One of my favorite quotes is from French biologist Jean Rostand’s 1956 book, Can Man be Modified?, reproduced below.
Given that these comments were written scarcely three years after Watson and Crick unraveled the DNA molecule, one might argue that fifty years later, Rostand’s modesty is no longer appropriate. But isn’t it? Are the three “cardinal problems” of biology still almost untouched? I think most scientists would agree that the question of the origin of life is still unsolved, and more and more are recognizing that the causes of evolution are equally mysterious. Rostand, by the way, wrote that “however obscure the causes of evolution appear to me to be, I do not doubt for a moment that they are entirely natural.”
But what about the third, do we not now know so much about the structure of the genome that we can say we now understand how a “complex organism can be contained in a germ?” I would refer readers to this recent ENV article for a perspective on the third cardinal problem of biology.
But it now behooves us to question ourselves seriously about the value of our conquests, about the bearing and significance of this expansion of human power which results from biology. To be sure, our first impulse is one of enthusiasm, of marveling and of limitless hope…. Have not the biologists the right to a little conceit, when they add up what they have achieved in the space of a mere half century? Would they not be justified in believing that to them all things will become possible, simply by going on deepening the trenches already dug and continuing along the lines of researches already marked out?
But this is where we must remind ourselves that our successes, amazing as they are, leave the formidable riddles of life itself almost intact. The three cardinal problems of biology — the problem of how a living creature grows, the problem of how species evolve, the problem of how life originated — have been scarcely touched by the scientists. We have no more than a very vague idea of the way in which a complex organism can be contained in a germ; we have hardly any idea of the way in which the organic metamorphoses that must have gone to produce the human species from some original virus may have been accomplished in the course of ages, and we have not the slightest idea of the way in which the first lives were born.
And so, after having stressed how extraordinary, how prodigious biology is, it remains for us now to note how much superficiality and speciousness there is, none the less, in this magic of ours…”Really we create nothing,” as that great scientist, Eugene Bataillon, used to say again and again toward the end of his life… “We merely plagiarize nature, and our plagiarism has not the perfection of the original…When we succeed, it is because, on some imperceptibly small point, our logic has turned out to be in conformity with a logic that goes prodigiously beyond us.”
These are strong, fine words, on which we can never meditate too much. For it is indeed true that all the biologist’s power is incapable of creating a cell, or a nucleus, or a chromosome, or a gene…We alter relationships or quantities, we modify the rhythms, we bring this or that factor into action earlier or later, or we suppress it, or we invert the order of events, or we introduce in this place something that should only operate somewhere else, or we bring into massive action a substance that normally intervenes only in very small quantities: in short, we play tricks upon the egg or the embryo. And certainly, by teasing them in this way, we can amuse ourselves and gain instruction to the end of time. We combine, we transpose, we interpose, we interlard, but at every stage we are using what exists, at every stage we are exploiting the really creative power of the vital, we are embroidering on the pre-existent frame which is the real masterpiece, we are ingeniously making use of the genius of the cells and, in doing so, we are rather like revue artists who win cheap applause by parodying a scene from Le Cid or a speech from Cyrano de Bergerac… Let us take care not to claim all the glory for the success we have obtained. In our most striking, most spectacular experiments, the chief part of the spectacle is supplied by life — life the anonymous.