viruses that tensegrity was evident at this microscopic level was an important breakthrough for Buckminster Fuller and his vision of the world (see McHale, 1962: 45).

2 See Keith Ansell Pearson in Mullarky (1999: 154). See also: 'Life is not like geometry, in which things are given "once and for all". . . At one point in his argument Bergson insists that there is no universal biological law that can automatically be applied to every living thing. . .' (ibid.: 150)). Ingber's work interestingly puts into question this understanding of geometry and this rejection of universal laws of nature.

3 All subsequent citations from Donald Ingber are taken from his ground-breaking article 'The Architecture of Life' (1998).

4 A term coined by Buckminster Fuller to refer to lightweight structures that use discontinuous compression and continuous tension to maintain themselves. As Shoji Sadao states: 'What is startling about the conception is its pertinence to fields which ordinarily seem to be unrelated. Tensegrity supplied a generalized approach to the most economic forms of 'man-occupiable' structures. And again, as nuclear scientists have suggested, it might provide in fact a true model of the atom's nuclear structure' (in Zung, 2001: 31). See also the discussion of something akin to tensegrity in the discussion of 'cable networks' by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: 'in considering the system as a whole we should speak less of automatism of a higher center than of coordination between centers, and of the cellular groupings or molecular populations that perform these couplings: there is no form or correct structure imposed from without or above but rather an articulation from within as if oscillating molecules, oscillators, passed from one heterogeneous center to another, if only for the purpose of assuring the dominance of one among them. This obviously excludes any linear relation from one center to another, in favor of packets of relations steered by molecules. . .' (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988: 328).

5 See, for instance, Zung (2001: 101-121). Buckminster Fuller makes the point that the computer's capacity for specialisation vastly outstrips that of the human. The species could as a result endanger itself if it does not radically reorientate itself back towards the appreciation of its innate aptitude for comprehensive thinking and acting, against the drive towards single-minded cerebralisation.

6 Donald Ingber gave a paper at the 'Architecture du vivant: de Platon à la tenségrité' conference, Cité universitaire, Paris, 30th November 2000.


Ansell Pearson, K. (1997) Viroid Life. London & New York: Routledge.

Baudrillard, J. (1993) The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. Trans. J. Benedict. Oxford: Polity Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. B. Massumi. London: Athlone.

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Goethe, J.W. von (1994) Scientific Studies: The Collected Works Vol. XII (ed), D. Miller. Trans D. Miller. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

-- (1998) Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften: Hamburger Ausgabe Vol. XIII. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.

Gould, S.J. (1982) 'Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory', Science 216: 380-387.

Huang, S. & Ingber, D.E. (2000) 'Shape-dependent Control of Cell Growth, Differentiation, and Apoptosis: Switching between Attractors in Cell Regulatory Networks', Experimental Cell Research 261: 91-103.

Ingber, D.E. (1998) 'The Architecture of Life', Scientific American 278: 48-57.

-- (2000) 'The Origin of Cellular Life', BioEssays 22:1160-1170.

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Mullarky, J. (ed.) (1999) The New Bergson. Manchester: Manchester University Press/ Angelaki Humanities.

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Vaudeville, B (1999) 'The Folly of Structures: An Apology for Rigidity' (trans. D. Morgan) in G. Banham & S. Malik (eds), On Energy and Chance, Tekhnema: Journal of Philosophy and Technology 5

Zung, T.T.K. (ed.) (2001) Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for a New Millennium. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Donald E. Ingber is , M.D.,Ph.D. is Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School He is also a member of the Departments of Surgery & Pathology at Children's Hospital and of various engineering centers at Harvard and MIT. Ingber pioneered the concept that living cells and tissues mechanically structure themselves using an architectural system first described by Buckminster Fuller, known as tensegrity In addition to his work on cell structure, he discovered TNP-470, the first angiogenesis inhibitor to enter clinical trials for the treatment of human cancer He also is the founder of Tensegra, Inc., a company that creates advanced medical devices with biologically inspired properties Ingber's paper, 'The Architecture of Life', which describes his contributions to fundamental research in cell structure over the past twenty years, was published as the cover article in Scientific American in January 1998

Diane Morgan is Senior Lecturer in Literary and Cultural Studies at University College Northampton. She is the author of Kant Trouble (Routledge, 2000) and co-editor, with Keith Ansell-Pearson, of Nihilism Now!: Monsters of Energy (MacMillan, 2000). Other work has appeared in the journals Tekhnema and Angelaki. Her current book project is on the subject of cosmopolitics and it proposes a reevaluation of the German humanist tradition.