Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Dawkins. Show all posts

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rivers never flow uphill

As a youth in my native Grafton, I didn't think of myself as somebody who might be particularly interested in the flow of rivers. That's because I happened to be living alongside the great Clarence River, which I used to see so regularly (usually from afar) that I finished by no longer noticing it. I had grown up in the aftermath of the tragic December 1943 drowning of 13 boys, junior (cub) members of the local troop of Boy Scouts. As a child of ten or so, I had witnessed the damage waged by the waters of the Clarence in a disastrous flood. Later, I rowed in school races (in "fours") in the shadow of the antique double-decker bridge, over which I used to ride my bicycle regularly.

To paraphrase the well-known forest/trees saying, I simply didn't see the river because of the water. Much later, in Paris, I learned that a river has a left bank and a right bank.

The common-sense adjectives "left" and "right" are so much more tangible, for people living alongside a great river, than the theoretical notions of north and south. So, I had passed my childhood in right-bank Waterview (South Grafton) before moving across to our new left-bank residence in Kent Street (Grafton).

Since arriving here at Choranche, on the edge of the French Alps, I've come to appreciate the sense of the adjectives upstream and downstream. The Bourne flows down from Villard-de-Lans.  Choranche is located on the right bank, and Châtelus on the left. And Pont-en-Royans is a little further downstream. It's a bit like seasons. Back in Australia, I hardly knew what they were all about. These days, at Gamone, they determine my daily existence.

There's another realm, of a theoretical kind, in which we must be aware of the direction of flow. I'm referring to the flow of information and scientific knowledge. Just as rivers never flow in an upstream direction, information and knowledge always flow in a unique direction: downwards from X to Y, say, but never upwards from Y to X.

This was one of the great lessons taught by Karl Popper when he demolished the time-honored but absurd notion that an understanding of the laws of the natural universe can be acquired miraculously when knowledge flows spontaneously, indeed magically, from the natural phenomena being examined by a researcher up into the scientist's mind. This mysterious process, referred to as induction, was a part of established science back in my student days. Since Popper, we realize that a new understanding of the ways in which various natural phenomena unfold can arise in the mind of a brilliant scientist. This knowledge then flows down into other human minds, enabling the newly-imagined explanations to be applied to the natural phenomena that inspired the creative scientist, for verification (best possible case) or for rejection (worst-case scenario).

Two centuries ago, in the domain of the evolution of living organisms, a great and ancient "river" of a physiological kind was thought of as capable, from time to time, of flowing uphill.

 Jean-Baptiste Lamarck considered that a living creature could transmit to its offspring various characteristics acquired during the parent's earthly existence. Take the case of a primitive giraffe, many millennia ago, at a time when giraffes still had relatively short necks, since they could find all the leaves they needed quite close to the ground. Let's suppose that a couple of giraffes were having a serious discussion about the idea of having a baby.

Mr Giraffe: There's only one thing that worries me, dear. Due to global warming, there's no longer any grass around. So, we're forced to eat leaves. But there are fewer and fewer leaves at a low level. Soon, to reach the high leaves and survive, giraffes will need to have longer and longer necks.

Mrs Giraffe: My dear husband, I agree with you entirely. But, if our future baby needs an exceptionally long neck to find food, then we must make sure that he's born with such a neck. There are no two ways about it.

Mr Giraffe: OK, but how can we make sure that his neck will be long enough for him to survive?

Mrs Giraffe: We must pray, my dear husband, and implore our Good Giraffe God to perform a miraculous intervention of genetic engineering.

So, that's what they did. And, soon after, biological information from the parched earth flowed up through the tree trunks, past the bare branches at the bottom of the trees, until it reached the level of the luscious greenery. And, from there, this precious information—dealing primarily with the complex procreative question of how to produce giraffe embryos with long necks—was consumed and digested by Mrs Giraffe… who suddenly felt a glowing long-necked warmth in her womb. The miracle was taking place!

We now know that Lamarckism was totally wrong, but it was never, at any stage, a completely crazy belief. Even today, when tourists halt for a moment alongside the lovely old thatched house in Pont-en-Royans [display], and chat with the village blacksmith and his son, they are invariably impressed by their giant strong hands, which have been  photographed in closeup on countless mobile phones.

Blacksmith: My ancestors have been blacksmiths here at Pont-en-Royans for countless generations, and the blacksmiths' sons and daughters have always married the offspring of other blacksmiths in neighboring villages. And the gnarled hands of our kids, today, reveal the traces of all those centuries of hard work at the forge.

Who could possibly doubt the truth of the good man's words? His strong hands have been shaped, over the centuries, by a mysterious process of divinely-ordained genetic engineering that seems to "understand" that future blacksmiths need to inherit the hands, not merely of their forefathers, but of their forefathers' trade! This knowledge has flowed up from the forge to the uterus of every young lady chosen to become the mother of a future blacksmith. It's all a bit like the Nazarene carpenter's wife, who had received knowledge informing her that she would be giving birth to the Lord.

The only flaw in these nice and convincing tales is that knowledge about a future offspring never needs to flow into an embryo, because the zygote formed from the pair of gametes provided by the parents of a future member of the blacksmith dynasty contains all the information that it is required to forge a new human being. And, if the baby blacksmith looks as if he has inherited gnarled hands, that merely means that at least one of his parents had gnarled hands. And that characteristic had nothing to do with their daily occupations. Even if the latest generations of the baby's ancestors had all decided to transform their ancient forges into tourist boutiques, they would still have been born with gnarled hands. Inheritance specifications never flow upwards from a blacksmith's forge to human parents and their babies. They are transmitted, through chromosomes, from parents down to their offspring. Rivers never flow uphill.

This metaphor of information flow applied both to Karl Popper's views on induction and to Lamarck's views on inheritance was developed at length by David Deutsch, of Oxford.

His article Selfish Genes and Information Flow appeared in the collection entitled Richard Dawkins, How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Awaiting a weighty book

At the end of my blog post of 16 July 2011 entitled State of things [display], I suggested that readers might sit down quietly for an hour to watch a splendid talk by an outstanding American theoretical physicist, 57-year-old Lawrence Krauss.

I've just been pleasantly surprised to learn—in a note from Krauss himself, published yesterday [display]—that this talk actually took place some two years ago, at the instigation of Richard Dawkins and Robin Elisabeth Cornwell [Executive Director of the US branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science]. Later, the Foundation decided to post the talk video to YouTube… and it went on to log over a million views. This doesn't surprise me at all, since the subject is awesome.

Not surprisingly, friends of Krauss soon got around to convincing him that he should write a book on this fascinating subject of the way in which "nothingness" transforms itself constantly (with no help from any gods, just pure science) into "somethingness". When you think about it, it's a bloody good pretext for a book, to say the least: the sort of stuff that the Holy Bible would refer to as "good news". (I'm joking, of course. The authors of the poor old Bible wouldn't know what the fuck we were talking about.)

This momentous book will be coming out on 10 January 2012. Meanwhile, you can download (from the above Foundation link) the text of a splendid Afterword written by Dawkins for the imminent Krauss book. Inspired by the famous biblical words "Jesus wept" [John 11-35], I feel like summarizing the situation: Dawkins wondered. Wondered in awe at the words of a fellow scientist… without claiming that he (or many of us, for that matter) might be capable of following all the mathematics and physics that culminate in such mind-boggling conclusions. In any case, the words of the science poet Dawkins (who speaks from my level) are beautifully inspiring. And I'm awaiting eagerly the weighty words of Krauss.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A horseman has ridden away

"And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, 'Come!' And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in his hand; … When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given great power over a fourth of the earth; to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth."         — Book of Revelation [6:1–8]

A week or so ago, I was moved by a brilliant article in Vanity Fair [display] in which Christopher Hitchens, ravaged by cancer and radiation treatment, analyzed cynically a proverbial declaration by Friedrich Nietzsche: "Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger."

Here, we see Richard Dawkins on the left and pale shaven-headed Hitchens on the right. I'm awaiting the arrival of a paper copy of the special Christmas issue of New Statesman that I mentioned in my recent blog post entitled Dawkins to edit New Statesman [display]. Meanwhile, a few extracts have appeared online [display].

While Hitchens attained fame as a writer in professional US circles, I persist in imagining him as the epitome of a highly-cultivated and brilliant English wordsmith.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dawkins to edit New Statesman

To take charge of the special Christmas issue of a great British weekly, New Statseman, what better idea than to call upon the world's most celebrated atheistic scientist, Richard Dawkins. As a talented writer with a lot of distinguished friends, the former Oxford professor is certainly an ideal man for such a task. I'm convinced that he'll instill in the minds of readers a totally rejuvenated spirit of Christmas, which will surely be no worse than the old one, and probably a lot better.

This special issue, which will be coming out next week, is sure to become a collector's item. I've ordered a single issue directly from the New Statseman website [access]. It's preferable to wait until next week before doing so, otherwise the subscription department is likely to send you this week's issue.

POST SCRIPTUM:  The new version of the Blogger editor seems to be half-broken. It has been awfully clunky for weeks, and I have a hard job in posting things correctly. It's weird to discover that my present Macintosh setup, with all the latest bells and whistles installed, is far less user-friendly than it was six months ago, not only as far as my blog is concerned, but even for such an everyday operation as scrolling manually through a file. Bizarre...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


In a blog post of 9 August 2010 entitled Sophia's future companion at Gamone [display], I explained that the elegant name Fitzroy, which I would give to my young Border Collie a year ago, was in fact the surname of one of my ancient ancestors: a bastard son of King John.

The term Fitz means "son of", and roy is Old French for "king". The bastard Fitz who was my ancestor—often specified as Richard Fitzjohn Chilham—is mentioned briefly in this delightful book:

Well, I often get around to imagining my dog as a descendant, not of a king, but of a wolf. So, I often call him either FitzLoup (in French) or simply FitzWolf. These reveries started recently in my imagination when I thought about an amazing story told by Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor's Tale [pages 29-31] and then repeated in The Greatest Show on Earth [pages 73-76].

It's the story of an experiment carried out by the Soviet scientist Dmitri Belyaev [1917-1985] using a beautiful domestic animal, the Russian Silver Fox, bred for the fur trade.

[First parenthetical remark. What a horrible idea: killing such a glorious animal just to be able to transform its skin and fur into a coat.]

[Second parenthetical remark. The geneticist Belyaev was a man whom we might admire a priori, since he was sacked because he disagreed with the quackery of the Stalinist agronomist Trofim Lysenko.]

Belyaev's experiment was aimed at studying the concept of tameness in successive generations of his foxes. The basic experimental procedure consisted of offering food to fox cubs and trying to fondle them. According to their reactions, the young animals were classed in three categories:

(1) The wildest cubs would either flee or act aggressively, maybe by biting the experimenter's hand.

(2) Certain cubs would accept the food and the experimenter's caresses, but grudgingly, as it were, with no apparent enthusiasm.

(3) The tamest category of cubs would, not only accept the food, but exhibit a positive reaction to the experimenter's caresses, by wagging their tails and crouching down in front of him.

Only fox cubs in this third category would be used for breeding the next generation. And so on…

Not surprisingly, this breeding strategy produced cubs that were tamer and tamer. But the experiments resulted in consequences—we might say side effects—of a totally unexpected kind. The new generations of tame foxes started to look somewhat different to their relatively wilder genetic cousins. In a nutshell, the tame foxes started to look like Border Collies! Truly, it was magic… but simply genetic magic! While the silver foxes were being bred uniquely for tameness, their genes "threw in for free"—as it were—a whole host of genetically-connected features that were apparently linked rigorously with tameness.

Nature speaks to us with her eons of accumulated wisdom: If you want a tame fox, then what we have to offer you is a dog-like fox! Nature might have added: Take it or leave it! Me, I say enthusiastically that I'll take it, because my marvelous tame wolf is Fitzroy… whose fur warms me for a delightful instant when he jumps up onto my knees in front of the fireplace.

Often, I'm overwhelmed when I observe at close range the intense human-like gaze of Fitzroy, which has infinitely more profundity and meaning than the dumb expression of less-introspective animals.

Fitzroy is surely just a few magic chemicals away from being capable of discussing Dawkins with me… but that minor metamorphosis is likely to necessitate a few million years, to say the least, with all the risks of the long road. Frankly, Fitzroy and I tend to agree (not to mention the tacit approval of Sophia) that, for the moment, it's best we stay put.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What science is saying

These days, the general public is being offered countless presentations of scientific conclusions concerning the origins of human beings. The tone of some of these presentations is so clear, and their contents are so striking, that most people should grasp what is being said, and be impressed by the scope and depth of such explanations. I would imagine that most young people react seriously to such presentations, whereas many adults probably find ways of shielding themselves from the impact of revolutionary facts capable of disturbing them.

Near the start of The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins presents readers with a spectacular thought experiment: that's to say, a virtual project carried out, not in a laboratory, but in your imagination. You're asked to stack up portraits of your father, your father's father, your father's father's father, and so on: that's to say, all your paternal male ancestors. The huge stack of images—extending backwards in time—might be laid out on bookshelves, enabling you to browse through them in an orderly fashion to examine the portrait of any specific male ancestor.

If you browsed back to the portrait of your 4,000-greats-grandfather, you would discover a bearded dark-skinned fellow not unlike men you might see today, say, in a Moroccan village. If you browsed back much further, to the portrait of your 50,000-greats-grandfather, you would come upon an individual who looks like the proverbial caveman. Dawkins then asks you to browse all the way back to your 185-million-greats-grandfather. What might he look like? With the help of brilliant illustrations from Dave McKean, Dawkins supplies an answer, which might shock certain readers:

This portrait of a grandpappy is far removed from the typical paintings of distinguished oldtimers in the portrait galleries of aristocratic families. The ancestor who most impressed me was our long-snouted 45-million-greats-grandfather, shown here having a snack:

To appreciate these ancestral illustrations and explanations, you really must get a copy of this splendid Dawkins book, which is packed with all kinds of fascinating tales (including myths) and science stuff.

A few evenings ago, on the Arte TV channel, I watched an interesting documentary on population genetics. Viewers were introduced to the fabulous possibilities of examining DNA specimens to determine the genealogy of various ethnic communities. Personally, I prefer to acquire my knowledge of population genetics and large-scale genealogy through reading books, articles and Internet stuff rather than depending on TV. I would imagine however that this documentary must have been an eye-opener for viewers who were unaware of state-of-the-art findings and thinking in this complex domain.

The subject was tackled in a controversial style (rightly, I believe) by insisting on the fact that the old-fashioned concept of human races is totally rejected by modern research. All human beings who exist today on the planet Earth are the biological descendants of a small group of Africans who were probably similar to the community known today as South African Bushmen. In a sense, therefore, we are all Africans! This poetic declaration charmed 80-year-old Desmond Tutu.

Certain facts are likely to amaze white-skinned Europeans and citizens of the New World, and maybe make us more humble. For example, there is no doubt whatsoever that our prehistoric ancestors were black-skinned, and that our present whiteness is a freakish new-fangled affair brought on by the physiological fact that fairer ex-Africans survived better in cold climates. So, alongside "black is beautiful", we might proclaim that "negro is normal", whereas "white is weird".

These days, research in population genetics is advancing so rapidly that certain major breakthroughs have occurred in the short time since the French TV documentary was completed. For example, there have been amazing revelations concerning the early date at which the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines left Africa. In the 1920s, a lock of hair was taken from an anonymous young Aboriginal male near Kalgoorlie. Well, this DNA specimen was sufficient to enable, recently, an analysis of the subject's genome. And it became obvious that the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines had in fact left Africa at least some 50 millennia ago: that's to say, well before the exodus that gave rise to communities of Homo sapiens in Asia and Europe.

A tribal elder described this DNA-based breakthrough as "just a white-fella story", and said he would continue to believe in the tribe's mythical creation legends.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dawkins gives Miss Anscombe a role

I've just started to read with enthusiasm the latest book by Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality, which might be described as a science-oriented picture book for youngsters from 8 to 80. I was amused to discover that the excellent graphic work by Dave McKean depicts a casual conversation between two individuals whom I mentioned six months ago in my blog post entitled Voices from Vienna [display]. I'm referring to the Vienna-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951] and his English disciple Elizabeth Anscombe [1919-2001], who was both a professor of philosophy at Cambridge and a devout Roman Catholic. As I mentioned in that blog post, I had an unexpected opportunity of meeting up with Anscombe in Brittany, at the home of Christine's parents. Members of the Mafart family, including Christine, had frequent contacts with a Dominican priory in Staffordshire known as Spode House, which had also become a regular retreat for the Anscombes.

Here's the drawing of Elizabeth Anscombe and Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Wittgenstein was intrigued by the fact that people had once believed, unanimously, that the Sun went round the Earth. He wondered why this belief was so universal. Anscombe replies—with a massive dose of common sense—that people no doubt found that it looked as if the sun went round the Earth. Wittgenstein hits back with an interesting rhetorical question: "What would it have looked like if it had looked as if the Earth turned on its axis?" In other words, what kinds of visual impressions would have been needed to make people believe spontaneously in a heliocentric theory?

We can find plausible answers in the ordinary experience of air travel. When a plane hits turbulence, passengers never have the impression that it's the Earth and its atmosphere that are being jolted up and down. They're convinced intuitively that the aircraft, which had appeared to be calm and motionless just a minute earlier, is now being shaken by disturbing forces. So, that suggests an answer to Wittgenstein's question. If only the planet Earth were to run into zones of turbulence every now and again, humans would have surely been more ready to feel that their planet was indeed turning on its axis and moving around the Sun.

Air travel provides another striking experience of rapid movement. When an aircraft, preparing to land, plunges down obliquely through wispy layers of cloud, passengers are suddenly made aware of the great speed at which they are moving. Ideally, we might imagine vast rings of dust, orbiting the Sun at roughly the same distance as the Earth, with trajectories that intersect at right angles with ours. Periodically, Earth-dwellers would notice that we were about to run into such a dust ring, since it would be visible in the sky above us. Then, as we whizzed past the dust in a kind of near-miss encounter (hopefully surviving), we might well observe a parallax phenomenon—involving the alignment of the Sun, the dust ring and our planet—suggesting that we are indeed moving around the Sun.

It's preferable, though, to judge such affairs using the methods of scientific reasoning. If Karl Popper had been eavesdropping on the conversation between Ludwig and Miss Anscombe, he might have suggested wisely that they should abandon their jobs in the philosophy department and enroll humbly as science undergraduates…

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Front page of the New York Times

The English biologist Richard Dawkins was featured yesterday on the front page of The New York Times, and the excellent article was prefaced by a casual video.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Myths versus truth

In my recent blog post entitled Children's books [display], I indicated that Richard Dawkins has a book for children coming out soon, on the theme of evolution. Last night, he was interviewed on this subject by the BBC.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Figs in my yard

My friend Tineke Bot has often claimed that she can distinguish spontaneously and effortlessly dozens of different shades of green. Here in Choranche, this kind of chromatic sensibility is an asset. Without it, an observer would have the impression of looking out on a world that is homogeneously green. In the case of the following photo, for example, I've played around with Photoshop settings in an attempt (not particularly successful) to get the leaves of the fig tree to stand out as much as possible against the background.

[Click to enlarge]

For the first time ever, the tree is covered in figs, and they're truly delicious. This is the tree given to me by my Provençal friends Natacha and Alain. Two years ago, in my blog post entitled Great fig tree, but low yield [display], I said jokingly that the annual yield of the young tree had been one edible fig. Clearly, since then, it has evolved exponentially. They're small dark spheres, firm and sweet: the variety of figs used to produce tarts and cakes.

I take this opportunity of including a link back to my blog post entitled Fabulous fig story [display], in which I referred to fascinating biological information from Richard Dawkins concerning the fig tree.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Children's books

Some children's books can be appreciated by readers who ceased, long ago, to be children. No doubt the finest cases of such literature are the works of Lewis Carroll… but one might claim that the author imagined his juvenile readers as intellectually-endowed individuals capable of being intrigued by logical enigmas, linguistic bizarreries and all kinds of puzzling things.

I've always thought of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows as a splendid example of a children's book that can be enjoyed by adults.

On the other hand, certain books that I found extraordinarily exciting as a child had lost all their charm when I rediscovered them years later. The most disappointing case of this kind, for me, was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. When I was about 11 years old, these adventure stories—of a Boy Scout and Girl Guide tone—were the summit of thrilling fiction.

These days, I would imagine that many adults have derived pleasure from reading the Harry Potter books. Personally, having seen some of the movies on TV, I became rapidly bored by all that pointing of magic wands and riding of flying broomsticks. It's definitely not my kettle of fish, but I can understand that many adults might appreciate this kind of stuff.

A new book for children will be coming out on October 4, and I've just put in an advance order for it. I'm referring to The Magic of Reality, the latest book by Richard Dawkins. I'm happy to see that the author is already exploiting this forthcoming event to promote the teaching of evolutionary science in primary schools. That would be a wonderful idea.

We've already seen an excellent specimen of writing from Dawkins for a child. I'm referring to the final chapter of A Devil's Chaplain, entitled A Prayer for My Daughter (first published in 1995), in which Dawkins provides his 10-year-old daughter Juliet with various "good and bad reasons for believing".

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Elephants no longer "grand"

In my recent blog post entitled This Texan is a raving loony [display], I said I look upon Rick Perry as an idiot. Richard Dawkins has just reacted publicly to Perry's description of evolutionary science as "a theory that's out there" which has "got some gaps in it". The Dawkins response appeared on Tuesday in On Faith, the Washington Post's forum for news and opinion on religion and politics [display].

Dawkins starts out by declaring that the GOP nickname has become "ridiculous", because the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt can no longer be looked upon as "grand". Then, in a single devastating sentence, he explains the behavior of Republican voters:

Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.

I ended my above-mentioned blog post with a rhetorical question that has often intrigued me:

How is it possible that a great nation such as the USA, with its vast resources in the domain of scientific knowledge, can give birth to, and encourage the ascension of, a shitty gutter-level specimen of shallow stupidity such as Perry, who doesn't even know what's happening in his home-state schools?

Dawkins (whose writing style is more refined than mine) seems to be puzzled by this same kind of question:

The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.

It's interesting to note that Dawkins blames this situation on the Republican "system for choosing a leader". I wonder what kind of alternative system of choice would get the Republicans more credible (less stupid) leaders.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eye of God

If God were a cyclopean creature, then his huge eye might look like this:

This artificially-colored NASA image of the Helix nebula combines photos taken from both the Hubble telescope and an observatory in Arizona. No sooner was it published by the NASA in 2003 than imaginative viewers labeled it the "Eye of God". What's more, certain believers claimed that the intense contemplation of this image could indeed give rise to miracles. So, with a bit of chance, the present blog post might cause the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk and—who knows?—the dead to rise! [Please send me feedback.]

Andy Thomson is a practicing psychiatrist in Virginia. With the help of a medical writer, Clare Aukofer, he has just brought out a "concise guide to the science of faith" entitled Why We Believe in God(s), which is less than a centimeter thick (144 pages, readable in an hour). And they've put a copy of the "Eye of God" on the cover. Besides, there's an enthusiastic foreward by an Englishman named Richard Dawkins. Clearly, these two fellows are on the same wavelength. Furthermore, they both write brilliantly.

It's amazing that so many novel ideas can be packed into such a small book, and expressed so convincingly. Thomson's basic thesis is that, since the dawn of humanity, gods have been made-made entities. Like music and, more recently, fast food. And it's often far from easy for ordinary humans to turn their back on their gods… just as it's hard, for many individuals, to resist the temptation of gorging oneself on hamburgers and sweets.

In this delightful little book, I was happy to discover Andy Thomson's constant evocations of the great Charles Darwin. Towards the end of his book, Thomson introduces the fascinating subject of mirror neurons, which have become a preoccupation of my old Australian friend Michael Arbib, a distinguished professor at the University of Southern California. I was most interested in Thomson's descriptions of fabulous neurochemical products—serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline, oxytocin and the endorphins—which seem to play a far more significant role in religious experiences than any of the alleged holy texts. Indeed, one has the impression that, accompanied by the appropriate neurochemical cocktail, even a phone directory could appear to be a sacred text of profound spirituality.

Let's suppose that you're the sort of run-of-the-mill believer who has grown up considering that God created the Cosmos and Mankind. And all you need to know now is: Who created God? If you happen to be in that kind of situation, then this is the book you need!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


When I was a 14-year-old kid hanging around in the rough competitive-cycling environment of my native Grafton and Coffs Harbour, the very idea of a cultivated gentleman cyclist such as Cadel Evans would have been unthinkable. Inversely, I eavesdropped on many uncouth conversations about sex. Retrospectively, I believe—although I can't vouch for it—that I had already, at that time, acquired sufficient algebraic knowledge and sexual self-awareness to appreciate a remarkable law of the dynamics of male nature: The angle of the dangle is proportional to the heat of the meat. That's to say, a cold penis will hang limply and vertically (angle zero), whereas a warmed-up hunk of meat will rise magically to a right angle, or even greater. What I didn't understand clearly at that time was that the warming-up process was a largely-cerebral affair, which only needed to be triggered by the vision of a nymph, a young angel, an ethereal creature with a seductive look… accompanied generally by a luscious mouth, attractive breasts and an enticing backside. In those days, people used to talk a lot about love, even divinely-consecrated eternal love… but I had to wait a long while before I started to hear intelligent talk—from brilliant happily-married intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker—about our inbuilt animal sex drives.

Concerning my former politico-economic hero Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I must admit that a cloud of disbelief engulfed me when I witnessed the female object that apparently heated his meat. I'm not talking of the complex human being named Nafissatou Diallo, herself, but merely of her image as a sexual challenge: an object capable of augmenting Strauss-Kahn's angle of the dangle.

Once upon a time, I revered the ethereal beauty and brilliance of Anne Sinclair, who appeared to me (that's to say, to my concupiscent regard) as the epitome of the French female. At that time, I didn't yet know that she was filthy rich, attached to the USA, and capable of falling totally in love with, and protecting, a powerful male. Today, I still admire Anne, of course, but she doesn't come through quite as angelically untainted as she used to. More precisely, I can't help wondering whether she might have been duped by the indubitable promises of DSK. Even more precisely, it would be good if Anne were to tell us simply (former admirers of the journalist and partisans of DSK) how she looks upon, globally, this whole "heat of the meat" subject.

Let me turn to another distortion: Rupert Murdoch.

[Click the image for an amusing Onion satire on Rupert's distortions of reality.]

I've always loved the Simpsons, who remain for me the perfect illustration of nasty life in God's Own Country. Apparently, there are evil-minded observers who would wish to see similarities between Rupert and the venerable Grandpa Simpson.

Personally, I'm profoundly attached to the past, particularly through my genealogical pursuits. On the other hand, I've always been terrified by the horrible eventuality of becoming, as my age advances, what my Aussie mates in Grafton would have labeled an SOB [silly old bugger]. For the moment, I'm sufficiently lucid, I believe, to know what I'm doing, especially in the domain of autobiographical writing, which forces me to be alert and perspicacious. But I'm terrified at times by the looming apparitions, around me, of certain former friends who seem to be transforming themselves inevitably—cerebrally, no doubt, but not knowingly, I'm afraid—into SOBs of the saddest ranting Rupert kind.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bachmann and Palin

In God's Own Country, are female Republican celebrities really as disastrous as Bill Maher makes them out to be? I guess so.

Talking about American women (which I wasn't really), the great Richard Dawkins made a lot of bad friends recently when he published this little satirical bombshell:

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself "Skepchick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so...
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

US feminists, skeptics and atheists found it hard to believe that the celebrated English professor would dare to make fun of their outspoken sister Rebecca Watson [click the photo to access her Wikipedia description], who was forced to decline a brutal middle-of-the-night invitation of a fellow she encountered in a hotel elevator. Rebecca attempted to transform her terse refusal into a feminist cry—Don’t do it, guys!—that might have shaken the male world. Were it not for Dawkins, Rebecca's sordid affair might have fizzled out into much-ado-about-nothing.

A year or so ago, intrigued by this weird woman who seemed to have charmed certain US intellectual circles whose ideas I respected, I decided to follow her personal videos. One day, she offered us a home-made thing that consisted solely of a dense self-analysis of the lady's own facial features. This narcissism nauseated me, and I promptly ceased to follow her superficial stuff.

I'm aware that I shouldn't dare to talk about US females such as those whose names appear in the present blog post, because my comments are devoid of any kind of reliable personal knowledge or experience. The truth of the matter, for me, is that such women are Martians.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

State of things

It's hard to single out the nonfiction book that marked me most when I was a young man. Objectively, I would probably have to say it was History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, since I discovered Russell's rambling and sketchy compendium in Paris in 1962 and, up until today, it has remained one of my bedside books.

Before then, a science book that made a huge and lasting impression upon me was The Nature of the Physical World by the English astronomer Arthur Eddington, written in 1928. He was a Quaker (which might have aroused my suspicions), but Eddington was also, after all, one of the first and finest interpreters of the newfangled theories of Albert Einstein. So, I was most impressed by his excellent style of science writing.

What I liked most about Eddington's views on the cosmological state of things was the fact that he left a tiny window open for spiritual beliefs and religious faith. I remember saying to myself, as it were: "OK, Eddington's explanations on the nature of the Cosmos are fine for the moment, even though they're obviously inadequate. But there's a good chance, hopefully, that we'll get around to finding God, one of these days, in the interstices." In fact, I was both a naive and lazy thinker.

In a nutshell, that's truly what I believed for years, for decades… even during the time that I fell in love, upon my arrival at Gamone, with the fabulous tale of Master Bruno, founder of the Chartreux monastic order. But the truth of the matter is that we're no longer in the same peaceful ballpark as Bruno and company. In the course of the few decades that separate me from my reading of the charming Quaker Eddington, Science has started to come apart at the seams, while Religion has been eternally rubbished.

We're awaiting news, not from a religiously-inspired science-writer, and even less from the Holy Spirit, but from the Large Hadron Collider, which talks to us in terms of String Theory. But will we necessarily understand the sacred Word of the Collider? Probably not, at least neither exactly nor explicitly, because it's all a matter of ethereal mathematics, which is akin to a mixture of abstract art and poetry. But it's infinitely better than the supposed Word of God, horribly fuzzy and irrevocably has-been.

The following video is a talk on cosmology by an amazing US intellectual, Lawrence Krauss. It lasts an hour, but I strongly urge you to get settled comfortably in front of your computer to watch it from the beginning to the end.

Insulting religion

When he criticizes religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), this 61-year-old English comedian, Pat Condell, expresses himself in a beautifully clear and persuasive manner:

He's definitely a healthy and explicit no-bullshit artist (you can Google his credentials, which include six years working as a logger in Canada), described by Richard Dawkins in the following terms: "Pat Condell is unique. Nobody can match his extraordinary blend of suavity and savagery. With his articulate intelligence he runs rings around the religious wingnuts that are the targets of his merciless humour. Thank goodness he is on our side."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Background culture

Obviously, you can only perform a certain activity correctly, or appreciate something you hear or read about, if you possess a minimum of awareness of the subject in question. I call this background culture, and I think it's a tremendously important phenomenon in our modern world. In many cases, if an adult didn't happen to pick up this background culture when she was a kid, then she'll probably never get around to acquiring it. This is particularly true, as we all know, in the case of foreign languages. Consider twin boys born to an Australian couple settled out in the bush. If one child were to be whisked away to Japanese foster parents in Tokyo, then the kid would surely grow up like a typical Japanese teenager, speaking faultless Japanese… and incapable of communicating fluently with his sibling who remained down in the Australian bush. Now, when I talk that way, readers might imagine that I'm defending the theory of the blank slate, which Steven Pinker spent an entire book in demolishing.

I might seem to be saying that a bush baby in Australia (like me, if you insist on making things personal) is born more-or-less "empty-headed", and that you only have to drop him off in a place such as Tokyo, and let nurture get to work, if you want your kid to evolve, say, into a sophisticated citizen of the Land of the Rising Sun… who might later decide to return to his birthplace Down Under and amaze all the locals, with the help of his twin brother, by setting up a genuine sushi restaurant.

Well, this impression is partly right, and partly wrong. All the Japanese stuff is perfectly correct. What's totally wrong is the suggestion that the Aussie bush twins were born more-or-less "empty-headed". On the contrary, the twins were born with an all-important stock of genes, of all kinds, inherited from their Australian parents. And, if the Japanese-speaking sibling who grew up in Tokyo turned out to be smart enough to imagine the idea of returning to Australia and setting up a sushi restaurant with his English-speaking brother, then we can surely conclude that they two fellows were equipped, right from the start, with an excellent set of genes tuned to imagination and business creativity.

In my personal case, the fact that I never heard people speaking French until I was 21 years old means that I missed out on the nurture deal as far as my accent is concerned. That's to say, I'll always speak French with a foreign accent. On the other hand, I can communicate correctly with French people on all kinds of subjects, which suggests that I arrived on the scene here in France with a set of genes enabling me to learn how to translate efficiently from one language into another… which was the same set of genes that allowed me to work professionally in computer programming.

These days, I'm constantly amused to realize that much of my background culture, enabling me to appreciate various intellectual challenges, was of an accidental acquired kind, rather than primarily genetic. Out in Australia during the five-year period between my leaving school (1957) and my departure for Europe (1961), I had the chance of picking up cultural baggage in science that is still "fueling" me today. Let me give you an example of what I'm trying to say, in an unexpected domain: games. If there's a human activity in which I have no skills whatsoever, and even less in the way of enthusiasm, it's surely the field of games. I'm quite incapable of conjuring up any kind of competitive spirit, or will to win. I'm simply lousy at playing games. Besides, I hardly ever do so. I've never played cards, or bridge, or video games. Scrabble and crossword puzzles, like chess, bore me greatly. I seem to be lacking the genes that push other individuals to play with a will to win. And this apathy extends to all kinds of games, from competitive sports through to business. I'm not exactly a loser; I'm simply a lethargic non-player, with no deep desire to win anything whatsoever.

Now, this is funny, because my son François seems to be quite the opposite. He has recuperated genes that make him a skilled competitor in quite a few domains, including billiards. I don't know where he obtained these genes, but it's surely through his mother, whose family background includes at least a couple of solid known cases of entrepreneurial success… which are lacking in my family environment (with the possible exception of my paternal grandfather's small automobile business). There are no outstanding merchants among my recent ancestors. Meanwhile, the only successful sportsman—my uncle John Walker, the track cyclist—had so little will to win that a Grafton journalist once said that he had to be "psyched up" (by encouragement from his brothers) to have any chance of winning… and I knew my late uncle well enough to understand that this was surely the case.

Now, why am I painting this utterly dismal image of myself in the games arena? Well, there's method in my madness, which I shall now attempt to explain. In a nutshell, it's a matter of a fortuitous encounter with a fundamental element of scientific culture, when I was a young man working with IBM in Sydney.

I've already evoked John von Neumann in my blog article of Christmas Day 2006 entitled The meaning of life [display]. He's the fellow who invented the idea of programs stored in the memory of a computer. He also put forward a theory of replicators (which he referred to as self-reproducing automata), and we now know that the spiral helix mechanism of the DNA molecule is indeed such a replicator, at the origin of all life on the planet Earth.

Well, von Neumann had yet another claim to fame. With Oskar Morgenstern [1902-1977], he was the coauthor of a pioneering book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior… a copy of which happened to be hanging around in the offices of IBM Australia, in North Sydney, when the company hired me as a computer programmer in 1957. At the time, I was amazed to learn that what I looked upon as a relatively superficial activity, playing games, could become the object of mathematical theories. In any case, while I continued to have little enthusiasm for games themselves, I was enthralled by the theories that had been invented to explain them.

Now, things might have stayed like that for me, permanently, were it not for the ingenious insights of an English evolutionary biologist and geneticist, John Mayard Smith, who decided to apply games theory to the biggest game of all—the greatest show on earth, as Richard Dawkins put it—namely, evolution. Unfortunately, it would be beyond the possibilities of my blog to tackle the precise ways in which, say, a college student on a date might be exploiting a strategy (unconsciously, in most cases) akin to a poker player. Dawkins introduces this gigantic theme, in a typically brilliant fashion, near the beginning of The Selfish Gene.

To be quite honest, I must point out that it can become mentally tiresome to follow the mathematical mechanisms of a games-theory interpretation of activities in the domains of courting, love and marriage, and rearing children. As I said at the beginning, it helps a lot if you happen to possess a minimum of background culture in the theory of games.