Crick’s Full Circle

I use a photo of Francis Crick in my science slide show. He discovered DNA along with Watson in the 1950’s. He realized immediately the impossibility of DNA happening through some kind of Darwinian magic (mutation and natural selection). So I ask: “How does he think DNA developed?” I get several guesses; but usually someone comes out with the right answer: “Aliens”. Yes, that is what he believes. It is called panspermia, kind of like sexual seed from aliens being spewed out through the universe and happening to fall upon planet earth.

I came across this Mark Steyn remembrance of Crick following his death. Here are some quotes:

Francis Crick is dead and gone. He has certainly not “passed on” – and, if he has, he’ll be extremely annoyed about it. As a 12-year old English schoolboy, he decided he was an atheist, and for much of the rest of his life worked hard to disprove the existence of the soul.

Afterwards, already 30 and at a loose end, he mulled over what he wanted to do and decided his main interests were the “big picture” questions, the ones arising from his rejection of God, the ones that seemed beyond the power of science. Crick reckoned that the “mystery of life” could be easily understood if you just cleared away all the mysticism we’ve chosen to surround it with.

That’s the difference between Darwin and Crick. Evolution, whatever offence it gives, by definition emphasizes how far man has come from his tree-swinging forebears. DNA, by contrast, seems reductive. Man and chimp share 98.5 per cent of their genetic code, which would be no surprise to Darwin. But we also share 75 per cent of our genetic make-up with the pumpkin. The pumpkin is just a big ridged orange lump lying on the ground all day, like a fat retiree on the beach in Florida. But other than that he has no discernible human characteristics until your kid carves them into him.

The university at which he practiced his science is filled with ancient college chapels, whose presence so irked Crick that, when the new Churchill College invited him to become a Fellow, he agreed to do so only on condition that no chapel was built on the grounds. In 1963, when a benefactor offered to fund a chapel and Crick’s fellow Fellows voted to accept the money, he refused to accept the argument that many at the college would appreciate a place of worship and that those who didn’t were not obliged to enter it. He offered to fund a brothel on the same basis, and, when that was rejected, he resigned.

His militant atheism was good-humored but fierce, and it drove him away from molecular biology. As the key to the mystery of life, DNA seems a small answer to the big picture, so Crick pushed on, advancing the theory of “Directed Panspermia”, which is not a Clinton DNA joke but his and his colleague Leslie Orgel’s explanation for how life began.

“We do not know… uncertain… not too far out… we do not know for certain… we suspect… chances are…” And thus the Nobel prize winner embraces the theory that space aliens sent rocketships to seed the earth. The man of science who confidently dismissed God at Mill Hill School half a century earlier appears not to have noticed that he’d merely substituted for his culturally inherited monotheism a weary variant on Greco-Roman-Norse pantheism – the gods in the skies who fertilize the earth and then retreat to the heavens beyond our reach.

He didn’t see it that way, of course. His last major work, The Astonishing Hypothesis, was a full-scale assault on human feeling. “The Astonishing Hypothesis,” trumpeted Crick, “is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.'”

Perhaps the combination of human quirks and sparks that drove him to chase his double-helix are merely a chemical formula no different in principle from that which determines variations in the pumpkin patch. But, even if Francis Crick is 75 per cent the same as a pumpkin, the degree of difference between him and even the savviest Hubbard squash suggests that as a unit of measurement it doesn’t quite suffice.

It is too late to retreat now. Francis Crick set us on the path to a biotechnological era that may yet be only an intermediate stage to a post-human future. But, just as a joke that’s explained is no longer funny, so in his final astonishing hypothesis Dr Crick eventually arrived at the logical end: you can only unmask the mystery of humanity by denying our humanity.


About hansston

Pastor a church in Sparta.
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