Simplicity, complexity, and chaos

January 23, 2010

I just watched a BBC documentary about Chaos Theory presented by Jim Al-Khalili, and it was superb. Beautifully shot, thought-provoking, informative, and with a brilliant soundtrack, it’s not one to be missed. I had to wait a while for it to make it onto YouTube but it went up last week on the AtheistPlanetBlog channel, which has a lot of other very interesting videos, not necessarily anything to do with atheism. Anyway here’s the first part:

There are 6 parts (just shy of an hour long altogether), and it moves from Turing, through to Belousov, Lorenze, and Mandelbrot, among many others. I really do recommend it.

When I was watching this, I came to a very suddent realisation that this documentary, and other programmes like it, are the reason we need the BBC. Can you see ITV or another major commercial channel funding a programme like that? The primary goal of such companies is to make money through ratings, not to make great programming. The majority of the British TV audience wouldn’t give that programme a second look, they’d hear the word ‘theory’ and turn it off as boring scienceystuff. Even look at the niche science channels, a lot of it is dry and stuffy, and another lot of it is just about blowing things up, or they’re just glorified freak shows. The well thought-out programmes don’t get the exposure they should. This is something of a change of heart for me. Not really seeing the point in preserving something just for the sake of preserving it, in the past I’ve said that if the fine arts can’t support themselves, then they should be allowed to die. Obviously I wouldn’t take such a position when talking about something as important as science, that if it doesn’t make money it shouldn’t happen, and this documentary’s given me the opportunity to reconsider my position on other things as well. We need this kind of thing to inspire the next generation of scientists and artists.

A related point is that it demonstrates a fallacy often committed by creationists trying to discredit the theory of evolution. They’ll say that it led to eugenics, and ultimately to ethnic cleansing. This is incorrect on two points. Firstly, eugenics is based on a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which clearly demonstrates that in the case of a natural disaster or something similar, one of the best ways to ensure the survival of the species is to maintain genetic diversity in the species, that way the species is more adaptable to new environments. Secondly, even if that were true, it is fallacious to disbelieve a scientific theory because you don’t like its consequences. But the more general point, related to the BBC, is that just because we know that natural selection happens in nature and has led to the point we’re at now, that does not mean we must accept it as an ideology. We don’t have to see it as a good way to organise a society. We can protect things that otherwise would not survive in the free market economy.

So yes, watch the documentary.

Reverse Eugenics

March 11, 2008

I’ve just been made aware of this story which is doing the rounds on the web at the moment. A deaf couple are claiming the right to choose a deaf child, over a hearing child, through IVF screening, in the face of a new law which will say that once the embryos have been screened, the most healthy one must be chosen.

Mr Lichy says that being deaf is a core part of his culture and identity, and (quoting the BBC article), “it is those who are able to hear who are at a disadvantage in a world of deaf plays, deaf poetry, and deaf jokes.”

I’m going to discuss this part for a little while. Although I don’t deny that deaf culture is both distinct and fascinating, and that I wish I could do sign language, being deaf isn’t a prerequisite for being a part of that culture. They could easily teach a hearing child sign language, which makes them able to take part in the deaf culture. Indeed I’m sure a child brought up in a deaf family would have a very rich culture; being bilingual with English and sign language isn’t very common at all, and I’d love to have had that opportunity.

So I dispute the assertion that hearing people have a disadvantage. Deafness IS a disability, no matter what the Lichy’s want to think. It is an inability to hear which presents all sorts of practical problems and disadvantages, and although a lot of positive aspects (not least deaf culture) have sprung from it, and it’s easier than ever to live with, that doesn’t mean it’s not a disability. I think that choosing a deaf child, just so they can relate to it a bit easier, is very selfish, and they really don’t have the child’s best intentions at heart.

That said, this is only a very narrow part of a much wider issue. The Lichy’s argument is against the new bill which says that once they’re screened, the most healthy embryo must be selected. But, if they choose not to screen the embryos, then they can take their chances, which means they might get a deaf child and they might not. What they’re saying is that the new bill basically implies that deaf or otherwise disabled people aren’t as valid as hearing people (incidentally a commonly used Spanish word for disabled is minusvalido, literally meaning “less valid”. Imagine that in today’s world of political correctness).

To a certain extent I agree with them, but I think their argument is a bit skewed. Just as the law implies that disabled people are less valid than ‘normal’ people (for lack of a better word), so does their selection process of choosing deaf embryos over hearing embryos imply that normal people are less valid than disabled people, which is just as untrue.

What I think the Lichy’s should be campaigning against is IVF screening in its entirety. But then again I’m unsure where I stand on this issue as well, mainly because what little I know about IVF, I learned in religious studies classes at school. The way I see it, there are practical reasons for screening embryos; some may have been damaged by the IVF process, for example. For me the most ethical thing to do would be to screen embryos for damage, but then how do you differentiate between damage done through the process and a disability that would have occurred naturally anyway? I have no idea if it’s possible. I know that at the moment you can choose not to have them screened, but does this result in a higher level of disabled children born compared to non-IVF methods or not? I don’t know.

The fact that it’s commonly done, however, leads me to believe that it’s not too dangerous, so I think the most ethical way to avoid eugenics, either the conventional type or the reverse type we can see here, is not to screen IVF embryos at all, depending on my assumption that it isn’t a big cause of disability.