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.
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”.
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.