Efremov, Science and Philosophy


For all of his ventures into fiction, initially as a release and later as a necessity, Efremov considered himself first a scientist and secondly a writer. Only after I had come to know him intimately, between 1959 and 1971, did I come to appreciate the relationships of these two aspects of the man. Many of the paleontologists whom I came to know through these 12 years have now died. Younger men have taken their places, and some of them may not have known Professor Efremov. His student protege, Peter Chudinov, however, has written an in-depth account of the man and his work ( ) and it has been widely read. Efremov's impact, particularly in the area of taphonomy, has been widely felt in Russia and has been seminal in many other countries. What follows, however, deals with matters that arose in our close personal relationship and not in any heretofore written material. For all of our close friendship and trust, Efremov always called me "Professor Olson," and all of his many letters began "Dear Professor Olson." With Peter Chudinov, on the contrary, it was Peter and Ole. But Professor Efremov was from an older school, and even Ivan Antonovitch seemed too informal to him. Academics must maintain their dignity!

But names were about the only restrictive formality between us, and I began to feel that there was much more than the scientific side of Efremov that might be of as much interest to others as it was to me. By 1970-1971, we had become close friends, and I had received from him copies of many of his scientific and fictional books as well as a large sheath of letters written in his slapdash English. It seemed to me that they might form the basis for something of general interest. I thus broached the idea to him, wanting his judgment and permission. His reply, slightly edited for readability, tells a good bit of how he pictured himself and how his science was at the core of his self image.

Moscow, June 18, 1971

Dear Professor Olson:

About your project with "Efremov's Letters." It seems to me an extremely interesting and good tribute to our V.P. [i.e., Russian ver-tebrate paleontology] if you can write a book about it because, as with the geological basis of evolution, you are the only man who can afford such a task. But, of course, not under any such title. Efremov as a person hasn't fame enough for his "wisdom" either as a very great V.P. If you can use my letters as characteristic for this or that achievement of our VP or in comparison with opinions of our western colleagues this has good meaning. But not for the main stem of the whole book! Efremov will note that before his researches, field for instance, U.S.S.R. had five or six localities of lower Tetrapods and after 1950 they numbered over 200, then you will be able to cite one or two letters. If you say that Efremov was first to make a stratigraphi-cal column on Tetrapods, then another look at my letters is possible, and so on. Like that, the letters can be distributed in the general picture of our stratigraphic localities and the peculiar position of our facies between two great Tetrapod Fauna, Laurasia and Gondwana, and a third province including China! Such a book may have a common interest among all zoological and geological people; if you will be able to encrust it with some personal characterization it can be even more interesting. But "Efremov's Letters" is "not sounded" as our young people say.

As ever, your friend,

Professor Efremov (Old Efraim)

I had not made at all clear what I had in mind. His science and Russian science are important. They are strictly orthodox as far as paleontology and geology are concerned, the same type of work as that carried out in many countries under many philosophies and many kinds of governments. They do not at this point need a lot of elaboration, for thanks to Efremov and many others, the work has been well done and, by 1970, well


What had become important to me was the underlying basis of his scientific thinking, and that of Russians in general and also how this tied into his adventure stories and science fantasy. Some of this, in relationship to science, comes through in his letters, but only rarely in his scientific writings. His social philosophy, romanticism and love of heroes and adventure stand out clearly in his nonscientific writings, but their more intimate bases are to be found in his commentaries and the ramblings of some of his letters. I tried to make that clear to him and, finally, he did sanction the project. I only regret that he did not live to see it underway and to give me what would have been invaluable advice during its preparation.

Forays into Science and Philosophy

The sort of conflict of ideas occasioned by Morphological Integration ran through many of the conversations and letters between Professor Efremov and me during the next fifteen years. We dealt, of course, with the straightforward problems of Permian animals and the relationships of the Russian and American faunas, but even these were cast in a broader mold of philosophic differences. I had come from a society steeped in traditions of linear logic and simple confidence in cause and effect; Efremov, from his own complex mix of eastern dialectical philosophy, strict materialism and faith in a social utopia as an ultimate goal. Nicely, these differences did not lead us into ideological stalemates and dogmatic stands, for I was anxious to learn and he, from his dialectical base, could only see the differences as the way to their resolution in a synthesis.

Philosophers have been plagued for centuries about the sufficiency of materialistic science as a pathway to "truth," and occasionally some scientists also have had a go at the problem. As modern science has tended to depart from its tangible and comprehensible empirical base in "material" toward more mathematical, almost "Platonic," constructs of "reality," the troubling questions have either faded away or have become more crucial depending on where one stands. Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to Whitehead, Russell, Hempel, Popper, Reichenbach and many others have been sifting out answers. Some scien-tists, Einstein for example, have listened and contributed. Others have rejected the "philosophical double talk" and got on with the job.

A colleague of mine at the University of Chicago, the late Bob Miller, started me on a search for meaning when, after some years as a biologist and evolutionist, he abruptly switched over into mathematics and geophysics, going back to an earlier love. It was a shock to me to see him make such a drastic shift, although I had seen his disenchantment with inferential statistics developing. Miller's move disturbed me mostly because it was motivated by his growing feeling that the study of evolution and evolutionary theory had become a sterile, blind alley. This was my main field of endeavor!

My reaction was to plunge into the literature on the bases and structure of evolutionary thought, to see what I might find out. I began to read rather randomly in Popper, Randall, Reich-enbach, Russell, Nagel and Hempel, and then was drawn further afield into Whitehead, Dewey, Kant, Hegel, DesCartes, James and so on. This turned out to be a never-ending quest, as one author led to another.

All sorts of questions did seem to ask for answers. What is evolution anyhow? Is it a principle of the universe or a rationalistic concept? Who started the evolutionary concept Aristotle, Heraclitus, Hegel, or perhaps Darwin as the textbooks sometimes say? Certainly it was not the Romans, not Augustine, not Aquinas. Was the idea alive during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance? I finally ended up teaching a college course in "The History of Evolutionary Thought," trying to get things straight in my mind and, hopefully, interesting and educating a few students. John Campbell, Clifford Brunk and I explored these concepts in greater depth in a graduate course at UCLA during 1987-1989. The rapid accumulation of data, new concepts in genetics and molecular biology cladistic analyses applied to systematics and phylogeny and changing ideas in evolution continue to present interesting and frustrating problems. The concepts basic to my exchanges with Efremov were, of course, those of the 1960s, but the philosophic problems that were bothering us are still as significant today as they were then. Mainly some of the questions have changed.

During the time when these matters had begun to bother me, I was going on with paleontology as if nothing had happened. I was also becoming more engrossed with Russian paleontology. My friendship with Professor Efremov had reached a stage where we had high mutual trust and could communicate freely. The interest in the paleontology of the USSR and readings in its literature sent my binge of philosophical inquiry off on a tangent, into the sphere of dialectical materialism. This bypath, and Efremov's thoughts on it, began to take on primary importance to me.

All of us in the US during the late 1950s and early 1960s knew there was something called dialectical materialism and had some vague recall of Socratic dialectics from some dimly remembered college course. Somewhere along the line Karl Marx had "stood Hegel on his head." The Marx-Engels-Lenin philosophy had become the cornerstone of the Soviet Union's socioeconomic system and had run rampant through its science, and that was bad.

The near death of Russian genetics, we had heard, was due to Lysenko's application of dialectical materialism to agriculture. Dialectical mysteries surfaced in the US from time to time in talks and seminars where the audience was treated to a diatribe of Marxian jargon spouted with consummate confu-sive skill by some biologically centered red neophyte. Scholars of Russian affairs, of course, were more sophisticated than we and knew better. All of this, however, was more or less how I conceived things in Soviet philosophy and as at least some of my colleagues also felt them to be.

When I traded my Russian primer for Russian paleontolog-ical literature, I fully expected to find the dialectic blatantly displayed. My failure to do so puzzled me. Was all of this a hoax? Many of my associates, some very knowledgeable, were sure the little bows to Marx or Engels, or to the great Lenin, in introductions to papers and texts, were just that and no more. They were survival gestures in a somewhat hostile philosophical environment. Maybe so, and sometimes certainly so.

The matter was taken seriously by a number of biologists, especially those of Russian origin or those who had been closely associated with Russian genetics. When Loren Graham, physicist and historian of science, published his book Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union, he was taken sharply to task by the late Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the outstanding American geneticists of our time. Dobzhansky sharply countered the thesis that dialectical philosophy had a real role in Soviet science. The late Michael Lerner, also with a deep interest and knowledge of Soviet science, took a milder tack, but discounted much that was said, while saying it should be said. Dobzhansky likewise took me to task, over a drink, for my somewhat more favorable review of Graham's book. Underneath this lay an inevitable mixing of science and politics. To even suggest that the crude agriculturist Lysenko was a scientist, which he was not, was to support a position that augmented the strength of a detestable regime.

For all the opinions that bowing to dialectical philosophy was just a gesture, I could not dismiss easily the lack of evidence of the dialectic in paleontological and evolutionary articles. I still had the feeling it should be there. It was not clear to me at the time that a basic philosophical concept must be apprehended in order to be recognized as a substrate in those writings that do not make a point of bringing it out.

Professor Efremov, as I had found out when I came to know him and to read his works more thoroughly, was a firm advocate of a broadly based, largely non-Marxist, dialectical method of arriving at the truth and a strict dialectical materialist in the hard sense of the second word. Things are real and as we sense them. They give the answers to the truth and are the truth, but must be understood in a resolution of opposites. When he wrote scientific treatises his themes and explanations were strongly rooted in a materialistic dialectic, but this was recognizable in his science only if one knew the background. His best known work on taphonomy originated directly from dialectical considerations, but mere reading of most of his writing on the subject does not necessarily show this to be the case.

I had developed a feeling in the late 1950s that I just didn't understand dialectics at all as I read more and more books and articles on Russian evolution and biology. This led me into a long series of sporadic studies to see if I could develop a more sophisticated idea of what dialectical logic was all about. This search has continued to the present, but the significance of dialectics has not been resolved in my thinking as I write in 1989. One part of this effort is documented in Chapter 11 in which I explore the work of Professor Davitaschvili on evolution. In order that this and references to Efremov's dialectics may be somewhat clearer, the following is a short summary of some of the things I found out.

First of all, a good summary of the relationships of dialectical thought to biology is to be found in the final chapter of The Dialectical Biologist by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin (Harvard University Press, 1985). But I began at a much more naive level, and even Levins' and Lewontin's review proved far from simple to me. The concepts of dialectical materialism as used by Efremov are difficult for anyone trained, as I was, in a generally reductionist approach employing the syllogistic logic of orthodox science. A sense of mysticism seems to creep into dialectical interpretations. The tendency to dispose of dialectical materialism as a "bunch of nonsense" is strong and intrinsically appealing. Today, however, one of the growing tendencies in evolutionary thinking is at least to give a hearing to what dialectical logic may have to offer.

As is true for so much of our knowledge, the roots of the dialectic reach far back into history, even to the Yin and Yang of the Far East. More particularly, our Western heritage lies with the Greek philosophers, especially Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. To each of these, however, the term dialectic had a distinctly different meaning. The dialectic of Hegel, from which the Marxian form of dialectics stems, lay closest to the concept espoused by Socrates, filtered through the development of irreconcilable opposites in Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason." Efremov's dialectic shared this general heritage but was divorced from the socioeconomic framework of Marx, while retaining the strict materialism. The pervasive flavor in all of these related treatments is that the dialectic is an intellectual process by means of which inadequacies of popular conceptions, in our case scientific conceptions, are examined and exposed with closer approaches to the truth emerging. This sounds somewhat like the scientific process of the erection of hypotheses, followed by testing and acceptance, improvement or rejection. It is not, but this same suspicion of identity keeps cropping up in the mind of a scientifically oriented person.

The basis of dialectics actually is very different and lies in contradiction and negation found in the familiar triadic logic of a concept, or thesis, its opposite, or antithesis, and a resolution, or synthesis. The synthesis is a higher truth than either the thesis or antithesis, but in sequence generates its own opposite; negation ensues, and a new synthesis forms to generate a never-ending dialectical spiral. In letters quoted in later chapters, I asked Professor Efremov about some of the problems that this approach brought to my mind and he did his best to answer. But, as I found out, this simple framework is far from adequate to give a full appreciation of what he was writing about and how it affected his outlook on evolution.

To go a little further on this matter, it can be noted that, according to the proponents of the dialectic, it is reality, not just a law, and it involves an evolutionary process of inevitable progress. This gives it a particular relevance to biology, with its keystone of evolution. It also poses such problems as progress in evolution, an anathema to many evolutionists, teleology and teleonomy, and a holistic versus reductionist approach to evolution. Such problems, of course, arise in evolution as viewed by most scientists, but in dialectics we are in a form different from our broadly Cartesian approaches, or what Efremov calls "linear logic" in his letters. At the very least, dialectics has stimulated some interesting biological points, such as the following.

From the reductionist point of view, the whole is made up of parts with their properties causally related to the whole, but also potentially having independent existences which have significance when separated (or alienated in dialectical terms) from the whole. Thus a molecular biologist may study DNA or a gene as something interesting either in itself or as it bears a causal relationship to some larger unit. The DNA, gene or some grosser parts of an organism can, of course, be arbitrarily removed from the organism and analysed to give appreciation of a particular aspect of its host.

In the dialectical sense, however, such detached elements are not viewed as important as entities in themselves, but only as parts of the whole which lose their meaning when viewed alone. Also important in dialectical evolutionary thinking is the idea that the whole itself exists in a temporary balance of internally opposing forces in which cause and effect are interchangeable. This is crucial to Efremov's thinking in his evolutionary philosophy. Levins and Lewontin in The Dialectical Biologist sum it up on page 277 as follows: "The difference between the reductionist and the dialectician is that the former regards constancy as the normal condition, to be proven otherwise, while the latter expects change but accepts apparent constancy."

Many questions arise about possible impacts of dialectical thinking on the ways in which biology and evolution are viewed. Efremov clearly was deeply influenced by the importance of uniting opposites in a temporary synthesis, as in his taphono-mic work which examines the biological and physical factors in the formation of fossil deposits. Throughout evolutionary studies, no matter how they are viewed, antagonisms between the organisms and the physico-biological environment are self-evident. So wherein lies the difference?

One place where it seems to emerge is in the concept of adaptations of organisms to their environments. If this is viewed in a nondialectical manner, with cause and effect explicit and not interchangeable, it is a one-way action, with organism adapting to environment. Is this the full picture? Certainly it is central in the Synthetic theory as developed today, with direct roots reaching back to Darwin in 1859. Yet there are those who see Darwin's total explanation as dialectic, in contrast to Lamarckian ideas which have a strong linear cast. The problems of the adequacy of nondialectical adaptationist approach has had an impact in questions now being raised about the sufficiency of the Synthetic theory.

Ecological studies are complex and deeply involved in development of syntheses of interactions of organisms and the physical world in which an interrelationship of the two in a complex of causes and effects stands out. Like so much in biology, disparate elements merge into a complex a temporarily stable whole extremely difficult to visualize by analysis of its component parts. Adequate syntheses are elusive. Would a dialectical approach help?

In these, and other similar broad biological problems, dialectical thinking, if nothing more, has, it would seem, performed its primary function of serving to point out possible inadequacies in some prevailing interpretations and provide an alternate way of thinking.

My puzzle, then, in not finding dialectical bases in the Soviet writings as I first read them did stem in part from my own lack of knowledge of the matter and, in some part as well that, as far as science is concerned at an operational level, it makes little difference what a writer's philosophy may be. An atheist, a devout Catholic, Jew, Muslim, a Buddhist or a dialectical materialist can be a good scientist and communicate easily with his disparate counterparts. Just play the game and be sure to follow the rules. Only when one comes to the fringes, where science per se can have no answers, do the roots begin to show through. But at a deeper level this may be less true, for, from this fringe area the "a prioris" of the philosophical base do feed back into the methodology of inquiry. A Bible-believing scientist, for example, will see time very differently from an agnostic or one who interprets the Scriptures to fit scientific knowledge. But, unless time is pertinent to the work at hand, this will not show up. With respect to strict dialectical materialism versus formal logic- which were the major polarities to Efremov there exists a seemingly unbridgeable gulf. Our "hard" mathematical sciences, which involve a simple binary yes or no, cannot accommodate the tenets of dialectical materialism. The "soft" naturalistic sciences, evolutionary studies for example, are not so limited as these "basic" sciences and in their unreduced complexities sometimes seem to cry out for dialectical solutions.

Once in a while, in his scientific writings, Efremov did comment on his dialectical approach. Writing on his concept of taphonomy, the transition from the living state to burial in the rocks, Efremov explained dialectics briefly as follows:


The use of the dialectical method will make application of biological data in paleozoology more fruitful. I wish to dwell on it because this method, which will in the future be substituted for 'monolineal` formal logic, is but little developed. The essence of dialectical analysis of biological and paleontological phenomena in general lies first of all in its revelation of the duality and opposition of phenomena and their development. The analysis of the development of contradictions and the unity of opposites is certain to produce good results when combined with the inevitable historical approach of paleontology.2


2This passage has been somewhat modified from the precise wording as it appeared in English in "Some Considerations of the Biological Bases of Paleozoology," in Vertebrata Palasiatica II, p. 91, 1958. To eliminate some of the "Russianisms" from it and to do this without altering the meaning, I have translated the 1961 Russian version by Efremov that appeared in Trudy IV, All Soviet Paleontological Society, Moscow, State Scientific Technical Geological Press, p. 209.