Kia ora: I enjoy reading science fantasy. However I have recently read In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield. I did enjoy her observations of polite society and how we say things by not saying them. I did enjoy this description. “A great automobile snorted at the front door.” ( from The Sister of the Baroness )

*Last Meeting: It was interesting to have an overview of the three books. China is an ancient civilisation as shown once again in 1421. The two books dealing with China under Mao are revealing. As for myself I grew up in the 50’s perceiving Mao as a legend who was a hero of his people, even though later the excesses of the Cultural Revolution horrified us.

*Next Meeting: Monday 7 November 7.30 pm until 9 pm, Turnbull House. Wellington. All welcome. Topic: Kent Stevens will continue discussion with themes from the seminar.

*Future Activities: For the December meeting we invite you to come with your thoughts of 2005 in Review and your Preview for 2006. Bring a plate with some End of Year morsels. Toward the end of January we will have a Sunday get together with meetings beginning again the first Monday in March.

*Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz Sunday 20 November. STOP PRESS It is now possible to listen to our Radio Access programme through streaming on the Internet. The internet site is Click on Wellington Access Radio. At the home page click on the talk/link icon. Then on the Menu on the left hand side of the screen click on Radio, and with your sound up the radio is very audible. Broadband is not required to listen.

*Seminar: Marilyn Maddox from Victoria University spoke on Religion and Politics. In America 61% do not vote. 50% go to church and 40% identify with evangelical Christian groups. Therefore to get people out to vote politicians must appeal to evangelical interests. In NZ we have an 80% vote and 10% who indicate their adherence to a Christian faith. There is not the same need to get the silent masses out to vote. The involvement of the Exclusive Brethren in our 2005 election is an indication of a radical post millennial belief that Jesus will only return when there is Christian government on earth.

David Penny from Massey University spoke about the gradualness of evolution. That tiny incremental changes can lead to big differences between the starting point and the end point. If indeed there is an end point in evolution. Sometimes we do not have evidence of these small changes, but they are there. It is just waiting to find them. He commented that chimpanzees unlike humans do not suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. For humans, this is a grave design fault. How can their be an Intelligent Designer at the origin of the Universe if this designer can make such an error ? Dr. Penny thinks that the apes opted for physical size rather than brain development. With humans our long juvenile phase ensured that our brain kept developing and so we opted for intelligence over size.

*From the AGM: Kent Stevens is our new President with Iain Middleton Deputy president. Gaylene Middleton continues as Secretary with Leigh Colman joining the Council. From the December newsletter I shall only post newsletters when we do not have an e-mail address.

*Subscriptions: 2005/2006 subs are now due. As indicated in the October newsletter subscriptions have been increased slightly. This proposal was outlined at the AGM and agreement given. A subscription renewal form, which outlines the new rates, is included with this newsletter that has been posted or will shortly be posted to all members – a copy of the subscription renewal form is also attached to this email version. A new category has been established, a Joint Family or Household Concession rate of $20.00. This is for unwaged or senior members where two live in one household.

*Email Discussion Group: Is operating now on Yahoo at
Have you registered to meet with other members via the web world of communication.

*Email News: Those of you who have provided an email address receive this news and additional email Humanist News bulletins and items of interest by email. If you would like to be on the mailing list, please email [email protected]
Remember to let us know if you change your email or postal address.

*Civil Union Bill: A small item on teletext ( Sunday 30 October ) has the information that there have been 205 Civil Unions since the passing of the legislation. Critics say, does this bill have any use if there is such a low demand ? I think it refutes those people who claimed that such a Bill was attacking the very fibre of society and marriage and family life was under threat.

Gaylene Middleton

Humanist Society
Election Questionnaire – 2005

An addition response to the Election Questionnaire-included with the September newsletter, this response is from Tim Barnett of the Labour Party.

1. The repeal of the Civil Unions Act.

Labour is very proud of the Civil Union legislation and was pleased to pass it in its entirety. It was enacted by a conscience vote with the varied support of almost every party across the political spectrum. The legislation was discussed, dissected and debated though a lengthy public select committee stage where views from the whole spectrum were listened to. The legislation was arid still is consistently supported by a majority of the public in every scientific opinion poll performed. Labour will therefore resist any attempts to repeal the legislation.

2. Law that explicitly states that marriage is only between and a man and a woman. This directly rules out the possibility of same sex marriage. This is common in many US states.

While this issue would most likely go to conscience vote, Labour believes that such legislation is not only unnecessary but may put in jeopardy the current situation we have with the Civil Union Act. It may also have the effect of subjecting the Government to claims of Human Rights breaches. Therefore we feel the compromise we currently have with two parallel relationship recognition laws is preferable to amending the Marriage Act.

3. The legalisation of voluntary euthanasia. This should be done only exceptional circumstances and it must be done with consent of the person concerned.

While, again, this would be a conscience vote, and I know of no party position, my personal belief is that we need to have an in-depth examination of ‘end of life’ decisions. This would include such matter as living will’s, DNR orders, Hospices as well as euthanasia. Out of that we would be able to formulate a position on these important issues free from the emotive positioning that can often hijack these issues.
Interestingly enough the last MP to put up a Euthanasia was Peter Brown from NZF so obviously there would be more than one party who maybe open to informed discussion on these matters.

4 Teaching of intelligent design as part of science class in schools. Intelligent design says that the world was created by an Intelligent Designer that some people would refer to as God. This alternative has been introduced into some US schools.

Again while I am unaware of a Labour Party position on this issue, I am aware the positions of science teachers is that we only teach science in a science class and they do not regard Intelligent Design as science. In a recent article in the Herald, the Ministry of Education spelled out its position: &Schools and teachers have a responsibility to select theories widely accepted by the scientific community.& curriculum manager Mary Chamberlain in NZ Herald “Intelligent design coming to a school near you “27.08.05 by Chris Barton.

5. The repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act that allows parents the ability of ‘treasonable force´.

The Labour position on this issue is that parliamentary discussion on the physical disciplining of children should examine the option of amending, and not simply repealing, section 59 of the Crimes Act. We believe that there was benefit in the issues surrounding the section 59 Bill being referred to a select committee for further discussion and debate. Labour however in no way believes that it is desirable to haul parents who smack, but not abuse, their children before the Court, but there is also a general concern that section 59 could be successfully used as a defence in cases where the vast majority of New Zealanders regarded the parental action as excessive recognised.


International Humanism

Jim Herrick reports from the world’s largest gathering of freethinkers

French lessons

Humanism came to Paris in July 2005. The occasion was the celebration of the centenary of church and state separation in France. This moment of rejoicing at a hundred years of secularism was marked by several events: a day for the World Union of Freethinkers, a Congress developed jointly by the Libre Pensée Francaise and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and a General Assembly of IHEU.

Seminars and conferences were held in fascinating venues all across Paris. The world Union of Freethinkers inhabited the Conseil Economique et Social – an imposing government building resounding with the glory of the state. The corridors of international power at the UNESCO headquarters, where the main congress took place, are landscaped with huge African sculptures, sinuous, imposing and inspiring, a powerful reminder of the struggle to establish Humanism in Africa. We also met in a large amphitheatre in the Sorbonne, all venerable statues and wooden pews of bum-numbing hardness. The final venue, Bourse de Travail, was the place of a workers takeover during the uprising in 1944.

‘It was fascinating to learn of the particular problems faced by humanists and freethinkers from around the world’

It was fascinating to learn of the particular problems faced by humanists and freethinkers from around the world at this truly international gathering. Robert Boston from the US spoke passionately of American fears over the separation of church and state under the most aggressively religious executive the country has ever known. Under Bush large sums of money are being given to faith groups to undertake welfare, the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution is under threat, and sex education insists on abstinence.

Enyeribe Onuoha from Nigeria told how he resigned from being a Catholic priest, what friction that had caused with his religious family, and how convinced he was of his new views. He talked about the imposing position of Islam and Christianity and the problem of witchcraft. Deo Ssekitooleko from Uganda was able to give me an encouraging picture of how he and others are setting up a school and humanist centre. Vikas Gora, one of a group of young humanists attending a separate conference later, whose family at the Atheist Centre in India I know well, had been working with the post-tsunami reconstruction in India. Gopi Upreti from Nepal filled in the picture of a country torn between a Hindu theocracy and a Maoist insurgency. Azam Kamguin, originally from Iran, who had been tortured and imprisoned for her defence of women’s rights and opposition to the repressive Muslim state, made it clear that there is great opposition to the Iranian Muslim state, especially from young people.

In many countries hunger, disease, and corruption are far greater threats to civil life than church and state issues. There were many other subjects in the workshops – bioethics (IHEU is forging ahead with a special Bioethics Centre in New York), science and religion, women’s rights, euthanasia. The organisers puzzlingly neglected to schedule a workshop on gay and lesbian rights – with life imprisonment threatening gays in Nigeria and Uganda, and two teenage boys hung for homosexual activity in Iran, this is obviously far more than just a lifestyle issue. There was an unforgettable moment in the week, when the whole question of secularism versus religious fanaticism became horribly real. News came through, while we were sitting observed by a statue of Dante, of an inferno in London. It became clear that bombs had gone off and the British moved to a café where they urgently tried to phone to check that relatives and friends were OK. The difficulty of phoning, the anxiety, accompanied by coffee or beer, is something I shall never forget. And in an international conference, suddenly nationalistic feelings became important. Though it has to be said, the spontaneous condolences offered by French citizens in the Metro did demonstrate to us that the revolutionary principal of fraternité extends beyond the Hexagon.

The other great French principal of laïcité was staunchly debated over the week. There emerged during the conference a difference between those who wanted complete separation of church and state and those who wanted a neutral relationship, because in a country where there was church tax they obtained state money for an equivalent life stance (i.e. humanism) to that of the churches. There were strong feelings between Gallic rhetoric and Anglo-Saxon and Nordic pragmatism. There was difficulty agreeing on motions – but I personally have little belief in the value of ideological motions.

Humanists tend to overdose on words. I felt the need for some more quiet reflective moments – even some artistic activity. But I cannot doubt the fullness of the range of experiences that week and the importance of celebrating a secular anniversary that is linked to perhaps the most precious of French principles: liberté.



God’s Gift to Kansas

This spring, the Kansas Board of Education took evidence from anti-evolutionists in an attempt to rewrite the state’s teaching standards, thereby ensuring that pupils learn alternatives to evolution. Similar initiatives are under way in other states.-THE EDITORS

Science feeds on mystery. As my colleague Matt Ridley has put it, &Most scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance that drives them on.& Science mines ignorance. Mystery-that which we don’t yet know, that which we don’t yet understand-is the mother lode that scientists seek out. Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a very different reason: it gives them something to do. Maybe we don’t understand yet, but we’re working on it! Each mystery solved opens up vistas of unsolved problems, and scientists eagerly move in.

Admissions of ignorance and mystification are vital to good science. It is therefore galling, to say the least, when enemies of science turn those constructive admissions around and abuse them for political advantage. It is worse than galling; it threatens the enterprise of science itself. This is exactly the effect creationism or “Intelligent Design theory” (ID) is having, especially because its propagandists are slick, superficially plausible, and, above all, well-financed. ID, by the way, is not a new form of creationism. It simply is creationism disguised, for political reasons, under a new name.

It isn’t even safe for a scientist to express temporary doubt, as a rhetorical device before going on to dispel it:

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.

You will find this sentence of Charles Darwin quoted again and again by creationists. They never quote what follows. Darwin immediately went on to confound his initial incredulity. Others have built on his foundation, and the eye is today a showpiece of the gradual, cumulative evolution of an almost perfect illusion of design. The relevant chapter of my Climbing Mount Improbable is called &The Forty fold Path to Enlightenment& in honor of the fact that, far from being difficult to evolve, the eye has evolved at least forty times independently around the animal kingdom.

The distinguished Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin is widely quoted as saying that organisms &appear to have been carefully and artfully designed.& Again, this was a rhetorical preliminary to explaining how the powerful illusion of design actually comes about by natural selection. The isolated quotation strips out the implied emphasis on &appear to,& leaving exactly what a simplemindedly pious audience-in Kansas, for instance-wants to hear.

…. far from being difficult to evolve, the eye has evolved at least forty times independently around the animal kingdom.

Deceitful misquoting of scientists to suit an antiscientific agenda ranks among the many unchristian habits of fundamentalist authors. But such Telling Lies for God (a book title of the splendidly pugnacious Australian geologist Ian Plimer) is not the most serious problem. There is a more important point to be made, and it goes right to the philosophical heart of creationism.

The standard methodology of creationists-indeed, all their arguments are variants of it-is to find some phenomenon in nature that, in their view or even in reality, Darwinism cannot readily explain. Darwin said, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

Creationists mine ignorance and uncertainty not as a spur to honest research but in order to exploit and abuse Darwin’s challenge: “Bet you can’t tell me how the elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog evolved by slow gradual degrees?” If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, a default conclusion is drawn: right then, the alternative theory intelligent Design, wins by default. Notice, first, the biased logic: if theory A fails in some particular, theory B must be right! We are encouraged to leap to the default conclusion without even looking to see whether the default theory fails in the very same particular. ID is granted (quite wrongly as I have shown elsewhere) a charmed immunity to the rigorous demands made of evolution.

Notice, second, how the creationist ploy undermines the scientist’s natural-indeed necessary-rejoicing in uncertainty Today’s scientist in America dares not say “Hmm, interesting point. I wonder how the weasel frog’s ancestors did evolve their elbow joint. I’m not a specialist in weasel frogs; I’ll have to go to the university library and take a look. Might make an interesting project for a graduate student.”

No, the moment a scientist said something like that-and long before the student began the project-the default conclusion would become a headline in a creationist pamphlet: “Weasel Frog Could Only Have Been Designed by God.”

I once introduced a chapter on the so-called Cambrian Explosion with the words, “It is as though the fossils were planted there without any evolutionary history” Once again, this was a rhetorical overture, intended to whet the reader’s appetite for the explanation that was to follow Sad hindsight tells me now how predictable it was that my remark would be gleefully quoted out of context. Creationists adore “gaps” in the fossil record.

Many evolutionary transitions are elegantly documented by more or less continuous series of gradually changing intermediate fossils. Some are not, and these are the famous “gaps.” Michael Shermer has wittily pointed out that, if a new fossil discovery neatly bisects a “gap,” the creationist will declare that there are now two gaps! But, in any case, note yet again the unwarranted use of a default. If there are no fossils to document a postulated evolutionary transition, the default assumption is that there was no evolutionary transition: God must have intervened.

It is utterly illogical to demand complete documentation of every step of any narrative, whether in evolution or any other science. Only a tiny fraction of dead animals fossilize, and we are lucky to have as many intermediate fossils as we have. We could easily have had no fossils at all, and the evidence for evolution from other sources, such as molecular genetics and geographical distribution, would still be overwhelmingly strong. On the other hand, evolution makes the strong prediction that, if a single fossil turned up in the wrong geological stratum, the theory would be blown out of the water. When challenged by a zealous Popperian to say how evolution could ever be falsified, J.B.S. Haldane famously growled, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” No such anachronistic fossils have ever been found, despite discredited creationist legends of human skulls in the Coal Measures and human footprints interspersed with those of dinosaurs.

The creationists’ fondness for ‘gaps’ in the fossil record is a metaphor for their love of gaps in knowledge generally. Gaps by default are filled by God

You don’t know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don’t understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don’t go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don’t work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries, for we can use them. Don’t squander precious ignorance by researching it away Ignorance is God’s gift to Kansas.

1. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859), p. 186.
2. Ibid., p. 189.

Richard Dawkins, FRS, is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.
His latest book is The Ancestor’s Tale.

From Free Inquiry Aug./Sept. 2005
free inquiry