Beyond the limits

Huw Sheridan reviews Steve Jones’s Darwin’s island: The Galapagos in the garden of England Little, Brown, 2009, pp307, £20

The anniversarial hype surrounding Charles Darwin continues unabated. The BBC alone broadcast a seemingly endless flow of programmes as part of its Darwin season.

Jones’s book is essentially a polemic against the parody of Darwin’s life and work which goes something like: Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands, where he saw some finches and quickly churned out his only book worth having on your bookshelf. On the origin of species proved the existence of something called ‘evolution’ and upset various religious types, but (in some versions of the story) Darwin recanted this blasphemy on his deathbed.

Darwin wrote more than six million published words, including 19 books, as well as thousands of letters, many of which survive (see darwin-online.org.uk). This vast literature, and the body of experimentation which lay behind much of it, was a crucial foundation in establishing biology in its modern form. Darwin’s theory of ‘descent with modification’, or natural selection, was the glue which held everything together.

On the origin of species was somewhat different to most of his subsequent writings, being largely a literature review and articulation of a new theoretical paradigm. In his later writings, which Jones has in his crosshairs, Darwin focused on his own experimentation conducted on his home island and in doing so effectively founded several branches of modern biology. Trying to understand Darwin from Origin alone is like trying to understand Marx by only reading volume 1 of Capital, or Shakespeare by Hamlet.

In providing a readable account of the many undervalued contributions of Darwin to science, and how his foundations have been built on by later scientists, Jones succeeds admirably. But this is merely one aspect of the book. It is also a potted biography of Darwin and a selective guide to modern biology. It is easy to read and packed full of interesting facts, whilst unfortunately not including references and overly simplifying some complex debates.

It is also - despite the author’s protestations that he aims to “avoid as far as possible any discussion of the relevance of Darwinism to the human predicament”, as well as “empty arguments” on topics such as the relationship between Darwinism and religion (p7) - a deeply ‘philosophical’ and indeed political work. I will explore some of the threads Jones raises, to the detriment of topics such as the sexual antics of barnacles, interesting as they are.

Jones’s primary philosophical attack is against Platonic essentialism. He criticises pioneering figures in genetic research, such as James Watson, for having “out Plato-ed Plato” (p20). Like many modern biologists, he argues that, as individuals are varied, evolution should be a purely comparative science. In many cases such complaints are justified, in others they are merely postmodernist attempts at obscuration.

Every page, for better or for worse, drips with the world-changing effects, power and uniqueness of Homo sapiens sapiens. Jones may be a specialist in genetics, a field all too prone to crude reductionism, but his words are underlined by a fundamentally humanistic perspective.

Politics is never far from the surface. Take his discussion of comparative psychology, a field given approximate shape by Darwin’s Expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872): “kick a dog and it crouches and turns down the corners of its mouth; torture an al-Qa’eda suspect and he does the same” (p77).

Likewise Jones does a good balancing job in discussing our closeness to chimpanzees. Frequently cited figures, such as 99% genetic similarity, are somewhat misleading. Immediately obvious and significant differences include humans having a brain three times as large. But crucially, of course, “ideas, not genes, make us what we are” (p44). Yet this does not mean humans are something apart from nature - the ‘superstructure’ of things like language rests upon the ‘base’ of primate sociality. Jones provides ample ammunition for such a perspective, in contrast to Rousseau’s abstract ‘noble savage’ or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ approach.

Indeed the first chapter focuses on human evolution, which is quite rightly stressed as a good exemplar of the wider Darwinian paradigm. In the myriad examples Jones gives, the overriding theme is the contingency of evolution, in contrast to any sort of inevitable progress or ‘design’ by some supernatural being: “genes - like cells, guts and brains - work, but only just” (p18). Jones’s evolutionary world is one where evolving species ‘scavenge’ and ‘hijack’ elements of their morphology and put them to new uses. One example is the ‘hammer’ and ‘anvil’ bones in our ears, which were once part of the jaw.

One of the most obvious and sickening indictments of capitalism is the continuing prevalence of famine and malnourishment. Today some 800 million people go hungry, but, as Jones points out with thinly disguised anger, we now have the historically unheard of phenomenon of around a billion overweight people: “a tsunami of fat has struck the world” (p134). In America alone obesity causes over 100 times more deaths every year than occurred in the 9/11 attacks.

To understand this strange state of affairs Jones takes us back to the origins of agriculture. Before this time humans ate a wide-ranging diet - according to Jones some 80,000 different types. And yet, to take the example of the Middle East, within a short time of the establishment of farming’s hegemony this diversity had been reduced to around eight crops. Indeed, to this day, many people’s diet predominantly consists of a ‘staple crop’, such as rice, maize or wheat. The domestication of various types of animals has similarly reduced variation, both between and within species. The effect is to damage the health of both humans and the planet.

The example of maize, the world’s most widely cultivated crop, is particularly pertinent. Maize now has such a symbiotic relationship with Homo sapiens that it struggles to naturally reproduce, the sheer number of seeds causing intense and generally deadly competition between seedlings. Jones is probably accurate when he argues that maize has altered “the global economy as much, or more, than has nuclear power” (p142).

Jones’s weakness here is that questions such as food production and consumption cannot be understood in ‘scientific’ isolation, but must be viewed in the context of private property, classes and nations. We must learn from the past, but not sentimentalise it.

Perhaps the key theme which emerges from Jones’s discussion of living nature is its interconnectivity. For example, the nitrogen-fixing abilities of legumes are responsible for generating half of the nitrates used on farms. Humans are no less reliant on them than are acacias on their insect visitors, from which they take almost all their nitrogen (p69).

Like the co-evolution of predator and prey species in animals, the relationship between the more than 200,000 species of pollen-carrying insects and flowering plants is an example of the complex interactions of nature, involving an “endless set of tactics, but no strategy” (p221).

Topics such as botany, which the author suggests “philosophers, like poets, should perhaps pay more attention to” (p164), are not merely of interest in themselves, but because of the many similarities at the chemical level between plants and humans. There is also the potential for significant scientific and medical discoveries.

This potential is, of course, found throughout nature. The barnacles on which Darwin exerted so much time and effort, for instance, produce a type of water-repelling cement to cling to wave-battered rocks. Such is the strength of the stuff that attempts are being made to use some of the substances in surgical procedures (p194).

Darwin’s final book, The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms with observations on their habits (1881), is, in effect, a homage to worms. This worm worship was nothing new: Aristotle, for instance, celebrated them as the “earth’s entrails”.

Animals such as worms break down organic matter and improve drainage, therefore doing much for the fertility of the land. For us surface-dwellers it is hard to appreciate the slow but cumulatively powerful work of such beasts. If we add other types such as mites and spiders, then Jones claims every hectare of soil may contain as much as 15 tons of flesh (p247).

The potential for human-aiding scientific discoveries at the microbial level is another important factor. Since Darwin’s birth more than a billion people have died of tuberculosis. Thankfully the number has been massively reduced by the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin in the soil. But, thanks to capitalism, aided and abetted by the emergence of drug-resistant strains, the disease remains a problem for the world’s poor.

Soil is a good example of the disrupted ‘metabolic’ relationship of humans to nature as a whole. Take ploughing, that evolutionary recent habit of ours, which loosens the topsoil but leaves a compacted and impermeable layer a metre or so down. As a result of such techniques, and despite simple measures which could be applied like ploughing with and not against the contours, some 24 billion tonnes of soil are washed away each year (p256).

Human history is littered with examples of the disastrous effects of soil erosion, from the Mesoamerican Maya, via Italy and Mesopotamia to the banks of the Yellow River - ‘the cradle of Chinese civilisation’, which was until some 2,000 years ago known as the Great River, until soil erosion turned it yellow (p258).

In the 1930s president Roosevelt wrote that “the nation that destroys its soil destroys itself” (p260). In today’s world there is but one ‘civilisation’: international capitalism. With our globalised economy the destruction of soil in the quest for profit threatens us all. Of course, soil erosion is not the only ecological problem we face. In reality we are staring in the face of an “ecological earthquake”, the product of our “universal attack on the biosphere” (p270).

Much of this makes for somewhat depressing reading, but to change something it is necessary to understand it. Jones goes so far as to describe humans as “weeds” - a hearty dose of 21th century pessimism. But, as he concludes, we are the “only creature ever to step beyond the limits of Darwinian evolution” (p287).

On every page of this book are warnings of what we are doing to our planet and its inhabitants. Such dangers are manifestations of the reactionary nature of late capitalism. And they are further reasons why the organised global working class needs to take power and institute a democratic and rational relationship of humans to nature, if we are to avoid the destruction of all classes and indeed most species.