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Why was there no controversy over Life in the Scientific Revolution? Charles T. Wolfe Unit for History and Philosophy of Science University of Sydney

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Presentation on theme: "Why was there no controversy over Life in the Scientific Revolution? Charles T. Wolfe Unit for History and Philosophy of Science University of Sydney"— Presentation transcript:

1 Why was there no controversy over Life in the Scientific Revolution? Charles T. Wolfe Unit for History and Philosophy of Science University of Sydney AAHPSSS, Emmanuel College, Brisbane July 2009

2 There are lots of controversies in and about the Scientific Revolution. Continuity or discontinuity? (Duhem) Galileo and the Church – Jesuits, Puritans … Artisans (Zilsel), courtiers (Biagioli) or gentlemen (Shapin)? Mathematical vs. experimental traditions Mechanistic or teleological explanations? (Boyles hydraulico-pneumatic machines) They concern people like this:

3 Boyle ( ) Steven Shapin The social context of experiments Robert Merton

4 Societies, academies and conversation Accademia del Cimento, Florence Accademia dei Lincei Galloways Coffee House, London Or institutions like these:

5 But despite the importance of sites like these The life sciences are not part of the story of the Scientific Revolution, except maybe for -- Padua École Polytechnique

6 Mechanistic models of life W. Harvey R. Descartes H. Boerhaave A. Vesalius G. Baglivi

7 The mechanist approach to the body (1): Giorgio Baglivi Since Physicians began to examine the Structure and Actions of a living Body, not by Physico-Mechanical and Chymical Experiments, but by Geometrico-Mechanical Principles, they have not only discovered an infinite number of things that were unknown to former Ages; but have made it out, that a Human Body, as to its natural Actions is truly nothing else but a complex of Chymico- Mechanical Motions, depending on such Principles as are purely Mathematical. For whoever takes an attentive view of its Fabrick, hell really meet with Shears in the Jaw-bones and Teeth, … Hydraulick Tubes in the Veins, Arteries and other Vessels, a Piston in the Heart, a Sieve or Straining-Holes in the Viscera, a Pair of Bellows in the Lungs, … Pulleys in the Corners of the Eyes. And tho the Chymists explain the Phaenomena of natural Things, by the Terms of Fusion, Sublimation, Precipitation &c. And so make a separate sort of Philosophy; yet all these ought to be imputed to the Force of a Wedge, Balance, Leaver, Spring, and such like Mechanical Principles … the natural Effects of an animated Body cant be accounted for with greater Facility and Clearness any other way… (De praxi medica, 1696)

8 The mechanist approach to the body (2): Hermann Boerhaave The solid parts of the human body are either membranous Pipes, or Vessels including the Fluids, or else Instruments made up of these, and more solid Fibres, so formed and connected, that each of them is capable of performing a particular Action by the Structure, whenever they shall be put into Motion ; we find some of them resemble Pillars, Props, …, some like Axes, Wedges, Leavers and Pullies, others like Cords, Presses or Bellows ; and others again like Sieves, Straines, Pipes … ; and the Faculty of performing various Motions by these Instruments, is called their Functions, which are all performed by mechanical Laws, and by them only are intelligible (Academical Lectures on the Theory of Physic, late 1730s)

9 Thus Giovanni Borelli ( ) studied muscles and bones based on the analogy of the machine: automata have a certain shadowy sameness (umbratilem similitudinem) to animals in that both are organic self-moving bodies which employ mechanical laws, and both are moved by natural faculties; Let us, then, see whether we can trace the properties of natural objects by means of our knowledge of artificial ones (De motu animalium, 1680). Vaucansons automata

10 But there is a problem of mechanism as applied to the body: Mechanists seek to apply mathematical and geometrical principles to the muscles. In proportion as the purely mechanical approach is inadequate, in proportion as chemical operations were involved – as in the case of digestion – this method of dealing with the living body was bound to prove a hindrance to biology and medicine, sooner or later. In some cases we find syntheses of mechanical and chemical approaches.

11 A synthesis between mechanical and chemical theories : Le Corps humain considéré par rapport à une infinité de différents mouvements volontaires quil peut exécuter, est un assemblage prodigieux de Leviers tirés par des Cordes. Si on le regarde par rapport au mouvement des liqueurs quil contient, cest un autre assemblage dune infinité de Tuyaux et de Machines Hydrauliques. Enfin si on lexamine par rapport à la génération de ces mêmes liqueurs, cest encore un assemblage infini dInstruments, ou de Vaisseaux Chymiques, de Filtres, dAlambics, de Récipients, de Serpentins, etc. … Le plus grand appareil de Chimie qui soit dans tout le Corps humain, le plus merveilleux Laboratoire est dans le Cerveau. Cest là que se tire du sang ce précieux Extrait, quon appelle les Esprits, uniques moteurs matériels de toute la Machine du Corps. (Fontenelle, Histoire de lAcadémie Royale des Sciences, 1707)

12 put it this way: if mechanism could, e.g., explain the pumping action of the heart, it was incapable of saying why the heart continually kept pumping without running down. – P.H. Reill

13 Animism: Georg Ernest Stahl ( ) The body is a chemical vat, filled with bubbling fluids; we need to study it chemically; but it is also governed by the soul (anima). Nothing to do with the mechanical world. What shocked me above all was that in this physical theory of the human body [mechanism], Life was never mentioned nor defined (On the necessity of eliminating anything foreign from medical doctrine)

14 But – instead of this internalist vision of competing theories –there is lots else going on at the same time … Willis, Oxford physiologists, Sydenham, Lower; medical Newtonians; Perrault; Steno. Life The point is that Life does not appear to be a point of controversy. So, e.g. Bacon does not seem to worry about the distinction between Life and non-Life: when he describes the content of his Sylva sylvarum (pub. posthumously 1626), he presents 13 works as physiological remains … but of these 13 works, 7 deal with minerals and 6 deal with attractive force and the transformations of inanimate bodies (which, admittedly, Bacon discusses in biological terms). Table of Contents, in Works, ed. Spedding et al., I.

15 The Scientific Revolution does not seem to be concerned with the body, even if Galileo dwells on the status of the senses (and Bacon does natural history, and Descartes does physiology). Either the Scientific Revolution isnt concerned with it or, conversely, developments and debates in the field of the life sciences (natural history, physiology etc.) do not match up with big controversies in the physico-mechanical sciences, even if there are attempts, notably iatromechanism, to do biomedicine like, or as an extension of, mechanistic science (so, consider Newtonian medicine). Why was there no controversy ?

16 It is the body and yet not the body. Why are the sciences of life in this situation? Vesalius Harvey

17 * not because medicine in the period was simply more art than science (Gillispie, Koyré, Crombie). Consider medical Newtonianism, Harvey on circulation, Haller on irritability … * not because there is no conflict between the old and the new in physiology, medicine, etc. Consider mechanism, animism, vitalism. * maybe (an obvious point) because living entities – whether in ontological or explanatory terms – involve goal-directed processes and normativity (Canguilhem). Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza all proclaim they will eliminate these. Life is unpredictable.

18 Aldrovandis Elephant Boy, 1642 Life is full of monsters

19 What are possible answers to the question, What is Life?, in early modern science? o Fermentation and/or vital heat (Fernel, Descartes, Gassendi) o An emergent feature of chemical mixtio (Stahl) o Organic molecules (Buffon, Maupertuis) o Fibre architecture / gluten (Haller) o Life is a property of organic bodies, which are bodies composed, not of organs qua inanimate parts but of small [sensitive] lives (Bordeu, Diderot) o La Mettrie: combination of several of these

20 In early modern discussions of the nature, function and operation of organic bodies (animal or human), including comparisons of these with various sorts of machines, both real and imagined, it is extremely rare to find distinctions between the two being made on the basis of ontological claims about Life itself or the nature of the frontier separating the living from the non-living, animate matter from inanimate matter.

21 MATERIALISM J.O. de La Mettrie, Man a Machine, 1748 Buffon: Life is a physical property of matter (Histoire naturelle, 1749)

22 Bernard Buffet, sad clown (one of many) Life is the Sad Clown of the Scientific Revolution This cannot be resolved by claiming, as a reverse view, that medicine and natural history are the big science of the early modern period (Cook 2007, 410). There are no Kuhnian paradigm shifts in the life sciences Neither Harvey, nor Boyle, nor Locke ask what makes Life unique. Only Stahl, Leibniz and the vitalists do.

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