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Two sorts of biology

The September issue of HARPER's included a review by David Quammen of three recent books on the subject of the Neanderthals.

What caught my attention, and made me want to commonplace a bit of this, was Quammen's digression onto the two different sorts of biology in general. There are biologists who look at their field as a batter of applied chemistry -- molecules interacting and compounding. There are also biologists who look at life on the level of the organism, or on the still broader level of the whole populations or ecosystems. Reductionists versus holists, if you will, although those words are judgment freighted. Quammen speaks of organismic versus molecular biology.

Here's a passage, without further comment.

You may have missed this argument, unless you work in the field or are somehow involved with the allocation of university budgets and buildings. It has been quiet and internecine but bitter, and traceable back to the late 1950s and early 60s, when Edward O. Wilson (organismic) and James D. Watson (molecular) were young scientists competing for tenure at Harvard -- an archetypal contest, as described in Wilson's memoir Naturalist -- and when elders such as George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky (all organismic) published grumpy essays under such titles as "The Crisis in Biology."

The schism persisted for decades but has narrowed and healed somewhat in recent years, with molecular biologists rediscovering the fascination of evolutionary questions and organismic biologists becoming more appreciative of molecular methods. the two camps still compete for esteem and resources, though not as snarkily as in the past.

The mystery of the Neanderthals represents a good test case because scientists converge on it from both sides ... and because the available evidence is so severely limited: stone tools, bones, precious traces of ancient DNA. It's impressive to see science, of any sort, making so much of so little.


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