Developing Sanity in Human Affairs

By Susan Presby Kodish; Robert P. Holston | Go to book overview

7
How General Semantics Can Rescue Biology from Itself: A Biology with Biologists in It

C. Andrew Hilgartner

In chapter I describe briefly a major flaw that has plagued biology for at least the past half century and show how progress in general semantics has begun the process of removing the logical and empirical error that underlies that flaw.

The flaw consists of the by now nearly universal consensus among biologists that they cannot define key terms such as life or living at all, with the unstated corollaries that no one else can now or ever will manage to do so. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, when the leading biologists of the day proposed rejecting these key terms, they appeared unaware of the way any theory-based discipline depends on the ability to draw a boundary around the domain of discourse. Any scientific discipline includes a theory or theories which purport(s) to model the "doings" or "happenings" that take place within this domain, and a boundary which excludes those "doings" or "happenings" that occur within neighboring but incompatible domains. When the biologists rejected their key delimiting terms, they thereby rejected the possibility of drawing such boundaries. That not only eliminates the ability to exclude inappropriate topics from consideration, it also eliminates the possibility of testing, and perhaps disconfirming and rejecting, one's own suppositions; for without a boundary, there is no delimited domain from which to reject them. Thus by entering into this consensus, biologists destroyed--or rather, further delayed--biology as a science.

Starting about 165 years ago, biologists began the process of rejecting teleological explanations of 'life' (in my opinion, appropriately). They replaced these with mechanistic ones. As a tactic for bringing experimental method to bear within biology, this substitution has turned out wildly successful. But as a method of study within the domain of biology, the program of the mechanistic/reductionist biologists unavoidably fragments biology. It focuses on bits and pieces of organisms (rather than on organisms-as-wholes-in-their-environ-

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