The biologist who left me out in the cold

Two weeks, two books.

In Unweaving the Rainbow Richard Dawkins takes issue with the poets. He argues that the poetry revealed deep within Nature by scientific investigation is more wondrous than the musings of those who make do with superficial appearances. I picked it up because I am in the midst of writing a review of recent developments in structural biology and am hoping to touch on the issues of perception and how our burgeoning understanding of the molecular nature of the world affects – perturbs? –  our sense of self. I thought that Dawkins might have something interesting to say.

And he does, but it’s a bit of a ramble. The book starts out promisingly enough. It has a good title, borrowed Unweaving the Rainbowfrom Keats’ poem Lamiawhich contains the lines:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Keats’ complaint about the aesthetically destructive power of ‘cold philosophy’ and his easy seduction by mystery and superstition strike the modern scientific mind as little more than romantic notions and are easily dismissed. Dawkins has little trouble hitting his stride early on, and explores some interesting ideas en route to building his case for the enrichment of beauty by the good offices of science. However, his chosen path is not a very direct one and ultimately the book turns out to be a compendium of parts that don’t add up satisfactorily.

The opening section is followed by three chapters of examples, all drawn from physics, that are clearly designed to illuminate the beauty revealed when science penetrates beneath the surface. But the execution feels clunky. Dawkins invokes the image of the barcode to explain first spectroscopy, then the analysis of sound by Fourier techniques and finally DNA fingerprinting. This an odd choice of metaphor since the barcode is a thoroughly pedestrian image that widens rather than bridges the gap between scientific and aesthetic sensibilities. His working of the material also felt laboured. Dawkins is clearly more at home (as later in the book) on matters biological and evolutionary. I’m not sure it was intentional but I was left to conclude that the scientific analysis of nature necessarily involves a large amount of tedious spadework: you have to dig for your nuggets. That’s not a bad message but I’m not sure how many converts it will have won.

These chapters are followed by one that unpicks human credulity; Dawkins makes some worthwhile points but he also works over some easy targets – astrology and paranormalism – in a rather long-winded and unsubtle fashion. He is on better form warning of the dangers of not properly appreciating probability but slips again in the following chapter by devoting much of it to an extended attack on the writings of Stephen J Gould which, at a distance of 17 years, seemed to have lost its purpose.

The Spy who Came in from the Cold

In the home stretch there is a rather nebulous argument in favour of ‘good poetic science’ – the useful and appropriate application of metaphor – but Dawkins’ efforts are undermined by being interwoven with an rather defensive rebuttal of those who apparently have not read The Selfish Gene with sufficient attention. This section also dwells on accounts of how our evolutionary history is embedded in our genes and our brains; while quite interesting in themselves, I struggled to relate these to his central thesis. In the end I was glad to be done with Unweaving the Rainbow. Good here and there for making you think but dare I say it lacks poetry?

The second book of my reading fortnight was John le Carré’s 1963 classic The Spy who Came in from the Cold, which was recommended to me by Mike Taylor. In contrast to Dawkins’ wayward perambulation, this was a taut, brilliantly constructed narrative – cold, hard, cynical, tragic. I devoured the book in two days. John Banville said of it: ‘A masterpiece, the best espionage novel ever written’ and I’m not about to disagree.

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3 Responses to The biologist who left me out in the cold

  1. John the Plumber says:

    Hi Stephen

    You would seek – “…how our burgeoning understanding of the molecular nature of the world affects – perturbs? – our sense of self.”

    If you have not read James Flint’s novel Habitus, maybe you should. Try this for poetry.

    “…words: the interaction of prokaryotes and eukaryotes dribbled through times vegetal mass.”

    That kind of sums a few million years of sense of self.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the recommendation though I see his book had a rather mixed reception from people on Amazon. The comparison to the work of Richard Powers doesn’t inspire me since I couldn’t finish The Gold Bug Variations. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

      • John the Plumber says:

        Yes – and maybe at different times.

        I realise that over the years, as my sense of self evolves, so has what I get out of a book. – Books have changed my sense of self.- and become part of it.

        So your sense of self this week has you furtively crossing Cold War London to your laboratory, alert for unseen assailants.

        By coincidence I bought a le Carre in my favourite charity shop last week. Habitus finished, that’s my next one -so I’ll be joining you with my coat collar suitably turned up to ward off foreign agents.

        So best of luck with your review, and connecting the evolution of our shared sense of Michael Caine to some some far off ancestral eukariote’s proteins,

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