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George Dyson's Question — An Edge Special Event!

To selected Edge contributors:

In his Edge conversation "Who is the greatest biologist of all time?", Armand Leroi asks, and unequivocally answers the question. What can anyone add?

The only question left is "Who is the greatest biologist since Aristotle?" Now, in general, "who is the greatest" questions are dangerous, but, if Edge is going to ask one, you have to ask that. And most people are going to answer, "Darwin!" and we just had a full year of that.

So, let's move on to the next question:


Now that's an interesting question....

GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, is the author Baidarka; Project Orion; and Darwin Among the Machines.

George Dyson on Edge:
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"Goldsmith vs. Zimmerman"
"CODE - George Dyson & John Brockman: A Dialogue"
"Darwin Among the Machines; or, The Origins of Artificial Life"

by John Brockman

One of the problems with the Darwin lovefest of a year ago is that it overwhelmed the recent history of biology. While we all have at least some familiarity with the high points of modern physics in the past one hundred years or so: Einstein's Special theory of relativity (1905); Eddington's expedition to observe the Solar eclipse that provided one of the earliest confirmations of relativity (1919); Bohr, Heisenberg and Quantum Mechanics (1920s); the work of Gell-Mann and Feynman (1960s); the unified field theory Glashow, Weinberg, and Saalam; and more recently, areas such as string theory, the inflationary universe, the multiverse, etc.

The same cannot be said for the field of biology. While you don't hear physicist talk about "Newtonism", biologists can't shut up about "Darwinism". Enough is enough; and more than enough is too much.

This aspect of our science culture is, in my opinion, a show-stopper. I believe it contributes to the problem of how the subjects of biology and evolution are treated as political footballs in debates over school curricula in America. It's time for biology to grow up, to credit people other than Darwin for their contributions to biology and present these achievements to the educated public.

I would like to hear about the relationship of Darwin's ideas to those of Jean- Baptiste Lamarck. What about the the work done by Mendel in 1900 and how the the gene, though its exact nature was unknown at the time, became a player in "the modern synthesis" of Mendel and Darwin. This synthesis, which reconciled genetics per se with Darwin's vision of natural selection, was carried out in the early 1930s by R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright, and augmented a few years later by the work of the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, the biologist Ernst Mayr, and the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who expanded on this neo-Darwinian paradigm.

How many readers of Edge are familiar with the biological developments of the 1960s and 1970s led by George C. Williams, William Hamilton, and John Maynard Smith. Williams, for example, was the first to emphasize that it was the gene on which natural selection acted. In this regard, he precedes Richard Dawkins, with whom he shares a great many ideas, and he was in a different camp from Stephen Jay Gould, who had a hierarchical theory of selection processes, of which the gene is only one level. Williams' book Adaptation and Natural Selection, published in 1966, described the gene as having a "codical" as well as a physical character — that is, he views the gene as a package of information, not an object.

And that just brings us up to the 1970s when Robert Trivers, while a post-doc at Harvard, wrote five seminal papers that created a new scientific field: the scientific study of human nature. A seminal moment in that decade was the publication of Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (with an introduction to the first edition by Trivers) in which he presented many of the ideas of Williams, Hamilton, Maynard-Smith, and Trivers along with his own original thinking on the subject. All the while, the mainstream media in America were misrepresenting Stephen Jay Gould as the authority on evolutionary biology, when Gould himself said this his role was that of a critic, of the mainstream researchers in the field.

There is still discord in the ranks of evolutionary biologists. The principal debates are concerned with the mechanism of speciation; whether natural selection operates at the level of the gene, the organism, or the species, or all three; and also with the relative importance of other factors, such as natural catastrophes. This is evident in the strong reactions to a controversial paper recently p published in Nature by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O. Wilson ("The Evolution of Eusociality", 26 August 2010).

And so it goes. The conversation in biology since Darwin is interesting, it's important, and it's something the general public should know about. To the extent the Edge community can present it in a coherent manner, it will be a wonderful public service.


George Dyson's Question — An Edge Special Event!

Stewart Brand, Richard Dawkins

Founder, The Whole Earth Catalog; Cofounder, Chairman, The Long Now Foundation; Author, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

Indeed, Leroi has written a lovely piece, full of news for me. And I like George Dyson's question, as he has framed it above.

Evolutionary Zoologist, University of Oxford. Author, The Blind Watchmaker; The Greatest Show on Earth

I've listened to Armand Leroi's talk: beautifully delivered (apart from his infuriating use of the historic present), but his nomination of Aristotle is obviously just contrarian for the sake of it. He is simply bending over backwards to contrive a way of answering the question with a name other than Darwin. And that's a hopeless cause! I prefer to answer the question straight, making no attempt to be contrarian or 'interesting'. Darwin, of course, is the greatest biologist ever.

Who is the greatest biologist since Darwin? That's far less obvious, and no doubt many good candidates will be put forward. My own nominee would be Ronald Fisher. Not only was he the most original and constructive of the architects of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Fisher also was the father of modern statistics and experimental design. He therefore could be said to have provided researchers in biology and medicine with their most important research tools, as well as with the modern version of biology's central theorem.