24 March 2011

Andrew Huxley on the Value of History

While reading Gordon M. Shepherd's excellent study of neuroscience in the 1950s, I came across this observation by Huxley:
It is common enough to mention the most outstanding of the discoveries that have led up to present-day opinions, but this sort of cursory glimpse is actively misleading in at least two ways. First, it gives the...false impression...that Science always moves forward, that is to say progresses. Secondly, it suggests that any scientist who put forward opinions which have not been upheld was either stupid or perverse, and that no intelligent person at the present day is in danger of falling into equivalent errors. The more I read the works of late nineteenth century biologists, the more I am impressed by their ability, by their range and versatility, and by the modernity of their outlook. Biologists of all kinds owe a tremendous debt to the predecessors of around a century ago.

I was unfamiliar with Huxley's observation. But when I read it, I felt vindicated. I have often explained to people - who usually vehemently disagree with me - that when I first read Sherrington's Integrative Action of the Nervous System, I instantly wondered why I had bothered taking introduction to neuroscience as an undergraduate. To be sure, there were noteworthy differences in terms of genetic, biochemical, and immunological knowledge - my recent comments about Henderson point towards one set of origins for the biophysical and reductionist revolutions that took place in the life sciences in the twentieth century. But from a systems point of view, I did not feel that neuroscience had much advanced upon the clarity of Sherrington's thesis. Many point to Santiago Ramón y Cajal as being more influential due to his histological observations. I could not disagree more. Sherrington takes Cajal's observations and embeds them into a grand synthesis about the nervous system. It has sometimes been said that modern philosophy is merely footnotes to Plato. That may be true. Let me paraphrase that quip: many of that facts that have been observed today about the nervous system are mere footnotes to Sherrington's thesis. Let me also take a stab at a polemic: undergraduates in the life sciences would be far better served reading Darwin, Sherrington, Pavlov, Cajal, Loeb, Morgan, and Watson before ever picking-up an undergraduate textbook.

Creating Modern Neuroscience: The Revolutionary 1950s

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