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19 September 2018

Why we should be wary of using animal behaviour in trying to explain our own

Odd that Jordan Peterson didn’t choose giraffes, for whom most sexual encounters are male-male with penetration. 

By Adam Rutherford

I have spent much of the last few days  destroying my own work. It turns out that obliterating it neatly is almost as difficult as making it. It’s publication week of my latest, The Book of Humans, and we’ve been running various competitions to draw people’s eyes in. I have great fondness for hiding secrets in my books. In one, I encoded a message in the letters of the genetic code – an email address that revealed the instructions for a treasure hunt.

For The Book of Humans – surely conceived by me as an epic act of procrastination – I have dug out a hole in the middle of one copy, as if to hide a wad of cash, and inside this book-box I’ve stashed a small treasure, something mentioned in the book and of relevance to the story. So far, I’ve destroyed two practice copies with a multi-tool trying to carve and glue a neat rectangular box inside 250 pages of human evolution. I’ll push the button for this hunt to begin on Twitter this week. Let’s see how long it takes people to work out what’s in the box.

Schrödinger’s chat

I’m writing these words on a plane to London from Dublin, where a bunch of scientists were celebrating the 75th anniversary of one of the most influential series of lectures of the 20th century. You may have heard of the Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger from his thought experiment – no real animals were harmed – in which a cat in a sealed box was simultaneously dead and alive until observed, whereon it chose one of those quantum states. I forget why this is important, because as a mere biologist, I am primarily concerned with organisms that are either alive or dead, but never both.

In 1943, Schrödinger gave three public lectures at Trinity College Dublin with the title “What is Life?” Easy to ask; no one has come up with a satisfactory answer so far. Does the definition matter? I think not, and like Justice Potter Stewart’s comment on adjudging whether Louis Malle’s 1958 film The Lovers was pornography or not, we don’t have to be able to define life, but we know it when we see it. Schrödinger’s question influenced many scientists that followed, not least Francis Crick and James Watson as they were working towards discovering the structure of the double helix. Later, Watson wrote that Crick burst into Cambridge’s Eagle pub in February 1953, declaring that they had “discovered the secret of life”.

Best minds of their generation

Of course, Crick never said such a thing. Watson admitted recently that he made it up for dramatic effect in his blockbuster book The Double Helix, this year celebrating its 50th birthday. It’s still a thrilling read, though not entirely trustworthy, and grimly sexist towards Rosalind Franklin, on whose work their discovery relied.

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Along with a phalanx of other Nobel prize-winners, 90-year-old Jim Watson was present in Dublin. Scientists are invariably apprehensive about his presence at public meetings, for fear that he will trot out some attention-seeking racism or misogyny, as he frequently does when given a platform. This time round, he gave a largely incoherent after-dinner speech, which mercifully did not detract from the otherwise stellar minds locking horns to determine the future of science and society.

As is often the case, it was not the behemoths of science that were the most thrilling, but the younger, more agile researchers, on topics such as artificial intelligence, or computational biology – where only the power of microchips can reveal the inscrutable complexities of four billion years’ worth of evolution. In the mould of Schrö-dinger, the physicist-turned-biologist Danielle Bassett has been using network theory to elucidate consciousness and schizophrenia. These were the lectures that made the audience lean in and squint at ideas that may yet become defining issues in the future of science. And if that all sounds mighty highfalutin, we all retired to a pub, because every scientist knows that the best, most interesting and most productive conversations at scientific meetings happen at the bar.

Human nature

And so, I turn to the most pressing task to hand – writing a new lecture myself. The Book of Humans is about how we evolved to be the modern conscious, artful creatures that we are today: 200,000 years ago, our bodies were much the same as they are now, but only in the past 50,000 or so have we developed art and culture and all of the things we think of as being quintessentially human. What happened? Why are we different from other beasts? We are evolution’s product but we have left those shackles behind. Darwin pondered this in The Descent of Man, but Hamlet said it first and better: “What a piece of work is a man?” he marvels; “In action how like an angel… The paragon of animals,” before going on to the question: “What is this quintessence of dust?”

Lobster love and hyena hierarchies

Now if that all sounds mighty highfalutin, it’s worth noting that a decent chunk of the book is about animal sex. I’m interested in the potential folly of using animal behaviour in trying to explain human behaviour. It’s part of my ongoing battles with evolutionary psychology, a field frequently beset by just-so stories masquerading as science. The most prominent in the current phalanx of these ideologues is Jordan Peterson, who asserts that male-dominated hierarchies in lobsters are evidence to support the existence of male hierarchies in human societies.

Odd that he didn’t choose giraffes, for whom most sexual encounters are male-male with penetration. Or hyenas, who live in a matriarchy, established by licking each other’s clitorises, which, by the way, are almost the same size and shape as the penis. Or dolphins, which sometimes perform mass infanticide. Or the famously adorable sea otters, who sometimes drown females and use their carcasses to copulate with. I think I’m going to ruin a lot of cute animals for people over the next few months.

“The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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This article appears in the 19 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war