Biology and Man
The Relations between the Sciences
Approaches to a Philosophical Biology
Towards a Theoretical Biology
George Gaylord Simpson is one of the most distinguished zoologists of the present day. He was the first to apply to paleontology the special blend of genetic and “population dynamical” thinking that most Americans learned from Dobzhansky, Mayr, and Sewall Wright, and most English students from Fisher, Haldane, and E. B. Ford. To zoologists of my generation, brought up on morphological abstractions and collections of old bones, Simpson’s Tempo and Mode in Evolution came as a revelation. The older zoologists could reconstruct an animal from its fossilized remains, but Simpson reconstructed populations of animals, and made us see how they might have responded to evolutionary forces of the same kind as those that shape the genetic structure of populations alive today.
In the old days evolutionary history was a narrative unfolded to us in the form of lantern slides or still pictures, one dynasty of organisms succeeding another/like the kings and queens of schoolroom histories. Simpson changed all that. His sense of biological history is profound, and the fact that the physical sciences are for the most part nonhistorical (“a snow crystal is the same today,” said D’Arcy Thompson, “as when the first snows fell”) marks for him one of the main distinctions between them and the sciences of living things.
It is to a man like Simpson (you’d think) that the humanist should turn if he wants to get an insight into how scientists think, and what they think about when they raise their eyes from the laboratory bench and contemplate the world around them. Here then is Simpson on the biological nature of man: it is a typical passage.
The question “What is man?” is probably the most profound that can be asked by man. It has always been central to any system of philosophy or theology…. The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.
The humanist will probably recover his composure by reflecting that the Man Simpson is talking about is Biological Man, not the poor old forked radish whose passions, frailties, and bewilderment have been under scrutiny these past few thousand years. But that is not what Simpson means. He is careful to point out that a full understanding of “essential man-ness or human nature” must call upon evidence from human behavior and psychology, and he therefore applauds Darwin for having discerned (in The Descent of Man) that man is a self-conscious and reflective being who moralizes and thinks abstractly, and has a sense of beauty and a feeling for religion; is a social animal, moreover, one who has “developed cultures and societies unique in kind and complexity.”
Does Simpson really believe that everything said on these matters before Darwin is worthless? I can find no evidence that he does not. Simpson on “Science and the Culture of our Time” is equally embarrassing. In my opinion it falls below …
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The Scientific Imagination April 9, 1970