Strolling in the afternoon sunshine at Sandsend, I chanced upon a lovely fairy form sunbathing nude in the long grass. She must have spotted me coming, for as I drew closer she promptly changed into a patch of flowers.

I’m reading a book* by a brain researcher called Dale Purves about how brains (according to the title) “seem to work”. Actually it’s the author’s memoirs of a career spent in many different areas of brain research: the words: seem to work applying as much to the theories themselves as the illusions they contrive to explain.

For example: how it is that our two eyes cooperate to furnish us with a seamless impression of watching the world through a single eye in the centre of our face? This everyday illusion has a scientific name: cyclopean vision.

Purves emphasises that what I see out there has little or nothing to do with what’s really out there, and everything to do with what has proved of practical help to my ancestors’ survival – if only long enough to breed. Thus, if my brain contains a detector of the naked female form, this detector is less likely to have evolved towards delivering a balanced judgement, i.e. an equal number of false positives and false negatives, and more towards erring on the side of keeping my hopes up.

In saying this, Purves is making no daring new claim. He is merely reinforcing the message of Charles Darwin. Not to say Richard Dawkins, who corrects a common misreading of Darwin: it is genes that survive (better) by natural selection, not species.

A careful reading of Darwin’s The Origin Of Species shows he is of much the same mind as Dawkins. And that in spite of the fact that Darwin was ignorant of genes as such —he was ignorant of his contemporary, Gregor Mendel, breeding genetically challenged peas in his monastic garden to demonstrate the existence of genes as discrete entities— and could only talk of inherited “traits”. These Darwin supposed to vary smoothly, like the sweetness of tea when sugar is trickled in, rather than all-or-nothing, as would occur with the optional addition of a sugar cube. Mind you, excellent experimenter and scholar as he was, Darwin mentions several puzzles concerning the way in which traits are inherited, to which genes just so happen to provide the best explanation.

There is a Yiddish saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Adapting this saying to Darwin, it’s apparent that he thinks of a species as just a variety with a pair of Latin names. He avoids saying it outright however, because he doesn’t want to upset the taxonomists any more than he has to. According to Dawkins they are a nasty lot—and no doubt they were in Darwin’s day too.

But what if it had been a fairy in the long grass that sunny afternoon – and she hadn’t been in such a blinking hurry to elude me? Then we might well have witnessed the genesis of a whole new scion of the Fair Folk.

I wasn’t having a brain malfunction. The mechanism was working just fine.



* Purves, Dale, Brains: how they seem to work. Prentice-Hall, 2010.