2000s >> 2006 >> no-1218-february-2006



Free radicals in mitochondrial DNA, the energy producing parts of cells, may be the cause of ageing (New Scientist, Jan 14, 2006). There is an understandably irresistible imperative to drive back the death horizon, but wouldn’t it be better to create a life worth living before trying to extend it any further? For many people, death is the only possible way to beat the system. Eternal life in capitalism does not sound like fun, and we’d have to develop some pretty effective birth control systems too. But just how long would one want to live anyway? Would 300 lifespans create a race of super-educated highly motivated polymaths, or a rag-bag of apathetic and listless slugs too indolent even to wash?


It has been discovered that plants emit large amounts of methane (New Scientist, Jan 14, 2006). Now let’s wait for the discovery that politicians also emit methane, and embark on a mass cull for the good of our health. Seriously though, this is potentially disastrous, and in one stroke renders all available climate models useless. If the carbon sinks we were relying on are themselves contributing to global warming, the threshold to a runaway feedback effect may be now impossible to prevent. If the capitalist class succeed in destroying the ecology of this planet, the window of opportunity for the human species will close, and socialism – or indeed any kind of advanced culture – will become impossible. The urgency of revolution is not decreasing with time, but increasing.


The recent furore in South Korea over the ‘faked’ results of the stem-cell research team headed by Woo Suk Hwang (New Scientist, Dec 24, 2005), has spiralled down into mutual recrimination amid more intensive probing into the past cloning work of the world famous team. This raises the question:  would scientists or their researchers ever be disposed to fake results in socialism? Without the financial and status rewards that are capitalism’s strong incentives, it’s hard to see how. Who could own science in socialism, and therefore who could buy, sell, steal, corrupt, or profit personally from it? And therefore, what motive would any scientist have to lie? Socialism does not make people ‘honest’. It just gives them no particular reason to be ‘dishonest’.


Is science the natural enemy of religion, or can they coexist? Religious scientists (they do exist) will obviously answer the latter, but many scientists, reared on evidence-based thinking, could no more tolerate the free-for-all that is ‘faith’ than they could walk on water. Few scientists however bother to get up and attack superstition in so many words, it being considered beneath them.

Richard Dawkins has never been one to keep his views to himself, and the militant monarch of evolutionary biology has just recently been waging war on ‘the religious virus’ on UK TV (The Root of all Evil? Jan 9 & 16, Channel 4). This somewhat overambitious project – to lay waste the world’s religions in two hours flat – ended up being frankly underwhelming.  Truth is, our Richard suffers the same problem as a lot of socialists – he’s so rational he doesn’t really comprehend the nature of what he’s dealing with, and this is a serious disadvantage when the argument goes nose to nose. The religious types, having had a logic-ectomy, are impervious to all the gigantic contradictions in their own world-view, and thus perform well, talk impressively, and look confident. Richard, on the other hand, clearly didn’t go into these interviews properly prepared. Too long among real thinking humans who play by the rules of debate, he looked as shocked, baffled and bemused as somebody being addressed by a talking baboon in a dress. The effect, sadly, was that the zealots constantly seemed to get the better of him. It should not have been difficult for a scientist to make a fundamentalist bigot look the fool that he is (even accusing the scientist of arrogance, which was a nice touch), but one had the feeling that Dawkins actually was being a tad arrogant in his approach, imagining that reason and the scientific method were all the weapons he would need. Socialists, who have a lot more experience of this sort of debate, could have told him it wasn’t going to be that easy. These people just don’t roll over and die when calmly presented with the facts. The only thing to do is go for the jugular, make them squirm, make them angry, and then enjoy the fun. Instead, it was Dawkins who was too angry, and Dawkins who wasn’t thinking straight. And in indulging his exquisite loathing of the religious ‘meme’ he made an even bigger mistake, from a socialist point of view, in imagining that ‘for good people to do evil things, it takes religion’. It doesn’t, it takes capitalist class society. The Nazis didn’t kill for religious reasons, and contrary to what Dawkins supposes, suicide bombing was not invented by religious extremists but by Leninists (the Tamil Tigers). In fact, new research that Dawkins ought to have known about shows that for someone to become a suicide bomber takes no extreme belief-system at all (New Scientist, July 23, 2005).

But why attack religion on TV, and why now? Dawkins does not really explain, but the answer lies in a secondary school in Dover, Pennsylvania, where a celebrated federal court case has made headlines around America for weeks. Dawkins, with many other biologists, was incensed that the school board of governors ruled that Intelligent Design should be taught in science lessons alongside evolution, as if it had equal scientific validity. In America, ID cannot be taught in ‘religious lessons’ separately because such lessons are outlawed by the First Amendment, which separates Church from State. Thus, religion is smuggled in by other means. However, the parents weren’t having it, and sued the school, and in the end the parents won and the governors had to resign, their defence team having made themselves look ridiculous in court, equating ID with astrology. So why wasn’t Dawkins himself called as a witness for the prosecution, one wonders? He would have jumped at it. The surprising answer is that the parents didn’t want him, for the even more surprising reason that, defenders of evolution though they were, they were Christians themselves. Even among religious people there is clearly only so much unreason they can take.

So should scientists really worry about a new-age fundamentalism wiping out all progress and knowledge, burning the libraries of Alexandria and plunging the world into the long night of ignorance, fear and superstition? Well, they can worry, but there’s really no need to be paranoid. Religion has had to do all the hard work of accommodating more and more scientific progress, which is why mature religions tend to become ever vaguer and more metaphorical, and there’s no prospect, save nuclear Armageddon, of the world’s knowledge being lost again. Progress is progress, and it will stand. Dawkins can vent his spleen, and he is right to do so, but fear of a new order of god-driven moral extremism is probably taking things a little too far. And blaming the ills of the world on sad delusionals merely deflects attention away from the real problem – the divisive effect of class and its social relations.

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