Sunday, October 28, 2007

Asking a Favour

I hope regular readers will forgive me for once again asking, please could anyone who follows my writing sign up their email at my book's website where I am trying to gather enough people to interest publishers in my book on medieval science. Registering here creates no obligation on your part. The list will only be used to try to convince publishers that there is a market for my work. You will not be sent any emails apart from one confirming your registration and another when the book is published.

Getting published in non-fiction is almost impossible unless you are already either a journalist, a publisher, a celebrity or a senior academic. The quality of the book has almost nothing to do with it. Almost all popular history is written by journalists and the genre suffers seriously as a result. So, by signing up on my list you will also be helping to strike a blow for history to be written by historians rather than amateurs with the right friends.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Digging for Manuscripts

There is an interesting article in the Times about the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Most readers will know that this is a building, first excavated in the eighteenth century, which gave up an entire ancient library of some 3,000 scrolls. Using modern technology, we can read them (they were badly damaged in the eruption of Vesuvius that buried the villa). In general, the contents of the scrolls have been a big disappointment for amateur classicists as they mainly contain deservedly forgotten works of philosophy and poetry. Some good stuff has turned up, but precious little.

I find all this darkly amusing. People imagine the ancient world's literature must have been amazing and the fact we have lost so much a complete tragedy. Well, it is a pity. But the fact is that the stuff that was preserved are, in the main, the best bits. Their survival is precisely because they were valued more highly and more likely to be copied. True, quite a lot of dross survived too. In general, though, the discoveries from papyri have either confirmed what we already know, or shown that we have missed less than we thought. I've blogged previously about Menander and how his rediscovery in the sands of Egypt was a serious let down. We have since learnt to appreciate his shallow little comedies for what they are, rather than what we hoped they would be.

The Times article speculates about what manuscript treasures might still lurk in the villa of papyri. Digging there will shortly resume although there is no guarantee that there is another library to be found. All classicists have a wish list of what texts they'd like to recover. For me it is largely history rather than science or literature. Top of my list, though, would be Luke/Acts. Given the villa was destroyed in 79AD, the discovery of a Gospel would finally put paid to the arguments that these documents are too late to be reliable.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Professor Watson in Trouble

I have never had much time for James Watson or Francis Crick. They seemed to me to combine overbearing arrogance with over achievement. The treatment of Rosalind Franklin and the way she was airbrushed out of history still causes my hackles to rise, even though the picture has now been largely corrected. Both Watson and Crick were also neo-atheists before the event. Watson is quoted in The God Delusion, IIRC, as finding theists so embarrassing that he has no idea what to say to them.

So the I allowed myself half a smile at how he has come a cropper with some inflammatory remarks about race and IQ. Any one who bases conclusions about general intelligence on the outcome of IQ tests is being extremely foolish. Richard Dawkins himself has been uncharacteristically silent over Watson's defenestration, but his familar Sue Blackmore did try to defend him up to a point.

The most interesting article is in today's Guardian because it sheds some historical light on the whole matter. Johnjoe McFadden looks at the history of the eugenics movement. The supporters of eugenics are a role call of prewar 'freethinkers': George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Marie Stopes and Virgina Woolf. What the article does not tell us is that both Catholic and Protestant Churches fought hard and ultimately successfully for the human rights of the handicapped, disadvantaged and mentally ill. However, the death blow to eugenics was the Nazis actually doing what English progressives only talked about. Only by changing sides have freethinkers been able to get onto the right side of this argument and start to champion universal human rights themselves. Watson, perhaps, never realised that the world has moved on.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Why do Religious People give more to Charity?

An increasing body of research is showing that, on average, religious people are happier, healthier and more generous, at least in the United States.

This has been a bitter pill for some non-believers to swallow, but before we draw too much from these results, we have to ask a vital question: what is causing what? Readers will recall my praise of Jonathan Haidt’s article on which touched on these questions. Aside from Sam Harris’s rant, this drew some more measured criticism. A correspondent pointed out Mark D. Hauser’s response which suggests that religion need not be a cause of the way religious people behave. Granted that religious people give more to charity, as Haidt pointed out, how do we know that religion is the cause of this generosity? Perhaps the sort of people attracted to religion are simply more likely to give to charity any way. Perhaps religious people are happier not because of their beliefs but because they lack the atheist’s clear-eyed pessimism.

Of course, we have been here before. We used to imagine that children grew up like their parents because of the way their parents raised them. Science poured cold water on this idea and has shown than nurture is irrelevant – it’s the parents’ genes that count. We also know that a predisposition towards religious belief or the lack of it is heritable. So, if the genes that give someone proclivity to believe in God also give them a tendency towards looser purse strings, we could not say that religion itself makes people generous. This might sound like a long shot, but we cannot dismiss the possibility without subjecting it to rigorous testing. We need to find out if religious people whose parents were non-believers have pockets as deep as those who were born to religious parents. Likewise, atheists with godly ancestors should be tested against those from a line of sceptics. If religion itself is a cause of generosity, health or happiness, the atheists should score the same, regardless of who their parents were. Likewise, with religious people from different backgrounds. As we already know that upbringing makes no difference to these traits and genes were ruled out by the experiment, we could be confident that religion itself was the deciding factor. In that case, non-believers would have to accept that religion has real benefits.

Of course, none of this has much impact on the question of whether or not a religion is true. Neo-atheists, like the right-wing Thatcherites as they dismantled Britain’s uncompetitive industrial sector, may have to tell themselves, “We may not be very nice, but at least we are right.”

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Pity the Rabbits

I like rabbits. Not as pets, where they are a waste of perfectly good carrots. Instead, I like to see them hopping around misty fields first thing in the morning and making the countryside seem full of life. I am also extremely fond of casseroling them although for eating it is better to search out a French farmed rabbit instead of the English wild ones that the local farmers practically give away.

Late last week, I had to catch a train into London, but the car park at the station was full, as usual. No problem for me as I knew a little country lane where I could leave my car for free. After my business in town, I walked back down the little lane towards my car and saw a rabbit ahead. Strangely, it ignored me. When I got really close, it hopped forlornly around my feet without making any effort to get away. This was clearly a very unhappy bunny.

Next day, the set up was the same and with my car parked in the lane, I was walking back up towards the station. There was my rabbit again, but this time it was a great deal thinner. Standing in the middle of the road had led to its inevitable meeting with a car (mine, for all I know). I've seen plenty of squashed animals but this one was quite disturbing. Its eye, which I hadn't seen from above the night before, was swollen up and completely closed by a pink callous. Death by tyre had been merciful.

It was not until later that I learnt the terrible truth about my rabbit. The excellent Rod Liddle, one of my favourite journalists, had had a similar encounter and he knew what it meant. Myxomatosis is back. It arrived in the 1950s when it wiped out most of the English rabbit population, not to mention many of the animals that feed on rabbits and can't get hold of the French farmed ones. Liddle has set out the horrible details of this disease in his article so I won't repeat them here. The resurgence of myxomatosis is evolution in action. The few rabbits that survived the 1950s outbreak had a high degree of immunity. The virus survived but only gave them a bad dose of flu rather than a lingering death. But the genome of the virus has been clicking away like a rubic cube looking for the combination that will get it past the rabbit's immunity. Rabbits may breed like rabbits, but they have nothing on a virus. It was only a matter of time.

Now, they are dying. My wife has noticed it even if the news media has not. No one knows how bad it will get but it is likely that the misty mornings will be still next summer. And if you see a rabbit transfixed in your headlights, running it over is probably the kindest thing you could do.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Religion and Politics

With the prospect of a general election in the UK looking ever more likely, I thought I'd have a look at the religious beliefs of Gordon Brown (the Labour prime minister) and David Cameron (the opposition Conservative leader).

Former prime minister Tony Blair, of course, was a devout Christian in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. His wife is Catholic and Blair's conversion has been long anticipated (although equally long-delayed). However, he was careful to keep religion out of the political sphere. I saw him refer to it just once, years ago when he was still relatively unknown. On a TV show he explained his opposition to the death penalty in terms of his Christian faith.

Gordon Brown is, if anything, even more devout than Blair. His father was a Church of Scotland minister and his ethos is strongly Puritan. Today's European social democratic parties owe much of their philosophy to nineteenth-century Methodists and non-conformist Protestants. Brown's Christianity is very much in that tradition. He is teetotal, echoing the temperance campaigns of the early twentieth century, and very serious in demeanour. However, even more than Brown, he keeps his religion under wraps. No one really knows where he stands on abortion and gay rights, although he has abstained from all anti-gay discrimination measures put before the UK Parliament in the last decade. All this has made him a cipher for the secular left, like Johann Hari, who desperately hope his Christianity won't make an appearance. Given the tradition that Brown comes from, their fears are probably groundless.

David Cameron also claims to be religious. He told the BBC, "I believe in God and I try to get to church more than Christmas and Easter, but perhaps not as often as I should, but I don't feel I have a direct line." In this sense, his views are very much along the lines of most of the British who have a very relaxed view about religion, but on balance do believe in something. Again, commentators like Michael Portillo are hoping that any religious views he does have remain on the back-burner. In Cameron's case, I can't see him ever mentioning God on the stump. His beliefs are both fuzzy and unfocused without any philosophical depth.

Thus, if we do have a general election, both major parties have leaders with broadly Christian credentials. Although, Brown's are much stronger, I doubt a Conservative government would give any comfort to the neo-atheist tendency, nor cause them much concern.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.