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History of Biological Processes

The main aim of this is to determine the extent to which early modern life scientists (17th–18th Centuries) considered processes as the most basic biological concepts.

Recent scholarship has argued that the most natural framework for contemporary life sciences considers biological processes (as opposed to things, like organisms or individuals) as the most basic entity of study.[1] Scholars argue that major themes in biology (genetics, development, evolution, etc.) can be conceived under the process-based philosophy of biology.[2] It was established as one of the leading philosophies of biology.[3] The process-based approach has been fruitful in understanding questions in evolution, oncology, genetics, etc.[4]

The current project seeks to establish the historical roots of process-based biology. The consensus is that early modern natural philosophers considered things (atoms and extended substances) to be the most basic entities in biology. However, some major early modern biologists accepted the process-based ontology instead.

The beginning of modern biology can be placed at the invention of the compound microscope in the late 16th Century.[5] It provided access to observations that revolutionized the understanding of living beings. Major figures who took advantage of the new instrument were Swammerdam, Leeuwenhoek, Hartsoeker, Grew, Malpighi, and Hooke.[6] It has led some of them to accept process-based biology. For example, Hooke recognized that living things had varying degrees of complexity and the passing from one degree to another constituted fundamental biological processes. He thus named ten process as “the steps or foundations of our Enquiry.”[7]

One objective of this project is establishing similar tendencies throughout the early modern biology. Adding to the figures above, the contribution of lesser known actors including women (e.g. Anne Conway, Maria Sibylla Merian, Eleanor Glanville) would be considered. Historically, the project could terminate with Linnaeus who established the taxonomical nomenclature based on organisms rather than processes.[8]

The conceptual framework implied by the material is developmental biology. The main question for the early modern biologists was the generation and development of living beings.[9]  Therefore, another objective is a conceptual inquiry into process-based developmental biology:[10]

  • - How is development related to environment? Is biological development antagonistic to cultural development?
  • - What is more basic – an organism or the processes that develop and sustain it? Is the answer to this question particular to biology, or does it translate to general ontology?
  • - How is life and disease conceived through processes and substances? Can the transformation of diseases be conceptualized by the process-based biology?[11]

The main result of this project would be a philosophical history of biological processes roughly from 1590s to 1770s (scope may be adjusted) touching upon these questions. Historical precedents would inform the contemporary analysis. For example, the methodology of the microscopists can be juxtaposed with contemporary techniques of in vivo labelling in cell lineage and time-lapse microscopy.[12] The goal is to determine what are qualitative differences in the methodology.

[1] In 2018 Egenis has concluded an ERC funded project “Process Philosophy of Biology” (https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/324186) which was dedicated to establishing this.

[2] Nicholson, D. and Dupré, J. (eds.), Everything Flows. (2018). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] E.g. Dupré, J. (2014). Animalism and the Persistence of Human Organisms. Southern Journal of Philosophy 52: 6–23; Bapteste, E. and Dupré, J. (2013). Towards a Processual Microbial Ontology. Biology & Philosophy 28 (2): 379–404.

[4] A variety of themes is discussed in Dupré, J. (2012). Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Although without emphasis on processes, the influence of the microscope has been considered in Wilson, C. (1995). The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope. Princeton: Princeton University Press. See also Daumas, M. (1989). Scientific Instruments of the 17th and 18th Centuries and their Makers. London: Portman Books.

[6] This group of scientists is often described as the “microscopists”. They had developed a specific view of biology. See Roger, J. (1997). The Life Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Duchesneau, F. (2018). Organisme et corps organique de Leibniz à Kant. Paris: Vrin.

[7] These processes were: “Fluidity, orbiculation, Fixation, Angulization, or crystallization Germination or Ebullition, Vegetation, Plantamimation, Animation, Sensation, Imagination”, Hooke, R. (1665), Micrographia. London: Martyn and Allestry, 127.

[8] On Linnaeus’ legacy see Smith, J. E. H. (2015). Nature, Human Nature, & Human Difference Race in Early Modern Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[9] An overview is in Smith, J. E. H. (ed.). (2006). The Problem of Animal Generation in Early Modern Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[10] Processes in developmental biology are discussed in Gilbert, S. F. and Baressi, M. J. F. (2019). Developmental Biology. 12th edition. Sunderland: Sinauer Associates. Foundations for this objective are in Nicholson. and Dupré (eds.), op. cit. Part 4.

[11] For example, scholars have argued that cancer should be understood as a process, see Dupré, J. and Bertolaso, M. “A Processual Perspective on Cancer” in Nicholson and Dupré (eds.), op. cit.

[12] For the discussion of in vivo labelling see Woodworth, Girskis & Walsh. (2017). “Building a lineage from single cells: genetic techniques for cell lineage tracking”, Nature Reviews Genetics 18:230–244; for time-lapse microscopy, see de la Rosa, Laura Nuño. (2018). “Capturing Processes: The Interplay of Modelling Strategies and Conceptual Understanding in Developmental Biology” in Nicholson and Dupré (eds.), op. cit. 264-282.