O Organism, Where Art Thou? Old and New Challenges for Organism-Centered Biology

  • Jan BaedkeEmail author


This paper addresses theoretical challenges, still relevant today, that arose in the first decades of the twentieth century related to the concept of the organism. During this period, new insights into the plasticity and robustness of organisms as well as their complex interactions fueled calls, especially in the UK and in the German-speaking world, for grounding biological theory on the concept of the organism. This new organism-centered biology (OCB) understood organisms as the most important explanatory and methodological unit in biological investigations. At least three theoretical strands can be distinguished in this movement: Organicism, dialectical materialism, and (German) holistic biology. This paper shows that a major challenge of OCB was to describe the individual organism as a causally autonomous and discrete unit with consistent boundaries and, at the same time, as inextricably interwoven with its environment. In other words, OCB had to conciliate individualistic with anti-individualistic perspectives. This challenge was addressed by developing a concept of life that included functionalist and metabolic elements, as well as biochemical and physical ones. It allowed for specifying organisms as life forms that actively delimit themselves from the environment. Finally, this paper shows that the recent return to the concept of the organism, especially in the so-called “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis,” is challenged by similar anti-individualistic tendencies. However, in contrast to its early-twentieth-century forerunner, today’s organism-centered approaches have not yet offered a solution to this problem.


Organism Organicism Dialectical materialism Holistic biology Biological individual Life Extended Evolutionary Synthesis 


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I thank Daniel Brooks, Abigail Nieves Delgado, Richard Gawne, Nick Hopwood, Alessandro Minelli, Erik L. Peterson, Helmut Pulte, and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on earlier versions of this paper. I also thank the session audiences at the meeting of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science in São Paulo (Brazil, 2017) and at the workshop ‘New Styles of Thought and Practices in Early 20th century Biology: Epistemologies and Politics’ in Bochum (Germany, 2016) for feedback on presentations on this topic. In addition, I gratefully acknowledge financial support from the German Research Foundation (DFG; Project No. BA 5808/1-1) and the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research (KLI), Vienna.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy IRuhr University BochumBochumGermany

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