The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myths of Darwinism

The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myths of Darwinism, by Richard Milton; Transworld Publishers; $15.95

Richard Milton has written this book as a “hang on a minute” reservation about Darwinism and its apparent unquestioned acceptance by mainstream science from geology through to biology (and in one chapter political science) in the manner of the small boy who questioned the reality of the Emperor’s new clothes — “Look Mummy, all those university professors, all those Nobel Prize winners, have got no actual proof to cover their hypotheses with”.

To this reader, familiar with these matters only to the level of a wobbly School Cert. result, the book provides persuasive arguments against the theory of Darwinism, believing it to have evolved itself as a theory that succeeding scientists have simply forgotten to question, claiming serious flaws concerning the critical “missing links,” [see Finding Fossils] and detailing circular arguments and apparently illogical aspects, to the point where he refers to the theory as much an act of faith as that of any religion.

He claims he is not a creationist but rather an agnostic waiting for proof either way, and he has no idea how it all happened. On the other hand, having questioned the credibility of most of the current scientific community, he goes on to hint at the age of the Earth being possibly no more than 10,000 years instead of the generally accepted 4.6 billion years (a conclusion taken in part from his claim of absolute unreliability of carbon-dating techniques) and also drops in the occasional mention of a life force that could stir up biology in the way that quantum theories have derailed 19th century mechanistic physics, and which sounds vaguely theological.

“Biological telepathy”, “metaphysical psychic blueprints” and an “intelligent cosmos” get a mention towards the end of the book and detract from the generally non-paranormal emphasis of the bulk of his ideas.

I enjoyed at least his link between Darwinism and the New Right references to “winners and losers (Darwin’s struggle for survival)”, the cruel, stark grandeur of the free-market policies, natural economic selection, and the assumption by many in the business community that for some to succeed, others must go under. “The fit survive and those who survive are the fit.”

But what about luck, chaos, chance — why do share prices go up and down unpredictably even for the bluest chip? Why are some of the companies that survive well ultimately found to be not too fit at all? Milton asks these questions to counter the flawed theories of the New Right, the political version of Darwinism.

From time to time he targets a neo-Darwinist, Richard Dawkins, a reader in zoology at the University of Oxford, implying that his research is misguided and his conclusions faulty. Dawkins in his review of this book in the New Statesman and Society retaliates bluntly, both about its contents (“drivel”, “twaddle”) and about its author (“disingenuous or — more plausibly — stupid”) but in between these colourful outbursts refutes with some authority the arguments put forward. It was with some relief that I was reassured that rather than evolution being noted more for its gaps (“missing links”) than for its slender fossilised evidence, Dawkins is quite clear that the “fossil links between humans and our ape ancestors now constitute an elegantly continuous series”.

Phew! Books like this are trouble to an armchair scientist and skeptic. It is written well enough, suitably dry in places and avoids unseemly popular language, and you find yourself thinking, “Maybe the Earth really is only 10,000 years old, maybe there was a great flood (it occurs to me that anyone who assumes the Bible to be literally true will believe they are descended from not only Adam and Eve but also from Mr and Mrs Noah), perhaps the original life force did come from outer space, and why should the Himalayas not be formed in a matter of minutes and within living memory.”

All of these claims and many more are put forward either as original theories or borrowed freely from other scientists — none is researched to the point of adequate proof, they simply add up to another theory.

Perhaps the little boy who embarrassed the Emperor hasn’t realised that his Mum has forgotten to put his own trousers on.

Nostradamus — The 1994 Annual Almanac by V.J. Hewitt

Nostradamus — The 1994 Annual Almanac by V.J. Hewitt. Random House, $15.95

This book explains an approach to interpreting the French “prophet” Nostradamus’s predictions. It is the culmination of 16 years research by an English woman, V.J. Hewitt. She has invented a system of decoding his quatrains using anagrams — and not just the sort that you get in cryptic crosswords, but huge, French ones. She takes a Nostradamus quatrain, mixes up all the letters, removes the letters of the subject she is interested in (and it could be anything from soccer hooliganism to an air traffic controllers’ strike), adds the date, and then rearranges the remaining letters to produce the prophecy that Nostradamus had clearly intended. What’s more she does it in French.

Here’s a New Zealand version of what she does. Take the first two lines of our National Anthem: “God of Nations, at thy feet, in the bonds of love we meet. ” There are, in this dreary verse, many hidden prophecies which V.J. Hewitt would extract like this…

Remove the word “fish” because we want to see what the future of fishing is in this country. Mix up the remaining letters and you get: “Too many boats net the food we love. Ten get fined.” What could be clearer than that? On the other hand — and this is a little confusing — another anagram gives: “Eels need to have fatty food, gin. None wet bottom.” This could be disqualified by the grammatically pedantic on the grounds that it should be “wets” rather than “wet.” But Hewitt is a little flexible herself — in one prediction she is forced to change Phillip to Philip in order to get the anagram to fit the prediction comfortably.

Hewitt explains how unique and successful her system is, reminding me of the Spike Milligan line: “My uncle was a great man. He told me so himself, and you can’t argue with facts like that.” She is realistic enough to admit in her closing lines that she is “vulnerable to criticism unless and until each prediction is fulfilled.” Unusually for this sort of book, she is foolish enough to tie the events to reasonably definite dates. Most soothsayers pronounce woolly sooths but are cunning enough not to cite dates. She should have learnt a lesson from the “End of the World is Nigh” brigade — they tend not to pinpoint “nigh” and most of their placards seem to be made of fairly durable material.

What will happen of course is that Christmas shoppers will buy this book, be enthralled by the forecasts, and then forget it, until…in April 1994 Nelson Mandela actually does become the President of South Africa. Then they’ll say: “Didn’t Nostradamus predict that somewhere? Doris, go get that Hewitt book — I think it was written in there. There it is on page 48! Extraordinary!” No mention of similar predictions of political scientists world-wide nor, more importantly in terms of this publication, any mention of the fact that Nostradamus also predicted on page 47 that at the end of May (only a week or two before) two female Yeti would be found in the Himalayas, presumably out on a Sherpa-capturing expedition.

Large anagrams are funny things. You start with real creativity and freedom — there are a lot of letters to play with — but as you get near the end and all the “e”s have gone, there’s a “q” and no “u” left, and “Qantas” doesn’t suit a prediction on the return of Maggie Thatcher, so you juggle and end up with a small, three or four-letter word. It may take a lot of imagination to tie this in with the substance of the text. But like most Nostradamus students, Hewitt has a fertile mind. She is particularly motivated by the discovery that her very own name is mentioned in the 16th-century verses. Having been chosen as the official Nostradamus interpreter for the 20th Century, I suspect nothing will divert her. (It should be noted that when I solved the relevant quatrainal anagram the name I came up with was not “V.J. Hewitt” but “J.T.V. White,” who just happens to be my old maths teacher).

So we will continue to be presented every year with the V.J. Hewitt Annual Almanac regardless of the previous year’s inaccuracies, and it doesn’t take much of an anagram to predict quite a useful income for her from the New Age bookstores. This sort of book is a waster of time and forests, a ramble down one person’s “spiritual” cul-de-sac. Ingenious or ingenuous, it will still probably outsell Carl Sagan.

New Age Internationalist?

The New Internationalist Review, a magazine not normally known for gullibility beyond the political, decided not all that long ago to examine the paranormal. Our intrepid reporter Peter Lange decided to have a look.

Last year the New Internationalist gave over an entire issue (November) to the subject of the paranormal in what seemed to be an effort to keep readers’ interest over 12 months of fairly heavy political going — a bit like the cream buns halfway through bible class. It seems to be a good-hearted publication, and in this case under the editorship of Chris Brazier it has attempted to research several popular aspects of the paranormal and tried to sum up without favour. The result is disappointing.

The journalistic approach goes like this… set the scene with a cloyingly cute question-and-answer dialogue with an imaginary reader, add one solitary article by a skeptic (the excellent Susan Blackmore), then a series of ten articles supporting the paranormal, and end with a statement by the researching journalist Brazier: “Something happened, I just don’t know what. And I’m afraid that could serve as an adequate summary of human understanding of the paranormal”.

The photographs include: a levitating mystic (India, 1936), two of Einstein (one before and one after discovering relativity, and you can see the difference), Uri Geller looking aghast at a bent spoon, two African women studying bones they have just dropped (maybe the spoon carrying them had bent), and a woman in Algeria grimacing with pain while the head of the Virgin Mary materialises out of the side of her neck. And I don’t blame her for feeling out of sorts. Why do such undignified phenomena always involve the Virgin Mary and never Groucho Marx? He could carry it off so much better.

Susan Blackmore’s article is strong — it offers (unfortunately) mundane explanations for a variety of strange experiences — out-of-body travel, coincidence, memory tricks, near-death-experiences — all the areas that create so much interest and confusion.

The next article is by the editor and is a slightly humorous account of trying to induce an out-of-body experience by following a set of commercial instructions. He fails, and of course blames himself rather than the nonsense put out in the best-selling book.

Next, a European woman describes sleepwalking in darkest Africa: “My friend Femina was found running through the village one night naked, with teeth marks on her cheeck and neck — she wouldn’t tell me what happened to her”. I’m not surprised. Her car’s headlights mysteriously go out while driving between two haunted rocks, she finds a dead chicken in a closed hut with its feet inexplicably removed, and so on. All serious evidence of forces outside her comprehension.

Next, an article on shamanism (written by a shaman) ingenuously explaining the taking of the hallucinogenc “yakoana” (“which produces effects like the spirits coming with huge machetes, cutting out your tongue, and putting your head upside down inside your body”) and then declaring the whole business an inexplicable mystery. Most Sixties children would find it fairly easy to explain.

Then follows an article on CIA remote viewing or “psychic spying” by a director of an American Institute of Parapsychology. It seems to work well as long as the enemy uses only a house, boat or tree for military purposes. A series of small text blocks is next, on everything from astrology to levitation to dowsing to incombustibility among the Maori people of New Zealand. All of them without exception support the paranormal claims, and there is evidence to show that if Winston Peters is sentenced to burning at the stake for heresy, it will be a waste of good firewood.

The most hilarious one is by Nina Silver, a New York channeller, who channels not through the normal dead characters like Winston Churchill or Egyptian kings, but through “a particle of gold light” — a female light, incidentally, and a committed feminist particle. She found herself on the outer with other channellers, who felt threatened by her liberated, often raunchy, luminous girlfriend who obviously didn’t fit into the staid and patriarchal Association of Channellees.

Chris Brazier then completes his investigation by attempting to meet his “spirit sister Marie” whom Nina has located, and then spends three hours working on it, culminating in a surge of energy coming down through the top of his head as the spirit enters his body and possibly his wallet. Having got in, the spirit fails to perform. Still in New York (could this be relevant?) he repeats the incoming spirit experience, but back in England the effect fails to recur.

Brazier is entirely convinced by the research of J.B. Rhine and his followers purporting to show that ESP and psychokinesis are possible, but admits that the evidence for the paranormal is anecdotal. “One thing is clear”, he says, “science can offer no explanation … except … when science itself becomes almost mystical”. Ahem.

The magazine is worthy, full of good political and environmental intentions, but in this case journalistically suspect and unbalanced, and inclined to put the sensational case before the rational. It sinks to the level of the National Enquirer for one of two reasons — an almost endearing ingenuousness or a cynical need to titillate and retain readers.