Biology 1907 Informative Summary


This lecture, delivered in 1907 at Columbia University, tackles the core question in biology: how does life relate to the non-living world? The author, Edmund Beecher Wilson, a prominent zoologist, presents a compelling argument for the mechanistic view of life, asserting that the living body can be understood as a complex machine, governed by physical and chemical processes. He highlights the success of this approach in analyzing complex phenomena like heredity, where Mendel’s law demonstrates a clear mechanism for the transmission of traits.

However, Wilson acknowledges that the mechanistic view struggles to fully explain certain adaptive phenomena like lens regeneration in salamander tadpoles. This phenomenon, where a new lens is formed from a different source than the original, challenges the mechanistic approach and opens the door for alternative interpretations, potentially involving a form of “intelligence” or “psychoid” beyond the physical realm. Wilson, though ultimately committed to the mechanistic program, encourages continued research and exploration of these enigmatic phenomena.

Key Findings:

  • The mechanistic view of life, which considers organisms as machines, has proven to be a highly fruitful approach for understanding biological phenomena.
  • Mendel’s law of heredity provides strong evidence for a mechanistic explanation of inheritance, suggesting that hereditary characters behave in a predictable and quantifiable manner.
  • The regeneration of the lens in salamander tadpoles presents a significant challenge to the mechanistic view, suggesting the existence of complex regulatory mechanisms beyond current understanding.
  • The origin of adaptations, the “fit” of organisms to their environment, remains a central question in evolutionary theory. Natural selection, while providing a powerful mechanism for survival, fails to fully explain the origin of these adaptations.
  • The nature of variations and mutations, whether they are random or directed, remains a key area of research in evolutionary biology.


  • The Mechanistic View of Life: The lecture introduces the idea that life can be understood as a complex machine, with its functions determined by its physical and chemical makeup. This concept has driven much of biological research, leading to significant discoveries in areas like heredity.
  • Mendel’s Law of Heredity: Learn about Mendel’s pioneering work on the inheritance of traits, and how it provides a quantitative and mechanistic framework for understanding heredity.
  • The Challenge of Adaptation: The lecture highlights the difficulty of explaining complex adaptations, like lens regeneration, solely through a mechanistic lens, suggesting that there may be factors at play that are not yet fully understood.
  • The Debate on Evolution: The lecture explores the ongoing debate surrounding the mechanisms of evolution, particularly the role of natural selection and the nature of variations.
  • The Limitations of Scientific Knowledge: Wilson’s approach emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the limitations of current knowledge and the need for continued research to address unresolved questions in biology.

Historical Context:

This lecture was delivered at a pivotal time in the history of biology. Darwin’s theory of evolution had been widely accepted, but there was still much debate about its mechanisms. The mechanistic view of life was gaining ground, but certain biological phenomena, like adaptation, posed significant challenges to this approach.


  1. The living body is a complex chemical engine. This fact is supported by the observation that the body utilizes the energy from food to perform life processes.
  2. Digestion is a purely chemical process. This has been demonstrated by scientists who have replicated the process of digestion outside of the living body in a laboratory setting.
  3. The elephant has a trunk because it needs it. This illustrates the concept of adaptation, where organisms develop specific traits to better survive in their environment.
  4. Life is the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations. This definition of life, attributed to Herbert Spencer, emphasizes the constant interaction between organisms and their environments.
  5. Life is “response to the order of nature.” This definition, proposed by Professor Brooks, highlights the dynamic interplay between organisms and the natural laws that govern them.
  6. Nature is full of devices to protect and maintain the organism. This includes structural features like protective shells, camouflage, and tendrils used for support.
  7. Rubbing a spot on the skin can lead to the formation of a callus. This exemplifies a functional adaptation, where the body modifies itself in response to external stimuli.
  8. Removing one kidney or lung can lead to the remaining one enlarging. This demonstrates the remarkable ability of the body to compensate for lost organs.
  9. Amputated limbs can be regenerated in some animals. This is a striking example of the body’s ability to restore lost tissues and organs.
  10. Cutting a flatworm in two can lead to the formation of two complete worms. This illustrates the remarkable regenerative capabilities of some organisms.
  11. Salamander eggs can be separated to produce twins. This demonstrates the potential for developmental plasticity in some organisms.
  12. Mendel’s law of heredity demonstrates a clear mechanism for the transmission of traits. This principle suggests that hereditary characters behave in a predictable and quantifiable manner.
  13. Hereditary characters undergo combinations, disassociations, and recombinations. This suggests a possible analogy to chemical reactions, where compounds are combined and separated according to specific rules.
  14. The hereditary organization can be designated by symbols or formulas. This reflects the quantifiable nature of hereditary processes.
  15. The germ-cells of a hybrid contain only one character or the other. This is a key aspect of Mendel’s law, where the hybrid offspring inherits only one parental trait.
  16. Fertilization occurs randomly, leading to different combinations of characters in offspring. This explains the variation observed in populations, where different traits are inherited based on random chance.
  17. The lens of the salamander eye is not regenerated from the same material as the original. This intriguing phenomenon challenges the simple mechanistic explanation for tissue repair.
  18. The new lens in salamanders is formed from the iris. This demonstrates the remarkable ability of the body to utilize different tissues for regeneration.
  19. The theory of natural selection fails to fully explain the origin of adaptations. While natural selection favors traits that increase survival, it does not explain how those traits arise in the first place.
  20. The debate on whether variations are random or directed continues. This is a fundamental question in evolutionary biology, with implications for understanding the mechanisms of evolution.


  1. Four grandparents, three pure white albinos, and one pure black mouse. This illustrates the complexity of the hereditary experiment with mice, which involves several generations and different parental traits.
  2. Eight different kinds of mice were produced in the experiment. This demonstrates the wide range of potential combinations of traits in offspring, based on the principles of Mendel’s law.
  3. The observed results of the experiment were closely matched to the theoretical prediction. This validates the accuracy of the Mendelian model in predicting hereditary outcomes.
  4. Three individuals showing the dominant character to one showing the recessive character. This is the fundamental Mendelian ratio for a single pair of contrasting characters, indicating the predictable distribution of traits in offspring.
  5. A large number of mice would have produced an even closer correspondence between observed and calculated results. This reflects the power of statistical analysis in validating scientific predictions, where larger sample sizes provide more robust results.


  1. Biology: The study of living organisms, encompassing a wide range of sub-disciplines.
  2. Mechanism: The underlying physical or chemical processes that govern a system.
  3. Adaptation: A trait or characteristic that allows an organism to survive and reproduce better in its environment.
  4. Vital principle: A hypothetical force or entity that was once believed to be responsible for life’s unique qualities.
  5. Metabolism: The chemical processes that occur within living organisms, essential for life’s functions.
  6. Heredity: The passing of traits from parents to offspring.
  7. Mendel’s law: Principles governing the inheritance of traits, based on the work of Gregor Mendel.
  8. Dominant character: A trait that is expressed in offspring even when only one copy of the gene is present.
  9. Recessive character: A trait that is only expressed in offspring when two copies of the gene are present.
  10. Orthogenesis: The theory that evolution proceeds along definite lines, driven by a “driving force” rather than random variations.


  1. The elephant’s trunk: This adaptation allows the elephant to reach food and water, compensate for its lack of flexibility, and defend itself against predators.
  2. The callus formation on skin: This is a functional adaptation, where the body modifies itself to protect against repeated rubbing or pressure.
  3. The enlargement of a single kidney or lung: This demonstrates the body’s ability to compensate for lost organs, ensuring continued function.
  4. The regeneration of a salamander’s limb: This remarkable process highlights the body’s ability to restore lost tissues and organs.
  5. The development of twins from a separated salamander egg: This showcases the potential for developmental plasticity in some organisms, where a single embryo can divide to form two individuals.
  6. The inheritance of color in mice: This example illustrates the application of Mendel’s law, where specific combinations of genes lead to predictable color variations in offspring.
  7. The regeneration of a lens in a salamander tadpole: This fascinating phenomenon defies a simple mechanistic explanation, suggesting the existence of complex regulatory mechanisms.
  8. The evolution of the giraffe’s neck: This adaptation, which allows the giraffe to reach leaves in tall trees, is often cited as an example of natural selection at work.
  9. The development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria: This is a classic example of evolution in action, where bacteria adapt to the presence of antibiotics, leading to their continued survival.
  10. The diversity of life on Earth: This vast array of organisms, each with its unique adaptations, showcases the power of evolution in shaping life forms.


This 1907 lecture by Edmund Beecher Wilson provides a fascinating glimpse into the state of biological thinking at the beginning of the 20th century. It highlights the ongoing debate surrounding the mechanistic vs. vitalistic views of life, showcasing the tension between the desire to understand life through physical and chemical processes and the recognition of phenomena that defy easy explanation.

The lecture also explores the key questions of evolution, particularly the role of natural selection and the nature of adaptations. While the mechanistic view offers a powerful framework for understanding many biological processes, it is evident that there are still fundamental questions about life and its evolution that remain unresolved. Wilson’s approach, grounded in careful observation, experimentation, and a willingness to acknowledge the limits of current knowledge, remains a valuable guide for biological research today.

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