Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham (1960)

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

Wyndham’s wish to write literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part one

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

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

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

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

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

Intellectual renegade, eh? Golly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana’s death and cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A surprise happy ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satire

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

Plausibility

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

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

Feminism

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

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

On having a family

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

On the pressure of advertising 1

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

On the pressure of advertising 2

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

Women are their own worst enemy

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

The beauty industry

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

Diana’s casual insights into sexism:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related link

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

1940s

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

1950s

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

1960s

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

Richard Dawkins and Christianity

Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

Dawkins obviously has a psychological problem with Christian believers. He won’t stop or let up in his attacks on the ‘foolish’, ‘misguided’ Christians and creationists who persist in their religious faith – despite the theory of evolution having provided a comprehensive answer to how life on earth originated but, above all, on why it has proliferated, become so diverse, and is so intricately interlinked, giving such an appearance of wonderful ‘design’ that the badly-educated or wilfully ignorant persist in claiming there must be an Omnipotent designer of it all.

‘Wrong wrong wrong!’ as Dawkins puts it with typical subtlety puts it in River Out of Eden.

Dawkins has devoted most of his adult life to writing a series of books which effectively repeat the same arguments against this kind of Christian obscurantism over and over again:

  • The Blind Watchmaker
  • River Out of Eden
  • Climbing Mount Improbable
  • Unweaving the Rainbow
  • A Devil’s Chaplain
  • The God Delusion
  • The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
  • The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True
  • Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

All of which lead up to his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, published just last year as he entered his 78th year.

What motivates Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

What drives this unyielding commitment to attack, criticise, undermine and ridicule Christians and creationists at every available opportunity?

Well, consider this excerpt from Dawkins’s Wikipedia article:

From 1954 to 1959 Dawkins attended Oundle School in Northamptonshire, an English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour, where he was in Laundimer house… Dawkins describes his childhood as ‘a normal Anglican upbringing’. He embraced Christianity until halfway through his teenage years, at which point he concluded that the theory of evolution was a better explanation for life’s complexity, and ceased believing in a god…

‘An English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour’. Aha.

In a nutshell, I think Dawkins argues so fiercely and unrelentingly with Christians, and with all the Christian attempts to adapt the theory of evolution to Christian belief, because he is arguing with his own younger self.

This explains why the arguing is so ubiquitous – why he finds The Enemy everywhere he looks – because the Enemy is in his own mind.

And it explains why the war can never end – because the young Dawkins’s naive and earnest Christian belief will be with him, dogging his every thought, like an unwanted Mr Hyde, until he dies.

It explains why Dawkins never takes on anti-evolutionary believers from other faiths, such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus and so on, and entirely restricts his obsessive attacks to Christian anti-evolutionists.

And it explains why the cast of straw men he sets out to demolish consists almost exclusively of Church of England bishops and American fundamentalists – because these are Protestant Christians, Christians from his own Anglican tribe.

Richard Dawkins’s Christian turn of thought

It also explains something else about The Blind Watchmaker and River Out of Eden, which is unexpected, counter-intuitive and easy to overlook.

This is that, amid the endless analogies, metaphors, comparisons and parallels that Dawkins is constantly drawing in order to make his polemical anti-creationist points, he still automatically invokes Christian examples, stories and texts – and here’s the most telling point – sometimes in a very positive light.

At these moments in the books, you can envision the bright-eyed schoolboy Dawkins, proudly taking part in each Sunday’s Morning Service at his Anglican public school, peeping through the text.

His fundamental attachment to Christian tropes pops up all over the place. Take the title of the book, River Out of Eden – why bring Eden into it at all? Why Christianise the story of DNA?

Same with ‘African Eve’ and ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, terms applied to the hypothetical female ancestor from which all currently living humans are supposedly descended… Why introduce the misleading word ‘Eve’ into it at all? Why piggy-back on Christian myth?

Casually he says a person’s DNA may be compared to their ‘family Bible’ (p.44) and that the mitochondrial DNA within our cells can be compared to the ‘Apocrypha’ of the family Bible (p.55). I wonder how many modern readers know, unprompted, what the Apocrypha are.

Later he casually mentions that the famous Big Bang which brought the universe into being ‘baptised time and the universe’ (p.168). Baptised?

Why reinforce the framework of Christian ideology like this, with a continual drizzle of Christian references – why not create entirely new metaphors and concepts?

Take the passage which purports to explain how the process of sex mixes up the parents’ DNA as it passes into their progeny. Within a sentence of explaining that this is his subject, Dawkins veers off to compare the mixing up of DNA to the textual history of the Song of Songs from the Bible.

Why? Does he really imagine his secular, multi-cultural audience will be sufficiently familiar with the text of The Song of Songs to take his point about changes and mutations in it? For the Song, he tells us:

contains errors – mutations – especially in translation: ‘Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines’ is a mistranslation, even though a lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal of its own, which is unlikely to be matched by the more correct: ‘Catch for us the fruit bats, the little fruit bats…’ (p.45)

‘A lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal’? A lifetime’s repetition by who, exactly? Have you spent a lifetime repeating these words from The Song of Songs? I haven’t.

This is pure autobiography and gives us a window into Richard’s mind and – it is my contention – demonstrates that Dawkins is coming from a far more deeply rooted Christian worldview than any of his secular readers.

Take another, longer example – the extraordinary passage in The Blind Watchmaker where Dawkins devotes a chapter of the book to arguing against the newish theory of evolution by punctuated equilibrium which had been proposed by paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould in the early 1970s.

But here’s how he starts the chapter on this subject: he asks the reader to imagine themselves in the scholarly field of ancient history, and to imagine a new scholarly paper which has just been published and which takes a literal interpretation of the story of the 40 years the ancient Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt and before they reached the Promised Land.

Dawkins goes into loads of detail about what this hypothetical paper would contain: He explains that the paper takes the claim that the ancient Israelites took 40 years to travel from the borders of Egypt to what is modern-day Israel at literal face value and then works out that the travelling horde must have covered about 25 yards a day, in other words, one yard an hour.

This is so patently absurd that the hypothetical ancient historian in this hypothetical paper Dawkins has invented, dismisses the entire story of the Exodus as a ridiculous myth, and this is what has rattled the cages of the scholarly world of ancient historians and brought it to the attention of the world’s media – in Dawkins’s made-up analogy.

At the end of two pages devoted to elaborately working out all the details of this extended analogy, Dawkins finally announces that this literalistic ancient historian’s approach is precisely the approach Eldridge and Gould take towards evolution in their theory of punctuated equilibrium – taking the physical facts (of the patchy fossil record) literally, in order to ridicule the larger theory of neo-Darwinism (neo-Darwinism is the twentieth-century synthesis of Darwin’s original theory with the Mendelian genetics which provide the mechanism by which it works, later confirmed by the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953; it is, strictly speaking, this neo-Darwinism which Dawkins is at such pains to defend).

Anyway:

1. I couldn’t believe Dawkins wasted so much space on such a far-fetched, fantastical, long-winded and, in the end, completely useless analogy (Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated evolution is like a hypothetical scholar of Bible history coming up with a new interpretation of the Book of Exodus!)

2. But for my purposes in this review, what is really telling about the passage is the way that, when he’s not consciously attacking it, Dawkins’s religious education gave him such a deep familiarity with Christian stories and the prose of the King James Bible and the Book of Prayer – that he cannot escape them, that his mind automatically reaches to them as his first analogy for anything.

And 3. that Dawkins expects his readers to be so equally imbued with a comprehensive knowledge of Christian stories and texts that he just assumes the best analogy for almost anything he wants to explain will be a Christian analogy.

Other examples of Dawkins’s Christian turn of mind

In the last third of River Out of Eden Dawkins introduces the rather abstruse idea of a ‘utility function’ which is, apparently, a concept from engineering which means ‘that which must be maximised’.

When it comes to life and evolution Dawkins says it is often useful to apply this concept to various attributes of living organisms such as the peacock’s tail, the extraordinary life-cycles of queen bees and so on, in order to understand the function they perform.

But then he staggered me by going on to say:

A good way to dramatise our task is to imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer and try to work out, by reverse engineering, what the engineer was trying to maximise: What was God’s Utility Function? (p.122)

And in fact this entire 44-page-long chapter is titled God’s Utility Function.

This flabbergasted me. The whole point of his long, exhausting book The Blind Watchmaker was to explain again and again, in countless variations, how the complex life forms we see around us were emphatically NOT designed by a creator God, but are the result of countless small mutations and variations naturally produced in each new generation of organism, which are selected out by the environment and other organisms, so that only the ones which help an organism adapt to its environment survive.

So why is he now asking the reader to imagine a God which is a Divine Engineer and Grand Designer?!!!!

Similarly, in Unweaving The Rainbow, which I’ve just read, he starts the rambling chapter about DNA finger-printing with a quote about lawyers from the Gospel of Saint Luke. Why?

And compares the lineage of DNA down the billennia to God making his promise to Abraham that his seed will inhabit the land, going on to give the complete quotation.

When he wants to cite a date from ancient history, it’s none of the acts of the ancient Greeks or Romans which spring to mind but but, of course, the birth of Christ, a handy two thousand years ago.

Continually, throughout all his books, the Christian framework, Christian dates, Christian stories, Christian quotations and Christian turns of phrase recur again and again.

Conclusion

In conclusion, you could argue, a little cheekily, that although Dawkins’s conscious mind and intentions and numerous books and lectures and TV programmes are all directed (with monotonous obsessiveness) at countering and undermining Christian belief – his unconscious mind, his boyhood memories, his love of the rhythms and images of the Christian Bible – mean that the Christian mythos, its legends and stories and even particular phrases from its holy texts, continually recur to him as his first choice for comparisons and analogies, and that as a result – unwittingly – he is reinforcing and re-embedding the very thing he claims to want to overthrow.

You could argue that Richard Dawkins is a fundamentally Christian author.


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

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

Who is Craig Venter?

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

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

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

In Schrödinger’s footsteps

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

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

Twelve chapters

The twelve chapters are titled:

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

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

Biochemistry

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

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

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

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

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

Fast

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

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

Relentless

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

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

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

Life is a process of dynamic renewal.

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

Venter’s achievements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The international nature of modern science

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

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

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

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

A simplified timeline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life at the speed of light

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

1. Anti-vitalism

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

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

A digression on the origins of life

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

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

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

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

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

The two big examples are:

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

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

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

2. Creating life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biological transformations

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

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

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


Scientific myopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Repetitive and prolix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we mentioned in chapter 4…

As noted above…

I will say more on this point subsequently…

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

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

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

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

Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Shallow philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliberately superficial

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

I will spare the reader a detailed discussion…

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

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

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

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

The problem of the origin of life

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

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

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

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

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

Pross’s solution

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

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

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

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

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

fitness = dynamic kinetic stability (p.141)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

A thought about the second law

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fascinating facts and tasty terminology

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

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

Does anyone care?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detective story

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

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

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

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

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

Broad outline

1. Panspermia

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

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

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

2. The theory of chemical evolution

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

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

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

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

3. The Miller-Urey experiments

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

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

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

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

So that:

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

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

Preliminary principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crystals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genetic takeover of the crystals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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


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The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.

followed by the observation that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deoxyribonucleic acid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Rosalind Franklin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impressive list, don’t you think?

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

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

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

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

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


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