Learning from Past Experience – A Fairy Story for Scientists (written in response to the revelations about the Human Genome Project in February 2001. See Letters 2001)
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a wonderful land where original thoughts would have grown and flourished but for the blinkered, old, multi-headed Giant which had ruled over it for many centuries. The Giant’s chief henchman was a demon called Indoctrination, which controlled the minds of the country’s citizens. Without that demon, the Giant would be powerless.
The rightful Queen of this land was a beautiful woman called Natural Curiosity. She had many admirers, owing to her open-minded outlook, but she was also feared by the Giant, whose henchman had to keep her influence to a minimum. Two Princes were born to Natural Curiosity by different fathers. The first Prince was called Landmark, whose father had been introduced to Natural Curiosity by an enlightened Buffoon. Though Landmark gained many supporters in his opposition to the Giant, he would disappointingly fail to cause the Giant any serious trouble, since he lacked any competitive edge. After Landmark’s father died, Natural Curiosity captured the imagination of a sea voyager, and she had a second son, called Darkwine, who was a born survivor. The Giant hated the fact that Darkwine had been born at all, and tried to have him killed (which was somewhat hypocritical since, allegedly, the Giant’s hero had only narrowly escaped infanticide himself). With the help of his father’s trusted Bulldog, Darkwine would grow up to overcome the demon Indoctrination, subdue the Giant and become King. However, the purpose of this fairy story is not to relate that well-worn heroic tale, but to tell of Darkwine’s subsequent reign.
While they were growing up together, Landmark and Darkwine sometimes quarrelled, as youngsters do, but they were also often compatible and complimentary playmates, albeit with very different personalities. Landmark advocated self-improvement, being responsive to outside events, and learning from past experience, as the means to his ends; whereas Darkwine was rather obsessed with sex and death, and he always expected the world to drop into his lap without his needing to make any effort. Also, unlike Landmark, he was much more interested in the steering mechanisms of their toys than in their methods of propulsion.
Darkwine’s father was a kindly, bearded man who permitted Darkwine’s friendship with Landmark even though he was concerned about Landmark’s progressive tendencies and his reported ambitions. He didn’t want Landmark, as the elder son of Natural Curiosity, to usurp his own son’s meritocratic priority to the throne. He was particularly irritated that one of Landmark’s most prominent and ambitious supporters was his own Butler. Sadly, Darkwine’s father died, leaving Darkwine in the care of two guardians, called Alfred A’Wally and The August Viceman. They both hated Landmark, because they thought he was untruthful and a bad influence, and they wouldn’t let Darkwine have anything more to do with him. All around court, there was much discussion about whether Viceman was right to claim that it isn’t possible to learn from past experience, or whether Landmark was right. Courtiers were forced to take sides, even though Darkwine and Landmark were not actually opponents. Viceman’s grip on the court became so great that he managed to squeeze out the part of Darkwine’s inheritance which was shared with Landmark, thereby precluding any possibility of their ruling together. Landmark felt compelled to quit the court in order to rally vital support for his claims. This was all very much against the wishes of Viceman’s former ally, The Earnest Heckler, whose repeated insistence that Darkwine and Landmark should rule together amounted to recapitulation.
All the conflicts and acrimony in his court had made Darkwine very ill and unhappy, and he might even have died if it weren’t for a timely intervention. Darkwine’s spirits were lifted when a fair Princess called Meddling was introduced into the court. She had been born in a monastery soon after Darkwine, but had been kept locked away from the world in a dark, musty library by a mischievous demon called Indifference. Then she had been rescued by a man of Dutch courage called Hugo the Freer, who spied her through his rose-tinted spectacles and liberated her. He had his own designs on Meddling, but he was too jumpy to be an acceptable match for her.
Viceman’s followers recognised that Meddling was just what was needed to rid the kingdom once and for all of the troublesome Landmark. They encouraged her liaison with Darkwine, who became captivated by her simple charms. As anticipated, she told Darkwine that if he wanted her to be his Queen, he would have to banish Landmark from the kingdom for ever. The reason for this, it transpired, was that Meddling was genuinely unable to learn from past experience, so she couldn’t tolerate anyone who claimed it was possible. Weakened by his previous unhappiness, and blinded by his love of Meddling, Darkwine soon acceded to her demands. Once they were married, he became known as New-Darkwine, because he had found a new perspective on life. Landmark became banished and was reported to be doing disreputable things in collaboration with socialists, which pleased New-Darkwine’s advisors no end. They believed that, with Landmark banished, New-Darkwine and Meddling would rule together happily ever after. But, as I indicated before, this is not that kind of fairy story.
For a while New-Darkwine was blissfully happy, despite some lingering dissent amongst a few of his courtiers. But then, little by little, he began to realise that he was in a very one-sided marriage. Meddling had her own agenda, which she pursued relentlessly with her new colleague, Biker O’Mystery. She did not seem to have much time for New-Darkwine any longer. Even the delivery of their first child, called Dina, did not unite them. Meddling just devoted all her attention to Dina, neglecting New-Darkwine’s needs completely. Whenever he questioned this, Meddling continued to insist that her interests had to be his interests too. Dina was very evidently the child of Meddling, but lacked any clear connection to New-Darkwine, and he had to take Meddling’s assurances that she was also his child on faith. Nonetheless, New-Darkwine was filled with doubts, and he once again became very depressed. This became especially bad when there was whispering amongst the dissidents in his court that he was a weak-minded cuckold.
Darkwine began to yearn for the carefree days of his youth, alongside Landmark, instead of having to maintain control of his kingdom single-handedly whilst his wife and daughter courted success and popularity through their work for the ill. Also, lurking in his conscience was the knowledge that, as the conqueror of the Giant’s demon, Indoctrination, he had been hypocritical in allowing Meddling to persuade him to release the demon in a modified form. As a result of all this, many of the people in his kingdom had cynically come to believe that they were really the subjects of Meddling.
A day dawned when some of Meddling’s servants admitted that tests had shown that Dina was not New-Darkwine’s child, but Biker O’Mystery’s. So Darkwine knew that Meddling had been pulling the wool over his eyes all along. In fairness, he could not blame her, since he knew that she, like almost everyone in his kingdom, had only been following a simplistic interpretation of the supposed edicts of the Emperor Materialis, over whom no-one knew what sort of influence the Empress Idealia might have, if she existed at all; they lived so far away that their lives were a matter of pure speculation. Darkwine also knew in his heart of hearts that he had never had any evidence that Landmark had been untruthful; it was only A’Wally, Viceman, Meddling and all their followers who had told him that, and they had all had their own agendas. What’s more, he realised that the reports of Landmark’s disreputable activities with socialists had all been spun by the exponents of Meddling, who only had her interests in mind. The only people in his entire court who had ever had his best interests at heart had been the dwindling number of seeming dissenters.
Unlike most fairy stories, this one does not yet have a happy ending. In order to do so, Darkwine must divorce Meddling, who was always more harmonious with Biker O’Mystery, but keep them and Dina in respected positions within the court. He must reinstate Landmark alongside him in his kingdom. The distant Emperor Materialis must have his influence tempered, and all forms of Indoctrination must be replaced with Open-Mindedness. Learning from past experience, that could take an awfully long time.
Glossary for non-scientists
The Giant = The Church, or The Churches of Christianity.
Landmark = Lamarckism, which maintains that every living organism is the product of the accumulated responses that all its ancestors have made to the environments in which they lived, which requires that acquired characteristics are inheritable. Lamarck’s mentor was the natural historian, Georges Buffon.
Darkwine = Darwinism, which maintains that every living organism owes its existence to the fact that all its ancestors had a sufficient number of inheritable lucky breaks, including acquired characteristics, to prevent any of them from being culled by the grim reaper before managing to reproduce.
Alfred A’Wally = Alfred Wallace, the co-founder of `evolution by natural selection’, whose views on evolution were ridiculed, mainly because he excluded the mind of man from the process.
The August Viceman = August Weismann, whose germ-plasm theory required that Darwinism become censored in respect of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
The Earnest Heckler = Ernst Haeckel, whose Recapitulation theory and evolutionary views represented a combination of Lamarckism and Darwinism.
Meddling = Mendelism, which maintains that biological inheritance comes in fixed units, later called genes.
Hugo the Freer = Hugo de Vries, a Dutch botanist who discovered Mendel’s ignored paper and developed his own idea of evolution by jumps, which he called mutations.
New-Darkwine = neo-Darwinism, which equates `lucky breaks’ only with the originally-arbitrary inheritance of beneficial genes.
Biker O’Mystery = Biochemistry, also known as Molecular Biology.
Dina = DNA, of which are made genes – the inheritable, coded determinants of an organism’s chemical, and hence medical, abilities.