Richard Dawkins


Richard Dawkins on vivisection: "But can they suffer?"

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The great moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, famously said,'The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but rather, "Can they suffer?" Most people get the point, but they treat human pain as especially worrying because they vaguely think it sort of obvious that a species' ability to suffer must be positively correlated with its intellectual capacity. Plants cannot think, and you'd have to be pretty eccentric to believe they can suffer. Plausibly the same might be true of earthworms. But what about cows?

What about dogs? I find it almost impossible to believe that René Descartes, not known as a monster, carried his philosophical belief that only humans have minds to such a confident extreme that he would blithely spreadeagle a live mammal on a board and dissect it. You'd think that, in spite of his philosophical reasoning, he might have given the animal the benefit of the doubt. But he stood in a long tradition of vivisectionists including Galen and Vesalius, and he was followed by William Harvey and many others (See from which this picture is taken).

How could they bear to do it: tie a struggling, screaming mammal down with ropes and dissect its living heart, for example? Presumably they believed what came to be articulated by Descartes: that non-human animals have no soul and feel no pain.

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Richard Dawkins: Sex selection and the shortage of women: is science to blame?

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A couple watch their baby inside a waiting hall at the Nanjing railway station, capital of Jiangsu province. [Reuters/2006]

In nature, the balance of males and females is maintained by natural selection acting on parents. As Sir Ronald Fisher brilliantly pointed out in 1930, a surplus of one sex will be redressed by selection in favour of rearing the other sex, up to the point where it is no longer the minority. It isn't quite as simple as that. You have to take into account the relative economic costs of rearing one sex rather than the other. If, say, it costs twice as much to rear a son to maturity as a daughter (e.g. because males are bigger than females), the true choice facing a parent is not "Shall I rear a son or a daughter?" but "Shall I rear a son or two daughters?"

So, Fisher concluded, what is equlibrated by natural selection is not the total numbers of sons and daughters born in the population, but the total parental expenditure on sons versus daughters. In practice, this usually amounts to an approximately equal ratio of males to females in the population at the end of the period of parental expenditure.

Note that the word 'decision' doesn't mean conscious decision: we employ the usual 'selfish gene' metaphorical reasoning, in which natural selection favours genes that produce behaviour 'as if' decisions are being made.

Interestingly, Fisher's reasoning remains intact, even in harem-based societies such as those of elephant seals, where a minority of males monopolise the females and the majority of males hang about as disconsolate bachelors. From a parent's point of view, a daughter is a 'safe' choice, likely to yield an average number of grandchildren. A son is a high risk choice. He is most likely to give you no grandchildren at all. But if he does give you grandchildren he'll give you lots. The figures balance out and Fisher's equilibrium still holds.

That's what happens in nature. But what if we are dealing with a human society in which cultural traditions over-ride the genetic imperatives (yet another example, this time not necessarily a benign one, of 'rebelling against the selfish genes'). What if the religion of a country fosters a deep-rooted undervaluing of women? What if there is an ancient culture of despising women, whether for religious or otherwise traditional or economic reasons?

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Discretion please, not rulebooks


("One Nation under CCTV," an illustration contributed to the Boing Boing Flickr pool by Tom Blackwell)

I'm writing this on a plane, having just passed through Security at Heathrow airport. An obviously nice young mother was distraught because she wasn't allowed to take on board a tub of ointment for her little girl's eczema. The security man was polite but firm. She wasn't even permitted to spoon a reduced quantity into a smaller jar. I couldn't quite grasp what was wrong with that helpful suggestion, but the rule book was implacable. All the official could do was offer to fetch his supervisor. The supervisor came and, equally polite but firm, she too was regretfully bound by the rulebook's hoops of steel.

There was nothing I could do, and it was no help that I recommended a website where a knowledgeable chemist explains, in delightfully comedic detail, what it would take to manufacture a workable bomb from binary liquid ingredients, working for several hours in the aircraft loo, using copious quantities of ice, in relays of champagne coolers helpfully supplied by the cabin staff.

The prohibition against taking more than very small quantities of liquids or unguents on planes is demonstrably ludicrous. It started as one of those "Look at us, we're taking decisive action" displays, the ones designed to cause maximum inconvenience to the public in order to make the dimwitted Dundridges who rule our lives feel important and look busy.

Same with having to take our shoes off (another gem of official wallyhood that must have Bin Laden chuckling triumphantly into his beard) and all those other classic exercises in belated stable door shutting. But let me get to the general principle. Rulebooks are themselves put together by human judgments. Often bad human judgments, but in any case judgments by humans who were probably no wiser or better qualified to make them than the individuals who subsequently have to put them into practice out in the real world.

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Further reflections on discrimination

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[Image, via Wikipedia: The Flammarion engraving (1888) depicts a traveller who arrives at the edge of a flat Earth and sticks his head through the firmament.]

A scientific experiment avoids confusion by holding as much as possible constant, while systematically varying some factor of interest. When you are trying to think through a complex train of thought it can be helpful to do something similar, especially when sorting out separate arguments that might be confused. My previous Boing Boing post, "Should employers be blind to private beliefs?," could be seen as raising four separate questions. These were in danger of being confused with each other, and it is helpful to consider them one at a time, setting the others on one side temporarily--the equivalent of holding other variables constant in an experiment. The four questions were:

1. Should Martin Gaskell have been turned down by the University of Kentucky? I got rid of this one by explicitly stating that I was not concerned with it. I shall continue to ignore it here.

2. Should employers ever discriminate on grounds of the beliefs of candidates? If the answer to this is no, there is no point in going on. I tried to dispose of it by reductio ad absurdum. I postulated hypothetical extremes (flat earth geographer, stork theory doctor, astronomer who thinks Mars is a mongoose egg). I presumed that everybody would agree to discriminate against such obviously preposterous extremes, and that we would therefore have a non-controversial baseline from which to move on to more subtle questions. As it turned out, I was wrong: I underestimated the emotive impact of the very word 'discrimination'. I may also have underestimated the power of the relativist doctrine that all opinions are equally worthy of respect. But in any case my purpose was not to erect a straw man and knock it down. I wanted to find a baseline of agreement, which would enable us to set Question 2 on one side, while we went on to the other questions.

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Should employers be blind to private beliefs?

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(Reflections inspired by the Gaskell debate in Kentucky)

The University of Kentucky has caved in and agreed a settlement, out of court, with the allegedly creationist astronomer Martin Gaskell. For a brief account of the case see [here]. The detailed legal documents are [here], and a range of views are to be found [here] and [here]. Briefly, Gaskell was rejected for the position of Director of a new university observatory, and he sued the university on grounds of religious discrimination. The university has now settled to pay him off with $125,000, while declining to admit wrongdoing.

On the face of it, Gaskell's allegation is ludicrous. You go up for a job and somebody else is preferred. It happens all the time. One candidate wins, the rest are disappointed. End of story. In this case, however, it was not the end of the story. There is good evidence that Gaskell was the top candidate on other grounds. The chairman of the search committee wrote an email to the chairman of the department, which included [the following]:

If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin's religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious...

A smoking gun, it would seem, and one that smokes out an important general question: is it a good law that says a candidate's beliefs are private and should be ignored when making appointments, in the same way as colour or sex should be ignored (unless one wants to make a case for positive discrimination)? The chairman of the search committee actually said that Gaskell was "breathtakingly above the other applicants", which is as clear an admission of negative discrimination as a lawyer could want. My own position would be that if a young earth creationist (YEC, the barking mad kind who believe the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog) is "breathtakingly above the other candidates", then the other candidates must be so bad that we should re-advertise and start afresh.

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Catholic Mischief in Glasgow

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Even those who agree with the great Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything might be surprised to learn that the toxin extends its reach even to football (soccer). Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, has two major football teams - indeed they are Scotland's two top teams - Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers.

By long tradition, the fans of these two teams break down by religion: Celtic represents the Catholics and Rangers the Protestants. Historically, the reason is the long association between this region of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Belfast and Glasgow have more in common than their depressed ship-building industries. The large Catholic population of Glasgow is mostly of Irish origin, while Orange Parades such as this one through the centre of Glasgow are all-but indistinguishable from their counterparts in Belfast.

If, in a crucial match between Rangers and Celtic, a referee's decision is unpopular, there is a high chance that he will be accused of sectarian religious prejudice, something that, I imagine, is not often seen in baseball or American football.

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This is the background to bitter storm that erupted recently, in which I seem to have become embroiled although I am neither Scottish nor a soccer fan. Hugh Dallas, czar of referees for the Scottish Football Association was fired because he passed on, in an eMail, a joke about Roman Catholic child rape. The pope is not, so far as we know, a pederast, but there is good evidence that he was deeply involved in covering up the crime and contributing to its repetition by priests moved to other dioceses and parishes. Anyway, this was the subject of the joke that was sent to Hugh Dallas, and he passed it on to somebody else.

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