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THE SCIENTIST AS GURU: THE EXPLAINERS

Essay review of Peter Medawar, Memoir of a Thinking Radish: An Autobiography, Oxford University Press, 1986, xii + 209 pages, 12.50.

by Robert M. Young

Sir Peter Medawar tells us that Francis Crick has a card he sends out in reply to much of his post (p. 138):

 

Dr Crick thanks you for your letter but regrets that he is unable to accept your kind invitation to:

send an autograph help you in your project

provide a photograph read your manuscript

cure your disease. deliver a lecture

be interviewed attend a conference

talk on the radio act as chairman

appear on TV become an editor

speak after dinner write a book

give a testimonial accept an honorary degree

I remember being told about this when I was a student in Cambridge. I also attended a party at his house, which had a helical figure over the door. Impossibly arrogant? Perhaps, but the more interesting question seems to me to be why all those people wrote the letters which led Crick to have those cards printed.

Medawar is sympathetic to the measures resorted to by Crick in the wake of sharing the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of the basic hereditary material, DNA. Medawar became a Nobel Laureate for the discovery of immunological tolerance and showed that the problem of transplanting tissues from one individual to another was soluble. It is often said that this laid the foundations for modern transplant surgery, but he denies this and distinguishes his own work from the use of drugs to diminish the immunity that is responsible for graft rejection (Medawar, pp. 167-8). He, too, was inundated:

 

Immediately upon his designation as such, a Nobel Laureate becomes a beneficiary — or, as most of them believe, the victim — of a variant of the kind of notoriety enjoyed by pop stars and anyone reputed by the media to be a 'personality'. Overnight, a Laureate is deemed to have become an authority on all the problems that plague society. His opinion is sought upon the efficacy and propriety of fertilizing human ova inside the body, on the desirability of nuclear weapons, the fitness of women for holy orders, and much else besides (p. 137).

Both of these eminent scientists raise the question of why we treat such people as gurus. They and others like them are obviously clever and tenacious. They have also thought deeply about their chosen areas of research, and both have made other major scientific discoveries. But does this make them wise? Yes and no, I'd say.

I can recall benefiting greatly from at least three of Medawar's essays. One blew the gaff on the traditional way scientific papers get written up for publication and proclaimed that scientists don't actually work that way at all. Another attacked over-generalized scientific philosophies such as that of Herbert Spencer. Still another punctured the pretensions of the theological metaphysics of nature of Teilhard de Chardin. I thought the first of these just right, while the others indulged in overkill. When he turned the same manner of writing to psychoanalysis he talked pretentious rot.

There are other areas of the problem of living where Medawar is self-confessed bad news, for example, as a father to his two sons and two daughters:

 

I had thought, when I was a boy, that I should be a good father, one who wisely and kindly guided my children, shaping their minds and morals by imperceptible degrees. My performance fell so far short of these ambitions that I was an outstandingly rotten father and neglected my children disgracefully. I was not a bad father in the sense of shouting at and browbeating them and certainly never hitting them, even in anger — which Bernard Shaw rightly described as the only excusable reason for doing so. My neglect was due to my total preoccupation with research in the laboratory, writing, or delivering one or other of the very many lectures I was repeatedly asked for (p. 139).

I don't find this mea culpa persuasive, and my doubts are deepened by the dedication of the book to his children — 'To two s, two d' (sons and daughters) — which reads like an entry in Who's Who. [It is worth adding, in the light of Medawar’s strong antipathy to psychoanalysis and his adherence to orthodox science, that one of his daughters is a psychoanalyst, and one of his sons is a radical critic of the drug industry.]

 

When he turns to his wife, he seems to write from the same careerist point of view:

 

The ultimate sentence of an obituary notice in The Times often takes the following form: 'In 1839 he married Emma, youngest daughter of Josiah Wedgwood of Meare Hall, by whom he had ten children'. And that's it: so much for what might have been half a life time's companionship, and for the shared joys or sorrows that are the landmarks of married life. If I were a woman and not yet a feminist, this graceless and perfunctory form of words would assuredly have made me so (p. 180).

He goes on to write touchingly of their relationship, especially when he was felled by a stroke. Even so, and even knowing of her important work in the Family Planning Association, it's hard to see any affinity with feminism in this passage:

 

Many of Jean's and my friends who know very well that Jean has been my life-support system since my first illness do not know how much she has relieved me, all our married life, of duties and chores that might hinder the prosecution of scientific research — for example, I have owned several leaseholds or freeholds during the course of my life but I have never known anything about them. Jean has looked after them, and almost everything else of a tiresome or distracting nature (p. 190).

A straight careerist might not even notice the limits of his role as a parent or the burdens borne by a loving partner, but noticing is not enough, especially if one is also going to be a cultural guru.

 

 

DEFERENCE

My experience of such eminent scientists is that they are no better and often worse than other professional men and women. I can think of a number whose self-preoccupation and lack of interest in the lives and accomplishments of others was breathtaking and who seem stuck in a latency (pre-adolescent) way of relating to the opposite sex and the vicissitudes of the human spirit, perpetual Bar Mitzvah boys, regardless of their actual creed. Many delight in oversimplifying the problems of history, politics, self-knowledge, shoehorning them into the conceptual models which made them famous as scientists. Medawar does this when he adheres to the simplistic philosophy of science of Sir Karl Popper. I am also thinking of Sir Hans Krebs, Nobel Laureate for the citric acid sugar cycle, who indulged in union busting, claiming that unions are against the laws of biology; Richard Gregory modelling self-knowledge on bits of computers regarding other bits; Edward Wilson offering to 'biologicize' ethics; Bruno Bettelheim slagging off student radicals with wild generalizations about their alleged infantility from psychoanalysis; C. D. Darlington for reducing human cultural history to an elaborate exercise in hybrid vigour. I've seen Cambridge college fellowship electors defer to the opinions of eminent scientists who were speaking in an authoritative way far outside their areas of competence. In my own area of competence I once came across a biologist boldly and ignorantly pronouncing on the Darwinian debate in Victorian Britain. Sir Andrew Huxley did this in his Presidential Address to the British Association where he tried to claim that his grandfather and Darwin's world were free from the admixture of science and ideology which Sir Andrew wished to decry in our own time. It was as if his pedigree and his eminence as a researcher in physiology exempted him from doing his homework in Victorian history and science. Huxley was at that time (1977) Secretary of the Royal Society. He went on to become its President. His predecessor, Lord Todd, was fond of making politically loaded pronouncements about education in his Presidential Addresses and did so in the guise of making scientific observations.

I could go on at very great length about this. Indeed, I could point to scientists whom I find as wise in some areas as I found the above ones silly: A. N. Whitehead, Lord Ashby, Sir Henry Dale, Richard Lewontin, Dr Spock (both of them). What is striking, however, is not that wisdom and scientific eminence are not always genetically or contingently connected. What strikes me is that too many such people write as if their wisdom is obvious to all. They write, as we used to say of tedious and patronizing teachers and smartypants in high school, as 'explainers'. They adopt a pontifical tone, even when a good point is being made well. I find it present even in the writings of people with whom I on the whole agree, for example, Stephen J. Gould. His stance with respect to the reader is, alas, the same as explainers whom I can't abide [I have seen him rise on the tips of his toes at sheer delight at what he was intoning.], for example, Richard Dawkins [who cries ‘unfair’ when faced with debating techniques which he routinely uses] and Desmond Morris [who plays fast and loose with evolutionary generalisations].

Knowing what one is on about and speaking authoritatively need not be off-putting. Dan Maskell can do it about tennis and John Timpson and Robert McNeil can do it about the news. But when Paul Vaughn does it about science on 'Horizon', I know I am not expected to reflect or reply but to defer.

Medawar provides the right phrase in a moment of self denigration: 'irritating know-all'. But he doesn't seem self aware when he denigrates his brother, his father, his mother, his fellow dons at his Oxford college and at Birmingham. And here he is on the subject of honorary degrees:

 

In my audacious attempt to demonstrate that human life can persist without the D.Phil. degree I was not arrogant or sanguine enough to be sustained by the thought that one day I should have more doctorates than I knew what to do with. A doctorate honoris causa 'is something your friends do for you'. Lord Zuckerman intimated to me that it was a little vulgar to accept every honorary degree that was offered, but then he was not playing, as I am, the diverting indoor pastime of trying to secure an alphabetic full house of doctorates. The current state of play is as follows: Alberta, Aston, Birmingham, Brazil, British Columbia, Brussels,, Cambridge, Chicago, Dalhousie, Dundee, Exeter, Florida (South), Gustavus Adolphus, Harvard, Kingston-on-Hull, Liege, London, Oxford (honourable but not honorary), Queen's University Glasgow, Southampton, Washington St. Louis, Washington Seattle. Purists (or as I prefer to call them, pedants) may object to my counting Exeter against the antepenultimate letter of the alphabet, and shrewd observers will have observed that Yale and Zimbabwe are unaccountably dragging their feet (p. 72).

Eminent scientists are experts at what they do and often have the air of authoritativeness that goes with considerable accomplishments, patronage and power. But my experience has been that more often than not their concentration on particular research problems has narrowed their perspective on other topics while leading others to defer to them across too broad a range of issues. This seems to me to be a very regrettable mistake, often compounded by the scientists' willingness to be experienced as wise. Some choose to be gurus; others have gurudom thrust upon them. I think that if we could get our views on science into a more modest perspective with respect to the rest of culture and society, then we'd be better fixed for evaluating the views of scientists speaking within or outside the areas in which they conduct their research.

I also think that this more modest and seemly sense of their views is going to be timely as we move into a period when microelectronics, genetic engineering, embryo research and spare-part surgery, and even more sophisticated technologies of pacing, surveillance and control are going to be before us. Political, moral and cultural access to the whole length of the research and development pipeline is becoming very important. The views of scientists and other experts are going to be relevant to all this but no more so than are those of other moral and political beings. Scientists should use the same restraint which they so eloquently advocate inside their own domains of research.

 

 

TWO EXTREMES

After I had begun this review, two apt quotations occurred to me. The first is June Goodfield's, writing about the same book in the London Review of Books:

 

Fineness of mind, quality, perspective, judgment, have been apparent in everything Peter Medawar has done. Widely-read, educated and cultured, his scientific, philosophical and more popular writings are, at one and the same time, a delight, an education, a stimulus and a provocation. It is a privilege to spend time in his company, for he is not only a joy to read and to talk to, but he has a fantastic wit — an enormous capacity to amuse himself as well as other people. His life has, as he says in the final lines of this book, 'by no means been without its risible aspects', and a large number of these he has himself quite deliberately provided.

I have talked to a number of Peter Medawar's friends. The word 'grandeur' constantly recurs. In the first place, it's impossible not to look up to someone who is 6ft 5, especially when you're 5ft 2. More seriously, one scientist, who now holds a very distinguished position indeed in British science, said: 'When I used to go and see Peter in the very early days, when he was a great man and I was still struggling, I always came out of his office feeling taller. He was always very generous and encouraging. I have gone into the offices of great men and come out feeling about half my size. But Peter has that trick of making people feel very important. He has always had great style and he has always had beautiful manners. That's just natural — a gift he's very lucky to have. He's a very noble man, and a lot of people look up to him for the way he has conducted his life.'

'Kindness', 'charm', 'brilliance', 'wit' are other words that make up the refrain. (6 November 1986, p. 19)

Granting all that one should to Medawar's accomplishments, character and influence, surely we need to feel rather less hagiographic about admirable people. Otherwise we abandon our own critical faculties and follow leaders into areas where they are no wiser than we.

My second quotation comes from Alan Bennett's play, 'Kafka's Dick'. It draws attention to our spiteful reaction to enviably creative people — something we tend to feel more about artists than scientists. The title refers to the Philistine's triumphal feeling on learning that Kafka's penis was reputed to be small. The following dialogue occurs between a connoisseur of such facts and his wife, who is wise beyond her ignorance.

SYDNEY You re not stupid.

LINDA: No. After all, I know that Auden never wore underpants and Mr Right for E. M. Forster was an Egyptian tramdriver. Only some day I'll learn the bits in between.

SYDNEY (A cry of despair) Oh Linda. There's no need. This is England. In England facts like that pass for culture. Gossip is the acceptable face of intellect.

LINDA What I don't understand, she said, like the secretary in the detective story when the loose ends are being tied up, what I still don't understand is why people are so interested in a writer's life in the first place.

SYDNEY You like fairy stories.

LINDA If they have happy endings.

SYDNEY This one does, every time. We are reading a book. A novel, say, or a book of short stories. It interests us because it is new, because it is . . . novel, so we read on. And yet in what we call our heart of hearts (which is the part that is heartless) we know that like children we prefer the familiar stories, the tales we have been told before. And there is one story we never fail to like because it is always the same. The myth of the artist's life. How one struggled for years against poverty and indifference only to die and find himself famous. Another is a prodigy finding his way straight to the public's heart to be loved and celebrated while still young, but paying the price by dying and being forgotten. Or just dying. This one is a hermit, that one a hellraiser but the myth can accommodate them all, no variation on it but it is familiar even to someone who has never read a book. He plunges from a bridge and she hits the bottle. Both of them paid. That is the myth. Art is not a gift, it is a transaction, and somewhere an account has to be settled. It may be in the gas oven, in front of a train or even at the altar but on this side of the grave or that, settled it must be. We like to be told, you see, that you can't win. We prefer artists to die poor and forgotten, like Rembrandt, Mozart or Beethoven, none of whom did, quite. One reason why Kafka is so celebrated is because his life conforms in every particular to what we have convinced ourselves an artist's life should be. Destined to write he dispenses with love, with fame and finally with life itself so that it seems at the last he has utterly failed. But we know that in the fairy story this is what always happens to the hero just before his ultimate triumph. It is not the end.

Somewhere between Goodfield's encomium and Bennett's accurate observations about mass culture's need to bring low the high flier, we must find a way of regarding science as culture. If we don't we will vacillate between unmerited deference and unworthy (as opposed to carefully considered) forms of Luddism. We must find ways of being fully ambivalent about eminent experts, in whatever field they till.

 

 

3076 words

Reprinted from Science as Culture Pilot Issue: 130-40, 1987

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

 


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