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Arthur Koestler, Climate Skeptics & The Puzzling Case Of The Midwife Toad - RealClimate

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hatrack Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Dec-08-08 12:31 PM
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Arthur Koestler, Climate Skeptics & The Puzzling Case Of The Midwife Toad - RealClimate
I recently came across an old copy of Arthur Koestler's "The Case of the Midwife Toad". Originally published in 1971, it's an exploration of a rather tragic footnote in the history of evolutionary science. Back in the early years of the 20th Century (prior to the understanding of DNA, but after Mendelian genetics had become well known), there was still a remnant of the biological community who preferred the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics over the Darwinian idea of natural selection of random mutations. One of the vanguard for the Lamarckian idea was Paul Kammerer whose specialty was the breeding of amphibians that apparently few others could match. He claimed that he could get his toads and salamanders to acquire characteristics that were useful in the new environments in which he raised his specimens. This was touted loudly (in the New York Times for instance) as proof of Lamarckian inheritance and Kammerer was hailed as a 'new Darwin'. It all ended very badly when one toad specimen was found to be faked (by who remains a mystery), and Kammerer killed himself shortly afterwards (though there may have been more involved than scientific disgrace).

The details of the experiments and controversy can be read online (with various slants) here and here, and a more modern non-replication of one of his experiments is described here. However, the reason I bring this up here is much more related to how the scientific community and Koestler dealt with this scientific maverick and the analogies that has for the climate science and its contrarians.

EDIT

So let's start with the non-scientific reasons why Kammerer's ideas had resonance. Martin Gardner in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952) puts it well (p143):

Just as Lamarckianism combines easily with an idealism in which the entire creation is fulfilling God's vast plan by constant upward striving, so also does it combine easily with political doctrines that emphasize the building of a better world.

The point is that without Lamarckianism, none of the striving and achievement of a parent impacts their progeny's genetic material. That was a depressing thought for many people (what is the point of striving at all?), and hence there was a clear non-scientific yearning for Lamarckian inheritance to be correct. I use the past tense in referring to these almost 100 year-old arguments, but Koestler's book and more recent attempts to rehabilitate these ideas tap into these same (misguided) romantic notions. (Odd aside, one of the most positive treatments of this "neo-Lamarckianism" is by Michael Duffy, a frequent climate contrarian Australian journalist). Note that I am distinguishing the classic 'inheritance of acquired characteristics' from the much more respectable study of epigenetics.

The scientist-as-hero meme is a very popular narrative device and is widespread in most discussions of progress in science. While it's clearly true that some breakthroughs have happened through the work of a single person (special relativity is the classic case) and someone has to be the first to make a key observation (e.g. Watson and Crick), the vast majority of scientific progress occurs as the accumulation of small pieces of new information and their synthesis into a whole. While a focus on a single person makes for a good story, it is very rarely the whole or even a big part of the real story. Thus while Koestler can't be uniquely faulted for thinking that Lamarckianism rose and fell with Kammerer, that perspective leads him to imbue certain events with much more significance than is really warranted.

EDIT

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/12/c...
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eppur_se_muova Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Dec-08-08 06:42 PM
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1. Trivia tidbit: Who was Kammerer's onetime female assistant?
Alma Mahler, widow of Gustav (later Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel).
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hatrack Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Dec-09-08 08:56 AM
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2. And with what famous artist was she an item prior to Kammerer?
:evilgrin:
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eppur_se_muova Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Dec-09-08 06:06 PM
Response to Reply #2
3. Umm ... all of them?
:shrug:
Not a bad guess, in a way ...

I had to resort to wikipedia to find out ... and I learnt a thing or two!
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