Exercises for a Third Eye
Dick Hillenius wrote on biological subjects with an infectious enthusiasm and single-mindedness that are rare in research scientists. He was passionate about frogs, toads, and chameleons, but wrote with equal facility about music, literature and the visual arts. It would not have taken much for him to become a composer. He was a great sceptic, convinced that the whole of science is hypothetical and that the truth keeps shifting. He conducted mental experiments, broached new themes in an original way and was always keen to connect what was still unconnected.
Hillenius mustered his arguments in a fine literary style, hard to achieve by critical scientists. Above all, you read Hillenius for his originality and approach. ‘Let me tell you something about shrimps,’ he wrote on one occasion. He continued with an amusing passage about the origins of a most primitive nervous system: ‘Sea-urchins, starfish and sea cucumbers live a bleak existence, having crept over the bottom of the sea or having burrowed in it for thousands of millions of years. Their larvae by contrast, equipped with flapping and decorative fringe appendages, can move right up to the surface of the sea. It was probably from one such larva, loath to grow into the grubby state of its parents, that the first sea squirts originated. Not the most brilliant solution. But this form contained the beginnings of a nervous system from which our own could eventually emerge.’
In much of his work you can feel the fear of commitment, the fear of becoming part of the bureaucratic machinery, the fear of adapting oneself to the prevailing approach. Hillenius disliked being patronised as much as he disliked opinionated teachers who had long since stopped teaching anybody anything. To escape from their clutches was a matter of great importance to Hillenius, who would go on forays into virgin territory, a splendid way of tickling the senses with new stimuli.
‘As far as human beings are concerned, their evolution is subject to two great mechanisms, Mendel’s laws and humane attitudes. I used to think that the reason why, after the discovery of his famous laws, Mendel suddenly stopped making further experiments and spent the rest of his life pondering over sacred texts, was that he was afraid of the consequences. Much as so many Catholics or Platonists like to harp on the fact that we can carry science too far - just think of Duinkerken’s peeled onion, all the layers have been stripped away and nothing remains but tears.’ That was a view with which Hillenius most certainly disagreed. He believed that we must try to get to know as much as we can.