The Day PZ Myers came to Hebden Bridge

My son Max and his friend Claire entered the ticket office at the train station in Bradford the other day. As they approached, the man behind the counter put down his newspaper and cast a baleful eye over Claire’s bright blue hair. “Hebden Bridge?” he asked. He was right first time.

A few days ago I saw that Paul Zachary "PZ" Myers associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Morris, Pharyngula blogger, and sworn enemy of creationist nut-jobbery in all its forms was coming to speak in Hebden. I had to do a double-take. Unfortunately, since I originally saw this, I’d been up to my eyeballs in work and miscellaneous other activities - mainly on behalf of others (as we say in Yorkshire: “A friend in need is a bloody nuisance”) and PZ’s visit had gone completely out of my head.

Then at about 7.30 this evening I saw the following tweet:

I remembered: “Doors 7.30pm – 8pm start”. Hebden Bridge is about 30 minutes away by car from my house. I found my keys, leapt into the car, forgetting my phone, and hit the road. Taking the empty back roads over the moors I somehow managed to get to the Trades Club with two minutes to spare. But there was nowhere to park at the venue and I had to park about half a mile away and run like Mo Farah (well, like Mo Farah would run if he were giving Eric Pickles a piggy back) back to the venue.

I pelted up the stairs (squeezing past a lady who was saying to her friend “eee we’ve got a professor in ‘ere tonight”), bought one of the few remaining tickets, and joined PZ’s talk – which had, I was assured, “only been going on for a couple of minutes”.

Later I asked a fellow local how on earth we’d managed to get the world famous PZ Myers (hot foot from the dreaming spires of Oxford) to come and speak at Hebden Bridge. “Well he’s on his way up to Edinburgh. I suppose it was on the way” he suggested.

Now don’t get me wrong, Hebden Bridge is a lovely place (it is, after all, in Yorkshire) and I urge you all to visit if you are ever up this way. But it is not normally on the beaten track of internationally renowned academics.

Anyway, PZ’s talk (on American creationists) was, of course, splendid and highly entertaining and much appreciated by the audience – who were clearly clued up on much of what PZ had come to speak about.

Though it quickly became clear – as PZ himself acknowledged – that he was “preaching to the choir” there was plenty of interesting material that I (and I expect many others there) were not particularly aware of. One thing PZ pointed out was what a recent phenomenon creationism (based on a literal interpretation of biblical texts) is. Another thing, which I certainly hadn’t really appreciated, was the origins of this ideology in the teachings of quite small numbers of people who, even by the standards of American god botherers, were a pretty wacky bunch. Disturbingly, the nonsense spread by such crazies (far more extreme even than the sort of arguments scientists were having to rebut in the days of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial) have now become part of mainstream thinking and are now embraced by about half the population of the USA.

Photo by kind permission of Chris Hassall @katatrepsis (who took it - as I say i forgot my phone)

Even more disturbingly, we learned, the creationist movement in the USA is astonishingly well funded. Its ludicrous, though well produced, propaganda is funded by rivers of cash from generous, though credulous, donors and income from theme parks - which, inter alia, present theropods from the late Cretaceous Period being herded onto a 4000 year old Ark.

PZ’s talk was followed by questions and discussion of how best to stop them ever coming here. PZ took “here” to mean “the UK”, but obviously they really meant “West Yorkshire”.

So a really excellent talk met by a really warm reception – a bit too warm …. especially after I had run all the way from the car park. We may have fewer religious zealots than the Yanks, but they do - it has to be said - have better air conditioning than we do.

I shook hands with PZ and thanked him before leaving and should like to take this opportunity to say how flattered we all were that he took time out to come and share an evening with us here in God’s own County.

(I was about to suggest they could try and get Prof Brian Cox next year but then I remembered that he's from Lancashire.)


The riddle of Ridley

This piece was inspired by Nick Cohen’s piece (which I urge you to read) in the Observer today: Why do we still honour free-market intellectuals? (It's mystifying that the former chairman of Northern Rock is still garnering plaudits).

The author of our current misfortunes?

Matt Ridley (AKA The Right Hon Matthew, 5th Viscount Ridley) is famous (or perhaps infamous) for being in charge of Northern Rock when it went pear-shaped (to use a metaphor borrowed from biology) in 2007. This debacle was the first (at least the first that came to everyone’s attention) in a series of events that culminated in the virtual collapse of the UK banking system and the economic mess from which we are only just recovering (at least if the optimists are to be believed).
I, however, knew of Matt Ridley long before 2007, as the author of a series of books on evolutionary biology and genetics. While I should hesitate to recommend Dr Ridley’s financial advice to anyone (ditto his views on climate change – but that’s a story for another day), I should have no hesitation in recommending his excellent popular science books.
The only criticism I might make of those books is that Ridley is sometimes too ready to borrow metaphors from evolutionary biology and try and apply them in his thinking on how the economy works or (even more tendentiously) ought (in a moral sense) to work. You can often see this species of thinking lurking below his writing. Richard Dawkins (who writes in similar fields and has often worked alongside Ridley) is rather more keen to note (though I am paraphrasing Dawkins here) that just because nature is “red in tooth and claw” it does not follow that the best run economies are, or that (even if such economies were the most financially successful) they would be an ethical success.
But let us move on and look at some (evolutionary) science……..

First, some human psychology:

It is a puzzling fact about humans (revealed in a number of experiments) that when acting as an audience at (say) a random number guessing game, they will accord extra respect to those who guess the “correct” numbers (and less respect to those who guess the “incorrect” numbers) even though they know the game is entirely random. If popular films are an accurate portrayal of reality (I would not know as I have never entered a casino) winners at roulette accrue similarly inflated (and entirely undeserved) prestige.
Of course, winning at some gambling games – for example Black Jack – can be a sign of cleverness. If you can remember the sequence of cards and calculate the odds in your head as the game progresses you can stack the odds in your favour. But, usually, gambling involves pure chance. It is often claimed that some people are “expert” poker players, but the last time I read something on this subject, the author was suggesting that the statistics on this are by no means unequivocal. It is entirely possible (he opined) that “top” poker players are simply “lucky” poker players.
So why do we admire people who happen to make the right (entirely serendipitous) guesses? One answer I have seen put forward is that we (for evolutionary reasons) prefer to ascribe what happens in the world to agency rather than to random chance: the movement in the bushes might be a random effect of the wind, but those who assumed it might be a stalking lion were more likely to live long enough to become our ancestors.

Secondly, some evolutionary theory:

It was at one time thought - even sometimes by Darwin himself (despite what we often read and despite the fact that the modern non-Lamarckian theory is styled “Darwinian”) - that a significant element in evolution is the inheritance, by offspring, of characteristics acquired in life by parents. The example usually given of this sort of phenomenon is the ancestors of the giraffe having to stretch their necks to reach the leaves of tall trees and then passing on their elongated necks to future generations who then did the same and became taller still.
Microbiologists were among the last scientists to disabuse themselves of Lamarckian notions. The example of giraffe gymnastics is clearly far-fetched but, for a long time, it really did seem as though populations of bacteria could be "trained" to survive increasing concentrations of antibiotics in their growth media – like heroin addicts learning to tolerate increasing doses of their chosen drug I suppose – and could pass this learned ability on to their daughter cells. What actually happens is that a few “lucky” mutant bacteria just happen to survive each round of antibiotic treatment and go on to produce new generations with a similar genetic make-up (plus a few new mutants).
In other words, the successful bacteria do not owe their survival to any of their own achievements in life.
Perhaps you can already see where I am going with this ………..


Certainly until the events of the last few years, I suppose that people naturally (and as we have seen for good evolutionary reasons) tended to assume that successful bankers were successful because they were highly talented people who owed their success to their talents. Successful bankers were awarded prestige and honours and, even though some people wondered aloud whether bankers really deserved to be paid salaries and bonuses hundreds or thousands of times greater than what (say) a university researcher discovering a new antibiotic might expect, most people accepted that successful bankers deserved high salaries.
But there’s an entirely plausible alternative hypothesis for what the mechanism at work here is – made all the more plausible since the events of 2007. What if bankers make entirely random decisions? The financial environment in which they make those random decisions, selects some to survive and prosper, and some to go bust; but the bankers themselves have no more special foresight than bacteria growing on media contaminated with varying concentrations of antibiotic.
What, in short, if banking (and perhaps commerce in general in a market economy) is Darwinian rather than Larmarckian?
What if successful bankers do not deserve any more reward in life than successful bacteria?
Given Mark Ridley’s fondness for drawing parallels (at least implicitly) between evolutionary biology and the financial world, I am surprised he has never given serious consideration to this hypothesis. And, even more to the point, subscription to such a hypothesis would entirely absolve Matt Ridley of any culpability for the plight of millions who have been far less fortunate in life than the Viscount and who now find themselves at the (lack of) mercy of events which were certainly beyond their control.