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Introduction From Romantic Biology, 1890-1945

Introduction From Romantic Biology, 1890-1945

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Introduction From Romantic Biology, 1890-1945, book 1 in the series History and Philosophy of Biology, published by Pickering & Chatto
Introduction From Romantic Biology, 1890-1945, book 1 in the series History and Philosophy of Biology, published by Pickering & Chatto

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Published by: Pickering and Chatto on Oct 01, 2013
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02/27/2014

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– 1 –
INTRODUCTION
I you want to describe lie and gather its meaning,o drive out its spirit be your beginning,Ten though ast your hand lie the parts one by one,Te spirit that linked them, alas is gone,And ‘Nature’s Laboratory’ is only a name,Tat the chemist bestows on it to hide his own shame.
1
 J. W. von Goethe,
 Faust 
Romanticism is an epoch. Te Romantic is a state o mind not limited to one period.It ound its ullest expression in the Romantic epoch, but it does not end with thatage; the Romantic exists to the present day 
2
R. Saranski
At the end o the nineteenth century an o-quoted sentence circulated among critics o Matthias Jakob Schleiden’s cell theory and was usually attributed tothe German botanist and mycologist Anton de Bary (1831–88): ‘Die Panzebildet Zellen, nicht die Zelle bildet Panzen’ (‘Te plant orms cells; the celldoes not orm plants’).
3
Although in the beginning the aphorism was employedagainst the widespread practice (since the development o Schleiden’s celltheory) o starting textbooks on botany with the study o cells rather than o  whole plants, its use was quickly extended. In the hands o embryologists and physiologists, the aphorism acquired a polemic charge against the mechanisticinterpretation o organic development and indicated a holistic way to conceivethe process o morphogenesis. In Europe and the United States the sentencespread and was repeated as a rerain by many rst-rank zoologists working inold or emerging institutions. One o the most convinced advocates o de Bary’sidea was the inuential nineteenth-century American biologist Charles Otis Whitman (1842–1910). Indeed, in 1893 Whitman published an article thatinspired many young biologists who were critical o mechanistic and ‘elemen-talist’ interpretations o living phenomena. Te article, titled ‘Te Inadequacy o the Cellular Teory o Development’, began by criticizing Schleiden’s celltheory.
4
Cells should not be seen as individual or elementary entities able to produce and orm complex organs and tissues during morphogenesis. Rather, a
 
2
 Romantic Biology, 1890–1945
higher guiding or ormative principle had to be presupposed. For Whitman, inact, the whole organization shaped and directed cellular prolieration and regula-tion during development: ‘Development, no less than other vital phenomena, isa unction o organization … the ormation o the embryo is not controlled by the orm o cleavage. Te plastic orces heed no cell-boundaries, but mould thegerm-mass regardless o the way it is cut up into cells’.
5
Regenerative phenomenasupported such an interpretation, because the reproduction o both
 Hydras
and
Stentors
showed that ‘the organism dominates cell-ormation, using or the same purpose one, several, or many cells, massing its material and directing its move-ments, and shaping its organs, as i cells did not exist, or as i they existed only in complete subordination to its will’.
6
Whitman dened this view as the ‘organ-ism-standpoint’, a stance he considered prominent among botanists but which hedeemed extendable to the whole living kingdom.In reinorcing what de Bary and other naturalists had stressed a ew decadesbeore, Whitman was emphasizing how reductionist approaches were misplaced when applied to living beings. Indeed, in the organic realm the whole had a priority over the constituent parts; the parts were explained, shaped and organ-ized according the properties o the entire organism during its development.o Whitman, and to many o his predecessors and ollowers, this idea involvedsome undamental descending corollaries: that biology had its independencerom physical sciences; that lie could not simply be reduced to physico-chemicalsubstances; and that organisms could not be seen as mere mechanisms becauseo their irreducible interactions and the reciprocal relations between the partsand the whole. Yet – and precisely because o these relations – organisms had tobe seen as teleological entities: i the whole was more than the parts, the partsunction in terms o the whole. Te parts were elements playing a specic rolein an interactive system and working or the welare o the whole. eleology wasthe result o a dynamic kind o relationship between the whole and its compo-nents. Finally, the organism had to be seen in a constant and active relationship with the environment. Te internal and external environment constituted andexplained the organism ever since its earliest developmental phases. Tis convic-tion entailed the epistemic assumption – which as we will see was much difusedamong organicist biologists – that eldwork and laboratory studies were com- plementary; both were required in biological investigations precisely becausean organism out o its environment was considered a comortable abstraction.All these ideas supported each other and together constituted what many anti-mechanistic and anti-reductionist biologists called, during the rst decades o the twentieth century, ‘organismal or organicist biology’ – a research programmethat involved institutions, a network o renowned naturalists and a still-vibrant‘Romantic’ bio-philosophical tradition.
 
 
 Introduction
3
Tis book is about such a research programme and the people, institutionsand traditions urthering it. Yet, and more generally, the book is also about the way the organicist tradition, in its diverse orms and maniestations, inuencednew scientic problems, experimental practices and controversial results during the rst decades o the twentieth century. In drawing an intellectual map o inu-ences, connections and ideas, the book also charts the diferent ways through which an old eighteenth- and nineteenth-century organicist tradition – a Kan-tian and Romantic tradition – was ltered and re-ourished in the twentiethcentury. We will see how important Romantic naturalists and philosophers wereor the ormulation o an organismic programme; how inuential their ideas andspeculation on the nature o lie were or some twentieth-century biologists; andhow relevant their views were on how organisms had to be perceived and studied.In other words, we will explore the ramications, interpretations and multiple waves o difusion o such a Romantic, holistic bio-philosophy in England andthe United States, without overlooking its circulation in other countries.Tanks to the eforts o many historians and philosophers in the last ve dec-ades, we have a airly good knowledge about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic sciences. From the pioneering work o Alexander Gode-von Aesch,
 Natural Science in German Romanticism
(1941), and Stephen J. Gould,
Ontogeny and Philogeny
(1977), many more recent contributions ollowed. From the book edited by A. Cunningham and N. Jardine,
 Romanticism and the Sciences
(1990),to other collections o essays and books, individual articles and companions, we are aware that German Romanticism and urther orms o Romanticism inother countries were deeply preoccupied with scientic issues.
7
Eighteenth- andnineteenth-century Romantic naturalists provided an important and enduring contribution to the sciences, rom physics to biology, rom geology to naturalhistory. As John Reddick emphasizes, Romantic naturalists and
 Naturphiloso- phen
‘did make a very real contribution to the development o the sciences … in particular, its dare-to-speculate mentality greatly urthered the sciences in theirquantum leap rom the physics derived xed-mechanism model o the world inthe eighteenth century, to the transormational, evolutionary model so charac-teristic o the nineteenth’.
8
A ew years later Steano Bossi and Maurizio Poggiollowed: in the introduction o their edited book 
 Romanticism in Science
(1994),
 
they explain: ‘we want to make it very clear that the Romantic age was a greatscientical age. It is very important to underline this and to avoid all misunder-standings in ront o the widespread nostalgic attitude o those who look back tothe rst decades o the last century, in search o some mysterious, oracle-like, pro- phetic, or even catastrophical elements’.
9
Frederick Beiser, in a convincing attemptto evaluate
 Naturphilosophie
in its appropriate historical context, also recountsthat the
 Naturphilosophen
 were not the over-speculative, anti-empirical and irra-tional ‘cranks’ that have oen been portrayed.
 Naturphilosophie
 was considered by 

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