Monday, 29 June 2009

The most important invention

I was reading The Skeptical Adaptationist (Randy Nesse's blog) and came across the discussion about the most important invention of the past 2000 years. He suggested printing. I would say the contraceptive pill, because of its effect on human behaviour.

Feminism has been around at least since the French Revolution, but it only began to take off when the pill gave women control over their own fertility. I remember a discussion at breakfast in my Oxford college in 1961. The other students, all male, were excited at the thought that women would no longer have an excuse not to yield to them. I argued that this would mean the end of marriage as we knew it and perhaps the collapse of parenthood. At the time all my women friends were scrambling to get engaged before their last undergraduate year ended. Every week someone else started showing off her ring.

And what has happened? Where the pill is freely available hardly any students think of marriage. People live together for years without marrying. The age of first pregnancy has moved from the mid twenties into the early thirties. A large proportion of young women say they never want babies, and some are freezing their eggs in anticipation of perhaps choosing motherhood when they are past menopause. The birth rate in most of Europe has fallen below replacement rate. In fact this one factor alone has slowed down the world's population growth and may reverse it just in time to prevent calamity.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The audacity of boats

Welcome back to the A of B blog! And thank you for reminding us of the self immolation of Jan Palach. I don't remember his suicide as having had much effect. It was one thing to be burnt by the Inquisition - witness the Martyr's Memorial in Oxford, which still sends a chill after nearly five centuries. It is another thing to burn yourself. It seems a sort of self-indulgence to try to make yourself a martyr if no one else will do it for you.

I got a shock today when I googled a church for a bit of research and found that it advertises itself as "a traditional catholic orthodox anglican parish, faithful to the apostolic church and 3-fold (male) priestly ministry". It is as if the Oxford martyrs had died for nothing. The differences with catholicism that cost them their lives have been sponged away, together with the differences between catholic and orthodox that split the churches a thousand years ago. You don't get rid of conflicts by pretending that they never existed.

Obama's speech in Cairo was a brave attempt to mend fences between America and the world's Muslims, but he is still carrying some very heavy baggage. He called the Iraq invasion a "war of choice" as opposed to the one in Afghanistan which is a "necessary war", but he did not apologize for the former, nor did he see the colonial flavour of big, rich, mainly Christian or post-Christian countries trying to impose their solution on a small poor Muslim-majority country. No foreign power has ever managed to control Afghanistan, and eventually NATO is going to have to negotiate with its opponents, so the sooner the better.

I don't deny that the Taliban ideologues are oppressive bigots, but peoples have to conduct their own revolutions, and the presence of foreign armies makes that very difficult, perhaps impossible; can anyone give me an example of a country that transformed itself under occupation? Post-war Germany and Japan are not examples, because they resumed change in a direction they had been moving in before they were taken over by warmongers.