Posts Tagged ‘DNA’

Antony Gormley Presents Programme on Stone Age Art

January 25, 2019

According to the Radio Times for 26th January to 1st February 2019, tomorrow, Saturday, 26th January, Antony Gormley will be presenting a programme on the origins of art way back in the Stone Age. As well as trotting round the world looking at various Paleolithic sites, he also meets and talks to the modern practitioners of this ancient art, Aboriginal Australians. The programme’s entitled ‘Antony Gormley: How Art Began’, and the blurb for it on page 52 of the Radio Times runs

One of Britain’s most celebrate sculptors travels back in time and journeys across the globe to piece together how art began. Once we believed that it all started with the cave paintings of Ice Age Europe, but new discoveries are overturning that idea. Deep inside the caves of France, Spain and Indonesia, Gormley finds beautiful, haunting and surprising works of art. The creator of the Angel of the North asks what these images from millennia ago tell us about who we are.

There’s rather more information about the programme by David Butcher on page 50, which says

Yes, it’s a documentary about prehistoric cave art. How often over the years have we seen an arts presenter in torchlight, sighing about the ineffable power of cave painting?

But this is different. This is Antony Gormley, one of our great artists, who by lucky chance is also a better talker about art than most presenters, making a pilgrimage not just through the French caves that he first visited on his honeymoon (we see a holiday snap) but also venturing further afield to Indonesia and Australia, looking for the first stirrings of human creativity.

“This is a cathedral of joy in living things,” he says in a cave called Les Combarelles. “I think we’ve found a Palaeolithic Picasso,” he jokes in Niaux. And in an extraordinary scene at Pech Merle, with its 28,000-year-old paintings of horses, a local expert demonstrates how they were made, by chewing up charcoal and delicately blow-spitting on the rock.

The ancient cave paintings of northern Spain and southern France are superb, extremely naturalistic depictions of the creatures roaming that part of the Mediterranean during the Old Stone Age 28,000 years ago. Some of them seem to have been deliberately painted on distinctly shaped pieces of rock, so that if you come into the part of the caves where they are they appear to move. When Picasso saw them over a century ago, he was so utterly astonished at their superb quality that he declared ‘We have invented nothing!’

At the turn of the Millennium 18 years ago, Hugh Quarshie, one of the actors in Casualty, presented a programme on the art and artefacts of the Stone Age on New Year’s Eve. One of the speakers he interviewed about them was a director of Horror flicks – I’ve forgotten whom. But he made some very interesting points about the parallels between Palaelithic art and his type of movie. They were both initiatory experiences which you viewed in darkness.

There seems to have been a definite religious/ritual purpose to their production. Most of them are found in chambers deep in the cave systems, which are extremely difficult to reach. To get to one of them you literally have to squeeze through on your stomach. There was very probably an aural component to their painting as well. Quite often the rocks near them have musical properties. Their lithophones which produce musical tones when struck. It therefore seems that some of them were being played while the artists worked producing these amazing pieces of work.

No-one quite knows why these wonderful paintings were made. It’s been suggested that they may have been made to secure success in hunting, or for fertility. Others have suggested that they were produced as part of shamanic rituals, in which the painters attempted to pass through the membrane between this world and that of the spirits. Whatever the reason they were created, they’re superb. I’m not a fan of Gormley’s work, but this looks well worth watching.

Anthropologist, TV presenter and former member of Time Team Alice Roberts also talked about the ancient cave paintings of Europe this week in the last edition of her The Incredible Human Journey, the series in which she traced humanity’s emergence and spread out of Africa tens of thousands of years. This week she talked about some of the very earliest human remains found in Europe, including those of modern Homo Sapiens from around 30-40,000 years ago from a cave in Romania. A forensic artist then reconstructed what one of them may have looked like from one of the skulls found. Roberts and the artist remarked on the person’s absence of any distinct racial characteristics. It was a definite human face, but it was neither Black, White or Asian, although they pointed out that we believe the people at this time had dark, Black skin. But it comes from a time before the development of modern racial characteristics.

They also reconstructed the face of a Neanderthal from about this time. They were stocky, powerfully built people with big noses and strong brow ridges. Although they died out, some of them interbreed with the invading modern humans, so that the DNA of modern people outside Africa contains about 3%-9% Neanderthal genes. The reconstruction didn’t have any hair. Contemplating it Roberts said that although Neanderthal women probably found modern human men very handsome, and that human women obviously found something in Neanderthal males, she wouldn’t have fancied mating with them. Well, each to his or her own taste. Looking at the reconstructed Neanderthal head, it reminded me of nothing so much as that of Beeb TV presenter and former felon, Dom Littlewood.

She also covered the ancient cave paintings, talking to a French artist who worked using the same techniques. He was shown blowing charcoal on to the rock behind his hand trying to create a stenciled handprint, just like those left by the ancient artists. Like the article in the Radio Times, Roberts said that it had to be made using a distinct technique. You couldn’t take it all into your mouth and just spit it out. Instead the artist blew it out in a constant stream of spitting, leaving his hand black with charcoal. It’s quite a time consuming process, and Roberts and the artist said that some works could take as long as week.

The art of the palaeolithic is fascinating and enigmatic. We’re learning more about it and the people who produced it, but so much still remains lost in the mysteries of time.


Two of the Candidates for the Fifty Pound Note: Alan Turing and Thatcher

November 27, 2018

Mike today put up a piece about the two candidates the government is considering sticking on the back of the fifty pound note. They are Alan Turing, the wartime mathematical genius, who broke the enigma code and helped shorten the war. One of the machines Turing designed, or helped design to break the code was programmable, and Turing is respected as one of the founders of modern computing.

He was, however, gay at a time when it was very much against the law. He was convicted of gross indecency, and chemically castrated, which led to him taking his own life.

Thatcher, on the other hand, is the woman whose policies have inflicted nothing but misery on this planet for nearly forty years. She started the Tories’ and New Labour’s privatization programme, including that of the NHS, the destruction of the welfare state and deliberately made signing on for unemployment benefit as humiliating as possible, in order to deter the poor from doing so. She was also determined to break the unions, manufacturing a strike by the NUM through the gutting of British coalmining, purely to break the union that had brought down Heath’s government years before. And she used the police has her army to attack and beat the miners, aided by a complicit media, including the Beeb. These ran the footage of the strike at Orgreave colliery backwards to make it appear that the miners were attacking the police, while it was the other way round.

Exactly as the great peeps on Twitter, whose comments Mike quotes in his piece about it.

Ah, but Thatcher was a chemist! She worked for Walls, inventing the process that injects air into ice cream to make it appear that there’s more of it than there is.

Well, if the government wants to put scientists, and especially women scientists, on the fifty pound note, I’ve got a few suggestions of my own. Female scientists they could choose include:

Dorothy Hodgkin. She’s the woman who should have got the prize for discovering the structure of DNA, as Crick and Watson were looking completely in the wrong direction until they walked past the door of her lab, and heard her talking about her work. She lost the Nobel to them, but did get another prize for another great discovery she made. If she hasn’t been already, it’s the right time to have her commemorated on our folding stuff.

Jocelyn Bell Purnell. She was the astronomer, who discovered pulsars. These are tiny, dense stars at the end of their lives, which send out a radio signal. They spin very quickly, so that the signal sweeps across the sky, so that they appear as a regular beat. At first it was believed that they might be signals from an extraterrestrial civilization. Some astronomers also believe that, while they’re natural, space-traveling aliens could use them as lighthouses to navigate their way across the Galaxy.

Helen Sharman. She’s another chemist, though at Mars, rather than Walls. But she is know for being the first Brit into space when she joined the British-Russian space mission to Mir in the 1980s. Since then, she’s been something of a science educator, appearing at events to encourage children to take up science.

Caroline Herschel. She’s the brother of John Herschel, and daughter of William. She and her brother were astronomers in 18th century Bath, making telescopes and discovering new stars.

I’m sure there are many others. These are all astronomy and space related, because that’s the area I’m interested in and know most about. All of these ladies have a better claim to be on the Fifty pound note than Thatcher.

But if you want another bloke, how about Dr. Jacob Bronowski. He was another mathematician working during the War. He was also the presenter of the 1970s Beeb science blockbuster, The Ascent of Man. He was also a Fabian socialist with a hatred of war. In The Ascent of Man he makes his view of armed conflict very clear by saying: ‘War is theft by other means’. It’s parody of Clausewitz’s famous phrase ‘War is politics by other means’. Bronowski’s description of war is very true, especially now when we’ve seen that the humanitarian interventions in the Middle East have all been about conquering them in order to despoil their oil reserves, loot their state industries and stop any kind of Arab and Islamic support for Israel. And Iran appears to be next on the hit list.

However, I do like the suggestion of Raab C. Brexit that it should be the sage of Govan, Rab C. Nesbitt on the notes. Having his mug staring out at them might just put a few of the really filthy rich off when they get it out to pay for their bottle of Krug.

Remember, it was Nesbitt who predicted that there’d be a war between the Toffs and the Scum. The Toffs would win initially, because they’ve got the army. But the Scum would be the victors, because they have all the Rottweilers.

See also Mike’s article at:

Karl Wilhelm Nageli and Purposeful Mutation

November 11, 2018

I found this very interesting piece on the 19th century biologist, Karl Wilhelm Nageli, and August Weismann in Richard L. Gregory’s Mind In Science (London: Penguin 1981). The modern theory of evolution, NeoDarwinism, is essentially a mixture of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection mixed with Mendelian genetics. Roughly speaking, it views evolution as proceeding through random mutations. These supply the variations in species on which natural selection works, weeding out those varieties that don’t help the species to survive. Those that do, or at least don’t stop it surviving, are preserved and retained. Thus the little alterations in the characteristics of different species are created, which gradually accumulate over millennia and millions of years to produce new species of creature.

Darwin, however, didn’t know about heredity, which was introduced into his evolutionary theory by Weismann. He had developed the germ plasm theory, which was the precursor to the modern theory of DNA, famously discovered by Crick and Watson. Darwin also didn’t know about mutations either. He believed that heredity was a blending of the characteristics of the parents. I’ve got a feeling this was one of the arguments his opponents may have used against his theory, and that Darwin probably recognized the weakness of his theory there. At the time Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, I don’t think he was properly able to account for the emergence of novel characteristics in living creatures, on which natural selection acted.

It was Karl Wilhelm Nageli, who did this by introducing mutations into evolutionary theory, while rejecting Darwin’s idea of Natural Selection. Unlike evolutionary biologists after him, however, Nageli believed that these mutations had a purpose. It was the Dutch biologist Hugo de Vries, who introduced Mendelian genetics and the variation of characteristics into Darwinian evolutionary theory. Gregory explains it thus:

Neo-Darwinism adds to Darwinian Natural Selection a theory of heredity, which is itself derived from the, at the time (and perhaps still), controversial writings of the German biologist August Weismann (1834-1914). His papers (1868-76), translated into English as Studies in the Theory of Descent, (1882) proposed properties of a germ plasm which are similar to the fundamental doctrine of molecular biology, that information can only genetically pass from coded DNA to messenger RNA, and not the other way round. This genetic ‘diode’ rejects Lamarckian inheritance of individually acquired knowledge, or adaptive behavior. But we jump ahead, for Darwin had no knowledge of genes or mutations of genes.

The concept of evolution by mutational jumps is due to a Swiss botanist, Karl Wilhelm Nageli (1817). Nageli however rejected Darwin’s theory, for he supposed that there is a purpose in the direction of the jumps. He is heavily criticized for failing to appreciate the significance of Mendel’s work. He was shown the manuscript of Mendel’s paper describing his experiments on the breeding of giant and dwarf peas; his lack of interest is supposed to have prevented the work becoming known so that genetics was held up by some fifty years. Nageli’s concept of mutational jumps, but without built-in directional purpose, was developed by De Vries early in the present century.

Gregor Johan Mendel (1822-84) was an Augustinian monk. At the Abbey of St Thomas in Brunn, [Brno] he carried out his plant-breeding experiments, which depended on counting the proportions of tall and dwarf peas obtained by self-pollination. He found that the varieties did not converge to a medium-height pea plant, but that the tall and dwarf characteristics were maintained, and potentially present, in each variety. This was immensely important for Darwin’s theory, but unfortunately Darwin never came to hear of it.

The mutation theory was developed by the Dutch botanist Hugo De Vreis (1848-1935) who approached Mendel’s discovery by seeing that something like it was needed to give the variataion necessary for Natural Selection. He proposed that different characteristics might vary independently, and recombine in different ways. So was born the atomic-characteristic theory of inheritance, which later was embodied in gene and chromosome code structures – from which in turn developed modern molecular biology with the discovery by Francis Crick (b. 1916) and James Watson (b. 1928) of the structure of the long helical molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This, by replication, gives the physical basis of inheritance. Random change of the DNA structure give the variation necessary for Natural Selection. The drama of this discovery is superbly presented by Watson in The Double Helix (1968). (pp. 170-1).

Back in the 1980s, the astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe attacked Darwinian evolutionary theory in their book, Evolution from Space. In their previous book, Life Cloud, they had argued that life on Earth was seeded on Earth from space. While it’s an unorthodox theory, many scientists do believe that such panspermia, as it’s called, is a possibility. And the amino acids which form the basic building blocks of organic life has been found in meteorites, on Saturn’s moon, Titan, and in the nebulae, the clouds of dust and gas in space. What is far more controversial, and has been rejected by nearly all scientists, is their theory in Evolution from Space that the chance of organic life arising on Earth, and developing through Darwinian evolution, is so minute that evolution has to be directed by alien civilisations seeding space with the necessary genetic material.

In one passage in Evolution from Space, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe take the incidence of mutations in every generation, only a minority of which could be beneficial, and the combined length of time from the split, early in our evolutionary history, between the hominid lineage and the common ancestor of chimpanzees and gorillas 9 million years to argue that even this amount of time is insufficient to produce modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens, modern humanity. I’ve no doubt that this was immensely controversial and has been widely criticized and dismissed. It’s been taken up again more recently by the Intelligent Design people. And it wasn’t the weirdest of Hoyle’s and Wickramasinghe’s ideas. I think they also believed that the civilisations seeding this genetic material were computers in parallel universes. But if they are right after all, and random mutation can’t account for the development of the vast variety of living creatures we see around us, then it may be that it proceeds through purposeful mutations after all.

Going back to Nageli, even if his own theory of evolution has been discarded except for the idea of mutational jumps, I would far, far rather believe that evolution and the mutations necessary for it were shaped and guided by a loving creator, than are simply the result of blind chance as describes by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Blind Watchmaker.

TNT Nation: Daily Mail Racists Freak Out as Cheddar Man Revealed as Black

February 15, 2018

One of the big stories last week was the unveiling of the reconstructed face of Cheddar Man. As Jeff Waldorf points out in this clip from TNT Nation, this is a prehistoric man, named after where he was found, and not a man literally made of cheese. Cheddar Man, or rather, his skeleton, was found in the caves in Cheddar in Somerset, England, way back in 1906. The skeleton’s 16,000 or so years old, and so dates from about the end of the last Ice Age. The scientists reconstructing his features also used for the first time DNA analysis to gauge his skin and eye colour. And it turns out that he had ‘dark to black skin’ and blue eyes.

They scientists were able to do this using DNA they were able to extract from the skeleton. This had genetic markers similar to those for dark skin, which is also present in ten per cent of the modern British population. Cheddar Man’s colouring was a surprise for the scientists, as they expected him to have white skin and blond or light hair, as an adaptation to the extreme cold. Commenting on the revelation that he was black, one scientist said that it showed that British has not always been associated with Whiteness. It had changed, and would change again in the future. I think they were also able to trace the ultimate origins of Cheddar Man’s people, as they entered Britain from a route across southern Europe ultimately going back to Turkey.

I’m not surprised by this revelation. It’s been suggested since at least the 1990s that the first anatomically modern humans – Homo Sapiens Sapiens – who entered and colonised Europe, were dark-skinned. Back in the 1990s a Channel 4 series on human evolution showed a reconstruction of these people, as they would have looked 40,000 or so years ago, edging along the primeval European countryside as Black. The programme also consciously reversed the idea, promoted in many past books and articles on them, that the Neanderthals were Black. The programme instead argued that they would have had light skins as an adaptation to the arctic temperatures in Europe. If you also look at the remains of our ancient ancestors, you also find that they have more archaic features, like a strong brow ridge, than the other humans in Africa, who were much more gracile. I think its these archaic features which led some archaeoanthropologists to state that some of these humans were of the same physical build as Aboriginal Australians, because these ancient people have also retained some features of archaic humanity.

The real shock, as one of the articles about Cheddar Man said last week, is how recently White skin and hair evolved – in the last 10,000 years or so. It’s much more recent than they expected. However, I can remember reading in a review of the film The Clan of the Cave Bear in Starburst one of the criticisms of that movie. It starred Daryl Hannah as a Cro Magnon woman growing up with a family of Neanderthals. Hannah’s blond, and the article pointed out that blonde hair is only supposed to have evolved 10,000 or so years ago – much later than the age the film, and the book on which it was based, by Jean Auel, is set.

The revelation that Cheddar Man was Black, however, set the racists off. And here Waldorf reads out and tears to pieces some of the comments about this story left on the Daily Mail’s website. And they go from the reasonable, to the completely mad.

Waldorf begins with the comment from one individual, who wonders if the genetic reconstruction is accurate, given the age of the skeleton and difficulty of extracting genetic information from remains that ancient. He states, however, that he isn’t a scientist, but has simply watched a lot of documentaries. Waldorf mocks him for this, which is actually unfair. It’s a reasonable question, as the impression I’ve had from watching the same kind of documentaries is that ancient DNA can be extremely delicate, and is very often fragmentary, so it can actually be very difficult to extract useful genetic information from human remains. I can remember reading an article a few years ago, which made this point when discussing the Neanderthals to show why scientists have not tried to recreate them genetically.

And then there’s the completely bonkers. Another commenter wondered if there wasn’t something deeper going on here. They smelt a conspiracy, as the revelation that Cheddar Man was Black came after, so this person believed, the collapse of the ‘out of Africa’ theory of human origins, and the proof that the Ancient Egyptians weren’t African. First of all, if the theory that humans first evolved in Africa and then spread outwards across the globe has collapsed, then no-one’s told me. Or any of the anthropologists and archaeologists working in this field. The only people I can think of who reject the theory are, er, marginal thinkers. Or cranks. Waldorf takes apart the claim that the ancient Egyptians weren’t Africans, by pointing out that ancient Egypt actually had a very diverse population, and that in the south they tended to be darker than in the north. Also, Egypt is part of Africa.

This comment seems to echo back to the views of some of the White racial supremacists that the ancient Egyptians, as the citizens of an advanced ancient civilisation, couldn’t possibly be Black, and were instead White and European in appearance. This is, of course, vehemently rejected by AFrocentrist historians, who argue instead that they were Black. If you look at the way the ancient Egyptians depicted themselves in their art – in the tomb paintings, for example, they are lighter than the darker skinned Nubian peoples to their south. Male ancient Egyptians are portrayed as having reddish brown skin, while women are yellow. Nubians are painted with black skin. Even so, they are still darker than the Europeans, which appear in their art, such as the people of Minoan Crete. These are depicted with pink skin. The scientifically accepted view is that the peoples of North Africa, including ancient Egypt, were White.

However, way back in the 1990s or the early part of this century some anthropologists reconstructed the faces of people from Roman Egypt. This found that their features were more strongly African than the portraits of them painted on to their mummy cases, which made them look more European. There were definite cultural and economic reasons why an ancient Egyptian really wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘Black’. Roman Egypt was a horrible, racist, apartheid state, where the indigenous Egyptian population was taxed more than those of Greek or European descent. This would have left many Egyptians with feelings of inferiority about their African features, which they would have tried to cover up.

There was also the suggestion by one archaeologist that the ultimate origins of the ancient Egyptian civilisation lay in a Black tribe from further south, which migrated to the north. This archaeologist came to this conclusion through examining some of the early henge monuments, which predate the ancient Egyptian civilisation proper by thousands of years. I think these were similar to those in the Black African nations further south. One of the stones in these monuments also seemed deliberately shaped to resemble a cow. Hathor was the ancient Egyptians’ cow goddess, and so there’s the suggestion that she was a survival from this ancient, pastoralist Black African culture.

I also came across another story in the paper recently, which said that the ancient Egyptians weren’t African after all. I didn’t get the opportunity to read it – I only glimpsed the headline in passing – and so can’t really comment on it. But it seems unlikely to me. The Egyptologist John Romer criticised the notion that the ancient Egyptians were White way back in the 1990s in his Channel 4 series, Great Excavations. In one episode, he discussed the various diffusionist theories of human evolution and progress, and how they were influenced by 19th century theories of racial supremacy and conquest. Diffusionism is the archaeological theory that advances in civilisation occur through successive societies and races conquering their predecessors. Early archaeologists were busy examining the remains of these past cultures, and especially their skull and head shapes, in order to develop a classification of the various races these different physical types represented. As the ancient Egyptians were an advanced civilisation, they confidently expected them to have their origins in the lighter skinned peoples further east.

Except that they didn’t. The ancient Egyptian people remained the same stock, unchanged, as their culture developed and flourished around them. They created their culture themselves, without any other invading race creating or imposing a superior culture after them. Of course, at times ancient Egypt was conquered by outside nations, such as the Semitic Hyksos kings and the Nubians, who produced a line of Black pharaohs. They were also an important power themselves in the ancient Near East, at one point holding Syria and Palestine. But ancient Egyptian culture was their own creation, and not the result of invasion by some biologically superior race. And as far as I know, the only people, who believe that the ancient Egyptians had blonde hair and blue eyes are neo-Nazis.

Now I think there is a subtle message behind this recent discovery of Cheddar Man’s complexion. I think some of the comments made by the experts about his colouring and Britishness – that it is only relatively recently that White skin has evolved, and that Britishness is not necessarily connected to Whiteness – have been made to make an anti-racist point. It wasn’t just the scientist quoted by the TNT clip. There was another quote in the papers by someone saying that we may have to rethink the relationship between Britishness and Whiteness. It’s a reasonable, scientifically informed comment. But the recreation of Cheddar Man with dark skin clearly touched a nerve amongst the racists reading the Daily Heil.

As for Cheddar Man himself, he still has descendants in the area. Or at least, a descendant. A few years ago scientists sampled his DNA, and then tested the other people in Cheddar to see if they were related. It turns out one of them was – the headmaster of the local school. He was quite happy about it, but his mother was really upset, worrying what people would think. Well, if they’re sensible, they won’t think anything disparaging. As I said, these people were exactly like us modern humans. They had the same physical features and the same intelligence. They weren’t lumbering ape-men by any means. The only difference between modern people and them is that they lived over 10,000 years ago, when much of Britain was a frozen wilderness. I can even imagine some people being slightly envious, that this chap has an ancestry that can be traced back to this incredibly remote period.

Vox Political on Those, Who Believed Blair’s Lies about Iraq

July 5, 2016

Yesterday Gloria de Piero, one of the Blairites, published a piece in the Scum calling on ‘moderate’ Labour supporters to join the party to vote out Jeremy Corbyn. Mike over at Vox Political has put up a piece today quoting a piece by one of those, who has, and asking if the person, who wrote it is really as left-leaning as they seem, and do people want someone like that in the Labour party?

The author of the piece seems to have been taken in by all the vile Blairite spin and propaganda. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic, and have no interest in doing anything positive for the people of this country. They also state that they joined the party because they supported the invasion of Iraq and the consequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Curiously, they seem to believe that Iraq is now a genuinely functioning democracy. The invasion, they declare, is one of the UK’s finest achievements since World War II. And then they proudly announce that they’re deliberately rejoining the Labour party on the 4th July, stating that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, should also be our aspiration.

Blairite Atlanticism and the Worship of the American Constitution

Looking at the piece, it’s so over the top that I genuinely wonder if whoever wrote really is an ordinary member of the public. Blair and his cronies, including Broon, Ed Balls and so on, were fervent supporters of America. Blair himself was a product of the Reaganite British-American Project for the Successor Generation, or BAP. This was set up by the Gipper in the 1980s to train the next generation of British politicians to support the Atlantic Alliance. Its alumni went on courses in America to study the country’s political traditions. Before Blair went on one of these jaunts, he was a supporter of CND. After he came back, he was very definitely in favour of Britain keeping its nuclear deterrence. Broon and Balls also studied at American universities. And in government, Blair was so keen to emulate JFK or Roosevelt, I forget quite which, that he and Mandelson called each other by the names of those politicos.

There are many people, who would like Britain to have a written constitution, so that we can hold our rulers to account when they break it, or traduce reasonable standards of democracy. But the idealisation of the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence tends to be far more characteristic of the American Right, who love the idea of limited government, the defence of private property and gun rights. Cameron’s statement that he wants to repeal European human rights legislation and replace it with a British Bill of Rights looks like an attempt to introduce that aspect of American political culture over here. Especially as very many of the Conservatives also have business and political connections in America, and admire the American tradition of laissez-faire capitalism and minimal worker’s rights and welfare state.

The Undemocratic Invasion of Iraq

Then there’s that rubbish about Blair’s invasion of Iraq being the greatest of this country’s achievements since the Second World War. This is quite preposterous. I can think of many better achievements: the setting up of the welfare state, decolonisation and the transformation of the Empire into the Commonwealth (with caveats), the abolition of the death penalty and the launch of the Black Knight British-Australian space rocket, which put a British-built satellite in orbit in 1975. Other greater British achievements I would argue include Jodrell Bank, Jocelyn Bell-Purnell’s discovery of Pulsars, Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA and the Mini. Oh yes, and the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the sheer fact that Ozzie Osborne is still with us. In fact, just about everything peaceful Britain has done after World War II, which hasn’t involved us invading anyone or stealing their industries and resources.

Which is what happened in the invasion of Iraq.

Of course, there were and presumably still are people, who’ve been taken in by Blair’s lies. That he had weapons of mass destruction. Which he didn’t. That he was ready to invade at 45 minutes notice. He wasn’t. That he aided Osama bin Laden. A really grotesque lie – Hussein was a secular nationalist. Bin Laden hated his regime and everything it stood for.

And the greatest lie of all: that the war was fought for democracy. This one, the worst of them all, had some plausibility because Hussein was indeed a brutal dictator. He gassed the Kurds when they rose up, and massacred the Shi’a minority. He was a brutal thug. And he had started out as our thug. He was on the American’s payroll to assassinate leading Iraqi politicians in the 1950s, but was never able to carry it off, and escaped back into Syria. See the book A Brutal Friendship on how bloody the relationship between Britain and the comprador elites in the Arab nations really is. The invasion of Iraq also formed part of a narrative in which Britain unselfishly sends her troops all over the world to give evil foreign dictators a good kicking and liberate their grateful peoples. That was the way Gladstone sold the Empire to us in the 19th century, even when members of his cabinet were writing ‘a love of empire is a love of war’. It was the rationale behind Britain sending troops to Bosnia and Kosovo to fight the Serbs and protect the local Muslim populations. Many liberals no doubt supported the invasion because they genuinely believed it was, for all its faults, another humanitarian police action. There was even a book, reviewed in Lobster, which aimed to present a Socialist case for the Neocons’ foreign policy.

But it was never about democracy. It was simply about oil. And Israel, and pure economic imperialism.

The Republicans in America and Israel’s Likud party had put together joint plans for the invasion of Iraq way back in the 1990s. Hussein was arming and supporting the Palestinians. The oil barons wanted him out the way, as his erratic policy on oil exports was causing massive fluctuations in price. And both the Americans and the Saudis wanted to get their mitts on the Iraqi oil industry and its reserves, which are the largest outside Saudi Arabia itself. And the Neocons wanted to privatise the Iraqi economy so that American multinationals could loot all the profitable Iraqi state enterprises, and they could play at real politicians by creating their low tax, free trade state.

The result has been sheer, unmitigated chaos. The results of the American economic policy has been that the Iraqi unemployment rate shot up to 60%. Community relations between the various tribes and sects in Iraq has been destroyed. There are peace walls – barricades – between the Sunni and Shi’a quarters of Baghdad, which didn’t exist before. Members of the American armed forces, who are supposed to be paragons and democratic virtue, instead behave as Nazis. The real-life soldier, who formed the basis for the hero in Clint Eastwood’s Sniper, was a racist butcher. The mess he ate and drank in was festooned with Nazi insignia, and the army, to the shock of one of Obama’s diplomats, is permeated with a deep, visceral hatred and contempt for the Iraqi people. This goes far beyond hating the remnants of Hussein’s army, or the Islamist terrorists that have expanded into the power vacuum. It includes ordinary Iraqi civilians. The Sniper mentioned above claims to have shot ordinary Iraqis. One very senior American officer in charge of the occupying forces provided American aid to Sunni death squads, which murdered and terrorised the Shi’a. American squaddies and private military contractors – what in the old days we called ‘mercenaries’ – have been found running everything from prostitution rings. They’ve even gone on shooting sprees, committing drive-by killings of ordinary Iraqis just for fun.

And the country is less than a functioning democracy. It is effectively a US client state. Much of it has been taken over by the ISIS’ thugs, while the Iranians are also seeking to expand their influence with the country’s Shi’a. Some of this mess comes from the fact that George W. Bush, Blair’s Best Friend and the rest of the Neocons had no clue about Arab and Middle Eastern politics and culture, beyond their own crappy ideology. And they believed the lies spouted by one Ahmed Chalabi, who claimed that he led the Iraqi resistance, and they would be welcomed as liberators when they invaded.

The invasion has not created a stable democracy. It has instead produced little beyond misery and carnage. It also amply demonstrates something Jacob Bronowski said in his blockbusting popular science series, The Ascent of Man. Clausewitz famously coined the phrase, ‘War is politics by other means’. Bronowski was a Fabian Socialist as well as a scientist, and had a much bleaker, colder view of armed conflict: ‘War is theft by other means’. In Iraq’s case, he was right.

A Blairite PR Piece?

Looking at the piece, it seems less to me to be a genuine statement by an ordinary member of the public, and more like another piece of PR guff from the Blairites. New Labour was notorious for spin and lies. After all, they ‘sexed up’ the ‘dodgy dossier’ with falsehoods in order to justify the invasion. And just because they’re out of power hasn’t stopped them carrying on. Jack Straw’s son’s PR outfit, Portland Communications, was behind the staged heckling of Jeremy Corbyn at a gay pride rally, and a T-shirt demanding the eradication of ‘Blairite vermin’ was the product of the fetid little mind of another Blairite, Anna Philips, and her pet ‘Creative Consultant and Media Guru’. One of Corbyn’s promises is that he intends to prosecute Blair for war crimes. Blair was on TV recently claiming he wasn’t worried, and trying to justify the debacle. But as this piece shows, clearly he and very many of his followers are worried.

‘Focus’ Magazine on the ‘Dawn of Life’

March 16, 2008

There’s an interesting item over at Atheism Sucks at on an article the science journalist John Horgan wrote some time ago on the problems of current theories on the origin of life.  Five years ago in 2003 the British popular science magazine, Focus, also did a feature on the origin of life by their writer, Robert Matthews. This covered the famous Miller-Urey experiment, various extremophiles such as Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium discovered in 1956 by the American microbiologist Arthur Anderson that can survive levels of radiation that will kill a human instantly, and four of the major figures in the discussion of the origin of life. These were Anaximander, who considered that life had spontaneously emerged from mud to produce fish, and then every other creature when the fish moved onto dry land; Leeuwenhoek for his discovery of microscopic creatures, confirmed by Hooke; Louis Pasteur, for proving that spontanous generation did not occur and that disease was caused by germs passing from organism to organism; and Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty. The article credited Avery, MacLeod and McCarty for showing in 1944 at the Rockefeller Institute in New York that ‘a simple molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid – or DNA – found in the nucleus of living cells is the key to life’ for carrying the genetic instructions for organisms to reproduce themselves. 1 This is quite remarkable, given the way that Crick and Watson’s work on DNA is usually mentioned to the exclusion of all the other researchers. It also included a brief interview with Graham Cairns-Smith, one of the foremost researchers on the origin of life. It also briefly discussed Dr. Freeman Dyson’s theory that life evolved twice. It also included a brief overview of ‘seven of the most popular theories currently being debated’ – the RNA world, primordial soup, life from clay, PNA theory, hydrothermal vents, panspermia and Creationism. These overviews were just a paragraph long, though the piece on the Miller-Urey experiment, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, ran over four pages. 2

The Miller-Urey Experiment

The article was certainly not pessimistic about the possibility of discovering the origin of life. While it stated that ‘as a demonstration of how to create life, Miller’s experiment could be dismissed as a heroic failure’ it considered that ‘its real significance lies not in results, but in its approach. For millennia the solution to the mystery of the origin of life seemed beyond reach. It was Miller who brought it into the lab – a nd began one of humanity’s most exciting scientific quests.’ 3 Nevertheless, the feature noted the same problems with the theories as John Horgan. Although Time magazine declared when Miller and Urey’s results were published in Science in 1953 that ‘If the apparatus had been as big as the ocean, and if it had worked for a million years instead of one week, it might have created something like the first living molecule’, the results were not nearly as good as was believed. 4

The article notes that while the experiment did create six types of amino acid, only two – glycine and alanine – had any known relevance. As for amino acides, while they’re life’s building blocks, by the 1950s they were, as merely constituents of proteins, far from ‘living molecules’ and had lost their status as the master molecules of life to DNA. Specifically, they were not self-replicating, a key feature of any ‘living molecule’. Miller did not produce any DNA, nor even the A, C, G and T nucleotides. ‘As Miller himself acknowledged, the chemicals produced were as far from life as a pile of bricks is from being a humming metropolis.’ 5 Instead of the reducing atmosphere of hydrogen, methane and ammonia, astronomers instead theorised that the atmosphere on the early Earth was probably composed of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water. Any methane and ammonia was probably destroyed by the light of the primordial sun. ‘When Miller and others ran the experiment with this chemically neutral mix, they only produced traces of glycine, the simplest amino acid.’ 6

The ‘Double Origin’ Theory

The ‘double origin’ theory for the emergence of life, as formulated by Freeman Dyson, suggests that the first lifeforms were protein-like molecules, which gradually evolved more sophisticated metabolisms, passing on their abilities to other proteins using enzymes as a primitive form of genetics. Later, more sophisticated genetic molecules like DNA emerged that were able to reproduce their traits much more accurately, but still lacked sophisticated metabolisms. However, eventually the proteins and the genetic molecules fused in a symbiotic relationship that produced life forms with a sophisticated metabolism and genetics. However, Dyson admits ‘that his ‘double origin’ theory is a highly speculative one, but scientists concede that today’s cells do show combinations of simpler life-forms’. 7 Thus, the paragraph on the ‘Primordial Soup’ concluded that ‘while teh primordial soup expected on the early Earth can create some of the most basic building blocks for life, it seems incapable of generating the crucial self-replicating molecules like DNA.’ 8

The RNA World

Most of the other theories discussed also had serious flaws. The RNA world, proposed in the 1980s, after it was discovered that RNA could act as catalyst and not just a carrier of genetic information, considers that the earliest life forms were naked genes of RNA. However, the article noted that while RNA can be persuaded to evolve new abilities, such as limited self-replication and the ability to link amino acids together, it so far has not demonstrated itself able to replicate itself completely as required for life on Earth. 9

Life from Clay

Graham Cairns-Smith’s own theory was that life was originally based on chemicals more robust than DNA, such as the clay mineral, kaolite. In this view, the first genes were defects in the crystal structure of these clays that were passed on to successive generations of crystals as they formed. However, there is no experimental evidence, according to the article, that clays really can replicate in this way. 10

Interestingly, the brief interview with Cairns-Smith suggests that the distinction drawn by some opponents of Intelligent Design between the origin of life and Darwinism is not accepted by all scientists. While Darwin himself did not discuss the origin of life, but merely speculated in a letter to a friend in 1871 that it may have occurred ‘in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity present’, Cairns-Smith himself stated that the process involved Natural Selection. 11 In answer to the question ‘What is your advice to anyone thinking of entering this area of research?’, Cairns-Smith answered ‘Oh, to forget about the chemistry of life as it is now and look creatively for the simplest real chemical systems that can evolve through natural selection, whatever they are made of.’ 12 It thus appears from Cairns-Smiths comments that however different the process of the origin of life may be from the evolution of living organisms, it is still held to be the product of Natural Selection.

The PNA World

The PNA theory arose from the work of Peter Nielsen of the University of Copenhagen in 1991. Nielsen used computers to design a molecule – Peptide Nucleic Acid, or PNA – that had the both the structure of DNA and the chemical abilities of proteins. He was intending to use it for cancer therapy, but its combination of the genetic quality of DNA and the resilience of proteins appealed to scientists struggling to discover the compounds that would have been suitable for the origin of life on Earth. PNA does share with DNA some limited capability for self-replication, but nothing on the scale of DNA. 13

Hydrothermal Vents

Regarding the origin of life around hydrothermal vents, while these do have iron sulphide, which performs a key process in living organisms by linking up amino acids, the extreme heat inside the vents, which exceeds 300 degrees Celsius, rapidly tears apart amino acids and DNA. Nevertheless, William Martin and his colleagues at the University of Dusseldorf in 2003 suggested that key reactions may still occur in cavities inside iron sulphide cells in the vents. 14


The paragraph on panspermia – the theory that life was seeded on Earth by comets and meteors from elsewhere in the cosmos –  noted that it was first proposed by Victorian scientists, and that its supporters included Francis Crick and Fred Hoyle. Its propnents argued that the discovery of amino acides in meteorites and bacteria high up in the Earth’s atmosphere support the theory. However, although this solved the problem of the origin of life on Earth, it was considered to be a ‘cop-out’ by many scientists because it pushed the problem away into deep space. 15


As for Creationism, the article merely stated that it was ‘the oldest theory for the origin of life – and the simplest to explain: God did it.’ 16

Conclusion: Materialist Solutions of the Origin of Life Problematic

Thus, while the article certainly wasn’t as pessimistic about the possibility of discovering a materialist solution to the origin of life, it was clear that all the scientific theories presented had major flaws. The mention of Creationism alongside the materialist scientific theories is interesting. It’s clear that the article wasn’t written from a Creationist standpoint, and broadly supported the search for a materialist solution to the problem of the origin of life. Nevertheless, it seems extremely unlikely to me that many science magazines would ever have even mentioned Creationism as a solution at the time, even if merely for the sake of completeness, because of the threat that it is held to present to materialist science, which is construed and presented as genuine science in opposition to non-materialist approaches. It might have been because Creationism has, until very recently, been very much a minority point of view in Britain, though one that has been vigorously attacked over the past decades by Richard Dawkins, amongst others. With the growth of interest in Intelligent Design since the 1980s, I do wonder if Creationism would now be mentioned without an explicit condemnation, even in passing, in a British popular science magazine.


1. Robert Matthews, ‘History of Pondering Life’s Origins’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 39.

2. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 38-41.

3. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

4. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 40.

5. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 40-41.

6. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

7. Matthews, ‘Has Life Originated More than Once on Earth?’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

8. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

9. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

10. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

11. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

12. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

13. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

14. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

15. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

16. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.