|MadSci Network: Science History|
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 process. 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. ~stephanie REFERENCES [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 ADDITIONAL READING The Magical Staff: The Vitalist Tradition in Western Medicine by Matthew Wood Culture, Health, and Illness by Cecil G. Helman
Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Science History.