The Biophilosophy of Epidemiological Models

Author: Ben Woodard

The current pandemic necessitates the reevaluation of the lazy rejection of biology by way of the biopolitical. Writer Ben Woodard reorients the history of biology in relation to continental philosophy and theory to give the biological sciences their proper weight. What any credible biophilosophy must do, he argues, is take very seriously the complexity of causality when it comes to the organic world and its imbrication in larger networks.

Plant forms, an Impression Figure by Margaret Watts-Hughes, pigment on glass, date unknown. Courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery


How Philosophy Forgot Biology (1859-1920)

Biology as a formal field of study emerged at the dawn of the nineteenth century as an attempt to systematically study the fundamental qualities of living things rather than merely classify them. Continental philosophy has largely oversimplified biology’s conceptual history and this has become even more glaringly apparent in the response to the current pandemic. To resolve this, some history is required. The conceptual fields and sources for biology are vast, yet four clusters of focus from the 1700s onward can be discerned: goal, function, force, and form.

Life as being goal-oriented or teleological arose through anthropology and the study of life as a phenomenon that could not be understood through mechanical means alone. The great controversy internal to this approach was that of preformationism against epigenesis, or the organism as preplanned (unfolding according to an ideal blueprint), or as more affected by external factors. Kant and Blumenbach are the central figures of this cluster.

In terms of function, this group of mostly physiologists and zoologists emphasized the understanding of life as an internal network of capacities. The heart is a pump, the muscles are like a complex system of levers and pulleys and so on. Living things, and their parts, are defined by what they do. Living things can be understood mechanically but can only be judged by their capacities to work and survive. Claude Bernard and Cuvier would go here.

In terms of forces, living things are the result, and/or bearers of, forces either specific to living organisms (in the case of vitalism), or are a complex manifestation of forces that occur in the inorganic world as well (chemical, electrical, and so on). Herder, Schelling, and many others belong here.

Lastly, form is central to morphologists and embryologists who study shared forms within or across species or across the organic and inorganic realms (the spiral in a whirlpool, a grape vine, and a shell). Goethe and Saint-Hilaire would fall into this group.

These clusters were all active areas of scientific and philosophical research in equal measure up until the mid to late 1800s, when the sciences became more disciplinarily distinct and philosophy and science slowly parted ways. As the noted historian of science William Whewell famously put it, Darwin left on his voyage a naturalist and returned a scientist.

The figures who are considered pivotal in the history of biology are those who either reconfigured one of the clusters mentioned above (often methodologically or technologically) or who managed to synthesize concepts across multiple clusters. Lamarck, for instance, known for his theory of epigenetic inheritance (that habits and actions could change an individual and that those traits could be in turn passed down) united the goal-oriented understanding of life with the functional understanding (living things are what they do, what they do changes their structure, these changes are passed on to their offspring). Darwin, on the other hand, can be seen as synthesizing the functional cluster with that of the morphological one (small changes in form affect functionality; function does not directly change form, but affects fitness and hence survivability). For Lamarck, purposiveness directly determined function and vice versa, while for Darwin, function determined only what forms would survive over great spans of time.

As Stephen J. Gould constantly reminded us, what was different and controversial about Darwin was not that species transformed but that contingency played such a central role in this transformation. It is also why, after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859, what most people found problematic was natural selection—not that things transformed, but how was such selection occurring and what exactly was being selected if there is no overarching plan or purpose?

The biologist Julian Huxley has called this period following 1859 “the eclipse of Darwinism,” but this is not particularly helpful nor entirely accurate. On the one hand, several researchers during this period set out to prove, or at least elaborate on, Darwin’s theories. O.C. Marsh, for instance, scoured desolate landscapes for dinosaur bones combating (sometimes with dynamite) the Neo-Lamarckian E.D. Cope to fill in the gaps of the fossil record.

On the other hand, the image of an eclipse can suggest that Darwin’s theory was “already correct,” that it was merely ignored or neglected. The only real truth to this was the relatively widespread denial of Darwin’s reliance upon the contingency of small changes over long periods and the resulting move to add purpose back into the portrait of biology.

No attempt was more striking than that of recapitulation (the notion that the development of the individual repeats the development of the species) in utero, summarized in the famous formula “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The clusters of force and form endorsed a nonlinear concept of recapitulation (forces or shapes are repeated across species and domains such as the emergence of a wing or the utilization of electric arcs to animate muscle). But those who supplanted Darwin wished for a progressive or linear type of recapitulation—asserting that the repetition of past lineages meant the future species would be improved (again pointing back to Lamarck’s acquired characteristics).

But while deep time made Darwin’s contingent transformations possible (if somewhat unclear), such massive stretches of time proved a problem for the progressive recapitulationists—more time meant more steps to be repeated, but the maturation time of the individual remained the same. The linear recapitulationists found themselves having to create their own form of selection—some stages of development had to be accelerated, others slowed down, while some had to be deleted to make room for newly acquired characteristics. This was not merely ad hoc armchair theorizing (since living things do develop unevenly with spurts and delays), but rather the insistence that progress (rather than contingent complexity) internal to life was not biologically defensible nor was it Darwinian.

Tracing the next phase of the conceptual history of biology is further complicated by the self-proclaimed break of Anglo-American (analytic) philosophy from its French and German sources as well as retroactive editing of biological history by way of this break.

Plant forms, an Impression Figure by Margaret Watts-Hughes, pigment on glass, date unknown. Courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery


The Tidy Synthesis (1920-1950)

The same Huxley who named the Darwinian eclipse claimed that warring camps of biology were finally brought together in the 1920s and 1930s. The factions in question were the biometricians (Galton, Pearson, Weldon) and the mutationists (de Vries, Bateson, Punnett). Huxley’s history claims that the former were Darwinians set out to prove through statistical means the effects of natural selection, while the latter rediscovered the neglected genetic research of Mendel and thought evolution occurred by mutation, by sudden leaps in form. Generally this narrative assumes the biometricians were “pure” Darwinians (they were not) and that the mutationists were naive anti-Darwinians (they were not).

For one, the biometricians were deeply entrenched in eugenics (large-scale selective breeding programs) and wanted to direct human evolution towards sustaining desirable physical, mental, and moral characteristics. The constructive achievement of the biometricians’ research program was to demonstrate natural selection through statistical correlation and apply physical theories to heredity (such as showing genetics could be expressed in a standard distribution visualized in the infamous bell curve). This showed how a toy model of natural selection worked, not why it did. The notion of eugenic “progress” had to do with “our” (well-to-do white men) actions in response to the data.

The aforementioned theory of recapitulation had not perished by this time but had merely retreated from species, to organ, ending up in the domain of the mind—the mental development of a culture or species is repeated in the becoming conscious of the individual (J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World is a fantastic exercise in this, even noted as such by Gould). This is not far in spirit from the biometricians who, in being agnostic about the causes of evolution, made it possible to insert an all too human fantasy.

The mutationists were less anti-Darwinian than often claimed, but rather were looking for a finer mechanism than natural selection which led them into forming an early account of genetics. Jumps or mutations only look sudden when one ignores the more subtle frequency shifts (gene flow) inside variations.

If the biometricians expanded Darwin’s interest in functionality to a measurable scale across an entire population, then the mutationists complicated Darwin’s worries about the morphological boundaries of a species and a variation of a species. Or how do the small shifts cause larger structural patterns that cause unexpected changes in form?

It is unfortunate that the canonization of Darwin and the edification of biological authority buries such nuances. Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is is a typical example of such retroactive purification. Mayr calls Darwin a “population thinker,” even though Darwin barely uses the term and when he does it is in a sociological or demographic mode (following Malthus) and does not constitute a biological concept of species.

The standard tale is that these warring camps were united by the work of Fisher, Haldane, and Wright. Yet even a cursory glance will reveal that little unity occurred, as some still emphasized statistical modeling of correlations (Fisher) while others persisted in trying to place causation back into biology (Wright). The difference between these positions can be thought in more contemporary terms as centering on microevolution and macroevolution. While the micro camp accepted genetics, it was still “best” understood statistically, and while the macro camp took up modeling this required geometric complexity (how species move, breed, behave). Dawkins is an exemplar of the former, while Gould embodies the latter.

Developments in molecular chemistry and the discovery of DNA seemed to confirm the synthesis story despite these rifts. Wright’s position of causal inference was increasingly marginalized, while Fisher’s models came to dominate the legacy of natural selection. Analytic histories of biology are increasingly blind to the conceptual roots of Darwinism and the constructive role of philosophy in the growth of biology. Alternatives or even addendums to Darwin are often cast in suspicion and rubbished as vitalism, while the road to Darwinian evolution is purified. Most attempts at discussing macro evolution still face accusations of being epigenetic throwbacks such as Eva Jablonka’s work.

In the continental tradition, on the other hand, vitalism became increasingly a mark of constructive ignorance about the nature of life (Bergson, Canguilhem) or it was drawn back to the force cluster of life as one type of organizational process (Simondon, Deleuze, Whitehead). After the disasters of modernity (fueled in no small part by eugenics), life as a concept became markedly experiential, phenomenological, and existential. Biology became a state-funded threat, a disciplinary mode of knowledge posed against life in itself (taking pride in the term’s defensive vagueness).

Yet how much of this is exacerbated by the disciplinary segregation of the sciences and the humanities? Already in the mid-1800s, universities were restructured and the humanities and natural sciences not only set out on ever more diverging paths, but no longer even recognized the limitations of each other’s field relative to its domain. The humanities attempted to normatively limit the egress of the sciences (i.e. claiming they should not reduce mind to matter or culture to species competition), while the physical sciences saw such concerns as following the proof or project (the ethical as accompanying the deployment of the sciences after the fact, not barring avenues of investigation).

Yet the parting of ways was not total. Whether one agrees or not with Bergson’s philosophical position, Creative Evolution gives an impressive survey of the eclipsed Darwinian world already mentioned. Ruyer’s account of the epistemological difficulties of teleology are deeply informed by biology and physics. The conceptual descendants of D’Arcy Thompson’s bio-mathematical morphology inspired structuralism and Rene Thom’s catastrophe theory.

Is it trivial that C.H. Waddington (following in Thompson and Wright’s footsteps) engaged with communism and Gould combated racism, that the lineage of the mutationist camp was more politically radical? And yet in continental thought, the more fringe strands of biological thought (the remnants of the teleological and substantialist vitalist clusters) that inspire philosophies of life are taken up to defend against the biopolitical. Or, even worse, life in itself is rebooted to its pre-modern state in the form of an indistinct theological blob.

Single pitch Impression Figure by Margaret Watts-Hughes, pigment on glass, date unknown. Courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery


Biophilosophy and Biopolitics (1960- )

There is little to no mention of Darwin in Foucault’s work. While France entertained neo-Lamarckianism longer than most, this still seems oddly provincial for Foucault’s genealogy. Given his emphasis on Cuvier, it seems either an odd national pride or a retroactive atavism (or both as Nicholas Jardine puts it). Thus we have the strange situation that Bergson’s biophilosophy, though half a century older than Foucault’s work, is more up-to-date.

As already stated, analytic histories of biology exhibit similar limitations, though due to different causes—newer histories are less and less conceptually diverse, but deeper in methodological and technological achievement. It is ironic that this is due to a concept near and dear to the mutationist/structuralist lineage of canalization. As Waddington has it, genetic or inherited traits do not pass smoothly generation to generation, but pass over a landscape where macro level feedback places funnels, bumps, and ridges in the way. If Galton’s demonstration of inheritance utilized a Plinko-like device, then Waddington’s theory resembles a pinball machine that repeats but strays the genetic paths through mechanisms operating at a larger scale. This does not contradict Darwin’s synthesis of the functional and the morphological, but shows how the latter pushes back on the former in chaotic ways.

In thinking about the pandemic, this landscape of macro effects is pivotal in understanding how the event takes shape (how it spreads, where it stays, its life cycle, and so on). Obviously this is not at cross purposes to statistical modeling (how many sick, how many infected, how many carriers, how many recovered, etc.) but while each informs the other, they provide a split-screen view of the pandemic.

The biopolitical danger is of course the decoupling of these views in the name of political intervention, but this cannot (contra Agamben) be collapsed with prudent operations in the name of public health. Yet many philosophers, in following Foucault (or a certain image of his thought), think we are living in a world long extinct, that we are foolish to believe in “naked” or “bare” life. But they seem to forget the virus has no need for faith—only a host.

But nor is it sufficient to lay down before the altar of the non-human, to praise it as an eco-activist, a viral monkey wrench of global scale or as an utterly unpredictable event (a black or blank swan). There are better and worse guesses and there are structures which enable and ground viral success if not directly cause it—underfunded health systems, insufficient housing, poor supply distribution, genetically homogeneous factory livestock encroaching upon wilderness. The measure and shape of these have to be kept in binocular focus, and to act on this is not a panic over bare life but to guarantee the possibility of future life and any form of sociality.

Of course, such abstractions can be used against the living when divested of biological history and reality (“won’t someone think of the economy!”) or when half a biological concept is wielded with total purported scientific authority (like herd immunity without a vaccine). But none of this diminishes the local reality of the question (to borrow language from Nicholas Jardine): “How can the virus be stopped?” or “How could it have been prevented?”

This invites all the conceptual clusters invoked above goal, function, force, and form and their gnarled histories into the present even when they are viewed somewhat dimly in unfairly opposed terms of micro and macro, genetic and epigenetic. The lack of preventive measures shows in fact how non-bio biopolitics always was, it was merely a governmental bluff in the language of the organism. Constructive or preventative biopolitics was (for most) simply too expensive and now, backended by fiat, can now appear as diabolically planned.

What any credible biophilosophy must do (beyond fine-tuned historical analysis) is take very seriously the complexity of causality when it comes to the organic world and its imbrication in larger networks. This is imperative if we are to avoid the simplification of the biological and the sciences which make real claims about its stakes. To take seriously the causal nature of biological models is not to reduce living to life, but to understand that the translation of the biological into the social or the normative does not, in turn, transform quarantine into control. It is only in flattening the notion of biological life and the living that one can make scientifically ignorant proclamations about life with a capital “L,” a strategy that falls on supposedly opposed sides of the political spectrum.

Cover image: Detail from an Impression Figure by Margaret Watts-Hughes, pigment on glass, date unknown. Courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Ben Woodard

Ben Woodard is an independent scholar working and living in Germany. His work focuses on the relationship between naturalism and idealism during the long nineteenth century. He is currently preparing a monograph on the relation of naturalism and formalism in the life sciences. His book Schelling’s Naturalism was recently published by Edinburgh University Press.

This essay is part of the Revenge of the Real special project by The Terraforming research program and Strelka Mag. Read more essays here.

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