Nothing But or Anything But?
Marian Stamp Dawkins

Are you one of those people who dislikes science because of what you think it does to the "mystery" of the world? Do you think that it somehow diminishes people to try to "explain" their behaviour or that it "takes away the beauty of the rainbow" to talk about light rays passing through water droplets?

If you are, can I ask you to pause just for a moment and very briefly allow your mind to entertain the opposite view, perhaps one that will strike you as utterly preposterous and even repugnant? You can, if you like, think of yourself as being like the captured prince in C. S. Lewis's story The Silver Chair-the one who had to be tied down every evening at six o'clock because, for an unpleasant few minutes, he had hallucinations and then recovered and was perfectly normal for the next twenty-four hours. The hallucinations will not last long, in other words. You are quite safe. Just five minutes of raging lunacy is all you are in for.

The utterly preposterous idea is this: Explaining something in a scientific way does not diminish it. It enhances it. Let me tell you why. Understanding how things work, even your own brain, has a grandeur and a glory that no nonscientific explanation can come anywhere near.
I do not, of course, expect you to accept this without question. But I do ask that you start by thinking of something reasonable and not scientific at all-like, say, Abraham Lincoln. Ask yourself whether it enhances or diminishes your view of his achievement when you remember that he was "nothing but" a country-born, self-taught lawyer. Then ask yourself which you admire most: someone who starts from an unpromising background and achieves great things by his own efforts and personality, or someone who comes from a wealthy and powerful family and achieves high office because he has an influential father. I would be surprised if Abraham Lincoln didn't come out of that comparison very well. Saying he is "nothing but" a backwoodsman doesn't get rid of him that easily.

Next, try the pyramids. Does it diminish the achievements of the ancient Egyptians to say that they built them with "nothing but" the crudest of tools and measuring instruments? My own sense of awe and admiration for them only went up when I realised that they moved gigantic blocks of stone with no wheeled vehicles and that they built the pyramids with perfectly square bases using "nothing but" lengths of knotted cord and stakes in the ground. Even the slightest error would have led to the whole structure being hopelessly out of shape, and yet there they remain to this day-phenomenal feats of engineering and nearly perfect shapes. "Nothing but" simple equipment becomes "anything but" a mean achievement.

Perhaps by now you can see what I am getting at. If you look at a rainbow and then someone tells you how it comes about, why should you say that "they have ruined it" by turning it into "nothing but" a trick of light and water? Why not say the opposite? Out of the utterly unpromising raw material of drops of water and the laws of refraction has come something so beautiful that it spans the sky and inspires poets to write about it.

And if you look at animals and plants and all the extraordinary structures and behaviour they have, why reject a scientific explanation of how they got here on the grounds that it makes them "nothing but" the products of a blind evolutionary process? You could instead turn and face the full grandeur of the implications of what that process implies. The bird that builds a nest and brings food to its young may be "nothing but" the result of evolution by natural selection. But what a result! Birds, just like us, owe their existence to instructions carried on DNA molecules. The scientists in Jurassic Park who grew dinosaurs out of DNA molecules that were found in preserved blood were on the right track, even though nobody has yet done this in practice. DNA molecules do indeed carry the instructions for building all kinds of bodies-dinosaurs, birds, giant sequoias, and even human beings.

And the molecules do not stop there. Every breath you take, every extra second you remain alive depends on hundreds of chemical reactions all taking place at the right time. Life would be impossible, for instance, if the body did not have a constant source of energy-and that energy comes from molecules such as glucose. Glucose can provide energy, because the three different sorts of atoms that make it up- carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen-are kept together by energy-rich links between the atoms, called chemical bonds. If some of these bonds are then broken so that the large glucose molecule is split into smaller molecules of water and carbon dioxide, the energy that was once used to hold the whole glucose molecule together is then released. So the body plunders the molecules by breaking them up and steals their energy to keep itself going. It could do nothing unless it was constantly fuelled by this energy. It would grind to a halt, lifeless and inert. You could not move a muscle or think a thought without this constant molecular smashing that your body does and without the energy from the broken molecules being transported by yet other molecules to the places where it is needed. The bird could not build its nest and we could not watch it or wonder why it did so. Molecules have gone far, considering that they are "nothing but" molecules.

There! The few minutes of hallucination are up. I'll untie you now and you can go back to thinking that scientific explanations diminish and belittle everything they touch. There is just one thing, though. The prince in C. S. Lewis's story had rather an unusual sort of hallucination. For those few minutes each day, he suffered from the vivid delusion that there was something beyond the dark underground kingdom in which he had been living. He really believed- poor demented soul-that there was something called sunlight and a place where the sky was blue and there could be a fresh breeze on his cheek. But that was only for a few minutes. And then it passed.

MARIAN STAMP DAWKINS has a lifelong interest in what the worlds of different animals are like-that is, not just in what they can see, hear, or smell, but in what they know about their worlds and, above all, in whether they are conscious of what they are doing. At the same time, she firmly believes that answers to these issues should come not from anthropomorphism but from scientific research and, in particular, from studies of animal behaviour.
Much of her own research has been concerned with animal welfare and, in particular, with the problem of whether animals can experience "suffering." She has published extensively in this field, including the book Animal Suffering: The Science of Animal Welfare. She has also written Unravelling Animal Behaviour and An Introduction to Animal Behaviour (with Aubrey Manning). Most recently, she published Through Our Eyes Only? The Search for Animal Consciousness. Her current research concerns the evolution of animal signals, how birds recognise each other as individuals, and why the fish on coral reefs are so brightly coloured. She holds a university research lectureship in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University and is a fellow of Somerville College.

Further Reading

Book Cover

How Things Are: A Science Toolkit for the Mind
Edited by John Brockman and Katinka Matson





Chaos Quantum Logic Cosmos Conscious Belief Elect. Art Chem. Maths

 How Things Are : Part1 File Info: Created 3/10/2000 Updated 14/7/2004 Page Address: