August 2008


Oh dear; there he goes again – off on another hobby horse, attacking windmills with sharpened consonants and strangulated vowels. And, surprise, surprise – the  experts have become frustrated and annoyed.    

 

A decade ago, Prince Charles accused GM scientists of meddling in ‘realms that belong to God and God alone’.  This week, in an interview to The Daily Telegraph, he asserts that ‘Gigantic corporations’  are conducting a ‘gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity, which has gone seriously wrong. Why else’, he adds, warming to his cause, ‘do you think we are facing all these challenges, climate change and everything?’ 

 

‘This new technology is driving small farmers off their land into ‘unsustainable , unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unimagineable awfulness’.    

 

‘And if they think that it’s somehow going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another, then count me out, because that will be guaranteed to cause the biggest environmental disaster of all time.  It will destroy our environment.  It will cause hunger throughout the world.’  

 

 

Wow, sir – that’s telling them!  But, just one little point – is it all true?   Can we really blame genetic modification for all the ills associated with modernity?    

 

 

The fact is that genetic modification has been with us for centuries, ever since men discovered that they could enrich the productivity of food crops by selective breeding and hybridisation. Wheat, legumes, barley, potatoes, maize, beetroot, grasses – they are all products of genetic engineering.   GM just takes it one stage further by making direct modifications to the genes. 

 

Cash crops have also been with us for a long time. They offer employment and a more affluent lifestyle for the local population, but they do expose them to competition and the downturns of a global economy while discouraging the subsistence farming that might provide a buffer against starvation.  But is it really GM that is driving small farmers off their land or just the fact that irrespective of the underlying technology, food supply is big business and large industrial style farms are here to stay?    

 

And what is the evidence that GM technology causes climate change?  Climate change had been occurring for decades before the first GM foods were grown commercially in 1996.   Moreover, it seems that genetic modification could help to withstand climate change by developing new crop varieties that could withstand warmer temperatures and drought.  GM might even produce plants that consume more carbon and yield more food.   And since many GM crops need no tilling, their growth  releases less CO2 into the atmosphere from both the soil and from tractors.   

 

It is of concern that genetic modification might reduce biodiversity, but then surely any food crop discourages biodiversity.  Fields of oil seed rape, maize, wheat or barley are ecological deserts with only the hedgerows and coppices providing  corridors and islands of biodiversity.  But GM, by reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides, might well encourage biodiversity. 

 

Will GM encourage widespread hunger?  The 1970s Green Revolution in India was based on the conventional propagation of hybrid dwarf crops, allowing more energy to be diverted into the seed heads.  This brought spectacular gains in agricultural yields and all but abolished the famines in that country.  Genetic engineering now offers the possibility of further increased yields for a rapidly expanding population through the development of crops that can that resist viruses and pests, and tolerate hot, saline, or otherwise inhospitable conditions. 

 

So the evidence suggests that GM technology might well benefit human societies.   GM foods have been grown commercially for 12 years now and there is little evidence to suggest that it is responsible for global hunger, climate change or any kind of environmental disaster – yet.  

 

But Prince Charles, as self appointed social conscience for the nation, gives voice to our fears of innovation.  In 1830, the ‘Captain Swing’ rioters in Dorset expressed their fears by direct action and began smashing the new agricultural machinery.  They were transported for it.  Charles can express similar reactionary views but people respect his unique, albeit somewhat isolated perspective.  HRH is a champion of the nostalgic, the vernacular, the romantic view of English heritage.  It relates to a time when the King was in his palace and all was well with the world.  His perspective is one of privilege.   The ghost town of Poundisbury on the outskirts of Dorchester,  and the range of Duchy originals suit a particular life style,  affluent, country, sophisticated – certainly not the inhabitants of ‘the degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unimagineable awfulness’.  We could therefore be forgiven for thinking that he is perhaps just a bit out of touch.  

 

But aren’t we all a little in thrall with his world?  Don’t we enjoy visiting stately homes and country houses?  Isn’t the National Trust one of our richest charities?  Don’t we all feel some sense of ownership with a view of country living that is forever England?   Isn’t it part of our collective identity, like William Shakespeare,  John Betjman and Bath buns.  In his passion to conserve his family’s heritage, doesn’t The Prince speak for all of us?   So when he condemns the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery as a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well loved friend, don’t we all secretly applaud?  And when he describes modern medical practice as like the Tower of Pisa, leaning too much in one direction, don’t we nod wisely?    

 

I once met Prince Charles.  It was at a reception given for his Foundation for Integrated Medicine at Highgrove – not the house, but the barn at the rear – a new build in the style of baronial hall with kitchens and a minstrels gallery and, if I remember correctly, tapestries on the wall.  I was impressed by HRH’s ability to engage with each of his 70 guests and then disengage, leaving them feeling heard and special.  His speech was amusing – charmingly self effacing with a touch of goonery about it. 

 

‘Oh, I know the experts get annoyed with me,’ he told us, ‘But it’s very strange that when I talk to medics they all agree with my views on architecture and when I talk to the architects, they all applaud my views on medicine. So perhaps I should talk to you about organic farming.  

 

It’s as if Charles doesn’t expect to be taken seriously.  It’s all a bit of a surprise.  That may be the problem, because as a prominent public figure and our future King, he has a responsibility to check his sources and present a reflective and balanced argument. 

 

Don’t misunderstand me.  I think Prince Charles does a tremendous job.  He works tirelessly for the good of the nation.  His various trusts are a major force for good.  I applaud his work.  I also support his right to say what he believes.  But he should choose his advisers more carefully.  As moral philosopher for the nation by Royal appointment, he would be better advised to present a more responsible view. An ill considered rant on GM foods brings the institution of the monarchy into disrepute because it doesn’t recognise either how GM might help to alleviate poverty and suffering throughout the world or the dedication of the scientists who are working on it.  It doesn’t exhibit Kingship. 

 

Charles has an opportunity to be both a social conscience and a moral leader, but he needs to demonstrate a scrupulous disinterest.  If he can rein in his passion and take himself seriously as a voice of reason, he will ensure the monarchy’s continued relevance as a moral lynchpin for a changing and unstable society.    

 

 

If I don’t post any more blogs for some time, you will know that I am banged up in The Tower.         

In yesterday’s blog,  I argued that television might contribute to the recent epidemic of emotional and unexplained physical illness because it makes us immediately aware of the threats to our existence,  it offers the most exciting but most dysfunctional responses to emotional dilemmas and it cuts us off  from the community that might help us resolve difficult situations.  These factors create a rise in emotional tension while failing to offer any means of resolution.  

 

So if television is bad for our health, what about personal computers and the internet.  Do they also contribute to illness for similar reasons or might they actually have a more healthy influence?  

 

The ability to obtain detailed and for the most part reliable information on any topic,  the increase ease of written communication, the ability to organise our lives from our desktop – paying bills, sending letters, selling items on eBay, arranging finances and investments, having meetings, watching films, even dating   all of this has transformed the efficiency of our lives.  In theory this must make life easier and and by reducing the hassle and frustration, diminish emotional tension and allow us more time to pursue a more healthy lifestyle. 

 

The internet is a much more interactive medium than television. We are not just passive recipients. We choose, out of millions of possibilities, the sites we interact with . We can have a dialogue, construct virtual relationships, engage with a virtual community.  

 

It appears that the internet will be the medium through which we will all communicate in the future.  Face to face interaction with suppliers, colleagues, friends, our bank manager, estate agent, lawyer, doctor, the person at the post office, will no longer be necessary.  That will certainly be more efficient, but will it keep us happy or healthy? 

 

The internet offers a virtual, as if, existence, a substitute for the real relationships.  Will that be enough?   

 

It may well be enough to pay bills, but can you have a satisfactory consultation with a doctor or a lawyer on the net.  Can you have a useful session with a psychotherapist via a webcam.  Can anybody have a satisfactory sexual experience on the world wide web?  

 

Human relationships have to be conducted person to person.  It is said that 93% of human communication is non-verbal using all of our senses, touch, smell, hearing, as well as vision.   We can pick up cues, attitudes, character, beliefs , personality through gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, body language.  This comprehensive communication eases our fears of separation and abandonment,  provide that  essential sense of belonging.  Loneliness is probably the more prevalent illness of our time.   

 

Isn’t there something important about the chance relationship who live close to us, that everyday discussion about the weather, our family, what the council are doing to our local services, that induces a sense of belonging, community that we can’t get from the internet?       

 

But at the same time, we are so skilled at making ‘as if’ relationships.  It is part of the human condition to imagine relationships and stories, often from relatively few cues.  Isn’t this enough to sustain us?   Don’t we all imagine that we know Gordon Brown, or George Bush?   Don’t we feel that we belong to Team GB at the Olympics.  I think we do, just as I believe that people who are isolated and lonely – the infirm and the elderly – derive a real sense of connection from The Archers or Coronation Street.  It is something, it is a kind of connection, but it can never be a substitute.    

 

How would we feel if our children were brought up by some interactive internet programme.  It wouldn’t work, would it?  There is more to bringing up children that vision.  Telly tubbies may keep children entranced for a bit, but this is not a whole care package.  Children left to their play stations and televisions, can never grow up with the necessary interactive social skills that will allow them to deal with all the situations that modern life throws at them while remaining healthy.

 

So, while I think that our computer and internet are better than nothing, especially for those suffering from the most prevalent sickness of our society – loneliness, it can never be a substitute for community, family, that essential sense of belonging that we need and share with all other social species. 

In the corner of the living room is a television. There is another one in the master  bedroom, a small one in the kitchen and one in each of the children’s bedrooms. This is probably typical of many family houses in Britain.  The television has taken over and yet, one might argue, it constitutes one of our most serious public health hazards.    

 

That’s a bit strong, you might think.  Surely, television is one of the wonders of the age.  At the touch of a button, it keeps us informed what is happening throughout the world twenty four hours a day.  It provides a rich choice of drama and entertainment without ever leaving our armchair. It allows us to watch major sporting events whenever and wherever they are taking place.  It provides information and commentary on every conceivable topic. It instructs us how to cook, how to decorate our homes, how to create the most interesting and productive gardens. 

 

Ownership of television sets did not really start to escalate in Britain until the 1960s. Since then, there has been a progressive increase in emotional illness and those physical conditions that have no obvious medical physical explanation.  The same association is seen throughout the world.  For example,  disordered eating was almost unknown in Fiji before the introduction of western television.  Within a few years, dieting and self induced vomiting had become commonplace among young Fijian women.  The same association was observed in  Czechoslovakia and the Republic of Georgia.  And tellingly, the close knit Amish community, that forbids the use of television in their houses, has been spared the depression epidemic. But association does not constitute proof.  It is not possible to isolate ownership of television sets from other fundamental changes in society, such as the decline in ‘community’, the increase in social isolation and rise in single parent families.        

 

Anxiety, depression and bodily illnesses that have no obvious physical cause are due, at least in part to difficult life situations and traumatic events that people cannot resolve.  The resultant tensions remain in the body where they tighten the muscles, raises the blood pressure, alters the activity of the immune system, increase sensitivity, wrench the gut out of kilter and generally exhaust and demoralize us.  The reason these illnesses have been getting more common are, I believe, the result of a combination of culture shock caused by changing social attitudes towards entitlement and narcissism and a decline in community and social interaction. This has created new social dilemmas, which are increasingly difficult to resolve without lasting shame and guilt. (See ‘Shameful acts, guilty secrets and enduring sickness; a moral for our times’ – August 7th, 2008).  

 

Television is also the most pervasive influence on how we feel and react to situations.   In a society where there is an erosion of the authority of our institutions and a decline in social interaction, it is television that directs attitudes and sets standards of social behaviour.  Soap operas, the most popular television programmes, are scripted to deal with modern dilemmas.  They encourage us  to seek fun rather than act responsibly,  to confront rather than negotiate, to protest rather than understand, to demand our rights rather find ways of living together,  and to fret about minor issues rather than view things in perspective.  Such programmes reinforce  the distorted perceptions of a narcissistic society,  in which image and self actuation take priority over community values.         

      

News programmes bring the dramatic intensity of disasters anywhere in the world right into our living rooms.  There is rarely any good news.   Television journalists are not paid to inform, instruct and reassure,  but to excite and arouse us.  So while distant events like the invasion of Georgia by Russian troops may not generate a deep personal grief reaction, they stir up the topsoil of insecurity,  which cannot but fail to make the lonely and vulnerable feel anxious and unwell. Vicarious exposure to emotional trauma upsets us, but does not allow us to engage with it, resolve our emotions,  learn from it and grow.

   
Quiz shows,  reality programmes  and advertisements seduce us into believing  we can all be famous and live in a fantasy land of happiness and comfort.  But fame and affluence are ephemeral; they can be easily snatched away,  leaving us with nothing.   With such an unreliable world, how can we build up a healthy sense of confidence and trust?   

 

But surely, we don’t have to be affected by what we see on television.   That’s true,  but television is a hypnotic medium.  Audiences peak in the early evening when we have finished the days work, eaten an evening meal, perhaps had a drink or two and are settled in an armchair.   This relaxed but focused state of mind is highly receptive to evocative images.   They influence the way we feel and think,  directing our attitudes, conditioning our beliefs,  creating aspirations,  destroying reputations,  determining fashion and setting trends.   It is not the rhetoric of our politicians that convinces us to vote in a particular way,  but the way the television commentators  interpret what they say.   It is not the quality of a new product that makes us buy it,  it is advertiser’s skill in persuading us that we need it.  And it is not always our physical symptoms that make us go to the doctor, but the fears of what the documentaries on health tell us it might be. Every day, we hear of some new threat to our health, creating another worry that we cannot resolve.     

 

We resolve our tensions by thinking, reflecting and talking to other people.  Television induces passive involvement rather than resolution, it erodes time and space for reflection and it has facilitated a loss of community. Beamed into our homes 24 hours a day, television occupies the time we might communicate productively with others.  People go out much less than they used to.

 

So if television does not actually cause illness, it makes it more likely by  encouraging the behaviour that creates complex moral dilemmas while reducing opportunities for resolution. 

 

Finally and perhaps most important, television is watched more by children than their parents.  In Britain children watch at least 3 hours television every day and many teenagers spend more time alone in front of their television and play station than with family and friends. This is not so much a training for life as an escape into fantasy.  Deprived of normal social interaction, such children may grow up unable to deal with the complex emotional dilemmas of modern life without becoming ill.

 

 

He certainly appears good – young, slim, sculpted, incisive, statesmanlike, eloquent and, an advantage these days, of mixed race.  Barack Obama is the man for our time – or at least that is what his sponsors would have us think.  America is ready for a black president, a man with the credentials not only to represent his country, but to lead the world. This will be a new dawn.  The clichés roll.  By comparison,  John McCain, his senior by 25 years, looks old and slow, yesterday’s man, a hero in a long past war that his country would rather forget.   

 

It is already being proclaimed as the most expensive election in history.  For this is not about electing a competent administrator, a clever economic investor or even a skillful personel manager;   it’s about the installation of a God. 

 

The positions, Barack Obama is in contention for, are the paramount leader of the richest country in the world, a diverse and complex nation of 225 million people, the  commander in chief of the world’s most powerful and well equipped army,  and the de facto guiding force for the western world.  If elected, he would be the most powerful influence on the stability of a planet in crisis.  He has to be a God.    

 

He has to be a God because, to be President of the United States of America, he must appear to embody superhuman strength, the wisdom of Solomon, steely authority, unflinching resolve and unquestioning dedication.  He must show himself willing and strong enough to accept absolute responsibility.  Yet he must also possess a humility that goes with understanding, a charisma that inspires loyalty, and a basic humanity that guarantees trust.  He has to be all things to all men.  Only a God can do that, because Gods, as our own creations, are the virtual embodiment of all of our projections.  Obama is not a God, but he has to create the illusion that he is. 

 

We don’t really know Barack the man – only what his public relations team choose to tell us,  but he starts with the advantage of not having a political history.  Unlike Clinton, he doesn’t have shadows to air brush out.  Unlike Bush, he doesn’t have relatives.  Unlike McCain, he is not tarnished by an unpopular war and the failure of a  previous republican nomination.  His is a blank canvas – an opportunity to create a public relations masterpiece, a dazzling image that will propel him to apotheosis.   

 

So everything is strategy,  a PR opportunity;  a visit to a factory in Detroit,  a school in Texas, a film set in Los Angeles,  a tour of European cities,  a speech in Berlin reminiscent of JFK,  a meeting with Sarkozy, a photograph with Gordon Brown – a useful contrast!  He doesn’t have to say that much.  In fact the less he says the better – every utterance will be picked over by the media vultures.  He just has to look the part. And so far, he has done it very well. 

 

It should be a foregone conclusion.  Obama looks like a God – McCain looks like grandpa.  But public opinion is so fickle.  Would-be Gods can be destroyed by one unfortunate error.  Maybe the timing of his European visit was presumptuous,  but the biggest area of risk concerns his attitude to The Middle East.  Hilary Clinton wanted to bomb Iran,  Obama wants to talk.  Obama got the nomination, but did he really capture the mood of his country?  The difficulty is that whatever Gods-elect say will be used by their detractors to undermine the image.  The cartoon in The New Yorker brilliantly captured brilliantly the fears of the waverers.  It showed Obama in the Oval Office, dressed in an Arab robe and turban, exchanging a fist bump with Michelle, who is dressed in the battle fatigues of The Black Power movement.  The stars and stripes are burning in the grate. 

 

Obama sounds awfully like Osama – just change one letter.  It anything stalls his campaign, that will.  It is so unfair.  Obama has been so measured in his comments about The Middle East. The man has shown the qualities of a statesman.  But this isn’t about the real man.  The election of Gods is all about image. 

 

We confer so much power on our leaders, they cannot appear anything other than Gods if they are to retain support.  They may well be elected on a wave of adoration, but it is so difficult to maintain that level once the reality of everyday politics sets in.  How can you appear like a God, when you trying to broker a deal between the unions and the public sector, or when you are having to make concessions with China on carbon emissions, or when you feel forced for diplomatic reasons to ignore violations of human rights in Chile? 

 

It is easier if there is a crisis.  JFK exhibited God-like invincibility s in his dangerous but successful brinkmanship over the delivery of nuclear missiles to Cuba.    Margaret Thatcher had her great symbolic victory in The Falkland Islands.  ‘Rejoice, rejoice!’, the warrior goddess cried at the moment of victory.  And then she faced down the miners, whose leader, King Arthur was overburdened with the clay of hubris.  Her success was in choosing who to pick a fight with.  Gods and Goddesses must appear invincible if they are to last.  Their God-like reputation is but a veneer.  Scratch it and the image is lost forever. 

 

Remember the broken statue of Saddam after the last Iraq war.   It was shock to see that it was …. H O L L O W !    I first heard of Saddam when I was invited to my then research fellow to attend a reception organised by the Iraqi students.  It was an elaborate PR exercise.  A film depicted smiling images of a be-whiskered, beneficent leader holding babies, talking to farmers, visiting a power station, greeting other Arab leaders. Yet just months before, he had committed genocide against the Kurds in the far north of his country – though of course we didn’t know that then. 

 

I fear that in the excitement to get him elected,  Obama is being built up too high.  How can he possibly hold all the hopes, aspirations and projections that people are heaping on him?  With America about to lose its status as the sole world superpower,  Obama is seen as its saviour.  But if he is elected, sooner or hopefully later, people will see Barack Obama for what he is, a clever young lawyer of mixed race and underprivileged background, who has worked hard, showed a degree of political cunning and knows how to present himself.  And they will feel deceived and hate him for his humanity.  Even one as gifted as Barack Obama will not be able to solve the credit crunch or prevent terrorism and with every apparent failure, some of the gold leaf will flake off his image.  He will begin to look – well ordinary.   

 

The election of a political leader is like falling in love. It is a state of idealisation. We imbue our leaders with all our hopes and aspirations. We make of them everything we have ever desired.  They are the one. But after we have committed to them, we gradually come to realise that they are not perfect; they are perhaps a touch too arrogant.  We begin to notice a few disagreeable habits.  They might not even be as scrupulous and honest as we thought they were.  And they seem to care more for remaining in power than they do for our concerns. 

 

We demand absolute standards from our Gods.  If they are too human and they let us down, we hate them. And so, column inch by column inch, they have, as Gods, to be destroyed.  

 

So Obama must fail.  They all do.  It is inevitable.  One can only hope that his fall of grace, when it happens, is a long decline into boredom and inconsequence – with the machinery of state being competently managed by the administrators.  It is unlikely that American democracy would permit their leaders to act out the myth of their own omnipotence and become tyrants, but there is a danger is that the edifice that is Obama may be so high and excite so much fear among his more reactionary opponents, that when it falls to earth, the damage will extend far and wide.   

 

Despite that,  I do hope he gets elected.  The inauguration of America’s first non pure white president will send a powerful message of racial integration thoughout the world, affirming the United States as a dominant moral force for peace and stability throughout the world.  My wish is that he won’t be forced to compromise his basic humanity and will prove a great leader.   

I should be different, I know.  I had everything going for me, an Anglican schooling,  targeted by the God Squad at University, marriage to a Roman Catholic, a meeting with Mother Theresa in Calcutta;  I was even blessed by the Pope.  

 

It was during the World Congress of Gastroenterology in Rome.  I was walking around the colonnades of  St Peter’s Square, when, to my astonishment, I saw Pope John Paul II standing on a platform in the centre of the arena,  going through the morning’s blessings.   Crackling through the PA system, I heard the heavily accented voice.  ‘Blessed be the Nicaraguans’.   Cheers from the left.   ‘Blessed be the Sisters of Mercy of Rubaga’.  Squeals and screams from the right.   And then – I could hardly believe my ears.  ‘Blessed be the gastroenterologists.’  The lone representative,  I gave a loud cheer.  I wish I’d bought my colonoscope to twirl! 

 

 

And now I live in a cottage at the foot of the spire of the parish church.  I can’t get much closer to God!       

  

So I should be extolling the virtues of Christianity.  I know this is going to sound offensive to a lot of people, but Jesus just doesn’t do it for me.  I mean, the guy’s a loser; all that stuff about turning the other cheek, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and then allowing himself to be killed without lifting a finger.  And this is the man who fed five thousand people on five loaves and two fishes.  So why didn’t he open a restaurant?   Oh, I know he had his moments, like when he tipped over the tables of the money lenders in the temple precincts.  That showed real spirit, but it wasn’t the best way to endear himself with the Scribes and Pharisees, especially when he told them it was his dad’s house anyway.  They were only trying to raise money for the church roof.  But moneylenders!  That’s a bit like Rowan Williams opening up a branch of Barclay’s in St Paul’s Cathedral!  Come to think of it, Dr Williams looks a bit like a Pharisee.     

 

And Buddha?   Well I love the idea of being one with nature, the meditation, the quest for nirvana, but the image isn’t right for today.  To be that fat, he must have had a very unhealthy diet.  And he looks so smug about it all.

 

Maybe the Hindus have got it right – a gallery of superheroes – Kali,  Ganesh, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Lakshmi, – not always nice, but all colourful characters. 

 

The thing is I cannot believe in the reality of God. In that respect I am like Richard Dawkins; a dyed-in-the-wool atheist.  I am not saying that Jesus, Allah and Buddha never existed, but if they did, they weren’t born Gods.  People made Gods out of them by projecting all their aspirations into them.  Over centuries, these iconic figures have been so overlain with layers of projection that it is impossible to disentangle what is myth and what is reality.  At least the Hindu Gods are unequivocal.  We know they are make believe.  I ask you – who would have four legs or a head like an elephant?   

 

No, Gods are inventions; I’m sure of it.  They are  created in the minds of men to make sense of our society and to provide, through narrative, a focus for our aspirations, a moral compass for our actions,  a resolution of our problems,  a reason for our lives.   

 

Governments are ephemeral, their leaders are far too cunning to be trusted.  Gods, on the other hand, embody timeless ideas of honour, trust, charity, hope and forgiveness.  We can have faith in them because we invented them.  So although I cannot believe in the reality of God,  I do strongly support the mythology of Gods.  In that regard, I am a theist.  If we abandon our mythologies, then we are left with a meaningless existence.  

 

So while Richard Dawkins is correct in asserting that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God, he misses the point.  It is like saying that anything we cannot measure cannot exist.  So, by the same token, love does not exist, hope does not exist, beauty does not exist, happiness does not exist.  Dawkins does not grapple with the wider issue and that is the importance of faith – why the Gods that we create are necessary for us.    

 

The problem with our traditional religions, particularly Christianity, is that their narrative seems irrelevant to modern societies.  So few people go to church these days  that Christianity has once again become a minority cult.  This has created a spiritual vacuum. 

 

But that doesn’t mean that we have no Gods.  If the notion of God is defined as a mythological being that embodies our hopes and aspirations, then we have too many Gods.  It’s in human nature to create Gods out of those we admire. Celebrities achieve iconic status.  Princess Diana was worshipped because she, like Jesus, combined the frailty of humanity with courage – we identified with her struggles –  and she, like Jesus, died the death of a martyr, pursued by the photographers she courted and all but ignored by the establishment. 

 

Television has created a pantheon of celebrities.  And because they appear on television, we imbue them with magical qualities, they occupy a special dimension,  a kind of heaven that we all aspire to.    

 

‘They back lit the stage and released a fog of carbon dioxide gas and out of this emerged this dark figure with long hair and that voice. He was just a God to me.’     

 

Our sports heroes achieve God-like status.  We identify with their deeds and feel enlarged by them.  So when Kevin Petersen scores a century against South Africa in his first match as captain, we ignore the fact he was born South African and feel proud of him.  We wanted so much for Tim Henman to be a God …. but alas, he never was.  He was lucky, for the end, we destroy the Gods that we create. 

 

And of course our presidents and leaders must be Gods. We give them so much power, they cannot just be good administrators.  But how let down and angry we feel when they show they are human after all.  Barack Obama is being groomed for apotheosis.  I fear for him when he fails, as he inevitably will.  But let me save that for a future blog.   .     

 

And we all make Gods of those we fall in love with. We entrust them with our fears and insecurities, imbue them with our hopes. This, above all, demonstrates the power of projection.  Love is blind, they say.  It has to be.  We couldn’t bear it any other way.   

 

‘Oh be, oh be a sun to me.  Not some tired, insistent personality.’ 

 

But there is a downside.  The more a person is idealised, the greater the disappointment when the reality sets in.  How dreadful if is when the scales slip from our eyes and we find they are just ordinary after all.       

   

‘You are the not the man I thought you were.  You are just you.’ 

 

So those we make Gods provide meaning to our lives.  But there is another important role for our Gods.  That is to provide a code of ethical and moral principles (commandments) to support the existence of societies.  So we need a collective projection, one or more Gods that embody our social requirements. This need not be the same world wide.  Different cultures will have different ‘Gods’.  The idea that we should have to convert other cultures to our beliefs is nothing but cultural genocide.  Missionaries have done a lot of mischief.      

 

So what do we require of our Gods?  Well, they must be charismatic.  We have to be able to identify with them – to emulate the principles they embody.  They must represent a code of ethical and moral principles, that is relevant to our current day society.  And finally, belief in them must be shared by the whole society. 

 

Have we got any candidates?  

 

 

I have one.  I propose the character created by the actor, Patrick Stewart; Captain Jean Luc Picard, Captain of the Starship Enterprise.  Make it so…..      

It was with relief I arrived at the guest house.  The last few miles had been exhausting.  It had started raining as I left the Manack cliff top theatre.  By the time I reached the depressing pleasure palace at Lands End, the rain was horizontal and relentless.  I put my head down and carried on.  Gortex can keep showers off, but in  persistent rain, it is porous.  My anorak and leggings clung cold and damp to my wet shirt and shorts.  As I neared my destination, I took a short cut through the fields, but the long grass soaked my socks and the water wicked into my boots.  Water has a way of finding its way everywhere.

 

I rang the bell.  I was shaking with cold and eager to be inside. After an anxious time, the door was opened by a large man wearing an unfortunate green pullover over a tired shirt and baggy dark flannel trousers.  His curly hair needed cutting and he hadn’t shaved.  His manner was  obsequious but slightly distracted.  He looked me up and down, and before I could speak, he said, ‘Please wait  a minute.  I just have to deal with my guests.’  A party of Dutch people was going out and he was giving over-elaborate instructions for getting a meal. When they’d gone, he turned to me.  I told him I had booked.  ‘Ah yes,  I’m Alan.’  He held out a rather floppy, damp hand.  It was like holding a warm fish. 

 

‘As I stood there gently steaming and dripping, wondering if he was going to let me in, he suddenly said with enthusiasm.  Just give me all your wet stuff and I’ll put it in the drying room.  I demurred – I was just going to do as I usually did – wash my socks in the sink in the room and dry them on the radiator or towel rack.  But Alan was having none of it.  ‘Just bring anything that’s got wet.  It’ll be dry by morning.’  I thought of the pleasure of putting on warm dry socks and boots in the morning and after a few minutes presented him with a pile of socks, a shirt and my sodden boots.   

 

Breakfast was delayed.  It had clearly been a mistake to order kipper.  I asked for the stuff he had put in the drying room.  He gave me back my soggy pile of socks wrapped up inside my equally damp shirt.  My boots were still wet!  

 

What a plonker, I thought.  If he hadn’t made such a fuss about his drying room, I wouldn’t have given him my stuff.  I could have put the socks on the towel rail and they would have dried.  The shirt would have dried on me.

  

 

So what is it about ‘helpful’ people?   Why, when they offer to help, do I feel this pricking at the back of my neck,  like my hairs are standing on end? 

 

I think it’s the intrusion; the idea that somebody assumes they can enter my life and offer an unsolicited service.  Surely, if I want help, I can ask for it. 

 

Am I making too much fuss?  Perhaps I am, but let me explain.  An unsolicited offer of help from a stranger puts me in a bind.  If I accept, the chances are they will want something from me.  If I refuse, then I feel that I am being ungracious; I have hurt their feelings.  Either way I am under an obligation.  I feel manipulated. 

 

But don’t misunderstand me.  I am not suggesting we should always be suspicious of those who offer to help us.  Civilisation would disintegrate if we didn’t help each other.  If I collapsed in the street,  I would hope somebody would stop and help, just as I hope that I would always offer support to somebody who was clearly in distress.  No, what I am complaining about is those interfering souls who offer unsolicited help to those who clearly don’t need it.  That is an intrusion. 

 

 

Let me give you another example. I went into the bank the other day and was greeted loudly and with great enthusiasm by a rather overweight young man, clearly a bank employee.  

 

‘Good morning, sir. How can I be of help to you?’ 

 

Nobody calls me sir these days unless they want something.  To my knowledge, the only person who insists on being addressed as ‘sir’ these days is The Prince of Wales.  

 

I felt a strong urge to reply,  ‘You can’t!   Piss off.’   But I didn’t.  I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. 

 

‘I need to pay some money in.’  I muttered. 

 

‘No problem, sir!  Debbie is waiting for you. 

 

Shit! It felt like he had booked me in for a ‘special massage’.  I only wanted to put some money in.   I was annoyed.  The fact was  that I didn’t want to announce my intentions to the rest of the bank.  Financial transactions are like sex.  I like to do it in private.

 

Of course, this is what is so annoying about ‘cold’ callers.  They behave as if they are doing you a big favour, but really they just want sell you that insurance policy, the double glazing, the special service contract.  The most pernicious are the ones that inform you have been selected out of millions for a special prize.  You know there’s a catch.  And they always introduce themselves with their Christian name, as if you were a long lost friend. 

 

‘Hello, how are you today. My name is Tracey.  I’m calling from British Gas …..’.  

 

My brother has one of the best techniques to deal with this nuisance.  He doesn’t get annoyed.  Instead, he interrupts her ever so gently.  ‘Hello Tracey. I’m Simon. And how are you feeling?  And what are you wearing?  Hmmm.  And what are you wearing under that?’  There is a sharp intake of breath at this point and Tracey hangs up.   

 

So why should complete strangers want to be your friend?   Someone who assumes that they can help you when you don’t need it is not your friend.  They are thinking about their agenda. Friends respect each others boundaries.  They do not intrude or manipulate.  If your friends truly love you, they will want to you to grow in confidence by managing situations yourself and that includes asking for help when you need it.  They will not compromise you by making you dependant. 

 

People who affect friendship for their own gain are confidence tricksters.  In the film, Notes on a Scandal, Judi Dench plays the role of a lonely middle aged teacher who targets vulnerable young women for Lesbian relationships by gaining their confidence, compromising them and inducing a sense of obligation.  She is not confident that she can be loved for herself.  So she resorts to manipulation. When she discovers that a young teacher, played by Kate Blachett is having a sexual relationship with a pupil, she offers to help her, but the total loyalty she demands in return is, in the end, too high a price to pay and her young friend goes to prison anyway.   

 

Unless they are working for a large corporation, like American Express or The Royal Bank of Scotland, ‘helpful’ strangers are not mercenary; they are just lonely. They need to be liked, to be loved even.  They need to be needed.  We sense this.  It makes us feel responsible, even in some small way, for their happiness.  I guess I felt that about Alan.  I felt he might be deeply offended if I eschewed the offer of his drying room. But there was something else.  I should have taken more notice of the abundance of prohibitions posted in the hallway.  They indicated a need for control.  I would guess that Alan resented acting the servant to paying guests.  He had to demonstrate his power.  He was not concerned for my comfort.  He just didn’t want my wet socks drying in the bedroom.

 

 

But perhaps I shouldn’t be too precious about people who induce a dependency in others.  Lovers try to do it all the time.  It’s part of courtship, the process of transforming the insecurity of desire into the stability of enduring love. Marriage and long term partnership might be regarded as states of mature interdependency.  

 

Some mothers do it. They can’t bear for their children to grow up, leave home, become independent, – they fear the loss of role, of purpose.  So they make themselves indispensable.  They continue to do the washing, provide food, some even became their son’s or daughters confidante.  But in trying to be too helpful they fail in their role as parents.  They do not allow their children to grow up and separate.  I always cringe when I hear a young woman say ‘my mother is my best friend.  Surely, the best thing parents can give their children is the ability to take them for granted.    

 

And what about women who love too much, the wives who do all the cooking, all the housework without even negotiating it?  Do they feel so unloveable, that they have to induce dependancy by infantalising their partner?  Do they have to ssert control by regulating supplies of support, food and sex.  Help, like love, can be conditional.

 

But this is not necessarily a good strategy.  Most men don’t want their life partner to be a servant.  It makes them feel like a despot, a tyrant.  No man wants to be too dependant.  Helpful women never quite understand it when their partners suddenly leave them for somebody who is not so nice to them.  ‘But I did everything for him!’   Maybe a more confident woman allows a man to be more of a man.       

 

I don’t wish to be too gender specific.  I am really talking about roles, rather than genders.  We all know men, who gain power by inducing  dependency.  We have a prime minister who is an expert at it.  Others do it more quietly.  IT technicians can be so irritating.  They seem to enjoy being obscure.  They have a knowledge that you don’t and they are not going to let you find out.   

 

‘You see, it’s easy, they say as their fingers flick over the keys and screen after screen flashes up.’  Of course, if you are paying for their help, then it is in their interest to be obscure.  That way you will call them again.  And if you are not paying for it you have to be nice to them. 

 

And, don’t some doctors just love being in control?  And surely, there is no greater control than the control of life and death.  Indeed, the more officious medics, who practice preventive medicine according to the latest government guidelines, can seem to create, in their patients, a crisis of anxiety that only they can solve. It’s like selling an insurance policy that people don’t know they want – helping people who don’t need help.  It behoves every carer to examine their motives. 

  

 

So be a little wary of ‘helpful’ people.  Be mindful of that pricking sensation at the back of your neck.  Why should somebody you don’t know from a bar of soap, want to be so friendly, offer help when you don’t need it?   Ask yourself what they want?   Of course if we still lived in villages or tribes of some 20 to 40 souls, we would all know whom  we could trust.  It is another sad by product of our loss of community, that we can’t be so sure of this any more.    

 

 
 
 

 

Amanda was a pretty girl but always rather shy.  She was 17 before she lost her virginity.  Her friends made fun of her; they had much more ‘experience’.  But Amanda said she wanted to wait until it felt right.  She knew that Richard was troubled and had a bit of reputation, but he was so clearly adored her.  She knew he would never let her down.  He did.  She was pregnant before she found out he had been seeing Rachel.  When she told him, he was scared and told to get rid of the baby.  She couldn’t.  She was a catholic and didn’t believe in abortion.  Besides, it was Rick’s baby.  If she couldn’t have him, at least she could have his baby.   

 

Her mother was horrified and angry.  She had married her father because she was pregnant.  They weren’t suited and the marriage soon failed.

 

Amanda didn’t take up her place at dental  school.  She left home, had the baby, found herself a flat in a tower block and earned some money working at the local florists. 

 

Her friends supported her for a while, but she was no fun to be with and they drifted away.  Jason, her baby, was fractious.  Amanda didn’t get a lot of sleep and was exhausted. Besides, she felt so ill.  She had pains in her back and abdomen, constipation and was so bloated at times, she looked like she was pregnant again.  She wasn’t.  She couldn’t bear to have a man anywhere near her. 

 

Her doctor ordered blood tests and scans of her abdomen, but they revealed nothing.   That was not surprising.  Mandy didn’t have a medical disease.  What she was suffering from was the shame of her pregnancy, the depletion of hope for the future, her concerns over being a bad mother for Jason and her guilt for letting her mother down.  She felt unloved and unlovable.  

 

 

Illnesses that have no clear medical explanation have become much more common in recent years.  About 50% of visits to the doctor are for illnesses that have no clear pathology, no obvious cause, but seem to be associated with the events that have occurred in their patients lives.  If you find that difficult to believe, look at how often bereavement, divorce, redundancy and relocation is followed by illness and how prisoners of war and uninjured victims of disasters can tend to suffer illnesses often years after the event.  It is only in recent years that we have tended to regard illnesses as the effect of damage to specific organs.  In the past, hysteria, hypochondria, the spleen, neurasthenia and melancholia were terms for bodily ailments related to life situations.  The social context of illnesses is well understood in other cultures.  For example, in he Punjab,  dir ghirda hai, the sinking heart, is associated with loss of honour experienced by men whose wives or daughters have brought shame on the family.  In Pakistan, jiryan, is the name given to the variety of bodily symptoms associated with the ‘shame’ of masturbation.  There are frequent examples in literature of how ‘the evil eye’, pointing the bone and witches’ curses may cause illness and even death by publicising the recipients guilt.    

 

The notion that bodily ailments represent what happens to us should not surprise us too much.  We are not divided at the neck. All the functions of all parts of the body are represented in the brain and are given meaning by the orbito-frontal cortex.  One  function of this part of the brain, which is situated in the mezzazine of the skull, behind the forehead and above the eyes, can be compared with that of a composer.  It uses the thoughts and memories that events and situations evoke to create a unique composition that is performed by the whole bodily orchestra with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems providing the major or minor key. 

 

So sad events can give us a lump in our throats or make us weep.  Things that annoy us can cause a tension in our muscles, a burning, throbbing sensation in our chest.  Events that make us anxious may give us a headache.  Usually, we know what has happened.  We can put our ‘feelings’ into context, create an emotion out of them and resolve the anger, sadness and anxiety by doing something.  But if what has happened has made us feel so bad that we can’t deal with it or even worse we can’t even gain access to the cause of our feelings, then the symptoms remain as an illness and have to be taken to the doctor.

 

The meaning of the individual torment so often seems to be played out in the spectrum of symptoms.  Amanda’s abdominal complaints remind her of the shame of her pregnancy that she can never get rid of.  Her back ache represents the burden, the tiredness the futility of her life.  There is no relief.  Certainly tablets, diet and even surgery won’t help.  Her internal persecutor has a whole body repertoire of tortures that could be deployed.      

 

Guilt and shame figure so prominently in unexplained illness.  Not only do they tend to remain secret, their meaning locked up in the body, they are corrosive.  They eat into a person’s self worth, eroding their self esteem, undermining their self confidence, abolishing hope and inducing a profound depletion of the spirit. ‘I have let myself down.  I have not behaved well.  I am not good enough. No wonder I feel ill. It’s my punishment.  I deserve to die.’   The criticisms go on and on,  demeaning, undermining,  driving their recipients into exile.  So if  the victims of this pernicious form of emotional abuse are not ostracised by society, they exile themselves.  They feel too ashamed, too depressed to talk to anybody, they become too nervous to approach people for fear of rejection.  It is the burden of the guilt coupled with an awful sense of abandonment  and melancholy that makes people ill.  If we thought of illness from a social perspective rather than a medical one, loneliness might be said to be the most common illness.       

 

We are social animals.  We need the love and support of other people; they give meaning to our lives. We need to talk, to touch, to hold, to laugh with people.  We need people to praise us when we do well and to hold us back when we might behave unwisely.  Without the companionship of other people, we, like other social species, become listless, apathetic and ill.  We may be able endure solitude better if we feel good about ourselves, but if our spirit is already undermined and our body exiled by shame and guilt, then this aggravated loneliness can be a most persistent and destructive pathogen.       

 

   

Illness always occurs at times of change,  when we are forced to review, often quite radically, the way we think and behave in order to adapt to new situations.  The rate of change has increased alarmingly over the last 50 years – faster than at any other stage of our history.   I am not just talking about changes in our social fabric, our mobility or even electronic communication – although these aspects have an important influence.  I want to emphasise more crucial factors; a decline in community, isolation, materialism and selfishness.  We have become a narcissistic society.  The watchword of the age seems to be ‘You’re worth it’.

 

Yes, of course, there were narcissists in the past, but perhaps they felt they had the birthright. Now, increased affluence and education means we can all feel entitled to behave as we wish and it’s every man and every woman for themselves.  There is less empathy, less altruism.  If we want something we can just go out and get it.  If we want to do something, we don’t need to ask. There are no brakes any more, no impulse control.  People don’t often think of the consequences of their actions before they act, and as the inevitable camp followers of the thrill of desire, lope guilt and shame.    

 

‘Why shouldn’t I have fun?’  ‘I’ve only got one life.’  ‘I need this so badly.’  ‘I deserve it.’  ‘I can get away with it.  She’ll never find out.’  These are all justifications for ill considered actions that can lead to a lifetime of pain and regret.  There are casualties to selfishness.  Other people get hurt – badly – and they may have to protect themselves by rejecting the person that hurt them.    

 

 

The tectonic shift towards materialism and selfishness has seriously disturbed the moral compass of society, altering attitudes to all important aspects of our social relationships.  The way young people think about sexuality, marriage, bringing up children, work, family, religion, drugs – even The Royal Family is so different to the way we used to think in the ‘swinging’ sixties.  Such changes in attitude separate parents from their children, children from their teachers, and all of us from the ways in which we grew up.  They generate moral conflicts.  Adrift in a rapidly changing  morality, the ways people try to resolve their dilemmas lacks cultural wisdom and may cause situations that entrap, isolate, shame and debilitate.    

 

Perhaps the greatest impact of narcissistic transformation is felt by children.  Despite notable exceptions,  the erosion of the family – single parents, absent fathers, working mothers, paid minders, must threaten their stability.  Children who feel rejected, punished or abandoned by their parents early in life, those bullied by siblings and friends can grow up thinking there is something wrong with them.  They develop the habit of shame early in life – a bit like original sin.  

 

Single parent families, working mothers, absent fathers, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, binge drinking, violent crime, anonymous sex, marital breakdown, early retirement, parents that live longer and need to be cared for, family relocation are all features of our current society.  The prevalence of all of them has increased quite alarmingly throughout the last fifty years. They all bring their own varieties of guilt and shame.  They all contribute to the growing rate of illness. . 

 

But it’s not so much individuals that are sick, it is society.  And this type of sickness will not get better overnight through more regulations, tighter controls and harsher sentences.  Better policing just serves to enhance the guilt and shame that people feel.    By the same token, we can’t expect doctors to treat the problem successfully with large scale prescription of antidepressants.       

 

 

Amanda is not bad, although she feels dreadful.   She is a casualty of the age.  She might be criticised for being impulsive, careless, too trusting, maybe even a little stubborn – but she was young,  inexperienced in life, she received little guidance from her mother, none from her father and – she was unlucky.  Her friends were too influenced by their own romantic entanglements to be helpful and the soap operas she was addicted to just offer the most dysfunctional solutions.

 

In the past, Amanda’s behaviour might have been contained by the community.  There would have been other people to talk to, people that she and her mother knew, friends, other family members, the lady who works in the post office, the doctors wife,  the vicar, Rick’s mother.  They would have given support, held her back, provided shelter if she needed it.  The notion of community has loosened.  The doctor is gay, the vicar only comes once a month, Rick’s mother is in rehab and they have closed the post office.  About 35% of people living in the UK are living alone, often  in inner city apartments with just television and e-mail for company.  The official channels, the family planning clinic,  relationship counselling,  social services, are too much in demand.  Appointments are delayed and infrequent.   

 

I would be hopeful for Amanda.  She is still young, she is intelligent and she does her best for Jason.  She has not succumbed to the slide into poverty, drugs and prostitution.  There is help out there.  Maybe she should move out of the tower block, marshal her resources, become friends with other bright young single mums, share child care, get some time for herself, find a job and a training more suited to her abilities, join a dating agency, become reconciled to her mother.  She doesn’t need psychotherapy; she needs support and a strategy.  And she, like so many others, need to see her symptoms for what they are – the anguish and inertia brought about by bad luck and overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame.  First, identify your target! 

 

 

And what about the sickness in society?   Maybe we can learn from history.  Two hundred years ago, during the industrial revolution, there was a similar epidemic of unexplained illness.  Alternative and complementary therapists, derided then as Quacks and Mountebanks, were very busy.  Gradually, social structures were put in place, churches were built, clubs, trades unions.  A new sense of community was restored.  And now, swamped by the Third Wave of social change – the electronic revolution,  we need to restore that sense of community we began to lose in the nineteen fifties, but in a different way.  But people have to feel the need to do it.   Perhaps economic decline the impact of climate change will force us to pull together.  Perhaps it will go the other way.  During the 1888 cholera epidemic in Naples, the Swedish physician, Dr Axel Munthe observed that people were engaged in an orgy of sex, as if in the presence of death, there was a desperate urge for life. 

 

On Channel 4 last night, the author, evolutionist and self styled atheist, Richard Dawkins, presented a support or was it a defence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Deploring the lack of tuition about evolution in schools and the growing debate on intelligent design, he used as his ‘hook’ the scepticism of a group of A level students from a London school.  He (and a film crew) spent time with the students.  He lectured, hectored, challenged.  The students stared at him, looking slightly bored.  He would have had more response if he had talked to a group of chimpanzees.       

 

Describing the background to Darwin’s discovery,  Dawkins explained how as a young man, Darwin had his career mapped out for him.  Confident in the Grand Design and Bishop Ussher’s calculation that God had created the world in 4004BC and all the variety and intricacy of different species were just wondrous manifestations of his omnipotence, Darwin was going to lead a quiet, studious life as a country parson.  But he had the opportunity to travel around the world as a naturalist on the survey ship, HMS Beagle, and this voyage was to change him and us forever. 

 

Everywhere Darwin went he collected specimens of birds, animals and fossils.  He noted that although species from different parts of the world had a similar design, there were modifications – differences.  This was particularly clear where they were close but  separated by islands.  He studied the finches on the Galapagos and found the shape of the bill was different on different islands, modified for extracting seeds from the different plants that grew there. 

 

Charles Darwin, like many intelligent young men and women at the time, was interested in geology.  He noted the skeletons and imprints of animals of a familiar design, trapped in rocks millions of years old, proving forever that life on earth must have developed slowly over aeons.   

 

When he came back, he gave up the idea of becoming a parson and devoted himself to his grand idea.  He wrote to people.  They sent him drawings, skeletons of different species.  He realised that the design of limbs was similar across many species – the bones were in the same place, but modified for different functions, swimming, flying, burrowing – and for different habitats.  He studied embryology and found that the design of embryos looked the same across species but as they developed, differences were revealed.  Embryology recapitulates ontogeny!  He studied fossils and noted the similarity to contemporary species, but in strange places.  He intuited the sense that the world was a very different place millions of years ago.  What is now the south downs was once the bed of a shallow sea with species similar to those that now live in the tropics, adapted to live in that environment.  He became fascinated with breeding pigeons.  He learnt how to select out different characteristics, bill size, plumage shape  by interbreeding.   

 

Pigeon breeding was an exercise in artificial selection, but Darwin realised that the same thing could occur more slowly by what he called ‘natural selection’.  The  separation of a species by geological forces, climate change and the creation of habitats that were slightly different, led to adaptations in design, optimal to the habitat, and in time,  different species.  This was the origin of species.  The changes in habitat favoured those with advantageous features, longer necks to reach taller trees, stronger bills to crack open harder seeds.  Only those with those features would survive and would be fit enough to interbreed and so in time, new strains and then new species would be selected out.  

 

‘Nature is red in tooth and claw’,  Dawkins observed.  ‘It’s a battlefield out there.’  Only the fittest survive.  Only those most adapted to hostile environments, more resistant to disease, more swift of food, strong in physique,  would survive – the  survival of the fittest. 

 

Dawkins is a Darwinist, an evolutionist.  His first edition of ‘The Origin of Species’ is his most prized possession. He described how Darwin’s theory is reinforced by recent discoveries in the structure and function of DNA and the mapping of genomes.  The DNA of simple species like bacteria is essentially similar to our own.  The DNA of the chimpanzee is 99% the same as ours.  The closer the match, the more recent the same ancestor.  So we are descended from monkeys.  We are the naked ape. 

 

It was Dawkins who coined the term, the selfish gene, indicating that the purpose of life is to ensure survival of not the individual but the genetic code.  Species are but a carrier for the code.  It’s like the golden chalice.  It is kept sacred, despite all the dangers and the disasters of life.  In fact we might say that all the variety of life is but a carrier for the genetic code.  There is no design in it, just chance.  Evolution chanced upon a self replicating code for life, and as the competition for food and survival and mates ensued, the design of the carrier changed, the code continued on.  There’s something almost religious in this, Dr Dawkins, ‘In the beginning was the word.  And the word was ACGT’   

 

Darwin knew nothing about DNA.  He knew nothing about genes.  The term hadn’t been invented.  He observed life and came up with a theory that all species were interrelated and came from a common ancestor.  It was the geneticists who developed the notion that slight changes in the genetic code were occurring all the time – random mutations – and if these were advantageous, they would be selected out and slowly letter by letter, protein by protein, changes would occur and if populations were geographically separated,  new species would develop. 

 

But evolution doesn’t just occur by random mutation.  Sexual selection accelerates it because it mixes the gene pools from two individuals.  Moreover, those two individuals may select out those that were most fit for breeding and rearing of children – stronger, more intelligent, more attractive – and their children would embody those advantages. 

 

Symbiosis can jerk it along quite dramatically.  Consider trees and fungi.  A tree takes root in relatively poor soil on the edge of the arctic tundra, for example. It grows but slowly and is quite stunted.  Fungi live sparsely in the same soil but are starved on energy.  The two associate by chance.  The fungal hyphae join with the root fibres.  The fungi make the minerals and protein in the soil available to the tree while the tree provides the fungi with glucose for energy.  The two separate species select out modifications that suit their association and both change, becoming in time different species.  We have developed a symbiosis with the bacteria that inhabit our colons. They break down undigested carbohydrate and protein and make it available for absorption, they manufacture vitamins, boost the gut immune system and discourage pathogens in our guts, while accepting shelter and energy from our waste. 

 

There is even evidence for the inheritance of acquired characteristics.  Recent work has shown that environmental influences, nutrition, stress, chemicals can modify the genetic code, activating histones, methylating DNA, silencing genes, so that the next generation and perhaps even future generations is changed.  Think of how feeding royal jelly creates a queen bee.  The queen contains exactly the same genetic code as the workers but it is modified in response to the environment and resultant ‘strain’ is very different.  Exposing the water flea, daphnia to predators causes large defensive spines to develop on their backs and this modification is passed on to their offspring even when there are no predators around.  Some scientists even believe that the present epidemic of obesity is caused by dietary induced modification of ‘the thrifty gene’. 

 

This notion – the study of epigenetics is likely to have a great impact on the neverending argument between those who think the way we are is a product of our nature or inheritance – the geneticists or evolutionists, and those that think it is the effect of our nature.  The answer is that it is both.  The environment will select out different features not just through usage, like the development of nerve connections through use – paths through the forest, but also by modifying genes though histones.       

 

It’s an exciting time to be a scientist.  Which brings me onto God.  Dawkins is scathing about God.  He champions atheism and from his perspective as a scientist, of course, God does not exist.  God is an invention, a product of our imagination, our mind.  God only exists in our collective minds to give sense to what we cannot understand – to provide a meaning for our lives.  In Darwin’s time, the creation myth offered an explanation – intelligent design.  How wondrous are Gods works!  Nowadays, God, for those who believe, is more a moral compass, ‘He’ is a reassuring presence, a belief that will guide us though life, a code of ethics and even, being a forgiving God, our redemption and salvation.  This is deeply reassuring for the believer.  No wonder they resist Dawkins’ evangelistic atheism. 

 

God, like beauty only exists in the eye and the mind of the beholder.  But that doesn’t mean the concept of God has no value. It may be a belief in God that is holding societies and individuals together.  The missionaries to Africa in the time of Darwin supplanted the beliefs that were holding societies together and detached people from the meaning of their lives.  Dawkins in danger of doing the same now.  Although I admire Dawkins and share his beliefs about evolution, I felt disturbed by his evangelistic zeal in trying to convert the unbelieving teenagers. They may need that moral compass when their world is falling apart. 

 

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am a scientist too. I am also a psychoanalyst.  And I am an atheist.  God or at least Jesus Christ doesn’t do it for me.  I do however, find peace in some of the ideas incorporated in Buddhist teachings.  I can live with that.  Sometimes I wish I had a stronger faith.  It may have helped me manage the crises that uncontained enthusiasm and curiosity propelled me into. 

 

In my work as a doctor and therapist, I try to help people with illnesses of the mind, body and spirit, the depletion or desperation brought about by what has happened.  I work with them to  recover the meaning and purpose in their lives. Many come to me with fixed ideas, beliefs that have helped them.  They have yeast intolerance and as long as they take the diet, it helps them.  They find certain homeopathic remedies useful.  Meditation is helpful.  Colonic irrigation clears out all the rubbish.  Although the NICE guidelines say otherwise, I rarely disabuse my patients of  their beliefs unless I believe they will do them damage.  Instead, I tend to work with the belief but at the same time try to optimise its efficacy through an understanding of what has happened to make them ill and how they might deal with it.  The aim is to restore self confidence.    

        

To have confidence is empowering.  Often that confidence comes from a faith a belief in something.  It doesn’t have to be God or Allah or even the Pantheon of Hinduism,  it could be our community, our family, the institution we work for, the football team we worship; it could even be science.  

 

Yes, Dr Dawkins, there is something quasi-religious about a belief in science to solve all the world’s problems.  But science is a poor God.  Scientific method, after all, is constructed on doubt.  Karl Popper has indoctrinated a generation of scientists to try to disprove our hypotheses. A good hypothesis is one that can be disproved withstands all our attempts to do so.  So, according to Popper, Natural selection is a good hypothesis.  We can test it with genomics and it stands firm.  Freud’s notions of the importance of infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex are not so good.  They are plausible, even clever ideas. They may seem to fit the psychopathology of some patients, but they cannot be proven.  But there again, from Popper’s viewpoints, some of the notions of theoretic physics; quantum mechanics, the nature of subatomic particles, the expanding universe, while seeming to explain the inexplicable and supported by some observations, are hardly testable.  The point is that science depends on what can be measured and the degree to which we can trust our measurements, depends on the assumptions we make to derive them and the accuracy of our equipment.   

 

It seems to me, having spent most of my life as a medical scientist, that the more we test science, the more it begins to look like religion.  There’s no problem about that, in my opinion.  The greatest attribute any scientist can have is imagination.  Darwin had it in spades.  From a group of seemingly disconnected observations on fossils, finches, iguanas and pigeons, he constructed a massive theory of life that has stood the tests of both time and molecular genetics.  Other theories are less easy to test, but they make sense of our lives and so, even as scientists, we cling to them while pretending to test them to destruction (we always kill the thing we love…).  

 

Scientists are human too.  They have to believe.  If Dawkins rejects God, because the idea of a great creator somewhere out there in the ether is patent nonsense to any rational mind, I wonder how he regards love.  Does he love his family?  Has he ever been in love?

 

There’s more to our understanding of life than is rational.  Not everything can be measured.  There is the existence of feeling.  We can’t measure it, but we all know it’s there.  And there is the ‘meaning’,  that is based on our experience of life and being human, our culture, our heritage, our ethics and morality.  But this is the realm of sociology, of psychology, how we think, how we live in society, empathy, altruism, love, respect, collaboration as well as the ever present negative aspects such as competition, fear, anger, conflict, guilt shame, depression and loneliness.  We may try to make a science out of these things.  We may try to measure them by demographics and statistics, but it is through a glass darkly.  Many of them we can’t possibly measure, we can only feel them and try to understand their meaning.  We just feel they exist because of the way we are, the way we were brought up, our family, education, experience and culture. This is where religion comes in. 

 

In its broadest sense, religion implies the meaning we ascribe to situations, their moral, ethical, empathic dimensions.  It has more to say about what it means to be alive, on the great political questions of leadership and conflict and competition and control than what is commonly regarded as science.

 

To my mind, the old debate about science and religion is a false dichotomy, the difference between one type of belief and another.  To be human and try to affect wisdom, we have to embrace both.  We have to integrate our hard won knowledge of our existence with our sense of the meaning of our lives, both within our head and with other people. 

 

‘Meaning’ has always been there.  Indeed, my reading suggests that people understood much more about what it was to be human than they do now.  People now are too blinded by science and technology to detect the meaning of their lives.  We could argue that what we call ‘progress’ is just the changing frame around the same picture.  Sometimes the frame is just too ornate, too big – and we lose sight of the picture. 

 

Human beings are rational/emotional creatures. We need both aspects of our being.  Too far in the rational direction and we become dry, detached from life, boring. Too far the other way and we risk becoming crazy, separate from reality, impusive and dangerous.  We and the the society we are part of must be balanced.  We need our science , if we are to understand and create a better life.  We need our literature, our art, our music and our religion if we are to have a life that is meaningful.  

“High on a hill lived a lonely goatherd. Lay-ee odelay-ee odelay hee- hoo’ 

 

Clearly it wasn’t just a hill he was high on.  And the goatherd didn’t live in the Swiss Alps.  He lived in the mountains of Ethiopia and what he was high on was not the sound of music, but coffee. 

 

His name was Calvi.  He was sitting around one day, rather bored, wittling a stick, when he noticed that his goats were acting strangely.  They had been feeding for some hours on the clusters of red cherries that grew on some small evergreen shrubs, but instead of lying down and resting in the heat of the day, they were leaping up and down, butting each other and chasing about.  Gradually he became aware that whenever the goats ate the cherries, they became hyperactive.  What’s more, they failed to put on much weight and their milk yield dipped alarmingly. Calvi was intrigued; so he ate some of the fruits.  Soon he noticed that he felt more full of energy,  he could think more clearly, through some of thoughts that came into his mind were a little strange.

 

Lay-ee odelay-ee odelayee odeloo.  

 

He plucked some cherries and rushed home to tell his father, who concluded that the seeds were a poison and threw them on the fire, where they smouldered to yielded a delicious aroma.  ‘Truly’, the old man declared  ‘they must be the fruit of the Gods.’  

 

But the Ethiopians didn’t use the fruits to make the drink we know as coffee.  It was the Arabs in nearby Yemen who did that.  The Ethiopians incorporated the fruits into their food balls that they carried with them whenever they went hunting.  So Calvi’s observation not only led to the discovery of the world’s most popular beverage, it was also the origin of the first energy bar.

 

Mike Riley, chief coffee sourcer and taster at Taylor’s of Harrogate, is an expert in coffee.  He gave us a demonstration.  Small, shaven headed with tidily trimmed facial hair and wearing a coffee coloured tasters apron, he didn’t so much drink from the cups arraigned in front of him, he breathed the coffee in.  Taking a spoon, he scooped up some coffee from the nearest cup and transferred it to another spoon.  Then he sucked the dark liquid in noisily through a semi-closed mouth so that a spray passed over his tongue and palate.  I tried it and was amazed at the difference in tastes, the rich cocoa tones from Brazil, the much lighter woody taste from Galapagos, the acidity from Kenya and hints of tangerine from Sumatra.  Coffee tasting is clearly as much of an art as wine tasting. 

 

I wondered why there was so much difference in taste.  Coffee is only harvested from two species of coffee tree; Coffea robusta,  grown mainly in Africa, yielding an inferior type of coffee that has a high caffeine content but is used mainly for instant coffee and Coffea Arabica,  which yields the better, more flavoursome coffee, a connoisseur’s coffee.  They are members of the Rubiacae, a large family which includes the gardenias and the cinchona, from which quinine, another bitter chemical, is extracted.  The wide difference in flavours relies partly on the conditions of growth – soil, sunlight, rain, altitude – what wine growers call the terroir, but mainly on the conditions of drying, roasting and of course, blending.

 

The fruits of the Coffea grow in an elongated cluster, first little green spheres like peas and then as they ripen, red cherries, which contain twin seeds wrapped in  parchment.  The cherries are picked by hand using a small rake to strip the stems.  Then they are sieved and washed to remove any leaves, twigs or small fruits.  Only the ripe cherries are selected.  These are then dried.  Traditionally, they are laid out in the sun on a concrete floor or on low tables and raked regularly so that they dry evenly and do not ferment.  Less labour intensive industrial processes use rotating drums.  As the fruit dries, the outer covering is removed and the parchment around the seeds is also taken off.  It takes several weeks to dry the seeds completely.  They can then be packed in sacks and, as long as they are kept dry, will last for a long time.

 

Coffee grows in the tropics.  It arrives in Europe in sacks of green beans and is roasted in the coffee factories.  Roasting is carefully controlled. The beans must dry and caramelise to release the aromatic compounds, the so called coffee oil, but must not catch fire.  A slight charring alters the taste and is sometimes favoured for some types of coffee.  After roasting, the beans, now a dark brown colour, must be cooled rapidly to prevent autocombustion.  This is often done by washing them in cold water.  They are then dried and vacuum packed in airtight containers. 

 

The roasted coffee is very fragile.  It quickly stales in air, though freezing the beans retains their flavour. Ground coffee should always be resealed and kept in the fridge. 

 

The manufacture of coffee from tree to cup is a delightful blend of art and science. You can infuse your ground coffee with steam or boiling water in a state-of-the-art coffee maker, a percolater, a cafetiere or simply in a cup or jug, but you have to take care to produce a rich, satisfying taste. So when you are percolating coffee, never let it boil.  The flavour disappears immediately.  Coffee made in some domestic coffee makers and kept hot on a heater also goes off very quickly and tastes very unpleasant.  Freeze dried instant coffee is, to my taste, hardly worth mentioning.  It is an abomination; a travesty of culinary art.  

 

But there are other ways to appreciate coffee.  Last year I enjoyed a meal in The Queen of Sheba Ethiopian restaurant in Kentish Town and opportunity of trying a postprandial jug of sweetened coffee infused with cardamom and kept warm on a bed of charcoal.  Cardamom is frequently used to flavour coffee in Turkey and Greece.  It is quite delicious.   . 

 

And if you want something really exotic, why not try Kopi Lewak.  Kopi is the Indonesian name for coffee.  Lewak is the Palm Civet cat, a marsupial that selects the ripest coffee cherries, digests the flesh and excretes the coffee beans in its faeces.  People living on the island of Sumatra collect the faeces, separate out the beans and dry and roast them. The passage through the gut of the cat gives the coffee a sweetish, slightly corrupt flavour, which is actually quite appealing.   Kopi Lewak is the most expensive coffee on the world market, retailing at 600 US dollars a pound. 

 

Isn’t it strange that we can like something as bitter as coffee?  Bitter chemicals are recognised as toxic and avoided by many animals.  But nevertheless human societies have acquired a taste for bitter foods and drinks.  As well as coffee, there is dark chocolate, campari, gin, angostura bitters, raddicio, chicory, spinach and broccoli.  Bitter foods have medicinal properties; they are rich in glycosinolates, which help to fight infections, break down toxins and prevent cancer.  Coffee is also known to  improve the motility of sperm.  No wonder Calvi’s goats were frisky!       

 

 

 

The Turbot (psetta maxima) is one of the largest flatfish inhabiting our continental shelf.  Most of its life is spent motionless and camouflaged on the shallow sea bed (20 to 50m),  partially covered by sand or gravel, waiting for sprats, gobis, sand eels and small crustaceans to swim by. 

 

The Turbot is not the most handsome of fish – to human eyes.  Its blotched pointillist  skin varies in tone according to its background,  light on sandy background, much darker on gravel. With its eyes both looking upwards, downturned mouth, and bloated body, it resembles a lugubrious drunk lying on a park bench in the early hours of Sunday morning.  The top and bottom of flatfish are its two flanks.  Most flatfish lie with their right side uppermost, but the Turbot is left sided or sinistral – which rather suits its expression. 

 

Sedentary for most of the time but given to bursts of activity to catch its prey,  the Turbot’s delicate white flesh is composed of fast-twitch sprinter’s fibres rather than the darker flesh found in fish such as salmon or tuna, that swim long distance.   

 

Between April and August, Turbot migrate to deeper water to lay millions of eggs.   The survivors develop into ‘normal looking’ round fish, but as they grow and establish themselves on the shallower sandy bottom, the body becomes flat and the right eye migrates round to join the left.  Weird or what?  

 

Unlike the drunk, the Turbot has been held in high regard in Europe for 2000 years.  It is a fish to savour.  Rick Stein regards it as possibly the best tasting fish in the world. The texture is dense and slightly gelatinous, remaining quite moist after cooking. The  flavour is subtle and refined.  Not a cheap option, about £5 a serving from the fishmonger, this is a fish for special occasions.  Stein says it is one of the few fish he would prepare as a main course for a banquet.  He advises cooking on the bone in the form of steaks or troncons cut from good large fish (3-8Kg). 

 

The trick with Turbot is to cook it gently with a few well chosen ingredients that enhance its taste and texture.  Try basting the fish with herbs, and serving with a sauce vierge. 

 

Preheat the oven to 230C.

 

For two people, finely chop about a teaspoon of rosemary, a teaspoon of thyme and a bay leaf, crush half a teaspoon of fennel seeds, a teaspoon of peppercorns and some flakes of sea salt with a pestle and mortar.  Mix together with about 50ml of olive oil in a small roasting tin. Add the troncons and turn them once or twice to coat.  Leave to marinate. 

 

Then prepare the vegetables – new potatoes, green beans and peas.  Put the potatoes on to steam.  

 

For the sauce vierge, mix together about 40 ml of extra virgin olive oil, a tablespoon of lemon juice,  one small plum tomato, skinned, seeded and cut into small dice, 4 black olives, pitted and sliced, two small anchovy fillets in oil, one garlic clove, finely chopped.   Season with sea salt and black pepper.   Put the mix into a small pan ready to warm through just before serving. 

 

Remove the fish and place on small metal frying pan.  Rub any extra herbs into the dark skin with your fingers.  Turn it over and sear this side of the fish on a high heat.  Then put the pan in the oven for 10 minutes. 

 

Add the peas and beans to the steamer.     

 

When the fish is nearly done, warm the sauce vierge and add a heaped teaspoon of finely chopped parsley.    

 

Carefully remove the fish, place in the centre of a warmed plate, drizzle the sauce vierge to one side and put the vegetables on the other side.  

 

Part the flesh and skin with a knife.  It just falls off the bone in pieces. Do not remove the skin.  That’s where the flavours are.  Dip into the sauce.  Bite into the tender flesh and let the flavours wash around your mouth – the mildly aniseed taste of the fennel complements the texture of the fish wonderfully and the lemon and anchovy and parsely really add contrast. 

 

Eat slowly.  Take your time to really sense the texture, let the flavours develop and permeate.  Take a few peas or a portion of waxy buttered potato between each mouthful. Have a sip of a good New Zealand sauvignon blanc, such as Dog Point.  Separate another piece of fish, eat with the sauce.  Taste, relax – think!   

 

Meals like this are like meditation.  They nurture the soul!        

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