Matt Ridley

The genetic code genius failed to kill faith

Francis Crick expected his discovery of DNA to spell doom for religion. But, says Matt Ridley, he gravely underestimated the capacity of belief in God to survive scientific assault

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On one day last year, when I was in Princeton to give a lecture, I separately bumped into three scientists writing books about God. Lee Silver’s Challenging Nature is about the parallels between Christian fundamentalism in America and eco-fundamentalism in Europe; Dean Hamer’s The God Gene was written (he told me) to pay off a credit-card debt left him by a profligate boyfriend; and Bob Wright’s book on the Almighty is still unpublished. They are not the only ones. The philosopher Dan Dennett has recently published Breaking the Spell while Richard Dawkins’s eagerly awaited (by friends and enemies) The God Delusion is now in the bookshops.

This fascination with God does not imply a mass conversion among the typically agnostic scientific ranks. The physicist Steven Weinberg has put it this way: ‘As you learn more and more about the universe, you find you can understand more and more without any reference to supernatural intervention, so you lose interest in that possibility.’ These new books are mostly (very) hostile to religion. But they do reflect the fact that — after 9/11 and stem cells — scientists no longer feel they can take for granted that the world will allow secular progress. The Enlightenment needs defending and the persistence of religion needs explaining.

Contrast this mood with the one that prevailed among atheists 40 years ago, when Francis Crick and the rest of the Cambridge Humanist Society were strutting their stuff. Then there was a feeling, not of triumphalism, but that religion was in inevitable, though gradual, decline. Crick (whose biography I have just published) genuinely seems to have thought that religion was dying. In 1963 he donated £100 for a competition to choose the best essay on ‘What can be done with the college chapels?’ The winning entry (the judges included E.M. Forster) suggested they be made into swimming pools. In response there was a rumour that the college chaplains were offering £100 for an essay on ‘What can be done with Dr Crick?’

Two years before, an extraordinary row had blown up about a chapel at Churchill College, Cambridge. The newly established college, devoted to science and technology, invited Crick to be a fellow. Crick initially refused on the grounds that he had heard that the college intended to build a chapel. This had not been part of the original plan, but under pressure from the pious the trustees of the college had conceded that they might build a chapel if funds became available. Sir Winston — no great churchgoer himself — was lukewarm, saying ‘a quiet room will do’. Sir Edward Bullard, the professor of geophysics and a friend of Crick’s from the wartime Admiralty, who was already a fellow, came round to persuade Crick to change his mind. The chapel fund had only ten guineas in it, he said, donated by the Revd Hugh Montefiore, dean of Caius College. It would probably never be built. So Crick became a fellow.

He had reckoned without the cunning of Montefiore, who started looking for wealthy patrons who could fund a chapel, and lit upon Timothy Beaumont, a trainee priest, future Liberal politician and now Green party peer, who had just inherited a large fortune. Beaumont donated the entire cost of the chapel, £30,000. The foundations of the chapel were dug before the fellows demanded a say in the matter. It came to a head in the summer of 1961, when Crick was on holiday in Tangier. A meeting between the fellows and trustees was called, but before it was held in September 1961 Crick simply resigned, feeling he had been misled when he agreed to join.

He sent a short note to Sir Winston Churchill explaining his resignation as a fellow. Churchill replied expressing his surprise: ‘A chapel, whatever one’s views on religion, is an amenity which many of those who live in the College may enjoy, and none need enter it unless they wish.’ Crick replied with a cheque for ten guineas to open a Hetairae (courtesan) fund: ‘Such a building will, I feel confident, be an amenity which many who live in Cambridge will enjoy very much, and yet the institution need not be compulsory and none need enter it unless they wish.’ The great man did not reply. Pencilled on the corner of the letter are the words ‘cheque returned with comps’.

The chapel row did not end there. A group of the remaining fellows demanded that the chapel be a meditation room, available for Christian services but not dedicated to them. There should be no permanent cross in it. Montefiore denounced this as anti-Christian, and Beaumont refused either to agree to it or to withdraw his benefaction. Throughout the winter all Cambridge was agog at the chapel row. It was eventually defused by a messy compromise in which the chapel was built outside the college grounds. A witty rumour spread that Crick had been offered a fellowship at King’s but would accept it only if King’s demolished its chapel. In fact, a few years later, Crick did become an honorary fellow of Churchill — to ‘let bygones be bygones’.

Crick, whose parents were Congrega- tionalists of only moderate piety, had lost his faith ‘before puberty’. As an adult he never attended church, not even for funerals or weddings — though he occasionally refused invitations to scientific meetings a year ahead by saying he would have to attend a funeral on that day. His youthful atheism both motivated, and was caused by, his passion for science. ‘If some of the Bible is manifestly wrong, why should any of it be accepted automatically?’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘What would be more important than to find our true place in the universe by removing one by one these unfortunate vestiges of earlier beliefs?’

Which he proceeded to do. When conventional wisdom still held that there was something irreducibly mysterious about life, something outside physics and chemistry, he found, between 1953 and 1966, that there was a twisted pair of polymers held together by hydrogen bonds and spelling out a digital chemical code in three-letter words using a four-letter alphabet that was the same in all creatures. Never in the history of science had an intellectual vacuum been filled with so much possibility in so short a period.

In 1966, the year he put the finishing touches to the genetic code, Crick wrote an essay entitled ‘Why I am a humanist’ for Varsity magazine. ‘In recent years molecular biology has practically obliterated the distinction between the living and the non-living,’ he wrote. ‘The simple fables of the religions of the world have come to seem like tales told to children.’ In response to a letter to Varsity from the biologist W.H. Thorpe, he took the gloves off: ‘I should perhaps emphasise this point, since it is good manners to pretend the opposite. I do not respect Christian beliefs. I think they are ridiculous.’

Yet from the perspective of 40 years later, it is plain that the discovery of the genetic code had virtually no effect on religious belief or indeed on any other form of superstition. Almost no intellectual stood up and said, ‘Because we could not explain life, I used to believe in God; now that we know life is just a piece of physics and chemistry, I don’t.’ Christian sophisticates may scoff at the notion that anybody would, but Crick found it surprising that religion can be repeatedly contradicted on its factual claims and still claim people’s intellectual loyalty. His whole career, after all, was based on ensuring that ideas fitted empirical observations.

Matt Ridley’s biography of Francis Crick is published by Harper Collins (£12.99).