The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Genetically Modified Readings


Mutant Scum! Live readings of original fiction

WHO: Writers' Bloc spoken-word performance group, plus guests Ken MacLeod and Pippa Goldschmidt

WHERE: Pleasance Cabaret Bar, 60 the Pleasance, Edinburgh EH8 9TJ

WHEN: 7:45 p.m., Thursday 2 July 2009

HOW MUCH: £3.00 (£2.00 concessions)

What do the following words have in common: zipper, mad/max, hip/hop, agnostic, werewolf, mindbomb, tigger, brokenheart and zinc finger? They're all names of genes.

DNA databases, designer babies, GM foods, genes "for" this trait or that, the human genome, evolution -- they're all in the headlines. Genetic screening and paternity tests already affect many people's family lives. Genomics is everywhere. You could almost say it's in our DNA...

Writers' Bloc is proud to present a night of literary mayhem featuring original fiction that gives the double helix an extra twist.

ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum Writers in Residence Ken MacLeod and Pippa Goldschmidt will be special guest performers for the evening. The show will also feature new fiction by Writers' Bloc stalwarts including Jack Deighton, Gavin Inglis, Stefan Pearson and Andrew J. Wilson.

Expect genetically modified footballers, an investigation of whether death is an acquired trait and something that can only be described as Gattaca for neds...

Writers' Bloc is Edinburgh's premier spoken-word performance group. Its members include published and prize-winning poets and novelists, who present original material with attitude.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

A Superfluous Science

But all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided. Marx, Capital, Vol. III, ch. 48

Superficially, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a gigantic reactionary mass movement to establish an Islamic theocracy. Likewise, a couple of years later in 1981, the insurgent Polish trade union Solidarity superficially appeared to be a Catholic, nationalist mass movement to overthrow the unpopular People's Republic and restore capitalism. And today, the Iranian uprising seems on the surface to a brave and massive, but minority, protest movement in favour of the neoliberal Islamist candidate who may (or may not) have lost the election and against the right-wing populist Islamist candidate who may (or may not) have stolen the election.

In all of these cases, and many more, Marxists have warned anyone who would listen that the superficial appearance shouldn't be mistaken for the essence, for what was really going on under the surface of events. The underlying essence varied, and varies, according to the Marxist but whatever it is, you can be damn sure it wasn't something you would have thought of yourself, or gathered from the biased reportage of the bourgeois press. Not many people would have looked at a photo of shipyard workers kneeling to take Mass and thought, 'What they're really after is socialism from below.' Not many people could hear millions of voices chanting 'Allahu akbar!' and think, 'Ah yes, the power of the people is greater than the man's technology.' Crowds hauling down statues of Lenin didn't look as if they were celebrating the spirit of 1917, but that just goes to show how deceptive appearances can be.

Wittgenstein: “Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?” I (Elizabeth Anscombe, a friend and pupil of Wittgenstein) replied: “I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.” “Well, he asked, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?”

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Friday, June 19, 2009

A tangent to the Great Accommodationism Debate

There's a spectacular brouhaha fascinating debate going on in the evolution education advocacy community, over what is being undiplomatically called 'accommodationism'. A few days ago Jerry Coyne gave a link round-up, and it's already gone further: the best way to catch up is to go to his blog and scroll down. (Of course, if you're reading this much after June 2009, go here.)

Accommodationism, in this context, means emphasising the compatibility of religious faith with the truth of evolution. Few would object to merely pointing out that "Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith." Of course it can.
The problems arise when we read a little further in this authoritative statement:
Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways.
The more I think about that statement, the more it seems likely to irritate scientists and philosophers as much as believers and theologians - which is one way of demonstrating compatibility, I guess.

Coyne's view is that rather than make lots and lots of (often arcane) statements about compatibility, science advocacy organizations should stick to science and keep schtum about religion:
Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE? Not at all. I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint. I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution. If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended. Those should be the sole missions of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education. Leave theology to the theologians.
Well said.

Speaking for myself, I used to be a compatibilist and accommodationist. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm no more a scientist than I am a theologian. But for a heartfelt exploration of how these questions play out in real life, it's hard to top this:
Years ago I was fighting the good fight of creation on the Internet. I argued that evolution was impossible, for it required that the genetic code had to be changed to make new kinds of animals. It did not seem feasible to me that evolution could do this. I argued in the CompuServe debate forum, basing my arguments on Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crises. My favorite illustration was the difference between mammals and reptiles. The differences between living mammals and reptiles are substantial. Mammals all have hair, mammary glands, a four-chambered heart, and the distinct mammalian ear, with three little bones inside. These features are found in no living reptiles. I argued that this is because there is no viable intermediate between the two, that an animal could have either the reptile genetic code or the mammal code but could not be in the middle.

An evolutionist disagreed with me. He told me that in the past there had been many intermediates. He said that there were animals that, for instance, had jaw and ear bones that were intermediate between reptiles and mammals. How did he know this? He gave a reference to an essay in Stephen Gould's Ten Little Piggies . I wrote back that since the local library had a large collection of children's book, I should be able to find that book. (I thought I was so funny). I borrowed the book, and found an interesting account of how bones in the reptile jaw evolved and changed through millions of years to become the mammals' ear. That sounded like such a clever tale. How could Gould believe it? Perhaps he made it up. But there was one little footnote, a footnote that would change my life. It said simply, "Allin, E. F. 1975. Evolution of the Mammalian Middle Ear. Journal of Morphology 147:403-38." That's it. That's all it said. But it was soon to have a huge impact on me. You see, I had developed this habit of looking things up, and had been making regular trips to the University of Pennsylvania library. I was getting involved in some serious discussions on the Internet, and was finding the scientific journals to be a reliable source of information. Well, I couldn't believe that a real scientific journal would take such a tale seriously, but, before I would declare victory, I needed to check it out.

On my next trip to the university, I found my way to the biomedical library and located the journal archives. I retrieved the specified journal, and started to read. I could not believe my eyes. There were detailed descriptions of many intermediate fossils. The article described in detail how the bones evolved from reptiles to mammals through a long series of mammal-like reptiles. I paged through the volume in my hand. There were hundreds of pages, all loaded with information. I looked at other journals. I found page after page describing transitional fossils. More significantly, there were all of those troublesome dates. If one arranged the fossils according to date, he could see how the bones changed with time. Each fossil species was dated at a specific time range. It all fit together. I didn't know what to think. Could all of these fossil drawings be fakes? Could all of these dates be pulled out of a hat? Did these articles consist of thousands of lies? All seemed to indicate that life evolved over many millions of years. Were all of these thousands of "facts" actually guesses? I looked around me. The room was filled with many bookshelves; each was filled with hundreds of bound journals. Were all of these journals drenched with lies? Several medical students were doing research there. Perhaps some day they would need to operate on my heart or fight some disease. Was I to believe that these medical students were in this room filled with misinformation, and that they were diligently sorting out the evolutionist lies while learning medical knowledge? How could so much error have entered this room? It made no sense.


The impact of that day in the library was truly stunning. I didn't know what to say. I could not argue against the overwhelming evidence for mammal evolution. But neither could I imagine believing it. Something had happened to me. My mind had begun to think. And it was not about to be stopped. Oh no. There is no stopping the mind set free. I went to the library and borrowed a few books on evolution and creation--diligently studying both sides of the argument. I started to read the evolutionist books with amazement. I had thought that evolutionists taught that floating cows had somehow turned into whales; that hopeful monsters had suddenly evolved without transitions; that one must have blind faith since transitional fossils did not exist; that one must simply guess at the dates for the fossils; and that one must ignore all of the evidence for young-earth creation. I was surprised to learn what these scientist[s] actually knew about the Creationist teachings of flood geology, of the proposed young-earth proofs, and of the reported problems of evolution. And I was surprised at the answers that they had for these Creationist arguments. And I was surprised to see all the clear, logical arguments for evolution. I read with enthusiasm. I learned about isochrons, intermediate fossils, the geologic column, and much more.

I would never see the world in the same light. Several weeks later I found myself staring at the fossil of a large dinosaur in a museum. I stared with amazement. I looked at the details of every bone in the back. And I wondered if a design so marvelous could really have evolved. But I knew that someone could show me another animal that had lived earlier and was a likely predecessor of this dinosaur that I was observing. And I knew that one could trace bones back through the fossil record to illustrate the path through which this creature had evolved. I stared and I pondered. And then I pondered some more.

Within days, I had lost interest in fighting evolution. I began to read more and speak less. When I did debate, I confined my arguments to the origin of life issue. But I could no longer ignore what I had learned. Several months later I first sent out an email with probing questions to a Creationist who had arrived on the scene. He never responded. I have not stopped questioning.
Preach it, brother!

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'The moment a spaceship turns up, you've lost me.'

Asked what his take is on the transhumanist genre of science fiction (Ken Macleod, Alistair Reynolds, Iain Banks, Richard Morgan, etc.) and their take on technology and politics Michael Moorcock answers:
I'm not entirely sure about transhumanist fiction. It holds no attractions for me. Assuming I really know what it is. I've only really ever been interested in 'humanist' fiction. That is, fiction about people. As I've said, I don't read sf for pleasure and very little of it for review, so I'm no expert. I think I'm probably sympathetic to the writers you mention, but personally believe political fiction should be set in at least some version of the here and now. [...] This was always my argument about sf -- that generally, by abstracting it, putting it in some 'other place', you lost some of the relevance. That said, I haven't been vastly interested in technological advance since I was young. I have every sympathy with Banks, Mcleod et al, but to be honest I've been no more able to read more than a page of their stuff than I have Heinlein's or Asimov's. The moment a spaceship turns up, you've lost me.
Ah well. I've always enjoyed what I've read of Moorcock's work, and I never imagined that anyone would ever ask him what he thought of mine. It's a bit more startling to find I'm part of 'the transhumanist genre'.

A very friendly interview with me - spaceships, container trucks, and all - by journalism student Ewan Angus, is in the current SF Crowsnest. It includes some questions and answers about The Restoration Game, due out in March 2010 and (mostly) set in the scientifictional year 2008.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An uprising that will stun the world

Early in 2001, the Iranian revolutionary communist Mansoor Hekmat said:
In Iran [...] the reality is that the rise of political Islam and religious rule has caused a staggering anti-Islamic backlash, in both ideological and personal spheres. The emergence of political Islam in Iran has become the prelude to an anti-Islamic and anti-religious cultural revolution in people's minds, particularly amongst the young generation, which will stun the world with an immense explosion and will proclaim of the practical end of political Islam in the whole of Middle East.


In my opinion, the Islamic movement in the Middle East and internationally will run out of breath with the fall of the Islamic regime in Iran. The question is not that Islamic Iran will be a defeated model, which others can disassociate themselves from. The Islamic Republic's defeat will arise within the context of an immense mass secularist uprising in Iran, which will touch the foundations of reactionary Islamic thought and not only discredit but condemn it in world opinion. The defeat of the Islamic regime will be comparable to the fall of Nazi Germany. No fascist can easily hold on to their position by merely distancing themselves organisationally and ideologically from this fallen pole. The entire movement will face decades of stagnation. The defeat of political Islam in Iran is an anti-Islamist victory, which will not end within the confines of Iran.
I don't know if he was right. But I hope he was.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009


Joan Woods, who taught English at Greenock High School when I was there around about 1970, had some unorthodox methods even by the standards of that time, let alone of this. For one class she played tracks from Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', handed out sheets with the lyrics, and set us the exercise of writing about them. Another handout she shook us up with was of pages and pages of cyclostyled purple ink lines that looked and read like nothing we'd hitherto seen as poetry. Hardly any of it rhymed, some of the lines ran on past the margin, and it included phrases like 'the iron lung my uncle got with his Embassy coupons'. Some of these poems were by Brian McCabe, who has since gone on to great things and has just published Zero, a collection of poems reflecting his recent fascination with numbers.

Here he is at the book's launch, reading the one about the invention of Roman numerals by a mafia boss. I think he's just reached: 'We got a hundred: C.'

A teacher as inspiring of mathematics as Joan Woods was of English could use that poem and several others, but would probably get the sack.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

SF authors in fake UFO shock!

Last weekend I was one of the author guests at Schlosscon in Schwerin, Germany. Despite my shameful inability to understand more than a few words of German, I had a great time. The fifty or so fans there were enthusiastic and friendly. Schwerin is an attractive old town, centred around a castle on a lake, and is the site of this year's national garden show, around which three fans took me on Friday before the con started. I took at least a hundred pictures at that show alone. Here are some of the rest.

German SMOF Birgit Fischer (known to all as BiFi) with a copy of The Cassini Division in German.

Magazines and logo of the Science Fiction club Deutschland.

SF publisher Dieter von Reeken (left), and fan Dieter Schmidt (right) with an astounding array of fantastic books.

Karla Schmidt and Dirk Fleck with their German Science Fiction Awards.

Mario Kanzenbach displays his incredibly detailed models, including one that made the cover of the International Plastic Modellers Society journal.

Fellow author GoH, hard-SF writer and professional photographer H.D. Kline shows what to do with a landscape photo that has too much sky.

Special thanks to Ecki Marwitz, Matthew (Matthias Kunkel), Thomas Recktenwalds, BiFi, Alex, Dieter Schmidt, Mario, and Roger. And best wishes to the British fan Wilf James, who is himself a member of German fandom, who'd hoped to translate for me, and was sadly unable to make it to the con, as he was in hospital.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009


This weekend I'll be a GoH at Schlosscon, in Schwerin, Germany. I'll tell you all about it when I get back.

Comments regular Roderick T. Long has a post up about the new editions of the Fall Revo books, so go over there and thank him with a long, insightful comment thread.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Life Ascending

Nick Lane's book Life Ascending:The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, gets an enthusiastic and informative review at Pharyngula.

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