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Holism

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HOLISM. Holism (from the Gr. Holos, whole) is the theory which makes the existence of "wholes" a fundamental feature of the world. It regards natural objects, both animate and inanimate, as wholes and not merely as assemblages of elements or parts. It looks upon nature as consisting of discrete, concrete bodies and things, and not as a diffusive homogeneous continuum. And these bodies or things are not entirely resolvable into parts; in one degree or another they are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts, and the mechanical putting together of their parts will not produce them or account for their characters and be haviour. The so-called parts are in fact not real but largely abstract analytical distinctions, and do not properly or ade quately express what has gone to the making of the thing as a whole.

Holism and Science.-.Holism

is therefore a view-point addi tional and complementary to that of science, whose keywords are continuity and mechanism. The ideal of science is continuity, and its method is based on the analysis of things into more or less constant elements or parts, the sum of whose actions account for the behaviour of these things. Things thus become mecha nisms of their parts ; and the interactions of their invariable parts in a homogeneous time and space according to the rules of mechanics are sufficient to account for all their properties. This mechanistic scheme applies even to living bodies, as their material structures determine the functions which constitute life charac ters. Mind is similarly, though much more doubtfully, based on physical mechanisms and functions. Life and mind are thus con s'dered as derivative and epiphenomenal to matter. The validity of this simple scientific scheme of things has been commonly, but never universally, accepted even among scientists. The inf erier position it assigns to mind has remained an insuperable difficulty. And many biologists have also viewed its account of life as inade quate, and have supported the plea for vitalism or for life as a real force or factor additional to those which operate on the physical plane. Finally the scientific scheme has been seriously undermined by the most recent discoveries in physical and mathe matical science, which have resolved matter into variable energy, have destroyed the homogeneity of space and time, and have thereby shaken the whole basis of fixed standards and accurate measurements on which the mechanistic scheme is founded. The value of the mechanistic concept for research is not questioned, but it can no longer be considered as a true index of the con crete character of the universe and its contents. Holism is an attempt to explore an alternative scheme which will yet avoid the pitfalls of vitalism.

What Are Wholes?-.What

is involved in the concept of a whole? In the first place, in so far as a whole is considered as consisting of parts or elements, they cannot be fixed, constant, or unalterable. To be parts in a whole they must be pliant, flexible and mouldable. Their adjustment in a whole implies their flexi bility and adjustability. It must be possible for the part to be different in the whole from what it is outside the whole; and in different wholes it must be different in each case from what it is in its separate state. The atoms of matter and the electrons and protons of atoms are on this view not constant and identical throughout, either in their isolated states or in the wholes of atoms, molecules and compounds which they compose. They are variable, although the limits of variation may be too small for measurement or observation. In so far as physical substances are wholes, their elements cannot be constant and unalterable, as they must be adjustable to the pattern of these wholes. In the second place, in so far as the elements or parts cohere and coalesce into the structure or pattern of a whole, the whole must itself be an active factor or influence among them ; otherwise it is impossible to understand how the unity of a new pattern arises from its ele ments. Whole and parts mutually and reciprocally influence and modify each other; the one is pliant to and moulded by the other; the parts are moulded and adjusted by the whole, just as the whole in turn depends on the co-operation of its parts. The adjustive, directive, controlling influence of the whole is just as real as the role which the parts play in the make-up of the whole.

Holism and Evolution.

The concept of the whole as applied to natural objects thus implies two great departures from the or thodox scientific scheme. In the first place, matter, life and mind do not consist of fixed, constant and unalterable elements. And in the second place, besides the parts or the elements in things, there is another active factor (the whole) which science does not recognize at all. The whole has an influence and an effect all its own. Natural objects, inanimate as well as animate, are flexible patterns in which whole and parts influence and mould each other, and constitute a mobile dynamic equilibrium of all the elements involved. And in the dynamic variation of patterns which we call evolution the complexity of texture and unity of type increase pari passu from the earliest chemical beginnings to the highest mental levels. Evolution is just this progressive com plexifying of parts or co-operating elements, with a simultaneous increase in unity of pattern with which they are blended. It is thus a rising series of wholes, from the simplest material patterns to the most advanced, which involve a complication of material, physiological and psychical elements, but with the aspect of unity, inner direction- and central control always increasing. In other words, wholeness or holism characterizes the entire process of evolution, in an ever-increasing measure. And the process is con tinuous in the sense that the older types of wholes or patterns are not discarded but become the starting-point and the ele ments of the newer, more advanced patterns. Thus the material chemical patterns are incorporated into the biological patterns, and both of them into the subsequent psychical patterns or wholes. Each series of wholes progresses both in complexity of elements and unity of pattern up to a point, when it more or less suddenly mutates or swings into a new rhythm or type of pattern, which again shows the same holistic development, until it in turn gives birth to a new and higher type. While the lower grades are more mechanical, and the higher grades more holistic, the movement throughout is towards more and ever more wholeness. The cen tral feature or character of the cosmic movement is therefore towards wholeness or holism. Electrons and protons, atoms and molecules, inorganic and organic compounds, colloids, proto plasm, plants and animals, minds and personalities are but some steps in this movement of holism.

Holism in Biology.

Organisms or biological wholes are not isolated units, but are genetically related, and arise as variations from each other. And they do not exist apart from their sur roundings (which are themselves complexes of wholes) but on the contrary are in continuous contact with them, and evolve and vary partly in response to the stimulus which comes from them. The evolving wholes are in close and responsive relation to their environment, the influence of which on them is in part temporary, and confined to the individual duration of each whole, and in part (in so far as the racial links or germ-cells are affected and stimu lated) perpetuated through generations of wholes. Whether in any case this influence is temporary or hereditary is a question of fact, to be ascertained by observation, and not by theoretical reasoning, as many geneticists have argued. The view of organ isms as wholes, instead of mere mechanisms, and of their varia tions and genetic evolution as holistic is important, and gives the right orientation for the solution of biological problems. Thus variations are not isolated products of individual factors or genes, but are the expression of the total energy or developmental tend ency of animals and plants (as wholes). The variation is holistic, that is to say, is the outcome of the total tendency of the organ ism, and not merely of a part of it. On no other principle is it possible to explain the interim survival of small or incipient vari ations, or of collateral variations emerging in associated groups, as they are too weak to fend for themselves ; and can only be kept going by the entire weight of the organism behind them. In fact, the "selection" of the new variation is in such cases not the exter nal natural selection to which Darwin attributed such importance, but the internal "holistic selection" due to the functioning of the animal or plant constitution as a whole. The subject is important but cannot be pursued further in this summary. (See Holism and Evolution, ch. viii.)

wholes, elements, patterns, influence, scheme, pattern and evolution