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The Structure-Function Relationship in the Advent of Biology


In the constitution of biology, organized and inorganic bodies could not differ only in composition and structural ordering. Organized bodies would depend on “a creative power subject to laws of organic planning, of harmony […], and this is what makes the organism distinctive” (Müller JP, Manuel de physiologie. J.-B. Baillière, 1851: I, 16). This distinctive nature would involve an “economy” of vegetal and animal functions, even if explanations tended to be limited to analyzing physicochemical processes underpinning functions. With the advent of cell theory, “the complex phenomena of life [were] considered by physiology as boiling down to the combined activity of innumerable cells, subordinated and associated so as to form higher-order vital units” (Hertwig O, Éléments d’anatomie et de physiologie générale. C. Naud, 1903 [1898]). This analytic reductionism occasioned an apparent marginalization of explanations bearing on the functional raison d’être of organic systems. However, even in highly reductionist contexts, such as investigations of protoplasmic formations (for instance, by Brücke and Verworn) or developmental mechanics (for instance, by His, Roux, or Chabry), there subsisted a latent appeal to analogies with global functions for interpreting the more elementary phenomena. Wilson (The cell in development and heredity (3rd ed.). Macmillan, 1925 [1896]) would thus state: “every animal represents a sum of vital units each bearing in itself the complete features of life.” Why, in that historical phase of biology, did the analysis of elementary physiological mechanisms require such a functional principle?


Duchesneau, F. (2023). The structure-function relationship in the advent of biology. Dans J. Gayon, A. De Ricqlès et A. C. Dussault (dir.), Functions: From organisms to artefacts (vol. 32, p. 19-32). Cham : Springer International Publishing.

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