Mind over matter

Roy Porter takes some detours on the road to truth
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The Independent Culture
Hidden Histories of Science edited by Robert Silvers, Granta, pounds 7.99

Science, they tell us, is hard, rigorous and objective, yet the royal road to truth. But if we peer behind the myths, what do we find? What are the springs of creativity and how does science advance? Robert Silvers has set up a neat experiment by getting five top-flight science authors to put the propaganda to the test. An inspired hint is planted on the first page of the first essay, Jonathan Miller's delightfully punning "Going Unconscious". The "whole thing", he quotes a 19th-century authority as saying, was "a system of collusion and delusion, or an excited imagination, sympathy or imitation".

What the Manchester surgeon James Braid was referring to were demonstrations of mesmerism. But, without much exaggeration, his words might playfully be applied to science itself - at least the science here in question. For Miller's essay traces the tale of artificial trances and the study of them, from the animal magnetism pioneered by Dr Mesmer himself in 18th- century Vienna and Paris, through a succession of later operators who were part magician, part genius. Who was fooling whom with all that transferred suggestion? How could credulity be distinguished from creativity? It was all very puzzling, right up to (and including) the ultimate version of the secret self disclosed by hypnotism: the Freudian Unconscious.

Science, Miller implies in his example of how a pseudo-scientific fad led in roundabout ways to modern psychology, may be like sleepwalking. And what history suggests, brain science confirms. Most of the time the mind has a patchy awareness of what it's doing, and that applies no less to the revelations of genius than to Svengali-like high jinks at the pier's end.

Along similar lines, Oliver Sacks suggests that the rise of neurology has also involved a somnabulist element. From the early 19th century, neuro-scientists kept blundering upon discoveries whose meaning and use they could not then know. Often these finds were squirreled away in the attic of the mind to be rediscovered only much later. Sacks hints at a tendency for the brainwaves of creative individuals to be stifled by the collective constraints of scientific inertia.

Conformism is a theme further developed by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, both of whom examine bias in science - how dominant models produce distorted images of how Nature must be and how science should be done. Lewontin castigates today's received wisdom that for the bioiogical sciences to be truly scientific they must be reductionist like physics, which means in effect endorsing the "selfish gene" and the notion that all that really counts in life is genetically inherited.

Gould critically scrutinises the influential icon of Nature as a "ladder of life" rising from monad to man. In breathtakingly anthropocentric fashion, this myth assumes that man - or, by implication, the Caucasian male - is top of the evolutionary tree. In both ways science may serve to shore up prejudice and political values.

It is left to the historian of science on the team, Daniel Kevles, to put flesh on these controversial bones. Taking modern cancer research, Kevles examines the fate of the theory first advanced by the American Peyton Rous at the beginning of this century: that tumours can be caused by viruses. Each of the pioneers in this story encountered stiff resistance among his peers. First it was denied that tumours could be so caused. Later, after Crick and Watson, it was denied that RNA could generate DNA. Finally, experimenters were derided for suggesting that oncogenes in animal tumours could have anything to do with human cancer. Yet in the end all those convictions came to prevail.

If here we encounter scientific blindness, we also see professional courage and persistence - and a research system ultimately tolerant enough to permit deviant ideas to survive and thrive. Rous was finally awarded a Nobel Prize - at the age of 85! One unexpected benefit from this research trail was the discovery of retroviruses, thus enabling us to solve the mystery of AIDS.

Overall, this book may incinerate a few sacred cows and cut science down to size. But by being thus humanised, and shown to have close affinities with the wider life of the mind, scientific discovery is rendered all the more remarkable. "Excited imagination" may not be a good epithet for science; but what is beyond doubt is that these fine essays will certainly excite the imagination.