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

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

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

The blind watchmaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One long argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This thought then rapidly gets out of control as he goes on to say that calling yourself a reductionist is the equivalent, ‘in some circles’ of admitting that you eat babies. What is he on about? He then goes on to compare the hypothetical ‘reductionist’ he’s just invented with his own, more sophisticated, materialist reductionism, and then writes:

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

You can see that he’s making a serious (and fairly obvious) point, but that somehow it’s got tangled up with a straw man he’s felt compelled to invent, and then attribute the bizarre character of eating babies!

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

In among the vast army of people Dawkins picks fights with are some real Christian or anti-evolution figures who pop up for a brief moment before being subjected to withering criticism.

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

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

Naivety

There’s a stunning moment before the book’s even properly begun which reveals Dawkins’ amazing simple-mindedness and naivety about the real world.

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

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

I thought he was joking, but this anecdote, told on page two of the Preface, establishes the fact that Dawkins doesn’t understand the nature of intellectual debate, and so by implication doesn’t understand the worlds of law or politics or philosophy or the humanities, where you are routinely asked to justify a cause you don’t particularly believe in, or to argue the toss between a number of conflicting views. When I told my son this he recalled being made to take part in school debates when he was 11. It’s a basic teaching, learning and cultural practice.

Reflecting on this anecdote makes you wonder: should someone so naive and innocent be allowed out on their own, without adult supervision?

Philosophical simple-mindedness

Dawkins likes to brandish the word ‘philosophy’ a lot but none of his arguments are truly philosophical, they are more rhetorical or technical. Anyway, philosophy isn’t necessarily about ‘arguing’ for the sake of it, as any fan of the Monty Python Argument sketch can vouch.

For example, early on he asks ‘What is an explanation?’ before giving this definition of how he intends to use the word:

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

Not exactly philosophical, is it? More a straightforward clarifying of terms. And yet in chapter 2 he refers back to the opening chapter in which this and much like it occurred, as mostly ‘philosophical’.

All we can conclude is that Dawkins’ idea of ‘philosophy’ is extremely simplistic. That it is, in fact, a biologist’s notion of philosophy i.e. lacking any subtlety or depth.

Same goes for his attitude to the English language. Dawkins is extremely proud of the care with which he writes, and takes plenty of opportunities to show off his own pedantic thoughts about English usage – for example, in the little paragraph discussing whether it is better to write computer programme or computer program. Towards the end of the book he mentions ‘the great Japanese geneticist Motoo Kimura’

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

There is no possible reason for this unnecessary aside except to let everyone know that he, Richard Dawkins, is a first class judge of what constitutes good English. It is pure swank (‘behaviour, talk, or display intended to impress others’). As with everything else he writes, Dawkins’s comments about the English language are entry-level and obvious, but presented with a great hoo-hah and self-satisfaction.

Dawkins’s sense of humour!!

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

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

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

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

  1. a detailed description of how bat echolocation works – which is riveting
  2. to pondering what it is like to be a bat and live in a bat’s body and live and perceive the world entirely by echolocation and sonar – which is sort of interesting, but speculative
  3. to an extended passage where Dawkins imagines a conference of bat scientists who have been studying human beings being presented with the flabbergasting discovery that humans use a previously unknown sense called ‘sight’, employing two bulbous receptors in their faces called ‘eyes’, to analyse light signals which appear to create in their brains 3-D models of the world which help them navigate around, almost as well as bats!!

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

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

Unintentional autobiography

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

I laughed out loud when on page 3 he writes:

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

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

Elsewhere he begins to explain the unlikeliness of organic molecules coming into existence by asking us to ponder the number of his bicycle lock (and later assures us that ‘I ride a bicycle to work every day’, p.84). Good chap.

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

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

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

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

The common brown bat Myotis emits sonic clicks at the rate of ten a second, about the same rate as a Bren machine gun. An analogy, presumably, he expects his readers to find useful because of our familiarity with the Bren machine gun from our National Service days.

Best of all, his comic-book enthusiasm bubbles over when he tells us that:

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

Spy planes. Gramophone players. Factory sirens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi-fidelity gramophones. Factory sirens. Mid-Atlantic mouthings. Who is this weirdo?

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

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

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

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

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

Pages of this self-indulgent autobiography go by before he gets round to writing anything relevant about evolution, while this reader, at any rate, was shouting ‘Get on with it!’

Dawkins is so mealy-mouthed and long-winded, so in love with the sound of his own analogies and whimsical digressions, and so keen to share with you his ripping boyhood memories and High Table anecdotes, that it becomes at times, almost physically painful to read him.

Distracting analogies

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

For example, chapter seven has an extended explanation of what arms races are in the context of evolution i.e. when predators and prey develop characteristics designed to help them outdo each other. So far so good. But then he went off into an extended comparison with battleships and then to the actual arms race between the USA and USSR building larger and larger nuclear weapons, which became progressively less useful and increasingly distracting and misleading.

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

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

In a really egregious example, chapter 8 about punctuated equilibrium doesn’t start with an explanation of what punctuated equilibrium is – far too straightforward for the Professor – instead, it starts with a two-page-long extended analogy with the ancient Israelites spending forty years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt.

The point of the analogy is to compare proponents of the theory of punctuated equilibrium with a hypothetical historian who took the Biblical exodus literally, calculating that the distance from Egypt to the Holy Land which the Israelites eventually settled in was only 200 miles and so, taken literally, this would mean the Israelites covered just 24 yards per day or 1 yard per hour. ‘Ridiculous?’ he asks. ‘Yes, well, that’s how ridiculous the theory of punctuated equilibrium is.’

You can see in this example how he is so in love with his own wit and ideas that he a) completely fails to clearly explain what punctuated equilibrium is b) really confuses the reader with his extended and utterly irrelevant analogy.

(The theory of punctuated equilibrium takes the extremely patchy fossil record of life on earth as evidence suggesting that evolution in fact consists of long periods of virtual stasis ‘punctuated’ by sudden bursts of relatively fast evolution and the creation of new species. Dawkins devotes a chapter and a host of ideas, sub-ideas and extended analogies to proving that this theory does not undermine the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy – as Creationists gleefully claim – but can be slotted easily into existing neo-Darwinian theory that evolution takes place at a slow steady pace: the core of Dawkins’s argument is that the fossil record appears to suggest long static periods interspersed with periods of manic change, solely because it is patchy.)

The whole tenor and shape and flavour  of the book is taken up with Dawkins’s analogies and similes and metaphors and witty ideas. It would have been so much better to have devoted the space to killer examples from the natural world. Too often Dawkins takes us off on one of his long digressions which take you away from the wonders of life on earth and push you into the broom cupboard of his flat, sterile and unimaginative analogies.

Example: It is fascinating to learn that many bat species have scrunched-up gargoyle faces (which have terrified generations of humans) because their faces have evolved to reflect and process their high-pitched echolocation signals. Whereas Dawkins saying that bats are ‘like high-tech spy planes’ is trite and uninformative.

Dawkins and computers

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

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

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

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

More advanced iterations produced by Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker program

The point of all this is to show how quickly baroque ‘creatures’ can be created by a few simple rules and endless iterations, which Dawkins naively thinks, is a strong proof for Darwin’s theory. He calls the multi-dimensional space thronged with a potentially endless sequence of mutating variating life forms stretching out in all directions. Biomorph Land, and the metaphor is invoked and repeated at moments throughout the rest of the book.

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

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

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

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

The book may well have explained and elucidated various concepts around evolution and genetics to an educated secular audience which had hitherto had few if any popular accounts to read. But it would be fascinating to learn if it converted anyone to abandon their Christian or theist beliefs and become an atheist.

Précis

Chapter 2 Bats and echolocation

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

Chapter 4 Contrary to creationist propaganda 1% of an eye is better than no eye, and there are many animals with what you could call half or a quarter or less of a wing (i.e. bits of stretchable skin which help with gliding from tree to tree).

Chapter 5 ‘It is raining DNA outside’. Why Life is more like a computer programme (i.e. a transmissible digital code) than Victorian ideas about blobs of matter and life force’.

Chapter 6 The idea of ‘miracles’ considered in the context of the 4.5 billion years the earth has existed, and a detailed summary of A.G. Cairns-Smiths theory of the origin of life (piggy-backing on replicating clay crystals.)

Chapter 7 Genes are selected by virtue of their interactions with their environment, which starts by being other genes, within the cell, and then in sister cells. Cells had to learn to co-operate in order to form multi-celled organisms. Cumulative selection produces arms races between rivals in ecosystems.

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

Chapter 9 Is devoted to taking down the theory of punctuated equilibrium put forward by the paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould.

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

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

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

Conclusion and recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

The Mr Bean of biology

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

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

Credit

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


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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.


Related links

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Cosmology

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Human evolution

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Psychology

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Frederick Engels (1880)

Modern Socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonisms existing in the society of today between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage-workers; on the other hand, of the anarchy existing in production. (Opening sentence)

I bought my copy of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific in a cheap Chinese edition from the Marxist bookshop under Brixton railway arches in the 1980s. It cost 45p. Neither the Chinese editions nor the bookshop exist any more.

Prefaces

A feature of the texts by Marx and Engels is the way they come festooned with prefaces and introductions. This is because:

  1. The societies they were describing in such detail, kept evolving and changing: the Europe of 1848 for which the Communist Manifesto was written had changed a lot by 1868, and out of all recognition by 1888.
  2. More subtly, socialism itself kept changing, in the hands of socialist and communist parties spread right across the continent, some of which were banned, some of which (e.g. in Germany) entered Parliament, some of which (e.g. in England) were tempted to join forces with the increasingly well-organised trades unions who weren’t interested in overthrowing capitalism at all; they wanted to keep it in place, but with better pay and conditions for their members.

And thus Marx and Engels found themselves having to tag new introductions and prefaces to all their works in order to keep up with the changing realities of European society, and also the changing nature of socialist belief, which included the continual eruption of new and heretical brands of socialism.

This text has a foreword by Marx, two prefaces by Engels and then an introduction by Engels which is nearly as long (30 pages) as the original text (56 pages).

Origins and impact

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is such a short text because it is an extract from a longer work Engels wrote in 1878, entitled Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science or the Anti-Dühring, as it became known.

During the 1870s the German philosopher, positivist, economist, and socialist Eugen Karl Dühring (1833–1921) published a sequence of books in which he enunciated a ‘positivist’ philosophy, on which he based a form of ‘ethical communism’, along with an economic theory which suggested there would eventually be a harmony of the interests of capitalists and labourers. Things, in other words, could only get better. Dühring’s extensive erudition across numerous fields, and his ‘soft’ form of communism, made his ideas influential in left-wing circles.

Marx and Engels were naturally alarmed because Dühring’s views undermined their insistence on the necessity of class warfare, and the inevitability of a violent revolution in which the radicalised proletariat would overthrow bourgeois capitalism. Dühring denied all this.

Also, it happened that both Marx and Engels had for some time being mulling over the fact that Marx’s great masterwork, Capital, was impenetrable to ordinary readers and that they should probably write a more accessible summary of their philosophical, political and economic theories for the man in the street.

Thus the need for a handy summary of Marxism combined with the urge to refute Dühring’s views inspired Engels to write his lengthy Anti-Dühring – and then to extract three chapters of it into the present work.

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific went on to become probably the most influential single work written by either Marx or Engels. It was quickly translated into over ten European languages, and widely distributed. It became the main vehicle publicising their socialist ideas in the key decades from 1890 to 1910.

In his epic biography of Marx, Gareth Stedman Jones quotes contemporaries testifying to its impact. According to the communist David Riazanov, founder of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow after the revolution (and then a high-profile victim of Stalin’s show trials in the 1930s):

Anti-Dühring was epoch-making in the history of Marxism. It was from this book that the younger generation, which began its activity during the second half of the 1870s, learned what was scientific socialism, what were its philosophical premises, what was its method… all the young Marxists who entered the public arena in the early 1880s – Bernstein, Kautsky, Plekhanov – were brought up on this book.

And Karl Kautsky, the Czech communist and torch bearer of orthodox Marxism between Engels’ death in 1895 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, said:

Judging by the influence that Anti-Dühring had upon me, no other book can have contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is the more powerful work, certainly. But it was only through Anti-Dühring that we learned to understand Capital and read it properly. (quoted in Jones, p.560)

Structure

Overall the book aims to distinguish Marx’s communism from all other previous and current versions of socialism, which Engels dismisses as ‘utopian’. Those other theories were or are based on morality – on moral feelings of outrage, sympathy for the oppressed, appeals to ‘justice’, and so on and so on.

Marx’s communism alone was scientific in the sense that Marx claimed to have uncovered the economic laws which underpinned the development of human civilisation and to have shown that a communist revolution will come regardless of anyone’s feelings or intentions.

Marx’s sociology had revealed that all previous societies have been based on class conflict. More than this, Marx had shown how societies evolve through the process of Dialectical Materialism, namely that at any given epoch there is a master narrative or ideology which, of necessity, contains within it the seeds of opposition and of its eventual overthrow. Within the slave society of ancient Rome lay the seeds of the feudal system. Within the feudal system lay the guilds and the seeds of the mercantilism which superseded it. Within mercantilism lay the seeds of the more organised, competitive capitalism.

And the capitalist system now triumphing in the West contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For, by concentrating more and more wealth and power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the system inevitably, and unstoppably, created a larger and larger and larger class of powerless, impoverished, immiserated people – the proletariat – which sooner or later, must inevitably realise their superior strength, rise up and overthrow their capitalist masters and thus give rise to the communist society where everyone carries out productive labour, as they wish, and where everyone is equal.

This process was reinforced by the fundamental instability of capitalism – this was caused by the endless clash of rival companies and their products, an economic chaos which created day to day social anarchy, led inevitably to regular financial crashes and depressions and, at its highest level, gave rise to wars between rival capitalist empires fighting over raw materials and new markets in the third world.

This ‘system’, Engels explains, is simply not sustainable and will sooner or later crash under the weight of its own ‘contradictions’.

Chapter one

Engels begins the book by describing the thought of some characteristic ‘utopian’ socialists, starting with Saint-Simon, before going on to Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. He shows how their versions of socialism contained many insights but, at bottom, merely reflected the personal opinions of the authors.

Saint-Simon had the genius as early as 1802 to enunciate the principle that ‘all men must work’; to realise that the French Revolution had been a struggle not only between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie but also the propertyless poor; and by 1815 was predicting that politics would soon boil down to issues of production: politics, in other words, would morph into economics – ‘the administration of things and the guidance of the processes of production’.

Fourier declared that humanity had progressed through four stages – savagery, patriarchy, barbarism and civilisation – each of which, including the bourgeois society of his time, partaking of the same tensions and stresses.

Robert Owen set up a model cotton factory at New Lanark in Scotland where he made the workers work shorter hours, and not the then customary seven days a week, provided hygienic accommodation and invented the infant school for the children. With the result that there was no drunkenness, no crime – and yet his investors still made sizeable returns on their money. Owen developed the idea that the wealth the working class produced ought to be retained by the working class instead of being siphoned off to support the aristocracy and the endless war against Napoleon. As his attacks on private property, religion and marriage became more strident, so Owen was dropped by his initial supporters.

According to Engels, each of these three political thinkers had valid and sometimes insightful contributions – but mixed up with hobby horses, personal views and experiences. The net effect was to contribute to a confused and confusing mish-mash of opinions welling up from the obvious injustices of society, and a thousand different schemes to put them right.

By contrast ‘scientific socialism’ derives from the close study of reality. It is based on a materialist conception of human history, and on the premise that the most important feature of any society is its level of technological achievement. The technology, and the economic system which derives from it, are the basis of the classes into which any given society is based, and underpin the ideology which is the collective value and belief system of that society.

  • The economic basis of society.
  • The instability of the capitalist system, constantly forced to seek out greater profits, new markets, resulting in periodic gluts and recessions.
  • The inevitability of class conflict between factory owners and workers.
  • The unstoppable triumph of the proletariat.

Chapter two

This is a short but genuinely interesting attempt to explain what dialectical materialism is.

Engels starts by asking you to reflect on your own experience and thoughts, how they are a constant flood of impressions and mental leaps and connections. Similarly, a moment’s reflection suggests that all organisms, people, objects, are in a constant state of flux. The Greeks knew this. They called it the dialectic, the acceptance of flow and change.

It was only from about the 16th century that western philosophers began to develop what became the natural sciences, whose central methodology is to isolate and define entities. This led to the triumph of Newtonian cosmology, which was reflected in the eighteenth century effort to define and categorise everything into static categories. Fixed entities. Unchanging mechanisms. The opposite of flow and change.

Engels sees the philosophy of Hegel as a rebellion against this mechanistic view of the universe and people. Hegel wanted to re-establish the impermanence of all entities and of all thought as the central feature of existence.

Engels goes on to claim that, as the 19th century had progressed, all the sciences had tended to prove Hegel right. We now know that planets and solar systems and even galaxies aren’t static, but come into and out of existence. The very landscape of the earth has changed out of all recognition over billions of years and is continually changing. Charles Darwin had proved that species are in a permanent state of flux. Even biology had proved that individual human beings – and all life forms – consist of cells which are continually dying, being sloughed off and replaced.

We are all of us, at the same time, something and not something. We are all processes.

This is the rebirth of dialectical thinking based on up-to-date science. This is a dialectic of matter. This is dialectical materialism, a worldview based on the idea that all things are in a state of flux, including humans and including human societies.

There is no such thing as a static society, there are no such things as static social ‘values’. A scientific study of history (such as the kind Marx and Engels claimed to have pioneered) shows that all previous societies have been in states of flux, always changing and evolving.

What Marx has proven in Capital and other writings is that these changes are not random, but the product of certain historical laws – laws which show that:

  • all societies are based on the technology of the day
  • the technology is owned and exploited by a ruling class which is always pitted against those it exploits, whether slaves or serfs or workers
  • the ruling classes produce an ‘ideology’ which contains the ideas used to justify and bolster their power – ‘religion’, ‘morality’, ‘the sanctity of marriage’ etc

But each era has not only had a dominant class, but contains within itself seeds of the opposing class which will rise up and overthrow it.

From that time forward, Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict. But the Socialism of earlier days was as incompatible with this materialist conception as the conception of Nature of the French materialists was with dialectics and modern natural science. The Socialism of earlier days certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them. It could only simply reject them as bad. The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitations of the working-class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose.

Lacking a proper understanding of a) dialectical thinking i.e. the constant process of becoming, and b) the material basis of society and human nature, the reformers Engels mentioned in chapter one – Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen – certainly had ‘inspired moments’, but were unable to effect any real change.

The theory of surplus labour

Added to this philosophical breakthrough is another insight, just as important, in the field of economics, which is Marx’s discovery of how capitalism works.

Capitalism works through squeezing out of each worker the ‘surplus value’ of his labour. Vampire-like, capitalism accumulates wealth by stealing the worker’s productive labour.

The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitations of the working-class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose. For this it was necessary to present the capitalistic mode of production in its historical connection and its inevitableness during a particular historical period, and therefore, also, to present its inevitable downfall; and to lay bare its essential character, which was still a secret.

This was done by the discovery of surplus-value.

It was shown that the appropriation of unpaid labour is the basis of the capitalist mode of production and of the exploitation of the worker that occurs under it; that even if the capitalist buys the labour power of his labourer at its full value as a commodity on the market, he yet extracts more value from it than he paid for; and that in the ultimate analysis, this surplus-value forms those sums of value from which are heaped up constantly increasing masses of capital in the hands of the possessing classes. The genesis of capitalist production and the production of capital were both explained.

These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus-value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries, Socialism became a science.

Chapter three

Applies Marx and Engels’s materialist view to history.

The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.

This passage introduces a lengthy description of the way capitalist production arose out of medieval, feudal production, of how individual cottage producers gave way to workshops and then to factory owners who could produce goods cheaper than individual artisans and craftsmen, who drove them to of business, and forced them to become wage-slaves working in their factories.

But, remember – according to Hegel’s dialectic, any system is always changing, always contains within itself the seeds of its own overthrow.

For example, the capitalist, by creating a huge labour force of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers – creates the very force that will overthrow him, a huge mass of exploited workers who are capable, because of their new proximity to each other, of discussing and understanding their plight, of organising and educating and, eventually, of rising up and ending their exploitation.

The joy of paradoxes

Marx and Engels enjoy paradoxes. In fact their argument often proceeds by paradoxical reversals rather by than strict logic. For example, there’s a long, involved passage where Engels explains that new technology and new machinery – which ought to make everyone’s lives more pleasant – is twisted by the capitalist system (i.e. the ravenous competition between capitalists, the need to keep costs down) into the very thing which oppresses the worker. For the spread of new technology leads to the laying off of workers, who then create a pool of unemployed labour, ready and willing to be re-employed and the cheapest rates, which allows the capitalist to reduce wages to his existing staff.

Thus it comes about, to quote Marx, that machinery becomes the most powerful weapon in the war of capital against the working-class; that the instruments of labor constantly tear the means of subsistence out of the hands of the laborer; that the very product of the worker is turned into an instrument for his subjugation.

This is given as an example of dialectical thinking, although to the literary-minded it could also be interpreted as a love of ironic reversals and paradoxes, a love of binaries which Marx and Engels again and again collapse into their opposites.

But the chief means by aid of which the capitalist mode of production intensified this anarchy of socialized production was the exact opposite of anarchy. It was the increasing organization of production, upon a social basis, in every individual productive establishment

Accumulation of wealth at one pole [among capitalists] is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the [workers].

In the trusts, freedom of competition changes into its very opposite – into monopoly.

The rise of monopolies

Engels points to a number of trends in contemporary capitalist society where, he claims, you can see the dialectical opposite of capitalist production already appearing.

For example, there is a tendency to monopoly in a number of industries e.g. railways or telegraphs. By an irony the tendency of a handful of big companies to buy up all the smaller ones repeats on a higher level the way early capitalists drove out small, cottage producers. Now it’s a lot of the capitalists who are turned into a ‘reserve army’ with nothing much to do all day except count their dividends.

At first, the capitalistic mode of production forces out the workers. Now, it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus-population…

One step further along this line, in many European countries the state has bought out the monopoly capitalists, nationalising the railways and some other industries. This move is at one and the same time the peak of capitalist monopoly control but also – a forerunner of the way the state run by the workers will abolish all companies and run everything themselves.

The capitalist relationship is not abolished, rather it is pushed to the limit. But at this limit it changes into its opposite.

There is something powerful, slick, and magically persuasive about this rhetoric, like the famous phrases in The Communist Manifesto which describe the constructive/destructive impact of capitalism:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…

It is a very effective way of thinking and makes for a powerful rhetoric.

The communist utopia

Having explained why previous socialist thinkers were mere rootless dreamers, having explained how Hegel’s theory of the dialectic can be allied with modern science to generate a theory of how things change, having explained how a materialist view of history throws out all fancy talk about God and Sin and Justice and focuses on the changing nature of production and the class antagonisms this throws up – and having looked in detail at why capitalist production is so unstable and gives rise to regular crises and recessions – Engels has prepared his reader for a vision of what a communist state should look like.

Namely that the means of production should not be used to enslave people and to create an unregulated chaos of competition – but brought into the ownership of the state, a state acting on behalf of everyone, so as to plan work and production, so as to maximise human life, health and happiness.

This solution can only consist in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production, and therefore in the harmonizing with the socialized character of the means of production. And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces which have outgrown all control, except that of society as a whole. The social character of the means of production and of the products today reacts against the producers, periodically disrupts all production and exchange, acts only like a law of Nature working blindly, forcibly, destructively. But, with the taking over by society of the productive forces, the social character of the means of production and of the products will be utilized by the producers with a perfect understanding of its nature, and instead of being a source of disturbance and periodical collapse, will become the most powerful lever of production itself.

And the state, which has hitherto all through history been nothing more than the legal instrument through which the oppressing class dominates society – once it is identified with the great mass of the oppressed class, once it becomes truly representative of all of society – will die out. The state will wither away. Because its repressive function is no longer required in a society where production is controlled and planned by the whole population.

Insofar as the (repressive) government of persons is replaced by the (fair and just) administration of things. of the products of industry – so the entity which repressed people (the state) will simply vanish 🙂

It is here!

Engels has one last point to make, which is that the time for revolution is now, not because this, that or the other activist thinks so: but because it is objectively the case in the economic development of the West. In the early industrial revolution the amount produced by factories was barely enough to maintain subsistence living among the immiserated proletariat. But in the past forty years the amount of output, the wealth and variety and richness of industrial products, have reached new heights.

The socialized appropriation of the means of production does away, not only with the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also with the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products that are at the present time the inevitable concomitants of production, and that reach their height in each new economic crisis.

Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today, and their political representatives.

The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day-by-day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now, for the first time, here. It is here.

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production [i.e. chaotic competition between capitalists which leads to regular crises] is replaced by systematic, definite organization.

The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, will finally be marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerge from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones.

The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, will now come under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization.

The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will now be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.

Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, will now become the result of his own free action.

The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, will pass under the control of man himself.

Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history – only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him.

It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

Thoughts

Wow. This is mind-blowing rhetoric, a heady, drunken mix of German philosophy, English economics, underpinned by the latest scientific theories and brought to bear on the great social issues of the age.

You can see why scads of people, from illiterate workers to highly educated intellectuals, would be roused and inspired by this vision. It is, at the end of the day, a wish for a better society, a wish every bit as utopian as the wish of Saint-Simon or Owen – but it is dressed up in a battery of ‘scientific’ and philosophical and economic arguments which pummel the brain like a heavyweight boxer.

Without doubt Marx brought an incredible rigour and thoroughness to left-wing thought across Europe, and then around the world, and his insights into how capitalism works, why it seems condemned to periodic crises, and into the way a culture’s ‘ideology’ masks the true nature of class conflict or exploitation of the poor by the rich, all these remain fertile insights right down to our own time.

But the entire prophetic and practical aspect of his creed failed. The most advanced economies – America, Britain and Germany – instead of experiencing a millennial revolution, managed to co-opt the workers into the fabric of bourgeois society by offering them the benefits of a welfare state – shorter hours, better working conditions, health benefits, pensions.

Exploitation continued, strikes and riots continued and the entire fabric of the West came under strain during periods of depression and seemed to many to have completely collapsed during the Great Depression, and yet…  even amid this ruinous failure of capitalism, the promised communist uprising never took place.

Instead, the revolution occurred in the most economically and socially backward society in Europe, Russia, and even then, less as a result of the inevitable triumph of capitalism magically morphing into its opposite – the process so beguilingly described by Engels in this entrancing pamphlet – but by straightforward social collapse brought about by prolonged war and starvation.

A political vacuum in which Lenin and his zealots were able to carry out a political and military coup, which then took years of civil war and immense suffering to settle down into the kind of prolonged totalitarian dictatorship which would have horrified Marx and Engels.


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