The dark side of the gloom

October 23, 1998

When depression cast its shadow over champion of science Lewis Wolpert he used his skills to promote greater understanding of the illness. Alison Goddard reports

There is a difficult moment in my interview with biologist Lewis Wolpert. He is talking about his wife, who died last year, and is in full flow, speaking of his belief that euthanasia should be allowed in Britain. Then, abruptly, tears overwhelm him. Momentarily, he breaks down.

Wolpert's second wife, Jill Neville, died from cancer last June. "When she was diagnosed, there was nothing realistic that could be done," he says. "Jill was a romantic with intense sensitivity to everything around her," he wrote in a poignant tribute in The Times.

Wolpert has aired his views frequently in the media. Yet all his appearances pale into insignificance compared with the publicity he got last year after writing an article in The Guardian detailing his severe depression.

The article led to a commission for a three-part television series on depression, to be broadcast next February, as well as a book, Malignant Sadness, to accompany the series. "The book is about the anatomy of depression," he says. "Because I had severe depression I decided to write a book because I could not easily find information about it. And I love the title. My argument is that depression is to sadness what cancer is to normal life."

It is an intensely personal analogy. Wolpert says that his late wife, "during my depression, prevented me from committing suicide by promising to help me in a year's time if I was not better. I knew I could trust her. We really did love each other."

Mental illness struck seriously in March 1995. "I woke my wife one morning to tell her I was possessed with an overwhelming desire to kill myself," he says. "Fortunately, there was a bed at the Royal Free Hospital in London in the psycho-geriatric ward." He remained there for weeks, confused and frightened. Prescribed anti-depressant drugs, he jokes that a coincidence eventually forced him out. "A friend was admitted and placed in my room," he explains. "He snored like a chainsaw. I left the hospital."

Dubbed "the Lord High Contradictor" by his late wife, Wolpert, whose own scientific research traces how a fertilised egg develops into a baby, is a controversial character. The objects of his ire include sociologists of science, who argue that studying how scientists practise science can tell you a lot about the subject itself. Another favourite target is holistic scientists, supporters of the Gaia hypothesis, who view the earth as a living system.

"I think the sociologists of science are unspeakable," he confirms. "I have yet to hear them say something that is neither trivial or wrong. I have not read all their literature. But I passionately hate relativists."

Then it is the holists' turn, with American biologist Lynn Margulis coming in for particular criticism. "It is her arrogance," he says. "She dismisses the work of Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and Robert May. She says, 'Forget about that, it means nothing.'" Religion offers no comfort. "I am not against religion," he says. "But I am against religion when it is used to interfere with other people's lives. In fact, I am nervous about getting people to give up religion because of how important belief is to some people. And since science does not provide the sort of answers people want to believe, I am nervous about taking away their religion."

Wolpert believes that there is a genetic advantage to faith. "People with strong beliefs - whatever they are - do better in severe circumstances than others. With depression, it is terribly amusing. Religious people do better but male Jews do badly. And that is thought to be because they do not drink. The Amish, who are against any violence, get really depressed," he chuckles.

One of the four children from his first marriage has strong religious convictions. "Max is a born-again Christian," says Wolpert. "He was Jewish. He is reading Hebrew here at University College. And he pops in and he says, 'Dad, you are so lucky,' and I say, 'What do you mean?' and he says, 'You are going to be dead soon. I am longing to die. If you believe in heaven, like I do, it is the obvious thing.' I was quite upset. We chatted but, as he says, it is a perfectly rational position."

Born in Johannesburg, Wolpert became a civil engineer before coming to the UK in the 1950s for postgraduate work on soil mechanics at Imperial College, London. "The Nuffield Foundation was offering bursaries to people to change from the physical to the biological sciences," he says. "So I did my PhD at King's College London, on the mechanics of cell division and how a cell splits into two."

His interest in embryology spilled over into television programmes and a book, The Triumph of the Embryo, which brought him to public attention. Since then, he has become a regular science commentator, chairing the Royal Society's committee on the public understanding of science. "I think that people are frightened about science for all sorts of reasons," he says. "It is unnatural, it goes against God, it doesn't allow you to have wishy-washy thoughts. It doesn't allow you that space to be dotty that is so comfortable. There is no afterlife. What is there about science - apart from the intellectual side - which makes you feel comfortable? Nothing!

"But science is such an important aspect of our lives," he adds. "And if you live in a democracy, people have to make decisions about things relating to science. Knowing a little science lets you debate issues helpfully. I have often wondered what is the one thing about science I would like the public to know. It is that science is the best way to understand the world. There is not a better one."

IS SCIENCE DANGEROUS?

"Is science dangerous?" is the lecture Lewis Wolpert has been giving around the country recently.

To persuade people it is not, Wolpert distinguishes bet-ween the activity of science, which is not dangerous, and its use, which can be hazardous.

"Reliable scientific knowledge is value-free and ethical issues arise only in relation to how the knowledge is used. For example, ifscience says that women are cleverer than men or South Africans are better tennis players, that is just the way the world is. It is neither good nor bad. It is when you begin to take decisions using this scientific knowledge that the ethical issues arise."

By drawing this distinction, he hopes people will stop asking scientists to take responsibility for the use of their knowledge. "I am opposed to scientists taking ethical decisions.So when people say scientists should be more socially responsible, they do not realise what they are saying."

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