Biology and Breeding

by John Holbo on May 30, 2009

Hey, you know those psychedelic bio text images I posted about? Well, someone took an interest in the post and the images and went and did a bit of research on the textbook itself:

Molecular biologists, by the 1970s, thought of themselves not only as the future of science, but of culture more generally. Many adopted the scientific humanism that had been championed by the previous generation of public biologists like Julian Huxley, although the mechanistic and cybernetic worldview of molecular biology, rather than the neo-Darwinism of Huxley and his allies, was their gospel. For intellectually- and sexually liberated biologists (like Watson), anthropology and sexology displaced parochial religious ideas, and science had nothing to offer religionists but contempt or pity. Behold Noah’s Ark, from the chapter on Human Sexual Behavior:


He goes on to note that, although Darwin is still the hero of the story, the Darwinian story in “Biology Today” is bizarre by today’s standards. From the book’s preface, by Albert Szent-Györgyi

I do not think that the extremely complex speech center of the human brain, involving a network formed by thousands of nerve cells and fibers, was created by random mutations that happened to improve the chances of survival of individuals. I must believe that man built a speech center when he had something to say, and he developed the structure of this center to higher complexity as he had more to say. I cannot accept the notion that this capacity arose through random alterations, relying on the survival of the fittest. I believe that some principle must have guided the development toward the kind of speech center that was needed.

Speaking of the history of nature vs. nurture debates (inadequate name for them, I know), The Valve is hosting a book event on Jenny Davidson’s Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century [amazon]. My contribution is here. It’s an interesting discussion overall, if a bit specialized. Is is, as you would expect, an attempt to survey attitudes about nature and culture and so forth.



Matt McIrvin 05.30.09 at 3:36 am

A while ago there was a story that made the rounds on, I think, the Seed blogs claiming that Vladimir Nabokov was some sort of Intelligent Design advocate. Of course he wasn’t one, in any way we would recognize; to call him one would be to force him into a modern political category that did not really exist at the time (there were, of course, religious creationists, but ID as it exists is an outgrowth of the late 20th century “creation science” movement).

Rather Nabokov had the much same sort of skepticism of natural selection as Szent-Györgyi, which was not at all uncommon in the early to mid-20th century prior to the dominance of the modern synthesis. I think that by the 1970s this was on the way out, but Szent-Györgyi was born in 1893.


Matt McIrvin 05.30.09 at 4:07 am

Also, the talk of molecular biology is now reminding me of a Britannica Yearbook of Science and the Future from the 1970s that I think my parents obtained as a free enticement from an encyclopedia salesman. It had an article on molecular biology and the genetic code that was illustrated in this incredible Seventies pop-art style. I remember it as being assembled out of woodcut-like clip art colored in bright pastels, with ribosomes and amino acids and the cellular nucleus represented as random knickknacks like doorknobs and golf balls and Christmas tree ornaments.


jholbo 05.30.09 at 6:25 am

I actually know a lot about the Nabokov case. It’s fascinating, and I think it is indeed wrong to call him a creationist or ID’er. It’s ultimately impossible to tease out his literary gamesmanship – so many of his fictions involve protagonists with delusions/insights into mind behind the scenes of their lives – from his biological views, however.


Sage Ross 05.31.09 at 3:28 am

Thanks for highlighting my post! I’m still trying to get digital copies of the films that were produced to accompany the textbook; if anyone can help me out there, please let me know.

Apropos Nabokov, sort of:

ID has caused the scientific community to close ranks in ways that rarely take much account of the nuances of various philosophical positions.

As Larry Moran of Sandwalk pointed out recently– –Michael Behe and Francis Collins have more in common in how they think about evolution and creation than either of them have in commons with (Behe’s fellow ID’er) Jonathan Wells on the one side, or James Watson or Bruce Alberts (people who have had similar leadership positions to Collins).

But in the current political paradigm, the line between science and creationism runs between Behe and Collins.


Bill Benzon 05.31.09 at 12:19 pm

Hmmmm . . . didn’t know that about Nabokov. But it’s a very suggestive piece of information with respect to Brian Boyd, whose recent book, On the Origin of Stories, has made him the literary Darwinist (a term he explicitly disavows) of the moment. Valve review: Nature Culture Tweedledum Tweedledee.

Thing is, Boyd made his reputation as a Nabokov scholar, and still maintains a hand-in.

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