Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Opinion

The Largest Lie

The largest lie of politics is back in play again, and the full lie will be told on June 9th.

This lie is: your political act as a British individual is voting in a general election.

The overwhelming majority of British politicians want you to believe this lie because politics in Britain, as in most Western countries, is a passive activity – indeed, it is now a spectator activity also. Politics would become an active procedure if your vote mattered: if you felt that, by casting a vote, your activity was relevant and meaningful. But it is not, for several reasons. The main reason is that, in a first-past-the-post electoral system, any vote cast in a safe seat for any of the political parties is meaningless, with the exception of votes cast for the ruling party where the voter genuinely wants that party to win. Only in marginal seats – the minority in Britain – does voting have any general human meaning, since in those seats there is a direct connection between the act of voting and the outcome. The majority of people in Britain are disenfranchised by this archaic and ludicrous system.

The second main reason your vote is not meaningful is that we are organised on the national scale, as we shall be for the foreseeable future. This means we operate a partial democracy. We individuals do not vote actively and democratically – we elect our rulers, then sit back to await events. This system automatically halts any chance of politics being relevant to individuals in communities, and, at least as important, meaningful to them.

To quote Erich Fromm: “Democracy can resist the authoritarian threat if it is transformed from a passive democracy into an active democracy – in which the affairs of the community are as close and as important to the individual citizens as their private affairs or, better, in which the well-being of the community becomes each citizen’s private concern. By participating in the community, people find life becomes more interesting and stimulating. Indeed, a true political democracy can be defined as one in which life is just that, interesting.”

In other words, the media-spread lie that somehow a “national voice” is being expressed in a British general election is nothing but delusion. There is no such thing as a national voice in a country of 60 million people: the idea is utter fantasy, designed in the main to divert attention from the paralysing lack of activity inherent in the current system. A national voice could only be heard by some sort of abstract national entity. But there is no such thing. We are human beings. We are small, and we live in communities. Voter apathy exists in the main because of the lack of meaningful connection between voting and politics as it is done in Britain.

In my opinion (and I’m aware that this opinion is shared by few), no meaningful change, with the exception of occasional historical accidents, can take place within a political system which is authoritarian, passive due to scale or type, or which in other ways acts directly against the needs of human individuals. The only alternative is to reject such systems and lead by example.

If voting is a meaningless activity, what do you do if you live in a safe seat such as North Shropshire, or if like me you find the entire charade a sick, ridiculous, pointless waste of time? The lie is: voting as a British individual is your only political act. Politicians want you to believe this lie. But it is not true. Politics in such flawed situations can be other things, which the “leaders” you elect do not want you to consider. The British system expects you to place all your faith in one single leader – a typical conceit of patriarchy. The system expects you to accept the status quo. The system in fact expects you to manifest the status quo as part of national duty. But the system in 21st century Britain is designed for a male-dominated economic elite and nobody else.

Your alternative political acts include: consumer strikes, consumer choice (eg going vegetarian and buying Fair Trade), and refusing to accept the “right” of stockholders and other management forces to control the economic agenda. When I was an employee of Waterstones in the early 2000s, Waterstones became a company with stocks and shares, and all employees were given free shares as a consequence of this change. I was the only member of staff in my store to refuse these shares on moral grounds, a decision which iirc lost me about £300. Other alternative political acts are more long-duration and nebulous, and include exposing patriarchy in all its forms, rejecting and exposing the lies of capitalism, and so on. This can be done by communication. In the age of the internet that is much more difficult than it used to be, but it is still a meaningful activity, especially if through chance you have a louder voice than others. Of course, not everybody is comfortable with only long-term activity.

Idealists locate the directions of paths. Realists find the paving materials. But we do need both.


History Not Repeating Itself

“We think as progress being a straight line forever upwards,” said Atwood. “But it never has been so, you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then – bang – you’re Hitler’s Germany. That can happen very suddenly.” – Margaret Atwood, The Guardian, 13 February.

In this blog post I want to write about a couple of the points made above – (i) that progress is a ‘straight line upwards’ and that (ii) a fascist dictatorship could suddenly appear. Margaret Atwood is of course the highly lauded author of such classics as The Handmaid’s Tale (in which context she was speaking in the above quote), The Blind Assassin, Oryx & Crake, and other excellent books.

A “bubbling up of Puritan values” as Atwood put it in the Guardian article isn’t quite the same thing as preparing for the arrival of a fascist dictatorship, but I don’t think she was necessarily saying one will lead to the other. What interests me is the notion – widely discussed and widely believed in liberal, free-thinking democracies – that it is possible for a new fascist dictatorship to arise. I think the chances are massively against this.

Admittedly, I was thinking of the West when I began pondering. China is hardly a model of democratic values, as are many other countries around the world. But Atwood’s outstanding work The Handmaid’s Tale is American through and through.

I think there is one main factor stopping a new fascist dictatorship from getting power – the post-war shrinking of the world and the subsequent arrival of the internet.

In other blog posts I’ve been quite negative about the internet, but I don’t think it’s all bad. What makes the big change for the West since 1945 is the improved condition of politics, media and social life. We as individual nations are much more intimate with one another than we used to be. In the 1920s and 1930s the internal state of Germany or France was far less knowable to the average British or American person. There was no television and little radio, the main news source being newspapers, all of whom were as biased (or opinionated) as they are today. But now any small political event in France is immediately known around the world. We have billions of photographs of such countries, of their landscapes, peoples and cultures. As individuals we know far more about France or Germany than we ever did when Hitler was consolidating his position. There are more words, more images, more video clips, more webcams.

I think this is why a fascist dictatorship will never again rise in the West, unless there is some catastrophic event like a nuclear war involving us. In this post-1945 case, I do think the lesson of history has for once been learned. The irony is however that the increase in ‘national intimacy’ has been accompanied by a reduction in individual, human connection – with other individuals, with communities, with societies; and this I think is to do with the increasing role of technology, not least the internet, in our lives.

Could Atwood’s first point be wrong though? If progress is not a ‘straight line upward’ then a new Dark Ages (not that the original Dark Ages were dark, but let’s use the term generally) could lie in the future. But might that be the case?

In my opinion progress is a straight line upward if you look over a long enough time scale. The time scale I’d like to suggest is 40,000 years.

That may not seem a particularly relevant time scale, but hold on a moment… The aspect of human cultural development that I want to focus on is how we interact with the real world – what sort of relationship we have with it. 40,000 years ago this was likely a shamanistic, animistic, magical-thinking kind of relationship, when human beings imagined that objects, aspects of the environment and imaginary places were full of spirits. Much later, after the end of the Ice Age and with the arrival of agriculture, animal husbandry and settlements in the Near East, those religious notions changed. Later on they changed again, to the Abrahamic monotheistic religions of the modern West. Then, about half a millennium ago, the crucial change occurred, as the scientific method led to an understanding that the real world is independent of human imagination. This change freed human beings at last to view the real world as it is – through their own filters, yes, but on the assumption that the real world is independent of human beings and has to be tested in order to find things out about it.

This is what I mean by a line of progress. We’ve gone from imagining that spirits exist in trees, rocks and rivers, through imagining that gods live in the skies and beneath the ground, through imagining one god somewhere in the universe, to realising that the universe came about regardless of our myths and legends. We know that the universe is independent of us.

We can apply this progress to thinking about the long-term future. I personally don’t think cultures, when taken over long periods of time, do revert to more primitive (eg fascist) states, though I think that might, perhaps, be possible in some limited circumstances such as nuclear war. But in a nutshell – we can’t unlearn what we know now. We know too much, even though what remains unknown is vast. We know too much to revert to imaginary concepts. We know too much about human biological evolution and human cultural evolution – and most importantly of all, we are at last beginning to understand the true nature of consciousness and the human condition. All this, I think, can never be unlearned.


The Freedom Delusion

On Monday 30th January, Myron Ebell, adviser to Donald Trump’s administration, who has has denied the dangers of human-created climate change for many years, denounced the world’s environmental movement. “The environmental movement is,” he said, “in my view, the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world. Our special interest is, I would say, freedom.”

What are we to make of these comments? On the face of it they seem the standard declaration of any right-wing American man, but in this blog post I thought it might be worth delving a little deeper into Ebell’s climate change denial, and also putting such claims into the context of American culture.

First, it’s worth noting that the phrase ‘climate change denial’ has a satisfactory tone of negativity to it, like the phrase ‘holocaust denial.’ As with evolution by natural selection deniers, the overwhelming majority of climate change deniers have no grasp of how science works. Science is a human activity, and at its leading edge is prone to error, fraud, and even an occasional ‘epic fail’ (to use Brian Cox’s term). But what makes science true and useful is its irreversible and profound attachment to reality. Regardless of the details Darwin got wrong about evolution, and regardless of what details climate change scientists get wrong, the central core of evolutionary theory and of climate change theory are unassailable – which is why the overwhelming majority of scientists accept them. They have changed from hypotheses to theories.

What then is the motive for denying human-induced climate change? Well, let’s consider the context. Americans consume and discard five times the average Western amount of products and consumables – and vastly more than that compared with the global norm. Theirs is a world of consumption based on the standard capitalist assumption that perpetual economic growth is possible on a finite planet. So it can be seen already that such a people, given the opportunity to relinquish 4/5 of their consumption, are not likely to take up the offer.

Of course, Americans might be persuaded to pull back most of their consumption if they could see the damage it was doing to themselves and to the planet. Is there then anything stopping them from taking such a view?

There is – and that thing is exactly what Ebell referred to in his denouncement. It is freedom.

For Americans, freedom is sacrosanct. Freedom for the vast majority of Americans is the heart of what their country is – the ‘land of the free.’ But could they have taken that notion to an unrealistic extreme?

Recently I’ve been writing about narcissism, using the word in its general sense rather than the specifically ‘vain’ sense. Erich Fromm said: The narcissistic orientation is one in which a person experiences as real only that which exists within themself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous. But it isn’t just individuals who suffer from narcissism. Fromm himself was eloquent on the subject of group narcissism, in which the attitudes of a collection of people are similarly divorced from reality. We see this phenomenon in football matches, in religious violence and in cultural bigotry. In any situation where there is infantile tit-for-tat revenge you can be sure group narcissism is at work amongst narcissistic individuals. As Frank Herbert observed: revenge is for children.

Most Americans – especially the libertarians and the right-wingers – are wedded to freedom in an entirely unrealistic manner. Theirs is an attitude of freedom at the expense of everyone and everything else. And this is a specifically narcissistic attitude. It says: what matters above all is not the community, not the society, not the culture – it is me. My freedom trumps all other concerns. This unrealistic extreme exists in Europe too.

Is theirs a reasonable attitude? No. There is no such thing as complete freedom in the American mode. That is an delusion caused by cultural narcissism, a specific refusal to accept that human beings live in communities; in societies. In fact, we human beings enjoy quite limited freedom. We are restricted by the finite planet that we live on, but also by hundreds of smaller concerns, such as the communities we live in, to which we have many obligations. But to the narcissist such obligations don’t exist. All that matters is personal freedom, to the detriment of community, of culture, of the planet.

This, unfortunately, is what is happening in America right now. Myron Ebell said, “The environmental movement is… the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world.” By this he meant it was the greatest threat to his self-centred enjoyment of products and consumables made at the expense of the rest of the human world, and of the planet. “Our special interest is… freedom,” he added. By this he meant that the restrictions of life created by the existence of the human race should not apply to him. He must be free at the expense of all other concerns.

This attitude exists right across the globe in a myriad of forms. We remain a primitive race when considered in terms of 40,000 years of scientific progress (i.e. understanding of the real world) and cultural development. The absurd attitude lies at the heart of the British class system, of the Indian caste system, of patriarchy, of capitalism, fascism and communism, of prejudice, bigotry and all forms of wilful ignorance.

There is still a lot of work to be done. All cultural attitudes that ignore, brush off, pervert or re-work the real world betray the narcissistic orientation. It is the great infection at the heart of human life, one we are all born with, and which we all have to overcome individually and as cultures. But that work is difficult. Self-deception is the strongest weapon in narcissism’s armoury – the hardest one to beat, by far. The planet will survive humanity’s appearance, but we will not if we consistently reject reality.

Narcissism is, in my view, the greatest threat to happiness and sanity in the modern world. Our special interest is, I would say, humanity.


Narcissism & Donald II

In my blog Narcissism & Donald I wrote about Donald Trump’s personality disorder, using the general description of narcissism utilised by psychologists such as Erich Fromm. That post was written during the election campaign, so, now that the man is president, what changes or other factors can we observe in this intensely narcissistic person? And what about the minions surrounding him?

Within two days of the inauguration things were pretty much as expected. Despite photographic proof that anybody living in the real world could see and check, the president decided that his fantasy version of the day’s events was the truth of the matter. As a consequence, the ‘war’ between him and his team and the media continues. This inability to live in the real world is absolutely typical of the narcissist. All of reality is filtered through the president’s narcissism. It doesn’t matter what happens in the real world – all he has to do is state what he believes, or wants, and all will be well. But not only will all be well for him. Trump believes that as a direct consequence of this all will be well for the world.

Equally as worrying is the craven, idiotic stance of some of his supporters. Challenged by presenter Chuck Todd on NBC – who asked her why press secretary Sean Spicer’s first appearance had been to “utter a probable falsehood” – Kellyanne Conway answered that she had during Todd’s interview been presenting “alternative facts.” “Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods,” Todd replied. To those used to living in the real world the mere notion of ‘alternative facts’ is laughable; but the president and his supporters don’t live in the real world.

Many have remarked on Donald Trump’s thin skin, but this again is exactly what we would expect of a narcissist. With a personality so fragile it is held together only by vastly inflated self-aggrandisement, just one criticism is required to make a puncture. The narcissist’s response is to attack and deny, thereby returning the sense of self-worth to its former level. This, in more structured form, is why narcissists are always vengeful people. Revenge is re-balancing. Revenge negates ‘insult’ or ‘criticism’ by returning self-worth to its former value.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Donald Trump’s victory is that it will massively confirm his fantasy that everything he does is correct, true and worthy. When narcissists fail in the real world – as they inevitably do, since they have no grasp of that world – they react with rage. The new president will do exactly this as the weeks and months go by. But when through chance or design they do succeed it adds to the imaginary sense that they are the centre of the world – even its raison d’être. The classic example of this is Napoleon (to whom the new president is remarkably similar.) When Napoleon succeeded, it was, he said, because of his Destiny. When he failed, he mentally collapsed or went into a fury.

It’s intriguing to ponder how all this might end. Like many commentators, I don’t think Donald Trump will last four years. There are various options. Like Stalin, he might end his presidency in a haze of imaginary plots and conspiracies – I think this is the most likely outcome. Some of these plots of course may be based in real events. Or like Hitler he might end it in utter self-destruction, taking America down with him. Possibly that might happen when the Trump/Putin relationship deteriorates, as it is sure to do. Or, like Napoleon, he might simply be out-manoeuvred by superior forces. I think this is also likely, with those ‘superior forces’ being those in the Republican Party who see Trump for what he is.

All hail President Pence!



A New American Faith

We should not be surprised that – as the journal Scientific American observed in a recent article – ‘… people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data. Creationists, for example, dispute the evidence for evolution in fossils and DNA because they are concerned about secular forces encroaching on religious faith. Anti-vaxxers distrust big pharma and think that money corrupts medicine, which leads them to believe that vaccines cause autism despite the inconvenient truth that the one and only study claiming such a link was retracted and its lead author accused of fraud… In these examples, proponents’ deepest held worldviews were perceived to be threatened by sceptics, making facts the enemy to be slayed.’

This is exactly how religious faith works. Contradictory, if not actually ludicrous beliefs are held by groups of adherents, and facts simply make them believe more – and more deeply. As someone interested in the world and our relationship to it I’ve long been perplexed by this process of “faith-testing,” and I used it in The Girl With One Friend, where Erasmus and Pastor Richardson duel over Erasmus’ growing apostasy.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have a world-view forced into me. My parents are both non-religious, and although I went to a C. of E. school from the ages of six to eleven I was an atheist even then, with Christianity bouncing off me. My world view accumulated slowly, based in what I experienced around me. In other circles this is called the scientific method. Of course, it could be argued that atheism is a world-view (which it is), and that it was forced into me, but that ignores the fundamental point – I discovered the world over a long period of time through a method which assumes the independent existence of that world, and which tests it. Science does not care what I or anybody else believes.

We see this odd phenomenon of “faith-testing” at work now in American politics, as the dread day Friday 20th January hoves into view. The overwhelming majority of Donald Trump’s followers support him using principles of religious faith, carried over to the political world. Facts simply make them believe more, because facts threaten them. The contradictory nature of the beliefs of these supporters is identical to the contradictory nature of the beliefs of religious people – in the case of Donald Trump’s supporters a hotch-potch of stuff based in incoherent anger at their ruling class, absurd principles of freedom, and the ugly narcissistic codes of misogyny and racism, which have always loomed large in America’s ultra-Christian culture.

So we should not be surprised at the teflon-coated quality of Donald Trump’s supporters. Just like him, they don’t interface with the real world, where facts reside. They interact with their imaginary construct, supported by everyone else around them and inspired by the man himself. The real world, with its inconvenient truths, is not for them. Donald Trump leads a new religious sect, and is its only source is him. He is the messiah of himself; and it seems quite a lot of people do actually believe in him.



On Tuesday this week, the Guardian featured a blog entitled: It’s impossible for robots to steal your job – no matter what the Daily Mail says. The subtitle was: The Daily Mail has reported that robots could ‘steal’ 15 million UK jobs. But it’s practically impossible to ‘steal’ a job, so why is the notion so persistent?

There followed a lengthy, detailed discussion of why this particular Daily Mail report was a load of nonsense. The comments section below was full of reasoned – and not-so-reasoned – arguments as to why the article might be right or wrong, discussing the merits of the stance that robots may or may not take jobs.

To me, there was one obvious point that was not mentioned amongst all this activity. The Daily Mail is written by children for children. Its headlines and leading pieces are not intended to inform, to discuss, or even to promote a particular world-view (such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express in particular are notorious for). The sole aim of the writers behind the Daily Mail is to create a strong emotional reaction in the reader – and then in the opponents of the reader. The purpose of creating such reactions in readers is to achieve and perpetuate tribal loyalty: that is, a constant stream of money flowing into the Daily Mail’s coffers.

The actual content of such pieces, although limited to the usual anti-immigrant, anti-women stance and so on, is irrelevant. But it suits the Daily Mail to be reactionary and bigoted because that is the best way to split the country into tribes.

There is only one reasonable reaction to comics such as the Daily Mail, and that is to completely ignore them. A wall of silence is the one thing they can’t oppose. That is why I never link to or comment on “outrageous” pieces in such publications – for instance on Facebook – because that is exactly what the Daily Mail wants me to do. It wants the oxygen of publicity, it wants to provoke an irrational emotional reaction, it wants to see warring tribes.

The wall of silence is the only response.


Independent Science

Does it matter that the activity of science across the world at the moment is overwhelmingly in the hands of commercial interests? So long as the science is done, who cares?

Well, James Lovelock might care. Britain’s most independent scientist (an appellation the man is rightly fond of, and proud of) isn’t restricted in what he researches, is able to use his intuition, instinct and massive experience to answer questions other scientists wouldn’t think of. Recently he said of his position, “In most nations of the developed world, they rule out the greater and more interesting parts of hands-on science. True, it might be possible for a present-day Descartes, Einstein or Newton to think and use paper or a PC to record and expand their thoughts, but a Faraday or a Darwin would be buried in paperwork and obliged to spend their time solving problems concerning health and safety, and political correctness, today’s equivalent of the theocratic oppression of Galileo. In the world of corporate science there would be little time left for their singular and breath-taking ideas.”

With the vast majority of science now done to make money for a small elite who exist inside commercial and corporate structures, what does this mean for the future? It could be worse than you think. Take the issue of hybrid corn. In decades past, a farmer who used a particularly good strain of corn would keep back a small proportion of seed to plant for the following year. In this way, further in the past, and over a longer time period, agriculturalists did experiments with genetics, creating strains of corn that best suited the needs of the communities they lived in. But hybrid seeds, which now flood the world via the companies that make them, have one crucial difference. Though they give larger yields, because they are hybrids they never breed true. And that means a farmer has to buy seed every year from a company. This then is the main reason for the flood of hybrid varieties. Under the cover of offering a larger yield, the agricultural world – that is, all our food production – is owned by commerce.

This to my mind does not seem right. And the example given above can be extended to many other vitally important area, not least health.

Erich Fromm saw the dangers decades ago, when the level of commercial control was much less. One of his suggestions for a humane future was to break the deeply unhealthy link between science and commerce by creating an independent science auditing structure. This would of course have an additional benefit, since so much of the damage done by capitalism has been on the planet’s ecosystems. It has long been a call from environmentalists that the future consequences of any scientific development be factored into the cost and ethics of making that development.

But as James Lovelock said: “You mustn’t take what I say as gospel because no one can second-guess the future.” So let’s get independent. Let’s listen to the planet, not to money, which makes people the juvenile dependents of its corporate culture.


A Scientific Description

One of the arguments offered by conservative opponents of progression is that progress can only be a movement towards some goal. What is that goal, and who decides what the goal is – and anyway how would we know that it’s been achieved? The implication of such criticism is that a progressive elite decides the goal, which thus invalidates all that they stand for. How for instance could such progressives have the right to dictate to others?

In an earlier blog Cumulative I noted that I hoped for a full, true description of the human condition via the scientific method. This isn’t a new idea – Erich Fromm suggested such work decades ago. I’m going to contrast here two methods of investigating the world, using the concept of narcissism that I mentioned in my post Narcissism & Donald:

Our entire attitude to the world is characterised by how real we conceive it to be; that is, how narcissistic we are. Human beings, uniquely lacking the great majority of instincts utilised by the rest of the animal kingdom, make sophisticated mental models in order to survive. These mental models are incredibly flexible at the beginning of life – a human infant can become almost anything, and overwhelmingly this depends on their quality of parenting and other social bonds. But an infant has almost nothing of a mental model when they are born, and has to painstakingly piece one together through experience of life. All human beings are born 100% narcissistic. Narcissism, in the general sense of the word, is the essential glue that binds together an infant’s inchoate sensory perceptions, memories and experiences. Without it, no human being would be able to create the essential mental model required to survive in the real world. A human life, on this view, is thus a gradual process of the sophistication of the mental model, including the reduction of and eventual overcoming of narcissism.

The faith-based method of explaining the world is imaginary – that is, it can be characterised as narcissistic, since reality is filtered through the screens of faith, whether that be religious faith, faith in the random supernatural, or faith in anything that lacks evidence. But the scientific method explicitly promotes the independence of the real world. It can be characterised as a specifically non-narcissistic method of investigating and explaining the world. (This incidentally is not to say that science, the social construct, is the same.) As Philip K. Dick memorably said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Suppose then that a description of the human condition could be created which coincided with the real world. Human beings appeared after four billion years of evolution. We were not and are not the culmination of that process, but nevertheless that process did create us. There must therefore be an independent explanation for our evolution; and that, crucially, includes the evolution of consciousness. Readers of this blog will already know of my admiration for the work of Nicholas Humphrey in this field, and will not be surprised that I think his social intelligence theory is the basis of the answer.

So if we could agree on a scientific description of the human condition, it would perhaps act as a fundamental reference point in our understanding of human behaviour.

Before I move on, however, I need to say this. Just as biological determinism is merely the application of the false notion that genes entirely determine us and are the cause of all inequalities observed in human societies, so a true, generally agreed description of the human condition should not be used in a kind of human determinism. There is no utopia. There could be an ecology of utopias, each decided by local social conditions and humanely designed in reference to our understanding of the human condition – but there cannot be a new fascism like the old.

Having said that, it is my opinion that human nature and the human condition are different things. I do not think the fundamentals of the human condition vary in any significant way over time now that we are conscious. I think those fundamentals were created by evolution over the last few hundred thousand years. Perhaps over millions of years there will be some change; we can’t know.

As for human nature, I think that varies according to historical period. What was deemed “human nature” in 3000BC is not what we deem “human nature” now.

This, then, is why I hope for a scientific description of the human condition. It would act as a generally agreed reference point for the explanation of human behaviour, a reference point existing at the most fundamental level and achieved by the use of the scientific method. No human problem was ever resolved by not understanding it. Understanding must be at the root of all our endeavours, and therefore explanation must be our method of progress. Reality cannot in the long run be avoided, because reality always has consequences.

A progressive is at heart an explainer.



There’s a lot of gloom and negativity around at the moment, especially in liberal quarters.

Brexit disaster, US presidential election disaster, religious fundamentalism on the rise in many countries across the planet, no sign of the demise of capitalism, and too little being done to combat the environmental catastrophe on our doorstep. Is it really so bad – a return to the insanity of centuries past – or is it a global cultural blip?

I like to take the long term view. For thirty years I’ve been studying human evolution: biological evolution, psychological evolution and the arrival of consciousness, and cultural evolution. I think humanity has had certain ideas – the existence of a soul or spirit, the existence of an afterlife – for 40,000 years at least, and those two basic concepts may have existed in Neanderthal cultures. Other ideas – the belief in a pantheon, or latterly in a monotheistic god – have been around merely for thousands of years.

Since the arrival of patriarchy 5,000 or so years ago we’ve seen an orgy of violence, genocide and war. But indications suggest the amount of warfare is less now than it used to be – a notion I made use of in my novel No Grave For A Fox, although it was for an ‘inhumane reason,’ the prevalence of humanity-diminishing technology delivered via the nexus. If a reduction in warfare is the case, is it possible that cultural evolution is shaking us free of juvenile masculine norms – what Carl Sagan called ‘the long childhood of humanity’? Or will the prevalence of and emotionally numbing effect of technology simply change who the world’s elites are?

Many people argue that history is either cyclic, or up/down and liberal/conservative at random. The notion of slow progress towards a wonderful utopia is scorned in modern times. Well, I would caution some care in that regard, since a single utopia could easily be replaced by an ecology of socially suitable utopias for a far better result… but that’s maybe a blog for another occasion. But returning to that idea of slow progress towards a goal: is there any evidence for this?

I think there is, and it is this: understanding of the real world, through methods that assume the independent existence of the real world – i.e. without input from human imagination – is a cumulative one way process. By this I mean the scientific method. But by this I don’t mean science, which is socially constructed as much as it is reality constructed. I mean human beings assuming that the independent real world takes nothing from imagination, testing that real world, seeing what happens, then modifying hypotheses until they coincide with it; until they become theories.

Or even laws – like Newton’s Laws of Motion. We’ve had around five hundred years of what for want of a better term I’ll call modern science. We can’t go back on Newton, we can’t go back on Einstein, we can’t go back on Darwin, we can’t go back on Watson & Crick. In the long run we can’t go back to faith, to imaginary explanations, to souls and ghosts and all the rest of it. The cumulative process of understanding is irreversible in the long run, because the real world out there is real – independent of our imaginations. On the macroscopic scale it exists inviolate.

And we can’t go back on Freud. Each of us does have an unconscious mind, which is the overwhelming majority of the mental model we use to grasp the real world. Our understanding of ourselves as a conscious species is also a cumulative one way process. We are only a hundred and twenty years on from Freud’s momentous breakthrough, and we’re only thirty years on from Nicholas Humphrey’s social intelligence theory of consciousness. My optimism, my hope – over thousands of years, it has to be said – is that eventually we will have a full, true description of the human condition; and once we have that we can understand human behaviour in all its extraordinary variety. We can understand the universal existence of religion in prehistoric and historic societies; the reasons for the existence of love, humour and emotions; why we sense the passage of time; why we need identity and a home; and perhaps most of all why we all feel the burning urge to explain the world around us.

We exist on a historical continuum of human values. That continuum – and this will annoy my post-modernist readers – begins with simple, imaginary, incorrect ideas. We have learned that rocks and trees don’t have spirits. We have learned that the Earth goes around the Sun, to the considerable demotion of humanity. We have learned that people shouldn’t be slaves and we have learned that men and women deserve equal rights.

When our grasp of reality coincides with reality, perhaps then liberals will be able to relax and have a nice cup of tea. So give human progress time. Give it another 10,000 years.


America Is Not Europe

Many people – if they have recovered from their shock – are now putting the news from America into perspective, including women on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme, which today I listened to with even more interest than usual.

Let’s put this debate into a wider perspective though. The main question European women are asking this morning is how any American woman could vote for a man who boasts about sexual assault and who even on the most generous terms is a misogynist. I’ve never been to America, but plenty of my friends have. I’ve spoken with them; and I’ve observed America from the outside. I think too many Europeans perceive America to be a ‘different kind of Europe’ – most likely on the basis of a shared language, and many shared artistic and other cultural values.

But America’s ethical values are not at all the same as European ones. America is an overtly Christian country, where a vast number of people believe the Bible to be literally true, where astrology, ghosts and all kinds of supernatural nonsense long-since debunked in Europe hold sway, and where reasoned enquiry, as opposed to faith, is deemed somehow dubious.

(I will in due course post a guest blog from an American atheist friend of mine, which, in case you think I am exaggerating, will illustrate the true nature of atheism in America.)

It is no accident that the template of those supporting Trump was one of faith – unreasoned blind faith, unmodified by any consideration of the real world. There are a lot of people who don’t understand that the real world is real – they just interact with their own version of it. While the same could be said of some of Hillary Clinton’s supporters, it is true of a far, far larger proportion of those following Trump. And the same was true in Britain. No knowledge, no insight, no grasp of the real world: result, Brexit.

“If you ever underestimated the ferocity with which systemic patriarchy would fight a woman attaining serious power, think again. But make no mistake: underlying all the other issues in this election – demographic shifts and racism, economics and education, globalism and immigration and nativism – at the core is a terminally diseased system of male supremacy in a battle to the death with women (and some male allies) who are determined to save ourselves and this planet.” – Robin Morgan, The Guardian, 9th November.

Christianity, like all global religions, is a woman-scorning creed, one that actively and maliciously reduces women to second class citizens. Christianity and patriarchy are in many respects indistinguishable. It is the hold Christianity has over America which feeds into the standard misogyny of men to make the ethical values there even more antagonistic to women than would otherwise be the case. In Europe, we have a good few women political leaders, cultural leaders and scientific leaders. In America, women are decades behind us. Many decades.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction, yes, but even though it is a polemical view it only needs a few of Atwood’s imaginary cultural aspects to come about to make the lot of women even worse in America than it is already.

Truly, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.