Transcript for programme one: Steven Rose
First broadcast on Tuesday 23 December 2004? on BBC Radio 3
First broadcast on Tuesday 23 December 2004? on BBC Radio 3
Q: My conversation tonight in this series of ‘Belief’ is with Steven Rose, neuroscientist and biologist, who has spent over 40 years studying the brain and how it works. After a double first in biochemistry at Cambridge, he pursued his studies at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, then as a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and subsequently at Imperial College, London. In 1969, he was appointed Professor of Biology at the Open University and has worked there ever since, expressing his views of the human brain and human behaviour in books such as ‘The Making of Memory’ and ‘Lifelines’. But there is another side to Steven Rose. Born the son of a Jewish activist father, coming from the east end of London when Mosley’s Fascists were on the march, Steven Rose has always been politically engaged – and with the Left. His politics and his science converge in his forceful critique, shared with his wife, the sociologist Hilary Rose, of evolutionary psychology, believing that reductionist theories ascribing human behaviour primarily to our genes, is inadequate to explain human life. Polemical encounters with those they label ‘ultra-Darwinians’ – that’s Pinker and Dawkins and Dennett – continue to keep the scientific community, and indeed the rest of us, on our intellectual toes. Steven Rose, is belief a matter of chemicals and electrical impulses in the brain?
A: Well, in a sense everything that we do is encoded in the chemical pathways and the history of our own bodies. But you can’t really trap mind and concepts like consciousness or belief within a set of chemicals in that sort of way. They reflect human agency our experience, and in a sense it’s a different universe of discourse.
Q: So, in talking about your beliefs, am I engaging with your brain or with your personality and your history?
A: Well, both at the same time. I mean, your brain and my brain and the communication between us is encoded in all sorts of complicated biophysical changes. At the same time, we’re having a conversation which is expressive of your and my past history and our experience and our interchange. And you can’t trap that simply in the molecules. The molecules might be encoding almost any sorts of things.
Q: Now let’s talk about the young Steven Rose. Big brainchild… because you were very clever very early. I think at the age of 8, on your 8th birthday, you’re given a chemistry set and a copy of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. I can’t believe you read it on your 8th birthday, but clearly you were bright and enquiring.
A: I suppose that’s right. I was if you like the first male grandchild of a family whose roots were in Eastern Europe. My grandfather was originally a cabinet-maker; he ended up running a small factory making wood-planes, and this was not an intellectual family. But there’s always this tradition that you should try to push kids into, at least some of the kids, into more intellectual activities, and I suppose I was pushed that sort of way. And you’re right, of course, I didn’t read Darwin’s ‘Origin’ on my 8th birthday. I did read as it were children’s versions of it, and I set up a chemistry lab in the shed in the back garden to do experiments with, but it was a long time later until I was able really to read Darwin!
Q: It was an Orthodox household, Orthodox Jewish, with strict observation?
A: Pretty strict. Separate plates for meat and milk, shul synagogue on Saturdays on Shabbat. I went to the Hebrew classes and I was kept out of, for example, Christian prayers at school. We had Jewish prayers instead.
Q: And what did you feel about that as a young boy?
A: Well, I became increasingly sceptical about it, I have to say, and I suppose this was partly my showing-off at the back of the synagogue where the kids actually had to sit. And there were all these questions about human origins, where the world came from and so on, and I’d read all these kids’ books and I was able to explain as it were that we’d come from monkeys, and that the earth, which was believed at the time had been split off by some great collision with the sun and made a ?cloud. So the kids would say, where’s this and where’s this coming from and where’s that coming from? And at the end you’re left with the question: well, either there was big bang, or God did it, or I don’t know. And ‘God did it’ didn’t seem to me to be a very satisfactory explanation, so I suppose in a slightly showing-off sort of way I went for the big bang.
Q: What did you think God meant at that time?
A: I’m not sure, and I think this is an important difference between the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition, because when I explained, age 8, to the rabbi friend of the family that I didn’t believe in God, he patted me on the head and said, ‘There, there, Steven, it’s a phase that you’ll go through, and of course you don’t have to believe in God to be a good Jew.’ And I couldn’t understand that. I now realise what he actually meant, because Judaism is essentially a religion which is committed to culture, to particular sets of beliefs and to keeping various traditions alive. And God is not really a major part of it. It’s as it were a sort of notion that you don’t have to think about. But if you are a Jew in a predominantly Protestant culture, you have a belief that somehow personal testimony, your God is a personal God to you. And it’s that contradiction I think that I was experiencing at that point.
Q: Nonetheless, the solidarity and the powerful sense of family that a Jewish background gives you, must have shaped your attitude to many things, including perhaps your own marriage, but also to social institutions and the way society should order itself.
A: Well, it certainly shaped my relationships to both society and to my marriage. Hilary, as is well known, is not Jewish. This caused a huge amount of anxiety and problems in my family and marginally I suspect in some of her relatives as well, when we started living together. And a few years ago, when I was asked to write the introduction to those single-volume books of the Bible – was asked to do Genesis – which was a fun request to someone who was sort of, really as an Orthodox Jew was a biologist and an atheist – they said they wanted me to do it. And Hilary and I spent the weekend reading Genesis in the King James Version. I’d only of course read it in Hebrew when it’s (unclear) in the old Hebrew pronunciation, I’d never read it in the King James Version before. And we realised something that was very interesting. And that is, that there is a difference between being a Christian atheist and being a Jewish atheist. The God I don’t believe in is not the same as the God Hilary doesn’t believe in!
Q: Can you enlarge on that?
A: Well, I suppose coming from her Christian Socialist tradition, Hilary actually sort of is very committed to the belief that sins of omission are as serious as sins of commission. I suppose my Jewish background makes me a little bit more blasé about that and the sense of guilt about things that you don’t do vaguely impinges. But I’m much more concerned with sins of commission – things that you do that are wrong, not things that you’ve failed to do which you should have done!
Q: Now you had a big discussion when it came to the circumcision of your son.
A: That’s indeed true, and it was a very interesting – it was our younger son – and slightly problematic discussion. I think I was against it, Hilary was in favour of it, on the grounds that as it were we didn’t wish our son to be deprived of an identity which actually was part of his cultural background. And also, that if the Nazis or the Fascists or the anti-Semites came again, there was no ducking away from that particular origin. In retrospect, we both agreed that it was actually sort of a form of genital mutilation, which is a mistake, and our grandchildren are certainly not circumcised.
Q: But it does show the lingering influence though of this background, matched also by your father’s political commitment to the Left, which has also lingered in your life, and indeed grown.
A: Yes. My father was, as you said at the beginning, an activist. He was a passionate Zionist. He’d had a very hard upbringing himself. He’d married into a slightly wealthier family when he married my mother, and he was an early volunteer in the 39-45 war. After the war, when Mosley re-emerged, then he became for a time a full-time anti-Fascist organiser for the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen. And that was an important and formative experience, because my earliest political memories are standing behind a platform in the Ridley Road in east London, where my father was speaking, and Mosley in his armoured car was going up and down, and the shouts were going, ‘The Yids! The Yids! You’ve got to get rid of the Yids!’ And the stones were flying, and I was hustled away and my father went on speaking. So that was a formative experience, but what was also important at that stage was a commitment to Zionism and therefore a belief in the legitimacy of the establishment of the Israeli state. And it was many years before I saw that that was a wholly illegitimate establishment and led me to the views I have now on the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
Q: Let’s stay with your inheriting as it were your father’s set of beliefs. It is interesting really of course in the light of much that you’ve written, that what was happening to you, regardless of gene as it seems to me, was shaping up the pattern of belief. I mean, your political convictions you would speak of as a matter of belief, wouldn’t you?
A: I think I would speak of them as a matter of belief. What I would say was grounded belief in an over-riding commitment to humanity and social justice, which I don’t think necessarily can be completely encoded in either genes or biological processes in the brain. But certainly that commitment to an anti-racist expression comes immediately out of my own past experience, and of course, any Jewish child growing up in the 1950s experienced a degree of mild anti-Semitism. But nothing of anything like the sort of intensity with which black people or ethnic minority people are now facing in Britain.
Q: Well, Cambridge in the 50s was a hotbed of new discoveries and amazing achievements. Was there a sense in which intellectual discovery fired up in you a new set of outlooks?
A: Yes. What Cambridge was an enormous opportunity to read incredibly widely, to study history and philosophy of science as well. I’d already joined the Labour Party in London before I went to Cambridge. I mean, I suspect that before I’d been to Cambridge, I’d never really actually met as a personal friend someone who wasn’t Jewish. We’d been a fairly exclusive Jewish group in the school.
Q: So you were experimenting now. You’re examining the brain, you’re beginning a lifelong commitment to the brain, before other people as it were had latched onto the fact that the next big question was going to be consciousness. Did you have a sense of being a pioneer?
A: Well, it was this slightly disagreeable arrogance that we’ve talked about already! When I, in my last years in Cambridge, the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of one of the big proteins – insulin – was announced for Fred Sanger in the biochemistry department. Watson and Crick (finding of DNA) had done their thing in 53, a little bit before, and the expectation was that if you were going to go on doing research, you would go on doing research in this area of virology and genetics and protein structure and so on. And I was, I suppose, really had this bumptiousness of youth; I said, ‘Look, these problems are all solved. It’s all, as it were, what I suppose you’d call now "normal science" after that! The next big frontier is the brain. Where can I study the brain?’ And my Cambridge supervisor raised half an eyebrow and said, ‘Brain? For a biochemist? No.’ And so they sent me off to the Institute of Psychiatry, which was a rather gloomy, red-brick and very down-market place at that stage in south London, as a sort of penance for having been so naive!
Q: But you were studying the brain. You were a man in a white coat, you’re opening up brains, the brains of chickens, to examine. Now, how does the brain of a chicken tell you anything about the brain of a human?
A: Well, if you were to take an electron microscope picture of the nerve cells in the brain of a chicken and the nerve cells in the brain of a human and present them to the most experienced neuro-anatomist in the world, they would not be able to tell the difference between them. The fundamental biochemistry of the electro physiology of the way brains work, is actually identical in chickens, in mice, in humans, and indeed in much more surprising animals like octopuses or flies. What’s different about the brains is the organisation, the way it’s all actually wired up and connected. But for example, I now work on possible treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. The protein which is involved in Alzheimer’s disease in humans and the same protein in a chick is actually 95% identical. So there’s an enormous evolutionary conservation going on here.
Q: But nonetheless, there is something uniquely human about being human, is there not?
A: Of course there is. There is something unique about any species being that species. We don’t do things that chicks do, and we do do things that chicks actually don’t. And the uniqueness of any species is extraordinary. The uniqueness of humans is that we can have this conversation, we do have technology, we do have written historical records which actually transform our lives, because every generation of chicks or any other animal, starts as it were from scratch whereas we, of course, don’t. We start with a cumulative culture which goes back through the 160-180,000 years of homo sapiens.
Q: Let’s talk about the various concepts that attach themselves to the idea of belief. A word crops up again and again, and that is ‘God’. Now you have told the rabbi long ago that you didn’t believe in God, but people do believe in something called God. Does that belief have a place in the brain? I know you can’t open it up and find that belief, but where does that come from?
A: Well, there are some colleagues of mine who would say that you can find a God-slot in the brain in that sort of way.
Q: In what sense do they mean that?
A: Well, they mean that there are particular regions of the brain which will light up when people are discussing their beliefs and so on.
Q: And how do you feel about that?
A: Let me put it another sort of way, and that is that I do believe very strongly in two things that Karl Marx said about religion and belief. Firstly that it is the opium of the people, but secondly and more friendlily and understandingly, that it is man’s cry of pain in an unjust world. One of the crucial things about humans, unlike other animals, is that we do have a knowledge of our own death. We do have, therefore, the possibility of prediction, the possibility of looking back, and therefore in a sense the need to make some sort of understanding of our place in the universe, which other animals I suspect take for granted. Now that’s been a crucial feature of what it is to be human, since as it were you look at the earliest artifacts, the cave paintings or the decorated skulls that you see going back now. So the need to make sense of our place in the universe in a pre-scientific world gives you the need either for magic to control the world, or for religion, in order to provide a place and an understanding of the world. We now no longer need either magic or religion to understand our place in the world, because the explanations given by ‘the sciences’ in the very broadest sense actually provide that explanation.
Q: But people still need God.
A: Well, because we live I think in an unjust and unfair and unkind world. There is both the pain of individual existence, that we live and that we die, and that people want to make sense of it, and the fact that superimposed on the inevitable pains of life, death, illness, as it were. But you and I both know towards the back end of our lives that we have a finite existence associated with us. And that is a problem that we all have to face, and I think that people faced with that have a need to find other ways of thinking about the world, unless you are particularly stoical. And I think that’s where the need for religion actually emerges.
Q: But is then a religion one kind of explanation for the world, and science is as it were a rival explanation for the world?
A: I don’t think religion is an explanation of the world at all. I think it’s a set of beliefs which actually sort of help provide people with guidance through life, and a way of being. But I don’t think it provides if you like an acceptable understanding of the way the world is, and why the world is, and I’m a thorough-going materialist in this sense. I think that the findings of modern science, not 100% accurate, always open to revision, always doubtful and so on and uncertain as they are, always shaped by the patterns of society and expectation that we have, but nonetheless, they are more in accord with the reality of the world outside us than any other form of explanation that you could offer.
Q: But if, as you say, God satisfies a need that people have because of the awareness of our own death and the sense of the universe being a dangerous and fearful place, if you don’t have such a belief, do you sense the lack of it?
A: No, I don’t sense a lack of it. As a biologist, I’ve seen the life and death of non-human animals. As an individual, I’ve seen the life and death of my own parents and of people who’ve been in various ways close to me. The end of life is death, and I have no problem in actually accepting that. I’m rather with Woody Allen saying, ‘I don’t really want to be there while I’m dying’! But apart from that, I have no problems with it.
Q: So there’s no concept of survival, not even in chemical terms?
A: No, none at all. I would like to think that the things I’ve written, the laboratory findings that I’ve made, if possible the therapeutic advances that we will make in the lab, will if you like live after me. I would like to believe that I’ve had an influence on the lives of my children, my grandchildren and in the wider world, but I know that that will fade. I’m not quite clear of the extent of my influence on my children, let alone my grandchildren! They must speak for that themselves.
Q: So there’s no concept of God. You have a sense of social justice, and that moves us into the whole concept of freewill. Now freewill is, at heart, the issue between the evolutionary psychologists and yourself: whether we have freewill or not. I understand that the debate as it stands roundabout now is getting a little bit more subtle. It used to be rather dogmatic. Can you express it for me as it is at the moment?
A: I’ve always found freewill a slightly dodgy concept actually, because it seems to confound all sorts of things not very satisfactorily. Both Stephen Pinker (The Blank Slate) and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), who are hard-wired if you like evolutionary psychologists, actually genetic determinist’s I would say, everything is shaped by our genes… Dawkins says at the end of his book ‘The Selfish Gene’: ‘Only we can rebel against the tyranny of our selfish replicators’. And yet, if we’re the product of our replicators, I mean, who is this ‘we’ who is doing the rebelling? Stephen Pinker puts it, as it were, slightly more idiomatically; he says ‘If my genes don’t like what I do, they can go jump in the lake’!
Q: Does this make you feel that you’re winning the argument?
A: Well, I just think that they really haven’t thought very clearly about it. They’re both decent people, they actually want to rescue as it were the possibility of human freedom, and they do so by having freewill coming like the American cavalry coming over the hill to rescue them. Somehow this freedom is evoked like that. My argument is a different one. I argue, and I argue in my book ‘Lifelines’ and other things I’ve written, that essentially human freedom comes out of the nature of being a living organism. That is, that we construct our own futures, though as Marx says, in circumstances not of our own choosing. And that it is the very nature of being a biological organism that makes us in that sense free. The future is radically indeterminate. We live at the interface of multiple determinisms: those given by our biology, those given by the social context in which we live. And we construct our future out of all of those things, and so there is nothing fixed in it – it is actually within the nature of being a living organism in a very complicated system that… a complicated system inside, in terms of our own biology, outside in terms of our relationship with the environment, with the social world and so on… It is that that, as it were, provides the freedom within which we operate. But if you say that freedom is not mappable onto the properties of brain cells or the properties of genes or the properties of the immune system or the social context in which we’re operating, then that’s obviously ridiculous. It does map onto that, but the indeterminism is built into the system.
Q: You see, you talk about the future being completely unpredictable and therefore not something that we can shape. But I wonder if, looking back at the conversation we’ve already had, you cannot perceive that the beliefs you hold today have grown out of all the experiences you’ve had?
A: Oh yes, absolutely. So I don’t think it’s unpredictable in that sense. It is, if you like, shaped by our history. The great evolutionary biologist, Theodocius Dobshansky, said, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. I would say, Nothing in the understanding of humans makes sense except in the light of evolution, of our development, that is, our biological development, and our social, cultural and historical contexts. We’re historically shaped. And of course, there are things which are predictable, there are levels of determination that we actually have to deal with. It depends where we actually search for them. If I want to know why someone has Alzheimer’s disease, then I can search inside the brain. If I want to know why the war in Iraq occurred, there’s no point in looking for as it were disturbances in neuro-transmitter metabolism in the brains of George Bush or Tony Blair.
Q: I can see that absolutely, because one of your allegations against the evolutionary psychologists is that, if everything is, in a very crude term – and this is how the press express it, not how they express it – there is a gene for violence, and a gene for crime, and a gene for possibly homosexuality, we are completely trapped. and therefore social justice is hardly on the agenda. We go to war because we’re programmed to go to war – and you deeply resent that, as a political animal.
A: Well, I resent it as a biologist as well, because it’s an absurd way of trying to talk about certain sorts of things. I mean, firstly, the concept of homosexuality is not the same today as it was in Victorian England or in Plato’s Greece for example. It’s not a thing, it’s a process. Far more is that the case if you take things like aggression and violence. I object to the reifying of the social complexity, giving it as it were a global name. I mean, is aggression the same thing that happens when a rat kills a mouse in a cage, which is the way it’s measured in the laboratory, or when a man beats his wife, or when there’s a pub brawl, or when there’s a pilot dropping a smart bomb on a bunker in Baghdad? These are not the same processes, they are socially different, and to call them all the same, assuming we have a unified mechanism for them is complicated enough. But also the same act under different circumstances is sometimes called a crime of violence and sometimes called a person acting in terms of social duty and responsibility. A soldier picking up a gun and shooting someone may be court-martialled for it, or may be regarded as a hero, but the biology of picking up the gun and shooting is identical. So to talk about aggression or violence as somehow encoded in the brain as if it actually ignores the social context in which we give these labels to things, is a sort of crude reductionism which evolutionary psychology and ultra-Darwinism are responsible for and which I object to. But I don’t object to it by producing a sort of freewill or environmentalist or social explanation or even a political objection, and I get quite upset when those who take the other side in this debate accuse us who take my side of being political. We are all in that sense political because we are shaped by the world in which we live and our expectations. But this argument is about how to understand phenomena as a biologist.
Q: Your highest political profile has come about because of your stand on the Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. You hold very very strong beliefs about that and indeed put your head over the parapet by calling for a boycott of Israeli academics. Now this springs from a profound conviction. Would you like to outline it?
A: Well yes. I have relatives in Israel, I was reared in a Zionist household, a very strongly Zionist household, but the last time I went to Israel was in 1975 when I went to a conference when I was talking about memory. And I visited the house of a friend of mine from England who was now settled in Jerusalem, a physiologist. After the conference I said, ‘This is a very nice house’ (it looked like a farmhouse), ‘how did you get it?’ He said, ‘Well, it was Palestinian.’ So I said, ‘Well, where are the owners of it?’ And he said, ‘Oh they’re over the hills somewhere there. ‘And I realised in fact that what I was looking at was a settler society which had expropriated the original population of the land, and it was an eye-opener to me. I’d been a volunteer in 1967 for the Israelis when the Six Day War actually happened. I wasn’t called on, but I was committed at that stage. And I suddenly realised I’d seen this thing through entirely the wrong spectacles, and I had to look at it as a society which had become an apartheid society, which had become a racist society, which treats the Palestinians as ‘untermenschen’, just in the same way as the Jews were treated in Nazi Germany, and that the injustices of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, the Zionist hypothesis here, was unacceptable. And in a way, what bizarrely had happened, was that the anti-Semitism and the holocaust in Europe, which had led to the setting up of the state of Israel, had turned the Palestinians into the Jews of the Middle East… ‘diaspora’, a people against whom as it were every hand was turned.
Q: Your heritage of course would say that you’re a Jew-hating Jew.
A: That is exactly what the Zionists actually sort of say. The hate-mail I’ve received since, and all the other people who signed the moratorium call that we made, has been quite extraordinary. It is not pleasant, I have to say, for someone who has very strong memories of those relatives of mine who survived coming back in 1946, 45,46, with brand-marks on their arms, to be receiving emails saying, ‘Pity you weren’t Auschwitzed.’
Q: Do you regret making this stand?
A: Absolutely not. It is a stand against social injustice, it is a stand for human liberty, for actually a solution which I think is better for both the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians, to accept as it were the legitimacy of the Palestinian state, and I don’t object to making it any more than I would object to standing up against anti-Semitism or racism wherever it appears.
Q: I said at the beginning that your science and your politics converge in a way. Do you agree with that?
A: I think that I would not be interested as passionately as I am in the scientific questions that I’m interested in if I didn’t have, as it were, a framework of understanding and belief about the world. That framework of understanding and belief about the world shapes both the science that I do. But it also, that same framework shapes the way in which I actually look at the world and the political part of the world. And just as I believe that one has to act on the world in order to understand it scientifically, I think it would be a shameful thing to do simply to abdicate one’s responsibility for speaking out against injustice when you see it.
Q: In quite perhaps naïve terms, I have a view that science is in some sense objective, and that political commitment is subjective.
A: It’s more complicated than that. Political commitment comes out of a way of understanding the world, and it belongs in this level of beliefs, actions, engaging the world outside. Science, or the sciences because there’s no one scientific method, are ways of understanding the world, ways of trying to experiment on and predict the way the world is going to go and interpret it in as simple, although it’s always complex, terms as we can. So they are two very different activities. But nonetheless, the sorts of science that we do, the questions that we ask of the world, the questions that as a scientist I ask of my chicks, and indeed the things that my chicks do that I think are important, which I interpret out of the blooming, buzzing confusion and complexity of being a living organism – those questions and those understandings of what’s important come out of belief. They come out of an ideology, they come out of a way of thinking what is important and what we need to understand, and what makes an explanation.
Q: You’re working on the memory, and you’re not as young as you were. I wonder whether you look back at your own memories, at the building pattern of your life, whether you find that satisfactory, a good place to be?
A: Well, I look at things I’ve done and think I could have done them better. Hilary, my wife, says that scientists are very strange. They live always in the present and not in the past. And to tell you the truth, I don’t look back very often at my past life.
Q: So science is the present, and you like where you are with it and your beliefs?
A: Science is very much about the present and where we’re going, and the experiment I’m going to run today and tomorrow, the book I’m trying to work on now, the things I’m trying to understand now. And yes, I wouldn’t be where I was now if it weren’t for my own history and the history of the world around me, and of course I’m interested in those things, but what I’m really looking to is the present and the future.
Q: Steven Rose, thank you.