Category Archives: religion

Peter Mayer at Planetary Radio Live

Here’s something, or rather somebody, you might like to check out, especially if you’re partial to the ‘Passion Beauty Joy’ (PBJ) interpretation of the universe (as Bill Nye likes to put it).  Likewise, if you enjoy the Symphony of Science series of videos, this will be up your street.

Peter Mayer (right) with Bill Nye at Planetary Radio Live (Photo:Tim Jones)
Peter Mayer (right) with Bill Nye at Planetary Radio Live (Photo:Tim Jones)

On his website, Peter Mayer describes himself as a writer of “songs for a small planet—songs about interconnectedness and the human journey”.  Last night he guested at a special live broadcast of the Planetary Society‘s monthly radio show Planetary Radio Live: Science, Nature and Music.  I usually catch the show, hosted by Matt Kaplan with Planetary Society regulars Bill Nye, Bruce Betts, and Emily Lakdawalla in podcast form back in the UK.  But as I’m visiting family in the US right now, I got myself a ticket for the show at the KPCC studios in Pasadena, California.

Planetary Radio Live (Photo:Tim Jones)
Planetary Radio Live (Photo:Tim Jones)

Mayer sings about the universe and man’s relationship with it.  He sings about stars, planets, galaxies; and evolution too.

Here’s the full recording of the event from KPCC, :

One song Mayer performed on the evening, ‘My Soul’ likens the number of galaxies to snowflakes in a snow storm.  Here’s another recording of that track:

(Video by Connie Barlow courtesy ghostsofevolution)

Peter Mayer (Press photo,
Peter Mayer (Press photo,

Mayer’s background is interesting.  Originally trained in theology and having spent time in seminary, he’s no longer a practising Catholic – aligning rather with Unitarian Universalism.   That said, I got the impression Mayer is more interested in inclusiveness than the sort of divisions that can follow from too much emphasis on labels.

Incidentally, watching Mayer play an intriguing all-carbon-fibre guitar (by Rainsong Guitars), was an added bonus for me, as I go through something of a revival in my own attempts at guitar – which, believe me, call for cosmic scale inspiration.

You can catch previous Planetary Radio shows at the Planetary Radio website.

Book Review: Humanity 2.0 What it Means to be Human, Past, Present and Future. by Steve Fuller

Paperback: 280 pages

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (6 Oct 2011)

Language English

ISBN-10: 0230233430

ISBN-13: 978-0230233430

Product Dimensions: 21.2 x 13.8 x 2.2 cm


Imagine a future world where technology lets us control our own destiny, enhance our physical and mental performance, extend our lives – perhaps indefinately. How will we come to see ourselves as human beings?  What will it mean to  be human? And how can we manage it all for the common good.

This is the world of Humanity 2.0, and the subject of a new book from Warwick University Professor of Sociology Steve Fuller.

I have to say up front this is the first of Fuller’s books I’ve read through cover to cover, and frankly it was quite a challenge.  Whether it’s the sociologist’s writing style or the somewhat discordant mix of practical and theological content, extracting what Fuller is really trying to say, his thesis if you like, was an uphill job.  To his credit, Fuller has made a series of six short videos summarising his content, and which I’ve added to the end of this post.  They came too late for me, but you’re advised to watch them before reading the book.

That said, I want here to give an overview of the content and critique a few areas particularly where I have issues.

Fuller wants to create egalitarian policy for the development and implementation of transhumanist technologies, and justify sociology’s seat at the multi-disciplinary table that will deliver it.  It’s the laudable focus of his Chapter 3.

But his broader agenda is to dethrone what he sees as a prevailing hegemony of Neo-Darwinism (essentially what Darwin knew plus our knowledge of molecular genetics) and get an alternative variant of intelligent design (I.D.) taught in school science classes; p180:

…the most controversial aspect of my position, namely, that the active promotion of a certain broadly Abrahamic theological perspective is necessary to motivate students to undertake lives in science and to support those who decide to do so.

He’s accordingly raised his game by developing a brand of I.D. better suited to the task as he sees it; p177:

As a true social constructivist, I see myself as one of the constructors of intelligent design theory.  I am not simply remarking from the sidelines about what others have done or are doing, as a historian or journalist might.  Rather I am making a front-line contribution to defining the theory’s identity.

although it’s not clear how much of this is driven from  heart-felt conviction.  Variously describing himself as a Secular Humanist, Humanist, and now Transhumanist, in this Guardian interview  from 2006 he appeared not to favour I.D., but felt it deserved a “fair run for its money”; apparently backing any horse, however lame, that will run against Neo-Darwinism.

Fuller’s appeal to I.D. in Humanity 2.0 is itself ambiguous: he uses the term variously in contexts related to a recognisable deity, p187:

I have been quite open about identifying the ‘intelligence’ of intelligent design with the mind of a version of the Abrahamic God into which the scientist aspires to enter by virtue of having been created in imago dei.

then more in relation to nature, as in his discussion around civic religion, p182:

But what remains specifically ‘religious’ about ‘civic religion’? Two aspects: (1) Science’s findings are framed in terms of the larger significance of things, nature’s ‘intelligent design’, if you will. (2) Science’s pursuit requires a particular species of faith – namely, perseverence in the face of adversity – given science’s rather contestable balance sheet in registering goods and harms….

The former quote is consistent with Fuller’s broader counter to Neo-Darwinism, my reading of which can be summed up as (i.e. my words):

Those committed to a Neo-Darwinist world view are aligned with a historical tradition that decrees we can never know a god who is different from us in kind.  Such people are uninterested in science or technology beyond that required for a continued existence with their fellow animals in a sustainably snug microcosm.  They likewise have no interest in the science and technology of a transhumanist agenda.

It’s never quite clear whether Fuller is projecting God’s image onto man, or man onto God – a model more in line with his version of secular humanism as described in the aforementioned Guardian interview: “human beings at the centre of reality, creating God in their image and likeness” and “taking control of evolution”.   With I.D. tied up with hardcore Creationism in the US, however inappropriately from Fuller’s perspective (he doesn’t support Creationism), some clarification would be helpful.

Coming to structure and content.  The first two chapters major on the idea of human ‘distinctiveness’, or that which makes us uniquely human, discussed in the frame of race and  religion aligned with various biological and theological perspectives from the past, present, and future.  Chapter two specifically defines world views broadly corresponding to ‘naturalistic’ Neo-Darwinism, and a divinely-inspired alternative.

Where naturalistics see themselves “embedded” at one with nature, animals like any others emerging from a process of evolution with natural selection, the divinely-inspired are special: fundamentally separate and above animals, they recognise God because he is an intelligently-designing technician as they are, intent on preserving the essence of their specialness – their humanity.  Traditionally they’d look to do that in soul form, but now have an eye to the alternatives future transhumanist technologies might offer.  All a bit sci-fi for now, but think of uploading thoughts, memories, consciousness to a microchip, robot, clone, hive-mind, or whatever.

Chapter three’s more grounded ‘Policy Blueprint’ centres around the so-called Converging Technologies Agenda (CTA) for the delivery, management, and regulation of technologies for human enhancement, or transhumanism; so: Nanotechnology, Information Technology, Biotechnology and Cognitive Sciences working together under Fuller’s favoured policy regime of ‘anticipatory governance’.

Although more a check-list than a roadmap – I’m still uncertain of the next steps, there’s interesting discussion here on topics like the substantive PR task of selling transhumanist ideas to a CT-sceptical public (think nanotech), use of IT-style early-end-user-involvement to progress it, and the role for media and science communication.

We can expect issues around personal risk and willingness to participate in enhancement technology trials.  Fuller points to the danger of CT perceived as hollow rebranding (again, echos of Nanotech’s relation to chemistry), and questions around standards and norms for developments and applications: e.g. would we take a nanotech or medical lead in a medical situation using that technology?   There are also emerging and diverse management philosophies to accommodate or rationalise; so the USA taking a more ROI-focused, proactionary, human performance emphasis, hands off approach; while Europe favours a precautionary, state-controlling, human welfare emphasis.

For Fuller, sociology’s egalitarian pedigree, manifest in the Welfare State, qualifies its latent contribution.  And with funding for CT industries biased to the private sector, it looks like the common man is going to need a champion.  No centrally driven, government funded, benevolent upgrade for the species this.  The portents are rather for increasing societal inequality and differentiation: a position Fuller contrasts with the public-focused ‘common good’ research environment of the Cold War.  Cynically, and outside any higher moral ambition, CTA could simply serve as a ‘techno-fix’ for over-population or other pressures on the Welfare State, forcing us to work harder and longer for our deferred pensions – no thanks, or getting us off the hook of our ecological responsibilities.

It’s all scary stuff. When we’re popping cogno-enhancers over the cornflakes, and little Jimmy’s off to college by the grace of his cerebral implant, and your investment-banker neighbours have signed up for the latest ‘life-doubler’ programme; one wonders what will qualify us to live, never mind defining our humanity.  That’s me fantasising,  but drug-based cogno-enhancement is here, and Fuller’s born “always already disabled” scenario could happen, hitting hardest the under-priviledged and those who don’t want, or can’t afford, the latest upgrades.

Chapters four and five are a return to theology and full-on Neo-Darwinist bashing, which is a shame given I suspect there is so much more to say in the vein of Chapter three.

Various off-shoots and mini-theses sprout off the core agenda, like discussion on the debt owed to religion by Science and both the Secularist and Enlightenment movements for their existence, albeit with a concession the influence has waned:

..even if it is true that all supernaturally motivated scientific insights are eventually absorbed into the naturalistic worldview, it does not follow either that the supernaturalism was unnecessary or that naturalism is the final word.

Newton appears as the quintessential religiously motivated scientist, which is fair enough provided we remember back then he had only religion to explain anything.  It’s interesting to ask what sort of science a modern-day Newton might pursue.  Would he be one of Fuller’s Neo-Darwinists for whom ‘God differs in kind’, causing him to eschew all impractical science like cosmology, particle physics and String Theory?

I do struggle with this idea that scientists can’t, won’t, or won’t want to do fancy science unless they turn all ‘intelligent design’.  It’s saying we have to be designed in order to aspire to knowledge or value truth.  Or that because Neo-Darwinists wouldn’t recognise God if they found him curled up in the 10th dimension, they wouldn’t bother with String Theory.

Yet scientists, many of whom are Neo-Darwinists, do that kind of science – big time!  So what is it – force of habit?   Well why not?  Maybe we enjoy all that Brian Cox ‘wonders’ stuff because of an evolutionary misfire: a historic brain artifact associated with some evolved inquisitive tendency for practical survival.  We do fancy science, we make a discovery, we revel in our dopamine spike, we do more fancy science.  Simples. That’s why scientists are such fun folk to have around.

Fuller might see that as a reductionist, even nihilistic, worldview.   He’s said that when Darwin killed God he also killed man, or the only part of man that matters – his humanity.  And this is why despite presenting his arguments in a frame of reasoned academic detachment, I’m coming round to thinking Fuller’s propositions are at end religious plain and simple – even if the religion is his own science-flavoured brand.  He ‘feels’ there is no humanity without god, so we must have god.


If you’re not used to reading sociology texts, which I’m not, Humanity 2.0 is hard going.

It should be clear by now that Humanity 2.0’s high-tech cover art conceals a heavy theological edge with pervasive references to intelligent design in the context of an anti-Neo-Darwinism agenda.  And that’s a shame because it distracts from the more diverse, and frankly more interesting, material also there in plenty for those with open minds.

There’s nothing wrong with theological arguments per se, but mixing rational policy debate with what many will see as off-the-wall, politically charged, I.D. rhetoric is a mistake that’s likely to destructively provoke the very individuals and organisations Fuller should be onboarding to secure sociology’s role in the transhumanist agenda.


Quote you can talk outside your area of expertise

Humanity 2.0 – Introduction (What is Humanity 2.0?) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 01 (Humanity Poised Between Biology and Ideology) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 02 (Defining the Human: The Always Ready – Or Never To Be – Object of the Social Sciences?) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 03 (A Policy Blueprint for Humanity 2.0: The Converging Technologies Agenda) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 04 (A Theology 2.0 for Humanity 2.0: Thinking Outside the Neo-Darwinian Box) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 05 (Conclusion: In Search of Humanity 2.0’s Moral Horizon – Or, How to Suffer Smart in the 21st Century from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.


Other reviews of Humanity 2.o

Angela Saini, New Humanist

Julian Baggini at the FT

BioCentre 31/10/11

Steven Poole, Guardian 18/11/11

THE  Kristrún Gunnarsdóttir  1/3/12

Book Review: The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark

Hardcover: 272 pages

  • Publisher: Polygon (1 May 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1846971748
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846971747
  • Product Dimensions: 20.6 x 15.4 x 3 cm





Galileo Galilei’s scrape with the Roman Catholic Church is well known.

His suggestion that the Earth spins on its axis and orbits around the Sun was an afront to scripture that got him branded as a heretic and almost burnt at the stake. How he first became aware of the full peril of his situation is less well known: on a rooftop in Rome, eavesdropping whilst taking a pee behind a bush.

Maybe that’s how it happened, maybe not – either way, the Earth won’t stop turning.

But it’s through these touches of imaginative license: sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, on occasion disturbingly vivid, that Stuart Clark breathes life into the characters of his first novel, The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth.

The title comes from an episode in the book, where Galileo explains the hopelessness of trying to understand the universe without the correct language – mathematics; to do so is to “wander about lost in the dark labyrinth of the sky.”  But don’t panic, it’s an equationless drama.

In this first part of a trilogy that reaches from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, we follow the lives of the astronomers Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) as they challenge the religiously inspired orthodoxy of the times: an Earth-centered universe with the Sun and planets orbiting around in perfect circles – just as God intended.

Each astronomer has special skills and his own ideas about the cosmos:

Tycho, the meticulous naked-eye observer, happy for the Sun to orbit the Earth, yet convinced the other planets revolve around the Sun.

Galileo, arguably the father of evidence-based thinking, points his telescope skyward to see mountains on the moon, satellites around Jupiter, moon-like phases on Venus and Mercury, and spots on the Sun (Clark reminds us Galileo didn’t actually invent the telescope) – each observation a blow to the accepted model of the universe and Aristotle’s concept of a perfect heaven.

And Kepler, obsessed with geometry, turns a rigorous mathematical eye to his compatriots’ data to derive a model of eliptical planetary motion that, relativistic effects aside, is valid to this day.

On the journey, we share starry rooftop nights with Tycho and his armillary spheres and sextants; and with Galileo and his telescope. We encounter scientific concepts, painlessly embedded in the story, from stellar parallax to Kepler’s defining relationship for a planet’s distance and period round the Sun. 

We meet the landmark publications that captured these ideas: Kepler’s discussion of perfect polygons Mysterium cosmographicum, his treatise on Mars: the Astronomia nova, and the Rudolphine Tables of star positions; Galileo’s telescope observations in Sidereus Nuncius and his more troublesome endorsement of Copernican ideas in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

The whole is delivered through a pacey narrative that switches back and forth through time and space.  One moment we’re in Rome, then Prague, then Florence, then Rome again.  Thus Clark weaves his factually-based interplay of lives and ideas.

As in any drama, characters are developed in contexts that resonate with our personal experience: relationships, families, squabbles, births, marriages and deaths – as far as that’s possible 400 years on.   Is that illusory?  Can we ever really see from behind 16th century eyes?   No, we can’t.  But how else to share Kepler’s wonder as he steps out onto the observatory roof, or taste Tycho’s not-so-scientific bon vivre lifestyle and lordly pride, or feel Galileo’s chill dread as he anticipates what a rabid Inquisition has in store?

And that, in a nutshell, is Clark’s proposition.

It’s one where he’s shown due respect for the underlying history, reflected perhaps in a favouring of credible human vignettes over elaborate manufactured sub-plots.  So, lots of expansion on the meetings, schemes, and conflicts that must have taken place but would never be recorded – scenes that  can be directed and embellished to divert and entertain without compromising the main account.

In this regard, it’s a very different book to, say, Edward Rutherfurd’s London, where the main story lines are totally fictional.  Clark’s work comes over as based on historical record and scientific fact.  It’s important, as historians of science in particular can, understandably, take issue with inaccurate or controversial portrayals; I’m thinking of a recent defence of Nevil Maskelyne, the 18th century Astronomer Royal, demonised in the film version of Dava Sobel’s Longitude.

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth begins in Rome, where a defiant Giordano Bruno, comfortable only with his conscience, waits in a cell to be burnt at the stake for heresy.

Johannes Kepler, an outcast Lutheran, arrives in Bohemian Prague to join the service of Tycho Brahe, and get a first sniff of the observational data he’ll one day build into a planetary model.  He also hears about one Galileo Galilei of Padua, and the wonderful discoveries he’s made with his telescope (before long Kepler will have one of his own).

And all the time the Roman Catholic Church is watching, keeping tabs on these dangerous individuals, their troubling independence and inconvenient appeal to evidence.   Kepler is spyed on – his mail intercepted. Galileo, at first encouraged by the Pope, is told in no uncertain terms to leave theological interpretation to the Church; but his thoughts are already committed to print. Thus the slippery slide to persecution, recantation, and repression is joined.

The plot moves between the bloody war-torn streets of Prague and the red robed intrigue of Vatican corridors.  Current events in Reformation Europe are dominated by the struggle between an increasingly Jesuit-influenced Catholic Church and a rising tide of Lutherism.  And our astronomers are in the thick of it.

Far from being godless atheists, they aim to explain God’s works – not undo them.  Yet a Catholic Galileo and a Lutheran Kepler still each grapple to rationalise their ideas to themselves and to a world of dogmatic orthodoxy.  A world where political, theological, and philosophical considerations hold sway over rationalism; where solidarity of belief and allegiance to the group is prized over individual will, conscience, or even physical proof; where mathematical descriptions are acceptable as professional tricks, but will never define truth; where witchcraft is a burning issue, and astronomy is inseparably tied up with the superstition of astrology.

Indeed, Kepler makes a good living drawing up horoscopes for wealthy patrons and courtly sponsors – a trade he revisits as the need arises (Clark actually credit’s him with a rather modern pragmatism on these issues).

Reformation Europe is also a great background for some of Clark’s more vivid visualisations, reminiscent of a Terry Gilliam movie in their medievalism.   I love the “gobs of some thick unguent” Kepler spies clinging at the margins of Tycho’s prosthetic nose when they first meet, and the mood-setting ‘unpleasant tang of tallow’ in Kepler’s study.

Life is dirty, smelly, and not a little dangerous.

On the downside, I occasionally lose track in the switching interplay of events and locations, feeling the need to draw little timeline diagrams – lest I get totally lost in the labyrinth.  And oblivious to any description or other literary signposting, I only ever thought of our heros as bearded old men.  I’ll call it William Shakespeare syndrome- there just aren’t enough ‘before they were famous’ portraits out there.

But none of that detracted from The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth as a thoroughly entertaining and recommended read.

In capturing that essential excitement of the night sky, unchanged over the centuries, Clark has created a work accessible to all comers, and one that astronomers and history fans in particular will doubtless lap up.

I look forward to meeting Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble in future installments.

Stuart Clark’s website is at




A Ramble Through Rationalism

The last thing I expected at a history talk with Stephen Fry was a discussion on the relative merits of rationalism and empiricism. But that’s what we got for part of the time at the Harper Collins Annual history Lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects last month.   And for some reason, the topic’s stuck in my head.

Stephen Fry at the Harper Collins History Lecture (photo Sven Klinge)
Stephen Fry at the Harper Collins History Lecture (photo Sven Klinge)

A rush to rationalism?

The difference between rationalism and empiricism essentially turns on the degree to which we draw on the evidence of our senses in creating knowledge.

Fry’s comments were a warning through illustration of over-dependence on apparently rational decisions.  As the conversation moved to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fry made the point that while it seemed rational to liberate Eastern Europe with the flourish, rapidity,  and  completeness now symbolised by the dismantling of the wall, that process also had unforeseen consequences in the form of unprecedented crime and corruption.

Fry likened it to the activation of a sleeping cancer one might find in a patient from Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings.   These negative developments had been kept in check only by the strictures of the former regime, and were now – in some quarters – the cause of discontent and a call for a return to a more certain past.

Stephen Fry and Lisa Jardine
Stephen Fry in conversation with Lisa Jardine at RIBA (Photo: Sven Klinge)

It’s hard to know whether an empiricist approach would have predicted the unlooked for outcome, or whether the experience of Eastern Europe has informed China’s more recent and ongoing transformation.  But when looked at in this way, the Chinese process, whereby economic liberation moves ahead of relaxation in political and social controls, might not be all bad. For while the West finds elements of the process distasteful, what greater chaos might be unleashed under a less managed regime?

Yet at an emotional level, attacks on rationality can grate, especially with scientists and technologists.  I bristled when Fry likened over-zealous support for rationalism to belief in religion.  Was this the same Stephen Fry whose debate trounced the Catholic Church, and who regularly shares platforms with the likes of Richard Dawkins? But rather than rejecting rationalism, I believe he made a valid point: that it is too easy to assume a rationalist approach in all situations – however complex – when sometimes the abstract premises from which we deduce knowledge for decision making are just not up to it.

Ticket for Stephen Fry Lisa Jardine Harper Collins event

A palette of reason

Moving on, but with an eye to Fry’s sentiments, there seem to be an awful lot of reasonable sounding words out there: like ‘rational’, ’empirical’, ‘evidence-based’, ‘logical’; and indeed –  ‘reasonable’.  Whether in the context of drugs policy, climate change, faith schools, or whatever;  these words sit like so many pigments on a palette of reason, wielded by individuals and governments alike, to convince us – and themselves – that a particular course of action carries some special sanction.  But why do the same words frequently lead to misunderstandings and angst?

It seems to be down to definition and interpretation.  Boiling our list down to rationalism and empiricism (subsuming ‘evidence-based’ into empiricism and  logic into rationalism) the dictionary definitions and learned philosophical commentaries leave plenty of scope for confusion.

The  Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines rationalism as:

the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response’, and empiricism as

the theory that all knowledge is derived from experience and observation

which seems pretty clear. But  the Oxford Pocket English Dictionary muddies the rational water by including philosophical and theological interpretations that flex the definition of rationalism to a form no scientist could agree with.  It seems scientific rationalism is just one brand.  I’ve really no idea what to make of the theological interpretation given as:

the practice of treating reason as the ultimate authority in religion’.

but it put me in mind of this quote from the current Pope, relayed in this interview by the Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno, and equally confusing to my concept of rationality:

religion needs science to keep itself away from superstition

No wonder there’s confusion

This all goes some way to explain why scientists find themselves at odds with the government on issues like drugs policy and the recent Nutt affair.

Professor David Nutt led a committee advising the British Government on drugs policy, until he was sacked for speaking publicly in a manner the Home Secretary judged inconsistent with his position.  The sacking blew up into a huge debate about the role of scientific advisors and their advice, what they can say when, and the way scientific evidence is used in a politically cognisant, but surely still rational, decision making process.

Some of our reasonable words appeared in  the popular press; such as ‘empirical‘ in this Daily Mail  piece by A.N.Wilson:

‘The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.’

Evan Lerner has argued the technical inaccuracy of this statement that leaves us nowhere to go.  If empirical facts are no good, decision makers must be following a rationalist stance or some ‘third way’ unbeknown to philosophers.  But I’d argue the politicians are just following a brand of rationalism that suits their purpose; it’s just not a scientific one.  And when A.N.Wilson goes on to invoke the R-word:

‘Those who dare question scientists are demonised for their irrationality. Global warming may or may not be a certainty, but anyone who queries it has his sanity questioned. Cast doubt on these gods of certainty and you are accused of wanting to suppress free expression -…’

he’s right;  anyone who doesn’t comply with the scientific definition of rationality is demonised.  Personally I’d like the scientific definition to be universally accepted, but while there are powerful constituencies who benefit from and delight in wooliness defended as realism or flexibility  (politicians, theologians, dictionary compilers), I can’t see it happening.

Likewise, the only kind of rationality under which a discussion on the virtues of faith schools makes sense is one that allows ethical and metaphysical propositions (e.g. is there a god).  Moreover, we’re left with politicians working up a drugs policy using an ethics-based ‘political rationality’, and an education policy that recognises and values a ‘religious rationality’.

Unfortunately, the transparency being called for concerning when and under what circumstances this flexing of scientific rationalism happens, also threatens politicians with the anathema of exposing less visible agendas traditionally played close to the chest.

Galileo: Genius – just don’t ask him how his telescope works

Aspects of the lives of  famous people inevitably get magnified, diminished, distorted or simply lost with the passing years.

That’s why we need respected scholars with the learning and gravitas of  Professor William Shea who, speaking recently at the Royal Geological Society, took us – somewhat teasingly but with due respect – beyond the accepted caricature of Galileo’s genius.

Professor William R Shea, University of Padua
Professor William R Shea, University of Padua; speaking at Burlington House on 26th October 2009 (photo thanks Sven Klinge)

And Shea, who holds the Galileo Chair of the History of Science at the University of Padua (where Galileo himself taught for 18 years), did indeed illustrate Galileo’s discomfort with the optical theory behind his own telescope.

In the body of the talk, working through the popularly accepted seven great achievements of Galileo, Prof. Shea used a sequence of lunar drawings to illustrate the critical role of sci-art collaboration in marrying draughting skills with observational expertise –  in the days before photography and Charge Coupled Devices.

The New World of Galileo, at the Geological Society, Burlington House (London)
The New World of Galileo, at the Geological Society, Burlington House, London (photo thanks Sven Klinge)

In a Q&A that was as revealing as the main lecture, Shea explained how the early astronomer’s belief in the divine appointment of his scientific mission was a key driver for his intellectual ambition, as well as representing an important influence over his relationships with academic colleagues and the establishment.

Overall, this was an expertly and engagingly presented lecture which everyone with an interest in science, and for that matter art and history, should see. And they can; because the whole smash is available courtesy of the Royal Geological Society via this link to a videocast of the event , complete with slides and the candid Q&A.  Check it out !


The film Creation went on general release in the UK today, and as I’m just back from a lunchtime viewing, here are a few thoughts on the movie while it’s still fresh in my mind.

Finch with fig, California (Tim Jones)

To cut to the chase: enjoyable film, with great performances from Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin and Jennifer Connelly as his wife Emma.   I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars.

Very odd start though.  I arrived at 12.10 for  a 12.15 showing and had the theatre entirely to myself.  By 12.30 ish, when the ads were over, the final audience had grown to six people.  I know most folk can’t just knock off for the afternoon, but I found it surprising all the same; clearly not one for the pensioners.

I’ve made a point of not reading most  of the Creation reviews already out there; just one or two quickly once over.  So I’m relatively untainted but sufficiently informed to pick up on some of the obvious criticisms.

One of those criticisms has concerned the film’s factual accuracy.  But as few viewers will  have read the various biographies and letters, it strikes me that the emphasis should be more on identifying only serious material misrepresentations – and overall I don’t believe there are any (an exception is Huxley’s character – read on).

I was pleased to see certain events included: the failure to ‘civilise’ the Fuegan kids, the water cures, the influence of Hooker & Huxley, Darwin’s animosity with his local church, and Wallace’s letter.

At times though, I felt some incidents and issues had been slotted in because they had to be there – as if the director had a check list of  ‘leave that out and the Darwin aficionados will play hell’.  That’s how I felt about Huxley’s appearance anyhow.  Arguably, Huxley came in to his own in the affairs of the Origin only after its publication – exactly the point at which this film ends.  But the filmmakers have done T.H. an injustice all the same; the take-away impression of the man is just wrong.  Richard Dawkins wasn’t overjoyed with the portrayal, and I can see why; the character is out of kilter with the historic record, and may as well have worn a ‘new atheist’ sash. (I find New Atheist a silly term; what is an old atheist?  – Quiet?).  Intellectually, the portrayal is overly one-dimensional and aggressive.  Physically, Toby Jones is too short to portray a man whose height and presence in reality matched his intellect. They got Hooker’s whiskers down to a tee, so why not Huxley?

The core narrative revolves around Charles’s relationship with, and thoughts about, his daughter Annie. I don’t know the actor who played Annie, but she has an obvious future in Hollywood.  We don’t get to know the other children anything like so closely as we do Annie; and the intellectual, as well as emotional, bond between Annie and Darwin is particularly well developed.  There is something of the co-conspirator about Annie – a sense of  allegiance lacking in Emma until a reluctant appearance in the final scenes.

The various ghost sequences have been criticised, but again, I just saw these as a device to illustrate Darwin’s pre-occupation.  I don’t think he actually ran about the streets chasing his dead daughter (but please correct me if you know different).

All the themes in the movie ultimately link back to the Origin and what it stands for.  One of the more human incarnations of that influence is the Emma – Charles relationship.  Here I’d liked to have seen Emma’s philosophy explored a little more – even if the detailed  story-line were credibly fabricated (biographers do this all the time).  I guess we can never know someone’s innermost thoughts on life, the universe, and everything – no matter how many letters we read; but I felt the middle ground that our two protagonists must have found could have stood a little more exploration.

And never mind the movie, I find this theme of different fundamental philosophies within a relationship fascinating.  I wonder how many couples today mirror Charles and Emma?  This is a personal blog, so I can say that  I would, for example, find it challenging at best to live with a partner who I knew was going to hell.  That said, I have friends in atheist/Christian marriages who appear to get on just fine.

Which brings us to the big issue: is there a conflict between science and religion?  Back to Huxley, I suspect the director intentionally set him up as the fall guy on this score;  he can safely be hated for his total lack of religious accommodation early on in the film.  Hooker does pop up now and again to reinforce the atheist line (the word is not used – nor is Huxley’s later derived ‘agnostic’), but never with Huxley’s brand of enthusiastic venom.

So  what will a religious person make of this movie?  After all, wasn’t it the possible religious reaction, and associated reduction in box-office $, that was behind the recent stink over US distribution (the film now has a US distributor).

There is nothing in Creation more offensive than a portrayal of the facts of evolution as they were understood in Darwin’s day.  And Darwin’s encounter with Jenny the orangutan, which is beautifully represented in the film (well it’s not really acting is it) leaves little more to be said on the question of our own evolution.   I’m not about to dive into a lengthy science-religion debate, suffice to say my position is that there are elements of religion as defined by some that are – on the evidence – incompatible with some definitions of science; and that the science-religion debate is an important one with practical consequences for us all.

God’s official in Creation, the local vicar, is played by Jeremy Northam.  In one memorable scene, Northam tries to comfort Darwin in his torn anguish, which only sparks a sarcastic tirade from Darwin on the delights of the God-designed  parasitic wasp larvae and the burrowing habits of intestinal worms. Northam’s sincerity and Bettany’s losing his temper are both convincing.

I live within an hour’s drive of the real Down House, and know it pretty well.   While the house in the movie was not Down, the exterior feel – with large bay windows and patio doors opening to the garden captures the right flavour.

Down House - rear from the garden (photo Tim Jones)
Down House - rear from the garden (photo Tim Jones)

The study has a similar feel to English Heritage’s reproduction of the real thing at Down – even down to Darwin’s screened-off privy. Likewise, the lounge and dining room, while never visible in wide-shot, have an attractive homely ambiance. The village road and church scenes are consistent with the feel of the real Down.

It’s not the end of the world, but a sandwalk scene was noticeable by its absence.  The sandwalk for those who don’t know it is a gravelly path leading into the woods near Down House.  I tend to imagine Darwin pacing down the sandwalk, under the trees or sheltering from the rain; to be sure – it’s a nice spot for thinking.

Interesting angle on the sandwalk (photo Sven klinge)
Interesting angle on the sandwalk (photo tks Sven klinge)

To wind up, this movie contains all the main factual, scientific, cultural, and emotional elements I associate with Darwin in this important period in his life.   Issues around the compatibility of science and religion are met head on through illustration (if a little caricatured) rather than tedious debate, and we get to see the human, sensitive and fragile side of a scientist.

There is plenty here to enjoy in the theatre, but also much to take home and mull over – with your partner perhaps :-).

Go see it !   4/5.

Religious Diversity on Twitter

Somebody has put a survey up on Twitter asking people to declare what religion they belong to.  The classifications are listed below.  It’s not a brilliant graph, but you can see some sort of distribution.  I’m including this in a science flavoured blog because there seems to be an ongoing debate about science and its compatibility with religion.  I really don’t want to fire that discussion up, but I still thought this sort of direct survey on something quite personal for many people was an interesting online development.


Of course, this type of study doesn’t represent all Twitter users; it’s self selecting of those who want to be counted.

I found it interesting with this survey that, if you vote, your religious affiliation gets broadcast to everybody as a tweet.   I don’t personally care; I’m an atheist by most people’s reckoning, including mine – so there you go.  But they don’t make it obvious your affiliation will be broadcast.  I didn’t spot an opt-out, maybe I just missed it?   Anyhow, it will still be interesting to see the result after the survey has run for a while.  It will also be interesting for individuals to see how – or whether – there friends and acquaintances voted.

The Poll is here: Twitter religiousity poll

Darwin ‘Hat-Trick’

Short note on my ‘Darwin Hat-Trick day’ last Wednesday.  Nothing too profound –  but some nice pics!

Final resting place of the Beagle?  Cutting in the Paglesham shore (photo Tim Jones)
Final resting place of the Beagle? Cutting in the Paglesham shore (photo Tim Jones)
And again with me for scale (photo: Sven Klinge)
And again with me for scale (photo: Sven Klinge)

We set off at 5 a.m., and by the end of the day had visited: (a) the supposed final resting place of Darwin’s Beagle at Paglesham, (b)the newly refurbished former home of Darwin, ‘Down House’, in Kent, (c) the Geological Society in central  London for a talk from Darwin biographer Janet Browne.

The Beagle (image Wikimedia Commons)
The Beagle (image Wikimedia Commons)
Paglesham location Nr. Rochford (image Google Maps)
Paglesham location Nr. Rochford (image Google Maps)

This sudden urge to drive around some of the more remote reaches of England’s green and pleasant land was triggered by a recent talk by Dr Robert Prescott at the Royal Society.  A podcast or vidcast should be available here within the next few days.

Prescott, who is researching the Beagle’s fate post-Darwin, has shown that after her last sea voyage in 1843  the ship served as an anti-smuggling watch vessel, anchored amidst the twisting system of waterways north of the Thames estuary.  He speculates, with evidence from contemporary charts, that the mastless hulk ended its days in a permanent mooring cut into the mud of Paglesham East End, near Rochford.  With images from Prescott’s talks fresh in our minds, we successfully located the otherwise unremarkable stretch of grassy mud-bank shown in the first photo.

Ground radar has revealed something of the right size and shape for the Beagle about 6 meters down, but tests on core drill samples are ongoing.  The team have identified wood and diatoms, and now hope to find evidence of life specific to the South Seas caught up in the timbers.  There’s some evidence that the top half of the ship was salvaged, and wooden structures consistent with the naval architecture of the day have been found in this nearby boathouse.

Timber structures consistent with the Beagle were found in this building
Timber structures consistent with the Beagle were found in this building (photo Tim Jones)

According to Prescott, Darwin never visited the Beagle after his famous voyage, despite the relative proximity of the craft to his home at Downe and documentary evidence that the Beagle’s Captain – Fitzroy – had kept in contact with Darwin.  While Darwin acknowledged the importance of the ship to his life and work, it appears any emotional attachment he had for the vessel did not extend to a need to be reunited.

Having driven 60 miles to walk over a (albeit important) stretch of mud, we continued our walk along the river bank to be rewarded with a watch post from another era – a World War II pillbox.  Pillboxes like these can be found across the south of England, and originally formed a continuous defensive line against potential German invasion.

World War II defensive pillbox at Paglesham
World War II defensive pillbox at Paglesham (photo Tim Jones)

Leaving Paglesham around 9 a.m., and arriving at Down House half an hour before the house itself opened, gave us plenty of time to explore the grounds and gardens of the Darwin family home.  There’s been some replanting and landscaping as part of the refurbishment, but the famous greenhouse and ‘sandwalk’ , where Darwin did some of his most inspired thinking, are rightly unchanged.

Learned Gents on the 'Sandwalk'
Learned Gentlemen look for inspiration on the 'Sandwalk' (photo Belinda Murphy)
Interesting angle on the sandwalk (photo Sven klinge)
Interesting angle on the sandwalk (photo Sven Klinge)

The house itself has benefited from a super exterior paint job and refurbishment, and a major re-modeling of the upper-floor exhibition space.  The personal audio guides are now video guides, but retain a pleasant enough welcome from David Attenborough.  But, photographers beware !  I’ve never been anywhere where the taking of pictures inside the house is so actively discouraged – quite a contrast to how things are managed in the USA.   I’d also advise an early weekday visit, as parking is limited and the experience degrades when the house is crowded.   All the same, it’s a beautiful location, the house is full of atmosphere, and it’s well worth the £8 entrance fee.

Down House - rear from the garden (photo Tim Jones)
Down House - rear from the garden (photo Tim Jones)
Down House rear garden (phot Sven Klinge)
Down House rear garden (phot Sven Klinge)
Down House frontage (photo Tim Jones)
Down House frontage (photo Tim Jones)

Down House is a stone’s throw from the village of Downe (with an ‘e’ this time) and the local church where Emma Darwin, Charles’s brother Erasmus, and Darwin’s servant Parslow are buried.

Emma and Erasmus's grave in Downe Cemetary (photo Sven Klinge)
Emma and Erasmus's grave in Downe Cemetary (photo Sven Klinge)
Grave of Darwin's servant (photo Sven Klinge)
Grave of Darwin's servant Parslow (photo Sven Klinge)

At 2 o’clock we were starting to feel the effects of the early start, so it was back to Kingston to drop off the car and consume some large coffees.

Phase three of our hat-trick required a train ride into the centre of London to see and hear Janet Browne speak at the Geological Society.

Janet Browne
Janet Browne at the Royal Geological Society (photo Sven Klinge)

Browne, best known for her two Darwin biographies Voyaging and Power of Place, was over from Harvard to speak on the theme of  ‘Two Hundred Years of Evolution: Celebrating Charles Darwin in 2009’ .

I guess the thrust of the talk was around how the various controversies surrounding Darwin and his theory have been accepted, challenged, and interpreted at different times and places.  For my part I found Browne’s historical interpretation clear and entertaining.  I was, however, at something of a loss to understand quite where she personally stood on more contemporary issues such as the compatibility of Darwinian evolutionary theory and religious belief.  What I took from the early part of her talk as an accommodationist approach didn’t entirely jibe with her response during questions when, for example, she credited Dawkins’s stance as ‘brave’.  Anyhow, you can listen to the podcast here at the Geological Society website and draw your own conclusions.

Time to wash the car….

Darwin Fish ;-)
Darwin Fish 😉

Darwin, Dennett and Dumbo’s Magic Feather

Since I  posted this blog, the BHA have issued a video of the whole event. So for a summary – read the blog; for the whole smash…here it is!

Disney’s Dumbo the Elephant got rid of his magic feather.   He realised it was  just a temporary crutch that gave him the courage to be all that he could be.

For philosopher Daniel Dennett, speaking on ‘A Darwinian Perspective on Religions’ , religion is just like Dumbo’s feather – a crutch we can do without.   This is a summary of the British Humanist Association (BHA) event I  joined earlier this month at South Place Ethical Society’s Conway Hall in London.

Daniel Dennett speaking at the BHA event at Conway Hall
Daniel Dennett speaking at the BHA event at Conway Hall (photo Tim Jones)

Chairing this second lecture in the BHA’s  Darwin 200 special lecture series, Richard Dawkins  introduced  Daniel Dennett as the scientists’ philosopher; someone who takes time out to keep up to date with the scientific literature.  And strangely perhaps, it is Dennett the philosopher, not Dawkins the scientist, of these two champions of atheism, who tends to take the more studious, less obviously attacking,  line on religion.

Daniel Dennett with Richard Dawkins at Conway Hall (photo Tim Jones)
Daniel Dennett with Richard Dawkins at Conway Hall (photo Tim Jones)

Taking to the podium in cheerful good humour, prompted in part by the obvious similarity between his own bearded visage and that of the cardboard Darwin cut-out standing stage left, Dennett launched enthusiastically into the reverse engineering of religion.

What was in store for the world’s religions?  Would they sweep the planet?  Would they die out rapidly or drift out of fashion –  like the smoking habit ?  Or would they transform themselves into creedless moral entities – keeping up the good work but without the mumbo-jumbo?    Whatever the future holds  for religion, Dennett’s mantra is that if we are going to have any steer over it, we had better  understand it – from a scientific point of view.

A Darwinian Perspective on Religion (Photo Tim Jones)
A Darwinian Perspective on Religion (Photo Tim Jones)

Dennett treats religion as a Darwinian phenomenon.  Human beings put a lot of energy into it – so what’s the biological justification behind it?

Religions, Dennett argues,  are the inevitable product of word evolution.   He see words simply as memes that can be pronounced.  Memes – the name coined by Dawkins  to describe units of cultural information transfer that are  in some ways similar to genes.   Further, words and letters represent a digitisation of language, meaning they can be accurately replicated – even without understanding, because of their consistency with a semantic alphabet.  So however crazy an idea expressed in words might be, it can still multiply irrespective of its meaning being understood or making rational sense.

How might the first word memes have come about?   Using a Darwinian analogy,  Dennett likened the first word memes  to wild animals evolving through natural selection in which “evolution is the amplification of something that almost never happens” .   As such, it would only have taken someone to give an arbitrary  name to a strange noise in the woods one day (fairy, goblin, monster etc.), for that name to eventually get around a wider community.  The seeds of superstition would have been sown.   Some  notable memes, by virtue of a special repulsiveness  or  attractiveness, would have survived into folklore.   It is these memes, Dennett said, that are “the ancestors of the gods” at the core of the world’s religions.

Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (Photo Sven Klinge)
Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (Photo Sven Klinge)

But that was only phase one.  When these ‘wild memes’ are purposefully looked at, studied, and manipulated by people, they become more powerful.  Some humans (e.g.priests) might dedicate themselves to keeping such memes alive and thriving,  even when by themselves they are no longer very convincing.   The modern religions resulting from this process and  that still survive today represent a tiny fraction of all past religions, and are analogous to surviving languages or species.

Good design means these husbanded memes have inbuilt mechanisms for survival.  For example, many religions make man a ‘slave to the meme’ – it’s called subservience.

Dennett described an interesting possible influence of the placebo effect in our cultural religious development.  Human susceptability to ritual may be a result of our reproductively successful ancestors being the ones who – through receptiveness to placebo – enjoyed the health benefits of shaman ritual.   Other self-maintenance devices built into  modern religions include the glorification of incomprehensibility, warnings not to engage with reasonable criticism (on the basis that you’re talking to the Devil, and he’s a better debater than you), and the idea that a belief in a god is a pre-condition for morality.

And that brought Dennett near to his close, and us full circle to Dumbo, and the argument that we have religion because we need it.  Dennett argued we no longer need the crutch represented by Dumbo’s feather.   Indeed, it’s harmful to hang on to religion, what with the likes of cult suicides and  death sentences for blasphemy.   But religion is most harmful  as a threat to a rational world view.   And how does religion differ from other factors that disable rationality, such as drugs or alcohol?  Only religion, Dennett said, “honours the disability”.

Also Interesting – Dennett’s debate last year with Robert Winston

Secularist Of The Year

The National Secular Society’s annual award for Secularist of the Year has been awarded jointly to Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury, for their success in getting blasphemy laws abolished.  I joined the event this afternoon, which was also a celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th anniversary, at the Imperial Hotel in central London.

Dr Evan Harris MP and  Lord Avebury, with Executive Director NSS Keith Porteous Wood
Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury, with Executive Director NSS Keith Porteous Wood and Richard Dawkins. (Photo Tim Jones)

The awards were made by Professor Richard Dawkins, and comprised a golden ammonite trophy and a cheque for £5000.  Both winners declined to keep the money and donated it instead for next year’s prize.

Richard Dawkins inspects a 'golden ammonite' trophy before presenting it
Richard Dawkins inspects a 'golden ammonite' trophy as Keith Porteous-Wood looks on. (Photo Tim Jones)

A range of politicians, scientists, celebrities, and commentators of various types were in the audience: including from the scientific community Prof.Peter Atkins.  Prof.Steve Jones, a previous year’s winner of the prize, sent best wishes.  Science journalists included Simon Singh (Fermat’s Last Theorem), and Ben Goldacre (Bad Science).   I also spotted former news presenter Anna Ford, and comedian Robin Ince.

Face in the crowd - Professor Peter Atkins
Face in the crowd - Professor Peter Atkins. (Photo Tim Jones)

The abolition of the blasphemy law in 2008 was something of a coup for the NSS.   Secularists have been fighting for years what has seemed like an unwinnable battle, and I sense the movement still can’t quite believe its success.  While not used since the 1970s, Christian evangelicals had been pushing for a revival in the application of the law.

Lord Averbury with trophy
Lord Averbury with trophy (Photo Tim Jones)

A statement on the NSS website after the event said: ‘The ancient law was called the common law offence of blasphemous libel, and was widely thought to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, the Government had not been keen to abolish it, we believe because of fear of discomforting the Established Church. They see abolition as an attack on their privileged position and a possible first step towards disestablishment.’

Dr Evan Harris MP
Dr Evan Harris MP (Photo Tim Jones)

It was a lively afternoon, where the company, food, and entertainment were all excellent.   The formal entertainment took the form of a re-enactment of a debate held in Oxford in 1860 between Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (Soapy Sam).   In ultimate irony, Wilberforce was (a little too convincingly) played by Terry Sanderson, the President of the NSS.  Given the audience, the winner of the debate was never at issue.

Terry Sanderson - convincing portrayal of Bishop Wilberforce
NSS President, Terry Sanderson - convincing portrayal of Bishop Wilberforce (Photo Tim Jones)
Thomas Huxley - 'Darwin's Bulldog'
Thomas Huxley - 'Darwin's Bulldog'
Bishop 'Soapy' Samuel Wilberforce

Joint winner Lord Avebury’s story is equally ironic.  His grandfather, one of Darwin’s great supporters and a member of the ‘X Club‘ with Huxley, was not actually an atheist: he was too ‘conventional’, Avebury said.   Indeed, incongruous with his grandson’s award today, his grandfather had been instrumental in having Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey.

Evan Harris, who one critic has described as humourless, was everything but, quipping in surprise as he received his golden ammonite trophy: “I was always taught at Hebrew School that the Ammonites were slain by the Israelites”.