Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


Another ‘Berlin’ post: Arthur Koestler & the story of his great novel Darkness at Noon

February 10, 2019

The author, journalist and multifaceted thinker Arthur Koestler (1905-83) lived, on and off, in Berlin from the mid 1920s until 1932. I studied his work when I was at university, reading many of his books except, including his great anti-communist novel, Darkness at Noon (published in 1940).

I was deeply affected by pretty much all his works: his account of his life as a (Jewish) communist in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis, his incarceration under a death sentence in one of Franco’s prisons. But I was also profoundly affected by his ideas: his struggle to free himself from the mid-forged manacles of communism and cultish thinking in general; his philosophical explorations trying to make sense of human nature…

I forgot about him for a couple of decades, but began re-reading him a few years ago. Living as I was at that time in Berlin, I suddenly realised that not only had his ideas influenced me far more deeply than I had expected, but also that many incidents from his life story occurred in parts of Berlin that I knew well. His work had always seemed extremely real – something that very few people manage to do when writing about the Nazis, but this added a dimension for me.

But despite having written one of the great novels of the twentieth century, there are no memorials or plaques to Koestler in Berlin. In the red brick buildings of the artists’ colony in Bonner Strasse where he lived, there are plaques memorialising many of the anti-Nazi activists, but none noting the domicile of one of the most important authors of the twentieth century.

The buildings housing the artists’ colony in Bonner Straße where Koestler lived until 1932

Plaque commemorating one of the artists — none for Koestler

Koestler’s undeserved non-fame in Germany is, in fact, easier to understand in the light of the extremely unusual history of his most famous book.

Arthur Koestler (probably in the 1930s)

Koestler had conceived of Darkness at Noon amidst tumultuous events of one of the most tumultuous times in world history. Having witnessed the rise of the Nazis, he had also just evaded a death sentence during incarceration in Spain. He escaped to France, but the Nazis soon invaded, forcing him to flee Paris to southern France. His partner, Daphne Hardy, had managed to translated the novel into English and send it to London before they had to flee again as the Nazi invasion rolled southwards.

Unfortunately in the chaos of this flight Koestler left the manuscript — the only copy — on the kitchen table. The translation thus effectively became the original.

And, it should be noted, the original translation had been further hampered by the fact that Hardy, was a sculptor, not a writer. The sharp edge of German communist terminology was often lost in a clunky transliteration, or simply skipped over. Other times she added elements to text that were not in the original. Her task was made even more difficult by Koestler’s highly strung nature, already exacerbated by the circumstances.

Yet Hardy’s translation and, above all Koesatler’s searingly insightful and tragic narrative, were sufficient for the book to be ranked No. 8 in the US Modern Library’s list of the Top 100 English language novels of all time.

In 2016, in an extraordinary twist of fate, a German doctoral student (Matthias Weßel) was reading through the contents list for a box of Koestler’s papers in a Swiss archive when he came across a listing for a manuscript titled Rubaschow — known to be the working title of Darkness at Noon. Incredibly, the manuscript that Koestler had left on a kitchen table in France had somehow landed in this archive and sat there for decades undiscovered.

In September of 2018, it was published for the first time in German.

Finally published in September 2018 (Koestler’s working title was Rubaschow. Translator Daphne Hardy suggested the English title.

Not many books become classics 78 years before they are published! And, I suppose, this also means it’s no longer a great English language novel.

Darkness at Noon dropped like an intellectual bombshell in 1940, upon many whose sympathies for communism had been heightened by a loathing for Nazism. When translated into French, “it was one of the primary reasons the Communist Party never came to power in France, a real possibility at the time”. This claim may sound exaggerated, but Anne Applebaum (the author of the this quote) is not given to hyperbole, and is not the only historian to reach this conclusion.

A German edition, (reverse translated with Koestler’s help) was published for that country in 1946.

Printed in London in 1946 for distribution in Germany but suppressed by the Allies! (Not a museum exhibit: my copy bought on Amazon for €1)

Like so much in Koestler’s life, there is a bizarre story attached to this event: the Occupying Forces in Germany, wanting to appease their new ally Joseph Stalin, suppressed the book and prohibited its distribution. (To add yet another layer of absurdity to this, Koestler’s application to emigrate to the US was rejected due to his communist background.)

In the novel, a communist leader, Vladimir Salmanovich Rubashov, has been arrested and is about to be tried for treason. His interrogator, Ivanov, (an old friend of Rubashov’s) has just told Rubashov he must sign a confession of treason or face execution. Rubashov asks,

“Why actually do you people intend to have me shot?”

Ivanov let a few seconds go by. He smoked and drew a few figures with his pencil on the blotting-paper. He seemed to be searching for the exact words.

Listen, Rubashov,” he said finally. “There is one thing I would like to point out to you. You have repeatedly said ‘you’, meaning State and Party, as opposed to ‘I’ – that is, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov. For the public, one needs, of course, a trial and legal justification. For us, what I have just said should be enough.”

Rubashov thought this over; he was somewhat taken aback. For a moment, it was as if Ivanov had hit a tuning fork, to which his mind responded of its own accord….

Rubashov immediately recognised the error that had crept into his thinking. His great personal weakness: he could not prevent himself from considering the perspective of others. He had begun to hesitate and reflect rather than carry out orders: revealing unacceptable doubts about the inexorable course of history that the Party embodied. He had begun to feel guilt — a petit bourgois sentiment entirely foreign to historical necessity. Either he would decide that his tendency towards self-reflection was correct and thus betray the Party; or he must recognise his fallibility and maintain his faith in the Party.

Koestler himself had internalised communist logic that the interrogator Ivanov so deftly expresses. As a brilliant thinker of rather unstable personality, communism no doubt gave him a structure he could accept and submit himself to. As a Jew in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he, quite accurately, saw the Party as the most powerful opponent of Nazism.

But for Koestler this it wasn’t just Realpolitik. He ultimately highlighted three characteristics of communism that made it especially persuasive: the way it used idea that the end justifies the means as a way of evading ethics; communism as a kind of religious faith; and that it carried a built in mechanism for disabling all criticism of Stalinism, and all self-reflection. These are of course, all interrelated.

He quotes, in Darkness at Noon, a declaration from a 15th century bishop:

“When the existence of the Church is threatened, she is released from the commandments of morality. With unity as its end, the use of every means is sanctified, even cunning, treachery, violence, simony, prison, death. For all order is for the sake of the community, and the individual must be sacrificed to common good.”

Koestler has Rubashov struggling with his doubts in his cell:

The ultimate truth is penultimately always a falsehood. He who will be proved right in the end appears to be wrong and harmful before it.

But who will be proved right? It will only be known later. Meanwhile he is bound to act on credit and sell his soul to the devil, in the hope of absolution.

(Incidentally, the incongruous phrase ‘sell his soul to the devil’ is not in the original German — an example of an addition by Hardy.)

Later Rubashov, compares his own own strength of conviction to that of the leader of Party (clearly based on Stalin).

No. 1 has faith in himself, tough, slow, sullen, unshakable. He has the most solid anchor chain of all. Mine has worn thin in the last four years… The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost.

The context in the novel is the tumultuous years of war and, within Russia, the attempted transformation of an agrarian society into an industrial super power at high speed. History was, so to speak cutting a destructive course through tens of millions of lives, regardless of which side was right or wrong.

Rubashov realises his self-doubt not only sets him outside the Party, but even prevents him from criticising the Party decisively. No one who doubts themselves believes they will be proven right by history. He ultimately goes to his execution still suspecting that No. 1 may be right after all.

Koestler himself, however, was able to extricate himself from this mental prison and clearly perceive the true nature of Stalin’s purges:

It is a logical contradiction when with uncanny regularity the leadership sees itself obliged to undertake more and more bloody operations within the movement, and in the same breath insists that the movement is healthy. Such an accumulation of grave surgical interventions points with much greater likelihood to the existence of a much more serious illness.

In Spain in the mid 1930s, Koestler had witnessed Stalin’s betrayal of Spanish communists. But his encounters with fascism also began to sow seeds of doubt about. He had decided to remain in Malaga to as the only journalist to report on the fall of that city to Franco’s troops in 1937, when he was arrested. Managing to evade summary execution, he was transported to Seville where he was incarcerated for 90 days in solitary confinement. Franco had signed an order for his execution.

Koestler’s mugshot upon his arrest in Malaga 1937

His status as foreign journalist working for an English newspaper seems to have delayed his execution long enough for Hardy and some English diplomats to successfully petition Franco for his release.

It wasn’t his so much his own apparently imminent execution that challenged Koestler’s communist beliefs — his ideological training had prepared him for that. And the amount of suffering and death he had witnessed in the preceding years had inured him to self-pity. Koestler later estimated that several thousand prisoners must have been executed in that prison during the period of his incarceration in Seville. As a communist he could have marked this up in the historical ledger as a fascist war crime. But he could not help but recognise an appalling reflection in the actions and mentality of Franco’s army. He could no longer use the exigencies of supposed historical necessity to cloak his conscience.

But something else happened to Koestler too during his incarceration that, as he later put it, demolished the foundations of his communism at a subconscious level.

To explain it, he borrowed a term from William James: the oceanic experience. Having lost everything except his own consciousness, and despite the agonies and deprivations he was being subjected to, he seems to have experienced intervals of profound peacefulness, or bliss. He didn’t quite realise it at the time, but it propelled him out of the ideological trap he had so deliberately entered.

His communist training — his conception of consciousness as the product of the economic substructure — simply had no place for this experience.

His extraordinary prison diary, published as Dialogue With Death, recounts his arrest and internment in a manner that is infused with this light. He writes of his own pain and terror in a way that is oddly neutral or non-emotional, yet vivid in detail. His horror and disgust are often palpable in his writing, but the sense of ‘drama’ that is usually to be found in accounts such as these, is entirely absent. In fact, this peculiar light imbues all his autobiographical writings, as well as Darkness at Noon.

His obsession in later life with pseudo-science is also largely a product of this, and I think he has been a little too harshly judged by history for this weakness.

That Darkness at Noon would end with Rubashov’s execution was intimated from the beginning of the book. But its unforgettable final passage is drawn from an incident in Spain. Koestler, being held after his arrest in a police station in Malaga was being forced to watch the brutal treatment of other suspects. The young soldiers seemed to be from elsewhere, but an older police officer doing paper work was probably, he surmised, a local. Koestler began surreptitiously observing this man for his reactions — he had probably lived and worked here all his life and must be shocked to find himself swept up in these events. The officer eventually noticed Koestler watching him, and at one point when another victim was being dragged out, he half-looked at Koestler and gave a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders.

Thus, the final passage of Darkness at Noon — the moment when Rubashov is executed — somehow manages to contain an echo of both the oceanic feeling and this man’s helpless indifference:

A second smashing blow hit him on the ear. Then all became quiet. There was the sea again with its sounds. A wave slowly lifted him up. It came from afar and traveled sedately on, a shrug of eternity.


Three academics launch a vague attack on science and propose a vague solution of some kind

January 27, 2019

Here is a brief critique of a truly awful and vague attack on science. I just saw it mentioned on Jerry Coyne’s website and decided to look at it.

It is written by no less than three academics. It’s called The Blind Spot, but the title in the URL gives a bit more detail ‘the blind spot of science is the neglect of lived experience’. Many will already be able to guess what their argument is going to be at this point, and the same number will also find it hard to nail down exactly what it’s all about. They will get no help from the authors.

Before starting, I want to note that I think there is a case to made for the idea that there are some things which can only be experienced or decided subjectively. Do we see green all the same? is an obvious one, (which usually first occurs to 8 year old children, and is swiftly forgotten as being insoluble). A more pressing one is the question whether or not others feel pain. I can only surmise that they do, based on their reactions and statements. I could of course remain skeptical and start hitting people with hammers when I feel like it, but it would quickly cease to be an abstract philosophical issue, and would ruin my life and the lives of those who got hit.

That example is clichéd and ridiculous, but it illustrates the point where these science-can’t-really-know-anything arguments fall down. They only seem compelling or substantive as long as they remain hypothetical, and as long as nothing is riding on the answer.

Well, let’s see how their particular argument pans out.

They start off talking about the difficulties in thinking about the beginning of the universe, and note the same problems that occur to the average 8 year old: “We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is.” Ok, but what about within the box?

Many of us like to think that science can give us a complete, objective description of cosmic history, distinct from us and our perception of it.

For me, this is a bit too vague. Which “many of us” think this? At least one name would give me a pointer to the kind of thinker they are referring to. Such a view would barely rank as a caricature of scientists whose work I’ve read or studied. Before even hitting the math, quantum physics confirms that the our mammalian perceptual system evolved in a way suited detecting the things that most immediately impinge upon survival. These limits are completely obvious from the point of view of evolution, not baffling, as the authors imply.

But this image of science is deeply flawed. In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature.

But what about the approach summed up so succinctly in Karl Popper’s term ‘falsifiability’, which limits science to that which is testable. Narrow as this strikes some people, it does not preclude speculation. All it does is insist that speculations be clearly labeled as such.

Science can appear authoritarian, dogmatic and unimaginative if one picks a science text-book — so many blunt statements of fact. But that is because it is for the most part only blunt statements of fact that make it into the text books — that’s why they’re text-books. Scientific research, on the other hand, is all about identifying gray areas and pursuing unanswered questions. Facts are used as a basis for speculation. Theoretical understanding based on the apparent facts sets the parameters and helps guard against wasting time. Speculations are clearly labeled as such, before the researcher tries to back them up with facts. Facts are what scientific progress is built upon.

This is not a “God’s-eye view”. Quite the opposite. Mythology or religion, on the other hand, does try to give a God’s-eye view of reality, by trying to make a home in the universe for the human psyche. But science is committed to leaving such a home half built at best. If the facts aren’t there to construct a roof on it, it stays without a roof. All there is a sign saying “No one knows what goes here.”

Instead of ‘truth’ or ‘fact’, a better word might be ‘certainty’. There are things which we are so certain of, it would be a waste of time to check them again. I can’t know for a fact that this cup will fall if I let go of it, but I am certain of it. I don’t know for a fact that God didn’t create the world 5 minutes ago, (complete, as Bertrand Russell put it, with Englishmen with holes in their socks), but I live my life as if it existed much longer than that.

Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world.

This is an unfounded assertion, made with no attempt to support it.

That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.

Ok, so the eye cannot see itself. But it can see; and it can see other eyes; and the brain it belongs to can recognise that it has an eye that sees. I reject this vague notion that this somehow “creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world”. Rather, it creates a fairly realistic sense of that distance. There is a distance. When I die, it just won’t be the same, at least from my perspective — for me that is an important distance between me and the world.

And what is “lived perception”? And what does it have to do with this supposed distance?

Behind the Blind Spot sits the belief that physical reality has absolute primacy in human knowledge…

They are already leapfrogging away with this “Blind Spot” stuff, but they haven’t shown why it is especially ‘scientific’; why it has bad consequences; why it detaches people from reality; or how it can be overcome by some kind of non-science.

….a view that can be called scientific materialism. In philosophical terms, it combines scientific objectivism (science tells us about the real, mind-independent world) and physicalism (science tells us that physical reality is all there is).

As noted above, science takes what we can be certain of, and tries to use it to gain a better understanding of what we aren’t certain of. There are cases where what we are certain of not only tells us about what is, but also what is not. We know that all the non-genetic theories for reproduction are wrong, for example…

The authors note that science can check its hypotheses–

But these tests never give us nature as it is in itself, outside our ways of seeing and acting on things.

Again, 8 year old children get this, note how odd it is, and move on. But these authors don’t. Instead, they add another vague and unsupported assertion:

Experience is just as fundamental to scientific knowledge as the physical reality it reveals.

What are they talking about? Who knows. I doubt they do themselves. But what they have achieved with this move is to equate “experience” (that is, “lived perception”) with scientific knowledge. And instead of trying to back up this deceitful and extraordinarily stupid claim, they leapfrog to the next point.

The second problem concerns physicalism. According to the most reductive version of physicalism…

Note that they use the “most reductive” version, but continue as if this represents science.

…science tells us that everything, including life, the mind and consciousness, can be reduced to the behaviour of the smallest material constituents. You’re nothing but your neurons, and your neurons are nothing but little bits of matter.

As always when spiritual folk pull this trick, just cross out the entirely anti-scientific “nothing but”.

Here, life and the mind are gone, and only lifeless matter exists.

They speak as if ‘life’ is an independent thingy of some kind. There are good reasons why biologists dropped the idea of vitalism: after searching for the life force for 300 years, the concept bore no fruit. Instead ‘life’ can be clearly defined and identified: it involves an imperfectly replicating molecule that is capable of undergoing evolution.

Consciousness is of course much harder to pin down, and it is not uncommon for scientists to be a bit bold here. But the authors use this as a launching pad for asserting that consciousness disproves that ‘physical reality is all there is’, because consciousness can’t be explained by the physical sciences.

Again, this assertion is left unsupported. The authors don’t realise they have wandered into Maybe/maybe-not’s-ville. In this village of the damned, science becomes a mediocre branch of speculative philosophy, and we can all sit about in armchairs and talk about how ‘our intuitions are an inner path to understanding objective reality which is isn’t objective anyway.’

The authors mention a few philosophers, while retracing the steps that Fritjof Capra took more deftly but just as fruitless in his 1975 book The Tao of Physics — which also placed speculation on the same level as fact; and also ended up sitting in the same armchair that Aristotle was trying coax Plato to get up from and look at the nature he found so dull and second-hand.

The only new thing from these authors is labeling it The Blind Spot. They conclude:

To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge.

Again they repeat that science is unaware of perception; is hindered by this failing; and that becoming aware of it will somehow rescue the supposedly blind from their supposed “delusion”, whose existence has merely been asserted.

It’s also to embrace the hope that we can create a new scientific culture….

Yes, to do this thing that scientists supposedly haven’t done, is to embrace a hope. Very nice.

…in which we see ourselves both as an expression of nature…

Another baseless and completely unsupported assertion. We are a product of nature. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know. Thinking you’re an “expression” of nature sounds like something a Romantic like Schelling might have said (and far more coherently), but Schelling could at least point to Goethe as proof. All these guys have got is Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra.

…and as a source of nature’s self-understanding.

Well that’s a nice way of reframing it, though also not exactly new. Would it surprise any biologist to hear that they are a product of nature, and that as such, a portion of nature understands part of itself? I doubt it.

In fact, all this speculation-presented-as-fact that we are “expressions” of a nature which is seeking “self-understanding” is exactly the kind of theoretical guff that detaches people from the natural world and the present moment, preferring instead to speculate about how in the golden future a non-Blind-Spotted New Science will be when it finally arrives.

Their great conclusion:

We need nothing less than a science nourished by this sensibility for humanity to flourish in the new millennium.

Uhuh. That would be good, wouldn’t it. Whatever it is.

Posted by Yakaru


Modern esoteric spirituality is built on Christian foundations laid by Descartes

November 13, 2017

It is common for spiritual teachers to rant against “materialist reductionist science”, that reduces living beings to mere machines. Those of an academic bent usually trace the origins of this “dogma” back to the age of Newton and Descartes, and see modern science, especially biology, as simply an extension of Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy from the mid 1600s.

Their criticisms of Descartes — that he saw animals as machines and simply ignored basic questions about what life is and how complex animals arose — are in fact well justified. Or at least, well justified in relation to Descartes. They are in fact identical to the objections that were raised against Descartes in 1650. But modern biology is not simply an extension of Descartes’ ideas. the history of science shows, in fact, that modern biology developed not only the genuine advances that Descartes made (such as conceiving of living creatures as self contained ‘mechanical’ systems), but also took on and developed ideas from his most trenchant critics.

Here we could broadly mention alchemy as holding a door open to a conception of chemistry wherein atoms have dynamic qualities (in contrast to Descartes’ clunky “billiard ball” conception of atoms); and vitalism which treated the nature of life itself as an issue worthy of serious inquiry. (Descartes ignored this issue almost entirely.)
Today, we would consider vitalism as a ‘spiritual’ idea, but for many centuries, the possibility of a ‘life force’ (similar to the recently discovered electricity and magnetism) was scientifically plausible and in need of serious investigation. Spiritual teachers astutely ignore the centuries of hard scientific labor that were devoted to investigating this question.

This is ironic, as this is an area where ‘spiritual’ (and even supernatural) ideas made important contributions to scientific progress. The story belongs as much to the history of spirituality as to the history of science. But by refusing to acknowledge the way that scientific progress transformed vague ideas into testable hypotheses and eventually into working, factual parts of scientific theory, spiritual teachers also ignore the contributions to science of some of their greatest heroes.

(Paracelsus, for example, predated Descartes, but had a more modern and more empirical approach to chemistry than Descartes. The famous alchemist van Helmont seriously investigated vitalism, and speculated that chemical reactions may underlie all of life. Both made considerable contributions to science, but as science built on and surpassed the ideas they contributed, this contribution is erased from spiritual history. Paracelsus, in fact, was more empirical than many of his modern fans in alternative medicine, having argued that miners’ lung diseases were caused by silica dust, rather than by mountain demons. His view that the metabolic processes of the human body are akin to what happens in an alchemist’s lab, is far more modern than the ideas of Louise Hay or Bruce Lipton.)

Authoritarian Christianity

Even more ironic is that by denying both the history of science and spirituality’s contribution to it, modern spirituality has failed to develop beyond the *foundations* laid by Descartes, in the religious topography of the 17th century. To a very large degree, modern spirituality is Cartesian, not only in its dualistic ideas about the ‘body/mind split’ (borrowed directly from Descartes), but also its conception of chemistry as consisting of the study of billiard ball-like atoms crashing off each other. (It is against this backdrop, and not that of modern chemistry that the excitement among spiritual teachers about quantum physics is set.)

It might seem odd to call this materialist atomism ‘deeply Christian’, but it plays directly into the idea that living creatures cannot arise “merely by random chance”, and that they need some higher power to organize them, or boss them about. The authoritarian power structure implicit in Church theology was also implicit in Descartes’ scientific conception.

This power structure is a little more difficult to recognize in modern esoteric spirituality, but it is certainly there. I’ve covered the way Neale Donald Walsch smuggles it into his sales pitch, and in the way that James Arthur Ray deliberately presented himself as a god-like authority.

It’s not as malicious as in the Church, but it’s good marketing practice to present yourself as an authority, and use it to trigger instinctive submissive behaviors.


Rene Descartes was born in 1596 and died in 1650. He was a brilliant mathematician as well as brilliant and influential philosopher and ‘scientific’ researcher. He appears to have been rather vain, arrogant and extremely ambitious. (It was probably these qualities that led to his demise. He accepted a position as tutor to a Swedish princess and moved to Sweden. Unfortunately she wanted her classes at 5 am. Having to get up so early was too much for the habitual late riser, and he died.

As a young man, Descartes had written a vast philosophical text, his Treatise on the World, but decided not to publish it when he got news of the condemnation of Galileo in 1633, clearly fearing the same fate for himself. Rather than abandoning his aim of developing an all-embracing materialistic worldview, it appears he added two more goals: casting his philosophy in a form that would protect him from heresy charges, and to reinvent Christian philosophy in a form that would prevent the Church from rejecting the benefits of progress. In other words, protecting himself from the Church, and the Church from itself. (Bertrand Russell found reason to accept Descartes’ proclamations of faith as genuine.)

The result was a philosophical system that Robert Boyle later termed the “Mechanical Philosophy”. All living creatures, according to Descartes are machines — ‘earthen machines’ in his terminology.

I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels. (Descartes, Treatise on Man, p.108, quoted by Wikipedia)

By this measure, the difference between a clock and a dog is simply a degree of complexity. Pull out the works of a clock, and it stops working; same with a dog. Death is just stopping working. Life, in the case of an animal, is qualitatively no different from the ticking of a clock.

Humans are also earthen machines, but, unlike animals, we also have a rational, immortal soul. This soul looks out through the eyes, and is confronted by the soulless alien landscape of the world.

The soul is also immaterial. This throws up the problem of how it can influence the physical body. Descartes’ solution was the same one that has been tried by spiritual folk ever since: he declared a part of the brain as ‘the seat of the soul’.

According to Descartes’ reasoning, this is the pineal gland. This singular structure, unique, he thought, among the otherwise paired structures of the brain, sits between the hemispheres, held in place by fine threads. Thus the pineal is uniquely positioned to vibrate and dance to the winds of the spirit, like a spider web responding to a gentle breeze. The vital fluids in the brain can be directed by the pineal down the various pipes and tubules, to activate the levers and pulleys of the gross anatomy. Only humans have this structure, Descartes believed, and so only the human body can be moved by the soul. And only humans are truly alive — life meaning consciousness; meaning life is uniquely a soul property.

(This belief, incidentally, about the pineal as the seat of the soul was picked up by esoteric folks, and eventually made its way into Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy of the late 19th Century. Here it was associated with the 6th Chakra, an idea itself lifted from Hindu and Yogic philosophy, also known as the Third Eye. The association has become part of the furniture of modern esoteric ideas.)

Unfortunately for Descartes, studies by subsequent anatomists found that the pineal is not supported by threads at all. And many animals including mammals and birds and some reptiles also have a pineal gland. (By a quirk of evolutionary history, in some reptiles, including salamanders, a homologue of the pineal gland is indeed light sensitive — a genuine ‘Third Eye’.)

By separating soul and body like this, Descartes was probably hoping to hold the door open for the study of anatomy, having theologically fenced off a special place for the human soul in a realm impenetrable to the materialistic sciences.

Banishing God, founding science

However, as if often (rightly) pointed out by spiritual folk, this effectively banished the soul from nature, and left no role for God to play in the every day running of the world. God for Descartes had merely created everything, and effectively wound up animals and set them ticking along randomly, while He sat back and watched idly, with nothing else to do. It was only a matter of time before followers of Descartes simply removed God and the soul altogether. The Cartesian system functioned just as well, if not better, without God.

This is often assumed by spiritual teachers to be the foundational moment of modern science (especially biology). Scientists, they believe, simply continued from that point, studying the animal-machines in ever greater detail, and dogmatically refusing to ask where the complexity and diversity of the natural world came from, and denying the very existence of life itself.

Spiritual teachers have looked at this fossilized shell of a worldview with the soul — and mystery and wonder — driven out of it, and simply did the opposite. Instead of driving out the soul, they envisioned the soul descending into nature, and into the bodies of animals and trees, and into the whole of nature itself. This is certainly more aesthetically and emotionally pleasing; and also keeps certain paths of inquiry into nature open, that were closed to Descartes.

But by assuming that modern science is built largely upon this watershed moment, modern spiritual folk have missed not only important aspects of modern science, but also missed out on the scientific ideas of the Romantics. This late 18th and early 19th century movement (primarily in Germany) was not only profoundly spiritual, but also a powerful philosophical reaction against the materialism of the Newtonian (and Cartesian) worldviews.

Rather than seeing soul as alien to nature, the Romantics, especially Schelling and Goethe, saw the soul as a product of nature, and the inner life of the soul as a reflection of nature. Artistic genius was a necessary tool for the scientist to use in conceiving of nature; capable of creatively drawing truths of nature out of the inner world.

Much ranting and hot air could be spent on this idea, and its success could be deemed as limited, but it influenced the work of Alexander von Humboldt, a truly great scientist, whose methodology involved drawing on as many methods of investigation as possible, and using them to conceive of nature as a unified whole.

Humboldt in turn profoundly influenced the young Darwin, who read Humboldt during his voyage in The Beagle, and said he learned to see nature through Humboldt’s eyes. this approach, it has been convincingly argued, helped Darwin envision the unity of nature, and the possibility that all life forms are interrelated.

With one blow, Darwin demolished the idea that humans are somehow alien to nature, or not of this world; set atop an earthly hierarchy and granted dominion over nature by tyrannical God.

Why is it so normal for people of a spiritual or mystical bent to find Darwin’s extraordinary discovery of the transcendent unity of life such an abhorrent idea?

I can only trace it back to having inherited an implicitly Christian implicitly hierarchical, implicitly authoritarian worldview from Descartes.

Posted by Yakaru


Science and Spirituality – Conflict and Cultural Change

October 6, 2017

Two statements:

Statement 1 — Behind that hill is a stream with good water that you can drink.

Statement 2 — The moon travels across the sky because it is being drawn by a giant, divine horse.

Each of these statements asserts a fact; but each seems to belong to a different category. With Statement 1, its truth or falsehood is most important. It could be a matter of life or death, and any continuing relationship between the giver and the receiver of the information will be strongly affected by its accuracy.

Statement 2, while clearly also a fact claim, has a completely different feel to it. No great existential consequences imminently depend on it. Belief or disbelief is not really the point. It just feels qualitatively different, and sits comfortably in a different category.

This was the status quo for the vast majority of human history: statements like our two exemplars comfortably occupied two distinct categories, governed by two distinct sets of rules and customs…. Until Galileo, Kepler and Newton suddenly figured out that actually, no, the moon moves according the laws of inertia and gravity. And with that, Statement 2 was very suddenly and unceremoniously pulled from its mythological category into that blunt “true/false” category also occupied by Statement 1.

And there it sits: harmless enough, but irrevocably exposed as a falsehood.

It is easy to overlook just how new this shift is.

Earlier in human history, a member of a tribe whose cosmology had Statement 2 embedded in it might encounter another tribe that believed a different version — maybe that the moon is being hunted and eaten by a large divine bird. The two groups might fight about it; or merely find it curious, and move on.

But one thing they would never have done, is resolve it. They lacked the scientific means.

Now, suddenly, there it is, resolved. A new reality. This is the kind of thing that can happen to beliefs like Statement 2 these days. There’s no point in being angry with Newton about it. He didn’t intend to stop people anyone believing in divine horses. It just happened as a side effect of the progress of science.

Science and Cultural Change

So how to deal with a fact claim like Statement 2 that is embedded in a widely held or much loved set of ideas? Culturally speaking, we still have figured a satisfying or widely accepted approach to it.

There is a fear that allowing Statement 2 to be torn from its previous context and exposed to the harsh light of scientific inquiry, will lead to everything in that culture being treated in this manner. People are, (understandably, I think), wary of opening the door to science. Often they don’t quite understand what just happened, or what it was about Statement 2 that made it vulnerable to such a fate. What else is suddenly going to get sucked into that other category? Ethics? Cultural identity? Family values? Everything?

In a society that is at least partially scientifically literate, this makes for a tricky dynamic in public discourse. People don’t like it that scientists suddenly seem to know more about certain aspects of their beliefs or cultural identity than they know themselves. An uncomfortable hierarchy in the relationship results, where scientists happily try to share their findings, while their less informed audience experiences it as a personal affront.

Add to this the fact that spiritual and religious teachers often build their authority squarely on claiming the literal truth of their ‘Statement 2-like’ ideas. This sets them on collision course with science (though in previous centuries they had no way of knowing this), and has the knock on effect of making it appear as if scientists are trying to usurp their power, and set themselves up in their place.

Strategies Used for Opposing Science

Not only spiritual and religious movements, but also spiritually oriented academics and public figures feel uncomfortable with the perceived threat of science (or as they often term it, ‘scientism’) gaining power in areas of society and culture. Rather than learning science and engaging with scientists, they often revert to a number of avoidance strategies. The following is a brief survey of these.

Political Suppression

The most obvious tactic, perhaps, is to try to suppress the new knowledge. The Church tried this with Galileo, by refusing to look through his telescope, banning his book, and locking him up. But they couldn’t stop other people looking through a telescope, and had to watch as science progressed elsewhere in Europe but no longer Italy. The Islamic world has been suffering the same fate for five centuries.

Wall of denial

A somewhat softer strategy, especially where suppression is not possible, is to build a wall of denial so high that the science disappears behind it. Creationism attempts this, by producing and distributing masses of fake biology text books. New Age esoteric spirituality has achieved exactly this in relation to quantum physics, by flooding their own market with so much Chopra-esque quantum fables that one could read a thousand or more such books without ever encountering any genuine physics. Same with spiritual ‘epigenetics’.

Scientists really have no other option than to just blast away at these walls. Engagement is simply not possible with insincere interlocutors. But this can make scientists seem far more bullish than they actually are, and effectively invite opponents of science to proclaim that scientists are “just as dogmatic as fundamentalists.”

‘Scientific dogmatism’

This leads to another avoidance strategy: claiming that science is governed by dogma, and that spurious ideas have been elevated to the status of truth. The scientific establishment, so it is claimed, is suppressing new technologies and cancer cures, and excludes successful spiritual ideas from the journals and text books.

This accusation, though staggeringly popular, can be immediately dismissed. One example for how scientists treat potentially ‘heretical’ ideas will suffice: neutrino incident. A small group of scientists thought they had found particles that travel faster than the speed of light, thereby overturning a vast swathe of physics. The findings weren’t suppressed, but treated seriously, if skeptically, and dominated headlines worldwide for a week or so, until it emerged that a faulty cable was the cause.

Many narratives

Instead of building a wall, is to shift the boundary of that mythological category (where Statement 2 initially resided), so that it now includes science.

This is probably the most popular and most effective evasion tactic. Post modernism is one way that academics do this. Science becomes but one ‘narrative’ among many. So while scientists might insist that there is no moon-pulling horse, others are free to judge that narrative according to other standards: Newton was a privileged white male who didn’t like horses. And surely all this will be wiped away with the next paradigm shift.

…And what is “truth” anyway? ….And boy is there a lot of philosophical mileage in that gambit! Scientists usually walk straight into it too, with talk of “provisional truths”. They are perfectly right to say that, but once you let someone climb that tree, there’s no getting them down again.

The ‘Sliding Scale of Certainty’

When spiritual folk and academics pull this trick with “truth” and “paradigms” etc., they are missing something vitally important about science. We can avoid the philosophical difficulties of works like “truth” and “fact” and refer instead to a “sliding scale of certainty”.

Certain   —   probable   —   likely  —   possible   —   speculative

Down the dark end of the scale are things that are so certain that it would be a waste of time to test them again. There’s no dogmatic law against retesting them. Rather, they have been tested and re-confirmed so often that we can use them as a basis for new research.

Pseudo-science can be instantly recognized by the misapplication or more often complete absence of this scale.

The difficulty for non-scientists is that encountering science inevitably means slogging through a lot of stuff from that ‘dark end’ of the scale. By definition, that is what text books consist of (or should do). Science teaching is often too didactic, with little opportunity for students to encounter real problems or be challenged with open-ended tasks that require critical and creative thinking.

Add to this a serious problem with schooling in general. The condition of “not knowing” — a condition absolutely crucial to understanding and appreciating science — is nearly always experienced  in school as a failure. The words “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” are a shameful admission of failure. And far too often a failure involving humiliation before classmates. Where in school do people experience the feeling of not knowing as inspiring instead of threatening?

One of the big selling points (and arguably a genuinely valuable aspect) of New Age spirituality has been to free people from an overbearing “inner critic”, internalized in part from bad schooling. And clearly, when a spiritual teacher attacks science as soulless and authoritarian, their followers can’t recall anything from their science education that would contradict this.

It is only possible, however, to engage meaningfully with science if you are comfortable with this condition of “not knowing”. No one can understand science unless they first clear some ground for it. This almost inevitably involves letting go of some egotism, and letting go of attachments to certain ideas. All statements with the character of Statement 2 in this post, should have red warning lights flashing around them, as they are vulnerable to disproof. Learning to recognize these kinds of statements in advance, is not only a first step in clearing some ground for science; it is also an interesting way to clear out spiritual detritus and protect oneself from spiritual fraud.

Posted by Yakaru


Bruce Lipton’s ‘The Biology of Belief’ – annotated with facts: Part 1 (The Central Dogma)

August 25, 2017

I have often written about the work of biologist Bruce Lipton here, often with harsh criticism, and always with much to say about the errors in his thinking. His verbal expression is extremely chaotic and his statements veer between the illogical and the incoherent. But I spend the time because he claims to have a cure for cancer. As commenters here who suffer from cancer have attested, friends and therapists have recommended Lipton’s books to them.

His fans inform me that his writings are more coherent than his talks, so here I will be looking closely at his extremely popular book, The Biology of Belief. Maybe I have been unfair to focus on his ideas as they are presented in his lectures and interviews….

I am not a biologist, but I am university educated and can read. This is — and should be — more than enough to be able to go some way towards critically evaluating a science book written for a popular audience. Moreover, Lipton has indeed been largely ignored by qualified biologists, even those of a skeptical bent. It seems they find so much to criticize that they don’t know where to start, so they don’t.

This series of blogposts is for people who have read the book and are wondering about its veracity. The book occupies that odd space between spirituality and science where one is torn between drawing personal metaphorical meanings from an idea, and accepting the exalted status of “scientific fact”. I am also doing this for those who are (like me) interested in the way spiritual claims about the physical world can be fairly approached and evaluated. I will be looking not only at how he presents biological concepts, but also at how he builds his case.

Before starting, however, I already know we need to briefly clear up an odd confusion about genetics that, apparently, many biologists — including well qualified ones, and including Lipton — often make.

It concerns what in the 1950s was playfully (or foolishly) termed the “Central Dogma” of genetics.

As biochemist Larry Moran (author of a major biochemistry textbook), points out, there are in fact two different versions of this Central Dogma. One is right, and the other wrong. Unfortunately, it is the wrong one that still gets into most of the textbooks, where it is learned by many biologists. It is only a minor error, and remains insignificant, unless someone has an iconoclastic bent and is a little incautious in their critical thinking and fact checking.

Luckily it is relatively simple and can be followed for our purposes simply by noting the two diagrams.

So, here is the wrong version of this Central Dogma, (proposed by James Watson), which usually gets reproduced in the textbooks:

The wrong version of the Central Dogma

The diagram refers to the process by which a piece of DNA (a gene) being copied (transcribed) as a short piece of RNA, which then migrates from the nucleus of the cell to the cell body, where it seeks out the chemical components to construct (translate into) a protein. (Many proteins make an enzyme. Many enzymes construct larger organic structures.)

This version holds that genetic “information” flows in a simple one way street from DNA to protein.

And here is the second version, (by Francis Crick), which is the correct one:

The correct version of the Central Dogma

This shows a flow of information as a two-way street between DNA and RNA, as well as two one way streets to the protein.

What has changed, is that this model allows for complex interactions between DNA and RNA. What has not changed is that there is still no two-way street leading back from a protein to either DNA or RNA.

Moran explains that the simple one way street (wrong) version:

is clearly untrue, as the discovery of reverse transcriptase demonstrated only a few years after his book was published. Furthermore, there are now dozens of examples of information flow pathways that are more complex than the simple scheme shown in Watson’s 1965 book. (Not to mention the fact that many information flow pathways terminate with functional RNA’s and never produce protein.

Again, it is this version — the wrong one — which gets into most of the text books!

As Moran points out, it has:

become the favorite whipping boy of any scientist who lays claim to a revolutionary discovery, even though a tiny bit of research would uncover the real meaning of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology.

It’s not just because it’s called a “Dogma” that some see it as a challenge, but also because of another reason, which will become clearer as we go along. (It has to do with evolution. In other words, the environment does not alter DNA. Thus, acquired characteristics, like big muscles or rotting teeth, are not passed on genetically to offspring. Heritable variability only enters a gene pool through the chance mutations that routinely occur during DNA replication in reproductive cells in the testes or ovaries.)

As mentioned, Lipton adds himself to the list of biologists who should have noticed this discrepancy that has crept into the textbooks.

Let us begin our journey through this book.

The Biology of Belief

By Dr. Bruce H. Lipton


Lipton, after acknowledging a debt to both Lamarck and Einstein, tells the story of why he left academic biology.

My life-changing moment occurred while I was reviewing research on the mechanisms by which cells control their physiology and behavior. Suddenly I realized that a cell’s life is controlled by the physical and energetic environment and not by its genes.

This is our first whiff of Lipton’s challenge to the Central Dogma. As we will see, he has unfortunately not merely chosen the wrong version of it, he has also misinterpreted it.

Genes are simply molecular blueprints used in the construction of cells, tissues and organs. The environment serves as a “contractor” who reads and engages those genetic blueprints…

So far so good, though a bit vague. Genes are indeed switched on an off in part according the chemicals present in a cell. Each cell, of course, has a copy complete genome — a copy of the entire “blueprint” — recorded in DNA in its nucleus. (Except red blood cells which don’t have a nucleus.) But the only genes that are switched on, are the ones needed to do the job of that particular type of cell. A liver cell has a different task to a brian cell, and will switch different genes on and off accordingly.

and is ultimately responsible for the character of a cell’s life….

Odd statement. The “environment”, whatever he means by that, is not responsible for whether or not a cell is a liver or a brain cell. That’s already been decided during embryological development. The genetic switches are also in the DNA, and are activated by environmental triggers at the correct moment, as part of a cascade of events. I don’t know what he is referring to with “the environment is ultimately responsible for the character of a cell’s life.”

He continues:

….It is a single cell’s “awareness” of the environment, not its genes, that sets into motion the mechanisms of life.

What? Now it’s suddenly not the environment, but the cell’s “awareness” of the environment. And what does he mean with the “mechanisms of life”? Is he referring to genes being switched on, as in the previous sentence, or the activities of whole cells or the functioning of organs, or the movements of animals?

And what is the cell’s “”awareness”? It’s clearly a metaphor for something — hence the inverted commas. I can only assume he is using a needlessly complicated metaphor for the relatively simple mechanism of the receptors on the cell membrane.

I was acutely aware that every human being is made up of approximately fifty trillion single cells.

Well it’s more like 37.2 trillion, but who’s counting.

I knew that if single cells are controlled by their awareness of the environment…


…..We need to get clear. Are cells controlled by their environment, or by their “awareness” of their environment?

And why has the cell’s “awareness” suddenly lost its metaphorical inverted commas and evolved into a key biological fact that determines cell functioning?

There is a lot of leap-frogging going on here, (And why is he even talking about this all this in the Acknowledgements section?) He has a lot of bridges to build here.

Just like a single cell, the character of our lives is determined not by our genes but by our responses to the environmental signals that propel life.

The sentence may look simple, but there is a lot of leap-frogging from analogy to fact. We will have to get used to following these jumps.

We have an analogy: Just like a single cell, the character of our lives — this likens a human being’s life to the life of a cell.

And an assertion: the character of our lives is determined not by our genes

And another assertion: but by our responses to the environmental signals.

In short, he asserts that cells are somehow not determined by their genes, and neither are humans.

On the one hand my new understanding of the nature of life was a jolt.

He still has not said what his new understanding of life is. No geneticist says that genes “determine life”.

For close to two decades I had been programming biology’s Central Dogma— the belief that life is controlled by genes— into the minds of medical students.

Hmmm, maybe we were wasting time with all that explaining about the Central Dogma. Not even the wrong version of it says that “life is controlled by genes.” All it says is that genes build proteins, and that they are switched on and off by various triggers from elsewhere.

On the other hand, on an intuitive level my new understanding was not a complete surprise. I had always had niggling doubts about genetic determinism.

Genetic determinism is not — I repeat NOT — the Central Dogma.

Genetic determinism was popular among some in the early part of the 20th Century and was associated with eugenics. It was not only morally objectionable (to put it mildly) but also scientifically invalid.

(Um… Why was Lipton teaching it to medical students?)

….Though it took a sojourn outside of traditional academia for me to fully realize it, my research offers incontrovertible proof that biology’s most cherished tenets regarding genetic determinism are fundamentally flawed.

Lipton has leapfrogged out of the pond and his happily hopping over the hill, and we are not even out of the Acknowledgements yet. I am starting to wonder if this is such a good idea.

Part 2 is here.

Posted by Yakaru


A.N. Wilson’s Stupid Creationist History of Charles Darwin

August 6, 2017

Well known writer of serious biographies, A.N. Wilson, claims to have spent spent 5 years studying Darwin’s life. His summary of his resulting book suggests that he has taken 5 years to make the same unbelievably stupid and ignorant mistakes that the average Creationist needs only 5 minutes to make.

Unfortunately, the imminent devastating reviews by biologists will probably be overshadowed by breathless and triumphal accolades from clueless left wing academics, right wing religious fanatics, and left wing hack journalists.

I haven’t read his book, but here’s my take on his own atrocious summary of it in the UK’s Evening Standard. I’m no biologist, but neither is Wilson. I haven’t spent 5 years studying Darwin’s work, but have read a couple of his books, a string of popular and some fairly specialized books on evolution, and Janet Browne’s wonderful two volume biography of Darwin.

The headline:

A.N. Wilson: It’s time Charles Darwin was exposed for the fraud he was

Ah, finally — after 160 years, someone is going to break the silence and criticize Darwin. No one ever thought of doing that before.

And the subheading:

Two of his theories about evolution are wrong — and one resulting ‘science’ inspired the Nazis

And he’s already off and running:

…I found both pride and prejudice in bucketloads among the ardent Darwinians, who would like us to believe that if you do not worship Darwin, you are some kind of nutter. He has become an object of veneration comparable to the old heroes of the Soviet Union, such as Lenin and Stalin, whose statues came tumbling down all over Eastern Europe 20 and more years ago…

Wilson carries on venting like this — like some kind of nutter — for another two long paragraphs. I will ignore them, beyond noting that equating Darwin with Lenin and Stalin is both ridiculous, and a sure sign that biology is about to be treated as an ideology and not a science — and therefore to be countered by rhetoric and not facts.

Darwinism is not science as Mendelian genetics are.

Bingo. Stupid Bingo. And of course he is completely and utterly and stupidly and embarrassingly wrong. The field of evolutionary biology is demonstrably a science. It makes testable predictions whose accuracy can be determined to a degree of certainty. As a science, unlike rhetoric or creationism, it progresses, according to an objective standard. Rather than link to a stack of text books, I will link to one page from a stack of text books, John Endler’s classic study of natural- and sexual selection in the wild. (See Footnote 1.)

It is a theory whose truth is NOT universally acknowledged.

Here he is right. Only about 99% of biologists accept it. Of those who don’t, none have come up with any better explanation. Those who have claimed to have done, (like Stephen Meyer in his Signature in the Cell) have produced no new discoveries and contributed nothing beyond the assertion that their idea must be valid.

Intelligent Design Creationists have correctly identified exactly the kind of evidence that would be devastating to evolutionary biology if it were ever to be found. This is the idea of irreducible complexity — a characteristic that must have appeared fully developed, as any earlier stages would not have been viable.

No such case has ever been found, and dozens of purported cases have been shown to be erroneous. (See Footnote 2)

But when genetics got going there was also a revival, especially in Britain, of what came to be known as neo-Darwinism, a synthesis of old Darwinian ideas with the new genetics. Why look to Darwin, who made so many mistakes, rather than to Mendel?

Now this is just stupid.”Especially in Britain”? One of the central figures, Ernst Mayr, was a German who worked mostly in New Guinea, where evolution seemed to work just as effectively as at Oxford. And what on earth is Wilson talking about when he claims that the neo-Darwinian synthesis rejected Mendel? It was a “synthesis”, (note the definition), both of Darwinian ideas and population genetics (based on Medelian genetics).

Genetics had advanced greatly since the rediscovery of Mendel’s work around 1900, and it was found that genetic mutation (unknown to Mendel) was the cause of the heritable variability that Darwin had correctly intuited from masses of evidence. I have no idea why Wilson thinks the modern synthesis — the link of Darwinian natural selection with population genetics — is not based on genetics.

Ah, here we get it:

There was a simple answer to that. Neo-Darwinism was part scientific and in part a religion, or anti-religion.

This is not stupid. It is flaming idiocy of the kind that does not deserve to published. Shame on Wilson’s pig ignorant editor, proof reader, publisher, and all of his friends, his family and children above the age of twelve, for not rescuing this stupid man from making a stupid idiot of himself in public.

Its most famous exponent alive, Richard Dawkins, said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. You could say that the apparently impersonal processes of genetics did the same. But the neo-Darwinians could hardly, without absurdity, make Mendel their hero since he was a Roman Catholic monk. So Darwin became the figurehead for a system of thought that (childishly) thought there was one catch-all explanation for How Things Are in nature.

You fucking stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid idiot, A.N. Wilson.

You flaming fucking idiot.

Go to the library and take out a biology text book right now, A. Stupid. N. Stupid. Wilson, and open it up. Now flip through the pages until you find Mendel and a bunch of fucking goddam motherfucking peas on a grid. Why do you think they are there?

Correct. They are there because that is normal, accepted biology, and Richard Dawkins did not order people to stop talking about Mendel. He likes Mendel. They all like Mendel, and they couldn’t care less if he was a monk or a Mormon or a freaking Martian.

It is you, Mr Wilson who is obsessed with personalities, not scientists. It’s only creationists like you who obsess about Darwin. “Darwinism” only looks like an ideology if you don’t know what it is, where it came from, or how it works. It only looks like an ideology if you have managed to remain pig ignorant of scientific progress.

Wilson continues:

The great fact of evolution was an idea that had been current for at least 50 years before Darwin began his work. His own grandfather pioneered it in England, but on the continent, Goethe, Cuvier, Lamarck and many others realised that life forms evolve through myriad mutations.

Wrong. There were speculations that used the term, but all lacked Darwin’s unique combination of natural selection acting on inherited variation.

Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution…

What? Where is your evidence for this stupid assertion?

And even if there was evidence (which there isn’t), so what if he did want to be that? Lots of great scientists were assholes, but it doesn’t mean their science can’t be built upon for further progress.

And all the evidence points to Darwin being a remarkably compassionate man. He was famously prepared to cede priority to Wallace for his life’s work. He opposed slavery. (There’s an entire book about that!) In his private dealings, he was probably one of the most decent scientists in history.

Wilson continues–

Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution, so he tried to airbrush all the predecessors out of the story. He even pretended that Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, had had almost no influence on him.

He happily studied, was deeply influenced by, and referenced them all. He carefully catalogued items from thousands of correspondents. He even acknowledged Aristotle as a predecessor, even though he was quite mistaken to have done so.

He then brought two new ideas to the evolutionary debate, both of which are false.

As noted earlier, the two ideas that distinguish Darwin from his predecessors were (a) that inherited variation within a population is (b) acted upon by natural selection.

I assume Wilson is referring to these.

One is that evolution only proceeds little by little, that nature never makes leaps. The two most distinguished American palaeontologists of modern times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, both demonstrated 30 years ago that this is not true. Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in. The absence of such transitional forms is, Gould once said, the “trade secret of palaeontology”. Instead, the study of fossils and bones shows a series of jumps and leaps.

Sigh. Gould’s work was (like the work of every other evolutionary biologist), a confirmation of the central tenets of Darwin’s work. Given that Wilson thinks evolutionary biology is not a science, I have no idea why he suddenly thinks it *is* a science when Gould does it.

Hard-core Darwinians try to dispute this, and there are in fact some “missing links” — the Thrinaxodon, which is a mammal-like reptile, and the Panderichthys, a sort of fish-amphibian. But if the Darwinian theory of natural selection were true, fossils would by now have revealed hundreds of thousands of such examples. Species adapt themselves to their environment, but there are very few transmutations.

Even at this late point in Wilson’s atrocious summary of his obviously atrocious book, this is stunning. He thinks Gould’s ideas are not part of Darwinian evolutionary theory. This is just flat wrong. It’s like saying Newton wasn’t a mathematician because he invented calculus. Furthermore, the term “missing link” only means something to creationists. Depending on one’s frame of reference, every single species that ever existed, and did not go extinct, is a transitional species.

And all this has absolutely nothing to do with Darwin’s ideas in history. So why is Wilson babbling about this? He doesn’t say it, but the person who Gould was squabbling with over this ultimately minor quibble in biology, was Richard The Beast 666 Dawkins. So of course Wilson picks a side in an argument he doesn’t understand, and doesn’t even know is utterly irrelevant to his own baseless claims.

Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless

Wrong. He noticed that nature is at times horrible and at times sweet and cutesy.

Look at his extraordinary and still relevant book, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Darwin argues, for example, that animals, including humans, signal submission/non-threatening behavior by exaggerating the opposite of what a species’ aggressive stance would be. He studied all kinds of behaviors, from the aggressive to the peaceful and subtle, in relation to how they may have evolved.

that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for cissies whom Nature throws to the wall.

Wrong again, you ignoramus. You spent 5 years on this and didn’t come across any of Darwin’s work on the role of social cooperation in evolution? In fact There’s a wonderful book on how altruism can evolve: let me direct you to The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer.

Darwin did indeed say he approved of the term as an alternative to “natural selection”, but as wikipedia notes, he used it to mean “better designed for an immediate, local environment”. — In other words, not objectively fitter”, as the stupid and ignorant Wilson is about to proclaim.

And just how “ruthless” and aggressive does Wilson think the barnacles and vegetable molds upon which Darwin based his studies were?

He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things.

Evidence for these assertions about Darwin’s character and motives? Competent biographers avoid speculating about such things. Wilson should know that. I don’t need to speculate that Darwin wasn’t like that. I can simply point to his trenchant opposition to slavery.

He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish. Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

Darwin used the terminology of his day, both when opposing slavery for “savages” and when speculating that “savages” would become “civilized” if they were raised in a society such as Darwin’s own.

We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.

No, Mr Wilson, we don’t “all know”. And especially you don’t know. There was a thing called Social Darwinism, and it’s a fairly complex topic. But despite containing the name “Darwin”, social Darwinism was no more Darwinian than it was social.

As noted earlier, Darwin measured “fitness” purely in the context of specific local habitat, not according to some invented ideal standard as the Nazis did.

Secondly, Social Darwinism is the polar opposite of Darwinian evolution. Eugenics tried to use artificial selection (the kind of selective breeding that farmers use), not the kind of natural selection that occurs in nature. This should be obvious to someone who has spent 5 years studying Darwin’s ideas.

Furthermore, eugenics is in fact based on Wilson’s beloved Mendelian genetics — which Wilson claims the evil Nazi evolutionary biologists have rejected.

Same old targets — Darwin (check). Dawkins (check). Nazis (check). Really, why can’t miserable deranged hacks like Wilson come up with a few new targets for their ignorant bile?

In case you still want to buy it, I should say that Wilson’s book is unironically titled Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker. It costs £25.


1 Briefly, Endler found colorful fish in one pond in a forest, and dull colored ones in another. He found they were same species, and postulated that there was a predator in the dull colored ones’ pond, meaning less noticeable fish are more likely to survive; and that predators were absent from the other pond, meaning that color meant a reproductive advantage, being more noticeable to mates. He took specimens and switched them in the lab — put colored fish in a pond where the predator had some access, and the dull fish in a predator free pond. After numerous generations, the dull population had become colorful, and the colorful one dull. This illustrates the action of genetic mutation leading to variation; which is then acted upon by natural selection (here, predation and sexual selection)

2 For example, in the Dover case (involving the argument that Creationism is a science and should be taught in schools), the extraordinarily complex cascade of chemical reactions involved in blood clotting was asserted as a case of irreducible complexity. In testimony, biologist Ken Miller describes of how each step of the cascade can be found in isolation in nature. So while we don’t know the exact process by which it evolved in humans or other mammals, we do know that the steps are not irreducibly complex.

More to be added — see comments section, where I have posted some reviews by proper biologists.

Posted by Yakaru


From a Theologian in 1909: Stop Deceiving Children About Science

March 18, 2016

I recently found an old book in a second-hand bookshop here in Berlin, entitled Darwin: His Meaning for Our Worldview and Values. It’s a small collection of essays by scientists and academics, and was published in 1909 — 50 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and 49 years after it appeared in translation in Germany. The essay that struck me most was written by a theologian called Friedrich Naumann. (Biographical details at the end of this post.)

Warenhaus A. Weiss, Schöneberg, 1907. Das Haus steht noch und ist ein lohnendes Objekt um die Verschandelung von Bauwerken zu studieren.

Schöneberg, Berlin, 1907 (source)

Naumann begins by noting that although religious people don’t usually accept evolution, they do concede that Darwin was a decent fellow who was sincerely seeking the truth. This is already a stark contrast to today where the religious frequently hold Darwin more or less to have been inspired by the devil, and evolution to be “lies straight from the pit of hell”.

Naumann then makes an interesting and rarely made point: that Darwin’s ideas were in fact no more “anti-Christian” than a great many other ideas which had already been proposed for quite some time, albeit without any complaint about them from the church. Religious leaders, he says, failed to discuss these new ideas and discoveries amongst themselves, and withheld them from parishioners.

He continues:

Through the writings of Darwin and Haeckel, what was until then the preserve of scientists erupted into public awareness. For many, “Darwinism” came as a completely unexpected “anti-religious” revelation… Those of us who experienced the years 1860 to 1890 in the company of pious Christians, remember how powerful the waves were. Even today the waters have not been stilled.

From his tone, I suspect Naumann would be quite surprised if he knew that the shock waves would still be felt in many countries more than 100 years later.

Next, he makes an important and I think undeniable point — undeniable even from a Christian perspective:

Darwinism would have come as less of a shock to the pious if they had already been speaking more openly with each other about scientific discoveries and the implications for religion. This rarely happened. Although some religious thinkers like Schleiermacher familiarized themselves with current scientific learning and “adjusted” their Christianity accordingly, those who preached in the church or taught in the schools deliberately and timidly avoided presenting these new ideas and discussing their implications.

Deliberately and timidly avoided teaching such ideas in the churches and schools. Exactly.

There follows another noteworthy passage.

Look, we’ve long known that the Bible does not place the sun at the center of the solar system; that it presents heaven as being located above the earth… Similarly, the Creation and the Great Flood were known even before Darwin to have been derived from earlier oriental myths, and cannot be taken as historical events. Had the faithful already been clearly and unreservedly informed of these facts, then Darwinism would not have arrived like a hailstorm on the field of religion.

A hailstorm on the field of religion. And how telling it is that even science teachers today avoid teaching evolution for fear of upsetting the faithful (or losing their job). It is even customary for academics to place trigger warnings and apologies prior to any mention of human origins. 

Yet in 1909 it was already clear that such pussyfooting ultimately serves no one. Those who reject science, merely find that they have to push back harder and harder in their denial as science progresses — and become proportionately stupider and stupider. Naumann would have been stunned to discover that climate change is rejected by political leaders in the US because they and the voters believe that God promised Noah that there would be no more floods. I can understand why people are shocked by the idea that we are a species of ape, but…. getting upset about Noah’s Ark being a myth????

Our theologian continues, to make a rather rhetorical argument that Jesus would have embraced Darwinism, because he was the quintessential reformer. I am in no position to comment on that (and neither was he of course, but it’s his religion not mine, so I will let it pass). The Bible, he points out is itself a historical record of reform and changes in religious thought. And he makes another excellent point when he says that by failing to teach the facts of science:

we allow people to develop false hopes. This sets them up for disappointment and confusion if they ever discover the truth.

These days, theologians are reluctant to write as boldly as this. Even the most science-friendly theologians keep one hand cautiously on the hand brake whilst discussing anything to do with science. But Naumann clearly believes that if God created the earth and its creatures, then the study of nature is a path to God. Modern theologians are far more nervous about that “if” being in there.

Religions of course, always face a dilemma, not only with science but with facts in general. Even St Augustine noticed it’s hard to proselytize when some doctrines are clearly false or hilariously stupid. He saw no option but to “interpret” the craziest parts of the Bible allegorically. But once that decision has been taken, it’s hard to stop reality swamping in and ruining dogmas that useful or even essential to the whole faith. Once Noah’s Ark is accepted as a myth (as Naumann conceded in 1909, and as Ken Ham doesn’t concede in 2016), then why not also concede that the “Virgin” Mary was a mistranslation that even the early Christians were informed about by the Jews? Don’t expect a coherent answer from any theologian. There’s too much riding on it. Naumann himself could have, or maybe should have known about this, but he says nothing about it. Is it too close to the bone? Did he know it and simply blend it out? 

I see no way to rescue believers from this collision of their faith with reality. But I also see no alternative to Naumann’s positive attitude to science.


For the record, Friedrich Naumann (1860 – 1919) was a somewhat recognized theologian, priest, and author, who was involved in politics, (for the most part on the progressive side). A foundation named in honor of Naumann is connected to the mainstream but distinctly right-wing Freie Democratische Partei (FDP) in Germany. This Foundation, ironically, promotes climate-change denial. Unfortunately, he advocated a mild form of eugenics — a position that was opposed on ethical grounds by other writers in that book. Naumann was, however an outspoken activist for women’s rights, and other worthy causes. 

Posted by Yakaru


Atheism is not a “controversial position” for a scientist

May 12, 2013

I’ve been intending to write something about this for ages, but I was never quite sure how to approach it.  Happily the theologian John Haught has solved that problem for me, by saying something which succinctly reveals a very common misunderstanding both about science, and about the recent popular outbreak of atheism.

John Haught, like many people, thinks that scientists who publicly proclaim their atheism must be pushing their own radical and hubristic science-flavored ideology. They are not. People like Richard Dawkins and (as we shall see) the biologist and author Jerry Coyne* (see footnote), are presenting a position that is entirely consistent with well established science. The only “radical” — or better put, unusual — thing they are doing is speaking about it publicly, without obscuring  the obvious conclusions of established scientific knowledge from the public.

Haught had the following to say:

Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, whose faith in evolutionary naturalism has no limits, will continue to remind us that the high degree of accident and blind necessity in biological evolution renders the emergence of mind nothing but a fluke of nature. (Why he puts so much trust in his own mind, therefore, remains a mystery.) [Emphasis added]

I will pass over his disgracefully (for an academic) ignorant implication that natural selection is random, and focus on the parenthesized statement. As if Professor Coyne himself dreamed up the whole idea that evolutionary theory functions perfectly well without the need of resorting to a creator to drive it.

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Motivational Biology with Dr Bruce Lipton, Cancer Quack

November 25, 2012

UPDATE April 2020 — A more thorough (and less polemical) critique of Lipton can be found here: The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton: A Final Summing Up

Commenters on my previous posts about Dr Bruce Lipton have often complained that the material I selected was not a representative sample of his ideas. So by “popular demand” I have decided to review a lecture which was kindly suggested by one such commenter. The lecture goes for two and a half hours, and this post will only cover the first hour of it.

Having watched it, I am not surprised that those who previously commented here in favor of Lipton, felt that they had really received something of substance from him. Lipton does seem to have a genuine desire to share his ideas with people. He doesn’t merely push a string of products at his audience in the manner that has become standard for New Age teachers. He comes across as a friendly, enthusiastic chap who I’m sure bears no ill will to anyone. This is not about judging his character or his personal beliefs, nor about idly “contemplating the interface between science and spirituality”. Lipton claims, seriously and scientifically, to have a cure for cancer. I take that claim seriously, and will examine it in relation to the science he claims supports it.

Lipton presents some reasonably complicated cell biology, and as far as it went, I think he did a fair job of explaining a couple of basic concepts. Unfortunately, these basic concepts do not support his central argument. I expect his fans may be a little surprised when I present his basic concepts stripped of the scaffolding that he surrounded them with in the lecture.

Obviously, I am not impressed with what Lipton offers his audience, but I intend to present his views as fairly and accurately as I can. Comments are open for anyone who wishes to correct any errors they feel I have made in my presentation of his ideas.

I am going to leap straight into the lecture at about the one hour point, quote Lipton summing up his central thesis, and then retrace the steps he used to get there.

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Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion — Part 2: Delusions of Dogma

October 27, 2012

If you haven’t read Part One, please do that first, because you’ll get a summing up of the whole thing in the first few paragraphs and you might decide Sheldrake has made such a mess of it that it’s not even worth bothering to read on!

Rupert Sheldrake, as we saw in Part One, claims that modern science is based on ten dogmas. Further, he claims these dogmas force scientists to exclude all evidence for spiritual phenomena regardless of merit. But before diving back into the list where we left off in Part One, I want to point out two more disastrous flaws in Sheldrake’s argument.

One is that it’s not just spiritual ideas that science has discarded over the last few centuries. A massive number of hypotheses that would perfectly fit into what Sheldrake sees as science’s “mechanistic dogma” have also been discarded. Why? Because they didn’t work. But why does Sheldrake think these mechanistic theories were discarded, if the only standard for proof he sees operating is adherence to a mechanistic dogma?

Obviously, if he will allow that strict and fair rules of evidence were applied to mechanistic theories, then why would these suddenly be suspended on ideological grounds for spiritual ideas? Such behavior would leave a very clear paper trail, wouldn’t it, Dr Sheldrake. Where is it, and why didn’t you discuss that in this lecture?

A second problem — even more immediate — is that he has failed to discuss real life scenarios where scientific “dogma” was seriously challenged. How do scientists react in such a case? Consider the neurtrino incident. The sequence of events is recounted here in a few newspaper headlines:

According to Sheldrake, the reporting scientists would simply be ignored or openly chastised for daring to question the dogma. Or the anomaly would have been ignored by the discoverers themselves, either through dogmatic blindness or fear of God, as Sheldrake argues below. But that’s not what happened, and Sheldrake does not discuss this incident.

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Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion — Part 1: Dogma & Denial

October 21, 2012

Rupert Sheldrake recently published a book called The Science Delusion. It was accompanied by a public lecture tour of the same name, and this two part series of posts is based on one of these lectures.

As will be argued below, Sheldrake’s understanding of science is itself delusory. He grossly misrepresents the nature of modern science, and commits the very same errors he has accused science of making: defining things into and out of reality, dismissing evidence out of hand, and failing to question his own assumptions.

Sheldrake simply blanks out hundreds of years of the history of science, and completely ignores entire fields of scientific inquiry. Repeatedly, he presents the whole of modern science as if it is a minor and rather primitive branch of speculative philosophy, run by a cabal of cynical, incompetent and power-hungry priests.

He asserts that modern science is based on ten dogmas, all of which originated at a particular juncture in history several hundred years ago, and which have been blindly maintained ever since, without regard for evidence.

What his argument requires him to do, then, is to show that these dogmas:

a) really exist in modern science;
b) hinder scientific progress or skew research; and
c) show that his alternative would serve scientific advancement.

As will become clear below, he does the following instead:

a) fails to correctly identify the assumptions that science really uses;
b) ignores all research and all progress in all the sciences; and
c) simply demands the right to tinker philosophically with the theoretical foundations of science, without regard for evidence.

This post is based on an hour-long public lecture (which he won’t allow anyone to embed) in which Sheldrake presents the main arguments of his book.

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Bruce Lipton: Quack, Creationist, Buffoon, PhD

July 6, 2012

UPDATE April 2020 — A more thorough (and less polemical) critique of Lipton can be found here: The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton: A Final Summing Up

In the previous post on Dr Bruce Lipton, I dealt with the first segment of his short video series Beyond Darwin. Lipton shared his belief that global ecological catastrophe is being caused people’s acceptance of Darwinian evolution. Even more curiously, the solution he proposes is, of all things, his specific form of cancer quackery. 

Really. Don’t take my word for it. Check the previous post!

Anyway, here is my take on the second (and final) part of the talk. I have transcribed Lipton’s words in their entirety, exactly as spoken, because that is easier than trying to edit his appallingly scrambled and inarticulate diction. Thankfully, the talk only goes for two minutes.


He begins:

Every organism is put in place with every other organism to balance some part of the environment…

Put in place by whom?

….Lipton, it turns out, is a creationist. He’s not the highly politicized Christian fundie type, but he clearly believes in some kind of pantheistic Intelligent Designer. No doubt the majority of the world’s population believe something similar, but Lipton has a PhD in cell biology. He should be able to at least make a coherent case for his position. 

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