The organism as ontological go-between: Hybridity, boundaries and degrees of reality in its conceptual history

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 48:151-161 (2014)
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The organism is neither a discovery like the circulation of the blood or the glycogenic function of the liver, nor a particular biological theory like epigenesis or preformationism. It is rather a concept which plays a series of roles, sometimes masked, often normative, throughout the history of biology. Indeed, it has often been presented as a key-concept in life science and its ‘theorization’, but conversely has also been the target of influential rejections: as just an instrument of transmission for the selfish gene, but also, historiographically, as part of an outdated ‘vitalism’. Indeed, the organism, perhaps because it is experientially closer to the ‘body’ than to the ‘molecule’, is often the object of quasi-affective theoretical investments presenting it as essential, as the pivot of a science or a particular approach to nature, while other approaches reject or attack it with equal force, assimilating it to a mysterious ‘vitalist’ ontology of extra-causal forces, or other pseudo-scientific doctrines. I do not seek to adjudicate between these debates, either regarding scientific validity or historical coherence; nor do I return to the well-studied issue of the organism-mechanism tension in biology. Recent scholarship has begun to discuss the emergence and transformation of the organism concept, but has not emphasized the way the latter is a shifting, ‘go-between’ concept – invoked as ‘natural’ by some thinkers to justify their metaphysics, but then presented as value-laden by others, over and against the natural world. The organism as go-between concept is also a hybrid, a boundary concept or a limit case, which continues to function in different contexts – as a heuristic, an explanatory challenge, a model of order, of regulation, etc. – despite having frequently been pronounced irrelevant and reduced to molecules or genes. Yet this perpetuation is far removed from any ‘metaphysics of organism’, or organismic biology.



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Charles T. Wolfe
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès