Simple rules

This is another archival repost, originally written for the old blog in november 2007.

The main driving force for creationists is not science, but ethics. Their trump card is that “evolution is immoral”: they cite “might makes right” and eugenics, quote Darwin’s supposedly racist terminology in The Origin and Voyage, and put evolution at the centre of Nazi doctrine. Everything from school massacres to teenage pregnancy is blamed on “evolutionization”.[1] It is not evolution that specifically bothers them; rather, evolution is a prominent representative of all things that aren’t biblically literal. In a world where the bible is not simple, straightforward and inerrant, ethics require rational thought and empirical facts. There are fuzzy lines between right and wrong, and tough choices where the lesser of two evils is difficult to determine. Creationists don’t care about the truth; rather, they are angry that evolution casts doubts on their book of simple rules.

The anti-abortion movement appears convinced that a massive international genocide is occurring. Their argument is that taking a life is murder, and life begins at conception. They are not using “life” in any scientific sense, nor expecting their argument to be taken as a scientific one. To try arguing the matter on scientific grounds is to throw your time away. Try a Socratic session of defining terms and you will be accused of dehumanising through language, in the mould of the Nazi holocaust. Arguments over when consciousness or pain detection begins to develop will persuade nobody, because they rely on the anti-abortionist admitting that life does not have solid boundaries, but has grey areas, in which difficult ethical decisions lie. The argument is not about when life begins, it is about simple rules.

G.K. Chesterton is oft quoted as saying something along the lines of “the problem with not believing in God is not that one believes in nothing, but that one will believe in anything.”[2] I am not so pessimistic, but it does seem to be true that in the absence of God’s simple rules, people do their best to fill the vacuum. Take the organic food movement. Organic food is quickly rising in popularity in the United Kingdom because it markets itself as tastier and healthier, but most of all because it is ethical: good for the environment, and fair on the producers. Buyers of organic are making the simple rule “organic is ethical”, and delegating the difficult tasks to the producers and guardians of the organic brand. Technically, this may be classed as the fallacy of “appeal to authority”, but in practice it is reasonable, as none of us has time enough to investigate everything in depth ourselves, and so we must delegate at least some of the work to authorities. However, when delegating the task, most people assume that the producers and the guardians of the organic brand will be taking an empirical approach to deciding the most ethical growing practices, and the rules for producing the healthiest, tastiest and most environmentally friendly food. Sadly, they are not. The organic movement has written its own holy book of simple rules and superstition. The empirically determined healthiest and tastiest product is substituted with the most natural product. All chemical pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and GM are out, while natural equivalents are in: a surrogate in place of improving biodiversity. Instead of developing sensible rules for the use of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics, which farming has traditionally grossly misused, the organic movement dispenses with them in favour of — don’t laugh, animal welfare is at stake here — homeopathy.

In last December’s leader criticising the organic and fair trade movements, The Economist miss the point. Instead of criticising those movements for judging their efficacy by surrogate outcomes and arbitrary rules, they simply list their own alternative surrogate outcomes and arbitrary rules. Both sides are merely providing just-so stories for why their farming methods are better, rather than looking at actual empirical measurements of the true results they want to achieve. Of course, The Economist is not even interested in the same results as the organic and fair trade movements: they are interested in the simple rule of a free market, no ifs and no buts.

Simple minds need simple rules; but intelligent rational people can easily find themselves seduced by them too, if they are not wary. Science has simple rules too, but of a different kind. Science has elegant equations and beautiful theories that make your heart race when their simplicity clicks. Witness Thomas Henry Huxley’s comments on closing The Origin of Species: “Why didn’t I think of that?” The most awesome aspect of evolution is that such simple rules produce the complex wonders of life. Life, when it becomes complex, no longer conforms to any one simple rule. Neither can our lives. In an episode of Father Ted, the senile old drunk Father Jack professes the least understanding, but provokes the most productive thought from others, with his mantra “that would be an ecumenical matter”. If you’re faced with difficult questions or fierce arguments, and in need of a simple rule, I offer you this: “that would be an empirical matter.” And from there, let the wonderful complexity blossom.


  1. Tom DeLay, quoted in “Evolution Revolution”, PBS.org.
  2. Though the American Chesterton Society have trouble verifying the source.

Sunday syndrome #6: Welcome to life

This is another archival repost from the old blog — this one from january 2008.

This post is part six in a series. The series so far can be found here.

Cogito, ergo sum.

René Descartes, 1637.

I’ve given five posts and several thousand words over to introductions to principles in development, evolution and molecular biology. I won’t be dropping those topics altogether, but it’s time to explore new territories in the Sunday syndrome, including the philosophical and political. Things should be a little more digestible from here on. Chromosomal aberrations — that is, large scale mutations in which so much genetic material is deleted or duplicated that a difference is visible under the light microscope — have serious effects on development. We have discussed a few examples of syndromes which arise in individuals which carry these aberrations, but the individuals we see are the exceptions. In each case, I have given the frequency of the disease in terms of live births, but the frequencies are much higher in conceptions. The deletions that we see in live births are a relatively small proportion of the genome, and we rarely see live births in which both of the two copies of the genome are affected. More extreme deletions do occur, but the individuals carrying them never make it to birth. The rule is miscarriage.

Perhaps the most extreme syndrome that we see surviving to term is anencephaly. And yet, paradoxically, anencephaly has the smallest number of symptoms and directly affected organs of any of the syndromes that I have so far discussed. In most cases, physical development is largely normal, with the exception of one particular system: the nervous system. Anencephaly is classified as a neural tube defect, alongside spina bifida, and is caused by an error during the developmental process of neurulation.

Neurulation starts on day 18 of development, and is complete by day 30. The cells along the centre of the back fold in to form a grove, which then closes over to form the neural tube, the precursor of the central nervous system. With a frequency above one in every 500 births, closure of the neutral tube fails to complete. If this occurs towards the posterior,spina bifida arises, and the individual is physically disabled. When this occurs at the head, the skull does not form properly, and the amniotic fluid destroys the developing brain. Those individuals which survive to term are born without a brain. All will die within hours of birth. The reason anencephaly is the most extreme of our syndromes is because it affects those parts of us that are most uniquely human, and raises important questions about medical ethics, and the fuzzy boundaries of humanity.

This is one of the great social functions of science: to free people from superstition.

Steven Weinberg

Last year, a court case was brought in Ireland to determine whether a woman whose foetus had been diagnosed with anencephaly could travel to the UK for abortion. A French website exists solely to oppose the abortion of anencephalics . It is murder. Despite the fact that these individuals will never have a life. Never have a thought or feeling, either of pain or joy. Never know that they exist or will cease to exist. Never, no matter what the anti-abortionists may tell you, “know God”. There is no they.

I am not willing to believe that the anti-abortion movement is solely about the control of women — though that is undoubtedly a motivation for cynically manipulative church elders. Rather, it is about simple rules. When faced with difficult moral decisions some people are just too cowardly to give important decisions the time and thought that they deserve, and would rather follow an easy formula. Why take the time to make an informed and reasoned decision on an important issue, when you can have somebody else make an uninformed one for you? Why waste paper on a law library when there’s a handy single volume that never needs revising? Why test competing ideas when yours comes straight from the Lord? Why examine his world when his world is so stubbornly rebellious? Sweep aside the complicating details that five hundred years of discovery have burdened us with, and go for the simple answer.

Physiology, psychology and neuroscience, with a little help from physics and philosophy, have destroyed simple dualism. Developmental biology has destroyed the simple boundaries of life and consciousness. Evolutionary biology has destroyed the simple boundary between species. Biochemistry has destroyed the simple boundary between life and non-life. Astronomy has put us in our place and physics has overturned our understanding of that place. It’s time to stop pretending that there are simple rules.