Conceptual History of Biology (part 1)



Agent: Teleomechanism

Theories: Epigenesis/Preformation

Temporal Dimension: Natural History

Figures: Blumenbach, Kant

Agent: Self-Organization

Theory: Life force/Vital matter

Temporal Dimension: History of Nature

Figures: Herder, Kielmeyer, Schelling

Agent: Function

Theory: Degeneration/Transformation

Temporal Dimension: Catastrophe

Figures: Stahl, von Haller, Cuvier, Bichat

Agent: Morphology

Theory: Metamorphosis/Archetypes

Temporal Dimension: Gradualism

Figures: Goethe, St-Hilaire, Oken

This is a working draft of a map of biological or pre-biological concepts at work especially in the 18th-19th century (at least up to Darwin). The idea is to find clusters of concepts that fit together and hope to draw some traces of influence also across national lines. Some of the more known figures in naturalism and early biology are well known specifically because they synthesized or attempted to synthesize two clusters of concepts.

Lamarck, I would argue, attempts to synthesize the left side of the grid in that soft inheritance in terms of use/disuse is a type of extended functionalism while combined with a transformationist force of complexification. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species synthesizes the bottom clusters of concepts combining the locality of functionalist adaptation with the developlemental side of the bottom right morphological program (and early cell theory). Thus fitness is extracted from the bottom left (and combined with Malthusian population concerns) while the bottom right concepts grounds inheritance and the gradualism of deep time.

Following Darwin the bottom clusters of concepts expands and overtakes the territories above. This period was retroactively called the eclipse of Darwinism in which while evolution was accepted natural selection lacked the appropriate evidence to take seriously. One consequence of this (discussed most extensively and impressively in S.J. Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny) is that the cyclical temporality of recapitulation (in which forms at different scales are repeated in the development of the individual) moves from the right side of the above cluster to the left. Darwin’s geologically inspired gradualism is seen as insufficient to explain the consistency of forms.


Figures: Cope and Hyatt


Figures: Dreisch, Renke


Figures: O.C. Marsh, Weismann


Figures: de Vries, D’Arcy Thompson

Furthermore, the combination of linear recapitulation (whereas Schelling’s or Kielmeyers’s was non-linear and non-specific to the organic realm) with Darwinian evolution meant one could avoid accepting a materialist thesis in conjunction with local adaptation (Darwin consistently suppressed his materialist tendencies – constantly chastising himself in letters and journals to not confess it). The conceptual stakes of Darwin’s effect on the bottom right are difficult to see at times since they assume evolution is correct and attempt to fill in the gaps – either in terms of the fossil record (as in Marsh’s case) or in moving cell theory from morphogenesis to inheritance in terms of barriers of inheritance (as in Weismann). The separation of germ cells and somatic cells essentially divides cell theory across the bottom clusters which well then be further complicated by the next rearticulation of biological theories.


Galton, Pearson, Weldon

Mendelian Geneticists

Bateson, T.H. Morgan, Punnett

The left side here pursues Darwin’s thinking on populations with an emphasis on statisical analysis in order to demonstrate the possibility of natural selection while the right side (following the rediscovery of Mendel’s work) attempts to articulate the concept of gene. The story of the combat between these groups tends to label the Mendelian geneticists as mutationists or saltationists who totally rejected Darwin’s views but this has shown to be a false image. The greater divide is between the role of the gene vis a vis natural selection. The biometricists emphasize the process of selection as measurable and not what is being selected whereas on the right side the gene has, in some formulations, almost a directly causal role in evolution. The early geneticists thus highlight the difference between internal inherited characters and externally visible phenotypical changes as variations. Essentially Bateson at all emphasize the difference between large scale fluctuations and smaller scale variations while Galton and his followers emphasize populations and the process of sorting out probabilities of selection in a general sense.

It is worth mentioning that the development of eugenics largely emerges from the left cluster here (Charles Davenport is the glaring exception) – as Galton and his collegues thought that one could measure all traits of human beings (from fingerprints to IQ) while the Mendelians were more in love with ‘hopeful monsters’ and accepted a certain difficulty in discussing the expression of variation as merely statistically predictable. It would be tempting to say that a statistical approach to biology in itself allows for racist science but I think it is more convincing to say that it is actually a naive understanding of selection that motivated the eugenicists. Davenport’s eugenecist creed (a kind of breeding pledge) assumed one could select traits of the germ plasm based on social behaviors.

The so called modern synthesis of the 1930s (coined by Julian Huxley) combines the views of the biometricists and the Mendelians to show that the views were not opposed but compatible (the opposition, as stated above, was in fact overstated). If one looks at the famous names of the so-called modern synthesis it is relatively easy to see the distinctions of the clusters above still alive in various forms. The descendents of the left side would be R. Fisher and E.B. Ford while on left we would have Sewall Wright (who I have talked about previously) and G.S. Simpson.

R. Fisher, E.B. Ford S. Wright, G.S. Simpson

The scale disagreements of Galton vs Bateson are repeated in different terms between Fisher and Wright. See James Crow’s description here. Essentially thought Wright and his like-minded thinkers emphasize structures external to genetics (such as migration) have a greater role whereas Fisher will look at genetic drift at the level of a larger population. I am still digging into the specifics but its seems to that this division continues to manifest itself in contemporary theories of evolution. The left side is more and more treated as the ‘winner’ with the help of molecular biology and the discovery of DNA. In this sense the vague potential of the gene to be causal migrated to the biometricians once the DNA sequence could be quantified which in turn led to over excited claims about DNA being the only necessary blueprint for the differentiation of species.

The gradualism of the right morphological cluster above becomes a assumption of the bottom left of the biometricians which then is eventually challenged by the structuralist strain of the right side following from Thompson et all. This is perhaps most clear in the work of Stephen Jay Gould on punctuated equilibrium – where natural history and paleontology is reintroduced into evolutionary theory (against or at least to complicate the small scale analysis of molecular biology).


One Response to “Conceptual History of Biology (part 1)”

  1. 1 What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics (pt 2) | Naught Thought

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