Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves
Le Fanu (James)
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  1. The triumph of science now seems almost complete. The extraordinary developments in cosmology and astronomy, the earth and atmospheric sciences and many other disciplines in the past sixty years allow us for the first time in human history (astonishingly) to hold ‘in our mind’s eye’ the entire history of the universe: from the moment of the Big Bang to the creation of our solar system, the formation of the earth and the subsequent emergence of life – culminating five million years ago when the earliest of our ancestors first walked upright across the plains of central Africa.
  2. There remained, however, till recently two great unknowns, two final obstacles to a truly comprehensive theory that would also explain our place in that universe. The first is how it is that all living things reproduce their kind with such precision from one generation to the next. The ‘instructions’, as is well recognised, come in the form of genes strung out along the two intertwining strands of the Double Helix in the nucleus of every cell. But the question still remained, how do those genes generate that near infinite diversity and beauty of form, shape and size and behaviour that distinguish one form of life from another?
  3. The second of those ‘great unknowns’ concerns the workings of the brain: how does the electrical firing of its billions of nerves ‘translate’ into our perception of the sights and sounds of the world around us, our thoughts and emotions and the rich inner landscape of personal memories.
  4. But then, from the mid-1980s onwards, remarkable advances in genetics and neuroscience promised to resolve these final questions. They were the astonishing and technical achievement of spelling out the full complement of genes – the genome – of worms, flies, mice, primates and humans; and second, the immensely sophisticated brain scanning techniques capable of observing the brain ‘in action’ – seeing, thinking and acting on the world.
  5. Their findings have indeed transformed, beyond measure, our understanding of ourselves – but in a way quite contrary to that anticipated. The genome projects were predicated on the reasonable assumption that spelling out the full complement of genes would clarify, to a greater or lesser extent, the source of that diversity of forms that marks the major categories of life. It was thus more than disconcerting to discover that virtually the reverse is the case the near equivalence of a (surprisingly modest) 20,000 genes across the vast spectrum for a millimeter long worm to ourselves. It was similarly disconcerting to learn that the Human Genome is virtually interchangeable with that of our fellow vertebrates the mouse and our primate cousins. “We cannot see in this why we are so different from chimpanzees,” remarked the director of the Chimp Genome Project. “The obvious differences cannot be explained by genetics alone.” This would seem fair comment but clearly leaves unanswered the vital question of what does account for those distinctive features of standing upright and our prodigiously large brain.
  6. More unexpected still, the same regulatory genes that cause a fly to be a fly, it emerged, cause humans to be humans with not the slightest hint of why the fly should have six legs, a pair of wings and a brain the size of a full stop, and we should have two arms, two legs and a turbo sized brain. Those ‘instructions’ must be there, of course, but we have moved in the wake of these genome projects from supposing we knew the principles of that greatest of marvels, the genetic basis of the infinite variety of life, to recognising we have no conception of what they might be.
  7. Paralleling such perplexities, neuroscientists observing the brain ‘in action’ discovered that it fragments the sights and sounds of every transient moment into a myriad of separate components, with no compensatory mechanism that would reintegrate them together into that personal experience of being at the centre of a coherent, ever-changing world.
  8. Meanwhile, the greatest conundrum of all remained unresolved – how the monotonous electrical activity of those billions of neurons the brain becomes the limitless range and quality of subjective experiences of our everyday lives – where every fleeting moment has its own distinct unique intangible feel: whether cadences of a Bach cantata are so utterly different from the lingering memory of that first kiss.
  9. The implications are clear enough while theoretically it might be possible for neuroscientists to know everything about the physical structure of the brain, its ‘product’ the mind with its thoughts and ideas, impressions and emotions, would still remain unaccounted for. “We seem as far from understanding the brain as we were a century ago,” remarked the editor of Nature John Maddox. “Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free.”
  10. These twin setbacks to the scientific enterprise might, at any other time, have been relegated to the category of problems for which science does not, as yet, have the answer. But when cosmologists can reliably infer what happened in the first few minutes of the birth of the universe, and geologists can measure the movements of vast continents to the nearest centimetre then the inscrutability of the genetic instruction that should distinguish worm from mouse, man from fly, and the failure to explain something as elementary as what constitutes a thought suggests we are in some way profounder and more complex than the physical world to which we belong.
  11. “There is a powerful impression,” writes James Le Fanu, “that science has been looking in the wrong place, seeking to resolve questions that somehow lie outside its domain. It is not just a matter of not knowing all the facts but rather a sense that something of great importance is ‘missing’, that might conjure the richness of the human experience from the bare bones of our genes and brains.”
  12. We are, argues James Le Fanu, on the brink of a major intellectual shift – comparable perhaps to that of Galileo’s liberation of astronomy from an earth centred cosmos. We are compelled by the recent findings of genetics to recognise the deep inscrutability of the near infinite variety of forms of the living world. Again we are led through the recent findings of the neurosciences to recognise the insuperable gap that separates the working of the brain’s neuronal circuits from the powers of perception, reason and imagination of our extraordinary minds. Certainly, for the foreseeable future, there seems no need to defer to those who would appropriate our sense of wonder at the glorious panoply of nature by their claims to understand it. Rather, every aspect of the living world from a humble fly to ourselves now seems once again infused with that deep sense of mystery of ‘how can these things be?’
    List of illustrations – vii
    Introduction: A Mystery to Ourselves – xiii
  1. Science Triumphant, Almost – 1
  2. The Ascent of Man: A Riddle in Two Parts – 24
  3. The Limits of Science 1: The Quixotic Universe – 59
  4. The (Evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything': Certainty – 72
  5. The (Evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything': Doubt – 110
  6. The Limits of Science 2: The Impenetrable Helix – 126
  7. The Fall of Man: A Tragedy in Two Acts – 148
  8. The Limits of Science 3: The Unfathomable Brain – 176
  9. The Silence – 230
  10. Restoring Man to his Pedestal – 253
    Acknowledgements – 263
    Notes – 265
    Index – 293


Harper Press; First Edition edition (5 Feb 2009). See "Le Fanu (James) - Doubts About Darwin" for a plug. See "Alexander (Denis) - Review of 'Why Us?' by James Le Fanu" for a review.

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