TED Talks: Elaine Morgan says we evolved from aquatic apes

An occasional post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). The internet is made for this – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettos and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other.

Elaine Morgan is the most well-known proponent of the aquatic ape hypothesis, which says that our ape ancestors didn’t come down from the trees and suffer in the hot, dry savannah. Sensible beasts that they were, they headed for the beach to take advantage of the plentiful food supplies available in an aquatic environment. Hence us, hairless, intelligent, bipedal apes who have sex face to face. Most of the time, anyway. There’s a lot more to the hypothesis, obviously, and Morgan lays it out in this entertaining talk.

Thanks to the Guardian for reminding me. It has an article prompted by a major London conference next week, and the support of David Attenborough. If you’re interested in the subject, here’s Elaine Morgan giving a lecture at UCL: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4.

And here is a BBC documentary on the subject. Not great picture quality, but worth watching.

Night Mail

This year is the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest acts of social vandalism ever perpetrated by a government – the Beeching Axe – which closed 55% of stations and 30% of route miles on Britain’s rail network. The excuse was efficiency savings, but the rationale ignored the social costs of small communities cut off from major population centres and each other. Railways were an essential part of the transport infrastructure tying the country together, and it’s not hard to see the hand of the Road Lobby in pushing for its implementation.

So I’m posting Night Mail, the famous 1936 documentary about the train that carried the mail from London to Glasgow, in memory of the great railway network we thoughtlessly destroyed in the interests of political expediency. And in memory of those beautiful steam trains, whose rhythm  pounds through the documentary and is echoed in W. H. Auden’s poem at the end. The combination of film, music, and poetry, evoking all the fragile hopes and fears represented by the letters the Night Mail carried, still chokes me up.

Here’s the full text of Auden’s poem.

Night Mail

This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,

Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.

In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

WH Auden

Poetry Parnassus: Douglas’ Dinky Death (Saint Vincent & The Grenadines)

Poetry Parnassus is a project of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, hosted at the Southbank Centre in London. It ran from June 26 to July 1, featuring 145 poets from around the world. Here is the Guardian’s interactive map, where you can click on a country and read its poem. I will be posting them on a semi-regular basis until they’re done.

Saint Vincent & The Grenadines Flag

Douglas’ Dinky Death, by Philip Nanton (Saint Vincent & The Grenadines)

An early forbear was probably the bastard
of some Scottish clan. A sheep stealer
sent to cool it in the ’Indies.
In childhood he played at city planner.
The family backyard became
his private metropolis. Comfortable
roads to travel, roads to choose
strung with matchbox houses, petrol-stations,
tiny iron cars on rubber wheels.

The last time that we met
he was driving a taxi and selling fish.
With no city to run he was often drunk.
The little cars he so loved
became a beat-up Austin Cambridge
its floor lined with cardboard,
yellowing foam protruding from
a backseat’s thick plastic seam.
The smell of dead fish surrounded him.

One early morning outside his mansion
his bent and battered body was hit,
run over by one of those iron cars
on rubber wheels he loved.
He registered a dinky death: small,
insignificant as our reluctant recognition
of some animal’s road-wrecked carcass
stiff with rigor mortis; a bored glimpse
of fading letters impressed on asphalt
proclaiming political loyalty
or a pot-hole, small enough to drive over.

• ‘Douglas’ Dinky Death’ from Cave Hill Literary Journal, 6 (December 2004), by permission of the author.

For those who didn’t grow up with them, Dinky Toys were toy metal vehicles. I like the way Nanton conflates the story of Douglas’ life with the history of colonialism. No longer running a city, not even a toy city in the backyard, he is run over by the people he used to govern. His toys are now theirs. In the video below, Nanton reads this poem at the Poetry Parnassus event.

And here are lots of poets at the same event.

Cutty Sark: Riding High

It’s wonderful to see the Cutty Sark fully restored after what seemed like a disastrous   fire in 2007. And the decision to raise her up on a sea of glass, allowing the public to walk beneath her keel, was inspired. Here is the Official Website for the ship, and photo galleries from the Guardian and Independent.

There’s something about sailing ships that makes me go all misty-eyed. Perhaps it’s the idea of a vessel not imposing itself on the world, but shaped by the world – the exigencies of wind and wave perfectly harnessed and in communion with its element. Hence the elegance, both visually and in the scientific sense, of a theory fitting the facts as a hand fits a glove.

Long may she delight generations of people not yet born.

Horrible Histories Big Prom Party 2011 – Complete Video and Podcast

This is an update to an earlier post about the Horrible Histories Big Prom Party 2011. That post only included one song, and there was no chance to hear the Proms music. But I have since discovered the hour-long BBC programme on YouTube, and a slightly edited podcast of the whole Prom that runs to almost 2 hours. All the music, though, and that’s what I wanted to hear.


A Temple to Atheism? Dear God, No!

I have been driven to prayer by faux philosopher, Alain de Botton’s idea for a “temple to atheism” in the City of London, as outlined in this Guardian article. Why does he want this temple? Because he thinks Richard DawkinsChristopher Hitchens, and other militant atheists are a “destructive force.” In other words, he wants a kinder, gentler atheism that stresses positivity and goodness, with an awe-inspiring building to evoke the correct response.

I think most people seek positivity and goodness in their own way, atheists and believers alike. Including Dawkins, who recognizes that the lies and institutionalised power of religion are the enemies of reason, and any happiness derived from religion depends on studiously ignoring the reality of how the world works. I don’t think Dawkins et al are being overly zealous in combatting what would be insane ideas if someone had only invented them just a moment ago. With hundreds or thousands of years of tradition behind them, they have accumulated an entirely undeserved authority. We think Scientology is utter bollocks, a cynical, money-making scam, but time will turn it into an established Truth.

That said, I part company with Dawkins in not thinking that religion will eventually succumb to the forces of reason, or that believers are influenced by everything in their holy books. Institutional religion has such deep roots in human societies that digging them all up is impossible – they’re like weeds, springing up where fear and longing meet a supernatural idea.

What makes this truth palatable is that we’re only human, and only give practical credence and expression to those parts of a holy book or political dogma that accord with the manners and mores of the society we inhabit. Obviously, it’s a chicken and egg situation, but societies do evolve in response to real events and real knowledge. Bad news if you live in a theocracy, because real knowledge is in short supply. For citizens of liberal democracies, religious institutions are generally more benign, their practiced doctrines more or less compatible with civilization. Even these societies have their fundamentalists, but they’re more likely to be marginalized. A glaring exception is the US, which has a thriving Christian Taliban, currently choosing the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

So I try to respond to people as fellow human beings, and refrain from criticizing their religious beliefs unless they bring them up, or behave in a completely unacceptable way. People are interesting and generally do the decent thing – I’d rather talk and try to understand where they’re coming from. I reserve my criticism and anger for the institutional coercion of secular societies and special pleading. Nobody should be exempt from secular laws.

This is the “temple” proposed by de Botton:

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Brilliant. Sounds like a really imaginative architectural project. I’d be proud to back something like that if only he didn’t tack the silly label of “temple to atheism” on it. Ask yourself, what does this project have to do with belief or non-belief? It’s about science, evolution, the whole glorious panoply of emerging life on earth. Isn’t that enough? And we already have such buildings. They’re called the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum among many others. The only way de Botton’s project could be a temple to atheism is if he installed an altar at its centre, housing an illuminated copy of The God Delusion. Even then, it would be pure idolatry.

The fact is that being religious does not preclude either respect for the scientific method or the well-established theories derived from it. Catholics, for example, accept the Big Bang and evolution, although they insist on a God somewhere in the process. By and large, only fundamentalists reject the basic tenets of science. By calling this a temple to atheism, he is in fact shutting the door in the faces of those believers who respect science. As atheists, we can’t afford to do this. We need all the help we can get to establish and maintain secular societies where both belief and non-belief are protected and tolerated.

As it happens, de Botton has already run into trouble with his daft label.

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well, d’uh!

Please read the Guardian article, which has all the meat on its bones. I hope there’s a cif article on the subject soon, so we can all pile in with comments.