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If, like me, you suspect that Scottish (winter) rainfall is a useful marker for climate, then you might like this post’s title. Curiously, I actually agree with American conservatives and various other climate change ‘sceptics’ that we will have to adapt as well as doing whatever may be possible to limit at least the speed of change. But if anyone imagines we can thereby avoid ‘big government’, I reckon they might be in for a rude wakeup.

Adaptation basically means fitting yourself in (say to your ecological niche). Even before technowizards with flint cutters and fire came on the scene, there was nothing unusual about animals or plants altering their own environment and then having to adjust to the changes. The difference with humans and therefore technology is all about speed and organisation, including of the status quo and its territorial boundaries. Islands face a particular challenge. Already private ingenuity is playing a part with ideas like floating houses. But is it really credible to suppose we do the amount of adapting that climate change is likely to require without government at least pulling strings in the background (say with research funding and the like), if not in the foreground as well?

Bearing in mind the ever growing list of problems which the nation state cannot handle without at least international cooperation, the resulting big government promises to be bigger than any deregulation enthusiast imagined. Moreover, without any politician daring to tell people harsh truths about what their countries can’t do alone, there is no reason to suppose a global power would have to worry about democratic accountability. How about a global protection racket run by a multicultural coterie of criminal gangsters?

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Strange placebo?

Although like so many people I have tried homeopathy myself, I can understand why it would frighten the scientific community more than any other of the various forms of ‘complementary medicine’. Surely, if the molecules are no longer there, it just must be a placebo… Yet my own experience over a number of years seemed to be mixed. With some of my symptoms, notably headaches and digestive upset, I think homeopathy probably helped me although I could not prove that an improvement would not have happened anyway, maybe thanks to delayed response to diet, for instance. In the case of my chronic rhinitis I know it did not help. If I understood my experience correctly, the orthodox scientific view of homeopathy leads to the strange conclusion that I had a placebo effect on some symptoms and not others. Perhaps not impossible, but an outcome hard to explain or understand.
This experience leads me to think that defenders of homeopathy are seriously mistaken when they concentrate (naturally enough) on publicising their successes. If they are to have any chance of forcing the massive rethink of our understanding of the universe that homeopathy would imply, they should draw attention to people like myself who may have found it helpful in some areas and not others – that is, their partial failures. For it is much easier to imagine a placebo which affects each patient consistently, however much patients may vary one with another in their psychological and other responses to the placebo, than one which has variable effects on the same patient. Why should my psychology differ with one symptom from another? OK, that could happen but it would, I guess, be unusual. Anyone willing to investigate that thoroughly?

Round and around we go

Far be it from me to be a scientist, but I notice that the wheels of orthodoxy are turning once again. During the 1930s revulsion against eugenics and the real or supposed discoveries of anthropologists turned educated opinion toward the belief that our lives and behaviour depend on our social environment. Little need to worry about ‘human nature’; with the right nurture and education we’d get there in the end. Other views, even of Freud and his followers, were supposed to have been cast into history.

By the 1970s, the emergence of genetics and ‘sociobiology’ with Desmond Morris, Wilson, Dawkins, and others started us on a return to heredity. Again politics lay in the background (it always does), and the doctrines of Marxists (no such thing as human nature) or Left/liberal social reformers who assumed we would respond the right way to social support became progressively discredited. The exposure of Margaret Mead in 1983 as a simpleton helped the process on its way.

Now in 2012, I realise we have begun to head back in the reverse direction once again. Partly, this is good science once again: I remember myself being startled by the sudden reduction in the number of genes we are thought to have, down to roughly the same as a mouse (20,000-25,000 genes instead of 100,000). Now we may be finding that gene expression is what really counts. Plasticity is the new watchword here. But may I suggest that politics comes up from the depths yet again; the current and long-lasting economic crisis is discrediting ‘neo-liberal’ (or ‘neo-conservative’ – at this rate we will run out of labels) sociology as well as economics and more of us are looking for something different to do with the underclass – and the rich. That was not expected when the scientists persuaded the American and British governments to support the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, but one of the best things about science is that it can produce unexpected results. Yet another reversal in the old issue going back at least to the 17th century between human nature and human moulding looks all too predictable; the last reversal began roughly 40 years ago and the one before roughly 40 years before that. On this performance we would expect to start accepting heredity and human nature again about 2050. Or will science surprise us and jerk us out of the routine?

On a closely related matter, it now does look as though American social conservatives are (or have become) political losers. On the nature/moulding cycle they should be back in strength for 2052 or thereabouts. Or will liberals finally realise that social conservatism is no alternative at all, because it must pursue affluence (resulting from hard work and patriotism) at all costs, and affluence makes social discipline difficult, if not downright impossible? Were that miracle to happen, science might be left to take its own course.

Get the family connections right

No one is going to deny that cases like the Heywood and Rochdale sex exploitation one are painful, emotionally as well as in every other way. But that is all the more reason to understand them properly. David Aaronovitch (Times, May 10) himself makes the (psychological) connection with honour killings or forced marriages, and indeed with backward or rural cultures. He thereby spikes his own case for bidding us to accept the link with Muslim migrants – other than as a temporary problem. So far as it goes, Aaronovitch, Mohammed Shafiq, and the trial judge are correct to say the problem of street grooming is one of Asian communities in particular, but that very fact is an accident of history rather than a characteristic of Asians or Islam as such.

Aaronovitch also acknowledges that Britain (and he could well have said Europe) has experienced similar attitudes to those of certain Asian communities in the past. Indeed,  social anthropologists such as Campbell and Pitt-Rivers have documented family honour in all its forms persisting in village communities in southern Europe as well as elsewhere during the latter half of the twentieth century. It is a deeply disturbing fact that the very modern urban and suburban culture which carries so many diseases with it and is so unsettling for ordinary living, appears to carry a cure for that emotional plague that was capable of turning family life into a desperate struggle for power and prestige between the minature states which are families or clans in such conditions. Very often women are the principal casualties just because child bearing (and therefore the status of marriage) is crucial in that struggle. Modernity does not really cure the emotional plague, however, but transfers it to both modern states with their power plays and to material possessions which modernity produces en masse. Thus modernity makes men more likely to be the principal casualties. May we expect that given a protracted stay in British towns and cities of the twenty-first century the Asian communities will begin to copy the natives?

It is no accident that I have not needed to mention religion in this, and social anthropology gives it only a secondary role in analysis of family honour and related conduct. The harsh truth is we do not know when, or how, family honour first grew up (perhaps when humans began farming – hunter-gatherers seem to live rather differently). But we can be sure that it makes the world’s religions youthful innovations by comparison. The prophet Mohammed indeed devoted his life to seeking peace and reconciliation between Arabia’s feuding tribes, but he could not stop rivalry for status/honour amongst families in Arabia or anywhere else. It is modernity alone with its contempt for female modesty that could do that. Religion simply carried on playing happy families whether that fitted to reality or not.

One other thought comes to mind with this. Many of those great writers and artists who created the ‘classics’ we were wont to prize, including Homer and Shakespeare, wrote much about honour in all its forms – domestic as well as martial – simply because it played a major part in the worlds they portrayed, and long before the Victorians or Muslim migrants were heard of. Just why did all those products of classical education over the centuries apparently pay so little attention to what these writers actually have to say to us?

Is Hitchens listening?

Stephen O’Kane 13 December 2011

I guess that most of what I’ve said over the last 30 years or so would suggest I’m not a romantic, although I do tend to scoff at the classical/romantic dichotomy, especially in music, as being a load of overblown nonsense. I do actually agree with those people who maintain our modern society lacks adequate discipline. But if only the thought would ever occur to them to look elsewhere besides history and tradition as a basis for the discipline! Nowadays, we are learning the hard way that, for example, children suffer with family breakdown irrespective of the disappearance of stigmas attaching to illegitimacy – pernicious just because they had no connection to responsibility for one’s actions. Again, they suffer whether they are poor or affluent. That is a lesson which modern experience teaches. No history or tradition could ever teach that, which is precisely why the permissives of yesteryear did not know or understand it.

So, I suspect the modern chaos will continue regardless until someone has the wit to link discipline and reliability with something other than traditions which all too often appear as mindless cheer-up rhetoric or as tourist attractions without actually influencing most people’s lives. Incidentally, a proper sense of history might remind people that the King James Bible did not unite the English even when first published; a generation later saw a civil war and republican dictatorship. No matter how often ‘conservatives’ win elections or even show the limitations of ‘progressives’ by argument modernity does not go away.