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Toads & Good Ideas

In the 1920s Austrian biologist, Dr. Paul Kammerer, was conducting controversial experiments on the evolutionary process with amphibians—including midwife toads. His work challenged conventionally held beliefs and advocated the Lamarckian theory of inheritance which argues that organisms can pass acquired characteristics from one generation to the next.

His research was deemed fraudulent by American herpetologist, G.K. Noble, in the journal, Nature. He charged that Kammerer had injected his mid-wife toad samples with ink so they would appear to have carried on characteristics from their environment.

Soon after the review was published Kammerer killed himself.

But was Kammerer’s work fraudulent? Did his suicide indicate a confession?

In The Case of the Midwife Toad, Arthur Koestler attempts to figure out whether or not Kammerer was telling the truth.

At the time of Kammerer’s research Austria was in political turmoil and the Nazi party was tearing the intellectual community apart.

Koestler discovers that Kammerer’s toads and notes might have been tampered with by a colleague at the University of Vienna who was a Nazi sympathizer. The motive of the suspected sabotage, Koestler reasons, was to discredit Kammerer who was a public pacifist.

If that was the case, Kammerer’s research may not have been fabricated and would have firmly run contrary to the scientific orthodoxy of the time.

Modern science suggests that Kammerer’s work, while running contrary to Neo-Darwinist evolutionists, may explain epigenetics—the study of heritable changes in genes caused by factors other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. In other words, Kammerer may have found evidence that would suggest some acquired traits can be passed on from generation to generation.

While Koestler artfully tells us the engaging story of Kammerer he lets us decide whether or not Kammerer’s work was falsified.  He gives a fair and critical analysis of Kammerer’s work and also explains it with simplicity.

The Case of the Midwife Toad teaches us the old lesson: people who challenge the status quo might not be entirely crazy. It’s a valuable take-away for leaders who propose new and different ideas.

Even though you may be right and your evidence is strong you will attract critics who play the “got-you” game.

Defending conventions is the refuge of the nervous and unwilling, standing up for new ideas takes daring. Kammerer’s case exhibits all of the pitfalls and highpoints of walking into new territory.



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