Frivolity, Dialectical Materialism and Science


How Pofessor Efremov and I explored some of the ideas touched upon in the preceding chapter will come out later in some of our conversations and letters. But while these are serious matters, they fail, for the most part, to catch the important frivolous side. Frivolity is, of course, somewhat harder to get at because culture and language are high hurdles to humor, as I had found out earlier. Only the "put down" joke seems to be universal. In the US it has been Polish jokes, Jewish jokes, and Texas A and M jokes. The Russian counterpart of the last comes out in Armenian radio jokes. Someone calls the Armenian radio station and gets an inane answer. Professor Efremov had a seemingly endless supply of these with which he regaled my wife and me when we were in Moscow together. At a lunch in his apartment . . .


"On a remote collective farm in Kazakhstan the wind kept blowing out candles and oil lamps at night. Children worked in fields all day, couldn't study their lessons and were growing up ignorant. What to do?

"Called Armenia radio.

"Armenia radio say, 'Simple, when is daylight, shut off room and trap light, so children can study in it after dark.'"

But he also had a more sensitive sense of the ridiculous. He delighted in some drawings of a very fine artist and paleontologist, Professor A. P. Bystrov of Leningrad. Efremov`s son and daughter, like Bystrov's and most others, when young tended to get out of line. Efremov's reins were tightly drawn. To help out, Professor Bystrov sent a series of drawings he had done to keep his children in line. Some of these Efremov sent me, although they were too late to help with our brood. He told me it would be all right to reproduce them and I have done so as an example of what he found amusing (Figures 28, 29).

I sent him a "comic" book of our little swamp "people," portrayed by Kelly in "Pogo." He didn't see anything to them at all, which was much the same as my reaction to most of the humor in the Soviet magazine of humorous political commentary Krokodile.

Then, too, more serious conversations can take on a light twist. One time, in the late stages of a homemade feast at Dr. Chudinov's apartment, when we had gorged on delicious pel-meni — bite-sized meat wrapped in a dough blanket and prepared with a special Uralian touch — copious amounts of fruit, bread, vodka and cognac, our conversation drifted over into comparative literature.

"There are good French writers, good American writers and even good British writers," pontificated Professor Flerov in his deep voice, "but there never was a good German writer!"

General agreement around the table.

"But there was, you know," I chided him.

"Who?" came back a loud chorus.

"Karl Marx," I offered.

"He was a Britisher," Flerov came back, amid laughter.

"What do you know about Marx?" someone challenged, implying that Americans probably had never heard of him.

"I've read a lot about him and his works," I said, fudging a bit on the quantity.

"Where?" suggesting that his works were banned in the United States.

"Oh, in the books my kids brought home from school." My reply was met with polite disbelief, but no one was rude enough to quiz me about Marx. It was too much, so we dropped the whole thing.

These pleasant interludes to the daily grind over old bones were fun, and lightened my preconceived ideas of how I would get along in the Soviet Union. Very rarely, except in one-on-one conversations with Professor Efremov, did serious matters get onto the table. I shied from discussing such matters and so did my friends. But all the while the matter of the feelings of the Russian scientists on evolution continued to plague me when ever I would put aside the comfortable feel of old fossil bones. So I put some of my questions in letters to Efremov, hoping he could clarify matters for me. After I had returned from a visit to the Soviet Union in 1961, I initiated a long interchange on this matter.


Figure 28. Sketches by Professor A. P. Bystrov of Leningrad, from a series sent to Efremov as examples of an "old time" way of keeping his youngster in line. Bystrov was a leading vertebrate paleontologist who did outstand ing work in opening up the modern field of paleontology in Russia.



Figure 29. The "maiden and the beast." More whimsey sent to Efremov from Professor Bystrov. Dvinosaurus,' an amphibian, is from the famous excavations of Bystrov on the Dvina River in the northern Cis-Uralian part of the Soviet Union. The maiden is unidentified.


Chicago, January 31, 1962

Dear Professor Efremov:

Recently I have been reading various Russian books on evolution and species and am beginning to develop a feeling for something that I should like your opinion on. I have read, in particular, "Studies ot Species" by K.M. Zavadsky and "The Theory of Sexual Selection" by L. Sh. Davitaschvili.

My reaction is that the second is heavy and ponderously written with not too much to offer and that the first is "fresher" and is written with a much more facile concept of the subject and matters in general. I have, of course, read various other general works.

Now, what seems to emerge is a very strong impression of pervasive Darwinism. Of course, all modern evolutionary thought has strong Darwinian ties, but what I seem to be feeling is something much more basic than this — the feeling of the well-spring, the inner sanctum and so forth. I do not mean that this eliminates thinking as such, but provides what all of us must have in one form or another to produce some sort of basic guiding pattern. First, my sample is small; I may be way off in my estimate. Second, if this is not entirely true, does any social pervasiveness emerge? I am inclined to the affirmative.

If you have any thoughts on this I would like to hear them. I try continually to gain a basic philosophical understanding of our science and interpretations of the implications. This strikes me as something well worth doing. In this regard, have you read "The Structure of Science" by Nagei? It has some interesting material, but as often is the case I find the biological section somewhat unsatisfactory.

Your devoted friend,


Everett C. Olson


The substance of this letter did not bring a direct reply. Perhaps it was a victim of the two-way filter system that sometimes seemed to have been in operation. Most of the matters did come out in later letters. As usual, I had used somewhat cryptic and ambiguous statements to avoid censors and not to put Professor Efremov in a difficult position. He rarely failed to read in the proper meaning. What I was wondering about at this time was my general impression that the Lysenko doctrines depended on one small part of Darwinism, that which some have termed Neolamarckism, or roughly the inheritance of acquired characters. Darwin, especially in his later attempts to explain evolution, did, it is true, invoke this idea more strongly in his evolutionary thinking. In our current sense of Neodarwinism, this so called Neolamarkian concept is in fact essentially "anti-Darwin." It is this part of Darwin, some feel, that is the underpinning of the prevalence of Darwin's name in Russian evolutionary literature. As far as Lysenko doctrines are concerned this is to a large degree true. But usually it is the use of quite pure, classical Darwinism that is generally encountered. The response in a letter of Efremov's that did reach me answered my query on The Structure of Science in typical Efremov style.


Moscow, February 15,1962

Dear Professor Olson:

I was glad to hear from you in your peculiar Russian, peculiar but charming, for I really have missed you. And I must reproach you for your enormous, magnificent and undoubtedly very expensive book-you have sent me, about lost civilizations. You gave me enormous help (in your country you cannot evaluate it really) with regular send ing of many and various books and now I have a much better under standing of your SF and other courses of recent literature. So don't send me expensive books and please go on with the cheap ones.

But to my horror we haven't received any copies of your book about the Permian in America and Russia! What is the matter. When have you send them to me and Dr. Chudinov and others? I have a strong apprehension that someone took your own advice and have had to steal all these books. Why you, of course, have send these books second class mail and the scoundrels steal them. So none of us have your work and I am tired by moans and groans of Dr. Chudinov, who needs your book this very moment, very badly because he now work on some fantastical compilations.

The Structure of Science I have also read but I think the author is dazzled and dizzied by the advance of physical science and mathematics. In some ways this book is harmful, especially because the author wholly lacks the dialectical method of thought. I expect many maliciousnesses from the formal logic and other formal methods because our whole world is strongly two-sided, and they haven't the skill of the use of dialectical philosophy (of course, I don't mean the so-called "dialectic" in political matters). I have become more and more convinced that our civilization with formal thought goes more and more wrong ahead to some disastrous things. But I hope before to go a long way home ....

About more tranquil things. Have you got A. Comfort's "Darwin and the Naked Lady?" It seems to me that you are somehow shy about such a title a search of this book is irrelevant with the Professor's dignity, but I cannot resist my curiousity.

And please, if it is possible, send me the "Photography Annual" for 1962 and 1963. Maybe it is possible to steal a copy from office or airport somewhere?

As ever, your very friendly,

I.A. Efremov (Old Efraim — grizzly bear)


The matter of stealing was a standing joke. Earlier, my wife, while in a dentist's waiting room, found a three year old copy of National Geographic which Efremov badly wanted. When I asked her where she got it, she explained she had stolen it, technically true. Several copies of the book titled Late Permian of the USA and USSR had been sent registered and finally did come back as rejected — the USA and USSR in the title was, I expect, too much. I sent them again, registered air mail, and they went through with no difficulty, only greater


After this the matter of dialectical materialism simmered and died out in my work until about 1966. During this period Efremov continued his sociological comments in other contexts and some of these come out in our dialogues in later chapters. In 1966, Professor Davitaschvili, a prolific book writer, sent me a recently issued book entitled Coвpeмeннoe Coстояние Эволюционного Учения на Западе (The Status of Evolutionary Thought in the West). It was in his rather ponderous, to me somewhat Germanic, Russian, but not too difficult to read. Understanding it in places was another matter. Davitaschvili was an old-time paleontologist from Tblisi, Georgia, and immensely widely read. We met just once for a short while. After a quick go-through of the book, I dismissed it as more or less trash. On the second reading, I began to wonder what prompted all this "nonsense." Within days of delivery of the book from Davitaschvili I received a second copy, from Efremov. This prompted me to initiate a long series of letters on the matter, for I had decided to comply with Davitaschvili's request that I review the book.


Chicago, September 28, 1966

Dear Professor Efremov:

Not long ago I received the two books and pamphlet that you were kind enough to send me. Before I received the books from you, Professor Davitaschvili had sent me his book on "The Current Status of Evolutionary Thought in the West." He asked me to review it. So I have been reading it and have just about finished. Naturally this will not be a book that would be too popular here or in much of western Europe. That is fine, for we need much more interchange of different concepts. There is no question that there is a great deal of local ingrowth in all areas in all fields. The immediate reaction to the book here, I am sure, would be "Oh God, that sort of nonsense!" It would be put in the same lower drawer as Goldschmidt's "hopeful monster" ideas and so forth. This is not because Darwin is not very highly regarded here, but because of the general concept that there is one and only one way that evolution can be understood and that this way has implications that go far beyond objectivity, which, oddly, is the same criticism that is made much of in what is thought of as the West by Davitaschvili.

I don't react this way since I have a "failing" of open-mindedness, which irks some of my associates. I tend to see both or many sides of questions. Now I do want to review this book and will do it. Just in

what manner I don't know just yet. Probably it will be a factual account of what is said. Yet it will certainly be necessary to include some commentary. It is in this area that I am somewhat unsure.

I don't know if you are in physical shape to answer some questions for me. If you are not, please don't even think of trying. I am writing on the chance that you are for you are the only one I know who can give me objective opinions and who is fully aware of the issues involved.

Question 1. How well thought of in Russia is Professor Davita-schvili? I have met him and found him pleasant and have read a good deal of his work. He appears to me to be a widely read, paleontologi-cally oriented biologist, one who probably has certain deficiencies in contemporary evolutionary studies, as they pertain in particular to recent DNA and RNA studies. I respect him highly but he seems to have something of the aura of the grand "oldtimer," How far off am I in this judgement? How do his contemporaries and the younger men in the Soviet Union judge him?

Question 2. My contemporaries in this country and some parts of Europe felt the impact of Lysenko very strongly. I note that there is almost nothing in the book relating to this, which seems to have had a very strong influence in your country. Is this because these concepts are now largely discounted, or are there other reasons?

Question 3. This is the most important and most difficult to phrase. In later parts of the book, the basis for criticism of the "synthetic theory", or his "Post-Neodarwinism", becomes clear. In being based on mechanistic materialism, Davitaschvili states, this theory (the Synthetic theory) cannot encompass in simple terms some aspects of evolution. In particular it finds difficulties in interpretations and explanation of "directionalism" and in the face of these difficulties, finds it difficult to avoid a finalistic or idealistic approach. This is my paraphrasing of what I think is said in many places in the book, but made clear in next to the last chapter. Darwinism, which is somehow equated with dialectical materialism in fundamental philosophy , can be understood only under this philosophy, as I interpret what is said. Classical Darwinism has all the answers to evolution. Now I am aware that Darwin was knowledgeable with respect to Marx, but I find it hard to see that in his class position in the social structure of England during the early and middle portion of the 19th century the germs of dialectical materialism were in his own work. Now then, is it to be understood that his work can be fully appreciated only under this philosophy, which began in his time, but certainly came to flower and fruition much later than when Darwin was maturing his ideas? I am asking this as a serious question and one on which I would like your opinion.

In this same vein, Davitaschvili says that western scientists, while contributing enormously to factual aspects of biology, cannot entirely appreciate evolution because they do not understand dialectical materialism. Now, any criticism that I might raise could be countered in this way: that I don't understand the philosophy and thus can't be a critic Probably I don't, although I have read as widely as time has permitted in attempting to do so. Could you very plainly indicate to me in what manner this philosophy very objectively gives an explanation of directionalism that does not in the end fall into the same problem of ultimate explanation as any other explanation, such as that of mechanistic materialism? This is probably a big order. But it is critical and I don't feel it is answered in the book.

Question 4. This gets to the final question, call it 4, although it relates to the last. I quite agree as will most scientists in this country, and as Davitaschvili recognizes and emphasizes, that no aspect of metaphysics can logically be introduced into scientific work per se. Where this is done in explanation of evolution, we have departed from the realm of science. I quite agree, as well, that any dogma which limits the realm of operation in study is inhibiting. But, in a somewhat dialectical way, I have just reached the heart of the problem. If there is any one way to truth, this way is necessarily dogma, whether it depends on some metaphysical guidance, some intuition, or some series of basic premises empirically derived, or some set of independent a prioris. In one way or another we must arrive at an explanation of our framework, be it one of order or one of chaos. If we arrive at it and consider it the way, then how does any single basis escape being dogmatic or becoming dogma?

As I understand it dialectical materialism finds its base in a particular set of relationships that are in essence basic premises which, just as the order of which I have spoken, may have empirical justifications but which similarly cannot be explained by the simple statement "that is how it is." In other words, at some level there must be a set of undefendable premises or axioms. All that we do thereafter, empirical observation included, depends on these axioms. As far as I can see all systems of thought must have some such base, a base beyond which they cannot penetrate without violating the limits set by the premises. Now it seems to me in suggesting the various ways of thinking about and studying evolution that Davitaschvili has taken up, all must fail within this context. Those that desert a materialistic base go beyond in a metaphysical abandonment of science, which casts them beyond the pale of scientific investigation. When a vitalistic or finalis-tic tendency creeps in, this is what it does. It arrives at the time when he limits of explanation, under the premises, have been exceeded. Specifically with regard to directionalism, since it has been a puzzle under synthetic theory, some have certainly tended in this direction.

But how does directionalism under a dialectical materialist phi-losophy avoid this tendency, if it does not go beyond the basic prem-ises in which, as I understand it, a materialistic basis for changes in direction, specified or unspecified, exists? I am perhaps wrong as Davitaschvili would suggest, in my understanding, but does not the social implication of this philosophy involve not only a directionalism but a very specific and infallible aspect of this directionalism?

As you can see, this is asked in good faith. I am most anxious for an interpretation from one who knows this area well, as I know you do. It is not in this sense an impertinence, which it could well be considered if you did not know me well.

With deep regards,

Your friend,

Everett C. Olson



3In a "post-Lysenko" scholarly book, N. P. Dubinin, whose work was suppressed during the time of domination of the Lysenkoites, makes this clear, contrasting Darwinism as strictly materialistic dialectic with Neolamarck-ism, which is considered nondialectic (Dubinin, N.P., Evolution, Populations and Radiation, Atomizdat, Moscow, 1966, pp. 190-191). The book came out and Efremov sent it to me as this correspondence was going on, but I had not seen it at the time of this letter.


A note about the "Lysenko Affair" may be in order here. Lysenko was an "agriculturist" who developed some "new" concepts to hasten the growth of crops during years in which the food crisis was severe. These were basically crude and depended, as they were developed, both upon spurious "genetic" theory and to some extent falsification of results. This work, with the eventual help of a "state philosopher," was given an aura of correctness under the superimposition of dialectical materialistic concepts. Through a series of political manipulations in the 1930s and 1940s the concepts gained the full support of the Presidium and of Stalin, and became the prevailing doctrine, not to be countered. The upshot was, in effect, that not only did agriculture suffer seriously but the field of genetics, which had been strong in the Soviet Union, went into eclipse. The best of the biological scientists were, in very large part, excluded from science and many were "lost," some left and some clearly died in concentration camps. The name of Michurin, an obscure horticulturist, later became applied to the doctrines — as Michurinism. Only in the mid-1960s did an effective recovery begin.

But back to my letter. To ask for answers to all of my questions was a big order. I am sure, had I written inquiries along similar lines some years later, I might have taken a somewhat different approach. The letter, however, elicited a very long reply which I am including in its entirety because it brings out so many things critical to Efremov's whole consideration of the role of dialectical materialism, things deeply ingrained in his thinking.


Moscow, October 5 [sic], 1966

Dear Professor Olson:

Your second letter, date October 7th [sic], arrived with amazing speed (however quite normal for normal circumstances) after a week delivery which I believe is an indicator of warming relationships. But first letter, dated September 28, arrived only yesterday.

You must not feel guilty with your questions. I shall answer you much more questions if I will be able to do so.

Question 1. Prof. Davitaschvili is far off the whole appreciation here. During the thirties and forties he occupied a very orthodox position in the line of the regime and Lysenko and bring many difficulties to the more broad-minded paleontologists. Thereafter we named him "Davite shval" [smash the trash is the exact translation], for clear flunkyism. But, of course, he is a very "vast reading man" and much more acquainted with world literature than any of our other paleontologists, especially on generalized books and generalized pamphlets. From the other side he is only a cabinet worker (office worker) and knows very little about field explorations and geology as real geology. You have truthfully mentioned that he also is outmoded in all new horizons open by new branches of biology with applications of molecular biology, biochemistry, geochemy and many others.

Partly in answer to your second question, L.Sh.D. was in the late forties an eager follower of Lysenko's dogma but now has written several pamphlets against the latter in the name of Michurin, who as a creator of the new path in biology is quite a mythical figure I believe and when lived never pretended to be more than a good selectionist as L. Burbank, for example. By the way how many perfect old sorts have been awfully damaged by unskilled introduction of the new ones and enormous doses of ignorance among Michurinists?

Question 3. You perfectly clearly have formulated the essential in the position of the line of criticism in the book in question. The dialectical point of view of Davitaschvili's book on my sight is very weak and formal, being formulated only in words and also seems like a mystical force.

The "directional" way in your use of terms (orthogenetic is old name I am more accustomed) is in my opinion necessary for every deeply experienced paleontologist because all the materials in our hands cannot be explained in another sense. But among all of our scientists (Davitaschvili included) it seems to me, boldly said, that only I endeavor to explain the orthogenetic way of evolution in dialectical sense. The others openly ignored such enterprise and mentioned the "dialectical materialism" only as a general "Word." It seems to me that the general physical environment of life act as a "corridor" whose parameters are the "limitized" and "pushed on" forces of the evolutionary process as a whole. The goal, because the essential feature of living organism is the constancy of inner conditions (homeostasis) without which all heredity and the work of the biological machine is impossible, is the freedom from the environment as widely as possible. More freedom — more storage of information, etc. This struggle for freedom if regarded integrally is aristogenesis by Osborn or aromorphosis by Severtzov. The orthogenetic (directing) corridor of general physical environments is nomogenesis by Berg if regarded as the only possible way in evolution (integrally). To the Neodarwinist the adaptability of evolution to the environment as well as the selective process leading to complexity and high fitness is clear, but without the "bridge" to the general target and therefore without understanding of the mechanism as a whole process. Really I believe this "mechanism" is quite a dialectical one: the necessity accomplished through the sum of causalities. Necessity here is the freedom from environment and causalities are adaptations.

Therefore in organic evolution we have a plan (a predestined one) instead of blindness (or rather randomness) of the process itself. This is also a dialectical point of viewthe two sides of the whole or the unity of the contrary. Of course, the historical chain to the general goal ended on earth in Rezent, but such is our scientific way of collecting knowledge. I doubt that this is quite understandable to you in my inadequate English, but if you understand the general trend of thought it may be of some use to you.

In the Davitaschvili book are only recommended for "western scientists" to understand dialectical materialism. But to accomplish such understanding through quotations from Marx or Engels is a hopeless task because the very "matter" today is infinitely more complex than a century ago. I believe you may openly criticize this recommendation, however, the clearance of "weak" points in western theories is very useful for every paleontologist and for this target Davitaschvili's book may be highly recommended. But as for understanding the method of "dialectical materialism" the author accomplished none on my view.

I believe that recently only three evolutionary students whom I appreciate very much, you, A. S. Romer and G. Simpson. The latter is, strange to say, very similar to Davitaschvili only on the other side of the line of truth. He, as many formal thought scholars, ignores all opposite events if they appear beyond the field of narrow investigation. Davitaschvili ignores all opposite facts if they cannot be packed in a prematurely generalized trend. From another point of view "dialectical materialism" is a very old philosophical trend, which in occult books regarded as the "Great Mystery of Duplicity (or Double)." The attempt to regard every fact or event as a sum of two opposites from the two sides in the same moment is of course much higher than formal, linear logic but infinitely more difficult and therefore possible only for outstanding minds. The dialectical line of thought also includes historical aspects of all events and this is the cause that the paleon-tological and geological investigations appear more dialectical than other sciences without the historical basis.

The cardinal difference between dialectical materialism and dialectical non-materialism lies in the "Primo Motore" [i.e., the general cause of events]. If the "Primo Motore" is a result of pure material events in accordance with general physical laws, then this view is materialistic. If "Primo Motore" appears to be unrecognizable and somehow beyond the general laws of the material world then it is "vitalistic," "reactionary," and "unscientific."

One more example. The very wide use of Marx's formula: "existence (mode of) determines the conscience" in this form is really a metaphysical one, because it lacks the other side: "conscience determines the mode of existence." Now it comes to the Marxists very slowly that spiritual conscience is a quite real force especially in the fitting, survival and "way up" in wholly materialistic processes. By the way, if spirit is the highest form of matter, what then? Why cannot it be a real force and inevitable "other side" in a dialectical world?

As you can see, all this agreed with your considerations about the question 4, because true scientists cannot operate with any dogma, because axiomic answers to all questions are religion, non-science. A scientist also needs "homeostasis" but only adaptable to the rapid alternated knowledge and if knowledge came upon the exponents this adaptability must also be rapid ones. Therefore only direct explanation of the discoveries by the dialectical way of thinking has a scientific value. So one must have very good brains to be able to do so. If not, we must bear with the formal one-sided views.

Between us girls, I have two heretical views for the professional scientist. The whole process of obtaining knowledge is dialectical (two-sided). Scientists on the one side explain the new by the ortho-doxal old. Others (on the other side) explain the old and new facts and events by the invented and mysterious "metaphysique." Both compose a unity of polar opposites and our knowledge progressed between them as I attempted to show in my romance [The Razor's Edge]. Only the strong minds have ability to find this razor's edge


My second thesis is this: the universe now appears so infinitely complex that we can discover everything [note, I believe he intended anything], and can predict many discoveries! We can predict correctly really all if we only formulate the event with a satisfactory clearness and within the general parameters of the physical universe. It is similar as to cutting something from a snow wall — we can master every figure desirable from the cube to Aphrodite. So I haven't valued the so-called "predictions" articles in recent science because there are millions of this stuff and success with one or another prediction not at all verifies that this way of investigation is the only truthful one.

As a result of unexpected (expected by dialectical philosophy) complexity of the universe is that the formulation obtained became more and more undigestible and useless. We drown in the deep ocean of facts and experiments and the proud tower of science more and more became like the Babel tower. Gradually ruined from within by utter ignorance of the scientists themselves, 240,000 pamphlets in chemical science every year, 90,000 in physical and so on and speedily up! We are the last scientists in the good old sense of this word .... But enough of this babel! You must have a strong head, I fear to be able to read such stuff.

Resume. I think your opinion about this book is a correct one. It must not be easily laughed off because of contain useful critical aspects on many "theories." But the recommendations given are weak be cause of too generalized a formulation which is of no use on concrete material.

I have just sent you three books. One by Semenov, about the origin of Man is essentially typical for Davitaschvili's line with much more flunkyism and citation. You may find it interesting as example of the newest and serious book which is really an "old song" dogmative and metaphysical, entirely abandoning the second level of evolution of man — spiritual. The "herd" — this only he sees on the early stages of evolution.

Your friends as always,

I.A. Efremov

P. S.: Please let me know about receiving this letter as soon as possible!



December 2, 1966

Dear Professor Efremov:

The Komsomolskya article on the "Dialectic in Science" arrived and is most opportune. I am still stewing about the whole problem, the problem of how I and my colleagues of the "west" really think about evolution. We are not consciously dialectical, but in a way I don't know how this subject can be otherwise conceived, for surely there is a duality and it would seem that what is critical is whether or not this dualism plays a role in thinking or whether there is a dual linearity with little cross-relationship. I think that the whole matter is in no way simple and that categorization of an area of cultural continuity as this way or that loses sight of the variety present and that, furthermore, this variation goes right down to the individual as he thinks on one thing or another.

Thanks for the new books you sent me. The one on the origin of man sounds a lot like some of our anthropologists but with a different dogma in the background. It seems to me that it is characteristic of many who work in this area to take some simple, conceptual framework, believe it works without question and base everything on it. It builds some mighty towers but I have an uneasy feeling about the base. Of course, in a way, all science does the same, accepting some basic axioms and some limitations, but beyond this there is an empiricism which I miss in most writings on man and society.

When I do finally finish up what I am trying to write on the matter of Professor Davitaschvili's book and others related, I would like to send the paper for comment. Do you think this would be a good idea and do you have the time and energy to look it over? I would not need the copy back, but would like your comments. If you think it is a good idea, please say so.

With my best wishes,

As always, your friend,

Everett C. Olson


Moscow, January 8,1967

Dear Professor Olson:

Now to answer your questions:

1.  Of course I will be glad to look over your article about Davitaschvili. At any rate send me only a third or fourth copy to void the evil of no returning.

2.  I agree with you completely on your evaluation of Semenov's book. The same, half-fanatical tendency but on diametrically opposed grounds.

3.    My "Razor Blade" [The Razor's Edge] you cannot obtain. I like your idea of a dialectical trend of thought as two intercrossed lines of opposed linear thoughts. By the way, my taphonomy is based on the opposite side of sedimentation of the geological chronicle — the process of destruction. In other words — the other side of the medal, as we say here. It is very interesting to take a look on the other side many of your forebearers may have overlooked.

As ever, cordially your friend,

I. Efremov (Old Efraim)


This letter was the last of the series related to The Status of Evolutionary Thought in the West by Davitaschvili. In his letters Efremov, of course, was dashing off his ideas as they came to mind, without the caution he would have used in publications. In his fictional writings, some of his unorthodox ideas are better expressed through the vehicle of his characters in other times

and other places.

I did finish the paper and sent it to Efremov. He made some corrections and predicted "some furs will fly." The paper appeared in Evolution as a long book review. In it I tried to explain dialectical materialism and did not, I now feel, emphasize sufficiently a main theme of Davitaschvili, that Synthetic evolutionary theory, or what he called Post-Neodarwinism, could end up in idealistic thinking. Idealism, of course, is a complete anathema to Marxist doctrines, an abstraction that alienates explanations from the basic materialistic reality. The Marxian "flip-flop" of Hegel bore precisely on this point. Efremov brought this out in noting the "lack of a bridge" between the major aspects of Neodarwinian theory, the "random" changes through mutations and the directing effect of natural selection. Ihis now seems to me to have been the main theme of the book and what Davitaschvili was writing about when, in a review of my review, he complimented my effort to understand dialectical materialism, but noted that I had been only partially successful Having obtained some understanding of this point of view the complex web of Efremov's thought, I found my perspectives enlarged and my skepticism about the completeness of the ex-planatory aspects of Synthetic theory somewhat increased.

My rather mild worries about the sufficiency of the Syn-thetic theory did not arise in a dialectical context. Rather some aspects of the fossil record did not seem readily explainable by it, a position held by others but rarely expressed after the middle 1940s except by a few "radicals." I expressed my reservations in a paper presented at the Darwinian Centennial at the University of Chicago in 1959 ("Morphology, Paleontology and Evolution," in Sol Tax, ed., Evolution after Darwin, volume 1, pp. 523-545). I had been asked to read all the papers, as someone who was at hand as they arrived, and write what I thought was needed. I did in a sort of "whoa, let's step back and take a look" paper. The synthesis was in its heyday of popularity at the time.

My paper was not enthusiastically received. The problems of adaptation lay at the base of my skepticism, involving such things as: (1) the existence in the past of seemingly "adaptive monstrosities;" (2) vast parallelisms in development of morphological complexes in evolutionary lines only remotely related; (3) mass extinctions at various times in the fossil record, involving many different kinds of organisms; (4) long temporal sequences in fossil lineages in which major changes are persistently directional, often seemingly nonadaptive in their initiations and with no evident environmental stimulation. As George Simpson said to me, rather pleadingly, all of them can be explained under the synthesis. It does require reaching pretty deep. Since 1959, some points have been resolved, but most are still puzzling to me.

Simplistically, the synthesis involves natural selection of variants in a population. The variants result from differences in the genetic constitution of the immediate forebears, by mutation or recombination. Selection preserves the most fit (survival of the fittest) and thus modifies the genetic composition of the succeeding generations. Slow accumulation of changes set the pace of gradual evolution. There can hardly be doubt that this is one aspect of evolution, but the question of whether or not it is a sufficient explanation of all change remains and has been of increasing concern to some evolutionists during the last 15 or 20 years.

Dialectics, as Efremov applied it, could allow a fresh look at some of these problems, a look he sketchily outlined in his letters but never formally published. Where, then, does this leave matters? I spent many hours during 1971 talking with Professor Efremov about these and other matters. I had hoped to continue in later years, but his death in 1972 precluded this. As far as science is concerned, only added emphasis and some clarification of the ideas expressed in his letters emerged. He noted that in his opinion about 99 percent of the Soviet scientists did not follow dialectical materialism, although it was such a significant part of their education that some of its tenets probably remained in their subconscious. About one percent of the scientists, however, did accept dialectics, and these, with a few exceptions, did not really apply it properly. The tragic and dangerous situation of the world, which Efremov felt strongly, was due in some large part to the dominant position which linear logic had achieved.

Dialectics, he maintained, is not a law, but an expression of the basic structure of the universe, and thus all evidence, necessarily materialistic, must be viewed as dialectic. Both formal religion, in which the "reality" is an abstraction of God or the equivalent, and the materialistic so-called "reality," are harmful to science and hence to mankind. Once the truth of the concept of contrasting and interacting opposites is understood, the great problems of science — that is, the basic conceptual problems — begin to fall into place. Man has emerged as an intelligent organism by a dialectical spiral of evolution in which the balance of physical and psychic, both materialistic, have interacted. Wherever intelligence has or will emerge in our universe, it will be in the guise of creatures morphologically similar to man, but suited to their own particular environments. These were his main thoughts, greatly condensed.

Many persons, of course, do not go along with this and Efremov fully recognized one's choice to see things otherwise. Dialectics represents, as he has said, a way of looking at the sciences that have historical contexts, geology, paleontology, astronomy and so forth. I had found it strange that so few scientists in Russia operated within a dialectical framework in a nation where this was "state doctrine." I was surprised also that those few who did seemed to be in large part sterile. One simple explanation is that "hard" science is necessary, and because symbolic logic and consequent mathematics are necessary, even though "linear," the basic dialectic philosophy must be put aside to accommodate these linear essentials.

An interesting final footnote to this matter of dialectics is to be found in the volume that resulted from the First Biometric Conference in Biology and Medicine, sponsored and directed by Professor P. Terentjev (1961), a Leningrad herpetologist. This includes an essay by the State Philosopher A.E. Popov. Biomet-rics, dealing with probabilities and logical mathematical solutions, was slow to develop in the Soviet Union, even though some of the world's greatest mathematicians have been Russians. The "philosophical" statement legitimized the work of the participants in the conference, or rationalized it, if you will, as follows. Full reality exists only in the temporal context of dialectical materialism. At a given time, however, with the flow stopped, so to speak, a powerful solution of immediate problems is to be found in a mathematical, statistical treatment. This has a strangely Bergsonian flavor. The "slice of time" reveals only partial reality. What emerges is not total truth, but heuris-tically is an appropriate treatment of limited problems, therefore perfectly legitimate.


Table of Contents
Hosted by uCoz