That’s Life

The Life Science: Current Ideas of Biology

by P.B. Medawar and J.S. Medawar
Harper and Row, 196 pp., $8.95

It is a curious anomaly of history that men made a careful study of the nonliving world before they seriously examined themselves. For three centuries, the study of physics has been regarded as the very prototype of exact inquiry. Even today it holds pride of place and gets the lion’s share of the money that governments devote to research. Out of the physical sciences grew the technology of the industrial revolution, giving us the many good and bad tools that dominate our life today. Biology, by comparison, has been considered as a very weak form of science and is still looked down on by many physicists and chemists. Yet the discoveries of biology and medical science have produced, in less than fifty years, changes far greater than those of the industrial revolution. They have added immensely to the health and happiness of mankind and have given us not only the problems of explosive population increase but also the knowledge that can allow the multitudes to be fed.

Understanding these changes involves technical knowledge of a different sort from that of the physical sciences. Biologists cannot use abstract symbolism and mathematics in the way that physicists do for the very reason that most living processes are influenced by many forces and by their long past history. This is why biology seems to mathematicians and other clever people to be an “inexact” science. But actually it involves knowing more, not less. A good biologist has to be able to think about his material from many points of view. In explaining his work to other people, he has to lead them also to see that living processes do not have single “causes,” but depend upon many factors and a long, long history.

Peter Medawar is a scientist who has this biologist’s vision and can impart it to others. Readers of The New York Review have good reason to know how well he writes. He and his wife have now produced a most attractive review of many aspects of modern biology. I must declare an interest, as the former tutor of both of them. I am entitled to be proud of them and to praise and to criticize. It is indeed gratifying that they have done so well. Peter has made immense contributions to immunology and made possible the practice of graft transplantation, for which he received the Nobel Prize. Although trained as a zoologist with no knowledge of medicine, he was the successful head of the most prestigious laboratory of the Medical Research Council, until partly paralyzed by a stroke. Jean, besides helping his amazing rehabilitation, has been the active director of an organization concerned with birth control and child welfare.

Between them, they have now produced a remarkable survey of modern biology and its social implications. They claim that it is about ideas, with a minimum of facts, but actually there is a lot of information, conveyed in an extremely concise, acceptable way. Short sentences and chapters, each of a few…

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