Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

Here is another analogy… (p.12)

Although this book is over 20 years old, the issues it addresses (the anti-scientific tendency of much traditional literature and the inappropriate use of poetic writing in bogus pseudo-science – versus the hard scientific fact and clear scientific thinking Dawkins promotes) are still very current, and since Dawkins is still writing books attacking non-scientific ways of looking at the world (such as his most recent tome, Outgrowing God, published just last year) I think it’s still worth reviewing this one as an analysis of his overall style and approach.

The aim

The full title is Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder and the book’s purpose is simple: For thousands of years humans have written poetry or concocted religious myths and symbols to explain the puzzling world around them. But (Dawkins says) the scientific worldview as we now have it explains more or less everything about the world around us from bacteria to supernovas and, if properly understood, is far more beautiful and inspiring than the poetry, myths and legends it supersedes.

My advice

However, in my opinion, if you want to be inspired, watch a David Attenborough documentary about the natural world or a Brian Cox one about the stars, because this book is a hilariously silly, shallow, ragbag of random quotes, fragments of science mixed up with countless personal anecdotes, snippets from newspapers or TV and, above all, a relentless stream Richard Dawkins’s pet peeves and trite opinions.

Do not read this book.

Dawkins shares his opinion of modern journalists (lamentably anti-science)

Dawkins opens the book with a sustained attack on a shopping list of contemporary authors who have written disparagingly about science, including Bernard Levin (who once wrote an article specifically about Dawkins God, Me and Mr Dawkins 11 October 1996 – hence the enmity), Simon Jenkins, A.A. Gill, Fay Weldon (author of a ‘hymn of hate’ against science in the Daily Telegraph) and so on and so on.

Dawkins quotes articles in the newspapers, or letters he has received, or questions he gets asked at the end of his lectures, or anecdotes about students of his, to demonstrate that anti-scientific prejudice and ignorance is everywhere – There are creationists under the bed and anti-evolutionists hiding in the closet. It isn’t safe to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without someone spouting unscientific rubbish or promoting astrology or showing the deepest scientific illiteracy. Fools! Knaves! Dawkins has no patience with error.

This is dramatically, profoundly, hugely wrong. (p.90)

Dawkins shares his opinion of British poets (lamentably anti-science)

And then – oh dear, oh dear – Dawkins takes it upon himself to be the judge of a raft of classic poets including Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth, Blake or Yeats or Lawrence.

Dawkins has located quotes from all of these luminaries lamenting the ‘death of romance’ and the role science has played in ‘dis-enchanting the world’ so, as usual, Richard loses no time in telling us that they were all dead wrong in thinking science dis-enchants the world: if only they’d understood modern science, they’d have written poetry ten times as good!!

Dawkins then goes on to prove that he has absolutely no feel for poetic writing or for the luminous quality of poetry:

  1. by the way he quotes schoolboy tags and the most obvious ‘greatest hits’ moments from the most obvious Great Poets
  2. by the way he treats poems as rhythmic verse i.e you can do a prose summary, and then evaluate them on whether or not they show the ‘correct’ attitude to the scientific worldview
  3. and by the way he has rummaged through the diaries and letters and table talk of the Great Poets to find quotes of them stating anti-scientific or anti-rationalist opinions

Which he considers case closed. He cannot entertain the idea that poetry might not be written to put forward clearly defined and logical points of view, but might be an alternative way of perceiving and expressing the world and what it is to be human…

He refers to D.H. Lawrence who (allegedly) refused to believe that moonlight is reflected sunlight (that sounds too pat and too stupid to be true), but even if it were, you kind of know what Lawrence is talking about. We have evolved over tens of millions of years to find night-time eerie and the changing shape and movement of the moon uncanny. Is it possible that part of a poet’s role is to respect ancient beliefs, to excavate and re-express deep ancestral feelings, no matter how irrational?

Not in Dawkins’s view. No! They were all wrong wrong wrong about science and deserve to be sent to the back of the class. He speculates that:

Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science from some of his inspiration. (p.27)

If only the Great Poets were more like, well, like Richard Dawkins!

Dawkins’s bêtes noirs and pet peeves

He fills the book with his own Daily Mail prejudices and bêtes noirs.

Post-modernism is rubbish Once again we get his shallow critique of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural relativism’ – ‘the meaningless wordplays of modish francophone savants‘ – which he dismisses in a sentence as existing merely ‘to impress the gullible’ (p.41).

Now maybe a lot of French post-war philosophy is pretentious twaddle, but, for example, Derrida’s attempt to rethink the entire tradition of writing as a way of encoding authority which constantly undermines itself because of the looseness and deeply unfinishable nature of writing, or Foucault’s histories of how power is wielded by supposedly ‘objective’ academic disciplines and public institutions, or Roland Barthes’ explorations of how texts have lives of their own, determined by structures or levels of activity which have hitherto been overlooked – these are all fascinating intellectual endeavours, certainly more worth spending time reading about than the Daily Mail philistinism of Dr D.

It’s a telling irony that soon after a passage attacking writers and journalists (Bernard Levin, Simon Jenkins et al) for their shallow, ignorant dismissal of science as being a worldview which they don’t like — Dawkins himself carries out just such a shallow, ignorant dismissal of post-modern philosophy, for being a worldview which he doesn’t like.

Could it be that there are multiple worldviews, countless worldviews, and that we get along best by enjoying their diversity? No! Wrong wrong wrong!

Children’s book awards are vulgar Dawkins gives an account of attending an awards ceremony for children’s science books where the audience was encouraged to make insect noises, which he found insufferably ‘vulgar’.

Computer games are vulgar In much the same way, in The Blind Watchmaker, he dismissed ‘vulgar’ arcade computer games (not as dignified and worthy as the computer game he had devised, of course).

The ‘Top 20’ shows how vulgar people are This kind of lofty condemnation of ‘popular’ interests and tastes comes, of course, from a long line of lofty and contemptuous Oxford intellectuals, and sits alongside his fastidious disapproval of the so-called ‘Top 40’ and how easy it is to promote ‘worthless pop singles, an attitude of fastidious elitism which made me laugh at the end of The Blind Watchmaker. Later on he finds the space, for obscure personal reasons, to go out of his way to tell us that the activity of bodybuilding is an ‘odd minority culture’. Possibly. But not as odd as writing a book supposedly about science and going out of your way to include a paragraph disapproving of body building.

The X-Files is anti-scientific Dawkins takes the time to explain why he dislikes the popularity of the TV show The X-Files – namely, because of the way it foregrounds the spooky, irrational explanations for the weird occurrences it depicts (p.28) – which is so frightfully anti-science.

Douglas Adams is masterly By contrast, he wants us to know that he approves of the ‘masterly’ science comedies of Douglas Adams (p.29).

Science fiction is serious literature! Science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov et al:

seems to me to be an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature (p.27)

Oh yes, if Dawkins ran literature departments, things would be different! Out with Derrida and Barthes, in with Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov!

Dr Dolittle is not racist Dawkins finds time to share his opinion that Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books do have a little racism in them, but then that was the universal worldview of the 1920s, so it is silly for ‘pompously correct librarians’ to ban them. And, anyway, Dolittle’s love of animals is superior to the speciesism which even the most politically correct of our own time are still prey to (p.53).

Ruskin didn’t understand science I was actively upset when Dawkins quotes a passage of Ruskin about how people prefer myths and stories to the cold empirical facts – and then goes on to ridicule Ruskin’s attitude not by countering his views but by retelling the hoary old anecdote about the great critic and social reformer’s disastrous wedding night.

It stood out to me as a moment of gross insensitivity and schoolboy bullying. Ruskin was a genius, who struggled to transform the way the philistine British thought about art and design and handed his cause on to the young William Morris. To drag up this hackneyed anecdote is in the worst possible vein of Daily Mail ad hominem philistinism.

Summary

a) Dawkins is a modern reincarnation of just the kind of literal-minded, unbending, unsympathetic and impenetrably dense philistine who forced so many of the Great Poets – Shelley and Byron and Browning, Lawrence and Auden – to flee claustrophobic, puritanical, judgemental England for hotter, more laid-back climes.

b) There seems to be no subject too trivial or too minor for Dawkins not to be able to use it as the pretext to share with the reader his trite and obvious opinions and prejudices, or to prompt another anecdote from his endless store of ‘fascinating’ encounters.

Imagine if David Attenborough interrupted his voiceover about humming birds or polar bears to share an anecdote about a distinguished professor he had a squabble with over dinner at his Oxford college, or took a minute to explain to his viewers why Star Trek is better than Dr Who, or why Douglas Adams’ novels are criminally under-rated.

You’d think he’d gone mad. But that’s what most of this book is like.

Snobbism

Although Dawkins goes out of his way to sound reasonable he can’t help quite frequently sounding like a snob, fastidiously distancing himself from the ghastly taste of the mob. Richard – alongside the Daily Mail – laments how standards have slipped and once-mighty institutions have pandered to popular taste. O Tempora! O mores!

In his chapter rubbishing horoscopes and astrology, Dawkins quotes surveys in which most people say they read horoscopes just for entertainment:

Their taste in what constitutes entertaining fiction is evidently different from mine!

Indeed. Dawkins has told us several times that he cycles through the streets of leafy Oxford. I wonder if he’s ever thought about people like me who have to fight their way onto over-crowded tube trains, or flop exhausted at the end of the day onto a muggy bus, brain dead and pick up a copy of the Metro or Standard to leaf through, treating the horoscopes as much the same as all the other brainless twaddle in it which helps pass the time if you are very, very tired. Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live, maybe…

I chortled when he referred to the Radio Times as ‘that once-respected organ of the BBC’ (p.124). Could anyone sound more pompous?

After taking part in a BBC programme promoting a faith healer who claimed to be the reincarnation of a 2,000-year-old dead doctor, Dawkins clashed with the commissioning editor of this programme. He was horrified that the BBC should:

lend the weight of its long built-up reputation by appearing to accept the fantasy at face value (pp.125-6)

It’s so often the BBC which draws the ire of the Mrs Angry’s from Tunbridge Wells… and so it is for Dawkins. I smiled when he described David Frost as:

a veteran British television personality whom some government saw fit to knight… (p.126)

‘Whom’. I know it’s technically correct but I don’t like using ‘whom’ precisely because Dawkins is typical of the kind of people who still use it, the kind of people who perpetually think the BBC is going to the dogs.

The long chapter demolishing astrologers and fake magicians is an orgy of supercilious superiority to the immoral tricksters who make money be exploiting a gullible public, aided and abetted by intelligent people in places like the BBC who really should know better!

Dawkins’s personal stories and gossip

I’ll begin with a personal anecdote. (p.138)

The book is jam packed with chatty stories and anecdotes from people he’s met, and letters he’s received, and newspapers articles he’s read, and debates he’s taken part in, and lectures he’s given, and children he’s chatted to, and anecdotes about his wife, and his mother-in-law, and his parents, and uncle and aunt.

  • I am told on good authority that defence lawyers in the United States sometimes object to jury candidates on the grounds that they have had a scientific education (p.83)
  • A colleague tells me of a time when he was up for selection on a jury… (p.84)
  • I had a schoolfriend who claimed that he could recognise any member of the 80-strong residence in which we lived purely by listening to their footsteps. (p.88)
  • I had another friend from Switzerland who claimed that when she walked into a room she could tell, by smell, which members of her circle of acquaintances had just left the room. (p.88)
  • I once received a lawyer’s bill, the last item of which was ‘Time spent making out this bill’ (p.106)
  • My wife Lalla Ward recalls an occasion when an American starlet approached the director of the film they were both working on with a ‘Gee, Mr Preminger, what sign are you?’ and received the immortal rebuff, in a thick Austrian accent, ‘I am a Do Not Disturrrb sign.’ (p.118)
  • I once met a woman who was employed full time to invent these stories [Elvis sighted on Mars-type stories] for an American publication… (p.124)
  • I recall an entertaining dinner with a philosopher who told me the following story: One day in church he noticed that a priest, in a kneeling position, was hovering nine inches above the church floor. (p.133)
  • I remember once trying to amuse a six-year-old child at Christmas time by reckoning with her how long it would take Father Christmas to go down all the chimneys in the world. (p.141)
  • I used a similar illustration in one of my Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1991. (p.145)
  • My wife once bought for her mother a beautiful antique watch with a pink face. (p.154)
  • During this particular minute, my thoughts have strayed to a schoolfellow called Haviland (I don’t remember his Christian name, not what he looked like) whom I haven’t seen or thought of for 45 years. (p.159)
  • Daniel Dennett has told me of a conversation with a philosopher colleague who had read Wonderful Life as arguing that the Cambrian phyla did not have a common ancestor – that they had sprung up as independent origins of life! (p.207)

He spends a page and a half describing the time his parents persuaded little Richard and his sister to put on blindfolds and led them out to the garden where they sat them in a wooden frame which they persuaded the children was an airplane, trundled it along the ‘runway’ and then lifted it into the air and zoomed it around the garden, sometimes brushing against low-hanging branches of trees.

This anecdote is the basis of a couple of pages of complete speculation about why credulity, the ability to believe anything they’re told, might be an evolutionary advantage in human children – but how adults should grow out of it and apply serious scientific standards of scepticism and an informed understanding of statistics to every aspect of their lives.

But why? Why can’t people believe what they want to? In reality they already do, and always have, and always will. Charming, page-long anecdotes about Richard’s upper-middle-class childhood aren’t going to change anyone’s minds, they just warm the hearts of the upper-middle-class book reviewers who, as a result, shower his books with praise (enthusiastic blurbs on the back of this book come from A.S. Byatt [private school and Oxford] and Matt Ridley [the fifth Viscount Ridley, Eton and Oxford]).

On and on it goes in an endless burbling stream of jolly gossip which is entertaining because it’s so inconsequential and vain, a self-satisfied family album of preening opinions.

Sometimes there are bits of science…

Why rainbows appear like they do, sound waves, how we can read the chemical composition of different stars, DNA fingerprinting – there are interesting fragments of actual science, reasonably clearly explained, buried amid all the gossip and personal prejudices.

There’s another explanation of the structure of the eye (repeated from River Out of Eden), a page about qasars, and 4 or 5 pages about ‘Skinner boxes, and the behaviouralist B.F. Skinner’s experiments rewarding animals (pigeons and rats) which led him to notice that animals, too, appear to develop superstitious rituals i.e. if they happened to be doing something (pecking a particular part of the box, or huddling on one particular corner) when some food pops through the chute into the box, then they will repeat the same behaviour again and again in the hope that lightning strikes twice. Like humans who carry out lucky tics and rituals.

There’s a lengthy passage (pp.193-209) attacking Stephen Jay Gould. It’s typical of Dawkins in that he says he respects the great American populariser of evolution, but then goes on to systematically demolish every aspect of Gould’s book Wonderful Life. Gould uses the fossil discoveries in the Burgess Shale to assert that the Cambrian period when they were laid down saw a spectacular and unprecedented explosion of evolutionary growth and diversity, hundreds of wacky designs for life forms, many of which flourished and disappeared. Dawkins powerfully disagrees that evolution works in such bursts and spurts, and lines up a barrage of critics and authorities to demolish Gould’s position, concluding with a quote from Peter Medawar claiming it was a shame that Gould had (before his death in 2002) become the pre-eminent popular exponent of evolutionary theory in the United States because his ideas are ‘confused’ and totally unrepresentative of the mainstream of evolutionary thought (‘in fact the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with…’, p.207).

OK so there’s some science in this passage, as Dawkins explains why he disagrees with Gould but, as you can tell, the explication of the facts of what was found in the Burgess Shale take a poor second place to Dawkins’s argufying about it. The point of these fifteen pages or so is not to explain the thing to you, it’s to convince you that Gould was wrong wrong wrong!

The passage I liked best explained how evolution, among other things, has selected for the correct shapes of key proteins – some crucial proteins have multiple shapes and versions: the correct shapes are the ones which allow them to carry out their life-enabling activities, but it explains why things go disastrously wrong if the body, for whatever reason, starts to produce wrong-shaped alternatives: which is what happens in mad cow disease, when an alternative shape of the prion protein occurs and then triggers a cascade of mishapen prions throughout the body, which leads to holes forming in the brain, and madness.

Moments like this are obviously interesting, but they are oases of sense in a book most of whose text is made up of anecdotes, stories, far-fetched analogies, pitifully simplistic opinions about Great Literature, and a wholesale misunderstanding of human nature.

Conclusion

As to Dawkins’s central point that all kinds of people think unscientifically, don’t understand statistics or probabilities or how DNA fingerprinting works or how the rainbow is made, and instead believe gibberish about horoscopes and astrology and magic tricks… well, so what?

People have always been fools, always will be, as John Gray points out (see my review of his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette). On the whole, people don’t burn witches or lynch strangers or march gaily off to war like they used to, so that’s progress of a sort.

But expecting everyone to suddenly abandon junk TV, sensationalist tabloid journalism, horoscopes and the countless promises of overnight diets and anti-ageing creams, and suddenly, miraculously, become hyper-intelligent, private-school educated, Oxford academic experts in DNA and astronomy is… well… a fatuous fantasy.

Dawkins and Junior

When my son (22 and studying Biology at university) discovered that I was reading Dawkins’s books, he was genuinely outraged. He crossly told me that all Dawkins’s contributions to biology have been discredited, and that his only achievement has been to create in many people’s minds a vision of science and scientists as narrow-minded, intolerant, anti-religious and bigoted – a view which my son has personally found himself having to extricate himself from in student conversations, and which has been extremely socially unhelpful.

P.S.

One last Dawkins anecdote to finish with:

In a previous book I gave away the number of the combination lock on my bicycle. I felt safe in doing so because obviously my books would never be read by the kind of person who would steal a bicycle. Unfortunately somebody did steal it, and now I have a new lock with a new number. (p.147)

This vignette perfectly captures Dawkins’s spirit of winning naivety and complete ignorance of human nature. Maybe you can see why, in my review of The Blind Watchmaker, I dubbed Dawkins the Mr Bean of Biology.

Credit

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins was published by Penguin in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Penguin paperback edition.


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River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins (1995)

Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. That is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn.
(River out of Eden, page 112)

Three things become clear early in this book:

1. Dawkins is very argumentative He can barely state a fact or idea without immediately imagining a scientific illiterate misunderstanding it, or a creationist arguing against it, or the tradition of thinkers who’ve adopted a contrary position, and then – whooosh! – he’s off on one of his long-winded digressions devising metaphors and analogies and thought experiments (‘imagine 20 million typists sitting in a row…’) devoted to demolishing these opponents and their silly beliefs.

The neutral reader sits back, puzzled as to why Dawkins feels such a continual necessity to find enemies and argue against them, constantly and endlessly, instead of just stating the facts about the natural world in a lucid, calm way and letting them speak for themselves.

2. Dawkins is not a mathematician as he points out quite a few times in The Blind Watchmaker. As I read him saying this for the third or fourth time, it dawned on me that this means Dawkins rarely if ever makes his points with numbers – through data or statistics, tables and graphs and diagrams, as a true scientist might. Instead, deprived of numbers (of course he does use numbers, but very sparingly), Dawkins makes his case through persuasion and rhetoric. He is a rhetorician – the dictionary definition being someone who:

exploits figures of speech and other compositional techniques to have a persuasive or impressive effect

Consider the titles of the clutch of mid-career books which I’m rereading: The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving The Rainbow. They are all named for metaphors or analogies for the big Darwinian idea he is so anxious to explicate and defend, and they are themselves made up of chapters which are made up of sections and passages which rely far more on metaphor and analogy and stories and anecdotes than they do on hard data and scientific facts.

3. Dawkins is good at it The four book titles quoted above are all vivid and powerful metaphors for evolution and its implications. The master metaphor which dominates River Out of Eden – that all life on earth amounts to a river of DNA flowing from simple beginnings and then splitting over a billion years or more into thousands and then millions of tributaries, one for each of the species now alive – is a powerful explanatory tool, and leads you on into a series of other analogies and metaphors.

Wrong!

I was amused by the number of times Dawkins mentions or quotes other people – creationists, fellow academics or other biologists – solely to show how their approach or interpretation of Darwinism, biology or anything else is wrong wrong wrong!

He doesn’t hold back. He isn’t subtle or circumspect. He often puts exclamation marks at the end to emphasise just how wrong wrong wrong they are! before proceeding to demolish them one by one! It’s like watching a confident man at a coconut shy throwing the wooden balls and knocking each coconut off, one… by… one. Here’s a selection of his targets:

– Lamarckism or the belief that characteristics organisms acquire during their lives are passed on to their children – ‘Wrong, utterly wrong! (p.3)

– It’s tempting to think of the original branches between what would later turn out to be distinct families or orders of animals as consisting at the time of the first breach ‘mighty Mississippis rivers’ – ‘But this image is deeply wrong‘ (p.10)

– Zoologists are tempted to think of the divide between what later became major groups as a momentous event. But they are ‘misled’ (p.11)

– One zoologist has suggested that the entire process of evolution during the Cambrian period, when so many new species came into existence, must have been a different process from what it is now. ‘The fallacy is glaring!‘ (p.12)

– The digital revolution at the core of the new biology has dealt ‘a killer blow to vitalism, the incorrect belief that living matter is deeply distinct from nonliving material’ (p.20).

– ‘There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds… that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth’. It is, of course, wrong, which he goes on to prove with the fact that tribal myth can’t build the airplanes which fly you to conferences where you can present papers about cultural relativism.

– He once asked a student how far back you’d have to go to find ancestors that Dawkins and the student shared. She replied back to the apes. ‘An excusable intuitive leap, but it is approximately 10,000 percent wrong.’

– Some creationists insist on misinterpreting the scientific concept of Mitochondrial Eve and claim, from the sound of it, that she’s identical with the Biblical Eve! ‘This is a complete misunderstanding.’ (p.62)

And so on…

The trouble with Dawkins’s arguments

There are several practical problems with Dawkins’s relentless argufying.

One is that, because Dawkin is arguing all the time with someone or other, if you put down the book then pick it up later, it’s often difficult to remember the precise Wrong Interpretation of evolution he was in the middle of raging against i.e. to recall the context of whatever scientific information he happens to be presenting.

Making it worse is the way Dawkins often breaks down the argument he’s tackling into sub-arguments, and especially the way he breaks his own counter-arguments down into sub-counter-arguments. And then he’ll say, ‘I’ve just got to explain a few basic concepts…’ or ‘Before I reply to the main thrust of that argument, let me make a small digression…’ leading you steadily away from whatever point you think he was trying to make.

And if the digression takes the form of an analogy, yjrm quite quickly you can be three of four ‘levels’ removed from the initial proposition he’s arguing against. You find yourself needing to follow an analogy he’s using to explain a concept you need to understand in order to grasp the thrust of a part of an argument he’s making against a specific aspect of one particular misinterpretation of evolution.

In other words – it’s easy to get lost.

At several points he asks the reader to be patent, but I wonder how many of his readers really do have the patience to put up with the digressions and analogies.

It’s an oddity of Dawkins’s approach that moments after venting a vivid attack on creationists and Christians for their ignorance, for being ‘wrong, utterly wrong!’ – he will ask them to bear with him, and have a little patience because what follows is only a rough analogy or a hypothetical example or a computer program he’s made up, or some other rather remote and tangential point.

It’s as if someone punched you in the face and then asked you to hold their coat for them. it shows an astonishing naivety and innocence.

And more to the point, the upshot of all these aspects of his approach is that – he never really presents the knock-down, drop-dead, unanswerable counter-arguments against creationist literature which he continually promises.

In fact on several occasions in The Blind Watchmaker he made so many apologies about the absence of current scientific knowledge on a particular point (especially about a) the patchiness of the fossil record and b) the sharply conflicting hypotheses among scientists about how life on earth got started) – or he went on at such length about the arguments and divisions among the scientists themselves – that I emerged with my belief in evolution shaken, not confirmed.

I couldn’t help feeling that, if I was a born-again Christian, a fundamentalist and creationist, Dawkins’s books, with their combination of in-your-face insults with mealy-mouthed, round-the-houses argufying, might well confirm me in my anti-evolutionary beliefs.

The importance of geological time

To summarise Dawkins’s arguments for him, the central foundation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is TIME. Lots and lots and lots of time. Geological time. More time than we can possibly imagine. To quote Wikipedia (in order to have the latest, up-to-date info):

The earliest time that life forms first appeared on Earth is at least 3.77 billion years ago, possibly as early as 4.28 billion years, or even 4.5 billion years; not long after the oceans formed 4.41 billion years ago, and after the formation of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago.

Around 4 billion years ago. No human being can understand that length of time.

The next element in Darwin’s theory is the advantage of small changes, minute changes, sometimes molecular changes, in organisms as they reproduce and create new generations. Even minuscule differences, which humans cannot detect, might be the vital determinants in whether an organism just about survives to reproduce, or just fails and is killed or eaten before it reproduces.

Dawkins’s core argument is that, if you set that process in train and let it run for four and a half billion years – then anything can happen, and we have the evidence in the fossil record that it has, that forms of life of surpassing weirdness and sizes and functions have been and gone, and their descendants live on all around us in a marvellous profusion.

It is:

  1. the enormous, impossible-to-conceive length of geological time
  2. and the big difference to its chances of survival which even tiny variants in an organism’s attributes can give it

which anti-evolutionists tend not to have grasped, or understood or have simply rejected. Which drives Dawkins crazy.

The evolution of ‘the eye’

The locus classicus (the classic example) where the two sides clash is THE EYE.

Anti-evolutionary writers of all stripes cite the human eye and assert that it is ridiculously unlikely that The Eye can have just popped into existence in complete perfection, with a fully functioning iris and lens and all the rods and cones which detect light and shade and colour, absurdly unlikely, only a caring Creator God could have made something so wonderful.

AND the related creationist argument, that what possible use would half an eye, or a tenth of an eye or a hundredth of an eye have been to any organism? It must have appeared fully functional or not all.

To which Dawkins and all the evolutionists reply that a) no-one is saying it came into being fully functional and b) you’d be surprised: half an eye is really useful. So is a hundredth of an eye, or a thousandth.

In fact, having a patch of skin which is merely light-sensitive can convey advantage on some organisms. Given enough generations this light-sensitive patch will become a confirmed part of all the members of a particular species, and will tend to form a dip or hollow in the skin to protect itself from damage. If the dip goes deep enough then sooner or later some chance mutation may code for another strand of skin to form across the opening of the dip, with a slight preference given to any variation which creates a membrane which is translucent i.e. lets at least some light through to the light-sensitive skin beneath.

And bingo! The eye!

The killer fact (for me, reading this well-trodden argument for the umpteenth time) is that not only is The Eye not an improbable device for evolution to create in the natural flow of endless variations created in each new generation and likely to be selected because its adds even a smidgeon of survival value to its owners..

But that the formation of The Eye turns out to be a highly probable result of evolution. We know this because we now know that The Eye has evolved at least forty separate times in widely separated orders and families and genera. over the past four and a half billion years. Conclusion:

Never say, and never take seriously anybody who says: ‘I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by natural selection.’ (p.81)

Dawkins dubs this position The Argument from Personal Incredulity, and this discussion of The Eye is one of the few places where Dawkins states an opponent’s argument clearly and then mounts a clearn and convincing counter-argument.

Analogies

Bored with a lot of the these tired old arguments, and of Dawkins’s combative yet strangely naive style, I took to noting the the analogies, reading them as a kind of buried or counter-narrative linking up the boring arguments.

– The river out of Eden is the river of DNA, a river of digital information, which makes up all living things. In fact the river has branched out over the aeons, with countless streams and tributaries running dry but there are, as of now, some thirty million separate rivers of DNA or species.

– Each generation is a sieve or filter: good genes get through, ‘bad’ genes don’t.

– The genetic code is like a dictionary of a language with 64 words.

– the DNA inside each of us is like a family Bible (p.44)

– Insofar as it is digital, the genetic code is like digital phones or computer codes.

– Every cell in your body contains the equivalent of 36 immense data tapes (i.e the chromosomes) (p.21).

– We humans – and all living things – are survival machines designed to propagate the digital database that did the programming.

– The membranes in a living cell are like the glassware in a laboratory.

– An enzyme is like a large machine tool, carefully jigged to turn out a production line of molecules of a particular shape (p.26)

– Cells’ ability to replicate is comparable to the process of ‘bootstrapping’ required in the early days of computing (p.27).

Reading River Out of Eden for the analogies was more fun that trying to follow many of Dawkins’s trains of thought which were often tortuous, long-winded and strangely forgettable.

Credit

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 1995. All references are to the 1996 Phoenix paperback edition.


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The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins (1986)

I hope that the reader is as awestruck as I am (p.37)

I first read this book 25 years ago and in the intervening years I had forgotten how naive, silly and embarrassingly earnest Dawkins can be.

The blind watchmaker

The basic premise is easily summarised. In a theological work published in 1802 – Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity – the English theologian William Paley said that if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a stone, you wouldn’t think anything of it, it is so obviously part of the natural world and you unthinkingly accept it as a product of impersonal geological forces.

But if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a watch, particularly if it was an 18th-century, ornately fashioned pocketwatch, you would immediately deduce that something so wonderfully crafted, with so many carefully calibrated inner workings clearly designed for a purpose, presupposed a designer – a craftsman who consciously and deliberately designed and built it.

Well, says Paley, same for the natural world about us. When we look at the countless examples of marvellous design in the world about us – our own eyes, the interaction of insects pollinating flowers, the perfect design of fish for swimming and birds for flying – who can look at all these marvels and not be prompted to declare that there must, on the analogy of the watch, be a conscious designer, an all-powerful entity which created the entire world and all the creatures in it so that they would all perform their functions perfectly? In other words, God (and, since Paley was an Anglican clergyman) the Christian God.

In fact Paley’s book was just the latest in a very long line of works promoting, describing and explaining what is called Natural Theology, the view that the existence of an all-powerful loving God can be deduced solely from observation of the world around us, without the need of any holy books or revelations. This line of argument is recorded as far back as the Biblical psalms and is believed by many people right up to the present day.

Dawkins’s book is a refutation of this entire way of thinking as it relates to the natural world i.e. to living organisms.

As Dawkins points out, it was reasonable to hold Paley’s beliefs in his day and age, it was a reasonable hypothesis in the absence of any better explanation for the origin and diversity of life we see around us.

But since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, all forms of natural theology have been rendered redundant. We now have an infinite simpler, more satisfying and more believable explanation for the origin, spread and diversity of life forms on earth, which is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Thus Dawkins’s 340-page book amounts to a sustained argument against natural theology, and against the whole crew of Christians, Creationists, theists, bishops and poets and philosophers who still espouse it, because they are wrong and Richard and the other evolutionary biologists he cites are right.

The book combines a battery of supposedly ‘philosophical’ arguments with an overview of natural history, biology and – in particular – what was then, in 1986, the latest thinking about genetics and DNA – in order to ridicule, rubbish and refute every possible variation of natural theology and to promote Darwin Darwin Darwin.

One long argument

To describe The Blind Watchmaker as argumentative is an understatement. The book is expressly not a straightforward exposition of Darwin’s theory, it is more a series of arguments which Dawkins has with proponents of the views he wishes to demolish, as well as with other biologists whose theories he disputes, and sometimes even with himself. If it moves, he’ll argue with it. It is like an explosion in an argument factory.

And Dawkins is addicted to making elaborate and often far-fetched analogies and comparisons to help us understand evolution. In other words, you have to wade through a lot of often irrelevant argumentation and distracting analogies in order to get to the useful information.

Another key part of Dawkins’ approach, something I found initially irritating about the book, then found ludicrous, and ended up finding laugh-out-loud funny, is the way he makes up people to argue with.

He will invent a naive believer of this or that aspect of natural theology, someone who can’t credit evolution with explaining everything about the natural world, put words into their mouths, and then gleefully demolish their made-up arguments.

I think it’s the purest example of an author using convenient straw men to set up and knock down that I’ve ever read. Thus in the first 40 pages he invents the following figures:

  • a distinguished modern philosopher who he once sat next to at dinner and revealed to a horrified Dawkins that he didn’t understand why the evolution and diversity of life required any special explanation (p.5)
  • a ‘hypothetical philosopher’ he invents and claims would, at this stage of Dawkins’s exposition, be ‘mumbling something about circular argument’ (p.8)
  • a hypothetical engineer who starts ‘boring on’ about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts (p.11)
  • he creates another engineer (‘our engineer’) to act as a foil for his explanation of how bat echolocation works in chapter 2
  • with similar condescension he refers at various moments to ‘our mathematicians’ in order to dismiss their arguments
  • the second half of the book is littered with references to ‘creationists’ and ‘creationist propaganda’ and ‘anti-evolution propaganda’ which he doesn’t actually quote, but whose views he briefly summarises before pulverising them

On page 13 he dismisses ‘readers of trendy intellectual magazines’ saying that, if you read them you might have noticed that:

reductionism, like sin, is one of those things that is only mentioned by people who are against it.

This thought then rapidly gets out of control as he goes on to say that calling yourself a reductionist is the equivalent, ‘in some circles’ of admitting that you eat babies.

He then goes on to compare the hypothetical simple-minded ‘reductionist’ who he’s just invented with his own, more sophisticated, materialist reductionism, and then writes:

It goes without saying – though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this – that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels.

You can see that he’s making a serious point, but can’t help wondering why it required inventing a straw man and then attributing him the bizarre characteristic of eating babies!

This is just one tiny snapshot of Dawkins’s technique, in which serious and often interesting points are surrounded by relentless argufying and quarrelling, more often than not with entirely fictional, made-up figures who are often given ridiculously caricatured views and qualities.

In among the vast army of people Dawkins picks fights with are some real Christian or anti-evolutionary figures who he briefly invokes before subjecting them to withering criticism.

  • the ‘distinguished sceptic’ who refused to believe Donald Griffin when the latter first explained the secret of bat echolocation at a 1940 conference (p.35)
  • Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore (1920-2005) whose book The Probability of God Dawkins credits with being an honest attempt to prove God but which he quickly dismisses for its widespread use of what Dawkins calls The Argument From Personal Incredulity i.e. ‘I find it hard to understand…it is difficult to see how…’ etc which only goes to show the ignorant the author is (p.37)
  • Francis Hitching (b.1933) author of The Neck of the Giraffe or Where Darwin Went Wrong (1983) which appears to be a sustained attack on Darwinism
  • The Duke of Argyll who, apparently, supported Darwin but with the modest proviso that the loving Creator God did, of course, intervene in evolution to create new species and generally give evolution a helping hand (p.248)
  • the editor of Creationist magazine Biblical (p.251) who is quoted leaping onto the controversy surrounding the (then) new theory of punctuated equilibrium in order to claim it undermined the entire Darwinian edifice

The remorseless battering of opponents, real or hypothetical, builds up to a climax in the final chapter where Dawkins tackles head-on half a dozen or so alternative explanations for the existence of complex life forms including the Big One, Christian Creationism.

Naivety

There’s a stunning moment before the book’s even properly begun which reveals Dawkins’ amazingly earnest naivety about the real world.

He describes taking part in a formal debate (organised, apparently, at the Oxford Union). Afterwards he is seated at dinner (the book includes lots of anecdotes about conversations over dinner; Oxford is that kind of place) next to the young lady who argued against him in the debate, and made the creationist case – and Dawkins is horrified to discover that she doesn’t necessarily believe all the points she made!!

Indeed, Dawkins reveals to his shocked readers, this young lady was sometimes making arguments simply for the sake of having a debate! Richard is horrified!! He himself has never uttered a word he didn’t believe to be the complete truth! He cannot credit the notion that someone argued a case solely for the intellectual challenge of it!

At first I thought he was joking, but this anecdote, told on page two of the Preface, establishes the fact that Dawkins doesn’t understand the nature of intellectual debate, and so by implication doesn’t understand the worlds of law or politics or philosophy or the humanities, where you are routinely asked to justify a cause you don’t particularly believe in, or to argue one of any number of conflicting views.

When I told my son this he recalled being made to take part in school debates when he was 11. Learning to debate different points of view is a basic teaching, learning and cultural practice.

Philosophical simple-mindedness

Dawkins likes to brandish the word ‘philosophy’ a lot but none of his arguments are truly philosophical, they are more rhetorical or technical. For example, early on he asks ‘What is an explanation?’ before giving this definition of how he intends to use the word:

If we wish to understand how a machine or living body works, we look to its component parts and ask how they interact with each other. If there is a complex thing that we do not yet understand, we can come to understand it in terms of simpler parts that we do already understand. (p.11)

This isn’t really philosophical, more a straightforward clarifying of terms. And yet in chapter 2 he refers back to the opening chapter in which this and much like it occurred, as ‘philosophical’. Quite quickly you get the sense that Dawkins’ idea of ‘philosophy’ is fairly simplistic. That it is, in fact, a biologist’s notion of philosophy i.e. lacking much subtlety or depth.

Same goes for his attitude to the English language. Dawkins is extremely proud of the care with which he writes, and isn’t shy about showing off his rather pedantic thoughts about English usage. For example, he stops the thrust of his argument to discuss whether it is better to write ‘computer programme’ or ‘computer program’. Towards the end of the book he mentions ‘the great Japanese geneticist Motoo Kimura’

whose English prose style, incidentally, would shame many a native speaker (p.303)

There is no reason for this unnecessary aside except to let everyone know that he, Richard Dawkins, is a first class judge of what constitutes good English, and isn’t shy about letting you know it. As with the ‘philosophy’, Dawkins’s comments about the English language are fairly obvious, but presented with a great hoo-hah and self-satisfaction.

Dawkins’s sense of humour!

Way before he has given any kind of account of Darwin’s actual theory, Dawkins is assailing us with his sense of humour, sometimes with short squibs, sometimes with extended ‘humorous’ passages.

You can tell when he’s made a joke, or said something he’s really proud of, because he rounds off the punchline with an exclamation mark!

It’s quite a while since I’ve seen quite so many exclamation marks in a text and it made me realise that their cumulative impact is to make you feel the author is poking you in the ribs so you will laugh and/or marvel at the wonderful anecdote they’ve just told!

Here’s an example of the way that genuinely fascinating natural history/science is buried in Dawkins’s rib-nudging approach. Chapter two is about echolocation in bats, and moves from:

  1. a detailed description of how bat echolocation works – which is riveting
  2. to pondering what it is like to be a bat and live in a bat’s body and live and perceive the world entirely by echolocation and sonar – which is sort of interesting, but speculative
  3. to an extended passage where Dawkins imagines a conference of scientific bats – he does this in order to imagine his scientific bats listening to one of their colleagues presenting a paper with the flabbergasting discovery that humans use a previously unknown sense called ‘sight’, employing two bulbous receptors in their faces called ‘eyes’ in order to analyse light signals which appear to create in their brains 3-D models of the world which help them navigate around – almost as well as bats!!

Now this final passage is sort of helpful, maybe, if you’re in the mood, and sort of humorous. But it is at the same time more than a little ludicrous in what purports to be a serious scientific book. Above all, it gives you a powerful whiff of Dawkins’s world, a world of self-important Oxbridge academics. It does this in two ways:

  1. the choice of an academic conference as the setting for his imaginary fantasy tells much you about the milieu he inhabits
  2. the fact that he thinks he can spend an entire page of his book sharing this extended joke with his readers tells you a lot more about his supreme, undentable self-confidence

Unintentional autobiography

Dawkins likes to think he is making ‘difficult’ science more accessible by giving the poor benighted reader plenty of analogies and examples from everyday life to help us understand these damn tricky concepts. But it is one of the most (unintentionally) enjoyable aspects of the book that many of the examples he uses betray a comic out-of-touchness with the modern world.

I laughed out loud when on page 3 he writes:

The systematic putting together of parts to a purposeful design is something we know and understand, for we have experienced it at first hand, even if only with our childhood Meccano or erector set.

He explains the Doppler Effect by asking the reader to imagine riding a motorbike past a factory whose siren is wailing. Motorbike? Wailing factory siren? This sounds like a W.H. Auden poem from the 1930s. He goes on to explain that it is the same principle as the police use in their radar traps for speeding motorists.

Elsewhere he begins to explain the unlikeliness of organic molecules coming into existence by asking us to ponder the number of his bicycle lock (and later assures us that ‘I ride a bicycle to work every day’, p.84). On almost every page there is an unreflecting assumption that we will be interested in every detail of Professor Dawkins’s life, from his bicycle lock to his personal computer.

He suggests that the advantage even a slight improvement in the ability to ‘see’ would give an evolving species can be considered while ‘turning the colour balance knob of a colour television set’ (p.84).

He explains that the poor Nautilus shellfish has developed the hollow orb of a primitive ‘eye’ but lacks the lens facility that we and all mammals have, making it rather ‘like a hi-fi system with an excellent amplifier fed by a gramophone with a blunt needle’ (p.85).

Gramophone? Later he refers to ‘hi-fidelity sound amplification equipment’ (p.217). It’s possible that Dawkins is the most fuddy-duddy author I’ve ever read.

When describing the transmission of DNA he suggests it might help if we imagine 20 million ‘typists’ sitting in a row. When I asked my daughter what a ‘typist’ is she didn’t know. Reading the book now is like visiting a lost world.

The common brown bat Myotis emits sonic clicks at the rate of ten a second, about the same rate, Dawkins tells us, as a Bren machine gun fires bullets. An analogy which seems redolent of National Service in the 1950s.

His comic-book enthusiasm bubbles over when he tells us that:

These bats are like miniature spy planes, bristling with sophisticated instrumentation. (p.24)

Spy planes. Gramophone players. Factory sirens.

If you put to one side the science he’s trying to explain to us, and just focus on the analogies and stories he uses so liberally, a kind of alternative world appears – a portrait of an incredibly earnest, other-worldly, high-minded Oxford don, a man whose secure upper-middle-class childhood gave him an enduring love of toys and gadgets, and who has the sublime self-confidence of thinking he can change the world by the sheer power of his boyish enthusiasm and the secrets of his bicycle lock.

At the end of chapter 8 (which has been about positive feedback loops in evolution) he digresses into a lengthy description of the new-fangled ‘pop music’, which is introduced by what he describes as the ‘mid-Atlantic mouthings of disco jockeys’ on the radio, and reflected in something which he fastidiously refers to as the ‘Top 20’.

The whole sub-culture is obsessed with a rank ordering of records, called the Top 20 or Top 40, which is based only upon record sales. (p.219)

His point is that records are often bought by young people based on their popularity alone, not on their intrinsic artistic merit and that this is a form of arbitrary positive feedback loop, such as may also be true of some characteristics exaggerated in the course of sexual selection, such as the peacock’s tail.

But the real impact of reading this page-long digression is to make you realise that Dawkins is a real-life version of the stereotypical out-of-touch judge who has spent so long in the bubble of the legal profession (as Dawkins has spent virtually his whole life in the bubble of an Oxford college) that one of the barristers has to patiently explain to him that ‘The Beatles’ are a popular rhythm-and-blues group.

Elsewhere he refers to this new thing called ‘the mass media’. He refers to bodybuilders as members of a ‘peculiar minority culture’ (p.289). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that being a don at an Oxford college is even more of a ‘peculiar minority culture’.

Hi-fidelity gramophones. Factory sirens. Mid-Atlantic mouthings.

Then there are the directly autobiographical snippets – the references to his idyllic childhood in Africa (where he played with his Erector Set or admired a huge swarm of soldier ants), to his High Anglican public school, and on to the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford, where he spent his academic career from 1970 to 2008, and has had so many stimulating conversations over High Table which he is not shy about repeating for our benefit.

Thus, in the middle of an explanation of different theories about the speed with which evolution works, he stops because he:

cannot help being reminded here of the humiliation of my first school report, written by the Matron about my performance as a seven-year-old in folding clothes, taking cold baths, and other daily routines of boarding-school life: “Dawkins has only three speeds: slow, very slow, and stop.” (p.245)

Similarly, he begins Chapter 8 with a reminiscence of a schoolmaster of his who became uncontrollably apoplectic with rage, as an example of ‘positive feedback’.

This is followed by the story of a recent experience he had of attending Oxford’s Congregation, at which the hubbub of the large crowd slowly died away into silence – which he gives as an example of negative feedback.

My point is that The Blind Watchmaker is characterised by many pages of self-indulgent autobiography. It is an obtrusive element in the book which often gets in the way of the factual content he wants to convey. Dawkins is so in love with the sound of his own analogies and whimsical digressions, and so keen to share with you his ripping boyhood memories and High Table anecdotes, that it becomes at times, almost physically painful to read him.

Distracting analogies

But the real problem with all these analogies and reminiscences is that too often they get in the way of actually understanding his scientific points.

For example, chapter seven has an extended explanation of what arms races are in the context of evolution i.e. when predators and prey develop characteristics designed to help them outdo each other. So far so good. But then he goes off into an extended comparison with the race to build dreadnoughts before the Great War, and then to a description of the actual arms race between the USA and USSR building larger and larger nuclear weapons during the 1970s and 1980s.

My point is that the analogy takes on a life of its own, goes on at unconscionable length, and becomes steadily less useful and increasingly distracting and misleading.

Same goes when he asks us to imagine 20 million typists sitting in a row copying out a message as if that makes it at all easier to understand DNA, instead of puzzling and distracting.

Or when he spends a couple of pages calculating just how many monkeys it would take to type out the complete works of Shakespeare, as a demonstration of the power of cumulative selection i.e. if evolution really did work at random it would take forever, but if each version typed out by the monkeys kept all the elements which were even slightly like Shakespeare, and then built on that foundation, it is surprising how few generations of monkeys you’d need to begin to produce an inkling of a comprehensible version of the complete works of Shakespeare.

He thinks he is a scientific populariser but the examples he uses to explain scientific ideas are often out of date or far-fetched as to be harder to understand than the original scientific idea.

In the worst example in the book, chapter 8 about punctuated equilibrium doesn’t start with an explanation of what punctuated equilibrium actually is – instead, it starts with a two-page-long extended description of the ancient Israelites spending forty years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt.

Dawkins then invents (as so often) a hypothetical figure to mock, in this case a hypothetical historian who, he says, takes the story of the Biblical exodus literally and so calculates that, since the distance from Egypt to the Holy Land was only 200 miles and the Bible says it took them 40 years to cover, this must mean that the Israelites covered just 24 yards per day or 1 yard per hour.

‘Is the attitude of the Bible historian I have just invented ridiculous?’ asks Dawkins. ‘Yes, well, that’s how ridiculous the theory of punctuated equilibrium is.’

This example is at the start of the chapter, setting the tone for the entire discussion of punctuated equilibrium. And it lasts for two solid pages.

It is a classic example of how Dawkins is so in love with his own wit and that he a) never really gets round to clearly explaining what punctuated equilibrium is, and b) really confuses the reader with this extended and utterly irrelevant analogy.

(The theory of punctuated equilibrium takes the extremely patchy fossil record of life on earth as evidence that evolution does not progress at a smooth, steady rate but consists of long periods of virtual stasis or equilibrium, punctuated by sudden bursts of relatively fast evolution and the creation of new species. Some Creationists and Christians seized on the publication of this theory in the 1970s as evidence that Darwin was wrong and that therefore God does exist. Dawkins devotes a chapter and a host of ideas, sub-ideas and extended analogies to proving that the theory of punctuated equilibrium does not undermine the Darwinian orthodoxy – as Creationists gleefully claim – but can be slotted easily into the existing Darwinian view that evolution takes place at a slow steady pace: the core of Dawkins’s argument is that the fossil record appears to suggest long static periods interspersed with periods of manic change, solely because it is so very patchy; if we had a fuller fossil record it wold vindicate his and Darwin’s view of slow steady change. In other words, the theory of punctuated equilibrium is an optical illusion produced by the patchiness of the fossil record and not a true account of his evolution works.)

The whole tenor and shape and flavour of the book is dominated by Dawkins’s analogies and similes and metaphors and witty ideas but I can’t help thinking it would have been so much better to have devoted the space to killer examples from the natural world. Too often Dawkins’s long comparisons take the reader away from the wonders of life on earth and push you into the broom cupboard of his oddly sterile and unimaginative analogies.

To give another example, it is fascinating to learn that many bat species have scrunched-up gargoyle faces (which have terrified generations of humans) because their faces have evolved to reflect and focus their high-pitched echolocation signals into their ears. But when Dawkins tries to make this fact more ‘accessible’ by writing that bats are ‘like high-tech spy planes’, his analogy feels not only trite but – here’s my point – less informative than the original fact.

I have just read E.O. Wilson’s stunningly beautiful and inspiring book about the natural world, The Diversity of Life, which is all the more amazing and breath-taking because he doesn’t impose anecdotes about his own childhood or love of gadgets between you and the wonder’s he’s describing: the wonders are quite amazing enough without any kind of editorialising.

The Blind Watchmaker computer program

This un-self-aware, naive enthusiasm comes over most strongly in chapter three of the book which is devoted to the subject which gives the book its title, the computer program Dawkins has devised and titled The Blind Watchmaker (and which is advertised for sale at the back of the book, yours for just £28.85 including VAT, post and packaging).

At this early stage of the book (chapter 3) I was still hoping that Dawkins would give the reader a knock-down, killer explanation of Darwin’s theory. Instead he chooses to tell us all about a computer program he’s written. The program begins with a set of nine stick figures or ‘genes’, as he calls them, and then applies to them a set of instructions such as ‘double in length’ or ‘branch into two lines’ and so on. Here are the basic ‘genes’.

Basic ‘tree’ shapes developed by Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker programme

The idea is that, if you invent rules for transforming the shape of the basic ‘genes’ according to a set of fixed but arbitrary rules and then run the program, you will be surprised how the mechanical application of mindless rules quite quickly produces all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes, thus:

More advanced iterations produced by Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker program

The point of all this is to show how quickly complex ‘creatures’ can be created by a few simple rules and endless iterations.

Having explained his program Dawkins artlessly presents it as a strong proof for Darwin’s theory. He calls the multi-dimensional cyberspace thronged with a potentially endless sequence of mutating life forms stretching out in all directions Biomorph Land, and the metaphor is invoked throughout the rest of the book.

Dawkins boyishly tells us that when he first ran the program and saw all the shapes appearing he was so excited he stayed up all night!

It’s difficult to know where to start in critiquing this approach, but two things spring to mind.

  1. At the point where he introduces the program the book still hasn’t delivered a clear exposition of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. During this chapter I began to realise it never would, and that instead the book would be all about Richard’s own ideas and inventions.
  2. Does Dawkins really think that a dyed-in-the-wool, Christian fundamentalist would be the slightest bit persuaded to change his or her lifelong beliefs by a lengthy explanation of a toy computer program which Richard has developed at home on his Dell computer? If he does, he is fabulously self-deluded and, as I’ve said, above all, naive about the ways of the world and how human beings actually think and live.

Dawkins’s declared intention is to change the world, or the way people think and what they believe about the world and the diversity of life around us – and yet virtually every word he writes – certainly extended passages like the long chapter devoted to the self-written computer program which gives the book its name – show you how completely inadequate his view of human nature is.

The book may well have explained and elucidated various concepts around evolution and genetics to an educated, secular audience which had hitherto (in 1986) had relatively few if any popular accounts to read on the subject. But given Dawkins’s fierce anti-Creationist rhetoric all through the book, his invention of all kinds of Christian or just ignorant critics of evolution throughout the book who he can pulverise with his arguments and analogies – it would be fascinating to learn if The Blind Watchmaker ever converted anyone to abandon their Christian or theist beliefs and become an atheist.

Précis of the contents of The Blind Watchmaker

Chapter 2 Bats and echolocation

Chapter 3 Cumulative changes in organisms can have massive consequences when subjected to non-random selection.

Chapter 4 Creationist propaganda often mocks the theory of evolution by pointing out that according to the theory exquisitely complicated features such as eyes must have evolved from next to nothing to their present stage of perfection and What is the point of half an eye? But Dawkins robustly replies that even 1% of an eye is better than no eye at all, and there are many animals with what you could call half or a quarter or less of a wing (i.e. bits of stretchable skin which help with gliding from tree to tree), which function perfectly well.

Chapter 5 ‘It is raining DNA outside’ as Dawkins describes the air outside his study window being full of down and dandelion seeds, innumerable flower seeds floating past on the wind. Why Life is more like a computer programme (i.e. DNA is a transmissible digital code) than pre-Darwinian ideas about blobs of matter and life forces.

Chapter 6 The idea of ‘miracles’ considered in the context of the 4.5 billion years the earth has existed, and a detailed summary of A.G. Cairns-Smiths theory of the origin of life (i.e. that replicating organic molecules originally took their structure from replicating inorganic clay crystals.)

Chapter 7 Genes are selected by virtue of their interactions with their environment, but the very first ‘environment’ a gene encounters is other genes, within the cell, and then in sister cells. Cells had to learn to co-operate in order to form multi-celled organisms. Cumulative selection produces arms races between rivals in ecosystems.

Chapter 8 Positive feedback and sexual selection, compared to steam engines, thermostats and pop music.

Chapter 9 Is devoted to taking down the theory of punctuated equilibrium put forward by the paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould and opens with two pages about a hypothetical and very dense scholar of Biblical history.

Chapter 10 There are countless ways to categorise living things, as objects, but there is only one true tree of life based on evolutionary descent. Although in this, as everything else, there are different schools and theories e.g. phyleticists, cladists, pheneticists et al.

Chapter 11 A summary of various alternatives to Darwin – Lamarckism, neutralism, creationism, mutationism – are described and then demolished.

What is really striking about this final chapter is how cursory his dismissal of Christian creationism is – it only takes up a couple of pages whereas his analysis of Lamarckism took up ten. It’s as if, once he finally comes face to face with his long-cherished enemy, it turns out that he has… nothing to say.

Conclusion and recommendations

Back in the mid-1980s this book had a big impact, garnering prizes and making Dawkins a public intellectual. This suggests 1. the extent of the ignorance then prevailing about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and 2. the low bar set in the Anglo-Saxon world for the definition of ‘public intellectual’.

Then again, not many people actually had computers in 1986. I think the impact of the book came less from his countless and tiresome anti-Christian arguments, and more from the crisp modern way he compared DNA to a computer program. That was a genuinely innovatory insight thirty-five years ago. He was there right at the beginning of the application of computer technology to genetics and biology, a technology which has, ironically, rendered almost everything he wrote out of date.

– If you want to really understand Darwin’s theory there is no replacement for reading On The Origin of Species itself because, although many of the details may have changed and Darwin’s account notoriously contained no explanation of how variation came about (because he lacked any knowledge of genetics), nonetheless, the central idea is conveyed with a multitude of examples and with a persuasive force which really bring home what the theory actually consists of, far better than any later summary or populist account.

– If you want to read an up-to-date book about genetics and its awesome possibilities, I’d recommend Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by Craig Venter.

– If you want to read about the wonders of the natural world, you could do a lot worse than E.O. Wilson’s wonderful and inspiring book The Diversity of Life.

The Mr Bean of biology

Having ground my way through this preening, self-important book, I came to the conclusion that ‘Richard Dawkins’ is best seen as a brilliant comic creation, a kind of super-intellectual version of Mr Bean – filled with comic earnestness, bursting to share his boyish enthusiasm, innocently retailing memories of his first Meccano set or his knowledge of spy planes and motorbicycles, inventing fictional ‘distinguished philosophers’ and ‘sceptical scientists’ to demolish with his oh-so-clever arguments, convinced that his impassioned sincerity will change the world, and blissfully unaware of the ludicrous figure he cuts.

It’s a much more enjoyable book to read if you ignore Dawkins’s silly argufying and see it instead as a kind of Rabelaisian comedy, told by an essentially ludicrous narrator, with characters popping up at random moments to make a Creationist point before being hit over the head by Mr Punch’s truncheon – ‘That’s the way to do it!’ – interspersed with occasionally useful, albeit mostly out-dated, information about evolution and genetics.

Credit

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was published by the Harvard University Press in 1986. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Evolution

Genetics

Human evolution

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency @ the Royal Academy

This is an exhibition of art and architecture on the theme of climate change and environmental destruction. It begins with the usual alarming facts and figures, which any educated person who reads a newspaper or watches the news or listens to the radio, should already know almost off by heart:

  • the world is facing an ecological catastrophe
  • the ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998
  • we must reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 (at the very latest) to avoid catastrophic global warming
  • which is already resulting in melting ice caps, retreating glaciers, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events
  • humans have accelerated the ‘normal’ background rate of species extinctions 1,000-fold with the result that we are living during the Sixth Great Extinction
  • the world’s population is predicted to grow by 20% over the next three decades to reach 9.7 billion
  • yadda yadda yadda

21 works

Rather than editorialise, I will list the exhibitions 21 works, giving links to their websites, where available, for you to follow up and read about yourself.

Texts in single quotations marks are from the wall labels or the artist’s own explanations. My own occasional comments are in italics.

Introduction

The curators introduce the exhibition thus:

‘Eco-Visionaries examines humankind’s impact on the planet and presents innovative approaches that reframe our relationship with nature. Through film, installation, architectural models and photography, the works in this exhibition interrogate how architecture, art and design are reacting to a rapidly changing world, beyond mainstream notions of sustainability.’

In the corridor leading towards the show there’s a simple timeline of dates from the industrial revolution onwards, recording natural disasters, growing awareness of how human activity devastates the natural world, the first theorising about global warming, the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 (1988!) and so on down to this year.

1. Domestic Catastrophe No.3  by HeHe (2018)

“An aquarium containing a domestic globe, a motor to turn the globe and electronic valve or drip feed which releases a fluoresceine tracing dye onto the sphere. As the sphere turns, the green dye wraps itself around the sphere, enveloping it in what appears to be a thin gas or atmosphere that surrounds the planet Earth. The difference between emissions and atmosphere, the ‘man-influenced’ and the ‘natural’ climate cannot be easily defined.”

This is like a big cubic aquarium with a school-globe of the world-sized model of the world slowly turning within a thick liquid. On the bottom of the aquarium is a thin layer of sand and the slowly turning globe spins this sand into little dust devils and typhoons which is rather entrancing.

2. A Film, Reclaimed by Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (2015)

“The ecologic crisis is a political, economic and social crisis. It is also cinematographic, as cinema coincides historically and in a critical and descriptive way with the development of the Anthropocene.”

The bit of the film I saw included clips from Hollywood movies, including some end-of-the-world film with buildings exploding and, soon after that, a clip from Blade Runner, a pleasingly random selection which could come from any one of thousands of art films, documentaries or even loops of movie clips you see played in nightclubs. As in, it didn’t convey any meaning whatsoever to me.

3. Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

A set of depictions of fish in black and white on paper, done to make them look like fossils. It’s based on human interference in the ecosystem of Lake Victoria which has led to the almost complete extermination of tilaplia fish. They were made by covering dead tilaplia specimens with inks and pressing them against the paper.

“A series of black-and-white prints arranged as a shoal of tilapia fish, one of the most consumed varieties of fish in the world but also one of the most invasive and predatory species.”

Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

4. Serpent River Book by Carolina Caycedo (2017)

“A 72-page accordion fold artist-book, that combines archival images, maps, poems, lyrics, satellite photos, with the artist’s own images and texts on river bio-cultural diversity, in a long and meandering collage. The fluctuating publication can frame many narratives. As a book it can be opened, pleated and read in many directions, and has a performatic potential to it, functioning as a score, or as a workshop tool. Serpent River Book gathers visual and written materials compiled by the artist while working in Colombian, Brazilian, and Mexican communities affected by the industrialization and privatization of river systems.”

5. Madrid in the air: 24 Hours by Nerea Calvillo (2019)

Madrid in the Air: 24 Hours monitors the skyline of Madrid over a 24-hour period, uncovering the almost invisible veil of pollutants in the air.”

In the Air is a visualization project which aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc), to see how they perform, react and interact with the rest of the city. The visualization tool is a web-based dynamic model which builds up the space the components generate, where through data crossing behavior patterns emerge. The results of these data feed a physical prototype of what we have called a “diffuse façade”, a massive indicator of the air´s components through a changing cloud, blurring architecture with the atmosphere it has invaded and mediating the activity of the participants it envelops.”

“The project highlights the contamination of air in cities caused by vehicle engines, industry, factories and farming.”

It was a film of a camera fixed in a static position at roof level looking out over Madrid and a strange pink or green gauze-like veil hovering over the city, sometimes thickening or advancing – being a visualisation of the soup of pollution we all live in.

6. The ice melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

A series of 20 black and white photos showing very small pieces of glacial ice (four to 10 inches long) melting into the black stones and rubble of a terminal moraine in Iceland.

The Ice Melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

7. Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

“Originally designed as a wooden chair for IKEA, the Alaska Chair is a paradoxical commentary on the effects of our everyday lives and mass-consumption habits on the global rising sea levels and climate change. This work was inspired by the concept of acqua alta, an Italian term used to describe regular floods in Venice, caused by high tides and warm winds. The chair is partly submerged by the rising flood waters, with a doorstep wedge symbolically representing the short-term, makeshift solutions we have for tackling climate change. Yet by casting the work in bronze, a material intended to last, the work reflects on how environmental catastrophe is a tough, long-term problem that is not easily fixed by simple solutions.”

Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

I liked the ‘Do not touch’ sign. The environment is going up in flames but ‘Don’t you dare touch my lovely work of art with your grubby fingers!’

8. The Breast Milk of the Volcano by Unknown Fields (2017)

“Over half the world’s reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries in phones, laptops, electric cars and drone technology, is found in the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This film poignantly examines how even the cleanest energy utopias can have dramatic consequences in material, resource and economic exploitation. Accompanying the film is a lithium battery designed by the artists. It refers to an Inca origin myth of the Salar de Uyuni in which the salt flats were formed by the breast milk and tears of a mother volcano mourning the loss of her child.”

(If you’re wondering why this sad and plaintive video appears to have the half-stoned voice of Elon Musk presenting Tesla Energy over it, you’re not the only one but it’s the same with all the versions of the video scattered across the internet.)

9. The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (2019)

The Substitute draws upon rare zoological archival footage as well as experimental data from artificial intelligence company DeepMind, will enable visitors to come faceto-face with a life-size digital reproduction of a northern white rhinoceros. The last male of the subspecies died in 2018.”

“On March 20, 2018, headlines announced the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). We briefly mourned a subspecies lost to human desire for the imagined life-enhancing properties of its horn, comforted that it might be brought back using biotechnology, albeit gestated by a different subspecies. But would humans protect a resurrected rhino, having decimated an entire species? And would this new rhino be real?”

10. P-Plastoceptor: Organ for Sensing Plastic by Pinar Yoldas (2014)

“Polypropylene is the second most common plastic after polyethylene. P-Plasticeptor is a sense organ which can detect polypropylene polymers in the ocean. The organ takes its name from its sensing capabilities for polypropylene and its shape that almost resembles the letter P.”

An Ecosystem of Excess: P-Plastoceptor: Organ For Sensing Plastics by Pinar Yoldas (2019)

There are two works, the P-Plastoceptor, and another fictitious organ, Somaximums presented in vitrines as if in pickled alcohol specimen jars. I think they’ve both been invented, made up with rather arcane satirical intent.

11. Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

“Our Prehistoric Fate, 2011 was commissioned by the 1st Time Machine Biennale of Contemporary Art. D-O ARK Underground in Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The biennale took place inside a massive nuclear bunker in the mountains 60 km. away from Sarajevo. The bunker was commissioned by Josip Broz Tito as a last refuge for him, his family and top Yugoslavian generals in case of a nuclear attack. It took almost 30 years to finish the project. Tito died a year after its completion without ever setting foot in it. Needless to say, the nuclear attack never happened. Two large Duraclear prints hang on Yugoslavian military lightbox displays with clamps in the war strategy room of the bunker where decisions were meant to be made and maps of the situation on the ground were meant to be evaluated. The first claims ‘The Future Belongs To Us’ in large bold letters, the second is an encyclopedia illustration from the 60s that captures an Ankylosaurus, a prehistoric creature we know very little about, as it approaches a pond to drink.”

Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

12. Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009)

“Based on United Nations predictions that at the current rate of ecological transformations there will not be enough food to feed the planet in 2050, Foragers, from the series Designs for an Overpopulated Planet, are speculative full-scale models proposing how to radically change the human diet and digestive system to ensure survival. These devices would allow humans to extract nutritional value from synthetic biology and develop new digestive systems like those of other mammals, birds, fish and insects which are able to digest and process barely edible resources such as tough roots and plant matter.”

Installation view of Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009) Photograph by the author.

Two surreal ‘eating tubes’ along with a photo of how to use one out in the wild.

13. Pollutive Matter-s (three scenarios) by New Territories (S/he) (1997-2002)

14. The Dolphin Embassy by Ant Farm (1974-78)

“The Dolphin Embassy was a research project that never was built and that attempted to study the communication between the human being and the dolphins. It would have been built with asbestos cement and it moved with a solar panel and a motor. Besides the quality of the drawings, the interest of this proposal was in the social relations that the Dolphin Embassy was proposing between humans and the dolphins”

15. 3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise by WORKac and Ant Farm (2015)

“3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise is a speculative design for a floating city inspired by different architectural projects created by collective Ant Farm in the 1970s, including the drawings for The Dolphin Embassy. The city is designed to facilitate dialogue and debate between humans and other species, blurring the boundaries between ecology and infrastructure, public and private, the individual and the collective. Unbound by national allegiances, the design includes a vessel with housing, a research lab and an interspecies congress hall. The programme is completed with greenhouse and garden areas, an algae farm for biofuel production and a water-collection river, all covered by an inflatable wall and solar panel shingles.”

WORKac’s long section of Dolphin Embassy

“The idea is that it’s a floating city not bound by any national borders. People can come together to live in a different way and discuss important issues of the day.”

16. Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017)

“According to the London Assembly one year’s worth of the average urban borough’s food waste could generate enough electricity to power a local primary school for over ten years. Biogas Power Plant is a prototype for an individual biogas production unit which could use domestic waste to create and store energy to make houses self-sufficient. The unit is designed to be connected to the National Grid yet able to operate without relying on an external power supply or waste-management system.”

Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017) Photograph by the author.

17. Island House In Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas by Andres Jaque/Office for Political Innovation, with Patrick Craine (2015-ongoing)

“The fifty-island archipelago of Laguna Grande, on the south coast of Texas, is one of the biggest wild island-barriers of the world. This archipelago contains some of the most ancient animal and vegetal species adapted to saline aquatic ecosystems and protects the lagoon from the pollution resulting from the nearby presence of oil platforms. The islands are the habitats where mammals and other coastal species overnight, and they are endangered by the combined effects of climate change and the incremental increase in the acidity of the water. Island House in Laguna Grande is not designed as an architecture for humans, but built instead to empower the environmental diversity of Laguna Grande. The structure collects and preserves rainwater and, through the mediation of sensors on the ground, sprays water to dilute toxicity and combat drought.”

Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation with Patrick Craine, Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas, 2015-ongoing © Courtesy of the artists

18. Soil Procession by Futurefarmers (2015)

“On June 13, 2015 a procession of farmers carried soil from their farms through the city of Oslo to its new home at Losæter. Soil Procession was a GROUND BUILDING ceremony that used the soil collected from over 50 Norwegian farms from as far north as Tromsø and as far south as Stokke, to build the foundation of the Flatbread Society Grain Field and Bakehouse. A procession of soil and people through Oslo drew attention to this historical, symbolic moment of the transition of a piece of land into a permanent stage for art and action related to food production. At high noon, farmers gathered at the Oslo Botanical Gardens joined by city dwellers. Tractors, horses, wagons, wheelbarrows, musical instruments, voices, sheep, boats, backpacks and bikes processed to Losæter where the farmers’ soil offerings were laid out upon the site and a Land Declaration was signed.”

Seed Procession 2016 by Futurefarmers. Part of Seed Journey (2016–ongoing). Photograph by Monica Lovdahl. Courtesy of Futurefarmers

19. The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan, 2012– 2019 by Philippe Rahm architectes, in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes and Ricky Liu & Associates

“The ambition of our project is to give back the outdoors to the inhabitants and visitors by proposing to create exterior spaces where the excesses of the subtropical warm and humid climate of Taichung are lessened. The exterior climate of the park is thus modulated so to propose spaces less hot (more cold, in the shade), less humid (by lowering humid air, sheltered from the rain and flood) and less polluted (by adding filtered air from gases and particle matters pollution, less noisy, less mosquitoes presence).”

Installation view of photos and models of The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan (2011 – 2019) by Philippe Rahm architectes in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes, Ricky Liu & Associates. Photograph by the author.

20. The Green Machine by Studio Malka Architecture (2014)

“The Green Machine is a mobile structure intended to regenerate and fertilise the ground of the Sahara Desert, one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. Resembling an oil platform that has been made redundant by dried-up seas, the project is a self-sufficient urban oasis able both to exploit the rich resources of the desert and to provide food, water, housing and energy for a local community. This concept resembles available technologies to generate a structure that could produce 20 million tonnes of crops each year in a hostile environment. Solar towers, wind turbines and balloons that capture water through condensation come together with the inventive use of modified caterpillar treads that plough, water and sow the soil as the autonomous structure slowly moves across the land.”

The Green Machine (2014) by Studio Malka Architecture. Courtesy of the artist

21. win >< win by Rimini Protokoll (Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel)

The last exhibit in the show requires you to wait in a queue to go through a sliding door. There’s a roped off queue stations, like in my local post office, and a big digital clock counting off the seconds till the next batch of visitors can go in. What are you queueing for?

Once through the sliding door, a small number of people (nine, I think) can sit on two low, shallow curved benches only a couple of yards away from a wall, and into that wall has been cut an enormous circle of glass. It is an aquarium! A massive aquarium in which are swimming quite a few, maybe as many as twenty beautiful jellyfish, about a foot in diameter, slowly wafting around what is clearly a large space behind the wall, lit by a gentle blue illumination.

There are headphones for each visitor and if you put them on you then listen to a 16-minute-long audiopiece about these jellyfish. You learn that they are Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) and that they can be found in oceans around the world. And the audioguide goes on to give a dramatic description of the fight or survival which is coming, which has already started, among the world’s species as air and sea temperatures increase, CO2 levels increase, and ecosystems around the world are devastated.

And guess who many ecologists think are likely to win? As far as I can tell this video includes the entire audio track.

Exhibition participants

  • Virgil Abloh (Rockford, US)
  • Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier) (California, US)
  • Nerea Calvillo (Madrid, Spain)
  • Carolina Caycedo (London, UK)
  • Dunne & Raby (London, UK / New York City, US)
  • Olafur Eliasson Hon RA (Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Futurefarmers (San Francisco, US and Gent, Belgium)
  • Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (London, UK)
  • Tue Greenfort (Holbæk, Denmark)
  • HeHe (Le Havre, France)
  • Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation (Madrid, Spain / New York City, US)
  • Basim Magdy (Asyut, Egypt)
  • Malka Architecture (Paris, France)
  • Philippe Rahm architectes (Paris, France)
  • Rimini Protokoll (Berlin, Germany)
  • SKREI (Porto, Portugal)
  • Unknown Fields (London, UK)
  • Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (Brasília, Brazil / Paris, France)
  • WORKac (New York City, US)
  • Pinar Yoldas (Denizli, Turkey)

Thoughts

I laughed out loud when I read the wall label claiming that the exhibits are ‘provocative responses’ which amount to ‘a wake-up call – urging us to acknowledge and become conscious of our impact on our environment’.

A wake-up call to who? To the several thousand middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated types who visit the Royal Academy? They are already super-awake, over-awake. It’s not the behaviour of a few score thousand posh people in London you have to influence: it is the behaviour of billions and billions of poor people around the world.

As for us rich people, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 2010 to 2016, a few years ago gave a simple recipe:

  • become vegetarian
  • sell your car
  • never take another plane flight
  • review all your investments, pensions and savings and transfer them to carbon-free, environmentally friendly sectors

That’s the most basic, elementary steps which all of us should take. And will we? No.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson (1992)

It is a failing of our species that we ignore and even despise the creatures whose lives sustain our own. (p.294)

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in 1929 and pursued a long career in biology, specialising in myrmecology, the study of ants, about which he came to be considered the world’s leading expert, and about which he published a massive textbook as well as countless research papers.

As well as his specialist scientific writing, Wilson has also published a series of (sometimes controversial) books about human nature, on collaborative species of animal (which led him to conceive the controversial theory of sociobiology), and about ecology and the environment.

(They’re controversial because he considers humans as just another complex life form, whose behaviour is dictated almost entirely by genetics and environment, discounting our ability to learn or change: beliefs which are opposed by liberals and progressives who believe humans can be transformed by education and culture.)

The Diversity of Life was an attempt to give an encyclopedic overview of life on earth – the myriads of life forms which create the dazzlingly complicated webs of life at all levels and in all parts of our planet – and then to inform the reader about the doleful devastation mankind is wreaking everywhere – and ends with some positive suggestions about how to try & save the environment, and the staggering diversity of life forms, before it’s too late.

The book is almost 30 years old but still so packed with information that maybe giving a synopsis of each chapter would be useful.


Part one – Violent nature, resilient life

1. Storm over the Amazon An impressionistic memoir of Wilson camping in the rainforest amid a tropical storm, which leads to musings about the phenomenal diversity of life forms in such places, and beyond, in all parts of the earth, from the Antarctic Ocean to deep sea, thermal vents.

2. Krakatau A vivid description of the eruption of Krakatoa leads into an account of how the sterile smoking stump of island left after the explosion was swiftly repopulated with all kinds of life forms within weeks of the catastrophe and now, 130 years later, is a completely repopulated tropical rainforest. Life survives and endures.

3. The Great Extinctions If the biggest volcanic explosion in recorded history can’t eliminate life, what can? Wilson explains the five big extinction events which the fossil record tells us about, when vast numbers of species were exterminated:

  • Ordovician 440 million years ago
  • Devonian 365 million years ago
  • Permian 245 million years ago
  • Triassic 210 million years ago
  • Cretaceous 66 million years ago

The last of these being the one which – supposedly – wiped out the dinosaurs, although Wilson points out that current knowledge suggests that dinosaur numbers were actually dropping off for millions of years before the actual ‘event’, whatever that was (most scientists think a massive meteor hit earth, a theory originally proposed by Luis Alvarez in 1980).

Anyway, the key thing is that the fossil record suggests that it took between five and 20 million years after each of these catastrophic events for the diversity of life to return to something like its pre-disaster levels.


Part two – Biodiversity rising

4. The Fundamental Unit A journey into evolutionary theory which quickly shows that many of its core concepts are deeply problematic and debated. Wilson clings to the notion of the species as the fundamental unit, because it makes sense of all biology –

A species is a population whose members are able to interbreed freely under natural conditions (p.36)

but concedes that other biologists give precedence to other concepts or levels of evolution, for example the population, the deme, or focus on genetics.

Which one you pick depends on your focus and priorities. The ‘species’ is a tricky concept to define, with the result that many biologists reach for subspecies (pp.58-61).

And that’s before you examine the record chronologically i.e. consider lineages of animals which we know stretch back for millions of years: at what point did one species slip into another? It depends. It depends what aspects you choose to focus on – DNA, or mating rituals, or wing length or diet or location.

The message is that the concepts of biology are precise and well-defined, but the real world is far more messy and complicated than, maybe, any human concepts can really fully capture.

5. New Species Wilson details all the processes by which new species have come about, introducing the concept of ‘intrinsic isolating mechanisms’, but going on to explain that these are endless. Almost any element in an environment, an organisms’s design or DNA might be an ‘isolating mechanism’, in the right circumstances. In other words, life forms are proliferating, mutating and changing constantly, all around us.

The possibility for error has no limit, and so intrinsic isolating mechanisms are endless in their variety. (p.51)

6. The forces of evolution Introduces us to a range of processes, operating at levels from genetics to entire populations, which drive evolutionary change, including:

  • genetic mutation
  • haploidy and diploidy (with an explanation of the cause of sickle-cell anaemia)
  • dominant and recessive genes
  • genotype (an individual’s collection of genes) and phenotype (the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment)
  • allometry (rates of growth of different parts of an organism)
  • microevolution (at the genetic level) and macroevolution (at the level of environment and population)
  • the theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (that evolution happens in burst followed by long periods of no-change)
  • species selection

7. Adaptive radiation An explanation of the concepts of adaptive radiation and evolutionary convergence, taking in Hawaiian honeycreepers, Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, the cichlid fish of Lake Victoria, the astonishing diversity of shark species, and the Great American Interchange which followed when the rise of the Panama Isthmus joined previously separated North and South America 2.5 million years ago.

Ecological release = population increase that occurs when a species is freed from limiting factors in its environment.

Ecological constraint = constriction in the presence of a competitor.

8. The unexplored biosphere Describes our astonishing ignorance of how many species there are in the world. Wilson gives the total number of named species as 1.4 million, 751,000 of them insects, but the chapter goes on to explain our complete ignorance of the life forms in the ocean depths, or in the rainforest canopies, and the vast black hole of our ignorance of bacteria.

There could be anything between 10 million and 100 million species on earth – nobody knows.

He explains the hierarchy of toxonomy of living things: kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, genus, species.

Equitability = the distribution of diversity in a given location.

9. The creation of ecosystems Keystone species hold a system together e.g. sea otters on the California coast (which ate sea urchins thus preventing the sea urchins eating the kelp, so giving rise to forests of kelp which supported numerous life forms including whales who gave birth close to the forests of kelp) or elephants in the savannah (who, by pushing over trees, create diverse habitats).

Elasticity.

The predator paradox – in many systems it’s been shown that removing the top predator decreases diversity).

Character displacement. Symbiosis. The opposite of extinction is species packing.

The latitudinal diversity gradient i.e. there is more diversity in tropical rainforests – 30% of bird species, probably over half of all species, live in the rainforests – various theories why this should be (heat from the sun = energy + prolonged rain).

10. Biodiversity reaches the peak The reasons why biodiversity has steadily increased since the Cambrian explosion 550 million years ago, including the four main steps in life on earth:

  1. the origin of life from prebiotic organic molecules 3.9 billion years ago
  2. eukaryotic organisms 1.8 billion years ago
  3. the Cambrian explosion 540 to 500 million years ago
  4. the evolution of the human mind from 1 million to 100,000 years ago.

Why there is more diversity, the smaller the creatures/scale – because, at their scale, there are so many more niches to make a living in.


Part three – The human impact

It’s simple. We are destroying the world’s ecosystems, exterminating untold numbers of species before we can even identify them and any practical benefits they may have.

11. The life and death of species ‘Almost all the species that have ever lived are extinct, and yet more are alive today than at any time in the past (p.204)

How long do species survive? From 1 to 10 million years, depending on size and type. Then again, it’s likely that orchids which make up 8% of all known flowering plants, might speciate, thrive and die out far faster in the innumerable microsites which suit them in mountainous tropics.

The area effect = the rise of biodiversity according to island size (ten times the size, double the number of species). Large body size means smaller population and greater risk of extinction. The metapopulation concept of species existence.

12. Biodiversity threatened Extinctions by their very nature are rarely observed. Wilson devotes some pages to the thesis that wherever prehistoric man spread – in North America 8,000 years ago, in Australia 30,000 years ago, in the Pacific islands between 2,000 and 500 years ago – they exterminated all the large animals.

Obviously, since then Western settlers and colonists have been finishing off the job, and he gives depressing figures about numbers of bird, frog, tree and other species which have been exterminated in the past few hundred years by Western man, by colonists.

And now we are in a new era when exponentially growing populations of Third World countries are ravaging their own landscapes. He gives a list of 18 ‘hotspots’ (New Caledonia, Borneo, Ecuador) where half or more of the original rainforests has been heart-breakingly destroyed.

13. Unmined riches The idea that mankind should place a cash value on rainforests and other areas of diversity (coral reefs) in order to pay locals not to destroy them. Wilson gives the standard list of useful medicines and drugs we have discovered in remote and unexpected plants, wondering how many other useful, maybe life-saving substances are being trashed and destroyed before we ever have the chance to discover them.

But why  should this be? He explains that the millions of existing species have evolved through uncountable trillions of chemical interactions at all levels, in uncountably vast types of locations and settings – and so have been in effect a vast biochemical laboratory of life, infinitely huger, more complex, and going on for billions of years longer than our own feeble human laboratory efforts.

He gives practical examples of natural diversity and human narrowness:

  • the crops we grow are a handful – 20 or so – of the tens of thousands known, many of which are more productive, but just culturally alien
  • same with animals – we still farm the ten of so animals which Bronze Age man domesticated 10,000 years ago when there is a world of more productive animals e.g. the giant Amazon river turtle, the green iguana, which both produce far more meat per hectare and cost than beef cattle
  • why do we still fish wild in the seas, devastating entire ecosystems, when we could produce more fish more efficiently in controlled farms?
  • the absolutely vital importance of maintaining wild stocks and varieties of species we grow for food:
    • when in the 1970s the grassy-stunt virus devastated rice crops it was only the lucky chance that a remote Indian rice species contained genes which granted immunity to the virus and so could be cross-bred with commercial varieties which saved the world’s rice
    • it was only because wild varieties of coffee still grew in Ethiopia that genes could be isolated from them and cross-bred into commercial coffee crops in Latin America which saved them from devastation by ‘coffee rust’
  • wipe out the rainforests and other hotspots of diversity, and there go your fallback species

14. Resolution As ‘the human juggernaut’ staggers on, destroying all in its path, what is to be done? Wilson suggests a list:

  1. Survey the world’s flora and fauna – an epic task, particularly as there are maybe only 1,500 scientists in the whole world qualified to do it
  2. Create biological wealth – via ‘chemical prospecting’ i.e. looking for chemicals produced by organisms which might have practical applications (he gives a list of such discoveries)
  3. Promote sustainable development – for example strip logging to replace slash and burn, with numerous examples
  4. Wilson critiques the arguments for
    • cryogenically freezing species
    • seed banks
    • zoos
  5. They can only save a tiny fraction of species, and then only a handful of samples – but the key factor is that all organisms can only exist in fantastically complicated ecosystems, which no freezing or zoosor seed banks can preserve. There is no alternative to complete preservation of existing wilderness

15. The environmental ethic A final summing up. We are living through the sixth great extinction. Between a tenth and a quarter of all the world’s species will be wiped out in the next 50 years.

Having dispensed with the ad hoc and limited attempts at salvage outlined above, Wilson concludes that the only viable way to maintain even a fraction of the world’s biodiversity is to identify the world’s biodiversity ‘hot spots’ and preserve the entire ecosystems.

Each ecosystem has intrinsic value (p.148)

In the last few pages he makes the ‘deepest’ plea for conservation based on what he calls biophilia – this is that there is all kinds of evidence that humans need nature: we were produced over 2 million years of evolution and are descended from animals which themselves have encoded in the genes for their brains and nervous systems all kinds of interactions with the environment, with sun and moon, and rain and heat, and water and food, with rustling grasses and sheltering trees.

The most basic reason for making heroic efforts to preserve biodiversity is that at a really fundamental level, we need it to carry on feeling human.

On planet, one experiment (p.170)


Conclusion

Obviously, I know human beings are destroying the planet and exterminating other species at an unprecedented rate. Everyone who can read a newspaper or watch TV should know that by now, so the message of his book was over-familiar and sad.

But it was lovely to read again several passages whose imaginative brio had haunted me ever since I first read this book back in 1994:

  • the opening rich and impressionistic description of the rainforest
  • a gripping couple of pages at the start of chapter five where he describes what it would be like to set off at walking pace from the centre of the earth outwards, across the burning core, then into the cooler mantle and so on, suddenly emerging through topsoil into the air and walking through the extraordinary concentration of billions of life forms in a few minutes – we are that thin a layer on the surface of this spinning, hurtling planet
  • the couple of pages about sharks, whose weird diversity still astonishes
  • the brisk, no-nonsense account of how ‘native’ peoples or First Peoples were no tender-hearted environmentalists but hunted to death all the large megafauna wherever they spread
  • the dazzling description of all the organisms which are found in just one pinch of topsoil

As to the message, that we must try and preserve the diversity of life and respect the delicate ecosystems on which our existence ultimately depends – well, that seems to have been soundly ignored more or less everywhere, over the past thirty years since the book was published.

Credit

The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson was published by the Harvard University Press in 1992. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.


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Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by J. Craig Venter (2013)

The future of biological research will be based to a great extent on the combination of computer science and synthetic biology. (p.204)

Who is Craig Venter?

The quickest way of getting the measure of this hugely clever, ambitious and visionary man is to quote his Wikipedia entry:

John Craig Venter (born October 14, 1946) is an American biotechnologist, biochemist, geneticist, and businessman. He is known for leading the first draft sequence of the human genome and assembled the first team to transfect a cell with a synthetic chromosome. Venter founded Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), where he currently serves as CEO. He was the co-founder of Human Longevity Inc. and Synthetic Genomics. He was listed on Time magazine’s 2007 and 2008 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. In 2010, the British magazine New Statesman listed Craig Venter at 14th in the list of ‘The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures 2010’. He is a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Advisory Board.

So he’s a heavy hitter, invited to Bill Clinton’s White House to announce his team’s successful sequencing of the first human genome on 2000, founder of a thriving biochem business, a number of charities, pioneer of genomics (‘the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes’) and mapper of an ambitious future for the new science of synthetic biology.

In Schrödinger’s footsteps

Life At The Speed of Light was published in 2013. It originated as a set of lectures. As he explains in the introduction, in 1943, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had fled the Nazi-controlled Continent and settled in Ireland. Schrödinger was invited by the Taoiseach of the time to give some public lectures and chose the topic of life – the biology and physics of life. Schrödinger’s lectures were then published in the little book What Is Life? (1944) which inspired generations of young people to take up science (in his memoir The Double Helix James Watson describes how the book inspired him; Addy Pross named his book about the origins of life, What Is Life?, as a direct tribute to Schrödinger’s text).

Well, 49 years later Venter was invited by the Taoiseach of the day to deliver a new set of lectures, addressing the same question as Schrödinger, but in doing so, making clear the enormous strides in physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry and genetics which had been made in that half-century.

Twelve chapters

The twelve chapters are titled:

  1. Dublin, 1943-2012
  2. Chemical synthesis as proof
  3. Dawn of the digital age of biology
  4. Digitizing life
  5. Synthetic Phi X 174
  6. First synthetic genome
  7. Converting one species into another
  8. Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome
  9. Inside a synthetic cell
  10. Life by design
  11. Biological transportation
  12. Life at the speed of light

Each chapter contains a formidable amount of state-of-the-art biochemical knowledge. The first few chapters recap relevant forebears who helped figure out that DNA was the vehicle of heredity, beginning right back at the start with Aristotle, who made the primal division of living things into animal, vegetable or mineral, and then going on to namecheck other pioneers such as Robert Hook and, of course, Charles Darwin.

Biochemistry

But the real thrust of the book is to get up to date with contemporary achievements in sequencing genomes and creating transgenic entities i.e. organisms which have had the DNA of completely separate organisms stitched into them.

In order to do this Venter, of course, has to describe the molecular mechanisms of life in great detail. Successive chapters go way beyond the simplistic understanding of DNA described in James Watson’s book about the double helix, and open up for the reader the fantastical fairyland of how DNA actually works.

He explains the central role of the ribosomes, which are the factories where protein synthesis takes place (typical human cells contain about a thousand ribosomes), and the role of messenger RNA in cutting off snippets of DNA and taking them to the ribosome.

It is to the ribosome that transfer RNA (tRNA) brings along amino acids, which are then intricately assembled according to the sequence of bases found on the original DNA. Combinations of the twenty amino acids are assembled into the proteins which all life forms are made of – from the proteins which make up the cell membrane, to collagen which accounts for a quarter of all the proteins found in vertebrate animals, or elastin, the basis of lung and artery walls, and so on and so on.

I found all this mind-boggling, but the most striking single thing I learned is how fast it happens, and that it needs to happen so unrelentingly.

Fast

Venter explains that protein synthesis requires only seconds to make chains of a hundred amino acids or more. Nowadays we understand the mechanism whereby the ribosome is able to ratchet RNAs laden with amino acids along its production lines at a rate of fifteen per second! Proteins need to ‘fold’ up into the correct shape – there are literally millions of possible shapes they can assume but they only function if folded correctly. This happens as soon as they’ve been manufactured inside the ribosome and takes place in a few thousandths of a second. The protein villin takes six millionths of a second to fold correctly!

I had no idea that some of the proteins required for life to function (i.e. for cells to maintain themselves) exist for as little as forty-five minutes before they decay and cease to work. Their components are then disassembled and returned to the hectic soup which is contained inside each cell membrane, before being picked up by passing tRNA and taken along to the ribosome to be packaged up into another useful protein.

Relentless

It is the absolutely relentless pressure to produce thousands of different proteins, on a continuous basis, never faltering, never resting, which makes the mechanisms of life so needy of resources, and explains why animals need to be constantly taking in nutrition from the environment, relentlessly eating, drinking, breaking food down into its elementary constituents and excreting waste products.

After a while the book began to make me feel scared by the awesome knowledge of what is required to keep ‘me’ going all day long. Just the sheer effort, the vast amount of biochemical activity going on in every one of the forty or so trillion cells which make up my body, gave me a sense of vertigo.

Every day, five hundred billion blood cells die in an individual human. It is also estimated that half our cells die during normal organ development. We all shed about five hundred million skin cells every day. As a result you shed your entire outer layer of skin every two to four weeks. (p.57 – my italics)

Life is a process of dynamic renewal.

In an hour or even less a bacterial cell has to remake all of its proteins or perish. (p.62)

Venter’s achievements

Having processed through the distinguished forebears and pioneers of biochemistry, Venter comes increasingly to the work which he’s been responsible for. First of all he describes the process behind the sequencing of the first human genome – explaining how he and his team devised a vastly faster method of sequencing than their rivals (and the controversy this aroused).

Then he goes on to tell how he led teams which looked into splicing one organism’s DNA into another. And then he explains the challenge of going to the next phase, and creating life forms from the DNA up.

In fact the core of the book is a series of chapters which describe in minute and, some might say, quite tedious detail, the precise strategies and methodologies Venter and his teams took in the decade or so from 2000 to 2010 to, as he summarises it:

  • synthesise DNA at a scale twenty times faster than previously possible
  • develop a methodology to transplant a genome from one species to another
  • solve the DNA-modification problems of restriction enzymes destroying transplanted DNA

Successive chapters take you right into actual meetings where he and colleagues discussed how to tackle the whole series of technical problems they faced, and explains in exquisite detail precisely the techniques they developed at each step of the way. He even includes work emails describing key findings or turning points, and the texts he exchanged with colleagues at key moments (pp.171-2).

After reading about a hundred of pages of this my mind began to glaze over and I skipped paragraphs and then pages which describe such minutiae as how he decided which members of the Institute to put in charge of which aspects of the project and why — because I was impatient to get to the actual outcomes. And these outcomes have been dramatic:

In May 2010, a team of scientists led by Venter became the first to successfully create what was described as ‘synthetic life’. This was done by synthesizing a very long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and introducing this into another cell … The single-celled organism contains four ‘watermarks’ written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and to help trace its descendants. The watermarks include:

    • a code table for entire alphabet, with punctuations
    • the names of 46 contributing scientists
    • three quotations
    • the secret email address for the cell.

Venter gives a detailed description of the technical challenges, and the innovations his team devised to overcome them, in the quest to create the first ever synthesised life form in chapter 8, ‘Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome’.

More recently, after the period covered by this book (although the book describes this as one of his goals):

On March 25, 2016 Venter reported the creation of Syn 3.0, a synthetic genome having the fewest genes of any freely living organism (473 genes). Their aim was to strip away all nonessential genes, leaving only the minimal set necessary to support life. This stripped-down, fast reproducing cell is expected to be a valuable tool for researchers in the field. (Wikipedia)

The international nature of modern science

One notable aspect of the text is the amount of effort he puts into crediting other people’s work, and in particular the way these consists of teams.

When Watson wrote his book he could talk about individual contributors like Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins, Oswald Avery, Erwin Chergaff or Rosalind Franklin. One of the many things that has changed since Watson’s day is the way science is now done by large teams, and often collaborations not only between labs, but between labs around the world.

Thus at every step of his explanations Venter is very careful indeed to give credit to each new insight and discovery which fed into his own team’s work, and to namecheck all the relevant scientists involved. It was to be expected that each page would be studded with the names of biochemical processes and substances, but just as significant, just as indicative of the science of our times, is the way each page is also freighted with lists of names – and also, just how ethnically mixed the names are – Chinese, Indian, French, German, Spanish – names from all around the world.

Without anyone having to explain it out loud, just page after page of the names alone convey what a cosmopolitan and international concern modern science is.

A simplified timeline

Although Venter spends some time recapping the steady progress of biology and chemistry into the 20th century and up to Watson and Crick’s discovery, his book really makes clear that the elucidation of DNA was only the beginning of an explosion of research into genetics, such that genetics – and the handling of genetic information – are now at the centre of biology.

1944 Oswald Avery discovered that DNA, not protein, was the carrier of genetic information
1949 Fred Sanger determined the sequence of amino acids in the hormone insulin

1950 Erwin Chargaff made the discoveries about the four components of DNA which became known as Chargaff’s Rules, i.e. the number of guanine units equals the number of cytosine units and the number of adenine units equals the number of thymine units, strongly suggesting they came in pairs
1952 the Miller-Urey experiments show that organic molecules could be created out of a ‘primal soup’ and electricity
1953 Watson and Crick publish structure of DNA
1953 Barbara McClintock publishes evidence of transposable elements in DNA, aka transposons or jumping genes
1955 Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat and biophysicist Robley Williams showed that a functional virus could be created out of purified RNA and a protein coat.
1956 Arthur Kornberg isolated the first DNA polymerizing enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase I

1961 Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich J. Matthaei discover that DNA is used in sets of three called ‘codons’
1964 Robert Holley elucidates the structure of transfer RNA
1960s Werner Arber and Matthew Meselson isolate first restriction enzyme
1967 DNA ligase discovered, an enzyme capable of linking DNA into a ring such as is found in viruses
1967 Carl Woese suggests that RNA not only carries genetic information but has catalytic properties

1970 Hamilton O. Smith, Thomas Kelly and Kent Wilcox isolate the first type II restriction enzyme
1970 discovery of reverse transcriptase which converts RNA into DNA
1971 start if gene-splicing revolution when Paul Berg spliced part of a bacterial virus into a monkey virus
1972 Herbert Boyer splices DNA from Staphylococcus into E. Coli
1974 first transgenic mammal created by Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz
1974 development of ‘reverse genetics’ where you interefere with an organism’s DNA and see what happens
1976 first biotech company, Genentech, set up
1977 Boyer, Itakura and Riggs use recombinant DNA to produce a human protein
1977 Carl Woese proposes an entire new kingdom of life, the Archaea

1980 Charles Weissmann engineers the protein interferon using recombinant-DNA technology
1981 Racaniello and Baltimore used recombinant DNA technology to generate the first infectious clone of an animal RNA virus, poliovirus
1982 genetically engineered insulin becomes commercially available
1980s discovery of the function of proteasomes which break up unneeded or damaged proteins
1980s Ada Yonath and Heinz-Günter Wittman grow crystals from bacterial chromosomes
1985 Martin Caruthers and his team developed an automated DNA synthesiser
1985 Aaron Klug develops ‘zinc fingers’, proteins which bind to specific three-letter sequences of DNA

1996 proposed life on Mars on the basis of microbial ‘fossils’ found in rocks blown form Mars to earth – later disproved
1996 publication of the yeast genome
1997 Venter’s team publish the entire genome of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium
1997 Dolly the sheep is cloned (DNA from a mature sheep’s mammary gland was injected into an egg that had had its own nucleus removed; it was named Dolly in honour of Dolly Parton and her large mammary glands)
1998 Andrew Fire and Craig Cameron Mello showed that so-called ‘junk DNA’ codes for double stranded RNA which trigger or shut down other genes
1999 Harry F. Noller publishes the first images of a complete ribosome

2005 The structure and function of the bacterial chromosome by Thanbichler, Viollier and Shapiro
2007 publication of Synthetic Genomics: Options for Government
2008 Venter and team create a synthetic chromosome of a bacterium
2010 Venter’s team announce the creation of the first synthetic cell (described in detail in chapter 8)
2011 first structure of a eukaryotic ribosome published

Life at the speed of light

Anyway, this is a book with a thesis and a purpose. Or maybe two purposes, two sides of the same coin. One is to eradicate all irrational, magical beliefs in ‘vitalism’, to insist that life is nothing but chemistry. The other is for Venter to proclaim his bold visions of the future.

1. Anti-vitalism

The opening chapter had included a brief recap of the literature and fantasy of creating new life, Frankenstein etc. This turns out to be because Venter is a fierce critic of all traditions and moralists who believe in a unique life force. He is at pains to define and then refute the theory of vitalism – ‘the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces.’ Venter very powerfully believes the opposite: that ‘life’ consists of information about chemistry, and nothing more.

This, I think, is a buried motive for describing the experiments carried out at his own institute in such mind-numbing detail. It is to drill home the reality that life is nothing more than chemistry and information. If you insert the genome of one species into the cells of another they become the new species. They obey the genomic or chemical instructions. All life does. There is no mystery, no vital spark, no élan vital etc etc.

A digression on the origins of life

This is reinforced in chapter 9 where Venter gives a summary of the work of Jack W. Szostak into the origin of life.

Briefly, Szostak starts with the fact that lipid or fat molecules are spontaneously produced in nature. He shows that these tend to link up together to form ‘vesicles’ which also, quite naturally, form together into water-containing membranes. If RNA – which has been shown to also assemble spontaneously – gets into these primitive ‘cells’, then they start working, quite automatically, to attract other RNA molecules into the cell. As a result the cell will swell and, with a little shaking from wind or tide, replicate. Voilà! You have replicating cells containing RNA.

Venter then describes work that has been done into the origin of multicellularity i.e. cells clumping together to co-operate, which appears to have happened numerous times in the history of life, to give rise to a variety of multicellular lineages.

Venter goes on to describe one other major event in the history of life – symbiogenesis – ‘The theory holds that mitochondria, plastids such as chloroplasts, and possibly other organelles of eukaryotic cells represent formerly free-living prokaryotes taken one inside the other in endosymbiosis.’

In other words, at a number of seismic moments in the history of life, early eukaryotic cells engulfed microbial species that were living in symbiosis with them. Or to put it another way, early cells incorporated useful microbes which existed in their proximity, entirely into themselves.

The two big examples are:

  • some two billion years ago, when a eukaryotic cell incorporated into itself a photosynthetic bacterial algae cell which ultimately became the ‘chloroplast‘ – the site where photosynthesis takes place – in all successive plant species
  • and the fact that the ‘power packs’ of human cells, known as mitochondria, carry their own genetic code and have their own way of reproducing, indicating that they were taken over whole, not melded or merged but swallowed (it is now believed that human mitochondria derived from a specific bacterium, Rickettsia, which survives down to this day)

This information is fascinating in itself, but it is clearly included to join up with the detailed description of the work in his own institute in order to make the overwhelming case that life is just information and that DNA is the bearer of that information.

It obviously really irritates Venter that, despite the overwhelming weight of the evidence, people at large – journalists, philosophers, armchair moralists and religious believers – refuse to accept it, refuse to face the facts, and still believe there is something special about life, that humans, in particular, have a soul or spirit or other voodoo codswallop.

2. Creating life

The corollary of Venter’s insistence that there being nothing magical about ‘life’, is the confident way he interprets all the evidence he has so painstakingly described, and all the dazzling achievements he has been involved in, as having brought humanity to the brink of a New Age of Life, a New Epoch in the Evolution of Life on Earth.

We have now entered what I call ‘the digital age of biology’, in which once distinct domains of computer codes and those that program life are beginning to merge, where new synergies are emerging that will drive evolution in radical directions. (p.2)

The fusion of the digital world of the machine and that of biology would open up the remarkable possibilities for creating novel species and guiding future evolution. (p.109)

In the final chapters of this book Venter waxes very lyrical about the fantastic opportunities opening up for designing DNA on computers, modeling the behaviour of this artificial DNA, fine-tuning the design, and then building new synthetic organisms in the real world.

The practical applications know no limits, and on page 221 he lists some:

  • man-made organisms which could absorb the global warming CO2 in the air, or eat oil pollution, turning it into harmless chemicals
  • computer designing cures for diseases
  • designing crops that are resistant to drought, that can tolerate disease or thrive in barren environments, provide rich new sources of protein and other nutrients, can be harnessed for water purification in arid regions
  • designing animals that become sources for pharmaceuticals or spare body parts
  • customising human stem cells to regenerate damaged organs and bodies

Biological transformations

The final two chapters move beyond even these sci-fi goals to lay out some quite mind-boggling visions of the future. Venter builds on his institute’s achievements to date, and speculates about the kinds of technologies we can look forward to or which are emerging even as he writes.

The one that stuck in my mind is the scenario that, when the next variety of human influenza breaks out, doctors will only have to get a sample of the virus to a lab like Venter’s and a) they will now be able to work out its DNA sequence more or less the same day b) they will then be able to design a vaccine in a computer c) they will be able to create the DNA they have designed in the lab much faster than ever possible before but d) they will be able to email the design for this vaccine DNA anywhere in the world, at the speed of a telephone wire, at the speed of light.

That is what the title of the book means. New designs for synthesised life forms can now be developed in computers (which are working faster and faster) and then emailed wherever they’re required i.e. to the centre of the outbreak of a new disease, where labs will be able to use the techniques pioneered by Venter’s teams to culture and mass produce vaccines at record speeds.


Scientific myopia

I hate to rain on his parade, but I might as well lay out as clearly as I can the reasons why I am not as excited about the future as Venter. Why I am more a J.G. Ballard and John Gray man than a Venter man.

1. Most people don’t know or care Venter takes the position of many of the scientists I’ve been reading – from the mathematicians Alex Bellos and Ian Stewart through to the astrophysicists Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies and Paul Barrow, to the origin-of-life men Cairns-Smith and Addy Pross – that new discoveries in their fields are earth-shatteringly important and will make ordinary people stop in their tracks, and look at their neighbour on the bus or train and exclaim, ‘NOW I understand it! NOW I know the meaning of life! NOW I realise what it’s all about.’

A moment’s reflection tells you that this simply won’t happen. Einstein’s relativity, Schrödinger and Bohr’s quantum mechanics, the structure of DNA, cloning, the discovery of black holes – what is striking is how little impact most of these ‘seismic’ discoveries have had on most people’s lives or thinking.

Ask your friends and family which of the epic scientific discoveries of the 20th century I’ve listed above has made the most impact on their lives. Or they’ve even heard of. Or could explain.

2. Most people are not intellectuals This error (the notion that ordinary people are excited about scientific ‘breakthroughs’) is based on a deeper false premise, one of the great category errors common to all these kind of books and magazine articles and documentaries – which is that the authors think that everyone else in society is a university-educated intellectual like themselves, whereas, very obviously, they are not. Trump. Brexit. Most people in western democracies are not university-educated intellectuals.

3. Public debate is often meaningless Worse, university-educated intellectuals have a bad habit of believing that something called ‘education’ and ‘public debate’ will control the threat posed by these new technologies:

Opportunities for public debate and discussion on this topic must be sponsored, and the lay public must engage with the relevant issues. (p.215)

Famous last words. Look at the ‘debate’ surrounding Brexit. Have any of the thousands of articles, documentaries, speeches, books and tweets helped solve the situation? No.

‘Debate’ hardly ever solves anything. Clear-cut and affordable solutions which people can understand and get behind solve things.

4. A lot of people are nasty, some are evil Not only this but Venter, like all the other highly-educated, middle-class, liberal intellectuals I’ve mentioned, thinks that people are fundamentally nice – will welcome their discoveries, will only use them for the good of mankind, and so on.

Megalolz, as my kids would say. No. People are not nice. The Russians and the Chinese are using the internet to target other countries’ vital infrastructures, and sow misinformation. Islamist warriors are continually looking for ways to attack ‘the West’, the more spectacular, the more deaths, the better. In 2010 Israel is alleged to have carried out the first cyberattack on another nation’s infrastructure when it (allegedly) attacked a uranium enrichment facility at Iran’s Natanz underground nuclear site.

In other words, cyberspace is not at all a realm where high-minded intellectuals meet and debate worthy moral issues, and where synthetic biologists devise life-saving new vaccines and beam them to locations of epidemic outbreaks ‘at the speed of light’. Cyberspace is already a war zone.

And it is a warzone in a world which contains some nasty regimes, not just those which are in effect dictatorships (Iran, China) but even many of the so-called democracies.

Trump. Putin. Erdogan. Bolsonaro. Viktor Orban. These are all right-wing demagogues who were voted into power in democratic elections.

It seems to me that both the peoples, and the leaders, who Venter puts his faith in are simply not up to the job of understanding, using wisely or safeguarding, the speed of light technology he is describing.

Venter goes out of his way, throughout the book, to emphasise how socially responsible he and his Institute and his research have been, how they have taken part in, sponsored and contributed to umpteen conferences and seminars, alongside government agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, into the ‘ethics’ of conducting synthetic biology (i.e. designing and building new organisms) and into its risks (terrorists use it to create lethal biological weapons).

Indeed, most of chapter ten is devoted to the range of risks – basically, terrorist use or some kind of accident – which could lead to the release of harmful, synthesised organisms into the environment – accompanied by a lot of high-minded rhetoric about the need to ‘educate the public’ and ‘engage a lay audience’ and ‘exchange views’, and so on…

I believe that the issue of the responsible use of science is fundamental… (p.215)

Quite. But then the thousands of scientists and technicians who invented the atom bomb were highly educated, highly moral and highly responsible people, too. But it wasn’t them who funded it, deployed it and pushed the red button. Good intentions are not enough.


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What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)

I will attempt to show that the chasm separating biology and chemistry is bridgeable, that Darwinian theory can be integrated into a more general chemical theory of matter, and that biology is just chemistry, or to be more precise, a sub-branch of chemistry – replicative chemistry. (p.122)

Repetitive and prolix

This book is 190 pages long. It is much harder to read than it need be because Pross is a bad writer with very bad habits, namely 1. irritating repetition and 2. harking back and forward. The initial point which he repeats again and again in the first 120 pages is that nobody knows the secret of the origins of life and all previous attempts to solve it have been dead ends.

So, what can we conclude regarding the emergence of life on our planet? The short answer: almost nothing. (p.109)

We don’t know how to go about making life because we don’t really know what life is, and we don’t know what life is, because we don’t understand the principles that led to its emergence. (p.111)

The efforts to uncover probiotic-type chemistry, while of considerable interest in their own right, were never likely to lead us to the ultimate goal – understanding how life on earth emerged. (p.99)

Well, at the time of writing, the so-called Holy Grail (the Human Genome sequence) and the language of life that it was supposed to have taught us have not delivered the promised goods. (p.114)

But the systems biology approach has not proved a nirvana… (p.116)

Non-equilibrium thermodynamics has not proved to be the hoped-for breakthrough in seeking greater understanding of biological complexity. (p.119)

A physically based theory of life continues to elude us. (p.119)

While Conway’s Life game has opened up interesting insights into complex systems in general, direct insights into the nature of living systems do not appear to have been forthcoming. (p.120)

The book is so repetitive I though the author and his editor must have Alzheimer’s Disease. On page viii we are told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote a pithy little book titled What Is Life? which concluded that present-day physics and chemistry can’t explain the phenomenon of life. Then, on page xii, we’re told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger’ found the issue highly troublesome’. Then on page 3 that the issue ‘certainly troubled the great physicists of the century, amongst them Bohr, Schrödinger and Wigner’. Then on page 36, we learn that:

Erwin Schrödinger, the father of quantum mechanics, whose provocative little book What Is Life? we mentioned earlier, was particularly puzzled by life’s strange thermodynamic behaviour.

When it comes to Darwin we are told on page 8 that:

Darwin himself explicitly avoided the origin of life question, recognising that within the existing state of knowledge the question was premature.

and then, in case we have senile dementia or the memory of a goldfish, on page 35 he tells us that:

Darwin deliberately side-stepped the challenge, recognising that it could not be adequately addressed within the existing state of knowledge.

As to the harking back and forth, Pross is one of those writers who is continually telling you he’s going to tell you something, and then continually reminding you that he told you something back in chapter 2 or chapter 4 – but nowhere in the reading process do you actually get clearly stated the damn thing he claims to be telling.

As we mentioned in chapter 4…

As noted above…

I will say more on this point subsequently…

We will consider a possible resolution of this sticky problem in chapter 7…

As discussed in chapter 5… as we will shortly see… As we have already pointed out… As we have discussed in some detail in chapter 5…  described in detail in chapter 4…

In this chapter I will describe… In this chapter I will attempt…

I will defer this aspect of the discussion until chapter 8…

Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Shallow philosophy

It is a philosophy book written by a chemist. As such it comes over as extremely shallow and amateurish. Pross namechecks Wittgenstein, and (pointlessly) tells us that ‘tractatus’ is Latin for ‘treatise’ (p.48) – but fails to understand or engage with Wittgenstein’s thought.

My heart sank when I came to chapter 3, titled Understanding ‘understanding’ which boils down to a superficial consideration of the difference between a ‘reductionist’ and a ‘holistic’ approach to science, the general idea that science is based on reductionism i.e. reducing systems to their smallest parts and understanding their functioning before slowly building up in scale, whereas ‘holistic’ approach tries to look at the entire system in the round. Pross gives a brief superficial overview of the two approaches before concluding that neither one gets us any closer to an answer.

Instead of interesting examples from chemistry, shallow examples from ‘philosophy’

Even more irritating than the repetition is the nature of the examples. I thought this would be a book about chemistry but it isn’t. Pross thinks he is writing a philosophical examination of the meaning of life, and so the book is stuffed with the kind of fake everyday examples which philosophers use and which are a) deeply patronising b) deeply uninformative.

Thus on page x of the introduction Pross says imagine you’re walking through a field and you come across a refrigerator. He then gives two pages explaining how a refrigerator works and saying that you, coming across a fully functional refrigerator in the middle of a field, is about as probable as the purposeful and complex forms of life can have come about by accident.

Then he writes, Imagine that you get into a motor car. We only dare drive around among ‘an endless stream of vehicular metal’ on the assumption that the other drivers have purpose and intention and will stick to the laws of the highway code.

On page 20 he introduces us to the idea of a ‘clock’ and explains how a clock is an intricate mechanism made of numerous beautifully engineered parts but it will eventually break down. But a living organism on the other hand, can repair itself.

Then he says imagine you’re walking down the street and you bump into an old friend named Bill. He looks like Bill, he talks like Bill and yet – did you know that virtually every cell in Bill’s body has renewed itself since last time you saw him, because life forms have this wonderful ability to repair and renew themselves!

Later, he explains how a Boeing 747 didn’t come into existence spontaneously, but was developed from earlier plane designs, all ultimately stemming from the Wright brothers’ first lighter than air flying machine.

You see how all these examples are a) trite b) patronising c) don’t tell you anything at all about the chemistry of life.

He tells us that if you drop a rock out the window, it falls to the ground. And yet a bird can hover in the air merely by flapping its wings! For some reason it is able to resist the Second law of Thermodynamics! How? Why? Nobody knows!

Deliberately superficial

And when he does get around to explaining anything, Pross himself admits that he is doing it in a trivial, hurried, quick, sketchy way and leaving out most of the details.

I will spare the reader a detailed discussion…

These ideas were discussed with some enthusiasm some 20-30 years ago and without going into further detail…

If that sounds too mathematical, let’s explain the difference by recounting the classical legend of the Chinese emperor who was saved in battle by a peasant farmer. (p.64)

Only in the latter pages – only when he gets to propound his own theory from about page 130 – do you realise that he is not so much making a logical point as trying to get you to see the problem from an entirely new perspective. A little like seeing the world from the Marxist or the Freudian point of view, Pross believes himself to be in possession of an utterly new way of thinking which realigns all previous study and research and thinking on the subject. It is so far-ranging and wide-sweeping that it cannot be told consecutively.

And it’s this which explains the irritating sense of repetition and circling and his constant harking forward to things he’s going to tell you, and then harking back to things he claims to have explained a few chapters earlier. The first 130 pages are like being lost in a maze.

The problem of the origin of life

People have been wondering about the special quality of live things as opposed to dead things for as long as there have been people. Darwin discovered the basis of all modern thinking about life forms, which is the theory of evolution by natural selection. But he shied away from speculating on how life first came about.

Pross – in a typically roundabout manner – lists the ‘problems’ facing anyone trying to answer the question, What is life and how did it begin?

  • life breaks the second law of thermodynamics i.e. appears to create order out of chaos, as opposed to the Law which says everything tends in the opposite direction i.e. tends towards entropy
  • life can be partly defined by its sends of purpose: quite clearly inanimate objects do not have this
  • life is complex
  • life is organised

Put another way, why is biology so different from chemistry? How are the inert reactions of chemistry different from the purposive reactions of life? He sums this up in a diagram which appears several times:

He divides the move from non-life into complex life into two phases. The chemical phase covers the move from non-life to simple life, the biological phase covers the move from simple life to complex life. Now, we know that the biological phase is covered by the iron rules of Darwinian evolution – but what triggered, and how can we account for, the move from non-life to simple life? Hence a big ?

Pross’s solution

Then, on page 127, Pross finally introduces his Big Idea and spends the final fifty or so pages of the book showing how his theory addresses all the problem in existing ‘origin of life’ literature.

His idea begins with the established knowledge that all chemical reactions seek out the most ‘stable’ format.

He introduces us to the notion that chemists actually have several working definitions of ‘stability’, and then introduces us to a new one: the notion of dynamic kinetic stability, or DKS.

He describes experiments by Sol Spiegelman in the 1980s into RNA. This showed how the RNA molecule replicated itself outside of a living cell. That was the most important conclusion of the experiment. But they also found that the RNA molecules replicated but also span off mutations, generally small strands of of RNA, some of which metabolised the nutrients far quicker than earlier varieties. These grew at an exponential rate to swiftly fill the petri dishes and push the longer, ‘correct’ RNA to extinction.

For Pross what Spiegelman’s experiments showed was that inorganic dead chemicals can a) replicate b) replicate at exponential speed until they have established a situation of dynamic kinetic stability. He then goes on to equate his concept of dynamic kinetic stability with the Darwinian one of ‘fitness’. Famously, it is the ‘fit’ which triumph in the never-ending battle for existence. Well, Pross says this concept can be rethought of as, the population which achieves greatest dynamic kinetic stability – which replicates fast enough and widely enough – will survive, will be the fittest.

fitness = dynamic kinetic stability (p.141)

Thus Darwin’s ideas about the eternal struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest can be extended into non-organic chemistry, but in a particular and special way:

Just as in the ‘regular’ chemical world the drive of all physical and chemical systems is toward the most stable state, in the replicative world the drive is also toward the most stable state, but of the kind of stability applicable within that replicative world, DKS. (p.155)

Another way of looking at all this is via the Second Law. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has universally been interpreted as militating against life. Life is an affront to the Law, which says that all energy dissipates and seeks out the state of maximum diffusion. Entropy always triumphs. But not in life. How? Why?

But Pross says that, if molecules like his are capable of mutating and evolving – as the Sol Spiegelman experiments suggest – then they only appear to contradict the Second Law. In actual fact they are functioning in what Pross now declares is an entirely different realm of chemistry (and physics). The RNA replicating molecules are functioning in the realm of replicative chemistry. They are still inorganic, ‘dead’ molecules – but they replicate quickly, mutate to find the most efficient variants, and reproduce quickly towards a state of dynamic kinetic stability.

So what he’s trying to do is show how it is possible for long complex molecules which are utterly ‘dead’, nonetheless to behave in a manner which begins to see them displaying qualities more associated with the realm of biology:

  • ‘reproduction’ with errors
  • triumph of the fittest
  • apparent ‘purpose’
  • the ability to become more complex

None of this is caused by any magical ‘life force’ or divine intervention (the two bogeymen of life scientists), but purely as a result of the blind materialistic forces driving them to take most advantage of their environment i.e. use up all its nutrients.

Pross now takes us back to that two-step diagram of how life came about, shown above – Non-Life to Simple Life, Simple Life to Complex Life, labelled the Chemical Phase and the Biological Phase, respectively.

He recaps how the second phase – how simple life evolves greater complexity – can be explained using Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection: even the most primitive life forms will replicate until they reach the limits of the available food sources, at which point any mutation leading to even a fractional differentiation in the efficiency of processing food will give the more advanced variants an advantage. The rest is the three billion year history of life on earth.

It is phase one – the step from non-life to life – which Pross has (repeatedly) explained has given many of the cleverest biologists, physicists and chemists of the 20th century sleepless nights, and which – in chapters 3 and 4 – he runs through the various theories or approaches which have failed to deliver an answer to.

Well, Pross’s bombshell solution is simple. There are not two steps – there was only ever one step. The Darwinian mechanism by which the best adapted entity wins out in a given situation applies to inert chemicals as much as to life forms.

Let me now drop the bombshell… The so-called two-stage process is not two-stage at all. It is really just once, continuous process. (p.127) … what is termed natural selection within the biological world is also found to operate in the chemical world… (p.128)

Pross recaps the findings of that Spiegelman experiment, which was that the RNA molecules eventually made errors in their replication, and some of the erroneous molecules were more efficient at using up the nutrition in the test tube. After just a day, Spiegelman found the long RNA molecules – which took a long time to replicate – were being replaced by much shorter molecules which replicated much quicker.

There, in a nutshell, is Pross’s theory in action. Darwinian competition, previously thought to be restricted only to living organisms, can be shown to apply to inorganic molecules as well – because inorganic molecules themselves show replicating, ‘competitive’ behaviour.

For Pross this insight was confirmed in experiments conducted by Gerald Joyce in 2009, who showed that a variety of types of RNA, placed in a nutrient, replicated in such a way as to establish a kind of dynamic equilibrium, where each molecule established a chemical niche and thrived on some of the nutrients, while other RNA varieties evolved to thrive on other types. To summarise:

The processes of abiogenesis and evolution are actually one physicochemical process governed by one single mechanism, rather than two discrete processes governed by two different mechanisms. (p.136)

Or:

The study of simple replicating systems has revealed an extraordinary connection – that Darwinian theory, that quintessential biological principle, can be incorporated into a more general chemical theory of evolution, one that encompasses both living and non-living systems. it is that integration that forms the basis of the theory of life I propose. (p.162)

The remaining 50 or so pages work through the implications of this idea or perspective. For example he redefines the Darwinian notion of ‘fitness’ to be ‘dynamic kinetic stability’. In other words, the biological concept of ‘fitness’ turns out, in his theory, to be merely the biological expression of a ‘more general and fundamental chemical concept’ (p.141).

He works through a number of what are traditionally taken to be life’s attributes and reinterprets in the new terms he’s introduced, in terms of dynamic kinetic stability, replicative chemistry and so on. Thus he addresses life’s complexity, life’s instability, life’s dynamic nature, life’s diversity, life’s homochirality, life’s teleonomic character, the nature of consciousness, and speculating about what alien life would look like before summing up his theory. Again.

A solution to the primary question exists and is breathtakingly simple: life on earth emerged through the enormous kinetic power of the replication reaction acting on unidentified, but simple replicating systems, apparently composed of chain-like oligomeric substances, RNA or RNA-like, capable of mutation and complexification. That process of complexification took place because it resulted in the enhancement of their stability – not their thermodynamic stability, but rather the relevant stability in the world of replicating systems, their DKS. (p.183)

A thought about the second law

Pross has explained that the Second Law of Thermodynamics apparently militates against the spontaneous generation of life, in any form, because life is organised and the second law says everything tends towards chaos. But he comes up with an ingenious solution. If one of these hypothetical early replicating molecules acquired the ability to generate energy from light – it would effectively bypass the second law. It would acquire energy from outside the ‘system’ in which it is supposedly confined and in which entropy prevails.

The existence of an energy-gathering capacity within a replicating entity effectively ‘frees’ that entity from the constraints of the Second Law in much the same way that a car engine ‘free’s a car from gravitational constrains. (p.157)

This insight shed light on an old problem, and on a fragment of the overall issue – but it isn’t enough by itself to justify his theory.

Thoughts

Several times I nearly threw away the book in my frustration before finally arriving at the Eureka moment about page 130. From there onwards it does become a lot better. As you read Pross you have the sense of a whole new perspective opening up on this notorious issue.

However, as with all these theories, you can’t help thinking that if his theory had been at all accepted by the scientific community – then you’d have heard about it by now.

If his theory really does finally solve the Great Mystery of Life which all the greatest minds of humanity have laboured over for millennia… surely it would be a bit better known, or widely accepted by his peers?

The theory relies heavily on results from Sol Spiegelman’s experiments with RNA in the 1980s. Mightn’t Spiegelman himself, or other tens of thousands of other biologists, have noticed its implications in the thirty odd years between the experiments and Pross’s book?

And if Pross has solved the problem of the origin of life, how come so many other, presumably well-informed and highly educated scientists, are still researching the ‘problem’?

(By the way, the Harvard website optimistically declares that:

Thanks to advances in technologies in these areas, answers to some of the compelling questions surrounding the origins of life in the universe were now possibly within reach… Today a larger team of researchers have joined this exciting biochemical ‘journey through the Universe’ to unravel one of humankind’s most compelling mysteries – the origins of life in the Universe.

Possibly within reach’, lol. Good times are always just around the corner in the origins-of-life industry.)

So I admit to being interested by pages 130 onwards of his book, gripped by the urgency with which he tells his story, gripped by the vehemence of his presentation, in the same way you’d be gripped by a thriller while you read it. But then you put it down and forget about it, going back to your everyday life. Same here.

It’s hard because it is difficult to keep in mind Pross’s slender chain of argumentation. It rests on the two-stage diagram – on Pross’s own interpretation of the Spiegelman experiments – on his special idea of dynamic kinetic stability – and on the idea of replicative chemistry.

All of these require looking at the problem through is lens, from his perspective – for example agreeing with the idea that the complex problem of the origin of life can be boiled down to that two-stage diagram; this is done so that we can then watch him pull the rabbit out of the hat by saying it needn’t be in two stages after all! So he’s address the problem of the diagram. But it is, after all, just one simplistic diagram.

Same with his redefining Darwin’s notion of ‘fitness’ as being identical to his notion of dynamic kinetic stability. Well, if he says so. but in science you have to get other scientists to agree with you, preferably by offering tangible proof.

These are more like tricks of perspective than a substantial new theory. And this comes back to his rhetorical strategy of repetition, to the harping on the same ideas.

The book argues its case less with evidence (there is, in the end, very little scientific ‘evidence’ for his theory – precisely two experiments, as far as I can see), but more by presenting a raft of ideas in their current accepted form (for 130 boring pages), and then trying to persuade you to see them all anew, through his eyes, from his perspective (in the final 50 pages). As he summarises it (yet again) on page 162:

The emergence of life was initiated by the emergence of a single replicating system, because that seemingly inconsequentual event opened the door to a distinctly different kind of chemistry – replicative chemistry. Entering the world of replicative chemistry reveals the existence of that other kind of stability in nature, the dynamic kinetic stability of things that are good at making more of themselves.Exploring the world of replicative chemistry helps explain why a simple primordial replicating system would have been expected to complexify over time. The reason: to increase its stability – its dynamic kinetic stability (DKS).

Note the phrase’ entering the world of replicative chemistry…’ – It sounds a little like ‘entering the world of Narnia’. It is almost as if he’s describing a religious conversion. All the facts remain the same, but new acolytes now see them in a totally different light.

Life then is just the chemical consequences that derive from the power of exponential growth operating on certain replicating chemical systems. (p.164)

(I am quoting Pross at length because I don’t want to sell his ideas short; I want to convey them as accurately as possible, and in his own words.)

Or, as he puts it again a few pages later (you see how his argument proceeds by, or certainly involves a lot of, repetition):

Life then is just a highly intricate network of chemical reactions that has maintained its autocatalytic capability, and, as already noted, that complex network emerged one step at a time starting from simpler netowrks. And the driving force? As discussed in earlier chapter, it is the drive toward greater DKS, itself based on the kinetic power of replication, which allows replicating chemical systems to develop into ever-increasing complex and stable forms. (p.185)

It’s all reasonably persuasive when you’re reading the last third of his book – but oddly forgettable once you put it down.

Fascinating facts and tasty terminology

Along the way, the reader picks up a number of interesting ideas.

  • Panspermia – the theory that life exists throughout the universe and can be carried on meteors, comets etc, and one of these landed and seeded life on earth
  • every adult human is made up of some ten thousand billion cells; but we harbour in our guts and all over the surface of our bodies ten times as many – one hundred thousand bacteria. In an adult body hundreds of billions of new cells are created daily in order to replace the ones that die on a daily basis
  • in 2017 it was estimated there may be as many as two billion species of bacteria on earth
  • the Principle of Divergence – many different species are generated from a few sources
  • teleonomy – the quality of apparent purposefulness and goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms
  • chiral – an adjective meaning a molecule’s mirror image is not superimposable upon the molecule itself: in fact molecules often come in mirror-image formations, known as left and right-handed
  • racemic – a racemic mixture, or racemate, is one that has equal amounts of left- and right-handed enantiomers of a chiral molecule.
  • reductionist – analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents
  • holistic – the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole
  • Second Law of Thermodynamics – ‘in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state.’ This is also commonly referred to as entropy
  • the thermodynamic consideration – chemical reactions will only take place if the reaction products are of lower free energy than the reactants
  • catalyst – a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change
  • catalytic – requires an external catalyst to spark a chemical reaction
  • auocatalytic – a reaction which catalyses itself
  • cross-catalysis – two chemicals trigger reactions in each other
  • static stability – water, left to itself, is a stable chemical compound
  • dynamic stability – a river is always a river even though it is continually changing
  • prebiotic earth – earth before life
  • abiogenesis – the process whereby life was derived from non-living chemicals
  • systems chemistry – the chemical reactions of replicating molecules and the networks they create
  • the competitive exclusion principle – complete competitors cannot co-exist, or, Ecological differentiation is th enecessary condition for co-existence

Does anyone care?

Pross thinks the fact that biologists and biochemists can’t account for the difference between complex but inanimate molecules, and the simplest actual forms of life – bacteria – is a Very Important Problem. He thinks that:

Until the deep conceptual chasm that continues to separate living and non-living is bridged, until the two sciences – physics and biology – can merge naturally, the nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe, will continue to remain gnawingly uncertain. (p.42)

‘Gnawingly’. Do you feel the uncertainty about whetherbiology and physics can be naturally merged is gnawing away at you? Or, as he puts it in his opening sentences:

The subject of this book addresses basic questions that have transfixed and tormented humankind for millennia, ever since we sought to better understand our place in the universe – the nature of living things and their relationship to the non-living. The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated – it would reveal to us not just who and what we are, but would impact on our understanding of the universe as a whole. (p.viii)

I immediately disagreed. ‘The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated’? Yes it can. Maybe, just maybe – it is not very important at all.

What do we mean by ‘important’, anyway? Is it important to you, reading this review, to realise that the division between the initial, chemical phase of the origin of life and the secondary, biological phase, is in fact a delusion, and that both processes can be accounted for by applying Darwinian selection to supposedly inorganic chemicals?

If you tried to tell your friends and family 1. how easy would you find it to explain? 2. would you seriously expect anyone to care?

Isn’t it, in fact, more likely that the laws or rules or theories about how life arose from inanimate matter are likely to be so technical, so specialised and so hedged around with qualifications, that only highly trained experts can really understand them?

Maybe Pross has squared the circle and produced a feasible explanation of the origins of life on earth. Maybe this book really is – The Answer! But in which case – why hasn’t everything changed, why hasn’t the whole human race breathed a collective sigh of relief and said, NOW we understand how it all started, NOW we know what it all means, NOW I understand who I am and my place in the universe?

When I explained Pross’s theory, in some detail, to my long-suffering wife (who did a life sciences degree) she replied that, quite obviously chemistry and biology are related; anyone who’s studied biology knows it is based on chemistry. She hardly found it ‘an extraordinary connection’. When I raised it with my son, who is studying biology at university, he’d never heard of Pross or his theory.

So one’s final conclusion is that our understanding of ‘The nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe’ has remained remarkably unchanged by this little book and will, in all likelihood, remain so.


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Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985)

The topic of the origin of life on the Earth is a branch of mineralogy. (p.99)

How did life begin? To be more precise, how did the inorganic chemicals formed in the early years of planet earth, on the molten rocks or in the salty sea or in the methane atmosphere, transform into ‘life’ – complex organisms which extract food from the environment and replicate, and from which all life forms today are ultimately descended? What, when and how was that first momentous step taken?

Thousands of biologists have devoted their careers to trying to answer this question, with the result that there are lots of speculative theories.

Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith (1931-2016) was an organic chemist and molecular biologist at the University of Glasgow, and this 120-page book was his attempt to answer the Big Question.

In a nutshell he suggested that life derived from self-replicating clay crystals. To use Wikipedia’s summary:

Clay minerals form naturally from silicates in solution. Clay crystals, like other crystals, preserve their external formal arrangement as they grow, snap, and grow further.

Clay crystal masses of a particular external form may happen to affect their environment in ways that affect their chances of further replication. For example, a ‘stickier’ clay crystal is more likely to silt up a stream bed, creating an environment conducive to further sedimentation.

It is conceivable that such effects could extend to the creation of flat areas likely to be exposed to air, dry, and turn to wind-borne dust, which could fall randomly in other streams.

Thus – by simple, inorganic, physical processes – a selection environment might exist for the reproduction of clay crystals of the ‘stickier’ shape.

Cairns-Smith’s book is densely argued, each chapter like a lecture or seminar packed with suggestive evidence about what we know about current life forms, a summary of the principles underlying Darwin’s theory of evolution, and about how we can slowly move backwards along the tree of life, speculating about how it developed.

But, as you can see from the summary above, in the end, it is just another educated guess.

Detective story

The blurb on the back and the introduction both claim the book is written in the style of a detective story. Oh no it isn’t. It is written in the style of a biology book – more precisely, a biology book which is looking at the underlying principles of life, the kind of abstract engineering principles underlying life – and all of these take quite some explaining, drawing in examples from molecular biology where required.

Sometimes (as in chapter 4 where he explains in detail how DNA and RNA and amino acids and proteins interact within a living cell) it becomes quite a demanding biology book.

What the author and publisher presumably mean is that, in attempt to sweeten the pill of a whole load of stuff about DNA and ribosomes, Cairns-Smith starts every chapter with a quote from a Sherlock Holmes story and from time to time claims to be pursuing his goal with Holmesian deduction.

You see Holmes, far from going for the easy bits first, would positively seek out those features in a case that were seemingly incomprehensible – ‘singular’ features he would call them… I think that the origin of life is a Holmesian problem. (p.ix)

Towards the very end, he remembers this metaphor and talks about ‘tracking down the suspect’ and ‘making an arrest’ (i.e. of the first gene machine, the origin of life). But this light dusting of Holmesiana doesn’t do much to conceal the sometimes quite demanding science, and the relentlessly pedagogical tone of the book.

Broad outline

1. Panspermia

First off, Cairns-Smith dismisses some of the other theories about the origin of life. He makes short work of the theories of Fred Hoyle and Francis Crick that organic life might have arrived on earth from outer space, carried in dust clouds or on meteors etc (Crick’s version of this was named ‘Panspermia’) . I agree with Cairns-Smith that all variations on this hypothesis just relocate the problem somewhere else, but don’t solve it.

Cairns-Smith states the problem in three really fundamental facts:

  1. There is life on earth
  2. All known living things are at root the same (using the same carbon-based energy-gathering and DAN-replicating biochemistry)
  3. All known living things are very complicated

2. The theory of chemical evolution

In his day (the 1970s and 80s) the theory of ‘chemical evolution’ was widely thought to address the origin of life problem. This stated that lot of the basic amino acids and sugars which we find in organisms are relatively simple and so might well have been created by accident in the great sloshing oceans and lakes of pre-life earth, and that they then – somehow – came together to make more complex molecules which – somehow – learned how to replicate.

But it’s precisely on the vagueness of that ‘somehow’ that Cairns-Smith jumps. The leap from a random soup of semi-amino acids washing round in a lake and the immensely detailed and complex machinery of life demonstrated by even a tiny living organism – he selects the bacterium Escherichia coli – is just too vast a cliff face to have been climbed at random, by accident. It’s like saying if you left a bunch of wires and bits of metal sloshing around in a lake long enough they would eventually make a MacBook Air.

Cairns-Smith zeroes in on four keys aspects of life on earth which help to disprove the ‘chemical evolution’ theory.

  1. Life forms are complex systems. It is the whole machine which makes sense of its components.
  2. The systems are highly interlocked: catalysts are needed to make proteins, but proteins are needed to make catalysts; nucleic acids are needed to make proteins, yet proteins are needed to make nucleic acids;
  3. Life forms are very complex.
  4. The system is governed by rules and conventions: the exact choice of the amino acid alphabet and the set of assignments of amino acid letters to nucleic acid words are examples.

3. The Miller-Urey experiments

Cairns-Smith then critiques the theory derived from the Miller-Urey experiments.

In 1953 a graduate student, Stanley Miller, and his professor, Harold Urey, performed an experiment that demonstrated how organic molecules could have spontaneously formed from inorganic precursors, under conditions like those posited by the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis. The now-famous ‘Miller–Urey experiment’ used a highly reduced mixture of gases – methane, ammonia and hydrogen – to form basic organic monomers, such as amino acids. (Wikipedia)

Cairns-Smith spends four pages comprehensively demolishing this approach by showing that:

  1. the ultraviolet light its exponents claim could have helped synthesise organic molecules is in fact known to break covalent bonds and so degrade more than construct complex molecules
  2. regardless of light, most organic molecules are in fact very fragile and degrade easily unless kept in optimum conditions (i.e. inside a living cell)
  3. even if some organic molecules were created, organic chemists know only too well that there are hundreds of thousands of ways in which carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen can combine, and most of them result in sticky sludges and tars in which nothing could ‘live’

So that:

  1. Only some of the molecules of life can be made this way
  2. Most of the molecules that would be made this way are emphatically not the ‘molecules of life’
  3. The ‘molecules of life’ are usually better made under conditions far most favourable than those obtaining back in the primordial soup era

He then does some back-of-a-matchbox calculations to speculate about how long it would take a random collection of organic molecules to ‘happen’ to all tumble together and create a life form: longer than the life of the universe, is his conclusion. No, this random approach won’t work.

Preliminary principles

Instead, he suggests a couple of principles of his own:

  1. That some and maybe all of the chemicals we now associate with ‘life’ were not present in the first replicating organisms; they came later; their exquisitely delicate interactivity suggests that they are the result not the cause of evolution
  2. Therefore, all lines of investigation which seek to account for the presence of the molecules of life are putting the cart before the horse: it isn’t the molecules which are important – it is the mechanism of replication with errors

Cairns-Smith thinks we should put the molecules of life question completely to one side, and instead seek for entirely inorganic systems which would replicate, with errors, so that the errors would be culled and more efficient ways of replicating tend to thrive on the available source material, beginning to create that dynamism and ‘sense of purpose’ which is one of life’s characteristics.

We keep coming to this idea that at some earlier phase of evolution, before life as we know it, there were other kinds of evolving system, other organisms that, in effect, invented our system. (p.61)

This seems, intuitively, like a more satisfying approach. Random forces will never make a MacBook Air and, as he has shown in chapter 4, even an entity like Escherichia coli is so staggeringly complex and amazingly finely-tuned as to be inconceivable as the product of chance.

Trying to show that complex molecules like ribosomes or RNA or amino acids – which rely on each other to be made and maintained, which cannot exist deprived of the intricately complicated interplay within each living cell – came about by chance is approaching the problem the wrong way. All these complex organic molecules must be the result of evolution. Evolution itself must have started with something much, much simpler – with the ‘invention’ of the basic engine, motor, the fundamental principle – and this is replication with errors. In other words:

Evolution started with ‘low-tech’ organisms that did not have to be, and probably were not made from, ‘the molecules of life’. (p.65)

Crystals

And it is at this point that Cairns-Smith introduces his Big Idea – the central role of clay crystals – in a chapter titled, unsurprisingly, ‘Crystals’ (pp.75-79).

He now explains in some detail the surprisingly complicated and varied world of clay crystals. These naturally form in various solutions and, if splashed up onto surfaces like rocks or stones, crystallise out into lattices, but the crystallisation process also commonly involves errors and mutations.

His description of the different types of crystals and their properties is fascinating – who knew there were so many types, shapes, patterns and processes, starting with an introduction to the processes of saturation and super-saturation. The point is that crystals naturally occur and naturally mutate. He lists the ways they can vary or diverge from their ‘pure’ forms: twinning, stacking errors, cation substitutions, growth in preferred directions, break-up along preferred planes (p.97).

There follows a chapter about the prevalence of crystals in mud and clay and, therefore, their widespread presence in the conditions of the early planet earth.

And then, finally, he explains the big leap whereby replicating crystals may have attracted to themselves other molecules.

There follows a process of natural selection for clay crystals that trap certain forms of molecules to their surfaces that may enhance their replication potential. Complex proto-organic molecules can be catalysed by the surface properties of silicates.

Genetic takeover of the crystals

It is at this point that he introduces the idea of a ‘genetic takeover’.

When complex molecules perform a ‘genetic takeover’ from their clay ‘vehicle’, they become an independent locus of replication – an evolutionary moment that might be understood as the first exaptation.

(Exaptation = ‘the process by which features acquire functions for which they were not originally adapted or selected’)

Cairns-Smith had already described this process – the ‘genetic takeover’ of an initial, non-organic process by more complex, potentially organic molecules – in his earlier, longer and far more technical book, Genetic Takeover: And the Mineral Origins of Life, published in 1982.

This book – the Seven Clues – is a much shorter, non-technical and more accessible popularisation of the earlier tome. Hence the frivolous references to Sherlock Holmes.

Proliferating crystals form the scaffold for molecules which learn to replicate without them

The final chapter explains how these very common and proliferating entities (clay crystals) might have formed into structures and arrangements which attracted – for purely chemical reasons – various elementary organic molecules to themselves.

Certain repeating structures might attract molecules which then build up into more complex molecules, into molecules which are more efficient at converting the energy of the sun into further molecular combinations. And thus the principle of replication with variation, and competition for resources among the various types of replicating molecule, would have been established.

Thoughts

At this point the book ends, his case presented. It has been a fascinating journey because a) it is interesting to learn about all the different shapes and types of clay crystal b) he forces the reader to think about the fundamental engineering and logistical aspects of life forms, to consider the underlying principles which must inform all life forms, which is challenging and rewarding.

But, even in his own terms, Cairns-Smith’s notion of more and more complex potentially organic molecules being haphazardly replicated on a framework of proliferating clay crystals is still a long, long, long way from even the most primitive life forms known to us, with their vastly complex structure of cell membrane, nucleus and internal sea awash with DNA-controlled biochemical processes.


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The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

The short paper by James Watson and Francis Crick establishing the helical structure of the DNA molecule was published in the science journal, Nature, on April 25, 1953. The blurb of this book describes it as the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Quite probably, although it was a busy century – the discovery of antibiotics was quite important, too, not to mention the atom bomb.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their DNA model at the Cavendish Laboratories in 1953

Anyway, what makes this first-person account of the events leading up to the discovery such fun is Watson’s prose style and mentality. He is fearless. He takes no prisoners. He is brutally honest about his own shortcomings and everyone else’s and, in doing so, sheds extraordinarily candid light on how science is actually done. He tells us that foreign conferences where nobody speaks English are often pointless. Many scientists are just plain stupid. Some colleagues are useless, some make vital contributions at just the right moment.

Watson has no hesitation in telling us that, when he arrived in Cambridge in 1951, aged just 23, he was unqualified in almost every way – although he had a degree from the University of Chicago, he had done his best to avoid learning any physics or chemistry, and as a graduate student at Indiana he had also avoided learning any chemistry. In fact the book keeps referring to his astonishing ignorance of almost all the key aspects of the field he was meant to be studying.

The one thing he did have was a determination to solve the problem which had been becoming ever-more prominent in the world of biology, what is a gene? Watson says he was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s 1946 book, What Is Life? which pointed out that ‘genes’ were the key component of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must understand what genes are and how they work. The bacteriologist O.T. Avery had already shown that hereditary traits were passed from one bacterium to another by purified DNA molecules, so this much was common knowledge in the scientific community.

DNA was probably the agent of hereditary traits, but what did it look like and how did it work?

Our hero gets a U.S. government research grant to go to Copenhagen to study with biochemist Herman Kalckar, his PhD supervisor Salvador Luria hoping the Dane would teach him something but… no. Watson’s interest wasn’t sparked, partly because Kalckar was working on the structure of nucleotides, which young Jim didn’t think were immediately relevant to his quest, also because Herman was hard to understand –

At times I stood about nervously while Herman went through the motions of a biochemist, and on several days I even understood what he said. (p.34)

A situation compounded when Herman began to undergo a painful divorce and his mind wandered from his work altogether.

It was a chance encounter at a conference in Naples that motivated Watson to seek out the conducive-sounding environment of Cambridge (despite the reluctance of his funding authorities back in the States to let him go so easily). John Kendrew, the British biochemist and crystallographer, at that point studying the structure of myoglobin, helped smooth his passage to the fens.

Head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where Watson now found himself was Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography. The unit collecting X-ray diffraction photographs of haemoglobin was headed up by the Austrian Max Perutz, and included Francis Crick, at this stage (in 1951) 35-years-old and definitely an acquired taste. Indeed the famous opening sentence of the book is:

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.

followed by the observation that:

he talked louder and faster than anybody else, and when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious.

So he had found a home of sorts and, in Francis Crick, a motormouth accomplice who was also obsessed by DNA – but there were two problems.

  1. The powers that be didn’t like Crick, who was constantly getting into trouble and nearly got thrown out when he accused the head of the lab, Bragg, of stealing one of his ideas in a research paper.
  2. Most of the work on the crystallography of DNA was being done at King’s College, London, where Maurice Wilkins had patiently been acquiring X-rays of the molecule for nearly ten years.

There was a sub-problem here which was that Wilkins was being forced to work alongside Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, who was an independent-minded 31-year-old woman (b.1920) and under the impression that she had been invited in to lead the NA project. The very young Watson and the not-very-securely-based Crick both felt daunted at having to ask to borrow and interpret Wilkins’s material, not least because he himself would have to extract it from the sometimes obstreperous Franklin.

And in fact there was a third big problem, which was that Linus Pauling, probably the world’s leading chemist and based at Cal Tech in the States, was himself becoming interested in the structure of DNA and the possibility that it was the basis of the much-vaunted hereditary material.

Pauling’s twinkling eyes and dramatic flair when making presentations is vividly described (pp.37-8). Along the same lines, Watson later gives a deliberately comical account of how he is scoffed and ignored by the eminent biochemist Erwin Chargaff after making some (typically) elementary mistakes in basic chemical bonding.

It is fascinating to read the insights scattered throughout the book about the relative reputations of the different areas of science – physics, biology, biochemistry, crystallography and so on. Typical comments are:

  • ‘the witchcraft-like techniques of the biochemist’, p.63
  • ‘In England, if not everywhere, most botanists and zoologists were a muddled lot.’ p.63

In a typical anecdote, after attending a lecture in London given by Franklin about her work, Watson goes for a Chinese meal in Soho with Maurice Wilkins who is worried that he made a mistake moving into biology, compared to the exciting and well-funded world of physics.

The physics of the time was dominated by the aftershock of the massive wartime atom bomb project, and with ongoing work to develop both the H-bomb and peacetime projects for nuclear power.

During the war Wilkins had helped to develop improved radar screens at Birmingham, then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Now he was stuck in a dingy lab in King’s College arguing with Franklin almost every day about who should use the best samples of DNA and the X-ray equipment and so on. (Later on, Watson tells us Wilkins’ and Franklin’s relationship deteriorated so badly that he (Watson) was worried about lending the London team the Cambridge team’s wire models in case Franklin strangled Wilkins with them. At one point, when Watson walks in on Franklin conducting an experiment, she becomes so angry at him he is scared she’s going to attack him. Wilkins confirms there have been occasions when he has run away in fear of her assaulting him.)

It’s in this respect – the insights into the way the lives of scientists are as plagued by uncertainty, professional rivalry, and doubts about whether they’re in the right job, or researching the right subject, gnawing envy of more glamorous, better-funded labs and so on – that the book bursts with insight and human interest.

Deoxyribonucleic acid

By about page 50 Watson has painted vivid thumbnail portraits of all the players involved in the story, the state of contemporary scientific knowledge, and the way different groups or individuals (Wilkins, Franklin, Pauling, Crick and various crystallographer associates at the Cavendish) are all throwing around ideas and speculations about the structure of DNA, on bus trips, in their freezing cold digs, or over gooseberry pie at their local pub, the Eagle in Cambridge (p.75).

For the outsider, I think the real revelation is learning how very small the final achievement of Crick and Watson seems. Avery had shown that DNA was the molecule of heredity. Chergaff had shown it contained equal parts of the four bases. Wilkins and Franklin had produced X-ray photos which strongly hinted at the structure and the famous photo 51 from their lab put it almost beyond doubt that DNA had a helix structure. Pauling, in America, had worked out the helical structure of other long proteins and had now began to speculate about DNA (although Watson conveys his and Crick’s immense relief that Pauling’s paper on the subject, published in early 1953, betrayed some surprisingly elementary mistakes in its chemistry.) But the clock was definitely ticking very loudly, rivals were closing in on the answer, and the pages leading up to the breakthrough are genuinely gripping.

In other words, the final deduction of the double helix structure doesn’t come out of the blue; the precise opposite; from Watson’s account it seems like it would have only been a matter of time before one or other of these groups had stumbled across the correct structure.

But it is very exciting when Watson comes into work one day, clears all the clutter from his desk and starts playing around with pretty basic cardboard cutouts of the four molecules which, by now, had become strongly associated with DNA, adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine.

Suddenly, in a flash, he sees how they assemble the molecules naturally arrange themselves into pairs linked by hydrogen bonds – adenine with thymine and cytosine with guanine.

For a long time they’d been thinking the helix had one strand at the core and that the bases stuck out from it, like quills on a porcupine. Now, in a flash, Watson realises that the the base pairs, which join together so naturally, form a kind of zip, and the bands of sugar-phosphates holding the thing together run along the outside – creating a double helix shape.

The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structures of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. (Source: Wikipedia)

Conclusion

I am not qualified to summarise the impact of the discovery of DNA has had on the world. Maybe it would take books to do so adequately. I’ll quote the book’s blurb:

By elucidating the structure of DNA, the molecule underlying all life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionised biochemistry. At the time, Watson was only 24. His uncompromisingly honest account of those heady days lifts the lid on the real world of great scientists, with their very human faults and foibles, their petty rivalries and driving ambition. Above all, he captures the extraordinary excitement of their desperate efforts to beat their rivals at King’s College to the solution to one of the great enigmas of the life sciences.

The science is interesting, but has been overtaken and superseded generations ago. It’s the characters and the atmosphere of the time (the dingy English rooms with no heating, the appalling English food), the dramatic reality of scientific competition, and then the genuinely exciting pages leading up to the breakthrough which makes Watson’s book such a readable classic.

Rosalind Franklin

I marked all the places in the text where a feminist might explode with anger. Both Watson, but even more Crick, assume pretty young girls are made for their entertainment. They are referred to throughout as ‘popsies’ and Crick in particular, although married, betrays an endless interest in the pretty little secretaries and au pairs which adorn Cambridge parties.

It is through this patronising and sexist prism that the pair judged the efforts of Franklin who was, reasonably enough, a hard-working scientist not at all interested in her appearance or inclined to conform to gender stereotypes of the day. She felt marginalised and bullied at the King’s College lab, and irritated by the ignorance and superficiality of most of Watson and Crick’s ideas, untainted as they were by any genuine understanding of the difficult art of X-ray crystallography – an ignorance which Watson, to his credit, openly admits.

Eventually, Franklin found working with Wilkins so intolerable that she left to take up a position at Birkbeck College and then, tragically, discovered she had incurable cancer, although she worked right up to her death in April 1958.

Franklin has become a feminist heroine, a classic example of a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world, patronised by everyone around her. But if you forget her gender and just think of her as the scientist called Franklin, it is still a story of misunderstandings and poisonous professional relations such as I’ve encountered in numerous workplaces. Watson and Crick’s patronising tone must have exacerbated the situation, but the fundamental problem was that she was given clear written instructions that she would be in charge of the X-ray crystallography at King’s College but then discovered that Wilkins thought he had full control of the project. This was a management screw-up more than anything else.

It does seem unfair that she wasn’t cited in the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962, but then she had died in 1958, and the Swedish Academy had a simple rule of not awarding the prize to dead people.

Still, it’s not like her name has disappeared from the annals of history. Quite the reverse:

Impressive list, don’t you think?

And anyone who hasn’t read the book might be easily persuaded that she was an unjustly victimised, patronised and ignored figure. But just to set the record straight, Watson chooses to end the entire book not with swank about his and Crick’s later careers, but with a tribute to Franklin’s character and scientific achievement.

In 1958, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of thirty-seven. Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements. The X-ray work she did at King’s is increasingly regarded as superb. The sorting out of the A and B forms [of DNA], by itself, would have made her reputation; even better was her 1952 demonstration, using Patterson superposition methods, that the phosphate groups must be on the outside of the DNA molecule. Later, when she moved to Bernal’s lab, she took up work on tobacco mosaic virus and quickly extended our qualitative ideas about helical construction into a precise quantitative picture, definitely establishing the essential helical parameters and locating the ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis.

Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis, to whom she frequently came for advice or when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realising years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosalind’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death. (p.175)

That is a fine, generous and moving tribute, don’t you think? And as candid and honest as the rest of the book in admitting his and Crick’s complete misreading of her situation and character.

In a literal sense the entire book leads up to this final page [these are the last words of the book] and this book became a surprise bestseller and the standard source to begin understanding the events surrounding the discovery. So it’s hard to claim that her achievement was ‘suppressed’ or ‘ignored’ when this is the climax of the best-selling account of the story.


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The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements by Peter Atkins (1995)

Chemistry is the science of changes in matter. (p.37)

At just under 150 pages long, A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements is intended as a novel and imaginative introduction to the 118 or so chemical elements which are the basic components of chemistry, and which, for the past 100 years or so, have been laid out in the grid arrangement known as the periodic table.

The periodic table explained

Just to refresh your memory, it’s called the periodic table because it is arranged into rows called ‘periods’. These are numbered 1 to 7 down the left-hand side.

What is a period? The ‘period number’ of an element signifies ‘the highest energy level an electron in that element occupies (in the unexcited state)’. To put it another way, the ‘period number’ of an element is its number of atomic orbitals. An orbital is the number of orbital positions an electron can take around the nucleus. Think of it like the orbit of the earth round the sun.

For each element there is a limited number of these ‘orbits’ which electrons can take up. Hydrogen, in row one, can only have one electron because it only has one possible orbital for an electron to take up around its nucleus. All the elements in row 2 have two orbitals for their electrons, and so on.

Sodium, for instance, sits in the third period, which means a sodium atom typically has electrons in the first three energy levels. Moving down the table, periods are longer because it takes more electrons to fill the larger and more complex outer levels.

The columns of the table are arranged into ‘groups’ from 1 to 18 along the top. Elements that occupy the same column or group have the same number of electrons in their outer orbital. These outer electrons are called ‘valence electrons’. The electrons in the outer orbital are the first ones to be involved in chemical bonds with other elements; they are relatively easy to dislodge, the ones in the lower orbitals progressively harder.

Elements with identical ‘valance electron configurations’ tend to behave in a similar fashion chemically. For example, all the elements in group or column 18 are gases which are slow to interact with other chemicals and so are known as the inert gases – helium, neon etc. Atkins describes the amazing achievement of the Scottish chemist William Ramsey in discovering almost all the inert gases in the 1890s.

Although there are 18 columns, the actual number of electrons in the outer orbital only goes up to 8. Take nitrogen in row 2 column 15. Nitrogen has the atomic number seven. The atomic number means there are seven electrons in a neutral atom of nitrogen. How many electrons are in its outer orbital? Although nitrogen is in the fifteenth column, that column is actually labelled ‘5A’. 5 represents the number of electrons in the outer orbital. So all this tells you that nitrogen has seven electrons in two orbitals around the nucleus, two in the first orbital and five in the second (2-5).

 

The Periodic Table. Karl Tate © LiveScience.com

Note that each element has two numbers in its cell. The one at the top is the atomic number. This is the number of protons in the nucleus of the element. Note how the atomic number increases in a regular, linear manner, from 1 for hydrogen at the top left, to 118 for Oganesson at the bottom right. After number 83, bismuth, all the elements are radioactive.

(N.B. When Atkins’s book was published in 1995 the table stopped at number 109, Meitnerium. As I write this, 24 years later, it has been extended to number 118, Oganesson. These later elements have been created in minute quantities in laboratories and some of them only exist for a few moments.)

Beneath the element name is the atomic weight. This is the mass of a given atom, measured on a scale in which the hydrogen atom has the weight of one. Because most of the mass in an atom is in the nucleus, and each proton and neutron has an atomic weight near one, the atomic weight is very nearly equal to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.

Note the freestanding pair of rows at the bottom, coloured in purple and orange. These are the lanthanides and actinides. We’ll come to them in a moment.

Not only are the elements arranged into periods and groups but they are also categorised into groupings according to their qualities. In this diagram (taken from LiveScience.com) the different groupings are colour-coded. The groupings are, moving from left to right:

Alkali metals The alkali metals make up most of Group 1, the table’s first column. Shiny and soft enough to cut with a knife, these metals start with lithium (Li) and end with francium (Fr), among the rarest elements on earth: Atkins tells us that at any one moment there are only seventeen atoms of francium on the entire planet. The alkali metals are extremely reactive and burst into flame or even explode on contact with water, so chemists store them in oils or inert gases. Hydrogen, with its single electron, also lives in Group 1, but is considered a non-metal.

Alkaline-earth metals The alkaline-earth metals make up Group 2 of the periodic table, from beryllium (Be) through radium (Ra). Each of these elements has two electrons in its outermost energy level, which makes the alkaline earths reactive enough that they’re rarely found in pure form in nature. But they’re not as reactive as the alkali metals. Their chemical reactions typically occur more slowly and produce less heat compared to the alkali metals.

Lanthanides The third group is much too long to fit into the third column, so it is broken out and flipped sideways to become the top row of what Atkins calls ‘the Southern Island’ that floats at the bottom of the table. This is the lanthanides, elements 57 through 71, lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The elements in this group have a silvery white color and tarnish on contact with air.

Actinides The actinides line forms the bottom row of the Southern Island and comprise elements 89, actinium (Ac) to 103, lawrencium (Lr). Of these elements, only thorium (Th) and uranium (U) occur naturally on earth in substantial amounts. All are radioactive. The actinides and the lanthanides together form a group called the inner transition metals.

Transition metals Returning to the main body of the table, the remainder of Groups 3 through 12 represent the rest of the transition metals. Hard but malleable, shiny, and possessing good conductivity, these elements are what you normally associate with the word metal. This is the location of many of the best known metals, including gold, silver, iron and platinum.

Post-transition metals Ahead of the jump into the non-metal world, shared characteristics aren’t neatly divided along vertical group lines. The post-transition metals are aluminum (Al), gallium (Ga), indium (In), thallium (Tl), tin (Sn), lead (Pb) and bismuth (Bi), and they span Group 13 to Group 17. These elements have some of the classic characteristics of the transition metals, but they tend to be softer and conduct more poorly than other transition metals. Many periodic tables will feature a highlighted ‘staircase’ line below the diagonal connecting boron with astatine. The post-transition metals cluster to the lower left of this line. Atkins points out that all the elements beyond bismuth (row 6, column 15) are radioactive. Here be skull-and-crossbones warning signs.

Metalloids The metalloids are boron (B), silicon (Si), germanium (Ge), arsenic (As), antimony (Sb), tellurium (Te) and polonium (Po). They form the staircase that represents the gradual transition from metals to non-metals. These elements sometimes behave as semiconductors (B, Si, Ge) rather than as conductors. Metalloids are also called ‘semi-metals’ or ‘poor metals’.

Non-metals Everything else to the upper right of the staircase (plus hydrogen (H), stranded way back in Group 1) is a non-metal. These include the crucial elements for life on earth, carbon (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), oxygen (O), sulfur (S) and selenium (Se).

Halogens The top four elements of Group 17, from fluorine (F) through astatine (At), represent one of two subsets of the non-metals. The halogens are quite chemically reactive and tend to pair up with alkali metals to produce various types of salt. Common salt is a marriage between the alkali metal sodium and the halogen chlorine.

Noble gases Colorless, odourless and almost completely non-reactive, the inert, or noble gases round out the table in Group 18. The low boiling point of helium makes it a useful refrigerant when exceptionally low temperatures are required; most of them give off a colourful display when electric current is passed through them, hence the generic name of neon lights, invented in 1910 by Georges Claude.

The metaphor of the Periodic Kingdom

In fact the summary I’ve given above isn’t at all how Atkins’s book sounds. It is the way I have had to make notes to myself to understand the table.

Atkins’ book is far from being so clear and straightforward. The Periodic Kingdom is dominated by the central conceit that Atkins treats the periodic table as if it were an actual country. His book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of biochemistry, mineralogy and industrial chemistry; it is a light-hearted ‘traveller’s guide’ (p.27) to the table which he never refers to as a table, but as a kingdom, complete with its own geography, layout, mountain peaks and ravines, and surrounded by a sea of nothingness.

Hence, from start to finish of the book, Atkins uses metaphors from landscape and exploration to describe the kingdom, talking about ‘the Western desert’, ‘the Southern Shore’ and so on. Here’s a characteristic sentence:

The general disposition of the land is one of metals in the west, giving way, as you travel eastward, to a varied landscape of nonmetals, which terminates in largely inert elements at the eastern shoreline. (p.9)

I guess the idea is to help us memorise the table by describing its characteristics and the changes in atomic weight, physical character, alkalinity, reactivity and so on of the various elements, in terms of geography. Presumably he thinks it’s easier to remember geography than raw information. His approach certainly gives rise to striking analogies:

North of the mainland, situated rather like Iceland off the northwestern edge of Europe, lies a single, isolated region – hydrogen. This simple but gifted element is an essential outpost of the kingdom, for despite its simplicity it is rich in chemical personality. It is also the most abundant element in the universe and the fuel of the stars. (p.9)

Above all the extended metaphor (the periodic table imagined as a country) frees Atkins not to have to lay out the subject in either a technical nor a chronological order but to take a pleasant stroll across the landscape, pointing out interesting features and making a wide variety of linkages, pointing out the secret patterns and subterranean connections between elements in the same ‘regions’ of the table.

There are quite a few of these, for example the way iron can easily form alliances with the metals close to it such as cobalt, nickel and manganese to produce steel. Or the way the march of civilisation progressed from ‘east’ to ‘west’ through the metals, i.e. moving from copper, to iron and steel, each representing a new level of culture and technology.

The kingdom metaphor also allows him to get straight to core facts about each element without getting tangled in pedantic introductions: thus we learn there would be no life without nitrogen which is a key building block of all proteins, not to mention the DNA molecule; or that sodium and potassium (both alkali metals) are vital in the functioning of brain and nervous system cells.

And hence the generally light-hearted, whimsical tone allows him to make fanciful connections: calcium is a key ingredient in the bones of endoskeletons and the shells of exoskeletons, compacted dead shells made chalk, but in another format made the limestone which the Romans and others ground up to make the mortar which held their houses together.

Then there is magnesium. I didn’t think magnesium was particularly special, but learned from Atkins that a single magnesium atom is at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule, and:

Without chlorophyll, the world would be a damp warm rock instead of the softly green haven of life that we know, for chlorophyll holds its magnesium eye to the sun and captures the energy of sunlight, in the first step of photosynthesis. (p.16)

You see how the writing is aspiring to an evocative, poetic quality- a deliberate antidote to the dry and factual way chemistry was taught to us at school. He means to convey the sense of wonder, the strange patterns and secret linkages underlying these wonderful entities. I liked it when he tells us that life is about capturing, storing and deploying energy.

Life is a controlled unwinding of energy.

Or about how phosphorus, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a perfect vector for the deployment of energy, common to all living cells. Hence the importance of phosphates as fertiliser to grow the plants we need to survive. Arsenic is such an effective poison because it is a neighbour of phosphorus, shares some of its qualities, and so inserts itself into chemical reactions usually carried out by phosphorus but blocking them, nulling them, killing the host organism.

All the facts I explained in the first half of this post (mostly cribbed from the LiveScience.com website) are not reached or explained until about page 100 of this 150-page-long book. Personally, I felt I needed them earlier. As soon as I looked at the big diagram of the table he gives right at the end of the book I became intrigued by the layout and the numbers and couldn’t wait for him to get round to explaining them, which is why I went on the internet to find out more, more quickly, and why Istarted my review with a factual summary.

And eventually, the very extended conceit of ‘the kingdom’ gets rather tiresome. Whether intentional or not, the continual references to ‘the kingdom’ begin to sound Biblical and pretentious.

Now the kingdom is virtually fully formed. It rises above the sea of nonbeing and will remain substantially the same almost forever. The kingdom was formed in and among the stars.. (p.75)

The chapter on the scientists who first isolated the elements and began sketching out the table continues the metaphor by referring to them as ‘cartographers’, and the kingdom as made of islands and archipelagos.

As an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Jena, [Johann Döbereiner] noticed that reports of some of the kingdom’s islands – reports brought back by their chemical explorers – suggested a brotherhood of sorts between the regions. (p.79)

For me, the obsessive use of the geographical metaphor teeters on the border between being useful, and becoming irritating. He introduces me to the names of the great pioneers – I was particularly interested in Dalton, Michael Faraday, Humphrey Davy (who isolated a bunch of elements in the early 1800s) and then William Ramsey – but I had to go to Wikipedia to really understand their achievements.

Atkins speculates that some day we might find another bunch or set of elements, which might even form an entire new ‘continent’, though it is unlikely. This use of a metaphor is sort of useful for spatially imagining how this might happen, but I quickly got bored of him calling this possible set of new discoveries ‘Atlantis’, and of the poetic language as a whole.

Is the kingdom eternal, or will it slip beneath the waves? There is a good chance that one day – in a few years, or a few hundred years at most – Atlantis will be found, which will be an intellectual achievement but probably not one of great practical significance…

A likely (but not certain) scenario is that in that distant time, perhaps 10100 years into the future, all matter will have decayed into radiation, it is even possible to imagine the process. Gradually the peaks and dales of the kingdom will slip away and Mount Iron will rise higher, as elements collapse into its lazy, low-energy form. Provided that matter does not decay into radiation first (which is one possibility), the kingdom will become a lonely pinnacle, with iron the only protuberance from the sea of nonbeing… (p.77)

And I felt the tone sometimes bordered on the patronising.

The second chemical squabble is in the far North, and concerns the location of the offshore Northern Island of hydrogen. To those who do not like offshore islands, there is the problem of where to put it on the mainland. This is the war of the Big-Endians versus the Little-Endians. Big-Endians want to tow the island ashore to form a new Northwestern Cape, immediately north of lithium and beryllium and across from the Northeastern Cape of helium… (p.90)

Hard core chemistry

Unfortunately, none of these imaginative metaphors can help when you come to chapter 9, an unexpectedly brutal bombardment of uncompromising hard core information about the quantum mechanics underlying the structure of the elements.

In quick succession this introduces us to a blizzard of ideas: orbitals, energy levels, Pauli’s law of exclusion, and then the three imaginary lobes of orbitals.

As I understood it, the Pauli exclusion principle states that no two electrons can inhabit a particular orbital or ‘layer’ or shell. But what complicates the picture is that these orbitals come in three lobes conceived as lying along imaginary x, y and z axes. This overlapped with the information that there are four types of orbitals – s, p, d and f orbitals. In addition, there are three p-orbitals, five d-orbitals, seven f-orbitals. And the two lobes of a p-orbital are on either side of an imaginary plane cutting through the nucleus, there are two such planes in a d-orbital and three in an f-orbital.

After pages of amiable waffle about kingdoms and Atlantis, this was like being smacked in the face with a wet towel. Even rereading the chapter three times, I still found it impossible to process and understand this information.

I understand Atkins when he says it is the nature of the orbitals, and which lobes they lie along, which dictates an element’s place in the table, but he lost me when he said a number of electrons lie inside the nucleus – which is the opposite of everything I was ever taught – and then when described the way electrons fly across or through the nucleus, something to do with the processes of ‘shielding’ and ‘penetration’.

The conspiracy of shielding and penetration ensure that the 2s-orbital is somewhat lower in energy than the p-orbitals of the same rank. By extension, where other types of orbitals are possible, ns- and np-orbitals both lie lower in energy than nd-orbitals, and nd-orbitals in turn have lower energy than nf-orbitals. An s-orbital has no nodal plane, and electrons can be found at the nucleus. A p-orbital has one plane, and the electron is excluded from the nucleus. A d-orbital has two intersecting planes, and the exclusion of the electron is greater. An f-orbital has three planes, and the exclusion is correspondingly greater still. (p.118)

Note how all the chummy metaphors of kingdoms and deserts and mountains have disappeared. This is the hard-core quantum mechanical basis of the elements, and at least part of the reason it is so difficult to understand is because he has made the weird decision to throw half a dozen complex ideas at the reader at the same time. I read the chapter three times, still didn’t get it, and eventually wanted to cry with frustration.

This online lecture gives you a flavour of the subject, although it doesn’t mention ‘lobes’ or penetration or shielding.

In the next chapter, Atkins, briskly assuming  his readers have processed and understood all of this information, goes on to combine the stuff about lobes and orbitals with a passage from earlier in the book, where he had introduced the concept of ions, cations, and anions:

  • ion an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons
  • cation a positively charged ion
  • anion a negatively charged ion

He had also explained the concept of electron affinity

The electron affinity (Eea) of an atom or molecule is defined as the amount of energy released or spent when an electron is added to a neutral atom or molecule in the gaseous state to form a negative ion.

Isn’t ‘affinity’ a really bad word to describe this? ‘Affinity’ usually means ‘a natural liking for and understanding of someone or something’. If it is the amount of energy released, why don’t they call it something useful like the ‘energy release’? I felt the same about the terms ‘cation’ and ‘anion’ – that they had been deliberately coined to mystify and confuse. I kept having to stop and look up what they meant since the name is absolutely no use whatsoever.

And the electronvolt – ‘An electronvolt (eV) is the amount of kinetic energy gained or lost by a single electron accelerating from rest through an electric potential difference of one volt in vacuum.’

Combining the not-very-easily understandable material about electron volts with the incomprehensible stuff about orbitals means that the final 30 pages or so of The Periodic Kingdom is thirty pages of this sort of thing:

Take sodium: it has a single electron outside a compact, noble-gaslike core (its structure is [Ne]3s¹). The first electron is quite easy to remove (its removal requires an investment of 5.1 eV), but removal of the second, which has come from the core that lies close to the nucleus, requires an enormous energy – nearly ten times as much, in fact (47.3 eV). (p.130)

This reminds me of the comparable moment in John Allen Paulos’s book Innumeracy where I ceased to follow the argument. After rereading the passage where I stumbled and fell I eventually realised it was because Paulos had introduced three or so important facts about probability theory very, very quickly, without fully explaining them or letting them bed in – and then had spun a fancy variation on them…. leaving me standing gaping on the shore.

Same thing happens here. I almost but don’t quite understand what [Ne]3s¹ means, and almost but don’t quite grasp the scale of electronvolts, so when he goes on to say that releasing the second electron requires ten times as much energy, of course I understand the words, but I cannot quite grasp why it should be so because I have not understood the first two premises.

As with Paulos, the author has gone too fast. These are not simple ideas you can whistle through and expect your readers to lap up. These are very, very difficult ideas most readers will be completely unused to.

I felt the sub-atomic structure chapter should almost have been written twice, approached from entirely different points of view. Even the diagrams were no use because I didn’t understand what they were illustrating because I didn’t understand his swift introduction of half a dozen impenetrable concepts in half a page.

Once through, briskly, is simply not enough. The more I tried to reread the chapter, the more the words started to float in front of my eyes and my brain began to hurt. It is packed with sentences like these:

Now imagine a 2 p-electron… (an electron that occupies a 2 p-orbital). Such an electron is banished from the nucleus on account of the existence of the nodal plane. This electron is more completely shielded from the pull of the nucleus, and so it is not gripped as tightly.In other words, because of the interplay of shielding and penetration, a 2 s-orbital has a lower energy (an electron in it is gripped more tightly) than a 2 p-orbital… Thus the third and final electron of lithium enters the 2 s-orbital, and its overall structure is 1s²2s¹. (p.118)

I very nearly understand what some of these words meant, but the cumulative impact of sentences like these was like being punched to the ground and then given a good kicking. And when the last thirty pages went on to add the subtleties of electronvoltages and micro-electric charges into the mix, to produce ever-more complex explanations for the sub-atomic interactivity of different elements, I gave up.

Summary

The first 90 or so pages of The Periodic Kingdom do manage to give you a feel for the size and shape and underlying patterns of the periodic table. Although it eventually becomes irritating, the ruling metaphor of seeing the whole place as a country with different regions and terrains works – up to a point – to explain or suggest the patterns of size, weight, reactivity and so on underlying the elements.

When he introduced ions was when he first lost me, but I stumbled on through the entertaining trivia and titbits surrounding the chemistry pioneers who first isolated and named many of the elements and the first tentative attempts to create a table for another thirty pages or so.

But the chapter about the sub-atomic structure of chemical elements comprehensively lost me. I was already staggering, and this finished me off.

If Atkins’s aim was to explain the basics of chemistry to an educated layman, then the book was, for me, a complete failure. I sort of quarter understood the orbitals, lobes, nodes section but anything less than 100% understanding means you won’t be able to follow him to the next level of complexity.

As with the Paulos book, I don’t think I failed because I am stupid – I think that, on both occasions, the author failed to understand how challenging his subject matter is, and introduced a flurry of concepts far too quickly, at far too advanced a level.

Looking really closely I realise it is on the same page (page 111) that Atkins introduces the concepts of energy levels, orbitals, the fact that there are three two-lobed orbitals, and the vital existence of nodal planes. On the same page! Why the rush?

An interesting and seemingly trivial feature of a p-orbital, but a feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge, is that the electron will never be found on the imaginary plane passing through the nucleus and dividing the two lobes of the orbital. This plane is called a nodal plane. An s-orbital does not have such a nodal plane, and the electron it describes may be found at the nucleus. Every p-orbital has a nodal plane of this kind, and therefore an electron that occupies a p-orbital will never be found at the nucleus. (p.111)

Do you understand that? Because if you don’t, you won’t understand the last 40 or so pages of the book, because this is the ‘feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge’.

I struggled through the final 40 pages weeping tears of frustration, and flushed with anger at having the thing explained to me so badly. Exactly how I felt during my chemistry lessons at school forty years ago.


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