‘Hey Lou. What are you reading?’
‘Gabriel. Er... I’m not entirely sure. It appears to be about trees.’ He flips the book over and looks at the cover, then shows it to me.
‘I’d never really considered before, just how improbable a tree is. If you think about it, if you’d had to predict what life on earth would look like – I’ve no idea when or where you’d be doing this, nor who you’d be addressing by the way, but still I don’t think you’d have predicted trees. I mean, the sheer scale for a start, even some of the more modest ones. But then you have to take into consideration their holding their branches, each often the size of a smaller tree in itself, out, rigidly, possibly at right angles to the trunk, and you think of the sheer mass of wood there, the bulk and mechanical strength involved in lifting what is, essentially just a thin fuzz of green stuff, essentially no different to a nettle leaf or a blade of grass, up into the air, merely to lift them out of the shade of other, smaller plants. Don’t you think that’s fantastic? And look here...’ I bend over and look at the diagram he has. It looks like a map of the most congested city road network in the world, with railways and tramlines and blocks of buildings all shoved together, squeezing transport between them. ‘Sapwood’ he says. ‘Just a thin layer of live tissue under the bark, sustaining all that...’
‘Green fuzz – precisely, at the tips. Don’t you think that’s marvellous?’
I nod my head vigorously and sit down beside him.
‘All the years I worked at the university – researching and teaching the diversity of life I wish I’d had books like these. I never saw it so clearly... I wonder...’ and he gets up and looks along the shelves. After some quick movements, running his finger along the spines he swiftly pulls one out and brings it over.
‘I was looking at this one the other day. Marvellous. Look at that.’ He places it open on my lap and the pencil lines seem to heave and seethe with life as I survey them. At first it’s not clear what I’m looking at but he points out the coral masses and their tiny polyps, and the sunlight streaming down through the clear tropical water and the tiny algal cells embedded in the coral matrix photosynthesising away, bubbling out oxygen. It takes my breath away even though I don’t know anything about it. It makes me think my drawings will look very different in the next life, if I ever get there. I want to ask about how he thinks all this got there, all this variety of life but I don’t want to spoil the moment. It does seem strange that he so obviously has a deep appreciation for the wonder of nature and yet has no sense of the meaning behind it all. Maybe I’ll bring it up later.
‘How is Olly?’ he says, unexpectedly. I look at his face. His head is bowed and as usual the library is in shadow so I can’t see his expression but there was a slight catch in his voice.
‘Erm... Ok, I think.’ Actually I’m worried too.
‘I didn’t mean to hurt him. It’s just...sometimes... Have you spoken to him?’
‘A few days back.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He said he’d never thought of himself as arrogant before.’ I hadn’t intended to be so harsh but Lou needs to understand how thoughtless he’s been. To my surprise he tuts and says ‘He’s such a drama queen sometimes. I’ll go up and see him later – eat humble pie. I don’t know.’
‘I don’t get it though. You call him arrogant.’ I jab at the page in front of us. ‘How can you explain all this away?’
‘I don’t’ he says ‘and I don’t pretend to. But he does. He says God did it and he knows this because he sat down and thought about it, or read an old book written by another man who sat down and thought about it. I’m sorry but it’s not good enough. I may have a rather pompous manner at times but I’m not so arrogant.’
‘But what about evolution and all that?’
‘What about it?’
‘You believe in all that don’t you?’
‘I’m not sure I believe in anything per se.’
‘I think there’s compelling evidence for evolution by natural selection. I think it’s an excellent theory but I’m not sure I believe in it exactly.’
‘Then, what do you believe in?’
‘Well, like I said...’
I stand up and pace a bit. ‘Don’t you have any sense that the world, life, is...? There has to be, surely, something. Otherwise...’ I shrug. I’ve never been very articulate on all this but I feel it very strongly – whatever it is.
‘What about all this?’ I say – indicating the open book, the reef and all it’s processes. ‘I can’t believe that all that could just “happen”, without some sort of...’
‘Ah the Argument From Personal Incredulity’ he intones, nodding sagely (and sarcastically). I stand and look. I don’t want to gratify him by asking what he means. I think I know, but he tells me anyway. ‘I.e. you don’t happen to personally believe it. But I’m afraid that doesn’t get us very far.’ He leans back in his chair and looks wistful. ‘I have to say I rather miss the days when stories were prefixed with “ ‘tis said among the peoples of the east...” or “I’ve heard it said that...” and no one could be under any illusion about the reliability of what was about to be claimed. These days every Tom, Dick and Harry who has read an article somewhere in the Sunday supplements or found something on the internet considers himself well-informed.’
‘But we’re all entitled to our opinions.’
‘Certainly, but we are not all entitled to have them taken equally seriously. I may have an opinion on painting but I would not have the temerity to correct you on a point of technique, nor art history. I may see a problem with a point you make but I hope I would ask for clarification rather than dismiss your expertise out of hand.’
There’s a problem with what he is saying but I can’t put my finger on it. He’s saying that intuition and opinion are not good enough. Fine, but then we can’t all be experts, and in any case experts disagree. I never trusted the ‘experts’ anyhow – you never know who’s paying them. We sit and look at the sun’s rays streaming in onto the dusty tabletops and densely upholstered benches. It’s very peaceful. I look down at the pages before me. Fish dart among the coral heads. A turtle cruises the dark waters below. The question is here somewhere, in the marine drop-off where everything sinks down into the abyss.
‘You can’t just explain all this away’ I say at last.
‘I don’t know why you think I might want to explain it “away” as you put it’ he says gently.
‘But you make it all just chemicals and processes and forces.’
‘I don’t know why you think explaining things makes them any the less wonderful. I never found it so, speaking personally. As far as I’m concerned, life, the universe, consciousness, humanity – they’re all just as wonderful whether God is behind them or not. In fact, for me the science makes it all the more wonderful – that it makes itself, independently, don’t you see?’
‘Not really...’ I feel lost in it really. Suddenly I notice hammerheads going by – scores of them, out in the distance, beyond the reef, silhouetted against the surface at the top of the page. I wonder where they’re going.
‘You see these coral polyps in their little calcite cups’ he says, pointing to the drawing’s bottom right hand corner ‘nurturing their tiny algal symbionts?’
‘Tiny single celled plants – like the ones that turn pond water green. The algae live within the coral utilising the coral’s waste products and providing oxygen. The water on reefs is almost devoid of nutrients. It would be a desert really, if it weren’t for the coral and all the other myriad reef organisms coexisting there, endlessly recycling, circulating nutrients within the system. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is spare. And it is thought that it is this tightly bound ecosystem that gives a coral reef some of the richest diversities of life you’ll find anywhere. You’d think the greatest biodiversity would be in some luxurious land of plenty where there is always more than enough to go around but no – it’s here.’ He taps the page. ‘And in rainforests too. Now would that be any more wonderful if it was built and organised by some supernatural being? I don’t think so.’
‘But how does it happen? And how has it come to happen, from just chemicals and energy, by some random accident?’
‘Well that is a very complex question. And it is hardly “random” or “accidental”. What you mean is “unplanned”. Anyway I could try to explain – you’d have to do some serious reading, but ultimately I don’t pretend to be able to explain everything.’
‘I don’t claim to know, not definitively.’
‘We have a lot of ideas, a lot of data, a lot of research. I think we understand some of the processes involved rather well. Some of the theories seem very sound, but you want me to explain everything about this – how it works, how it came to be? I can’t. I won’t. Only you people with your “intuitions” claim to have that sort of insight.’
‘But you claim to know there’s no such thing as God. Isn’t that just the same in a way?’
‘I don’t. I never claimed that.’
‘But scientists do, surely.’
‘Some do. Others are deeply religious. One of my students was a creationist but his lab work was impeccable. I can’t speak for them. But I am not an atheist. I find the notion of God highly implausible and far too convenient but if someone comes up with some compelling evidence for His existence (something other than the fact that we haven’t explained everything) I will be fascinated. Truly. You may be interested to know that I’m very interested in parapsychology. The implications for the whole of biology would be staggering, and there is some evidence too, but so far it seems equivocal to say the least.’
‘So you believe in science then.’
‘I understand what you mean but I would still have to say no.’ He sits back and looks at me coolly. ‘You assume a great deal about what I believe Gabriel. You would do better to stop trying to catch me out and actually try to understand what I have to say – assuming you want to talk seriously about this at all.’
That takes me aback. I’ve a good mind to go and do something else. He is bloody arrogant whatever he says, and pompous with it. We sit quietly for a while, he flicking through another book distractedly.
‘I’m sorry’ he says finally, closing the book. ‘I’ve done it again and I apologise. Will you let me try to explain?’ I nod guardedly.
‘Perhaps some other time’ he says, and I leave him to his book.