Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Selfish Genius

Fern Elsdon-Baker, science historian, educator and atheist, has written a book called The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy. Here's a quote from near the end of the book.

"Another aspect of the proselytising effect of advocacy is the need for serious debate about whether science should be promoted as atheism to the extent that Dawkins does. By labelling whole swathes of the population as anti-Darwinian, anti-enlightenment or anti-reason, what is Dawkins actually achieving?....as we begin to face up globally to some of the most serious challenges to our generation - among them loss of biodiversity, climate change and international terrorism - should we not be seeking reconciliation, and attempting to recognise our shared agenda in the face of issues that will affect us all?....Those on either side of the faith debate need to work together to dispel misinformation about science, and to challenge detrimental superstitions and misconceptions."

She makes a number of points in her book, including
  • that Dawkins' version of Darwinism is not the same as Darwin's, and that his adherence to natural selection and genetic immutability as the mechanisms for evolution are being increasingly challenged by evidence
  • that Dawkins' equating of science with atheism is not a scientific position, but a philosophical one based on rationalism/empiricism - religion, she says, is not something that can be tested scientifically
  • that Dawkins' acerbic, combative style tends to add to public mistrust and misunderstanding of science and scientists, playing into the creationists' hands - she clearly prefers a more engaging, participatory style of science communication.

There is no doubt that Dawkins could make a suitably acerbic reply if he could be bothered, but his website is very much free of his thoughts on the subject and instead hosts a very moderate review from the Sunday Times.

So, if a religious person like me can say that Dawkins has misunderstood religion, and a science historian like Elsdon-Baker can say he has misunderstood science, what does he have left? Well, we're both talking about him, aren't we? So whatever we may think about him, we can't deny that he's a powerful communicator, and that he makes people think.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Helen Keller

I've just finished reading Helen Keller's The Story of My Life. What's really interesting about this book is that it's not very interesting. Or to put it another way, the remarkable thing about this book is its existence, not its content.

For those who don't know about Helen Keller, she was born in Alabama in 1880, the daughter of reasonably well-off landowning parents. When she was two an illness (probably either scarlet fever or meningitis) left her without either sight or hearing. Thanks to the efforts of a young live-in tutor called Anne Sullivan and support from quite a few prominent people including Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain and the owner of Standard Oil, she ended up becoming the first deaf and blind person to earn a university degree. She was a celebrity in her youth, vilified in mid-life for her commitment to socialism, and lionised as a cultural icon in her old age.

The Story of My Life was and remains her most famous and most widely read book. She wrote it in her early 20s (it was published in 1903) and it mainly describes her education and her process of learning about the world. It's hard to know how to approach it. Is it harsh to judge it by the same standards as any other book, given the extreme disability of its author? Or is it patronising to approach it any other way?

The author certainly comes across as immature - more immature than many 20 year olds I know. She has a kind of wide-eyed innocence that is not at all surprising given her protected life. Her one foray into politics is laughably naive. After describing her experience of meeting urban poor people and her sadness at their hard lives, she exclaims, "Oh, would that men would leave the city, its splendour and its tumult and its gold, and return to wood and field and simple honest living!"

Probably the most interesting and revealing parts of the story are when she describes her process of learning. For instance, she attempts to learn to speak, instructed by a woman called Sarah Fuller. "Miss Fuller's method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. I was eager to imitate every motion and in an hour had learned six elements of speech." Of course it was not that easy. "I laboured night and day before I could be understood even by my most intimate friends...I needed Miss Sullivan's assistance constantly in my efforts to articulate each sound clearly and to combine all sounds in a thousand ways. Even now she calls my attention every day to mispronounced words". Apparently she never really learned to speak clearly, but it's remarkable that she learned at all when she could neither hear these sounds nor watch people making them, and shows both her intelligence and her iron will.

The same applies to all her educational efforts - her learning to communicate by hand signing, where words are spelled onto the person's hand in a form of sign language; her learning to lip-read by holding her fingers to the lips of the speaker; and most of all her mastery of braille and her love of literature.

For all this, much of the book is flat. For one thing, although she expresses gratitude to the various people who have helped her, she shows no insight into how this has come about. How did Bell and Twain come to take an interest in her? How was she given a special showing at the World's Fair in New York by the manager himself, and allowed to touch all the exhibits? Who was paying the expenses of this education? All these matters are skated over while she describes walks in the country, and spring, and other such pastoral delights.

This is the other problem with the book. When she talks about her education, you know that she can't see or hear. Yet there are passages like this one, where a favourite tree of hers is blown down in a storm: "We went out to see the hero that had withstood so many tempests, and it wrung my heart to see him prostrate...." Or this: "When the ground was strewn with the crimson and golden leaves of autumn, and the musk-scented grapes that covered the arbor at the end of the garden were turning golden-brown in the sunshine...." Or this one: "A snowy night closed upon the world, and in the morning one could scarcely recognise a feature of the landscape. All the roads were hidden, not a single landmark was visible, only a waste of snow with trees rising out of it....The rafters creaked and strained, and the branches of the trees surrounding the house rattled and beat against the windows."

Irrespective of her disability, Keller's language is clumsy and overwritten, full of flowery description and breathless adjectives. Yet her continual use of visual and auditory images is perplexing at a deeper level. We know she never saw or heard the things she describes. She would have felt, smelt or tasted things related to them, but we only occasionally hear about that. It is almost as if, when she is not describing the parts of her life that directly relate to her disability, she is trying to make us forget she has it.

There may also be another explanation. When she was twelve, she had her first publication - a short story published in the journal of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, a school she attended from time to time. She was soon embroiled in a controversy about plagiarism when it turned out the story was almost identical to one that had probably been read to her. Bizarrely, considering she was a child at the time, this was used against her throughout her life, even though she quite reasonably explained that she had forgotten hearing the story and believed she had invented it.

She says herself, "if words and images come to me without effort, it is a pretty sure sign that they are not the offspring of my own mind, but stray waifs...even now I cannot be quite sure of the boundary line between my ideas and those I find in books". Aint that the same for all of us? Deprived of a lot of the sensory stimulation we take for granted, she has substituted literary stimulation from books written by hearing and sighted readers. When she comes to write her own book, she uses their language and images, even though she can only have a very hazy idea what they mean. This makes them wooden and unconvincing. Yet for her, or for anyone, the alternative would be immeasurably more difficult. She would have had to invent a whole new way of writing, using only the three senses left to her. The world would only be presented in touch, taste and smell. We would enter into her world, with all its confusion, and learn to navigate it the way she did.

That would have been a remarkable book, an act of breathtaking literary genius. Helen Keller was a highly intelligent woman, prepared to work hard and unprepared to treat any task as impossible. The achievements of her life are amazing, but literary genius is not among them.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Where I used to work...

I once worked for an organisation where the CEO was very focused on power*. It wasn't a very large organisation, but the role had a certain amount of profile and access to powerful people.

My boss was a very large person. He was extremely clever and could also be very funny, especially when he told stories about himself. Once he told us about how he travelled on a airline and they asked him to move from the seat beside the emergency exit because he was too fat and might obstruct the other passengers. He told us, to uncontrollable laughter, how he had told them they needn't worry, in an emergency he wouldn't be in anyone's way because he'd be out so quick no-one would have time to be obstructed. Despite the self-deprecation, he never flew with that airline again.

He had an office beside the front door, and positioned his desk so that he could look up at anyone coming or going from the building. He always made sure his chair was set higher than any others in the room, so that even though he wasn't very tall he looked down on anyone else sitting there with him. He also vetted the mail. Any letters coming in to the organisation had to go to him first, even those addressed to other staff by name. If there was something in a piece of correspondence about the organisation that he didn't like (for instance, a reference in a set of minutes) the staff member would be called in and ordered to correct the matter ASAP.

Yet he never felt secure in his control, and now and then he would do something to remind you of his power. Once I was trying to complete a submission with a very tight time-frame, which required board approval. In the hour or two before the board meeting I was completing the paper, correcting it, making copies for the board members and laying them on the table with their board papers while he watched from behind his desk. Then, as the issue was discussed by the board, he let them know, in a hurt tone of voice, that he hadn't seen it yet. They passed it, but as I was leaving the chairperson told me I must never do that again. I swallowed my hurt pride and apologised.

A year or so before I started work there, staff discontent had led to an independent review of how the organisation was managed. Over a year later, their conclusions still rankled. He told me bitterly, "They said 'the CEO rules by fear and intimidation'. I'm not sure that I rule, anyway, but fear? I have never noticed that the staff fear me!"

I wonder if he knew that I was too scared to contradict him?

*Some details have been changed to protect the innocent.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Magical President

I have so many things stored up to write about, but having to work hard for my living lately means I haven't had time to write about them. So sometime soon there'll be a flood of posts.

In the meantime, let me tell you about this weird article I read in last Saturday's Australian.

I should preface this by saying I have a dilemma about newspapers. Rupert Murdoch owns most of Australia's newspapers, including the only daily published in Brisbane, the crappily tabloid Courier-Mail, and the nation's only real national paper, the Australian. This means I have a choice - buy a Murdoch paper and be assaulted by right wing propaganda, or a more moderate Fairfax paper full of stories about Sydney or Melbourne. Every Saturday Murdoch wins because I get a Brisbane TV guide.

So anyway, last Saturday they reprinted an article from the New Republic (right wing US rag) about the "Cult of the President". Apparently this bloke called Gene Healy has written a book of that title which says that Americans like to believe that their president is a superhuman figure who can solve all their problems, rather than just the head of the government. Healy says "he is a soul-nourisher, a hope-giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns and spiritual malaise". The article (written by Jonathan Chait, not by Healy himself), goes on to cite the current Gulf oil spill as an example. The President is under pressure to, and does, accept responsibility for this even though he neither caused it, nor has the capacity in his government to do anything much about it.

This is a fascinating concept. On the surface, it's just a normal piece of right-wing hyperbole. Healy, the New Republic and the Australian set up a straw man (the omniscient president) in order to pursue their deregulatory small government agenda. We over-rely on government to solve our problems, they are trying to say, and this is clearly ridiculous. Therefore government in general is a bit ridiculous and the less we have of it the better.

This is all very well for people who are as rich as Rupert Murdoch, who can afford to pay for their own health care and if their beach gets oily can buy another one. But if you are a poor person, or a fisherman who relies on Gulf fishing grounds for a living, you need someone to protect you. That's not likely to be the oil companies - or for that matter their political friends like the Bush family.

But that wasn't the first thing I thought of. I actually thought of medieval mythology. Perhaps Healy did too - I haven't read his book, but he doesn't mention it in the article I linked to. In a lot of medieval mythology kings are indeed seen as magical figures. The fertility of their country, its safety from invasion, and its freedom from natural disaster were all seen as evidence of their success. A drought, flood, famine or epidemic could see a king violently deposed, while a king who lived in prosperous times would be seen as great. There was something mystical about this - a good king would have the approval of God or the gods, and a tragedy would demonstrate the withdrawal of that approval.

Ironically, this is the kind of thinking more associated with the religious right than the socialist left. For the left, there is no magic about government intervention - it is just the government protecting the weak against the strong, using the legal and financial resources at their disposal to hold the wealthy to account and to redistribute some of their wealth. For the right, though, it looks like magic, and they fear it. After all, who wants to be held to account, or have their wealth redistributed?

Friday, 4 June 2010

The Leisure Society

This is not so much a post as an ad. I'm sitting here at my computer and trying to work while listening to The Leisure Society. Laid back group of beautifully melodic Englishmen. Check them out - lovely! And they didn't even pay me.