Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

A suspicion of vitalism (1)

I have shown in previous articles that biologists today — and molecular biologists in particular — routinely and unavoidably describe the organism in terms that go far beyond the language of physics and chemistry. Words like “stimulus”, “response”, “signal”, “adapt”, “inherit”, and “communicate”, in their biological sense, would never be applied to the strictly physical and chemical processes in a corpse or other inanimate object. But they are always employed in attempts to understand the living organism. The prevalent descriptions portray the whole organism as an active unity, with powers of regulation and coordination intelligently directed toward the achievement of the organism’s own ends. Further, I have pointed out that such descriptions, rooted as they are in the observable character of the organism, show no sign of being reducible to less living terms or to the language of mechanism.

But this immediately raises a suspicion of vitalism in the minds of many scientists. Who, after all, is this organism? And by what special powers does it “regulate”, “integrate”, “respond”, and “communicate”? Bear in mind, however, that these questions press just as urgently upon the conventional molecular biologist as on the suspected vitalist. After all, the loaded terminology comes straight from the laboratory, where researchers are trying to make sense of what they see.

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