Artwork by Enrique Cropper
The fifth week of COVID confinement had just begun and Belgium was in lockdown. It was a fine April evening and George sat looking out from the terrace, towards his favourite part of the garden, where the budding oak tree rose amongst the yellows and the pinks of the newly flowering shrub border. Fatigued by another full day of télé-travail, he clutched his half-full glass of Margaux and took in the evening call of the song thrush, whose rich tones and accents were filling the deep, blue, domed sky that enveloped them both. “Yes,” sighed George, nodding to himself and lifting his glass to take another slow quaff. The fine wine reminded him of an occasion, now many years ago. “That impudent young biologist,” he whispered to himself, and the memory of the conversation all came flowing back into his mind.
That week had been particularly busy for George, doing what satisfied him most: “Another timely regulatory intervention” he was telling himself, as he sat back in the bar round the corner from the office that Friday evening at the invitation of his new boss Guy Lecomte. Lecomte was only a few years older than George, but one who had risen quickly after his “posting in Cabinet” in the European Regulatory Authority. Lecomte, noted George, liked to use more combative language to describe the week’s actions. Even Friday night drinks had started to feel more like a military operations debrief. “We are really just the Fire Service, les pompiers vous savez, of the ERA” George could overhear Lecomte saying to an impressionable young functionary, new to the department. “Another flambée des marches financiers, another quick dowse from the regulatory hose and, hey presto, problem put out, job done, we can hang up our extinguishers and go home.”
By the time his train had reached La Hulpe station, George, somewhat weary after his hectic week, had managed to put Lecomte’s boorish words behind him. “Not so much the fire, as the medical service of the ERA” George had mused, reflecting on the feverish way in which his Director General had barked down the phone just three days before: “George, for God’s sake, can’t you find a remedy to this little problem, before it spreads any further?” Little had George known, as he set off from the station up the hill to his house nestled in the La Hulpe woods, what was awaiting him at dinner that night.
George always had to be careful not to spend too long cooling off in the bar on Fridays, especially the evenings when he was entertaining guests. His wife, Patricia, would have already prepared the table and laid out her special range of appetising salads. Next to the barbecue, she would have left the meat, seasoned in that charming, fresh style that was all hers. “Only thing to do now,” George was merrily saying to himself, his journey nearly done, “will be to slip into something more comfortable, and light the briquettes.”
“Couldn’t Lecomte have let you come home, at least a little early?” his wife interrupted, as George walked up the gravel drive to his fine quatre-facades residence. “You know there is always so much to do! The guests will be arriving at 7.30 and you haven’t even chosen the wine we’re drinking!”
George and Patricia were expecting three that evening. They owed an invitation to Michel and Sophie, a couple they had known a long time through George’s involvement in the Société Géologique Belge. The Lamberts had asked if they could bring along Santiago, their godson, a young post doctorate student from Spain, who was staying with them a few days, while he attended an ERA scientific conference. Naturally, George and Patricia had agreed. “There’s always room for one more at our table” was a cliché they both enjoyed repeating.
George soon got things under control and, before long, the barbecue coals were red and hot. The chilled rosé wine aperitif had already served to ‘kick off’ the evening. The guests were now sitting, relaxed, in the generously padded garden armchairs. A choice bottle of Bordeaux, uncorked to let it breathe, stood ready to accompany the main meal. While the ‘ice breaker’ chit chat bubbled up, the meat began to sizzle and the rich fumes of Patricia’s marinade wafted mouth-wateringly over the terrace. “Oh, absolutely delicious” remarked Sophie, adding, in that half-hearted tone which so often goes with such a remark, “You must give me the recipe”. The eating began.
Michel was an accountant by profession and, unsurprisingly, he and George would often exchange money talk, when they had time in the margins of the meetings of the Société. This week’s petite crise financière took up a large part of the early conversation, before George decided to ‘change tack’ and address the young guest, who so far had contributed little more than a couple of nervous reactions and a few pulled faces.
Under normal circumstances, before asking one of his typically leading questions, George would have noted that Santiago’s edginess was already giving something away. But fatigue could make George a little remiss and, that particular evening, he pressed on, regardless.
“Would you like a drop of this nice Margaux?” George asked. Santiago assented. George poured a liberal glassful and took up his enquiry, deliberately seeking to bring his guest into the conversation. “And now, tell me, Santiago, I hear you’re in Brussels for an EU Science conference. Interesting. But what is it that you do exactly?”
There was an awkward pause. “I guess you could call that the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question” replied Santiago with a flash of pique in his eyes. George flinched but the uncomfortable moment, before Santiago followed on, was thankfully short. “I’m a biologist, actually,” he added. “And my PhD was on the history of biological thought.”
“How fascinating” said George continuing with his habitually inquisitive air, weighing in his mind the implications of the young man’s self-conscious conversational style. “And what can you say you have discovered during your studies?”
Santiago took in a breath. “I discovered, as you put it, that biological thought, as such, does not yet exist”, he retorted. George gently raised an eyebrow. “At least, if you take a holistic view of the science, ever since the likes of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Theophrastus, the discipline seems to have forgotten how to think biologically. The conceptualisation has become shattered into pieces”, he explained, stretching his fingers out wide like a wide fan. George nodded with a short “Aha”. “And if there is one thing biology teaches you is that everything is connected, not separated, and that wholes mean more than just the sum of their parts. There’s no place for linear, mechanical thinking or reductionism in a true philosophy of biology.”
“Whoa, whoa, hold on a minute” said George, not alone at being surprised by the young man’s effusive candour. The others at the table turned to George to see where the conversation would go next. “There’s a lot to take in there,” he said, looking towards Michel. “At the Société Géologique, we occasionally have these debates, don’t we Michel, when we try to look at the big picture of evolution”. Santiago, unimpressed, left George with no option but to continue. “Surely, you’re not telling me there’s no real science of biology, when the faculties of the universities are full of students and we have Darwin as the Grandfather of it all?”
“I couldn’t care less about ‘bums on seats’ in the lecture halls of the universities of the world” came back Santiago’s reply. “And, quite frankly, Darwin and his acolytes are a bunch of hypocrites. They’ve perpetrated the false idea that life is one big competition, all a matter of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Humankind against Nature.” George was beginning to regret the baldness of his opening question. “Struggle for life!” continued Santiago. “This sterile way of thinking is anathema to biology. Biology in all its expansive dimensions is dynamic, restless, metamorphosing, it’s alive. That is the real sense of evolution. To see Nature myopically as ‘selfish genes’ and make that the basis of your whole theory of biology is, quite frankly, well, incredulous. This is the sort of narrow-minded view of Nature that sees everything as a battle, a free-for-all, winner-takes-all.” Santiago flushed in his excitement. “But it’s not just lions that get caricatured as ‘preying on the weak’. The same thinking’s taken over medicine, the mother of all biological thought. Now even bacteria and viruses are supposed to ‘kill’ patients and need to be ‘combatted’ and ‘defeated’. Take whichever bellicose metaphor you like. It’s all become quite ridiculous war talk.”
“Quite ridiculous”, thought George, as he pondered on the COVID news from the latest emission he had just watched of the Belgian Journal Televisé. The conversation with Santiago was coming back to him. “That boy seemed so sure of himself. Ruined the evening in the end,” mused George. After that particular barbecue, things were never quite the same again with the Lamberts, and the two couples started to see much less of one other. Santiago was never mentioned.
“But that young man was on to something. It really doesn’t make much sense, this way of talking all the time about Coronavirus as a ‘killer’. Even its sudden ‘appearance’ seems a little bizarre,” George continued in his thoughts. “So many differing views. Now we’re even being told that some ‘victims’ of the disease are dying because of a hyper-inflammatory reaction,” he ruminated. “And there only seem to be material explanations.”
George struggled to bring to mind the thread of the debate at that barbecue all those years ago. “Santiago seemed to be suggesting that by taking a materialist standpoint, we overlook the central issue of Life itself”. George stopped in his thoughts. “Life, he said – and Death,” mumbled George, as he leaned back in the garden chair, a look of pain streaking across his face.