Archive for August, 2007

Science and original sin

Monday, August 13th, 2007

One of the reasons I am not a Christian is that I speak theology quite well. I am naturally gifted in seeing the world that way, so much so that I can never be certain whether I mean or believe the eleoquent things I sometimes say. And if I don’t know, then why should I suppose that anyone else does, when they speak?

None the less, some of the facts that Christianity tries to explain, and some of its assumptions, seem to me as close to axiomatic as an empirical fact can be. And I am always surprised that people misunderstand — for example — original sin as being a doctrine that sex is dirty. But when Augustine thought it was transmitted at the moment of conception, I don’t think he meant that we wouldn’t get it if our parents didn’t fuck; or, if he did, he shouldn’t have. He meant, surely, something much more like one of the central insights of Darwinism: that individual life necessarily involves differential survival, failure, great pain, and injustice. Conception in that sense is important as the moment of individuation, not the one connected to fucking. Otherwise, identical twins would have identical sins.

[Of course this is compatible with both evolutionary and non-evolutionary world views. That’s another question set of possible answers]

I was put in mind of this by Nature’s admirable rss service this morning, which carries a report on MS research1 using mice:

Experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) models demyelinating autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis. Researchers induce EAE by injecting animals with myelin components. These animals subsequently develop autoimmune responses to myelinated axons. Like multiple sclerosis, EAE induces demyelination, inflammation, neural death and paralysis. EAE severity is scored on a numerical scale, with higher numbers indicating increased severity.

I know enough about MS — and I have seen a friend die of a related disease — to be entirely in favour of animal experimentation as the lesser evil. But it remains lesser — it doesn’t lose an evil quality. “Original Sin”, for me, has a lot to do with the fact that we can only cure humans by caging and then torturing mice, not as some kind of voodoo ritual, but because that is the very best way to understand and then change the evils of the world.

Having got that far, a new thought occurs: suppose our understanding of mice grows so great that we can build a silicon mouse, like the virtual worm of which c. elegans researchers dreamed? Would that remove the stain? No. It would not. The only model on which we could rely would be one which told us little we had not already found out by other means and nothing which we could not check. I think. A computer model on which we had to rely and whose outcome we could never check against reality — well that would have free will, which is another theological conundrum.

1 (there is a similar one which involves provoking variously aggressive lung cancers in mice)

Race and sex in the USA

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

I have a piece at CiF poking fun at Bob Allen, a Republican politician in Florida, keen on family values and locking up perverts who was — but you guessed — busted cottaging in a park in the fine city of Titusville. If you’re going to offer someone $20 for the privilege of giving them a blowjob, make sure he’s not an undercover policeman.

What makes it more illuminating, though, is his excuse, captured on tape when he went back to the police station: that he was the only white guy in the place, and, seeing all these blacks, he was afraid he “would become a statistic”.

In other words, he was prepared to admit to finding black men so frightening that it made some kind of sense to offer the nearest large one $20 and a blowjob in exchange for free passage out of the area. (He never explained how he had got there in the first place.) Obviously, this isn’t really true, in the sense that he is not offering an accurate account of his motives. But the fact that he felt on some level tht it was plausible is very much more illuminating about his beliefs on race, and the fact that he expects them to be something that “everyone knows” than most lies or even wholly true statements.

After finishing that piece, I stumbled across this long piece in the Boston Review which argues — from a rather different angle — that after the Civil Rights movement crime became a proxy for race in American poilitics after the Civil Rights movement. This would mean that Rep. Allen, in his rather confused way, was only articulating party policy. (the story is also discussed on metafilter)

It’s worth thinking about. I wonder if we are approaching the same condition here. I have interviewed a social worker from California who thought we very well might be, after visiting Feltham Young Offenders institution.

OK — back again, still silly

Saturday, August 4th, 2007

From another week as a Templeton Fellow — really interesting, and I have made, I hope, some friends for the rest of my life. Anyway, this morning, I was flicking idly through the Telegraph blogs, and came across a wonderful example of the perils of interacting with your readers. Toby Harnden, their US correspondent, has a brief piece up in which he pokes fun at the Republican Presidential Candidate Tom Tancredo, who proposed nuking Mecca and Medina if there were another terrorist attack on American soil. Is it possible for a politician to get closer to the ignorant, bigoted, ugly American stereotype? comments Harnden.

Of course, since this is the web, there is immediately an American commentator, “susanx” to explain that Tancredo is just talking plainly about what needs to be done, and that there is no analogy — as Harnden suggested — with nuking the Vatican in response to an IRA atrocity.

Harnden, bored, responds: Maybe Tancredo’s logic would have dictated a surgical strike by Britain on churches in South Boston, hotbed of support for the IRA, or New York City, where the plate for “IRA prisoners” regularly went round, or South Florida, magnet for IRA gun runners over the years.

Later, susanx descends into frothing islamophobia. Yes, really: the condition does exist and here it is: you will never see a muslim slightly interested in art, architecture, literature and no matter how backward, corrupted, poverty filled they are, they will always feel superior to anybody else. What happened in Ireland has nothing to do with the above.

Harnden refines his position: I don’t believe for a moment Islamist terrorism and IRA violence are comparable (and am not advocating bombing Boston, NYC or Florida, you’ll be pleased to know) in other than some small, tactical ways (e.g. use of IEDs).

And I just feel it’s so unfair: Let a Guardian journalist suggest that one might assassinate even one American and all hell breaks loose …

Beauty tames the beast

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

I was talking to a very pretty woman: she sat with her hair the colour of slightly burnt cream against the light; behind her shoulder was the back of a couch striped in black and pale orange. What she had to say was — as always — intelligent and animated;yet, god help me, what I thought was “That’s a perfect background. Why didn’t I bring a camera?”

This is, I think, the lasting worth of photography. It makes you — at least me — look at the world as it would be if I weren’t human. My normal order of noticing things about pretty women is

  1. eyes
  2. face
  3. movement
  4. body shape
  5. nothing
  6. nothing
  7. nothing
  8. nothing
  9. oh is the house on fire?
  10. nothing
  11. clothes
  12. adjacent furniture

Obviously, certain clothes and certain suroundings can jump right up the salience but in general that’s how it is. I react like this even to clothes advertisements, which is one reason why they are wasted on me. I always look at eyes, then faces. Only very very much later, if there is absolutely nothing else to read, do I notice what the model is wearing, if anything.

But the camera has no interests in life. It will see without looking at all. Sometimes that way it sees more clearly.