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

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  17:30 - 19:00  /  DS-R515
Organized session / standard talks
Rethinking philosophy of biology before biology

Charles Wolfe (Universiteit Gent, Belgium)

Biology as a science of the functioning and development of living bodies emerged in the early 19th-century, integrating methodological or empirical advances in various disciplines physiology, embryology, comparative anatomy and medicine. The fact that the word biology was simultaneously and independently coined by several authors from different national and disciplinary backgrounds (Hanov, Bichat, Lamarck, Treviranus) testifies to this epistemic emergence (McLaughlin 2002) of the constitution of a unified framework for investigations of vital phenomena. Philosophy of biology in turn is a fairly recent discipline, developing from the post-positivist tradition in 1960s philosophy of science, with core issues in evolutionary and molecular biology that are also relevant for metaphysics and theoretical biology, e.g. molecular reductionism, adaptationism, units of selection, genetic information. It tends to exclude historical concerns, even though the founders (Ruse, Grene, Hull) devoted real work to the history of biology (Gayon 2009 on philosophy of biology s gradual self-definition as a discipline). However, philosophers did not wait for the 1960s to address the fact and the nature of life Aristotle's telos, Descartes's animal-machine, Kant's teleological judgement immediately come to the mind of any contemporary philosopher. More precisely, 18th-century philosophers interested by empirical findings concerning vital phenomena shared the concerns of naturalists with newly observed problem-cases regeneration of polyps (Diderot on Trembley), chicken embryogenesis (Bonnet reviving Leibnizian preformism), Galvanism, Mesmerism, Kant on Simmering's theories of nervous diseases. Metaphysical issues such as organization, vital forces or the creativity of nature thus became prominent (Cheung 2000, Wolfe Normandin 2013). This interplay between philosophy and natural science accompanied biology's constitution as a science, forming a configuration we call Philosophy of Biology Before Biology, which, we argue, is relevant to current philosophy of biology, e.g. chemistry-biology relations, the status of development and the ontological nature of biological organization.

Biology and its conceptual foundations: From the distribution of vital functions to transformism

Andrea Gambarotto (IHPST/ Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France)

The term “biology” has traditionally been traced back to Lamarck and Treviranus in 1802. But if much has been said on Lamarck, almost nothing exists on Treviranus’ pioneering attempt at a unified science of life. Interestingly, only twelve years after Kant’s prophesized impossibility of a “Newton of the grass blade” Treviranus published the first volume of his Biologie, oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur für Naturforscher und Ärzte (1802). What happened between 1790 (the third Critique), and 1802, when Treviranus uses “biology” to describe a scientific treatment of living nature as a whole? A shift in the semantics of organization, from a regulative to a constitutive understanding of natural teleology: biology as a science became possible only once organization was considered as constitutive of living bodies, and as such, requiring scientific explanation. Lamarck also employed “biology” in 1802, in his Considérations sur l’organisation des corps vivants. Using a new concept is not a mere philological phenomenon: Lamarck defines biology in contrast to mechanist-materialist methodology, refusing to apply physical and chemical categories to living nature. He thereby expressed the need to define a specifically ‘biological’ field of investigation and started elaborating its theoretical foundation, whose core, it has been claimed, was the laws of evolution (Barsanti 1979). Examining the Biologie seems to support this claim (the foundation of biology as autonomous science coincides with the formulation of the first evolutionary research program). However, I stress that this biological research program was the result of an inquiry into the distribution of vital functions in the animal kingdom. Treviranus’ Biologie allows us to reassess the relationship between German vitalism and Naturphilosophie, as it emphasizes how each contributed to the nineteenth-century formulation of the idea of a general biology, as a result of investigating the self-regulation of nature as all-encompassing organism.

Uncovering the laws of vital organization with chemistry? The case of nutrition in the 19th century

Cécilia Bognon (IHPST/ Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France)

This paper addresses the question of the definition of life and the demarcation between living and non-living through the study of the emergence of organic chemistry. This question is twofold : 1) By the time biology and organic chemistry emerged as separate disciplines, how was the difference between the living and the non-living conceptualized? And to what extent did the results obtained by chemical analysis affect the popular hypothesis of a specific organic matter responsible for the vital phenomena displayed by living beings? 2) In this context, how can one explain the emergence of vital organization out of brute matter and purely physico-chemical processes? To address these issues, rather than focusing on organisms as goal-oriented wholes, this paper will focus on the physico-chemical processes that are responsible for biological organization. This allows to raise questions that have been relatively overlooked: first about the nature of this organization and its types (i.e. how to characterize plants, animals etc.), second about the reasons of this organization, and then about its effects (i.e. to what extent is it responsible for the vital phenomena of interest?). To do so, I will focus on the case-study of nutrition and investigate the conceptual basis of the relationship between nutrition and biological organization in the 19th century. Nutrition will be considered as both an organic synthesis and an organizing synthesis (acting in morphogenesis and conservation) playing a major role in the scenarios of abiogenesis (e.g. in Buffon and Lamarck). I show that nutrition proved fundamental in the distinction between the living and the non-living and contributed to a major shift in focus in the biological sciences from the study of organic matter to the study of the processes of organization

Philosophy of ecology long before ecology: Kant's idea of an organized system of organized beings

Georg Toepfer (Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung Berlin, Germany)

As a distinct biological subdiscipline, ecology did not emerge before the beginning of the twentieth century. But its underlying conceptual framework was developed long before. Important organizing ideas emerged within the physicotheological tradition of the eighteenth century, for example, with Carl Linnaeus’ concept of an “economy of nature” or the related idea of an interconnecting “nexus” between the organisms of different species. In the last years of his life, Immanuel Kant elaborated on these ideas and provided concise formulations and conceptual models for them. Kant’s underlying idea was to apply his concept of a “natural purpose” (originally introduced by him for the analysis of living beings) to the interaction of organisms of different species, thus arriving at the idea of a second order organization of nature, the “organizing of systems of organized bodies” as he termed it. My contribution will analyze Kant’s for the most part completely neglected proto-ecological ideas in their historical context and their reception in German idealist philosophy and early biology of the nineteenth century.