Monday, 11 May 2015

Sir David's Pear Shaped Eggs

It fell to the august Sir David Attenborough OM CH CVO CBE FRS FZS FSA to present the BBC’s Radio 4 ‘Tweet of the Day’ this morning. The bird of the moment was the guillemot and the great naturalist said that the guillemot’s egg “is pear shaped to prevent it from rolling off the narrow rock ledges

[You can hear the tweet on the BBC website for yourself, at time of writing, here ]

Sir David has stated publicly (see the link below) that he has never had any religious faith and ‘it never really occurred to me to believe in God’. Yet in today’s ‘Tweet’ he was careless enough to make a statement that will gladden the heart of Creationists and supporters of Intelligent Design.

The guillemot’s egg is not “pear shaped to prevent it from rolling off the narrow rock ledges”. What Sir David undoubtedly meant and should have said was ‘the egg is pear shaped which prevents it rolling off the narrow rock ledges’, or, more fully, ‘the egg evolved to be pear shaped which prevents it from rolling off the narrow ledges as would an oval egg’.

Sir David is considered a ‘national treasure’ and named among the ‘100 greatest Britons’, but his careless statement this morning lends succour to the Creationists who so damage the proper teaching of science to children in schools. In evolution things don’t happen ‘for a reason’, things happen by chance mutations - minute errors in copying genes - and the chance mutations sometimes improve the fitness of the species to survive.

Of course, it works the other way round too, and much more frequently: minute errors in copying genes normally worsen the likelihood of survival of a species. 

By saying ‘to prevent it from rolling off the ledges’ instead of ‘the effect of which stops it rolling off the ledges’ Sir David has damaged a proper understanding of evolution and gladdened the hearts of Creationists. Oh, Sir David! How could you?

Note: You can read my sonnet about guillemot chicks by following this link:

On 1st June 2015 Fergus Walsh reported on the BBC Six O'clock News that the body's antibodies "are designed" to combat cancer cells. On the assumption that he is not a Creationist, this is an egregious error. They are "evolved" to combat cancer cells, or "adapted" to combat cancer cells. Of course, the BBC no longer seems to bother about reporting standards. I have contacted them to point out their reporter's carelessness. Watch this space.

I'm pleased to note that the BBC has apologised for Mr. Walsh's comments: 

We understand you feel Fergus Walsh should not have said that our immune system was ‘designed’ to destroy organisms that might pose a threat as you believe this implies acceptance of Creationism.
Fergus was attempting to describe how a new cancer treatment worked and how it relied on the body’s own cells to fight the cancer and there was no intention to suggest support for Creationism.
However we appreciate the word used might carry such connotations and we thank you for drawing this to our attention.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Jesus of Nazareth - Dissident and Protestor

I was brought up by loving parents in the Christian Anglican tradition. When only fifty seven days old I was baptised and I won my first prize, for good attendance, at Sunday School just four years later. I was confirmed when 13 years old. Although there was a strand of the sceptic in me I was in thrall to Christianity, on and off, until after both of my parents had died. Only then, aged fifty-eight, did I finally break away from the embrace of religion.

It really shouldn’t have been that way - after all when I was 22 I became a graduate geologist with a good understanding of evolution and deep time. Somehow I seemed content to separate matters of the head from matters of the heart, including religion and morality. Only now, ten years after coming out as non-religious, have I wanted to try and look objectively at what Christianity actually is.

What triggered my interest was reading ‘Jesus, The Son of Man’ by the poet Kahlil Gibran. There seemed much that is plausible in Gibran's semi-fictional narrative and I decided to re-read the four New Testament gospels with a critical eye. There, together with parables, miracles and the reported fulfilment of Old Testament prophesies, I found the description of a remarkable man. A man who set himself against the corrupt, self-serving and hypocritical religious authorities of his time, spoke up for the downtrodden, drew crowds wherever he went, and ultimately upset the Jewish hierarchy so much that they contrived to have him put to death by the Roman administrators of Jerusalem.

I feel no need to question the existence of Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure - on this point the New Testament combined with the known development of Christianity seems plausible. The earliest independent historical reference, which appears genuine, occurs in Tacitus’ ‘Annals’. He mentions a community of Christians in the year 64 CE / AD in Rome, followers of ‘Christus’ who was put to death in Judea at the hands of Pontius Pilate (see Footnote).

However, as a beneficiary of the scientific knowledge of the twenty-first century, it is obvious to me that such essential elements of Christian faith as the Virgin Birth, the miracles, the Resurrection and a prayer-answering God are simply impossible. Occam’s Razor and all that. Faith asks us to accept the say-so of others instead of evidence and forms no part of a rational society. It is the rationality of science and technology that has given us an understanding of maths, evolution, genetics, engineering, chemistry, earth history, astronomy and electronics. It is the rigorous application of evidence-based knowledge that has enabled the discoveries and inventions which allow so many of the world’s seven billion inhabitants to live comfortable, healthy and fulfilling lives. What, then, if anything, remains for Jesus of Nazareth and Christianity?

Religious people generally insist on a moral code of behaviour as an integral part of their religion, but often fail to understand that morality is independent of religion. Indeed, conflicting religious doctrines throw up conflicting moral codes, which have always led to disputes, too often involving atrocities and bloodshed. Make your own list of mutually intolerant religious groups, past and present.

Thoughtful and objective people now understand that morality depends on universally applicable human rights, not on arbitrary rules of behaviour that dictate what people may or may not eat, wear  or do. Nevertheless, the seeds of universal human rights exist in many religions. Thus the ‘Golden Rule’ (‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’) is to be found in the Gospels — but it existed long before the birth of Jesus, in Egypt and in Confucianism. Similarly we can all recognise universal values in the Parable of the Good Samaritan and in some of the Ten Commandments (no murdering, stealing or bearing of false witness).

So morality has nothing uniquely to do with Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other religion. It forms part of the bedrock of successful social cooperation in much the same way that the theories of evolution or gravity form part of the bedrock of science. Identifying these fundamental facts enables the type of society in which technological progress can happen, but in which social wellbeing and happiness also have the best chance to prosper.

The Jesus of Nazareth that I found on re-reading the Gospels appears to have been a gifted thinker and charismatic orator with some valuable moral insights and a profound contempt for hypocrisy, corruption, abuse of power and the ill-treatment of the lower ranks of society. In other words he was an exceptional and interesting man of his time. His refusal to accept the hypocrisy, wealth and privilege of the Jewish hierarchy of his day, their extravagance, cronyism and the exploitation of simple folk, show that he was, in modern parlance, a dissident and a protestor. Surely many of today’s political leaders would have found him as bothersome as the Jewish authorities found him two thousand years ago.

I think Jesus’ legacy was worth preserving even if one discounts the supernatural events related by his followers. Theirs was a primitive society with poor communication and a natural tendency to exaggerate and jump to invalid conclusions when faced with the inexplicable. A Christian community of morality, not faith, might have made valuable contributions to social wellbeing and could have avoided the egregious excesses of the Church of Rome, and many other churches. Jesus would have been just as upset by what the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant Churches became as he was by the Jewish Church in his own day.

Many other people have done what Jesus of Nazareth did, fought and suffered for what they believe in - recent examples might include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, or the Tiananmen Square students, but brave protestors who fought injustice can be found throughout history. It does not matter that Martin Luther King was killed - what he taught remains a valid guide for us today, and for similar reasons it seems to me that it does not matter if Jesus of Nazareth did not ‘rise from the dead’. We can still learn from his insights on hypocrisy, corruption and his respect for the less well-off - something that might well go under the name of love.

There is much in the Gospels that seems bizarre by today’s standards, but the benign tenets of the Anglican Church in which both my parents and I were brought up are a not-unreasonable basis for a civilised society. Nevertheless faith-based morality will always lead to disagreement and/or conflict and that is why I feel sad when David Cameron, Nicky Morgan and Eric Pickles of the Conservative Party promote Christianity in what is a country of many faiths and none. It is wrong that the Anglican Church enjoys political privilege as the Established church of the UK, that the Head of State is the head of that church, that Anglican Bishops sit by right in the upper legislative chamber and that the country’s national anthem has us singing ‘God save our gracious Queen’ three times in each verse!

Everyone should be free to practice a religion of choice, or to practice no religion at all. The only basis that allows such freedom is a secular polity in which no religion is granted any legal privilege or access to public money. I feel that if Jesus were alive today he would think so too.

Footnote: See The 'Annals' were written about 116 CE / AD. Note, though, that the earliest surviving material comprising the ‘Annals’ dates to a manuscript said to have been written in 850 CE / AD - )

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Case Really Matters

All decent people want the poorest in society to have better lives, and this idea is fundamental to everything I write in this blog, in my poems or elsewhere.

In 1966, when I started my university course, Ayn Rand published a collection of essays under the title ‘Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal’. I first read the book in 1973 and found it well worth re-reading in 2008.

Rand argued that ‘capitalism’ is a badly misunderstood term, and that this matters. As she saw it, in the nineteenth century ‘capitalism’ came to mean a political system in which the owners of industrial facilities, such as cotton mills, exploited ‘labour’ - people who worked with their hands. Ayn Rand disagreed profoundly with this view.

The nineteenth century interpretation was converted into the ideology of Communism, by Karl Marx, in which there would inevitably be conflict between ‘labour’ and ‘capital’, and it has had profound consequences for mankind ever since. Communism produced humanitarian and economic disasters, causing the death of literally millions of people, and the impoverishment and misery of many millions more. But it also prepared the ground for the establishment of the British Labour Party and similar left-of-centre political parties around the world.

Capitalism with a small ‘c’ is not a political ideology, it is simply an economic mechanism that, in purely pragmatic terms, works — it brings home the bacon.

It’s clear to me that just about everyone wants a bit more bacon, that is, to improve their standard of living by having access to more and better food, shelter, goods, services and cultural experiences. 

Communism as an ideology finally failed in the closing decades of the twentieth century. It then became clear to all politicians that capitalism is the only economic mechanism capable of producing sustainable surpluses. These permit both improved standards of living and financing of the functions of government.

The best-known demonstration of this is China, which ditched the Communist lunacy of Central Planning following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Capitalism (small ‘c’)  has since allowed it to become the world’s second largest economy (and it seems likely soon to become the largest). But other countries such as Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, showed China the way.

However I think it’s more important to try to understand the meaning of capitalism (small ‘c’) for moral, not economic or political reasons. And that is why Ayn Rand wrote her essays.

In this, original, sense of the word, it just describes the effects produced when individuals save part of their earnings and apply them to improving productive processes in such a way that output rises, manual work becomes less onerous and the prices of goods and services fall. 

Saving — keeping back something from your earnings — and applying savings in an attempt to improve future wellbeing converts savings into capital, a simple process that most people seem never to have grasped.

This straightforward and entirely apolitical process is capitalism with a lowercase ‘c’ in distinction to its portrayal as exploitation of 'the workers', Capitalism with an uppercase ‘C’. The case really matters.

It is hard to believe that it took almost the whole of human history to discover that the application of savings to improve productivity allows living standards to rise so decisively; this was akin to discovering the goose that lays the golden egg. 

Historically, whenever there was a surplus - perhaps due to chance good harvests, or the discovery of gold or silver mines - the surplus was consumed in pretty short order by warfare or the coercion of whole populations to build useless monuments such as pyramids, temples or cathedrals, thought to satisfy the demands of jealous gods.

It was only the slow advance of more humane civilisation and social organisation that allowed surpluses to build up and be available to fund the productive processes. These allowed the accumulation of wealth to ‘take off’ — to reach such a level that even the poorest in society could benefit. Of course, when Henry Ford demonstrated that cheaper products create larger markets even the economically illiterate began to sit up and take notice.

Until the discovery of the capitalist economic system, social organisation throughout human history was done on the basis of coercion. The strong lorded it over the weak, paid scant regard to their well-being and treated them as mere commodities - serfs, servants or slaves. 

Capitalism (small ‘c’) entirely changed the way society works and has allowed the plenty that so many of us enjoy today despite the enormous increase in world population (from less than one billion in 1800 to seven billion now).

Of course, once the powerful began to understand that there was a goose laying golden eggs they decided to interfere and grab much of the benefit for themselves. They used the power of legislation to establish rules, regulations and taxes that gave them control of much of the wealth generated. Clever inventors and entrepreneurs were permitted to get on with production while the political elite siphoned off much of the profit. This eventually led to the political scepticism felt today almost everywhere you care to look.

For example, we have the irony of the Chinese Communist Party controlling a state with the world’s most dynamic (capitalist) economy, the Russian system of political oligarchy in which the state places production in the hands of compliant thugs. But there is also the American system where lobbyists exert undue political influence by financing the US political machine in exchange for favours, and we should not overlook what goes on in Europe where lobby groups gain control of legislation through the powers of the European Union. So it goes. In no country of the world have those who have the political power been able to resist interfering with the productive genius of small ‘c’ capitalism.

The consequences are always most tragic for the least well-off, who are repeatedly disempowered and cheated. I have recently seen the justifiable anger of the Brazilian people, caused by corruption at the heart of their democratic institutions and it saddens me deeply.

The golden goose of productive capitalism depends on the ideas of individual people thinking their own thoughts in their own time. It depends, entirely, on individual creativity which works best when there is individual freedom. And individual freedom means being allowed to do whatever seems best to you so long as it does interfere with the rights of other people. This is the moral case for capitalism.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Lesser of Two Evils?

My parents wanted me to be responsible for myself, to do my best and to respect other people — it’s the way they tried to live their lives and it’s the way I still try to live my own life. Their ethics was rooted in Anglican Christianity (‘do unto others’ and the parable of the Good Samaritan), policed by an all-seeing God who pricked your conscience when you strayed from the straight and narrow. Although I share their moral code — completely — I have learned that it springs from a consideration of human rights, not from any religious doctrine.

So, I would like, I would like passionately, everyone to enjoy better and more fulfilling lives. I would like everyone to be able to enjoy improving standards of living, better healthcare and education, better access to the arts and to technology. I am a humanist and I believe the world will be a better place if we work for the great principles of the Enlightenment - ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Achieving these goals requires resources, so the great moral question is: What is the best way to produce the resources required to eliminate poverty? Looking for the answer to this question cuts through all the political hype and gives me a pointer about how to vote in May 7th’s General Election. See what you think.

Using the metaphor that resources are a cake, everyone would like more. There are two fundamentally different approaches - either get a larger slice of the cake as it is, or make a bigger cake. Some people think everyone should have the same sized slice of cake, so they work for ‘redistribution’. Those who understand where the cake came from in the first place think that a larger cake would mean more to go round, so they set out to make a bigger cake.

In practice ‘redistribution’ is always done by someone and when deciding on ‘fair shares’ someone has to decide what ‘fair’ means. That requires a ‘top-down’ approach — someone in charge dictating who gets what. The ‘larger cake’ approach means individual creative people having the freedom to follow up their ideas, establish viable businesses and produce the profits that are the metaphorical cake. That is a ‘bottom-up’ approach; it recognises that talented individuals are the creative element of society and only when such people are allowed the freedom to work will resources be produced that allow the enhancement of individual and social wellbeing.

Left of Centre politics is the politics of redistribution; it sounds like a nice idea but in practice always runs into the problem that there is only so much cake to go round. Right of Centre politics is the politics of greater productivity; it may appear harsh but it produces a bigger cake. I conclude therefore, because I try to follow humanitarian principles, that I must vote for a party that believes in individual freedom, acceptance of responsibility for one’s own actions and equality of opportunity.

In practice only either Ed Miliband or David Cameron is likely to be the next Prime Minister. In my opinion David Cameron is massively mistaken in many of his policies, some of which are more socialist than entrepreneurial, but he is less mistaken than Ed Miliband. Miliband is on the side of redistribution, Cameron on the side of wanting a bigger cake. Although I would like a right of centre government I may not support Cameron (because, as explained elsewhere on this blog, my vote will make no practical difference). But my sense of fairness means I cannot support Miliband.

Now all I want is the media to have a sensible discussion about the issues. Sadly, it isn't likely to happen!

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Inevitable Drift to the Left

We're coming up to a General Election. In any society, most people earn less than average pay, so when we ask all those who would like a pay rise to put up their hands, most people are inclined to do so. They will vote for redistribution of wealth. Some, who earn less than average income and who are ambitious, may keep their hands down, and some who are happy to live off what they earn may do likewise. Some will not bother to put their hand up at all. But human nature will see more hands go up than stay down. And who can blame people for voting for a pay rise? The world is a tough place and it’s dog eat dog, survival of the fittest and all that, isn’t it? Most of those who have money probably got it dishonestly anyway, especially the bankers, didn’t they?

I’m not moralising. What I’m doing is simply pointing out the inevitable drift to the left, over a period of decades or generations, of a reasonably freely functioning democracy. We’d all like a little more, please, and the one-man one-vote system gives us a way of achieving that, over time, without the need for protests or violence. Even the rich in liberal Western democracies have concluded that one-person one-vote is preferable to off-with-their-heads! Enlightened self-interest!

We are not all born equal. We are born female or male, tall or short, blue- or brown-eyed. Some of you are good at music, I’m not. Some are good at maths, I struggle. Some have good manual skills, I don’t. You get the idea. Fortunately for me there are people who excel in skills and abilities at which I am hopeless, so for a modest outlay I can listen to wonderful music, buy an amazing computer and get someone to fix my central heating. That’s how society works. Each of us contributes our abilities, skills and experience to enable us to live more rewarding and comfortable lives. Some of those abilities and skills are in shorter supply and greater demand than others and the best way yet found to value those skills is the free market where a willing buyer and seller come together and agree on a price. Prices are decided by what individuals are prepared to pay or accept. It’s a bottom-up model of society, not a top-down one. It’s voluntary, not mandated by those in power. This is how I saw it in 2013.

Specialists Triolet ©

The hunter wants a spear and the smith wants meat,
If everyone’s a specialist, everybody thrives.
It’s work and trade and buy and sell and nobody must cheat,
The hunter wants a spear and the smith wants meat.
Rising productivity means all have more to eat,
And more to eat means happiness and more fulfilling lives.
The hunter gets a spear and the smith gets meat
When everyone’s a specialist, everybody thrives.

Evidently the ‘put-up-your-hand for a fairer distribution of income’ and a ‘willing-buyer-and-seller’ models of social organisation are in conflict. As Ayn Rand explained in ‘Atlas Shrugged’, you can only coerce those whose skills are in short supply to work to order up to a point. In effect the failed idea of Central Planning (practiced by many regimes, including the now defunct Soviet / Russian and other Communist regimes, Fascism and Syndicalism) stands testimony to the weakness of income redistribution, and Western free-trade and capitalism (recently aped by China) show how application of capital to raise the productivity of labour, and thereby allow rising living standards, stands testimony to the power of a society in which people cooperate voluntarily.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Our Flawed Electoral System

So much tedious election cover here in the UK media - and the election is not until 7th May! It seems that nearly all the cover is of the political parties making irresponsible claims or slagging each other off as they try to bribe taxpayers with their own money. They want those suddenly precious things, our Votes. The media, too, contribute to the unseemly spectacle with their own grab for headlines, making mountains out of molehills and sometimes, more tragically, vice versa.

We are told me ‘must vote’, that not to would be irresponsible. I don’t buy that. A considered choice not to vote is probably a better decision than voting for someone merely out of tradition, with no consideration of the issues involved. Here in the Grantham and Stamford constituency in the last General Election (2010) the Conservatives won with 50.3% of the votes cast - 26,552 votes. The next two parties together (Liberal Democrat and Labour), got 40.2% of the vote, the Liberals edging Labour into third place. As I’ll show later, my political opinion means I should be voting for the incumbent Conservative candidate, Nick Boles, but I will not do that. Mr. Boles is in danger of being overtaken by hubris, so safe is his seat, and I do not want him at risk of any more hubris than necessary. A smaller majority might make him pay more attention to his constituents.

So, in this safe Tory constituency I conclude my vote has no weight at all (whether I use it or not). It seems to me that the country suffers a huge democratic deficit, not only because of situations like the one I’ve just described, but also because of unequal sizes of constituencies across the country. According  to the Office for National Statistics website, a Member of Parliament in England represents 72,400 voters, whereas the figure in Scotland is 69,000 and in Wales only 56,800. In 2013 the Isle of Wight constituency had 111,800 voters and one in Scotland only 22,100. What's fair about that? 

Another dispiriting fact is that we have the ‘first past the post’ system. Look at what the consequences might easily be: If 80% of a 70,000 electorate vote in a particular constituency and 31% vote for Party A with 30% each voting for Parties B and C, and the 10% remainder favouring smaller parties, then the Member of Parliament will be elected based on only 17,360 favourable votes. That is less than 25% of the electorate. More than three quarters of voters do not get a Member of Parliament that they have voted for.

I am well aware that the system, for all its shortcomings, is not unreasonable, is clear, and has been honestly run, at least until the advent of the postal vote. Fraud has been detected in postal voting and I am sorry that in a patriarchal family an overbearing man will be able to control the votes of his household. Some parts of our society do not allow women to occupy their proper place. However, the greater concern is ignorance in terms of choice of who to vote for.

That’s enough for one blog entry - it’s getting close to lunch time. I’ll go into why my political opinions imply I ought to vote Conservative in a future post.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

"The Science of Why You Should Spend Your Money On Experiences, Not Things"

"You don't have infinite money. Spend it on stuff that research says makes you happy."


I’ve just read this post, which is quite interesting. But now I'm pondering. Is a book (or an e-book even) an 'experience' or a 'thing'? What about a (nice) bottle of wine (extra points if Chilean, because it takes me back to memories of some lovely people and a devastatingly lovely country). Or my marvellous MacBook - because this 'thing' (which is beautifully made) gives me access to a world of 'experiences' in the form of tools (spreadsheets, created documents) and information (facts, history, poetry; images of people, places and other 'things'). 

It’s true, as the article says, that you’re more likely to enjoy talking to friends about shared ‘experiences’ (a show, a holiday) than you are comparing ‘things’ you own (my car, home, computer is better than yours), but your 'experiences' will die when you do whereas ‘things’ outlast us (a flint arrowhead - or a Picasso - will always fascinate).

Perhaps I'd substitute 'stuff' for 'things' in the heading. Stuff - commoditised 'things', like more clothes, more cosmetics, more (too much) food. I'm not keen on branding or fashion - they just get you to buy 'stuff' when you def don't need it. After you have ‘enough’, quality is better than quantity whether in 'things' or in 'experiences'.  Life in the West has become more about 'quality' than 'quantity'. Art not kitsch. Skill not mindlessness.

I say ‘in the West’ because in some parts of the world mindless thuggery, perpetrated by people for whom religion has caused cancer of the mind, has reduced whole populations to terror, abject poverty and want of all the ‘things’ that inhabit the lowest regions of Maslow’s Triangle. What they very much need is more ‘things’ and less ‘experiences'.

Like most options that the media likes to put before us, in the end it isn't 'one thing or the other', it's where you find the balance. And the answer isn't the same for everyone - we find our own individual answers - the ‘experts’, too often second-rate academics, are not always worth listening to. ‘Research’ is too often poorly done, misleading, or does not stand up to scrutiny. Everyone, including second-rate academics, wants a piece of our time, to grab our attention, to get more ‘hits’, have an audience be a celebrity. It’s their (our) lives and careers. It’s stroking and stoking our own egos. All resources, whether ‘things’ or ‘experiences’ are limited, and they all have an impact on the planet. It seems to me we should just choose thoughtfully.'s_hierarchy_of_needs