HEIGHTS AND DEPTHS
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 26 November 2018
The back cover of this book tells us ‘Darwin... made no attempt to answer the... question ‘what IS life?’ Good for Darwin, I thought, because questions of the kind ‘what is…?’ usually are uncertain as to meaning themselves. The question ‘what is a dog?’ could be a request for a definition: on the other hand the answer ‘man’s best friend’ would be perfectly sensible too. My heart sank when I saw ‘what is life?’ as the first chapter heading, but happily Professor Davies makes no attempt at answering that. What he does give a lot of attention to is the deep but rewarding enquiry into the origin of life. When he sticks to his last and educates us regarding biology, physics, genetics, and epigenetics I found him excellent. He does not talk down to his reader and his style of writing is fluent and agreeable. The mathematics is heavy going for non-specialists, but it is only a deserved compliment to the author to try to keep up with him. I also appreciated the lesson on Darwinism, or what is often so called. The doctrine that hereditary characteristics are passed down the generations, for instance, is amusingly debunked with a parable of the farmer’s wife who never produced a tailless mouse, and the doctrine is rightly attributed to Lamarck.
If the title of the book reminds you of something, that may be because you have read Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind. Paul Davies recalls Ryle’s famous concept of ‘the ghost in the machine’, by which Ryle scotches any idea of the ‘mind’ such as I was brought up to believe in, something like what we find in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Their souls did from their bodies fly
They fled to bliss or woe,
And every soul did pass me by
Like the whizz of my cross bow
That concept of the mind and soul is on the wrong page, says Ryle. What started to puzzle me as I read on was the suspicion that Davies partly goes along with this idea, and even more because he seems to see popular man-in-the-street thinking as support for such a view. And another of Ryle’s ideas that he could have done with considering is ‘the category mistake’. Suppose somebody being shown round Oxford sees, say, Christ Church, several colleges, the Bodleian and the Examination Schools, and then asks ‘But where is the University?’ Davies sounded to me as if he was toying with this way of thinking – he shows us the physical components of living matter and rightly lays stress on the abstract information that is equally vital, but I had the feeling that to complete a picture of ‘life’ all that was needed was a bit more of all that. It ain’t: it can’t be: that’s the category mistake, surely?
I then started to be troubled with some rather old-fashioned philosophical thinking, and I wish he had skipped it. He is clear and helpful in clarifying Darwin, but do I again detect some sympathy with Intelligent Design when he finds the sheer complexity of the human (or, presumably, other) eye, together with the sheer multiplicity of creature-types to be a criticism of Darwin, who had seen evolution as blind chance? Davies himself offers a more convincing up-to-date theory, but does he remember what the young Niels Bohr replied when they tried to convince him of intelligent design by reference to a tree? Said Niels ‘What other way would it be?’ Not content with this, he goes off at another (related) tangent when it comes to fashions in scientific thought regarding extra-terrestrial life. 30 or 50 years ago we were all, all alone, alone in a wide, wide cosmos. Now the boffins have returned to an orthodoxy that favours life elsewhere, and Davies is not impressed. His argument appears to be that there would not be enough time on the cosmic calendar for such life to develop; and I sensed his own refutation when he points out that life on earth got started very early. If it could start early here it could do likewise elsewhere, couldn’t it?
One very interesting and rewarding section concerns the origins and development of cancer. Here Davies is perceptive in putting his knowledge of evolution to what I hope may be enormous practical use in realising that cancer invents nothing new and is seemingly of very early origin. It has been known for long enough that cancer is not a ‘disease’ like smallpox or poliomyelitis, susceptible of scientific cures. I suppose the medical researchers must have twigged this long before any of the rest of us. Here, where Professor Davies is in the forward ranks of thinking, his earnest and readable ideas may achieve what I hope they can in the search for the breakthrough.
If I have largely seemed to ignore the lengthy remarks on quantum sciences, that is because there is so much other material to be found on such topics. I shall only say that in the readability stakes Professor Davies is near the head of the field. Perhaps I can finish where I started, with any supposed definition of life. Davies is presumably familiar with the classic text Definition by Ryle’s Oxford contemporary, the great Richard Robinson. Whether it was there or elsewhere, I know what Robinson said, because he said it to me – if we understand a word we don’t need a definition for it. A whole world of pointless waffle could be swept away with that simple thought. We know the signs of life when we see them, and that is as far as we are going to get with the matter.
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