Sunday, August 31, 2008

PCSO's shine

Sometimes, certain professions are made scapegoats for failings which emanate from much larger sectors of society. For instance, in the late 1970's I remember people being booed on game shows if the answer to "what do you do?" was tax inspector, although they were not responsible for setting taxes. Rather, this was the job of the democratically elected government, which was democratically voted out at the first opportunity. Again, the Metropolitan Police were seen as Margaret Thatcher's private union-busters, when what they were doing was resisting Arthur Scargill's strike (illegal according to the constitution of the National Union of Miners) which - contrary to the intentions of many individual miners - was intended by an inner cabal to unseat the Government that was democratically brought in.

I spokclick for 'MP's PCSO view'e to a couple of Police Community Support Officers yesterday. They were very knowledgeable about the area and very professional. They also demonstrated an understanding of the average fenny's frustrations about the leniency of the courts and lack of information on arrests and convictions, some of which frustrations they shared. They also played a role in looking in on people who might be vulnerable for various reasons, not always connected with legal issues. Significantly, their powers include handing out fixed-penalty notices to eejits who buy alcohol for distribution to young people who can't handle it, and go causing havoc that can't always be prioritised for the attention of Police Constables.

In her podcast "Home grown officers", Cambridgeshire Constabulary Chief Constable Julie Chief Constable Julie SpenceSpence talks about how most of the current crop of PCSO trainees are from Cambridgeshire. They are needed because 19 former PCSO's from the county have qualified as PC's, bringing their local knowledge and experience. Ms Spence, who will be a judge at this year's Daily Mirror "Pride of Britain" awards, says that "PCSO's have proved their worth in Cambridgeshire". (Click the picture at the bottom of this blog for further details of her support for PCSO's.)

The problem with the reputation of PCSO's goes back to a tragic drowning case when ten-year-old Jordon Lyon drowned trying to save his sister, who had become trapped in underwater vegetation in a lake, allegedly while two PCSO's looked on. Suddenly, national frustrations about PCSO's - which were in fact frustrations about governmental broken promises regarding numbers of PC's - found a focus and headlines screamed about "Blunkett's bouncers" and "plastic policemen", while a clarification from the PCSOs' Assistant Chief Constable that rebutted key aspects of the story was largely ignored.

People who say that we need more PC's instead of PCSO's seem not to be bothered by the question of why they see a need for more PC's. For example: judges from the liberal intelligentsia are deluded that criminals will be reformed if treated as if they too were members of the liberal intelligentsia, instead of releiving society from them for a spell; virtually unimpeded immigration, intended to defer the pensions crisis to the next generation, is exacerbating a crime-wave without precedent; and care-needs abandoned by neighbours are left unassessed by social work departments which prefer to target traditional families who have have hit a rough patch.

We live in a society where it can't be denied that the fear of crime magnifies the effect of actual crime. But to situate the debate within this hall of mirrors obfuscates issues; for example, on knife crime, Labour MP Kali Mountford stated to the House of Commons this January:

Accepting that knife crime is up, however, does not mean accepting that more young people are carrying knives and using them. It does not mean that crime in general is on the increase. We must be able to accept that that one crime is going in the wrong direction, while other things are getting better. We must be mature enough to say, “But burglary is down, and car theft is down. Those things are going in the right direction.” Those are the sets of figures, and we must be mature enough to accept them in the round. We should not say, “You are massaging the figures, because you are not accepting this aspect of violent crime.” We should not be having an artificial debate about which is the true figure, when the truth is that one aspect of crime is going in the wrong direction and another is going in the right direction.

In other words, violent crime is up, but a reduction in some non-violent crimes makes that acceptable. This is the result of that political species of game theory whereby, as the Telegraph reports, different types of crime are given equal weighting and the added score, and not the type of crimes solved, indicate a police-force's performance in the eyes of government.

None of this is the fault of PCSO's, who slog away in very challenging circumstancclick to read Chief Constable's support for PCSO'ses for not enough pay. It's a truism to say that we live in a broken society, but PCSO's aren't part of the problem; rather, they're part of the solution. They are shining stars in the firmament of law enforcement, and I predict that they will shine ever brighter as time goes by.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

the sum of our fears

click to read Wikipedia's summary of the filmclick to read Wikipedia's summary of the bookThe Sum of all Fears
by Tom Clancy
GP Putnam's Sons 1991 (US)
HarperCollinsPublishers 1991 (UK)
pp 1030

Why, you may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together - what do you get? The sum of their fears.
- Winston Churchill

This is one of the quotes with which authour Tom Clancy opens his 1991 thriller The Sum of all Fears. I recently snapped up the DVD when it was on sale at XV, the draughty old fen's charity shop. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson and released in 2002 - it was held back when 9/11 occurred just as they were putting it to bed - it differed somewhat from the book, which inspired me to pick it out of my shelf-ful of Tom Clancy books and read it again.

In one of the DVD's special features, director Phil Alden speaks of the difficulty of rendering such a large book into a film of just over two hours. I can't argue with that - my dogeared copy of The Sum of all Fears, at 1030 pages, is around a third again as long as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which Warner Bros have found themselves having to split into two films.
Ciarán Hinds, Russian president in the film, playing Shakespeare - click for bio
The film of TSAF opens with a pilot in the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights flying into an anti-aircraft-missile through a fatal error. His cargo, a nuclear warhead, is buried without detonating and lies there for many years, having been covered by the Druse farmer who needs every square inch of land to eke out a living.

The book and film share this plot-point in common. They also have a stand-off between the American and Russian presidents over an atomic device that has exploded at a football stadium, made from uranium which the US stole from one of its own reactors and gave to the Israelis. The similarities just about end there.

In my opinion, The Sum of All Fears is Tom Clancy's darkest book, and, like many works which explore our shadows, his most profound. After the prologue referred to above, at the start of the book we see Jack Ryan in the midst of a physical and mental breakdown. He is smoking and drinking too much, and is experiencing problems in his relationships with his wife and son - which drive his mood lower - mostly due to overwork and "carrying" people who are senior to him but are not as good at their jobs as he is at his - and theirs.

As the screw tightens, the group whom President Bob Fowler has promoted to high office through an old-boy's network starts to break down, the chief buckler under pressure being Fowler himself. "Old boys" is the operative term - the only woman in this inner circle has attained her position through sexual favours.

It surprised me that Liz Elliott doesn't pop up in the film, because she is central to moving forward much of the American part of the plot before the bomb goes off. Those parts of the novel dealing with the downward spiral overlapping Jack Ryan's work and home life seem to comprise a meditation upon Othello (Clancy has a degree in English). In particular, how Elliott, the scheming National Security Advisor, latches on to the insecurities of the flawed ruler, but overstretches herself and finds that Cathy Ryan cannot be forced into the role and the fate of the credulous wife, suggests a recontextualisation of the play with a twist. The key difference is that Clancy has the grizzled old warrior John Clark communicate important information to Cathy about Jack’s relationship with the widow of a former comrade: Desdemona's swapping notes is the one thing that could have undone Iago in Othello. The showdown between Cathy Ryan and Elliott is a masterpiece of observation about women's cultured brutality towards each other in the theatre of manners: the sort of scene that strikes a room quiet - ostensibly through shock, in reality so the audience doesn't miss a thing.

In criticizing the film for not following the book, I realize it’s unfair to ask Alden transfer Clancy’s prose in the prologue to celluloid. He compares Israel’s challenge in the Yom Kippur war to the Greeks’ hill 235 todayvictory over the Persians at Thermopylae, the Allies pushing back Nazi lines at the Bastogne section of the Battle of the Bulge, and the Gloucesters and other regiments facing the Red Army at Korea’s Hill 235. The story arising from a solution to the middle-east crisis, TC’s references to heroic struggles against vastly superior numbers presents us with an idea of Israel’s everyday position. There are also references to Tsar Nicholas II, who is blamed by many Russians for hastening the October revolution by entering World War I while the country was in a state of military unpreparedness, and to Moedred (Mordred), the Arthurian traitor who helped bring down the original Camelot.

The crisis comes to boiling point not through military action, but when a group of students stops throwing stones at soldiers and commences on a course of civil disobedience, after the manner of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Footage of an Israeli policeman killing a non-violent protester with rubber bullets is beamed around the world. Ryan comes up with a possible solution to the resulting international situation: it is a brilliant vision which Liz Elliott assures is not credited to him, his crime having been to speak to her robustly. The book is the story of how that vision is attacked by a cabal of those for whom that vision would leave reasons for living, and indeed pockets, empty.

In the film, as in the book, the object of the terrorists' actions is to create a war between the US and Russia. Alden uses a special feature in the DVD to defend himself from charges of political correctness by changing the villains to a neo-Nazi group, although it appears that there was extensive lobbying by the Council on American-Islamic Relations to effect this result. One of the characters we are therefore presented with is a neo-Nazi Russian air-force officer, which frankly I find hard to swallow. Robinson could have exploited far greater opportunities for stereotype-busting by exploring the motivation of the pacifist Palestinian students. (It should be noted that Clancy defended Islam before the sun had set on 9/11.)

Thankfully, Clancy has no need to defend himself from any such accusation - he simply writes his books, and leaves it up to readers as to whether or not to spend money and time on them. We are happy to invest both.

His original villains are Palestinian terrorists who recruit a disaffected Native American as they refashion the bomb's original fissile material into a new, improved bomb. The only reference to Nazis of any vintage that I could make out was that the East German nuclear physicist Manfredd Fromm's father had been a member of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany who was executed by the Reich, and is willingly recruited by the terrorists because he sees the Deutsche Democratische Republik's return of material and research to Russia redux as a betrayal of both his life and his father's sacrifice.

Clancy's villains are no two-dimensional baddies: they love, feel loss, and often regret those of their actions which entail the murder of innocents. He anticipates, and provides a foil to, the click for Michelle Malkin's homepagephenomenon manifested in modern politics whereby, as Michelle Malkin notes, politicians assume that educating terrorists will kindle empathy in their hearts and turn them away to a less destructive way of living. (Tony Blair's Opposition soundbite "education, education, education" seems to have been an early manifestation of this.) But TC's terrorists dismantle an atomic warhead and build a hydrogen bomb; and in the real world, terrorists learn how to fly aeroplanes, design missiles that can carry goodness knows what in the head, and manufacture chemical and biological weapons - even if they lack a heart-warming frisson, they're quite brainy. The only baddie without an emotional dimension - Marvin Russell, the Native American - is executed by his masters precisely because of this lack: he kills without it having any effect whatsoever on him, a manifestation of extreme antisocial/sociopathic personality disorder. As Clancy states succinctly, "there was something missing".

As always, Clancy tells of high intrigue through personal stories in such a way as to hold up a mirror to each of his readers. We might not understand the Washington insider or the subsistence farmer, but we understand loss and human weakness and the love for one's family that keeps you muddling on when other hopes seem fled. Jack Ryan, snowed in at his office while the bomb goes off in Denver, manifests a calm in the face of seeming hopelessness that we all have felt, that perversely helps us get through the sum of our fears in the hospital waiting room or the mortuary and back to better times. The story of how Jack achieves this, an impossible feat without the support of those who love him, is - among many other things - a story of personal redemption within a fragmented, hostile world where our enemies are not necessarily those towards whom our defences are directed, and friendship often hides under one's radar to surface at the most unexpected times. The east-west emergency having been fuelled not just by malicious design but by a spiral of errors worthy of the Bard, Jack will need to draw on all his reserves of will, refilled by his friends as, after he has declared that Fowler has disappeared into his own contradictions, he faces his greatest temptation ever.

The Sum of all Fears was written as the Soviet Union was disintegrating and was released as Russia rose from the former's ashes, and is possibly more relevant today than when it was published. I have revisited this Thucydidean epic many times, like an old friend, and each time seen something I had previously missed about the human condition, realpolitik and often both. If you are under 30 and value exquisitely-written thrillers, I heartily recommend this book. If you are over 30, read it - whether it's for the first time or the fifth - and you will see echoes of your life and your country, wherever that may be.

click for Tom Clancy interviews with Don Swaim

Monday, August 25, 2008

at the close of the Olympics

Peter Foster, Telegraph bloggerIt's all over now; two weeks of fevered sporting madness, during which some of our acquaintances appear to have forgotten resolutions not to watch the Olympics. Personally I kept to mine, but am now wondering if I did the right thing; instead of Minora watching events behind my back as a form of rebellion, it might have been educational for both of us to see, as the Telegraph's Peter Foster reports, the the Chinese Communist Party thumbing its nose "spectacularly" at the International Olympics Committee and getting away with it.

what does 'prettier' mean at this age?The subterfuge started at the opening ceremony, where a girl was rejected for having uneven teeth, yet her voice was used for the opening song, "Ode to the Motherland", which was lip-synched by a girl judged to be "prettier", whatever that means when grown men use it in relation to pre-pubescent girls. Chen Qigang, music producer for the ceremony, justified this as being "in the national interest".

Using children in the national interest doesns't stop there. Again the Telegraph reports:

the training regimes are still reminiscent of those used in East Germany in the Soviwhy is this not being recognised as abuse?et era. Promising children are hothoused from as young as six in elite, sports-focused boarding schools, where their access to their families is often limited. Only last week, Joseph Capousek, a successful German kayak coach who was recently sacked as trainer of the Chinese national team, said his former employers ran a military-style training regime where athletes were worked "like horses". Chinese officials have denied his claims.
In fact, there is an enquiry ongoing as to whether a Chinese gold-medal athlete, He Kexin, is actually 16, as it says on her passport, or is really 14, which would invalidate her entry (there are fears that practicing gymnastics can stunt the growth of young people). this does not seem to bother the Chinese - on a visit to an athletics hothouse in 2005, rower Sir Matthew Pinsent "saw a seven-year-old girl crying while being made to do handstands, and a boy with marks on his back" (click picture above for story).
Wu Dianyuan, 79 and Wang Xiuying, 77, arrested for applying to protest
Towards the other end of the mortal coil, two women in their 70's were interrogated for 10 hours and then, without a trial, sentenced to a year's re-education through labour. Their crime? The Chinese Government had set up "protest pens", so they applied to stand in one of them to protest. Peter Foster compares the protest-pens to the "‘Hundred Flowers' campaign of 1956-57 when intellectuals were invited to be frank about matters of public policy and then promptly purged for their honesty".

Although all the tickets for this Olympiad were sold out, all 6.8 million of them, there have been many empty seats in the Olympics. These were filled by students and volunteers, who were instructed to sit in the vacant seats whether or not they were interested in the individual contest being played out. I would've liked to have pointed this out to Minora, but the chance is lost now.

Anyway, the Chinese government decided that there would be much more visitors than turned up, and so set up procedures to divert water supplies to the capital from outlying farming areas. You don't have to be a genius like Professor Calculus to figure out what happened next: wells dried up; the price of water in the parched areas rose 300%; farmers got in hock to moneylenders and, in order to escape notification that payment was due, killed themselves by drinking pesticide. The biting irony of the situation is that, due to the poor turnout at the "sellout" Olympics, not a single drop of water was diverted from these regions to Beijing. The official reaction was that "the entire population was overjoyed to be making a sacrifice for the national good".

So despite the neglect of its own people, harrassment of the vulnerable and ideological certainty that it need not be troubled by doubt, a veritable army of the world's quangocrats has descended upon Beijing to present their countries in surrender mode. I said in an earlier post that "unless the International Olympic Committee stands up for itself, China will use it as a doormat." The IOC hasn't, and China has done so, and is taking its place as king of the castle.

I'm sure Boris Johnston, London's Mayor, is getting so much advice about the 2012 Olympics due to be held in London that he doesn't know whether he's coming or going. But if I may add my own straw to the camel's back, I would suggest: hold another austerity olympics. Let sport and the human spirit share the gold.

Related posts:
Sport isn't worth that much - Yamiti's Olympic struggle
As the Olympics begin

Saturday, August 23, 2008

good dentistry - it's like pulling teeth

don't let it come back to thisI read in today's Guardian that dentists are pulling more teeth and performing less expensive measures. About time too.

Let me explain. My brother Asinus's wife Patientia attended a dentist's surgery some time ago as regards a tooth that was giving her, a woman who had all but shrugged off labour pains, hell.

She asked to have the tooth removed, but the dentist replied that a small swelling above the tooth might be an abscess, which she (the dentist) said contraindicated an extraction. So Patientia was sent home with antibiotics, and an appointment made for a fortnight's time.

Obediently, Patientia returned in a fortnight with the swelling reduced but still there. Patientia asked again for an extraction, but was told that the surgery wasn't allowed to do so. She tried to press her case, and the reply was that they weren't allowed to extract without trying to save the tooth.

So the first part of a root canal was done, and the second in another fortnight - uponroot canal treatment - thanks to the British Dental Foundation this second visit, she raised her hand in a pre-arranged signal to warn that she was in distress, and told the dentist and nurse that she was going to be sick. She was informed that the sooner the team started again, the sooner they would be finished. The dentist having started again, Patientia threw up, which meant that the vomitus had to be suctioned out while the dentist and nurse frantically told her to breathe through her nose.

Patientia returned some weeks later on an emergency appointment, as the pain had once more become unbearable and the swelling was back. As Asinus was away checking widgets had the proper thingummies, I accompanied Patientia, having printed out the General Dental Council's Standards for Dental Professionals; it was so well-hidden on the web, finding it was like pulling teeth - sorry...Anyway, para 2 says that dentists should

Recognise and promote patients’ responsibility for making decisions about their bodies, their priorities and their care, making sure you do not take any steps without patients’consent (permission).
Patientia asked me to keep the document in my pocket and only produce it if absolutely necessary.

As Patientia got herself settled in the dentist's chair, I told the lady that my sister-in-law wanted an extraction. The dentist looked at the x-rays then showed one to Patientia (who later told me that this was the first time she'd been shown one of her x-rays). The abscess appeared to reach over three teeth, and the dentist advised another root canal treatment. I reiterated that Patientia wanted an extraction because of the pain she'd been through; after looking up something on the computer, the dentist stated she concurred that extraction would be the best option. The abscess didn't appear to contraindicate extraction any more.

So I held Patientia's hand while the lady tugged, and then...snap! The dentist explained the tooth had snapped (which I'd gathered) and left part of the root inside, because it had been weakened by the root canal treatment.

She went to another room, then returned putting her mobile in her pocket to say that Addenbrooke's hospital would send her an appointment to have the rest of the root pulled out, and in the meantime the abscess would drain through the socket. Because Patientia was in tears at this point, I bit back the question of why she didn't just pull it out the first time. Having learnt that she wasn't going to be charged for the procedure, we left, and I tried to swallow down the anger of seeing the dentist try to persuade Patientia to buy, at the end of the whole debâcle, a false tooth from a range which went up to £1500.

Even though Patientia's registered with her dentist under the NHS, obviously she still has to pay towards her treatment. This is something I agree with - but sometimes one can detect, methinks, a bit of mickey-taking. For example, Patientia suffers from joint-pains which can flare up suddenly. Once this happened the day before she was due to attend the hygienist. She tried to cancel, explaining why, and was advised that the cancellation fee was £50 - the same price as the appointment. In pain, she went.

And then again, Asinus' and Patientia's daughter Perturbata receives orthodontic treatment on the NHS, which could cost anything up to £7000. Given that adolescent girls are conditioned by Hollywood to believe that anything less than physical perfection equates to being pig-ugly, isn't this an easy constituency from which dental professionals can mine taxpayers' money? On the other hand, I have spoken to adults who, because of their financial situation, were genuinely unable to contribute to their dental bill, which was paid for by the state. One who had a condition that sounded remarkably like Patientia's said that he was given an injection of antibiotics, the offending tooth was whipped out, and he left with a prescription for further antibiotics. I'm not suggesting that NHS patients who can't afford "top-up fees" shouldn't get a service, merely remarking on the glorious brevity of the treatment when such fees aren't available.

The NHS Dental Statistics for England 2007/08 states that "53.3 per cent of the population were seen in the 24 month period ending 31 March 2008", this being down from the previous 2 years. This is rather worrying - statistically speaking, almost half of England could be on a roller-coaster to a pain Robert Burns described thus:
a toothache's a toothache for a' that

Where'er that place be priests ca' hell,
Where a' the tones o' misery yell,
An' ranked plagues their numbers tell,
In dreadfu' raw,
Thou, Toothache, surely bear'st the bell,
Amang them a'!

I'm one of the 46.7% of England's population who haven't been to a dentist in over two years. Faced with the prospect of a pain so bad that I might find my grumpiness mitigated in the dentist's chair, I suspect that should the occasion arise I'll get hold of some antibiotics on the internet, arm a friend of mine who used to be a body-builder with the appropriate implements, and enjoy the post-procedure analgesia.


Related posts:

The Orthodoxy of Orthodonty

Blood, tears and celebrity dentists

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

return of the ichneumon delusion

Tonight I eventually managed to view the last of Richard Dawkin's documentary trilogy, The Genius of Charles Darwin. I'd originally missed it, but a kind sympathiser who had video'd it gave me a copy.

To place the documentary in context, Dawkins stated in Part 1 that 4 out of 10 people believe in God as the Creator of all. In spite of the fact that this indicates that more people are for his views than against, he took a class of 15-16 year olds, and appeared to have failed to convert them to unbelief.

In the second part he attacked - possibly fairly - those who had interpreted The Selfish Gene as meaning that, in the words of Gordon Gekko of Wall Street , "Greed is, for lack of a better word, good".

Part 3 of The Genius of Charles Darwin starts with a preview of a conversation between Dawkins and a secondary-school science teacher who says, "we can't get into the business of knocking down kids' religions"; Dawkins replies "Why not?", without being troubled by doubt about his own philosophy. Indeed, he complains later that " rife today"; Indeed: Pope John Paul II often made the same point.

Dawkins states that "religious fundamentalists are eager to attack the legacy of Charles Darwin which they just don't understand". This may or may not be a fair point, except that in his zeal to present himself as Darwin's interpreter he does not stop to consider that he might not understand the legacy of the Bible which he never ceases to attack.

Wendy Wright, of Concerned Women of America, spoke with Dawkins, which I suppWendy Wrightose was brave of both of them. However, I didn't feel that RD appreciated the subtleties of Wright's argument, which was that, if evolution is seen to be controversial, then children should be taught both sides of that controversy. She then stated that she'd rather believe in God than fallible scientists. Dawkins retorted that he was all in favour of teaching children to think for themselves, but that there were limits to this. Which led me to think: what are the limits, and who puts them there? Since these questions were not only unasked but unanswered I felt like shouting "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? at the show, but paused the video and made a cuppa instead.

DawkinDr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterburys later spoke to Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said he believed that God "shapes the whole process" of creation, including evolution, as Creator; when Dawkins asked if God intervened in nature, the Archbishop replied that this would imply some imperfection in God's setting up of nature. As is his wont, Dawkins came round to he Virgin Birth; whereas he rated it as a "cheap conjuring trick", Williams stated that it was "Creation opening up to its own depths". It was a short interview, possibly commensurate with Dawkins' opinion on Williams, or perhaps with the philosopher of science's fear that the prelate's greater intellectual agility might come to the fore given a longer segment.

You didn't need to have a crystal ball to see that Dawkins would return to the Ichneumon wasp, laying its eggs within a caterpillar then paralysing the caterpillar's motor nerves so that junior would have a store of fresh meat. Atheist evolutionists spend so much effort reminding us of the Ichneumonidae reproduction cycle that the creature would charge royalties if it were sentient. Yet the reason it caused such a crisis of faith in God for Victorian society, while its poverty, workhouses and factories failed to provoke a crisis of much of that society's faith in itself, was the popularity of "natural theology", stating that the existence of God could be discerned through nature as well as by revelation. Perhaps one needs to look at more of creation than the lives and deaths of a small group of arthropods in order to get an idea that "the skies proclaim the work of [God's] hands" (Psalm 19:1). I had a friend who could believe in God when up a mountain, but became an atheist when back in the city.

But in his world, where objectively our travails are not worth more than those of an insect, all that matters to Dawkins is that he is at the top of the tree he has played no small part in cultivating, bonsai-style, from the seeds sown by Darwin, Mendel and many others. He has named one of his books after Darwin's anguished cry: "What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!"

In the last Chapter of The God Delusion, he speaks of William of Wykeham founding Oxford'sstained-glass image of William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, at New Hall, Oxford New College in 1379 "as a great chantry to make intercession for the repose of his soul". Dawkins sees no need to look upwards for salvation. While Bishop William formed a forum so he might be remembered to God, Dawkins' has ensured he will be remembered to humankind, or at least that portion which is interested and/or incensed by his works. His official website is called, and he has developed The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the website from which you can buy two volumes of Conversations with Richard Dawkins. The Genius of Charles Darwin was not about Charles: it was about the ascent of Richard to the post of Vicar of Evolution, infallible and impeccable.

Personally, I trust in God. You may have another position, which indeed you have every right to hold: but can you justify it outside the realm of strangling those voices with whom you disagree?

related posts ?
The Genius of Charles Darwin Part 1: the ichneumon delusion

The Genius of Charles Darwin Part 2: the altruism delusion

Sunday, August 17, 2008

a cry for racial tolerance

Pope Benedict XVI - click for biographySince I practiced as a Roman Catholic until quite recently, my ears pricked up when I heard Pope Benedict XVI mentioned on Radio 2's news as having criticised racism.

Looking further, it seems that Benedict "didn't cite any country by name. Instead, he urged Christians to help society 'overcome any temptation to resort to racism, intolerance and exclusion' toward foreigners."

Concrens about racism are not by any means new to Vatican minds. Although the previous positions had been that the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas could be enslaved by the conquering powers, in 1537 Pope Paul III published Sublimus Dei, stating that any Indians who converted to the Catholic faith could not be enslaved. It would take a long time for the RC Church to come to terms with non-Christian religions - until the publication of Nostra Aetate in 1965 as part of Vatican II, in fact.

Pope Eugene IV - click for biographyHowever, this doesn't mean that papal consciences weren't pricked by goings-on concerning Europeans and other races. Even before Sublimus Dei, Pope Eugene IV wrote Sicut Dudum in 1435, "Against the Enslavement of Black Natives from the Canary Islands". Eugene's mind is condentrated not by making converts, but that Canary Islanders "were even at times tricked and deceived by the promise of Baptism, having been made a promise of safety that was not kept". The phrase echoes down through the centuries, unfortunately, and in our own times is redolent of foreigners being given promises of cleaning jobs and finding their real employment is an obscenity.

In 1988, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published The Church and Racism, which decries the experiences foreigners can have when they arrive at another land:

The phenomenon of spontaneous racism is still more widespread, especially in countries with high rates of immigration. This can be observed among the inhabitants of these countries with regard to foreigners, especially when the latter differ in their ethnic origin or religion. The prejudices which these immigrants frequently encounter risk setting into motion reactions which can find their first manifestation in an exaggerated nationalism-which goes beyond legitimate pride in one's own country or even superficial chauvinism. Such reactions can subsequently degenerate into xenophobia or even racial hatred. These reprehensible attitudes have their origin in the irrational fear which the presence of others and confrontation with differences can often provoke. Such attitudes have as their goal, whether acknowledged or not, to deny the other the right to be what he or she is and, in anycase, to be "in our country."
It seems an example of the liberal Christian theology that Pope Benedict opposes, but the next sentence made me sit up straight like my Mum told me to:

Of course, there can be problems of maintaining a balance between peoples, cultural identity and security.
Although the rest of the paragraph veers disappointingly towards the philosophy of the melting pot (and even mentions the phrase), it was a touch of cold realism of the kind displayed by the present Pope when, as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in 2004 that Turkey should not try to join the EU because it is "a Muslim country with Muslim roots". Rather, said Ratzinger, Turkey should try to form an Asian trade block which could then do business with Europe.

This, however, might not be what was upmost on Benedict's mind this afternoon. As has been widely reported, in Italy the Army has been mobilized onto the streets because of the rising tide of crime committed by gypsies and illegal immigrants.

There is a rising fear of immigrants all over Western Europe. Some of this is due to the "spontaneous racism" referred to in the quote above, and it's wrong to take advantage of this - as the BNP did when they tried to cosy up to the RC community by quoting from Pope Leo XIII's groundbreaking social encyclical Rerum Novarum out of the context of the whole document:

If a workman's wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his [sic] would cling to the country in which they were born, for no one would exchange his country for a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a decent and happy life.
Leo undoubtledly has a valid point - case in point: Poles returning to their native land because the shortage of labour there is pushing wages up. But it doesn't justify recruiting tactics by organisations who deface the Union Jack with their logos and desecrate it with their policies. What it justifies is restoring feasible border controls so that would-be illegal immigrants are discouraged from taking spadefuls of cash out of their economies to give to people-traffickers.

This, and more robust policing - possibly by the army, or indeed a new military organisation formed to assist with policing after the fashion of the Gendarmerie or Carabinieri - might help to restore a balance between peoples, cultural identity and security.
Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester - click for biography
The biggest losers, if racial tensions in Great Britain were to spill over in a big way, would be decent, hard-working foreign families who try to teach their children the value of work, the dangers of hate, and the merits of respecting the country one lives in. As the CofE Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, has indicated, the results would be neither just nor peaceful.

requiescat in pace

The other day, we said goodbye to Invicta, Barbacana's wife.

I met Barbacana in the draughty old fen's high street. He looked haggard but high on adrenalin. He'd called the ambulance early that morning, but by the time the paramedics got there - quick as they were - it was all over.

Invicta had been in hospital probably more than she'd been at home for the last couple of years. This hadn't previously been an issue for somebody for whom cancer was the least of her problems, but on the last few visits she got MRSA on the house. It's rather unfair that Addenbrooke's has had a lot of contumely heaped upon it for this, for the beastie lives, among other places, up the nose. The hospital has squirt-bottles of alcohol all over the place; but asking people to leave their noses in reception is a bit much. But a hospital-wide policy on ordering gloves that excluded those makes that aren't up to the job would help.

Barbacana later told me that his and Invicta's relatives had eventually been proved right: they'd said that the engagement had come too soon after they'd met, and they would eventually split. And now, after nearly fifty years, they had. But he doubted if humble pie was on the celestial menu.

Invicta had been a frequent flier with Davison house, where the medical team, nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists did a sterling job undoing the effects of enforced inactivity that was necessary for her treatment at Addenbrookes. She was very worried towards the end, because there was talk of Davison house in Brookfields Hospital on Cambridge's Mill Road being leased by the NHS to Sue Ryder Care, with the rehabilitation services she had needed being devolved to nursing homes, or performed by community health workers in the patient's own home. As Barbacana pointed out to me, very few nursing homes, and even less houses, are kitted out with the parallel bars necessary to help people regain some walking skills.

Barbacana and Invicta had been a globetrotting couple, as Barbacana was in the communications trade. Invicta had her own career as an educator. They both loved the open road - Invicta enjoyed telling how she loved "doing the ton" in their car with the children in the back seat before the national speed limit of 70mph on motorways was made permanent in 1967. I didn't ask how fast she drove after this.

Ironically, in the last days she would talk about speed while confined to a bed in the front room. Her memories and her imagination were unfettered by a body that I am sure would have been quietly killed by misplaced kindness, were it not powered by a mind that was determined to tough out the indignities, dependence and boredom until the only referee who matters was minded to wave the chequered flag.

When I met Barbacana I tried to entice him into XV to have a cuppa and calm down. But he was at the crossroads of so many emotions that I don't think he knew what had hit him. He was alone, but glad that the Lord had wiped Invicta's brow; and free. Going by the look in his eyes that was just visible through the adrenalin rush, I hope I'm never that free.

Requiem aeternum dona eis, Domine, et Lux perpetua luceat eis, cum Sanctus tuis in aeternum, quia pius es.

Friday, August 15, 2008

lashings and lashings of childhood

Today I took a load of Minima's books to XV, the local charity shop. Many of them are by Enid Blyton and concern the adventures of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. Seeing these literary childhood friends again made me feel choked up for a bit.

Everybody should have a summer that lasted forever, and mine was the scorching 1976 - assisted by the Scottish Education Board, which miscounted its beans and put an extra week on the holidays.
Secret Seven
On holiday with my Mum in Blackpool, I bought my first Enid Blyton book. It was a Secret Seven one, involving - inter alia - an adventure in an underground factory where the band look down upon a cauldron of ore that glowed with "a colour they had never seen before". I was hooked. In between walks on piers and rides on trams I think I still managed to consume a book a day after that.

The characters in Blyton's prodigious output lived in a place far removed from Glasgow's East End, but thankfully declamations by privileged left-wing academics upon her middle-class mindset didn't filter down to us. We relished her appreciation of the ebb and flow of childhood's long waves, from summer to Christmas to Easter and back to summer. Like many of my friends I had to check the dictionary to find out what a summerhouse was; but we understood perfectly what it meant to feel heavy with secrets, shake our heads over the inscrutability of adults - surely a different race from us - and quake before the reassuring authority of teachers, police and parents.

Blyton saw her universe through child's eyes. Emotionally, she may have been a child herself - which would explain the enduring success of her titles and her place in the top ten of the UN's list of translated authors. And so what? The best thrillers are written by soldiers, crime novels by detectives...get it?

Grimms' Fairy TalesAnd if we wanted something a bit more scary, all we had to do was to reach to the bookcase and retrieve Grimm's Fairy Tales, a compendium of dark happenings which relied for its efficacy on nothing more than the most effective engine of terror that Creation has come up with - a child's imagination. Despite having seen the worst that Hollywood's SFX department can come up with, the memories of reading Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood still make me shiver. Thankfully, the Harry Potter phenomenon has kickstarted kids reading again: I've read every book and, good as the films are, the written word is so much more affirming, terrifying and valuable than the projected image.

Larkin famously (and unrepeatably) mused on the potential sequelae of parenting, and Blyton's daughters were split on this matter. But to may millions of other children, she was a literary mother, leading us gently into the scary wilderness beyond the garden gate or tower block, until another world beckoned and a new generation discovered Enid's worlds waiting for them.

The thing is, we will always need books to remind us that, once upon a time there was a once upon a time. Innocence thrives wherever there are young children. It does not fade away, it is taken - sometimes more roughly than others.

But I'm putting Enid's works onto the shelves of XV without any guilt because I know they won't be there long. And, thank God, some of the buyers will be children.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

the altruism delusion

Channel Four is two-thirds through a series on The Genius of Charles Darwin.

In the first programme, Dawkins took on - in every sense - a group of teenage schoolchildren who, more power to their elbow, refused to give up the faiths that they held in differing degrees. In his birthplace of Kenya, he meditated on lion hunting antelope, and Darwin's famous example of the ichneumon wasp's larva eating a live caterpillar from the inside to posit the lack of a central authority: there's "no safety net".

This eveBishop Bonifes Adoyoning he returns to Kenya, to ask evangelical Bishop Bonifes Adoyo why the latter opposes evolution. The Bishop, tellingly, says he doesn't oppose evolution, merely an exhibition on human evolution being held next-door to his church; but he only gets a few seconds of air-time.

Dawkins seems to be showing us his warm, fuzzy side by saying: "As a scientist, I'm thrilled by natural selection; as a human being, I abhor it" - in other words, and the theme of the show: "why should the fifth ape [humankind] 'love thy neighbour?'"

Dawkins, I think, is positing a dichotomy here - the "ruthless competition" of nature in "all its brutal glory" versus the society in which, witness the title of the extra chapter at the end of the 30th aniversary issue of The Selfish Gene, "nice guys finish first".

Perhaps Dawkins has a right to feel rather sensitive about the title of his first popular work, as The Selfish Gene is about the survival of any one gene as opposed to its allele, ie the gene opposite it in the double helix of DNA, and by extension the survival of the amino acid/protein that gene codes for, and way up the ladder the gene's expression in the phenotype (the organism's appearance and workings). In its original format the book finishes:

We have the power to defy the selfish gene of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the selfish tyranny of the selfish replicators.
(NB A "meme" is allegedly a societal version of a gene - a cultural replicator, eg the meme for the English language, the meme for religion, etc. However, although Dawkins claims in footnote 192 in the 30th anniv. edition of TSG that neurologist Juan Delius had discovered what a meme might look like and claims have since been made about "the cerebral basis of religious memes," personally I haven't heard much on the subject.)
Margaret Sanger
So how would we "rebel against the selfish tyranny" of the gene? Dawkins suggests at the end of TSG30 that the most common way of doing this is contraception; but it occurs to me that contraception, as widely practiced and unfairly maligned as it may be, could be seen as a way to make the removal of what some might see as excess population competing for their kin's resources easy. Many supporters of contraception, as well as abortion, were members of the British Eugenics Society (now known as the Galton Institute): as national or international policy, birth control seems to be about controlling other folks' birth rates.

Another way to rebel seems to be altruism, although Dawkins explains in TSG how altruism can function as a method for prolonging the lives and therefore mating potential of one's kin (in other words gene-pool), even if one's own mating potential suffers. He's had problems with altruism over the years, and seems to reconcile himself with its presence in modern society - in the featured case in a soup-kitchen for street people - as a "misfiring" of genes that are meant to protect the mating potential of the tribal group, in a context wherein "tribes" are, theoretically, dissolved in the cosmopolitan soup. Indeed, in The God Delusion he refers to adoption, spending resources on a child who does not carry one's genes, as "a blessed misfiring" - others just call it blessed.

The problem for Dawkins seems to be that altruism's all good and well, but from the point of view of the survival of genes, much of it isn't necessary in this world where "Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest extravagance...Nature cannot afford frivolous jeux d'esprit." (The God Delusion, chapter 5) Indeed, the principles of kin-selection would justify not only genocide - like the Holocaust, Rwanda and Sudan - but also eugenics, both phenomena from which he is struggling to distance himself (perhaps being in the running for the Daily Telegraph National Treasures award is concentrating his mind). The programme wasted a few minutes of my life showing how a "nice guy" was the most popular donor in a sperm-bank, but this would again fall under the definition of kin-selection. If you want women you don't know to bear your progeny, you're hardly going to write a resumé saying "I hate everybody and kick puppies", are you?

There's no getting away from it: if your view of yourself and the world is one of fighting it out in a molecular battlefield (that nobody is sure Darwin could have lent his support to), this is going to affect your view of yourself and the world for the worse. For example, from last night's programme:

We are survival machines - vehicles for the genes inside us that are thrown away once the genes have been passed on...It is only genes that really survive. A gene that didn't look after its own interest wouldn't survive."

The anthropomorphic reference to the self-interested gene notwithstanding, this seems to be a reference to a passage at the end of chapter 2 of TSG, talking about how genes have gathered bodies around themselves:

Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale of our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

RProfessor Dennis Nobleevd Keith Riglin of the United Reformed Church in another old fen introduced me to a dramatic reframing of the above statement by a fellow Oxonian. In the The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome, Dennis Noble, Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at Balliol College, reverses the gene/organism polarity in favour of the organism:

Now they are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependant on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.

Am I right? Is Dawkins wrong? I don't know. All I can say is that I live in hope. Dawkins, it seems, now that he's handed on his genes and by his own words is ready to be thrown away, lives to shape his legacy before becoming, in Arthur Koestler's words at the end of Darkness at Noon, "a shrug of eternity".

Related posts

The Genius of Charles Darwin Part 1: the ichneumon delusion

The Genius of Charles Darwin Part 3: return of the ichneumon delusion

Thursday, August 7, 2008

As the Olympics begin

Retaining an interest anabolic steroids as a former drugs-worker, I felt an alarm ringing in my noggin as I read a First Post report on things that could go wrong with the Beijing Olympics. It concludes:

Last year a caterer working for the United States Olympic Committee visited China and was shocked to discover why portions of chicken being sold in supermarkets were so huge: "We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes," he said. "They all would have tested positive."
This could create some confusion should Olympians fail "dope" tests by testing positive for anabolic steroids, which are all artificial - and strong - versions of testosterone. Add concerns that testing for banned substances is tainted by the "prosecutor's fallacy" (which is an assumption that - in this context - producing a false positive for a dope test is unlikely, therefore innocence is unlikely), and it looks like the process of moving an investigation forward from a failed banned substance test could be fraught with counter-accusations and even litigation.

click to read BeijingAirblog.comThere are, of course, many other considerations surrounding the Olympics which arise merely from the fact that they are being held in China. It's a famously polluted city, even by the standards of China's measurement of clean air being up to an Air Pollution Index of 100 - twice World Health Organisation's measurement. The API has been pushed down to 95 by the closure of 100 factories and 56 power-plants in the city, the capital of a country whose average hourly wage is $0.57 (29 pence). I don't know if the workers will be paid for their enforced holiday - perhaps one of the 600-plus British public servants who will be attending at a cost of £7m to the taxpayer will think to pose the question. One lives in hope. Sometimes.

The thorny issue of human rights is a thistle that seems not to be getting grasped with any alacrity by any the major TV stations covering the Olympics despitethe demonstrations that greeted the Olympic Torch - first carried in Adolph Hitler's 1936 Olympics in another totalitarian nation - as it was carried, surrounded by Chinese élite police, through the nation's capitals. In our own capital, the Chinese officers clashed at points with British bobbies. Take, for just one of many examples, the case of Alimujiang Yimiti, who is currently detained for the crime of being a Christian. Not that visiting journalists in Beijing are guaranteed to find it easy to get details about Yamiti or others on the internet - despite promises to the contrary, which helped Beijing secure the games, the Chinese are now cracking down on freedom to access international websites reporting human rights abuses there by reinstating the great firewall of China. (As it happens, access to Amnesty International has at present been restored to China, but using the verification tool at the bottom of this post confirms that many Falun Gong sites are still banned. I should note, however, that another site has stopped verifiying sites as the increasing complexity of censorship measures make it difficult to give a definite result.)

note the second Chinese policeman on the left forcing Connie Huq to hold the torch higher - click to read coverage
Possibly the most egregious abuse of human rights in China is their government's throwaway - literally - attittude to children. The one child rule doesn't just lead to enforced abortions and infanticide in maternity hospitals, but an undesirable child - often so for merely being a girl - will often end up in an orphanage so that the parents can try for a boy and still be within the one-child rule. One report states:

Child-care workers reportedly selected unwanted infants and children for death by intentional deprivation of food and water a process known among the workers as the “summary resolution” of childrens’ alleged medical problems. When an click to read the Human Rights Watch report on China's orphansorphan chosen in this manner was visibly on the point of death from starvation or medical neglect, orphanage doctors were then asked to perform medical “consultations” which served as a ritual marking the child for subsequent termination of care, nutrition, and other life-saving intervention. Deaths from acute malnutrition were then, in many cases, falsely recorded as having resulted from other causes, often entirely spurious or irrelevant conditions such as “mental deficiency” and “cleft palate.”

I remember at school I was once a member of a chess club. One boy, known for cheating, tried to get onto the "game ladder" without much success until one day somebody felt sorry for him. The teacher supervising watched the game closely but was inevitably called away, at which point the boy "accidentally" knocked over a piece and replaced it in a more advantageous position. He won the game and got onto the match ladder, which gave him the right to demand a game with anybody three places or less above him. he never lost, and soon the chess club had fallen apart.

If China decides that objective necessity dictate a good showing on the gold medal front to show the superiority of the Chinese way, then it will have a good showing on the gold medal front, and the Olympic games will slowly fade into irrelevance because any use of banned substances discovered will be justified by "it didn't stop the Chinese athlete so and so..." Unless the International Olympic Committee stands up for itself, China will use it as a doormat. And the resulting humble pie won't taste like chicken, with or without added steroids.

Related posts:

Sport isn't worth that much - Yimiti's olympic struggle
at the close of the Olympics

Monday, August 4, 2008

the ichneumon delusion

Charles Darwin before the 'Beagle' voyage
Watching Richard Dawkins on TV makes me very grumpy, therefore I try not to miss him.

Tonight saw the first episode of The Genius of Charles Darwin, a three-part series of the author of The Origin of Species. The C4 Website (linked to above) says, in its overview of the series:

According to recent polls four out of 10 British people still believe in God as the creator of the universe and everything in it. As a scientist, and Britain's best-known atheist, Dawkins believes that such people simply don’t know enough about the evidence for Darwin's entirely natural explanation of life on Earth – evolution.

And so the polemics begin - religious people, in Dawkins' view, are not merely mistaken in their beliefs: they are wrong because they are uneducated.

The programme starts with the scientist - or, more precisely, the philosopher of science - addressing a class of 15-16 year olds, all of whom appeared to have been picked from the 40% of people who according to the aforementioned polls still believe in God. Most of them still appeared to believe in God with varying degrees of doubt at the end of the programme, although one boy said that "I don't think evolution's going to be one hundred percent accepted, 'cos there's still a lot of religious people out there." However, most of them said they were coming over to the idea of evolution.

I found this strange. I learnt about evolution at a younger age than these children at a faith school Gregor Mendelin Glasgow, and found the idea that the world was as young as alleged in Archbishop Ussher's chronology, which placed the creation of Adam and Eve in 4004, rather strange. We studied the idea of heredity as proposed by Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk and contemporary of Darwin's who has been hailed as the father of genetics, and were fascinated by the concept of the Big Bang, an idea first proposed (under the name of the "Primeval Atom") by the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, whose vocation appears not to have deterred the great astrophysicist Arthur Eddington from collaboration. (I later learnt of the important work on paleontology - ie humanity pre-4004 - done by the French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, whose work anticipated James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis.)

Dawkins is still fighting battles that others have walked away from a long time ago - for instance, in trying to show how evolution's bloody battlefield precludes God, he refers to antelope being ripped apart by lion in his native Kenya, and then to "feeling a parasite rasping away from within", and concludes, "there is no central authority, no safety net."

The mention of the parasite is a reference to the ichneumon wasp, one species of which finds a caterpillar to lay its eggs inside after paralysing it, meaning that the caterpillar is alive while being eaten by the little blighters. The Victorians were arrogant enough to have a crisis of conscience over this fact, which weakened many people's faith in God to no small extent. (Funnily enough, the ichneumon wasp is the first fully-worked out example in Dawkin's The Extended Phenotype). I call the Victorians arrogant in that if they'd really wanted to have a crisis of conscience, they could have done worse than look in their local workhouse, which might have weakened some of their typically rugged faith in themselves.

Dawkins, like a typical mid-Victorian, is something of a rugged individualist in that he seems to want the whole world to be able to do without God, in contemplation of whom he throws one of the most famous tantrums in recent literary history in The God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Darwin, a former theological student, displayed more self-control when he wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." Even so, I feel as if I'm witnessing the playground cri de coeur of a child who first realises that the world of grown-ups is deeply unfair.

Dawkins, however, is determined to appear as a great white hunter at the vanguard of humanity's battle to survive. He returns to Africa to consider humanity's fight against viruses, which he seems to identify as our latest engine of natural selection and concentrates on HIV - worryingly so, since he has only just treated the effects of Malthus' catastrophic theories on how disease and famine were essential to control overpopulation. I wonder if he would see natural selection so disinterestedly if a virus were devastating the world's top dons.

But there's the rub. Viruses like HIV are nothing to do with being at the cutting edge of humankind, or acting as a check upon overpopulation. As medical author Frank Ryan explains in his book on emerging viruses, Virus X, new viruses are directly related to the effects of human acquisitiveness (the original sin?) upon the natural habitats of said viruses:

Deforestation is therefore a dangerous practice...Take for example the consequent loss of birds. The reduction in bird numbers may mean a plague of insects. In Robert Shope's words: 'Every time you sample a new species of insect, you find new viruses'. In the Amazon, as in the African and Asian rainforests, there are more than a million species of insect the repercussions, through a myriad of poorly understood pathways, will prove continental and in some circumstances, possibly global. Whenever man intrudes...the disturbed microbes will begin to emerge.

The notorious clearing of the Briazilian forest for the building of the road through Rondonia, has already resulted in between 400,000 and 800,000 additional cases of malaria. In 1989 an epidemic affecting 100 people in Venezuala was traced to the emerging Guanarito haemmorhagic fever virus which broke out in a rural community which had begun to clear the rainforest. Deforestation or intrusion into the rainforest played an important part in the emergence of Ebola and, perhaps with the hunting of primates, in the emergence of AIDS.
So although ideologues like Dawkins may lampoon people of faith as following the desire to "believe without question...obey the tribal elders" (The God Delsuion, chapter 5), it seems that he is inviting his target audience to accept what he is saying, without presenting an alternative view - an abuse of a programme named after a scientist who agonised over the implications of his theories for faith and the accepted truths of his time. (In the recent Church of England Synod, for example, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams found that trying to get free-thinking Christians to see eye to eye was like herding cats.) Stephen Jay Gould

At the end of an essay on how nature's non-moral essence does not allow us to draw ethical conclusions about how lion hunt or the fates of caterpillars, Stephen Jay Gould quotes a sentence from Darwin's correspondence that I wonder if Dawkins will allow his class to hear in the remaining two episodes of the documentary:

"I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can."

Related posts

The Genius of Charles Darwin Part 2: the altruism delusion

The Genius of Charles Darwin Part 3: return of the ichneumon delusion

Saturday, August 2, 2008

a trip to Tesco's

Maxima's brother Arietinum is visiting us. We needed to get some supplies, and got a bus out of the draughty old fen and ended up in one of Cambridgeshire's larger Tesco's. I filled him in about the ongoing saga unfolding in Cantabrigia's Mill Road, whereby a Tesco's store which had received basic planning permission was receiving a level of opposition unprecedented in Cambridge because it was...Tesco's.

After the planning meeting before last, when permission for air condithe no mill road tesco campaigntioning and refrigeration plant was refused, but the planning permission remained, the No Mill Road Tesco campaign threw a wobbly of epic proportions and sent in the squatters, who proclaimed that the shop area was now the Mill Road Social Centre. It ran events such as comedy nights, women's rollerskating sessions and tango classes; there was also talk of martial arts classes at one point, in order to prepare for "aggro when the police come", but that notice was soon removed. Anyway, the police raided it again yesterday, evicting five or six squatters. I imagine it'll soon become a cause célèbre after the fashion of the storming of the Bastille. I hope Tesco's moves in soon, if nothing else it might make the Co-op put its prices down a bit.

Arietinum brought over a bag of herbs and complained that he knew a shop in London where he could get six times the amount for a lower price. I invited him to take another bus journey into Mill Road to one of the shops that are supposedly endangered by Tesco's (like the Chinese/Korean/Malaysian/Afro-Carribean deli's and the head and wig shops, I suppose). He demurred. I asked him why he hadn't brought supplies up from the shop he mentioned if it was so great. He replied he'd first been attracted to it because it sold feta cheese in basins of salted water, then fell out of love when he saw the shop-owner filling up one of the basins with the contents of tins.
furred and feathered friends
We had a brief verbal tussle over the eggs, as Arietinum had once had nightmares after visiting a battery-farm. Personally, I'd debeak the buggers myself to make our budget stretch further, and give me time to concentrate on sink estates, knife crime and corrupt governments. (Professor Calculus, no animal welfare activist, disagrees: he says that if you can tolerate battery farms then you can tolerate anything.) But Arietinum won, and somewhere a hen is enjoying a better lifestyle than many British people.

And so we caught the bus back to the draughty old fen. I hope that by Arietinum's next visit Tesco's will have a store in Mill Road, so that Arietinum can buy herbs, lentils and overpriced eggs to his heart's content, and I can buy mince, tatties, the
papers, milk and a bottle of wine in the same store for a reasonable price. If Tesco's is busy, I'll go to the Co-op - that's how choice works in a free society. And everything on the one bus journey. click to read John Redwood's 'In Praise of Tesco'