The Age of Biology

New Patterns in Genetics and Development

by C.H. Waddington
Columbia, 271 pp., $10.00

The Nature of Life

by C.H. Waddington
Altheneum, 136 pp., $4.00

The Life of the Cell: Its Nature, Origin and Basic Development

by J.A.V. Butler
Basic Books, 167 pp., $4.50

The Biochemical Approach to Life

by F.R. Jevons
Basic Books, 184 pp., $4.50

Genetics and Man

by C.D. Darlington
Macmillan, 165 pp., $7.50

Heredity and the Nature of Man

by Theodosius Dobzhansky
Harcourt, Brace & World, 165 pp., $4.75

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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

The Age of Biology March 11, 1965

It Was Algernon February 25, 1965