Book Review: A Feeling for the Organism

A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller is a story of the interaction between an individual scientist, Barbara McClintock (1902–1992), and a science, genetics.1 The book serves simultaneously as a biography and as an intellectual story. Evelyn Fox Keller shows how science is both highly personal and a communal endeavor.2

The role of observation in Barbara McClintock’s experimental work provides the key to her understanding. What for others is interpretation, or speculation, is for her trained direct perception.3 McClintock pushed her observational and cognitive skills so far that few could follow her.4 She talked about the limits of verbally explicit reasoning and stressed the importance of having a ”feeling for the organism.” Her understanding emerged from a thorough absorption in, and even identification with, her material.5

The word ”understanding,” and the particular meaning Barbara McClintock attributed to it, is the cornerstone of her entire approach to science. For McClintock, the smallest details provided the keys to the larger whole. It was her conviction that the closer her focus, the greater her attention to the unique characteristics of a single plant, the more she could learn about the general principles by which the plant as a whole was organized.6

Over and over again, Barbara McClintock emphasized that one must have the time to look, the patience to ”hear what the material has to say to you,” the openness to ”let it come to you.” Above all, one must have ”a feeling for the organism.”. ”No two plants are exactly alike. They’re all different, and as a consequence, you have to know that difference,” she explained. Both literally and figuratively, her ”feeling for the organism” extended her vision.7

For Barbara McClintock, reason — at least in the conventional sense of the word — is not by itself adequate to describe the vast complexity of living forms. Organisms have a life and order of their own that scientists can only partially fathom. No models we invent can begin to do full justice to the prodigious capacity of organisms to devise means for guaranteeing their own survival. It is the overall organization, or orchestration, that enables the organism to meet its needs, whatever they might be, in ways that never cease to surprise us. That capacity for surprise gave McClintock immense pleasure.8

Our surprise is a measure of our tendency to underestimate the flexibility of living organisms. The adaptability of plants tends to be especially unappreciated. There is no question that plants have all kinds of sensitivities.9 The ultimate descriptive task, for both artists and scientists, is to ”ensoul” what one sees, to attribute to it the life one shares with it.10 In short, one must have a ”feeling for the organism.”

Barbara McClintock had a holistic perspective and got a much deeper understanding than most scientists because she was interested in and got a ”feeling for the whole organism.” Barbara McClintock was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I find her life and work most fascinating.

1 Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (W. H. Freeman and Company, 1982), p.ix.
2 Ibid., p.xiii.
3 Ibid., p.xiii.
4 Ibid., pp.xiii–xiv.
5 Ibid., p.xiv.
6 Ibid., p.101.
7 Ibid., p.198.
8 Ibid., p.199.
9 Ibid., p.199.
10 Ibid., p.204.


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