The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Creationist Brain Zap

I first became aware of the conflict between evolution and creationism at the age of six, when I read about Early Man in a school story-book. The book was about a day in the life of different people around the world. It was probably written by Enid Blyton and was as scientific as you'd expect. I literally didn't know Early Man from Adam. I asked my mother if Adam and Eve had had pointed ears, hairy pelts, and had lived up a tree. This was not a welcome question to raise in a Lewis manse. Adam's ears may or may not have been pointed but mine certainly burned. My mother had some sharp words with the teacher, and went on to score out and write indignantly over any references to evolution she came across in the numerous children's books of knowledge which our parents - and all due credit to them - gave us over the years. As we grew older we were also presented with a steady supply of anti-evolution tracts and books, culminating in a fine copy of what you might call the bible of modern creationism, Morris and Whitcomb's The Genesis Flood. I read this in my early teens and found it persuasive.

In case anyone doesn't know ... The Genesis Flood argues that the entire universe was created a few thousand years ago, and that a couple of thousand years after its creation, the Earth was devasted by a global flood resulting from the collapse of the vapour canopy that had hitherto kept the early Earth pleasantly warm and humid. There have been some disagreements since about where the water came from, and where it went, but in any case the upshot was that this global aqueous catastrophe completely resurfaced the globe and produced almost the entire geological column and fossil record. The appearance of a succession of forms of life is an artefact of their original location ('ecological zonation') and 'hydrodynamic sorting', i.e. their differing capacities to sink or swim. Just why the ecologically and hydrodynamically almost identical ichthyosaurs and dolphins are never found in the same strata is never quite explained.

(There are other difficulties with this hypothesis.)

Fate or Providence or the course of nature took an ironic revenge on my parents for filling my head with this sort of nonsense, because having been primed to be suspicious of mainstream science my brain was an open goal for pseudoscience. Flying saucers and Erich von Daniken and Velikovsky other such rubbish went straight to the back of the net. One consequence was that I started thinking, just to try and make sense of it all, and by the time I went to university I was a convinced atheist. I still thought that the anti-evolution tracts had made some telling points. This misconception didn't survive a reading of the first chapter of the first-year biology textbook, Keeton's Biological Science. As often happens it was an entirely trivial point that pricked the bubble:

'Why,' Keeton asked, 'would the Creator have given pigs, which walk on only two toes per foot, two other toes that dangle uselessly well above the ground?'
Creationists can argue about the human appendix and the whale's hind legs and male nipples till the cows come home, but the pig's superfluous trotters walked all over that, at least for me.

So I studied biology and then zoology and I read everything about evolution I could find. I read The Origin of Species, and I saw for myself how it had been misrepresented in the creationist tracts. One particularly prevalent practice of these was what later became known as quote-mining: taking a quote from an evolutionist out of context or mangling it, so that it seemed to be conceding a point against evolution. An example that jumped out at me was the passage from Darwin's sixth chapter, 'Difficulties of the theory', the one that goes: 'To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.' I'd often seen this quoted, but nary a word from the three pages that follow, in which Darwin explains how the eye could indeed have been formed by natural selection. As you might imagine, I was indignant about how I had been deceived. I came to have a very short fuse on the subject of quote-mining.

Needless to say, all through my zoology studies the matter came up at home. I didn't raise it myself, but my parents did, repeatedly. They plied me with Young Earth Creationist material, and got very upset when I questioned it, however tactfully. Not that I was always tactful. I was sometimes grossly insensitive. But all but a very few of these fights were picked by my parents and not by me. I don't blame them for that. They were doing good as they saw it.

At other times, I've taken a light-hearted, irenic, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger attitude to all this. What a shame, I've said, that some fundamentalists can't seem to understand that there is no necessary conflict between Christian faith and the scientific fact of evolution! One of my tutors, a palaeontologist who was a devout Christian and later became an ordained Anglican vicar, could surely have set them straight on that!

But he couldn't have. They were perfectly well aware that there were Christians who weren't YEC. I don't know if they thought these people weren't really Christians, but at the very least they thought they were bad and inconsistent Christians, at least in that respect. I'll say again, I don't blame them for that.

The people I blame are the people who wound them up.

As time went on I thought very little about the whole creation-evolution controversy, and I only became interested again in the 1990s, when I started following, a Usenet newsgroup where creationists (and other anti-evolutionists) have toe-to-toe knockdown arguments with supporters of mainstream science. Its numerous FAQs and other resources are now easily available at its website. What I learned there, from repeated example, is that the problems I noticed in the creationist tracts - the distortions, the fallacies, the faked anomalies, the quote-mining - are still absolutely characteristic of creationists, along with something that doesn't come across in (most of) the books but comes over loud and clear when creationists are arguing online in person: a quite insufferable arrogance, aggressiveness, and ignorance. There are a few creationists who acknowledge the weight of the evidence for evolution and don't distort it but still reject it. But they're the exceptions.

What quote-mining shows is that some people who produce creationist material are conscious liars. Behind these pseudo-science hacks are worse people yet. These are theologians who have the education to understand the conflict precisely. It's not one between 'science and the Bible'. It's a lot more stark than that. It's a conflict between a particular way of reading the Bible (what is loosely called 'literalism') and normal scientific method. There would be a certain integrity in acknowledging the conflict, admitting that there was no obvious resolution, and pointing out that we are not always given to comprehend the intent of the Ancient of Days. That at least would allow young people from these traditions to study biology and geology and astronomy without the constant arguments at home interrupting their thoughts like a buzz of static across their brains.

There's one further ironic revenge visited on all this. A frequent complaint against the New Atheists is that they're only arguing against fundamentalism, and ignoring the broader and more accommodating forms of religious belief. This isn't exactly true, but to the extent that it is, they've hit a sweet spot in the market. When I rejected fundamentalism I didn't turn to broader and more accommodating forms of religious belief. I didn't start wondering if maybe there was something to be said for Anglicanism. I just went straight over to atheism. If this is typical, and I think it is, then there must be many for whom the New Atheist books are like water in the desert. We need no condescension from those who have already found an oasis.

[Note: this includes part of my Leicester Secular Society Darwin Memorial Lecture that I left out below.]

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Déjà Vu all over again

A few years ago I read and gave an enthusiastic blurb for a small-press, POD-published book, something I don't often do. The book was Déjà Vu, by Ian Hocking. It was a cracking story, more technothriller than SF, using plausible-sounding physics to set up, as I recall, a time-travel paradox that powered a cleverly thought-through plot. It was at least as good as lot of more widely-published work in the same genre. I wasn't the only reviewer who thought the book, and the writer, deserved a lot better. Ian's efforts to become a properly published writer were serious, unavailing, and in the end heartbreaking. He had another life than being a writer, and reckoned it was time he got on with it.

Now he has decided to make Déjà Vu available on Kindle for a very low price. Give it a go. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised, and find yourself, as I did, looking forward to the sequel.

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Monday, March 21, 2011


The armed forces of the UK, US, France and several other countries are at this moment attacking the government and armed forces of Libya, in the immediate interest and at the behest of an armed rebellion led by people some of whom were until very recently members of the government and armed forces of Libya. At the same time, the states attacking the Libyan state and supporting the armed rebellion are fully supportive of the governments and armed forces of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen (today on the brink) in using armed force to put down unarmed protest demonstrations. There's no inconsistency in their actions (and their inactions). They have to maintain their interests in the region, which are threatened by the Arab revolutions.

People of the most diverse political views, which in the UK range from the leaderships of the major parties to the dregs of the far left, are joined in demanding support for the attack on humanitarian grounds. Many sincere supporters of the Arab revolutions also support the attack.

I think the well-intentioned among these are making a big mistake. The attackers themselves, however, probably aren't. This humanitarian intervention is likely to be as successful as those in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The leadership of the Libyan rebels probably aren't making a mistake either. Having failed to take the country they refused even to test offers of mediation. At first they hung out banners opposing foreign intervention. Then they called for a no-fly zone. Now they celebrate the attack, their fighters dancing on the burned-out hulks of a dozen or so tanks and supply vehicles destroyed from the air. It seems safe to assume that taking power with the support of imperialism and its Arab client despots is what they intend to do. Now, I could be wrong about this, but I'm finding it hard to see this prospect as a win for the Arab revolutions.

For these reasons I think people in the attacking countries should oppose the attack.


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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Outcasts, BBC One

Outcasts, now mercy-killed after its first series - eight episodes that felt like sixteen - collapsed across the finishing line, had a lot going for it. The CGI was competent. The South African landscape was unfamiliar enough to most viewers, and spectacular enough in its own right, to stand in for an alien Earth-like world. The sets had moments and angles of promise. The lead actors were in their different ways good-looking. Some of them had been successful in other roles.

All that was wrong with it was the script. Clunky dialogue, kitchen-sink drama instead of plot, every character with a back-story like a tin can tied to a cat's tail. Every time something interesting threatened to happen, the kitchen sink got heaved at it. The extras were never seen doing anything that made you feel you were looking at a living community. They either walked briskly from place to place or gathered in front of the public telescreens whenever something had to be announced. The lead actors' talents were squandered on sub-EastEnders scenes with more Scottish accents. This was the BBC doing science fiction without the science fiction. Its ratings collapse and near-universal panning will probably convince the BBC not to risk doing SF again for a very long time.


One day later, relief: the second series of The Event has begun on C4! Already I'm rooting for the leader of the 'evil' faction of the aliens. At least, I am when I'm not wondering why, when the aliens crashed and were captured back in the late 1940s, the US government didn't follow the SOP for First Contact that worked so well at Roswell:

Kill and dissect. It's the only way to be sure.


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Online elsewhere

My appreciation of John Scalzi's novel Old Man's War is online at, and my write-up of last month's LSE event on 'Science Fiction and International Orders', exploring (with lots of links) the use of SF/F by academics in the contentious field of International Relations, is now online at Salon Futura, along with a fine selection of reviews and interviews.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

New poem on Human Genre Project

The Human Genre Project has a new poem, SMAD4, by science writer Elaine Westwick.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Max Stirner's Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation, John F. Welsh, Lexington Books, 2010

It seems apt that Stirner's work has found its greatest appreciation among the self-taught. Academic works that give so much as a fair-minded exposition of Stirner can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This book, a welcome addition to their number, reviews them all - as well as the more numerous others that give Stirner anything but a fair exposition - in a few pages. Stirner's place in intellectual history has likewise often owed more to imagination and indignation than investigation. Welsh traces Stirner's influence by a method so blindingly obvious that it has hitherto escaped even sympathetic academics: rather than tease out possible influences of and parallels to Stirner in the work of thinkers, activists and artists with individualist or egoist views, he looks at the work of people who explicitly stated that they were influenced by Stirner.

The structure of the book is clear and straightforward, as is its style. Part One deals with Stirner himself. The first chapter outlines Stirner's life, his historical and intellectual context, and his critical reception: from his contemporary Young Hegelians and their breakaways Marx and Engels, through later Marxists, existentialists, anarchists, and academics. The next two chapters, 'Humanity - the new Supreme Being' and 'Ownness and Modernity', are a concentrated but lucid exposition of the major themes of The Ego and Its Own, firmly locating Stirner as a critical Hegelian, and carefully differentiating Stirner's concept of 'ownness' from 'freedom' in its many guises. These two chapters are the best guide available to Stirner's book, and significant original arguments in their own right.

The three chapters of Part Two discuss in turn three of Stirner's most influenced, and most influential, disciples: the individualist anarchist Benjamin R. Tucker, the egoist philosopher James L. Walker, and the feminist and 'archist' Dora Marsden. For anyone whose acquaintance with these has come primarily from the efforts (handsomely acknowledged by Welsh) of egoist websites such as this one and anarchist or individualist small presses and little magazines, these chapters shed a flood of new light. Tucker, Walker and Marsden were much closer to what might be called the mainstream of the intellectual avant-garde than their present relative marginality suggests: Tucker's Liberty carried the first discussions and translations of Nietzsche in the United States, Walker was a prominent journalist and editor as well as noted atheist and anarchist publicist, and Marsden's journals published early works of Pound, Joyce, West, Lawrence and Eliot. Again, intellectual and historical context, clear and accurate exposition, and original development of the arguments, are combined and smoothly presented.

Part Three's first chapter examines the evidence for Stirner's alleged influence on Nietzsche, and, in finding it wanting, presents a survey of Nietzsche's thought and its contrast with Stirner's on numerous points. The final chapter of the book, 'Dialectical Egoism: Elements of a Theoretical Framework', lays out the toolkit for applying Stirner's approach, as analytical intrument and intellectual weapon, in the struggles and debates of today. This chapter has the potential, and no doubt the aim, of making egoism and dialectics available and accessible to students, scholars and activists seeking an alternative to the collectivism, statism and irrationalism in which critical theory is so often shrouded and buried. Egoism, Welsh argues, can be prised from the hands of capitalism's partisans, and dialectics wrested from those of communism's. Given the truly shocking state of academic critical theory, some of whose authentic products are indistinguishable from their wickedest parodies, this aim is neither quixotic nor ignoble. The impulse to cut a dash, if nothing else, could incite many a young or old academic to cut a swathe with the dialectical egoist scalpel.

To sum up: any reader of this journal, and anyone who has ever tried to grapple with Stirner, will enjoy and benefit from this book. Scholars and students seeking a clear, honest, up-to-date introduction to Stirner need look no further. Individual-minded individuals outside the academy will also find this book of use: 'Society, the state, and humanity cannot master this devil: the un-man, the individual, the egoist.'

A few critical remarks:

First, and least: while the proof-reading and production are fine over-all, there are several sentences that baffle the reader until a dropped word is spotted.

In his first chapter, Welsh misses a key point in his discussion of Marx's critique of Stirner: the role of Stirner in the genesis of Marx's own distinctive viewpoint, historical materialism. As first argued by Nicholas Lobkowicz in his 1969 article 'Karl Marx and Max Stirner', subsequently expanded on by Chris Tame in his 'Stirner in Context', a 1984 commentary on Lobkowicz's article, and now entrenched by Gareth Stedman Jones in his scholarly introduction (2002) to the Penguin Classics edition of The Communist Manifesto, it was the challenge of Stirner that made Marx a Marxist. The challenge, as Stedman Jones puts it, was twofold. Not only did Stirner implicate Marx in the humanistic religiosity of Feurbach, he also dissipated the Left-Hegelian sense of crisis. One reading of Stirner, after all, could be that the egoism of bourgeois society, against which Marx as humanist had inveighed, is the genuine culmination of history, and already the best we can get!

Here, Welsh's commendable, closely argued - and of course textually defensible - reading of Stirner as a radical social and political critic leaves him little room for considering possible conservative or cynical implications of egoism. The same blindspot occurs in his survey of Dora Marsden, where he regrets, and seems almost surprised, that she failed to develop as an egoist philosopher and social critic after her brilliant formulation of 'archism'. The reason, surely, is that she had nowhere to take it! Once acknowledge that the world is pretty much what you'd expect it to be if everyone - or at least, everyone with their head screwed on - were already an egoist, and there's very little point in arguing for egoism. It's casting pearls before oysters.

Finally, and not so much a criticism as a pointer to further investigation: Welsh throughout uses 'humanism' in Stirner's sense of a doctrine like Feurbach's (and the pre-Stirner-impact Marx's) in which 'Man is the highest being for man'. Modern secular humanists are - in too many instances to ignore - closer to Stirner than to Feurbach in their rejection of this particular spook, and their work is as well worth the egoist's time as this book is the humanist's.

But these are very small points, and this is a very good book.

[This review appeared in i-Studies, Issue 1 and is posted here by kind permission of its editor, Svein Olav Nyberg.]

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Ego and His Ain

I've written a review of a new book on Max Stirner, Max Stirner's Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation, by John F. Welsh (Lexington Books, 2010) for the first issue (pdf) of the online journal i-Studies. The issue leads with an article by the distinguished Hegelian scholar Lawrence Stepelevich, and concludes with a rethink of egoism (and a wry reflection of the impact of fatherhood on this position) by Svein Olav Nyberg, which he has conveniently posted on his new blog.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

That's MacLeod with an 'M', I think you'll find

On Saturday 12 March, 14:00 - 15:00, at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, I and Iain M. Banks will be talking about and possibly reading from our latest books, Iain's Surface Detail and my The Restoration Game, as part of Glasgow's literary festival Aye Write!.

A thoughtful review by Andy Sawyer of The Restoration Game is now up at Strange Horizons. And an enthusiastic review that I missed earlier appeared last September in the SWP's monthly journal Socialist Review.
One of the book's biggest strengths is its excellent characterisation of Lucy. Here we have a protagonist who is fully rounded, dealing not only with the enormity of the book's main plot but with the everyday pressures of work, friendships and relationships. All this is tied together in an enigmatic twist worthy of Philip K Dick.

The Restoration Game is highly recommended to fans of science fiction and political thrillers alike.

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