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News: August/September 2000

Chimp in courtroom drama • Scientist in ‘time travel’ shock claim • American thinkers appoint new leader • Aussie schoolkids to study Socrates

Monkey business

A legal case in Los Angeles County may have far-reaching implications for the rights of our closest non-human relatives. Moe is a 32 year old privatelyowned chimp kept in a backyard in Los Angeles. When Moe was seized by the local authorities after biting someone, the Animal Legal Defense Fund applied to be appointed his guardian ad litem. As such, their role would be to research what would be in his best interests and to defend his legal rights in court. According to Fund director Joyce Tischler his interests might include freedom from bodily harm and the right to socialise with other chimps.

Courts often appoint guardians ad litem for children or mentally disabled people but to do so for a chimp would set an important precedent, as Paul Waldau of GAP, the Great Apes Project, explained to Philosophy Now. “If the court appoints someone to be Moe's guardian ad litem… it will have used a traditional legal vehicle for those individuals who have interests but for some reason cannot speak on their own behalf. This may seem like a common sense thing to do, for clearly Moe and other complicated nonhuman animals have interests. In other times and places, many people and moral systems have recognized this. But it is not common sense within the U.S. legal system, dominated as it is by the paradigm of property rights in all things nonhuman. Hence, the case raises well nonhuman great apes as mere property.” He added that “because of the extraordinary preoccupation with protecting existing property rights, there will no doubt be a long struggle to get the legal system to accept fundamental rights for chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos.”

China Purges Scholars

Four senior academics have been sacked from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, in what looks like an old-style purge by the Chinese Government. The academics were also attacked without being directly named in a speech by President Jiang Zemin, who accused them of Westernisation and of turning their backs on Marxism. The four included Li Shenzhi, retired vice president of the Academy and one of China’s leading intellectuals. The purge may have been triggered when an essay by Li, expressing his desire for political reform, was posted without his permission on a Chinese website. The events have cast a shadow over an international conference on political philosophy due to be held at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in April 2001.


Elizabeth Radcliffe, professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University, will become the new Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association from the spring of 2001. The APA, which represents professional philosophers in the USA, has over 6,000 members. Professor Radcliffe told Philosophy Now that “the APA is sometimes criticized, justly or not, for being run by a small group of individuals largely at top PhDgranting institutions. I hope to do my job by taking into account the needs and requests of all interest groups, constituencies, segments and ranks in the profession.”

Humanistic trends?

The Indian Council of Philosophical Research organized a national seminar this Spring on ‘Humanistic trends in thoughts’. Some delegates were surprised to find that the speakers included the head of the National Volunteer Corps (RSS), the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization which was in no way responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. The Times of India reported with gentle irony that “the RSS supremo K.S. Sudarshan began with an apology for not being qualified to speak in a gathering of philosophers and chose to come up with quite a few startling thoughts on Greek tradition, Indian philosophical traditions and modern western science.” Mr Sudarshan suggested the Greeks “never rose to the heights of Indian rishis only because they did not take a spiritualistic unified view of the universe.” Descartes’ individualism, supporting the science of Newton, was denounced as giving “credence to an egoistic disintegrated view of society”. Communism, capitalism and the development of science since Einstein were also briefly considered.

Human Gene Sequence Published

On June 26 Bill Clinton and Tony Blair held a press conference at the White House to announce a success for one of the great scientific ventures of the age: the production of a ‘working draft’ of the human genetic sequence.

Both the publicly-funded Human Genome Project and the private venture Celera Genomics had reached this stage at roughly the same time, by somewhat different routes, and their rivalry was set aside for a joint announcement of the result.

Press releases from the scientists were jubilant, but stressed that this is an intermediate product and that some work still remains to produce a final version of the sequence, hopefully by 2003.

President Clinton called the achievement “the most important map ever produced by humankind.” And referring to the potential medical benefits he claimed that Tony Blair’s baby son Oscar had just gained about 25 years in life expectancy. It does seem that even the ‘working draft’ will be accurate enough for many medical research purposes, with several dozen ‘disease genes’ already pinpointed.

Socrates said that over the door of the temple at Delphi was the inscription “Know thyself!”. On a purely biological level, the genome work should allow us to know ourselves more completely than Socrates could have dreamed.

Light faster than light

Research by scientists in the United States and Europe suggests that the speed of light can be broken. Dr Lijun Wang at the NEC research institute in Princeton transmitted a pulse of light through a chamber filled with caesium gas. He found that before the pulse had fully entered the chamber, it had gone right through it and travelled a further 20 metres on the other side – thus reversing the normal order of cause and effect! Apparently the pulse existed in two places at once. Wang interprets this by saying that the light pulses were travelling at 300 times light’s normal speed, which if true would contradict Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Wang said: “Our light pulses did indeed travel faster than the accepted speed of light. I hope it will give us a much better understanding of the nature of light and how it behaves.” Research carried out by physicists in Italy and Germany has led to results similar to those of Wang. The work of these scientists allows the conclusion that light may arrive at its destination before it has even left its starting-point. If light is indeed leaping backwards in time, the implications for both physics and philosophy are immense. Other scientists were sceptical, blaming Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for the strange results.

Philosophy in the Classroom

The year 2001 brings an exciting new addition to education in Australia. For the first time, Philosophy is being offered officially as a subject for all senior students in secondary schools as part of the end-of-school certificate in the state of Victoria, and soon it will be available to students in South Australia and Tasmania too.

In Canada and Britain, philosophy is restricted to a slowly-growing minority of secondary schools, while in the United States it is virtually a nonsubject at high school level despite the best efforts of some prominent advocates of philosophy for children (or P4C, as afficionados call it). However in Australia, philosophy in schools is now an idea whose time has come, energetically promoted by a network of regional organisations such as the Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools under an umbrella group, the Federation of Australasian Philosophy for Children Associations. It is perhaps a sign of the movement’s increasing influence that the 10th Australasian Philosophy for Children Conference (Melbourne, September 9-11, since you ask) will be addressed by the Hon. Dean Wells, Minister of Education in Queensland and himself a qualified philosopher. Other keynote speakers will include Professor Michael Carr- Gregg, renowned consultant psychologist and expert on childrens’ and adolescents’ emotional well-being.

For more information, see the conference web page: www.meetinginnovation.net.au/fapca1.html or contact the organiser Jennie Armato (mijenn@netspace.net.au)

correspondent: Janette Poulton rhyme&reason@labyrinth.net.au

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