The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Naming the prey

The other night Carol and I were half-watching an episode of David Attenborough's Living Planet after dinner. Dinner is what it was all about. The starter (vegetarian) was a phytoplankton bloom, followed by an explosion of krill. Carol nodded at the screenful of scrabbling crustacea and said: 'It'll be difficult to think of names for all of them.' We laughed as the difficulty multiplied up the food-chain. Shoals of fish arrived to eat the krill, closely followed by a shark that ate the fish, then something really big turned up, but it turned out the whale was after the krill too, so we didn't have to name the shark.

Giving names to prey animals is a joke we've had for a few years, ever since watching a nightly week-long BBC real-time nature series about lions. All the lions were given names by the breathless presenter, possibly having already been named by the game wardens. The grazing animals that the lions hunted were simply an anonymous herd. After a few nights we got fed up with this blatant carnivorist bias from a supposedly impartial state broadcaster and started naming the antelopes.

'Will poor Doris and her little calf Freddie get away, or will their throats be torn out by ravenous lions? Find out in tomorrow evening's thrilling episode of "Rushing Around the Serengeti in Jeeps"!'

I'll never get over the end of another nature programme, set in the Arctic. The closing shot of Mummy Polar Bear (whose care for her charming, tumbling cubs we'd followed for an hour) swimming towards an ice-floe on which a seal was just visible as a black squiggle, was accompanied by the heart-rending cry from beside me: 'Look out, Sammy!'

OK, this is all a domestic in-joke and sentimental nonsense, but it would have taken a harder heart than mine to watch unmoved a later sequence in the Attenborough episode. A female whale and her newborn calf were swimming up the West Coast of the US, heading for a herring spawning or some such annual multi-layered feeding frenzy off Alaska. The rest of her pod, unencumbered by young, were hundreds of miles ahead. Out of the blue a pack of orcas turned up, looking somehow sinister in their shiny black and white SS uniforms. For six hours they harried the cow and calf, until they drove the young whale to such exhaustion that it began to drown. As it foundered, the pack moved in for the kill. You might think that after all that effort, they'd at least eat all they could of the unfortunate beast. But no. They bit off its lower jaw and part of a flipper, and left the rest for the hagfish that crowd around every dead whale on the sea-floor, and then for the bacteria, which excrete nutrients for the phytoplankton, which ...

So it goes, but what are we to make of it?

Nothing. This is just nature, and it isn't cruel. It isn't even indifferent. It's just mindless machinery thrashing about. There is no 'I' behind any non-human animal eye. Subjectivity is inseparable from language. Although emerging from animal sensation, animal emotion and animal signalling, conscious reflection and self-awareness are unique to human beings. We can name the prey, but they don't name themselves.

I very much doubt that this is the deeper meaning of the account in Genesis 2:19 of how Adam named the animals, 'and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.' (Even restricting the exercise to birds and beasts, as the King James suggests, it must have been a long day. 'Hmm, I think I'll call that one Conopophaga lineata ...') If, however, that passage had been taken as such by fundamentalists we might have been spared some of the excesses of Young Earth Creationism.

Here's how it works. One of the stumbling-blocks for YECs is the notion that suffering and death existed before the Fall. If animals suffered and died for tens of millions of years before Adam saw apple, well ... This leads YECs into all sorts of absurdities about prelapsarian vegetarian carnivores, such as the well-known case of the tyrannosaur's teeth being designed for cracking coconuts rather than ripping flesh. But if non-human animals don't have consciousness then there's no non-human suffering, and their deaths are just part of the economy of nature, not 'an evil'. The implications are above my pay grade but no doubt theologians can take it from there.

Fundamentalists are unlikely to use this conclusion from the Marxist-Leninist theory of consciousness to get themselves off the YEC hook, but I offer it nevertheless, in a spirit of charity.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

The Night Sessions hits the US atheist market

Pyr, the energetic and immensely respected publisher of the US editions of my novels The Night Sessions and The Restoration Game, is the science fiction and fantasy imprint of the even more widely respected humanist and rationalist publisher Prometheus Books. That thought always leaves me with a wicked wee smile, because I knew Prometheus Books decades before they knew me.

I first came across some of their output in the National Secular Society's old bookshop on Holloway Road, and man, it was like discovering that you had a whole unknown branch of your family who'd made it big in America. And they'd been there for generations. Robert Ingersoll! A Civil War hero, in his day the most popular lecturer in America, and they had him in print. Thomas Paine! A Founding Father, one of British rationalism's own legendary figures, and they had him in print. Along with current writers who were already on my read-everything-they-write list: Martin Gardner! Isaac Asimov!

And lots more. They're not in any way narrow or sectarian in their rationalism. They even publish books by Calvin. (And Hobbes.)

Books such as Arthur Strahler's sledgehammering geological labour of love Science and Earth History: the Evolution/Creation Controversy, and Paul Kurtz's wise, pragmatic Forbidden Fruit: the Ethics of Secularism were, looking back, essential reading in preparation for writing my own first novel, The Star Fraction. More recently, Randell Helms' Gospel Fictions and Victor J. Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis were somewhere in the background of The Night Sessions.

So I'm very, very proud that Prometheus is running a full-page ad in a forthcoming issue of the atheist magazine Secular World, showing off some of their featured books, and that The Night Sessions is included, in a box of its own at the foot.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Charity walk

Carol (aka Mrs Early) is taking part in today's Walk for Scotland to raise money for Erskine, the charity for (often disabled) veterans. Feel free to donate here.


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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Red Plenty debated

A lively discussion of Francis Spufford's novel Red Plenty (about which I've enthused before) on the academic blog Crooked Timber has just about wrapped. Participants have looked at the book from many angles. One of the most intriguing contributions was by Cosma Shalizi, on the mathematical feasibility of the linear programming advocated by the book's central character as a solution to the problem of central planning. (Shalizi responds to responses here.)

My take, amended from one of my own comments:

In the 1970s I thought that central planning combined with democratic control along the lines argued for by (e.g.) Ernest Mandel was possible and desirable. Towards the end of the decade I stumbled upon the economic calculation argument, as briefly stated by David Ramsay Steele in a readable pamphlet. I didn’t understand it fully but I kept worrying at the problem it posed. In the 1980s I read Geoffrey Hodgson’s The Democratic Economy, and Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism, which made some socialist sense of the same argument.

Recently I’ve been interested in the more radical market socialism proposed by David Schweickart. The only serious socialist arguments against market socialism are those of Paul Cockshott et al for a democratic, cybernetically planned economy – which I don’t have the mathematics to follow in detail, but which I keep dragging to the attention of anyone who does.

Meanwhile, in my own neck of the woods, the Scottish Socialist Party offers a 12-point plan for a ‘Scottish socialist republic’, one of whose 12 points is:

‘Supermarket prices will be frozen.’

Sometimes I wonder why I bother.

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