The Selfish Ape
By Nicholas P Money
Reaktion Books, 152pp, £14.99/$20
Nicholas Money’s new book, subtitled Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction, has a stark message for mankind. No matter who you are – “celebrity or peasant” – your life is meaningless; any achievement you make, whether it’s a bestselling book or sporting achievement in front of millions, will soon be forgotten and we probably have about 30 more years before the Earth becomes, in many places, uninhabitable. And forget about aliens coming to rescue us any time soon, as the likelihood is that they’ve already destroyed themselves or their planet with misuse of their own technology.
So what can we do? Usually I’d save discussion of an author’s conclusion for the end of a review, but Money’s solution is so striking it’s worth discussing up front. Though Money seems fairly sceptical about the value of religion, his conclusion isn’t that far removed from a Christian credo: because our time as a species is limited, the important thing is for us to be nicer to each other. If we are nicer, Money suggests, the universe may survive longer than we expect.
For Money, a professor of biology at the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the situation we are currently in is not unlike a patient who has reached Stage 4 of his cancer: there are no more stages and death is inevitable – but it can perhaps be postponed. He fully understands that, just as there are some patients who respond to a terminal diagnosis by reaching for the cigarettes and whisky, there are those who respond by swapping the steak for kale and beginning to run marathons. While the latter course is perhaps wiser, he also sees the logic behind the carpe diem response.
It’s clear that Money has some fondness for English literature, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost, but he also has a scientist’s strange way of looking at the world. For Money, if an alien did show up and he wanted to convince him of the value of human intelligence, he would start with Western science as mankind’s greatest achievement, and only then move on to poetry and music.
He also has a biology teacher’s love of terrible jokes, making this book occasionally seem like being back in the classroom being taught by someone who clearly knows everything there is to know about his subject, but seems to be lacking an elegant way of expressing it.
The Selfish Ape comes with an endorsement from Richard Dawkins, suggesting that “reading [Money] is pure literary pleasure”. I’d raise an eyebrow at this, but then again, this seems an unusual reason for reading a book of pop science. You’d get far more literary pleasure from almost any novel, but you wouldn’t get the bizarre facts that are the real appeal of this book.
Did you know, for example, that onions have five times as much DNA as humans, or that humans are more similar to fungi or plants than any other life form? Perhaps these sorts of observations are common knowledge to most scientists, but to the lay reader this is far more interesting than Money’s criticism of literature, or worse, music. A footnote about his love of the prog-rock band Kansas during his “rather memorable teens” is suitably self-mocking, but still created a little anxiety in this reader.
But Money is funny on the subject of scientists too, approvingly quoting James Watson’s observation that “one could not be a successful scientist without realising that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists
are not just narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid”.
He is also alert to misogyny in his discipline, and eventually comes to a conclusion that clearly rather disturbs (while perhaps secretly delighting) him: perhaps scientific adventure, and the technology created along the way, is what will eventually lead to the end of the species.
As a balance to his doomsday predictions, Money introduces his Texan brother-in-law, who doesn’t believe in global warming and sees the planet’s increase in temperature as akin to the “Medieval Warm Period”. He insists that he doesn’t consider his brother-in-law, or indeed the great number of Americans who agree with him, misguided, but it’s clear he does.
The problem for Money is that, even if we don’t believe the most extreme predictions, it’s still not entirely clear how to live day to day. He’s smug that he’s a stepfather rather than having biological sons, but is unwilling to make larger sacrifices, like living in a tent or, to take the most extreme example, dying prematurely.
This is how he reaches his conclusion about niceness, which cannot but seem like an anti-climax. Money carefully depicts a world full of boiling oceans, unbreathable air and vast overpopulation, then shrugs and offers us a Monty Python box set and a cup of tea.