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News: December 2002 / January 2003

Oxfam in Royalties Row • Worm Wins Nobel Prize • Lakatos Recording Put Online • Scientist Aims to Create Artificial Life

Oxfam Shuns Money from Philosopher’s Book

An almighty public row has erupted between the charity Oxfam and Canadian-born philosopher Ted Honderich. Honderich, formerly Grote Professor of Philosophy at University College London, recently wrote a book called After the Terror. In it he links the West’s neglect of Third World poverty to the September 11 terrorism. (The main argument is summarized by Honderich in his article in this issue of Philosophy Now – see p.32). The book was highly praised by some newspapers and condemned by others. The greatest upset was caused by a brief aside unconnected to his main argument, in which Honderich qualifies his otherwise wholehearted condemnation of terrorism by saying that Palestinians have a ‘moral right’ to resort to violence in their particular situation. Honderich had agreed with Oxfam to donate to them £5,000 royalties from the book, a fact which wasn’t publicised but which emerged when he was interviewed by a journalist while on a book tour in Canada. Oxfam shortly after put out a press release saying that they would refuse the royalties. There were suggestions that they had come under pressure from a Canadian newspaper, but Oxfam denied this. Says Honderich:

“Oxfam was subjected to a Zionist threat – by which I mean an Israeli expansionist threat –to associate it with terrorism. It could quite easily have resisted. It could have absolutely disavowed my view on Palestinian terrorism, said it loathed it, and also said it just had to take the money to save the lives of 2,000 children. In fact Oxfam turned away the money partly because my view outraged some people in it. But Oxfam’s legal and moral objectives do not include public moralizing. The Deputy Director, who has taken responsibility for the decision to refuse the money, should resign or be relieved of his position by the trustees of the charity.”

No Philosophers Among Top 100 Britons

In a weird mixture of nationalism and educational programming, BBC Television has been running a contest to find the “greatest Briton of all times” – but their list of the top 100 contenders doesn’t contain a single philosopher. Viewers last year were invited to nominate their candidates, and their suggestions were then whittled down to create a list of the “Top 100 Britons”. The list contains numerous great scientists (Darwin, Newton, Faraday, Fleming, Hawking) and engineers (Brunel, Babbage), but no philosophers at all. David Hume, Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Locke, Hobbes and all were apparently outshone in public esteem by singers (John Lennon, Johnny Rotten), Satanists (Aleister Crowley), politicians (Enoch Powell, Tony Blair) and military dictators (Oliver Cromwell). Contemporary British philosophers expressed delight at the excellent result. “That’s wonderful,” said one. “It wouldn’t say much for our predecessors’ abilities as Socratic gadflies if they were actually popular.” At time of going to press the telephone vote for first place as the Greatest Brit of All Time appeared to be a straight fight between Charles Darwin [Wasn’t he a gadfly? Ed.] and Princess Diana. However, students from Brunel University were reportedly jamming the switchboards in a late attempt to boost their candidate’s chances.

Philosophy Day

UNESCO declared 21st November to be Philosophy Day, and held a celebratory conference at its Paris headquarters Thematic round table discussions on topics such as philosophy and human rights, and philosophy and knowledge were held through the day, and one session was chaired by the great Paul Ricouer. There was also a concert and an art exhibition. Few American or British philosophers attended, as there was deep confusion among them over when or whether the event was taking place. Some, such as Liverpool’s Professor Stephen Clark, expressed disappointment that no publicity and very short notice had been given for an occasion billed as a major international event. Philosophy Now is attempting to find out from UNESCO whether Philosophy Day is to be an annual event.

Locke Journal Reborn

A journal devoted to empiricist philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) has been revamped and relaunched. Locke Studies was in its previous incarnation excitingly known as the Locke Newsletter. The new improved version is edited by Roland Hall of the University of York. The journal is subtitled, no doubt accurately, ‘An Annual Journal of Locke Research’. Devoted Lockeans can find more info at the website: www.luc.edu/depts/philosophy/LockeStudies

Euthanasia on Demand in Belgium

Despite objections from many doctors and the Roman Catholic Church, Belgium has just passed the most liberal euthanasia law in the world. Doctors will now be permitted to carry out mercy killings in response to repeated requests from terminally ill patients.

Don’t Blame Mother Nature!

An independent working party of philosophers, scientists and lawyers headed by Prof. Bob Hepple QC has declared that the discovery that a criminal has an anti-social genetic make-up should not outweigh other factors when sentencing takes place.

In a report entitled Genetics & Human Behaviour, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics evaluated the ethical, legal and social issues raised by the controversial search for genes that influence intelligence, violence, personality traits and sexual orientation.

Working party member Professor Terrie Moffit, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, recently reported that of maltreated children carrying a gene associated with low activity of an enzyme, 85% were likely to develop anti-social behaviour, including violence. She has since been approached by numerous US lawyers seeking to use her findings to defend inmates on death row.

The new report concludes that genetic information about behaviours within the normal range should not absolve an individual from responsibility for an offence.

Worm Wins Nobel Prize

Studies of the millimetre-long nematode worm (C. elegans), have won Sydney Brenner, John Sulston and Bob Horvitz the Nobel Prize for Medicine. For three decades the workings of this tiny, transparent creature have been exhaustively mapped. In the 1970s, Sulston traced the origin and fate of every one of its 1090 cells, and later was able to read its genetic code, work which in time led to the techniques used to read the human genome. The studies have also given another knock to the idea, championed by Descartes, that there is a fundamental difference between humans and all other creatures. The worms seem capable of learning from experience, and have many of the same genes as humans. Nematode worms have 19,000 genes to organize their bodies against the 30,000 used by humans. All the indications are that this is only the beginning of a journey of exploration into the human condition which may one day expose us as thoroughly as C. elegans.

Venter to Play in God’s Domain

Dr Craig ‘Darth’ Venter, the biotech entrepreneur who led the private enterprise team mapping the human genome, has announced a new venture. He has been given $3 million by the US Department of Energy to artificially create life in a test tube for the first time. This will be done by machine-manufacturing a genome with around 300 genes and then inserting it into the shell of a dead, single celled micro-organism (presumably in a creepy old castle at the height of an electrical storm). The hope its to create a self-sustaining microbe which will eat and reproduce just like regular old-fashioned evolved lifeforms, and part of the project is to find the miniumum number of genes necessary for life to function. Then, changing the design of the genome used will allow microbes to be tailored for specific purposes. The head of the ethics panel which has approved the work, Stanford’s Dr Mildred Cho, said “I’m less worried about the minimal genome project taking off and creating some kind of monster bug than I would be, partly because I have a sense that the scientists are aware of the possible risk of what they are doing.”

The Voice of Lakatos!

Imre Lakatos was one of the great figures in 20th century philosophy of science. He died in 1974, but now you can hear him lecturing from beyond the grave thanks to a unique initiative by the London School of Economics, where he taught. To mark the 80th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth, they have placed on their website a recording of a 20 minute BBC Open University radio talk on ‘Science and Pseudoscience’, which Lakatos originally broadcast in June 1973. The website of the Lakatos Memorial Fund, with the recording and a transcript of the talk, can be found at: www.lse.ac.uk/lakatos/

The LSE team believe that making a lecture by one of their past academics available in this way “may also be a world-wide ‘first’ for any university website.”

Classes for Citizens

The British Government has announced that it wants to introduce citizenship lessons to all schools via the National Curriculum. The aim is to help schoolchildren “develop a fuller understanding of their role and responsibilities in a modern democracy” [In case they ever move abroad, I suppose. Ed.] . It is also hoped that it will prepare them to deal with difficult moral and social issues that arise in their lives and in society.

Schools can choose how to incorporate this new requirement into the school timetable. Some will establish separate ‘citizenship classes’, others will incorporate the material into whatever they consider to be an appropriate existing class such as religious education, history or English.

Some schools already have a track - record in teaching citizenship. A pilot study in a dozen such schools showed that learning about how to be a good citizen had a more in-depth effect on pupils than just encouraging a sense of responsibility. The study examined associations between ‘student participation’ and increased self-esteem, motivation and willingness to learn. Results indicated that the students did better in exams than those in similar schools without this approach.

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