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Biology's major problems: Origin of life and the human mind


Karl Popper and the philosophy of science
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I do have a great respect for Popper. I mean, I think... he's nearer to... I mean, Popper's ambition, in relation to science, at least, was to discriminate between, sort of, science and what he called pseudo-science. As a very young man, almost as a schoolboy, his problem was to discriminate between Einstein, on the one hand, and Marx and Freud on the other. As far as he was concerned, Marx and Freud were sort of pseudo-science and Einstein was real science, but the question is: What was the difference? And it was his notion of the concept of falsifiability... was the criteria which he ultimately used to distinguish with Marxism and Freudism on the one hand. And I think I already mentioned earlier, talking to you, that, you know, neither Marx nor Freud are easily refutable, because they have, sort of, built-in self defences. Relativity theory, on the other hand, is very easily refutable. If wrong, there are experiments you can do to refute it. So I think Popper was... was a genuine contributor to our understanding of what we're doing. But more generally, my impression is that... that people who take... scientists who take the philosophy of science seriously and allow their scientific research to be influenced by philosophical preconceptions, are far more likely to do themselves harm than good. I mean, the classic case, I guess, is Karl Pearson, who because of his developed positivist stance - which says you mustn't imagine hypotheses, you mustn't hypothesise anything that you can't, sort of, see and touch - screwed up genetics for 20 years and completely ruined himself, because he wouldn't postulate the existence of an entity that he couldn't pick up and weigh. It... but he did that on philosophical grounds. And... and I suppose another and much worse example, I give Lysenko enough credit to believe that he was influenced not only by careerism but also by philosophical conviction. Certainly the errors he made about heredity are precisely the ones that Marxism should lead him to make, and it's another case where philosophical preconceptions misled him. And I think it happens again and again in science. So, I'm... I'm a sucker here, I mean, I love reading philosophy of science, I find it interesting. I feel all ready to argue about it. But I do not believe one should allow oneself to be influenced by it, when actually thinking about science.

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: Karl Popper, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Karl Pearson, Trofim Lysenko

Duration: 2 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008