How we reinvented food

February 28, 2009

The history of food over the last 100 years or so is undoubtedly the story of the industrialisation of food production and of the democratisation of eating. Up until the beginning of the last century most people lived on the land and fed themselves and the cities. Now the situation is very different with a very small rural population able to feed millions of city dwellers. This has been possible because of some technological innovations that have increased agricultural productivity. This has also made cheap food available for everyone. The Green Revolution has required the massive use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, making each acre of land far more productive. I tend to think that this has been positive. We hear so much about organic farming but I am sceptical about its ability to feed millions.

Halfway through the last century women began to feel that being in the kitchen was a form of social slavery. The microwave, actually invented in the 1940s, is one example of the revolution that has taken place in the kitchen. Perhaps inventions like this have done more to liberate women than all those feminists burning their bras in the 1960s. Convenience foods have also played a vital role in the liberation of women. From the ARM (Ambient Ready Meal) in the 50s to today’s Instant baked beans on toast, a frozen, fused sandwich that goes directly into the toaster, they have an ever-increasing market share. Are all these developments good or bad? I suppose we need to see them in terms of a trade off.

The growth of restaurants is something we take for granted but it is a relatively new phenomenon and surely McDonald’s is the ultimate example of the industrialised eatery. They are present in more than 111 countries (Thomas Friedman has a famous theory known as The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention in which he stated in a tongue-in-cheek way: “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s”. Unfortunately, though I think trade is a good way of increasing cooperation, putting a McDonald’s in every country in the world will not be a solution as shown by counterexamples examples such as the NATO’s bombing of Serbia or the 2008 South Ossetia war between Russia and Georgia.) They serve more than 50 million customers every day with a limited range of food that owes much to the original McDonald brothers, a family atmosphere and a free toy with each Happy Meal – McDonald’s is the biggest manufacturer of toys in the world.

The man who really made McDonald’s what it is today has to be Ray Kroc. Now Kroc was not exactly what you would describe as normal. You only have to hear his description of when he first went to the McDonald brothers restaurant in San Bernardino to realize that this man had some psychological issues: It was not her sex appeal but the obvious relish with which she devoured the hamburger that made my pulse begin to hammer with excitement. His descriptions of the buns and patties border on food pornography:  It requires a certain kind of mind to see beauty in a hamburger bun. Yet, is it any more unusual to find grace in the texture and softly curved silhouette of a bun than to reflect lovingly on the hackles of a favourite fishing fly?” This man had an obsessive attention to detail. According to Kroc the hamburgers had to be 3.875 inches across, weigh 1.6 ounces and contain 19% of fat. And those buns had to have an average of 178 sesame seeds.

People tend to get very uppity about the lack of nutritional value of a Big Mac. Morgan Spurlock went a whole month eating only there in his documentary Super Size Me. I think this is a pretty stupid idea. My problem with McDonald’s is that I don’t think it isn’t very appetising. There are so many different tastes and gastronomic experiences out there to be had, that is crime to confine yourself to fast food

Haute cuisine has also undergone immense changes. For example, there is sous-vide cooking, where meat or fish is cooked for a long time, sometimes for over 24 hours, using airtight plastic bags placed in a Thermal Immersion Circulator, which heats the water to around 60°C. Sometimes you can take this technology too far. In the late 80s top chef Albert Roux opened a sous vide restaurant in London called Rouxl Britannia. He wanted to create a restaurant without skilled chefs. It sounded too much like ‘boil-in-a- bag’ and proved to be a failure and the chefless restaurant has not yet become a feature of contemporary life. More recently molecular gastronomy has come to the fore. Although he dislikes the term, it is associated with Spanish chef Ferran Adriá. The world’s greatest chef, “the Salvador Dali of the kitchen” is certainly very creative. He is famous for his Kellogg’s paella made from Rice Krispies, shrimp heads and vanilla-flavoured mashed potatoes. If that doesn’t get you drooling, you can try quail eggs in a cage of gold-tinted caramel, frozen foie gras dust and white garlic and almond sorbet. For those who can’t wait 4,024 years to get a table at his restaurant, El Bulli have their Texturas line of products that can turn potatoes and oysters into foams and help you create such culinary delights as melon caviar or spherical ravioli. I think I’d prefer a Big Mac.





Food quotes

February 28, 2009

Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.  Anthelme Brillat-Savarin French politician, gastronome, and writer.


One should eat to live, and not live to eat. Molière, French playwright.


A gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart who looks at her watch. James Beard, U.S. chef and author.


We are assaulted by conflicting information about food which appears in the press or on radio and which exposes us to passing fads and fancies. Dilys Wells, British nutritionist.


Hunger is the best sauce in the world. Cervantes


On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners. George Mikes, Hungarian-born British writer and humorist.


Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Writer Michael Pollan’s advice on eating.


And I find chopsticks frankly distressing.  Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?  Bill Bryson


I’ll bet what motivated the British to colonize so much of the world is that they were just looking for a decent meal.  Martha Harrison


I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.  W. C. Fields


How can you expect to govern a country that has two hundred and forty-six kinds of cheese?  Charles de Gaulle.





Countries without McDonald’s

February 28, 2009

I got this information from Wikipedia.


Ask Yahoo! compared the United States Department of State’s list of independent states to a list of franchises on the McDonald’s website, and derived that the following countries don’t have McDonald’s locations:


LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN (13 out of 35 countries)

Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago

In addition there is a McDonalds restaurant in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, land leased from Cuba that hosts a US Naval facility.


EUROPE (5 out of 48 countries)

Albania, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Cyprus and Vatican City


THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA (7 out of 19 countries)

Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.


ASIA (16 out of 30 countries)

Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma (also known as Myanmar), Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, North Korea, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam


SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA (46 out of 48)

Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe


OCEANIA (10 out of 14)

Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu

My media week 01/03/09

February 28, 2009

Leading sceptic Michael Shermer wrote this article about two myths that persist about evolution and natural selection.


A subject dear to my heart is male beauty and there are some big changes are taking place. Facial hair is back and men are getting into cosmetics and botox. Men are no longer wearing aftershave; perfume and fragrance are now in vogue. Find out about all this in this podcast from ABC’s By Design.


Radio Open Source has an interview with Jonah Lehrer about brain science. His new book How We Decide is a set of cautionary tales about the limits of the rational brain, that peculiarly human pre-frontal cortex, and by implication the limits of rational science.


The Daily Mash has this piece about hapless UK PM Gordon Brown – Brown Refuses To Hand Back Pension.





Gossip: a natural history

February 21, 2009

Show me someone who never gossips, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t interested in people. Barbara Walters

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.  This has sometimes been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but without a definite citation.

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.  Oscar Wilde

No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.  Bertrand Russell

If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me. Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth


Gossip is all around us. And I don’t just mean housewives chitchatting outside the supermarket, tabloid sex scandals or those awful programmes about celebrities on TV. If you could overhear a group of academics chatting in the staff room, chances are that they would be gossiping about their colleagues rather than discussing the latest research findings or the meaning of life. We are gossip machines. Academic research on conversations show that about two thirds of our conversation time is dedicated to social gossip. This has been replicated throughout the world in many different cultures

       Gossip has not generally had a good press. St. Paul called it a sin against charity. We know about its negative connotations but we enjoy participating in this group nastiness. Many people say that all history is basically well told gossip and it is undoubtedly an important weapon of political power. Does it survive because we get pleasure from scurrilous rumours or does it actually serve a purpose?

        Our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small communities where they knew everyone else face-to-face. They had to cooperate in order to protect themselves against external groups. But they also had to compete for limited resources within their own group. Living under such conditions, it was important to be able to distinguish between a reliable exchange partner and a free rider, find a good mate, and navigate friendships, alliances and family relationships. People who were fascinated with the lives of others would enjoy more success, and it is their genes that have come down to us through the ages. It was those individuals who possessed the ability to evaluate the temperament, predictability and past behaviour of individuals who are personally known to you that had an evolutionary payoff rather than those who were capable of abstract statistical thinking about large numbers of unknown strangers.

What is the function of gossip? If you look on Wikipedia, you will find a list of functions that gossip performs:

  1. normalise and reinforce moral boundaries in a speech-community
  2. foster and build a sense of community with shared interests and information
  3. build structures of social accountability
  4. further mutual social grooming (like many other uses of language, only more so)
  5. provide a mating tool that allows (for example) women to mutually identify socially desirable men and compare notes on which men are better than others.
  6. be used as a form of passive aggression, as a tool to isolate and harm others
  7. provide a peer-to-peer mechanism for disseminating information in organizations.

We seek the type of information that will influence our social standing relative to others. We have a predisposition towards negative news about high-status people and potential rivals because we can exploit this to improve our relative position. We also prefer gossip about members of our own sex and age because they are our natural evolutionary competitors.

 We have this prehistoric mental equipment with which we have to deal with the modern world. Modern technology has completely revolutionised gossip. Gossip has moved away from its local roots to be about people we have never met. Our minds are being bombarded with  this macrogossip and our brains seem incapable of distinguishing between these celebrities and people who really have an impact on our lives. In a fast-moving  somewhat impersonal industrial society, celebrities have become our ersatz friends and acquaintances. They provide a common interest and topic of conversation between neighbours and co-workers, people who otherwise might have little to say to one another.

I have to say that this recent exponential growth of celebrities has passed me by. I can enjoy gossip but in very small doses. I can’t stand those sycophantic Hello stories – The Duke and Duchess of York Grant Us the Most Personal of Interviews and for the First Time Ever Throw Open the Doors of Their Home and Invite Us to Share Their Intimate Family Moments. Pass the sick-bag, please! (In fact there is a phenomenon, known as “the curse of Hello!” – a curse so powerful that the minute a couple appears in Hello!, especially if they are talking about how blissfully happy they are, divorce is inevitable.) I want real scandal, preferably with a bit of sex thrown in.

       There is nothing per se wrong with gossip; it depends on the intention behind it. However I do dislike that censorious gossip particularly that which seeks to condemn other people’s sexual mores. I think that it’s bad but that doesn’t mean I will be able to control my natural curiosity to find out more about the scandal. So the next time you find yourself attracted to some inane story about Paris Hilton or David Beckham, relax and enjoy this guilty pleasure. It’s what makes us human.

Untranslatable words

February 21, 2009

I’ve always loved words like Schadenfreude (for those of you who don’t know, it means delight in another person’s misfortune) which don’t have a simple equivalent in English. Here is a list I have compiled from different websites. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these translations so if anyone sees any inaccuracies, feel free to suggest corrections.


Areodjarekput: To exchange wives for a few days only (Inuit)

Attaccabottoni: A bore who buttonholes people and tells sad, pointless stories. (Italian)

Backpfeifengesicht: A face that cries out for a fist in it. (German)

Bakku-shan: A girl who appears pretty from behind but not from the front. (Japanese)

Buaya darat: A man who fools women into thinking he’s a very faithful lover when in fact he goes out with many different women at the same time – literally, a land crocodile. (Indonesian)

Chaponner: To investigate digitally a chicken’s rear end to see if an egg is about to be laid (French)

Embasan: To wear clothes while taking a bath. (The Maguindanaon language of the Philippines)

Fensterln: for climbing through a window to avoid someone’s parents so you can have sex without them knowing. (German)

Gigi rongak: The space between the teeth. (Malaysian)

Ikibari:  A “lively needle” and describing a man who is willing but under-endowed. (Japanese)

Iktsuarpok:To go outside to check if anyone is coming. (Inuit)

Ilunga: A person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time. (The Tshiluba language of the Republic of Congo.)

Jayus: From Indonesian, meaning a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.

Kanjus Makkhichus: someone so tight that if a fly falls into their tea they’ll fish it out and suck it dry before throwing it away. (Hindi)

Katahara itai: The action of laughing so much that one side of your abdomen hurts. (Japanese)

Korinthenkacker:  A “raisin pooper” — that is, someone so taken up with life’s trivial detail that they spend all day crapping raisins. (German)

Kyoikumama: A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement. (Japanese)

Lalew: To grieve so much you can’t eat. (Filipino)

Mamihlapinatapei:  A wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start. (Yagan, the indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego region of South America.)

Momma ko ene: Having red eyes from crying over your boyfriend marrying someone else. (Cheyenne)

Nakhur: A camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils are tickled. (Persian)

Nakkele: a man who licks whatever the food has been served on (Tulu).

Nito-onna: A woman so dedicated to her career that she has no time to iron blouses and so resorts to dressing only in knitted tops. (Japanese)

Oka-shete: Waterworks difficulties engendered by eating frogs out of season. (Ndonga language, Namibia)

Okuri-oka-mi: A man who feigns thoughtfulness by offering to see a girl home only to molest her on her own doorstep – literally, a “see-you-home wolf” (Japanese)

Pana po’o: To scratch your head in order to remember something (Hawaiian)

Pesamentiero: Someone who habitually joins mourners at the homes of the deceased to get at the free refreshments. (Portuguese) 

Pisan zapra: The time needed to eat a banana. (Malay)

Poronkusema: The distance a reindeer can travel without taking a comfort break.

Prozvonit:  To call a mobile phone only to have it ring once so that the other person would call back, allowing the caller not to spend money on minutes. (In both Czech and Slovak language)

Putzfimmel: A mania for cleaning. (German)

Puyugaktuq: To approach a sea mammal by crawling along. (Inuit)

Saudade: A feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost. (Brazilian Portuguese)

Scheissenbedauern: The disappointment one feels when something turns out not nearly as badly as one had expected. (German)

Schlimmbesserung: a so-called improvement that makes things worse. (German)

Seigneur-terrasse: A person who spends much time but little money in a cafe (literally: a terrace lord) (French) 

Sjostygg: Someone so ugly the tide refuses to come in if they stand on the shore. (Norwegian)

Stroitel: A man who likes to have sex with two women at the same time. (Russian)

Tantenverführer: A young man whose excessively good intentions suggest suspicious motives. (literally aunt-seducer) (German)

Tingo: The act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them. (The Pascuense language of Easter Island),

Tlazlimquiztli: The smell of adulterers. (Aztec)

Torschlusspanik: The fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older (literally: gate-closing panic), often applied to women worried about being too old to have children. (German) 

Uitwaaien: Walking in windy weather for fun. (Dutch)

Yubisakibijin: One who spends rather too much of her salary having her fingernails done. (Japanese)


My media week 22/02/09

February 21, 2009

The ABC Radio National programme Background Briefing has a programme this Sunday about the role the media should pay in the global economic meltdown.


Naomi Klein denounced shock capitalism in her bestseller The Shock Doctrine but as libertarian David Boaz points out in this provocative Cato podcast on February seventeenth the current crisis is also being used by the Obama administration to expand their powers. Left-leaning figures such as Paul Krugman and Klein herself have said that this crisis is an opportunity to transform American society.


Denis Dutton looks at how genetic programming affects our aesthetic tastes in this article.


I always enjoy Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in The Guardian, especially when he satirises the Daily Mail’s “ongoing project to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into ones that either cause or cure cancer”. (This week the Mail ran “How Using Facebook Could Raise Your Risk of Cancer.”) However, this week he looks at how the newspapers report heroin seizures.


Finally a couple of humorous pieces: The Daily Mash referring to the recent story of a 13- year old father has  Twelve Year-Olds Urged To Knock-Up Local Tart and The Onion has Nation’s Blacks Creeped Out By All The People Smiling At Them

My favourite links #29

February 21, 2009

One of the teachers at IH Tom uses  to post accounts of his travels. He has been to 14 countries and has four separate blogs:

Western Illinois University – the funniest five months of my life!  Aug 07, 2001 to Dec 19, 2001 

Road Trip: California and beyond Dec 28, 2004 to Jan 20, 2005

Yemen – poor in oil-wealth, rich in culture… a forgotten jewel in the sun-drenched Arabian crown. Oct 13, 2005 to Dec 22, 2006

My Arabian Odyssey – learning Arabic, separating people from politics and dispelling myths in the heart of the Middle East  Feb 22, 2007 to Jul 19, 2008

I can recommend an article about a bus journey from hell in Yemen.

Here is the place to go:

Sketches #3 Richard Dawkins

February 14, 2009

The People’s Atheist


Clinton Richard Dawkins was born on 26 March 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya, which at that time was a British colony. His father had gone to Kenya with the British army but the family returned to England when Dawkins was eight. He had what he calls “a normal Anglican upbringing“, but by the age of nine he had already started doubting the existence of God. In 1959 he went to Balliol College, Oxford to study zoology, where he was tutored by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, a pioneer in the study of animal behaviour.

In 1976 Dawkins came into the public eye when his book The Selfish Gene came out. It popularised the gene-centred view of evolution and introduced the term meme. This neologism coined by Dawkins refers to any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted by non-genetic means from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, clothes fashions, habits, songs, dances, ways of making pots and the technology of building arches. They are the cultural counterparts of genes. Dawkins has argued that when a fertile meme is planted in your mind it literally parasitises your brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitise the genetic mechanism of a host cell.

            Dawkins has also been an outspoken critic of creationism and intelligent design. His 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, was a refutation of intelligent design theory. William Paley had argued that if you were you were walking along and you found a watch lying on the ground, you could not possibly imagine that something so complex had been assembled by chance. There had to have been a maker. Paley went on to argue that the complex structures of living things and the adaptations of plants and animals required an intelligent designer. For Dawkins evolutionary processes are analogous to a blind watchmaker; there is no need for a creator to intervene.

            Dawkins’s most recent book The God Delusion is an atheist polemic from its uncompromising title. It is actually one of number of such books published in the last few years. I’m not sure what has brought on this trend – probably it is a reaction to the rise in fundamentalisms that has become apparent. These books have been a great publishing success and there have also been initiatives such as those atheist buses. Dawkins has been criticised for his understanding of theology. The most famous criticism came in a scathing review in The London Review of Books by Terry Eagleton:

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” I happen to think this criticism is wrong. You don’t have to be an expert on Tarot cards to critique it. Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher. He is studying religion as a natural phenomenon. Dawkins has come under fire for a death – the tragic suicide of 22-year-old Jesse Kilgore.  Kilgore, who had been challenged to read The God Delusion by a college professor, said that Dawkins’ book had destroyed his belief in God.

            As a non-believer I am not unsympathetic to many of Dawkins’s ideas and in his post as Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford he was very effective raising awareness of science. He is always very quotable and has an incredible talent for coining metaphors. However I do think sometimes his role as Darwin’s Rottweiler gets in the way of his message.  I think a couple of examples will suffice to show this. Before the 2004 election in the US, Dawkins along with John Le Carré and Antonia Fraser was part of a Guardian initiative to write letters to Americans in Clark County, Dear Clark County voter, Give us back the America we loved.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Don’t be so ashamed of your president. The majority of you didn’t vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans travelling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent.” The result was he found himself subject to a barrage of abuse from the voters. And the election? Clark was the only county in Ohio that, having voted for Al Gore in 2000, switched over to Bush in 2004.

Dawkins is also a member of a social movement that aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, known as the Brights, which also includes Steven Pinker and philosopher Daniel Dennett. As the mathematician John Allen Paulos has pointed out you don’t need to have a degree in public relations to realise that this will come across as smug, ridiculous, and arrogant. Perhaps I see a little too much intellectual certainty there. There are many very intelligent people, including scientists, who believe in God. The existence of God is an objective question – he either exists or he doesn’t exist- but it is beyond our pattern recognition software to find the truth about thus question. We will always have answers that are at variance.

            There is also a tendency to see the abolition of religion as a panacea for all the world’s problems. I think the twentieth century has shown that this is not the case. People commit evil acts with or without religion. Religion does make people do terrible things but it also can make them do wonderfully selfless things. Science is a wonderful too but it cannot tell us what is right or wrong and in my opinion neither can a book written thousands of years ago. We have to discover this for ourselves and it can be a very painful progress. Scientific progress may be linear but moral progress is a completely different enterprise.


Quotes by Richard Dawkins

February 14, 2009

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.


When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong.


Faith is the great cop out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.


I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.


The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.


We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.


Our brains are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them. We do so in a small way every time we use contraception. There is no reason why we should not rebel in a large way too.


Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won’t know it, and may even vigorously deny it.


No doubt soaring cathedrals, stirring music, moving stories and parables, help a bit. But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth.


Over the centuries, we’ve moved on from Scripture to accumulate precepts of ethical, legal and moral philosophy. We’ve evolved a liberal consensus of what we regard as underpinnings of decent society, such as the idea that we don’t approve of slavery or discrimination on the grounds of race or sex, that we respect free speech and the rights of the individual. All of these things that have become second nature to our morals today owe very little to religion, and mostly have been won in opposition to the teeth of religion.


There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?


It has become almost a cliché to remark that nobody boasts of ignorance of literature, but it is socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science


There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting… But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it’s true.


I think it is not helpful to apply Darwinian language too widely. Conquest of nation by nation is too distant for Darwinian explanations to be helpful.


Either it is true that a medicine works or it isn’t. It cannot be false in the ordinary sense but true in some “alternative” sense. If a therapy or treatment is anything more than a placebo, properly conducted double blind trials, statistically analysed, will eventually bring it through with flying colours. Many candidates for recognition as “orthodox” medicines fail the test and are summarily dropped. The “alternative” label should not (though, alas, it does) provide immunity from the same fate.


Who will say with confidence that sexual abuse is more permanently damaging to children than threatening them with the eternal and unquenchable fires of hell?


By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.


The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance. We even have to go out on the attack ourselves, for the sake of reason and sanity. Of course, excellent organizations already exist for raising funds and deploying them in service of reason, science and enlightenment values. But the money that these organizations can raise is dwarfed by the huge resources of religious foundations such as the Templeton Foundation, not to mention the tithe-bloated, tax-exempt churches.


The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.