Thursday 11 April 2013

Francis Crick: 'Various stains'

Startling news from the auction room, where a letter penned by Francis Crick has sold for a staggering sum. I suppose these things are a kind of modern secular equivalent of medieval saints' relics. Also up for sale are Crick's Nobel medal, cheque and diploma, and one of his lab coats, with 'various stains on it'. 
In The Science Delusion (which I'm reading), Rupert Sheldrake recalls how, in 1963, he and a couple of other students were invited to a series of private meetings with Crick and his fellow genetic code-cracker Sydney Brenner in Brenner's Cambridge rooms. 'Both were ardent materialists,' Sheldrake writes, ' and Crick was a militant atheist. They explained that there were two major unsolved problems in biology: development and consciousness. They had not been solved because the people who worked on them were not molecular biologists - or very bright. Crick and Brenner were going to find the answers within ten years, or maybe twenty. Brenner would take developmental biology, and Crick consciousness.' Fifty years on, it seems they were a tad optimistic, especially about consciousness, which remains a profound mystery. 'There is still no proof,' says Sheldrake, 'that life and minds can be explained by physics alone' - as he proceeds to demonstrate in the course of his book.
The fierce strength of Crick's faith in materialism became clear at his funeral in 2004, when his son said of him that what motivated him all his life was not the desire to be famous, wealthy or popular, but 'to knock the final nail in the coffin of vitalism'. (That's the common-sense view that living organisms are actually alive, in ways that can't be explained exclusively in terms of physics and chemistry.) I suppose he must have died disappointed, poor chap.

1 comment:

  1. He may have died disappointed, but I'll bet the faith that drove him was unabated. The prosletyzing zeal of modern materialists would impress a 16th century Jesuit. Did he ever realize how unscientific it is to form an fervent conviction and then spend a life trying to prove it in the absolute conviction such proof is "out there" somewhere? I doubt it.

    One of the challenges for Crick and his generation was how to explain the origin of life in the face of increasing evidence that life emerging randomly and accidently was statistically fantastic. The spontaneous chemical reaction in a warm pond of primal goop may have worked in the forties, but by the seventies it was shown the chances of that happening were less than one in the number of atoms in the universe. Stuff happens, I guess. All kinds of weird and completely conjectural theories arose in a desperate attempt to avoid the dreaded T-word--teleology. Some, like the multiverse, are still with us. Crick's was "directed panspermia", the theory that living systems produced by molecules could be spread by intelligent life forms using space travel technology.