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Changing ideologies: teleology


Changing ideologies: physicalism
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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A further one of these ideologies is what I, broadly speaking, call physicalism, that is a belief in all the things that are true for physics, for instance, determinism. When you go back to Laplace, around 1806 he made the statement, if he had an exact description of everything in the world as it now exists, then he could predict what would happen in the world until infinity. Well, even within physics, by 1850, Maxwell's equation etc, this strict determinism was no longer believed and, of course, in biology in a field, let's say, like evolutional biology predictions are possible usually only in comparatively simple situations like putting certain chemicals together you can predict what will happen. But in all more complex situations the prediction at best is probabilistic. That is one of the physicalist components. Another one is the business of to what extent one can explain a living organism by simply… by… by mechanical means. As Descartes said, ‘The animal is a machine’. Well, this led to the famous fight between the mechanists and the vitalists. The vitalists said, no, an animal is more than a machine. There's something there that is not explained by the machine metaphor. However, the vitalists… all their endeavors to solve what this ‘extra’ is, the lebenskraft… the… intellegie the… what is it? … élan vital etc. All these solutions that the vitalists proposed were all mistakes, and therefore vitalism got into very bad repute. But now that it is quite explained what the vitalists had said exists, namely the genetic programme and all the other dualistic aspects of living beings is that what the vitalists had been looking for. And it now in retrospect is quite clear that the vitalists basically were more correct than the mechanists, except that their attempts to provide a solution were mistakes. But a modern biologist is neither a mechanist nor a vitalist, and we don't have a really very good word for it, but the word that is perhaps used most frequently is that this kind of belief is organicism, it's found only in organisms. Holism has often been used, but holism is also a widespread term in inanimate explanations where you also can have holistic explanations, so it doesn't really discriminates between living organisms and the inanimate world.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: 1806, 1850, Pierre-Simon Laplace, James Clerk Maxwell, René Descartes

Duration: 3 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008