Priests stumbling on the mysteries

Almost like a Whale - The Sacred Depths of Nature
October 27, 2000

Lynn Marguilis looks at two books that reveal the limitations of popular science.

And so I profess my Faith," writes Ursula Goodenough. "For me the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty, and my ability to apprehend it, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value." In The Sacred Depths of Nature , this superb cell biologist, thoughtful member of faculty at Washington University in St Louis and mother of five, reviews, in some 12 chapters, the major concepts of biological science at the beginning of the 21st century. The origins of earth and of life, how life and how organisms work, how evolution works and how biodiversity is generated, awareness, emotions and meaning, gender, sex, multicellularity, death and speciation are among the grand questions of the good professor's concern. She never abandons her responsibility to consider the evidence and maintain intellectual integrity in each of these forays into science's gift to humanity. The chapters are charmingly headed by Ippy Patterson's illustrations of flowering plants ( Oenothera, Amsinckia ), fossils ( Ctenpyge ), trilobites and bats ( Icaronycteris ) and most of the narrative serves as a comprehensible introduction to biological ideas.

Goodenough admits that this book was inspired by her beloved father, a Methodist preacher who became a professor of the history of religion. "I do not believe in God," admitted the father, nor does she, writes the daughter. Her father ended one of his last books: "I still pray devoutly, and when I do, I forget my qualifications and quibbles and call upon Jesus - and he comes to me." We are probably not uncharitable when we identify the source of Goodenough's own hedged inspiration with the passionate contradictory nature of her religious, intellectual father.

However, the writing of church-going Goodenough is not always on a par with her earnest feeling. A guarded separatism extends throughout the book's structure where the scientific wonder of the universe is followed by a "reflections" section that tries to make the most of these wonders. Determinism, reductionism and emphasis on evolutionary accident - essential parts of the modern biological canon - poorly substitute for the far more satisfying purpose and creation. Sentence fragments abound with "mystery", "religion", "distinctiveness", along with robust reflections like "I sanctify myself with my own grace" and abundant capitalisation mid-sentence - for example, "My response to such questions has been to articulate a covenant with Mystery". These do not persuade us that any headway has been made in the epic historical struggle to reconcile science and religion.

Yet a recommendation in favour of this text is Goodenough's explicit personal belief: with a measure of humility and a profoundly well-read background she faces the colossus of our western cultural heritage. If a fertile place for commonality between science and religion exists it is no doubt in the openness to new ideas and sensations she exemplifies here.

Her steadfast refusal to proselytise for any sort of orthodoxy is refreshing. We admire Goodenough's attitude while we query the publishing world's elevation of her to "scientist in the know" as she looks to experimental science for inspiration. Neo-Darwinist biology ever since Darwin has developed as a sort of pugnacious theoretical counter-image to its cultural parent, natural theology. Evolution (atheistic) is perceived as the opposite of creationism (Christian) in our culture. This false dichotomy that has victimised all of us engenders confusion and misunderstanding. Goodenough, we regretfully conclude, like everyone else has been overburdened by the excesses of her cultural traditions, both religious and scientific. Perhaps the greatest value of the book is not at all the reflective philosophy she espouses but her clean prose in the explanation of mutation, enzyme catalysis and allelic segregation of calcium-channel genes in cats. Here she shines because she distinguishes the important from the trivial so well that the uninitiated can follow her logic.

Both Goodenough and Steve Jones, author of the second book under review, falter in their speciation/natural selection discussions. Goodenough says that a species is characterised by both its "macro-distinctiveness and its micro-diversity". She uses the famous example of dark moths protected by dark lichen-covered bark in polluted Britain as palpable evidence for natural selection. So does Jones extol the peppered moth in the coal-smoky blackness of northern England as an example of how "natural selection had responded to the new challenge" all over the world. Apparently neither author has read much of the literature that debunks this oft-repeated "proof" of natural selection in action.

Jones's Almost like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated is a better, less ambitious and intrinsically less interesting book than Goodenough's. His title comes from Darwin's contemplation of how animal speciation might have come about gradually. "In North America," wrote Darwin in his original Origins , "the black bear was seen... swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching, almost like a whale, insects in the water... We might expect on my theory, that such individuals would occasionally have given rise to new species, having anomalous habits, and with their structure either slightly or considerably modified from that of their proper types." Jones has "never met a biology undergraduate who has read On the Origin of Species ". He goes on to say that even scientist colleagues who know full well the great Darwin's work and its implications tend not to finish reading the man himself. This "update" makes amends in its primary goal: it begs to introduce Darwin's book to today's readers.

The title page and table of contents reprint in facsimile the 1859 work. Jones's conscious attempt to bring to Darwin a vastly wider readership may succeed. Here he popularises Darwin from the standard zoological Darwinian perspective. Jones has extensive knowledge of modern evolutionary literature and zoological minutiae. One of his quaint conceits, as a frequent television guest, is to borrow some of the Victorian formatting and sentence structure from his illustrious predecessor, which succeeds in making the book, well, more bookish. This throwback style occasionally leads to confusion as the reader has difficulty knowing where Darwin ends and Jones begins. Many methods could have precluded this confusion (type size or font differences, quotation marks or notes). That we seem to be primarily reading Jones is inferred in the sections on Aids, DNA mutation and human evolution.

But apparently his idea cannot compete for the attention of the television generation: the author seems to revert to a very non-Darwinian style, perhaps because his flirtation with 19th-century wordiness reminds us too much of homework.

One of the nicest parts of Jones's book is his introduction on the spread of the HIV virus and its mutant strains in different countries and sub-populations as an example of evolution in action. Yet a certain provincialness prevails in this work: its numerous references to the British Isles and its incessant evolutionary zoocentrism. In citing Darwin's work, Jones follows in his footsteps but not necessarily in his spirit. After all, Darwin drew examples from animal life primarily because animal activities were well chronicled among 19th-century naturalists (not because they provided the only exemplars of the evolutionary process). More than a century after Darwin's death (in 1882), the zoocentrism of mainstream evolutionists seems less quaint than atavistic.

When Jones calls "Aids unique because genes and time come together on a human scale" and says that the Aids virus is "Nature's newest and tiniest product", he engages in hyperbolic writing. Genes and time come together in all evolving beings. There are especially good examples of genes and time coming together. One is the formation of new species of amoebae in the University of Tennessee laboratory of Kwang Jeon by acquisition and attenuation of the x-bacteria, bound to be overlooked by zoocentric authors. Their repertoires never include the astounding range of life's proclivities such as those demonstrated by bacterial poison-gas production and heavy-metal metabolism, or the large number of species generated in the entire absence of sexuality - as in amitochondriate (anaerobic) protists (Archaeprotista).

Even if we leave aside the Duesberg argument of the entire lack of correlation between HIV and Aids symptoms, Aids is not nature's "newest product" (whatever that might mean), nor is it the "tiniest living creature". Most biologists do not even regard any virus, fragment of either RNA or DNA coated in protein, without any metabolism, as a living being. I suspect that Jones's focus on Aids has more to do with media hype and the concern people have with the intersections of sex and death than with efforts to broaden the scope of examples of Darwinian philosophy and evolution. From Jones we learn that "every action of every animal is a product of genes" and that "there is no mystery about such things". This probable overstatement is at odds with our feeling that there is a great deal of mystery about such things. Genuine scientific mystery such as this has potential that might even provide scientific fodder to fuel religious feeling, enough mystery to motivate young scientist scholars to investigate, to turn over new stones as it were - rather than arrange old ones into thrones and cathedrals.

Ironically it is here, at the border of received wisdom, not mentioned by Jones, that Goodenough might have found phenomena suitable for worshipful scientific contemplation. If our actions and thoughts are determined by genes, as Laplace imagined all motion was determined by Newtonian physics, then why can we not simply end this particular sentence anywhere we like - if our genes wish? This is no idle arcane fantasy from the fringe of biological science. Darwin invented the term sexual selection to indicate choice of real female animals contemplating their potential mates and fathers of their potential offspring. He recognised, at least in this limited sense, the power of choice to influence evolutionary outcome. That choice has a cumulative causative effect on the genes, and their transmission might give us pause, perhaps even spiritual pause.

Darwin, the highest priest of biology, inspires us to follow his line of thought in recognition of the importance of decision and choice in the continuing evolution of organisms capable of behaviour. This line of thought is extendable, and was extended even by Darwin, far beyond mate selection. One species with whom another associates and the nature of that association - nutritional, nurturing, predatory, exploitative - set up potentially evolution-changing conditions. Relations between co-evolving members of different species may begin as conscious decisions but end up as unconscious habit.

The useful genre to which both of these books belong - popular science - cajoles scientists whom many view as "high priests of the modern age" to descend from their ivory towers and speak intelligibly both to scientists with distant preoccupations and to the literate public. But when the active scientists speak in comprehensible terms they tend to reveal their limitations. To a large extent in both these books, as in the genre generally, these limitations are a reflection of our contra-dictory, unnecessarily narrow-minded, crypto-Christian nationalistic culture. There is more, alas, much more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the philosophies of popular science - whether sacred or Darwinian.

Lynn Margulis is professor in the department of geosciences, University of Massachussetts, Amherst, United States.

Almost like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated

Author - Steve Jones
ISBN - 0 385 40985 0
Publisher - Doubleday
Price - £20.00
Pages - 379

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