profile: Steve Jones: Almost like Darwin?

Ros Wynne Jones on the geneticist in jeans who dares to rewrite the bible of evolution for the 21st century
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Oasis may be the new Beatles, Stephen Hawking may be the new Einstein, but in these pre-millennium days when genetics is the talk of pubs as well as journals, tabloids as well as broadsheets, when Dolly the Sheep is a celebrity and ordinary people talk about selfish genes, the real prize worth having is the label "the new Darwin".

Last week the battlelines for the Darwin crown were drawn and a debate previously confined to scientific and literary journals spilled over into the mainstream press.

Flying the British flag was the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, the evangelical anti-creationist. Flying the stars and stripes, Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard palaeontologist and radical Darwin literalist. Both are popular science writers, respected academics and committed Darwinists. Each, arguably, already believes he is the new Darwin.

Others embroiled in this debate include John Maynard-Smith, professor emeritus at the University of Sussex, and Daniel Dennett, an American professor and author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

The differences between all these Darwinian atheists lie in the finer points - mainly whether natural selection is the only important mechanism at work in evolution - but it makes their invective no less unrestrained. Maynard-Smith has accused Gould of having ideas "so confused they are hardly worth bothering with". Gould calls Dennett "Dawkins' lap-dog".

But as Gould and Dawkins, Maynard-Smith and Dennett battle it out in the columns of the New York Review of Books, the ultimate Darwin prize has eluded them all. For it is Steve Jones, a jeans-and-T-shirt scientist best known for conferring cult-status on the humble snail, who is to rewrite evolution's bible, The Origin of Species.

Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London and former head of the Galton laboratory, steadfastly refuses to enter into any new Darwin rivalry, denying reports that he had called Dawkins and Gould "eccentrics". He says he likes and admires them both. "I think they like each other really," he says.

The 53-year-old professor will receive "a bit under" half a million pounds for his version of the book which founded biology as a scientific discipline - On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle For Life, to give it its full title.

"A lot of arts students have read The Origin of Species because it's a central text of Victorian literature, but, ironically, most science students never read it," he says. "I never read it myself until I was in my late thirties."

Jones's book will be called simply Almost Like A Whale, a reference to the passage in The Origin of Species for which Darwin was most vilified when it was first published in 1859. "In North America, the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth," he wrote, "thus catching, almost like a whale, insects in the water."

The implication that bears might share an evolutionary path with whales, was deemed both outrageous and lunatic at a time when the literal truth of Genesis seemed indisputable. The line also recalls Polonius's humouring of Hamlet as he mused upon the shape of clouds. "Methinks it is like a weasel ... or like a whale," says Hamlet. "Very like a whale," replies Polonius.

Jones's title captures the contempt of Darwin's contemporaries. You can hear them, laughing under their breath as they tell him: "Yes, Charles, a bear is very like a whale."

For his 21st-century version, due to be finished for the millennium, Jones says he is not intending to waste any time arguing with creationists. His attitude is that of a new Labour minister swatting away a Tory in a post-election debate like a fly. "There's no point arguing with them, they are already squashed," he says.

Almost Like A Whale is intended to pay homage to Darwin, not to pick holes in him. It will be the book that "Darwin would have written if he was alive today". Jones is taking the task seriously, using the structure of The Origin of Species right down to the length of its chapters, as well as following its argument.

Where Darwin mentions man only once, stating humbly that his theory of evolution might lead to "light [being] cast on the origins of man", Jones will add a new section on "humankind", examining our species under the spotlight of natural selection.

Jones, who says his greatest failing is "flippancy - no good in a scientist", has also added, in the early draft, rather a lot of jokes. "I can't help it," says the wry Welshman. Fans of the eminently readable The Language of Genes and In The Blood, will be relieved. Slipped in among the DNA and RNA, the genomes, memes and double helixes, a little humour makes evolution a lot more accessible.

STEVE JONES was born in Aberystwyth at the end of the Second World War, into a family that hadn't had a "Mr" in it for 200 years - the Joneses were all clerics, scientists and sea captains. His mother was a bacteriologist. His father, a physical chemist at Unilever, invented the modern miracle Jif, the bathroom and kitchen cleaner, which was to liberate post-war housewives from the drudgery of elbow-grease. "My dad changed more lives with Jif than anything I will ever do," says Jones.

Jones grew up speaking Welsh as his first language until the age of five. At 11 he went to the Wirral Grammar School, "on Liverpool's left bank". He loved his school, whose old boys included Harold Wilson and Kenneth Halliwell, the lover and murderer of the playwright Joe Orton, but watching his brother flounder down the road at Newchester Road secondary modern gave him an early distaste for the 11-plus system. "That school nearly ruined my brother," he says. "I have believed in the comprehensive education system ever since."

If the young Jones was missing, his mother knew to look for him in the local library where he was ploughing through Dickens, George Eliot, Shakespeare. He spent much of his spare time bird-watching, he says, with a little apologetic laugh. "I was a mitigated nerd."

At school he was pushed towards arts, but the bird-watching had already awakened in him a love of biology. "I never wanted to be a critic, someone who was always commenting on what others did," he says. "I wanted to be a doer - and science lets you do. It's ironic that I now write a science column and science books. I've become what I never wanted to be - a commentator."

He still holds the arts in high esteem, and his science books are peppered with literary references. "Science is the home of the mediocre," says Jones. "You don't have to be particularly talented to do adequate, rather than great, science - and I include myself in the 'adequate scientist' category. It takes far more talent to be an acceptable artist."

In 1962, Jones went to Edinburgh University to study biology, and ended up staying until 1970, by which time he had completed a PhD and begun teaching. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, was a near contemporary. "I did my bit in the Labour club, canvassing, but I was too distracted by biology to be very committed." Jones has voted Labour all his life, "apart from once for the Workers' Revolutionary Party".

After Edinburgh, he went to the University of Chicago, where he found American academe a "cold douche ... It awakened me to the reality of working in a competitive science lab where everyone would cut each other's throats at the slightest opportunity."

None the less, he loved America, he says, with its diversity of landscape and life and has since taught at several US universities, including the University of California and Harvard where he rented Stephen Jay Gould's house one summer. "His cat died under my care," he says. "It was terrible. It just died of old age. It doesn't seem to have affected our friendship, though."

And then there are the snails. Throughout the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, Jones was collecting them, hundreds of thousands of them. In the early Eighties, though, he became an "eco-freak, as we all did" and began putting them back after he had looked at them.

In 1977, he met his partner, Norma Percy, a documentary film- maker, although he "knew her vaguely" before then. "One thing in our 20-year relationship, God help us, that has really endeared me to Norma was a piece of advice she gave me when I was doing the first thing I did for TV. I had the choice between taking a pounds 200 fee or accepting pounds 50 every time the programme was transmitted. Norma told me to take the pounds 200 because the series would never be shown again. It's since been shown more than 150 times."

Jones's reputation as a popular scientist grew with more television programmes and the publication of his award-winning The Language of Genes and best- selling In The Blood. His academic colleagues, he says, "know that there has to be somebody doing this stuff, and thank God it isn't them."

This is generous, bearing in mind some of the carping at his massive advances and television-guru status, but it is also a little misleading. Scientists may well be more interested in scientific purity than in celebrity, but, for most, the money and the glory would not go amiss.

Envy aside, there is concern in the scientific community that Jones's eminent likeability and open-necked style give his ideas a sugar-coated prominence they do not deserve. In particular, the professor is associated with playing down the future of genetics and its far-reaching implications. To some commentators this makes him extremely dangerous.

He has further been accused of hiding behind the "I would rather be doing research, but I can't get a grant" excuse. This, though, he freely admits. "I lie to myself constantly that I wish I was still doing scientific research, that I really miss it," he says. "In fact, the truth is that I feel naked terror at the idea that I might actually get a research grant."

The immediate future is carefully planned - Darwin from now to the millennium. But Jones will not neglect his beloved snails. Next week he is off to his favourite snail site in the Pyrenees. "The molluscs have all the answers," he says.