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News: March/April 2004

$1 million prize for scholars • Attack of the clones • Philosophy radio hits airwaves • Immanuel Kant bicentenary celebration — News reports by Sue Roberts in London and Lisa Sangoi in New York

Kluge for Kolakowski

The first-ever John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences has been awarded to Leszek Kolakowski. The award was presented by the Librarian of Congress, Dr James Billington. Professor Kolakowski is a Polish anti-communist philosopher and historian of philosophy. Thoroughly conversant in both the analytical and Continental strains of Western philosophy, Kolakowski is the author of more than 30 books and 400 other writings in four languages: primarily in Polish, but also in French, English and German. His main lines of inquiry have been in the history of philosophy and the philosophy of religion. Born in Radom, Poland, in 1927, he now resides in Oxford, England. The Kluge Prize , of one million dollars, is intended for lifetime achievement in those areas of the humanities and social sciences for which there are no Nobel Prizes. These disciplines include philosophy, history, political science, anthropology, sociology, religion, linguistics and criticism in the arts and literature.

Fischer Honours Kant

The 200th anniversary of Immanuel Kant’s death was commemorated with a trip by Germany’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer to the philosopher’s home town of Kaliningrad. Kaliningrad is the Russian Baltic port where Kant spent all his life when it was Königsberg, in what was then East Prussia. Several German philosophers accompanied Mr Fischer. He led the Kant anniversary celebrations by laying a wreath on the philosopher’s memorial. Three new biographies, which highlight the partyloving facet of the young Kant before his fame, have been recently published in Germany ahead of the bicentenary. They are the first Kant biographies for half a century – Kant’s World by Manfred Geier, Immanuel Kant by Steffen Dietzsch and a third by Manfred Kühn. Kant has traditionally been portrayed as a dutiful ascetic moralist – in other words as rather a bore – but according to the three new biographies, the great metaphysician was not such a square after all. He enjoyed drinking wine, playing billiards and wearing fine, colorful clothes. On occasion, Kant drank so much red wine that he was unable to find his way home, the books claim.

Philosophy Talk

‘Philosophy Talk’, a pioneering radio show hosted by Professors John Perry and Ken Taylor of Stanford University, and produced by Ben Manilla, debuted January 13, 2004. The live show, which airs Tuesdays at noon on the San Francisco public radio station KALW, serves as a forum addressing issues of contemporary society such as race, marriage and politics. Perry and Taylor aim to bring the methods of philosophical discourse to the general public, hoping to incite others to think more deeply about the issues surrounding them. One can tune in to Philosophy Talk on KALW 91.7FM or live on the internet via www.philosophytalk.org.

Clone Zone

Panos Zavos, the US fertility doctor who had earlier caused outrage among the scientific community when he claimed to have implanted a cloned foetus into a 35 year old woman, has now revealed that the pregnancy has failed. Ignoring the approved procedure of presenting his work in a scientific journal or at a conference, Dr Zavos broke the news at the end of a press conference in January.

He claimed that the cloned embryo was grown from skin cells taken from the woman’s husband and that the implanting was filmed. No evidence was forthcoming but he insisted that if the pregnancy resulted in a birth, DNA tests would confirm that the procedure was genuine. The woman stood a 30 per cent chance of becoming pregnant, according to Zavos.

He was roundly condemned also by religious leaders, politicians and pro-life groups for falsely raising hopes among those desperate to have children. Dr Wolf Reik, a cloning expert at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, is reported as saying that “In every single experiment, 99 per cent of clones die in the womb and the other one per cent has problems. It remains irresponsible to do it in humans.”

On being questioned over the ethics of cloning Dr Zavos replied “When people call me a criminal, you should know that I do not even have a speeding ticket. I never break the law. People are my business, the world is my market.”

However, Zavos is not content to place all his eggs in one basket, so to speak. It is reported that, together with the UK fertility specialist Dr Paul Rainsbury, he is close to announcing a plan to offer prospective parents the option of embryo splitting. This would entail an embryo being divided into two, with one part being implanted in hope of fertilisation and the other part being frozen and stored to be used as a source of stem cells for future use. This, according to the doctor, would be an insurance in the event of the child developing any genetic abnormalities, deformities or illness.

Clone Zone Clone

Scientists from South Korea’s Seoul National University reported that they have successfully created human embryos through cloning and extracted embryonic stem cells. They state that the goal of using stem cells is to advance the understanding of the causes and treatment of disease. Although their work makes birth of cloned babies more feasible, they say that they do not want to clone humans. Their work will be published in the journal Science in a paper that will provide detailed descriptions of how to create human embryos by cloning. Their research is likely to incite fierce debate over the ethics of human cloning. This development surprises members of the US national ethics commission, which recommended 18 months ago that there should be a three to five year moratorium on human cloning research.

Zeno Vendler

The philosopher and linguist Zeno Vendler passed away in January, at the age of 82. He died from kidney failure while visiting his family in Hungary. Vendler had retired from the University of California but also taught at Cornell, Brooklyn College and the University of Calgary, where he was a founding member of the philosophy department.

One of Vendler’s great passions was language; the others being travel and photography. Raised to speak both German and Hungarian, he later acquired fluent Latin and Dutch and eventually studied English too. He was naturally drawn to the philosophy of language and later to the field of modern linguistics under the tutelage of Zellig Harris, with whom he worked on grammatical transformations. His contributions eventually led to the establishment of some of the basic tenets in linguistics.

However, Vendler’s interest in language was never merely academic. Said to be a “delightful and delighted conversationalist,” he loved language for its role in the enjoyment of friendship.

Atheism stalks school system

The previously uncontroversial issue of religious education in British schools has been rudely shaken up by a report by a government think-tank.

The report by the Institute For Public Policy Research, entitled ‘What is Religious Education For?’ is being considered by education ministers as they draw up the first national guidelines on religious instruction. At present R.E. is a compulsory subject in English and Welsh schools but is not part of the national curriculum. It is proposed that lessons should be renamed religious, philosophical and moral education, and teach about different ‘belief systems’ such as humanism and agnosticism.

The Campaign for Real Education has reacted angrily, saying “Atheism is not a religion. To change religious education into spiritual education would be quite wrong. We would deny children their Christian heritage. R.E. lessons should be about the teachings of Christianity, and possibly other religions but not secular beliefs. It’s straying down the road of philosophy.”

By contrast, the Church of England and the Muslim Council of Britain have taken a more phlegmatic approach. Canon John Hall, the Church of England’s chief education officer, is quoted as saying “It is very important that other faiths are taught as well as Christianity, because we need to respect and take into account other worldviews.” Furthermore, “It is appropriate that religious education recognises that some people do not believe in God.”

Tahir Alam, chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain’s education committee stated that atheism was already discussed in religious lessons.

‘Miracles and wonders’ corner

A suspiciously clever African Grey parrot called N’kisi has been reported in the BBC’s Wildlife magazine. Allegedly, N’kisi has a vocabulary of around 950 words and can use the correct tense of verbs. Most remarkably, he is said to be capable of producing new phrases if the situation demands. Attempts to teach chimps to communicate in human language have revealed a very limited ability to create novel utterances.

He also has a lively sense of humour. When another parrot hung upside down from his perch (as they do!) N’kisi is said to have commented “You got to put this bird on the camera!”
However, he has a potential rival in Sunny, another African Grey, who is ship’s mascot aboard HMS Lancaster. After a life on the ocean wave, Sunny has accrued a considerable vocabulary, most of it unrepeatable; also some catchphrases such as “you ain’t seen me, right?” and “Zulus! Thousands of them!”

The Queen and Prince Phillip will soon be dining aboard the Lancaster after its return from the South Atlantic. Sunny is to undertake compulsory ‘shore leave’ during the visit ... for fear of some embarrassing exchanges?

More lab-rats wanted

An EU measure called Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) will involve laboratory tests on hundreds of thousands of animals in order to comply with the intended stricter regulation of the European chemical industry.

Concern has been expressed by politicians and scientists that many tests will replicate those already carried out by private companies on chemicals that have been in use for many years. 30,000 separate chemicals are currently produced by companies in the European Union.

In reply to a recent question in the House of Commons, rural affairs minister Alun Michael revealed that Reach required that 20,000 chemicals each be tested on at least 25 animals – a total of 500,000 tests. A further 4,000 substances would require 1,500 animal tests each. Requirements for the remaining 6,000 chemicals were not revealed. Tony Trewavas, biochemistry professor at Edinburgh University, with a background of testing chemicals on animals, has stated “It is a waste of time and will teach scientists nothing.”

Bob Spink, a Conservative member of the parliamentary select committee for science & technology, is reported as saying “This will lead to a massive outcry. This testing is not based on any perception of hazard and might result in no benefit at all. We should be testing chemicals based on real hazard and real risk.”

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