Friday, September 29, 2006


Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword.
- Jesus Christ, Matthew 10:34

Blue is the last film of director Derek Jarman (1942 - 1994). At the time when he made the film, he was blind and dying of AIDS. The film is his last testament as a film-maker, and consists of a single shot of saturated blue color filling the screen, as background to a soundtrack where Jarman describes his life and vision.

In time,
No one will remember our work
Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud
And be scattered like
Mist that is chased by the
Rays of the sun
For our time is the passing of a shadow
And our lives will run like
Sparks through the stubble.
I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave

SCRIPT: Text of Blue.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


"Weight is a value for me... the balancing of weight, the diminishing of weight, the addition and subtraction of weight, the rigging of weight, the propping of weight, the placement of weight, the locking of weight, the psychological effects of weight, the disorientation of weight, the disequilibrium of weight, the rotation of weight, the movement of weight, the directionality of weight, the shape of weight. I have more to say about the perpetual and meticulous adjustments of weight, more to say about the pleasure derived from the exactitude of the laws of gravity. I have more to say about the processing of the weight of steel, more to say about the forge, the rolling mill and the open-hearth."

Richard Serra, in Richard Serra Sculpture (New York: Pace Gallery, 1989), n.p.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006



Tuesday, September 26, 2006

(September 26, 2006)

Police are hunting [the individuals responsible] after a series of sickening [attacks] on sheep at a national park. Around 100 animals have been found slaughtered and mutilated with their tongues, eyes and sexual organs removed on Dartmoor in Devon in the past year. All of the bodies had been arranged in a star [or pentagram] shape on the floor or laid out in a circle with their necks broken. Most of the blood-thirsty rituals have been carried out during a full moon.
In the latest attack farmer Charles Mudge, of Tavistock, Devon, found 30 of his flock dead with bizarre half-moon symbols carved into their flesh. He discovered all their bodies lying near a bloodstained stone altar and wooden stake.
"We are absolutely devastated. It is disgusting," he said. "We don't know how they're doing it. But they must be people with dogs and have got to be used to handling sheep."
A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Police said the majority of incidents have taken place during a full moon. She added: "The killings are becoming increasingly vicious. We currently have no suspects."

Monday, September 25, 2006



"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind."
- Thomas Paine

"The idea of God is the sole wrong for which I cannot forgive mankind."
- Marquis de Sade

"If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."
- Voltaire

by Leo Goldsmith, copyright 2005, source

In the final frames of The Passion of Anna, we see the actor, Max von Sydow, pacing back and forth in a barren, watery landscape. Using an optical printer, the celluloid frame is enlarged, we zoom in on von Sydow’s figure, and the image becomes gradually more indistinct until the actor’s body is a mass of floating splotches of color. We hear Ingmar Bergman’s voice on the soundtrack: “This time they called him Andreas Winkelman.”
The Passion of Anna is the last installment of Ingmar Bergman’s “island” series, the sequence of films that he made on the island of Fårö with Liv Ullmann in the 1960s. As such, it also culminates the most self-consciously metacinematic period in Bergman’s career. In each of these films, he and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, explore the narrative and technical capacities of the cinematic medium, calling attention to the processes of the film’s creation. Persona famously begins and ends with the image of a film projector’s arc lamp; and Hour of the Wolf announces itself as a “film adaptation” of its hero’s diary, and the sounds of the film set can be heard over the opening credit sequence.
The Passion of Anna, on the other hand, is ostensibly a film about the actor’s performance. Bergman has always professed his great love and admiration for actors, and this film allows them not only a great deal of room to develop and inhabit their characters (much of the dialogue is improvised), it also gives them the opportunity to explain their own feelings about them. Throughout the film, Bergman conducts “interviews” with his principal players (Ullmann, von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, and Erland Josephson), asking them to give their thoughts on the characters they play. If these interviews feel rather staged (or even scripted by Bergman), this makes the actors’ performances all the more fascinating and the line between actor and role all the more indistinct.
In many ways, the four characters at the center of The Passion of Anna are all expansions of Persona’s Elisabet Vogler, an actress who shrinks from the lies and hypocrisy of her life (and the “roles” she performs within it) and isolates herself from the outside world by becoming mute. In The Passion of Anna, Andreas Winkelman escapes the humiliation and failure of his life by secluding himself on an island; the cold Elis Vergerus (Josephson) shrouds himself with indifference, even cruelty; his wife, Eva Vergerus (Andersson), knows only her responsibility to other people, especially Elis; Anna (Ullmann) constructs a falsely idealized set of memories to evade her sense of guilt about the past. Each character, especially Anna, performs a certain role, lives a certain lie, as a means of insulating herself from the pain of human relationships.
Thus, the “passion” of the film’s title is not a physical suffering, like Christ’s at Golgotha, but an emotional one, an exposing of oneself to the world for the sake of love. Andreas partly undergoes this suffering when he attempts to reveal himself and the failure of his life to Anna, but Anna herself shrinks from the truth of her own past, fearful of its implications about herself and the consequences for their relationship. As we see in her dream (which is itself a kind of epilogue to Shame, with Eva/Anna/Ullmann arriving on the shores of a foreign land in a boatload of refugees), she fear that reaching out to others will only be met with contempt and violence. But the violence of the film’s conclusion, in which Andreas ferociously lashes out at Anna, is precipitated by her evasion of the truth, by her lies and her “damn lousy acting”, not by any act of reaching out. Ultimately, the “passion” of Anna is not depicted in the film — like Elisabet Vogler, she merely returns to the pattern of her life, destined to continually re-inhabit the roles she has created for herself.
Therefore, Bergman’s final intonation — “This time they called him Andreas Winkelman” — imparts a double meaning. It recognizes his consistent use of the same actors and archetypal characters, but it also emphasizes the cyclical nature of the situations depicted. This time, it is a story of Andreas and Anna, but next time it will be the story of two more crippled and isolated individuals, and the cycle will continue.

By Vincent Canby, The New York Times, May 29, 1970

Andreas Winkelman (Max von Sydow) is repairing the roof of the cottage in which he lives as a literate hermit. At one point, he stares off at the sun that hangs low and dim — with its edges made ragged by a telephoto lens — in the Scandinavian sky. Suddenly the sun disappears into the gray-blue haze, but it's as if Andreas had willed it invisible, much as he has tried to will himself invisible without taking the ultimate step.
With this lovely image, Ingmar Bergman begins The Passion of Anna, which opened yesterday at the Festival Theater and is the concluding film in the "island" trilogy that includes Hour of the Wolf and Shame. As in Hour of the Wolf, the von Sydow/Bergman character is again pursued by demons, but they are real this time — demons of pride, loneliness, and defeat. As in Shame, he is again framed against a world of war and violence, although the war is miniaturized and distanced (as a fleeting television image from Vietnam) and the violence is the work of a madman who roams the island ritualistically hanging a dog, cutting the throats of sheep, and setting horses on fire.
In The Passion of Anna, Andreas is as much victim as culprit. Living in solitude on the island, after having been abandoned at some earlier time by his wife, Andreas is drawn into a friendship with Elis (Erland Josephson), a successful architect; Eva (Bibi Andersson), his wife, and Anna (Liv Ullmann), their best friend, who is recovering from an automobile accident in which she, the driver, survived her husband and child.
Andreas first has an affair of convenience with Eva, a sad, pretty woman who loves her husband but feels unneeded by him. Later, he shares his cottage with Anna, a voluptuous woman who prattles on about the necessity of striving for spiritual perfection and about the "wholeness" of her lost marriage, although Andreas is perfectly aware of the fact that the marriage was a disaster, that her husband had tried, unsuccessfully, to leave her. Andreas has come upon a letter in Anna's purse in which her husband had warned that her unreasonable demands would lead first to "mental and psychical violence," and then to physical violence. The letter was signed "Andreas," which was also the name of Anna's husband.
Quite relentlessly, Anna's passion leads to the defeat of the second Andreas and, at the end, there is every indication that she will continue to go through life like some overzealous Christian missionary, preaching salvation and leaving behind her a trail of lies, compromises, confusion, and violence.
The Passion of Anna is one of Bergman's most beautiful films (it is his second in color), all tawny, wintry grays and browns, deep blacks, and dark greens, highlighted occasionally by splashes of red, sometimes blood. It is also, on the surface, one of his most lucid, if a film that tries to dramatize spiritual exhaustion can be ever said to be really lucid. However, like all of Bergman's recent films, it does seem designed more for the indefatigable Bergman cryptologists (of which I am not one) than for interested, but uncommitted filmgoers.
For example, I am curious about, but am unable to speculate on, the reasons Bergman persists in using the same names for his female characters who are not the same. The names of Eva and Anna turn up in Shame and The Silence, and the names of all his leading female characters in The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna begin with an A or an E, which are the letters tagged on to the name of the von Sydow character in The Passion of Anna.
Does this mean something? I think not, but it is there. I also have the feeling that Bergman, who has a marvelous way of setting his scene and introducing his characters, especially the peripheral ones, becomes, in his role of film creator, rather like one of his own heroes. The director circles in closer and closer to the heart of the film, finally to find a void, or a secret so private that we can only guess its meaning.
Getting to the heart of it, however, can be stimulating, and involves its own kind of mounting suspense as one grasps at casual remarks for clues. Elis, the architect, is an amateur photographer, fascinated by faces. When he shows his work to Andreas, he says, with resignation: "I don't imagine that I reach into the soul with these photographs. [They can show] only an interplay of forces."
Of the four principal characters, Andreas is the one on screen the most, and the one least known. He has been in prison (for forgery, striking a policeman) and he has been married, but all we know of the marriage (via a flashback) is that his wife has accused him of having "cancer of the have tumors all over you." He does, however, talk at length about things like "the freedom to be humiliated."
It is somewhat ironic that Bergman, the great humanist, insists that his heroes suffer so profoundly from abstract malaises that they seem positively superhuman.
There is no confusion in The Passion of Anna between reality and fantasy - it is all fantasy. That, at least, is the effect of a device by which, at four points in the film, he steps back and asks each of his principal actors about his conception of the role he is playing. The result is not so much enlightenment as it is an expression of Bergman's appreciation to his stars, particularly von Sydow, Miss Ullmann, and Miss Andersson, who have contributed so much to so many of his films.
They are all superb here, and Bergman gives each of them extraordinary moments of cinematic truth, monologues of sustained richness and drama that are the hallmarks of Bergman's best work, when the camera, without moving, records the birth of a character largely through facial expression and dialogue.
I must admit that ever since Persona I've had trouble distinguishing between Miss Ullmann and Miss Andersson (at a certain point, all Bergman actresses look like Jessica Tandy). However, I shall always remember a scene in The Passion of Anna in which Miss Andersson, a little bit tight on wine, recalls her introduction to God, illustrated in one of her children's book as a handsome old man hovering just above the earth.
She is asked if she still believes in Him. She looks at her husband hesitantly and asks: "Do I?" As in all Bergman films, such moments cut through all the abstractions and make The Passion of Anna as vivid and moving as you demand that it be.

Saturday, September 23, 2006



So I like cats. Sue me.



An analog (or analogue signal) is any variable signal continuous in both time and amplitude. It differs from a digital signal in that small fluctuations in the signal are meaningful. Analog is usually thought of in an electrical context, however mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, and other systems may also convey analog signals.
An analog signal uses some property of the medium to convey the signal's information. For example, an aneroid barometer uses rotary position as the signal to convey pressure information. Electrically, the property most commonly used is voltage followed closely by frequency, current, and charge.
Any information may be conveyed by an analog signal, often such a signal is a measured response to changes in physical phenomena, such as sound, light, temperature, position, or pressure, and is achieved using a transducer.
For example, in an analog sound recording, the variation in pressure of a sound striking a microphone creates a corresponding variation in the voltage amplitude of a current passing through it. An increase in the volume of the sound causes the fluctuation of the current's voltage amplitude to increase while keeping the same rhythm.


A digital system is one that uses discrete numbers, especially binary numbers, or non-numeric symbols such as letters or icons, for input, processing, transmission, storage, or display, rather than a continuous spectrum of values (an analog system).
The distinction of "digital" versus "analog" can refer to method of input, data storage and transfer, the internal working of an instrument, and the kind of display. The word comes from the same source as the word digit and digitus: the Latin word for finger (counting on the fingers) as these are used for discrete counting.
The word digital is most commonly used in computing and electronics, especially where real-world information is converted to binary numeric form as in digital audio and digital photography. Such data-carrying signals carry either one of two electronic or optical pulses, logic 1 (pulse present) or 0 (pulse absent). The term is often meant by the prefix "e-", as in e-mail and ebook, even though not all electronics systems are digital.

copyright 1995, pages 31-32

It is often thought clever to say that science is no more than our modern origin myth. The Jews had their Adam and Eve, the Sumerians their Marduk and Gilgamesh, the Greeks Zeus and the Olympians, the Norseman their Valhalla. What is evolution, some smart people say, but our modern equivalent of gods and epic heroes, neither better nor worse, neither truer nor falser? There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds, in its extreme form, that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth: science is just the mythology favored by our modern Western tribe. I once was provoked by an anthropologist colleague into putting the point starkly, as follows: Suppose there is a tribe, I said, who believe that the moon is an old calabash tossed into the sky, hanging only just out of reach above the treetops. Do you really claim that our scientific truth - that the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and a quarter the diameter of the Earth - is no more true than the tribe's calabash? "Yes," the anthropologist said. "We are just brought up in a culture that sees the world in an scientific way. They are brought up to see the world in another way. Neither way is more true than the other."
Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications, such as the dummy planes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don't.* If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there - the reason you don't plummt into a ploughed field - is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right. Western science, acting on good evidence that the moon orbits the Earth a quarter of a million miles away, using Western-designed computers and rockets, has succeeded in placing people on its surface. Tribal science, believing that the moon is just above the treetops, will never touch it outside of dreams.

*This is not the first time I have used this knock-down argument, and I must stress that it is aimed strictly at people who think like my colleague of the calabash. There are others who, confusingly, also call themselves cultural relativists although their views are completely different and perfectly sensible. To them, cultural relativism just means that you cannot understand a culture if you try to interpret its beliefs in terms of your own culture. You have to see each of the culture's beliefs in context of the culture's other beliefs. I suspect that thi sensible form of cultural relativism is the original one, and that the one I have criticized is an extremist, though alarmingly common, perversion of it. Sensible relativists should work harder at distancing themselves from the fatuous kind.

Friday, September 22, 2006


Remember! We're not at war with Iraq; we're at war for Iraq.

Extracted from The Nullifidian, 1994, source

Religious people split into three main groups when faced with science. I shall label them the "know-nothings", the "know-alls", and the "no-contests". I suspect that Dr John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, probably belongs to the third of these groups, so I shall begin with them.
The "no-contests" are rightly reconciled to the fact that religion cannot compete with science on its own ground. They think there is no contest between science and religion, because they are simply about different things. The biblical account of the origin of the universe (the origin of life, the diversity of species, the origin of man) - all those things are now known to be untrue.
The "no-contests" have no trouble with this: they regard it as naive in the extreme, almost bad taste to ask of a biblical story, is it true? True, they say, true? Of course it isn't true in any crude literal sense. Science and religion are not competing for the same territory. They are about different things. They are equally true, but in their different ways.
A favourite and thoroughly meaningless phrase is "religious dimension". You meet this in statements such as "science is all very well as far as it goes, but it leaves out the religious dimension".
The "know-nothings", or fundamentalists, are in one way more honest. They are true to history. They recognize that until recently one of religion's main functions was scientific: the explanation of existence, of the universe, of life. Historically, most religions have had or even been a cosmology and a biology. I suspect that today if you asked people to justify their belief in God, the dominant reason would be scientific. Most people, I believe, think that you need a God to explain the existence of the world, and especially the existence of life. They are wrong, but our education system is such that many people don't know it.
They are also true to history because you can't escape the scientific implications of religion. A universe with a God would like quite different from a universe without one. A physics, a biology where there is a God is bound to look different. So the most basic claims of religion are scientific. Religion is a scientific theory.
I am sometimes accused of arrogant intolerance in my treatment of creationists. Of course arrogance is an unpleasant characteristic, and I should hate to be thought arrogant in a general way. But there are limits! To get some idea of what it is like being a professional student of evolution, asked to have a serious debate with creationists, the following comparison is a fair one. Imagine yourself a classical scholar who has spent a lifetime studying Roman history in all its rich detail. Now somebody comes along, with a degree in marine engineering or mediaeval musicology, and tries to argue that the Romans never existed. Wouldn't you find it hard to suppress your impatience? And mightn't it look a bit like arrogance?
My third group, the "know-alls" (I unkindly name them that because I find their position patronising), think religion is good for people, perhaps good for society. Perhaps good because it consoles them in death or bereavement, perhaps because it provides a moral code.
Whether or not the actual beliefs of the religion are true doesn't matter. Maybe there isn't a God; we educated people know there is precious little evidence for one, let alone for ideas such as the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. But the uneducated masses need a God to keep them out of mischief or to comfort them in bereavement. The little matter of God's probable non-existence can be brushed to one side in the interest of greater social good. I need say not more about the "know-alls" because they wouldn't claim to have anything to contribute to scientific truth.

Is God a Superstring?

I shall now return to the "no-contests". The argument they mount is certainly worth serious examination, but I think that we shall find it has little more merit than those of the other groups.
God is not an old man with a white beard in the sky. Right then, what is God? And now come the weasel words. These are very variable. "God is not out there, he is in all of us." "God is the ground of all being." "God is the essence of life." "God is the universe." "Don't you believe in the universe?" "Of course I believe in the universe." "Then you believe in God." "God is love, don't you believe in love?" "Right, then you believe in God?"
Modern physicists sometimes wax a bit mystical when they contemplate questions such as why the big bang happened when it did, why the laws of physics are these laws and not those laws, why the universe exists at all, and so on. Sometimes physicists may resort to saying that there is an inner core of mystery that we don't understand, and perhaps never can; and they may then say that perhaps this inner core of mystery is another name for God. Or in Stephen Hawkings's words, if we understand these things, we shall perhaps "know the mind of God."
The trouble is that God in this sophisticated, physicist's sense bears no resemblance to the God of the Bible or any other religion. If a physicist says God is another name for Planck's constant, or God is a superstring, we should take it as a picturesque metaphorical way of saying that the nature of superstrings or the value of Planck's constant is a profound mystery. It has obviously not the smallest connection with a being capable of forgiving sins, a being who might listen to prayers, who cares about whether or not the Sabbath begins at 5 P.M. or 6 P.M., whether you wear a veil or have a bit of arm showing; and no connection whatever with a being capable of imposing a death penalty on His son to expiate the sins of the world before and after he was born.

The Fabulous Bible

The same is true of attempts to identify the big bang of modern cosmology with the myth of Genesis. There is only an utterly trivial resemblance between the sophisticated conceptions of modern physics, and the creation myths of the Babylonians and the Jews that we have inherited.
What do the "no-contests" say about those parts of scripture and religious teaching that once-upon-a-time would have been unquestioned religious and scientific truths; the creation of the world the creation of life, the various miracles of the Old and New Testaments,, survival after death, the Virgin Birth? These stories have become, in the hands of the "no-contests", little more than moral fables, the equivalent of Aesop of Hans Anderson. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is irritating that they almost never admit this is what they are doing.
For instance, I recently heard the previous Chief Rabbi, Sir Immanuel Jacobovits, talking about the evils of racism. Racism is evil, and it deserves a better argument against it that the one he gave. Adam and Eve, he argued, were the ancestors of all human kind. Therefore, all human kind belongs to one race, the human race.
What are we going to make of an argument like that? The Chief Rabbi is an educated man, he obviously doesn't believe in Adam and Eve, so what exactly did he think he was saying?
He must have been using Adam and Eve as a fable, just as one might use the story of Jack the Giantkiller or Cinderella to illustrate some laudable moral homily.
I have the impression that clergymen are so used to treating the biblical stories as fables that they have forgotten the difference between fact and fiction. It's like the people who, when somebody dies on The Archers, write letters of condolence to the others.

Inheriting Religion

As a Darwinian, something strikes me when I look at religion. Religion shows a pattern of heredity which I think is similar to genetic heredity. The vast majority of people have an allegiance to one particular religion. there are hundreds of different religious sects, and every religious person is loyal to just one of those.
Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity.
This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one.
Truths about the cosmos are true all around the universe. They don't differ in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Poland, or Norway. Yet, we are apparently prepared to accept that the religion we adopt is a matter of an accident of geography.
If you ask people why they are convinced of the truth of their religion, they don't appeal to heredity. Put like that it sounds too obviously stupid. Nor do they appeal to evidence. There isn't any, and nowadays the better educated admit it. No, they appeal to faith. Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. The worst thing is that the rest of us are supposed to respect it: to treat it with kid gloves.
If a slaughterman doesn't comply with the law in respect of cruelty to animals, he is rightly prosecuted and punished. but if he complains that his cruel practices are necessitated by religious faith, we back off apologetically and allow him to get on with it. Any other position that someone takes up can expect to be defended with reasoned argument. Faith is allowed not to justify itself by argument. Faith must be respected; and if you don't respect it, you are accused of violating human rights.
Even those with no faith have been brainwashed into respecting the faith of others. When so-called Muslim community leaders go on the radio and advocate the killing of Salman Rushdie, they are clearly committing incitement to murder - a crime for which they would ordinarily be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned. But are they arrested? They are not, because our secular society "respects" their faith, and sympathises with the deep "hurt" and "insult" to it.
Well I don't. I will respect your views if you can justify them, but if you justify your views only by saying you have faith in them, I shall not respect them.


I want to end by returning to science. It is often said, mainly by the "no-contests", that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic.
At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal's wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?
The trouble with the agnostic argument is that it can be applied to anything. There is an infinite number of hypothetical beliefs we could hold which we can't positively disprove. On the whole, people don't believe in most of them, such as fairies, unicorns, dragons, Father Christmas, and so on. But on the whole they do believe in a creator God, together with whatever particular baggage goes with the religion of their parents.
I suspect the reason is that most people, though not belonging to the "know-nothing" party, nevertheless have a residue of feeling that Darwinian evolution isn't quite big enough to explain everything about life. All I can say as a biologist is that the feeling disappears progressively the more you read about and study what is known about life and evolution.
I want to add one thing more. The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism. Complex, statistically improbable things are by their nature more difficult to explain than simple, statistically probable things.
The great beauty of Darwin's theory of evolution is that it explains how complex, difficult to understand things could have arisen step by plausible step, from simple, easy to understand beginnings. We start our explanation from almost infinitely simple beginnings: pure hydrogen and a huge amount of energy. Our scientific, Darwinian explanations carry us through a series of well-understood gradual steps to all the spectacular beauty and complexity of life.
The alternative hypothesis, that it was all started by a supernatural creator, is not only superfluous, it is also highly improbable. It falls foul of the very argument that was originally put forward in its favour. This is because any God worthy of the name must have been a being of colossal intelligence, a supermind, an entity of extremely low probability - a very improbable being indeed.
Even if the postulation of such an entity explained anything (and we don't need it to), it still wouldn't help because it raises a bigger mystery than it solves.
Science offers us an explanation of how complexity (the difficult) arose out of simplicity (the easy). The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything, for it simply postulates what we are trying to explain. It postulates the difficult to explain, and leaves it at that. We cannot prove that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He is very, very improbable indeed.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


by Gordy Slack

Richard Dawkins is the world's most famous out-of-the-closet living atheist. He is also the world's most controversial evolutionary biologist. Publication of his 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene," thrust Dawkins into the limelight as the handsome, irascible, human face of scientific reductionism. The book provoked everything from outrage to glee by arguing that natural selection worked its creative powers only through genes, not species or individuals. Humans are merely "gene survival machines," he asserted in the book.
Dawkins stuck to his theme but expanded his territory in such subsequent books as The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow and Climbing Mount Improbable. His recent work, The Ancestor's Tale, traces human lineage back through time, stopping to ponder important forks in the evolutionary road.
Given his outspoken defense of Darwin, and natural selection as the force of life, Dawkins has assumed a new role: the religious right's Public Enemy No. 1. Yet Dawkins doesn't shy from controversy, nor does he suffer fools gladly. He recently met a minister who was on the opposite side of a British political debate. When the minister put out his hand, Dawkins kept his hands at his side and said, "You, sir, are an ignorant bigot."
Currently, Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, a position created for him in 1995 by Charles Simonyi. Earlier this year, Dawkins signed an agreement with British television to make a documentary about the destructive role of religion in modern history, tentatively titled "The Root of All Evil."
I met Dawkins in late March at the Atheist Alliance International annual conference in Los Angeles, where he presented the alliance's top honor, the Richard Dawkins Prize, to magicians Penn and Teller. During our conversation in my hotel room, Dawkins was as gracious as he was punctiliously dressed in a crisp white shirt and soft blazer.

Once again, evolution is under attack. Are there any questions at all about its validity?

It's often said that because evolution happened in the past, and we didn't see it happen, there is no direct evidence for it. That, of course, is nonsense. It's rather like a detective coming on the scene of a crime, obviously after the crime has been committed, and working out what must have happened by looking at the clues that remain. In the story of evolution, the clues are a billionfold.

There are clues from the distribution of DNA codes throughout the animal and plant kingdoms, of protein sequences, of morphological characters that have been analyzed in great detail. Everything fits with the idea that we have here a simple branching tree. The distribution of species on islands and continents throughout the world is exactly what you'd expect if evolution was a fact. The distribution of fossils in space and in time are exactly what you would expect if evolution were a fact. There are millions of facts all pointing in the same direction and no facts pointing in the wrong direction.

British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, when asked what would constitute evidence against evolution, famously said, "Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian." They've never been found. Nothing like that has ever been found. Evolution could be disproved by such facts. But all the fossils that have been found are in the right place. Of course there are plenty of gaps in the fossil record. There's nothing wrong with that. Why shouldn't there be? We're lucky to have fossils at all. But no fossils have been found in the wrong place, such as to disprove the fact of evolution. Evolution is a fact.

Still, so many people resist believing in evolution. Where does the resistance come from?

It comes, I'm sorry to say, from religion. And from bad religion. You won't find any opposition to the idea of evolution among sophisticated, educated theologians. It comes from an exceedingly retarded, primitive version of religion, which unfortunately is at present undergoing an epidemic in the United States. Not in Europe, not in Britain, but in the United States.

My American friends tell me that you are slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age. Which is very disagreeable for the very large number of educated, intelligent and right-thinking people in America. Unfortunately, at present, it's slightly outnumbered by the ignorant, uneducated people who voted Bush in.

But the broad direction of history is toward enlightenment, and so I think that what America is going through at the moment will prove to be a temporary reverse. I think there is great hope for the future. My advice would be, Don't despair, these things pass.

You delve into agnosticism in The Ancestor's Tale. How does it differ from atheism?

It's said that the only rational stance is agnosticism because you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of the supernatural creator. I find that a weak position. It is true that you can't disprove anything but you can put a probability value on it. There's an infinite number of things that you can't disprove: unicorns, werewolves, and teapots in orbit around Mars. But we don't pay any heed to them unless there is some positive reason to think that they do exist.

Believing in God is like believing in a teapot orbiting Mars?

Yes. For a long time it seemed clear to just about everybody that the beauty and elegance of the world seemed to be prima facie evidence for a divine creator. But the philosopher David Hume already realized three centuries ago that this was a bad argument. It leads to an infinite regression. You can't statistically explain improbable things like living creatures by saying that they must have been designed because you're still left to explain the designer, who must be, if anything, an even more statistically improbable and elegant thing. Design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or a car is explained by a designer but that's because the designer himself, the engineer, is explained by natural selection.

Those who embrace "intelligent design" -- the idea that living cells are too complex to have been created by nature alone -- say evolution isn't incompatible with the existence of God.

There is just no evidence for the existence of God. Evolution by natural selection is a process that works up from simple beginnings, and simple beginnings are easy to explain. The engineer or any other living thing is difficult to explain -- but it is explicable by evolution by natural selection. So the relevance of evolutionary biology to atheism is that evolutionary biology gives us the only known mechanism whereby the illusion of design, or apparent design, could ever come into the universe anywhere.

So why do we insist on believing in God?

From a biological point of view, there are lots of different theories about why we have this extraordinary predisposition to believe in supernatural things. One suggestion is that the child mind is, for very good Darwinian reasons, susceptible to infection the same way a computer is. In order to be useful, a computer has to be programmable, to obey whatever it's told to do. That automatically makes it vulnerable to computer viruses, which are programs that say, "Spread me, copy me, pass me on." Once a viral program gets started, there is nothing to stop it.

Similarly, the child brain is preprogrammed by natural selection to obey and believe what parents and other adults tell it. In general, it's a good thing that child brains should be susceptible to being taught what to do and what to believe by adults. But this necessarily carries the down side that bad ideas, useless ideas, waste of time ideas like rain dances and other religious customs, will also be passed down the generations. The child brain is very susceptible to this kind of infection. And it also spreads sideways by cross infection when a charismatic preacher goes around infecting new minds that were previously uninfected.

You've said that raising children in a religious tradition may even be a form of abuse.

What I think may be abuse is labeling children with religious labels like Catholic child and Muslim child. I find it very odd that in our civilization we're quite happy to speak of a Catholic child that is 4 years old or a Muslim of child that is 4, when these children are much too young to know what they think about the cosmos, life and morality. We wouldn't dream of speaking of a Keynesian child or a Marxist child. And yet, for some reason we make a privileged exception of religion. And, by the way, I think it would also be abuse to talk about an atheist child.

You are working on a new book tentatively called The God Delusion. Can you explain it?

A delusion is something that people believe in despite a total lack of evidence. Religion is scarcely distinguishable from childhood delusions like the "imaginary friend" and the bogeyman under the bed. Unfortunately, the God delusion possesses adults, and not just a minority of unfortunates in an asylum. The word "delusion" also carries negative connotations, and religion has plenty of those.

What are its negative connotations?

A delusion that encourages belief where there is no evidence is asking for trouble. Disagreements between incompatible beliefs cannot be settled by reasoned argument because reasoned argument is drummed out of those trained in religion from the cradle. Instead, disagreements are settled by other means which, in extreme cases, inevitably become violent. Scientists disagree among themselves but they never fight over their disagreements. They argue about evidence or go out and seek new evidence. Much the same is true of philosophers, historians and literary critics.

But you don't do that if you just know your holy book is the God-written truth and the other guy knows that his incompatible scripture is too. People brought up to believe in faith and private revelation cannot be persuaded by evidence to change their minds. No wonder religious zealots throughout history have resorted to torture and execution, to crusades and jihads, to holy wars and purges and pogroms, to the Inquisition and the burning of witches.

What are the dark sides of religion today?

Terrorism in the Middle East, militant Zionism, 9/11, the Northern Ireland "troubles," genocide, which turns out to be "credicide" in Yugoslavia, the subversion of American science education, oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Roman Catholic Church, which thinks you can't be a valid priest without testicles.

Fifty years ago, philosophers like Bertrand Russell felt that the religious worldview would fade as science and reason emerged. Why hasn't it?

That trend toward enlightenment has indeed continued in Europe and Britain. It just has not continued in the U.S., and not in the Islamic world. We're seeing a rather unholy alliance between the burgeoning theocracy in the U.S. and its allies, the theocrats in the Islamic world. They are fighting the same battle: Christian on one side, Muslim on the other. The very large numbers of people in the United States and in Europe who don't subscribe to that worldview are caught in the middle.

Actually, holy alliance would be a better phrase. Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion. Both have implacable faith that they are right and the other is evil. Each believes that when he dies he is going to heaven. Each believes that if he could kill the other, his path to paradise in the next world would be even swifter. The delusional "next world" is welcome to both of them. This world would be a much better place without either of them.

Does religion contribute to the violence of Islamic extremists? Christian extremists?

Of course it does. From the cradle, they are brought up to revere martyrs and to believe they have a fast track to heaven. With their mother's milk they imbibe hatred of heretics, apostates and followers of rival faiths.

I don't wish to suggest it is doctrinal disputes that are motivating the individual soldiers who are doing the killing. What I do suggest is that in places like Northern Ireland, religion was the only available label by which people could indulge in the human weakness for us-or-them wars. When a Protestant murders a Catholic or a Catholic murders a Protestant, they're not playing out doctrinal disagreements about transubstantiation.

What is going on is more like a vendetta. It was one of their lot's grandfathers who killed one of our lot's grandfathers, and so we're getting our revenge. The "their lot" and "our lot" is only defined by religion. In other parts of the world it might be defined by color, or by language, but in so many parts of the world it isn't, it's defined by religion. That's true of the conflicts among Croats and the Serbs and Bosnians - that's all about religion as labels.

The grotesque massacres in India at the time of partition were between Hindus and Muslims. There was nothing else to distinguish them, they were racially the same. They only identified themselves as "us" and the others as "them" by the fact that some of them were Hindus and some of them were Muslims. That's what the Kashmir dispute is all about. So, yes, I would defend the view that religion is an extremely potent label for hostility. That has always been true and it continues to be true to this day.

How would we be better off without religion?

We'd all be freed to concentrate on the only life we are ever going to have. We'd be free to exult in the privilege - the remarkable good fortune - that each one of us enjoys through having been being born. An astronomically overwhelming majority of the people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose number came up. Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one. The world would be a better place if we all had this positive attitude to life. It would also be a better place if morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them, rather than religion's morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment.

Are there environmental costs of a religious worldview?

There are many religious points of view where the conservation of the world is just as important as it is to scientists. But there are certain religious points of view where it is not. In those apocalyptic religions, people actually believe that because they read some dopey prophesy in the book of Revelation, the world is going to come to an end some time soon. People who believe that say, "We don't need to bother about conserving forests or anything else because the end of the world is coming anyway." A few decades ago one would simply have laughed at that. Today you can't laugh. These people are in power.

Unlike other accounts of the evolution of life, The Ancestor's Tale starts at the present and works back. Why did you decide to tell the story in reverse?

The most important reason is that if you tell the evolution story forwards and end up with humans, as it's humanly normal to do so because people are interested in themselves, it makes it look as though the whole of evolution were somehow aimed at humanity, which of course it wasn't. One could aim anywhere, like at kangaroos, butterflies or frogs. We're all contemporary culmination points, for the moment, in evolution.

If you go backward, however, no matter where you start in this huge tree of life, you always converge at the same point, which is the origin of life. So that was the main reason for structuring the book the way I did. It gave me a natural goal to head toward - the origin of life - no matter where I started from. Then I could legitimately start with humans, which people are interested in.

People like to trace their ancestry. One of the most common types of Web sites, after ones about sex, is one's family history. When people trace the ancestry of that name, they normally stop at a few hundred years. I wanted to go back 4,000 million years.

The idea of going back towards a particular goal called to my mind the notion of pilgrimage as a kind of literary device. So I very vaguely modeled the book on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, where the pilgrims start off as a band of human pilgrims walking backward to discover our ancestors. We are successively joined by other pilgrims - the chimpanzee pilgrims at 5 million years, then the gorilla pilgrims, then the orangutan pilgrims. Starting with humans, there are only about 39 such rendezvous points as you go back in time. It's a rather surprising fact. Rendezvous 39 is where we meet the bacteria pilgrims.

The idea that evolution could be "random" seems to frighten people. Is it random?

This is a spectacular misunderstanding. If it was random, then of course it couldn't possibly have given rise to the fantastically complicated and elegant forms that we see. Natural selection is the important force that drives evolution. Natural selection is about as non-random a force as you could possibly imagine. It can't work unless there is some sort of variation upon which to work. And the source of variation is mutation. Mutation is random only in the sense that it is not directed specifically toward improvement. It is natural selection that directs evolution toward improvement. Mutation is random in that it's not directed toward improvement.

The idea that evolution itself is a random process is a most extraordinary travesty. I wonder if it's deliberately put about maliciously or whether these people honestly believe such a preposterous absurdity. Of course evolution isn't random. It is driven by natural selection, which is a highly non-random force.

Is there an emotional side to the intellectual enterprise of exploring the story of life on Earth?

Yes, I strongly feel that. When you meet a scientist who calls himself or herself religious, you'll often find that that's what they mean. You often find that by "religious" they do not mean anything supernatural. They mean precisely the kind of emotional response to the natural world that you've described. Einstein had it very strongly. Unfortunately, he used the word "God" to describe it, which has led to a great deal of misunderstanding. But Einstein had that feeling, I have that feeling, you'll find it in the writings of many scientists. It's a kind of quasi-religious feeling. And there are those who wish to call it religious and who therefore are annoyed when a scientist calls himself an atheist. They think, "No, you believe in this transcendental feeling, you can't be an atheist." That's a confusion of language.

Some scientists say that removing religion or God from their life would leave it meaningless, that it's God that gives meaning to life.

Unweaving the Rainbow specifically attacks the idea that a materialist, mechanist, naturalistic worldview makes life seem meaningless. Quite the contrary, the scientific worldview is a poetic worldview, it is almost a transcendental worldview. We are amazingly privileged to be born at all and to be granted a few decades - before we die forever - in which we can understand, appreciate and enjoy the universe. And those of us fortunate enough to be living today are even more privileged than those of earlier times. We have the benefit of those earlier centuries of scientific exploration. Through no talent of our own, we have the privilege of knowing far more than past centuries. Aristotle would be blown away by what any schoolchild could tell him today. That's the kind of privileged century in which we live. That's what gives my life meaning. And the fact that my life is finite, and that it's the only life I've got, makes me all the more eager to get up each morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into which I am so privileged to have been born.

Humans may not be products of an intelligent designer but given genetic technologies, our descendants will be. What does this mean about the future of evolution?

It's an interesting thought that in some remote time in the future, people may look back on the 20th and 21st centuries as a watershed in evolution - the time when evolution stopped being an undirected force and became a design force. Already, for the past few centuries, maybe even millennia, agriculturalists have in a sense designed the evolution of domestic animals like pigs and cows and chickens. That's increasing and we're getting more technologically clever at that by manipulating not just the selection part of evolution but also the mutation part. That will be very different; one of the great features of biological evolution up to now is that there is no foresight.

In general, evolution is a blind process. That's why I called my book The Blind Watchmaker. Evolution never looks to the future. It never governs what happens now on the basis on what will happen in the future in the way that human design undoubtedly does. But now it is possible to breed a new kind of pig, or chicken, which has such and such qualities. We may even have to pass that pig through a stage where it is actually less good at whatever we want to produce - making long bacon racks or something - but we can persist because we know it'll be worth it in the long run. That never happened in natural evolution; there was never a "let's temporarily get worse in order to get better, let's go down into the valley in order to get over to the other side and up onto the opposite mountain." So yes, I think it well may be that we're living in a time when evolution is suddenly starting to become intelligently designed. [Italics my own.]

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

by Stephen Jay Gould, copyright 1994, source & notes

Kirtley Mather, who died last year at age ninety, was a pillar of both science and Christian religion in America and one of my dearest friends. The difference of a half-century in our ages evaporated before our common interests. The most curious thing we shared was a battle we each fought at the same age. For Kirtley had gone to Tennessee with Clarence Darrow to testify for evolution at the Scopes trial of 1925. When I think that we are enmeshed again in the same struggle for one of the best documented, most compelling and exciting concepts in all of science, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
According to idealized principles of scientific discourse, the arousal of dormant issues should reflect fresh data that give renewed life to abandoned notions. Those outside the current debate may therefore be excused for suspecting that creationists have come up with something new, or that evolutionists have generated some serious internal trouble. But nothing has changed; the creationists have presented not a single new fact or argument. Darrow and Bryan were at least more entertaining than we lesser antagonists today. The rise of creationism is politics, pure and simple; it represents one issue (and by no means the major concern) of the resurgent evangelical right. Arguments that seemed kooky just a decade ago have reentered the mainstream.
The basic attack of modern creationists falls apart on two general counts before we even reach the supposed factual details of their assault against evolution. First, they play upon a vernacular misunderstanding of the word "theory" to convey the false impression that we evolutionists are covering up the rotten core of our edifice. Second, they misuse a popular philosophy of science to argue that they are behaving scientifically in attacking evolution. Yet the same philosophy demonstrates that their own belief is not science, and that "scientific creationism" is a meaningless and self-contradictory phrase, an example of what Orwell called "newspeak."
In the American vernacular, "theory" often means "imperfect fact"—part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus creationists can (and do) argue: evolution is "only" a theory, and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is less than a fact, and scientists can't even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): "Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science — that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was."
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.
Moreover, "fact" does not mean "absolute certainty." The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
Evolutionists have been clear about this distinction between fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory—natural selection—to explain the mechanism of evolution. He wrote in The Descent of Man: "I had two distinct objects in view; firstly, to show that species had not been separately created, and secondly, that natural selection had been the chief agent of change. . . . Hence if I have erred in . . . having exaggerated its [natural selection's] power . . . I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations."
Thus Darwin acknowledged the provisional nature of natural selection while affirming the fact of evolution. The fruitful theoretical debate that Darwin initiated has never ceased. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Darwin's own theory of natural selection did achieve a temporary hegemony that it never enjoyed in his lifetime. But renewed debate characterizes our decade, and, while no biologists questions the importance of natural selection, many doubt its ubiquity. In particular, many evolutionists argue that substantial amounts of genetic change may not be subject to natural selection and may spread through the populations at random. Others are challenging Darwin's linking of natural selection with gradual, imperceptible change through all intermediary degrees; they are arguing that most evolutionary events may occur far more rapidly than Darwin envisioned.
Scientists regard debates on fundamental issues of theory as a sign of intellectual health and a source of excitement. Science is — and how else can I say it? — most fun when it plays with interesting ideas, examines their implications, and recognizes that old information might be explained in surprisingly new ways. Evolutionary theory is now enjoying this uncommon vigor. Yet amidst all this turmoil no biologist has been lead to doubt the fact that evolution occurred; we are debating how it happened. We are all trying to explain the same thing: the tree of evolutionary descent linking all organisms by ties of genealogy. Creationists pervert and caricature this debate by conveniently neglecting the common conviction that underlies it, and by falsely suggesting that evolutionists now doubt the very phenomenon we are struggling to understand.
Secondly, creationists claim that "the dogma of separate creations," as Darwin characterized it a century ago, is a scientific theory meriting equal time with evolution in high school biology curricula. But a popular viewpoint among philosophers of science belies this creationist argument. Philosopher Karl Popper has argued for decades that the primary criterion of science is the falsifiability of its theories. We can never prove absolutely, but we can falsify. A set of ideas that cannot, in principle, be falsified is not science.
The entire creationist program includes little more than a rhetorical attempt to falsify evolution by presenting supposed contradictions among its supporters. Their brand of creationism, they claim, is "scientific" because it follows the Popperian model in trying to demolish evolution. Yet Popper's argument must apply in both directions. One does not become a scientist by the simple act of trying to falsify a rival and truly scientific system; one has to present an alternative system that also meets Popper's criterion — it too must be falsifiable in principle.
"Scientific creationism" is a self-contradictory, nonsense phrase precisely because it cannot be falsified. I can envision observations and experiments that would disprove any evolutionary theory I know, but I cannot imagine what potential data could lead creationists to abandon their beliefs. Unbeatable systems are dogma, not science. Lest I seem harsh or rhetorical, I quote creationism's leading intellectual, Duane Gish, Ph.D. from his recent book, Evolution? The Fossils Say No!: "By creation we mean the bringing into being by a supernatural Creator of the basic kinds of plants and animals by the process of sudden, or fiat, creation. We do not know how the Creator created, what process He used, for He used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe [Gish's italics]. This is why we refer to creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigations anything about the creative processes used by the Creator." Pray tell, Dr. Gish, in the light of your last sentence, what then is scientific creationism?
Our confidence that evolution occurred centers upon three general arguments. First, we have abundant, direct, observational evidence of evolution in action, from both the field and laboratory. This evidence ranges from countless experiments on change in nearly everything about fruit flies subjected to artificial selection in the laboratory to the famous populations of British moths that became black when industrial soot darkened the trees upon which the moths rest. (Moths gain protection from sharp-sighted bird predators by blending into the background.) Creationists do not deny these observations; how could they? Creationists have tightened their act. They now argue that God only created "basic kinds," and allowed for limited evolutionary meandering within them. Thus toy poodles and Great Danes come from the dog kind and moths can change color, but nature cannot convert a dog to a cat or a monkey to a man.
The second and third arguments for evolution — the case for major changes — do not involve direct observation of evolution in action. They rest upon inference, but are no less secure for that reason. Major evolutionary change requires too much time for direct observation on the scale of recorded human history. All historical sciences rest upon inference, and evolution is no different from geology, cosmology, or human history in this respect. In principle, we cannot observe processes that operated in the past. We must infer them from results that still surround us: living and fossil organisms for evolution, documents and artifacts for human history, strata and topography for geology.
The second argument — that the imperfection of nature reveals evolution — strikes many people as ironic, for they feel that evolution should be most elegantly displayed in the nearly perfect adaptation expressed by some organisms — the camber of a gull's wing, or butterflies that cannot be seen in ground litter because they mimic leaves so precisely. But perfection could be imposed by a wise creator or evolved by natural selection. Perfection covers the tracks of past history. And past history — the evidence of descent — is the mark of evolution.
Evolution lies exposed in the imperfections that record a history of descent. Why should a rat run, a bat fly, a porpoise swim, and I type this essay with structures built of the same bones unless we all inherited them from a common ancestor? An engineer, starting from scratch, could design better limbs in each case. Why should all the large native mammals of Australia be marsupials, unless they descended from a common ancestor isolated on this island continent? Marsupials are not "better," or ideally suited for Australia; many have been wiped out by placental mammals imported by man from other continents. This principle of imperfection extends to all historical sciences. When we recognize the etymology of September, October, November, and December (seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth), we know that the year once started in March, or that two additional months must have been added to an original calendar of ten months.
The third argument is more direct: transitions are often found in the fossil record. Preserved transitions are not common — and should not be, according to our understanding of evolution (see next section) but they are not entirely wanting, as creationists often claim. The lower jaw of reptiles contains several bones, that of mammals only one. The non-mammalian jawbones are reduced, step by step, in mammalian ancestors until they become tiny nubbins located at the back of the jaw. The "hammer" and "anvil" bones of the mammalian ear are descendants of these nubbins. How could such a transition be accomplished? the creationists ask. Surely a bone is either entirely in the jaw or in the ear. Yet paleontologists have discovered two transitional lineages of therapsids (the so-called mammal-like reptiles) with a double jaw joint—one composed of the old quadrate and articular bones (soon to become the hammer and anvil), the other of the squamosal and dentary bones (as in modern mammals). For that matter, what better transitional form could we expect to find than the oldest human, Australopithecus afarensis, with its ape-like palate, its human upright stance, and a cranial capacity larger than any ape's of the same body size but a full 1,000 cubic centimeters below ours? If God made each of the half-dozen human species discovered in ancient rocks, why did he create in an unbroken temporal sequence of progressively more modern features — increasing cranial capacity, reduced face and teeth, larder body size? Did he create to mimic evolution and test our faith thereby?
Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim. If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am — for I have become a major target of these practices.
I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change. In 1972, my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record—geologically "sudden" origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis)—reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years. This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond. It represents much less than 1 per cent of the average life-span for a fossil invertebrate species—more than ten million years. Large, widespread, and well established species, on the other hand, are not expected to change very much. We believe that the inertia of large populations explains the stasis of most fossil species over millions of years.
We proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium largely to provide a different explanation for pervasive trends in the fossil record. Trends, we argued, cannot be attributed to gradual transformation within lineages, but must arise from the different success of certain kinds of species. A trend, we argued, is more like climbing a flight of stairs (punctuated and stasis) than rolling up an inclined plane.
Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists — whether through design or stupidity, I do not know — as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups. Yet a pamphlet entitled "Harvard Scientists Agree Evolution Is a Hoax" states: "The facts of punctuated equilibrium which Gould and Eldredge… are forcing Darwinists to swallow fit the picture that Bryan insisted on, and which God has revealed to us in the Bible."
Continuing the distortion, several creationists have equated the theory of punctuated equilibrium with a caricature of the beliefs of Richard Goldschmidt, a great early geneticist. Goldschmidt argued, in a famous book published in 1940, that new groups can arise all at once through major mutations. He referred to these suddenly transformed creatures as "hopeful monsters." (I am attracted to some aspects of the non-caricatured version, but Goldschmidt's theory still has nothing to do with punctuated equilibrium — see essays in section 3 and my explicit essay on Goldschmidt in The Panda's Thumb.) Creationist Luther Sunderland talks of the "punctuated equilibrium hopeful monster theory" and tells his hopeful readers that "it amounts to tacit admission that anti-evolutionists are correct in asserting there is no fossil evidence supporting the theory that all life is connected to a common ancestor." Duane Gish writes, "According to Goldschmidt, and now apparently according to Gould, a reptile laid an egg from which the first bird, feathers and all, was produced." Any evolutionists who believed such nonsense would rightly be laughed off the intellectual stage; yet the only theory that could ever envision such a scenario for the origin of birds is creationism — with God acting in the egg.
I am both angry at and amused by the creationists; but mostly I am deeply sad. Sad for many reasons. Sad because so many people who respond to creationist appeals are troubled for the right reason, but venting their anger at the wrong target. It is true that scientists have often been dogmatic and elitist. It is true that we have often allowed the white-coated, advertising image to represent us — "Scientists say that Brand X cures bunions ten times faster than..." We have not fought it adequately because we derive benefits from appearing as a new priesthood. It is also true that faceless and bureaucratic state power intrudes more and more into our lives and removes choices that should belong to individuals and communities. I can understand that school curricula, imposed from above and without local input, might be seen as one more insult on all these grounds. But the culprit is not, and cannot be, evolution or any other fact of the natural world. Identify and fight our legitimate enemies by all means, but we are not among them.
I am sad because the practical result of this brouhaha will not be expanded coverage to include creationism (that would also make me sad), but the reduction or excision of evolution from high school curricula. Evolution is one of the half dozen "great ideas" developed by science. It speaks to the profound issues of genealogy that fascinate all of us — the "roots" phenomenon writ large. Where did we come from? Where did life arise? How did it develop? How are organisms related? It forces us to think, ponder, and wonder. Shall we deprive millions of this knowledge and once again teach biology as a set of dull and unconnected facts, without the thread that weaves diverse material into a supple unity?
But most of all I am saddened by a trend I am just beginning to discern among my colleagues. I sense that some now wish to mute the healthy debate about theory that has brought new life to evolutionary biology. It provides grist for creationist mills, they say, even if only by distortion. Perhaps we should lie low and rally around the flag of strict Darwinism, at least for the moment — a kind of old-time religion on our part.
But we should borrow another metaphor and recognize that we too have to tread a straight and narrow path, surrounded by roads to perdition. For if we ever begin to suppress our search to understand nature, to quench our own intellectual excitement in a misguided effort to present a united front where it does not and should not exist, then we are truly lost.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006



Slit eyes, rays of light. A confessional. He is inside. They. No one thinks to look. No one thinks to pray. Dust, like angels, flits. An altar stands, crucified. Rows of pews. Empty painted eyes on lifeless Thrones.

'Father, I have sinned.' Soft, they penetrate the silence.

After the confession, wood creaks.

1992 - 1994

A mother, kindly and misguided. She makes him oatmeal in the morning, her son. The sun is rising through the window. His father has departed.

They sit in cherry wood chairs.

'There's a special program at church,' she says. 'Would you like to go? It's every Wednesday.'

Simon looks up from his bowl, those wide eyes. 'No.'

'I signed you up for it.' She smiles at the distance. 'Don't worry, it's only for the summer.'

All of this is his fault. 'What is it?'


'And all God's children got shoes,' they sing.

'Together,' he says.

They try again. He looks at them, through them.


The priest says, 'Jesus turned and said to them, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, 'Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!' For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?"

'Why do you think Jesus curses the mourning? Is it a curse, even?'

Long silence, none of the children answer. He frowns.

'Remember, children, this is your God.'


Simon raises his hand. Pick me.


'Stay,' he says. 'Child, would you like some wine?' Child, I would not. A finger on a cheekbone, marble relief. As white as the communion wafers on the counter. The priest shrugs, washes the blood of Christ down the drain.

Moments later, instructions. He gestures towards the crucified. That accusing stare meets imploration. Resin quivers. Forbiddingly, 'Don't you remember? This is your God. Would you disappoint your Savior?'


The priest says nothing, there's no need. Guiding hands unwanted, feeling. Inside the cloistered sanctuary. They are watched by statuary eyes, a thorny crown.

The priest might as well be God the Father.

Simon knows he is going to hell.

It is coming, it is here.

After: 'If you love God, do not tell.'
After: 'God will strike you down.'
After: 'You are wicked, sinful.'

They will not understand.


'Mama,' he says, looking down the hall, 'my stomach hurts.'

'Shh,' she says, closing her book, 'It's late.'


His are white hands in the darkness flashing, empty signals. A grimace, this tongueless mouth at midnight, mumbling words. A language that he does not know, a dream goes unremembered.

After: 'Tell no one,' his Father whispers. 'Trust in me; trust in your salvation.' The darkness is warm, accepting. Tell him not forbidden.


A sacrament, one of many.

'This is a mature statement of faith.' Faith?

'Moreover, it is your statement of faith. All of you must remember that confirmation brings a deepening of the grace you received in baptism. It roots us more deeply in divine filiation. It unites us more firmly to Christ. It increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit, rendering more perfect our link to the Church, and it gives us the special strength of the Holy Spirit in order to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and to never be ashamed of the Cross or anything it represents.'

Two others sit in chairs, animated puppetry.
'We must not confuse adult faith with natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need ratification to become effective.' He holds a leather book.

Cold. The room is white and otherwise empty. Eyes, like ice, burning: You are nothing. The priest, an actor, mimics salvation. This is it? This is all?

Simon sits still and watches.


At communion, weeks later. Shafts of light cut through dusty air. Dead, a museum to that forgotten. Someone coughs. The priest, Father, he intones. Even the sound, dry, dusty. There is a dull, comfortable heat.

The time comes. Each member walks, stumbling, down the pews. Simon's legs are sleeping. He does not look, trusting, when the Father gives him wine, gives him bread, whispers false blessings.

'This is your Lord. Take and eat.'


His journal is a child's thing, too small even for him. In it, he writes HAIL MARY FULL OF GRACE over and over and over again, but no matter how many pages he fills, it will never be enough.


Mass begins.

Later, assistant to the Father, Simon takes plastic cup after plastic cup, gulping down the thimblefuls of wine, drooling Christ's blood down his choirboy robes. Greed, salvation. Save me, he does not think, but rather, Father, why will you abandon me?


Father smiles. 'I love you,' He whispers in the darkness before he disappears. Tears beg a forgiveness not felt, paint warm trails down. This gratitude is blessed, yet forbidden.

Disconnect dem bones, dem dry bones
Disconnect dem bones, dem dry bones
Disconnect dem bones, dem dry bones

Sunday, September 17, 2006


This is probably old hat to the rest of you, but I remember once operating under the assumption that architecture was supposed to be benign. Apparently not since architect slash social terrorist Frank Gehry opened the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Nicolai Ouroussoff, a Times architecture critic, claimed in October, 2003, that the building was a "powerful and madly exuberant work" that "[reflected] the city around it." Well, that wasn't all it reflected. Until 2005, when the problem was rectified, the "significant glare caused by sunlight... was reflected and concentrated in a manner similar to a parabolic mirror." The reflected sunlight created "hot spots" of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit on adjacent sidewalks and inside nearby condominiums. "[Employees and pedestrians] reported observing... plastic traffic cones [melting] and the spontaneous combustion of trash bins." Other than this minor flaw, the building functioned perfectly, a work of acoustical genius perhaps so designed as to drown out the agonized screams of burning passers-by. Also, if this building is supposed to reflect Los Angeles, it needs to produce more carcinogens as well as ejecting large amounts of toxic smoke into the sky. Otherwise, it quintessentially captures the gestalt of L.A.: hostile, inhuman, and mean-spirited.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


Friday, September 15, 2006


Well-known Mexican architect Enrique Norton set to design Venetian blinds for downtown Harlem, New York. The building will dominate the surrounding environment, and hopefully it will raise the tone of the neighborhood from crack ghetto to motel room.

The structure will stand directly next to a massive blue block of uncertain purpose which in turn will loom menacingly over local businesses.

Also, eventually the structure will hopefully function as an air filtration unit in order to combat problems with increasingly dense smog.

Enrique Norton will be next designing an office park in Winnipeg, Manitoba modeled on the following sketch:

by Kurt Bullock, copyrights apply, source & notes

Following Blade Runner’s release in 1982, film critics - even those who despised the picture - gave almost universal acclaim to the stunning visual creation of a future city. Director Ridley Scott grafted futuristic imagery upon a base of gritty leftovers from today’s Los Angeles, and what emerged was a towering, yet restricted, Los Angeles, 2019. While many elements of the film noir city remain firmly entrenched in the socio-structural characteristics of Scott’s futuristic "City of Angels," the architectural cityscape he developed forces his chief protagonist, Deckard, to operate on a level never before encountered by Philip Marlowe or any other film noir detective: the vertical.
L.A. emerges in the opening sequence as a sprawling industrial landscape, stacks of chemical plants and refineries belching flame, even as huge mega-structures dominate the center of the city. Intimated is the city’s vast expanse - a glittering neon world that, upon closer inspection, is an all but overwhelming cluster of advertising and enticing images perched high atop skyscrapers, all canvassed by hovercraft that zip along invisible flight corridors. But within moments of the shooting of blade runner Holden by the replicant Leon, the viewer is dropped into a canyon created by huge superstructures hunched over dilapidated buildings and crumbling architecture.
This descent to ground level reveals the antithesis of the futuristic skyline. The old L.A. at street level has become a slum, a polyglot of ethnic crowds bustling past shops, stores and vendors. Looking up from street level, one must peer through wires and between massive skyscrapers toward the sky — and then only to gaze into smog-induced darkness and ceaseless acid rain.
The labrynthian nature of vertical space is thus exposed within Blade Runner. In all cases, overhead schematics supplied by omnipotent computers are necessary for travel through the sectored city. No longer can the individual navigate by eye-level perspective; multi-level pathways outstrip conventional travel. The chaos of crowded carnival streets and empty roadways, all littered with refuse, fire pits, stone cairns and intricately-carved monoliths, is juxtaposed against the serenity - and power - of verticality. Deckard’s pursuit of the evil replicants forces his vision upward, beyond street-level, to seek answers on a higher plane. As Marlowe and other noir detectives uncovered corruption within corruption, a hierarchy of evil, so does Deckard reveal, if only to himself, the sordid nature of life at all levels. Blade Runner’s vertical architecture serves as metaphor for this hierarchy of evil power.
David Reid and Jayne Walker discuss in detail the apocalyptic city central to film noir, considering this "fated city" to be "the counterpart of the radiant ‘White City’ of official optimism." They note especially the sinister and dingy mise-en-scène of film noir, with its "extraordinary visual, auditory and even synaesthetic effects." Protagonists are victims, bystanders, the apparently innocent, and the city in which their struggle takes place is "fallen, guilty, complicitous," ruled by a sinister force that thwarts and deforms individual life. Emerging from the after-effects of the Depression and World War II, film noir exposed the omnipresent lateral power networks of burgeoning urbanization and industrialization and the static vertical hierarchy of power within government. Reid and Walker contend, "Rather than dramatizing the ordeal of change, as we are usually told, it would be truer to the mood of these films to say that they melodramatize the ordeal, or at least the fear, of changelessness. In this way the frustrations of the left and the fears of the right both found their way in the mythologies of film noir." Film noir played to these fears in demonstrating that, no matter which way one turns, and no matter how far one travels, evil and corruption are sure to be there. Film noir characters reside in a hopeless of doomed world predetermined by the past, say Reid and Walker - a past most obviously signified by the sinister mise-en-scène of the entropic city.
Blade Runner plays to these same themes in its depiction of L.A. in 2019, only on a vertical plane rather than in a lateral spread of networks. The movie accepts street-level decadence as a given, and serves to expose through film noir techniques the vertical corruption inherent with a utopian society gone awry. Blade Runner’s production designer, Lawrence Paull, from the onset saw the script as "film noir." Says Paull: "I started to think of those late ‘40s, early ‘50s films which always starred a dark, brooding city, and then extended that look 40 years past our own time." Scott himself states that he intended Blade Runner’s city to be a "serious extrapolation from our present age," and that his effort was to develop a film which would make his audience uncomfortable. Scott did so by creating an apparent utopia on the higher vertical planes, but one that quickly becomes dysfunctional as it plummets toward street level.
This perversely-mangled utopia of tomorrow — frequently referred to as a "dystopia" — is almost necessarily derived from premises of today. In the same fashion that utopian commentaries are built upon hopes for rectifying the failures of the present age, dystopian propositions are derived from criticisms of modern urban life and the economic system that produces it. The signifiers of this troubled dystopia are its architecture and cityscape, housing the corrupt economic and political institutions. This is apparent in Blade Runner’s dystopian L.A., where the privileged live high above, and the disenfranchised — apparently unable to gain access to "a new life" that awaits them on the neo-utopian colonies, complete with replicant servants — live far below. Deckard serves as the mobile character who explores the various vertical strata of this dystopia.
And herein lies the difference in Blade Runner, for it employs what could be called "vertical noir." Traditional film noir, as summarized by critic Russel Gray, is about "a sprawling, changing, disorganized American city representing a combination of corruption and lived futility." The detective hero, then, "moves in and out of a world of wealth and influence, but is at odds with it." What is important about this is the lateral movement inherent within traditional film noir; the protagonist travels from site to site at surface level, the delusive field of play accessible on a single plane traversed perpetually, it seems, by the detective. His is incessant travel, one without destination, for there is no conclusion, only a jaded realization at film’s end that his battle with the powers of evil is hopeless, futile.
Blade Runner alters this movement by the protagonist, turns it on its side. Deckard is the loner in the big city, divorced, his ex-wife now living on the colonies. He belongs to the seething "underworld" of the street-level, as evidenced by his understanding of the creole cityspeak and his comfortable position at the streetside sushi bar, where he uses chopsticks. But this is where any parallel to the traditional film noir detective ends, for no longer is it a matter of Deckard trekking across the urban landscape, but rather up the urban landscape. And whereas the traditional film noir detective has no destination, only the realization of futile, perpetual motion, Deckard finds a personal revelation in his quest, and a possible solution to what is perceived as his growing dilemma: his love for the replicant Rachael.
The street level is a social and physical space that is exposed, in which people’s vulnerability is marked by their invisibility; these are people unable to see and know, or to escape being seen. And Deckard operates at this street-level. But he also has been given privileged sight: use of the Voight-Kampff machine to expose replicants; vertical transport via personal access to police and other hover vehicles; the authority of a police badge; access to the powerful corporate tycoon Tyrell. Progressively, this enabling of verticality permits Deckard to see the interlinked corruptions of society, to recognize the evil that looms above. And this insight triggers his ultimate revelation: that indeed, the replicant just may be "more human than human," as Tyrell’s slogan goes.
The largest, highest, and most magisterial of the buildings in this cityscape are the twin pyramids of the Tyrell corporation, the leading manufacturer of the androids who are banned from earth and allowed only on the colonies. Tyrell’s massive 700-story super-structures from a distance resemble Mayan pyramids, temples of human sacrifice; up close, they are exo-skeletal constructs, buildings turned inside-out as it were, with conduits and elevators exposed. Their glowing searchlights, hovercraft landing pads - simply their height and mass - symbolize a future of wealth and progress, of technological triumph.
Inside, Tyrell’s office is temple-like, open and high-ceilinged with candles, altar fires, bonsai trees, golden statues and ceramic busts on pedestals; squared Mayan pillars with intricate carved patterns appear to support the cavernous space, while friezes and repeated geometric motifs adorn the walls. The office appears as warm if sterile place of worship, in contrast to the dark, desolate and mysterious nature of Tyrell’s personal living space. His bedroom has a Gothic tone, with a multitude of candles and candelabras, tapestries, and ornate, delicately carved wood furniture. Interestingly, both spaces are devoid of obvious technological wizardry or gadgets (though they are but concealed). While the building’s external structures serve as an indicator of technological wonder, Tyrell’s inner sanctums would appear to connote a nostalgia for an all-but-forgotten era, a yearning for a past spirituality.
Tyrell’s office and bedroom are located on the upper floor of this tremendous building, an indication that those people who live in the highest, most prestigious places of the contemporary city are clearly elites. They are at the top of the hierarchical "pyramids" of economic or political structures — or, perhaps both, for Tyrell clearly manipulates the police force. Even though Tyrell himself doesn’t appear as though he could — or would — step foot outside his reclusive, splendorous domain, he rules what critic Norman Klein refers to as the "zone of power" in Blade Runner. From his towering perch atop the pyramids, Tyrell is able to gaze at the world below, one which he neither clearly sees nor desires to experience. Implied is his cynicism about, as much as responsibility for, the failures of L.A.
Deckard, despite his affinity with the street, occupies a space that aspires to vertical significance. His apartment on the 97th floor contains many of the primitive elements of Tyrell’s office, but also includes contemporary technological gadgetry. Etched stone hieroglyphs adorn the walls, and are repeated in the balcony railing; the ceiling, too, is tiled with repeated geometric patterns. Amidst the clutter sit Mondrian-backed chairs and a dome-shaped lamp whose tri-posts are scrolled. Bonsai trees grow in planters on the table, and classical sheet music, as well as old photos and sepia tints, rest on a wooden baby-grand piano. Seemingly out of place in this domestic mix are the multiple video monitors and a high-tech photo-enhancement machine, as well as the annoyingly voyeuristic light from passing hovercraft.
Caught between the street and the ultimate height of Tyrell’s pyramids, J.F. Sebastian’s space is at first a seeming contradiction. Despite his status as a genetic engineer, he lives in the isolated and desolate Bradbury Building in a seedy but thinly-populated sector of L.A. An apparently sad but brilliant loner, Sebastian is physically and emotionally removed from the crowds of the market sector, which is obviously overcrowded; he explains to Pris that there is no housing shortage in his section of the city — thus seemingly explaining the seclusion of his place of residence. The apartment itself is a microcosm of repressed Queen Anne splendor, its baroque elegance trapped within the confines of an ancient, decrepit building that represents noir L.A. The old, ornate fireplace is unused, in fact nearly covered with objects and so hidden; a Grecian urn is balanced precariously on a pile of books; the mechanical toys, such as the miniature Napoleon Bear and Kaiser Wilhelm, are child-like. All are abused artifacts of a regal past that is trapped within the shell of an entropic present.
Critic Frederic Jameson dissects the significance of the office and abode, noting that "whatever objects mean, they also outline a space of a specific type which can be empty or contain a presence." These spaces map out a "social totality" which is a "complete and closed semiotic system." What is most enlightening is not necessarily the contents of these spaces, in other words, but what is missing from these spaces: from Tyrell’s apartment and office, any apparent technological marvels; from Sebastian’s apartment, any sacred artifact given a rightful place of honor. Both obfuscate that which they hold sacred.
Further, these two sites are demarcated by elevation and verticality: Sebastian, on the fourth floor of an old building, Tyrell on the 700th story of a pyramid. In between, on the 97th floor, is Deckard, who maintains some items of primitive spirituality even as he uses technological marvels to track down the replicants. Also telling are the manner in which these spaces are probed: Tyrell’s office permits the only view in L.A. of a golden setting sun; Deckard’s apartment is penetrated by intersecting spotlights and a blinking RCA advertisement; and Sebastian’s apartment receives the voyeuristic gaze of the floating advertisement ship that tells of the colonies to which he can never go, even as the ceaseless, filthy rain of L.A. filters through his dilapidated building and floods the surrounding apartments.
As noted, Deckard’s privileged "vision" permits him access to higher stratas and a greater understanding of the pervasive virtual structure of L.A. But verticality figures into the narrative in other ways, as well. The replicants manage to work their way "up" from street level, after one is "fried" by a force field at the Tyrell headquarters and Leon is found out by Holden. Information first comes from Chew, the Tyrell affiliate who constructs eyes, at street-level; and it is at street-level where first Zhora, and the Leon, are "retired." Next, Pris manages to gain the confidence of Sebastian, and it is at this fourth-floor level that she becomes the next replicant "retired." Even as this is happening, Roy forces Sebastian to take him to Tyrell; after learning that there is no hope for increased longevity, Roy returns to the Bradbury Building, pursues Deckard to the roof, prevents Deckard from falling to street-level, and there dies "naturally" - even as his death brings a resurrection-of-life revelation to Deckard.
An intriguing aspect of this "vertical noir" is the role of Rachael, who serves as the femme fatale. Unlike the other characters, who are either located at specific elevations within the vertical grid or else aspire to "climb to higher strata, Rachael descends to the street-level. An unaware replicant, she assumes the role of assistant to Tyrell in his 700th-floor office (where she lives is not disclosed, although Deckard does call her). At first she descends to Deckard’s 97th-floor apartment to confront him about her identity, following the Voight-Kampff test in the Tyrell pyramid. She is then invited by Deckard to a street-level club; she declines, saying she does not frequent such places, implying street-level establishments; but she does appear at street-level just in time to rescue Deckard by killing Leon. She and Deckard then return to his apartment, where she remains until their apparent escape at the film’s end.
Blade Runner’s "vertical noir" comes as something of an axial rotation to traditional noir, which operates on a lateral map, a horizon of points. The noir city is a fixed terrain, its locations articulated and discernible; Marlowe and his contemporaries travel from place to place, revealing corruption at every site. The lateral network is exposed, the evil uncovered at every node of power, all of which function on a single horizon. Blade Runner changes this by spinning the grid perpendicularly: the city, once a sprawling metropolis, combed by the slow-but-steady film noir detective, is now restricted laterally, leaving the stratas of corruption to be explored vertically in metaphoric fashion. The positions on this vertical grid are not so precise, not the fixed sites of traditional noir. Power becomes a concept rather than a personification; it is in the architectural structure of the Blade Runner cityscape that this is most apparent.
Subtly encased within Blade Runner’s cityscape is a representation of social flaws, evoked in a post-industrial environment. These flaws are characterized by the crowds, by the excessive technology and advertising, and by urban decay. They are portrayed in the vertical and environmental juxtaposition of the street-level, the space of Sebastian’s apartment, the space of Deckard’s apartment, and even in the artificial tranquillity of Tyrell’s office and bedroom — the serenity of which is contrasted, if not betrayed, by the stark scene of Holden interrogating Leon in a lower level of the Tyrell monolith during the film’s opening sequence. This is a city in the grip of recognizable problems: overcrowding, pollution, acid rain, urban squalor. These problems, however, seem to vanish as one proceeds higher and higher on the vertical plane. The gloom and rain at street-level are non-existent at the peak of Tyrell’s pyramid, where a glowing sunset over the balcony must be shaded before Deckard can conduct the Voight-Kampff test on Rachael.
Vertical juxtaposition exposes the utopia to be a dystopia, however, a juxtaposition elaborated on and interpreted not just through narrative but also through mise-en-scène. Architectural corruptions of a utopian scheme gone awry are apparent in the contrast of high-tech pyramids with overhauled, decrepit buildings. Critics Susan Doll and Greg Faller hold that "the computerized advertising blimp and billboards, the massive skyscrapers, and the artificial animals seem to suggest scientific advancement; however, these images also imply the antithesis of this promised utopia in the crowded, darkened sky, the congested and garbage strewn streets, and the extinction of numerous animals — in others words, it is a true dystopia."
Through what critic John Pierce calls "sociological backgrounding," Blade Runner carries forward criticism and analysis by means of imagination and manipulation of the film noir and science fiction genres through development of an altered, vertical cityscape. The wealthy and affluent rule in their arcologies, while the poor swarm seemingly subterranean warrens. High rises, pyramids and glass towers intermingle with revival architecture, retrofitted buildings, and the debris of past urban sprawl. In between, the police patrol the skyways, though they have no power of prevention, nor even intervention; rather, they can only "clean up" afterward.
Established vertical stratas — what critic Leonard Heldreth calls "the space of a force of relations" — depict the power relations inherent within the vertical cityscape of Blade Runner. Here, the lateral structure of classic film noir is abolished, remaining only in the computer schematics that map the labrynthian city and provide some small sense of orientation among the debris, the decay and abandonment, even as they denote the restrictive horizon of L.A. in 2019. In a "future noir city more nightmare than vision," according to Staiger, "more anxiety than wish fulfillment," it is the vertical cityscape which defines the function — or perhaps dysfunction — of Ridley Scott’s entropic dystopia.