Goethean Science – a Research Proposal
The concept of "Goethean Science" has been used in the natural sciences for over a century to indicate a philosophy and an approach to nature characterized, in the main, in the scientific writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe spent much of his life observing and describing a wide range of natural phenomena, and considered it even more important than his poetry which made him famous. His work was considered “romantic” already in his lifetime and it has been widely studied ever since, albeit overshadowed by his great literature and poetry. The proposed research focuses on those who dedicated their professional lives to Goetheanistic research in the life sciences during the twentieth century, and the evolution of that research as an interpretation of Goethe's writings. Most of these scholars owed their introduction to Goethe’s work to Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) – a philosopher who served as the first editor of Goethe's scientific work and admired his way of investigating the world. In 1914 a small group of scholars began working at the Goetheanum (Steiner's spiritual and cultural center near Basel) and later established the Goetheanum Research Laboratory as a center for Goethean Science. Other scholars discovered Goethe's science independently and through different professional venues, and developed their own holistic approaches to science (Bortoft, 1996, Goodwin, 2004).
Goethe's research was wide-ranging, and he is best known as the father of the color theory (Farbenlehre), but I would focus on his work in the life sciences- in particular, morphology (a term coined by Goethe), botany, and evolution, which were all imbued with a notion of nature as a developing entity and led to a theory of species evolution. I would describe Goethe's attitude toward the organism and his general epistemology as being mainly phenomenological (“soft empiricism,” as he put it) and one that established a clear boundary between human understanding of life and inanimate nature.
Goetheanists’ interpretation of Goethean life research is interesting for its implications for theories of evolution and the place that man has in them beside animals, and for its opposition to the prevailing theory of Neo-Darwinism. Some Goetheanists have gathered evidence supporting a theory of evolution where man stands as a central template out of which diverged other animal groups. I would like to test this evidence and to study the social and political context of this theory of evolution alongside other similar theories.
Hereafter I would like to summarize some historical background, to illustrate Goethean philosophy of science and to expand on the aims of this proposal and its questions, including a description of its methods and form.
2. The existing Literature
There is, to date, no critical historical research on Goethean Science (GS) as it developed in the twentieth century and no ordered literature on its biological aspect, though many works have been written on Goethe as a scientist. Since Goethe is considered the main inspiration for Romanticism, there are several books about scientists who have worked in this aspiration (Harrington, 1996; Richards, 2002) but they have nothing to say about GS. Few have written about what we know as GS today, but these include Henri Bortoft (1996, 2012) who has written about Goethe’s philosophy and epistemology and its application to the natural sciences, and Ronald Brady (1982, 1987, 1992) who studied the unique way of Goethe's thinking, especially in biology. Scientists who are considered Goetheanistic have published numerous books and papers—mainly in German, in two professional journals: Elemente der Naturwissenschaft since 1961, and Tycho de Brahe Jahrbuch für Goetheanismus since 1984 – and in English, in In Context (of the Nature Institute in New-York) and "Archetype" in the UK.
In this work I propose to add a historical and philosophical discussion of GS -mainly as it is perceived by those who see themselves inspired by Goethe the scientist—and as there is still very little written about the history and philosophy of GS, this work would serve as a point of reference, for Goetheanists and for researchers of the history of science alike. Part of the proposed study would be devoted to a detailed survey of the Goethean literature, and an analysis of the relationships between GS and mainstream biology. In addition, it would try to reveal the meaning of the evolution of a GS stream of research and its place in the historical context of biology.
3. Historical Background
3.1.: Goethe the Scientist
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt in 1749, and as a son of a well-regarded family studied law at the University of Strasbourg, attended lectures in anatomy and chemistry, and wrote poetry and prose. At the age of 24 he wrote his first play, and a year later, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which became a bestseller and made him famous. At the age of 26 he met the Duke Karl August, who invited him to visit his town Weimar, where he soon settled and was accepted into the duchy’s social-cultural circles. He became a personal friend of the Duke and was soon employed by him as the manager of his mines – a job that spurred him to embark on a serious study of the geology of the region. During this time he educated himself in many other fields of interest, talking to experts in life sciences, home medicine and art, all while continuing to write poetry and prose (like Faust). He was then given a garden home near the River Stern, where he cultivated a garden and learned botany. At thirty, he was appointed head of the Road and Military Committee, and two years later established a free school for the arts, where he lectured about anatomy in the service of art. In 1784, at the age of 34, he published his first scientific paper – “On Granite” – and an essay on his first important discovery in human morphology, concerning “the inter-maxillary bone in the upper jaw, as in animals.”
In September 1786, at the age of 37, after ten years of serving the Duke, Goethe suddenly left Weimar for Italy. He wrote about his intense experiences there in letters to his friends, and two years later returned to Germany, full of plans and impressions that later were published in the book The Journey to Italy, with many details about plants, rocks, archeology, meteorology and physics. Returning to Germany, he decided to work seriously in nature research and settled in Jena, where he was charged with managing the collections of Jena University and the planning of the city gardens. In the following years he made hundreds of scientific observations, wrote and published articles (e.g. on the metamorphosis of plants), and conducted a detailed study of the optics of color, as evident from the Annalen (year summary) of 1790.
Goethe knew and worked with many of his contemporary scientists, such as the natural philosopher Friedrich Schelling who deeply influenced his thinking; Johan Ritter, who discovered the links between electricity and magnetism, and chemical colors (many of his experimenting was with Goethe); and writers and thinkers such as Friedrich Schiller, whose influence on Goethe's writings was evident not only in his prose but also in his scientific epistemology and writings in the last decade of the century. He considered himself as a classic man of science who observed his objects of research without bias, not disturbed by his personal intentions, though always attentive to the aesthetics and the ideal spirit one can find in nature. Harrington (1996) recognized Goethe as the founder of romantic and holistic science that evolved in Germany in reaction to the mechanical approach to the life sciences. In his later years, however, Goethe himself did not like being linked to Romantic scholars, and even mocked them (Richards, 2002, p.431; Schad, 2002). He claimed that those who had been swept by romanticism or theism when young, became too materialistic as scientists later on, while he himself tried always to keep his “soft empiricism” rooted in the phenomena and mildly wreathed with a sane idealism. He was a well-known poet and writer and did not aspire for big discoveries, and so his scientific work was treated with skepticism, and usually not taken seriously.
3.2.: Goethe’s Scientific Philosophy
Goethe tried to apply a scientific method contrary to the line of thought arising from Galileo’s notion of “primary qualities.” He could not accept that some qualities (those that are measurable) are somehow more important than “subjective” ones (such as color) – as though the latter were not truly the properties of the object but of the subject experiencing it. The sharp distinction between object and subject had reached a culmination in the philosophy of René Descartes (Meditations, 1641), whereby man stood as a subject against the world, which served as the foundation of all scientific endeavor. Goethe disagreed with this, and also rejected the influence of two main cultural perspectives: Neo-Platonism and Atomism.
Neo-Platonism valued mathematical ideals over impressions of the senses – an approach Goethe found totally unacceptable. He wanted to bring back the importance of pure observation in addition to measurements and mathematics that were already dominant in his time. He also opposed the Greek Atomism that had been rediscovered in Europe in the fifteenth century and was slowly taking over scientific thinking, imbuing natural sciences with particle-based theories. The breakdown of the world into atoms (and then species, genes etc.) was alien to him, and he advocated a view that includes all qualities of the phenomenon in a purely objective mindset, one which would exclude the subject’s self-delusions and hypotheses and let the object speak for itself (Holdrege, 2013; Bortoft, 2012; Brady, 1998).
Moreover, Goethe always strived to capture the constituents in the context of the whole. He tried to remain conscious of the general picture while studying the details, and demanded the primacy of the theory of the whole, as opposed to the construction of a theory based on a single crucial experiment. He declared Newton was wrong in drawing general conclusions about color based on the individual case of white light dispersion through a prism (Goethe, 1830). This is why GS is considered holistic.
Goethe's research on living forms was driven by a view of the organism as a whole, while trying to suppress the human need for an explanation. He argued that generalizations such as the assertion of a general biological law based on certain phenomena are too theoretical and do not allow for a real understanding of the organism:
[…] The bull has horns to defend itself with […] but the question why is not scientific at all. We fare a little better with the question how, for if I ask the question “How does the bull have horns?” I am immediately led to the observation of his organization…" (Eckermann, 1850).
Goethe thus theorized out of the qualities of the organism and its characteristics, rather from experiments that are designed to prove the scientist's hypothesis.
In studying the organism, Goethe adopted the teleological approach of Immanuel Kant who argued (in Critiques of Logical Judgment) that life sciences need a different epistemology from that of physics, one that searches for a natural goal (Harrington, 1996). Goethe claimed we need to search for the Typus – the essence of the organism – which constructs its movement in time and space and creates all its organs out of its original idea, through metamorphosis (Goethe, 1790; Steiner, 1888). He searched for the unifying principle, the creative idea, in groups with a common form template (e.g. vertebrates), that dynamically builds endless forms in different organisms. Bortoft (2012) explains that Goethe always looked for the original idealistic form, the forces that act at the basis of phenomena and cause changes, while searching to define the Ur-Phenomenon as the archetypal form of every appearance (Harrington, 1996; Holdrege, 2013; Richards, 2002). Observing many plant forms and the changes of the leaves along the stem, converting to petals and then to stamens and pistils (e.g. as in Nymphaea spp.), Goethe found that all organs of the flowering plant are actually metamorphosed leaves. He therefore named the leaf as the archetypal form – the Proteus – after the Greek god who used to always change his appearance. On discovering that, he excitedly wrote from Naples to his friend Johann G. Herder that he had found the UrPflantz as an archetypal plan of all plants by which all plant organs were constructed (Goethe, 1790).
Other aspects of Goethe's scientific thinking:
– A striving to a unified experience of sense and thought, so that consciousness would be grounded in sense impressions, and the explanation for the appearances would emerge naturally from the underlying idea.
– An attempt to understand relationships in the world phenomena as expressions of creative natural forces, not as a finality and purpose, nor as causality or mechanism.
– Goethe did not deny any side of natural phenomena, idealistic and spiritual as materialistic and physical. Both are intertwined and can be perceived by the senses that have to be practiced for it.
– A scientist must go through a process of dynamic development of his consciousness, since the nature of the object he studies is dynamic and evolving as well.
3.3.: Goethe's Contribution to the Philosophy of Science and to Biology
The holistic view of the organism and the focus on observing natural phenomena directly rather than on the theories and explanations for them, were Goethe's main characteristics. Goethe appealed to the senses, but not in the usual way of the empiricist searching for evidence for his theory, but by concentrating on the sensual perception itself and by trying to escape verbal communication and to enter a mode of intuitive observation (Bortoft, 2012). His intention in the observation was to get to the source and essence behind the appearances, so that when, for example, he was observing the leaves of the plant in their emergent order, he was grasping the principle of movement that had created them in an ideal, archetypal plant.
In his first essay on morphology (1795) after a long discussion with the brothers Wilhelm & Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe defined the concept of Bildungstreib as the inner essence that constructs the organism appearance. He used this concept also to describe the different phenotypic details of a group of species in a genus, as he tried to trace the ideal origin of all animal forms, which could encompass both vertebrae and insects in the same group (Richards, 2002). (This idea was recently proved correct with the discovery of the same hox genetic sequences in both groups (Filler, 2007; Sean, 2005). However, already in his time, Goethe's idea of the dynamic archetype was taken too literally by scholars, who attempted to depict or find it in fossils or in live organisms as “an ideal that all species strive for,” in the words of Friedrich Schelling, Goethe’s disciple and colleague (Richards, 2002, 305). Brady (1987) explains that many scholars, such as Lorenz Oken, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and even Charles Darwin did not fully appreciate the Goethean idea of the archetypal organ, and argued for homologies that sprang from a resemblance to a hypothesized original organ, or from a technical generalization of the organ’s place in the skeleton. Richard Owen (1849) took the archetypal idea literally, by drawing the apparently typical vertebra as a reduction to the simplest common denominator, and thereby turned the dynamic into something static, a live idea into a dead skeleton. Perhaps because of such solidifications, the Goethean idea of the dynamic archetype did not develop in morphology science as a mental image that can explain different organismic forms. Darwin's theory of evolution ignored this idea, as did Owen's, by turning only to the evidence in fossils and in live organisms (Brady, 1987; Riegner, 2013).
Robert Richards (2002) claims that Goethe was a capacious empiricist whose “theoretical conclusions were immediately adopted by his contemporaries [and] pumped swiftly moving ideas into a major tributary of biological thought […] attested to several authorities of that period” (p. 434). William Whewell joined Herman von Helmholtz in adopting Goethe’s botanical conclusions, and his ideas about animals were researched by Lorenz Oken, Johan Meckel, Johan Spix and mostly by Georges Cuvier. According to Richards (2002, p. 435) they served as a foundation for Darwinism and helped facilitate its rapid acceptance in Germany in the late nineteenth century, especially by Ernst Haeckel. However, it seems that the materialistic attitude that had strongly permeated through European culture by the end of Goethe's life, left holistic non-material ideas and the direct experience of nature – the underpinnings of his work – outside mainstream biology. His friend Carl Gustav Carus, the physiologist and painter, was perhaps the only person to understand Goethe's disappointment and sorrow when observing the directions that his contemporaries had taken – some too idealistic, some too materialistic (Schad, 2002). At the end of the nineteenth century, Rudolf Steiner understood that, despite the growing materialism in science (and the advancement of research in physics which influenced biology a great deal) life sciences cannot develop properly without any reference to the non-materialistic characteristics of the organism – and this, in turn, sparked the emergence of Goethean science in the twentieth century.
3.4.: The Goetheanismus in the twentieth century
Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was a young and brilliant philosopher whose talents, already at the age of 25, were appreciated by Karl Julius Schröer, who recommended him to Joseph Kürschner, the publisher of Goethe's writings, to edit Goethe's scientific writings in Weimar. These were eventually published as Goethes Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften, Einleitungen in four volumes, fifty years after Goethe's death, between 1883 and 1897. Steiner's forewords were later published separately as a book titled Goethean Science (1888) and became the epistemological foundation on which Goetheanistic researchers have based their work ever since. Wolfgang Schad (2002) studied the concept of Goetheanism and described its development in Steiner’s writings and in general. Steiner’s first use of the word Goetheanismus was in an essay in 1884 in answer to the question “How can the characteristics of natural law and humanity be reconciled with each other?” Goetheanism therefore has a mediating role on the boundary between the understanding of nature and the capacity for culture" (Schad 2002, p. 5). Goethe's scientific approach was a source of inspiration for Steiner when constructing a new epistemology for human cognition. He would later become a well-known lecturer and writer in his own right in the early twentieth century, developing a body of knowledge on the human being and its place in nature called Anthroposophy, and he had always cited Goethe as the source of his knowledge and inspiration.
Some of the scholars and intellectuals who attended Rudolf Steiner's lectures were people who were trained academically in natural sciences, but were probably challenged and concerned by the “morphology revolution” of the late nineteenth century in Germany – namely, the shift in interest from the plain observation of nature to lab experiments, as described by Harwood (1993). The fragmentation of natural sciences and the growth of experts, the apparent growing disrespect of nature, and the emergence of knowledge built exclusively on the results of experiments, worried some leading biologists (such as Hermann Helmholtz and the zoologist Ernst Hertwig), and led some such as Julius Schaxel (in 1919, at the peak of Steiner's work) to criticize: “Biology is in crisis because it has turned into a theoretical patchwork, a labyrinth of opinions and a playground for undisciplined speculation” (Harwood, 1993, p. 27). While the Americans were forging ahead in cytology and Mendelian research, in Germany they squabbled over the function of the chromosome (e.g. Richard Goldschmidt versus Hermann Stieve). Apparently there were scholars who did not want to let go of the romantic-idealist view of nature and the organism, and were attracted to philosophers such as Steiner, who combined scientific knowledge and humanistic views. Some of his listeners asked his thoughts on likely avenues of research in nature, and he gave a few lecture courses on that theme.
Steiner dubbed the cultural center that he designed and constructed near Basel the Goetheanum, and in it he established a school that would concentrate on natural science research, where scientists have worked, studied, published and taught since 1914. My preliminary study shows that in the early days of research at the Glashous Steiner provided possible avenues of enquiry and ideas, and was frequently consulted about new methods and tools. I would like to argue that in these years the first Goetheanistic researchers at the Goetheanum somewhat circumscribed GS, mainly because they were held back from delving into the materialistic and reductionist mainstream science that borrowed tools from physics into biology investigation.
After Steiner's death in 1925, he left a huge amount of writings and lectures to be studied further, and a new generation of researchers entered the Glashous , who were more academically trained, but still oriented toward holism and non-materialism. They joined in the search for knowledge in practical subjects, such as finding a way to quality investigation through the use of sensitive crystallization (later used to diagnose cancer, started by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer) and developing a sensitive gas flame instrument (the “superstroboscope”) for detecting various sounds (by Paul Eugen Schiller) (Kuhl, 2015). Research at the Goetheanum continued after World War II and suffered some setbacks. As Johannes Kuhl explains, “people were looking for experiments and effects that the science of that time could not explain, in order to ‛prove’ the influence of the etheric. This could not succeed.” Research also started in the UK (such as that of Lily Kolisko, who had left Germany before the war), continuing the development of a holistic way of science with an Anthroposophical bent in many areas, particularly biology. Describing this development is another of the chief aims in this proposed study.
The one who directed the research and teaching of the Glashous in the years 1970–96 was Jochen Bockemühl, a brilliant and decisive botanist with a PhD. (from ?). Bockemühl headed a meticulous study into Goethe's theory of metamorphosis (Goethe, 1790), and made detailed morphological comparisons of many plant species. He developed a theory of the evolvement of the leaf form along the stem, and deciphered causes for morphological differences between plants of the same species in different growth conditions or among different species in the same area (Bockemühl & Sombart, 1992). A dedicated nature lover, he founded a new journal for GS, and directed researchers who worked and taught graduate students at the Glashous, while publishing many articles in Goetheanistic journals.
In reviewing the history of GS, I argue that although there might have been many scientists who ostensibly followed Goethe's teachings in what is called “Romantic Science,” it was Steiner who revived Goethe’s scientific teaching, gave it a new meaning and the prior evaluated meaning that it lacked, and declared that man and life could be studied by recognizing faculties that comprise man and the whole of nature other than the materialistic alone. Today, a century after the establishment of the Goetheanum research institute, there are researchers in the world who work Goetheanistically, in direct contact with the Glashous and also in main-stream academy, blurring the boundaries, as it were, between GS and mainstream science. One of the signs of this phenomenon, which I propose to examine, is publication in journals other than those of the Goetheanum.
4. Research Goals
I propose to study the works of Goetheanists during the twentieth century, to assess how they relate to the scientific methods applied by Goethe himself, compared with the epistemology developed by Rudolf Steiner as the leading interpreter of Goethe the scientist. The aim is to provide a summary what is known today as Goethean Science (GS) and to portray all those involved, with all their social and political interactions and interactions with mainstream science. Considering the social motives of Goetheanist researchers is important for the critical evaluation of their work, and may illuminate the relationships between biological research and socio-political evolution in general in the twentieth century. GS has offered alternative views on essential biological questions such as the origin of life, evolution and the history of man in nature (see discussion), and its advocates considered the scientist’s moral stance and conscious development to be important, but rarely wrote about it. Of particular interest would be the influence of GS on alternative biological theories (such as James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, or Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of Morphic Resonance) and to examine Goetheanistic activity in German culture in the interwar period and since. Since GS emerged in Germany and has since branched out to Britain and the United States—particularly after the rise of the Nazi Party to power—one aim of this research is to compare GS in Germany and abroad, and to analyze their working links and collaboration.
5. Research Questions
a. How did Goethean Science philosophy evolved historically and who were the scientists who developed it after Goethe?
b. What is similar and what is different between mainstream biology and GS and Is, or was there, a boundary between GS and mainstream life sciences?
c. Is it possible to define a Goethean evolution theory, and judge its evidence?
d. How can we judge the Goetheanistic approach to biological autonomy, and is it different from mainstream theories?
e. Is there any contribution of Goethean philosophy to mainstream life science?
5.1. Considering the contribution of a biological GS
When Rudolf Steiner edited the scientific writings of Goethe in the end of the nineteenth century, biological knowledge was very limited—indeed, in Goethe’s time, words such as scientist and biology were still not in use, and basic concepts of modern secondary school science had not yet been conceived. Darwinism developed during the twentieth century along with molecular biology and biochemistry, amassing knowledge in genetics and other fields that enabled the synthesis of genetics and evolutionary science into what is called today neo-Darwinism. In parallel with this, Goethean scientists worked in different ways in biology with a focus mainly on morphology, organism and environments and their inner relationships, while considering the scientist's position. Indeed they were thrilled by ideas that emerged from Steiner's spiritual science and mostly conveyed a non-materialistic approach, but in their scientific research and in their search for a holistic view of the organism and their rejection of scientific reduction, they were not alone. It may be enlightening, therefore, to survey Goetheanistic contribution to other biological views by comparing it with other seekers of a more holistic way of biology than molecular biology. Scientists such as Conrad Waddington who inspired the Goetheanist Brian Goodwin, Cyril Darlington, Richard Goldschmidt and Kurt Goldstein. There have also been mainstream scientists such as Lynn Margulis who proposed alternative theories and persisted on founding them, and it would be educative to study their relationships to GS theories. I want to describe them shortly:
Goldschmidt started his career in Germany in the early twentieth century, and managed to establish himself as a serious geneticist when genetics just started there, but as a Jew he was forced to leave to the United States in 1935. He became known for his original ideas about the unification of evolution, genetics and embryology already in the 1940s. In an attempt to understand the gaps between fossil groups, he was convinced that one cannot explain the jumps between groups in Darwinist terms (i.e., through accumulating small mutations), and that one must search for a large and rare mutations of macro-evolution. Because of this, he was considered a heretic and banished from the scientific community in the 1950s, although today the good monster idea (so called because a large mutation usually causes death) is accepted and there are many who support a fundamental difference between macro and micro evolution, like the Goetheanists, who allegedly adopted this idea mainly because it was anti-Darwinist.
Darlington (1903–81) who chose to study the chromosome, was a determinist who persistently distinguished between science and values, and expressed his Zeitgeist by adhering to scientific evidence (albeit while torn inwardly) and rejecting any connection to social or moral values, and in that regard was totally different from any Goetheanist. But like them, he aspired to a more holistic view of nature by watching how the concepts of the gene and the genetic code has taken over the chromosomes since the discovery of DNA in 1953 (Harman, 2004).
Kurt Goldstein (1939) (cousin of Ernst Cassirer, who established the Marburg school for the research of neo-Kantian transcendental phenomenology, and was a great admirer of Goethe) has conceived a holistic view of the organism similar to that of Goetheanists from his research on soldiers injured in battle, and his understanding of the human being as a whole in body and spirit. He saw how the flexible human mind can compensate for a loss of some sensibility or mobility, and concluded that an organism can compensate for loses and change its environment (Harrington, 1996). He sought to rehabilitate German medicine of the 1920s and ‘30s, by challenging Cartesian duality and conceiving a Gestalt of creative sight (a Goethean "Schau”) that would support a specific cure of every man. However, although he derived a great deal from Goethe, he may have been prone to academic judgment and therefore did not develop Goethean ideas such as metamorphosis or the dynamic archetype as Goetheanists did (Holdrege, 1999). Other scientists that Ann Harrington describes (1996) were either too idealistic (such as Jakob von Uexküll, who developed the Umwelt concept for the organism in its environment), or too detached from nature (such as psychologist Max Wertheimer, who contributed to the understanding of the Gestalt concept) to warrant comparison with true Goetheanists.
Lynn Margulis was the first to develop the idea of species evolution through symbiosis and organism cooperation, and managed to prove that cell organelles (mitochondria, chloroplasts) may have been prokaryotes that joined an eukaryotic cell. The idea of a species development that is based on cooperation runs counter to the idea of “survival of the fittest” and was therefore aggressively rejected, although it has since become common in all textbooks (Margulis, 1999, 2000). Margulis collaborated with Lovelock in constructing the Gaia theory, claiming that “the biosphere as an active and adaptive system can preserve earth in homeostasis” (Lovelock & Margulis, 1974), and was a tireless rebel who dared to bring up ideas about nature even if these were against the prevailing paradigm. In this regard, she is like Goetheanist researchers, and indeed her ideas have been adopted by some of them (Schad, 2009) who studied evolution, and it would be interesting to reveal their mutual relationships.
Goetheanists rejected the research that led the mechanistic-reductionist biology of the twentieth century (despite the latter’s great achievements, especially after the discovery of the DNA structure and the genetic code). With the dawn of the twenty first century, they have begun to attract support from research programs (such as the Human Genome) that have failed to meet expectations (Lewontin, 1995; Woese, 2004) and from new theories that have broadened the picture (Jablonka & Lamb, 2008; Lamm, 2012). Based on this support, they have created, among other programs, a discussion forum dedicated to genetic engineering and its consequences, from a Goethean—i.e., non-materialistic and holistic—approach (Heaf & Wirz, 2002). This initiative is motivated by a deep concern for nature and the future of agriculture, and has produced an alternative view that is worth considering (see also http://natureinstitute.org/gene/index.htm).
Goethean life science appears to be specifically more related to the concept of the organism than the theory of Systems Biology (SB). The first to discuss the idea that thermodynamics cannot rule in open systems such as organisms was Ludwig von Bertalanffy, but official study of SB began after its presentation by Mihajlo Mesarovic in 1966. In the philosophy of biology, for example, James Griesemer (2000, p. 350) argues for a developmental system theory that is modeled on the entire organism, rather than on the primacy of genes alone. This theory emphasizes all the resources needed for the developing organism in addition to genes (such as the egg cytoplasm) and views the whole organism as a multiplicating unit (as opposed to a replicating one). This is a broadening of the accepted 1980s biological paradigm that was mainly molecular and which sought explanations in the gene-pool of the organism or species.
Since that time, biological research has expanded are great deal, other perspectives have been added and—
Biology today is no more fully understood in principle than physics was a century or so ago. In both cases the guiding vision has (or had) reached its end, and in both, a new, deeper, more invigorating representation of reality is (or was) called for (Woese, 2004, 173).
This appears to encourage Goethean scientists, who have been claiming much the same thing (Schad 1977). Research on emergent properties in biological systems also leans toward a more holistic view in line with the Goetheanistic approach. Peter Corning (2013) has put forward a synergism theory as a causative explanation that is holistic and systemic to the development of systems in nature throughout evolution, although it may be too general and not phenomenological enough for Goethean scientists. I would need to make a thorough comparison between GS and the holistically-oriented avenues of research in SB (see also Rosslebroich, 2011).
More holistic approaches have become important in biology since the year 2000—as evident in notions of the entire genome serving as the cell manager, as opposed to separated genes (Lamm, 2012), and epigenetics (i.e., how genes are read) as a complementary explanation of heredity to that of simple DNA mutations (Jablonka & Lamb, 2005). It would be interesting to see how these compared with Goetheanistic approaches. These new approaches consider molecular evidence in biology (DNA and proteins) secondary only to whole organisms, while the concept of “systems biology” is alien to them as it appears somewhat technological. The consideration of teleological factors is another Goethean feature no longer found in the philosophy of biology—although, as previously noted, it did appear in Kant's life epistemology which Goethe drew on a great deal (Richards, 2002, 445).
5.2. Considering evolution in GS
In his book Man and Mammal (1977), Wolfgang Schad, one of the leading Goethean scientists, presents a morphological approach that maps the mammalian orders according to their resemblance to one of three body systems of man: head (neural and sense system) at one end, digestion and limbs at the other, and the respiratory and blood system as a intermediary in the middle. This hypothesis was taken up by Steiner and studied for phenomenological evidence by Goetheanists headed by Schad, who has argued that Mammalia may thus be divided into Rodentia (neural system), Ungulata (digestion and limbs) and Carnivora (blood and respiratory system). Already in this relatively simple comparison, Schad has adopted an evolutionary approach that demonstrates how the human being serves as a neotenic Gestalt (see below), out of which the different types of mammals diverge.
Schad (2009) wrote about symbiosis as a moving force in evolution, criticizing the empirical scarcity of Darwin's evolution theory, its anthropomorphism and its connectedness to social-political issues. He argued that according to new evidence, the creation of new species through the geological eras (macro-evolution) was mainly a consequence of cooperation, symbiosis and genome unifications, while variability within the species (micro-evolution) was probably the engine and outcome of natural selection, and that we should choose which approach to use in each case. He quotes Darwin who wrote to Charles Lyle that “If I could commence de novo, I would have used the term ‘natural preservation’ instead of ‘natural selection’”, which implies a conscious subject, after been criticized for the political connotations of his language, which was adopted from Thomas Malthus's and Herbert Spencer's economic theories. According to Schad, the use of militaristic expressions in biology has deepened since the evolution of social Darwinism, and it should be changed to be more neutral and non-anthropomorphic ones. These calls are heard not only from Gotheanists and have persisted for a hundred years or thereabouts, and it is relevant to trace their development and why they have not been adopted in mainstream science, and to decipher their social-political relationships.
Another issue dealt by Schad is man's Neoteny as a basis for a theory of the evolution of mankind—an approach raised earlier (Poppelbaum, 1931) and still being researched (Verhulst, 2003). This argues that the human body is a template for the development of form of other organisms, and is therefore not situated at the apex of evolution after allegedly surviving and developing from lower unsuccessful forms. This idea is based on the observation (made already by Goethe) that man's organ forms are Neotenic—i.e., retarded—and have not reached their full adaptation to a specific environment, as in the case with other animals (Verhulst, 2003). This has been suggested by others before, such as Karl Snell and Louis Bolk. Gould (1977) has also mentioned Neoteny as an important evolutionary factor, and has described Bolk's theory, mainly as a means for discerning the difference between an individual that keeps young properties and the rate of phylogenetic evolution (heterochrony). However it seems that Goetheanists were the first to adapt a more general theory that explains the entire evolution tree through Neoteny, and that man is the most laggardly in adapting to a specific ecological niche. In this regard, they have claimed, the human form remains a basic platform from which other species developed. Goetheanists wrote about this throughout the twentieth century and have tried to bring evidence to validate this theory, while doubting the Darwinian view that adheres to the notion of mainly random mutations and the survival of the fittest through natural selection. This school of thought has developed mainly in Germany, its philosophy based on Goethean epistemology, and bringing more evidence for its evaluation. Jos Verhulst (1994, 1996, 1999, 2003), a Belgian researcher who has taught Goethean biology, found human Neoteny to be the main reason for man’s autonomy, not specifically adapted to any environmental condition. In his book (2003) he has described most of the scientists supporting this theory, and has brought hundreds of examples of evidence from morphology showing the retardation of man's organs.
5.3. Considering the evolution of autonomy
The subject of human environmental independence and the growth of autonomy throughout species and order evolution has been mentioned in Goetheanist research and impressively summed up in The Origin of Autonomy by Bernd Rosslenbroich (2014), a professor of morphology and evolution and head of Department of Evolution at Witten-Herdeke University in Germany. He discusses evolution through the autonomy perspective that each order of organisms has developed. Level of autonomy is observable and measurable, and has been used in comparisons to provide evolution a better phenomenological context. “An understanding of what large scale evolution has generated will be an essential piece of the jigsaw puzzle, which the new evolutionary biology has to put together” wrote Rosslenbroich in his introduction, “and how can we understand evolution if we don't even know what it produced?” This book is an organized collection of observations, suggesting a panoramic view of evolution in plants and animals, and needs a critical review to evaluate its meaning and importance, in terms of whether it has Goethean origins and if it can support a broader view of the origin of species. It therefore makes the Goethean approach to evolution worth studying and evaluating in the context of the history and philosophy of biology, which is what I propose here.
6. Research contribution
I would like to examine whether the Goethean biological research can contribute to the philosophy of biology, and whether its historical development can teach us something about scientific approach to life. To do this I would have to refer to Goethe’s scientific epistemology , with its unique understanding of the organism that was translated by Rudolf Steiner and his successors into a holistic way of biological research. Moreover, if a theory of evolution that is based empirically and sets a high bar of anti-anthropomorphic unbiased pedantry has been developed in parallel with neo-Darwinism, it is important to study it critically, even if many biologists have chosen to overlook it in favor of molecular biology and a search for genetic causes of life-forms and phenotypes. The Goethean approach may broaden the existing biological paradigm.
The philosopher of science Evelin Fox-Keller, who is an expert on the relationships between physics and biology, argues (2003) that it is difficult or even impossible to decipher the answer to the question “What is life?” and to get good explanations for it, because of our cognitive limitations and the huge complexity of needs these explanations should answer:
A process can be perfectly rational and in total consonance with the laws of physics and chemistry and still not make sense to us, whether because of the finite capacities of our minds or because our current criteria for making sense (p. 297).
After a extensive research into biological explanations, Fox-Keller wrote that the need for explanation is exclusive to humans, and we cannot be sure it is possible to understand an organism. Goetheanists have at least made an important step toward this goal, in that they do not disqualify any kind of evidence, scientific observation and non-materialistic ideas. The study of their contribution to biology may advance us in the direction set by Fox-Keller. My proposed study would examine these alternative views in genetics and evolution in the context of history, since there now appear to be more scientists who consider the Goethean phenomenological foundation as an important tool for completing the modern picture of biology (e.g.Filler, 2007; Riegner, 2013; Sassoon, 2011).
7. Research Method
The proposed work would primarily use the following tools:
– Investigating original texts of Goethe that are to do with biology, morphology and evolution
– Interviews with Goetheanists who work in biological research and teachers inspired by Goethean biology
– Investigating the writings of those who discussed the philosophy and epistemology of Goethean biological science, including translation from German to English of important texts
– A comparison of approaches to evolution theories of leading Goetheanists with mainstream evolution theory portrayed today in general
– Collecting biographical material from private and public archives in Germany and England for the completion of cultural, social and political picture of important Goetheanists
These materials will serve to construct a historical narrative of GS in biology and evolution.
8. Dissertation Structure
In this research I would try to combine leading biographies with the historical story of the philosophy of GS in biology. I would like to gather important valuable information on those who have led biological research at the Goetheanum research institute, and others who have lead the research in the UK (such as the philosopher and physicist Henri Bortoft, and biologist Brian Goodwin), and in the United States (e.g. Craig Holdrege). I would seek to combine critical description of their work with their biographies in a manner that would enable a historical-social view of the knowledge they have developed. In this I would like to stay loyal to a true phenomenological Goethean description that would be authentic, accountable and true to the real phenomena of GS, as much as Goethe would have wanted it to be done.
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