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Physiology: The Language of Life and Nature

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George Rick Welch

This book paints a flowing picture of the relationship beween life and nature, through the evolution of a word – physiology. Today, it denotes a scientific discipline at the intersection of biology and medicine, signifying the «study of life». Yet, physiology manifests a split personality in the course of history. It came down to us from the ancient Greeks, where it represented the «study of nature», or «natural philosophy» – the precursor of modern-day «science». Physiology originates from an older Greek root, physis – meaning «nature» itself – that stretches far back to the birth of Greek thought. How did this word generate two such disparate meanings? What does this word tell us, historically, about humankind’s grasp of the essence of nature and the essence of life – and the interrelationship between the two? The author follows an etymological path into the distant past, in writing the biography of the word «physiology». The book delves into linguistic pre-history, in search of the primordially interwoven views of life and nature – and the words that symbolized those views. It tracks the evolving meaning of those words in Western civilization across time, space, language, and culture.
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Chapter 7: Physiologia Gives Birth to Physiology

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Chapter 7Physiologia Gives Birth to Physiology

          Physiology, noun

          1.   Natural philosophy, natural science. Also: a particular system or doctrine of natural science. Obsolete

          2.   The branch of science that deals with the normal functioning of living organisms and their systems and organs. Also: the functional processes of an organism, organ, or system. Also figurative

– Oxford English Dictionary

7.1   From Physiologia to Physiology

          So, if the parts of a complete Medicine are set in order, physiology will be the first of all; it concerns itself with the nature of the wholly healthy human being, all the powers and functions.

– Jean Fernel, Universa medicina (1567)

The beginning of the Scientific Revolution is commonly dated to 1543, with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium celestium, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” (or “Heavenly Orbs”), which decentered the earth from its ancient, sacrosanct position in the Cosmos – and which, ultimately, signalled that humankind itself has no special place in the natural order of things. In that same year, the highly venerated Andreas Vesalius produced his famous De humani corporis fabrica, “On the Fabric of the Human Body,” which ushered the study of human anatomy into the new “scientific” era. “Traditionally,” as remarked by Ball (2006), these two individuals are glorified as “the scientific Luthers” who “reinvented the outer and the inner worlds of humankind.” The year before the appearance of these two celebrated works, a...

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