The Political Scientist Essay, Research Paper
The political scientistThe brain on Steven Rose’s desk is a greenish-yellowy- gray, suspended in clear fluid inside a Perspex case. It looks as if it is made of plastic, but it is a real human brain, smooth-surfaced, alien, and remote. It was given to Rose when he became professor of biology at the Open University in 1968, aged 30; it stays there now he has retired from administration and only does research. This single, disembodied brain fits neatly in the gap between his lives as a scientist and as a political activist. As a scientist, he has spent 40 years looking at brain process on the smallest, most detailed scale possible: his imagination was captured by a Swedish scientist who could cut out and study individual neurones. But as a polemicist on the left, he has spent nearly as much time arguing that completely individual minds cannot exist: “Brains do not work with information in the computer sense, but with meaning. And meaning is historically and developmentally shaped.” One result is his curiously split reputation: Professor Jekyll and Comrade Hyde. He walks with the stoop of an academic but sits with his head cocked, alert like a boxer: “Combat is forced upon me,” he says. “I don’t go looking for combats. But they find me. When what I regard as bad or mistaken ideas are non-trivial, they need combating.” In print he can be ferocious, especially when collaborating with his wife Hilary, the sociologist. The book against evolutionary psychology they recently edited, Alas,Poor Darwin (Jonathan Cape), was a great deal more aggressive than some of the contributors had hoped. “He may be the last of the Marxist radical scientists,” says his friend and collaborator Patrick Bateson, now provost of King’s College, Cambridge, “but he won’t be the last radical. Steven is not always right; but he has been very brave in some of the things he has said. He can be astonishingly articulate in circumstances where I would simply seize up. And he does have the most extraordinary energy.” The politics predate the science in his life: his family was shaped by poverty, pride and anti-semitism. All four grandparents were immigrants: his father was “born above a tailor’s shop” in Mare Street, Hackney, east London. His paternal grandmother died young of TB, and when his grandfather remarried, his father and brother was sent away to a Jewish boys’ orphanage in north London. Despite this, his father managed to get himself trained in night school and even found a job as an industrial chemist in the middle of the depression, though he had to change his name from Rosenberg to Rose to do so. Steven’s parents married in 1935: his mother came from the slightly richer family, as her father, a cabinet maker, had been left a small factory making carpenter’s planes by his childless employer. Steven was born in 1938, by which time his father was working as a schoolteacher, because the chemicals he had worked with in industry made him ill. Rose senior volunteered as soon as the war started, joined up as a private and left as a major. Afterwards he worked as a full-time “anti-fascist organiser” for the Association of Jewish ex-Servicemen. Rose’s parents had another son at the end of the war, Nik, now professor of sociology at Goldsmith’s College, London. The two brothers are distantly affectionate, but the eight years between them meant that they did not share much of a childhood. “Steven’s a wonderful man. That’s really all I can say about him,” says Nik. For Steven Rose, politics began early and rough. “My earliest political memories are from about 1948: I was standing in Ridley Road, and my father was speaking against the fascists. Mosley’s armoured cars came past and the stones began to fly. There were people chanting ‘The Yids, the Yids. We’ve got to get rid of the Yids!’. That was before they turned on the blacks.” Politics as an exchange of rocks and slogans was to have a lasting impact on his polemical style. But his scientific memories go deeper: for his eight birthday he had been given a chemistry set and a copy of Darwin’s Origin Of Species. He says: “It just seemed to me a better way of understanding the world than all the other stuff one was being taught. I set up a small chemistry lab in a shed in the back garden. I decided I was an atheist, which I explained to the local rabbi, a friend of the family. He patted me firmly on the head and said ‘There there, Steven, it’s only a phase. You’ll probably grow out of it; and anyway, it doesn’t matter, because you don’t have to believe in God to be a good Jew’, which I didn’t understand at the time. However, I never have grown out of it. I was always interested in two things: science, and changing the world – in labour politics.” At 18, he went up to Cambridge on a scholarship. It was a revelation for a boy who had never had anyone in the family house who was not Jewish, and probably, he says, who was not a close relative. In fact the whole time seemed revolutionary, for he went up a month before the Suez crisis and was almost at once back in London for the demonstrations against it. “There were police horses riding us down, and people calling out for marbles to throw in front of the police horses and so on. With this in mind, I went back to my father and said, ‘Police horses are riding us down! The government will fall!’ My father looked up from the sofa and raised half an eyebrow.” The memory still makes Rose laugh. He loved the opportunities for a wider education that Cambridge offered and threw himself into the libraries. He had gone up as a chemist. “I knew no biology. I may have had an O or an A level in it.” But King’s College made chemistry students study physiology as well, and he discovered biochemistry – the chemistry of living things – and was swept up in the excitement of the first great discoveries of molecular biology. Cambridge was where Crick and Watson had worked out the structure of DNA, which won them a shared Nobel prize in 1953; by the end of the decade Frederick Sanger, also at Cambridge, had won the first of his two Nobel prizes for working out the structure of the protein insulin; the South African Sydney Brenner, who comes up in any discussion of people who really deserved a Nobel but didn’t get one, was also at King’s working on the genetic code: the way the structure of DNA is translated into proteins, from which almost everything in a living body is built. “It was a marvellous time to be a biochemistry undergraduate in Cambridge,” says Rose. “It was certainly the best biochemistry in England, probably in the world. This, I thought, was the key to understanding the universe.” The problem, he thought then, was that so much of the universe had been understood already. He was young, smart, and arrogant: “Steven has the most profoundly superficial mind of anyone I know,” Brenner is supposed to have said. Rose got a double first in biochemistry but he didn’t want to go on doing molecular biology, as seemed natural to almost every other smart young biologist of the period. “I thought, ‘the genetic code has been solved; protein synthesis has been done. What’s the big next thing to understand? The brain. So where can I go to understand the brain?’” This was not an ambition sympathetically received by his department, who “exiled” him for his PhD to the Institute of Psychiatry in South London. He worked there on the chemistry of the brain in a way that seemed to him quite futile: though he was in a hospital full of human distress they worked on slices of cow’s brains from the local abattoir. “We might as well have been studying big toes or livers or kidneys for all it told me about function,” he says. However, his personal life took a decisive change in 1960. At a New Left Review meeting he met Hilary who was studying sociology at the LSE as a mature student. The couple were married shortly thereafter, and have stayed married and famously devoted ever since, perhaps a unique record among radicals of their generation. She eventually became professor of sociology at Bradford. They worked together on books and pamphlets, and are at the moment joint Gresham lecturers at the University of London. They have two sons, Simon, from Hilary’s first marriage, who is a farmer in Yorkshire, and Ben, “an extremely successful criminal defence lawyer. If the police nick you, go to Ben,” Rose says. After his doctorate his first job was as a fellow of New College, Oxford, working for Hans Krebs, who later won a Nobel prize. Rose hated it. As a newly married father he found college life suffocatingly misogynistic: “Hilary was doing a degree at LSE. We had two kids. I had free rooms and the possibility of free meals in New College and you could bring women in to dine on alternate Fridays in term time provided they weren’t your wife. It was gross.After a couple of years she said, ‘I’m going back to London, you can come if you like’, so I had to find a different job.” But his ambitions at work, despite discouragement, were beginning to seem more attainable. He discovered the work of a Swedish scientist, Holger Hydén, who claimed to be able to separate out single neurones from dissected rabbit brains and show chemical changes in them after the rabbits had learned particular tasks. On this level, Rose’s work with memory looks at the fundamental ways in which any animal can learn or know anything about the world. Rose says: “In some way, when memories are made, there must be representations of what you remember in the brain. Starting as a biochemist, my approach has always been that if you’re going to make changes in the brain this is going to involve molecular processes, the synthesis of new proteins, so let me see if I can find out what these proteins are.” After Oxford, he worked at Imperial College, London, for five years. There he was introduced by Patrick Bateson, an ethologist who became a life-long friend, to the use of very young chickens as experimental animals, on which subject Rose likes to quote Hans Krebs: “God has made the organism which is the right answer for every problem the biochemist wants to study.” The chick is ideal for researching memory and learning, partly because the things it learns are so simple; partly because they are easy to breed and easy to kill. In his prize-winning book, The Making Of Memory, Rose describes how a day’s work can involve cutting the heads off 48 chicks with a pair of scissors – how else can one get at the brains to analyse their chemistry? He is unapologetic about using animals. Animal suffering is less important than human suffering, he says, and, though it must be minimised, it cannot be avoided entirely if humans are to benefit. In 1968 he was appointed professor of biology at the Open University and has worked there ever since. It was the first academic appointment the university made, and the day after he learned he had the job he was interviewing for his own assistants. Practically everything on the campus has been built since he arrived there: “It is the university on which the concrete never sets,” he says. Shortly afterwards, he and Hilary left the Labour party and headed in a leftward direction. “I have never joined any political organisation since,” he says carefully. They agitated against the Vietnam war and even travelled to Hanoi to examine the effects of chemical warfare on Vietnamese peasants. He appears less Marxist to himself than to his friends: certainly less so than he appears to his enemies. Richard Dawkins once dismissed a book he wrote in collaboration with the American Marxist scientists Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamen as “Dave Spart trying to get into Pseud’s Corner”. Mary Midgley, the philosopher and a friend, attributes the breadth of Rose’s interests to Marxism, because Marxists were forced to think in large terms about society as a complicated system of inter-reacting mechanisms. “He is a good thing”, she says. “So few scientists are in a position to stand back and ask what science is doing, as he does: ignorance about the use of words in metaphor, and that they matter, is part of a scientist’s training. What’s admirable about him and Hilary is that they come from such different places and they keep educating each other.” Midgley, a notably pugnacious writer herself, pays Rose a wholly characteristic compliment: “His choice of enemies is not too bad now.” Another friend, Lisa Appignanesi, the writer and former director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, says: “He and Hilary have intellectually fed each others’ energies. I think that Hilary as a sociologist of science probably knows more about the nitty-gritty of lab work than most critics. Steven is probably more aware of the questions that sociologists and journalist like to ask because he has her as the in-house critic.” The tradition of politically radical biology into which he was inducted at Cambridge was certainly Marxist and often Stalinist, descending though figures like JBS Haldane and JD Bernal, a great scientist who none the less wrote an obituary of Stalin which described him as “a great scientist [who combined] a deeply scientific approach to all problems with his capacity for feeling and expressing himself in simple and direct terms”. But, Rose says, he himself was never particularly “Sovietophile”. He always employed researchers from eastern Europe – no more reliable way of ensuring that his lab was full of anti-communists. The memory of such contortions – for Stalin had murdered every honest geneticist in the Soviet Union – does something to explain the bitterness of the controversies into which the Roses were drawn in the 70s and later. These started with the notion, popularised by Hans Eysenck, that IQ tests measure an independently existing general intelligence, of the sort that separates us from animals; and that this quality is largely, measurably, determined by our genes. From that it would follow that there might be IQ differences between different races or classes; and, if there are, there is a limited amount that governments can do to bring about equality between races and classes. As part of a general assault on what he called “genetic determinism”, Rose attacked every aspect of this argument, which seemed to him bad science in the service of bad politics. Even today, when he concedes that IQ tests may be quite useful as a way of measuring test-passing abilities, he maintains they are useless as a measure of general intelligence. Patrick Bateson, who thinks Rose overstated the case against the tests, says: “The resistance to the notion that IQ might mean anything was partly based on another strongly held instinct on Steven’s part, namely that nothing is wholly dependent on biological makeup. This led him into a position of attacking the tests at exactly the time when they were being quite widely accepted.” But the IQ tests were merely a warm-up for his major controversial struggle, against the whole complex of ideas – “Darwinian” if you believe in them, “ultra-Darwinian” or “Darwinian fundamentalism” if you don’t – represented by Richard Dawkins and Helena Cronin in this country, and EO Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker in the US. Rose, along with his American friends Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, has fought a tireless polemical war against the claim that a Darwinian analysis has much to tell us about human nature or the organisation of society. This claim has gone by various names over the years; nowadays it is mostly known as evolutionary psychology: in the 70s, an earlier version was known, after EO Wilson’s book, as sociobiology. Over the years, the level of abuse has toned down – though two years ago Rose used the threat of a libel suit to force the obliteration of a speech bubble in a comic book on “Evolutionary Psychology for beginners” which he felt put stupid words into his mouth. But the underlying principle of his attacks has always been the same: that social causes are more important and interesting in human affairs than biological ones. Originally the complaint against sociobiologists was that they were all either right-wingers or dupes of the right. This wasn’t fair or true at the time – unless you take everyone who disagrees with you politically to be a dupe of the right. Now, Rose says that part of the problem of evolutionary psychology as a programme is that it can be used to support any political position: the philosopher Peter Singer speaks of a “Darwinian left” and so, sometimes, does Helena Cronin. The clearest statement of Rose’s views, stripped of explicit politics, came when he argued against genetic determinism before an audience of invited scientists. He said, ironically paraphrasing the views of his opponents: “In a political environment… which has largely despaired of finding social solutions to social problems, apparently scientific assertions become magnified by press and politicians. Sexual orientation, mental distress or violence on city streets are scarcely minor concerns. If the causes of our pleasures and our pains, our virtues and our vices, lie predominantly within the biological realm, then it is to neurogenetics that we should look for explanation, and to pharmacology and molecular engineering that we should turn for solutions.” Of course he believes that the causes of these miseries are not predominantly biological, and that you can’t solve unemployment with gene therapy or targeted drugs. But many of his enemies would agree with him about the limits of present-day scientific knowledge. To have found genes associated with language skills, or homo- sexuality, or schizophrenia, is not the same as finding genes which cause language, homosexuality or schizophrenia. In the simplest and most-studied animal known to science, the tiny transparent worm, c.elegans, which only has 300 neurones and no brain, the link between genes and behaviour is still not properly understood. However, in human brains, with more neurones than there are stars in the universe, and a genome much less well understood than the worm’s, our understanding of the link is much poorer. Logically there must be one. But if you want to change or understand behaviour, Rose would say, this is not the place to start. In most cases we don’t even understand why knocking the genes out disrupts the behaviour. He himself says: “I don’t think there are huge conceptual differences between Richard Dawkins and myself; but part of the difference is between someone who has trained as a biochemist and someone such as Richard who has, for a long time, been more of a theoretician.” Because both sides in these disputes appeal to the authority of science, but are animated by philosophical disagreements, it can be difficult to find what they are arguing about. Through all the controversies Rose remained active in the laboratory to a degree unusual in professors, let alone popularisers of science. But as a populariser of science he stands slightly askew from the mainstream. He shares an agent – the celebrated American John Brockmann – with many of his ideological opponents; he has won the Rhône Poulenc Science prize for his book The Making Of Memory. But he writes about science as if it weren’t a religion. The traditional pop-science book offers answers to clear-cut questions. Rose is enormously clear at illuminating the problems, but he also suggest that clear-cut problems are unnatural, and the ones we do find in nature are often just too complicated to work with. “Peter Medawar talked about science as being the art of the soluble, and he’s right, which is why I won’t work on consciousness,” says Rose. “The questions that you ask as a scientist are very often shaped by a complex of things. They are very crudely shaped by money – where do you get the grant? – what are the framing questions that seem important in society? Then there’s the internal history of our subject. The other thing that you must not ever forget is the technologies. You couldn’t ask questions about the sub-cellular structure of cells until you had an electron microscope and an ultra-centrifuge. The boundaries between technology and science are absolutely non-rigid. People like Lewis Wolpert [professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College, London] who absolutely insist that there is science on the one hand and technology on the other just seem to me to be profoundly wrong.” “The truth is that the complexities of real human memory, or real animal memory, are immensely more complicated than these little synapse games we play,” Rose says. “But synapses are what we know how to study.” By these painstaking methods, Rose’s lab has stumbled onto something that might lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. That they are pursuing this line of research, rather than looking at other brain molecules, seems to him a prime example of the way that scientific knowledge is shaped by social concerns. If you feed chicks antibiotics, which disrupt the formation of the proteins needed to bind synapses together in the patterns that make memory, they become amnesic. They cannot learn because they cannot remember what they’re supposed to have learned. This is similar to the failure of an early Alzheimer’s patient to remember where the car keys are, or where they live. The knowledge just does not get stored in their brain. The necessary connections are not made. Rose’s lab has found a molecule which counteracts these effects, by binding synapses together in the way normally done by the proteins whose manufacture is stopped by antibiotics in chicks and by Alzheimer’s disease in humans. “But we don’t know how it works,” he says. “That it works is very clear. What we need to understand is the molecular process by which it works and, of course, if it is to be of any therapeutic interest, we need to show that you don’t have to inject it to get it into the brain. You can get it into the animal by other routes. “The hypothetical therapy is that you take a pill every morning which means that you are not going to forget the things you have learnt every day, like where you have left the car keys, or the shopping, because the drug is actually going to ensure that these connections are being made. “It’s complicated,” he says, “but we reckon that if we get the funds we can solve these problems within the next couple of years. That’s why you find me on the verge of an extremely active period.” Life at a glance: Steven Rose Born: July 4 1938 Married: 1961 Hilary Ann Chantler (two sons, Simon, born 1955; Ben, born 1963). Education: Haberdasher’s Aske School, London; King’s College Cambridge (PhD 1961). Career: 1961-63 department of biochemistry and New College, Oxford; ‘63-64 Istituto Superiore di Sanita, Rome; ‘64-69 National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow; ‘69-99 National Institute for Medical Research and Imperial College; ‘99- chair, department of biology, and director, brain and behaviour research group, Open University; professor of physic, Gresham College (with Professor Hilary Rose). Some publications: 1966, ‘79, ‘99 The Chemistry Of Life ; ‘69 Science And Society (with Hilary Rose); ‘70, Not In Our Genes (with Richard Lewontin and Leo Kamin); ‘88 Molecules And Minds; ‘92 The Making Of Memory; ‘97 Lifelines.