Tag Archives: physics

New Article: “Vital Instability: Life and Free Will in Physics and Physiology, 1860–1880”

The most recent issue of Annals of Science includes an article that may be of interest to AHP reads. In “Vital Instability: Life and Free Will in Physics and Physiology, 1860–1880” Marij van Strien (left) describes efforts by nineteenth century scholars to use physics based theories to account for how the mind can influence the body. The abstract reads,

During the period 1860–1880, a number of physicists and mathematicians, including Maxwell, Stewart, Cournot and Boussinesq, used theories formulated in terms of physics to argue that the mind, the soul or a vital principle could have an impact on the body. This paper shows that what was primarily at stake for these authors was a concern about the irreducibility of life and the mind to physics, and that their theories can be regarded primarily as reactions to the law of conservation of energy, which was used among others by Helmholtz and Du Bois-Reymond as an argument against the possibility of vital and mental causes in physiology. In light of this development, Maxwell, Stewart, Cournot and Boussinesq showed that it was still possible to argue for the irreducibility of life and the mind to physics, through an appeal to instability or indeterminism in physics: if the body is an unstable or physically indeterministic system, an immaterial principle can act through triggering or directing motions in the body, without violating the laws of physics.

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Physics in the Galtonian sciences of heredity

A forthcoming article in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, now available online through advance access, tackles the influence of physics on Galtonian science. The piece, authored by Gregory Radick (left), investigates physics’s influence on three Galtonians: Francis Galton himself, as well as W. F. R. Weldon and William Bateson. Title, author, and abstract follow below.

“Physics in the Galtonian sciences of heredity,” by Gregory Radick

Physics matters less than we once thought to the making of Mendel. But it matters more than we tend to recognize to the making of Mendelism. This paper charts the variety of ways in which diverse kinds of physics impinged upon the Galtonian tradition which formed Mendelism’s matrix. The work of three Galtonians in particular is considered: Francis Galton himself, W. F. R. Weldon and William Bateson. One aim is to suggest that tracking influence from physics can bring into focus important but now little-remembered flexibilities in the Galtonian tradition. Another is to show by example why generalizations about what happens when ‘physics’ meets ‘biology’ require caution. Even for a single research tradition in Britain in the decades around 1900, these categories were large, containing multitudes.

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