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New Paths in Biology

In response to:

In the Genes from the April 14, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

It is helpful to have the careful and authoritative review of Portmann’s New Paths in Biology given by Gavin de Beer (April 14). De Beer’s review is informative and fair. At the same time, there is an aspect of what De Beer rightly calls Portmann’s “philosophy” which may get overlooked by your readers and which I think worth attention. Portmann is really doing philosophy of man or of nature; his book could more properly be entitled “New Paths From Biology.” Portmann (in keeping with a long European tradition) does not separate philosophy from science so easily or so sharply as we do. He wants to explain biological phenomena but the causal and functional modes of explanation are only a few explanatory modes for him: “Living forms can be studied from many points of view, and it is essential that none is ignored” (p. 37). Many paths of explanation and understanding must be followed “if we are to gain any kind of certainty about living processes” (p.45).

What Portmann offers is a view of organisms as living forms, individuals, each with “its special manner of existence” (p. 151) or style of life, each living in an environment of its own defined by its structure, its instincts, and its behavior, with the behavior and the observable characteristics being expressions of a “self” which has an inner life of its own. Like other European writers interested in understanding animal behavior, Portmann applies psychological concepts to animals in ways which seem to us illegitimate. (Readers should consult Buytendijk, Traité de Psychologie Animale; Dalcq and Lorenz in Aspects of Form, ed., by L. L. Whyte; Straus, The Primary World of the Senses.) Burloud’s concepts of “thematization” and of “sensibility” are more sober uses of some of Portmann’s notions. (See his Psychologie de la Sensibilité.)

The importance of these “new paths” lies not so much in the areas of animal psychology as it does in the philosophy of man. It has been in this direction that Buytendijk and other phenomenological philosophers have taken their animal studies. Portmann’s biological work has led him in a similar direction, though his book does not make it easy to see what he is doing. Biology obviously has direct relevance to our understanding of ourselves and our world, as De Beer’s own work has shown. The philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin is rightly dismissed by De Beer. He does not dismiss Portmann, but appreciation of Portmann hinges upon our knowing some of the other writers in the background of Portmann’s own other untranslated works who have made important contributions to this contemporary tradition.

John W. Yolton

Department of Philosophy

York University

Toronto

From Sir Gavin de Beer, F.R.S., F.S.A. replies:

I am deeply gratified to learn that such an authority as Dr. John W. Yolton is of the opinion that my review of Adolf Portmann’s New Paths in Biology is fair; for this is exactly what I tried to make it, not in spite of, but because of, the adverse criticism which I felt obliged to level at it. Dr. Yolton himself performs a useful service in pointing out that the outlook of many continental European biologists reflects a long tradition which, as most English-speaking biologists would say, confuses science and philosophy. It would be interesting to know the history of this tradition, and whether it stems from the eighteenth-century Weltanschauung of the Naturphilosophen. Here and there, it sometimes looks as if vitalism were creeping back again into the thoughts of some biologists, whether they realize it or not. In works like those of Teilhard de Chardin which are based on theological imagination, it is not disguised at all. Misguided and uninstructed aversion to what has, perhaps misleadingly, been called “chance,” and illegitimate use of an argument of “improbability,” have probably been responsible for a longing after something “comforting,” like providential guidance in evolution and refusal to face up to the facts of natural selection, still not fully comprehended in Europe, and to accept them as a satisfactory mechanism for explaining the phenomena in terms of natural laws. Some are still to be found who get out of their troubles by denying the phenomena and refusing to believe that evolution has taken place at all.

In all this, of course, philosophy has an important part to play, and it is regrettable when a man of such distinction as Henri Bergson bases his views on false biology, and is satisfied with a formula of “élan vital” to explain evolution and other biological phenomena. As Sir Julian Huxley once so appositely remarked, this is equivalent to ascribing the displacement of a train along the railroad to an “élan locomotif,” instead of to the conversion of heat energy or electric energy to mechanical energy in the engine.

The late and deeply lamented Georges Duhamel, in his wonderful cycle of novels La chronique des Pasquiers, volume 6, Les Maîtres, has expressed the dilemma as he saw it in moving terms, which he placed in the mouth of that remarkable and sympathetic character whom he created, the biologist, Professor Chalgrin. I translate (freely) a short relevant passage: “To admit in principle that reason cannot explain everything, is to abdicate in advance and to give the green light to mysticism. But to claim that reason is capable of explaining everything is to create a new faith or superstition, and by excess of presumptuousness to install a new form of ignorance under a shield of dogma.”

In such a situation, the true man of science must say that, of course we do not know everything, and nature has surprises for us at every turn. But everything in the universe that we do know, fits into an orderly pattern under laws of nature. How those laws came to exist, science cannot tell, but the explanations given by theologians (and some philosophers) are pleading, often special pleading, based on our ignorance of the nature of consciousness in man, and on acceptance of the view that the universe is constructed in such a way as to permit revelations in national languages by personal gods to chosen peoples, long-term specific prophesies in the reverse direction of the time-axis, and interference with the laws of nature. Without accepting this, there is nothing to prevent the biologist from persuading himself as a simple matter of honest observation that loving kindness does exist on earth among men (though not among enough of them), from admitting that he does not know how it arose although it may, as Darwin believed, itself be a product of evolution, and that it is preferable to admit patiently that one is ignorant than to profess solutions of the problem.

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