Grey Room

Environments of Experimentation and Epistemologies of Surroundings: John Scott Haldane’s Physiology and Biopolitics of the Living

Florian Sprenger


In 1928, the editors of Nature summarized centuries worth of speculation on “the meaning and source of life” and summarily dismissed all of “those— fewer now than a century ago—who drew a sharp line of distinction between the living and the non-living, between the inorganic and the organic world.” Presented under the weighty title “Life and Death,” the anonymous editorial appealed to recent developments in chemistry, physics, and biology pertaining to the study of life and underscored the lack of a unified theory of life within the biological sciences, considering the period’s prevailing disciplinary debates about vitalism and mechanism. If the organic could no longer be taken, in the editors’ opinion, to differ from the inorganic in terms of the former’s presumed animation with a vital force, and a purely mechanical explanation of life with reference to the latter no longer provided a satisfactory explanation of the “origin of life,” then the possibility of escaping from these deadlocked positions depended on the adoption of a relatively novel conceptual framework. The organism was henceforth to be understood only through its relations with its environment, whether in the exchange of matter and energy necessary for survival, the evolutionary relations of adaptation, or other kinds of interrelated interdependency.