Occasionally, those of us well embedded in science need an outsider, some distance removed from the action, to cast a critical eye at how we operate. A book I highly recommend for any practising scientist to read is ‘Fabulous Science: fact and fiction in the history of scientific discovery’ (Oxford University Press, 2002) by John Waller. The author is a graduate in Modern History from Oxford who went on to take a Masters in Human Biology before specialising in the History of Medicine. He reviews evidence accrued by fellow chroniclers of medical advances that reveals how we scientists regularly distort the historical record, sometimes for our own egocentric advantage, other times to promote past practitioners to hero status. It’s a salutary tale (or rather, a series of tales) of distortion and frank misdemeanours that challenges more pious view of scientists’ cool objectivity. And we all know it’s true.
Waller’s account of the discovery of the isolation of insulin and the demonstration of its efficacy in resolving diabetes is a classic case of Shakespearian dimensions – human ingenuity coupled with pretence and comical folly. We learn that Pasteur may have got the right answers but suppressed results that didn’t fit. As a British diplomat once famously confessed, he had been ‘economic with the truth’. For the rest of us: he cheated.
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Waller’s account of the discovery and application of penicillin is a great myth buster. Just how lucky was Alexander Fleming that a particular species of penicillin – P. notatum floated in through a window over a weekend and landed on an open bacterial petri dish? And how many of us knew that he had abandoned it as a useful antibiotic until the Oxford scientists, Florey, Chain and Heatley did the serious science and worked out how to produce and test its efficacy properly. But then, as he was deluged with accolades, acted as though he knew it all along.
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What is especially worth reading in the book is the chapter on Charles Darwin entitled ‘The origin of species by means of use-inheritance’. Here Waller describes how Darwin’s thinking, mainly as revealed in his notebooks, was a real mix of conviction and doubt. Darwin’s understanding and confidence in one essential component of what we now see as archetypical Darwinism was very fragile indeed. As readers of this site will know well, although Darwin became the champion of evolution, that concept in itself was not new; it was his suggested mechanism of natural selection of variants that represented his real and provocative innovation. But therein lies the problem. Darwin had no idea at all how the variants arose. He was attracted to the idea that variation was somehow random but his (and everyone else’s at the time) complete ignorance of distinct germ cells, chromosome segregation and ‘digital’ genetic information meant he struggled to retain confidence in this most contentious, ‘chance’ component of his theory. And, as a consequence, he had no effective riposte to the charge that new and potentially advantageous variants would be blended or diluted out. Waller describes how this idea virtually died a death for fifty years past 1859 until it was salvaged or resurrected by the emergence of 20th century genetics. More alarmingly, Darwin himself, especially in later editions of The Origin, entertained views that can only be described as Lamarkian – that somehow environmental pressures directed (rather than selected) particular, appropriate traits. Some kind of inheritance by use. Waller also has some telling Darwin quotes that some will be familiar with. For example: ‘As natural selection works solely for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.’, i.e. evolution has a direction. Really? It’s sometimes said that if only Darwin had known of Mendel’s seminal discoveries in the 1860s, it might have been different. Well, no actually as Waller recounts. Simply because Mendel himself and those acquainted with his pea hybridization data hadn’t any idea what the colour segregation sums meant in terms of the underlying, discrete and binary genetic units. The instability of hybrid phenotypes put Mendel right off scent as it surely would have Darwin. And Mendel himself we can assume, in a sense, didn’t care. He was interested in whether new species could arise via hybrid crosses, not the underlying basis of variation. In science, it’s the question that really matters.
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None of this detracts from the monumental impact that what we call Darwinism has had, and continues to have, but Darwin, like all of us, was a product of his time and there were limits to what he could achieve or understand. Still, as his 200th birthday approaches, chances are we’ll continue to shower him with accolades of brilliance that don’t quite tell it as it was. But why spoil a good story, eh?
Irrespective of whether you’re familiar or not with these details of Charles Darwin’s intellectual struggles, I recommend you read Waller’s book. It’s an insightful and powerful commentary on how scientific culture still operates.