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Biography and ideas,
This review is from: A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination (Paperback)
Kohn's book presents six vivid short biographies of English evolutionary scientists. But this is biography oriented around a specific - and very big - question: how have these scientists responded to the idea of natural selection, in their lives and in their outlook.
By recognising that adaptation by natural selection must work as science, but that the idea can animate a multitude of personal reactions, Kohn has written a book which is serious and subtle. His subject is the English school of evolutionary biologists and their championing of adaptationism, a position which sees the blind and ruthless mechanism of selection behind all life's variety. His premise is that this position makes the challenge of the scientific idea to wider life particularly acute: "understanding better than anybody how it is possible for life, living creatures and living beings to evolve without the help of any intelligent power, they have faced the moral consequences of their insight."
Kohn's brief lives are economic and powerful - and entertaining. JBS Haldane, in particular, seems like a larger than life comic creation. Nick-names, feuds, complex sexual entanglements and reckless trench heroics whilst wearing a kilt all fit the old-Etonian stereotype nicely. A wide crack in this comedy of manners comes when Haldane - an influential popular science writer as well as a dominant academic - joins the Communist Party, and begins a series of trimmings and evasions (and finally a just-about confrontation) with the Soviet Union's official line on genetic science: an odd moral and intellectual compromise for such an idiosyncratic man. The minor characters, too, add richness to the picture, including a long digression on the life and work of George Price. Price too is in many ways a stereotype - the unworldly scientist struggling with human relationships and everyday life - but in Kohn's account these are tragic flaws. Price's struggle to create a career, to live a life matching his astonishing standards of personal morality, and - though Kohn treats this point with appropriate caution - to live with the implications for human possibility of his own work on the origins of altruism, all point relentlessly to his suicide.
This focus on personal philosophy still gives room for the everyday practice of the naturalist. Field studies are a repeated motif of the book, from Alfred Russel Wallace making a precarious living as a collector to Bill Hamilton's lunatically fearless wandering in the Congo. In a counterpoint to such exoticism, a special place is given to Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire: domestic and local, but transfigured into an English paradise garden as its snails, great tits and speckled wood butterflies reveal and support the truths of adaptation.
With these many strengths, "A Reason for Everything" leads the reader close to a classic trap of popular scientific biography: we're flattered we've understood the science when what we've learned is the history of the man (and Kohn says some pertinent things about the absence of women amongst his main subjects.) The book makes clear, for example, that maths matters to adaptationists - and mathematical rigour is a particular contribution of the English school - but its not clear why it matters or what it adds. This could have been addressed directly without alienating non-technical readers.
Kohn addresses a major scientific question (is adaptationism the best route for the development of evolutionary theory?) and makes his conclusion clear: adaptationism wins. At the same time, he brings into relief some tough and fascinating questions about how a scientific idea relates to human values: is there are an inherent alignment of selection (or more precisely adaptationism) with a particular politics; does an acceptance of adaptationism sit alongside belief (as for David Lack) or point to atheism (Richard Dawkins,) or neither? On these questions the book is far more elusive, and its structure, of chronologically presented mini-biographies, means the themes weave in and out of the narrative. In "A Reason for Everything" Kohn elegantly shows that adaptationism can support a diversity of positions passionately felt, but the very deftness of this presentation leaves one itching to know where the author stands, for a critique of the logic of each position.