Gunther Stent was one of the leading figures in the 'phage group, a group of molecular biologists who transformed the science of biology back in the 1940's, '50's, and 60's. He died on June 12th [Gunther Stent, an Early Researcher in Molecular Biology, Is Dead at 84].
Today's Citation Classic from John Dennehy is the book The Molecular Biology of Bacterial Viruses by Gunther Stent. In keeping with his main theme, John often uses the citation classic to highlight the influence of past scientists and not necessarily the significance of a single paper. Stent's name is not associated with any one experiment, or even a series of experiments. His influence extended well beyond his ability to do important experiments.
I first encountered Gunther Stent at the annual 'phage meeting held at Cold Spring Harbor every summer. I learned pretty quickly that he thought on a different plane than the rest of us. I also observed first hand the respect he earned from other famous biologists. At the time I was just a graduate student, I'm certain that Gunther Stent was unaware of my existence.
Later on I began to read Stent's articles on the history and philosophy of biology and I was greatly influenced by his writing.1 Stent had an amazing ability to sift through the garbage and get to the heart of an argument; especially if that meant going against the perceived wisdom of his intellectual peers. Here are two examples from THE DILEMMA OF SCIENCE AND MORALS published in Zygon in March 1975. Stent is discussing contradictions between modern science and Western moral traditions.
The first example we might consider concerns the teaching of evolution in the public schools, which evidently has come a long way from the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee half a century ago. In 1972 the Curriculum Commission of the California State Board of Education held hearings in response to the demand of some Christian fundamentalist groups that in the officially approved biology textbooks the biblical account of Creation ought to be presented on an equal footing with the Darwinian view as an explanation of the origin of’ life and of the species. Although much of the argument before the Commission pertained to the question of whether the theory of evolution is merely an unproven speculation, as alleged by the fundamentalists, or a solidly documented scientific proposition, as claimed by the biologists, the deeper point at issue was religious freedom.
For the fundamentalists held that a Christian child in a tax supported school has as much right to be protected from the dogmas of atheism as an atheist child has to be protected from prayer. Hence, it would follow that the classroom teaching of Darwinism as the only explanation of biocosmogony is an infringement of the religious freedom of Christian parents to raise their children in the faith of their choice. This argument seems completely justified, whether or not it is true as claimed in pro-Darwinian testimony at the hearings by liberal, apologist clergymen that one can be a good Christian without taking the biblical account of Genesis all that literally. After all, the fundamentalist faith is to take the Bible literally. But the inference that follows from admitting the justice of the fundamentalist claim is not that biology texts should give Genesis equal time with evolution. Rather, it is to be concluded that no public school system can operate effectively in a heterogeneous social setting without having its curriculum prejudice the minds of the pupils against the cherished beliefs of some of the citizens. In other words, in this case the ultimate Christian ethical aim of freedom and individual rights has to give way to the pagan aim of mounting a pedagogically effective society.
The second example is much more controversial, yet the logic is impeccable. This is not the sort of thing that modern liberals (I am one) want to hear, but the very fact that they cover their ears and chant nonsense verses at the top of their lungs is the problem that Stent addresses. Most of us don't realize that the conflict between science and culture is much deeper than the fight between scientist and Biblical literalists would suggest. If you are going to adopt the positions of science and rationalism then there are some implications that may be hard to confront. Sweeping them under the rug, as many try to do, is hypocritical.
We may now consider the ethical conflicts surrounding two applications of human genetics. One of these is the very troublesome matter, at least for present-day American society, of the heritability of intelligence and in particular of the problem whether there exist significant racial differences in intelligence genotype. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to think that if there is a significant variation in the genetic contribution to intelligence between individuals, or between racial groups, then this factor ought to be taken into account in the organization of society. But, on the other hand, the mere acknowledgment of the existence of this factor, let alone taking it into account in social action, seems morally inadmissible, a scientistic underpinning of racist ideology. An excellent exposition of this problem was recently provided by W. Bodmer and L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, who show that the heritability of intelligence, unlike extrasensory perception and telepathy, is a genuine scientific proposition.
First, it is possible to obtain a meaningful measure of intelligence through IQ tests, at least insofar as the concept of intelligence applies to the capacity to succeed in the society in whose contextual setting the tests are given. Second, there do exist significant differences in IQ between individuals and between social and racial subgroups. Third, it is possible, at least in principle, to perform studies that can ascertain the relative contribution of genetic and environmental factors to the observed differences in IQ. Bodmer and Cavalli-Sforza find that there is sufficient evidence at present to make it very likely that within a socioeconomically homogeneous group heredity does make a significant contribution to extant differences in IQ. When it comes to the considerably lower mean IQ of American blacks, however, they conclude not only that the currently available data are inadequate to ascertain whether this fact is attributable mainly to hereditary or mainly to environmental differences, but “that the question of a possible genetic basis for the race IQ differences will be almost impossible to answer satisfactorily before the environmental differences between U.S. blacks and whites have been substantially reduced. . . .” Finally, “[since] for the present at least, no good case can be made for [studies on racial IQ differences], either on scientific or practical grounds, we do not see any point in particularly encouraging the use of public funds for their support. There are many more useful biological problems for the scientist to attack.”
In my opinion, this recommendation, which trivializes the problem scientifically, amounts to taking the easy way out from a serious dilemma. What if, as Bodmer and Cavalli-Sforza admit could be true, there does exist a significant genetic contribution to the mean IQ differences found between blacks and whites? They think that this “should not, in a genuinely democratic society free of race prejudice, make any differene.”’~ But if the races really differed hereditarily in intelligence, then racism would not be a “prejudice” but a true perception ofthe world and one of which a rational society ought to take account. For instance, in this case, the black-white disparities in socioeconomic levels would not reflect discrimination at all but merely an underlying biological reality. And hence the aim of an egalitarian, multiracial society would be just another unattainable, utopian dream. We thus encounter another Machiavellian contradiction between the two incompatible ethical systems of our heritage. The pagan ethics of communal purpose, which science serves, would demand that every effort be made to ascertain whether the member races of a multiracial society do in fact differ hereditarily in their intelligence. But the Christian ethics of ultimate values, which inspire science, holds racism to be an absolute evil in that it is subversive of the fundamental concept of the freedom and responsibility of the human soul. Hence, these ethics demand an uncompromisingly hard line against research on race intelligence. Since there must not be any hereditarily determined racial differences in intelligence, research that entertains the possibility of such differences is a priori evil.
In today's world we need more Gunther Stent's, not fewer.
1. Incidentally, I'm currently reading Richard Dawkin's anthology of Modern Science Writing. Stent is not in that book but, then again, neither are many other scientists who should be there. It's probably no coincidence that most of those scientists express opinions that differ from those of Richard Dawkins.
[Photo Credit: Left-to-right: Esther Lederberg, Gunther Stent, Sydney Brenner and Joshua Lederberg. From Wikipedia : "The original photo is owned by the Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg Estate. With the permission of that Estate's Trustee, Matthew Simon, I have adapted the photo for free use."