Time Out with Nick Cohen: Steve Jones

Darwin had to contend with religious dogma and bad poetry. An illustrious successor is equally frust

Whether we live in a golden age of scientific dispute is disputed, not least by Professor Steve Jones, but we certainly have lived through a golden age of science writing. Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, E O Wilson, Steven Pinker and Jones himself have taken evolution out of academia and engaged the educated public. Yet, for all their skill, watching them has been like watching a concert party for the troops in a war zone: an interesting diversion from the main event. They have been arguing about selfish genes, punctuated equilibrium, sociobiology and atheism, while barely noticing the biological catastrophe around them. The "Holocene extinction event", a destruction of flora and fauna by the human race so extensive that it is comparable with the five other mass extinctions in the 550-million-year history of complex life on earth, is ravishing the planet, but great writers on evolution have stayed silent as man destroys their raw material.

Jones makes ample amends in his new study of the poisoning of the coral reefs, but I put it to him that, for most of their careers, he and his contemporaries have missed the dying elephant in the room.

His answer shows Jones's many virtues. First, he corrects my sloppy generalisation; Jared Diamond and E O Wilson have written well about man's catastrophic effect on other species, he points out. Then he's off with the incisive fluency that makes editors hire him and readers buy him.

"What's interesting is that biologists are as distanced from the world of natural history as any member of the public. Most of us just study humans, fruit flies, bacteria or snails." He points across the senior common room of University College London. "Look, there are two extremely eminent math ematical biologists. They probably couldn't recognise the difference between a sparrow and a starling. Biologists' minds are focused on a very narrow range of things. I would say 90 per cent of students in the faculty aren't particularly concerned about what is going on in the natural world. They want to cure brain cancer.

"I'm unhappy about it, but I'm unhappy about it more as a concerned human being than as a professional biologist. I'm not minimising the horrors of what's going on, but I don't think biology is going to solve the horrors. Even the work that tells you about the size of reserves you need to protect endangered species brings generally bad news - you need huge reserves."

Listening to him, I think that if ever I have to be trapped in a lift with anyone, it might as well be Jones. In talking as in writing, he combines wit and pace with a backlist of references he began accumulating when he was a bookish boy in Nonconformist Wales who buried himself in his grandfather's Bible. Almost Like a Whale, his rewriting of The Origin of Species, offers a small example of his range. It begins by laying out the dogma Charles Darwin had to combat: that God fitted every creature for its place in Creation. An ordinary writer would have simply presented the argument and left it there. Jones digs out a poem by one John Hookham Frere, a forgotten Georgian Conservative, and quotes with relish his anti-Enlightenment verse of 1798 that explains the argument for design with two of the worst lines in English poetry:

The feather'd race with pinions skim the air -

Not so the mackerel, and still less the bear!

He pays readers and listeners the compliment of assuming you are as knowledgeable as he is - the classic strategy of a natural teacher who knows how to flatter his pupils into keeping up. When I meet him to share the atrocious sandwiches UCL forces on its academics, he is angry that "supposedly liberal" rules will make him retire from teaching in two years, when he reaches 65. Many academics would welcome the chance to write books and address appreciative audiences around the world. Not so Jones. Teaching comes first.

All of which makes his success appear an easy matter to explain. We would have to give up on intellectual life if a writer who loves learning and knows how to communicate it couldn't find audience.

However, Jones's appeal has a mysterious element. He is a wary, even gloomy thinker, out of step with the current culture of exhortation and moral uplift. Prince Charles, vir tually every celebrity who opines on politics, the serious media, the British government, and all the other signatories to the Kyoto treaty, insist that changes in lifestyle and energy production can limit the effects of climate change. The underlying assumption of the lectures on recycling and cutting back on air miles is that relatively painless adaptations can "make a difference" and limit the degradation. True, serious greens aren't as cocksure, but even they believe that dramatic change can have dramatic effects. Jones has no time for optimism of any variety. Coral is subtitled A Pessimist in Paradise, and he sees the destruction of the coral polyps as foretelling the destruction of humanity: "The reefs themselves make some firm, and sombre, predictions about our own apocalypse." We shouldn't be surprised - extinction is the fate of all species - though Jones cheerily says his best guess is that disease will get us before the heat.

Pessimism is a persistent feature. For all his suavity and atheism, I wonder if it would be cheap psychology to believe that his grandfather's Bible has given him a touch of the Old Testament prophet. He delights in taking apart the confident pretence of sociobiologists that their study of evolution has given them the key to human nature. "An awful lot of stuff about human behaviour and society one reads would not get into a scientific journal if it were about fruit flies," he sighs. "It's not good enough. Science is about facts."

When I give him a sociobiological account from Pinker's The Blank Slate of how humanity's sense of justice developed from an evolutionary need of early human beings to punish those who threatened to take their mates, he all but bursts out laughing. "Now design the experiment. Give me the data to suggest that's true. This is arts-faculty science. People sitting down and inventing stories without the smallest fact to support them.

"It's dangerous because evolution has been used as an alibi by everyone. Marx sent Darwin a copy of Das Kapital. Hitler used it to justify his crimes. You have to be careful about the naive application of these ideas. In the States, defence lawyers are trying to use genetics to spare defendants from death row. There, lawyers of Stephen Mobley [who murdered the manager of a Georgia pizza parlour in 1991] tried to save him from lethal injection by arguing he had a gene that predisposed him to violence. After that, the state of Texas, home to our friend George W Bush, changed its rules in a very subtle way to say that anyone deemed to be a continuing threat to society would be liable for execution.

"What that means is that, if the defence uses a genetic argument that a prisoner is genetically predisposed to violence, the state will kill him because it can't cure him. Although I despise that view, it has the same logic as the alternative that genes deny criminal responsibility. You have to be very careful to disentangle biology from its use in society and it's not clear to me that sociobiology has tried to do it."

Nor does he hold back from saying that his fellow geneticists are as guilty as sociobiologists of "grossly overselling" what they can do. Jones doesn't doubt that genetic discoveries will shape many lives. It is possible to imagine a future in which genetic tests influence decisions on whom to marry and which pregnancies to abort. Genetic science is imposing burdens on individuals that our ancestors never imagined. In the past, insurance companies didn't know who was more likely to suffer a heart attack in middle age; they just had to pay the money to the victims and their families when sickness struck. Soon they will be able to demand higher premiums or refuse cover. Jones is fond of the old saying, "If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance", and isn't advocating the suppression of information, but his pessimism about the science lies in its present inability to provide a quid pro quo for the afflicted in the form of new cures from gene therapy.

We were assured they were on their way. The mapping of the human genome led to euphoric predictions of sensational cures sweeping science. The mania caught managers at UCL, who proposed renaming one of their hospital buildings the UCL Institute of Gene Therapy.

"Thank God they didn't," says Jones, eyes wide with disbelief at the folly of it all. "The amount of egg we would have on our face for doing that! Until very recently, gene therapy hasn't worked. It has now worked in some cases - inborn immune deficiencies for babies in the womb - and that's wonderful, and it's been remarkably promising for some varieties of inherited blindness, but it's only worked in dogs so far.

"That's it. That's all we've done. But I've had the horrible experience of giving lectures to sixth-formers and twice girls have come up to me at the end and said: 'You're talking about cystic fibrosis and I've got it, but I'm not worried because I'm going to be cured by gene therapy.' And I've thought, 'Oh my god. Where did you get that from?' Well, the answer is scientists and science teachers - that's where they've got it from."

"Where did that come from?" is a question Jones is asking ever more regularly. Creationism, once an unthinkable mental deformation for educated men and women, is flourishing among his Muslim students, who are forbidden from accepting the basic premises of their subject. When the publishers of a Turkish edition of Almost Like a Whale flew him out, he was astonished when they told him that the Islamic government saw evolutionary theory as a challenge to its rule, and introduced him to his bodyguards. I ask how he copes with students who come to university with closed minds.

"At the end of the course I ask, 'Was I lying to you about chromosome structure?' and they say no. Then I say, 'Was I lying to you about cell structure?' and they say no. So I ask why on earth they think I'm lying to them about evolution, and of course they can't answer, because they're not allowed to."

Cautious in the face of intellectual manias, caustic about superstition, he is pessimistic about our future. His students may not always realise it, but the great virtue of Professor Jones is that he doesn't lie.

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