The Life Organic: The Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics

The Life Organic: The Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics

by Erik L. Peterson


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As scientists debated the nature of life in the nineteenth century, two theories predominated: vitalism, which suggested that living things contained a “vital spark,” and mechanism, the idea that animals and humans differed from nonliving things only in their degree of complexity. Erik Peterson tells the forgotten story of the pursuit of a “third way’ in biology, known by many names, including “the organic philosophy,” which gave rise to C. H. Waddington’s work in the subfield of epigenetics: an alternative to standard genetics and evolutionary biology that captured the attention of notable scientists from Francis Crick to Stephen Jay Gould. The Life Organic chronicles the influential biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, and biochemists from both sides of the Atlantic who formed Joseph Needham’s Theoretical Biology Club, defined and refined “third way” thinking through the 1930s, and laid the groundwork for some of the most cutting-edge achievements in biology today. By tracing the persistence of organicism into the twenty-first century, this book also raises significant questions about how we should model the development of the discipline of biology going forward.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822944669
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
Publication date: 12/05/2016
Edition description: 1
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Erik L. Peterson is assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction 3

1 The First Generation of Organicists 15

2 Needham's Revival of Mechanism 42

3 Socrates and the Principia Bio toga 56

4 The Tipping Point 81

5 Waddington and the Organizer 93

6 The Original Theoretical Biology Club 104

7 Large Plans versus the Ultimate Littleness of Things 117

8 As Many Opinions as There Are Men 127

9 "Off in all directions like an expanding universe" 141

10 Mechanism Reduced to Molecules 159

11 The Lysenko Morality Tale and the Epigenetic Landscape 172

12 Ernst Mayrs Neo-Darwinism, and Beanbag Genetics 189

13 History of Science Is Written by the Laureates 200

14 The 1960s Reincarnation of the Debate 211

15 The Conventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group, or COWDUNG 226

Conclusion: A Third Way after Waddington? 234

Notes 261

Bibliography 295

Index 321

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