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1 - Rival Paradigms

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 May 2023

Michael Ruse
Florida State University


“Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts!” This famous directive by Sergeant Joe Friday – apparently never actually made in this form – is from the television series Dragnet. Unfortunately, while this may be adequate for detecting and solving crime, not so elsewhere. The idea that science is simply a matter of recording empirical experience is hopelessly inadequate and misleading. Science is about empirical experience, but it is about such experience as encountered and interpreted – and with effort and good fortune – as explained by us.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

“Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts!” This famous directive by Sergeant Joe Friday – apparently never actually made in this form – is from the television series Dragnet. Unfortunately, while this may be adequate for detecting and solving crime, not so elsewhere. The idea that science is simply a matter of recording empirical experience is hopelessly inadequate and misleading. Science is about empirical experience, but it is about such experience as encountered and interpreted – and with effort and good fortune – as explained by us. To this end, we view the world, external and internal, through the lenses, as it were, of modes of understanding. Above all, metaphorical modes of understanding. In scientific thinking, there have been two major metaphors: what linguists call “root metaphors,” what – borrowing and somewhat extending the ideas of Thomas Kuhn – philosophers call “paradigms.” Two world interpretive visions. There is the root metaphor or paradigm of the world and its parts as organisms. The organic paradigm. Organicism. And there is the root metaphor or paradigm of the world and its parts as machines. The machine paradigm. Mechanism. These metaphors or paradigms and their differences will structure the discussion of this book. Let’s get straight to work, looking at the metaphors in their historical contexts.

Plato and Aristotle

The organic metaphor was the dominant vision for the Ancient Greeks. No surprise, really. It is nigh impossible to give accurate population sizes, but around 400 BCE, the time of the great philosophers, there were about two million people in Greece proper – considerably more if you count all the Greek-settled areas (like Sicily). The population of its biggest city, Athens, was about 150,000, taking in slaves and foreigners and the like. Including suburbs, twice that size. Even by the most generous estimate, the important point is that most people lived in rural areas, close to the land and the heavens, particularly the night sky in a land with no technically advanced lighting. It was natural to think in organic terms. Spring, birth, and the early years; summer, growth to full maturity; autumn, appreciating one’s achievements, but slowing down; winter, death, but with the prospect of renewal and spring again, generation after generation. And the parts and processes of the world can be given an organic interpretation. Water, the life blood – rain, fertilization, rivers carrying things away, lakes, seas, oceans. All can be understood in organic terms. One must think in terms of wholes – what the soldier, statesman, philosopher, the South African Jan Smuts, at the beginning of the twentieth century was to call “holism.”

Plato presented this vision somewhat more formally in his dialogue Timaeus – “more formally” in the sense that Plato presented his thinking against the background of his metaphysical Theory of Forms. Especially in the Republic, Plato argued that this world of ours is one of change, transient, and a kind of state of being between nothingness below and mathematics and the Forms above. Forms have many roles – too many at times – but they are standards and also function as universals. “Dobbin” is the individual; “horse” is the Form. These are the truly real and they exist in a kind of world of rationality, and, as the truths of mathematics, eternal, unchanging. The Forms are ordered, and at the top, giving life to all the others, is the Form of the Good. Much influenced by Pythagorean thinking, Plato likened the Form of the Good in the world of rationality to the sun in our world of change. Just as the world thrives and has its ultimate being because of the sun, so likewise the Forms have their ultimate being because of the Form of the Good (Plato: Complete Works).

The Timaeus accepts this thinking as background. The world of the Forms is unchanging and good. Our world, the world of becoming, owes its existence to the world of the Forms. The Creator made the world an organism, so that it could be as good, as perfect, as possible. It is valuable:

God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable … . For which reason, when he was framing the universe, he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body, that he might be the creator of a work which was by nature fairest and best. Wherefore, using the language of probability, we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.

(Timaeus 30b, in Plato: Complete Works)

What is the nature and status of this Creator? A kind of principle of ordering, identical with or perhaps emanating from the Good, in the Timaeus called the “Demiurge.” From the Good come the other Forms, hence it is the Forms in general on which our world is patterned. “Well, if this world of ours is beautiful and its craftsman good, then clearly he looked at the eternal model.” The oak tree is good because it is modeled on – what Plato in the Republic says “participates” in – the Form of the Oak. But why should we think or judge this way? What is the fairest and best, the beautiful? In the Phaedo, Plato makes it clear that he is thinking in terms of ends, of what today is known as “teleology.” You cannot understand just in terms of things happening. You must ask about results.

If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular in the best place; and I argued that if any one desired to find out the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of anything, he must find out what state of being or doing or suffering was best for that thing, and therefore a man had only to consider the best for himself and others, and then he would also know the worst, since the same science comprehended both.

(Phaedo, 97 c–d)

The Good wanted to make the world as good as it could be. To do so, it had to make the world into an organism. But why would this be the best? Because this is the most desirable.

Turn now to Plato’s student, follower, and critic, Reference BarnesAristotle. Like Plato he saw a being, or rather a Being, as the secret behind, the cause of, the way the world works. Like Plato, he saw (as a consequence) the need and possibility of explaining things in terms of their ends – teleology. “Nature never makes anything without purpose.” But from there, the differences could not be starker. Aristotle’s God or Creative force, known as the “Unmoved Mover,” is the cause of everything. It is the ultimate Being, that which is cause of itself and infinitely good. “The first mover, then, of necessity exists; and in so far as it is necessary, it is good, and in this sense a first principle” (Metaphysics 1072b10–11). It is that which motivates everything.

There is, then, something which is always moved with an unceasing motion, which is motion in a circle; and this is plain not in theory only, but in fact. Therefore, the first heavens must be eternal. There is therefore also something which moves them. And since that which is moved and moves is intermediate, there is a mover who moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality.

(Metaphysics 1072a22–6)

The rest of existence is directed toward the Unmoved Mover, wanting in some sense to get close to it and share the perfection. Reproduction has a key role here. Organisms do not become eternal. However, through reproduction, they get as close to the eternal as possible, and that in itself is a good.

The acts in which [the soul] manifests itself are reproduction and the use of food, because for any living thing that has reached its normal development … the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal to which all things strive, that for the sake of which they do whatsoever their nature renders possible.

(De Anima 415a25–415b1)

Not only in the nature of the ultimate Being but in the way the system works, Aristotle differs significantly from Plato. They both think in terms of ends, but whereas for Plato the ends come from the Designer – external teleology – for Aristotle the ends come from within, they are produced by the way that things are – internal teleology.

Famously, in his Metaphysics, Aristotle distinguished four kinds of cause. Consider making a statue, for example a British foot soldier – a “Tommy” – from the First World War. You have the efficient cause, the modeler or sculptor who actually made the statue. You have the material cause, the substance from which it is made (bronze or marble or what?). You have the formal cause, somewhat akin to a Platonic Idea (without committing oneself to the reality of such an Idea). You would not have the soldier wearing a Pickelhaube (German helmet with a spike). And last, but far from least, you have the final cause, the teleological element giving the reason for the statue. Why is the statue being made now? So that future generations can remember and give thanks for the sacrifices of him and his comrades. Note something distinctive about final causes as opposed to the other causes. An efficient cause is happening now to make a statue now for remembrance later. Even if no one ever saw the statue, it would still have the efficient cause of the modeler or the sculptor. In the case of a final cause, however, the reference is to the future, and there is always the chance that that future may never occur. An accident on the way to the memorial site means the statue is destroyed and never brings on memories. This is known as the “missing goal object.” In the case of external teleology, it is the idea that counts, and this in its way is an efficient cause. It refers to the future – let’s make a statue to honor our troops – but it is a reference, not the actual future. In the case of internal teleology, no such easy escape. You just have to say that nature is inherently teleological, even if things don’t work out as hoped and expected.

One final question of both Plato and Aristotle. What about our own species? What about human beings? Organisms grow, from oak to acorn, from tadpole to frog. There is direction and usually, if not always, it is thought to be a progressive direction, from lesser to greater, from little worth to great worth, from “monad to man.” One expects to find – one would be flabbergasted not to find – that our two philosophers agreed entirely with this summation. As so it proves.

God gave the sovereign part of the human soul to be the divinity of each one, being that part which, as we say, dwells at the top of the body, inasmuch as we are a plant not of an earthly but of a heavenly growth, raises us from earth to our kindred who are in heaven. And in this we say truly; for the divine power suspended the head and root of us from that place where the generation of the soul first began, and thus made the whole body upright.

(Timaeus 90b)

Not much ambiguity there. Nor is there in Aristotle. We may infer “that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of man …. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man” (Metaphysics, 1256b15–22). Likewise, explaining why humans alone are bipedal: “of all living beings with which we are acquainted man alone partakes of the divine, or at any rate partakes of it in a fuller measure than the rest.” Hence, “in him alone do the natural parts hold the natural position; his upper part being turned towards that which is upper in the universe. For, of all animals, man alone stands erect” (656a17–13).

The Atomists

Did no one in the Ancient World want to challenge this teleology-impregnated view of the universe? As it happens, from the beginning – before Plato and Aristotle – there was a school of thought that wanted nothing to do with final causes. The pre-Socratic atomists – Leucippus, Democritus, and a little later Epicurus – believed that the world is made up of minute physical particles, buzzing around in the void, in empty space. Efficient causation explains all. Final cause thinking doesn’t have a dog in the fight. The best account of this philosophy came some centuries later from the pen of the Roman poet Lucretius. Laying things out in On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), he focused on development, not just of individual organisms but of whole groups or species. Everything came about through blind chance, with no purpose or end thinking needed (quoted by Reference SedleySedley in Creationism, 150–3):

At that time the earth tried to create many monsters
with weird appearance and anatomy –
androgynous, of neither one sex nor the other but somewhere in between;
some footless, or handless;
many even without mouths, or without eyes and blind;
some with their limbs stuck together all along their body,
and thus disabled from doing harm or obtaining anything they needed.
These and other monsters the earth created.
But to no avail, since nature prohibited their development.
They were unable to reach the goal of their maturity,
to find sustenance or to copulate.
(De rerum natura V 837–48)

A hotchpotch individual thus formed, three legs, one attached to the back between the shoulders, no mouth or eyes but with six pairs of ears, was not going to last long. However, given time enough, even the improbable becomes actual.

First, the fierce and savage lion species
has been protected by its courage, foxes by cunning, deer by speed of flight.
But as for the light-sleeping minds of dogs, with their faithful heart,
and every kind born of the seed of beasts of burden,
and along with them the wool-bearing flocks and the horned tribes,
they have all been entrusted to the care of the human race …
(V 862–7)

Only efficient causes here. No final causes. Eyes were not made for seeing or legs for walking. First came the eyes and legs, and then they were put to use. Denying this is to get things backwards:

All other explanations of this type which they offer
are back to front, due to distorted reasoning.
For nothing has been engendered in our body in order that we might be able
to use it.
It is the fact of its being engendered that creates its use.
(V 832–5)

It scarcely needs saying that, ingenious though this may be, it hardly convinced anyone. Even given nigh infinite time, functioning eyes and mouths, arms and legs are not going to appear on the scene. Elephants don’t fly; arms and legs do not appear by chance. An adequate approach, including one like the atomists’, that wants nothing to do with Creators or Unmoved Movers or the like, must still explain final cause – not downplay or ignore it.

The Christians

With the arrival of Christianity, which sees everything in terms of ends, there was even less reason for atomism to make headway. The organicist paradigm is tailor-made for Christianity. It stresses the unity of all existence, central to the Christian vision, where all comes from and ever depends on God. “Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5). The world is of great value and worth. “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1, 31). And, most importantly, all is temporal and there is an advance through time: acorn to oak; monad to man. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1, 27) (Fig. 1.1).

Figure 1.1 God creating man in His own image.


Note that God created. Hence, things do not have value in themselves. It comes from God. There is value, but it is imputed not discovered. To quote Calvin:

And concerning inanimate objects, we ought to hold that, although each one has by nature been endowed with its own property, yet it does not exercise its own power except in so far as it is directed by God’s ever-present hand. These are, thus, nothing but instruments to which God continually imparts as much effectiveness as he wills, and according to his own purpose bends and turns them to either one action or another.

(Institutes, 1, 16, 2)

Calvin was deeply influenced by the fourth-century Roman theologian St Augustine of Hippo, and what he wrote is equally precisely the position of neo-Augustinians today. “The earth is very good. Neither demonic nor divine, neither meaningless nor sufficient unto itself, it receives its meaning and value from God,” according to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (This Sacred Earth, 245).

Reference AquinasAugustine, the very greatest of the early Christian theologians/philosophers, was an ardent Platonist, albeit at second-hand through the Hellenistic philosopher, Plotinus. In his Confessions, Augustine’s characterization of God could have come straight out of the Republic. Necessary: “For God’s will is not a creature but is prior to the created order, since nothing would be created unless the Creator’s will preceded it. Therefore God’s will belongs to his very substance.” Existing outside space: “no physical entity existed before heaven and earth.” Outside time: “Your ‘years’ neither come nor go. Our years come and go so that all may come in succession. All your ‘years’ exist in simultaneity, because they do not change; those going away are not thrust out by those coming in … Your Today is eternity.”

Faith is always going to be first for Christians. Yet it was hardly going to be the case that someone of Augustine’s incredible philosophical ability was going to turn his back on evidence and reason – what is known as “natural theology” as opposed to “revealed theology” or “religion” – and no more does he. He picks up what is known as the argument from design. “Even leaving aside the voices of the prophets, the world itself, by the perfect order of its changes and motions, by the great beauty of all things visible, claims by a kind of silent testimony of its own both that it has been created, and also that it could not have been made other than by a God ineffable and invisible in greatness, and ineffable and invisible in beauty” (Confessions, 53). Ours is a world of great value, created intentionally by a loving God.

There is one potentially awkward point that needs attention. Religions tend to have their sacred books, the truths of which are taken as absolute. In the case of Christianity, it is the Holy Bible – Old and New Testaments. Yet within its pages, particularly in the early chapters of Genesis, there are claims that must be taken on faith, but sit uncomfortably with reason. Even if reason does not have the all-conquering power it might have been thought to have, it is still important and needs attention. How do we deal with biblical claims, especially those claims about the biblical order of creation, that seem completely impossible, from the viewpoint of reason? Genesis tells us that light and dark were created on the First Day, but that we had to wait for the Fourth Day for the sun to make an appearance. Impossible! Augustine’s solution was very modern-sounding, or perhaps more generously we should say that our solution is very Augustinian-sounding. He argued that the Bible is true, through and through. But sometimes it is necessary to interpret it allegorically. Why? Well, for a start, the Ancient Jews were on the whole illiterate. They were not sophisticated thinkers like fourth-century CE Romans. Too literal, and they wouldn’t understand a word that was going on. So, God tempered the wind to the shorn lamb – or Israelite. God created, probably all at one time, and then explicated in a way that we can catch the important truths.

St Augustine laid the foundation. Others built on this, especially in the realm of natural theology – most famously, St Thomas Aquinas. Like Augustine, accepting that God is the creative cause of all that exists, in countering the classic undergraduate counter – “What caused God?” – Aquinas argues that God has no need of a cause. He is outside time and space. He exists necessarily. It is part of His being that He cannot not exist. This is aseity: “it affirms that God is completely self-sufficient, having within Godself the sufficient reason for God’s own existence” (New Catholic Encyclopedia). This is not intended to be something new or radical. Far from it. It endorses the Augustinian position that God is not just eternal, but unchanging. Where Aquinas is distinctive is that he is much influenced by Aristotle, whose works were only now being translated from Greek to Latin. His thinking tended more toward internal teleology than external teleology. God works more as a principle of ordering than as an intervening hands-on designer. Either way, as we move out of the medieval era, organicism rules okay.

The Machine Metaphor

According to historian of science Reference DijksterhuisEduard Jan Dijksterhuis:

At all times there used to be a strong tendency among physicists, particularly in England, to form as concrete a picture as possible of the physical reality behind the phenomena, the not directly perceptible cause of that which can be perceived by the senses; they were always looking for hidden mechanisms, and in so doing supposed, without being concerned about this assumption, that these would be essentially the same kind as the simple instruments which men had used from time immemorial to relieve their work, so that a skillful mechanical engineer would be able to imitate the real course of the events taking place in the microcosm in a mechanical model on a larger scale.


A new root metaphor. The world as a machine. We are coming now into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Why would the organism metaphor be falling out of favor, and why then would the machine metaphor be taking over? Because, on the one hand, society – European society – became far less rural and far more urban. The immediate appeal of organicism diminished. On the other hand, more positively, machines did start to come into their own! Their natures and virtues were becoming apparent. Above all, there was the watch or clock. They worked on and on, governed only by unbroken laws. In his A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature Reference Boyle, Davis and HunterRobert Boyle, seventeenth-century chemist and philosopher, spelt things out: the world is

like a rare clock, such as may be that at Strasbourg, where all things are so skillfully contrived that the engine being once set a-moving, all things proceed according to the artificer’s first design, and the motions of the little statues that as such hours perform these or those motions do not require (like those of puppets) the peculiar interposing of the artificer or any intelligent agent employed by him, but perform their functions on particular occasions by virtue of the general and primitive contrivance of the whole engine. (Fig. 1.2)

Figure 1.2 Strasbourg clock.

Clocks have purposes, final causes – to tell the time. Likewise for other machines. A guillotine is for chopping off heads, a pump is for getting water out of the ground. However, within the explanation – inasmuch as it is a scientific explanation – there are no purposes, no ends, no final causes. All that matters is that the clock goes round and round, without interference, governed by blind, purposeless laws. The Earth, perhaps, may have been designed by the Demiurge as an abode for human beings, but under the machine metaphor that is extraneous. It could have readily been a place of punishment for fallen angels – let them see what it is like to have to take a logic course. No final causes, and hence no values. The clock has value to us; but, in itself, it just is. Neither good nor bad. A grand new picture. The universe – the heliocentric universe of Copernicus – is easily seen as a huge clock. As the parts of the clock go through their motions, endlessly, without purpose in the system, so the parts of the universe, better known as stars and planets, go through their motions, endlessly, without purpose in the system. God or some other force like the Unmoved Mover may be responsible for it all, but that kind of discussion belongs to theology not science. As the philosopher Francis Bacon said wittily, final causes were like Vestal Virgins, beautiful but barren. God had become a “retired engineer.”

But was He? Compare the solar system with the human body. Agree that both are designed and made by God for the benefit of humankind. Ask about the purpose of the moon. You can joke that it exists to light the way home for drunken philosophers; but, in fact, although there was an eighteenth-century society that did meet at full moon for purposes of getting home safely (the Lunar Society), it is really a joke. The moon within the solar system has no purpose, no function. If it were removed, things would just keep going on. Same with the planets. Now ask about the purpose of the heart. Within the system it does have a purpose. It exists for pumping blood, which exists for capturing oxygen and all that that does for us. It seems that when it comes to animate matter, organisms, final cause understanding does have a role. Which rather suggests that the machine metaphor is not all encompassing. It may work for the solar system – one thing after another – but it does not work for organisms – one thing in order for another. More accurately, we should say that the machine metaphor is not adequate for organisms. The human heart is a machine – for pumping blood – but this does not answer the question of why it should pump blood. There is a design-like odor about the animate that one does not sense about the inanimate (Fig. 1.3).

Figure 1.3 The heart, from René Descartes’ De Homine


Reference BoyleRobert Boyle saw this problem, and agreeing that raw atomism goes nowhere, offered a solution. Talk of mechanisms is part of science. Talk of final causes is part of theology! In his Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things, satisfyingly making a philosophical point while putting the boot into the French, he wrote:

For there are some things in nature so curiously contrived, and so exquisitely fitted for certain operations and uses, that it seems little less than blindness in him, that acknowledges, with the Cartesians [followers of Descartes], a most wise Author of things, not to conclude, that, though they may have been designed for other (and perhaps higher) uses, yet they were designed for this use.

Boyle continued that the supposition that “a man’s eyes were made by chance, argues, that they need have no relation to a designing agent; and the use, that a man makes of them, may be either casual too, or at least may be an effect of his knowledge, not of nature’s.” However, the cost of taking us away from a designing intelligence is taking us from the chance to do science – the urge to dissect and to understand how the eye “is as exquisitely fitted to be an organ of sight, as the best artificer in the world could have framed a little engine, purposely and mainly designed for the use of seeing.”

Somewhat brazenly, Boyle distinguished between acknowledging the use of final causes qua science and the inference qua theology from final causes to a designing god. First: “In the bodies of animals it is oftentimes allowable for a naturalist, from the manifest and apposite uses of the parts, to collect some of the particular ends, to which nature destinated them. And in some cases we may, from the known natures, as well as from the structure, of the parts, ground probable conjectures (both affirmative and negative) about the particular offices of the parts.” Then, second, the science finished, one can change tracks into theology: “It is rational, from the manifest fitness of some things to cosmical or animal ends or uses, to infer, that they were framed or ordained in reference thereunto by an intelligent and designing agent.” We go from a scientific study of what Boyle called “contrivance,” in the domain of science, to inferences about design – or rather Design – in the domain of theology.

Natural Theology

A compromise – mechanism is retained albeit its scope seems reduced – but one that led to a century or more of natural history, not to mention laboratory studies in morphology and embryology. It gave credence also to a vigorous strain of natural theology. The existence of God follows from the nature of organisms. From our perspective, biology and Christianity, far from being at war, are symbiotically entwined. The machine metaphor sweeps all before it in the inanimate world. It applies and explains in the animate world, but only partially. It fails to explain the design-like nature of organisms and hence – this seeming to be the only possible solution – it opens the way to belief in a god, at least in major respects akin to the God of the Christians. Unsurprisingly, from Boyle until Reference DarwinCharles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, the argument from design flourished. Nigh every move made in the life sciences seemed to support this argument. It is little wonder then that, in 1802, without any sense of anachronism, Reference PaleyArchdeacon William Paley published his classic exposition of the argument in his Natural Theology. In one of the best-known passages in philosophy – or theology if you are intent on placing the blame elsewhere – Paley invites you to compare a stone with a watch.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given – that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone; why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, namely, that, when we come to inspect the watch we perceive – what we could not discover in the stone – that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day;

We are on the way to God. Paley points out that the eye is like a telescope. “Telescopes have telescope designers and makers. So, likewise, eyes have designers and makers. God!”

Not everyone, not every believer, was comfortable with this kind of argument. A few years before Paley, Reference Kant and GuyerImmanuel Kant in his Critique of the Power of Judgment had argued that organisms are just machines, but that we need final-cause thinking as a heuristic guide. They help us think about organisms. They are “regulative.” They are not part of reality. They are not “constitutive.” They are “for guiding research into objects of this kind and thinking over their highest ground in accordance with a remote analogy with our own causality in accordance with ends.” All very well. But it does mean that biology is forever condemned to be second rate. “[W]e can boldly say that it would be absurd for humans even to make such an attempt or to hope that there may yet arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws that no intention has ordered; rather, we must absolutely deny this insight to human beings.”

Biology is all science, not (Boyle-like) science and religion, but the cost is that biology is second-rate science. The scientist of the organic world, faced with final causes, must necessarily live with and only with science; nevertheless, the science of the biologist can never equal the science of the physicist.

Evolution Arrives

By the end of the eighteenth century, evolutionary ideas were becoming familiar if not very enthusiastically accepted. One of the best-known who argued this way was the British physician and poet, grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin. He was (as were many) much taken with the progress that was being made in Britain in the realm of industry, and this enthusiasm found its way into his poetry, as he likened advance in the human world to advance in the organic world. In his poem The Temple of Nature, Reference DarwinErasmus Darwin wrote:

Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.

And so down to – or, rather, up to – humans.

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!

Explicitly, Reference DarwinDarwin tied his biology to his philosophy. The idea of organic progressive evolution, as he wrote in his Zoonomia, “is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation; such as the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants.”

Erasmus Darwin was a little casual about the forces, the causes, that brings all of this about, but a major factor was what came to be known, after the endorsement of the French evolutionist Reference LamarckJean Baptiste de Lamarck (1809), as “Lamarckism.” The inheritance of acquired characteristics. The blacksmith gets strong arms through working at the forge, so his son is born with such strong arms. Note that, although Erasmus Darwin was an evolutionist, he was not a strict mechanist – nor was Lamarck for that matter. They both saw an upwards progression to life, akin to the Great Chain of Being (Fig. 1.4). They saw, out there in the world, organisms getting of greater and greater value. Apes are of more value than reptiles, and humans of more value than apes. And this, in the eyes of more respectable scientists who were Christian, was where it all came unstuck. The big problem with evolution, tied as it was to progress, was the extent to which this underlying philosophy was thought incompatible with the essential underlying philosophy of Christianity – Providence. It was a mainstay of Christian thought – Protestant Christian thought particularly – that we can do nothing save for the grace of God. On our own we are helpless, as is spelt out by the popular hymn of the Congregationalist Isaac Watts.

Figure 1.4 The Great Chain of Being: God, angels, heaven, humans, beasts, plants, flame, rocks.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Progress goes directly against this, for its central theme is that we ourselves can improve things through our own intelligence and effort. No need of God.

Combine this philosophy/theology highlighting Providence with the empirical evidence – most obviously that the fossil record showed gaps between forms, quite contrary to what evolution would expect us to find – and the case was complete. Reference WhewellWilliam Whewell, general man of science and author of works on the history and philosophy of science, gave the definitive judgment: “Geology and astronomy are, of themselves, incapable of giving us any distinct and satisfactory account of the origin of the universe, or of its parts,” continuing: “The mystery of creation is not within the range of her legitimate territory; she says nothing, but she points upwards” (History 3, 587–8). Science and religion come together harmoniously to show that evolution is not true.

This is the background to the efforts of that very ambitious young man, Charles Darwin – born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809) – who very much did want to be the Newton of the blade of grass. As we turn to him, though, it is well to remember the important point made by Reference KuhnThomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A change in paradigms, a change in root metaphors, is rarely if ever fueled solely by the attractions of the new paradigm. Usually, if not always, the old paradigm is running into problems, internal contradictions and the like. This was very much the case here. The problem lay in homologies: the non-functional isomorphisms between organisms of different species. Best known are the similarities between the forearm of humans, the front leg of the horse, the wing of the bat, and the flipper of the porpoise (Fig. 1.5). There seems to be no purpose here because the bodily parts all have different functions. Kuhn is right. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark, otherwise known as the argument against evolution.

Figure 1.5 Homology.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin wanted to give an entirely mechanistic picture of the evolutionary process – unguided laws, governing a world ever in motion, leading to a “tree of life” (Fig. 1.6). He recognized that farmers and fanciers could change organisms – plumper pigs, shaggier sheep, fiercer fighting dogs, more melodious songbirds (Fig. 1.7). This was done consciously through selection of desirable qualities. How then were we to get a non-conscious, law-bound equivalent process in the natural world? Darwin started with the observation of the English clergyman, Thomas Robert Malthus, that organisms always reproduce at a faster rate than food and space can maintain. There is, therefore, an ongoing struggle for existence – more importantly, struggle for reproduction. To this, Darwin added that random variation was the norm in natural populations – he had spent eight years dissecting barnacles, so he knew whereof he spoke. Then he was ready for his main argument. “Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature?” Darwin thought that it could indeed apply.

Figure 1.6 Darwin’s tree of life.

Figure 1.7 Pig for breeding.

Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.

(Origin, 80–1)

The all-important point is that this was not just change, but change in the direction of adaptation.

We see these beautiful co-adaptations most plainly in the woodpecker and missletoe; and only a little less plainly in the humblest parasite which clings to the hairs of a quadruped or feathers of a bird; in the structure of the beetle which dives through the water; in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze; in short, we see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of the organic world.


Natural selection. Adaptation caused by law, by non-directed law. Note that the last thing that Darwin was about was expelling teleology from biology. Going that way would lead to the implausible position of the atomists. What Darwin wanted to do was to explain it under the machine paradigm. For this reason, he comfortably and repeatedly used the term “final cause.” Talking of cuckoos laying their eggs in the nests of other birds: “It is now commonly admitted that the more immediate and final cause of the cuckoo’s instinct is, that she lays her eggs, not daily, but at intervals of two or three days; so that, if she were to make her own nest and sit on her own eggs, those first laid would have to be left for some time unincubated, or there would be eggs and young birds of different ages in the same nest” (216–17, my italics). To avoid this, the female cuckoo lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, so they can get immediate attention.

Darwin was (very satisfyingly) withering about attempts to explain away homology. “Nothing can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes” (435). He did not deny homology. Rather, it is adaptation first, homology second. “On my theory, unity of type is explained by unity of descent” (206). Not that Darwin wanted to use this conclusion to promote atheism. Darwin at Cambridge, intending to be ordained into the Church of England, was a theist – God prepared to intervene in his Creation, as the sending of Jesus. Then, from the time of the Beagle voyage, Darwin became a deist – God as Creator but one who then lets everything unfold according to unbroken law. In the Origin, Darwin made it very clear that he saw nothing in his theory that challenged this position. Indeed, it confirmed it.

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.


Later, around 1865, Darwin became an agnostic. But like most Victorian agnostics, and Darwin was in ever-growing company, his move was theological not science-based. As he wrote in his autobiography, he had no time for Christianity because it implies that non-believers will go to hell: “this is a damnable doctrine.” For Darwin, this was personal. He venerated his father, a non-believer who could have given Richard Dawkins a run for his money, as one of the finest people he knew.

After Darwin

Move on now from Darwin down to the present. The significant scientific moves were the development of an adequate theory of heredity – genetics – and its melding with Darwinian selection. This happened around 1930, thanks to the population geneticists, notably in England Ronald A. Fisher and J. B. S. Haldane, and in America Sewall Wright. A few years later, the naturalists and experimentalists got to work, and empirical flesh was put on the mathematical skeleton. Thus was born “neo-Darwinism,” as it was called in Britain, and the “Synthetic Theory,” as it was called in America. Notable works were, in Britain, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis by Reference HuxleyJulian Huxley (the grandson of Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Henry Huxley, and older brother of Aldous Huxley), and, in America, Genetics and the Origin of Species, by the Russian-born Reference DobzhanskyTheodosius Dobzhansky. Things were now in place, although obviously there were ongoing changes and developments – above all, the coming of molecular biology.

The double helix, the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, was a triumph of mechanism, as it was shown that the molecule works on exactly the same principles of already-developed machines. Consider the Enigma Machine, used by the Germans in the Second World War to code their messages (Fig. 1.8). It functioned through a series of rotors that took in the information and scrambled it around, so that only those with the right codes could unpack it and read what was being sent. Invented in the 1920s, in the years following, first the Poles and then the British worked to find how the machine worked and how it could be deconstructed, as it were. Vital was the recovery of an actual Enigma Machine, which could then be taken apart and examined for its functions. In other words, we have a reductive process, as it is shown how the whole machine works in terms of its constituent parts.

Figure 1.8 a, Enigma machine. b, Enigma machine parts. 1, Notched ring; 2, marking dot for A contact; 3, alphabet tire; 4, plate contacts; 5, wire connections; 6, pin contacts; 7, spring-loaded ring adjusting lever; 8, hub; 9, finger wheel; 10, ratchet wheel.

Turn now to the unraveling of the DNA molecule (Fig. 1.9). Reference Watson and CrickWatson and Crick worked in exactly the same way as did those who worked on the Enigma Machine. They took the molecule apart and then explained how it worked in terms of its constituent parts. Reduction! A DNA molecule is essentially a chain, of linked parts, nucleotides. There are four types: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). Their ordering carries a “code” that can be deciphered, showing how the information is passed down the line. As is well known, another nucleic acid, RNA, ribonucleic acid, lines up against the DNA, copies the coded information, and then picks out amino acids, complex organic molecules. These amino acids are then ordered, and they in turn make proteins, the building blocks of cells.

Figure 1.9 a, Nucleotide. b, Double helix.

This is a paradigmatic example of thinking being guided by the machine metaphor. Such thinking transfers over into more traditional biological arguments. Consider the weird-looking dinosaur Stegosaurus, a brute that lived in the Jurassic period about 150 million years ago. It was very large – about nine meters long (30 feet) – and weighed rather more than five metric tons. Yet it had a very small brain, the size of that of a dog (less than three ounces). It was a herbivore, probably eating twigs and foliage and the like – hundreds of pounds a day. Unsurprisingly, it was probably very slow, five miles an hour maximum. Very puzzling is a line of plates along its back (Fig. 1.10). Why does the Stego have these plates? What is their function? Could they be for sexual attraction? Probably not, because both males and females have them, unlike the peacock/peahen, for instance, where the males have magnificent tail feathers whereas the females do not. More popular is the hypothesis by Reference de Buffrénil, Farlow and de Ricqlèsde Buffrénil, Farlow, and de Ricqlès that they were for some kind of species recognition – attracting fellow Stegos and avoiding non-fellow Stegos.

Figure 1.10 Stegosaurus.

Another hypothesis is the suggestion that the plates are for fighting, defense particularly. This is the hypothesis that is endorsed in a popular book on the dinosaurs by Reference HalsteadL. B. Halstead, published in 1975. Evidence? Apparently, new evidence suggests that the armour plates grew out sideways rather than upwards, and that meant that Stegosaurus was better positioned to strike out at enemies coming in from the side (Fig. 1.11). Unfortunately (for its originator), a year or two after this was written, his hypothesis all came tumbling down. It just wasn’t convincing, because the plates do not grow out of the main skeleton, but are, as it were, add-ons. They simply would have been useless for fighting, attack or defense, because they would at once get ripped off. Such a postulated orientation of the plates, according to Reference de Buffrénil, Farlow and de Ricqlèsde Buffrénil, Farlow, and de Ricqlès, makes a testable prediction: to act as armor, the plates should be formed of thick, compact “Panzer” bone, whereas there is histological evidence that their structure is extremely light and hollow.

Figure 1.11 Halstead’s view – Stegosaurus with plates sideways.

A new, far more plausible hypothesis came on the scene. Like everything about the Stegosaurus, it is controversial; but, whether it turns out to be primary or not, serves beautifully as an example of how machine metaphor thinking is ubiquitous in the life sciences. This is the explanation that the function of those rather peculiar plates is to cool the brute in the height of a summer day. Remember, it is big and slow, and has need of massive amounts of food. Overheating is a real threat. The wind, blowing across the plates, brings down their temperature. And pertinent to our discussion, the reasoning behind this is totally machine-based. According to Reference Farlow, Thompson and RosnerFarlow, Thompson, and Rosner, writing in 1976, “Wind tunnel experiments on finned models, internal heat conduction calculations, and direct observations of the morphology and internal structure of stegosaur plates support this hypothesis, demonstrating the comparative effectiveness of the plates as heat dissipaters controllable through input blood flow rate, temperature, and body orientation (with respect to wind)” (Fig. 1.12). Mechanisms all the way down! Mechanisms, but not to the exclusion of final cause. The “compact engineering devices” explain how the plates exist and work, in order to keep the animal at a functioning temperature. The animals would have been living out in the open, on prairies or the like, where the winds blow and the plates are cooled. This would not have been the case had they lived in jungles or forests.

Figure 1.12 Cooling tower fans.

Relative value, the plates keep the brute cool; not absolute value, dinos are good things. Mechanism triumphant!

Organicism Redux

Except, of course, it wasn’t. In Germany, at the end of the eighteenth century/beginning of the nineteenth century, organicism was revitalized, starting a tradition that thrives (somewhat noisily) today. The German Romantics, Naturphilosophen, called for a replacement of “the concept of mechanism” and a renewal of the organic metaphor, “elevating it to the chief principle for interpreting nature,” as historian Reference RichardsBob Richards has put it. Prominent names included the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Fig. 1.13), the anatomist Lorenz Oken, and, in respects the most influential of all, the philosopher Reference SchellingFriedrich Schelling. Little surprise that from one who, as a teenager, wrote a 60-page essay on the Timaeus, it was he who most fervently pushed the Platonic vision of the whole world as an organism: “one power, one pulse, one life.” Wanting, as an idealist, to break down the distinction between the objective – the world out there – and the subjective – the world in here, he found the answer in the Theory of Forms. “The key to the explanation of the entirety of the Platonic philosophy” he said, is “noticing that Plato everywhere carries the subjective over to the objective” (History, 212).

Figure 1.13 Goethe’s Urpflanze, or archetypal plant. The individual organs of the plant, the lower simpler leaves, then the more complicated stem leaves, then the sepals, which are again designed quite differently, and the flower petals, which even have a different color than the stem leaves, are all externally different in form from each other, but inwardly in the idea are the same.

It was inevitable that Reference SchellingSchelling rejected the Kantian judgment that the need to take account of the end-directedness of organisms spelt the second-rate nature of biological understanding. If one side of human awareness and understanding is the subjective, then at some level this must be reflected in the other side, the objective. In other words, if final-cause thinking is needed in our science, as it is, then in some real sense it must exist out in the world, to be discovered not created – which has the immediate implication that the Timaeus was right, the physical world must be essentially organic, subject to final causes as much as to efficient causes.

Even in mere organized matter there is life, but a life of a more restricted kind. This idea is so old, and has hitherto persisted so constantly in the most varied forms, right up to the present day – (already in the most ancient times it was believed that the whole world was pervaded by an animating principle, called the world-soul, and the later period of Leibniz gave every plant its soul) – that one may very well surmise from the beginning that there must be some reason latent in the human mind itself for this natural belief.

(Ideas, 35)

“Organized matter.” The world’s nature is such that it produces itself, its development comes from within, as an unfurling organism is produced by forces within rather than without. The acorn naturally grows up into the oak. From the simple to the complex, from the undifferentiated to the highly differentiated.

Nature should be Mind made visible, Mind the invisible nature. Here then, in the absolute identity of Mind in us and Nature outside us, the problem of the possibility of a Nature external to us must be resolved. The final goal of our further research is, therefore, this idea of Nature; if we succeed in attaining this, we can also be certain to have dealt satisfactorily with that Problem.


What then of humans? In a way not true of mechanism, organicism privileges humans. Reference DarwinDarwin saw from the first that his theory did not support progress. There is no guarantee that humans will – must – exist: “there is no ≪NECESSARY≫ tendency in simple animals to become complicated” (Notebooks, 1836–1844, M 147). Natural selection is more than a tautology – those that survive are those that survive – but it is relativistic. When there is a lot of food available, there are adaptive advantages to being big. Little food available – there are adaptive advantages to being small. The same even applies to brains and intelligence. Little stability – there are advantages to having lots of offspring, and intelligence is a luxury. Lots of stability – few offspring, and intelligence is obligatory. There is no absolute value in being human. In the immortal words of the late paleontologist Jack Sepkoski (quoted in my Monad to Man): “I see intelligence as just one of a variety of adaptations among tetrapods for survival. Running fast in a herd while being as dumb as shit, I think, is a very good adaptation for survival” (486).

This is not at all the conclusion of the organicist. Values exist out there, objectively. Humans are the beings of greatest value. Hence the whole force of change – note that, in a way not true of mechanism, as Goethe and others recognized, evolution is built into organicism – is in the direction of ever greater worth, ending with the human species. Such thinking is the very essence of Romanticism, as Reference TuttleSchelling put it: “It is One force, One interplay and weaving, One drive and impulsion to ever higher life” (Proteus of Nature). Unsurprisingly, as the nineteenth century progressed, in Germany particularly, trees of life were always topped by Homo sapiens (Fig. 1.14).

Figure 1.14 The tree of life as drawn by Ernst Haeckel in The Evolution of Man with humans at the top.

Going west, and crossing the Channel to Britain, the key figure is the general man of just about everything, Herbert Spencer, who appeared on the scene around 1850 and was still going strong 50 years later, as the old century died and the new century was born. As with Germanic Romantic holists, Reference SpencerSpencer argued strongly in 1860 that societies are organisms, with interconnected parts, and saw this throughout the living world. For him, change comes from outside disruptions that take groups from stability and stasis and cause consequent change and upwards movement, from the homogeneous (all the same) to the heterogeneous (differences). Reference SpencerSpencer called this in 1862 his theory of “dynamic equilibrium.” Ultimately, what counts is the effort made by the individual. Outside factors trigger change but they do not cause it.

Expectedly, we find that Reference SpencerSpencer finds value in the very process. For him, progress was the bedrock of all his thinking: “this law of organic progress is the law of all progress. Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, in the development of Society, of Government, of Manufactures, of Commerce, of Language, Literature, Science, Art, this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through successive differentiations, holds throughout” (Progress, 245). He explains that the English language is more complex and hence above all others. What greater proof could there be that, as evolution moves upwards, things are improved?

The Twentieth Century

In 1924, the Harvard faculty was enriched by the arrival of the English logician Alfred North Whitehead – who, with Bertrand Russell, was deservedly famous for the attempt (in their magnum opus Principia Mathematica) to show that mathematics follows deductively from the laws of logic. In the 1920s, moving into metaphysics, Reference WhiteheadWhitehead gave a series of lectures, published as Science and the Modern World. Openly declaring himself an organicist, he called for “the abandonment of the traditional scientific materialism, and the substitution of an alternative doctrine of organism” (99). Continuing: “Nature exhibits itself as exemplifying a philosophy of the evolution of organisms subject to determinate conditions” (115). Although it seems likely that Whitehead got this second-hand, there is little surprise about the major influence here. “Nature should be Mind made visible, Mind the invisible nature. Here then, in the absolute identity of Mind in us and Nature outside us, the problem of the possibility of a Nature external to us must be resolved” (Reference SchellingSchelling’s Ideas, 42). Putting things together, Whitehead writes: “The final summary can only be expressed in terms of a group of antitheses, whose apparent self-contradictions depend on neglect of the diverse categories of existence. In each antithesis there is a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast.” Sounds Hegelian, which is hardly a surprise given Hegel’s deep roots in German Romanticism.

A case can be made for saying that Whitehead is the most important organicist – certainly the most important Anglophone organicist – of the twentieth century. No need for us to make such a judgment now. We shall (in Chapter 3) return to the topic. Here, let’s simply take Whitehead as representative and, with an eye to our interests, move straight to the present. There is no great surprise in finding that prominent philosophers continue to work within the organicist tradition. John Dupré stresses the special nature of humans – a nature of great worth given our unique abilities. Humans uniquely are capable of thinking, meaning we uniquely can see the whole and make judgments and act on them. He stresses that he thinks only humans have genuine freedom, at the same time denying that our superior nature puts any pressure on our animal origins.

Dupré is not alone in having organicist yearnings. Fellow philosopher Reference NagelThomas Nagel offers explicit confirmation of the suspicion that we are now dealing with non-mechanical laws and understanding. The very title of his book – Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False – prepares the way. For Nagel, the adaptive nature of the organic world is far too complex for so crude a mechanism of natural selection. He suspects that “there are natural teleological laws governing the development of organization over time, in addition to laws of the familiar kind governing the behavior of the elements.” He agrees that this takes us back to an Aristotelian view of nature alien to modern science. However, somewhat defiantly, he defends his position. Modern science may rule it out. Thomas Nagel does not (22). Nagel prides himself on being a non-believer, an atheist. Yet as an Aristotelian he must believe in some kind of absolute value. A question to be raised (later) is whether one can have such value in the absence of a deity.

And with that question left dangling, let us bring this chapter to an end.

Figure 0

Figure 1.1 God creating man in His own image.

Figure 1

Figure 1.2 Strasbourg clock.

Figure 2

Figure 1.3 The heart, from René Descartes’ De Homine

Figure 3

Figure 1.4 The Great Chain of Being: God, angels, heaven, humans, beasts, plants, flame, rocks.

Figure 4

Figure 1.5 Homology.

Figure 5

Figure 1.6 Darwin’s tree of life.

Figure 6

Figure 1.7 Pig for breeding.

Figure 7

Figure 1.8 a, Enigma machine. b, Enigma machine parts. 1, Notched ring; 2, marking dot for A contact; 3, alphabet tire; 4, plate contacts; 5, wire connections; 6, pin contacts; 7, spring-loaded ring adjusting lever; 8, hub; 9, finger wheel; 10, ratchet wheel.

Figure 8

Figure 1.9 a, Nucleotide. b, Double helix.

Figure 9

Figure 1.10 Stegosaurus.

Figure 10

Figure 1.11 Halstead’s view – Stegosaurus with plates sideways.

Figure 11

Figure 1.12 Cooling tower fans.

Figure 12

Figure 1.13 Goethe’s Urpflanze, or archetypal plant. The individual organs of the plant, the lower simpler leaves, then the more complicated stem leaves, then the sepals, which are again designed quite differently, and the flower petals, which even have a different color than the stem leaves, are all externally different in form from each other, but inwardly in the idea are the same.

Figure 13

Figure 1.14 The tree of life as drawn by Ernst Haeckel in The Evolution of Man with humans at the top.

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  • Rival Paradigms
  • Michael Ruse, Florida State University
  • Book: Understanding the Christianity–Evolution Relationship
  • Online publication: 18 May 2023
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  • Rival Paradigms
  • Michael Ruse, Florida State University
  • Book: Understanding the Christianity–Evolution Relationship
  • Online publication: 18 May 2023
  • Chapter DOI:
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