Science in Christian Perspective



On the Work of the Swiss Zoologist 
Adolf Portmann*
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota

From: JASA 6 (March 1954): 5-9.
*Paper presented at the Eighth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation at Winona Lake, Indiana, September 1-3, 1953.

1. Introduction. 

It is with hesitation that I as a physicist speak today about the work of a zoologist; the justification is that I seem to be the only one in our group who has come across Dr. Portmann's books and that the language barrier is much smaller for me than for most of you.

Dr. Portmann is professor of zoology at the University of Basel, Switzerland and is considered to be one of the most prominent zoologists living in Europe. He has devoted his research to brain studies and studies of the animal form. He has written a book on the comparative morphology of the vertebrata, and a book on the animal form; closely related to this work is his book on anthropology in which he shows how large the gap is between man and the most highly developed mammals. In addition to this he has given many radio lecture series on biological problems of general interest, most of which lectures were afterwards published in book form.

His radio talks excel in understandability, in clarity of expression and in their sound scientific level. Dr. Portmann shows great concern about the misuse of biological concepts and theories and the harmful effects of such misuse in politics and in society. His views are well-balanced and show a much more critical attitude than is encountered in some other biologists. It is gratifying to find a well-known scientist who is willing to devote part of his time to this kind of work.

In the available time I can give only a few highlights of his work. The largest part of my talk is therefore devoted to Dr. Portmann's book on anthropology and to his views on evolution. I hope that this may induce some of you to read his books more thoroughly; I am convinced that they deserve your careful attention.

2. Biologische Fragmente zu einer Lehre vom Menschen (B.F.L.M.) (Biological fragments of an anthropology), 2d Ed., 1951.

Dr. Portmann came to this problem from careful morphological studies in birds and mammals. Part of that work can be found in his book: Einffihrung in die vergleichende Morphologie der Wirbeltiere (Introduction to the comparative morphology of the vertebrata,). He first compares his approach to anthropolgy with other biological approaches to the same problem.

In most cases the main aim is, to show the animal basis of our human existence. Though it is of course necessary to know the common basis of human, animal and plant life, the -method, cannot show the peculiarity of the individual forms of organic life. Dr. Portmann therefore wrote his book to bring out the peculiarity of the human form of life.

In most cases the higher mammals are used as the standard of comparison in order to arrive at that part of the human being that can be studied by biological methods. A complete understanding of the higher forms of life in terms of the lower ones is impossible, however, since some aspects of these higher forms do not have their counterpart in the lower forms; only a careful comparison of both forms of life can show the peculiarities of each form. If ' for example, the higher mammals are used as a standard of comparison in an endeavor to understand man, the human spirit is separated from the human body. A good understanding of the human form of life can only be obtained if the separation between body and spirit is not made; man should be studied in his totality.

Most biological approaches to anthropology are based upon the theory of evolution. Dr. Portmann does not accept this basis, not so much because he is opposed to a truly scientific descendence theory but because such a theory can only be used to explain the peculiarities of the human form of life that are found by studying man in his totality. Before applying a descendence theory one has to know what this theory has to explain. By an a priori fitting of the investigations into a certain framework one may lose the most important aspects of the human form of life; for that reason such a framework should be avoided.

Dr. Portmann's discussion is based upon a correlation of the level of organization, form of existence and way of development of the higher mammals.

Mammals can thus be divided into two well-known groups:

                                                  Group 1                 Group 2

level of organi zation                       low                         high
development of brain                    small                        large
structure of body                   little specialization        much specialization
duration of gestation              very short (e.g. long      (e.g. long (more than 50 days)
                                            (more than 20-30 days)
number of off spring per litter       large (22-5)                       mostly 1 - 2 
(rarely 4)

state of off spring at birth        helpless at birth,     in d e p endent at birth except for food; 
                                            no hair; does not    resembles adult in minature; nose, ears
                                            resemble adult;       and the eyes open; nerves in arms and legs   
                                            nose, ears, and       in the same advanced state of development.
                                            eyes closed; de-
                                            velopment of the
                                            arm nerves fur-
                                            ther advanced
                                            than that of the
                                            leg nerves.

Some mammals, like cats and dogs have their offspring in a stage intermediate between group I and II in agreement with their position in the system of mammals. Mammals of extremely specialized organization but little brain development (bats, anteaters) show the characteristics of group 11.

It is a characteristic of nearly all mammals that the development of the embryo goes through the same cycle. They all have closed nose, ears, and eyes during some period of their development; if the instant of birth falls during that period the animals belong to group I; if it falls after that period they belong to group 11.

How do primates fit into this scheme? Young apes are very dependent upon their mother, but this is not due to the fact that their development is not far enough advanced; it is caused by a very strong instinct driving them to cling to their mother. The same holds for anthropoid apes. They all belong therefore to group 11.

The condition of a new-born human baby differs in this respect from all mammals, including the anthropoid apes. It meets the conditions of group II except two of them. First it is quite helpless at birth in some respects; second, it does not resemble an adult in miniature at birth.

Its nervous system is in an advanced state of de velopment and i t can move its arms, legs and fingers very freely; in other respects it is quite helpless, however, and remains so until it is about 1 year old. For these reasons some biologists have classified man in group 1. Dr. Portmann shows that this is not the case, but that in comparison with the higher mammals a human baby is born about one year too early.

In many respects the way of development of a human baby differs from the way of development of all other mammals. Only when the baby is about 1 year old does it start to show the characteristics of the adult such as erect posture, beginning of speech, etc. Moreover, only at the age of about 1 year, does the baby look like an adult in miniature. Portmann backs this up by showing that the ratio

is about the same for arms, legs and the rest of the body in the case of a chimpanzee, whereas in the case of a human baby the ratio is much larger for the arms and legs (especially the legs) than for the rest of the body. This is even more pronounced if the human embryo is compared with the embryo of the anthropoid apes. It then is found that the apes reach the relative proportions of the adult very early in their embryonal development, whereas in man, due to unknown hereditary reasons, the relative proportions of the adult are reached only long after birth. This is remarkable since the duration of the pregnancy in the anthropoid apes is about the same as in man.

The body weight of the human baby is much larger than that of the new-born anthropoids. The latter all weigh about 1500 grams at birth, whereas the average weight of the former is 3200 grams (this latter value is almost the same for strongly built and tenderly built races). This large weight of the human baby corresponds to the large weight of its brain, for the ratio    weight of body /weight of brain       is about the same for apes, anthropoid and man at the time of birth: it only varies from 8.6 to 11.5 (for the adult the ratio varies much more widely viz. 49 for man, to 213 and even more for a gorilla). And still, despite this, the new-born human baby is much less ready than any one of the primates.

Dr. Portmann attributes these circumstances to the much higher brain development and shows by comparison with other animal groups that man is unique in this respect: In the birds of lower organization the newly hatched birds are very independent just as in the next lower group, the reptiles. For the birds of higher organization and larger brain development a longer period of development is needed than can be provided by the hatching period; these birds are therefore at first very helpless and the parents have to carry out the function that the young bird   cannot carry out itself. In the mammals of lower organization we have conditions similar to those found in the more highly developed birds. In the higher mammals the long period for the development of the brain and the nervous system could be obtained by a short gestation period and an even more intensive care of the young for a longer period. Actually the development is much different: after a much longer gestation period the animal is born at a time when it is very well developed. By analogy, the much higher brain development in man should lead to a pregnancy of even longer duration than in mammals, so that the new-born baby would be born with the ability to stand and to speak. Dr. Portmann shows with the help of many examples that this would not be biologically impossible. The actual development found in man is much different, a relatively short duration of the pregnancy coupled with an intensive care for the young baby after birth.

The most important characteristics of man develop during the first year:

1. Erect posture (erect posture is more fundamental than erect gait; walking is simple after erect posture is obtained).

2. Speech. This is much more than producing sounds; if sound production and speech are equated, one cannot understand the particularity of human speech. Animal sounds lead only to the corresponding human sound, the cry,

3. Insight, understanding of relationships.

The early contact with the world is not necessarily the cause of the adult characteristics but indicates a close correspondence between the way of development and the adult form of existence. In contrast to animals, which are bound to their environment and are guided by their instincts, man is open to the world and guided by tradition and by his own decisions. This openness to the world corresponds to this early contact with the richness of the world. Development, form and behavior of man are inseparable. Often the human body is considered as a "vessel," of the human spirit; but in fact our development shows a much closer relationship; body and spirit form an unbreakable entity.

Dr. Portmann then compares human growth after birth to the growth of the higher mammals. All mammals develop very fast and reach their maturity quite early. In contrast, a human baby grows very fast only until the somatic and psychical conditions for the establishment of many-sided social relation ship have been created. (The growth of the brain is similar, however, in all higher primates and in man; most of the growth occurs when only the milk-teeth are present; after that the jaws of the anthropoid apes grow and form a characteristic snout, which does not occur in man). The slow growth after the first year is a peculiarity of man only; even the anthropoid apes, which develop more slowly than all other mammals, reach the adult stage before they are 10 years old. The large growth during puberty also occurs only in man; the differences in height between the various races are due mainly to this growth. Also the life-span of all higher mammals is much shorter than for man; even the anthropoid apes do not live much longer than 30 years.

The final conclusions of Dr. Portmann's research are the existence of a large gap between man and the most highly developed mammals (the anthropoid apes), and the close relationship between individual development and social behavior. A number of ontogenetic peculiarities such as the duration of the pregnancy, the early mass development of our body and the state of development at birth can only be understood in relationship with the way in which our social behavior is formed.

3. Dr. Portmann's attitude towards the theory of evolution.

Dr. Portmann's attitude towards many aspects of this theory is a critical and reserved one. In his own words the idea of evolution is at present the only way to link together the successions of animal figures and of plant forms which are so impressively demonstrated by palaeontology and as such it will be of great value in the future. (B.F.L.M. p. 15)

But even though it is well-known that animal figures may change radically, due to mutations, how far can these changes go? Is it possible that a sufficient number of small changes might finally lead from fish to amphibia and from reptiles to birds? Dr. Portmann thinks that such an extension goes far beyond what can be verified experimentally. He finds it also hard to understand how an image-forming organ as an eye can be formed by gradual step-wise changes from an eyeless initial stage; only after such an organ has been formed due to causes unknown to us, we can understand how mutations can change this organ. He thinks it extremely unlikely that the observed ordered conditions could be due to a sufficient number of undirected mutations. This holds even more strongly. for the idea that ascribes to dead molecules the power for the formation of the simplest forms of life; such an idea is as unproven as its, very opposite, he says. (Probleme des Lebens, p. 110)

Admittedly the theory has great appeal; without assuming unknown forces, it explains the presence of all extinct and existing organisms. But the power of its argument is disputable in Dr. Portmann's eyes, and he advises more reserve. To maintain that we know already the essential facts of such an immense phenomenon as the origin of organisms, indicates in his opinion that such ideas are fed from sources outside the sphere of science. He favors the idea that mutations can explain only part of the facts of evolution and thinks that other factors play a part, the nature of which is as yet unknown. The research continues, and nobody knows the results of future science (Problemc des Lebens pp. 110-111).

Here follow a few direct quotations:

"It is a wide-spread belief that in the ontogenesis the embryo passes through the various levels of the organic kingdom, so that man after having passed the lower levels of organization in rapid succession finally becomes a mammal, a primate, an anthropoid, and, after passing the chimpanzee-age, finally becomes human. That these ideas appear in the form of a scientific truth-often under the big name of fundamental law of biogenetics-should not lead us to forget that they have their origin in a creed." (B.F.L.M. pg. 83)

"The developing embryo on its way to its final form is not ready and reminds us of other possibilities of deployment. But even so, though it reminds us of it, it is in such stages of development not a fish, nor a reptile, nor an ape. Only he will obtain a deeper understanding of the human embryo, who sees in all its stages the genesis of a man, an organism with a unique erect posture, with the exclusive characteristics of openness to the world and of a social world of culture formed by speech." (B.F.L.M. pg. 85)

"The idea of development in the study of organic nature explains the relationship between organisms and the succession of their forms in the various geological periods as the result of a real kinship, as a genesis of many different figures from few simple basic forms. On the other hand the study of history also uses an idea of development; man then appears as a succession of generations, each generation giving the results of its work to the next generation. With each generation an initial condition arises that is completely new-even though this situation is not influenced by a hereditary change in man nor is causing such a hereditary change." (B.F.L.M. pg. 16) "Every fact of prehistory that the biologist can explain by descendence of one type of man from another one and by organic progress can also be explained by the historian by immigration, exchange of goods, mixing of races etc. Both arguments have the same power, both have the same defect, viz. that they are results of our inventivity. He who once takes the time to dig into the various interpretations of the disputed Neanderthal man, will soon be convinced of the insoluble double aspect of our explanations." (B.F.L.M. pg. 18)

"If biological and historical research penetrate into the darkness of prehistory, then one should not wait too optimistically for a meeting of these two forms of investigation. In reality both ways of investigation lead into a dark zone of silence, the extension of which nobody knows. He who follows the efforts of both sides with an open mind, will be deeply impressed by the silence and the darkness of this borderland, in which we, guided by the light of both ideas of development, search for the traces of the origin of man." (B.F.L.M. pg. 19)

"Today the prehistoric research sees its objects of research in a changed light. The discoveries of prehistory appear now in an increasing degree as historical documents; the finds show more and more clearly, even in the oldest traces, something characteristically human (e.g. indications of fire, tools from bone or stone); again and again we sense in these traces the full man, who caused them. Thus the field of human social development is wrested from the realm of organic development and the dark zone of the mystery that shrouds our origin becomes more apparent." (B.F.L.M. pg. 124)

4. Problems of "view of man" and "world view".

Dr. Portmann is also interested in the problems of our view of man and our world view, and in his interest he is much more broad-minded than some other biologists. His book on anthropology was written as a small contribution to our "view of man". A "small" contribution only, for Dr. Portmarm doubts whether biological methods are the most appropriate tools for arriving at such a view.

He is equally sceptical about a "scientific" world view. Even if the results of all sciences are put together then the total contribution is "fragmentary" and of "modest certainty". Fragmentary, because we only know in part and of modest certainty because these results may be modified by new work. But fragmentary knowledge and modest certainty is not enough to guide our actions, we need a "view of man". To such a view of man many forces contribute, not only the forces of scientific thought but also the forces of artistic and religious inspiration in equal measure. Views of man ihat have the power to guide and direct the actions of individuals and of large population groups are the consequence of such a cooperative effort. (B.F.L.M. pg. 129)

5. Conclusion.

I have tried to give a faithful representation of some of Dr. Portmann's ideas. Unfortunately, time does not permit me to discuss his ideas on the misuse of biological concepts in political and social life and in problems of world view, more thoroughly.

He speaks as a biologist, he does not show any apologetical interest. We can learn from him that many so-called "scientific" views of the world and of man have their roots not in science but in a faith. Not the Christian faith of course, but a faith nevertheless; this explains the religious fervor with which these views are presented. Dr. Portmann shows that one way to answer those views is to expose their roots; to show a more critical and reserved attitude toward science; and to distinguish more clearly between facts, theories, hypotheses, and mere speculations.

Books Written by Dr. Portmann: