The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ten minutes at 10.00

Ben Smart, the first-place winner of the Genomics Forum's short story competition (which was initiated and organised by Pippa Goldschmidt), will be reading from his short story 'The Test' tomorrow (Wednesday), as part of the Book Festival's 'Ten at Ten' series. Tickets free. The winning stories and several runners-up have been published as an attractively-designed booklet pack, GM Fiction, and will be on sale in the bookshop tent.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

A scientist, a philosopher and a theologian walked into a bar ...

... and had a discussion. The Highland Park Speigeltent, that being the bar, was pretty well crowded for Thursday night's panel 'Belief in Evolution: what does it mean?' Genomics Forum director Steve Yearley, who introduced the speakers, said he was going to assume we were all in some sense Darwinians here - though anyone who wasn't was free to question that - and that we were going to discuss what acceptance of evolution meant for our views about ourselves and society, the nature of human beings, and so on.

That would have been an interesting discussion.

The actual discussion, while certainly interesting, was about something else entirely. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne said he thought he'd been cast as the brash American, and that was what he was going to be. Evolution and religion are incompatible. 'Belief' in evolution is quite different from a religious belief. The first is based on having seen overwhelming empirical evidence, which it would be irrational not to accept. The other is based on no evidence at all, and if necessary in the teeth of the evidence. The difference is that between science and superstition.

John Dupré (philosopher) and John Brooke (theologian and science historian) disagreed, in detail and at length, while insisting that they were on the same side as Coyne on the reality of evolution (and paying handsome tribute to the cogency and clarity of his book). Dupré argued that the provisionality of science is its strength, and that most of what we now understand about evolution will be obsolete in fifty years. The facts in Coyne's book, and their irresistible implications, will remain as solid as they are now, but not all Coyne's own views on speciation, etc, will likewise stand the test of time. Brooke pointed out that leading Presbyterians and Anglicans (such as Asa Gray and William Temple) were won over to Darwin's ideas within months of the publication of The Origin, and remained Christians (in Temple's case, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury). Even the creationists can't be defeated by denouncing them as irrational: within their system of priorities, they are rational (though mistaken, mainly through inadequate theology rather than inadequate education or intelligence or even (in some deeply sad cases) acquaintance with the evidence).

I have to say that, though I disagreed with some of their points, the philosopher and the theologian had the best of the argument. Jerry Coyne, as I've found from reading his marvellous book and following his combative blog, and indeed from hearing him and Nick Lane talk the following day about the evidence for evolution, is a fine scientist and brilliant populariser of science. In philosophy of science, and in history of ideas, he's as likely as you and me and your average working scientist to get walked over by professionals in these fields. That's no disgrace. Division of labour - it's all in Ricardo.

What I'd still like to see, some day, is the discussion that Steve Yearley adumbrated and that didn't happen. I am thoroughly jaded with the argument with creationism, and indeed the whole science-and-religion thing. Been there, done that, got the bloody shirt. I loathe and despise creationism, and my main interest in it is in avenging the scars it has left on me. But its recent salience deserves explanation. My impression is that creationism and evolution have both changed since I first became acquainted with them in the 1960s and early 1970s. Back then, evolution was popularly understood as containing moral messages. Part of the reason for that was mistaken scientific theories - notably, group selection (as a major explanation) which was heavily relied on by Robert Ardrey, whose semi-racist speculations were widely read back in the day, as were the (variably more sound) works of Desmond Morris, Konrad Lorentz, Ashley Montagu, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, all of whom moralised in their different ways. Another part of the reason was fuzzy feel-good vulgarizations, which found their ecological niche and competitive advantage in the progressive temper of the time. Thomas Huxley's classic address, 'Evolution and Ethics', should have long ago nailed all such, but it didn't stop his grandson, Julian Huxley, from promulgating an 'Evolutionary Humanism' and from writing an enthusiastic introduction to Teilhard de Chardin's religiose sprinkling of saccharine pixie-dust on the same pathetic fallacy.

Christian anti-evolutionism, at that time, wasn't like modern creationism. It wasn't joined at the hip to insanities about a six-thousand-year-old Earth. It was a protest - valid enough in its own terms - against quite specious conclusions about the inevitability of human progress drawn from evolutionary thinking. (In the hands of, say, C. S. Lewis, this protest was quite compatible with public acceptance of - and private reservations about - evolution as a fact.) Even young-earthism started out (to stretch the principle of charity a little too far) at least presenting itself as as an alternate hypothesis, which could in principle be accepted even by atheists. (One can idly imagine a planet populated by all the organisms in the fossil record, devastated by a catastrophe in the recent past, leaving a spurious record of succession in the rocks, and with the actual evolution having occurred on another planet or in the deep pre-Cambrian.) But the evidence just didn't stack up, and the creation/catastrophe argument has moved from claims of hard facts on the table to waffle about 'presuppositions' and 'world-views', in an involuntary admission of evidential bankruptcy. The creationist style of thought, preeningly self-blinkered and paranoid, has become a watering-can for the tree of crazy. Of course the outright denialist strand of thinking was there all along, but why did it become dominant, and widespread, after the 1960s?

One reason, I'd suggest, is that popular understanding of evolution changed radically in the 1970s, with the works of first Jaques Monod and then Richard Dawkins. Chance and Necessity and The Selfish Gene both based their arguments firmly on the molecular, materialist account of life, and both insisted that no moral lessons or eschatological comfort could be drawn from the process - very much the reverse, in fact. The even more widely-read work of Stephen Jay Gould, though pitched in a different register, was likewise stark in its implications:
The radicalism of natural selection lies in its power to dethrone some of the deepest and most traditional comforts of Western thought, particularly the notion that nature's benevolence, order, and good design, with humans at a sensible summit of power and excellence, proves the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent creator who loves us most of all (the old-style theological version), or at least that nature has meaningful directions, and that humans fit into a sensible and predictable pattern regulating the totality (the modern and more secular version).

To these beliefs Darwinian natural selection presents the most contrary position imaginable. Only one causal force produces evolutionary change in Darwin's world: the unconscious struggle among individual organisms to promote their own personal reproductive success—nothing else, and nothing higher (no force, for example, works explicitly for the good of species or the harmony of ecosystems).


Darwin's system should be viewed as morally liberating, not cosmically depressing. The answers to moral questions cannot be found in nature's factuality in any case, so why not take the "cold bath" of recognizing nature as nonmoral, and not constructed to match our hopes? After all, life existed on earth for 3.5 billion years before we arrived; why should life's causal ways match our prescriptions for human meaning or decency?
That Gould made these points in a polemic against the 'Darwinian fundamentalists' (Dawkins, Dennett and Maynard Smith) makes the essential congruence of their views on exactly this point all the more significant. Monod and Dawkins would have agreed with every word, and wrote similar passages themselves.

It's this 'thrilling godlessness', as Martin Amis called it, that drives the fury of modern evolution denialism. Julian Huxley's 'Religion Without Revelation' of Evolutionary Humanism was no doubt troubling enough to believers, but at least it wasn't a vision of blind, pitiless indifference at the heart of things.

But what, as I said, I'd still like to see more discussion of are the implications of this changed view of evolution for secular ideologies. Does junking the woozy teleological version of evolution affect socialism, liberalism, conservatism? Monod thought so, but who else has done serious thinking about the question?

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Best Amazon review thread evah

Start your own arms race with yummy yellowcake! Be sure to click on 'see all reviews'. (Via.) Even more disturbing than mail-order uranium ore, customers who bought this item also bought: novels by John Scalzi and Charles Stross; Forbidden Lego: Build the Models Your Parents Warned You Against!; and The Art of Computer Programming, Vol 4 by Donald E. Knuth.

Do have to draw you a picture, people?

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Written in the genes, read at Charlotte Square

The Genomics Forum has for several years sponsored events at the Edinburgh Book Festival. This year, the forum is sponsoring three (all at 7 pm - 8.15 pm):

Tomorrow night (Thursday), Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True, will be discussing 'Belief in Evolution: what does it mean?' with philosopher and Egenis director Professor John Dupré and theologian Professor John Brooke, chaired by Professor Steve Yearley (who is, incidentally, adamant that this isn't a discussion about whether evolution occurred, but about what it means for us that it did).

On Friday 21 August, the world's most medically-tested healthy man, best-selling author, science journalist and Wired Contributing Editor David Ewing Duncan, kicks around the question 'Do we need to know our personal genetic data?' with medical sociologist Professor Steve Sturdy, neuropathologist and Brain Bank Director Professor James Ironside and clinical geneticist Dr Mary Porteus.

Next week, on Thursday 27 August, I'll be chairing a panel on 'Genetics and Identity in the Year of "Homecoming"' with genealogist and biologist Dr Bruce Durie, acclaimed novelist Suhayl Saadi, and writer, producer and former National Poet of Wales Gwyneth Lewis.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

For one night only! (And some other free events)

Tonight (Tuesday) Andrew J. Wilson is reading his short story 'Under the Bright and Hollow Sky' at Underword, in Fingers Piano Bar, Frederick St, from 7.50pm to 8.40pm. Admission is free. I read the part of the story involving testimony by that dubious character 'Ken MacLeod'.

Down in the Grassmarket, Transreal Fiction (a fine SF and fantasy bookshop, and Fringe Venue 326 – page 132 of this year’s Fringe Programme) has a Summer Exhibition (running until Monday 31st August 2009) by talented photographer Madeleine Shepherd, called Alba ad Astra. Madeleine's superb colour photographs, showing curious aspects and odd angles of Scotland's recent industrial, architectural and military archaeological remains, are arranged around the shop. You can take a laminated guide to what they show - and what they suggest - around the exhibition. With some written input by members of Writers' Bloc, and some rarely-seen issues of the legendary space-movement newsletter Rocketry Scotland going as far back as 1938, this free exhibition sets out a case for the existence of a secret Scottish space programme.

A companion exhibition book is available, with a foreword by me.

Another free, ongoing event in a good local bookshop is the Edinburgh Book Fringe at Word Power, well worth checking out.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Cheerful thought

"Despair is a black leather jacket that everyone looks good in. Hope is a frilly pink dress that exposes your knees."

- Rebecca Solnit, (left) quoted in an article in today's Guardian asking whether the left has missed the open goal offered by the current crisis. An earlier (1932) reflection on the same point has become something of a classic (pdf).

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The New Geology

While I was putting together the last-but-one post below I did some searches on relevant terms, and found two copies of George McCready Price's masterpiece The New Geology advertised on AbeBooks. One, still there, was offered for £220.90. The other was £15 from an Oxfam shop in England. I ordered the book and it arrived the following day - well done, Oxfam! It's a beautiful volume: solidly bound, profusely illustrated, clearly and persuasively written. It was long ago demolished with a few taps of the hammer by J. Laurence Kulp.


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De-socialized medicine

Blogging pathologist Ilorien flags up a coup for fellow comments regular George Berger. Dutch-speaking reader(s), go here and scroll down.
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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jurassic Ark

Last Friday three hundred or so sceptics visited the Creation Museum, and lots of them have blogged about it. P.Z. Myers has written a slashing takedown, and provided a handy roundup of other reactions, including those of the estimable young blogger Blag Hag. Like most people, these sceptics identify creationism with the outlook promoted by the museum, and for all practical purposes they're right. But it was not always so.

One of the surprises in Ronald L. Numbers' The Creationists, which I've just read, is how recent and contingent even within creationism this whole Young Earth/Flood Geology farrago is. Well into the 1950s, many if not most mainstream (so to speak) fundamentalists accepted an old Earth, with progressive creation or even theistic evolution, which they accommodated to Genesis by postulating an indefinite length of time between the first and second verses (the 'gap theory') or within each creation day (the 'day-age theory'). Changing that took the life-long labour of George McCready Price, the source of whose commitment to a recent week-long creation was not so much the inspired words of Genesis as the inspired visions of the prophet Ellen G. White. Price's work in turn inspired the authors of The Genesis Flood.

Ken Ham's outfit, which sponsors the Museum, manages to outdo even these modern founders of flood geology, by sticking to the 4004 BC date for creation, instead of giving themselves a few thousand extra years of wiggle room for post-Flood prehistory. But, just as Eden had a snake, the Museum has a squiggle. As P.Z. points out, all the geological epochs are tagged ~2348 BC. Some day, an upstart challenger may yet damn Ham for that squiggle. What d'you mean, circa 2348 BC? It was exactly 2348 B.C.! About teatime!

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

What else I've been doing

The Human Genre Project is coming along well. It's just featured in the Madrid online daily Contributions have come in from: SF writers Bruce Sterling, Ted Kosmatka and Ian Watson, young American poets Kelley Swain, Tracey Rosenberg, and Aiko Harman, Brazilian polymath Fabio Fernandez, front-line health workers Heather Fineman and Marilyn Kosmatka, and many more.

A couple of weeks ago I went along to The Golden Hour, the monthly poetry evening at The Forest Cafe, where I heard an electrifying performance from Kei Miller and passed out Human Genre Project bookmarks so strategically that Allan Gillis said it was like getting an invitation to join a cult. I have no shame. On the way over I'd handed one bookmark to a young woman with glasses and a book-bag, and walked off quickly to let her get on with lighting her cigarette. I can spot those intellectuals a mile away.

She turned out to be Peggy Hughes, of the Scottish Poetry Library and West Port Book Festival - I met her again at (well, outside) the Wash Bar on the Mound, venue of the July City of Literature Trust salon, along with her boyfriend Colin Fraser (who is currently hosting a Twitter conversation between the Edinburgh monuments of Burns, Darwin, Hume and others). This particular salon was focused on SF and fantasy, with Scottish fantasy writer Ricardo Pinto as mystery guest, and a very creditable turn-out by the Edinburgh SF mob. I handed out bookmarks to everyone I knew and many I didn't. Stuart Kelly, Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday, spoke briefly about how SF and fantasy were integral to Scottish and particularly Edinburgh literature.

This month sees the Scottish fantastic variously represented at ongoing fringe events:

Alba ad Astra, an exhibition and book of Scotland's forgotten space programme.
The West Port Book Festival.
The Edinburgh Book Fringe.
Underword - 'Three weeks of subterranean spoken word'.

I'll be the one handing out the black, white and red bookmarks.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Working in the spaceship yards

This evocative cover from the first edition of my novel The Sky Road illustrates hip, groovy SF site io9's list of favourite last lines from SF novels (and yes, that book's last line is one of my favourites, too). Somewhere in the deep background of the notion of a spaceship being built in the centuries-old scars of the oil-rig construction yard at Kishorn was knowing about a sliver of overlap between Scottish SF fandom and the space movement. That intersection still exists. A couple of weekends ago I was at a small but ambitious con in Glasgow, Satellite 2, marking the fortieth anniversary of the first Armstrong on the Moon. Space enthusiasts Duncan Lunan, Robert Law and Andy Nimmo were on various panels, along with more conventional experts and authors on the Apollo missions. If you wanted to know just how the Apollo Guidance Computer worked, and why its top contractor was the sparkplug division of General Motors, you could hear Frank O'Brien, who knows more about the AGC than just about anyone else. If you wanted to know how Apollo flew to the Moon, you could hear W. David Woods, who wrote the book on it.

For me, a highlight of a very engaging and informative weekend was a talk by Prof Colin McInnes, DSc FRAes FInstP FRSE FREng, titled 'Random Thoughts of a Techno-Utopist Running Dog'. The usual conception of sustainability, Prof McInnes argued, was a dangerous idea. Technological stagnation only means slower resource depletion. We need continuous technological progress to make new resources available. The idea that we should use less energy is outrageously inhumane and regressive. Most of humanity gets its energy from burning wood and dung. We need a vast increase in energy production. That means nuclear power, including new kinds of nuclear plant such as the Thorium Energy Amplifier. Nuclear waste is just inadequately burned nuclear fuel. We need to find ways of burning it all. Most reycling schemes are feel-good rather than do-good, condemning us to pre-industrial, manual rooting about in rubbish. We need plasma torches and mass spectrometers to really recover all the useful stuff in our waste. 'Humanity is the singularity. We are self-replicating smart matter.' To campaign against cheap flights to Prague while jetting across the world for eco-holidays in the Galapagos is naked class warfare. With synthetic genomics we can have carbon-neutral aviation even cheaper than today's travel.

He took his argument all the way to building a Dyson Sphere and beyond. Brilliant stuff. I wish he could deliver the same talk in every high school in the country. Come to think of it, how much would it cost to make a DVD of the talk and send it out, free, to every science teacher in Scotland? Most of them wouldn't show it, of course, but it might save a few minds from the Green slime.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Scary stuff

A nearly-quarter-million-word anthology of vampire stories, By Blood We Live, edited by John Joseph Adams, is now available. It includes my short story, 'Undead Again' (originally published in Nature) and undoubtedly many far deeper and darker pleasures than that. I'll be delighted to get my contributor's copy, but if I read it I'll probably be looking between my fingers.

I have a similar half-eye relationship with my copy of Gathering the Bones, an acclaimed anthology of horror fiction in which I make a guest appearance in Andrew J. Wilson's short story, 'Under the Bright and Hollow Sky'. I'll be reading my part in the story in Andrew's live performance of this subtly disturbing account of a disappearance on Tuesday 18th August, 7.50pm–8.40pm, as part of the Free Fringe festival series Underword.

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