The strategy of life : teleology and mechanics in nineteenth century German biology


The strategy of life : teleology and mechanics in nineteenth century German biology

Timothy Lenoir

(Studies in the history of modern science, v. 13)

D. Reidel Pub. Co. , Sold and distributed in the U.S.A. and Canada by Kluwer Boston, c1982

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Includes bibliographical references and indexes



Teleological thinking has been steadfastly resisted by modern biology. And yet, in nearly every area of research biologists are hard pressed to find language that does not impute purposiveness to living forms. The life of the individual organism, if not life itself, seems to make use of a variety of strate gems in achieving its purposes. But in an age when physical models dominate our imagination and when physics itself has become accustomed to uncertainty relations and complementarity, biologists have learned to live with a kind of schizophrenic language, employing terms like 'selfish genes' and 'survival machines' to describe the behavior of organisms as if they were somehow purposive yet all the while intending that they are highly complicated mechanisms. The present study treats a period in the history of the life sciences when the imputation of purposiveness to biological organization was not regarded an embarrassment but rather an accepted fact, and when the principal goal was to reap the benefits of mechanistic explanations by finding a. means of in corporating them within the guidelines of a teleological fmmework. Whereas the history of German biology in the early nineteenth century is usually dismissed as an unfortunate era dominated by arid speculation, the present study aims to reverse that judgment by showing that a consistent, workable program of research was elaborated by a well-connected group of German biologists and that it was based squarely on the unification of teleological and mechanistic models of explanation.


1: Vital Materialism.- 2: The Concrete Formulation of the Program: From Vital Materialism to Developmental Morphology.- 3: Teleomechanism and the Cell Theory.- 4: The Functional Morphologists.- 5: Worlds in Collision.- 6: Teleomechanism and Darwin's Theory.- Epilogue.- Notes.- Name Index.

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