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Book Summary: The Upright Thinkers

Author: Leonard Mlodinow

Substory: Evolution Of Biology: Overcoming The God-centric Doctrine

Given the complexity of life, its diversity in size, shape, and habitat, and our natural disinclination to believe that we are “mere” products of physical law, it is not surprising that biology lagged behind physics and chemistry in its development as a science. Like those other sciences, for biology to grow it had to overcome the natural human tendencies to feel that we are special and that deities and/or magic govern the world. And, as in those other sciences, that meant overcoming the God-centric doctrine of the Catholic Church and the human-centric theories of Aristotle.

Aristotle was an enthusiastic biologist—almost a quarter of his surviving writings pertain to that discipline. And while Aristotle’s physics has our earth at the physical center of the universe, his biology, more personal, exalts humans, and males in particular.

Aristotle believed that a divine intelligence designed all living beings, which differ from the inanimate in that they have a special quality or essence that departs or ceases to exist when the living thing dies. Among all those blueprints for life, Aristotle argued, humans represent the high point. On this point Aristotle was so vehement that when he described a characteristic of a species that differs from the corresponding human characteristic, he referred to it as a deformity. Similarly, he viewed the human female as a deformed or damaged male.

The erosion of such traditional but false beliefs set the stage for the birth of modern biology. One of the important early victories over such ideas was the debunking of a principle of Aristotle’s biology called spontaneous generation, in which living things were said to arise from inanimate matter such as dust. Around the same time, by showing that even simple life has organs as we do, and that we, like other plants and animals, are made of cells, the new technology of the microscope cast doubt on the old ways of thinking. But biology could not begin to really mature as a science until the discovery of its great organizing principle.

Physics, which concerns how objects interact, has its laws of motion; chemistry, which concerns how elements and their compounds interact, has its periodic table. Biology concerns itself with the ways in which species function and interact, and to succeed, it needed to understand why those species have the characteristics they do—an explanation other than “Because God made them that way.” That understanding finally came with Darwin’s theory of evolution based on natural selection.