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A letter from an alum about the new science curriculum

May 11, 2004

I applaud Princeton for establishing a comprehensive, integrated, six-semester sequence in science, but I worry that some fundamental aspects of science are being overlooked. Judging from the professors involved in the course and from the departments they represent, I have the strong impression that the approach all but ignores evolution, arguably the most powerful unifying theory of biology, with profound implications for fields ranging from medicine to psychology, anthropology, economics, and even history. Likewise, I sense a disturbing absence of ecology, geological processes, and large-scale phenomena generally.

No sequence of courses can ever embrace the whole of science, but the traditional reductionist principles of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology that the proposed sequence emphasizes provide a fundamentally incomplete account of the complex phenomena that draw most of us into science. Holistic principles, which describe interactions among parts and which lead to the emergence of evolution, economic systems (including ecosystems), tectonics, and societies must have a standing equal to the laws governing matter and energy as quantitatively laid out in the so-called hard sciences.

People in industrialized countries, including the United States, have in recent years increasingly turned away from science, the most powerful way of knowing humans have devised. They perceive science as alien and unapproachable, as failing to connect everyday phenomena with coherent theories of explanation. This trend will continue if we persist in teaching science with a heavy emphasis on reductionist theory. I therefore hope that my impressions are wrong, and that Princeton and other institutions will see the virtue of teaching science not just by breaking down complex structures into simpler parts, but also by building up complexity and emergent properties from elementary components and interactions. 

Geerat J. Vermeij ’68
Distinguished Professor of Geology
University of California, Davis

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