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Archive for May, 2011

I’m halfway through Paul Davies’s book The Eerie Silence, about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project and the wider scientific and philosophical issues involved. One of the ways of investigating the probability of extraterrestrial life is to look at the vexed question of the probability of life on earth, and chapter 2 of the book is entitled, “Life: Freak side-show or cosmic imperative?”

Was there a high probability that any life, let alone intelligent life, would develop on earth? The answer is: we haven’t a clue. And that’s because we still have almost no understanding about how life developed on this planet in the first place; and we don’t even know if it started here anyway – it may have started on Mars and migrated on materials that got dispersed into the solar system and then fell to earth.

We simply don’t know how life began. As Charles Darwin said:

We might as well speculate about the origin of matter.

This lack of knowledge isn’t reflected in the ‘cosmic imperative’ mood of the scientific and journalistic moment. Many thinking people, in other words, believe that given the vastness of the universe the emergence of life must be almost inevitable. Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington declared in 2009:

If you have a habitable world and let it evolve for a few billion years then inevitably some sort of life will form on it… It would be impossible to stop life growing on these habitable planets… There could be one hundred billion trillion Earth-like planets in space, making it inevitable that extraterrestrial life exists’ [25-26].

The flaw in this probability argument is obvious even to a non-scientist like myself. Boss uses the word ‘evolve’: if you let a habitable world ‘evolve’ then life is bound to emerge. That would be true if we had any evidence that a ‘world’ evolves. But we don’t. Life evolves, once it is started – we know that. But we can’t use an assumption about the progress of evolution within life as an argument that life itself, at its beginnings, is the result of a pre-life evolutionary process. We have no idea what such a process might involve, or any evidence that it took place, or any indication of what the probability of it taking place might be.

George Whitesides, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University, gives the alternative view, which Paul Davies himself accepts. First of all he seems sceptical:

How remarkable is life? The answer is: very. Those of us who deal in networks of chemical reactions know of nothing like it… How could a chemical sludge become a rose, even with billions of years to try? … We (or at least I) do not understand. It is not impossible, but it seems very, very improbable [31].

But it’s not so much scepticism as a humble awareness of the impossibility of speaking about a high probability of life emerging when we know so little about what would or would not make it probable in the first place.

How likely is it that a newly formed planet, with surface conditions that support liquid water, will give rise to life? We have, at this time, no clue, and no convincing way of estimating. From what we know, the answer falls somewhere between ‘impossibly unlikely’ and ‘absolutely inevitable’. We cannot calculate the odds of the spontaneous emergence of cellular life on a plausible prebiotic earth in any satisfying and convincing way’ [31].

All we know is that it has happened at least once.

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Holy Week raised more questions for me than it answered – about Jesus, about faith, about the Resurrection. So I spent much of Easter week reading Gerald O’Collins’s Jesus: A Portrait. It looks at Jesus as he is presented in the Scriptures, and connects this portrait with the tradition and teaching of the Church. It’s a beautiful way into the mystery of the person of Christ; and the first chapter, in fact, is entitled ‘The Beauty of Jesus’ – a wonderful way to start a book on Christology.

One of the passages in chapter 12 is called ‘Jesus the questioner’. O’Collins points out how Jesus, even though he gives many answers, often spends a lot of time asking questions. This connects with the pattern of God putting questions to people throughout the Old Testament. Part of the revelation of God is not just providing information but prompting us to face questions that might otherwise have gone unasked.

Some of the simplest questions are the most profound.

In the Book of Genesis God soon confronts Adam with a question: ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9). Right through the Old Testament, God continues to challenge people with utterly basic questions: ‘What have you been doing?’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Why have you abandoned me?’ In the face of Job’s complaints about his unmerited sufferings, the divine Questioner does not offer explanations, but speaks out of a whirlwind: ‘I will question you’ (Job 38:3).

It comes then as no surprise that in John’s Gospel, with its clear statement of the divinity of Jesus, his very first words are a question: ‘What are you looking for?’ (John 1:38). The divine Questioner has become flesh to dwell among us. His opening words take the shape of a terribly simple but profound question: ‘What are you looking for?’ The God who says to Adam, ‘Where are you?’, and to Job, ‘I will question you’, has come among us and slips at once into the divine habit of asking questions.

John’s Gospel invites its readers to let themselves be drawn into the beloved disciple’s experience by noting and mulling over such questions of Jesus as: ‘What are you looking for?’ (1:38), ‘Will you also go away?’ (6:67), ‘Do you believe this?’ (11:26), ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’ (13:12), ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?’ (14:9), ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ (20:15), and through to the awesomely direct question ‘Do you love me?’ (21:15-17) [pp. 202-203].

What a powerful set of questions!

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I promise this will be my last Royal Wedding reflection. But here’s the question: Is it ethically acceptable to lipread when two people are having a private conversation? Of course lipreading, in itself, is not wrong – any more than reading a text or listening to someone’s voice. But for the Royal Wedding last weekend, every newspaper and TV station seemed to employ a professional lipreader to ‘listen in’ to the private conversations of the protagonists; but no-one seemed to question the ethics of this.

If someone has a private conversation, even in a public place, do they still have a right to privacy? What’s the difference between lipreading a private conversation and listening in on a phone call? Why, in other words, are we outraged when a national newspaper admits that it has been tapping the phones of famous people, but not when the world’s media decides to ‘listen in’ on these intimate private conversations?

Is it because they take place on the public stage, so the rules of privacy don’t apply? Is it because these people know about the possibility of being ‘heard’, so they are implicitly recognising that their actions are available for public consumption? Is it because the distinction between public and private does not exist anymore? Is it because ordinary life has become a Big Brother studio, and we all accept as part of the ‘social contract’ that every word we speak might be picked up by a hidden microphone?

Don’t worry – I’m not pretending to be outraged myself. I’m just curious about where the ethical line is: What’s public? What’s private? And why is it that we are quite happy for some private truths to be exposed to public scrutiny but not others?

Holly Watt reports on some of the great lines (and here I am, happy to repeat them…):

“You look beautiful,” he told Kate Middleton, as she walked towards him in her Alexander McQueen dress.

“Yes, it looks fantastic, it’s beautiful,” he added, according to Ruth Press, who has been deaf since birth and works as a forensic lipreader.

Prince William also cracked a joke to his father-in-law at the altar before the royal wedding ceremony, saying: “We’re supposed to have just a small family affair”.

The joke by William to Michael Middleton in Westminster Abbey was spotted by Tina Lannin, lipreader for O’Malley Communications.

She also spotted Prince Harry nervously comment ”Right, she is here now”, as Miss Middleton arrived at the abbey.

And Charlie Swinbourne writes about his experience as a lip-reader, and the fallibility of the process:

Reading lip patterns is vital in helping deaf people fill in the words they can’t hear. I’m partially deaf, and I’ve been lipreading ever since I learned to speak. As well as being a vital part of communication, it’s also fun. I’ve lipread couples bickering in restaurants, footballers telling referees exactly what they think of them, and on Friday, the royal wedding.

During a national event at which the protagonists were visible but crucially not audible, hundreds of deaf people, including my partner and I, added our translations to Twitter in real time. We soon found out that several deaf friends of ours had thought ahead and were actually getting paid for it; working for national news outlets, one working for a series of tabloids and another, for a 24-hour news channel and a magazine.

What was funny was just how often the translations differed from each other. For instance, did William tell Kate at the altar “You look – er, you are beautiful“, or did he say: “You look lovely?”Or, as we thought, did he say: “You look stunning, by the way. Very beautiful.” Then there was the Telegraph, which initially reported William as saying: “You look stunning babe!’

The differences in translation proved that lipreading, far from being some kind of super-power deaf people have (and a great gimmick in movies featuring deaf characters), depends heavily – it’s said 70%-90% – on guesswork. I recently visited a lipreading class to test out my skills, and found that even with a lifetime’s worth of experience, there were still words I struggled to make out.

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Just a follow-up from yesterday’s post about community: Robin Dunbar also writes about the kinds of friendships we form and the number of friends we typically have.

Don’t start over-analysing this and getting depressed about how many friends you don’t have – it’s not a competition or a test of psychological well-being!

On average, we have five intimate friends, 15 good friends (including the five intimate ones), 50 friends and 150 acquaintances. While it is not altogether clear why our relationships are constrained in this way, one possibility is time. A relationship’s quality seems to depend on how much time we devote to it, and since time is limited, we necessarily have to distribute what time we do have for social engagement unevenly. We focus most of it on our inner core of five intimates. Alternatively, it might just be a memory problem: we have a job keeping track of who’s doing what, and can only really keep serious tabs on the inner core of five.

The point about how difficult (and probably unwise) it is to have a large number of ‘intimate friends’ is not different from what Aristotle says about ‘perfect friendship’ in Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such people are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, people cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

Dunbar then connects the question of friendship with yesterday’s question about the ideal size for a community.

But there is one more serious problem lurking behind all this. In traditional small-scale societies, everyone shares the same 150 friends. This was true even in Europe until well into the 20th century, and probably still is true today of isolated rural communities. You might well fall out with them from time to time, but, like the Hutterites, you are bound together by mutual obligation and densely interwoven relationships. And of these, shared kinship was perhaps the most pervasive and important: offend Jim down the road, and you bring granny down on your back because Jim is her second-cousin-once-removed, and she’s got her own sister, Jim’s grandmother, on to her about it.

In the modern world of economic mobility, this simple balance has upset: we grow up here, go to university there, and move on to several elsewheres in a succession of job moves. The consequence is that our social networks become fragmented and distributed: we end up with small pockets of friends scattered around the country, most of whom don’t know each other and, perhaps more importantly, don’t know the family part of our networks. You can offend Jim, and almost no one will care. And if they do, you can afford to move on and leave that whole subset of friends behind. Networks are no longer self-policing.

Because modern geographical communities no longer have the social coherence they had up until the 1950s, it is perhaps inevitable that people become less willing to remonstrate with miscreants because others are unlikely to back them up. Bearing these factors in mind, is it any wonder that some inner-city communities fall victim to gang violence? Our real problem for the future is how to overcome this social fragmentation by recreating a sense of community in our increasingly urbanised and mobile world.

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The perfect size for a community (whether a village, a religious congregation, or a military unit) is… 150. How do we know?

An Amish school

Primates live in groups, which allows them to solve problems together and reduce the risks of being caught by predators. You stick together; you stand united against a common enemy. But all the time an implicit calculation is being made to work out whether the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs.

Robin Dunbar explains:

The psychological demands of living in large groups mean that, in primates, species-typical group size correlates rather closely with the species’ brain size. On the primate model, our oversized brain would predict a group size of around 150, the number now known as Dunbar’s Number. We find it in the typical community size of hunter-gatherer societies, in the average village size in county after county in the Domesday book, as well as in 18th-century England; it is the average parish size among the Hutterites and the Amish (fundamentalist Christians who live a communal life in the Dakotas and Pennsylvania, respectively). It is also the average personal network size – the number of people with whom you have a personalised relationship, one that is reciprocal (I’d be willing to help you out, and I know that you’d help me) as well as having a history (we both know how we came to know each other).

The Hutterites illustrate rather clearly just what’s involved. They deliberately split their communities once they exceed 150 individuals because, they maintain, you cannot run a community of more than 150 people by peer pressure alone: instead, you need a police force.

The same thinking also applies to business, management, and the military:

We see the same principle at work in the management philosophy of the Gore-Tex company, known for its breathable, waterproof fabrics. Instead of expanding factory size as its business grew, the late “Bill” Gore kept this factory size to 150 and simply built a new, completely self-contained factory next door. The result is a work community where everyone knows everyone else, and there is no need for formal line-management systems or name badges; everyone is committed to each other and to the communal vision. Has this been the secret to its unusual success as a business?

Perhaps the best example, however, remains the military. All modern armies have a similar organisational structure, mostly developed over the last 300 years by trial and error on the battlefield. The core to this is the company – typically around 120-180 in size – almost exactly Dunbar’s Number. As anyone who has been in the army will tell you, company is family, far more so than battalion or regiment.

Although wild claims have been made about the number of friends people have on Facebook, the vast majority of us have only 120-130. Yes, you can have 500 or 1,000 friends if you want to sign people up, but this seems to have more to do with competition than with real friendship.

It makes you think about the communities you are involved in.

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My other highlight from the Royal Wedding was the trees that were brought into the nave of Westminster Abbey. It wasn’t just that they beautified the interior of the Abbey, like an oversized bunch of carefully arranged flowers; it was the magical sense they created that by entering into this building you were actually going out into another completely different world.

I’ve always loved this kind of illusion. It demonstrates how going inside can sometimes take you outside; how fixing your glance on something small can sometimes make your vision much broader. It’s like a metaphor for the power of the imagination itself, which uses something ordinary to transport you somewhere extraordinary. The very act of reading, for example – so still, so stationary, so solitary – is to float up into another world, or fall down into a rabbit-hole of adventure.

The trees in Westminster Abbey made me think of one of my favourite childhood books, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, where the inner walls of Max’s bedroom are transformed into the treescape of a terrifying jungle. And the wallpaper in David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth that turned his sitting room into an autumnal forest. And Lucy clambering through the wardrobe as the coats turned into leaves and branches and the darkness opened out into the forest snow of Narnia. And Dr Who stepping into the Tardis.

My favourite example of this kind of imaginative inversion is St Francis of Assisi’s Portiuncula. This is the little medieval chapel that once sat in the forest in the plain below Assisi. But they cut down the trees and built an enormous basilica over the entire chapel. So now you leave the streets, walk into the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and instead of being ‘inside’ you are transported ‘outside’ to the forest glade surrounding the chapel. Every time I have been there I have been struck with child-like wonder.

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