Tag Archives: Greenpeace

the stuff of dreams

The following article is Chapter Two of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a table of contents and a preface on why I started writing it.

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Oats and beans and barley grow,

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Do you or I or anyone know,

How oats and beans and barley grow?

— Traditional children’s rhyme

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One of my earliest memories at school was being told that rabbits became quick to escape foxes, and likewise, foxes had become quicker to catch rabbits. This, the teacher said, is how one type of animal can slowly change into a new type through a process known as evolution. Well, I didn’t believe that for a minute. Such dramatic outcomes from such unremarkable causes. And why, I wondered, would something change simply because it had to – having to isn’t any reason.

Of course in many ways my teacher had missed the point (though in fairness, perhaps it was I who missed his point, off in a daydream, or curiously intent on the inconstant fluttering of a leaf against the window, or otherwise lost to the innocent pleasures of childhood reveries). Either way it doesn’t matter much. Importantly, my teacher had done his job – and done it well! He had planted a seed, which made this a most valuable lesson. But in his necessarily simplified account of evolution there was a flaw (and his version would by virtue of necessity have been a simple one, because however much I may have been distracted, the subtleties of evolution were beyond the grasp of our young minds). For what he had missed out is not why the rabbits became faster but how. The question being what “adaptive mechanism” could have driven any useful sequence of changes we might call ‘evolution’. And this is really the key point. Leaving out mention of any kind of adaptive mechanism, he was leaving open all sorts of possibilities. For instance, Lamarckism and Darwinism, though both theories of evolution, paint very different accounts of how life has developed, for they presume quite different adaptive mechanisms. I will try to explain the matter more carefully and in terms of giraffes.

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You might ask a great many questions about giraffes. For instance, how on earth their extraordinary and striking markings could ever provide useful camouflage, though if you’re ever lucky enough to see one step almost invisibly out of dappled foliage into full light, you will certainly be sure that the effect is near perfect. Alternatively, you might ask why it is that they walk with both legs on the same side moving together. A very elegant form of locomotion. However, by far and away the most frequently asked question about giraffes is this: why do they have such long necks?

Well, here’s what Lamarck would have said. Giraffes began as ordinary antelope. Some of the antelope preferred grass and others preferred leaves. The ones that preferred leaves had an advantage if they could reach higher. To achieve this they would stretch their necks a little longer. As a direct result of acquiring this new characteristic, the foals of those slightly longer necked antelope would be also be born with slightly longer necks. They too would stretch that little bit higher. Over generations some types of the antelope would develop extremely long necks and the descendants of these eventually developed into a new species called giraffes.

The basis for Lamarck’s reasoning lies in a perfectly rational misunderstanding about genetics. He assumes that the “acquired characteristics” (i.e., those characteristics developed or acquired during life) of the parents will somehow be passed through to their offspring. It turns out however that this isn’t actually the case. He might have guessed as much I suppose. One of the oft-cited criticisms against Lamarck’s theory has been the case of Jewish boys. Why, his opponents would ask, do they ever grow foreskins in the first place?

Darwin offered an alternative hypothesis. Perhaps it goes like this, he thought: there are already differences within the population of antelope; some will have shorter necks than others to start with. Or in other words, there is already a “natural variation”. In times of plenty this may not be of significance, but in times of scarcity it could be that the antelope with longer necks have a slight advantage. This idea of course applies to any antelopes with other accidentally favourable characteristics, for example those that run faster, are better camouflaged, or have more efficient digestive systems; but let’s not go there – let’s stick to necks for a moment. The longer necked adults can reach higher and so get to those few extra leaves that will help them to survive. Having a slightly higher chance of survival means (all other factors being equal) that they are more likely to pass on their characteristics. Within a few generations there will be an inevitable increase in the population of the long-necked variety until eventually, the long-necked population might plausibly have evolved into a separate species.

What had Darwin achieved in this alternative explanation? Well, he had abolished any requirement for an heredity that depended on the transmission of “acquired characteristics.” He’d not entirely proved Lamarck wrong but only shown his ideas aren’t necessary. And although in actual fact Darwin never acknowledged Lamarck’s contribution, purely in terms of theories of heredity his own version was little better than Lamarck’s (basically, by introducing the equally flawed concept of pangenes he had finally got around the issue of Jewish foreskins). But it is not what Darwin had undermined, so much as what he had set up, that preserves his legacy. That the true driving force of evolution depends on variation and competition, in dynamic relationship that he called “natural selection”.

According to Darwin’s new vision then, the evolution of species depends upon how individuals within that species interact with their environment. Those that are best adapted will survive longer and pass on their winning characteristics, and the rest will perish without reproducing. In short, it is “the survival of the fittest” that ensures evolutionary progress; though this catchy summary was not Darwin’s own, but one that Darwin slowly adopted. (It was actually first coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, whose ideas I wish to return to later.)

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Darwin still attracts a lot of criticism and much of this criticism comes from religious sections intent on promulgating the view that “it was God what done it all” –  the Creationists who refuse to acknowledge any of the overwhelming evidence whether from zoology, botany, geology, palaeontology, or embryology; rejecting reason in deference to “the word of God”. However, there are also more considered critiques.

Perhaps the most interesting of these is that Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection is unscientific because it is founded on a tautology. It is after all self-evident that the fittest will survive, given that by fitness you must really be meaning “fitness for survival”. After all, it has to be admitted that sloths have survived, and in what sense can a sloth be said to “be fit” other than in its undoubted fitness to be a sloth. The assumption then is that Darwin’s idea of natural selection has added nothing that wasn’t already glaring obvious. Yet this is an unfair dismissal.

Firstly, it is unfair, because as I have said above, “the survival of the fittest” is Spenser’s contribution – one that leads rapidly into dangerous waters – but it is also unfair because it misses the way in which Darwin’s hypothesis is not only predictive, but also (as Karl Popper was so keenly aware) testable. If Darwin’s theory was a mere tautology then nothing on earth could ever disprove his claims, and yet there is room here for evidence that might truly test his theory to destruction.

How? Well, Darwin, it must be understood, had put forward a theory of gradual adaptation, so there is no accounting for any sudden leaps within his slowly branching history of life – so if, for instance, a complex new order of species suddenly arose in the fossil record without ancestry, then Darwin’s theory would need a radical rethink. Or let’s say some fossil was found with characteristics uncommon to any discovered ancestor. Here again Darwin’s theory would be seriously challenged. On the other hand, embryologists might discover discrepancies in the way eggs develop, and likewise, following the discovery of DNA and advent of modern genetics, we might find sudden abrupt shifts in the patterns of genes between species instead of gradual changes. Each of these cases would powerful evidence to challenge Darwinian theory.

But, instead of this (at least until now), these wide and varied disciplines have heaped up the supporting evidence. For example, people used to talk a lot about “the missing link”, by which they generally meant the missing link between humans and apes when scientists have in fact discovered a whole host of “missing links” in the guise of close cousins from the Neanderthals to the strange and more ancient australopithecines. For more exciting missing links, how about the fact that the jaw bone of reptiles exists in four parts and that three of those bones have slowly evolved in humans to form parts of the inner ear. How do we know? Well, there is evidence in the development of mammalian and reptilian embryos and more recently the discovery of an intermediate creature in which the bones were clearly used concomitantly for both chewing and listening. This is one of many discovered creatures that Darwin’s theory has predicted – whilst the most famous is surely the bird-lizard known as Archaeopteryx. Where, by way of comparison, are the remains of, say, Noah’s Ark?

But Darwin’s theory was not correct in all details. As I have already mentioned, his notion of pangenes was in some ways little better than Lamarck’s theory of acquired characteristics, and so it is perhaps still more remarkable that whilst he looked through a wonky glass, what he gleaned was broadly correct. Although, surprisingly perhaps, it took a monk (and one trained in physics more than in biology) to begin setting the glass properly straight. Enter Gregor Mendel.

Richard Dawkins shows how whales evolved from a cloven-hoofed ancestor, and reveals whales’ closest modern-day cousin:

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If we think back to what people knew about the world (scientifically speaking) prior to the turn of the twentieth century, it seems astonishing what was about to be discovered within just a few decades. For instance, back in 1900 physicists were still in dispute about the existence of atoms, and meanwhile, astronomers were as then unaware of the existence of independent galaxies beyond the Milky Way. But then, in 1905, Einstein suddenly published three extraordinary papers. In the least well known of these, he proved mathematically how the jiggling Brownian motion of pollen grains on water (observed by Robert Brown almost a hundred years earlier) was caused by collisions of water molecules, and doing this, he finally validated the concept of matter being formed out of particles, and so by extension, thereby proven the existence of atoms, which finally settled a debate regarding the nature of matter that had begun more than two thousand years earlier in Greece.

Moreover, it wasn’t until the early 1920s, when Edwin Hubble (now better known as the father of the idea of the expanding universe) had succeeded in resolving the outer parts of other galaxies (previously called nebulae), detecting within their composition the collections of billions of individual stars. At last we knew that there were other galaxies just like our own Milky Way.

So in just twenty years, our universe had simultaneously grown and shrunk by a great many orders of magnitude. Nowadays, of course, we know that atoms are themselves composed of smaller particles: electrons, protons and neutrons, which are in turn fashioned from quarks 1; while the galaxies above and beyond congregate within further clusters (the Milky Way being one of the so-called Local Group, which is surely the most understated name for any known object in the whole of science).

The universe we have discovered is structured in multiple layers – though the boundaries between these layers are only boundaries of incomprehension. Looking upwards we encounter objects inconceivably large are in turn the building blocks of objects much larger again, whilst investigating the finest details of the particle world, we’ve learnt how little fleas have ever smaller fleas…

Our first stabs at understanding the origins of the trillions of galaxies in our visible universe, and of comprehending the nature of the matter and energy that comprises them, has lead to speculations based upon solid empirical findings that allow us to construct models of how the physical universe as a whole may have begun. Thus, via a joint collaboration between physicists searching on the macro- and micro-scales, we have finished up with the study of cosmology; the rigorous scientific study of the cosmos no less! (And to most physicists working at the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of a branch of physics solely devoted to the understanding of creation would surely have seemed like pure science fiction). I hope my digression has helped to set the scene a little…

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Around the turn of the twentieth century, there also remained a mystery surrounding the science of heredity and the origin of genes. It was of course common sense that children tended to have characteristics reminiscent of their parents, but in precisely what manner those parental characteristics were hybridised had remained a matter of tremendous speculation. It was still widely believed that some kind of fluid-like mingling of genes occurred, little substantial scientific progress having been made on the older ideas about bloodlines.

But those early theories of blended inheritance, which imagined the infusing together of the two gene pools, as two liquids might mix, were mistaken. If genes really behaved this way then surely the characteristics of people would also blend together. Just as we add hot water to cold to make it warm, so a white man and a black woman would surely together procreate medium brown infants, becoming darker or lighter by generations depending on whether further black or white genes were added. Which is indeed true, up to a point, but it is not strictly true. And if it really were so simple, then the range of human characteristics might (as some racial purists had feared) gradually blend to uniformity. But the real truth about inheritance, as Mendel was quietly discovering during the middle of the 19th century, is that genes have an altogether more intriguing method of combination.

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Mendel was a monk, who aside from observing the everyday monastic duties also taught natural science, principally physics. The work that eventually made him world-renowned, however, involved studies on peas; this was Mendel’s hobby.

He spent many years cross-fertilising varieties and making detailed observations of the succeeding generations. He compared the height of plants. He compared the positioning of flowers and pods on the stem. And he noted subtle differences in shape and colour of seeds, pods and flowers. By comparing generations, Mendel found that offspring showed traits of their parents in predictable ratios. More surprisingly, he noticed that a trait lost in one generation might suddenly re-emerge in the next. So he devised a theory to explain his findings. Like a great many scientific theories, it was ingenious in its simplicity.

Within every organism, he said, genes for each inheritable trait must occur not individually, but in pairs, and in such a way that each of these “gene-pairs” is either “dominant” or “recessive” to its partner. In this way, a gene could sometimes be expressed in the individual whilst in different circumstances it might lay dormant for a generation. But please allow me a brief paragraph to explain this modern concept of inheritance more completely and coherently.

The usual way to explain Mendelian Inheritance is in terms of human eye colours. It goes like this: There is one gene for eye colour, but two gene types. These are called “alleles”, meaning “each other”. In this case, one allele produces brown eyes (let’s call this Br), and the other produces blue eyes (Bl). You inherit one of these gene types from your mother and one from your father. So let’s say you get a brown allele from each. That means you have Br-Br and will have brown eyes. Alternatively you may get a blue allele from each, and then you’ll have Bl-Bl and so have blue eyes. So far so simple. But let’s say you get a brown from one parent and a blue from the other. What happens then? Well, Mendel says, they don’t mix, and produce green eyes or something, but that one of the genes, the brown one as it happens, will be “dominant”, which means you will have brown eyes. But here’s the interesting bit, since although you have brown eyes you will nevertheless carry an allele for blue eyes – the “recessive” allele. Now let’s say you happen to meet a beautiful brown-eyed girl, who is also carrying the combined Br-Bl genes. What will your beautiful children look like? Well, all things being equal in terms of gene combination – so assuming that you are both equally likely to contribute a Bl allele as a Br allele (i.e., that this is a purely random event) then there are only four equal possibilities: Br-Br, Br-Bl, Bl-Br, or Bl-Bl. The first three of these pairs will produce dominant brown, whilst the two recessive Bl alleles in the last pair produce blue. So if you happen to have four children, then statistically speaking, you are most like to produce three with honey brown eyes, and one imbued with eyes like sapphires. And the milkman need never have been involved.

Mendel had realised that instead of the old fashioned “analogue” system, in which our genes added together in some kind of satisfactory proportions – like two voices forming a new harmony – genes actually mix in an altogether more “digital” fashion, where sometimes, the gene type is on and sometimes it is off. Inevitably, the full truth is more complicated than this, with alleles for different genes sometimes combining in other ways, which will indeed lead to blending of some kinds of inherited traits. Yet even here, it is not the genes (in the form of the alleles) that are blended, but only the “expressed characteristics” of that pair of alleles – something called the phenotype. Thus, for generation after generation these gene types are merely shuffled and passed on. Indeed the genes themselves have a kind of immortality, constantly surviving, just as the bits and bytes in computer code are unaltered in reproductions. Of course, errors in their copying do eventually occur (and we now know that it is precisely such accidental “mutations” which, by adding increased variety to the gene pool, have served to accelerate the process of evolution). 2

Mendel’s inspired work was somehow lost to science for nearly half a century, and so although he was a contemporary of Darwin and knew of Darwin’s theory – indeed, Mendel owned a German translation of “On the Origin of Species”, in which he had underlined many passages – there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Darwin knew anything at all of Mendel’s ideas.

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When Mendel’s papers were finally recovered in 1900, they helped set in motion a search for a molecular solution to the question of biological inheritance; a search that would eventually lead to Crick and Watson’s dawning realisation that the structure of DNA must take the form of an intertwined double-helix. Such an extraordinary molecule could peel apart and reform identical copies of itself. DNA, the immortal coil, the self-replicating molecule that lay behind all the reproductive processes of life, sent biologists (not least Crick and Watson) into whirls of excitement. It was 1953 and here was the biological equivalent to Rutherford’s momentous discovery of an inner structure to atoms, almost half a century earlier. Here was the founding of yet another new science. Whilst nuclear and particle physicists were finding more powerful ways to break matter apart, biologists would soon begin dissecting genes.

Aside from the direct consequences of current and future developments in biotechnology (a subject I touch on in the addendum below), the rapid developments in the field of genetics, have led to another significant outcome, for biologists have also slowly been proving Darwin’s basic hypothesis. Genes really do adapt from one species to another – and we are beginning to see just precisely how. Yet in complete disregard to the mounting evidence, evolutionary theory still comes under more ferocious attack than any other established theory in science. Why does Darwinism generate such furore amongst orthodox religious groups compared say to today’s equally challenging theories of modern geology? Why aren’t creationists so eager to find the fault with the field of Plate Tectonics? (Pardon the pun.) For here is a science in its comparative infancy – only formulated in the 1960s – that no less resolutely undermines the Biblical time-scale for creation, and yet it reaps no comparable pious fury. Rocks just aren’t that interesting apparently, whereas, anyone with the temerity to suggest that human beings quite literally evolved from apes… boy, did that take some courage! 3

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Now at last, I will get to my main point, which is this: given that the question of our true origins has now been formally settled, what are we to conclude and what are the consequences to be? Or put another way, what’s the significance of discovering that just a million years ago – a heartbeat when gauged against the estimated four billion years of the full history of life on Earth – our own ancestors branched off to form a distinct new species of ape?

Well, first and foremost, I think we ought to be clear on the fact that being such relative terrestrial latecomers gives us no grounds for special pleading. We are not in fact perched atop the highest branch of some great evolutionary tree, or put differently, all creation was not somehow waiting on our tardy arrival. After all, if evolution is blind and not goal-orientated, as Darwinism proposes, then all avenues must be equally valid, even those that were never taken. So it follows that all creatures must be evolutionarily equal. Apes, dogs, cats, ants, beetles (which Darwin during his own Christian youth had noted God’s special fondness for, if judged only by their prodigious profusion), slugs, trees, lettuces, mushrooms, and even viruses; his theory makes no preference. All life has developed in parallel, and every species that is alive today, evolved from the same evolutionary roots and over the same duration simply to reach the tips of different branches. The only hierarchy here is a hierarchy of succession – of the living over the dead.

In short then, Darwinism teaches that we are just part of the great nexus of life, and no more central or paramount than our planet is central to the universe. To claim otherwise is to be unscientific, and, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, depends entirely upon anthropocentrism and the “conceit of hindsight”.

Darwin too, quietly recognised that his theory provided no justification for any such pride in human supremacy. Likewise, he refused to draw any clear distinction between human races, correctly recognising all as a single species; an admission that says much for his intellectual courage and honesty, challenging as it did, his otherwise deeply conservative beliefs. For Darwin was a Victorian Englishman, and although not a tremendously bigoted one, it must have been hard for him to accept, that amongst many other things, his own theory of evolution meant that all races of men were of equal birth.

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But if we agree that humans are a specialised kind of ape, then we need to be fair in all respects. We have got in a habit of presuming that mankind, or homo sapiens – “the wise man” – to apply our own vainglorious scientific denomination – of all the countless species on Earth, is the special one. Unique because, as it used often to be claimed, we alone developed the skill to use tools. Or because we have a unique capacity for complex communication. Or because we are unparalleled creators of wonderful music and poetry. Or because we are just supremely great thinkers – analytical to the point of seeking a meaning in the existence of existence itself. Or more simply, because we are self-aware, whereas most animals seem childishly oblivious even to their own reflected images. Or, most currently fashionable, because as a species we are uniquely sophisticated in an entirely cultural sense – that is, we pass on complex patterns of behaviour to one-another like no other critters.

All of our uniqueness, we owe, so it goes, to the extraordinary grey matter between our ears, with everything boiling down eventually to this: we are special because we are such brainy creatures – the cleverest around. But think about it: how can we actually be sure even in this conviction? For what solid proof have we that no other creatures on Earth can match our intellectual prowess?

Well, we might think to look immediately to brain size, but there’s a catch, as it turns out that bigger animals have bigger brain-needs merely to function. Breathing, regulating blood temperature, coping with sensory input, and so on, all require more neural processing the larger a creature becomes. So we must factor this into our equations, or else, to cite a singular example, we must concede that we are much dumber than elephants.

Okay then, let’s divide the weight of a brain by the weight of the animal it belongs to. We might even give this ratio an impressive label such as “the encephalisation quotient” or whatever. Right then, having recalibrated accordingly, we can repeat the measures and get somewhat better results this time round. Here goes: river dolphins have an EQ of 1.5; gorillas 1.76; chimpanzees 2.48; bottlenose dolphins 5.6; and humans an altogether more impressive 7.4. So proof at last that we’re streets ahead of the rest of life’s grazers. But hang on a minute, can we really trust such an arbitrary calculus? Take, for example, the case of fatter humans. Obviously they must have a lower average EQ than their thinner counterparts. So this means fatter people are stupider?

No, measurements of EQ might better be regarded as an altogether rougher indication of intelligence: a method to sort the sheep from the apes. But then, can you actually imagine for a minute, that if say, EQ gave higher results for dolphins than humans, we would ever have adopted it as a yardstick in the first place? Would we not have more likely concluded that there must be something else we’d overlooked besides body-mass? The fact that dolphins live in water and so don’t need to waste so much brain energy when standing still, or some such. For if we weren’t top of the class then we’d be sure to find that our method was flawed – and this becomes a problem when you’re trying to be rigorously scientific. So either we need more refinement in our tests for animal intelligence, with emphasis placed on being fully objective, or else we must concede that intelligence is too subtle a thing even to be usefully defined, let alone accurately scored.

However, a more bullish approach to our claims of greatness goes as follows: look around, do you see any other creatures that can manipulate their environment to such astonishing effects? None has developed the means to generate heat or refrigeration, to make medicines, or to adapt to survive in the most inhospitable of realms, or any of our other monumental achievements. Dolphins have no super-aqua equipment for exploring on land, let alone rockets to carry them to the Sea of Tranquility. Chimpanzees have never written sonnets or symphonies – and never will no matter how infinite the availability of typewriters. So the final proof of our superiority then is this, whether we call it intelligence or give it any other endorsement: technological achievement, artistic awareness, and imagination of every kind.

But what then of our very early ancestors, those living even before the rise of Cro-magnon 4, and that first great renaissance which happened more than 40,000 years ago. Cro-magnon people made tools, wore clothes, lived in huts, and painted the wonderful murals at Lascaux in France and at Altamira in Spain. They did things that are strikingly similar to the kinds of things that humans still do today. Homo sapiens of earlier times than these, however, left behind no comparable human artifacts, and yet, physiologically-speaking, were little different from you or I. Given their seeming lack of cultural development then, do we have justification for believing them intellectually inferior, or could it be that they simply exercised their wondrous imaginations in more ephemeral ways?

Or let’s take whales, as another example. Whales, once feared and loathed as little more than gigantic fish, are nowadays given a special privilege. Promoted to the ranks of the highly intelligent (after humans obviously), we have mostly stopped brutalising them. Some of us have gone further again, not merely recognising them as emotionally aware and uncommonly sensitive creatures, but ‘communing with them’. Swimming with dolphins is nowadays rated as one of the must-have life experiences along with white-water rafting and bungee jumping. So somehow, and in spite of the fact that whales have never mastered the ability to control or manipulate anything much – tool-use being a tricky business, of course, if you’re stuck with flippers – nevertheless, whales have joined an elite class: the “almost human”. We have managed to see beyond their unbridgeable lack of dexterity, because whales satisfy a great many of our other supposedly defining human abilities – ones that I outlined above.

Dolphins, we learn, can recognise their own reflections. And they use sounds, equivalent to names, as a way to distinguish one another – so do they gossip? How very anthropomorphic of me to ask! Also, and in common with many other species of cetaceans, they sing, or at least communicate by means of something we hear as song. Indeed, quite recent research based on information theory has been revealing; mathematical analysis of the song of the humpbacked whale indicates that it may be astonishingly rich in informational content – so presumably then they do gossip! And not only that, but humpbacked whales (and others of the larger whale species) share a special kind of neural cell with humans, called spindle cells. So might we gradually discover that humpbacked whales are equally as smart as humans? Oh come, come – let’s not get too carried away!

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Do you remember a story about the little boy who fell into a zoo enclosure, whereupon he was rescued and nursed by one of the gorillas? It was all filmed, and not once but twice in fact – on different occasions and involving different gorillas, Jambo 5 and Binti Jua. 6 After these events, some in the scientific community sought to discount the evidence of their own eyes (even though others who’d worked closely with great apes saw nothing which surprised them at all). The gorillas in question, these experts asserted, evidently mistook the human child for a baby gorilla. Stupidity rather than empathy explained the whole thing. 7

Scientists are rightly cautious, of course, when attributing human motives and feelings to explain animal behaviour, however, strict denial of parallels which precludes all recognition of motives and feelings aside from those of humans becomes reductio ad absurdum. Such an overemphasis on the avoidance of anthropomorphism is no measure of objectivity and leads us just as assuredly to willful blindness as naïve sentimentality can. Indeed, to arrogantly presume that our closest evolutionary relatives, with whom we share the vast bulk of our DNA, are so utterly different that we must deny the most straightforward evidence of complex feelings and emotions reflects very badly upon us.

But then why stop with the apes? Dolphins are notoriously good at rescuing stranded swimmers, and if it wasn’t so terribly anthropomorphising I’d be tempted to say that they sometimes seem to go out of their way to help. Could it be that they find us intriguing, or perhaps laughable, or even pathetic (possibly in both senses)? – Adrift in the sea and barely able to flap around. “Why do humans decide to strand themselves?” they may legitimately wonder.

Dogs too display all the signs of liking us, or fearing us, and, at other times, of experiencing pleasure and pain, so here again what justification do those same scientists have to assume their expressions are mere simulacra? And do the birds really sing solely to attract potential mates and to guard their territory? Is the ecstatic trilling of the lark nothing more than a pre-programmed reflex? Here is what the eminent Dutch psychologist, primatologist and ethologist, Frans B.M. de Waal, has to say:

“I’ve argued that many of what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules. Dogs are a good example of a species that have and obey social rules; that’s why we like them so much, even though they’re large carnivores.” 8

Here’s an entertaining youtube clip showing how goats too sometimes like to have a good time:

Rather than investigating the ample evidence of animal emotions, for too long the scientific view has been focused on the other end of the telescope. So we’ve had the behaviourists figuring that if dogs can be conditioned to salivate to the sound of bells then maybe children can be similarly trained, even to the extent of learning such unnecessary facts and skills (at least from a survival point of view) as history and algebra. Whilst more recently, with the behaviourists having exited the main stage (bells ringing loudly behind) a new wave of evolutionary psychologists has entered, and research is on-going; a search for genetic propensities for all traits from homosexuality and obesity, to anger and delinquency. Yes, genes for even the most evidently social problems, such as criminality, are being earnestly sought after, so desperate is the need of some to prove we too are nothing more than complex reflex machines; dumb robots governed by our gene-creators, much as Davros operates the controls of the Daleks. In these ways we have demoted our own species to the same base level as the supposedly automata beasts.

Moreover, simply to regard every non-human animal as a being without sentience is scientifically unfounded. If anything it is indeed based on a ‘religious’ prejudice; one derived either directly from orthodox faith, or as a distorted refraction via our modern faith in humanism. But it is also a prejudice that leads inexorably into a philosophical pickle, inspiring us to draw equally dopey mechanical caricatures of ourselves.

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So what is Darwin’s final legacy? Well, that of course remains unclear, and though it is established that his conjectured mechanism for the development and diversity of species is broadly correct, this is no reason to believe that the whole debate is completely done and dusted. And since Darwin’s theory of evolution has an in-built bearing on our relationship to the natural world, and by interpolation, to ourselves, we would be wise to recognise its limitations.

Darwinism offers satisfactory explanations to a great many questions. How animals became camouflaged. Why they took to mimicry. What causes peacocks to grow such fabulous tails – or at least why their fabulous tails grow so prodigiously large. It also helps us to understand a certain amount of animal behaviour. Why male fish more often look after the young than males of other phylum. Why cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. And why the creatures that produce the largest broods are most often the worst parents.

Darwinism also makes a good account of a wide range of complex and sophisticated human emotions. It copes admirably with nearly all of the seven deadly sins. Gluttony, wrath, avarice and lust present no problems at all. Sloth is a little trickier, though once we understand the benefits of conserving energy, it soon fits into place, whilst envy presumably encourages us to strive harder. Pride is perhaps the hardest to fathom, since it involves an object of affection that hardly needs inventing, at least from a Darwinian perspective. But I wish to leave aside questions of selfhood for later.

So much for the vices then, but what of the virtues. How, for example are Darwinians able to account for rise of more altruistic behaviour? And for Darwinian purists, altruism arrives as a bit of a hot potato. Not that altruism is a problem in and of itself, for this is most assuredly not the case. Acts of altruism between related individuals are to be expected. Mothers that did not carry genes to make them devoted toward their own children would be less likely to successfully pass on their genes. The same may be said for natural fathers, and this approach can be intelligently elaborated and extended to include altruism within larger, and less gene-related groups. It is a clever idea, one that can be usefully applied to understanding the organisation of various communities, including those of social insects such as bees, ants, termites and, of course, naked mole rats…! Yes, as strange as it may sound, one special species of subterranean rodents, the naked mole rats, have social structures closely related to those of the social insects, and the Darwinian approach explains this too, as Dawkins brilliantly elucidates in a chapter of his book The Selfish Gene. Yet there remains one puzzle that refuses such insightful treatment.

When I was seventeen I went off cycling with a friend. On the first day of our adventures into the wilderness that is North Wales, we hit a snag. Well, actually I hit a kerb, coming off my bike along a fast stretch of the A5 that drops steeply down into Betws-y-Coed – a route that my parents had expressly cautioned me not to take, but then as you know, boys will be boys. Anyway, as I came to a long sliding halt along the pavement (and not the road itself, as luck would have it), I noticed that a car on the opposite side had pulled up. Soon afterwards, I was being tended to by a very kindly lady. Improvising first aid using tissues from a convenient packet of wet-wipes, she gently stroked as much of the gravel from my wounds as she could. She calmed me, and she got me back on my feet, and without all her generous support we may not have got much further on our travels. I remain very grateful to this lady, a person who I am very unlikely to meet ever again. She helped me very directly, and she also helped me in another way, by teaching me one of those lessons of life that stick. For there are occasions when we all rely on the kindness of strangers, kindness that is, more often than not, as freely given as it is warmly received. Yet even such small acts of kindness pose a serious problem for Darwinian theory, at least, if it is to successfully explain all forms of animal and human behaviour. The question is simply this: when there is no reward for helping, why should anyone bother to stop?

Dawkins’ devotes an entire chapter of The Selfish Gene to precisely this subject. Taking an idea from “game theory” called “the prisoner’s dilemma”, he sets out to demonstrate that certain strategies of life that aim toward niceness are actually more likely to succeed than other more cunning and self-interested alternatives. His aim is to prove that contrary to much popular opinion “nice guys finish first”. But here is a computer game (and a relatively simple one at that), whereas life, as Dawkins knows full well, is neither simple nor a game. In consequence, Dawkins then grasps hold of another twig. Pointing out how humans are a special case – as if we needed telling…

As a species, he says, we have the unique advantage of being able to disrespect the programming of our own selfish genes. For supporting evidence he cites the use of contraception, which is certainly not the sort of thing that genes would approve of. But then why are we apparently unique in having this ability to break free of our instinctual drives? Dawkins doesn’t say. There is no explanation other than that same old recourse to just how extraordinarily clever we are – yes, we know, we know! Yet the underlying intimation is really quite staggering: that human beings have evolved to be so very, very, very clever, that we have finally surpassed even ourselves.

As for such disinterested acts of altruism, the kind of instance exemplified by the Samaritanism of my accidental friend, these, according to strict Darwinians such as Dawkins, must be accidents of design. A happy bi-product of evolution. A spillover. For this is the only explanation that evolutionary theory in its current form could ever permit.

Embedded below is one of a series of lectures given by distinguished geneticist and evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in 1990. The minutely detailed case he makes against the excesses of a Darwinian approach to human behaviour, as well as the latent ideology of socio-biology, is both lucid and persuasive:

*

Allow me now to drop a scientific clanger. My intention is to broaden the discussion and tackle issues about what Darwinism has to say about being human, and no less importantly, about being animal or plant. To this end then, I now wish to re-evaluate the superficially religious notion of “souls”; for more or less everything I wish to say follows from consideration of this apparently archaic concept.

So let me begin by making the seemingly preposterous and overtly contentious statement that just as Darwin’s theory in no way counters a belief in the existence of God, or gods as such, likewise, it does not entirely discredit the idea of souls. Instead, Darwin has eliminated the apparent need for belief in the existence of either souls or gods. But this is in no means the same as proving they do not exist.

Now, by taking a more Deistic view of Creation (as Darwin more or less maintained until late in his own life), one may accept the point about some kind of godly presence, for there is certainly room for God as an original creative force, and of some ultimately inscrutable kind, and yet it may still be contended that the idea of souls has altogether perished. For evolutionary theory establishes beyond all reasonable doubt that we are fundamentally no different from the other animals, or in essence from plants and bacteria. So isn’t it a bit rich then, clinging to an idea like human souls? Well, yes, if you put it that way, though we may choose to approach the same question differently.

My contention is that ordinary human relations already involves the notion of souls, only that we generally choose not to use the word soul in these contexts, presuming it to be outmoded and redundant. But perhaps given the religious weight of the word this will seem a scandalous contention, so allow me to elucidate. Everyday engagement between human beings (and no doubt other sentient animals), especially if one is suffering or in pain, automatically involves the feeling of empathy. So what then is the underlying cause of our feelings of empathy? – Only the most hard-nosed of behaviourists would dismiss it as a merely pre-programmed knee-jerk response.

Well, empathy, almost by definition, must mean that, in the other, we recognise a reflection of something found within ourselves. But then, what is it that we are seeing reflected? Do we have any name for it? And is not soul just as valid a word as any other? Or, to consider a more negative context, if someone commits an atrocity against others, then we are likely to regard this person as wicked. We might very probably wish to see this person punished. But how can anyone be wicked unless they had freedom to choose otherwise? So then, what part of this person was actually free? Was it the chemical interactions in their brain, or the electrical impulses between the neurons, or was it something altogether less tangible? And whatever the cause, we cannot punish the mass of molecular interactions that comprises their material being, because punishment involves suffering and molecules are not equipped to suffer. So ultimately we can only punish “the person within the body”, and what is “the person within the body” if not their soul?

But why is it, you may be wondering, that I want to rescue the idea of souls at all. For assuredly you may argue – and not without sound reason – that you have no want nor need for any woolly notions such as soul or spirit to encourage you to become an empathetic and loving person. You might even add that many of the cruellest people in history believed in the existence of the human soul. And I cannot counter you on either charge.

But let’s suppose that finally we have banished all notions of soul or spirit completely and forever – what have we actually achieved? And how do we give a fair account for that other quite extraordinary thing which is ordinary sentience. For quite aside from the subtle complexity of our moods and our feelings of beauty, of sympathy, of love, we must first account for our senses. Those most primary sensory impressions that form the world we experience – the redness of red objects, the warmth of fire, the saltiness of tears – the inexpressible, immediate, and ever-present streaming experience of conscious awareness that philosophers have called qualia. If there are no souls then what is actually doing the experiencing? And we should remember that here “the mind” is really nothing more or less, given our current ignorance, than a quasi-scientific synonym for soul. It is another name for the unnailable spook.

Might we have developed no less successfully as dumb automata? There is nothing in Darwin or the rest of science that calls on any requirement for self-conscious awareness to ensure our survival and reproduction. Nothing to prevent us negotiating our environment purely with sensors connected to limbs, via programmed instructions vastly more complex yet inherently no different from the ones that control this word processor, and optimised as super-machines that have no use for hesitant, stumbling, bumblingly incompetent consciousness. So what use is qualia in any case?

In purely evolutionary terms, I don’t need to experience the sensation of red to deal with red objects, any more than I need to see air in order to breathe. Given complex enough programs and a few cameras, future robots can (and presumably will) negotiate the world without need of actual sensations, let alone emotions. And how indeed could the blind mechanisms of dumb molecules have accidentally arranged into such elaborate forms to enable cognitive awareness at all? Darwin does not answer these questions – they fall beyond his remit. But then no one can answer these questions (and those who claim reasons to dismiss qualia on philosophical grounds, can in truth only dismiss the inevitably vague descriptions, rather than the ever-present phenomenon itself – or have they never experienced warmth, touched roughness nor seen red?).

And so the most ardent of today’s materialists wish to go further again. They want to rid the world of all speculation regarding the nature of mind. They say it isn’t a thing at all, but a process of the brain, which is conceivably true. (Although I’d add why stop at the brain?)

One fashionable idea goes that really we are “minding”, which is interesting enough given our accustomed error of construing the world in terms of objects rather actions; nouns coming easier than verbs to most of us. But then, whether the mind might be best represented by a noun or a verb seems for now, and given that we still know next to nothing in any neurological sense, to be purely a matter of taste.

The modern reductionism that reduces mind to brain, often throws up an additional claim. Such material processes, it claims, will one day be reproduced artificially in the form of some kind of highly advanced computer brain. Well, perhaps this will indeed happen, and perhaps one day we really will have “computers” that actually experience the world, rather than the sorts of machines today that simply respond to sensors in increasingly complex ways. I am speculating about machines with qualia: true artificial brains that are in essence just as aware as we are. But then how will we know?

Well, that’s a surprisingly tricky question and it’s one that certainly isn’t solved by the famous Turing Test, named after the father of modern computing, Alan Turing. For the Turing Test is merely a test of mimicry, claiming that if one day a computer is so cunningly programmed that it has become indistinguishable from a human intelligence then it is also equivalent. But that of course is nonsense. It is nonsense that reminds me of a very cunning mechanical duck someone once made: one that could walk like a duck, quack like a duck, and if rumours are to be believed, even to crap like a duck. A duck, however, it was not, and nor could it ever become one no matter how elaborate its clockwork innards. And as with ducks so with minds.

But let’s say we really will produce an artificial mind, and somehow we can be quite certain that we really have invented just such an incredible, epoch-changing machine. Does this mean that in the process of conceiving and manufacturing our newly conscious device, we must inevitably learn what sentience is of itself? This is not a ridiculous question. Think about it: do you need to understand the nature of light in order to manufacture a light bulb? No. The actual invention of light bulbs precedes the modern physical understanding. And do we yet have a full understanding of what light truly is, and is such a full understanding finally possible at all?

Yet there are a few scientists earnestly grappling with questions of precisely this kind, venturing dangerously near the forests and swamps of metaphysics, in search of answers that will require far better knowledge and understanding of principles of the mind. Maybe they’ll even uncover something like “the seat of the soul”, figuring out from whence consciousness springs. Though I trust that you will not misunderstand me here, for it is not that I advocate some new kind of reductionist search for the soul within, by means of dissection or the application of psychical centrifuges using high strength magnetic fields or some such. As late as the turn of the twentieth century, there was indeed a man called Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who had embarked on just such a scheme: weighing people at the point of death, in experiments to determine the mass of the human soul. 9 A futile search, of course, for soul – or mind – is unlikely to be in, at least in the usual sense, a substantial thing. And though contingent with life, we have no established evidence for its survival into death.

My own feeling is that the soul is no less mortal than our brains and nervous systems, on which it seemingly depends. But whatsoever it turns out to be, it is quite likely to be remain immeasurable – especially if we choose such rudimentary apparatus as a set of weighing scales for testing it. The truth is that we know nothing as yet, for the science of souls (or minds if you prefer) is still without its first principle. So the jury is out on whether or not science will ever explain what makes a human being a being at all, or whether is it another one of those features of existence that all philosophy is better served to “pass over in silence”.

Here is what respected cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has to say of sentience in his entertainingly presented and detailed overview of our present understanding of How the Mind Works:

“But saying that we have no scientific explanation of sentience is not the same as saying that sentience does not exist at all. I am as certain that I am sentient as I am certain of anything, and I bet you feel the same. Though I concede that my curiosity about sentience may never be satisfied, I refuse to believe that I am just confused when I think I am sentient at all! … And we cannot banish sentience from our discourse or reduce it to information access, because moral reasoning depends on it. The concept of sentience underlies our certainty that torture is wrong and that disabling a robot is the destruction of property but disabling a person is murder.” 10

*

There is a belief that is common to a camp of less fastidious professional scientists than Pinker, which, for the sake of simplicity, holds that consciousness, if it was ever attached at all, was supplied by Nature as a sort of optional add-on, in which every human experience is fully reducible to an interconnected array of sensory mechanisms and data-processing systems. Adherents to this view tend not to think too much about sentience, of course, and in rejecting their own central human experience, thereby commit a curiously deliberate act of self-mutilation that leaves only zombies fit for ever more elaborate Skinner boxes 11, even when, beyond their often clever rationalisations, we all share a profound realisation that there is far more to life than mere stimulus and response.

Orwell, wily as ever, was alert to such dangers in modern thinking, and reworking a personal anecdote into grim metaphor, he neatly presented our condition:

“… I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed œsophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul, and there was a period — twenty years, perhaps — during which he did not notice it.”

Whilst Orwell regards this loss as deeply regrettable, he also recognises that it was a very necessary evil. Given the circumstances, giving heed to how nineteenth century religious belief was “…in essence a lie, a semi-conscious device for keeping the rich rich and the poor poor…” he is nevertheless dismayed how all too hastily we’ve thrown out the baby with the holy bathwater. Thus he continues:

“Consequently there was a long period during which nearly every thinking man was in some sense a rebel, and usually a quite irresponsible rebel. Literature was largely the literature of revolt or of disintegration. Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Shelley, Byron, Dickens, Stendhal, Samuel Butler, Ibsen, Zola, Flaubert, Shaw, Joyce — in one way or another they are all of them destroyers, wreckers, saboteurs. For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.” 12

On what purely materialistic grounds can we construct any system of agreed morality? Do we settle for hedonism, living our lives on the unswerving pursuit of personal pleasure; or else insist upon the rather more palatable, though hardly more edifying alternative of eudaemonism, with its eternal pursuit of individual happiness? Our desires for pleasure and happiness are evolutionarily in-built, and it is probably fair to judge that most, if not all, find great need of both to proceed through life with any healthy kind of disposition. Pleasure and happiness are wonderful gifts, to be cherished when fortune blows them to our shore. Yet pleasure is more often short-lived, whilst happiness too is hard to maintain. So they hardly stand as rocks, providing little in the way of stability if we are to build solidly from their foundations. Moreover, they are not, as we are accustomed to imagine, objects to be sought after at all. If we chase either one then it is perfectly likely that it will recede ever further from our reach. So it is better, I believe, to look upon these true gifts as we find them, or rather, as they find us: evanescent and only ever now. Our preferred expressions of the unfolding moment of life. To measure our existence solely against them is however, to miss the far bigger picture of life, the universe and everything. 13

We might decide, of course, to raise the social above these more individualistic pursuits: settling on the Utilitarian calculus of increased happiness (or else reduced unhappiness) for the greatest number. But here’s a rough calculation, and one that, however subtly conceived, never finally escapes from its own deep moral morass. For Utilitarianism, though seeking to secure the greatest collective good, is by construction, blind to all evils as such, being concerned always and only in determining better or worse outcomes. The worst habit of Utilitarianism is to preference ends always above means. Lacking moral principle, it grants licence for “necessary evils” of every prescription: all wrongs being weighed (somehow) against perceived benefits.

We have swallowed a great deal of this kind of poison, so much that we feel uncomfortable in these secular times to speak of “acts of evil” or of “wickedness”. As if these archaic terms might soon be properly expurgated from our language. Yet still we feel the prick of our own conscience. A hard-wired sense of what is most abhorrent, combined with an innate notion of justice that once caused the child to complain “but it isn’t fair… it isn’t fair!”  Meanwhile, the “sickness” in the minds of others makes us feel sick in turn.

On what grounds can the staunchest advocates of materialism finally challenge those who might turn and say: this baby with Down’s Syndrome, this infant with polio, this old woman with Parkinson’s Disease, this schizophrenic, these otherwise healthy but unwanted babies or young children, haven’t they already suffered enough? And if they justify a little cruelty now in order to stave off greater sufferings to come, or more savagely still, claim that the greater good is served by the painless elimination of a less deserving few. What form should our prosecution take? By adopting a purely materialistic outlook then, we are collectively drawn, whether we wish it or not, toward the pit of nihilism. Even the existentialists, setting off determined to find meaning in the here and now, sooner or later recognised the need for some kind of transcendence, or else abandoned all hope.

*

Kurt Vonnegut was undoubtedly one of the most idiosyncratic of twentieth century writers. 14 During his lifetime, Vonnegut was often pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, and this was no doubt because his settings are very frequently in some way futuristic, because as science fiction goes, his stories are generally rather earth-bound. In general, Vonnegut seems more preoccupied with the unlikely interactions between his variety of freakish characters (many of whom reappear in different novels), than in using his stories as a vehicle to project his vision of the future itself. Deliberately straightforward, his writing is ungarnished and propelled by sharp, snappy sentences. He hated semi-colons, calling them grammatical hermaphrodites.

Vonnegut often used his talented imagination to tackle the gravest of subjects, clowning around with dangerous ideas, and employing the literary equivalent of slapstick comedy to puncture human vanity and to make fun of our grossest stupidities. He liked to sign off chapters with a hand-drawn asterisk, because he said it represented his own arsehole. As a satirist then, he treads a path that was pioneered by Swift and Voltaire; of saying the unsayable but disguising his contempt under the cover of phantasy. He has become a favourite author of mine.

In 1996, he was awarded the title of American Humanist of the Year. In his acceptance speech, he took the opportunity to connect together ideas that had contributed to his own understanding of what it meant to be a humanist; ideas that ranged over a characteristically shifting and diverse terrain. Here were his concluding remarks:

“When I was a little boy in Indianapolis, I used to be thankful that there were no longer torture chambers with iron maidens and racks and thumbscrews and Spanish boots and so on. But there may be more of them now than ever – not in this country but elsewhere, often in countries we call our friends. Ask the Human Rights Watch. Ask Amnesty International if this isn’t so. Don’t ask the U.S. State Department.

And the horrors of those torture chambers – their powers of persuasion – have been upgraded, like those of warfare, by applied science, by the domestication of electricity and the detailed understanding of the human nervous system, and so on. Napalm, incidentally, is a gift to civilization from the chemistry department of Harvard University.

So science is yet another human-made God to which I, unless in a satirical mood, an ironical mood, a lampooning mood, need not genuflect.” 15

*

Rene Descartes is now most famous for having declared, “cogito ergo sum”, which means of course “I think therefore I am”. It was a necessary first step, or so he felt, to escape from the paradox of absolute skepticism, which was the place he had chosen to set out at the beginning of his metaphysical meditations. What Descartes was basically saying was this: look here, I’ve been wondering whether I exist or not, but now having caught myself in the act, I can be sure that I do – for even if I still must remain unsure of everything else besides, I cannot doubt that I am doubting. It is important to realise here that Descartes’ proposition says more than perhaps first meets the eye. After all, he intends it as a stand-alone proof and thus to be logically self-consistent, and the key to understanding how is in his use of the word “therefore”. “Therefore” automatically implying his original act of thinking. If challenged then, to say how he can be certain even in that he is thinking, Descartes’ defence relies upon the very act of thinking (or doubting, as he later put it 16) described in the proposition. Thinking is undeniable, Descartes is saying, and my being depends on this. Yet this first step is already in error, and importantly, the consequences of this error are resonant still throughout modern western thought.

Rene Descartes, a Christian brought up to believe that animals had no soul (as Christians are wont to do), readily persuaded himself that they therefore felt no pain. It was a belief that permitted him to routinely perform horrific experiments in vivisection (he was a pioneer in the field). I mention this because strangely, and in spite of Darwin’s solid refutation of man’s pre-eminence over beasts, animal suffering is still regarded as entirely different in kind to human suffering, even in our post-Christian society. And I am sorry to say that scientists are hugely to blame for this double standard. Barbaric experimentation, most notoriously in the field of psychology, alongside unnecessary tests for new products and new weapons, are still performed on every species aside from ours, whilst in more terrible (and shamefully recent) times, when scientists were afforded licence to redraw the line above the species level, their subsequent demarcations made on grounds of fitness and race, the same cool-headed objectivity was applied to the handicapped, to prisoners of war, and to the Jews. It is better that we never forget how heinous atrocities have too often been committed in the name and pursuit of coldly rational science.

Rene Descartes still has a role to play in this. For by prioritising reason in order to persuade himself of his own existence, he encouraged us to follow him into error. To mix up our thinking with our being. To presume that existence is somehow predicated on reasoning, and not, at least not directly, because we feel, or because we sense, or most fundamentally, because we are.  If it is rationality that sets us apart from the beasts, then we exist in a fuller sense than the beasts ever can.

To be absolutely certain of the reality of a world beyond his mind, however, Descartes needed the help of God.  Of a living God of Truth and Love. For if were it not for the certainty of God’s existence, Descartes argued, his mind – though irrefutably extant – might yet be prey to the illusions of some kind of a “deceitful daemon”. Being nothing more than a brain in a tank, to give his idea a modern slant, and plugged into what today would most probably be called The Matrix.

Thus realising that everything he sensed and felt might conceivably be an elaborately constructed illusion, only Descartes’ profound knowledge of a God of Truth – a God who made the world as true and honest as it appeared to be – could save his philosophy from descent into pure solipsism. But this primary dualism of mind and world is itself the division of mind and body – a division of self – while to regard Reason as the primary and most perfect attribute of being, obviously established the mind above the body, and, more generally, spirit above matter. This is the lasting lesson Descartes taught and it is a lesson we have committed so deeply to our Western consciousness that we have forgotten we ever learnt it in the first place.

The significant difference in today’s world of science, with God now entirely outside of the picture, is that Descartes’ hierarchy has been totally up-ended. Matter is the new boss, and mind, its servant. 17

*

But we might also turn this whole issue on its head. We might admit the obvious. Concede that although we don’t know what it is exactly, there is some decidedly strange and immaterial part to ourselves. That it is indeed the part we most identify with – the part we refer to so lovingly as “I”. And that it is this oh-so mysterious part of us which provides all our prima facie evidence for existence itself. Though in admitting this, the question simply alters. It becomes: how to account for the presence of such a ghost inside our machines? For what outlandish contrivance would we need to reconnect the matter of our brains with any such apparently in-dwelling spirit? And whereas Rene Descartes once proposed that mind and body might be conjoined within the mysterious apparatus of our pineal gland (presumably on the grounds that the pineal gland is an oddly singular organ), we know better and so must look for less localised solutions. In short then, we may finally need to make a re-evaluation of ourselves, not merely as creatures, but as manifestations of matter itself.

Yet, in truth, all of this is really a Judeo-Christian problem; a deep bisection where other traditions never made any first incision. For what is “matter” in any case? Saying it’s all atoms and energy doesn’t give a final and complete understanding. Perhaps our original error was to force such an irreconcilable divorce between nebulous soul (or mind) and hard matter, when they are so indivisibly and gloriously codependent, for though Science draws a marked distinction between the disciplines of physics and psychology, it only stands for sake of convenience; for sake, indeed, of ignorance.

To begin then, let’s try to re-establish some sense of mystery regarding the nature of matter itself – such everyday stuff that we have long taken for granted that through careful measurements and mathematical projections its behaviour can be understood and predicted. Here indeed, Freeman Dyson brings his own expertise in quantum theory, combined with his genius for speculation, to consider the fascinating subject of mind and its relationship to matter:

“Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe as a whole is also weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind.”

Dyson is drawing upon his very deep understanding of quantum physics, and yet already he has really said too much. Quantum choice is not the same as human choice. Quantum choice depends on random chance, which is the reason Einstein famously asserted, “God does not play dice”. Indeed I’m not sure how quantum theory, as it is currently understood, could ever account for the existence of free will and volition, quite aside from the overriding mystery of sentience itself. So Dyson’s more important point is perhaps his last one: that the universe is “hospitable for the growth of mind”. This is too often overlooked. And for Dyson, it offers reason enough for religious contemplation:

“I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension. God may be either a world-soul or a collection of world-souls. So I am thinking that atoms and humans and God may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind.” 18

I share with Dyson the opinion that it is better to relish these mysteries rather than to retreat to the dry deception of material certainty. For, as Shakespeare summed up so marvelously in his final play The Tempest: “we are such stuff as dreams are made on…”19 And perhaps this is still the best description we have of ourselves, even though we have no idea whatsoever, how as dream-machines, our dreams are woven.

A toast then! Feel free to join me in raising your glass… to your own mind, your psyche, your soul, call it what you will – a rose by any other name and all that. Three cheers! And to consciousness! To sentience! To uncanny awareness! That same stuff all our dreams are made on…

So with great appreciation and warm affection, here’s to that strangest of things: that thing I so very casually call my-self! But even more than this. To the actual stuff of our lives, to the brain, the entire central nervous system and far beyond. To the eyes and ears and fingertips; to the whole apparatus of our conscious awareness; and to the sentience of all our fellows, whether taking human or other forms! To the strangeness of the material world itself, from which all sentience has miraculously sparked! To the vast and incomprehensible Universe no less, whether manifestly inward or outward, for the distinction may be a finer one than we are in the habit to presume! Here’s to wondering what we are… Drink up!

Next chapter…

*

John Searle is a philosopher who has closely studied the nature of consciousness and concludes that although unique amongst biological phenomena, mind, though mysterious, is obviously a natural function of brain activity. In this lecture he summarises the many failures of the current “scientific” approach to questions of consciousness:

In the interview below Searle discusses why he rejects both the hard-line materialist dismissal of consciousness as an illusion (which is actually nonsensical) and dualist alternatives that rely upon a false division between mind and matter:

And finally, Searle outlines the main difficulties surrounding the unresolved philosophical paradox of free will – put succinctly he says although it is impossible to prove human beings have free will and any capacity for free will also seems to defy physical causality, we are compelled to experience conscious rational decision-making on a daily basis:

*

Addendum: the return of Frankenstein!

The issues surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are many and complex, but it is perfectly clear that new developments in genetics, like those in nuclear physics more than half a century ago, have automatically opened the door to some quite extraordinary possibilities. Possibilities that will most assuredly impact our future no less dramatically than the advent of atomic reactors and the hydrogen bomb impacted our very recent past – and still continue to affect us today.

The need for a proper debate is long overdue but, hardly surprisingly, the huge bio-tech corporations prefer to keep the debate closed down. Monsanto, for instance, who claim that its perfectly safe to release their GMOs directly into our environment, were also in the habit of claiming that their herbicide Roundup is so harmless you can drink it! 20 But then why on earth would anyone (or at least anyone not in their pocket) trust such self-interested and deliberately compromised risk assessments? The short answer is that the precautionary principle has once again been overridden by money and influence.

What we really need, of course, is a proper debate about the use of genetic modification. A debate that is open and public: a forum for discussion amongst leading experts (and especially those not associated with the powerful bio-tech firms); scientists from other fields, who though ignorant on specifics, might bring a detached expertise by virtue of familiarity with scientific procedures; alongside representatives from other interested parties such as ‘consumers’ (that’s the rest of us by the way – we all consume, and though I hate the word too, it at least offers a little better perspective on our role without the current system, since this is how the system itself defines us).

This great debate needs to be fully inclusive, welcoming intelligent opinion, whether concordant or dissenting. No reasoned objections from any quarters being summarily dismissed as unscientific or anti-scientific, as is so often the case, because we must never leave it for technicians alone to decide on issues that so directly affect our common future. Relying on highly specialised experts alone – even when those experts are fully independent (as they so rarely are these days) –  would be as unwise as it is anti-democratic.

Genetic manipulation is already upon us. It is already helping in the prevention and treatment of diseases, and in the production of medicines such as insulin (although even here serious questions are arising with regards to the potentially harmful side-effects of using a genetically modified product). More controversial again is the development of pest- and drought-resistant strains of crops; developments that are claimed by their producers to have alleviated a great deal of human suffering already, but which seem to have brought misery of new kinds – I will come back to this later.

And then we come to the development of Genetic Use Restriction Technology (Gurt), better known as ‘suicide’ or ‘Terminator’ (to use the industry term) seeds, which are promoted by the industry as a ‘biosafety’ solution. Engineered sterility being a clever way of preventing their own genetically modified plants from causing unwanted genetic contamination – which we might think of as a new form of pollution. The argument being that if modified genes (whether pharmaceutical, herbicide resistance or ‘Terminator’ genes) from a ‘Terminator’ crop get transferred to related plants via cross-pollination, the seed produced from such pollination will be sterile. End of problem.

But this is merely an excuse, of course, and if used in this way, the new technology will ultimately prevent over a billion of the poorest people in the world from continuing in their age-old practice of saving seeds for resowing, which will, as a consequence, make these same farmers totally dependent on a few multinational bio-tech companies. All of which serves as an excellent means for monopolising the world’s food supplies, and offers a satisfactory solution only for the owners of companies like Monsanto. 21

In any case, do we really wish to allow patents on specific genes, opening the door to the corporate ownership of the building blocks to life itself? The world renowned physicist and futurist visionary Freeman Dyson draws a direct comparison to earlier forms of slavery:

“The institution of slavery was based on the legal right of slave-owners to buy and sell their property in a free market. Only in the nineteenth century did the abolitionist movement, with Quakers and other religious believers in the lead, succeed in establishing the principle that the free market does not extend to human bodies. The human body is God’s temple and not a commercial commodity. And now in the twenty-first century, for the sake of equity and human brotherhood, we must maintain the principle that the free market does not extend to human genes.” 22

Nor, I would quickly add, should it extend to the ownership of genes of other higher species of animal or plant life. Moreover, I personally have no wish whatsoever for apples, tomatoes, potatoes (or even tobacco) that provides the RDA for all my nutritional needs, or any other supposed improvement on the original designs – preferring to trust to apples, tomatoes and potatoes that evolved alongside my own human digestive system. And this ought not to be treated as merely a preference, but established as a human right, since we all have the right not to eat GMO just as we have the right to be vegan (not that I’m a vegan, by the way).

Beyond this, we also need to consider the many perfectly serious and inescapable ethical issues that arise once you are tinkering with the primary source code of life itself. Take cloning as an interesting example.

Identical twins are essentially clones, having both developed from the same fertilised egg, and thus sharing the same DNA. But then nature sometimes goes one step further again:

A form of virgin birth has been found in wild vertebrates for the first time.

Researchers in the US caught pregnant females from two snake species and genetically analysed the litters.

That proved the North American pit vipers reproduced without a male, a phenomenon called facultative parthenogenesis that has previously been found only in captive species. 23

I have since learned that parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilisation or “virgin birth”) is surprisingly common throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. Birds do it, bees do it… and even mammals have been induced to do it. So cloning is not inherently unnatural, and if carried out successfully (as it frequently is in nature), it may one day be no more harmful nor fraught with latent dangers to be a cloned individual than an individual produced by other forms of artificial reproduction. Furthermore, since we already know what human twins are like, we already know what human clones will be like. Yet many ethical questions still hang.

For instance, should anyone be allowed to clone themselves? Or more generally, who chooses which of us are to be cloned? Do we just leave it to the market to decide? And why would we ever want a world populated by identical (or rather, approximately identical – since no two twins are truly identical and there are sound biological reasons for believing clones will never be perfectly reproduced either) human beings? Such ethical questions are forced by the new biotechnologies. And there are many further reasons for why ordinary, intelligent public opinion needs to be included in the debate.

Here is Freeman Dyson again, summarising his own cautious optimism as we enter the age of the new ‘green technologies’:

“I see two tremendous goods coming from biotechnology in the next century, first the alleviation of human misery through progress in medicine, and second the transformation of the global economy through green technology spreading wealth more equitably around the world. The two great evils to be avoided are the use of biological weapons and the corruption of human nature by buying and selling genes. I see no scientific reason why we should not achieve the good and avoid the evil.

The obstacles to achieving the good are political rather than technical. Unfortunately a large number of people in many countries are strongly opposed to green technology, for reasons having little to do with the real dangers. It is important to treat the opponents with respect, to pay attention to their fears, to go gently into the new world of green technology so that neither human dignity nor religious conviction is violated. If we can go gently, we have a good chance of achieving within a hundred years the goals of ecological sustainability and social justice that green technology brings within our reach.” 24

Dyson is being too optimistic no doubt with many of the dangers of GMOs slowly coming to light more two decades after Dyson uttered these words as part of his acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize in 2000.

Meanwhile in 2012, Greenpeace issued the following press release. It contains the summary of an open letter sent by nearly a hundred Indian scientists to the Supreme Court of India:

An official report submitted by the technical Expert committee set up by the Supreme Court of India comprising of India’s leading experts in molecular biology, toxicology and biodiversity – unanimously recommends a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of GM Bt [insecticide producing due to genes from Bacillus thuringiensis] food crops, due to serious safety concerns. The committee has also recommended a moratorium on field trials of herbicide tolerant crops until independent assessment of impact and suitability, and a ban on field trials of GM crops for which India is center of origin and diversity.

The report’s recommendations are expected put a stop to all field releases of GM food crops in India, including the controversial Bt eggplant, whose commercial release was put under an indefinite moratorium there last February 2010. Contrarily, the same Bt eggplant is currently being evaluated for approval in the Philippines.

“This official unanimous declaration on the risks of GMOs, by India’s leading biotech scientists is the latest nail on the coffin for GMOs around the world,” said Daniel M. Ocampo, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “It is yet another proof that GMOs are bad for the health, bad for the environment, bad for farmers and bad for the economy.” 25

For though it would be foolish to fail to recognise the enormous potential benefits of some of the new ‘green technologies’, any underestimate of the hazards is sheer recklessness. And this is where my own opinion differs significantly from enthusiasts like Dyson. This science is just so brilliantly new, and so staggeringly complex. The dangers are real and very difficult to over-estimate and so public concern is fully justified whether over health and safety issues, over the politico-economic repercussions, or due to anxieties of a more purely ethical kind.

*

Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

1 There is sound evidence for believing that protons and neutrons are made of quarks, whereas electrons it seems are a type of fundamental particle which has no component parts.

2 My use of the analogue/digital comparison is simplistic, of course, but then it is only intended as a loose analogy, nothing more.

3 Since writing this I have come upon a range of so-called Young Earth Theories of Geology that contradict my former opinion. Apparently there are indeed groups of Creationists intent on disproving ideas of a 4.5 billion year old planet in favour of a ten thousand year prehistory. Needless to say there is no supporting evidence for this contention.

4

“Cro-magnons are, in informal usage, a group among the late Ice Age peoples of Europe. The Cro-Magnons are identified with Homo sapiens sapiens of modern form, in the time range ca. 35,000-10,000 b.p. […] The term “Cro-Magnon” has no formal taxonomic status, since it refers neither to a species or subspecies nor to an archaeological phase or culture. The name is not commonly encountered in modern professional literature in English, since authors prefer to talk more generally of anatomically modern humans (AMH). They thus avoid a certain ambiguity in the label “Cro-Magnon”, which is sometimes used to refer to all early moderns in Europe (as opposed to the preceding Neanderthals), and sometimes to refer to a specific human group that can be distinguished from other Upper Paleolithic humans in the region. Nevertheless, the term “Cro-Magnon” is still very commonly used in popular texts because it makes an obvious distinction with the Neanderthals, and also refers directly to people rather than to the complicated succession of archaeological phases that make up the Upper Paleolithic. This evident practical value has prevented archaeologists and human paleontologists – especially in continental Europe – from dispensing entirely with the idea of Cro-Magnons.”

Taken from The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p. 864.

5

“Jambo, Jersey Zoos world famous and much loved silverback gorilla had a truly remarkable life. He was born in Basel Zoo in Switzerland in 1961. He arrived at Jersey Zoo on the 27th April 1972. Jambo, Swahili for Hello, is perhaps better known to the public for the gentleness he displayed towards the little boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo one afternoon in 1986. The dramatic event hit the headlines and helped dispel the myth of gorillas as fearsome and ferocious. It was a busy Sunday afternoon in August 1986 when an incredulous public witnessed Levan Merritt a small boy from Luton UK fall into the Gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo. “

Extract taken from “The Hero Jambo”, a tribute to Jambo written by the founder of Jersey Zoo, Gerald Durrell.

6

“LAST SUMMER, AN APE SAVED a three-year-old boy. The child, who had fallen 20 feet into the primate exhibit at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, was scooped up and carried to safety by Binti Jua, an eight-year-old western lowland female gorilla. The gorilla sat down on a log in a stream, cradling the boy in her lap and patting his back, and then carried him to one of the exhibit doorways before laying him down and continuing on her way.”

Extract taken from article by F. B. M. de Waal (1997) entitled “Are we in anthropodenial? Discover 18 (7): 50-53.”

7   

“Binti became a celebrity overnight, figuring in the speeches of leading politicians who held her up as an example of much-needed compassion. Some scientists were less lyrical, however. They cautioned that Binti’s motives might have been less noble than they appeared, pointing out that this gorilla had been raised by people and had been taught parental skills with a stuffed animal. The whole affair might have been one of a confused maternal instinct, they claimed.”

Ibid.

8 Quoted in an article entitled: “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist: At a time when religion pervades every aspect of public life, there’s something to be said for a revival of pagan peevishness”, written by Natalie Angier for The New York Times Magazine, from January 14, 2001.

9 In 1907, MacDougall weighed six patients who were in the process of dying (accounts of MacDougall’s experiments were published in the New York Times and the medical journal American Medicine). He used the results of his experiment to support the hypothesis that the soul had mass (21 grams to be precise), and that as the soul departed the body, so did its mass. He also measured fifteen dogs under similar conditions and reported the results as “uniformly negative”. He thus concluded that dogs did not have souls. MacDougall’s complaints about not being able to find dogs dying of the natural causes have led at least one author to conjecture that he was in fact poisoning dogs to conduct these experiments.

10 Extract taken from Chapter 2, “Thinking Machines” of Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, published by Penguin Science, 1997, p 148. Italics in the original.

11 An operant conditioning chamber (sometimes known as a Skinner box) is a laboratory apparatus developed by BF Skinner, founding father of “Radical Behaviourism”, during his time as a graduate student at Harvard University. It is used to study animal behaviour and investigate the effects of psychological conditioning using programmes of punishment and reward.

12 Extract taken from Notes on the Way by George Orwell, first published in Time and Tide, London, 1940.

13  I received a very long and frank objection to this paragraph from one of my friends when they read through a draft version, which I think is worth including here in the way of balance:

“I must explain that I’m a hedonist to a ridiculous degree, so much so that my “eudaemonism” (sounds dreadful –not like happiness-seeking at all!) is almost completely bound up with the pursuit of pleasure, as for me there is little difference between a life full of pleasures and a happy life.  Mind you, pleasure in my definition (as in most people’s, I guess) covers a wide array of things: from the gluttonous through to the sensuous, the aesthetic, the intellectual and even the spiritual; and I would also say that true pleasure is not a greedy piling up of things that please, but a judicious and even artistic selection of the very best, the most refined and the least likely to cause pain as a side effect  (I think this approach to pleasure is called “Epicureanism”).

Love, of course, is the biggest source of pleasure for most, and quite remarkably, it’s not only the receiving but the giving of it that makes one truly happy, even when some pain or sacrifice is involved.  This is how I explain acts of generosity like the one you describe, by the woman who helped you when you fell off your bike as a teenager: I think she must have done it because, despite the bother and the hassle of the moment, deep down it made her happy to help a fellow human being. We have all felt this way at some point or other, and as a result I believe that pleasure is not antithetical to morality, because in fact we can enjoy being kind and it makes us unhappy to see suffering around us. This doesn’t mean that we always act accordingly, and we certainly have the opposite tendency, too: there is a streak of cruelty in every human that means under some circumstances, we’ll enjoy hurting even those we love. But my point is, hedonism and a concern for others are not incompatible. The evolutionary reason for this must be that we are a social animal, so empathy is conducive to our survival as much as aggression and competitiveness may be in some environments. In our present environment, i.e. a crowded planet where survival doesn’t depend on killing lions but on getting on with each other, empathy should be promoted as the more useful of the two impulses. This isn’t going to happen, of course, but in my opinion empathy is the one more likely to make us happy in the long run.

Having attempted to clean up the name of pleasure a bit, I’ll try to address your other complaints against a life based on such principles: “Yet pleasure is more often short-lived, whilst happiness too is hard to maintain.” I agree, and this is indeed the Achilles heel of my position: I’m the most hypochondriac and anxiety-prone person I know, because as a pleasure-a-holic and happiness junkie I dread losing the things I enjoy most. The idea of ever losing [my partner], for example, is enough to give me nightmares, and I’m constantly terrified of illness as it might stop me having my fun. Death is the biggest bogie. I’m not blessed with a belief in the afterlife, or even in the cosmic harmony of all things. This is [my partner]’s belief as far as I can tell, and I’d like to share it, but I’ve always been an irrational atheist – I haven’t arrived at atheism after careful thinking, but quite the opposite, I’ve always been an atheist because I can’t feel the godliness of things, so it is more of a gut reaction with me. The closest thing to the divine for me is in beauty, the beauty of nature and art, but whether Beauty is Truth, I really don’t know, and in any case beauty, however cosmic, won’t make me immortal in any personal or individual sense. I’m horrified at the idea of ceasing to exist, and almost as much at the almost certain prospect of suffering while in the process of dying. This extreme fear is probably the consequence of my hedonist-epicurean-eudaemonism.

On the other hand, since everyone, including the most religious and ascetic people, is to some extent afraid of dying, is it really such a big disadvantage to base one’s life on the pursuit of pleasure and happiness? I guess not, although I must admit that I’d quite like to have faith in the Beyond. I suppose that I do have some of the agnostic’s openness to the mystery of the universe – as there are so many things that we don’t understand, and perhaps we aren’t even equipped to ever understand, it’s very possible that life and death have a meaning that escapes us. This is not enough to get rid of my fears, but it is a consolation at times.

Finally, I also disagree with you when you say that pleasure and happiness “are not, as we are accustomed to imagine, objects to be sought after at all. If we chase either one then it is perfectly likely that it will recede ever further from our reach.” There’s truth in this, but I think it’s also true that unless one turns these things into a priority, it is very difficult to ever achieve them. I for one find that more and more, many circumstances in my life conspire to stop me having any fun: there are painful duties to perform, ailments to cope with, bad news on a daily basis and many other kinds of difficulties, so if I didn’t insist on being happy at least a little every day, I’d soon forget how to do it. I’m rather militant about it, in fact. I’m always treating myself in some way, though to be fair to myself, a coffee and a croissant can be enough to reconcile me to a bad day at work, for example, so I’m not really very demanding. But a treat of some sort there has to be to keep me going. Otherwise, I don’t see the point.”

14  Kurt Vonnegut had originally trained to be a scientist, but says he wasn’t good enough. His older brother Bernard trained as a chemist and is credited with the discovery that sodium iodide could be used to force precipitation through “cloud seeding”. If you ask for Vonnegut in a library, you’ll probably be directed toward the Science Fiction section, since many of his books are set in strangely twisted future worlds. However, his most famous and most widely acclaimed work draws on experiences during the Second World War, and in particular on the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut had personally survived the attack by virtue of being held as prisoner of war in an underground meat locker, and the irony of this forms the title of the novel, Slaughterhouse-five.

15  Extract taken from “Why My Dog Is Not a Humanist” by Kurt Vonnegut, published in Humanist, Nov 92, Vol. 52:6.5-6.

16 “We cannot doubt existence without existing while we doubt…” So begins Descartes seventh proposition from his 76 “Principles of Human Knowledge” which forms Part 1 of Principia philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy) published in Latin in 1644 and reprinted in French in 1647 – ten years after his groundbreaking treatise Discourse on the Method in which “Je pense, donc je suis” (“I think, therefore I am”) had first appeared.

http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4391/pg4391.html

17 A more poetic version of Descartes’ proof had already been constructed centuries earlier by early Islamic scholar, Avicenna, who proposed a rather beautiful thought experiment in which we imagine ourselves falling or else suspended, and thus isolated and devoid of all sensory input including any sense of our own body. The “floating man”, Avicenna says, in spite of complete absence of any perceptions of a world beyond, would nevertheless possess self-awareness. That he can still say “I am” proves that he is self-aware and that the soul exists. In consequence, Avicenna also places soul above material, although no priority is granted to reason above our other forms of cognition.

18  Further extracts from Freeman Dyson ‘s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize, delivered on May 16, 2000 at the Washington National Cathedral.

19  Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1.

20 In 1996, the New York Times reported that: “Dennis C. Vacco, the Attorney General of New York, ordered the company to pull ads that said Roundup was ‘safer than table salt’ and ‘practically nontoxic’ to mammals, birds and fish. The company withdrew the spots, but also said that the phrase in question was permissible under E.P.A. guidelines.”

Extract taken from wikipedia with original reference retained. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#False_advertising

21 For further arguments against “Terminator Technology”, I recommend the following website: http://www.banterminator.org/content/view/full/233

22 From Freeman Dyson’s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize, delivered on May 16, 2000 at the Washington  National Cathedral.

23  From an article entitled “Virgin births discovered in wild snakes” written by Jeremy Coles, published by BBC nature on September 12, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19555550

24  Also from Freeman Dyson’s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize.

25 http://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/ph/press/releases/GMOs-declared-unsafe-in-India-Greenpeace-calls-on-PH-to-follow-suit/

This original link has since been removed but the same article can be read here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20130607155209/http://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/ph/press/releases/GMOs-declared-unsafe-in-India Greenpeace-calls-on-PH-to-follow-suit/

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Filed under « finishing the rat race », GMO

time for an open debate about the ‘green technologies’

Let’s imagine you have a virus on your computer. You didn’t know you had it until someone phoned you up out of the blue. However, it turns out that this isn’t a prelude to the usual scam: – no, on this occasion your computer really has contracted a virus. The person on the other end of the phone going on to explain how they have ample evidence to prove their case because, after all, they created the virus in question. Adding that they have phoned you to demand legitimate compensation. Compensation…?

Well, after all, you have stolen their proprietary software, haven’t you? Software that they had personally spent years developing in order to make computers run faster and more efficiently, or so they say. Obviously you protest your innocence. You didn’t ask for their software and in any case you haven’t noticed any improvement. In fact, you feel like the victim, since your computer had been rather less reliable and more sluggish, if anything. But it’s to no avail. They are intent on suing for patent infringement, and that’s that. Such a case would never stand up in court, of course…

Unless…, unless the product in question belonged perhaps to a huge multinational corporation. An organisation that has highly paid legal teams, and armed with the political clout to change patent laws altogether. And say it wasn’t software that was being spread this way, but something altogether more fundamental to your existence. The viral code having been embedded not in computers, but in the food supply, and the question becoming why you didn’t sign a licence needed to grow their invasive but patented crops.

Now obviously the seed from these patented crops might have accidentally drifted into many unlicensed fields. Whilst, on top of this, there is nothing to prevent the patented varieties from pollinating other crops, thereby reproducing further patented hybrids in turn. So if this corporation were to have its own teams of inspectors with powers to search, then it would be more than profitable to send them off to scout the whole land looking for patent violations. How could the farmers prove their innocence? With the patented crops now growing all across their land, they are caught red-handed.

Such an aggressive modus operandi sounds like a product itself of an overly fertile and altogether deranged imagination, yet sadly the scenario I have sketched is literally the product of an increasingly deranged world:

Percy Schmeiser, a canola breeder and grower in Bruno, Saskatchewan, first discovered Roundup-resistant canola in his crops in 1997.[4] He had used Roundup herbicide to clear weeds around power poles and in ditches adjacent to a public road running beside one of his fields, and noticed that some of the canola which had been sprayed had survived. […]

At the time, Roundup Ready canola was in use by several farmers in the area. Schmeiser claimed that he did not plant the initial Roundup Ready canola in 1997, and that his field of custom-bred canola had been accidentally contaminated. While the origin of the plants on Schmeiser’s farm in 1997 remains unclear, the trial judge found that with respect to the 1998 crop, “none of the suggested sources [proposed by Schmeiser] could reasonably explain the concentration or extent of Roundup Ready canola of a commercial quality” ultimately present in Schmeiser’s 1998 crop.[5]

This is taken directly from the wikipedia entry (with original references retained) about a Canadian court case between Monsanto (who else!) and a canola (or rapeseed) farmer called Percy Schmeiser. The same article continues:

In 1998, Monsanto learned that Schmeiser was growing a Roundup-resistant crop and approached him to sign a license agreement to their patents and to pay a license fee. Schmeiser refused, maintaining that the 1997 contamination was accidental and that he owned the seed he harvested, and he could use the harvested seed as he wished because it was his physical property. Monsanto then sued Schmeiser for patent infringement. Patents being in federal jurisdiction, the case went to federal court.

In 2009, Percy Schmeiser featured in a documentary film based around the case and entitled David Versus Monsanto:

Note that I will come back to review some of the later verdicts in the long-running Monsanto v. Schmeiser case at the end of the article.

*

The issues surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are many and complex, but it is perfectly clear that new developments in genetics, like those in nuclear physics more than half a century ago, have automatically opened the door to some quite extraordinary possibilities. Possibilities that will most assuredly impact our future no less dramatically than the advent of atomic reactors and the hydrogen bomb impacted our very recent past – and still continue to affect us today.

The need for a proper debate is long overdue but, hardly surprisingly, the huge bio-tech corporations prefer to keep the debate closed down. Monsanto, for instance, who say that it is perfectly safe to release their GMOs directly into our environment, are also in the habit of claiming that their herbicide Roundup is so harmless you can drink it!1 But then why on earth would anyone (or at least anyone not in their pocket) trust such self-interested and deliberately compromised low risk assessments? The quick answer being that the precautionary principle has once again been overridden by money and influence.

This great debate about the use of genetic modification needs to be both open and public: a forum for discussion amongst leading experts (and especially those not associated with the powerful bio-tech firms); scientists from other fields, who though ignorant on specifics, might bring a detached expertise by virtue of familiarity with scientific procedures; alongside representatives from other interested parties such as ‘consumers’ (that’s the rest of us by the way – we all consume, and though I hate the word too, it at least offers a little better perspective on our role without the current system, since this is how the system itself defines us).

It also needs to be fully inclusive, welcoming all intelligent opinion, whether concordant or dissenting. No reasoned objections from any quarters being summarily dismissed as unscientific or anti-scientific, as is so often the case, because we must never leave it for technicians alone to decide on issues that so directly affect our common future. Relying on highly specialised experts alone – even when those experts are fully independent (as they so rarely are these days) – being as unwise as it is anti-democratic.

Genetic manipulation is already upon us. It is already helping in the prevention and treatment of diseases, and in the production of medicines such as insulin (although even here serious questions are arising with regards to the potentially harmful side-effects of using a genetically modified product). More controversial again is the development of pest- and drought-resistant strains of crops (such as the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields), developments that are claimed by their producers to have alleviated a great deal of human suffering already, but which seem to have brought misery of new kinds – I will come back to this later.

And then we come to the development of Genetic Use Restriction Technology (Gurt), better known as ‘suicide’ or ‘Terminator’ (to use the industry term) seeds, which are promoted by the industry as a ‘biosafety’ solution. Engineered sterility being a clever way of preventing their own genetically modified plants from causing unwanted genetic contamination – which we might think of as a new form of pollution. The argument goes that if modified genes (whether pharmaceutical, herbicide resistance or ‘Terminator’ genes) from a ‘Terminator’ crop get transferred to related plants via cross-pollination, the seed produced from such pollination will be sterile. End of problem.

But this is merely an excuse, of course, and if used in this way, the new technology will ultimately prevent over a billion of the poorest people in the world from continuing in their age-old practice of saving seeds for resowing, which will, as a consequence, make these same farmers totally dependent on a few multinational bio-tech companies. An excellent means for monopolising the world’s food, and a satisfactory solution only for the owners of companies like Monsanto.2

In any case, do we really wish to allow patents on specific genes, opening the door to the corporate ownership of the building blocks to life itself? The world renowned physicist and futurist visionary Freeman Dyson draws a direct comparison to earlier forms of slavery:

“The institution of slavery was based on the legal right of slave-owners to buy and sell their property in a free market. Only in the nineteenth century did the abolitionist movement, with Quakers and other religious believers in the lead, succeed in establishing the principle that the free market does not extend to human bodies. The human body is God’s temple and not a commercial commodity. And now in the twenty-first century, for the sake of equity and human brotherhood, we must maintain the principle that the free market does not extend to human genes.”3

Nor, I would quickly add, should it extend to the ownership of genes of other higher species of animal or plant life. Moreover, I personally have no wish whatsoever for apples, tomatoes, potatoes (or even tobacco) that provides the RDA of all my nutritional needs, or any other supposed improvement on the original designs – preferring to trust to apples, tomatoes and potatoes that evolved alongside my own human digestive system. Which is not merely a preference, but a human right. Since we all have the right not to eat GMO just as we have the right to be vegan (not that I’m a vegan, by the way).

Beyond this, we also need to consider the many perfectly serious and inescapable ethical issues that arise once you are tinkering with the primary source code of life itself. Take cloning as an interesting example.

Identical twins are essentially clones, having both developed from the same fertilised egg, and thus sharing the same DNA. But then nature sometimes goes one step further again:

A form of virgin birth has been found in wild vertebrates for the first time.

Researchers in the US caught pregnant females from two snake species and genetically analysed the litters.

That proved the North American pit vipers reproduced without a male, a phenomenon called facultative parthenogenesis that has previously been found only in captive species.4

Taken from a BBC article I accidentally came across only yesterday.

I have since learned that parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilisation or “virgin birth”) is surprisingly common throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. Birds do it, bees do it… and even mammals have been induced to do it. So cloning is not inherently unnatural, and if carried out successfully (as it frequently is in nature), it may one day be no more harmful nor fraught with latent dangers to be a cloned individual than an individual produced by other forms of artificial reproduction. Furthermore, since we already know what human twins are like, then we already know what human clones will be like. Yet many ethical questions still hang.

Should anyone be allowed to clone themselves? Or more generally, who chooses which of us are to be cloned? Do we just leave it to the market to decide? And why would we ever want a world populated by identical (or rather, approximately identical – since no two twins are truly identical and there are sound biological reasons for believing clones will never be perfectly reproduced either) human beings? Such ethical questions are forced by the new biotechnologies. And there are many further reasons for why ordinary, intelligent public opinion needs to be included in the debate.

Here is Freeman Dyson again, summarising his own cautious optimism as we enter the age of the new ‘green technologies’:

“I see two tremendous goods coming from biotechnology in the next century, first the alleviation of human misery through progress in medicine, and second the transformation of the global economy through green technology spreading wealth more equitably around the world. The two great evils to be avoided are the use of biological weapons and the corruption of human nature by buying and selling genes. I see no scientific reason why we should not achieve the good and avoid the evil.

The obstacles to achieving the good are political rather than technical. Unfortunately a large number of people in many countries are strongly opposed to green technology, for reasons having little to do with the real dangers. It is important to treat the opponents with respect, to pay attention to their fears, to go gently into the new world of green technology so that neither human dignity nor religious conviction is violated. If we can go gently, we have a good chance of achieving within a hundred years the goals of ecological sustainability and social justice that green technology brings within our reach.”5

Dyson is being too optimistic no doubt. Many of the dangers of genetic modification are only now coming to light; more than a decade after Dyson uttered these words as part of his acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize in 2000.

Meanwhile, last month, Greenpeace issued the following press release. It contains the summary of an open letter sent by nearly a hundred Indian scientists to the Supreme Court of India:

An official report submitted by the technical Expert committee set up by the Supreme Court of India comprising of India’s leading experts in molecular biology, toxicology and biodiversity – unanimously recommends a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of GM Bt [insecticide producing due to genes from Bacillus thuringiensis] food crops, due to serious safety concerns. The committee has also recommended a moratorium on field trials of herbicide tolerant crops until independent assessment of impact and suitability, and a ban on field trials of GM crops for which India is center of origin and diversity.

The report’s recommendations are expected put a stop to all field releases of GM food crops in India, including the controversial Bt eggplant, whose commercial release was put under an indefinite moratorium there last February 2010. Contrarily, the same Bt eggplant is currently being evaluated for approval in the Philippines.

“This official unanimous declaration on the risks of GMOs, by India’s leading biotech scientists is the latest nail on the coffin for GMOs around the world,” said Daniel M. Ocampo, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “It is yet another proof that GMOs are bad for the health, bad for the environment, bad for farmers and bad for the economy.”

Click here to read the full Greenpeace press release.

For though it would be foolish to fail to recognise the enormous potential benefits of some of the new ‘green technologies’, underestimating the hazards is sheer recklessness. And this is really where my own opinion differs significantly from enthusiasts like Dyson. This science is just so brilliantly new, and so staggeringly complex. The dangers are very real and our concerns entirely justified: whether these are concerns over safety, over the political implications, or anxieties of a more purely ethical kind.

But allow me to finish for once on a more positive note. Against all the odds and at considerable cost, financially and in terms of personal trauma, Percy Schmeiser, with the support of his wife Louise, eventually succeeded in their long-running legal battle against Monsanto. Beginning with the Federal Court judgement in March 2001:

Justice Andrew McKay upheld the validity of Monsanto’s patented gene which it inserts into canola varieties to make them resistant to their herbicide Round Up.

McKay dismissed Schmeiser’s challenge to the patent based on the claim Monsanto could not control how the gene was dispersed through the countryside.

In a key part of the ruling, the judge agreed a farmer can generally own the seeds or plants grown on his land if they blow in or are carried there by pollen — but the judge says this is not true in the case of genetically modified seed.

It was that part of the ruling that most upsets Percy Schmeiser. The implications are wide ranging and Schmeiser has launched an appeal that was heard on May 15 & 16, 2002 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Federal Court of Appeal subsequently rejected Schmeiser’s appeal. Schmeiser then asked for leave from Canada’s Supreme Court to hear the case. Leave was granted in May 2003 and the case was heard on January 20, 2004.

The Supreme Court issued their decision in May 2004 and one can view the decision as a draw. The Court determined that Monsanto’s patent is valid, but Schmeiser is not forced to pay Monsanto anything as he did not profit from the presence of Roundup Ready canola in his fields. This issue started with Monsanto demanding Schmeiser pay the $15/acre technology fee and in the end, Schmeiser did not have to pay. The Schmeiser family and supporters are pleased with this decision, however disappointed that the other areas of appeal were not overturned.

And then, seven years on:

In an out of court settlement finalized on March 19, 2008, Percy Schmeiser has settled his lawsuit with Monsanto. Monsanto has agreed to pay all the clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields. Also part of the agreement was that there was no gag-order on the settlement and that Monsanto could be sued again if further contamination occurred. Schmeiser believes this precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.

On this occasion then, David didn’t kill Goliath, and in spite of huge personal effort and sacrifice. But he has undoubtedly helped to rein him in a bit, and Percy Schmeiser is just one of many Davids battling against the same Goliath. Collective actions that are also helping to open up the long overdue debate about the ‘green technologies’ and the future of life on our planet.

Both extracts above are quoted from Percy Schmeiser’s own website where you can find out more about his continuing fight against Big Agro.

*

Update:

A more recent Bloomberg article from November 28th reveals how another agro-giant DuPont is now employing the same strategy used by Monsanto:

DuPont Co. (DD), the world’s second- biggest seed company, is sending dozens of former police officers across North America to prevent a practice generations of farmers once took for granted.

The provider of the best-selling genetically modified soybean seed is looking for evidence of farmers illegally saving them from harvests for replanting next season, which is not allowed under sales contracts. The Wilmington, Delaware-based company is inspecting Canadian fields and will begin in the U.S. next year, said Randy Schlatter, a DuPont senior manager.

DuPont is protecting its sales of Roundup Ready soybeans, so called because they tolerate being sprayed by Monsanto Co. (MON)’s Roundup herbicide. For years enforcement was done by Monsanto, which created Roundup Ready and dominates the $13.3 billion biotech seed industry, though it’s moving on to a new line of seeds now that patents are expiring. That leaves DuPont to play the bad guy, enforcing alternative patents so cheaper “illegal beans” don’t get planted.

Click here to read the full article written by Jack Kaskey and entitled “DuPont Sends in Former Cops to Enforce Seed Patents”.

1 In 1996, the New York Times reported that: “Dennis C. Vacco, the Attorney General of New York, ordered the company to pull ads that said Roundup was “safer than table salt” and “practically nontoxic” to mammals, birds and fish. The company withdrew the spots, but also said that the phrase in question was permissible under E.P.A. guidelines.”[237]

Extract taken from wikipedia with original reference retained. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#False_advertising

2 For further arguments against “Terminator Technology”, I recommend the following website: http://www.banterminator.org/content/view/full/233

3 From Freeman Dyson’s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize, delivered on May 16, 2000 at the Washington National Cathedral.

4 From an article entitled “Virgin births discovered in wild snakes” written by Jeremy Coles, published by BBC nature on September 12, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19555550

5 Also taken from Freeman Dyson’s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize.

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Greenpeace and Arne Gundersen blow the whistle on Fukushima

Arnold Gundersen holds a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and is a former nuclear industry senior vice president. He coordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the US, but later became an industry whistle-blower1, also serving as an expert witness for the investigation into the accident at Three Mile Island.2 He is currently the chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates, as well as co-author of the latest Greenpeace report, “Lessons from Fukushima”.

The report’s conclusions begin as follows:

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster has proven that the nuclear industry’s theory of nuclear safety is false. Historical evidence – Fukushima Daiichi, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island – shows a major nuclear accident has occurred somewhere in the world about once every decade. The regular occurrence of reactor accidents contradicts the nuclear industry’s claim that such events would occur only once in 250 years.

CCTV Host Margaret Harrington speaks here with Maggie and Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds about Arne’s recent trip to Japan and their report for Greenpeace about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The closing section of the video also features Gundersen’s own theory on why Fukushima failed so catastrophically, and what this means for other nuclear reactors of similar design:

One year on from the Fukushima disaster, and both the British government and the Obama administration continue to call for an expansion of the nuclear power industry. On yesterday’s Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed Gundersen, who again spoke candidly about the long term legacy of Fukushima, the design failures of the Mark I type nuclear reactors used at Fukushima and also in operation elsewhere, and more generally, about how the economics of nuclear energy is distorted.

Here are a few extracts taken from what he had to say:

Well, I think the first—the first lesson is that this is a technology that can destroy a nation. I was reading Mikhail Gorbachev’s memoirs, and he claims that it was Chernobyl, not perestroika, that destroyed the Soviet Union. And as you look at the transcripts coming out of Japan, we see that the Fukushima accident was on the verge of causing the evacuation of Tokyo. And had the wind been blowing the other way, across the island instead of out to sea, Japan would have been cut in half and destroyed as a functional country. So, this is a technology where perhaps accidents don’t happen every day, but when they do, they can destroy a country.

The other things are the cost is astronomical. To fix this is going to be something on the order of half-a-trillion dollars. All of the money that Japan saved on oil over the 40 years that they’ve had nuclear plants just got thrown away in the half-a-trillion-dollar recovery effort.

And the other piece is the human issues. The health impacts to the Japanese will begin to be felt in several years and out to 30 or 40 years from cancers. And I believe we’re going to see as many as a million cancers over the next 30 years because of the Fukushima incident in Japan.

You know, left to Wall Street druthers—we subsidize their insurance, and we subsidize them on the front end, as far as their ability to build these plants. If it were up to Wall Street and this was a real capitalistic country, we wouldn’t be building nuclear. We’ve basically socialized the risks, but any profits flow to the corporations. […]

I’m on record as saying that we should close the 23 reactors with the Mark I design. Just three weeks before Fukushima, my wife and I were talking, and she said, “Where is the next accident going to occur?” I said, “I don’t know where, but I know it’s going to be in a Mark I design.” These containment vents prove to fail three times out of three. And the NRC’s response is, “Well, let’s make those vents better.” Well, if they just failed three times out of three, it’s hard to imagine how to make something like that better.

In addition, the fuel is stored on the roof, essentially, in unshielded, unprotected areas. And there’s more nuclear caesium-137 in the fuel pool at the plant in Pilgrim, Massachusetts, than was ever released by every nuclear bomb ever exploded in the atmosphere. So we have an enormous inventory of nuclear material way up on the roofs of these buildings, and I think it’s time to close these Mark 1s down, because of those two design features.

Click here to watch the interview and read the full transcript at the Democracy Now! website.

*

Greenpeace commissioned Dr. David Boilley, a nuclear physicist with the French independent radiation laboratory ACRO; Dr. David McNeill, Japan correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications; and Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with Fairewinds Associates, to write “Lessons from Fukushima”. The report, peer reviewed by Dr. Helmut Hirsch, an expert in nuclear safety, reaches three important insights:

1) Japanese authorities and the operators of the Fukushima plant were entirely wrong in their assumptions about the risks of a serious accident. The real risks were known but downplayed and ignored.

2) Even though Japan is considered one of the best-prepared countries in the world for handling major disasters the reality of a large nuclear disaster proved to be far worse than what was planned for. Nuclear emergency and evacuation plans utterly failed to protect people.

3) Hundreds of thousands of people have been deeply affected by evacuations to escape radioactive contamination. They cannot rebuild their lives due to a lack of support and financial compensation. Japan is one of only three countries with a law making a nuclear operator liable for the full costs of a disaster. Yet, the liability law and compensation schemes are inadequate in Japan. Even a year after the disaster began, impacted people are essentially left on their own and Japanese taxpayers will end up paying much of the costs.

Taken from the official Greenpeace press release of February 28th which accompanied the publication of their report: “Lessons from Fukushima”.

Click here to read the Greenpeace report.

1 The following extracts are from a New York Times report about Arnold Gundersen published on February 12th,1995:

“FOR three years, Arnold Gundersen was awakened by harassing phone calls in the middle of the night. He became so concerned about his family’s safety that he bought a large dog for protection. The problem? He was a whistle-blower, one of those who take on the dismally unpopular role of exposing what they find to be unsafe or unlawful practices in the workplace, especially the nuclear workplace.” […]

“Mr. Gundersen, who lives in Warren, told of the day in 1990 when he discovered radioactive material in an accounting safe at Nuclear Energy Services in Danbury, the consulting firm where he held a $120,000-a-year job as senior vice president. Three weeks after he notified the company president of what he believed to be radiation safety violations, Mr. Gundersen said, he was fired.”

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/02/12/nyregion/paying-the-price-for-blowing-the-whistle.html

2 Click here to see Arnold Gundersen presenting evidence for what he calls “the three myths of Three Mile Island” and here to read Gundersen’s report on the Three Mile Island accident.

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British government involved in cover-up of Fukushima

Nuclear experts have thrown doubt on the accuracy of official information issued about the Fukushima nuclear accident, saying that it followed a pattern of secrecy and cover-ups employed in other nuclear accidents. “It’s impossible to get any radiation readings,” said John Large, an independent nuclear engineer who has worked for the UK government and been commissioned to report on the accident for Greenpeace International.

“The actions of the Japanese government are completely contrary to their words. They have evacuated 180,000 people but say there is no radiation. They are certain to have readings but we are being told nothing.” He said a radiation release was suspected “but at the moment it is impossible to know. It was the same at Chernobyl, where they said there was a bit of a problem and only later did the full extent emerge.” 1

This is the opening to a Guardian article from March 14th, written just three days after the tsunami which caused such widespread devastation and triggered the failures at the Fukushima plant. The same article concludes:

“What we are seeing follows a clear pattern of secrecy and denial,” said Paul Dorfman, co-secretary to the Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters, a UK government advisory committee disbanded in 2004.

“The Japanese government has always tended to underplay accidents. At the moment the Japanese claims of safety are not to be believed by anyone. The health effects of what has happened so far are imponderable. The reality is we just do not know. There is profound uncertainty about the impact of the accident.”

The Japanese authorities and nuclear companies have been implicated in a series of cover-ups. In 1995, reports of a sodium leak and fire at Japan’s Monju fast breeder reactor were suppressed and employees were gagged. In 2002, the chairman and four executives of Tepco, the company which owns the stricken Fukushima plant, resigned after reports that safety records were falsified.

Then, last Thursday, the Guardian published this follow-up article based on the evidence of internal emails which show that the British government was also involved in covering up the dangers of nuclear power in the immediate wake of Fukushima:

British government officials approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and before the extent of the radiation leak was known.

Internal emails seen by the Guardian show how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with the multinational companies EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK.

“This has the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally,” wrote one official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), whose name has been redacted. “We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it. We really need to show the safety of nuclear.”2

The article continues:

The business department emailed the nuclear firms and their representative body, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), on 13 March, two days after the disaster knocked out nuclear plants and their backup safety systems at Fukushima. The department argued it was not as bad as the “dramatic” TV pictures made it look, even though the consequences of the accident were still unfolding and two major explosions at reactors on the site were yet to happen.

“Radiation released has been controlled – the reactor has been protected,” said the BIS official, whose name has been blacked out. “It is all part of the safety systems to control and manage a situation like this.”

The official suggested that if companies sent in their comments, they could be incorporated into briefs to ministers and government statements. “We need to all be working from the same material to get the message through to the media and the public.”

Do we get the message then? The message being very loud and clear, and a profound cause for concern. As Tom Burke, a former government environmental adviser and visiting professor at Imperial College London, said to The Guardian:

“[The British government] are too close to industry, concealing problems, rather than revealing and dealing with them.”

Or you may prefer to infer from all of this, as George Monbiot did in a follow-up piece for the Guardian on Monday 4th July, that this is simply business as usual, which no doubt it is:

“Nuclear operators worldwide have been repeatedly exposed as a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags.

In this respect they are, of course, distinguished from the rest of the energy industry, which is run by collectives of self-abnegating monks whose only purpose is to spread a little happiness. How they ended up sharing the names and addresses of some of the nuclear companies is a mystery that defies explanation.”3

With this much agreed, Monbiot then goes further, perpetuating the industry line that radiation leaks from Fukushima, which we ought to remind ourselves is still very much an on-going disaster, and with no foreseeable end in sight, have caused no serious harm to the people of Japan:

[Even] the Daiichi meltdown, the same energy agency report tells us, has caused no medical harm. While the evacuation it necessitated is profoundly traumatic and disruptive, “to date no confirmed health effects have been detected in any person as a result of radiation exposure” from the accident. Compare this to the 100,000 deaths caused by air pollution from coal plants every year, and you begin to see that we’ve been fretting about the wrong risks.

Whenever I read excuses like this my immediate thought is tobacco, asbestos, depleted uranium… So why does Monbiot continue to parrot such blatant disinformation? As a journalist and an environmentalist isn’t he supposed to be demanding answers from this industry, which he concedes is corrupt absolutely, rather than playing forward defensive to their cause.

What the industry insiders in Britain either didn’t know, or didn’t care about, as they lobbied the government to play the incident down, was that reactors 1 and 3 were already in meltdown, and that the meltdown in reactor 2 was imminent:

The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., admitted last month that nuclear fuel rods in reactors 2 and 3 probably melted during the first week of the nuclear crisis.

It had already said fuel rods at the heart of reactor No. 1 melted almost completely in the first 16 hours after the disaster struck. The remnants of that core are now sitting in the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel at the heart of the unit and that vessel is now believed to be leaking.

A “major part” of the fuel rods in reactor No. 2 may have melted and fallen to the bottom of the pressure vessel 101 hours after the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the plant, Tokyo Electric said May 24.

The same thing happened within the first 60 hours at reactor No. 3, the company said, in what it called its worst-case scenario analysis, saying the fuel would be sitting at the bottom of the pressure vessel in each reactor building.4

Click here to read more details from the same CNN article

A few newspapers had reported the meltdown of reactors almost from the onset of the disaster, but there had then been a full two months delay before any official confirmation was received either from Tokyo Electric Power Co. or the Japanese government. Meanwhile, the British nuclear industry, in cahoots with British government, were already spinning a line to mutually protect themselves from the inevitable public backlash.

In defence of these deceptions, the emails having been exposed, both sides will plead ignorance of course, as if not knowing the true extent of the disaster justified their efforts to play the risks down. But with the proper role of journalism being, as it is, to expose lies and force truth to the surface, Monbiot really ought to be looking into whether or not this plea of insider ignorance can be sustained, whilst highlighting the irresponsibility, criminal or otherwise, of such mendacious collusion between government and industry. Yet he shows no interest in doing either.

John Vidal, also writing in the Guardian (Friday 1st July) gets closer to the heart of the matter:

What the emails shows is a weak government, captured by a powerful industry colluding to at least misinform and very probably lie to the public and the media. When the emails were sent, no one, least of all the industry and its friends in and out of government, had any idea how serious the situation at Fukushima was or might become.

For the business department to then argue that “we really need to show the safety of nuclear” and that “it’s not as bad as it looks”, is shameless. But to argue that the radiation was being released deliberately and was “all part of the safety systems to control and manage a situation” is Orwellian.5

So Orwellian, in fact, that on page 50 of the 136 page file released by the Guardian, one line of a letter to government reads:

“The explosion whilst visually dramatic is part of the safety system, the building protected the reactor”

The explosion was part of the safety system… such an explanation really demands more than mere technical ignorance, involving us also in a wish to remain in ignorance. To accept whatever nonsense we are told and make believe it is true. For IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, as George Orwell, a journalist with courage, integrity and a deep understanding of politics, knew only too well (if ironically).

Just about catching up with last week’s disinformation, the news rolls ever onward. Fresh lies are continuing to downplay the unprecedented and long-term impact of the crisis at Fukushima, whilst the plight of those unfortunate enough to live in the shadow of Fukushima is slowly forgotten. And a radioactive plume that is growing day by day and month by month, goes almost unnoticed by most people outside of Japan. Uncovering the true scale of the disaster at Fukushima is therefore a matter of great urgency. It might yet save millions of lives.

1 From an article entitled “Japan radiation leaks feared as nuclear experts point to possible cover-up” written by John Vidal and Damian Carrington published in the Guardian on Monday 14th March.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/14/japan-radiation-leak-cover-up

2 From an article entitled “Revealed: British government’s plan to play down Fukushima” by Rob Edwards published in the Guardian on Thursday 30th June.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/30/british-government-plan-play-down-fukushima

3 From an article entitled “The nuclear industry stinks. But that is not a reason to ditch nuclear power” by George Monbiot published in the Guardian on Monday 4th July.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/04/nuclear-industry-stinks-cleaner-energy?intcmp=239

4 From an article entitled “3 nuclear reactors melted down after quake, Japan confirms” from CCN published 7th June.

5 From an article entitled “Fukushima spin was Orwellian” by John Vidal published in the Guardian on Friday 1st July.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/01/fukushima-emails-government-nuclear-industry?intcmp=239

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