This is my personal blog with opinion, politics, and poetry. If you are after my official research group’s website, please navigate to http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/strongcorrelations.
To the French people:
Thank you on behalf of the many millions of tolerant Europeans for not giving in to the easy answers peddled by populist xenophobes. Once more, you have demonstrated your democratic maturity. Special thanks to those who have had the courage to choose what they judged the lesser of two evils.
Just finished watching Avengers: Age of Ultron (again). Caring for my sick daughter does have its compensations (though I shudder at the backlog piling up at work!)
The powerful image in the end credits, of the main characters portrayed as classical heroes, in marble, made me reflect on Joss Whedon’s take on heroism. I think it is best captured in the closing words of Angel – with which the 12 seasons of the Buffy/Angel television saga came to an end:
SPIKE: In terms of a plan?
ANGEL: We fight.
SPIKE: Bit more specific.
Well, personally, I kind of want to slay the dragon.
(the demon horde attacks)
Let’s go to work.
(swings his sword)
(Fade to black.)
Or beloved heroes do not die on screen, but we are left in doubt as to what will happen next.
In the Whedon universe, heroes are not the guys who always win, but the ones who are always ready to put up a fight. This idea is not a Whedon invention, of course, but Whedon does come up with powerful ways to put it forward in the realm of pop culture.
As our world is increasingly crunched between the souless wills of haters and philistines it is good to remind ourselves that heroism is about fighting on, even when it feels like we’ll be crushed.
Ultimately, heroism (or whatever lesser version of it we, mere mortals, may manage to muster) is not about winning, but just a better way of life. As in the opening lines of that other great piece of pop culture, the feature film Lorenzo’s Oil:
“Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of the Gods. So let us celebrate the struggle.”
A lot has happened in UK politics and society since my post on the eve of the Brexit referendum result. I suppose many Britons may be wondering how millions of EU citizens who made the UK their home are feeling right now (a subject the media have barely grazed). This is my small attempt at conveying it in a way that, I hope, most Britons will be able to understand.
Imagine being an Englishman who has lived in Edinburgh for the past 20 years. Your kids grew up there so they feel Scottish and speak with Scottish accents. You are a fully-integrated member of your community, though of course you still feel English. But that’s all right because you also feel British and Scotland is part of Great Britain – so you have every right to be where you are and lead the life that you do.
Now imagine that the the Scottish government decide to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence. So far, so plausible. But let me ask you to imagine one more thing – perhaps not so plausible. Imagine the Scottish government decide that, this time round, the English men and women who, like you, live in Scotland, will not be allowed to vote. Moreover, to your shock and horror, the UK government accept that.
Now suppose that the whole referendum campaign revolves around whether Scotland should allow so many English people to settle there. There are two sides of the debate: some who say that the influx of English people into Scotland is intolerable (completely ignoring the scots who go the other way); the others, far from defending your positive contributions, grant that having too many English people around is a bad thing, but argue that it is a price worth paying in exchange for free trade with the rest of the UK and other benefits of being in a Union with England.
Pretty bad, eh? But that’s nothing. Suppose now that the pro-independence camp win. Moreover, when asked whether English people like you, who are long-term members of Scottish society and have Scottish children, will be allowed to remain they answer that they cannot rule one way or the other, because they intend to use you as “bargaining chips”.
Have you managed to imagine such implausible sequence of events? Then you now know exactly how millions of citizens of other European countries who chose to make the UK our home feel.
I still do not regret the choices I made. But the fear that I will is there, breathing over my shoulder, every day.
Just after hearing the sad news of Leonard Cohen’s death I realised I could still recite most of First We Take Manhattan. This is a song I was quite obsessed with as a teenager, when it had just come out. Also I’m Your Man. Luckily I had parents who had bought the album – it was certainly not marketed to my age group. I was fascinated by this dark, brooding, powerful character who could be manly and intellectual and threatening and tender; who perceived the injustices in the world and the tension between love and action. Who knew the New World Order emerging from the fall of the Berlin Wall was rotten inside and that, one day, we would have to fight. I did not understand then the reasons for my fascination. Cohen had lived more than me and knew how to express it. I’ve lived a bit now and at long last know what he meant.
Our culture tends to assume that selfishness is natural, while altrusim requires an explanation. But why?
This question sprang to my mind the other day, while I was reading John Brashaw’s “In Defense of Dogs” (a book I am enjoying greatly – but that’s a different topic). I noticed a statement, made in passing, that whereas biologists do not feel the need to explain altruism in animals when it is directed towards members of the individual’s family, when this is not the case it always calls for an explanation. I get the impression that this is quite a well-established and reasonable view: when an individual helps a member of its family to survive, it is aiding the propagation of some of its genes – half when we help our offspring, one quarter when we help a sibling, one eighth when we help a first cousin, and so on. In contrast, helping a completely unrelated individual does not help the helper’s genes to propagate.
But then I thought: what if the other individual is of the same species? It does not help any of your genes, but that individual shares the same genome – the genome of your species – so you are helping your genome, and therefore your species, to survive. It would be reasonable to expect that species may have evolved whose evolutionary strategy includes altruism towards individuals of the same species, which would have given that species a competitive advantage against other species. This seems to me quite reasonable. But if we start to think that way, then we have to ask: what about helping individuals of other species? All species on Earth share the use of DNA as the gene-encoding substrate, so species that ehlp other species are contributing to the survival of DNA-based life. In fact, when you think of it, it is evident that all life on Earth is cooperating on a global scale, e.g. the plants capture CO2 and release oxygen that we breathe. While DNA-based lifeforms are not in direct competition with other forms of life, they may have been in the past, and in any case the DNA-based living Earth is always competing with the alternative, dead Earth. So again, if different species had not helped each other out perhaps there would be no life on Earth.
So I think a more reasonable approach is to consider that there is a hierarchy of levels of organisation, and at every level cooperation is essential to make the whole possible (see figure). There are even some intermediate levels, for example oxygen-breathing lifeforms helped each other in competition with sulfur-based ones, for example. So although when you look at the nitty-gritty of individual interactions between individuals there seems to be a lot of competition going round, I think the big story of life on Earth is one of cooperation.
I think this part of a more general theme: in life, in society, and even at the microscopic level in the interactions between myriads of atoms or electrons inside materials, cooperation leads to behaviours that can reinforce themselves and survive, while pure competition leads to and “averaging out to zero”. So what is natural is coopertation and leads to what we observe -be it life on Earth or the magnetic field of a nedymium magnet.
It is also, incidentally, a nicer way to look at the world than the victorian cut-throat tinge with which natural evolution is often described.
Thank you. Whatever the result of tomorrow’s referendum, the last months have been really tough on EU citizens who, like me, decided to settle in the UK long ago and have found our legitimacy as members of this society under question, and under fire, and without any say in the matter. This has been difficult, but my many friends who have come out as staunch supporters of the role people like me play in this country have made it so much easier. I still believe, in spite of this dreadful referendum campaign, that the UK is one of the most open, tolerant, and advanced countries in the world. Whatever happens tomorrow, I do not regret the choices I’ve made: to raise my child as a Briton with dual nationality; to become a member and advocate of the UK scientific and academic community; or to let the love for this wonderful country seep in until it became part of who I am. But without my friends I wouldn’t be in such a good place. THANK YOU.
With the coming EU referendum here, in the UK, I am having to dig out of the Net lots of information for the benefit of Facebook friends and fellow Facebook group members so I’ve decided to start putting some of it up here for more general consumption.
The EU is where old failed politicians go to die.
The vast majority of EU politicians are Members of the European Parlient (MEP’s – similar to MP’s). The MEP’s elect the President of the Commission (similarly to how MP’s elect the Prime Minister) who then appoints his/her commissioners.
MEP’s are not particularly old. In actual fact, a 66-year age gap separates the youngest from the oldest MEP in the European Parliament that came out of the 2014 elections. The youngest MEP is 26 years old. The average age of MEP’s in the current European Parliament is about 50 – the same as in Westminster.
More importantly, tje perception that once you are an MEP it is a stable job which will last for life is very mistaken. Only about half of the MEP’s got re-elected, with the other half going on to do other things with their lives. As a point of comparison, two thirds of Westminster MP’s were relected at the 2015 election. So being a Westminster MP is a much more secure job than being a European MEP.