39. “The Science of Life” 1919-1929

Julian Huxley was one of the few general biologists who realised that the way out of the stagnation was to link the new genetics with Lankester’s kind of biology and find some integrated whole. After the First World War Huxley had returned to Oxford to study birds and reptiles and to teach. He had gained useful knowledge of the new genetics from the States and he helped the zoologists at Oxford begin work on the experimental biology of population genetics. One of his experiments involved feeding thyroid from the local butcher to some reptile-like animals called axolotls. During the course of the experiment their gills shrank, the membrane around their tail was absorbed, and the aquatic red-spotted newts turned into large salamander-like creatures with dry skin adapted to air. By the end he was surprised to find that he had created a land animal which had not existed in adult form for many thousands of years.

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His paper in Nature attracted interest from the Daily Mail and set Huxley off on writing popular science. Immediately this attracted concern from his fellow scientists, that he would lose his standing as a reputable professional. He discussed the ethics of all that with his colleague JBS Haldane, who was one of the first to urge him to be cautious about becoming too popular. But within a few months Haldane himself was speculating in front of the Heretics Society at Cambridge about birth outside the body. He wrote up the lecture with many other futuristic stories, one predicted harnessing energy from wind, another talked of antibiotics, and he brought them together in 1924 as Daedalus or Science and the Future, a booklet published by Kegan Paul.

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Jack’s father, the professor of physiology, hit the roof when he heard about the venture and told his wife to write to his friend Huxley, hoping he would have some influence on their errant son: “I find the S.P. [she always called her husband the Senior Partner] is frightfully upset about Daedalus. Will you abstain altogether from poking fun at him on account of it? And if you can do so, keep people off the subject altogether when he is about?” There is no record of what the old man said of their son’s new girl-friend, a Daily Express journalist called Charlotte, but whatever the reaction, they soon married.

Huxley, meanwhile, had left Oxford for the chair of zoology at King’s College London and only two years later he did an unusual thing for a young academic: he resigned. It was then 1927 and he was seduced away to help write an encyclopaedia called The Science of Life, a project run by HG Wells and his zoologist son Gip. Wells was insistent that Huxley became involved and he usually got what he wanted. Also at that time Huxley suffered bipolar disorder and his memories of the war wouldn’t go away, making it difficult to hold a full-time job.

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The Science of Life was a great success both in serialisation and as a final volume which would have been reprinted were it not for the second World War. Parts of it quickly lost popularity and Huxley was not too pleased that many of the ideas about eugenics were overtaken by events of that war. He believed that the shrinkage of food-growing areas would increase food prices and discourage the poor from having children. Another way would be to encourage voluntary sterilisation and Huxley let his imagination run wild with crazy optimism. It would lead to “a world encumbered for a time with an excess of sterile jazz-dancers and joy-riders which may be a pleasanter way to elimination than hardship and death. Pleasure may achieve what force and sword have failed to do. A world released from war can afford that; it is not a thing to fret about.”

It could have been worse. While proof-reading Huxley wrote: “Dear HG …. The Breeding of Mankind is still unsatisfactory in certain definite ways. I think I must have been so exhausted last Aug. that I let you and/or Gip triumph unopposed by me! As they stand the remarks about social classes are to me untenable. … As these differences will I hope soon be wiped out by birth control, I agree to passing it over with a very slight reference.”

Under pressure from HG Wells to finish writing his contribution to The Science of Life Julian Huxley and his French wife Juliette decided to leave London for the long winter of 1928 and stay at the Swiss skiing resort of Diablerets. There they rented a chalet with Aldous and his wife Maria, Aldous was also writing to a deadline, for finishing Point Counter Point. To add to the literary atmosphere at their cut-off Alpine encampment, the Huxleys’ friends DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda had a chalet nearby, another winter refuge where they were busy typing the final draft of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

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In retrospect, the completion of these three works, by three good friends together at the same retreat couldn’t have been more appropriate and timely. They were each trying to understand the basic biological instincts over which they had no control, and they were trying to create a synthesis half way between two world wars. What part did a sense-of-self play in whole society? What was the difference between pleasure and happiness? Emotionally and intellectually exhausted by that work during the day, each evening they took turns to read aloud to one another, and finished the whole of The Pickwick Papers. Julian saw it as “a happy time, the white landscape soothing and protective, and much work was done.”

Well aware of what a precarious age it was in which to be alive, they also spent a lot of time talking about their different evolutionary and physiological ideas, especially how they related to the genetical development of human-kind. This infuriated Lawrence who believed the more power that was excercised by ‘the dark loins of man’ the greater would be the freedom for our instincts and our intuitions. His utopia was a singular and physical climax, separate from any fixed romantic place but full of passion and desire. This was how he would solve the world’s troubles and he directed his anger especially at Huxley, the professional scientist. “I learnt to disregard his outbursts, but we had many a stormy passage.” All of them through that Swiss winter wanted to use their prominent positions in society to influence public opinion and government.

By the end of the 1920s it looked to many life scientists that things were at last coming together. Fisher and Haldane’s claims from mathematics that heredity and natural selection were compatible encouraged others to submit their evidence from different disciplines as well, and it meant that taxonomy, ecology, palaeontology and cell biochemistry were soon showing examples of the same interaction. In turn it was becoming clearer that individuals didn’t evolve and that groups and populations did. The nineteen-thirties promised to be a time of new breakthroughs and this was one of the topics where scientists were on a roll. But there were big logistical obstacles coming from the global economic depression that were bound to delay specialists from all these disciplines working together.

Meanwhile, the arguments continued between opinion and conviction, the self and God, the right and the left. One of the many troubled old men who were well aware of some of the moral difficulties of modern thinking was the Bishop of Ripon.

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He spoke for many of the old guard when he called for a ten year moratorium on all scientific research, for the general good of mankind. He complained about a “moral lag, a gap between moral and scientific advance, for man’s body had in effect gone on growing while his soul had largely stood still or gone back.” Earlier, in anticipation of this religious backlash to so much humanism, HG Wells had suggested a similar “holiday” for the clergy, in the cause of human progress. Wells was clear about where human destiny lay and wished to be rid of sentimental images of heaven for a select few. These pieces of conflicting advice were a 1930s-style version of the division between mythos and logos and it prompted a new debate about the social and political responsibility of scientists.

41 The Great Depression 1930-1940

  By the time of the 1929 Cape Town meeting of the British Association Julian Huxley was working well with HG Wells and his son Gip. All three were as surprised at the goings-on at the British Association meeting as most others back in Britain. They were as determined as ever to keep open the pluralist approach that Tansley had been advocating, to be considered in conjunction with the new genetics without being drawn into the politics of eugenics. Then Huxley got the job of Secretary to the Zoological Society of London, running the zoological gardens in Regent’s Park and at Whipsnade Park. This was a controversial appointment, for the zoo had been run along very conservative lines where the Fellows retained a lot of power on how the place was run. Huxley quickly introduced charges for members’ guests and fought hard for it to open to the public on Sundays. Young people were encouraged for the first time with a new children’s zoo and the backroom research flourished. It was an exciting place to be in that lull before the war. event_image1.php     th-1

The zoo canteen even became well-known to a small group for its exceptional English cooking. With the help of a professional chef called Philip Harben the Half Hundred Dining Club often met there for such rare delicacies as bison’s heart and silverside of antelope. These dishes were only available at culling times and members sometimes complained that there were “not enough middle-sized snakes” to produce the soup they wanted. Meanwhile, alone in his study on many dark nights that led up to the London blitz, Julian Huxley embarked on a serious project similar to what he had done so well before with The Science of Life. From a confusing disarray of knowledge, he had the skill to bring together a new case for understanding how evolution worked. Unknown to anyone at the time including himself, this work was to become one of the great climaxes of twentieth century science. Not only did it cover variation and natural selection but every topic bearing on the subject, from the biochemical basis of heredity to the evolution of consciousness, the effects of human cultural development and the problem of defining evolutionary progress. Some say it was also the last, and the lost, opportunity to save our planet from the environmental catastrophe that was soon to get underway.

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Bernal, Zuckerman and Needham all served as science advisors during the war, and Bernal was particularly busy as advisor to Mountbatten. He tested several extreme proposals for landing aircraft and tanks in difficult places. One involved mixing wood chips on icebergs to make them into strong and transportable landing strips; another tested the strength of beaches with only thin coverings of sand over peat and salt-marsh, and their advice helped decide the location of the D-Day landings in Normandy. This was when Huxley and Haldane often took part in the popular war-time radio show The Brains Trust, together with others such as Gilbert Clark, Robert Boothby, Malcom Sargent, Arthur Bliss, William Beveridge and Jacob Bronowski.

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Huxley remembered one question that completely stumped them. “It came from a young girl, who asked how a fly managed to land upside-down on the ceiling. The answer was provided much later by high-speed cinematography – the fly does not reverse and turn a back-somersault, but executes a sideways roll.” Such challenging broadcasts cheered-up millions of other dark nights during the black-out. Bernard Shaw, still campaigning against Darwin’s ideas, forty years after that back-stage party for Jekyll and Hyde and sent Huxley a post card in May 1942: “I listened in on Tuesday and thought you got mixed up between evolution and education. Education goes on for a lifetime: but the evolution of perhaps thousands of years is recapitulated and compressed into as many minutes by the foetus. ….  Biology is in a bad way. The Laboratory mind is more degenerative than malaria. The descent from Huxley, Darwin and Spencer – broken by Butler, Bergson and Back to Methuselah – to the simpleton Pavlov is a precipitous degringolade (Mrs Huxley will translate).”

After another broadcast later that year Shaw wrote to the editor of The Listener: “My friend Dr Huxley, in his broadcast on Charles Darwin, dismissed me from consideration as a biologist on the ground that I am “emotional”, offering as a sample a passage from one of my prefaces, which was recited by the actor who impersonated me in such a manner as to make it sound like the raving of a sentimental drunkard. “I am not the author of this passage. It is a quotation from the Canticle in the order for Morning Prayer entitled Benedicte, Omnia Opera. Dr Huxley is unacquainted with the Book of Common Prayer, having been brought up as a Natural Selectionist; but I shall be happy to lend him my copy if he desired to verify the quotation. “P.S. Darwin did not exclude the emotions from the biological field. He wrote a whole book about them which I read before Dr Huxley was born.”

Shaw held on as one of the last supporters of Lamarckian vitalism and always hit out at people like Huxley who he labelled as “materialists” believing in natural selection. While he was living this eclectic life-style, Huxley was busy thinking about how he would make as big a mark on the world of biology as his grandfather. With his experience of the experimental genetics that was still growing in the United States and parts of Europe, with his knowledge of systematic zoology and ornithology in particular, and with his unusual outlook on life, he was well-placed to do something big. He began in his Presidential Address to the zoologists at the 1936 meeting of the British Association, and called for the re-unification of all biology around Darwin’s theory of evolution. Enough was known then about mutation, recombination and selection to bury non-Darwinian theories.

Bateson had died in 1926 without resolving the mystery about mutation and Fisher’s group hadn’t made any break-through either. The time was ripe to build some new way out of this stalemate. Huxley did well to publicise the way natural selection works, with radio talks, lectures and books. He used two principles to get his main ideas across: that natural selection works through reproduction and mutation, and that with time it gives improved systems in nature. These were loaded expressions: reproduction involved the self-copying of genes, improvement was such a subjective notion yet concerned adaptation to change. Just as water changes from liquid to gas at a critical point, and other chemicals change their molecular organisation at different points, so, Huxley argued, organisms change their species at their own kind of critical point, making new species into real new entities. In contrast, he saw genera as strings of species descended from ancestors, products of history rather than something with their own dynamic, and he realised it was the environment that changed the critical point through geological time.

Another important feature that he emphasised was stability, the time between these changes of the critical points, the “persistence of types” and known now as “punctuated equilibria”. Then Huxley had a bit of timely good luck, an unexpected boost to these ways of uniting all the evolutionary evidence and it came from an unexpected source. He realised that if he was to bring a lot of different specialists together he needed a strong link between experimental biologists and the more classical taxonomists at museums, zoos and botanical gardens, so it was timely that the taxonomists were setting themselves up with a new society in May 1937. It was auspiciously named the Association for the Study of Systematics in Relation to General Biology and Huxley was invited to edit its first publication, The New Systematics. This gathered together state-of-the-art reviews from nearly every field of biology and set the scene for Huxley to take a strong lead in bringing all the players together.


One of these infant disciplines which had enormous importance in understanding evolution was cellular biochemistry. Hans Krebs (1900-1981) had been barred from his work in medicine at Hamburg in 1933 and settled in Sheffield in 1937. That was also when he determined the ten or more intermediates of the citric acid cycle that played a central part in the metabolism of all animals and plants that breathe oxygen for aerobic respiration. He discovered how this links to all of photosynthesis, fat metabolism, amino acid and protein chemistry, carbohydrate storage and nucleic acid chemistry. Krebs’ discovery of this single and universal pathway for respiration was of central importance to how species are related, but it was rarely realised and acknowledged outside his field. These biochemical reactions were important to keep cells working together and also occurred universally in all species, with only few refinements and exceptions. It was striking how most animal and plant cells all used these basic reactions to obtain, store and use energy, and that the bits inside cells such as chromosomes, nuclei, mitochondria and chloroplasts followed the same structural and chemical formats. It was also realised in the 1930s that most living cells have this same kind of modular architecture, essential if they are all related to one-another through the same tree of common ancestry.

42. The 1942 Synthesis

Through the first half of the twentieth century there was one big idea about evolution, marked by four scientists who published separately in the 1930s and three others whose works came out in the early 1940s.

The first was Dobzhansky’s 1937 Genetics and the Origin of Species. It went on from the work of Fisher, Haldane and Sewall Wright with the view that  real world populations had far more genetic variability than the early population geneticists had thought. Not only did natural selection help to retain this diversity but it also drove change and managed mutation.

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Then two other zoologists looked outwards at the environmental conditions of these populations. EB Ford studied butterflies to show that geographical separation helped strengthen the genetic identity of whole populations, while Ernst Mayr’s 1942 Systematics and the Origin of Species elaborated on the effects of this isolation and went on to define a species: as a group of interbreeding or potentially interbreeding populations that were reproductively isolated from all other populations.

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He also showed how they adapted to slight differences in the environment and described slightly different reactions to slightly different geographical variations.

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Aware that the disparate biological sciences needed bringing together, the leading New York biologists tried to encourage debate between their supporters through an organisation ambitiously entitled Committee on Common Problems in Genetics and Palaeontology. But it was war-time in the United States as well as in Europe so travel was difficult; many of the major players on the evolutionary stage were away on military service and those left behind weren’t able to do very much. It was left to Julian Huxley in London to join together all those ideas from different specialisms. He did it in style and provided those left working in biology with plenty of ideas to take forward in a more integrated style of cooperation.

Undaunted, Huxley published his major work about their big idea: Evolution: the Modern Synthesis later in 1942 and announced it as “this reborn Darwinism, this mutated phoenix risen from the ashes of the pyre kindled by men so unlike as Bateson and Bergson”. It put to rest the idea that Mendel’s theory only recognised large mutations, and explained instead that it applied just as well to continuous small-scale genetic changes. Furthermore, these different sized genetic differences occurred universally in all organisms in the same way. The changes could have happened across whole populations of the same species, and so accounted for the mathematical demonstrations of natural selection that Fisher and Haldane had recently made.

Who was to say that any of these explanations were unworthy? Although eventually they all turned out to be wrong, they were all of their time, popular trends within their society, often reflecting or giving it a structure and a sense of purpose. As society changed so these explanations ceased to hold on to their acceptable role, failing to link to new situations and causes. They didn’t stand up to continuing verification, even proving to be false in some scenarios. Huxley’s Modern Synthesis set out timely alternatives to these rejected theories, sorted through the mass of disciplines that had originated and developed since the First World War, rejected the stale failures and encouraged the promising new world. There was genetics, statistics, biochemistry, systematic, universal modules, environment, isolation and time, all within adaptation and selection.

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One of the most important themes that came up again and again in Huxley’s Synthesis was “Progress without a goal”. It was the first time that evolution had been explicitly discussed in this way, so different to the old and difficult concepts “primitive” and “advanced” and the prejudiced evolutionary sequences and styles of adaptation to subtle environmental changes. In turn, it also invalidated much of what had been thought and said about “degeneration” since Lankester’s day, though there was still a connection between that idea of limited human development and the eugenicists’ aims to control the growth of human population.

Importantly, as biology began to pick itself up after the war, and after the revelations of the attempts by Hitler and Stalin to practice different eugenic strategies, some of the ways of thinking about human population biology and human race quickly changed from what had been set down in the Modern Synthesis. Most scientists felt they had learnt a hard lesson about the difficulties of linking their work to politics. In 1950 Huxley influenced the wording of a UNESCO statement that: “A race, from a biological standpoint, is one of the group of populations constituting the species Homo sapiens.” The three major divisions are Mongoloid, Negroid and Caucasoid, and “Catholics, Protestants, Moslems and Jews are not races.”

War forced the re-evaluation of what life meant to most of the people involved: both the hard physics and chemistry of it, the softer psychological impact and its philosophical explanation.

43. Recognising a Catastrophe

During dark months in war-torn London Julian Huxley had united all the known parts of evolutionary biology into a single explanation of life. But like the unity of the allies their interaction was to become disjointed once the war was over. London was a cold and confusing place in the winter of 1945. Three tired friends often met together for evenings out at the Gargoyle Club, a Soho haunt of artists. AJ Ayer a 35 year old philosopher, JZ Young a zoologist in his early forties and the more worldly Julian Huxley then 58 years old, were always looking outwards and to the future, and here was one of the few lively places, with youth and fashion.

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On special occasions they went to Bertorelli’s or the Café Royal. At both of these places there was lively and convivial conversation with writers and artists as well as broadcasters and journalists. The blitz had fragmented the factual from the romantic one stage further and these men, artists and scientists were looking forward to the next stage of the human project. They wondered where this separation might lead, where science might take them. Would art and science move further together in that new world or would they move further apart again? Biology found itself leaderless after those five catastrophic years partly because it was so diverse, its intellectual tentacles penetrating nooks and crannies of really obscure parts of scientific knowledge as well as the arts and the obvious disciplines of chemistry and physics. The impact of the Modern Synthesis was not strong enough to prevent this entangled phenomenon from splitting, and the two largest bits were the old descriptive and systematic subjects of taxonomy, anatomy and morphology, and the new experimental worlds of molecular biology.

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Even palaeontology had a new dawn from the powerful tools of microscopy revealing rapid evolutionary changes in groups of small organisms such as plankton, and touching on the edge of all these fields, ecology was being seen as a main source of the changes. Also after the war, the most active laboratories with most of this new work had shifted from Europe to the United States where a different culture spread the projects out across the widest possible range of application. Never had biological creativity been operating on such a vast scale.

Freddie Ayer and JZ Young were high living Londoners who enjoyed dancing as much as thinking and they got plenty of both at the different ends of the Tottenham Court Road. Having survived the war they were consciously going round picking out the exciting opportunities and rejecting the burnt-out relicts from the past. Gone were the naïve quests for proof and truth, the belief that scientific biology had clear and fixed answers. There were too many interrelated bits all bobbing up and down on the rippled surface, moving about and changing at different rates as time passed by and many kinds of landscape changed. Instead there was a lot of new talk about the verification of scientific ideas through falsifying rather than proving. There was something very poignant about these evenings out, men who were glad to have come out of the second great catastrophe of twentieth century history and were looking forward to living with science differently. Inevitably they talked about their feelings of these confrontations, like the incidents of biological history that had also passed through distinct phases separated by catastrophe and conflict.

They knew that at the beginning of this story there was myth, then religion, enlightenment, evolution, human control, and now in the second half of the twentieth century it was going to be molecular biology. Significantly, these eras were all separated by some kind of serious social conflict like war or revolution. As the three friends suggested in their Café Royal conversations, the end of the Second World War quickly and clearly marked the end of one phase and the beginning of another. It was not the first time that conflict had separated these ages, the English Civil War was one, the French revolution another.

Two other friends who had also noticed these similarities between scientific progress and historical events were JD Bernal and CP Snow at Cambridge. There they also watched cricket with GH Hardy and they would talk about the player’s batting and bowling averages. They laughed at their similarity to the patterns that emerged from the proteins in their latest crystals. One hot topic was whether there was more to science than just these numbers, and Snow scored a victory over both Hardy and Bernal when he pointed out that cricket couldn’t be described by a simple list of runs and averages. Ironically, Snow became one of the first government officials to consider trends like these and to anticipate what they meant for the way post-war science should be run.

But in contrast to the environmental concerns of softer scientists like Tansley and the Huxley brothers, these men didn’t stop to think about the effects of disasters in nature. Snow implemented scientific policy in government, but he was a million miles away from Huxley or Tansley’s more subjective outlook on ecology and psychology. Snow’s own contribution to science was brief, looking at molecular structures through the infra-red part of the spectrum. One of his interpretations that was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1930 soon turned out to be wrong and he stopped lab work altogether.

Another independent thinker about evolution, from yet another discipline, was also at Columbia University alternating his work there with being a soldier in Europe. This was the vertebrate palaeontologist George Gaylord Simpson’s whose classic Tempo and Mode of Evolution was published in 1944. He knew more about dinosaurs than anyone else and also accepted that their rates of evolutionary change were determined by genetical factors. Also accepting what the statisticians were saying, but without much maths, he understood that natural selection was more effective in large populations than in small ones: it didn’t take much common sense to see that a whole herd of dinosaurs was much more powerful and effective than an isolated one. It followed that a single mutation in one gene was much less common than in a whole population and small mutations were more common than those with a big effect.

The biggest problem that made fossils difficult evidence for twentieth century scientists was that they were long dead and impossible to use in the kinds of experiments that were possible then. Palaeontologists couldn’t measure the amount of genetic change and instead they measured the amount of structural change. For example, horses had fed on tough grass and their molar teeth had adapted special features for this on their grinding surface which had changed through time as the grass itself had evolved. It was possible to measure such changes in the length of an outer ridge on the fossil teeth and the length of their main cusp, and sure enough, they were different on species with different diets. This was how they reconstructed the different evolutionary pathways of many animal and plant lineages.

Simpson thought out these kinds of arguments from the treasure that fossil hunters out in the mid-west had found when they had climbed new rock outcrops in search of new specimens. Their age and identity were one thing, how they got there in the first place was another and Simpson forced them to consider the wider kinds of evidence available. But he was a difficult man and anyone daring to agree with him was immediately asked to justify their attitude, while he reacted in the same way to those who didn’t. As well as Tempo and Mode he wrote secretly about his alto ego, Sam Magruder, all alone in a time-travel story out in the Jurassic landscapes. It was a fantasy about his loneliness as a human being, an autobiographical metaphor for the puniness of the individual.

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The Dechronization of Sam Magruder was published posthumously and tells of his adventures with different dinosaur species, events depicted on (or over) eight slabs of time. The gaps between these events are not mentioned, and just as between the scenes of any play a lot is assumed and taken on trust. So in Sam Magruder’s fossil record there are times when nothing happened and intervals of high action explained by no evidence or by some groups going through phases of rapid evolution. It happened again when the dinosaurs became extinct and mammal species increased in numbers very rapidly. Gaps in the record show up if population numbers are reduced, such as when new environments are invaded. He also recognised quiet periods when there was little evolutionary change at all.

Sam propelled himself back in time with a special machine called a Langsam Decelerator: “I began to notice a strange and rapid flickering sensation. This elated me. The laboratory was gone and I was up to my waist in mucky water.” At the end of the book Sam looked back to consider his moral and philosophical position, whether humans were more successful than any of the other species, dinosaurs for example. As a wise human and a biologist, knowing where life would have evolved 200 million years after the Jurassic, he did nothing to guide or control that history into the future. Apparently it never occurred to him to make plans for the future direction of animal evolution as all he thought was of his own survival. As though to prove his innocence as a bystander, Sam became the curator of a zoo and he finally let his captives go: “I’ve had no joy, but a little satisfaction, from this long ordeal.”

45. Concern For the Planet 1945

To make the holistic understanding of life more complete, these new discoveries inside the cells needed integrating with the biology of whole organisms, their environment and their ancestral history. That would make a complete natural history of life. But just after the Second World War few people were interested in making these links. Instead, scientists spoke of “the white heat of technology”, nuclear power and increasing crop yields. Physics and chemistry had won the war with Hitler, now they were at war with nature. Put another way by the politicians, the biology of agriculture and medicine was going to win the peace. Malthus was all but forgotten.

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But one influential man did try to talk about the link between physical science and nature. In 1945 Aldous Huxley wrote a well-publicised but now forgotten essay that he called Science, Liberty and Peace. He presented “absurdly simple things such as ‘the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath’, things which men of science like to forget because it is such enormous fun inquiring into the processes of nature and designing bigger and better gadgets that they do not wish to realize that human beings are sacrificed to applied science.”

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Aldous had been interested in science since he was a boy but found studying difficult because of his blindness. His brother said it was just as well it happened that way or the novels would never have been written. As a silent model for CP Snow’s two cultures Aldous read Nature magazine regularly, and when he thought that he had something creative to offer, he seized the opportunity. He was usually critical of the way science was going, but now he could see a way it could be used to react to the folly of others. It could lead forward positively as well as negatively. With Julian out of the way in Paris establishing UNESCO, Aldous was beginning to enjoy the unfamiliar stage of science.

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Two years after his first attack on scientists he wrote another essay called The Double Crisis. The human race was passing through a demographic and ecological crisis, he argued, with pressure on both populations and resources of which “hardly anything is heard”. The difficulties were both political and scientific and Huxley pointed out that nothing much was being done in either sphere. As though to prove that point he had some difficulty in finding a publisher for the essay, being told by one that it was “a lot of hot air”. The theme centred on the old Malthusian issue of the human population being too large for the planet to sustain. It was continuing to rise at an alarming rate with no government encouragement to reduce it or the excessive exploitation of the earth’s resources.

The second topic was the part of Huxley’s essay that was new and had most impact, the argument that prosperity exploited the planet’s limited resources. What was usually called “progress” was having the opposite impact on both the organic and inorganic resources of the natural world: all living organisms and their environment. People in the modern world were living under the illusion that they were in charge of their lives. In his essay, Aldous Huxley explained that we cannot conquer nature, the first time that many people had realized this. It was a shock that most people were not going to register seriously: “Sooner or later mankind will be forced by the pressure of circumstances to take concerted action against its own destructive and suicidal tendencies. The longer such action is postponed, the worse it will be for all concerned…. Over-population and erosion constitute a Martian invasion of the planet ….  Treat nature aggressively, with greed and violence and incomprehension: wounded nature will turn and destroy you.”

Julian Huxley drew on the new scientific establishment when he became the first Director of UNESCO, reassuring us consumers that a new phase of quietness was to begin.

No-one listened to the few warnings about abusing nature. They were dismissed as idle predictions for the future and everyone was busy building for the present. The Huxley brothers had lived through one of the catastrophic events that divided two quiet ages and they were among the few people then who realized they were at a time of transition. Aldous drew on Shakespeare’s The Tempest to distinguish religion and magic, understanding the place of human self in nature and how the whole must change itself through different scales of time.

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                                         Our revels are now ended, these our actors,

                                         As I foretold you, were all spirit, and

                                         Are melted into air.


……………………………………………………………   end    …………………………………………………………..