Bertalanffy, Ludwig von (1901–1972)

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Ludwig von Bertalanffy, one of the chief exponents of the "organismic" standpoint in theoretical biology, was born in Austria in 1901 and educated at the universities of Innsbruck and Vienna. Until 1948 he taught at the University of Vienna, first as an instructor and later as professor of biology in the medical school. He emigrated to Canada in 1949 and held academic posts at the University of Ottawa and the University of Alberta, where he was appointed professor of theoretical biology in 1962. Von Bertalanffy's writings are voluminous, amounting to more than two hundred items. These include scientific papers in such fields as animal growth, cell physiology, experimental embryology, and cancer research. His two best-known books on philosophical biology are Kritische Theorie der Formbildung (Berlin, 1928; translated by J. H. Woodger as Modern Theories of Development, London, 1933) and Das biologische Weltbild (Bern, 1949; translated by the author as Problems of Life, New York, 1960). Since 1950 he had been active in promoting an interdisciplinary field called "General System Theory." The society associated with this enterprise has issued several yearbooks.

Von Bertalanffy contended that neither classical mechanism nor vitalism provides an adequate model for understanding organic phenomena. Vitalism is intellectually sterile because it appeals to a mysterious élan vital, entelechy, or psychoid to account for the properties of living things. Mechanism, von Bertalanffy declared, involves three mistaken conceptions: (1) the "analytical and summative" conception, according to which the goal of biological inquiry is the analysis of organisms into fundamental units and the explaining of organic properties by a simple adding up of these units; (2) the "machine-theoretical" conception, which regards the basis of vital order as a set of preestablished structures or "mechanisms" of a physicochemical kind; and (3) the "reaction-theoretical" conception, according to which organisms are automata, reacting only when subjected to stimulation and otherwise quiescent. These conceptions, von Bertalanffy argued, cannot yield a well-grounded explanatory theory of life.

In place of them he proposed an organismic model on which such a theory can be built. The model represents organisms as wholes or systems that have unique system properties and conform to irreducible system laws. Organic structures result from a continuous flow of processes combining to produce patterns of immense intricacy. Far from being passive automata, living things are centers of activity with a high degree of autonomy. Biological systems are stratified. There is a hierarchy of levels of organization from living molecules to multicellular individuals and supraindividual aggregates. The whole of nature is "a tremendous architecture in which subordinate systems are united at successive levels into ever higher and larger systems."

Von Bertalanffy sought to show that this conception illuminates such matters as embryonic development, genetic processes, growth, self-regulation, metabolism, and evolution. Thus, in embryology it is no longer necessary to take sides in the old contest between preformationism and epigenesis, if we adopt the hypothesis that a fertilized ovum is a system whose development is determined by internal system conditions. Similarly, the ostensible purposefulness manifested by this development is an illustration of the unique property of "equifinality," which marks the behavior of organisms as "open" systems. These systems differ in important respects from the closed systems dealt with by physics. The thermodynamic principles that apply to the two cases are by no means the same. Nevertheless, von Bertalanffy believed that "there are general principles holding for all systems, irrespective of their component elements and of the relations or forces between them." These principles, he thought, can be studied through General System Theory, whose function is to bring about the unity of science.

The organismic conception of life is presented by its author as an intellectual breakthrough that "may well be set beside the great revolutions in human thought." Critics have found this claim extravagant in view of the sketchy and programmatic character of von Bertalanffy's presentation. They contend that the organismic conception has no right to be called "revolutionary" until its merits have been shown in detailed and extensive biological analysis. Nevertheless, von Bertalanffy has called attention to issues of major importance for the future of theoretical biology.

See also Organismic Biology; Philosophy of Biology; Vitalism.


additional works by bertalanffy

"An Outline of General System Theory." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1 (1950): 134165.

"Problems of General System Theory." Human Biology 23 (1951): 302311.

Bertalanffy, Ludwig von, and A. Rapoport, eds. General Systems Yearbook. Published yearly since 1956.

works on bertalanffy

Buck, R. C. "On the Logic of General Behavior Systems Theory." In Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, edited by H. Feigl and M. Scriven. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956. Vol. I, pp. 223238.

Hempel, Carl G. "General System Theory and the Unity of Science." Human Biology 23 (1951): 313327.

Jonas, Hans. "Comment on General System Theory." Human Biology 23 (1951): 328335.

Medawar, P. B. Review of Problems of Life. Mind, 43 (1954): 105108.

T. A. Goudge (1967)