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Becoming a biologist


Holistic versus mechanistic
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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There's a curious and quite deep disagreement among biologists, and actually scientists outside biology, on the issue of how far the world could be explained, in very mechanistic, reductionist, you know everything must be explained by dividing it into its parts and A pushes B which pushes C; the world is made of clockwork, you know. It's a view that I hold and I think that you hold. And a view which I might call a sort of holistic view, a view that you've got to look at the whole system, that there's a complex inter-penetration of parts, that nothing is simple, that any attempt to reduce it to its component parts destroys the essence of the structure you're trying to understand. And that... that life is, so to speak, irreversible and irreducibly complicated. And what is odd about this debate is that I actually think that there's a sort of ideological component to it in the sense that in biology, at least, people who hold the holistic, you cannot come up with a simple explanation, everything has to be considered in... as part of a complex interacting system, in biology, I think that people who hold those views tend either to be politically of the left or they tend to be active feminists. I mean, Evelyn Fox Keller, for example, is an example of somebody who holds that view, very sincerely and very rationally - I'm not accusing her of being wrong, I'm just saying, that's the view she holds - and she's also an active ideological feminist. Now, what is curious about this is that if you think about the social sciences, the sides have changed. The classical Self-organisation Model in the social sciences, the model which says, complex structure emerges not by any kind of gene control or anybody telling it what to do, but by some kind of process of self-organisation, is the ideology we associate with everybody from Adam Smith to Mrs Thatcher. It's a belief that an economy left to individual action, without any central control, produces a desirable structure. And the notion which is the opposite notion, the notion of genetic control of things, everything being very centrally controlled, in analogue, is central planning and Socialism. And so, it's very curious, the ideology has changed sides, when you go from biology to sociology, which leads me to suspecting ideology's a jolly bad guide to what is right in either field. But... in my own biolo... biography, I was clearly, in the period between about 1945 and 1955, because of my philosophical influences from Marxism, on the whole I was anti-mechanist, I was looking for holistic explanations rather than the mechanistic ones, which you may find very odd in view of my present views. But I've been there, you see, I know what it's like. I took holistic views seriously.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Evelyn Fox Keller, Adam Smith, Margaret Thatcher

Duration: 3 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008