Tag Archives: biology

Book Review: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

Having read The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, I wanted to carry on reading Dawkins’ earlier works, as I have found him to be a great communicator when it comes to his specialist field of evolutionary biology. Such writing is rare and ought to be highly valued, though I fear that his later writings on religion have done his reputation more harm than good. But even though there is a sprinkling of thoughts on religion here, including in the opening premise, this is a book of science, not one of anti-religion. So let us delight in this master’s work and dive in.

The title of the book, if one weren’t aware already, is derived from William Paley’s work on natural theology, where he infers from his observations of nature that there must have been a grand designer behind it all, namely God. Dawkins’ aim is to rebuff the particular argument that Paley made. In taking this approach, Dawkins does not dismiss Paley as a fool, but in fact pays credit to him. Yet there is also an implicit understanding that Paley’s view is the peak of natural theology when it comes to biological design.

I emphasise biological design for one should be careful not to think of Dawkins’ work applying to a wider scope than is justified. For this remains a book primarily of biology. There is a bit of computer programming, along with some analogies with physics and history, but these are not what The Blind Watchmaker is primarily about. In fact, after the opening, Paley’s views seem to fade somewhat into the background, as Dawkins gets into his evolutionary stride. For while Dawkins states that he plans to counter the inferences Paley makes, the bulk of the book is stated far more positively, giving us insights into evolutionary biology, some of which Dawkins has used before in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype.

The counter to Paley is done fairly on and with some deftness. The heart of it is to dispel the idea that evolution is random. This can be used a good shibboleth to determine if anyone had reasonably understood evolution: if they insist that evolution is an entirely random process, then you can determine that they do not understand it. Rather, it is a sequential process. The image that came to my mind was a combination lock. If there are 5 cogs, each with 10 settings, then there 100,000 possible combinations. You might then argue (as Paley) that to find the right combination is phenomenally unlikely and therefore there must be another factor at play. But what Dawkins notes is that randomness only applies at any one cog, not on all 5 simultaneously. So have a 1 in 10 chance of getting the first cog right. Once that is in place, then we can look at the 2nd cog. If you work this way, then the probability against ending up at the final answer is substantially reduced from 100,000 to 1 down to 50 to 1. Dawkins makes reference to the fact that he wrote another book, Climbing Mount Improbable, at around the same time as The Blind Watchmaker and recommends it as a companion piece.

There’s a wonderful section on the varieties and evolution of echolocation. One of the reasons it stayed with me is because it coincided with a DVD I was watching at the time (David Attenborough’s ‘The Trials of Life’). From bats to dolphins, we can see a variety of different forms, some of which are better than others. As well as providing a fascinating insight into the natural world, it shows that evolution doesn’t have an end goal (and why the combination lock analogy isn’t perfect) but there are hints here of convergent evolution; an area that isn’t emphasised in this work.

The book takes a bit of a diversion away from biology and into computer programming. This is the one part of the book that hasn’t aged well. In it, Dawkins reveals his devotion to Apple computers and shows the result of a programme he used to create shapes that were randomly generated, but where he imposed conditions on them (to mimic evolutionary selective pressures) and shows how they resemble certain objects, many of them biological. What we get is what, as a maths student, I used to refer to as ‘proof by pretty pictures’. For while it is interesting, it lacks the rigour that would be necessary for a more serious scientific work, and is too far removed from the fieldwork of biological study to be of much use.

By now, Dawkins has moved a long way from his starting point of apparent design and is going through some of the finer points of evolutionary biology. He comes onto the subject of punctuated equilibrium (PE). Foremost in his crosshairs is Stephen Jay Gould, a writer who I must admit I have thus far unduly neglected; a copy of The Panda’s Thumb sits on my living room floor, waiting to be read. Gould was famously an advocate of PE. Dawkins, in his opposition to Gould, does not actually go so far as to deny the theory of PE, but instead wishes to attack the way PE advocates portray other evolutionary biologists. Dawkins comes up with an interesting analogy: that of the Israelites traipsing through the desert for 40 years. I found it interesting as it betrays his curious obsession with matters of a religious nature that were to later consume him. Dawkins states that PE advocates portray non-PE advocates as thinking the Israelites maintained a steady, but deathly slow, speed throughout their 40 year sojourn.

Yes, you did read that last sentence correctly. It all gets very accusative and, to a non biologist like me, rather pointless. To the outside observer it appears like a pointless quibbling over the finer points of language, rather than any fundamental difference in the biology. That said, I am aware how, within christianity, differences between different denominations can appear equally pointless to the casual outside observer. As an example, I might cite the infant baptism as an example where those who advocate it and those who oppose it (I am firmly in the latter camp) use it as a way of expressing their differences over what the nature of baptism is. But I digress…

The last significant section of the book goes into even more obscurantist territory where Dawkins takes on a group known as the “reformed cladists”. It’s not a term this reader was familiar with; I doubt many non-biologists would be. As I finish this review a few weeks on from having finished the book, I struggle to think back. My interest had thoroughly waned and I was more keen ‘to have finished’ the book than I was ‘to finish’ the book, if you understand my meaning.

My conclusion therefore is that what starts as a brilliant piece on evolutionary biology, defending good science against poor theology, gets a bit sidetracked by computer programming and eventually fades into denominational name-calling and put-downs. It’s a terrible shame, because it is really a rather good book. So please do absolutely read it, but if you find yourself putting it down about three-quarters of the way in, I will forgive you if you heave a deep sigh before picking it up again to finish it.

Book Review: The Spark of Life by Frances Ashcroft

While most books are those I’ve bought or requested as gifts for birthday or Christmas, this was one that was lent to me by a friend at church. Their premise was that it was recommended to them by an atheist friend of theirs who had said it was a marvelous book about reductionism, showing that there was nothing more to life than electricity. I confess I’d not heard of the book before so it seemed reasonable to look at what some others had said about it. When I read a few other reviews, the above synopsis seemed quite a long way from what the truth.

My friend asked for my thoughts on the book, and while I hold to some views on the matter of reductionism, it might well be unfair to apply them to Ashcroft’s work if that was not her aim. So the only way forward, it seems, is to press on and read the book itself.

The subtitle, ‘Electricity in the Human Body’, gives a flavour of what’s to come. Ashcroft opens by diving into the deep end by talking of K(ATP) ion channels which rather shot over my head. I think that’s the intention. Returning to the introduction after having finished the book it makes a lot more sense, so one can see how much we’ve gone through.

The heart of the book is Ashcrofts own passion: ion channels. But what are they? I’d never come across them, though you’re probably less ignorant than I. So it was for this reader a journey of discovery. In short, they are holes in the membranes of cells. i.e. they’re really really really small. They are holes that act sort of like valves, allowing the flow of ions in and out of cells. The upshot is that miniscule electrical balances (carried by the ions) are created inside and outside of the cells. This is the electricity of the human body that is referred to in the subtitle.

With this as our firm grounding, we can then go off exploring various aspects of the human body. I would imagine that everyone knows that nerves operate by electrical impulses. That much is GCSE level science. But how do these impulses operate and how do we know? These are the questions that Ashcroft sets about answering in a lively and engaging manner.

The book is full of fascinating vignettes, such as the details of how synapses operate, how a heart beats and why some goats go incredibly rigid when frightened. Possibly the most disturbing was the chapter on neurotoxins which I admit made me feel a little numb as I read it, though it hasn’t yet put me off wanting to try fugu sometime.

Yet what of this claim reductionism alluded to above? As I read, greatly enjoying the book, it simply wasn’t there. All I could find where a couple of disparate sentences towards the back of the book, which were neither justified nor expanded upon. The book would not have suffered in the least by their omission. So it is my view that the friend of my friend was perhaps engaging in an exercise in eisegesis, reading their pre-existing thoughts into a work which are not expressed by that work. Let us say no more about it, then, and get back to this wonderful work of science.

We get a brief overview of electrical activity in the brain, though as with any popular-level take on neuroscience, there is a fair admission that we simply don’t understand the details of how the mind works. This does make it a weaker chapter than the rest, though those who are interested in the workings of the brain (often worked out when things go wrong) will be pleased to see the mention of Phineas Gage. If this subject piques your interest, then I would suggest following up with The Emperor’s New Mind and in particular A User’s Guide To The Brain.

The final chapter examines the effects of electricity upon the human body, as opposed to that generated from within. Not wholly unlike the chapter on neurotoxins, this makes for uncomfortable reading in places. As someone who opposes the death penalty, it was most disturbing to read of the electric chair’s mechanism for bringing death. Yet the same chapter also tells of how a defibrillator works (hint: not how you may think if you watch a lot of fiction on tv).

With the tour over, what can we say in conclusion? It’s a captivating book, giving insight where previously this reader was blind. It is written plainly yet in such a way as to draw the reader along and infuse them with some element of the enthusiasm and passion that is evident in Frances Ashcroft. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This was one of those books I just picked up almost at random as I was browsing round a Waterstones in Covent Garden one day. Having looked at the endorsements on the front cover, I was surprised as to why I hadn’t heard of it before. It seems to have garnered lots of praise and accolades yet I can’t recall a single reviewer ever mentioning it, nor had I seen it mentioned in the press. After buying it, it came back to mind recently when I noted it being mentioned in Adam Rutherford’s Creation.

What we have here is science told as a narrative. It is not only the narrative of the events and discoveries that were made, but also the narrative of the uncovering of the story. So while it starts out as a biography of Henrietta Lacks (prefaced by a personal story of how Skloot became interested in Henrietta) it expands its scope and becomes a part autobiography of Skloot’s battles to be able to tell Henrietta’s story, and that of her family.

Henrietta Lacks was a black American woman who died in 1954. The crux of the story is what happened shortly before she died. You see, she died young. She died of cancer. After her diagnosis a biopsy was taken from her cervix and the cells grown in culture. It is those cells that are the heart of the story. From here, we go back a short time and tell the story, as far as it is known of Henrietta’s life, growing up and getting married in the American state of Maryland.

The cells that were taken from her body were capable of being grown in a laboratory, something that scientists had been aiming for but had not been successful with. With these cells (named HeLa), it enabled labs across the world to be able to a variety of tests without doing them on living humans. After all, even though they were cancerous, they were still human cells and behaved as such. Skloot tells us the story of 20th century medicine from the cells’ point of view, both the good and the bad. Many of the greatest developments seen in the last 60 years have involved the HeLa cells in one way or another. Sometimes this was unintentional as it turns out that where other cells were grown in cultivation they were in fact contaminated by HeLa.

Coupled with this is the story of the Lacks family and their struggle to come to terms with Henrietta’s legacy. It was years before they even realised that her cells were being used for research purposes. When they did, this was around the time that details were emerging of the Tuskegee syphilis scandal where, if you’ve not heard it before (I confess I hadn’t), black people in America were deliberately infected with syphilis under the guise of free healthcare. So there was deep suspicion over what Henrietta’s cells were being used for and also who was profiting from them. Skloot’s role here was not only as someone researching a book but also of the one who helped the Lacks family, especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, understand what happened.

The book ranges over a number of diverse topics. One of those that I noted in particular was the development of medical ethics; not so much in theory, but the practice. For the descriptions (and yes, as a warning, they are quite graphic – particularly at the start of the book) may well strike you as particularly barbaric. The reason why this jars against a modern sensibility is that when the facts surrounding the lack of consent about what was done with Henrietta’s cells became more widely known within the medical community it spurred people into action.

As an aside, I encountered a slight confluence of issues as I read this, as I was also watching the American tv show, The Wire, during the same period of time as I was reading this (actually, I’ve been on The Wire all year; the book took about 3 weeks to read). But they are both predominantly based in the city of Baltimore and have a huge amount to say, in microcosm, of the state of racism in America in the last half a century or so.

One of the things that becomes clear, though whether this was the author’s intention, I’m not sure, was the sheer barbarism that still persists within what passes for a national healthcare service within America. One of the ongoing battles the Lacks has had, and a cause of their major gripes were that the vast leaps in scientific work as a result of Henrietta’s cells did not allow them the financial means to be able to pay for their healthcare. The USA remains a country so backwards that if you go to a hospital, they have the audacity to present you with a bill – which the rich usually pay for through insurance and the poor are made to go without. The concept of universal healthcare which is free at the point of need still hasn’t made the journey across the Atlantic.

The book has apparently become a standard text in some university courses on cell biology. That’s not because the science is overly technical, though what is there is excellently communicated, but because it is a story of one aspect of modern science that has rippled far beyond the Maryland origins of one bereaved family. C.P. Snow famously espoused the notion of the two cultures: humanities and sciences. Here, Skloot has woven the two together to make a fabric that is stronger than either and makes for a fabulous piece of writing. It is educating, enthralling and overall one of the best pieces of writing I have had the pleasure of reading. It was only because of the more immediate need to heed the words of Harry Leslie Smith that this missed out on being my top book of 2014.

Book Review: Creation by Adam Rutherford

I first came across Adam’s book whilst listening a radio show when he was promoting it and for some reason agreed to a debate with a creationist (if you are so inclined, you can listen to the discussion here). I’ve been familiar with some of Adam’s work with the Guardian newspaper for a number of years, though this is the first book of his that I’ve actually read. It has to be noted that there are really two books here in one, though I choose to review them here together. The big trick the publishers pulled was to not put the two parts consecutively, but to flip one upside down and then putting them back-to-back. So you end up reading from front to centre, then turning the book round and doing the same again. The upshot of this is that, reading on public transport as I do, people kept giving me funny looks as they thought I was reading upside down.

The Origin of Life

The name kind of says it all. Only it doesn’t. Before we get to the origin of life, we first need a bit of preparation. This is ultimately the story of the history of life. But it is a story told in reverse, with the culmination being the story of the very beginning of life. So we begin not at the dawn of time but with a discourse on a very modern understanding of cell biology. This is something of an overview, familiar to many, but necessary if one is to locate the rest of this half of the book (and indeed the other half) in its rightful place.

So we get a very quick rundown on our understanding of evolution which runs broadly along the lines of many an account you will probably have read. As he’s a biologist, Adam does rather overplay the importance of Darwin in the history of science, rolling out the line (which I doubt is original to him) that evolution was the single greatest idea that anyone had. As a physics-inclined mathematician, I would have no qualms with saying that Darwin was a great scientist, but I would only rank him alongside, not above, the likes of Copernicus, Gauss, al-Khwarizmi, Linnaeus, Mendeleev, Newton and Riemann. Back to the book…

What is life? It’s a necessary question and one that is deserving of a discussion. Adam recaps some of the definitions we should all be familiar with from our school days. Yet it certainly differed a bit from my school as I had always understood that while there was no set definition, viruses were a considerably grey area. Interestingly, though they are pretty much looked over here, they do appear in The Future of Life (see below). The answer arrived is runs along the lines of, “[we may not be able to pin it down, but we know it when we see it]” which makes for an interesting viewpoint given how the rest of the first half of the book develops, as the origin of life looks considerably different from what we would commonly recognise today.

From here we hone in on DNA as being the signature of life, but Adam presses further to suggest that RNA is probably a much older form. This not an unusual idea, but the non-scientifically trained reader may start to go a little cross-eyed at this point. So while Adam does a very good job of presenting his subject in accessible way, the topic at hand is intrinsically a bit tough.

We then get a look at the more basic components of life before finally getting to the question in hand: how did life begin? The answer is, of course, we don’t know. What we have a series of possible answers and Adam gives us his view on some of these. The view he advocates is that the building blocks developed simultaneously rather than sequentially. These combined to create RNA which was then subject to what we would now call a process of Darwinian evolution. He goes into more detail than I have space for here, talking of experiments which show that this is a possible route.

Yet saying ‘it is possible’ is about as far as one can go. Adam looks at a few other hypotheses, such as the “warm little pool” and panspermia (the idea that life arrived on a comet or meteorite). It’s interesting, particularly with regards to the latter, that Adam is rather dismissive yet he doesn’t apply the same scrutiny to the idea he advocates as he does to the one he rejects. So while both are possible, and both might possibly wrong, the case is not adequately made in this book for why one is preferred over the other.

The Future of Life

So we come to the second part. You can read them independently or in reverse order, but I would be surprised if the majority of readers picked this one first. As has been noted by some other reviewers of this book, this half doesn’t quite have the same great flow to it that the first half did. For some time, I trundled through, thinking it was a bit hodge-podge with Adam just looking at bits that, while interesting, didn’t give an overall narrative as he had done with the origin of life.

Part of this is the newness of it all. Much of the science he describes has only been pioneered in the last 10 years or so, long after I ended any formal education in biology. So Adam describes an area of science that is very much in its infancy but which has already come on leaps and bounds in its short lifetime. Though he rightly points out that genetic engineering is really what nature does anyway, and which Gregor Mendel did with his pea plants in the 19th century. It’s that our capabilities to manipulate genetic code is now much more direct, made possible through other forms of engineering, and so enabling the kinds of experiments that Adam describes.

It was in this section that Adam makes reference to the ‘immortal’ HeLa cell, which is named after Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom the cell was taken and who is the subject of the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which is next on my list of science books to read. So hopefully, I’ll get through it before Christmas.

When considering the future of bioengineering, one name should instantly spring to mind to anyone who follows science: Craig Venter. To some he is a hero, to others a villain. He competed with Francis Collins (who is curiously not mentioned by Adam) to be the first to map the human genome project. Collins did this on a not-for-profit basis, but Venter is very much on the side of profiteering from biological research, to the extent of trying to patent genes. Adam goes into some discussion of exactly what patents and copyrights have been applied for, with a level of critique in his writing, though he doesn’t quite go so far to as advocate the public availability of all research. But he does go someway in this direction.

At this point, I probably ought to add a disclaimer that the company I work for publishes a considerable number of books and journals in scientific research, some of which Adam may subscribe to or own. So I acknowledge that the profits made from these publications contribute to my salary. One of the issues the company is facing is the increasing demand for open access journals and how to meet the demand without the profit margins being pushed into decline.

Adam is, unsurprisingly, an advocate of the trials of GM crops. He gives us a potted history of the anti-GM movement which has an interesting link over to one of my former hangouts, the Rothamstead Experimental Station in Hertfordshire. Some may take issue with the way he tells the story, with Adam being resolutely pro-science whilst advocating reasonable safeguards. Having recently read Silent Spring I wonder what Rachel Carson might have made of the modern progress made in GM crops.

There is no real neat ending here, as this is very much a fledgling science. Adam presents us with some possibilities, but I would not be surprised if we look back at this in 25 years’ time and find that the field has developed in ways that are unexpected or have gone down different routes from the early sketch that we are given here.

So in conclusion, this is a very good book written about a fairly tough subject. It is not the most abstruse topic for those who are reasonably scientifically literate, but for those who specialise more in the arts then this may prove tough. But I would struggle to find a better book to recommend on the most modern advances in biology. Told with good humour and in a lively style, Adam remains a gifted communicator and I look forward to any future publications he may author.

Book Review: Stem Cells – A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Slack

It feels like some time since I picked up one of the Very Short Introductions (VSI). This has, I think, been sat on my shelf for over a year now, as I plucked it off the shelf of one of my local bookshops with the simple thought, “I don’t really understand much about stem cells. I read about them in the news occasionally. Maybe I ought to plug a hole in my knowledge.”

A year from having bought it, that thought has barely changed. Any time the issue of stem cells appears on the news or is discussed in terms of ethics, I have felt myself at a loss through being under-informed. So how well did Jonathan Slacks’ book do in filling in this particular family of gaps in my understanding?

We begin with the basic question of ‘what is a stem cell?’ To answer this we get a crash course in terminology. It’s worth paying attention here as most of the book is written with fluent use of this. Though, as a mathematician, one might expect me to complain that biology is often the science of obfuscation by making up complicated words for relatively simple things! Thankfully, a useful glossary is provided at the back of the book. At times, one is forced to turn to this 2-3 times per sentence so that even though this is a short introduction at a little over 110 pages, one has read some parts several times over before the linguistic spaghetti is unravelled to render a paragraph comprehensible.

Slack defines a stem cell not by any inherent characteristic, but by the potential of what it does. He is also keen to stress that stem cells do not occur naturally in the body but are instead derived from cells that do occur naturally.

It is the natural step to look then in detail at the kind of stem cells most people have heard of, embryonic stem cells. Slack goes into some detail about basic cell biology and how embryonic stem cells are created and cultivated.

From here, he looks at the next class of stem cells, which he refers to as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). These are better known as adult stem cells though Slack expresses some disdain for the term. He gives a brief guide over how they are produced, though in so doing he throws around the names of various proteins and enzymes without much detail.

The question then is, what can be done with them? This is the realm where stem cells tend to make the news as though they were some kind of miracle cure. They’re not. Many treatments he describes as ‘aspirational’ which is another way of saying ‘unproven’. Nonetheless, stem cells can and do have their uses in some treatments. He picks up on the most widely known stem cell treatment, though it’s not often known as such, bone marrow transfers. Slack also outlines other uses, such as testing drugs on particular types of cells which can’t be tested in vivo (that is, in a living patient) but can be tested in vitro (in a petri dish). An example would be using stem cells to create cells that occur in the heart and then test to see if any new drugs cause an adverse reaction in the heart.

The book does have a couple of curious features, however. The first is that Slack tries to draw a distinction between scientists and clinicians. I think this is an idiosyncratic phraseology, whereby instead of meaning “scientists” I think he means to refer to “research scientists” since, of course, clinicians are just a subgroup of scientists. The other, which is perhaps more of a failing of the book, is its diminution of ethics. By all means, it gets mentioned, but for a more well-rounded account I think the matter could have been dealt with in a slightly less dismissive manner than Slack chooses here.

In spite of the linguistic befuddlement and the downplayed ethics, I think I did learn a lot from this. As I write this on the morning of the 9th of August, I noticed a stem cell related story in the news today. This book has enabled me to better understand such stories, which as to mean that it has achieved its aim of educating.

Book Review: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

A while back I set myself the task of reading what are possibly the two most influential books on the modern environmental movement. The first of these was Gaia which I read a couple of years ago. I may be a slow reader, but I do get round to reading as much as I can on my reading list. So it is that I finally got round Silent Spring.

This particular edition (Penguin Modern Classics, published in 2000) includes several introductions/prefaces. What quickly becomes clear from these is that the introductions were written for a British audience as it draws contrasts between the British environmental movement and the account that Carson presents in the main text. The other thing that is pointed out is that Carson found biochemistry as her secondary calling, having initially aimed to be a writer earlier in life. Therefore, it was a great delight for her to be able to write a book and I would say that in terms of the quality of writing, she is a lot more skilled than some novelists I have read.

The focus is on certain classes of chemicals (mostly chlorinated hydrocarbons) that have been used as insecticides, pesticides and herbicides. Though Carson notes that a more generic term is that is more appropriate is that they are biocides, or poisons. The fact is that if they are sprayed with the intention of killing a particular species, they are indiscriminate and affect the entire environment in which they are spread and the areas which are ecologically and geographically linked.

She begins with a short story. It is a scenario which acts as an executive summary of all the outcomes that have been observed and which are documented throughout the book. Only here, she brings them all together and envisions a town beset by every ill effect brought about by the use of such poisons. This serves as an executive summary, with the scene of death reminding me of The Andromeda Strain.

With this as her starting point, Carson then details a litany of ecological disasters that have been brought about by the use of the poisons she highlights. In the crosshairs of her criticism is DDT. Its effects are laid out in shocking detail. When talking of other poisons, she often compares them to DDT, even if they are more toxic. If a criticism can be made here, it is that Carson occasionally slips into the more generic use of the word ‘chemical’, even though she mostly remains specific. The danger this gives rise to is that a casual reader might just pick up on the generalities and become inclined to an opposition to ‘chemicals’.

Carson details how these poisons permeate the biosphere, extending their influence far beyond the areas they are intended for, including travelling through the food chain to ultimately poison some carnivores which have eaten creatures which ate leaves that were contaminated.

In her writing, Carson wanted to avoid littering the text with footnotes (contrast this with N.T. Wright!) so while she quotes some studies, the detailed references are left for the appendix. The main text then reads less like a scientific treatise and more like polemic. Yet the strength of the writing is not baseless invective; it is referenced, but the choice to keep the main text uncluttered and clear came at the price of having the evidence scientific evidence slightly off to the side, with the rhetorical power of the anecdote more prominent.

As I read through the first half of the book, one thought went through my mind. It was that the effects of the chlorinated hydrocarbons, though poisonous, were as much due to the method of distribution. Carson then addresses this issue with her criticism of indiscriminate spraying. Indeed, before reading the book, aware of its legacy, I was aware of some criticisms that it got DDT banned when it was really the broad-brush nature of its dissemination which was the cause of the poisoning that followed it. Every time I could myself thinking “what about this…” then Carson soon addresses the point.

An example of this would be that during her exposition of the effects of poisons on people and animals, one might wonder how the poisons actually act to produce the effects described. After all, without knowing how the environment is poisoned, there remains reasonable doubt over the cause of the effects noted. Yet Carson does go into some of the biochemistry to convey to the reader an outline of the science behind poisoning.

The book is not wholly pessimistic, though. Carson highlights alternative pest control methods, with specific emphasis on the introduction of natural predators. I think a fair criticism could be made here in that while she points to examples of successes, there is inadequate consideration of the wider ecological issues of introducing non-native species to a given area.

The afterword (written in 1998) looks at Carson’s legacy and the criticism the book received at the time by those who would lose out financially if her proposals were taken up. The most obvious example we see to today is the absence of DDT, now subject to a ban in over 26 countries. It may well be worth following up with a later volume, Silent Spring Revisited, by Conor Mark Jameson. For in concluding, it has to be noted that Silent Spring was a book for its time. As a result of the impact the book made, the 50+ years since it was written have not followed the trajectory Carson feared it might had her warnings not been heeded.

It will continue to be a book that divides opinion. In writing for a wider audience, some of the scientific detail has been sacrificed. But in the opinion of this reviewer, the weaknesses in precision should not detract from the direction in which the argument goes, which is sound.

Defined by opposition

Some people seem to be having an identity crisis of late. Far more words than necessary have been spilled over whether or not Britain is a “Christian” country – a debate whose only endpoint seems to be applying an adjective to a collective group of some 63m or so people in the hope of electorally appealing to the proportion of those that identify as such.

The prime minister’s comments, coming after talking about his faith but before calling the police when the bishop of Oxford came to visit, prompted the utterly predictable backlash from the British Humanist Association (BHA). Beyond the futile question as it stands, the debate (if you can call it that) is symptomatic of a wider issue of how we define ourselves either as individuals, communities or societies.

One thing I have begun to notice of late is how we often define ourselves in terms of what we are not. I’ve been known to do it myself sometimes. It seems as though it is easier to express ourselves via some means of negation than it is of affirmation. Or at least, if there is some affirmation is quickly followed by a clarification which is expressed by negation. In other words, saying, “I’m X. But by X, I don’t mean Y” where Y might be confused or conflated with X, or may be thought to be some sort of subgroup of X.

In the case of the BHA it may (rightly) be saying we are not explicitly a christian country but without offering any kind of positive alternative.

I might wonder if there is some kind of Popperian sense of falsification going on in some of our heads. To take the work of one of the signatories, Richard Dawkins, for example, in The Extended Phenotype he was very keen to repeatedly point out that his formulation of evolution was not Lamarckian. Here, he provides good evidence which seems to go some way to falsifying the position he is countering. Though in so doing, one must be careful to fairly and accurately portray what one might be defined against, or else fall prey to the straw man fallacy (not that I am suggesting that Dawkins did this in The Extended Phenotype).

I might guess that our tendency to be drawn to the straw man is because it is easier to look to another and say that we are not like them rather than articulate a positive statement about what it is we believe and stand for. And it is, I would posit, easier to besmirch  a view we disagree with it and be loose in doing so than to put forward a tightly argued proposition of our own.

Apart from intellectual laziness, one of the dangers is potentially to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To take an example, I know a lot of people for whom the term ‘Calvinism’ is one of the greatest evils in the world. By running as far away from any hint of it, much of the good and right things that Calvin wrote (though I wouldn’t agree with everything he wrote and wouldn’t usually call myself a Calvinist) may be left behind.

If we were to move to another area of interest, I sometimes wonder about particular expressions of atheism. One wonders how such an idea might be articulated if there were not such a thing as theism against which it could lean.

I’m not really making a point here, just musing out some thoughts on a Friday lunchtime. Do  you see others (or even yourself) trying express their identity in terms of what they are not?

Book Review: Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller

Almost as a follow up to The Selfish Gene, I wanted to read this for a little bit of balance. It’s been a fair while since I’ve engaged much with the creationism-evolution wars as they can be pretty exasperating. While I favour good science over second-rate rhetoric, some of the pro-science writers I have read come across a little too strident and ungracious. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this book.

The book is quite decidedly broken into two halves. The first 5 chapters are very much focused on biology. This section is a real page turner. Although the proof reader wasn’t up to their job, as there numerous typos throughout, the writing style of the author shines through. Miller gives a stout defence of evolution, building very much on his expertise as a biology professor.

He looks at some of the schools of thought that are opposed to the acceptance of the evidence for evolution and provides a cutting critique into creationism and intelligent design. Along the way, we are given some great examples of how evolution has occurred throughout at the ages, and how the theory has developed, with some interesting pages on Stephen Jay Gould (much missed) and the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Unlike some writers, Miller does not resort to name-calling or insulting those who object to evolution. Instead, he is quite gracious, doesn’t disparage their intelligence and simply shows them why they are mistaken. If this approach were more widely adopted, then I think that much debate on internet message boards and discussion forums would be far more civilised than they are now.

The pertinent question that is then asked by Miller is this: Why does evolution raise the hackles so much? Or rather, why do some choose to become creationists or ID advocates in the face of the evidence in favour of evolution? This marks a sea change in the tone of the book where Miller then steps away from strict biology and veers more into sociological and religious territory. His great expertise in the former is thus contrasted with his lesser expertise in the latter two, which, though interesting, do not make for as good a reading as the first half of the book.

Having drawn out and exposed the fallacy that a correct understanding of evolutionary biology would necessarily entail an atheistic outlook on life, Miller spends the rest of the book giving his reasons for why he thinks that not only is evolution perfectly compatible with a belief in God, but that his understanding of God fits particularly well with evolutionary understanding, rather than being something dissonant which requires a lot of reconciliation.

The 2nd half of the book does drag on a little bit. I hadn’t expected this from the early chapters, but by the end I was really just wanting to get it finished, as there was little being added by way of meaningful discourse.

That final criticism stated, they are relatively minor in light of the book as a whole. As an antidote to creationism/ID it is scientifically acute, gracious and incisive. As for being an apologetic work for christianity, it is fair, but doesn’t quite the mustard. But it still well worth reading.

Book review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Having been familiar with Dawkins from some of his articles, videos and tv appearances, it seemed appropriate to go back to the book that made him famous. Also, I’m aware that of late, I’ve rather neglected my science reading (this is only the 4th science book I’ve read this year, compared to 6 fiction and 8 christianity books), so I needed to catch up a bit.

It’s important to note that this is a book written back in the 1970s. The author who wrote it should not be mistaken for the divisive figure that he has become within the last 10 years. So if you were expecting this to be an ad hominem attack, I’m afraid that you will likely be disappointed. I come to this with the same critical eye that I read any other book with, but this is in no way prejudices my review.

The edition I picked up was the 30th anniversary edition, which comes with 3 prefaces and a foreword. They’re well worth reading, with the latest preface being notable for a slightly barbed comment aimed at, though not naming, Mary Midgley, who has been a proverbial thorn in Dawkins’ side for many years.

Reading the first few chapters, the most striking thing is Dawkins’ engaging narrative style. It can be little surprise that subsequent to writing this he was made a professor for the public understanding of science, as his written communication is crystal clear. In addition to the main text, there are some lengthy endnotes which appear to be mostly the product of later editions where there is an extremely defensive tone, in some exasperation of opposition born out of misunderstanding of the ideas and terminology used in the first edition.

At times, these footnotes do irritate as they break up the text a lot. So in this respect, it might have been better to amend the original text. However, this may have been due to an editorial decision, so it would be unfair to criticize Dawkins unduly for this stylistic nuisance.

Although the title of the book implies a book on genetics, this is largely confined to the early couple of chapters with the majority of the book looking at animal behaviour (his specialist subject) from a gene’s point of view. It is easy to see why some might take him for an atomist from these discussions, as he gives little countenance to causes other than genetic inheritance. This may simply be a consequence of his emphasis rather than reflecting his actual views, though such atomism is common, in my experience, amongst those who cite Dawkins as a major source of their scientific knowledge and understanding.

However, one has to recall warnings given early in the book about Dawkins’ use of terminology. Much of the book is written in simile and metaphor, with many adjectives loaded with the capacity to be misread if one reads the text as a literalist.

One of the key themes is altruism. That is, how do organisms end up helping one another out if their genes inheritance follows a rough pattern that might be described as “selfish.” Aren’t selfishness and altruism polar opposites? Dawkins argues that this is not so. In so doing, the prime target in Dawkins’ crosshairs are proponents of “group selection” which (very broadly speaking) favour the idea that animals and plants behave in such a way as to ensure the survival of their particular group. Dawkins argues convincingly that this is an illusion and gives examples where such a theory is left somewhat lacking where the selfish gene theory can provide a reasonable hypothesis.

With all this said, though, it has to be noted that Dawkins includes very little hard evidence in his book. To keep things interesting and engaging for the lay reader, we are presented with multiple anecdotes rather than scientific studies. So, reading with due scepticism, one should be wary of accepting all of Dawkins’ ideas unquestionably. Indeed, shortly after finishing the book, I was given a link to a paper (though unfortunately, it is hidden behind a paywall) which calls into question Dawkins’ “kin selection.”

This brings us to the weak points of the book. It begins in chapter 10, ‘You scratch my back, I’ll ride on yours’ where Dawkins make a quite startling comment for a scientist:

“One cannot really speak of ‘evidence’ for this idea, but….”

(it’s on page 182 of the 30th anniversary edition, if you want the full quote, it’s rather too long to copy) – yet in the next chapter, where Dawkins introduces the idea of a meme, he makes his statement that faith is

“blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.”

Of course, his definition has now become almost as famous as it is erroneous. Yet that fame could mistakenly lead one to think that this was an early example of Dawkins’ departure from science into the world of atheistic diatribe; it absolutely is not. It is merely an example that he used to illustrate his innovative idea on the transmission of information. Of course, subsequent decades of works on memetics have proved fruitless, and it is now abandoned as a serious line of enquiry by all but a vocal minority (here, I think of Susan Blackmore). If this surprises you, I would point you to the last ever edition of the journal of memetics where the situation was summed up quite nicely.

Following on from this, Dawkins looks at game theory which may seem out of place in a biology book, but which serves as a useful introduction to anyone who has not encountered it before. The book concludes with an additional chapter not included in the original edition. It is a concise summary of the follow-up book, The Extended Phenotype. It’s not an extract for a sequel, which I have seen in some publications, but it serves the same purpose, as an advert for the reader to make a further purchase. In this respect, it is quite successful, as it is as immensely fascinating as the rest of The Selfish Gene.

Though some of its ideas have now had severe doubt cast upon them, The Selfish Gene still stands as a wonderful pop science book on biology, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in science.