The Proto-History of Holism

on November 25, 2009

In recent entries, I’ve started describing how the holism vision emerged in the 1960’s as the successor to scientific materialism. Before I carry the story along any further, however, it seems important to offer a quick look back at where holism had come from and its earliest stages of evolution.

Just as the roots of chaos can be traced to the reaction against the growing dominance of reason in the late 1700’s, so the roots of holism lie in the reaction against scientific materialism in the late 1800’s. And like chaos, holism went through an extended period of proto-development, during which it was not yet an autonomous vision of the nature of existence but merely a collection of scattered objections and intimations.

Throughout the proto-history of chaos, human beings and the universe were considered to be fundamentally rational, and it was only rare heretics like Horace Walpole, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lewis Carroll who were fascinated by the gaps in reason — dreams and nonsense, madness and intoxication, bizarre beliefs and anomalous events.

These writers were all unique and solitary figures, and the glimpses they offered of a different construction of reality were limited and easily dismissed. Not until the dominance of reason had been thrown off in the early 20th century could these fragments be brought together and perceived as forming a whole.

The proto-development of holism was very similar, but played out in terms of science and cosmology rather than inner experience. It began as an attempt to counter the assertions of scientific materialism that true reality consisted of nothing but atoms hurtling through empty space, that living things were merely elaborate machines, and that higher values like love and morality were an illusion.

Religious fundamentalism was one possible response to this denial of higher purpose, but it was an adequate answer only for those who were prepared to jettison science entirely. For anyone else, a more plausible goal was to redefine the basic premises of science so that life and mind would be seen as playing an essential role in the universe rather than as cosmic irrelevancies.

Initial attempts at redefinition focused on what was known as vitalism — the idea that there was a vital principle found only in living creatures which made them different in kind from non-living matter. Biology, and especially the study of embryonic development, seemed to offer the best hope of proving the existence of such a principle.

Vitalism was extremely popular between about 1890 and 1910, but it was always more an evasion of materialism than a genuine alternative. For one thing, early 20th century science was aggressively pursuing purely materialistic answers to the greatest mysteries of biology — such as hormones, which promised to explain the source of human emotions, and genetic mutations, which seemed to provide the driving force behind evolution.

For another, the concept of a vital principle that remained separate from the physical universe while exerting an influence over physical events presented both scientific and philosophical difficulties. In the thinking of the time, a universe that was all of one piece was far more likely — not to mention more democratic — than one based on an irreconcilable duality of mind and matter.

As vitalism lost credibility, two new ideas began to attract attention. One was the growing recognition that living things functioned as wholes and could not be understood by merely analyzing them in terms of their component organs, cells, molecules and atoms.

On the scientific level, this was an observation that even materialists could accept, but it also had deep philosophical resonances. It clearly influenced a young J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, as can be seen in the words that he would later put into Gandalf’s mouth: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

A second and far more radical idea was the speculative notion that even if a single set of scientific laws governed everything in the universe, those laws might be manifested differently in living organisms than in non-living matter. If that was the case, then life and mind could be seen as occupying a special position with rules of its own, even in the absence of a vital principle.

A new philosophy based on these concepts — known first as organicism and then as holism — underwent a rapid flowering between 1919 and 1926, at a time when scientific materialism was in a state of uncertainty following its divorce from reason. By the end of the 1920’s, however, materialism had gotten its mojo back, and holism began to be rejected, even by some of its original adherents, as merely a disguised form of vitalism.

The leading apostate was the biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who is best remembered today for his suggestion in 1927 that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” This statement has become a mantra of the chaos vision, but Haldane was also a pioneering holist, who in 1921 published one of the first book-length expositions of the new philosophy.

In that book, Haldane argued that “mechanism, life, and personality belong to different categories constituting a genuine hierarchy such that the higher is not reducible to the lower.” As late as 1931, he was still insisting that “a purely mechanistic interpretation cannot account for the coordination that is so characteristic of life.” But at the same time, Haldane was engaged in a set of crucial experiments which hammered the last nails into the coffin of vitalism by demonstrating that organic molecules might have appeared on Earth through chance combinations of atoms.

By 1940, Haldane was prepared to state, in an essay titled “Why I Am a Materialist,” that the progress of science over the previous 15 years had convinced him that materialism was sufficient to explain the natural world without any need to drag in “mind” as an autonomous principle.

And yet, despite its near-invisibility during the peak of the science-and-democracy partnership in the late 30’s and early 40’s, holism continued to exert a profound influence over many highly creative individuals who had first encountered it as young adults in the early 1920’s.

escherstilllifeandstreetOne of these was J.R.R. Tolkien, who began working on The Lord of the Rings in 1937. Another was the artist M.C. Escher, who in that same year began turning out the reality-challenging prints for which he would become famous. And a third was Buckminster Fuller, who by 1945 was toying with the geodesic domes that would be the basis of his own fame.

During this same period, holism had begun to take on greater intellectual rigor, as its exponents attempted to put a firm scientific basis under the notion that different principles might apply in living systems. The first result was systems theory, which “originated in biology in the 1920s out of the need to explain the interrelatedness of organisms in ecosystems.” The second was cybernetics, which proposed that mechanisms typical of living systems, such as feedback loops, could be incorporated into machines as well.

Through the early 40’s, most of this activity was carried on privately, but a moment of openness arrived after World War II, when for the first time since the 1920’s it became possible to entertain serious doubts about both the desirability of mid-20th century materialistic culture and the validity of scientific materialism itself.

This shift in mood was apparent even on the popular level, where songs like “Nature Boy” and “Civilization” (better known as “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo (I Don’t Want to Leave the Congo)”) became novelty hits in 1947-48. And 1948 also brought the first Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon, in which not only the Coyote’s mail-order gadgets but the very laws of physics fail spectacularly when confronted by the Roadrunner.

This moment of disenchantment mainly benefited the chaos vision, which declared its independence from science-and-democracy around this time, but it also prompted a wider awareness of holism. In 1948, marine biologist Rachel Carson began writing The Sea Around Us, which brought the concept of ecology to the general public when it became a best-seller upon its publication in 1951.

Recognition of ecology increased steadily through the 1950’s, to the point where my 9th grade biology class in 1960 even included a newly-added ecology unit. But the real revolution in consciousness began in 1962, when Carson’s Silent Spring first called attention to the toxic effects of pesticides.

I read Silent Spring in the New Yorker that summer, and my initial reaction was that DDT was just one more thing to worry about and not nearly as scary as strontium 90 in the milk from nuclear testing. But Carson’s book set off a national debate that would irreversibly change the way people thought about themselves and their relation to the natural world.

Despite that debate, as of 1962 holism was not yet a complete vision of existence. It was an elephant in the dark, revealing a flexible trunk here and a pillar-like leg there — but no one had grasped the elephant in its entirety or recognized its implications.

Before that could happen, two other things were necessary. One was the loss of faith in science-and-democracy that resulted from the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and the assassination of John Kennedy in November 1963. And the second was the appearance of a chaos-based counterculture eager to cast off the dead weight of scientific materialism and embrace a new science-based vision that would support its intimations of higher meaning.


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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