Sunday, December 31, 2006


A very nice lady of a certain age works at my favourite bookstore and we always enjoy sharing our love of good British mysteries and our disdain for the execrable, self-indulgent literary tastes of today’s young. We don’t share much else though, as I learned one day when I revealed my scepticism about the politics of global warming. Too refined and too Canadian to drop her gloves for a down-and-outer with me, she simply stiffened a bit, gave me a pointed smile and said: “But I do so worry about the polar bears.”

How does one respond to that without coming off like a total yahoo? Hmm, let's think. “Not me, I just want to make lots of money.”? “Now, now, don’t you worry your pretty little head about the polar bears–they’ll be just fine.”? “Oh, I’m sure natural selection will toughen them up in plenty of time.”? Although most environmentalists delude themselves into thinking their concerns are grounded in science, arguing science with them soon reveals they are in the grip of a very passionate fundamentalist faith. They no more want to hear encouraging news about polar bears than a fundamentalist Baptist preacher wants to talk about forgiven sins. There seems to be no answer other than “Indeed”.

Anyway, she should worry no more because none other than George W. Bush is on the case, taking some well-deserved time off from promoting freedom and democracy worldwide in order to direct his awesome powers to saving the cute and cuddly little things. Now, if I were a polar bear, I might worry that GWB’s support would cause every leftist in the world to buy a shotgun and join the annual hunt, but that’s unlikely to happen. The one issue that always seems to unite Americans and Europeans of all political stripes is the urgent need to save the Canadian wilderness.

The Euros, having long since destroyed their own wilderness, can be positively splenetic about this, as is revealed today in The Independent, a leftist broadsheet that can make The Guardian look like the Wall Street Journal. Here is their voice of dispassionate reason on the subject:

Starving polar bears are presenting an unprecedented challenge to George Bush's refusal to take action over global warming - and may succeed where environmentalists and other governments have failed in getting him to curb pollution.

Despite the President's obdurate stance on climate change, the US administration last week took the first steps towards officially listing the bear as an endangered species. The Arctic ice on which the iconic animal lives is melting away as the world heats up and, if the listing is finalised, the Bush administration will be obliged to modify its pollution policies to try to save the bear.

The move comes as the President faces attack for the first time over global warming from some of his strongest allies. Evangelical Christian leaders last week took out TV ads urging action, while, in Britain, Tony Blair has warned that the world has less than seven years to get to grips with climate change....

The centre believes that the rate of retreat is accelerating. Worse still for the bears, the melting is starting earlier, depriving them of seals in the spring, when they have always stocked up on food to see them through the summer.

In desperation, more and more polar bears are swimming to land, and marauding through towns and villages. Made fearless by hunger, the half-ton animals have even broken into houses in search of food. One killed a 15-year-old girl in the far western Russian Arctic, while children in the northern Canadian town of Churchill are being taken to school under guard. There is even evidence from north-east Russia that polar bears have taken to eating their own species.

This is not the kind of hysteria that invites an informed response. I doubt the editor would thank me for pointing out polar bears have always marauded in Churchill in the fall and children have always been kept indoors and bussed door-to-door. That’s why the town is famous. (As to those savage Russian bears, what do you expect–they’re Russian!) Or that wildlife biologists on the ground do not share the panic. Polar bears do not stock up on food. No one wants to hear that, while bear counts have fallen in one or two populations, they are rising in numerous others. The fact that the worldwide polar bear population may be at an all time high is presumably of little interest. No, the urban West is on a self-righteous roll, just as it was with caribou herds, fur-trapping and seal-hunting. As with those campaigns, the current polar bear panic-fest will probably have little or even a detrimental effect on the Arctic ecology, but it will cause hardship and further social pathologies in northern communities.

Perhaps that is the only answer I could give the lady in the bookstore, that the future of Inuit children and their communities hangs in the balance, that unfocussed wildlife protection can harm both people and wildlife (viz. Africa), that the issue is extremely complex scientifically with much we don’t know and that her single-minded focus on saving predatory animals she has never encountered may do them more harm than good and keep the Inuit mired in poverty and welfare dependancy while doing little to save the bears. “That’s the rub”, I would thunder, “Will you not think of the children?”

But I’m afraid no matter how cogently I put all that, she would still see me as an insensitive yahoo, which is why I would take care to add that I can’t sleep at night for worrying about the koala bears and the Great Barrier Reef.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Quebecers are a riddle within a mystery completely inaccessable to the Anglo mind. Defiantly proud in the company of others, alone they have a delightfully savage sense of self-mockery that translates into the best social and political comedy in North America. Through the good offices of my son, I offer you these short takes from a current Internet series that is apparently all the rage here and here. Dusting off that old French grammar book may not help you much--this is Quebec street French, but perhaps there are enough facial exaggerations and anglicismes to see you through. Your enjoyment of the first one will be aided by knowing that patates is Quebec slang for breasts.


Science explains Christmas goodwill (Roger Highfield, The Telegraph, December 29th, 2006)

One of the world's leading game theorists has come up with an explanation for the orgy of goodwill and giving at Christmas, a feature of the seasonal good cheer that has baffled scientists for years. ...

In the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the scientists examine what they call "upstream reciprocity." Prof Nowak explains: "If someone is nice to you, you feel good and may be inclined to be nice to somebody else. This everyday experience is borne out by experimental games: the recipients of an act of kindness are more inclined to help in turn, even if the person who benefits from their generosity is somebody else."

This 'upstream reciprocity' - which includes giving to a charity at Christmas - may appear to be a misdirected act of gratitude: at first glance it only makes sense if you help somebody because they have helped you. The team's mathematical analysis shows that upstream reciprocity alone does not lead to the evolution of cooperation, which would help society to thrive, despite the simple-minded view that only the fittest should survive in our dog-eat-dog world. ...

"Our analysis shows that gratitude and other positive emotions, which increase the willingness to help others, can evolve in the competitive world of natural selection." Scrooge himself would have been impressed by their arguments which show how, even in a nature that is supposed to be red in tooth and claw, a person who has just received help may go on to help several others in "an 'epidemiology of altruism' resulting in an explosive increase of altruistic acts."

In this way, science has at last explained Christmas goodwill.

My good virtual friend, David Cohen, argues that Darwinism is a tautology in that it posits as proof that nature selects organisms for fitness (survival) the fact that they survived. I confess to feeling a little out of my depth when trying to apply this to the wondrous complexities of genetics, but it is certainly seems to be true about Darwinians who want lots of Christmas presents.


Gibbons sing out danger call (The Times, December 28th, 2006)

Gibbons living in the Khao Yai National Park in Thailand have been found to communicate threats from predators with bird-like singing--the first time the behaviour has been discovered among non-human primates.

Ever since Jane Goodall observed some chimps using twigs to fish termites out of a mound four decades ago, we have been treated to a non-stop litany of "discoveries" from biologists and other scientists that purport to prove how similar animal behaviour is to that of humans. These announcements are usually characterized as breathlessly exciting and purport to overturn some putative conventional wisdom about how different mankind is. No doubt many people have an unquenchable thirst for learning about animal habits, but anyone who tracks these stories over time will sense there is a very non-scientific impetus driving all this. No modern or even traditional layman would find it in the least astounding that gibbons sing out warnings or that they share lots of DNA with us (as do bananas) or that get jealous about rival suitors or learn to avoid heavy traffic or even recognize two dozen words, but over and over the point is hammered home that they are just like us in so many ways.

But of course they are not. The gulf between humans and animals is both qualitatively and quantitatively vast, but modern science treats that screamingly obvious fact as a kind of dirty secret one doesn’t mention in polite company. Why? What do they fear? And why do foundations and governments continue to fund such ideologically predictable nonsense?

More to the point, why do we require increasingly lengthy, analytical and sophisticated arguments to convince us of the obvious?


For almost four years blogging has been a major part of my non-working life. If truth be told, of my working life too. Trained and inspired by a master, I have gained the equivalent of a PH.D, endless hours of mental and literary calisthenics, belly-laughs galore and some exceptionally erudite and eccentric virtual friends. However, as some of them have started to chide me for riding the sideboards of other peoples' roadsters for too long, I hereby stick my big toe into blog authorship.

My goal is to combine serious political and social commentary of a conservtive flavour with what I hope will be light-hearted, literate and even literary insight into the quirky and befuddling cultural zeitgeist we middle-agers must pretend to understand in order to be noticed by our kids. Gigantic curses at the barbarian menaces of statism, rabid atheism and imperialist scientism will be mixed with incisive commentary on things like Britney's new carefree fashion trends, Dr. Phil's latest drivel and the charming conceit of the modern young that they have anything interesting to say. Who said the decline of Rome wasn't fun to watch?

The rules are simple: no vulgarity, religious or ethnic or gender slurs (or anything malicious) and no trolling. Craftsmanship, good grammar and wit in the comments win gold stars; badly-spelled pedantry and juvenile insults earn detentions. Thank-you for visiting.