The whens and wherefores of life

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A biological slant on the conundrum of our relationship with time.

The Missing Moment: How the Unconscious Shapes Modern Science

Houghton Mifflin: 1999. 240 pp. $25, £15.99
Time's final enemy: the knight plays chess with Death in the hope of a reprive from the inevitable. Credit: KOBAL

“What is time?” asks Saint Augustine in book XI of the Confessions, that obligatory stop, if not point of departure, for every metaphysician bold enough to embark on a voyage in search of the nature of time. And the answer has the same pathetic ring of perplexity today as it did 15 centuries ago, when the saint, who seems to have opened vistas upon every perspective of the problem, wrote: “When no one asks me, I know. But as soon as someone comes to question me on this matter, and I try to explain, I don't know any more …” Indeed, the most treacherous waters in the whole of philosophy's main are those involving time. They who sail forth invariably sink or founder, yet we must salute their gallantry. And this time our excitement is the greater, for biologists have joined the argonauts. Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, is one of them. In his latest book he offers us an inkling of the new ways of thinking that biology will bring to bear on this and other multi-secular quandaries.

Pollack's book may be said to be, among other things, a biologist's meditation on the enigma of time. In the opening chapter, which is devoted to sensation, he tells us that our relational lives are regulated by several ‘clocks’ that operate at different levels. First, the clock of natural selection, whose ticks, marking the birth of new species, are separated from one another by intervals of millions of years. A second clock, the product of the first, is that of genetic control, whose exquisitely coordinated rhythm in turning genes on or off accounts for normal embryogenesis. A third clock is confined to the nervous system and runs at astonishing speed, its ticks represented by nervous impulses that arrive separated by intervals of the order of thousandths of a second. Our senses, we are told, are assembled by these three clocks. Therefore, the instruments of our cognitive life, however fitted to our purposes they might seem, “were designed to meet the needs of species long dead”.

In successive chapters, Pollack deals respectively with the senses, consciousness, memory and the unconscious, microbial infection (a chapter colourfully entitled “The fear of invasion”), cancer (“The fear of insurrection”) and death (also “The fear of …”, for symmetry, I suppose). As may be predicted of a work so bravely taking on the most obstacle-ridden, perplexing quandaries of the human condition, the result is uneven. A clever and engaging expositor, Pollack explains the fundamental time-shift of relational life: there is a lag between the real-time occurrence of a stimulus and our conscious realization or perception of it; we perceive in the present what took place in the past. The brain abolishes the interval, so that perception is experienced as if it were simultaneous with the stimulus.

Outside the realm of the mind, however, the book's focus tends to blur. The author loses none of his narrative flair, and I was delighted to follow his disquisition on vaccines, immunity and microbial life, and the implications of all this for public policy. In his descriptions of infectious diseases, and their multifarious relationships, Pollack lifts the craft of the popularizer to an extended state of perfection. But the reader is unclear on how this ties up with time, and the statement that ends the chapter, that “our sort of internal time does not exist for microbes and never has; they must either divide or die”, seems to have been added almost as an afterthought.

Unevenness notwithstanding, The Missing Moment is an important book. It invites reflection, and essays of its kind can aspire to no finer encomium. The concluding chapters, which look at the biological processes of ageing and dying, rise beyond mere science vulgarization to a level that may be called, without hyperbole, true wisdom. The author's treatment of life's final stages — “remarkably like the beginning, the clock of internal time run backward one last time to the earliest days of infancy”— is especially moving. The writer is not afraid of introducing his personal experience, and describes his reaction to these ineluctable events in close members of his family. This directness adds poignancy, and strengthens the plea for scientific research on death and dying that concludes the book.

As a molecular biologist, Pollack often refers to DNA. In addition to the many biological clocks that superintend our existence, he envisages a futuristic “reverse” clock that is rendered possible by thorough knowledge of the genes that increase our susceptibility to disease. Such a clock would measure our age, not in terms of the years we have lived, but of the time we have left. We would be 60 years in the conventional scale, but only five, ten, or one, in the “reverse” measuring system — an interesting idea, to refer time to life expectancy. For time is “a thing that concerns something [else]”, as an Aristotelian formula put it. What is this thing? Movement, according to Aristotle; eternity, in the schemes of the ancient philosopher Plotinus; the relationship of the fallen soul to God, said Saint Augustine; the speed of light, observed some modern physicists; DNA, affirm today's biologists. In the last analysis, The Missing Moment reminds us, the determinants of time are the human experiences we all go through: pain, joy, expectancy, desire, disease and, looming behind all these, the inevitability of ever-approaching death.

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Gonzalez-Crussi, F. The whens and wherefores of life. Nature 402, 723–724 (1999) doi:10.1038/45375

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