Sunday, March 26, 2006


"Is the Human an Endangered Species?" by Professor Robert Winston

I'm delighted to share with you this report on the Fourth Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture, from our regular correspondant David Haddock...
This took place in the Ondaatje Theatre at the Royal Geographical Society in London on Thursday 23rd March. Dirk Maggs was in the audience, as were Nick Webb, Robbie Stamp, Sean Solle, Mark Carwardine, Wix Wickens, Margo Buchanan, Terry Jones, Angus Deyton and Clive Anderson. I also think I saw Frank Halford who famously gave the ten out of ten to Douglas when he was at school. There were also quite a few members of Douglas’s family, his mother, wife, siblings, and (I think) his daughter.

In the bar beforehand I had a quick chat with James Thrift who explained that the hard part of his trip to Kilimanjaro was actually the walking downhill. After six days of constantly going up apparently you convince yourself that it is normal, and it is a shock to turn round. He looked to be limping a little.

There was a short introduction by a trustee of one of the charities who talked briefly about Save the Rhino and the Environmental Investigation Agency, the beneficiaries of the evening’s fundraising, and then introduced the evening’s speaker - the Professor Emeritus of Fertility Studies of Imperial College, Lord Winston. The Professor said it was a special pleasure to be giving the lecture, although he had never met Douglas he had be moved by his work, adding that tonight he had another invite to a dinner at the Guildhall with Prince Phillip but it was a great pleasure to be here.

The first slide was of Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac, and this began a wide-ranging talk that was entitled: Is the Human and Endangered Species? It focussed on the particular issue of whether genetic manipulation is a threat, and covered from the Bible story in Genesis to what we can expect in the next thirty years of advances in this field. The Professor is an entertaining speaker, and fitted in jokes, statistics and the profound, often in the same sentence. Humans it turns out are quite an infertile species, the average couple having unprotected intercourse over a menstrual cycle will, in the UK, have an 18% chance of becoming pregnant, whilst in Australia that figure is 22%, but in France just 16%. If we were more fertile there would be even more environmental problems.

From there he talked about when does an embryo become a person, touching on sperm observation via microscope as after dinner entertainment in 17th Century Holland, with scientists seeing what they expected to see (with a little dig to “his friend” Richard Dawkins about scientific truth). What they described, as in the Nicholas Hartsoeker woodcut Lord Winston projected was a homunculus, a fully formed little man within the sperm. This was taken as evidence for the religious belief that destruction of the seed is murder. He also briefly covered parthenogenic reproduction, showing a picture of a mouse born without conception, and commented that ethics need to change along with understanding. Conception is not an instantaneous, happening over a number of hours and not necessarily requiring an egg and a sperm. The difference in aging processes between man and other species was touched on before getting to his main topic.

Genetic manipulation can take many forms, from checking that an embryo is not carrying a hereditary defect in one base pair of three billion to the use of stem cells in treating Parkinson’s disease. There are difficulties. Cloning generally produces genetic abnormalities, and that the results are irreversible and unpredictable. He reminded us that there are 25,000 clones currently in the UK (identical twins) and that the Boys from Brazil scenario, where Hitler clones were being developed, as impossible as genes express themselves in different ways depending upon environment. He said that many press reports on genetic manipulation are rubbish, but also that scientists had a duty to consider the impact their work can have on society more. In Sardinia there are many sufferers from a hereditary disease called Beta thalassaemia. Those with two mutated chromosomes require blood transfusions to live beyond the age of twenty, but this life saving procedure eventually produces complications. However, those with just one copy have much milder anaemia, and also some protection against malaria which is why the genetic abnormality has persisted for over 3000 years. It may be possible to rid the island of the disease which consumes 60% of the healthcare budget, however, if malaria returned, a very real possibility with the increasing temperatures of the area, then the islanders would have increased susceptibility to this disease. He also discussed his current work on pigs, modifying them so that their organs can be transplanted into humans. This works better if the generic material is inserted into the sperm rather than the embryo.

James Thrift took to the stage next and thanked the Professor for the thought provoking lecture before launching into the auction. First up was an old GPS (a Trimble Scoutmaster, boxed with leads and a fluorescent pouch) that used to belong to Douglas. James told a story about Douglas buying a Toyota Landcruiser which had a gadget which told him his altitude (very necessary for the journey from Islington to Dorset), and how vexed he was when he arrived at a known height (625 feet) from the contour map, but his car thought it was 325 feet. Much manual reading and thinking ensued before driving to the coast and pressing the reset button. That made a couple of hundred quid, and there were a few other charity related lots before one of Douglas’s own copies of Life the Universe and Everything with a Malibu Divers sticker on the front. This had been annotated with notes from when Douglas first moved to California in 1982 to work on the Hitchhiker’s screenplay. James recollected some pleasant memories of that time saying that he got to leave his Religious Studies ‘O’ Level exam to fly out to the States (and he passed as well). The book sold for £350.