ROGER & FRANS PAGES
 
 
           


 

OCCASIONAL PHILOSOPHICAL THOUGHTS

 

 

#005 THE CRIMES OF OUR ANCESTORS
Not really philosophy - but an abbreviated article about why the evils of colonialism must be considered in context.
Both the context of the time, and the context of the balance between the positive outcomes as well as the negative ones.
Above all it exhorts that history should be studied - not suppressed - and that actions should be through debate - not intimidation
 

The original article was by Matthew Syed, and appeared in the Sunday Times - it is reproduced without anybody's permission.
 

Pretty much all the most vivid memories of my childhood involve my dad. Handsome and charismatic he came to the UK from Pakistan in 1961 to study law and met my mum, a red-haired girl from Wales. Both families were against the marriage, not least because of what it meant for the children. “They will be half-caste,” Mum’s aunt exclaimed, horrified. Thankfully for me and my siblings, my parents rejected the advice, got hitched, and are still together more than fifty years later, living in a suburban semi in Reading where they have been since 1972; the house in which I grew up.

Dad has not been in the best of health, struggling with so many conditions that we stopped keeping score. He has been in and out of hospital, most recently undergoing a heart operation. I was with him at The Royal Berkshire Hospital when he surfaced after the op, and I often think about that conversation. We chatted about the Test Match at Lords the day before, then I put Yes Minister, his favourite programme, on the iPad. He was still a little groggy but he laughed – full belly laughs – at the antics of Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey.

Dad has been on my mind a lot in recent days. As issues of empire and colonialism dominate the headlines, as statues become the locus for clashes, and as popular culture gets dragged into this tug of war, it is more important than ever to have a mature discourse about British history and race. This is worth doing not merely to enhance mutual understanding, but to pull the rug from under extremists on both sides who are weaponising these issues for their own political ends.

It is sometimes difficult to convey the love that many immigrants have for our nation. To describe my father as a patriot is to be guilty of understatement. That is not to say that he is unaware of the atrocities committed in the age of empire. As someone who grew up in India during the Raj (he left for Pakistan after partition), he knows only too well about the deadly famines, the Amritsar massacre and the crimes of the East India Company.  Colonial atrocities trip off his tongue like Waterloo, Trafalgar or Dunkirk might for an indigenous Brit. He also speaks eloquently, sometimes painfully, of the racism he suffered in his new home.
You might ask: how can you admire a nation that committed so many crimes? How can you love a country in which you endured racism? It is these paradoxes, I think, that we need to understand more adequately if we are to make any sense of our past, and chart a better future.  As my Dad put it when I went to see him recently for the first time since lockdown (and on the same day that the statue of Edward Colston was dragged through Bristol): “The British sometimes abused their power. But they also did many progressive things which I doubt any other nation would have done.”

Dad’s experience of racism cast a long shadow. A man with a keen brain and attitude, he worked his socks off as a civil servant and spent free time completing diplomas to expand his mind. His problem was that he couldn’t secure promotion, something that crushed him. I recall the attrition on his face, the sense that he was butting his head against an invisible obstacle. Eventually he studied for an MSc, secured a job in academia and worked his way up to a professorship. This was a tribute to his drive, but it also meant that he travelled, staying in student digs and missing large chunks of his children’s lives.

Why didn’t these experiences destroy his love for Britain? Why didn’t he become bitter, even resentful? The answer is, I think, both subtle and profound. As an immigrant he was all too aware of the racism and sectarianism that existed in other nations. He grew up as a Shia Muslim in a majority Hindu nation. His family lived in fear of persecution even before partition. He knew of the atrocities which had been perpetrated in the name of religion throughout India’s history, from the 7th century onwards, persecution that continues, in various forms, to this day. He knew of the bubbling tensions between Sunnis and Shias within Islam itself. A widely read person he knew of apartheid in South Africa, Jim Crow laws in America, tribal conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. He was also painfully aware of the corruption and nepotism that has long been integral to kin-based societies (and remains so today). Black and Asian people may have faced barriers in the UK, but the nation was less sectarian and more meritocratic than almost any other.

The point is that if history is about anything, it is about context.  Isn’t this what is so conspicuously missing in today’s debate? The Atlantic Slave Trade is a good example, an episode that is crucial not merely for understanding our past, but our present. I agree with those who say that schools should teach how Britain dominated that sordid industry, the horrors of the Middle Passage – the journey across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas or the Caribbean – the mutilation and rape of innocent people, along with the scientific racism that provided a pseudo-moral justification for the crimes of naked economic self-interest. I imagine I am not alone in having watched the television series Roots as a teenager before moving on to read the rich literature chronicling the slave experience, as well as the economic logic that underpinned the triangular trade from Africa to the Americas.

But shouldn’t we also ensure that students learn about the African chiefs responsible for selling the slaves to the European powers, along with the broader history of this barbaric practice – one that was perpetrated in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Israel, Han China and Japan, as well as by the Aztecs, Maoris and more? Canon Law accepted slavery, The prophet Muhammad practiced it, as did the Ottomans, who raided the west coast of Ireland and carried of English settlers to bondage and death. So, too, did the other European powers, who wanted to use the bounty of slave trading to usurp and destroy Britain itself. Moreover, shouldn’t students learn that while slavery is now outlawed in every nation, it continues to this day, not least in Mauretania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan, as well as in a more modern form in the brothels and some nail bars of capitalist nations?

The same context is needed for colonialism. I watched Sathnam Sanghera’s sobering documentary on the 1919 massacre of Jallianwala Bagh, in which British forces, without warning, opened fire on a peaceful gathering of mainly Sikhs, killing 379 including 42 children. These atrocities should be part of a shared understanding of our history, along with the exploitation vividly chronicled by Shashi Tharoor in his book Inglorious Empire. But shouldn’t this also include the thesis that many British colonies prospered relative to those of France, Spain and Portugal because of the institutions and culture gained from Britain, not least the common law?

Perhaps the crucial point is that we should resist the temptation for British history top ne exploited by the political extremes, something that will exacerbate polarisation. When MPs wrote to the Government last week arguing that we need more black history in our schools I found myself nodding. All youngsters would benefit from learning about the achievements of ethnic-minority Britons, along with the injustices they faced. Likewise, I think most reasonable people will empathise with those offended by statues that memorialise slavers, and that a debate on this topic was long overdue (albeit one that should be decided through democracy rather than vandalism). But most will find it astonishing that broadcasters are tying themselves up in knots as to whether to pull such television classics as Fawlty Towers in response to a relatively small group of activists, vocal on Twitter and the streets.  This isn’t debate; it’s intimidation.

Above all, we should remember that morality evolves. A hundred years ago most people thought that homosexuality was sinful. Five hundred years ago most cultures believed that slavery was justifiable – Saint Paul positioned it as part of God’s plan and it existed in the ideal cities discussed by Plato. This implies that many of our practices today will come to be regarded as primitive, even repugnant, by future generations (such as, perhaps, the killing of animals for meat). Does this mean that nothing we do today can be good? Does it mean we shouldn’t even try? Or does it mean that, whatever we do, however imperfect when judged by future standards, it is nevertheless possible to take society in a progressive direction?  If the latter is the case, and I believe it is, the same must hold for historic figures and, indeed, empires. As my father put it last week: “Britain is a great nation that also committed great crimes. That is the paradox that both sides need to grasp.”

Matthew Syed.  June 2020

horizontal rule

 

 

#004 PHILOSOPHY OF FLINT
Not philosophy at all - physics and geology really...  but I always wondered where flint came from
This is an article by David Bone of West Sussex Geology and is reproduced without his permission


The formation of flint is a complex process which began in the chalk seas millions of years ago and is summarised below:

Organisms such as sponges (on the macro scale) and radiolaria/diatoms (on the micro scale) use silica from sea water to manufacture the biogenic opal which forms their skeletons. When the organisms die and the organic parts decay the microscopic silica is scattered on the sea bed and becomes incorporated in the accumulating sediment.

At depths of 1 to 5m within this sediment, the biogenic opal breaks down, enriching the water between the sediment particles (sediment pore water) with silica.

At sediment depths of less than 10m, there is an oxic-anoxic boundary where hydrogen sulphide rising from the decomposing organic material within the sediment diffuses upwards and meets oxygen diffusing downwards from the water column above. At this interface, the hydrogen sulphide is oxidised becoming a sulphate and creating hydrogen ions as a by-product. The hydrogen ions lower the local pH, dissolving the chalk and thereby increasing the concentration of carbonate ions. These act as a seeding agent for the precipitation of silica.

The molecule-by-molecule replacement of chalk precipitates out as silica; which is initially in the form of crystalline opal but gradually transforms to quartz (flint) during later burial and with time.

The chalk sea bed is deeply burrowed by many different organisms, such as shells, echinoids and worms etc. Some of these burrows are quite deep or branching, or have open living spaces. The burrows fill with sediment after the organism has died, but this is a slightly different material from the sediment around it and forms a preferential pathways (conduit) for the chemical reactions to occur. Flint therefore tends to form within these old burrows, often with a nodular shape which reflects the whole, or part of, overgrown remnants of such burrow systems.

Flint also tends to form in bands or layers - a less well understood phenomenon for which there are two current theories. Firstly this might be because both chalk sedimentation and climate change (which impacts the flora and fauna within the sea) occurs in cycles; and secondly because the process described above exhausts the silica within a given depth of sediment and flint formation can only recommence when enough new sediment has accumulated with enough new silica to start the process again.

horizontal rule

 

 

#003 EXISTENCE IS THE MOTHER OF ALL HUMOUR
The following joke made me laugh - therefore proving to myself that I am human:
 

A horse walks into a bar and orders a pint....
The barman says "You're in here pretty often. Do you think that you might be an alcoholic?"
The horse replies "I don't think that I am" - and vanishes from existence.

Actually this story is about Descartes' famous philosophy of "I think, therefore I am" - but to explain that before the story would have been putting Descartes before the horse.
 

horizontal rule

 

 

#002 IT'S LIFE JIM, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

The following extract from The New Scientists "2018 Collection" shared on 29th August 2018:
 

This is a précis of an article about whether there is other life in the Universe.
This extract deals with how simple life is created and suggests that while life itself it is probably extremely common, the development of complex multi-celled life is probably extremely rare

How do living cells work?
Living things consume an  extraordinary amount of energy, just to go on living. The food we eat gets turned into the fuel that powers all our living cells, and this fuel is continually recycled. Over the course of a day, humans each churn through 70 to 100 kilograms of the stuff. This huge quantity of fuel is made by enzymes, biological catalysts fine-tuned over aeons to extract every last joule of usable energy from reactions. The enzymes that powered the very first life cannot have sprung into existence being anywhere near this efficient; and it is very likely that the very first cells must have needed significantly more raw material energy to grow and divide - probably thousands, or even millions of times as much energy input that modern cells consume. The same is likely to be true throughout the Universe.  This phenomenal energy requirement effectively disproves old ideas about chemicals being bombarded with lightning or ultraviolet radiation - besides which, we are not aware of any living cells which obtain their energy in this way. First life was not mobile enough to go looking for energy, so it must have arisen where energy was plentiful.  Today, most life ultimately gets its energy directly (or indirectly for carnivores) from the sun via photosynthesis by plants. But photosynthesis is an enormously complex process which appears to have evolved - so it probably didn't power the first life. So what did?

Making organic  molecules: easy.  Making complex organic molecules: hard.
Reconstructing the history of life by comparing the genomes of simple cells is fraught with problems. Nevertheless, such studies all point in the same direction. The earliest single living cells seem to have gained their energy and carbon from the gases hydrogen and carbon dioxide. We now know that the reaction of H2 with CO2 produces the organic chemicals required to build cells, and also releases energy. However it doesn't produce nearly enough energy for those components to form even simple molecules. It takes buckets of energy to get them to join them up into the long chains that are the basic building blocks of life.

Where does the energy come from?
The energy harvesting method of all known life forms was not identified until 1961 when British biochemist Peter Mitchell proposed it. His proposal led to two decades of heated debate before it became generally accepted.  Mitchell's suggestion was that cells are not powered by chemical reactions at all - but by an electric field; specifically by a difference in the concentration of protons (the charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms) across the membrane of the cells surface. Because protons have a positive charge the difference in concentrations on opposing sides of the cell membrane produces an electrical potential of about 150 millivolts.  This doesn't sound a lot, but it is operating over a membrane only five millionths of a millimetre thick - a field strength equivalent to around thirty million volts per metre. That is a significant bolt of lightning - and happening all the time the fuel is being processed. Mitchell called this force the "proton-motive force".  Once you have this the cells can stick together in long replicating structures (RNA) - and you have potential life. And seen very simplistically, once the RNA gets doubled up (which assures consistent replication) you have DNA - and you have the basic building blocks to enable you to make sustainable, replicable, life.

May the force be with you
Essentially all cells are powered by the force, which we now know to be as universal to life on earth as the genetic code.  This tremendous electric potential can be tapped directly, to drive motion of flagella for instance, or to make the energy rich fuel Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). However, back to primordial life. Because the proton gradient mechanism is universal to life on Earth, it is a good bet that it evolved very early. We already noted that the first manifestation of cellular life was probably a lot less efficient at energy processing, it seems sensible to consider whether the earliest cells had some kind of environmental encouragement.  A current favourite answer was proposed at the turn of the twenty-first century by geologist Michael Russell.

Alkaline Thermal Vents
Russell had been studying deep-sea hydrothermal vents. These are not the "black smokers" associated with plate tectonic movements, but are much more modest structures. They are formed as seawater percolates down into electron-dense rocks found in the Earths mantle, such as the iron-magnesium mineral Olivine. Olivine and water react to form serpentine in a process that expands and cracks the rock. This allows more water in, perpetuating the reaction. "Serpentinisation" of Olivine produces alkaline fluids rich in hydrogen gas, and the heat it produces drive these fluids back up to the ocean floor. When they come into contact with the cooler ocean waters, the minerals precipitate out, forming towering vents up to sixty metres tall. The hydrogen bubbling up through the precipitation forms tiny interconnected cell like spaces enclosed by flimsy mineral walls. The walls contain the same catalysts - notably various iron, nickel and molybdenum sulphides - used by cells today to catalyse the conversion of carbon dioxide into organic molecules. Russell realised that such vents provided everything needed to incubate life - or rather, they did, four billion years ago.  Back then there was very little, if any, oxygen, so the oceans were rich in dissolved iron. There was also a lot more carbon dioxide than there is today, which would have made the oceans mildly acidic - that is, they would have had an excess of protons.  The reaction of carbon dioxide and hydrogen required to start life is hard to get going - but in the alkaline hydrothermal vents of the ancient acidic seas there would have created a natural proton gradient which would be easily enough to get things moving.  There are many more complications and components than the main thrust described here, but water and olivine are the most abundant substances in the universe - so the generation of living cells is probably not a rare event in this, or any other solar system.

Prokaryotes v Eukaryotes.
By deduction the generation of simple life forms - bacteria and archaea (prokaryotes) is probably extremely common throughout the Universe - there is evidence that generation still happens here and - of course - evolution still happens. When we eventually visit Mars or some of the more promising moons of Saturn, we will not be surprised to find evidence of such simple life forms. However, the step from a simple reproducing living cell to a more complex organism - a Eukaryote - appears to be a much rarer event. It seems to have happened only once in this planets four billion year history - and from that happy moment all plants, fish, insects, dinosaurs, and mammals, are descended. Indeed all complex life on Earth - Animals, plants, fungi and so on - are eukaryotes; and from DNA studies we now know that they all evolved from the same single common ancestor. The conundrum is that while simple cells like bacteria and archaea can evolve into other simple cells, they just don't have the right cellular structure or energy availability to evolve more complex forms. The real issue is that to get bigger the cell has to acquire more genes - but the extra energy generated by having a larger membrane area gets absorbed by these extra genes; so the more genes a simple cell acquires, the less it can do with them. And a genome full of genes that cannot be used is no evolutionary advantage - so prokaryotes stay simple. This limitation is a tremendous barrier to growing more complexity because making a fish, or a tree, or us, requires thousands more genes than a bacteria possesses.

Complex life seems to be a fluke of nature
We know from assessments of DNA that complex life on earth - plants, insects, vertebrates and fungi - all evolved from one single common ancestor, a "eukaryote" - a "cell" which has the ability to generate enough ATP power to build large cellular structures and to be able to afford to specialise in whatever other tasks it evolves to achieve. This development was so rare that it only seems to have happened once in four billion years. The emergence of complex life seems to hinge on a single fluke event - the acquisition of one simple cell by another. A cell within a cell. Such association is a regular feature among cells making up complex life - in which these internal "mini-cells" are called mitochondria; but it is an alliance not seen in simple cells. The current theory is that about two billion years ago one simple cell somehow accidentally ended up inside an other, and both miraculously survived. The identity of the host cell isn't clear, but we know that it "acquired" a bacterium which began to divide within it. These "cells within cells" competed for succession in classic evolutionary style - those that replicated fastest without losing their capacity to generate energy were likely to be better represented in the next generation and so on. These "endosymbiotic" bacteria evolved into tiny power generators containing both the membrane required to generate ATP and the genome required to control the membrane. This evolution into mitochondria has honed the genome of the original bacteria from a typical bacterial load of perhaps three thousand genes, to just forty or so genes today. And the mitochondria are now an essential component of all complex cells - a squadron of living "generators" inside the main structure. Meanwhile, for the host cell it was a different matter. As the mitochondrial genome shrank and the generation of ATP became more efficient, the amount of energy available to the host cell increased and its genome could expand. Served by squadrons of mitochondria the cell was awash with ATP and was free to accumulate DNA and grow larger. It had become a eukaryote and could spend time evolving into much more complex structures.

Life on other planets
This tremendous "fluke" may explain why we've never found any sign of extraterrestrial aliens. In an infinite universe the fluke is certain to have happened somewhere else, but it probably remains an exceedingly rare event. It therefore seems likely that there are very few other intelligent beings in our galaxy. However, if we do meet them it is highly probable that they will have mitochondria too.

 

horizontal rule

 

 

#001 INSIGNIFICANCE?

The following extract from an episode of BBC Radio 4's "The Infinite Monkey Cage"
by Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox/

 

There is a problem of insignificance, especially when looking at the night sky.
It takes four years for the light from the closest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri, to reach us.
It takes 16,000 years for the light from V762 Cas in the constellation of Cassiopeia, the furthest star visible with the naked eye, to reach us. The light we see from there is older than our civilisation.
Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is a hundred thousand light years across; and is just one of billions of galaxies.

You can understand that when dealing with such magnitudes, people can feel like specks - less than specks - barely the dust of our universe.

After watching a lecture on the grandeur of the Universe, hearing about the light years between the billions of galaxies and the speed of expansion of the Universe, with everything getting further apart by the second; that sense of tiny speck-ness can become palpable.  You don't have to travel far from the Earths surface for human beings to become indistinguishable from the rivers, rocks and sea; and from a little further away you'll find that there is no visible trace of the civilisation which from our perspective glows and pulses as we walk through it.

The average human is insubstantial next to Mount Everest, negligible compared to the size of Jupiter, and almost nothing in comparison to the large Magellanic Cloud. However, this insignificance is just one of size. It is judging magnitude solely by height and girth.  But size is not everything.

We may not stand tall, but we are incredibly complex by the standards of everything else we have observed so far in this Universe. Our structure and behaviour is far less predictable than that of a planet or a galaxy. How many more equations are required to summarise the behaviour of a gnat compared to the equations that predict the behaviour of a pulsar? What processes are required to crawl and catch a fly, compared to the comparatively simple processes that cause a star to shine?  We can understand nuclear fusion in the heart of our sun - the conversion of hydrogen to helium and the light produced - yet we have very little idea of how and why we can be consciously aware of that sun - far less understand what it is that drives us, among all other animals on the planet, to question how it works!

Our temperament can be volcanic. Our behaviours can be giddy. Our emotions can be tumultuous. Our ability to predict even our own changes of mental state can be scant at the best.  It is our ability to perceive our insignificance that marks out our significance.

Most of space is "empty". If you were teleported to a totally random place in the Universe, it is highly unlikely that you would find yourself near anything solid.  if you were lucky enough to land yourself on another planet, it is highly unlikely - from what we know and currently understand - that the planet would be able to sustain life, let alone complex life.  Already you are significant despite being a speck!

Added to the complexity of your biological structure, even by Earth's standards, your brain is exceedingly complex and questioning. You may be small but you are unusual, and you know it, and there is nothing else in this solar system beyond earth that could say that. Or indeed, could say anything at all!

Every human, therefore, is a thing of great significance in a restricted but very important sense. On a cosmic scale our physical presence is of no consequence, We are each a temporary assembly of ten billion billion billion atoms which in a century or less will all be returned for recycling. But for the briefest of moments these atoms are able to contemplate themselves and other atoms.  The atoms we are composed of were born in stars and spent an eternity in darkness before we existed; and they will spend an eternity in darkness when we are gone; Our purpose should be to extend their moment in the light as best we can.

 

horizontal rule