Archive for the 'science' Category

Born to be wild

I like to pride myself on being something of a time-wasting connoisseur. Give me an afternoon and I will show you how to do sod all, and take pride in it.

But today I realised that I was playing in the junior league compared to the world of academia across the pond.

According to a report in the Guardian, research by a team of American scientists has come to the astounding conclusion that the rise of the novel in the last eighteenth century “not only reflected the values of Victorian society, but also shaped them.”

Researchers asked 500 academics to rate the personality traits of characters from 201 classic Victorian novels and came up with this gobbet of wisdom:

“Archetypal novels from the time extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted co-operation and affability against individuals’ huger for power and dominance”

As an ex-English student, I am perfectly aware that I may have something of a chip on my shoulder, but this strikes me as the most ludicrous waste of time and money I have heard of since I read about someone sponsored to work out the equation to describe how a ball of paper crumples. middlemarch

Even the most mediocre of A-level student could have told them that. In fact, anyone who has ever managed the briefest flick through a Victorian novel – the examples named being Middlemarch, Dracula and Wuthering Heights – could have picked it up before the end of the first chapter.

Furthermore, it is not only bad science, it is bad literary criticism. The article goes on to explain:

“They found that leading characters fell into groups that mirrored the co-operative nature of a hunter-gatherer society, where individual urges for power and wealth were suppressed for the good of the community”

So, society good, individualism bad, is that what we’re meant to learn from this insightful study?

Well, if the evolutionary psychologists in question had done their homework, they might have realised that history is, in fact, stranger than fiction.

While Jane Austen was carving her “little bit of ivory”, working on the first drafts of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensiblity, two men were writing an introduction to a collection of poems that heralded a new era in how man understood himself.

The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is generally regarded at the beginning and manifesto of British Romanticism.

In it, they reject the studied artistry of their predecessors, arguing instead that poetry should be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” composed by a man “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility [who has] also thought long and deeply.” rebel

That image of the haunted individual, isolated by his superior understanding, has played on our imaginations in its various forms ever since.

From the pages of Wuthering Heights to the James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, the image of the lone wolf has become the heart throb of generations.

Aspiration, drive, individualism – these are the features we admire most in today’s capitalist society. We may pay lip service to Mother Theresa, nod sagely at Ghandi, but if it came to the choice, how many of us would, really and truly, chose their lives of sacrifice over that of Warren Buffett?

To say that our genes have been writen by the pages of Middlemarch not only misunderstands fundamental traits of the human character, but also the literature of the period.

As Einstein put it: “The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

Barking mad

Rottweilers, the archetypal British guard dog, are being turned into docile house pets under a Dutch breeding scheme designed to engineer out the genes that cause aggressive behaviour.

The programme, introduced in Holland eight years ago, aims to stop dangerous dogs reproducing by only issuing pedigrees to dogs that pass a docility test. Breeders claim that the number of friendly dogs has nearly doubled since the scheme began.

Joanne van der Borg, who carried out the research at Wageningen University, said “The dogs born into this programme are much better behaved. There is a strong genetic element to aggression and it is possible that this is being bred out.”

As part of the study, 800 rottweiler owners were asked to rate their dog’s behaviour. About 16 per cent of the non-pedigree dogs were aggressive to strangers, which fell to just seven per cent among pedigree dogs.

This latest development comes in the wake of a series of scandals in the British dog breeding world. The BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed, aired this summer, drew the media spotlight after it claimed that many show dogs had severe genetic conditions and lived their lives in constant pain.

The programme featured a prize-winning Cavalier King Charles spaniel with syringomyelia, a condition that occurs when a dog’s skull is too small for its brain, as well as boxers with epilepsy and pugs with breathing problems.

In response, the BBC decided to scrap coverage of Crufts next year after the Kennel Club refused to adhere to severe guidelines on which dogs could compete. Twelve breeds prone to genetic diseases, including the King Charles spaniel, basset hound, German shepherd, bulldog and St Bernard, would been banned from the competition.

The decision was controversial: the BBC has covered the show for 42 years and last year’s highlights attracted 14.5 million viewers. Caroline Kisko, secretary at the club, called the decision “illogical”, claiming it would only worsen the problem.

But the RSPCA’s chief veterinary adviser, Mark Evans, told the BBC: “The show world is about an obsession, about beauty, and there is a ridiculous concept that that is how we should judge dogs.

“It takes no account of temperament or fitness for purpose potentially as a pet animal, and that to me makes no sense at all. It is a parade of mutants; a freakish beauty pageant.”

The great sage Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”.

In a culture where shows like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are a national obsession, it is hardly surprising that our tastes have extended to contestants that can’t argue back. I only hope that at least one freak show will stay off the air.

April 2020

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