International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M340
Organized session / standard talks
The cell and conceptions of individuality in the 19th century

Marion Thomas (Université de Strasbourg, France); François Duchesneau (Université de Montréal, Canada)

The cell theory is acknowledged as a major conceptual landmark in the history of biology, alongside with the Darwinian evolutionary theory. The aim of the present session is to reconsider one of the key aspect of this theory, namely its emphasize for a renew understanding of biological individuality. Since the late 1830s, the cell was often seen as an elementary unit able to exhibit all the features of the living (first “metabolic” properties, and then, after Remak and Virchow, reproductive capacities). But despite the heuristic power of the cell theory and its growing importance for biological practices and explanations, the concept of individuality it promoted was never unambiguous nor unified. The issue of biological individuality, before being central for Darwinism and afterwards philosophers of biology, was already a major bone of contention for histologists and physiologists during period 1830-1880. The contributions gathered in this session will explore and emphasize the diversity of the concept of individuality from the viewpoints of anatomy, physiology, pathology and evolutionary disciplines, concept which was pivotal in the development of the cell theory. “What counts as an individual?” was answered in several different ways in different contexts, in close connection with empirical, disciplinary and philosophical issues.

Cytoplasmic individuality: The cell as elementary organism

François Duchesneau (Université de Montréal, Canada)

In the 1860s, a complete revision of Schwann’s cell theory took place, which was partly triggered by the demonstration of the new principle that cells formed through endogenic division processes (Remak, Virchow). In the same period, morphological and physiological enquiries about the structural and functional properties of cells defined as “lumps of protoplasm” (Schultze), with or without nuclei, brought to the fore a concept of “elementary organism” (Brücke). Considered as such, cells would represent primordial living units whose various transformations and combinations yielded all higher-level biological individuals. For what reasons would the inner organization of the cell and the functional processes that flowed from it, as they were then analyzed, justify this theoretical postulate and its far-reaching methodological implications?

Inherited individuals and adaptation : Does Ernst Haeckel's theory of development go beyond preformation and epigenesis?

Ghyslain Bolduc (Université de Montréal, Canada)

While Darwin only devoted a few pages to embryology in The Origin of Species, Haeckel both foresaw how developmental theories could be deeply reformed by Darwin's theory of descent and how embryological studies could provide empirical support to Darwinism. Achieving a synthesis of the descent theory with the cell theory, Haeckel frames up a notion of genealogical individuality that brings a temporal dimension to the biological individual as it was understood in the German tradition. Grafted to this emerging theory of individuality, the recapitulation law of inheritance provides, according to Haeckel, an explanation of development that supersedes two unsatisfactory alternatives: mechanical preformed development (W. His) on the one hand and teleological epigenetic development (K. von Baer) on the other. Although Haeckel seems to offer a new mechanical and epigenetic developmental theory, commentators are not unanimous on whether Haeckel's theory is preformationist or epigenetist. I will argue that one of the reasons for this disagreement is the existence of a conceptual tension that is internal to Haeckel's system, between the phylogenetic determination of ontogenesis through inheritance and the adaptive nature of all developing individuals. In fact, this tension took form under the conceptual opposition between palingenesis and cenogenesis. Though these concepts are effective tools for integrating anomalies within the system, this growing tension will progressively lead to the implosion of Haeckel's research program.

The fate of cell theory in Strasbourg (1830-1870)

Marion Thomas (Université de Strasbourg, France)

In contrast to what happened in Paris, the cell theory was well received in Strasbourg. This paper will present factors that might explain this positive reception, focusing on three members of the medical school in Strasbourg (Lereboullet, Küss and Morel), during the period 1830-1870. Based on a study of medical textbooks and examination of the research work and experimental practices of these scientists, we compare and contrast their interpretations of the cell theory, while emphasizing the fact that they all conceived of the cell as an elementary unit with metabolic properties. We will also examine how these scientists addressed the issue of biological individuality and the more general question of the relationship between parts and whole; did they view the organism as a whole or as the sum of individual and potentially autonomous living units? One striking feature of the scientific landscape in the context of French Strasbourg prior to the annexation of Alsace by Germany was that these men were all followers of Johannes Müller and his disciples. We will also look at whether they broke with the German tradition and developed a specific local approach, or whether they served essentially as a vehicle for introducing the cell theory in France. Finally, we will point out how the physiological concept of the cell promoted by these Strasbourg scientists diverged from alternative views developed in Paris, especially the molecular conception of the organism propounded by Charles Robin, a Professor at the Faculty of Medicine and an outspoken Comtian positivist.