I was at a “Lunch with a Commissioning Editor” at the World Congress of History Producers last month and experienced something called seriality, or better synchronicity, when the editor, Jennifer Batty, mentioned having received four proposals on the same subject one day, from people scattered across Europe. I had just been reading about this concept so it was synchronity to have her mention it at all. I bring this up because I’ve been meaning to write about the book that introduced me to the idea, Arthur Koestler’s 1971 The Case of the Midwife Toad.
It was chance, too, that I came across this. I was looking for a mystery for the plane trip home when we were in Charleston, SC, and someone had put this book in the wrong section, because of its title. It is actually a book on the history of science, and a scathing account of the way academics can become wedded to a theory or approach and completely abandon the search for truth. This is a salutory reminder that the ivory tower is not always pristine, and also interesting for a non-scientist because it makes it so clear that scientist knowledge is not cut and dried.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing, in these days when liberals are worried about the radical fundamentalists who want to teach “Intelligent Design,” is to learn that Darwinism isn’t the simple truth that one would think it is from reading the major newspapers. Religious nuts versus absolute scientific fact. The real world, and human evolution, is much more complex, and interesting, than that, and those of us who aren’t persuaded that the Bible is a source of scientific truth would do well to be a little less dogmatic and a little more rational in explaining what really is known and thought, at this point in the development of scientific knowledge, about evolution.
I realize that for teachers it’s very appealing to have clear-cut explanations for things, but I’ll bet students would be more engaged if we could find ways to show them the uncertainties that still exist.
To get back to the book, though, here’s another bit of seriality. Koestler’s story is an account of the life and work of a Viennese biologist named Paul Kammerer, who was investigating an alternative approach to evolution called Lamarckism, in which characteristics acquired during life (musical training even, but what Kammerer tested in toads and newts was adaptation to particular environments) would be passed on to subsequent generations. I was thrilled to find that Time Magazine has posted their back articles, even to 1923, so you can read a contemporay account, TIME.com: Lamarck or Weismann? — May 12, 1923
The possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics — that bone of contention around which so much of evolutionary conflict has raged for 100 years—has received new support from the work of Professor Paul Kammerer, of the University of Vienna, who has just demonstrated his findings before the Cambridge University Society of Natural History . . . .”
Guess what else I took with me to read on the plane: An issue of New Scientist with a cover feature called The “10 roads to Fatsville” 03 November 2006. Here’s a paragraph from it:
Offspring of mice fed a high-fat diet during pregnancy are much more likely to become fat than the offspring of identical mice fed a normal diet. Intriguingly, the effect persists for two or three generations. Grandchildren of mice fed a high-fat diet grow up fat even if their own mother is fed normally – so your fate may have been sealed even before you were conceived.
There was more, I now realize. The evening after the World Congress of History Producers I went to dinner at the home of an old friend, Terry Jones. It turned out that he had been asked to speak at the partner conference, for science producers, because he presents both history and science programs. And he knows all about Lamarck and the Koestler book–it’s quite likely that he is the only person among all my acquaintances who does.