I’ll try to answer that

On Twitter, the (superb) biographer and philosopher Ray Monk asks:

The question isn’t why are Just Stop Oil protesters so terrified and desperate, it is why aren’t we all terrified and desperate?

Periodically, I try to answer questions like these, although I fear I make myself less popular every time I do. Some people will say that I “deny the science” when I disagree with what some scientists say about non-scientific matters. We are all entitled to “deny the science”, of course, but I insist that I am doing nothing of the sort here. Quite the opposite: I embrace science with greater gusto than others, by bringing evolutionary theory to bear on climate change and human nature, as well as accepting the main scientific claims of climate science.

First, let’s see what we can agree on. There is little doubt that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere has been steadily increasing over the past few centuries. And there is little doubt that that causes an increase in the earth’s average temperature.

Although there will be local variations, an overall increase in temperature is associated with an overall increase in humidity, because warmer air can absorb more water vapour. (The driest place on earth — Antarctica — is also the coldest.)

This will undoubtedly cause problems for many. Farming practices will have to adapt. There may be more flooding. There will be more extreme heatwaves. Inevitably, it will cost lives. Changing circumstances means adapting to new conditions, which is always inconvenient, and often dangerous.

But that’s probably where our agreement ends. Because I think there will be winners as well as losers with the new dispensation. I just mentioned that climate change will inevitably cost lives. But the alternative would inevitably cost lives as well. When we speak of people “dying of heat”, we don’t mean they burn to death or die of thirst. Nearly all of them are people with compromised cardiovascular systems that have been put under increased stress by extremes of temperature. And at present, more people die of the cold than of the heat. Even if this changes — even if eventually more people die of the heat than of the cold — it doesn’t follow that more people die as a whole. But even if they do, everybody has to die of something, and dying of heat might be better than dying of the many alternatives. If food is expensive, people die of hunger. If food is cheap, people die of obesity. If someone miraculously manages to avoid death by heat, death by cold, death by hunger, death by obesity, or death at the hands of another one of the countless hazards that are supposed to make our times so perilous, they will still inevitably die of something else — a disease, or an accident, or some combined plurality of the last two that we label “old age”.

So, to take a first stab at answering Ray Monk’s question, I submit that terror and desperation in the face of climate change are not as appropriate as widely assumed. It has some good aspects. The earth has been visibly greening over the decades, as plant growth is promoted by higher temperatures, greater humidity, and more abundant CO2. The earth as a whole has been mimicking conditions that market gardeners create with rational reflection to boost crop yields. If more of the earth’s surface can sustain plant life, on the face of it that is a good thing, is it not?

All of this is no doubt familiar. We can agree that change isn’t always change for the worse. Yet the prospect of change per se seems to inspire terror and despair in some. Why?

I think the ancient Greek philosophical injunction to “know thyself” is relevant here (as almost everywhere else). Some habits of thought and inclination are so nearly universal among humans that we might say that are part of human nature. And unless we take the trouble to identify them and try to forestall their baleful effects, we will be led into error.

One such habit is that of — in effect — assuming death is somehow avoidable. We have already touched on this idea in the form of an assumption that “if X happens, then many will die, so we must try to avoid X happening”. But the alternative to X may well involve more deaths, or worse deaths, than X itself. The prospect of one’s own death is so distasteful that many of us simply refuse to think about it. We want to change the subject, and focus on something else. Which brings me to my next near-universal human habit of thought.

Humans almost universally believe that there is a “beginning of time” — the subject of a huge variety of supposed explanations from creation myths to scientific theories of the Big Bang. This usually goes hand-in-hand with a mirror-image expectation that there’s also an “end of the world” waiting in the wings, which is more or less nigh. Combined with the refusal to confront the natural inevitability of one’s own individual death, this tends to inspire a supernatural sense of dread. It’s as if a perfectly natural distaste on the part of individuals for the prospect of their own death makes them reluctant to think about it in naturalistic, proportional way, so it emerges instead as an uncanny sort of thing for everyone to fear en masse. Instead of talking about “my death” (an inevitable and unavoidable occurrence in the life of every individual) the focus shifts to “our death” (a large-scale catastrophe that can supposedly be averted by mass action).

A third human habit involves an almost irresistible feeling that nature is designed. Since prehistoric times, most of the human population of the world has believed that nature has a conscious designer, i.e. God. But even atheists like myself who have given up belief in God are still subject to the habitual feeling that purpose is everywhere. I think that is because “man is a religious animal”: as a species we are inclined to ritual and superstition, and all the rest of it, even if we don’t actually believe in God.

Some aspects of nature do serve a purpose, and they have been shaped to serve that purpose. In that sense they are designed: not by a conscious God, but by mindless Darwinian selection. This is design as it occurs in Daniel Dennett’s “design stance”: it is useful for prediction and explanation to treat some things as having a purpose, and to assume that they are working optimally to achieve that purpose. (Aristotle’s “final cause” is much the same idea.) The organs of a living organism’s body are designed in this sense. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood; the purpose of the lungs is to oxygenate the blood; the purpose of the kidneys is to filter the blood; and so on. The normal working behaviour of these organs can be predicted (and up to a point, explained as well) with reference to their purposes. Only when they go wrong do we fall back on “physical stance” explanations.

Organs like these work together within each organism, like meshing cogwheels. Something similar can sometimes be found between species of organisms. For example, some living things (such as clownfish and sea anemones, bees and bee orchids) have symbiotic relationships. Some of these are very species-specific, others less so, especially if they are parasitic (a cat flea will drink the blood of a human if it can’t find a cat, or indeed if it can find a cat). Depending on the exclusivity of the dependence, relations between these species of organisms can be understood as being designed, although again by an entirely mindless designer.

But such cases aside, for the most part relations between species of organism are not “designed” in any sense at all. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and it’s more a chaotic free-for-all than a system of meshing cogwheels. The strategy is blind opportunism rather than cooperation.

Now we are in a position to answer Ray Monk’s question more fully. Things that are designed to work together like organs can fail. They are like parts of a machine that can break. But things that are not designed to work together can’t fail. If one part drops out, another part drops in to take up the slack. If greenfinches are wiped out by disease, sparrows crowd in to eat the food that is left by the absent greenfinches.

Recent decades have seen increasing talk of ecosystems, and in some ways that is a good thing: it has raised awareness of the evils of pollution, and environmental damage of the sort that harms plants and animals. But in other ways it is a bad thing: it has promoted the false impression that the natural world is much more of a system than it really is.

Ray Monk might appreciate that this is a Wittgensteinian point. The word ‘system’ is being used out of context to refer to what is more like a chaotic free-for-all than a set of meshing cogs. This is a case of “language going on holiday”.

Once we are held captive by the picture of the living things on earth forming a system of designed components, it is hard to resist the idea that the system can break. It might fail. Its apparent fragility causes anxiety. And here’s where panic and hysteria set in. People become terrified and desperate because a combination of natural human weaknesses inspires a supernatural dread of “the end of the world”.

But there’s much less to fear than that. Most species are engaged in mindless competition. Where the population of one species drops, the population of another species almost inevitably rises. That’s life. And it involves death.

In praise of fatness

Matthew Parris has matured into one of the great pillars of Home Counties intolerance. His current bugbear is no longer this or that leader of the Conservative party but fat people. (“Fat shaming is the only way to beat the obesity crisis”, The Times, 8 October 2022.)

According to Parris, fat people are a great cost to the rest of society. Deaths from obesity have risen to 23.1 per cent, he claims — which by coincidence is the very same as the death rate that used to be attributed to smoking. For that reason, he thinks, fat people should be shamed into getting thinner in the same way as smokers have been shamed into quitting.

There is so much wrong with all that, I hardly know where to begin. It overlooks the inevitability of death; it turns a blind eye to the “costs” of other “conditions” such as homosexuality; it seems to be inspired by a misinterpretation of JS Mill; and it is essentially racist and misogynistic. To say nothing of the nastiness and cruelty of fat-shaming.

To begin with, let us remember that everyone has to die of something. A person who manages to dodge death by obesity inevitably runs into death by something else. That something else might be a lot worse for the person who dies, or worse for the rest of society. A person who dies in old age, of a lingering disease, following years of drawing a state pension, say, is quite costly to the rest of society. Contrast that with a person who dies rather young, and rather quickly, of a heart attack or a diabetic condition, when they are still a contributing member of society. Obesity often costs less to society than the alternative. (Parris’s analogy with smoking is questionable, because arguably smokers contribute so much in tax over the course of sustaining their habit that they may collectively cover the costs of smoking-related illnesses.)

For the sake of the argument, let’s counterfactually assume that fat people are in fact a burden to society. It doesn’t follow that obesity must be considered an “enemy” that we should try to defeat. What and how much people eat is as central to their autonomy and well-being as who they have sex with and how. For example, gay men tend to be more promiscuous than straight men, and promiscuity has its risks. It doesn’t follow that gay men are bad, or that they are obliged to be less promiscuous. In the 1980s, AIDS was a disease mostly spread by gay men, as monkey pox is today. But anyone’s sexual preferences and practices are so central to their autonomy and well-being that the rest of society is obliged to absorb the cost of those preferences and practices, as long as the costs are not all that high. In the 1980s, homophobes blamed gay men for the AIDS crisis and tried to discourage homosexuality. Those homophobes were rightly condemned by civilized society. Parris is old enough to remember those dark days in the gay community, and to be gratified that acceptance of homosexuality continued to grow despite the costs, because those costs were not all that high. Society rightly absorbed them, for the greater good of human freedom. Notice Parris’s double standards here — applied in such strikingly different ways to his own homosexuality and to other people’s obesity.

It doesn’t matter whether homosexuality or the tendency to be fat are innate, or are acquired habits. In all cases any attempt to change them is an interference too far, because it is an invasion of autonomy. It is a denial of agents’ entitlements to be who they are.

What seems to inspire Parris’s intolerant attitude to fat people is a garbled version of JS Mill’s “harm to others” principle. According to Mill, if an individual’s behaviour causes no harm to others, then no question arises as to whether the behaviour should be discouraged or forbidden. If the behaviour does cause harm to others, then a question does indeed arise, but the answer always depends on how much harm is caused. There are many human practices that hurt or endanger others to a degree that is insufficient to justify prevention. For example, surfers take risks of their own, but they also subject lifeguards — i.e. others — to additional risk. This is a form of “harm to others”. Yet those risks are not high enough for anyone to contemplate banning or even discouraging surfing.

In our intolerant times, JS Mill’s principle has been systematically misinterpreted to read “if it causes harm to others, then it should be banned”. It seems to me that Parris implicitly appeals to this garbled version of Mill’s principle in his assumption that all he has to do is point to the risks of being fat to win the rest of us over to the virtues of fat-shaming.

There is another aspect to Parris’s fat-shaming that he himself glosses over by waving obesity away as a symptom of poverty. It has to do with differences between human races. In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that sexual selection is a key factor in human evolution, as well as that of many other animals such as birds of paradise. Darwin himself noted that sexual selection explains many human racial differences. Tastes differ, and those tastes are revealed in the wide variety and showiness of appearance of humans as well as birds. In humans, perhaps the most obvious racial differences in taste and appearance are beardedness in males and distribution of fat in females.

Many men find large, curvaceous women very attractive. There are many words in many languages for such women, from ‘ample’ to ‘zaftig’ (through ‘embonpoint’, ‘thicc’, ‘voluptuous’…). These are terms of admiration. There are good evolutionary reasons for that. Because of the demands of sexual selection, women have to “advertise” their fitness and fertility, and a reliable way of doing that is to have large fat reserves in the buttocks (etc.), broad hips, and full, permanent breasts (which are unique to humans, by the way). But to be large and curvaceous, a woman must be fat. In other words, fatness is often an ornament of sexual selection. And it is evident that human races differ to a significant degree in how highly they prize all such ornaments, including fatness and fat distribution. To treat such ornamentation — and the accompanying taste for such ornamentation — as, in effect, the symptom of a disease is to devalue some human interests on the basis of race. And that is racist.

Furthermore, I think it is vaguely misogynistic. Hatred of fatness is often an expression of distaste for women, and womanly fat. Men have to advertise their fitness as well as women, but in humans, male fitness is more a matter of strength and wealth than fertility, and male fertility has little to do with fatness. So Parris’s fixation on the vices of obesity and virtues of thinness are strikingly sex-biased.

Parris is a controversialist, and wouldn’t be put out by my impotent accusations of racism and misogyny. But I have another word that might hit him closer to home. His attitude is parochial. A lack of interest in female beauty is quite understandable in a gay man, but his apparent ignorance of what it involves is narrow-minded. Outside his circle of white, middle class, fastidiously thin people whose ideal of femininity is “petite”, there is a big, wide world of beauty and sexuality that embraces fatness — and does so for healthy biological reasons.

Heat pumps: a terrible idea

Did you know that you can make your own heat pump using some everyday household items? First, empty your fridge and remove its door. Next, take your front door off its hinges. Now carefully manoeuvre your fridge into position so that its interior cavity faces outwards into the open air. Carefully seal the gaps around the edges using duct tape. Now plug the fridge in, and turn it up to high. Enjoy the warmth given off by the vanes at the back of the fridge that were formerly tucked away against the wall of your kitchen.

Does this sound like an efficient way to heat your home?

Of course it doesn’t, because of course it wouldn’t be an efficient way to heat your home. You would in effect be paying money to your electricity supplier for slightly cooling the outside air, with the side effect of slightly warming the air inside your home.

Would you be doing something good for the environment? — If cooling the outside air down a bit means doing the environment a favour, maybe so for a moment or two, but in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it takes more energy overall to heat the inside and cool the outside than it would take to just heat the inside on its own. Furthermore, in accordance with the law of Conservation of Energy, that extra heat energy wouldn’t just go away. No matter how well insulated your house may be, the extra energy must eventually dissipate into the outside world, reversing the effects of the cooling whose generation it was a by-product of in the first place.

That is all a heat pump amounts to: a sort of fridge doing the opposite of what fridges usually do. No matter how super-efficient a heat pump may be, no matter how stringently your house may be insulated, your heat pump cannot contravene two of the most basic laws of physics. It unavoidably creates a warmer place and a cooler place, and it uses energy to do so.

Why do otherwise intelligent people think that a heat pump can do something magical? Speculating, I think many of them are nowadays so worshipful of “science” and “the science” — without knowing much about it — that they think it’s capable of miracles such as contravening its most basic laws. They like the sound of a machine that “works like a fridge in reverse”, and assume that since “fridges cool things down, heat pumps warm them up”, and since “fridges use energy, heat pumps produce energy”. This sort of thinking led earlier generations to believe in perpetual motion machines.

From The Daily Telegraph, 20 October 2021:

It works rather like a fridge in reverse, says Will Rivers, senior manager at the Carbon Trust consultancy. “A heat pump is taking a very large quantity of low-temperature heat [from outside the house], and then compressing it into a smaller volume of high-temperature heat. It might only be two degrees outside, but there is still energy in that air if you capture enough of it.”

I’m afraid this is very misleading. There is indeed energy in two-degree air, but it’s not usable energy unless you have access to something whose temperature is lower than two degrees. In the absence of such access, it takes extra energy from somewhere else to “capture” the heat in two-degree air, and again in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it would take more energy to “capture” that heat than the energy of the heat that gets “captured”.

If you are lucky enough to live in a place like Iceland, where there is an abundance of geothermal energy and no shortage of cold air, then there is plenty of usable energy available. That usable energy could be harnessed to provide energy to drive a heat pump which in effect “moves heat around”, from a hot spring (say) to your home. But if you live in the UK, your only hope of avoiding an energy deficit with a heat pump is by digging a very deep hole.

Theories, things, and “denial”

Here is some badly confused thinking: “Climate change is really basic physics. You can’t ‘believe in climate change or not’. That would be just like ‘you believe in gravity or not’.” (Dr Friederike Otto on BBC Inside Science)

Gravity is an obvious thing, which is immediately observable to everyone. Theories of gravity are not obvious, and reasonable people can disagree or be sceptical about them. Theories of gravity were developed in order to explain an obvious thing that people were aware of already.

Climate change is not an obvious thing, and it is not immediately observable to everyone. We have reason to believe in climate change, the thing, if we believe the theory of climate change. Unlike theories of gravity, the theory of climate change was not developed to explain an obvious thing that people were aware of already. It was the other way around: our confidence in the theory is our warrant for believing in the thing.

A person can only be “in denial” about something obvious, like gravity, the thing. No one can be “in denial” about something that is is not obvious, like a theory of gravity. Since neither the theory of climate change nor the thing is obvious, we should give up claims that sceptics about them can be in denial about them.

A rare bird

For months, I assumed this rare visitor was a sparrow–goldfinch hybrid. We have a lot of teasel growing in our garden, which attracts goldfinches, and when our visitor and the goldfinches perch near each other, it’s clear that they have almost exactly the same shape and size, and exhibit very similar mannerisms. And our visitor is on extremely familiar terms with the twenty or so sparrows who divide their time between our lilac tree and our bird feeder.

But thanks to Seán Ronayne, ornithologist and creator of Irish Wildlife Sounds @soundsirish, I now believe that our visitor is an escaped scaly-breasted munia, or something similar (such as a black-throated munia), a native of southeast Asia. I gather that some such birds are kept here as pets in cages, and are usually called nutmeg mannikins or spice finches, although I confess I’ve never heard of or seen one before.

Despite the privations of the Irish weather, I’m glad our little bird escaped. It seemed to thrive here in Cork through the summer, and still seems to be doing fine so far this winter, despite the cold (which is rarely extreme in our maritime climate). For the foreseeable future, it is guaranteed an abundance of food from our feeder (which I have been diligently refilling during the Covid crisis, since I am going nowhere). To all appearances, our beautiful little bird is sprightly, healthy, happy — and free.

Thanks again to Seán Ronayne for his expertise.

You can hear what it sounds like from the following clip (made from three shorter recordings spliced together):