Thursday, 31 May 2012

Preaching evil

In the UK the BBC publishes a science magazine called Focus, which is normally informative and enjoyable to read; but the April 2012 issue had a very prominent cover story, spelling out in large letters to its readers (mostly young, I  suspect),  that, ‘it is GOOD to be BAD: the scientific secrets of career success, better relationships and good health.’

This reminds me of 1984 by George Orwell, in which the Party claims that ‘good is bad’ etc. See 1984 revisited and collective postmodernism. Like the Party the publishers of this magazine are in effect saying that good and bad do not exist in any absolute, moral sense. They are human constructs and so it would be foolish to obey a non-existent deity if this stops you climbing the ladder to power and wealth. You are the only deity so anything goes.

Opening up the lavishly illustrated magazine one finds a series of short reports over 7 pages, some of which exhort readers to lie, cheat and get angry at work or in trying to attract a partner.  As regards relationships between couples the scientific findings suggest sadistic and masochistic behaviour strengthens them. All this is ‘backed up’ by ‘scientific’ findings.

Even if the findings are ‘scientifically’ substantiated, rather than just selectively assembled from a wide morass of conflicting sociological data to make a sensational collection (the more likely option in my view)  most people in the UK will not need any thoughts from me on the obvious inadvisability of putting out such messages.

As a Christian I see it as evil but even in my four decades of adult agnosticism I would have regarded this as irresponsible and totally wrong headed. It testifies to a society led by people who are increasingly out of touch with the reality from which humanity and the natural world have emerged and who are speeding up social decay and breakdown as well as undermining faith in a rational, creative universe, thereby removing the intellectual milieu  which allowed the peer-reviewed science of the last 400 years in  Protestant Europe and the USA to thrive in a way which the science of the Greeks, Moslems, Babylonians, Egyptians and Chinese could not. (Other branches of Christianity also did not lead to a sustained advancement of science but for different reasons.)

See also

The five-fold threat to science.

Compassion (self- and for others) fosters mental health (Scientific American)

When nice guys finish first (Scientific American)

Trying to resist temptation? Think about God (Scientific American)

Below is an imaginary letter to the editor, written from the standpoint of a secular citizen with no concern about the godlessness of the offending articles.

Dear editor
I have no belief in a divine source of right and wrong; these are human constructs and our conscience is just an illusion, an evolutionary accident, as we ourselves are as a species, and as is the whole universe. In fact I’m puzzled as to why I am even writing this letter given that I live in a meaningless universe.

However, most people will think it a bit odd for a scientific magazine to be presenting their young readers with suggestions for self advancement in their careers through cheating, lying and aggression. No doubt the idea is for the magazine to appear cool, unstuffy and unpaternalistic while stimulating controversy and hence sales; but a small proportion of readers will take this as a license to engage in just this behaviour and many more will be subliminally tipped in that direction.
We know from the butterfly effect in chaos theory that a micro-disturbance in one location in a very large system can have major influences in places very remote from the micro-disturbance. The expression comes from the mathematically derived idea that the flutter of a butterfly can cause a storm on the other side of the world. For example, a tiny speck of dust dropping into a large vat of calm but superheated water causes the whole lot to boil vigorously in one instant.

This applies to the social behaviour of an individual in society as much as to a butterfly in the global weather system. It only requires one wrong action to happen when society is in the wrong state and it could trigger a huge social breakdown beyond our imagination to foresee.

Suppose Mr or Ms X goes into the office after taking on board the Focus article and as a result behaves more aggressively than intended to their boss. A whole chain of events could be set off. The boss is already at the end of his tether under stress from his boss and is no longer able to constrain himself in dealings with those around him. Negative ripples are sent out in all his dealings with others. Some of these ripples of negativity (i.e. mutually destructive behaviour) generate in turn other waves of trouble, and so on exponentially as time passes, until a whole office of 50 people is directly or indirectly affected in some way, and each of those people will act accordingly to propagate more waves of trouble, sometimes as a result of direct meetings but also as a result of telephone calls or twitter or Facebook or email or interactions in their social life beyond work. And each wave of trouble will generate further waves of trouble, and so on – a snowball of trouble from one person reading one article.

Negative behaviour that could ripple out in this way across the social milieu could include cheating at tax, lying about one’s abilities, lying about one’s motives, spreading malicious gossip, suggesting unacceptable business practices to extract more money from the market, introducing planned obsolescence into products, closing down community-centred operations to save on costs, falsifying accounts or making them misleading to potential investors, shareholders, auditors or the inland revenue, or falsifying scientific data to secure a grant or generate media interest.

In fact it needs only one negative influence to have enormous effects in certain situations. Remember this from G. Herbert?

erbrtHerbertFor the want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

I am almost inclined to stop attacking religion because it has a role as a policeman in people’s head. Still, one must be true to oneself. Sorry, I forgot, there is no real truth, and in fact sometimes I wonder if I exist since the one who is supposed to have created me does not exist. It’s all a meaningless illusion. So why am I attacking someone else’s illusion? Life gets confusing at times. All I know is that society could get nasty if we abandoned the illusion of right and wrong (or is it an illusion? how can anything be an illusion if there is no reality?).

So you see, Mr Editor, such contributions to your magazine are not a ‘good’ idea (I mean, of course, ‘good’ in the sense of being expedient for human survival).

Humanity be with you

Dick  (call me an evolutionary accident) Snikwad

I suspect that this is the only viewpoint that would carry any weight with the editorial team unless, perhaps, their aim was to stimulate thought and spiritual reformation. After all, I started on the road to Christ after reading Richard Dawkins,  although it is doubtful whether that was his intention.

See also

 John Paul Sartre: not the way to Peace on Earth

Free will rules OK

Are some scientists from the planet Vulcan?

A link to this post will be sent to the editor, who is of course welcome to reply, either via the comments facility below or writing a guest post  for this blog and emailing it to me at


Monday, 28 May 2012

The passive gene

In every living organism there are cells and in the nucleus of each cell,  as well as other parts of the cell, there are stored instructions on how the cell should behave in certain situations, depending on

  • The environment inside the cell

  • Other cells within the organism

  • The world external to the organism

According to the latest research in epigenetics  there is a startling fourth causative factor – the environment and food intake of the organism’s ancestors, to at least several generations. See The epigenetics revolution by Nessa Carey.  The author has produced an excellent website on epigenetics which stands on its own as a brief introduction: a whistlestop tour of epigenetics.

The nucleus comprises a microscopic strand of DNA which is folded around a compact complex of 8 protein molecules called histones. A vast array of instructions is coded in the DNA’s double helix, in segments called chromosomes and subsegments of chromosomes called genes.  Typically there are a few hundred genes per chromosome. The complete sequence is called the genome. A small proportion of the genome comprises genes which, when ‘told’ to do so in a highly organised process of cutting, splicing, tranferring, repairing and editing across billions of base pairs (the units which store the information, like 1's and 0's in a computer), initiate, but do not enact, the manufacture of proteins in the right place at the right time; but most of the these genes are either little understood or a total mystery. 98% of the human genome was conveniently, perhaps arrogantly, labelled ‘junk’ until only a decade or so ago, on the grounds that they did not appear to have anything to do with the production of proteins. 

What is often overlooked in popular science documentaries and books is that the gene is only a passive set of instructions. The essence of biological life is the way these instructions are formed, passed on from generation to generation and read by a complex of protein molecules in such a way as to allow the building and functioning of the host organism (e.g. you or I). The gene does nothing. It is no more the essence of a living organism than a book on how to make a car or repair it are functional parts of a motor car or an automobile factory or an automobile R&D operation.  What is fantastic is how the book of life was written, is continually being rewritten and edited, together with the extraordinary process by which it is read and used to make, maintain and repair a living, adaptive organism.

Three examples to put the gene in its place:

The honey bee
It is well known that a honey bee colony comprises a queen, female workers and males which mate with the queen. What is less well known is that every bee of every type in the honeybee colony, whatever its role or physical structure, is genetically identical. Some incredible process occurs by which totally different organisms with different functions (such as gathering pollen or mating), grow out of the same DNA with the same genes in the same chromosomes, depending on how some agency picks out the right biological instructions at the right time to allow the organism to fulfil its role in the colony. Even the food eaten affects the development of a bee – e.g. royal jelly, made from pollen and nectar collected by workers, is fed selectively to certain female bees and somehow causes them to become queens. These facts are only the tip of a very large iceberg. Collectively the process can only be called miraculous, yet the genes are not the drivers.

The butterfly
It is also well known that a butterfly starts life as a caterpillar. What two organisms could be more different? Yet, again, they are genetically identical. The same genes are used in entirely different ways in the butterfly from when they reside in the caterpillar. The two creatures look different, have different survival strategies and different predators. One flies through the air, the other crawls painfully slowly over vegetation. A fly and the maggot from which it emerges also have exactly the same genes.

People and worms
We have about 20,000 genes, the same as a worm.  But look at the difference. We each have trillions of cells in hundreds of complex organs, all cleverly and intricately orchestrated and in balance with many more bacterial cells which form part of us, the whole system being in balance with the environment. The worm, albeit an engineering masterwork, contains only a thousand cells and relatively rudimentary organisms.

Genes are not even self-replicators - the information is passed on to the next generation by a copying process originating outside the gene and precisely how this is done is not understood.  They do not 'decide' to replicate or copy themselves- they do not have free will. They are neither selfish nor altruistic but part of a miraculous process.


Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Iran - is it a threat? Some thoughts

Iran had, allegedly, been proposing to force Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians to wear yellow, blue and red badges. This has been a rumour, all the more dangerous because it would be believable of such a country under the current leadership, and could make surrounding countries panic. Hopefully it will remain just a rumour.  Anyone European who has grown up in the shadow of World War II will shudder at the memories evoked by this of Jews in Nazi Germany being forced to wear the yellow star badge so that they could be singled out for special treatment: social ostracization, loss of privilege, medical experimentation, imprisonment or death.

However,  President Ahmedinejad has publicly stated more than once that he does not recognise the right of Israel to exist, claims that the holocaust was a myth  and is systematically building up a stock of nuclear material and means of delivery via missiles. At the same time Israel is already fully armed and has some kind of nuclear capability which it keeps well hidden from the world while refusing to sign international non-proliferation treaties.

Israel is not the only enemy of Iran, which is predominantly Shi’a. There is age-old enmity between the Shi’a and Sunni Moslems. Iraq has a large Shi'a population ruled by a Sunni minority, while in Syria the situation is reversed. Other Moslem countries are predominantly Sunni (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and ruled by Sunni.  Shi’a and Sunni will only unite when they have a joint interest in fighting a common enemy (e.g. Israel or occupying powers in Iraq).

After reading the detailed and balanced report on Iran’s nuclear capability, including missile delivery, in Prospect (April 2012) by Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, I for one have no doubt that Iran is within a few years, if not less, of being able to deliver a nuclear attack on surrounding countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia or Israel). Below are some facts from the report. All the locations are in Iran, which disengaged from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2002-2003.

  • uranium (U) mines in Gchine and Saghan, and a U-milling factory in Ardakan
  • military research complex in Parchin where nuclear weapons development is suspected
  • fuel enrichment plants in Fordow and Natanz
  • pilot laser U-enrichment plant in Lashkar Ab'ad
  • estimated time to produce one weapon's worth of nuclear bomb material (highly enriched U) is less than a year
  • continual upgading of U-enrichment centrifuges originally aquired from Pakistan; this would allow faster production of weapons grade U
  • the IAEA reported in November 2011 that 'there is credible evidence that Iran has pursued all the technologies necessary for weaponisation.'
  • its ballistic missile Ghadr-1 is able to deliver warheads to Israel and Saudi Arabia
  • the Sajjil-2, under development, could reach Egypt and Greece

The race to stop Iran arming has become desperate, with western led computer virus attacks (Stuxnet etc.) on its nuclear technology and assassinations of its nuclear specialists, probably by Mossad.

On the other hand the US intelligence community judges that overall Iran is a ‘rational actor’ which responds to reason, i.e. as a nation it is not likely to act like a suicide bomber. Supporting this, Iran has proved adept at playing cat-and-mouse with the international community as it seeks to impose sanctions. Given the economic problems it faces one can only assume that Iran feels it has something to gain by acquiring nuclear weapons other than wiping Israel off the face of the earth.

So what is President Ahmadinejad planning, bearing in mind that he is surrounded by conflicting interests -as is the case for leaders in all nations?

Here is a possible scenario, which makes the assumption that the US and other western nations would not wish to commit to a ground war and that Iran is aware of this, partly because public opinion in western democracies is a restraint and partly because the USA is rapidly building up alternative oil supplies independently of the Middle East. It also assumes that the USA would not launch a nuclear attack, again for fear of public opinion, but also because of the danger of yet more jihad groups and of wider effects (radioactive fallout, mass refugee movements, world markets). In the light of these assumptions he might adopt a strategy of threat. Just to illustrate the kind of leverage he might obtain here is one of many possible scenarios:

1. Build up a convincing nuclear threat, announcing it suddenly.

2. Use the threat of mutually assured destruction against Israel.

3. Come to an agreement with Israel.

4. Threaten to bomb nations with predominantly Sunni populations (e.g. Saudi Arabia) in order to make gains from them.

5. Having eliminated the USA and Israel as threats embark on a regional or global jihad.

This should at least be considered as a scenario by the rest of the world. If it did happen it could have major repurcussions, including sectarian conflict throughout the region and North Africa, especially between Shi’ites and Sunnis, although this is a possibility in any case as the conflict between these sects escalates in Syria. Hopefully, public opinion in Iran, more in touch with the 21st century world via the web, will force a moderation of policy before it’s too late.

Whatever happens, let us hope that  the world, or even part of it,  is not destined to another tragic episode of human conflict and misery.  Kyrie Eleison.


Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fighting fatalism: the anthropic principle

You may already be aware that modern cosmology has presented us with a strange conundrum, which is that the universe is precision engineered for life. This has only been known about for the last couple of decades yet is rarely talked about in the popular science sector of the media. It has been met with frightening indifference and fatuous explanations which seem to me anti-scientific and reminiscent of the Dark Ages.

A range of physical constants (e.g. the gravitational, cosmological, weak interaction, strong interaction and fine-structure constants) are finely tuned to an extraordinary degree, e.g. 120 decimal places in the case of the cosmological constant. 

 Fine tuned for what? For the emergence of life. Also, the Big Bang point source of the cosmos started off with just the right amount of entropy to allow life to develop. (Entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder in a closed system.) There is no physical, testable explanation of how this degree of disorder happened to be there.

In an attempt to evade or avoid answering this question some have resorted to what is loosely known as the  Anthropic Principle which states that we can observe only those values of the fundamental constants and quantities that are compatible with our existence. The fact that we exist 'explains' (?!) why the science is such as it is. If it weren’t we would not be here to ask. This is a fatuous, fatalistic and anti-scientific argument which I hope will be illustrated by the following imaginary dialog.

I have just been blindfolded and shot at point blank range by 50 people with live ammunition and AK 47s. Yet I’m alive and unharmed. How could this have happened?

You don’t need to ask why. You are here to ask the question and that is all the explanation you need. The question of how improbable this is does not come into it.

I have no money and cannot walk and live alone, yet I get enough food, water and air to survive. How do you think this happens?

Why ask? You are getting enough life support because you are here to ask the question.

My body comprises a trillion cells plus many more times that number of bacteria and viruses, all hierarchically organised and orchestrated with extraordinary complexity and precision to produce or be associated with a conscious, creative being. How could such an improbable state of affairs ever have come about?

No problem. It just happens, otherwise you would not be here to ask the question.

Most of the universe and the processes of life are a total mystery. How can we go about investigating this?

No need. The fact that we are here explains it all. End of story.

Looking at the universe it appears to be organised in a very clever way, interconnected and finely engineered to mind boggling precision on an incomprehensible scale. How did this come about?

Why ask such awkward questions? If you had not been here it would not have happened. Chill out, man.

How can I chill out?

Just bury your head in the sand.

I exist. Why?

The fact that you exist is enough to explain why you exist.


Imagine where we would be now if Aristotle or Newton or Einstein had thought this way.

See also

Why the future is unpredictable

Bridging gaps

The five-fold threat to science

The doctrine of chance

Our precious planet

Is there meaning behind random events?

Reweaving the rainbow

Fighting fatalism

Distorting reality

Jean Paul Sartre: not the way to Peace on Earth

What is truth?


Saturday, 5 May 2012

Birds before dinosaurs, fish before birds?

I am not a biologist or zoologist in any active sense (amateur or professional)  but do take an interest in the major developments. One thing I have always been sceptical about is the notion that birds descended from dinosaurs. This theory has almost become a dogma but the evidence is very sparse and the conclusions don’t follow.

Feathers have been found on certain dinosaur fossils and, like birds, they give birth via eggs but :

  • Fish also give birth via eggs

  • The body plan of birds is nothing like that of dinosaurs

  • Feathers could be evolutionary remnants from previously evolved birds

  • No truly intermediary species between bird and dinosaur has been unearthed. (The archaeopteryx is not generally accepted as fulfilling this role.)

It  seems more feasible to me, as a non-expert, for a creature to have made the transition from sea to air rather than land to air. Swimming in the water could surely have developed into swimming in the air. Fins could have become wings.  Could not the first birds have evolved from fish? Flying fish have aerodynamic characteristics like a bird and are able to stay aloft for up to 45 seconds.
 Evolving wings and a very light, but in relative terms immensely powerful, streamlined body to propel land-based organisms through the air and against gravity seems like a very big step. Fish already know how to glide, dive and propel themselves in a fluid. Given the inventiveness and intelligence of the natural world I can’t see why this possibility is rarely discussed in the scientific press.
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I was encouraged to see that some qualified researchers who have previously been ignored are beginning to get taken seriously for proposing dinosaurs from birds rather than birds from dinosaurs. See, e.g., Alan Feduccia’s Is it a bird? Is it a dinosaur? In the New Scientist, 28 April 2012. This does not propose fish as the starting point but it claims there is mounting evidence for birds having preceded dinosaurs.

Feduccia claims that Sinosaurotpery (see photograph above) ,the small fossil recently found in China, an earlier discovery of which was first described in Nature in 1998, was erroneously jumped upon as evidence for dinosaurs from birds. To quote: ‘ evidence then or now has emerged showing that these structures are anything other than collagen fibres supporting a typical reptilian frill. The fact that they were located within a clearly demarcated body outline ...was completely ignored.’ He also points out that 'current orthodoxy dictates that the entire suite of avian flight architecture, including aerodynamic wings and specialised brain structures, evolved in earthbound dinosaurs...’ To me as an outsider this does seem a stretch on credibility.

 It would all be a lot simpler if fossilised birds were found. Unfortunately, they are by necessity so finely constructed that they do not lend themselves to fossilisation, so we may have to wait for a clearer picture to emerge. It is a case of absence of evidence not being evidence of absence.  But this does seem to me another example of evolutionary biologists seeing what they expect to be there rather than what is in front of their eyes.

What gives me, with no training in biology or zoology or paleontology, the right to comment? Nothing. But sometimes people from outside the field can see things afresh or stimulate a professional scientist to think outside the box of the current dogma or say things which may risk prejudicing his career or credibility but which nevertheless need to be taken seriously.


Reach me at

See also