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The Problem with Darwinism

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and his name and works connected with it are still familiar to us all.  His theories are as controversial as they ever were, possibly more so.  Religious fundamentalists see his writings as an attack on their own versions of how life came to be and 48% of Americans still don’t believe in evolution (Gallop poll 2007).

The objections put against his theories haven’t changed that much since he first published the Origin of Species back in 1859 and many of them arise from the same misinterpretation of Darwin’s words.  Let’s take Leifchild’s review in the Athenaeum from November 19th 1859.

He initially claims that an intelligent man would reason:

Natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.

A misunderstanding which I’ve heard argued from religious objectors to the principle of evolution even today.

If a monkey has become a man, what may not a man become?

The last time I was talking about evolution, those very points came up, 150 years or so later.  If we’ve been evolving all this time, why aren’t we perfect yet?

I’ll come back to that, but let’s continue with Leifchild’s objections.  He goes on to say:

We might fairly expect to find in the fossiliferous rocks not a few proofs of the former existence of the numerous intermediate links between distinct specific forms if the proposed theory be true.  We do not find them, many will allege, because they never existed….Palaeontology, however, has not yet revealed any such finely graduated organic scale, and it is not logical to assume that it ever will.

Which sounds very like the arguments of Harun Yahya (to pick a name at random) today:

If such animals had really existed, there would have been millions, even billions, of them. More importantly, the remains of these creatures should be present in the fossil record. The number of these transitional forms should have been even greater than that of present animal species, and their remains should be found all over the world

Leifchild’s not finished with fossils though:

There is positively hostile testimony from the rocks to be confronted.  Whole groups of species suddenly and abruptly appear in certain formations and seem at once to contradict any theory of transmutation of species.  Either than fact or the theory must be overturned.

Why aren’t there fish-birds, or short necked giraffes, or beaked reptiles we are asked?

Finally, he jumps in with the argument which basically sums up most of the objections of the American’s polled:

Why construct another elaborate theory to exclude Deity from renewed acts of creation?  Why not at once admit that new species were introduced by the Creative energy of the Onmipotent.  Why not accept direct interference, rather than evolutions of law, and needlessly indirect or remote action?

It seems to me that the arguments against Darwin’s theory haven’t changed that much in the last 150 years.  However, this is where science has the advantage – we have the benefits of 150 years worth of experimentation, theorising, testing and confirmation to build on.  We can accept criticisms and drawbacks to theories, even welcome them as harbingers of a more complete theory.  Ok, so let’s turn that scientific juggernaut to bear – how much have we added to Darwin’s theory in the last 150 years?

Well, for starters, we’ve discovered a mechanism for evolution to work.  The science of genetics has shown us how small changes in the pattern of our DNA and RNA can have large effects on our bodies and possibly even behaviours.  We’ve also discovered how those traits can be passed on to our children and why features are generally distinct rather than blended.  Darwin could only speculate.  We’ve seen evolution in action as viruses acquire resistance to antibiotic strains.  Darwin could only theorise based on evidence.

So, let’s see where we are with respect to the above criticisms.

Let’s start with the so-called ‘Cambrian Explosion’ and the gaps in the fossil record.  It worried Darwin that the fossil record seems to indicate that virtually all major animal species appeared in a short interval at the beginning of the Cambrian period, starting around 530 million years ago, with fossils of the so-called major phyla (animals which share the same basic body plan, for want of a proper explanation) appearing in a period or around 5 to 10 million years after that (figures according to Gould).

However, recent studies are beginning to find evidence of pre-Cambrian ancestors for some species, pushing back their divergence point to before the ‘explosion’.   In addition, not every evolutionary change will generate fossil evidence.  Fossilisation isn’t going to preserve the soft-fleshy bits of any animal’s body so any evolutionary change which wasn’t affecting the hard body structure of creatures won’t be seen.  It may also be that for much of the pre-Cambrian era there simply weren’t that many animals around, or those that were were scattered in small sparse geographically separate groups.

Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University remarks:

Does this course of events create a problem for Darwinism, even for evolution? I do not think so. In particular, the search for any sort of trigger may be to misunderstand the problem. Rather than invoking an almost endless litany of possibilities, among which some of the more popular include the invention of a Hox gene, eyes, cell signalling, extracellular matrix, nerve cells, armour, guts and so on, it may be more useful to regard this event as the natural and inevitable result of the continuing evolution of a planetary system that shows cumulative and irreversible bio-geochemical changes. As and when the conditions are appropriate, the opportunism and flexibility of the evolutionary process will exert itself.

So, when new opportunities for life emerged in the Cambrian era, there was naturally an explosion of newly successful plans to exploit it.

Ok, but why don’t we see transitional animals in the fossil record?  Where are the bird lizards and the short necked giraffes?

Here’s where we need to consider how new species are likely to evolve.  Let’s take a group of lizards.  Any mutations from the standard ‘lizard model’ are likely to be bred out as long as the mutated children remain in the group.  Now let’s assume that our group becomes split into two, by say a mountain range or a river.  Separated by a geological boundary it is likely that the two groups may evolve differently.  Changes in one will not necessarily be represented by changes in the other and so, over a long period of time, they will differ enough to become separate species.   We can see this in action with shrews today.  Mongolian shrews cannot interbreed with Spanish shrews, even though there may be a continual chain of interbreeding shrews running between the two.

Now rejoin the groups.  If you look at the fossil record for the original site it will appear than a new species has appeared practically overnight, with no intermediate changes visible

If the two ends of the chain then remerge, or the two groups of lizards span the river, then we will start to see jumps in the fossil record they leave behind, as if a new species has suddenly appeared, ready made.  If one species out competes the other, you then see the other disappear, having been replaced.  That doesn’t mean that they made a massive evolutionary jump, merely that they evolved seperately in another location.

We also need a feeling for the amount of time which can pass over the period which a paleontologist would consider instantaneous.  The American geneticist Ledyard Stebbins considers the example of a mouse which gains an evolutionary advantage in each generation by being very slightly bigger.  Ignoring any other factors, such as the cost of growing in size, how long would it take before the mouse became the size of an elephant?  Picking a very small value for weight increase with each generation, so small that it wouldn’t be measurable by human observers, he calculated that it would take about 12,000 generations of mice before they reached elephantine sizes.  If you assume each generation lasts 5 years, that’s a 60,000 year timespan to go from mouse to elephant.  That period is too small to be measured by the standard techniques of dating the fossil record.

Our mouse to elephant jump would appear to be instantaneous.

The other objections are far easier to dismiss.  Next on the list, “If man evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys and why aren’t we perfect yet?“.  The first part is easy, man didn’t evolve from monkeys, we both share a common ancestor who wasn’t either.  Both men and monkeys have evolved enough to propagate their genes onto their offspring in their own respective fields.  Put a monkey in a city or a man with no equipment in a jungle and neither will perform that well.  We’re adapted to meet the requirements for survival in our environment and no more. Any additional changes which don’t provide an evolutionary advantage in the short term will disappear and, importantly each step towards those changes must also provide an evolutionary advantage too.  We might think it would be handy to still have tails, for example, but if the cost, in extra energy expended and food required, doesn’t exceed the benefit, or it doesn’t help us have children then it won’t happen.  Moreover, even if a tail would be an advantage, if any of the steps required to create one create a disadvantage then it still won’t happen.

Evolution doesn’t operate with an end goal in mind.  It’s not working towards perfection, saintliness, immortality or anything else, it’s completely blind to the consequence of change.  Unsuccessful changes die out, successful ones continue, not through foresight or design, but through the harsh realities of life and death.  As humans we’ve been able to manipulate our environments and mitigate some of the harsher faces of natural selection, but it’s still running, whether we like it or not.

Finally, the religious argument.  This is one we can dismiss even if there was no other evidence at all for evolution.  Darwin’s theory, combined with the latest advances in genetics, provide a mechanism whereby complexity can emerge from simplicity.  It’s elegance is that it can start from the most basic building blocks for life and provide a route which creates the world around us in all its magnificence and horror.  All religious creation stories start from complexity, a creator of some description which inevitably is more complicated than the things being created, and move down to simpler things like us.  That explains nothing.  You’ve just explained the creation of a complicated thing, the natural living world, by assuming the existence of an even more complicated thing, a creator god.  You’ve made the problem worse!

But anyway, it’s time I got back to the point of this post which has gone on far longer than I’d planned!  What is the problem then with Darwinism?

We need to be careful not to just limit ourselves to quoting Darwin when defending evolution.  If we do then we are in danger of simply replacing one dogmatic theory with another.  The whole reason that scientific endeavour is always going to be superior to religious dogma is that it holds within it the possibility that it might be wrong, that there could be a better, more encompassing theory which might explain more about the world that the current.  Darwinism has held up well, but its strength comes from its scientific background, a background which evolves his theory as new facts emerge.  Unlike religious faith which never changes, even in the light of new evidence, scientific theories can adapt, become more explanatory and of more use to us in understanding the world.  A survival of the fittest of their own.

Posted in science.

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…and they wonder why people aren’t interested in politics.

Central to the political system here in the UK is the concept of Prime Minister’s Question Time.  This is a period where MPs can take the opportunity to hold the government of the day to account on the serious issues affecting the country and engage in debate over the best way to proceed.  Time is limited and so only the most important questions should really be covered, after all the governance of a country is a serious matter.

So, what was the telling issue of the day today?  The global economic meltdown?  The continuing conflicts in Iraq?  Matters in Israel?  No, apparently how old the Venetian artist Titian was when he died in 1576.

Gordon Brown mentioned the artist in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month

I’m reminded of the story of Titian, who’s the great painter who reached the age of 90, finished the last of his nearly 100 brilliant paintings, and he said at the end of it, ‘I’m finally beginning to learn how to paint,’ and that is where we are.”

Ever alert to the vital issues of the day, the opposition Conservative leader David Cameron, leapt on this statement

The Prime Minister never gets his facts right.  He told us the other day he was like Titian aged 90.  The fact is Titian died at 86

Of course, following that statement, the media rushes off to Wikipedia, the one reliable source of all information on the Internet, to find out the facts.  Once there, they find that according to the page, David Cameron is correct, but the entry has also been recently updated.  Updated that day in fact, to change his date of death to match Cameron’s statement.  And you thought it was only students who did that kind of thing?

It’s gets more interesting though, if you do an RIPE lookup on the address which made the change, where does it go?

inetnum: 194.203.158.96 – 194.203.158.111
netname: CONSCENT02
descr: Conservative Central Office

Oopsie. Rumbled!

Conservative Central office have now owned up blaming an ‘over-eager member of staff‘ but that’s not really the point.  Who cares when Titian died?  The whole thing trivialises the business of politics, but sadly it seems to be reflective of what MPs think matters.  Incidentally, I’m still pointing an accusing finger at the media for relying on Wikipedia again for information rather than doing real research.

As an aside, it is briefly diverting to check what else their ‘over-eager member of staffhas seen fit to change on Wikipedia:  (assuming that the IP address was always associated with Conservative Central Office of course)

and

Oh, in case you were wondering, no-one seems to know for sure how old Titian was when he died, so the whole thing is anyone’s guess anyway.

Posted in politics.

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Jacqui Smith confirms: No support for CCTV in the UK?

Yes, our old friend Jacqui Smith is in the news again  This time she’s finally conceded that she’s the only person in the country who’s in favour of her repeated attempts to remove any degree of privacy from the UK’s citizens in the name of security.

She remarks in a letter to The Guardian yesterday:

I know of no community in the country that has yet to join the crusade of some in the Conservative party for fewer CCTV cameras.  Quite the reverse.

Actually trying to parse that sentence makes my head hurt.

[Blatently nicked from The Register but I can’t resist Jacqui Smith stories]

Posted in news, politics.

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Satire bested by reality once more

Sometimes you just read stories which you would swear have come straight from the pages of The Onion.

An Australian church has decided that the recent bushfires in Victoria, which I’ll remind you, have killed at least 160 people with the death toll still rising, weren’t the result of arsonists, as the current news reports might have you believe.

No, they were the result of God removing his conditional protection from the State after they decriminalised abortion.

He (Pastor Danny Nalliah) said these bushfires have come as a result of the incendiary abortion laws which decimate life in the womb.

“In my dream I saw fire everywhere with flames burning very high and uncontrollably. With this I woke up from my dream with the interpretation as the following words came to me in a flash from the Spirit of God.

That His conditional protection has been removed from the nation of Australia, in particular Victoria, for approving the slaughter of innocent children in the womb.”

What God feels about the innocent people who have died in the fires presumably wasn’t revealed to the Pastor.  But there is hope, he reports from the Bible:

“If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

So, just bow down and admit you’re wrong and I’ll call off the fire.  Gee thanks.

I rather suspect that relying on the help of the fire and support services is probably a more reliable solution.  Interestingly, the Ministry is offering to distribute collected goods to help the relief effort too, which you’d think would be acting against God’s will in their eyes.  Still, I guess as long as you preach at the same time it’s probably ok.

What I’d find more worrying if I was Australian, is that both the government treasurer, Peter Costello and their PM, John Howard, have previous associations with the pastor, although Peter Costello has distanced himself from the God’s punishment theory.

It’s deeply disturbing to me that leaders of any group should try and use a national disaster such as this to try and gain publicity and support for their cause, whether religious or otherwise.  Hopefully painting their god as some sort of super-villian raining fire on his enemies will only serve to turn people off their organisation.  No-one likes a bully after all.

Incidentally, if you’d like to help the Red Cross disaster relief campaign in Australia, you can submit donations online

Posted in news, politics, religion.

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The Thatcher Effect

Take a look at the picture on the right.  There’s something rather unusual about it and no, I don’t just mean that it’s upside down.

Notice anything odd?

Notice anything odd?

I’ve written before about how our brains are extremely efficient pattern recognition machines, particularly when it comes to images which we encounter every day like human faces.

Studies have shown that even newborn babies are comforted even by a few dots and a line arranged in an appropriate facial pattern and our recognition abilities only increase as we get older.

It’s this ability that leads us to spot the man in the moon, faces on Mars or visions in toast.  We have a schema image of what we expect a face to look like and have a tendency to map what we see onto that template which often makes it difficult to see anything else if reality isn’t actually quite what we expect.

With that in mind, let’s go back to the photo.  Spotted what’s wrong yet?

It’s actually an example of what’s become known as the Thatcher effect.  This was an example of how we can be fooled by images with misleading cues which was discovered by Peter Thompson, a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of York.  It’s known as the Thatcher effect as the photograph he used to demonstrate it was a picture of Margaret Thatcher.

Ok, time’s up.  Perhaps if I flipped the photo above and showed it the right way up?

Eep!

Eep!

No, that’s not just me on a bad day (and I’m ignoring any comments from people who know me who just think that’s a normal picture).

It seems that we’re really bad at spotting facial elements which don’t meet our template.  We don’t generally run into people with upside-down mouths and eyes in real life, so they don’t fit our schema and we don’t interpret what we see correctly.

Interestingly,  people who have Prosopagnosia, a lack of the ability to recognise faces, aren’t effected by this illusion, suggesting that they’re not processing faces against a template in the same way.  There’s some other nice examples of the effect on the internet, as well as this more subtle version [warning the last link contains adult language].

Posted in psychology.

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You wait all day then three come at once..

Hot on the heels of the Atheist Bus campaign, three different Christian groups have jumped onto the slogan bandwagon with their own, pro-God commercials.
Apparently, The Christian Party is going for the somewhat unoriginal

“There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.”

Printed and phrased to look very similar to the atheist advert

There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Even down to font and colouring.  So close in fact that I wondered whether the photo was just generated using the atheist bus slogan generator.  Photo-shopped the picture might be at the moment, but it surely will get more interesting when the ASA start to receive complaints.  Remember, Christian Voice previously lodged an objection to the original atheist advertisment and then proclaimed that:

The FSM will launch their adverts soon

The FSM will launch their adverts soon

‘If the ASA had thought the humanists could provide evidence for their claim, they would have asked them for it. As they know there is no evidence for the proposition that ‘there is probably no God’, they have let their secularist friends off the hook. ‘I debated this issue secularists five times in recent days, and despite repeated challenges, they could not once come up with anything to back up their claim that there is ‘probably no God’.

I’m now really looking forward to seeing the evidence to support the new Christian Party slogan.  You note that they didn’t even go for a hedge of ‘probably‘, so it’s presumably a cut-and-dried put up, or shut up statement.  Strikes me than anything short of divine manifestation in the witness box, ‘I pledge to tell the truth, so help me me‘, isn’t going to cut it to back up that statement.

The Russian Orthadox Church are displaying a similar lack of originality with the slogan:

There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don’t worry and enjoy your life.

I wonder if the Humanist Society should feel flattered at how much everyone liked their phrasing, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all

Finally, the Trinitarian Bible Society are just dropping to the level of the school-yard.

“The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God – Psalm 53.1”

They’re cunningly avoiding the substantiation requirement of the ASA with that one, by just quoting the Bible, but surely that’s far more insulting than the atheist message?

Just to confirm who’s firmly grabbed the high ground in this discussion, the British Humanist Association released the following comments:

We entirely support free expression and freedom of belief, and so fully support the right of these Christian groups to place their ads on buses. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Of course, there are differences between the Atheist Bus ads and the new Christian ones and I want to take this opportunity to reflect them.

Our ads were a response to ads run by jesussaid.org whose website promised an eternity of hellfire for non-Christians. Our response message, suggested by comedy writer Ariane Sherine was intended to be reassuring, telling people not to worry and enjoy life, as there was probably no god and so no cause to fear an eternity of hellfire.

Our ads were funded entirely by thousands of individual donors who gave small amounts in an outpouring of popular support for the positive message. The ads now launched in response to our response are funded by organisations or wealthy individuals.

Our ads were positive and peaceful. They didn’t say, for example, that religious people were ‘fools’, unlike one of the response ads being run, which says that “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.”

Our ads were undogmatic and funny, with the addition of the ‘probably’ in line with the continuing openness of humanists to new evidence and in an echo of previous funny ads, like the Carlsberg ad which stated that it was ‘probably the best lager in the world’.  The new ads are dogmatic and declaratory, leaving no room for reason and debate.

Of course, these groups are free to express themselves as they choose. Our ads encouraged people to think for themselves and I am convinced that they will continue to do so.

Image from the Atheist Bus Slogan generator, based on an original photo © John Worth

Posted in news, religion.

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Darwin’s Big Idea

I managed to make it out to the Darwin’s Big idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum last weekend.  I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about his theories, having read numerous books on the subject, but it is quite revealing of his character.  When we picture Charles Darwin these days it’s in his full beard pose, looking very Victorian and distinguished, an elder scientific statesman.  When he first travelled to the Galapagos Islands to begin the studies which would eventually lead to the Origin on Species, he was a young man of twenty on his gap year.  Food and frolics await!

The Young Charles Darwin

The Young Charles Darwin

Picture the bearded figure from the standard paintings.  He begins to study the Galapagos tortoises, perhaps noticing that some varieties have a saddle-like shape to their shells, whereas others on different islands don’t.  Alternatively of course, he just decides that it would be good fun to sneak up on them and have a ride:

The inhabitants believe that these animals are absolutely deaf; certainly they do not overhear a person walking close behind them. I was always amused, when overtaking one of these great monsters as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently got on their backs, and then, upon giving a few raps on the hinder part of the shell, they would rise up and walk away;—but I found it very difficult to keep my balance.

The general approach seemed to be to eat most of the potential specimens, to the extent that ‘staying out of Charles Darwin’s way’ was probably a pretty good survival strategy.  Take the armadillo for instance:

we were obliged to be content with a frugal meal on an armadillo which we had shot by the way. The flesh of this animal has, indeed, an agreeable taste, resembling fowl, but is very fat

Or the puma

I was suddenly struck with horror at thinking that I was eating one of the favourite dishes of the country, namely, a half-formed calf, long before its proper time of birth. It turned out to be Puma; the meat is very white, and remarkably like veal in taste

The tortoises didn’t get away with just being ridden either:

While staying in this upper region, we lived entirely upon tortoise-meat. The breastplate roasted (as the Gauchos do carne con cuero), with the flesh attached to it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup; but otherwise the meat to my taste is very indifferent.

Oh, and just in case you’re thinking that he stuck to merely eating animals unimportant to his records, I refer you to the Lesser Rhea

When at the Rio Negro, in Northern Patagonia, I repeatedly heard the Gauchos talking of a very rare bird which they called Avestruz Petise.

He found one eventually, after eating most of it:

The bird was cooked and eaten before my memory returned. Fortunately the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers, and a large part of the skin, had been preserved.

Preserved for his sandwiches in the morning presumably.

Darwin's Notebook

Darwin's Notebook

What isn’t mentioned is the pre-edited title of his most famous work was ‘The Origin of Species and 1001 Ways to Cook Them‘, or ‘Our tasty ancestors, an evolutionary journey into yummyness‘ .

Cooking tips aside, it’s an interesting exhibit, although the placement of the live iguana as an example of animals which didn’t live on the Galapagos, seemed a bit unnecessary.  I’ll let the Horned Frog slide though (I like frogs).

It covers the famous voyage of the Beagle, examples from his notebooks, including the first sketch of the familiar tree structure of animal classification.  It then shows a reproduction of his study, complete with wheeled chair to save getting up and various animal skeletons to show similarities in bone structure and development.  It finishes with a brief look at some of the controversies which surrounded his theory which, ironically, seems to be more challenged these days than it was at the time!

Give it a look, but remember to take some lunch with you, you might come out feeling peckish and I think they’d object if you tried to eat the iguana.

Posted in diary, psychology, reviews, science.

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Auditory priming

Ok, before we go any further, I’d like you to listen to the following:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Hear anything, or just random gurgling?

The audio in the clip above seems to crop up in a number of children’s toys.

It’s used in the Fisher Price Real Loving Mommy Cuddle and Coo doll for example and in the Baby Pals game on the Nintendo DS.

Now, what if I told you that apparently these toys are being used to promote Islamic fundamentalism and Satanism (yes, two religious beliefs for the price of one)  Confused?

Listen to the sample again,  only this time listen out for the phrases; Satan is King and Islam is the light.

Did you hear them this time?  Personally, I’m struggling to hear Satan is king, but I can sort of hear Islam is the light at a bit of a stretch, now that I’m listening for it.  It’s that last clause that’s important, now that I’m listening for it.

The human brain is a pattern matching machine, particularly when it comes to things like language.  You’ve probably seen TV reports for example where people with strong accents are interviewed and presented with subtitles in case what they say is difficult to understand.  With the subtitles you can understand them easily and might well wonder why they bothered with them, but next time it happens try covering them up.  Suddenly what you could understand before is a lot harder to make out.

The phrases above were both spotted in different toys by the same US woman, Rachel Jones.  Now, who knows what triggered her hearing the phrase the first time, but once primed for it she could easily pick it up again and tell others, priming them to hear it too.  Hearing phrases in random static isn’t a new phenomenon, it even has a psychological term to describe it, Auditory pareidolia.  The same phenomenon leads some people to hear the voices of spirits in random static, or satanic messages in rock music.

Unlike backmasking where phrases are intentionally added, these are all just misfires of the pattern recognition abilities of the brain trying to make sense of sounds where none exists.  Provide a context for that sense and the urge to interpret it becomes even stronger but the phrases still aren’t really there, you just think they are.

Alternatively a secret cabal of Satanists and Islamists have put aside their differences, infiltrated the highest levels of the toy and game industry and are breeding a league of subliminally controlled child drones to do their evil bidding.  I’ll let you decide which is more likely.

Incidentally, I’d be interested in hearing in the comments whether or not you heard the phrases in the gurgling before or after you read what you were supposed to hear (or even heard anything else!)

Audio: © Mattel

Posted in linguistics, news, psychology.

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The spirit of Mary Whitehouse lives on

It’s now been three days since the new legislation against extreme pornography came into effect here in the UK, despite protests from CAAN and others, so it’s time to get organised and wipe your hard drives of anything disreputable if you haven’t already.

So, what should you be looking for?  The law specifies that all of the following elements must be present:

  • The image is pornographic;
  • The image is grossly offensive, disgusting, or otherwise of an obscene  character
  • The image portrays in an explicit and realistic way, one of the following extreme acts:
  1. An act which threatens a person’s life;
  2. An act which results in or is likely to result in serious injury to a person’s anus,
    breast or genitals;
  3. An act involving sexual interference with a human corpse,
  4. A person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive),
  5. and a reasonable person looking at the image would think that the people and animals portrayed were real.

The last section does at least seem to rule out prosecutions resulting from the possession of Japanese manga, although they could well still fall foul of the new sections of the Coronors and  Justice billPictures of Russell Brand’s ex could well be a different matter.  Films rated by the BBFC are also exempt, but intriguingly, not excerpts from them.

Of course, it’s still difficult to see what extra benefit this law adds.  The Ministry of Justice has already said that no image that would be legal under the Obscene Publications Act will be covered by this legislation anyway, so why do we need additional laws?

In fact this new legislation sounds suspiciously similar to the many other pieces of new legislation produced recently.  An attempt to look tough on the tabloid-issue of the week but without actually making any real difference.  Police chiefs have already said they’re not planning on targeting people for breaking the new law, possibly wise as the last time they were asked they didn’t even seem to know what was covered.

Fortunately for our collective morals a new internet vigilante group has appeared, picking up the torch from Mary Whitehouse and promising to catch and report offenders to ISPs.  They’re planning on doing this by capturing IP addresses from bittorrent streams which they have categorised as falling foul of the act.  Of course, presumably to do that they’re going to have to watch the streams themselves first and thus fall foul of the law.  A slight problem perhaps?

Still they clearly have the moral high-ground, linking their enforcement activities to the beating to death of a suspected paedophile. Ok, to be fair, they do say they would “rather not associate ourselves with such.. unsavory (sic) people” which is clearly a ringing condemnation of their actions.

I’m sure we’re all grateful to have such a caring organisation looking out for our well-being and, if they fail, they can probably at least sell on their URL for a few quid..

Posted in news, politics.

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Why we need monsters at the bottom of the garden

Monster eye

Monster eye

I showed in passing in my last post a quote from Douglas Adams:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

Now, he was talking about the the perverse nature of religious belief to demonstrate that he felt it was unnecessary.  Religion isn’t the only source of beliefs however, particularly for children and there are far better books to get them from than the Bible.

I’m referring of course to fairy tales, those windows into a more magical world where the wild things are, the denizens of the dark cupboards, mysterious castles and long forgotten kingdoms who teach us that there are monsters out there in the world.  In our current society we seem to be losing the need for monsters.  We shelter our children from the frightening and the upsetting, censor their stories and hamstrung their villains into comical figures, easy for heroes to vanquish and then allow to escape, shaking their fist at the hero as if they had just taken the last biscuit from the packet rather than destroy their entire life’s plans.

Would Disney’s Cinderella have been a better story if the evil sisters had chopped off their toes to fit into her shoes and had their eyes pecked out?  What about the evil queen in Snow White?  Should she have danced in red-hot iron shoes until she died?  Possibly, it certainly would have shown the results of their wickedness in an easy to understand form.  What of Little Red Riding Hood?  In the original story both Red Riding Hood and Grandmother are devoured by the wolf, who gets off scot free.  A scary ending, but gets the point of the story across far better than relying on a woodcutter always being there to rescue you.

Our time as children is when we learn how to behave in the world and we do them no favours by sheltering them from its nastier side.  In fact, they are generally much more resilient than you’d expect.  Neil Gaiman, an author who doesn’t shelter us from the frightening, found that adults generally find his book, Coraline, creepier than kids do.  [Neil incidentally has just been awarded the Newbery medal in the US for The Graveyard Book which is gloriously full of monsters.  Perhaps this is a turning point?]

These stories teach us that it is ok to be scared and brave when you face those fears and do something anyway.  That there are times when you win and times when you don’t and without the latter, the former wouldn’t exist.  For without monsters there is no cost to defeat and, without cost, there are no challenges, and without challenges, no thrill in victory or sadness in failure, just the grey depths of uniformity.

To end on another quote, this time from G.K. Chesterton:

Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

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