Change and flux

Danny Hammill reviews 'Almost like a whale: The origin of species updated' by Steve Jones

“How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”

So said Thomas Huxley on first reading Charles Darwin’s epochal The origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, which was published to an overwhelmingly sceptical and hostile audience in 1859. It is with these words that professor Steve Jones introduces his new work on evolutionary theory, alongside the very worthy injunction of Sir Francis Bacon that if a scientist begins “with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubt, he shall end in certainties”.

It is perhaps quite extraordinary that 140 years after Huxley - known to his contemporaries as “Darwin’s bulldog” - uttered this famous remark a hundred million Americans or more still subscribe to some form of creationism. In Kansas evolutionary theory is no longer a compulsory part of the school curriculum, on the grounds that ‘it has not been proven’. Similarly in Alabama the education board wanted the following note to be pasted into school textbooks: “This book may discuss evolution, a controversial theory some scientists give as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals and humans ... No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact” (quoted in Almost like a whale p1). Humankind is still trapped in its infancy.

This disturbing irrationalist, anti-evolutionary trend looks set to continue in the United States, and of course there are large parts of the world where a Darwinian explanation for the origins and development of life on this planet are treated as blasphemous and sacrilege. There are many battles yet to be fought.

Therefore the publication of an accessible text like Almost like a whale can only be welcomed. It conveys the grandiose yet magnificently simple nature of Darwin’s theory which, Jones argues, amounts to nothing much more complex than genetics plus time - lots of time. Hence, Darwin’s “one long argument”, as he himself famously put it, essentially sees life as a series of successful mistakes - an oddly comforting thought for the non-theologically minded. Given the backdrop of aeons of time, as Jones aphoristically explains, evolutionary theory plus genetics “is the science of difference. Variety is the raw material of evolution, used up as natural selection takes its course. Once it has been consumed, the Darwinian machine comes to a stop. Diversity is renewed by chemical errors - mutations - made as DNA is copied.” He adds that mutation is “the fuel” of evolutionary and biological advance. Naturally, this process “involves mechanisms undreamed of” when Darwin and his fellow thinkers were alive (pp120-121).

In many respects, who better than Steve Jones to bring the intellectual excitement of evolutionary and scientific discourse to a mass audience? As the professor of genetics at the University College London he belongs to the ‘super-league’ of articulate, high-profile and media-friendly scientists who have done much to take science out of the academic ghetto and into the mainstream of discussion - thus joining other luminaries such as Richard Dawkins and Steve Rose. Jones has even been described, rather hyperbolically, as “the Charles Darwin of the television era”. In this capacity Jones gave the BBC Reith Lectures in 1991, and in 1997 his book In the blood: god, genes and destiny was made into a very popular TV series - as well as appearing in appalling but lucrative television adverts. To many he will always be the author of the magnificent The language of genes, which poked a vigorous stick at the promulgators of the now very fashionable ‘new science’ of neurogenetic reductionism and evolutionary psychology.

Yet Almost like a whale, for all its undoubted positive virtues, is a curiously flat and unexciting work. The nature of Jones’s project may help to explain why. He describes his new bookas an attempt to “update” or “rewrite” Darwin’s original work. Thus the title of Jones’s work comes from the sixth edition of The origin of species, published in 1872, where Darwin boldly states: “I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more aquatic in their structures and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.” (As an interesting scientific adjunct, fairly recent fossil discoveries suggest that the distant ancestors of whales were hyena-like beasts called mesonychids, which were scavengers for carrion and hunters of fish.)

 Jones’s desire to “rewrite” The origin of species means that he endeavours - rather heroically, you could say - to make his work conform to the same methodological and intellectual structures of Darwin’s work. Thus the contents pages of Darwin’s work are reproduced at the front of Almost like a whale, with Jones following the same exact contours as recommended by Darwin. Each chapter ends with a summary which is directly lifted from Darwin. The entire last section, ‘Recapitulation and conclusion’ (pp356-379), is a straightforward reprint of Darwin’s elegant concluding comments to The origin of species. In other words, to put it very crudely, Almost like a whale is a ‘copy’ - albeit with mutations - of The origin of species.

The immediate thought that might occur to some is, why not just read the ‘original’ instead? In reply to that Jones makes the frightening claim that he has never met a biology undergraduate who has ever read The origin of species. Then again, you can be even more sure that there are legions of politics graduates and professors - if not self-professed socialists - who have never read a word of Capital or The communist manifesto, yet will happily denounce or wildly distort its contents till the cows come home.

Needless to say, Jones’s ‘Darwin-ophilia’ lends his work a rather disengaged quality for the most part. This is compounded by the fact that Jones makes absolutely no reference to any contemporary or living scientist. Inevitably, this means that Almost like a whale has none of the polemical liveliness of Steve Rose’s Lifelines, or almost any work you care to mention by Richard Dawkins. This is to be regretted as the ‘Darwin Wars’ are waging with a particular intensity at the moment. Biological or genetic explanations for almost every facet of social life are now on offer from the energetic and evangelical “ultra-Darwinists”, to use Steve Rose’s apt expression. We are being constantly told that there are genes for criminality, homosexuality, mental illness, homelessness, musical preference, business acumen, etc. No to mention the distinct impression being given that the Human Genome Project will provide the universal cure for virtually all of humanity’s problems - ranging from alcoholism to poverty.

Indeed, hardly a stone’s throw from Jones’s office, is the Darwin Centre at the London School of Economics. The Darwin Centre is a redoubt of ultra-Darwinism. In regular and very well attended seminars - together with a steady flow of pamphlets and books - run by the philosopher and media-sassy Helena Cronin, genetic reductionist theories are merrily spun and pushed. For instance, the centre has recently published a book by top American lawyer Kinsgley Browne, who maintains that the reason why women are less successful than men in rising to the top of corporations is because women have ‘evolved’ to be less interested in risk-taking than men - among our ancestors, the ‘theory’ goes, women were attracted to high-status males and males granted status by successfully taking risks. Ergo - thanks to nature, this is inevitably going to produce very strong selection for males who are good at taking risks. Unsurprisingly, such theories - of which there are innumerable variations - are eagerly embraced by those who want to prevent progressive and democratic change in society.

If only the ultra-Darwinists were as modest and cautious as their mentor. The origin of species contains but one substantial line about humans and human development - saying “light will be thrown on the origin of man and history”. When pressed more on this explosive topic by Alfred Wallace, Darwin retorted: “I think I shall avoid the whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices; though I fully admit that is the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist” (quoted in Almost like a whale p334). Eventually of course Darwin succumbed 12 years later - almost despite himself - to this “highest and most interesting problem” in The descent of man, where he boldly stated: “Man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World” (p344). But Darwin, wisely, resisted any attempt to directly apply his theory of natural selection to social society, though unsurprisingly he shared many of the Malthusian prejudices one would expect from a man of his class and generation - as Marx was quick to point out of course.

Jones, to his credit, does classify as “more or less infantile” all attempts “to apply Darwinism to civilisation” (introduction). In the penultimate chapter, ‘Interlude: almost like a whale’, Jones goes a bit further and mocks the pretensions of the ultra-Darwinists: “For some, to explain any pattern of society all that is needed is to stir in a Darwinian nostrum. If the anthropological soufflé fails to rise - reach for another bottle. As in the kitchen, the ingredients can be varied to taste. Mix them with enough enthusiasm and, with a single bound, life is explained. Its infinite varieties are justified with adaptive stories to fit” (p353).

Such “vulgar Darwinism”, continues Jones, reduces evolutionary theory to “a political sofa that moulds itself to the buttocks of the last to sit upon it” (p354). Referring to humans and human society, Jones trenchantly reaffirms that, “Much of what makes us what we are does not need a Darwinian explanation” (p355). These healthy sentiments are relegated to the concluding pages of Almost like a whale, which for the bulk of the text retreads the same ground as Darwin - but armed this time round with modern genetic science.

On the positive side, Jones’s work reminds us how genetics, and Darwin’s Origin - if comprehended in a truly rounded, materialistic and human way - fatally undermine all racialistic and separatist theories of human development by stressing the wonderful diversityand intercon-nectedness of all life on this planet. After all, humans do shares 30% of their DNA with the humble lettuce - for which the creationists and anti-Darwinian eccentrics have no answers apart from lunatic ones. Jones writes: “DNA shows that what was at one time classified as a single form of life is in fact several” (p49). In biology the urge for nice and neat order has to defer to the reality of constant change and flux. To quote Darwin, “Species are not - it is like confessing a murder - immutable.” For plants and animals even to discuss whether a particular form is a species or a variety of species is, quite often, “to vainly beat the air”, as Jones caustically suggests (p52).

This comes across strongly in the first chapter on ‘Variation under domestication’ - ie, a discussion of domestic animals like cats, dogs and pigeons. Darwin, comments Jones, highlighted the then arbitrary distinctions between breed and sub-species, and how a subspecies may, through sexual choice, gain a personality of its own. The accumulative action of selection - whether applied consciously and more quickly (through domestic variation and breeding) or unconsciously and more slowly - will always cause life to change. There are no fixed frontiers between supposedly separate entities - everything is filled with variation. Surely an unnerving thought for conservatives and dogmatists of all hues, one would imagine.

Warming to his theme, Jones explains how Darwin’s theories made taxonomists of the world shudder with horror: “Most members of most species do not look much different one from the next. Any fruit-fly is much like another, and even their best friends find it hard to tell mice apart. In spite of some exceptions ... to share a Latin name imposes, almost by definition, a certain uniformity upon those who bear it. That comforts both creationists and experts on taxonomy. They like to see existence as set of ideals, each filled with some pure Platonic essence. However, a great deal is hidden within even the most uniform creature. Genetics shows that no one - not even the glorified chemists that most biologists have become - can any longer suppose that all the individuals of the same species are cast in the very same mould” (p47). Thanks to genetics, true ‘individuality’ is everywhere.

Usefully, Jones also emphasises how for Darwin - as it was for Marx - the present was the key to the past. We unlock the secrets of history, animal or human, by grasping the complex dynamics of our present condition. Darwin said his mind was “a machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts” (preface) - ie, he laboured under a sometimes unbearable moral strain to develop a system or theory of knowledge rather than amass a collection of more or less arbitrary facts which are then eclectically welded together by some dogmatic flight of fancy. Darwinism, from this angle, is a form of historical materialism as applied to the non-human world. Engels made this connection explicit in his famous 1883 speech at the graveside of Karl Marx, when he stated: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” For these remarks Engels has been chided by generations of academic Marxists for his supposed “positivism”.

Marx vastly admired the way that Darwin focused on “the history of natural technology - ie, the formation of the organs of plants and animals”. But more crucially, as the comment by Engels above indicates, Marx quickly grasped the ‘revolutionary’ implications of Darwin’s theory, as did the Christian detractors of Darwin who hated the “dreadful hammers” of his “filthy heraldries” (John Ruskin). “Not only is a death blow dealt here for the first time to ‘teleology’ in the natural sciences, but their rational meaning is empirically explained,” exulted Marx (quoted in J Rachels Created from animals: The moral implications of Darwinism Oxford 1991, p110).

Darwin’s theory of natural selection could establish, without the need for any god-driven teleology or purpose, a pattern arising from events that are in themselves indeterminate with respect to the final outcome. Just as capitalism in England emerged as the unintended consequence of the clash between non-capitalist classes, so humanoid and pre-humanoid life itself was the accidental by-product of the complex interplay between multifarious factors, with Darwinian natural selection not necessarily playing the critical or determining role at any one time. Only a fool though would see nothing but a long series of unstructured or contingent episodes rather than an ongoing historical process that ultimately led to a ‘final’ result - ie, us.

This is of enormous significance for the Marxist project of universal human self-liberation, based as it is on the replacement of all closed, a priori teleologies with an inherently historical and open-ended understanding (liberatory determinism), where human history is defined in terms of the immanence of human development - namely, the realisation of ‘humanness’.

Whatever the sceptics may say, we can use The origin of species and works like Almost like a whale as heavy theoretical cudgels against the social-Darwinists and ultra-Darwinist reductionists. Because if we do not, who will?

Danny Hammill