Friday, February 27, 2009

Columbus and the 'Flat Earth'

Columbus : The earth is not flat, Father, it’s round!
The Prior : Don’t say that!

Columbus : Its the truth; it’s not a mill pond strewn with islands, it’s a sphere

The Prior : Don’t, don’t say that; it’s blasphemy

Dialogue from 'Christopher Columbus', A Play by Joseph Chiari

In a momentous passage from book 2 of ‘On the Heavens’, Aristotle concludes that the earth is spherical:

Either then the earth is spherical or it is at least naturally spherical. And it is right to call anything that which nature intends it to be, and which belongs to it, rather than that which it is by constraint and contrary to nature. The evidence of the senses further corroborates this. How else would eclipses of the moon show segments shaped as we see them? As it is, the shapes which the moon itself each month shows are of every kind straight, gibbous, and concave-but in eclipses the outline is always curved: and, since it is the interposition of the earth that makes the eclipse, the form of this line will be caused by the form of the earth's surface, which is therefore spherical.

Again, our observations of the stars make it evident, not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size. For quite a small change of position to south or north causes a manifest alteration of the horizon. There is much change, I mean, in the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward. Indeed there are some stars seen in Egypt and in the neighbourhood of Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly regions; and stars, which in the north are never beyond the range of observation, in those regions rise and set.

All of which goes to show not only that the earth is circular in shape, but also that it is a sphere of no great size: for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be quickly apparent.
Hence one should not be too sure of the incredibility of the view of those who conceive that there is continuity between the parts about the pillars of Hercules and the parts about India, and that in this way the ocean is one. As further evidence in favour of this they quote the case of elephants, a species occurring in each of these extreme regions, suggesting that the common characteristic of these extremes is explained by their continuity. Also, those mathematicians who try to calculate the size of the earth's circumference arrive at the figure 400,000 stades. This indicates not only that the earth's mass is spherical in shape, but also that as compared with the stars it is not of great size.

In God and reason in the Middle Ages, Edward Grant writes that:

‘All medieval students who attended a university knew this. In fact any educated person in the Middle Ages knew the earth was spherical, or of a round shape. Medieval commentators on Aristotle’s 'On the Heavens' or in the commentaries on a popular thirteenth century work titled ‘Treatise on the Sphere' by John of Sacrobosco, usually included a question in which they enquired ‘whether the whole earth is spherical’. Scholastics answered this question unanimously: The earth is spherical or round. No university trained author ever thought it was flat’

John of Sacrobosco's book, the ‘Treatise on the Sphere' or 'Tractatus de Sphaera' mentioned by Grant, was published in 1230. This popular work discussed the spherical earth and its place in the universe and was required reading by students in all Western European universities for the next four centuries. If the 'poor benighted medievals' had really believed that the earth was flat as was claimed in the 19th century, they must have been ignoring their own textbooks. Perhaps the heavily annotated copy of 'Treatise on the Sphere' shown on the right has been graffitied by scholasitics claiming 'it's not true!' and 'this is heresy!'; but I highly doubt it.

And yet the popular conception of Columbus’s voyage is that he discovered the world is round, in the process refuting the medieval view. The culprit here was Washington Irving, which conjured an imaginary scene in which Columbus pleads his case for a spherical earth in front of Church dignitaries and professors in Salamanca. In Washington’s imagination, Columbus ‘who was a devoutly religious man’ was assailed ‘with quotes for the Bible and the Testament...such are the specimens of the errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition and the pedantic bigotry with which Columbus had to contend’

The truth is that when Columbus was planning his voyage, he gathered evidential support from a scholastic treatise entitled ‘The Image (or representation) of the world (ymango mundi)’ which had been written by the theologian and philosopher Pierre d’ Ailly and was one of the most popular printed books in the later fifteenth , sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Not only did D’Ailly say from the very outset of the treatise that the earth is a sphere, but he also cited Aristotle and Averroes in reporting that the end of the habitable earth towards the east and the end of the habitable earth towards the west are very close with a small sea in between. D’ Ailly reported the earth’s circumference as 56 2/3 miles multiplied by 360 degrees, as measured by Alfraganus (al-Farghani). Edward Grant reports that, in Columbus’s annotated copy of the book, this circumference measurement has been written in the margin and surrounded by boxes to emphasise the point. This was important for Columbus because it made the world seem much smaller than it actually was, so that sailing from Spain to India would require only a few days to cross the small sea. In fact, by going with the smaller estimate Columbus had underestimated the distance he would have to travel to India, and had the Americas not been in his path he would have run out of provisions.

Not only did Columbus not discover that the earth was round – that had been the scholarly consensus since Aristotle, despite the best efforts of the self educated Cosmas Indicopleustes – he gained the information for his voyage from medieval sources.

As Grant concludes in ‘God and reason’:

Although some progress has been made in rectifying the egregious historical error that a flat earth was commonly assumed in the Middle Ages, the error lives on. Perhaps it is because, as Russell plausibly suggests ‘the idea of the dark middle ages is still fixed in the popular consciousnesses and consequently ‘no caricature is too preposterous to be accepted.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mathematical Monks and the Multiverse

I recently read a truly excellent SF novel by Neal Stephenson entitled Anathem. It's about an alternate universe that has monks whose interests are more on mathematics rather than theology; and they have an alternate philosophical history that parallels the real one. I highly recommend it to pretty much everyone (especially Elliot at CotC if he hasn't already read it).

Part of my motivation for bringing it up is that at one point the monks discuss the Anthropic Principle, and give an excellent account of it:

Paphlagon said, "The cosmogonic processes that lead to the creation of the stuff we are made of -- the creation of protons and other matter, their clumping together to make stars, and the resulting nucleosynthesis -- all seem to depend on the values of certain physical constants. The most familiar example is the speed of light, but there are several others -- about twenty in all. Theors used to spend a lot of time measuring their precise values, back when we were allowed to have the necessary equipment. If these numbers had different values, the cosmos as we know it would not have come into being; it would just be an infinite cloud of cold dark gas or one big black hole or something else quite simple and dull. If you think of these constants of nature as knobs on the control panel of a machine, well, the knobs all have to be set in just the right positions or --"

Again Paphlagon looked to Moyra, who seemed ready: "Suur Demula likened it to a safe with a combination lock, the combination being about twenty numbers long."

"That is right. If you dial twenty numbers at random you never get the safe open; it is nothing more to you than an inert cube of iron. Even if you dial nineteen numbers correctly and get the other one wrong -- nothing. You must get all of them correct. Then the door opens and out spills all of the complexity and beauty of the cosmos."

"Another analogy," Moyra continued, after a sip of water, "was developed by Saunt Conderline, who likened all of the sets of values of those twenty constants that don't produce complexity to an ocean a thousand miles wide and deep. The sets that do, are like an oil sheen, no wider than a leaf, floating on the top of that ocean: an exquisitely thin layer of possibilities that yield solid, stable matter suitable for making universes with living things in them."

However, to get around the theistic repercussions, Anathem appeals to the multiverse hypothesis. Stephenson does this very cleverly: any view that argues that the physical universe isn't all that exists is a sort of multiverse hypothesis. So the Platonic world of forms is positing a multiverse, in which one is a universe of pure forms (in the Anathem alt-history Plato = Protas and Platonist = Protist). Similarly, any theistic explanation of the Anthropic Principle is a multiverse hypothesis, since it holds that there is another world that has some effect in this one. Stephenson's monks conclude from this that, if we have to posit another world in order to account for this one, there can be no reason for limiting the number of other worlds to one.

"It is a legitimate move in metatheorics. You have to be continually asking yourself, 'why are things thus, and not some other way?' And if you apply that test to this diagram, you immediately run into a problem: there are exactly two worlds. Not one, not many, but two. One might draw such a diagram having only one world -- the Arbran Causal Domain -- and zero arrows. That would draw very few objections from metatheoricians (at least, those who are not Protists). One might, on the other hand, assert 'there are lots of worlds' and then set out to make a case for why that is plausible. But to say 'there are two worlds -- and only two!' seems no more supportable than to say 'there are exactly 173 worlds, and all those people who claim that there are only 172 of them are lunatics.'"

Of course, in this post I pointed out that there is a reason for limiting the number of worlds to two: Occam's Razor. The more entities you have to posit, the less likely your theory is correct. The Anthropic Principle shows that we have to posit a world in addition to this one in order to account for the fact that this world has the very specific properties necessary for the existence of life. But unless we have a reason to posit a third or fourth or 173rd world, then to do so simply violates Occam's Razor.

Ironically, part of Anathem's alternate history includes a parallel to Occam's Razor, which is frequently referenced by the characters:

Gardan's Steelyard: A rule of thumb attributed to Fraa Gardan (-1110 to -1063), stating that, when one is comparing two hypotheses, they should be placed on the arms of a metaphorical steelyard (a kind of primitive scale, consisting of an arm free to pivot around a central fulcrum) and preference given to the one that "rises higher," presumably because it weighs less; the upshot being that simpler, more "lightweight" hypotheses are preferable to those that are "heavier," i.e., more complex. Also referred to as Saunt Gardan's Steelyard or simply the Steelyard.

So, basically, the multiverse hypothesis violates the Steelyard: the anthropic coincidences make it absurdly implausible that this world is the only one that exists; but unless it is absurdly implausible that only two worlds exist, it is invalid to think there are more than two. Anathem contains the refutation of one of its premises without realizing it.

However, I'm willing to give Stephenson some grace here, since such an acknowledgment would essentially destroy the premise of the entire book. Now go read it.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Science and Religion: Same Old Story

I have just finished watching Colin Blakemore’s programme on Channel 4 on the history of science and Christianity. I’ve had a few emails since it aired on Sunday night (I recorded it) asking what I think.

Sadly the programme was not very good. Blakemore himself came across as insufferably smug even when he was trying to be serious. The storyline was the nineteenth century yarn of science beating back the forces of superstition with heroic battles fought by Bruno and Galileo. Most of the details were wrong but even if they had been right, I doubt it would have made much difference to the tone.

I’ll just make three points:

Firstly, if you want to make a show about history do get yourself an academic advisor who is a historian. The historical consultant on Blakemore’s show was John Gribbin, a physicist. He’s written a couple of works of popular history, but given there are plenty of historians of science around, it would have been a good idea to hire one.

Second, it is a bit rich devoting your whole show to how sneaky Christians are for accommodating their faith to scientific discoveries and then at the end say science is great because it always chucks out theories that don’t work. Either responding to the evidence is commendable or it isn’t. It can’t be good for scientists and bad for Christians.

Third, do have a look at Humphrey’s demolition of the Giordano Bruno myth below.

By the way, at one point Blakemore picked up a big book and said it was volume one of the Inquisition’s big book of torture. Does anyone have any idea what it was?

PS: Here's someone else who is not happy about the show.

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Dictating Physics

It followed from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing — a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind.

Albert Einstein

Soviet science is the standard-bearer for most modern and progressive ideas of contemporary natural science...the development of science can only be secured by total renunciation of Einstien's conception without compromise or half measure'

I.V. Kuznetzov - Soviet theoretician

Albert Einstein’s General relativity has developed into an essential tool in modern astrophysics, yet it was threatened in its infancy by the arrival of new ideologies which promised a great leap into a heroic future; a future based on the creation of a perfect society and a new conception of man. Both Nazism and Communism felt ill at ease with the new physics; the Nazis because it was tainted by Jewishness, the Marxists because it seemed to threaten their materialist dogma. Accordingly it was suppressed until more practical considerations came into play.

During the 1930s the Nazi party began a campaign to systematically turn traditional subjects into expressions of their political ideology. The attempt to do this in Physics was led by Philipp Lenard, an elder statesmen of German science, who had worked with Heinrich Hertz, the discoverer of radio waves, and been awarded the Nobel prize in 1905 for experiments on cathode rays. Lenard was very sceptical of theory and had a tendency to emphasise careful and precise experimentation. He also had an intense hatred of the British, having clashed with the physicist J. J. Thompson for allegedly stealing his work. After the First World War his German nationalism crossed over into anti-Semitism and he became outraged when Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was confirmed in 1919. Einstein represented all he despised, a pacifist, a Jew, a supporter of Weimar and a theoretical physicist; to put the icing on the cake, the scientists that confirmed Relativity were a British team under Arthur Eddington. Lenard proclaimed the whole thing as a ‘Jewish fraud’ and having led a backlash against it, began to gravitate towards the Nazi party, eventually joining in 1937.

Lenard was an enthusiastic contributor to the regime and celebrated the removal of Jewish professors. He then published a four volume book on physics which was supposed to be the foundation for a new racially based ‘Aryan Physics’ that would eliminate Jewish relativity altogether. Due to his age, the task of constructing a Nazi physics was passed over to his friend Johannes Stark, another experimentalist who had discovered the splitting of spectral lines in an electric field. Stark was given the resources to launch a campaign to change the funding of science in order to cut off the proponents of Quantum mechanics and relativity. Problems immediately became apparent. There was not much substance to Nazi physics once all the anti-Semitic diatribes and political rants were taken out. Other scientists decided Relativity and Quantum mechanics were useful after all and argued that they embodied Nordic concepts and rejected ‘Jewish’ materialism.

The most impressive achievement of Nazi physics was to launch a campaign against Werner Heisenberg, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, and block his appointment to the chair of theoretical physics at Munich. Stark attacked Heisenburg as a follower of the hated Einstien, this despite the fact Einstien had rejected Quantum physics. Heisenburg, a conservative nationalist drafted a response petition signed by 75 leading scientists, which put a stop to further public attacks. Behind the scenes, Stark called on Reinhard Heydrich’s SS to assist, while Heisenburg sent his mother to intercede with Himmler’s mother.

Despite Heisenburg’s name being cleared, he failed to get the Munich post, which was given to Wilhelm Muller. Muller wasn’t even a physicist and was principally recommended because he had published a book called ‘Jews and Science’ which argued that Relativity was a Jewish con-trick. As a result the standard of scientific teaching in Germany declined dramatically, although scientific research flourished in the private sector and amongst the scientific research institutes which lay outside the universities. As the war drew nearer, Heisenburg was able to show his trump card, claiming that theoretical physics was necessary for the development of military technology. Stark was accordingly removed and scientific funding was expanded dramatically, with the proviso that the research had to be shown to have the remotest possible relevance to the war effort.

General Relativity has a similarly chequered history amoungst the Communists. During the pre-Stalin era, Marxist philosophers had disagreed over the problem of defining dialectical materialism in relation to ongoing discoveries in science. This controversy produced a range of Marxist attitudes toward the theory of relativity, ranging from complete acceptance to total rejection. During the Stalin era conflicting forces in Marxist thinking were eliminated, and complete unity was established and firmly guarded by the state. Marxist theorists declared war on “idealistic” principles built into Einstein’s scientific work, which was seen as anti-materialist and a challenge to Marxist-Leninist materialist epistemology.

Stalin himself held that General Relativity was nothing but ‘bourgeois mystification’, treating any support for the theory as conniving at the overthrow of the Soviet order. When Beria pleaded after the Second World War that soviet physicists needed Einstein’s equations to build a nuclear weapon, Stalin eventually relented saying that ‘Leave them in peace, we can always shoot them later’. That was as close as you got to a concession from Koba the Dead

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Giordano Bruno - Martyr for Science and Reason

But the new truth could not be concealed; it could neither be
laughed down nor frowned down. Many minds had received it, but within the hearing of the papacy only one tongue appears to have dared to utter it clearly. This new warrior was that strange mortal, Giordano Bruno. He was hunted from land to land, until at last he turned on his pursuers with fearful invectives. For this he was entrapped at Venice, imprisoned during six years in the dungeons of the Inquisition at Rome, then burned alive, and his ashes scattered to the winds. Still, the new truth lived on.

Andrew Dickson White

It is then unnecessary to investigate whether there be beyond the heaven Space, Void or Time. For there is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void; in it are innumerable globes like this one on which we live and grow. This space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, possibility, sense-perception nor nature assign to it a limit. In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own.

Giordano Bruno

A couple of days ago I had the misfortune of watching a channel 4 documentary entitled ‘God and the Scientists’, which was largely a garbled version of the 19th century ‘conflict thesis. The show, which was presented by Colin Blakemore, regurgitated the myth that Giordano Bruno was burned because of his support of the Copernican model. The truth is he really was a heretic in the traditional sense and was burned for his religious beliefs after a long drawn out trial in 1600. It was unfortunate that the Copernican model had been promoted by Bruno as a component of his worldview as it tainted the theory as heretical.

Bruno was a follower of a movement called Hermetism, which was a cult that based its beliefs on documents which were thought to have originated in Egypt at the time of Moses. These writings were linked with the teaching of the Egyptian God Thoth, the God of learning and had arrived in Italy from Macedonia in the 1460s. To followers of this cult, Thoth was known as Hermes Trismegitus, or Hermes the thrice great. The Egyptians worshipped the sun and it is possible Nicolaus Copernicus himself was influenced by Hermetism to put the sun at the centre of the universe. For instance, he wrote in De revolutionibus that:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] the Thrice Greatest labels it a visible god, and Sophocles' Electra, the all-seeing.

The scriptures of Hermetism were later found not to have originated from ancient Egypt at all (it was discovered in 1614 that they were written long after the arrival of the Christian era), but to believers in the fifteenth century, they were thought to predate the birth of Christ. Subscribers to Hermeticism included such high profile figures as Phillip II of Spain, and the writings were generally tolerated by the Catholic Church. Bruno’s ‘dangerous idea’ was to take the view that the Egyptian religion was the true faith and that the church should return to these old ways; which they were none too pleased about.

As it transpired, Bruno had something of a talent for stirring up trouble. He joined the Dominican order in 1565 but was expelled in 1576 for defending the Arian heresy and possessing a heavily annotated copy of Erasmus’s works. Having joined the Calvinists in Geneva, Bruno published an attack on the work of Antoine de la Faye, a distinguished professor. This did not go down well and he was arrested and forced to leave for Paris. In France he enjoyed the patronage of some powerful admirers, winning fame for his theological lectures and his amazing feats of memory, which were based on his elaborate system of mnemonics.

Following this he moved to England and became acquainted with arch enemies of the church such as Philip Sidney and John Dee. Having managed to make so many enemies in England that he was forced to take refuge in the French embassy, he left for Paris and then, finding the situation there had deteriorated, he moved to Germany. Despite a run in with the Lutherans, he was able to produce several Latin works on magic and the composition of signs, images and ideas. At the Frankfurt book fair he ran into Giovanni Mocenigo who had heard of his feats of memory and told him to apply for the professorship of mathematics at Padua. Unfortunately, having applied for this post, he lost out to a certain Galileo Galilei. Mocenigo invited him to Venice to act as an in-house memory tutor, but sadly Bruno’s personality proved too difficult. Mocenigo was not only unhappy with Bruno’s teaching; he also decided to denounce him to the Venetian inquisition. After being handed over to the Roman inquisition and a long imprisonment, Bruno was finally condemned on then specific charges of Arianism and for carrying out occult practices. As the work of Frances Yates in the 1970s showed, far from being a martyr for science, Bruno was a martyr for magic. The full list of charges were as follows:

Holding opinions contrary to the Catholic Faith and speaking against it and its ministers. Holding erroneous opinions about the Trinity, about Christ's divinity and Incarnation. Holding erroneous opinions about Christ. Holding erroneous opinions about Transubstantiation and Mass. Claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity. Believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes. Dealing in magics and divination. Denying the Virginity of Mary.

Bruno's fate was tragic and especially harsh by modern standard. To some extent he brought it upon himself since he was given every opportunity to recant, which was one reason why he was held for nearly a decade before being condemned. During his earlier life, his wanderings appear to have had less to do with his being hounded by the Inquisition as it did with his own extremely difficult personality. While Bruno was successful at finding powerful patrons to shelter him, he invariably did something to alienate and outrage them, usually fairly quickly after entering their service. He had an outstanding talent for repeatedly failing to act in his own best interests and continually managing to wriggle out of favourable circumstances.

There is no evidence that his support for Copernicanism featured in the trial at all, but Bruno was a keen advocate of the sun centred universe because it fitted so well with the Egyptian view of the world. He also enthusiastically espoused Thomas Digges’s idea that the universe is filled with an infinite array of stars; each one like the sun and that there must be life elsewhere in the universe. The theme of his 'On the Infinite Universe and Worlds' is not Copernicanism, of which he had a rather flawed technical understanding, but pantheism, a theme also developed in his 'On Shadows of Ideas', and which would come to influence Baruch Spinoza. It was his personal cosmology which informed his espousal of Copernicus, not the other way around. Bruno and his trial made a big splash at the time and all his ideas were tarred with the same brush. It is possible if it hadn’t been for Bruno, Copernicanism would not have made such a splash with the authorities and Galileo might not have been persecuted.

How to get burned by the Inquisition
(a handy checklist)

1) Live during the Reformation period when hysteria about reformers and heretics is at its height.

2) Read some ancient Egyptian mysticism and try to pass it off as the true religion. Put forward some controversial ideas, for example that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skilful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc.

3) Move countries and ingratiate yourself with a range of rich benefactors, including arch enemies of the Catholic Church.

4) Piss them all off and get chased out of a succession of countries by denouncing your opponents in print and getting into trivial arguments.

5) Move back to Italy where the Inquisition can actually get at you

6) Annoy your employer so much he hands you in to the authorities

7) Refuse to recant in full. Keep this up for 7 years.

8) Success!. Prepare to be hailed as a ‘Martyr for Science and Reason’ in an historically sub-literate Channel 4 Documentary series.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Diplomatic Faux Pas

Sometimes nations drift almost inadvertently into conflict, summoned into hostilities by a tangle of obscure alliances and barely recalled animosities. On other occasions war is provoked by utterly reckless rudeness and stupidity. Such was the fate of the Tarentines, who put paid to any prospect of peace with their drunken laughter and scatological humour. Cassius Dio in his history claims, with considerable moralising, that:

‘The Romans had learned that the Tarentines and some others were making ready to war against them. The Tarentines, although they had themselves begun the war, nevertheless were sheltered from fear. For the Romans, who understood what they were doing, pretended not to know it on account of their temporary embarrassments. Hereupon the Tarentines, thinking either that they would get off with impunity or that they were entirely unobserved, because they were receiving no complains, behaved still more insolently and forced the Romans even against their will to make war upon them. This confirms the saying that even success, when it comes to men in undue measure, proves a source of misfortune to them; for it leads them on into folly — since moderation will not dwell with vanity — and causes them the gravest disasters.

Dio then relates, probably with some embellishment, how relations between the Romans and the Tarentines reached a new low with the help of some drunken revelry and an impromptu sea battle.

Lucius Valerius, who was admiral of the Romans and had been despatched on some errand by them. Lucius was despatched by the Romans to Tarentum. Now the Tarentines were celebrating the Dionysia, and sitting gorged with wine in the theatre one afternoon, they suspected that he was sailing against them. Immediately, in a passion and partly under the influence of intoxication, they set sail in turn; and thus, without any show of force on his part or the slightest suspicion of any hostile act, they attacked and sent to the bottom both him and many others.

Despite this unforgivable insult the Romans had resolved to make peace and despatched envoys to Tarentum. The encounter could not have gone more badly. According to Mary Beard in this month’s Times Literary Supplement, the chroniclers disagree about the precise details of what happened, but they all agree that Greek laughter was the final straw for the Romans. What caused the Greek’s undiplomatic mirth is a subject of some controversy. One account relates that it was the bad Greek of the leading Roman ambassador, Postumius which was so ungrammatical and strangely accented that the Tarentines could not conceal their amusement. Cassius Dio gives a more lurid account

But the Tarentines, so far from receiving them decently or even sending them back with an answer in any way suitable, at once, before so much as granting them an audience, made sport of their dress and general appearance. It was the city garb, which was in use in the Forum; and this the envoys had put on, either for the sake of dignity or else by way of precaution, thinking that this at least would cause the foreigners to respect their position. Bands of revellers accordingly jeered at them — they were also celebrating a festival, which, though they were at no time noted for temperate behaviour, rendered them still more wanton

Here things went from bad to worse:

and finally a man planted himself in the way of Postumius, and stooping over, relieved his bowels and soiled the envoy's clothing. At this an uproar arose from all the rest, who praised the fellow as if he had performed some remarkable deed, and they sang many scurrilous verses against the Romans, accompanied by applause and capering steps. But Postumius cried: "Laugh, laugh while you may! For long will be the period of your weeping, when you shall wash this garment clean with your blood”

In time the Tarentines would come to learn a valuable lesson; never shit on a Roman’s toga.

Some more examples of Ancient Greek humour

These jokes are from the recently uncovered Philogelos: The Laugh Addict, the oldest existing collection of jokes. See here for the full collection.

Someone needled a well-known wit: "I had your wife, without paying a penny". He replied: "It's my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?"

An intellectual during the night ravished his grandmother and for this got a beating from his father. He complained: "You've been mounting my mother for a long time, without suffering any consequences from me. And now you're mad that you found me screwing your mother for the first time ever!"

An Abderite sees a eunuch talking with a woman and asks him if she's his wife. The guy responds that a eunuch is unable to have a wife. "Ah, so she's your daughter? "

A misogynist is attending to the burial of his wife, who has just died, when someone asks: "Who is it who rests in peace here?". He answers: "Me,

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Flat Earth Myth Lives!

Relief swept the Society for the Preservation of Nineteenth Century Nostrums when a brand new sighting of the flat earth myth was reported by field observers. It was found in a new book called the House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons. Lyons is interested in the commendable project of bringing the great achievements of medieval Muslim civilisation back to light. Sadly, like many of his co-workers he also feels the need to tell porkies about those stupid Europeans who lived in the Dark Ages.

We get the usual reference to Cosmas (whose fantasies were dissected by Humphrey, my fellow clerk) and this is neatly elided into discussions on the existence of the antipodes and Thomas Aquinas asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

But Lyons pièce de résistance is a spectacular bit of quote-mining from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies. Lyons is clearly illiterate (in the old sense that he can't read Latin) but he is also unaware that etymology is the study of word origins. He quotes an English translation of Isidore on the origin of the word 'orbis'. 'Orbis terra' is a Roman phrase which roughly means the 'ring of the world'. It refers to the fact that the Romans thought only the band between the arctic and tropics was habitable. Isidore, not unreasonably, refers to this as a wheel and then innocently starts ennumerating the continents found in the inhabited world. You can read the Latin here.

Lyons quotes the passage as proof that Isidore thinks the whole earth is the shape of a wheel! He then surpasses himself and names the entire chapter of then book after his misconception. OK, it's not an easy point but scholars have written helpful articles for amateurs like Lyons to help them find their feet (e.g. p 274 Wesley Stevens "The Figure of the Earth in Isidore's "De Natura Rerum" ISIS 71:2 (1980)). He might also have noticed that Isidore defines 'terra' separately from 'orbis'. They are not the same thing.

But this is all churlish. We should be congratulating Lyons on his heroic efforts to defy the evidence and keep the flat earth myth alive.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Human value in the ancient world

As a result of Christian dogma, the distinction between moral and other merits has become much sharper now than it was in Greek times. It is a merit in a man to be a great poet or composer but not a moral merit; we do not consider him more virtuous for possessing such attitudes or more likely to go to heaven. .......When we come to compare Artistole’s ethical tastes with our own, we find in the first place an acceptance of inequality which is repugnant to much modern sentiment. Not only is there no objection to slavery or to the superiority of husbands and fathers over wives and children, but its is held that what is best is essentially only for the few—proud men and philosophers. Most men are mainly means for the production of a few rulers and sages.

Bertrand Russell

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

Jesus of Nazareth

The staunch enlightenment rationalist Thomas Jefferson, once wrote of Epictetus, Seneca, Socrates, Antonius and Epicurus, that the ‘ancient moral philosophers were really great’ in teaching people to govern ‘those passions which unrestrained, would disturb our tranquillity of mind’. But they were ‘short and defective in developing our duties to others’. They taught ‘benevolence in the circles of kindred and friends’ and stressed ‘love of country’ but they had neglected ‘peace and charity towards our neighbours...and still less the whole family of mankind’. Accordingly, and despite his distaste for religious superstition, Jefferson turned to Jesus of Nazareth for his moral precepts, because ‘ his moral doctrines..inculcated universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, but to all mankind, gathering into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids’. Of course he could only do so after having produced a special Jeffersonian version of the New Testament with the miracles edited out. Jefferson’s assessment of the deficiencies of his classical heroes was remarkably honest. There has been a tendency amongst certain scholars and commentators to idealise the classical world and project our Judeo Christian derived values back into an alien moral landscape. Yet it is imperative that we get into the Classical mindset if we are to understand why their conceptions of morality were so different to ours.

It has been a subject of some debate as to whether the classical world ever had a religious or a philosophical basis for the concept of human dignity (dignitas humana) which could apply to all mankind. Most studies have concluded that this idea cannot be found in classical Roman or Greek authors, two influential examples being Den Boer’s ‘Private Morality in Greece and Rome: Some historical Aspects’ and J Rist’s ‘Human Value, a study in ancient philosophical ethics’ . The ancient authors whose writings have been passed down to us appear to have believed in the dignity of man, but it was only the dignity of the virtuous man which mattered, the man who possessed arête (excellence, virtue). Only a man who held a balanced and controlled personality could exhibit the necessary virtues could be deeded as possessing dignity.

The Romans appear to have had a concept of humanitas, a set of virtues which applied to educated people, but these were only thought to characterise a small group in the higher echelons of Roman society. There was no concept of inherent human dignity, nor any concept of inherent human rights. Such rights as there were defined judicially and they fundamentally depended on the membership of a societal group – for example a family, kinship group or state – which granted them. Those which lay outside these groups, the enslaved, foreigners and foundlings, had no claim to any such rights, although they might end up being granted certain privileges. Among the Greeks the rights of the dependents and human possession were developed with a view to protecting the rights of the adult males on who they depended. This idea prevailed in Roman society, although with various if limited rights issued to a broader spectrum of society. As Rist observes:

‘Instead of starting with a consideration of human rights, or of basic rights, the ancients start with theories of power and of how power should be tempered by justice. As their thought proceeds, the come to recognise that certain types of people, for various reasons, are in fact possessed of rights...the moral problem is not viewed in terms of enlarging or protecting the rights of the weak, but of controlling and rationalising the power of the strong.'

Inequality was deemed a natural feature of life in the classical world and it does not appear to have engendered any surprise or regret. In ancient texts we find many examples of the lack of recognition that basic human rights belonged to those who lay outside the protection of society. With only a few exceptions the Greek states did not recognise any obligation to care for orphans, who were left to look after themselves as best they could, by begging in the streets or performing menial jobs. The enslaved continued throughout antiquity to be tortured when giving evidence in trials on the assumption that only by means of torture could they be expected to give truthful testimony. Little sympathy can be detected in early Greek literature for the deformed or the oppressed, an attitude that seems to have characterised popular and official opinion in virtually every period of classical antiquity. These attitudes were based on the belief that health and physical wholeness were essential to human dignity.

Life without them was not thought to be worth living. For example, King Croesus of Lydia did not consider his son who was deaf and dumb to be a real son (Herodotus 1.38.2) and the Persians were ashamed to be ruled by a governor whose ears had been cut off (Herodotus 3.73.1). Their physical defects diminished their dignity. In the classical world therefore, citizenship, kinship, merit or virtue were the basis for claiming to possession of human rights or human worth. Those who lacked them (e.g orphans, slaves, foundlings, the deformed, prisoners) had no claims to any rights and were not entitled to any recognition of their human worth.

The classical attitude to human value is perhaps seen most starkly in the treatment of the newborn. The care of defective babies was simply not a medical concern is antiquity; the morality of killing sickly or deformed infants appears not to have been questioned very much, either by medical or non medical authors. John Rist notes that:

‘It was almost universally held in antiquity that a child has no intrinsic right to life in virtue of being born. What mattered was being adopted into a family or some other institution of society. Both Plato and Aristocle, as well as the Stoics and Epicurus and presumably Plotinus, accept the morality of the exposure of infants..on eugenic or sometimes on purely economic grounds..we see here further clear evidence of the ancient view that somehow value is acquired, either by the development of intelligence or by the acceptance into society. There is no reason to think that the philosophers made substantial advances on the assumptions of the general public in this regard.'

Nor was this always for eugenic or economic reasons, often religious factors played a role. For example, the first century BC historian Livy writes:

‘Relieved of their religious scruples, men were troubled again by the report that at Frusino there had been born a child as large as a four year old, and not so much a wonder for size as was uncertain whether male or female. In fact that soothsayers summoned from Etruria said it was a terrible and loathsome portent; it must be removed from Roman territory, far from contact with the earth and drowned in the sea. They put it alive into a chest, carried it out to sea and threw it overboard. The pontiffs likewise decreed that thrice nine maidens should sing a hymm as they marched through the city’.

Musonius Rufus, a contemporary of Epictetus, provided a work which asks the question, ‘Should every child that is born be raised?’ but this was not the real subject of the essy. Musonius does not articulate a principle that parents are responsible for every child born to them and his concerns are largely civic. Romans, he argues, should strive to have large families according to the law of nature. This seems to have been a minority opinion. Hierocles a second century stoic states that:

‘The rearing of all or at least most children born to one is in accord with nature and proper respect for marriage. But the majority of people appear to ignore this advice for a reason which is not particularly laudable: out of love of wealth and the conviction that poverty us the greatest evil’

It has been suggested by some that the philosophical sects that arose in the Hellenistic age did provide a basis for the belief that all men are endowed with value and therefore possess basic rights. Roman stoicism was marked in its first two centuries by a cosmopolitanism and humanitarianism that affirmed the brotherhood of all men and the necessity of kindness, beneficence and the humane treatment of everyone, civilised, barbarian, slave or free, all of whom were possessed of a divine spark. This theory was based on the natural attachment which parents feel for children and which newborn infants and animals feel for their own persons. But this element of Stoicism never developed, perhaps could never have developed into an explicit claim that all individuals possessed human rights, because there were characteristics of Stoic doctrine that were far from hospitable to the idea of an intrinsic human worth that applied to all people.

The influence of stoicism on Roman law was extensive in ameliorating, for instance the treatment of slaves. But the Stoic's indifference to suffering prevented them from actively seeking the protection of the weak. The net result of Stoicism was to act as a reinforcer of traditional values because it regarded traditionally given roles as natural. A person’s moral progress lay in the order and coherence of their words, thoughts, and actions with Nature. Epictetus for example, lists roles associated with appropriate actions, including natural ones like father, mother, old, and young and social ones like ruler, citizen, general, and soldier. However he also includes “slave, cripple, and beggar.” All these roles are customary ones in Hellenistic-Roman society and there is little incentive to change matters; all these exist under a state of cosmic determinism. Stoicism was fundamentally a cosmic metaphor positing a Divine Economy in which every thing and every person had its proper place. It's cosmopolitanism is really not more than a formal unity of men as beings possessed of reason. The Stoics fundamentally identified with the cosmopolis or world-city, conceived as the city of gods and (especially wise) humans, but there was no conflict in their minds between this ideal and allegiance to the Roman imperial system with all its attendant cruelties. One also finds in Stoicism and classical thought a profound scepticism about human nature that led to quietism. The stoics were reluctant to attempt radical change in society or the amelioration of human institutions, believing that they were incapable of improvement.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block in Stoic thought was the severe view that nothing matters except character and rationality. The rest, life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, functioning sense organs, wealth, reputation and their opposites for ourselves and loved ones, only qualifies as 'indifferent''. As Richard Sorabji explains:

The good Stoic, out of justice, would energetically seek to save others from starving. But what if, through no fault of his own, his efforts failed and the others died of starvation? The important thing as far as the Stoic was concerned would have been achieved, the exercise of good character. And the only question that would matter about those who died would be whether they died bravely, with gratitude for efforts made and other virtues of character....If we believe in human rights, we think it important not only that people should do their duty, but, at least as much, that those with human needs should have those needs met. The satisfaction of human needs is precisely not a matter of indifference.

The Stoics also cultivated an apathy to suffering because they believed that pain sickness and suffering were categorised as indifferent things (adiaphora). Its unlikely that a philosophy which teaches that the father should look on with perfect indifference on the death of his child or wife and that the philosopher, although he should shed pretend tears for his friends, should suffer no real emotion, would have had great difficulty becoming a lasting religion of benevolence. As Lecky observes of the Stoics:

‘friendship rather than love, hospitality rather than charity, magnanimity rather than tenderness, clemency rather than sympathy are the characteristics of ancient goodness’.

Hence one finds a hardness in stoic teaching which has no place for the gentler virtues. Although stoicism aimed at a high standard of moral excellence, its suppression of the emotions and elevated morality aimed too high for the ordinary individual. As a result it had little influence on the masses. Furthermore the pantheistic theology of stoicism prevented the uniqueness of the individual from being fully recognised. The idea of cosmopolitanism and natural moral laws discoverable by reason would have a great future ahead in Christian thought but it did not produce any very startling consequences. Both the range and the effects of Stoicism were very limited. It was an aristocratic creed which could appeal only to the elect of mortals. It held no message for the outcasts and lower classes, that it was cold and stern, it lacked--as Seneca felt--the inspiration of an ideal life.

Honourable mention however, should go to Musonius Rufus for his heroic but misguided attempts to preach peace to the Flavian army before
the battle of Bedriacum on the 2th of October 69CE :

'he mixed among the soldiers, and, reasoning much concerning good and evil, began a dissertation on the blessings of peace, and the calamities of war. Many were moved to ridicule by his words, more were bored; and there were some who would have jostled him and trampled on him, if he had not listened to the warnings of the quieter individuals and the threats of others and given up his ill timed maxims of wisdo

Outside the thought of the Stoics, some have sought to proclaim Epicurus as an egalitarian and one does find that he negates the conventional lines of division within polis society. But what he proposes is not revolutionary as can be seen in his expressed exclusion of the great mass of humanity from his philosophy. Epicurus writes:

‘It was never my intention to be appealing to the multitude; for what appealed to them, I did not know, and what I did know was far removed from their perception’.

His apolitical hedonism did not seek any progressive political transformation. instead it was a route to personal escape. Those few who joined in his secession were accorded value whereas those outside the garden remained of no account. In that respect Epicurus’s position was even more elitist than that of Plato.

Yet the conception of human value we see in the classical world would eventually come to be challenged from an unlikely source. As Darrel Amundsem notes

The strongly held idea that human value is acquired rather than inherent was nearly pervasive in classical antiquity. It was so central to ancient conceptions of value that a fully developed principle of sanctity of human life was never achieved in pagan society...apparently no pagan raised the question whether human beings have inherent value, or possess intrinsic rights, ontologically, irrespective of social value, legal status, age, sex and so forth. The first espousal of the idea of inherent human value in Western civilisation depended on a belief that every human being was formed in the image of God’.

See also:

The Birth of Human Rights part one
The Birth of Human Rights part two
A Universal Declaration?

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The UK's Adoption Scandal

UK readers will be familiar with the judgement of the Court of Appeal refusing an application by Mr and Mrs Webster to reopen the case whereby their three eldest children were forcibly removed by the state and later adopted.

There has been a good deal of press coverage and not a little rumbling from within the family law service that most comment has not been based on a proper reading of the facts. My own blog comments here, while rightly slating the judges for making the wrong decision, do not properly explain where and why they went wrong. I have now, however, read the decided case written by Lord Justice Wall (you can read it here if you wish – Wall LJ, to his credit, writes in English rather than legalese). While I have changed some of my views on the case, I remain firmly of the opinion that the Court of Appeal got this badly wrong and have, as a result, let an injustice stand and further tarnished that abysmal reputation of family law.

I am not a lawyer but I do work in a legal role for a famous law firm. My own area of expertise is tax law although my analysis of the case has benefitted from information provided by a family law expert close to me (who, I expect, largely disagrees with my conclusions). Reference is made to the paragraphs of the published decided case.

The facts are as follows: In 2003, B, the middle child of Mr and Mrs Webster was seriously injured and suffered multiple fractures. Experts were called and they opined, pretty much unanimously and reasonably on the evidence that they had, that the Websters caused the injuries and were abusing their children. As a result, in mid-2004 they permanently lost custody of all three of their children who were put up for adoption (‘freed for adoption’ in the rather disconcerting terminology of the courts). In 2005, the children were duly adopted.

It is agreed that everyone acted in good faith at these initially proceedings. Nonetheless, Wall LJ admits he has “serious reservations” [para 183] about them and his colleague Lord Justice Wilson finds them “far too cursory” [para 205]. In any case, the Websters objected vehemently to the findings of abuse but were overruled.

There is one extremely sinister aspect of these proceedings that may be commonplace in the family justice system. The children’s natural grandparents were rejected as carers because they refused to accept the findings of abuse. The Webster’s themselves damaged their chances of keeping the children because they refused to admit their guilt [paras 126 – 7]. In other words, by claiming to be innocent and not incriminating themselves, the parents and grandparents were not deemed to be suitable carers. This is a travesty of justice but Wall LJ makes no mention of it as such in his judgement. If this policy remains in force, it must change at once: asserting their innocent should never prejudice any part of the parents’ or carers’ case. Failing to pick up on this point was Wall LJ’s first substantial failing.

As it happens, the parents were innocent so can hardly be blamed for refusing to admit their guilt. Wall LJ outlines the evidence that came to light in 2007 that child B’s injuries were actually caused by scurvy [paras 52 – 7]. This evidence is even stronger than I had thought from the press reports and makes clear that the 2004 hearing could not have decided B’s injuries were caused by abuse if it had been available at the time. The scurvy itself was caused because child B had a lactose intolerance and would not take solids. As a result, in consulation with the family's doctor, B was being kept on a liquid diet of soya milk only. [para 47]

Even so, only one of the initial group of experts has admitted that they might be fallible, but the congenital inability of some abuse experts to admit to a mistake has been firmly established by the cases of David Southall and Roy Meadows. One of the initial experts said the chance of scurvy was ‘nil’ although this is objectively false [para 102]. The judges all dance around what would have happened in 2004 had the new evidence been available, but it is impossible for a reasonable person to maintain that permanently removing the children from their parents (as opposed to some sort of continued monitoring) would have resulted.

The Websters were asking the Court of Appeal to grant them leave to apply for the adoption orders on their other children to be overturned. Wall LJ refused because he believed they had little chance of success. His stated reason was that the policy of keeping adoptions permanent outweighed any injustice entailed by keeping the Websters from their children. Many people, including myself, will find this conclusion unacceptable. Policy should not be allowed to impinge upon justice. That Wall LJ seemed to accept that the Websters’ suffering was a price worth paying was his second substantial failing [para 148].

Indeed, there are legal reasons for overturning adoption orders. As Butler-Sloss LJ said ([1997] 1 FLR 221 at 228H) “The law seems to me to be clear that there are cases where a fundamental breach of natural justice will require a court to set an adoption order aside.” [para 162]. In the present judgement, Wall LJ never seems to address this point, although Butler-Sloss LJ’s condition is obviously met. This is Wall LJ’s third substantial failing.

His fourth, echoed by Wilson LJ, is his contention that the Websters should have been able to produce the new evidence about scurvy at the original 2004 hearing [paras 180 and 205]. This is an outrageous contention. It is was the family law system itself which was at fault in not gathering sufficient evidence for the 2004 hearing. There is no way the Websters themselves can be blamed, when the system is swirling around them like their deepest nightmares, for not being aware that they should seek out experts by themselves to counter the accusations against them.

Finally, Wall LJ and his fellow judges got their decision wrong. Even if we accept that the adoption orders could not be overturned, the initially care proceedings could have been and should be. This would achieve three important things: firstly it would clear the names of the Websters who are still, at law, child abusers. Secondly, it would mean that there would be a duty to communicate to the Websters’ children what had really happened. Thirdly, it would have opened the door for a court to consider whether contact and visiting rights should be allowed or compelled. We know the adopting parents object to this, but they should accept that there are other injured parties in this case and allowing contact is the least, in common humanity, that they can do. Otherwise, they risk causing themselves serious heartache when the truth, at age 18, must finally be revealed to the children.

Wall LJ asked critics of the family law system to read the materials before giving voice to their concerns [para 7]. I have done so. He also cautions against blaming any one faction (e.g. social workers or experts) [para 8]. Here I cannot take his advice. The blame for the current fiasco and the continuing suffering of the Websters lies squarely with himself and his colleagues.

(edited to explain the cause of the scurvy)

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Monday, February 16, 2009

The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain

My cry of pain about the death of British justice and liberties has provoked no interest whatsoever. As a result, I won’t hesitate in continuing to post in the same vein in the hope that eventually people will wake up.

Two individuals who do appear extremely concerned about the state of the British polity are Daniel Hannan MEP and Douglas Carswell MP. Both are pigeon-holed as maverick Tories and they certainly belong to the libertarian wing of the party. I should mention that Dan is a very old friend (but not a relation) and so you can take what I have to say about his views with as much salt as you please.

Dan and Douglas have written a political pamphlet called The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain. Their diagnosis of the country’s problems is that too much power is in the hands of officials and judges who can behave however they like. There is too little power to the people. Their prescription, in large part based on an American model, is to devolve power downwards as close as possible to the general population. They advocate elected sheriffs to oversee policing, the right of parents to demand the resources used to educate their children be handed over for them to use as they please and withdrawal from the European Union.

Of the institutions I railed against in my previous post, only the Crown Prosecution Service would really be affected by their shake-up. Judges could continue to make up the law as they go along and the Home Secretary would still have the right to ban people her political chums didn’t like. That said, if Dan and Douglas’s reforms were implemented, we would certainly improve the current situation whereby almost all powers of serious note are held by anonymous bureaucrats on fat salaries who usually work in effective, if not official, secrecy.

Dan and Douglas would probably tell me that their reforms should also bring about a change in culture whereby empowered citizens demand a greater say in all areas. The most important cultural change, in my opinion, would be in journalism. Everyone assumes that the internet has opened up journalism, but there has also been a sinking to the lowest common denominator. Politic blogs are either run by the big media organisations or by semi-professional members of the commentariat. And they are all obsessed by trivia or political gossip. Big issues are practically ignored.

It was always the case that the internet would be colonised by the same outlets that existed in the dead-tree and broadcast media, but I had hoped it would not also lead to dumbing down. Sadly, I have been disabused.

But if you are interested in serious political thinking expressed with the clarity of first-class journalism, Dan and Douglas's book is an excellent and provoking read.

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Arguing your opponent’s case

Back in 2003, the Cambridge palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris wrote a book called ‘Life’s Solution, Inevitable humans in a lonely universe’. In many ways, this work marked the culmination of the argument between Morris and the late Stephen Jay Gould over the Burgess Shale and the wider question of whether evolution is random and unpredictable or has some kind of inevitable pattern. Gould had used the Burgess Shale to argue that if you were somehow able to run the tape of life again, the result would look vastly different. Conway Morris had done most of the important research on the Burgess shale and felt peeved that Gould had misrepresented his findings in this way. The result was an ill tempered argument between the two, with Conway Morris pointing to the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence and the ability of evolution to navigate to certain solutions under selection pressure. It now looks like the weight of evidence lies with Conway Morris and that biology has become less Gouldian, although recent experiments by Richard Lenski with populations of bacteria showed the importance both of constraint and historical accident in the course of life’s history. The important point about Conway Morris’s arguments is that they are Neo-Darwinian; rather than introducing some alternate mechanism into the picture he is trying to demonstrate how the deceptively simple rules of evolution can produce the complexity and creativity of life, while being constrained to certain outcomes. This is in contrast to the meaningless empire of accident, so often invoked by materialists and metaphysical naturalists, but which doesn’t tie in at all well with the universe we actually observe.

The arguments of Conway Morris were absorbed and carried further by his colleagues in a series of essays published in ‘The Deep Structure of Biology’. Some of those who had contributed had begun to produce computerised maps of ‘biological adaptive space’. It is clear from looking at these that, out of the space of adaptive possibility, almost nothing works. In other words, the convergence of biological systems can be explained by environmental and physical constraints which act on all life. These restrict the boundless creativity of life to a series of ‘optimal solutions’. In the view of Conway Morris and others, evolution acts like a kind of ‘search engine’ to create more complex ecosystems in which different niches are enabled and filled by new species.

Perhaps a bit embarrassed by Conway Morris’s theological leanings, the contributors were keen to stress that their conclusions were firmly in the neo-Darwinian mould. Robert A Foley, one of Cambridge’s leading lights in evolutionary biology and the Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, was highly critical of any notions of 'progress'', 'design' and 'purpose' in his contribution, yet he concluded:

'Rather the adaptive process which is driven by selection does have some law like properties that may well - under the right circumstances - lead to more purposive behaviour as a means of increasing or coping with complex adaptive integration and greater complexity and lead to contained directional trends. These characteristics can be said to give evolution a repetitive and, hence, to some extent. inevitable pattern....The final conclusion I would draw is that evolution on other planets - or a rerun of evolution on this one - will lead to many similarities because of the law-like nature of these processes...In a distribution of intelligences in the universe, or on a sample of one, we might speculate that conscious, purpose driven intelligence represents the mode'

On the anniversary of Darwin’s birth, Conway Morris launched into an article criticising the rather dismal atheistic spin which is put on evolution. I suspect he was trying to be provocative and re-instil a sense of wonder but he just attracted a torrent of abuse from the Guardian’s ‘Dawkinsia readership’.

Conway Morris’s rant was picked up by PZ Myers, who penned a scathing review of ‘Life’s solution’ some time ago. Myers's review was particularly dismal, being about 5% science and 95% statement of his personal philosophy. He clearly didn’t read the book as in his post he appears to be arguing on Conway Morris’s side most of the time.

‘I recommend an article in this week's Nature by Shubin, Tabin, and Carroll that argues for an important concept of deep homology. We do see similar structures, such as limbs in insects and invertebrates, that are not at all homologous on a morphological level, but when we examine their molecular genetics, we find similar substrates for both. This is the central idea of deep homology, that we have shared primitives, a set of regulatory networks, that see reuse over and over again in evolution. So while limbs arose independently in insects and vertebrates, when we look more deeply, we find that both use the distal-less developmental pathway. We see convergence because there are common functional demands that channel the solutions of selection, but there are also shared molecular constraints that limit the range of likely solutions.’

Which is exactly what Conway Morris has argued, that certain constraints, be they molecular or environmental , chart the course of evolution. Molecular convergence is one of the most fascinating features of evolution. A good example is provided by Carbonic anhydrases which are zinc enzymes necessary for dealing with carbon dioxide; these accelerate chemical reactions, assist with the construction of bones, allow the storage of carbon dioxide and are used by plants in photosynthesis. Carbonic anhydrases have evolved independently at least 4 times and we can therefore be pretty confident that if there are other organisms in the universe with are dealing with carbon dioxide, they are probably using the same zinc configuration. The appearance of deep regulatory networks seems to fit pretty nicely into the idea of a naturally emerging framework for life. What is not often appreciated is that most of the building blocks we need for more complex features - such as sentience, intelligence and nervous systems - evolved long before these complex organisations emerged. The molecular substrates to make these features all emerged in bacteria and microbes. So for example, the protein for the transparency of the eye's lens has been recruited from bacteria where it was used for a completely different purpose in a different context. Certain things which are optimal for simpler forms of life thereby contrive to provide a building yard for their more complex descendents.

The part of Conway Morris’s article which raised the most derision from the ‘new atheist contingent’ was where he said that:

‘Birds evolved at least twice, maybe four times.’

This was scoffed at by PZ but interestingly Conway Morris has been vigorously defended by Richard Dawkins, who said in a recent comment:

No, he does NOT mean bats, insects and pterosaurs! Of COURSE not. If he had meant that, he would not have said 'maybe' four times but 'at least four times'. He meant BIRDS, the creatures that we all call birds.

His whole book, Life's Solution is a hymn to convergent evolution. His thesis (and it is a very interesting and persuasive thesis, one that I largely agree with until we come to the religious nonsense at the end of the book) is that convergent evolution is far more prevalent than most people realise. In this bird passage, he almost certainly is advancing the thesis that the following statement is false: "Birds are a true clade in that all birds are descended from a single ancestor, and that ancestor would itself have been classified as a bird." There were several groups of feathered dinosaurs. Majority opinion says that only one of these groups has any descendants surviving today, and we call them birds. CM is advancing the interestingly heterodox thesis that some of today's birds are descended from one of those groups of feathered dinosaurs, while others of today's birds are descended from a different group of feathered dinosaurs. He is suggesting that the most recent common ancestor of all today's birds would not have been classified as a bird.

He could be right about that. Among all zoologists, I am probably, along with Conway Morris, the one most sympathetic to that kind of view (now that Arthur Cain is dead). We both love convergent evolution. But I am probably the least sympathetic to Conway Morris's next step, which is to drag God into the story. Convergent evolution, for me, is a wonderful testimony to the power of natural selection. Conway Morris at times seems to agree. But then at other times, he seems to think . . . well, let me put it this way. If you are the betting type, you'd be well advised to put some money on Simon Conway Morris as a future Templeton Prizewinner!

Another critic who unwittingly argues for Conway Morris’s case is Stephen Pinker on Jerry Coynes’s blog who argues:

My own take: 1. Though there’s much we don’t understand about the evolution of human intelligence, nothing about it is especially mysterious. A specific ability to do physics, abstract philosophy, higher math, and the other problems that vexed Wallace never evolved in the first place – they require millennia of accumulated knowledge in a culture, and decades of education and honing in an individual. A more generic ability entertain concepts of number, objects, living things, causality, and so on, and to combine them into lawful generalizations, is patently adaptive, as we see in the ways that all human cultures depend on acquired technological know-how for their survival, outsmarting the fixed defenses of local flora and fauna. While human-level intelligence is species-specific (as are many zoological traits, such as the elephant’s trunk), impressive levels of numerical cognition and cause-and-effect reasoning have evolved several times, including in corvids, cetaceans, cephalopods, and primates.

2. Nor is morality any mystery. Abstract, universal morality (e.g., a Kantian categorical imperative) never evolved in the first place, but took millennia of debate and cultural experience, and doesn’t characterize the vast majority of humanity. More rudimentary moral sentiments that may have evolved – sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt – are stable strategies in cooperation games, and emerge in computer simulations.

3. No feature of consciousness has ever been discovered that does not depend 100% on neurophysiology. Stimulate the brain with chemicals or an electrical current, and the person’s experience changes; let a person’s experience vary, and you can measure the changes in chemistry or electrophysiology. When a brain is damaged, the person’s mental life is diminished accordingly, and when the brain’s activity ceases, the mind goes out of existence – Wallace’s séances notwithstanding, no one has found a way to communicate with the dead. The very existence of a subjective correlate of brain activity may not be understood (if it’s an intellectually coherent problem at all, which some would deny), but positing a “soul” simply renames the problem with no insight, and leaves the perfect correlation between consciousness and neurophysiology unexplained.

Or to summarise, human like intelligence and systems of morality emerge as convergent products of the evolutionary process; all of which was the thrust of Life’s Solution. Coyne argues that our big brained intelligence is a one off and that our colossal increase in brain size which began around about 6 million years ago is a unique evolutionary trajectory. This however, is deceptive. The dolphins and porpoises, experienced a vast increase in brain size before ours and have maintained it. Our brain only overtook theirs at some point around one and a half million years ago. What is remarkable is that they show all sorts of similarities in their cognitive landscape to us, including social play, communication, the ability to recognise themselves in mirror (the mirror test) and tool use; this despite an oceanic habitat rather than an arboreal one. The uniqueness of our intelligence is probably a question of degree rather than of kind. For example, a New Caledonian crow has a similar theory of mind to a chimpanzee despite a vastly different brain structure, research into sperm whales shows that diverse social groups can combine to produce a form of culture; this is remarkably similar to elephant societies which have similar practices, despite being in a very ecosystem. With 100 billion earth like planets in our galaxy alone, and with at least 500 billion galaxies in the universe, its fair to say that Robert Foley is probably right and that conscious-driven intelligence has other footholds elsewhere given the right environment.

Pinker is right with his third point, consciousness appears to be a product of the brain, but a particularly strange one. The ‘hard problem’ , which Pinker has recognised, is why the supposedly indifferent laws of physics and chemistry should contrive to produce a subjective experience from material processes?. Here it is worth recalling that Descartes himself said in the Sixth of his 'Meditations on First Philosophy'.

'I am not present in my body merely as a pilot is present in a ship.... I am most tightly bound to it, and as it were mixed up with it, so that I and it form a unit'.

Reductive explanations of the mind have all failed, the non-reductive physicalism which is in vogue amongst philosophers of mind seems to be the way forward, but as the above quote shows, it is close to what Descartes himself was really arguing; that humans are compounds of mind and body, and it is not natural or proper to them to be anything else.

The howler of the day perhaps comes from P Z Myers. In reaction to Conway Morris’s sense of wonderment - that we, as products of evolution, should be able to do science - he says:

We simply do not hesitate to point out a rational examination of the world of biology does reveal order and pattern! Science wouldn't work if the universe were purely chaotic.

I suppose we might phrase this as the ‘science anthropic principle’. We scientifically observe a universe which has a rational order and beauty to it because that is the only type of universe we could observe scientifically. The mindless Epicurean void the materialist wants to invoke, and which has returned in the guise of the multiverse, is not what we observe. Instead science was built on the expectation that the world is ordered by laws bestowed upon it from the outside by a benevolent creator, and that therefore, if we examine it with a certain scepticism towards both nature and our own intellectual abilities, we are capable of obtaining meaningful facts from it and fitting them into a coherent framework. You can reject the religion but continue with the categories of thinking.

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