Signs of the Apocalypse

Well, Bright Club went pretty well I think, some people laughed at least once, plus I received some surprisingly enthusiastic support from the two heavy metal fans in the audience who enjoyed my Kreator t-shirt. I will put up something about the science behind my talk later when I have access to a more reliable internet connection. Everyone else was fabulous, plus I have now experienced the joys of Stephen Friz Frizzle, comedy songsmith extraordinaire. See him if you get the chance – his next gig is in Newcastle at Bar Loco on Sunday 1st July.

Skeptics in the Pub were ready for further geek comedy in the form of Helen Arney yesterday. Her arrival sparked scenes of apocalyptic devastation in Newcastle, an unexpected intense downpour and rather spectacular thunder and lightning managing to cripple the entire North East’s transport systems in the space of about twenty minutes. As such we had a somewhat smaller than expected turnout, but Helen was very relaxed about the whole thing and took the opportunity to try out some new material on us. Sounds like her Edinburgh show is going to be a corker. Attend.

I am currently heading back dahn sahth for the weekend, a day later than expected because of the biblical storms, and may pop along to the Henley regatta. I have never been, because it sounds horrific, but with enough Pimms it could be amusing. We shall see.

Newcastle Bright Club

IT’S TONIGHT, AND I’M SPEAKING! Wed 27th June 2012, 7.30pm at the Black Swan (on Westgate Road near the Academy), the “thinking person’s variety night” returns to bring you a fragrant blend of music, research and comedy.

We had a little rehearsal last night and I can tell you all now that you are in for a right good treat, as the other speakers at least are fabulous. Helen Keen returns to compère – she’s been helping us out with our sets, so to be honest you can blame her if you don’t enjoy it. I have to say, talking to a comedian about your own jokes is a strangely intimidating experience, even though she is both very nice and very helpful.

I’m going to be speaking about network science and the brain. It will be sexed-up to the point that Labour will want to use it to force through policy decisions if they ever manage to weasel back into power. Sod the football, come to Bright Club.

P.S. If you’re interested in either network science or the brain, or both, have a look at our lab’s web-site. These articles are good overviews of using network science to learn more about the brain:

Organization, development and function of complex brain networks

A tutorial in connectome analysis


Hey Simon [Sing(h)]

Back in March we did an open mic night at Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub as part of Newcastle Science Fest 2012. It produced some great talks ranging from cyborgs to exploding breasts, all from local speakers, and I suspect we’ll be holding another one in the future. I did a lovely song in honour of the Simon Singh vs. the British Chiropractic Association libel case. You may recognise the tune.

For more information on UK libel law failings, see the UK Libel Reform Campaign.

Some content

This is all new and fun, so while I’m gathering my thoughts for wonderfully exciting content, here’s a post I wrote a while ago for The 21st Floor.


Human Cloning Is Not Immoral

I promise I’m not just writing this for shock value, but with a title like that, I should explain exactly what I mean as it’s crucial to this argument. Moral issues are often separated into extrinsic and intrinsic concerns: extrinsic covering considerations about the consequences of an action, and intrinsic meaning the action is inherently wrong in itself. I agree that, currently, human cloning could be considered extrinsically immoral because of questions about the safety of the technique with regard to the clone, and I don’t intend to argue against that position. However, I have come across an assumption amongst many that human cloning is somehow intrinsically immoral – that creating humans other than by combining two people’s DNA is fundamentally wrong for some reason, and this is the assumption I want to address.

As with genetic modification (GM), intrinsic arguments against human cloning tend to centre around it being unnatural, and therefore bad – those particularly on the ball will recognize this as a form of the naturalistic fallacy. In the GM argument, GM proponents will often reply against this accusation of unnaturalness by remarking that genetic changes occur naturally, and that GM is not fundamentally different from, for example, selective breeding. While this is a position I agree with, it is not an ideal defense against the initial accusation as it leaves the assumption that unnatural=bad unaddressed; it has merely asserted that GM is, in fact, also natural. The assumption that what is natural is good and unnatural not good not only means creating artificial (or unnatural, if you prefer) boundaries to separate natural from unnatural, but also ascribes moral positions to nature, which cannot possibly be known. Cloning is, of course, not the natural way for humans to reproduce, but it effectively occurs whenever monozygotic twins are conceived. So, while some will argue that cloning is unnatural and others will reply that identical twins are nature’s clones, it does not actually matter, as the naturalness or otherwise is totally irrelevant to the morality.

The argument that humans should not “play god” is similar, in that it attributes desires to an entity that cannot possibly be known (except perhaps if you’re Phil Collins) – the god or gods may well be very happy that we’ve advanced technology to the point where human cloning has become a possibility just as much as they may be unhappy. This phrase is often used as an allusion to human hubris as well as literally, but in this sense it would sidle across into the extrinsic category – to beware the unforeseen consequences, as science fiction revels in reminding us – so cannot be regarded as a solid argument against the intrinsic morality of human cloning.

The purpose of creating the clone is a primary consideration given that it will be a sentient person just like any other. Bringing a human life into the world is a very serious matter, which should not be done without consideration for the created person. Creating a clone of oneself should not be treated differently from having a child in a conventional manner, then. Deciding to have a child is usually a selfish act; unless someone becomes pregnant accidentally and is compelled by their own or others’ morals to keep the baby (I suppose you could argue that’s selfish too if you really wanted, as they would be having the child so that they could feel better about themselves/not anger others/still get into heaven/etc.), then they have chosen to have a child because they want one, rather than for any consideration about the needs of others. Perhaps in some cases It’s A Bit More Complicated Than That, but the point is that having children is not immoral, even if you are only doing so for selfish reasons, so why should it be considered immoral to create a clone of yourself? Your clone would be your twin rather than your child per se; is it immoral for someone to create a sibling for themselves, but not for a parent to create a sibling for them?

Originally published at The 21st Floor