Need a dissertation topic?

There is a very interesting review of Simon Winchester’s Bomb, Book, and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China (sold in America as The Man Who Loved China) in the LRB. I have not read the book, but it does not really matter, because the reviewer ignores the final 300-odd pages of the book that deal with Needham’s time in and relationship with China, instead focusing on his life as part of the ‘red science’ of Cambridge in the 1930’s and how this led him to China. Given that the reviewer is Eric Hobsbawm he can fill in a lot of blanks about Needham and his background, and I think almost anyone interested in China should read the review.


Needham’s ambition as a researcher had long been to create a biochemical embryology that would meld the reductionism of the chemists with the inevitable concern of biologists for organisms and processes as a whole. An anti-mechanistic (he preferred the term ‘organic’) view of science had an obvious appeal for developmental biologists… It pioneered the concept of living things organised in hierarchical levels, classically set out in Needham’s Order and Life (1936). The whole organism, he argued, could not be fully grasped at any one of the lower levels of increasing size and complexity – the molecular, macromolecular, cells, tissues etc – and new modes of behaviour emerged at each level which could not be interpreted adequately in terms of those below or at all, except in their relations. As he wrote in Order and Life, ‘The hierarchy of relations from the molecular structure of carbon to the equilibrium of the species and the ecological whole, will perhaps be the leading idea of the future.’ Process, hierarchy and interaction were the key to a reality that could be understood only as a complex whole. And – though one would not discover this from Winchester’s book – this view drew him towards the country and civilisation to which he devoted the rest of his life.

Hobsbawm is not a scholar of Chinese science,1 so he goes a bit too far in the “holistic China” direction for me, but the review is an excellent addition to the book. If anyone ever writes a dissertation on Needham not as a scholar of China but as a link between the intellectual concerns of the English and the Chinese (maybe Waley would fit here as well) this would be a good staring point.

  1. neither am I 

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