Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

An Evolving Society

Most real scientists believe in the theory of evolution and, despite polls that show something different, I suspect that many people (especially if they aren’t Americans) would be more than willing to ascribe to an understanding more in line with a God guided process of “decent with modification” than a purely Creationist philosophy saying the world is only 6000 years old. (Even if the Chairman of the Texas Board of Education has different feelings about the issue.) The only difference between the “standard” theory of evolution and a theistic evolutionary argument is the extent to which God was involved, if at all, in tinkering with the tiny bits over time.

In recent weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to the implications of how evolution works and how evolution might work on human activities. This line of thinking was spurred by recent book review in the New York Times about A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark, a historical economist at the University of California, Davis. I will preface my comments by saying I haven’t read the book yet and am basing my comment on the description provided in the Nicolas Wade article and the preview chapter available. But then again my line of thinking only marginally touches on the thesis given by Clark.

Nevertheless, I’d like to start with a discussion of Clark’s ideas. The premise is as simple as it will be controversial.

In looking at the economic data for England for the years between 1200 and 1800, Clark argues that the English population was caught at the edge of the Malthusian limit. This is the highest population a society can sustain. In any area, the human population would grow up to the point where agricultural techniques provided just enough food for most people to survive. Any minor increase in population would soon die due to lack of food. The only exceptions to this rule were formed by increased agricultural land use and the occasional marginal improvement in technology.

From the online version of the first chapter

The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. Indeed it can be summarized in one diagram: figure 1.1. Before 1800 income per person —the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head—varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism explained in this book, the Malthusian Trap, ensured that short-term gains in income through technological advances were inevitably lost through population growth.

Thus the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen.
So, even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.

The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed for ever the possibilities for material consumption. Incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth in a favored group of countries. The richest mod ern economies are now ten to twenty times wealthier than the 1800 average. Moreover the biggest beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution has so far been the unskilled. There have been benefits aplenty for the typically wealthy owners of land or capital, and for the educated. But industrialized economies saved their best gifts for the poorest.

Clark calculated that the average caloric input of the poor in pre-industrial England was a quarter less than what would have been consumed in a normal hunter-gatherer society (a point also made by Jarod Diamond in Germs, Guns and Steel). As a matter of fact, only the rich in the European societies would have been able to eat more than the 2300 calories consumed on average by hunter gatherers. I know from other reading that in the middle of the 18th century, not only the poor but even the rich regularly suffered in the late winter and early spring from symptoms of serious malnutrition. Rickets, caused by malnutrition, was still common into the early parts of the last century.

The only real exception to the continual marginal lifestyles led by the majority of people was caused by the mass deaths due to the black plague. These devastating catastrophes produced a temporary improvement in the lives of the survivors because the available aerible land was able to temporarily produce an excess until the Malthusian limit was again reached.

Suddenly, at the end of the 1800th century, a turning point was reached. Something dramatically changed in England and allowed mankind to finally escape the Malthusian Trap that had been holding it captive since the beginning of time. It was the key to this something Clark searched for.

Clark’s detective work led him into the archives looking at wills and other documents. By tracing who survived, he felt he had uncovered the reason for the Industrial Revolution. You see; as opposed to the Billy Joel song, it wasn’t the good dying young, it was the poor. There was a strong social current in English society but it ran downhill; it was the rich producing poor relatives, generation after generation, replacing the poor who had died from below. According to the New York Times review,

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes. Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy.

It is unclear, exactly, why Dr. Clark feels that literacy, thrift and a willingness to do hard work as opposed to a strong sword arm and good luck made what he calls the “economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” Especially in light of the fact that people like Charlemagne were illiterate, the cases of spendthrift kings, princes and Popes longer than the lists at any tournament and a willingness to do hard work simply ignores the amount of brutally hard work done by the poor in England.

But Clark’s merry romp through Social Darwinist philosophy unfortunately doesn’t appear to stop there. From his first chapter,

Why an Industrial Revolution in England? Why not China, India, or Japan?6 The answer hazarded here is that England’s advantages were not coal, not colonies, not the Protestant Reformation, not the Enlightenment, but the accidents of institutional stability and demography: in particular the extraordinary stability of England back to at least 1200, the slow growth of English population between 1300 and 1760, and the extraordinary fecundity of the rich and economically successful. The embedding of bourgeois values into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics, was for these reasons the most advanced in England.

Let me try to rephrase that idea. If you wanted to genetically “prepare” a society, whether through planning or luck, for the jump into the Industrial Revolution what you need are a group of people willing to starve the poorest of the poor to make room for the more industrious, “skillful” genetic racial representatives trickling down from above. And on the other side of the globe, the Japanese Tennos were apparently too infertile to produce a social change but fertile enough to produce a field ripe to adapt to the new ideas and methods coming from England a mere 100 years later. China took a century more to get on the right track. Um. Right.

Clark also ignores the agricultural civilizations in the Americas and in Bantu Africa; all arguably similarly captured in the Malthusian Trap; all arguably with similar cultural survival rates. The article simply comments that these cultures just aren’t “ready” for western advancement yet.

My response in a word: blech.

I can’t believe this drivel managed to make it into the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps it was published because the Times’ editors know full well that the eugenic ideas presented will generate a certain amount of controversy producing in turn both readership and advertising revenue.

Is Clark really trying to push for the idea of a genetically superior upper class? Hasn’t he even seen any of the Paris Hilton escapades? What about the Norwegain princess who believes in angels? Are these people mutants?! [Well… arguably, yes – but I won’t go there.]

I am however loath to completely eliminate the idea of evolution from the how societies improve. I however don’t think the solution can be found in the evolution of bodies but in the evolution of ideas.

Thus I’d like to spend some time looking at where a naïve understanding of evolutionary thinking might take us. I’d like to look at the idea of memes. But time is short. Thus todays discussion is –

To Be Continued…

The Science Fiction of War

I (mis)spent a large portion of my teenage years devouring science fiction and fantasy novels. One of my favorite authors was and still is Robert A. Heinlein.

The WSJ (may she rest in peace) has a opinion piece up by Taylor Dinerman (thanks for the tip Jadxia!) discussing not the science in Heinlein’s work, but the politics.

Even though Heinlein’s political views drifted toward the Libertarian in later life, I’d have to admit that none of his works had more political meaning for me as a teenager than Starship Troopers.

For those who only saw the film and never read the book, believe me they have little in common. The book deals far more with the moral responsibilities citizens bring to a society. (BTW, for anyone who hasn’t read the book, I’d recommend the synopsis here). He does a much better job of doing it than I ever could.)

Perhaps a quick excerpt will help show how extreme the book really was politically. In the course of the story, the main character Juan Rico remembers a required class on political thinking the had taken. The teacher, Mr. Dubois, explains the origin of duties and rights.

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ ”

“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

“The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.”

Amazingly, I both agree and disagree with this passage which ended up being a major part of my moral and political compass. I disagree with the first paragraph, as I have said before, I think morality is evolutionarily hard wired; having moral feelings towards family groups allows species do better than ones that don’t have this characteristic. Morality is the basis for duty not the other way around.

On the other hand, I completely agree with the passage about ‘unalienable rights.’ I’ve never been able to buy into the idea that there are rights to anything. There are contracts. There are things that are moral. I can’t believe they are really rights and they certainly aren’t unalienable. (My God! Have I just outed myself as a libertarian fascist?!)

I disagree with the right to vote and think it should be a duty, it’s a moral obligation not a right. It is a moral obligation required by democratic societies; it is not optional.

It is like the ‘right’ to life. This unalienable right would seem to preclude the right to death, the right to take one’s own life; a choice I think is both important and ‘unalienable’. (But please, of course I wouldn’t argue that anyone can take someone else’s life. Personal choices are not societies choices; what works for the one does not scale to the many. Only pregnant women can eat for two for example.)

I always saw that Starship Troopers as the reaction of someone who had seen the patriotic struggle of the Second World War morph into the political morass that was Korea and would become Vietnam. I thought, and still do think, that much was right. And more was totally wrong.

And that’s why, Starship Troopers is always connected in my mind to a second novel, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Where Starship Troopers is the product of patriotism, The Forever War is the product of patriotism distorted and misused. Where the point of Starship Troopers is a just war, a never ending fight for freedom, honor and duty – The Forever War simply highlights the ultimate uselessness of conflict. Haldeman’s classic is perhaps the second pillar in my politial makeup. Together I think the two novels show both the highs and lows of societies.

Maybe if more politicians today would read Haldeman and not Heinlein, we might not be where we are – a world of ‘science fiction‘ not even Heinlein could have imagined.

We’ve Learned Nothing New

Some things stay the same.

It doesn’t matter whether one places healing powers in the hands of the Gods, crystals or modern medicine; the argument really doesn’t change much. Even after 150 years.

As for the rain-makers, they carried the sympathies of the people along with them, and not without reason. With the following arguments they were all acquainted, and in order to understand their force, we must place ourselves in their position, and believe, as they do, that all medicines act by a mysterious charm. The term for cure may be translated “charm” (‘alaha’).

MEDICAL DOCTOR. Hail, friend! How very many medicines you have about you this morning! Why, you have every medicine in the country here.

RAIN DOCTOR. Very true, my friend; and I ought; for the whole country needs the rain which I am making.

M. D. So you really believe that you can command the clouds? I think that can be done by God alone.

R. D. We both believe the very same thing. It is God that makes the rain, but I pray to him by means of these medicines, and, the rain coming, of course it is then mine. It was I who made it for the Bakwains for many years, when they were at Shokuane; through my wisdom, too, their women became fat and shining. Ask them; they will tell you the same as I do.

M. D. But we are distinctly told in the parting words of our Savior that we can pray to God acceptably in his name alone, and not by means of medicines.

R. D. Truly! but God told us differently. He made black men first, and did not love us as he did the white men. He made you beautiful, and gave you clothing, and guns, and gunpowder, and horses, and wagons, and many other things about which we know nothing. But toward us he had no heart. He gave us nothing except the assegai, and cattle, and rain-making; and he did not give us hearts like yours. We never love each other. Other tribes place medicines about our country to prevent the rain, so that we may be dispersed by hunger, and go to them, and augment their power. We must dissolve their charms by our medicines. God has given us one little thing, which you know nothing of. He has given us the knowledge of certain medicines by which we can make rain. WE do not despise those things which you possess, though we are ignorant of them. We don’t understand your book, yet we don’t despise it. YOU ought not to despise our little knowledge, though you are ignorant of it.

M. D. I don’t despise what I am ignorant of; I only think you are mistaken in saying that you have medicines which can influence the rain at all.

R. D. That’s just the way people speak when they talk on a subject of which they have no knowledge. When we first opened our eyes, we found our forefathers making rain, and we follow in their footsteps. You, who send to Kuruman for corn, and irrigate your garden, may do without rain; WE can not manage in that way. If we had no rain, the cattle would have no pasture, the cows give no milk, our children become lean and die, our wives run away to other tribes who do make rain and have corn, and the whole tribe become dispersed and lost; our fire would go out.

M. D. I quite agree with you as to the value of the rain; but you can not charm the clouds by medicines. You wait till you see the clouds come, then you use your medicines, and take the credit which belongs to God only.

R. D. I use my medicines, and you employ yours; we are both doctors, and doctors are not deceivers. You give a patient medicine. Sometimes God is pleased to heal him by means of your medicine; sometimes not—he dies. When he is cured, you take the credit of what God does. I do the same. Sometimes God grants us rain, sometimes not. When he does, we take the credit of the charm. When a patient dies, you don’t give up trust in your medicine, neither do I when rain fails. If you wish me to leave off my medicines, why continue your own?

M. D. I give medicine to living creatures within my reach, and can see the effects, though no cure follows; you pretend to charm the clouds, which are so far above us that your medicines never reach them. The clouds usually lie in one direction, and your smoke goes in another. God alone can command the clouds. Only try and wait patiently; God will give us rain without your medicines.

R. D. Mahala-ma-kapa-a-a!! Well, I always thought white men were wise till this morning. Who ever thought of making trial of starvation? Is death pleasant, then?

M. D. Could you make it rain on one spot and not on another?

R. D. I wouldn’t think of trying. I like to see the whole country green, and all the people glad; the women clapping their hands, and giving me their ornaments for thankfulness, and lullilooing for joy.

M. D. I think you deceive both them and yourself.

R. D. Well, then, there is a pair of us (meaning both are rogues).

The above is only a specimen of their way of reasoning, in which, when the language is well understood, they are perceived to be remarkably acute. These arguments are generally known, and I never succeeded in convincing a single individual of their fallacy, though I tried to do so in every way I could think of. Their faith in medicines as charms is unbounded. The general effect of argument is to produce the impression that you are not anxious for rain at all; and it is very undesirable to allow the idea to spread that you do not take a generous interest in their welfare. An angry opponent of rain-making in a tribe would be looked upon as were some Greek merchants in England during the Russian war.

That comes from the amazingly entertaining Missionary Travels Researches in South Africa by David Livingstone. Yes, you presume correctly. That David Livingstone.

Known Unknowns

firearms-and-violence1.jpgOne of the problems with discussing gun control in America is actually having a handle on what is going on. Not only are statistics often misquoted, there are few statistics that are really meaningful.

I am in the process of preparing a couple of posts discussing the change in gun control laws in England and Australia (although Snopes already beat me to it). These two countries are often used by gun control opponents as examples where outlawing guns lead to rampant increases in crime.

But while researching those articles, I ran across a wonderful online book. Entitled simply Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review and published by the National Research Council. It discusses what information is available and what it can tell us. The results are scary.

In about 300 pages, the book points out just how little is really known about the relationship between firearms and violence; or firearms and safety for that matter. Even though millions of dollars are spent each year on collecting data and researching effects, hidden and obvious, this book points out that there is surprisingly little that can be absolutely determined, including, for example, the number of guns in private ownership in America.

This book is not trying to support any given policy, either for or against gun control, but rather it tries to determine whether there is enough information available to define exactly where the problems lie and to be able to define benchmarks to determine whether a given policy works.

Published in 2004, the book covers a wide range of topics starting with measuring firearm related violence, ownership and ways to prevent illegal ownership. It continues by looking at the statistics on Defensive Gun Use (DGU) and the controversial effects of Right-to-Carry RTC laws. These two issues are extremely important being two major planks in the NRA’s lobbying techniques supporting gun ownership. Finally, the book looks at the relationship between firearms and suicide; programs designed to prevent accidental injuries caused by firearms and legal methods for reducing firearm related violence.

Interestingly there was one open academic spat in the book. The book concludes that there is little support for the theory that Right-To-Carry (RTC) laws impact crime. James Q. “Broken Windows” Wilson dissented on a portion of that claim. Wilson commented that there is evidence to support the claim that RTC laws lower murder rates. In its response, the rest of the scientific committee answered with,

In particular, the committee, including Wilson, found that “it is impossible to draw strong conclusions from the existing literature on the causal impact” of right-to-carry laws on violent and property crime in general and rape, aggravated assault, auto theft, burglary, and larceny in particular.

The only substantive issue on which the committee differed is whether the existing research supports the conclusion that right-to-carry laws substantially reduce murder. The report suggests that the scientific evidence is inconclusive. Wilson disagreed, arguing that virtually every estimate shows a substantial and statistically significant negative effect of right-to-carry laws on murder.

Now to the gossip part. It is interesting to note that one of the members of the advisory committee, Steven J Levitt was sued by John Lott Jr. for libel. Levitt commented in his book, Freakonomics that Lott’s theories hadn’t been “replicated” by other researchers. Lott took offense and when on the – um – offensive. He sued and … LOST. Oops. Lott and Levitt will be back in court in October on another issue; it will be interesting to see how that works out.

Back to gun control though; while dry, the book makes important reading for anyone willing to make serious comments about whether gun control is a good or bad thing. It helps give background on where the source for the statistics quoted in newspapers and blogs and how they are generated and what credibility they have.The book can be read online one annoying page at a time or one could actually pop to the $50 required to buy it. I chose the online variant (combined with a little programming to make my reading pleasure a bit more, um, pleasurable) .

The nice thing about the book is that it gives an excellent feel for the known unknowns. That let’s you justify or question the “knowns” you think you “know.”

The Resignation of Uncle Wolfi

The news of Wolfowitz’s resignation seems to be less a success than the end of a bad fairy tale

I am reminded of one of my favorite children’s books, Ian Whybrow’s Little Wolf’s Book of Badness

This is the story of little wolf, sent off into the great big world to make his way to his uncles boarding school, Cunning College. It is told through the perspective of a young wolf who was too nice and told through his letters home to mum and dad. Little Wolf is not happy to be sent away,

Dear Mum and Dad,

Please please PLEEEEZ let me come home. You just think I am a goody-goody, I bet. Is that the reason why I have to go away for badness lessons? I only cleaned my teeth last week for a joke. And brushing my fur, and going to bed early, that was just tricks to trick you! Why must I go to Cunning College to learn Uncle Bigbad’s 9 Rules of Badness? Please let me come home and learn to be bad at home. PLEE-E-EEZ.

Yours fedupply Little Wolf

As the story progresses, we learn exactly what happened to the big bad wolf after his run in with that little harlot with the red cloak. Poorly stiched back together and banished into the wilderness, Bigbad Wolf is forced teach little brats the arts of deception. A task he has mastered but is ill suited to teach. All goes well until his nephew, the pesky Little Wolf shows up to ruin things.

I ask you. When and where will Wolfowitz take over his teaching duties? Were I to guess, it will either be Georgetown or perhaps Chicago. I doubt he would fit into one of the Boston universities.

But unlike Uncle Bigbad, Uncle Wolfi managed to survive the attack by the hunters largely unscathed. He could claim he did nothing wrong, the White House will again circle the wagons, the Neo-Con’s or Post-Con’s or Con-Artists or whatever they call themselves now will decry this to be yet another terrorist attack on America by an Old Europe. Wolfowitz doesn’t believe he did anything wrong, the directors of the World Bank largely toothless in forcing him to admit wrong doing.

Wolfowitz will remain in power until the end of the summer, enough time to find a teaching position and decorate a nice office in one of the conservative think-tanks. And there he will await the coming of this own Little Wolf.

The Path Leading to a Laneway

Anya Peters is both a very strong person and a someone who has a very long journey both behind and ahead of her.

She first came to my attention through her blog, WanderingScribe about her life, living alone, in her car on at the end of a lane somewhere in England. It was well written, moving and extremely powerful. I have written about her before.

abandoned-anya-peters1.jpgHer book, Abandoned, the Story about a Little Girl Who Didn’t Belong, finally came out at the beginning of the month and I was literally unable to put it down. What I expected was a little background about how she had ended up at the end of her rope and more about what her writing had given her. What I got was an amazingly powerfully written book about how she came to believe that there was no help; there was no one to turn to; no one she could trust. Worse she felt she didn’t deserve any help. It is a story of child abuse, mental, physical and sexual, of abandonment, and eventually betrayal. It is the story of one child’s torturous journey to adulthood.

There were times when the book was amazingly difficult to read, Peters does not hide what goes on behind a smokescreen of innuendo. She clearly and bluntly tells the reader what it is like to be sexually abused before she even understands what is happening. When the abuse is finally exposed, her worst nightmares come to pass, she is separated from the woman she feels is her mother. It is heartbreaking – you will cry.

The tale of abuse explains how she ends up living in her car and to how she came to write a blog. In contrast to the first part of the book, this part is told almost breathlessly, as if it were only half remembered. The tale of her childhood is etched upon her very being. But the struggle to exist once she became homeless – the stress, the cold, the worry, the shame – all conspired to force her to live day to day and to concentrate not on self-reflection, but on survival.

For those interested in the day to day story of how she survived, those tales can be found not in the book but in the blog. It is a tale everyone should also read.

On a personal note, reading this book reminded me of something I have heard Richard Dawkins say repeatedly; that religious education is a form of child abuse. It would be nice if someone would send this book to him. I understand his rhetoric, he wants to shock. But in doing so he merely harms his own cause by belittling the real damage, the absolute hate, that occurs during child abuse. It is one of the reasons I find Dawkins so objectionable. Anyone who reads this book will realise the rage I feel when I hear Richard Dawkins relate religion with child abuse – it is not.

I urge everyone to order this book. Peters has a long journey ahead of her. She must readjust not only to day to day living, the commonplace ecstasy felt simply when standing barefoot on a carpeted floor holding a warm cup of tea, not only the struggle to find a job and healthy companionship. She must learn to trust herself; not to look into her own soul to try to determine what she did wrong, but to accept that others have harmed her.

To get a taste of her writing, you should read her reaction to seeing her book for the first time in a shop. It is very indicative of how she writes,

It was the weirdest thing. I think my heart stopped at least two beats.

I’ve had a copy of that cover pinned to the noticeboard in my room for months now, and it’s here on the blog as well, so the image on the front of the book is very familiar to me by now. But in the shop today, seeing it there for the first time — and a day too soon! — for a moment I was completely disorientated and just stared up at it frowning, thinking ‘what’s that doing there?’ I recognised it as my book, but, for a split second that’s all I did, just recognised it as mine — a possession, something belonging to me. It was almost as if I had left my own copy — which just happened to be in my bag at the time — there on the shelf by mistake. ‘How did that get there?’ my head was trying to say, as my hand almost got ready to grab it off the shelf and put it back into my bag. As soon as my head caught up and I realised why it was there I turned and left the shop without even taking it down to look at it. Very, very odd reaction.

But it’s there, my life in a book on a bookshelf somewhere, and it’s bizarre seeing it, but I was right: it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it’s somebody else’s book now. My life is just a story now, out there with all the other stories. And hopefully now, at long, long last, I can finally be free of it and move on.

I hope she can move on and I wish her the very best of luck.

She is an excellent author and sounds like a wonderful person.

A Defense of Faith

I finally got around to reading [Sam] Harris’s End of Faith.

On the one hand, it is an astounding document, a frontal assault on religion and faith. On the other, it is clear that Harris is writing from the heart. (I am sure he would resent my using the phrase ‘with heart and soul’ but it would reflect my opinion.) He seems most concerned that the irrationality of religious beliefs is not only dangerous but the most fearful threat facing mankind today.

He spends half the book with broadside after broadside directed at religion; Christianity and Islam being the primary targets. Judaism is attacked primarily as a precursor to these two and Hinduism is only mentioned in passing. Buddhism as a belief structure is left largely unscathed and Apollo, Zeus and Athena merely dismissed as myths. Wiccans are left unmentioned.

I found this part of the book to be the least balanced. Perhaps I will devote another post to the problems I see in that part of the book, problems which are far too numerous to be listed here. His main attacks seem based on a literal reading of the various holy works. He therefore makes the connection, since the scriptures are not consistent, not only are beliefs based on them irrational, but any idea taken from them dangerous. He seems fascinated by the more graphic portions both of the Bible and the Koran and dedicates page after page to debunking any belief that could use these works as a basis. Fine.

In the second half of the text, Harris looks at the connection between ethics and religion and asks the important question of whether research will be able to find a science of good and evil; a clear delineation between what is right and wrong without discourse to holy books (or constitutions). Further he looks at the connection between spiritually and consciousness arguing that spiritually and mysticism are possible without the fetters of religion. These chapters are designed to show a path out of the horrors of dogma and into a more structured and intellectual understanding of the world.

This part of the book was more balanced and less polemic; he wants to reconstruct the social order torn down by the removal of religion. I found Harris treading well understood ground here, he studies neuroscience. In the acknowledgements, he mentions two chapters on the brain that were cut from the final version of the book. While I think this would have explained both Harris’s impatience with religion and his hope for the future, they were probably too complicated and erudite for the audience Harris reached otherwise.

As a bridge between the attack and the reconstruction, Harris shows two of examples of how dangerous religions can become – the Inquisition and the Christian origins of anti-Semitism as a precursor to the Holocaust. I think both of these examples show Harris’s distortion of truth and use of polemic to make marginal or invalid points.

He describes the Inquisition as an example of the tortures used to extract confessions from innocent, religious prisoners while leaving out the fact that similar methods were used to extract information from secular prisoners as well. The idea that pain and suffering might induce people to give incorrect or misleading information wasn’t religious doctrine but common knowledge at the time. Trial by fire was not merely a platitude in the middle ages. The only thing particularly spectacular about the Inquisition was its targeting of a relatively peaceful and prosperous segment of the population. And note, the emphasis is on prosperous. Most pogroms were carried out for financial and not purely religious reasons.

Harris’s explanation that Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in Christian faith is as true as it is trivial. The Nazi’s were chasing a mythical racial purity that had nothing to do with faith as such. Indeed one of the principal goals of the Nazi’s was to replace existing religions with a new (or as they pretended – old) religion. This wasn’t out of any dogmatic belief but because the Nazis knew the power of using that from of emotion. The racial discrimination that has been and is being carried out in the United States is arguably not of religious nature. The concentration camps set up in Colorado during the Second World War had little to do with Christianity but a lot to do with race. While the group selected by the Nazis was based on age old religious predudices, the problem wasn’t the religion but the predjudice.

Harris might be described as a neocon to religion looking for dogmatic WMDs wherever they might be found and disregarding any evidence to the contrary.

The neocons were certain Sadaam and Iraq presented a threat and played up every possible hint of danger while passing over any evidence that it might not be so. While getting Sadaam out of power might have been a good idea, the neocon ‘strategy’ was focused on the destruction of a dangerous regime and on the democracy that would bloom in its place. The fuzzy part was the path from dictatorship to democracy and it is that fuzziness that is what is ending life after life in the Fertile Crescent today.

Harris makes a similar mistake. While he points to a proud new world, a world of science of ethics and an understanding of how and where feelings of spirituality can be nurtured and supported, he makes no concession to reality. Not only does he not tell us how to achieve these goals; it is unclear whether there is a ‘there’ there. In a sense Harris sees religion as a kind of social WMD. Extremists driven by frenzy of religion will seek not metaphorical WMD’s but real ones and the world will be destroyed. I would argue that lacking religion, any of the other traditional excuses – race, nationality, etc. – will be used to foment hate and dissent.

The book makes a startling and excellent case for the danger the world is in today. Wherever peoples with differing religions come into conflict, the religion will be used to magnify and define the suffering. But if the only option is to condemn all religious thought, to ‘outlaw’ beliefs and myths, then we are doomed and no book can save us; not Harris’s, not the Bible, not the Vedas, not the writings of Confucius – none. We are doomed.

We live in a world where we are permanently bombarded with the message that, we should be satisfied with our lives (but are not) and that dissatisfaction is a condition to be combated, something to be exercised – preferably through conspicuous consumption and greed. The feeling that dissatisfaction is ‘curable’ leaves the human mind open for anything that offers relief. There are those few blessed with the ability to fill that void with intellectual pursuits: Eugenie Scott, PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins to name a few. There are others less fortunate who use alcohol and other substances to deaden the ache. But nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, and religion and belief are used by many to fill the gap.

If Harris does not offer a substitute for belief, his attempts at dismantling organised faith, if successful, would leave a chaos making Baghdad look like a children’s party.

There is no doubt that spirituality and belief are experiencing a renaissance in the world today. Not only are religions growing, but belief in New Age silliness like Integral thought and Therapeutic Touch are increasingly trusted despite the rational arguments of scientists.

I would argue the true danger to the world is not religion per say but the use of extremism in any form. To portray religion as the driving factor in all the world’s woes and conflicts, either implicitly or explicitly, is mendacious. Dogma did not drive Napoleon to Waterloo; the American Civil War was not a conflict driven by faith; neither WWI nor WWII were set in motion by theological discourse; the Soviet purges and the McCarthy show trials were not done for God.

For me, someone who is firmly in the strong agnostic camp (not only do we not know whether God exists, I feel the question is unanswerable as such), I would have to say I found Harris’s book reprehensible

I found his descriptions of religion to be cartoonish and his use of exaggeration, polemic, and a combination of truth and well spun opinions presented as truth distasteful. Harris discounts all theological activities performed in the last 300 years. He carefully mixes generalisations about the beliefs held by splinter groups with the larger group of moderates.

His rhetoric is often flawless, attacked on any specific point he can truthfully explain that no, go back and read that passage exactly – any resemblance to what you understood and what he wrote is solely the responsibility of the reader. I felt I was reading denialist literature of the highest calibre.

But I did have a personal revelation while reading Harris’s book – don’t take a break and watch cable news. During a report about the latest Iranian/UN tug of war, the CNN announcer pointed out that Iran claims that all its nuclear efforts are peaceful. Then, in a tone dripping in irony, he pointed out that Iran also “claims that CNN is simply a propaganda arm of the American government.” I found myself yelling at the screen “But you are an American propaganda tool!” Harris’s book and tolerance do not mix.

I believe the CNN announcer would have as little use for my comment as Harris will for the rest of my comments. But both are only beliefs. And I will hold faithfully to them.

Taking a Stake in Science

There is a review of Jennifer Ouellette’s book The Physics of the Buffyverse in Sunday’s New York Times.

Interestingly, for an agnosic, I read Jennifer’s blog Cocktail Party Physics more or less religiously.

So Congragulations Jennifer. I hope the book really takes off now. You deserve it.

(Hat Tip: Matthew C. Nisbet/Framing Science, and therefore you already knew about story because you read him more often then you read me. Right?! *ahem*)

Don’t Try This At Home

One of my favorite authors won’t be doing very much writing for a while because he mangaged to burn down his office last week.

Fantasy writer David Eddings, 75, said he was using water to flush out the gas tank of his broken-down Excalibur sports car, when some fluid leaked. In a lapse of judgment he readily admitted, Eddings lit a piece of paper and threw into the puddle to test if it was still flammable. The answer came in an orange torrent.
Eddings said his intention to was to prevent a fire – he was afraid to leave a tank full of gasoline in a car that had gone kaput – but instead he did the opposite.

“One word comes to mind,” the renowned wordsmith said as he stood in a pajama shirt and slippers. “Dumb.”

Why doesn’t this stuff happen to Michael Crichton?

Apparently the car didn’t survive either. Sniff.

New Years Resolutions and Armed Pandas

Ok, I’ll admit it; I do have a rather indifferent approach to punctuation.

Its not as if the invisible punctuation angel with the corresponding devil don’t pop in occasionally with one viciously whispering that I need a comma right there and the other responding with a mental ruler slap and a triumphant hiss “No commas!

I do have a bit of an out. I never actually speak English anymore. Living in Germany allows me to blithely spend my days in what, for some, would be a cacophony of Teutonic grunts and throat clearings. I could also claim a kind of typographic dyslexia, I read what I had planned on writing and not what I actually put to keyboard and monitor. But all-in-all, that isn’t enough.

Thus dear reader I did indeed make a New Years resolution to try to improve. (I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that the resolution wasn’t taken this year and there were neither sevens nor twos nor zeros in the year in question. *Sigh*) But due to the increase in output and the absolute horror with which I read my old posts, I think the time has come (and probably gone) to attempt to rectify this malfeasant situation.

As you might think, I couldn’t turn to a simple grammar book of which I have several. They are dry and boring, the literary equivalent of the archetypical librarian. Sometime last year my search for an appropriate tome, well pamphlet really, was successful; I found what I had been searching for, perfect in tone and size. I am the proud owner of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Ms Truss, when not scribbling grammatical revolutionary pamphlets and commenting on Radio 4, spends her time producing text for yellow journalistic rags like the English newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

Her approach to grammar is indeed revolutionary. But unlike her more mundane predecessors, she looks to civil disobedience and the disfigurement of poorly punctuated print than dandruffy dissertations. Her book includes a set of stickers, allowing the reader to correct, not just mentally but physically, those poorly written signs and posters. It seems she is not alone; her book has sold over 3 million copies.

It is less the literary jihad and more the writing style that attracted me to this book. Mixing rules; regulations and suggestions with history and humor, the book takes us through a romp of the most important little symbols in written language. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about Ms Truss’s struggles with what she calls her ‘Inner Stickler’; that part of her that leaves her gasping on the train platform like a fish out of water staring at the newest poorly punctuated poster for a film; we see her cry for justice, and with an oddly Marxist color choice, her grasping for a large red marker.

American readers will probably have to adapt to the use of ‘Full Stop’ instead of the more Yankee ‘period’. Many of her sports references will fall flat and almost none of her discussions of popular culture will be truly understood. It is of no matter. I will support any author willing to offer themselves to historic typesetting figures. Here she waxes poetic on the wondrous history of the semicolon.

That imaginative chap Charlemagne (forward-looking [but likely illiterate] Holy Roman Emperor) stirred things up in the 9th century when Alcuin of York came up with a system of positurae at the ends of sentences (including one of the earliest question marks), but to be honest western systems of punctuation were damned unsatisfactory for the next five hundred years until one man – one fabulous Venetian printer – finally wrestled with the issue and pinned it to the mat. That man was Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450 – 1515) and I will happily admit I hadn’t heard of him until about a year ago, but am now absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies.

The heroic status of Aldus Manutius the Elder amoung historians of the printed word cannot be overstated. Who invented the italic typeface? Aldus Manutius! Who printed the first semicolon? Aldus Manutius! The rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries meant that a standard system of punctuation was urgently required, and Aldus Manutius was the man to do it. In Pause and Effect (1992), Malcolum Parkes’s magisterial account of the history of punctuation in the West, facsimile examples of Aldus’s groundbreaking work include a page from Pietros Bembo’s De Aetna (1494) which features not only a very elegant roman typeface but the actual first semicolon (and believe me, this is exciting). Of course we did not get our modern system overnight.

The entire book is a humorous collection of do’s and do-not’s interspersed with personal rage at incorrect punctuation and the cry for vigilante grammatical justice – apostrophic lynchings if you will.

And the title? It comes from one of those obscure grammar jokes. A panda goes into a café, orders a sandwich and calmly eats. After finishing he simply stands up, walks towards the door. Suddenly he pulls a gun and fires two shots into the ceiling before exiting the establishment. The waiter rushes after the panda demanding to know what he was thinking. The panda simply shrugs and tosses a poorly punctuated wildlife book to the waiter. “I’m a panda; ” he says, “look it up.” Puzzled the waiter looks and finds the offending passage. “Panda:” he reads, “Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

So dear readers, please if I severely offend the gods of punctuation in the coming year, please don’t shoot, but do correct me. But use the comments; I wouldn’t want your monitor full of stickers.

Settled Scribe

The WanderingScribe (aka Anya Peters) has finally finished her book.

WanderingScribe is a woman who, after a number of setbacks in her life, ended up living in her car at the end of a forest lane in England. Her position looked fairly hopeless until she started blogging – to have a verbal outlet, to document the process she was going through and to find the company she so desperately needed but was unable to accept in person.

One thing led to another and she was featured on the BBC (with a follow-up), Le Monde and in a New York Times audio feature. This lead to her to getting a book deal with Harper Collins and finally gave her the path out of her lane and back into an apartment and back into society. The BBC article describes the blog and its following very succinctly.

It’s often powerfully written, giving a human face to anonymous suffering, talking about her childhood, her sense of rejection and her struggle to regain her confidence and self-respect.

There is also a close-up view of the daily struggle of homelessness – the fears of sleeping in her car, her small victories in keeping warm, how she cleans her hair in hospital showers and gets discount food in staff canteens.

This blog has produced its own regular readership – people who e-mail when its author doesn’t post the next instalment. And she says that the blog has become an attempt to “keep me sane, and in a way to start to reach out”.

I am sure, were her writings confused or had contained even half the grammatical errors I tend to make, she might never have gotten anywhere. But WanderingScribe is an obviously intelligent, well educated individual who spent several months last year – months that now must seem like a nightmare – living in a car somewhere in England. Not because she wasn’t good enough for anything else, not because she wasn’t smart enough, or because she wasn’t educated enough, but because her inner demons chose not to let her live anywhere else. She is an example of the illusion of a meritocracy so wonderfully taught and nurtured in western societies.

I hope working through this book has helped her dispel some of the monsters in her soul. Perhaps if the book is (at least partially) successful, she can finally lay them permanently to rest. I would recommend reading her blog and I know that I, for one, will definitely be reading the book. You can sign up for advance information about the book here.

Congratulations WanderingSettledScribe. May all your future lanes lead not to forests but to happiness.

Heads Up: James Inhofe – Climate Alarmist

Over at ScienceBlogs, Matthew Nisbet (among others) is all hot under the collar about Mr Bonehead Senator James Inhofe. .

Mr Inhofe gave a floor speech attacking the media coverage of global warming and specifically Andrew Revkin’s new book The North Pole Was Here. Revkin is blogging back and requested links to his Amazon Blog. There you go Mr Revkin. You, dear reader, might do the same thing. Revkin’s book is aimed specifically at younger readers (age 10 and up) so if you are looking for something for your children, it might be a good idea to check it out.

 Don’t miss David Roberts deconstruction of this speech over at at the environmental blog Gristmill

Mr Inhofe on the other hand might want to go feed a polar bear – with his brain. Wait! Then the poor little polar bear would go hungry. Never mind.

Reviewing Homelessness

Over at her blog, Reading, Writing, and… What Else is There?, Kathleen Popa has a quick review of Squat by Taylor Field, a faith-based book about homelessness.

She finds the book to be convincing without being overbearing. But instead of trusting her instincts she asked Kevin Barbieux, The Homeless Guy how he felt about the book. His opinions were less kind:

Would you recommend this book to volunteers seeking to help the homeless?
Would you recommend this book to someone looking for a good read?

     The best “faith-based” read on homelessness that I’ve
     encountered so far is Under the Overpass which I still
     recommend to people who ask.
     The best book of any kind, including so-called secular
     books, is this one.  In my opinion, this book best relays
     the realities of homelessness.

Well, that answers that.

On the other hand, I’m still trying to get my brain around RWaWEIT. A blog about books. *heavy sign* Got some reading to do.

Book synopsis: Abducted

Abducted – How People Come to Believe They Have Been Abducted By Aliens
Susan A. Clancy

This was an amazingly fun book to read. I have always been more interested in why people do things and less in what they have done; understanding motivations helps understand people. Susan A. Clancy, a post-doc in psychology at Harvard, studied abduction stories and the abducted. This book is the result of those studies.

She describes how a Harvard PhD student ends up studying the abducted; shows what leads to the abduction memory, why all the stories sound similar and finally discusses who holds abduction beliefs and why these beliefs are so important to them.

First off, and Clancy makes this absolutely clear, she is one of the unbelievers. She doesn’t think aliens are flying about nabbing people from their beds, cars or whatever. This leads me to a major, abet trivial, criticism of the book, the cover. The editor/marketing person who chose the violent, reflective green dust cover should be abducted by aliens and never returned. If this book did poorly in bookstores, the cover was to blame. Trying to make a book for sceptics look like a book for true believers is a less than ideal marketing move. The ‘Abducted’ title leaves something to be desired as well. Wouldn’t ‘Understanding the Abducted’ have worked just as well?  It might have sounded like a self-help book.

The book begins with how the author got involved with abduction memories. She describes being interested the recovery of memory during hypnosis or therapy and how these relate to actual events or whether the memories are created ‘on the couch.’ One of the motivations for this research was the large numbers of ‘remembered’ sexual abuse cases in the late 90’s. Claiming these memories might be wrong was, at the time, less than politically correct. Clancy realised, in order to show memories could be created during therapy she would need a less controversial subject area. Enter the aliens.

Alien abductions – well, the memories of alien abductions – make a great topic for PhD research. They are well known, poorly researched and have a nice postmodernist, New Age feel.

It took three months to convince Harvard’s Institutional Review Board that this was a viable research project, but at last I got the green light and ran the first of many newspaper ads seeking subjects: “Have you been abducted by aliens?” By 10:15AM my voicemail was full.

This rather bold method led to her only encounter with an alien. She receives a very strange voice mail.

[T]he machine emitted a static-like sound, followed by about twenty seconds of punctuated, atonal beeping. There was an eerie syntax, almost a cadence, to the noise, and it ended with a prolonged hissssssss. It was no less creepy the tenth time I played it, amid a safe crowd of fellow graduate students the next morning.

The book continues with Clancy’s first encounter with abductees and a description of the typical abduction. The stories often have two different phases. The initial phase where the abductees wake up and know something has happened. The quest for an explanation often leads these individuals to seek contact with abductee support groups and perhaps directed therapy. Detailed memories usually only return after the person has gone through hypnosis or therapy.

For the author, the most surprising thing is just how normal most of her subjects are. This is not the standard tinfoil underpants crowd; these are doctors, lawyers and your next door neighbour (no, I mean the normal one). The only aberration these people show is the belief that ET popped in one evening, inserted the odd probe into a bodily orifice and left without leaving a trace. Even more astonishing is the fact that most of these people feel better, more relieved and more a part of the universe knowing this happened to them.

According to Clancy, this is the key to understanding the phenomena. The subjects she interviewed were generally very open-minded and had shown some prior interest in aliens. Being abducted was the explanation for sleep paralysis that made them feel better, more special, more connected to the cosmos.

Unfortunately, at 179 pages the book seems too short. Clancy might have spent more time exploring the cultural and historical aspects of alien abductions. And while she does briefly discuss the origin of aliens as opposed to witchcraft, demonic possession or other perfectly natural reasons for sleep paralysis, I found this section of the book to be slightly less than satisfactory. Like a child in a candy store, I was left wanting more. Having a metal probe inserted in your belly button might not be your idea of a mental baby blanket but some people find this more appealing than reality. The book does not discuss what is missing in our society that causes people to seek extraterrestrial comfort. Clancy leaves us to ponder this question at the local pub of our choice.

Although this book leaves one wanting more, it is a must for every sceptic. Often sceptics will ask the question “How can they believe this crazy stuff?” This book tries and largely succeeds in answering the question for alien abduction. Clancy has written a fun, readable account of this phenomena and I can only encourage others to read this book.