science

That’s just your opinion, man

trump system

The planets, I learned when I was 11, “dance and weave behind the sun”.

I still remember that phrase because it made an enormous impression on me. It was magical. Musical. Mythical. And, of course, made up. But I didn’t know that until years later.

In that moment I pictured an immense and fiery Pied Piper playing a thermonuclear recorder, leading a string of little planets on a merry jig through the cosmos. It’s such a fantastic image that it remains with me today, lingering as a small doubt about the veracity of the science I learned later. When I see Mercury or Mars on a dark midnight, a pagan, feral part of me wonders if the other planets are lined up behind them, ready to start the night’s wild rumpus.

This weekend a less dramatic but much more real procession took place in cities around the world. The “March for Science” saw the more rationally inclined hit the streets to protest against Trumpian know-nothingry, the perceived sidelining of science and the woolly mammoth in the room, climate change.

Inevitably, the various marches seem to have been good-natured affairs.

In my very limited experience, scientists tend not to want to impose themselves or their ideas on people the way politicians and columnists do. Dogmatic certainty is fundamentally unscientific, and a march by scientists always runs the risk of unravelling into a large group of solitary wanderers licking their thumbs and rubbing out things on whiteboards: “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? Well, the question of ‘when’ is tricky because it seems predicated on time being linear, which it isn’t, and when you say ‘want’, are you claiming that humans are the conscious originators of our desires or are you allowing for the possibility that we might be compelled by social structures or hormonal commands originating in the gut? Oh, you want science now? OK, well, ‘now’ is a contested idea but could we suggest that, given what the peer-reviewed literature currently shows, we believe that we want science to happen at the event horizon of the future into which we are always tumbling? Is that fair?”

Still, they made their point. Reflected in their clever banners and glittering logic I saw my own dismal scientific education. I saw people I admired but whom I could not understand because I had been taught that our solar system is a conga line.

Siyabulela Xuza launched into deep space from his mother’s kitchen

Then again, when I consider the extraordinary trajectory of Siyabulela Xuza, who launched into deep space from his mother’s kitchen in the Eastern Cape – inventing a new kind of rocket fuel en route to studying at Harvard and having an asteroid named after him – I have to concede that I might not be able to lay all the blame on my education. Maybe some people are just good at science and other people are, well, me.

Which would be fine if those of us who are not good at science just touched our forelocks and accepted its findings. But, as the marchers hoped to remind us, we’re doing that less and less.

The vast intellectual unravelling of the post-factual era has reached the very building blocks of the known universe.

With depressing regularity, the great equations of physics are being met and dismissed with a vastly more powerful and destructive equation: the creeping belief that everything is an opinion, and, since all opinions are equally valuable (or worthless), everything is equally true. The Earth is round? Well that’s just your opinion, man, and if you tell me I’m wrong then you’re bullying me.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that science is under severe attack. But, unfortunately, I don’t think you can be a rocket scientist and defend it, either. In fact, scientists might be the worst possible defenders of science because they are comfortable with uncertainty and are willing to admit what they don’t know. When a know-nothing tells them that up is down, they will have to reply, “You may turn out to be right, but at the moment, up is up.” Which, to an internet-addled paranoiac, sounds like unconditional surrender.

It’s popular to label anti-scientists as stupid or rage-addicted reactionaries, but I believe that they are driven by a much more powerful, and therefore much more dangerous, energy. I believe that they are compelled to act as they do by the deep and ancient narcissism of our collective inner child.

Almost every great claim our species has made over the millennia has been made to soothe that child, to make the bad feelings go away. There, there, little one. The sun revolves around you. Death isn’t final. An immortal parent (who will never leave you) made all of this, just for you, and loves you, always. And anyone who says different is a meanie and probably deserves to be hit.

Like a spoiled child, the anti-scientist is always right, even if older and wiser people show him that he is wrong. Their evidence is proof of how wrong they are. You are not wrong because I disagree with your findings: you are wrong because you disagree with my feelings.

If you’re a scientist, I thank you. I don’t understand what you do, but I do understand what will happen if you stop doing it. And conga lines are the least of it.

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Published in The Times

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Gut feel

bacteriaTwo of my friends recently made a spaceship. You didn’t hear about it because they are publicity-shy, but I’ve seen it, and it works.

I understand only some of the science, but essentially it looks like most spaceships in pop culture: more or less cylindrical, with a bulbous front bit that houses the command centre, a long middle bit where the crew live, and propulsion units sticking out the back. What really stunned me, though, was just how big it is. It’s vast. The living quarters can house literally millions of voyagers, representing thousands of different species from all corners of the galaxy. (Almost none of the crew is human.)

I asked my friends what the point of the vessel was and they explained that, like most transportation, it has only one mission: to keep everything inside safe and in working order as it wanders this way and that through the universe.

Interestingly, the ship collects its own fuel. In fact that’s pretty much all it does. Scanners detecting edible food? Hard to starboard, Number One! Oxygen found in the atmosphere? Alpha Team, prepare to inhale! As soon as the crew has positioned the ship near a new source of sustenance, a loading dock in the front part opens up, and the goodies are transported down into the middle of the ship, where millions of workers convert it into whatever is needed. A few hours later, waste products are ejected into space from between the propulsion units.

The ship has an official name, something pretty and optimistic, but to everybody on board she’s just “The Tube”. Because that’s what she is: a city-sized hose pipe that sucks in energy and ejects waste. Every living thing on board exists to serve the tube, and in return, the tube keeps them alive.

The spaceship is, of course, a human baby, and the vast crew that will push this person through the universe – nudging it this way for food, that way for love, the other way for shelter – is the swarm of bacteria that have already taken residence in her gut.

Humanity, we accept, exists somewhere between our ears.

When the discovery of Homo naledi was announced, some writers posed the well-thumbed question: what makes us human? Is it our intellect? Our emotions? The way they come together to create beliefs, customs and relationships?

They are good questions, but, perhaps because they are usually asked by thinkers, their answers tend to gravitate to the brain, like dust around a planet. Humanity, we generally accept, exists somewhere between our ears.

There’s no denying that the brain is astonishing. That melon-sized lump of fat has subjugated an entire planet. It can hold dazzling amounts of information, like how, when you eat cereal and you spill down your chin, you need to scoop it back into your mouth with the same action you use for shaving, and why Sam Smith’s new Bond theme is a subtle critique and inversion of the hegemony of the patriarchal, Shirley Bassey-esque idiom that has dominated the franchise for too long. But these days, it also knows about something called faecal transplants.

I’ve listened, spellbound, to a surgeon who performs them. “Perform” is the only appropriate verb: implanting faecal matter from one person into the bowels of another person seems more like a by-invitation-only circus act in a London basement than a medical procedure.

It’s horrifying. But only if you believe the accepted answers to that old question; that we are human mainly because of our brains, and that our humanity is a refined, higher magic that flits about in our skulls like cherubs riding on winged rainbows. If you consider the possibility that we exist for the benefit of our passengers then such transplants aren’t freak shows. They’re the new owners moving in.

Just how human can we claim to be when our bodies are home to millions of non-human life forms, all working away, night and day, to keep themselves fed, warm and happy? Are we truly free-thinking individuals when our health, and possibly even our moods and thoughts, are created and maintained by our on-board crew of aliens? Are we here to learn about ourselves and others, or are we lengths of mobile hose pipe, slaves to a tiny civilization that lives inside us and endlessly orders us to shove stuff into the top of the pipe and, from time to time, make more pipes so that more of our overlords can live in new digs?

That’s why I like the spaceship analogy. Spaceships are nobler than hose pipes. They are built for adventure, not just consumption. They go boldly where no self-aware mass transit system has gone before. They – oh, wait, message from the engine room. Yes, sir? Time for me to have lunch? Right away, sir.

Resistance is futile.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

I want no part of God or Naledi

NalediHomo naledi is a racist plot using pseudo-science to link Africans to subhuman, baboon-like creatures.

It sounded mad, and Mathole Motshekga and Zwelinzima Vavi were roundly jeered on social media for expressing it. I joined the chorus, because gigantic ignorance should not be tolerated in our leaders. But I can also understand where such paranoia comes from.

Even as Facebook howled its derision, racists gloated over pictures comparing Homo naledi to Robert Mugabe or Jacob Zuma. It is dangerous to discount the theory of evolution, but it is also understandable when most of your contact with the idea of primitive, dark-skinned knuckle-draggers has come not in the form of scientific debate based on our common humanity but as the poisonous barb on a white supremacist insult.

It made sense. But the more I read the arguments, the more I realized that only some of the objections were bound up with the awful legacy of racist European pseudo- science. The rest, it seemed, were religious, and bridged both class and race. It turns out that a huge number of South Africans, perhaps even a comfortable majority, reject Homo naledi as an ancestor because they believe that a monotheistic god created them in its own image.

It forced me to imagine their experience of our country, of its past and present, of everyday events. What, I wondered, is your average day like when you believe that science is either a racist tool or simply wrong? What kind of relationships do you form with people if you believe that they are God’s most perfect creation, or, as claimed by Motshekga, they were created before the universe existed?

I can’t speak for my compatriots, but I think if I believed those things, I would feel the most delicious entitlement. To know that you are the reason for all existence, that everything in the universe is a prop for you to use in the God-scripted drama of your life – ye gods, how glorious!

To an atheist like myself, who believes that the theory of evolution is currently the best explanation we have for how we got here, it all starts feeling a bit mad. But I also concede that many of my beliefs would seem bonkers to millions of my compatriots.

This month we are being urged to reflect on something called “heritage”; to collect a bundle of historical and culture goodies we have inherited and to show them off to each other as some sort of morale-boosting exercise. The assumption, of course, is that these goodies are real: concrete truths, sensible beliefs and practices, true histories. But how real is any of it when we live in a world saturated with fantasy and projection, where contradiction masquerades as conviction?

In South Africa, you don’t have to wander far before the ground under your feet turns to quicksand.

Our leaders talk democracy, then hand over the podium to feudal kings who talk about blind allegiance.

Revolutionaries call on us to be suspicious of non-African influences, in the same breath that they quote a German philosopher and adjust their berets, modelled on a Cuban and made in China, before driving to church in a Japanese car to worship a Jewish Palestinian who was put to death by Italians who whose life story was written by Greeks, preserved by Irish monks, and eventually brought to Africa by English blokes.

Gloomy whites urge blacks to “get over the past and move on” while jealously tending the flame of their resentment over the Boer War or the treachery of FW de Klerk.

Next week the country will suffer ‘Braai Day’, a carcinogenic corporate kerfuffle designed to bring South Africans together by banishing women to the kitchen, sending men to the garden, and completely excluding vegetarians and people who like their chicken cooked properly. It’s based on the assumption that we all need to share common values because we occupy the same country.

Which, of course, relies on the assumption that South Africa is actually a country. Cue even more contradictions, as passionate opponents of colonialism put hands on hearts and declare their love for the arbitrary stretch of land demarcated by colonial map-drawers in London. It would be funny if it didn’t sometimes become bloody, when, for example, Southern Africans from the imaginary place called “Zimbabwe” cross the imaginary line into the imaginary place called “South Africa”. Xenophobia is real and brutal, but I’m not convinced it is entirely about fearing otherness. It is also deeply bound up with unthinking, obedient belief in borders and countries; about crossing that imaginary line. When someone moves the 1 700 kilometres from Musina to Cape Town, nobody blinks. But move the 25 kilometres from Chamumnanga to Musina and you are considered utterly alien.

Perhaps this is why Homo naledi seemed like something worth celebrating. It felt like a piece of truly common history. And yet if you believe in evolution, is this really a win? Nothing that is good about modern Africa existed in those desperate little animals. They might have been (almost) human, but mostly they were food. We can’t begin to imagine how little they knew about their world, or how abject their short, frightened, painful lives were. They passed on almost nothing to their children except their DNA and their fleas.

When it comes to heritage, I’m as confused as the next naked ape. But I know I’m not going to celebrate Homo naledi as part of my human heritage. Instead, I’m going to celebrate that I have absolutely nothing in common with that ancient prototype. I’m going to celebrate inventors, philosophers, artists, even a few warriors. Above all, I’m going to pop a peer-reviewed headache pill, wash it down with pasteurized milk and celebrate the scientists who try to drag us out of the muck despite our determination to return there.

One day humans will cure brain death. If we decide to keep our organic bodies, ageing will become optional. I’m very grateful that I won’t be alive when that happens. But when it does, our descendants will look back on us and perhaps see us more clearly than we see ourselves: as a small flame flaring in the dark, briefly casting shadows on the wall – an illusory panorama of phantoms and projections – before we flicker out. They will read our assertions about who we are and where we’ve come from, and hear their true meaning; that we declare, “I am this!” because we know that one day we’ll be like Homo naledi: nothing at all.

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A slightly shortened version of this column was first published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.