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German roulette

After two months of talks on a black-yellow-and-green ‘Jamaica’ coalition after the German elections – see my earlier post Another domino stays upright (3) – the Free Democrats (FDP) have backed out. This minority party has a long-established habit of misusing its ‘swing’ power to make or break coalitions, sometimes working with the Social Democrats, but in recent years (since the end of the Cold War) more often with the Christian Democrats; and now its new young leader Christian Lindner has confronted the mainstream parties with the unwelcome prospect of repeat elections, for the second time within a year.

Unfortunately the new Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz, formerly a competent leader of the European Parliament, has continued to rule out any possibility of an extended ‘grand coalition’ with the Christian Democrats. Not that his party has much chance of bettering its shatteringly poor result in September’s election – barely 20% of the vote, the worst since the Federal Republic of Germany was established after the Second World War; but he seems more interested in preserving the SPD’s independence than Germany’s political stability.

The party most likely to benefit from all this is the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which did unexpectedly badly in September but still reached the electoral threshold and is now the third-biggest party in the country, with 12.5% of the vote. The AfD is not only anti-immigration, but above all anti-political; and any evidence that the established parties cannot reach agreement is bound to undermine German voters’ confidence in democracy, and boost support for populism just when it seemed to be waning.

If new elections result in more votes for the AfD, the blame must be laid fairly and squarely at the door of not only the FDP (which never gets more than 10% of the vote, and switches its allegiance as it sees fit), but also – and above all – the SPD and its new leader. By continuing to reject a new grand coalition with the widely respected Angela Merkel even though his own party is unlikely to win more votes, Martin Schulz has made the chaos worse. Thanks for nothing.


Lying for God

In 1912, what appeared to be a fossilised human skull was discovered in gravel beds near the village of Piltdown in the English county of Sussex. Despite some scepticism even at the time about its authenticity, ‘Piltdown Man’ (or Eoanthropus dawsoni, ‘Dawson’s dawn man’ – named after the finder, Charles Dawson) was soon a sensation, and for the next 40 years was widely held to be a crucial link in the evolution of modern humans – the famous and long-sought ‘missing link’ (which, since evolution is a gradual process of minuscule changes in response to changing environments rather sudden great leaps, can never in fact exist). Many European scientists, eager to find evidence that humans had first started to develop in their own ‘civilised’ continent rather than ‘primitive’ Africa or Asia, rushed to embrace the new fossil; and their eagerness made them overlook clues that the skull was not what it was claimed to be. Some British scientists, and credulously nationalistic media, went so far as to dub Eoanthropus dawsoni ‘the First Englishman’ – a conceit perhaps bolstered by the fact that Piltdown was in the well-to-do ‘Home Counties’ that surround London (note the use of ‘Englishman’ rather than the more inclusive ‘Briton’).

It was a blind alley that was to bedevil science for four decades. But in 1953, thanks to fossil-dating techniques unavailable when the skull was found, better microscopes and a less prejudiced, more scientific approach, ‘Piltdown Man’ was exposed as a crude fake: a modern human skull combined with the jaw of an orangutan (both no more than 500 years old) and chimpanzee teeth filed down to resemble human ones. The whole thing had been stained brown with a chemical solution to make it look much older (some put its age at half a million years).

In retrospect it seems incredible that it took so long to discover the truth, and one British newspaper mocked the scientific establishment with the words ‘a chimpanzee could have done it quicker’. But what is sometimes overlooked is that the fraud was brought to light by scientists themselves. Who the perpetrator was remains unclear, like his reasons for doing it – though it is usually suggested that professional enmity and jealousy played a part, for a number of hitherto renowned scholars were brought into discredit by their failure to recognise the skull for what it was (I say ‘his reasons for doing it’, since at the time there were no women working in the field of paleoanthropology, and even today they are still greatly outnumbered by men – when Louis Leakey’s wife Mary discovered the 2-million-year-old ‘Zinj’ skull in 1959, it was her husband who took all the credit).

However, the main point of this post is not to retell the tale of the Piltdown Man fraud, but to show how it has been misused for other purposes. According to Wikipedia (and who am I to disagree?) some ‘creationists’ – who deny the evidence for evolution and seek to undermine the authority of science wherever it conflicts with their religious beliefs – have attempted to present the hoax as evidence that paleoanthropologists always distort the truth. Of course, this conveniently ignores the fact, mentioned a moment ago, not only that the hoax was exposed by scientists, but also that it is one of only a tiny handful of finds that have since been found to be fraudulent. If anyone is distorting the truth, it is surely creationists, who consistently misrepresent the theories they oppose on purely religious grounds – they often seem not to have read them – and then attack the misrepresented versions. Another of their favourite ploys is to say ‘it’s just a theory’ (as if religious faith is anything more than that), and claim that this is a sufficient reason to dismiss it. Deep thought this is not – but then, the essence of religion is to substitute uncritical belief for thought, to argue that too much knowledge is a bad thing, and to teach impressionable children that this is a legitimate stance.

Distorting the truth is the same thing as lying; and what we have here is a group of people who have no compunction about ‘lying for God’. Since their god is assumed by default to exist, anything and anyone that suggests otherwise must be suppressed.

An even nastier example of this is the attempt by Islamic fundamentalists in such countries as Pakistan to prevent the vaccination of children against deadly, crippling or disfiguring diseases by claiming that the vaccinators have in fact been sent out by non-Islamic Western governments to poison the children – more ‘lying for God’. But, just to make sure (since truth has a nasty habit of leaking out), these people do not shrink from murdering members of the vaccination teams – who of course must not be given any chance to explain what they are really doing, and perhaps shake parents’ faith – or from letting the unfortunate children quite unnecessarily contract such serious infections as diphtheria, polio or measles. This is not just lying for God, but killing and maiming for God; and, since children are involved, it is a form of deliberate child abuse.

Today’s latest example is the Turkish government’s decision to ban all gay-rights events in the capital Ankara (and, one can only assume, eventually the rest of the country). The lie being told in this case is that the decision is meant to protect gay people against aggression and possible ‘terrorism’ (?) – whereas the aggression and terrorism against gay people are only too clearly coming from the government itself, and once again on religious grounds. Since we all know where President Erdoğan and his cronies stand on gay rights, and human rights generally, why can’t they just be honest and admit they hate gays and want to make their lives even more of a misery than they already are in Turkey? Homosexuality is not actually illegal there (at least not yet) – but nor, evidently, are overt acts of homophobia such as today’s decision.

Is any more evidence needed that religion is ultimately a force for evil? The fact that not all religious believers are so fundamentalist does not invalidate this argument – for, to quote the clear-sighted Richard Dawkins, the less extreme ones ‘make the world safe for fundamentalism’, which is generally granted the same undue deference and exemption from criticism as religion generally. Another sign of such undue deference is the increasing use of the hopeful, positive word ‘faith’ as a euphemism for ‘religion’, as in ‘faith-based communities’. Who could possibly be against faith?

One reason why religionists so often accuse us non-believers of being ‘aggressive’ in our arguments is that they have not until recently been used to having their belief systems subjected to the same scrutiny as other societal phenomena; and as they see more and more of the world’s people turning their backs on organised religion, they feel threatened, afraid and angry. I can’t help that – and anyway, where is the solace they always claim their religion provides? Finally, why don’t more of them turn on the fundamentalists who bring their beliefs into such discredit – rather than on those of us who, for perfectly good moral reasons, choose not to share those beliefs?

I’m afraid I can’t help thinking that they’re afraid of incurring the fundamentalists’ wrath, and being accused of backsliding or apostasy – or even that, in their heart of hearts, they agree with them. Sure, that too is ‘only a theory’; but, after looking at the evidence in today’s world, I can see plenty of reasons to believe it, and very few reasons not to.

This week’s violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka don’t exactly help. Years ago it was Buddhists and Hindus. Why is Buddhism so often held up as an example of a particularly ‘peace-loving’ religion? It isn’t, any more than any of the others can be. If they feel so inclined, Buddhists will kill people of other ‘faiths’ just as readily as Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus do.

And that isn’t just a theory.

Dirty war

This term has been used since the 1960s (often in its original Spanish form, guerra sucia) to describe various terrorist campaigns by right-wing governments in Latin America against those of their own citizens who were associated with left-wing politics and hence perceived – and portrayed – as a danger to the state.  The victims were subjected to torture (including sexual violence) and in most cases then murdered by members of the armed forces, either officially or unofficially – the word desaparecido, ‘disappeared’ used as a transitive verb (‘he/she was disappeared’), came into circulation as a euphemism for the latter, and is still used today. It seems that some people were ‘disappeared’ by the simple expedient of loading them onto military aircraft and dumping them in the ocean, far enough from the nearest coastline for the bodies not to wash ashore intact and be identified. If female detainees gave birth in prison (sometimes as a result of rape by their captors), the children were given to childless couples who were loyal to the regime.

A country in which such a dirty war left some of its ugliest scars was Argentina, where Isabel Perón’s populist civilian government was overthrown in 1976 by a military coup under General Jorge Videla. Over the next six years tens of thousands of Argentinians, as well as some foreign citizens, were murdered by his ruthless regime and its successors under Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri (in 1982, fortunately for Argentina, Galtieri tried to distract attention of the country’s growing internal problems by invading the British-ruled Falkland Islands in the nearby Atlantic, and the British military response under Margaret Thatcher led not only to the reconquest of the islands but also, indirectly, to the end of the dirty war and the restoration of democracy in Argentina).

With a year of Videla’s coup, the mothers and grandmothers of disappeared’ people bravely began to hold regular demonstrations in Buenos Aires’s main square, Plaza de Mayo (named for the revolution on 25 May 1810 that led to Argentina’s independence from Spain), demanding to be told what had happened to their missing children and grandchildren. They called themselves Las madres/abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (‘the Mothers/Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo’). Not wishing to incur the world’s wrath by violently suppressing the middle-aged to elderly women’s vocal but peaceful protests, the regime attempted to belittle them by referring to the demonstrators as las locas (‘the crazy women’); but the name stuck as an international badge of honour, and to this day they are known in Dutch quite simply as de Dwaze Moeders (‘the Crazy Mothers’).

And the notion of the Plaza de Mayo as a hub of political activity in Argentina has led me to write this post; for in 1991, when Slovenia declared independence from the Slobodan Milošević’s Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, it was in Plaza de Mayo that the large Slovenian emigrant community in Buenos Aires held its own demonstration, but this time a celebratory one.

What was a large Slovenian emigrant community doing in the Argentinian capital? The answer is yet another ‘dirty war’.

In April 1941, fifty years almost to the day before the demonstration in Buenos Aires, Yugoslavia was invaded by Nazi Germany and its then allies Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria, which proceeded to carve up the country between them (see my earlier post The Italian-Bulgarian border). The ‘Drava province’, as Slovenia was still officially known in the ostensibly non-ethnic Yugoslav kingdom, was basically cut in half; a small corner in the north-east (where there was a Hungarian-speaking minority) was seized by Hungary, but the rest of the province was split 50-50 between Germany and Italy.

Germany ruled its part of the country with the iron hand for which it was becoming known, attempting to Germanise Slovenes by banning the public use of their language, and deporting anyone who resisted; but Italy pursued a more duplicitous policy, allowing Slovenes to remain in positions of authority, and encouraging them to join Italy in the fight against the increasingly communist-dominated resistance movement. Since many Slovenes (particularly in rural areas) were devout Catholics, and the Catholic church had gone out of its way to present communists as a more dangerous enemy than the German and Italian fascists, it was not long before Slovenes in the Italian-occupied part of the country were divided into two fiercely hostile camps: one pro-communist, and one anti. In the ensuing civil war, Slovenes killed more of their own people than were killed by the occupiers.

By the time Italy switched sides in 1943 and the Germans rapidly took over the hitherto Italian-occupied areas of the country, anti-communist Slovenes had formed their own national defence force, the domobranci or ‘home guard’, who continued to fight the communist resistance with increasing ruthlessness. Atrocities were committed on both sides, and the seeds were sown for hatreds that have hardly subsided even today. Families were split down the middle; and with the communists poised to turn Yugoslavia into an Eastern bloc state, the anti-communist domobranci and their families and supporters had little option but to flee to Austria with the retreating German troops, which they did in the early days of May 1945.

Like Germany, Austria was already divided up between the four occupying powers: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France; and the nearest part of Austria to Slovenia, the province of Carinthia (with a then still large Slovene-speaking minority), was in British hands. In retrospect, the anti-communist Slovenes would have done better to push on into the American or French occupation zones in the north and west (the Soviet one in the east was of course out of the question); but they had no reason – at least not yet – to distrust the British.

What few of them knew – for their leaders had carefully concealed it from them – was that the British authorities had already decided to treat anyone found wearing German-supplied uniforms or bearing German-supplied weapons in formerly German-occupied countries as a collaborator – and that of course included the domobranci. On the pretext that the Slovene refugees in Carinthia were being transferred to safer places of refuge in Italy, the British authorities in fact delivered the soldiers (and some of their families, including young children) into the hands of Tito’s new communist regime, conveniently just across the border; and Tito had already decided to remove a potential source of resistance in a possible East-West conflict by killing the lot, without any form of trial. Britain’s long-denied collusion in this nasty act of political vengeance has since been acknowledged and condemned – but far too late for the thousands of Slovenes who were killed, or the thousands more who managed to escape the betrayal but had no choice but to flee overseas and start their lives afresh. Few ever saw their homeland again (and, in a notorious speech shortly after the end of the war, Tito swore that they would not).

The surviving refugees’ main destinations were Britain (the only European country that would admit them in substantial numbers, and even then only a few hundred), the USA, Canada, Australia – and Argentina, which at the time was ruled by Isabel Perón’s late husband Juan. It has never been quite clear whether Juan Perón’s policies were left- or right-wing, but they were certainly populist, and at times dictatorial. His charismatic first wife Eva, who died prematurely of cancer, has become the subject of legend as ‘Evita’; and many Argentinians, including several of its most recent presidents, have continue to boast that they are ‘Peronists’.

At the end of the Second World War, Argentina was one of the world’s most prosperous countries, and still sought European immigrants. The hard-working, devoutly Catholic Slovene refugees evidently appealed to Perón as easy-to-assimilate immigrants, and his country was the only one in the world to welcome them with completely open arms. The Canadians, in contrast, would only admit people in perfect health, rejecting anyone with so much as a filled tooth or a scar – until Swedish delegates at the UN mockingly asked if they were looking for prize bulls rather than immigrants. In contrast, Argentinian officials and physicians waved them through, allowing even disabled people and those with evidence of tuberculosis in their lungs to enter the country.

Until Argentina’s terrible economic crisis around 2000, in which many people lost their savings, Slovenian emigrants generally felt at home there. Although most settled in Buenos Aires, others chose the city of Mendoza at the foot of the Andes (which perhaps reminded them of their semi-Alpine homeland); and Mendoza celebrated Slovenian independence by naming one of its squares Plaza República de Eslovenia.

However, for obvious reasons, the first Slovenian emigrants to Argentina were fiercely anti-communist and pro-Catholic, and presumably tried to bring their children and grandchildren up with the same mindset. So I can’t help wondering how they felt about their political saviour Juan Perón’s defence of workers’ rights – and above all about the Videla regime’s violent attempts to suppress all forms of left-wing thinking.

Did any of Videla’s victims have Slovenian surnames? Were any of his main colleagues or executioners of Slovenian descent? It’s hard to tell. But Slovenian surnames would stand out from the native Spanish or Italian ones that are typical of Argentina; and I can’t find any among the most notorious members of the regime.

What did Slovenian emigrant families do when Videla came to power? Did their Catholic faith, and presumptive compassion for the oppressed, make them stand against him? Or did their anti-communism make them support his witch hunt? It would be fascinating to know.

Some of the emigrants have returned to Slovenia since it broke away from Yugoslavia to become a democracy and join NATO and the European Union. But not all of them have found this the liberating experience they had long dreamed of – for the Slovenia whose memory they had cherished in exile is by no means the same country as it was back in 1945. For one thing, barely half of today’s Slovenes consider themselves Christian; and, despite the communist regime’s undoubted political abuses, many people still appreciate the advances in social justice, health care, education and women’s rights that certainly took place in post-war Yugoslavia. In today’s increasingly neo-liberal society, such gains are not to be sneezed at.

Many returning emigrants have been shocked by what they see as the ‘godless’ new materialism in their former homeland. But in pre-war Slovenia it was Catholics that promoted materialism and social inequality, and communists that opposed them; and it was Catholics that collaborated with the occupiers, and communists that did not.

A dirty war if ever there was one; and it’s still hard to say which side was right, or wrong. I think I know which side I stand on; but I wasn’t there at the time, and can’t tell what I would have done if forced to choose – perhaps at a very young age, and influenced by my family and friends – between fascism and communism.

Eruption disruption

Seven years ago, in the early summer of 2010, a waiter at my favourite restaurant was unable to report to his workplace for over a week – because of a climatic event some 3,000 km away, on the far side of the Atlantic.

He had been on holiday in Britain and was about to fly home, when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted beneath one of Iceland’s ice sheets and released a vast cloud of ash and glass-like silica particles into the atmosphere. There was good reason to suppose that aircraft flying through the cloud could suffer serious engine damage and perhaps crash; and, as the prevailing westerly winds carried it across Europe in hard-to-predict directions, large areas of European airspace were simply closed. This disrupted air traffic not only in Europe but around the whole world, since so many international routes pass over the continent, with stopovers at London, Frankfurt, Athens and elsewhere. The cost to airlines was in the billions of dollars, and some 5 million passengers found themselves stranded wherever they happened to be. Alternative sea and train transport was rapidly booked out, and so my waiter friend could not just catch a Eurostar train under the Channel to Brussels and on to Holland. Instead, he was stuck in London for a week.

Airlines predictably protested at the restrictions on their business, and many claimed that the danger was mere speculation, and even a panic-mongering myth; but this seems disingenuous. Military aircraft that did fly through the cloud were found to have potentially damaging fragments of molten glass in their engines; and people could point to the experience of a British Airways airliner en route from London to Auckland back in 1982.

After taking off from Kuala Lumpur it was caught in an ash cloud from the erupting Galunggung volcano in Java; all four of its engines failed, and only prompt expert action by the flight crew (who at first had no idea what was causing the problem) prevented catastrophe. They managed to fly to safety by gliding down out of the ash and, after the engines finally restarted, landing at Jakarta; all 263 people on board survived unhurt, and subsequently formed a ‘Galunggung Gliding Club’ in memory of the event. Captain Eric Moody’s cool announcement to the passengers on discovering the problem has become legendary: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem – all four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.’

In the light of this and similar incidents, airlines’ denials of the potential danger from the 2010 eruption in Iceland seemed dictated by short-term commercial interests rather than anything else. The European transport authorities rightly stuck to their guns: safety first.

But this is almost certainly not the first time that volcanic activity in Iceland has caused serious disruption around the world. Admittedly, some of this has to be speculation, since there was far less scientific evidence than there would be today; but a succession of exceptional events in North America, Europe and even Africa and Asia in the years after 1783 does now seem traceable to that year’s massive eruption of an Icelandic volcano called Laki.

The eruption lasted eight months, much longer than the one in 2010, and may have been one of the most destructive in recorded history. In Iceland itself it killed most of the crops (smothered by falling ash) and well over half of the livestock (poisoned when they attempted to eat ash-covered grass); since the thinly populated island was at the time far less accessible than it is today, it could not easily be resupplied from elsewhere, and a quarter of its people died in the ensuing famine.

In nearby North America there was unseasonably cold weather in the year that followed, with snowstorms in the Deep South and (at least according to some reports) ice floes in the Gulf of Mexico! The illustrious American scientist Benjamin Franklin speculated that these events, and the unusually cool summer of 1783, might be due to ash haze from the Icelandic eruption (news of which had spread) blocking the sunlight, although recent research has called this into doubt (the famous El Niño current in the southern Pacific may have played a far greater role). But it was already becoming clearer that climatic events in distant parts of the world could have a major impact in others.

In Europe, the impact was a good deal clearer: a haze of poisonous sulphur dioxide caused tens of thousands of deaths across the continent, and extreme weather (flooding, severe hailstorms, fiercely hot summers and fiercely cold winters) persisted up to 1789, the year of the French Revolution. Indeed, it has been suggested that the resulting poverty and famine helped trigger the revolution off, and not only in France.

Across the Mediterranean, reduced rainfall in North Africa, with substantially lower water levels in the Nile, is now believed to have caused a famine that killed a sixth of Egypt’s population the year after the Icelandic eruption; and the damage is thought to have extended as far east as India, nearly 8,000 km (a fifth of the way round the globe) from Iceland.

What conclusion, if any, can we draw from all this? The obvious one seems to be that we humans are not by any means in control of the forces of nature. Whether (as I believe) additional climate change is now occurring, and whether (as I also believe) it has been caused by our presence and our exploitation of the earth’s resources, the natural environment is perfectly capable of wiping us out, and of course will have no sentimental compunction about doing so. We are simply one of the world’s many species – and one of the most vulnerable. The ones most likely to survive, as they do in large numbers in our own bodies, are surely bacteria. Even if we die out, they will keep on mutating and find other hosts to keep them alive – a capability we humans signally lack. No amount of genetic engineering, or robotics, or artificial intelligence, or whatever other fancy tricks we may think we have up our sleeves will in the end save us – unless we decide to work with the natural environment rather than, as we have so far persistently done, against it.

As the saying goes, I’m not holding my breath.

A pain in the gut: why appendicitis proves evolution

Modern human beings still have a small part of the intestine that has effectively ceased to perform any useful function. It’s called the vermiform (from the Latin for ‘worm-like’) appendix, known for short as the ‘appendix’.

Ever since I was a child, 60 years ago, I have known that the appendix is a now largely useless part of our digestive system that can get painfully inflamed, and that if the inflammation is left untreated it can lead within hours or days to general infection, and death.

The only known treatment is timely surgery to remove the potentially fatal growth; and this not only is always successful, but has no harmful side effects. And so when mountaineers, explorers or scientists are due to spend long periods in remote places where high-quality health care is not readily available – such as the Himalayas, the Amazon jungle, Antarctica or outer space – and where appendicitis (as the inflammation is known) could easily be fatal, they generally have the appendix removed before departure in order to avert any subsequent danger to them or the other members of their expeditions.

But what is the growth doing there in the first place? The conventional wisdom is that it is a surviving remnant of the once much larger caecum (Latin for ‘blind thing’, a dead-end or ‘blind alley’ in the intestines) that our far more vegetarian ancestors once needed to help them digest plants. Unlike animals, plants contain cellulose, which humans cannot digest without the help of certain bacteria; and the caecum served as a store of such bacteria. However, over time our diet has become far less vegetarian (more ‘McDonaldised’), and the increasingly unnecessary caecum has accordingly shrunk to a mere ‘appendix’, which may eventually disappear altogether – unless we again become more vegetarian, something that in our day and age certainly cannot be ruled out.

Be all this as it may, the appendix is now essentially a source of unnecessary pain and life-threatening illness, and we would all surely be better off if it were not there. There is no evidence that removing it surgically does us any more harm than cutting out or freezing off a wart.

Recent research suggests that the appendix is still not completely useless, and that it still performs a function in regulating the bacterial balance in our intestines. Yet this function is clearly very much reduced in comparison with what it used to be – which brings me to the main point of this post, namely that evolution is a fact of life.

If we accept that the appendix is a surviving remnant of a body part found in our long-ago ancestors, we must also accept that we have evolved – i.e. that our lives have changed, and that our bodies and minds have responded to the changes – since those ancestors were alive.

If, on the other hand, we were originally placed on the planet by an ‘intelligent designer’ who supposedly foresaw and planned everything in the development of living creatures and the whole universe, why did that designer choose to provide us with a body part – the appendix – that is now essentially a source of unnecessary pain and life-threatening illness? A competent designer would surely have avoided that, or – already an admission of failure – changed it once he or she discovered it was there.

And this, of course, brings us to the fierce argument between the supporters of evolution and ‘creationism’. Creationists claim to believe in a universe in which all living species immediately appeared in their present form, and hence to worship a ‘creator’ (‘god’) that made all this possible. Some even teach their children to believe that humans and dinosaurs ‘walked together’ on the planet (so why didn’t the mighty carnivorous dinosaurs gobble us up?), whereas all the scientific evidence is that dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago and that recognisable human beings only made their appearance two or three million years ago.

But in that case why did this ‘creator’ immediately saddle us with something as useless as the appendix, with its propensity to develop appendicitis and kill us?

This brings us to the tendency of mainstream religions – above all the ‘Abrahamic’ monotheistic religions Christianity, Islam and Judaism – to claim that their ‘gods’ see suffering as a beneficial factor in our lives.

In a word, as I have said before, bullshit. Either gods are benevolent, or they aren’t. But they can’t have it both ways:

  1. If they’ve organised everything, they shouldn’t allow suffering.
  2. If they allow (and encourage) suffering, they’re evil.
  3. If they’re evil, we shouldn’t believe in them.

It really is that simple – in fact, a gut feeling. If my appendix gets painfully inflamed and threatens my life, I know that ‘God’s plan’ has failed, or never existed in the first place. He or she got it wrong by leaving a potentially deadly, or in any case painful, part of my body in place. And suffering for its own sake is simply sadistic cruelty, which I’m not about to believe in either.

If this is ‘intelligent design’, words have lost all meaning. The creationists know full well why I’m saying this, and also why it’s the truth. And that’s what scares them, and makes them so aggressive.

Not exactly socket science

Among the paraphernalia I carry around in my backpack are two adaptor plugs that allow me to recharge my laptop in countries with otherwise incompatible electric sockets – notably Britain (where sockets are designed for plugs with three thick pins arranged in a tall isosceles triangle) and Switzerland (where sockets are designed for plugs with three small pins arranged in a much flatter triangle; these allow connection to the two-pin ‘Europlugs’ used in most of continental Europe and much of the world, the third hole in the socket simply being left unfilled, but Swiss apparatus has three-pin plugs which for obvious reasons will not fit into the two-hole Europlug sockets just across the border – a potential problem if you work in one country but live in another, as many people near Switzerland’s borders do.

European trains are increasingly fitted with electric sockets at each seat so that passengers can recharge their various electronic devices, but in most cases these are Europlug-compatible. The exceptions are the Eurostar trains between London and Brussels or Paris, which have one British and one Europlug socket side by side; but of course if two neighbouring passengers want to use devices with the same kind of plug, one of them will need an adaptor that works in the right direction (mine allows me to plug my Europlug laptop into a British socket, but not the other way round – not a problem for me, as I don’t have any British apparatus, but Brits travelling to ‘the continent’ may need an adaptor in the other direction, and certainly will once they have left the train).

Incredibly, in today’s world there are no fewer than 15 different types of plug and socket, which don’t all even use the same voltage, and are often incompatible by shape alone. Some of the designs are confined to a handful of countries, or even just one (e.g. Brazil, Israel and Thailand); and the distribution of the various designs almost always reflects colonial history (Thailand was never colonised, and Israel is a completely new country; once-Portuguese Brazil is a curiosity, since Portugal uses the Europlug, but South America is in any case a patchwork, with no fewer than five different systems – see below). In the Middle East, Lebanon and Syria use the Europlug, reflecting the fact that both countries once belonged to France; the same applies in South-East Asia, where the former French colonies known jointly as Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) also use the Europlug, as does the former Dutch colony that is now Indonesia. But in between we find the British plug used in Malaysia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, all once part of the British empire; and this pattern recurs in the Middle East, where formerly British Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan also use the British plug (so presumably would Palestine, had Israel not taken its place).

Africa is similarly divided along colonial lines. The Europlug is used throughout the former French, Portuguese and Spanish colonies, and all but one of the three former Belgian ones – the surprising exception is Rwanda, which uses the three-pin Swiss system – how on earth did that happen? The British plug is predictably found in a string of East and Southern African countries from Kenya down to Botswana, and in four West African ones (Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Gambia) – all of them former British territories. So we have the curious situation that Gambia, a narrow strip of land along the river of the same name, uses a different system from formerly French Senegal, which almost completely surrounds it – indeed, the two countries tried to merge in the 1980s as ‘Senegambia’, but the attempt failed. And there are some other oddities.

Although you might expect once-British South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland to use the British system, they have one of their own, which is not found anywhere else. At the other end of the continent, Egypt uses the Europlug – perhaps not altogether surprisingly, since the country was once jointly run by both Britain and France. But what about Sudan – and now also South Sudan, which recently broke away from it? These were once controlled from Egypt; but they have yet another system, which is used nowhere else in Africa, but is used in parts of Asia that were also British colonies: India and Pakistan, as well as British-dominated Nepal (so these  use a different system from their immediate neighbours Sri Lanka and Myanmar). How this surprising connection across the Indian Ocean was made remains unclear, but I suspect it has something – but what? – to do with the mass importation of Indian labour into Britain’s African colonies in the 19th century (which is why countries like South Africa, Kenya and Uganda ended up with large Indian minorities that were eventually persecuted in various ways).

Then there are the countries in the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, once briefly colonised or dominated by Italy. You might then expect them to use the Europlug; and so they do. But Italy itself has a different system again (admittedly compatible with the Europlug), which it extended to its former North African colony Libya, the only African country with this design (though it pops up again in another surprising part of the world – see below).

And if you look at the colours on the map of the world showing where the various types of plug and socket are used, you will see a tiny dot of red on the west coast of Africa, sandwiched in between the sea-green former British colony of Sierra Leone and the dark-blue former French one of Côte d’Ivoire. The red dot is Liberia; and the system there is otherwise only found in the Western hemisphere, for it comes from the United States. Liberia was founded by freed Afro-American and Caribbean slaves (hence its name, from the Latin liber meaning ‘free’; they were in fact encouraged to move back to Africa by American slave owners, who saw them as a threat to their own economic position). Liberia has always maintained links with the US, and its flag closely resembles the Stars and Stripes, with 11 instead of 13 alternating red and white stripes, and one large white star in a small blue field instead of one small star in a large one for each of the US states. And its electrical system is based on the one used throughout North America, as well as in five countries in the north-west corner of South America, plus the Caribbean islands (including Cuba) – a system completely incompatible with the world’s most widespread design, the Europlug (which is also used in all the former states of the Soviet Union, as well as neighbouring Turkey, Mongolia, Iran and Afghanistan). The North American system is also distinguished by the fact that the voltage is 110 to 120, whereas everywhere else in the world it is 220 to 240; there seems little reason to think either system is technologically preferable to the other, since they have both survived intact.

Which brings us to the South American patchwork mentioned earlier. The five countries that have been incorporated into the North American system are formerly Dutch Suriname, formerly British Guyana and formerly Spanish Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. But immediately south of Ecuador is a string of three countries – Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay (all formerly Spanish) – that use the Europlug, along with the tiny, still French territory of French Guyana, squeezed in between Suriname and Brazil. Then there is Brazil, which as already mentioned uses a unique system of its own. And finally we have the three Cono Sur (‘Southern Cone’) countries Argentina, Uruguay and Chile – which between them use another two designs, both of them geographically unexpected. Uruguay and Chile have the system found in Italy and its former colony Libya. Since of the three it is Argentina that has been most strongly influenced by Italian immigration (noticeable in the Buenos Aires dialect of Spanish), this is surely surprising.

As for Argentina, its plug-and-socket system is borrowed from the same hemisphere, but the other side of the world: Australia and New Zealand. And this design is also used in – of all places – China. But not in the US-influenced Philippines, Japan and Taiwan, which all use the North American system. As for the two Koreas, one of the few things they have in common is their use of… the Europlug, unlike either of their nearest neighbours.

In this world of globalised communications, it’s perhaps surprising to find such incompatibility between national electricity supply networks. But of course electricity as a controlled source of energy has been with us for about a century and a half; and by the turn of the 20th century much of the world was connected to a widely branching ‘national grid’. In those days countries cared little about what was going on elsewhere, except insofar as it might threaten their own interests; and, with a tendency to assume their own engineers and technicians were the best in the world, they ‘wired up’ the territories they controlled as they saw fit.

Tearing apart all this infrastructure just to achieve worldwide compatibility would now be immensely costly, not to say environmentally damaging; and perhaps we’re moving towards an increasingly ‘wireless’ world in which plugs and sockets will become things of the past. So for now I’ll rely on my trusty adaptors – and hope the Europlug continues to spread.

We’re here because we’re here

There’s been a lot of talk on the Internet about whether homosexuality has any evolutionary advantage – and, if not, why it has persisted for so long in so many species (not just humans, as is commonly claimed – usually by the same people who condemn it as ‘animal’, but also ‘unnatural’, behaviour!) instead of being ‘bred out’.

Every so often a new theory pops up to ‘explain’ this at first sight counterintuitive phenomenon. I’m not talking here about such disputed notions as a Dutch psychologist’s findings some years ago that gay and straight men have differently configured brains, which simply opened up the scary possibility that fetuses with ‘gay brains’ could be selectively aborted by parents. There’s no evidence that the different configuration, if in fact true, causes homosexuality; but, like genetic testing for congenital diseases, it can certainly be used to eliminate such supposedly ‘undesirable’ offspring before they are born, and free up the womb for something ‘better’. A British television reporter who herself has a child with Down syndrome recently sounded the alarm that we may be heading for a world in which there are fewer and fewer such children, since many, if not most, parents will opt for abortion when faced with the genetic evidence that their child will be disabled.

It’s surely undeniable that people who choose to have children usually do so in the hope that those children will have children in turn, and a gay son or daughter is far less likely to do that. Of the dozen gay couples I know, not one has even adopted children, let alone had children that carry their own genes, whereas of the far more numerous straight couples I know, all but a tiny handful have had at least one child, and usually more. It seems a ‘no-brainer’ that gay people seldom reproduce, and so don’t pass on their genes to anyone else.

But was this always so? Consider the facts.

There is historical evidence going back to at least Ancient Greek times that a minority of all populations has always been homosexual. Unfortunately, much of that evidence is to be found in the mockery, insults and physical violence to which gay people of both sexes have been subject since time immemorial. Until recently, most of the colloquial words for ‘homosexual’ were strongly pejorative: ‘queer’, ‘dyke’, ‘faggot’ in English, pédégouinetapette in French, and so on, the first of the French words containing the false, damaging suggestion that male homosexuals are by definition predatory paedophiles, a notion that recurs in some other languages (e.g. peder in Slovenian). Particularly in parts of the world dominated by the three ‘Abrahamic’ religions Christianity, Islam and Judaism, homosexuals have been singled out for mistreatment, sometimes extending to the death penalty (which to this day is imposed for the mere fact of being homosexual in at least seven countries, invariably on religious grounds).

In view of this hostility, gay people have often disguised their orientation by marrying and having the children society has expected of them – a ‘seal of good housekeeping’, if you like. Since gay women and men produce no less viable ova and sperm than straight ones, it was simply a matter of ‘going through the motions’ and pretending to enjoy the experience. In this way a majority of gay people did pass on their genes to later generations; but it is still not clear whether gay parents are in fact more likely to have gay children, for by the time such research could be reliably carried out (in Western countries), social prejudice against them was already starting to wane there, and fewer of them felt compelled to marry and have children in the first place.

Other theories that have recently emerged are that mothers with multiple children become increasingly likely to have a gay son, because of female hormones transmitted to each succeeding fetus in the womb. The conclusion here should be that gay men are almost always younger children with one or more elder brothers; but all I know in my own case is that I was an only child, so my own parents ‘hit the jackpot’ at the first try. I know my mother would have wanted more children, but a hysterectomy soon after my own birth ended all hope of that; and in any case I would have remained the eldest child, and perhaps even the only son. Of course, few theories of this kind are universally applicable, and I may be the exception that proves the rule; but sometimes I can’t help feeling people are scraping the barrel for a ’cause’ – and, by implication, a ‘cure’ – at all costs. However much some would protest that they ‘really don’t mind’ if their children grow up gay, deep down most people would sooner we weren’t here.

Paradoxically, gay liberation may just help to make their wish come true. Now that in an increasing number of countries we’re no longer under pressure to marry someone of the opposite sex and produce children, gay men and women are less likely to pass on their genes than at any time in the past. Some of the countries that now allow gay people to marry also allow them to adopt children (which is how most of them become parents in their own right); but adopted children do not, by definition, carry their adoptive parents’ genes, and they were in the world already, so they do not add anything to the gene pool merely because a gay couple has taken them into their home.

In short, we may now be a dwindling minority. We still don’t know what makes some children grow up gay and others – the majority – straight. It may be genes; it may be hormones in the womb; it may be a combination of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’; it may be pure chance. But I have a distinct feeling that the figure of 10% gay people in the population, much bandied about since the pioneering Kinsey Report on male sexuality, was either exaggerated to begin with, or has actually started to decline. I spend a lot of my time in restaurants, where many of the tables are occupied either by couples or by pairs of couples, or by families with children. Not all male-female couples are necessarily sexual partners, as I should know: I regularly have dinner with a female Dutch friend, and many people wrongly assume we are husband/boyfriend and wife/girlfriend. But when I look round me on an average evening, I don’t see anything approaching 10% gay couples (whereas gay couples, who generally lack the expense of children, can afford to eat out more than most). Again, two men dining together, or two women dining together, could be ‘just friends’; but in our more liberated times, at least in Holland, gay couples are almost as likely as straight ones to show signs of affection, which I seldom see.

Whatever the reason, I’m really starting to think there are fewer of us about. But, for now, we’re here because we’re here.