Raisins in the rising dough

June 26, 1998

Predictions is a new mini-paperback series, priced at Pounds 2 each, in Weidenfeld and Nicolson's Phoenix imprint.

In dimensions and length (fifty-odd pages apiece) it owes something to Penguin's Sixties series, but in content it echoes a bulkier series of the 1920s, in which, just as here, each full title included the words "The Future of". (The most famous was Robert Graves on The Future of Swearing, a feeble exercise, and facetious beyond any conceivable call of duty.) In some of these books, the promise of prediction is not taken too literally, doubtless for the Popperian reason that if knowledge really could be predicted, we should already possess it. On the other hand, much of what must interest us about (say) climate, population, genetic manipulation and the Middle East does indeed concern their future prospects, since those, however uncertain, bear directly on ours.

The central subject, naturally, of John Gribbin's The Future of Cosmology (54pp. 0 297 81987 9) is the Big Bang. The immensity of the conception, and (to the lay eye) the impenetrability of its underlying science and mathematics, are stupefying. Nevertheless, Dr Gribbin gives a clear and compelling digest of matters before which the everyday imagination quails, and which, though rational both evidentially and in principle, terminate virtually in mystery.

Light from a receding source increases in wavelength (the Doppler effect). But the "cosmological redshift", it seems, is not like this. The Big Bang is not an explosion of celestial bodies through pre-existing space, but rather an expansion of space itself. Einstein first postulated such an improbability, but Gribbin's explanation is enlightening: "like raisins being carried further apart . . . in the rising dough of a loaf of raisin bread".

Gribbin is illuminating also on gravity, "dark matter", and whether the universe is "open", "closed" or "flat" (that is, whether it will expand indefinitely, collapse as gravity reasserts itself, or settle at an equilibrium). It is good to see that the spirit of T. H. Huxley and the other great Victorian popularizers lives on, expressing itself as vigorously and graphically as ever.

Matt Ridley's lively neo-Darwinist The Future of Disease (54pp. 0 297 84065 7) is, in fact, only about contagious diseases: plague, 'flu, TB, AIDS, malaria, cholera, colds and the like. His message is moderately upbeat, despite the advent of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and ghastly new viral infections such as Ebola and Marburg fevers. The latter, it seems, are not much of a threat, since by killing the patient too quickly they inhibit their own spread. The most "successful" infections tend to be mild (colds, for example) and evolutionarily to crowd out the more virulent.

Over-prescription has encouraged resistance to antibiotics, but resistance wanes as over-prescription is reduced. Moreover, we still have some ammunition in the shape of new anti-bacterial chemicals and DNA vaccines. Ridley's Daily Telegraph fellow columnist, the bat-hating Auberon Waugh, will be gratified to find that his colleague's money is on bats as the likely next source of something horrible.

The IVF pioneer Robert Winston's Genetic Manipulation (56pp. 0 297 84116 5) unavoidably broaches ethical questions. Lord Winston points out that, though objectionable, sex selection is preferable to its predecessor, infanticide; further, that it could in fact raise the value of a systematically disfavoured sex by making it scarcer. As for "designer" babies, character traits are apparently the most "desirable", but those, if genetically based at all, are so complex ("multigenic") in composition as to defy any attempt to manufacture them.

Even where the aim is to eradicate hereditary disease, Winston has misgivings about "germ-line therapy" (tinkering with gametes, so that the results are inherited). However, the alternative, treating single-generation individuals by somatic-cell gene therapy, has not so far been very successful. As for cloning, organ and cell cloning could be useful; but ethics apart, the mass cloning of individuals would reduce genetic diversity and thus (if the object were, as with animals, to improve the stock) be counter-productive. Winston does point out, though, that natural clones (identical twins) are unproblematic. In general, he seems ill at ease with what are often novel ethical issues, as who would not be if asked to decide them single-handed? This not only shows commendable modesty, but also illustrates the folly of demanding that scientists be somehow "responsible" in a cultural and legislative vacuum.

Two geographers, Andrew Goudie and John I. Clarke, write on Climate (52pp. 0 297 81929 1) and Population (56pp. 0 297 81923 2). Neither is alarmist, but Goudie is far superior in both style and substance. Particularly admirable, in view of the opportunities newly afforded by (alleged) "global warming" to otherwise discredited political dirigistes, is Goudie's insistence on both sides of the argument. Like me, you may well inexpertly have wondered why increased carbon dioxide emissions should not, in fact, simply produce additional vegetation to mop them up; or why rising temperatures should not, via increased evaporation, lead to more cloud cover and thence to less direct solar radiation. While giving no cause for complacency, Goudie does note that these counter-considerations enjoy some scientific support. The long-term, palaeo-historical trend is one of spontaneous climatic change, which is also vast, ongoing, unstoppable and (being multi-factorial) absolutely unpredictable. Given that, he recommends merely "no-regrets" environmental policies. These would offer some insurance against the (possible) ill-effects of (possible) short-term global warming, but at the same time be cheap enough not to make fools or paupers of us all if our fears prove ill-founded.

Clarke's Population is woolly-minded and clumsily written. "Mortality decline" constitutes "progress", but Japanese longevity is a "dubious distinction". Women are "advantaged" by their "greater longevity" but "disadvantaged" by "prolonged widowhood" (its consequence). In fact, Clarke seems obsessed by differential "advantage". "The assets of the world's 358 billionaires", he tells us, "obscenely exceed the combined annual incomes of countries accounting for 45 per cent of the world's population."

What is this bizarre, arbitrary statistic supposed to show? Why measure one group's assets, probably decades in the making, against another's merely annual incomes, except to make the rhetorical comparison more invidious? And why polarize the issue, ignoring economically intermediate groups? Are we to assume that poverty and wealth are necessarily a constant-sum game, the poor being poor because the rich are rich? Was the billionaires' wealth unjustly acquired, that is, stolen or extorted? Some will have been, by despots such as the late Mobutu Sese Seko. But how much better off would any of us ever have been without accumulation (even, dare one say, some of it unjust), or be now, if all were simply redistributed? Rockefeller purportedly gave twenty-five cents to a puzzled egalitarian critic of his enormous wealth. Asked why, he replied "That's your share".

The problem, as Clarke occasionally sees, is not inequality but poverty. To remedy that, the world needs more accumulation, not less. Put it to work under the appropriate constraints (cultural, legal and political), and the relatively decent life which much of the world is already coming to enjoy may soon be possible for all. And the faster that happens, the sooner the global birth-rate will fall. As Clarke notes, it is even now levelling off, and in some affluent countries has already fallen well below replacement level.

Francois Heisbourg's Warfare (55pp. 0 297 81848 1) is clear, sensible and interesting. It is a serious, plausible, no-frills account of the likely future of warfare, with all the relevant and rapidly changing technological, logistical, budgetary, geopolitical and cultural variables factored in. Heisbourg notes that high-tech wars (the minority) will increasingly be fought (if that is the word) by computer "geeks" rather than battlefield "grunts". This must surely devalue the traditional military virtues. But (let us add) so long as anything is truly loved, so long will people willingly fight and die for it. So long also, or until every love can be made secure, must permanent peace elude us (and heroism survive).

Heisbourg and Bernard Lewis in The Middle East (58pp. 0 297 81980 1) both believe that terrorism exists. Conor Gearty, however, the author of Terrorism (58pp. 0 297 81903 8), has seen through all that "anti-terrorist" propaganda pumped out by our masters. He tells us that he is a disciple of Noam Chomsky (not the path-breaking linguist, but the radical agitator of the same name), and therefore not to expect a "mainstream" account.

Well, we don't get it, in spades. It is perfectly true that, as Gearty claims, the "terrorist" incidents which, though common enough elsewhere, have affected the liberal democracies only since about 1970, have also spawned any number of "experts" who routinely trace every such atrocity to "international terrorism". It is also true that some regimes actually govern by terror, that authoritarian regimes generally depict any armed opposition as "terrorist", and that warring states often employ "terror" tactics against enemy civilians.

None of that means, though, that there is no such thing as "terrorism" in the conventional sense, or that liberal democracies, which for obvious reasons are especially vulnerable to it, are wrong to defend themselves by what cannot but be comparatively illiberal emergency measures. Those, though irksome, are perceived by most people as inevitable, the blame being laid, rightly, on those who have compelled their adoption, and not, as Gearty would prefer, on perfectly legitimate governments endeavouring, as they should, to protect their subjects.

Gearty betrays no active sympathy for such terrorists as even he concedes exist; but his comparative attitude to them and government still savours of the old "moral equivalence" thesis, according to which the West and the Soviet Union were as bad as each other (except for the United States, which was worse). Underlying all this is a silly, juvenile anarchism, whispering that since, like terrorists, all governments possess violent coercive power, none can ever really be legitimate.

One of the very best of these Predictions is Lewis's The Middle East, which expounds the problems of that region and its complex historical and religious background with exemplary sanity, fair-mindedness and clarity. Less happy is Hugh Thomas's Europe (59pp. 0 297 84114 9), a Europhiliac vision which rather worryingly goes blank at the critical moment. "Europe is a train", Thomas says loftily, "about which it is childish to ask the name of its final stop." Surely not, if you know that, once you're on, there's no getting off?

Then we have Stephen Tumim, formerly HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, on Crime and Punishment (55pp. 0 297 81937 2). Being jolly, humane and totally unphilosophical, he says nothing about either topic. Instead, like the governor in Decline and Fall, he proposes turning prisons into art and drama workshops, thus making them as little like punishment as possible. He does not explain how, if prison is to be such fun, people are to be kept out of it, nor where the justice lies in rewarding their bad behaviour.

Felipe Fern ndez-Armesto on Religion (55pp. 0 297 81895 3) is an altogether tougher proposition. Whether or not you share his robust Catholicism, his essay makes exhilarating reading. He writes fluently, imaginatively and intemperately, firing some fat broadsides into virtually every spiritual, cultural and intellectual fatuity (and sometimes even harmless novelty) of the present age. He expects traditional religion to survive and flourish. With him let loose on the competition, it may well do so.

Finally, Dave Hill on The Future of Men (56pp. 0 297 84110 6). Hill is a Guardian journalist who can't decide whether to be "New Man" or "New Lad". He parades some unpleasantly naff lore about clitorises, masturbation and sexual mechanics generally, yet weeps with outrage at men's derogatory use of the c-word. He has evidently never heard it used ironically by educated women, nor reflected on the complementary sarcasm "prick", nor asked himself whether these things are really metaphors at all.

Of these first dozen Predictions more than half are good. Of those, two or three are excellent, and of the remainder only a couple are disgraceful. Relative to most human endeavours, that's an impressive overall score.

Robert Grant is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Glasgow.

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