Cycles and circulation: a theme in the history of biology and medicine

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 43 (3):1-39 (2021)
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Abstract

We invite systematic consideration of the metaphors of cycles and circulation as a long-term theme in the history of the life and environmental sciences and medicine. Ubiquitous in ancient religious and philosophical traditions, especially in representing the seasons and the motions of celestial bodies, circles once symbolized perfection. Over the centuries cyclic images in western medicine, natural philosophy, natural history and eventually biology gained independence from cosmology and theology and came to depend less on strictly circular forms. As potent ‘canonical icons’, cycles also interacted with representations of linear and irreversible change, including arrows, arcs, scales, series and trees, as in theories of the Earth and of evolution. In modern times life cycles and reproductive cycles have often been held to characterize life, in some cases especially female life, while human efforts selectively to foster and disrupt these cycles have harnessed their productivity in medicine and agriculture. But strong cyclic metaphors have continued to link physiology and climatology, medicine and economics, and biology and manufacturing, notably through the relations between land, food and population. From the grand nineteenth-century transformations of matter to systems ecology, the circulation of molecules through organic and inorganic compartments has posed the problem of maintaining identity in the face of flux and highlights the seductive ability of cyclic schemes to imply closure where no original state was in fact restored. More concerted attention to cycles and circulation will enrich analyses of the power of metaphors to naturalize understandings of life and their shaping by practical interests and political imaginations.

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