The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

The human body is one of the dirtiest things in the known universe (p.116)

Michael Crichton

I’ve no idea what Crichton was like as a man but I admire his phenomenal success as a writer of popular techno-thrillers. If you’re going to entertain, then you might as well do it as effectively as possible. Ever since I learned about it years ago, I’ve been impressed by what will probably be a unique feat that no-one will ever match, namely that in 1994 Crichton was, simultaneously, the writer of America’s number one movie, Jurassic Park, was the creator and producer of America’s number one TV show, ER, and had a book at number one in the bestseller list, Disclosure.

What an amazing achievement and indicator of the practical skills of a man who was not only an author and scriptwriter, but who produced and directed movies himself, as well as creating and exec producing hit TV series.

The Andromeda Strain

Right back at the start of his career, young Michael (born 1942), was 26 when he published this, the first novel to appear under his own name (a few had appeared under pseudonyms). It announces a major talent, not so much in the plot – space probe returns to earth carrying a deadly virus is the same as, say, The Quatermass Experiment – but in the thoroughness and the verisimilitude of the scientific and administrative framework he presents the story in.

The story begins by describing the arrival of a two-man recovery team (Lieutenant Shawn and Private Lewis Crane) to retrieve a space probe which has crash landed on the small town of Piedmont in Arizona (population 48). They’re in the middle of doing so when their radio message back to base is dramatically cut short. Alerts are transmitted up the chain of command until five scientists who have been kept on standby for just such an emergency are each visited at home in the middle of the night by dark-suited security officials, asked to accompany them immediately in unmarked cars to military airports and flown to the top secret biohazard unit in the Nevada desert which has been painstakingly constructed for just such an emergency, under the codename Project Wildfire.

The scientists are:

  • Dr. Jeremy Stone: Professor and chair of the bacteriology department at Stanford University, fictitiously the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • Dr. Charles Burton, 54 (p.61) Professor of Pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine, ‘nervous, jumpy, petulant’, nicknamed the Stumbler (p.54)
  • Dr. Peter Leavitt ‘superb clinical bacteriologist’ (p.59) who suffers from epilepsy, ‘an irritating, grumbling, heavyset man’ (p.54)
  • Dr. Mark Hall, surgeon
  • Professor Christian Kirke, who never makes an appearance because he’s in hospital for appendicitis

The plot then follows the scientists’ race against time to identify the weird extra-terrestrial virus and try to find a cure. The breakneck plot builds up to a climax when there’s a breach in biosecurity at the Wildfire centre with the result so that the virus gets loose among our heroes, and there’s a race against time to prevent its spread… with a novel twist at the very end.

So much for the thrilling plot, but what really distinguishes the text, and makes Crichton’s debut stand out, is the enormous amount of scientific, technical and administrative content.

Organisations

For example, the book is packed with dense and authoritative-sounding explanations of the umpteen different branches of the US military, space agency and security services which were involved in the research, commissioning, financing and building of the biohazard centre, including:

  • Vandenberg Scoop Mission Control
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • the Wildfire facility is built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics
  • the Army Medical Corps, Chemical and Biological Warfare Division
  • the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee
  • the Goddard Spaceflight Centre
  • the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee

Official documentation

Lots of pages of the text consist of ‘copies’ or apparent photostats of official documents, procedures, maps, computer projections and so on, for example a photocopy of the original letter written by concerned scientists to the President of the United States suggesting the creation of a quarantined biohazard centre. It was here, right back at the start of the project, that the scientists included the controversial suggestion of having a small thermonuclear device onsite, which could be detonated if the infection gets out of control (under Directive 7-12, codename Cautery).

In fact soon after Stone and Burton have investigated the town (wearing tip-top latest biohazard suits) and discover an old man still alive and a screaming baby and retrieve them into a helicopter and take them back to the Wildfire centre, Piedmont is itself destroyed by a small nuclear weapon (p.114).

Scientific references

Then, complementing the detailed descriptions of security organisations there is the science itself. It includes references to:

  • a fictional study by J.J. Merrick an English biophysicist on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life and the probability of it being single-cell life
  • a study by the Hudson Institute on the likely outcome of various scenarios around an alien infection outbreak and the impact of detonating a nuclear weapon to obliterate it (p.87)
  • a two-page study complete with statistical analysis, of the Odd Man Out Hypothesis
  • a study by Rudolph Karp who established there are life forms on meteors and asteroids (p.130)
  • the Vector Three report which identified three possible sources for extra-terrestrial bacteria
  • the Messenger Theory of John R. Samuels i.e. that an intelligent civilisation on another planet might choose to communicate not by sending radio or TV signals but sending out tough microforms of life which can recombine if they ever arrive somewhere inhabitable (p.228)
  • a 274-page report on Project Wildfire, highlights of which Dr Hall has to read;  through to detailed descriptions of American military research into chemical and biological weaponry, with lists of the major research universities involved and some of the papers produced on the subject:

Few Americans, Stone knew, were aware of the magnitude of the US research into chemical and biological warfare.

History of the science into the 1960s

Crichton spends time giving us some background on the development of science up till the 1960s: in particular how before, during and after the war, most expensive research focused on physics, in particular nuclear physics. But how, with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, biology had exploded as a field of interest.

He gives us digressions on the nature of biology itself – ‘the only science which cannot define its subject matter’ because there is no agreed definition of LIFE. On the types of animals used in bio experiments – rats, monkeys, pigs – (p.146) or the large range of growth media used in laboratories (p.163). And an explanation for laymen of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the billions of bacteria we host, which leads on to a detailed explanation of the drawbacks which would occur if a wonderdrug were discovered which killed off all bacteria and viruses. In fact Crichton goes to the trouble of inventing a wonderdrug, Kalocin, for the purpose of the book which does just that – kills off all bacteria, viruses, fungi etc which inhabit the human body with the result that… all the human patients died (p.266). We need the bacteria which infest our bodies.

Man lives in a sea of bacteria (p.167)

Hard technology

And then there is the technology, which includes (obviously) the rocket technology used to launch the ill-fated space probe; NASA’s network of monitoring stations around the earth; and the technology used within the Wildfire biohazard installation, including state of the art sterilisation processes, spectrometers, amino-acid analysers, the microtome, the X-ray crystallographer, the electron microscope (a BVJ model JJ-42), Fourier electron-density scans and so on. He gives an explanation of why an electron microscope is better than a light one, as explained by one of its inventors (p.255).

Computers

Then there are computer diagnostics and computers in general. Crichton patiently explains to the 1969 reader that computers are capable of doing many tasks much faster than people! I’m always struck to be reminded just how long computers have been around and enthusiasts have been promising that they will change the world.

Commission of enquiry

All of this heavily factual material is organised as if in a report written up after the crisis was over and as the result of an inquiry into how it was handled. Thus the narrative itself contains mention of where the team made crucial mistakes.

  • It is a peculiarity of the Wildfire team that, despite the individual brilliance of the team members, the group grossly misjudged their information at several points. (p.243)
  • This was a most unfortunate decision, for had they examined the [growth] media, they would have seen that their thinking had already gone astray, and that they were on the wrong track. (p.250)

Scientific results

And the text includes numerous scientific illustrations, for example computer readouts of autopsies, chemical analyses of blood, a scanner printout from a ‘photoelectric eye’ that examined the growth media, an early sketch of the hexagonal structure of the Andromeda Strain, electron-density mapping of a sample of the strain – all carefully credited to Project Wildfire, as in a scientific paper.

The text is followed by four pages of finely printed references, mixing up genuine studies of extra-terrestrial life and biology with papers by the fictional characters in the novel.

Bureaucratic tone set in the preface

This approach, the pose that the entire text is an after-the-fact report, starts in the author’s preface, usually a place where the author is candid with the reader, but in this case Crichton presents himself as an investigator into the events surrounding the breakout, and gives copious thanks to numerous military officials who are entirely fictitious and are clearly part of the fictional cast, as if they were real figures.

The effect is partly to give the text verisimilitude but also allows him to do the standard thriller strategy of anticipating mistakes and accidents and disasters to come without going into detail and so making you impatient to read the full story itself.

Same happens when he describes the experiments the scientists carry out in the Wildfire lab and highlights their mistakes with phrases like ‘Only later would it become clear that…’ or ‘That was his first mistake…’, ‘It would be forty eight hours until he realised his error…’ (p.173)

Taken together, it’s all these tactics which give the novel its authoritative air and which, in turn makes the biological crisis all the more scary, and then the security breach at the centre all the more nailbiting.

Plot summary

By the end you realise that without all the images and diagrams and facts and figures in report format, and without the digressions about biology and computers, the book would have been significantly shorter, and the simpleness of the story much more apparent. Here is a barebones plot summary:

  • a space probe infected with alien life form crash lands near small town in Arizona, Piedmont
  • almost everyone in town dies almost immediately with weird symptoms, namely their blood congeals to powder
  • except two survivors, an old man and a screaming baby
  • they’re brought to a brand new hi-tech biohazard facility named after the project Wildfire where – after a thorough history of the thinking behind the centre, how it was researched, signed off, designed and built – the four scientists central to the story run a series of tests whose results are discussed at length, and engage in high-level speculations about the origin and form of the entity
  • there are several apparently unrelated incidents, mainly the crash of an air force jet which was flying high through airspace over Piedmont; crash investigators confirm the pilot’s last message which claimed that all the plane’s rubber hosing and casing was turning to powder
  • meanwhile the scientists have established that the Andromeda Strain, as it’s been named, consists of perfectly hexagonal crystals which replicate with amazing speed, and feed off pure energy, leaving no waste products
  • one of the scientists, the doctor, finally puts all the pieces of the jigsaw together and realises that the baby and the old man didn’t die because their blood PHs were abnormal, the old man because he was a diabetic, the baby because its continual crying acidated its blood – the Andromeda Strain only replicates within a narrow PH band
  • at just this moment the alarm goes off inside the bio centre indicating a seal has been broken sealing off the containment area, triggering the alarm and the countdown
  • countdown? yes, because throughout the novel we’ve been told that the Wildfire station has at its heart a thermonuclear device which will automatically detonate if there is a security leak – now the alarm bells go off, the red lights start flashing, all the big metal security doors slam shut and a nice lady’s voice starts counting down; they have three minutes before the bomb detonates!!
  • the thing is, it’s only been in the last hour or so that the scientists have realised that the strain feeds off pure light or energy – in other words, a nuclear explosion, far from wiping the virus out, will cause it to replicate a trillion-fold and spread all over America!!!
  • now, there is a failsafe, the nuclear countdown can be halted: the biohazard centre is dotted with light switch-sized sockets into which a metal key must be inserted to countermand the nuclear countdown, BUT the security doors clanging shut have sealed Dr Stone and Dr Hall off from any of these units – oops
  • which leads to the most famous passage in the book, and the movie based on it, when Dr Hall has to make his way through air ducts into the central circular core of the installation and climb up it to the next level, despite the fact that, given the security breach a) the central core is flooding with poison gas and b) remote control darts fire poisoned arrows at anything moving i.e. him
  • these last few pages are grippingly described as Hall tries to climb the ladder up inside the central shaft, despite becoming woozier and woozier, poisoned by the gas and hit by the poisoned darts, till he crashes through the door into the level above and staggers, almost unconscious to the nearest security point, inserts the key and turns it, then blacks out!!

Payoff

The virus mutates into a harmless form. Wind carries air from the now-leaking bio-hazard lab over Los Angeles but nothing at all happens. Lead scientist Stone speculates that a) it has mutated to a non-fatal form, as indicated by the way it had started eating rubber and plastic instead of human blood, and b) disliking oxygen rich environments (which earlier tests had established), it is likely to migrate upwards out of the atmosphere.

And that is the explanation for the brief two-page epilogue in which we learn that a recent manned space flight (Andros V) crash-lands killing all the crew. In an interview with journalists, the head of the program reveals the crash had something do with the failure of plastic safety shields. The journalists don’t know it, but we the readers know that this is proof that the Andromeda Strain has indeed gravitated away from the unfriendly oxygen-rich atmosphere of earth up to the troposphere – and the book ends with the threat that it might, possibly, remain there for ever, preventing the passage through it of any machines which contain rubber or plastic…

The IPCRESS connection

It’s fascinating to learn from Wikipedia that Crichton was heavily indebted to Len Deighton’s debut novel The IPCRESS File which was published in 1962 and which Crichton read on a visit to Britain.

The Deighton novel is also written in the style of an official report and recreates the often dull bureaucratic paperwork surrounding spying; the title itself indicates that the entire thing should be read as an official report.

Same with Andromeda which, on the pre-text pages, carries instructions as for an official file, which state: ‘THIS FILE IS CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET and that the ‘receiver’ of the file must first show his identity card to the courier.

All great boyish fun. I wonder if Crichton ever told Deighton about his indebtedness to him. I wonder what Deighton made of it.

Crystals

It’s interesting that the Andromeda Strain of virus turns out to be a perfect crystal and that one of the scientists is known for printing papers speculating that life on earth began as crystals (p.226). Because this is a genuine theory and is well expressed in the 1985 book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985), which I read and reviewed not too long ago.

The movie

In 1971 The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill as Stone, James Olson as Hall, Kate Reid as Leavitt (changed to a female character, Ruth Leavitt), and David Wayne as Dutton (Burton in the novel). A lot of its appeal is due to the fact it was low budget and not dominated by well-known Hollywood names, lending it an extra soupcon of credibility. I saw it as a kid and loved it.


Credit

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was published Knopf in American in 1969. All references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham (1960)

‘All we want to do is to give people something. To make an old, old dream come true. We can offer them life, with time to live it; instead of a quick scrabble for existence, and finish. Time to grow wise enough to build a new world. Time to become full men and women instead of overgrown children.’
(Diana Brackley, Trouble With Lichen, page 123)

Wyndham’s wish to write literature

It’s quite a surprise to come to Trouble With Lichen after Wyndham’s big four science fiction, apocalyptic, adventure novels – The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). Each of those adventure yarns throws you into the strangeness of the Big Event early on, and then keeps up an unrelenting pace of mounting crisis and urgency.

Wyndham doesn’t appear to have written much about his own practice as a writer and took pains to destroy much of his correspondence and private papers. The two-page Foreword to the short story collection The Seeds of Time is all I’ve come across so far. In this he makes it pretty plain how limiting and constricting he found the trashy, adventure-story formula you had to write your short stories in in order to get them published in the 1930s. He explains that all the stories in The Seeds of Time were post-war attempts to break free of the space opera limitations of sci fi and explore other genres and tones. It quickly becomes obvious from those stories that his natural inclination is for the comic; many of the stories are comic in shape and plot or, even when dealing with serious subject matter, filled with humorous asides.

Thus it is this side of his character Wyndham channeled into Trouble With Lichen which contains extended sequences of gentle comedy and social satire. In fact, stepping back a bit, the entire story is in effect a prolonged satire on contemporary obsession with beauty and eternal youth.

And with romance. Wyndham has a soft spot for soppy love stories, or for relations between men and women depicted in a wonderfully quaint old world way, all darling this and darling that. Chronoclasm, Pawley’s Peepholes, Opposite Number, Time To Rest from Seeds of Time, they’re all stories about men and women cast in a ‘Honey, I’m home’ cheeriness.

All this helps put Trouble With Lichen into perspective. It’s as if, after writing four brilliantly thrilling and logically conceived stories in which the world we know is turned upside down as witnessed by characters who are little more than functions of the plot, he decided – or felt confident enough – to try and write a more character-based story.

And it is symptomatic of all the tendencies listed above that he makes the lead figure in Lichen not a rough tough guy, but a woman. She is Diana Brackley, a famous biochemist.

Like Kraken the story starts at the end, with a brief description of Diana Brackley’s funeral, attended by hundreds of women; in fact it is described by a (fictional) newspaper as the biggest tribute from women to a woman since the funeral of famous suffragette Emily Davison in 1913. Why the big turnout, why so many women, why was Diana Brackley so important to so many women? Well, in a thoroughly traditional and comfortable way, the narrative then goes back to the start of the story and set out to tell us why, in three parts divided into 15 chapters.

Part one

The narrative proper sets the tone by opening at the leaving party held at St Merryn’s High School for girls. One of the teachers gravitates over to slender, striking Diana Brackley who has just won a scholarship to Cambridge. Diana is not a smooth small-talker and manages to ask her teacher unsettling questions, before she can navigate away. We are introduced to Mrs and Mrs Brackley, the latter of whom thinks it is foolish of Diana to take her studies so seriously, she should really be focusing on finding a nice husband to settle down with and produce babies. All this biochemistry stuff sounds frightfully complicated!

In other words, these opening scenes establish the subtle and not so subtle psychological pressures brought to bear on intelligent and enterprising young women in the 1940s or 50s (it’s not specified exactly when) to conform to gender stereotypes.

‘After all, a woman ought to be married; she’s happier that way…’
(Diana’s mother to her when she turns 25, page 43)

Diana’s Cambridge career is dealt with in a few sentences in order to hurry along to the next phase, which is a job. She is recommended to try a private biochemistry research company, Darr House Developments (in the fictional town of Ockingham), set up by:

Francis Saxover, Sc.D., F.R.S., sometime Gilkes Professor of Biochemistry in the University of Cambridge, and widely regarded as an intellectual renegade.

Intellectual renegade, eh? Golly.

There’s a fascinating passage devoted to Saxover’s interview of fresh-faced new graduate Diana, which devotes a couple of pages (pages 25 to 26) to the trouble and disruption previous young ladies caused Darr Developments i.e. distracting the male employees and in one case prompting a duel. Saxover discusses it with his wife, Caroline. Another of the interviewers with his wife. I think this is what Wyndham has in mind when he says he was trying to escape the constrictions of science fiction, its imprisonment within cliff-hanger melodrama. Here, it seems, he is trying to write something far more like a conventional novel with a large cast of characters, whose raison d’etre is purely their psychological interplay.

All this is well and good but a bit boring and more than a bit patronising. Something like a plot gets going on page 30 when, eight months into her role, Saxover brings Diana a bowl of milk she left out for his cat and which he has just nearly tripped over. They both notice the milk has curdled, except round a speck of something in the milk. Now Diana had recently been analysing a sample of lichen sent to the lab by an explorer they have a contract with. Some of this got into the milk and prevented it curdling. Hmm.

Further investigation is interrupted when, shortly afterwards, Saxover’s beloved wife Caroline dies. He has something like a breakdown, retires into reclusiveness. Diana finds herself looking after his 12-year-old daughter, Zephanie, who is then sent off to boarding school. Meanwhile work on the lichen extract becomes an obsession, Diana works on it day and night. A chance encounter with Saxover and his hurried answer to her enquiry whether he is working on it, strongly suggests to Diana both that he is, and that he’s keeping it unusually secret. Why?

Her studies continue for months and slowly she realises why, although it has a disillusioning affect on her that one of her intellectual heroes is breaking the great commandments of working openly and transparently together, and of sharing Knowledge.

Eventually all her studies are complete and she knows what the lichen extract can do. Soon afterwards, she turns 25 and her parents tell her about the fabulous inheritance left to her by her grandfather, the enormous sum of £40,000 (p.43). She buys some posh clothes and a zippy little car. Her mother asks her if she’s now going to leave work and live off the interest and – most importantly – find a husband. No, no, Diana says, a) marrying is just a habit, a convention b) she has more important work to do.

On one of her many walks and talks with schoolgirl Zephanie, the latter is saying how each generation of women just about gets life figured out, when it is tricked into having children, slaving away for 20 years, and then is too exhausted to hand on its wisdom… and Diana has a brainwave. She realises what she wants to make her life’s work. Back at Darr she asks for an interview with Saxover and abruptly resigns her post.

Part two

It is 14 years later. Saxover has invited his children, Paul, now aged 27, and Zephanie, a 23-year-pld post-grad, to his office along with Diana. He gives a brief explanation. What he and Diana discovered was an extract from that species of lichen provided a substance he’s called lichenin which is an antigerone. It retards the ageing process. It makes you live longer. As Diana pithily describes it later in the novel:

‘It is a chemical substance, possibly one of a class of such substances produced by micro-organisms, that has the property of retarding certain of the metabolic processes, and bears a distant chemical relationship to the antibiotics.’

Zephanie has a sudden revelation and angrily asks her father how long she is going to live. Factually, he replies: 220 years.

He goes on to explain the precise situation. The particular species of lichen grows only in a few remote places. There is probably only enough lichenin to go round for maybe three to four thousand people. How on earth do you decide who will get it and who won’t. (This reminds us of similar conversations in Day of the Triffids: if they can only save a handful of the blinded, who should it be?) In the event, Saxover has dosed himself and Paul and Zephanie without their knowledge, pretending they were annual flu inoculations. So, now Zephanie realises why she looks so youthful and Paul why it took him so long to grow a beard. They have been ageing at roughly a third of the average rate since they were 16.

And Who To Tell turns out to be the theme of part two of this book because:

Paul gets cross with his father because he hadn’t told Paul’s wife, Jane (to ensure the secret remains a secret as long as possible to prevent the social turmoil that will ensure when word gets out). Paul storms out and, admittedly, takes a day or two to summon up the guts to tell his wife but, when he does, she passes through disbelief to anger that she isn’t getting it, and then her eyes light up with the possibilities of marketing it to millionaires – precisely what Saxover wanted to prevent.

Zephanie returns to her flat to find her boyfriend, Richard, waiting impatiently outside. She says she doesn’t want to go to the theatre as planned, prefers dinner, where she proceeds to get drunk and starts crying, afflicted with the sense that she is going to be the only one to live on while all around her die. Richard takes her home where Zephanie continues to bemoan her fate and there is a broadly comic moment when Rich thinks she’s saying that she’s pregnant. In an interesting piece of social history he asks, ‘Why couldn’t you wait for me?’ thus suggesting that they both expected Zephanie to be a virgin when they marry.

Diana. Remember Saxover had called his children in because he thought it was going to be a meeting with Diana? It was because after all these years Diana had been in touch with Saxover because something has gone wrong and she needs to see him. In the event, the three Saxovers get a message that she’s not coming, but she is relevant to the story because we now learn that after leaving Darr, Diana went on a round the world cruise, returned to London and set up a very high-class beauty salon for the wives of the rich and influential whom she is, of course, treating with lichenin to make them look younger. But now one of these influential women has had an allergic reaction to lichenin and is suing Diana.

– The Press So successful is Diana’s beauty company – named Nefertiti – that the gutter press take an interest. We see the meeting of an investigative reporter and the editor of a newspaper humorously, if bluntly, named Sunday Prole. Reluctantly, the editor agrees with the reporter’s suggestion that he digs into this Diana Brackley to see what the racket is all about (this section includes the investigative hack presenting a two-page potted biography of Diana which fills in a lot of the backstory of her and her parents).

– Diana and Zephanie Zephanie hasn’t seen Diana for those 14 years, but now the revelation that she’s been dosed with lichenin prompts her to travel up to London to meet Diana at her fabulously luxury pad overlooking St James’s Park. They have another of the intellectual conversations they had when Zephanie was a girl. (I haven’t reread Wyndham since I was a boy and had completely forgotten that his sci fi novels are so full of people discussing ideas about human nature and evolution and intelligence.) Anyway, Diana explains straight out that the beauty parlour she runs isn’t just a money-making business, it is part of a plan to reshape the human race.

What is wrong with the world? The fact that people have barely got a hang of what is wrong with society before they are dragooned into marrying and having kids of their own, enslave themselves to bringing them up and then emerge from the experience lucky to have enough money to eke their way through retirement, then they die. Nobody sticks around to witness the long-term consequences of their generation’s greed.

‘You know as well as I do that the world is in a mess, and floundering deeper every day. We have only a precarious hold on the forces we do liberate – and problems that we ought to be trying to solve, we neglect. Look at us – thousands more of us every day…. In a century or so, we shall be in the Age of Famines. We shall manage to postpone the worst one way and another, but postponement isn’t solution, and when the breakdown comes there’ll be something so ghastly that the hydrogen-bomb will seem humane by comparison.

‘I’m not romancing. I’m talking about the inevitable time when, unless we do something to stop it, men will be hunting men through the ruins, for food. We’re letting it drift towards that, with an evil irresponsibility, because with our ordinary short lives we shan’t be here to see it. Does our generation care about the misery it is bequeathing? Not it. “That’s their worry,” we say. “Damn our children’s children; we’re all right.”

‘And there’s only one thing I can see that will stop it happening. That is that some of us, at least, should be going to live long enough to be afraid of it for ourselves. And also that we should live long enough to know more. We simply cannot afford to go on any longer attaining wisdom only half a step before we achieve senility. We need the time to acquire wisdom that we can use to clear up the mess. If we don’t get it, then like any other animal that overbreeds we shall starve; we shall starve in our millions, in the blackest of all dark ages.

‘That’s why we need longer life, before it is too late. To give us time to acquire the wisdom to control our destiny; to get us beyond this state of acting like animal prodigies, and let us civilise ourselves.’

In Diana’s opinion the great apocalypse facing humanity (apart from the nuclear war which threatens at any moment and which Wyndham had dealt with in The Chrysalids and The Outward Urge) is overpopulation, famine and social collapse. When she stumbled across the life-stretching properties of lichenin (which, incidentally, she has given a different name, tertianin, p.91), she realised this was an opportunity to re-engineer the human race, to produce Homo superior, ‘a step in evolution, a new development that would lift us one more plane above the animals’. (‘You gotta make way for the Homo Superior’, as David Bowie sang a mere 11 years later.)

Hence Diana’s plan to recruit about 1,000 of the most highly-placed and influential women in the country, via the Nefertiti beauty business. Chances are, when news comes out about the elixir of eternal youth, there will not only be riots to get hold of it, but the powers that be will try to ban it. Why? Because institutions, in all their corruption, depend on humanity’s short life spans. If people start living to be 200 or 250 years old, the kind of continuity current institutions provide will become redundant. Realising this, chances are all kinds of organisation will band together to suppress purveyors of lichenin, maybe to murder them and strangle the threat at birth.

Hence – the thousand influential women. They don’t currently know they’re being treated with lichenin, but when Diana tells them, they will be perfectly placed to prevent any such suppression taking place. The women are, as Lady Tewley puts it, later in the book:

‘wives, or daughters, of half the Establishment. We’re married to four Cabinet Ministers, three other Ministers, two Bishops, three Earls, five Viscounts, a dozen blue-chip companies, half-a-dozen Banks, twenty-three members of the Government, eight members of the Opposition, and lots of others. In addition, we have close relations that are not quite marital with a lot of other Influences. So, you see, one way and another, there isn’t much we don’t know, or can’t get to know.’ (p.176)

Zephanie listens in amazement, at the thoroughness with which Diana has thought through the social implications of her discovery, the thoroughness of her plan, and the thoroughness with which she has carried it out. She is also startled to learn that the lichenin can be administered at different strengths or factors. Her father’s giving her Times Three but Diana has extracted up to Time Five i.e. expected lifespan 350 years. That’s what she’s dosing herself.

The plot proceeds along the five or so plotlines which Wyndham has now established – Paul and his scheming wife Jane; Zephanie and her boyfriend Richard; Saxover and his plans; Diana and her clinic; the newspaper hacks snooping around her operation.

The latter two come together when one of Diana’s employees (a Miss Brandon) says she’s been asked out by a guy who turns out to be a newspaperman and is asking lots of questions. With humorous cynicism, Diana plays the journalists, briefing the employee to go along to a nightclub with them and tell the journos she doesn’t know much about the magic treatment, but thinks it comes from seaweed found in Galway Bay. Which prompts an infestation of hacks in Galway and soaring prices for seaweed. As in The Kraken Wakes Wyndham is quick to see the humorous side of how our wretched corrupt society reacts to big news or changes.

To please his daughter, Saxover starts treating her boyfriend, Richard. The young couple plan for all the wonderful time they’re going to have together.

Francis Saxover meets Diana for dinner. There is a lot of unresolved emotional tension. Diana always hero-worshipped him and Francis, for his part, has long been a widower, and… Well, they suppress these feelings like good solid English chaps and focus on the crisis in hand. Diana has a lot of amusing scams ready to spin the Press to keep them off the track for years, but Francis bursts her bubble by revealing that Jane not only bulldozed her way into Darr and insisted on having a tab of lichenin sewn into her arm (the method for administering it), she then promptly went somewhere and passed it on – presumably for the promise of future benefits and the prize of big cash in hand.

Francis tells Diana that Paul found this out, the couple had a blazing row, he slept on the sofa, next day she had packed her bags and left. Nice wife you’ve got there, Paul. So – Francis tells Diana – the lid is about to be blown off the whole thing before they’re completely ready. Diana is sanguine. We’d never have been ready she says. She will start to mobilise her 1,000 rich women, Let battle commence!

Part three

The storyline about the hacks who’ve descended on Galway Bay, the dodgy beauty companies already flogging Galways glamour products – there’s a huge dollop of Ealing Comedy in all this, as there is in the sassy dialogue between the Nefertiti employee (Miss Brendon) who Diana now collaborates with to decoy the press further (not to mention Diana’s relationship with her answer-back secretary, Miss Tallwyn:

‘Sarah, dear, how long have you been in this enterprising trade?’ Diana inquired.
‘I am not in it,’ said Miss Tallwyn. ‘I am your secretary.’

– Joyce Grenfell should have had a part somewhere in the movie).

Now, as things get moving, Diana makes smart Miss Brendon an offer to come in as a partner and right-hand woman. Shortly afterwards she’s paid a visit by Lady Tewley, who she first met ten years earlier, when she needed help rising to the challenge of dressing and behaving like a member of the aristocracy. Previously she had been a medical student and a few years ago she twigged to the anti-ageing treatment. Now she’s come to tell Diana the press are working on her, too, her beastly husband has fixed her up with a lover who everso gently but persistently keeps asking her about her beauty treatment.

Their conversation is interrupted by a panicky call from Zephanie. Someone broke into Darr to try and steal the secret, then set a fire to cover their tracks. Francis was lucky to escape, but did so over the rooftops to the main body of the building which was unaffected. Diana is shaken by the news. We know how much she loves him.

Right! Diana realises it’s time to mobilise her army of rich women and tells her secretary to post the big bundle of letters which has been waiting in the safe all these years, to invite them all to a special emergency meeting.

In a separate development, Richard and Zephanie’s car is pulled over by the police. Except it isn’t the police. It’s crooks. They are bundled out at gunpoint and taken to the den of some crook who sits behind a bright light and interrogates Zephanie. Every false answer Richard is beaten. Quite quickly she breaks down and tells them all she knows which isn’t, in fact all that much, she knows it’s a lichen but has no idea which species.

The sequel is described to Francis in a phone call to Diana, namely Zephanie woke up next to the car she’s been kidnapped from, Richard unconscious beside her with a few teeth missing. A passing labourer helped get him into a car and hospital.

Meanwhile Diana holds her big meeting-cum-press conference and is bitterly disappointed when none of the press report what she considers the biggest story since Adam. This prompts some broad satire on the reality of the newspaper business delivered by Miss Tallwyn. The extended focus on the press, including direct quotes from the coverage of her meeting from the Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Mail, Express, Mirror, Herald and Sketch, are exactly cognate with the similar passages in Kraken Wakes where the narrator quotes at length from the newspaper coverage of various key events.

Also, bear in mind that Wyndham had been writing for nearly 40 years by now. Her has developed a kind of late style which allows him to zoom in on some areas, dismiss others (like Diana’s entire Cambridge career) with a few lines. Turns out not to be the press which cause a fuss but the markets. A few life insurance companies suspend dividends while they recalibrate their sums, if a life extension drug has been discovered. Wyndham laconically gives us the comments of stockbrokers reading about this.

‘I reckon we might sell those General Eventualities before the going gets rough.’
It was not an isolated decision.
The going got rough.

Laconic, eh? Major shifts in the Stock Exchange force the papers to take serious notice of Diana’s claims and she gives a second press conference which is, this time, widely reported. Next day, reviewing the results in the Sundays, Miss Tallwyn rings up and tells her to listen to the BBC Home Service, there is a vicar giving an impassioned sermon against interfering with the nature and the works of God.

Diana drives to see Francis and it is an opportunity for more of the philosophising about The Great Change forms such a large part of all Wyndham’s novels. In this case she wants to give people longer lives not just to party and enjoy themselves, but so that they evolve into an entirely new form of human,

It will become worthwhile. There will be time – time to do really great things at last…

‘You’re wrong if you think I want power, Francis. All I want to do is see that Homo diuturnus gets born somehow. I don’t care how inconvenient he is, how different; he must have his chance. If it takes a caesarian to give him a start, it doesn’t matter. If the surgeons won’t help, then I’ll be head midwife, and do it myself. The only advance in millions of years, Francis! It shan’t be crushed – it shall not, whatever it costs!’

Behind their speculations about what will happen, and Diana’s conviction that every power in the land will try to suppress the new drug, lies the unresolved emotional tension between them. Diana complains that she was never so unhappy as when she worked at Darr because of her unrequited love for him. Francis begins to stutter a reply, but she bursts into tears and storms out.

Cut to a new scene, Diana reviewing the papers. Once again there are direct quotes from the Mail, the Trumpeter, Telegraph, the Gazette and Mirror. The text collapses into a series of snippets expressed entirely in dialogue:

  • Diana tells Miss Brendon to gather some of the girls and go out to pubs and clubs and laundrettes and coffee shops and sound out the word on the street
  • an executive meeting of an advertising agency says whoever’s handling Nefertiti’s PR is making a right horlicks of it
  • telegram to the Home Secretary from the General Council of The Brotherhood of British Morticians asking for compensation for loss in trade
  • a middle-aged woman pestering her doctor to give her an estimate of her age
  • three brokers in a coffee bar, one of them advising the future is in ladies fashions and lingerie
  • telegram to the Prime Minister from the Secretary of the Sabbath Preservation Society protesting that the God-given lifespan is three-score years and ten
  • old Sir John asks his manservant Spiller his opinion about the whole fuss then orders him to make him, Sir John, an appointment at this clinic
  • two civil servants preparing for a question about antigerone which has been tabled for the minister, one admitting  his wife is a regular at Nefertiti’s
  • two senior coppers speculating about what they can arrest Diana for
  • The Evening Flag suggests the first candidate for the anti-ageing treatment should be the Queen
  • a very working class Cockney telling his mate down the boozer how his missus didn’t arf go on about it, ‘ow it’s not fair and so on
  • a lower middle class woman asking her husband to turn the radio on so they can listen to an interview with that anti-ageing woman, and we then have the transcript of a long interview in which Diana easily bests her mealy-mouthed BBC interviewer
  • a couple in bed, the woman asking if 300 years of married life are going to be bearable
  • a snippet from Radio Moscow claiming the well educated people of the Soviet Union of course know that the first antigerone was developed by a Hero of the Soviet Union Russian biochemist
  • dialogue between a police constable and a drunk middle-class man who claims to be a statistician and to have worked out that if everyone lives to be 200 the human race will starve

Lady Tewly visits and tells Diana their Women’s Movement is well and truly advanced but the cause of the drug faces many enemies. The entire trades union movement is against it and is calling a general strike and rallies in Trafalgar Square. They see it simply as a way for employers to tie employees to their workbenches and factory floors for three times as long. Prolonging the exploitation. The Tories and Labour are at odds over it and the Prime Minister is conflicted because, on the one hand it sounds like a boon to humanity, on the other hand so many, particularly on the Left, are calling for it to be banned.

But Lady Tewly alarms Diana when she announces news has got out about the lichen’s true location. Diana and Francis had discussed this long ago, but the only site she could find when she went on her ’round-the-world’ trip (which was really a cover for her tracking down its natural growth areas) was in a remote part of China. Point being a) when the Chinese realise this, they will close the area and keep it for themselves. But b) the area is very close to the Russian border and so there is every chance the Russians might invade China.

Alarmed, Diana tells her secretary to contact the media and arrange for a no-holds-barred interview. This time she will share everything she knows about lichenin.

That night she’s woken by a phone call. It’s Zephie saying a gang of men attacked Darr House and this time completely burned it to the ground. Francis managed to jump from a window and sprained a wrist, is in shock, several of the staff, one old man, the groundsman, was killed by a single blow from a cosh. Things are getting serious. The Anti-G forces are growing violent.

Diana’s death and cause

Thus it is with a spirit of determination that Diana and her entourage brave the crowds surrounding her luxury block of flats (Darlington House) the next morning, as the commissionaire makes a path through the shouting protesting rowdy throng towards the Rolls Royce waiting to take her to the radio interview. Suddenly three shots ring out, Diana clutches her side and falls across the steps. A young man pushes forward, tells the commissionaire he is a doctor, already one of her assistants is calling an ambulance. Cut to a radio announcement cancelling the talk and announcing that Diana was shot on the steps of her building and died in the ambulance.

The result is she becomes a martyr to her movement, to the League for the New Life. We are shown a big demonstration in Trafalgar Square called by representatives of the workers, presumably Labour and Trades Unions leaders, who whip up the crowd into an anti antigerone fervour. It’s worth quoting at length because this was still the kind of political rhetoric which dominated my boyhood in the 1970s. The speaker is speaking from a platform to a packed rally in Trafalgar Square:

‘The Antigerone,’ he said, ‘the dirtiest weapon of all the dirty weapons that the Tories have aimed at the workers. The bomb with the selective fall-out – that falls on the workers. The men who live lives of comfort and luxury are happy with the Anti-G – of course they are. For them it means more years – many more years – of that comfort and luxury. But what does it mean to us, the workers, who produce the wealth that buys that comfort and luxury? I’ll tell you what it means to us. It means working for three lifetimes instead of one. And if you are going to keep on working for three lifetimes, where are your sons going to find work? Yes, and your sons’ sons, too. It means two generations, two whole generations of unemployment, two generations on the dole, two generations born to rot in unemployment that will bring down your wages. I tell you that never in the history of the whole working-class struggle –’

What happens next is amazingly modern because this speech against scientific advances by a man is interrupted by a counter-speech in favour by educated middle-class women. A loudspeaker from a van very loudly retorts to the workers leader that he and his ilk are ‘Murderers! Cowards! Woman-killers!’

‘We’re not going to let you shorten all our lives. We’ve met you before. You are the dolts, the dimwits, the Luddites. And now you carry Luddism to its logical conclusion – don’t stop at smashing the machines, smash the inventors, too, and they won’t invent any more!’

The police – enforcers of the status quo – rush over to the van, burst open the door and drive it away. At which point another van elsewhere in the square continues with the pro-antigerone, anti-Luddite message, until the police likewise remove it. In all four vans are dealt with but not before they’ve got their message across that the speaker represents Luddism, philistinism, and murdering cowards who killed a saintly woman who was trying to give us all longer, better lives.

From the vantage point of 2020 this looks entirely contemporary, with university-educated feminist women berating working class men for their ignorance and toxic masculinity. Plus ça change, plus it’s exactly the same chose.

There’s a brief reprise of Diana’s funeral which, you remember, is the scene the novel opened with, attended overwhelmingly by posh grateful women whose lives she was extending, and ‘young women’ bearing banners and handing out badges supporting the LNL, the League for New Life.

Cut to a 2-page scene between the Prime Minister and a mature woman of influence, his wife? his mistress? Lydia Washington. Anyway, the conversation serves the purpose of explaining how and why the Prime Minister is in a pickle how to respond to the antigerone furore, how the political parties are split.

The most significant piece of new information in this conversation is that the Chinese have learned somehow that the main locations for the rare lichens are on their territory. Francis has discovered and communicated to the Prime Minister that the Chinese have announced they are digging over the entire area and making it into one of their huge communal farms. There was never very much of the lichen to begin with; now it looks as if it will be lost for good.

The PM and Lydia’s conversation ends with the thought that he needs to distract the populace with something new, a new toy and distraction. Cut to the Prime Minister’s speech to the nation in which he invokes British patriotism to mask the fact that supplies are minuscule but the government will be setting up an enquiry / task force / commission etc etc:

‘He had little doubt, indeed our record of scientific progress assured him that he need have no doubt, that British brains, British purpose, and British know-how would succeed – and succeed in the very near future – in producing a supply of the Antigerone for every man and woman in the country who wishes to use it….’

Sounds like Boris Johnson. Sounds like the windy rhetoric surrounding Brexit. As at other moments in the story, you find yourself realising how some things have change, but other things have remained exactly the same.

A surprise happy ending

The last scene is tranquil and funny and moving. Francis Saxover parks his car by the gate of an isolated farmhouse on the edge of the fells, so presumably somewhere in the Lake District. He calls for the owner and his suspicions are confirmed when Diana comes to the door. She’s so surprised to see him she faints.

Yes, because Diana is not dead. She faked her own death with the aid of an actor who played the assassin, an actor who played the doctor tending her into the ambulance and a fake death certificate. She had been preparing this remote bolthole for years. She shows Francis round. It even has a laboratory attached and she has been trying to grow some of the famous lichen.

In the final ‘philosophical’ or sociological conversation of the novel they both foresee trouble ahead. The Americans and Russians are devoting resources to isolating the antigerone, sooner or later it will be mass produced and then there will be revolutionary social change. But she’s done her part, as she explains:

‘The real trouble will come later on. We may get through that without bloodshed too, but it won’t be easy. If we wake up to the famine problem now, if we work flat out on ways to increase food supplies, if something can be done to discourage the suicidal birthrate, we might just manage it with no more trouble than discomforts and short rations for a time. We shall see. All I care about is that we’ve got homo diuturnus, or homo vivax, or whatever they’ll call him, on stage, and waiting in the wings.’

As dusk falls the pair repair to the living room and a roaring fire to discuss the future. Between them they have enough supplies to continue dosing themselves and their nearest and dearest. Their long-suppressed love story comes to a happy ending as it is agreed they will get married. What was once an insuperable aged difference between them is no longer an obstacle, it will melt away before the new extended lifespans they expect.

The final bombshell of the story is understated but massive. On the last page it is implied that both Diana and Francis misled their relatives and the world about the longevity affects of lichenin. They used two or three times normal lifespan as illustrations of its effects, but the implication on the last page is that the true, full effect of the substance could be much, much longer lifespans. Nobody says this but the implication is it could make life… endless… Immortality!

Satire

Arguably the entire novel is a satire: on the beauty industry, on newspapers, and politics, on Labour and the Trade Unions and crusty old aristocrats, on spivs in advertising, on the Cold War with its ludicrously boastful Russians and loudmouth braggart Yanks, a satire on men and women, gender relations, and social stereotyping and constraining of women. It is a far-reaching satire on the whole contemporary world as Wyndham understood it.

Plausibility

It certainly has more validity as social satire than as serious sociological speculation. The passages involving criminals, left wing politicians, and the rich, work as quick satirical stereotypes of likely reactions of these stereotyped sectors or types to news of an elixir of life has been discovered. However, these days we all know a lot more about old age, not least from the spotlight which has been shone on the care home sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that the leading cause of death in the UK is Alzheimer’s Disease and that people are living longer than ever before BUT spend a good deal of those extra years suffering from chronic conditions which require extensive medication or surgery to maintain.

This is the one real-world implication of a pill for longer life which Wyndham doesn’t address at all – the notion that people might well be made to live for 350 years but spend the final 150 of it ill, incapacitated, on heavy medication, requiring surgery or dialysis etc – and it’s interesting to speculate that this is because, in the late 1950s, nobody knew this about extended lifespans.

Feminism

Wyndham makes Diana’s great-aunt Anne a leading suffragette (‘Hammer for the shop-windows, petrol for the letter-boxes, scenes in the House!’, p.123) and Diana herself a thorough-going feminist and independent woman. The book is drenched in comments about the conventions and norms expected of women, with Diana leading numerous conversations about the plight of women, the role of women, the women’s struggle, women’s struggle for freedom / equality / independence, and so on.

These occur early on in Diana’s frequent conversations with her Mummy Darling – embodiment of the Pressure to Conform – a bit later with Zephanie, representative of the Young Generation who she warns not to get suckered in by social pressure or advertising, and then with the employees of her beauty salon, Nefertiti, and with her adored mentor, Francis Saxover.

On having a family

‘I’m not at all sure that I do want to raise a family,’ Diana told her. ‘There are so many families already.’
Mrs Brackley looked shocked.
‘But every woman wants a family, at heart,’ she said. ‘It’s only natural.’
‘Habitual,’ corrected Diana. ‘God knows what would happen to civilization if we did things just because they were natural.’
Mrs Brackley frowned.
‘I don’t understand you, Diana. Don’t you want a house of your own, and a family?’
‘Not furiously, Mummy, or I expect I’d have done something about it long before this. Perhaps I’ll try it, though, later on. I might like it. I’ve plenty of time yet.’
‘Not so long as you think. A woman is always up against time, and it doesn’t do to forget it.’
‘I’m sure you’re right, darling. But being too conscious of it can produce some pretty ghastly results as well, don’t you think? Don’t you worry about me, Mummy. I know what I’m doing.’

On the pressure of advertising 1

‘Perhaps it’s not entirely me. Now, you don’t think as much as you did before you went to that school. If you just go on taking what they tell you without thinking about it, you’ll turn into advertisers’ meat, and end up as a housewife.’
‘But most people do – become housewives, I mean,’ Zephanie said.
‘I know they do – housewife, hausfrau, house-woman, house-keeper, house-minder. Is that what you want? It’s a diddle word, darling. Tell a woman: “woman’s place is in the home”, or “get thee to thy kitchen” and she doesn’t like it; but call it “being a good housewife”, which means exactly the same thing, and she’ll drudge along, glowing with pride. My great-aunt fought, and went to prison several times, for women’s rights; and what did she achieve? A change of technique from coercion to diddle, and a generation of granddaughters who don’t even know they’re being diddled – and probably wouldn’t care more if they did. Our deadliest susceptibility is conformity, and our deadliest virtue is putting up with things as they are. So watch for the diddles, darling. You can’t be too careful about them in a world where the symbol of the joy of living can be a baked bean.’ (p.45)

On the pressure of advertising 2

‘I told myself: “This is the twentieth century, for what it’s worth. It’s not the age of reason, or even the nineteenth century, it’s the era of flummery, and the day of the devious approach. Reason’s gone into the backrooms where it works to devise means by which people can be induced to emote in the desired direction. And when I say people I mean women. To hell with reason.”‘ (Diana Brackley, p.91)

Women are their own worst enemy

‘Aren’t you going to get married, Diana?’
‘Oh, I daresay I shall – one day,’ Diana conceded.
‘But if you don’t, what’ll you do? Will you be like your great-aunt, and fight for women’s rights?’
‘You’ve got it a bit muddled, darling. My great-aunt, and other people’s great-aunts, won all the rights that women need ages ago. All that’s been lacking since then is the social courage to use them. My great-aunt and the rest thought that by technically defeating male privilege they’d scored a great victory. What they didn’t realize is that the greatest enemies of women aren’t men at all, they are women: silly women, lazy women, and smug women. Smug women are the worst; their profession is being women, and they just hate any women who make any other kind of profession a success. It sets up an inferiority-superiority thing in them.’
Zephanie regarded her thoughtfully.
‘I don’t think you like women very much, Diana,’ she decided.
‘Too sweeping, darling. What I don’t like about us is our readiness to be conditioned – the easy way we can be made to be willing to be nothing better than squaws and second-class citizens, and taught to go through life as appendages instead of as people in our own right.’ (p.46)

The beauty industry

‘Well, if you’d spent twelve years working for it, embroiled in a pink-shaded, flower-scented, soft-carpeted, silk-bowed, Cellophane-protected dreamland populated by purring, scheming, hardeyed, grasping, cynical, retractible-clawed bitches who support themselves by assisting other women to employ their secondary sexual characteristics to the best advantage, you’d welcome pretty nearly any kind of change, too.’ (p.124)

Diana’s casual insights into sexism:

‘You can, if necessary, brush off an article slanted at women more easily than one that purported to give reliable news to men.’ (p.153)

‘I don’t want to lead all these women. I’m just making use of them – deceiving them, if you care to say so. The idea of a longer life has an immense superficial appeal to them. Most of them have no notion of what it is really going to mean to them. They don’t see yet that it will make them grow up – that they simply won’t be able to go on for two hundred years leading the nugatory piffling sort of lives that most women do lead; nobody could stand it….

‘They think I’m just offering them more of the same life. I’m not. I’m cheating them.’

‘All my life I’ve been watching potentially brilliant women let their brains, and their talents, rot away. I could weep for the waste of it; for what they might have been, and might have done… But give them two hundred, three hundred years, and they’ll either have to employ those talents to keep themselves sane – or commit suicide out of boredom.’

Of course a modern feminist might well object how patronising it was for a man to write any book like this, claiming to speak for women, and would not be slow to point out the numerous places where 1950s gender stereotypes still occur, even in the thinking of Diana herself, a hundred and one slips of phrase which betray its fundamentally reactionary mindset. It wouldn’t be difficult to dismiss the book as the patronising mansplaining of a stale, pale and male author,  yet another dead white man, modern feminism being so prolific in new insults and abuse.

Still, it’s a really noteworthy achievement for an author who is mostly remembered for his sci fi horror shockers to have devoted so much time and energy to a book entirely setting out to vindicate women, champion women, comment on how women are patronised and marginalised and pressurised by society and manipulated by advertising, a book-length study of an extremely strong, independent woman, a scientist to boot, who makes a great discovery and then isn’t pushed aside by men, but conceives and carries out a series of clever schemes to change the world, who sets the pace and leads the narrative right up to the last scene and the final sentences. Surely this is a remarkable achievement for 1960.


Credit

Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1960. All references are to the 1974 Penguin paperback edition (recommended retail price 30p).

Related link

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Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger.
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is real and a telepathic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in retrospect, in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

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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