This book is based on a series of lectures given at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1960. Faculty and outside experts gave speeches about their specialty. The intent was to increase the awareness and understanding of the faculty of various fields to different areas of study; consequently, the material shared needed to be basic enough for those unfamiliar with the topic, while giving enough fresh material to include those who were familiar with it in varying degrees.
Waddington hit the nail on the head. This book is a very capable introduction to the major trends in the scientific community – specifically biology.
Waddington shares the advances provided by revolutionary theories, like Darwin’s evolution and Mendel’s genetics. He clearly demonstrates the value of those contributions, but he also clearly shows where those theories fell short. This is not to discredit the brilliant work of these men.
The accomplishments of Darwin and Mendel are amazing considering the times in which they developed. Many of the shortcomings later identified were a direct result of the ideas being so far ahead of their time. They identified key principles of heredity, development, and adaptation through intense experimentation and observation, without the benefit of tools like gene-mapping.
We wouldn’t have such advancements either, if not for their ideas.
One of the points made by Waddington that impressed me most was the value of scientific models. He explains that even if the theories and models are imperfect or flat-out wrong, they are a point of reference for additional discovery. Whether the model is refuted or proven (even partially) is irrelevant in regards to the advancement of scientific knowledge. The key is that questions are being asked, ideas explored, and empirical data analyzed, sorted, and applied to other models, thereby illuminating truth.
Another valuable aspect of this book is that it walks the reader through some of those processes that connect older scientific progress to current work and by extension the future.
I struggled with the decision to give the book 3 or 4 stars out of 5. The main point that kept me from giving the book 4 stars was the final chapter called Biology and Man. Waddington points out that the human mind seems unlikely to be defined adequately by chemical and physical means alone. Sure, an electrical impulse recalls a memory, but that memory is an image, smell, or sound. It has emotional attachment. It is a part of a greater whole that may include components of personality, ethics, self-awareness, etc. It’s more than a flash of electricity, or a chemical compound moving between receptors.
Ironically, while pointing out the inadequacy of a purely chemical or electrical approach to explaining free will, memory, personality, and self-awareness, Waddington seems to believe that these are the true explanation, but we are currently unable to measure, therefore explain, these phenomena. He even expresses doubt that we will ever be able to explain them.
In conclusion, Waddington’s discourse is valuable to the student of science and philosophy. He attempts to address opposing sides of major debates that continue over decades, but he fails to do so objectively. He is critical of the inability of religion to give empirical evidence of its efforts to refute or qualify the theory of evolution. He basically says that religions lack of empirical contribution makes it a nearly irrelevant part of the overall scientific discussion, but after saying this, he basically offers ideas equally void of empirical proof, but chalks it up as mere limitations in scientific tools.
The more I learn about science, and the more I participate in philosophical discussions, the less convinced I am that anyone has it just right. I feel impatient with those who attempt to discredit a theory in whole, because the theory doesn’t fit their agenda or world-view. This goes both ways. Ironically, belief in many scientific models requires every bit as much faith as believing in a Divine Intelligent Creator. I am disturbed that scientific models, most of which are still theories, are taught as absolute truth. I am equally frustrated by those blinded by devotion to religious ideas that fail to offer adequate answers to important, relevant questions.
I’m also a little disturbed at my own ease in hopping on a soapbox about this when I am so inexperienced and ignorant.