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UNINTELLIGENT DESIGN

UNINTELLIGENT DESIGN
WHY GOD ISN’T AS SMART AS SHE THINKS SHE IS

ROBYN WILLIAMS

The lines from ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (p. 152) from Collected Poems by Philip Larkin are reproduced courtesy of Faber and Faber. The lines from ‘New Year Letter’ (p. 21) by W.H. Auden © 1941 are reproduced by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

First published in 2006 Copyright © Robyn Williams 2006 All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act. Allen & Unwin 83 Alexander Street Crows Nest NSW 2065 Australia Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100 Fax: (61 2) 9906 2218 Email: info@allenandunwin.com Web: www.allenandunwin.com National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry: Williams, Robyn, 1944– . Unintelligent design : why God isn’t as smart as she thinks she is. ISBN 978 1 74114 923 4. ISBN 1 74114 923 1. 1. Intelligent design (Teleology). 2. Religion and science. 3. Science - Philosophy. I. Title. 213 Set in 12.5/16 pt Bembo by Bookhouse, Sydney Printed by McPherson’s Printing Group, Maryborough 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

CONTENTS
Contents In the beginning 1

PART I 1 Proud ignorance 9 2 A cosmic coincidence? 22 3 Four revolutions 42 4 Vile bodies, or, does God ever get a bad back? 57 5 Original sin: trouble in the brain 74 6 Intelligent sex 88 7 From Dayton to Dover 103 8 ID in Australia 120 PART II 9 God’s only excuse 10 Williams versus God

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For Melvin Schmendrick . . . you owe me! And thanks to Richard Walsh (RW1)

IN THE BEGINNING
The believers in Cosmic Purpose make much of our supposed intelligence but their writings make one doubt it. If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as the final results of all my efforts.
Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science, 1935

This is a little book about ‘ID’, but it is more than that. I had long regarded creationism and its belligerent teenage cousin Intelligent Design as small if noisy players on the fringe of public life, and thus not worthy of serious consideration. It was also inappropriate, according to a few more sombre scientific commentators, to give ID what Margaret Thatcher used to call ‘the oxygen of publicity’.
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Thatcher was talking about terrorists, and ID is, in a way, terrorism focused on public education. The means are devious, the arguments deceitful and the consequences profound. In 2005 and early 2006 it became plain that the movement was planned, intense and on course; it stemmed from the same neoconservative origins as forces that have swayed politics in the United States since President George W. Bush, an ID supporter, came to office. So ID needs to be taken seriously as a possibly malign presence in our times. In truth, ID is a restatement of an old philosophical line about complexity and worth reexamining as an idea. Thomas Aquinas, someone who cherished science and its deliberations, opined in the thirteenth century that complicated systems invariably have designers. Nature is complex and therefore, he felt, a designer was on the cards. Benedict de Spinoza, in the seventeenth century, believed in such a Creative Being but thought it improbable that He had any direct interest in little old us. In his view, God made a universe for some undisclosed reason, found that people turned up as a result and concluded: ‘So what? Mere collateral walk-ons. Noises off ! Pshaw!’ Such views got Spinoza into trouble and caused him to conclude: everyone who ‘strives to comprehend natural things as a philosopher, in place of admiring them as a stupid man, is at once regarded as impious’.
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Then David Hume (1711–76) asked why we are so excited by a universe that we find ourselves able to understand. But we are products of the very stuff of that universe, he retorts, so we would expect to be able to work out what it is made of and how it operates. That is simply an exercise in self-reference. Like finding that a mathematical theorem tells you something about your world when you have yourself defined its terms in relation to your surroundings. These three philosophers are among many who have laid the groundwork for conjectures on our universe and why it exists. So the second reason to bother about ID is that it provides a wonderful excuse to take another brief look at First Causes, in the light of the latest discoveries in physics. The third reason for this book is the science itself. So much is out there for readers to enjoy that I find it gobsmackingly outrageous that ID can be allowed to pretend our state of knowledge is inadequate. Incomplete, certainly, but expanding at a ferocious rate. Whether ID is a case of proud ignorance or deliberate mendacity is for you to decide. But in the 2005 US court decision against the Dover school district in Pennsylvania, which wanted to tell science students that Intelligent Design existed as ‘an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view’, the presiding judge was clear: it was the latter.
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Science is replete with delicious examples that scotch ID’s claims. Take the proposition of irreducible complexity. A mouse trap is useless unless all its parts are aligned in a unique way. There are no halfway stages. This is the standard ID argument and applies to mechanical mousetraps from hardware stores, not the Burmese mouse killer snoozing next to me, whose halfway stages are well worked out. Put it another way. You try to build an arch from bricks. The two vertical columns can go up just so far before the bricks on the curve begin to fall down. But what if you immersed the structure in sand? The arch would be supported until the end. Remove the sand and, presto, it appears as if the arch was erected miraculously or put up by human engineering. This happens in nature all the time. Take the arch in your ear that carries sound. Once it was the unelaborated bone in a fish’s gill. That fish came to live close to land about 370 million years ago, almost amphibiously. It began to take in air from the atmosphere instead of through water. The gill was therefore held open by a more articulated bone, forming a tube. As the eons passed, the fish found it could pick up sound via this arrangement. Soon a second function was associated with the humble gill-prop, and hearing on land was invented. The hammer, anvil and stirrups, snug in your inner ear, reside there as direct descendants of that ancient adjustment.
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I come across similar stories dozens of times a week. That one was published in the journal Nature in January 2006. Another story concerns the origins of DNA. How could such an astonishingly complex molecule, containing a computer program for the design of living things, just appear de novo? Well, of course, it didn’t. Now the evidence suggests viruses may have been responsible. We already know that viruses reproduce by invading our cells and their nuclei, taking over our DNA and forcing it to make more viruses instead of the stuff from which we are made. So go back a few steps. What if, two billion or more years ago, you were a virus without multicellular creatures to invade? How would you reproduce? Why not build a template out of what’s available, a kind of free-living Lego set based on RNA? Eventually that smaller, humbler viral-RNA manufacturing device will become the DNA we know and cherish and like to pass on to our lovers. So the third reason for this book is really that it’s another excuse to gossip about the science itself. The science is endlessly fascinating. It is also rigorously tested. Why buy a vehicle flogged by the Dodgy Brothers when there’s one tested and retested by the best firm in the business? Science may have its occasional miscreants and liars, but they are quickly exposed and expelled. Proud ignorance, on the other hand, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, manages to duck,
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weave, disappear and then reform in disguise. And like him, it’s almost indestructible. Science matters and religion matters, but they matter in different ways. We need the best science we can get to make our world safe. In the words of the late Carl Sagan, ‘Science and religion may differ about how the Earth was made, but we can agree that protecting it merits our profound attention and loving care.’ ID may be a distraction. Its consequences, however, may be to divert both science and religion from doing the work so necessary in our difficult times. That’s been the role of the proudly ignorant throughout the ages. Robyn Williams Gerroa, 16 April 2006

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PART I

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PROUD IGNORANCE
Proud Ignorance
Science cannot solve the ultimate Mystery of Nature. And that is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve.
Max Planck

Sir, I am amazed at your faith in evolution. It far outweighs my faith in creation. My faith requires only one mechanism: God’s love. Yours requires three: that something can come of nothing (the ‘Big Bang’), that rocks can spontaneously spawn living things (life from inorganic elements) and that genetic mutations can turn a flatworm into an Einstein. You win; there is no doubt that your faith far outweighs mine.
Stephen Brahm, California, letter to The Economist, January 2006

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You look like a miracle. The odds against your existing are 115 quadrillion to one. Starting locally: when you were conceived there were a couple of million other sperm that could have beaten yours to your mother’s egg. Then there is the chanciness of conception. Every minute 60 000 men ejaculate but only 500 women conceive. Before that, there was the fluke of your parents’ meeting. In my case they happened to attend some tedious leftist meeting in London, and a woman whose family came from deepest Poland began an affair (they never married) with a Welsh tenor-minerrugby-player refugee from a once-green coal-blackened valley. Then there is ancient history. If only one entity in the chain of living things going back three and a half billion years from you to the primitive blob—the hundreds of people; the thousands of hominids; the countless mammals, lizards, amphibians, bony fish, horridlooking lamprey-like sucking parasites, spineless swimmers and millions upon millions of microbes and archaic lifelets—if only one of them had failed to reproduce before being snuffed, you wouldn’t be here. Consider the gigantic eruption of Toba, a volcano in Sumatra, 74 000 years ago. It shut out the sun for six years and caused the deaths of all but an estimated 2000 of our human forebears. Fewer people than today occupy a city office block or a country village carried the future of humanity.
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Did I say 115 quadrillion to one? Call that 230 quadrillion to one. You must be special? Perhaps not. My friend Melvin P. Schmendrick wouldn’t think so. He can’t think so—he doesn’t exist. Except in my mind. He is like Harvey the White Rabbit in the old James Stewart movie, or the person who might occupy the empty chair at the dining table. His was the sperm that missed out, the parental encounter that was thwarted by the sliding doors closing too soon. Melvin has several trillion cousins—all those who might have been there instead of you, there behind your eyes, being. Yes, we are indeed fortunate to be here. But our presence on Earth does not therefore imply some Grand Plan, some hidden meaning, some divine purpose. Melvin’s almost-sad absence simply gives resonance to the old Irish refrain, ‘We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here . . .’. But he isn’t! Professor Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society of London, presents the same argument about universes (we’ll come to that), reflecting on the stunningly tight physical limits within which our own universe, and our solar system, are ‘arranged’. One smidgen of a difference in the value of the force of gravity, and the life cycle of stars like our sun would be changed catastrophically. Catastrophically for us. It is not surprising that many people look at this fluky history and infer that it has been arranged or designed: an argument by statistical incredulity—always
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dangerous. Before the modern scientific revolution of the past 400 years, God was held responsible for putting us here, and for the ‘here’ itself, and what God made had to be perfect. Gods, after all, are not ham-fisted as we are, stumbling through clumsy, makeshift attempts until we get it almost right. God is never a tinkerer. Nor is God one of the Dodgy Brothers. Trouble was that our interpretation of God’s handiwork kept having to be adjusted as science revealed more about nature. God, who’d always been assigned to fill the gaps, found there were fewer and fewer gaps to fill. He got crowded out. The Earth was not flat; the sun and stars did not revolve around us; all living things were not produced at the same time. God had to be pushed back in time from what appeared to be a more and more messy creative process until He was back there in The Beginning, the only corner left to stand in. As Pope John Paul II once remarked to my friend, physicist Paul Davies, ‘You can have what came after the Big Bang, I’ll take what came before!’ Fair enough. In the late twentieth century there developed a friendly agreement between science and religion that their ‘estates’ were essentially separate and that science could look after most of the ‘how’ questions, while religion would handle the ‘why’. The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote his penultimate book on that theme. One system of explanation did not have to vanquish
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the other. They could coexist in a society that respected individual world views so long as they did not seek to impose themselves on others. It was one of the delights of a civilised society that those holding spiritual beliefs of various kinds could engage with the scientifically minded to discuss it all, at length, sometimes on air. It is no coincidence that some of my closest and dearest colleagues are in the religious department of the ABC. We have lots in common: books, scholarship, argumentativeness and the love of ideas (and wine). So where did Intelligent Design spring from, like a boil on a bum? Why is it in the courts, in the headlines, making noise? Is it merely a stroppier version of the usual debates, or something more insidious? I want to suggest it is the latter, a politically sinister movement whose intentions are not enlightenment but rather conversion to a cause, and one that seeks to limit intellectual freedom and gain recruits. It is an outrider of a conservative movement having roots in both the US and other centres of self-righteous atavism, and its rejection of science is one of the most shocking manifestations of relativism in our postmodern age. Is this the kind of strident accusation that is sometimes seen coming from atheists such as Richard Dawkins? Like him, am I guilty of jaundiced bellicosity about a mere passing nuisance? When I discussed Intelligent Design with religious broadcaster John Cleary on Breakfast on ABC Radio National towards the end of
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2005, he remarked that scientists should carry some of the blame for the spread of ID because of the spleen vented by Dawkins and his ilk. As though such spleen were totally unjustified. But I disagree. Go back to Richard Dawkins’s magisterial book The Blind Watchmaker, first published in 1986, and be amazed. It’s all there, carefully argued and with every creationist chestnut—from perfect eyes to fully formed wings and missing links—demolished with evidence stacked to the sky. How dare anyone bring out these tired, discredited, shop-soiled neocreationist wares and expect to be taken seriously? Richard (a friend of mine) has every reason to be cross. And to be accused, at the same time, of evangelical atheism, as if there were some clandestine movement with cadres hiding in dimly lit rooms plotting the downfall of God, like some newly hatched lunge against the monasteries, spreading the anti-Christ. To be accused of such malfeasance is absurd. Atheists like me don’t think about God at all—unless provoked. We think about everything else that life’s rich burden thrusts at us. But God doesn’t arise. Atheism, in this sense, isn’t an absence of something. We are not lacking anything that matters to us; we do not see believers possessing something we covet. We have no feeling whatever of a mystical presence, a hidden creative hand, or of some remote Being who cares a jot for whether we live or die. We have a clearly argued belief as to where an ethical code comes from
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and why human beings need one to survive; we have absolutely no feeling of emptiness in our lives because God, for us, like Melvin Schmendrick, isn’t around. What also makes us angry, apart from ID’s proud and wilful ignorance of what science actually says, is that our times are dominated by powerful men causing misery ‘in the name of God’ while insisting that theirs is the only way. I have some passing knowledge of the character of Jesus, of his doctrines of forgiveness, love and restraint. The deeds of leaders such as Tony Blair and George W. Bush, both loud proclaimers of piety, have as much resemblance to these qualities as Little Dorritt does to the Boston Strangler. Bush, as governor of Texas, executed 152 convicted criminals, some innocent, many mentally ill or daft (10 per cent is the official figure), most after years incarcerated on death row in cells smaller than the average cupboard. Would Jesus pull the switch on the electric chair or squeeze the hypodermic syringe containing deadly poison? Would he really? Richard Dawkins has also mused about Islamic terrorists’ conviction that they will not face oblivion after their short careers as living bombs but receive virgins, proximity to the Prophet and various other rewards for their acts of cruelty. (How female bombers are rewarded has been the subject of much unsavoury speculation.) It is a spectacularly nasty Get-Out-of-Jail card and Dawkins has every right, once more, to be cross.
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Intelligent Design is a morphed version of creationism, rebranded after the latter’s collision with the American Constitution and the Supreme Court in 1987. That is when creationism was seen clearly and unambiguously as a religious movement and therefore, as provided by the First Amendment, forbidden from formal inclusion in schools. The Founding Fathers, many of nonconformist stock, coming from the harsh lessons of an institutionally sanctioned church in England, opted from the start for a separation of religion from the state, and so also from education. The religious right in America has been trying to regain the classrooms ever since; ID is their latest Trojan Turkey. Get into the science curriculum and you win tacit credibility—although Intelligent Design is as scientific as the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. Is all this a minor fuss at the back of the playground? Is it an American drama with no significant import for Australia? The answer is NO in both instances. Science, however powerful, however much recognised as humanity’s greatest achievement, is being jostled on all fronts. About half of America’s immense population believes that the creation story as told in the Bible accounts for the origin of human beings. Sixty per cent (according to findings published by the National Science Foundation) believe in ESP; 30 per cent that UFOs are space vehicles from other civilisations; 88 per cent in alternative medicine; 40 per cent that astrology is scientific.
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Michael Shermer, who writes for Scientific American, estimates that a staggering 70 per cent do not comprehend the scientific process. Science is becoming more and more inconvenient for many of our leaders with its warnings about biodiversity, climate and the impact we have on nature in general. Science is at the same time being forced to become more commercial and to compromise its independence for the benefit of those special interests who fund it. The attacks on its probity are becoming almost bizarre. Paul Johnson is a historian. He used to edit the leftleaning magazine New Statesman but now writes regularly for the conservative Spectator. He is a classic neocon and inveighs whenever he can against ‘intellectuals’, whom he sees as agents of Robespierre and the French Revolution bent on tyranny and the establishment of concentration camps. On Darwin he writes: ‘The decisive culture war of the 21st century is likely to be between the Darwinian fundamentalists and those who believe in God and the significance of human life. It will be prolonged and bitter.’ This is Great Britain he is writing about, not Louisiana or West Virginia—mild, tolerant Blighty, home of Charles Darwin himself. He goes on:
Most observers today would put their money on the Darwinians. They already control the universities of the
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West, or at least their science departments, and persecute with ferocity any who deviate from their narrow orthodoxies. Such heretical scholars—whatever their qualifications or the strength of their arguments—are simply labelled ‘creationists’ and dismissed or barred from academic posts. Intelligent Christians are lumped with the Mad Mullahs or the Bible-Thumpers of the Midwest, and are marginalised in the media and public debate.

A final Johnsonian flourish, reminding one of the fashion for Armageddon in some sections of Republican America:‘I foresee a sorrowful process of events in which the triumph of the Darwinians may ultimately lead to the extinction of the human race. Evolution to destruction, or self-destruction, is part of the Darwinian concept, but if the theory itself should bring it about, that indeed would be a singularity. Not inconceivable though.’ Anti-intellectual by his own confession, Johnson is accusing a major section of British (and Western) culture of ambitions for the same kind of vicious thought control that Joseph Stalin attempted in the Soviet Union. In Australia this section is smeared as ‘elites’. Odd how the word once implied high status; now it is intended to denote the kind of self-elected, cosseted few who parasitised the majority in the Soviet Union: the nomen18

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klatura. According to their critics, elites include all those from ‘sheltered workshops’ (that is, funded by the taxpayer), such as universities, some schools and— whoops!—the ABC; they apparently drink chardonnay and chatter a lot. Their sometimes bleak prognostications on growth are seen as undermining the vigour of the nation’s economy and as being an impediment to progress. In America the Republican Party, under the spell of its shameless Machiavelli, Karl Rove, ensured its reelection in 2004 by, for the first time effectively, marshalling the religious right. This substantial chunk of the voting public had hitherto neglected the ballot box. Rove changed this and George W. Bush swept back into power (having fiddled his way there on the first try). A goodie bag of rightist favourites, including ID, were accordingly displayed to tempt them during the campaign. In his troubling book The Republican War on Science, journalist Chris Mooney shows how Bruce Chapman, like Paul Johnson, has travelled the full distance from liberal to neocon, from being the author in 1966 of The Party That Lost Its Head, which warned Republicans that they risked becoming (like British Conservatives) the ‘stupid’ party, to heading in 2005 the institute promoting ID, the Discovery Institute. This is the base from which ID’s boosters have launched their attempt to force an entry into the public school system.
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Of this campaign, Mooney writes:
That is where the true threat emerges. ID theorists and other creationists don’t like what the overwhelming body of science has to tell us about where human beings come from. Their recourse? Trying to interfere with the process by which children are supposed to learn about the best scientific (as opposed to religious) answers that we have to this most fundamental of questions. No matter how many conservative Christian scholars Bruce Chapman and the Discovery Institute manage to get on their side, such interference represents the epitome of anti-intellectualism.

In this little book I shall take a swift look at some of the political terrain covered by ID in recent times and revisit a few of the movement’s favourite biological howlers. I cannot begin, however, to match the depth of writers such as Dawkins, Gould and Sagan on science or Mooney and others on politics. This will be more of a primer than a text, its aim to send you in search of the full opuses. You and I may be unique, unlikely and have much to wonder about in the mystery of our origins. But, as many have said before, there is far, far more wonder and delight in the nature that science reveals and the marvels of intellectual insights by which this has been achieved than in any Just So stories dreamed up by shamans.
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As for intellectuals, or ‘elites’, W.H. Auden had it well summed up last century in ‘New Year Letter’:
To the man in the street, who I’m sorry to say, Is a keen observer of life, The word ‘intellectual’ suggests straight away A man who’s untrue to his wife.

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A COSMIC COINCIDENCE?
A Cosmic Coincidence?
Politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity.
Albert Einstein, 1952

At first glance the cosmos looks as if it was prepared specially for you and me by some heavenly bespoke tailor. Everything about it is just right. If only one of half a dozen key qualities of its constituents were different, the suit wouldn’t even begin to fit: life like ours would be impossible. Stars wouldn’t live long enough, everything would swiftly become a black hole or, just as bad, matter would be merely a thin mist. Then, more locally, if the solar system were not just so and Earth not blessed with unique qualities we would either freeze or fry—or both on the same day! Finally, if the moon hadn’t taken its
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place just in time, after nearly turning our planet to rubble, we might be little more than bugs on an arid Martian-type landscape. How we scored the trillion-to-one trifecta, which looks every inch like a miracle, is a story that has unfolded in the past 50 years or so. It stars some of the bestknown names in science, most of them based in Cambridge. This is not too much of a surprise, as Trinity College alone, where Isaac Newton and Bertrand Russell did their stuff and where a former Master (the Rev. William Whewell) actually invented the term ‘scientist’, has produced as many Nobel Prize winners as most of the rest of Europe combined. But those who’ve contributed to our knowledge of the cosmos were— are—not remotely like a bunch of beaming boffins all agreeing with each other and toasting their collective successes in port at mutual admiration societies. They fought, they made mad leaps of imagination and they got some things horribly wrong. But what did they discover? Now, in the first part of the twenty-first century, is it possible for us to tell whether this universe of ours is the ultimate in Intelligent Design, crafted to the last decimal place to our convenience—or whether it is simply the only one in which anyone could ever have had the chance to ask this question? Is this, in other words, the only universe in which we could exist and begin to enquire about its construction?
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And then there is this final conundrum: Why did we take such an inordinate amount of time to turn up? If you stretch your arms really, really wide, as far as your fingers will point, and imagine that that span is the length of time life has been on Earth (3.5 billion years), then our presence here is but the finest whisk of a file across your fingernail, barely a sliver of cuticle. Yet the age of the universe is four times greater than that span of your arms. That’s one heck of a build-up! Or are we an afterthought? Or no thought at all? The universe began 13.7 billion years ago. One of the delights of my trade is that you can be among the first to get answers to some of the really fascinating questions. Answers are coming faster today because there are more scientists working than at any other time in history. They have powerful instruments and even more powerful concepts. Just before I became a science journalist, in 1972, the great British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle was in a standoff fight with the authorities in Cambridge. At the time Fred was probably the most famous living scientist in the world. Yet he came from ‘umble stock’, from a working-class family in Yorkshire, and retained that blunt, plainspoken manner for which the region is famous (and Cambridge less so). He was a novelist of distinction, had some of his science fiction performed on BBC TV, gave
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public lectures to packed houses and was in line for the greatest prizes science has to offer—knighthoods, Nobel Prizes, the lot. His contributions to physics were an extraordinary mixture of wild conjecture and inspired brilliance. He and his friends Tommy Gold and Hermann Bondi had underwritten the ‘steady-state’ theory of the universe, proposing that the universe had always been there and that it was capable of hatching a speck of matter regularly from nothing. In fact it isn’t such a loopy notion when you remember that Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, describes mathematically the relationship of energy to matter—according to the steady-staters, the energy in the nothingness actually condenses to something material. This ‘continuous creation’ yielded, according to Hoyle et al., about one particle (one atom of hydrogen) per kilometre per year. Unfortunately the evidence was against them, and you can see that evidence on television when you are between channels. The buzz on the screen is the set picking up what’s left of the echo of the Big Bang all those 13.7 billion years ago. How this was discovered is one of the great yarns of twentieth-century science. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were taking measurements of microwave radiation at the Bell Labs in New Jersey and kept getting interference. Was the apparatus askew? Had they got the set-up wrong? Why was there always this faint noisy interference coming through whatever they did? Could
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pigeon poop on their instruments be causing the nuisance? They cleaned them thoroughly. No good. Still that buzz. At this point the average boffin gives up, changes career, opens a doner kebab shop or retires to Florida. Penzias and Wilson, instead, said Aha! and realised what the buzz really was: an echo of the Big Bang. It still sends out a shimmer of about 4 Kelvin (4° Celsius above absolute zero) and you can see it on your TV screen. There it is between channels, flickering grey, black and white. Actually it was Fred, irascible Yorkshire man that he was, who dubbed that first explosion pejoratively the Big Bang. It stuck. An explosive universe, the alternative to Fred’s steady-state, had been proposed first, in the 1920s, by Alexander Friedman and then elaborated by Eddington and Le Maitre. Its final flourish was given by George Gamov, who explained its heat, and then Alan Guth of MIT, who showed how the explosion could have been in two stages, one of them ‘inflationary’. At Cambridge the Bang was championed by Martin Ryle. Ryle was a toff—and a leftie, something else to irritate the no-nonsense free-enterprising northerner. But Fred Hoyle was a theoretician, Ryle an instrument man who actually looked at the sky. If the Bang was the right theory, you would see stars and galaxies still rushing away from each other as the universe expanded, as Edwin Hubble had proposed.
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And so they did. The ‘red shift’ was the clue, the colour you would see if heavenly bodies were indeed moving away. Ryle got the Nobel Prize, somewhat controversially. Fred, notoriously, didn’t. As for the Big Bang, it is now the received wisdom. The news from Penzias and Wilson was surely the clincher. It’s odd how scientific evidence turns up without regard to anybody’s private convictions. Fred Hoyle was a fierce critic of Darwinian evolution, yet he was offering the world a picture of an eternal universe. Martin Ryle was a political radical, yet he was presenting a cosmology that would please both archbishops and popes. The Catholic Church, in 1951, was delighted with the idea of the Bang—however long ago it occurred, it seemed to fit the Bible’s narrative of a beginning. They adopted it with alacrity. Fred came to Australia back in 1972 to look after the construction and opening of what then promised to be the foremost instrument of its kind in the world, the Anglo Australian Telescope on Siding Spring Mountain near Coonabarabran in northern New South Wales. He gave no sign when I interviewed him of the turmoil in Cambridge, which was bringing that most brilliant stage of his career to a close. My next interview was with Olin Eggen, then professor of astronomy at the Australian National University in Canberra, and in charge of the Australian interests in the telescope. During our conversation he
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said that one of the installation’s roles would be to look back to the beginning of time and discover what it was like back then—and at that point he became confused— ‘twenty million million years ago’. He had mixed up American with British billions and we got the age of the universe wrong by a factor of ten. Eggen meant to say 20 000 million years ago. Only one listener from one of the 32 countries we were broadcasting to (we were participating in a worldwide Commonwealth Day hook-up) noticed the error and wrote in. Well, it’s no longer that rough round number. In 2002 the stunningly successful satellite WMAP took pictures of the distant edges of the universe and showed how the great vista could be spooled back in time by 13 700 million years. WMAP stands for Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a tiny satellite which spent a year scanning the sky and taking measurements of the radiation Penzias and Wilson had stumbled across. It produced a picture of the most ancient light yet seen: an oval bluegreen-yellow image with tiny regions of red—the universe as it was near the beginning. Its composition was bewildering: only 4 per cent stuff like atoms, 23 per cent ‘dark matter’ and 73 per cent ‘dark energy’. So most of the universe is made up of something nobody knew about before 1997! A further conclusion of WMAP: that the world will
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expand forever and not just pull back into a ‘Big Crunch’, a reversal of the Big Bang. What Fred thought of this I cannot say. He is now dead. I suspect he would have come up with some deft evasion of the inevitable, maybe seizing on those mysterious ‘dark’ ingredients as props for his sagging theories. My last few interviews with him were, typically, a mixture of triumph and mild farce. The triumph was his revelation of where the elements come from. The farce was his dalliance with ‘panspermia’ and fossil fakery, a quixotic diversion inspired by his dismissal of Darwinian orthodoxy. (He had once dismissed the idea that life had evolved through natural selection as tantamount to saying that a hurricane had torn through a junkyard and left behind a Boeing 747.) Panspermia was his theory that the influenza virus, and even HIV, might have descended to Earth as germ clouds from space. His work on the elements, on the other hand, one of the great feats of the human intellect, showed that they are ‘cooked’ in the immense heat of stars, with hydrogen atoms, the lightest, fusing first to become helium, with a molecular weight of two, and then on to become carbon and the metals such as iron, with heavier and heavier ones resulting. When the process reaches its end stage the star explodes as a supernova, flinging its mixture of elements to the depths of space. Here they become asteroids, planets—and, in rare circum29

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stances, us. It has been said many times, but the significance is sublime: ‘We are star stuff.’ For this work Fred should have got the Nobel Prize. As my friend Robert Hanbury Brown, professor of astronomy at the University of Sydney, once put it to me: ‘Can you imagine anything more significant, more astounding than working out where the elements, the basic ingredients of matter, come from? Fred did it!’ This was a kind of evolution, if you please, though not with any natural selection. It raises two tantalising puzzles. First, why is there this tendency in matter toward complexity? Second, why is there so very much of it in the first place? I’ll tackle the second problem first. If God’s intention was to put man on Earth, made in his own image, surrounded by parkland, creatures and, eventually, a spouse, why make such a large planet? The Garden of Eden could not have been much larger than Central Park—enough to enable Adam and Eve to have an amusing existence—so why all those big continents, deserts and expanses of ice larger even than the whole of Australia? And why a vast solar system with planets enough to make our own look puny? And why a galaxy within which distances are so huge that the sermon on the mount travelling at the speed of light would barely leave the neighbourhood and could reach the galaxy’s boundary only after unimaginable eons. And then there are the billions of stars other than our sun in the galaxy
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and then . . . trillions of other galaxies extending as far as one can imagine. And beyond that too. This is overengineering, surely, beyond even the wildest indulgences of those well-known inflators of building estimates the Dodgy Brothers! Intelligent Design it isn’t. I argued this point with another Cambridge astrophysicist, who also happens to be a vicar: Professor Sir John Polkinghorn. John (he’s quite informal) refused to accept that the grander universe is a sign of God’s profligacy. It’s simply a consequence of the basic physical design he chose. Opt for Singularities, Big Bangs, inflationary expansions and that is what you get. It takes an age to make a galaxy; you need vast star systems to make atoms of carbon. So why not go for a simpler model? If you want only to go over the hill, why not choose a pushbike instead of a Ferrari—a trillion Ferraris at that? This is where even courteous friends have to concede that it’s a mystery. Why didn’t God go for a faster physics or a smaller precinct? He could have made up any rules or scientific laws He fancied. Both theist and atheist must agree that, at least in the mature universe—after the first fraction of a second—that’s the physics we have. Big Physics. Just as the universe is overlarge for our human story, and over aged—why wait ten billion years before getting the whole Genesis yarn going?—so the arrangement for the solar system is strangely convenient. Our planet seems
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to be so well ‘designed’ for our presence—not any old planet will do. Of those in our immediate neighbourhood most are too hot, others giant balls of gas, the rest tiny, arid and in deep freeze. Most are bombarded by cosmic missiles and would have their biomass obliterated so often it could barely reach beyond the germ stage. Of the 170 or so remote planets discovered in the last ten years, none looks anything like home for people. Only one so far discovered—20 000 light years away, in Sagittarius—is small and rocky like Earth. Yet its surface temperature is minus 200°C! Earth, meanwhile, has a set of characteristics that appear to be customised. Early on we were hit by a colossal rock, which gouged a hole, fused with the flying detritus and formed the moon. This sits at just the right distance from us to create precisely the gravitational force needed to stop our planet flipping out of its stable rotation every few thousand years; its position is perfect for providing tides to rinse our shorelines. As if this were not enough, down range a bit sits ‘the goal keeper’, Jupiter, diverting and catching most of the mighty projectiles that would otherwise hammer us to custard. Add to this what Jim Lovelock calls the Gaia Principle— what looks like a feedback system maintaining our atmospheric temperatures and gases within certain comfortable limits—and we seem blessed. With all these happy circumstances it’s little wonder that a few conclude
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that Someone’s been setting up a Wendy House for us and our friends. Lovelock and Lynn Margulis have elaborated a vision of Earth behaving as if it were a living thing. The name Gaia was suggested to Lovelock by his neighbour, the novelist William Golding, and may have queered the issue in some minds, making it seem romantic and oddball. In fact it is a rigorous application of chemical and physical relationships to explain how remarkably stable our atmosphere remains, just as we require. It doesn’t mean that the planet is an earth goddess, considerately tuning things to suit us, but that the veneer of plants and animals on land and in the oceans is linked to the air in ways that affect it. Whether this ‘arrangement’ will survive global warming and climate change is something Lovelock and many others doubt. The same point emerges from Martin Rees’s book, Just Six Numbers. These six are the crucial settings for our world. Alter any one of them and it all collapses. They are: • The three dimensions in which we operate. Yes, it is possible to have two—a flat place in which there are no globes, only discs. Or even up to eleven dimensions, which I cannot even begin to describe, • N, the ratio of gravity to electromagnetism, • epsilon, the ratio of mass lost to energy when hydrogen fuses to helium in stars,
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• omega, the total of dark matter, • lambda, the cosmological constant, and • Q, the scale of smoothness (versus lumpiness) in the universe. Fiddle with any of these values and you rearrange everything: the age of the universe, how tightly atoms bind, how long stars last and therefore what they make. Whether you end up with nothing but custard or, instead, lumpy bits that become suns, planets and galaxies, any other combination and the world we know could not exist. So how can we reconcile ourselves to this? Well, according to ID, the answer is a kind of reverse engineering. God calculated the universe He needed for people and applied the necessary numbers. There’s no doubt we are here as we are because of those six numbers and the way the solar system is set up. In other circumstances life, if it appeared, would be different. Dream up any science fiction scenario you fancy and you get something quite unlike us. Simon Mitton and Freeman Dyson refer to The Black Cloud, one of Fred Hoyle’s novels, in which the alien is dissipated like a cloud and doesn’t even need ET’s humanoid bisymmetry and bug eyes. It’s another example of my old friend Melvin P. Schmendrick (who still doesn’t exist): in other worlds we would be other living things. Martin Rees cleverly side-steps the problem of a world tailor-made for Homo sapiens by recourse to the
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concept of a profligate tailor and many other universes. We are not surprised, he says, on entering a clothing megastore, to find a suit that fits comfortably. So it may be that there are multiverses—other universes with different kinds of physics, in which life would be unimaginably different. Except that it would still, on Darwinian principles, have to be adapted to its surroundings. I find this (sorry, Martin) a bit of a conjuring trick. We have no knowledge of any universe but our own, and that’s mind-boggling enough. That we emerge from a particular set of physical limits—and by we I mean all forms of organic life, from germs to Germans—is given. Science can tell us how this may have happened. Not why. Religion can have a go. But some of us don’t accept that free kick and regard it as a move too far. Others are more adventurous, which is their prerogative. Either way, there is nothing in the cosmos to let us infer, willy nilly, the hand of a Designer. We can infer only necessary order. And limited order at that: our time here may be limited indeed. The idea that this world is somehow arranged for our own benefit is sometimes called the theory of the anthropic universe. It is one that another astrophysicist, Frank Tipler, has written about (The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, with John Barrow*, in 1988) and taken
*

Winner of the 2006 Templeton Prize
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to its limits. In its most straightforward form the theory shows the universe as having a few parts in which the laws of physics as we know them apply and in which it is possible for life to evolve. It takes a few billion years for stars to boil up the ingredients as per Hoyle, then to blow up and distribute them. And then a few more billion for a solar system to congeal from them and for the suitable planet to cool down. Add about three million more years for life to reach a metazoan stage and Bingo! you’re up to about the 13.7-billion-year mark we have got to in the story so far. That’s what I sometimes think of as the curate’s egg version.You need only parts of the universe to be suitable for life, and the rest can carry on in their own weird way. The upmarket version of an anthropic universe is one uniquely established on the basis of Martin Rees’s six (and other) numbers. To sum up: once the universe is given the physical settings it possesses, then its size and age arise accordingly. If God’s prime focus was to produce human beings, He has certainly gone a very long way around. If He were all-powerful and determined, He could have chosen one of the infinite alternatives Rees has on offer. Maybe God wasn’t fussed about time passing or materials wasted. However, it does appear to be an almighty diversion. Unless He happens to be awfully keen on astronomy, that is.
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Frank Tipler’s deliciously imaginative twist on all this is to look at a world in the far distant future in which it is possible to compute the quantum nature of virtually everything, including you and me. Using the stupendous energies available from shearing forces in galaxies (could my local power provider hope to capture them when it’s hard enough to run a national grid?) we could then reassemble what we fancied. Want to be resurrected? Physics one day, offers Tipler, could try. Now you may object that this usurps God’s function. But that may be how He does it anyway. Why should He have only plain magic or bland miracles? Why not a divine quantum physics? There remains a curiosity I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter: the tendency of matter to pursue complexity. Simon Conway Morris (Cambridge again!) has looked at this in his book Life’s Solution, in which he proposes that there is a force intrinsic to our universe which makes it almost inevitable that it should contain humans—or at least human-like forms with intelligence and consciousness. It is easy to be sympathetic to his argument. Everywhere we look, from evolving elements to expanding worlds and orderly solar systems, we see the growth of complexity. It is as if it’s all leading somewhere. Could it be leading to us? Are we the ultimate evolutionary purpose? But Conway Morris is
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too good a scientist (and not as reckless as Hoyle) to wrap it all up and tie the bow. He says: ‘. . . the complexity and beauty of “Life’s Solution” can never cease to astound. None of it presupposes, let alone proves, the existence of God, but all is congruent. For some it will remain as the pointless activity of the Blind Watchmaker, but others may prefer to remove their dark glasses. The choice, of course, is yours.’ Conway Morris chooses God. Fair enough. But he doesn’t choose ID. One of the problems, though, with this exuberant late-twentieth-century cosmic speculation, built on a rich trove of modern physics, is that the physicists have been infected by more than a little hubris. Or perhaps it is that of their publishers. Stephen Hawking, I am assured, did not mention the deity in his first draft of the enormous best seller A Brief History of Time, but his editors at Bantam Press encouraged him to do so. The result was provocative indeed, and may in part be a reason that creationism and ID gained their recent momentum, maybe in reaction to, or maybe to take advantage of, God’s latest good press. Hawking wrote, invoking his since-abandoned idea of a TOE—a Theory of Everything: ‘If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary
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people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.’ Or not.

Fred Hoyle was a maverick. He was, indeed, a tragic case. His brilliant contributions were diminished by a willingness to flirt with the absurd. His example is both a lesson and a warning. The lesson is that science works best when it encourages flights of the imagination but also the scepticism of the doubtful. This tension is the classic underpinning of the search for truth. Fred’s best ideas were initially ignored. Only a few clever colleagues took much notice of them. As a result, he felt free also to come up with a few turkeys. While he was ensconced in Cambridge he was open to the mechanism which we like to call, inelegantly but appropriately, ‘the bullshit filter’ of science. This culls the rubbish. While he was among his fellows, Fred was told his steady-state cosmology did not add up and should be shelved. It could have further relevance as new findings were produced, but for now Big Banging was better. Later, as a kind of freelance, semi-detached thinker, he came up with everything from cosmic germ clouds
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through to famous fossils such as Archaeopteryx being fakes. The same cauldron of brain power that sparked brilliance also yielded dross. It sidestepped the rigour that science demands. Martin Rees, now at the pinnacle of the scientific establishment as President of the Royal Society of London and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, has every sympathy with his old colleague. Rees, despite his eminence, realises that institutions can also stifle originality. Hoyle could have been kept happily attached to academe, says Rees, without being encumbered with bureaucratic responsibilities. That way would have given us the best of his iconoclasm, but without the codswallop. Is there a lesson to be learnt from his example for Intelligent Design? No wild idea should be banned from intellectual discourse. Giving it official consent, albeit by proxy, is a different matter. All universities have men and women with wild ideas. Not all of these people are given general assent simply because they carry the label ‘professor’. No school of public health has adopted Fred’s version of the origin of plagues; they all preferred vaccines and condoms to the celestial umbrellas he advocated. Some concepts are inimical to the truth and distort it. ID is one of them. Debate whatever you wish, but do not give it official sanction unless it has earned its place in the hard-built edifice of knowledge.
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Fred Hoyle was beaten up, or may even have fallen down and injured himself, during one of his long walks in his beloved countryside. He never really recovered. Did he ever regret his flights of fancy? I never got a chance to ask him that final, curly question.

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FOUR REVOLUTIONS
Four revolutions
To see the entire sequence of a human chromosome for the first time is like seeing an ocean liner emerging out of the fog, when all you’ve ever seen before are rowboats.
Francis Collins, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute

1953 was a very good year. I was nine and living in Vienna. The Queen was crowned, Everest was conquered and—euphoria!—Stalin died. All this was in the newspaper, the Volkstimme, which I read every day (even at that age, I’m afraid). What I didn’t read, or don’t recall, is mention of a paper published in the journal Nature in April 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick on the structure of
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deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Perhaps, as with Fred Hoyle’s stupendous insight into the formation of the elements, no one outside a small group saw it for what it was—the start of a revolution. These breakthroughs seem to occur every fifty years. The Origin of Species was published in 1859, but Darwin could have got it done a few years earlier if he hadn’t been so laggardly, or nervous. Gregor Mendel, in Austria, did his genetic experiments with peas in the 1860s, but his work was not properly discovered and made known until 1901. DNA was revealed in 1953 and then, almost fifty years later, in 2001 Francis Collins and Craig Ventor announced the mapping of the human genome, the complete sequence of our genetic code. I was in the crowded room when they did so. Despite the notorious rivalry between the two men and their separate projects, one public, the other private, all was courteous and cooperative. Both talked about the significance of knowing the complete human genetic code and both insisted it was intended to be freely available information. Some journalists sniggered. We’re like that. But everybody knew they were at a turning point in history. The journal Science (for Ventor) and the journal Nature (for Collins) came out that day with the genome sequence of our species and, what’s more, a fast, powerful technique for cracking other genomes. Ventor’s cavalier impatience with what he saw as the plodding nature of the old-fashioned methods had enabled whiz kids to
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find means to do the job in years less than anyone (apart from Ventor) had dared hope. After the press conference there were drinks. I found myself standing next to a bemused Francis Collins. I fetched him a red wine. ‘Some day!’ ‘Sure is!’ Such are the profundities of key moments. I didn’t know then that Collins is an ardent Christian. Craig Ventor, meanwhile, was surrounded by backslappers. Of his faith I am not aware. What I do know is that he is now on a world tour in his splendid boat collecting rare creatures from the sea so he can examine their DNA in the hope of exploiting it for drugs. That day in San Francisco it occurred to me that now we had nearly all the pieces to the puzzle of life: how species evolve (by means of natural selection); how their characteristics are expressed (via their genes); how the genes give rise to parts of the body and even behaviour (by coding for proteins): and the timing of all this, both through history (revealed by the rate of change in DNA) and in organisms (through switches in DNA itself ). This—without even mentioning fossils, geological change or ecology—had to put the kibosh on creationism and its weird cousins once and for all. And it did. Which is why the clown whipped off stage, changed his funny hat and silly nose, ran back in a different costume and yodelled ‘ID!’ The enormous edifice of evidence produced separately by different branches of science all fitted together and told the same
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compelling story of how we came to be. What course was available to the naysayers other than to agree, in part, and coopt it? The Book of Life, as the human genome became known popularly, was a triumph of ‘design’, they declared. Like the flagellum, the eye or the make-up of protein, this was a mechanism that could not exist only in part. DNA was a manifestation of God’s role as creative engineer. I have already, in my introduction, given an inkling of how structures may evolve gradually for one purpose, but then get diverted for some other purpose entirely, so that they appear to be specially manufactured. Of course our genome is elegant and complex and, like the rest of the natural world, impressively organised. But produced in one hit by an Intelligent Designer? Not at all. DNA is, in fact, wonderfully ad hoc. It includes jumping genes, as discovered by Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock: segments of DNA that leap about in the genetic sequence at different times. It has inclusions of past visitors such as germs that left their fingerprints in our very design. Our finely crafted DNA also consists of no less than about 96 per cent plain junk. It is a veritable work in progress. But that is where the tension lies. On the one hand, our DNA needs to remain stable so that instructions can be read off as needed throughout our lives and so the basic code of us can be passed intact to our children.
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On the other hand, we may sometimes need to shuffle the deck, include some rare mutations, so that we can adapt suitably to a challenging environment. Some of the toughest challenges come invisibly, from diseases. Killer plagues are usually parasites in new forms. It is not in their interest to murder their host (ultimately, us). Gradually we become accustomed to strains of germs, as Spanish soldiers were to European flus and poxes, while the native Americans they conquered were not. Some viruses and bacteria have a genome, a kind of genetic bar code, that can be seen sitting like an ancient spoor right there within the human genome. It is also now possible to work out how this happened. Viruses invade our cell nuclei, where the DNA resides, and take it over. They change the code to their own so that we actually are forced to make more of them. It is like a scene from the movie Alien. Other visitors who came to stay, other microbes, are the mitochondria and, in plants, the chloroplasts—vital engines of energy and biochemical processes without which larger plants and animals could not exist. They have their own DNA systems, which can be read separately. Our bodies are made up of former parasites! This picture of human life is far from the static, statuesque finished product depicted by ID, as if God had made something in His own image, dusted His hands in fulfilment and taken a long weekend. We are,
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instead, major organic intersections—our bodies comprise trillions of cells, containing lodgers past and present; there are double that number of bugs coming and going in our moist inter-cell spaces; and then there is our genetic code, which is like a computer at a traffic control centre during the holiday rush. At this stage of the argument, as with the creation of matter, ID agrees to be pushed back in time to a point when the Creator set the whole game rolling, rather than bothering to interfere beyond the whistle at the start. But how far back do you need to go? Can we say that DNA works only as a full structure? No, there are smaller-scale versions. Can we say that DNA is the only code shown to reproduce itself in a way that life requires in order to sustain itself ? No, there are plenty of descriptions of simpler reproductive matter, going as far back as certain clays. For the past forty years, scientists such as Graham Cairns-Smith have proposed inorganic crystals based on silicates as the predecessors to DNA in their ability to reproduce inherent information. The mud itself had a memory which came before organic coding. There was a mud map before the computer code. And before even that? Paul Davies has even come up with a model that goes beyond the crystalline earth to quantum systems themselves. Somehow the smallest units of matter became able to reproduce themselves and pass on information. ‘If life is formed by trial and error,’ Davies writes, ‘speed
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is the key. This suggests life may have emerged from the quantum realm directly, without the need for chemical complexity.’ All you require, he says, is a quantum replicator and a process for cloning bits of information. You get variation in the system from the uncertainty, which is an inescapable part of the nanoworld, the world of atoms and molecules. So how did life arise? ‘We gain a clue from modern computers,’ Davies writes. ‘Quantum systems may be fast, but they are very fragile. Computers routinely transfer important data for safekeeping from speedy yet vulnerable microchips to slow and bulky hard disks or CDs. Perhaps quantum life began using large organic molecules for more stable data storage. At some stage these complex molecules took on a life of their own, trading speed for robustness and versatility. The way then lay open for hardy chemical life to go forth and inherit the Earth.’ Maybe also to inherit the heavens. There is plenty of organic material out there. Fred Hoyle noted that meteorites, such as the Murchison, carry whiffy substances (you can actually smell the stuff ), and scores of organic molecules have been registered out there, not least by Australia’s own emeritus professor of chemistry from Monash University, Ron Brown. One can forgive Fred Hoyle for his panspermia theory: he was half right. Indeed, Paul Davies has said that life likely existed on Mars earlier than on Earth and that one of several lumps of Mars actually found here (he used to carry a bit
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around in his pocket) may even have ‘seeded’ this planet with germs in much the way Hoyle suggested. So where does all this leave God’s role in the tale? Below the quark and beyond the Blue Planet? There are fewer and fewer gaps for Him to be God of. What happens when we move in the other direction, towards complexity, where the products of evolution such as us, our relatives (as seen by Darwinians) and trophy creatures like big mammals seem to be top of the tree? We all by now know—it’s become a cliché— that we share over 98 per cent of our genes with chimps, 50 per cent with bananas and quite a few with pond scum. This statement doesn’t do as much for me as it does for others. Most data in the genome is required just to run the body, whichever body it happens to be. Cars, student bangers or flash limos, all have wheels, axles and boxy bodies; they use petrol, oil and water. The remaining 2 per cent is a veneer. Which is where quality or bodginess resides. Although the 2 per cent or less separating us from chimpanzees seems little, it amounts to enough to put one creature in the jungle threatened with extinction and the other in Wall Street trying to take over the solar system. Nonetheless, the argument is light years on from the famous debate in which the Bishop of Oxford sneeringly inquired of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s champion, whether it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that he had descended from a monkey. Last year I stood in
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the very space where it happened, in the higher floor space of the Natural History Museum, opposite Keble College in Oxford. It is now an airy storage area. What if they had known then, I mused, how great is the overlap between our primate genomes and how straightforward it is to chart the contrasts and obtain accurate timing about when we diverted paths from a common ancestor. Now it is believed that we are even closer to chimpanzees than they are to other apes such as orangutans, which branched off the primate family tree around eight million years ago. Would that knowledge, combined with what Daniel Dennett calls ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’, namely natural selection, have silenced the bishop? I doubt it. Simon Conway Morris lists six characteristics of evolution that, for him, point to a creation: simplicity, a way to navigate through a vast number of possibilities, the swift elimination of misfits, the inherent nature of life, convergence, and the ‘inevitability of the emergence of sentience’—or us. Evolution is God’s mechanism for making people (in his own image), in his view. Stephen Jay Gould had a different take. He said that the movie of evolution would not look the same if it were rerun with a different start. If dinosaurs had not been wiped out and mammals had not emerged on a vacated world stage, then intelligent creatures might have looked like big lizards. A green Jesus with scales or feathers (birds evolved from dinosaurs) is a bit of a
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challenge but workable. What Gould denies is the inevitability of our form of life being present. Not every niche need be filled. Other eras had other solutions and humans, compared to beetles and bacteria, aren’t a big deal. Gould could see an alternative modern world devoid of us. But Conway Morris says we are overwhelmingly likely. He writes:
. . . the constraints of evolution and the ubiquity of convergence make the emergence of something like ourselves a near-inevitability. Contrary to received wisdom and the prevailing ethos of despair, the contingencies of biological history will make no longterm difference to the outcome. Yet the existence of life itself on the Earth appears to be surrounded with improbabilities. To reiterate: life may be a universal principle, but we can still be alone. Whether or not this is literally true may never be established, and, as many of us have argued, it is far more prudent to assume that we are unique, and to act accordingly.

That is the big whammy of the ‘inevitability’ argument. If it must happen here, it will also happen on Planet Zog. And there must be billions of planet Zogs. Are they all to have their virgin births, apostles, crucifixions and second comings? Gould’s views don’t embrace such possible overlaps. He says it is a matter of faith, and up to you to choose. Turn God into the Grand Physicist
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or Biologist and you court embarrassment. Yet Conway Morris counters:
Such attitudes fly in the face of traditional wisdoms, and in part explain the existing antagonisms between scientific practices and religious sensibilities. Mutual misunderstandings, fuelled by naivety and ignorance, can only lead to warfare. Although science may emerge triumphant, it will be a pyrrhic victory, the conquered kingdom will lie in ruins, strewn across a plain of infinite melancholy.

What is the meaning of life, he seems to imply, in such an empty, indifferent world? If God isn’t in the genes, maybe in the molecules themselves, what can be the point of it all? I find this a daft question. The point is what we make of it. The relish of everyday things, from food and drink to the enjoyment of companionship and our natural surroundings—we all have our own enormous list— hardly needs the endorsement of an invisible deity to have meaning, let alone a payoff in a distant heaven. More on that later. The real tension between Gould’s indifferent universe and Conway Morris’s intrinsic purposefulness is what would happen if we discovered ourselves not to be unique. If God turns out to have set the machine rolling, producing both ourselves and ET (or lots of them), then
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the whole Grand Design Theory collapses. Fortunately this idea is open to scientific investigation, and I look forward to the evidence being turned up, though it may take a while. If the molecules could just as easily have skipped producing people, as Gould insisted, then that’s it. We are here by good fortune. On the other hand, if we arise inevitably from the nature of matter, then so does intelligent life elsewhere. No wonder it is better to resort to mystery, as most theologians prefer to do, and say God is a matter of faith. The more God becomes dragooned into serving as Chief Biochemist or Molecular Engineer, the more embarrassments pop up in His ‘role’. He seems either slapdash or confused, compromised or simply vague. Most of all He is unnecessary. The point we have reached now is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time—a point where the pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together with exquisite precision. Is the story complete? Far from it. Surprises abound. Why so few genes—not 100 000, as once was presumed, but 30 000 or so? How do these interact in a cascade of development and timing? What does the junk DNA do, if anything? Is it part of the timing mechanism or standby software? Or leftovers, like belly buttons, men’s nipples or appendices? Why do some useful characteristics turn up paired with harmful ones? Is the genome a precise script of our lives—able
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to tell us when we’ll live, die, go mad, get senile? If it can reveal so much, how can we keep it private? James Watson, who signed the famous Nature paper in 1953 as a very young man and who later became an instigator of the Human Genome Project, has been outspoken about what happens next. Many a time I have seen him in front of audiences, often in strange postures, warning against eugenics, recalling, how wellintentioned or evil men have sought to exploit biological knowledge in the interests of better breeding. Watson is an eccentric fellow. He grimaces in what turns out to be a smile, wrinkles his nose like a cornered gerbil and regularly addresses whole sections of his speech to his shoes. Once at Balliol College, Oxford, I watched him whisper to the floor in front of a hall full of perplexed postgraduates. Only when he started talking about girls did he perk up and raise his chin. He had been wandering along the river that morning and been suddenly reminded of a young woman he hadn’t thought of for 40 years. ‘Where had that memory been lurking for all that time? Which chemical store or frozen circuit had held her image so long?’ He dropped his head and proceeded to murmur away once more. He also shared his thoughts on prudence in Australia, when I introduced him at a keynote address he gave at the University of New South Wales. Despite having known me for years, and despite occasional correction,
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he insisted on calling me ‘Roger’ all evening. His brain this time had clearly been rogered by some association and I was reminded once more how uncertain and fallible even our greatest minds often can be. Watson’s ideas on sociology and politics are quite different in quality from those he holds on biology, and many of his friends would worry if Jim were put in charge of a country. He needs, and I’m sure he realises this, to have his general opinions tempered by input from all sides: sociologists, historians, economists (inevitably), artists and philosophers—and plenty of folk who are not expert at all, except in the conduct of their own lives. I have addressed Francis Crick only once. He was at the Oxford Union talking to a packed house—students actually did hang from the rafters—about the consequences of his DNA research and his later preoccupation with the brain. My question to him was prompted by Professor Derek Denton, founding director of the Florey Institute in Melbourne. Derek had written a book on consciousness and wanted to know whether this essential human quality had sprung de novo from our uniquely large and complex brain or whether it arose in gradual stages, evolved through the animal kingdom, much as a dim light becomes bright. I put this as a question at the end of the evening. Crick was clear: the latter. Animals are conscious, despite Descartes’ view to the contrary. Although it is never possible to know some of a creature’s mind, or
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even another person’s, one can do tests which offer pretty convincing indirect evidence. Animals can be shown to exhibit intention, planning, theory of mind, even humour. All are characteristic of conscious thinking. Their DNA programs lead to sets of proteins. These in turn lead to brain growth, followed by the establishment and then the refinement of circuits. Learning is the removal of circuits you don’t need. It happens in frogs, dogs and monkeys. The same happens in us. The progression is manifest. Another embarrassment: preprogrammed matter gives us not only, potentially, ET but creatures with supposedly ‘unique’ human qualities as well. Is Fido or Charlie the Chimp also made in God’s image? Isn’t it safer, after all, to follow Gould and simply keep the ‘estates’ of science and religion separate? No scientist can ever tell us why the universe came to be. No theologian can compete with the greatest scientists to explain how the universe developed to be as it is today. There is enough to worry about in thinking through the consequences of the scientific revolution without having non sequiturs thrown into the process.

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VILE BODIES, OR, DOES GOD EVER GET A BAD BACK?
Vile bodies, or, does God ever get a bad back?
The proposed intelligent designer was in some exercises hardly an honours student—indeed hardly a pass student.
Professor Derek Denton

One of the most delicious parts of Richard Dawkins’s book The Blind Watchmaker is where he takes on the Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore, author of The Probability of God. Dawkins refers to the bishop’s case as the Argument from Personal Incredulity. He refers to the very reverend gentleman’s faint understanding of polar bears and their coats, as illustrated by the following passage from
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Montefiore’s book: ‘As for camouflage, this is not always easily explicable on neo-Darwinian premises. If polar bears are dominant in the Arctic, then there would seem to have been no need for them to evolve a whitecoloured form of camouflage.’ Dawkins translates this astonishing paragraph like this: ‘I personally, off the top of my head sitting in my study, never having visited the Arctic, never having seen a polar bear in the wild, and having been educated in classical literature and theology, have not so far managed to think of a reason why polar bears might benefit from being white.’ Predators need to surprise their prey. This is obvious to some. But the point about science is that even the obvious needs to be tested, exhaustively, just in case. Then we can be confident about what we think we know about bears. Bishops, and lay folk too, may like to take the trouble as well to see what science has come up with. Anatomy is a well-established branch of science, though some surprising omissions persisted until very recently (as we shall see in a later chapter, it was not until late in the twentieth century that the nerve supply to the clitoris was revealed—with enormous consequences for our understanding of female sexuality). Meticulous dissection by doctors such as Galen and Vesalius and Harvey, or artists like Leonardo and George Stubbs, showed the body as a piece of engineering.
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Most bodies last well—they are, after all, the product of 3.5 billion years of tinkering—but flaws abound. This is not to insult nature, only to acknowledge she had to work with the material to hand. Need to fashion a larynx or a hearing system? Why not fiddle with some of those gill arches fishes have in over-abundance? Both can be shown to have evolved from the simple supporting scaffolding a fish has in its gills. Need a lung or two, for breathing on land? Why not expand that swim bladder fish use to adjust their buoyancy? Want to take to the air? How about stretching some skin between those fingers or extending the scales you have on your skin or exoskeleton for temperature control? Slight modifications of what’s already there, executed through tiny mutations, can be selected for if they give the slightest advantage. This means that the creature possessing a finer flandgwick (don’t look that up; I invented it as a mini-organ of the future) might do slightly better in life and therefore have more kids, thus passing on more flandgwick genes. Not a perfect system, but it’s tough out there and we can’t yet order state-ofthe-art new organs from Wal Mart 2100. So what would you expect if you gave your own body a once-over for quality control? If God was really on your case, I think you might quite reasonably expect perfection. As it is, there’s much to be cross about. If an Intelligent Designer is responsible for your poor body,
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then he’s also the one who thought up the British railway system and Internet spam. Take guts. The plan in mammals was to have a tablelike arrangement: four legs set at each corner, with the belly horizontal to the ground. The digestive system— long for herbivores, shorter for meat eaters—is then slung from the spine. Works well. But then our ancestors, for some daft reason best known to themselves, decided to stand up. Horrors: the peritoneum, the bag of membrane containing our guts and reproductive organs is now hanging from a vertical broomstick, with pressures at the lower end, where there are too many exits and entrances and they are compromised by gravity. Result: piles, hernias, prolapses and squashed babies. Take the female pelvic girdle, which needs to be narrow enough for walking and to excite the admiration of men, but wide enough to allow a baby’s melon-sized head through. A system for inducing pliability via hormones is the compromise, and it works quite well, but it also fails rather often. Fistulas, caused by rips during childbirth, lead to leaks from the bowel into the vagina. They may last for years. Not nice. Professor Derek Denton, founding director of the Florey Institute in Melbourne, also cites the sinuses as another reason for complaining to the manufacturer: ‘The big maxillary sinuses or cavities are behind the cheeks on either side of the face. They have the drainage
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hole in their top, which is not much of an idea in terms of using gravity to assist drainage of fluid.’ How many people do we all know who are forever bemoaning their stuffed sinuses? Denton quotes Gray’s Anatomy as an impeccable source: ‘Suppuration in the paranasal sinuses is frequent. Pus running down from the frontal sinus or the anterior ethmoidal sinuses is directed by the hiatus semilunaris into the opening of the maxillary sinus.’ An extra reservoir for gunge, in other words.‘The normal opening of the maxillary sinus is high above its floor and is poorly placed for natural drainage.’ Why did Denton cite Gray at length in The Age? Why, to wag his finger at Brendan Nelson, the former Minister for Education and Science, who had been quoted as saying, ‘Intelligent design should be taught in schools alongside evolution, if that is the wish of parents.’ Denton’s implication is that Nelson, a doctor and former head of the Australian Medical Association, would realise that Professor Henry Gray condemns any likelihood of a designer on almost every page of his classic reference work. ‘The proposed intelligent designer was in some exercises hardly an honours student—indeed, hardly a pass student,’ says Denton. Then there are bad backs. You and I are supposed to have been created in the image of God, so I presume He’s got one. I hope He is a little better at looking after His than the vast number of us mortals happen
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to be. When mine is really bad it takes me twenty minutes to get out of bed, so severe are the muscle spasms. According to different accounts, we originally stood up: to peer over the tall grass, as meercats do; or to be able to wade through streams; or, the latest theory, to provide a smaller target for huge predatory eagles hunting for our ancestors. I suspect God did not have to go through the standing-up process and so has a back designed for upright living (God is hardly on all fours, though he may be airborne, in which case I hand in my brief ). But the fact remains that nearly all backs could make an instant claim on the warranty, if there were one. If He were responsible for back design, you’ll have to concede it wasn’t one of His best moments and must have been a deadline rush job at the end of the Six Days. It could be that backs are ready-made later to have wings attached for the next phase of our lives, but I doubt that. Our chests would have to be three times thicker, with muscles to power flight and, Jordan and Dolly Parton excepted, that won’t work. Backs can’t be an example of ID. They must, like Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister, be a triumph of compromise. The process of adjustment and compromise is seen throughout the natural world. One of my favourite examples is the koala, whose pouch opens downwards. Why would any sensible engineer dream of designing Blinky Bill’s mum’s pouch this way when the sweet creature
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spends most of her life up a tree? Was God intending the babies to fall out and crash to the forest floor? Well, no. The simple answer is that koalas evolved from wombat-like marsupials, which burrowed their way through the earth, flinging great paws fulls of soil backwards like an excavator digging out a tunnel. Had this ancestor’s pouch pointed forwards, its babies would have had eyes and teeth permanently filled with grit. So backwards it was and, when one day the creature moved up a tree, perhaps to exploit a fresh food source, the ‘design’ came with it, too complicated to change. Yet in a few squillion years’ time adjustments may be forthcoming, if they are important enough. I suspect koala pouches may well stay as they are: as humans do with piles and hernias, koalas simply put up with the inconveniences and get on with life. What about the scary monsters? God made them too! Or was it the devil? Here I defer to my friend and colleague Dr Paul Willis, palaeontologist and coiner of the term Trojan Turkey, in reference to ID. The designer, he says, ‘must have been a sadistic bastard, preferring to design the icumenid wasps with an intricate interdependence on their prey that requires them to parasitise a grub or spider so that their young can eat them alive from the inside out’. Paul continues:
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The Designer, He, she, it or they, must also have had perverse oedipal tendencies, judging from the design of the button beetle, where the mother copulates with her sons before eating them. That’s beautifully balanced by other beetles where the newly hatched males insert their heads back into mummy’s reproductive aperture and devour her from the inside out. It must take a devoted misogynist to design the Australian seaweed fly, who beats up his girlfriends before raping them. And then there are the dubious ethics of a designer who put together the female preying mantis, who has to snack on the head of her partner during copulation . . . It doesn’t sound very Christian to me.

But this is all so much bug-collecting, plumbing and baggage handling, I hear you protest. What about ‘perfect’ organs such as the eye? Or the wing, which cannot, surely, be much use unless fully formed and ready to take to the air? In fact, it was clergyman William Paley’s story of a watchmaker which inspired Richard Dawkins’s book title and is often quoted as the main argument for a celestial designer. Even Darwin, in his day, addressed this conundrum. He wrote in The Origin of Species: ‘If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous,
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successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.’ So are eyes perfect? Well, not according to the evidence of the glasses on my nose as I write, nor the immense range of eyes in the animal kingdom, nor the ghastly set up of our eye structure compared to, say, that of the octopus. This is superbly demonstrated, again, in Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker and I recommend that anyone still favouring Argument from Personal Incredulity should look at those sections of his book. The detail is overwhelming—and fun. Descriptions of light-sensitive cells pointing the wrong way, of optic nerves barging right through pivotal areas and causing blind spots, of components going bung—the indictment of this ‘divine perfection in design’ is extraordinary. Any thoroughgoing examination of our optical system shows compromise, adjustment, re-routing and patching up. It is like when you buy an old house and every electrician and plumber you call in shakes his head over the bodgie jobs done by his predecessor: ‘Ooooooh dear, I can see what he tried to do there. Hopeless. Had to cover it up with plaster. Lucky we found it, mate, or you’d have been in trouble. Must have been a retarded amateur. One less brain cell and he’d have been a Brussels sprout! ’Fraid it’s going to cost.’ Eyes are excellent, and I insist on keeping mine, but let’s not get carried away: we have a case for compensation.
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Take Andrew Walker’s recent books on the role of light-sensitive cells in causing the evolutionary explosion two billion years ago. From a world where life was not much more than clusters of single cells or parts thereof, where the greatest attainment in the accretion of slight modifications was not much more than pond scum, simple eyes gave some living things huge advantages. They could perceive (see is too grandiose a term for those first little devices reacting to not much other than light or shade) things to eat and other things to avoid. From this, says Walker, came the Cambrian proliferation of species 540 million years ago. Because they were now able to exploit many more places to live, millions more animals evolved over this key period in organic history. Seeing was the key breakthrough. It is a sensationally better alternative to not seeing at all. The eye, in its various forms, thereafter evolved separately at least forty times. In squid, octopuses, insects, worms, snails—the creator must have been extremely busy. The same can be said of wings. Beetle wings; fly wings, like thinly veined leaves; paired wings owned by shimmering dragonflies; mere prongs that whirr like helicopter blades; extended-skin wings, owned by tree gliders that haven’t bothered to invest in full-scale flying kit; bat wings, held thin between enormously extended fingers and of immense scale in the flying fox; bird wings, with feathers that are narrow for darting or wide and broad for high-gliding eagles or vultures; vestigial
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wings in ostriches or emus, flapping as semaphores; or wings as steering oars in penguins—can there be any limit to the infinite variety of these invaluable extensions? So what about the unforgiving limits of flight? Surely a wing either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you hit the deck and bung go your offspring—and your failed lift-off design. Can we accept a wing on a plane that’s not tried and tested in the factory before being allowed to take off with us aboard? Birds, for one, did not start off as living aeroplanes. Their forebears had feathers for temperature control, just as mammals have hair. The archaeopteryx had teeth and feathers. It was one version of a dinosaur-like creature tending towards being bird-like. It is likely such reptilian aviators either ran off hillsides or cliffs, as young albatrosses do today, or ran like heck into winds lifting them upwards and away. As usual with likely alternatives, it’s probable that both ways were exploited by the first flyers. The first aeronauts were gliders. Ancestral birds did it in the open; ancestral mammals from tree to tree. They can still be seen to be doing it. Engineers have tested countless models to see what could have been achieved with primitive flight systems. The variety of possibilities is deeply satisfying. Except to creationists talking terminal twaddle. The same can be said of flagella, proposed as another ‘perfect’ instrument unable to perform its function halfformed. They are the little outboard motors on unicellular
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beasties, and they also line body surfaces to move fluids or even pick up vibrations. The ID argument is that they, like the mousetrap, are made just so: an engineered marvel of tightly bound proteins. The same could be said of muscle fibres, which pull across each other in precisely ratcheted ways, equally hard to picture other than in their completed, functioning state. But something like a halfway flagellum has been identified—except that it isn’t functioning in the same way. It is a bundle of proteins doing something else. When a flagellum-like organelle appears from the genetic mix, natural selection keeps it in the armoury. The ten billion failed flagella, with no clear use, end up in the trash can of biological history. Can there be any limit to the number of whiplike instruments down there among the protozoa and ciliated cells? Anybody want to fight a patent case? Time and again in the anatomy of microbes and multicells, of amoebae and armadillos, you see smaller, simpler structures that elsewhere are elaborated as large and complicated ones. You can run them through a computer program, as Richard Dawkins has done, to watch slight protrusions become fins, fins become arms, arms become wings and, if the bounding lizard wants to go under again and hide in the earth, arms drop off and become stumps once more. I saw Richard in the early stages of this experiment, with what looked like dozens of stick creatures on his computer screen. He had begun by doodling, writing
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constraints into an evolution-simulation program and seeing where it led. The chapter in The Blind Watchmaker shows what happened.
When I wrote the program, I never thought it would evolve anything more than a variety of tree-like shapes. I had hoped for weeping willows, cedars of Lebanon, Lombardy poplars, seaweeds, perhaps deer antlers. Nothing in my biologist’s intuition, nothing in my 20 years’ experience of programming computers, and nothing in my wildest dreams, prepared me for what actually emerged on the screen. I can’t remember when exactly in the sequence it first began to dawn on me that an evolved resemblance to something like an insect was possible.

But it was. The difference with Dawkins’s program is he starts long before the objects are remotely like living things. As he makes them evolve, he sees them turn into biomorphs. Some of them look stunningly like winged insects! In such a short time, too. Then there is the regional franchise. It’s as if McBody had been licensed out to the seven continents and the locals asked to come up with their own versions. You can see evolution in action just by looking at the map. In Europe you had one version of mammalian mice, rats, badgers, deer, wolves, lions, cattle; in Australia you had marsupial versions, each with roughly the same
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template for everything other than the kit for reproduction. No surprise, really: there are limited ways of solving the problems of moving around, eating, digesting food and keeping warm. Earning your living on land gives you just a few options, and McBodies have exploited them all along parallel lines. Natural selection has fashioned similar bodies from quite different original designs. And, in case you see ID moving in and claiming those originals for itself: those too (proto-mammals) can be shown to have come from other ancestors with lizardlike organisations. Lots of these changes and adjustments remain as ghostly messages in the genetic program. One of Stephen Jay Gould’s most memorable essays is ‘Hens’ Teeth and Horses’ Toes’ (also the title of the book containing the piece). He tells how biologists have been able to tickle the DNA program of both species and so recapture characteristics suppressed during the evolution of sharp beaks in chickens and hooves in horses. Fossil evidence shows that their ancestors carried teeth and toes, and when the tickling is done there they are again. Tails in people, plus vestigial gills—there’s a lot lurking in our make-up that take us back to the jungle, even the pond. Fiddle with some human DNA and I wouldn’t be surprised to see elements of Freddie the Frog. Maybe the fairy story about the princess has some truth in it after all.
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Halitosis, farting, vaginal discharge, reflux, snoring, rheumatism, warts, smelly armpits, varicose veins, menopause, brewer’s droop . . . these are not the marks of a designer at the top of his game. They are the trademarks of a natural process giving us only as much as we need to stay alive. Meanwhile, down among the juices, where Derek Denton and his colleagues have done as much as anyone to show how the body both runs itself and fights off invaders, there is again displayed both brilliant success and abject failure. After all: we die. But not just yet. Assailed everywhere, outside and inside—by revolting nasties wanting to use us for living space and dinner; by others wanting to take over our genetic program and make it their own; by yet others entering by mistake through nostrils or eyelids—it is astounding that we don’t implode or explode within days of being born. Our immune system, resembling as it does a team of unicellular pond dwellers, performs a largely excellent job of meeting, greeting and eliminating the beasties who would do us down. ‘Largely’ implies imperfection. It is a constant battle. Nobel laureate Peter Doherty, from the University of Melbourne, sums it up like this. ‘Everything we know in biology agrees with Darwin’s theory of evolution in a broad sense, and the theory is tested probably 1000 times a day in various laboratories without anyone going out to test it. They [the American-funded movement
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to foist Intelligent Design teaching onto science teachers in Australia] really want a science teacher, who may well be atheistic anyway, introducing the concept of God into science. It’s a ridiculous idea and has no place in science teaching.’ Peter Doherty is an immunologist who, with Ralph Zinkernagel, demonstrated how those amoeba-like cells we grow to serve as our defence forces are informed about an invasion. His uncompromising rejection raises the question this entire chapter poses: Are scientists too damned sure of themselves? Is the condemnation of the poor old Bishop of Birmingham unfair? Should we be allowed to believe that God made eyes, that wings appeared ready-made and that sinuses have a greater purpose, which we are yet to discover? Is truth, in other words, relative? Well you can, if you want, believe what you like. Not much I can do—or Derek Denton or Richard Dawkins can do—to stop you. Nor is that what we would want to do. How can you force recognition of the facts of human anatomy upon reluctant minds? But that is a different thing altogether from saying, first, that science is wrong. And, second, that an alternative version, incapable of being put to any scientific test, is equally worthy of its place anywhere, particularly in the classroom. Science is certainly capable of self-deception, and the anatomical idiocies of Galen, who was inspired by much the same sophistry as ID-ers (he dissected only animals,
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not people), showed exactly what is possible in that regard. But science is, if anything, the best bullshit filter ever invented. Mendacity will have its day, but in science it won’t last long. Self-deception has a proud tradition, as does the Argument from Personal Incredulity. Both are prime ingredients of Proud Ignorance, and ignorance is just about the worst quality on which to base a system of education.

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ORIGINAL SIN: TROUBLE IN THE BRAIN
Original Sin
An intellectual is someone who thinks ideas matter more than people. If people get in the way of ideas they must be swept aside and, if necessary, put in concentration camps or killed. To intellectuals, individuals are not interesting and do not matter.
Paul Johnson, The Spectator, September 2005

People are capable of the most hideous cruelty. Imagine the worst and it’s been done. And it’s happening now. Rwanda, Cambodia, Beslan, Culloden, the Somme, Bosnia, Birkenau, the systematic murder of the Inca populations by the Spanish, Britain’s slave trade, America’s
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Nazi-style elimination of millions of native people, the Japanese torture and killing of Chinese by the hundreds of thousands—and much of this was done with relish. Put aside the nutters. Forget serial killer Fred West and the Belgian child torturers. Much of the misery has been perpetrated by ordinary folk—plumbers, greengrocers and nurses who became, in a matter of a few days, marauding monsters. Every study of human bestiality has shown that nearly all of us, in specific circumstances, can turn from mild suburban citizen into Hannibal Lecter. That’s wrong. I withdraw the term bestiality. Beasts do not expend energy on being cruel for fun. As the saying goes, ‘Nature is not cruel, she is indifferent.’ It is not sensible for animals to waste enormous amounts of energy—and being a top predator is an exhausting job— on ghoulish self-indulgence. We do it all the time. Slowly, excruciatingly, in front of family, arbitrarily. Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, Baghdad, Kosovo, Warsaw. If I were God the creator, responsible for all this, I’d keep quiet about my role. Intelligent Design? Don’t be obscene. There are many levels at which one can account for human vileness. History, sociology, psychology and ethology: each provides an account of why we needed to experiment with all the different possibilities of living together in various societies. The ways in which human
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minds adapted is fascinating in itself. Some societies were pleasant enough and rubbed along nicely, although the details, such as Margaret Mead’s picture postcard of sexy Samoa, are yet to be agreed upon. Others were ghastly, especially if you were an Aztec maiden set to have your heart carved out to appease the sun god, or a slave bound in perpetuity to an otherwise urbane, philosophical gentleman in ancient Greece or in Thomas Jefferson’s household. Evolutionary psychologists (and some are hard to take on an empty stomach) may offer the case that conflict is creative and that isolated societies decline. As happened in Tasmania before the Europeans, the technology becomes more primitive and the people languish without invasion, rape and pillage to renew the innovative stock. I may or may not agree with that. The point is that the human brain, whatever the justifications of history, resembles the creation of the devil rather than of a God. That it is capable of good is beside the point. ID is like a computer program with a built-in virus. ID is a baby born with syphilis. ID is an insult to the intelligence. ID is an insult to God. D.Z. Phillips, in The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, writes,‘Here is a clear instance where a theodicy, in the very language it employs, actually adds to the evil it seeks to justify.’ Theodicy is the philosophical contortion that seeks to justify child sacrifice or the Holocaust or juvenile cancer as a route to a higher
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order of good in society. It is the kind of Panglossian outrage that Voltaire pilloried so elegantly in Candide. The children in the school at Beslan, and their teachers, may have died for many reasons we can try to explain, including the effects of incessant war in Chechnya, but surely not to justify one of God’s mysteriously convoluted plans for a greater good. ‘Alternatively,’ writes Professor Simon Oliver in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘some have proposed that suffering is compensated for in heaven while allowing us to develop mature characters on earth.’ He answers this suggestion, as does Phillips, with scathing examples: ‘What kind of theology, philosophy or morality would we be articulating if we were able to “justify” cancer in a child?’ In Victorian times child mortality was so high as to rival death rates in war. How were these benighted infants in their millions, most not even toddlers, justifying some divine grand plan, with its reward in the afterlife? Intelligent design? A kinder description of humanity’s lot dispenses straightaway with any teleological grand plan. We began as hominids surrounded by a hostile environment, as most creatures are, and had to make the most of it. Hunting food and defending your cave required certain swift responses—seen less often in polite society in 2006. As our population grew with the invention of farming and towns 10 000 years ago, new pressures were forced on the brain that had already existed in the skull of the
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species Homo sapiens for some 200 000 years. But just look at the distance from us to that flowering of ‘civilisation’. Join hands with your parents and grandparents and so on back through the millennia and what do you get? I make it barely 400 generations standing in a long line hand-in-hand; some say it is fewer. We really are so new! (Our newness could also explain why a few malfunctions of our brains persist: 1 per cent of us have epilepsy or schizophrenia; 10 per cent succumb to depression and 1 in 4 over the age of eighty are demented.) No wonder we behave like brutes. Saying it’s all in the design does not help. The challenge is to make the design work, flawed as it is. Theology can help, though not if it’s of the authoritarian, unarguable kind that ID and its proponents represent. Christian morality is a thought experiment with some understanding of our violent past. At its best, it offers a pacifistic, forgiving, inclusive approach to living with your neighbours, in stark contrast to the God-help-the-hindmost rape-andpillage version of yesteryear. Matt Ridley, author of The Origins of Virtue, also sees a role for ‘God’. But in his case it is a Genome Organising Device. He elegantly hedges his bets, as any high-born Etonian might be expected to do. He begins by wondering why altruism would have a place at all in a harsh environment where a sentimental hesitation could get you eaten or where brutes seem to rule. But nature is far subtler than a Rambo movie.
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Take what I’ll call the Inverse Genghis Khan factor, or the non-dominance of the alpha male. Throughout history the Khans of the world have ridden through villages burning yurts to the screams of helpless longhaired damsels. The males were captured, used as slaves or skewered. Genghis Khan himself had 500 wives and concubines as well as unimpeded access to any girl he fancied from Mongolia to the Urals. Hence about 12 per cent of the population of his empire, about 1 in every 200 men alive today, according to Geoffrey Carr of The Economist, have DNA on their Y chromosome dating back to Khan and his confreres. So why do there remain gentler types like you and me, fair reader, who prefer poetry to pillage and woo damsels with promises of Tuscany, fine art and stroking? The answer, according to Cambridge zoologist Tim Clutton-Brock, is (and you must forgive this genuinely technical term) the Sneaky Fucker Strategy. The puzzle was why certain deer, apparently dominated by a huge Father of All Bambis (not!), didn’t within three or four generations have only Schwarzenegger stags and no wimps in their number. Clutton-Brock went into the field to investigate. What he noticed was that, while the big stags were rampaging on the mountainside, attacking each other with all the force and to-the-death commitment of King Kong versus the Tyrannosaurus rex in Peter Jackson’s movie, down in the valley the unescorted female deer were being thoroughly seen
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to by the less muscle-bound, Jude Law type lads. Rule by the mightiest is not built in. I was touched, incidentally, to hear a story from the now sadly departed evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith about a time when his colleagues in Germany were to host an international conference.A session was scheduled to discuss the story of the stags and its wider implications. The Brits had a confab and discussed the problem: ‘We can’t possibly call it what we normally do—the Germans and others either won’t understand or will be offended.’ So a brief competition was held to come up with an alternative name. I can just imagine the discussion that ensued as most of the group who, like Smith, were wonderfully well-spoken, polite Etonians, self-consciously tossed around some thoroughly awkward euphemisms. Eventually a limping compromise was agreed upon: something like Alternative Deceptive Reproductive Strategies. This was duly put into the program. But later the German organiser phoned up the Brits. ‘What is this . . . Alternative Something Strategies Whatever . . . we don’t understand,’ came the perplexed inquiry, echoing down the conference phone from Berlin. Maynard Smith and Clutton-Brock explained. Then they explained some more. Finally, from Germany, a shout of recognition: ‘Aha! You mean Sneaky Fucker! . . . Why didn’t you say so?!’ This tale illustrates several things, not least the cordiality between folk who sixty years ago were mortal enemies
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and bombing the bejesus out of each other. First, that nature hedges its bets and stores reserve supplies of variation. When times change, it may well be the slim thinkers who are better adapted than the rugged rulers. Second, aggression and competition may be the way the nineteenth century saw nature (red in tooth and claw, according to Lord Tennyson); it is not the version seen by twenty-first century biologists such as Lynn Margolis and Clutton-Brock, who point to much greater subtlety and interdependence. Why waste energy and resources fighting to survive if more cooperative means can do the job? Rape and pillage take effort. They are also risky. Which brings us back to Matt Ridley’s GOD (Genome Organising Device). Is kindness (altruism) in any way built into the biological system? The answer is yes, and we see it all around us. Families care. Friends help. Ducks divert our attention and put themselves in jeopardy to protect their ducklings. I saw this latter phenomenon on my summer holidays, by a lake near Mallacoota in Victoria. As we walked along a waterside path, a duck with tiny ducklings scooted from the bushes out into the open, the ducklings motoring as fast as their minuscule legs could manage. At the same time the drake leapt into the air flapping noisily, landing just a few steps ahead of us, then did so again. And again. When we were safely away from the exposed brood, he disappeared. The broken-wing deception of a cornered mother duck is also well known as a diversion to save
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the family. She will scurry across the water dragging the limp wing behind her, feigning injury. She is inviting you to pursue her instead of the vulnerable brood. The late Bill Hamilton of Oxford actually produced a formula to describe all this. The closer you are, genetically, to someone at risk, the more likely you are to try to help them. This can be quantified in terms of the improved chances you have of passing on or protecting your genes. The closer you are to the relative who needs your assistance (and the more likely you are to have matching genomes), the more likely you are to put yourself on the line to help them. A daughter or son in trouble, and you don’t hesitate. A third cousin twice removed—and you hover by the raging torrent. Hamilton’s numbers seem to add up. It just so happens that he was the mentor who inspired Richard Dawkins to write The Selfish Gene thirty years ago. He was a hero to many and died, long before his time, on a quest to Africa to look at the chimpanzees, who can be sweet and forbearing within their families but are sometimes rampaging killers with strangers. Hamilton caught malaria and died within weeks. His last ever expedition was to seek out the origins of kindness—and thuggery. Formulae for tender loving care may seem mechanical. But they are one way of accounting for how we came to be as we are. Other ways, I’ve already suggested, come through history, sociology, politics and so on. But what the biology of love and hate does not show is a clearly
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perceptible design offered by the Great Boatman as he pushed our craft away from the biblical shore back in the beginning. What we have, instead, is a turmoil of adjustment. Not a march upwards and onwards to perfection—as in one of those slick illustrations that start with monkeys on their knees, lead on to hominids halfupright and finish with a bloke in a suit standing erect and phoning his broker—but a fitting end to contingency, to existing circumstances. Human brains were once well suited to survival in a forest with extremes of hot and cold, wet and dry, plenty of enemies and barely enough to eat. People lived in small groups and, in a lifetime of barely thirty years, knew a few dozen people. I suspect that there was leadership by elders, but everyone had to get on with everyone else. Professor Robin Dunbar, of the University of Liverpool, argues that we have a ‘natural’ capacity to ‘know’ about 150 others really well. The rest are seen as interlopers or worse. He claims he can predict the size of our preferred ‘village’ by looking at our brains. The bigger and thicker your cerebral cortex, the more people in your tribe. Lemurs are solitary, baboons less so. Some biologists, such as Lesley Rogers of the University of New England in Armidale, dispute this, pointing to the orangutan, which has plenty of cortex but few friends. Whatever the demographics, it’s clear that population explosions 10 000 years ago, when humans began to settle in cities, weren’t in the master plan for
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our brain, designed or not. As I shall discuss later, the problem, as Richard Wrangham sees it, of ‘demonic males’ is one we are still dealing with. How to cope? Why, with the rest of our intellectual armoury. You have some of it, for better or worse, in front of you at the moment. A book. The Greek philosophers and playwrights were tackling questions of self and identity, crime and forgiveness 4000 years ago. We have been at it ever since. How do we know this? Through what Richard Dawkins called the extended phenotype, the title of the second of his books, after The Selfish Gene.* This rather technical term refers to the way humans can store and accumulate their thinking beyond their bodies—in paintings, music, books and now in computers. I am liberated completely, if I choose, from the ‘design’ that fitted the first humans to the forest and cave. As someone who began reading voraciously from the age of five and has done so for hours every day ever since, I cannot imagine what my brain would be like without that influence. Add other products of the ‘extended phenotype’, such as photos, telly and movies, and we have an entirely different creature who can transcend the brutish unintelligence, or original sin, of his design. It is not surprising, then, that the atavists wanting to
*

Now, in 2006, he says it was an unfortunate, if striking title. It could easily have been The Cooperative Gene, without any misleading implication, but the publishers were insistent.
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interfere with this new freedom are attacking the very places where promise lies: the museums, libraries and schools. Evolution as a topic has been expunged from many biology textbooks in America. Publishers in populous states have bowed to pressure from creationists for fear of having their products banned from schools. Museums from Ithaca to Denver, Iowa and New York City have had their staff bailed up by believers arguing against Darwinism. Dr Warren D. Allmon was quoted in The New York Times commenting on the stream of visitors objecting to the displays on evolution. Noting that 54 per cent of Americans do not believe that human beings evolved from earlier species, he said, ‘Just telling them they are wrong is not going to be effective.’ Dr Lenore Durkee, a retired biology professor from the Museum of Earth in Ithaca, New York, agrees: ‘It is no wonder that many biologists will simply refuse to debate creationists or IDers . . . people who for whatever reason are here to trap you, to bludgeon you.’ Even the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, has been attacked in an attempt to change its references to evolution. Dr David Millikan, a priest who is a former head of Religion at the ABC, summed up the situation neatly:
The advocacy of ID is not as innocent as it seems. It’s the latest battle in the war against the ‘evils of Darwinism’, one that has been fought ferociously in the US for more than a century. There, evangelical and
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fundamentalist Christianity have never truly forgotten— and certainly never forgiven—the way they were humiliated by the theory of evolution. Having failed to dismantle it, they’re spruiking ID in an attempt to destabilize it.

The Reverend Millikan ends with a chilling reminder of the scale of the attempt to metaphorically burn the library, much as Caesar burnt the great collection of books in Alexandria in 48 BC. ‘Polls indicate that 47% of Americans accept the literal account of creation in the book of Genesis. George W. Bush holds this view too. For Christians of this hue, ID is just the latest offensive weapon.’ Book burning was a notorious practice of the Nazis. Whether you call culture an extended phenotype or the store of human knowledge and creativity, its destruction amounts to humanity’s shooting itself in the head. It is the way back to the cave, or at least to the twilight zone of the Taliban or the early Christian zealots (who set fire both to Bibles translated into English and to the scholars who dared translate them). It is the last resort of those who will ban music and literature and learning, all the expressions of a free human spirit. This has been the recourse of anti-intellectual bullies throughout history. Knowledge is power, so you ban it. Hermann Goering liked to boast, ‘When I hear the
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word culture I reach for my Browning [gun].’ And we know precisely what he meant and why philistinism is so vital to the despot and the thug. ID is part of that long tradition of hankering for darkness.

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Intelligent sex
Human genitalia were obviously designed by the local council. Only they would think about putting the pisshouse in the middle of the playground.

‘Sir, why did Mary have to be a virgin?’ Bunny Austin would close his eyes in silent desperation, put his fingertips together under his chin and try to formulate an answer. Time passed. ‘And, Sir, did anyone check?’ We were dreadful boys, always in pursuit of weak quarry, and Bunny, who looked like a querulous rabbit, was too decent a schoolmaster and too kind a man to fob us off with a rebuke. Instead we got his considered reply to every tricksy question, every mischievous setup. Divinity and prayers were not occasions you could
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duck unless you belonged to another faith. ‘No faith’ didn’t compute. So I, and one or two other smart-arsed atheists, were made to attend, like it or not. We took our revenge in subversion. ‘But, Sir!’ after a tortuous answer affirming the Godgiven glories of sexual intercourse (snigger!) and agreeing that, while Jesus was the Son of Man and therefore deserving of a normal fertilisation, gestation and parturition, he had to be spared icky associations . . . for reasons which remain a mystery . . . God works in mysterious ways. ‘But, Sir, isn’t “virgin” just a mistranslation of a term meaning “young woman”?’ As he struggled, I gave him the scholarly source of this howitzer and watched him slowly implode in jowly stutterings until his opening and closing mouth resembled that of a cod expiring on the fishmonger’s slab. ‘Was Jesus fully a man?’ Silence. ‘I mean, did he have erections and wet dreams?’ By now you could hear embarrassed shuffling at the back of the class, where the terminally uninterested were playing cards. Surely Bunny’d capitulate and reject this gratuitous plonker. But, no, off he’d go again in perplexed torment, doing his didactic duty to the end. Bunny Austin wasn’t anything like the great tennis players whose nickname he knew he carried. No returns were lobbed across the net demanding, ‘Why do you ask, Williams?’ or ‘What’s your interpretation of the answer from the reading you’ve done?’
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I never did find out if there were any reliable comebacks to those age-old schoolboy needlings. Sex in much of the Bible reflects the male insecurities of ancient times, and indeed up to the present day. Men were terrified by female sexuality, so it had to be kept under control. There were three reasons. First, it was clear that women are capable of far more sustained enjoyment than the ephemeral pleasure that’s men’s lot. Dissection of the clitoris, completed only a few years ago in Melbourne (one other thorough investigation and description of its elaborate and extensive nerve supply, in the nineteenth century, was forgotten or suppressed), shows that the organ is equipped for extensive stimulation and response. That this was recognised in the ancient world is well documented, not least by the Victorian traveller Sir Richard Burton, whose writings on exotic sexuality so shocked his wife that she turned his life’s work into a pyre. Not only were men disconcerted by their partner’s powers of orgasm and appetite for more, but they became immediately aware of both their likely inability to satisfy that desire and the very great probability that their mates would be only too pleased to step into the breach. This was brought home to me dramatically in 1966 in Quetta, Pakistan, where I was travelling with my new wife. Quetta is the Sandhurst or Duntroon of that Islamic country, and we were hailed in the high street on our
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arrival as hitchhikers by a swaggering commanding officer whose pseudo-British aplomb put David Niven or James Fox in the shade. We were promptly offered rooms in the barracks (Brits were status symbols back then) and straightaway given a rather puzzling lecture about how safe we would be under the soldiers’ care. While they fully recognised that white women were always ‘gasping for it’, they intended to fulfil their Islamic duty and accept us as guests and give us unquestioning hospitality and ‘protection’. This was kicked off by a cocktail party at sundown. I can’t remember what we drank, but I do recall being manoeuvred into an antechamber by ‘chaps’ in cravats and Sam Brownes to discuss world affairs. Meanwhile, in another room, Pamela was being shown a revolver by a couple of officers and being told to come across. They were in no doubt about her desires—they had seen enough Hollywood movies to know that women like her were constantly on heat. The only way Pamela escaped was by agreeing with what they said but claiming she had a shocking dose of suppurating gonorrhoea. The chaps backed off. Until next time. The second, related reason why men can become bothered by female sexuality is its apparent disjuncture from their own. Why should their levels of satisfaction and subtleties of timing be so awry? Girls can be sexy as young teenagers; boys at the same age are dorks. Men hit their peak of randiness at eighteen, before most of
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them have even got started. Women become more and more switched on as they mature, even to forty or fifty years of age and beyond—just when men turn away, drooping. Men become hydraulically challenged in middle age. What was the designer thinking of ? Was He determined to make sexual unions impossible to maintain? Did he foresee the invention of Viagra and serial divorce? The third reason is money and the Church. The wealth of Rome threatened to be dissipated if the offspring of married priests could inherit from them. Answer: celibacy. This of course has been a practice in other religions as well so the holy estate is kept intact. Somehow in all this sexual angst, women are kept hovering somewhere between the roles of ‘damned whores and God’s police’. For strict Catholics, sex is only for procreation; contraception is therefore forbidden. The immediate past president of the Royal Society of London, in his valedictory speech late in 2005, was moved to say that the late Pope John Paul II was responsible for more deaths than Hitler, having resisted the free distribution of condoms in the time of AIDS. ‘He did more to spread AIDS across Africa than the trucking industry and prostitution combined’, announced the New Statesman in a cover story in April 2005, when the Pope died. These are extraordinary lengths to which to take a doctrine. Similarly, how can modern human beings in their millions in North Africa accept the mutilation of
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young girls’ genitals with rusty razors, broken glass or kitchen knives? Is female sexual pleasure so revolting to men in beards that they are prepared to see their women forced to put up with a lifetime of pain and humiliation? Control takes many ugly forms. If the Intelligent Design of woman enabled her to have fun, why is so much energy expended, in the name of God, to stop her? Why, for that matter, was the design itself so perilous? The upright woman needs her hips to be narrow enough so she can walk without having the gait of a drunken sailor doing the pasa doble. Yet the passage of a baby with a large cranium—notwithstanding the skull’s flexibility, with its unfused joints allowing the head to shrink slightly during birth—requires a wide canal. As a result a hormone, relaxin, is secreted which makes the pelvis pliable. If the secretion is insufficient, side effects such as permanent spasticity in the child can occur. This is easily explicable as the collateral effect of our having evolved from hominids who walked on all fours; it makes nonsense of ID. In the words of Loretta Marron, a science graduate and businesswoman writing in the skeptic: we meet Barbie, our idealised woman, at the age of 12.
For the next 35 years, when not pregnant, she will have spent a total of up to six years wearing hygiene products. She will also have spent an additional four years with pre-menstrual tension, when she will experience mood
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swings, while bracing herself white-knuckled and doubled over during agonizing and debilitating stomach cramps, accompanied by daily unrelenting migraines, just to name a few of her regular monthly symptoms.

Then she’s pregnant! ‘Barbie has spent the first three months or more of her pregnancy with daily episodes of putting her head inside the nearest toilet bowl, looking at regurgitating the ice cream and pickled onions of her previous meal, or lying on the bed staring at her swollen legs and enlarged DD-sized breasts.’ So much for Barbie. But what about Ken? That master of anatomy Leonardo da Vinci put it best 500 years ago in his lament for the penis:
It has dealings with human intelligence and sometimes displays an intelligence of its own; where a man may desire it to be stimulated it remains obstinate and follows its own course; and sometimes it moves on its own without permission or any thought of its owner. Whether one is awake or asleep, it does what it pleases; often the man is asleep and it is awake; often the man is awake and it is asleep; or the man would like it to be in action but it refuses; often it desires action and the man forbids it. That is why it seems that this creature often has a life and intelligence separate from that of the man, and it seems that man is wrong to be ashamed of giving it a name or showing it; that which he seeks
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to cover and hide he ought to expose solemnly like a priest at mass.

Pointing Percy at the Pontificate! What can he mean? But implicit is his final plea: If only there were Intelligent Design then the owner, rather than the organ itself, could be in control. Who takes responsibility for the ID in this particular case? Could it be that Beelzebub snuk in? Which brings us to homosexuals. For once, here I’m prepared to accept that this is an example of God’s inspired creative engineering. Gays have contributed fabulously to civilised society and it would be appalling to consider a world without the contributions of Alan Turing, Leonardo da Vinci, Noel Coward, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Dusty Springfield, Elton John, T.E. Lawrence, Irving Berlin, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Franz Schubert, k.d. lang, Ivor Novello, Stephen Fry, Plato, Gertrude Stein, Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown and many, many more. How clever of the designer to allow this latitude in the design. (In His own Image?) Finding an evolutionary reason for the persistence of homosexuals in the human population is certainly a challenge. No selfish genes at work there, I’d wager. Homosexual behaviour has been observed in monkeys and apes, and interpreted as learning play to prepare them for their lives as adults. It persists among them mostly in grown-up females!
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Another suggestion is that gayness is somehow linked to genes involved with creativity of some kind. I wonder what form this would have taken in the ancient forest. Fred and Wilma Flintstone are not exactly flamboyant. Or pink. There are many explanations of homosexuality along the lines that the human genome has preserved maximum flexibility (remember those Sneaky Fuckers?), and one of the variants included is gayness. But I will now firmly opt for the ID alternative, insist it was God’s inspired choice and demand, accordingly, that popes, archbishops and ayatollahs immediately relax prohibitions which range from silly to deadly. One further possible explanation remains for the sexual differences between men and women. It stems not from orthodox religion but from the modern, screwball kind; Scientology, for example, was started essentially as a bet by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who said he could invent a religion from scratch. He proposed a fall from grace on some distant planet, followed by banishment to a lower state on Earth. The challenge of Scientology is to regain enlightenment using so-called ‘E-meters’. This convoluted codswallop is accepted by glitterati from Tom Cruise to John Travolta (even our own dear Kate Ceberano), and shows that you don’t have to be subtle to haul in the suckers.
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The only difference between this kind of cosmic folderol and some of the more established religions, with their miracles and afterlives, is age. Science and commonsense have removed most of the wilder phantasmagoria of the ancient beliefs and led them into more sober, contemplative fields of moral quandary and textual probing. But this doesn’t inhibit Raelians and Davidians and the other salvationists at the unending religious smorgasbord. Some twenty years ago, long before John Gray made his squillions from Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, I broadcast a Science Show offering a solution to some of the conundrums listed above. Why a virgin? How come homosexuality? Why the loathing by men of women’s sexual appetite? My scenario went like this: Men do come from Mars, where they spent the millennia playing games and hugging and horsing about— all those things we accept as authentic male behaviour, from stadium football to ancient Greek Olympic tournaments. Even rugby union has come out, as anyone watching today’s more cuddlesome games will know. Martian men were not distracted by the subtler contemplations of adult life, but they did have strong aesthetic sensibilities, which enabled them to make the most of the violent purple sunsets and unending rocky red vistas. Without women, though, how could they possibly procreate? Eternal life was not possible in these idyllic circumstances, though they did live quite a long time,
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given the lower force of gravity on Mars. The answer: resurrection. As one man crumbled either of age or of a groin injury sustained in play, so, after a short while, he was able to come to life again as a much younger man and resume his games. Meanwhile, on Venus, the girls were in their own special world. They could converse on the finer points of female interaction, made infinitely more fascinating by the absence of men. Feng shui was made necessary by the constant rearrangement of the Venusian landscape through eruption and earthquake; as well, there were the more physical delights of remedial massage and clothes designed to please themselves. Reproduction, as should be obvious, was by virgin birth. Parthenogenesis was the means: an egg would split to form a blastula and the rest followed in the usual way. When men and women came to Earth (as is described in holy books), they were at first meant only to hang about in loose proximity to each other. Sex was thought both unlikely and somehow repellent. In fact, according to my reading of what happened, as with other parthenogenetic species such as Western Australian locusts, intercourse became productive only because of some persistent ancient resonance, possibly from a common ancestor. So sex, as we know, did ultimately become established. At first, though, I proposed, this was not so. Which was why virgin births became so significant 2000 years ago, and before that. The children of such events
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were, of course, female. No Y chromosome is transmitted in what becomes a virgin birth. This meant that Jesus was a woman. No wonder her teachings and general conduct were so civilised. In time the male and female genomes were able to interact, but there was a constant percentage of offspring who preferred the same sex. And the misalliance of Mars and Venus was never resolved. Men continue to hark back to the eternal cosmic changing room and never lose their fear of vagina dentata. Women remain the second sex and try to find a role somewhere between Jezebel and Mother Teresa, without feeling much like either. I broadcast all this in 1983. I thought listeners would be impressed at how much it explained, from ‘testosterone poisoning’ to the overwhelming confusion experienced by most men on meeting gorgeous girls, to ‘codpiece attachment’ and the instinct of men in football scrums to bind securely by hanging on to the jockstrap of the bloke in front. No such luck. Worse still, I simply had no inkling that, if I simply granted myself a doctorate from a Bible college in America and produced a book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, I could have retired with several fortunes to a castle in Cap D’Antibes. Never mind! Why waste time with sex at all? In nature, I mean. Apart from the unpredictability and sheer messiness of relationships, you have costly competition among males,
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STDs, all those cumbersome genitalia. Would it not be far simpler to go in for something like parthenogenesis or some other variation of the fission beloved of amoebae we learn about at school? Don’t date, have arguments, make up, catch the clap, take a cure, get pregnant, miscarry, succeed at last . . . Just split. Splitting is favoured as a method of reproduction by billions of smaller creatures—microbes and other germs. Trouble is, it doesn’t yield much variation—only that which comes via mutation. Most mutation is damaging and disappears: you die. Even small changes in, say, one of the chemical bases of a DNA strand can make a huge difference. The favourite example is of the one-letter difference between FISH and FIST: Not the same thing! Incidentally, the suggestion that evolution is a random process is one of the monstrous distortions perpetrated by ID and creationism. Nothing of the kind. Mutation may be random, but natural selection is supremely focused. Grow a fish on the end of your arm and you’ll die because that’s not what you need to adapt to your environment (unless you live in a very peculiar world). A fist on the end of your arm fits. So you live. Not random at all! Sex mixes the cards you do possess. If a new hazard arises, you will have a different genome from your parents and your siblings. One of you is more likely to survive. The new hazard is most likely to be a killer disease. Imagine bird flu suddenly starts being transferred among people. Many will die. But, as with the catastrophic Black
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Death plague in the fourteenth century, when Florence and other cities lost up to 80 per cent of their populations, some people will be resistant. Their card shuffle is kind. Natural selection allows this group to live on and continue the species. If we were a parthenogenetically produced monoculture, it would be curtains all round. Sex pays. It keeps us one step ahead of the next plague. It also gives us cultural variety—and this is where gays may come in again. It may not be that God planned their value to the community, but their presence has been an undoubted benefit. We humans have two sets of genes. Other living things may have more. Only one set need be expressed. We keep the others in reserve; cards are kept up our evolutionary sleeve. This, incidentally, is also the argument for free speech and for universities maintaining all manner of opinions within their faculties. If you cram all your professorships with Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries or hardline market reactionaries and then Stalin proves to be a rogue or Gordon Gecko loses the plot, you have nowhere to go. Keep a comprehensive range from left to right and you are giving society the hinterland it needs to cope with the future. Maybe we learned this from sex and genes. (That does not mean ID belongs in the science curriculum; elsewhere, maybe.) As for carnal congress itself, scientists have had lots to say—some of it interesting, some of it silly. The
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bottom line (ahem!) is that we do not have to be slaves either to our primate past or to our recent couple of hundred thousand years in caves and the woods. Yes, as Desmond Morris has told us at length and with helpful naughty pictures, ladies are able and even willing to have intercourse at any time in the monthly cycle, and that is probably a way to entice a mating pair to bond for however long it takes to bring up Wayne or Dahria. And, yes, Roger Short is wise to point out that humans have the largest testicles of male primates, and that this is connected to promiscuity. But you don’t have to be promiscuous or live like the Folks on the Hill. Our biological heritage offers a very wide range of possibilities for sexual conduct and recent history has allowed some of us—straight, gay, swingers, congregational hedonists, not-interesteds—just to be ourselves unless we’re hurting someone. No harm! As with brains that can have us become anything we choose—from Dr Mengele and Rosa Klebb to Albert Schweitzer and Mary Robinson—so our sexual legacy is almost unlimited. This is not necessarily a good thing (as the male spider would say after it is devoured by his recent lover), but it is the way it happens to be. Think of a sexual variant—and I won’t bore you with a list— and it’s in the personal ads: we do it. If that’s a sign of Intelligent Design, then I’m intrigued. It tells me much more about God than I expected.

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FROM DAYTON TO DOVER
From Dayton to Dover
Jenny is too wonderful, preparing and drinking her tea and doing everything by word of command. She is painfully and disagreeably human.
Queen Victoria, on visiting the second-ever orangutan at London Zoo in 1842

In 2001 I reviewed two books by great-great grandsons of Charles Darwin. One, Annie’s Box (with a different title in the US!), by Randal Keynes, told of the brief, charming life of Annie Darwin, her father’s favourite child, and of her sad death at the age of 10. Darwin was inconsolable. His faith in God collapsed. He could see no grand purpose in the casual extinction of such a sweet spirit. Another part of that book described Darwin’s astonishment when he looked into the face of the first great
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ape brought to London Zoo. There in her eyes he saw reflected a human forebear, a subtle mind, a hidden depth. ‘Let man visit Ourang-out-ang in domestication,’ wrote Darwin, ‘hear the expressive whine; see its intelligence when spoken to, as if it understood every word said; see its affection to those it knew; see its passion and rage, sulkiness and very actions of despair; let him look at the savage . . . and then let him dare to boast of his proud pre-eminence.’ Then he added, ‘Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.’ (From Charles Darwin’s notebooks, around 1839) Both Annie and the ape changed him forever. The second book, by Matthew Chapman, was called Trials of the Monkey. Unlike Keynes, Chapman is not a learned professor but an occasionally wired Hollywood scriptwriter. He was once married to film star Victoria Tennant. A wise career move following a substance-induced wipeout was to go on the road and write a gonzo book about visiting Dayton, Tennessee, where his ancestor’s evolutionary teachings were put on trial in 1925. I loved the book, and recommend it. Trials began as a way to explore Chapman’s personal heritage, both from his own immediate family and from Darwinism. The Scopes ‘monkey trial’ was actually a set-up. It didn’t have to be in Dayton—the town was chosen as a convenient battleground, and Scopes himself was a
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volunteer. The trial was lost in the first instance— notwithstanding national attention, tropical heat and legendary lawyers—but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Chapman—the groovy smoothie from NY, NY— expected to be put off by the trailer trash he was to encounter on the road. This did not happen, quite. Nor did the creationists he met down in li’l ole Tennessee repulse him. The young folk attached to the Creationist Institute he found open and friendly; the PhD in palaeontology who ran the institute, incredibly enough, had been taught at Harvard by none other than Stephen Jay Gould. But the most memorable discovery for me, at least, was when he found out why the trial took place in Dayton. The town is heartbreakingly impoverished. The old saying about being born ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ comes from there. On the other side of the railway tracks is a place so bleak, writes Chapman, that it has the highest suicide rate in all of the United States. No wonder the bells and whistles of Promised Lands made such an impact here. He goes beyond the local manifestations of poverty to ask a broader, devastating question about the nation itself. ‘Why is America, a country where 98% of the people believe in God and over 50% believe in the literal existence of angels, why is this so holy a place infested with serial killers, rapists, paedophiles—often men of the
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cloth—drug addicts, gangs, cults, and madmen? Why, in short, isn’t Christianity having the advertised effect?’ Eighty years after Scopes it is Dover, Pennsylvania, that has become notorious—as a battleground over ID. Before retracing the political steps taken in the past nearly twenty years, it is useful to give a brief summary of the differences between creationism and ID. The Scopes trial was about the Bible and challenges to the literal interpretation of Genesis. Creationists seemed to be saying that Earth is young—about 10 000 years or so—and that life, all life, is 6000 years old. It was made by God in one week, all at the same time. Fossils were produced by the flood. Creationism was dealt two near-fatal blows in the 1980s. First, the sheer weight of scientific evidence I have mentioned earlier, not least its coherence, made creationism look silly. Second, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism is a version of recognisable religious doctrine and therefore, under the Constitution, excluded from being taught in schools. (Australia has similar laws but allows religious schools to be funded without considering them therefore to be ‘established’.) Even though creationists had tagged the word ‘science’ after their name, this was not enough to sneak them into the classroom. After 1987 there was a rapid rethink of the ‘entrist’ strategy: ID came to be. Its case is that there are parts of the natural world so complex and engineered with
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such precision that only a very smart intelligence, not blundering selection, could account for them. Examples given were the phenomenal complexity of the cell itself and instruments such as the flagellum. The identity of the designer is only hinted at. Guess who? ID does allow for evolution to do a bit of the tedious lifting work once the clever stuff, like the cell, has been set up, and so it gets the best of both worlds. A fine summary of all this appeared in The New Yorker in May 2005, written by biology professor H. Allen Orr, of Rochester University, New York. He names the two best-known proponents of ID, both of whom have reasonably respectable scientific credentials. One is Professor Michael J. Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, author of Darwin’s Black Box. The other is Professor William A. Dembski, a mathematician at the Center for Science and Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dembski offers a kind of watchmaker argument; he wants us to recognise that certain phenomena could not possibly have turned up without having been designed to meet their specific purposes. In Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, messages from outer space did not quite turn out to be the Holy Grail, but were concealed within a commonplace mathematical calculation, the endless elaboration of the value of pi. Let us say, for one moment, that there really was such a code and that it provided instructions on how to build a time machine or how
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to travel beyond our galaxy. In those circumstances, it would be as clear as all the words in Contact itself that some extraterrestrial intelligence did actually exist. This would be like the proverbial monkeys with typewriters really coming up with the works of Shakespeare—so unlikely that we would have to accept some intervention by an Other. Dembski sees the structures of the cell as such ‘messages’, written by an intelligence rather than by nature. Too many items of incredible sophistication come together with so much accuracy, he argues, that it is impossible to see them accumulating incrementally. Orr disagrees. It is common, he says, to have several similar proteins produced in a cell which may then change slightly and acquire different functions. Their exquisite unity may have been preceded by a different role, equally beguiling. Orr refers to one of Behe’s favourite examples, the mechanical mousetrap, which cannot function with just one of its parts missing. But imagine a car produced in the 1990s. It works well by most criteria. Then comes the new century and manufacturing standards change. ‘We add new parts like global-positioning systems to cars not because they’re necessary but because they’re nice. But no one would be surprised if, in fifty years, computers that rely on GPS actually drove our cars. At that point GPS would no longer be an option, it would be an essential piece of automotive technology.’
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Orr stresses that Darwinian evolution also expects many adaptations to be simplifications. In 2006 I broadcast an interview with an Oxford zoologist who studies cave fish. These creatures no longer need eyes. But their DNA still codes for them and, accordingly, they have them when they are very young but grow flaps of skin across them as they mature. It costs energy to run eyes, so better to close them off, simplify the system, if you don’t need them. The point is that the eyes persist like so much debris, as do men’s nipples, appendices and much else in people. Both Behe and Dembski have been soundly demolished by experts in their fields. They have even been attacked by their supporters, one of whom called Dembski’s use of one key theorem ‘fatally informal and imprecise’. Orr sums it up this way: ‘As the years pass, Intelligent Design looks less and less like science and more and more like an extended exercise in polemics.’ This has not stopped the good citizens of Dover. On 18 October 2004 the Dover Area School Board of directors, by a vote of 6-3, passed a resolution requiring ID to be placed on the curriculum. The exact statement read: ‘Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, Intelligent Design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught.’ The directors may have had a majority, but this was not good enough for the parents. Several of them were
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outraged that science had been so compromised and took the matter to court. Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School District has become one of the most significant clashes between fundamentalism and Darwin since Scopes. Meanwhile, in Kansas, also in late 2005, the state board of education voted 6-4 to ‘adopt science standards that cast doubt on evolution’ (Science, 18 November 2005). This followed an attempt in 1999 by several board members to remove both evolution and the Big Bang from curricula. Before looking in detail at the judge’s remarkable Memorandum Opinion in the Dover case, it is worth asking why all this hit headlines around the world in this early part of the twenty-first century. Is it a skirmish on the fringe of received knowledge or is it part of a darker, well-organised plan to subvert science itself ? Enter the Wedge Strategy, a document that appeared as an apparent leak on the Internet in 1999. It seemed to emanate from the Discovery Institute in Seattle and was a timetable for attack. It is worth quoting from the notorious master plan.
Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center
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explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature. The Center awards fellowships for original research, holds conferences, and briefs policymakers about the opportunities for life after materialism.

By materialism the document’s authors do not mean consumer culture and democracy via credit card. This is no assault on capitalism and the American way of life. They simply mean ungodly. That they have a goal that is far from trivial or even ecumenical is shown in their last few words, ‘opportunities for life after materialism’. This is borne out by the timetable. Under the Five Year Strategic Plan Summary they say: ‘If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points.’ So the ‘thin end of the wedge’, as they put it, included Phillip Johnson’s critique Darwinism on Trial (1991) and then Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box. Under Phase I (of the Strategic Plan): ‘A lesson we have learned from the history of science is that it is unnecessary to outnumber the opposing establishment. Scientific revolutions are usually staged by an initially small and relatively young group of scientists who are
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not blinded by the prevailing prejudices and who are able to do creative work at the pressure points, that is, on those critical issues upon which whole systems of thought hinge.’ Phase II:‘We seek to cultivate and convince influential individuals in print and broadcast media, as well as think tank leaders, scientists and academics, congressional staff, talk show hosts, college and seminary presidents and faculty, future talent and potential academic allies.’ Phase III: ‘Once our research and writing have had time to mature, and the public prepared for the reception of design theory, we will move toward direct confrontation with advocates of materialistic science . . .’ This brings us to the present when, by their own criteria, the Wedgers are doing very well. Attention is theirs—in the press, the scientific journals and among educators. That there is a mixed report from the courts is just a small setback when you consider the long-term strategy. The Wedge is clear: Governing Goals: ‘To defeat materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies. To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.’ (Note: Not coexist or offer equal counsel; the words used are defeat and replace. These are not half measures.) Five-Year Goals:‘To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.’
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Twenty-Year Goals:‘To see Intelligent Design theory as the dominant perspective in science. To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.’ This statement is so extraordinary that one needs to ask straightaway whether the Wedge is one of those feral flights of the imagination one finds on the Net, dreamed up by some drooling green-haired freak in a shed somewhere, bent on world domination. Nothing of the kind. Enter Chris Mooney. He is a journalist based in Washington whose book The Republican War on Science was published in mid 2005. In it he shows how two liberally inclined ex-Harvard roommates had combined in 1966 to warn of the Republican Party’s anti-intellectual decline. Their ‘polemic’, The Party That Lost Its Head, was a tour de force of analysis and debunking; its main message was that conservatives had to win back the thinkers and not be buried by redneck prejudice. One of the authors was Bruce Chapman. He continued as an enlightened political instigator, according to Mooney, throughout the 1970s, even running as a leftist candidate for the post of governor in Washington state in 1980. But then came the Reagan era and Chapman, like so many on the left cited in this tale, suddenly ‘chucked a U-ey’, as we say in Oz. He became a ‘neocon’. By 2003 he was declaring evolution to be a ‘theory in crisis’. Today Chapman is at the helm of the Discovery Institute, which began as a branch of the
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Hudson Institute of Indianapolis but now has leadership and funding from conservative Christian organisations and an agenda to match. In 2002 Mooney was writing a piece about the Discovery Institute for American Prospect and needed confirmation or otherwise of the Wedge’s provenance. He says, ‘In an interview for my story, however, Discovery’s Stephen C. Meyer, a pro-life religious conservative who directs the Center for Science and Culture, admitted ownership of the Wedge Document for the first time, telling me that it “was stolen from our offices and placed on the Web without permission”.’ So, back to Dover, where the good citizens were awaiting the opinion from District Court Judge John E. Jones III in the case of Tammy Kitzmiller and friends versus the school. His ruling was stunning: in favour of the eleven parents who were suing the school board. ID, taught in biology classes, would be unconstitutional, he wrote, because it is a religious idea advancing ‘a particular version of Christianity’. It is worth examining some of the details of his opinion. On the morphing of ID from creationism:‘The weight of the evidence clearly demonstrates, as noted, that the systemic change from “creation” to “Intelligent Design” occurred sometime in 1987, after the Supreme Court’s important Edwards decision. This compelling evidence strongly supports Plaintiff ’s assertion that ID is creationism re-labeled.’
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In what way does this matter breach the US Constitution, which forbids the state establishment of religion and therefore its teaching in schools? Judge Jones quoted the Supreme Court’s ruling: ‘School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community”.’ Judge Jones then referred to the Wedge document, clearly satisfied that it is a sound source of the ID agenda. This is significant. Then the judge moved to the question of ID as science. He found:‘After a searching review of the record, we find that while ID arguments may be true [as a supernatural explanation], a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science.’ ‘They are,’ he continued:
1. ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; 2. the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s; and 3. ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the
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science community . . . It is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.

Judge Jones further noted that ID was trying, by sleight of hand, to change the ground rules of science itself: ‘defense expert Professor Behe admitted that his broad definition of science, which encompasses ID, would also embrace astrology.’ Astrology! He also took on ID’s favourite examples—the flagellum, blood-clotting cascades and the immune system—and cited evidence that showed how they could indeed have been elaborations of simpler elements with, possibly, different functions. ‘We therefore find that Professor Behe’s claim for irreducible complexity has been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and has been rejected by the community at large.’ In examining Pandas and People, the ID alternative primer recommended by the Discovery Institute in the Wedge document, Judge Jones found that ‘Pandas misrepresents the “dominant form of understanding relationships” between organisms, namely the tree of life, represented by classification determined via the method of cladistics.’ The book also misrepresents how organs may have common origins (‘homology’), and ways in
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which structures may be adapted for different functions (fingers become bats’ wings or horses’ hooves, etc.). At the end of his exhaustive 139-page opinion the judge showed how the case was more than a row about epistemology and the American Constitution. It was about bullying and it was about lies. He quoted the testimony of Joel Leib, whose family has lived in Dover for generations. ‘Well, it’s driven a wedge where there hasn’t been a wedge before,’ said Leib. ‘People are afraid to talk to people for fear, and that’s happened to me. They’re afraid to talk to me because I’m on the wrong side of the fence.’ The school board (the ID defendants), wrote Judge Jones,‘unceasingly attempted to distance themselves from their own actions and statements, which culminated in repetitious, untruthful testimony . . . It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy.’ My italics. And finally, resoundingly, emphatically: ‘The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserve better than to be dragged into this legal
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maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.’ So what about the future for ID in America after such an indictment? Can it recover? Undoubtedly. This is a force with enormous resources and backing, from the US president downwards. Adherents are not put off by evidence, which they regard as so much anti-Christian propaganda. As Eugenie Scott, a friend of mine who runs the American National Center for Science Education, remarked:‘I predict that another school board down the line will try to bring ID into the curriculum as Dover did, and they’ll be a lot smarter about concealing their religious intent.’ And from Professor H. Allen Orr: ‘Biologists aren’t alarmed by ID’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because ID is junk science. Meanwhile, more than 80% of Americans say that God either created human beings in their present form or guided their development. As a succession of ID proponents appeared before the Kansas Board of Education . . . it was possible to wonder whether the movement’s scientific coherence was beside the point. ID has come this far by faith.’ Yes, I’m aware that this quotation gives yet another figure for the proportion of the US population denying Darwin. The point is that none is below 47 per cent. This in the richest and most educated nation on Earth.
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If you add to this vast ocean of American ignorance all those in the rest of the world who have hardly any education at all, plus the burgeoning numbers from parts of the planet where other kinds of fundamentalism reject modern science, then we really do have a problem. And that problem may extend to Australia.

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ID IN AUSTRALIA
ID in Australia
If somebody votes for a party you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like. But if somebody says, ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you have to say ‘I respect that’.
Douglas Adams

I am hoping that this will be a short chapter. That is because I have found Australia to be an open-minded country in which it is possible to have stimulating discussions between scientists and members of religious faiths (sometimes embodied in the same person) without descending to either the rancour or mendacity described by Judge Jones in his Dover judgment. Furthermore, I am aware how much the Australian scientific establishment, through its academies, is willing
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to engage with opinions on ethics and the political implications of research, often with religious leaders. This has been an important dialogue. As the journal Nature commentated in an editorial:‘Science, allied with business, is encroaching on religion’s turf by unleashing technologies that raise profound questions about human nature. Religious thinkers are right to raise concerns, and scientists shouldn’t just charge ahead without listening to them.’ The trouble is that science in Australia has been struggling. It has been short of funds, depleted of students and worrying about pressures to increase its contacts with commercial interests. As a result, in its attempts to be noticed, Australian science has sometimes sounded strident or defensive. To interest potential investors it has to be as direct and shameless as Mae West in a sailors’ bar during shore leave, and in trying to convince the public it has a future, science sometimes sounds like a fairground tout promising miracles by next Tuesday. We can all think of examples: stem cells will cure Alzheimer’s disease soon, when the likelihood is within twenty years if we’re lucky. Or nuclear power will solve greenhouse problems at a stroke, when in fact the costs could be colossal. At the same time, as Nature points out: ‘Victory over mortality is the unstated but implicit goal of modern medical science. And immortality has long been the realm of religion.’
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Into this antipodean uncertainty landed both the endorsement of ID by George W. Bush and a DVD, funded by US interests, promoting ID. Our own then Minister for Education and Science, Brendan Nelson, appeared to echo the American president. He was caught on the hop, according to this account by Professor Mike Archer, Dean of Science at the University of New South Wales, who wrote in Australian Science:‘The minister was very humanly led astray by some slick marketing for ID. Once he became aware that this was gobbledygook and creationism in a tuxedo, he shut the door on suggesting that it could have a place in science classes.’ That may be. But in a second chance to clarify, the minister was quoted as saying, ‘It’s up to the parents.’ Trouble is, ID is already being taught in about 100 schools within science classes. They include Christian community schools, and Seventh Day Adventist and a few Anglican schools. Unlike in America, the state can fund religious schools here. A reader in law at the Australian National University, Dr John Williams, remarked, ‘It would be a leap of faith to think the Australian constitution would stand in the way of a curriculum that included such things as ID’ (Sydney Morning Herald, December 2005). In New South Wales the Minister for Education, Carmel Tebbutt, ruled out teaching ID in the state’s public schools because it isn’t science.
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At one of our oldest private schools, The King’s School in Parramatta, the head supports ID being taught in his science classes; across Australia the Christian Parent Controlled Schools group, with 85 schools educating 22 500 students, implicitly endorsed ID as well. So, speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra, did Cardinal George Pell.‘We don’t want a simple, dogmatic teaching of evolution,’ he said, ‘we would want teachers to talk about the enormous, significant problems in the evolutionary history. It’s there to be replaced or improved—there are many things it doesn’t explain.’ In response to these looming threats, a coalition claiming to represent 70 000 Australian scientists sent an open letter to the press expressing their concern. They condemned any move to bring ID anywhere near the science curriculum. It was penned by Dr Mike Archer:
As Australian scientists we are gravely concerned that ID might be taught in any school as a valid scientific alternative to evolution. While science is a work in progress, a vast and growing body of factual knowledge supports the hypothesis that biological complexity is the result of natural processes of evolution. Proponents of ID assert that some living structures are so complex that they are explicable only by the agency of an imagined and unspecified ‘intelligent designer’. They are free to believe and profess whatever they like. But not being able to imagine or explain
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how something happened other than by making a leap of faith to supernatural intervention is no basis for any science: that is a theological or philosophical notion. For a theory to be considered scientific it must be testable—either directly or indirectly—by experiment or observation. The results of such tests should be able to be reproduced by others as a check on their accuracy (and, importantly, if repeated testing falsifies the theory it should be rejected rather than taught as part of the accumulating body of scientific understanding). Finally, a scientific theory should explain more than what is already known: it should be able to predict outcomes in novel situations. Evolution meets all of these criteria but ID meets none of them: it is not science. We therefore urge all Australian governments and educators not to permit the teaching or promulgation of ID as science. To do so would make a mockery of Australian science teaching and throw open the door of science classes to similarly unscientific world views— be they astrology, spoon-bending, flat-earth cosmology or alien abductions—and crowd out the teaching of real science.

Is there a problem in Australia? At first glance the answer is No! Science and technology are well respected throughout Australian society and we are proud of our international reputation. The most recent Nobel Prize winners, Professors Robin Warren and Barry Marshall
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from Perth, were feted across the land and given a standing ovation in Federal Parliament, not least by the prime minister, John Howard. I was there, and no one could doubt his delight in their achievements. Howard has also been prudent in the extent to which he allows his ministers’ religious beliefs to influence policy. Stemcell research has received orange lights and abortion laws have not been changed drastically under his government. But these are febrile times. Australia, as indeed the global community, faces several hot issues that demand action before scientists can provide definitive input: climate change, bird flu, nuclear power, weapons technology,AIDS and mental health treatment, and many more besides. As our relationship with the US becomes closer and those with our Asian neighbours more uneasy, it is likely that compromises based on ideology and not terribly far from religious fundamentalism will be forced upon us. If this seems a stretch, then it is worth looking at a list offered by renowned science writer Boyce Rensberger, of MIT. Reviewing Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science in Scientific American, he writes that the right wing’s ‘assault on science’ under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan pales in comparison to that of the current Bush administration, which in four years has: • rejected the scientific consensus on global warming and suppressed an EPA report supporting that consensus;
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• stacked numerous advisory committees with industry representatives and members of the religious right; • begun deploying a missile defence system without evidence that it can work; • banned funding for embryonic stem-cell research except on 60 cell lines claimed to be already in existence, most of which turned out not to be; • forced the National Cancer Institute to say that abortion may cause breast cancer, a claim refuted by good studies; and • ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to remove information about condom use and efficacy from their website. Rensberger ends by claiming that Thomas Jefferson would be appalled at this record of ‘opposition to freedom and science’. The editors of Scientific American in a previous issue in 2005 likened George W. Bush’s record in this regard as reminiscent of that of Stalin’s chief scientific apologist, Trofim Lysenko. For Australia, at such a time, caution would seem to be advisable. We also risk spooking a population already uncertain about the benefits of scientific advances and, indeed, the probity of some scientists. A success for ID in infiltrating schools would be yet one more victory for relativism—the conviction that we ‘consume’ knowledge like customers in a supermarket. We are encouraged no longer to make the effort to think our
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way through issues but, instead, to insist on our right to choose according to fashion or the requirements of our tribal allegiance. Welcome to the marketplace of ideas. Jefferson must be thrashing in his grave. As we debate these concerns, it may do us good to consider where we have come from as believers in this and that over the last century. Australia is a secular society, perhaps, but many of its laws and institutions were formed through the influence of churches. This may, in the main, be a good thing. But surely we are mature enough, and informed enough, to face up to some of the really big questions of faith. How much traditional belief has clearly been scotched by scientific knowledge? Do we really need to carry so much of the detritus of yesteryear? Even Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, in his 2005 Boyer Lectures for the ABC described himself as ‘not a religious man’, implying that he did not require the traditional embroidery of religiosity—unquestioning belief in the entire job lot of doctrine—to adhere to Jesus and his teachings. Once the old shibboleths are jettisoned, the division of what’s left seems plain enough. Science provides the story of how the universe and the living world came to be as they are, but not why they are here at all. Religion provides conjecture about where the universe came from and what its purpose may be. Some people happily imbibe from both streams. I don’t, as I shall explain in the next chapter.
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Perhaps it is all best summed up in ‘Dover Beach’,* a poem Matthew Arnold wrote in 1867, just eight years after Darwin published The Origin of Species:
The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d. But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.

Arnold’s despair at the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of faith in God in a world which seemed so beautiful and new but was really devoid of joy, love and light left him feeling marooned. He saw us languishing ‘on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night’. But that is not how the majority of Australians I have met see their new secular existence. Darwin has immeasurably enhanced our perception of nature. So has the understanding, through evolutionary ideas, of how we must cherish and look after the biodiversity still surviving. It should be an extraordinarily exciting time for us, not least in a part of the world that affords special insights
*

A poignant echo of the Dover trial?
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into the whole marvellous process, from the origin of marsupials to the vastness of reefs and ocean life and the relationship of this biggest island in the world with Gondwana. Why despair—unless you are so embedded in a rigid world view that any shift from it is a shattering wrench; unless you find yourself so at odds with the facts before your eyes that self-delusion is your only recourse? The great Peter Medawar—joint Nobel laureate with our own Macfarlane Burnet—was once called upon to review Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, one of the most famous expositions of an anthropic universe, in which purpose becomes a kind of vitalism culminating in the emergence of humans. Here is Medawar in his withering critique of the Jesuit palaeontologist’s book:‘It cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense . . . the greater part of it is nonsense, tricked out by a variety of tedious metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the ground that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.’ Poor Teilhard. But it is a perfect description of ID. What are you left with after this separation from God? A life according to the new catechisms of science? Not at all. Science doesn’t have catechisms. But you can be inspired by the knowledge it offers. And you can add that to knowledge and wisdom culled from other sources—even theology, if you want—to enjoy an incredibly fulfilling life.
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PART II

9

GOD’S ONLY EXCUSE
God’s Only Excuse
Those who can induce you to believe absurdities can induce you to commit atrocities.
Voltaire

‘He’s Party, I’m sure.’ My mother was reading the newspaper and drinking her tenth cup of tea of the morning. Tea was made by dripping hot water from the kettle onto leaves in a strainer. The kettle was always almost boiling, quietly grumbling on the stove, making little bangs over a minuscule flame. The parsimonious habits of wartime austerity persisted despite our newly found comfort. She pointed at the picture of a Hollywood star; it may have been John Garfield. ‘He’s been Party for ages.’
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I didn’t think it odd then (I was far too young) that ‘Party’ should have a capital P and no definite article. Garfield wasn’t just ‘in the party’—meaning the Communist Party. He was Party: One of Us. My father concurred. He and my mother were not often in agreement, even on the wetness of water or the nature of pink. But knowing who was Party was of the essence. I was eight. We were living in Vienna not long after the War (another capital-letter word). It was the city of Harry Lime, occupying forces and strange tides of allegiance. We were working class but living in a swank apartment near the famous Prater, a glorious park with the Big Wheel and a spectacular fun fair from which vast stretches of woodland and horse-chestnut avenues reached as far as the Old Danube, and with two servants, Gertrude and Trudi, to do our bidding. Vienna was a city seething with officials from newly placed international organisations. It rivalled Geneva. My parents were in the World Federation of Trade Unions. I knew little about it then and had heard nothing since until, strangely, I came across a mention of it in John le Carré’s novel Absolute Friends. The WFTU was headquartered in a palace in the centre of Vienna. It’s remarkable how well Party People took to palaces. The staircases were marble and the chandeliers enormous but being Party, it turned out, wasn’t a sufficient qualification.
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My parents often did a bit of a triage on their comrades. I didn’t understand the subtlety of these judgments. Drinkwater, for example, was definitely Party, but not up to speed. Once at a cocktail do in one of the vast reception areas where archdukes had cavorted, Drinkwater languidly asked me to fetch him a canape. ‘You took your time, boy,’ he remarked on my return, lounging in his couch. I replied: ‘My father says you’re too slow to catch a cold.’ It just came out. He stared at me. His companions froze. My mother, nearby, began a qualifying sentence but gave up, for once at a loss. There’s a quality of silence, former Labor Party president Barry Jones once told me, that you learn to recognise. At home I wasn’t punished, much to my amazement. No beating. The moment was allowed to pass. But I became lastingly confused. How could someone be one of us, Party, yet still on the outer, not really one of us at all? Would I ever cope with the intricacies of being grown up? And why were Us important? What about Them? As I got older I met people I liked who turned out to be Them. Sometimes I was made to drop them. This was a pity, because they were often more fun than Us. Party people were the opposite of what they sounded like. No bells and whistles, silly hats or tangos. Instead, grim-faced, they were always making references to
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‘discipline’ and ‘struggle’, like Presbyterians at a wake. I would picture struggle as a Houdini-like figure wriggling in a straitjacket and forever failing to escape. Not the wellspring of social spontaneity, this Party. Even with its newfound comforts. I wasn’t very good at being Us. One afternoon I was taken to a Young Pioneer group whose members met in some dark rooms in the basement of a large apartment building along the Danube Canal. The Pioneers were correct-line scouts, campers with agitprop, nurseries for Party. Vast portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin loomed over our small heads. The youth in charge talked for hours about what seemed to be rules and procedures. I was, from the start, bad at rules, worse at catechism. Especially when it was handed down in the presence of frowning men with beards (OK, Stalin had only a moustache, but it sat like a wild animal under his nose). I never went back. How did my parents, decent people of considerable culture, a Welsh miner and an East London linguist, become ensnared as actors in a le Carré landscape with its codes, certainties and exclusions? The answer is simple: 75 years ago in Europe you chose: you were either for the fascists or against them. There was no in between. Only fools or drunks or the terminally bewildered allowed themselves to sidestep history. My parents also saw themselves and their friends as idealists. Unlike fascists, they did not wish to rid the
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world of a race of humans. Subhumans. They were nothing like the Nazis about whom Martin Amis (whose father Kingsley was also Party in the 1940s) agonises in Koba the Dread. Why do we not see supporters of Stalin as so obviously evil and culpable as the supporters of Hitler? he asks. The numbers Stalin killed were as big. Bigger. At that time it was because the left, the ordinary socialists, saw Us as the grassroots, what my father called the body politic. Us was not the men in suits (like Drinkwater) nor the moustachioed generalissimos with their Cro-Magnon brows and festoons of medallions that would make Idi Amin look modest. My father’s heroes were, ultimately, the miners and their families he had grown up with in South Wales and with whom he’d toiled underground from the age of 14. They were the enslaved gold miners of South Africa whom he went to help, quixotically, in the 1950s, along with the likes of Nelson Mandela. His heroes were not the square-shouldered tyrants reviewing parades of tanks in Red Square. They were the hollow-eyed, nearstarved workers without work who somehow kept their communities alive and for whom the word ‘struggle’ was more than a comrade’s slogan. Before he died, when I was 18, I saw my father hunched in front of a BBC documentary about Stalin. He was whispering something repeatedly. I crept closer and heard the words, ‘You ruthless bastard!’
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Were Us different from Them? That is a judgment for history. What is just as significant is how close they could have been to merging. The ingredients were there. Harsh social circumstances, the call for absolute discipline to face a common enemy, an elaborate ideology, a dogma, men with beards (or moustaches) laying down the law. ‘Communism is just fascism with a human face,’ wrote Susan Sontag. Under such circumstances, ultimately, you can make people do anything. Anything. That’s the incubus of mankind. Beslan, Auschwitz, Port Arthur, Culloden, Rwanda, My Lai— no outrage is beyond us. And we can do evil casually, almost without feeling. With banality. The big question is whether this is an intrinsic quality or whether we first need to be pushed to extremes. Do we behave despicably in ordinary times because we’re bored, stupid or just intrinsically nasty? Or does it take crisis to make us evil? Watching the news in the past year it has been easy to assume the first, that we are, as Harvard professor Richard Wrangham argues, demonic. Evolutionary science seems to give some credibility to this view, but not quite. It takes a lot of energy and resources to be vicious. Peacefulness costs less. We may need to belong, but must this mean that we have to despise those who don’t? A strong commitment to family and friends is obviously vital. Otherwise babies would perish and communities crumble. Even in extremis we persevere
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altruistically in the cause of Us. Anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s contrary example of the Ik tribe of Uganda, who in the 1970s allowed their children to waste away in time of famine, has been vigorously disputed. Most of us go to enormous lengths to care for our own. Similarly, we seem to be enraptured by landscape. Our country. Where we belong. Harvard biologist Ed Wilson calls this biophilia. It makes sense to assume we have a strong feeling for who we are and where we come from. The trouble arises when populations become larger and wealth accumulates. We need more social glue. By then we can afford priests and shamans to provide it for us. Religion is apparently universal among human beings. Its purpose may be to console us for loss and disaster and prepare us for the inevitability of death. Above all, it gives us a badge, a totem, a definition of Us. It is a unifier. It is also a powerful means of control. But religion doesn’t necessarily come with an ethical code. Jared Diamond writes of many tribal people, such as those in Papua New Guinea, whose robust religious paraphernalia provides not a whit of Thou Shalt Not. We do not need magic or messiahs to help us live decently, to provide a code for living. David Sloane Wilson, author of Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society, sums up the binding role of belief: ‘Something as elaborate—as time-, energy-, and thought-consuming—as religion would not exist if it didn’t have secular utility. Religions exist primarily for
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people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. The mechanisms that enable religious groups to function as adaptive units include the very beliefs and practices that make religion appear enigmatic to so many people who stand outside them.’ Religions, in such circumstances, are adaptive. Even the scouring, the ritual asceticism, the sacrifice are, paradoxically, reinforcers. Suffering seems a much more likely qualifier for belonging than sweet self-indulgence. Some religions do offer promiscuous sex and sensual massage as part of the deal, but they tend not to last as long as those religions demanding celibacy, flagellation and silence. They keep us under control. Another part of the deal is that the leader, in tandem with his priest, has a special line to the deity. Diamond poses the essential question succinctly: ‘But how does the chief get the peasants to tolerate what is basically the theft of their food by classes of social parasites?’ His answer:
The solution devised by every known chiefdom and early state society—from ancient Egypt to Polynesian Hawaii to the Inca Empire—was to proclaim an organised religion with the following tenets: the chief or king is related to the gods; he or she can intercede with the gods on behalf of the peasants (e.g. to send rain or ensure a good harvest). In return for those services, the peasants should feed the chief and his
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priests and tax collectors. Standardised rituals, carried out at standardised temples, serve to teach these religious tenets to the peasants so that they will obey the chief and his lackeys.

Should the peasants become restless, Diamond might have added, we can stir up some loathing of those folk over the mountain who may look like us but worship Goz instead of Zog. Non-Party. Them. Nothing like an external enemy to pacify the populace. All this was clearly adaptive, in the main, because human societies survived and grew and are now covering the planet. The creative role of conflict is crucial. More on that later. But religions differ from most human systems of ideas in that they are absolute. Few gods can be sent back, except in ancient Greece, because they’ve got it wrong. Gods Know. It is we who get things wrong by misinterpreting God’s intentions. Or Stalin’s. The failure is always ours. Even a sophisticated god, such as the Christian one, cannot be blamed for Auschwitz (and all those other geographical horrors listed above) because it’s up to us. We are free to choose concentration camps. And to murder children in Beslan. Or to blow up a school bus shouting ‘God is great!’ Religion flourishes as democracy fades. Religion is in the ascendant in America today. When policies fail,
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God is invoked. He also threatens to overwhelm politics in Africa and Asia. Back to Wrangham’s Demonic Males, a book about killer chimpanzees. Are they really wired to attack, mutilate and kill outsiders? Pictures of this being done by our closest relatives are as compelling as they are disturbing. Why torture a stranger and his brothers in this way? Is it just how the chimps are? How we are? Is there a biological original sin in our genes that makes us turn into Stalin, Pol Pot or their faithful servants? Jane Goodall and other ethologists, while recognising the vicious treatment of those outsiders, point to the chaotic and deprived state of the habitats where this is done. Gombe National Park, Tanzania, where she famously studied wild chimpanzees, is being logged and poached. The forest home is disappearing. Chimp society is being subjected to the same upheavals as Rwandan and Bosnian human society was—and is. Under such circumstances Us-and-Them differences can easily become the basis for genocide. The really interesting question is whether the contrary applies: will stable, flourishing societies be less vulnerable? There are a few clues. Wars between secular democracies are unknown. Democracies require that we regularly hand over power to governments, on the basis, of course, that they will regularly give it back. Democracies, even American ones, also try to keep religion in the cloister. And they welcome outsiders (‘Give me your tired, your
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poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore’ . . . )—though not as often as they might. Healthy societies, like forests, benefit from biodiversity. To give a contemporary example from my own experience: when, in 1996, the Howard government looked at the ABC, it saw an institution it didn’t like. It was, in the words of one Tory, ‘our enemies talking to our friends’. A somewhat unsubtle way of tackling this difficulty was to appoint a chum of the prime minister, Donald McDonald, as chairman of the corporation. And then, in 2000, to appoint another member of the Party, Jonathan Shier (he was once a leader of the Young Liberals in Victoria, but claimed his membership had lapsed by then), as managing director. His riding instructions from the PM’s office, I’m told by a senior Liberal Party member, were to ‘change the culture at the ABC’. Now this is perfectly normal power politics, and unsurprising after 13 years on the sidelines during which the conservatives became understandably cross about a number of ABC activities. It is what Shier did to change ‘the culture’ that some of us found shocking. He sacked the ABC senior managers. All of them. He committed executive cleansing. He then set out to do the same with middle management. Stalin’s friend Lavrenti Beria would have been proud. The aim, remember, was not to replace a poor leadership with a
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better one. It was to transform the culture of an institution. Did it work? Not at all. The culture didn’t change, it simply became more impoverished and resentful. The mission to change Them (ABC pinkoes) into Us (rightminded professionals) failed for the same reason that the British failed to quash the Irish rebels and the Americans are failing in Iraq. You cannot impose a culture from above. Not for long. How do you change a corporate culture? At the ABC you could do so by hiring bright kids. This is cheaper (Shier wasted $37 million in his cavalier adventure) and far more insidious. Advertise jobs for young Australians, appoint the best, and they will (unless you bind and gag them) trash old-fashioned ideas and biases before you can say the word ‘elite’. It’s human biodiversity. But replace one lot of suits with another lot and what are you left with? Suits! ‘Hire the best people you can find and let them do what they want.’ That wasn’t the New Age rant of a pony-tailed management guru from Byron Bay. That was Bill Gates. Organised religion relies on authority in the same way Jonathan Shier relied on correct-line suits. It takes a top-down approach. But religion is also an enormously sophisticated psychological exercise, as anthropologist Robin Dunbar points out in his book The Human Story. It works at the fifth, highest level of cognition, of
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intention. After an ability to recognise ourselves, others and others playing tricks on us, all within the capacities of clever animals such as apes and dogs, we humans add our own unique bit of brain power: we can imagine gods; other worlds. (This may also explain how we can take the other-worldly nature of modern motivational management, like Shier’s, seriously.) This capacity for spiritual belief has served us well in history as a unifying force—though at considerable cost. As I mentioned before, Dunbar asserts that the natural size of Us, of one person’s intimate community, is 150. Beyond that number we find it hard to cope socially. Your 150 may include several at the end of intercontinental phone lines or email, but they are your ‘village’—the number of close associates your brain is equipped to deal with. Larger populations require a means of social cohesion beyond the capacities we were born with. This could be the shared experience of television, music, literature, fashion—Richard Dawkins’s ‘extended phenotype’. This is extrasomatic inheritance—it evolves outside our bodies. Religion, with its initially homely forest gods and limited kit, also evolved. Randy gods with whimsical or capricious habits became one mysterious, all-powerful God. Anachronisms of faith were quietly abandoned as they became more embarrassing and manifestly absurd. Most modern priests would have been burned as heretics only a few hundred years ago. Religious infrastructure also
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evolved, sometimes to disastrous levels, as in Easter Island and Central America. And Rome. Church unified our separate societies. Sometimes too well. In hard times the infidels, those not recognised as Party, had to go. Crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, cleansings were required. Let me ask the question in a purely evolutionary way, as Wrangham might, about demonic males wearing surplices. Could institutional religion have outlived its usefulness? Are the men in beards too disruptive? (I am not against beards, nor religion, in certain circumstances. Beards belong in trad jazz bands, real ale pubs and anywhere with anoraks. Religion, as practised personally and without an inclination to rule the world, is fine, too.) I do believe the answer is yes in both instances. Religion has become catastrophically divisive. It magnifies the divide between Us and Them in the same way Party did. It demands credulousness and obedience. It is the unforgiving force, with its visions of Armageddon, that drove Ronald Reagan against the Evil Empire. It is the force, allied with an apocalyptic, fundamentalist view of history, that drives his successor, George W. Bush, against an ‘axis of evil’. It is the fanatical force that makes the Islamic army in Iraq condemn the ‘farce of democracy and elections’ by calling polling booths ‘centres of atheism’. I wonder whether my father, who died more than 40 years ago, would have recognised these new
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antagonisms. He spent his last years muttering against the Stalinists yet loyally, vainly, trying to sell their mouthpiece Soviet Weekly on freezing London street corners. The cold and humiliation killed him. My last row with him, before his six-foot miner’s frame collapsed and his George Orwell features eroded forever, was about the bomb. Back then, I was marching in those first anti-nuclear protests alongside jolly bearded jazzmen and gaunt, friendly vicars, frisky girls-whowould and young men who couldn’t believe their luck. The all-inclusive melting pot of the sixties was just beginning. My father seemed to approve of my sudden adolescent politicisation. After all, red flags were plainly seen among the crow’s-foot peace symbols and the odd Christian cross. But there was a catch. The Soviet bomb, he insisted, was necessary. So was its relentless testing. It was Our bomb, not Theirs, and therefore all right. He argued like a barrack-room lawyer. Like a contorted priest. That was another good Party word: argue. Never give an inch. No sophistry is too blatant— when repeated forever. Our last physical fight wasn’t about politics but about family. I tried to stop him beating my small brother. My father, Gwynfor Williams, born in 1905, was raised in the shadow of the Welsh Chapel with its unforgiving morality and harsh discipline. His atheism did not erase its Dickensian mores. Gwyn used fists or sticks to keep
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us in line. It was for our own good. The tyrant’s discipline usually is. He hit my brother. I told him to stop. He turned on me, now a fit rugby-playing youth of some stature. What do you do as a self-styled pacifist disarmer when a selfrighteous demonic Party pugilist starts throwing punches? I lifted my arms above my head and allowed him to pummel my flexed abdomen until he gave up, exhausted. He never attacked us again. Gwyn didn’t give up the promised (Party) land. He argued on his death bed, physically shrunken and sticklike, for ‘the people’s democracies’. He didn’t return, even when in agony, to the comforts of the Chapel of his youth. But I did see him sometimes, at ceremonies where believers prayed, courteously mouthing the Lord’s Prayer.‘It’s an affirmation of a just, equal society, a socialist tomorrow,’ he’d say, as if the prayer were a version of the Communist Manifesto of 1848. ‘Kingdom come . . . on earth as it is in Heaven’ was, in real life, translated by Soviet diktat into the Five-Year Plans. They didn’t work. They are now in the ash can of history. As for God, He is becoming the last refuge of the fanatic. Poor God. He was meant to keep us cosy. Is it time He shaved off His beard? Yes! For two reasons. The first is innovation. Throughout history the main mother of invention has been not a five-year plan but disaster and war. Conflict
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and catastrophe. The War, as my parents called it, was the seedbed of the modern world: it gave us antibiotics, rockets to the moon, computing, satellites, radar and radio astronomy. Disasters, such as the Black Death, led to printing, modern science and the Renaissance. Human conflict, in a startling way, was creative. In between, nothing much happened. Now that we cover the Earth as a species, we cannot possibly rely on such a disruptive mechanism for creativity any longer. The costs are too gigantic. We must find another driver of innovation. If it is not to be us against them it will have to be something to unite us with our neighbours, the rest of humankind. While Wrangham points to the demonic nature of some animals in some conditions, others, such as Professor Lynn Margulis, show that many living creatures also survive by cooperation. Margulis’s and Jim Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, you’ll recall, sees our planet as a kind of living organism, responding in a unified way to circumstance. They are adamant that altruism is not the last refuge of sentiment but a strong force in nature. Which brings me to the second reason. We now know that God did not unleash the 2004 tsunamis because he was upset. They were unleashed by geology. Nor did God go blind at Auschwitz, Beslan or on Boxing Day 2004. He wasn’t there. As Sartre said, quoting Stendhal: ‘God’s only excuse is—He doesn’t exist.’ Now, at last, we are unified by a contemplation of horror and
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loss. Differences between them and us become ultimately trivial in the wider context we modern humans, alone, can recognise. Mere veneer. The badges of ideology and dogma fade as we contemplate sheer, enormous needs of humanity. That is the future. The alternative is catastrophe. Perhaps, once you dispense with Party, that’s what my poor parents were on about after all.

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Williams versus God
The most preposterous notion that H. sapiens has ever dreamed up is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of all the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of His creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and becomes petulant if He does not receive this flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy, without a shred of evidence to bolster it, pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all history.
Robert A. Heinlein

My secondary school in London was a pleasant brick building with wide green playing grounds all about it, nearly genteel, nearly scholarly, with a few public successes including some rugby stars and David Davies, the SAS hero of humble stock who nearly beat David Cameron
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to become leader of the Tory Party. It was called Tooting Bec Grammar School, sounding like the chimera of a rural Chinese collective farm and an abbey for mad monks in northern France. It was, in fact, an average grammar school with above-average pretensions. The masters treated the boys reasonably well, given the times. The 1950s were the beginnings of a new enlightenment—but not yet. As Philip Larkin noted wistfully in ‘Annus Mirabalis’:‘Sexual intercourse began/In 1963 (which was rather) late for me.’ Non-violence as a formal requirement was also a long way off, and canings were common, delivered by both teachers and older boys. They were not remotely sadistic rituals, no foaming Gradgrinds inflicting running welts, but unpleasant enough. Several masters ruled by fear. Having seen them intimidate boys on a regular basis, it was therefore a revelation for me to see them humbly genuflect in church or in assembly. Most conspicuous was the headmaster, Colonel W.H. Hore, a kind of West Country Prince Philip in manner and persuasion. He bobbed up and down with the best of them as I looked on in incredulity. Can he be serious? Is he really bending his knee to a higher power? Can he really believe his prayers (what in heaven can he be asking for?) will reach the Almighty and then (!) make him change His mind? Thoughts like this helped me cope with the tedium. Then it occurred to me. I thought I saw what was really going on here as the sons of lower-middle-class
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gentlefolk bowed in the thrall of the unremarkable church we attended in Trinity Road, just around the corner from Balham Tube Station (‘Gateway to the South’, Peter Sellers called it in an infamous skit). They seemed to yield to its sepulchral mood as if it were indeed a monastic retreat closer to Rome than to the Northern Line. The Colonel and the teachers, I surmised, were showing us who was boss. Lines of command. They couldn’t really be talking to Him or actually feeling some transcendent contact—they were too smart, surely, for that. This was the cane by other means. I looked across at their closed eyes and moving lips and thought, ‘Come off it, you can’t be serious.’ I always meant to ask them up front, when we were off at a rugby match; on such occasions both they and we smoked, a kind of tacit acknowledgment that we had become sufficiently senior and nearly mates. I never did, of course. I can’t recall even nowadays confronting a friend and asking whether what they do is old habit or really meant. Decorum forbids it. One of the books that has sat longest on my shelf is Adams Versus God, in which my colleague and friend Phillip Adams documents his own long-running dispute with the deity. He and I agree on many things but have different personal histories. Phillip had holy cloth in the family, and it rubbed him cruelly. I had no such dark spirits, though my father’s tussles with Joe Stalin may have amounted to the same thing.
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God, as I indicated in Chapter One, really didn’t appear on my youthful horizon. I do remember, at the age of about five or six, telling my mother that, with so many people in the world—hundreds!—one of them might well be Jesus. She nodded without comment. It was the demographic approach to conversion, the closest I got. When I was four, and alone in the park, I heard what turned out to be my first moving encounter with classical music. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves was playing from a loudspeaker hanging from the steeple of the church on Turnham Green, West London. I was so affected that I wandered in wearing my short trousers, followed by Whiskers the dog, up the aisle to where the vicar was sitting, somewhere among the pews. I asked him to put the record on again. He did. I’ve been fond of vicars ever since. When I began science broadcasting, I was ecumenical to a fault. Some of the first editions of The Science Show sounded like New Age seminars from deepest Nimbin or Glastonbury. I was influenced by Malcolm Long (later deputy managing director of the ABC and head of SBS) and Peter Fry (who invented Lateline, the predecessor of Late Night Live on ABC Radio National). Their series Beyond the Mechanical Mind had explored the limits of science, its uncertainty, the powers of the establishment and how hard it really is to shift paradigms without waiting interminably for the deaths of eminent academicians, as they do in Japan and China.
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We put on the critics of science, from Ivan Illich to R.D. Laing, and philosophers such as Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn. I also tried to give some air time to those with alternative points of view, often spiritual ones. After a while it struck me how very little these latter had to say. I remember a smooth-talking fellow who looked like a cut-price proctologist and claimed to do ‘past lives therapy’. He said he could make a person go into a trance and revisit one of the many lives he or she had experienced before their present sojourn on Earth. This fellow, from Moss Vale, turned up for our interview with his lady. She was endlessly accommodating and agreed without blinking to show me one of her previous incarnations. We went to the studio. I began to record. I nodded to Mr Smoothie, who touched the woman’s elbow and— Bingo!—she was off. Ask her anything you like, I was urged. ‘Where are you?’ ‘I am on the planet X [did she call it Zog?].’ ‘And what do you do there?’ ‘I’m in charge of a big space station.’ ‘What is it like?’ ‘Big!’ ‘Go on!’ I was getting restless. ‘Very big.’ ‘Anything else?’ ‘Not really.’
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All my questioning produced little more than pabulum. It was a profoundly unedifying experience. Even a three-hour intercontinental live investigation of ESP for another program produced hardly more than fluff; particularly memorable was the completely offbeam mind reading performed by a world-famous clairvoyant, who got my history so wrong I shamefully agreed with one or two of her top-of-the-head punts just to keep the program mildly diverting. From that date on I didn’t bother with Other Worlds. They offered such little reward compared with real evidence about real nature, and they usually ended up as insults to the intelligence. What was surprising to me was how much scientists took notice of oddball religious opinion. Some did so with tongues firmly in cheeks. One example was Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001, A Space Odyssey), who wrote The Menace of Creationism and proclaimed it a Soviet conspiracy perpetrated by the KGB to deprive the West of oil supplies: ‘I’m working on a theory that the attempt to persuade Americans that the world is 6000 years old is actually a diabolical Russian plot, because some KGB genius realizes that “creationism” will ultimately destroy the US oil and mining interests.’ If fossil fuels aren’t really fossilised, he went on, bang goes the industry— when they realise this, American energy supplies will stop dead.
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Clarke proceeded to further mischief:‘The next move is to get Congress to pass a law making pi = 3, as is clearly stated in Kings 7:23 and II Chronicles 4:2. Then Detroit will be forced to manufacture cars with elliptical wheels. You can take it from there . . .’ Humour has often been the reaction of scientists to sustained assaults on their work. I suspect they can’t believe someone will blithely sweep aside all their meticulously assembled work of centuries, with its supporting checks and sceptical cross-referencing, and just say ‘Nah! ’Tain’t true!’ Four years ago, during a previous skirmish with ID, which started with an advert in the American papers signed by 100 ‘scientists’ denying Darwin, Eugenie Scott was called by numerous outraged people insisting she and her National Center for Science Education answer with an ad containing 200 scientists saying the opposite. She refused, answering, ‘Science isn’t done by plebiscite.’ Instead she offered, in memory of Stephen Jay Gould, who’d just died, to find a few hundred Steves—and Stephanies—who would sign a more jocular statement in support of evolution as a theory. Hundreds did so (Steve Weinberg, Steve Pinker, Steve Jones, Steven Rose . . . ). I interviewed Eugenie and, back in Australia, my producer David Fisher wrote a Steve song and performed it on air to accompany the item. A few stern souls were annoyed by our levity. Richard Dawkins (and I) may
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become infuriated at some of the antiscientific antics of creationists, but a majority of scientists, in their innocence, prefer burlesque to bombast. The Australian Skeptics are of the same ilk. I remember Barry Williams, editor of the skeptic, suggesting that ‘balance’, in terms of allowing air time for creationist opinions on ABC programs, is like requesting equivalent balance in politics or public affairs by setting up programs called Nazi News and Paedophiles’ Half Hour. Neither is in the schedules, as yet. (But the ABC does have a radio program called Counterpoint, in which successions of retired blimps are paraded denying things like climate change and threats to biodiversity. So there’s still hope.) Meanwhile, of course, the essence of ID and what it represents remains, as Chris Mooney is quoted as saying in Chapter Four, an anti-intellectual threat of the first order. Its tactics remind me of an incident of my youth when I and some friends were part of a pleasant group of youngsters running the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in South London. Two hulking lowbrows appeared wanting to join. Their language and manner made us suspicious; besides, I knew something of the background of one of them through my father. Both were communists attempting to take over and run what appeared to them to be an influential political organisation. That it was merely a loose assembly of idealistic young hedonists is beside the point. We kept the scoundrels out.
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Later, in the 1970s in Britain, a similar ‘entrist’ manoeuvre was tried, with devastating results, within the British Labour Party. It took a generation and some battering of the leadership to recover. Both the Wedge document and the tactics of ID in the US and Australia are disturbingly similar to the Stalinist tactics of those times. It is a mistake to ‘misunderestimate’ such deviousness. It is a matter of intellectual freedom. Religion, at its worst, like Stalinism, is an authoritarian instrument and resents any questioning of its pronouncements, directives or rules of conduct. The hard-line encyclicals of the Islamic militants are typical of this. What began as a unifying force thousands of years ago as populations expanded has become an instrument of control. It is interesting that those Islamic communities, and there are a few, where freedom of thought and expression has flourished have become ones where peaceful intention, orderliness and the understanding of other cultures is most robust. It is the same with other faiths. So it is not a question of Williams versus God so much as Williams versus jackboots. There has been a shocking amount of mutilation, rape and murder in the name of God throughout history and it is still going on. We owe it to the future survival of decent society to ask why this happens and how it may be stopped. Though the sheer numbers killed in wars so far in the twenty-first century, as former Australian Foreign Minister
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Gareth Evans has made plain, is nowhere near the appalling scale of the twentieth century, it is still bad enough, and it could get much worse. The risks are enormous. It is also insulting to suggest that religious belief is the only source of a moral order. This is not the experience of most people in societies such as Australia who, I am sure, do not give a second thought to a deity as they go through their busy lives, except perhaps when they hatch, match or dispatch. Baptisms, weddings and funerals are lonely reminders of the sacred tradition of forebears. There may certainly be religious fingerprints on various laws and practices as they have been established and refined over the centuries; that is to be expected. Presentday rules and regulations tend, however, to be much more utilitarian and remind one of the systems in nature as described by Lynn Margulis. After the upheavals of adjustment (to war, revolution, plague or eruption), everything settles to a new stability and most plants and animals much prefer a quiet, less disrupted life. So what is the source of our morals, our sense of purpose? Why, what we decide, of course. Professor Susan Greenfield likes to refer to two general ways of getting the most from life: being ‘in the moment’ on the one hand, and working for more distant ambitions for yourself, family or even your society. Orchestrating the appetites of the moment is one of life’s skills. Those not good at it turn to, as Greenfield puts it, ‘in your
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face’ turn-ons like drugs, violence and crime. Those of us with greater hedonistic experience and skill cannot understand how anyone can want to choose crack cocaine and oblivion in a world offering chocolate, Mozart and beaches. (I am being glib—I should remember the lessons of Matthew Chapman in Dayton and the way poverty obliterates choice.) Long-term goals provide the satisfactions of service and achievement. Both ingredients, immediate and far-reaching, provide plenty of point and meaning for the average life. When it comes to the ethical basis for running a society we have had, through history, a bewildering range. Everything’s been tried, and only a few things work. Jared Diamond has explored some of the experiments in his book Collapse. Whatever the contingencies of geography or heritage, societies ruled by fear tend, eventually, to fall apart. We can each of us provide our own appalling list of ghastly failures, from Genghis Khan to Pol Pot. If you leave people alone to explore what’s best for them, in a social order where the ground rules have been agreed upon, then you stand a good chance of building success. Moral codes that are just, flexible and based on an understanding of human psychology tend to work best. It is interesting that the teachings of Jesus, minus the referrals upwards to Dad, reflect this rather well. Giving people a say in how they run the village is called democracy,‘the worst system’ according to Winston
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Churchill ‘apart from all the others’. This goes back to the Greeks but has only recently been applied to whole societies. Women, former slaves and indigenous people have had a say for only one or two generations. This is an extraordinarily short time when you think about it. Only in the last few decades have our societies had the opportunity to run themselves with reference to their entire adult populations. On any scale, this is but a blink in history. Unfortunately it comes at the very time when our populations are being crushed into vast conurbations of twenty to fifty million mainly impoverished people. How will any moral codes work in those overwhelming conditions? Be they in a cosy village or a vast metropolis, what do human beings actually require to be able to cope? Do they really need the hope of a reward in heaven to help them get through the thankless struggles of daily existence? Is God a comfort for the miseries most human beings have to endure? All will, one day, face death. Most will experience terrible loss. Can they do so just as well with only a little help from their friends? Well, I hope no one will force them to try one way or the other. Coping with life as a humanist or as a believer is a personal choice. So it should be. I, personally, regard my religious friends as I do my gay friends: I do not see what they are so excited or moved by, but I am delighted that they are so. Their fulfilled lives enrich a
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pluralist society. None wishes to impose their beliefs on others. I am now even friendly with my old headmaster, though I still haven’t asked him about his God. He is a little too close, at nearly ninety, to finding out the truth. Meanwhile, it is worth trying to imagine how it was, before civilisation began, that our human ancestors first thought up the notion of God or gods. The philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has had a go in a book boldly titled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He is director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University and a rare philosopher who realised that to get to grips with the true nature of his craft he had to get to know the brain and learn some neurology. He asks us to imagine the hostile environment in which we evolved. The men hunted, usually with lean results; the women gathered, arduously; and life continued unchanging for thousands of years, a continuing battle against the elements. The days, and especially the nights, were long, and until 40 000 to 70 000 years ago not enlivened with much art or music. But people could dream. In those dreams, suggests Dennett, it is virtually certain that departed elders such as fathers, uncles, maybe mothers and aunts, would feature significantly. Though long gone, their presence was not. What is more natural than to ask advice of those who were so important to daily living previously and whose ‘spirits’ seem to linger? This conversation can
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then become ritualised and enhanced by symbols, sticks, stones, living creatures. As the small band grows to a village, it becomes someone’s job to be in charge of these connections and a shaman is invented. So, in various ways, the tradition grows around the world. Will such scientific descriptions of origins explain belief, or even dismiss it? Dennett hopes it will do both. ‘I appreciate that many readers will be profoundly distrustful of the tack I am taking here. They will see me as another liberal professor trying to cajole them out of some of their convictions, and they are dead right about that—that’s what I am and that is exactly what I am trying to do.’ I am less prescriptive. Let us simply embrace knowledge. In the process let us recognise that which serves, like ID, to distort knowledge, to tell deliberate lies. In that recognition we can expose Proud Ignorance for what it is. Then, when ideas are allowed to flow freely, let folk make up their own minds. I’ll leave the last thoughts on this to Jared Diamond. He was born to a Jewish family of scholars and has written much about the ways in which the extra wealth of the first village and town dwellers enabled them to afford the shamans and witchdoctors who later became their rulers. Diamond is also of firm opinion about our ethical codes and where they came from.
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Personally, I accept purely secular reasons to pay taxes and to refrain from murder and theft, so that societies can promote the happiness of their citizens. I deny a religious need to kill members of out-groups, and I accept a secular need to do so under extreme circumstances, where the alternative would be worse. I remain uneasy about relying on religion to justify morality: today, as in the past, it’s too small a step from there to justifying the killing of adherents of other religions. I accept the possibility of scientific explanations for almost every mystery of the natural world—but not for the greatest mystery of all. I still have no scientific answer, and expect there never to be one to the challenge ‘Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?’ Religion will thrive as long as there are human beings alive to reflect the mystery of the First Cause.

Amen!

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