Time Out with Nick Cohen: Steve Jones

Darwin had to contend with religious dogma and bad poetry. An illustrious successor is equally frust

Whether we live in a golden age of scientific dispute is disputed, not least by Professor Steve Jones, but we certainly have lived through a golden age of science writing. Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, E O Wilson, Steven Pinker and Jones himself have taken evolution out of academia and engaged the educated public. Yet, for all their skill, watching them has been like watching a concert party for the troops in a war zone: an interesting diversion from the main event. They have been arguing about selfish genes, punctuated equilibrium, sociobiology and atheism, while barely noticing the biological catastrophe around them. The "Holocene extinction event", a destruction of flora and fauna by the human race so extensive that it is comparable with the five other mass extinctions in the 550-million-year history of complex life on earth, is ravishing the planet, but great writers on evolution have stayed silent as man destroys their raw material.

Jones makes ample amends in his new study of the poisoning of the coral reefs, but I put it to him that, for most of their careers, he and his contemporaries have missed the dying elephant in the room.

His answer shows Jones's many virtues. First, he corrects my sloppy generalisation; Jared Diamond and E O Wilson have written well about man's catastrophic effect on other species, he points out. Then he's off with the incisive fluency that makes editors hire him and readers buy him.

"What's interesting is that biologists are as distanced from the world of natural history as any member of the public. Most of us just study humans, fruit flies, bacteria or snails." He points across the senior common room of University College London. "Look, there are two extremely eminent math ematical biologists. They probably couldn't recognise the difference between a sparrow and a starling. Biologists' minds are focused on a very narrow range of things. I would say 90 per cent of students in the faculty aren't particularly concerned about what is going on in the natural world. They want to cure brain cancer.

"I'm unhappy about it, but I'm unhappy about it more as a concerned human being than as a professional biologist. I'm not minimising the horrors of what's going on, but I don't think biology is going to solve the horrors. Even the work that tells you about the size of reserves you need to protect endangered species brings generally bad news - you need huge reserves."

Listening to him, I think that if ever I have to be trapped in a lift with anyone, it might as well be Jones. In talking as in writing, he combines wit and pace with a backlist of references he began accumulating when he was a bookish boy in Nonconformist Wales who buried himself in his grandfather's Bible. Almost Like a Whale, his rewriting of The Origin of Species, offers a small example of his range. It begins by laying out the dogma Charles Darwin had to combat: that God fitted every creature for its place in Creation. An ordinary writer would have simply presented the argument and left it there. Jones digs out a poem by one John Hookham Frere, a forgotten Georgian Conservative, and quotes with relish his anti-Enlightenment verse of 1798 that explains the argument for design with two of the worst lines in English poetry:

The feather'd race with pinions skim the air -

Not so the mackerel, and still less the bear!

He pays readers and listeners the compliment of assuming you are as knowledgeable as he is - the classic strategy of a natural teacher who knows how to flatter his pupils into keeping up. When I meet him to share the atrocious sandwiches UCL forces on its academics, he is angry that "supposedly liberal" rules will make him retire from teaching in two years, when he reaches 65. Many academics would welcome the chance to write books and address appreciative audiences around the world. Not so Jones. Teaching comes first.

All of which makes his success appear an easy matter to explain. We would have to give up on intellectual life if a writer who loves learning and knows how to communicate it couldn't find audience.

However, Jones's appeal has a mysterious element. He is a wary, even gloomy thinker, out of step with the current culture of exhortation and moral uplift. Prince Charles, vir tually every celebrity who opines on politics, the serious media, the British government, and all the other signatories to the Kyoto treaty, insist that changes in lifestyle and energy production can limit the effects of climate change. The underlying assumption of the lectures on recycling and cutting back on air miles is that relatively painless adaptations can "make a difference" and limit the degradation. True, serious greens aren't as cocksure, but even they believe that dramatic change can have dramatic effects. Jones has no time for optimism of any variety. Coral is subtitled A Pessimist in Paradise, and he sees the destruction of the coral polyps as foretelling the destruction of humanity: "The reefs themselves make some firm, and sombre, predictions about our own apocalypse." We shouldn't be surprised - extinction is the fate of all species - though Jones cheerily says his best guess is that disease will get us before the heat.

Pessimism is a persistent feature. For all his suavity and atheism, I wonder if it would be cheap psychology to believe that his grandfather's Bible has given him a touch of the Old Testament prophet. He delights in taking apart the confident pretence of sociobiologists that their study of evolution has given them the key to human nature. "An awful lot of stuff about human behaviour and society one reads would not get into a scientific journal if it were about fruit flies," he sighs. "It's not good enough. Science is about facts."

When I give him a sociobiological account from Pinker's The Blank Slate of how humanity's sense of justice developed from an evolutionary need of early human beings to punish those who threatened to take their mates, he all but bursts out laughing. "Now design the experiment. Give me the data to suggest that's true. This is arts-faculty science. People sitting down and inventing stories without the smallest fact to support them.

"It's dangerous because evolution has been used as an alibi by everyone. Marx sent Darwin a copy of Das Kapital. Hitler used it to justify his crimes. You have to be careful about the naive application of these ideas. In the States, defence lawyers are trying to use genetics to spare defendants from death row. There, lawyers of Stephen Mobley [who murdered the manager of a Georgia pizza parlour in 1991] tried to save him from lethal injection by arguing he had a gene that predisposed him to violence. After that, the state of Texas, home to our friend George W Bush, changed its rules in a very subtle way to say that anyone deemed to be a continuing threat to society would be liable for execution.

"What that means is that, if the defence uses a genetic argument that a prisoner is genetically predisposed to violence, the state will kill him because it can't cure him. Although I despise that view, it has the same logic as the alternative that genes deny criminal responsibility. You have to be very careful to disentangle biology from its use in society and it's not clear to me that sociobiology has tried to do it."

Nor does he hold back from saying that his fellow geneticists are as guilty as sociobiologists of "grossly overselling" what they can do. Jones doesn't doubt that genetic discoveries will shape many lives. It is possible to imagine a future in which genetic tests influence decisions on whom to marry and which pregnancies to abort. Genetic science is imposing burdens on individuals that our ancestors never imagined. In the past, insurance companies didn't know who was more likely to suffer a heart attack in middle age; they just had to pay the money to the victims and their families when sickness struck. Soon they will be able to demand higher premiums or refuse cover. Jones is fond of the old saying, "If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance", and isn't advocating the suppression of information, but his pessimism about the science lies in its present inability to provide a quid pro quo for the afflicted in the form of new cures from gene therapy.

We were assured they were on their way. The mapping of the human genome led to euphoric predictions of sensational cures sweeping science. The mania caught managers at UCL, who proposed renaming one of their hospital buildings the UCL Institute of Gene Therapy.

"Thank God they didn't," says Jones, eyes wide with disbelief at the folly of it all. "The amount of egg we would have on our face for doing that! Until very recently, gene therapy hasn't worked. It has now worked in some cases - inborn immune deficiencies for babies in the womb - and that's wonderful, and it's been remarkably promising for some varieties of inherited blindness, but it's only worked in dogs so far.

"That's it. That's all we've done. But I've had the horrible experience of giving lectures to sixth-formers and twice girls have come up to me at the end and said: 'You're talking about cystic fibrosis and I've got it, but I'm not worried because I'm going to be cured by gene therapy.' And I've thought, 'Oh my god. Where did you get that from?' Well, the answer is scientists and science teachers - that's where they've got it from."

"Where did that come from?" is a question Jones is asking ever more regularly. Creationism, once an unthinkable mental deformation for educated men and women, is flourishing among his Muslim students, who are forbidden from accepting the basic premises of their subject. When the publishers of a Turkish edition of Almost Like a Whale flew him out, he was astonished when they told him that the Islamic government saw evolutionary theory as a challenge to its rule, and introduced him to his bodyguards. I ask how he copes with students who come to university with closed minds.

"At the end of the course I ask, 'Was I lying to you about chromosome structure?' and they say no. Then I say, 'Was I lying to you about cell structure?' and they say no. So I ask why on earth they think I'm lying to them about evolution, and of course they can't answer, because they're not allowed to."

Cautious in the face of intellectual manias, caustic about superstition, he is pessimistic about our future. His students may not always realise it, but the great virtue of Professor Jones is that he doesn't lie.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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