Life on The Edge of Chaos: The Ian Malcolm Story

Event's Cole Morton meets maverick "chaotician" Ian Malcolm for a VERY revealing and dangerously feisty interview about society, evolution and "life at the edge of chaos".

My first impression of Ian Malcolm is that he's a very larger-than-life man. Dressed in his characteristic black, wearing a mad-scientist goatee and walking in with a charismatic swagger that draws looks of bafflement and awe from pretty much everyone, it's hard to mistake him for anyone else. And when he sits and greets me in the Soho coffee shop I will be interviewing him in, I'm left wondering; how much of this is genuine?

It turns out, a lot. Over the next hour, he'll give his opinion on society ("up shit creek without a paddle"), the difficulties of getting his book published ("if I was writing a tragic teen romance about a girl who falls in love with a misunderstood crackhead zombie, people would be falling over me") and insights about his family life, his past relationships and the thinking behind his revolutionary work.

On how his promotional tour for his book, Life on the Edge of Chaos is going, Malcolm sighs, "Exhausting. I have six speaking events here all happening within the next month. And the American tour was even longer. Sometimes you pray you could just Skype". However, that does not mean it's all been bad, as he relates, "At signing events, I've had people come up to me and say that it had given them a greater appreciation of the world around them and a greater interest in the history of life on Earth; moments like that are just wonderful."

On his close friendship with controversial palaeontologist Richard Levine, Malcolm is stoic, saying "Let me remind you that Alexander von Humboldt was a personal friend of Napoleon." On Levine's contemptuous dismissal of famous raptor behaviourist Owen Grady as a "glorified circus trainer" Malcolm replies, "I cannot control what Richard says; I tried once and barely escaped with my life."

Time to get back on why we're here; Malcolm's new book. Life on The Edge of Chaos has been described as a revolutionary work in the vein of On The Origin of Species or Humboldt's Kosmos. Like these two mighty tomes, Life on the Edge of Chaos' aim is to articulate "a new theory of evolution" and revolutionise the way we view not just our own evolution, but the evolution of the world, the causes of extinction and the potential danger of our own extinction.

It's the end of a long, uphill journey for Malcolm. "The manuscript was rejected twice by two separate publishing houses. The first said it would be difficult to sell… and the second said it was too inflammatory!", he laughs, "A book meant to challenge current models of science… and the publisher says it's too inflammatory! Someone, I think it was Alan Grant, suggested that I simply self-publish. But I felt that route much too crass. Eventually, Owen [Grady] rang me up, saying that Prehistoric Park now had a special publishing deal, through which he was publishing his book, and he suggested that I do the same. So I did."

Why does Malcolm think the concept was a tough sell? "Partially, I think it was the subject. If I was writing a tragic teen romance about a girl who falls in love with a misunderstood crackhead zombie, people would be falling over me. Of all scientific theorems and subjects, it is evolution that has been embroiled in the most intense religious and political controversy. There's no religious debate about Avogadro's number. Parents do not protest when schools talk about gravity. Baptist preachers do not condemn the functions of the pancreas. But about evolution, there has been perpetual controversy for two hundred years".

Malcolm articulates the thinking behind the book, "To get to the thinking you have to track the theory," he said, "over a couple of hundred years. The story starts with Baron Georges Cuvier: the most famous anatomist in the world in his day, living in the intellectual center of the world, Paris. Around 1800, people began digging up old bones, and Cuvier realized that they belonged to animals no longer found on earth. That was a problem; back in 1800, everybody believed that all the animal species ever created were still alive. The idea seemed reasonable because the earth was thought to be only a few thousand years old and God, who had created all the animals, would never let any of his creations become extinct. By this logic, extinction was be impossible. However, Cuvier, from these dug-up bones, concluded that God or no God, many animals had become extinct - as a result, he thought, of worldwide catastrophes, like Noah's flood.

"However, Cuvier never accepted evolution; some animals died and some survived, but none evolved. In his view, animals didn't change. Then along came Darwin, who said that animals did evolve, and that the dug-up bones were actually the extinct predecessors of living animals. The implications of Darwin's idea upset lots of people; they didn't like to think of God's creations changing, and they didn't like to think of monkeys in their family trees. It was embarrassing and offensive. The debate was fierce. But Darwin amassed a tremendous amount of factual data - he had made an overwhelming case. So gradually his idea of evolution was accepted by scientists, and by the world at large. But the question remained: how does evolution happen? Darwin's answer was natural selection. But he couldn't explain what was favoured or how it actually operated. In the twentieth century, Mendel's work with plants is rediscovered and Fischer and Wright do population studies, and we conclude that genes control heredity; before we knew what genes actually were. After all that, we have a theory of natural selection where mutations arise spontaneously in genes, the environment favours the beneficial ones and that's how evolution occurs. Basically, survive or die, with no higher organising principle"

However, Malcolm has found current models of evolution wanting. "Whenever I learnt about evolution in school, I was always puzzled. I understood that some kind of evolution occurred, but I always felt that there was something that was missing. Firstly, timing. A single bacterium - the earliest form of life – has two thousand enzymes. Scientists have estimated how long it would take to randomly assemble those enzymes from a primordial soup; apparently, between forty to one hundred billion years. However, the earth is only four billion years old and bacteria appeared only four hundred million years after the earth began. Basically, life appeared too fast for chance alone – which is why some scientists have decided life on earth must be of extra-terrestrial origin. Although I think that's just evading the issue."

The second of Malcolm's talking points is evolutionary co-ordination. This has long been a subject of interest for him, as he recalls, "When I was young, I was always confused at the idea that all the wonderful complexity of life is nothing but the accumulation of chance events - a bunch of genetic accidents strung together. And, when one looks closely at animals, it appears as if many elements must have evolved simultaneously. For example, bats, in order to echolocate, need a specialized apparatus to make sounds, specialized ears to hear echoes and specialized brains to interpret the sound. Imagining all these things happening purely by chance is like imagining that a tornado can hit a junkyard and assemble the parts into a working 747 airplane. It's very hard to believe."

His final issue is not with what evolution does, but how it acts, "Evolution doesn't always act like a blind force should. Certain environmental niches don't get filled. Certain plants don't get eaten. And certain animals don't evolve very much. Sharks haven't changed since they evolved three hundred million years ago. Opossums haven't changed since dinosaurs initially became extinct, sixty-five million years ago. The environments for these animals have changed dramatically, but the animals have remained almost the same. In other words, it appears they haven't responded to their environment. So, there's something else going on."

What does Malcolm believe is going on? In response, he chuckles knowingly, "I believe that natural selection acting on genes is probably not the whole story. It's too simple. Other forces are also at work. Look at haemoglobin; we know the sequence of amino acids that make up haemoglobin, but we don't know how to fold it. If you make the molecule, it folds all by itself. It organizes itself. Wherever you look, it seems that living things seem to have a self-organizing quality. Proteins fold. Enzymes interact. Cells arrange themselves to form organs and the organs arrange themselves to form a coherent individual. Individuals organize themselves to make a population. And populations organize themselves to make a coherent biosphere. From complexity theory, we're starting to have a sense of how this self-organization may happen, and what it means."

Of course, any discussion on evolution must also cover extinction. Is extinction what happens when the self-organising principles fail to work? He shakes his head, "Oh no, no, quite the opposite. Self-organizing principles can act for better or worse. Just as self-organization can coordinate change, it can also lead a population into decline, and cause it to lose its edge."

I admit my confusion; surely these self-organising principles have to act for the better, otherwise they wouldn't exist. He elaborates, "Most of earth's history shows animals living and dying against a very active background. That probably explains 90 percent of extinctions. If the seas dry up, or change in salt content, then of course ocean plankton will all die. But complex animals are another matter, because complex animals have insulated themselves - literally and figuratively - against such changes. That always confused me; why do complex animals die out? Why don't they adjust? Physically, they seem to have the capacity to survive. There appears to be no reason why they should die. And yet they do."

Malcom believes he has the answer, "What I came to believe was that complex animals become extinct not because of a change in their physical adaptation to their environment, but because of their behaviour. The behaviour of complex animals can change very rapidly, and not always for the better. It can cease to be responsive to the environment, leading to decline and eventual extinction; it suggests that animals may stop adapting."

On to personal matters, Malcolm has been married three times and has three daughters; two biological, Emily, 19, and Kelly, 12, from his first wife and one stepchild, Kelly Curtis Malcolm, also 12, from his second wife. As Malcolm cackles, "My daughter and my stepdaughter are both named Kelly, are roughly the same age, go to the same school and are in the same class. It's fun, sometimes." Malcolm fondly muses on how fatherhood has changed him, "When I was in my 20s, it was all about making cool new theories and dressing in black. Today it's getting my kids to school, making sure that they've done their homework. I'm in my late fifties, and I've found myself transforming into a square."

Aside from his three marriages, Malcolm has had many on-off relationships, including one with animal behaviourist Sarah Harding. On these matters, Malcolm remains tight-lipped, saying that "I wish to have some control over the details of my personal life."

When one has children, one tends to think about the future greatly; and Malcolm is no different. Does Malcolm believe his theory of behavioural destabilisation leading to catastrophe can be applied to human society? He nods, "Absolutely. It has happened many times throughout history; my book even notes this." So, how far does he think our current society is from collapse? He looks, furtively, around the room, "I am greatly concerned about our future. I think we are, to use the scientific nomenclature, up shit creek without a paddle."

Continuing, he goes, "Our society is in collapse. Culturally, politically, everywhere you look. I look at the world, I look at every aspect of our culture and find it in flux. You only need to turn on any news channel and watch for half an hour. Read any newspaper. Go online. Our society is falling apart, due to corruption from social prejudice, corporate avarice and political megalomania. We're also seeing cultural collapse, because mass-media swamps diversity. Any and all differences vanish; there's less of everything except the top ten books, albums, movies, ideas… It'll be global uniformity. And that's the end of innovation, which is crucial for us to adapt. Of course, that might be what the politicians are looking for."

Malcolm believes that the current political climate reveals a pernicious aspect of the human condition, "I will challenge anyone who believes that human beings are sentient and aware. There's no evidence for it. Human beings never think for themselves they find it too uncomfortable. For the most part, members of our species simply repeat what they are told and become upset if they are exposed to any different view. The characteristic human trait is not awareness but conformity, and the characteristic result is warfare. Other animals fight for territory or food; but, uniquely in the animal kingdom, human beings fight for their 'beliefs.' The reason is that beliefs guide behaviour, which has evolutionary importance among human beings. But at a time when our behaviour may, well lead us to extinction, I see no reason to assume we have any awareness at all. We are stubborn, self-destructive conformists. Any other view of our species is just a self-congratulatory delusion."

Right, so Malcolm doesn't have an optimistic view of where humanity is headed. He sighs, "I really, really want to have an optimistic view. But there's so much to be depressed about; the rise of the far-right across Europe, the prevalence of identity politics, crime, violence… As an aside, I've been watching Russell Howard's programmes every night since I arrived in the UK. I think you Brits have a bit of a natural talent for comedy in the face of adversity; it's a good way to look at depressing things."

Doe Malcolm think that his gloomy prediction of the future could, hypothetically, be changed? Malcolm shrugs, "Maybe. It's possible; it's not happened before, but given what we know about us and our world, we may be able to save the planet – and save ourselves. I'm holding my breath and crossing my fingers."