Monday, June 17Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

How Did Life End Up With Us?

By Felix Poreé and Olivia Taylor

Introduced as the first book of a quartet titled “The Secrets of Life: From Big Bang to Trump”, SS O’Connor’s How Did Life End Up With Us? presents itself as an attempt to answer the most pertinent of questions surrounding the laws of life, from the start of the Big Bang all the way to the ‘decisions’ that organisms make that ultimately determine their chances of survival. One anticipates that such questions would require substantial scientific research, and although O’Connor admits he is not a scientist, his undertaking, given to the reader in a conversational writing style, is divided into specific chapters that aim to cover such topics as natural selection, gene mutations, and evolutionary change, down to parasitism, mutualism, and altruism.

O’Connor begins his introduction with an illustration of why he has attempted to reduce scientific research and theories down to a ‘readable narrative’, commencing with what is meant to be a quip regarding a scientist having his ideas boiled down to a classic ‘So… what you’re saying is XXXX’ that he overhears on the radio. This naturally, through a leap or two of logic, leads him to try to encapsulate all intricate and formidable ideas into a few rudimentary books. His justification seems like forced irony; surely O’Connor knows the insoluble task he has set for himself and wants to give simple explanations, allowing one to go into more depth with broader reading. This thought crossed my mind until I happened to read the following:

“Was it really true, for example, that the same forces had been endlessly shaping evolution, ever since self-replicating cells had somehow kicked off? And if one looked closely enough, could this tell us something about how our complicated world had come about? Maybe even how we humans work?

Why not give it a go? I knew very little about anything, of course, but it seemed to me that a lack of knowledge might actually have a few advantages. First, by being ignorant I could make the kind of generalisations that most academics wouldn’t. I didn’t need to get tangled up in the weeds any more than the radio man had.

Secondly, unlike the scientists who usually write these books, I’d have no scholarly colleagues keen to jump on my neck if I got things wrong. The only person I had to please was myself. I was the one who was most interested, and most driven by EM Forster’s terrific line that: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’”

This excerpt provides a rather portentous foreshadowing, and anyone who can read between the lines can see very evidently what the rest of the book is about to contain. O’Connor actually does want to boil down damningly difficult topics into bitesize chunks. He confesses to being ignorant of the subjects at hand, yet he is willing to make overgeneralizations to simplify incredibly dense and important topics, all of this (purposefully) without the help of anyone who knows what they’re talking about. With such a complicated subject matter, I am not just left to question the authenticity of his narration but his entire goal.

It did make me wonder, however, If I were to read a book a week, every week, for the next 50 years of my life, I would have read 2500 books, give or take. My closest library contains over 400,000 books. Comparing my reading habits to the awe-inspiring volume of books that are just within a 10-minute walk of me leaves me with a severe realisation; Not to get too pessimistic, but I have a very limited time; thus, I have some incredibly challenging decisions to make regarding what books are worth my time. O’Connor emphasises the deliberate thought processes that humans engage in during the act of making decisions. Nevertheless, I find myself questioning the validity of settling for generalisations and relying on scant scholarly backing from the scientific community. It is understandable that researchers have not fully delved into the specific topics that O’Connor explores in this vein, either due to their overwhelming workload or, more likely, because those knowledgeable in those fields recognise the inherent impossibility of simplifying such complex subjects, a luxury of understanding O’Connor evidently does not have. Consequently, pursuing such simplifications would be an utter waste of everyone’s time. 

Putting the rather sour taste in my mouth aside, I wanted to not judge the book solely on its first few pages. There’s a quartet left to get through; it would be remiss of me to do such a thing. As I went further on, O’Connor’s writing style seemed to share the DNA of Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, albeit with less substance. The pithy yet empty prose stood like pillars in an otherwise sea of white, just monotonous back-and-forth dialectics again and again and again, trying to ‘empathise’ or ‘get’ the reader by seeing down to earth or jovial… I can’t think of a clever way to say that it did my head in. Hitchens said, “If you can talk, you can write. [But] You have to be careful to keep your speech as immaculate as possible”. I do not find this immaculate; on the contrary, O’Connor’s musings are an indecorous stain on the worthiness of such topics. 

O’Connor fails in his self-prescribed herculean task. Naturally, kudos is due to the effort put in, but it seems to be of no avail. I can remember almost none of the book, as the surface-level and rushed exegesis did the opposite. In a bid to explain to me how life, the universe, and everything works (apparently, the answer is not 42), I am left arguably more bewildered. Not, unfortunately, in a wanderlust, but more of a frustration. All I have are snippets of half-remembered phrases or words I can use at parties like Mutualism or who Theodosius Dobzhansky was to make myself seem intelligent, that is, of course, until I am immediately embarrassed when coming into contact with anyone who knows more than the iota of knowledge this book gave me.

A resounding failure then? No, nothing is. I have learnt a few things; for one, not to brag, but mutualism represents the positions where symbiotic organisms could be said to be in some kind of equally rewarding relationship. Both of them would be benefitting from the involvement of the other either entirely relying on them for their existence, or partially if they’re able to survive without them – but are greatly diminished if they don’t have their help. I have also learnt that the messenger is sometimes as important as the message, as a more earnest writing style would have enhanced my ability to extract the necessary information that O’Connor wants to convey. Finally, I need to do more research before I agree to review a book, but that one is my fault.