Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Felis catus, from Pantherae out of Mesopotamia


Enjoyed a piece in a recent SciAm this morning, tracing the family tree and the migrations of the Felidae family [that's cats]. These most resourceful and adaptable and efficient predators would've made short work of Australia's marsupial population if only they'd managed somehow to get here over the past few million years. Of course their great skills haven't helped them much against the great human onslaught - the domestic cat is about the only species of the 37 living ones not currently endangered or threatened.
Before the advent of DNA analysis they had difficulty with the Felidae fossil record - the skulls of lions and tigers, for example, being almost identical. The new approach has been to take blood or tissue samples from each of the 37 species, looking particularly at the x and y chromosomes and at mitochondria, to check for variation and therefore relatedness, and age - the oldest showing the most variation within any given gene. Genomic data was mathematically calibrated to a molecular clock [based on an assumption of regular evolutionary change] to yield estimates of the times of the various branchings of the tree.
Anyway I was intrigued to learn of the migratory lives of lions [there are still a handful left in India], tigers [almost wiped out in East Asia by volcanic eruptions 70,000 years ago] and cheetahs [once plentiful in North America, along with lions and Jaguars, but wiped out there by the Pleistocene extinctions]. Their roaming behaviour in the past has allowed them to survive, sometimes by the skin of their teeth, all sorts of climatic cataclysms, so it's a shame to see so many of them struggling now, largely through the wrecking of habitats.

Monday, October 22, 2007

a subject unworthy of debate?

God Bless ...

Reading various blogs, I've come across an argument by another atheist, Jonathon Miller, who says he prefers to keep his atheism to himself, because he doesn't see much point in expressing his lack of belief in something so obviously false or wrong.

I understand this. Why give these people oxygen? Why not, as scientists, artists, politicians, philosophers, whatever, pursue our work, building connections, networking, exploring, developing knowledge and understanding, rendering, almost inadvertently, the religious approach irrelevant?

It raises the question of the real value of anti-religious polemics. After all, religion is the softest of targets, the easiest of options. Einstein and Darwin could've devoted their lives to examining the evidence for the existence of God or Christ, instead of developing theories which have moved us far beyond traditional religious understandings of the universe and of humanity, thereby doing far more damage to those religions than a thousand speeches by Hitchens, Grayling and the like.

And yet, and yet...

While I recognise that people like Hitchens, and myself, are making life easy for themselves by almost lazily pointing out the absurdities of religious belief, we are moved to do so by a sense of the urgency of the project. Leaving aside the horrors of Islamic submission, - which are quite overwhelmingly multifarious - Christianity still dominates the US, to the extent that nobody can hold significant public office in that country without professing Christian beliefs, and atheists are reviled and persecuted. It seems to me that everybody is focusing on the US as the battleground - in Britain, sure they've had a rabid Christian as their PM for years, but that's almost been an anomaly. What were Thatcher's religious beliefs? What are Gordon Brown's? Does anybody care that much? In Oz we're about to have a committed Christian as PM. I don't like it, but I don't think it's going to interfere much with governance. In the US, however, Christianity plays far too large a political role, - not to mention the intelligent design push - hence the urgency of the debate there.

Also, it's impossible to ignore, in our increasingly multicultural society, the predominance of other faiths. Just tonight, after teaching business English to a student from East Turkestan, I returned to her loungeroom to find her elderly mother [a thoroughly endearing and hospitable character with a sly sense of humour] bowing down on her mat to the scary-fantastical Allah. The same guy who has inspired, so it's claimed, so many murderous attacks upon Americans, Australians, Jews, Iraqis and so many more.

I’m impatient to rid the world of these fantasised friends and fiends, to build an understanding of what we truly are, to get more of a grip on our dynamic human nature.

So – confrontation or carry on regardless? The latter is most important, but where religion threatens to take over, or even to overly influence, the body politic, that must be fought tooth and nail.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hitchens Rising

Hitchens causes another big stink

Christopher Hitchins performs well in this 'debate' with a devastatingly woeful Alister McGrath. I may even read his book now, though it will repeat so much that I've already read, heard and developed in my own mind. Especially in the early stages he maintains his self-discipline and puts forward arguments that are essentially unanswerable. His principal tactic is to attack the religious on primarily moral grounds, and with a degree of moral dudgeon. This is indeed the best tack, to emphasise the self-serving nature of religious faith, as well as its evasion of all reasonable questioning and analysis. He points out, as I have, that, with homo sapiens traversing and eking out a living, and making moral decisions, for over 100,000 years, it's a bit rich to think that the revelation of Christianity less than 2000 years ago contains eternal truths by which we should live. Jesus Saves, is the message. Believe in him and you'll have life everlasting. Too bad, apparently, if you lived out your nasty brutish and short life before Jesus's appearance. Maybe you won't go to hell, but you won't go to heaven either [probably a blessing]. McGrath responds to this by saying that his god will deal justly with those who make the best of the limited amount that they do know, and that this view of things is part of Christian theological tradition. Naturally they would come up with some such vague solution, which seems just another example of making things up as they go along.

I particularly liked Hitchens's example of the scapegoat, an idea common to early religious cults, and its similarity to the Jesus sacrifice. It was a new idea to me, and its moral vacuity was rightly underscored. McGrath didn't really adequately respond to this point.

Its interesting that Hitchens seems to have found a new lease of life with this subject. Many had noted that he was looking tired and faded and a bit "under the weather" after these years of the Iraqi debacle. He seems to be more comfortable with ideas than with the messy realities of that situation, in which his combative style is largely counter-productive.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

best book on Iraq

Slowed down a bit, sorry. I'm not sure that I'll talk much more about Melbourne.

As to the questions I formulated re Christianity and belief, I've sent an email to Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney [or rather to his press secretary], asking if he would consider participating in an interview. Interesting to see if I get a response of any kind. Jensen's a controversial character, as can be seen here and here. I'll be sending other emails in the future - it's a shame that I have no contacts whatsoever, in broadcasting, television or within Christian or atheist circles, to help me realize this idea. The cost of being such a hopeless loner. Always, though, there's a silver lining - my anonymity could be advantageous.

Now for something entirely different:

Rumours spread that the American forces were cutting electrical lines to punish Iraqis for staging attacks, and that they had brought Kuwaitis up with the invasion force to instigate the looting in revenge for the Iraqi occupation in 1990. "Our people don't understand what's going on, so they think the Americans are deliberately creating this chaos,'' Dr Butti [an Iraqi academic] told me. The conspiracy theories were an attempt to make sense of the absurd. He himself didn't know what to think. "We don't want to believe it's not intentional - the greatest power on earth can start a nuclear war." The notion that bad planning, halfhearted commitment, ignorance and incompetence accounted for the anarchy simply wasn't believable. How were Iraqis to grasp that the same Washington think tank where Bush offered Iraq as a model for the region had contributed to the postwar collapse by shooting down any talk of nation building? Deliberate sabotage made more sense.

This summary para on the state of mind of many Iraqis in Baghdad, circa mid-2003 comes from a must-read book on the planning and aftermath of the US-led invasion of that devastated country. The Assassins' Gate, by the New Yorker writer George Packer, is primarily about individual people and their take on, and clashes with, the multifarious reality of Iraqi consciousness, history and politics, in the light of the fall of Saddam's regime. One of the key figures in this complex tale is the indefatigable Iraqi exile and academic Kanan Makiya, whose optimism about the possibilities for post-war democracy in Iraq seems to have influenced the US government's strategy for a quick, lean campaign and a speedy transition to a supposedly democratic Iraqi government. Another, at least in these early pages, is the neocon intellectual Paul Wolfowitz, whose ideas about America's global role found fertile ground in the Bush administration after September 11 [though it's convincingly shown here that it was Bush himself, more than anyone, who was determined to topple Saddam immediately after the al-Qaeda attacks - though Cheney might've goaded him on]. But there are many other players and victims in this enthralling tale of woe.

Packer, at the beginning of the book, describes himself as a reluctantly pro-war liberal, at least he was during that long unsettling period before the invasion began. I myself was reluctantly anti-war. I participated in the 2003 pre-war demo, and I was disgusted at the Bush administration's strong-arming of the UN and their obvious lies about the sudden threat Saddam posed, but I had no answer to the claim that anti-war activities played into the hands of Saddam, and I wasn't impressed with the arguments of Pilger and others re interference in a sovereign country - as if nations were somehow more important than people. I was interested in the idea of humanitarian intervention, but the US sabre-rattling wasn't about that, it was all about the US, and the supposed threat that little Iraq posed to it. I saw it very much in playgrounds terms, the school bully seeking to reassert his dominance after a bold jab in the belly from an unexpected, and equally little, assailant in the form of al qaeda. But these broad overviews are rendered well-nigh irrelevant beside the complexity of the situation found on the ground after the fall of the Baathists.

Anyway, I highly, highly recommend this book, which I'm now more than half-way through. Strange it might seem that such a rivetting read could be fashioned out of such a variety of human misery, frustration and hubris - but then maybe that's what most rivetting reads are fashioned from. The key word for the book comes from the back blurb. Humane.


Friday, October 12, 2007

question everything

I was a little disappointed with Dennett - maybe I'm growing tired of the subject, or rather of the massive effort required to get believers to rethink their beliefs and to consider evidence in a dispassionate way, as well as the massive effort required to turn the tide against permitting the holders of such weird beliefs to have such disproportionate political influence, even in Australia, let alone Iran, the Sudan and the US. Breaking the Spell didn't have the combativeness and sense of outrage of Dawkins or Onfray, nor the analytical exhaustiveness or psychological depth of Boyer. It might've been the sort of book I would've written, so little in it surprised me, though he's more on the ball about memes and other replicators - ok and much else besides.

I'm pleased though that Dennett reinforces my own position so forcefully. Being a timid type who doesn't tend to impose his reflections on too many others, I sometimes use Sarah as a sounding-board, and though she's no lover of religion, she often takes umbrage at my attacks - probably a degree of defensiveness vis-a-vis her daughters, all of whom have a religious turn of mind [though in one case the religion is socialism]. Recently she claimed that my definition of spirituality was no more than a cheap shot, yet Dennett and others say much the same thing about spirituality as a concept naturally opposed to, and pretending to a superiority to, materialism, and about believers' perpetual linking of spirituality and moral value, sans argument of any kind.

He's generally kinder to believers than me though, and even seems to want to engage with them [though, unsurprisingly, he's more interesting when he's not trying to]. Of course I rarely engage with anyone, believer or non. Should I make more effort? I only know one believer remotely well, but I'm sure she could introduce me to many others...

Ideas swirl and swell in my head. I could formulate a questionnaire, and with it conduct a series of interviews. Televised, or at least recorded, and maybe put up on youtube. Here are some rough questions:

Do you believe in God?
Do you believe the Bible was written by God? [Please elaborate as much as you like on all of these questions].
Do you believe the Bible and the Qu'ran were written by God?
Most religious people don't believe in the god you believe in - are they simply wrong?
Do you believe religion is compatible with science?
What is your response to the creation story in the Bible?
Considering your belief in God and the Bible, what are your thoughts on the theory of evolution?
Considering that not everyone believes in God, do you think the onus is on the believer to prove that God exists, or on the non-believer to prove God doesn't exist?
Can you explain your conception of God? Human-like, or more abstract?
Do you think it's important for believers to have a common conception of God, or is it ok for different believers to have quite different conceptions?
Do you believe that Jesus was the son of God and was born of a virgin?
Do you believe that he performed miracles and rose from the dead after execution?
Jesus's comments don't always, on the surface of things, suggest him to be as gentle meek and mild as is usually claimed. For example, he refuses help to the Gentile Canaanite woman, saying 'It is not meet to take the children's bread, and cast it to dogs.' [Matt 15:26, Mark 7:27]. Another time he addresses a crowd, saying 'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?' [Matt 23:33]. He also claims that only those who believe in him shall be saved, presumably meaning the rest will be damned, no matter how they live their lives. Do you believe this is so? Would you like to comment on these remarks and their implications for us today?
What do you understand by the term faith? Is faith a type of knowledge? Do you think faith is superior to other kinds of knowledge?
Do you think Christians, or other religious believers, should be expected to justify their beliefs?
Can you comment on the well-worn remark of Dostoyevsky's that, without God, everything is permitted?
Do you think the Christian churches have a political role to play in society?
What is your view on the separation of church and state?

With this idea I should let my ambition fly and solicit such worthy interviewees as George Pell, the Jensen Brothers, the Costello brothers, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and other religious and political heavies. I'll get on it right away...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Southern Cross saunter

Southern Cross station - a relief of light and space

The next morning, first thing, I parked the Yaris in a pay-park off Franklin Street, and we set off for breakfast across the road from the Stork. Sarah had had a word with the Stork's management, and found that there was more going on there than immediately met our eyes. They regularly staged plays - based on such works as Camus' The Fall, The Outsider and The Plague, as well as on the writings of Sappho [a World Premiere], Proust and Duras. Unfortunately we wouldn't be able to catch anything in our three-day stay.

Our brekky spot on Therry Street fronted the Victoria Street Market, and advertised itself as a home of the French breakfast and of multifarious croissants. It was relatively busy and I noted that just about all the staff were of Asian descent, and not a French accent to be heard. The French Brekky was fine though of course.

I suggested a walk to Spencer Street to examine the architecture of the controversial Southern Cross Station, and so we sauntered down some of the main streets, noting all the nearby eateries, buying phone credit and other bits and pieces.

I was impressed with the station, though I was probably determined to be, having been told once that it was a terrible eyesore by someone whose line in cut-and-dried contempt has always irritated me. The wavy roofing might seem pretentious and downright ugly to some - a gauche attempt to imitate something 'natural' - but it does manage to create an effect of tent-like lightness, the beige material stretched between looping tubular struts resembling canvas. Lots of glass connects spaces between and around these long flowing structures, bringing in plenty of natural light and providing sight-lines to many of the older buildings clustered around the station, and the open-air effect within is liberating and relaxing, as well as practical [easier to spot people]. Apparently the design has incorporated environmental requirements, relating in particular to train fumes. I don’t know if these effects are measurable, but I can certainly feel the breezes flowing through. An unfortunate side-effect of the classy redevelopment is that it makes the trains it uses look tawdry and tired, and makes the rubbish around the tracks more visible, but as you raise your eyes, as in a cathedral, it’s hard not to feel inspired by its beauty and vision. The structure won the Lubetkin Prize back in June, awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects for the most outstanding new building located outside of the European Union.

After wandering about in this space, we ventured up and across the Burke Street bridge, past Telstra Dome, also perhaps known as Docklands Stadium. In any case, this was the Docklands area. Our journey was disrupted suddenly when, stepping out from a sheltering wall, we were blasted by a wind that ripped my specs from my head and sent them skidding across the footpath. Chairs were blown across our path as we walked. Sarah was already exhausted from our foot-slogging, so we doubled back and took refuge among the new shops and cafes sidling the station. Recovered somewhat, Sarah went shopping for leggings while I settled down to finish Dennett's Breaking the Spell.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

the Stork, books and such, and a memory

our first lodgement

So I drove into Melbourne at about 10.30pm. I'm not accustomed to driving in big cities other than Adelaide [which is more a long city than a big one] but I handled it ok, with a sort of beginner's naivety, with only one hairy moment - a double lane seemed suddenly to shrink into a single, and mine and my neighbour's car braked simultaneously at the bottleneck. Don't know how that happened, must've been my fault.

We were lucky to be able to check in at our first lodgement, the Stork Hotel on Elizabeth Street, as the doors were just being locked. I was a bit unnerved by the congregation of raggedy people outside, one dishevelled young woman wheeling an old shopping trolley backwards and forwards, lost in a personal fug. We hadn't expected much of course, with the price of our room, and all we wanted was something hassle-free and clean. We got that. There was a lot of tattiness about, but a few attractive relics, like the old chest at the top of the stairs, and the art-deco bathroom sinks. Our twin-bed room was tiny and basic, but I had no trouble sleeping.

I brought three books with me, Dennett's Breaking the Spell, which I was just finishing off, Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, and a little moral philosophy primer by Simon Blackburn, Being Good.

I've noticed that I read less fiction than ever these days. It certainly doesn't hold my attention like it used to, or maybe it's that I'm more urgently interested in the unmediated real world, or commentaries on that world - the mediated unmediated. It's the same even with watching TV - most films or dramas bore me [I often only watch if there's a beautiful woman in the cast], while most documentaries, even bad ones, grip me. Even the worst of true crime docos is more fascinating to me than any of those CSI Law & Order Boston Legal fantasies.

I was reminded this morning, while reading George Packer's singularly stimulating book The Assassin's Gate, about the horribly intriguing lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq, of something I read as a teenager - fifteen or younger - in a discarded Reader's Digest. It was possibly my first reading of a political article, though I was already keen on current affairs. I still recall the title - ''Why not call China's bluff in Asia?''. It was written a few years before, in the late sixties, by a retired general. I was reading it at a time of Vietnam moratoriums, MAD and nuclear winter scenarios and on the eve of destruction protest songs - yet does this background really account for the alarm I felt? I doubt it. The good general’s idea was simple – China was posing as a superpower, backing the Vietnam War and other communist ventures and movements in the region and worldwide, and tying up and bogging down American forces in far-flung theatres. Wouldn't it be better to let this upstart nation know what a superpower really was, by nuking a few of their cities?

The article brought a few things home to me at an early age - that morality was not something necessarily treasured or even much contemplated by those of the ruling class, that bad ideas must be argued down, that our elders can't always be trusted, and that I felt more comfortable on the side of the unempowered. I may have also felt a certain anti-American bias, which I would've struggled with and largely overcome, for basically my political and philosophical outlook hasn't changed since I was old enough to wonder about world doings. Perhaps above all, I was fascinated, and quite proud, of how engaged I was by the piece. I railed in my head over it, developed the policy's consequences and wished I could share my passion with someone. I still do.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

a rare excursion

murray bridge - a brief highlight

I've just returned from a week in Melbourne, my first time out of my home state in years, though I'm sure I'd enjoy nothing more than the life of a ponderously romantic traveller-writer, speculating on what the architecture or politics or any other traces of particular places might mean to a middle-aged déclassé celibate libertine with something of an attention deficit problem. My excuses for not achieving such a goal are predictable enough - competing aspirations, distractions, cowardice, poverty, laziness...

There's not much really to tell about this trip. I hired a car and Sarah accompanied me, but unfortunately she can't drive, and my time in the saddle to and from was more extensive than expected. I was assured it would be eight or nine hours on the quick route through Bordertown and Ballarat, maybe an hour or so more via the Great Ocean Road. In fact, with only fairly brief stops through the day, and driving faster than I've ever driven before in the zippy little Toyota Laris, I took eleven hours to get there and about thirteen hours to get back on the long route, and I'm left wondering if I've been the victim of others' retrospective optimism. I did want to take my time, listen to the Southern Ocean, quaff from the Coonawarra, wax quizzical upon country quaintness, nestle for awhile amid the green, but we were pressed, having rooms booked in Melbourne and a vague itinerary of gallery-hopping, local shopping, wining, dining and tram-riding to get through.

Of course, though people say life’s the thing, I prefer reading. Our initial plan was to travel on The Overland, a daytime journey much improved I’m assured [watch those assurances] from the excruciatingly uncomfortable and boring all-night trips of my youth. I envisaged pleasant hours whizzing though a scenic diorama, finishing my Dennett book and maybe starting on Guns, Germs and Steel, while making ingenious notes and waxing philosophico-historical with Sarah over a lunch-time port or an evening martini, and maybe even – apogee of adventure – buttonholing or being buttonholed by some entertaining wiseacre, preferably flirtatiously female, in the dining car. Unfortunately we didn't get in early enough, and The Overland was booked solid the first week of school holidays. I would've put it off to the second week but Sarah was intent on catching the last week of the Guggenheim exhibition at the NGV.

So, I drove, and drove, zombie-like, but at least appreciating that rarity for me, a car that doesn't develop a death rattle at above 100kph. Still it was nerve-wracking, especially the last section driving into Melbourne on a totally unfamiliar road, dog-tired, dark in the night.

I'm not going to spiel on about Melbourne in the manner of some of my favourite travelling speculators, Nooteboom or Raban, as it'll raise the spectre of comparison, at least in my mind, and anyway I didn't get too many chances to take notes, so I'll just blog on about whatever comes up... a spiel of sorts.


pavlov's cat