Mechanism, vitalism and organicism in
late nineteenth and twentieth-century biology:
the importance of historical context
Garland E. Allen
The term mechanism has been used in two quite different ways in the history of biology.
Operative, or explanatory mechanism refers to the step-by-step description or explanation of how components in a system interact to yield a particular outcome (as in the mechanism of enzyme action or the mechanism of synaptic transmission). Philosophical Mechanism, on the other hand, refers to a broad view of organisms as material entities, functioning in ways similar to machines—that is, carrying out a variety of activities based on known chemical and physical processes. In the early twentieth century philosophical Mechanism became the foundation of a new biology that sought to establish the life sciences on the same solid and rigorous foundation as the physical sciences, including a strong emphasis on experimentation.
In the context of the times this campaign was particularly aimed at combating the reintroduction of more holistic, non-mechanical approaches into the life sciences (organicism, vitalism). In so doing, Mechanists failed to see some of the strong points of non-vitalistic holistic thinking.