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My theory on the evolution of multicellularity


Being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society
Lewis Wolpert Scientist
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The chick limb work went... went well... it’s controversial, it’s certainly even now today not solved. And, you know, I had excellent PhD students and we had a very happy... happy group at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School. And then, in 1973, Waddington put me up for the Royal Society, and that’s a great compliment to be put up as a... become a possible Fellow of the Royal Society and you’re put up in the first instance for seven years and each year some committee looks at you and decides whether to accept you. And after six years I hadn’t been accepted and Waddington had died in the meantime and other people were... were involved, and then I must say, to my enormous pleasure, I became elected a Fellow in 1980 and in fact it was Peter Medawar, who phoned my secretary — Maureen Maloney — who I work with very closely, to say that I had, in fact, been elected. I can’t tell you how important it is to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. And when you become elected and you sit on the committees which try and decide who will be elected, you cannot get over the idea that you have been elected, because it’s so competitive, so... there are so many candidates and there are so few who actually become elected, there’re only 40 or so P... scientists a year, that get elected, but it is an enormous honour and it makes a very, very big difference and I was very, very grateful that I did in fact, become elected and I was on various committees of the Royal Society and that... that has been really quite important to me.

And, of course, at this time, while I was doing all this science, I became involved in a different issue altogether and that is the actual relationship between science and the public, because what struck me, is how little science my non-scientific friends understood. And I gave a set of lectures — I don’t know why they invited me — in Warwick and on the base of those lectures I wrote a book called the Unnatural Nature of Science, which I’m still very fond of that book, pointing out that any common sense view, that anyone has about the nature of the world, it will be scientifically false. It... Is it not against all common sense, that when you’re going at 400 miles an hour in an aeroplane, there is no force acting on you? Force does not cause motion, it causes acceleration. That’s as Newton pointed out, but it’s so counterintuitive as to be absolutely bizarre, and when it comes to complicated things like cells or molecules or quantum mechanics, things become absolutely impossible; science really is unnatural. And I think it’s very important that people really realise that science doesn’t fit easily with common sense. I know it’s been argued, and I... argued, that science is organised common sense, but it’s very highly organised common sense. And I really... that was the second book. I’d also written a book... The Triumph of the Embryo. I was married to Jill Neville, a writer at the time, and she persuaded me to give it that title and it was for the general public that I wrote this book about how embryos develop. It was too complicated, they didn’t... the general public didn’t really... didn’t really understand it and I also, in those days, was doing interviews on the radio and I interviewed many, many major scientists... oh, Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner, all sorts of people and we published these — Oxford University Press — I’m delighted to say, published this. I did these interviews with Alison Richards, we travelled around the world and they were published in two volumes called A Passion for Science and Passionate Minds and I want to say, I think they’re a... a very nice... nice set of interviews.

And then, about 15 years ago, I got a very severe depression. I still don’t understand why I became depressed. I was happily married, I was a professor at the university, I was 65 years old, everything was fine. I was having a minor heart problem, but I went into a very severe depression and was even hospitalised at the Royal Free for three weeks, because I was suicidal. I knew nothing about depression and I eventually recovered, I was put on antidepressants and I had... I also had cognitive therapy. And I eventually got better. I was living in this very flat where we’re sit... sitting now, and when I was ill, I discovered that my wife at that time — Jill Neville — never told anyone that I was depressed, she said the stigma will be too bad. And I thought, that’s bloody ridiculous. A friend of mine has just told me about some op... operation he’s had on his testicles, why can’t I tell people about my depression? And for a reason that I don’t know, the... The Guardian asked me to write an article about it and it was widely... a quoted article, and I realised that while before I belonged to the socks school of psychiatry: you get it, oh you just pull up your socks. Depression was something different and I wanted to understand depression, so I wrote a book about it. And I came up with the idea that depression is sadness become malignant. Nobody really takes this idea seriously, but I do. And for people who are depressed, it’s a book that can be a little bit helpful because it does explain various aspects of... of depression. I mean, depression... I just have to say that my depression was worse than the death of my wife. I know that’s a terrible thing to say — but I’m terribly sorry — that’s what depression is like. It’s just worth pointing out that I challenge people when I give lectures on this topic, to tell me one good description of depression in an English novel, there are virtually none. Many novelists are severely depressed, but you can’t describe depression. In fact, my bitter joke about depression is, if you can describe your severe depression, you haven’t had one. It’s... it’s really... there’s Darkness Visible by William Styron, which about his own depression, is a masterpiece, but descriptions of depression really do nothing. So I really got quite involved in... in depression. I... well, it was a scientific way of looking at it and thinking it’s sadness become malignant, but I don’t think anyone takes that particular idea of mine seriously. And it is a quite a curious feature about being a scientist, there are quite a few of my ideas which nobody takes seriously.

Lewis Wolpert (1929-2021) CBE FRS FRSL was a developmental biologist, author, and broadcaster. He was educated at the University of Witwatersrand (BSc), Imperial College London, and at King's College London (PhD). He was Emeritus Professor of Biology as applied to medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at University College London. In addition to his scientific and research publications, he wrote about his own experience of clinical depression in Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (1999).

Listeners: Eleanor Lawrence

Eleanor Lawrence is a freelance science writer and editor, and co-author of Longman Dictionary of Environmental Science.

Tags: Middlesex Hospital Medical School, 1973, Royal Society, 1980, Unnatural Nature of Science, The Triumph of the Embryo, Oxford University Press, A Passion for Science, Passion of Minds, The Guardian, Socks School of Psychiatry, Darkness Visible, Conrad Hal Waddington, Peter Medawar, Maureen Maloney, Isaac Newton, Jill Neville, Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner, Alison Richards, William Styron

Duration: 7 minutes, 46 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2010

Date story went live: 14 June 2010