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Pathfinders

La Dolce Vita

New Scientist of June 3 ran a cover page splash on nine different routes to health and long life, all supposedly based on the latest research. These nine ways were: 1: have a little of what's bad for you; 2: socialise more; 3: consider moving to where people live longer; 4: enjoy your vices (er, same as 1?); 5: keep your brain active; 6: relax, have a laugh, kill stress; 7: be a hypochondriac; 8: eat healthier; 9: make life more exciting.

New Scientist clearly should have read their own magazine from the week before (May 27), because while there may be nothing wrong with these suggestions, there is one more way of staying healthy and living longer which the magazine inexcusably forgot to mention: don't be poor, be rich. According to Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College, London, and author of Status Syndrome (Bloomsbury, 2004):

"There is a social gradient in health. It is not only that the poor have poor health: the lower someone's social position, the worse their health is. During the period from the 1970s to the 1990s, the gap in life expectancy between men in the top and bottom socio-economic groups in England and Wales increased from 5.5 years to 9.5 years" (New Scientist, May 27). And as Marmot notes, it is not a question of absolute poverty, as for example in sub-Saharan countries, but relative poverty and lack of autonomy.

 Marmot conducted a study of civil servants that showed that lower ranks, with less control, had a higher risk of
heart disease. He argues that there is a causal relationship between low status and lack of control over decision-making and stress-related disease, and his solution is government legislation to redistribute income more equitably.
Socialists know there is a fat chance of this happening, and that within the framework of capitalism, any short term advantage thus gained would soon be wiped out anyway. All the indications are that common ownership and democratic control are the best way to long life and happiness.

A Whale of a Tale

When members vote in Socialist Party ballots, the votes are open, whereas in capitalist political elections, the votes are secret. In a society free of sectional interests, there ought to be no reason for an individual to keep their opinions and their votes to themselves. However in early capitalism, where votes were also open, huge pressures were brought to bear on individual voters. These pressures included bribery, blackmail, and threats of eviction, sackings, personal injury and death.

Eventually workers won the right to a secret ballot, and thus the situation remains, except in the Socialist Party, of course, where elections tend not to inspire such extreme responses, and where, besides, the feeling is that a democratic process needs to be as transparent as possible in order to see and understand what is going on. Thus, paradoxically, both open and secret voting can be seen as aiding, or inhibiting, the practice of democratic fair play.

A recent case illustrates both sides of this problem. The International Whaling Commission is, as most marine
environmentalists know, about to have control wrested back from the whale-friendly conservationist ruling junta, who for the past twenty years have imposed a moratorium on all commercial whaling.
The country leading the coup, Japan, have been busily running around offering bribes of aid to small island countries in order to get their votes to resume whaling (New Scientist, June 17). Japan is not in a position to gain 75 percent of the vote to do this yet, but can probably secure over 50 percent needed for a simple majority to change current voting practice from open to secret. As small countries like the Marshall Islands face what Australia describes as 'international outrage' if they succumb to bribes and vote with Japan, the incentive to cast their votes secretly is clearly very strong.
But most of these countries, indeed most of the IWC members, are not whaling countries. So what are they doing in the IWC in the first place?

The original regulatory body of the IWC, established in 1946, consisted of just 15 whaling nations. Through a long and, some might say, heroic struggle by Peter Scott of the World Wildlife Fund, a loophole in the IWC's constitution was exploited, allowing non-whaling nations to join. These new members outnumbered the original 'butcher's club' and were happy, as a result of various 'incentives' by the conservationist lobby, to vote the whalers into retirement. All that Japan have done is to open the membership still further, to the present level of 70 countries, and change the nature of the incentives. However, the big discouragement to small countries is that they may lose more than they gain by supporting Japan, unless they can do it on the quiet. Hence, the first step to the resumption of whaling is to obtain a secret ballot.

The question of whether whaling would exist in socialist society is not the biggest that will face that society.
However, a huge factor influencing the activities of countries like Japan and Norway is that a large proportion of their economies rely on it. At present the taste for whalemeat is in decline globally, even in Japan, so they may be fighting a losing battle in any case. But in socialism, where people's lives and livelihoods won't depend on this hideous practice, it is hard to imagine any justification for continuing it. Let the giants keep their deep. Humans can find other ways to provide for themselves.

Blueblood
genes

Something even nonscientific readers of scientific developments quickly become wary of are bold claims.
As Carl Sagan often insisted, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
In the absence of this, one is entitled to take the proposition that entrepreneurs (capitalists) are genetically
predispositioned, with a pinch of salt (BBC Online, June 6). A study of 609 pairs of identical twins and 657 pairs of same-sex non-identical twins in the UK found that the rate of entrepreneurship between the two groups was the same as the general population, but the rate of entrepreneurship for both twins was higher in identical twins (sharing all their genes) than non-identicals (sharing about half their genes). This, announced the researchers, was evidence that genes play an important role in determining who is likely to succeed in business and who isn't, which in turn may affect which students business schools might prefer to enrol on their courses.

Professor Tim Spector, director of the Twin Research Unit at St Thomas' Hospital, London, is enthusiastic about genetics but plainly out of his depth in economics: "Although entrepreneurs are vital to the economy, as they create wealth and jobs, no-one knows precisely what drives people to become an entrepreneur."

This illustrates something Pathfinders has noted before, that scientists have a tendency to one-dimensional thinking: while they may challenge every assumption within their own field of research, they are happy to base their work on any and every assumption in other fields, no matter how crude and unsupported. That capitalists create wealth is not simply an assumption fostered only by capitalists themselves, it displays an ignorance of the everyday world, of economics and of history, bordering on the crass. Moreover, the current craze of looking for genetic causes for every aspect of human behaviour is fast becoming as tedious as it is futile, and simply plays to the media obsession for simple soundbite science.

There is no capitalist gene, just as there is no fat gene, or violence gene, or possessive gene. Scientists who make public announcements of tenuous results of tenuous studies of tenuous premises risk immersing the debate in mud and obscurantiscism. The truth is, if you run your society in a violent and competitive way, it will inevitably produce violent and competitive people. Which particular DNA proteins or base-pair combinations were involved, is in one sense rather beside the point.