SRSP 11-16 Topic 2 U1c – Wholes and parts


This topic looks at the benefits and pitfalls of reductionism in science. Reductionism relies on two key ideas: that complex wholes can be broken into simpler parts and that understanding the parts provides an approach to understanding the wholes. For this to work it is necessary that the parts can be studied in isolation, and that they do not fundamentally change when they are in the context of the whole.

In science, methodological reductionism is a very helpful technique that has been the key to a great number of basic scientific advances. However, the valid application of reductionism to very complex systems (such as humans) is open to debate. The success of reduction as a scientific technique in all the areas where it has been applied so far has lead to the assumption that it will always work and, further, that human nature is also understandable in reductionist terms. It is often said that humans are ‘nothing but’ X, where X can be chemicals, fundamental particles etc. This view has humorously been referred to as ‘nothing-buttery’.

This unit consists of 3 lessons and is suitable for students aged from 14 to 16 years


Key Questions

  • Are you more than the sum of your (chemical) parts?
  • Can you make sense of the world via a reductionist approach?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the reductionist approach?
  • Do the weaknesses destroy the claims that it wants to make about the world?

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Unit Resources

Unit Overview (Word)


Lesson 1

Lesson Plan: What is reductionism? (Word)

Student Worksheet 1: Wholes and parts (Word)

Student Worksheet 2: Wholes and parts (Word)

Student Extension Sheet: Wholes and parts (Word)


Lesson 2

Lesson Plan: Reducing Humans (Word)

Student Resource Sheet: A bunch of chemicals (Word)

Student Worksheet: What am I? (Word)

Student Extension Sheet: Is anyone home? (Word)


Lesson 3

Lesson Plan: The jury is out (Word)

Student Resource Sheet: A gene for me? (Word)

© 2011 LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion)