Michel Onfray: the new atheism


If you have read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion – and if not, why not? – then you will have encountered a crisp, authoritative and unmistakeably English account of the scientific case against assuming the existence of a god. If you have read Christopher Hitchens’ new God Is Not Great you will have been rewarded by a wonderfully erudite, distinctly transatlantic version of the political and logical case against organised religion. Now comes the third part of what we might (though probably shouldn’t) call the atheist trinity, the philosophical case against monotheism. This one comes, bien sûr, from France. It is Michel Onfray’s In Defence of Atheism, just published in the UK.

While Dawkins makes a strong case for why one doesn’t require a thorough grounding in theology to refute religious certainties (you don’t need to be an expert in fairyology to dispute the existence of fairies), and Hitchens draws on his acute observational skills and tireless globetrotting to report on the way “religion poisons everything” – from “Belfast to Beirut to Baghdad, and that’s without leaving the B’s”– Onfray takes another tack entirely. As befits his role as “France’s most popular philosopher” (is there another country in the world where these two words go together?), Onfray delves deep into the internal logic of the three monotheisms, performing what he calls “a pitiless historical reading of the three so-called holy books”. Nor is he alone in his battle: he enters the field backed by a gang of thinkers as bizarrely incongruous as the Dirty Dozen – Epicurus, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille and Jean Meslier, Baron d’Holbach and Michel Foucault, Jeremy Bentham and Freud.

more from The New Humanist here.

Real Food: What to Eat and Why

From Publishers Weekly:

Nina Nina Planck is a good, stylish writer and a dogged researcher who writes directly, forthrightly and with an edge. She isn’t afraid to make the occasional wisecrack (“No doubt, for some people, cracking open an egg is one chore too many”) while taking unpopular positions. Her chosen field—she is a champion of “real” (as opposed to industrialized) food—is one in which unpopular positions are easy to find. As Planck reveals, in her compellingly smart Real Food: What to Eat and Why, much of what we have learned about nutrition in the past generation or so is either misinformed or dead wrong, and almost all of the food invented in the last century, and especially since the Second World War, is worse than almost all of the food that we’ve been eating since we developed agriculture. This means, she says, that butter is better than margarine (so, for that matter, is lard); that whole eggs (especially those laid by hens who scratch around in the dirt) are better than egg whites, and that eggs in general are an integral part of a sound diet; that full-fat milk is preferable to skim, raw preferable to pasteurized, au naturel preferable to homogenized. She goes so far as to maintain—horror of horrors—that chopped liver mixed with real schmaltz and hard-boiled eggs is, in a very real way, a form of health food. Like those who’ve paved the way before her, she urges us to eat in a natural, old-fashioned way. But unlike many of them, and unlike her sometimes overbearing compatriots in the Slow Food movement, she is far from dogmatic, making her case casually, gently, persuasively. And personally, Planck’s philosophy grows directly out of her life history, which included a pair of well-educated parents who decided, when the author was two, to pull up stakes in Buffalo, N.Y., and take up farming in northern Virginia. Planck, therefore, grew up among that odd combination of rural farming intellectuals who not only wanted to raise food for a living but could explain why it made sense.

More here.

sontag’s place


Susan Sontag was that unimaginable thing, a celebrity literary critic. Most readers of The New York Review probably would have been able to recognize her on the street, as they would not, say, George Steiner. An icon of braininess, she even developed, like Einstein, a trademark hairdo: an imperious white stripe, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi, as though she were declaring a cultural Emergency. Most readers probably know a few bits about her life, as they do not of any other critic: the girl Susan Rosenblatt—Sontag was her stepfather—in her junior high class in Arizona, with Kant, not a comic book, hidden behind her textbook. Her teenaged marriage to Philip Rieff that was her entry into highbrow society. (“My greatest dream was to grow up and come to New York and write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people.”) Her trip to Hanoi in 1968. The mini-skirted babe in the frumpy Upper West Side crowd and her years as the only woman on the panel. The front-page news in 1982 when, after years of supporting various Marxist revolutions, she declared that communism was “fascism with a human face.” Her months in Sarajevo in 1993, as the bombs fell, bravely or foolishly attempting to put on a production of Waiting for Godot. Her struggle with cancer. Her long relationship with the glamour photographer Annie Leibovitz. We even know—from Leibovitz’s grotesque “A Photographer’s Life” exhibition and book—what Sontag looked like in the last days of her life and after her death.

more from the NYRB here.

duras free from the Duras aura


Marguerite Duras’s life story is well known, having provided the material for so much of her fiction. She was born in 1914 in Gia Dinh, Vietnam. Both her parents were teachers; her father died in 1921. Her early years were peripatetic; her mother eventually settled with her three children, in 1925, in Cambodia, building a house on a rice plantation that was four hours away from the nearest village. Subsequent years were spent paying for this house and seeking further funds to build a dam to protect their constantly flooded paddies. Duras went to study in Saigon at the age of fifteen and two years later, in 1931, left for Paris. The “Cahiers rose marbré”, the first notebooks in the collection, provide an account of this adolescence, written like a journal entry. It is notable just how much autobiography is present in her novels, especially in Un Barrage. Like her protagonist, Suzanne, we learn of a first relationship with a rich, indigenous man. There follow the beatings at the hands of her mother and elder brother. It wasn’t an unhappy period, it was savage, and Duras retells it through simple documentation, seemingly in an attempt better to make sense of her frame of mind at the time: “I believed what they called me. I don’t any more. I suffered like I was damned . . . enduring it like it was my fate”.

more from the TLS here.

Single gene deletion boosts lifespan

From Nature:

Life Researchers have created a mutant mouse that lives longer despite eating more and weighing less — all thanks to the loss of a single protein. Without this protein, the body is less susceptible to the heart-pounding effects of the hormone adrenaline, and may become more resistant to some forms of stress. Scientists are already developing drugs to inhibit this protein, called type 5 adenylyl cyclase (AC5). “Clearly we would be very interested in such a compound,” says cardiologist Stephen Vatner, who is part of the team that discovered this effect. Currently, the main focus of ageing research is on using calorie restriction as a way of activating a metabolic ‘fountain of youth’. The new discovery, that knocking out a single cardiac gene could lengthen lifespan, was an unexpected byproduct of heart research.

Vatner, together with Junichi Sadoshima and other colleagues at the New Jersey Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, had initially set out to determine whether getting rid of AC5 leads to a healthier heart.

Drugs that block adrenaline signalling, called beta-blockers, are known to help patients who have had heart attacks or suffer from an irregular heartbeat. As the researchers revealed in 2003, mutant mice lacking AC5 were more resistant to heart failure caused by pressure within the heart. But in the process, the research team also realised that the mutant mice lived longer than their normal counterparts. Now, in a paper published in Cell this week2, they report that the treated mice lived 30% longer and did not develop the heart stress and bone deterioration that often accompanies ageing.

More here.

Shifting Idioms: An Eggcornucopia

Ben Zimmer in the Oxford University Press blog:

Screenhunter_31_jul_26_1238In our last installment, I noted that the increasingly common spelling of minuscule as miniscule is not just your average typographical error: it makes sense in a new way, since the respelling brings the word into line with miniature, minimum, and a whole host of tiny terms using the mini- prefix. It might not be correct from an etymological standpoint, since the original word is historically related to minus instead of mini-, but most users of English don’t walk around with accurate, in-depth etymologies in their heads. (Sorry, Anatoly!) Rather, we’re constantly remaking the language by using the tools at our disposal, very often by comparing words and phrases to other ones we already know. If something in the lexicon seems a bit murky, we may try to make it clearer by bringing it into line with our familiar vocabulary. This is especially true with idioms, those quirky expressions that linger in the language despite not making much sense on a word-by-word basis.

Take the idiom free rein, meaning ‘freedom of action or expression.’ Our blog editor Becca Ford recently passed along the usage tip from Garner’s Modern American Usage, which advises that this is the correct form, not free reign. “The allusion is to horses, not to kings or queens,” Garner writes, “but some writers have apparently forgotten the allusion.”

More here.

Body as Dream

From Lensculture:

Body_2 The Body as Dream series is based on the certainty that our reality exists because we’ve given it a name, that our representation of the world is as important as its existence a priori and that we, along with the world we’re a part of, are defined by our words.

The writing is a continual repetition of words which form an entirety of illegible signs that envelop the skin, cover and replace it. Light or ponderous, winking or solemn, all of these images represent the same curious astonishment at what we are.

More here.

Six Degrees of Obesity?

From Science:

Watts A slender person with overweight friends is more likely to gain weight than one whose buddies are svelte. That’s the conclusion of a new study that mined 30 years’ worth of data and found that obesity correlates strongly with social networks. Social networks influence smoking patterns, exercise, the likelihood of dying soon after one’s spouse, and other medical questions. But most such studies have relied on data collected at one time, notes Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia University. In reality, social networks evolve, and capturing these ever-shifting patterns has been hard.

To determine how webs of relationships affect body weight over time, medical sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School in Boston and political scientist James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, turned to health records from the Framingham Heart Study. Launched in 1948 to understand the genesis of heart disease, the project has collected information on thousands of residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, and their descendents. Christakis study drew on a subset of those data, a social network that includes about 5000 individuals and more than 7000 of their parents, siblings, spouses, and friends.

A person’s chance of becoming obese significantly increased if he or she had an obese friend, sibling, or spouse, the researchers report in tomorrow’s New England Journal of Medicine.

More here.

the “cesspool of human existence”


None of my friends wanted to come with me to the mid-July heavy metal symposium at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. The promise of a Friday evening spent listening to lectures on such topics as the Brummie origins of Black Sabbath and the history of grindcore (the extreme offshoot of metal invented in the 1980s by Napalm Death, if you were wondering) failed to attract them, for some reason. They missed out. Four decades after the words “heavy metal” were first used by the rock critic Lester Bangs to describe Black Sabbath, the West Midlands is rightly celebrating its place as the epicentre of a cultural movement that has swept the globe.

Heavy metal has long been sneered at by music snobs for being resolutely proletarian, often aggressive, and obsessed with macabre, occult imagery. Over its 40-year history, however, it has achieved a level of worldwide ubiquity rivalled only by that of hip-hop.

more from The New Statesman here.

They threw nuts and sultanas, fried eggs and bananas


During 2005, while Nigel Cliff was writing his wonderful book about the Astor Place riot, I too visited a couple of the archives he consulted, namely the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the New York Historical Society. Long fascinated by the events of 10 May 1849, I couldn’t leave Manhattan without making a pilgrimage to Astor Place. But I could find no memorial to the 26 people killed in one of New York’s bloodiest episodes; nor was there any mention of the two actors, the American Edwin Forrest and the Englishman William Charles Macready, whose long-smouldering rivalry as to whose was the greatest Macbeth of the age had culminated in clashes between a 15,000-strong mob and a detachment of the National Guard. Nowadays the neighbourhood hardly looks like the front line in New York City’s class war. Instead of a volatile confluence of uptown socialites and Bowery gang members, the place was thronged with New York University students and well-heeled shoppers, and their single largest gathering was not around a provocatively sited opera house but a vegetarian café called Karen’s.

more from the LRB here.

corpsefucker makes good


Back in the early ’80s, my dad returned from a trip to L.A. with a few artifacts he thought might interest me. His batting average in this regard was never great, but this time he had scored several strange cultural magazines, including a couple of recent issues of something called Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Later I learned that this was the brainchild of the idiosyncratic architectural scholar (and co-founder of the early-’70s Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad trompe l’oeil muralist collective) Leonard Koren, but at the time, its peculiar mixture of chatty avant-garde cultural reportage alongside deadpan examinations of bathhouses, waterbeds and seltzer water (all wrapped in an impressive and influential post-punk graphic design) was pretty baffling.

Most unnerving was an account in the March-April 1981 issue, describing a performance-art piece by one John Duncan, who had bribed a Tijuana mortician to let him have sex with a female corpse, recording the act on audiotape. Afterward, he had gotten a vasectomy “so that the last potent seed I had,” he recounted, “was spent in a cadaver.” Blind Date immediately became a personal touchstone in sorting out what was possible in the name of Art.

more from the LA Weekly here.


Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker:

070730_talkcmntillu_p233Just before the end of the past term, the Court issued a decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, that signalled a complete departure from more than half a century of jurisprudence on race. The case is called Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, and it addresses a legal challenge to two city school systems—Seattle’s and Louisville’s—for consciously trying to achieve racial integration in assigning students to particular schools. Roberts, in his decision, is almost reverential toward the last major Supreme Court decision on race, which in 2003 upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s use of race as a factor in admissions. But the thrust of his argument—“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”—makes it impossible to imagine that he would have joined the majority in the Michigan case had he been on the Court at the time.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who dissented in the Michigan case, wrote a concurring opinion in the Parents Involved decision that is far more confrontational than Roberts’s, and lays out once again his long-held view of race and the courts. We have a “color-blind Constitution,” he asserts, even though the Supreme Court refused to recognize this until its monumental, unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. The essence of Brown, Thomas believes, is an absolute prohibition on taking race into account for any reason. “What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today,” he writes.

More here.  [And also see 3QD’s own Michael Blim’s essay on the topic here.]

A review of Danny Boyle’s sci-fi thriller Sunshine

Anthony Kaufman in Seed Magazine:

SunshineIf Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey met Michael Bay’s 1988 blowout blockbuster Armageddon, it might resemble Sunshine, a new beautifully crafted sci-fi adventure that’s as thought-provoking as it is thrilling. Created by the British filmmaking team of director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland (who made the smart zombie flick 28 Days Later), Sunshine imagines a near future when the sun is dying and a solar winter has enveloped the earth. To save humanity, an international crew aboard the aptly named Icarus II sets out towards the center of the solar system to deliver a nuclear device to re-ignite the sun.

More here.

Society insects

Gaden S. Robinson looks at The Other Insect Societies by James T. Costa, in the Times Literary Supplement:

Screenhunter_30_jul_26_0237Earwigs make good mothers; but they are not the insects that spring immediately to mind when the phrases “social insects”, “insect sociality” or “parental care” are used. Our thoughts turn instead to the complex, caste-driven societies of the ants, bees, wasps and termites. These are the famous socialites with the good PR, the celebrities of the insect social world, the names in the Hello! magazines of entomology. In this extraordinarily thorough book, James T. Costa sets the record straight and rebalances our view of sociality in insects by dealing with the neglected also-rans. Thirty-five years ago, E. O. Wilson carefully segregated what he termed the eusocial insects, the celebrities, from the many, many other groups that exhibit what Wilson describes as more generalized sociality. Costa draws the same line.

More here.

Indian-Americans and the Killer Belly

Lavina Melwani in Little India, via New American Media, via Time to Blog:

Screenhunter_29_jul_26_0229Here’s a life-or-death test for you.

Pick up a tape measure. Wrap it around your waist at navel level.

If you’re an Indian woman and measure more than 32 inches or an Indian man over 35 inches, brace yourself.

Within the next 10 or 20 years you are almost certain to get diabetes or heart disease – or both.

You have the killer belly, a condition that specially afflicts Indians.

While heart disease declined 60 percent in the last 30 years in the United States, it has escalated by 300 percent in India. U.S. studies have found that Indians in the United States have three to four times the heart disease rate of the mainstream U.S. population.

More here.

Queen guitarist to complete doctorate

From Yahoo! News:

Screenhunter_27_jul_25_1301Brian May is completing his doctorate in astrophysics, more than 30 years after he abandoned his studies to form the rock group Queen.

The 60-year-old guitarist and songwriter said he plans to submit his thesis, “Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud,” to supervisors at Imperial College London within the next two weeks.

May was an astrophysics student at Imperial College when Queen, which included Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor, was formed in 1970. He dropped his doctorate as the glam rock band became successful.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza–and congratulations to Brian!] Bonus video:


Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they?

Ian Parker in The New Yorker:

BonoboIn recent years, the bonobo has found a strange niche in the popular imagination, based largely on its reputation for peacefulness and promiscuity. The Washington Post recently described the species as copulating “incessantly”; the Times claimed that the bonobo “stands out from the chest-thumping masses as an example of amicability, sensitivity and, well, humaneness”; a PBS wildlife film began with the words “Where chimpanzees fight and murder, bonobos are peacemakers. And, unlike chimps, it’s not the bonobo males but the females who have the power.” The Kinsey Institute claims on its Web site that “every bonobo—female, male, infant, high or low status—seeks and responds to kisses.” And, in Los Angeles, a sex adviser named Susan Block promotes what she calls “The Bonobo Way” on public-access television. (In brief: “Pleasure eases pain; good sex defuses tension; love lessens violence; you can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.”) In newspaper columns and on the Internet, bonobos are routinely described as creatures that shun violence and live in egalitarian or female-dominated communities; more rarely, they are said to avoid meat. These behaviors are thought to be somehow linked to their unquenchable sexual appetites, often expressed in the missionary position. And because the bonobo is the “closest relative” of humans, its comportment is said to instruct us in the fundamentals of human nature. To underscore the bonobo’s status as a signpost species—a guide to human virtue, or at least modern dating—it is said to walk upright.

More here.

Space Destinations: More Than Just Rocks?

Dan Lester and Giulio Varsi in The Space Review:


Human space exploration has traditionally been inspired by ultimate destinations beyond the Earth and designed to reach them efficiently and safely. Specifically, these destinations have been bodies in our solar system. This contribution to The Space Review proposes that, as we enter the 21st century and the sixth decade of modern space exploration, a fresh analysis be undertaken of the value of different classes of destinations—including specifically locations not characterized by solid materials (rocks, ices, “soils”) or gravity. We consider whether priorities of similar worth could then be pursued on the basis of the half-century of advances in technology and space exploration experiences. In many respects, free space destinations such as Earth and planetary orbits and, specifically, the Lagrange points may have more value than planetary surfaces for investigating certain important aspects of our place in the Universe. In what respects is this traditional focus on rocky surfaces and gravity strategically driven, and in what respects is it just moot repetition of the past? Certainly our national goals for space exploration involve more than just science. However, a large amount of the science we want to do in space has little need for surface locations and, in fact, would benefit by not relying on them at all.

More here.

George Bush I

Ted Widmer in the New York Times Magazine:

Screenhunter_24_jul_25_1202None of us can control our ancestors. Like our children, they have minds of their own and invariably refuse to do our bidding. Presidential ancestors are especially unruly — they are numerous and easily discovered, and they often act in ways unbecoming to the high station of their descendants.

Take George Bush. By whom I mean George Bush (1796-1859), first cousin of the president’s great-great-great-grandfather. It would be hard to find a more unlikely forebear. G.B. No. 1 was not exactly the black sheep of the family, to use a phrase the president likes to apply to himself. In fact, he was extremely distinguished, just not in ways that you might expect. Prof. George Bush was a bona fide New York intellectual: a dabbler in esoteric religions whose opinions were described as, yes, “liberal”; a journalist and an academic who was deeply conversant with the traditions of the Middle East.

There was a time when the W-less George Bush was the most prominent member of the family (he is the only Bush who made it into the mid-20th-century Dictionary of American Biography). A bookish child, he read so much that he frightened his parents.

More here.