The Unity of the Organism

on May 23, 2012

I’ve spent the past two weeks battling my way through the book which is considered to be the first expression of holism as a coherent philosophy: W.E. Ritter’s The Unity of the Organism; or, The Organismal Conception of Life (1918). Ritter’s work is generally acknowledged to have set off the flood of holistic writings that appeared over the following decade — but I’m finding it hard to understand just why it made the impact it did.

For one thing, the book doesn’t seem to have much to do with holism as we now know it. For another, it’s not particularly well-written, but is as awkward throughout as its title. I’ve been tempted to conclude that it merely said the right things at the right time to appeal to people who were desperate for any alternative to mechanistic science.

And yet I keep feeling that buried within the clumsy language is a message that is as relevant today as it was a century ago — if we can only tune our ears to catch what Ritter was really saying.

At the present moment, after all, the holism vision has lost much of its original transcendence. It’s in serious need of something that can remind it of its origins and stretch it beyond its present limitations — and how better to do that than by dialing up the radio message from the past that is The Unity of the Organism?

William Emerson Ritter was unusual among his contemporaries in not being a laboratory biologist and having no desire to emulate the emotional detachment of the physical sciences. He was the first head of the zoology department at UC-Berkeley, the founder of the Marine Biological Association of San Diego, and a passionate advocate of studying living things in their natural environments. He valued the traditional perspectives of natural history and believed deeply in the uniqueness of every organism

Ritter’s philosophy of life and mind grew out of these attitudes, but it seems he could only express that philosophy by arguing against the conventional scientific dogmas of his time — which may be one reason why The Unity of the Organism often appears so opaque.

On the first page of the preface, for example, Ritter writes, “If once one becomes as deeply convinced as I am of both the fundamental unity and the fundamental diversity of all nature; if, in other words, he becomes convinced that the whole of nature is, indeed, and not in mere expression, a system, the conviction will carry with it the perception that all specialized natural knowledge is absolutely dependent for meaning on the relation it has to its appropriate larger body of knowledge.”

That all seems clear enough up to “system” — but the significance of the second half of the sentence is far more elusive.

An even more serious impediment than Ritter’s old-fashioned style of writing, however, is that present-day holism is founded on the concept of the ecosystem, which was developed only in the 1930’s. Ritter, in contrast, was chiefly interested in individual organisms and in demonstrating that they could not be explained by reducing them to their component parts.

His central goal in The Unity of the Organism was to counter what he called “elementalism” with his own philosophy of “organismalism,” which he defined as the idea that “the organism in its totality is as essential to an explanation of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism.”

This concept of “the organism in its totality” is, in its way, profoundly transcendent. Ritter was no vitalist, and he took pains to assure the reader that “what we are here concerned with does not raise the metaphysical problem of a Vital Force.” And yet there is something inherently metaphysical about his philosophy, which may be both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

From the perspective of a century later, it appears that Ritter was most effective when he was offering common sense objections to the extreme reductionism of his contemporaries. He argued, for example, against the belief that nothing in the universe was real except matter and energy and insisted that “the individual organism, each and every one that exists or ever has existed, is as real a thing as are any of its parts or substances.”

He also doubted that physics alone — that is, the mechanical impacts of matter in motion — could account for the processes of life and preferred to explain living things in terms of chemical reactions. And he offered an extensive debunking of the extreme “cell doctrine” of his time, which held that organisms have no identity or purpose of their own but are merely a symbiotic collective of cells.

Ritter was far less successful, however, when it came to addressing the more sophisticated concepts of biologists like Thomas Hunt Morgan and Jacques Loeb.

Ritter mentions Loeb just a handful of times, most notably in a snarky footnote where he states, “Since this chapter was written J. Loeb’s The Organism as a Whole has been published. It is gratifying to find in this book evidence that the author is being carried, as it seems to me, unconsciously perhaps, towards the organismal and natural history standpoint.”

However, Morgan’s work in genetics offered the most serious argument for the validity of reductionism, and here Ritter came up short. He did his best to dismiss what he called the “chromosome doctrine” as an even more extreme successor to the cell doctrine, and he mocked the belief that invisible units called “‘genes,’ which are imagined to make up largely or wholly the chromosomes,” could account fully for hereditary characteristics.

But ultimately, Ritter had to give in and admit that “Morgan’s hypothesis is, however, so interesting and seems so likely to be proved partly true (that is, true to the extent of there being some sort of connection between the attributes in question and chromosomes), that it seems desirable to present the most salient parts of the theory.”

At that point, having been unable to refute genetic theory on its own grounds, Ritter resorted to a different line of argument — namely that conceiving of genes as what would now be called a biological blueprint fails to explain why organisms develop by way of a series of transformations in which tissues and organs repeatedly change their form and function.

“Recognizing as every biologist must, that transformation is an absolutely indispensable element of organic development,” Ritter wrote, “when the transformation of an ‘indifferent mass of protoplasm’ into definite organs or parts takes place before our eyes, we are bound by principles of objective science to believe that the transforming substance itself is actively and not entirely passively concerned in the operation.”

Ritter’s suggestion that organisms are actively involved in their own development has much to recommend it — but at the time it was not sustainable. Genetic theory, even in its early mechanistic form, had such great explanatory power that by 1930 it appeared beyond question. That is why holism was driven to switch its focus from organisms to ecosystems, where it has remained ever since.

But that may be changing.

As I was struggling with The Unity of the Organism, Alexei drew my attention to an intriguing interview with James Shapiro, a bacterial geneticist and leading contemporary anti-reductionist who appears to be picking up exactly where Ritter left off.

“When three scientists rediscovered Mendelism at the turn of the century, in 1900,” Shapiro told the interviewer, “breeders started seeing discrete hereditary differences that could be passed on from generation to generation. And so the idea that you could have a particulate or atomistic view of the genotype built up, and then the individual components were called genes. We now have a more sophisticated understanding of hereditary. You’ve got an integrated, super-sophisticated storage system called the genome. You can’t just try and reduce it to any one of its components.”

“I don’t use the word ‘gene’ because it’s misleading,” he continued. “There was a time when we were studying the rules of Mendelian heredity when it could be useful, but that time was almost a hundred years ago now. The way I like to think of cells and genomes is that there are no ‘units.’ There are just systems all the way down.”

Just like Ritter, Shapiro puts the word ‘gene’ in quotes and questions its reality, while insisting on the priority of systems. And his emphasis on the irreducible unity of the genome is a precise parallel to Ritter’s belief in the unity of the organism.

Shapiro is most Ritter-like, however, when he speaks of the challenges that await genetics in the coming century: “What we don’t understand is how everything is integrated, how the information is processed and how the cells end up doing the appropriate thing. We know a lot about the components involved in signal transfer and decision-making, but we don’t know how the whole system works. That I think is the key frontier in the 21st century.”

“We’ve lost sight of that need for integration with the successes of molecular biology,” he continues. “But I think we’re getting back to an integrationist view now because people are studying complex problems like cell biology and multicellular development using molecular tools. It’s becoming clear that there’s an interaction between the parts and the whole which is far more complex and multidirectional than people used to think.”

Is Shapiro deliberately aiming to revive Ritter’s assertion that “the organism in its totality is as essential to an explanation of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism”? Quite possibly.

But regardless of Shapiro’s own intentions, it appears that we are finally going to have to confront the metaphysical implications of Ritter’s “organism in its totality.” And the results could be very strange indeed.

(To be continued)


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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