Mechanism, vitalism and organicism in late nineteenth and twentieth-century biology: the importance of historical context
David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Jack Alan Reynolds
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Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 36 (2):261-283 (2005)
The term ‘mechanism’ has been used in two quite different ways in the history of biology. Operative, or explanatory mechanism refers to the step-by-step description or explanation of how components in a system interact to yield a particular outcome . Philosophical Mechanism, on the other hand, refers to a broad view of organisms as material entities, functioning in ways similar to machines — that is, carrying out a variety of activities based on known chemical and physical processes. In the early twentieth century philosophical Mechanism became the foundation of a ‘new biology’ that sought to establish the life sciences on the same solid and rigorous foundation as the physical sciences, including a strong emphasis on experimentation. In the context of the times this campaign was particularly aimed at combating the reintroduction of more holistic, non-mechanical approaches into the life sciences . In so doing, Mechanists failed to see some of the strong points of non-vitalistic holistic thinking. The two approaches are illustrated in the work of Jacques Loeb and Hans Spemann
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Daniel J. Nicholson (2012). The Concept of Mechanism in Biology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 43 (1):152-163.
Kari L. Theurer (2014). Seventeenth-Century Mechanism: An Alternative Framework for Reductionism. Philosophy of Science 80 (5):907-918.
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