Religion is more than opium

A review for the Telegraph: A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A history of Soviet atheism by Victoria Smolkin

On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin clambered into Vostok I, blasted into space, and became the first human being to orbit the earth.

“And suddenly I hear: Man is in space! My God! I stopped heating up the oven, sat next to the radio receiver, afraid to step away even for a minute.” This is the recollection of a 73-year-old woman from the Kuibyshev region, published in the state newspaper Izvestiia a little over a month later.

“We were always told that God is in the heavens, so how can a man fly there and not bump into Elijah the Prophet or one of God’s angels? What if God punishes him for his insolence?… Now I am convinced that God is Science, is Man.”

The opposition between religion and science set up in this letter is charmingly naive — as though a space capsule might shatter the crystal walls of heaven! But the official Soviet attitude to these matters was not much different. Lenin considered religion “merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.” Religion was simply a vicious exploitation of uneducated peoples’ urge to superstition. As socialism developed, superstitions in general would disappear, and religions along with them.

The art theorist Aleksey Gan called the constructivist Moscow Planetarium, completed in the late 1920s, “a building in which religious services are held… until society grows to the level of a scientific understanding, and the instinctual need for spectacle comes up against the real phenomena of the world and technology.”

The assumption here — that religion evaporates as soon as people learn to behave rationally — was no less absurd at the time than it is now; how it survived as a political instinct over generations is going to take a lot of explanation. Victoria Smolkin, an associate professor at Wesleyan University, delivers, but with a certain flatness of style that can grate after a while.

By 1973, with 70 planetariums littering the urban landscape and an ideologically oblivious populace gearing itself for a religious revival, I found myself wishing that her gloves would come off.

For the people she is writing about, the stakes could not have been higher. What can be more important than the meaning of life? We are all going to die, after all, and everything we do in our little lives is going to be forgotten. Had we absolutely no convictions about the value of anything beyond our little lives, we would most likely stay in bed, starving and soiling ourselves. The severely depressed do exactly this, for they have grown pathologically realistic about their survival chances.

Cultures are engines of enchantment. They give us reasons to get up in the morning. They give us people, institutions, ideas, and even whole planes of magical reality to live for.

The 1917 Revolution’s great blow-hards were more than happy to accept this role for their revolutionary culture. “Let thousands of us die to resurrect millions of people all over the earth!’ exclaims Rybin in Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel Mother. “That’s what: dying’s easy for the sake of resurrection! If only the people rise!’ And in his two-volume Religion and Socialism, the Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky prophesies the coming of a culture in which the masses will wiillingly “die for the common good… sacrificing to realise a state that starts not with his ‘I’ but with our ‘we’.”

Given the necessary freedom and funding, perhaps the early Soviet Union’s self-styled “God-builders” — Alexander Bogdanov, Leon Trotsky and the rest — might have cooked up a uniquely Soviet metaphysics, with rituals for birth, marriage and death that were worth the name. In suprematism, constructivism, cosmism, and all the other millenarian “-isms” floating about at the turn of the century, Russia had no shortage of fresh ingredients.

But Lenin’s lumpen anticlericals held the day. Bogdanov was sidelined and Trotsky was (literally) axed. Lenin looted the church. Stalin coopted the Orthodox faith to bolster patriotism in a time of war. Khrushchev criminalised all religions and most folk practices in the name of state unity. And none of them had a clue why the state’s materialism — even as it matured into a coherent philosophy — failed to replace the religion to which it was contrivedly opposed.

A homegrown sociology became possible under the fourth premier Leonid Brezhnev’s supposedly ossifying rule, and with it there developed something like a mature understanding of what religion actually was. These insights were painfully and often clumsily won — like Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. trying to understand the business of gift-giving by measuring all the boxes under the tree. And the understanding, when it came, came far too late.

The price of generations of off-again, on-again religious repression was not a confident secularism, or even a convulsive religious reaction. It was poison: ennui and cynicism and ideological indifference that proved impossible for the state to oppose because it had no structure, no leaders, no flag, no clergy or dogma.

In the end there was nothing left but to throw in the towel. Mikhail Gorbachev met with Patriarch Pimen on 29 April 1988, and embraced the millennium as a national celebration. Konstantin Kharchev, chair of the Council for Religious Affairs, commented: “The church has survived, and has not only survived, but has rejuvenated itself. And the question arises: which is more useful to the party — someone who believes in God, someone who believes in nothing at all, or someone who believes in both God and Communism? I think we should choose the lesser evil.” (234)

Cultures do not collapse from war or drought or earthquake. They fall apart because, as the archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out, they lose the point of themselves. Now the heavy lifting of this volume is done, let us hope Smolkin takes a breath and describes the desolation wrought by the institutions she has researched in such detail. There’s a warning here that we, deep in our own contemporary disenchantment, should heed.

What’s the Russian for Eastbourne?

Reading Davies and Kent’s Red Atlas for the Telegraph, 13 January 2018

This is a journey through an exotic world conjured into being by the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army. Tasked by Stalin during the Second World War to accurately and secretly map the Soviet Union, its Eastern European allies, its Western adversaries, and the rest of the world, the Directorate embarked on the largest mapping effort in history, Too many maps have been lost for us to be entirely sure what coverage was attained, but it must have been massive. Considering the UK alone, if there are detailed street plans of the market town of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, we can be reasonably sure there were once maps of Carlisle and Hull.

From internal evidence (serial numbers and such-like) we know there were well in excess of 1 million maps produced. Only a few survive today, and the best preserved of them, the most beautiful, the most peculiar, the most chilling, are reproduced here. The accompanying text, by cartographers John Davies and Alexander Kent, is rich in detail, and it needs to be. Soviet intelligence maps boast a level of detail that puts our own handsome Ordnance Survey to shame — a point the authors demonstrate by putting OS maps alongside their Soviet counterparts. You can not only see my road from one of these Soviet maps: you can see how tall the surrounding buildings are. You can read the height of a nearby bridge above water, its dimensions, its load capacity, and what it is made of. As for the river, I now know its width, its flow, its depth, and whether it has a viscous bed (it hasn’t).

This is not a violent tale. There is little evidence that the mapmakers had invasion on their mind. What would have been the point? By the time Russian tanks were rolling down the A14 (Cambridge, UK, 1:10,000 City Plan of 1998), nuclear exchanges would have obliterated most of these exquisite details, carefully garnered from aerial reconnaissance, archival research, Zenit satellite footage and, yes, wonderfully, non-descript men dawdling outside factory gates and police stations. Maybe the maps were for them and their successors. Placenames are rendered phonetically: HEJSTYNZ for Hastings and “ISBON” for Eastbourne on one Polish map. This would have been useful if you were asking directions, but useless if you were in a tank speeding through hostile territory, trying to read the road signs. The Directorate’s city maps came with guides. Some of the details recorded here are sinister enough: Cambridgeshire clay “becomes waterlogged and severely impedes off-road movement of mechanized transport.” Its high hedges “significantly impede observation of the countryside”. But what are we to make of the same guide’s wistful description of the city itself? “The bank of the river Cam is lined with ivy-clad buildings of the colleges of the university, with ridged roofs and turrets… The lodging-houses with their lecture-halls are reminiscent of monasteries or ancient castles.”

Though deployed on an industrial scale, the Soviet mapmakers were artisans, who tried very hard to understand a world they would never have any opportunity to see. They did a tremendous job: why else would their maps have informed the US invasion of Afghanistan, water resource management in Armenia, or oil exploration in India? Now and again their cultural assumptions led them down strange paths. Ecclesiastical buildings lost all significance in the Republic of Ireland, whose landscape became dotted with disused watermills. In England, Beeching’s cull of the railways was incomprehensible to Russian mapmakers, for whom railways were engines of revolution. A 1971 map of Leeds sheet not only shows lines closed in the 1960s; it also depicts and names the Wellington terminus station, adjacent to City station, which had closed in 1938.

The story of the Soviets’ mapping and remapping, particularly of the UK, is an eerie one, and though their effort seems impossibly Heath-Robinson now, the reader is never tempted into complacency. Cartography remains an ambiguous art. For evidence, go to Google Maps and type in “Burghfield”. It’s a village near Reading, home to a decommissioned research station of the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Interestingly, the authors claim that though the site is visible in detail through Google Earth, for some reason Google Maps has left the site blank and unlabelled.

This claim is only partly true. The label is there, though it appears at only the smallest available scale of the map. Add the word “atomic” to your search string, and you are taken to an image that, if not particularly informative, is still adequate for a visit.

Two thoughts followed hard on this non-discovery of mine. First, that I should let this go: my idea of “adequate” mapping is likely to be a lot less rigorous than the authors’; anyway it is more than possible that this corner of Google Maps has been updated since the book went to press. Second, that my idle fact-checking placed me in a new world — or at any rate, one barely out of its adolescence. (Keyhole, the company responsible for what became Google Earth, was founded in 2001.)

Today anyone with a broadband connection can drill down to information once considered the prerogative of government analysts. Visit Google Earth’s Russia, and you can find traces of the forest belts planted as part of Stalin’s Great Transformation of Nature in 1948. You can see how industrial combines worked their way up the Volga, building hydroelectric plants that drowned an area the size of France with unplanned swamps. There’s some chauvinistic glee to be had from this, but in truth, intelligence has become simply another digital commodity: stuff to be mined, filleted, mashed up, repackaged. Open-source intelligence: OSINT. There are conferences about it. Workshops. Artworks.

The Red Atlas is not about endings. It is about beginnings. The Cold War, far from being over, has simply subsumed our civic life. Everyone is in the intelligence business now.

Stalin’s meteorologist

I reviewed Olivier Rolin’s new book for The Daily Telegraph

750,000 shot. This figure is exact; the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, kept meticulous records relating to their activities during Stalin’s Great Purge. How is anyone to encompass in words this horror, barely 80 years old? Some writers find the one to stand for the all: an Everyman to focus the reader’s horror and pity. Olivier Rolin found his when he was shown drawings and watercolours made by Alexey Wangenheim, an inmate of the Solovki prison camp in Russia’s Arctic north. He made them for his daughter, and they are reproduced as touching miniatures in this slim, devastating book, part travelogue, part transliteration of Wangenheim’s few letters home.

While many undesirables were labelled by national or racial identity, a huge number were betrayed by their accomplishments. Before he was denounced by a jealous colleague, Wangenheim ran a pan-Soviet weather service. He was not an exceptional scientist: more an efficient bureaucrat. He cannot even be relied on “to give colourful descriptions of the glories of nature” before setting sail, with over a thousand others, for a secret destination, not far outside the town of Medvezhegorsk. There, some time around October 1937, a single NKVD officer dispatched the lot of them, though he had help with the cudgelling, the transport, the grave-digging. While he went to work with his Nagant pistol, others were washing blood and brains off the trucks and tarpaulins.

Right to the bitter end, Wangenheim is a boring correspondent, always banging on about the Party. “My faith in the Soviet authorities has in no way been shaken” he says. “Has Comrade Stalin received my letter?” And again: “I have battled in my heart not to allow myself to think ill of the Soviet authorities or of the leaders”. Rolin makes gold of such monotony, exploiting the degree to which French lends itself to lists and repeated figures, and his translator Ros Schwartz has rendered these into English that is not just palatable, but often thrilling and always freighted with dread.

When Wangenheim is not reassuring his wife about the Bolshevik project, he is making mosaics out of stone chippings and brick dust: meticulous little portraits of — of all people — Stalin. Rolin openly struggles to understand his subject’s motivation: “In any case, blinkeredness or pathetic cunning, there is something sinister about seeing this man, this scholar, making of his own volition the portrait of the man in whose name he is being crucified.”

That Rolin finds a mystery here is of a piece with his awkward nostalgia for the promise of the Bolshevik revolution. Hovering like a miasma over some pages (though Rolin is too smart to succumb utterly) is that hoary old meme, “the revolution betrayed”. So let us be clear: the revolution was not betrayed. The revolution panned out exactly the way it was always going to pan out, whether Stalin was at the helm or not. It is also exactly the way the French revolution panned out, and for exactly the same reason.

Both French and Socialist revolutions sought to reinvent politics to reflect the imminent unification of all branches of human knowledge, and consequently, their radical simplification. By Marx’s day this idea, under the label “scientism”, had become yawningly conventional: also wrong.

Certainly by the time of the Bolshevik revolution, scientists better than Wangenheim — physicists, most famously — knew that the universe would not brook such simplification, neither under Marx nor under any other totalising system. Rationality remains a superb tool with which to investigate the world. But as a working model of the world, guiding political action, it leads only to terror.

To understand Wangenheim’s mosaic-making, we have to look past his work, diligently centralising and simplifying his own meteorological science to the point where a jealous colleague, deprived of his sinecure, denounced him. We need to look at the human consequences of this attempt at scientific government, and particularly at what radical simplification does to the human psyche. To order and simplify life is to bureaucratise it, and to bureaucratise human beings is make them behave like machines. Rolin says Wangenheim clung to the party for the sake of his own sanity. I don’t doubt it. But to cling to any human institution, or to any such removed and fortressed individual, is the act, not of a suffering human being but of a malfunctioning machine.

At the end of his 1940 film The Great Dictator Charles Chaplin, dressed in Adolf Hitler’s motley, broke the fourth wall to declare war on the “machine men with machine minds” that were then marching roughshod across his world. Regardless of Hitler’s defeat, this was a war we assuredly lost. To be sure the bureaucratic infection, like all infections, has adapted to ensure its own survival, and it is not so virulent as it was. The pleasures of bureaucracy are more evident now; its damages, though still very real, are less evident. “Disruption” has replaced the Purge. The Twitter user has replaced the police informant.

But let us be explicit here, where Rolin has been admirably artful and quietly insidious: the pleasures of bureaucracy in both eras are exactly the same. Wangenheim’s murderers lived in a world that had been made radically simple for them. In Utopia, all you have to do is your job (though if you don’t, Utopia falls apart). These men weren’t deprived of humanity: they were relieved of it. They experienced exactly what you or I feel when the burden of life’s ambiguities is lifted of a sudden from our shoulders: contentment, bordering on joy.

“Some only appear crazy. Others are as mad as a bag of cats”

unnamed

Stalin’s more eccentric scientists are the subject of this blogpost for Faber & Faber.

Stalin and the Scientists describes what happened when, early in the twentieth century, a handful of impoverished and under-employed graduates, professors and entrepreneurs, collectors and charlatans, bound themselves to a failing government to create a world superpower. Envied and obsessed over by Joseph Stalin — ‘the Great Scientist’ himself — scientists in disciplines from physics to psychology managed to steer his empire through famine, drought, soil exhaustion, war, rampant alcoholism, a huge orphan problem, epidemics and an average life expectancy of thirty years. Hardly any of them are well known outside Russia, yet their work shaped global progress for well over a century.

Cold War propaganda cast Soviet science as an eccentric, gimcrack, often sinister enterprise. And, to my secret delight, not every wild story proved to be a fabrication. Indeed, a heartening amount of the smoke shrouding Soviet scientific achievement can be traced back to intellectual arson attacks of one sort or another.

I’ll leave it to the book to explain why Stalin’s scientists deserve our admiration and respect. This is the internet, so let’s have some fun. Here, in no particular order, are my my top five scientific eccentrics. Some only appear crazy; others have had craziness thrust upon them by hostile commentators. Still others were as mad as a bag of cats.

1. Ilya Ivanov
Ilya Ivanov, the animal breeding expert who tried to mate humans with chimpanzees

By the time of the 1917 revolution, Ilya Ivanov was already an international celebrity. His pioneering artificial insemination techniques were transforming world agriculture. However, once he lost his Tsarist patrons, he had to find a research programme that would catch the eye of the new government’s Commissariat of Education. What he came up with was certainly compelling: a proposal to cross-breed humans and chimpanzees.

We now know there are immunological difficulties preventing such a cross, but the basic idea is not at all crazy, and Ivanov got funding from Paris and America to travel to Guinea to further the study.

Practically and ethically the venture was a disaster. Arriving at the primate centre in Kindia, Ivanov discovered that its staff were killing and maiming far more primates than they ever managed to capture. To make matters worse, after a series of gruesome and rapine attempts to impregnate chimpanzees with human sperm, Ivanov decided it might be easier to turn the experiment on its head and fertilise African women with primate sperm. Unfortunately, he failed to tell them what he was doing.

Ivanov was got rid of during the Purges of the late 1930s thanks to a denunciation by an ambitious colleague, but his legacy survives. The primate sanctuary he founded in Sukhumi by the Black Sea provided primates for the Soviet space programme. Meanwhile the local tourist industry makes the most of, and indeed maintains, persistent rumours that the local woods are haunted by seven-foot-tall Stalinist ape-men.

2. Alexander Bogdanov
whose Mars-set science fiction laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union’s first blood transfusion service — and who died of blood poisoning

Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov, co-founder of the Bolshevik movement, lost interest in politics, even as control came within his grasp, because he wanted more time for his writing.

In his novels Red Star and Engineer Menni, blood exchanges among his Martian protagonists level out their individual and sexual differences and extend their lifespan through the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

These scientific fantasies took an experimental turn in 1921 during a trade junket to London when he happened across Blood Transfusion, a book by Geoffrey Keynes (younger brother of the economist). Two years of private experiments followed, culminating in an appointment with the Communist Party’s general secretary, Joseph Stalin. Bogdanov was quickly installed as head of a new ‘scientific research institute of blood transfusion’.

Blood, Bogdanov claimed, was a universal tissue that unified all other organs, tissues and cells. Transfusions offered the client better sleep, a fresher complexion, a change in eyeglass prescriptions, and greater resistance to fatigue. On 24 March 1928 he conducted a typically Martian experiment, mutually transfusing blood with a male student, suffered a massive transfusion reaction and died two weeks later at the age of fifty-four.

Bogdanov the scientist never offered up his studies to the review of his peers. In fact he never wrote any actual science at all, just propaganda for the popular press. In this, he resembled no-one so much as the notorious charlatan (and Stalin’s poster boy) Trofim Lysenko. I reckon it was his example made Trofim Lysenko politically possible.

3. Trofim Lysenko
Stalin’s poster-boy, who believed plants sacrifice themselves for their strongest neighbour — and was given the job of reforesting European Russia.

Practical, working-class, ambitious and working for the common good, the agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko was the very model of the new Soviet scientist. Rather than studying ‘the hairy legs of flies’, ran one Pravda profile in August 1927, this sober young man ‘went to the root of things,’ solving practical problems by a few calculations ‘on a little old piece of paper’.

As he studied how different varieties of the same crop responded to being planted at different times, he never actually touched any mathematics, relying instead on crude theories ‘proved’ by arbitrary examples.

Lysenko wanted, above all else, to be an original. An otherwise enthusiastic official report warned that he was an ‘extremely egotistical person, deeming himself to be a new Messiah of biological science.’ Unable to understand the new-fangled genetics, he did everything he could to banish it from biology. In its place he championed ‘vernalisation’, a planting technique that failed dismally to increase yields. Undeterred, he went on to theorise about species formation, and advised the government on everything, from how to plant oak trees across the entire Soviet Union to how to increase the butterfat content of milk. The practical results of his advices were uniformly disastrous and yet, through a combination of belligerence, working-class credentials, and a phenomenal amount of luck, he remained the poster-boy of Soviet agriculture right up until the fall of Khrushchev in 1964.

Nor is his ghost quite laid to rest. A couple of politically motivated historians are even now attempting to recast Lysenko as a cruelly sidelined pioneer of epigenetics (the study of how the environment regulates gene expression). This is a cruel irony, since Soviet Russia really was the birthplace of epigenetics! And it was Lysenko’s self-serving campaigns that saw that every single worker in that field was sacked and ruined.

4. Olga Lepeshinskaya
who screened in reverse films of rotting eggs to prove her theories about cell development — and won a Stalin Prize

Olga Lepeshinskaya, a personal friend of Lenin and his wife, was terrifyingly well-connected and not remotely intimidated by power. On a personal level, she was charming. She fiercely opposed anti-semitism, and had dedicated her personal life to the orphan problem, bringing up at least half a dozen children as her own.

As a scientist, however, she was a disaster. She once announced to the Academic Council of the Institute of Morphology that soda baths could rejuvenate the old and preserve the youth of the young. A couple of weeks later Moscow completely sold out of baking soda.

In her old age, Lepeshinskaya became entranced by the mystical concept of the ‘vital substance’, and recruited her extended family to work in her ‘laboratory’, pounding beetroot seeds in a pestle to demonstrate that any part of the seed could germinate. She even claimed to have filmed living cells emerge from noncellular materials. Lysenko hailed Lepeshinskaya’s discovery as the basis for a new theory of species formation, and in May 1950 Alexander Oparin, head of the Academy of Sciences’ biology department, invited Olga Lepeshinskaya to receive her Stalin Prize.

It was all a fraud, of course: she had been filming the death and decomposition of cells, then running her film backwards through the projector. Lepeshinskaya made a splendid myth. The subject of poetry. The heroine of countless plays. In school and university textbooks she was hailed as the author of the greatest biological discovery of all time.

5. Joseph Stalin
whose obsession with growing lemons in Siberia became his only hobby

Stalin, typically for his day, believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics – that a giraffe that has to stretch to reach high leaves will have long-necked children. He assumed that, given the right conditions, living things were malleable, and as the years went by this obsession grew. In 1946 he became especially keen on lemons, not only encouraging their growth in coastal Georgia, where they fared quite well, but also in the Crimea, where winter frosts destroyed them.

Changing the nature of lemons became Stalin’s sole hobby. At his dachas near Moscow and in the south, large greenhouses were erected so that he could enter them directly from the house, day or night. Pruning shrubs and plants was his only physical exercise.

Stalin shared with his fellow Bolsheviks the idea that they had to be philosophers in order to deserve their mandate. He schooled the USSR’s most prominent philosopher, Georgy Aleksandrov, on Hegel’s role in the history of Marxism. He told the composer Dmitry Shostakovich how to change the orchestration for the new national anthem. He commissioned the celebrated war poet Konstantin Simonov to write a play about a famous medical controversy, treated him to an hour of literary criticism, and then rewrote the closing scenes himself. Sergei Eisenstein and his scriptwriter on Ivan the Terrible Part Two were treated to a filmmaking masterclass. And in 1950, while he was negotiating a pact with the People’s Republic of China, and discussing how to invade South Korea with Kim Il Sung, Stalin was also writing a combative article about linguistics, and meeting with economists multiple times to discuss a textbook.

Stalin’s paranoia eventually pushed him into pronouncements that were more and more peculiar. Unable to trust even himself, it came to Joseph Stalin that people were, or ought to be, completely readable from first to last. All it needed was an entirely verbal theory of mind. ‘There is nothing in the human being which cannot be verbalised,’ he asserted, in 1949. ‘What a person hides from himself he hides from society. There is nothing in the Soviet society that is not expressed in words. There are no naked thoughts. There exists nothing at all except words.’

For Stalin, in the end, even a person’s most inner world was readable – because if it wasn’t, then it couldn’t possibly exist.

 

 

Just how much does the world follow laws?

zebra

How the Zebra Got its Stripes and Other Darwinian Just So Stories by Léo Grasset
The Serengeti Rules: The quest to discover how life works and why it matters by Sean B. Carroll
Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia by Loren Graham
The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
reviewed for New Scientist, 15 October 2016

JUST how much does the world follow laws? The human mind, it seems, may not be the ideal toolkit with which to craft an answer. To understand the world at all, we have to predict likely events and so we have a lot invested in spotting rules, even when they are not really there.

Such demands have also shaped more specialised parts of culture. The history of the sciences is one of constant struggle between the accumulation of observations and their abstraction into natural laws. The temptation (especially for physicists) is to assume these laws are real: a bedrock underpinning the messy, observable world. Life scientists, on the other hand, can afford no such assumption. Their field is constantly on the move, a plaything of time and historical contingency. If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it.

Consider, for example, the charming “just so” stories in French biologist and YouTuber Léo Grasset’s book of short essays, How the Zebra Got its Stripes. Now and again Grasset finds order and coherence in the natural world. His cost-benefit analysis of how animal communities make decisions, contrasting “autocracy” and “democracy”, is a fine example of lawfulness in action.

But Grasset is also sharply aware of those points where the cause-and-effect logic of scientific description cannot show the whole picture. There are, for instance, four really good ways of explaining how the zebra got its stripes, and those stripes arose probably for all those reasons, along with a couple of dozen others whose mechanisms are lost to evolutionary history.

And Grasset has even more fun describing the occasions when, frankly, nature goes nuts. Take the female hyena, for example, which has to give birth through a “pseudo-penis”. As a result, 15 per cent of mothers die after their first labour and 60 per cent of cubs die at birth. If this were a “just so” story, it would be a decidedly off-colour one.

The tussle between observation and abstraction in biology has a fascinating, fraught and sometimes violent history. In Europe at the birth of the 20th century, biology was still a descriptive science. Life presented, German molecular biologist Gunther Stent observed, “a near infinitude of particulars which have to be sorted out case by case”. Purely descriptive approaches had exhausted their usefulness and new, experimental approaches were developed: genetics, cytology, protozoology, hydrobiology, endocrinology, experimental embryology – even animal psychology. And with the elucidation of underlying biological process came the illusion of control.

In 1917, even as Vladimir Lenin was preparing to seize power in Russia, the botanist Nikolai Vavilov was lecturing to his class at the Saratov Agricultural Institute, outlining the task before them as “the planned and rational utilisation of the plant resources of the terrestrial globe”.

Predicting that the young science of genetics would give the next generation the ability “to sculpt organic forms at will”, Vavilov asserted that “biological synthesis is becoming as much a reality as chemical”.

The consequences of this kind of boosterism are laid bare in Lysenko’s Ghost by the veteran historian of Soviet science Loren Graham. He reminds us what happened when the tentatively defined scientific “laws” of plant physiology were wielded as policy instruments by a desperate and resource-strapped government.

Within the Soviet Union, dogmatic views on agrobiology led to disastrous agricultural reforms, and no amount of modern, politically motivated revisionism (the especial target of Graham’s book) can make those efforts seem more rational, or their aftermath less catastrophic.

In modern times, thankfully, a naive belief in nature’s lawfulness, reflected in lazy and increasingly outmoded expressions such as “the balance of nature”, is giving way to a more nuanced, self-aware, even tragic view of the living world. The Serengeti Rules, Sean B. Carroll’s otherwise triumphant account of how physiology and ecology turned out to share some of the same mathematics, does not shy away from the fact that the “rules” he talks about are really just arguments from analogy.

“If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it”
Some notable conservation triumphs have led from the discovery that “just as there are molecular rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place”.

For example, in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, in 2000, there were fewer than 1000 elephants, hippos, wildebeest, waterbuck, zebras, eland, buffalo, hartebeest and sable antelopes combined. Today, with the reintroduction of key predators, there are almost 40,000 animals, including 535 elephants and 436 hippos. And several of the populations are increasing by more than 20 per cent a year.

But Carroll is understandably flummoxed when it comes to explaining how those rules might apply to us. “How can we possibly hope that 7 billion people, in more than 190 countries, rich and poor, with so many different political and religious beliefs, might begin to act in ways for the long-term good of everyone?” he asks. How indeed: humans’ capacity for cultural transmission renders every Serengeti rule moot, along with the Serengeti itself – and a “law of nature” that does not include its dominant species is not really a law at all.

Of course, it is not just the sciences that have laws: the humanities and the arts do too. In The Great Derangement, a book that began as four lectures presented at the University of Chicago last year, the novelist Amitav Ghosh considers the laws of his own practice. The vast majority of novels, he explains, are realistic. In other words, the novel arose to reflect the kind of regularised life that gave you time to read novels – a regularity achieved through the availability of reliable, cheap energy: first, coal and steam, and later, oil.

No wonder, then, that “in the literary imagination climate change was somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel”. Ghosh is keenly aware of and impressively well informed about climate change: in 1978, he was nearly killed in an unprecedentedly ferocious tornado that ripped through northern Delhi, leaving 30 dead and 700 injured. Yet he has never been able to work this story into his “realist” fiction. His hands are tied: he is trapped in “the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the Earth”.

The exciting and frightening thing about Ghosh’s argument is how he traces the novel’s narrow compass back to popular and influential scientific ideas – ideas that championed uniform and gradual processes over cataclysms and catastrophes.

One big complaint about science – that it kills wonder – is the same criticism Ghosh levels at the novel: that it bequeaths us “a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”. Lawfulness in biology is rather like realism in fiction: it is a convention so useful that we forget that it is a convention.

But, if anthropogenic climate change and the gathering sixth mass extinction event have taught us anything, it is that the world is wilder than the laws we are used to would predict. Indeed, if the world really were in a novel – or even in a book of popular science – no one would believe it.

Healthify yourself!

Come along on Wednesday 16 May at 7pm to the last of my talks at Pushkin House; I’m exploring Russia’s unsung sciences of the mind.

 

 

The way we teach and care for our children owes much to a handful of largely forgotten Russian pioneers. Years after their deaths, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the pioneering neuroscientist Alexander Luria have an unseen influence over our everyday thinking. In our factories and offices, too, Soviet psychology plays a role, fitting us to our tasks, ensuring our safety and our health. Our assumptions about health care and the role of the state all owe a huge debt to the Soviet example.

Tickets: £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs)

More details here

Red Harvest

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Come join me on Wednesday 14 March at 7.30pm, and discover what Russia’s famines have revealed about the living world.

This is the third in a series of lectures I’m giving at Pushkin House, the Russian cultural centre in London. It is part of a large work in progress: a history of science under Stalin’s rule. The book is due out in 2014 from Faber and Faber. 

After the civil war, the Bolsheviks turned to the revolutionary science of genetics for help in securing the Soviet food supply. The young Soviet Union became a world leader in genetics and shared its knowledge with Germany. Then Stalin’s impatience and suspicion destroyed the field and virtually wiped out Russian agriculture. Stalin was right to be suspicious: genetics had promised the world a future of health and longevity, but by the 1940s it was delivering death camps and human vivisection. Genetic advances have made possible our world of plenty – but why did the human cost have to be so high?

Pushkin House, 5a Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA. Tickets  are £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs). The box office is on 44 (0)20 7269 9770, but you can always take a chance and pay on the night.

Why Russia Sits on Plenty and Never Gets Rich

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On Monday 23 January 2012 at 7.30pm I’m giving the second of four talks on Russia’s scientific legacy. I’ve just sold the book of this series to Faber, so there may be a certain amount of drinking afterwards….

The old boast ran that Russia governed an empire with more surface area than the visible moon. Still, 40 per cent of it lay under permafrost, and no Romanov before Alexander II so much as set foot in Siberia.

Defying nature, the Bolsheviks forcibly industrialized the region, built factories and cities, and operated industries in some of the most forbidding places on the planet. Beginning with the construction of the Transsiberian railway, and ending with the planting of the Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, this is a story of visionaries and idealists, traitors, despots, and the occasional fool.

Pushkin House, 5a Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA

Tickets: £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs)
Box Office +44 (0)20 7269 9770

What Soviet science did for us

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I’m preparing a series of talks for Pushkin House in London, to tie in with a long project on science under Joseph Stalin. While we’re finalising the programme, these notes will give you an idea what to expect.

Russia’s Other Culture: science and technology in 20th century.

 

Early in the twentieth century, a few marginal scientists bound themselves to a bankrupt government to create a world superpower. Russia’s political elites embraced science, patronised it, fetishized it, and even tried to impersonate it. Many Soviet scientists led a charmed life. Others were ruined by their closeness to power. Four illustrated talks reveal how this stormy marriage between science and state has shaped the modern world.

 

1. The Men Who Fell to Earth: How Russia’s pilots, parachutists and pioneers won the space race.
November 2011.

 

In the 1950s and 1960s Sergei Korolev and the Soviet space programme laid a path to the stars. Now Russia is our only lifeline to the technologies and machines we have put in orbit. Simon Ings is joined by Doug Millard, Senior Curator of ICT & Space Technology at London’s Science Museum, to trace Russia’s centuries-old obsession with flight. This was the nation that erected skydiving towers in its playgrounds, built planes so large and so strange, the rest of the world thought they were fakes, and outdid Germany and the US in its cinematic portrayal of space. The nation’s soaring imagination continues to astonish the world.

 

The talk coincides with 50th anniversary of pioneering space travel by Yuri Gagarin

 

2. Prospectors: Why Russia sits on plenty and never gets rich
January 2012

 

The old boast ran that Russia governed an empire with more surface area than the visible moon. Still, 40 per cent of it lay under permafrost, and no Romanov before Alexander II so much as set foot in Siberia. Defying nature, the Bolsheviks forcibly industrialized the region, built factories and cities, and operated industries in some of the most forbidding places on the planet. Beginning with the construction of the Transsiberian railway, and ending with the planting of the Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, this is a story of visionaries and idealists, traitors, despots, and the occasional fool.

 

The talk will form part of a week of activity marking the fifth anniversary of Pushkin House’s establishment in Bloomsbury.

 

3. Red Harvest: What Russia’s famines taught us about the living world.    
March 2012

 

After the civil war, the Bolsheviks turned to the revolutionary science of genetics for help in securing the Soviet food supply. The young Soviet Union became a world leader in genetics and shared its knowledge with Germany. Then Stalin’s impatience and suspicion destroyed the field and virtually wiped out Russian agriculture. Stalin was right to be suspicious: genetics had promised the world a future of health and longevity, but by the 1940s it was delivering death camps and human vivisection. Genetic advances have made possible our world of plenty – but why did the human cost have to be so high?

 

4. “General Healthification”: Russia’s unsung sciences of the mind.
May 2012

 

The way we teach and care for our children owes much to a handful of largely forgotten Russian pioneers. Years after their deaths, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the pioneering neuroscientist Alexander Luria have an unseen influence over our everyday thinking. In our factories and offices, too, Soviet psychology plays a role, fitting us to our tasks, ensuring our safety and our health. Our assumptions about health care and the role of the state all owe a huge debt to the Soviet example. But these ideas have a deeper history. Many of them originated in America. The last lecture in this series celebrates the fertile yet largely forgotten intellectual love affair between America and the young Soviet Union.