Peter Medawar, fully Sir Peter Brian Medawar

Medawar, fully Sir Peter Brian Medawar

Brazilian-born British Biologist who worked on graft rejection, awarded Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Author Quotes

Everything does not happen continuously at any one moment in the universe. Neither does everything happen everywhere in it.

In no sense other than an utterly trivial one is reproduction the inverse of chemical disintegration. It is a misunderstanding of genetics to suppose that reproduction is only 'intended' to make facsimiles, for para-sexual processes of genetical exchange are to be found in the simplest living things.

Nor is much use listening to accounts of what scientists say they do, for their opinions var widely enough to accommodate almost any methodological hypothesis we may care to devise. Only unstudied evidence will do ? and that means listening at a keyhole.

The idea of na‹ve or innocent observation is philosophers? make-believe.

Very simple-minded people think that if Newton had died prematurely we should still be at our wits? end to account for the fall of apples.

French is not a language that lends itself naturally to the opaque and ponderous idiom of nature-philosophy, and Teilhard has according resorted to the use of that tipsy, euphoristic prose-poetry which is one of the more tiresome manifestations of the French spirit.

In spite of all the obstacles that Teilhard perhaps wisely puts in our way, it is possible to discern a train of thought in The Phenomenon of Man.

Observation is the generative act in scientific discovery. For all its aberrations, the evidence of the senses is essentially to be relied upon ? provided we observe nature as a child does, without prejudices and preconceptions, but with that clear and candid vision which adults lose and scientists must strive to regain.

The length of university schooling is far more important to those whose education ends with graduation than to those for whom education is an indefinitely continued process.

Watson's childlike vision makes them seem like the creatures of a Wonderland, all at a strange contentious noisy tea-party which made room for him because for people like him, at this particular kind of party, there is always room.

How have people come to be taken in by The Phenomenon of Man? We must not underestimate the size of the market for works of this kind [pseudoscience/'woo'], for philosophy-fiction. Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.

In the last analysis the best guarantee that a thing should happen is that it appears to us as vitally necessary

Psychoanalytic theory is the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century and a terminal product as well?something akin to a dinosaur or zeppelin in the history of ideas, a vast structure of radically unsound design and with no posterity.

The lives of scientists, considered as Lives, almost always make dull reading. For one thing, the careers of the famous and the merely ordinary fall into much the same pattern, give or take an honorary degree or two, or (in European countries) an honorific order. It could be hardly otherwise. Academics can only seldom lead lives that are spacious or exciting in a worldly sense. They need laboratories or libraries and the company of other academics. Their work is in no way made deeper or more cogent by privation, distress or worldly buffetings. Their private lives may be unhappy, strangely mixed up or comic, but not in ways that tell us anything special about the nature or direction of their work. Academics lie outside the devastation area of the literary convention according to which the lives of artists and men of letters are intrinsically interesting, a source of cultural insight in themselves. If a scientist were to cut his ear off, no one would take it as evidence of a heightened sensibility; if a historian were to fail (as Ruskin did) to consummate his marriage, we should not suppose that our understanding of historical scholarship had somehow been enriched.

We cannot point to a single definitive solution of any one of the problems that confront us ? political, economic, social or moral, that is, having to do with the conduct of life. We are still beginners, and for that reason may hope to improve. To deride the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind. There is no need to be dismayed by the fact that we cannot yet envisage a definitive solution of our problems, a resting-place beyond which we need not try to go.

I believe in "intelligence," and I believe also that there are inherited differences in intellectual ability, but I do not believe that intelligence is a simple scalar endowment that can be quanitified by attaching a single figure to it?an I.Q. or the like.

In the romantic conception, truth takes shape in the mind of the observer: it is his imaginative grasp of what might be true that provides the incentive for finding out, so far as he can, what is true. Every advance in science is therefore the outcome of a speculative adventure, an excursion into the unknown. According to the opposite view, truth resides in nature and is to be got at only through the evidence of the senses: apprehension leads by a direct pathway to comprehension, and the scientist?s task is essentially one of discernment. This act of discernment can be carried out according to a Method which, though imagination can help it, does not depend on the imagination: the Scientific Method will see him through.

Scientific discovery is a private event, and the delight that accompanies it, or the despair of finding it illusory, does not travel. One scientist may get great satisfaction from another?s work and admire it deeply; it may give him great intellectual pleasure; but it gives him no sense of participation in the discovery, it does not carry him away, and his appreciation of it does not depend on his being carried away. If it were otherwise the inspirational origin of scientific discovery would never have been in doubt.

The Phenomenon of Man is anti-scientific in temper (scientists are shown up as shallow folk skating about on the surface of things), and, as if that were not recommendation enough, it was written by a scientist, a fact which seems to give it particular authority and weight. Laymen firmly believe that scientists are one species of person. They are not to know that different branches of science require very different aptitudes and degrees of skill for their prosecution. Teilhard practiced an intellectually unexacting kind of science in which he achieved a moderate proficiency. He has no grasp of what makes a logical argument or of what makes for proof. He does not even preserve the common decencies of scientific writing, though his book is professedly a scientific treatise.

We shall not read it for its sociological insights, which are non-existent, nor as science fiction, because it has a general air of implausibility; but there is one high poetic fancy in the New Atlantis that stays in the mind after all its fancies and inventions have been forgotten. In the New Atlantis, an island kingdom lying in very distant seas, the only commodity of external trade is ? light: Bacon's own special light, the light of understanding.

I do not believe?indeed, I deem it a comic blunder to believe?that the exercise of reason is sufficient to explain our condition and where necessary to remedy it, but I do believe that the exercise of reason is at all times necessary...

In this conception of the scientific process, imagination and criticism are integrally combined. Imagination without criticism may burst out into a comic profusion of grandiose and silly notions. Critical reasoning, considered alone, is barren. The Romantics believed that poetry, poiesis, the creative exploit, was the very opposite of analytic reasoning, something lying far above the common transactions of reason with reality. And so they missed one of the very greatest of all discoveries, of the synergism between imagination and reasoning, between the inventive and critical faculties.

Scientific theories (I have said) begin as imaginative constructions. The begin, if you like, as stories, and the purpose of the critical or rectifying episode in scientific reasoning is precisely to find out whether or not these stories are stories about real life. Literal or empiric truthfulness is not therefore the strating-point of scientific enquiry, but rather the direction in which scientific reasoning moves. If this is a fair statement, it follows that scientific and poetic or imaginative accounts of the world are not distinguishable in their origins. They start in parallel, but diverge from one another at some later stge. We all tell stories, but the stories differ in the purposes we expect them to fulfil and in the kinds of evaluations to which they are exposed.

The Phenomenon of Man stands square in the tradition of Naturphilosophie, a philosophical indoor pastime of German origin which does not seem even by accident (though there is a great deal of it) to have contributed anything of permanent value to the storehouse of human thought.

We wring our hands over the miscarriages of technology and take its benefactions for granted. We are dismayed by air pollution but not proportionately cheered up by, say, the virtual abolition of poliomyelitis.

Author Picture
First Name
Last Name
Medawar, fully Sir Peter Brian Medawar
Birth Date
Death Date

Brazilian-born British Biologist who worked on graft rejection, awarded Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine