History of Theoretical Biology

This projects aims to reconstruct the main developments in the history of theoretical biology between 1900 and the present. Theoretical biology emerged as a discourse among biologists from a variety of different experimental disciplines and some philosophers and physicians during the early decades of the 20th century. The discourse of theoretical biology was initially centered around the conceptual, epistemological, and methodological foundations of biology as well as the relation of biology to physics and metaphysics (the problem of the autonomy of biology), the specificity and characteristics of biological processes (such as regulation, differentiation, inheritance, and organic transformation), and the representation of biological knowledge. It engaged many of the foremost biologists of Europe (Germany, The Netherlands, Austria, Russia, and Britain) and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

The term “Theoretical Biology” was first coined in 1901, after the number of contributions to theoretical problems had gradually increased during the 1890s, and rapidly became the label for all discussions about the conceptual foundation of biology. Even though a main feature of this discourse of theoretical biology was the plurality of viewpoints and interests, one can distinguish between distinct (albeit overlapping) clusters of questions and concerns. To some degree these topical clusters also correspond with specific periods in the history of theoretical biology.

This project traces the history of these debates throughout the 20th and early 21st century and also connects historical perspectives with current debates in theoretical biology.