16 March 2011

L. J. Henderson on physiology (continued)

L. J. Henderson (1878-1942)
Henderson's (1913) study The Fitness of the Environment asserts that there are two ways of understanding life. The first, the perhaps more obvious way, is to study life with special attention to the fitness of organisms for their environment. The supposed corollary - the focus of Henderson's study - is to examine the fitness of the environment for life. In this passage, Henderson's program is stated with startling clarity:

It must not be supposed that the phenomena of adsorption in biology are simple and exactly understood. What is certain is that they are universal and that surface tension lies at the root of the matter. This is because all living things are colloidal, and I am inclined to think that most physiologists will admit that life without colloids is probably unthinkable, even in a world very differently constituted from our own. Colloidal structures are, in fact, the first and greatest factors in physical complexity of organization, and the principal force, unless it be in exceptional cases an electrical charge due to ions, which operates upon the colloidal structures is surface tension. This, then, is another striking fitness of water above all other things.
Several physiologists point to Henderson's book as the seminal text for neurophysiology. I confess that I have not yet been able to understand why Henderson thought this view of the environment important, or, for that matter, to understand why biophysicists should be so impressed by his work. (I wonder what Loeb thought of it.)

One observation I would make about the text is that Henderson seems to think that his argument is with the authors of the "Bridgewater Treatises" and especially with Whewell and Prout. I wonder if this was a common aspect of Harvard intellectualism at the turn of the 19th century (i.e. authors saw themselves in terms of the great debates of the modern age).

Henderson writes at the end of his chapter on water:
In truth Darwinian fitness is a perfectly reciprocal relationship. In the world of modern science a fit organism inhabits a fit environment.