Human Instinct – Robert Winston

Human InstinctThey say you should never meet your heroes and sadly my recent experience suggests that the old adage is wise advice indeed.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, Professor Robert Lord Winston is something of an institution is the scientific world. He is a pioneer in the world of assisted reproduction having been a key player in the ongoing development of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and other reproductive technologies and is also a familiar face to many BBC viewers mostly thanks to his landmark series Child Of Our Time which is following 25 children from birth to the age of 20 with annual updates.

Being a notable face in the biological field it is natural that Winston became something of an inspiration to me and I followed a number of his programmes avidly. Therefore I was incredibly excited when I heard he was going to be giving an open lecture at the University of Manchester when I was doing my BSc and I along with a few of my friends could be found outside the lecture theatre a good two hours before he was scheduled to speak.

Unfortunately I found the lecture very disappointing, charming and enigmatic on TV, Winston was very different in real life and fumbled his way through the hour-long lecture.

I’ve since seen him speak on two other occasions and both times been disappointed. It doesn’t help that at one of those lectures I asked a question which related to my work and he told me I’m wasting my time. Not something one wants to hear from such a distinguished figure. He was also very brusque when I actually met him (although he did sign a knitted fish but that’s another story).

Still, despite these grievances when I found a picture of Professor Winston’s book Human Instinct for £1.99 in my local Oxfam I decided to give his writing another chance.

Given the gist of this post so far I doubt it will come as much of a surprise to say that I was let down again. The book which aims to explain why we do the things we do and why, according to Winston, all those things are due to our sexual urges, was in actual fact a skimming of the surface of human instinct with a peppering of anecdotes and very limited scientific discussion.

Now I realise that this book was written for a lay audience and that I probably don’t count as lay since I have one biological degree and am pursuing another, but still I feel the lack of depth to any subject or idea was insulting. It’s all very well to give anecdotal evidence and only a brief overview of scientific studies but where was the consideration of the other point of view? And why was there only one piece of evidence for each idea? These are basic ideas that even the most inexperienced scientist is taught to address not to mention most non-scientific writers.

I also found that the flow of the book was deeply disjointed so that we jumped from concept to concept almost at will with nothing but a pithy subheading to guide us.

And I won’t even mention the name-dropping. I mean I know Winston is a leader in his field and no doubt he is acquainted with some of the world’s top minds but please “I was standing in the middle of the Sahara filming for the BBC when Richard Dawkins called me”? I mean really?!

Oh damn, I mentioned it.

I’m sorry to sound so scathing and it is possibly magnified because of my own scientific background but I was intensely disappointed by this book and I feel the urge to prevent others from similar disappointment.

There are many hundreds of fantastic science writers out there who can communicate with a lay audience and explain complicated concepts without being patronising or overly simplistic and I was surprised and honestly gutted to find that off-screen Professor Winston is not one of them.

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