Jones, Steve: Almost Like A Whale

“Almost Like A Whale” is an updating of the “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin published in 1859. Introducing the book, the proposer said that Steve Jones was Professor of Genetics at University College London. According to his website, he had been on the BBC some 200 times. He had first heard of him on “Desert Island Discs”, where he had amused him by sending up the programme, selecting biology- linked songs such as “The Flight of the Bumble Bee”, and choosing as the object to take with him a stuffed effigy of Ken Clarke, for his services to Education.

Browsing through the book when it came out, he had been struck by such facts as that half the population of the world, including 100m Americans, think that the world is made in God’s image. Having purchased it he found it an engrossing read, with many striking facts. The initial section on AIDS had been excellent, and he had galloped through the book. He had read it at a time of terrorist attacks, which had heightened his awareness of the impact of religious systems. However, on re-reading the book now, he had found he had to wade through it. The novelty of the facts had worn off, and revealed the tediousness of the style, the fragmentation and the way he kept repeating himself.

On the other hand, there were plenty of good books that could not stand up to a second reading. In favour of the book was that it contained many striking facts about the natural world, and was for the most part engrossing and stimulating. It was an excellent concept to rewrite Darwin from a modern perspective. The title “Almost like a Whale”, drawn from Darwin’s book, won general approval, and was better than the American version “Darwin’s Ghost”.

The book had a particularly gripping beginning in its sections on the AIDS virus, and on the domestication of animals. Another striking story was that concerning the 5,000 cattle ranch abandoned by the Jesuits that grew into a swarm. The most moving section was that in which he examined how the relics of different species vanish over time, just as the relics of the First World War were already disappearing. This brought into perspective the insignificance of human life “sub specie aeternitatis”.

However, the structure of the book was disappointing. There were lots of holes, and great leaps between subjects. Although it started strongly, it soon became disjointed. The details were indeed striking, but were often not related to the conclusions. The book lacked the rigour of the scientific approach. We noted with amusement one reviewer’s conclusion that, of the books that rewrote great books, this was the best – surely damning it with faint praise given the paucity of books in that category. And a minor detail was irritating – the use of estuary English in the heading of the introduction “An Historical Sketch”.

Some wondered if following Darwin’s original had acted as a straitjacket, which explained some of the structural weaknesses, given the difference of contemporary interests and issues from the nineteenth century. On the other hand, it was clear from the muddled and repetitive introduction that Jones could not write in a logical sequence. Perhaps it was his awareness of this weakness that had attracted him to following a predetermined structure. But, while Jones seemed incapable of developing an argument, the sections of the original quoted showed that Darwin was much more effective.

The author’s smart, glib persona was all-pervasive, and – suitable as it might be for television – was not attractive in this context. The egotism displayed in the introduction – “To rewrite ‘The Origin of the Species’ is more than most biologists would dare” – hit the wrong note right at the outset. There was a lot of flag-waving in the book, and enjoying showing how clever he was. For example he devoted two pages to the size of the penis, which was an irrelevance to the argument and merely an attempt to entertain. Jones was famous a populariser of science, but he seemed to be an attention-seeker, a showman.

Given the book’s avowed objective of convincing creationists they were wrong, we debated if it would be effective in this role, and concluded it would not. Partly this was because it was very difficult to overturn such deeply held beliefs by argument – intelligent design was a seductive metaphor. But more it was because we did not feel the book was enough of a polemic, of a sustained argument, to be fit for purpose. The book also raised some of the objections to natural selection theory – such as the question of how such a complex organ as an eye could evolve -without satisfactorily disposing of them.

We debated whether Jones would have done better to write a different book on the subject that did not follow Darwin’s structure. He might have written a serious book on creationism from the point of view of science. One starting point might have been the Human Genome Project. But we still felt he would be let down by his weakness in structuring an argument.

The discussion then ranged wider. One issue we debated was that – if you are trying to communicate – was it not essential to be entertaining? These days many historians, scientists and philosophers were turning into showmen – was this necessarily a bad thing? It depended on whether they could communicate in this way without distorting the ideas they were dealing with. Scientists were now meant to be able to communicate – e.g. to talk to schools, or policy-makers – and few were good at it. They were by nature interested in the nature of things, whereas the artists were interested in feelings, people and ideas.

Bill Bryson’s “ A Short History of Everything” was a good example of getting the balance right between entertainment and factual communication. In Jones’ case he did well with his sections on AIDS and the domestication of animals, but

then the book went downhill.

An issue not covered by Jones was the impact of modern medicine on heredity. Would modern medicine and better diet mean we would not die of the same hereditary defects as our ancestors? And what were the implications for the process of natural selection of the intervention of modern drugs?

We picked up on Darwin’s statement that animals were descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. One member drew attention to Bryan Sykes’ book “The Seven Daughters of Eve”, which explains the theory of human mitochondrial genetics. Sykes explains how modern humans can be classified into seven mitochondrial groups, descended from seven specific prehistoric women or “clan mothers”. All seven of these shared a common maternal ancestor, the “Mitochondrial Eve”.

The member also drew attention to an entertaining article by Sean Nee in the journal “Nature” and its accompanying evolutionary tree. This modern version of the evolutionary tree shows how plants and Animals are but small twigs on an immense tree, dominated by microscopic forms of life. Nee states:

“We are still at the very beginning of a golden age of biodiversity discovery, driven largely by the advances in molecular biology and a new open-mindedness about where life might be found. But for this golden age to be as widely appreciated as it should, our view of the natural world must change…. For all of the marvels in biodiversity’s new bestiary are invisible.”

Jones’ book might not have found great favour with the Monthly Book Group, but it was certainly stimulating debate, which now ranged into the dangerous areas of politics, religion and sex.

We decided it was important to stick up for Darwin’s theories in the modern world, and with the chilling potential impact on foreign policies of believers in theories of creationism or Armageddon.

We also noted that religious belief and evolution were not necessarily incompatible, and that the last Pope had been said to be sympathetic to the theory of evolution. Indeed Darwin had continued to belief in religion for some years after conceiving his theory, but had lost all faith after the death of his daughter in 1851. He had of course been reluctant to publish because of the accusations of heresy that might follow.

We discussed how Victorian intellectuals wrestled with loss of faith, and that few were willing to renounce their faith publicly in the way George Eliot did. However, only 50% of people had attended Church in 1850 (a figure which had shocked the Victorians) – perhaps church going had predominantly been a middle-class activity. A. N. Wilson’s book “The Victorians” was recommended.

And would Darwin consider himself an intellectual? Probably not – he would see himself as a working scientist. And for the British the term “intellectual” or “intelligentsia” has a pejorative connotation in a way it does not have abroad.

The discussion then ranged on to the impact of sexual selection on steatopygy amongst women in Africa, at which point your scribe put down his pen, and focussed on the excellent home baking which had just arrived

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