Posts Tagged ‘genetics’

George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

I didn’t find this a very well-written or coherent book, but I thought it had one big thing in its favour: it doesn’t treat Orwell like a saint. The world-famous author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) was not an infallible prophet nor a flawless logician. He contradicted himself. He criticized people for saying things that he would later say himself. He often got things wrong.

But who didn’t, particularly before and during the Second World War? And the irreverence shown by Robert Colls towards his subject seemed to me to deepen into hostility at times. Does the South Shields lad Colls have a chip on his shoulder about the Old Etonian Orwell? I don’t know, but all biographies are also autobiographies. If an anti-hagiography is the opposite of a hagiography, then Colls seems at times to be writing one. That’s definitely what John Baxter was doing in his biography of J.G. Ballard, but English Rebel is a better and more interesting book than that.

It’s also much more eclectic. I like books that can quote from the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety at one moment (pg. 224) and from Richmal Crompton at another:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ ’em jus’ a bit, but not so anyone’d notice, and there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves. (ch. 3, “Eye Witness in Barcelona”, pg. 95, quoting “William’s friend Henry” in Crompton’s William the Bad, 1930)

As a summary of politics in the 1930s, that isn’t so far off the mark. It certainly captures the spirit of Communism at a time when many intelligent and educated people thought that Communism was the only and ethical hope for the human race. Orwell agreed with Crompton, not with the intellectuals. As Colls points out, he disliked and distrusted intellectuals while being one himself and moving in intellectual circles.

But there’s another connection between Orwell and Crompton: they were both very good writers, still delighting and diverting readers long after their deaths. Orwell was the greater and more serious of the two, but literary criticism can’t explain either of them. It can’t say why they were such good writers and such pleasures to read. All it can do is discuss their ideas, their influences, their culture and their life-histories. That’s not enough and although Colls is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic or (worse) a literary theorist, English Rebel fails to explain Orwell’s greatness just as surely as every previous biography and literary analysis.

And “Englishness” is not a very interesting topic. England and the English can be, but that’s partly because they’re so varied. You might also that Englishness is unconsciousness. The people who want to analyse it or feel the need to go in search of it are outsiders in some way. Orwell was born in British India, which made him an outsider in one way. He went to Eton on a scholarship, which made him an outsider in another. And he had French ancestry, which made him an outsider in yet another.

But I’ve never seen any critics or biographers of Orwell make much of his Frenchness. It’s there in his features and must have been there in his brain and psychology too, because genetics influences both of those. And that’s where Englishness can get interesting: at the genetic and biological level. You won’t find any of that here and bio-criticism isn’t a big subject anywhere yet. It will be, sooner or later, and that’s when Orwell will be better understood. In the meantime, books like this are here to speculate and make suggestions. And despite his irreverence and hostility, Colls does seem to appreciate the greatness and the moral stature of his subject: “Orwell spent his life fighting those who wanted to ‘control life’ and ‘entirely refashion people’ ‘with an absolute authority which penetrates into a man’s innermost being’.” (ch. , “Life after Death”, pg. 224)

That final quote is from the Jacobins and the Jacobins are still with us, using ever more advanced technology to satisfy some very primitive urges for power and domination. Orwell understood the urges and prophesied the technology. This book isn’t worthy of Orwell, but I’m not sure any biography or critique could be. It’s eclectic and interesting all the same. And it’s got a good index and some photos I’d never seen before.


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A Sting in the Tale by Dave GoulsonA Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2013)

I was looking forward to this book a lot after reading A Buzz in the Meadow (2014), which is the follow-up. I was disappointed. It’s a good book, but it suffered by comparison, seeming scrappier and less well-written than Buzz. And perhaps I was comparing it with Gerald Durrell’s books too, because Goulson starts by describing his childhood as a budding naturalist. He kept birds, amphibians and reptiles, collected insects and birds’-eggs, and dabbled in taxidermy. Like Durrell, he had a lot of failures and made a lot of mistakes, but that was part of learning his future profession.

By the time he was grown-up and a proper biologist, he’d discovered his main interest: bumblebees, which are the chief subject of this book. If you’re interested in them too, A Sting in the Tale will be a good introduction to their fascinating world. They illuminate many areas of biology, from genetics to parasitism, and they’re important to human beings not just agriculturally but aesthetically too. The sound and sight of bumblebees are a wonderful part of summer. It would be a poorer and less interesting world without them, and it’s sad that some species are declining or have disappeared in the British Isles.

Goulson is fighting to re-buzz Britain. He describes how he set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and how he’s trying to re-introduce the short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus, to Dungeness Nature Reserve in Kent. There’s still a thriving natural population in Sweden and a thriving introduced one in New Zealand, which was founded when British bees were taken there in the nineteenth century to pollinate clover. So should the re-introduction to Britain be from Sweden or New Zealand? Goulson thought that there would be “a beautiful symmetry to the idea of bringing back these bees to the UK from the other side of the world after a 126-year absence” (ch. 17, “Return of the Queen”, pg. 236). But the New Zealand bees are highly inbred and seem to descend from just two introduced queens (pg. 234).

So Swedish bumblebees were used in the end. The re-introduction is still under way and some of the questions it raises haven’t been answered. Why are short-haired bumblebees still thriving in Sweden when they’ve declined elsewhere in Europe? And why hasn’t that genetic bottleneck harmed them in New Zealand? Goulson suggests possible reasons, but bumblebees will be baffling biologists for a long time to come. They’re hard to track on the wing and to find when they’re inside their nests, which is why chapter eight is about “bumblebee sniffer dogs”. It turned out that the dog-handler was better at finding nests than the dogs were (pp. 105-6). Experiments often go awry and hypotheses are often confounded. Like A Buzz in the Meadow, this book gives you a good idea of what it’s like to be a working scientist: it’s always fascinating, but often frustrating too.

Both books also lament the depredations of modern agriculture. And of modern horticulture: “bedding-plants have been intensively selected for size and colour, and in so doing they have lost their nectar, or become grossly misshapen or oversized so that it is impossible for bees to get to the rewards” (ch. 16, “A Charity Just for Bumblebees”, pg. 222). This means that “old-fashioned cottage garden perennials” are best: a “wildlife-friendly garden does not have to be a chaotic mass of nettles and brambles”. In the previous chapter, “Chez les Bourdons” (“At Home with the Bumblebees”), Goulson describes his attempt to establish a wildlife-friendly farm in France. That’s the tale he picks up in A Buzz in the Meadow, which uses the farm to discuss a wider variety of animals and plants than this book does.

Perhaps if I’d read the two books in the order he wrote them, I’d have enjoyed A Sting in the Tale more. As it is, the chapter I enjoyed most was “Chez les Bourdons”, which also supplied the most memorable – and gruesome – image in the book. Goulson says that kestrels catch and eat stag-beetles on warm summer evenings at his farm. But they discard the beetles’ heads, which “remain alive for a day or two, their antennae twitching and their great jaws slowly opening and closing” (pg. 203). Nature can be cruel and ugly as well as beautiful. But perhaps insects don’t suffer in any genuine sense. That’s one of the questions that biology is still to answer. In the meantime, Dave Goulson is doing a good job of explaining his science to the general reader.

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The Soul of the Marionette by John GrayThe Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom, John Gray (Penguin 2015)

The philosopher John Gray is an interesting mixture of conservative and liberal, like a cross between Roger Scruton and a Guardian-reader. Like Scruton, he writes well, eschews pretension and offers some good critiques of liberalism. Unfortunately, he shares something else with Scruton: he seems to know very little about human biology and genetics. I’ve never seen him suggest that culture has biological roots, for example, or hint that human beings are more than superficially different. Does he really believe that Icelanders, Somalis and Japanese are part of a single, more or less identical human race?

If he doesn’t, he’s keeping very quiet. Perhaps he’s being prudent. It wouldn’t be good for him to deny the central dogma of modern liberalism: that we’re all the same under the skin. It would distress his many fans in the Guardian-reading community, lose him his reviewing gig at the New Statesman and make it much harder for him to get books published. But something else may stop him publishing books: the passage of time. Like the Oozalum bird, he seems to be moving in ever-decreasing circles and his books are getting shorter and shorter. If he goes on like this, by 2025 he’ll be issuing postcards.

Perhaps he should already be issuing them. If The Soul of the Marionette were a postcard, this is what might be on it:

Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.

That’s Kant: “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made.” I agree with Kant, but I would say that some human timber is crookeder than others. Gray doesn’t say this. He’s got the Guardian-reading community to think of. Instead, he illustrates the imperfectability and illusions of humanity by discussing writers like Heinrich von Kleist, Bruno Schulz, Giacomo Leopardi, Philip K. Dick, Stanislav Lem, Borges, Poe and so on. We think we’re free but we aren’t. Our behaviour has mysterious roots and takes place in an often unknowable world. This emphasis on literature helps explain his appeal to Guardianistas: lit crit is much more to their taste than genetics or neurology. Gray flatters his readers’ intellects without ever discussing the concept of intellect or intelligence.

How are they relevant, after all? We’re all the same under the skin and have been for many millennia. That’s the central dogma of liberalism. In fact, we aren’t the same and big differences between human groups can evolve very quickly. If Gray recognized this, he would have even stronger reason to attack the illusions of men like George Bush, Tony Blair and the neo-conservatives, who thought that democracy could be brought to the Middle East using violence. For example, he wrote a mordantly funny “Modest Proposal” in defence of torture, which was collected in Gray’s Anatomy (2010). There’s nothing as powerful as that here, but I think the writing is better here. The ideas are often vague but always interesting and you’ll want to try the authors he discusses, if you haven’t already. All the same, I would prefer more genetics and less lit crit.

His Guardianista fans wouldn’t like more genetics, but that’s precisely why I would. Prominent among the distressed Guardianistas would be Will Self. He’s one of those thanked at the end of this book for “conversations that stirred the thoughts” that went into it. Self’s friendship with Gray, like Self’s friendship with J.G. Ballard, is a worrying sign to me. It’s also puzzling. Gray thanks Nassim Taleb at the end of the book too. How is possible for him to take both those men seriously? Taleb is a highly intelligent and interesting writer. Self is a tedious charlatan. He’s also full of liberal illusions about the unity of humanity and the benefits of mass immigration. If Gray is still writing books in 2025, I hope Self is no longer a fan of his. I certainly think the illusions of Self will have been even more starkly exposed by then.

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The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories by John BuchanThe Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories, John Buchan (Penguin Books 2009)

“How the devil could one associate horror with mathematics?” A Lovecraft fan will answer: easily. But that question was asked by John Buchan in a story first published in 1911. Buchan is most famous for the character Richard Hannay, hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), but just as there is much more to Doyle than his detective, so there is much more to Buchan than his battler.

As you’ll see in this collection. Like Doyle, Buchan ranged from horror to humour, from realism to romance, from outdoors adventure to indoors introspection. He could write vivid descriptions of everything from dinner with the Devil to a storm at sea. Doyle was obviously an influence on him; so were Kipling and Stevenson. He doesn’t always match their quality, but that’s hardly surprising: writing formed only part of his very full and active life. According to the chronology here, he trained as a barrister, became President of the Oxford Union, worked as secretary to the High Commissioner of South Africa and served in the Intelligence Corps during the First World War, then became successively a director of Reuters, a Conservative member of parliament, President of the Scottish Historical Society, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Governor-General of Canada and Chancellor of Edinburgh University.

During all that time, he was also hunting, fishing and tramping the wilderness of Scotland, South Africa and Canada. And he was reading in several languages on many subjects: there are quotes here from Suetonius, Shakespeare, the Bible, Burke, A.E. Housman, Verlaine, Pascal and Poincaré. The last two supply the seed for “Space” (1911), his proto-Lovecraftian story of mathematics and menace:

All Hollond’s tastes were on the borderlands of sciences, where mathematics fades into metaphysics and physics merges in the abstrusest kind of mathematics. Well, it seems he had been working for years at the ultimate problem of matter, and especially of that rarefied matter we call aether or space. I forget what his view was – atoms or molecules or electric waves. […] He claimed to have discovered — by ordinary inductive experiment — that the constituents of aether possessed certain functions, and moved in certain figures obedient to certain mathematical laws. Space, I gathered, was perpetually ‘forming fours’ in some fancy way. (“Space” in The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies – in this online version of the story, the opening quote is by Tertullian)

Like one of Lovecraft’s protagonists, Holland is doomed by his discovery. So is the antiquarian Dubellay in “The Wind in the Portico” (1928). He is visited by the narrator, who is “busy on a critical edition of Theocritus” and wants to see a rare codex owned by Dubellay:

I had made a portrait in my mind of a fastidious old scholar, with eye-glasses on a black cord, and a finical Weltkind-ish manner. Instead I found a man still in early middle age, a heavy fellow dressed in the roughest of country tweeds. […] His face was hard to describe. It was high-coloured, but the colour was not healthy; it was friendly, but it was also wary; above all, it was unquiet. He gave me the impression of a man whose nerves were all wrong, and who was perpetually on his guard. (“The Wind in the Portico” in The Runagates Club)

He’s right to be: having excavated an “old temple” in the woods, he’s foolishly renewed worship of a “British god of the hills” called Vaunus. What happens to him seemed startlingly Lovecraftian when I first read the story, but when I read it again the Lovecraftian charge was muted. It’s hard to be startled twice and a story with powerful images can be disappointing when you return to it.

Buchan uses a similar theme in another story, “The Grove of Ashtaroth”, but in that case the story holds its power when I read it again. It has a different ending too: the doom is averted and the deity is ambivalent. Baleful or beautiful? Grotesque or glorious? It depends partly on one’s race and the story is about atavism and the way ancestry can overthrow environment. Or rather: can re-emerge in the right environment. Like Doyle, Buchan accepted some shocking and long-exploded ideas about the influence of genetics on brains, bodies and behaviour. They’re shocking to modern sensibilities, at least, but they might prove less exploded than some suspect.

Buchan himself may be evidence for them, because he’s another example of the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture and literature. He died in Montreal but he was born in Perth near the east coast of Scotland. This background means that some of the strangeness in this collection is a matter of perspective. If you’re not Scottish, it will be strange. If you are, it won’t be. Take “Streams of Water in the South” (1899) and the apparent tramp who suddenly appears and helps a shepherd get his flock across a deep and dangerous flood. The shepherd asks the narrator of the story if he knows who the tramp is:

I owned ignorance.

“Tut,” said he, “ye ken nocht. But Yeddie had aye a queer crakin’ for waters. He never gangs on the road. Wi’ him it’s juist up yae glen and doon anither and aye keepin’ by the burn-side. He kens every water i’ the warld, every bit sheuch and burnie frae Gallowa’ to Berwick. And then he kens the way o’ spates the best I ever seen, and I’ve heard tell o’ him fordin’ waters when nae ither thing could leeve i’ them. He can weyse and wark his road sae cunnin’ly on the stanes that the roughest flood, if it’s no juist fair ower his heid, canna upset him. Mony a sheep has he saved to me, and it’s mony a guid drove wad never hae won to Gledsmuir market but for Yeddie.” (“Streams of Water in the South”)

The mixture of formal literary English and broad Scots heightens the richness and earthiness of the Scots. But perhaps “earthiness” is the wrong word. Language is like water: fickle, fissile, rushing over the landscape of history and culture. So Scots runs through southern English like the streams after which, via the Bible, the story is named.

The tramp Yeddie is named after them too: his real name is Adam Logan but “maist folk ca’ him ‘Streams of Water’”. He both loves water and gains power from it. As he carries fifteen sheep, one by one, across the dangerous flood, he stands “straighter and stronger”, his eye flashes and his voice rings with command. He reminds me of Kipling’s jungle boy Mowgli, who’s at ease with natural forces in a way most people don’t understand and are disturbed by.

The power of this story is Kiplingesque too: it will stay with you, partly for its strangeness, partly for its sadness. Unlike his beloved streams, Logan can’t defy time and where he was once familiar, he will one day be forgotten.

Politics and the May-Fly” (1896) also involves water and also uses Scots. It’s memorable in a different way: not sad, but sardonic. It’s psychological too, involving a battle of wits between a Tory farmer and his radical ploughman. High-born Buchan, the future Governor-General of Canada, could understand and sympathize with all stations of men. But there are things common to all men: “Politics” is a Machiavellian tale in miniature and not something that Lovecraft could have written.

Lovecraft didn’t like fishing or the great outdoors, after all, and he couldn’t explain their appeal as Buchan can. Nor could he have written “Basilissa” (1914), a story that involves both life-long love and rib-cracking wrestling. You’d have to look to Robert E. Howard for a story like that. And this, from a story with a Lovecraftian title, is like Clark Ashton Smith:

Sometimes at night, in the great Brazen Palace, warders heard the Emperor walking in the dark corridors, alone, and yet not alone; for once, when a servant entered with a lamp, he saw his master with a face as of another world, and something beside him which had no face or shape, but which he knew to be that hoary Evil which is older than the stars. (“The Watcher by the Threshold”, 1900)

So Buchan could write like all of the Weird Big Three. I think he must have influenced them too. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic, but it doesn’t reveal Buchan’s full range, erudition and intelligence. This collection does. I don’t think all the stories are good, but at his best he isn’t so far behind Kipling, Doyle and H.G. Wells. With a less strenuous public life, perhaps he would have matched them. But if he’d had less appetite for work, he might have had less appetite for landscapes and ideas too. There are lots of them here, from Scottish hills to Canadian forests, from mathematical pandemonium to the “Breathing of God”.

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Dream Cars by Sam PhilipDream Cars: The Hot 100, Sam Philip (BBC Books 2014)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The UK would be much better off without the Three C’s: cars, canines and coos (i.e., pigeons*). I don’t like cars and I’m not interested in them. But I’m interested in why I’m not interested.

One reason is that I don’t find cars attractive. For me an attractive make of car is like an attractive breed of dog: it’s unusual. Ugliness is the rule with cars and dogs, not the exception. Planes are more like cats: ugliness is the exception, not the rule. But I can still find an ugly plane (like the A-10) interesting. And I like tanks, which are much more brutish than cars. However, tanks can be elegant too and they do something interesting: kill people and blow things up. And they have tracks, not large and obvious wheels like cars. The wheels on a car put me off. I think part of it is the way they contradict the chassis. A chassis points somewhere and looks purposeful. A wheel doesn’t, because it’s circular.

A-10 Thunderbolt

A-10 Thunderbolt

So this book did nowt for me. I don’t find cars attractive or interesting, I never have and I hope I never will. For me, the best thing in this book was linguistic, not locomotive: the two words “Lamborghini Murciélago”. They’re almost incantatory. But I have to admit that the car lives up to them: a “bewinged, four-wheel-drive beast capable of hauling from nought to 60mph in 3.2 seconds and running all the way to 212 mph” (pg. 139). I think “hauling” should be “howling”, though. That’s what beasts do, after all, and in their “promotional bumf, Lamborghini proudly boasts” that the car “emits a range of noises from ‘the trumpeting of mighty elephants to the roar of a raging lion’”.
Lamborghini Murciélago

Lamborghini Murciélago

But men make the beast. Italians, in this case. They’re one of four nations whose cars get sections to themselves: Great Britain, Germany, Italy, USA. Everyone else, from Sweden to Japan, is filed under “Rest of the World”. Like guns, cars demonstrate the importance of genetics for technology. Light-skinned races living at high latitudes are the only ones that matter, because they have the necessary intelligence. But the invention and innovation come from Europe. Within Europe, the art comes from Italy. I don’t feel it much myself, but I recognize that cars can be works of art. Lamborghini would make good use of Leonardo if he came back to life.

So I don’t agree with the claim that “when it comes to cars, Britannia still rules the waves” (pg. 7). But this book is aimed at fans of Top Gear and provocative opinioneering is part of TG’s USP. And it later notes that: “Top Gear has long maintained that you can’t be a true petrolhead until you own an Alfa [Romeo].” Being a petrolhead isn’t one of my ambitions, but that’s an interesting observation for a British programme to make. The presenters don’t write here, but there are constant references to “Clarkson” and his sidekicks Phil Hammond and James May. Sam Philip successfully mimics their slangy, ironic/hyperbolic, public-schoolboy style, presumably because he has the same background. And again I have to admit: though I hope I never see it again, Top Gear is an entertaining programme and I enjoy Jeremy Clarkson’s political incorrectness.

But he’s still a yob and an example of something I do find interesting about cars: their effect on human psychology. The late great Peter Simple prophesied Clarkson long ago when he invented J. Bonington Jagworth, who leads the militant Motorists’ Liberation Front and defends “the basic right of every motorist to drive as fast as he pleases, how he pleases and over what or whom he pleases”. Jagworth would have liked Dream Cars, although even he might have thought the cardboard 3-D glasses and blurry 3-D double-spreads were a bit undignified.

The 3-D photos didn’t work for me when I tried the glasses, so they went well with the glossy normal photos, which didn’t work for me either. Sleek shiny machines for driving fast in. Yawn. Give me planes any day. Or tanks. Or cats. But petrolheads will feel differently. As the introduction says: “If you love cars – and if you don’t, what are you doing here? – there’s never been a better time to be alive.” What was I doing here? Trying to understand better why I don’t love cars. I’ve succeeded.

*No, seriously.

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Neanderthal Man by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

An excellent guide to science in all its aspects, from theory and practice to sociology and politics, describing how scientists think, work, live, love and sometimes cheat. It’s a book about bones, but it made me think about stars. In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte set an absolute limit on the ambitions of astronomy:

On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our knowledge concerning their gaseous envelopes is necessarily limited to their existence, size … and refractive power, we shall not at all be able to determine their chemical composition or even their density… I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us. — Comte quote

Comte seemed completely right, but was in fact completely wrong. Fraunhofer had already discovered his lines by then and one day astronomers would be using “spectroscopic fingerprints” to “determine the mineralogy of asteroids, the composition of stars, the gravity of white dwarfs, the motions of galaxies, the dynamics of accreting black holes, and more – all from the comfort of a telescope control room” (30-Second Astronomy, ed. François Fressin, 2013).

Comte could have easily have said something similar about palaeontology, but perhaps it seemed too obvious. How much would scientists ever discover from ancient bones? They could weigh them, measure them, compare and contrast them, even analyse their chemical composition, but what would bones ever tell us about the flesh that had once sat on them, about the behaviour of vanished bodies? Very little, it once seemed.

A lot, it turned out, because of something called DNA. This book is about one of the most interesting projects in scientific history: the quest to reconstruct the genome of those long-extinct humans called Neanderthals. Except they’re not entirely extinct, as Svante Pääbo discovered: their genes live on in some modern humans, because we interbred with Neanderthals when we left Africa. Some of us also interbred with a group called the Denisovans, as Pääbo describes too. And there are other groups of archaic interbreeders to be uncovered, inside and outside Africa. Groups of human have separated, evolved differences, and then come together again, but not consistently and completely.

This has big implications for human bio-diversity, or HBD: races are different not just because they’ve evolved to be, but because they’ve interbred to be. Pääbo doesn’t discuss those implications, but there’s no propaganda here about “One Race – the Human Race”. The journey he and his team have begun is going to end in storm and lightning, because Neanderthal genes are doing more than stick around for the ride. They must have physiological and psychological effects, separating those who possess them from those who don’t. Ditto for the Denisovans and others.

So the search isn’t over and this book will have sequels. I look forward to reading them, because Pääbo writes well and engagingly in what isn’t his mother-tongue. Born in Sweden, he’s now “director of Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany”. For an evolutionary anthropologist, he’s very famous: “In 2009, Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World”. He describes how he got there, the compromises he had to make and the toes he tried – and sometimes failed – to avoid treading on. But it’s mostly a story of obsession and ingenuity: Pääbo was obsessed with reconstructing a Neanderthal genome and had to be highly ingenious to do so. Luck and hunches were important too:

Most labs discard side fractions as by-products. Fortunately we had saved all of ours from our previous experiments. For years I had insisted on doing so, just in case something came along that would make them useful. This was easily one of my least popular ideas and caused many freezers to be filled with frozen side fractions that no one thought would ever be used. But thankfully in this case the crazy idea of the professor had been adhered to by the group. So now Tomi could simply heat the side fractions from earlier preparations from the Vindija bones and retrieve additional, relatively copious amounts of Neanderthal DNA without having to do any more extractions. (ch. 13, “The Devil in the Details”, pg. 145)

Pääbo is writing a popular account, so there isn’t a lot of technical detail, but there’s more than enough to be impressive. Genetics isn’t stamp-collecting: it requires serious intellect and nowadays serious computer-power and programming too. Pääbo couldn’t do all of that on his own: modern science is a collaborative endeavour. He directs a team and this book describes their ingenuity and idiosyncrasies. But in a way they’re a burial party. Science is now measuring mankind for its coffin. The more we know about ourselves, the more we will be able to surpass ourselves. This book about an obsessive human is also an early obituary for the human race.

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Front cover of Olivier by Philip ZieglerOlivier, Philip Ziegler (MacLehose Press 2013)

It’s difficult to be objective about big artistic names, so it’s good when you can admire them unaware. I once heard a song called “Dear Prudence” by Siouxsie and the Banshees and, not expecting much, was surprised by how good it was. I didn’t know then that it was by the Beatles. I was pleased when I found out, because I knew I had judged them on their merits, not on their big name.

Something similar happened to me with Laurence Olivier (1907-89). I was watching Spartacus (1960) and was struck by the skill of an actor playing a Roman general. Kirk Douglas is fun to watch, but the other actor was on a different plane. I had no idea who it was, so I watched for the name in the credits. And there it was: Laurence Olivier. Again, I was pleased when I found out and for the same reason. Olivier really was as good as he was said to be. And it’s almost frightening to think that Spartacus isn’t one of his best performances in what wasn’t his best medium:

Orson Welles remarked that Olivier was the master of technique and that, if screen acting depended only on technique, he would have been supreme master of the medium. “And yet, fine as he’s been in films, he’s never been more than a shadow of the electric presence which commands the stage. Why does the cinema seem to diminish him? And enlarge Gary Cooper – who knew nothing of technique at all?” He might equally have cited Marilyn Monroe; a woman who barely knew what acting was yet who, twenty years later, was to outshine Olivier in every scene [of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)]. (ch. 3, “Breakthrough”, pg. 52)

Why does the camera love some people and not others? It’s a mystery. But so is acting in general. Those who witnessed Olivier play Othello at the National Theatre in the mid-1960s heard the “hum of mighty workings”:

Billie Whitelaw took over the role of Desdemona from Maggie Smith. “It was like being on stage with a Force Ten gale,” she said. He himself realized he was achieving something altogether extraordinary, which he could scarcely comprehend. One night, when he had given a particularly spectacular performance, the cast applauded him at curtain call. He retreated in silence to his dressing room. “What’s the matter, Larry?” asked another actor. “Don’t you know you were brilliant?” “Of course I fucking know it,” Olivier replied, “but I don’t know why.” (ch. 19, “The National: Act Three”, pg. 284)

The pagans might have explained it as literal inspiration – entrance of a spirit – by something divine. In other roles, perhaps Olivier was the medium for something diabolic:

Olivier had concluded from the start that the relish with which Richard III gloats over his villainy was always going to contain something of the ridiculous … But though his [performance] raised many laughs, they were uneasy laughs; it was Olivier’s achievement to be at the same time ridiculous and infinitely menacing. Never for a instant did the audience forget that it was in the presence of unadulterated evil. (ch. 8, “The Old Vic”, pg. 129)

The critic Melvyn Bragg suggested that Olivier’s initial “reluctance to take on the role” was from the fear that it might permanently affect his psyche. If it was, Olivier overcame his fear. But he often did that: he was courageous not just in the parts he chose but in the physical risks he took with leaps, jumps and falls. For Olivier, acting was a sport, not just an art and craft. He tried to master every aspect of the profession, from performance to direction, from voice-projection to make-up.

The photographs reveal how good he was at make-up and the facial control that complements it: it’s remarkable how different he looks from role to role. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize him, which helps explain why Ziegler chose to begin the book with these two quotes:

“I can add colours to the chameleon;
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages;
And set the murderous Machievel to school…”

Henry VI, Part Three.

“Rot them for a couple of rogues.
They have everyone’s face but their own.”

Thomas Gainsborough on David Garrick and Samuel Foote.

But there was almost more make-up than man for Olivier’s leading role in one production of Macbeth, which prompted Vivien Leigh to say: “Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on.” The French director Michel Saint-Denis was the guilty party: “a fine director with a wonderful imagination”, said Olivier, “but he let his imagination run amok” (ch. 4, “Birth of a Classical Actor”, pg. 66).

Another guilty party isn’t named: the person responsible for putting a shot from The Entertainer (1960) on the back cover of the book. Olivier is in make-up as the failed and fading comedian Archie Rice. He doesn’t look good and it wasn’t his biggest or best role. But he did say it was his “best part”, according to Ziegler (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 321). He presumably meant the most interesting or challenging to play, but perhaps he was joking at his own expense. He often did that:

The graft [for playing James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night] was almost too much. Derek Granger at one point asked him whether he was enjoying the part. “Crazy wife, drunken old ham actor, don’t you think it’s just a little near the bone?” Olivier replied. “Some of us have lived a little, boysie.” (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 331)

The “crazy wife” was the beautiful but unbalanced Vivien Leigh, whom Ziegler treats sympathetically but objectively. She was Olivier’s second wife and she does seem to bear the chief blame for the breakdown of their marriage. But not all of it, although when Olivier divorced her and married Joan Plowright, he didn’t stop his philandering. His “phil” never included “andros”, according to Ziegler, who says that Olivier didn’t have an affair with Danny Kaye, as other biographers have alleged:

[Olivier] could be extremely camp; he was by instinct tactile, quick to lay an affectionate arm around the shoulder of another man or woman; his epistolary style, even by luvvie standards, was extravagant – “Darling boy,” he began a letter to David Niven, ending with “All my love dearest friend in the world, your devoted Larry.” Nobody who knew him well, however, can have doubted that he loved women, lusted after women and would have considered a sexual relationship with another man a pitiful substitute for the real thing. (ch. 11, “Life Without the Old Vic”, pp. 166-5)

That’s Olivier as amorist; more interesting is Olivier as genius. It’s not as easy to judge genius in the arts as it is in mathematics or the sciences, but Olivier definitely had something extraordinary. The key to it lay inside a box of bone he is shown cradling to his cheek as Hamlet in one of the photographs. That was Yorick’s empty skull; in life, Olivier’s skull must have contained a very powerful and unusual brain. He wasn’t widely read or wide-ranging in his interests, but his memory was prodigious, his will adamantine and he could inhabit a staggering variety of roles, from Romeo to Toby Belch, from Uncle Vanya to Julius Caesar, from camp comedians to Nazi dentists.

Box of bone: Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

Box of bone: Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

If you’re looking for an explanation of his genius, I think there’s something significant in his ancestry, which was Huguenot on his father’s side. Olivier was a patriotic Briton, but his charisma wasn’t purely British. Ziegler dissects his friendship and rivalry with his fellow Brits Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, who were great actors too. But they didn’t act with Olivier’s flash, swagger and fire. I also wonder about much more ancient genetics: Olivier looks elegantly handsome in some photos, but ape-ish in a few others, and before his hair was “refashioned”, a director said that it made him look “bad-tempered, almost Neanderthal” (ch. 2, “Apprentice Days”, pp. 33-4). That was decades before it was proved that Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals after leaving Africa. The genes we acquired then may have conferred some cognitive or psychological advantage: Neanderthals had inhabited the colder and more demanding environment of Europe for many thousands of years by then.

If those acquired genes were expressed more strongly than average in Laurence Olivier, perhaps they helped him become one of the greatest actors who ever lived. I also wonder whether acting extends to olfaction: can great actors control their pheromones as they control their faces, voices and gestures? If so, perhaps that helps explain why Olivier didn’t manage to reproduce on camera what he did during extended sessions on stage. I’ve not finished this book, because I got bored with the minutiae of Olivier’s later career and want to see more of what he left on film before I try it again. But it’s full of interesting stories and ideas and it’s already helped me better understand and appreciate acting and the theatre.

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