Biologist Lord Robert May—He Brings Order to Chaos

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Lord Robert May
Photograph by Clive Frost
Pick a thorny scientific issue--genetically modified foods, stem-cell research, conservation--and Lord Robert May of Oxford, head of the Royal Society of London and former chief scientific advisor to the British government, is most likely sitting in the middle of the fray. In the 1970s, May, a theoretical biologist at Oxford University, showed how to apply chaos theory to biology. Today he is developing mathematical techniques for modeling biodiversity and for charting the spread of infectious disease. He shared his views with associate editor Kathy A. Svitil.

Does your work support Stephen Wolfram's recent book, A New Kind of Science, in which he claims we can model all of nature using simple, self-replicating, mathematical rules?
The book is wonderful fun, but it is not a new kind of science. Of course simple rules, like Wolfram's cellular automata or the rules of fractal geometry, can generate amazingly complicated behavior and interesting patterns that look like almost anything found in nature--a fir tree, a maple tree, a gingko tree. That suggests that maybe building very complicated objects doesn't necessarily require hugely complicated rules. But Wolfram seems content with saying, 'Here is a pattern that looks like vortices spinning off the back of an airplane, so I've explained turbulence." That is crazy. Drawing a pattern that looks like something else doesn't give you any predictive understanding. It won't help you design an airplane that can slip through the air more smoothly.

I think the whole thing is afflicted with self-indulgent arrogance. It would have been so much better if Wolfram hadn't gone off into a tower and come down with this divine revelation and had instead actually interacted with the world of science. What distinguishes human society and puts us distant from the rest of the species on Earth is that we have invented a hugely successful social system. Each one of us is heir to the knowledge and wisdom of past generations. The notion that you have to move yourself into some kind of island universe to create something new is bizarre.

What led you to apply math to the study of ecosystems?
My 1973 monograph on model ecosystems was written when scientists thought there was a general rule that more complex ecosystems are more stable. So I asked, "What do you mean by complex?" I concluded that for an ecosystem, you actually mean two different things: It has a mixture of lots of species, and it has a rich web of connections among species. By the same token, I asked, "What do you mean by stability--do you mean ability to recover from disturbance or to resist invasion?"

Your results show that a lot of complexity doesn't necessarily make an ecosystem stable; it can actually have the opposite effect. What lesson can we take from that?
There are people who say that reducing biological diversity will cause essential ecosystems to collapse. But we don't know that. It is entirely possible that we could be clever enough to live in a world that was greatly biologically impoverished in species and yet managed to deliver the natural services that we want. It would be the world of the cult movie Blade Runner. The question is, do you want to live in such a world? Personally, I think ethical and esthetic arguments are the strongest arguments we have for preserving biological diversity.

You helped mediate the debate over genetically modified organisms. Do you worry about the health and environmental effects of GM foods?
We need to think about the possible health effects, as we would with any other new food, but it doesn't unduly concern me. Some groups project alarmist scenarios about creating GM "super weeds" or invasive organisms. I do worry about invasive organisms. However, the problem isn't with GM crops or conventional crops but with inadequate control over what you can sell in garden centers. The plants already in garden centers have become real pests in Britain.

I am also worried about the devastating effects of agriculture on biological diversity. In Britain, most populations of farmland birds are in decline, the underlying insect populations are also undoubtedly in decline, and a quarter of our hedgerows were lost in the decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. GM crops could be used in a careful and thoughtful way to produce environmentally friendly crops, or they could simply ramp up the intensification of agriculture.

Recent discoveries suggest that the human evolutionary tree might have looked more like a bush than a tree. Do you think complexity can help us understand this new view of human evolution?
Maybe, but no particularly illuminating thought comes to me at the moment. I have no doubt, however, that I could draw you a cellular automaton that would spew out the pattern for you, whether it is the older, simpler tree, or the newer, bushier one--and it will have explained nothing.

Why do you think so many people still reject or misunderstand evolution?
Within the developed world, the phenomenon is pretty much confined to the United States. I'd say the reason is the disproportionate influence of a small minority with fundamentalist views of a supernatural kind. I think what we really need to understand are the evolutionary forces that have prompted us to create compelling creation myths, which some people take with mind-numbing literalness.

The United Kingdom has largely achieved a policy consensus on embryonic-stem-cell research, which is still an unsettled issue here. How did you reach a solution?
It was conducted in a democratic way, with several years of wide consultation, public debate, and organized inquiries soliciting input from right across the spectrum. The way the system works in the United States, with the influence of lobbying and funding groups, is such that politicians' votes are not all that reflective of public opinion. Take legislation on gun control: It's perfectly clear to me that if the United States were to have a public referendum on gun control, the outcome would be far more restrictive than what you currently have.

There are a lot of misconceptions around the stem-cell debate. Most people think that the heart of the debate is whether the soul enters the embryo at conception. Up until 130 years ago, the official position of the Catholic Church--this is not my position, but something the bishop of Oxford drew to the attention of the House of Lords--was that the soul entered the embryo on the 40th day after conception if it was male and the 80th day after conception if it was female. That derives originally from Thomas Aquinas. It was changed in 1869 to say the soul enters the embryo on the day of conception, the same for men and women.

So at the heart of this debate is not some absolutely fundamental tenet at the heart of Christianity. Adopt Thomas Aquinas's original position and there would be no problem today. Research in the U.K. is only on embryos up to 14 days old. So Thomas Aquinas would be perfectly happy with it. There is no ethical issue.

Do you think stem-cell research will ever be embraced in the United States?
I have no idea. I don't want to be drawn into this sort of crap, but I do think there are fascinating ethical questions in this. There are some European countries that still forbid the research that produced the fertility treatments that their citizens enjoy. What is the ethical statement of a country that regards the research as evil but the outcome as good?

You often argue for such openness in government research. Where do you draw the line with issues such as bioterrorism, where openness could spark a panic or compromise national security?
I think the dangers of knowing too much are a great deal less than the dangers of knowing too little. Trying to conceal things because you think they might be difficult to deal with is a patronizing underestimate of the public. Even if you did think it would be advantageous to shelter some forms of discussion, in today's world it is ultimately not possible. You just diminish trust in the process.

Is that why people don't trust scientists?
People do trust scientists. Polls in Britain and Europe show that the public trusts scientists as much as they trust doctors and teachers. Yet those same polls indicate that people feel the pace of modern advance is too fast for government to keep up with effective regulation.

I agree 100 percent with both of those statements: You trust scientists, but at the same time, the pace of modern advance is such that it is really hard to keep up effective oversight and control.

If people trust scientists and believe they are going to do the right thing, then why worry about regulation?
The more you know about the nature of science and how it can make our lives better, the more you realize that there can be unintended consequences: still-growing populations, diminishing biodiversity, climate change. In the 21st century, our understanding is going to reach beyond the external world down into the molecular machinery of life itself. We will have the capacity to change ourselves, and the unintended consequences are literally beyond our imagination.

We need to do a better job thinking about what choices to make. What doors to open, which doors not to. We need to get the scientific facts and the scientific uncertainties clear and then have a value-driven, belief-driven, feelings-driven debate, rather than just letting things happen.
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