Wednesday Book: Drawing repellent conclusions

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The Independent Culture


THOMAS HENRY Huxley rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most eminent of Victorian bioogists, but along the way he lost his faith to scientific reason. When his son died aged three, he was denied the traditional comforts of religion. In the depth of his grief he wrote to his friend Charles Kingsley: "I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me... and asking what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is: `Oh devil! Truth is much better than profit.'"

There is something noble about Huxley's commitment to his scientific beliefs, but his story also shows how the rise of science has made the world a crueller place. Instead of a heaven and earth created for man by a benevolent God, we now have a random universe in which natural selection blindly arranges matter into strange animal shapes.

Brian Appleyard has been urging for some years that we should not just stand by and let science destroy our values. In his earlier book, Understanding the Present, he argues that the scientific world view subverts religion and culture, yet offers nothing in its place. This new volume continues the message, with an emphasis on recent advances in genetic science. In Appleyard's view, the unravelling of the DNA code is "the most important discovery in human history", which "will leave nothing unchanged".

He begins with a standard run-through of the brave new technologies on the horizon, including genetic scanning, selective abortion, gene therapy and cloned body parts. Yet Appleyard does little to help us judge which prospects are likely to graduate from fantasy to fact, since he makes no attempt to explain the science of DNA. This is disappointing from a journalist who made his name by distilling complex subjects for a mass audience, and it compares badly with a recent Penguin by Philip Kitcher, The Lives to Come, which covers the same ground as Appleyard, yet engages seriously with the issues that depend on scientific understanding.

Much of Appleyard's agitation about the new genetics seems misplaced. He devotes a great deal of attention to the history of eugenic thinking, from the Spanish Inquisition to research on IQ differences between races. He is, of course, right that eugenic ideas are destructive of civilised values, as Nazism proved, but the trouble is that eugenics owes nothing to the discovery of DNA. Even the most modern investigations into genetic IQ depend on statistical techniques that have been around since the beginning of this century, and are independent of assumptions about the molecular basis of inheritance.

Appleyard gets increasingly entangled in his eagerness to demonstrate that genetic science is the root of all amorality. On IQ, for example, most sane commentators would agree that, while inheritance does make a difference, many other factors do too. But Appleyard will have none of this. As he sees it, once we start down the path of genetic science, we must conclude that everything important is genetic, all inequalities are justified, and the human bloodstock is in danger of degeneration. At one point, Appleyard suddenly seems to notice that he is in danger of ending up on the wrong side, and inserts a paragraph explaining that he does not necessarily endorse these ideas, but that "there is a logic which has to be followed through if we are ever to understand what genetics is all about". He adds: "Precisely what I personally think about all this will become clear later."

Unfortunately, it doesn't. Appleyard suggests at the end that the solution is to deny the truth of scientific ideas. But it is surely too late for that. As Huxley's sad story shows, we cannot put the cat of scientific truth back into the bag of ignorance. Of course, not all scientific claims are proven, and we should do well to treat many revelations with a pinch of salt. But there is enough in science, including genetic science, that cannot be denied and must be come to terms with if we are to get our values straight.

What we need are writers who can explain the relevant science to the public, and allow us to shape our values intelligently to the new information. Brian Appleyard's previous work has shown that he is as good at this as anybody. But in this book he is in danger of giving the game to the enemy. In his impatience to damn science, he ends up drawing repellent conclusions from inescapable scientific truths. Just as well that his arguments don't hold water, given that science will not go away.

The reviewer is professor of the philosophy of science at King's College, London