Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …