New Patterns in Genetics and Development
The Nature of Life
The Life of the Cell: Its Nature, Origin and Basic Development
The Biochemical Approach to Life
Genetics and Man
Heredity and the Nature of Man
These days, DNA and RNA are news. The fame of these “nucleic acids”—so significant for contemporary genetics—is a curious fact, and one that takes some explaining; but it should not (I believe) be considered in isolation. For, if we look back over the last ten or fifteen years, we can see that it is only one aspect of a more widespread change, which in different ways affects the whole style of contemporary life and thought. To be deliberately sweeping: if the dominant sciences (and sources of influence) during the first half of the twentieth century were mathematical and physical ones, the second half of the century (by contrast) looks like being a biological age.
On the strictly scientific level, the change is unquestionable. The most significant advances in our understanding of the natural world during the years preceding 1940 were in the areas of relativity and quantum theory. Since the Second World War, they have come rather in biochemistry and its related disciplines; and, as a result, we now have a picture of the sub-cellular processes that underlie genetics and heredity far clearer and more detailed than could be foreseen in 1945. Indeed, the basic “geography” of the living cell is by now so well mapped that we can begin looking further ahead to the virgin lands of the next intellectual frontier. Thus C. H. Waddington concluded a recent survey of New Patterns in Genetics and Development (originally delivered as the Jesup Lectures at Columbia University) with the hope that we might.
…see the present fashion for molecular genetics diluted by the diversion of rather more attention to fundamental embryology. Genetics has had its breakthrough, and those who want quick results can probably get them most easily by exploiting this. But the next breakthrough we need, to round off our understanding of fundamental biological processes, is an embryological breakthrough. Let us hope we get it soon.
A similar change is visible on a broader intellectual plane. When C. P. Snow first delivered his Rede Lecture on The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, his example of a scientific concept which should (as he claimed) be the common property of all educated men was the concept of “entropy”—the key notion involved in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A decade later, in his reconsideration of the subject, Snow himself confesses that he would set aside entropy in favor of D. N. A. If there is to be any touchstone for recognizing the scientifically aware-humanist, this is now to be found in his acquaintance with molecular biology. Entropy is vieux jeu.
Yet even this is only the beginning of the matter. A generation ago, many fields of human art and experience shared common guiding ideas of space, of layout, and of structure. Today these seem to be giving way to other ideas: ideas such as form, organization, and function. We are moving out of a period of formalism and abstraction—of atonal music, non-representational painting, symbolic logic, and machines à …