I HAVE RECENTLY READ a strange trilogy of books; one by a logician, one by a journalist and one by a biologist: The Tao Is Silent, by Raymond Smullyan (Harper & Row, paperback $4.95); The Eighth Day of Creation, by Horace Freeland Judson (Simon and Schuster, $15.95); and The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins (Oxford, $8.95; paperback, $3.50). Each of the books has a strange beauty; each casts life in a strange light -- and that is why I like them. They are disorienting, jolting.
The Selfish Gene provides a marvelously lucid and eerie view of who we are. It puts one in the peculiar position of seeing organisms as totally devoid of purpose, as comnplex chemical beings that have taken on the look of purposefulness after billions of years of swirling and coagulating activity. The central axiom of the book is that stable things tend to survive . The consequences of this axiom, when carried sufficiently far, turn out to be preplexing and amazing. The most human traits -- love, altruism, sympathy -- are seen to be cold-blooded, ruthless "strategies" of small molecules which can replicate themselves. It all hinges on the coming into existence, in some ancient eon, of at least one molecule that could make a copy of itself, by snatching at passing atoms, causing them to link up and form a duplicate of itself. At the moment this new molecule clicked together, a Pandora's Box opened. At this instant, a second molecule existed with the very same property. Copy begat copy and, pretty soon, swarms, droves of purposeless, aimless, self-copying molecules roamed the primordial sea, sucking up atoms and spitting out new copies. Eventually, copying mistakes resulted in variants, most of which lost the ability to make more copies. But perhaps one in a million could still produce copies, now of a slightly different type. Competition enters. "There was a struggle for existence among replicator varieties. They did not know they were struggling, or worry about it; the struggle was conducted without any hard feelings, indeed without feelings of any kind. But they were struggling, in the sense that any miscopying which resulted in a new higher level of stability, or a new way of reducing the stability of rivals, was automatically preserved and multipiled."
The trick is to remember constantly that no "conscious force" is driving these molecules; they merely appear purposeful in their activities. For instance, why would some molecules discover "how to protect themselves, either chemically, or by building a physical wall of protein around themselves"? Not out of self-preservation; that has the causality all wrong. The reason is that those which happened to have such a wall simply did better -- made more copies. There is an amazingly fine line here, between seeing this as purposeless or purposeful. This duality pervades the book, often compelling Dawkins to spell things out in two languages, one after another, to show that two descriptions are in fact compatible.
"What weird engins of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? . . . Now they $ swim in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, these replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines."
Of this central unit -- the gene -- Dawkins later says, in a passage strikingly reminiscent of Allen Wheelis' poetic description of "spirit" on On Not Knowing How to Live (Harper & Row, $5.95), "It leaps from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a seccession or mortal bodies before they sink in senility and death."
How can an individual -- "a survival machine built by a short-lived confederation of long-lived genes" -- possess all the complex social traits which we usually feel can derive only from our human souls? By powerful arguments drawing principally on game theory, Dawkins shows how in social contexts, aggressiveness, if tempered, leads to higher likelihood of survival of the genes; how family planning, altruism and all sorts of quirks in mating behavior can evolve.
Building on a beautifully chosen set of analogies, involving, for example, gas wars, blackmail, betting in poker, Dawkins shows how, in the end, spectacularly complex organizations can have the properties we attribute to ourselves, all as a consequence of aimless chemical reactions. This is one of the coldest, most inhuman and disorienting views of human beings I have ever heard; and yet I love it! It is so deep an insight, to bridge the gap between the lifeless and the living, the chemical and the biological, the random and the telelogical, the physical and the spiritual.
The Eighth Day of Creation is a chronicle of molecular biology and the people who created it. Here we swing back into a more familiar and comfortable mode of looking at people, forgetting how they emerge, layer by layer, from their chemical substrates. Yet ironicaly, those very chemical substrates are the primary concern of molecular biology. Judson creates a stirring counterpoint, weaving together the lives of colorful and deep human beings with the evolving picture of the interplay of DNA, proteins, viruses and so on.
This book must have been exhilarating to write: recreating -- even reliving -- discoveries of revolutionary import in our view of life and humanity, by directly interviewing most of those involved -- this is an adventure and a privilege few have ever had.
For me, the deepest meaning came in reading about the French biologists -- Andre Lwoff, Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod. I have always felt a special intuitive resonance with Monod, after reading his Chance and necessity (Vintage, $2.45), and this feeling was considerably deepened as I read about Monod the man. From his heroic Resistance days, touchingly recounted by his former secretary, now a flute teacher in Paris, through his embracing of and later alienation from communism, his friendship with Albert Camus, to his musical loves (conducting choral music by Bach, above all), he comes through as a most human person.
The photographs are a wonderful addition to a generally lucid text. They portray several dozen of the central figures: Avery, Delbrueck, Bragg, Perutz, etc. There is a deeply moving photo of Monod in his late fifities, at the height of the student agitation in Paris, leading an injured young woman through barriers in the streets of the riot-torn city.
The text attempts to trace not only the scientific developments themselves, but the psychology and sociology of unraveling the cell's mechanisms. As Howard Baker used to say about Richard Nixon, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Judson details the pervasive effect, for example, of Erwin Schroedinger's short book What is Life? -- inspired by ideas set forth by the quantum physicist turned biologist, Max Delbrueck. Judson manages to reconstruct the stages of ignorance which people went through as each new mystery was faced.
The final photograph in the book is of Monod, only days before his death in 1976, and the book closes with Monod's last intelligible words, spoken to his brother; "Je cherche a comprendre" (I am trying to understand).
The Too Is Silent is the most bizarre of my trio. Here a mathematical logician, a man of rigor in the highest sense, wallows in the paradox and nonsense, obviously to his own great delight. But this book is not a joke. Smullyan is truly a Taoist, at least in the sense in which he presents Taoism to us.
In one of his central chapters, Smullyan has a "Moralist" debate a Taoist about a Taoist's poem: My System of Ethics Whichever the way the wind blows, Whichever the way the world goes, Is perfectly all right with me!
The Moralist sees in this poem the expression of a reprehensible sort of quietism. The Taoist objects, however: "I never advocated sitting quietly while the world goes up in flames. I never advocated sitting quietly at all. In fact, my poem does not advocate anything."
Back and forth the debate goes, rather amusingly, until the Moralist, with a naive sense of triumph, "forces" the Taoist into accepting an extra last line: "Except for event E." Hilariously, the Taoist then explains that "E" is a variable ranging over all unpleasant events. Of course, he is being sarcastic and immediately returns to the original meaning of the poem.
In a beautifully ambiguous self-mockery, Smullyan ends the chapter with an epilogue: "Several days after I completed this chapter, there was a storm during the night and the wind blew out many of the screens from the porch. Next morning I was standing there looking at the desolation, and my wife came down and said: 'Well Raymond, are you still satisfied with whichever the way the wind blows?'"
To me, the most stimulating chapter is an extended dialogue, between God and a Mortal, on free will and the Mortal's horror of "sinning." Smullyan's magnificent repartee builds to a climax in which God shatters the Mortal's simplistic belief that he could be stripped of free will and yet remain human. Says God:
"Why, the idea that I could possibly have created you without free will! You acted as if this were a genuine possiblilty, and wondered why I did not choose it! It never occurred to you that a sentient being without free will is now more conceivable than a physical object which exerts no gravitational attraction. . . .
What on earth could it be like? I think that one thing in your life has so misled you is your having been told that I gave man the gift of free will. As if I first created man, and then as an after-thought endowed him with the extra property of free will. Maybe you think I have some sort of 'paint brush' with which I daub some creatures with free will, and not others. No, free will is not an 'extra'; it is part and parcel of the very essence of consciousness. A conscious being without free will is simply a metaphysical absurdity."
God's words on free will return us to The Selfish Gene with its seeming denial of free will. With this, our loop is closed. Each of these three books cast a searching new light onto the question of who we are, where we are going and whether we have anything to say about it.