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News: March/April 2005

French Philo Savaged • Nature vs Nurture in Birds • Iris Murdoch Throws Light on Alzheimers’ • Pentagon Tried to Build ‘Love Bomb’ — News reports by Sue Roberts in London and Lisa Sangoi in New York

Charm Offensive

A blistering attack has been made recently on Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s highest-profile living philosopher. Investigative journalist Philippe Cohen has published a damning book called BHL – A Biography, in which he dissects both the man and his work. He accuses Levy of “over-simplifying any complex issue for mass-consumption, thereby impoverishing French intellectual debate and demonising any opposing points of view.” Cohen further claims that the ideas set out in the philosopher’s work French Ideology helped to accelerate the rise of France’s National Front.

This is not the relationship with the press that Levy has come to expect. Although he enjoys causing controversy, his intelligence, photogenic appearance and wealth have long made him the darling of T.V. chat shows. Possibly the most damaging charge in Cohen’s book is that Levy has “a loose relationship with the truth”.

Cohen’s is not a lone voice. Over the past few months no fewer than seven books have been published that also question Levy’s intellectual credentials. These include The Absence of Thought in Bernard-Henri Levy co-written by Richard Labeviere, a journalist with French radio, and Bruno Jeanmart, a philosopher at Grenoble University.

Bernard-Henri’s response, unsurprisingly, has been to deny responsibility for the rise of the National Front or for sapping French intellectual debate. His reaction to the suggestion that he was occasionally economical with the truth was intriguing: “I have a war-like conception of seeking the truth.... History is very cunning; why shouldn’t men be too?”

Nature v. Nurture

A team of Dutch scientists are carrying out an ambitious series of experiments to unravel the mystery of personality development. They are studying thousands of individuals, observing how these individuals interact with one another, comparing their personalities to those of their descendants, and analyzing their DNA. Perhaps surprisingly, the scientists, based at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, are investigating the personalities of wild birds rather than humans. This study is considered the most ambitious scrutiny so far of personality in wild animals. Until recently, most experts in personality development would have considered such a study as foolish. However, scientists have found that individual animals in many species behave in consistently different ways. They argue that these differences meet the scientific definition of personality. If they are right, then human personality has deep evolutionary roots. The Dutch researchers are studying the importance of genes to the personalities of the birds, and the effect different personalities have on their survival. The researchers will investigate whether the evolution of bird personalities parallels the evolution of human personalities by eventually carrying out similar studies on humans. “About 50 percent of the variation you find in avian personalities is due to differences in genes,” said Dr Kees van Oers of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany.

Language and Alzheimer’s

Following the death of Dame Iris Murdoch in 1999, the brain of the philosopher and award-winning writer was donated to science to further research into Alzheimer’s disease, from which she had suffered for four years.

More recently a study by Peter Garrard, neurologist and senior lecturer at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, into the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on language included some revealing insights as to why Iris Murdoch’s last novel Jackson’s Dilemma disappointed some critics. The book appeared in the year before the illness was diagnosed.

Garrard studied Murdoch’s books from throughout her career in terms of the vocabulary she employed. The words she used were computer-analysed in terms of complexity and frequency in each novel. The findings suggested “an enrichment in vocabulary between the early and middle stages of Murdoch’s writing career, followed by an impoverishment before her final work.” Garrard concluded that the findings were consistent with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, showing word-finding difficulties while the ability to produce well-formed sentences remained. Garrard commented, “This unique opportunity to study someone’s writing style over their lifetime ... could help researchers improve current diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s.”

Much of Iris Murdoch’s work had a religious or philosophical theme. Having studied philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford, she later took up a postgraduate studentship in philosophy under Ludwig Wittgenstein. Her first published work in 1953 was a critique: Sartre, Romantic Rationalist. Her first novel Under the Sea appeared the following year.

Wolfe Mays

Professor Wolfe Mays, founder of the British Society for Phenomenology and of the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, died on January 21. Professor Mays taught philosophy at the University of Manchester from 1946 till his retirement in 1979; after which he became the Emeritus Leverhulme Fellow and Visiting Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University. He had a very varied philosophical a career – in his early days in Manchester he collaborated with Alan Turing and Michael Polanyi to investigate how far mental activities might be stimulated mechanically – in other words, what we would now call artificial intelligence research. He later helped develop the teaching of philosophy to children. He had a profound interest in Continental philosophy and was an inspiration to others in this field.

Julian Ayer

Julian Ayer, the adopted son of the late philosopher Freddie Ayer, was among those whose life was taken by the recent tsunami. Mr Ayer had been traveling with his wife, Harriet Crawley, to see her son play cricket. The couple were in a bus in Sri Lanka that was swept away. Mr Ayer was killed after helping his wife to leave the vehicle.

Weapons Research: Funny...

Newly declassified documents reveal that the Pentagon has in the past undertaken a six-year research project into the use of “chemicals that affect human behaviour so that discipline and morale in enemy units is adversely affected.” The mind-boggling possibilities included an aphrodisiac bomb that would cause enemy troops to find one another sexually attractive; a ‘Who Me?’ bomb that would produce odours that indicated that enemy soldiers were passing wind or had serious halitosis, in order to undermine morale. Further, consideration was given to producing chemicals that would make such troops sexually attractive to ‘annoying or injurious animals such as stinging or biting insects’. This ‘stuff of nightmares’ was obtained from the USAF Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio under the Freedom of Information Act by the Sunshine Project, which exposes chemical and biological research.

... and not so funny

A laser pulse that generates a burst of expanding plasma – electrically charged gas – when it hits something solid is being developed by the US military for use against protesters and rioters. The Pulsed Energy Projectile weapon, due to be ready for use in 2007, will trigger extreme pain and temporary paralysis from just over a mile away. Documents released under the US Freedom of Information Act show funding has been made to scientists at the University of Central Florida for this purpose.

Uni Chief Calls for More Ethics

A clarion call for universities to re-establish basic moral guidelines for their students has been made by Steven Schartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University and head of the UK Government’s working party on university admissions. He believes that rather than teaching ethics most universities go out of their way to avoid making moral judgments. He is quoted as saying “Plagiarism, incivility and reneging on legitimate debts are depressingly common among university students. How can we begin to expect them to analyse issues such as stem cell research, nanotechnology, euthanasia or gay marriage when we cannot get them to understand that they should be polite to others and that they should meet their obligations?” Despite Schartz’s desire for students to learn about ethics, there are apparently no plans to open a philosophy department at Brunel.

Bad Feng Shui?

Feng shui is an ancient Chinese philosophy that guides human beings in living harmoniously with their environments. feng shui masters spend their entire lives studying universal energies and their relationship to human beings and their environments. Feng shui flourishes in Hong Kong. Surveys indicate that up to half of Hong Kong’s population has some belief in the practice and in recent years feng shui has become increasingly popular in the West. Lam Tsuen, a bustling village near the border of Hong Kong, is home to a very old banyan tree that is considered sacred for its use in Feng Shui rituals. People from across Hong Kong and nearby mainland China, as well as tourists from around the world, have long come to light incense and make wishes beneath the spreading limbs of this huge banyan. The tree even has its own expressway exit. However, the tree’s main limb suddenly snapped during Chinese New Year festivities in February, breaking the left leg of a 62-year-old man. The incident has prompted considerable debate over what if anything it portends for Hong Kong’s fortunes this year. Victor Li, a prominent feng shui specialist in Singapore, said the tree’s lost limb was not a bad omen for the entire year. Anja Steinbauer points out that feng shui is mainly concerned with the arrangement of objects in space, and has little to do with time, so that it isn’t really intended as a guide to the future.

Morality Tales?

Hollywood has recently roused America’s ethical consciousness with some highly controversial movies, several of which were in the spotlight at this year’s Academy Awards. Vera Drake, nominated for three Oscars, is British director Mike Leigh’s film about a good-natured London woman in 1950 who breaks the law by performing abortions. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America and other groups that promote abortion rights have embraced the movie. The film serves as a cautionary tale for women, in light of the conservative right’s renewed efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that made abortion legal in the United States. Other films tightly wound around difficult social and ethical issues are Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which received no Oscar nominations, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which was nominated for its cinematography, music and makeup. The Sea Inside, a Spanish film directed by Alejandro Amenabar and an Oscar nominee for best foreign film, and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, a best picture nominee, have both fueled debate over assisted suicide. Clint Eastwood has dismissed charges that his film glorifies such an emotionally charged and highly debated act. On the other hand, the distributor of The Sea Inside, a true story of a quadriplegic man who sought help to die, has considered staging promotional events for the woman who has now admitted to helping him.

Capital Punishment

Shortly before we went to press, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution categorically bars capital punishment for crimes committed before the age of 18. A court that just 16 years ago rejected the argument that the execution of those who kill at the age of 16 or 17 violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ now says that the new decision was necessary to abide by ‘evolving standards of decency.’ This 5 to 4 decision will move 72 people off death row in 12 states.

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