Archive for the ‘Evolutionary Theory’ Category

Richard Dawkins Promoting Atheism at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature

October 7, 2019

This week is the Cheltenham festival of literature. It’s an annual event when novelists, poets, illustrators and increasingly TV and radio personalities descend on the town to talk about and try to sell the books they’ve had published. There can be, and often are, some great speakers discussing their work. I used to go to it regularly in the past, but went off it after a few years. Some of the people turn up, year in, year out, and there are only so many times you can see them without getting tired of it.

Dawkins, Atheism and Philosophical Positivism

One of the regular speakers at the Festival is the zoologist, science writer and atheist polemicist, Richard Dawkins. The author of Climbing Mount Improbable, The River Out Of Eden, The Blind Watchmaker and so on is appearing in Cheltenham to promote his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. It sounds like a kind of successor to his earlier anti-religious work, The God Delusion. According to the accompanying pamphlet for the festival, he’s going to be talking to an interviewer about why we should all stop believing in God. There’s no doubt Dawkins deserves his platform at the Festival as much as any other writer. He’s a popular media personality, and writes well. However, his knowledge of philosophy, theology and the history of science, which forms the basis for his attacks on Christianity, is extremely low, and defenders of religion, and even other scientists and historians, who are just interested in defending their particular disciplines from factual mistakes and misinterpretations, have shot great holes in them.

Dawkins is, simply put, a kind of naive Positivist. Positivism was the 19th century philosophy, founded by Auguste Comte, that society moved through a series of three stages in its development. The first stage was the theological, when the dominant ideology was religion. Then came the philosophical stage, before the process ended with science. Religion was a thing of the past, and science would take over its role of explaining the universe and guiding human thought and society. Comte dreamed of the emergence of a ‘religion of humanity’, with its own priesthood and rituals, which would use sociology to lead humanity. Dawkins doesn’t quite go that far, but he does believe that religion and science – and specifically Darwinism – are in conflict, and that the former should give way to the latter. And he’s not alone. I heard that a few years ago, Alice Robert, the forensic archaeologist and science presenter, gave a speech on the same subject at the Cheltenham Festival of Science when she was its guest director, or curator, or whatever they term it. A friend of mine was less than impressed with her talk and the lack of understanding she had of religion. He tweeted ‘This is a girl who thinks she is intelligent.’

War of Science and Religion a Myth

No, or very few historians of science, actually believe that there’s a war between the two. There have been periods of tension, but the idea of a war comes from three 19th century writers. And it’s based on and cites a number of myths. One of these is the idea that the Church was uniformly hostile to science, and prevented any kind of scientific research and development until the Renaissance and the rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek texts. It’s a myth I learnt at school, and it’s still told as fact in many popular textbooks. But other historians have pointed out that the Middle Ages was also a period of scientific investigation and development, particularly following the influence of medieval Islamic science and the ancient Greek and Roman texts they had preserved, translated, commented on and improved. Whole books have been written about medieval science, such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine, and James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers. Hannam is a physicist, who did a doctorate in examining the development of medieval science, showing that, far from retarding or suppressing it, medieval churchmen were intensely interested in it and were active in its research. Medieval science was based very much on Aristotle, but they were well aware of some of the flaws in his natural philosophy, and attempted to modify it in order to make it conform to observed reality. The Humanists of the Renaissance, rather than bringing in freedom of thought and scientific innovation, were actually a threat. They wanted to strip philosophy and literature of its medieval modifications to make it correspond exactly with the ancients’ original views. Which would have meant actually destroying the considerable advances which had been made. Rather than believe that renaissance science was a complete replacement of medieval science, scholars like Hannam show that it was solidly based on the work of their medieval predecessors.

Christian Theology and the Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution of the 17th century in England also has roots in Christian philosophy and theology. Historians now argue that the Royal Society was the work of Anglican Broadchurchmen, who believed that God had created a rational universe amenable to human reason, and who sought to end the conflict between the different Christian sects through uniting them in the common investigation of God’s creation. See, for example, R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press 1972).

Christian Monotheism and the Unity of Physical Law

It is also Christian monotheist theology that provides one of the fundamental assumptions behind science. Modern science is founded on the belief that the laws of nature amount to a single, non-contradictory whole. That’s the idea behind the ‘theory of everything’, or Grand Unified Theory everyone was talking about back in the 1990s. But this idea goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas said that we must believe that the laws of nature are one, because God is one.  It’s the assumption, founded on Christian theology, the makes science possible.

Atheist Reductionism also a Danger

When The God Delusion Came Out, it was met by a series of books attacking its errors, some of them with titles like The Dawkins Delusion. The philosopher Mary Midgley has also attacked the idea that science can act as a replacement for religion in her books Evolution as a Religion and The Myths We Live By. On page 58 of the latter she attacks the immense damage to humanity atheist reductionism also poses. She writes

Both reductive materialism and reductive idealism have converged to suggest that reductivism is primarily a moral campaign against Christianity. This is a dangerous mistake. Obsession with the churches has distracted attention from reduction employed against notions of human individuality, which is now a much more serious threat. It has also made moral problems look far simplar than they actually are. Indeed, some hopeful humanist reducers still tend to imply that, once Christian structures are cleared away, life in general will be quite all right and philosophy will present no further problems.

In their own times, these anti-clerical reductive campaigns have often been useful. But circumstances change. New menaces, worse than the one that obsesses us, are always appearing, so that what looked like a universal cure for vice and folly becomes simply irrelevant. In politics, twentieth-century atheistical states are not an encouraging omen for the simple secularistic approach to reform. it turns out that the evils that have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution. Nor is it even clear that religion itself is something that the human race either can or should be cured of.

Darwin Uninterested in Atheist Campaigning

Later in the book she describes how the Marxist Edward Aveling was disappointed when he tried to get Darwin to join him in a campaign to get the atheist, Bradlaugh, to take his seat as a duly elected MP. At the time, atheists were barred from public office by law. Aveling was impressed by Darwin’s work on evolution, which he believed supported atheism. Darwin was an agnostic, and later in life lost belief in God completely due to the trauma of losing a daughter and the problem of suffering in nature. But Darwin simply wasn’t interested in joining Aveling’s campaign. When Aveling asked him what he was now studying, hoping to hear about another earth-shaking discovery that would disprove religion, Darwin simply replied ‘Earthworms’. The great biologist was fascinated by them. It surprised and shocked Aveling, who hadn’t grasped that Darwin was simply interested in studying creatures for their own sake.

Evolutionists on Evolution Not Necessarily Supporting Atheism

Other evolutionary biologists also concluded that evolution has nothing to say about God, one way or another. Stephen Jay Gould stated that he believed that Darwinism only hinted at atheism, not that it proved it. Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who published his own theory of evolution in Zoonomia in 1801, believed on the other hand that the development of creatures from more primitive forebears made the existence of God ‘mathematically certain’.

Frank H.T. Rhodes of the University of Michigan wrote in his book Evolution (New York: Golden Press 1974) on its implications the following, denying that it had any for religion, politics or economics.

Evolution, like any other natural process or scientific theory, is theologically neutral. it describes mechanisms, but not meaning. it is based upon the recognition of order but incorporates no conclusion concerning the origin of that order as either purposeful or purposeless.

Although evolution involves the interpretation of natural events by natural processes, it neither assumes nor provides particular conclusions concerning the ultimate sources or the significance of materials, events or processes.

Evolution provides no obvious conclusions concerning political or economic systems. Evolution no more supports evolutionary politics (whatever they might be) than does the Second Law of Thermodynamics support political disorder or economic chaos. 

(Page 152).

Conclusion

I realise that the book’s nearly 50 years old, and that since that time some scientists have worked extremely hard to show the opposite – that evolution support atheism. But I’ve no doubt other scientists, people most of us have never heard of, believe the opposite. Way back in 1909 or so there was a poll of scientists to show their religious beliefs. The numbers of atheists and people of faith was roughly equal, and 11 per cent of the scientists polled said that they were extremely religious. When the poll was repeated in the 1990s, the pollsters were surprised to find that the proportion of scientists who were still extremely religious had not changed.

Despite what Dawkins tells you, atheism is not necessarily supported by science, and does not disprove it. Other views of the universe, its origin and meaning are available and still valid.

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Two-Part Series Beginning Tomorrow on BBC 4 on History of Eugenics

October 2, 2019

According to this week’s Radio Times, BBC 4 begins a two-part series tomorrow, Thursday 3rd October 2019, at 9.00 pm, on the history of eugenics, Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal. The blurb for the programme on page 103 of the magazine reads

The controversial theory of eugenics was a driving force behind the Nazi death camps. Adherents believed it was possible to improve the genetic quality of the human race by discouraging reproduction by people with “undesirable” traits. Journalist Angela Saini and disability rights activist Adam Pearson reveal how these shocking beliefs permeated the British establishment in the first half of the 20th century, gaining influential supporters such as Winston Churchill and Marie Stopes.

The additional snippet about the programme by Patrick Mulkern on page 100 says

A thorny subject, eugenics (or “genetic determinism”), the notion that of breeding what some might consider a “better human”, is covered in two parts by science journalist Angela Saini and disability campaigner Adam Pearson.

Tonight, they look at its roots in this country in the liberal sphere of London’s Bloomsbury in the late 19th century – some decades before it was seized upon and put into horrible practice by the Nazis. There’s a concern, even fear, that eugenics is alive and well and making a comeback in academia, science and social policy. Gene editing may mean medical benefits, but who knows where it will lead? 

The blurb for the second and final part of the programme in next week’s Radio Times on page 105, which is on next Thursday, 10th October, at the same time, 9.00 pm, runs

Science journalist Angela Saini and disability rights activist Adam Pearson continue to uncover the disturbing story of eugenics. The controversial idea that the human race could be improved by selective breeding took hold in certain scientific communities before the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust exposed the terrifying possibilities the theory offered. They also look at how eugenic practices such as the sterilisation of the poor continued long after the Second World War and ask whether current medical breakthroughs such as gene editing could be misused.

There’s another little piece about it by Patrick Mulkern on page 102. This states

“It would have been better by far if they had never been born” – chilling words from the past but part of an ideology that has threaded its way through to today.

Eugenics didn’t die with the Nazis. Programmes of selective breeding to weed out disability and mass sterilisation of the poor have continued in parts of the world. 

Science journalist Angela Saini and Adam Pearson (a disability campaaigner who’s been abused in the street because of his looks) front the concluding part of this incisive doc. it suggests that medical breakthroughs, market forces and prejudice are leading us into a new era of eugenics.

As Jeffrey Davies, one of the long-term commenters on this site reminds people, the Nazis began their campaign of mass extermination which culminated in the Holocaust of the Jews and the genocide – porajmos – of the Gypsies – with the mass murder of the disabled, Aktion T4. Dubbed ‘lebensunwertigen Leben‘ – ‘life unworthy of life’ – the congenitally disabled were taken by special SS ambulance units to clinics and insane asylums, where they were murdered with poison gas.

The Nazis had already enacted a considerable edifice of legislation providing for the sterilisation of the disabled, based on that passed by 24 states in the US. They boasted that they had not done anything novel themselves. After the War, some states still carried on sterilising those they considered genetically undesirable. The mentally handicapped continued to be castrated in American mental hospitals. In Sweden, the authorities were afraid that if the disabled and mentally incompetent were allowed to breed, they would put the country’s nationalised health service in crisis, and so they passed eugenics legislation in that country. Those targeted for sterilisation included the Tartare – a traveller people. The Romany and other ethnic groups were exempt from the legislation, but the Tartare were not as they were regarded as ethnically Swedish. This judgement was overturned a few years ago when the Tartare victims sued for compensation. The legislation also targeted those seen as not conforming to proper social or sexual morality. Promiscuous women were also sterilised, for example. The programme only came to an end in 1975.

It will also be interesting to see what the programme has to say about eugenic’s survival among certain parts of the Tory party. Maggie’s mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, caused outrage in the mid-70s when he declared that unmarried mothers were a threat to our stock. The Tories’ current campaign of throwing the severely disabled off benefits using rigged fitness to work tests looks to Mike and very many other disability rights campaigners like another eugenic campaign of mass killing. And Iain Duncan Smith, one of its chief architects, even had the gall to begin an article praising his government’s welfare to work policy with the statement that the infamous slogan on the entrance to the concentration camps, Arbeit Macht Frei – ‘Work Makes You Free’ – was actually a good policy, wrongly tarnished through association with the Nazis. That odious little paragraph disappeared from the article shortly after, but not before it had been noticed and commented on by the left-wing and disabled people’s press and blogs.

And one of the most notorious of today’s eugenics supporters is the malign Toby Young, who was exposed a little while ago attending a eugenics conference at University College London. Which was, unsurprisingly, full of people who could rightly be described as Nazis. This is a good reason not to read anything by the vile scumbag, or take his views remotely seriously.

Eugenics doesn’t solely affect the disabled. It’s used against working people as a whole and Blacks and other ethnic minorities. The argument is that the poor are poor, and will always be poor, because their genetically inferior. Passing legislation to improve their conditions and opportunities is wasteful and harmful, because it will encourage them to outbreed their genetic superiors in the middle and upper classes. There are a slew of organisations in the American Libertarian right which pursue or have pursued that line, which are connected to the Republican Party. It will be very interesting to see what this programme has to say about them.

Scientists Demand Outlawing Teaching of Creationism in Wales

September 6, 2019

Here’s a different issue to Brexit and the Tories, but one which, I think, also raises profound questions and dangers. According to today’s I for 6th September 2019, David Attenborough has joined a number of other scientists backing a campaign to ban the teaching of Creationism as science in Welsh schools. The campaign was started by Humanists UK. The article, titled ‘Attenborough calls for creationism teaching ban’, by Will Hazell, on page 22, runs

Sir David Attenborough is backing a campaign urging the Welsh Government to outlaw the teaching of creationism as science from its new curriculum.

The broadcaster is one of dozens of leading scientists to sign a letter calling for evolution to be taught at primary level as well as an explicit ban on teaching creationism as science.

Humanists UK, which organised the letter, claims the draft national curriculum does not teach evolution until ages 14 to 15.

The letter reads: “Pupils should be introduced to [evolution] early – certainly at primary level – as it underpins so much else.

“Without an explicit ban on teaching creationism and other pseudoscientific theories as evidence-based, such teaching may begin to creep into the school curriculum.”

In 2015, the Scottish Government made clear that creationism should not be taught in state schools, while in England, state schools – including primaries – have to teach evolution as a “comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidence-based theory”.

The new Welsh curriculum, due to be rolled out in 2022, set out six “areas of learning and experience”, including science and technology.

A spokeswoman for Wales Humanists said it “could allow schools much more flexibility over what they teach”. “This is very worrying, as it could make it much easier for a school to openly teach creationism as science,” she added.

But a spokesman for the Welsh Government denied the claims, saying: “It is wholly incorrect to claim that evolution will only be introduced at 14 to 16.

“We believe that providing children with an understanding of evolution at an early age will help lay foundations for a better understanding of wider scientific concepts later on.”

Both Mike and I went to an Anglican comprehensive school, which certainly did teach evolution before 14 or 15 years of age. In the first year I can remember learning about the geological history of the Earth and the formation of the continents. We were also taught evolution, as illustrated by the development of the modern horse from ancestral species such as Eohippus.

Theories of Evolution before Darwin

I am also very much aware that the history of religious attitudes towards evolution is much more complex than the accepted view that Christians and other people of faith are uniformly opposed to it. One of the first books promoting the evolution of organisms from simpler ancestral forms was written by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. Erasmus Darwin was part of the late 18th century scientific group, the Lunar Society, who were the subject of book, The Lunar Men, published a few years ago by the British writer and academic, Jenny Uglow. I think Erasmus was a Quaker, rather than a member of a more mainstream Christian denomination, but he was a religious believer. In his book he argued that the evolution of different organisms made the existence of a Creator ‘mathematically certain’. Erasmus Darwin was followed in turn by the great French scientist, Lamarck, who published his own theory of evolution. This was highly influential, and when Darwin was a student in Scotland, one of the lecturers used to take him and the other students to a beach to show them the shells and other fossils showing the evolution of life. And one of the reasons why Darwin himself put off publishing his magnum opus, The Origin of Species for so long was because of the reception of another, preceding book on evolution, Joseph Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chambers’ book had caused a sensation, but its arguments had been attacked and refuted on scientific grounds. Darwin was afraid this would happen to his own work unless he made the argument as secure as possible with supporting facts. And he himself admitted when it finally was published that even then, the evidence for it was insufficient.

The Other Reasons for Darwin’s Loss of Faith

Darwin certainly lost his faith and it’s a complete myth that he recanted on his deathbed. But I think the reasons for his loss of faith were far more complex than that they were undermined by his own theory, although that may very well have also played a part. Rather, he was disturbed by the suffering in nature. How could a good God allow animals to become sick, prey on each other, and die? I might also be wrong here, but I think one of his daughters died, and that also contributed to his growing atheism. As you can understand.

Christian Acceptance and Formulation of Theories of Evolution

At the same time, although Darwin’s theory did cause shock and outrage, some Christians were prepared to accept it. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, when he debated T.H. Huxley on Darwin’s theory, opened the debate by stating that no matter how uncomfortable it was, Christians should nevertheless accept the theory if it were true. And after about two decades, the majority of Christians in Britain had largely accepted it. One of the reasons they did so was theological. Some of the other theories of evolution proposed at the same time suggested that evolution was driven by vital, supernatural energies without the direction of a creator. The mechanistic nature of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rebutted the existence of these non-materialistic forces, so that Christians could still believe that God was in charge of the overall process.

In the 1840s in Britain, Samuel Baden-Powell, a professor of Mathematics at Oxford, proposed a view of evolution that attempted to prove that it was driven by the Almighty, by comparing it to the manufacturing process in factories. In 1844 the Polish writer, Juliusz Towianski, published his Genezis z ducha – ‘Creation through the Spirit), an explicitly religious theory of evolution. He believed that God had created the world at the request of disembodied spirits. However, these were given imperfect forms, and since that time have been striving to ascend the evolutionary ladder back to God through a process of transformation and catastrophe. By the 1900s in many Christians eye evolution had become an accepted theory which posed no obstacle to religious faith. The term ‘fundamentalism’ is derived from a series of tracts, Fundamentals of Christianity, published in America in the early 20th century. This was published as a response to the growth in religious scepticism. However, it fully accepts evolution.

Scientists Against Evolution

The Intelligent Design crowd have also pointed out that rather than being the sole province of churchmen and people of faith, many of Darwin’s critics were scientists, like Mivart. They objected to his theory purely on scientific grounds.

Creationism, Christianity and Islam

If the history of the reaction to Darwin’s theory is rather different than the simplistic view that it was all just ignorant religious people versus rational scientists, I also believe the situation today is also much more complex. A decade ago, around 2009 when Britain celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of the Species, there was a determined attack on Creationism, particularly by the militant New Atheists. Some of this was driven by anxiety over the growth of Creationism and the spread of Intelligent Design. This was framed very much as combating it within Christianity. The problem with that is that I understand that most Creationists in Britain are Muslims, rather than Christians. There was an incident reported in the press in which one Oxford biologist was astonished when a group of Muslims walked out of his lecture. This was Steve Jones, who presented the excellent Beeb science series about genetics and heredity, In the Blood back in the 1990s. One male student told him frankly that this conflicted with their religion, and walked out of the lecture hall, leaving Jones nonplussed. The far right Christian Libertarian, Theodore Beale, alias Vox Day, who really has some vile views about race and gender, caustically remarked on his blog that this showed the powerlessness of the scientific establishment to opposition from Islam. They were so used to Christians giving into them, that they didn’t know what to do when Muslims refused to cave. That said, I would not like to say that all Muslims were Creationists by any means. Akhtar, who led the demonstrations against the Satanic Verses in Bradford in the late ’80s and early ’90s, angrily declared in one of his books that Salafism – Islamic fundamentalism – did not mean rejecting evolution, and he could point to Muslims who believed in it.

Scepticism Towards Evolution Not Confined to the Religious

Another problem with the assumption that Creationism is leading to increasing scepticism towards evolution is that the statistics seem to show the opposite. Back around 2009 there was a report claiming that 7 out of 10 Brits didn’t believe in evolution. One evolutionary biologist was quoted as saying that this was due to the marginalisation of the teaching of evolution in British schools, and demanded that there should be more of it. Now it might be right that people don’t believe in evolution because of its teaching or lack therefore in British education. But this was the same time that the New Atheism was on the march, led by Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. This was supported by statistics showing that Christianity and church attendance was well in decline in this country. According to the stats, although many people identified as Christians and about 70 per cent at the time declared they believed in God, the actual number who go to church is far smaller. Only a few years ago further polls revealed that for the first, atheists were in the majority in this country. The growth of disbelief in evolution can’t simply be explained as the product of Creationism, whether Christian, Muslim or whatever.

Atheists and the Problem of Persuading Creationists to Accept Evolution

There’s also the problem here in that, however, well meant Humanists UK’s campaign may actually be, at one level they and Richard Attenborough are the last people, who should be leading it. They’re atheists. A few years ago Attenborough was the subject of an interview in the Radio Times, in which he photographed chatting with Dawkins. He was also quoted as saying that he had stopped believing in God when he was child, and at school he used to wonder during services how anybody could believe in such rubbish. He’s not the first or last schoolkid to have felt that. But it does mean that he has a very weak personal position when dealing with Creationists. Many Creationists object to the teaching of evolution because not just because they think it’s unscientific, but because they also believe that its a vehicle for a vehemently hostile, anti-Christian or simply irreligious and atheist political and intellectual establishment to foist their views on everyone else. A campaign insisting on the teaching of evolution by an atheist organisation like Humanists UK will only confirm this in their eyes.

Anti-Creationist Campaigns also Attacking Reasoned Critique of Materialist Views of Evolution

Another problem with the campaign against Creationism is that is leading scientists to attack any critique of the contemporary neo-Darwinian theory or materialist views of evolutionary. Gordon Rattray Taylor, a former Chief Science Advisor to the Beeb and editor of the Horizon science series, himself published a detailed critique of conventional evolutionary theory, The Great Evolution Mystery, shortly before his death in 1981. He states in it that he doesn’t want to denigrate Darwin, but he concludes that it is not so much a theory, as a subset of greater theory that has yet to be formulated. He also quotes another evolutionary biologist, von Bertalanffy, who said

‘I think the fact that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable … has become a dogma can only be explained on sociological grounds’.

Rattray Taylor himself concludes

Actually, the origin of the phyla is not be any means the weakest point in the Darwinian position. Many facts remain inexplicable, as we have seen. Modern biology is challenged by ‘a whole group of problems’ as Riedl remarks. Now, however, the attempt to present Darwinism as an established dogma, immune from criticism, is disintegrating. At last the intellectual log-jam is breaking up. So we may be on the verge of major advances. The years ahead could be exciting. Many of these advances, I confidently predict, will be concerned with form.

It is unfortunate that the Creationists are exploiting this new atmosphere by pressing their position; this naturally drives the biologists into defensive attitudes and discourages them from making any admissions.

Evolutionists have been blinkered by a too narrowly materialist and reductionist approach to their problems. But the trend of the times is away from Victorian certainties and Edwardian rigidities. In the world as a whole, there is growing recognition that life is more complex, even more mysterious, than we supposed. The probability that some things will never be understood no longer seems so frightening as it did. The probability that there are forces at work in the universes of which we have scarcely yet an inkling is not too bizarre to entertain. This is a step towards the freeing of the human mind which is pregnant with promise.

Conclusion

This is an effective rebuttal to the charge that challenges to materialist conceptions of evolution are a science-stopper, or that they will close minds. Rattray Taylor’s book was published in 1983, 36 years ago. I have no doubt that it’s dated, and that scientific advances have explained some of the mysteries he describes in the book. But I believe he still has a point. And I am afraid that however genuinely Humanists UK, Attenborough and the scientists, who put their name to the letter, are about making sure Welsh schoolchildren are scientifically literate, that their efforts are also part of a wider campaign to make sure materialist views of evolution are not challenged elsewhere in society and academia.

Private Eye: Government Plan to Draft Army as Local Government Officials in Event Brexit Crisis

September 6, 2019

There’s a very worrying story right at the beginning of this fortnight’s Private Eye. It’s page 7, where the actual text of the magazine starts right after the first few pages of advertising. Titled ‘Privates on Parade’, it reveals that Project Yellowhammer, the secret government plan for dealing with mass shortages caused by Brexit, also includes provisions for drafting the army in as local government officials. The reason they’ll be needed there is because there aren’t enough civil servants in the national administration to deal with the crisis, and if it happens, they’re going to have to draft in local government officials. The article runs

The government has spent the past fortnight trying to play down the leaked Operation Yellowhammer document about preparations for a “no deal” Brexit. Ministers initially pretended it was an old plan; when it emerged that the document was dated August 2019, they claimed preparations had alread moved on since then.

But the ramifications of the plans are extraordinary. To fill the thousands of extra civil service posts required the government has arranged for a rather unorthodox shuffle: if/when a “no deal” Brexit happens, thousands of local government officials are to be reallocated to Whitehall departments to fortify Sir Humphrey.

Who will run town and county halls in their absence? This is where matters become surreal. The army – including territorial volunteers – are being issued with instructions to take over local government posts, in a civilian capacity, in the event of “no deal”.

One officer, who admitted he was uncomfortable at the optics of all this, observed to the Eye that this involved putting soldiers in charge even when they lacked basic literacy and numeracy. Quite how they would get on in calculating council tax, or providing adult social care and children’s services, remains to be seen…

There are several remarks to be made about all this. The first is that it shows how stupid and destructive successive Conservative administrations have been in their determination to slim down the civil service. This has now reached the point where there are too few of them to run the country effectively in the event of a national crisis, like a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

The second is the massive implications this has for democracy in this country. I would imagine that one reason the unnamed officer felt uncomfortable about the ‘optics’ of the army moving into local government is that it looks very much like the beginnings of a military coup. And events don’t have to go much further before it really would amount to a military take-over of civilian government. I think that Operation Yellowhammer also provides for emergency legislation to deal with possible civil unrest in the event of shortages of food, medicines and other essential services. After a wave of rioting up and down the country the government could declare a state of emergency, draft in the army and put in force martial law.

Given Boris’ personal authoritarianism, as shown in his prorogation of parliament, I can imagine that he may even wish to dispense with parliamentary supervision in such an emergency. With the very loud support of the Tory press, he dissolves parliament again, which will only be recalled in after the restoration of order. And it probably isn’t so far-fetched to see some of the Tory right and British press demanding the arrest of left-wing subversives. If the unions call a strike, I imagine they’d be delighted. They could go back to Maggie’s tactic of posing as the nation’s champion against the bullying of the union barons. Further legislation would be passed or invoked to break up the strikes, ban trade unions and arrest trade unionists. At the same time, allegations of Communist connections and sympathies would be used to justify the arrest and detention of left-wing activists and trade unionists as threats to national security. This might be going too far, but I could also imagine the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the right-wing Zionists of organisations like Herut handing over lists of names of ‘the wrong sort of Jews’ in order to make sure Jewish critics of Israel and Conservatism were also arrested and detained. Because after all, they’re a threat to Israel, one of the West’s major outposts in the Middle East.

I’m not saying this will happen, only that it could. Back in 1975 the Conservative party and parts of the press, including the Times and the Mirror, were also pressing for a coup to overthrow Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Because industrial unrest had got out of hand, and he was supposed to be a KGB spy. See Francis Wheen’s book on paranoia in the ’70s, Strange Days Indeed. It’s also described in Ken Livingstone’s 1987 book, Livingstone’s Labour, in which the-then mayor of London discusses how there were plans to round up left-wing activists, MPs and journalists, and have them sent to concentration camps on one of the Scottish islands.

The plan to draft soldiers in to local government also reminds me of the very strong position of the armed forces in the economies in many developing countries. In Pakistan, for example, the army also runs businesses, like cement factories. I’ve heard that the same is true of Egypt. The military is deeply entwined with large sectors of industry. Now Johnson and co.’s plan only involves drafting the military in to deal with a shortage of civil servants. But Zelo Street posted a piece recently showing that the government was also considering buying up the surplus food produced by our farmers if they could not export to the continent, and asked whether they would also provide financial support to the British car industry, another part of the economy that’s under threat. If the government decides that they, too, will have to be given over to army management or staffing, then Johnson and the Tories will really have turned this country into a third world nation. He’ll have a created a real military dictatorship, like those that have afflicted Pakistan and other nations. And they will be cheered on in this destruction by the right-wing press, like the Times, the Mail and the Scum. Lurking behind this threat of a coup, is the danger of a return of real Nazism from Social Darwinists like Toby Young and Dominic Cummings, who fear that giving education and welfare support to the poor and disabled is a threat to our racial stock and the proper running of our society by the upper classes. You can see them demanding legislation once again to sterilise the disabled and those on benefits.

The Tories and the right-wing media, including the Beeb, are now a real threat to democracy, whatever Boris and the Polecat now say about holding elections. We have to get them out, even if that means that Corbyn and the rest of the opposition have to bide their time for the moment. The future of our country and its people really is at stake.

 

 

Brexit Bias on the Beeb: Points West Goes to Weston-Super-Mare

September 4, 2019

The Beeb, as has been pointed out by countless left-wing websites and academics, ad nauseam, has a very strong Tory bias. It’s shown in its determination to vilify the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn at every chance it can get, while packing news shows like Question Time with Tory MPs, supporters and members of right-wing think tanks. And this right-wing bias seems to go right down to local news. Points West is the local news programme for the Bristol area, covering not just Bristol, but also Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. Yesterday, as part of the coverage of the Brexit debates in parliament and the demonstrations both pro- and anti-, they decided to gauge local attitudes in our part of the West Country. This meant talking to three local MPs, Thangam Debonnaire in Bristol, the Tory MP for Tewkesbury and another Tory from the Forest of Dean. They wanted to talk to the latter because he was one of those who threw their hat into the ring when the party ousted Tweezer and started about deciding her successor. And it was very clear that he was a Brexiteer, who wanted the whole debate to be over and done with and everyone get behind BoJob. He couldn’t, however, say what benefits Brexit would bring his constituents in the Forest, and didn’t answer the question when David Garmston, the interviewer, asked him what he was going to tell them what they would be for his constituents. Instead he just waffled about how he was sure they wanted it over and done with as soon as possible, or were fully informed of the Brexit debate. Or something.

Then it was down to Weston-Super-Mare for a vox pop. The split, their presenter announced, between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ voters was very narrow, 52% versus 48%. They were down in the north Somerset resort town because attitudes in Weston closely followed those nationally. But this wasn’t evident from the people they showed speaking. Points West put out two deck chairs, labelled ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and invited people to sit in them in answer to the questions ‘Do you want an election?’ and ‘Do you support Brexit’. I think they showed four people, of whom only one was Labour and a Remainer. The rest were Tories and very definitely Brexiteers. And what specimens of humanity they were! One was an elderly lady with a Midlands accent, who ranted about Remainers being ‘Remoaners’ and ‘snowflakes’, all the while making gestures suggesting that she thought they all ought to be thrown into the sea. She then went off giggling like an imbecile at what she thought was her own wit. She was followed by an elderly gent, who declared that he wanted a general election that would return the Tories with a massive majority. And then there was a young man from Salisbury, who was also behind Boris Johnson and Brexit.

These loudmouths reminded me of the Bill Hicks joke about evolution having passed by some pockets of humanity. ‘In some parts of our troubled world, people are shouting ‘Revolution! Revolution! In Kansas they’re shouting ‘Evolution! Evolution! We want our opposable thumbs’. Evolution isn’t supposed to go backwards. But you wonder. All the anxiety about food and medicine shortages – I know people, who are stocking up on their medicines already – as well as the devastation to the economy, manufacturing industry, jobs, all that went unmentioned by the Brexiteers on the sea front. Listening to the old chap declaring that he wanted an overwhelming Tory majority, I wanted to ask him, who he thought would continue paying his pension and if he had private medical insurance if this happened. Because the Tories are determined to cut pensions, one way or another, and they are selling off the NHS. And Nigel Farage has said very openly that we may need to change to an insurance-based system. Which is a not-very-coded way of saying that he’s in favour of it. But obviously these people weren’t concerned about any of that. They just believed everything they read in the papers, like the Heil, the Scum and the Torygraph.

And I doubt very much that these talking heads were representative of the good folks down in Weston-Super-Mare. If attitudes in the city really are like those nationally, then the people sitting on those chairs should be equally split. Instead it looks like the report was very carefully staged to favour the Brexiteers. Just like rather more Tory MPs were interviewed on the programme than Labour.

The programme was on tonight about Sajid Javid and how he grew up in his parents’ fashion shop in Stapleton Road in Bristol. Apparently he still proud of his roots there, despite the fact that it is a run-down area with a reputation. It’s topical, but I still wonder if it was anymore objective than last night’s edition about Brexit. I didn’t watch it, only catching a brief glimpse of it, when one of the interviewers was asking other Asian small businessmen in the area if they shared the national fears about the harm Brexit would do to businesses like theirs. It’s possible that the programme really was more unbiased. But somehow, given the nature of last night’s programme, I doubt it.

Dominic Cumming’s Social Darwinist Views

September 4, 2019

On Sunday the Skwawkbox put up a piece about an article in the Groaniad revealing Dominic Cumming’s views on the value of education and social mobility: he doesn’t believe in them. In 2013 the Polecat produced a 250 page essay covering a number of subjects. One of these was in the importance of heredity in determining social advancement. He declared

differences in educational achievement are not mainly because of ‘richer parents buying greater opportunity’ and the successful pursuit of educational opportunity and ‘social mobility’ will increase heritability of educational achievement.

He also criticised a leading sociologist because

in a paper about class and wealth across generations, he ignores genetics entirely. However, using parent-offspring correlations as an index of ‘social mobility’ is fundamentally flawed because the correlations are significantly genetic – not environmental.

He concluded

However, the spread of knowledge and education is itself a danger and cannot eliminate gaps in wealth and power created partly by unequally distributed heritable characteristics.

This is bog-standard, textbook Social Darwinism – the survival of the economic fittest, as devised by Herbert Spencer. It’s the philosophy that passing legislation to improve conditions for the working class is useless, because their poverty and failure to ascend the social hierarchy is due to their lack of genetic fitness. Indeed, it may even be actually dangerous in the case of the disabled. If the ‘dysgenic’ – the genetically inferior – are allowed to breed, they will outbreed their genetic superiors in the upper classes. This will lead to racial degeneration. This was the reasoning behind the notorious eugenics legislation passed by 25 states in the US providing for the sterilisation of the mentally handicapped. It was also the reason the US also preferred not to take immigrants from southern or eastern Europe, let alone elsewhere in the world, because these peoples were deemed racially inferior to those of northern and western Europeans.

These eugenicist attitudes were a fundamental part of Nazi ideology. Hitler in his speeches declared that the business class deserved their position at the top of German society, because they were genetically superior to the proles. They also studied the American eugenics legislation, which influenced their own vicious policies towards the disabled, culminating in Aktion T4, the wholesale murder of ‘life undeserving of life’, as they called their victims. About their own eugenics legislation, they stated that they hadn’t done anything that the Americans hadn’t done already.

The Skwawkbox passed on Cumming’s views to a senior, unnamed, Labour politico. Who reacted with horror.

These views are appalling. They are chillingly eugenicist and the thought that they might influence public policy is frightening. Boris Johnson must act if the public is to have any confidence at all that their children are not going to be victims of even more deeply entrenched privilege and discrimination.

Unsurprisingly, Cummings is also a fan of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the preacher of the Superman. The Polecat declares that Nietzsche is probably the last of the line of recognisable great philosophers. He was particularly impressed by Nietzsche’s disgust at the animalisation of man to the pygmy animal of equal rights and equal pretensions. Skwawkbox states that Cumming’s seems to conclude that humanity can only achieve its best progress by casting aside the ‘equality of rights’ and ‘sympathy for all that suffers’ that Nietzsche despised.

Nietzsche was a militant atheist, and is credited as the founder of atheist existentialism. He admired the aristocracy, and the heroic, aristocratic values of ancient Greece. At the same time, he despised Christianity and its ‘slave morality’ of compassion. One of his books, The Antichrist, is a splenetic attack on the religion. He is undoubtedly a great philosopher, though one of the lecturers in the Religious Studies department of my old college considered his ideas so evil he refused to teach him. And not everybody is impressed with him by any means.

The theologian and Christian apologist, Hans Kung, quotes the German Roman Catholic philosopher Johannes Hirschberger, who was very scathing about the philosopher of the Superman. Hirschberger wrote

There is far too much fuss about Nietzsche. The literature on Nietzsche is to a large extent not much more than hot air, music hall entertainment and attempts to create interest. It is time to stop playing about with the deeper sense, the non-sense and the manic sense of Nietzsche’s thought. Nietzsche has caused enough mischief. He thought wherever Germany reached, it ruined culture. It would be more correct to say that wherever Nietzsche reached, he ruined philosophy. A young man who tries to make his first contact with philosophy by studying Nietzsche will never learn to think clearly, soberly, critically and above all objectively, but will soon begin to lose balance and increase his subjectivity, to talk pompously and issue orders. This is the very opposite of philosophy.

In Hans Kung, Does God Exist? (London: William Collins & Sons 1980) 399-400.

Quite so. Hirschberger’s observation on what happens to young men, who read Nietzsche does seem to apply to the Polecat, if not Boris himself. They’re both masters of talking pompously and issuing orders.

What is more serious is that No. 10 refused to comment when the Skwawkbox contacted them about Cumming’s odious views. They replied

‘Thank you for contacting us but we won’t be offering any comment.’

They refused to reply when the Skwawkbox asked them if Cumming’s views would be influencing policy. But the Skwawkbox itself isn’t afraid to comment, stating

The Labour source’s assessment will be echoed by many and rightly so.

Even more concerning – while depressingly unsurprising – is the refusal of Boris Johnson and his office to even engage with the issues raised by Cummings’ Darwinian-Nietzschian views on inequality and the desirability of reducing it, let alone to offer any assurances that they will not be at the heart of government policy.

It should deeply worry everyone – and especially the vulnerable, the disadvantaged and their families, who have already endured the horrors of more than nine years of Tory government.

See: https://skwawkbox.org/2019/09/01/number-10-refuses-to-engage-with-questions-about-cummings-chillingly-eugenicist-comments/

I’m not surprised by their refusal to comment. The entire Tory party is riddled with such sentiments. Back in the 1970s Thatcher’s mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, caused outrage when he declared that unmarried mothers were a threat to the British racial stock. When Blair was debating reforming the House of Lords, the Tory papers defended it, declaring that the Lords deserved their right to sit in parliament through heredity and upbringing. And a few years ago Spectator loudmouth Toby Young attended a eugenics conference at University College, London, attended by real Nazis. And their determination to remove welfare support from the poor and disabled shows they share the Nazis’ hatred of such ‘useless eaters’ and see them die, even though it is through starvation on the streets and in their own homes, rather than by cyanide in death camps and clinics.

Cummings is a disgrace, as is Boris, and they and the whole Tory party are a threat to working people, and particularly the poor, the disabled. Get them out now! 

 

BoJob Goes Full Duce and Demands Suspension of Parliament for Brexit

August 28, 2019

God help us, he’s finally done it. BoJob has gone to the Queen to request that she suspend parliament on the 10th September, so that he can force his wretched Brexit through. It’s a move that has been denounced by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. This is his way of avoiding moves by the Tory Remainers, Labour and the other opposition parties through legislation as contained in their pact. The Skwawkbox has posted an article arguing that BoJob’s move now presents Tory Remainers with a chance of defeating him without supporting Corbyn’s vote of no confidence. This means defeating Queen’s Speech, which will probably be on 17th October. If this happens, it means we could be facing a general election on the 5th of December.

See: https://skwawkbox.org/2019/08/28/prorogation-and-tory-squeamishness-mean-5-december-ge-day-likely/

Both the Skwawkbox and Zelo Street have pointed out that BoJob’s decision means that he was lying when he denied that he planning any such move when he spoke to the Beeb last weekend. People have been comparing Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament to that of Charles I, who famously lost his head after losing the British Civil War. But as the Skwawkbox also pointed out, there was another parallel far closer in time. NHS doctor and campaigner Rachel Clarke tweeted that ‘We are a parliamentary democracy. This is stunt is straight out of 1930’s Germany’ and that it is ‘utterly inexcusable’.

It is. On both counts. Hitler seized power by using the Reichstag fire to declare a state of emergency. This allowed him to seize full dictatorial powers, which meant the suspension of the Reichstag, the German parliament. He then began passing legislation outlawing all competing political parties. The Skwawkbox comments that while Johnson is suspending parliament just to force through Brexit, he shares the Nazis’ contempt for democracy.

And they also put part of the blame on the ‘Centrists’, including Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems. They will no doubt wring their hands about it, but Johnson has been able to do this because they gave him the space. They could have supported Jeremy Corbyn’s no confidence vote and allowed him the chance to form a caretaker government while a general election was called. But they didn’t. Swinson was too keen to defend her Tory politics against the threat of a genuinely progressive, reforming government. Swinson has condemned BoJob’s decision, and stated that the Lib Dem’s will oppose it. But nevertheless, as the Skwawkbox says, the Lib Dems’ culpability is absolutely clear. And the Skwawkbox wonders if they will now see sense and realise just what a danger BoJob is to the fabric of our society, and join Corbyn against him.

And BoJob does present a very clear danger. Not only has he demanded the suspension of parliament, Robert Peston revealed that he had been told by a ‘No. 10 source’, that if parliament does pass a vote of no confidence, they’ll just hang on and won’t make way for another government.

See: https://skwawkbox.org/2019/08/28/centrists-have-gifted-johnson-opportunity-for-1930s-nazi-style-coup/

Again, the actions of a dictator. In this instance, it’s General Pinochet, Maggie’s old chum. Before the Fascist butcher was finally overthrown, his fellow torturers and mass-murderers tried to oust him. They couldn’t. He just stuck there. As for the Nazi seizure of power, the parallel there is to the actions of the Catholic Centre Party. They could have voted against the Nazi machtergreifung. But they didn’t, as they were afraid Hitler would move against the Roman Catholic church. Which he did, eventually. The Centre party was banned along with all the others, and the Roman Catholic youth groups were likewise dissolved to make way for the Hitler Youth and the German Maids’ League as the sole permitted organisation for young people. You can understand and to a degree sympathise with the fear that motivated the Centre party to give in. It takes extraordinary courage to stand up to a dictator, even one that was as initially weak as Hitler. But Swinson doesn’t have that excuse. She’s allowed Johnson the political opportunity to make his odious decision simply for cynical political reasons: she’d rather have a ‘no deal’ Brexit and a completely unelected government than see Corbyn in No. 10.

The similarity between BoJob, the Tory party and Hitler and the Nazis has also not been lost on Mike. He points out the way the Nazis demonised the Jews and the sick and disabled. Just like the Tories and the Lib Dems in their coalition also demonised the sick and disabled. The Tories haven’t murdered them like the Nazis in their infamous Aktion T4, just allowed them to die as they removed the benefits they needed for support.

And he also points out that the first party the Nazis banned was the Communist. And it’s not a coincidence that the Tories have been referring to the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn as Marxist, despite the fact that Labour is actually democratic socialist. It’s very different, and the real Communist parties, like that of the former Soviet Union, heartily despised them. Lenin and co. used the word ‘reformist’, which refers to this form of socialism, as a term of abuse.

And, as under Hitler, we have an extreme right-wing press fomenting nationalist further and promoting Johnson’s populism.

Mike goes on to quote Martin Niemoller’s poem, ‘First they came…’. He stated he paraphrased it a few years ago on his blog to insert the sick and disabled in the first line, to draw attention to the way the Tories were demonising and persecuting them. But now he believes the last line should be about democracy, and how it no longer matters whether I speak out or not, because no-one will listen.

He concludes

That is the situation we face, it seems.

You can watch it getting worse and do nothing, and then tell me I was right when it is too late to reverse this disaster.

Or you can actually get up and stop it.

What are you going to do?

Johnson’s coup: Now we must fight to prevent the end of the UK as a democracy

And if this seems hysterical, just remember that during the 1970s the British security services and the Times and Mirror were considering organising a coup to overturn Harold Wilson’s government. In that event, trade unionists and left-wing activists were to be arrested and interned. See Livingstone’s book, Livingstone’s Labour.

Johnson is an authoritarian, and the Brexit party, which has announced they will support him, is even further to the right. Democracy is under threat. We need to get rid of him now!

 

Japanese Scientist Obtains Permission for Animal-Human Hybrids

August 1, 2019

This is very ominous. A Japanese scientist has been granted permission to create animal-human hybrids, according to yesterday’s I. The man intends to use them in research for the possible creation of organs in animals, that could be used for transplantation into humans. There are limits to his research, however. He states that at the moment he will not keep them alive for longer than 15 and a half days, so it isn’t like he’s going to produce complete animal-human hybrids, like the chimpanzee-human creature developed by rogue scientists as a new slave animal in the 1990s ITV SF thriller, Chimera. But it is a step in that direction.

The article, ‘Human-animal hybrid research is approved’, by Colin Drury, on page 22, runs

Human-animal hybrids are to be developed in embryo form in Japan after the government approved controversial stem-cell research.

Human cells will be grown in rat and mouse embryos, then brought to term in a surrogate animal, as part of experiments to be carried out at the University of Tokyo.

Supporters say the work – led by the renowned geneticist Hiromitsu Nakauchi – could be a vital first step towards eventually growing organs that can then be transplanted into people in need.

But opponents have raised concerns that scientists are playing God. Critics worry the human cells could stray beyond the targeted organs into other areas of the animal, creating a creature that is part animal, part person.

For that reason, such prolonged experimentation has been banned or not been financed across the world in recent years.

In Japan, scientists were forbidden from going beyond a 14-day growth period. But those laws were relaxed in March when the country’s education and science ministry issued new guidelines saying such creations could now be brought to term.

Now, Dr. Nakauchi’s application to experiment is the first to be approved under that new framework.

Human-animal hybrid embryos have been made in countries such as the United States, but were never brought to term. The US National Institutes of Health has had a moratorium on funding such work since 2015.

“We don’t expect to create human organs immediately, but this allows us to advance our research based upon the know-how we have gained up to this point,” Dr. Nakauchi told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

He added that he planned to proceed slowly, and will not attempt to bring any hybrid embryos to term for several years, rather growing the hybrid mouse embhryos to 14.5 days, when the animal’s organs are mostly formed, and the hybrid rat embryo’s to 15.5 days.

Such caution was welcomed by bioethicists in the country.

There was also a little capsule, containing the comment that

Some bioethicists are concerned about the possibility that human cells might stray, travelling to the developing animal’s brain and potentially altering its cognition.

Which seems to be a concern that this research could unintentionally also result in animals acquiring some form of human intelligence accidentally.

The British philosopher Mary Midgley attacked that part of the biotech industry and those scientists, who looked forward to bioengineers being able to redesign whole new forms of humans in her book, The Myths We Live By (London: Routledge 2004). She writes

That ideology is what really disturbs me, and I think it is what disturbs the public. This proposed new way of looking at nature is not scientific. It is not something that biology has shown to be necessary. Far from that, it is scientifically muddled. It rests on bad genetics and dubious evolutionary biology. Though it uses science, it is not itself a piece of science but a powerful myth expressing a determination to put ourselves  in a relation of control to the non-human world around us, to be in the driving seat at all costs rather than attending to that world and trying to understand how it works. It is a myth that repeats, in a grotesquely simple sense, Marx’s rather rash suggestion that the important thing is not to understand the world, but to change it. Its imagery is a Brocken spectre, a huge shadow projected on to a cloudy background by the shape of a few recent technological achievements.

The debate then is not between Feeling, in the blue corner, objecting to the new developments, and Reason in the red corner, defending them. Rhetoric such as that of Stock and Sinsheimer and Eisner is not addressed to Reason. It is itself an exuberant power fantasy, very much like the songs sung in the 1950s during the brief period of belief in an atomic free lunch, and also like those in the early days of artificial intelligence. The euphoria is the same. It is, of course, also motivated by the same hope of attracting grant money, just as the earlier alchemists needed to persuade powerful persons tthat they were going to produce real, coinable gold. (p. 166).

She goes on to argue that such scientific hubris comes from the gradual advance of atheism with the victory of the mechanistic model of the universe introduced by Newton in the 17th century. As God receded, scientists have stepped in to take His place.

On the clockwork model the world thus became amazingly intelligible. God, however, gradually withdrew from the scene, leaving a rather unsettling imaginative vacuum. The imagery of machinery survived. But where there is no designer the whole idea of mechanism begins to grow incoherent. Natural Selection is supposed to fill the gap, but it is a thin idea, not very satisfying to the imagination.

That is how the gap that hopeful biotechnicians now elect themselves to fill arose. They see that mechanistic thinking calls for a designer, and they feel well qualified to volunteer for that vacant position. Their confidence about this stands out clearly from the words I have emphasised in Sinsheimer’s proposal that ‘the horizons of the new eugenics are in principle boundless – for we should have the potential to create new genes and new qualities yet undreamed of … For the first time in all time a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its future.’

Which living creature? It cannot be human beings in general, they wouldn’t know how to do it. It has to be the elite, the biotechnologists who are the only people able to make these changes. So it emerges that members of the public who complain that biotechnological projects involve playing God have in fact understood this claim correctly. That phrase, which defenders of the projects dismiss as mere mumbo jumbo, is actually a quite exact term for the sort of claim to omniscience and omnipotence on these matters that is being put forward.

One of the most profound artistic comments I have found about the implications of this new biotechnology is the sculpture ‘The Young Family’ by the Australian artist Patricia Piccinini. This shows a hybrid mother creature, bred for organ transplantation, surrounded by her young. Curled up like an animal, her human eyes peer back plaintively at the spectator. It’s a deeply disturbing work, although Piccinini states she is not opposed but optimistic about scientific progress. She says

In terms of the real world, these are some of the key issues that I am trying to question and discuss with my work. I’m not pessimistic about developments in biotechnology. We are living in a great time with a lot of opportunities, but opportunities don’t always turn out for the best. I just think we should discuss the full implications of these opportunities.

So if we look at The Young Family we see a mother creature with her babies. Her facial expression is very thoughtful. I imagine this creature to be bred for organ transplants. At the moment we are trying to do such a thing with pigs, so I gave her some pig-like features. That is the purpose humanity has chosen for her. Yet she has children of her own that she nurtures and loves. That is a side-effect beyond our control, as there will always be.

That is what makes the question of breeding animals purely for organ-transfer so difficult to answer. On one hand we need organs to help people in need, on the other hand we are looking at an animal that wants to exist for the sake of itself. I can’t help but feel an enormous empathy for this creature. And, to be very honest, if it would save the life of one of my children, I would be will to take one of these organs. I know it is probably not ethically right but sometimes honesty, emotions, empathy and ethics don’t always line up.

I am not nearly so optimistic. For me, this sculpture is a deeply moving, deeply disturbing comment on the direction this new technology can go. And I fear tht this latest advance is taking us there.

What Johnson as Nietzschean Superman Really Means – Amoral and Absolutely Self-Centred

July 25, 2019

Boris Johnson and other blond beasts

Zelo Street yesterday put up a post about the shameless grovelling panegyric Spectator journalist and Tory advocate of eugenics, Toby Young, gave to our new, rich and privileged Prime Minister, Boris Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson on the Victoria Derbyshire show and on Quillette. This last included the lines

I first set eyes on Boris Johnson in the autumn of 1983 when we went up to Oxford at the same time … With his huge mop of blond hair, his tie askew and his shirt escaping from his trousers, he looked like an overgrown schoolboy. Yet with his imposing physical build, his thick neck and his broad, Germanic forehead, there was also something of Nietzsche’s Übermensch about him”.

To which the sage of Crewe simply added, ‘ Oh, just fuck off Tobes. I mean … just fuck off.’ Which is coarse, but exactly describes what very many people must have felt reading it.

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2019/07/toby-young-says-gissa-job-bozza.html

But what exactly was Nietzsche’s superman?

This did not mean an individual with special, superhuman powers like Superman or the other, similar comic book heroes like Spiderman, the Hulk and so on. Rather, it meant the new, superior human ideal, who had rejected both the slave morality of Christianity, and the master morality of the aristocracy. This was someone, who fully lived up to the challenge of living in a world where God was dead, a universe that was now devoid of transcendent meaning. This was a person – the word Nietzsche used was ubermensch, which literally means Overhuman – who had moved beyond notions of good and evil, and lived according to his or her own notions of morality.

Nietzsche was an ardent individualist, who categorically rejected the idea of a  common morality shared by all , as put forward by the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Nietzsche wrote

A word against Kant as moralist. A virtue has to be our invention, our more personal defence and necessity, in any other sense it is merely a danger … ‘virtue’, ‘duty’, ‘good in itself’; impersonal and universal – phantoms, expressions of decline, of the final exhaustion of life, of Konigsbergian Chinadom. The profoundest laws of preservation and growth demand the reverse of this; that each one of us should devise his own virtue, his own categorical imperative.

The British philosopher Mary Midgley attacked this in her book, The Myths We Live By (London: Routledge 2011), writing

This, he said, would naturally lead any enlightened person in the modern age to live alone, despising his contemporaries and rejecting claims by others on fellowship or compassion, feelings that he regarded as shameful weaknesses. Nietzsche advertised this ideal strongly as a virile one, and buttressed it by a great deal of spiteful misogyny in the style of Rousseau and Schopenhauer. he did not, apparently, see that solitude might as easily be a refuge for weakness as an assertion of strength, nor that childish boasting about one’s own superiority makes this interpretation rather likely. (p. 135).

From this you can see that Boris does have Nietzschean qualities, and this isn’t a complement. He is amoral, self-centred, and, at least political, without compassion, as shown in his and his party’s dedicated loathing on the poor, the disabled, and the less privileged. He also very strongly reminds me of another remark by Nietzsche, hailing the new ‘blond beasts’: ‘Will without intelligence! How beautiful! How free!’

Nietzsche intended his superman to be a heroic figure with the ancient ‘tragic sense of life’, trying to live fully and create meaning in a cold, uncaring, meaningless cosmos. Johnson himself is a odious buffoon, whose incompetence matches his vaunting ambition. There’s nothing heroic or grand about him, and the clownish exterior with which he seeks to ingratiate himself with the public as nothing but a harmless character is nothing but a mask, a sham.

He’s a malign, selfish clown in a malign, greedy, selfish, conscienceless party. And his presence in No. 10 is a catastrophe that shames this country.

Radio 4 Series Challenging Stereotype that Religion and Science Are at War

June 12, 2019

According to next week’s Radio Times there’s a new, three-part series beginning on Radio 4 next Friday, 21st June, at 11.00 am, Science and Religion about the relationship between the two disciplines. From the pieces about in the magazine, it attacks the idea that science and religion are at war. The blurb for the programme’s first part, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, on page 131, says

Nick Spencer examines the history of science and religion and the extent to which they have been in conflict with each other. Drawing on the expertise of various academics, he begins by exploring what the relationship says about what it means to be human.

The paragraph about the programme on the preceding page, 130, by Sue Robinson, runs

Are science and religion at war? In the first in a three-part series, Nick Spencer (of Goldsmith’s, London, and Christian think-tank Theos) takes a look back wt what he terms the “simplistic warfare narrative” of these supposedly feuding disciplines. From the libraries of the Islamic world to the work of 13th-century bishop Robert Grosseteste in maths and natural sciences, Spencer draws on the expertise of a variety of academics to argue that there has long been an interdependence between the two. I felt one or two moments of consternation (“there are probably more flat-earthers [believing the earth to be flat] around today than there were back then…”) and with so many characters in the unfolding 1,000-year narrative, some may wish for a biographical dictionary at their elbow… I certainly did. Yet somehow Spencer produces an interesting and informative treatise from all the detail. 

We’ve waited a long time for a series like this. I set up this blog partly to argue against the claim made by extremely intolerant atheists like Richard Dawkins that science and religion are and always have been at war. In fact no serious historian of science believes this. It’s a stereotype that comes from three 19th century writers, one of whom was reacting against the religious ethos of Harvard at the time. And some of the incidents that have been used to argue that science was suppressed by the religious authorities were simply invented. Like the story that Christopher Columbus was threatened by the Inquisition for believing that the world war round. Er no, he wasn’t. That was all made up by 19th century author Washington Irvine. European Christians had known and accepted that the world was round by the 9th century. It’s what the orb represents in the Crown Jewels. The story that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in his debate on evolution with Charles Darwin, asked the great biologist whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side of the family is also an invention. It was written years after the debate by Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley. A few years ago historians looked at the accounts of the debate written at the time by the students and other men of science who were there. They don’t mention any such incident. What they do mention is Wilberforce opening the debate by saying that such questions like evolution needed to be carefully examined, and that if they are true, they have to be accepted, no matter how objectionable they may be. Wilberforce himself was an extremely proficient amateur scientist himself as well as a member of the clergy. Yes, there was opposition from many Christians to Darwin’s idea, but after about 20 years or so most of the mainstream denominations fully accepted evolution. The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from a book defending and promoting Christianity published as The Fundamentals of Christianity published in the first years of the 20th century. The book includes evolution, which it accepts.

Back to the Middle Ages, the idea that this was a period when the church suppressed scientific investigation, which only revived with the Humanists of the Renaissance, has now been utterly discredited. Instead it was a period of invention and scientific discovery. Robert Grosseteste, the 13th century bishop of Lincoln, wrote papers arguing that the Moon was responsible for the tides and that the rainbow was produced through light from the sun being split into various colours by water droplets in the atmosphere. He also wrote an account of the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron, which in many ways anticipates the ‘Big Bang’ theory. He believed that the universe was created with a burst of light, which in turn created ‘extension’ – the dimensions of the cosmos, length, width and breadth, and that this light was then formed into the material and immaterial universe. Medieval theologians were also often highly critical of stories of demons and ghosts. The 12th century French bishop, William of Auxerre, believed that nightmares were caused, not by demons, but by indigestion. If you had too big a meal before falling asleep, the weight of the food in the stomach pressed down on the nerves, preventing the proper flow of vital fluids.

The Christian scholars of this period drew extensively on the writings of Muslim philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had inherited more of the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, along with that of the other civilisations they had conquered, like Persia and India. Scholars like al-Haytham explored optics while the Bani Musa brothers created fascinating machines. And Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic and author of the Rubaiyyat, one of the classics of world literature, was himself a brilliant mathematician. Indeed, many scientific and mathematical terms are taken from Arabic. Like alcohol, and algorithm, which comes from the Muslim scholar al-Khwarismi, as well as algebra.

There have been periods of tension between religion and particular scientific doctrines, like the adoption of the Copernican system and Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, but the relationship between science and religion is rich, complex and has never been as simple as all out war. This should be a fascinating series and is a very necessary corrective to the simplistic stereotype we’ve all grown up with.