Little things that matter

How We Live and Why We Die:
the Secret Lives of Cells
Lewis Wolpert
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £14.99

The first time I met Lewis Wolpert he tried to kill me – intellectually, that is. He almost succeeded. I was defending my book Understanding the Present and he was accusing me of being a closet Christian, an agent of the Tory government (this was the early 1990s) and an all-round dunce. I survived because I realised that all this said more about Lewis than it did about me or my book. In fact, it said nothing about the book, which to this day I’m convinced he hadn’t read. But, anyway, we subsequently became distant friends, though he still tells me I’m wrong about everything.

The truth is that Wolpert is a very important scientist indeed and, when he keeps aways from subjects for which he has no sympathy – religion, philosophy, and so on – he writes quite brilliantly. He is also very funny; his default mode is mournful, exasperated glee. Fair enough, so is mine. He has another mode, depression, which I have not experienced, but about which he wrote with moving honesty in Malignant Sadness.

This book is more or less straight science: it is an account of the working of the living cell. The subtitle is accurate; the title isn’t, but publishers have to contribute something. They might also have contributed some hours of editing time: there are sentences which seem to have words missing, one where “leads” and “results” sit together, presumably as alternative verbs, and worst of all, the construction “gives rise to” is used with manic regularity. Alternative expressions – causes, results in – are plentiful, so this could have been fixed easily. Reading these passages is like having an unscratchable itch.

Leaving that aside, this is a marvellous piece of work. It’s a slow read because of the density of information, but a clear one. In a thinnish book, Wolpert explains our unfolding knowledge of the foundations of life. He repeatedly describes cells as “clever” and “miraculous”, adding “but not in a religious sense”. They are, indeed, wondrous things of almost unimaginable complexity, sustaining themselves with miniature chemical power stations, producing proteins and replicating themselves using nano-machines of staggering accuracy and efficiency.

Wolpert also goes into the many ways in which this machinery can go wrong. This makes life seem even more miraculous. Not only are cells improbably complex, they are also fragile and subject to catastrophic failure. Our existence depends on the ability of trillions of molecules to line themselves up in perfect order following billions of instructions, any one of which can be wrong or misread; and our ability to ponder that fact is dependent on a few custard-like pounds, lodged in an all-too-feeble dome of bone. Being alive and aware is, indeed, a miracle, whatever meaning you attach to that word.

This level of complexity now seems necessary: how else could anything live, or, most startling of all, reflect on that fact? A moment’s introspection will show the obvious truth that being alive is a complicated and wildly improbable process. But when the structure of DNA was first unravelled in 1953, the dominant feeling among scientists was that it all seemed incredibly simple. Here were four chemical letters strung out along a long but apparently boring molecule. It was a mini-computer with a very limited language. On top of that, first estimates that the human genome contained roughly 100,000 genes proved wrong. We have only about 30,000. This just doesn’t seem to be enough, but apparently it is.

The simplicity was an illusion. The more we have excavated the workings of the cell, the more layers of complexity it has revealed. One prominent geneticist once said to me that no human could ever have designed this, and he wasn’t sure evolution could have done it, either. Complexity had reintroduced the argument for the existence of God – or, at least, some external force – on the basis of the design of nature. (Before you say anything, Lewis, I don’t think this is quite rational, but let’s not go there. I’m just making a point about our apprehension of complexity.)

On the whole, this book sticks to what Wolpert knows and does best; occasionally, however, it strays. He strays legitimately when he points out that current Vatican rulings on stem-cell research, based on the idea that human life begins at conception, are absurd even by Catholicism’s own standards. Neither Aquinas nor Augustine would have agreed, and I don’t see anybody of their stature at the court of Pope Benedict.

But there are worse strayings. Under all this are signs of Wolpert’s familiar folly of overvaluing contemporary knowledge. This may be merely a rhetorical problem. For example, he writes that Aristotle “was a wonderful thinker but wrong about almost all the science he wrote about”. This may be true, but an alert reader will reasonably conclude that if Aristotle was wrong about so much, then it is safe to assume that, 2,500 years from now, it will be apparent that Wolpert was wrong about just as much.

This is not a point that he or any other hard-science thinker ever fully takes on board – it requires humility, not a common virtue among prominent scientists, often found clutching a microphone and a book contract. It also requires an awareness that, as we can never know the limitations of our science, one must fall back on more durable forms of wisdom. Wolpert, however, has spent far too much of his career trashing these forms, which he, along with all those militant atheists, insists on seeing as the enemy.

But, for the purposes of this wondrously informative book, never mind. Read it. You will learn more than you can imagine about something you cannot possibly imagine: the fabulous complexity of being alive.