Biological Principles, by Woodger

Biological Principles: A Critical Study by Joseph Henry Woodger. The following brief review consists of lightly edited extracts from a much longer review “Rethinking Woodger's Legacy in the Philosophy of Biology,” Journal of the History of Biology (2014) 47:243–292 by Daniel J. Nicholson and Richard Gawne. We have Dr. Nicholson's permission to quote extensively from the article. Readers are urged to consult the original review which can be accessed here.

Biological Principles is a product of a time in the early 20th century distinguished by revolutionary developments taking place in physics. The mechanistic philosophy of classical physics, with its emphasis on reductionism, determinism, and machine thinking, was being challenged by the philosophical implications of relativity and quantum mechanics. Alfred North Whitehead claimed these developments would require a fundamental revision not only of the foundations of physics but of natural science in general. Such challenges triggered new ways of thinking about biology, such as doubting its reducibility to physics while retaining a common overarching view of nature. It was such an organicist philosophy of biology that Woodger conceived of. Writing to the University of London Registrar in 1930, he proposed for philosophers of biology the following daunting role:                                                       

…no one had attempted to do for biology anything analogous to what Galileo had done for physics, and Boyle had done for chemistry. No one, that is to say, had undertaken a systematic critical study of the fundamental properties and special requirements of this science in relation to the most advanced metaphysical, epistemological and logical notions of the day.

This role Woodger assumed for himself. Perhaps he aimed too high, for his own time and our own--he rarely gets a mention in the philosophy of biology. He undertook to re-examine the general framework upon which the data of natural science had been systematized, the mechanistic philosophy of nature of classical physics. In 1929 he published what he referred to as the “tentative results” of his research: a five-hundred page treatise entitled Biological Principles: A Critical Study. His book presents one of the first systematic treatments of the philosophical problems of modern biology in the English language, an attempt to refine the epistemological foundations of biological knowledge through the analysis of its central concepts.

In Part One of Biological Principles Woodger dealt with general epistemological problems involved in the systematization of data into scientific knowledge. A critical study of biology was needed, he said, because of how fragmented it had become. The process of subdivision into specialized branches that characterized progress in any science had not been supplemented, in the case of biology, by generalizations that knitted the findings of its various branches into a unified whole. Instead, it had spawned ever increasing divergences in theoretical outlook between exponents of the different branches.

Also in Part One are a detailed exposition and critique of phenomenalism, the radical form of empiricism which argues that physical objects cannot justifiably be said to exist in themselves, but only as perceptual phenomena or sensory stimuli. According to Woodger this invariably lead to a muddled understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge. He proposed a realist epistemological alternative that regarded perception as an interpretive process involving both sensing and thinking, and which by various modes of abstraction results in the perceptual objects of common-sense knowledge as well as the more abstract concepts and propositions of natural science. Following Whitehead, Woodger also analyzed the categories of substance and cause and argued that both of them give expression to our experience of permanence in nature; the former expresses the stability of spatial characterizations without (intrinsic) change, and the latter expresses regularity in the mode of change of our characterizations.

Woodger ended Part I with an examination of the subjective dimension of scientific thinking, which consists of a discussion of factors that are:

capable of “furnishing a motive for research,” are in some sense a priori, are liable to be used blindly and uncritically, and, as we shall see, are of great importance for the study of the biological antitheses.

These factors include the desire for monistic interpretations, the refusal of arbitrary breaks in nature, the attempt to reduce all science to physics, the demand for simplicity in explanation, the desire for atomistic interpretations, the demand for verification, the demand for predictability and unequivocal determination, and the postulate of the validity of inductive generalizations.

In Part Two Woodger identified six core biological “antitheses” that prevented the harmonization of the facts in biology. These were: mechanism versus vitalism; structure versus function; organism versus environment; preformation versus epigenesis; causation versus teleology; body versus mind. For Woodger, these antitheses were not really “out there” in nature, they were a reflection of the nature of biology as knowledge. Refer to Nicholson’s review for fascinating details about these antitheses.

Woodger viewed these subjective factors as conservative habits of scientific thought not primarily based on reason, but which induce scientists to persist in their adherence to existing explanatory frameworks instead of seeking to formulate new ones. He did not argue that we should reject these factors, but simply that we should recognize their influence as unacknowledged intellectual convictions which may not be necessarily fit for the task of understanding the complexity of nature.

UCL celebrated the publication of Biological Principles by awarding Woodger a D.Sc. degree in the Principles, Methods, and History of Science. Overall Nicholson judges it to be a towering achievement, remarkable both for its breadth and for its depth, simultaneously a pioneering contribution to theoretical biology and to philosophy of biology. Its comprehensive treatment of the central philosophical problems of biology is replete with arguments that prefigure a number of recent debates, as well as containing insights that are surprisingly pertinent to current discussions.

Biological Principles gives us an interesting vantage point in the history of evolutionary theory, roughly halfway back from today to Charles Darwin’s first ruminations on evolution’s mechanism in the late 1830s and publication a few years later of Robert Chambers’ “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.” Woodger’s book therefore predates the incorporation of genetic mutation into the modern synthesis. 100 pages are taken up with the “antithesis” between preformationism and epigenesis, which modern genetics makes irrelevant.

Woodger’s writing style can be judged from the following extract. He is comparing mechanism to vitalism, with whether  the organism is a machine (albeit a very complex one) fully explainable in mechanistic terms, or a different kind of system altogether, requiring different modes of explanation.

Both parties have made up their minds and decided the problem in advance, and there is no possibility of reconciliation between them. One of them is certainly wrong and both may be wrong. Each party will, of course, profess to base its claim on experience. The mechanist will be able to point to a long series of triumphs in the past and to the short period during which active research on his lines has been pursued. Being a firm believer in the “uniformity of nature” his final success will seem to him to be a foregone conclusion. He will wonder how any reasonable man can possibly fail to share his opinions and will conclude that his opponents cannot be reasonable men. He will accuse them of being the victims of prejudice and other “subjective factors,” never dreaming that he may also be a victim of them himself. The dogmatic vitalist, on the other hand, will contend that living things, since they are not yet explicable in mechanistic terms, and since they exhibit peculiarities which are not encountered in the inorganic world, belong to a different order of being. His faith is not shaken by his opponent’s success because he has long and complicated arguments which (in his opinion) place those successes in their proper perspective. But his opponent’s faith is equally unshaken by such replies, chiefly because he does not read or understand them. Thus the vitalist concludes that his opponent is a man of crude sensibilities and inferior intellect, and the dead-lock is complete.

Joseph Henry Woodger graduated with honors in Zoology and Comparative Anatomy from University College, London (UCL) in 1914, taking embryology as a special subject and physiology as a subsidiary subject. His academic performance earned him the College prize in Zoology, as well as the Derby research scholarship. Following the First World War and his discharge from the military in 1919 Woodger returned to UCL where he conducted embryological research and cytological studies. In 1922, he left to take the new Readership in Biology at Middlesex Hospital Medical School (now UCL Medical School), where he remained until his retirement in 1959. Born in 1894, he died in 1981.


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