Monday, 23 July 2012

Evolution IS progress

The Letters page of the July 2012 issue of Prospect magazine revealed a mass revolt by scientists against  a book review by Richard Dawkins in the June issue. In this review Dawkins makes a scathing and patronising attack on the book The social conquest of earth by the leading evolutionary biologist Edward Wilson, famous for his work on ant colonies.

Wilson proposes group selection rather than kin selection as the primary mechanism of evolution and this was enough to incur the wrath of Dawkins but obviously not that of the many who wrote these letters. It drew the biggest response of letters and e-mail in the history of the magazine and they were printed under the rubric of ‘Dawkins Delusion’.

As stated in a previous post, Evolutionary science: the coming quantum jump there are encouraging signs that at least a significant proportion of evolutionary biologists are breaking free of the neo-Darwinian strait jacket and the above is further evidence.

In the same issue of Prospect  there is an article by Mark Henderson lamenting that ‘politicians’ ignorance of science is disgraceful and dangerous’.  Agreed. But ironically another article by Henderson, again in the same issue, gives a clue as to why so many people in the UK, not just politicians, should have a less than favourable perception of science, and why in some western countries like the UK so few young people are attracted to it. In an article entitled The science you need to know, introduced as Mark Henderson offers ten examples of the ideas that people in public life should understand’ he makes a dogmatic, non sequitur assertion totally outside the realms of science:

‘Evolution is often portrayed as progress, a process that ends in a goal. It is nothing of the sort...the process is entirely blind and anything but teleological.’

No rational human being, whether or not a scientist, could make such an assertion. Not only is it unprovable it is against reason even as a metaphysical proposition.

Is sitting at your computer reading and thinking about this an improvement?
According to our best scientific evidence, and presumably Henderson would accept this, 4 billion years ago the surface of our planet was a desolate place, totally hostile to life. The atmosphere was not conducive to the formation of living organisms. (See the recent NASA finding for a surprising discovery: Earth’s early atmosphere: an update. It appears oxygen was present only 500 million years from the start, which was 4.3 billion years, overturning decades of assumptions. Ironically, as the article states, it is even harder to imagine life beginning in this situation than if it consisted of methane, ammonia etc., as was previously supposed.) The surface was probably just molten rock, volcanoes, steam and hot water, all subject to the late heavy bombardment of meteorites. 

Today there is an ordered world, a biosphere of mind boggling sophistication which includes human beings of inexplicable creativity with concepts of justice, love, truth and morality. They originate great literature, music , art and religion, conceive mind stretching worldviews, make startling insights into the workings of nature, exchange ideas, travel to other planets, perceive the universe and delve into its centre.

If that is not progress, what is?

see also


The doctrine of chance

Stanley Miller and the quest to undesrtand life's beginnings (Sci. Am. blog)


Author of the novel 2077 AD, now being revised and updated.
Reach me at

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Euro zone: avoiding the bottomless pit

The United States of America shares one currency, the dollar. The 50 states and 1 district vary markedly in their structure, culture and financial competence, and the USA as a whole has a total debt of 3 times its GDP, and some states are virtually insolvent. California has a debt level of $9,225 per person and unemployment of 12.4%. In contrast Wyoming’s per capita debt is $4,310 and unemployment is 6.8%. On top of these problems the US banking and financial services have been badly, even fraudulently run.

 Yet the dollar works as a means of exchange across all the borders within the USA and is so valued by the world as a whole that it is welcomed almost everywhere, even after the recent Wall Street debacles.

The Euro zone comprises 17 countries and shares one currency, the euro, and has, on average, considerably lower debt in relation to the size of the economy than the USA. Yet the profligacy of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland (the ‘PIGS’ countries), and the recklessness of some European banks within them, has affected the euro more than the equivalent factors in the USA have affected the dollar.


Partly it is because the dollar has a long history as an international reserve currency used for buying oil and raw materials. This stems from the inventiveness, relative freedom from corruption, vigour and risk taking of its industry (especially in extracting the oil and minerals needed by all countries but also in new technology) of the USA, unequalled anywhere else in the world for decades, and from its military power. All countries needed to trade in dollars and so they built up large reserves in dollars for convenience and security. And because so much of their own wealth was stored in dollars they have an interest in maintaining its value.

After the euro was launched at a price of about $1.05 dollars in 1999 it rose in value to a maximum of $1.58  in 2008, after which it fell to its present level of $1.22 (July 2012). So before the bank problem the euro was gaining on the dollar as a reserve currency.  See history of dollar/euro exchange rates.

Why is the dollar now winning against the euro instead of losing?

 It may well be a result of the way the USA protects depositors in its banks. The USA helps failed banks centrally rather than leaving individual state governments to do so.  This avoids pouring money into profligate states and expecting them to rescue their own banks. In the case of California, Nevada, North Carolina and New York this is done via the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), to protect customers, not shareholders. During the sub-prime mortgage crisis the US Treasury rescued banks through its Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).  Also, the Federal Reserve is able to stimulate the national economy even while individual states go into recession and put pressure for reforms on the banks it is supporting.

In the July (2012) issue of Prospect C. Randall Henning proposes a possible way for the eurozone to allow  member countries with diverse financial structures but using the same currency, the euro, to work together in a sustainable  way: copy the US model. Instead of providing individual indebted countries with huge sums of money originating from various jointly financed central funds like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and ECB (European Central Bank), regulate the banks more rigorously and use the IMF and ECB directly to protect the deposits of customers, leaving shareholders to bear the risk of commercial operations as in any other industry, rather than get involved in financially rescuing indvidual governments from overspending and under taxing.

In the 1840s nine American states defaulted on repayment of their loans after Congress rejected requests for them to be bailed out. Subsequently the federal government has assumed no responsibility for the debt of any state.

I’m not sure why some states are unable to balance their budgets but in the case of California (the biggest one with the biggest debt - $15 billion) it is because all decisions aimed at significantly raising taxes or reducing expenditure have to be put to the electorate, either
  • directly by a referendum, or


  • indirectly by the State Legislature

In the latter case this means getting the support of 2/3 of the Legislators. Not surprisingly, very few voters support a proposal to have their tax increased or their public services cut or both. Hence the crisis in finance, a crisis from which no Federal support is expected.

In the eurozone, unfortunately, the individual countries have to rescue their own problem banks. This means cutting public services and throwing people out of work, which stifles economic growth and the associated tax revenue which countries like Greece and Spain desperately need.   It also disrupts or ruins the lives of tens of millions of people. Central bank protection would be accompanied by rigorous regulation of the banks and give Europe the confidence to invest in measures to stimulate the European economy.

Now it appears that a summit meeting in Brussels held at the end of June has taken one step in this direction. The situation is still far from being put right but the eurozone and the global economy are looking signifcantly more stable than before the June summit.


see also

World debt: getting a grip
The US debt mountain
The age of debt: the party's over

Reach me at

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Interplanetary mining

There is an increasing shortage of minerals and metals needed in technology, especially in China, an inevitable consequence of

  • A rapidly growing world population (1.09% p.a., 145 per minute births minus deaths)

  • A rapidly growing per capita demand for technology (GDP growth 5.9% p.a. means more money spent on goods and services which draw upon the Earth's  resources)

A recent investor report states that ‘dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium are critical and face a looming shortage. These rare earth elements and their associated compounds are used in solar panels, fluorescent bulbs, electric car batteries, wind turbines and semiconductors. Platinum (Pt) and related metals are also in short supply and more expensive than gold.  Most of the world supply of Pt is used in catalytic converters and fine jewellery.

Iridium (Ir) is distributed thinly over the planet and expensive to mine, yet is in demand for its uniquely high resistance to oxidation, as a hardening agent in alloys when combined with Pt and osmium (Os). Pt-Ir alloys are also in sparking plugs and Pt-Os alloys are used to tip fountain pen nibs, in pivot bearings such as those found in compasses, and in surgical tools.

In the past the supply of these materials has been more than enough. This would not have been the case if the Earth did not have such a variety of minerals: 4,500 vs 60 for the average rocky planet, brought to within reach of civilisation by plate tectonics (again, unique to the Earth).

Providentially, all these substances are available in abundance in asteroids, which are now within reach of humankind at just the right time in history that they are needed and when we are close to developing the know-how to reach them. In fact we already rely mostly on past impacts for our supply of Pt. Even gold is heavily reliant on an asteroid which fell to Earth where the mines of Johannesburg are located today. Some asteroids comprise stainless steel, so pure that it requires no refining. Again, at least one extraterrestrial source has been used on Earth: the Inuits in NorthAmerica made tools and knives out of unrefined metals from meteorites. And Sudbury, Ohio is a mining town exploiting nickel, copper and other metals derived from an ancient impact.

So now is the time to start proactively seeking out this abundant resource rather than wait for it to come to us. A company has already been formed with just this objective: Planetary Resources Inc .

It was set up by James Cameron (adventurer and film director) and Larry Page (co-founder of Google with Sergery Brin), who were able to put serious money into it – billions of dollars. It is being done as a money making venture, its viability deriving largely from the high and increasing price of platinum.  

To quote from its website: Some near-Earth asteroids contain platinum group metals in much higher concentrations than the richest Earth mines. In space, a single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains about 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum).’ It is not just the very expensive materials that are being targeted. Quoting again from Planetary Resources: ‘Asteroids also contain more common metallic elements such as iron, nickel, and cobalt, sometimes in incredible quantities. In addition to water, other volatiles, such as nitrogen, CO, CO2, and methane, exist in quantities sufficient to warrant extraction and utilization.’

They are intending to park asteroids in orbit around either the Moon or the Earth. If the former they would choose ones having a large amount of ice since this could be used to support a lunar colony with water or the electrolysed components of water – hydrogen for fuel, oxygen for breathing. This would be a kind of contracted service for any number of manned lunar enterprises. Minerals could be sent back to Earth relatively cheaply and there are plenty of comet-like bodies having both ice and rock.  Platinum-rich bodies could be parked in Earth orbit for a good financial return.

The stainless steel asteroids, which can provide steel of higher grade than that from steelworks, could be used both on the Earth and for the building of spacecraft and space stations in orbit or at L2 Lagrange points. Iron and aluminium could also be used for construction work in space.

Not surprisingly, NASA is interested as, I suspect, are the space agencies of Europe, Russia, Japan and China.

Our planet is becoming overstretched not because of people per se but because of the resources they consume and the waste this generates. Equally important is a lack of awareness of just how precious it is and I believe that starting up major enterprises in the hostile environment of space, together with the rarity, if not the non-existence, of extraterrestrial life, will shock us into facing the reality that we and our world are special.

See also
 Destination Phobos?
Skylon: an opportunity for a venture capitalist?


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Conscience is inbuilt, therefore...

When we see someone doing something that is what we have come to believe is wrong we are troubled and want to put things right in some way.

In my experience people of all cultures and creeds have an innate conscience. By this I don’t mean that every person in every society agrees on what is righteous or unrighteous, although there are certain behaviours, such as inflicting cruelty on a child, which are fairly universally abhorred. What I understand to be truly universal is a feeling of moral apprehension: we care about rightness and wrongness, we have a conscience.  When confronted with a choice between two ‘evils’ we are disturbed and describe this dilemma as a moral dilemma.

And where does this sense of moral apprehension come from? 

A humanist considers it to be a social construct, many evolutionary biologists call it an illusion having a useful survival role; but most spiritually-based belief systems are predicated on absolutes. E.g.

  • The ancient Egyptians talked about scales of justice on which one’s deeds were weighed by a goddess before entering the afterlife. Justice and judgement were key aspects of reality. Quoting Wikipedia the supernatural Maat ... was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality and justice. This was both a cosmic entity and a goddess.

  • The ancient Greek word for conscience was syneidesis which appears to have covered both conscience and consciousness. Again, it was something transcendental as were the moral values. Socrates in Plato's Republic repeatedly refers to divine values and to philosopher kings who are aware of these. He also talks about  god being at the navel of the world, and is clearly moving towards the idea of a monotheistic deity.

  • The New Testament, in Romans 2:14-15, has St Paul saying: ‘Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show they know the law when they instinctively obey it even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.’ (New Living Translation).

When a person behaves as though no such sense exists it is regarded as a serious transgression. When they step outside certain moral boundaries they are said to be behaving in an evil way or to be gripped by evil. In recent history there are numerous examples, such as the staff of concentration camps in World War II, slave traders and torturers in the Spanish Inquisition. The actions of these people have become increasingly troublesome to humankind's conscience because, I believe, of the Christian values that have increasingly permeated  western society under the power of the Holy Spirit and which are, with the help of modern communication and transport spreading to India, China and much of the formerly non-Christian world.

Recent reports in the scientific media, mostly based on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of subjects making moral choices strongly support the idea that conscience and a sense of morality are innate. See, e.g., The Neurobiology of moral behaviour: review and neuropsychiatric implication by Mario F Mendez.  Let me add that the images of brain activity shown in fMRI scans are not in my opinion showing that neurons are the cause of conscience, any more than a barometer needle causes the pressure of the atmosphere above us, but are secondary indicators of a deeper process that surpasses human understanding.  In  fact experiments in quantum physics have shown conclusively that mind and matter are not different entities but different aspects of the same underlying reality. See , e.g., The nonlocal universe: the new physics and matters of the mind by Robert Nadeau and Menas Kafatos.

If, like me, you believe the universe, the living world and we humans emanate from a transcendent reality called God, then the fact that morality,  a sense of justice, aesthetic appreciation, abstract thought and a thirst for truth are incorporated in us would indicate to me that God is not just an omnipotent cosmic force but in some unimaginable way has the attributes of a person. It is therefore not surprising that Genesis 1:26 tells us that we are made in the image of God.

Non-believers who hold to a strictly naturalist worldview (philosophical materialism) may see this newly discovered innate sense as a basis for absolute morality without needing to believe in God. This does not hold water. It only makes us concerned to do the right thing without guiding us towards absolute standards of righteousness, which, in the believer’s view, is why a conscience was imprinted in us when God made us. A non-believer’s view gives no moral imperative, no steering towards the path of goodness. We are just atoms and force fields in a mindless, pointless, meaningless, mechanical uncaused universe without free will; and if that were true we would not even be asking these questions. The concept of truth would not exist and the very process of reasoning, of seeing that 2+3=5, and of constructing philosophical models of reality, would not be possible.

 Author 2077: Knights of Peace

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