Biologists and Philosophers

Cousin Lucy, a bit back, wrote me a nice comment saying she thought that I could probably teach biology should I wish and that some of my philosophic musings were above her head.  This suggested many potential writing topics—one being an apology for my more philosophic musings, another being what philosophy is for, and what is it about, and finally, biologists and philosophers.

I would hazard to say many philosophers have not been good biologists; Aristotle, for example, believed in spontaneous generation—the creation of living tissue from inanimate matter.  Spontaneously.  But Aristotle was smart and if he had a microscope I am pretty sure he would have corrected this assertion.  But biologists too are sometimes not such hot philosophers.

James Watson, one of the “discoverers” of the DNA double helix, was kicked out of his job as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory because he appears to have said that Africa is pretty much a lost cause since the people of that continent are genetically inferior when it comes to intelligence.  This was pretty stupid comment that only a non-philosopher might make.

Some signs of this stupidity, however, appeared a few years back.  I read that Watson was trying to find the exact spot in the brain where the “soul” is located or perhaps it was “consciousness.”—I can’t remember exactly which.  Now that was a pretty stupid too.  I will state here without fear of contradiction that no one will ever locate the spot in the brain where consciousness is located.  Or let’s say, consciousness is located in the whole brain.  You can test this by hitting a person on the head with a brick thus rendering him or her unconscious.

But signs of Watson’s philosophic stupidity appear earlier on, as far back as his book, The Double Helix.  There he reports, when he and Crick made their breakthrough, that he exclaimed to Crick, “We have discovered the meaning of life!”  I can’t find my copy of the Double Helix.  So I am not sure if those are the exact words, but they’re pretty close.

I can understand Watson being carried away by the exuberance of his discovery.  Still, a philosopher couldn’t have said that.  No, Dr. Watson, you did not discover the meaning of life.  You discovered how genetic information is passed along from one living organism to another.  You discovered “how” something is done, but you discovered nothing at all about why it is done. 

Since Job at least and before that too, philosophers and theologians have been concerned with “Why?”  Only a non-philosopher could have conflated the how question with the why question.  Which does not mean philosophers are any good at the how question.  In fact they suck.  But non-philosophic biologists can tend to be awful literal minded.

3 Replies to “Biologists and Philosophers”

  1. I was watching “No dogs or philosophers allowed” one night…and one of the guests said that he was reading Pascal when he finally gained the insight that there is no “meaning” to life….the universe is meaning-neutral. Anyway, for the information of the cousins who haunt the blog, I put up one more photo on flickr….a better bird shot.

  2. Steve – As a “haunting cousin,” I found the picture of the heron – he’s gorgeous! Thanks for sharing. As for the tube and confused fish – well, I guess so. I would think that rates up there with alien abduction and release for them.

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