Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China 
by Simon Winchester.
Viking, 316 pp., £20, September 2008, 978 0 670 91379 4
Show More
Show More

The great debate about ‘The Two Cultures’ divided the arts and sciences in Cambridge, and the intellectual pages of Britain, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but is now hardly remembered, memorialised only in Stefan Collini’s edition of the 1959 Rede Lecture. This lecture was a claim for the centrality of science and an attack on ‘literary intellectuals’ by the now almost forgotten C.P. Snow; unjustly forgotten, because his ponderous novels about hope, power and prestige tell us much about the public and academic life of his period. In a sense the debate was about the 1930s, the scientists’ age of glory and the disappointed poets’ low, dishonest or otherwise depreciable decade. In a narrower sense it represented a rearguard local engagement between arts intellectuals and Cambridge’s self-confident natural scientists, well on the way to their 83 Nobel prizes, who knew that the future greatness (and funding) of the university would essentially be in their hands. Probably nothing irritated arts dons more than the scientists’ certainty that the future was theirs. In a wider sense, it was about the relation between reason and imagination. In Snow’s view the scientists had both, and the literary intellectuals were fatally hobbled by their ignorance and suspicion of science and the future. Only one of the two cultures really counted.

Snow overplayed his hand, though not as absurdly as his chief antagonist, F.R. Leavis, but fundamentally he was right. In the first half of the 20th century, the canyon between the two cultures was probably wider than it had ever been, at least in Britain, where secondary schools divided ‘arts’ from ‘science’ when children were in their mid-teens. In fact, arts intellectuals were cut off from the sciences, but scientists weren’t cut off from the arts, since the basic education for the upper social strata had always been one of letters, and the then small community of scientists came chiefly from this milieu.

Nevertheless, the contrast is striking between the range of knowledge and interests of a group of interwar scientists – mostly, but not exclusively, with biological interests – and the limitations of those in the arts. The leading group of 1930s poets, other perhaps than Empson, admired technology (all those pylons in poems), but, unlike the Romantics, seem to have had no sense of living in an era of scientific wonders. Shelley and Keats, J.B.S. Haldane observed, were the last poets to be abreast of developments in chemistry. Conversely, scientists could lecture on Iranian art (Bernal), write books about Blake (Bronowski), acquire honorary degrees in music (C.H. Waddington), investigate comparative religion (Haldane) and – above all – have a sense of history.

They also tended to combine the imaginations of art and science with endless energy, free love, eccentricity and revolutionary politics. It is a combination highly characteristic of the era between the world wars, or more specifically of the 1930s. No one more obviously belonged to it than Joseph Needham (Li Yuese in Mandarin), who was perhaps the most interesting mind among the constellation of brilliant ‘red’ scientists of that decade, and perhaps the most unusual in his ability to combine revolutionary behaviour and convictions with acceptance by the established world of Who’s Who, eventually as master of his Cambridge college and Companion of Honour. Not everyone in the Cold War years would have survived having – wrongly – accused the US of using bacteriological weapons in the Korean War.

Certainly his achievement is impressive. Needham’s great work on Science and Civilisation in China transformed the knowledge of the subject both in the West and, to a considerable extent, in China itself. That titanic project naturally dominates the lively new biography by Simon Winchester, a writer who has specialised in books tying individuals to great achievements. Its original American title was The Man Who Loved China, and Needham’s life before his energies and emotions were turned to China are dealt with in 23 fairly cursory pages. It is not unfair to a very readable book to say that it cannot claim to be a balanced assessment of its remarkable and neglected subject.*

The first volume of Science and Civilisation in China was described – by a Cambridge colleague who had no sympathy for Needham’s politics or personal conduct – as ‘perhaps the greatest single act of historical synthesis and intercultural communication ever attempted by one man’. The sheer scale and 21st-century relevance of this achievement makes it certain that it is what he will be remembered for. Though Needham was elected to the Royal Society at the age of 41 after the publication of Biochemistry and Morphogenesis, his own scientific work was probably never in the Nobel range, nor does he seem to have inspired, as Bernal and Haldane did, any of those who went on to achieve breakthroughs. On the other hand, he had already demonstrated his ambitions as a historian of science – he introduced it as a subject to Cambridge some years later – in the three volumes of Chemical Embryology (1931). This not only summarised the state of the field in terms of biochemistry, but provided an impressive history and prehistory of the subject. Even after he had plunged into Chinese matters, he provided an irresistible sketch of ‘the pre-natal history of chemistry’ in the introduction to The Chemistry of Life (1970), a volume of essays by various authors, in which he described the ancient beliefs in the ‘breath of life’ as ‘pneumatic proto-physiology’ and saw the invention of Benedictine and other monastic liqueurs as inspired by the alchemists’ search for ‘quintessence’ by distillation. More unexpectedly, he published a small popular book on the Levellers in the English Revolution under the name Henry Holorenshaw.

History and public activism were at the core of the ‘red science’ of the 1930s. One marvels at the sheer range and intensity of the scientists’ academic and extra-curricular activities. In Needham’s case they included putting the ‘s’ into Unesco as founder and first director of its Section of Natural Sciences. But even here he did not neglect history, though the project on the Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind, in which he took an interest, is best forgotten.

History was central to the red scientists not merely because they knew themselves to be living in times of extraordinary change. The sense of development and transformation over time, and (especially) the great question of the origin of life, provided both a bond between the sciences and the most exciting problems for biologists. All of them were absorbed by the changing relations, both past and present, between science and society. All memoirs of the period agree on the dramatic impact of the Soviet papers given at the 1931 London International Congress on the History of Science, to which the USSR sent an unusually distinguished delegation, whose Marxist perspective deeply impressed the British, not so much by the quality of their papers as by the new perspectives on the relations between science and society they opened. The 1931 Congress and his discovery of China in 1937 have been suggested as the two events that shaped Needham’s life.

So far as we know, Needham, a Marxist, never joined or was particularly close to the Communist Party, though his characteristic ‘millenarian fervour’, as T.E.B. Howarth describes it in Cambridge between Two Wars, made him more instinctively radical than the hard-headed left-wingers around him. He urged Haldane to choose the socialist materialism of the future – Haldane joined the Communist Party not long afterwards – and reviewed the Webbs’ Soviet Communism in 1936 with ‘enthusiasm bordering on rapture’. However, his widely advertised fondness for nudism and morris dancing, while giving him an aura of English eccentricity to which the otherwise conservative fellows of Gonville and Caius College assimilated his political heterodoxy, did not help his standing in the politics of the left. Admittedly, the long-lasting ménage à trois of Joseph and Dorothy Needham with Lu Gwei-djen (to whom Winchester ascribes his passion for China) was not yet established before the war, but the advertised sexual emancipation among their admired seniors was tolerated rather than imitated by the Communist generation of the 1930s.

As was the most surprising aspect of Needham’s life: his lifelong attachment to religion and its ceremonials. His High Anglicanism certainly did not get in the way of his political convictions in the 1930s. He worshipped in the wonderful church in Thaxted, which, since the living was in the gift of the strongly socialist Countess of Warwick (who also doubled for a time as King Edward VII’s mistress), had been supplied with a revolutionary socialist priest, Conrad Noel. In the course of time Needham modulated from Anglicanism, which he knew to be a local phenomenon (‘because I happened to be born in the European West in 1900, and Anglican Christianity was the typical form religion took for my time and race’), to a sort of Daoism, which he saw as both democratic and at the root of science and technology in China. Although he came to think that his views of religion had been ‘certainly too neo-platonic, idealistic, pietistic and other-worldly’, and although he was also an honorary associate of the Rationalist Press Association (the present Humanists), he never ceased to believe in religion as ‘the recognition of the numinous’ and ‘its embodiment in corporate observance and rite’. It didn’t, as he saw it, ‘imply a doctrine of a creator God’ and he didn’t believe it was in conflict with science; he approved of Confucius’s view that the existence of gods and spirits must be accepted, but kept at a distance. Nor was his form of religion distinct from politics. Communism, he thought in 1935, provided the moral theology appropriate to our time, and was opposed to scientism.

Stalin’s Communism definitely wasn’t, but Needham never wavered in his rejection of scientism or reductionism in any form, including the Marxist, both because it left out so much that was important in reality and because it undermined science as he understood it. A passage from his 1932 review of Brave New World in (of all places) Leavis’s Scrutiny is worth quoting. He saw current intellectual tendencies (in his view Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle and the leftist Lancelot Hogben) leading ‘by reasonable extrapolation’ towards the Huxleyan Brave New World, because they urged

that the concept of reality must be replaced by the concept of communicability. Now it is only in Science that perfect communicability is attainable, and, in other words, all that we can profitably say is, in the last resort, scientific propositions clarified by mathematical logic … We are left with Science as the only substratum for Reason, but what is worse, Philosophy or Metaphysics too is relegated to the realm of the Unspeakable, so that Science, which began as a special form of Philosophy, and which only retains its intellectually beneficial character if it retains its status as a special form of Philosophy, becomes nothing more nor less than the Mythology accompanying a Technique.

Needham’s ambition as a researcher had long been to create a biochemical embryology that would meld the reductionism of the chemists with the inevitable concern of biologists for organisms and processes as a whole. An anti-mechanistic (he preferred the term ‘organic’) view of science had an obvious appeal for developmental biologists, such as the group brought together in the Theoretical Biology Club of the 1930s by the then influential but now largely forgotten J.H. Woodger, which included both the Needhams and Waddington (who was to be the specific target of Hayek’s attack on the Marxists in The Road to Serfdom). It pioneered the concept of living things organised in hierarchical levels, classically set out in Needham’s Order and Life (1936). The whole organism, he argued, could not be fully grasped at any one of the lower levels of increasing size and complexity – the molecular, macromolecular, cells, tissues etc – and new modes of behaviour emerged at each level which could not be interpreted adequately in terms of those below or at all, except in their relations. As he wrote in Order and Life, ‘The hierarchy of relations from the molecular structure of carbon to the equilibrium of the species and the ecological whole, will perhaps be the leading idea of the future.’ Process, hierarchy and interaction were the key to a reality that could be understood only as a complex whole.

And – though one would not discover this from Winchester’s book – this view drew him towards the country and civilisation to which he devoted the rest of his life. China was the dialectical home of Yin and Yang, of an ‘extreme disinclination to separate spirit and matter’, as Needham put it, of a philosophy which, it has been well said, saw the cosmos as a vast symphony that composed itself and within which other lesser symphonies took shape. He knew too much about Chinese reality to see it, in George Steiner’s phrase, as a place where ‘utopia was concrete’, still less to see himself, in the fashion of a 20th-century Marco Polo, as a mere bringer of amazing news from foreign parts to a West that had allowed much of the 18th-century thinkers’ intellectual respect for China to evaporate in the century of European world triumph.

Needham loved and admired China and the Chinese but, oddly, his heart went out to the imperial past rather than to the revolutionary present to which he was committed and which he defended (though he seems to have become a critic of Mao’s policies in the 1970s, even before the death of the Great Helmsman). He felt at home not only with the Chinese view of nature so lovingly reconstructed in Science and Civilisation in China but with a civilisation based on morality without supernaturalism, a great culture where the doctrine of original sin didn’t prevail and a country where no priesthood had ever dominated. It was admirable even in ‘the ancient right of rebellion, so characteristic a doctrine of the Confucian scholars … enunciated by the scholars of the Chou dynasty’. He saw in China not an ‘Oriental despotism’ – a phrase that had, he thought, been invented by 18th-century French thinkers who compared it to European absolutism – but in terms of ‘that democratic duality of life … which has been experienced by all those who have known Chinese society at first hand’.

Above all he cherished the tradition of the old scholar-gentry, recruited by examination to form the cadres of government in medieval China but which also collectively formed ‘a public opinion’ of Confucian scholars who ‘never lost their independent ideological authority’ and a capacity to resist imperial attacks on traditionally accepted values. What Western system could have found a place in its government for the equivalent of Blake, or Giordano Bruno, or Faraday? Characteristically, this defence of the Chinese tradition – few are more heartfelt – appeared in an American Marxist journal in a lengthy critique of an ex-Communist’s volume on Oriental Despotism, which Needham correctly dismissed as a jumbo-sized Cold War pamphlet and ‘the greatest disservice which has yet been done to the objective study of the history of China’. As he wore his newly acquired traditional scholar’s gown in blue silk on his arduous travels through wartime China, Needham was obviously conscious of his affinity with such mandarins. And yet the crux of his worldview was precisely the irreversible historical break with the past that ended China’s long era of technological superiority – which Science and Civilisation in China tried to explain, though not to everyone’s satisfaction. Indeed, the debate on these questions still continues.

What happened after the rise of modern natural science c.1600 could not be like what came before, with the result that ‘both capitalist and socialist societies today are in qualitatively different situations from all preceding societies.’ There was no way back to the past, but there was a way forward. Needham never abandoned his belief in potential progress. Science and technology did not create the good society, but the tools that could bring it about, not least in China. ‘This is perhaps the promised peace on earth, and whoever puts first the real needs of real people will inherit it.’ All the same, Needham will not be remembered for his passionate longing for a better human future, or even for his biology-inspired organic Marxism, but for his extraordinary achievement in exploring and re-creating a past. Yet he remains a neglected thinker, remembered only in textbooks of developmental biology, and still awaits a biographer with a fuller understanding than Winchester’s of a remarkable man and the times and contexts that made him.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 31 No. 5 · 12 March 2009

In his article on Joseph Needham, Eric Hobsbawm quotes without challenging it J.B.S. Haldane’s view that Shelley and Keats were the last poets to be abreast of developments in chemistry (LRB, 26 February). He must have forgotten Auden. When he states that the leading group of poets in the 1930s, ‘other perhaps than Empson, seem to have had no sense of living in an era of scientific wonders’, he should have included Auden in the exemption.

Auden went to Oxford with an exhibition in biology, having studied chemistry, botany and zoology in the ‘science sixth’ at Gresham’s School in Holt. He wrote in a review in the New Yorker in the 1960s that he had never regretted this. His school, almost alone at the time (the 1920s), gave science pride of place in the curriculum, and its very liberal regime allowed pupils to develop wide-ranging interests. For example, in 1925, his final year, Auden gave a lecture on ‘Enzyme Action’ to the school’s Natural History Society (to which more than half the school and large numbers of staff belonged). The catalytic properties of enzymes had been discovered in 1893 but it was not confirmed that they were proteins until 1926. His writing frequently demonstrated his knowlege of scientific concepts and terminology and his engagement with new scientific thinking. A colleague at Christ Church when Auden was in his sixties noted that the only journal he read regularly was Scientific American.

Hugh Wright

Vol. 31 No. 8 · 30 April 2009

I think I must be the colleague of Auden to whom Hugh Wright refers in his letter about Auden’s involvement in science at Christ Church in the early 1970s (Letters, 12 March). Auden did indeed read Scientific American. He even published in it. In the December 1972 issue, G.S. Stent had an article entitled ‘Prematurity and Uniqueness in Scientific Discovery’. After discussing it with me – I was a scientist at Christ Church at the time – and maybe with others, Auden sent a letter to the paper in reply to Stent’s article. It appeared in the issue of March 1973.

Roger Mallion

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences