Individuals at the Center of Biology: Rudolf Leuckart’s Polymorphismus der Individuen and the Ongoing Narrative of Parts and Wholes. With an Annotated Translation [Book Review]

Journal of the History of Biology 44 (3):373 - 443 (2011)
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Rudolf Leuckart's 1851 pamphlet Ueber den Polymorphismus der Individuen (On the polymorphism of individuals) stood at the heart of naturalists' discussions on biological individuals, parts and wholes in mid-nineteenth-century Britain and Europe. Our analysis, which accompanies the first translation of this pamphlet into English, situates Leuckart's contribution to these discussions in two ways. First, we present it as part of a complex conceptual knot involving not only individuality and the understanding of compound organisms, but also the alternation of generations, the division of labor in nature, and the possibility of finding general laws of the organic world. Leuckart's pamphlet is important as a novel attempt to give order to the strands of this knot. It also solved a set of key biological problems in a way that avoided some of the drawbacks of an earlier teleological tradition. Second, we situate the pamphlet within a longer trajectory of inquiry into part-whole relations in biology from the mid-eighteenth century to the present. We argue that biological individuality, along with the problem-complexes with which it engaged, was as central a problem to naturalists before 1859 as evolution, and that Leuckart's contributions to it left a long legacy that persisted well into the twentieth century. As biologists' interests in part-whole relations are once again on the upswing, the longue durée of this problem merits renewed consideration



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