Holism, organicism and the risk of biochauvinism

Verifiche: Rivista Trimestrale di Scienze Umane 43 (1-3):39-57 (2014)
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In this essay I seek to critically evaluate some forms of holism and organicism in biological thought, as a more deflationary echo to Gilbert and Sarkar's reflection on the need for an 'umbrella' concept to convey the new vitality of holistic concepts in biology (Gilbert and Sarkar 2000). Given that some recent discussions in theoretical biology call for an organism concept (from Moreno and Mossio’s work on organization to Kirschner et al.’s research paper in Cell, 2000, building on chemistry to articulate what they called “molecular vitalism,” studying the “vitalistic” properties of molecular, cellular, and organismal function, and Pepper and Herron’s suggestion in their 2008 paper that organisms define a category that evolutionary biology cannot do without), the question, what concept of organicism are they calling for? To what extent are such claims philosophically committed to a non-naturalistic concept of organism as organizing centre, as a foundational rather than heuristic concept – or possibly a “biochauvinism,” to use Di Paolo’s term (Di Paolo 2009)? My aim in this paper is to conceptually clarify the forms of holism and organicism that are involved in these cases (and I acknowledge that the study of early 20th-century holisms [Peterson 2010] indicates that not all of them were in fact ‘organicist’ or ‘biologistic’). I suggest that contemporary holists are still potentially beholden to a certain kind of vitalism or “biochauvinism”; but that when they reduce their claims to mere heuristics, conversely, they risk losing sight of a certain kind of organizational “thickness”, a “vital materiality” (Wheeler 2010) which is characteristic of biological systems (Bechtel 2007). And I ask if it is possible to articulate a concept of biological holism or organicism which is neither an empirical ‘biochauvinism’ nor a metaphysical ‘vitalism’?

Author's Profile

Charles T. Wolfe
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès


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