Thursday, February 20, 2020

Matthew Cobb - Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

There are some iconic "races" in scientific history. US President Kennedy's 1962 challenge to put a "man" on the moon by the end of the decade is perhaps the most famous. More infamous is the US drive to get the atom bomb before the Germans and Russians. Others are less famous, and of these, the story of the rather more elongated race to "crack the genetic code" is probably the most important.

The same year that Kennedy made is speech, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the noble prize for their work in understanding the shape of the DNA molecule. The event is well known, particularly in Britain where it's celebrated as a British success story. Ignored at the time, though increasingly better known today, was the work of Rosalind Franklin whose leg work laid the foundations for the discovery which was announced in April 1953.

But this was just one moment in a long, convoluted exploration of the biological structures and processes that allow leaving things to pass on information to their offspring. Matthew Cobb's book is a detailed and entertaining account of that story, which begins long before the discovery of DNA and has a cast of fascinating and sometimes eccentric scientists.

Cobb begins not with the practical science, but the theoretical studies by physicists and mathematicians who hoped to develop understanding of heredity science through understanding flows of information. Surprisingly then we're treated to such diverse, but important, subjects such as the development of automated anti-aircraft guns. Such early attempts to model behaviour formed the theoretical backdrop to latter attempts to understand biological information in genes.
But these approaches ultimately failed. Cobb explains:
None of the hypothetical codes dreamt up by the theoreticians were correct, because they made assumptions that were logical, rigorous and hopelessly wrong. The physicists' appetite for elegance and the biochemists' naive assumptions about natural selection led them to assume that the code had to be extremely economical, that it would look as though it had been designed along logical principles. But that is not how biology works. The genetic code is a product of biology and is messy, illogical and inelegant. It is highly redundant, but to bewilderingly varied degrees...Explaining this patter on the basis of chemical, physical or mathematical principles has so far proved difficult. Whatever logical there may have been has been overlain by billions of years of evolution and chance events. As Jacob put it in 1977, natural selection does not design, it tinkers with what is available.
Cobb points out though, that "at first glance the genetic code does indeed look like an artificial code", which lead many up the wrong path. In the 1950s many scientists tried and failed to crack the genetic code through theoretical approaches because they didn't (or couldn't) understand a key point:
Interpreting the genetic code in terms of precise analogies, strict definitions and exact parallels to artificial systems will almost certainly fail, because the genetic code, like every other aspect of biology, has bot been designed. It is part of life and has evolved. It can be properly understood only in its historical, biological context. That was the lesson of the doomed attempts to break the code in the 1950s and it should guide us today in trying to understand what is in our genes.
Watson and Crick's key moment is recounted quite early on in Life's Greatest Secret. Large chunks of the book are devoted to what happened afterwards as working out the shape of DNA was only one break-through. There are a succession of other noble prize winners in these pages, many of whom were doing science that I found quite difficult to follow. Indeed, one of the problems with this book is that despite Cobb's accessible writing style, if you lack knowledge of biology, much of the science is inaccessible. Personally I'd have found a extra chapter on the basics of genetics and cellular biology, invaluable but to be fair to author and publisher, I doubt that I was the target audience.

That said, this is still a book that contains a great deal of well presented, excellent information (as well as not a few entertaining anecdotes) and insightful comment. The final discussions on contemporary debates around genetics is also very useful. Readers with a better grasp of basic biology than me will find it very stimulating, but even those like me who took other GCSE and A-levels will enjoy the work.

Related Reviews

Cobb - The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis
Saini - Superior: The Return of Race Science
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Monday, February 17, 2020

Carys Davies - West

What happens when a passing fancy becomes an obsession? It's something that many novels have dealt with but few perhaps do it with such style as Carys Davies' West. Rightly it has won multiple awards and much praise, and its taken an age old subject and cast it anew.

Cy Bellman is a mule breeder some where in the American east. He has a few dreams, mostly about breeding more mules and moving west to find somewhere to do that better. But one day he reads a report of enormous ancient bones found in a swamp, and comes to believe that giant animals are still living in the unexplored far west of America. Unable to stop thinking about them, he abandons everything, including his beloved daughter Bess whom he leaves with his straitlaced God fearing sister, and buying a new hat, heads west.

If the book simply followed Cy's travels it would be a classic. Davies' prose is brief but descriptive - she evokes the lands brilliantly as weeks become months and years on Cy's fruitless search. The country he travels through are wilderness to him, but are of course inhabited by Native Americans from whom Cy buys supplies and assistance from with shiny trinkets.

In Cy's absence, Bess becomes a young woman, and she too is obsessed with her absent father. Long dismissed by the rest of their village as insane, Bess holds out hope that Cy will return - at the same time with dealing with all her own changes.

Of course, to us Cy's quest is insane. We know there are no dinosaurs or mammoths out there. But to his generation it wouldn't have been impossible and some well read people certainly thought it possible. But really Cy's quest isn't about the giant animals he draws in the dirt for Native Americans when he asks them if they've seen a mammoth. It's also a quest to understand (or even find) is dead wife. Bess comes to realise this and at the finale she is, rather suddenly confronted, by the metaphorical return of both her parents. The strange, and somewhat unpleasant, climax to the book required several re-readings. My initial dismay being replaced with satisfaction as I realised that Cy and his daughter had reached a redemption with themselves that no one else could really understand.

At slightly less than 150 pages the book packs a lot in and reminded me as a devoured it, that many authors today could learn a lot from the sparsity of words which paint a very detailed picture. Highly recommended.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

David Miles - The Tale of the Axe: How the Neolithic Revolution Transformed Britain

I've been looking forward to reading The Tale of the Axe for some time as there is a lack of popular studies of the stone age tools that our ancestors used for much of human history. As the subtitle of David Miles' book suggests, these tools were fundamental to the transformation of human society from nomadic hunter-gathering to sedentary farming communities.

Disappointingly, however, stone age technology is not really the subject of the book. In fact the title is a bit of a misnomer, as there is no real tale of the axe here. Instead this is a decent over-view of how our understanding of ancient human history has developed and a summary of contemporary understanding, which particularly focuses on the British Isles.

Unfortunately the book suffers from trying to do too much, and becomes a bit of a mish-mash of ideas and subjects. There is quite a bit of skipping back and forth, and at times I was frustrated because I didn't really get what the author was arguing. It is refreshing to see someone engaging critically with the work of Gordon Childe and the ideas of Engels in the context of archaeology, but I didn't really find out whether he found them useful or not. Instead Miles appears to take bits and pieces of what he finds useful and apply them to particular situations without really giving me a sense of his actual framework.

While there is actually much of interest here (and some absolutely stunning photos and illustrations) I was quite frustrated by the book and the author's style. His tendency to throw in random facts and contemporary quotations was deeply distracting and left me annoyed rather than illuminated.

These criticisms aside, David Miles' book does have some interesting details and he draws on his long career as an archaeologist to illuminate specific sites and periods. But ultimately I was disappointed.

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Monday, February 10, 2020

John Wyndham - Jizzle

As a big fan of John Wyndham I was very pleased to discover this collection of short-stories that I was previously unaware of. First published in 1954 the stories appear mostly to date from the early 1950s. Reading these today I'm struck by how familiar they seem. Perhaps this is because their subjects and structures have been much emulated over the years. As such the tales lack the punch from their twist endings that readers probably enjoyed when the book was first published. That said, I enjoyed the stories as much for their contempory social comment as their plots.

Today Wyndham is mostly remembered as a science-fiction author, but his writing was actually often closer to fantasy or horror. Several of the stories in Jizzle are actually horrific, the title story for instance, deals with the consequences of a circus monkey that can draw, and how its extremely accurate pictures of people in compromising positions with others, lead to tragedy.

Several of the stories deal with a favourite subject for Wyndham - time travel, including a rather clever one involving a love-lorn woman who has just been dumped and visits a fortune teller. Rudely dismissing the predictions, she fails to hear the warning "that was your second marriage" and the reader is left to fill in the delightful gaps.

Women play a central role in many of these stories, though often as individuals looking for love. I'd like to suggest that Wyndham was breaking the mould in how women were portrayed but his characters tend to fall into various stereotypes. Because the books very much reflect the period they were written in they share some other stereotypes. One of the stories has a child playing with her dolls in a tea party. The gollywog in her game is the "naughty" character. I doubt that Wyndham was making a deliberate racist comment, but it certainly jarred when I read it 66 years after publication.

Chinese Puzzle is a comic story dealing with the arrival of a Chinese dragon in Wales. Ignoring the crude attempts to portray a Welsh accent in print, the story follows a rather predictable path, with the exception that a central role is played by the local Welsh Communist activist who sees the creatures' arrival in terms of the successful Chinese Revolution. Unfortunately the arrival of a red Welsh "peoples' dragon" turns the conflict into nationalism versus communism. The slightly predictable ending disappoints, but the premise is clever and there are some amusing digs at over-inflated egos in the Communist movement and the Nationalists. I loved Confidence Trick a story in which the London Underground plays a key role, proving that over-crowding on the tube is not a recent development at all!

Some of the stories felt very dated. Does anyone know what a flea circus is these days? But others have stood the test of time. Contemporary concerns about the impact of technology are dealt with neatly in The Wheel, which looks at a future where the wheel has been banned and the Church deals with heretics who try and make one.

Despite these being more fantasy, questions of science and technology run through many of the stories, including the consequences of misusing science (or indeed magical situations) to achieve personal profit. There's a definite sense of karma to most of the tales, protagonists get what is due to them.

All in all this is an entertaining collection that will probably be of most interest to those who are existing fans of John Wyndham. The stories didn't quite have the sense of relevance as The Kraken Wakes did when I re-read it a few years ago. But they are neat and tightly written, reminding me it is possible to tell a story in a few pages, just as well as several hundred.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Angela Saini - Superior: The Return of Race Science

The election, and re-election, of right-wing governments around the world has encouraged the growth and confidence of racists and fascists. Racism is not a rational world-view, but racists, and those who want to encourage them often need to justify and explain their ideologies. Pseudo-scientific racist ideas have been around for some time - arising in particular out of attempts to justify the African slave trade. But, as Angela Saini's important new book explains, there has been a revitalisation of scientific racism and this is helping give confidence to right-wing ideologists today.

That these ideas should return is itself a shock. For most people the scientific justification of racism was closely linked to the Holocaust, and in the aftermath of the defeat of the Nazis, these ideas were banished. In fact, as Saini says, it seems impossible that rational minds could conceive of such ideas. Writing about the Max Planck institute, a prestigious scientific organisation in Germany which, in 2001, had to "accept responsibility for historic crimes committed by its scientists" under the Nazis:
The truth - that it is perfectly possible for prominent scientists to be racist, to murder, to abuse both people and knowledge - doesn't sit easily with the way we like to think about scientific research. We imagine that it's above politics, that it's a noble, rational and objective endeavour, untainted by feelings or prejudice.
She continues, "the answer is simple: science is always shaped by the time and the place in which it is carried out. It ultimately sits at the mercy of the personal political beliefs of those carrying it out." But there is a problem says Saini. The unique horrors of World War Two have made race science abhorrent. But, "were scientists in the rest of the world so blameless?" In fact, as my reference to the slave trade above indicates, "the well of scientific ideas from which Hitler and others... drew their plans for 'racial hygiene', leading ultimately to genocide, didn't originate in Germany alone. They had been steadily supplied for more than a century by race scientists from all over the world, supported by well-respected intellectuals, aristocrats, political leaders and women and men of wealth".

So the book is in two parts. The first deals with the history of race science. The second part looks at how those ideas are used today. But really there isn't a separation between these two halves. As one researcher from the 1970s who studied the far-right commented many years later, "I didn't really understand that there were these structures and networks and associations of people that were attempting to keep alive a body of ideas that I had associated with at the very least the pre-civil rights movement... going back to the eugenics movement... These ideas were still being developed and promulgated and promoted." Saini unpicks these networks, the shadowy sources of funds and the journals that allow those with similar beliefs to publish. Publication in particular gives a sheen of academic veneer to right-wing ideologists who want to push race science.

Today race science isn't solely pushed by those who want to see genocide. It can, as Saini points out, be used for all sorts of ideological arguments, for instance that equal opportunity programmes are "doomed to fail". In fact, one of the problems with contemporary race science, is that it often builds on the work of anti-racist scientists who thought their research (into eg genetics) was undermining the very basis for racism. Writing about the Human Genome Diversity Project, a 1990s programme that tried to understand human evolution and migration through genetics, Saini comments that the well intentioned scientists "failed to connect what they were doing with people's rel-life experience of race, with the history and politics of this deadly idea. They thought they were above it all, when in fact they were always central to it." Discussing one of the scientists who was central to the project, the esteemed scientist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza who at the end of his long life maintained "there are simply no races in humankind", Saini points out that "it is also difficult to read his work and come away convinced that his generation of scientists had fully abandoned race science after the Second World War. Although they had ditched race in name, it wasn't clear that they had necessarily shed it in practice". So some scientists argue that there is so much variation in human genetics that the idea that there are only a few races is incorrect, instead there could be thousands of "social groups" having some biological uniqueness. But, as Saini says:
Canadian philosopher Lisa Gannett has similarly warned about the ethical limits of thinking about race in this new way. To some, it may not seem racist to think about average 'populations' rather than distinct 'types' of people. Certainly, early population geneticists such as Dobzhansky believed that racism was rooted in the assumption that within ethnic groups, people are all the same, whereas those like him believed that, within these groups, people are actually very different. But in the racist mind... it doesn't necessarily matter how differences are distributed, so long as they are there in some form or another. This conceptual loophole in population genetics - the fact that we're all different as individuals but that there is also some apparent order to his diversity - is what has since been seized upon by people with racist agendas. Gannett calls it 'statistical racism.
Modern science doesn't back up race science. But, as Saini points out, that doesn't matter, "racists will find validation wherever they can". The problem is exacerbated she argues, because we are increasingly locked into generalisations and categories that have little basis in reality.
We can't help it. We keep looking back to race because of its familiarity. For so long, it has been the backdrop to our lives, the running narrative. We automatically translate the information our eyes and ears receive into the language of race, forgetting where that language came from.
Even well meaning scientists fall into this trap, as do some anti-racists. In her chapter on "Black Pills" Saini shows how pharmaceutical companies are targeting "black" people for specific medical conditions, even though the causes of those diseases and illnesses are entirely social. Such an approach "lets society off the hook. It places the blame for inequality at the foot of biology. If poor health today is intrinsic to black bodies and nothing to do with racism, it's no one's fault."

In other words, it's not society at fault, for treating people differently, but genetics - and that cannot be helped. But as this book demonstrates, the truth is the opposite. Society both causes poverty and inequality, and the racism that is used to justify it. At best race science provides a cover for this, at worst it opens up the door to those who would like to encourage genocide.

Angela Saini's book is an urgent and important read for every anti-racist. But it should also be read by scientists, and not just those in biology departments. It makes it clear that tackling racism and bigotry needs more than just facts, but also requires an approach that understands the origins of these divisive ideas and can challenge them.

Perhaps we need a revival of left wing science - both in practice and organisation. There's a long tradition, particularly in the 1930s, of scientists collectively challenging dominant right-wing narratives. In an era when we see the revival of far-right politics and fascism and growing concern about climate change such networks of radical scientists could come together with anti-racist and environmental movements to push back the right-wing agenda. That would be a powerful weapon in fighting bigotry and the system that causes it. Angela Saini's book is crucial ammunition for that struggle

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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Stephen King - Elevation

Having thoroughly enjoyed Stephen King's most recent full length novel The Institute I was excited to see this novella in the shops. As I noted in my review of The Institute, one of King's skills is the description of life in small-town America, full of memorable detail and dark foreboding. So the fact this short novel, set in the fictional Maine town of Castle Rock, is based around this concept made the book even more attractive.

Unfortunately King fails to pull it off this time. There are two aspects to the story, both centred on the likeable, if dull, Scott Carey. Scott finds himself experiencing two simultaneous problems. The first is that he is losing weight rapidly. But unlike people on a diet he is experiencing no simultaneous decrease in size. Moreover, things he touches also lose their weight. At the same time Scott's lesbian neighbours, Deirdre and Missy, are experiencing the dark side of small town America. Here, the conservative minded locals, are boycotting their restaurant and silently mocking their marriage.

Scott, uses his new found weightlessness to rather unconvincingly pull the town together around the gay couple and rejuvenate their lives and business. This happens when he helps Deirdre, a former Olympic athlete, win the annual Thanksgiving run. The picture of Deirdre, her wife Missy and Scott on the finishing line is enough to convince the conservative inhabitants that gay couples aren't a bad thing.

There's nothing particularly bad about the tale. But it just doesn't work. Prejudice doesn't just vanish like this based on a pleasant photo in the newspaper. The one occasion that Scott does challenge the homophobia he is unsuccessful and warned off. For the story to work it needed a more powerful challenge to the bigots. The disease itself might be intended as a comment on contemporary politics, but it is unbelievable - and given that King can make killer cars, haunted hotels and giant alien spiders living in the sewers believable that's strange.

The weight loss, and its inevitable outcome, might work as a convoluted metaphor for Scott dying of cancer, but as a plot device it is completely unbelievable as King fails to setup Castle Rock as the sort of place were this sort of thing takes place. Clearly this is all a metaphor by King for Trump's America. But if King thinks that it is going to be this easy to knock back the bigots that he'll have a surprise. It's only a short book (in fact I was very annoyed to find some 30 pages of the already slim volume devoted to an extract from The Institute) so King fans can read it quickly without feeling they're committing to a major tome. But I guarantee most will be disappointed.

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Monday, January 27, 2020

Max Hastings - Vietnam: An Epic History of a Tragic War

Max Hastings is not a natural ally of the left. He is, after all, a former editor of the pro-Tory newspapers the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard. Yet, despite his politics, his book on the Vietnam War turns out to be both insightful and readable. Unlike some accounts of Vietnam, which overly focus on the American experience in Vietnam, Hasting understands the need for the long sweep of history to understand both the US involvement in the country and their ultimate defeat.

Hastings begins with the French. Their colonial rule of the country generated enormous discontent. Their ousting, but a popular military uprising was an incredible feat of arms for an under-armed national liberation movement. Hastings' vivid account of that most symbolic of defeats for the French, the shambles at Dien Bien Phu, leaves the reader with no other conclusion than colonial racist arrogance led the French to believe that they invincible.

Unfortunately the United States failed to learn the lesson. As American involvement in Vietnam gradually developed from simply advising and funding the enormously corrupt South Vietnamese regime to active military engagement, its representatives behaved exactly like the former colonial rulers. Hastings' writes:
In 1961, and indeed thereafter, there was an insensitivity among policy-makers about the impact that a Western military presence makes. Many harsh things may be justly be said about what communist fighters did to Vietnam, but their footprint on the ground was light as a feather by comparison with that made by the boots of the US military. The very presence of affluent Westerners, armed or unarmed, uniformed or otherwise, could not fail to exercise a polluting influence on a predominantly rural and impoverished Asian society. Like other senior Americans posted to Saigon, the CIA's Bill Colby adopted a domestic style befitting an imperial proconsul, occupying a villa with a domestic staff of six. Army enlisted men took it for granted that a Vietnamese cleaned their boots and policed their huts.
Readers will detect that Hastings' is not a fan of the Communist movement that led the struggle to oust the Americans. It's probably fair to say that, on balance, he thinks that Communist victory was a "bad thing", a failure for Western foreign policy. But that does not mean he is gung-ho for the US. In fact his sympathies lie very much with the ordinary Vietnamese who suffered appalling during French and US involvement. In this regard while celebrating (to a certain extent) the expulsion of the French, Hastings sees a fundamental break with the movement that defeated the United States. He concludes that:

The fatal error of the US was to make an almost unlimited commitment to South Vietnam, where its real strategic interest was minuscule, when the North - the enemy - was content to stake all, and faced no requirement to secure or renew popular consent. Moreover, the 1964-65 American takeover of the South, which is what took place, legitimised Vietnamese communism.

Hastings is at his best in the book when he zooms from the strategic overview of politicians like President Johnson, or Kissinger or Hồ Chí Minh and Lê Duẩn down to the level of the ordinary solider (on both sides). The anecdotes he tells of the battle fields are often horrific, and he is balanced in making sure he covers the experiences from both sides. Aspects of the conflict that are often ignored - the experience of long-range high-altitude bomber pilots, or Russian and Chinese "advisors" in North Vietnam are covered. He is also scrupulous in trying to give the reader a sense of strategic interests of both sides.

He also is not afraid to expose inconvenient truths. Discussing the enormous corruption of the South Vietnamese government, including the vast sums of money given to them by the US and their involvement in illegal buying and selling of military materiel and the laundering of money. But he notes this could not have happened without "active or passive complicity of thousands of Americans, some of the relatively exalted".

It is no surprise then that Hastings can write:
It is among the themes of this book that the foremost challenge for the allies was not to win firefights, but instead to associate itself with a credible Vietnamese political and social order. Dr Norman Wyndham a... Australian surgeon who led a volunteer medical team in a Vung Tau hospital, was a devout Christian who made himself a fluent Vietnamese-speaker. He wrote in 1967 of the local people: 'Most want a united Vietnam, but not one controlled by the communists... the feeling is growing... that anything would be better than life as it is today.'
One of my major criticisms of Hastings is that his anti-Communism colours his ability to understand the dynamic of those opposing US involvement in Vietnam at home and in the country itself. For instance, he tends to imply that the left at the time (and by extension, the anti-war movement) tended to look positively on Hồ Chí Minh and celebrate a North Vietnamese victory. Hastings does acknowledge that hindsight makes this seem more credible. But I'm also not sure that it was true at the time. Many anti-imperialists understood very clearly that the Communist government of the North was an oppressive one, even in the 1960s. But Hastings doesn't have a framework to understand Imperialism - despite knowing it is real - and so he cannot understand the celebration of anti-Imperialist movements, even if they don't make a perfect social movement. As Lenin said of the Easter Uprising in Ireland, "whoever expects a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it."

But for Hastings the biggest reason for US defeat was its methods in fighting the war.
The Vietcong exploited their own excellent local intelligence networks to eliminate enemies, often with conspicuous sadism. Yet none of the villagers assembled to witness beheadings and live burials doubted why appointed victims were killed: for opposing the revolution. By contrast, when Americans or ARVN killed civilians, while some where communist activists or sympathisers... others were not. The indiscriminate nature of American-led terror, caused by ignorance about the identities, never mind loyalties, of many of those whom its warriors killed, inflicted as much damage upon US strategic objectives as upon the moral legitimacy of its war effort.
To this we might add the high levels of racism towards the Vietnamese (even their allies) and the indiscriminate nature of warfare that involved blanket bombing and chemical weapons. As an aside Hastings downplays the scale of the impact of Agent Orange. He seems incorrect here as my understanding is that it was much worse than Hastings suggests. I hope to find further reading to clarify this.

Despite the length of the book, I thought some aspects weren't dealt with in enough detail. One key aspect to this was the anti-war movement in the west. Hastings mentions it, but doesn't go into detail and he certainly doesn't really get deep into the links between this and the growing discontent in the US military. There is nothing here about the anti-war newspapers produced by military personal, and while he covers events like the fragging of unpopular officers, he tends to imply it was more individual discontent rather than systemic, organised rebellion. Despite this he displays a subtle and sympathetic understanding of the reality of class and racial differences within the US army itself.

These points, which probably reflect Hasting's own prejudices and politics, I was very surprised by the book. It demonstrates that honest bourgeois historians can produce remarkably insightful accounts. Hastings shows how little the political leaders in the US cared for the Vietnamese, and the cynicism with which they condemned thousands to their deaths. For a book of nearly 700 pages of main text I was unusually gripped to the very end. Hastings has an ability, helped in no small part by being actually present in the briefing room and on the battle field as a junior reporter, to link the big political decisions, with the reality for the US marine, or the North Vietnamese soldier. It makes for a very useful account of what was an appalling war.

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