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A review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, 17 September 1972,

of two books:

1) FACING REALITY: Philosophical Adventures By A Brain Scientist,

by John C. Eccles.

Xxxxx: Springer, 19xx

2) CHANCE AND NECESSITY: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology,

by Jacques Monod.

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 19xx

 

 

"Holists, Reductionists in a Battle"

By CARROLL QUIGLEY

 

FACING REALITY: Philosophical Adventures By A Brain Scientist. 

   By Jobn C. Eccles. 210 pages. Springer, Paperback. $6.40. 

CHANCE AND NECESSITY: An Essay on the Natnral Philosopby of Modern Biology. 

   By Jacques Monad. Knopf. 199 pages. $6.95.

 

   In a world filled with noisy quarrels about social issues, the controversy represented by these two books has attracted little attention outside scientific circles. Yet the future of our civilization is more likely to be determined by the outcome of this scientific dispute than by any of the social and political controversies now filling our newspapers. Sir John Eccles and Jacques Monod are both Nobel Prize winners in medicine and physiology (in 1963 and 1965), one for his work on the neurology of the brain, the other for work on the genetic code and the process by which living cells synthesize proteins. Both men are members of the Royal Society in London and of our National Academy of Sciences.

   Monod, whose book is a best-seller in France, is director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris and professor at the College de France. Eccles, a former Australian Rhodes Scholar at Oxford with the great C. S. Sherrington, was later president of the Australian Academy of Sciences and is now professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. A layman who reads these two books together will find it almost impossible to believe that experts of such outstanding eminence in the same special area of science could hold such antithetical views.

   At issue here is the age-old intellectual dispute between the "reductionists" and the "holists," between those who believe 'that any object can be understood and explained by taking it apart and those who feel, on the contrary, that explanation and meaning come from studying the object as a functioning whole. If, for example, a man has a certain personality, the reductionist would try to explain it by examining the balance of his body fluids or the elements of his genetic endowment, while the holist would seek explanation in terms of the man's family situation, his social class, education and his whole living contest.

   While this basic difference in viewpoints may be found in any subject or in any intellectual discipline, it is of fundamental importance in biology. The reductionists insist that life can be explained by analytical methods which will show, they believe, that all life (and all human actions) can be reduced to simple physical and chemical processes.

   Monod's title reflects his conviction that all life can be explained by the accidents of chance mutations of genes subjected to the deterministic necessity of the struggle for survival. He has little use for broad, tolerant, tentative approaches to anything. Of mutations he says, "They constitute the only possible source of modifications in the genetic text, itself the sole repository of the organism's hereditary structures; it necessarily follows that chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere."

   Monod's whole position can be refuted by a simple question: What happens to the determinism of natural selection when a chance mutation produces the characteristic of plasticity or indeterminism?  When this occurs, it produces an organism which is dependent on learned behavior, which leads to extreme dependency of the young upon adults, provides freedom to develop a variety of learned patterns of behavior, and leads to choice and thus to rationality, intensified by the growth of communication (especially verbal communication) as part of the training process. All of this destroys the "necessity" of the selective process, and gives rise to a new, and quite different, ballgame in which choice among the numerous options provided by plasticity may permit survival of types which would have inevitably perished under earlier conditions when individuals were not shielded from nature by culture.

   Monad's view of philosophy is as narrow as his methodology. He restricts his comments on this subject to praise of Descartes and condemnation of Henri Bergson, Teilhard de Chardln, and Frederick Engels. What he likes about Descartes, apparently, is that philosopher's materialism and his assumption that the universe, even in its ultimate reality, is logical and intelligible to human reason. But Monad forgets Descartes' explanation of how it happens that man has a mind capable of understanding the rationality of the universe: That God made it that way, for "God is good and would not deceive us," says Descartes. Today the view that the universe is rational and ultimately intelligible may still be acceptable to technicians, but it is not accepted by most scientists, any more than the latter would accept Monad's view that molecular biology has now explained everything except consciousness.

   When we turn from Monad to Eccles, we shift from a 19th century technician to a 20th century scientist who is also a philosopher. Eccles sees that the universe is not necessarily either rational or intelligible, and that its ultimate nature may not be attainable by scientific methods alone. He gives a simple way for distinguishing technicians from scientists:
Technicians treat their theories as part of their own egos and defend them bitterly, while scientists welcome refutation of all theories, including their own, since they see that science advances by disproving hypotheses, since this makes it necessary to devise newer, more inclusive, and more fruitful ones.

--Carroll Quigley is a professor of Georgetown University.

 

 

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