MadSci Network: Science History


Date: Sun Aug 6 13:02:25 2000
Posted By: Stephanie Murg, Student in Neurobiology, Center for Neurologic Disease at Harvard Medical School, Harvard University
Area of science: Science History
ID: 964061424.Sh

Dear Whitney,

Your question is an interesting one. Throughout the history of biology, 
there has been an ongoing polemic between mechanism and holism, reiterated 
over and over again in a constant antagonism found between those supporting 
some form of vitalism and those with a profound faith in a reductionistic 
model. It revolves around the intrinsic differences between substance 
(structure, matter, quantity) and form (pattern, order, quality). Such 
controversy started early in the history of Western science and philosophy 
between Plato and Aristotle, arising fundamentally from the different 
emphasis placed on the importance of form and matter[i]. Plato emphasized 
the spiritual qualities of existence and elaborated on the patterns 
intrinsic in matter, while Aristotle considered form to be immanent in 
matter, and outlined an empirical and far more materialistic approach.

By the end of the seventeenth century and with the advent of the scientific 
revolution, the medieval worldview became replaced by an analytical 
methodology that was effective and powerful in the unravelling of nature 
and its secrets. While the engine of analytical reason pioneered an 
extraordinary transformation in our landscape and values, the embers of its 
thematic counterpart, those embedded in the vitalist tradition seem to fade 
away into controversy and muted silence, lost to the charges of magic and 
sorcery. As the scientific method gathered speed at a phenomenal pace, 
discoveries and the inordinate faith generated by so powerful a system, led 
to the belief that life would fundamentally yield up its secrets through 
the study of chemistry and physics. By the end of the nineteenth century, 
the discovery of the microscope led to many powerful advances in biology, 
and together with the increasing success of microbiology and embryology  
gave overwhelming credence to the view that life was at heart, a mechanical 

Nevertheless, one flaw in this dogma, lay in the immense 
difficulties such a model faced, when it tried to explain how all the units 
and sub-units resolved into integrated functioning organisms. This became 
particularly acute when engaged in explaining away the problems of cell
development and differentiation. So critical was this problem that German 
embryologist Hans Driesch, following some pioneering work on the
sea urchin, realized that after destroying one cell at the early two cell 
stage of a developing embryo, the remaining cell still developed into a
complete sea urchin and not half an urchin -- such a mechanism could not be 
explained purely in mechanical terms. The result led him to resurrect the 
doctrine of vitalism in the early thirties. 

Meanwhile, as biology and 
medicine continued to make strident inroads into the very substance of 
life, with advances in molecular biology and genetics, another doctrine 
arose, albeit in the form of a transmuted vitalism, which began to pose as 
a serious contender to the predominating austerity and supposedly 
value-free paradigm of reductive megalomania[ii]. This was the doctrine of 
Organismic biology that has steadily gained ground as we have moved into 
the twenty-first century. 

Both Vitalism and Organiscism are opposed to this 
mortifying necessity of science to reduce life to the bare and ascetic 
essentials of chemistry and physics. Both believe that an integrated life 
form is greater than the sum of its parts. But the
doctrines differ sharply in their answers to the question: In what sense 
exactly is the whole more than the sum of its parts? Vitalists assert that 
some non-physical entity, force or field, must be added to the laws of 
physics and chemistry to understand life. Organismic biologists maintain 
that the additional ingredient is the understanding of ‘organization’ or 
organizing relations[iii]. For vitalism to survive in any form it must 
address the issue of the vital field, in a way that confirms or denies 
the qualities of such a field, but though a number of versions have been 
presented this century, none have so far stood up to
scientific scrutiny. On the other hand, the doctrine of organismic or 
holistic philosophy has gained enormous strength from a number of recent 
advances and denies categorically the need to posit any separate energy 
field, maintaining that the organic relationships between the different 
parts of an organism are wholly immanent in the physical structure of that 
living organic system. 

As you may know, the paradigm shift described above has not been as acute 
in the field of health care. Homeopathy, herbalism, alchemy, pharmacy, and 
holism continue to represent dominant pardigms of illness in many cultures.

I hope this information is of use to you.

[i] Robert Fludd and the End of the Renaissance by William Huffman- 
Routledge 1988
[ii] Reductive Megalomania by Mary Midgley in Nature’s Imagination edited 
J.Cornwell Oxford Univers Press 1995
[iii] The Web of Life by F.Capra Harper Collins 1996

The Magical Staff: The Vitalist Tradition in Western Medicine by Matthew 
Culture, Health, and Illness by Cecil G. Helman

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