Analyst of bold conjecture

29th December 1995 at 00:00
SCIENCE NOW AND THEN. James Williams meets a philosopher turned scientist fascinated by the human mind. The humble ant and the majestic peacock have a peculiar significance for Dr Helena Cronin. The Ant and the Peacock was the title of her first book, a philosophical but analytical look at evolutionary theory and the ideological differences between its originators, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

But Helena Cronin is not easily classified as a scientist. Her first degree was in philosophy, taken at Manchester University and only after this did she turn to science, taking a masters degree in logic and scientific method followed by a prize-winning doctoral thesis.

Helena Cronin was born and brought up in north-west London where she went to Henrietta Barnet Grammar School. Her science education there consisted of the standard three O-levels in biology, chemistry and physics. By the age of 16 she had never thought of science as either interesting or a viable career. Instead she took A-levels in English, history and French. She was good at English and, as she says, "it was such an obvious thing to do. I decided on philosophy because I believed at the time that it was a good training for the mind and I did not want to do a subject- specific degree". As it turned out she hated philosophy intensely: "I actually found it boring and incomprehensible. "

She does, however, believe in training the mind. In schools she believes that we should introduce and encourage children to read and learn about logic. Studying the history of science and the development of scientific ideas is also important, she believes. It can show that there is a growth of knowledge over time and helps us to see both the strengths and weaknesses of ideas. It would, she claims, give us a respect for theories and see that they should not be seen as dogmatic. Chemistry taught in schools in a very dogmatic way, so robbing children of an understanding of science, is a problem that Helena Cronin sees in today's science education.

Her switch to science and the study of scientific method came as a result of reading the work of Karl Popper. This led her to the London School of Economics and to the unique Centre for the Philosophy of the Natural and Social Sciences, where she currently works. She is not what could be conceived of as the popular image of a scientist - an eccentric, white-coated balding man working in a laboratory with bottles, beakers and Bunsens. This image of science, she says, is "a very old-fashioned view which is not what science is about; it is a rather vulgar view. Science is about bold conjecture".

Helena Cronin is self taught in science. She latched on to evolutionary theory and believes that it is probably the strongest scientific theory we have ever had. "It is unlikely that in the next century all physicists will be Einsteinians," she says, "but biologists will forever be Darwinians."

In trying to categorise herself she fails: "I am not a philosopher and I do not consider myself a true scientist, but others do believe in me as a scientist. My work is more analytical than practical but there are many scientists that I admire for various reasons."

As you would expect, Darwin rates highly in this list as do three contemporary scientists, a group she describes as influential thinkers: John Maynard Smith, FRS, the population geneticist;W D Hamilton, FRS, whose ground-breaking PhD thesis on the role of parasites in the evolution of sex and sexual selection impressed her immensely; and George Williams, the American evolutionary scientists.

She is currently working on a new book, this time concerned with a startling development in the application of Darwinian theory, evolutionary psychology. In this field she tips Leda Cosmides as a budding role model for women in science: "Her work will transform our understanding of ourselves." It applies the principles of Darwinian evolution to the development of the human mind and behaviour.

Although Helena Cronin's work is not that of a traditional laboratory scientist, her work is rooted in what is arguably the most accessible yet misunderstood of scientific theories. There have been many uses of Darwinian theory to explain many phenomena. This latest use, evolutionary psychology, promises to be the most exciting, perhaps even controversial so far: "The important thing to realise," says Dr Cronin, "is that natural selection is still building us, in particular our brains."

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