Strange fish: Lake Malawi is home to some unique species. Photo: Getty
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Genes are not as important as you might think

Michael Brooks’s Science Column. 

If you ever count the segments on a centipede, you’ll find there’s always an odd number of them. This isn’t because that’s what the genetic code of each species says must happen; it’s because the processes behind a centipede’s development constrain what is possible.

According to a growing number of researchers, the standard story of the influence of genes is overblown. So many other factors influence how we turn out as individuals and how we evolve as a species that the fundamentals of biology need a rewrite. “This is no storm in an academic tearoom,” a group of biologists wrote in the journal Nature in October. “It is a struggle for the very soul of the discipline.”

An organism’s environment is another complicating factor. Shape, for instance, is supposed to be genetically determined in fish. However, a trip to Lake Malawi has shown how shallow that idea can be. The lake’s cichlid fish are genetically unique, yet some species look a lot like those in the nearby Lake Tanganyika. Their big, pouting lips and protruding foreheads seem to be a result of environmental pressures and developmental pathways and not genetic instructions.

The shape of a sycamore leaf, too, is determined only in part by genetics. The chemistry of the soil the tree is growing in, even just its wetness, affects the outcome. And wetness matters to commodore butterflies: they emerge from the chrysalis orange in the dry season and blue in the rains.

So, life is complicated. Random mutations in DNA play a role but so do plenty of other factors. What’s fascinating is that even those random mutations are more complex than we thought: some may be driven by the most fundamental processes in the universe.

At the cutting edge of physics, researchers believe that quantum uncertainty, a kind of blur at the root of physical processes, brought the cosmos into being. Our advanced engineering tools exploit this uncertainty to make lasers, silicon chips and all the gadgets of the 21st century. And at the cutting edge of biology, the same phenomenon is being held partly responsible for driving evolutionary change.

That’s because some genetic mutations result from a seemingly innocuous misplacement of protons within the DNA molecule. Protons are one of the constituents of atomic nuclei and are able to exploit quantum phenomena such as uncertainty. They don’t have to be in just one place, for example; a single proton can exist in two different places on the molecule. Until, that is, the cell’s molecular machinery arrives to read the instructions encoded in the DNA. This action forces the proton into one place or the other, an action that will, in some outcomes, bring about mutations in the DNA’s structure.

The Surrey University geneticist Johnjoe McFadden was the first to suggest that biology may exploit this peculiarity of quantum physics. It may be, he says, one of many quantum tricks at work in the living world. He has outlined the possibilities in a new book, Life on the Edge, co-written with the theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili. The pair believe that animal migrations, photosynthesis, the sense of smell and a slew of other everyday phenomena might be quantum at heart.

The idea of a quantum aspect to biology was first suggested by Erwin Schrödinger in his 1944 book What is Life? This inspired the physicist Francis Crick to move into biology and led to his 1953 discovery, with James Watson, of the structure of DNA. After that, few paid quantum biology much attention. However, with biologists facing uncertainty about what lies beneath their discipline, Schrödinger’s idea may be about to rise again. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser