The Near-Miracle of Detailed Understanding
On Being: A scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence
Oxford University Press, 2011
Arriving at the end of a long decade of tumultuous argument, Peter Atkins’s On Being is a succinct yet superfluous addition to the ever-raging “religion versus science” debate. Appropriately endorsed by fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and Paul Davies, Atkins’s study summarises current scientific wisdom on the grand narrative of existence—from the birth of the universe to the death of the human individual—in order to underline his belief that “the scientific method can shed light on every and any concept”. In the process of making this argument Atkins fiercely condemns the more extreme advocates of a spiritual worldview. In Atkins’s view, for example, the religious creationists’ “interpretation of comprehension is the abnegation of the intellect”, their misrepresentation of facts an “inexcusable evil”.
While Atkins’s eloquent assertions about the power and wonder of science are valid and worthwhile, his approach can be distasteful at times. Perhaps the most salient question to be asked of such a (by now) commonplace diatribe against religion is: who will be on the receiving end of these arguments? By recounting the evidence that introduces scientific insights into various aspects of existence, Atkins aims to remove the necessity for myth and faith. Yet, surely the faithful will be disinclined to purchase the writings of a noted chemist-atheist author; conversions from belief to non-belief seem unlikely to arise out of such an overtly partisan text. Thus, one of the chief problems for the curious and open-minded reader of On Being is likely to be Atkins’s uncompromisingly polemical stance, which is often expressed by way of a certain sardonic sense of humour.
Atkins’s narrative strategy is to pitch bygone myths once used to explain the unfathomable against the science that has since filled this “chasm of ignorance”. The juxtaposition of myth and science is both interesting and entertaining, yet as a fundamental attempt to refute the existence of God, the approach is questionable. Its limitations are particularly apparent in the book’s final chapter, which sees Atkins examine contemporary myths of the apocalypse: “Millennium”, “Tribulation”, “Armageddon”, and “Rapture”. So extreme are these ideas, and so clearly are they the preserve of minority groups, that their discussion is little more than a peripherally relevant attack on an easy target.
Nonetheless, Atkins is undoubtedly thought-provoking, and he writes with authority throughout. On Being summarises the nature of existence in the space of five enlightening chapters, which describe, in turn, the creation of life, evolution, birth, death, and the prospective end of the universe. Each chapter is informative and engaging, balancing scientific detail with anecdotal information, interspersed with a sporadically well-judged deployment of wit. Despite the tiresome tirade on religion, when focusing on science itself, Atkins is an excellent narrator, one who leads us effortlessly through the physics governing the universe and the biology of our own bodies. Indeed, the book contains numerous scientific insights evoked in a lucid, chatty style that illustrates matters of life and death, from conception to the initiation of rigor mortis, with concise clarity. His prose is convincing and highlights the capability of the scientific method. Yet whether the reader will take a “near spiritual joy from a solely material perception of the world”, as Atkins would ideally hope, remains to be seen. A more extensive treatment of the scientific material, which speaks for itself, may have helped him to achieve this goal by gratifying the scientifically curious reader. Instead, the wonderfully described scientific explanations are diluted with dismissive and patronising arguments against religion.
Indeed, the more academic, scientific details in On Being are written in small typeface, allowing them to be “skipped over” by the hasty reader. Yet these are also some of the most illuminating paragraphs in the whole work and integral to Atkins’s defence of the “near-miracle” detail of our scientific understanding. It is difficult to decide whether Atkins is being vaguely patronising to his reader in toning down his own rigorous rationalism, or whether his assertion that such paragraphs can be skipped is a somewhat arch dig at the unthinking assumptions of religious belief (“if you do not want to be bogged down in these minuatiae and can accept without further ado that science has achieved the near-miracle of detailed understanding”). Regardless, these paragraphs deserve close attention; the discussion of human conception is particularly fascinating, describing how our own genetic makeup is duplicated, rearranged, and mixed with our partner’s through a series of unlikely and highly complex events.
The origins and prospective demise of the universe is always a captivating though well-worn topic of pop-scientific discourse, as are evolution and birth. But On Being is surely unique in its stark biological description of death. The unusual chapter on this subject aims to disprove the existence of an afterlife. Atkins succeeds in evoking the bleak reality of death as a simple biological process akin to an apple rotting in the ground. Such descriptions chime with the blurb on the book’s back cover that deems his prose to be “unflinching in the face of uncomfortable truths”. We are all “inescapably destined to decay”, Atkins austerely reminds us. Whilst there is a certain morbid fascination in reading about the biochemical changes that occur in the decaying corpse, the level of detail, for example, with which algor mortis (the cooling of a body following death) is described feels excessive. More broadly, this chapter’s technical description of biological decomposition perhaps misses the point somewhat. Further, Atkins’s brief mention of “the utterly hopeless, those trapped irredeemably in poverty and disease,” looms like a shadow on the edge of his argument. For this group of people, such a blithely rationalist theory of suffering and dying is likely to seem absurdly inadequate. Atkins recognises this, acknowledging the therapeutic role faith may have in this instance, but in doing so, contradicts his own argument against the necessity for religion.
The recurring motif of On Being is the powerful, impassioned assertion of scientific method. Atkins proactively declares at the outset of his book that science can explain “love, hope, and charity” as well the seven deadly sins. Further discussion of current scientific insight into such fascinating aspects of human nature, coupled with a little less time battling religious dogma, would have made for a more convincing argument and a more pleasurable read. Yet, whether or not you are convinced by Atkins’s view that “there is nothing the scientific method cannot illuminate or elucidate”, this book provides a mostly enjoyable and provocative summary of the scientific explanations behind both existence and the development of life on earth. Indeed, with its skilful coverage of some of the most interesting aspects of physics and biology, it is an informative introduction to the scientific worldview. Moreover, as Atkins intends, the reader is forced to question the role of religion in contemporary society. Although this message is already well-established, and the manner in which it is put forward undoubtedly discordant (at a time when the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II for performing miracle cures from beyond the grave is being seriously considered), On Being is perhaps after all a timely if not entirely necessary reminder of the value of scientific evidence. As Atkins poetically remarks concerning humanity’s ongoing scientific endeavours and achievements: “[we] are not merely stardust and the children of chaos, we are the spreaders of light.”
Louise Weston graduated with a DPhil in Clinical Pharmacology from St John’s College, Oxford in 2010. She is now a postdoctoral research associate at The Rockefeller University, New York.