Wednesday, July 17, 2013



My first reading with Mr. Cohen of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was his essays (lots of two word titles beginning with “Of,” like “Of Friendship.”  I thought his essays were dry and not as illuminating as Montaigne’s.  I then read his “Novum Organon” a fragment from an incomplete book on the acquisition of knowledge.  In it Bacon rejects the logical method of making deductions, which are almost like syllogisms.  He felt not much science came from that.  Instead he argued, the scientist depends on the “slow and faithful toil gathering information and brings it into understanding.”  This process he called induction.  He felt the ideas from such an approach could be put to test and he is credited with defining and introducing the scientific method. I also read excerpts of his New Atlantis, a Utopian novel in which he describes the formation of a scientific society with funding for research and research is applied for human use, especially to provide inventions, solving social problems, extending life, and making humanity unlimited benefits limited only by our capacity for  imagination.  The problem with induction is we are not told how it works in our minds.  We are instead assured by Bacon that “faithful toil” of gathering information will bring it about.

At first I was skeptical that this was how science works. Later, when I did science with Muller, I realized he was right.  I still remember the night in Muller’s laboratory about 1957 when I was trying to add a gene mutation to the left and to the right of a stock that I wanted to use in an experiment on gene structure for the dumpy family of alleles.  I was looking for the recombined fly I desired and suddenly saw a fly that was unexpected.  It was almost like a flash of recognition that I realized it was not a contaminant and had to be recombination of a different sort.  It had occurred within the gene and not between the gene and the marker I was looking for.  I then realized with a second flash, that if this was indeed a recombinant within the gene there was no limit to recombining all the member mutations of that gene I had in my stock collection. I was jumping with excitement and wanted to tell everyone I could find but at 2 AM there was no one else in the laboratory I could share my delight that evening.  Every since, I put the emphasis on that phrase “faithful toil” as the basis for gaining insights into knowledge.  I applied it to my books.  I don’t write an outline for a book.  I submerge myself in the topic I want to write and let the connections emerge.  The more my heap of 5 x 8 cards mounts up the more likely they will reveal a number of themes which become the chapters in my book. That is how I wrote The Gene: A Critical History, or The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea, or The 7 Sexes.  Why extend what is already known when the past is waiting there for the scholar to exert “faithful toil” and make it come alive?  Is this not true for the germination of a poem, a musical composition, or a painting?  We can’t poke our minds and make them construct the pieces from some picture of the entirety we eventually produce.  It emerges in pieces and in connections. The best we can do is tell ourselves, that’s right, or that doesn’t work.  Unlike art, however, science has reality as a backup and experimentation is relentless in confirming or shattering our initial insights.  For this I give thanks and it is to Francis Bacon that I say, “Thank you”.

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