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Bertrand Russell
(18 May 1872 - 2 Feb 1970)

Welsh mathematician, logician and philosopher known for his work in mathematical logic, but was also active in social and political campaigns, advocating pacifism and nuclear disarmament.

Bertrand Russell quote
“A process which led from the amoeba to man”

Illustrated Quote - Large (800 x 600 px)

“A process which led from the amoeba to man appeared to the philosophers to be obviously a progress—though whether the amoeba would agree with this opinion is not known.”
— Bertrand Russell
Our Knowledge of the External World (1914), 12.

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Context of Bertrand Russell’s quote, “A process which led from the amoeba to man.”

Bertrand Russell gave a series of Lowell Lectures in Boston (Mar 1914), which were collected and printed in Our Knowledge of the External World (1914). In the first of these lectures, 'Current Tendencies,' Russell considered three main types of philosophies, which he called the Classical Tradition, Evolutionism and (“for want of a better name”) Logical Atomism.

In the portion of his lecture devoted to Evolutionism, he began:

“Evolutionism, in one form or another, is the prevailing creed of our time. It dominates our politics, our literature, and not least our philosophy. … Evolutionism, as I shall try to show, is not a truly scientific philosophy, either in its method or in the problems which it considers. The true scientific philosophy is something more arduous and more aloof, appealing to less mundane hopes, and requiring a severer discipline for its successful practice.”

Evaluating the impact of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Russell commented on the Aristotelian tradition with its orthodox dogma of natural kinds, and the ease of definite classification. That was “suddenlty swept away for ever out of the biological world.” Just as Laplace had indicated that the sun and planets were “very probably derived from a primitive more or less undifferentiated nebula,” so also, “Things and species lost their boundaries, and none could say where they began or where they ended.”

After human conceit was shaken by “its kinship with the ape, it soon found a way to reassert itself” with a “philosophy” of evolution. At this point Russell spoke as shown in the quote above: “A process which led from the amoeba to man appeared to the philosophers to be obviously a progress—though whether the amoeba would agree with this opinion is not known.”

“Hence the cycle of changes which science had shown to be the probable history of the past was welcomed as revealing a law of development towards good in the universe—an evolution or unfolding of an ideal slowly embodying itself in the actual.”

This ideal, itself, he said:

“must change and develop with the course of evolution; there must be no fixed goal, but a continual fashioning of fresh needs by the impulse which is life and which alone gives unity to the process.”

Synopsis by Webmaster, using text from Bertrand Russell’s lecture 'Current Tendencies,' collected in Our Knowledge of the External World (1914), 11-12. (source)

See also:
  • Science Quotes by Bertrand Russell.
  • 18 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Russell's birth.
  • Bertrand Russell - context of quote “A process which led from the amoeba to man” - Medium image (500 x 350 px)

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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