, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 31-52

Cells as irreducible wholes: the failure of mechanism and the possibility of an organicist revival

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Abstract

According to vitalism, living organisms differ from machines and all other inanimate objects by being endowed with an indwelling immaterial directive agency, ‘vital force,’ or entelechy. While support for vitalism fell away in the late nineteenth century many biologists in the early twentieth century embraced a non vitalist philosophy variously termed organicism/holism/emergentism which aimed at replacing the actions of an immaterial spirit with what was seen as an equivalent but perfectly natural agency—the emergent autonomous activity of the whole organism. Organicists hold that organisms unlike machines are ‘more than the sum of their parts’ and predict that the vital properties of living things can never be explained in terms of mechanical analogies and that the reductionist agenda is doomed to failure. Here we review the current status of the mechanist and organicist conceptions of life particularly as they apply to the cell. We argue that despite the advances in biological knowledge over the past six decades since the molecular biological revolution, especially in the fields of genetics and cell biology the unique properties of living cells have still not been simulated in mechanical systems nor yielded to reductionist—analytical explanations. And we conclude that despite the dominance of the mechanistic–reductionist paradigm through most of the past century the possibility of a twentyfirst century organicist revival cannot be easily discounted.