Of Molecules and Men
The Biology of Ultimate Concern
Biology may be destined to be the science of the future, but there is certainly much about it that is very puzzling at present. Indeed, it is arguable that it can ever be a science of quite the same sort as physics and chemistry, because it has to deal with problems and concepts that these sciences can evade, at least in the more superficial parts of their structure. Biologists in particular are obviously expected to have a view about the status of man himself and the nature of the means that he uses to obtain information about the world and to describe it. Indeed, if the human biologist were really able to tell us what we want to know about ourselves, his account would be at the center of all science and indeed of all knowledge. The information about the knower should in principle comprise all that is known.
Thus paradoxically biology is both the last and the first of the sciences. The reason for this situation can be partly seen if we examine the slow and irregular line of progress by which man has been gradually finding adequate means to explore and control the world around him. Until very recently most thinkers, even the greatest ones, have felt it necessary to use a dualist principle in framing their basic systems, whether of philosophy or of science. Most have assumed that an account of knowledge must start with the “experience” of the individual. There have of course been plenty of materialists, many attempting to be thoroughgoing. But the basic systems of physics, as of philosophy, have been developed without questioning explicitly the status of man as an observer.
We can see how far the issue is from resolution by the fact that almost precisely opposite views can be expressed by biologists as distinguished as Francis Crick and Theodosius Dobzhansky. For example, Crick tells us that “I myself, like many scientists, believe that the soul is imaginary and that what we call our minds is simply a way of talking about our brains.” Dobzhansky does not tell us directly what he thinks about the soul, but he considers such matters serious enough to devote a quarter of his book to the views of theologians, especially P. Teilhard de Chardin. Crick is a molecular biologist and Dobzhansky a geneticist and evolutionist. Both deal with broad perspectives of biology. It is curious that although the evolutionist presents much the wider view, his thought often seems simple-minded compared to the brash biochemist. For example, Dobzhansky says, “‘cogito ergo sum’ is one certainty that even Descartes found it impossible to doubt.” The assumption of dualism seems to be necessary, even for the evolutionist.
THE ATTITUDE of the molecular biologist as a “pure scientist” is in general tough, radical, and skeptical. He uses words as he and his fellows please and leaves the worries about them to philosophers and other more timid souls. This is certainly the position of Crick. He writes directly, frankly, and indeed …