Review of 'Why Us?' by James Le Fanu
Alexander (Denis)
Source: Alexander (Denis) - Science and Christian Belief 22.1 (April 2010)
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  1. As medic, writer and journalist, this author is tired of the attempts by scientists to extrapolate their science into theories of everything, and is critical of the arch-reductionists1 who promote scientistic understandings of the world. He also counters the triumphalist tone of science with the data of history, pointing to the extrapolations of Darwinism into racism and eugenics, indeed horrendous examples of the way in which science can be abused for ideological purposes.
  2. The book is broadly divided into two halves, the first half focusing on evolutionary2 biology and the second half on the neurosciences and the question of mind. Much of the science is well described and this book is certainly no diatribe against science itself. On the other hand, the author's unhappiness with the scientistic interpretations of science does spill over into a negative stance towards some of it, for unnecessary reasons in the opinion of this reviewer. In this respect the book is somewhat reminiscent of a similar book by another journalist, Brian Appleyard (Understanding the Present, 1992), who likewise failed to distinguish carefully enough between science and scientism, thereby running the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
  3. In the present volume this tendency is noticeable particularly in Le Fanu's stance towards evolutionary3 theory, which is partially hostile, though for reasons that remain unclear. In the account of human evolution4, we are told that ‘there is nothing to suggest the major mutations that one would expect to account for the upright stance or that massively enlarged brain...' (47). But the relation between genotype and phenotype is a subtle one, and the extent of genetic variation bears no obvious 1:1 relationship with the extent of phenotypic variation. Darwin's On the Origin of Species is declared to be ‘in essence immune to criticism' (108). Really? The famous Chapter Six of Darwin's book shows how very aware he was of the criticisms that could sensibly be made of his theory right from the beginning, a theory now hugely strengthened by genetics.
  4. Assertions are made by Le Fanu about the ‘impossibility' of something having happened in the way that Darwinian evolution5 suggests, sometimes preceded by those immortal words: ‘It is difficult to imagine that....' or ‘conceive how', but solid scientific reasons are not supplied as to why something should not be the case. Imagination is an unsure guide when it comes to scientific realities. There is insufficient geological time, it is claimed, for evolution6 to account for the transition from a ‘small mammal to the extraordinary whale' (120). There must be some ‘prodigious biological phenomenon, unknown to science' that ensures that the bodily organs operate to such a high degree of efficiency (122). It is maintained that random genetic variations are insufficient to bring about a complex organ like the eye (124). Even enthusiasts for Intelligent Design, a group to which this author does not appear to belong, seem to have given up using the eye's complexity as an anti-Darwinian argument, so well are the various stages of the eye's evolutionary7 development now delineated.
  5. Far from viewing in a positive light the contemporary science of genomics and our increased understanding of how the information encoded into DNA is translated into an organism, the author believes that these advances only make clearer the inadequacy of DNA to explain ‘the diversity, form and attributes that so readily distinguish man from fly'. Enter something that sounds very like a revivified vitalism: ‘there must be some nonmaterial formative influence that, from the moment of conception, imposes the order of form on the developing embryo8'. ‘We cannot, by definition, know that formative "life-force" directly, only infer its reality as the missing factor that might bridge the unbridgeable gap....' (146). Because developmental biology is, as yet, unable to give a full description of the genetic information flow that builds living organisms ('how genes fashion those delicate drooping heads' of the snowdrops, 146), the author appears to feel that this ‘gap' in our present understanding can only be filled by appeals to some external ‘life-force'. This claim sounds very similar to the nineteenth century German Naturphilosophie, as propounded by natural philosophers of that era such as Blumenbach (1752-1840), who proposed that the embryo9 developed by the action of a special 'formation force', but the idea is unlikely to appeal to contemporary developmental biologists.
  6. The discussion of the neurosciences follows a similar line of argument, with the author underlining the non-materiality of the mind and the insufficiency of current science or philosophy to give a coherent account of qualia. Whilst this claim is surely correct, the immateriality of mind is overstated, with the author claiming that ‘contrary to every known law of nature, non-material thoughts and emotions directly influence the physical structure of the brain' (223-224). ‘Thoughts and emotions' are surely very material embodied entities, whereas their description in the language of the conscious agent provides a description complementary to that of physical embodiment.
  7. It is the author's contention that contemporary neuroscience has led to the rediscovery of the soul and of the ‘self', since qualia and the personal conscious language of the ‘knower' escape all attempts to comprehend scientifically. ‘We then link together the rediscovered soul and that life force with Newton's laws of gravity as the three forces of the non-material realm that impose order on the material universe and all within it' (228). The author goes on to suggest that if only biologists could wean themselves off their addiction to theories like 'materialistic10' Darwinian evolution11, then this would free up their minds to tackle some other scientific problems. One does gain the impression of a hope here that other manifestations of the ‘potent forces of the non-material realm' might thereby be uncovered.
  8. This reviewer can well understand why an active commentator on the present cultural scene might react against the arch-reductionists12 who engage in 'nothing-buttery' expositions of their science. Nevertheless, it is a pity that this has led the present author to invoke mysterious forces as a possible corrective, a strategy similar to that of the Intelligent Design proponents who invoke 'mysterious design' principles to ‘explain' biological complexity. But both concepts are notoriously fragile, based as they are on supposed gaps in our current scientific explanations for things, gaps that will inevitably be closed with the on-going march of science.
  9. If only this author had explored the traditional bulwarks against arch-reductionism13 — complementarity, emergence, parallel narratives — a little more thoroughly, leaving aside the invocation of ‘mysterious forces', then this book would have been much easier to recommend.
  10. Denis Alexander is Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund's College, Cambridge, and Editor of Science and Christian Belief.

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