Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Science and The Left

At our May meeting, Paul Fitzgerald (a.k.a political cartoonist Polyp talked to us about how political ideology can influence science acceptance. We are aware that the political right can deny science - particularly evolution and climate change. However Paul is increasingly worried that his "tribe", the green/liberal left, have their own problems in this area. He gave us a number of examples:
  1. Nuclear power. There might be cogent arguments to be made against using nuclear power, but currently hysteria and exaggeration seem to dominate the discussion. Famously a Fukushima radiation map was widely circulated, without a key to the colour coding and with added apocalyptic imagery. Greenpeace issued a statement to try to calm the hysteria and dispel misinformation.
  2. Genetically modified organisms. Paul admitted that he was initially opposed to GMO's and even took part in some direct action. But there is now more evidence of safety. Much of the ideologically driven anti-GMO rhetoric relies on very bad, discredited science.
  3. Corbyn's election chances. Given the opinion-poll statistics it is almost certain that the Conservatives will win the election. However, when Paul pointed this out on social media it generated a great deal of opposition which he took to be data-denying. This produced prolonged discussion during the Q&A.
  4. The naturalistic fallacy. "Things that are Natural are good", "Chemicals are bad".
  5. The myth of the noble savage - a romanticised view of the past. This might stem from valid criticism of Western industrial societies, our colonial legacy and our unsustainable lifestyle. But it can go too far in assuming (against the evidence) that tribal societies are naturally co-operative, peace-loving, democratic and live sustainably.
  6. Reluctance to criticise victim groups. Seen most clearly in the use of the term "Islamophobia" against anyone who raises criticisms of Islam. Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls this the "racism of low expectations".
  7. Anti-Semitism. Paul has observed a casual anti-Semitism from some of the (otherwise) liberal left.
  8. Denial of difference. It seems to be controversial in some green/left circles to acknowledge that people have different abilities. The "blank-slate" view of humanity is common, putting all the responsibility on how people are raised. This denies innate (genetic) differences - dealt with well by Stephen Pinker's book, The Blank Slate.
How can this tendency to deny or ignore science be countered? Paul introduced the ideas of two philosophers of science; firstly Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies) argued that "falsification" is the basis of science. Any truly scientific idea can be falsified by observation and experiment, leading to a gradual improvement in knowledge.

Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) on the other hand argued that the scientific community could be reluctant to change and would defend the current consensus ("paradigm") until forced to accept a new one - a "paradigm-shift". Post-modernists took this to mean that scientific theories are merely social constructs. Paul sees this thinking, leading to cultural relativism, as having infected the left. He suggests that Popper's idea can be the cure: when we state our ideas we also say what would make us change our mind. Unfortunately Margaret Thatcher liked Karl Popper so there is little chance of him being accepted by the left!

It is a cultural norm to think that having strongly and consistently held beliefs is a virtue. Paul suggested that this is ridiculous, and we all need to be more open to evidence.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017


John Webster from Oxford Humanists spoke to us about the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was one of the First Fab four: Leigh Hunt, Byron, Keats and Shelley, all described as Freethinkers and Humanists.

In 1812 Shelley, aged 19, produced a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism which booksellers were ordered to burn. This also resulted in him being expelled from University College, Oxford.

In 1816 Shelley wrote in a hotel register in Chamonix, Switzerland “I am an atheist, a lover of humanity and a democrat”. Under the column ‘Destination’ he wrote “L’Enfer” (hell).

John proceeded to illustrate his talk with examples of Shelley’s poetry including the Masque of Anarchy, written after the Peterloo massacre, and Ode to the West Wind.  Shelley translated from Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian. In Pisa he wrote A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays. Also in Pisa Byron and Shelley planned to set up a journal.  Other poems considered were Immortal Deity, The Funeral, and Adonai: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats. Hellas (The world’s great age…) was his last great poem.

Shelley looked forward to air travel and electricity. He also had a progressive view of the world of women compared with, say, Jane Austen. His heroine was Mary Wollstonecraft. He influenced nineteenth century thinkers such as Charles Bradlaugh, and he approved of the working class self-education movement.

John ended his presentation by playing his DVD Shelley’s Golden Years in Italy narrated by Benjamin Zephaniah, which is available on Amazon.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Being A Humanist Celebrant

In March Marge Rose spoke to the Stockport group about her experiences of Being a Funeral Celebrant.

Marg considers herself to be a Celebrant first and a Humanists second. She was brought up in the Church of Scotland and lost her faith at the age of about 14 or 15 when the bible classes she attended were saying that a bad thought was as bad as a bad deed. In her 20s she went to Quaker meetings and got married there. In 1980 her husband had a near death experience and was helped to understand it by American Indians. She then became an agnostic pagan.

When her father died she thought she could have done at least as good a job as the Church of Scotland minister and she decided to become a Humanist celebrant. She went to Greater Manchester Humanists and took the introductory course. She then applied to train as a celebrant but was turned down in the first instance as there were too many applicants. She eventually got training and has now conducted 100 funerals.

Anyone can conduct a funeral and there is a book called Funerals without God which is excellent for those conducting a DIY funeral - Funerals Without God: A Practical Guide to Non-Religious Funeral Ceremonies by Jane Wynne Wilson. 

Humanist funerals are always about the person who has died. 90% of Humanists are cremated and about 10% are buried.

Most ceremonies follow a similar pattern. After some introductory music the celebrant welcomes everybody and explains the Humanist Funeral. Tributes are paid to the person either by the celebrant or members of the family or friends. Readings, poems, songs etc may also be included, time permitting. A quiet period for contemplation is included and this may be used for silent prayers by religious people. At the end there are usually notices telling people where to go, what charities are being supported etc.

The BHA training and support is excellent and once a celebrant is trained there are private on-line support forums.

On the first day of training, the trainers talk about the ceremonies and there are exercises to test the trainees skills. The trainees then go off to observe both Humanist and Religious funerals. A month later there is a two day more in-depth course including role play, writing scripts etc. Written scripts are submitted to the tutors. A month later there is note comparing, further training on record keeping, and a visit to the back of a crematorium. The trainee also gives a script as if for real and gets feedback.

After all that the trainee gets to do ceremonies alone and is visited by a monitor. If successful he/she then becomes a BHA accredited celebrant.

Few celebrants actually make a living from this work and there are ongoing expenses, such as membership of the BHA and Celebrant annual fees. There is continued professional development in the form of workshops on various topics, keeping up with Humanism, and an annual Celebrant Conference.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Darwin Day Lecture: Gene Editing with CRISPR

The regular Central Manchester monthly meeting was replaced by
a celebratory day at the Manchester Conference Centre to mark Darwin’s birthday on 12 February.   The event started at 1pm and was attended by 90 visitors.  There were a range of exhibits from Population Matters, RSPB, Amnesty International, thINK the book, Friends of the Earth, Barton Theatre Company and Peace Mala from a local primary school.  At 3.00pm the Greater Manchester Humanist Choir sung 'Seikilos Epitaph' and 'Darwin's Revolution' both arranged by former Musical Director Karl Kramer.  This was followed by a talk by Professor Matthew Cobb from the Life Sciences Department at the University of Manchester on "The Brave New World of CRISPR Gene Editing". 

Matthew introduced the topic by saying that he does not think that governments and institutions understand the importance and implications of recent developments in gene editing technology and the CRISPR technique which enables the precise editing of genes in virtually any organism, including humans.  CRISPR stands for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’ which are segments of DNA containing short, repetitive base sequences, that  are the same in both directions.  Each repetition is followed by short segments of spacer DNA from previous exposures to foreign DNA (e.g., a virus or plasmid). The cell's genome can be cut at a desired location, allowing existing genes to be removed and/or new ones added to effect improvements in that DNA.  

Matthew explained that the ability to alter genetic material of organisms was developed in the 1970s  but involved molecular tinkering over long periods.  With the development of the CRISPR technique in 2013, modifications that took 18 months are now being done in 6 weeks.  Two sources claim to have devised it: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna from Berkeley, and George Church and Feng Zhang from Boston Broad Institute.  CRISPR genome editing has many applications in the areas of human gene therapy, somatic therapy, agriculture, and vector control.

The application to human gene therapy enables changes in human genes that alter the genetic make-up of the next generation.  There is a general reluctance to allow this on ethical grounds: CRISPR gene therapy is not legal in the UK, Australia or Canada.  In the USA the technique cannot be applied using federal money, but is permitted using private funds.  

CRISPR techniques can be applied in the treatment of illnesses without altering the genetic make up of the next generation by editing the body’s somatic cells.  This type of intervention is therefore not subject to the same ethical concerns as genetic manipulation of human embryos.  CRISPR therapies for blood based diseases, leukaemia, HIV and sickle cell anaemia may soon be trialled and the technique shows great promise as a treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  

CRISPR is also being used in agricultural research exploring its application to boosting crop resistance to pests thereby reducing the toll of livestock disease.

As to vector control, CRISPR could be used to introduce new genetic material into organisms that transmit disease, such as the malaria carrying mosquito, that both makes females sterile and accelerates its spread throughout the whole population, so as to effectively eliminate that population  in a few generations.

Work is currently being undertaken at Imperial College London on this.  The scientific community is proceeding cautiously in this area given the potential impact on ecosystems.     
Matthew concluded his presentation by talking about the ethics of using CRISPR.  He posed the question of whether it is ethical to limit its use and thus its potential in fighting disease, illness and poverty.  He was clear that its further application should be properly regulated.     

In the question and answer session, when asked if CRISPR could assist with curing dementia or cancer Matthew responded that the application of CRISPR to combat a disease will depend on whether the disease or condition has an identifiable genetic sequence that can be easily disabled.   Dementia and cancer do not have identifiable genetic sequences.   

When asked if CRISPR could be used to regrow organs, Matthew answered that this was possible in theory by using stem cells that can be grown into any organ.

Matthew thought the application of the CRISPR system will need a political system to buy-in to it and to enforce it and that the short-termism associated with most political systems makes this problematic.  

Matthew recommended the following sources on CRISPR: Ted Talks on CRISPR on YouTube, “CRISPR Democracy: Gene Editing and the Need for Inclusive Deliberation” in Issues in Science and Technology, Volume XXXII Issue 1 Fall 2015,  “CRISPR-Cas9 ("Mr. Sandman" Parody) A Capella Science” on YouTube,  “Life’s Greatest Secret” by Matthew Cobb.

Assisted Dying

Pavan Dhaliwal is currently Director of Campaigns at the British
Humanist Association (BHA) and Vice President of the European Humanist Federation. She is shortly to be leaving the BHA but is trying to put in place a strategic plan before she leaves.

Following Brexit, this is not the most favourable time for campaigning on Humanist issues. The BHA has been supporting Northern Ireland Humanists who have called for safe access to legal abortions and an end to prosecutions following news that a woman has been reported to police and charged in connection with using abortion pills, bought on line. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except on grounds of health whereas women in England, Scotland and Wales have access to the morning after pill and, if necessary, safe abortions. Very few organisations support the woman and these cases have a disproportionate effect on lower income people.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Humanist marriages do not carry legal status unless a Registrar is present. Often couples have to also marry in a Registry Office. In Scotland Humanist marriages have legal status. It only requires a Statutory Instrument to legalise Humanist Marriages in the rest of the UK as the legislation has already gone through Parliament. The BHA are using the precedent of Scotland to enable the legislation here.

One of the core areas of campaigning is that of assisted dying. The BHA is the only organisation to request this for people with incurable suffering and not just the terminally ill. Individuals have the right to live their lives and make un-coerced decisions about their death. For those physically incapable of ending their own lives the compassionate thing would be to help. This is at present illegal. It is not the intention that legalisation of assisted dying would be a replacement for a patient centred approach to end-of –life care and it is thought that very few people would qualify. Humanist need good safeguards and Assisted Dying wold not be a replacement for palliative care.Individual cases considered were Tony Nicklinson (now dead) and Paul Lamb. The Paul Lamb case went to the Supreme Court with nine judges sitting, the first time all nine had sat. They decided that, although it was within their jurisdiction, Parliament should take the decision with legislation. As yet they haven’t done so. Paul Lamb is not yet ready to die, but he wants the right when the time comes. Many people take their lives early whilst they are still capable, and they would be able to live longer. At present people accompanying patients to Dignitas may be prosecuted.

There is no political will in Parliament for such legislation. The Church of England oppose it by talking about safeguarding life and slippery slopes. They avoid terms such as sanctity of life.

Unfortunately Pavan had to leave early to catch her train, but the meeting continued with a robust discussion of the issues.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Homo Deus

At Stockport's January meeting David Seddon and Derek McComiskey gave a brief presentation of the book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow before throwing it open to the floor for discussion.

The author Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli academic, teaching at a University in Jerusalem, who writes in Hebrew then translates his work into English. His first book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, reminded us that there is nothing special or essential about who we are. We are an accident. Homo sapiens is just one possible way of being human, an evolutionary contingency like every other creature on the planet. That book ended with the thought that the story of Homo sapiens could be coming to an end. We are at the height of our power but we may also have reached its limit.

There are three old problems underlying life: Famine, Disease and War that underlie human development. He claims that war is increasingly obsolete; famine is rare; and disease is on the retreat around the world. Some might take issue with these claims. We have achieved these triumphs by building ever more complex networks that treat human beings as units of information. Evolutionary science teaches us that, in one sense, we are nothing but data-processing machines: we too are algorithms. By manipulating the data we can exercise mastery over our fate. The trouble is that other algorithms – the ones that we have built – can do it far more efficiently than we can. That’s what Harari means by the “uncoupling” of intelligence and consciousness. 
New problems for the future could include: Immortality (or living to 200 or 1000 years), Happiness and Divinity (in the form of robots).

In a world run by algorithms, problems become personal. In a Humanist world we are the gods. There are three type of Humanism: Liberal Humanism, Socialist Humanism e.g. Soviet/Chinese communism, and Evolutionary Humanism e.g. Nazism and Eugenics.
Each of these has come and gone leaving us without a model. In the future machines will rule the world and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be decoupled from consciousness. 
On this gloomy note the subject was turned over to the floor and many ideas were explored e g:

  • Many futuristic books in the past have not come to pass.
  • We need an ethical framework for technology.
  • Some algorithms do not turn out the way it was intended leaving us not knowing how Computer decisions are made.
  • Machine learning has alternatives to neural networks.
  • Neuroscience is making great strides in how the brain works.
  • Predictions that automatic cars could reduce accidents.
  • AI outperforms humans in so many areas. Can it pass the Turing Test?
  • Is AI a new religion?
  • What constitutes life and what doesn’t constitute life? Will machines have consciousness? Will AI become humanlike or just serve humans? Will we abdicate our decisions?
  • Just because we have created the technology doesn’t mean we can police it.
  • If AI can find answers to big decisions such as climate change, do we let it run or do we assume Humans autonomy is paramount?
  • Brain vs Mind
  • The future of Humanism.
  • Need for a new ethical framework
  • Role of social media.
  • What is pleasure?

Monday, 16 January 2017

Evolutionary Origins of Religion

On 11 January Guy Otten, GMH Secretary, looked at the evolutionary origins of religion.  He mapped the evolution of early man from 6 million years ago to the present day, highlighting the factors that led to the growth of religion. He correlated changes in the brain of our ancestors with the development of the conditions that led to the growth of religion.  The elements of intelligence mapped were 1. general intelligence which includes learning by trial and error and associative learning, 2. social intelligence which involves the ability to infer the mental states of others, 3. technical skills relating for example to the use of tools, 4. awareness of the natural world and 5. language skills.  Evolutionary psychologists believe that modern chimps are likely to resemble our ancestors from 6 million years ago.  

At that time they would have had some intelligence, such as minimal technical skills, for example using sticks to reach into bee hives for honey, and some awareness of the natural world, but the various kinds of intelligence were separate. They would have lived in groups and would not have had any language skills as we know them.  Guy talked through the changes to the brain at different periods:  4 million years ago with the appearance of the first early hominines, 1.8 million years ago and the emergence of Homo Erectus, 500 thousand years ago when Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals appeared.  The brain grew in size, there were advances in technical skills, tools were becoming more advanced, and social and communication skills were developing.  Our ancestors gradually moved out of Africa and by the Stone Age reached remote places such as Southern England.  By 100 thousand years ago the areas of intelligence in Homo Sapiens started to overlap, with the barriers between different parts of the brain weakening.  At that time Homo Sapiens could for instance think about the social world using technical ideas or the natural world using social ideas.  This accompanied the development of language, a higher level of consciousness, and a growth of imagination, all caused by cross-fertilization of the formerly separated intelligence domains.  At this time there is evidence of art in the form of beads, necklaces, figurines and burials with grave goods.

Guy talked about the role that the quick reactions of animals play in ensuring sensory responses to threats and their survival generally.  When language abilities are developed, words can describe dangers.  In addition, language can also facilitate the sharing of knowledge of technical skills about hunting and tool making.  With the development of language came story telling, which played an important role in these societies.  Pre-scientific humans, grappling with phenomena that they did not understand, developed stories about hunting, battles with large animals, changes in the environment, weather phenomena, shortage of food, illness and death, and warfare.  Stories about exaggerated mythical ancestors and mysterious forces that caused events, agents of harm and agents who could save, were also common.  These advances in human thinking set the conditions for the growth of religion.  Religion in this sense is a belief in non-physical beings.  Variants of belief systems involved individuals who claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit world.  Evidence of this type of religion appears at the dawn of recorded history with burials in Egypt from 3100 BCE of the Pharaohs with everything they needed to live in the afterlife.  The burial of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang in c 210-09 BCE with his Terracotta warriors to defend him in the afterlife provides a further example.  There were also rituals in the ancient world designed to propitiate the gods.  These form the origins of church services today, which generally include prayers to the deity.  Shamanic types of religious thinking had their own cosmologies to answer questions about the earth’s origins.  Guy questioned whether their ideas are any different qualitatively from those of the Abrahamic faiths.

This array of religious thinking developed in many parts of the world into the polytheisms of ancient history and still prevails in parts of the world today.  From polytheism came monotheism, as was the case with Judaism and Islam, with belief in one god being just the latest development of magical thinking about the spirit world.  There is an association with primitive people and religion and the cargo cult in Melanesia is a case in point.  In Vanuatu there is a cult that believes that Prince Philip is a god.  Guy pointed out that all religious thinking and beliefs in gods emanates from the same beginnings and are completely unfounded evidence wise.  He argues that when one puts the evolution of religion into perspective one can see a history of some 60 thousand years with religious thinking persisting and different religions coming and going.  Guy concluded that there was little reason to think that the current dominant religions would last indefinitely but we should be mindful that at this point we only have a few hundred years of scientific thinking to aid this turnaround.