Sunday, August 31, 2008

Labour Pains

There is a persistent myth that, when anaesthesia first became available in the nineteenth century, clerics said it should not be used to lessen the pain of childbirth because God had ordained women's suffering as a punishment for the sin of Eve. Well, perhaps the odd misogynist divine actually did say that, but it is more of a surprise to find quite a sizable number of people today still agree.

Last week, some research was published that showed first-time mothers are willing to accept greater risks for a 'natural' birth than the health professionals who care for them. My conclusion from this was that first-time mothers had no idea what they had let themselves in for, largely because there is a conspiracy of silence about just how difficult giving birth can be. All the literature talks about 'discomfort' or sometimes 'great discomfort'. But that is pure euphemism. For 'great discomfort' read 'red hot poker up your nether regions agony'. For the second child, mothers, who now know of what they speak, are much more likely to opt for an epidural or C-section. That's sensible, especially if they have previously experienced what one friend of my wife called "an all-night screamer."

The trouble is that the editor of the scientific journal in which the research appeared said women were right to take risks for a natural birth. I could hardly believe it. I know there are earth mother types who insist on home birthing and feel all virtuous about it. But for a health professional to take this weird view worried me. No surprise to find she got support from the Guardian's opinion pages.

There is a school of thought that men are not allowed an opinion on giving birth. But when some women are so determined to make their sisters go through severe pain for no particular reason beyond loosely formed ideas of virtue, I think we all need to speak out.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin Part 3

After part two of Richard Dawkin's show, I was quite hopeful that part three would also be interesting to watch. Sadly, it was awful and almost criminally misleading.

The message that had been explicit in the first two programmes now became explicit. Evolution means atheism. Because there is overwhelming evidence for evolution, there is also overwhelming evidence for atheism. At the start of the programme, Dawkins said evolution had made him an atheist and then explained (somewhat tendentiously) that it had also caused Darwin to lose his faith. We saw his daughter Annie at last and the famous case of the parasitic wasp, but it was not explained that what actually destroyed Darwin’s faith was the problem of natural evil, not the theory of evolution.

We got Dawkins talking to some hardcore young earth creationists and a scary blond American woman. But the scientists who were interviewed were atheists and Dawkinista cheerleaders. Where were Professors Simon Conway Morris, Kenneth Millar, Francis Collins (a bona fide evangelical evolutionist) and Alister McGrath? Instead, we got Rowan Williams as the sole representative of moderate Christianity with the clear implication that there are no Christian scientists who accept evolution. This is a downright lie and it cannot be an accident that the show gives this impression.

The question that this show raised is what is Dawkins actually trying to do? Is he a passionate scientist trying to communicate that wonderful subject to an audience who might otherwise not be exposed to it? Or is he an atheist evangelist who will use any tools at his disposal to spread his faith? On the evidence of this show, he is the later. This is very sad because science needs all the communicators it can get.

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

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Education minister writes rubbish

Andrew Adonis is supposed to be an extremely clever and well informed government minister in charge of reforming schools. But as the GCSE exam results (taken by all children at the age of 15 or 16) are released, he has written a very stupid article in the Times. The key quote is this:

There is no genetic or moral reason why the whole of society should not succeed to the degree that the children of the professional classes do today, virtually all getting five or more good GCSEs and staying on in education beyond 16.

I think we all know this is factually incorrect. And I’m sure Lord Adonis knows it too which makes his statement a lie. Admittedly, some people do still seem to imagine that talent and intelligence are sprinkled over the population like fairy dust. But they are not. As I explained here, genetics means that clever people are more likely to have clever children. Also, the way our society operates means that clever people earn more money. Thus, the children of the ‘professional classes’ will always, always do better at school than the average. This is a brutally unpleasant fact of life and I can understand why people don’t want to talk about it. But for a minister of the crown to state the opposite of what he must know to be true (or else he is too ignorant and incompetent to do his job) is unacceptable. He might as well reject evolution altogether and become a creationist.

But we are talking about generalities. We need to ensure that bright children, wherever they come from, get the opportunities that they need to thrive. That means good quality traditional teaching, streaming classes by ability for individual subjects and not dumbing down the exam system any further. And we need to stop betraying people who are not academic by pretending that they can achieve exam success when, sadly, they never will. Finally, as a society, we need to come to terms with the fact that what many people consider ‘normal’ academic attainment is actually quite exceptional. So we need to stop calling people failures if they do not meet a very narrow definition of success.

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

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin Part 2

Now this was much better. Part two of the Genius of Charles Darwin didn’t have much to do with Darwin, but it did try to tackle some interesting issues. Dawkins looked as uncomfortable as ever, but some of the experts he interviewed made for good TV. I especially I enjoyed seeing his Pinkerness himself who prefaced his remarks on the evolution of the brain by saying “I happen to have one right here,” before picking up an authentic brain-in-a-vat.

The show tackled two questions. The first was the evolution of mankind. This was handled well and I shared Dawkins’ thrill at seeing some of the most precious and important fossils of early hominids. There were a couple of finely judged moments of political incorrectness such as Richard Leakey hinting that chimps and humans might be able to interbreed (they can’t) and Dawkins’s priceless question to a Kenyan bishop “I’m an ape. Are you an ape?”

I don’t think that it is controversial that man is descended from an extinct prehistoric creature from which chimpanzees are also descended. When the Bible refers to man being created in God’s image, it means as a rational, free and moral being. Since God has no body, it is trivially obvious that He doesn’t look like us (unless He wants to). The Kenyan bishop disagreed with Dawkins, not because he thinks we are created in God’s physical image but because he does not think we have evolved. He’s wrong on that and I was with Dawkins in the first half of the show.

The second half was even more interesting than the first because it dealt with the biggest moral problem for atheists. If our minds are simply the product of a struggle for survival, how can we say why we should be good? Surely, evolution only allows us to say that certain behaviour is more successful. Dawkins claimed he has wrestled with this problem throughout his life and it sounds like he still is. He explained that evolution can explain sacrifices for our own families and also reciprocal altruism where we return favours. But he admits that this doesn’t go far enough. He thinks we might have evolved simply to be nice to everyone we meet in the first instance because in the African savannah everyone we met was part of the same tribe.

I doubt this is right, but let’s suppose for a moment that it is. In that case, we can explain why we behave as we do. But it does not explain why we should be good. If niceness is just a useful trait that evolution has selected, like sharp teeth or a prehensile tail, it cannot be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Dawkins has no argument to use against evil. He abhors eugenics, like many of us, but can’t say why it is wrong, especially if it were (unfortunately) to be effective. If rape is an efficient reproductive strategy, as some controversial work as shown it might be, why should Dawkins have a problem with it? So he doesn’t solve the problem that he has wrestled with. In the end he admits, as he has previously in writing, that our goodness may be our selfish genes misfiring. Goodness is a mistake. Perhaps, Dawkins might even be tempted to call it a delusion.

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Looking for bloggers

First, a quick announcement. My Cambridge University email ( no longer works. Now that I have graduated, the account has been closed down. In the past, I have been quite lackadaisical about which address I’ve used to send out emails so please check if you have as your email for me. If so, please change it to

A related point on email: to help avoid falling into my spam trap, please ensure that all emails sent to me have an informative subject line. Try to avoid “Hello”, “Greetings” or “Hi”.

Second, a request and/or suggestion. I have been remiss in updating my blog over the last few months due to the pressure of work. When I do update it, the page stats are pretty good and they don’t even include most of the people who read on Google reader and similar. At the same time, I’ve noticed that some of the best blogs on the net are team blogs. The solution might be to pool resources with a few other bloggers or writers with similar views and interests. That way, we have a better chance of regular updates and of a richer fayre than the thin gruel of my own opinions.

So, I’m looking for people who might want to hook up with me to create a team blog. Three or four contributors would be ideal. I’d rebrand the blog so it is clear that it is a team effort and each blogger would be able to post whatever they liked under their own name (I think it is important that people do post under their real name). Contributors would need to be orthodox Christians, politically centre or centre right, willing to post once or twice a week, and with an interest in history, science, religion, politics and the other sorts of things I post on. You don’t have to agree with me on issues like behavioural genetics or global warming, but you should accept the basic truth of evolution. Having an existing blog would be an advantage so I can see the sort of thing you like to write about. Of course, you can keep your old blog going as well if you join the new team blog.

If you’d like to have over a thousand readers of your work a week, drop me a line at

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

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin

Rather late, I’ve watched the first episode of Richard Dawkins’s The Genius of Charles Darwin. I’ve seen all his shows and thought this was the weakest of the three he has done for Channel 4 over the last couple of years (the other two were the Root of All Evil? and the Enemies of Reason). Dawkins’s is not really a television natural and he usually looks quite uncomfortable on screen. If I recall, he actually doesn’t enjoy TV work and has avoided doing it until recently. Another problem was that the script had been dumbed down to a level that only an ill-informed five year old would have learnt anything new. Certainly, if you’ve read any of Dawkins’s books, there was nothing in the show that you would not already know. This is almost certainly not the fault of Dawkins who is famous for communicating difficult ideas and helping his readers understand things that they might have thought beyond them.

The biographical bit of the show telling us about Darwin’s life was based on a very old fashioned reading of the history. There is no mention of Lamarkism or other theories of evolution doing the rounds when Darwin was researching. You would have imagined from the show that, until the Origin of Species was published, everyone was a young earth creationist. Charles Lyell is briefly mentioned, but not the fact he was a Christian despite demonstrating the enormous age of the Earth. As is well known, Darwin lost own his faith after the death of his daughter Annie, rather than because of his theory of evolution. We see a brief flash of Annie’s sketchbook but no mention was made of her importance to Darwin’s life. Perhaps this will come in the later episodes.

Still, the show had its moments. Dawkins comes face to face with a class of media-savvy teenagers. They know perfectly well what his hobbyhorse is and decide to pose as a bunch of unreconstructed fundamentalists. Dawkins appears to be blissfully unaware that they are winding him up. He should have remembered the old adage never to work with animals or children. Finally, it was a pity that even Richard Dawkins, the brightest star in the British scientific firmament, couldn’t get Channel 4 to part with a half decent budget for his programme.

My thoughts on episode 2 will follow when I’ve had a chance to watch it.

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