Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler; drawing by David Levine

Arthur Koestler and Norman Macbeth, a lawyer, are annoyed with biological science, sufficiently so to publish criticisms of it. A century ago that fact would hardly have been noteworthy. Now it is as startling as the appearance of a living fossil. Any willingness to challenge scientists in their special fields by now seemed doomed to extinction, not only by deference to expertise but also by disdain. Everybody, it seemed, agreed with Robert Frost’s wisecrack that nature is not “Pretty Scenery” but “the Whole Goddam Machinery,” to be investigated by mechanics called scientists. Back in 1850, when Tennyson saw that he was losing his struggle against this vision of nature, he accurately forecast a typical reaction:

I think we are not wholly brain,
Magnetic mockeries…
Not only cunning casts in clay.
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men,
At least to me? I would not stay.

Most nonscientists have not stayed. Sullen or condescending indifference is their characteristic attitude to scientific theories. Yet here suddenly are two writers, neither of them scientists, reprimanding biologists for misinterpreting the machinery of life. It is tempting to dismiss such throwbacks with a weary laugh, but we ought to resist the temptation, for they raise an interesting question. How have they been able to avoid extinction?

Macbeth, to take the simpler case first, makes many modest disclaimers. He is not trying to tell biologists how they should analyze living matter, he is simply showing them the flaws in their present analysis. He repeats some familiar criticisms of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection—it is tautological, it destroys the concept of species, etc.; and inevitably he must face the most important response of twentieth-century biologists to such criticism. That is population genetics, a fusion of the Mendelian approach to the heredity of individual organisms and the Darwinian approach to the evolution of species. Mathematical analysis of the pooled heredity of breeding populations is the heart of this discipline, and thus of the “synthetic theory” of evolution, as the contemporary outgrowth of Darwinism is called. When Macbeth comes to it, he throws up his hands, confessing that he does not understand population genetics, but no matter, for it is mathematics, not biology, and therefore irrelevant to his criticism of natural selection.

The candor of this argument from ignorance should not blind us to its obscurantism. Macbeth is not arguing that current evolutionary theory rests on faulty statistical reasoning. He simply confesses his feeling that evolutionary theory should not rest on any kind of statistical reasoning. “I would like to see naturalists stand on their own feet and overcome their servility” to mathematicians (p. 52). He could have cited the example of Lysenko, who flatly decreed the uselessness of mathematics to biology. I am not suggesting that Macbeth is a potential Lysenko. Far from it. Lysenko’s aversion to mathematical reasoning was based on the practical man’s conviction that his intuition—his “experience”—is a better guide to truth than the arcane calculations of ivory-tower specialists.

Macbeth’s aversion rests on a different kind of unarticulated metaphysics. He is a romantic, of Tennyson’s depleted school. He pines for “the unreasoning wonder of a child” in looking at the living world; he complains that “all this explaining takes the charm out of biology…. In place of the delights of nature we are offered the deserts of argumentation” (pp. 145-6). He is as unlikely to revive such romanticism in biological science as he is to revive blessing of the fields in commercial farming. In those trades calculation works, blessing does not.

Arthur Koestler’s is a more complex case, if only because he has been evangelizing much longer, has ranged much farther, and never makes admissions of ignorance. Tiring of the political wars, but not of holy combat for the sons of light against the sons of darkness, he entered into a long quarrel with science. Its mechanistic approach to nature offends his yearning for a soul-satisfying vision of the universe. In The Sleepwalkers (1959) he portrayed Galileo as the original son of darkness, who separated mensuration from soulful metaphysics, showing scientists how to manipulate nature without understanding it. The Ghost in the Machine (1967), a diatribe against experimental psychology, included a long lecture to biology, the discipline that taught psychologists to avoid the concept of purpose in the analysis of purposefully acting organisms. Important philosophical issues are involved in such arguments, as they are in Macbeth’s, but neither writer will be sidetracked into impotent philosophizing. Koestler is determined to show scientists on their own ground that most of them are misinterpreting nature.

At times he has deviated toward an indictment of nature, rather than of the scientists who analyze it: “Nature has let us down, God seems to have left the receiver off the hook, and time is running out.” This concludes The Ghost in the Machine. There are no such deviations in the two little books under review. In them, nature is solidly on our side, even the divine circuits are functioning, but mechanistic biologists refuse to listen. The Case of the Midwife Toad is an exposé of their “scientific Establishment,” showing how it has upheld “the totalitarian claim of the neo-Darwinists that evolution is ‘nothing but’ chance mutation plus selection” (p. 129). When confronted with proof of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, the establishment mounted a “campaign of defamation” against Paul Kammerer, the dissident scientist who found this proof, driving him to suicide in 1926. Now the time for vindication has at last arrived, for the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy is falling apart.


As melodrama Koestler’s story never gets past a first act of insinuations and forebodings. The villains never do anything, at least nothing more heinous than scoffing, or failing to appear at Kammerer’s demonstration of an un-faked specimen in 1923, or discovering a faked specimen in 1926, or getting some facts wrong in their reminiscences of the affair. They do not put the ink under the toad’s skin, where Kammerer claimed to have bred a dark callosity. We are assured that he didn’t put the ink there, so we are left to speculate, as the obituaries did at the time, whether an overzealous assistant may have been responsible. When Koestler adds vague gossip of tangled love affairs as a cause of Kammerer’s suicide, the story of melodramatic conflict between the “inhuman Establishment” and the heroic dissident evaporates altogether.

Elements of history are in this story, as elements of reptiles are in pictures of dragons. The composite is a myth. How can we believe that “the Establishment” persecuted Kammerer for his Lamarckian views when Koestler glows with pride at the status of Hans Przibram, a “dynast” of Viennese science who was Kammerer’s patron and steadfast defender? The Lamarckian H. Graham Cannon is listed among the persecutors, while Nature, the leading journal of the British establishment, gave more space to Kammerer’s defenders than to his critics. And William Bateson, the chief villain of Koestler’s story, was hardly the scientific boss that he is made to seem. At the time he criticized Kammerer, the aging Bateson was increasingly isolated from genetics, the science he had helped to found, most notably by his rejection of the chromosome theory of heredity.

The Soviet Union, to take a final example of Koestler’s myth-making, did not have a Lamarckian party line in the Twenties, nor did Pavlov have anything to do with Kammerer’s appointment—to the Communist Academy, not to Pavlov’s institute—just before the scandal broke. At the time Soviet biology was little different from biology in the West. The famous geneticist H.J. Muller also received an appointment in Moscow—at a more important institution than the Communist Academy—and tributes to Kammerer were published by broad-minded anti-Lamarckians (I.I. Agol and N.A. Il’in) who would subsequently fall victim, in fact not in myth, to a very real tyranny, a tyranny preaching Lamarckism.

Koestler refuses to see the multiplicity of “Establishments” in the Kammerer affair, that is, the diverse schools and trends of thought observing the usual rules of rational discourse in their disputes, because he cannot face the obvious reason why Lamarckism was ceasing to be a tenable position in those disputes. It was being proved wrong. To be more precise, numerous efforts to prove it right were all failing, while new concepts were leading scientists to much more fruitful lines of research. Kammerer may well have altered the heredity of his reptile populations by selective breeding in unaccustomed environments, but his experimental design and resulting data were too crude in the light of the new concepts to distinguish among the possible causes of the alteration.

If there is tyranny in the remorseless extinction of ideas that fine people once cherished, it is essentially different from political suppression. It is the tyranny of twice-two-is-four, as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man perceived when he asserted the freedom of his capricious will to reject the restraints of reason, of science. But that desperate kind of romanticism has no appeal to Koestler. He is determined to prove that science does not enslave, it liberates the romantic spirit if it is itself liberated from its mechanistic tradition.

That is why he clings so willfully to his mythic biology. (His willfulness reaches a childish extreme at the end of the book, when he wants to prove that Kammerer is now being vindicated by a revival of Lamarckism. His evidence is a bit of Lamarckian speculation in a 1957 book by the geneticist C.H. Waddington. He neglects to tell the reader that Waddington repudiated that and every other Lamarckian speculation which Koestler begged him to endorse at a 1968 conference.)1 He is appalled by the mechanistic outlook that prevails in real biology, which he constantly misinterprets as the belief that an ape at a typewriter will accidentally compose a sonnet. Kammerer is his great hero because he tried to revive Schiller’s kind of biology—“ ‘Everything that has been created strives upwards toward light and the joy of life…’ ” (p. 133). Koestler simply takes it for granted that there must be a logical connection between that joyful view of nature and the inheritance of acquired characteristics.


In The Roots of Coincidence he tries to explain the connection:

The Lamarckian view is philosophically more attractive [than the Darwinian] because it regards evolution as the cumulative effect of the virtues and strivings of successive generations, whereas in the Darwinian view these efforts are wasted, each generation must start from scratch, as it were, and evolution is the result of blind chance and selective pressures. [P. 82]

There is little point in asking Koestler the obvious questions: Are the neo-Darwinists, so often charged with hereditarian fatalism, also guilty of wiping the genetic slate clean at every generation? How does Lamarckian heredity manage to accumulate only persistent virtues and not persistent vices? How does nature decide between the virtues of mosquitoes and the virtues of men? And how does willing make things so? Koestler ignores all but the last question, to which he replies that willing makes things so in many spooky ways, and the greatest of these is mystery.

He begins with a review of parapsychology, the anemic spiritualism that seeks nourishment in science. Some of it has the Gilbert and Sullivan charm of its Victorian origins—Gilbert Murray, for example, reading the mind of the Countess of Carlisle, who is thinking of the sinking of the liner Lusitania and the royal decoration of the soldiers from Crimea. But most of it is guessing what card is being turned over on the other side of a laboratory screen, or rolling dice with and without wishing, and testing the results not by money won and lost but by tally sheets. Anyone who is enthralled by John Donne’s angels blowing their trumpets at the round world’s imagined corners, or by I. B. Singer’s demons turning people into swine, or by the intermediate magic of Dr. Faustus, will be bored and depressed by this ectoplasmic residue of a great tradition, the genteel equivalent of horror films and plastic saviors on the dashboard.

Anyone who wants to see a good argument for parapsychology as science will be frustrated by Koestler’s airy disregard for the high incidence of fraud and naïveté among those who make claims for ESP,2 and especially by his hasty dodging around the critical issue of nonbelievers: they have no success at the experiments. Interesting philosophical questions are involved in that issue. Is it fair to test the power of belief by the experiences and criteria of nonbelievers? Does the psychological analyst of beliefs have a right to distinguish true and false beliefs, to base a history of witchcraft, for example, on the assumption that it was a mass delusion? Koestler rushes past serious analysis of such problems, intent as usual on scientific proof for his preconceived notions.

Even so the evidence for crap games won by wishing is so flimsy that he turns to quasi-philosophical arguments, the science fiction use of analogy. He dwells on “parallels between quantum physics and parapsychology;…the weird concepts of one provide an excuse for the weirdness of the other” (p. 110). If the physicist can speak of particles as momentarily leaping backward in time, then the parapsychologist can expect human beings to do the same—in fact, not just in dying memories or dreams or in the theatrical magic that gives Helen of Troy to Dr. Faustus. Sophistic word play—on the multiple meanings, in the example cited, of the word “time”—is palmed off as a solution to difficult philosophical problems—the relationship, in the same example, between the concept of time in microphysics and the concept of time in other universes of discourse.

The White King used the technique much more effectively to prove a case of preternatural vision. He got Alice to look down the road and see nobody—“I only wish I had such eyes. To be able to see Nobody! and at this distance, too!”—and then got corroboration from a newly arrived messenger, who reported that he had passed nobody on the road. “Quite right—this young lady saw him too. So of course Nobody walks slower than you.” The best that Koestler can do for preternatural vision is to quote Jung’s uncorroborated report of seeing an old woman’s head on the pillow beside his, and he didn’t measure her relative velocity (p. 93).

Koestler’s boldest venture into quasi-philosophy derives from Kammerer, who sought a joyful vision of nature not only in callosities and other acquired characteristics accumulating to perfection, but also in the Law of Seriality. It cannot be rationally explained, for it belongs to the “a-causal principle active in the universe, which tends toward unity” (p. 86). It can only be felt by contemplating its manifestations or by reciting such incantations as this: “The integrative potentials of life seem to include the capacity of producing pseudo-causal effects—of bringing about a confluential event without bothering, so to speak, to employ physical agencies” (p. 122).

“Confluential event” is grand language for the sort of thing that nonbelievers call an odd coincidence, like the time that Kammerer got seat 21 and cloakroom ticket 21 at a concert. Koestler apologizes for the triviality of such examples, and he should; he weakens the faith by offering nothing scarier than a beetle flying in Jung’s window when a patient told of a beetle in her dream. Koestler ought to dig up real spine-tinglers, like the identical numbers in the lives of Lincoln and JFK (celebrated in a popular song a few years back), or the Curse of Decennial Year elections: The US president elected in 1840 died in office. So did those elected in 1860, 1880, 1900, 1920, 1940, and 1960. Doom obviously awaits the victor of the 1980 election.

For nonbelievers the challenge is to try to prove, by rational analysis, what we sense when we hear the Curse: that it is a travesty of historical thinking. For Koestler the challenge is to abandon rational analysis when we sense “confluential events,” to rise to the mystic heights where the apparent chaos of fortuitous events is transformed into the Oneness toward which the whole creation moves. He assures us that progressive scientists are now agreed that matter is an illusion, spirit the essential reality, that the jumbles of contingencies that seem to knock us about through pointless lives are really occult conjunctions from which a lofty destiny can be read. Science is in labor, giving birth to horoscopes. (No longer to dialectics, as Engels thought.)

It is possible to trace the affinities of such effusions to the still living cult of theosophy, or back to Tennyson pulling his pantheistic god out of a confluential flower in the crannied wall, or all the way back to gnosticism, if you like. But the affinities of Koestler’s version are not nearly so significant as its degenerate state. Why has a type of thought that was once poetically meaningful, a genuine union of science with religion, philosophy, and verbal art, turned into pseudo-scientific kitsch? The obvious answer is that the growth of modern science has dissolved the union. Koestler insists that the dissolution has been a temporary result of the mechanistic phase of science, which is already passing. He is palpably deceiving himself, pretending that a clumsy imitation of an extinct type of thought constitutes a creative revival.

Two recent books on the philosophical problems of biology show what happens when contemporary thinkers confront the real state of science. They find, in Koestler’s sneering words, “a litter-box of unrelated puzzles” (Roots of Coincidence, p. 128), which they labor to solve and fit together in some rational manner. Michael Simon, for example, devotes most of his book3 to an illuminating analysis of issues that Macbeth and Koestler get rid of by intuitive fiat. In a final chapter on “the extensions of biological thought” to human concerns, he extracts no instant joy from nature: “Biology offers no assurance…that the human species does not represent the end of an evolutionary blind alley” (p. 231).

In a very good anthology of philosophical essays, Man and Nature, there are people of sanguine temperament who find an exhilarating challenge in the broader observation that human “purposes and plans are ours, not those of the universe, which displays convincing evidence of their absence.”4 But sanguine or grim, almost all modern biologists and philosophers of science agree that the observation is true. Of course consensus is not proof, but it imposes obligations on intruding proselytizers. They must learn the native language and understand the heathen faith. If Koestler, for example, were to study the analyses of mechanism and reductionism in the books cited here, he would realize that his irritated vaporing on those concepts makes no sense.

The deepest division between these latter-day romantics and the scientific community they wish to convert is in their attitudes toward fragmentary knowledge. Going over the unsolved problems of evolution that Macbeth used as grounds for rejecting the theory of natural selection, Simon is resigned rather than rebellious: “To demand of an explanation that it leave no explanatory gaps is to require every explanation to be an ultimate explanation” (p. 53). Koestler, quite the other way, declares “one ultimate mystery…easier to accept than a litter-box of unrelated puzzles.” He thinks he is calling on scientists to rebel against the fragmented learning of modern times. In fact he is inviting them to look away from it, to raise their eyes to a synthetic heaven.

This Issue

September 21, 1972