Circle of life

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, Prof Abdus Salam, would always lament that this country does not have a science culture. Not many would dispute that. By its very nature science teaches people to reason logically and understand various phenomena by thinking and questioning. Regrettably this is what we are not taught in our society and even some of the supposedly highly educated people at times are quite irrational.

How else would one explain the strange beliefs of people — handicapped children are God’s punishment for the parents’ sins, mental illness is caused by evil spirits or earthquakes are the manifestation of God’s wrath on a nation gone astray? Dr Viqar Zaman, a medical doctor by education, who chose to go into research and teaching in microbiology (notably at the AKUH and the University of Singapore), has made it his life mission to spread some enlightenment about biological phenomena to dispel the ignorance and superstition that otherwise characterize many people’s perception of life.

He writes in the Preface to the second edition, “We must not think that science has only provided material benefits to mankind. Science has been a powerful ally in the struggle against racism, social injustice and religious bigotry. It has drawn people away from superstition, quackery witchcraft, black magic, demons and devils Above all, it has made us more respectful towards all forms of life in existence on the Earth.” For him, a scientist is a citizen of the world who seeks to understand the great mystery of existence and liberates one from man-made ideologies and self-imposed shackles.

Dr Zaman’s is a daunting task. Given his sense of commitment and vigour, he has produced a book for the lay reader which explains various aspects of life sciences in a simple and readable style. One is actually riveted by this book which educates and informs a person about many of the doings of Mother Nature and the human role in the universe of which we are vaguely aware but have little knowledge of their cause and effects. The best thing about this book is that you don’t have to be a scientist to read and understand it. Besides, it is reader-friendly — there is relevant poetry or quotes at the end of each section, all the chapters are brief and the language is not too technical.

Without doubts a person does not question, and without questioning there can be no science. Since science undermines established beliefs it comes in conflict with orthodox elements. That is why Socrates, Copernicus and Galileo had to pay a heavy price for their scientific teachings. Science is based on the belief that the human senses cannot always be relied upon to give accurate information. Moreover science is always evolving as it questions its own hypothesis and what is accepted as correct one day might be questioned and overturned the following day. It is the “falsifiability” of science, to use Dr Zaman’s words, that gives it strength. By constantly weeding out wrong theories, science goes closer to the truth. That is why science flourishes only in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. That would explain why science has never been Pakistan’s forte.

In 24 chapters, this book takes the readers on a journey from birth to death. In this process, he will acquire a comprehension of all the major scientific issues that flood newspapers and television screens because they are making news today. He will learn about the stem cells — President Bush refused to finance research into them — transplantation of organ, brain death and many other terms.

Not many lay people in Pakistan would know that stem cells form the embryo and generate many other cell types and are expected to hold the key to cell therapy and offer hope for millions of sufferers from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and retinal degeneration disorders. Transplantation is the grafting of an organ from the donor to the recipient. It was Peter Medawar, a British immunologist, who first explained why organs are rejected if they are not properly matched with the recipient’s tissues. Brain death is another term that figures in the media. Dr Zaman explains that it is “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem”. When oxygen in all body tissues falls below a certain level all vital functions cease and death occurs. But brain death can occur on its own with all the other organs functioning.

One learns about viruses, bacteria, fungus, parasites and so on which are quite distinct though the layperson tends to use them interchangeably. But a little knowledge about them would certainly help us understand these minute creatures and how they affect our universe. How many of us know that all bacteria are not bad? Many of them are our friends too. Some produce enzymes in our intestinal tracts, others are scavengers that break down all organic matter and others are basic to the nitrogen cycle essential for life.

“Reproduction is the ultimate objective of all life on earth,” the author writes and it is the female which plays a key role in the sustenance of life. In some species the male ratio is kept low in the “pro-female drama of nature”. This should provide some food for thought for our patriarchal society which show no respect for women and relegates them to a subordinate position.

Life Sciences for the Non-Scientist is a treasure trove of information about chronobiology (our internal clocks), the long march of evolution which proves that all living beings have a shared descent because they use a common gene — the Hox gene — to establish their development pattern, changes in environment determine the changes in characteristics that are evolved with the changing needs, and how the process of ageing is determined by a person’s genetic make-up.

Birth and death are the most important events in a person’s life and one can’t take place without the other. The most profound fact to be remembered is that all activities in the universe are of a cyclic nature. Death is necessary for sustaining life. When an organism dies, it replenishes the earth and new life forms arise. Thus death is not the end but the beginning of life in another form. Although the author has touched on ethical questions wherever their relevance arises, one wishes he had given more comprehensive treatment to it — may be a separate chapter should have been devoted to bioethics. As medical technology grows by leaps and bounds many ethical issues keep coming up. It would be instructive to read about Dr Viqar Zaman’s views on them, especially because he is so rational and sensible about what he writes.

Hopefully this book will be read by all educated people — not just the laypeople but also the health scientists. This is the second revised and enlarged edition — each chapter has been revised and two new chapters added (heredity and transplantation). We look forward to the third enlarged edition.

Life Sciences for the Non-Scientist (second, revised and enlarged edition)
By Viqar Zaman
World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 5 Toh Tuck Link, Singapore 596224.
ISBN 981-256-282-6
239pp. Price not listed