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Brighton Fringe 2013

Philosophy Garden: Prof. Steve Jones, Richard Robinson

Prof. Steve Jones, Richard Robinson

Venue: The Warren


Low Down

Life, the Universe and Everything …  Douglas Adams, of course, thought that the answer to this one was ’42’, but I went to the Philosophy Garden at The Warren to see if I could get a more up-to-date explanation from two talks by Richard Robinson and Steve Jones.


It sounded irresistible – Professor Steve Jones has a new book out (‘The Serpent’s Promise’) which he described as – ‘an attempt to treat the Bible as though it was a scientific textbook’, looking at how it attempts to explain such questions as ‘Where do we come from?’, ‘How did the Universe start?’, ‘Why do we grow old and die?’. Questions that have been asked throughout human history, and which are now being answered by science.

I was expecting a knockabout performance attacking Creationists and those people taking a literal reading of religion, in the style of Richard Dawkins. Another possibility (the one I’d actually hoped for) was that the talk would be an examination of how these fundamental questions are approached differently through the ‘revealed Truth’ of a religious text and by the Scientific method of constant testing and reformulating our theories and explanations.

What we actually got was a lecture on genetics, pure and simple. Very worthy, and very interesting as Steve Jones is an engaging lecturer; but what we came away with was a lot of information on things like the heritability of height, why IQ testing was misused, how a simple change of one letter of the DNA alphabet can make someone prone to violent behaviour, and so on … Just genetics, and only genetics. Nothing about the opposing methodologies and mind-sets of Religion and Science.

I can’t actually tell you much about ‘The Serpent’s Promise’, other than that the title comes from Genesis, where the Serpent in the Garden of Evil tempts Adam and Eve by promising – "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil". There was very little about the Bible or theology in Steve Jones’ talk, and in fact a number of the genetics examples in this lecture have already been published in his 1996 book ‘In The Blood’. (those of you who have read that book – it’s very good – will be interested to know that Stephen Mobley, an American murderer on Death Row whose case featured over several pages, has subsequently been executed …)

Indeed, Steve Jones seems to be very wary of controversy, and he made it clear at the start that his book is – "popular science, not an attack on religion". Though he did seem just a touch annoyed when he mentioned that Dawkins’ book ‘The God Delusion’ has sold "three and a half million copies…". But those millions of readers are presumably interested in what science has to say about morality – a subject that traditionally has been left to religion. Steve Jones talked about morality, and the concept of ‘Original Sin’, but he sidestepped making any judgment. He seems to see a clear divide between scientific facts themselves, and how those facts might be used to provide an ethical framework for society. His final point was – "What we need is not more scientists, but more professors of theology."

Richard Robinson has no such qualms. At the start of his talk he defined the early religious beliefs as "the best scientific descriptions we had AT THE TIME". Human beings are logical, believing in cause and effect, so it seemed that natural phenomena like floods etc must have a cause. On a human scale, things are done "by chaps like me", so these larger events must be caused by "a much bigger Chap", who "I can’t see, because He’s hidden behind a hill, or in the clouds"… "and so they created Gods as the obvious explanation".

He went on to describe the deluge of scientific discoveries over the last century, utilising the telescope, microscope and other tools to see further into space and time, as well as deeper into the interior structure of matter. Robinson explained that the Universe, which the Bible stated was created a mere six thousand years ago (4004 BC, at nine o’clock in the morning…) has actually been calculated to be 13.72 Billion years old. Or rather, he continued, "recently recalculated to 13.82 Billion years old – I love that point eight two, it makes it seem so precise."

Our lecturer had set himself the task of giving us the entire history of the Universe in 13.82 minutes. That’s a billion years a minute, so he was obviously going to have to talk very fast, andhedidtalkfast,veryveryfastindeedwithhardlyanypausesforbreath. Richard told us that his talk was originally intended for children, but the majority of his audience were adults – not that that stopped all of us gaping open-mouthed in wonder as the images and examples flashed in front of us. Like a magician at a children’s party, he used simple everyday examples and analogies to illuminate quite tricky concepts.

He divided Creation into three sections – Catastrophe, Chaos and Co-operation.

Catastrophe was the Big Bang, and this was followed by exploding stars -supernovae – creating the elements that we are made of. "You are literally stardust…"

Chaos is matter or energy without order or structure, and Richard showed how structures self-assemble out of chaotic material by forming the most stable arrangements available. He started with a muesli packet shaking itself so that the larger flakes end up at the top, and carried the analogy up atoms assembling themselves into simple molecules (like water) all the way to long chains of protein and eventually to the DNA helix itself. I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer demonstration of DNA replicating itself, and it was all done with coloured wooden blocks and magnets…

Co-operation took us from proteins combining to produce bacteria, through cells combining at increasing levels of complexity (amoebas, slime mould, ants forming supercolonies, all the way to human beings covering the planet’s surface and – speculatively – creating a future network of linked brains or intelligence.

Did he miss out much? In thirteen and a half minutes of course he did.  Richard missed out gravity, natural selection and a lot of other essential topics. Did he pitch it right? I thought it veered between too sketchy for an audience without sufficient background knowledge, and too long-winded on topics like the mathematics of bacteria multiplying themselves. But as I mentioned earlier, as I looked around the room his audience members, young and older, were entranced. After the talk he gave a further illustration of order emerging out of chaos, sitting in the beautiful garden space at The Warren and demonstrating wave patterns forming in a vibrating plate of custard. Another example which captivated children and adults alike.

A final thought. Richard Robinson’s subject was the Universe – thirteen billion years of it. If that length of time was represented by this review, all eleven hundred words or so, then the whole history of Man, from the earliest human fossil out of Africa, would be represented by a single letter. And all human history that we have records of, right back to the invention of agriculture and the first cities, would be represented by a fraction of a single full stop. This one.