Innovator, scientist, musician, ballroom dancer, and Oxford University Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology Denis Noble could be lying back reminiscing about developing the first mathematical model of cardiac cells way back in 1960 when he was in his twenties. Instead, he has just taken up dancing, gives musical performances in an obscure European language he had to learn in order to perform, and is reveling in his role as the champion of human creativity as the chief intellectual antagonist of the so-called Neo-Darwinists.
Speaking with Denis is about as energizing and stimulating a conversation as one will ever have. The man is simply filled with passion and energy. Here is Denis clearly enjoying eviscerating Richard Dawkins on stage as they debate the question of destiny being gene driven. Hint: it’s not, and, should anyone think otherwise and aspire to take on Denis, I would advise against it. Here is Denis the musician performing with the Oxford Trobadors. Here is Denis’s recently co-founded endeavor the Oxford Longevity Project. His appetite for learning and discovery seems to know no limits.
If one ever doubted that passion and curiosity are the fuel for a long and highly engaged life, Denis Noble is the counter argument. His days are filled with the widest range of interests and pursuits imaginable, which in itself sounds like a pretty good recipe for longevity.
There’s a lot going on in your world these days.
Absolutely. I’m up to here and a bit beyond too, I tell you. I’ve never been busier in my life. I seem to be enjoying it.
“The argument with the Neo-Darwinists has taken off in a big way”
What are some of the things that have been occupying you?
The argument with the Neo-Darwinists has taken off in a big way. I started having that argument with the standard evolutionary biologists way back in about 2006 when I published a little book called The Music of Life.
I’m not familiar with the argument with the Neo-Darwinists. What is the objection?
Neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene, would say something like we only think we have freedom of choice, that we are cultural inventors, that we can produce music, that we can produce new plays and all the rest of it, but it is a mirage. This is, of course, a deeply unsatisfactory view of humanity. Well, damn me, that’s just not true. It was important to try to pin this down because it has implications in almost all walks of life. I’m a musician as well, you see, and I know when a new piece of music has been created, you cannot predict that a Beethoven will occur but, by God, when it’s happened, you know; you realize what he’s done, and that’s humanity. They seem to want to deny that it is there. That’s it in a nutshell.
That is highly reductionist. They mean we have no free will?
It is precisely; they are the arch reductionists, exactly so. We are born selfish because we can’t help it. It’s just our genes that make us selfish. There was a man in the United States a number of years ago who actually argued in court that although it was obviously true that he had pulled a trigger and killed somebody, it wasn’t him who did it. Now, that didn’t get the jury to avoid convicting him but it did eventually, with a very clever lawyer, persuade the judge to give him a more lenient sentence, and it’s extraordinary. I mean, that’s why I say that although reduction is nonsense, it permeates all walks of life. Nothing is immune from the effect that it produces. The consequence is I now have the world at my door asking for more articles, more debates. I get invited even to go to Moscow to debate it all and lecture.
So Putin, he’s just doing what he has to do, he can’t help it?
Of course. Exactly. Can’t help it. No, precisely. That is the issue. You couldn’t put it better. Of course, when you and I listen to an absolutely superb musical performer, of course he can’t help it either.
“This comes to the question of longevity because I think if you persuade people that they do not have control, they get very depressed”
I had no idea that this was going on. It’s ridiculous, but fascinating that someone would hold to that view.
This is ridiculous because it’s gone on for over 50 years. The book, The Selfish Gene was published in 1976. It’s permeated life in so many ways and I see it as the opposite of healthy. This comes to the question of longevity because I think if you persuade people that they do not have control, they get very depressed.
Is what you are saying that there’s no agency?
Precisely, and it relates to the aging problem and one of the reasons why I helped to form the Oxford Longevity Project. It is important in relation to health and old age. You should be encouraging people to feel in control.
Now obviously, unfortunately, there are terrible health problems that people can’t do very much about. However, in general, the best thing to do is encourage them — get dancing, get doing something. People have free will and what they do will have an effect.
I guess where we’re coming from is that you have responsibility, you have agency. You are maybe 10% the output of your genes, and the other 90% is what are you doing. And that’s up to you.
Yes. I don’t believe in giving numbers to it because I think it can be more than 90%. You can cultivate that agency; I think that’s what artists and musicians do. I think it’s what scientists who are creative do. The really creative scientists are actually going beyond what you can naturally predict somebody will do. I don’t know what percentage you give to agency, because if they do something totally novel, they are a new Beethoven, a new Mozart, or a new Einstein, then I don’t know what percentage you then give to their agency. I mean, it’s just huge, isn’t it? You’re way outside the normal range of what people manage to do in life. I think it could be greater than even 100%. It becomes 150% because a really creative individual does something that makes you say, “Wow, how on earth could he do that?”
“I think encouraging people to be creative is part of what helps them to keep healthy in later life”
The flip side of the coin is that if you don’t believe you have agency then you just have to accept your grim reality, if that is what you feel age is. You have no agency, this is all there is, just suck it up.
Absolutely. Well, you see, the interesting thing is that one of the most vociferous Neo-Darwinists, that’s Jerry Coyne in Chicago, he writes: We all think we have the ability to choose, but that’s not the case. We might ponder why it is that evolution has given us such a strong impression of an illusion. So, it’s all an illusion. I don’t know what Beethoven would have thought about him being told producing The 9th Symphony was a total illusion. You thought you did that. Well, yes, we know you did that, but your genes made you do that. Not you, Beethoven. This is one of the deepest insults you could give to a really creative individual. Anyway, back to the point, I think encouraging people to be creative is part of what helps them to keep healthy in later life. It’s saying, in effect, we have more agency than perhaps we really think. You’ve got to encourage people to think that. That very fact of encouraging them can itself be a contribution to good health.
That’s right. Well, that’s what we do.
I’m sure you do, yes. I’d love to encourage people like you that are pushing that message out. I think what we found in running the Oxford Longevity Project now for a year or two is that it’s a phenomenon that cuts across. It is not just, can you get a good drug that keeps you going on until whatever age you want to try and be, it’s what you can do to help yourself to do that. That’s the way I see it. That’s partly why I was very happy to join Leslie Kenny and the other people she’s got involved in this to do the Oxford Longevity Project.
The cost of an aging population that is not healthy actually is shocking. Somehow, we’ve got to do something about that because otherwise we’re living with a time bomb as the years go by and more and more people end up doing more than three score years and 10; the cost of that, if they’re not healthy, is enormous.
Absolutely. I would say, on the converse of that, if people who are aging are healthy, they become contributors, consumers, and taxpayers.
Exactly. Well, here in the UK, I remember the days when the National Health Service was set up, in around 1947, and the argument for it was: if you keep the whole working population healthy, they will be more productive. That was the argument then. Of course, nobody imagined then that you could have people living to 80, 90, a 100, in numbers that were actually sizeable. Because, unfortunately, most of them need enormously expensive social care. There’s a huge balance here, isn’t there? That is another reason why one of the first broadcasts we did on the Oxford Longevity Project was with economists as one of the people had written about the economic cost of doing nothing, which is a very good argument for doing something.
Yes. I think it’s very clear that is true. I’ll tell you a little story that would be perhaps a good personal story for you. I started, at the age of 84, taking up ballroom dancing. I had to do something, you see. I’m no good at sports, I can tell you. I now go to Blackpool. It’s got the most famous dance hall in the United Kingdom, extraordinary gilt Victorian building in the Blackpool Tower that goes shooting up like the Eiffel Tower. Anyway, I’m enjoying myself doing it. That was a deliberate decision, me as an agent saying: take up something new. And then I found something else interesting.
In dancing, there’s about 1000 routines that you might want to try to learn. It’s all up here. My goodness, is it a challenge to try and learn all the things? Well, I’m also a musician, so I know what the challenge is.
The experience of finding out what it’s like to go swing around on the magnificent dance floor and often enough with a reasonably handsome or beautiful partner, that’s an experience and is great fun. It was a choice to try this. We’re back to agency.
I know you’re a musician of some accomplishment. Talk to me about the intersection of music. You’re not the first highly accomplished scientist that I’ve spoken to who’s also a musician.
It is fascinating. Yes, Einstein played the violin and there are many good physicists who became fascinated by the physics of music.
“Take it step by step and then you get surprised by how much you can actually do in a day”
Because you’re so busy and you’re operating on many different threads happening all the time, how do you organize your day?
I have a focusing method. Literally today I’ve just come back from France and this happens. I was away for a few days to see to something down there, and I’ve come back to an email box on my university website that has about 200 emails in it and to a Gmail email system which has, I don’t know, close to 500. To me, the way of coping with what is obviously an overload is just to ignore most of it for at least an hour or two while you do X, Y, and Z. Take it step by step and then you get surprised by how much you can actually do in a day.
What are the three non-negotiables in your life?
Three non-negotiables would be, one: don’t just think that I am just a scientist. I think it’s very important for people to get out of that mindset in which you think reductively. I think it’s a bad thing to do. Point one, so that’s non-negotiable, I need my artistic side or whatever you want to call it. Non-negotiable number two: don’t deprive me of eating curries, eating kimchi, eating all the fantastic delights I found all over the world that make it such a rich thing to discover what humans have done with the food that they eat. Non-negotiable, number three: goodness, that gets a bit difficult. Goodness me, do I really need three? Maybe that’s the non-negotiable thing. Don’t put me in a position where I have to produce three non-negotiable things.
I accept that.
If that will do, then that’s number three.
I want to just add, as an aside here, my favorite Nietzsche quote, which is, “The will to systematize indicates a lack of integrity.”
I see where that’s going. Yes, indeed. That’s absolutely right.
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