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Reading between the lines

'The secret shame of journalism'

Mick Hume finds John Simpson, world affairs editor of the BBC, has some interesting things to say relating to the dispute between ITN and LM

As a result of the ITN vs LM verdict the contents of this page are currently not available.

Read Mick Hume's statement made outside the High Court on 14 March.

Science for poets?

Richard Dawkins is not a meme, he is a human being, says Joe Kaplinsky

  • Unweaving the Rainbow: science, delusion and the appetite for wonder, Richard Dawkins, Allen Lane/Penguin Press, £20 hbk

Richard Dawkins' talents for conveying the ideas of modern evolutionary theory have made him one of the world's foremost popular science writers. His new work, Unweaving the Rainbow, is an argument for the value of science. His case is not based on the practical utility of science. It is not here that science is under question. Rather Dawkins takes on the harder job of arguing for the 'scientific imagination'. Science, he says, should inspire us and open our eyes in the same way as poetry. Indeed, in this sense, science is poetry.

Dawkins makes a strong case. Truth is undoubtedly stranger than fiction. The scientific account of creation is more awe-inspiring than any religious story. The lines 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy', which Dawkins takes as Romantic anti-science, should instead serve to remind us that the greatest ideas come from careful attention to empirical detail rather than empty abstract reflection. But in setting the practical value of science to one side Dawkins misdiagnoses the source of popular preference for superstition over science. While technology is rarely questioned in toto, it is the potential of scientific insights to transform humanity's relation to nature which makes Western society uncomfortable, as controversies over genetic or nuclear technologies demonstrate.

Dawkins' frustration with the nonsense of the new anti-science is understandable. A few cases, like that of Kennewick man, a skeleton discovered in Washington State in 1996, may even have broader implications for science and law. The remains of Kennewick man have been claimed by, among others, the local Indian tribes who are alarmed that scientific studies may undermine their belief that they have inhabited the land since 'the beginning of time'. The Indians want the remains reburied, and the courts appear to be backing them. Dawkins suggests that 'the best policy for the archaeologists would be to declare themselves a religion, with DNA fingerprints their sacramental totem'.

The exposition of evolutionary theory is at the heart of the book. Dawkins explains that it is the gene rather than the individual organism that is the unit of natural selection. An individual organism is never exactly reproduced in the next generation. It is the genes that are replicated and passed on, to where they will operate in some new combination in a new individual. From the point of view of evolutionary history the individual is ephemeral, 'a secondary, derived phenomenon, cobbled together as a consequence of the actions of fundamentally separate, even warring, agents', the genes. The point is well made, and is fleshed out by critiques of Stephen Jay Gould and Stuart Kauffman as well as a discussion of the extent to which the environments in which our ancestors lived can be read in our genes.

In the last chapter Dawkins takes on the evolution of the brain, and with it the mind. He describes how, once the first step towards tool use or language was made, natural selection and culture must have worked in parallel to create the gulf between humans and other animals that we see today. The twist comes in trying to understand modern culture when he invokes the idea of 'memes'.

A 'meme' is supposed to be a unit of cultural inheritance, anything from a religion to poetry to science itself, which replicates itself from brain to brain in analogy to the way a gene is passed from individual to individual. Here Dawkins recognises that he is on much more speculative ground. He suggests that what matters are the memes rather than the individual mind. Just as a body is built by genes, 'Perhaps the subjective "I", the person that I feel myself to be, is the same kind of semi-illusion. The mind is a collection of fundamentally independent, even warring agents - the subjective feeling of "somebody in there" may be a cobbled, emergent semi-illusion analogous to the individual body emerging in evolution from the uneasy cooperation of genes'.

Dawkins cites fellow scientist Susan Blakemore and philosopher Daniel Dennett as the source of these ideas. In fact, they are strikingly similar to the founding ideas of postmodernism. Louis Althusser long ago declared the 'death of the subject' and Roland Barthes the 'death of the author'. It is a shame to see a similar disdain for human subjectivity expressed in Dawkins' theory of cultural inheritance.

On a more positive note, Dawkins' points about the 'dumbing down' of scientific education are a definite plus. As the first Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, he says that his book should be taken as an inaugural statement. It is good, then, to see that he has taken a critical distance from the mainstream strategy for promoting science. He describes a briefing session he attended at which scientists were encouraged to put on demonstrations in shopping malls. The key pieces of advice were always to 'make your science "relevant" to ordinary people's lives', and that the 'very word science is best avoided, because "ordinary people" find it threatening'. Dawkins' complaints that this is not real science and that it is selling the public short have been met by charges of elitism. He doesn't like the word, but is forced to concede that 'maybe elitism is not such a terrible thing'. Furthermore, 'there is a great difference between an exclusive snobbery and an embracing, flattering elitism that strives to help people raise their game and join the elite'. Here he is surely right. Encouraging young people to study science at university on the basis that it is easy and fun is selling science under false pretences. Of course science is fun. But what worthwhile occupation is not hard work, albeit worth the struggle?

Dumb animals

Helene Guldberg talks to the animals, but finds they can't talk back

  • If a Lion could Talk: how animals think, Stephen Budiansky, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20 hbk

If a Lion could Talk deals with the question of the difference between animals and human beings. It opens with what Budiansky describes as the typical animal story of our age - newspaper reports on the heroic actions of a female gorilla, Binti, saving a three-year old boy who had fallen into a zoo's gorilla enclosure. Binti cradled the unconscious boy in her arms and carried him gently to the door of the enclosure where paramedics were waiting. It was reported that she even protected the boy from the other gorillas on her way. Budiansky tells us that this story is typical, firstly because it is taken as proof of animal empathy and understanding compared to a 'selfish and brutal humankind', and secondly, because it is 'not exactly true'. Binti did not shield the child from the other gorillas, the zookeeper did. And what was not reported was that Binti was in fact just doing what she had been trained to do. During her pregnancy she was trained by the zookeeper to develop maternal instincts involving carrying a doll and bringing it to the keeper.

it may be easy to mistake some animal behaviour as showing understanding, empathy, intelligence, or even creativity. Much animal behaviour is fascinating. But it is also the case that animals do remarkably stupid things in situations very similar to those where they previously seemed to show a degree of intelligence. This is partly because they learn many of their clever feats by pure accident. But also because animal learning is highly specialised. Their ability to learn is not a result of general cognitive processes but 'specialised channels attuned to an animal's basic hardwired behaviours'. An animal's brain is pre-wired by species-specific ecological adaptations. The problem with anthropomorphism, Budiansky warns, is that it offers a pat explanation that lets researchers off the hook from probing much deeper for alternative explanations.

Clever Hans is a case in point. Readers may be familiar with the story of how people were fooled into thinking Clever Hans, a horse, could solve mathematical problems, tell the time and even identify musical scores. But he was in fact incapable of giving the correct answer when the questioner was not present. This was because he did not 'know' the answers to any of the questions but was reading the unconscious clues of his questioners - such as a subtle bob of the head in anticipation of the correct answer. He may not have been clever in the way initially assumed but surely his actions were still impressive? The horse was reading unconscious clues that other human beings took much longer to recognise. So how can this be explained? Not by crediting horses with human intelligence but by looking to their evolutionary history. Budiansky explains that horses are social herd-dwelling animals adapted to an open environment, and have a remarkable evolved ability to pick up on subtle visual cues from their fellows. Time and again Budiansky demonstrates the flaws in animal research using 'human intelligence' as the explanation of their behaviour.

ape studies have been the most convincing in seeming to demonstrate an embryonic intelligence. Discoveries of the 'mathematical', 'language' or 'tool-making' abilities of apes is often described as proof that the distance between 'our closest living relatives' and ourselves is further narrowed. But equating what a chimpanzee can do with a twig to the entire range of tool-using abilities of humans ought to be 'self-evidently absurd', Budiansky says. He shows that it is equally absurd to conclude that the language use of trained chimpanzees can be compared to human beings - not even a two-year old child.

Washoe was the first chimpanzee to be taught to use sign language. At one point she was seen to sign water and bird when seeing a swan. This new combination may have demonstrated a creative insight. Maybe it did, Budiansky says, but given the number of inane, meaningless and 'excruciatingly repetitive' signs Washoe made, it is maybe not surprising that some novel combinations should make sense - to us, that is. What Budiansky shows is that the things apes are good at are, in fact, the things they have evolved to do to survive in their particular ecological niche. 'And the things an animal is good at generally do not require three decades of ambiguous experiments to discover.'

human beings, on the other hand, are not constrained by our biological make-up. Due to the power of language, Budiansky shows, we can go beyond the special-purpose hardware of our brains. Language has above all given us the ability to have thoughts about thoughts. 'The discontinuities that divide us [from animals] are less a matter of biology than a matter of what one might almost call the super-biological phenomenon of language that our minds uniquely generate. Language is something that transcends the special-purpose hardware of the minds of man and animals.' The philosopher Wittgenstein said, 'If a lion could talk we would not understand him'. That might be true, but equally, as Budiansky shows, If a Lion could Talk he would no longer be a lion.

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999



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