Shiny Flesh – Ideals in biology



Last time I wrote about (among other things) how the mistake of confusing the normal with the healthy should not be merely combined with a critique of the biometric approach in biology (or even more generally the mathematization of life). Canguilhem is well known for repeating over and over the impossibility of equating the normal and the healthy though he does this less in terms of a critique of statistical analysis in neo-Darwinism but by way of his own philosophy of the concept. In other words, it is on historical-conceptual grounds that healthy and normal should not be collapsed not necessarily because of the political misuse (or biopolitical imperative) smuggled within the shift from healthy to normal but because they invoke very different epistemological relations between concepts and practices. We can also say this makes it easy for Foucault to later extract these concepts and discuss the history and structure of hospital separate from the more particular experimental and clinical examples focused on by Canguilhem.

Canguilhem cites the famous physiologist Charles Bernard again and again throughout his career in relation to such a problem since for Bernard there is no perfect organism – he famously quipped he had never seen health only instances of not quite healthy specimens. But, also as mentioned in the last post, this does not guarantee any safety for the specimens declared less than perfect (as Bernard was infamous for his vivisectional brutality). Bernard’s functionalism is in this sense both highly empirical and yet always claims to be in a service of a ideal type as guiding principle – the empirical fails to be the ideal but only the empirical can give hints and lay out trails towards it.

The particular form of Bernard’s functionalism (which is driven by the ideal organism as methodological principle in negative) follows in part from the materialist monism of the French tradition by which the ‘thicker’ notion of sense is capable of absorbing epistemological concerns. Another way of putting this is that any attempt at methodological separation between how and what one detects via the senses appears alien to the French Materialist tradition – formalization flows out of the thickness of sense allowing for it to become a form of rationalism (and this stretches out to Canguilhem’s philosophy of the concept).

This coupled with the disciplinary division of philosophy and the sciences beginning in the 1800s makes some of the directions of French philosophy of science and their relation to not only romantic philosophy and science but to the mostly anglophone Darwinism of the late 19th early 20th graspable. Much of the disagreement and misunderstanding between French Materialism and German Romanticism is not at the level of concepts but at the assumptions that seem to exist at the level of method according to the other side. Hence why Goethe and his ilk saw French Materialism as dreary and cold (because it seemed to annihilate freedom and constructive thought) while French materialists would see romanticism as impossibly isolating mind from practice as a starting point for articulating systematic concerns.

Of course these kind of differences are collided when it comes to analytic philosophy of biology and how metaphysics is generally seen in relation to biology and biological practice. At one point in their impressive Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History Grene and Depew say that it is odd that Sewall Wright (famous for statistical models of guinea pig coat traits and genetic drift) was an idealist because idealists don’t think the objects of their study exist…what? Wright was more of a panpsychist it seems and was associated with process thought and Whitehead. Wright had doubts about the genetic discernability of intelligence as a general phenomena (something similar to Ruyer in his doubt that human intelligence is a good biological guide for intelligence as such though he was critical of panpsychism).

Whether a model or fictional plant actually exists is not particularly relevant to the methods invoked by them (though it may create limits to what counts as proof in a conceptual sense). As in Bernard’s case for example the ideal organism that he has never ‘seen’ is a vivisection has vague limits concerning the range of proper functionality of the interior of an animal in terms of being good enough. Or we might question why Goethe picks the leaf as the reiterated form of the plant rather than something else.

This is arguably the inverse problem of the choice of experimental organism – Wright’s guinea pigs, Castle’s hooded rats, TH Morgan’s fruit flies, Galvani’s frogs etc. In this case there is a kind of exterior functionalism where the particular fitness of the species to a perceived evolutionary constraint is retro-engineered – the fruit flies short life span allow humans to ‘see’ inheritance, while some fresh water newts are studied because they seem to violate a proposed biological law.

And again to be continued…


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