First published in pamphlet format in Toronto; September 1993. (213-220)
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PART III : ON METHOD IN BIOLOGY : Philosophy may seem remote from the world of science. However many examples can show the immediate relevance.

Thales of Ancient Greece, in Ancient Greece, was perhaps one of the first philosophers. But at a time when the philosophers were really philosopher-scientists. Thales' tale, as recounted by Aristotle, is a delightful instance of the real daily applicability of philosophy to the " real" world :

Perhaps the most fundamental debate in philosophy has been about the existence and the primacy of matter or mind. This battle between Idealism (holding that first there is thought) and Materialism (holding that first there is matter) has been an age long argument. An essential link exists between the dominant philosophy, and the society in which it flourishes (See appendix 2- at: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Atrium/1091/lysenko_app2.html ).

This link between teh dominant philosophy, and its rooting in the concrete society it arises, can be traced right back in the Western tradition to ancient Greek society. Similar echoes of this ancient debate are found in the Indian and Chinese intellectual traditions, and they are probably universal. Historical materialism - offered by Marx and Engels as a guide to societal development, relates the laws of development to changes in technology and the means of production.  In each instance, the favoured philosophy of the time reflected the real underlying needs of the ruling class of the society.

Initially, the disintegrating primitive tribal society was linked to an ever evolving view of the world; but with a nexus of man and nature being inextricably linked. This favoured a view that saw man as part of nature and not apart from it. Thus it perforce had a Materialist thrust. As society moved towards the development of classes, society became placed above, primary to, and separate from nature. This perspective naturally favoured the primacy of mind, and thus had a favoured idealist philosophies.

The act of coming into being implied change. This notion of change does not favour a ruling class. Therefore philosophies embodying change, as contained in dialectical versions of materialism were a challenge. They were thus discarded in favour of a static view. Change was replaced instead by an Act of Creation which borrowed from ancient mythology, an anthropometric view of life. Life now depended on an Immortalised, Transformed view of man - as God. This view was shortly to be challenged, as the myth of Prometheus shows. With the myth of Prometheus, the human is placed squarely as winning and wresting favours from the world; not being granted them by a beneficent God.

After the seeming victory of the "Gods" the two world views: Dialectical and Ideal, continued to confront each other in all fields of human endeavour.

Each view had their proponents in biology as well as the physical sciences. When biologists adopted Idealist views they would generally be considered Vitalists. The derivation of this term is from the Vital Spirit. It meant that something beyond understanding, a Vital Spirit, breathed life into the otherwise inert body.

As J.H.Woodger defined it in 1929, the term refers to :

The delicacy of balance in living organisms; both within themselves and in their relationship to the environment, is complex. Because of this, the philosophical struggle assumed a central place in biology. Frederick Engels pointed out the problems arising from a retreat away from this debate into "pure" science, and maintained that: The work Anti-Duhring, written to attack an idealist philosopher of the name of Duhring; codified the philosophical dangers in then current views of the world. It is remarkable how many of these philosophical traps are still with us now. Over the years particular brands of biological thought veered sharply into the very morasses pointed out as dangers by Engels. Anti-Duhring reaffirmed a view of the world as constantly changing and evolving; reaffirming in fact dialectics.

The perils of Idealism in biology took two principal forms -- firstly a denial of change; and secondly an insistence that unless a descriptive reduction of life to a chemical or mathematical level could be found, vitalism was the only corollary. Some of the resolutions of these problems are offered by a dialectical view of the world and nature. Therefore the Laws of Dialectics are examined below, albeit briefly, in relation to biology.


The social stultification that occurred under Feudalism is epitomised by the biblical Ecclesiastes : This view is exemplified in biology by Preformationism; where each individual is already preformed well before birth. Each human foetus itself contains within itself another. This preordained box obviously ignores the role of procreation. This view of the world cannot explain any change in the biology of the foetus. All is pre-ordained. This theory was a previous formulation of the Central Dogma. Ernst Mayr himself a New Synthetist admits this : Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin added the critical component of time to biology. They accepted the dialectical view that all things change. This view of course favoured the bourgeoisie in their struggle against feudalism. But after change had been demanded and obtained by an impatient bourgeoisie chafing under feudal remnants, a renewed attempt was made to halt change. The attempt to freeze social relations of the current order is the very view that informs current sociobiology: The bourgeois revolution won recognition in the field of history and politics by acknowledging a central Institution- the State, apotheosized by Hegel. In science a similar position was won by Natural Science, using Natural Selection. Both the State and Natural Science became legitimating static Deities, far from their original conceptions, which was to promote notions of change. In the case of Natural Science, change towards evolution and "Fit to the environment". And for the State towards a fairer and just society. That Charles Darwin was biased in his reading of biology on this point has been argued above in Part 1.


The special properties of living systems made the biological sciences the first and the last refuge of the Idealists. However as the pressure of new facts demanded explanations from Idealists, a less indefensible view of the world was possible. This was Mechanical Materialism. This argued against the view that the body was any "special" thing, that could not be understood by the simple mechanical or chemical laws that apply to inert and un-living systems, such as pullies and wheels. In taking the position that man is no more than a series of chemical reactions, the mechanical materialists - such as Descartes) wished to penetrate the veto of theology on the study of man as a part of nature. But, as argued by Shakespeare's Bolingbroke : The solution of mechanical materialism to Biological dilemmas was Biological Reductionism. This explained biological processes in terms appropriate to inanimate objects. ie. purely chemical, or mechanical means. This attempt was made by Buchner, Moleschott and Vogt in the 18th century. These natural philosophers believed that thought was a matter of the brain's secretions in the same manner in which the kidney secretes urine, or the liver secretes bile. This simple minded
"materialism" was labelled "vulgar materialism" or "mechanical materialism" by Engels and Lenin : The deceptively simple point is that the dead are distinct from the living, and have their own laws. However there are some properties of the living and dead that are shared. These include the organisation of form, and structure. But the interpretation of these similarities has to be done with care.

Thus there is a distinction between "organic" and "inorganic". But a dialectical biology would recognise some organising principle in the body transcending simple chemical laws; not invoking supernatural explanations.

This point was made by Joseph Needham, and flowed from his embryological studies. It is no accident that the opposition to the simple minded mechanical (simple reductionist) Mendelians, was led by Embryologists. In 1931 Needham cited Wilhelm Roux :

Needham felt that so long as the difficulties are recognised it would be possible to find comparable laws to those of chemical and physical processes : 3. TRANSFORMATION OF QUANTITY INTO QUALITATIVE CHANGE


This law recognised the difference between simple addition of entities, and the transformation of simple entities into different entities. The law was illustrated by Engels in the example of the Periodic Table, and the boiling of water. Ignoring this law allows errors of the type typified by single gene theories of complex events.

This law recognises that one state does not automatically exclude another, and is therefore closely related to the Second Law discussed above. But it has a clear difference. In this view, change may proceed undetectably for a period of time, until such a point is reached that a nodal transition point is reached. This then erupts visibly into a radically new and perceptible change.

We have also discussed how this law, as connected with the Second Law, overcomes the problems inherent with the exclusive viewpoints of an "Either : Or", mentality.


Clearly the tenets of dialectical materialism are not irrelevant to biology. To deny this is short sighted at best, and at worst a deliberate bias aimed at a political abuse of science.

It may be pointed out that Lysenko was correct in his assertions regarding changeability, and in this he demonstrated dialectical thought. However he may be considered as mechanically materialist in refusing to recognise any role for "physical bearers" of heredity. Since the advent of the chemical basis for genes (DNA etc), it is clear that this has provided both practical and explanatory power.

Equally, it must be said that conventional genetic theory has been unable to prevent notions of Changeability creeping in through the back door; even against the will of the guardians of the door. As Lenin said :"Science is forced to be unconsciously dialectical and materialist." Thus for example, non-Communist embryologists have recognised the power of the dialectic. Thus C.H.Waddington :

We have not hesitated to quote the Grand Old Man of the New Synthesis unsparingly through the text, as some weary readers have seen. Yet also we have not hesitated to attack his most cherished child, the New Synthesis itself. It is then perhaps startling that no better advocate of what is effectively the dialectical method is Ernst Mayr himself: