Biological Atomism and Cell Theory

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 41 (3):202-211 (2010)
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Abstract

Biological atomism postulates that all life is composed of elementary and indivisible vital units. The activity of a living organism is thus conceived as the result of the activities and interactions of its elementary constituents, each of which individually already exhibits all the attributes proper to life. This paper surveys some of the key episodes in the history of biological atomism, and situates cell theory within this tradition. The atomistic foundations of cell theory are subsequently dissected and discussed, together with the theory’s conceptual development and eventual consolidation. This paper then examines the major criticisms that have been waged against cell theory, and argues that these too can be interpreted through the prism of biological atomism as attempts to relocate the true biological atom away from the cell to a level of organization above or below it. Overall, biological atomism provides a useful perspective through which to examine the history and philosophy of cell theory, and it also opens up a new way of thinking about the epistemic decomposition of living organisms that significantly departs from the physicochemical reductionism of mechanistic biology.

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Daniel J. Nicholson
George Mason University

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