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assorted reflections from the urbane society for sceptical romantics

why is evolution true? (if it is): part two, the problem of macroevolution

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Fig-8-9-Chimp-Skeletons

So, in Darwin’s day, there was a clear problem. Fossilised bones turning up everywhere, sometimes of gigantic creatures unlike anything on earth, sometimes of creatures very like those then living but not quite the same – in any case all indicating change, change, change. And there were many other oddities, some of them observed by Darwin himself on his Beagle voyage. Marine fossils embedded in landscapes way above sea level. Darwin had a great interest in geology, courtesy of Charles Lyell, whose landmark work, Principles of Geology, he carried with him on his great voyage. He was very interested in Lyell’s view, derived from Hutton, that landscapes changed slowly, with mountains rising from the sea, over periods of time much greater than the biblical account. So imagine his mind, full of Lyell’s speculations, when on March 4 1835 he was exploring the cliffs above Talcuhano Harbour, near Concepcion in Chile, shortly after the devastating earthquake, and found maases of seashells embedded in the rock. The Andes had risen from the sea, surely! Yet he might well have been in two minds – slow change, yes, perhaps, but the earthquake had also changed the physical landscape in an instant, bringing rocks dripping and oozing with marine life up several feet above the sea surface…

Meanwhile, dinosaurs. Of course the bones of these critters have been unearthed for millenia, but it was only in the early nineteenth century that they were treated scientifically. It was Richard Owen, later to become Darwin’s bête noir, who coined the term in 1842 (it’s from the Greek, roughly meaning ‘terrible lizard’ though dinos weren’t lizards, and they weren’t all terrible, or terribly large). These huge beasts (dinos come in all sizes, but large bones are more easily preserved than small ones, giving a false picture, and of course bigness grabs the public imagination) had clearly disappeared, but when? Why? How long ago? It all made the question of the earth’s actual age and history rather more urgent.

Darwin, back in England after a richly stimulating voyage in which he’d collected and ruminated over a vast number of exotic species, was exercised by a number of problems. Why did whole species disappear? Surely this had some connection with changes of landscape and habitat? He’d been making observations with regard to predators and prey, how species depended on other species, how individuals competed for mates. It seems that, unlike Wallace who came upon the insight of natural selection more or less in one fell swoop years later, Darwin was piecing things together painfully slowly, with hesitation, scepticism and uncertainty, but also with a dogged accumulation of evidence, so that when, finally, impelled by the famous letter from Wallace in the late 1850s to express his views, he was able to do so fulsomely, in spite of a lack of writerly ability. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The theory of natural selection is the most spectacularly successful and productive theory in biology, and is in fact its foundation stone. It has been reinforced by all that has been discovered since, especially in genetics and microbiology, fields that didn’t exist in Darwin’s time. The basis of the theory is quite simple, though it has been much misrepresented. Creatures reproduce, and generally the offspring are pretty well identical to the parents, but sometimes mutations occur. The offspring is in some way different. Usually the difference is ‘negative’, disadvantaging the offspring. The offspring is thus unable to reproduce and its line dies out. Sometimes the difference is ‘neutral’ and the line continues to reproduce, until or unless natural (environmental) conditions change and that line becomes either positive or negative within the context of those conditions. In other words it thrives compared to others or it dies out. Sometimes the difference is immediately positive, and this line outcompetes the others. The variation is random, but the natural environment ‘selects’ the best fit – the birds with the best beak for pecking out food; the worms with the best chemistry for thriving in a particular soil; in more recent times, the bacteria that can best resist the antibiotics we throw at them.

So the theory of natural selection describes incremental, gradual change. Its effect upon species is more difficult to explain, and it’s with this that creationists like to play, raising lots of dust and fog with respect to the species concept.

So what exactly is a species? The first more or less universally accepted classification of living things into groups was that of Linnaeus in his Systema naturae of 1735. It was a thoroughgoing system, from kingdom at the top, ranging down through phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. It’s still used today, of course, with various additions intercalated with these layers, but in the 20th century a new taxonomic system called cladistics, based on a more scientific understanding of descent from common ancestry, and so incorporating the new science of genetics, has won increasing favour.

One of the main reasons for this new development is that the term ‘species’ has historically been  frustratingly vague. Originally it was based on morphological characteristics – in other words, visible similarities. Nowadays, though, with the emergence of population genetics and genomics, we can be more rigorous about species and speciation. Basically, a species becomes separated from another when it no longer breeds with that other. More often than not, this is due to geographic separation. Early on in the separation interbreeding is still possible, but over time, with continued lack of opportunity, the two groups become increasingly distinct and unlike (and one or both groups may go extinct). This branching has of course occurred oodles of times, creating an evolutionary bush, each twig of which can be traced back to the original stem.

So far, so clear, I hope. So where do the creationist terms micro-evolution and macro-evolution come in? Well, off the top of my head, I think that, since creationists really really dislike the theory of natural selection as presented by Darwin, they have to account for obvious changes somehow without abandoning divine creation, especially of humans, as soul-blessed, dominion-holding, image-of-god types. So, they distinguish micro-evolution, changes within species (e.g. different breeds of dogs) from macro-evolution, transformations from one species to another, which they claim doesn’t exist. Presumably they think that every species was specially created by their god, though why he should have created so many and rendered the vast majority of them extinct before humans even came on the scene is a mystery. This points up a major problem for those who believe in directed evolution as well as creationism.

Okay, to be clear, micro-evolution and macro-evolution aren’t terms invented by creationists, though they’ve taken to them like babies to their mothers’ milk. The terms were first used by evolutionary biologists early in the 20th century to characterise not different processes but different scales of evolution. Micro-evolution plus time (in which minute changes accumulate) equals macro-evolution. Creationists, then, are reduced to claiming that, because we don’t ‘see’ speciation, it doesn’t exist. Presumably they can say the same for the big bang and black holes, but we can detect such objects and events through increasingly precise instrumentation, and we can pretty well map the relations between species, and the branchings-off, by examining genomes. They tell us, for example, that we share an ancestor with our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos, dating back between 5 and 7 million years ago. We are equally related to these two species because they branched off from each other later, between one and a half and two million years ago. Richard Dawkins, in his monumental work The Ancestors’ Tale, attempted to trace these nodes of connections between the ancestors of humans and other species, back to the first life forms. There are gaps in our knowledge of course, but they’re being filled in on an almost daily basis.

As Dawkins points out in another of his books, River out of Eden, the DNA ‘revolution’ that got underway as a result of Watson and Crick’s unravelling of the molecular structure of the gene, is a digital revolution. The genetic code is quaternary, with four nucleotide elements – adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine which can be combined in specific ways. Therefore the difference in the coding for different proteins, leading on the large scale to all the variation we see, can be worked out mathematically. This allows us to define more precisely our cousinship to other species – which are the more distant cousins, horses or pigs? Or, how closely connected are bees and butterflies? We can illustrate these relations using cladograms:

663px-Cladogram-example1

 

The technology we now have at our disposal allows us to map whole genomes increasingly cheaply and efficiently, and so we’re finding some surprising relationships. For example, recent DNA analysis has revealed that falcons, previously thought for fairly obvious reasons to be closely related to other birds of prey such as eagles, are in fact more closely related to parrots, songbirds and passerines such as the humble sparrow – a significant shift in taxonomic placement.

The obvious connections between species, and the fact that we can draw the evolutionary bush with increasing confidence, makes a mockery of creationist claims against natural selection, which not only explains speciation but also extinction. We may not know exactly why the neanderthals, or the trilobites, or the Australian megafauna died out, but natural selection points us in the right direction for answers – climate change, food scarcity and the introduction of new predators into the environment being the obvious candidates. The creationist, on the other hand needs to answer the question – why would their god keep creating these species, endlessly, only to have them snuffed out? No answers about the opacity of their god’s intentions are acceptable. And of course that’s far from being the only question they can’t answer.

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2015 at 5:14 pm

why is evolution true? (if it is): part one, the problem of fixity

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some Galapagos finches

some Galapagos finches

Much of my writing, especially about sciency stuff, is an attempt to own the knowledge. It’s perhaps never completely successful, especially for the non-specialist, the dilettante, who tries to own so much and to keep all those possessions together. You read about it, you cast it in your own words, you grasp it, you think you’ve grasped it completely, you move on to other things, and six months later you’re asked a curly question and in trying to answer it you find you’ve forgotten the half of it, and you wonder – did I ever really understand it after all?

So. We have the theory of evolution, or natural selection from random variation, and we have the theories of special and general relativity and quantum theory and so forth. And we have those in science who tell us that ‘theory’ is a technical term constantly misunderstood by the general public and deliberately misconstrued by those with particular agendas. And we have general talk and a lot of general ignorance about evolution.

Several years ago, when I was starting out as a teacher of ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) I observed a small community centre English class. The elderly teacher was asked by a well-dressed middle-aged African man, did she really think evolution – that we were descended from monkeys – was true? It was a polite, puzzled question. The teacher, understandably not wanting to dive down that rabbit hole, replied, ‘well, you know, it’s just a theory’, and the subject was changed. It unsettled me, to put mildly. It’s not how I would’ve dealt with the matter, and in fact I’ve twice since been placed in that position in recent times, and I’ve responded with ‘oh yes, it’s true, the evidence is in and it’s overwhelming,’ or words to that effect. Bam bam, take that and let’s back to grammar.

But of course, that response, too, is unsettling. After all, I could’ve given the exact same response to the question ‘Does God exist?’. It was just saying, an argument from my own authority.

Of course I had back-up from years of science and evolution-reading, but still I felt I was just imposing my authority as a teacher. I half-hoped for and half-dreaded being asked to elaborate.

The other night, at an atheist meet-up, the group was ‘invaded’ by three or four young street-preachers, self-confessed fundies who were apparently keen to debate evolution (they didn’t believe in it) and cosmology (the universe can’t create itself, ergo god). I didn’t engage with them myself, as I’m still recovering from a chest infection and want to avoid stress, but things got very heated over in their corner and I’ve since received an email asking for help to convince one of them of the evidence for evolution. It may be that the young man’s ignorance is wilful, but maybe not, and in any case it provides me with a useful opportunity to answer as best I can the title question.

Questions were raised about the fixity of species well before Charles Darwin was born. The most important figures in this early questioning of orthodoxy came from France. One of the founders of naturalism, Buffon, speculated that the earth might be much older than the standard biblical 6000 years, and that change, both geological and organic, might be endemic and constant. He mostly kept his views to himself, as the idea that the earth was maybe more than ten times older than the accepted figure was incendiary for the time. Lamarck, however, was the first to really go public with a theory of evolution. His essential view was that creatures adapted to their environment over time through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Although he was generally incorrect as to his mechanism there is still some interest in his ideas today, but above all Lamarck strongly influenced future thinking on the subject as he was a first-rate scientist.

It should be noted though that all this speculation was brought on by the problems posed by evidence. The biblical fixity of species account was becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with the discoveries of fossils of creatures not to be found anywhere, yet apparently related to current species. And then there were the fossils of ‘giants’, which had been discovered here and there for centuries, but which were not described scientifically until the nineteenth century. How could all these remains of  ‘disappeared’ creatures be turning up in a world where creation was fixed? The most popular explanation was ‘catastrophism’, a view held by Cuvier, a younger contemporary of Lamarck and one of his strongest critics. It was an attempt to reconcile fixity with a conveniently biblical diluvian view, but it continued to move thinking in a scientific, evidence-based direction.

Meanwhile, however, other fields of research, such as geology, were also becoming increasingly scientific, especially in Britain, with the work of Hutton and Lyell. Through inference from present conditions, they developed a gradualist, uniformitarian theory of physical change, with a more open-ended view of the earth’s age. This was the scientific background to Darwin’s naturalism. His own grandfather, Erasmus, dabbled in evolutionary ideas, and proposed that the earth had existed for ‘millions of ages’.

Now I know there’s a view out there among fundamentalists called ‘young earth creationism’, but I don’t know much about it. It would seem to be an absolutely crackpot notion, a denial of modern geology, astronomy and cosmology as well as biology and palaeontology, and I presume people who think this way consider the whole of modern science a massive conspiracy theory. How could they not? Yet the young man mentioned above has suggested we go and see a lecture by John Hartnett, an Adelaide University Associate Professor of Physics who’s also a young earth creationist. How could this be? Well I know something of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, but still I can barely imagine what he would say to justify his worldview, and I’m not really interested in trying to rebut his specific arguments, if he has them. These people tend to have martyr complexes about their positions, and I suspect they’d be happy to spend hours trying to bamboozle you. The main thing is to be clear about your own understanding of the evidence.

However, I also have an interest in the psychology of belief. Take the case of Hartnett, which I can only speculate about, but this is an obviously intelligent person who has apparently written scientific papers on dark matter and other aspects of cosmology and astrophysics. He knows, surely, how vast the universe is, that the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbour, is a barely-conceivable 2.5 million light years away, and there are billions of them beyond that, and yet he manages to square this with a six-day creation 6,000 years ago because it was written down by someone and collected much later with a whole mess of other writings by other people, compiled into a book and pronounced ‘holy’. Surely such thinking is more of a mystery than the gods themselves?

I can only speculate again, but Hartnett’s middle name is Gideon, a name inevitably associated with bible-bashing. Can it be that a person gets locked in, from earliest childhood, to a religious schema that they would never think to escape from, no matter how intelligent they are? Can cultural-familial influences have such a vice-like grip? Apparently so, but it’s unusual for someone to be regularly crossing the boundary between a rigid and dogmatic religious belief system and a highly speculative, often free-wheeling but rational and profoundly naturalist enterprise in the way that Hartnett must do. Ain’t people fascinating?

I’ve just read an article about rapid speciation among cichlid fishes in the African lakes. The authors note that this speciation, involving some 500 new species in Lake Victoria, has taken place over less than 15,000 years, unlike the famous speciation among ‘Darwin’s’ finches in the Galapagos (14 species, several million years). It’s called adaptive radiation, where ‘one lineage spawns numerous species that evolve specialisations to an array of ecological niches’, to quote Axel Meyer, writing in the April 2015 edition of Scientific American.

Yet this rapid speciation is still too much for young earth creationists, who believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. What they make of stromatolites is anyone’s guess. Note that the term ‘earth’ is central, and presumably the universe or multiverse is of little concern to them, existing perhaps only as a fireworks show for our delectation.

As an Australian, this is all good for a laugh – though some Australians, such as John Hartnett, are full-on believers of a six-day creation a few thousand years ago – but apparently in the USA a substantial proportion of their very large population actually believes this (though to be honest, I can’t bring myself to believe the survey figures).

So, I wonder how I would deal with these young-turk young earth creationists who come to our atheist meet-ups spoiling for an argument. My hope is that I would have the wherewithal to ask these questions.

Is it your hope to convert the whole world to your view?

If you were successful, wouldn’t science classes be a lot shorter?

What would you do with those who insisted on being heretical? Preaching that the universe has existed for 13 billion years? Would you have them liquidated, or just permanently incarcerated? How about public recantations?

How come your god allowed us to be led astray by the evidence into getting it so wrong?

What would science be like if young earth creationists controlled all the levers of power? What would scientists do?

Of course I’m yet to hear what young earth creationists, many of whom are apparently highly intelligent, have to say about star formation, black holes and the big bang. They may well have the talent to bamboozle me with ingenious arguments. In the end, though, the best argument is to just keep doing the science, following the evidence. As long as we’re still allowed to.

Meanwhile, I haven’t yet answered the question – why is evolution (or more specifically, natural selection of random variation) true? But before I answer that, I believe that creationists do accept evolution of a particular kind, and distinguish between ‘micro-evolution’ and ‘micro-evolution’. I’ll pay some attention to that – but perhaps not too much – in my next post.

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2015 at 6:56 am

it’s all about evidence, part 2: acupuncture and cupping

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a picture of health

a picture of health

Okay, having been sick myself with my usual bronchial issues, I haven’t made much progress on researching the ‘alternative’ treatments offered by Wesley Smith and his colleagues at the Wellness Centre. I must admit, too, that I’ve found it a bit depressing focusing on these negatives, so I’ve been working a bit on my Solutions OK blog (a few posts still in preparation) which focuses on being positive about global issues.

So before briefly dealing with acupuncture, I’ve discovered accidentally through looking up Mr Smith that ‘wellness centres’ or ‘total wellness centres’ are everywhere around the western world, including at least one more in Canberra itself. It seems that this is a moniker agreed on by practitioners of holistic medical pseudoscience world-wide, to create a sense of medical practice while avoiding the thorny issue of medicine and what it actually means. But maybe it does partially mean treating people kindly? I’m all for that. Laughter is often quite good medicine, especially for chronic rather than acute ailments.

It’s an interesting point – ‘alternative’ medicine is on the rise in the west, and the WHO informs us that by 2020, due to its own great work and that of other science-based medical institutions, the proportion of chronic ailments to acute ones will have risen to over 3 to 1. It’s in the area of chronic conditions that naturopathy comes into its own, because psychology plays a much greater part, and vague ‘toxins’ and dubious ‘balance’ assume greater significance. That’s why education and evidence is so important. There are a lot of people out there wanting to smile and seduce you out of your money.

Acupuncture 

There’s no reason to suppose acupuncture is anything other than pure placebo. It’s similar to homeopathy in that it proposes a treatment involving physical forces that, when tapped, can produce miraculous cures, and it’s also similar in that these forces have never been isolated or measured or even much researched. In the case of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, its inventor, conducted ‘research’, but with no apparent rigour. See this excellent examination of his approach.

Acupuncture posits Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) as an energy force – apparently invisible and undetectable by mere science – which operates under the skin and is ‘strongest’ at certain nodes where experts insert needles to stimulate it. There’s not much agreement as to where exactly these nodes are, how many there are, or how deep under the skin they’re to be found. Is everybody’s Qi the same? Is the Qi of other mammals identical? If you haven’t enough Qi, can you have a Qi transfusion, or will you be contaminated by the wrong Qi and suffer a horrible death? Amazingly, acupuncture practitioners have no interest whatever in these life and death questions. Why has nobody thought to operate on a patient and withdraw a sample of her Qi, considering that the stuff has been known about since ancient times? It’s a puzzlement. And with that I’ll say no more about acupuncture.

Cupping

Cupping, or cupping therapy, is fairly new to me – I mean I’ve heard about it over the years but I’ve never bothered to research it. It was apparently used in Egypt 3,000 years ago, and it’s considered a part of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). How it got from Egypt to China is anyone’s guess, but when used there, it’s associated with our old friend, the non-existent Qi. Yes, according to TCM, much disease is due to blocked Qi, and cupping is one way to fix it.

Briefly, there are two kinds of cupping, wet and dry, with wet cupping being the more ‘invasive’ and used for more acute treatments. The idea is to create a vacuum which draws the skin up in the cup and increases the blood flow. The cup, or the air inside it, is heated, and when the cup is applied to the skin and allowed to cool, the air contracts, ‘sucking up’ the skin. With wet cupping the skin is actually punctured, so that those nasty but never-quite-indentifial ‘toxins’ can ooze out. By the way, next time you go to your naturopath to get your toxins removed, ask them for a sample, and don’t forget to ask them to name those toxins. Perhaps you could look at them under a microscope together.

There’s very little in the way in the way of evidence to support the effectiveness of cupping, and as you might expect, the best ‘evidence’ comes from the most poorly controlled trials. Serious and obviously dangerous claims have been made that cupping can cure cancer. Here’s the American Cancer Society’s response:

“There is no scientific evidence that cupping leads to any health benefits….No research or clinical studies have been done on cupping. Any reports of successful treatment with cupping are anecdotal. There is no scientific evidence that cupping can cure cancer or any other disease.” 

If cupping was effective, this would be easily provable. No proof has been offered in thousands of years, and there’s no credible scientific mechanism associated with the treatment. You’ve been warned. It’s your money. Why hand it over to these parasites?

was the invasion of Iraq justified?

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iraq-war-not-worth-cost.si

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

In 2003 I protested against the impending attack on Iraq, along with so many others, though I don’t like being involved in mass protests, because they tend to over-simplify the response. A lot of the protesters were saying things I didn’t agree with, as is often the case. For example, some were using the national sovereignty argument, which I have little time for. Others were saying that war is always wrong, but I think war can be justified if it results in less harm than non-intervention, though this isn’t always easy to determine. As a humanist, I don’t think national or cultural boundaries should interfere with what we owe, ethically, to others, though I recognise as a pragmatic fact that they often do.

To me, the Iraq invasion has always been a clear-cut case of a criminal act, resulting in a loss of life – hardly unforeseeable – far greater than that suffered by the USA on September 11 2001. Furthermore, the September 11 atrocities, without which the invasion clearly would never have occurred, were in no way connected to the Iraqi regime. In the lead-up to the invasion, at the time of the protests, I was incensed, like others, at the Bush regime’s bullying treatment of the weapons inspectors in Iraq, and Hans Blix in particular, because their findings didn’t fit with the story Washington was trying to sell. This bullying proliferated, of course, to the leaders of major European nations such as France and Germany. The response of the French government to the possibility of war still seemed to me the most sensible and prescient one. In January of 2003, their foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin said ‘We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution’, even though the French government felt at the time that Iraq wasn’t being truthful about WMD. In an impassioned speech to the Security Council only a few weeks later, Villepin spoke of the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region”, whose overwhelmingly Moslem inhabitants had sound historical reasons for suspecting and wanting to resist western interventions. He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace”. He also reported on the intelligence of France and its allies, which failed comprehensively to support links between al-Qaeda and Hussein’s regime. Of course, Villepin’s speech was roundly rejected and disparaged by the US and UK leadership, and the rest is the history we’re making and trying to make sense of today.

I’m returning to the subject for two reasons – a philosophical summary of pacifism and just war theory in a recent issue of Philosophy Now magazine (issue 102), and the views of British leftist but pro-Iraq war writers such as Nick Cohen.

In 2006, a document called the Euston Manifesto was produced in Britain. A leftist document, it was designed to draw the line against what its authors and signatories claimed to be an overly-indulgent, cultural relativist tendency in a large sector of the leftist commentariat. The document focused largely on the positives – upholding human rights, freedom of expression, pluralism, liberalism, historical truth, the heritage of democracy, internationalism and equality. It expressed opposition to tyranny and terrorism, racism, misogyny and censorship. In more specific terms, it supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and opposed anti-Americanism – though in a somewhat backhanded way:

That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.

This is all outlined in the manifesto’s ‘statement of principles’ (section B), none of which I have any issue with. Section C, ‘elaborations’, addresses the Iraq war, inter alia, and is a little more problematic. Just before the Iraq campaign is dealt with there’s a paragraph on the September 11 attacks, which is uncompromisingly hostile to the view that it could be in any way justified as payback for US policy in the Middle East. Again I completely agree.

The paragraph that follows is interesting, and I will quote it in full, always remembering that it was written in 2006, before the execution of Saddam Hussein, and not long after the first parliamentary elections. Much has changed since then, with Iraqi governments becoming less democratic, and the contours of instability constantly changing.

The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change. We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.

Since this post is precisely about the arguments over intervention, I should say something in justification of my writing it. While we can’t predict precisely the outcome of an intervention or invasion or liberation (words are so important here), there are often broad and quite obvious signs to indicate whether such an event will advantage or disadvantage the targeted population. In analysing these signs we utilise history (or we should do) – that’s to say, we pick through the rubble of previous experiences of intervention. The question of whether the invasion (or whatever you choose to call it) of Iraq was justified is therefore a question about the future as well as the past. How, in the future, and in the present, should we, as humanists, deal with oppressive, reactionary, murderous regimes, such as exist today in North Korea, in Myanmar, and in the wannabe state of ‘the caliphate’? Not to mention so many other dictatorial regimes whose likely ‘murderousness’ is hard to get data on, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Asian and African tyrannies large and small.

I also have a quibble with the view that all good liberal leftists, regardless of their position before the war, should jump on board with the invaders to ‘remake’ Iraq into a democracy. The obvious problem with this view is that many of the anti-war protesters were concerned, and deeply so, that the reason for the invasion wasn’t democracy-building. The stated reason for the invasion, after all, was a defensive one; getting rid of WMDs to make the world a safer place. Other reasons were suspected, including simple restoration of US pride, and economic exploitation. The bullishness of the invasion rhetoric didn’t sound much like an attempt at democracy-building.

But I think the overwhelming reason for this deep concern  –  it was certainly my concern – was the suffering and harm that the invasion and aftermath would inflict on the people of Iraq. Nations invaded by foreigners tend to fight back, regardless of how much of a basket case the invaders think the nation is. This is even more the case when the ‘liberators’ are seen as having values antithetical to the target nation. Think of the consternation caused by the threatened invasion of England by the Spanish in the 1580s, or the French in the early 1800s, surely mild compared to that felt by the overwhelmingly Moslem Iraqis, fed for decades on tales of western decadence and double-dealing. An invasion would be fought bitterly, Hussein or no Hussein, and democracy isn’t the sort of thing to be imposed from above. So it’s understandable that those opposed to the invasion, and crushed by their failure to stop it, didn’t rush to join hands with those whose motives they so distrusted in an enthusiastic experiment in nation-restructuring.

I’m no pacifist,  and I’m concerned and demoralised by brutal dictatorships everywhere – many of which we know little about. I would like to see interventions wherever murder and oppression are the weapons of state control, but that’s a big ask, and where do we start, and how do we do it? Warfare is one of the most problematic options, but will a siege of sanctions be effective? A united, internationalist front which will offer credible threats – desist and democratise or else? And should we start with the tinpot dictatorships and work our way up to the giants? Which leads back to the question, why Iraq in the first place?

Muddled motives and intentions lead inevitably to muddled and contradictory outcomes. Indeed the stated motive for the intervention, dismantling WMDs and making the rest of the world a safer place, didn’t consider the Iraqi people directly at all. On that basis alone, the war could hardly be justified, because it was clear that even if Hussein’s weapons existed, they were not an imminent threat, with the dictator doing everything in his power to placate the west. Hussein was brutal and nasty, but his instinct for self-preservation was paramount, and it was clear in the last days of his regime that he was saving his sabre-rattling for his domestic audience while bending over backwards to comply with international demands.

One argument being put at the time was that anything was better than Saddam. But is this really the case? Consider two polar scenarios; a failed state in which there are no government regulations, and no police or legal institutions, an anarchic free-for-all; or a rigid dictatorship in which freedom is highly circumscribed and much that we value in life is sacrificed just for survival. Which is better? Well, with that very slight sketch it’s impossible to judge, but neither is very palatable. In the case of Iraq it would be comparing a ‘known’ with an ‘unknown’. The result of deposing Saddam was unknown and poorly planned for, but clearly it would unleash violent forces, and we knew from organisations such as Human Rights Watch that the day-to-day dictatorship, though repressive, wasn’t murderous at the time of the invasion.

My concern then, was saving lives, or more broadly, minimising harm. One thing I’ve always loathed is the ‘big picture’ politics of certain world leaders who like to redraw maps and bring down regimes with grand strategies, with very little thought to the ordinary struggles for survival, the lives and loves of people who suffer the consequences of those grand plans – including death and destruction. Of course, harm minimisation is fiendishly difficult to quantify when you’re talking about such variables as freedom and opportunity, but at least we can try. Just war theory might help us with some guidelines.

Duane Cady, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Hamline University, Minnesota, provides a two-part outline of just war theory as currently understood. I’ll focus only on the first part, which seeks to answer the question – When is it justified to go to war?

Going to war justly requires meeting 6 conditions:

1. The war must be made on behalf of a just cause

2. The decision to go to war must be made by proper authorities

3. Participants must have a good intention rather than revenge or greed as their goal

4. It must be likely that peace will emerge after the war

5. Going to war must be a last resort

6.  The total amount of evil resulting from making war must be outweighed by the good likely to come of it.

I hardly need to go into detail to show that a number of these conditions were not met in the case of the Iraq venture, but I’ll briefly discuss each one.

For condition 1, if WMDs were the cause, then it wasn’t just, as there weren’t any, and the best intelligence showed this. Other causes, such as getting rid of a despot, bringing about democracy, lead to the question – why Iraq? Why not Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Why pick on any Middle Eastern country where western interference would be fiercely combatted?

For condition 2, there are supposed to be strict rules regarding such decisions, though of course they’re unenforceable. In September 2004, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan declared the Iraq invasion illegal from the point of view of the UN’s charter, presumably because of insufficient numbers in the Security Council agreeing to it. If you consider the UN the proper authority to make such final decisions – and if not what would be? – then condition 2 hasn’t been met.

Condition 3 goes to intentions, which might be muddled or concealed. My view is that revenge, or wounded pride, had much to do with it on the US side. People may disagree, but nobody can seriously argue that the Bush administrations’s intentions were clear and humane.

Condition 4 gives no timeline. ‘After’ is a long time, and peace might achieved at the cost of maximal loss of life. The condition is a little too vague to be useful. Certainly, a quick peace looked highly unlikely, and I think that was a major concern of protesters worldwide.

Condition 5 clearly wasn’t met. The term ‘last resort’ infers something else – a last resort before x occurs, that x being something catastrophic and to be avoided at all costs. Whether there was an x in Iraq’s case is highly questionable.

In the long view, I think, or fervently hope, condition 6 will be met, but that’s only because I’m a ‘better angels of our nature’ advocate, and anyway the lack of a time-frame attached to the condition renders it essentially meaningless. Is Europe now more humane and peaceful as a result of the Thirty Years’ War? To what degree is our greater tolerance of diversity a direct result of the Nazis’ homogenising race policies? There’s no doubt that the most horrible wars can result in massive lessons learnt, leading to accelerated positive outcomes, but that in no way justifies them.

 

So, okay, the Iraq war was a disaster. However, I thoroughly agree with Alex Garland, the writer and film-maker, who referred briefly to the war in   a recent Point of Inquiry interview. It’s too late to wonder about whether the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and it was essentially too late even when the protests began in 2003, as it had a horrible inevitability about it. Trying to work out the consequences, to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives, and to take responsibility for those consequences, is much more important. Particular nations, including Australia, imposed this invasion on the Iraqi people. Those nations, above all, should take most of the responsibility for the consequences. I don’t think that’s really happening at the moment.

Written by stewart henderson

May 30, 2015 at 10:53 am

it’s all about evidence – part 1

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I wrote an open letter to a homeopath recently, and received an interesting response, which I’ve promised to deal with publicly. My letter was sent by email at the same time that it was posted on this blog, and this was followed by another couple of emails back and forth. Here they are.

Wesley Smith to myself, April 13 2015

Hi Stewart

I thank you for the courtesy of bringing your article to my attention.

Can you please publish the following corrections to your blog:
To the best of my knowledge, Wesley Smith has never made any claim to be a medical practitioner and I wish to correct any inference in my article “An open letter to a Homeopath” that Wesley Smith misrepresented his qualifications or is not suitably qualified under Australian law to practice or write about complementary medicine. At the time of publishing I was unaware that Wesley Smith is a AHPRA registered Chinese Medicine practitioner (CMR0001709253). Furthermore I withdraw any implication that the phrase “the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired” may suggest that Wesley is not of sound mind, or is not fit to either educate people about or practice complementary medicine. Furthermore I acknowledge that I have no knowledge of the appropriateness or otherwise of the qualifications of any of the practitioners at the Live Well Spa & Wellness Centre and therefore I withdraw any inference that any of Live Well’s practitioners may be practicing in their chosen fields without appropriate qualifications.

Stewart I have absolutely no interest in debating you, please advise me when you have published the corrections.

Kind regards
Wesley

Myself to Wesley Smith, April 18 2015

Hello Wesley
At no place in my blog post did I write that you claimed to be a medical practitioner, I simply pointed out that you were not one, as far as I could ascertain. Whether you (or your colleagues) are permitted under law to practise complementary medicine is neither here nor there, and I didn’t address that matter in my article. My concern is to point out that homeopathy is not a valid treatment, a view with which the NHMRC concurs. Nor are the other treatments I mentioned in my piece, none of which have scientific evidence to support them. I will of course not be making any changes to my article. Of course it doesn’t surprise me that you absolutely don’t want to debate me, as it would absolutely not be in your interest to do so.
Regards
Stewart Henderson

Wesley Smith to myself, April 20 2015

Hi Stewart

I would have had absolutely no concern if you kept your criticism focused on homeopathy or acupuncture. I don’t agree with you but I’m hardly going to loose sleep over that.

My concern is that you were lazy with your research and published your opinions as if they were fact. You also weakened your argument when you made it personal by disparaging me, Live Well and it’s practitioners. Not only is that sloppy writing and a lazy way to make an argument it is also defamation. I have given you the opportunity to make the appropriate corrections which you have rejected, therefore I will pursue the matter via legal action.

Stewart, my research into your background tells me that you have an arts degree, it’s interesting that you choose to write about a topic for which you seem to have no qualifications. Apparently you work, or have worked at Centacare in Adelaide? Their website homepage states “we believe that everyone has the right to be treated with respect and dignity.” Sounds like great advice and perhaps a tenet you personally would do well to reflect upon especially when dealing with people with whom you disagree.

Kind regards
Wesley

Myself to Wesley Smith, April 23 2015

Dear Wesley
Thanks for your response, which I will be posting in toto on my blog in the near future, together with my response. Your complete lack of interest in addressing the matter of evidence, which was clearly the issue of my blog post, is well noted. I don’t wish to have a private email correspondence with you, as I’m interested in complete transparency and openness. I’ll address all your ‘concerns’ on my blog, with my usual gusto and good humour.
Thanks
Stewart

So now we’re up to date, and I’ll try to suppress the sense of disgust and contempt I feel for this individual, and deal with the issues.

Firstly, let’s look at Wesley’s email number 1. It is, of course, intended to be threatening – ‘make these corrections to your blog, or else…’. The first ‘correction’ is to my ‘inference’ (it looks like old Wesley has been consulting a lawyer) that Wesley has been claiming to be a doctor when he isn’t. As I pointed out in my response, I made no such inference. The point is, when someone heads up an institution called the ‘Live Well Spa and Wellness Centre’, any reasonable soul might expect that individual to be a medical practitioner, working with a staff of medical practitioners. In fact that was exactly what I expected (oh and I think a court of law would agree, Wesley). Imagine my surprise when I found that there were no MDs on the premises!

The second ‘correction’ he wanted was the removal of the phrase ‘the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired’, because it suggested he wasn’t of sound mind. I’ll look more closely at that ‘depth of crazy’ shortly, but first I’ll make the obvious point that people believe all sorts of crazy things (though they don’t usually make their living out of them) – that the moon landing was a fake, that September 11 was an inside job, that vaccines cause all sorts of diseases, etc, but we don’t think they should be committed, we just try to get them (usually unsuccessfully) to think more reasonably. I’ve tried to do this with Wesley by pointing out the absurdity of homeopathy from a scientific perspective – again unsuccessfully, because he’s completely unwilling to even discuss the matter.

When I wrote of the ‘depth of crazy’, I really meant it, and this is not my opinion. My opinion isn’t worth a pinch of shit, actually, and nor is Wesley’s. All that matters is EVIDENCE.

EVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCEEVIDENCE

Get it, Wesley?

So let’s do a review of the treatments Wesley’s clinic, or whatever he calls it, offers.

Homeopathy

I gave a fairly full account of homeopathy here, where I referenced Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, Chapter 4 of which gives an even more comprehensive account of the pseudoscience. I’ve also written more recently about it here, and of course in my criticism of Wesley Smith. I’ve also referenced Wikipedia’s excellent article on Homeopathy, and while I’m at it I’d like to defend Wikipedia as an excellent, and well-referenced source of reliable scientific information. If you feel unsure about what it presents, you can always check the references for original sources. I should remind readers, too, that Wikipedia has been put under pressure by practitioners of ‘holistic medicine’ to give more credence to their methods, and its founders and gatekeepers have heroically refused. I won’t go into detail here, but the story is well-presented by Orac on his Respectful Insolence blog.

So I’m not going to rehash the absurdity of homeopathy here, but since Wesley makes the claim that I was ‘lazy with my research’ and ‘published my opinions as if they were fact’ (when in fact I focused entirely on the NHMRC’s comprehensive and negative findings regarding the practice), I will give here a list of just some of the books, academic papers, scientific articles and government and medical society factsheets that report negatively on the multi-million dollar homeopathy industry, and pseudoscience in general, as well as the major figures in debunking medical pseudoscience. They’re in no particular order.

Dr Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, esp Chapter 4 ‘Homeopathy’ – Dr Goldsworthy works for the NHS in Britain and is a broadcaster, blogger and writer on science-based medicine

Raimo Tuomela, ‘Science, protoscience and pseudoscience’, in Rational changes in science.

Kevin Smith, ‘Homeopathy is unscientific and unethical’ Bioethics Vol 26, Issue 9 pp508-512, Nov 2012

Stephen Barrett, M.D, ‘Homeopathy, the ultimate fake’, on Quackwatch – a well-referenced site, but note the hilarious-sad reader responses!

Orac, aka Dr David Gorski – Gorski is a surgeon and scientist, and writer of the Respectful Insolence blog, which deals mostly with the health claims of pseudo-scientists. His posts on homeopathy are too numerous to mention here, just type in homeopathy on his blog.

Edzard Ernst, “A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy”, and “Homeopathy: what does the ‘best’ evidence tell us?’ – Ernst, a former professor of complementary medicine, has published innumerable articles on the subject in academic journals. He co-wrote Trick or treatment? with Simon Singh, which deals critically with homeopathy, acupuncture and various other pseudoscientific treatments. His emphasis on scientific evidence has made him many enemies among the CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) camp.

The Cochrane Collaboration – an independent, non-profit NGO – partnered since 2011 with the WHO – in which over 30,000 volunteers work together to provide the best healthcare evidence.

Shang et al, ”Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy”, The Lancet 366 (9487): 726–732 – This study, conducted by a number of scientific collaborators, is regarded as one of the best and most relevant studies available for proof of homeopathy’s lack of efficacy. To quote from its conclusion: ‘Biases are present in placebo-controlled trials of both homoeopathy and conventional medicine. When account was taken for these biases in the analysis, there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies, but strong evidence for specific effects of conventional interventions. This finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects’.

World Health Organisation – the WHO has warned against the use of homeopathy for major diseases, though, generally speaking it has taken a softly, softly approach to the pseudoscience, presumably for political reasons. Here and here are reports about the WHO’s warnings. 

NHMRC – Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council. It has conducted a comprehensive review of homeopathy, which I reported on in my criticism of Mr Smith’s ‘wellness centre’.

Science-based medicine and the FDA (the US Food and Drug administration). The Science-based medicine blog, contributed to by a number of writers, is dedicated to expose as quackery everything that Mr Smith and his ilk are promoting. The report linked to above criticises the FDA for abdication of responsibility in dealing with homeopathy. It also points out that American pharmacists are calling for tighter regulations. Homeopaths have had it too easy for too long. The FDA is finally beginning its own investigation into the pseudoscience.

I could go on – there are many many more articles and sites I could mention, but you get the point. Homeopathy is a joke, and there are many videos poking fun at its ‘science’ – for example, here, here and here. A movement designed to expose its fraudulence, the 10:23 campaign, had people ‘overdosing’ on homeopathic pills, which usually have warnings about dosage levels on the bottles(!) And yet we still have people buying into this shite – quite possibly in increasing numbers.

I don’t know Mr Smith personally. It might be that he’s a very nice if deluded fellow who treats his clients very well, adding to the placebo effect of his ‘remedies’. The placebo effect appears to be very real and we’ve only just begun to investigate its power. On the other hand, Mr Smith may be a charlatan who is cynically exploiting the vulnerability of his rich but deluded patients – his ‘wellness centre’ is in a leafy suburb of Canberra, not exactly the poorest region of Australia. Of course it’s more likely that he’s a bit of both – we deceive others best when we’ve already deceived ourselves.

However, to judge by his email responses, Wesley isn’t as much of a sincere believer as he should be, because he’s far far more concerned with protecting his reputation and with making threats, than with exploring the evidence, and thence, the further application of these homeopathic treatments (I mean, if the ‘like cures like, in infinitesimal doses’ system works, then why couldn’t it cure every cancer known to humans?). In my earlier post I suggested to him an exciting project of getting his fellow homeopaths and their satisfied clients together to ‘crowd fund’ research which would prove homeopathy to be true once and for all. And yet Wesley doesn’t even effing mention the idea. AMAZING!!!!

 Well, not, actually. Mention this idea to any homeopath, and the response would be the same. They’re totally uninterested in any real research. Testimonials and anecdotes are enough for them. They just want the evidence to be less rigorous – less real and more ‘imaginary’.

Wesley has made threats about defamation, presumably because I wrote that he’s mired in crazy – which he is. This post is already too long, so I’ll investigate the other crazy treatments he and his team offer in later posts, starting with acupuncture. But as to his threats, the man must be living on another planet if he’s not aware of the many websites, some of which are mentioned above, dedicated to exposing the pseudoscience practiced by people like himself, for financial gain. They generally use far harsher language than I have. If you’re going to set up a practice devoted to procedures which seem to share only one feature – that none of them are accepted as established science – then you’ll need to develop a thicker skin, even if you can’t develop any sensible arguments to support them.

And one more thing – Wesley has tried to cast aspersions on me as a mere English graduate. I think on my ‘about’ page I describe myself as a dilettante, which most certainly and proudly is what I am. However, as a blogger, I suppose my official position is that of a journalist. Freelance of course, with the emphasis on ‘free’, as I’ve never earned a cent from it. No defamation action could ever succeed against a journalist who’s trying to expose ‘sharp practice’ through the investigation of evidence, but perhaps Wesley thinks he can intimidate ‘small fry’ like me with his threats and arrogance. I don’t get much traffic here because I’m hopeless at and positively resistant to networking. But I do know how tight-knit and supportive the sceptical community is when anyone tries to threaten it as Wesley has, because I’ve been observing it for years, and if Wesley tries any further intimidation, I suppose I’ll have to pull my finger out and start letting people know what’s happening. It’ll probably do me a power of good.

Anyway, in later posts I’ll be looking at acupuncture (briefly, as I’ve already dealt with this one before), cupping, kinesiology, bowen therapy and other treatments offered by Wesley and his team.

the fall – when curiosity was shameful, and miracles abounded

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the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

I’ve been reading some medieval literature recently, and I’d like to make a brief comparison here between the writings of Benedict of Nursia (c480-547) and Pope Greg the Great (reigned from 589 to 604), and the Roman writers of a few centuries before, such as Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Plutarch. It’s maybe a bit unfair as Greg and Ben perhaps weren’t typical writers of the sixth century, I’m hardly medievalist enough to say, but still they capture for me the tragedy of the soi-disant Dark Ages for the development of thought and ideas. I’ll be quoting from the medieval writers, but only referring to the Romans – you’ll just have to take my word for it about their smarts.

Benedict of Nursia is probably better known as Saint Benedict, but I don’t like that appellation – not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because nobody does, as in order to become a saint it must’ve been ‘proven’ that you performed miracles, and such silliness shouldn’t be encouraged. More importantly, this nominatively determined method of severing such individuals from common humanity does us all a disservice. Anyway, Benedict was the founder of 12 monasteries or communities in Italy, and he wrote rules for them which were later adopted in other regions to form the basis of the Benedictine system of monks – though there was never really a strict Benedictine order (monks who live communally under a set of rules are called cenobites). I’ve just read these rules, followed by Pope Gregory’s  hagiography of Benedict, and it gives me a perspective on the closing of the European mind – if that’s not too grandiose a term – associated with the Dark Ages.

Benedict is praised for what Wikipedia calls the ‘balance, moderation and reasonableness’ of his rules, which facilitated their adoption by many European monasteries. However, moderation is a relative term, and as a rabid anti-authoritarian I probably chafe more than most under imposed rules. Still, I reckon most independent-minded modern westerners would find Benedict’s rules deadeningly stifling, and if they were considered moderate for the time, I’d hate to think about the more immoderate rules that the pious were forced to submit to. But judge for yourself.

Benedict states at the outset that ‘we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord’. This isn’t of course a school in the modern sense, it’s more like certain types of Madrassa, in which nothing outside of sacred texts is studied. The school or institute is to be presided over by an Abbot, chosen for his personal qualities, including self-discipline, firmness, compassion and insight into the ways of the Lord. Recalcitrant souls need to be coaxed or reproved into the narrow path. However,

… bold, proud, hard and disobedient characters he should curb at the very beginning of their ill-doing by stripes and other bodily punishments, knowing that it is written, ‘The fool is not corrected with words’, and again, ‘Beat your son with the rod and you will deliver his soul from death’.

I suppose this isn’t too much worse than a lot of army-style biffo, as depicted in Full Metal Jacket and the like, but there’s more, and monasticism was a life commitment. Benedict goes on a lot about humility and seriousness – he frowns upon laughter. He also insists, ominously, on narrowness, for ‘strait is the gate and narrow is the way’ to salvation, as we all know. Clearly the lives of these life-long penitents are going to be highly circumscribed. Patience, endurance, humility and obedience are the watchwords.

The monks’ days are rigidly ordered. Prayers are to be offered up 7 times a day (more often than in Islam, even) because, according to Benedict, the Prophet says ‘seven times in the day I have rendered praise to you’. Who this prophet was I can’t ascertain, and there’s no such quote in the Bible, though Isaiah and Luke both display a fondness for the number. In any case, Benedict gives instructions about the number and type of psalms to be sung at the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Prayers are to be ‘short and pure’, in compliance with the spirit of silence that should inhabit, not to say inhibit, the school. One of the longest chapters is ‘On Humility’, in which Benedict defines 12 different degrees of humility, as the monk becomes more and more cleansed of vice and sin:

The tenth degree of humility is that he be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, ‘The fool lifts up his voice in laughter’.

The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’

Again, Benedict doesn’t tells us where these dubious claims are written, but they don’t seem to come from the Bible. In any case, you get the idea, the fantasy that suppression of all spontaneity and originality leads through the narrow gate unto heaven.

Of course, the microcosm of the monastery doesn’t necessarily reflect the macrocosm of medieval Europe, but in a world of more or less homogenous Christian belief many of these ‘ideals’ would have been prominent. Not that the previous Roman world was that much better, as far as the nurturing of curiosity and intellectual inquiry was concerned. Roman society was also quite rigid in its structure, and philosophically, neither the Stoics nor the Epicureans thought in terms of intellectual progress. But the near-obsessive stifling of curiosity, the obsession with an obedient, humble, slavish attitude before an all-knowing master-god, that was very much a product of the Christianising of the Empire and ultimately of all Europe. The kind of reflective history-writing and philosophising found in the work of Tacitus, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, dealing with human psychology and conduct in its own right, without reference to divine expectations, all but disappeared for centuries.

Interestingly, along with the fashion for slavishness came a flourishing of credulity. Pope Gregory the Great’s bio of Benedict teems with his miracles and fulfilled prophecies, reminding us that the age of Jesus wasn’t the dimmest for unbelievable beliefs, though it may have sparked the fashion for them. There’s virtually a miracle on every page, so I’ll quote here one of the first, from when he was a youth, having abandoned his studies to serve his Master, to give you a taste:

When Benedict abandoned his studies to go into solitude, he was accompanied by his nurse, who loved him dearly. As they were passing through Affile, a number of devout men invited them to stay there and provided them with lodging near the Church of St Peter. One day, after asking her neighbours to lend her a tray for cleaning wheat, the nurse happened to leave it on the edge of the table and when she came back she found it had slipped off and broken in two. The poor woman burst into tears, she had just borrowed this tray and now it was ruined. Benedict, who had always been a devout and thoughtful boy, felt sorry for his nurse when he saw her weeping. Quietly picking up both the pieces, he knelt down by himself and prayed earnestly to God, even to the point of tears. No sooner had he finished his prayer than he noticed that the two pieces were joined together, without even a mark to show where the tray had been broken. Hurrying back at once, he cheerfully reassured his nurse and handed her the tray in perfect condition.

Of course, this little tale is partly designed to show Benedict’s kindness and attentiveness in small matters, and perhaps that’s the best take-home message, but not all the miracles are so nice, and some display the wish-fulfilling fantasy of bringing down enemies. The point, though, is that these miracles are disseminated by the highest religious authorities in Europe, so that it would amount to sacrilege to deny them. Interestingly, when I was nine years old, my mother bought me a collection of books called ‘Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories’ – about ten books each with about ten stories in them, and every one told of a miracle much like this one (and to be fair to my mother, she hadn’t vetted them first and wasn’t aware that they were Christian propaganda). People had fallen on hard times or had suffered an accident, they prayed to God, their fortunes were miraculously reversed. They were very formulaic stories, and I steamed with annoyance on reading them, but it’s fascinating to find a template for that kind of writing from nearly 1400 years before. How the world has changed and how some aspects of it remain.

What is interesting for me, though, is the connection between credulity and authority that marks the Dark Ages. As a youngster I was free to, and took delight in, spurning the ‘authority’ of Uncle Arthur and his benevolent miracles. I’m a creature of my era and social milieu, as we all are, but there are many social milieux in our world. I’ve just seen a TV clip about the ‘fight of the century’ between one Floyd Mayweather and the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. I’m not much into boxing these days (I was a keen follower of the sport in my youth), but I hear this fight is being billed as goodie v baddie, because Mayweather is a convicted wife-beater and apparently something of a self-advertising loudmouth whereas Pacquiao is a member of parliament, charity worker and other respectable things. However, when I just looked at the screen I saw Pacquaio wearing a t-shirt with ‘Jesus is my Lord’ or some such thing emblazoned on it, and I felt a spurt of disgust. I have a visceral reaction to the slavishness and submission of the two most common religions on the planet. The old ‘pagan’ religions certainly engaged in seasonal placatory gestures but they didn’t practice or preach eternal submission to their invisible and undetectable masters. And not only are we supposed to accept our enslavement, but to exalt in our specialness. It’s the most horrible kind of unreality, to me. So there’s still plenty of darkness to deal with, or to avoid. Let’s remember Goethe’s reputed last words – more light.

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 3

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my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

coriander roots

Having finished reading the big Darwin book I’m letting the influence of his character and world percolate through me, for example on my way home from work the other day, walking by the city river, I got the idea of taking pics of the bird species hanging by the riverside with my mobile phone – murray magpie, mallard, eurasian coot, black swan, masked lapwing, Australian pelican, Australian magpie, dusky moorhen, Australian white ibis and little pied cormorant. It really brightened my day, though the photos were pretty crappy, but I looked up the species when I got home (this is where the internet really comes into its own) and learned so much about habitats, male-female differences (the male murray magpie, or magpie-lark, has a white ‘eyebrow’ and a black throat) and such. Fun, and now I’m thinking about a good camera for bird-watching. I’ve also, on something of an impulse, bought a digital microscope, on its way from the USA. No idea as yet what to use it for.

Stephen-Hawking-AI-2

At a recent meetup group I had a stimulating discussion, or rather listened in on one, about the end of humanity, the various possibilities for our impending doom, the principal one being artificial intelligence. The idea is that so many things that humans are engaged in are barely in control, and that the best option for the survival of a species isn’t constant change and development, but stasis, as with trilobites perhaps, or some types of bacteria.  Since this appears not to be an option for us, some think that we’re hurtling, with all our good intentions, not towards the singularity, but towards extinction. Anthropogenic global warming, mass species extinction, human-induced epidemics, out-of-control artificial intelligence, or a combination of these might cause this event, but it was the view of one conversationalist that AI would be our undoing, and possibly quite soon. It might lead to a gradual transhumanism, which we won’t recognise until it’s too late. One of the key figures mentioned in analysis of humanity’s possibly grim future was Nick Bostrum, whose name has come to my attention from time to time. Wikipedia tells me he’s a philosopher based at Oxford, and the director of its Future of Humanity Institute. So, a person and an institute I should be conversant with for my solutions ok blog. I should probably link to it there, and it’ll mean a lot more reading and study, groan. Meanwhile, one of the arguments I heard the other night was that this could explain why we don’t find complex life out there looking for us, with their super-clever antimatter rockets and super light-speed travel techniques, because complexity of that sort beats an inevitable path to destruction. Highly-developed life-forms like us and our superiors burn with brief intensity then snuff themselves out. For us, this might be sooner than later. Hmmmm. In any case, existential risk is something I’ll have to pay more attention to in the future, if we have one.

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The other day I was listening to the amusing Answer Me This podcast when the name Marky Mark came up – apparently an actor, for he was chosen to star in Peter Jackson’s film The Lovely Bones. Not being too keyed in on popular culture, I’d never heard of Marky Mark (or The Lovely Bones for that matter) so I looked him up. It turned out that this was an early moniker for the actor Mark Wahlberg – whose name I’d heard of, but that was about it. Having now seen some photos of him, I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything, and I had no idea that in his early life as Marky Mark he was a notorious rapper and petty crim. But interestingly, I read that Wahlberg was now seeking a government pardon for the crimes he was convicted of as a teenager – including a few bashings of Asian-looking people. One of these incidents resulted in the victim having permanent eye damage. I don’t automatically trust too many internet sites, but the story appears to be that Marky, as a probably drug-fuelled and undoubtedly peer-influenced teen, indulged in some pretty nasty behaviour, spiced with language about ‘gooks and ‘slopes’, but he did have potential – don’t we all – and with the help of mentors he turned his life around to become, eventually, a Hollywood ‘star’. He did receive punishment for some of his crimes – and I read that he was tried as an adult for at least one of them – probably the one in which a victim lost an eye, or part of one….

I mention all this because it’s a case that raises a number of fascinating and important ethical issues. Firstly, there’s the tendency, most prevalent in the US but increasingly here too, to try juveniles as adults when they commit serious crimes, as if their ability to be fully responsible for their actions is in direct proportion to the damage they do. This smacks of a slide down the slippery slope of retributive justice – people have been really really hurt so the perp has to be really really punished, no matter that she’s eleven years old. While I have some sympathy for that attitude, and I’ll elaborate on that later, we have to accept that teenagers and children are different and that there are good, scientifically verified reasons for granting them diminished responsibility in a graded way from earliest childhood to the latest teens. The law is always a bit of a bludgeon of course, rarely taking full account of individual developmental and psychological peculiarities, which is one of the problems of ‘equality before the law’, but there’s no doubt that we generally do stupid things as teenagers and school kids, often under peer pressure, things we’d never do as mature adults. I myself got into trouble with the law for stealing, together with four or five of my friends, at the age of fourteen. We’d been egging each other on, and we perpetrated a lot more than we were charged with, but it all came crashing to a halt when we got caught. None of us were nasty brutish types, and it’s unlikely that any of us have reoffended.

Marky’s offending was rather brutish though, with serious consequences for a least one victim. His desire for a pardon is apparently driven by the fact that he’s disqualified at the moment from getting an Oscar or other accolades because of his past. Unlike me he has a permanent criminal record presumably due to being tried as an adult. He’s written a letter to government authorities wanting recognition for being an entirely different person than the one who committed those acts. Marky now does charitable work on the side like many other Hollywood stars – which is fine and dandy especially as they’re significantly overpaid for what they do and would have good reason to consider themselves bloody lucky to be in their position – but as online critics have pointed out, he’s never apologised or made reparations to his permanently-scarred victim. It goes without saying that this soul has also had a change of life since being bashed with a two-by-four all those years ago. Not much work for a one eyed Asian in Hollywood, methinks.

So this is the dilemma. Why doesn’t Marky Mark face up to the damage he did by trying to help the one person whose life he changed irreparably as an oafish teenager? That would seem to be an obvious move. And that brings me back to the treatment of serious crimes committed by persons of diminished responsibility. The reason we seek to impose harsher penalties, and for that reason to attribute greater responsibility to the young perpetrator, is because of the consequences of the crime. We believe someone has to pay for all that damage, and if not the perp, then who? It’s a really vexed question, but imposing an extremely harsh penalty on an adolescent for an extreme crime doesn’t really help, especially when the penalty, such as a prison term, will tend to harden the adolescent and make him more resentful, angry, and subject to bad influence, than he was before.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a very forgiving society, a society which immediately seeks to help adolescents who’ve gone off the rails to the extent that Marky Mark presumably did – and I should make it clear here that I’m just using him as an example, and I’ve no idea if the facts of his case are exactly as, or even close to, what I’ve reported (I got it off the internet after all). As part of that help, he should’ve been made to face the living consequences of the damage he had done, the suffering and change he had wrought in the lives of others. But that of course would require a massive change in our system of crime and punishment. For adolescent crime though, I think it would work well, and to be fair, it does operate to some extent in some juvenile court systems, conferencing between perpetrators and victims and their families, though there isn’t enough of it, I suspect.

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2015 at 9:11 am

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