Monday, 28 January 2013

The Origin of Life

The Harvard Magazine of 10th September 2009 reported on a discussion which took place the previous evening between James D Watson and E O Wilson – both eminent in their own fields of Biology. They had had many academic spats over the years, and these were recounted in the article, but it was the mention of how life began which drew my attention:

“Watson said he hoped that cancer would be cured by 2020, and pointed to studies of how the brain works and how life began as two of the most promising areas of research in the biological sciences. Wilson agreed, but would himself, he said, embark on a new study of diversity, this time in the virtually unexplored world of microbes.”

I remember attending a lecture in London about the origin of life and I asked the speaker how life should be defined. His response came as a shock, as it consisted of an outburst about impossible questions and then something relating to Spinoza. Fair enough, but what I was trying to find out was whether he felt that the quality we call life began with a single-celled organism that took in nutrients and reproduced, or whether it could apply equally to organic chemicals which transcribe the building blocks of all living cells. It’s a big difference and those who discuss the origins of life always evade the need for a definition. That being so, I wonder what Watson meant when he said the studies of how life began were promising areas of research?

Biology has undergone a revolution since Watson (with Crick, and others) discovered the structure of DNA and some now believe that, by studying the genetic makeup of organisms, it is a matter of time before we understand the way they work. As organisms are alive, it will thus include an understanding of life. Scientists like Wilson, who had an initial resistance to this view, recognise the power of new techniques in understanding processes and that explains his agreement with Watson in the quote above. For sure, if we know which genes are involved in causing a certain cancer, it gives us much more information for following the progress of the disease and, hopefully, a means of devising treatment. Similarly, we are increasingly aware of how brain chemistry, controlled by genes, has an effect on certain mental functions, but that is a very long way from having an understanding of how the brain functions in its entirety - controlling the body and then providing all the higher functions such as emotion, aesthetics, etc. Of course, the focus of all this is Homo sapiens, although Wilson does describe the world of microbes in the quote above.

To return to the subject of life and how it began. At some point, collections of organic molecules developed a complex structure, were able to code the production of other molecules, and could thus be considered to be the precursors of life. For some, perhaps many, this defines the origin of life. I have a different view - and all views must be welcome, as we can never know the origin of life, despite the optimism of Watson and Wilson. To me, life only began when organic chemicals became gathered into a first cell, with an internal environment isolated from surrounding water, for we all agree that life began in an ancient ocean. I have no idea how this process occurred, although I am happy to speculate, but it was the fundamental point from which all subsequent life forms evolved. If every living organism resulted from one original cell, the formation of that cell was of staggering importance. As I wrote in Walking with Gosse:

“Molecular evolution attempts to trace all life forms back to a single ancestor but, of course, we do not know if this single ancestor was just that, or whether there were lots of single ancestors all appearing in the same geological time period. The idea of a once only event does not imply that the origin of life was driven by a theistic force (although that cannot be ruled out), but a moment of such immense significance has the power of the supernatural.”

The origin of life as a promising area of research? I don’t think so, but it’s all a matter of definition isn’t it?

Monday, 21 January 2013

In praise of Leslie Jackman

Philip Henry Gosse was not the only nationally famous Natural Historian to spend much of his life in Torbay. In recent times, this accolade must also be given to Leslie Jackman, who died in December 2011 aged 91. He had much in common with Henry Gosse and Mr Jackman was a hero of mine when I was growing up, as he not only ran the Paignton Aquarium but was also a pioneer of Natural History broadcasting and filming. We are fortunate in having a record of some of his achievements in a video interview recorded in 2006: 

Originally a teacher, Mr Jackman (I will always use that form of address, as I was at school with his daughter Diane) had an enthusiasm for looking at living things and wanted to tell others about what he saw. Film and television became excellent media for doing this and he presented a Club Room section of the BBC TV programme “Out of Doors”. Here, Mr Jackman would show different kinds of fungi, snakes, or other interesting wildlife and there were always children present as an audience, so his teaching skills came to the fore. The Club Room was an extension of the Nature Table we had in schools at the time, but none of our teachers, however good they were, could be as expert or as engaging. I watched the programme avidly on our single-channel TV and was also given the accompanying “Out of Doors” book as a present, in which Mr Jackman described, among other things, how to make bark rubbings or casts of wild animal footprints.

It was probably as a cameraman that Mr Jackman made his greatest contributions. Filming covered a wide range of topics but he always had a fondness for the sea shore, just like Henry Gosse. Whereas Henry had the ability of an artist to convey impressions of what he saw, Mr Jackman used film, all shot using what would now be regarded as a primitive camera, as there was no playback and one could only see the results when film came back from the processing laboratories. There were shots in the field and also many sequences filmed in a shed at the bottom of his garden in Paignton and I was fortunate to help with one of them. It must have taken many, many hours to complete filming for a complete programme and it could only be done by someone with a passion for the subject.

There were also books, and a quick search on Amazon shows just how many there were – mostly aimed at the young and at amateurs, both of which formed Mr Jackman’s key audience. Many that read the books and saw his work on “Out of Doors”, films for the BBC “Look” series and other Nature documentaries were influenced by him in developing a fascination for the natural world. As he says in the interview, it was his wish to get people to appreciate what was all around them. He was such a nice man and not one for the cult of celebrity that seems to infect the media today. That provides another parallel to Henry Gosse, and I think it is fitting to celebrate both men’s careers and achievements side by side.

In the video interview, Mr Jackman describes how his break into filming and broadcasting came with a mention of cuttlefish feeding, which he had seen in his large aquarium tank in Paignton. How ironic that the last practical class that I taught at UCL was a dissection of the cuttlefish, complete with a description of the feeding mechanism and the use of the tentacles. That somehow seems fitting to me.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Sargent's portrait of Edmund Gosse


I’ve stood in front of the painting of Edmund Gosse by John Singer Sargent in the National Portrait Gallery and tried to work out the mood of the sitter. He stares out at us, but there is something apprehensive in his expression and it is certainly not a formal portrait – indeed, he looks a little dishevelled.

The picture was painted in 1886, when Edmund was 36 or 37 years old and at a time when he was being attacked for the inaccuracies in his book From Shakespeare to Pope: an enquiry into the causes and phenomena of the rise of classical poetry in England. The book was based on lectures which Edmund had given at Cambridge University and, earlier, while visiting the United States. He was very much part of the London social scene and mixed with famous authors and artists, and had many infuential friends and contacts with whom he dined, so the adverse reaction of academics to his work was not welcomed. However, it was probably deserved, as Edmund was always capable of being careless and of stretching the truth.

 Although Edmund loved his wife Nellie and their three children (who were 9, 7 and 5 years old at the time the picture was painted), he also had homosexual relationships, an especially close friendship developing with the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft. It is likely also that Sargent was homosexual and he met Edmund at a house party in the Cotswolds the year before he painted this portrait. Perhaps the casual nature of Edmund’s appearance in the picture is a reflection of those relaxed times where open expressions of homosexual feelings were possible? But why the look of apprehension?

Edmund had a difficult relationship with his father, Philip Henry Gosse, to be detailed much later in the autobiographical Father and Son, Edmund’s best-known, and probably inaccurate, book published in 1907. Henry Gosse was a distinguished writer and illustrator of Natural History books and also an expert on several types of aquatic animals. He and Edmund made collections at the sea shore and they were very close when Edmund was a young boy, his mother, Emily, having died when he was 7 years old. Henry’s life was dominated by his deeply-held Christian beliefs and Edmund found this increasingly stifling, but he was able to break away from his father’s constant anxiety that he should be saved by moving to London in his late teens. Letters from Henry kept up the pressure, but Edmund had started to become part of the freer artistic Establishment. Poor Henry. Poor Edmund. There were still visits from the son to the father, but there was none of the closeness that they had enjoyed during Edmund’s boyhood, although Nellie and the children were always welcomed warmly.

In 1886, Henry was an old man and he died two years later. If I am right in sensing a look of apprehension in Sargent’s painting, it would have resulted from his disappointment at the reception of From Shakespeare to Pope: an enquiry into the causes and phenomena of the rise of classical poetry in England, having to maintain some secrecy over his homosexual relationships, and a concern about his relationship with his father. Henry would have found it impossible to condone Edmund’s sexual preferences and he still wished that Edmund could be with him and Emily in Heaven, when the time came. 

Of course, I could just be projecting that on to the portrait, but that’s what it shows to me.

[My thanks to Dr Susan England for discussion about about Hamo Thornycroft]

Monday, 7 January 2013

Aristotle, Natural History and Evolution

                                                               Aristotle (2397 – 2335 B.P.)
I knew very little about Aristotle until my first year as an undergraduate. My main subject at University was Zoology but I also took courses in Psychology, one of which was a whizz through European philosophy. As I wasn't very bright, I found much of moral philosophy tough going, and still find it difficult to summon up the levels of concentration needed to work out the arguments by the various notables in that field. Natural philosophy was different and I was absorbed by the ideas of Democritus, Aristotle, Galen, Harvey and the rest. I felt then, and do now, that learning about the contributions of leading historical figures in the field should be compulsory for all students in the Biological Sciences. Perhaps this isn't taught because many of their ideas have turned out to be inaccurate? If that is the case, it only adds to the necessity of studying the History of Biology as it helps us to question the apparent certainties that form the basis of our current thinking.

Of all the people in our rapid tour of natural philosophy, it was Aristotle who had the greatest appeal for me (although Democritus ran him a close second). Why? Well the simplest answer is that Aristotle was a Natural Historian and I identified with that, as I loved looking at organisms of all kinds in their natural environment, whether directly or by using telescopes, microscopes and other aids. I had many guides to help me identify what I saw and know where they fitted within the spectrum of living things, but Aristotle had to work out a system of classification and a means of locating different organisms within it. His many careful observations enabled him to describe what he saw and then develop a classification - Scala Naturae - which has been summarised as a diagram by Charles Singer in his classic A Short History of Biology:


Singer gives modern terms in gothic script alongside the names derived from Aristotle’s writings and a progression is evident in the Ladder from inanimate matter through to Man (and Woman). Aristotle characterised all living organisms as having vegetative psyche (the power of growth and reproduction); with animals having animal psyche (allowing sensitivity and the ability to move in response to stimuli); and humans having a rational psyche (that permitted reasoning). The whole spectrum of living things had different amounts of the psyches. Singer states: “When we come to consider the inferences and theories that he deduces from his observations, we must feel that we are in the presence not only of an eminent naturalist but of a supremely great intellect”. Even armed with my superficial knowledge of Aristotle, I must agree strongly with this view and the Ladder of Life is an extraordinary example of his achievements. There were many others.

A further comment on Aristotle by Singer is worth quoting: “It cannot be said that he ever definitely attained to the ‘evolutionary’ point of view. But it is evident that he was moving in that direction, and perhaps if he had lived another ten years he might have reached it.” That is an extraordinary statement, given that ideas on evolution surfaced over 1800 years later, being well-known before Darwin showed that natural selection provided the mechanism for the process. On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, had a profound effect and one can only speculate on what might have happened had Aristotle come up with a similar idea (a very remote possibility, even for that genius).