As scientists debated the nature of life in the nineteenth century, two theories predominated: vitalism, which suggested that living things contained a "vital spark", and mechanism, the idea that animals and humans differed from nonliving things only in their degree of complexity. Erik Peterson tells the forgotten story of the pursuit of a Third Way in biology, known by many names, including "the organic philosophy", which gave rise to C. H. Waddington's work in the subfield of epigenetics: an alternative to standard genetics and evolutionary biology that captured the attention of notable scientists from Francis Crick to Stephen Jay Gould. The Life Organic chronicles the influential biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, and biochemists from both sides of the Atlantic who formed Joseph Needham's Theoretical Biology Club, defined and refined ThirdWay thinking through the 1930s, and laid the groundwork for some of the most cutting-edge achievements in biology today. By tracing the persistence of organicism into the twenty-first century, The Life Organic also raises significant questions about how we should model the development of the discipline of biology going forward.
Erik L. Peterson is assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama.
"The Life Organic is a monumental tour through the history of the organic philosophy – the belief that phenomena of life exhibit higher-order modes of organization rather than simply being the sum of their parts. An outstanding book that will easily become the classic source on organicism and epigenesis."
– Marsha Richmond, Wayne State University
"This book has undertaken an ambitious and far-reaching survey of debates among vitalists, mechanists, and organicists from the nineteenth through the twentieth century – a formidable task, but one that will be of interest to many scholars in the history and philosophy of biology, and within biology itself."
– Michael R. Dietrich, Dartmouth College
"This is an excellent history of a debate that continues today [...] The Life Organic is an excellent tour of the evolution of "reductionist" and "systems" approaches to biology in the 20th century."