Wee blog of a human being working as an osteopath

Chapter 18 – A feeling for the organism

Recently, I came across a book called A Feeling for the Organism, by Evelyn Fox Keller. The book is about the life and work of Barbara McClintock, an American scientist, and cytogeneticist who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. What I found of utter interest is not her discoveries (I am not a cytogeneticist), but her method that led her to what she discovered. And I don’t think the method is too far from what we do with our patients. I will focus on the 12th chapter of the book because that’s where she talks about it the most. A link to the chapter will be given in MIND 02-2024, at the end of the month.

But the story of McClintock’s contributions to biology has another, less accessible, aspect. What is it in an individual scientist’s relation to nature that facilitates the kind of seeing that eventually leads to productive discourse? What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?

Her answer is simple. Over and over again, she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to “hear what the material has to say to you,” the openness to “let it come to you.” Above all, one must have “a feeling for the organism.”

A feeling for the organism. Osteon and pathos. Pathos is an interesting word.

One must understand “how it grows, understand its parts, understand when something is going wrong with it. [An organism] isn’t just a piece of plastic, it’s something that is constantly being affected by the environment, constantly showing attributes or disabilities in its growth. You have to be aware of all of that …. You need to know those plants well enough so that if anything changes, … you [can] look at the plant and right away you know what this damage you see is from – something that scraped across it or something that bit it or something that the wind did.” You need to have a feeling ior every individual plant.

ANATOMY! You need to know your patients. But don’t skip the first object, the body. It’s not only about knowing if your patient likes to play football or prefers to watch Netflix. You need to know them well enough so that if anything changes (abnormal), you can look at them and right away you know what this damage you see is from. Again, RIGHT AWAY. Not after 1 hour of grounding yourself, visualizing the divine light inside of them. Right away.

“After five or six years of suffering, somebody told me about Dr. Still. One day when I was feeling badly, I called on him at his residence and asked him if he could cure me. He invited me into his office, where, without further ceremony, he proceeded to give me a treatment, which lasted about one minute. He straightened the coccyx. he explained what he had done and why he did it. He said that I would be all right now. He did not suggest that I return for another treatment. I asked him what l owed him and he said one dollar and fifty cents. This I paid and walked away. As I left the house I felt just like a fellow looks as he walks away from the canvas topped table after he bets the operator five dollars he can tell which shell has the pea under It. That little episode took place forty-seven years ago, yet from that day to this I have never had a bit of trouble with hemorrhoids. And I was able to do heavy work again.”

Right away.

“No two plants are exactly alike. They’re all different, and as a consequence, you have to know that difference,” she explains. “I start with the seedling, and I don’t want to leave it. I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them.”

The focus is on the differences. She knows the plants intimately. Think about Goethe delicate empiricism: “There exists a delicate empiricism which makes itself utterly identical with the object, therefore becoming true theory”.

This intimate knowledge, made possible by years of close association with the organism she studies, is a prerequisite for her extraordinary perspicacity. “I have learned so much about the corn plant that when I see things, I can interpret [them] right away.” Both literally and figuratively, her “feeling for the organism” has extended her vision. At the same time, it has sustained her through a lifetime of lonely endeavor, unrelieved by the solace of human intimacy or even by the embrace of her profession.

If you don’t see the link between osteopathy and that, I can’t help you. This is where the knowledge of the form comes into work. Anatomy, physiology, histology, embryology…Not just the names, but observation until it becomes a living object of your mind.

“In an effort to facilitate the teaching process, Dr Still repeatedly uses purely mechanical terms and images to encourage the student. Don’t believe for one second that this was the limit of his vision. According to many who studied with him and others who have spent years studying his works it was his hope that the experience of living, dynamic anatomy would awaken dormant centers of perception in the student. Gradually, over a period of years of focused attention, conscious intention of purpose and deep, non-judgmental concentration on the experience of life as manifested in the patient, the physician would evolve to a higher level of interaction with the dynamic mechanism of the patient. He would evolve into an osteopath. This is Dr Still’s hope in sharing his work.”

Harold Goodman, D.O., February 1992, forward to Osteopathy: Research and Practice by A. T. Still.

It’s not about learning names. You won’t go far by knowing which artery supplies a muscle. It might get you an osteopathic degree, and that’s fair, but it won’t help you much when it comes to practicing osteopathy. What we are interested in is building living pictures of anatomy in our minds, which opens centers of perception. Goethe talks about that too.

“By following a study with practical training, a person becomes acquainted with the principles to such fullness that he can do good work in all parts, and feels no farther effort will be required. He does his work well and feels so, because of his being master of his trade by practical experience and close observation to the study while an apprentice.

“Another person of his apprentice class who never lost an hour, cannot do as good work, and lives a life of confused labour, but stands about par in all other branches. The first man has obtained from study that the second man has not. The first drives through all kinds of difficult problems with ease, while number two is almost a failure in all places. Why the difference? Perhaps number one has worked for and obtained intuitive consciousness, or made all subjects to his mind beings of life, that live under laws made for their being.” Andrew Taylor Still, (1896), Intuitive Consciousness, Journal of Osteopathy.

But McClintock’s feeling for the organism is not simply a longing to behold the “reason revealed in this world.” It is a longing to embrace the world in its very being, through reason and beyond.

For McClintock, reason-at least in the conventional sense of the word-is not by itself adequate to describe the vast complexity-even mystery-of living forms. Organisms have a life and order of their own that scientists can only partially fathom. No models we invent can begin to do full justice to the prodigious capacity of organisms to devise means for guaranteeing their own survival. On the contrary, “anything you can think of you will find.” In comparison with the ingenuity of nature, our scientific intelligence seems pallid.

No models. No biodynamic osteopathy, no structural osteopathy, no energetic osteopathy. You cannot break it into pieces and put it back together.

That’s also what I tried to say in Chapter 16 and 17. We tend to have preconceived ideas about life. We have a filter that makes us read, think, act, and behave in specific ways and we are not necessarily aware of it. We use models to go through our everyday life instead of encountering and participating in life as it is.

[The plants] do a lot of responding to their environment. They can do almost anything you can think of. But just because they sit there, anybody walking down the road considers them just a plastic area to look at, [as if] they’re not really alive.”

Not looking at the patient as an inert matter. It’s alive, it’s an ongoing process, even if it’s lying still on the table.

An attentive observer knows better. At any time, for any plant, one who has sufficient patience and interest can see the myriad signs of life that a casual eye misses.


For all of us, it is need and interest above all that induce the growth of our abilities; a motivated observer develops faculties that a casual spectator may never be aware of. Over the years, a special kind of sympathetic understanding grew in McClintock, heightening her powers of discernment, until finally, the objects of her study have become subjects in their own right; they claim from her a kind of attention that most of us experience only in relation to other persons. “Organism” is for her a code word-not simply a plant or animal (“Every component of the organism is as much of an organism as every other part”)-
but the name of a living form, of object-as-subject. With an uncharacteristic lapse into hyperbole, she adds: “Every time I walk on grass I feel sorry because I know the grass is screaming at me.”

“Some of Dr. Still’s explanations for the results obtained were beyond my comprehension, but it is up to the osteopathic physicians and students of today to work out by experiment and research… It seems to me that my failure to understand on every occasion the connection between the lesion, which was claimed by him to be the causative factor, and the diseased condition, is due to the fact that Dr. Still was a much better student of natural law than I.”
Arthur Grant Hildreth, D. O., The Lengthening Shadow of Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, 1942.

Years! Years of work. Remember that Still was carrying bones in his pockets. Years of work.

A bit of poetic license, perhaps, but McClintock is not a poet; she is a scientist. What marks her as such is her unwavering confidence in the underlying order of living forms, her use of the apparatus of science to gain access to that order, and her commitment to bringing back her insights into the shared language of science-even if doing so might require that language to change. The irregularities or surprises molecular biologists are now uncovering in the organization and behavior of DNA are not indications of a breakdown of order, but only of the inadequacies of our models in the face of the complexity of nature’s actual order. Cells, and organisms, have an organization of their own in which nothing is random.

Not a poet, a scientist. Think about Still’s texts and how difficult they seem at first. Think also about Goethe who was mainly a scientist but is known as a poet.

And the organization of an organism is not random. Man as a machine. When adjusted, health is the result.

In short, McClintock shares with all other natural scientists the credo that nature is lawful, and the dedication to the task of articulating those laws. And she shares, with at least some, the additional awareness that reason and experiment, generally claimed to be the principal means of this pursuit, do not suffice. To quote Einstein again, ….. only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding, can lead to [these laws]; … the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.”

An intuition that rests on sympathetic understanding. Not something that is out of the blue. Not an intuition that comes from another world. Not an intuition that is disconnected from the phenomenon

A deep reverence for nature, a capacity for union with that which is to be known-these reflect a different image of science from that of a purely rational enterprise. Yet the two images have coexisted throughout history. We are familiar with the idea that a form of mysticism-a commitment to the unity of experience, the oneness of nature, the fundamental mystery underlying the laws of nature-plays an essential role in the process of scientific discovery. Einstein called it “cosmic religiosity.” In turn, the experience of creative insight reinforces these commitments, fostering a sense of the limitations of the scientific method, and an appreciation of other ways of knowing. In all of this, McClintock is no exception. What is exceptional is her forthrightness of expression-the pride she takes in holding, and voicing, attitudes that run counter to our more customary ideas about science. In her mind, what we call the scientific method cannot by itself give us “real understanding.” “It gives us relationships which are useful, valid, and technically marvelous; however, they are not the truth.” And it is by no means the only way of acquiring knowledge.

Delicate empiricism, again. And as said here, it has coexisted throughout history. But we became mostly one-sided.

But these interests were not popular. “I couldn’t tell other people at the time because it was against the ‘scientific method.’. .. We just hadn’t touched on this kind of knowledge in our medical physiology, [and it is] very, very different from the knowledge we call the only way.” What we label scientific knowledge is “lots of fun. You get lots of correlations, but you don’t get the truth …. Things are much more marvelous than the scientific method allows us to conceive.”

Even osteopaths nowadays are running away from this. Either by pretending it’s fake or maybe worse, by saying it’s a superpower that only Still had and that we cannot do the same.

Somehow, she doesn’t know how, she has always had an “exceedingly strong feeling” for the oneness of things: “Basically, everything is one. There is no way in which you draw a line between things. What we [normally] do is to make these subdivisions, but they’re not real. Our educational system is full of subdivisions that are artificial, that shouldn’t be there. I think maybe poets-although I don’t read poetry-have some understanding of this.” The ultimate descriptive task, for both artists and scientists, is to “ensoul” what one sees, to attribute to it the life one shares with it; one learns by identification.

Separation between things is a model. It can be useful, but it’s just an idea.








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