The way things are by Lucretius translated by Rolfe Humphries (1969)

I try to learn about the way things are
And set my findings down in Latin verse.

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

This is a hugely enjoyable translation of Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura which literally translates as ‘On the nature of things’. Fluent, full of force and vigour, it captures not only the argumentative, didactic nature of the poem but dresses it in consistently fine phrasing. It has an attractive variety of tones, from the lofty and heroic to the accessible and demotic, sometimes sounding like Milton:

Time brings everything
Little by little to the shores of light
By grace of art and reason, till we see
All things illuminate each other’s rise
Up to the pinnacles of loftiness.

(Book V, final lines, 1,453 to 1,457)

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

We had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth.

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

Sometimes like the guy sitting next to you at the bar:

I keep you waiting with my promises;
We’d best be getting on.

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

What once was too-much-feared becomes in time
The what-we-love-to-stomp-on.

(Book V, lines 1,140 and 1,141)

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from about 99 to about 55 BC. Not much is known about him. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a didactic epic poem of some 7,500 lines, written entirely to promote the abstract philosophy of Epicureanism. No heroes, no gods, no battles, no epic speeches. Just 7,500 lines comprehensively describing Epicurus’s atomic materialism and his ‘scientific’, rationalist worldview.

The title is usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. It is a mark of Rolfe Humphries’ attractive contrariness that he drops the almost universally used English title in favour of the slightly more confrontational and all-encompassing The ways things are. He himself in his preface describes this title as ‘simple, forthright, insistent, peremptory’. Peremptory. Nice word. Like so much else in his translation, it feels instantly right.

The various modern translations

In the past few months I’ve had bad experiences with both Oxford University Press and Penguin translations of Latin classics. I thought the Penguin translation of Sallust by A.J. Woodman was clotted, eccentric and misleading. But I also disliked the OUP translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars by Carolyn Hammond, which I bought brand new but disliked her way with English in just the introduction before I’d even begun the text, so that I ended up abandoning her for the more fluent 1951 Penguin translation by S.A Handford (which also features a useful introduction by Jane Gardner, who comes over as intelligent and witty in a way Hammond simply isn’t).

Shopping around for an English translation of Lucretius, I was not impressed by the snippets of either the Penguin or OUP translations which are available on Amazon. It was only when I went further down the list and read the paragraph or so of Rolfe Humphries’ translation which is quoted in the sales blurb that I was immediately gripped and persuaded to cough up a tenner to buy it on the spot.

I knew an OUP edition would be festooned with notes, many of which would be insultingly obvious (Rome is the capital city of Italy, Julius Caesar was the great Roman general who blah blah blah). Humphries’ edition certainly has notes but only 18 pages of them tucked right at the very back of the text (there’s no list of names or index). And there’s no indication of them in the actual body text, no asterisks or superscript numbers to distract the reader, to make you continually stop and turn to the end notes section.

Instead the minimal annotation is part of Humphries’ strategy to hit you right between the eyes straightaway with the power and soaring eloquence of this epic poem, to present it as one continuous and overwhelming reading experience, without footling distractions and interruptions. Good call, very good call.

[Most epics are about heroes, myths and legends, from Homer and Virgil through Beowulf and Paradise Lost. Insofar as it is about the nature of the universe i.e. sees things on a vast scale, The way things are is comparable in scope and rhetoric with Paradise Lost and frequently reaches for a similar lofty tone, but unlike all those other epic poems it doesn’t have heroes and villains, gods and demons, in fact it has no human protagonists at all. In his introduction, Burton Feldman suggests the only protagonist is intelligence, the mind of man in quest of reality, seeking a detached lucid contemplation of the ways things are. On reflection I think that’s wrong. This description is more appropriate for Wordsworth’s epic poem on the growth and development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude. There’s a stronger case for arguing that the ‘hero’ of the poem is Epicurus, subject of no fewer than three sutained passages of inflated praise. But ultimately surely the protagonist of The way things are is the universe itself, or Lucretius’s materialistic conception of it. The ‘hero’ is the extraordinary world around us which he seeks to explain in solely rationalist, materialist way.]

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

It was a grind reading Cicero’s On the nature of the gods but one thing came over very clearly (mainly from the long, excellent introduction by J.M. Ross). That Epicurus’s philosophy was designed to allay anxiety and fear.

Epicurus identified two causes of stress and anxiety in human beings: fear of death and fear of the gods (meaning their irrational, unpredictable interventions in human lives so). So Epicurus devised a system of belief based on ‘atomic materialism’, on a view of the universe as consisting of an infinite number of atoms continually combining in orderly and predictable ways according to immutable laws, designed to banish those fears and anxieties forever.

If men could see this clearly, follow it
With proper reasoning, their minds would be
Free of great agony and fear

(Book III, lines 907-909)

Irrelevant though a 2,000 year old pseudo-scientific theory may initially sound, it has massive consequences and most of the poem is devoted to explaining Epicurus’s materialistic atomism (or atomistic materialism) and its implications.

Epicurus’s atomic theory

The central premise of Epicureanism is its atomic theory, which consists of two parts:

  1. Nothing comes of nothing.
  2. Nothing can be reduced to nothing.

The basic building blocks of nature are constant in quantity, uncreated and indestructible, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Therefore, everything in nature is generated from these elementary building blocks through natural processes, is generated, grows, thrives, decays, dies and decomposes into its constituent elements. But the sum total of matter in the universe remains fixed and unalterable.

Once we have seen that Nothing comes of nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no ‘gods’ will’ about it!

It may sound trivial or peripheral, but what follows from this premise is that nature is filled from top to bottom with order and predictability. There cannot be wonders, freak incidents, arbitrary acts of god and so on. The unpredictable intervention of gods is abolished and replaced by a vision of a calm, ordered world acting according to natural laws and so – There is no need for stress and anxiety.

Because if no new matter can be created, if the universe is made of atoms combining into larger entities based on fixed and predictable laws, then two things follow.

Number One, There are no gods and they certainly do not suddenly interfere with human activities. In other words, nobody should be afraid of the wrath or revenge of the gods because in Epicurus’s mechanistic universe such a thing is nonsensical.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see
That nature has no tyrants over her,
But always acts of her own will; she has
No part of any godhead whatsoever.

(Book II, lines 1,192 to 1,195)

And the second consequence is a purely mechanistic explanation of death. When we, or any living thing, dies, its body decomposes back into its constituent atoms. There is no state of death, there is no soul or spirit, and so there is no afterlife in which humans will be punished or rewarded. We will not experience death, because all the functioning of our bodies, including perception and thought, will all be over, with no spirit or soul lingering on.

Therefore: no need for ‘the silly, vain, ridiculous fear of gods’ (III, 982), no need to fear death, no need to fear punishment in some afterlife. Instead, we must live by the light of the mind and rational knowledge.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

Interestingly Lucretius likes this phrase so much that he repeats it verbatim at Book II, lines 57 to 61, at Book III, lines 118 to 112, and Book VI, lines 42 to 45. Like all good teachers he knows the essence of education is repetition.

Epicurus the god

The radicalness of this anti-religious materialist philosophy explains why, early in Book I, Lucretius praises Epicurus extravagantly. He lauds him as the man whose imagination ranged the lengths of the universe, penetrated into the secrets of its origin and nature, and returned to free the human race from bondage. One man alone, Epicurus, set us free by enquiring more deeply into the nature of things than any man before him and so springing ‘the tight-barred gates of Nature’s hold asunder’.

Epicureanism is as much as ‘religious’ experience as a rational philosophy and Lucretius’s references to Epicurus in the poem could almost be hymns to Christ from a Christian epic. They are full of more than awe, of reverence and almost worship. (Book I 66ff, Book II, Book III 1042, opening of Book V).

He was a god, a god indeed, who first
Found a new life-scheme, a system, a design
Now known as Wisdom or Philosophy…

He seems to us, by absolute right, a god
From whom, distributed through all the world,
Come those dear consolations of the mind,
That precious balm of spirit.

(Book V, lines 11 to 13 and 25 to 28)

Lucretius’s idolisation of Epicurus just about stops short of actual worship because Religion is the enemy. Organised religion is what keeps people in fear of the gods and makes their lives a misery. Epicurus’s aim was to liberate mankind from the oppression and wickedness into which Religious belief, superstition and fanatacism all too often lead it.

Religion the enemy of freedom

Lucretius loathes and detests organised Religion. It oppresses everyone, imposing ludicrous fictions and superstitions about divine intervention and divine punishment. Nonsense designed to oppress and quell the population.

I teach great things.
I try to loose men’s spirits from the ties,
Tight knotted, which religion binds around them.

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

As a vivid example of the way Religion always stands with evil he gives the story of Agamemnon being told by soothsayers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the gods, to calm the seas, so that the fleet of 1,000 Greek ships can sail from Greece to Troy. Could you conceive a worse example of the wicked behaviour religious belief can lead people into.

Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness…
A mighty counsellor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.

(Book I, lines 83 to 84 and 99 to 100)

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

The notes to the book were written by Professor George Strodach. Like the notes in H.H. Scullard’s classic history of Republican Rome, Strodach’s notes are not the frequent little factoids you so often find in Penguin or OUP editions (Democritus was born in Thrace around 460 BC etc), but fewer in number and longer, amounting to interesting essays in their own right.

Among several really interesting points, he tells us that after Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in the late 4th century (320s BC) many of those city states decayed in power and influence and their citizens felt deprived of the civic framework which previously gave their lives meaning. To fill this void there arose two competing ‘salvation ideologies, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each offered their devotees a meaningful way of life plus a rational and fully worked out account of the world as a whole. In both cases the worldview is the groundwork for ‘the therapy of dislocated and unhappy souls’. In each, the sick soul of the initiate must first of all learn the nature of reality before it can take steps towards leading the good life.

Lucretius’ long poem is by way of leading the novice step by step deeper into a worldview which, once adopted, is designed to help him or her conquer anxiety and achieve peace of mind by abandoning the chains of superstitious religious belief and coming to a full and complete understanding of the scientific, materialistic view of the way things are.

There’s no good life
No blessedness, without a mind made clear,
A spirit purged of error.

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

Hence the poem’s extreme didacticism. It is not so much a long lecture (thought it often sounds like it) as a prolonged initiation into the worldview of the cult of Epicurus, addressed to one person, Lucretius’s sponsor Gaius Memmius, but designed to be used by anyone who can read.

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

Hence the didactic lecturing tone throughout, which tells the reader to listen up, pay attention, focus, remember what he said earlier, lays out a lesson plan, and then proceeds systematically from point to point.

I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run.

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

The poem is littered with reminders that it is one long argument, that Lucretius is making a case. He repeatedly tells Memmius to pay attention, to follow the thread of his argument, not to get distracted by common fears or misapprehensions, and takes time to rubbish the theories of rivals.

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

If you know this,
It only takes a very little trouble
To learn the rest: the lessons, one by one,
Brighten each other, no dark night will keep you,
Pathless, astray, from ultimate vision and light,
All things illumined in each other’s radiance.

And it’s quite funny, the (fairly regular) moments when he insists that he’s told us the same thing over and over again, like a schoolteacher starting to be irritated by his pupils’ obtuseness:

  • I have said this many, many times already
  • I am almost tired of saying (III, 692)
  • as I have told you all too many times (IV, 673)
  • Be attentive now. (IV, 878)
  • I have said this over and over, many times. (IV, 1,210)
  • This I’ve said before (VI, 175)
  • Don’t be impatient. Listen! (VI, 244)
  • Remember/Never forget this! (VI, 653 to 654)
  • As I have said before… (VI, 770)
  • Once again/I hammer home this axiom… (VI, 938)

The good life

Contrary to popular belief the Epicureans did not promote a hedonistic life of pleasure. Their aim was negative: the good life is one which is, as far as possible, free from bodily pains and mental anxiety. They deprecated the competitive and acquisitive values so prevalent in first century BC Roman society:

The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day
To win towards heights of wealth and power.

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

What vanity!
To struggle towards the top, toward honour’s height
They made the way a foul and deadly road,
And when they reached the summit, down they came
Like thunderbolts, for Envy strikes men down
Like thunderbolts, into most loathsome Hell…
…let others sweat themselves
Into exhaustion, jamming that defile
They call ambition…

(Book V, lines 1,124 to 1,130 and 1,134 to 1,136)

Instead the Epicureans promoted withdrawal from all that and the spousal of extreme simplicity of living.

Whereas, if man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, lines 1,117 to 1,120)

This much I think I can, and do, assert:
That our perverse vestigial native ways
Are small enough for reason to dispel
So that it lies within our power to live
Lives worthy of the gods.

This kind of life is challenging to achieve by yourself which is why the Epicureans were noted for setting up small communities of shared values. (See what I mean by the disarmingly open but powerful eloquence of Humphries’ style.)

If man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, 1,118 to 1,121)

Shortcomings of Latin

Lucretius repeatedly points out that it is difficult to write about philosophy in Latin because it doesn’t have the words, the terminology or the traditions which have developed them, unlike the Greeks.

I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor and this material is new.

The poverty of our speech, our native tongue,
Makes it hard for me to say exactly how
These basic elements mingle…

(Book III, lines 293-295)

Interesting because this is the exact same point Cicero makes in the De rerum deorum. Cicero, in his books and letters made clear that his philosophical works as a whole have the aim of importing the best Greek thinking into Latin and, as part of the process, creating new Latin words or adapting old ones to translate the sophisticated philosophical terminology which the Greeks had spent centuries developing.

The really miraculous thing is that Humphries captures all this, or has written an English poem which is actually worth reading as poetry. ‘I

for your sake, Memmius,
Have wanted to explain the way things are
Turning the taste of honey into sound
As musical, as golden, so that I
May hold your mind with poetry, while you
Are learning all about that form, that pattern,
And see its usefulness.

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)

Synopis

Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

– hymn to Venus, metaphorical symbol of the creative urge in all life forms

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

– the two basic postulates of atomism, namely: nothing comes of nothing and the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, cannot be destroyed

– the importance of void or space between atoms which allows movement

– everything else, all human history, even time itself, are by-products or accidents of the basic interplay of atoms and void

– on the characteristics of atoms

– a refutation of rival theories, of Heraclitus (all things are made of fire), Empedocles (set no limit to the smallness of things), the Stoics (who believe everything is made up of mixtures of the 4 elements) and Anaxagoras (who believed everything was made up of miniature versions of itself) – all comprehensively rubbished

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

– the good life is living free from care, fear or anxiety

– varieties of atomic motion namely endless falling through infinite space; atoms travel faster than light

– the atomic swerve and its consequences i.e. it is a slight swerve in the endless downward fall of atoms through infinite space which begins the process of clustering and accumulation which leads to matter which leads, eventually, to the universe we see around us

– how free will is the result of a similar kind of ‘swerve’ in our mechanistic lives

– the conservation of energy

– the variety of atomic shapes and the effects of these on sensation

– atoms themselves have no secondary qualities such as colour, temperature and so on

– there is an infinite number of worlds, all formed purely mechanically i.e. no divine intervention required

– there are gods, as there are men, but they are serenely indifferent to us and our lives: in Epicurus’s worldview, the so-called gods are really just moral exemplars of lives lived with complete detachment, calm and peace (what the Greeks called ataraxia)

to think that gods
Have organised all things for the sake of men
Is nothing but a lot of foolishness. (II, 14-176)

– all things decay and our times are degraded since the golden age (‘The past was better, infinitely so’)

That all things, little by little, waste away
As time’s erosion crumbles them to doom.

Book III (1,094 lines)

– Epicurus as therapist of the soul – this passage, along with other hymns of praise to the great man scattered through the poem, make it clear that Epicurus was more than a philosopher but the founder of a cult whose devotees exalted him

– the fear of hell as the root cause of all human vices

– the material nature of mind and soul – their interaction and relation to the body – spirit is made of atoms like everything else, but much smaller than ‘body atoms’, and rarer, and finely intricated

– rebuttal of Democritus’s theory of how atoms of body and spirit interact (he thought they formed a chains of alternating body and spirit atoms)

– descriptions of bodily ailments (such as epilepsy) and mental ailments( such as fear or depression) as both showing the intimate link between body and spirit

– an extended passage arguing why the spirit or soul is intimately linked with the body so that when one dies, the other dies with it

– the soul is not immortal – therefore there is no ‘transmigration of souls’; a soul which was in someone else for their lifetime does not leave their body upon their death and enter that of the nearest newly-conceived foetus – he ridicules this belief by envisioning the souls waiting in a queue hovering around an egg about to be impregnated by a sperm and all vying to be the soul that enters the new life

– the soul is not immortal – being made of atoms it disintegrates like the body from the moment of death (in lines 417 to 820 Lucretius states no fewer than 26 proofs of the mortality of the soul: Strodach groups them into 1. proofs from the material make-up of the soul; proofs from diseases and their cures; 3. proofs from the parallelism of body and soul; 4. proofs from the various logical absurdities inherent in believing the soul could exist independently of the body)

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

– vivid descriptions of types of people and social situations (at funerals, at banquets) at which people’s wrong understanding of the way things are makes them miserable

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

Because I teach great things, because I strive
To free the spirit, give the mind release
From the constrictions of religious fear…

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

– atomic images or films: these are like an invisible skin or film shed from the surfaces of all objects, very fine, passing through the air, through glass – this is his explanation of how sight and smell work, our senses detect these microscopic films of things which are passing through the air all around us

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

all knowledge is based on the senses; rejecting the evidence of the senses in favour of ideas and theories leads to nonsense, ‘a road to ruin’. Strodach calls this ‘extreme empiricism’ and contrast it with the two other ancient philosophies, Platonism which rejected the fragile knowledge of the senses and erected knowledge on the basis of maths and logic; and Scepticism, which said both mind and body can be wrong, so we have to go on probabilities and experience

– his explanations of sight, hearing and taste are colourful, imaginative, full of interesting examples, and completely wrong

– how we think, based on the theory of ‘images’ derived by the impression of atomic ‘skins’ through our senses; it seems wildly wrong, giving the impression that ‘thought’ is the almost accidental combination of these atomistic images in among the finer textured atoms of the mind

– a review of related topics of human experience, including movement, sleep and dreams, the latter produced when fragments of atomistic images are assembled by the perceiving mind when it is asleep, passive and undirected

– an extended passage ridiculing romantic love which moves on to theory about sex and reproduction, namely that the next generation are a mix of material from each parent, with a load of old wives’ tales about which position to adopt to get pregnant, and the sex or characteristics of offspring derive from the vigour and other characteristics of the parents. Lucretius tries to give a scientific explanation of the many aspects of sex and reproduction which, since he lacked all science, come over as folk myths. But he is a card carrying Epicurean and believes the whole point of life is to avoid anxiety, stress and discombobulation and so, logically enough, despises and ridicules sex and love.

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

– the world is mortal, its origin is mechanical not divine

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

– an extended passage describing the rise of man from lying under bushes in a state of nature through the creation of tribes, then cities – the origin of civilisation, including the invention of kings and hierarchies, the discovery of fire, how to use metals and weave clothes, the invention of language and law and, alas, the development of Religion to awe and terrify ourselves with

This book is the longest and also the weakest, in that Lucretius reveals his woeful ignorance about a whole raft of scientific issues. He thinks the earth is at the centre of the universe and the moon, sun, planets and stars all circle round it. He thinks the earth is a flat surface and the moon and the sun disappear underneath it. He thinks the sun, moon and stars are moved by the wind. He thinks all animals and other life forms were given birth by the earth, and that maggots and worms are generated from soil. In her early days the earth gave birth to all kinds of life forms but this no longer happens because she is tired out. Lucretius is anti-evolutionary in the way he thinks animals and plants and man came into being with abilities fully formed (the eye, nose, hand) and only then found uses for them, rather than the modern view that even slight, rudimentary fingers, hands, sense of smell, taste, sight, would convey evolutionary advantage on their possessors which tend to encourage their development over successive generations.

I appreciate that Lucretius was trying his best to give an objective, rational and unsupernatural account of all aspects of reality. I understand that although his account of the origins of lightning and thunder may be wildly incorrect (clouds contain particles of fire) his aim was worthy and forward looking – to substitute a rational materialistic account for the absurdly anthropocentric, superstitious, god-fearing superstitions of his day, by which people thought lightning and thunder betokened the anger of the gods. He had very good intentions.

But these good intentions don’t stop the majority of his account from being ignorant tripe. Well intention and asking the right questions (what causes rain, what causes thunder, what is lightning, what is magnetism) and trying hard to devise rational answers to them. But wrong about almost everything.

Reading it makes you realise what enormous events the invention of the telescope and the microscope were, both around 1600, Galileo’s proof that the earth orbits round the sun a decade later, the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 1620s, Newton’s theory of gravity in the 1680s, the discovery of electricity around 1800, the theory of evolution in the 1850s, the germ theory of the 1880s and, well, all of modern science.

Reading Lucretius, like reading all the ancients and medieval authors, is to engage with intelligent, learned, observant and sensitive people who knew absolutely nothing about how the world works, what causes natural phenomena, how living organisms came about and evolved, next to nothing about astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry or any of the natural sciences. Their appeal is their eloquence, the beauty of their language and the beguilingness of their fairy tales.

And of course, the scientific worldview is always provisional. It may turn out that everything we believe is wrong and about to be turned upside down by new discoveries and paradigm shifts., It’s happened before.

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

…he cleansed
Our hearts by words of truth; he put an end
To greed and fears; he showed the highest good
Toward which we all are aiming, showed the way…

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

– meteorology: thunder, lightning because the clouds contain gold and seeds of fire, waterspouts

– geological phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, clouds, rain, why the sea never overflows considering all the rivers running into it, the inundation of the Nile

– why noxious things oppress humanity; pigs hate perfume but love mud!

– four pages about magnetism, noticing and describing many aspects of it but completely wrong about what it is and how it works

– disease, plague and pestilence, which he thinks derive from motes and mist which is in the right ballpark

The odd thing about the entire poem is that it leads up, not to an inspiring vision of the Good Life lived free of anxiety in some ideal Epicurean community, but to a sustained and harrowing description of the great plague which devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). For four pages the poet lays on detail after detail of the great plague, the symptoms, the horrible suffering and death, its spread, social breakdown, streets full of rotting corpses. And then – it just ends. Stops. Not quite in mid-sentence, but certainly in mid-flow.

The abruptness of this unexpected ending has led many commentators to speculate that Lucretius intended to write a seventh book, which would have been devoted to religion, theology, ethics and led up to the hymn to the Good Life everyone was expecting. I agree. Throughout the poem he is chatty, badgering the reader, telling us he’s embarking on a new subject, repeating things he’s said before, haranguing and nagging us. For the text to just end in the middle of describing men fighting over whose family members will be burned on funeral pyres is macabre and weird. Here are the very last lines:

Everyone in grief
Buried his own whatever way he could
Amid the general panic. Sudden need
And poverty persuaded men to use
Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place
Their dead on pyres prepared for other men’
Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl
To keep the corpses from abandonment.

(Book VI, lines 1,279 to 1,286)

It must be unfinished.

Thoughts

1. The philosophy

I’m very attracted by Epicurus’s thought, as propounded here and in Cicero’s De natura deorum. After a long and sometimes troubled life I very much want to achieve a state of ataraxia i.e. freedom from mental disturbances. However, there seems to me a very big flaw at the heart of Epicureanism. One of the two cardinal fears addressed is fear of the gods, in the sense of fear of their arbitrary intervention in our lives unless we endlessly propitiate these angry entities with sacrifices and processions and whatnot. This fear of punishment and retribution is said to be one of the principle sources of anxiety in people.

Except that this isn’t really true. I live in a society, England, which in 2022 is predominantly godless. Real believers in actual gods are in a distinct minority. And yet mental illnesses, including depression and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, are more prevalent than ever before, afflicting up to a quarter of the population annually.

It felt to me throughout the poem that accusing religious belief in gods as the principle or sole cause of anxiety and unhappiness is so wide of the mark as to make it useless. Even in a godless world, all humans are still susceptible to utterly random accidents, to a whole range of unfortunate blows, from being diagnosed with cancer to getting hit by a bus, losing your job, losing your house, losing your partner. We are vulnerable to thousands of incidents and accidents which could affect us very adversely and it is not at all irrational to be aware of them, and it is very hard indeed not to worry about them, particularly if you actually do lose your job, your house, your partner, your children, your parents etc.

The idea that human beings waste a lot of time in fear and anxiety and stress and worry is spot on. So the notion that removing this fear and anxiety and stress and worry would be a good thing is laudable. And Epicurus’s argument against the fear of death (death is the end of mind and body both; therefore it is pointless worrying about it because you won’t feel it; it is less than nothing) is still relevant, powerful and potentially helpful.

But the idea that you can alleviate anxiety do that by disproving the existence of ‘gods’ is, alas, completely irrelevant to the real causes of the problem, which have endured long after any ‘fear of the gods’ has evaporated and so is of no practical help at all. All Epicurus and Lucretius’s arguments in this area, fluent and enjoyable though they are, are of purely academic or historical interest. Sadly.

2. The poem

Cicero’s De rerum natura was a hard read because of the unrelentingness of the arguments, many of which seemed really stupid or petty. The way things are, on the contrary, is an amazingly enjoyable read because of the rhythm and pacing and phrasing of the poem.

Lucretius is just as argumentative as Cicero i.e. the poem is packed with arguments following pell mell one after the other (‘Moreover…one more point…furthermore…In addition…’) but this alternates with, or is embedded in, descriptions of human nature, of the world and people around us, and of the make-up of the universe, which are both attractive and interesting in themselves, and also provide a sense of rhythm, changes of subject and pace, to the poem.

Amazingly, although the subject matter is pretty mono-minded and Lucretius is banging on and on about essentially the same thing, the poem itself manages never to be monotonous. I kept reading and rereading entire pages just for the pleasure of the words and phrasing. This is one of the, if not the, most enjoyable classical text I’ve read. And a huge part of that is, I think, down to Humphries’s adeptness as a poet.

Comparison with the Penguin edition

As it happened, just after I finished reading the Humphries translation I came across the 2007 Penguin edition of the poem in a local charity shop and snapped it up for £2. It’s titled The Nature of Things and contains a translation by A.E. Stallings with an introduction and notes by Richard Jenkyns.

Textual apparatus

As you’d expect from Penguin, it’s a much more traditional layout, including not only the translation but an introduction, further reading, an explanation of the style and metre of the translation, 22 pages of factual notes at the end (exactly the kind of fussy, mostly distracting notes the Humphries edition avoids), and a glossary of names.

In addition it has two useful features: the text includes line numberings, given next to every tenth line. It’s a feature of the Humphries version that it’s kept as plain and stripped down as possible with no indication of lines except at the top of the page, so if you want to know which line you’re looking at you have to manually count from the top line downwards. Trivial but irritating.

The other handy thing about the Penguin edition is it gives each of the books a title, absent in the original and Humphries. Again, no biggy, but useful.

  • Book I – Matter and Void
  • Book II – The Dance of Atoms
  • Book III – Mortality and the Soul
  • Book IV – The Senses
  • Book V – Cosmos and Civilisation
  • Book VI – Weather and the Earth

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

Epicurus’s own writings are austere and he was said to disapprove of poetry. Lucretius’s achievement, and what makes his poem so great, was the tremendous depth of lyric feeling he brought to the, potentially very dry, subject matter. He doesn’t just report Epicurus’s philosophy, he infuses it with passion, conviction and new levels of meaning.

This, for Jenkyns, explains a paradox which has bugged scholars, namely why a poem expounding a philosophy which is fiercely anti-religion, opens with a big Hymn to Venus. It’s because Venus is a metaphor for the underlying unity of everything which is implicit in Epicurus’s teaching that there is no spirit, no soul, nothing but atoms in various combinations and this means we are all united in the bounty of nature.

The opponents of Epicureanism commonly treated it as a dull, drab creed; Lucretius’ assertion is that, rightly apprehended, it is beautiful, majestic and inspiring. (p.xviii)

Lucretius’s was very influential on the leading poet of the next generation, Virgil, who assimilated his soaring tone.

The passages praising Epicurus are strategically place throughout the poem, much as invocations of the muses open key books in the traditional classical epic.

Jenkyns points out that Lucretius’s tone varies quite a bit, notable for much soaring rhetoric but also including invective and diatribe, knockabout abuse of rival philosophers, sometimes robustly humorous, sometimes sweetly domestic, sometimes focusing on random observations about everyday life, then soaring into speculation about the stars and the planets. But everything is driven by and reverts to, a tone of impassioned communication. He has seen the light and he is desperate to share it with everyone. It is an evangelical poem.

Stalling’s translation

Quite separate from Jenkyns’s introduction, Stalling gives a 5-page explanation of the thinking behind her translation. The obvious and overwhelming differences are that her version rhymes, and is in very long lines which she calls fourteeners. To be precise she decided to translate Lucretius’s Latin dactylic hexameters into English rhyming heptameters, where heptameter means a line having seven ‘feet’ or beats. What does that mean in practice? Well, count the number of beats in each of these lines. The first line is tricky so I’ve bolded the syllables I think need emphasising:

Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea – for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
For you, the oceans laugh, the sky grows peaceful after showers…

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

Stalling concedes that the standard form for translating foreign poetry is probably loose unrhymed pentameters, with five beats per line – exactly the metre Humphries uses:

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered ocean, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.

Clearly Humphries’ unrhymed pentameters have a much more light and airy feel. They also allow for snazzy phrasing – I like ‘marinered ocean’, a bit contrived, but still stylish. Or take Humphries’ opening of Book III:

O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise
The shining light out of tremendous dark
Illumining the blessings of our life
You are the one I follow. In your steps
I tread, not as a rival, but for love
Of your example. Does the swallow vie
With swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats
Compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds?

Now Stalling:

You, who first amidst such thick gloom could raise up so bright
A lantern, bringing everything that’s good in life to light,
You I follow, Glory of the Greeks, and place my feet,
Within your footsteps. Not because I would compete
With you, but for the sake of love, because I long to follow
And long to emulate you. After all, why would a swallow
Strive with swans? How can a kid with legs that wobble catch
Up with the gallop of a horse? – the race would be no match.

Stalling makes the point that the heptameter has, since the early Renaissance, been associated with ballads and with narrative and so is suited to a long didactic poem. Arthur Golding used it in his 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and George Chapman in his 1611 translation of the Iliad. Stalling hopes the ‘old fashioned rhythm and ring’ of her fourteeners will, implicitly, convey ‘something of the archaic flavour of Lucretius’s Latin’ (p.xxvi).

OK, let’s look at the little passage which I noticed crops up no fewer than four times in the poem. Here’s Stalling’s version:

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun or by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us – her first principle: that nothing’s brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught
.

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

That use of ‘naught’ transports us back to the 1850s and Tennyson. It is consciously backward looking, in sound and meaning and connotation. I can see why: she’s following through on her stated aim of conveying the original archaism of the poem. But, on the whole, I just don’t like the effect. I prefer Humphries’ more modern-sounding diction.

Also, despite having much longer lines to play with, something about the rhythm and the requirement to rhyme each line paradoxically end up cramping Stalling’s ability to express things clearly and simply. Compare Humphries’ version of these same lines:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods’ will
.

‘Insight into nature’ and ‘systematic contemplation’ are so much more emphatic and precise than ‘by observing Nature and her laws’ which is bland, clichéd and flabby.

Humphries’ ‘Our starting point shall be this principle’ is a little stagey and rhetorical but has the advantage of being crystal clear. Whereas Stalling’s ‘And this will lay/The warp out for us – her first principle…’ is cramped and confusing. Distracted by the odd word ‘warp’, trying to visualise what it means in this context, means I miss the impact of this key element of Lucretius’s message.

In her translator’s note Stalling refers to earlier translations and has this to say about Humphries:

Rolfe Humphries’ brisk, blank verse translation The way things are (1969) often spurred me to greater vigour and concision. (p.xxviii)

Precisely. I think the Stalling is very capable, and it should be emphasised that the fourteeners really do bed down when you take them over the long haul. If you read just a few lines of this style it seems silly and old fashioned, but if you read a full page it makes sense and after several pages you really get into the swing. It is a good meter for rattling through an extended narrative.

But still. I’m glad I read the poem in the Humphries’ version. To use Stalling’s own phrase, it has ‘greater vigour and concision’. Humphries much more vividly conveys Lucretius’s urgency of tone, his compulsion to share the good news with us and set us free:

…all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void of empty space. I see
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing mars their peace of mind.

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

I’m with him, I’m seeing the vision of the passionless gods with him, and I’m caught up in his impassioned repetition of ‘nothing, nothing‘. All of which, alas, is fogged and swaddled in the long fustian lines of Stalling’s version:

…The gods appear to me
Enthroned in all their holiness and their serenity,
And where they dwell, wind never lashes them, cloud never rains,
And snowfall white and crisp with biting frost never profanes.
The canopy of aether over them is always bright
And unbeclouded, lavishing the laughter of its light.
And there they want for nothing; every need, nature supplies;
And nothing ever ruffles their peace of mind. Contrariwise…

The key phrase about the gods’ peace of mind should conclude the line; instead it ends mid-line and is, as a result, muffled. Why? To make way for the rhyme, which in this case is supplied by another heavily archaic word ‘contrariwise’ which has the unintended effect of trivialising the preceding line.

Stalling’s translation is skilful, clever, immensely rhythmic, a fascinating experiment, but…no.

Online translations

Now let me extend my argument. I’ll try
To be as brief as possible, but listen!

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

There have been scores of translations of De rerum natura into English. An easy one to access on the internet is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 verse translation. Compared to either Stalling or Humphries, it’s dire, but it’s free.


Roman reviews

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957)

‘I say, sir, this is a bit of a facer, isn’t it?’ said Alan
‘I’m afraid it is,’ Zellaby agreed.
(The Midwich Cuckoos, page 80)

John Wyndham’s husband-and-wife teams

The Midwich Cuckoos opens as if it’s going to be another husband-and-wife story, much like The Kraken Wakes. Having read the 15 short stories in Jizzle I can now see that Wyndham is, by inclination, a whimsical and humorous writer. He slips into a homely, drawing room style whenever he writes about his nice middle-class couples, in which the woman is invariably the stronger, more determined one and the slightly-henpecked, narrating husband wryly acknowledges her superior qualities. The entire attitude is epitomised in one of many similar exchanges from Kraken:

‘Mike, darling, just shut up; there’s a love,’ said my devoted wife.

Like Kraken (whose couple are named Mike and Phyllis), Midwich (couple named Richard and Janet) is littered with throwaway jests about this or that aspect of married life, along with sardonic jokes about his or her jobs, stereotyped social attitudes to marriage, pregnancy and so on, pregnancy being, of course, the central subject of the story.

A village story

That said, after the opening scenes, Midwich Cuckoos quite quickly opens up to cover a far larger canvas than just a husband and wife. Indeed Richard and Janet disappear from the text for long stretches, as it focuses more on the household who live at Kyle Manor, namely the thoughtful but long-winded old author, Gordon Zellaby, his (second) wife, Angela, their fragrantly pukkadaughter Ferrelyn, and her fiancé, dashing Second-Lieutenant Alan Hughes, currently serving in the army.

But it’s more than just these half dozen upper-middle-class types; the novel opens out to include a larger cast of characters and to become a kind of portrait of an English village in the mid-1950s. Thus there are quite large speaking parts for the vicar and his wife, the village doctor and his wife, the landlord of the village pub (The Scythe and Stone), the village baker, half a dozen labourer families, and various pretty village girls and their sweethearts, not forgetting the striking inclusion of a pair of village lesbians, Miss Latterly and Miss Lamb.

Cast list

One aspect of the large cast of characters is the sense the novel gives you of the gentle but persistent class divide between the (presumably privately) educated, upper-middle-class types (the Gayfords and the Zellabies), the middle-to-lower-middle class professionals who service them and the other authority figures (the vicar, doctor, police chief, fire chief) and ‘the rest’, the ruck of villagers and rustics, ranging from small shopkeepers (pub landlord, baker, grocer) and local farmers down to the manual labourers and their harassed wives, with a floating population of pretty young things who are no better than they should be. It’s sweet.

The Posh

  • Gordon Zellaby, who Janet jokingly refers to as ‘the sage of Midwich’ (p.101), working away on his latest book, facetiously referred to as the ‘Current Work, lives at spacious Kyle Manor with his second wife, Angela
  • their posh daughter Ferrelyn
  • her fiancé Lieutenant Alan Hughes
  • the initial narrator, writer Richard Gayford and his wife Janet
  • Mr Arthur Crim OBE, Director of the Research Station located in the Grange (p.52)
  • Tilly Foresham, jodhpurs and three dogs

It’s worth noting that the Zellabies employ a cook and maybe other domestic staff, as breakfast, luncheon, tiffin, dinner and late supper all appear as if by magic, prepared by unseen, unnamed hands.

The admin class

  • the Reverend Hubert Leebody, the vicar (p.91) and his wife, Dora Leebody (who has a breakdown and is sent away to a rest home)
  • Miss Polly Rushton, their pretty young niece
  • Dr Charley Willers and his wife, Milly (p.89)
  • Nurse Daniels

The lower-middle class

  • Miss Ogle, an elderly gossip who runs the village post office and telephone exchange
  • Mr Tapper, the retired gardener
  • Miss Latterly and Miss Lamb the village lesbians (pp.82)
  • Wilfred Williams, landlord of the Scythe and Stone
  • Harriman the baker

The working classes

  • Mr Brant the blacksmith and his wife
  • Alfred Wait
  • Harry Crankhart
  • Arthur Flagg labourer
  • Tom Dorry, rating in the Navy
  • Mr Histon

As we hear more about all these figures and are given little vignettes about them, the village comes to seem more like an Ealing Comedy than a disaster movie. There are quite a few bits of dialogue which come straight from the lips of pukka chaps in 1950s movies (‘I say, I’ll have to step on it. See you tomorrow, darling’) or which you can imagine being voiced by Joyce Grenfell in one of the original St Trinian’s movies (which appeared over exactly the same period as Wyndham’s classic novels):

  • The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)
  • Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957)
  • The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960)

There are two schools of thought about this aspect of Wyndham. One is the well-known Brian Aldiss criticism that his novels portray all-too ‘cosy catastrophes’ in which decent middle-class types respond with improbable decency and moral rectitude to global catastrophes, never going to pieces or being corrupted. There’s a lot of truth in this rather brusque putdown.

But there’s the equal and opposite interpretation, that the catastrophes he describes are made all the more realistic and scarey for not having technicolor special effects and not having characters go into psychotic states as per J.G. Ballard’s stories, but remaining stiff-upper-lip, pukka Brits in the face of complete social collapse (Triffids and Kraken in particular).

Having met so many public school types, now, I’m inclined to think most of them would survive a world apocalypse very well, and put their experience of the officer training corps, running big organisations, and huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ to very effective use in post-apocalyptic scenarios.

Either way, The Midwich Cuckoos is obviously a science fiction yarn, but it’s maybe useful to flag up the way it is also a fascinating piece of 1950s social history.

Wyndham’s fateful nights

Of Wyndham’s four Big Novels, three start with ‘fateful nights’ when ‘the world changes forever!’

In Day of the Triffids, it’s the night of Tuesday 7 May when the whole world watches the spectacular meteor shower and, as a result, goes blind.

In The Kraken Wakes, it’s 11.15pm on the night of 15 July when Mike and Phyllis, on a honeymoon cruise, see the first fireballs fall into the sea.

And in The Midwich Cuckoos the novelist narrator and his wife are up in London celebrating him having signed a book contract with an American publisher, which means they’re not present in the nondescript, quiet little village of Midwich on the fateful night of 26 September!

(And, once you realise that The Chrysalids is set in the aftermath of a calamitous nuclear war, you realise it’s likely that that, too, took place on a specific day, maybe night, although, centuries later no-one has any way of knowing when.)

Brief plot summary

The Midwich Cuckkos is 220 pages long in the old Penguin classic edition I own, a comfy, sensible length for an adventure novel. The text is in 21 chapters divided into 2 parts, 15 in the long part one, five in the short part two.

The story is fairly well known, not least from the terrifying 1960 movie adaptation, Village of the Damned, so successful at the box office that it prompted a sequel.

 

 

During the ‘fateful night’ of 26 September all the occupants of the village of Midwich pass out. Everyone trying to enter a perfectly circular radius around the village also passes out, presumably due to what used to be called a ‘force field’. The authorities get wind of it and the village is sealed off. 24 hours later the mystery condition disappears and everything returns to normal. Except that, a few months later, all the women of childbearing age report that they are pregnant (which causes obvious difficulty among couples who have stopped having sex, or for single women).

Nine months later the pregnant women all give birth. Their babies are all perfectly healthy but, as they develop, have an eerie similarity of appearance, with platinum blonde hair and piercing golden eyes. The inhabitants knew something strange has happened, and realise the children aren’t natural. And as they grow it becomes clear that the Children can impose their wishes on their parents through some form of telepathy or mental control, which is eerie enough. But it’s only towards the end of the story that one of the leading figures, retired author Gordon Zellaby, comes to appreciate just how much of a threat they pose to all human life, and decides to take drastic action.

Detailed plot summary

Chapter 1 No entry to Midwich

Sets the scene, describes Midwich in the county of ‘Winshire’ (p.34) as an average English village with a handful of the usual historical episodes, including the dissolution of the local monastery, Cromwell’s men stopping over en route to some battle, a notorious 18th century highwayman, and so on.

The initial narrator of the story, author Richard Gayford, has lived in the village for just over a year (p.11) with his wife Janet. They are out of the village, up in London celebrating him signing a contract with American publishers on ‘the fateful night’ of 26 September.

On returning they find the village sealed off by the Army. Being naughty, they drive away from the roadblock but then double back, park at the entrance to a field and try to cut across fields to their cottage. Janet is making her way across a field when she suddenly drops to the ground unconscious. Richard runs forward and similarly blacks out.

Chapter 2 All quiet in Midwich

Quick overview of the village and what all its characters were up to on ‘the fateful night’ i.e. bickering in the pub, listening to the radio, trying to get a new-fangled television set to work, on the phone to a friend in London, relaxing in front of a nice roaring fire.

Chapter 3 Midwich rests

Briefly describes how a succession of early morning visitors to the village disappear, are heard from no more, including the baker’s van, local bus, an ambulance sent to find out what’s going on, a fire engine which goes to investigate reports of smoke, and so on.

Chapter 4 Operation Midwich

The army gets involved. Lieutenant Hughes finds himself consulting with the chiefs of the local fire brigade and police who are establishing a cordon round the village. Alan has the bright idea of getting a soldier to drive off to find a pet shop and requisition a canary in a cage which they can tentatively push forward into the ‘zone’ to see if it collapses. Then another soldier paints a white line on the ground and another indicates the perimeter on a map.

Richard and Janet are dragged by soldiers using a long hook a few yards from where they’re lying prone to just outside the ‘zone’ and immediately wake up and feel fine. They are driven along to the pub in the next door village, which they find packed with journalists, radio and TV people, and Richard is delighted to be hailed by Bernard Westcott, a colleague of his from back in the army days, who, it becomes clear, is now something in Military Intelligence.

Military Intelligence? Yes, they’re here not only because it’s an anomalous event, but because of The Grange. The Grange?

The Grange Upon investigation, it turns out that Midwich is not quite such a boring, average, run-of-the-mill village as the narrator initially implied. It is also home to an old grange building which has had a modern extension added which contains laboratories, amounting to a Research Station, supervised by Mr Arthur Crim OBE, Director of the Research. What kind of research goes on there? Well, a little surprisingly, we never really find out. And the entire question is, I think, a red herring, thrown in to complexify the early part of the story and make readers wonder whether the mysterious event is some kind of attack on the grange by ‘the enemy’. But by half way through it’s become clear that it wasn’t and the existence of the Grange is more or less irrelevant to the story.

But not here at the start. There is an impressive gathering of military and civil administrator types – army, air force Group Captain, chief policeman, head fireman and so on – who have a summit conference about how to deal with it. An airplane flies over and takes photos of the village. That and the patient perimeter work with the canary establish that the ‘zone’ comprises a perfect circle two miles in diameter., and at the dead centre sits a large object, which has a metallic appearance and looks like a convex spoon (p.36).

The Russians As in The Kraken Wakes there is much speculation about whether the event is an attack by the Russians, by ‘the other side’, by ‘those Ivans’ (p.38). This turns out to be irrelevant to the plot but it is a fascinating indication of how heavily the Cold War rivalry, and the threat from the Soviet bloc, and the constant fear of what new trick they might pull, weighed on the imagination of the West, or of western writers, or of western writers of science fiction, or of John Wyndham anyway.

Chapter 5 Midwich reviviscit

And then suddenly everybody wakes up. The advantage of Wyndham’s realistic style is he gives a very vivid description of what it feels like to wake up after 2 days suspended animation, in an unnatural position on the sofa or the floor, how you are utterly numb, the pain when the feeling slowly starts to return to your limbs and extremities.

Chapter 6 Midwich settles down

Describes how everyone concerned comes to cope with it, this strange event, which comes to be called the Dayout (p.47). No fewer than 11 people perished, several when their houses caught fire, several from exposure from lying out in the open for two days and nights (there’s a list on page 47).

Bernard Westcott pays a couple more visits to the village, specifically to check up on the Grange but drops into the Gayford cottage for chats. They invite Bernard for dinner and he asks Richard and Janet if they’ll be informal eyes and ears i.e. spy on the village. Janet is at first sceptical, what’s the need? Bernard points out there may be lingering after-effects: after all X-rays, radiation and so on are invisible. There’s no sign of those in the village, they’ve tested, but who knows what other after-effects there may be…

Chapter 7 Coming events

About two months later, in late November, Ferrelyn, after much nervousness, summons up the courage to tell Angela Zellaby, over posh breakfast at the Manor, that she’s pregnant. Angela astonishes Ferrelyn that shs is, too. What worries Ferrelyn, though, is that it isn’t Alan’s. It isn’t anyone’s. She’s a virgin. How can she be pregnant and she bursts into tears.

Briefly, the narrative explains how, over the next few days, women come forward to confide to the vicar, Mr Leebody, or the village doctor, Willers, that they are pregnant – from the oldest to the youngest, all fertile women in the village are pregnant!

Chapter 8 Heads together

Dr Willers calls on Gordon Zellaby to break the news that every fertile woman in the village is pregnant. Zellaby, in his detached intellectual way, considers the options, giving them smart Greek names:

  • parthenogenesis
  • some form of artificial insemination
  • xenogenesis

It is suggestive that the fertile women who spent the Dayout unconscious in the village bus are not pregnant because the bus was, for the duration, in plain sight of people outside the zone. Maybe whatever was done to the women inside the zone was not to be observed.

The Thinker Several points: Zellaby fulfils something of the same role as Bocker performs in Kraken Wakes and, up to a point, Uncle  Axel, in The Chrysalids – he is a figure peripheral to the main action, who can comment and analyse it. Exactly as Bocker is the first to realise that the fireballs in Kraken might come from another planet and is the first to grasp the threat they pose, so Zellaby in Cuckoos is the first to articulate the theory that the pregnancies are the result of conscious and co-ordinated action, the first to establish the Children’s telepath, and the first to grasp what a serious threat they pose.

But the role of all three characters (Bocker, Alex, Zellaby) is not only to crystallise the reader’s suspicions and move the plot forward, but to express intellectual ideas prompted by the book’s events. Thus Bocker not only warns about what is happening to earth, but speculates about what kind of intelligence has arrived on earth and interesting ideas about whether two intelligent but very different species can ever share a planet. (No, is the short answer).

Similarly, the central theme of The Chrysalids is ‘What is normality and what is deviance?’ and Uncle Alex is the mouthpiece of the author’s interesting ideas on the subject. For example, when Alex made his long sea voyage he discovered lots of communities which were ‘deviant’ in one way or another but each one regarded themselves as normal and all the others as the mutations. On a different but related trajectory, it is Alex who shares the speculation that, maybe David’s family and community, by trying to keep plant, animal and human lineage ‘pure’ and how they were before the nuclear holocaust, maybe they are setting themselves against biological change, when, in fact, evolution and change is the one constant of Life. So that maybe David’s mutation (he is a telepath) is an inevitable next step in human evolution and his family are trying to prevent the inevitable.

And so it is retired author and easily distracted Gordon Zellaby, his mind wandering on strange elusive patterns, who fulfils the same role in Cuckoos not only crystallising the action (I mean drawing together scattered events, making sense of them, as he explains them to Richard or Alan) but going on to express ideas and implications arising from the book’s premise.

Chapter 9 Keep it dark

This is a very interesting chapter because of the way the subject matter is treated. The plot level it is straightforward. Gordon and the doctor decide they must hold an Emergency Meeting of all the village’s womenfolk to explain to them what they think they’ve discovered, to bring it into the open and to air it.

What’s interesting is the extreme care they take to make it a women’s event – to invite only the women, and to ensure that the actual presentation is made by Angela Zellaby. It is a meeting for women, organised by women, and led by a woman. After she has made the initial presentation of the facts, she is emotionally shattered but insists to Gordon and the Willers (waiting in a room off to one side) that the next bit is the most important – it is absolutely vital that the women be given the space and time to talk about it, to talk it through and cultivate a feeling of communal solidarity.

Before and after Zellaby is given speeches, in his conversations with the village doctor, about how strange it is to be a woman and know your body is designed for childbirth, at the best of times, about the uncanniness of being so obviously an animal with a basic animal function of producing offspring, and yet fully human at the same time. A duality which men simply can’t understand, never fully.

This is also the chapter, at the meeting, where Miss Latterly, one of the pair of village lesbians gets up to storm out, outraged at the idea that she – who has never had anything to do with men – could be pregnant, only to be forced to stay when her lesbian partner, Miss Lamb mutely remain, dramatising in a surprisingly sensitive and effective way a) that the latter is pregnant b) her shame c) her partner’s mortification. It’s a good example of the way Wyndham’s terribly British way of handling these things conveys subtle shades of emotion.

Chapter 10 Midwich comes to terms

The Emergency Meeting leads to several outcomes. One is secrecy. No-one will tell anyone outside about it, not even the neighbouring villages, because Angela Zellaby made quite clear how hellish life would become if the world’s press were alerted and came to observe and report on every development during the remainder of the pregnancies.

The other is mutual support. Angela had made it plain that it is happening to all the women, regardless of married status, and so went out of her way to defuse stigma and shame and get all the other women to agree. Instead she led in setting up a programme of social activities and support and we are told the Zellabies themselves help out with money for the less well-off and for single mums.

Religion. In Triffids there was a conference of the survivors of the Great Blinding, held in a lecture room in Senate House during which a Miss Durrell expressed the Christian view that the catastrophe was God punishment of an immoral world. Similarly, in this novel, Mrs Dora Leebody, the vicar’s wife has a sort of breakdown and takes to preaching at the village war memorial that all the pregnant women have been cursed by God. A few days later she is found in the market square of the neighbouring town, dressed in sackcloth and ashes, preaching about God’s punishment. She is quietly brought home, sedated and then sent off by her husband to a rest home

But rather like the concern with the Russians expressed early in the novel, this brings home to the reader how prominent a factor in British culture Christianity was in the 1950s, in a way it probably wouldn’t be in the multicultural 2020s UK.

This comes out even more clearly in the final chapters where Zellaby engages in extended debates with the vicar about the morality of dealing with the Children, as they grow ever-more threatening.

Chapter 11 Well played, Midwich

Nerves hold up well through the spring until, in May, some of the heavily pregnant women start to crack under the uncertainty of not knowing what they are carrying in their wombs. Resilient and intelligent Angela Zellaby is given a speech declaring that men can never understand what it is like to be a woman, and not to have the faintest idea of the nightmare strain the pregnant women of Midwich are under (p.87).

Funnily enough, the first to have her baby is the lesbian Miss Lamb, who stumbles on a milk bottle on her doorstep, takes a fall and goes into labour. Hours later, having delivered the baby, the village doctor returns to his anxious wife and declares the baby is perfect in all respects. Over the coming month all the other babies are delivered, physically perfect specimens, but with golden eyes and blonde hair. 61 in total, 31 males, 30 females.

Chapter 12 Harvest home

The vicar falls into a stroll with Zellaby and assures him all the women have now had their babies. He is uneasy. Can’t shake the feeling it’s some kind of test. Zellaby makes remarks repeating his sense that, as men, they are hors du combat, outside the zone and cannot hope to understand what the women are going through.

Walking on Zellaby observes Mrs Brinkman pushing a pram and is a little surprised when she abruptly stops, takes the baby out, sits on the war memorial, unbuttons her blouse and starts suckling it. She is embarrassed when Zellaby draws abreast and explains that the baby made her do it. Walking up to the lodge, there’s a beep and Ferrelyn is in a car behind him. She too, flushed and upset, and says the baby made her come. Aha.

Chapter 13 Midwich centrocline

A centrocline is: ‘An equidimensional basin characteristic of cratonic areas, in which the strata dip to a central low point.’

Over the coming weeks every single mum who’d moved away from Midwich (for example most of the women researchers from the Grange who had been on secondments and gone elsewhere for their pregnancies and births) find themselves compelled to return

The text quotes a report Dr Willers submits to his superiors, outlining the sequence of births, the compulsion all the mothers felt to return and other matters, above all emphasising that some kind of official study should be being made of the children’s births, weights, development and so on.

Bernard turns up, goes for a chat with Zellaby, then comes for dinner with Richard and Janet, repeating some of Zellaby’s speculations. Apparently, Zellaby wonders whether it was a mistake that Homo sapiens is so very different from all other animal species, if our culture would be improved if we had to deal with at least one other intelligent life form on the planet. (This is one of the ideas floated in the Kraken Wakes.)

Chapter 14 Matters arising

Precisely half way through the book, Alan pays a call (he is currently stationed by the army a long way away, in Scotland, and can only get leave to visit Midwich occasionally).

Gordon takes him for a chat out in the garden of the manor. In garden chairs on the fine lawn under the old cedar tree, Gordon expounds his theory that the women have borne alien children. Earlier generations would have recognised them as changelings (p.106) – ‘deformed or imbecilic offspring of fairies or elves substituted by them surreptitiously for a human infant’. We moderns, Zellaby says, might think of them as cuckoos (p.106), laid in another species’ nests, force the mothers to work themselves to death to feed them, then exterminate all the true fledgelings.

That’s why he’s asking Alan to persuade Ferrelyn to leave the baby in his care and depart Midwich, go with him to Scotland. Nobody knows what it means or what might happen, but Zellaby introduces the idea that, if you were going to attack a civilisation and had plenty of time to plan it, might it not be a good idea to introduce a fifth column to work against the host nation from within. Maybe that’s what the babies are.

Chapter 15 Matters to arise

Months pass. The Grange is emptied and all its staff leave, but leaving four babies behind, in a new nursery. Over the winter pneumonia carries off some of the parents and three of the babies, leaving 58.

A dessicated couple called the Freemans move into the cottage vacated by Crim, and turn out to be officials sent to monitor developments, but they do it in a very ham-fisted way and become known as the Noseys.

Early in the summer Gordon pays Richard and Janet a visit and asks them to come with him to witness an experiment. The Children (everyone refers to them with a capital C, now) are barely a year old but look like healthy 2-year-olds. Gordon drops in on a family with one, asks the mum’s permission, then presents the child with a cunning Japanese wooden box with a sweet inside. The child struggles for a while, then Gordon shows him how to unlock it, relocks it. Given it again, the child unlocks it easily, but that’s not the point. Gordon takes them to see several other children and they all unlock it easily. Once one knows, they all know. Gordon presents his interpretation: they may have different physical bodies, but what if the Children compose one mind! He has christened it collective-individualism’ (p.123)

With typical intellectual sprezzatura Gordon speculates that maybe Homo sapiens is stagnating, the race limited to individuals with just the one mind, all jostling. Maybe the next breakthrough in evolution would be to combine the powers of individual minds into a collective. Maybe they are the progenitors of a new race. That’s why, he says, looking vaguely out the window at a bumble bee hovering over the lavender, he keeps thinking the collective boys and the collective girls should be renamed – Adam and Eve.

On the last page of Part One, Richard gets a job in Canada, leaving at once, and Janet follows soon after. She expresses relief to be shot of Midwich and its weird atmosphere and God, so grateful they were out of the village on ‘the fateful night’ and so she never bore one of those monster children.

Part two

Chapter 16 Now we are nine

Eight years pass. Richard and Janet live in Canada now, but occasionally pop back to the old country. On one such trip, Richard bumps into Bernard, who is now a colonel. They go for a drink and the subject of Midwich comes up. Richard has almost forgotten about it, says how are things going, Bernard says he’s scheduled to pop down for a visit next day, would Richard like to come?

The reader thinks this might be the first of several episodic visits, but in fact it turns into one continuous visit which leads to the climax of the story.

On the drive down Bernard tells Richard the Grange has been converted into a special school for the Children. Zellaby was right, what one boy learns they all learn, what one girl learns, ditto. The Children have developed at twice normal speed and now look 17 or 18. The news blackout has continued to be a success, the neighbouring communities regarding Midwich as ‘touched’ by the event, and the inhabitants retarded. The word they use is ‘daytouched’ (p.133). They consider the entire community a kind of open asylum. Some of the mothers were reluctant to let their children attend the new school but one by one the Children went of their own accord, to be together.

Bernard is driving down for a post-mortem on a local young man, Jim Pawle. Richard attends. It is a tense affair, with a very bad mood among the villagers attending, although nothing out of the ordinary is done or said. Zellaby greets Richard as if they’d only said goodbye the day before, invites him and Bernard to the Manor, describes what happened. He was an eye-witness. The local boy was driving his car along a lane when he hit one of a group of four Children by mistake. Zellaby watched as the other three focused their mental force on making the unhappy driver get back into his car and set off at top speed towards a wall, hitting it head on and dying.

Others saw it too. It gave Zellaby a very bad shock. Now he shares his feelings with Bernard and Richard. What if it had been him or Angela or Ferrelyn driving? He tells them Dr Willers died a few years earlier, suicide, overdose of barbiturates (p.143). Richard is surprised, he didn’t seem the sort. Gordon agrees, and wonders now whether… Whether the Children made him do it? Richard completes the thought. My God. Now for the first time, Zellaby says he is scared, thinking he should send Angela away.

Angela appears from the house, comes onto the veranda, joins the conversation, and mentions the incident of the dog – which bit one of the Children and promptly ran in front of a tractor – and the bull – which attacked one of them and promptly ran through several fields and drowned itself in a mill pond. She is in no doubt the children cause the deaths of anyone or anything which harms them.

The mother of the driver of the car wanted to attend and denounce the Children, but her other son and husband prevented her. What good would it do? The entire village is now living in fear.

Bernard and Richard say their goodbyes and leave, driving very carefully. They come on a group of four Children and Bernard slows down to let Richard appreciate just how much they have grown. Their golden eyes make them look like semi-precious stones. Both are stunned when a gunshot goes off and one of the Children falls to the ground. Richard gets out, a Child turns to look at him and he feels a gust of confusion and weakness flood through him.

Then they are aware of a high moaning keening sound and realise it is the other Children, a way off, expressing the same pain the shot one is feeling. And then they hear whimpering and another shot fired and screaming. Pushing through the hedge they come across a young man who has blown his own head off and his girlfriend, Elsa, next to him, hysterical. It’s the brother of the young man whose inquest they attended. He was taking revenge on the Children by shooting one of them and now they’ve killed him, too.

Local labourers come running, lift up the girl, take her home, the ones Richard hears vowing revenge against ‘the murderin’ young bastards.’ Richard and Bernard motor back to the Manor where Gordon hears the full story over a fortifying drink. Hmm. This is how blood feuds begin…

Chapter 17 Midwich protests

Shaken, Bernard and Richard return to Kyle Manor where the Zellabies graciously offer to put them up and invite them for dinner. They have barely withdrawn to the living room (the cook and other invisible servants having, presumably, cleared away the meal things) than the vicar, Leebody, enters in a fret. He warns that the situation is escalating.

Leebody and Zellaby engage in quite a high-flown debate about the morality of the Childrens’ activities. Leebody says they have the appearance of humans but, if they are not human inside, in their souls, then the laws of the Bible and conventional morality do not apply. Zellaby gives his view which is that the laws devised by one species to regulate its societies do not apply to a completely different species.

This high-flown talk is interrupted by Mrs Brant, who makes her apologies to ‘is worship Mr Zellaby, and then physically drags Leebody to the door, saying the Midwich men had been gathered in the pub, working themselves up into a fury, and have now set off in a body to burn the Grange to the ground and murder all the children. Only Mr Leebody can stop them, and she drags him, fluttering and stammering off into the night.

Zellaby, Bernard and Richard are about to follow, but Angela slams the door shut and stands in front of it, absolutely implacable. She knows there is going to be trouble and absolutely forbids any of them to leave. And they meekly accept her orders.

Chapter 18 Interview with a child

The Chief Constable of Winshire looked in at Kyle Manor the next morning, just at the right time for a glass of Madeira and a biscuit.

That gives you a sense of the sedate, well-mannered, upper-middle-class milieu we are operating in. We quickly learn that the attempt to torch the Grange backfired disastrously, as the Children made the attackers attack each other with the result that three men and a woman are dead and many others injured. Angela was quite right to prevent her menfolk going along.

What quickly transpires is the chief constable knows nothing about the Children, their special history or ability, and Zellaby, Bernard and Richard struggle to convey it to him.

The mildly comic scene where the phlegmatic policeman becomes more and more frustrated is interspersed with vignettes from the village. Passengers attempting to enter the village bus find their feet unable to move. Polly Rushton seeking to drive back to London finds herself stopping at the village perimeter and turning back. In other words, the Children have set up a kind of psychic boundary which the villagers can’t escape.

The Chief Constable goes up to the Grange where the current administrator, Mr Torrance, arranges an interview with one of the Children. This boy announces in forthright tones that the Children did make the village men attack each other in self defence because they knew the men had come to burn down the Grange. Well, why not just turn them back? asks the policeman. Because they needed to make an example to warn off other would-be attackers.

The Chief Constable is so appalled at the boy’s arrogance and the casual way he mentions the murder of four civilians that he starts abusing him and goes to stand, when he suddenly freezes, choking, then falls to the floor gasping and whimpering, vomits and passes out. Bernard watches all this in terror. He and Torrance call some of the police officers and have the CC carried to a car and taken away, still unconscious, then Bernard returns to the Manor.

Richard tries to leave but finds himself unable to, unable to shift gear or push the accelerator and so reluctantly turns back. Looks like he’s trapped along with the others.

Chapter 19 Impasse

Bernard returns to the Manor, has a couple of strong whiskeys and recounts what he saw. Gordon and Angela, Bernard and Richard sit down to another fine luncheon prepared by cook (p.178), and their conversation includes some major revelations. These last 40 pages of the novel become very wordy. There is more and more theorising and less and less action – up until the abrupt climax, that is.

Now, at this meal, Zellaby and Bernard both agree that they think the children are the result of the intervention of non-terrestrial aliens (p.188). But Bernard now makes the revelation of the book: that during the three or so weeks surrounding the Dayout, radar detected an unusual number of unidentified flying objects and that Dayouts happened at other communities.

He knows about incidences in the Northern Territory of Australia where, for reasons unknown, all the children died on birth. In an Eskimo settlement in northern Canada where the community was so outraged at the incident that it exposed the babies at birth. One at a remote community in the Irkutsk region of Mongolia where the local men considered their women had slept with the devil and murdered not only babies but mothers. And another in Gizhinsk. This is the important one.

For here the children were allowed to grow by the Soviet authorities who, after initially suspecting a capitalist trick, decided the children’s powers may be of some advantage in the Cold War. However, the Soviets eventually concluded their Children were a threat not only to the local community but to the state itself and – here’s the point – struck the town with atomic weapons. The town of Gizhinsk no longer exists.

And the other guests are electrified to learn that this happened only the previous week, just before the Children murdered Pawle. They knew. Somehow they knew about the murder of their peers in Russia and, from that moment, have escalated their actions, retaliating for even mild slights with immediate disproportionate violence.

After luncheon Bernard announces he is going back up to the Grange for a proper conversation with Torrance. He walks. However on the way he stops by two Children sitting on a bank. They are looking up. Bernard hears the drone of a jet plane passing high overhead. He sees five dots appear from it. For a moment I thought they were bombs and that’s how the book might end, but instead they are parachutes. The Children have made the five crew on the plane bail out, the plane will fly on till it crashes somewhere.

Bernard tells them that’s a very expensive plane, they could just have got to the pilots to turn back. The children calmly logically reply that that might have been put down to instrument failure. They must make their message plain.

‘Oh, you want to instil fear, do you? Why?’ inquired Bernard.
‘Only to make you leave us alone,’ said the boy. ‘It is a means; not an end.’ His golden eyes were turned towards Bernard, with a steady, earnest look. ‘Sooner or later, you will try to kill us. However we behave, you will want to wipe us out. Our position can be made stronger only if we take the initiative.’
The boy spoke quite calmly, but somehow the words pierced right through the front that Bernard had adopted. (p.196)

The Children explain in terms way beyond their years (and reminiscent of Zellaby who has, after all, been teaching them for years) that it is a clash of species. They explain that they know about the murder of the Children of Gizhinsk. And then they proceed to give a merciless analysis of the political and moral situation here in England. In Soviet Russia the individual exists to support the state and individuals can be arrested, imprisoned or liquidated if their existence or thoughts, words or actions threaten the state.

By contrast, here in the West, the State exists to support the wish for self-fulfilment and freedom of vast numbers of heterogenous individuals. No government could unilaterally wipe out a settlement like Midwich with all its innocent civilians. That’s why they’ve erected an invisible barrier and no-one can leave. The civilians are hostages. Any government which wipes Midwich out will never be re-elected. Meanwhile all kinds of mealy-mouthed do-gooders and experts on ethics will wring their hands about the Childrens’ rights. And they will use this time to get stronger.

Bernard becomes aware that he is sweating, panicking at hearing such cold-blooded sentiments coming out the mouth of a teenager. The Child moves beyond a shrewd analysis of the Realpolitik of the situation to a deeper, biological or Darwinian interpretation.

‘Neither you, nor we, have wishes that count in the matter – or should one say that we both have been given the same wish – to survive? We are all, you see, toys of the life-force. It made you numerically strong, but mentally undeveloped; it made us mentally strong, but physically weak: now it has set us at one another, to see what will happen. A cruel sport, perhaps, from both our points of view, but a very, very old one. Cruelty is as old as life itself. There is some improvement: humour and compassion are the most important of human inventions; but they are not very firmly established yet, though promising well.’ He paused, and smiled. ‘A real bit of Zellaby, that – our first teacher,’ he put in, and then went on. ‘But the life force is a great deal stronger than they are; and it won’t be denied its blood-sports.’ (p.200)

Chapter 20 Ultimatum

Meanwhile Zellaby takes Richard for a turn round his favourite Thinking Walk. Here he propounds at length his speculation that, we maybe describing the Children as aliens, but what if the human races are also alien interlopers? Impregnated into low-intelligence Neanderthals by the aliens, to create a step-change in evolution?

His evidence is the remarkable lack of fossil evidence for the evolution of Homo sapiens combined with the huge gap between us and any other living thing. What if we too were planted here by a Maker or a team of extra-terrestrial scientists carrying out experiments in evolution and the earth is their testbed? (p.205)

Bernard arrives back from his conversation with the two Children. They had concluded by presenting an ultimatum, hence the title of the chapter. More accurately, a demand. They want to be transported to somewhere where they will be safe. They will supervise all aspects of the transportation. They want Bernard to escalate it to his superiors and, ultimately to the Prime Minister.

Zellaby is not surprised. In the latest of his many speculations and formulations, he amuses himself by saying the they now face a ‘moral dilemma of some niceness’:

‘On the one hand, it is our duty to our race and culture to liquidate the Children, for it is clear that if we do not we shall, at best, be completely dominated by them, and their culture, whatever it may turn out to be, will extinguish ours. On the other hand, it is our culture that gives us scruples about the ruthless liquidation of unarmed minorities, not to mention the practical obstacles to such a solution.’ (p.208)

If you like moral dilemmas, this is the one at the core of the book. Do we have the right to ‘liquidate’ the apparently harmless, if we have good suspicions they will eventually come to pose a threat to us?

If absolute moral values can’t help us decide, then Zellaby invokes the classic Utilitarian argument for making decisions based on their practical outcomes.

‘In a quandary where every course is immoral, there still remains the ability to act for the greatest good of the greatest number. Ergo, the Children ought to be eliminated at the least possible cost, with the least possible delay. I am sorry to have to arrive at that conclusion. In nine years I have grown rather fond of them…’ (p.208)

And that is what he does. Bernard says his goodbyes and sets off to London to convey the Children’s ultimatum. Richard stays on at the Manor.

Chapter 21 Zellaby of Macedon

Next morning Gordon asks Angela to get a jar of bullseyes, the Children’s favourite sweet, from the shops in Trayne. He is preparing to give them one of his regular film shows, about the Aegean Islands. When Richard joins him on the veranda before luncheon, Zellaby calmly says life goes on, he’s happy to give the Children another film show and lecture, they enjoy it, he likes them despite everything. The key thing is they trust him.

Early that evening Richard helps load his projector gear into the car, a surprising number of surprisingly heavy boxes and then drives Gordon to the Grange, helps the Children unload and carry the equipment into the building. Richard asks to stay, since he is still recently enough returned to be fascinated by the Children but Gordon suavely asks him to go back to the Manor and be with Angela, her nerves are so high strung, poor thing. So Richard reluctantly drives off.

He has barely parked, entered the Manor, poured a drink and begun chatting to Angela who is expressing her fears about what the children will do next, when there is a flash, a colossal bang and then a shock wave hits the Manor and shatters all its windows. When Richard picks himself up and runs to the french windows he sees detritus all across the lawn, creepers ripped off the facade of the Manor, and flames rising from the Grange up on the hill.

Gordon had packed the projector boxes with explosive and has set it off, killing himself and all the children. From the endless stream of speculations and musings which dominate the final chapters, it appears there were real conclusions and a practical outcome endless. It was a war of species. The Children needed to be liquidated in order to preserve our species. And if moral speculation was no use, then utilitarian considerations provided a basis for action. Which he took, knowing that the Children’s trust was a unique quality which he alone of maybe the entire human race had. And so he abused it to murder them all. If it was murder (see the long discussion with the vicar about the morality of inter-species killing).

The Midwich Cuckoos is a gripping, thrilling read, which is strangely inflected between, on the one hand its jolly pukka, upper-middle-class, English characters and, on the other hand, the frequent and very thought-provoking debates about morality, the rights and wrong of eliminating a racial threat, the possibility that the entire human race is a galactic experiment, and other quietly mind-bending topics.


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Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

Here is another analogy… (p.12)

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

The aim

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

My advice

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

Do not read this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawkins’s bêtes noirs and pet peeves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

Snobbism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawkins’s personal stories and gossip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes there are bits of science…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Dawkins and Junior

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

P.S.

One last Dawkins anecdote to finish with:

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

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

Credit

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


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River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins (1995)

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

Three things become clear early in this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on…

The trouble with Dawkins’s arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of geological time

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

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

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

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

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

It is:

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

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

The evolution of ‘the eye’

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

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

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

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

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

And bingo! The eye!

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

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

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

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

Analogies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


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The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

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

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

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

The blind watchmaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One long argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naivety

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophical simple-mindedness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawkins’s sense of humour!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unintentional autobiography

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

I laughed out loud when on page 3 he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy planes. Gramophone players. Factory sirens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distracting analogies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blind Watchmaker computer program

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

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

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

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

More advanced iterations produced by Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Précis of the contents of The Blind Watchmaker

Chapter 2 Bats and echolocation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion and recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

The Mr Bean of biology

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

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

Credit

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


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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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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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Chemistry

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The Origin of the Universe by John D. Barrow (1994)

In the beginning, the universe was an inferno of radiation, too hot for any atoms to survive. In the first few minutes, it cooled enough for the nuclei of the lighter elements to form. Only millions of years later would the cosmos be cool enough for whole atoms to appear, followed soon by simple molecules, and after billions of years by the complex sequence of events that saw the condensation of material into stars and galaxies. Then, with the appearance of stable planetary environments, the complicated products of biochemistry were nurtured, by processes we still do not understand. (The Origin of the Universe, p.xi)

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s science writing became fashionable and popular. A new generation of science writers poured forth a wave of books popularising all aspects of science. The ones I remember fell into two broad categories, evolution and astrophysics. Authors such as Stephen Jay Gould and Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones (evolution and genetics) and Paul Davies, John Gribbin, John Polkinghorne and, most famously of all, Stephen Hawking, (cosmology and astrophysics) not only wrote best-selling books but cropped up as guests on radio shows and even presented their own TV series.

Early in the 1990s the literary agent John Brockman created a series titled Science Masters in which he commissioned experts across a wide range of the sciences to write short, jargon-free and maths-light introductions to their fields.

This is astrophysicist John D. Barrow’s contribution to the series, a short, clear and mind-blowing introduction to current theory about how our universe began.

The Origin of the Universe

Billions It is now thought the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, the solar system is 4.57 billion years old and the earth is 4.54 billion years old. The oldest surface rocks anywhere on earth are in northwestern Canada near the Great Slave Lake, and are 4.03 billion years. The oldest fossilised bacteria date from 3.48 billion years ago.

Visible universe The visible universe is the part of the universe which light has had time to cross and reach us. If the universe is indeed 13.7 billion years old, and nothing can travel faster than the speed of light (299,792,458 metres per second) then there is, in effect, a ‘horizon’ to what we can see. We can only see the part of the universe which is about 13.7 billion years old. Whether there is any universe beyond our light horizon, and what it looks like, is something we can only speculate about.

Steady state Until the early 20th century philosophers and scientists thought the universe was fixed, static and stable. Even Einstein put into his theory of relativity a factor he named ‘the cosmological constant’, which wasn’t strictly needed, solely in order to make the universe appear static and so conform to contemporary thinking. The idea of this constant was to counteract the attractive force of gravity, in order to ensure his steady state version of the universe didn’t collapse into a big crunch.

Alexander Friedmann It was a young mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, who looked closely at Einstein’s formulae and showed that the cosmological constant was not necessary, not if the universe was expanding; in this case, no hypothetical repelling force would be needed, just the sheer speed of outward expansion. Einstein eventually conceded that including the constant in the formulae of relativity had been a major mistake.

Edwin Hubble In what Barrow calls ‘the greatest discovery of twentieth century science’, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble in the 1920s discovered that distant galaxies are moving away from us, and the further away they are, the faster they are moving, which became known as Hubble’s Law. He established this by noticing the ‘red-shifting’ of frequencies denoting detectable elements in these galaxies i.e. their light frequencies had been altered downwards, as light (and sound and all waves are) when something is moving away from the observer.

Critical divide An argument against the steady-state theory of the universe is that, over time, the gravity of all the objects in it would pull everything together and it would all collapse into one massive clump. Only an initial throwing out of material could counter-act the affect of all that gravity.

So how fast is the universe expanding? Imagine a rate, x. Below that speed, the effect of gravity will eventually overcome the outward acceleration, the universe will slow down, stop expanding and start to contract. Significantly above this speed, x, and the universe would continue flying apart in all directions so quickly that gas clouds, stars, galaxies and planets would never be formed.

As far as we know, the actual acceleration of the universe hovers just around this rate, x – just fast enough to prevent the universe from collapsing, but not too fast for it to be impossible for matter to form. Just the right speed to create the kind of universe we see around us. The name for this threshold is the critical divide.

Starstuff Stars are condensations of matter large enough to create at their centre nuclear reactions. These reactions burn hydrogen into helium for a long, sedate period, as our sun is doing. At the end of their lives stars undergo a crisis, an explosive period of rapid change during which helium is transformed into carbon nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, phosphorus and many of the other, heavier elements. When the ailing star finally explodes as a supernova these elements disperse into space and ultimately find their way into clouds of gas which condense as planets.

Thus every plant, animal and person alive on earth is made out of chemical elements forged in the unthinkable heat of dying stars – which is what Joni Mitchell meant when she sang, ‘We are stardust’.

Heat death A theory that the universe will continue expanding and matter become so attenuated that there are no heat or dynamic inequalities left to fuel thermal reactions i.e. matter ends up smoothly spread throughout space with no reactions happening anywhere. Thermodynamic equilibrium reached at a universal very low temperature. The idea was formulated by William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, in the 1850s who extrapolated from Victorian knowledge of mechanics and heat. 170 years later, updated versions of heat death remain a viable theory for the very long-term future of the universe.

Steady state The ‘steady state’ theory of the universe was developed by astrophysicists Thomas Gold, Hermann Bondi and Fred Hoyle in 1948. They theorised that. although the universe appeared to be expanding it had always existed, the expansion being caused by a steady rate of creation of new matter. This theory was disproved in the mid-1960s by the confirmation of background radiation

Background radiation theorised In the 1940s George Gamow and assistants Alpher and Herman theorised that, if the universe began in a hot dense state way back, there should be evidence, namely a constant layer of background radiation everywhere which, they calculated, would be 5 degrees above absolute zero.

Background radiation proved In the 1960s researchers at Bell Laboratories, calibrating a sensitive radio antenna, noticed a constant background interference to their efforts which seemed to be coming from every direction of the sky. A team from Princeton interpreted this as the expected background radiation and measured it at 2.5 degrees Kelvin. It is called ‘cosmic microwave background radiation’ and is one of the strong proofs for the Big Bang theory. The uniformity of the background radiation was confirmed by observations from NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite in the early 1990s.

Empty universe There is very little material in the universe. If all the stars and galaxies in the universe were smoothed out into a sea of atoms, there would only be about one atom per cubic meter of space.

Inflation This is a theory developed in 1979 by theoretical physicist Alan Guth – the idea is that the universe didn’t arise from a singularity which exploded and grew at a steady state but instead, in the first milliseconds, underwent a period of hyper-growth, which then calmed back down to ‘normal’ expansion.

The theory has been elaborated and generated numerous variants but is widely accepted because it explains many aspects of the universe we see today – from its large-scale structure to the way it explains how minute quantum fluctuations in this initial microscopic inflationary region, once magnified to cosmic size, became the seeds for the growth of structure in the Universe.

The inflation is currently thought to have taken place from 10−36 seconds after the conjectured Big Bang singularity to sometime between 10−33 or 10−32 seconds after.

Chaotic inflationary universe Proposed by Soviet physicist Andrei Linde in 1983, this is the idea that multiple distinct sections of the very early universe might have experienced inflation at different rates and so have produced a kind of cluster of universes, like bubbles in a bubble bath, except that these bubbles would have to be at least nine billion light years in size in order to produce stable stars. Possibly the conditions in each of the universes created by chaotic inflation could be quite different.

Eternal inflation A logical extension of chaotic inflation is that you not only have multiple regions which undergo inflation at the same time, but you might have sub-regions which undergo inflation at different times – possibly one after the other, in other words maybe there never was a beginning, but this process of successive creations and hyper-inflations has been going on forever and is still going on but beyond our light horizon (which, as mentioned above, only reaches to about 13.7 billion light years away).

Time Is time a fixed and static quality which creates a kind of theatre, an external frame of reference, in which the events of the universe take place, as in the Newtonian view? Or, as per Einstein, is time itself part of the universe, inseparable from the stuff of the universe and can be bent and distorted by forces in the universe? This is why Einstein used the expression ‘spacetime’?

The quantum universe Right back at the very beginning, at 10−43 seconds, the size of the visible universe was smaller than its quantum wavelength — so its entire contents would have been subject to the uncertainty which is the characteristic of quantum physics.

Time is affected by a quantum view of the big bang because, when the universe was still shrunk to a microscopic size, the quantum uncertainty which applied to it might be interpreted as meaning there was no time. That time only ‘crystallised’ out as a separate ‘dimension’ once the universe had expanded to a size where quantum uncertainty no longer dictated.

Some critics of the big bang theory ask, ‘What was there before the big bang?’ to which exponents conventionally reply that there was no ‘before’. Time as we experience it ceased to exist and became part of the initial hyper-energy field.

This quantum interpretation suggests that there in fact was no ‘big bang’ because there was literally no time when it happened.

Traditional visualisations of the big bang show an inverted cone, at the top is the big universe we live in and as you go back in time it narrows to a point – the starting point. Imagine, instead, something more like a round-bottomed sack: there’s a general expansion upwards and outwards but if you penetrate back to the bottom of the sack there is no ‘start’ point.

This theory was most fully worked out by Stephen Hawking and James Hartle.

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

Wormholes The book ends with speculations about the possibility that ‘wormholes’ existed in the first few milliseconds, tubes connecting otherwise distant parts of the exploding ball of universe. I understood the pictures of these but couldn’t understand the problems in the quantum theory of the origin which they set out to solve.

And the final section emphasises that everything cosmologists work on relates to the visible universe. It may be that the special conditions of the visible universe which we know about, are only one set of starting conditions which apply to other areas of the universe beyond our knowledge or to other universes. We will never know.

Thoughts

Barrow is an extremely clear and patient explainer. He avoids formulae. Between his prose and the many illustrations I understood most of what he was trying to say, though a number of concepts eluded me.

But the ultimate thing that comes over is his scepticism. Barrow summarises recent attempts to define laws governing the conditions prevailing at the start of the universe by, briefly describing the theories of James Hartle and Stephen Hawking, Alex Vilenkin, and Roger Penrose. But he does so only to go on to emphasise that they are all ‘highly speculative’. They are ‘ideas for ideas’ (p.135).

By the end of the book you get the idea that a very great deal of cosmology is either speculative, or highly speculative. But then half way through he says it’s a distinguishing characteristic of physicists that they can’t stop tinkering – with data, with theories, with ideas and speculations.

So beyond the facts and then the details of the theories he describes, it is insight into this quality in the discipline itself, this restless exploration of new ideas and speculations relating to some of the hardest-to-think-about areas of human knowledge, which is the final flavour the reader is left with.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

The only way to substantiate a belief is to try to disprove it.
(Irrationality: The Enemy Within, page 48)

Sutherland was 65 when he wrote this book, and nearing the end of a prestigious career in psychology research. His aim was to lay out, in 23 themed chapters, all the psychological and sociological research data from hundreds of experiments, which show just how vulnerable the human mind is to a plethora of unconscious biases, prejudices, errors, mistakes, misinterpretations and so on – the whole panoply of ways in which supposedly ‘rational’ human beings can end up making grotesque mistakes.

By the end of the book, Sutherland claims to have defined and demonstrated over 100 distinct cognitive errors humans are prone to (p.309).

I first read this book in 2000 and it made a big impact on me because I didn’t really know that this entire area of study existed, and had certainly never read such a compendium of sociology and psychology experiments before.

I found the naming of the various errors particularly powerful. They reminded me of the lists of weird and wonderful Christian heresies I was familiar with from years of of reading early Christians history. And, after all, the two have a lot in common, both being lists of ‘errors’ which the human mind can make as it falls short of a) orthodox theology and b) optimally rational thinking, the great shibboleths of the Middle Ages and of the Modern World, respectively.

Rereading Irrationality now, 20 years later, after having brought up two children, and worked in big government departments, I am a lot less shocked and amazed. I have witnessed at first hand the utter irrationality of small and medium-sized children; and I have seen so many examples of corporate conformity, the avoidance of embarrassment, unwillingness to speak up, deferral to authority, and general mismanagement in the civil service that, upon rereading the book, hardly any of it came as a surprise.

But to have all these errors so carefully named and defined and worked through in a structured way, with so many experiments giving such vivid proof of how useless humans are at even basic logic, was still very enjoyable.

What is rationality?

You can’t define irrationality without first defining what you mean by rationality:

Rational thinking is most likely to lead to the conclusion that is correct, given the information available at the time (with the obvious rider that, as new information comes to light, you should be prepared to change your mind).

Rational action is that which is most likely to achieve your goals. But in order to achieve this, you have to have clearly defined goals. Not only that but, since most people have multiple goals, you must clearly prioritise your goals.

Few people think hard about their goals and even fewer think hard about the many possible consequences of their actions. (p.129)

Cognitive biases contrasted with logical fallacies

Before proceeding it’s important to point out that there is a wholly separate subject of logical fallacies. As part of his Philosophy A-Level my son was given a useful handout with a list of about fifty logical fallacies i.e. errors in thinking. But logical fallacies are not the same as cognitive biases.

A logical fallacy stems from an error in a logical argument; it is specific and easy to identify and correct. Cognitive bias derives from deep-rooted, thought-processing errors which themselves stem from problems with memory, attention, self-awareness, mental strategy and other mental mistakes.

Cognitive biases are, in most cases, far harder to acknowledge and often very difficult to correct.

Fundamentals of irrationality

1. Innumeracy One of the largest causes of all irrational behaviour is that people by and large don’t understand statistics or maths. Thus most people are not intellectually equipped to understand the most reliable type of information available to human beings – data in the form of numbers. Instead they tend to make decisions based on a wide range of faulty and irrational psychological biases.

2. Physiology People are often influenced by physiological factors. Apart from obvious ones like tiredness or hunger, which are universally known to affect people’s cognitive abilities, there are also a) drives (direct and primal) like hunger, thirst, sex, and b) emotions (powerful but sometimes controllable) like love, jealousy, fear and – especially relevant – embarrassment, specifically, the acute reluctance to acknowledge limits to your own knowledge or that you’ve made a mistake.

At a more disruptive level, people might be alcoholics, drug addicts, or prey to a range of other obsessive behaviours, not to mention suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses or conditions which undermine any attempt at rational decision-making, such as stress, anxiety or, at the other end of the spectrum, depression and loss of interest.

3. The functional limits of consciousness Numerous experiments have shown that human beings have a limited capacity to process information. Given that people rarely have a) a sufficient understanding of the relevant statistical data to begin with, and b) lack the RAM capacity to process all the data required to make the optimum decision, it is no surprise that most of us fall back on all manner of more limited, non-statistical biases and prejudices when it comes to making decisions.

The wish to feel good The world is threatening, dangerous and competitive. Humans want to feel safe, secure, calm, and in control. This is fair enough, but it does mean that people have a way of blocking out any kind of information which threatens them. Most people irrationally believe that they are cleverer than they in fact are, are qualified in areas of activity of knowledge where they aren’t, people stick to bad decisions for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, and for the same reason reject new evidence which contradicts their position.

Named types of error and bias

Jumping to conclusions

Sutherland tricks the reader on page one, by asking a series of questions and then pointing out that, if you tried to answer about half of them, you are a fool since the questions didn’t contain enough information to arrive at any sort of solution. Jumping to conclusions before we have enough evidence is a basic and universal error. One way round this is to habitually use a pen and paper to set out the pros and cons of any decision, which also helps highlight areas where you realise you don’t have enough information.

The availability error

All the evidence is that the conscious mind can only hold a small number of data or impressions at any one time (near the end of the book, Sutherland claims the maximum is seven items, p.319). Many errors are due to people reaching for the most available explanation, using the first thing that comes to mind, and not taking the time to investigate further and make a proper, rational survey of the information.

Many experiments show that you can unconsciously bias people by planting ideas, words or images in their minds which then directly affect decisions they take hours later about supposedly unconnected issues.

Studies show that doctors who have seen a run of a certain condition among their patients become more likely to diagnose it in new patients, who don’t have it. Because the erroneous diagnosis is more ‘available’.

The news media is hard-wired to publicise shocking and startling stories which leads to the permanent misleading of the reading public. One tourist eaten by a shark in Australia eclipses the fact that you are far more likely to die in a car crash than be eaten by a shark.

Thus ‘availability’ is also affected by impact or prominence. Experimenters read out a list of men and women to two groups without telling them that there are exactly 25 men and 25 women, and asked them to guess the ratio of the sexes. If the list included some famous men, the group was influenced to think there were more men, if the list included famous women, the group thought there are more women than men. The prominence effect.

The entire advertising industry is based on the availability error in the way it invents straplines, catchphrases and jingles designed to pop to the front of your mind when you consider any type of product, making those products – in other words – super available.

I liked the attribution of the well-known fact that retailers price goods at just under the nearest pound, to the availability error. Most of us find £5.95 much more attractive than £6. It’s because we only process the initial 5, the first digit. It is more available.

Numerous studies have shown that the availability error is hugely increased under stress. Under stressful situations – in an accident – people fixate on the first solution that comes to mind and refuse to budge.

The primacy effect

First impressions. Interviewers make up their minds about a candidate for a job in the first minute of an interview and then spend the rest of the time collecting data to confirm that first impression.

The anchor effect

In picking a number people tend to choose one close to any number they’ve recently been presented with. Two groups were asked to estimate whether the population of Turkey was a) bigger than 5 million b) less than 65 million, and what it was. The group who’d had 5 million planted in their mind hovered around 15 million, the group who’d had 65 million hovered around 35 million. They were both wrong. It is 80 million.

The halo effect

People extrapolate the nature of the whole from just one quality e.g. in tests, people think attractive people must be above average in personality and intelligence although, of course, there is no reason why they should be. Hence this error’s alternative name, the ‘physical attractiveness stereotype’. The halo effect is fundamental to advertising, which seeks to associate images of beautiful men, women, smiling children, sunlit countryside etc with the product being marketed.

The existence of the halo effect and primacy effect are both reasons why interviews are a poor way to assess candidates for jobs or places.

The devil effect

Opposite of the above: extrapolating from negative appearances to the whole. This is why it’s important to dress smartly for an interview or court appearance, it really does influence people. In an experiment examiners were given identical answers, but some in terrible handwriting, some in beautifully clear handwriting. The samples with clear handwriting consistently scored higher marks, despite the identical factual content of the scripts.

Illusory correlation

People find links between disparate phenomena which simply don’t exist, thus:

  • people exaggerate the qualities of people or things which stand out from their environments
  • people associate rare qualities with rare things

This explains a good deal of racial prejudice: a) immigrants stand out b) a handful of immigrants commit egregious behaviour – therefore it is a classic example of illusory correlation to associate the two. What is missing is taking into account all the negative examples i.e. the millions of immigrants who make no egregious behaviour and whose inclusion would give you a more accurate statistical picture. Pay attention to negative cases.

Stereotypes

  1. People tend to notice anything which supports their existing opinions.
  2. We notice the actions of ‘minorities’ much more than the actions of the invisible majority.

Projection

People project onto neutral phenomena, patterns and meanings they are familiar with or which bolster their beliefs. This is compounded by –

Obstinacy

Sticking to personal opinions (often made in haste / first impressions / despite all evidence to the contrary) aka The boomerang effect When someone’s opinions are challenged, they just become more obstinate about it. Aka Belief persistence. Aka pig-headedness. And this is axacerbated by –

Group think

People associate with others like themselves, which makes them feel safe by a) confirming their beliefs and b) letting them hide in a crowd. Experiments have shown how people in self-supporting groups are liable to become more extreme in their views. Also – and I’ve seen this myself – groups will take decisions that almost everyone in the group, as individuals, know to be wrong – but no-one is prepared to risk the embarrassment or humiliation of pointing it out. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Groups are more likely to make irrational decisions than individuals are.

Confirmation bias

The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. In an experiment people were read out a series of statements about a named person, who had a stated profession and then two adjectives describing them, one that you’d expect, the other less predictable. ‘Carol, a librarian, is attractive and serious’. When asked to do a quiz at the end of the session, participants showed a marked tendency to remember the expected adjective, and forget the unexpected one. Everyone remembered that the air stewardess was ‘attractive’ but remembered the librarian for being ‘serious’.

We remember what we expect to hear. (p.76)

Or: we remember what we remember in line with pre-existing habits of thought, values etc.

We marry people who share our opinions, we have friends with people who share our opinions, we agree with everyone in our circle on Facebook.

Self-serving biases

When things go well, people take the credit, when things go badly, people blame external circumstances.

Avoiding embarrassment

People obey, especially in a group situation, bad orders because they don’t want to stick out. People go along with bad decisions because they don’t want to stick out. People don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake, in front of others, or even to themselves.

Avoiding humiliation

People are reluctant to admit mistakes in front of others. And rather than make a mistake in front of others, people would rather keep quiet and say nothing (in a meeting situation) or do nothing, if everyone else is doing nothing (in an action situation). Both of these avoidances feed into –

Obedience

The Milgram experiment proved that people will carry out any kind of atrocity for an authoritative man in a white coat. All of his students agreed to inflict life-threatening levels of electric shock on the victim, supposedly wired up in the next door room and emitting blood curdling (faked) screams of pain. 72% of Senior House Officers wouldn’t question the decision of a consultant, even if they thought he was wrong.

Conformity

Everyone else is saying or doing it, so you say or do it so as not to stick out / risk ridicule.

Obedience is behaving in a way ordered by an authority figure. Conformity is behaving in a way dictated by your peers.

The wrong length lines experiment

You’re put in a room with half a dozen stooges, and shown a piece of card with a line on it and then another piece of card with three lines of different length on it, and asked which of the lines on card B is the same length as the line on card A. To your amazement, everyone else in the room chooses a line which is obviously wildly wrong. In experiments up to 75% of people in this situation go along with the crowd and choose the line which they are sure, can see and know is wrong – because everyone else did.

Sunk costs fallacy

The belief that you have to continue wasting time and money on a project because you’ve invested x amount of time and money to date. Or ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Sutherland keeps cycling round the same nexus of issues, which is that people jump to conclusions – based on availability, stereotypes, the halo and anchor effects – and then refuse to change their minds, twisting existing evidence to suit them, ignoring contradictory evidence.

Misplaced consistency & distorting the evidence

Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are wrong. Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are useless at taking decisions.

Our inability to acknowledge our own errors even to ourselves is one of the most fundamental causes of irrationality. (p.100)

And so:

  • people consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs
  • on being faced with evidence that disproves their beliefs, they ignore it
  • or they twist new evidence so as to confirm to their existing beliefs
  • people selectively remember their own experiences, or misremember the evidence they were using at the time, in order to validate their current decisions and beliefs
  • people will go to great lengths to protect their self-esteem

Sutherland says the best cleanser / solution / strategy to fixed and obstinate ideas is:

  1. to make the time to gather as much evidence as possible and
  2. to try to disprove your own position.

The best solution will be the one you have tried to demolish with all the evidence you have and still remains standing.

People tend to seek confirmation of their current hypothesis, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm it. (p.138)

Fundamental attribution error

Ascribing other people’s behaviour to their character or disposition rather than to their situation. Subjects in an experiment watched two people holding an informal quiz: the first person made up questions (based on what he knew) and asked the second person who, naturally enough, hardly got any of them right. Observers consistently credited the quizzer with higher intelligence than the answerer, completely ignoring the in-built bias of the situation, and instead ascribing the difference to character.

We are quick to personalise and blame in a bid to turn others into monolithic entities which we can then define and control – this saves time and effort, and makes us feel safer and secure – whereas the evidence is that all people are capable of a wide range of behaviours depending on the context and situation.

Once you’ve pigeon-holed someone, you will tend to notice aspects of their behaviour which confirm your view – confirmation bias and/or illusory correlation and a version of the halo/devil effect. One attribute colours your view of a more complex whole.

Actor-Observer Bias

Variation on the above: when we screw up we find all kinds of reasons in the situation to exonerate ourselves: we performed badly because we’re ill, jet-lagged, grandma died, reasons that are external to us. If someone else screws up, it is because they just are thick, lazy, useless. I.e. we think of ourselves as complex entities subject to multiple influences, and others as monolithic types.

False Consensus Effect

Over-confidence that other people think and feel like us, that our beliefs and values are the norm – in my view one of the profound cultural errors of our time.

It is a variation of the ever-present Availability Error because when we stop to think about any value or belief we will tend to conjure up images of our family and friends, maybe workmates, the guys we went to college with, and so on: in other words, the people available to memory – simply ignoring the fact that these people are a drop in the ocean of the 65 million people in the UK. See Facebubble.

The False Consensus Effect reassures us that we are normal, our values are the values, we’re the normal ones: it’s everyone else who is wrong, deluded, racist, sexist, whatever we don’t approve of.

Elsewhere, I’ve discovered some commentators naming this the Liberal fallacy:

For liberals, the correctness of their opinions – on universal health care, on Sarah Palin, on gay marriage – is self-evident. Anyone who has tried to argue the merits of such issues with liberals will surely recognize this attitude. Liberals are pleased with themselves for thinking the way they do. In their view, the way they think is the way all right-thinking people should think. Thus, ‘the liberal fallacy’: Liberals imagine that everyone should share their opinions, and if others do not, there is something wrong with them. On matters of books and movies, they may give an inch, but if people have contrary opinions on political and social matters, it follows that the fault is with the others. (Commentary magazine)

Self-Serving Bias

People tend to give themselves credit for successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes. If the project is a success, it was all due to my hard work and leadership. If it’s a failure, it’s due to circumstances beyond my control, other people not pulling their weight etc.

Preserving one’s self-esteem 

These three errors are all aspects of preserving our self-esteem. You can see why this has an important evolutionary and psychological purpose. In order to live, we must believe in ourselves, our purposes and capacities, believe our values are normal and correct, believe we make a difference, that our efforts bring results. No doubt it is a necessary belief and a collapse of confidence and self-belief can lead to depression and possibly despair. But that doesn’t make it true.

People should learn the difference between having self-belief to motivate themselves, and developing the techniques to gather the full range of evidence – including the evidence against your own opinions and beliefs – which will enable them to make correct decisions.

Representative error

People estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype / stereotype that already exists in our minds. Our prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object. This often happens around notions of randomness: people have a notion of what randomness should look like i.e. utterly scrambled. But in fact plenty of random events or sequences arrange themselves into patterns we find meaningful. So we dismiss them as not really random.  I.e. we have judged them against our preconception of what random ought to look like.

Ask a selection of people which of these three sets of six coin tosses where H stands for heads, T for tails is random.

  1. TTTTTT
  2. TTTHHH
  3. THHTTH

Most people will choose 3 because it feels random. But of course all three are equally likely or unlikely.

Hindsight

In numerous experiments people have been asked to predict the outcome of an event, then after the event questioned about their predictions. Most people forget their inaccurate predictions and misremember that they were accurate.

Overconfidence

Most professionals have been shown to overvalue their expertise i.e. exaggerate their success rates.


Statistics

A problem with Irrationality and with John Allen Paulos’s book about Innumeracy is that they mix up cognitive biases and statistics, Now, statistics is a completely separate and distinct area from errors of thought and cognitive biases. You can imagine someone who avoids all of the cognitive and psychological errors named above, but still makes howlers when it comes to statistics simply because they’re not very good at it.

This is because the twin areas of Probability and Statistics are absolutely fraught with difficulty. Either you have been taught the correct techniques, and understand them, and practice them regularly (and both books demonstrate that even experts make terrible mistakes in the handling of statistics and probability) or, like most of us, you have not and do not.

As Sutherland points out, most people’s knowledge of statistics is non-existent. Since we live in a society whose public discourse i.e. politics, is ever more dominated by statistics, there is a simple conclusion: most of us have little or no understanding of the principles and values which underpin modern society.

Errors in estimating probability or misunderstanding samples, opinion polls and so on, are probably a big part of irrationality, but I felt that they are so distinct from the psychological biases discussed above, that they almost require a separate volume, or a separate ‘part’ of this volume.

Briefly, common statistical mistakes are:

  • too small a sample size
  • biased sample
  • not understanding that any combination of probabilities is less likely than either on their own, which requires an understanding of base rate or a priori probability
  • the law of large numbers – the more a probabilistic event takes place, the more likely the result will move towards the theoretical probability
  • be aware of the law of regression to the mean
  • be aware of the law of large numbers

Gambling

My suggestion that mistakes in handling statistics are not really the same as unconscious cognitive biases, applies even more to the world of gambling. Gambling is a highly specialised and advanced form of probability applied to games. The subject has been pored over by very clever people for centuries. It’s not a question of a few general principles, this is a vast, book-length subject in its own right. A practical point that emerges from Sutherland’s examples is:

  • always work out the expected value of a bet i.e. the amount to be won times the probability of winning it

The two-by-two box

It’s taken me some time to understand this principle which is given in both Paulos and Sutherland.

When two elements with a yes/no result are combined, people tend to look at the most striking correlation and fixate on it. The only way to avoid the false conclusions that follow from that is to draw a 2 x 2 box and work through the figures.

Here is a table of 1,000 women who had a mammogram because their doctors thought they had symptoms of breast cancer.

Women with cancer Women with no cancer Total
Women with positive mammography 74 110 184
Women with negative mammography 6 810 816
80 920 1000

Bearing in mind that a conditional probability is saying that if X and Y are linked, then the chances of X, if Y, are so and so – i.e. the probability of X is conditional on the probability of Y – this table allows us to work out the following conditional probabilities:

1. The probability of getting a positive mammogram or test result, if you do actually have cancer, is 74 out of 80 = .92 (out of the 80 women with cancer, 74 were picked up by the test)

2. The probability of getting a negative mammogram or test result and not having cancer, is 810 out of 920 = .88

3. The probability of having cancer if you test positive, is 74 out of 184 = .40

4. The probability of having cancer if you test negative, is 6 out of 816 = .01

So 92% of women of women with cancer were picked up by the test. BUT Sutherland quotes a study which showed that a shocking 95% of doctors thought that this figure – 92% – was also the probability of a patient who tested positive having the disease. By far the majority of US doctors thought that, if you tested positive, you had a 92% chance of having cancer. They fixated on the 92% figure and transposed it from one outcome to the other, confusing the two. But this is wrong. The probability of a woman testing positive actually having cancer is given in conclusion 3: 74 out of 184 = 40%. This is because 110 out of the total 184 women tested positive, but did not have cancer.

So if a woman tested positive for breast cancer, the chances of her actually having it are 40%, not 92%. Quite a big difference (and quite an indictment of the test, by the way). And yet 95% of doctors thought that if a woman tested positive she had a 92% likelihood of having cancer.

Sutherland goes on to quote a long list of other situations where doctors and others have comprehensively misinterpreted the results of studies like this, with sometimes very negative consequences.

The moral of the story is if you want to determine whether one event is associated with another, never attempt to keep the co-occurrence of events in your head. It’s just too complicated. Maintain a written tally of the four possible outcomes and refer to these.


Deep causes

Sutherland concludes the book by speculating that all the hundred or so types of irrationality he has documented can be attributed to five fundamental causes:

  1. Evolution We evolved to make snap decisions, we are brilliant at processing visual information and responding before we’re even aware of it. Conscious thought is slower, and the conscious application of statistics, probability, regression analysis and so on, is slowest of all. Most people never acquire it.
  2. Brain structure As soon as we start perceiving, learning and remembering the world around us our brain cells make connections. The more the experience is repeated, the stronger the connections become. Routines and ruts form, which are hard to budge.
  3. Heuristics Everyone develops mental short-cuts, techniques to help make quick decisions. Not many people bother with the laborious statistical techniques for assessing relative benefits which Sutherland describes.
  4. Failure to use elementary probability and elementary statistics Ignorance is another way of describing this, mass ignorance. Sutherland (being an academic) blames the education system. I, being a pessimist, attribute it to basic human nature. Lots of people just are lazy, lots of people just are stupid, lots of people just are incurious.
  5. Self-serving bias In countless ways people are self-centred, overvalue their judgement and intelligence, overvalue the beliefs of their in-group, refuse to accept it when they’re wrong, refuse to make a fool of themselves in front of others by confessing error or pointing out errors in others (especially the boss) and so on.

I would add two more:

Suggestibility

Humans are just tremendously suggestible. Say a bunch of positive words to test subjects, then ask them questions on an unrelated topic: they’ll answer positively. Take a different representative sample of subjects and run a bunch of negative words past them, then ask them the same unrelated questions, and their answers will be measurably more negative. Everyone is easily suggestible.

Ask subjects how they get a party started and they will talk and behave in an extrovert manner to the questioner. Ask them how they cope with feeling shy and ill at ease at parties, and they will tend to act shy and speak quieter. Same people, but their thought patterns have been completely determined by the questions asked: the initial terms or anchor defines the ensuing conversation.

In one experiment a set of subjects were shown one photo of a car crash. Half were asked to describe what they think happened when one car hit another; the other half were asked to describe what they thought happened when one car smashed into the other. The ones given the word ‘smashed’ gave much more melodramatic accounts. Followed up a week later, the subjects were asked to describe what they remembered of the photo. The subjects given the word ‘hit’ fairly accurately described it, whereas the subjects given the word ‘smashed’ invented all kinds of details, like a sea of broken glass around the vehicles which simply wasn’t there, which their imaginations had invented, all at the prompting of one word.

Many of the experiments Sutherland quotes demonstrate what you might call higher-level biases: but underlying many of them is this simple-or-garden observation: that people are tremendously easily swayed, by both external and internal causes, away from the line of cold logic.

Anthropomorphism 

Another big underlying cause is anthropomorphism, namely the attribution of human characteristics to objects, events, chances, odds and so on. In other words, people really struggle to accept the high incidence of random accidents. Almost everyone attributes a purpose or intention to almost everything that happens. This means our perceptions of almost everything in life are skewed from the start.

During the war Londoners devised innumerable theories about the pattern of German bombing. After the war, when Luftwaffe records were analysed, it showed the bombing was more or less at random.

The human desire to make sense of things – to see patterns where none exists or to concoct theories… can lead people badly astray. (p.267)

Suspending judgement is about the last thing people are capable of. People are extremely uneasy if things are left unexplained. Most people rush to judgement like water into a sinking ship.

Cures

  • keep an open mind
  • reach a conclusion only after reviewing all the possible evidence
  • it is a sign of strength to change one’s mind
  • seek out evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • do not ignore or distort evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • never make decisions in a hurry or under stress
  • where the evidence points to no obvious decision, don’t take one
  • learn basic statistics and probability
  • substitute mathematical methods (cost-benefit analysis, regression analysis, utility theory) for intuition and subjective judgement

Comments on the book

Out of date

Irrationality was first published in 1992 and this makes the book dated in several ways (maybe this is why the first paperback edition was published by upmarket mass publisher Penguin, whereas the most recent edition was published by the considerably more niche publisher, Pinter & Martin).

In the chapter about irrational business behaviour Sutherland quotes quite a few examples from the 1970s and the oil crisis of 1974. These and other examples – such as the long passage about how inefficient the civil service was in the early 1970s – feel incredibly dated now.

And the whole thing was conceived, researched and written before there was an internet or any of the digital technology we take for granted nowadays. Can’t help wondering whether the digital age has solved, or merely added to the long list of biases, prejudices and faulty thinking which Sutherland catalogues, and what errors of reason have emerged specific to our fabulous digital technology.

On the other hand, out of date though the book in many ways is, it’s surprising to see how some hot button issues haven’t changed at all. In the passage about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, Sutherland takes as a real life example the problem the nations of the world were having in 1992 in agreeing to cut back carbon dioxide emissions. Sound familiar? He states that the single biggest factor undermining international co-operation against climate change was America’s refusal to sign global treaties to limit global warming. In 1992! Plus ça change.

Grumpy

The books also has passages where Sutherland gives his personal opinions about things and some of these sound more like the grousing of a grumpy old man than anything based on evidence.

Thus Sutherland whole-heartedly disapproves of ‘American’ health fads, dismisses health foods as masochistic fashion and is particularly scathing about jogging.

He thinks ‘fashion’ in any sphere of life is ludicrously irrational. He is dismissive of doctors as a profession, who he accuses of rejecting statistical evidence, refusing to share information with patients, and wildly over-estimating their own diagnostic abilities.

Sutherland thinks the publishers of learned scientific journals are more interested in making money out of scientists than in ‘forwarding the progress of science’ (p.185).

He thinks the higher average pay that university graduates tend to get is unrelated to their attendance at university and more to do with having well connected middle- and upper-middle-class parents, and thus considers the efforts of successive Education Secretaries to introduce student loans to be unscientific and innumerate (p.186).

Surprisingly, he criticises Which consumer magazine for using too small samples in its testing (p.215).

In an extended passage he summarises Leslie Chapman’s blistering (and very out of date) critique of the civil service, Your Disobedient Servant published in 1978 (pp.69-75).

Sutherland really has it in for psychoanalysis, which he accuses of all sorts of irrational thinking such as projecting, false association, refusal to investigate negative instances, failing to take into account the likelihood that the patient would have improved anyway, and so on. Half-way through the book he gives a thumbnail summary:

Self-deceit exists on a massive scale: Freud was right about that. Where he went wrong was in attributing it all to the libido, the underlying sex drive. (p.197)

In other words, the book is liberally sprinkled with Sutherland’s own grumpy personal opinions, which sometimes risk giving it a crankish feel.

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain

Neither this nor John Allen Paulos’s books take into account the obvious fact that lots of people are, how shall we put it, of low educational achievement. They begin with poor genetic material, are raised in families where no-one cares about education, are let down by poor schools, and are excluded or otherwise demotivated by the whole educational experience, with the result that :

  • the average reading age in the UK is 9
  • about one in five Britons (over ten million) are functionally illiterate, and probably about the same rate innumerate

His book, like all books of this type, is targeted at a relatively small proportion of the population, the well-educated professional classes. Most people aren’t like that. You want proof? Trump. Brexit. Boris Johnson landslide.

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (in fact The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Trying to keep those cognitive errors at bay (otherwise known as The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)


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