Friday, July 31, 2009

Artificial babies are so last century

[Here’s the pre-edited version of my latest Muse for Nature’s online news.]

The best way to understand the recent fuss about 'artificial sperm' and the 'end of men' is to consider old versions of the same debate.

Few science stories seem as guaranteed to make headlines as those that can be distorted to reinforce lazy clichés about gender. These range from the folksy – women are better multitaskers – to the ugly – ‘women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped’.

So no one should be terribly surprised that recent reports of ‘artificial sperm’ made in the laboratory focused on the question of whether the advance makes men obsolete (see here and here). It hardly seems worth blustering about tabloid stories that claim ‘Women have always known that men are a bit of a waste of space’. And weary resignation seems the best response as even the ‘more respectable’ press plod in bovine array down the same false trail (see here and here).

But while one could have predicted that some commentators would line up to express shock and horror (or pretend to do so), and others would tell them not to be so silly, it’s far more instructive to take the long view. For we’ve been through all this before. Fears that men would become surplus to requirement for perpetuating the race were voiced in the 1920s, and on similarly fatuous grounds. Then, as now, the debate revealed much more about the society that spawned it than about the future of humankind.

First, to the latest news. Contrary to what was widely claimed, Karim Nayernia at the University of Newcastle in England and his colleagues have not made artificial human sperm. They have found a way to turn embryonic stem cells into cells with some of the attributes of sperm [1]. That, however, certainly seems a big step along the way, and Nayernia’s group has already achieved live births of mice from eggs fertilized with sperm made by this technique. That the mice pups did not live long suggests there are some serious remaining problems. (Nayernia’s paper has just been retracted, but not because of any concerns about the results – it seems that the introductory material foolishly plagiarized essentially verbatim two paragraphs from a review article by different authors.)

Now, let’s not go into the wrongheaded objections about destroying ‘perfectly healthy human embryos’ (such God-like omniscience!) to make these pseudo-sperm. And the concern of one critic that the method might be used to create children who do not know who their father is seems bizarrely to suppose that no such children already exist.

But the main worries seem to be about ‘babies being born entirely through artificial means’, or of sperm being created from the genetic material of men long dead, including perhaps some we’d rather remain that way. And (shudder) they might not even have to be men…

This research undoubtedly raises important ethical questions. But the alleged horror at such imaginary scenarios is disingenuous. We do not shy away from ‘monstrosities’ of this sort, but instead return to them compulsively. They are among our most persistent cultural myths: we have been contemplating artificial babies in ‘test tubes’ since at least the Middle Ages. We needn’t be embarrassed by this fascination, but neither should we parade it with fresh indignation (and amnesia) each time it surfaces. We should instead simply consider what it tells us about ourselves.

The modern vision of the homunculus was conjured up in 1923 by the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane in his book Daedalus; or Science and the Future, one of the influential ‘To-day and To-morrow’ series of short books by leading thinkers published by Kegan Paul. Here Haldane prophesized about ‘ectogenetic children’ conceived and gestated in artificial wombs entirely outside the body. Haldane and others saw this as having two main benefits. First, it would allow eugenic selection of the progeny; second, it would liberate women from the burden of childbearing. Those views were echoed by Dora Russell, Bertrand Russell’s wife, and other campaigners for women’s freedom such as the feminist Vera Brittain and the sexologist Norman Haire, all three of whom contributed to the To-day and To-morrow series [2].

This emancipating role of ‘artificial babies’ was precisely what terrified the conservative philosopher Anthony Ludovici, who claimed in Lysistrata, or Women’s Future and Future Women (1924) that ectogenesis would relegate men to mere sources of ‘fertilizer’, perhaps with one man considered sufficient as a sperm machine for every 200 women. Mark my words, Ludovici warned in his ludicrous diatribe, ‘in a very short while it will be a mere matter of routine to proceed to an annual slaughter of males who have either outlived their prime or else have failed to fulfil the promise of their youth in meekness, general emasculateness, and stupidity.’ It makes the current tabloid hysteria (a singularly inappropriate word here) seems mild.

All this was set within the context of the decimation of Europe’s menfolk by the Great War, and the dystopian vision of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. These fears were connected to the encroaching industrial mechanization of other all-to-human tasks. Concerns for the role of men resurfaced when, in 1934, American biologist Gregory Pincus announced the ‘in vitro fertilization’ of rabbit eggs (actually a form of parthenogenesis in which the eggs were stimulated to grow without fertilization by sperm). This early precursor to human IVF was reported by some as an assault on the male: ‘No father to guide them’ ran the title of an article in Collier’s Magazine in 1937.

Today, it seems, the ‘end of men’ is cast in terms of bathetic solipsism – who will take the spiders out of the bath? – mixed with the frisson of The Boys from Brazil via Jurassic Park (it being de rigeur for modern myths to find a role for Hitler). While we can laugh or scoff now at the dreams and nightmares of the 1920s, we should feel confident that our grandchildren will do the same at ours.

1. Lee, J. H. et al. Stem Cells Dev. doi:10.1089/scd.2009.0063 (2009). Paper here.
2. Ferreira, A. Interdiscipl. Sci. Rev. 34, 32-55 (2009). Paper here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Finally on the Reason Project

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I’m in a position to see what people made of my debate with Sam Harris. Most of the discussion seems to have happened on what it seems we are meant now to call New Atheist sites, such as and Pharyngula, so I guess there is, let’s say, a certain angle to it. But I have the impression that some people who follow this sort of thing have already decided which boxes exist, and it’s just a matter of determining which ones to put us in. Thus my position is characterised as that of an accommodationist who figures that religion is here to stay so we might as well make our peace with it. OK then, once more: I haven’t the faintest idea if religion is an inevitable aspect of human culture. Neither have you. Neither has Sam. So let’s, please, not bother ourselves about taking positions on that. What I say is that, thus far in history, religion or movements like it (Maoism, Stalinism, Nazism, to name a few of the ones that might make us glad of a cup of tea with the vicar) have tended to occur pretty much everywhere. I humbly suggest there might be something worth learning from that, and that this something perhaps amounts to a little more than that people are suckers for idols to worship (though that probably plays a role). I suggest that it might also derive from rather more than that people have just been given bad information. So what else is there to it? I’d hoped we might talk about that.

But I guess that if you shout in a crowded marketplace, you can’t expect much nuance to survive.

A lot of folks feared that I am out of touch with what religious people think, by which they seem to mean that I’m out of touch with what the religious people they know think. Religious people think an awful lot of different things. But one key question is whether, to make an analogy, we judge communism by Marx or by Stalin. Frankly, I’m undecided about that. Or another way: do we judge or music by Stravinsky, or Andrew Lloyd Webber? Or do you start to get the feeling that this is the wrong question? (However, I can’t help feeling we get closer to the core of music by considering Stravinsky.)

Inevitably, there is a lot one might say about Sam’s final response, appended to the end of our debate. From most, I will try hard to restrain myself. But I want to comment on one issue because it seems an interesting and revealing one. Sam says:

Let’s look more closely at Ball’s notion of life’s daunting complexity (from his last post):

You say ‘You do not seem to see what an astonishing number of the world’s conflicts and missed opportunities arise from people’s false knowledge about God’. Which are you going to cite – Northern Ireland? Iraq? The Crusades? If only it wasn’t for that pesky God and his offspring, all these places would have lived in blissful peace! The Taliban? – why, they’d be lovely folks if they weren’t Muslim extremists! How wonderful, how simple and easy, to be able to blame all these things on a false belief in gods! Gosh, this counterfactual history is easier than I ever imagined!

Sorry, facetiousness is no help. I am afraid that I fall into it here as a substitute for real anger, because I find it maddening to see the suggestion that sectarian violence in Belfast, tribal conflict in Iraq, Hindu-Muslim violence in India, and goodness knows how much else suffering in the world could be solved if we could just persuade people to give up their ridiculous faiths. I fully accept that it is no good either to simply say, as I know some do, ‘Oh, it’s only human nature, and religion is just the excuse.’ No, the truth is, sadly, much more complicated. And that is why I think the answers are too. But I have been left from our exchange with the feeling that ‘complicated’ is for you just a cop-out. I guess maybe that is where we fundamentally disagree. You seem to feel that any attempt to introduce into the debate considerations about culture, history, society and politics are unwelcome and even willfully deceitful diversions from the main business of demolishing religions for believing in things for which there is no evidence. That seems to be your ‘point’ – I’m afraid I simply can’t accept it.

This is the sort of stuff that could make a person angry all over again… Ball is trying have things both ways (as he was throughout our debate): on the one hand, the fundamental problem is NOT religion (and I’m a simpleton for thinking that it is); on the other, OF COURSE religion is sometimes involved, so he’s well aware of the problem of religion (and it’s very bad form for me not to acknowledge how clear he has been in his opposition to the bad effects of religious “extremism”). [PB: Is the notion that ‘religion is not the fundamental problem but that religious extremism often is a problem’ really ‘trying to have things both ways’, or just making a rather straightforward claim?] Okay… Let’s try to map this onto the world. Take the Taliban for starters: Who does Ball imagine the Taliban would be if they weren’t “Muslim extremists”? They are, after all, Homo sapiens like the rest of us. Let’s change them by one increment: wave a magic wand and make them all Muslim moderates… Now how does the world look? Do members of the Taliban still kill people for adultery? Do they still throw acid in the faces of little girls for attempting to go to school? No. The specific character of their religious ideology—and its direct and unambiguous link to their behavior—is the most salient thing about the Taliban. In fact, it is the most salient thing about them from their own point of view. All they talk about is their religion and what it obliges them to do…

Would there be conflict over land and other resources without religion? Yes. Are there other forms of tribalism and in-group/out-group thinking that have nothing to do with religion? Of course. But what seems to me to be undeniable, is that there are countless instances of terrible things done (and noble things left undone) because of specific religious beliefs. Some of the conflicts Ball cites would not have occurred (or would have been vastly ameliorated) without the influence of religion. A million people died during the partitioning of India and Pakistan. Would a million people have died if there had been Hindus on both sides? Very likely not. In fact, it is doubtful that the subcontinent would have been partitioned in the first place. Would the violence in Iraq be the same if it were all Sunni or all Shiite? Of course not. (The country may even be more coherently united against its western occupiers, but that is another matter, and one that is also energized by religious difference).

The first thing to notice is that here Sam seems to imply the same view as I hold, namely that what is objectionable about a group like the Taliban is not that they are religious but that they are religious zealots who believe their religion compels them to throw acid in little girls’ faces. If that problem can be solved by waving a wand and turning them into moderates (we’ll come back to that…), isn’t that what we’d really want? Do we really then need to worry too that they are then Muslim moderates and not atheists?

This highlights a persistent problem I’ve felt in our debate. It seems that Sam objects both to the fact that such people are dangerous religious fanatics and that they are religious. I object only to the first (so long as neither group tries to foist their belief on others, and I fully recognize that some do try). This position seems guaranteed to make Sam consider that I am being selective and wanting it both ways – ‘oh, of course I object to that, but not to this’. Anyone who sits between two poles is bound to be accused of looking both ways. But I don’t see why this position need be so problematic, nor inconsistent. Sam seems in this example to hint that it is a tenable one, at least insofar as it addresses the issue that perhaps concerns both him and me most of all: the use of religion for oppressive and violent ends.

But Sam’s example and solution here reveal the crux of my argument about culture and society. Clearly he believes it is possible to be a Muslim without feeling the need to throw acid in people’s faces. In other words, the chosen religion of the Taliban does not compel them to believe as they do. It is their particular (mis)interpretation of that religion which does that. What this suggests to me is that the problem is not (in this case) Islam but that certain groups elect to adopt extreme and oppressive interpretations of it. The same is true, of course, for other religions: some Christians feel that their belief compels them to be pacifists, others that it compels them to shoot abortion doctors. My point is then that surely what is important is to understand why some cultural groups adopt one interpretation and some another. In the case of the Taliban, one clear aspect of their belief is that it commends the oppression of women. This is very obviously not a uniquely religious imperative, and so I suspect the real problem here is why a particular set of cultural circumstances have led this group to take a misogynist attitude while other circumstances allow another group, reading from the same book, to act otherwise.

Look at it another way. Sam suggests a thought experiment (that magic wand) in which we alter nothing about the Taliban but their inclination to interpret Islam in violent and oppressive ways. My view is that this has no real meaning. Of course it would solve the problem if we could take a bunch of zealots and simply pluck out their zealotry. But is it likely that one could do so? Isn’t the source of that zealotry likely to be found in a broader range of social, historical and cultural factors, given that it is evidently not an inevitable aspect of their religious book? And purely from a pragmatic view, isn’t it more likely that we might find ways of encouraging the spread of religious moderates than that we can hope to stamp out the religion entirely while needing to make no other social or cultural changes?

The comment about Sunni and Shiite sects in Iraq is particularly revealing. So Sam thinks this is basically an argument not between different tribal factions but about people who think that they need to kill one another because of a disagreement over who was Mohammed’s true successor? And presumably Protestants kill Catholics in Northern Ireland because the Catholics fail to heed Martin Luther?

There’s plenty more, but I think an awful lot resides in Sam’s assertion that it is “the people who spend all their time reading the Qur’an and the hadith, seeking fatwas for the their every action, and long to die as martyrs in the jihad because they are certain that every word of scripture is true” who are the ‘deeply religious’ ones. To Sam, being ‘deeply religious’ is apparently about how strongly you feel and how well you can recite your Holy Book, not about how well you understand it or how wisely you use it. It is, to return to my earlier metaphor, the people who weep at Lloyd Webber musicals who are the most ‘deeply musical’. From that starting point, I guess it’s inevitable that we wouldn’t find much convergence.

This, however, leads Sam to raise some interesting questions while apparently thinking them to be rhetorical and not questions at all. “Is the Pope a sufficient representative of Catholicism—or is he too “superficial”? Does he not “know his theology”?” Well Sam, what do you think? Does he? I’m not sure you have the faintest idea. The question doesn’t answer itself simply because he is the Pope. Whose theology, in any event? “Did Aquinas or Augustine know theirs?”, Sam asks. But Aquinas didn’t always agree with Augustine. Does Rowan Williams agree with the Pope on the interpretation of Augustine’s notion of original sin? I’d be surprised if he did. Does Augustine’s ‘original sin’ agree with what is said in the Bible? Some theologists think not. I am well aware of the attitude of “who gives a damn anyway, because they’re all wrong”, and I can appreciate why someone might say that. But I find it hard to see how one can truly argue against ‘religious belief’ without some notion of the range of what that belief is, and the merits of each.

Sadly, (honestly, it pains me) one other thing has to be mentioned. Sam addresses the complaint “Why didn’t you admit that you misinterpreted—and, therefore, unfairly attacked—Ball’s original article?”, by saying “I didn’t admit this because I don’t believe it to be true—as evidenced by virtually everything Ball has written subsequently.”

I was happy to let this go, really I was – but Sam wants to return to it again (like the compulsion to return to the scene of the crime?). This is really so simple. Sam’s letter to Nature claimed “Mr. Ball assures us that … there is no deeper contradiction to be found between scientific rationality and religious faith. “ I pointed out that I made no such statement, and that I didn’t think it was true. So: no misinterpretation? Sam went on: “As evidence of this underlying harmony, we are asked to contemplate the existence of The BioLogos Foundation” I pointed out that I didn’t offer any endorsement of the BioLogos Foundation, and didn’t wish to do so. I then called them ‘irenic’; Sam didn’t seem to know what this meant, but when I explained that, he moved swiftly on...

Certainly, the debate we had subsequently showed that we disagree over many things, and that Sam feels I am far too tolerant of religion. Fine. But on the issue of whether my article was misinterpreted in Sam’s letter to Nature, there really is no question. It is all there in black and white. Ah, but you see, Sam says “What I was hoping to avoid, and what Ball continually tried to provoke, was a tit-for-tat style of debate—you said I said X, but what I really said (or meant) was Y. Such exchanges are deadly boring.” Oh, too true. But when you get things wrong, you may be called upon to say so.

Finally, “All of Ball’s specific complaints about my misinterpreting his original article struck me as spurious.” But he will not say why. I think the reason is now pretty plain.

There is another way I could respond to this, which is to point out that Sam wants all scientists who are religious believers to be sacked from their departments and stripped of their qualifications. Of course Sam will respond by saying that he has never said anything of the sort, but I will simply say that the truth of my assertion is “evidenced by virtually everything Harris has written” and that to discuss the details would be too boring.

The fact is that this is all indeed a minor matter, and could have been easily dealt with by a brief acknowledgement that would allow us to move on. But Sam seems to have a real fear of making any concession whatsoever – a sign of a brittle position? – which regrettably turns this into an issue of intellectual honesty.

However, however. The truly sad thing about this exchange is that it has turned into adversaries two people who are unambiguously atheist, deplore the encroachment of creationism and fundamentalism, and are deeply opposed to the oppressive and anti-intellectual practices of some religious groups. I entered into this debate believing that we would find some way of agreeing to disagree. I leave it feeling that the kind of hardline atheism Sam espouses is, in its unyielding purism, potentially undermining of the very aims it claims to have.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why astronomers are twittering

Here’s my Lab Report column for the August issue of Prospect…

Visitors to the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire typically take one look at the gigantic dishes of the radio telescopes and ask the same question: what is it looking at? But it’s not just outsiders who wonder that. Astronomers who have been granted viewing time at the big observatories to look at their favourite objects also want quick notification of when the telescopes have done the job. This is just the sort of question for which Twitter was invented: what are you doing now? And so radio astronomer Stuart Lowe at Jodrell Bank proposes that the astronomy community set up an AstroTwitter service dedicated to letting followers know in real time what the world’s telescopes are up to.

A service like this has already been created for NASA’s Mars Phoenix lander, which had 3,000 followers by the time Phoenix touched down on Mars in May of last year. By September it had 35,000. Phoenix is studying the composition of the martian ‘soil’, particularly to look for clues about the planet’s suspected watery (and perhaps habitable) past. It’s arguable that NASA’s decision to put the feeds in the first person (‘I’m on MAAAARS! Now it’s back to work digging for treasure…’) is over-egging the cuteness, but as a public outreach tool the Phoenix twitter was a triumph. Inspired by this, Lowe fantasises about online mash-ups that show the locations of all the telescopes on the globe, each linked to its own twitter stream. And with the help of Google Sky, we could see what’s in the telescope’s sights too. No doubt all the big-science installations will be at it soon: stand by for HiggsTwitter.

A prime candidate for a service like this would be the Mars rover Spirit, currently stuck in deep sand on the martian surface. NASA has set up a web site (with the corny but inevitable tag ‘Free Spirit’) to provide regular updates on efforts to get Spirit out of the sandpit in which it has been trapped since May. This has involved making a mock-up of the predicament at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, lodging a replica of Spirit in a sand tray and trying out escape manoeuvres. A rock revealed by Spirit’s cameras under its ‘belly’ offers some hope of finding purchase. Without the earthbound tests, the scientists fear that any attempted move might just dig the rover in deeper.

Spirit and its companion Opportunity have become the indomitable Wall-Es of Mars, anthropomorphized way beyond Phoenix to the extent that ending the rover missions would now be seen by many as akin to putting down a pair of favourite pets. It’s all projection, of course – no one felt this way about the lunar buggies of the Apollo teams, because there were people around them to identify with. All the same, the Mars rovers have vastly exceeded expectations by remaining active for five years on the planet’s surface, prompting the question of whether humans could do any better. Spirit’s current predicament, however, suggests that future landers on sandy worlds like Mars might be better off with legs rather than wheels. NASA is testing a scorpion-like robot explorer, and last February a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology reported that their six-legged ‘SandBot’ could alter its gait to make good headway in sand that would leave a wheeled vehicle floundering.


After the genome, the proteome and the metabolome, here comes… the shitome? Well, someone has to do it (quite literally, I fear). The microbial community of the gut is vital to human health, and changes in the ecological balance of the 500 or so bacterial species (comprising around a trillion cells per millilitre of faeces) might offer early warnings of disease. So two microbiologists at MIT are planning to look at the genetic sequences of microbes in their stools every day for six to 12 months, tracking changes in the community structure in response to shifts in diet, mood, general health and so forth. Unfortunately, that means storing a lot of frozen samples. At the moment they are going into the freezer of graduate student David Lawrence, apparently next to the chocolate ice cream. The study could reveal a lot about this poorly understood aspect of human biology. But right now, Lawrence’s supervisor Eric Alm admits, ‘it’s just a freezer full of shit.’


Recent research reported in Nature by three international collaborations has revealed that the genetics of schizophrenia involves variants of genes that govern our immune response. Since schizophrenia runs in families, it’s long been clear that genetic factors are at play, even if these may also depend on environmental triggers. The new discovery shows where a significant focus of the genetic origin lies. But it’s important to remember how dispersed the genetic causes are nevertheless. Both these studies and previous work have found links with genetic variants on several of our 23 chromosomes. Earlier talk of “a gene for schizophrenia” merely highlighted the simplistic notion of genetic causality that the genomic age has tended to foster. Illnesses caused by variations in one or just a few genes are rare: more are like this one, caused by poorly understood interactions of many genes. Much has been made of the link reported in the new studies between the genetics of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. That’s not a new finding in itself, however, as a paper in the Lancet announced the same thing in January. But the new results help to show where the genetic overlaps occur.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In praise of (New) Humanists

Ever since the kind folks at New Humanist decided to put me on their mailing list, my spirits rise when it pops through the letterbox. But the latest issue made me smile more than most.

For starters, the editorial gives prominence to the Simon Singh libel case, in which Simon is being scandalously threatened with a personal libel prosecution by the British Chiropractic Association over an article he wrote in the Guardian calling their treatments ‘bogus’. The absurd ruling in May was that by using this word he was implying that chiropractors foist treatments on patients while knowing them to be inefficacious. No one could defend against such an accusation, for who can prove what chiropractors believe either way? In any event, this is an eccentric interpretation of ‘bogus’, which is used colloquially to mean just what the OED says: ‘not genuine or true’. (The OED presumably throws the spanner in the works by ambiguously appending ‘used in a disapproving manner when deception has been attempted’. But to my mind that seems simply to qualify one particular instance of usage anyway.) The upshot is that Simon stands to lose half a million if he appeals – but he’s bravely decided to do so. As many groups have pointed out, a ruling like this threatens the ability of science writers to say without fear what evidence shows to be true and false. And it’s a threat to free speech more generally, thanks in essence to our stupid libel laws. At least this case is motivating calls to change them. But the behaviour of the BCA is profoundly cowardly. One of the things that became most apparent to me in the cold fusion affair was that genuine scientists don’t use courts to make their case, but evidence.

Elsewhere in the magazine, Brenda Maddox writes movingly of John Maddox’s funeral in April. I think everyone who worked with John was deeply saddened by his death, and the attendance at the celebration of his life at the Royal Institution in June was testament to the respect and affection people held for him. John sometimes drove us crazy at Nature, but I feel immensely privileged to have worked with him, both then and more recently.

In the light of my recent experiences in debating science and religion with Sam Harris (see earlier ad nauseam), the NH‘quiz’ –What Kind of Humanist Are You? – could hardly have seemed more timely. Frankly, it pretty much sums up our debate, and is a lot more fun. Suffice to say that I daresay I check in at somewhere between the categories of ‘Happy’ (‘You just want the world to be a better place. Bless!’) and ‘Hedonist’ (‘You can’t see the point of abstract principles and probably wouldn’t lay down your life for a concept, though you might for a friend’), while Sam does seem to me to qualify fairly and squarely as a ‘Hardline’ (‘You can’t stand mumbo jumbo, ritual, spiritual nonsense of any kind…they’re all just weak-minded pilgrims on the road to easy answers’). It was illuminating in this context to see the comment about New Scientist’s temporary withdrawal of a web story about ‘How to spot a hidden religious agenda’ in a book because of a legal threat (again). The magazine couldn’t explain, while the case was in progress, what was going on. But PZ Myers at Pharyngula was quick to suspect some ‘accommodationism’, saying ‘I hope that the New Scientist isn’t going to be catering to the whims of uninformed nervous nellies’, i.e. creationists and the like. ‘I am troubled’, he wrote, ‘by the apparent knee-jerk retraction of a legitimate article that is critical of creationism simply because there was a complaint.’ Yes, that would be troubling, and we’d be right to criticize it if it happened. But do you get the feeling, as New Humanist clearly did, that there might sometimes be a little jerking of knees in a different camp?

Meanwhile, my review of Fern Elsdon-Baker’s book The Selfish Genius, a critique of Richard Dawkins, in the Sunday Times has caused much gnashing of teeth on, although it seems that no one who commented there has read the book. (Forgive my ignorance: what is this jargon ‘flea’ that you’ve invented?) Anyway, it’s funny – I’d hoped to give the impression that Dawkins has been a Good Thing for science communication. From what I know, he seems a nice enough chap too. (I always remember a book editor once telling me that, when he told people he’d edited both Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, they’d often say ‘Oh, I bet Gould is nice, but Dawkins must have been prickly’, whereupon he’d say that it was quite the reverse. And that doesn’t surprise me.) But does occasionally take on the worrying tenor of a cult, whereby No Criticism Is Permitted.

Then finally in New Humanist, there is Terry Eagleton. I confess that I struggle to take too seriously anyone who has been known to talk about ‘theory’ as if there has only ever been one theory in the history of the world; and Eagleton does sometimes seem to display the dubious traits of a contrarian. But in the light of recent experiences, I can’t help but smile at his comment that ‘We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nevertheless reasonable to entertain.’ Not to mention Eagleton’s readiness to admit that ‘there are a lot of simplistic ways of thinking in religion’ and that perhaps Christianity needs to be saved from (many/most?) Christians. You are unlikely to be permitted, Terry, to propose that there are other ways of thinking about Christianity than that ‘God is a kind of chap’, even if you want to call yourself an atheist in the end anyway. (Apparently he doesn’t.) Still, it seems Eagleton and Elsdon-Baker are setting themselves up as far bigger targets of the ‘Hardliners’ than I ever was, so I can hopefully now return to writing about science.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

They all shall win prizes?

So the judges of the Royal Society science book prize, of which I am one, have come up with our shortlist for the science book prize. I was very curious that this year’s Samuel Johnson prize shortlist had appreciable overlap: two of the same books, and another (Manjit Kumar’s Quantum) that I’d have been happy to see on our list (though I appreciated concerns that it isn’t the easiest of reads). I have a strong feeling that Mark Lythgoe, a judge on the Samuel Johnson, had a lot to do with that, for all that he denied it. Very nice to see science making such a strong showing in a general non-fiction award. But I guess I was a little glad in the end to see that neither of our candidates won, since that means there is more chance of spreading the awards around. The Royal Society Science Book Prize winner will be announced in September. But thank goodness the heavy reading is over.

Monday, July 06, 2009

I’m a fan of Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers, but…

.. not particularly of what they have to say about my debate with Sam Harris of the Reason Project.

On the Why Evolution Is True website, stemming from Jerry Coyne’s excellent book of that title, we have a mind-boggling claim: “In this corner, representing reason, is Sam Harris; in the other corner, representing faith, is Philip Ball.” Representing faith? An atheist who states that religions accrue a lot of superstitious claptrap, is representing faith? Almost makes me feel sorry for faith. Have the lines of combat, then, been drawn in so tightly around Sam’s position that anyone outside of that is somehow advocating faith and religion?

PZ Myers, in his great blog Pharyngula, takes a view that one can perfectly well understand from someone who daily fights the good fight against the absurdities of creationism. But it’s a little simplistic on this occasion. For example, he says
“It's a weird thing to argue with an atheist who claims religion is unavoidable (Oh? So what's so special about you?) and isn't that bad or is actually beneficial (So why aren't you going to church for your health?), but they're out there and they are irritatingly inconsistent.”

Do I say religion is unavoidable? No, just that it is an example of what seems so often to befall human societies – so perhaps it makes sense to try to understand why it arises so repeatedly. And perhaps there is some reason for that beyond sheer stupidity. Is it inevitable? I have no idea, and neither does PZ, and it would be idle speculation to make a statement one way or the other.

Do I say that religion is universally beneficial to individuals, like vitamins or something? Do I even say it is ‘not that bad’? What could one possibly mean by ‘not that bad’? Isn’t this a bit like saying ‘government is not that bad’, or ‘families are not that bad?’

PZ then goes on to quote, and respond to, other ‘accommodationists’. I guess I should feel pleased that he needed to recruit other targets in order to shoot them down. Well you know, like those Muslims, we’re all the same.

One comment on the blogs, however, did resonate, though I’m not sure if it was meant favourably: one chap in Utah said ‘Ball doesn’t live where I live’. It’s a good point, and Dakobstah and JimmyGiro reiterate it on my blog below. If I was exposed daily to the excesses of US religiosity, it is perfectly possible that my atheism may have hardened into one like Sam’s. I’d like to think that if someone like Sam lived where I live, where religion virtually never comes up as a topic of conversation (unless by mutual consent), where belief in God is never assumed, where religion is not the organizing force of society, where you often don’t even know who among your friends and neighbours is religious and who isn’t, well… who knows? (Doesn’t work for Dawkins, though, I grant you.) This has been pretty much the case in the UK since it became acceptable to call oneself an atheist, and indeed by some measures Christianity here continues to decline. My perspective gives me a conviction that religion need not inevitably undermine science or reason, despite the undoubted contradictions between them. I see proof of that all around me – although we need to patrol the lunatic fringe, and I don’t by any means deny that the lunatic fringe has a disturbing grip on other parts of the world. I can appreciate why Sam and his followers don’t share this optimism, in which case one can understand their concern. JimmyGiro suggests that in the US Christians effectively make law, while in the UK they make tea. Sam gives the impression that making tea over here is merely the preliminaries to the takeover. But if so, they’re being awfully leisurely about it, since they’ve been making tea since Jane Austen’s day.

One final point: ‘militant atheist’ is not a terribly useful term (besides being a cliché). It just makes people angry. I didn’t intend it to be as disparaging as many have assumed, but in any case, I’ll look for something more accurate in future.