In the Saturday Guardian Ian McEwan takes publication of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene now thirty years ago as an occasion to celebrate the history of literary science writing. But sadly McEwan celebrates this rich and mesmerising tradition by the standards of English literature, not those of science, and arguably his essay contributes to circulation of scientific half-truths.
McEwan, Booker prize winner for his novel Amsterdam, has been enthralled with science for some time. For example, one of the main characters in Enduring Love is a science journalist who sometimes bitterly regrets his decision to leave the cutting edge of physics. As the plot unfolds, his reflections often turn on themes from popular science, and a key episode in the book is framed by a discussion of the biological basis of altruistic behaviour.
In his essay in the Saturday Guardian, McEwan laments that scientists often less than honour their literary heritage. Apparently, his son was told in a university genetics course not to read any papers written before 1997. McEwan, perhaps not unlike the science journalist in his novel, puts this down to the headlong nature of science, which he also seeks to illustrate with an example: "In recent years, estimates of the size of the human genome have shrunk by a factor of three, or even four".
But arguably this half-truth illustrates the complexity of science communication better than the nature of science. The "size" of the human genome has been known for several decades. It weighs approximately 3.5 picograms (a trillionth of a gram) or measures about 3.4 billion DNA base pairs. It is estimates of gene number, not genome size, that have fallen in recent years.
However, while most biologists count genes as stretches of DNA that encode structures for proteins and other biomolecules, most readers of McEwan's essay probably still think of genes in the vein of Mendelism. Eye colour was long believed to be such a heritable trait. This implies that the genes counted by biologists are not necessarily the same as the genes in the minds of McEwan's readers. If so, then at the heart of public science we have a fundamental confusion about the nature of the human genome.
If we consider some of the history of these ideas, then things become even more complicated. The term genome was coined in 1920 by a German botanist. He thought that the chromosomal genes counted by today's molecular biologists cause only relatively trivial biological differences, and that the core of an organism, the genome, is to be found in its cell's cytoplasm.
McEwan not only contributes to the circulation of scientific half-truths. He also celebrates the history of science writing by the standards of English literature. In his essay, he celebrates a "seductive sentence" from the pen of Thomas Huxley and a "lovely phrase" from the keyboard of Dawkins. But surely this is not what science is all about. Many of the books McEwan cites as examples of the scientific literary tradition circle around profound and difficult questions, and some of these books can be criticised as in certain respects ideological.
McEwan ends with a somewhat drab reference to Galileo and to the perennial conflict between science and religion, reminding us that "open-minded rational enquiry has always had its enemies". But aren't there episodes in the history of science where scientists have engaged in less than open-minded and rational enquiry? In the history of biology, Trofim Lysenko is often discussed as an example of science in the service of politics. On the other hand, not all scientists spurn the history of their disciplines. In biology we only need to mention François Jacob who wrote a history of heredity and James Watson who wrote a history of the discovery of the DNA double helix. Above all, we have to ask Will Dawkins' really appreciate it if we read his The Selfish Gene as mere prose?
Ian McEwan, “A parallel tradition”, Saturday Guardian 1 April 200