When the novelist, biographer and literary critic A.N. Wilson came out recently as a Darwin skeptic, in comments to the New Statesman the book he mentioned as substantiating his skepticism is James Le Fanu’s new and outstandingly readable and informative book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (Pantheon). For the moment, this is probably the one book you should buy for your Darwin-devoted friends — if you are going to buy just one. In this little series, continued from last week, I am just trying to give a flavor of the book.
Le Fanu is a distinguished British physician and author of peer-reviewed medical journal essays. He exemplifies the Talmud’s note of advice that a person should “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know'” (Berachot 4a). Le Fanu knows a lot and wears his erudition very lightly, but his main point is that the more science reveals about the most important question a human can ask — What is man and how did he come to be? — the more we have to admit that we don’t know.
Le Fanu demonstrates this by masterfully recounting the epic crack-up of expectations that prevailed till recently for the prospects of three scientific enterprises. Darwinian evolution, genetics, and brain research were supposed to combine to give a compelling, coherent and united account of man’s origin and nature. They did no such thing and the prospect of their doing so in the future appears hopeless.
Among other things, for example, the Human Genome Project and the Chimpanzee Genome Project revealed the similarity in the genomic coding region of humans and chimps — 98 percent interchangeable, as we’re always reminded. Something like that figure includes other vertebrates as well, such as the modest mouse. Le Fanu readily agrees that this suggests evidence of common descent.
But notwithstanding the Darwinist reflex of trumpeting the 98 percent figure at any opportunity, it in fact represents a tremendous blow to the rest of the structure of neo-Darwinism. After all, the human genome itself comprises only 25,000 genes. According evolutionary orthodoxy, everything we are as humans is somehow coded in that precious but seemingly meager allowance of information. If so, how does a mere 2 percent of the genome account for all that separates a person from an ape — or for that matter, from a mouse?
Le Fanu calls this the “numbers problem”:
The genome projects were predicated on the assumption that the “genes for” the delicate, stooping head and pure white petals of the snowdrop would be different from the “genes for” the colorful, upstanding petals of the tulip, which would be different again from the “genes for” flies and frogs, birds and humans. But the genome projects reveal a very different story, where the genes “code for” the nuts and bolts of the cells from which all living things are made — the hormones, enzymes and proteins of the “chemistry of life” — but the diverse subtlety of form, shape and color that distinguishes snowdrops from tulips, flies from frogs and humans, is nowhere to be found.
Setting aside animals, the presumed stages of human evolution — the famous Lucy and Turkana Boy, Neanderthal, the sudden eruption of genuine and impressive culture with Cromagnon man — also seem to defy any genetically informed explanation. Rather than the gradualist model, it is “as if a switch were thrown, the curtain rose, and there was man at the center of the stage of world events.” Recognizably modern man, I mean — an artist, Le Fanu points out, producing masterpieces 17,000 years ago to be compared with Greek art of only 2430 years ago.
Where did this man come from? “The trivial genetic differences that separate our primate cousins from ourselves seem quite insufficient to account for” the transformation.
Isn’t Darwinian theory supposed to solve that mystery? The operative word is “supposed.” More on Le Fanu’s destruction of Darwin tomorrow.