The Art of the Soluble
In one of the essays in this highly readable collection, P.B. Medawar says of his hero, D’Arcy Thompson, that he “had not merely the makings but the actual accomplishments of three scholars.” Thompson was not only an eminent naturalist, but held the presidency of two classical associations, and was the author of a published paper in mathematics. He was a famous conversationalist and lecturer, and Medawar declares that his book “Growth and Form is beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue.” Medawar’s versatility bears some comparison with that of his hero. He is Director of the National Institute for Medical Research (in Great Britain) and winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1960; he has a serious interest in the methodology of natural science, he has read more in the history of that methodology than most of its present-day practitioners, and his prose is as sharp and as witty as that of any scientist writing in English today. As one reads this collection of occasional pieces or his books, The Uniqueness of the Individual and Th Future of Man, one may also be tempted to compare him with T. H. Huxley, since Medawar has a great gift for explaining biology to laymen, he has taken pains to study philosophy and its history, and is winningly savage in dealing with theological and literary silliness about science.
Medawar’s most deserving victim is poor Teilhard de Chardin, who is followed closely by Arthur Koestler. Koestler is justly accorded more respect by Medawar, but he is also given a pretty rough time when he ventures to generalize about scientific activity in The Act of Creation. In the sharp exchange of letters that followed Medawar’s review of that book in the New Statesman it seems to me that Medawar clearly comes out on top. He also manages, in another piece which appeared originally in the New Statesman, to expose a lot of Freudian nonsense about Charles Darwin’s famous illness.
I do not wish, however, to give the impression that Medawar is merely a pundit-pummeler, a sort of scientific cop who preys on literary vagrants, and who keeps flashing his badge at scientifically wayward theologians, journalists, and psychoanalysts. It is obvious that he likes to tangle with them and is rather good at it, and I should think that untutored sages who insist on pontificating about biology would do well to be careful when Medawar is around. Yet a policeman’s lot is not a happy one, and Medawar rightly aspires to be more than that. He is much more interested in trying to answer the question: “What kind of act of reasoning leads to scientific discovery and the enlargement of the understanding?” and in analyzing certain concepts and theories of his own science, biology.
I am bound to report, however, that in dealing with the more general question Medawar is much less original and …
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