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News: July/August 2003

Plato Found in California • Cloned Racehorses Gallop Nearer • “Daddy Was a Website” • Aborted Fetuses to be Mothers — News reports by Sue Roberts in London and Lisa Sangoi in New York

‘Face of Plato’ Uncovered

A marble bust of Plato and its pedestal (known together as a herm) is being viewed in a new light after centuries of obscurity. Previously dismissed as a modern fake, it is now believed to date back to 125AD and to be a replica of a Greek original from around 360BC, made during Plato’s lifetime. It is said to provide our first glimpse of Plato as he really looked, before he became represented in the traditional ‘philosopher mould’. The instigator of this revelation is Stephen G. Miller, a classics professor and archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley. His interest started when he retrieved the herm from the stores of the Hearst Museum and culminated in the published research and scientific test data which had just been released. Professor Miller bases his conclusions on a study of the following topics.

Firstly, the ribbon draped over Plato’s head is very significant. It could represent the ribbon bestowed upon victorious Olympic athletes as a preliminary award. (Later sculptors depicted Plato with long tresses of hair). The relevance lies in Plato’s well-known love of athletic competition and the Olympic games. Miller believes that the ribbon reflects Plato’s belief in the need for the state and the individual to train both the intellect and the body equally. The Republic speaks of just and virtuous people coming to the end of their lives “like victorious athletes going on their victory lap to collect their ribbons”. At the base of the sculpture is a inscribed the quotation “Every soul is immortal.” This concept was explored by Plato in The Republic and the quotation here reinforces the idea that the Berkeley Plato is a copy of a portrait sculpted during or just after his great work was written. Further evidence that the herm was genuine lay in the source of the marble used and the quarry’s known time of use. Tests on samples showed that the bust and pedestal are made of Parian marble, the stone of choice for ancient sculptures. The Parian quarry stopped production in the late Roman period. Further, the inscribed letters show traces of moltis, a red pigment used in ancient inscriptions to make them more legible. Once properly revealed from beneath the heavy encrustation, the letters were found to be similar in shape to those on other ancient portrait herms. Miller concluded that claims made in 1966 that the bust was a fake could no longer be justified.

Cloning for Kicks

Scientists at the University of Idaho and Utah State University have successfully cloned a mule. This is the first time an equine animal has been cloned. Named Idaho Gem, the baby mule is reported to be ‘vigorous and healthy’. The successful experiment means that mules, typically sterile, can now reproduce. It also introduces the strong possibility of soon producing genetic carbon copies of related animals, such as champion race horses. The mule cloners have started a company, ClonE2, to pursue commercial horse and mule cloning. They have also formed a medical company, CancEr2, because they said they thought their findings about calcium levels might have implications for treating cancer and other diseases.

Unlucky Luc

Luc Ferry, France’s education minister and a philosopher of note, is reported to be facing dismissal for being “too foppish, intellectual and unworldly”. Each French government enjoys the kudos of having an intellectual as part of the team, hence Ferry’s appointment last year. However he has faced a rough ride from the teaching profession from the outset. Teachers are challenging plans to cut the number of teaching assistants as well as proposed changes to school funding. By May, six major strikes had taken place and Ferry may be the scapegoat. Earlier in the year he wrote a book entitled A Letter to All Who Love School; and had it distributed to every teacher at a cost to the taxpayer of more than £750,000. Small wonder, perhaps, that he has been pelted with copies at meetings with irate teachers.

Fools! I’ll Destroy them All! (pt.52)

Researchers in Israel and the Netherlands have reported on the possibility in the future of donor eggs grown from the tissue of aborted foetus. The preliminary results of experiments carried out by a team of scientists were presented to the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction. They collected ovarian tissue from seven foetus aborted around the 22nd week of pregnancy. These samples were cultured for four weeks at the end of which some cells had developed from the immature primordial resting stage to a secondary growth stage. Many more stages of development would be necessary in order to produce eggs but it raises the possibility long-term of babies with ‘unborn mothers’. Dr Francoise Shenfield of UCL, an expert in medical ethics, thinks that society is not yet ready for such a development. The anti-abortion group Life described the move as “macabre, sickening and disgusting”.

Father Not Included

The world’s first website dedicated to matching anonymous sperm donors with lesbian and single women, celebrated its first full year of operation with a photocall in London’s Mayfair on 1st July. John Gonzalez, the founder of ManNotIncluded.com (MNI) was joined by women currently being helped by the service and a massive MNI ‘sperm cake’ (we hope the name is just some sort of gimmick) “to look back on a year of spectacular conceptions – and forward to a year of joyous deliveries.”

In its first year, over 3,000 anonymous male donors and 2,000 female recipients have registered with MNI.The first births facilitated by the service are due this summer. Gonzalez said: “MNI is about giving all women the chance to have children without fear of prejudice or discrimination. And that is something we should celebrate.”

From Liverpool came Sarah (31) and her partner Jaime (26) who has conceived using MNI. According to Sarah the website “said it could match you to anonymous sperm donors, safely. Jaime conceived on her first attempt and we now expect our baby in January. It’s all we can think about! We’re a strong couple and are completely sure we can provide a good home where our child will be happy and get all the love and stability possible.”

However, the question of whether sperm donors should be anonymous is a vexed one. The ethicist Baroness Mary Warnock, who advises the British government on matters of reproductive ethics, used to believe in the right of privacy of the donors, but recently changed her mind. She now thinks that their right to privacy is outweighed by the right of the children to know the identity of their fathers if they wish. She is therefore unlikely to view an anonymous service such as ManNotIncluded.com with much enthusiasm. However, Gonzalez commented to Philosophy Now that “25% of people in this country have a father other than the one they think they have. So society has lots of other problems to sort out before it picks on sperm donors.”

The Final BAOW

Bernard A.O. Williams died on 10th June, while on holiday in Rome. Williams was one of the leading moral philosophers of the late 20th century. There is a full obituary on page 39.

G.H. von Wright

Georg von Wright died in his native Helsinki on 16th June, shortly after his 87th birthday. He was a committed student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose overwhelming influence on his intellectual development he freely acknowledged. Von Wright went on to do important original work in logic, ethics and philosophy of mind. He argud that there was no such thing as the ‘problem’ of induction and also inspired a whole research programme into deontic logic (the logic of duties and obligations). After briefly succeeding Wittgenstein in his professorship at Cambridge, von Wright returned to Finland and a post at the University of Helsinki. There he continued to work in the analytic tradition. His work is said to have been characterised by ‘painstaking clarification and analysis of concepts’. Wittgenstein had appointed him one of three executors of his unpublished work, together with Elizabeth Anscombe and Rush Rhees. Between them they managed to organise the great man’s voluminous unpublished scribblings into a whole series of highly important posthumous books. In 1987 Von Wright published a book simply called Wittgenstein in 1987.

Geoffrey Marshall

The British constitutional theorist Geoffrey Marshall died on 24th June. He was internationally renowned for work on the concept of law, on the relationship between law and morality and on the nature of legal rights. He also wrote limericks and he was the Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford in the 1990s. His best-known book was Constitutional Theory (1971).

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