Gulf of Mexico oil disaster: an “act of God”, Texas governor says

But what is that, exactly?

Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, has caused considerable offence Stateside by describing the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana as an "act of God". In contrast to Barack Obama, who has already made it clear who he thinks is to blame -- "BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill," the president said -- Perry's view is that, "From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented."

The Texas governor later defended his remarks by saying that the term was a legal definition which meant "nobody knows what happened". Bearing him out, perhaps, my New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines "act of God" as "the operation of uncontrollable natural forces".

Why, however, should such events be blamed on God, and what consequences flow from assigning responsibility to Him? The term clearly dates from a time when belief in an omniscient and omnipotent god was near universal, and it made sense to ascribe events not connected with human activity -- earthquakes, volcanoes, and so on -- to divine action.

But this leads directly into a question familiar to any student of philosophy or theology -- the Problem of Evil. As St Augustine put it: "Either God cannot abolish evil or He will not: if He cannot then He is not all-powerful; if He will not then He is not all-good."

Favour to the Almighty

All the arguments justifying the necessity of natural evil have always seemed to me utterly bizarre -- even more so than the Free Will Defence, which seeks to explain human evil by claiming that a God who could have created a world in which everyone always chose to do good (Flew and Mackie's "good robots") preferred one in which He knew people would do evil instead.

Indeed, some argue that a consequence of divine omniscience is that nothing happens without God's say-so: in which case, as the late philosopher D Z Phillips wrote: "What are we to say of the child dying of throat cancer? . . . If this has been done to anyone, it is bad enough, but to be done for a purpose, to be planned from eternity -- that is the deepest evil. If God is this kind of agent, He cannot justify His actions, and His evil nature is revealed."

Richard Swinburne explained natural evil in The Existence of God thus: "If men are to have the opportunity to bring about serious evils for themselves or others by actions or negligence, or to prevent their occurrence, and if all knowledge of the future is obtained by induction from patterns of similar events in the past -- then there must be serious natural evils occurring to man or animals."

Convincing? Another popularly cited get-out clause, associated with St Augustine, was that natural evils are caused by fallen angels -- in which case such events should surely not be described as "acts of God" at all. 

Whichever way you look at it, it doesn't seem to me that describing an oil slick half the size of Wales, and which threatens 25 per cent of America's fresh fish haul, as an "act of God" is particularly helpful. It wouldn't appear to do the Almighty many favours, either: a point worth pondering in a country where professions of Christian faith by those in public life are almost compulsory.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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White supremacists are embracing genetic testing – but they aren't always that keen on the results

Users of far-right site Stormfront are resorting to pseudo science and conspiracy theories when DNA tests show they aren't as “pure” as they hoped.

The field of genomics and genetics have undergone almost exponential growth in recent years. Ventures like the Human Genome Project have enabled t humanity to get a closer look at our building blocks. This has led to an explosion in genetic ancestry testingand as of 6 April 2017 23AndMe, one of the most popular commercial DNA testing websites, has genotyped roughly 2 million customers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the markets for genetic testing can be found among white suprmacists desperate to prove their racial purity. But it turns out that many they may not be getting the results they want. 

Stormfront, the most prominent white nationalist website, has its own definition of those who are allowed to count themselves as white - “non-Jewish people of 100 per cent European ancestry.” But many supremacists who take genetic tests are finding out that rather than bearing "not a drop" of non-white blood, they are - like most of us a conglomerate of various kinds of DNA from all over the world including percentages from places such as sub Saharan Africa and Asia. Few are taking it well.

Dr. Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and the research institute Data and Society respectively, presented a research study (currently under peer review for publication) at the American Sociological Association a week ago, analysing discussion of GAT on Stormfront forums. Panofsky, Donovan and a team of researchers narrowed down the relevant threads to about 700, with 153 users who had chosen to publish their results online. While Panofsky emphasised that it is not possible to draw many quantitative inferences, the findings of their study offer a glimpse into the white nationalist movement's response to science that doesn't their self perception. 

“The bulk of the discussion was repair talk”, says Panofsky. “Though sometimes folks who posted a problematic result were told to leave Stormfront or “drink cyanide” or whatever else, 'don’t breed', most of the talk was discussion about how to interpret the results to make the bad news go away”.

Overwhelmingly, there were two main categories of reinterpretation. Many responses dismissed GAT as flimsy science – with statements such as a “person with true white nationalist consciousness can 'see race', even if their tests indicate 'impurity'".

Other commentators employed pseudo-scientific arguments. “They often resemble the critiques that professional geneticists, biological anthropologists and social scientists, make of GAT, but through a white nationalist lens", says Panofsky. 

For instance, some commentators would look at percentages of non-European DNA and put it down to the rape of white women by non-white men in the past, or a result of conquests by Vikings of savage lands (what the rest of us might call colonialism). Panofsky likens this to the responses from “many science opponents like climate deniers or anti-vaxxers, who are actually very informed about the science, even if they interpret and critique it in idiosyncratic and motivated ways".

Some white nationalists even looked at the GAT results and suggested that discussion of 100 per cent racial purity and the "one drop" rule might even be outdated – that it might be better to look for specific genetic markets that are “reliably European”, even though geneticists might call them by a different name.

Of course, in another not totally surprising development, many of the Stormfront commentators also insisted that GAT is part of a Jewish conspiracy, “to confuse whites by sprinkling false diversity into test results".

Many of the experts in the field have admitted to queasiness about the test themselves; both how they come to their results and what they imply. There are several technical issues with GAT, such as its use of contemporary populations to make inferences about those who previously lived in different places around the world, and concerns that the diversity of reference samples used to make inferences is not fully representative of the real world. 

There are other specific complications when it comes to the supramacist enthusiasm for GAT. Some already make a tortous argument that white people are the “true people of color" by dint of greater variation in hair and eye color. By breaking up DNA into percentages (e.g. 30 per cent Danish, 20 per cent German), Panofsky says GAT can provide a further opportunity to “appropriate and colonise the discourse of diversity and multiculturalism for their own purposes". There's is also, says Panofsky, the simple issue that “we can’t rely on genetic information to turn white nationalists away from their views."

“While I think it would be nice if the lesson people would take from GAT is that white nationalism is incoherent and wrong. I think white nationalists themselves often take the exact opposite conclusion."