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  • Interpreting Nature; The Science of Living Form from Linnaeus to Kant
  • Karl J. Fink
James L. Larson. Interpreting Nature; The Science of Living Form from Linnaeus to Kant. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Pp. i-xi+1-227. $40.

In this book James L. Larson discusses the way biology from 1740 to 1790 began to shape the life sciences, at the margins also attending to implications of biology for the human sciences (85–91). He outlined the period of his study into two phases, the first, a new era of theoretical biology governed by a triumvirate (Buffon, Haller, and Linnaeus), and the second, a [End Page 335] generation of experimental biologists (Koelreuter, Pallas, Wolff) who examined, contested, and expanded the work of the elders with “a newly effective emphasis on precision” (21). In the tendency toward precision, Larson followed a thesis that John Heilbron had introduced in The Quantifying Spirit in the Eighteenth Century (1990), and beyond exploration of this thesis, takes an approach that assumes a continuity shaped by dialogue across generations, not linear but circular patterns of debate without contentious polemics. Indeed, Larson presents the exchange of experimental and theoretical information on biology in a tone that suggests a community in civil discourse, thus, at one level giving the reader a close study of the technical detail of biology, and at another holding the reader’s attention with a narrative that suggests drama and dialogue.

The search that defined the activities of Larson’s two generations of biologists was twofold, on the one hand yielding a classification system governed by definitions per genum et differentia (31, 90–91, 174–75), and on the other postulating a force of formation that conformed to actio in distans (17, 135–36). Larson’s fifth chapter, “The Mechanism of Formation” (132–69), digests the various threads of experimental and theoretical biology that came together in the search for natural laws of organic growth that mirrored progress in the physical sciences toward understanding dynamic systems. Reductionism from the physical to the life sciences is commonplace in the history of science, yet, few Anglo-American writers have examined with such careful philological attention the texts and biography of biology in its transition on the Continent from a static science of description to a theory of organic vitalism. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Larson closes his study of this early phase of modern biology with Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der Urtheilskraft (Critique of Judgment) (1790), giving the final word to a participant of the period who was more often a silent observer than a practicing experimentalist, but at all junctures was a radical critic. In this chapter on “Kant and the Critique of Teleological Judgment” (170–89), Larson discusses the distinction Kant made between the limits of the physical and the life sciences. Here the secularization of teleology takes center stage and shapes the conclusion to a book about organic systems in which bodies, through their intradependence, are defined by direction and purpose.

The book is primarily about biology as it developed on the Continent—in the field work of Linnaeus, in the laboratory of Haller, in the erudition of Buffon, and in the dissertations that began to emerge, particularly in German academic institutions, during the second phase of the study, from 1760 to 1790. During the first phase, Larson explains, “naturalists and physiologists argued for the study of physical relations, secondary causes, and intelligible principles,” and in the second they “defended the secular program of the scientific enlightenment with a tenacity and rigor not found in the earlier period” (8). It is in this process of secularization where Larson’s book takes on significance broader than the history of an emerging discipline of biology and becomes important to the human sciences as well, particularly to an anthropology of racial relations, to a neurology of mind and body, and to a sociology of organic structure.

In the first chapter, “Two Generations” (9–27), Larson examines the way Linnaeus’s hierarchy of plant and animal life fell into competition with Buffon’s combinatorial linkages across species, and how, parallel to both, Haller demanded evidence of the lab: “The best...

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