Friday, 27 February 2009

Darwin and Creationism

In the beginning God created...chemistry. I don't know about you but I find the extraordinary complexity of life that results from God's chemical processes truly awe inspiring, reminiscent in a way of entering a great cathedral or seeing a great work of art and wondering at the builders and originators of such beauty. Let us think for a moment about the extraordinary end product. When DNA was discovered and explained it seemed as if humanity had a relatively simple key to the processes of life yet with time we have found the story just gets more and more complicated. We have found that our genes are not simple codes for particular results, we have found that each gene can produce several proteins - an average of nearly six not one, that the same gene can perform different functions in different tissues at different times. We have found that the expression of each gene is itself controlled by complex processes, including methylation, from within the genome. We have found that whilst Darwin was mostly right that Lamarck was not completely wrong and that characteristics developed during a single life may, surprisingly, be passed on to our children.

Consider the curious case of human size. At times in history when people have had poor diets for several generations the population becomes smaller in stature. When diet improves, the average size does not spring back immediately but does so over several generations. I have a photograph of my grandfather, great grandfather and his father: each son taller than his father. In turn, my father was taller than his father, I was taller than my father and my son is taller than me. You can understand why this process makes evolutionary sense, reducing the risk of the improved food supply being temporary and ensuring babies in each generation are not too big for their mothers to give birth to. It seems, superficially, to go against our understanding of Darwin's ideas but complex processes of gene expression overlay the genetic code and control how it is manifested.

At every turn the complexity of life and its chemical processes expands. And all this is a natural process that follows from the chemistry of carbon, nitrogen and the other elements: when bundled together in certain circumstances they naturally start reacting and forming chains of molecules that join and break apart - stir, add water and heat gently for several billion years and you get us and everything around us. Amazing.

PS. There was a TV programme on Darwin recently that talked about Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika in Africa and how each had a huge variety of fish in different ecological niches that have evolved from the same single species over many millions of years. And what was wonderful was that very similar fish had evolved in each niche - as if evolution had run the same experiment twice and come up with much the same result. Amazing.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Amnesty International, The Gaza Conflict & Proportion

On 23 February 2009 Amnesty International issued a report on the recent conflict in Gaza. Its main thrust was to call for an arms embargo on both sides and a cessation of American military aid to Israel. A curious document, on a par with many they have issued on this protracted conflict. As a terrorist organisation, Hamas is clearly unaffected by such a call, so this is really a one sided call for America to stop support for Israel. Amnesty calls for an investigation of war crimes allegations and refers to 'disproportionate' action by Israel and attacks by their forces on civilians and civilian objects.

Now let us talk about proportionality. One death of an innocent is one too many but war is not nice and this was war. It is claimed that Israeli forces killed over 1,300 and wounded over 5,000. These figures come from just one side of the conflict, are they correct? Remember Israel's attack on Jenin in 2004. Palestinian officials spoke of a massacre, of 500 dead, even of 3,000 dead. In the end, when the dust settled, the figure agreed by all sides was between 53 and 56 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers. One death of an innocent is one too many but we are trying to measure proportionality so the figure of suffering matters.

The war was sparked by Hamas deciding not to renew their six-month ceasefire on 19 December 2008, followed by a barrage of missiles into Israel. Hamas officials claimed they were willing to renew the ceasefire if Israel would open the border crossings but Israel was not willing to open border crossings because they feared this would escalate the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and suicide bombers out of Gaza. They did not want to appear to reward the continuing low-level war waged by Hamas through missile attacks and suicide bombing. Israel viewed the threat as being to its existence: what is proportional to the existence of a state? Would proportionality be for Hamas missiles to kill two Israeli civilians and for Israel to respond by picking two random civilians in Gaza and killing them? Is Israel not permitted to try to stop the attacks even if this requires a disproportionate response?

In war both sides use weapons, which are things designed to cause injury and death. Israel was fighting an enemy based amongst civilians: how, therefore, could they avoid civilian casualties? Amnesty complains that Israel used weapons that do not allow pinpoint accuracy amongst civilians but this was war - how many Israeli lives were required to be sacrificed to to achieve pinpoint accuracy? Israeli spokesmen allege that Hamas cynically uses human shields, purposely firing from positions next to hospitals, mosques and schools and that they locate storage and command bunkers beneath these buildings. If this is true then the task of avoiding civilian casualties whilst prosecuting a war becomes very hard. The fog of war makes it certain that errors will occur and that, even with efficiency and goodwill, innocents will die. But let us not assume that the fighters on both sides are always nice. They are people; there are cruel and indifferent people about. In war bad things happen. How do Israeli actions compare with other combatants in other conflicts? I suspect they compare pretty well. They try to avoid civilian casualties as far as this is compatible with attaining crucial military objectives. Hamas does not. Hamas tries to kill and maim civilians - they are the target not 'collateral damage'.

Let us talk about proportionality. Consider America's war in Iraq - we don't know how many civilian casualties there have been where US troops were involved but the number can hardly be less than tens of thousands and the US, perfectly reasonably in the context, has used artillery and aerial bombardment in areas where there were clearly civilians present. We know that the general conflict including civil war has resulted in at least 100,000 dead. Russia's war in Chechnya resulted in the virtual flattening of the capital city Grozny. Chechen officals admitted a death toll of up to 160,000 in 2005. At present Sri Lanka's government is at the point of crushing a long term insurgency. It is hard for us to criticise under the terrible pressures of this war but it is undeniable that tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in the war zone. Many thousands have died and will die.

Let us, in this context, consider the statement from the African Union in January 2009, condemning Israel. They refer to an '...unbearable and worsening humanitarian situation'.... This from the team who brought you the genocide in Rwanda, the war in eastern Congo, the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the government sponsored attacks on civilians in Dharfur, Uganda's war against LRA rebels in the north which observers believe is being kept going on purpose to boost army influence....Where do we stop? This from the people who stand around doing nothing whilst 20% of Zimbabwe's population flees the country and handreds of thousands are starving, where the government uses withholding food supplies as a weapon against suspected political opponents when it does not simply imprison, torture and murder them. The lunatics are in charge of the asylum and who gets waves of criticism...Israel, which is under attack from mortal enemies and which is one of the few countries in the world to make great efforts to limit civilian casualties in conflict. Now why is Israel singled out for special treatment do you think?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

William Rees Mogg

Every once in a while I do read William Rees Mogg's columns in the Sunday Times. I do so because he writes very elegantly and that is a joy in itself. He seems to be a supremely civilised, decent, intelligent, learned and reasonable man. So why do I only 'sometimes' read what he has to say? It is because he is one of those people by whom you can set your watch. When you read his beautifully crafted articles you know that the correct position to take is the opposite of the one he has taken - how, in view of his attributes, he manages to be so consistently wrong I cannot say but there you are.

This week he wrote about the flight to gold in difficult times and the true value associated with that metal. It is one of those rare cases where he is not only wrong but actually ignorant too; he seems not to comprehend that value in a currency or in a commodity lies equally in the confidence of people who will accept the value of either. Gold, indeed, does have some intrinsic value since it is used not just in jewellery but in electronic devices and many industrial applications but as a store of value or a medium of exchange it is no match for intangible 'money' created by banks. Its advantage lies in the place it has in human history as a store of value that is reasonably plentiful, pretty, malleable and does not corrode. Diamonds will not do because they are hard to fashion into coins and can only be valued by an expert, silver ought to work ok, platinum is too scarce, copper too plentiful. But all this is a side issue: the world economy needs to be mended and intangible paper or electronic money is irreplaceable unless we collapse into barbarism, in which case gold or cowrie shells may have to do.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Geert Wilders Denied Entry to Britain

On 12 February 2009 the Dutch 'Freedom Party' MP Geert Wilders was denied entry to the UK, turned back when he arrived at Heathrow Airport. He had been invited by Lord Pearson of Rannoch (a UK Independence Party peer) to join a group of British peers and MP's at a showing of his film 'Fitna' at the House of Lords. Two days earlier Wilders had received a letter, from the British ambassador to the Netherlands, telling him that he was not welcome in the UK. He decided to confront this ban on his entry through a well publicised arrival at Heathrow.

Should he have been denied entry? The debate is already intense, developing more heat than light, but the key issue to consider is surely that the issue, written about by a host of commentators as if it is a simple matter is actually far from simple. The argument for freedom of speech must start with Voltaire "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.". The Dutch government said it "regretted" the decision to bar Mr Wilders from the UK, saying it believed all its MPs "should be able to travel freely in the European Union". It should be noted that his party won nine seats in the Dutch House of Representatives in 2006. as the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad argued.“The British ban appears to trample on fundamental rights enshrined by the European Union and the Council of Europe but it also harms the concept that Europe is one open space,” it said in an editorial yesterday.

Meanwhile, Melanie Phillips argues strongly in the Daily Mail that there is apparent hypocrisy here since the UK government has not stopped anti-Israel, and often antisemitic, demonstrators peddling the most virulent hate messages in the UK whilst Wilders does not advocate violence, he merely pursues his constitutional right of freedom of speech to argue that Islamist terrorists derive justification for their ideas from some pretty unpleasant ideas in the Koran and he lays blame there at the book underpinning Islam itself.

The arguments against banning include the allegation that it is a craven response to threats from a Muslim minority and that we must stand up for free speech, see Philip Johnston in the Telegraph. It should be noted that Wilders is under threat of prosecution in the Netherlands for incitement to religious hatred and discrimination. Michael Portillo, the Conservative ex-cabinet minister, adds the point in The Times that banning Wilders has afforded a self-publicist enormous worldwide publicity for his views.

On the other hand...we have decided, as a society, that race hatred is a danger to our society itself and, therefore, that freedom of speech should be limited to prevent such expressions that could lead to serious public disorder and conflict. More recently, such limitations on freedom of speech have been extended to cover religious sensibilities. That extension was hotly debated and critics asked whether is would limit publication of a book such as Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Jews as well as Muslims have benefited from this extra sensitivity as Louis Farrakhan, accused of espousing antisemitic views, and Muslim cleric Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who describes suicide bombers as martyrs and homosexuality as a disease, have been excluded from the country. Do Wilders' views cross the line of acceptable debate; he wrote a 2007 article for Volkskrant, a Dutch paper, read it and judge for yourself. Critics allege that his film 'Fitna' takes verses out of context, omitting parts of verses and other verses before and after quoted text in order to create a misleading impression. Curiously, a video on UTube that makes this point is one of three videos made by the same team, the others using similar editing techniques to attack Israel. This illustrates that we must try to disentangle arguments from hypocrisy - Wilders, who now presents himself as an icon of freedom of speech has also advocated banning the Koran!

The letter given to Wilders, explaining his exclusion from the UK, read The order issued by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, read: "The Secretary of State is of the view that your presence in the UK would pose a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society. The Secretary of State is satisfied that your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in your film Fitna and elsewhere would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK."

But, I worry that Geert Wilders is an elected parliamentarian of an EU country. His views may be unpleasantly expressed but they are non-violent. Are we not allowed to criticise religions or communities now and is it only selected religions and communities that are beyond satire or criticism? I am reminded of the appalling precedent of the UK government's failure 2004 to prevent Sikh thugs from violent demonstrations and threats that forced the closure of the play Behzti - written by a Sikh - and that depicts rape and murder in a Sikh temple. Are Wilders views sufficiently aggressive or extreme to justify curtailing his right to free speech? He was not due to address a public meeting but a private meeting of peers of the realm and British MP's - was this really a threat to the UK?