Sympathy for the Devil

Tim Hunt is a 72-year old British Nobel laureate who was forced to resign from his position at the University College of London this week because of things he said at a press conference. Those sentences have been reproduced widely in both the social and conventional media. Sir Hunt has (or perhaps, once had) a remarkable mental acuity that enabled him to discover and describe the cyclin-dependent kinases that control the progression of cells through the processes of growth and division. His antagonists, judging from the creatively framed opprobrium of their social media posts, are no less well endowed. Paleoanthropologists have long pondered how evolution could have selected for an ability such as this, when it is clear that throughout our most recent and formative evolutionary years it was unnecessary to comprehend cell biology. The answer to that paradox lies starkly exposed in the rise and fall of Tim Hunt.

In his comments, Hunt describes the workplace environment of a scientific laboratory. This is a social setting where a dozen or more humans work together while solving a multitude of puzzles. In a very culturally-loaded context, they work to solve the puzzle of career advancement within the written and unwritten parameters of their particular institution and job title. In a different context where culture is essentially irrelevant, they seek to solve scientific enigmas that reveal themselves only grudgingly through imagination, experiment, observation, and data analysis. And at a third level, following imperatives that are at once obvious and at the same time utterly inscrutable, they attempt to seek and attract mates, form pair bonds, and carry forward the fundamental biology of life. A large brain and acute intellect isn’t necessary if this third mission is the only task an organism faces and it can do so in a largely asocial context. But to be human, and to have some degree of success working to solve all three of these dilemmas simultaneously, requires a supercomputer.

A glance at human physiology is enough to inform us that we expect to be born into a warm environment where cooling will be a bigger challenge than heating ourselves. We expect freely available fresh water, intermittent and unreliable food, to be assaulted by worms and other parasites, and to risk stepping on venomous snakes. Our physical environment changed over tens of thousands of years, so even these pre-adaptations are no longer ideal. There has never been any such certainty as to culture. The first dozen years or so of life is spent assiduously acquiring and integrating ones current culture in all its myriad details, from language and vocal fry to Radical Face to gender equity or the nuanced lack thereof. What’s permitted and what isn’t, what’s heroic and what is gauche must not only be learned once, but must be re-learned and edited over and over again. Thus the need for an unlimited surplus of both storage capacity and processor power in the human brain. And this brings us also to the sad fall of Tim Hunt.

Tim Hunt committed a social faux pas within the context of being embedded in the current largely English speaking, western industrialized democratic scientific culture. The consequence for this, as we have seen, is to be ridiculed and humiliated and to lose rank. It could have been worse—archaeology seems constantly to find yet another bound and ritually murdered human corpse lodged in a forgotten peat bog or buried in desert sands. Who is to say what offense of chauvinism they committed. Witches and heretics have been burned at the stake within our written history. Such inquisitions need not be ancient. Bodies by the hundreds of thousands are accumulating today in the deserts of Iraq and Syria, and failure to adhere to and be recognized as legitimate in the eyes of the culture and regime enjoying present power is the most proximate reason that those bones are there.

Tim Hunt will not be murdered for his statements, and although his cultural indoctrination was not so precisely hewn as to prevent him from making them in the first place, his general understanding that he was not risking his life was probably part of the underlying hubris of his incaution. But consider also his age. No brain is immune to the insults of time, no matter how flawlessly and incredibly it performed in the prime of youth.  Nobel laureates as a class seem prone to remaining in the limelight, and to making poorly worded statements that enrage the present politics, long after their magnificent scientific and cultural processor is winking out. We all comprehend that in a real sense, the greatest threats we face in everyday life come from our fellow man. We have evolved this uncommonly large brain as our one defense against that, and when its power begins to wane, so do our defenses. So pity Tim Hunt.

I myself was once moved to write an essay about girls in the lab. I will reproduce it here, although I’d be pleased if the charitable reader would buy it in book form, and in so doing contribute to a worthy cause.


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