Dissecting the “…Midwife Toad”

Dr. Paul Kammerer was not the first reputable scientist to be driven to suicide by unscrupulous forces within what is loosely referred to as “the Establishment,” and the risk is especially high with leading-edge researchers (“frontier scientists”). However, the Kammerer case is one of the best documented, and it also serves to support our posts on Evolution theory: “New View on Evolution” and “Evolving beyond Darwin.” 

Although published by Random House forty years ago, Arthur Koestler’s book, The Case of the Midwife Toad, is as worthy of study today as then. Our sympathy is not for Kammerer’s Lamarckian inclination, which favored the concept of “inherited characteristics” over “random mutation.” Both are wrong in our view. Our sympathy is for all scientists bold enough to pursue unpopular avenues of inquiry and publish provocative results because the challenge has intensified in this age of electronic publication of science news and the vicious crossfire that serves as “commentary.” 

Leading the attack on Kammerer was Dr. William Bateson, a renowned British scientist who—without bothering to examine the evidence and without attempting to replicate the experiments—managed to not only refute Kammerer’s findings but also cast aspersion on Kammerer’s integrity as a scientist. To quote an Austrian scientist of the day: “…many doubted his [Kammerer’s] results, precisely because of their originality.” Another commented, in part of Kammerer’s obituary: “…his assassins [were]: a social order which denies an eminent scientist that secure existence which is indispensible for creative activity; a scientific orthodoxy that denied him the recognition, the means for teaching and research which are his due, only because he did not think, feel and act in an orthodox manner…” 

Having reviewed the evidence as provided by Koestler, we conclude that Kammerer was no fraud, but that, as Koestler says it, Kammerer was: “…victim of a campaign of defamation by the defenders of the new orthodoxy”—a situation which recurs with depressing monotony in the history of science. None of Kammerer’s opponents repeated his experiments. Their opposition was clearly motivated by dogmatic thinking and egoistic competitiveness; their criticisms disregarded the aims of true science. 

The story is both tragic and ironic. The irony is that even if Kammerer’s experiments had been repeated and had proved his case, the findings would not have exonerated Lamarck. The tragedy is that we will never know what further breakthroughs might have been achieved through the genius of Dr. Paul Kammerer.

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2 Responses to “Dissecting the “…Midwife Toad””

  1. Valiant Says:

    You mention Bateson, but according to Wikipedia it was a Dr. Noble of the American Museum of Natural History who conducted the first-hand examination and claimed the experiment was a fraud. Yet the toad had been examined before by competent scientists who had found no such signs of dishonesty. Apparently the toad was tampered with by a third party in order to discredit Kammerer for reasons related to Kammerer’s socialist inclination. Is this Wikipedia information consistent with the book by Koestler?

  2. PluribusOne™ Says:

    Yes, consistent.

    We note that Bateson eventually became disillusioned with Mendelism and Darwinism too. Several years before Bateson’s death he said: “The many converging lines of evidence point so clearly to the central fact of the origin of forms of life by an evolutionary process that we are compelled to accept this deduction, but as to almost all the essential features we have to confess an ignorance nearly total.”

    In addition to the posts we mention above, see our post: “Neanderthals Under the Bed?”

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