Off to London

London Travel Blog

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50km of tunnel 75m deep
The British Humanist Association were giving a conference on “Darwin, Humanism and Science”, so I nipped over to London for the day to see Richard Dawkins, Luke and Shyla. By strange coincidence (or was it?) it was the same day that Lydia had tickets to see Britney Spears putting on a show, so there was something for everyone in London.

It was my first ride in the Channel Tunnel. In under two hours we zipped from Brussels to London. The tunnel itself was anticlimactic, no big rollercoaster dip as it went down beneath the English Channel. No glass panels to see the fish above us. Just one long smooth ride through darkness to represent a truly ingenious feat in human ingenuity and technology, beyond that of merely flying up to the moon.
Happy 200th birthday Mr Darwin

I meet Luke and Shyla at the other end and we caught up over breakfast before heading to Conway Hall. The conference organizer got up at the start to ask (in English) those people requiring simultaneous translation into French to come up the front and get headphones. There was a ripple of laughter in the audience until one person then shouted out the same message in French, getting a chorus of “ah” in reply.

Polly Toynbee introduced Richard Dawkins, who spent his hour talking about the last paragraph of the Origin of Species:

"Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.
Actually Darwin didn't label his Finch collection well and so he missed the now stunning evolutionary data from the Galapagos Finches (a warning to everyone to keep good lab books?)
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

It was quite an interesting talk, mostly on the importance of Darwin's insights. He also talked about the intellectual dishonesty of creationist arguments, spending quite a long time on rebutting the Strong Anthropic Principle and supporting the Weak Anthropic Principle. He came across as charming, gentle and intellectual - I enjoyed it, but wouldn't have minded a bit more fire-breathing. In the question time I asked him whether Charles Darwin had any insights that were extraordinary for his time, or whether it was just the period of history where enough natural history had been collected for the idea to be bubbling up.
Creationists on drugs
He said that The Origin included some extremely impressive insights, but the main arguments were coming up from multiple sources (Wallace most obviously, but also Malthus). From his perspective the main contribution of Darwin was as a science writer, since the joint presentation of Darwin and Wallace at the Royal Society didn't even raise a stir among scientists, as just another hypothesis floated up. What the Origin of Species did was to provide step by step overwhelming evidence of every principle of evolution to the point that evolution just could not be rebutted on its science. This must be one of the rare cases in science where the glory went not for the original flash of insight, but rather for the slow metholodogical accumulation of supporting data.

Following Dawkins, Charles Susanne (from ULB) spoke about the pressures on EU governments to stop the teaching of evolution, with creationist groups running a campaign of trying to insert creationism into school circumulm (with too much success in many cases).
As James Williams said "the Velociraptor looks decidedly uncomfortable with this situation"
James Williams (University of Sussex) followed this up with a very entertaining talk on the creationist literature that is sent out to schools, often deliberately hidden in book donations to libraries and designed to instill resistance towards evolution in kids minds by playing on the love kids have for dinosaurs - such as comic books with Jesus talking to velociraptors or cowboys attacking the last pterodactyl (no kidding, they actually claim the last pterodactyl was killed in 1890 by cowboys in Arizona). Once these exciting images are installed it becomes so difficult for mere fact to displace them. He had one line that just cracked me up. He was talking about how intelligent designers rely on the argument that if there is something that science doesn't currently have an answer for it must be the result of a creator:

"No, it just doesn't work like that. You then need to do research to see if there is or isn't a natural explanation for that phenomenon. I mean, a PhD student can't just say 'I have no idea what the answer to this research question is, therefore it must be due to intelligent design - may I have my diploma now?' If intelligent design wants to be a science it needs to research the questions before it labels them as unanswerable."

During the question-time this guy got up and started ranting that he believed that evolution fashioned every organ for its own purpose, which is why he was against homosexuality, because it was using an organ for a purpose it wasn't evolved for (his analogy was "you wouldn't try drinking through your nose instead of your mouth"). He ranted for about five minutes while the rest of the audience was softly laughing and trying to see who it was with the microphone, then Polly Toynbee wisely said "well that doesn't deserve an answer, next question?"

Afterwards Luke and I met up with Shyla and Lydia for a pub meal and a beer at Shakespeare's Head, before Shyla and Lydia went off shopping. Another couple of beers at a Dutch pub and the Salisbury and it was time for me to hop on my train and be whisked back to Belgium...
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50km of tunnel 75m deep
50km of tunnel 75m deep
Happy 200th birthday Mr Darwin
Happy 200th birthday Mr Darwin
Actually Darwin didnt label his F…
Actually Darwin didn't label his …
Creationists on drugs
Creationists on drugs
As James Williams said the Veloci…
As James Williams said "the Veloc…
photo by: ulysses