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Physiology: The Language of Life and Nature


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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(or, an Apology to the Reader)

          Occasionally people make the mistake of asking me where a word comes from. They never make that mistake twice.

        – Mark Forsyth, The Etymologicon (2011)

I must begin with an apology to the reader, for my obsession (I prefer the word love) for words. This book is the story of a particular word, physiology. Looking at the jargon of modern-day science, one encounters widespread usage of such terms as “physiology,” “physics,” “physician,” inter alia. These expressions dot much of the verbal landscape of today’s science and medicine. It is rather obvious that they originated from a shared source. This monograph grew out of a simple question, which has been on my mind for a long while: How, why, when, and where did these words branch from an older, common root – to produce the etymological tree that we see today? Physiology manifests a split personality in the course of history, including both the study of “nature” and the study of “life.” How the language of life and the language of nature branched-out and splintered into the linguistic forms that we see today, I felt, was a story worth telling. This book emerged as a flowing study of life and nature, as revealed through the evolution a word – physiology.

I should state at the outset, that I am not, by profession, a historian of science, nor am I a philosopher of science. My background is in basic science. The...

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