The Physical Foundation of Biology: An Analytical Study


We intend to analyze from a present-day viewpoint a very ancient problem: the relationship of biology to physics. There are two main schools of thought, the mechanists and the non-mechanists. On closer sight it appears that the latter group has no coherence, but represents a variety of divergent philosophies, differing from each other as much as any of them differs from the purely mechanistic view.

The mechanical philosophy of life goes back to classical antiquity, but it is perhaps fair to say that such thinkers as Democritus and Epicurus were interested in a scientific approach to natural phenomena generally speaking, but were not yet far enough advanced to clearly perceive the specific issue with which we shall be concerned here. The same is no doubt true of the thinkers of the Renaissance and even the succeeding period. When scientific knowledge began to increase substantially, the problem came into sharper focus. Usually Descartes is credited with being the first to have proffered fairly clearcut ideas. Descartes' view on the problem is interesting. He tries to adhere to a strictly mechanistic interpretation of bodily functions in terms of chemistry and hydraulics. This was for him largely a matter of method, since the physiological knowledge of his time did not permit him to carry this view into much detail. Let us say, on deliberately oversimplifying the historical situation, that Descartes considered the organism as a machine so far as the knowledge of his age allowed. On the other hand, he admitted the existence of a soul or spirit in man as intrinsically different from matter, and therefore not properly situated in space. But this soul must be able to act upon the body. Descartes' view is that this action is concentrated in a small region; he hypothesizes this region to be in the pineal gland. Thus the soul exerts a control over the body which is transmitted from the center of control to the other organs and extremities by purely physical messengers, in modern language, by hormones and nerve impulses. This view is clearly a reflection of the traditional, dualistic Christian doctrine. Descartes, however, did not come to it by mere expediency; he remained a devout Catholic all his life. Now since according to such doctrine humans . . .

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • London
Publication year:
  • 1958


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.