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Zeit- und Streitfragen der Biologie


FROM the title of this work one might have expected a critical examination of the validity of the general principles of modern biology, more particularly of modern physiology; and such a criticism, from the pen of Dr. Oscar Hertwig, would have been welcome and instructive. It is with a feeling of disappointment that one finds that his criticism is almost entirely confined to a comparatively limited aspect of the question, and is, in fact, a polemical treatise directed especially against the pretensions and conclusions of Wilhelm Roux and his school. It is, no doubt, a simpler task to refute the theories of Roux; but if Dr. Oscar Hertwig is victorious in this particular argument, it must not be supposed that he has weakened, or that he has even attempted to weaken, the conviction held by the majority of biologists, that the explanation of vital processes is to be sought for on “mechanical” principles. There is, however, a considerable amount of obscurity attached to this word “mechanical” as applied to biological phenomena, and many pages of this book are devoted to pointing out the errors into which we may be led if we use the word in a loose and general sense, or if we confuse its philosophical with its physical meaning. In its widest sense a mechanism is a system of objects, which in place and time stand in a necessary relation to one another. Hence, when we describe the attitude of contemporary science as mechanical, we do but assert that science is convinced that the operations of nature are subject to the control of universal law. Of this the biological are as much convinced as the abiological sciences; yet this conviction does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the methods of the abiological are in all respects applicable to the biological sciences. To discuss this question is to discuss the philosophical basis not only of biology, but of all the sciences. As a contribution to the discussion, Dr. Hertwig gives us copious quotations from Spinoza, Kant, Letze and other philosophers, skilfully selecting such passages from these thinkers as best serve his immediate purpose of refuting Roux. His readers would have profited had he taken a more detached view of his subject, and had attempted to define the grounds of our belief in the prevalence of universal law n biological phenomena without special regard to Roux or any other author.

Zeit- und Streitfragen der Biologie.

Heft 2. Mechanik und Biologie. Von Prof. Dr. Oscar Hertwig. Pp. iv + 211. (Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1897.)

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Zeit- und Streitfragen der Biologie. Nature 56, 98–100 (1897).

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