Bringing science to book

Saint Rachel of Carson, animal rights and wrongs, and the benefit of insanity - science at the Edinburgh Festival.

Stuart Blackman

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In the month of August, the sleepy little hamlet of Edinburgh is transformed into a big, bustling, exciting city.

Festival time is mostly about the arts of course, but science also gets a look in – most notably at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (1). Now the festivities have wound down, it’s time for a bit of reflection on things rational.…

On 15 August 2002, I listened to poet John Burnside and novelist Brian Clarke discuss Rachel Carson’s 40-year-old Silent Spring, the book that spawned the modern environmentalist movement with its forceful arguments against pesticides in general and DDT in particular.

Burnside and Clarke discussed how Silent Spring has influenced literature. They read out a poem by Rodney Jones about his first-hand experiences of large-scale DDT spraying, which describes DDT falling from the skies like toxic snow.

Burnside stated as fact that DDT causes breast cancer, despite there being no evidence, while Clarke, winner of the environmental book award for his novel The Stream, talked about Carson’s ‘rigorous scientific approach’.

Both speakers praised Carson’s persuasive, lyrical prose. Personally, I have consistently failed to spot this quality through Silent Spring’s unscientific rhetoric. Whatever. An appreciation of Saint Rachel’s skill with the English language is likely to be of little consolation to those dying from malaria as a result of the environmentalist campaign against DDT.

Reading Carson is about ‘attunement’, says Burnside, ‘like listening in the Arctic’. He’s right – in the sense that you have to listen very hard to hear anything in the frozen north.

On 17 August, I went to hear James Lovelock. Call me an old hippy, but I have a soft spot for Lovelock. His Gaia model of the Earth as a self-regulating super-organism isn’t entirely daft, and has set the scene for some interesting and important research in meteorology and evolutionary biology.

And I can’t help thinking that, had Gaia been conceived in another, more optimistic age, we might take it to symbolise ecosystem stability rather than fragility.

Lovelock seems to have a genuinely rebellious streak. He might think that humans are instigating a positive feedback loop of global warming (which he likens to a fever that is ridding the world of pathogenic humankind), but he doesn’t toe the eco-party line on what should be done about it.

‘People are too sensitive about nuclear power’, he said, arguing that nuclear is the only energy source we need to keep civilisation going. He believes that nuclear power ‘has not been allowed to evolve’, and that, given half a chance, a new generation of reactors would be ‘more efficient and safer’.

The audience was also surprised when Lovelock, inventor of the Electron Capture Detector (the gadget that first detected the presence of anthropogenic CFCs in the atmosphere), said that just because a pollutant can be detected with sensitive modern instruments, it doesn’t follow that we should worry about it. In fact, he said, we tend to worry too much.

Despite his non-conformist views, Lovelock remains a favourite grandfather figure for many eco-warriors. One audience member even asked whether, for the sake of the planet, she should refrain from having children. To his credit, Lovelock refused to offer any grandfatherly advice. As green gurus go, he is less predictable and saner than most.

Talking of sanity: what is madness actually for? At first glance, the question that biological psychologist Daniel Nettle addressed at the festival on 25 August didn’t seem a particularly interesting one – on a par with ‘what are broken legs for?’.

But there is good reason, from an evolutionary standpoint, to ask both questions. Take broken legs: cheetahs, which can sprint over uneven ground at close to 60mph, have more than their fair share of leg injuries. So it is perhaps surprising that natural selection has not equipped them with sturdier legs to withstand the stresses to which they are routinely exposed.

But stronger legs are heavier legs – and heavier legs require more effort to accelerate to sprinting speed. A more thickly set cheetah may not die a starving cripple, but it would be less able to achieve the speeds necessary to catch anything. So it would just starve anyway.

Suddenly, ‘what is madness for?’ becomes a more intriguing question. If the genes that enable a cheetah to travel very quickly in pursuit of fleet-footed prey also predispose the animal to broken limbs, for what benefit might humans be paying with the risk of insanity?

Nettle claims that Shakespeare was on the right track. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus proposes a common psychological basis for the madness of the lunatic and the creativity of the poet. Nettle’s book, Strong Imagination, gives Shakespeare’s conjecture some scientific credence (2).

Nettle explained that rates of mental illness are significantly higher in the families of poets, writers and artists, while studies of psychosis in identical twins and adoptees support the idea of a common genetic component to both creativity and psychosis. It’s all very convincing.

Nettle’s work is particularly relevant at a time when the slightest personality quirk can be labelled a medical syndrome in need of drugs and therapy (3). When asked whether this trend results in creativity rather than mental illness being treated, Nettle accepted that this might be a problem, but not in a ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-sort of way’, he said. However, while children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are not being compulsorily lobotomised, ‘naughty’ (creative?) children are being labelled as suffering from ADHD and are being ‘treated’ with Ritalin.

Society seems to be doing the psychiatric equivalent of discouraging people from running full pelt in case they break a leg, and putting us in traction for a mere sprained ankle.

Big cats might also shed light on some of the arguments proffered at the debate ‘Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?’, organised by the Institute of Ideas on 19 August.

Despite impressive performances in other book festival events, Carl Djerassi, the ‘inventor’ of the contraceptive pill, seemed out of his depth here. He was stumped when, on challenging the anti-vivisectionists that for consistency’s sake they should also be vegetarian, they replied that they were.

Stuart Derbyshire from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre was far more persuasive. Humans are capable of conceptualisation, self-awareness, subjectivity and, therefore, suffering. Animals are not. Experimentation on animals is morally justified, he said, on the grounds that it benefits humans.

Philosopher Tom Regan and animal rights campaigner Richard Ryder (the man who coined the word ‘speciesism’) argued, on the basis of similarities in nervous systems and brain chemistry, that animals suffer just like us, making animal experimentation immoral.

But, if it’s really about animal suffering, then just as humans should not experiment on animals, shouldn’t we also be obliged to intervene to stop a pride of lions disembowelling a wildebeest?

Well no – because the anti-vivisection argument seems to have little to do with animals and more to do with humans, and specifically, limiting our behaviour. This was encapsulated in Regan’s comment that humans have ‘no right to benefit from the violation of an animal’s rights’. It isn’t really about whether an animal suffers, but whether humans benefit from that suffering.

In which case, I guess Regan would step in to save that wildebeest if some exploitative bastard was filming its disembowelment for a TV documentary.

Read on:

Why we need DDT, by Dave Hallsworth

spiked-issue: On animals

(1) See the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 10-26 August 2002

(2) Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, by Daniel Nettle, Oxford University Press, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(3) See Medicalising everyday life, by Michael Fitzpatrick; and Too Much Medicine?, British Medical Journal, 13 April 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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