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January 2017
352 pages  
14 b&w illustrations
6 x 9
9780822944669
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The Life Organic
The Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics
Peterson, Erik
This book tells the forgotten story of the pursuit of a Third Way in biology, known by many names, including “the organic philosophy”—including the scientists who defined and refined it and its persistence into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It considers the creation of the subfield of epigenetics, a product of Third Way thinking, rooted among a group of scholars known as the Theoretical Biology Club. And it raises significant questions about how we should model the development of the discipline of biology.

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Listen to Matthew Crawford's interview (podcast) about The Andean Wonder Drug on the New Books Network web site (scroll to the bottom of the NBN page for the interview link)
Erik L. Peterson is assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama.
The Life Organic is a monumental tour through the history of the organic philosophy—the belief that phenomena of life exhibit higher-order modes of organization rather than simply being the sum of their parts. An outstanding book that will easily become the classic source on organicism and epigenesis.” —Marsha Richmond, Wayne State University

“This book has undertaken an ambitious and far-reaching survey of debates among vitalists, mechanists, and organicists from the nineteenth through the twentieth century—a formidable task, but one that will be of interest to many scholars in the history and philosophy of biology, and within biology itself.” —Michael R. Dietrich, Dartmouth College

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As scientists debated the nature of life in the nineteenth century, two theories predominated: vitalism, which suggested that living things contained a “vital spark,” and mechanism, the idea that animals and humans differed from nonliving things only in their degree of complexity. Erik Peterson tells the forgotten story of the pursuit of a Third Way in biology, known by many names, including “the organic philosophy,” which gave rise to C. H. Waddington’s work in the subfield of epigenetics: an alternative to standard genetics and evolutionary biology that captured the attention of notable scientists from Francis Crick to Stephen Jay Gould. The Life Organic chronicles the influential biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, and biochemists from both sides of the Atlantic who formed Joseph Needham’s Theoretical Biology Club, defined and refined Third-Way thinking through the 1930s, and laid the groundwork for some of the most cutting-edge achievements in biology today. By tracing the persistence of organicism into the twenty-first century, this book also raises significant questions about how we should model the development of the discipline of biology going forward.
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