The Origins and Development of the Idea of Organism-Environment Interaction

  • Trevor PearceEmail author
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 4)


The idea of organism-environment interaction, at least in its modern form, dates only to the mid-nineteenth century. After sketching the origins of the organism-environment dichotomy in the work of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, I will chart its metaphysical and methodological influence on later scientists and philosophers such as Conwy Lloyd Morgan and John Dewey. In biology and psychology, the environment was seen as a causal agent, highlighting questions of organismic variation and plasticity. In philosophy, organism-environment interaction provided a new foundation for ethics, politics, and scientific inquiry. Thinking about organism-environment interaction became indispensable, for it had restructured our view of the biological and social world.


Original Emphasis Baldwin Effect Pragmatist Philosophy Congenital Variation Speculative Psychology 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am grateful to Gillian Barker and Eric Desjardins for comments on this chapter. I also received helpful feedback on earlier versions from audiences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and at the “Romanticism & Evolution” conference at Western University. Research for the chapter was made possible by generous funding from the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Finally, thanks to the Center for Dewey Studies at SIU-Carbondale, the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Natural History for providing access to archival materials and permission to reproduce some of those materials here.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of North Carolina at CharlotteCharlotteUSA

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