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.”

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 careers 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.

Francis Phillips lives in Buckinghamshire, in the UK.