1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Events

Formalizing purpose? On the pas de deux between formal and final cause through the history of biology

Workshop   30.11.1999






  • Ronald Amundson (University of Hawaii)
  • David Depew (University of Iowa)
  • li>Phillippe Huneman (IHPT, CNRS / Université Paris 1 Sorbonne
  • Lenny Moss (University of Exeter)
  • Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter)
  • John Zammito (Rice University)

Organised by

Egenis, University of Exeter


XFI Building, Room 2/G23 University of Exeter

Event details

From its Aristotelian roots, biology understood organisms as “Bios” or forms of life, whose forms were inseparable from their drive to sustain their own existence (their finality) and so capable of responding adaptively (within limits) to environmental challenges. Organisms were understood by Aristotle as ‘primary substances’ or substantial forms in which ‘formal’ and ‘final’ causes were inseparably fused together. As is well known, after the scientific revolution of the 17th century the immanence of finality, or purposiveness, in nature became problematic but the separation of formal from final (or functional) concerns also opened up new possibility spaces for biological conceptualizing and theorizing, beginning perhaps with Linnaeus’s attempt to categorize all of life on a purely formal basis. But the extent to which formal and final cause (or function) could be properly separated was by no means a matter of general agreement and indeed the most vociferous debates within biology over the last several centuries can be understood as turning on exactly this pivot (e.g., Linnaeus vs. Buffon, Cuvier vs. Geoffroy, Preformationism vs. Epigenesis, mechanism vs. vitalism). In the midst of the current move from genomics to ‘systems biology’ and the growing challenge to the population-genetic based evolutionary ‘Modern Synthesis’ by an Evolutionary-Developmental (Evo-Devo) synthesis, basic questions about the relationship of formal models and mechanisms to the finality of the living organism are more than ripe for rethinking and recontextualizing. In assembling a world-class roster of scholars with expertise in exactly these issues, the conference will explore the following two premises and their implications for the contemporary problematics of the life sciences:

Whether by way of a creator-craftsmen, neo-Kantian regulative principles, vital forces, or the invisible hand of natural selection, all biological theorizing must orient itself in some way to the apparent finality or ‘natural purposiveness’ of bios.The history of modern biology, from the 18th century to the present, can be systematically reconstructed on the basis of the extent to which formal and final cause is separated and the extent to which this separation affords an unfolding of an independent logic of form. Conference papers and discussions will approach these premises both historically and critically as well as use them as a point of departure for exploring and explicating the underlying assumptions of some of the latest trends in the life sciences.

Workshop Programme

Monday 23rd July 2007 9:00 - 9:30 Introduction (Lenny Moss) 9.30-10.30 “Naturalizing Purpose: From Comparative Anatomy to the ‘Adventure of Reason’” (Phillippe Huneman) 10.30-11.00 Coffee/Tea Break 11.00-12.00 “Should Kant Have Given Up on the ‘Daring Adventure of Reason’?” (John Zammito) 12.00-13.00 Discussion 13.00-14.30 Lunch 14.30-15.30 “Formal and Final Cause in Linnaeus” (Staffan Müller-Wille) 15.30-16.00 Coffee/Tea Break 16.00-17.00 “Darwinians & Paleyians: A Shared View on Purpose in Nature” (Ronald Amundson) 17.00-18.00 Discussion 18.30-Late Workshop Dinner Tuesday 24th July 9.00-10.00 “Final Causality from William Whewell to Evo-Devo” (David Depew) 10.00-11.00 “Formal and Final Cause in Contemporary Biology” (Lenny Moss) 11.00-11.30 Coffee/Tea Break 11.30-13.30 Final Discussion

Further details