Why Us?

FRANCIS PHILLIPS

We share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees. Why does that piddling 2% make us so different?

James Le Fanu, British medical doctor and journalist, begins his exploration into the mystery of humanness with a quote from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man: "Sole judge of Truth, in endless error hurled/the glory, jest and riddle of the world!" It is an apt epigraph for this thoughtful challenge to the dominance of the scientific outlook of the last 150 years. It is also timely: 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin have been the occasion for much celebration on the part of neo-Darwinians, convinced that On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man have, with a little tweaking at the corners, solved the riddle of homo sapiens. After all, we share 98% of our genetic make-up with chimpanzees; that elusive 2% makes us different in degree but not in kind from our primate "cousins."

So runs the story. The counter-case argued here, less publicised in the media but no less deserving of a public forum, suggests that the important scientific discoveries of recent years only serve to increase the puzzle of "us" without being able to provide the answers. Le Fanu writes as a doctor; he is not trying to "do" God but by the same token he also recognises that science no longer "does" wonder. In particular, he demonstrates that the Human Genome Project, spelling out the full complement of human genes, and the discoveries of modern neuroscience in the Decade of the Brain launched in 1990, cannot build a bridge from the brain to the mind; from the dazzlingly complex organ inside the skull to the self-conscious, reflective person.

Knowing there are 25,000 genes that comprise a human being tells us nothing about the special attributes that distinguish us from animals, such as being upright, having a capacity for language and our powers of reason and imagination. The genetic information itself does not explain how the brain works. It has been mapped, certainly, so that distinct, specialised areas are well-known, but what has surprised scientists experimenting with PET scanners on subjects given the most elementary tasks, is that it functions, not discretely as had been thought, but as an integrated whole. A fascinating illustration of brain activity in the book shows that "the simplest of intellectual tasks generates widespread electrical activity involving millions of neurons in the visual cortex when reading." Looking at this cross-section of the brain "lit up", I wondered what the PET scanner might have made of Coleridge's mental processes in the full majestic flow of his table-talk, had it been invented in 1800; I daresay the blizzard of electrical impulses generated would have caused the machine to explode.

In his autobiography, the philosopher Bertrand Russell relates how his grandmother, Lady John Russell, used to respond with the same monotonous pun to his precocious questions as a child: "What is mind? No matter! What is matter? Never mind!" The essential difference between mind and matter, the material and the non-material, is Le Fanu's central theme. Before the eighteenth century, broadly speaking, this dual nature of reality was accepted as obvious in philosophic circles. With the Enlightenment and the advent of modern science, the material devoured the non-material. Any troubling question, such as why people behave altruistically or compassionately or with self-sacrifice within nature's drive to ensure the survival of the fittest, had to be answered by fantastic mental contortions such as the biologist William Hamilton's, "proof" by mathematical formula in 1964 that "parental affection is mainly determined by genetic self-interest."

Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves

by James le Fanu
(HarperPress, 320 pages)


Although he avoids the subject of God, the author is clear that "there is vastly greater evidence of 'design'... than the supposition that the vast panoply of nature should be the incidental consequence of numerous random genetic mutations." He himself is full of wonder: at the unbelievable complexity of a living cell, at the perfection of the eye, indeed, at all the human organs which he describes as "masterpieces of design." Like G.K. Chesterton, whose book The Everlasting Man should be given to all scientists at the outset of their carers by pointing out, with incomparable wit and humour, the limits of their subject, Le Fanu ponders the mystery behind the art of our ancestors in the Lescaux caves: what happened in the relatively short transition from Neanderthal Man to Cro-Magnon Man, with the latter's capacity to symbolise what he saw in images so recognisable and familiar to modern man? Why should he be so different?

As I type this I notice an article in a recent Telegraph entitled "Wanted, a young genius to be the next Darwin". It is written by David Attenborough, the BBC's own media-genius of the natural world, and it is an unabashed encomium for Darwin: "The scale of the [2009] celebrations is fitting for a man whose elegant idea, reinforced and confirmed by decades of scientific research, underpins our understanding of the world around us." He calls for children to learn "the fundamental and undeniable principles that drive evolution", how species have developed over time "in the constant battle between survival and extinction." Attenborough is "baffled that there are still people who reject the theory of evolution", implying that its critics must believe the earth is flat. They don't; but as Le Fanu explains in this readily accessible book for the lay reader, evolution cannot explain the non-material world and should not try to do so. Science might be able to explain astronomically how the heavens go but it cannot help us get to heaven. Like Marx and Freud, Darwin was inspired by a genuinely important insight which "evolved" into a master-theme that encompassed (and thereby distorted) the whole of reality.

Just as scientists should have to read Chesterton I would suggest that Attenborough's children should have to read Hard Times, Charles Dickens' dark parable of the scientific outlook. The schoolmaster, Gradgrind, is obsessed with facts and asks a boy called Bitzer for his definition of a horse. "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth..." this repository of facts replies. In contrast Sissy Jupe, daughter of a clown and fairground rider, cannot give a definition at all, because she cannot narrow her imaginative grasp of the question — involving her memory, her affections, her understanding — to such a reductive viewpoint.

 

The Inner Life of the Cell

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Francis Phillips. "Why Us?" MercatorNet (March 4, 2009).

This article by Francis Phillips was originally published on MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit MercatorNet.com for more.

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THE AUTHOR

Francis Phillips lives in Buckinghamshire, in the UK.

Copyright © 2009 MercatorNet




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