Monday, 23 November 2009

Why Us? – James Le Fanu ***

Subtitled ‘how science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves’ this is a celebration of the fact that simple reductionist science, based on mapping genes to function and monitoring individual areas of the brain, has not been able to pin down just why humans are as they are and behave as they do – and that’s not a bad thing. Because science isn’t an infallible source of truth, as some seem to think. Not scientists, I hasten to add. They are usually well aware that science isn’t about finding ‘truth’ but the best model we can devise given current data. All scientific theories and models are subject to future revision and scrapping. Which is an important lesson to learn – but it’s not really what James Le Fanu is setting out to tell us.
What Why Us sets out to do is to take on both the idea that evolution by natural selection can be responsible for the origin of species (as opposed to micro-evolutionary changes like Darwin’s famous finch bills), and the idea that we can understand how the brain produces a conscious being. On evolution, Le Fanu seems to be putting forward something similar to Stephen Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibrium, but I have to say ‘seems to be’ because his approach is much more about knocking conventional evolutionary wisdom than it is about putting forward a coherent alternative.
Le Fanu rehearses some of the hoary old arguments about lack of transitional fossils between species and much more. The trouble is, he seems to be arguing against a popular science view of evolution, rather than the sort of thing a modern evolutionary biologist would recognize. Inevitably things are simplified for the general reader, and I’m not sure Le Fanu’s arguments hold up against the real science. In one sense his attack is useful. Most scientists are reluctant to challenge evolutionary theory because of fear that creationists will pounce on perfectly reasonable scientific doubt about the detail of the science and suggest that just because evolutionary theory isn’t perfect, then the creationist alternative must be true. There are flaws in evolutionary theory – but I’m not sure they’re as big or as significant as Le Fanu suggests. And even if they are killer blows for the current theory, I don’t think that they show, as Le Fanu seems to suggest, that we have to hold up our hands and say ‘Here’s something science can’t deal with.’ It just means we need a better theory.
I’ve a little more sympathy with his attack on the idea that the conscious human self is nothing more than chemical reactions and electrical impulses – unlike evolution, there really isn’t a good explanation for where our conscious minds come from, how they are produced by that electro-chemical mix. Here Le Fanu is on stronger ground, though again I’m not sure he doesn’t leap too far to say that this is something science will never address. Yes there is, as the subtitle puts it, a ‘mystery of ourselves’, but it might not remain so forever. Even so, it’s certainly true that all the detail biologists have studied on the brain and how our DNA maps out what we will be gives us no real clue as to the answer to this conundrum – it’s more like to come from a totally different direction, perhaps from physics rather than biology.
If I’m honest, there are a couple of things I don’t like here. One is the writing style. Throughout Le Fanu maintains the sort of flowery, hand-waving style that’s fine for introductions and conclusions, but not for the meat of a book. I would have liked the style to settle down a bit. Perhaps more importantly, he’s more than a touch cavalier with the facts to fit with that hand-waving style. Four quick examples. He describes the Big Bang as taking place 15 billion years ago – that’s over a billion years out from current estimates. Secondly, he makes it sound as if the Big Bang is definite, comparing it with the relationships between human precursors, which is based on theory with limited substantiation – in fact the Big Bang is very similar in its dependence on one possible theory among several.
And then there’s a bizarre statement about a stone age carving of a bison. ‘It is not a sculpture of a specific object, but rather a generalized image of a class of objects… It is the idea of a bison.’ How does he know this? You can imagine a writer 10,000 years in the future saying of Nelson’s column: ‘It is not a sculpture of a specific man, but rather a generalized image of a class of objects… It is the idea of a man.’ Really strange. Oddest of all is the statement ‘There are (to put it simply) three forces of order’ which he identifies as gravity, genes and the human mind. What about the other three fundamental forces of nature? Does he not think, for example, that the electromagnetic force, without which there would be no matter (and even if there was, objects would not be able to touch each other) is not an important force of order? This smacks of ignorance. He does make a reference to there being four forces later on, but it’s a throwaway line, as if the others are relatively insignificant, rather than being vastly more powerful than gravity.
All in all, what James Le Fanu sets out to do is not a bad thing, but this is a muddled book that doesn’t achieve that goal.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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