Sunday, 25 July 2010

Chargaff - the great names of biology

From Heraclitean Fire by Erwin Chargaff. 

"The great names in the biology of the last hundred years are Darwin, Mendel and Avery.

"Darwin's influence on thought and action was almost instant. He is, in many respects, the Richard Wagner of science; and it is not an accident that a susceptible mind such as Nietzsche's fell victim to both.

"Mendel's fame took a long time to establish itself; but once genetics was recognized as a distinct, though popularly misunderstood, science, it became as rapidly and shamelessly vulgarized as did Darwinism. (...)

"Avery's influence was of an entirely different order. It was exerted only within the biological sciences; his name still widely unknown. Whereas Mendel's successors were able to demonstrate that the heredity rules discovered by him were due to distinct units of inheritance which had physical reality, being localized in the chomosomes, Avery's findings pointed to the chemical nature of those units, the genes. "

[page 105]


"Early in 1944 somebody told me about a paper he had seen in the Journal of Experimental Medicine. This was the celebrated paper by Oswald T Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty entitled 'Studies on the chemical nature of the substance inducing transformation of Pneumococcal types'.

..."it was clear that the virulent smooth cells contained some principle that could transform, permanently and inheritably, avirulent rough cultures into something resembling the smooth virulent donor organism. Avery and his collaborators set out to isolate, purify, and identify this principle. They succeeded; and these are the words with which they concluded their paper:

'The evidence presented supports the belief that a nucleic acid of the desoxyribose type is the fundamental unit of the transforming principle of Pneumococcus Type III.'

"It is difficult for me to describe the effect that this sentence, and the beautiful experimentation that had given rise to it, had upon me. (...)

"The new finding made it (...) extremely probable that the genes contained, or consisted of, DNA. I believe that few people would now deny that this is one of the most important discoveries in biology."

[Pages 82-4]



Oswald Avery 1877-1955

At first I thought Avery might potentially be an exception to commenter dearieme's assertion that there has been a complete lack of American first rate scientists (making the assumption that Chargaff was correct in saying that Avery was indeed a first-rater - a genius - which is of course debateable, although it cannot be denied that Chargaff did have extremely high standards and was not one to toss around praise willy-nilly).

However, Avery was in fact Canadian by birth (, and of English descent (naturally).


  1. Before there's too much complaint, let me point out that I suggest that it's only at the very highest standard that there has been no-one produced by the USA or its precursor colonies. (Imports like Einstein don't count. Or, more accurately, the only Top Drawer immigrant to the USA, Einstein, doesn't count as an American product.) Nor do I know what to make of the "result": I suggest no explanation. I go further; I find it rather baffling. (Though on the subject of Einstein, does it signify anything that he emigrated to the USA only well after his creative life had finished? I don't know - though I'd guess that it reflects only the relative standards of the US and German universities before the second world war.) Once when I typed an off-the-top-of-the-head list of examples of the Very Top Drawer people whose absence I was discussing, an idea occurred to me and I deleted Faraday from my list. It was a decent idea because the various names put forward by other commenters for American membership of the top drawer club all fell miles short of Faraday's standard. The other thing that struck me about my list was that I had probably been fair to England, Scotland, Germany and Switzerland, but perhaps a little mean to the Netherlands, France, Italy and Spain - not out of malice, but out of ignorance; after Rembrandt, just how many painters should be included - that sort of issue. How about Russia - how many writers and composers should be included? You'll see where I'm going - there aren't many candidates from the USA who could be mentioned in the same breath as Tolstoy or Tchaikovsky without eliciting a dismissive chuckle. And that's true however much you enjoy Gershwin or Ellington, as I do, mightily. It's all profoundly odd. Still, with your new belief in HBD and all that, Mr Charlton, I suspect that you're preparing to speculate that the explanation might lie in the rather mediocre calibre of the immigrants who formed the American population? By "mediocre" I mean, of course, "mediocre" - I'm not using the word in the sports commentators' sense of lousy, dud and so on. Could be. I assume that all assertions of the near-uniformly high calibre of those wunnerful people are essentially evidence-free, foundation-myth, self-congratulatory gasbagging - but then I'd guess that any assertion of their essential mediocrity would be equally devoid of evidence. But enough guesswork - what do you make of this strange phenomenon? For example, is it a phenomenon at all? It's really just a casual observation - but the more often I've read the responses made to it, the more I incline to suspect that there's something to it. But why, for heaven's sake?

  2. I assume that it is because the US only became culturally dominant (over Britain and Germany) around the beginning of the twentieth century, when the West was already in cultural decline. There haven't been many world class geniuses since then, from anywhere. And now there are none!

  3. Fair enough - the end of European genius is another observation that interests me. But Mme Curie came from Poland, Ernest Rutherford from far New Zealand: was it really impossible for New York, Philadelphia or Boston to produce anyone of their standard? Heavens, it's not as if Rutherford came from Auckland or Christchurch - he was from remote, rural Nelson. Norway, dirt poor Norway, produced Abel and Ibsen. It's a mystery.

  4. Population size!

    The population of Europe was larger than the U.S. (presumably) during the recent past (I think you are talking about the past few hundred years) and so Europe would have had a larger absolute number of people with the traits for "greatness".

    What do you think?

  5. Broadly, what needs to be explained is the (rare, localized) occurrence of genius - the lack of genius is normal, and the decline of genius-generating cultures is more likely than that they would be sustained.

    Probably the cultural causes are multiplications of individual causes.

    A lot of it is genetic - the unusual inborn potential - a combination of high general intelligence and creativity with enough self-discipline to sustain and focus effort over many years (but not so much conscientiousness that the genius simply slots-into society and does exactly what is culturally valued).

    I believe that the individual genius also requires (almost always) a transcendental - 'other worldly' aim - so they are not working for fun or duty, but for some higher goal like God, Truth or Beauty.

    Presumably some populations are genetically more likely to produce such people. Presumably some populations are able to inculcate and sustain transcendental goals.

    The genetic basis for genius was - I guess - laid in the middle ages; when the middle classes had the highest reproductive success over many generations, and (according to Greg Clarke, Farewell to Alms) probably re-populated the whole of English (?Western European) society - both upper and lower classes - with their progeny.

    But it looks to me as if the conditions for genius are transient because the cultures that most nurture genius are transitional - especially cultures emerging from traditionalist restrictions based on transcendental goods into greater 'freedom' and individuality and genius is extinguished when the transitional stage moves on.

    So the nineteenth century was highly conducive to genius as modernity emerged from traditional societies, the twentieth century less so as it continued, and the twentieth century hardly at all.

    I know-of, and know, a few people who might have been geniuses in another era (after all, even with several generations of dysgenic trends the genetics of the West has probably not changed all that much); but under modern conditions their work is neither recognized nor taken up, and so does not transform culture in the way that geniuses sometimes did in the past.

  6. Population doesn't come close to an explanation: look at Scotland or Norway.

  7. Charlton: "I believe that the individual genius also requires (almost always) a transcendental - 'other worldly' aim - so they are not working for fun or duty, but for some higher goal like God, Truth or Beauty."

    - Yes. Also there are no statesmen, captains of the ships. On the other hand, self serving manipulators swimming in the liberal stream, are not hard to find. If we leave aside from observation the obvious genetic requirements, a list could start like this:

    - Prepackaged reality. Almost everything people use is produced by large complex organizations. Instead of understanding how something operates, how it is built and making large percentage of products with do-it-yourself principle, people have directories in their heads where to acquire the already made products or to get expert help.

    - Extension of the previous. Lifeless urban environment. Almost everything in it is already organized by someone else than a person, mainly by large complex organizations. There are no spaces/areas to profoundly explore, no numerous tools and materials waiting to be used, no areas to be cleared and creatively built etc. by persons.

    - Prolonged mind numbing in schools with bureacratically prepackaged, often insightless and uncreative information. In schools there are a lot of teaching, but only little autonomous learning, exploration and creation. E.g. although I liked history in school, the history school books were written in such a way that people would not learn much about how the societies, groups etc. function and why the history progressed as it did, what were the ways of thinking, what were the motive-situation-social reality-environment combinations, etc. The history stories were extended lists of superficial events. E.g. if the whole ancient history would have been replaced with a couple of classics, like Plato, Cicero, Aristoles etc. and a framework history of events, I would have learned and understood much more about ancient world, and it would have excited independent thinking and creative applying of that information to other areas, peoples and times. Something was salvaged by a history teacher, who was expectionally good story teller, who brought the stories to life and gave an deeper understanding of events. He was politically conservative, so no surprises there.

    Continued ...

  8. Part 2.

    - Splintered knowledge. Scientific knowledge is so fragmentary, that it doesn't enable the deeper understanding of large scale connections and the function of large entireties. Paradoxically deep understanding in one are becomes thin knowledge, if it is not embedded to larger realities. If a person has profound knowledge about psychology, but doesn't understand the organizations communities, societal structures, atomizations, power and it's methods, economy, production, etc., his knowledge can't lift off from the average scientific level like genius can. Genius is thus versatility too. Present scientists are often like football players, who can only run in straight lines and kick the ball in one way, but expect to be among the greatest players. It is also common e.g. that economists can't explain verbally and logically what they calculate, i.e. they don't really understand what they are doing.

    - The bureaucratic group efforts, "spirit" and the whole mind set. Science as a sausage factory, producing predetermined, bureaucratically ordered products. Hierarchical and large bureaucratic groups are mostly psychologically distant and people are weakly identified with them; non-intense; poorly coordinated; have unclear, non-personal and/or insignificant goals to the individual; surpass the psychological capacity of the individual to comprehend them; have artificial and unclear ingroup-outgroup divisions; etc., unlike e.g. Hutterite groups; thus social loafing predominates in bureaucracies (sum of performances of single individuals exceeds the group's performance), instead of social labouring (group produces in individuals increments over the individual performance baseline). [(Karau and Williams, 1991)(Karau and Williams, 1993)(Smith and Bond, 1993)(Worchel et. al., 1998)(Karau and Hart, 1998)(Shaw and Ashton, 1976)(Brickner et. al., 1986)(Harkins and Petty, 1982) Etc.]

    Also in bureaucracies there is a tendency to use the prepackaged, like elsewhere in society. Newton invented calculus for his physics theories. Now bureaucratic physicists are likely to search from mathematical tools if some of them might correspond to what they are studying in physics.

    - What the computer aid in calculation and other areas does to thinking abilities? What if we would use more our brains to calculation and other thinking?


  9. @a Finn

    Thanks - That reminds me about something I wanted to say about the benefits of the internet, see next posting.