Friday, July 31, 2009

Futurology and the Brain

One of the more curious works of recent times was a book called ‘The Singularity is Near’ by the futurist Ray Kurzweil. In it Kurzweil claimed that between now and the year 2050 technology will have reached such giddy heights that homo sapiens will have reached a new stage of evolution and develop into cybernetically augmented humanoids with self improving artificial intelligences as sidekicks. At this point, as it is so often predicted, ‘history will end’ in a Fukuyama-esque fashion and human/civilisation will explode across the cosmos and develop into a universal super-intelligence.

This is just one of several preposterous pieces of futurology I have read this year. The first was Susan Blackmore’s article on how the ‘gene machines’ (our DNA) have created ‘memes’ (the contents of our minds) which will all come to be enslaved by the ‘temes’ (the stuff we are putting on the internet). The other was a gleeful article in one of the British tabloids which argued that we shall all be proud owners of ‘robot sex slaves’ by the middle of this century; although, if Kurzweil’s and Blackmore prophesies come true I think we would be just as likely to end up being bred as sex slaves by the robots. Frankly I am not raising my expectations and would be happy just to get a TV remote that doesn’t get lost down the back of the sofa by 2050. I can’t say that becoming the 21st centuries equivalent of Robocop is top of my to-do list.

Not surprisingly Kuzweil has been the object of some criticism, the science-fiction writer Ken MacLeod describing his vision of immortal software-based humans as ‘the rapture for nerds’. The journalist John Horgan has described it as ‘a religious rather than a scientific vision’, an ‘escapist, pseudoscientific’ fantasy; he has also mocked Kuzweil’s ambitions to ”live long enough to live forever” and resurrect his dead relatives with nanobots.

A while back, Horgan followed up ‘The End of Science’ with a book called ‘The Undiscovered Mind’ which highlighted the ways in which the human brain currently defies explanation. In a recent article called ‘The Conciousness Conundrum’ he uses similar ideas to attack the idea of the singularity and the creation of humanlike machines. Horgan writes:

In spite of all those advances, neuroscientists still do not understand at all how a brain (the squishy agglomeration of tissue and neurons) makes a conscious mind (the intangible entity that enables you to fall in love, find irony in a novel, and appreciate the elegance of a circuit design). ”No one has the foggiest notion,” says the neuroscientist Eric Kandel of Columbia University Medical Center, in New York City. ”At the moment all you can get are informed, intelligent opinions.”

The problem apparently is the complexity:

A healthy adult brain contains about 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons. A single neuron can be linked via axons (output wires) and dendrites (input wires) across synapses (gaps between axons and dendrites) to as many as 100 000 other neurons. Crank the numbers and you find that a typical human brain has quadrillions of connections among its neurons. A quadrillion is a one followed by 15 zeroes; a stack of a quadrillion U.S. pennies would go from the sun out past the orbit of Jupiter…..Adding to the complexity, synaptic connections constantly form, strengthen, weaken, and dissolve. Old neurons die and--evidence now indicates, overturning decades of dogma--new ones are born…..Far from being stamped from a common mold, neurons display an astounding variety of forms and functions. Researchers have discovered scores of distinct types just in the optical system. Neurotransmitters, which carry signals across the synapse between two neurons, also come in many different varieties. In addition to neurotransmitters, neural-growth factors, hormones, and other chemicals ebb and flow through the brain, modulating cognition in ways both profound and subtle.

It’s an interesting article and well worth reading , especially the speculation concerning the neural code (the rules and algorithms which govern the brains performance). I have recently become interested in neural plasticity, something which was dramatically demonstrated recently by the case of the girl born with only half a brain. Somehow her brain managed to rewire itself and retinal nerves that should normally connect to the missing right half of her brain have moved into two parts of the left brain, thus ensuring perfect vision. In a similar case back in 2002 a girl who had half her brain – including the speech centre- removed was able not only to recover but also master two languages. The comment at the time was that :

‘We should see the brain as a dynamic system fully capable of functional reorganisation to re-establish the most essential functions for independent survival, rather than the somewhat static collection of neurons it is often made out to be.’

Bear that in mind next time you can't remember where your keys are.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

The End of Civilisation

During the past couple of weeks I have been reading up on the 'continuity vs catastrophe' debate concerning the fall of the Western Roman Empire. There are some interesting articles online, including this dialogue between Bryan Ward-Perkins of Oxford University and Peter Heather of King's College London. Both of them are sceptical of attempts to portray the fall of the Western empire as a quiet transformation. Peter Heather's conclusion is that:

'the central Empire did not pass away quietly but was fought to extinction over a 70 year period of intense struggle. As the power of the imperial centre collapsed, local Romans had no choice but to make their peace with the new immigrant powers in the land, and their survival made it possible for some (but not all) of the successor states to use some Roman governmental mechanisms. But this kind of post de facto negotiation process absolutely does not mean that the Empire went peacefully. As all the recent evidence for fourth-century economic, cultural, and political vigour might lead us to suspect, the fifth-century Empire fought a long and determined, if ultimately unavailing, struggle for survival.'

Ward Perkins who wrote 'The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation' agrees with Heather on this point:

'neither of us have much time for the theory that the empire was quietly ‘transformed’, by the peaceful ‘accommodation’ into it of some Germanic barbarians. We both believe in invasions that were violent and unpleasant, rather than what I have termed the ‘tea party at the Roman vicarage’ theory of settlement by invitation. I probably share Peter’s views, because I have heard him lecture on the subject many times, always with great conviction! Anyway, the idea that the fifth century was more peaceful than violent, just doesn’t fit the facts. Some degree of accommodation between invaders and invaded was possible, particularly over time. But I argue that the horrors of invasion are undeniable, and were often protracted, and that adjusting to rule under Germanic masters was painful and difficult for the Romans, used as they were to lording it over the known world.'

The second part of this interview is available here. I also came across a fascinating podcast by Ward-Perkins here in which he endeavours -by reference to archaeological findings - to describe the changes that took place in this period (with particular reference to Anglo-Saxon Britain).

The lifestyle of the Barbarians can’t have been so far below that of the Romans can it?

No it’s not that far below. And in fact the barbarians when they come in and find flourishing ways of Roman life, they very, very rapidly adapt. And for instance, people like the Ostrogoths in Italy happily live in marble palaces. It’s not that they are culturally ill attuned to using the Roman ways. But the collapse of the Roman state with its taxation system, which did redistribute wealth within the empire, and the disruptions caused by military invasion radically interrupt economic life; and basically economic life unravels. It’s a difficult process to understand because we are used to things growing all the time and we are used to economies becoming more and more complex so that, every single year, new bits are added on. But, I think what happens at the end of the Roman world is that economies start to unravel, and in fact it’s a very salutory thing to study because it makes one realise that things like this can happen. Our assumption that things are going to get more and more complicated, more and more sophisticated, and in a sense perpetually better, might be wrong.

How do you chart these incremental changes when there is not very much evidence for them?

Well, the best evidence certainly comes from archaeology because we don’t have, for the immediately post-Roman period, the great runs of documentation you might have for late medieval times or early modern times. We don’t have any data on population or the longevity of life. Archaeology can provide some of that data. It will go on providing better and better data. For example, as more and more skeletons are studied we will get better ideas about the health of population, size of population and the longevity of population. At the moment that’s all quite difficult, partly because people can’t quite agree how you actually age bones. The archaeological data will keep getting more and more all the time.

What I have worked with mainly is pottery. Pottery fortunately has two huge advantages. Firstly, everybody uses pots and secondly pottery survives extraordinarily well in the soil. It breaks very easily but once it’s in the soil it is almost indestructible. A vast mass of pottery have been excavated by archaeologists all over the Roman and post Roman worlds and that shows an extraordinary change. In the Roman period, even at a low level, a peasant might have access to a whole range of pots from a widely different set of kilns, and of very good quality. In the post Roman period, almost all pottery is very local, rather badly made and porous. There is just a huge contrast, most marked in places like Britain but also very noticeable in places like Italy.

So - I’ve argued, and I think I’m right – that if you can see this sort of change in pottery, it probably also happens in all sorts of industries where thinks don’t survive that well, like clothing industries, footwear, metal tools, domestic building; virtually everything.

Presumably that’s not because of a lack of skill. Was it because people were pre-occupied with living more basically?.

To be honest it’s a bit of a mystery....I mean I can show you that a pot made in Britain in 500AD is very different to a pot made in Britain in 400AD, but the pot of course isn’t telling you why. One has to hypothesise. Actually quite a number of technologies do disappear. For example in Britain in 500AD, nobody was making wheel turned pottery. The use of the wheel – which is a very basic technology – completely disappears from the whole British Isles during the 5th century. Equally, for example, the burning of lime to make mortar. There is no mortared building, no new mortared building in 500AD. It’s re-introduced at the very end of the sixth century, particularly from the continent with the return of Christianity. Another technology if you think of it is writing. Writing disappears in Anglo-Saxon Britain in the fifth century. Again this comes back in with Christianity in the sixth century. I find it very puzzling, particularly with something as basic as the use of the wheel for making pottery.
It has to be really that the market has collapsed. The market doesn’t exist for people to be specialised enough to invest in the basic things like a potter’s wheel which would enable them to make more pots, because in order to do that they would have to be able to sell more pots. Apparently the market just implodes so that everyone is effectively just making their own. Technologies do depend on a market in order for people to put the investment into buying the tools to make things in a specialised ways and also the investment to train themselves to make them that much better. It is puzzling, and I wouldn’t like to say I am very happy with this explanation, but that’s what it looks like.

Is it accurate to say that when the Western Roman Empire fell we moved into ‘The Dark Ages?’

I think so. Although it’s not necessarily a very fashionable view. The term Dark ages has gone out of fashion, and in many ways rightly so because the problem about it is that it is in many ways morally loaded. The idea that people were in many ways nastier and more brutal, and I think that is in many ways straightforwardly wrong. Not because I think they were terribly nice, but just because I think people have always been extremely unpleasant, and one only has to look at twentieth century to realise that people with more complex technologies can be even more unpleasant to each other than people with basic technologies. So in that sense I think Dark Ages needs to go. I don’t actually use it myself. But in terms of a) availability of evidence - which is one of the reasons they are ‘dark’- yes, definitely. The evidence just disappears, or virtually disappears. In places like Britain you do literally return to pre-history. There is no history. There are no dates for the part of Britain taken over by the Anglo Saxons from about 410 and the return of Christian missionaries in 597. So for 200 years we really don’t know from written records what is going on. So in that sense it’s very dark. And, in cultural and economic terms there is a remarkable simplification. Simplification is a neutral term, but if you want to call it a regression, I don’t think that’s being too judgemental. So yes, I think Dark Ages do happen, although I think the term is too loaded.

According to Ward-Perkins, recovery in Britain was very slow, but by the late eight century AD we begin to see the re-emergence of towns, particularly coastal settlements such as Hamwich (Saxon Southampton) and London as a trading centre. Complex native industries gradually begin to re-emerge, particularly in East Anglia and coinage was slowly re-established from the 7th to 8th centuries. By 800 Britain was roughly similar to what it had been in 1AD in the immediately pre-Roman period.

I would also recommend Tim O Neill's review of Chris Wickman's 'The Inheritance of Rome' and James's short post 'How Dark were the Dark Ages?' for a synopsis of the debate. It's great to see that, despite everyone agreeing that the term 'Dark Ages' is no longer appropriate, no-one can quite bring themselves to stop using it. Unfortunately the unfair, loaded and derogatory terms for historical epochs are usually the most catchy.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

By Jove

A week ago, scientists noticed a black spot on Jupiter. Apparently the gas giant was struck by a sizable asteroid. CosmicLog has the details. Jupiter functions as a guard for the inner solar system, deflecting asteroids and comets out of Earth's path. Were it not for Jupiter, the Earth would be struck by asteroids a thousand times more frequently, enough to prevent the possibility of advanced life evolving. Or to put it the other way round, in order for advanced life to exist on a planet, its solar system will require a planet the size and distance of Jupiter. If it were smaller or further, it wouldn't have enough gravitational impact to protect the inner planets; but if it were closer or larger, its gravitational effects would disrupt their orbits. It has to be exactly the size and distance it is. This is one criterion of the Anthropic Principle. Thank God for Jupiter.

That's the good news. The bad news is that we're still vulnerable and need to take the threat of an asteroid strike seriously. Part of the story here is that no one saw this asteroid before it hit Jupiter. It was a complete surprise. Of course we don't have as many electronic eyes out there as we do closer to home; but to give Jupiter as big of a black eye as it did, it must have been big enough so that it should have been seen beforehand. It's only a matter of time before something that big comes our way.

I know some people will not take seriously the claim that the Earth is in danger of being hit with a large asteroid or comet. It doesn't happen that often, it's just a doomsday scenario, etc. I'm reminded of a Dilbert cartoon about pessimists and optimists. If it's been a long time since anything bad has happened (an asteroid strike in this case), the optimist says, "We're safe forever." The pessimist says, "We're due."

(cross-posted on Agent Intellect)

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Friday, July 24, 2009

The Cleverest & Oddest Woman in Europe

‘Struggle, war and not peace is the inescapable law of life. Species struggle against other species, varieties against varieties and within each variety, in the social group, the tribe, the family itself, individuals struggle against other individuals’

Clemence Royer

The Theory of Evolution is arguably the most powerful idea in human history. In light of this it was pretty much inevitable that right from the very beginning it would be used to prop up utterly loony ideologies. As Denis Alexander describes in ‘Rebuilding the Matrix’, when ‘The Origin of Species’ was translated into French by Clemence Royer, she attached ‘an anticlerical harangue’ as a preface (Darwin’s first choice of translator had been Louise Belloc, but she had declined his offer as she considered the book to be too technical). This presented the reader with a ‘stark choice between the “rational revelation” of scientific progress and the “obsolete revelation” of Christianity.

‘The doctrine of Darwin is the rational revelation of progress, pitting itself in its logical antagonism with the irrational revelation of the fall. These are two principles, two religions in struggle, a thesis and an antithesis of which I defy the German who is most proficient in logical developments to find a synthesis. It is a quite categorical yes and no between which it is necessary to choose, and whoever declares himself for the one is against the other. For myself the choice is made: I believe in progress’.

She then ranted on for another 60 pages in much the same vein, taking sideswipes at the idea of charity.

‘What is the result of this exclusive and unintelligent protection accorded to the weak,the infirm, the incurable, the wicked, to all those who are ill-favored by nature? It is that ills which have afflicted them tend to be perpetuated and multiplied indefinitely; the evil is increased instead of diminishing, and tends to grow at the expense of good.'

Royer then attacked the ‘mixing of blood between higher and lower races’. ‘Nothing is more self evident than the in-equalities of the various human races’ she wrote, proclaiming that there was a law in nature which ordained the replacement of inferior races by stronger ones. She even went so far as to change the title of Darwin’s book, calling it ‘On the Origin of Species, or the laws of progress among organisms’. Having received a copy of the publication, Darwin wrote to Asa Gray:

‘I received 2 or 3 days ago a French translation of the Origin by a Madelle. Royer, who must be one of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe: is ardent deist & hates Christianity, & declares that natural selection & the struggle for life will explain all morality, nature of man, politicks &c &c!!!. She makes some very curious & good hits, & says she shall publish a book on these subjects, & a strange production it will be’

He was particularly bemused by her habit of adding extensive footnotes, which had the effect of putting forward his theory a little less cautiously than he would have liked. Darwin complained:

‘Almost everywhere in Origin, when I express great doubt, she appends a note explaining the difficulty or saying that there is none whatever!! It is really curious to know what conceited people there are in the world’ In a letter to Charles Lyell he added that ‘the introduction was a complete surprise to me, and I dare say she has injured the book in France’

A second edition was released in which Royer toned down her eugenic statements in the preface, but added a new forward promoting ‘free-thought’ and complaining about the bad press she had got from Catholics. By the time of the third edition in 1870, Darwin was getting irritated by the outspoken Frenchwoman. In the latest version she had expressed her disappointment that Darwin was engaging into speculation about pangenesis. Seeing this Darwin wrote:

‘I must enjoy myself and tell you about Madame C. Royer who translated the Origin into French and for which 2d edition I took infinite trouble. She has now just brought out a 3d edition without informing me so that all the corrections to the 4th and 5th editions are lost. Besides her enormously long and blasphemous preface to the 1st edition she has added a 2nd preface abusing me like a pick-pocket for pangenesis which of course has no relation to Origin. Her motive being, I believe, because I did not employ her to translate "Domestic animals". So I wrote to Paris; & Reinwald agrees to bring out at once a new translation for the 5th English Edition in Competition with her 3e edition — So shall I not serve her well? By the way this fact shows that "evolution of species" must at last be spreading in France.’

Darwin had prudently decided to authorise a new French translation authorised by Jean Jacques Mouline, but by now his theories in France were indelibly associated with thorny issues such as spontaneous generation, atheistic materialism and sinister laws of ‘progress’.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sorting the Physics from the Metaphysics

Physics world has recently released a couple of interesting articles from sometime adversaries Lee Smolin and Leonard Susskind. Susskind’s article is an attempt to cheerlead for the String Theory Anthropic landscape by invoking Darwin and the science-religion 'conflict'. He remarks that:

In successfully explaining the origin of species, he eliminated superstition and set a new standard for what an explanation of nature should be like. As I wrote in my book The Black Hole War (Little Brown, 2008), Darwin’s masterstroke was to have “ejected God from the science of life”..... In other words, before Darwin, even the greatest physicists had little alternative to a supernatural explanation of the origin of life, and therefore of nature itself. It was the success of Darwinism that forced the issue and set the standard for future theories of origins, whether it be it of life or of the universe. Explanations must be based on the laws of physics, mathematics and probability — and not on the hand of God.

Unfortunately Darwin merely appears to have evicted God into the cosmologist’s territory, a fact bemoaned by Susskind.

what is less noted is that physics and cosmology pose very similar questions, such as why the universe seems so incredibly fine-tuned for the existence of life. The only explanation, if we can call it an explanation, is that if it were less fine-tuned, intelligent observers like ourselves would have been impossible. I am, of course, referring to the cosmological constant, L. Theoretically, one would expect L to be unity in natural Planck units. But if it were anything bigger now than it is known to be — 10–123 — it would have prevented the evolution of galaxies, stars and us. Like Paley, we encounter what appears to be an extremely unlikely Paley might have complained, accidents involving 123 decimal places are too unlikely.

Luckily, just as the ‘faith-heads’, ‘theocrats’, ‘fidophiles’ and ‘sky-fairy aficionados’ let out a triumphant yell of glee, the string theorists gallop over the horizon to save the day.

‘Just as the details of DNA determine the biological details of a living organism, so the details of the fluxes, branes and other elements determine the properties of the universe. Again, the numbers are so staggering that even if the world as we know it seems extremely unlikely, there will be many ways of arranging the elements to make the constants of nature consistent with life. In particular, there will be many configurations in which the cosmological constant will be fine-tuned to 123 decimal places......Whether string theory with its huge landscape, and eternal inflation with its reproducing pockets of space, will prove to be correct is for the future to decide. What is true is that as of the present time, they provide the only natural explanation of the universe that lives up to the standard set by Darwin.

The problem being that String Theory find itself in a lot of trouble with the publication of Peter Woit’s ‘Not Even Wrong’ and Lee Smolin’s ‘The Trouble with Physics’. Peter Woit on his blog was less than impressed, complaining that:

Lenny Susskind gives new depth and meaning to the word “chutzpah” with an article in Physics World on Darwin’s Legacy. It seems that Darwin’s legacy for physics is the field of string theory anthropic landscape pseudo-science. Luckily, I don’t think creationists normally read Physics World.

Perhaps Susskind’s article was prompted by last month’s article by Smolin entitled ‘The Unique Universe’ in which he argues against the excesses of String Theory Anthropic Reasoning and argues that the timeless multiverse does not lend itself to predictive models and effectively does not exist:

there has been a gradual shift, during which it first became acceptable to work on theories that described not only our universe, but other possible universes, universes with less or more dimensions, or universes with different kinds of particles and forces. In the last few years, we have moved further away from theories of our one universe, as these other worlds went from being logically possible to hypothetically actual. It is now common to hear about the multiverse — a quantum cosmology that takes for granted that the visible universe that we see around us is just one of a vast or infinite number of universes..... the combination of the multiverse assumption and the timeless assumption effectively gives us a static meta-universe. Even if our own universe evolves in time, at a deeper level it is part of a timeless, eternal, ensemble of universes.

This is part of the problem highlighted by Paul Davies in a 2007 article:

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

Smolin identifies the problems with this multiverse and meta laws. The first is that the relationship between the fundamental laws that would govern the theoretical multiverse and the effective laws we observe in our universe is fraught with difficulties:

...In a timeless world in which our universe is just one of many equally real universes, the laws of physics must be very different from those that most physicists can ever have conceived. This is because the laws of physics are no longer determinable by what we observe in our own universe, for they must apply to all of the vast en¬semble of universes. A fundamental law then no longer proscribes what happens in our universe; instead it gives probability distributions for properties of the ensemble of universes.... given that the characteristics of the ensemble can be postulated at will and are not subject to experimental tests, the result is that we cannot make precise and unambiguous predictions about anything observable in our own universe.

The second is that ‘without time, and without the assumption that what exists is the single universe that we observe, it is hard to make sense of statements about probability relevant to what we observe in our universe. Since quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory, we then run into trouble by trying to extend it to a realm where probability appears to make no sense’. In other words, theories that do not posit time to be a fundamental property fail to reproduce the space—time that we are familiar with.

To solve this problem, Smolin suggests positing a time as something fundamental, rather than seeing it as an emergent property. He also suggests that science should proceed with the following metaphysical principles:

1) There is only one universe. There are no others, nor is there anything isomorphic to it.

2) All that is real is real in a moment, which is a succession of moments. Anything that is true is true of the present moment.

3) Everything that is real in a moment is a process of change leading to the next or future moments. Anything that is true is then a feature of a process in this process causing or implying future moments – this would reject the idea of eternal laws and the existence of a platonic world of mathematical forms

4) Mathematics is derived from experience as a generalization of observed regularities when time and particularity are removed.

Smolin concludes by saying that the “notion of transcending our time-bound experiences in order to discover truths that hold timelessly is an unrealizable fantasy. When science succeeds, we do nothing of the sort; what we physicists really do is discover laws that hold in the universe we experience within time. This, I would claim, should be enough; anything beyond that is more a religious urge for transcendence than science’. He also plugs his cosmological natural selection theory by claiming that the laws of nature could evolve with time.

Whether Smolin's metaphysical edicts will be the modern day equivalent of the 1277 condemnations remains to be seen. While his principles will go some way to tidying up all the speculation rife in physics they are unlikely to satisfy those who wonder why this particular model of universe exists.

For those that are interested, there is an article about the theological implications here.

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I Just Like Completely Held My Book

I came back home late from the theatre last night (Phèdre at the National Theatre with Helen Mirren Рtragic and gory) to find that the first copies of God's Philosophers had arrived. It was quite something to hold it, feel it and see it for real. It's been a long wait. Icon Books has done a great job. The cover is really good Рbright and distinctive Рso it should at least get a second glance from shoppers. Copies have gone out to all and sundry in the hope that it will be reviewed as widely as possible. Being a full-format hardback helps, although literary editors are notoriously difficult to predict. God's Philosophers will be in the shops in the UK in two weeks and in Canada a couple of weeks later. It should also be published in Australia although I don't have a date for that yet. Americans will be able to get it from while we see if a US publisher will pick it up. That will largely depend on how well it does in other markets and what sort of reviews it garners.

Because this blog should not get too cluttered with news about the book, I've set up a dedicated Facebook page so that I can easily link to reviews as they appear. I'll also post other book-related stuff there, reserving the highlights for this blog. Anyone who is a member of Facebook (isn't that everyone now?) can see the page and they can even become a fan if they wish (I see that this blog has acquired a few unsolicited fans, which is very kind of those who have signed up). Reviews and honorary mentions will also be listed at which is due a revamp when the book is released.

PS: The headline is inspired by Ben Goldacre's blog from when he first received a copy of his book Bad Science earlier in the year. By all accounts, it has done very well.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Genesis 'Enigma'

I was amused this week to discover that Professor Andrew Parker, a research fellow at Oxford University and research leader at the Natural History Museum, has just committed what has come to be the equivalent of intellectual suicide by publishing a book entitled 'The Genesis Enigma'. Parker is maintaining that the order of creation in book of Genesis - which you more commonly find being slammed for it's catalogue of scientific errors - has in fact been confirmed by modern evolutionary science. Not surprisingly his Amazon listing is already attracting pre-emptive one star reviews.

As this article in the Daily Mail describes:

In the Book of Genesis, God first and most famously creates heaven and earth, but 'without form', and commands: 'Let there be light.' A perfect description of the Big Bang, that founding moment of our universe some 13 billion years ago, an unimaginable explosion of pure energy and matter 'without form' out of nothing - the primordial Biblical 'void'. He then creates the dry land out of the waters, but it is the water that comes first. As Parker points out, scientists today understand very similarly that water is indeed crucial for life.

When 'astrobiologists' look into space for signs of life on other planets, the first thing they look for is the possible presence of water. On the third day, we are told: 'God said, "Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so."'

Now factually speaking, grass didn't evolve until much later. In the Triassic and Jurassic epochs, the dinosaurs knew only plants such as giant conifers and tree ferns. But since grass did not in fact evolve until much later, a sternly literal-minded scientist would declare the Bible wrong, and consign it to the nearest wheelie bin.

But wait a minute, says Parker. If you take 'grass, herb and tree' to mean photosynthesising life in general, then this is, once again, spot on.

And so on and so forth. Day four where the 'two lights' are created presents something of a problem for Parker but he comes up with an ingenious solution.

Parker argues that day four refers to the evolution of vision.

Until the first creatures on earth evolved eyes, in a sense, the sun and moon didn't exist. There was no creature on earth to see them, nor the light they cast. When Genesis says: 'Let there be lights... To divide the day from the night,' it is talking about eyes.

'The very first eye on earth effectively turned on the lights for animal behaviour,' writes Professor Parker, 'and consequently for further rapid evolution.' Almost overnight, life suddenly grew vastly more complex. Predators were able to hunt far more efficiently, and so prey had to evolve fast too - or get eaten.

Sure enough with the arrival of vision on the fourth day ' the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life'.

Readers of this blog will recognise this a revival of a peculiarly early modern approach to scripture. One of the characteristics of science in the era of the reformation was the decline of the textual authority of figures like Aristotle and the rise in the scientific authority of the bible. Humanist scholarship elevated both the most well preserved texts of the ancients and the de-Catholicised text of the bible as supremely reliable. It would remain there until the arrival of higher criticism. Protestant scientists followed their forebears in reading the Bible and the book of nature in tandem as complementary. However they also began a retreat from symbolic and allegorical meanings towards a far more literal treatment of the text. It was believed that the Old Testament set out in plain terms, the creation of the world, the origin of humanity and the ancient history of the world from the earliest times. In the area of natural philosophy nature was stripped of all symbolic significance in favour of facts. Early modern natural philosophers began to study such matters as the biological consequences of the fall, the effects of the flood and the tower of Babel.

One thing that caused great consternation was the age of the Old Testament patriarchs which seemed way in excess of the contemporary lifespans. Hence, sticking to a literal reading, some argued that the events described by Genesis resulted in changes to the human constitution. Richard Cumberland (1632-1718) for example, argued that Noah and his family had been able to populate the world because ‘the constitution of such long-lived men must needs be stronger than ours is and consequently more able and fit to propagate mankind to great numbers than men can and now do’.

Such approaches are now deeply unfashionable in mainstream science, but perhaps Professor Parker's new book shows there is hope of an almighty comeback.

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Today marks the 40th anniversary of the first time human beings stood on a natural body other than the Earth. Somewhere I read a quote of Michael Crichton to the effect of, if you had told someone at the end of the 19th century that we would land people on the Moon, and then within a few years, lose interest, they would have thought you were crazy on both points. But the sixth landing on the Moon, Apollo 17, was the last time human beings have been more than about 1000 kilometers from the surface of the Earth.

This was brought home to me yesterday when I finished reading Stephen Baxter's novel Voyage, which is an alternate-history where the United States lands people on Mars in 1986. Baxter's strength is that he can go into great detail regarding the technology, rocketry, and NASA politics to make it a realistic story of how it might have happened.

Anyway, here's hoping that we regain the spirit of exploration that we somehow lost. If we do, maybe we should call the program "Phoenix."

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Economics of Popular History

There was an interesting article in the Times last Saturday about the troubles of popular historians. Advances are down and big publishers are cancelling contracts – simply paying out the advances but no longer being prepared to invest in a book. The article features an interview with Lisa Jardine, one of the queens of popular history as well as an important academic in her own right. She reveals that she has never managed to earn out her advance (that is, never sold enough copies of a book so that it would earn as much in royalties as she was paid as an advance). In fact, it appears that few historians do. She also said that, as far as she could tell, history of science was the current big thing. Personally, I've seen little evidence of that.

It is true that the economics of popular history are quite difficult.

Firstly, it is extremely hard to produce a book that will please both the academic and the popular market. Only Penguin really manages to do this, and even they aim most of their history output at students. They have occasionally published a masterpiece of academic history (Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, Bartlett's The Making of Europe and MacCulloch's Reformation are three examples) but it is very hard to build a business plan from this. So they mostly do general histories from very well-established professors intended for undergraduates over ten year horizons. The apparatus of academic history also jacks the costs up. Endnotes, bibliographies and indices add to page count; the editing and typographic expense; as well as the time the author must spend on the book. They also have to pay an indexer. There is a huge temptation for trade publishers to do without these. I've been incredibly fortunate that Icon have let me add a hundred pages of such material meaning that God's Philosophers is as well referenced as any trade book can be.

Second, there is the question of time. It is quite possible to bang off a novel in six months, and many of the best practitioners do just that (although literature is a lot harder). You'll hear novelists prattle on about their 'research' but that often just means reading fewer titles than an undergraduate should do for a single essay. Real research takes bloody ages. And popular historians need to live while they are doing all this work. That's why most of them are journalists or academics – jobs where they have some control over how they spend their day. I'm an accountant which means I do nearly all my writing on commuter trains. The first word of God's Philosophers was written in late 2003 and it was effectively finished in June 2008, but the research had started five years before. Since very few popular historians can sell enough books to write full time, a book every five years seems to be the norm.

Which brings me on to the final problem: advances. Not my problem admittedly, as I didn't get one or ask for one for God's Philosophers. The Times article notes a rumour that Tristram Hunt received an advance from Penguin of £100,000 for his recent biography of Engels. I've no idea if this is true (I know Tristram very slightly, but certainly not well enough to ask him about his advances). But just suppose it is true: £100,000 over five years is not a huge amount of money compared to what a clever chap could earn doing other things. That is why Tristram is also a fulltime academic and writes journalism. Charles Freeman recently revealed that his advance for A New History of Early Christianity from Yale University Press was £17,500, which means Charles must work as a tour guide among other things.

An advance of £100,000 or even just £17,500 can have serious consequences for the economics of a book. Publishers do not say much about this, but I understand that they can hope to break even or perhaps make a small profit from sales of 3,000 copies of a trade title. But factor in a big advance, which must come out of the publisher's profits until the royalties exceed the advance, and things get hairy. If the author and publisher both get £2 a book (which is probably on the high side) and the author has a £100,000 advance, then the publisher must sell 25,000 copies just to break even.

All of which may explain why it was so hard to find a publisher for God's Philosophers and why, during the recession, publishers are paring back their lists.

Friday, July 17, 2009

First Review of God’s Philosophers

The book is not out for a few weeks yet, but the July/August edition of The New Humanist includes the first published review of God's Philosophers. And the surprise is that even though The New Humanist is published by the Rationalist Association, they don't hate it. Instead, philosophy lecturer Nina Power from Roehampton University gives it a middling two out of five stars. Her main positive comment:

The course of science never did run smooth, and serious speculation about mathematics went hand-in hand with astrology, alchemy and other discredited forms of pseudo-science (often because more money was to be made in telling fortunes for the rich than by solving equations). Hannam is good on these sorts of details, and as a general introduction to the intricacies of the thought and religious politics of this period, it is a useful guide: the difficulties of reconciling Aristotle's thought with Christian doctrine are particularly well detailed.

And her main negative one (which is as you would expect from The New Humanist):

However, Hannam's deeper motivation, namely to exonerate the Catholic Church from some of the worst excesses of which they stand accused (the persecution of Galileo, the holding back of scientific developments in astronomy, anatomy and physics), leads him to make some extremely convoluted and, at times, very unconvincing arguments. Just because persecution wasn't as bad as it could have been, and just because some thinkers weren't always the nicest of people doesn't mean that interfering in their work and banning their ideas was justifiable then or is justifiable now.

On past form, the review will be available on-line when the next issue of the magazine is out in a couple of months.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bad Pinker and Good Pinker

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Steven Pinker, especially his book The Blank Slate. He has generally steered clear of the new atheist controversy, preferring positive advocacy of his own ideas rather than attacking others. Of course, there has never been any doubt about where he stood on the question of religion, but he has tended to keep his language temperate. More importantly, he has played ideas and not the man. Sadly, all that changed last week, as fellow clerk Humphrey of St Andrews has noted over in the discussion forum. Pinker launched an unprovoked and, to my mind, unacceptable attack on the geneticist Francis Collins. As well as being a renowned scientist, Collins is an evangelical Christian and author of the book The Language of God (which probably did much better in the US than it has done over here in Britain). It's this public advocacy of Christianity that Pinker seems to find so offensive. But demanding that people should keep their religious beliefs, political views (Pinker and Collins are both outspoken Democrats) or even their sexual orientation in the closet amounts to discrimination. Furthermore, Pinker's use of the usual new atheist boo-words (superstitious, iron age and medieval dogmas) demeans him and lowers him to the level of Dawkins and Grayling. That is not where I want to see one of the world's most important scientific thinkers.

As if to cheer me up, Good Pinker was also in evidence this week. We've known from some time that his next book would be on violence. He probably knew that the chapter on this subject in the Blank Slate was one of the weakest (together with his treatment of art). So it is great to see that he has revisited it for a book length treatment. On the basis of this teaser article in a magazine called Greater Good (spotted by Daniel Finkelstein) the new book should be an interesting read. The central fact that Pinker identifies about violence is that it has been declining throughout history. The twentieth century, even allowing for both world wars, was far less violent than those that proceeding it. There are inevitable upticks from time to time, but the trend is clear. The question is what has caused it? Read Pinker's article for some clues. Finkelstein highlights one aspect of modern life that might make us less violent – television. Because this brings the world into our living room, it makes the alien seem familiar. This makes it less frightening and so might reduce the chances of our reacting violently when we come across it in real life.

Let's hope that Bad Pinker is put back in his box so we can enjoy the work of Good Pinker uninhibited.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Merrie 'Unscientific' England

‘One question is always asked, one objection is always those who show curiosity about nature, when ill-educated people see natural philosophers examining its products. They ask, often with contemptuous laughter, ‘What use is it?...such people think that natural philosophy is just about the gratification of curiosity, just an amusement to pass the time for lazy and thoughtless people’.

Carl Linnaeus 1707-1778

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have just released a new book entitled ‘Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future’. As the authors lament, science and scientists have declined in the popular culture of the U.S. since their heyday in the years following WW II. For every five hours of cable news, less than a minute is devoted to science. The number of newspapers with science sections has shrunk from 95 to 34 since 1989. Bn contrast, virtually every newspaper now runs a daily astrology column. On the other hand, while the demotion of Pluto from it’s status as a planet produced sacks of hate mail, it did also ignite a wave of interest in astronomy.

This type of strained relationship between science and society is nothing new and one finds an interesting parallel to it in Early Modern England, not least because the public had trouble seeing what use natural philosophy could possibly be. In his ‘Emergence of a Scientific CultureStephen Gaukroger points out that ‘the image of natural philosophy as a worthwhile enterprise was not something that was secure in the Scientific revolution’. As a result, the recently formed Royal Society almost collapsed soon after its inception due to a lack of attendance and funding. Having failed to secure an endowment from the king, the society was forced to rely on the joining fees and subscriptions paid by men of high wealth and status, many of whom made a very small contribution to natural philosophy.

The society itself was to come under sharp criticism from figures such as the Public Orator Robert South, who (a bit unfairly) referred to it’s members as:

‘the profane atheistical, rabble, whom the nation rings of, and who have lived so much to the defiance of God...a company of lewd, shallow brained, huffs making atheism and contempt of religion, the sole badge of wit, gallantry and true discretion; and then over their pots and pipes, claiming and engrossing all these wholly to themselves; magisterially censuring the wisdom of all antiquity, scoffing at all piety, and, as it were, new modelling the whole world.. the truth is, the persons here reflected upon are of such a peculiar stamp of impiety, that they seem to be a set of fellows got together and formed into a kind of diabolical society for the finding out of new experiments in vice’

Gaukroger quotes the Royal Societies patron King Charles II, laughing at the Royal Society for, according to Samuel Pepys, ‘spending time only in weighing of ayre and doing nothing else since they sat’. Things were so bad that Henry Oldenburg lamented to Robert Boyle that if only the Royal Society had made the most of their part in Wren’s plan for rebuilding London after the Great Fire, for this ‘would have given the Society a name, and made it popular, and availed to silence those, who aske continuously, what have they done?’. This was a sentiment echoed elsewhere in Europe. As Linnaeus complained in 1740:

‘one question is always asked, one objection is always those who show curiosity about nature, when ill-educated people see natural philosophers examining its products. They ask, often with contemptuous laughter, ‘What use is it?...such people think that natural philosophy is just about the gratification of curiosity, just an amusement to pass the time for lazy and thoughtless people’.

One of the most interesting public responses to the emergence of scientific societies documented by Gaukroger was Thomas Shadwell’s popular comedy ‘The Virtuoso’. This scathingly depicted Natural Philosophers as needlessly obsessive about obscure features of nature. The character of Sir Nicolas Gimcrack, based on Robert Hooke, is described as one ‘who has broken his brains about the nature of maggots; who has studied these twenty years to find out the various sorts of spiders and never cares for understanding mankind’. In one speech Gimcrack remarks ‘Tis below a virtuoso to trouble himself with men and manners. I study insects’. Hooke attended a performance and was so offended he wrote in his diary ‘Damned dogs. Vindica me dues (God grant me revenge’.

In 1709 a William King decided to publish a series of parodies of the Royal Societies ‘Philosophical Transactions’ in which the members are given instructions on how to write unintelligibly. Not that that there wasn’t something in King’s critique. Issac Newton once told a friend that ‘he designedly made his Principia abstruse’ to ‘avoid being baited by smatterers in Mathematicks’ and a spokesperson for the Royal Society celebrated it’s members lack of ‘ambition to be cry’d up by the common herd;’. In another publication by Thomas Brown, natural philosophers are depicted as trying to cure a boy who had swallowed a knife and deciding upon a more ‘philosophical remedy, and therefore better approv’d; and that was to apply a loadstone to his arse and so draw it out by magnetick attraction’.

In the event the Society was more than capable, through such members as Sprat and Dryden, of dishing out ridicule in return and does not seem to have suffered too greatly. Natural philosophy would eventually capture the imagination of the populace and the attitude would shift in the 19th century to a more respectful one. As a report in the Gentleman’s magazine of 1745 noted, demonstrations of electrical phenomena were ‘so surprising as to awaken the indolent curiosity of the public, the ladies and people of quality, who never regard natural philosophy but when it works miracles’.

See - The emergence of a scientific culture - Stephen Gaukroger p35-39

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Thursday, July 09, 2009


A big part of the claim that Christianity is at war with science is geocentrism, the belief that the earth is at the center of the universe. As readers of this blog are aware, this issue is almost entirely misunderstood: in the ancient/medieval cosmology, the closer you were to the center of the universe, the less privileged and esteemed you were. This is precisely why hell is even closer to the center of the universe than the surface of the earth, and why Dante placed Satan at the exact center of hell (and thus of the entire universe), immobilized in a field of ice.

The misunderstanding is that since the premoderns thought the earth was at the literal center of the universe, they must also have thought it was the metaphorical center as well. It confuses geocentrism with anthropocentrism. But this can only be maintained by completely ignoring their Aristotelian cosmology, according to which the universe was arranged in concentric spheres, with God on the outside as the prime mover. The furthest place in the universe from God, therefore -- the furthest place in a sphere from what is outside the sphere --, is at its center. Of course, this ignores the fact that in Christian theology God is not merely transcendent to the universe but omnipresent within it as well; nevertheless, the premoderns maintained that the closer you were to the center, the less valuable you were. This has been amply demonstrated by Dennis Danielson in his essays "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot", "The Great Copernican Cliché", and chapter 6 in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion; Humphrey wrote an enlightening post on this issue as well.

But I find it interesting that when Christians are told that their worldview requires a belief that conflicts with science, some respond by embracing the belief in question. Thus, there are geocentric ministries today which argue that being a Christian requires belief in a geocentric universe -- although they prefer the term "geocentricity" as it doesn't have as much historical baggage. The Geocentricity website is the official site of the Association for Biblical Astronomy, "biblical astronomy" meaning Aristotelian/Ptolemaic astronomy. The second link takes you to a collection of the publications of their journal.

There's another site that bothers me more. When I was in (Protestant) seminary, my favorite theology professor used a book for one of his classes written by a Protestant-turned-Catholic entitled, Not by Faith Alone. I didn't take that class, but I did plan to someday study this book, maybe together with Alister McGrath's Iustitia Dei, and see where I came out. However, the author of Not by Faith Alone has also published a two volume work entitled Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right, volume 1 of which deals with "the scientific case for geocentrism", thus absolving me of any requirement to take him seriously. (Update: Just to be clear, I'm not tying the Catholic doctrine of justification to geocentrism. I'm only saying that particular author is not credible.)

The Geocentric Bible is essentially an online book arguing for geocentrism; he says he first heard of this view from a young-earth creationist ministry. This leads to another point: most young-earth ministries have embraced a neo-geocentrism in order to account for the problem of starlight travel time. They argue that the universe we know is actually a white hole -- a black hole so crunched that light begins to escape via quantum tunnelling -- with our galaxy (the Milky Way) at its center. They call it "galacto-centrism" since the earth is only approximately at the universe's center. I critiqued the scientific case for this claim here. For now I'd just like to point out that in arguing for this view, they appeal to the idea that if we're important to God, we should expect to find ourselves at the center of the universe. In other words, they accept the conflation of geocentrism with anthropocentrism, a conflation which is not only unhistorical, but which was invented in order to mock and ridicule Christianity. This strikes me as an extremely unwise concession: when fighting the spirit of the age, you shouldn't let it define the terms of the debate. Moreover, the fact that they have to appeal to geocentrism in order to defend their belief in a young earth makes the latter even less plausible than it already was.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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