"Under the Banyan Tree Nothing Grows" - Evolution News & Views

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"Under the Banyan Tree Nothing Grows"

Banyan Tree.JPG

James Le Fanu uses that image, a South Indian proverb, to describe the way Big Science devours billions of dollars a year while the productions of this vast government industry seem startlingly and increasingly barren of significance. We've left behind the era of great discoveries of the century past -- permanently, so it seems -- and now find ourselves awash in outpourings of published research that add up, says Le Fanu, to "surprisingly little." Don't believe him? Just follow the website Science Daily for a week.

Dr. Le Fanu, a peer-reviewed medical scientist, medical historian, and one of my favorite science writers, flew into Seattle from London last week and my wife and I had the pleasure of going to lunch with him. A most charming guy who, with the waitress at the sushi restaurant we took him to on Lake Union, suavely passed over the fact that the crab custard he ordered did not go down well at all.

He pointed out to me that much of the thesis of his wonderful book Why Us? -- which I reviewed here in Parts I, II, III, IV, and V -- is crystallized in an essay he wrote for the British magazine Prospect last year that I somehow missed. I pass the latter along to you now. Of the "banyan tree of Big Science," he writes that it

...threatens to extinguish the true spirit of intellectual inquiry. Its mega projects organized on quasi-industrial lines may be guaranteed to produce results, but they are inimical to fostering those traits that characterize the truly creative scientist: independence of judgment, stubbornness and discontent with prevailing theory. Big Science is intrinsically conservative in its outlook, committed to "more of the same," the results of which are then interpreted to fit in with the prevailing understanding of how things are. Its leading players who dominate the grant-giving bodies will hardly allocate funds to those who might challenge the certainties on which their reputations rest.
He argues that the evident "diminishing returns" we're seeing from super-funded science have something to do with a brick wall that materialism has run up against without acknowledging that it has done so. Thrilling technological breakthrough of the 1980s promised to get to the heart of the mystery of life -- how it constitutes itself from the genetic code, how it flowers in human consciousness.

Scientists expected that, respectively, mapping the genome and scanning the brain as it works would lay bare these enigmas. The expectations were cruelly disappointed, however.

The genome projects were predicated on the reasonable assumption that spelling out the full sequence of genes would reveal the distinctive genetic instructions that determine the diverse forms of life. Biologists were thus understandably disconcerted to discover that precisely the reverse is the case. Contrary to all expectations, there is a near equivalence of 20,000 genes across the vast spectrum of organismic complexity, from a millimeter-long worm to ourselves. It was no less disconcerting to learn that the human genome is virtually interchangeable with that of both the mouse and our primate cousins, while the same regulatory genes that cause, for example, a fly to be a fly, cause humans to be human. There is in short nothing in the genomes of fly and man to explain why the fly has six legs, a pair of wings and a dot-sized brain and that we should have two arms, two legs and a mind capable of comprehending the history of our universe.

The genetic instructions must be there -- for otherwise the diverse forms of life would not replicate their kind with such fidelity. But we have moved in the very recent past from supposing we might know the principles of genetic inheritance to recognizing we have no conception of what they might be.

It has been a similar story for neuroscientists with their sophisticated scans of the brain "in action." Right from the beginning, it was clear that the brain must work in ways radically different from those supposed. Thus the simplest of tasks, such as associating the noun "chair" with the verb "sit" cause vast tracts of the brain to "light up" -- prompting a sense of bafflement at what the most mundane conversation must entail. Again the sights and sounds of every transient moment, it emerged, are fragmented into a myriad of separate components without the slightest hint of the integrating mechanism that would create the personal experience of living at the centre of a coherent, unified, ever-changing world...

Meanwhile the great conundrum remains unresolved: how the electrical activity of billions of neurons in the brain translate into the experiences of our everyday lives -- where each fleeting moment has its own distinct, intangible feel: where the cadences of a Bach cantata are so utterly different from the taste of bourbon or the lingering memory of that first kiss.

Taking a somewhat David Berlinski-esque stance, Le Fanu is not an intelligent-design advocate. Instead, he honestly confronts readers with the secret, continuously hushed up because so much money is at stake, that materialist science has failed in gaining access to its own imagined holy of holies.

Or come to think of it, strike and amend that metaphor. It makes me think of the story of how the Roman general Pompey in 63 BCE led his invaders into the Jerusalem Temple. He expected to enter the actual Holy of Holies and find there some material representation of the Deity. After all, those are the terms in which Pompey, like most scientists today, reflexively thought. Fighting his way past the priests, butchering them as he went, the Roman stepped into the most sacred room and was shocked by what he found.

I imagine his dismay and perhaps, too, his secret fear. For the small room was utterly empty.

Read the rest of Le Fanu for yourself.