Posts Tagged ‘human biology’

The Invention of Science by David WoottonThe Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, David Wootton (Allen Lane 2015)

I picked up this book expecting to start reading, then get bored, start skimming for interesting bits, and sooner or later give up. I didn’t. I read steadily from beginning to end, feeling educated, enlightened and even enthralled. This is intellectual history at nearly its best, as David Wootton sets out to prove what is, for some, a controversial thesis: that “Modern science was invented between 1572, when Tycho Brahe saw a new star, and 1704, when Newton published his Opticks” (introduction, pg. 1).

He does this in a clever and compelling way: by looking at the language used in science across Europe. If there was indeed a scientific revolution and science was indeed a new phenomenon, we should expect to see this reflected in language. Were old words given new meanings? Did new words and phrases appear for previously inexpressible concepts? They were and they did. “Scientist” itself is a new word, replacing earlier and less suitable words like “naturalist”, “physiologist”, “physician” and “virtuoso”. The word “science” is an example of an old word given a new meaning. In Latin, scientia meant “knowledge” or “field of learning”, from the verb scire, “to know”.

But it didn’t mean a systematic collective attempt to investigate and understand natural phenomena using experiments, hypotheses and sense-enhancing, evidence-gathering instruments. Science in that sense was something new, Wootton claims. He assembles a formidable array of texts and references to back his thesis, which is part of why this book is so enjoyable to read. As Wootton points out, the “Scientific Revolution has become almost invisible simply because it has been so astonishingly successful.” Quotations like this, from the English writer Joseph Glanvill, make it visible again:

And I doubt not but posterity will find many things, that are now but Rumors, verified into practical Realities. It may be some Ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown Tracts, yea possibly the Moon, will not be more strange then one to America. To them, that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest Regions; as now a pair of Boots to ride a Journey. And to conferr at the distance of the Indies by Sympathetick conveyances, may be as usual to future times, as to us in a litterary correspondence. (The Vanity of Dogmatizing, 1661)

Glanvill’s prescience is remarkable and he’s clearly writing in an age of pre-science or proto-science. He wasn’t just a powerful thinker, but a powerful writer too. So was Galileo and Wootton, who has written a biography of the great Italian, conveys his genius very clearly in The Invention of Science. You can feel some of the exhilaration of the intellectual adventure Galileo and other early scientists embarked on. They were like buccaneers sailing out from Aristotle’s Mediterranean into the huge Atlantic, with a new world before them.

Wootton also emphasizes the importance of Galileo’s original speciality:

The Scientific Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolt by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers. The philosophers controlled the university curriculum (as a university teacher, Galileo never taught anything but Ptolemaic astronomy), but the mathematicians had the patronage of princes and merchants, of soldiers and sailors. They won that patronage because they offered new applications of mathematics to the world. (Part 2, “Seeing is Believing”, ch. 5, “The Mathematization of the World”, pg. 209)

But there’s something unexpected in this part of the book: he describes “double-entry bookkeeping” as part of that mathematical revolt: “the process of abstraction it teaches is an essential precondition for the new science” (pg. 164).

He also has very interesting things to say about the influence of legal tradition on the development of science:

Just as facts moved out of the courtroom and into the laboratory, so evidence made the same move at around the same time; and, as part of the same process of constructing a new type of knowledge, morality moved from theology into the sciences. When it comes to evidence, the new science was not inventing new concepts, but re-cycling existing ones. (Part 3, “Making Knowledge”, ch. 11, “Evidence and Judgment”, pg. 412)

Science was something new, but it wasn’t an ideology ex nihilo. That isn’t possible for mere mortals and Wootton is very good at explaining what was adapted, what was overturned and what was lost. Chapter 13 is, appropriately enough, devoted to “The Disenchantment of the World”; the next chapter describes how “Knowledge is Power”. That’s in Part 3, “Birth of the Modern”, and Wootton wants this to be a modern book, rather than a post-modern one. He believes in objective reality and that science makes genuine discoveries about that reality.

But he fails to take account of some modern scientific discoveries. The Invention of Science is a work of history, sociology, philology, and philosophy. It doesn’t discuss human biology or the possibility that one of the essential preconditions of science was genetic. Modern science arose in a particular place, north-western Europe, at a particular time. Why? The Invention of Science doesn’t, in the deepest sense, address that question. It doesn’t talk about intelligence and psychology or the genetics that underlie them. It’s a work of history, not of bio-history or historical genetics.

In 2016, that isn’t a great failing. History of science hasn’t yet been revolutionized by science. But I would like to see the thesis of this book re-visited in the light of books like Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (2007), which argues that the Industrial Revolution in England had to be preceded by a eugenic revolution in which the intelligent and prudent outbred the stupid and feckless. The Invention of Science makes it clear that Galileo was both a genius and an intellectual adventurer. But why were there so many others like him in north-western Europe?

I hope that historians of science will soon be addressing that question using genetics and evolutionary theory. David Wootton can’t be criticized for not doing so here, because bio-history is very new and still controversial. And he may believe, like many of the post-modernists whom he criticizes, in the psychic unity of mankind. The Invention of Science has other and less excusable flaws, however. One of them is obvious even before you open its pages. Like Dame Edna Everage’s bridesmaid Madge Allsop, it is dressed in beige. The hardback I read does not have an inviting front cover and Wootton could surely have found something equally relevant, but more interesting and colourful.

After opening the book, you may find another flaw. Wootton’s prose is not painful, but it isn’t as graceful or pleasant to read as it could have been. This is both a pity and a puzzle, because he is very well-read in more languages than one: “We take facts so much for granted that it comes as a shock to learn that they are a modern invention. There is no word in classical Greek or Latin for a fact, and no way of translating the sentences above from the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] into those languages.” (Part 3, “Facts”, pg. 254)

He certainly knows what good prose looks like, because he quotes a lot of it. But his own lacks the kind of vigour and wit you can see in the words of, say, Walter Charleton:

[I]t hath been affirmed by many of the Ancients, and questioned by very few of the Moderns, that a Drum bottomed with a Woolfs skin, and headed with a Sheeps, will yeeld scarce any sound at all; nay more, that a Wolfs skin will in short time prey upon and consume a Sheeps skin, if they be layed neer together. And against this we need no other Defense than a downright appeal to Experience, whether both those Traditions deserve not to be listed among Popular Errors; and as well the Promoters, as Authors of them to be exiled the society of Philosophers: these as Traitors to truth by the plotting of manifest falsehoods; those as Ideots, for beleiving and admiring such fopperies, as smell of nothing but the Fable; and lye open to the contradiction of an easy and cheap Experiment. (Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, 1654)

The Invention of Science is also too long: its message often rambles home rather than rams. If Wootton suffers from cacoethes scribendi, an insatiable itch to write, then I feel an itch to edit what he wrote. It’s good to pick up a solid book on a solid subject; it would be even better if everything in the book deserved to be there.

But if the book weren’t so good in some ways, I wouldn’t be complaining that it was less than good in others. In fact, I wouldn’t have finished it at all and I wouldn’t be heartily recommending it to anyone interested in science, history or linguistics. But I did and I am. The Invention of Science is an important book and an enjoyable read. I learned a lot from it and look forward to reading it again.


Read Full Post »

The Wreck of Western Culture by John CarrollThe Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

I hadn’t heard of John Carroll before I picked up this book, but I felt as though I’d read him before. The Wreck of Western Culture reminded me strongly of John Gray. But it’s much longer than Gray’s recent books and discusses art, music and film, not just literature. I also think Carroll is a deeper thinker and better writer. He’s an Australian professor of sociology, not an English philosopher, but his very clever and compelling analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) isn’t marred by jargon or pretension. Anyone who has looked at the painting and noticed the distorted skull hanging at the feet of the two ambassadors must have wondered why the skull is there.

Carroll supplies a convincing answer:

Death is the master, and there is no other. These eminences of the Renaissance have failed to find a place on which to stand. Their inner eye stares into the face of their Medusa, into nothingness, and they are stricken, blind, rooted to the spot. (ch. 3, “Ambassadors of Death: Holbein and Hamlet”, pg. 32)

Humanism, the attempt to make man the measure of all things, was a grand experiment that failed. Or so Carroll claims. His own response to the failure seems to be a suggestion that we make God the measure of all things again. He certainly doesn’t accept the strictures of perhaps his greatest predecessor in the study of nihilism: “What is so admirable about Nietzsche is that he saw clearly what was at stake, and refused to give up the hopeless struggle” (Prologue, pg. 5).

The Ambassadors (1533) Hans Holbein the Younge

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger

But the suggestion of a return to God is never fully explicit: he says at the very beginning that this book is about diagnosis, not prescription:

Doctors cannot recommend a cure if they are blind to the disease. I have begun the subsequent task – of ‘Where to now?’ – in later work, principally Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (HarperCollins, 1998) and The Western Dreaming (HarperCollins, 2001). (Preface, pg. viii)

Does he recommend a return to God there? I’ll be interested to find out, but I think I’ll re-read this book first. His analyses of paintings, books and films may be mistaken, but they are profound and wide-ranging, conveying a strong sense of the richness of the art and culture he is discussing. But, like John Gray and many others, he betrays one great weakness in his analyses: he doesn’t seem to know much about science and statistics. History and culture are not simply about minds and ideas, but about biology and genetics too. Carroll is constantly discussing geniuses – Holbein, Caravaggio, Bach, Nietzsche – but he never discusses genius and its biological foundations. Ideas both shape human biology and are shaped by it. European history and European genius are distinct in part for biological reasons.

Like Gray, Carroll doesn’t acknowledge this. I suspect that he believes that the human race is one and indivisible. It isn’t. Science needs philosophical foundations, but philosophy benefits from scientific guidance. Carroll writes a lot about Protestantism and its proponents Luther and Calvin. But Protestantism had biological aspects, because Europeans aren’t one and indivisible either. Science may be contributing to the wreck of Western culture, but without it we will never understand the roots of that culture. You should bear that in mind if you try this clever and stimulating book.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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”.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Himalaya edited by Philip ParkerHimalaya: The Exploration and Conquest of the Greatest Mountains on Earth, general editor Philip Parker with foreword by Peter Hillary (Conway 2013)

A book with spectacular images and spectacular stories. In the nineteenth century, early mountaineers confronted and conquered the Alps. Then they looked for new challenges. They found them in a much higher and much harder mountain-range lying to the north of India:

For thousands of years the Himalaya has captured the imaginations of explorers, writers and those who have lived among this spectacular, remote and often dangerous landscape. This is a land that demands superlatives – it is the highest mountain range in the world, one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, home to all of the world’s independent mountains exceeding 8,000 metres (26,246 feet) above sea level, the “eight thousanders”, and some of the greatest river systems on earth. (ch. 1, “Anatomy of the Himalaya: The formation and topography of the range”, Madeleine Lewis, pg. 13)

Opposite that description is one of the spectacular images: a satellite photo showing India colliding with Eurasia to throw up the crumpled band of the world’s highest mountains. The collision has taken place over millions of years, creating a patchwork of blue ocean, green and brown lowlands, and white mountains. Himalaya means “Snow-Abode” in Sanskrit, the ancient Indic language that inspired European scholars to discover the common roots of two linguistic outliers separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years: Icelandic, spoken on a cold island in the far north, and Bengali, spoken on a warm delta in the deep south.

This book is about a parallel exploration by incoming Europeans: of geography, geology, ethnography and the limits of their own biology. Orography, or the mapping of mountains, is part of geography, but Europeans had to climb a psychological barrier before they became true orographers. For example, one of the first great explorers of Tibet was the Italian missionary Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733). For him, the Himalayan mountains were “the very picture of desolation, horror and death itself” (ch. 3, “Early Travellers and Adventurers: The Himalaya to 1815”, pg. 41). As Stewart Weaver, the author of that chapter, remarks:

It is clear that in 1715 the romantic appreciation for mountain glory had yet to take hold of the Western imagination; the Himalaya was a desolate and fearful obstacle to be crossed out of missionary necessity, perhaps, but otherwise to be strenuously avoided. (Ibid.)

Mountaineering rose in Europe as religion declined. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Divinity retreated and humanity advanced, climbing to new heights in all kinds of ways, from science to music. Vivaldi and Mozart didn’t write music to conquer mountains by; Beethoven and Wagner did. This spirit of adventure – or hubris – was European and the older idea that climbing a mountain is sacrilege has kept Europeans off the top of a mountain even more challenging than Everest: Kangchenjunga. The British mountaineers George Band and Joe Brown could have been the first, but refrained from climbing the last few yards to the very top: the leader of their expedition had “promised the Sikkimese authorities that they would not step onto the summit out of respect for Kangchenjunga’s status as a holy mountain” (ch. 8, “The ‘Golden Age’: 1953-1960”, pg. 147).

That was in 1954. Forty-nine years earlier, in 1905, another Briton had made an attempt viâ the notorious “Yalung Glacier”. He became much better-known in other fields: mountaineering is not how Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) made his notorious name. But he confirmed his courage and daring in the Himalaya, having climbed extensively in the Alps, and fully deserves the sidebox he receives here as a “Mystic, poet, magician, pansexual and Satanist” (ch. 5, “The Opening Phase”, pg. 62). After all, he was “part of the first serious attempts on K2 and Kangchenjunga” and “identified the route that would eventually be used in the conquest of each mountain” (ibid.). “Eventually” is the operative word: Crowley and the expedition-leader Oscar Eckenstein shared an “iconoclastic contempt for the ‘stuffy’ Alpine Club”, but “once again, accomplished Alpine climbers” proved “unprepared for the scale of the Himalaya” (pg. 61).

No-one had thought to use “supplemental oxygen” in the Alps, for example, but it began to seem essential in the Himalaya: “at the top of Mount Everest there is approximately one-third of the oxygen available at sea level” (pg. 63). There were debates about the propriety of its use, just as there had been about the use of crampons and other climbing aids in the Alps. One thing was a big argument in its favour: death. People have regularly died of altitude sickness in the Himalaya. Avalanches, rock-fall, cold and disease take an even heavier toll: four men died during Eckenstein’s and Crowley’s attempt on Kangchenjunga. The great Austrian Hermann Buhl (1924-1957) died in the Himalaya too. He had solo’d Nanga Parbat and was making an attempt on “the neighbouring peak of Chogolisa” when he and his companion Kurt Diemberger were forced to retreat by a storm “when only 305 metres (1,000 feet) below the summit” (ch. 8, pg. 131). During the ascent, Buhl “fell to his death through a cornice”.

His body has never been discovered. The body of George Mallory (1886-1924), another famous Himalayan casualty, was discovered in 1999 after lying on Everest for seventy-five years. Had he reached the summit? And if he did, how did he feel? Sometimes conquest isn’t satisfying. In this chapter, another spectacular image shows a bearded mountaineer sprawling on a rock-outcrop above a sea of clouds and a near-vertical snow-slope. It’s described like this:

Bill Tilman takes a precarious rest on … Nanda Devi during his 1936 ascent of the mountain. When he and his summit partner Noel Odell reached the top, Tilman’s initial euphoria was followed by melancholy. As he later wrote, he had a “feeling of sadness that the mountain had succumbed, that the proud head of the goddess was bowed”. (ch. 6, “Himalaya Between the Wars 1919-1939”, pg. 79)

And yet Tilman was a “famously taciturn misogynist”: the psychology of mountaineers is another part of why mountaineering is so interesting. Mallory may have conquered Everest in 1926; Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay definitely did in 1953, but Hillary didn’t ask Norgay to photograph him on the summit. The only photos of the moment are of the Nepali, not the New Zealander, apparently because Hillary didn’t want any taken of himself. Quixotry or modesty aside, it was an appropriate partnership: one by one, the Himalayan peaks have been conquered by combining European psychology with Nepali physiology. The environment of Europe has created human beings who want to climb very high mountains and the environment of Nepal has created human beings who can carry supplies in thin air.

This book also covers the medicine of mountaineering: the effects on the human body of thin air and low temperatures. Nepalis are adapted to both: they’ve evolved the right kind of lungs and blood to live at high altitude. That’s why they were hired as porters by the unadapted outsiders from Europe, who were sometimes killed by the challenges they set themselves. But there’s another kind of biology in the Himalaya, and another mystery. Crowley was To Mega Therion, or “The Great Beast”. But does another great beast live in the Himalaya: the Yeti? Probably not: bears seem to explain all the stories, tracks and hair-samples.

And the chances that there’s really something mysterious there dwindle by the year: Himalayan mountaineering is increasingly crowded, increasingly bereft of solitude and glamour. Everest is becoming strewn with rubbish, for example, and the climbing challenges of the Himalaya are increasingly contrived: not first ascents, but new routes, new methods, new times of the year. Sic Transit Gloria Montis – “So Passes the Glory of the Mountain”. But this book explains that vanishing glory and opens a window on a fascinating region of the earth, describing history, humanity, geology and technology, and displaying everything from multi-coloured Tibetan script and glaring death-gods to awe-inspiring walls of sun-slanted ice-rock and Aleister Crowley outside a tent.

Read Full Post »

The talkSPORT Book of Premier League Legends, Bill Burrows with Derek Hammond

I’m interested in art, I’m interested in maths, I’m interested in biology. How could I not be interested in football? Easily. But I am interested in football and I enhance my appreciation by looking for aesthetic, mathematical, and biological patterns in the game. Sometimes they’re easy to see: the curve of a Beckham cross combines both art and maths; the under- and over-representation of blacks as goalkeepers and forwards, respectively, says something interesting about human biology. So, less obviously, do football’s origins in the rule-worshipping, world-conquering folk of nineteenth-century Britain. Football and English are Britain’s two most popular exports, though if football spoke English it would have an odd accent, sounding as much Celtic as Saxon and more European than either. This book reflects that: the top ten legends in an English league consist of a Scot, a Welshman, a Dutchman, an Italian, two Frenchmen, and four Englishmen, at least one of whom has Irish ancestry. That’s discarding the Russian at number 7, Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, who isn’t a player or a manager. And hasn’t necessarily been good for the game. Fernando Torres, the Spanish legend at 77, is a good player, but was he worth £50m of Mr Abramovich’s hard-insider-dealt cash?

More pertinently, is Torres a legend? I wouldn’t say so, but hype is a keyly core, and corely key, component of modern football. “Premier League” is marketese for “First Division”, after all, and talkSPORT is a commercial radio station. I’ve barely listened to it, but the impression I got made me pick up this book expecting a lot of exclamation marks and a lot of illiteracy. I didn’t get either: the potted biographies of the legends, both for the league as a whole and for individual clubs, are well-written and interesting, though Borrows or his simul-scribe should learn what a hanging participle is. There are blasts from the past, like Georgie Kinkladze of Manchester City, who were then dosh-dry, not dosh-drenched, and current comets, like Wayne Rooney of Manchester United, who have been dosh-drenched for decades. Kinkladze was Georgian, Rooney is Anglo-Irish, and both challenge the genetic theory that links athletic ability to symmetry and symmetry to attractiveness. In fact, Rooney’s challenge threatens to break both its legs: he plays like an angel and looks like an orc. But I think his body, if not his face, would support the theory and biology is about tendencies, not absolutes. For example, men are taller than women, on average, and that has great biological significance. The significance doesn’t disappear because some women are a lot taller than some men.

Some women are also a lot better at running and jumping than some men, but that doesn’t change the statistics. At the extremes – the far tails of the bell-curve – one sex can hugely outnumber another and this book is about human beings who have exceptional athletic ability. Accordingly, although the average man is not hugely more athletic than the average woman, the only woman who turns up here is Delia Smith, the TV-chef and Norwich City benefactrix who clocks in as legend no. 99. But, just as cooking involves more than a sensitive palate, football involves more than athleticism. A footballer’s brain has to deal with much more than a sprinter’s, so running ability isn’t all a footballer needs. Sometimes he can do without it: legend no. 6, David Beckham, wasn’t known for his speed. He doesn’t challenge the symmetry-and-attractiveness theory either: he’s famously good-looking. And famously well-rewarded for it: the Beckham photo chosen by the authors shows him in a room crowded with photographers as he promotes an aftershave. But Beckham, often mocked for his verbal indexterity, does challenge the theory that football requires intelligence. I’m sure, though, that, despite his clumsy way with words, he does have an above-average IQ. I’m also sure that his brain is above average in other ways. All the brains in this book must be, including those of Roman Abramovich and Delia Smith. You need an above-average brain to be successful in a field that doesn’t depend purely on luck. Business and cookery don’t, and neither does football.

But luck is a big part of what makes football interesting: the book is full of might-have-beens. How high would legend no. 79, Darren Anderton of Tottenham Hotspurs, have gone without all the injuries? And what would have happened to legend no. 8, Sir Alex Ferguson, if, as seemed more likely than not, Manchester United had sacked him in 1990, “following defeat against [Nottingham] Forest in the third round of the FA Cup”? But the defeat didn’t happen: a late goal by Mark Robins saved Fergie’s job and started the avalanche of silverware that means Manchester United are now the most successful club in British football. The might-have-beens of legend no. 15, Matthew le Tissier of Southampton, are different: it wasn’t injury that stopped him moving to a bigger club, it was loyalty and laidbackness. As he himself says here: “Perhaps I’m in the nought point one per cent of footballers who don’t give a toss about unlimited money.”

He was another player who wasn’t good to look at, but was good to watch. Very good: his goals, like Beckham’s passes and crosses, were things of beauty. The aesthetics of football appeal even to the most lumpish fans, but le Tissier the aesthetician belongs with legend no. 10, Dennis Bergkamp of Arsenal, not with Beckham or legend no. 16, Cristiano Ronaldo. Beckham and Ronaldo are wonderful to watch, but they perform off the field too and bring the tedious worlds of fashion and celebrity into their footballing careers. Le Tissier and Bergkamp didn’t, which makes them my favourite players in the book. My favourite manager is legend no. 13, Arsène Wenger of Arsenal, but the most interesting manager, or even most interesting man, who appears here, Brian Clough of Nottingham Forest and Derby County, isn’t one of the legends. He’s discussed in the section devoted to legend no. 61, the manager Martin O’Neill, who played for Clough at Nottingham Forest. Clough himself never managed a team in the Premier League, but he did achieve remarkable things with medium-sized clubs in the old First Division. He also achieved remarkable things as a player, scoring 63 goals in 74 games for Sunderland in the early 1960s, before breaking his leg and having to retire young.

What might have been there? Clough’s goal-rate is reminiscent of the prodigious run-rate of the Australian cricketer Donald Bradman and, like Bradman’s, it doesn’t seem to have been a statistical fluke. Legend no. 56, Kevin Phillips, also scored at a remarkable rate for Sunderland, but after 30 goals in 36 games during his first season, he reverted to the mean and ended his career with a unexceptional 92 goals in 259 games. He was another good player who doesn’t genuinely count as a league legend, but his place in the section on club legends is taken by Kevin Ball. If you’re thinking “Who?”, join the club. Burnley’s club legend isn’t even a player: it’s the “super-fan” Dave Burnley, who has clocked up 480,000 miles following every Burnley game since 1974 and who named his daughter “Clarette in honour of the team’s colours”. Another exceptional person in a book about exceptional people. The book itself isn’t exceptional, but it is entertaining and unhysterical. The premier league gets only the first of those right. Crowds in the German Bungesliga are bigger and the skill in the Spanish league is greater, but the international audience for Fußball and futbol is much smaller. English football, though increasingly less English, is the most popular in the world. That is proved by trivial mathematics, but more subtle and powerful mathematics, which governs the movement of rocky spheres in the heavens, also governs the movement of airy spheres on football fields. Those spheres can still create music at the feet of men like le Tissier and Bergkamp, and the muzak of hype and hysteria doesn’t drown it. That’s what makes this book worth reading through and reminiscing over.

Read Full Post »