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Francis Crick: anti-vitalist crusader

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16/09/2016

By | The Researcher’s View

In the next in our series about Crick and Consciousness, Dr Christine Aicardi tells us how she came to the conclusion that there may have been one underlying motivation for all of Crick’s research choices across different scientific fields.

Although Francis Crick was already past thirty when he started his scientific career, he hopped between research fields several times: from protein crystallography, molecular genetics, developmental cell biology, the chemical origins of life, to the neuroscience of vision and finally, the science of consciousness. His move away from the broad domain of molecular biology and genetics to that of neuroscience, as he was turning sixty, was indeed more of a leap than a hop.

L0042297 Francis Crick lecturing in Mainz, Germany, 1969 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. width=

Francis Crick lecturing in Mainz, Germany, 1969. Wellcome Images reference: L0042297.

These research fields all had something in common: when Crick entered them, they were not established scientific disciplines. Their scientific status ranged from ‘upstart challenger’ (molecular biology) to ‘downright unscientific’ (the origins of life and the study of consciousness). What Crick did for each of these fields was to try and help them take, and become scientifically respectable.

Why would he do such a thing? Why would he do it repeatedly? And why these particular research fields rather than others? Was there a thread running through them all, or was Crick’s scientific career just a fortuitous, multi-stop flight away from routine and boredom? These were questions irritating me while I was researching the Francis Crick archive at the Wellcome Library between 2011 and 2013.

It turned out that the missing link I was looking for was a missing book – ‘Of Molecules and Men’ (OMM) – and the all-encompassing answer to my questions came to be ‘anti-vitalism’. The book is a brutal manifesto against vitalism, understood in the broadest of terms as “some special force directing the growth or the behaviour of living systems which cannot be understood by our ordinary notions of physics and chemistry” (OMM p.16).

When I started researching Crick, I set out to read all the books that he had published. ‘Of Molecules and Men’ was not his most popular. According to its catalogue, the Wellcome Library held a copy of the original edition, but it was not on the shelves when I looked. For a while, I checked regularly to see if it reappeared, to no avail. Finally, Library staff admitted that it had not been seen in a long time, and it was declared ‘missing’.

Of Molecules and Men

The elusive first edition of Crick’s book ‘Of Molecules and Men’, 1966.

Without the book, I dropped the ball, and soldiered on in the archives – until about a year later, when I became convinced that this overlooked little book, which I ended up purchasing online, was key to understanding what made Crick’s entire scientific career a very consistent endeavour.

‘Of Molecules and Men’, published in 1966, came out of the John Danz Lectures that Crick had given at the University of Washington in February and March of the same year. This series of three lectures was entitled ‘Is Vitalism Dead?’, a title that Crick would have happily kept but for his publisher:

Letter from Crick to Waddington, 9 November 1967. Wellcome Library reference: PP/CRI/I/2/6/5.

Letter from Crick to C H Waddington, 9 November 1967. Wellcome Library reference: PP/CRI/I/2/6/5.

Reviews of the book were not kind, with respected figures such as physicist Eugene Wigner in ‘Science’ and neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles in ‘Zygon’ feeling that the book was both unscientifically polemical and unsubtly trenchant (probably a reason why it is politely ignored in commemorations of Crick’s scientific greatness). Witness, its closing sentence: “And so to those of you who may be vitalists I would make this prophecy: what everyone believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe tomorrow” (OMM p. 99).

'Of Molecules and Men' review by Joseph Mindel in Technology Review, April 1967. Wellcome Library reference: PP/CRI/I/2/6/6.

‘Of Molecules and Men’ review by Joseph Mindel in Technology Review, April 1967. Wellcome Library reference: PP/CRI/I/2/6/6.

For Crick, vitalism was a vestige of outdated religious values, its enemy was exact scientifically acquired knowledge, and there were three areas of biology where vitalist ideas were still lurking: molecular biology, the origin of life, and the brain. The brain especially was a “relatively speaking scientifically backward area of study,” as “[h]ere vitalistic ideas not only are commonplace among educated laymen, but are held by several of the leading workers in this field” (OMM p. 98).

In his autobiography ‘What Mad Pursuit’ (WMP), Crick wrote that when he became scientifically interested in the brain, an “aspect of the subject one was not supposed to mention … was consciousness. Indeed an interest in the topic was usually taken as a sign of approaching senility” (WMP, p. 156-157). He was vexed that belief in the immortal soul, separate from the body and seat of consciousness, was “held, and in many cases held strongly and aggressively, by the majority of human beings alive today” (‘The Astonishing Hypothesis’ (AH), p.4). Whereas in his view, “If the scientific facts are sufficiently striking and well established… then it will be possible to argue that the idea that man has a disembodied soul is as unnecessary as the old idea that there was a Life Force” (AH, p.261).

The mission of science was to bring light to the dark vitalist corners of biology, which covered precisely the areas of research where Crick was active as a scientist. He kept consciousness, the ultimate stronghold, for last. It is no surprise then that neuroscientists of a younger generation would pay homage to his crusading proclivities, picturing him as an “evangelical atheist” who “was building an army to help him take on consciousness”.

If anything, the example of Crick shows that the key to understanding what makes scientists tick is not always in their science.

Author

Dr Christine Aicardi is a Research Associate on the Human Brain Project at Kings College London. She held a Wellcome Library Research Fellowship from 2011-2013.

One Response to Francis Crick: anti-vitalist crusader
  • Nell jones

    17/09/2016

    Such an interesting article. Thank you

    Reply

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