John Cornwell finds that science writers are aiming high and tackling the big issues of life, consciousness and the universe
In The Elegant Universe (Cape Pounds 18.99), Brian Greene relates how 'strings' (tiny one-dimensional particles) will provide the solution to a unified theory of everything. Strings, he declares in an eloquent sweep through the history of modern physics and cosmology, will reconcile the obstinate divide between the physics of the large and the very small. His book so appealed to American readers last month that it outsold John Grisham's new novel. Easy-to-grasp explanations of everything are perhaps a secular substitute for the old religious questions - whence we came and whither we are going. I suspect, though, that those who enjoyed this book for its grand final theorising may well have understood it the least.
Greene's enthusiasm for strings is matched by a wildly optimistic view of the upward progress of science. 'As we collectively scale the mountain of explanation,' he writes, 'each generation stands firmly on the shoulders of the previous, bravely reaching for the peak.' Surveying the current universe of spring science books, it seems that the progress of science is less like a cooperative human wall than a sequence of fleas, as in 'Great fleas have little fleas/Upon their backs to bite 'em...'.
Susan Blackmore seeks her ultimate explanation for society, the individual and religion, in something called a 'meme'. A meme is a kind of copied behaviour, for example a baseball cap worn back-to-front, which rapidly replicates much as a viral infection, or a gene. Coined by Richard Dawkins as a speculative but minor gloss on his selfish gene thesis, the meme theme has been swallowed whole by others, such as Dan Dennett and Susan Blackmore. Blackmore's The Meme Machine (OUP Pounds 18.99) loads the whole of culture and morality onto the speculative meme theory. The root of all evil, she reckons, is the illusion of self and free will - which are nothing, of course, but memes. If only we could get rid of the illusion that self and will are real, we could happily live out our lives 'body, brain and memes' in the comforting 'knowledge that that is all there is'. The greater part of true morality, she writes, is simply stopping 'all the harm that we normally do', rather than taking on 'any great and noble deeds'. Simply?
How discarding the notion of the self will help us gain greater respect for others (surely an important basis for avoidance of harm) Blackmore does not tell us. In his introduction Dawkins observes laconically that he would fear for Blackmore's boldness were he not conscious of her qualities as a 'fighter'. Which backhanded pugilistic compliment brings us to another metaphor for cooperative progress in the quest for scientific explanation, more reminiscent of tag wrestling than Greene's human wall. Andrew Brown's Darwin Wars (Simon and Schuster Pounds 12.99) is a read able account of the battle between biologists over neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. Do organisms have primacy over our genes? Or are organisms merely vehicles for the survival of our genes? The likes of Stephen Rose and Stephen J Gould argue the former; Dawkins and Daniel Dennett argue the latter. Brown's book amusingly reveals the bitter political, philosophical, and indeed personal antagonism that exists between these Darwin devotees who cling to the strange illusion, nevertheless, that science speaks with a single oracular voice.
Another book exposing reigning contentions in science focuses on the brain researchers. John McCrone is a journalist passionately interested in the mind-brain connection. Going Inside (Faber Pounds 20) describes his journey through neuroscience to understand the basis of neurobiology's Holy Grail - consciousness. He is fascinating on the competing theories, especially the tension between between leading metaphors - mechanical computer analogies vs dynamic evolutionary analogies. Inevitably he comes to what researchers call the 'hard question'.
It goes like this: if I were colour blind, neuroscientists could tell me a lot about how the eye and the brain perceive the redness of a red dress; but no amount of objective information or visual data would give me an inkling as to what redness is actually like when I am only capable of seeing black, white and grey. McCrone ends with an assessment of the work of the Australian mathematician and consciousness guru David Chalmers, whom he takes to task for failing to grasp that there is no winning post for an 'objective' theory that attempts to explain the nature of 'subjective' experience.
The problem is that amidst the proliferation of explanations of everything, from the origins of good and evil to human higher order consciousness to unifying theories physics, there is scant appreciation of different levels and types of explanation. Broadly speaking, explanations divide into the ascertainable physical causes of things, and attempts to define the identity of things in themselves (what kind of thing is it?). Consciousness, for example, involves identifying a state that some inquirers take to be purely physical, and others take to be purely 'mental'. Philosophers tend to argue that scientists should restrict themselves to causal physical explanations, leaving identity problems to torment the specialists, namely the philosophers. The important thing, surely, is for popular expositors of science to take on board sufficient philosophy to clarify what sort of explanations they are peddling and on what basis.
A little such clarification - including the difference between hypotheses, theories, explanations and wild surmises - might have come to the rescue of Mark Jeffry in his The Human Computer (Little, Brown Pounds 17.99). Jeffry seeks to persuade us that one day computers will understand Shakespeare, paint creatively, be moved by curiosity and 'ego', and be conscious in the same way as humans. The psychologist, the late Stuart Sutherland, used to say that sexual jealousy was the ultimate test between real humans and 'intelligent' machines. 'I'll get worried,' he said, 'when my wife leaves me for a computer.' In the meantime it seems rash to speculate about the future equivalence of machine and human consciousness when researchers cannot even agree on what consciousness actually is, let alone how it works.