Reductionism and Organicism in Science

by Henk Verhoog

Faculteit der Wiskunde en Natuurwetenschappen
Instituut voor Evolutionaire en Ecologische Wetenschappen
Rijks Universiteit Leiden
Kaiserstraat 63
Postbus 9516 2300 RA Leiden, Netherlands


The Book of Nature
Galileo and Mathematical Symbols
Goethe's Organicism
19th Century Reductionism
Perspectives from Natural Philosophy and Ethics
Ethical Questions
Freedom and Determination

NOTE FROM TRANSLATOR: The following text is a translation by Dr. David Heaf of Chapter 2 of "Genmanipulation an Pflanze, Tier und Mensch - Grundlagen zur Urteilsbildung" published by Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart (1994, ISBN 3-7725-1449-9, pp 11-22) which is an edited translation from the Dutch original entitled "Zit er toekomst in ons DNA?" published by Werkgroep Genenmanipulatie en Oordeelsvormung, Louis Bolk Instituut, Hoofdstraat 24, 3972 LA Driebergen, Holland (1993, ISBN 90 74021 12 3).

The major question facing all biologists at some time or other is the question of the secrets of life. People try to escape it by saying that all questions as to life's meaning or what it actually is cannot be answered by science. Science should only concern itself with the phenomena of life. Questions as to what something means or is are metaphysical and go beyond the realm of scientifically observable physical phenomena. If you ask philosophers for an answer to the question of life, it is soon apparent that since the breakthrough of natural scientific thinking in the life sciences, metaphysics or natural philosophy have been increasingly thrust into the background. If such subjects make any contribution, it is at most an attempt to bring about a synthesis of the results of scientific research, rather than any independent method for studying Nature.

However, as a result of the world environmental crisis, there has already been a drastic change in interest in natural philosophy. In books on environmental philosophy and ethics one frequently comes across suggestions that the concept of Nature underlying science is partly responsible for the present crisis in our relationship with Nature. In genetic engineering too, problems are not caused by faulty methods, but by a particular mind set. Put another way, science is not neutral when it comes to natural philosophy, but is itself based on metaphysical foundations having a lot to do with materialism and reductionism. These foundations are revealed as soon as scientists claim to be able to say something about reality, for instance when it is said that the secret of life is to be found in DNA. The history of biology is characterised by opposites - mechanism v. vitalism, reductionism v. organicism - opposites which exist to this day.

Reductionist thinking means investigating living phenomena by 'objectifying' them (I shall come back to this later) and separating them into their component aspects and processes for analysis. This happens above all in the laboratory where it is the researcher who creates and varies the conditions under which the phenomenon is to be investigated. Under laboratory conditions living processes are reproducible, controllable and predictable. The 'objectivity' of scientific facts is a result of this.

We can venture that, within certain limits, 'facts' are constructed in the laboratory. Some philosophers even speak of a 'secondary Nature' arising. If we accept that all knowledge is the result of observation and thinking, we can say of the reductionist tendency that abstract, model-based thinking plays an increasing part at the expense of observation. For instance, in modern physics, direct perception plays an almost insignificant part. This process of bstraction is supported to a significant degree by mathematics.


Organicism takes an opposite course. The tendency to analyse is controlled and attention is directed to the wholeness of organisms and living processes and to the place or function of structures and functions in the wider context, for instance in morphology or the theory of form, in ethology or behavioural science and in ecology or the science of living communities. The object of research is usually Nature as she appears to us by direct experience. Nature as 'given' is investigated in her own right. Here, in contrast with the reductionist's approach, direct observation plays a more important part in relation to thinking. Closely related with the concept 'organic' are those of 'holistic' and 'phenomenological'. In the genetic engineering debate it is sometimes suggested that the reductionism-organicism contrast is no longer relevant (1). Nevertheless, there are countless examples to the contrary. For example, the contrast becomes most marked in the arguments between biotechnologists and ecologists over the risks connected with releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment. Furthermore, features of the value systems of both approaches are also to be found in the debate about combining DNA from various plants and animals (2). The supporters take a strongly anthropocentric position by laying emphasis on possible uses for mankind. Highest value is accorded to the freedom of research and progress of science. The right to manipulate life processes is regarded as self-evident, especially if the results are useful to Man. In contrast, opponents of genetic engineering, as well as feeling a moral responsibility for their fellow human beings and future generations, lay great emphasis on their responsibility for life on earth. Of significance here is the holistic world view which is critical of the kind of science that tinkers with life. Such a view also argues for a 'science of phenomena' in the sense of organicism.

Ernst Mayr says in his book The growth of biological thought that when looking for a solution to a problem in modern biology, a historical approach is sometimes more helpful than a logical one, especially when the development of a theme is traced over time (3). We argue that this is also true for a better understanding of inheritance and genetic manipulation. The ahistoric attitude of current science veils the fact that then as now decisions have been taken which have far reaching consequences for the world we share with one another and with other kingdoms of Nature. What we at any particular time regard as scientific, is itself one of these decisions.

Nowadays thinking about the phenomena of life is dominated by reductionism. In social practice, the reductionist tendency is closely linked to the existing power structure which is glad to make use of the obvious possibility of controlling Nature. As reductionism has the upper hand, many alternative ways of looking at things (mostly organic) are excluded. 'Hard' scientists thus disqualify the alternative views as 'unscientific', as obstacles on the way to what they regard as true insight.

Nevertheless, if reductionism is not to be regarded as the only way to truth, society can no longer place exclusive reliance on it when it comes to taking important decisions such as those concerning the development and application of genetic engineering. To develop a more complete picture and opinion of the problem of genetic engineering, non-reductionist views are at least as important as those of reductionism. The former were in earlier times frequently described as 'Reading in the book of Nature'. The anthroposophical approach also falls into this category.

The Book of Nature

In a now famous article on the origins of the modern environmental crisis, Lynn White concludes that the 'desecration of Nature' must be seen as primarily caused by Judeo-Christian thought (4). For ancient cultures, even in the early stages of Greek civilisation, Nature was the 'theatre of the Gods'. The Gods were active in Nature and everything observed in Nature was seen as the result of their work. In western Christian tradition, Nature is much more regarded as the result of God's Creation. God stands above nature (transcendent), and Man, as steward of the earth, is accountable to God. More recently, many people no longer hold valid the 'God hypothesis' for explaining Nature. Man is completely self-sufficient.

Critics of Lynn White have shown that there is rarely a directly demonstrable connection between ideas of Nature and what is done in practice and that even in Christianity there is a greater variety of ideas of Nature than White claims. For instance, in the Middle Ages, Nature was described as a book. The Apostle Paul spoke of the three revelations of God: To the Jews God was revealed through the commandments and through the prophets; to Christians through the Bible to heathens through the Creation of the world (5). After Paul, we come to Augustine who spoke of God's authorship of two books, the Bible and the book of Nature.

Raimund Sabundus (6) opposed the idea that god was revealed to the heathen only in the book of Nature. The book of Nature has been a gift to mankind since the Creation. Every creature is a letter in the book written by the hand of God. Only when Man could no longer read the book of Nature did God give him the Bible. Sabundus sees this as a loss to man and shows how man can again learn how to read the book of Nature.

The idea of Nature as a book, in addition to indicating that God is the 'Author', contains two other important elements. Firstly, what is observed (letters, natural phenomena) must have a deeper significance. This is clear in the 'doctrine of signatures' of people such as Paracelsus and Jacob Böhme (7). Signatures, for instance the perceptible symptoms of a disease, are the visible signs, which one must learn to interpret as an expression of something deeper. According to Böhme it is a matter of getting to know the essence of the thing through its signature. This is possible if one 'looks into the heart of things'.

Secondly, Man must have the possibility to get to know the deeper significance of what is referred to. Mankind is capable of this because a deep relationship exists between Man and Nature. Both are created by God. What happens in Nature concerns mankind itself. It gives mankind's existence a meaning. One can also say that Man can be regarded as the microcosm in which Nature as macrocosm is reflected. 'Reading' involves empathising and feeling at one with Nature. That is to say it requires an attitude of sympathy (8). Sabundus says that people can again read the book of Nature by distilling out the Divine Wisdom inscribed in the bodily form of God's creatures and recreate them in the human soul through imagination. This can be achieved by comparing one creature with another. This comes very close to what Goethe later developed as his comparative method, based on exact sensorial imagination. From such a combination 'the real significance leaps out'.

Reading in the book of Nature is based on the idea that Nature, as God's Creation, is a harmonious, self-regulating and purposeful totality before which Man is mindful of respect. In the later Middle Ages, a different picture of nature gained predominance which can be described as the model of 'fallen Nature' (9), as the mirror of the Fall of Man through original sin. This makes Nature into something negative. We talk of natural forces which must be ordered and controlled by mankind (human intellect). This strong emphasis on letting the human intellect guide our intervention in Nature is characteristic of all founders of modern science.

Galileo and Mathematical Symbols

Konrad von Megenburg's The book of Nature, which reached six editions after its first appearance in 1350, was described by Bohler (10) as a phenomenological work in the Aristotelian tradition of an organic conception of Nature. Along with investigators such as Vesalius and Harvey it was above all Galileo, Descartes and Bacon who fathered modern science. In the 16th century people paid little heed to the Aristotelian tradition. Paracelsus, one of its last representatives, drew attention to the crucial difference between a printed book with abstract, lifeless letters and the book of Nature with its living script. As a contrast to Paracelsus, Galileo, at the threshold of modern natural science, said that the book of Nature should be read as if it were written with abstract, lifeless characters.

Following Cusanus, Galileo conceived God the Creator as a technologist, who had written the book of Nature in mathematical symbols. The letters became triangles, circles and other geometrical figures. This freed reading in the book of Nature from direct observation and the experiences which go with direct observation. In order to read it thus, people have inwardly to distance themselves from Nature and become 'onlookers'. They become a perceiving and thinking subject confronting Nature as a material object. Such 'objectifying' Nature is characteristic of the scientific revolution which took place throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

This objectifying is recognisable for example in Descartes' famous distinction between Res cogitans and Res extensa, between subject and object. The world of the human subject, equated with thinking, is confronted with the world of extension, as if two mutually exclusive worlds are involved. According to Descartes (and Bacon), using concepts that depended on the human subject, such as consciousness, purposefulness and freedom, to describe the world of extension was not allowed.

The world of material objects was seen as determined and functioning according to mechanistic principles. From Aristotle's 'four causes', which explain why everything is as it is, only causa efficiens and causa materialis were allowed. Causa formalis and causa finalis (purpose) were eradicated. Descartes' methodological maxim that every problem should be analyzed into its greatest number of parts fitted well a view of Nature as a material world of extension, or a machine.

Bacon, especially, campaigned against the 'speculative thinking' of the Middle Ages. Although he is described as the father of empiricism, he was suspicious of direct perception by the senses. This had to be replaced with observation by means of precise instruments.

This is partly connected with the distinction between primary and secondary qualities that arose around about this time. Primary qualities are objective properties of the world of extension that can be measured and expressed mathematically. Galileo held that only what is measurable is valid. Primary qualities stand in contrast to 'subjective' secondary qualities like the visible colours. This view holds that colours are not properties of the reality of the physical world but arise only indirectly through the senses and nervous system.
In short it can be said that the picture of Nature, and with it Man's place in Nature, radically changed in the Middle Ages. The picture we have of Nature is always only a reflection of a particular relationship we have with Nature. 'Objectifying' Nature thus goes hand in hand with the 'subjectifying' or individualisation of the human being. In a Nature no longer seen to be ruled by Gods, Man can develop in freedom, feeling himself to be the creator of his own thinking.

We turn to the sense perceptible world to restrict speculative thinking. Human perception is strongly directed to its surroundings and thinking has to get its bearings from what is perceived. However, in science, perception is increasingly mediated by instruments and is influenced by the conditions of scientific experimentation.

At the same time it can be said that there is a growing tendency to thinking abstractly and in terms of models. This involves purely intellectual thinking on the one hand and, guided by this head-thinking, ever increasing experimental manipulation on the other. An interplay arises between thinking and doing (willing) which almost totally excludes feeling (the heart). This development shows just as much in the separation of art and science as in the separation of science and religion (and thus ethics). What was at the height of Greek culture seen as a close threefold relationship - Truth, Beauty and Goodness - now becomes fragmented.

The transition to a mechanistic approach to looking at Nature was initially directed at lifeless Nature. Even so, Descartes also turned his attention to animals and Man. For Descartes' dualistic thinking, an animal has no soul. For him it is an automaton. The human body too is extended in space, thus giving rise to an unbridgeable rift between soul (spirit) and body. This shift in thinking is illustrated by comparing Fludd's (11) cosmic physiology with Boerhaave's (12) mechanistic model inspired by Newton a century later.

The activity of the soul is confined in Boerhaave's thinking to the head. The weaknesses of mechanistic models applied to the phenomena of life led at the close of the 18th century to a flowering of vitalist and organicist currents in thinking.

Goethe's Organicism

Reading in the book of Nature, as practised by Goethe around 1800, is a paradigm for a holistic approach to biology (13). Goethe like no other was conscious of the fact that each part belongs to a whole and that the whole belongs to the parts. The zoologist Portmann (14) tried to portray the difference between the mechanistic and organic approaches using a theatrical metaphor. Behind the stage there is the assemblage of machinery. Portmann compares this with the 'realm of biotechnology' now dominating biology and serving to control Nature. On the stage itself, a certain 'meaning' is conveyed by words and gestures. It was this 'meaning' that Goethe sought to discover by paying attention to Nature's directly observable phenomena.

Goethe's method is described as 'phenomenological' (15). This means that he started with the phenomena observable by the senses, remained true to the phenomena throughout his method of research and ended up with the 'primal phenomenon' or 'archetype'. Natural phenomena show themselves in many ways. A phenomenon must first be observed and described from all available angles so that a concrete idea of it can arise.

As Goethe's approach is built upon immediate perception of natural phenomena it is thoroughly 'empirical'. Goethe never looked for the physico-chemical causes. Rather was he interested in the various conditions under which a phenomenon manifests. Therefore, the 'primal phenomenon' can be interpreted as the 'law' governing the appearance of a phenomenon under the various conditions given.

Goethe experimented, not so as to test prior hypotheses, but to extend our range of experience and to discover its inner relationships and pattern. He sought the 'inner necessary connections' as an expression of the phenomenon itself. We can discover the pattern by developing a living experience of the 'language of form' or the 'gesture' of a developing plant or a series of related plants or animals. The investigator must be prepared to let the other 'speak for itself'. The stage is sooner or later reached when living concepts, revealed not only in the phenomenon but also in thought, are experienced as if actually seen with the eyes.

Goethe's approach features full confidence in sense perception as well as intuitive ideas that are produced through interrelations of percepts. Goethe wanted 'to understand natural objects through ourselves', since according to him a hidden relationship exists between Man and Nature. In Nature, 'something expresses itself' which the human being can 'read' inwardly, when perceiving and thinking has been schooled in a certain way. The sort of thinking to be developed here can be designated in various ways. 'Objective thinking' and 'intuitive thinking' are terms that Goethe used. An English phenomenologist who followed Goethe's method used the terms 'sensuous thinking, pictorial thinking and imaginative reason' (16).

Goethe brought new life to the medieval idea of reading in the book of Nature. The real being of a living organism did not, according to him, reveal itself to direct sense perception. Matter cannot exist without spirit and spirit cannot exist without matter. In this connection Goethe was speaking of the omnipresence of God. Man cannot reach the Divine through his intellect, but rather through his reason. The Godhead works in living Nature, in what is becoming, not in what has already become fixed (not in what has already come into existence and rigidified). Intellect applies itself to the fixed, to the dead. Thus we can also apply knowledge developed with the intellect to technology. With these kinds of ideas, Goethe was a man of his time. A number of contemporary investigators - Ritter, Steffens, Oken, Carus - had similar ideas. In contrast to modern science, where schooling oneself has no place, they were convinced that knowledge of Nature and self-knowledge must go hand in hand. They criticised the one sidedness of the mechanistic ideals of modern science and tried to rebuild the lost unity of Man and Nature (17).

19th Century Reductionism

In his book on the history of physiology Rothschuh (18) summarised the 19th century breakthrough of experimental- reductionism in biology in the following way: "The physiology of the Romantics was totally self-consistent. They pursued an ideal understanding of Nature which was satisfied with characterising the place of an individual phenomenon within the framework of a comprehensive concept. The principles of analogy and polarity were used to order the things of the world. But the new physiology which arose in the middle of the 19th century sought order among the manifestations of life through their causal interconnections. Since cause-effect relationships can only be tested in narrowly defined parts of Nature, physiology was increasingly dependent on the causal-analytical experiment. Their results gave rise to something totally alien to the romantic physiologists, namely taking hold of living processes. Indeed it allowed these processes to be manipulated as has already been learnt for physical and chemical processes and was at the time just beginning to be exploited in the development of techniques for the manufacture of machines and useful materials."

This 19th century development in biology can be seen as the breakthrough of the kind of causal-analytical reductionist thinking described at the beginning of this chapter. The ideal of experimental research in the laboratory spread to all fields of biology. In 1865 Claude Bernard stated the principles of this trend (19). According to him, the experimental method has the task of guiding ideas. In the experimental situation reproducible results can be achieved whose reliability can be enhanced by instrumentation. The investigator must confine himself to reducible relationships between the observed phenomena. Conditions under which a phenomenon occurs can be controlled in the laboratory, thus enabling measurement and prediction. Bernard described the laboratory as the 'shrine' of biomedical science.

Interest in the approach of natural philosophy dwindled. People were more interested in exact information about details and this led to the splitting up of biology into a multitude of disciplines. The unity of all things living was no longer sought in the realm of ideas but in matter. The discovery of the cell as a structural and functional biological unit was an important step in this development. The discovery of cell organelles led ultimately to the discovery of genes and DNA

I should like to close this historical section with some observations of M. and D. Gersch (20) on the history of the concept of the biological object. They describe the radical change from the descriptive to the experimental-analytical approach in biology. This change was only possible after the idea of a living organism being an indivisible unit was abandoned. With the introduction of the experimental method, living organisms increasingly became the 'material' of research.

Gersch and Gersch describe this process as one of 'de-individualising'. It manifests in two forms. Firstly, the personal connection between the investigator and the object of research disappears. Secondly, the author loses sight of the uniqueness and the individual significance of the object. Through the process of reduction, the general applicability of statements about the object and the possibilities for its manipulation increase. What is here meant is particularly evident in the developments of research in genetics. To molecular biologists, the genetic code as the 'basis of life' is universal in that it is essentially similar in all living things. Obvious differences between phenomena at higher levels of organisation disappear from sight at the molecular biological level or are no longer traceable to differences in biochemistry. In contrast to this, in the tradition of organicism there is a hierarchy of levels of organisation. Each level has its own principles which are not derivable from a lower one.

Perspectives from Natural Philosophy and Ethics

Ethics is based on the 'Good' in the context of human deeds. We have seen that after the scientific revolution the question of the 'True' has been separated from that of the Good. From the beginning of this new era science claims to deliver certain knowledge about Nature, in the sense that the knowledge gained is in accord with reality as it exists independently of Man. For this, knowledge must be 'value-free'; objective knowledge also means value-free knowledge. It is interesting to note that the more value-free a science is in the methodological sense, the more it can be used to control Nature, which itself can never be value-free. That the scientific method could be used to wield power over nature was noticed by Descartes, Bacon and Galileo, though they linked it with the belief that this power would be used to reduce human suffering and to increase the prosperity of mankind.

Although, through the application of the reductionist method, the power that Man has over Nature has steadily increased, nothing is gained from the value-free knowledge that this method yields in the way of guidance as to the use of this power. Because of the separation of ethics and knowledge, scientists in their training experience little of ethics. Questions about ethics in connection with research are rarely asked. Whilst scientific knowledge grows ever more important as a factor determining culture, the foundations of world views which are expected to yield ethical guidelines are increasingly undermined by materialistic scientific thinking. As western pluralistic societies now lack an obligatory faith, science, because of its universality, tends to fill this vacuum. Science thus manifests increasingly overtly as a world view. It even pursues a sort of witch hunt with everything it considers 'pseudo science' or 'quackery' (alternative agriculture, alternative medicine).

Logically speaking, science can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a spiritual world. However, this does not mean that the scientific method is ethically neutral. Science is more than just an uncommitted way of looking at the world. We have already seen that the reductionist approach manipulates Nature and thus in a certain sense itself produces the conditions under which its knowledge is true. This means that the greater the scope for reductionist scientific thinking in society, the greater is the extent to which the materialistic world view establishes and realises itself.

Gradually, therefore, Nature, which once was the cosmos that encircled and permeated us, is slowly but surely being replaced by a man-made Nature. This process is already so far advanced that many experience it as the 'death of primal Nature' (21). That things could have gone so far, is partly attributable to Nature, now objectified in the reductionist sense, having a value no longer for its own sake but for the use mankind can make of it. This corresponds to the model of 'fallen Nature' that invites manipulation and control.

In biology, Nature's worth in its own right is recognised more easily by the organic approach. Goethe even went so far as to speak of the 'rights of Nature'. (About his relationship with Schiller he said: 'He preached the Gospel of freedom, I did not want the rights of Nature restricted.'). Goethe repeatedly emphasised that each being exists in its own right and not as a useful tool for mankind.

In the animal and environmental ethics that has arisen in the last two decades this instrumental view of Nature is blamed for the plunder of animal and plant resources. People now argue for a biocentric approach whereby Nature retains it own worth (22).

It is hardly a coincidence that those people who plead for a different attitude to animals and plants refer to disciplines like ethology and ecology, with their stronger orientation towards the organic approach. This is understandable because the organic approach is directed at studying and comprehending Nature for her own sake and the relationship between Man and Nature is thus not destroyed.

Ethical Questions

From the foregoing it follows that genetic engineering is ultimately the result of applying to living beings the reductionist approach. With it, the apprehension of truth is more and more displaced from a correspondence with reality to what can be achieved in the laboratory (If it works, it's true). In the molecular biological view, the qualitative differences between living and non-living Nature, between plant, animal and Man disappear. Reproductive processes become increasingly 'unnatural' with increasing domestication, in the sense that it is no longer 'left to Nature', but more and more guided and regulated by human intervention.

When the concept 'unnatural' is used in an evaluative sense this can best be understood from an organic point of view. The trouble biotechnologists take to emphasise the 'naturalness' of gene manipulation is very conspicuous. For instance, they regard DNA itself (instead of the whole organism or species) as the 'natural unit' of life (23), or describe biotechnology itself as 'natural' (24). Metaphors which belong to the organic approach are misused to describe the control of fallen Nature. In molecular biological thinking, individuals are only vehicles for the transport of genes. Living organisms have become information carriers determined by a code which can be deciphered and altered at will. It was Rifkin (25) who among others criticised the tendency for the idea of a living organism as a separately identifiable unity based on our pre-scientific experience to be increasingly abandoned in favour of justifying the manipulation of 'living material'.

The ever more pressing basic ethical question which this poses is whether genetic engineering, especially its creation of transgenic organisms, whereby species boundaries are violated, is not in contradiction to the individual worth and integrity of the plants and animals involved. Individual worth and integrity of living organisms is in a certain way connected directly with their qualitative properties, with being a whole and being part of wider living communities. When it comes to risk assessment, it is regarded by and large as a technical problem rather than an ethical one. Recourse to the ethical approach is only made, when, starting from the assumption that genetic manipulation as such is 'ethically neutral', ethics only becomes important if the consequences are harmful and must be balanced against the advantages. These kinds of arguments are enhanced by the molecular biological way of looking at the phenomena of life. At this level, the investigator has long since ceased to be at one with his object of study.

That certain risks are connected with genetic engineering, is nowadays acknowledged by all involved. The isolated gene and the genetic construct produced in the laboratory are reintroduced into a living organism which is then released into the environment. From the point of view of organicism this is not possible without risks. What might happen at higher levels of organisms is to a large extent unpredictable, just as one cannot predict the properties of water when one only knows those of hydrogen and oxygen (emergent properties).

The attitude of supporters of genetic engineering can at best be characterised as a 'Yes, if' attitude: Genetic engineering should be allowed if the risks are negligible. In order to minimise risks, organisms are modified in such a way that they will not survive in the environment (disabled bacteria). The attitude of the opponents is 'No', or 'Not unless': No genetic engineering unless what it is used for is essential for mankind's continued existence and there is no other way of achieving this goal (26).

Resistance to the violation of species boundaries also exists within the scientific community itself, especially amongst biologists and others with an organicist ideology. To many Christians, who hold a static view of the species boundaries, the violation of species boundaries is an insuperable obstacle. In discussions about the permissibility of genetic engineering, arguments which seem to go against the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution are not usually taken seriously. Here it is clear that the influence of science has become so great that ideas which are at odds with it are not allowed to have part in the public debate. But science is a world view which must be treated just like any other world view. Here we are touching on the fundamental question of the freedom of cultural life. In this connection, the philosopher Feyerabend (27) argued for a separation of state and science to make way for a real pluralism in cultural life. At the moment, most of the advisory committees of the state are dominated by the ideology of modern natural science. Therefore, under the veil of objectivity, only biased advice is given.

Freedom and Determination

In the foregoing, I have shown that Man has won through science a high degree of freedom with respect to Nature. Much has become technically feasible which would not have been so without this development. This greatly extended the options available. The seed of free thinking has quickened through the scientific approach to Nature. With scientific thinking come limitations, especially those which have led to the materialist-reductionist way of dealing with Nature.

This shows up nowhere more clearly than in genetics where one frequently hears mention of 'genetic determinism'. Living phenomena are not only reduced to the molecular biological level, but also people think that these phenomena are directed from that level (DNA as 'program' or 'blueprint'). Although the method associated with this approach has been fundamentally challenged (28), people still feel compelled to look for genetic factors which the approach implies to be 'responsible' for deviations from normality. When these are discovered intervention at this level follows as a matter of course. The consequences of this thinking are especially noticeable when it comes to the human being.

If the dualistic scientific model is applied to human beings as the objects of investigation they become separated into 'biological life' and 'personal life'. Human biological life, like other living processes, is investigated as a material mechanism thereby increasing our ability to manipulate it technically. Ethics and law have to oversee that such manipulation is not against the will of the experimental subject or the patient. Science has already increased the options open to us - one need only think of the pill, in vitro fertilisation, prenatal screening and abortion if there is likely subsequent handicap of the unborn. The future may offer genetic manipulation.

At first glance and from a materialistic point of view, everything seems to be in order. But there are a number of issues that can be raised. Firstly, self-fulfilling scientific thinking would explain, on a merely scientific basis, an increasing number of aspects of what it is to be human. This is seen to be valid not only for biological life, divorced as it is from the body as experienced, a process comparable with estrangement from Nature, but also for personal life, in that human consciousness is seen as an 'appendage' of the body.

Some psychologists of the behaviourist school have given particularly clear expression to this: Human freedom and individual responsibility are illusions they say. Everything is explained by environmental influences. Reductionist explanations by geneticists are essentially the same, only it is the genes that determine. If we say Down's syndrome is genetically determined and we can identify the genes responsible, then it seems reasonable to try to intervene at the level of the genes in order to correct the disorder, or we undertake to prevent any attempt to give birth to a child with a disorder of that sort.

Put another way: With the extension of reductionism to man, the idea of freedom, which was the point of departure, becomes an ever greater illusion. In order to really make a 'free' decision, all knowledge relevant to Man must be taken into consideration, rather than just allowing the natural scientific picture of man and the world to take the lead. For this, it is necessary to have complete freedom of thought in cultural life (29). At present we are under an illusion about freedom. A trend can be observed in society of normative judgement criteria being borrowed from the natural scientific picture of Man. One can think of several examples such as the choice of a morally relevant understanding of the concept 'species', of brain death as the biological criterion of 'death', and of the matter of course by which genetically disordered embryos are aborted - in all these cases a conceivable spiritual dimension of reality, in which phenomena such as health and illness appear in a totally different light, is completely denied. Nowadays it is almost the norm that a woman who brings a Down's syndrome child into the world is looked at askance: 'You should have prevented that'.

In the social context too, the freedom of the individual to reach a well considered decision continues to decrease through the dominance of a materialistic world view. If the idea we have of Man that gives us the standard by which to reach an opinion about tinkering with life is only formed by science, we end up in a vicious circle from which it is difficult to escape.


In this chapter, developments in the field of biotechnology are evaluated in a historical context. The history of biology can be described as an ongoing struggle between the reductionist and organicist (holistic) approaches to understanding Nature. In the medieval conception of reading in the book of Nature, Nature is seen as an organism, as the body of Mother Earth, a harmonious self-regulating whole, to be treated with respect. In the 16th century this concept of Nature was replaced by the concept of 'fallen Nature'. Nature was then seen as disorderly and chaotic. In this view the 'blind' forces of nature have to be conquered with the help of human intelligence. Man was no longer seen as an essential part of God-created Nature. Nature was objectified and materialised in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. In a Nature which is no longer ruled by a Divine Being, Man became free to manipulate Nature and use her as an instrument for his own purposes. Experimental natural science provided the means to this end.

Goethe and other scientists at the turn of the 18th century tried to breathe new life into reading in the book of Nature. His phenomenological method was however forgotten with the breakthrough of the experimental and reductionist approaches in biology in the 19th century. The laboratory became the shrine of the biomedical sciences. Nature as directly experienced by the senses was replaced by laboratory Nature. In the laboratory, facts are no longer facts because they correspond with reality but because they are controllable and reproducible. Biotechnology is the natural outcome of this approach to living Nature.

At the moment the reductionist approach dominates the life sciences. As a consequence holistic and phenomenological approaches get less funding. This leads to a self-fulfilling process. Scientific facts are constructed in the laboratory and implemented in society through technology. A second manmade Nature is increasingly replacing Nature as given and scientific results are considered true 'if they work'. More and more is it realised that the instrumental approach of science and technology must be subordinated to other, higher values. It is through the neglected holistic approach, among others, that we can find these values. This implies that the results of reductionist thinking should not dominate social and political decision-making about biotechnology. The increasing influence of reductionist and materialistic thinking threatens to undermine our ideals of individual responsibility and freedom. It also obstructs our making well-founded decisions about the genetic manipulation of living organisms.


1. An example of this is the final report of the committee for the investigation of social and ethical aspects of genetic material (Recombinant DNA, Staatsuitgeverij, Den Haag, 1983), which says 'For most contemporary scientific researchers this dilemma [between an organic and a mechanistic understanding of Nature] has been overtaken.

2. Tibor Szántó (1993), Value communities in science. The recombinant DNA case. In: T. Brante et. al. (Eds), Controversial Science, State University of New York Press, Albany, pp. 241-263.

3. Ernst Mayr (1982), The growth of biological thought. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

4. Lynn White (1967), 'The historical roots of our ecological crisis', Science 155, 1203-1207.

5. Dietrich Bohler (1981), 'Naturverstehen und Sinnverstehen', In F. Rapp (Ed), Naturverständnis und Naturbeherrschung. Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich, 70-95

6. Raimundus Sabundus, In Theologia Naturalis (1430), cited by Hans Börnsen (1986), Vom Lesen im Buch der Natur. Verlag an Goetheanum, Dornach.

7. Eugen Berthold (1938), 'Paracelsus, Ein Weg zu ganzheitlicher Gestaltung des Weltbildes'. Natura VIII/3, 65-97. Gernot Böhme (1986), 'Die Signaturlehre bei Paracelsus und Jacob Böhme', In: Natur, Leib, Sprache. Rotterdamse Filosofische Studies, III, 15-26. Eburon, Delft. Hartmut Böhme (1988), Natur und Subject. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. Main.

8. Böhler wrote thus: 'By this an immediately sympathetic concept of understanding is presupposed, as a result of which one interprets what shows itself in the senses to be related: creation understands what it beholds, namely what has been created, as the element of the sensorially associated creatura Dei.' (p 74).

9. Rolf Peter Sieferle (1989), Die Krise der menschlichen Natur. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.

10. See note 5.

11. Cf. Karl E. Rothschuh (1968), Physiologie. Karl Alber Verlag, Freiburg/Munich.

12. Cf. A. M. Luyendijk-Elshout (1982), 'Mechanisme contra vitalisme. De school van Herman Boerhaave en den beginselen van het leven'. Tijdschrift v. Gesch. Geneeskunde, Naturwetenschap, Wiskunde en techniekg 5/1, 16-26.

13. M. & D. Gersch (1977), 'Das Objekt in der biologischen Forschung'. Biologische Rundschau 15, 145-160.

14. A. Portmann (1973), 'Goethe und der Begriff der Metamorphose'. Goethe Jahrbuch 90, 11-21.

15. F. Heinemann (1934), 'Goethe's phenomenological method'. Philosophy IX, 67-81. - cf. Steiner (1884-1897) Einleitungen zu Goethes Naturwissenschaftlichen Schriften. Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach. GA 1, 1987. Translated by Olin D. Wannamaker: Goethe the Scientist, Anthroposophic Press, New York, 1950.

16. Agnes Arber (1964), The mind and the eye. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

17. Dietrich von Engelhardt wrote thus: 'The unity of past sensory attunement to Nature is relived in spirit. Without this balance between man and Nature, Man cannot attain inner balance. The form of natural science corresponds to the spiritual state of mankind, its relationship to Nature to the relationship between body and spirit'. (Historisches Bewusstsein in der Naturwissenschaft von der Aufklärung bis zum Positismus. Karl Arber Verlag, Frieburg, 114).

18. See note 11.

19. Claude Bernard (1865), Einf¨hrung in das Studium der experimentellen Medizin. 1961.

20. See note 13.

21. Bill McKibben (1989), The end of nature. Random House, New York.

22. Wouter Achterberg & Wim Zweers (Eds.), Milieucrisis & Filosofie. Westers bewustzijn en vervreemde natuur (1984), Ekologische Uitgeverij, Amsterdam. - Milieufilosofie tussen theorie en praktijk (1986). Jan van Arkel, Utrecht.

23. 'Manipulieren met normen'. Editorial Biovisie 68/18 (1988), 217.

24. Jens Reich wrote in der Zeit on 25.3.94 'Nature has been doing gene transfer and genetic manipulation for billions of years, and when we do it too, we transgress no sacred bounds.'

25. Jeremy Rifkin (1983), Algeny. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

26. So far as it concerns animal genetic engineering, this point of view is defended in: M. Linskens, W. Achterberg, H. Verhoog (1990), Het maakbare dier. Ethiek en transgene dieren. NOTA, Den Haag.

27. Paul Feyerabend (1978), Science in a free society. NLB, London.

28. Stuart A. Newman (1988), 'Idealist Biology'. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 31/3, 353-368.

29. See note 27.

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