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HISTORY AND STRUCTURE IN BIOLOGY GERRY WEBSTER and BRIAN GOODWIN* "Possible, but not interesting," Lonrot answered. "You'll reply that reality hasn't the least obligation to be interesting. And I'll answer you that reality may avoid that obligation but that hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis that you propose, chance intervenes copiously. Here we have a dead rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation, not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber." —Jorge Luis Borges, Death and the Compass I. Introduction It is a commonplace in historical and philosophical studies of science that, at any given time, thought is conditioned as much by the available system ofconcepts as by the perceived phenomena of nature. A complex of ontological and epistemological assumptions and of theoretical and descriptive concepts exerts constraints on the sort ofproblems which can be formulated and the way they are formulated, on the types of questions which are put to nature, on the sort of theoretical explanations advanced, and on the kinds of facts which are deemed significant. This paper is a critique of the system of concepts, which we call the "evolutionary paradigm," in terms of which biological organisation is discussed in contemporary biology. Our critique is conducted entirely in terms of the problem of biological form—how to account for the existence of a diversity of specific morphologies which can be classified in some hierarchical manner—since this is an area with which we have some familiarity and, more important, is one which is distinguished by the absence of an adequate theory of the production and reproduction of these forms. We do not believe that this failure to produce a satisfactory theory is a consequence of the supposed difficulty of the problem but, rather, that it is a consequence of the intrinsic inadequacy of the current system of concepts. It is our contention that without a change in *School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton, Sussex, England BNl 9QG.© 1981 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved 0031-5982/82/2501-0255101.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine ¦ Autumn 1981 | 39 the system, no progress can be expected in this crucial area. We suggest that a more satisfactory conceptual system involving a structuralist conception of the organism can be developed from seeds found in the tradition of Cuvierian rational morphology and in the work of a number of fringe figures somewhat outside the mainstream of twentieth-century biology who, consciously or unconsciously, have allied themselves with this tradition. Our discussion, in part, takes the form of a historical analysis: however , we should emphasise that we are not concerned to understand the past but to liberate ourselves from the present. What follows is, ,as they say in the trade, a "rational reconstruction." II. History: The Organism as an "Expressive Totality" DARWINISM: EMPHASIS ON CONTENT RATHER THAN FORM Modern ideas on biological organisation in relation to the problem of form are the result of an alliance between the empiricist and utilitarian ideas of Darwin and the holistic concepts of the German tradition as transformed by Weismann. Together these ideas constitute what we may call an "evolutionary paradigm." It is hardly novel to point out that Darwin's conception of the biological domain was derived in large measure from the scientific tradition of Protestant Natural Theology. Darwin himself [1] draws attention to it, and Cannon [2] has spelled out in detail how the world of the Origin can be seen as a transformation of the world of the Natural Theologians. Within Natural Theology, since organisms are considered to have been constructed by some outside agency (God), they are implicitly conceptualised as mechanical devices, that is, as functional unities in which the only structural relations are those of spatial contiguity. This exclusively functional approach is further restricted by a tendency to concentrate on the external functional relations of organisms and to account for form in terms of the utility of the parts of the organism in relation to a particular mode of life in a particular environment. This sort of approach naturally tends to emphasise the diversity of the biological domain , the specificpeculiarities oforganisms, and the way that species differ from each other in relation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 39-62
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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