Forgive Me, Spirit of Science: Dawkins on His Love of the KIng James Bible

20101229_86279444_w In the New Statesman:

The King James Bible occupies nearly 42 pages of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, only narrowly beaten by Shakespeare, with 45. Not just literature in the high sense but everyday speech is laced, suffused – riddled, even – with biblical phrases the status of which ranges from telling quotation (“They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind”) to cliché (“No peace for the wicked”) and all points between. A word in season and perhaps we can see eye to eye. Although I wouldn't call the Bible my ewe lamb, and I would have to go the extra mile before I killed the fatted calf for it, you don't need the wisdom of Solomon to see how biblical imagery dominates our English. If my words fall on stony ground – if you pass me by as a voice crying in the wilderness – be sure your sin will find you out. Between us there is a great gulf fixed and you are a thorn in my flesh. We have come to the parting of the ways. I fear it is a sign of the times.

It has to be the King James version, of course. Modern translations break the spell as surely as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Listen to this, if you can bear to, from the Good News Bible, whose clunking title matches its style:

It is useless, useless, said the Philosopher. Life is useless, all useless./You spend your life working, labouring, and what do you have to show for it? Generations come and generations go, but the world stays just the same.

Older readers might hear the voice of Tony Hancock. Or is it Victor Meldrew? Anyway, now here's the real thing:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity./What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?/One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Real thing? Well, let me not emulate that notorious slogan against the teaching of Spanish in Texas schools: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the children of Texas.” Hebrew, alas, is a sealed book to me (yes, that's another one: Isaiah 29:11), but I have it on respected authority that Ecclesiastes, at least, is pretty damn good poetry in the original. If so, it certainly doesn't make it through the Good News mangling. But I shall argue that poetry can gain in translation, and I believe this may have been achieved with the King James Bible.

A Theory of Menopause

SiowAloysius Siow interviewed by Romesh Vaitilingam in Vox EU:

Menopause – or post-reproductive survival – is rare among mammals and, from an evolutionary perspective, anomalous since it reduces consumption for current offspring without producing future offspring. Aloysius Siow of the University of Toronto talks to Romesh Vaitilingam about his theory of menopause, which is based on the fact that, unlike other mammals, humans understand the reproductive process. The interview was recorded at the Centre for Market and Public Organisation in Bristol in October 2010.

Listen here


New Year, New Science

News46912a-i1.0Richard Van Noorden, Heidi Ledford and Adam Mann in Nature:

Nature looks at key findings and events that could emerge from the research world in 2011.

The Eemian revealed The North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) project reached bedrock in July 2010, at a depth of more than 2,500 metres. The fruits of that effort should soon be seen, now that researchers are analysing gas and particles trapped inside the ice core to reveal details of the climate of the Eemian interglacial period (130,000–115,000 years ago), when the average global temperature was about 5°C warmer than today.

GWAS prove their worth Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have uncovered plenty of links between diseases and particular regions of the genome, but frustratingly haven't revealed much about the biochemistry behind these associations. In 2011, expect to see real mechanistic insights explaining how genes, and non-coding regions, affect the medical conditions they have been linked with. Metabolism, obesity and diabetes are among the hottest targets.

The Caste Buster

02Striver-t_CA1-articleInline Anand Giridharadas in the NYT:

I came to Umred to write about a riot. A few months earlier, power blackouts that rural Indians always suffered silently triggered a violent reaction. Why? Umred was just another small town in the middle of nowhere, dusty and underwhelming. But Umred had begun to dream, townspeople told me, because of television, because of cousins with tales of call-center jobs and freedom in the city. Once Umred contracted ambition, blackouts became intolerable. A psychological revolution, a revolution in expectations, had taken place.

“Electricity is essential to ambition,” an energetic young man named Ravindra Misal explained to me, “because I need it to do my homework, I need it to listen to music if I am a dancer, I need it to listen to tapes of great speakers, I need it to surf the Internet. But I cannot, so people get angry.” Over plates of mutton and chicken, Misal and his friend Abhay offered examples of the little things that were changing in Umred: young men hunting online for wives, farmers’ sons deserting the farms to work at a bank in a nearby town, a deluge of students signing up for English classes. And beauty pageants. “I see Fashion TV on television, Miss India contests in the big cities,” Misal said. “So I thought, Why can’t we have that also?” And so he organized the first Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest, which seemed to be half about physical appearance and half about the communication skills that are all the rage in small-town India.

Misal embodies the type of person who will truly transform India: not an engineer or a financier, but an average person who refuses to be satisfied with the status he was born to. Umred rioted because its people had somehow acquired the courage of their own dissatisfaction. But what kind of India will they build?

The Industrialisation of Animals: What Happened to Ethics?

Industrialisation Richard Twine in The Scavenger:

In 1989 Dutch cultural anthropologist and philosopher Barbara Noske in her book Humans and Other Animals coined the phrase the ‘animal industrial complex’.

This event should have kick started a whole array of social science analyses into the political economy of animal agri-business yet in the intervening period I would suggest a paucity of such work and indeed a lack of refinement over just what the concept of the ‘animal industrial complex’ actually means.

I think we can safely assume that Noske took inspiration from the concept of the ‘military industrial complex’ originally named by US President Eisenhower in his farewell address in January 1961 and used to characterise the network of relationships between governments, the various armed forces and the corporate military/security sector that supplies them. One wonders what he would make of the global scale of such relationships 50 years on.

Inherent to that concept and also applicable to Noske’s is a sense of a powerful network acting via a certain sense of concealment. Yet we should also account for the implicit public support of and complicity with such networks and the work that various ideologies perform in presenting a certain natural inevitability to their existence.

In this vein I would like to offer a definition of the ‘animal industrial complex’ as a partially opaque network of relations between governments, public and private science, and the corporate agricultural sector. Within the three nodes of the complex are multiple intersecting levels and it is sustained by an ideology that naturalises the human as a consumer of other animals. It encompasses an extraordinary wide range of practices, technologies, identities and markets.

A large proportion of global crop cultivation is implicated and we must, following Noske, also include the networks and practices of animal experimentation as a part of the complex – indeed, research links between the agricultural and the medical are one of its features. As Noske herself pointed out, “Disease-prone animals are a source of big profits for the pharmaceutical industries.”

The animal-industrial complex achieves the annual slaughter of in excess of 56 billion farmed animals (a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) figure), a figure that excludes marine animals, experimented animals and those farmed animals that don’t make it to the slaughterhouse count.

This figure deserves some pause for thought. It’s an annual figure and it’s on an upward trajectory.

So Much for Human Rights: On Morocco’s Occupation of Western Sahara

Jeremy Harding in the LRB blog:

Two things we can learn about Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara from the US embassy in Rabat, courtesy of WikiLeaks: 1) it’s a source of personal revenue for Moroccan army officers but 2) everything’s fine really.

Western Sahara used to be a Spanish possession, which Madrid was due to hand over to the indigenous population in 1975. King Hassan II of Morocco took advantage of the chaos in Spain at the time of Franco’s death and annexed the territory. The UN deplored the move; the Polisario Front embarked on a liberation war, which resulted in stalemate and a ceasefire in 1989. By this time Morocco controlled most of the territory and was pouring in settlers to outnumber indigenous Sahrawis.

Under UN auspices, both parties – the kingdom of Morocco and Polisario – agreed to a referendum on independence. Twenty years later, the vote is a lost hope: the Moroccans have driven it into the ground with Byzantine objections, year on year. The UN mission has been sidelined; the settler colonial project continues; there are hundreds of thousands of refugees in Algeria and a population inside the territory that’s punished when it calls for independence.

These are trifling matters for Ambassador Thomas T. Riley, filing from Rabat in 2008. What counts is America’s ‘robust military relationship’ with Morocco, confirmed by ‘the purchase of sophisticated weapons from the US to include 24 F-16s this year’. The regime, Riley announces,

has also increased its activities under a partnership arrangement with the Utah National Guard, which regularly deploys to Morocco to conduct joint training and humanitarian relief operations.

Even so, he’s disturbed by corruption in the Moroccan army (total numbers 218,000; between ‘50 and 70 per cent… preoccupied with operations in the Western Sahara region’). Riley cites Lieutenant Geneneral Abdelaziz Bennani, commander of the Southern Section – i.e. the annexed territory. Apparently, Bennani has used his position to

skim money from military contracts and influence business decisions. A widely believed rumour has it that he owns large parts of the fisheries in Western Sahara… There are even reports of students at Morocco’s military academy paying money… to obtain positions in lucrative military postings.

Top of the list: Western Sahara.

A Year Anew

From The New York Times:

Happy_new_year_by_clwoods By now, of course, 2010 feels like a completely familiar, totally used-up year. But why does 2011 still sound like an annum out of science fiction? It’s not as though 2011 is a remoter outpost in the hinterland of the future than, say, 1971 was. Yet here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, living in the very future we tried to imagine when we were young so many years ago. Surely we must have colonies throughout the solar system by now. Surely hunger is no more, and peace is planet-wide.

The coming of the new year reminds us, again, that we live, as we always have, somewhere on a sliding scale between utopia and dystopia and that we continuously carry our burdens and opportunities with us. 2011 is merely a new entry in our ancient custom of chronological bookkeeping, an arbitrary starting point for our annual trip around the sun. But it is also so much more. Who can live without fresh intentions, new purposes? Who does not welcome a chance to start over, if only on a new page of the calendar? Life goes on, but it goes on so much better with hope and renewal and recommitment.

Last night was a night for banishing regrets. Today is for wondering how to live without new ones, how to do right by ourselves and one another.

More here.

A Question of Character

From The Boston Review:

Kennedy_35_6_america On May 11, 1831, a diminutive 25-year-old Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, stepped onto a New York City wharf and began his fateful encounter with America. Over the subsequent nine months, Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, ostensibly on a fact-finding mission about American prisons, ranged from the cities of the eastern seaboard to the unaxed wilderness west of Detroit. They were, Tocqueville rhapsodized, “overcome with joy,” to see “a place that the torrent of European civilization had not yet reached.” Through crippling cold they descended the great valley of the Mississippi to New Orleans, crossing paths with Choctaw Indians shivering westward on the Trail of Tears. They sipped Madeira in the White House with President Andrew Jackson (“not a man of genius,” Beaumont drolly noted). Everywhere they keenly observed the American scene.

Four years later, Tocqueville published the first volume of his monumental work, Democracy in America. Together with its companion volume, released in 1840, it remains the most astute analysis of American society ever penned, a touchstone and inspiration for all subsequent efforts to grasp the elusive essence of America’s national character.

More here.