This article builds on several previous essays. You will find the latest versions of all the currently available articles in this series at the website, “From Mechanism to a Science of Qualities”. By clicking on the shaded rectangles at the end of many scientific terms, you can immediately read a definition of the terms in a separate glossary window (or tab, if your browser is set that way).
For more than two centuries biologists have struggled to find an elusive pathway between the lifelessness of inanimate nature and what they feared as the supernatural, mystical, or vitalistic excess easily induced in weak, sentimental observers by an overly close, personal attention to actual living creatures.
As a convinced materialist, the biologist prefers to model the organism as nothing more than an improbably differentiated and well-crafted mass of law-abiding physical substance. (The materials in the human body, as the old saying went, have a market value of about 97 cents — before adjusting for inflation.) Such a mass, of course, is receptive to all those “mechanistic explanations” we ceaselessly encounter in the technical literature. The only problem is that, however intricately assembled, a lump of earth is not very convinci