Skip to content

Apocalyptic visions from Martin Rees

Martin Rees is one of the world's leading astronomers and cosmologists and former President of the Royal Society. In 2003 he published Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century?. Rees's answer seemed to be "perhaps".

Now he has returned to the same theme in a 'Conversation' published on Edge, with the title Curtains For Us All?, which isn't much more optimistic about our prospects.

Rees envisages various possible global catastrophes, particularly those associated with biological scenarios. The increasing availability of gene-editing techniques is potentially enormously dangerous. It is already possible to produce super-lethal strains of flu that could be used as a weapon. Perhaps governments would not want to do that because it would, in effect, be suicidal (although what about North Korea if it felt itself to be on the verge of defeat?). But Rees's worst nightmare is "an ecology fanatic with the mindset of some of the extreme animal rights people we have in this country, someone who thinks that the world—Gaia—is being polluted or destroyed by too many human beings".


There are many people who think that, but if there's one person who thought that and had this kind of mindset, then they might think it a good idea to try to kill off as many human beings as they can. They wouldn't care who it was. Obviously, this is unlikely. You'd need to have someone with this extreme psychology, but the point is that one such person is too many because the downside could be so colossal. That is number one on my list of not entirely unrealistic scares.


Actually, the Edge piece is not all as gloomy as that. It ranges widely and takes in cosmology (Rees finds the many-universes idea to be becoming scientifically respectable now and more probable than not) and the likelihood of finding intelligent extra-terrestrial life. Here he makes the important point that even if intelligent life does exist out there, the chances that we can find it at just the right moment - when it is neither not advanced enough technoligically to communicate nor too advanced for our comprehension - are pretty small.

If it is advanced it will probably not be biological. The future, if any, for advanced technologies, including ours, is almost certainly mechanical.


Even though the rate of progress is uncertain, the direction of travel is pretty well agreed. It's almost certainly going to be towards a posthuman world, where our intelligences would be surpassed by something genetically engineered from us or, more likely, it will be some sort of artificial electronic device that has robotic abilities and intelligence.


Welcome to the future.

Andrew Marr starts the week badly

Start the Week this morning was chaired by Andrew Marr. It was about the increasing importance of India. Marr, after announcing the speakers, introduced the subject by saying: "This rise of India is jolly good news for we Brits [sic]." I've come to expect this kind of thing from reporters on the BBC, but not from a journalist of Marr's eminence.

Rabbi Lord Sacks and the dinosaurs

In today's Thought for the Day Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was talking about the extinction of the dinosaurs, which he described as 'the greatest mass extinction in history'. Of course, he meant prehistory – some dinosaurs did survive the event for a time but none of them wrote a historical account of what happened – but leaving that aside, it wasn't the biggest extinction event we know of. The end-Permian extinction, about 251 million years ago, was much bigger, wiping out over 90 per cent of the species then alive, compared to about 75 per cent for the dinosaurs.

His talk was triggered by a TV programme this week which described recent research suggesting that it was the site of the impact that made the event so deadly. It released vast quantities of sulphur into the atmosphere. and this in turn led to large-scale loss of plant life and starvation of any dinosaurs who survived the immediate fireball. If the bolide had landed in the deep ocean or on dry land the catastrophe would have been less devastating. So 30 seconds' difference in the timing of the arrival might have allowed the dinosaurs to recover.

Sachs doesn't regard this as chance but as evidence for divine providence. It was God's plan to allow the mammals to take over and, ultimately, humans to emerge. "COME IN, DINOSAURS, YOUR TIME'S UP!" For me, this argument is reminiscent of the old joke about the man who shoots at a barn door and then draws a target round the shots to prove what a good marksman he is. I find it easier to believe that the timing of the event was due to chance.

I don't think there was anything inevitable in the evolution of humans or, probably, in the evolution of complex life, let alone intelligent life. Life is probably widespread in the universe but most of it will be bacterial. (See The Vital Question, by Nick Lane.)
.

The future of religious belief

Quite a few of the books about religion that I've reviewed over the years in my book review pages have suggested that religion is set to decline in importance in the 21st century. I've always doubted this myself and a major review, The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050 by the Pew Foundation, finds that the non-religious proportion of the world's population will decrease in relative terms over this period, although it may increase a little in absolute numbers as a result of the increase in world population as a whole. Both Islam and Christianity will increase, although Muslims will come to outnumber Christians.

This is a demographic effect. Religious belief is declining in Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan, and is low in China. But all these countries have ageing populations and low birth rates, whereas both Christianity and Islam, but especially Islam, are prospering in countries with young fertile mothers who have large families. This analysis refers to the numbers of children being born into the various faiths; it can't tell us what proportion of these individuals will reject their birth religion later.

It's well worth having a look at the Pew site if this is a question that interests you. They also had a good review of the question In America, Does More Education Equal Less Religion?. In short, "Overall, U.S. adults with college degrees are less religious than others, but this pattern does not hold among Christians."

A reluctant conversion to Kindle

I've long resisted the lure of e-readers, insisting that I prefer to read proper paper books. But I've now had to eat my words; I've bought a Kindle Paperwhite. There were several reasons for this.

1. My eyes now make it difficult to read small print, at least with any enjoyment, and most of the paperbacks I buy, and even some of the hardbacks, have eye-straining print. Now I can enlarge the text to whatever size I like.

2. I review nearly all the books I read on my website, and this usually needs me to take notes while I'm reading. Hitherto I've done this either on a laptop or on paper, provided one of these was to hand when I was reading, but it wasn't ideal. The Kindle allows me to make notes on the fly, save them, and email them to myself to use later when writing the review.

3. Also in relation with reviewing, I often want to find a particular passage in the book to quote. Sometimes this can be done with the index, but often it can't, and then I have to thumb through the text to find the passage I want, which can be a lengthy business. With an e-book I can search it easily.

4. Our house is literally overflowing with books and there is nowhere to put new ones. I often want to look something up in a book which I know we have, but finding it often entails a long search through different rooms, which may be ultimately unsucessful. So I expect most books I buy in future will be e-books.

5. I often come across a reference to a book I decide I want to read. If there is a Kindle edition it's usually cheaper than the paper version, and another advantage is that it is delivered instantly.

I gather that sales of e-readers such as the Kindle are declining as more people are reading e-books on either a mobile phone or a tablet. I don't have or want either of those. I could use my desktop or laptop to read the books, but that isn't pleasant. I wanted a device that was as book-like as possible, hence the Kindle. And I have to say that I am pleased with it. The screen is excellent - clear, sharp, and book-like - so much so that I sometimes forget it isn't a paper book and find myself trying to turn the page over in the usual way!

The only thing I don't like is the absence of external buttons to operate the book; it's all done by tapping the screen to access menus. But that aside, I'm considerably impressed.

It's taken me a long time to reach this point. It was an article in The Author that finally convinced me to take the step, quite late in life. I'm glad I did. Probably there were people in the fifteenth century who lamented the replacement of manuscript books by this new-fangled printing process with moveable type, but I expect most of them were converts in the end.

An early forerunner of ISIS

Present-day ISIS (Da'ish) is remarkably similar to the Azraqites, a much earlier fundamentalist movement in Islam that existed at the end of the seventh century. It is described by W. Montgomery Watt in his book Islamic Philosophy and Theology... The Azraqites were in revolt against the ruling dynasty, the Umayyads, based in Damascus, whom they regarded as illegitimate and irreligious.

The members of their band were the true Muslims; their house alone was 'the camp of Islam' … where Islam was truly observed. Those who 'sat still' at home and did not make the hijra or 'migration' to their camp were sinners and unbelievers, outside the community of Islam. … By thus excluding from the Islamic community even those Muslims who did not agree with them in every detail, they made it lawful to kill such persons and also their wives and children; for according to an old Arab usage there was no wrong in killing someone not a member of one's tribe or an allied tribe… This puritanical theology became a justification for sheer terrorism and the Azraqites became noted and feared for their widespread massacres.

And the parallel goes even further in view of ISIS's practice of getting Western recruits to execute Western hostages.

It is said that when a man went to them and said he wanted to join their band he was given a prisoner to kill; if, as is likely, it was a prisoner from the man's tribe, the killing would break his ties with his tribe and attach him irrevocably to the Azraqites.

They were finally defeated in 697.

Book review: Islamic Philosophy and Theology, by W. Montgomery Watt

This book formed part of a series, edited by Watt, which described various aspects of Islam. It is mainly concerned with the medieval period and has little to say of the time after the Mongol conquest in the mid-thirteenth century; Watt speaks of a 'period of darkness' between 1250 and 1900. As the title indicates, it covers both philosophy and theology; this is appropriate, because the two subjects were nearly always closely linked in Islamic thought.

The opening chapters are largely historical, describing the events that followed the death of Muhammad in 632. He was succeeded by four 'rightly guided caliphs', the last of whom, Ali, was murdered in 661. The centre of power then transferred to Damascus, where Muawiyya had established a rival caliphate, that of the Umayyads. Read more

Book review: The Russian Interpreter, by Michael Frayn

The novel is set in Cold War Russia, some ten years after the end of the second world war. Paul Manning is living in Moscow, where he is writing a thesis. He receives a visit from Gordon Proctor-Gould, who had attended the same Cambridge college as Manning although they did not know each other at that time. Read more

A reminder for the Trump era

The psychiatrist Anthony Storr wrote an excellent book on the guru phenonemon, Feet of Clay. It contained an important warning that seems apposite at this time.

All authorities, whether political or spiritual, should be distrusted, and extremely authoritarian characters who divide the world into "us" and "them", who preach that there is only one way forward, or who believe that they are surrounded by enemies, are particularly to be avoided. It is not necessary to be dogmatic to be effective. The charisma of certainty is a snare which entraps the child who is latent in all of us.

Book review: Towards the End of the Morning, by Michael Frayn

This is a novel about a kind of journalism that no longer exists. John Dyson and Bob Bell work for a newspaper that seems to have some literary pretensions, never sacks anyone and would certainly have folded long before the end of the twentieth century, let alone with the arrival of the Internet. The two men are friends and share an office where not very much work gets done. John is approaching middle age and has the ambition to get on television, which he thinks will transform his life. Bob, who is younger, eats sweets for comfort and has no ambition of any kind; he seems destined to potter along as a third-rate journalist for the rest of his working life. His ultimate future is probably foreshadowed by the third member of the office, 'poor old Eddie', who spends most of the day asleep, waking up occasionally to reminisce about old times and long-dead journalists of his acquaintance. Read more

Book review: What We Cannot Know, by Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and in 2008 succeeded Richard Dawkins as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Like Dawkins, he is an atheist, but unlike Dawkins he intends to focus on science rather than religion. And yet religion does surface in this book, in which he considers whether there are things we can never know. Read more

Book review: The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford

This novel was written in 1890 when the author was aged nine. She rediscovered it in a drawer in 1917 when she was 36 and it was published two years later, spelling mistakes and all; the only editorial concession made was to insert paragraphing to aid readability. (Incredibly, a reviewer on Amazon recently complained that the publishers should have corrected the spelling!) The book was an instant success, being reprinted 18 times in the first year alone; it is still in print today. Read more

Book review: How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

This is a book about evolutionary psychology, which Pinker explains at the outset as follows.

The evolutionary psychology of this book is in one sense a straightforward extension of biology, focused on one organ, the mind, of one species,Homo sapiens. But in another sense it is a radical thesis that discards the way issues about the mind have been framed for almost a century.


The view outlined here includes a number of ideas: that the mind is a set of modules whose organisation is genetic, that it is an adaptation designed by natural selection, and that the goal of natural selection is to propagate genes. But Pinker cautions us that none of these ideas should be pushed too far. Each of them contributes part of the explanation but none gives us the whole story. Read more