Philosophy at the Crick

The Francis Crick Institute in London (informally ‘the Crick’) is a huge research enterprise, “the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe”. Its ultra-modern building accommodates 1900 scientists collaborating across multifarious specialisms. The aim is “to make discoveries about how life works” and to turn these discoveries into medical therapies (one of its incorporated institutions is Cancer Research UK). Although so visibly and self-consciously progressive, this establishment which opened in 2016 is already the leading user of laboratory animals in the UK. It also supplies GM animals to other laboratories.

Crick facade

The Chief Executive Officer of the Crick is Sir Paul Nurse, the geneticist who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for his research into the chemistry of cell division. Nurse is a most distinguished scientist, whose work has helped to explain what is more or less the essence of life: its ability both to replicate and to innovate, and therefore to turn from the first viable cell into a whole world of plants and animals, still on the go after three billion or so years. He has now written a book titled What is Life? Since he has unique authority to answer such a question, and since we may imagine that the monster Crick and its envisaged future are implicated in the answer, it must surely be a book worth studying.

What life isn’t, Nurse insists, is some peculiar force or substance distinct from the rest of the material world. Versions of that assumption, commonly termed ‘vitalism’, have dominated thinking in the past (even William Harvey, the pioneer of experimental biology, thought in that way), and they still survive here and there. But the contrary notion, that lives are “astoundingly complicated, but ultimately comprehensible, chemical and physical machines” is, so Nurse says, “now the accepted way to think about life.”

The book confirms and illustrates this thinking in the case of life’s smallest viable unit, and Nurse’s own specialism, the cell. Most of the book is in fact a lively biology lesson (though deplorably without graphic aids), likely to fascinate and educate anyone who hasn’t studied biology recently or gone past Ordinary Level and its equivalents. Still, it’s a popular summary, best interpreted as part of the Crick’s express ambition to “engage and inspire the public”. The book is well-designed to do that, and the purpose may explain why, for all the excursions into particular discoveries and how they happened, there is no mention of animal research. Anyway, What is Life? does answer its own question: to be called life, the book concludes, you must be a self-maintaining physical entity with the power and purpose to pass on your own natural form – either intact or with some unpredictable variance – to a succeeding generation.

Nothing revolutionary in that, of course, and one must look elsewhere for the book’s ideological force. If this book is the Crick’s address to the nation, what is it encouraging the nation, whether intentionally or otherwise, to feel and believe? Certainly it makes the machinery of life seem astonishing, as indeed it is, and Paul Nurse enjoys and insists on this – among other ways by using many an exclamation mark. A sense of wonder, then, but not merely contemplative wonder: it’s clearly linked to the activity of discovery. Some of the notable personalities and researches which have made the wonders known are sketched in, including those in Nurse’s own laboratories. There, for instance, it had initially seemed “slightly preposterous” to mix yeast cells and human DNA on a Petri dish, in order to determine whether the mechanism of cell-division in these far-distant life-forms might be exchangeable; however “it was worth a shot. And, amazingly, it did work!”   

So this book is partly about “the thrill of scientific discovery”. And in fact in its first edition it had the sub-title (subsequently dropped) Five Great Ideas in Biology, which clearly made the life-scene a function or aspect of the human mind. Well, of course it is that in some sense but, as Nurse concedes, life did get on without human awareness, let alone understanding, for almost all of its unimaginably long history.

Perhaps there’s only just a distinction here, between wonder at the phenomena of life, and the excitement of knowing about them. But I think that the distinction is brought out by the place which humans enjoy in the life-scene as viewed by Nurse.

He does make the point again and again that “we humans are related to every other life form on the planet”, including, of course, the yeast cells which he first worked with. He also insists that this puts upon us a responsibility “to care about it” and “to care for it”. In this can be seen how much has had to be learnt since a previous celebrated attempt on this same subject, William Beck’s Modern Science and the Nature of Life, published in 1957. That’s a book which likewise persuaded its readers against vitalism, tracing the gradual revelation of the chemico-physical basis of life, and incidentally foreseeing exactly the work for which Paul Nurse earned the Nobel Prize. Having established that there is no other-worldly motive taking care of things, Beck concluded that “Man . . . is going to have to look after himself.” And he gave it this portentous last line: “Man has already done much, but it is dawn, not midnight, and, in the gathering light, he looks magnificent.” (No smirking, please; this was 60 years ago.)

That is not Nurse’s attitude at all, but still he does take for granted that humanity is a special case. A recurring feature of the book are the short runs or lists of life-types: “towering forests, swarming colonies of ants, huge networks of underground fungi, herds of mammals on the African savannah, and very much more recently, modern humans.” In these lists, humans seem always to come at the end like that. The suggestion is irresistibly that humans are indeed the culmination, or at least the point of rest. And there is no encouragement to efface our special interest: Nurse habitually speaks of “we humans”, “ourselves”, “our own”, “us humans”, even “our world”.

what is life cover

I’m sure this is deliberate, part of the “engage and inspire” policy; and after all, his readers all are humans. Still, the net effect is not so different from William Beck’s more candid heroics. And I believe that it leads to a subtle misrepresentation of the true case. In the later part of his book, where Nurse speaks (in rather general terms) about the necessity of science as a means “to make life better”, he includes among the beneficiaries of this amelioration “the ecosystems that we are an inextricable part of”. Well, are we? Certainly we can’t do without the ecosystems, but they could surely do perfectly well – much better, in fact – without us. We are extricable. It’s strangely anthropocentric not to acknowledge or even notice this.

You may have remarked in Nurse’s definition of life as reported above the rather surprising idea that life has “purpose” – surprising not just because this seems a distinctly mental property for entities which include single cells, but also because Nurse often calls organisms “living machines”. But of course the purpose in question is a matter of action or behaviour, not thought. What we observe in these machines are “purposeful behaviours that have evolved because they improve the chances of living things achieving their fundamental purpose, which is to perpetuate themselves and their progeny.” And in his chapter about evolution (one of the ‘five great ideas’), Nurse qualifies the term, speaking more accurately of “the apparent purposefulness of living things [my italics].” Meanwhile evolution itself, the great biological machine to which all these lesser machines are subordinate, operates “without any controlling intellect, defined end goal, or ultimate driving force.”

Seemingly purposeful behaviours in the toils of a purposeless will: the tragic pathos of this situation is not remarked upon by Nurse, who doesn’t pretend to give philosophical or moral commentary (though he is fairly free with generalized phraseology of the “vast and awe-inspiring universe” sort). But looking to future research, especially research into the nature of consciousness, he does believe that it will need co-operation “between the humanities and the sciences”, and he specifies the contribution of philosophers. Certainly I was impressed, reading What is Life?, by the natural fit it would make in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer – who did believe, in his turn, that philosophy should be able to account for the natural sciences.

Contemplating the world now pictured for us in What is Life?, Schopenhauer inferred a great impersonal and impartial drive activating all lives, lending them temporary purposes which they think (in the case of humans) their own, urging them into procreation and pitilessly discarding them. He called this drive the Will, and he said this about it:

It is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature which is manifested.

This Will is not itself life, it is not even evolution (which is simply one expression of its ceaseless push within life), but it’s the existential condition for all the lives which Paul Nurse writes about. And what it especially adds to Nurse’s account is the unity of all life not just as to cellular structure or basic genes (which of course Schopenhauer, writing in the early nineteenth century, didn’t know about), but as to experience: all lives are helpless vehicles of the one Will, are therefore part of the one experience. We aren’t just relatives of those ants, fungi, forests, and herds of mammals; in all but the externals we are them.

Schopenhauer is sometimes said to have ‘demoted’ humans in his thinking: no, he just didn’t start with an assumption of their special status; he didn’t promote them. Notably he didn’t give them special rights over any others. Accordingly, he hated and denounced vivisection. Paul Nurse is right: we need him and his like at the Crick.

Notes and references:

Quotations about the Crick are from its web-site at https://www.crick.ac.uk/

What is Life? was first published by David Fickling Books in 2020. The quotations are from the paperback edition of 2021. It’s not a long book – 212 pp. in large well-leaded type. It’s also authoritative, informative, and pleasant to read – therefore well worth reading, though the concluding remarks about climate change, the future, etc., are unsurprising and only of interest because an influential scientist is saying them.

Modern Science and the Nature of Life, by William S. Beck, was first published in 1957. Quotations are from p.292 of the Penguin Books edition of 1961.

Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation is quoted from the Dover Books edition of 1969, vol.1, p.110. The two-volume work was originally published in 1819 and 1844.

Marching, Speaking, and Doing

The National Animal Rights March for 2021 was organized by members of the group Animal Rebellion, and took place in London last Saturday afternoon. The starting-place was Smithfield, the UK’s largest wholesale and retail meat market. With its long history of cruelty and violence, and its setting in London’s centre of finance, the City, representing the rule of the money-interest, this was a very well-chosen venue. In fact it was here, in October last year, that Animal Rebellion set up their plant-based market alternative, beautifully picturing the one viable food-future open to us. And even the more general Extinction Rebellion campaign, radical and eloquent as that is, evidently needs this persuasion. Its current leaflet, as distributed at Smithfield, puts second-to-last, in its ‘What can I do?’ list, ”cutting down on meat”. A placard at Saturday’s march stated the case more accurately and urgently: “Go Vegan, or Go Extinct”.

Smithfield banner

The route for the march took in three stopping-points at noted counter-vegan institutions. There was Cargill, for instance, whose holdings and own operations make it the largest (in the sense most profitable) food business in the world. Despite its plant-leaf logo, tastefully topping the ‘i’ in its name, this company controls the impoverished lives and violent deaths of billions of animals every year. Animal Rebellion calls Cargill the “silent giant”, and certainly it keeps itself anonymous at its London headquarters, 77 Queen Victoria Street. Like so many companies, it prefers to boast about its work (“committed to helping the world thrive) in the nowhere-land of the internet. By the way, the italics for ‘thrive’ are Cargill’s own, so you can see how earnestly sincere it is about this aim.

Then there was the Marine Stewardship Council, round the corner at Snow Hill (the police running ahead of the march to guard the doors at each next stop). This is an organization whose “vision . . . is of the world’s oceans teeming with life”. Plunderable life, that is, for the MSC’s hope is that, by not over-fishing, we can make “seafood supplies” (sometimes known as fishes) lastingly available “for this and future generations”. Our speaker outside Cargill’s offices, Tim Bailey, had told us that the pain of slaughter, however small the animal, was “exactly the same”. This assertion was quoted in news reports, perhaps because it feels like an over-statement or at least tendentious. But we don’t have to know whether it’s true or not, for the right to live is certainly nothing to do with large or small. And therefore the speaker outside the MSC’s headquarters, Laila Kassam, quite properly re-defined ‘over-fishing’ as any fishing”.

March at MSC

One of the founding organizations for the MSC was Unilever, whose offices were the march’s first stop. This is another giant enterprise, which hoovers up successful brands, mainly cosmetics and foods, and makes their profits its own. Most of the conventional ice-creams one’s heard of, for instance, seem to belong to Unilever, for of course it’s not a vegan-friendly enterprise. It is, however, publicly committed to animal-free research (“we do not agree that animal testing is necessary to assure the safety of our products.”), and it posts an interesting video on Youtube about modern alternatives (linked in the notes below). It’s even been commended for its research policy by PETA.

However, as Animal Rebellion says, Unilever sells its products in countries whose governments require animal tests even for cosmetics – notably China – and the enormous volume of Unilever’s international trade therefore ensures that it’s still implicated in animal testing on a large scale. Unilever claims that “Doing good sits at the heart of everything we do”, but it’s the shareholders whom it aims to do good to first of all, something which a march round the City’s money-shuffling institutions makes more than usually obvious. And I doubt that those ice-creams, beverages, shampoos, soaps, and detergents, in so many varieties of packaging but otherwise insignificantly differing within their categories, do anything like as much good for their consumers. Certainly they aren’t worth the life of a single animal.

There are two other reasons for being wary of Unilever’s claims. One is that its newer animal-friendly values come after a very unpleasant history of vivisection. Work being done in the 1970s at Unilever’s own laboratories in Bedford was instanced by Richard Ryder in his pioneering book Victims of Science (the testing of shampoos and soaps in the eyes of rabbits). The same establishment was the scene of a mass raid and exposé by activists in 1984. In the trials which followed that event, one judge called the defendants “enemies of society”, and 25 of them were sentenced to a total of 41 years of imprisonment. More recently, in 2013, Unilever was one of a number of large food businesses said to be testing foods and drinks on animals, in order to justify health-claims.

The second reason for wariness is the bumptious jargon in which the company speaks to its public. “Our philosophy is quite simple,” we’re told: “Live from the Heart!” This is the explanation of “our heart-shaped logo . . . a sign that says ‘here there’s joy!’” How could one possibly trust this sort of sickening hyperbole, or suppose that anyone actually working at Unilever takes it seriously? The similarity of style with Cargill’s gush about “helping the world thrive, or the Marine Stewardlship Council’s vision of “teeming” oceans, reminds us that addressing the public on any aspect of Unilever’s business is a specialism within the company, a profession in itself; this is not the company’s collective voice, not even the voice of the company board. The heart-on-sleeve sentiment is just the fashion of the moment in public relations. It says nothing informative about the reality behind it, and certainly doesn’t underwrite that. Therefore the ethic which first persuaded Unilever and other such businesses away from animal-testing needs to be kept clearly in their sight, and they need to be kept in ours. That was the purpose of the mass visit on Saturday.

Nobody could put the case, or represent it in person, more authentically than the speaker at that point, Mel Broughton. As he told us, he has been putting and living the case for forty years and more: “I’ve seen some terrible things in my time.” In fact he was there at the 1984 raid on Unilever’s laboratories. Not that Mel was making a personal claim for attention. It’s the mark of his commitment to non-human animals that he’s simply purged of vanity and self-interest: a remarkable lesson in personality. And anyway, Mel’s immediate theme was not the past, or even Unilever’s reformed present, but today’s front line in anti-vivisection: the beagle-breeding establishment in Cambridgeshire called MBR Acres (the initials stand for the American owner, Marshal Bio-Resources).

Mel speaking

MBR Acres looks like a factory farm, and that’s indeed what it is, holding about 2000 animals at any one time in sheds with no outdoor runs. The dogs – beagles, because they are small and biddable, indeed trusting – are kept in a germ-free environment, and trained to accept inhalation-masks and injections. Then at 16 weeks or so, they are put into crates and transported to laboratories near and far for use in research. MBR beagles must have constituted a majority of the 4340 dogs used in British research last year, mostly for ‘repeated dose toxicity’ tests. These testing regimes may last for periods of less than 28 days, or up to and beyond 90 days. Such periods represent the likely remaining life-span of the MBR dogs, though some of them survive for re-use. The ordinary life-span of a beagle is twelve years or more. Yes, this is factory farming all right; it’s just that the dogs are being force-bred to be poisoned rather than eaten.

There’s a ‘Camp Beagle’ outside MBR Acres, protesting against, and as far as possible obstructing, the operations. Mel Broughton described the scene, with police crowding at the site entrance, and police vans escorting the MBA vehicles as they carry the dogs away: “We could hear those dogs crying in the back.” There are several videos online showing all this, in one of which can be heard a human crying too, a terrible addition to the distress. Film-clips also show the animals inside the facility, being crated and stacked in the vans. It was film of MBR Acres which is said to have shocked the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. She has demanded a re-examination of the use of animals in research, with a view to their eventual replacement. Very probably this project will fade into oblivion, as most progressive political schemes do. And anyway, as Mel said, “We’ve waited long enough, for 40 or 50 years . . . This has to end now, and we have to be the ones to do it . . . What all these animals want is liberation, and you are the people who will deliver that liberation. Don’t give in. Believe in what you’re doing.”

Mel Broughton is a most forceful public speaker, using no notes, prompted only by conviction and purposefulness. But as another notable speaker, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, said, “the finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” Can speaking, or even marching, get things done? Well, they do get things noticed, get things minded, and get things intended. Without those preliminaries, nothing collective gets done; with them, liberations have indeed been achieved in the past, and this of the animals surely can be too. But as Animal Rebellion says, “We must act now, before it is too late. It’s time to rebel for all life.”

Notes and references:

Animal Rebellion describes its 2020 occupation of Smithfield Market, and its thinking generally, in an excellent post here: https://animalrebellion.org/love-and-fruit-in-the-time-of-catastrophe-animal-rebellion-converts-smithfield-meat-market-into-smithfield-beet-market/

Animal Rebellion has published an open letter to Cargill here: https://animalrebellion.org/cargill-family-a-historic-choice-is-upon-you-planetary-destruction-or-climate-animal-and-human-justice/

The Marine Stewardship Council’s policies are described on its web-site here: https://www.msc.org/about-the-msc/what-is-the-msc

Unilever’s policy on safety-testing is presented here: https://assets.unilever.com/files/92ui5egz/production/5f08c41a40e03128d79e5a6161da28b5adb2c507.pdf/alternative-approaches-to-animal-testing.pdf  and the video showing the modern alternatives is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJWG3YCXT0Y  Its earlier work is mentioned in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science, Davis-Poynter, 1975, pp.48-9, and a description of the 1984 raid and subsequent trials is given in Keith Mann’s From Dusk ‘til Dawn, Puppy Pincher Press, 2007, pp.87-91. The BUAV’s exposé of Unilever and others in 2013 was published in the Daily Mail, as archived here: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2345276/Food-giants-Nestle-Unilever-caught-animal-testing-scandal.html

MBR Acres is shown at work in a video made by Free the MBR Beagles here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1K08pAr_NvQ  Other material about it, and about Camp Beagle and the campaign, can be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/campbeagle199/

Lloyd George is quoted from a speech given at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and reported in the Times for 20 January. The quotation has been used before in this blog on 26 August 2019 for the post ‘March of a Nation’.

The final quotation from Animal Rebellion comes from a general account of its 2021 actions here: https://animalrebellion.org/rebellion/

The photographs show the march setting out from Smithfield Market, the stop outside the Marine Stewardship Council (with police and pink octopus at the entrance), and Mel Broughton speaking outside Unilever’s headquarters.