Article ID: CBB001214224

The Conquest of Vitalism or the Eclipse of Organicism? The 1930s Cambridge Organizer Project and the Social Network of Mid-Twentieth-Century Biology (2014)


In the 1930s, two concepts excited the European biological community: the organizer phenomenon and organicism. This essay examines the history of and connection between these two phenomena in order to address the conventional `rise-and-fall' narrative that historians have assigned to each. Scholars promoted the `rise-and-fall' narrative in connection with a broader account of the devitalizing of biology through the twentieth century. I argue that while limited evidence exists for the `fall of the organizer concept' by the 1950s, the organicism that often motivated the organizer work had no concomitant fall -- even during the mid-century heyday of molecular biology. My argument is based on an examination of shifting social networks of life scientists from the 1920s to the 1970s, many of whom attended or corresponded with members of the Cambridge Theoretical Biology Club (1932--1938). I conclude that the status and cohesion of these social networks at the micro scale was at least as important as macro-scale conceptual factors in determining the relative persuasiveness of organicist philosophy.

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Authors & Contributors
Wolfe, Charles T.
Cheung, Tobias
Allen, Garland E.
Donohue, Christopher R.
Chen, Bohang
García Lozano, José Antonio
Journal of the History of Biology
Science in Context
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Llull: Revista de la Sociedad Española de Historia de las Ciencias y de las Técnicas
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Springer Nature
Cortina Editore
Springer International
HIgh Sierra Books
Mechanism; mechanical philosophy
Stahl, Georg Ernst
Spemann, Hans
Driesch, Hans Adolf Eduard
Wilson, Edward Osborne
Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken
Whitehead, Alfred North
Time Periods
20th century, early
18th century
20th century
19th century
17th century
21st century
Oxford (England)
Basel (Switzerland)
London (England)
Cambridge (England)
Université de Montpellier
Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Md.)
Harvard University

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