Donald C. Mikulecky, Professor of Physiology

Office: 3-012E Sanger Hall, East Campus, Office phone : 828-4500

EMAIL:, Home Page:


Summer 2000: Tuesdays, July 18, - August 15, 2:00-4:30 PM, Bus. 1116B 


                                               BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF MODULE:


We will be discussing modern views of the uniqueness of living systems. This will include a review of the historical reasons for the rejection of vitalism and the subsequent dominance of Cartesian reductionism.  Holistic and reductionist approaches will be contrasted. The relationship of biology to physics and chemistry will be critically examined.  Social change is deeply involved in these issues in the areas of health care reform, genetic engineering, and others.  The influence of reductionist thinking on these social issues will be foremost in our discussions.




Rosen, R. (1999) Essays on Life Itself, Columbia Univ. Press, NY


Available in the VCU Bookstore

 Some Useful definitions (Appendices to syllabus)



The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture by Fritjof Capra, Bantam Books, 1982.


The Dialectical Biologist by R. Levins and R. Lewontin Harvard, Cambridge, MA, 1885. 




Students will be asked to choose topics for a short (around 10 double-spaced typewritten pages [it need not be typed]) paper due at the end of the Summer Session (August 17, 2000).  These may be turned in to the Honors Program Office or to me directly.  Class participation in discussions and the paper will be the two evaluation tools. Each will count 50% . One goal of the essay will be the integration of the course material into other aspects of the student's work.  Another will be to try to write as an integral member of the class as a group.  This may be significantly different from expectations in other courses, so please try to understand these guidelines.  A full 15% of the evaluation of the paper will be based on how well each paper is part of a composite whole.  This can be achieved in a number of ways.  One which I provide is to require each of you to write a proposal due on the second day, July 25, 2000 (This mandatory, no excuses accepted!), which will be distributed to all your classmates.  The way to earn the credit for group participation is to heed the proposals and class discussions and write about them in your paper. [PLEASE MAKE ENOUGH COPIES OF YOUR PROPOSAL FOR EVERYONE IN THE CLASS.]  This is one class where collaboration and working together with one or more of your classmates will not only be recognized, but is required!  The remainder of the grade for your paper will be distributed as follows:


Overall quality  25%

Understanding of concepts in handouts and lecture/discussion 25%

Organization 10%

Use of references (This includes class discussion and internet material as well as e-mail discussions) 15%



FORMAT FOR PROPOSAL: (One page will suffice)


            Background:  Why is this a good subject? what makes it worth writing about?


            Goals: What do you hope to achieve in this paper?


            Methods: How do you expect to achieve these goals?





This module is self-contained, but also the first in a series of related modules.


Second module: "New models of living systems" introduces the impact of Chaos and Fractal Geometry on the way we view living systems.  The failure of reductionism to survive these new findings presents an interesting juncture between eastern and western philosophy and foretells a revolution in science.  Some simple examples of fractals and chaotic dynamics are presented and the impact of such models on our interpretation of mechanistic views of life is examined.


Third module: "Neural networks, artificial intelligence, artificial life and societal control: do we control technology or does it control us?" We examine the impact of these new technologies on our freedom of choice and our ability to control our own destiny.  The man-machine interface in the age of neural network technology and artificial intelligence will be discussed in detail.  An effort will be made to understand the capacity and limits of machine intelligence.  The impact of computers and telecommunications on all aspects of our lives will be examined.  The goal will be to arrive at some strategy for human and humane control over these influences in the coming century.

 Other material related to course on Dr. Mikulecky's WEBPAGE





First meeting (Tuesday, July 18, 2000) Introduction: 


I.                    Introduction to This Module

II.                 Class discussion on :


      Vitalism, Where it came from and why it became ridiculed.

      Descartes' reductionism and the machine metaphor: The birth of modern science.

      Newton's paradigm.

      A modern vitalism and its rational basis.

      The relation between biology and the other natural sciences.

      The failure of the Newtonian paradigm in biology.


III.               The appendices to the syllabus


Second Meeting (Tuesday, July 25, 2000):  Discussion of Text Topics:



      Introduction to Part I: On Biology and Physics

      Chapter 3:  What is Biology?


Third Meeting (Tuesday, August 1, 2000): Discussion of Text Topics:


      Introduction to Part III: On Genericity

      Chapter 9: Genericity as Information

      Chapter 10: Syntactics and Semantics in Languages


Fourth Meeting: (Tuesday, August 8, 2000): Discussion of Text Topics:

      Introduction to Part IV:  Similarity and Dissimilarity in Biology

      Chapter 16: Order and Disorder in Biological Control Systems

      Chapter 17: What Does it Take to Make an Organism?


Fifth Meeting:  (Tuesday, August 15, 2000): Discussion of Text Topics:


      Introduction to Part V:  On Biology and Technology

      Chapter 18: Some lessons of Biology

      Chapter 20:  On the Phiolosophy of Craft


Papers due at the end of the Summer Session (August 17, 2000)


Possible Topics for Papers:


The topic for your paper can be selected from the provided list or some other topic may be substituted with my approval.


Possible topics for paper:


Parallels between the holism-reductionism approaches in biology and another field (possibly yours if it isn't biology).


The new vitalism and the future of our planet (ecological ramifications).


Has science become too commercial? (Pro or con).


Is there a place for teleology in science?


Science in the service of mankind.


Is there a difference between science and technology?

The impact of science on medicine.


The two cultures: science and values in the modern technological  world.


Is vitalism a valid concept?


Descartes: origins of dualism and mechanism.


What constitutes an explanation?  Mechanistic vs. relational 

approaches to knowing.


The contrast between Eastern and Western philosophy and the ongoing revolution in science.


Are organisms machines?


Environment or Gaia: Is earth "alive"?


Biology: More general than physics and chemistry, or a special case?


The role of theory vs. empiricism in science.


The emerging science of complexity.


Health care reform:  Is it related to the reductionist/holism debate?


The role of the mind in healing.




Briggs, J.  and David Peat, Turbulent Mirror  Harper & Row, 1989.

Waldrop, M. M. (1992) Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, Touchstone, N. Y.

Lewin, R. (1992) Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, Collier Books, N. Y.

Levy, S. (1992 )  Artificial Life, Pantheon, NY.

Bohm,D. (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge,

Kegan and Paul, London.

Rosen, R. (1991) Life Itself, Columbia Univ. Press, NY

Broad, W. and N. Wade (1982) Betrayers of the Truth, Simon and Schuster, N. Y.

Peacocke, A.R. (1985) Reductionism in academic disciplines  SRHE & NFER-Nelson, Surrey.

Peck, M. S. (1983) People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, Simon and Shuster, N. Y.

Rose, S., L. J. Kamin & R. C. Lewontin (1984) Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature, Penguin, N. Y.

Rose, H. and S. Rose, eds. (1976) Ideology of/in the Natural Sciences, Shenkman, Cambridge, MA.

Roszak, T. (1974) The monster and the titan: Science, Knowledge, and Gnosis, in Science and its Public: The Changing Relationship,Proc. Am. Acad. Arts and Sci. 103:17-32. 

Rosen,R., Anticipatory systems, Pergamon, London (1985). 

Rosen,R., Theoretical Biology and Complexity, Academic Press, London (1985). 

Peacocke, A. R., An Introduction to the physical chemistry of biological organization, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1983).