Unmaking mysteries

Mark Ridley

  • Pluto’s Republic by Peter Medawar
    Oxford, 351 pp, £12.50, October 1982, ISBN 1 921777 26 5

Sir Peter Medawar is the most distinguished biologist in Britain today. His work on immunology during the 1950s is the inspiration of all modern transplantation surgery, and was judged worthy of a Nobel Prize. In addition to his technical work, he also writes and lectures on science to a broader audience, and with more grace and wit than any one else who has tried his skill in that field. He has held many of the high offices open to a scientist in this country; he has delivered with uniform excellence the most prestigious lectures sponsored by the universities and learned societies; and, as the readers of this journal and its New York counterpart know, he is outstandingly the best reviewer of scientific books in the English-speaking world.

But despite all that, Medawar’s essays are less well-known in literary circles than they deserve. They are widely known among scientists, wherein his wittier put-downs are recalled with chortling delight, stumblingly misremembered in the fashion of Monty Python as retold by undergraduates. His audience need not be so confined. One might fear that they would be hard work – ‘No man,’ as Dr Johnson remarked, ‘reads a book of science from pure inclination’ – but they are always easy going, and require no esoteric knowledge. One might fear that the praise lavished upon his style is only relative to the prevailing standards of literacy among scientists: but they are sufficiently well-written, intelligible, interesting and amusing to stand comparison with the very best in any field. Now, with the publication of Pluto’s Republic, the last excuse for ignorance has been extinguished. Medawar’s essays have previously appeared in three anthologies, The Uniqueness of the Individual (1957), The Art of the Soluble (1967), which was the best of the three, and The Hope of Progress (1972), all of which are now out of print, and have been available only to those sharp-eyed collectors who were prepared to hunt them through the random classifications and dusty shelves of second-hand bookshops. That skill is no longer required. The new volume contains all of The Art of the Soluble, and most of The Hope of Progress. To these are added the contents of a slim volume on Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought, a few more recent, uncollected essays, and one, on ‘Expectation and Prediction’, that is, in its present form, new. The Uniqueness of the Individual, I may add, was reprinted, with a new introduction, by Dover Books in 1981.

As for their themes, we can let the author speak for himself. ‘In so far as the essays collected have a central or recurrent theme, it is in the attempt to answer the following questions: what is science, what kind of person is a scientist, and what kind of act of reasoning leads to scientific discovery and the enlargement of the understanding? I seldom put these questions directly, and answer them only incompletely and bit by bit.’ More often than not, he approaches the questions backhandedly, by means of the negative instance. Such, in fact, is the meaning of Pluto’s republic, which Medawar calls ‘an intellectual underworld’ that ‘we each populate according to our own prejudices’. It is, in other words, Medawar’s Inferno, with the difference that he does not torment his victims.

What a crowd Pluto’s citizens are! Obscurantists and rhapsodic intellecters, futurologists and economic forecasters; inductivists; mystical theologians like Teilhard de Chardin; mystical humanists like Arthur Koestler, who, although ‘a very clever and knowledgable man’, ‘has no real grasp of how scientists go about their work’; there are advocates of such doctrines as historicism, scientism and poetism; there is (after a balanced judgment) Herbert Spencer, whose ‘system of general evolution does not really work’; and then IQ psychologists, who ‘give the impression of being incapable of learning anything from anybody’; and everyone else who doubts the hope of progress, such as Francis Galton, for the ‘air of almost exultant scorn in his description of the uselessness of a man’s trying to better himself beyond the degree of his innate capacities’; there are other kinds of psychologists too – psychoanalysts, with their system that combines ‘conceptual barrenness with enormous facility of explanation’, and existential psychiatrists, who, ‘because some families may create an environment conducive to mental disorder’, would abolish all family life, and would treat madness by constructing a microcosm of ‘understanding’ around it such that madness no longer appears mad: and all of them can meet the editor of Nature, John Maddox, who does not take the prophets of ecological disaster seriously enough, and Norman St John-Stevas, who had the misfortune to let off one of the sillier arguments against abortion in Medawar’s hearing, and is briskly propelled across the Styx on page 24.

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