Beck, William S. Modern Science and the Nature of Life. New York: Harcourt, Brace and
This is a good reconnoitering of the biological sciences and the infighting which has gone on
there. Beck's history is colored by his perspective, attributable to the late 1950s, and is dated.
Nonetheless, he is excited by his topic: science is immersed in culture and science is determined
by its relationships to society. It may be, as he insists, the leading edge of Western civilization,
but it is still only an outgrowth of civilization.
His position is very close to Snow's thesis of the Two Cultures, save that he insists that there are
more positions than two and there are gaps between all of them. In part, this book is written to
close some of those gaps. Beck describes the history of biology up to his date of publication. He
tries to show some of its humanness by pointing to the human characters who have taken part in
the great drama. A couple of points worth including are: Copernicus and Vesalius (Fabrica) were
both published within a week of one another, 25 May 1543. That year, therefore, is often given as
the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. It is worth noting that
Copernicus died within a week, and Fabricus, got into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition, and
died on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. That is not the way one usually thinks of great scientists
Although dissection had been around since the 11th century, no great progress was made. Then
came Vasalius. What did he do that was so special? Beck puts it this way: "One reason for the
stalemate should amuse anyone familiar with the inmost secrets of modern medicine, for the
situation has not changed very much. It was the antagonism between the physicians and surgeons.
In those days, the physicians, having received an essentially literary and philosophical education,
looked with contempt upon the surgeons, who were mere technicians. In the dissecting theatre,
the surgeon would wield the knife while the professor lectured platitudes and ‘demonstrated'
items of interest as they were dug up by the surgeon. Occasionally, to the delight of the students,
great flatulent professorial debates would arise between visiting philosophical disciples of
Aristotle and the medical followers of Galen. And while the discourse ebbed and flowed, the
poor surgeon hacked away..." (pp. 65-66). In other words, Vasalius enabled us to see with new
eyes what surgeons could not otherwise show us because of our commitment to Galen.