Preface (Full Text)
- What is it like to stand at the threshold of an epoch? Those of us alive today should know. Man has moved into space, will [shortly land on the moon}1, and perhaps next on Mars. With these events a long progression – one that has lasted several billion years – will reach a climax. Earthly life will escape its confinement and begin its invasion of other parts of the solar system. Whether an event like this has ever occurred before, anywhere in the vastness of the universe, we do not know. If not, we are about to witness not only an enormous step in the history of earthly life, but the opening of a new chapter in the book of the cosmos.
- How did this all come about? Was it chance or was it inevitable? Was there a plan and, if so, whose? Is there a strategy that life has followed during its long incubation on earth? This little book contains partial answers to these questions. It is called The Strategy of Life because the story it tells is not of a plan or a planner, but of a process – a steady, creative progression of life – upon which hindsight confers the appearance of strategy. The story of life – its premonitions in the stars, its beginnings in the interactions of sun and planet, its fruition during earth's maturation – now seems like an arrow pointed toward man's new adventure. There is something to learn from adopting hindsight's view, from thinking of properties and events – which we can now see were indispensable to life as we know it – as though they were strategic foresight. In fact, conscious strategy – in the sense of purpose and design – came very late on the scene, with the arrival of man. Thus, the "strategy" of the title is not conscious or purposeful; it is the resultant of a set of fundamental characteristics – for example, heredity – which life very early found enormously successful, which today underlie all the complexity and variety of the living world, and which have become the central organizing principles of modern biology.
- The traditional way to learn biology has been to turn directly to living organisms and study each for itself, allowing appreciation of the wholeness of life to emerge gradually. This procedure recapitulates the history of the science of biology, which began with the study of man and extended to other organisms common in his experience. It took considerable time – and daring – to recognize that human life shares properties common to all life. Only recently have we been able to make confident, general statements about all living things – about life, in toto. Opportunity is thus provided for a new approach to teaching and learning – the possibility of proceeding from the general to the specific, from the forest to the trees.
- This is another sense in which it seems appropriate to speak of the "strategy" of life. Strategy implies the overall view, in contrast to tactics, which deal with the particular and the detailed. There is much detail in the tactics of living, in the unique way each organism goes about its business of survival and propagation. Each organism holds a fascinating story and can be approached for its own interest. Each, however, is a sample – a tactical instance – of a broader strategy, and the instance is more meaningful when the general principle is understood. Even man can be seen as a sample – albeit an atypical one, with many special characteristics – of life's strategy. The effort here, however, is not to characterize particular organisms but the complex of life as a whole. In the second half of the twentieth century, biology for the first time is able to attempt this.
- This book is, of course, no treatise, nor is it even a complete and balanced summary of all that biologists know. It is intended simply as a brief introduction in broad, "big picture" strokes, which more detailed study should fill in. As such, it may be read profitably at the beginning of a college course in biology and again (perhaps even more profitably) at its end. It may also prove useful to read without relation to a course, as a condensed statement of biology's overall view of its province, at a time when both biology and life are on the verge of crossing new thresholds.
- Biology deals with the nature and activities of living organisms. Like science in general, biology is rooted in the substantial and the material; it assumes that life is knowable as external reality. In probing external reality, biology has important allies in the physical sciences and in the social sciences. Indeed, biology should be thought of as a sector of science rather than as an isolated discipline. Along with the rest of science, biology asserts the ultimate comprehensibility of all natural phenomena; it puts its faith in causal analysis, and it relies on the cumulative power of objective and quantitative methods. It is an integral part of science's concerted drive to make sense of the universe – to put all of the phenomena of the universe, including life, into one logical package. Biology's peculiar hallmark, in relation to the rest of science, is its focus on the living.
- There is much talk these days of a "revolution" in biology, of a "new biology" totally different from the old. Certainly there has been an enormous quickening in the rate of biological advance, with new and powerful insights whose implications are very broad, both for biology and the human outlook. But is there a new knowledge of life that renders all of the old knowledge obsolete? Is there a new approach to biology that supersedes all others, providing a short cut to the secret of life?
- Sometimes it is asserted that the application of physics and chemistry to biological problems has revolutionized biology. There can be no doubt that the electron microscope, the ultracentrifuge, the digital computer, and the scintillation counter have had profound impact. We should recall, however, that Galvani, in 1786, laid the groundwork for the physics of electricity when he observed twitching of the severed legs of a frog in contact with dissimilar metals. The development of the battery and our understanding of the nerve impulse have a common history in this observation; physics and physiology were simultaneously enriched by Galvani. Furthermore, it was physical optics that gave biology the microscope, and geology's Lyell who provided conceptual background for biology's Darwin. Interaction and mutual stimulation between biology and the physical sciences is no new phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century; no revolutionary innovation that can explain the "new biology."
- It is also asserted that the introduction of generalization and theory is new and has given revolutionary impetus to biology – that the biology of the past was only a dry catalog of facts, without order or synthesis. But the concept of evolution was one of the great intellectual syntheses of the nineteenth century. So, also, was the concept of the cell, which unified vast bodies of information and which underlies the successes of genetics and physiology in the first half of this century. The fact is that theory and concept are not new to biology; the coupling of fact-gathering with generalization is as old as the science of life itself.
- What truly is new is neither technique nor concept, nor any single characteristic. Biology has a new tone because the conscious search for statements of ever broader applicability is succeeding, and these statements are unifying wider and wider areas of the science. One hardly hoped, years ago, that the heredity of bacteria could be discussed in the same terms as – and even illuminate – the heredity of man. No one would have believed that there would be common energetic characteristics in a rose petal and an elephant's ear. At the turn of the century the keynote of biology seemed to be variation and bewildering diversity, but at mid-century we discern underlying similarities everywhere in the living world. There is ground not only to hope, but even to expect, that the complexities of life can be expressed in a manageable number of statements, and that predictions about life may be made from these by deduction. This is to say that, at long last, biology is becoming a full-fledged, logical science.
- I say "becoming" to emphasize that what we are discussing still goes on. Biology is burgeoning and is in ferment. If there is a revolution, it is in progress. If there is a new biology, we are still making it. No one can, at this moment, predict with any certainty what biology will be like twenty years hence. The trend of the last decade, however, suggests that the biology of the future will be the product of an increasing multiplicity of approaches, and, paradoxically, that these will converge to yield a unified concept of the nature of life. From studies diversely aimed at molecules, cells, organisms, and populations will come a global conception of earth's biotic film, and from this a projection of this concept to the universe at large. Confidence that we shall achieve this conception also characterizes today's biology. Excitement, confidence, and expectation are in the air, as though all that we now know and say of life is but a prologue. What follows in this book should be seen that way by today's students, for it will be up to them to carry on the play.
Preface (Full Text)
- Defining Life – 1
- Life In The Universe – 7
- Life On Earth – 24
- Levels Of Organization – 38
- Turnover And Continuity – 53
- Continuity And Complexity – 71
- Variation And Diversity – 84
- Progression And Complexity – 93
- Direction And Intelligence – 109
Index – 115
Footnote 1: This was written in 1965!
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)