Philosophy of Biology - Reductionism, Holism, and Vitalism

Reductionism, Holism, and Vitalism

One subject within philosophy of biology deals with the relationship between reductionism and holism, contending views with epistemological and methodological significance, but also with ethical and metaphysical connotations.

  • Scientific reductionism is the view that higher-level biological processes reduce to physical and chemical processes. For example, the biological process of respiration is explained as a biochemical process involving oxygen and carbon dioxide.
  • Holism is the view that emphasizes higher-level processes, also called emergent properties: phenomena at a larger level that occur due to the pattern of interactions between the elements of a system over time. For example, to explain why one species of finch survives a drought while others die out, the holistic method looks at the entire ecosystem. Reducing an ecosystem to its parts in this case would be less effective at explaining overall behavior (in this case, the decrease in biodiversity). As individual organisms must be understood in the context of their ecosystems, holists argue, so must lower-level biological processes be understood in the broader context of the living organism in which they take part. Proponents of this view cite our growing understanding of the multidirectional and multilayered nature of gene modulation (including epigenetic changes) as an area where a reductionist view is inadequate for full explanatory power. See also Holism in science.
  • Vitalism is the view, rejected by mainstream biologists since the 19th century, that there is a life-force (called the "vis viva") that has thus far been unmeasurable scientifically that gives living organisms their "life." Vitalists often claimed that the vis viva acts with purposes according to its pre-established "form" (see teleology). Examples of vitalist philosophy are found in many religions. Mainstream biologists reject vitalism on the grounds that it opposes the scientific method. The scientific method was designed as a methodology to build an extremely reliable understanding of the world, that is, a supportable, evidenced understanding. Following this epistemological view, mainstream scientists reject phenomena that have not been scientifically measured or verified, and thus reject vitalism.

Some philosophers of biology have attempted to explain the rise and fall of reductionism, vitalism, and holism throughout the history of biology. For example, these philosophers claim that the ideas of Charles Darwin ended the last remainders of teleological views from biology. Debates in these areas of philosophy of biology turn on how one views reductionism.

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