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Friday, January 26, 2007

Lorenz Oken, famous anatomist of the pig

Last year, my web buddy, IT, turned me on to Ludwig (“Theses on”) Feuerbach. My notion of Feuerbach was vague – that he played a bit part role in the tragedy of Marx was the extent of it. Was he Rosencranz? Guildenstern? Well, I learned that he was no strolling player, but had important things to say about the very species essence of man, and was capable of putting on the Ritz, philosophically speaking, all by himself.

This year, I want to repay my debt by informing IT, via this post, if she reads it, about Lorenz Oken. Oken is known for having made up the term “cell” and being one of the founding fathers of biology. But he was also a follower of Schelling – meaning that he was always liable to loon like effusions of systematicity. His Physiophilosophy, which I stumbled on yesterday via The Scenes of Inquiry by Nicholas Jardine, is, by LI’s dubious lights, an incredible funhouse. It begins with Mathesis (which should warm the heart of a Badiou-ian), in which various sage and exciting and rather hard to pin down remarks about zero are made, and proceeds to ontology, physiology, and the meaning of life. The whole gives the impression of some rare work of perfect outsider art. Here’s a sample of Oken’s claims and method, as well as a moment of true psychotic breakdown in the patriarchy:


2315. Since the male sex is related to the female, as corolla to capsule, as leaf to stalk, as air to water, and as light to matter; so it is related also as integument to intestine, as lung to lymphatic vessel, as artery to vein, as nerve to flesh or muscle, as Animal to Vegetative.
2316. Copulation is therefore an irradiation.
2317. Already, in the course of the heavenly bodies, has the highest act of the animal, that of copulation, been preindicated or portrayed. The creation of the universe or world is itself nothing but an act of impregnation. The sex is prognosticated from the beginning, and pursues its course like a holy and conservative bond throughout the whole of nature. He therefore who so much as questions the sex in the organic world, comprehends not the riddle or problem of the univers.
2318. If the female parts have effected a complete transition into the male, so are the sexes necessarily separate and distinct.
2319. Since the male parts are the female that have been more highly developed, so there resides in the latter the constant conatus or effort to convert themselves into the male…

2321. Gestation or pregnancy is none other than the propensity of the Female to convert itself into the Male. “

Stephen Jay Gould happens to have examined Oken pretty carefully in his book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Gould always cautions against making fun of past scientists. Here’s how he introduces Oken:

“Lorenz Oken's Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie appeared in three parts from 1809–1811. It is a listing of 3,562 statements, taking all knowledge for its province, and filled with bald, oracular pronouncements of the engaging sort that feign profundity but dissolve into emptiness upon close inspection. It is also responsible for Oken's bad reputation as the most idle (if cosmic) speculator of a school rife with unreason. In fact, Oken was one of the best comparative anatomists and embryologists of his day; his works on the embryology of the pig and dog (1806) are classics (he was also an influential, if naive, political thinker of liberal to radical bent—see Raikov, 1969).”

Perhaps the radicalism is why Engels makes small note of him in the Dialectic of Nature as a man who wants to make his way by pure thought into the secrets of nature.

“In Oken (Haeckel, p. 85: et seq.) the nonsense that has arisen from the dualism between natural science and philosophy is evident. By the path of thought, Oken discovers protoplasm and the cell, but it does not occur to anyone to follow up the matter along the lines of natural-scientific investigation – it is to be accomplished by thinking! And when protoplasm and the cell were discovered, Oken was in general disrepute!”

Here’s another, extended passage about Oken from Gould:
“Yet Oken's most pervasive principle is his own version of the single developmental tendency: all development begins with a primal zero and progresses to complexity by the successive addition of organs in a determined sequence. This law holds for all developmental processes: human ontogeny, the historical sequence of species, the evolution of the earth itself: "If we take a retrospective glance at the development of the planet, we find that it commenced with the simplest actions, and then assumed a more elevated character by gradually drawing together several actions and letting them work in common" (p. 178).
The sequence of additions follows Oken's ordering of the four Greek elements. Translated into the organs of animals, this sequence includes:
1. Earth processes—nutrition.
2. Water processes—digestion.
3. Air processes—respiration.
4. Aether (fire) processes—motion.
Man contains all organs within himself; thus he represents the entire world; "in the profoundest, truest sense . . . a microcosm" (p. 202). "Man is the summit, the crown of nature's development, and must comprehend everything that has preceded him . . . In a word, Man must represent the whole world in miniature" (p. 12). All lower animals, as imperfect or incomplete humans, contain fewer than the total set of organs. "The animal kingdom," wrote Oken in his most famous pronouncement, "is only a dismemberment of the highest animal, i.e. of Man" (p. 494). The position of any animal upon the single chain of classification depends upon the number of organs it possesses: "Animals are gradually perfected, entirely like the single animal body, by adding organ unto organ . . . An animal, which e.g. lived only as an intestine, would be, doubtless inferior to one which with the intestine were to combine a skin" (p. 494).”

The notion of mixing up evolution and complexity still lures the unwary. There’s a rather horrible book, Non-Zero, which is in this tradition and made a splash about six years ago. – I reviewed that in the Austin Chronicle if any reader is interested in the archives.
I’ll have more to say about Oken in a later post.

1 comment:

winna said...

More, please!