The Folly of Reductionism


Reductionism is a common belief among scientists and researchers in Western medicine. The idea is that anything can best be understood by looking at its parts. When you comprehend how each part works then you can appreciate the thing of which they are a part.

This is the way I was trained in veterinary school. When studying anatomy, we started with a dead, preserved animal body. We examined the skin, fur, and other superficial structures. Then we cut deeper to look at the muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. We went still deeper to the bones and internal organs.

Along the way, we learned a lot about the body, but unlearned the true “meaning” of the animal itself. In the end, it was hard to identify the species that we started with. In fact, what we really learned was to see every animal as a lump of meat. We had to become hardened to the animal in front of us. There was no way we could cut a body to pieces thinking about how this dog was once someone’s best friend.

In the end, reductionism does not work. It goes something like this: we can best understand an animal by understanding the organs and tissues that make it up. We can best understand the organs and tissues by understanding the cells they are made of. We can best understand the cells by understanding the organelles within each cell. We can best understand the organelles by understanding the molecules they are made of. We can best understand the molecules by understanding their constituent atoms. We can best understand the atoms by understanding the sub-atomic particles. OOPS!

It turns out that sub-atomic particles are pretty hard to understand. For example, such a particle can have the properties of a wave at one time and the properties of a particle at another time. Since waves and particles have very different abilities (waves bend around an object and particles do not) it is impossible to understand subatomic particles using any logic we know of.

So, if you cannot understand subatomic particles it follows that you cannot understand atoms which means you cannot understand molecules which means you cannot understand organelles which means you cannot understand cells and on up the line. You cannot fully understand anything by simply understanding its parts.

There is more to a pet than flesh and blood. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts! This is the holistic philosophy in a nut shell.

Next week I’ll write about how the struggle between the holistic philosophy and reductionism applies to nutrition.

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