National Health Service or National Illness Service? Diabetes in UK

What do we want? The best National Illness Service in the world, with ring-fenced financing? We argue till the cows come home about the politics of the NHS: how to fund it, how to organise it, whether parts of it should be privatised or not, and what is the place, if any, of private health insurance and private hospitals. It’s a political hot potato: governments can be elected or not depending on the public’s view of who might look after our NHS the best. People on all sides of the debate are worried about the spiralling costs, as our population ages, and as more and more expensive interventions become available. Should this or that cancer drug be made available, when the benefits are unclear? How do we cope with the increasing demands of dementia?

At the same time, there is one condition, type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 10% of the NHS spend, and it’s almost COMPLETELY AVOIDABLE. Diabetes is the health epidemic of today. It kills, and maims – blindness, kidney failure, and amputations are common complications. It greatly increases the chances of heart attacks and strokes. It inflicts untold grief, ill-health and loss at a personal level, and is blowing our health and social security budgets out of the realm of affordability.

Incidence is rising dramatically. In England, the cost1 of diabetes drugs and treatments rose by 56.3% from £513.9 million in 2005/6, to £803.1 million in 2013/14. Diabetes-related societal costs are huge as well: according to 2012 estimates, absence from work accounted for £8.4 billion per year, early retirement £6.9 billion per year, and social benefits a further £0.152 billion per year.

If we tackled type 2 diabetes properly, a lot of this enormous problem would simply go away. But it is not up there in the public consciousness, like smoking, or Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, or even heart disease.

We know what to do -the subject is extremely well researched- but we don’t do it? Why? That’s the reason I’m writing this post. Let’s have a National Health Service, not a National Illness Service.

What is diabetes?

There is a huge amount of detailed information on the internet about diabetes. An excellent place to start is the leading UK diabetes charity, Diabetes UK2.

In brief, diabetes is a disease where the body cannot adequately process glucose, the basic energy providing chemical that the body uses to function. Glucose is derived from our food: all carbohydrates, whether sugars or starches, are digested in the intestine to form glucose, which is transported around the body by the blood, and taken into cells to be converted into energy. The hormone insulin, secreted by the pancreas gland within the abdomen, controls this action of cell glucose uptake.

There are two types of diabetes:

In Type 1 diabetes the body is unable to produce any insulin. Its causes are not fully understood, but it is not a self-inflicted problem associated, for example, with poor diet or being overweight. It accounts for about 10 per cent of all adults with diabetes. Management of the condition is not easy, and it is for life. It is treated by daily insulin doses, taken either by injections or via an insulin pump, and sufferers have to engage in careful monitoring of their diet, exercise, and blood sugar levels. Type 1 diabetes can develop at any age, but usually appears before the age of 40, and especially in childhood. It is the most common type of diabetes found in childhood. There is no explosion in the incidence of Type 1 diabetes, but research continues to develop better understanding and better treatments. This post is not about Type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes usually appears in people over the age of 40, though in South Asian people, who are at greater risk, it often appears from the age of 25. It is also increasingly becoming more common in children, adolescents and young people of all ethnicities. Type 2 diabetes accounts for about 90% of all people with diabetes, and rising. In Type 2 diabetes there is not enough insulin (or the insulin isn’t working properly), so glucose builds up in the blood. There is an explosion of epidemic proportions in the incidence of Type 2 diabetes, and it is getting worse year on year. Type 2 diabetes is the focus of this article.

What causes Type 2 diabetes?

There are 4 main risk factors:

  1. Heredity – susceptibility to type 2 diabetes runs in families.
  2. Age – if you’re over 40 (or 25 for certain ethic groups) the risk goes up
  3. Ethnicity – being of South Asian, Chinese, African-Caribbean or black African origin carries increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
  4. Overweight

There isn’t anything much you can do about the first three. Incidence of number 4, overweight, has greatly increased in the UK in recent years, and it is this epidemic of overweight and obesity which has driven the surge in diabetes.


Prevalence of obesity among adults aged 16+ years Health Survey for England 1993-2013 (3-year average)

Obesity is defined as a BMI>30. BMI (Body Mass Index) is weight (kg) / height squared (m)2, so for an adult woman of average height of 5ft 5”, it equates to a weight of 180lbs (just under 13 st). Overweight is defined as having a BMI between 25 and 30. BMI is a fairly crude measure, and is less accurate as an indicator for people who are very tall or very short, or people such as athletes whose muscle mass might be high. It is also age related. Another useful indicator is the ratio of waist measurement to height, which has the advantage of addressing the most dangerous form of excess weight, that carried around the abdomen – the men’s (traditional)“beer gut”. A healthy indicator here is to have a waist/height ratio of <0.5. Go on, get out the tape measure!

There is a lot talked about high sugar consumption, especially sugary drinks and sweets, but there is little evidence of a direct causal link between sugar consumption and type 2 diabetes. However, high intake of sugary drinks and sweets is linked to high calorie intake, and the quantity can be surprisingly high. One 12oz can of Coca Cola contains about 39g of sugar (10 teaspoons worth), or 140 calories, and does not cause a satiation feeling (feeling full up, as one would after eating a meal). So it is possible to drink large quantities of sugary drinks and not have any sensation or appreciation of the quantity of calories being consumed – dangerous, especially if it’s a regular habit!

In the end, if the number of calories consumed is greater than the number expended, the laws of physics apply, and there will generally be a gain in weight. The body will lay down the extra calories as fat store. It is a function of our evolutionary history as a species that laying down fat is what we do: people who were able to store fat efficiently were better able to last out times of food shortage, long harsh winters, etc, and those are the people who preferentially survived to be our ancestors. Once we have attained a given weight, our bodies seem programmed to fight to maintain that weight: once we have become overweight, it is extraordinarily difficult to lose it again in a sustainable way.

This is particularly important for children: once children become overweight, and the worse the overweight becomes, the harder it is for the individual ever to recover to a healthy weight during their entire life. The excuse “it’s only puppy fat” is a dangerous illusion.

There are countless diets and systems for weight loss out there, and maybe one will work for you. Perhaps you’ve tried a few. But for most adults, even those with great personal motivation, weight loss is a temporary success, and once the diet is over the weight goes back on again, often to a slightly higher weight than before the diet. This leads to a sort of ratchet effect- you’ll probably have heard the aphorism “dieting makes you fat”. The obvious best approach is not to become overweight in the first place, but, if one has done so, there really is no substitute for a long term slowly-slowly approach of sensible diet plus exercise, rather than dramatic campaigns of abrupt weight loss.

Being overweight has many downsides: feeing unattractive or unhappy about one’s appearance, finding moving about and exercise more difficult, finding everyday tasks a little harder, and getting more tired more quickly. There are direct health risks too: overweight is associated with elevated risk of heart disease, some cancers (endometrial, breast, colon, kidney, gallbladder, and liver), stroke, sleep apnea and breathing problems, and joint problems (knees and hips), and of course, the subject of this article, type 2 diabetes.

All the doctors I speak to tell me that if there’s one thing they could do to make a huge difference to people’s health and life quality, it would be to reduce overweight. An interesting book to read on this topic is by a GP called Dr. John Briffa: “Escape the Diet Trap”4. It’s well worth a read. It recognizes from his first-hand experience, including of many well-motivated patients, that sustained weight loss is very difficult, but achievable and worthwhile.


Diet is one part of the equation. The other is exercise. It is harder and harder for children to get reasonable amounts of everyday exercise. Schools have greatly reduced their extra-curricular sporting activities, as teachers face litigation if a child is injured, and as playing fields are sold off. Even in private sports clubs, parents who would in the past have willingly run a team find it very difficult, with the hassle of going through CRB/DBS checks makes it harder to take children in cars to away fixtures. Cycling is much more dangerous than it used to be, with increased traffic. The huge increase in sedentary entertainment – TV, computer games – makes it harder for parents to get their children out of the house doing stuff. Fewer and fewer children walk to school, as evidence by the big difference in peak-time traffic between term time and when the kids are off school. Our lifestyle seems to conspire against exercise, and it is killing us.


What to do about it?

Government can do this. That’s what it’s for.

If we take smoking as an analogy, although we haven’t completely won the battle, public opinion has moved enormously in the past 10 years, and smoking has declined markedly. Most smokers admit that they are taking risks with their health and would like to be able to stop. We need to achieve a similar level of public awareness about overweight and diabetes.

There is no shortage of well-researched information on how best to assess whether an individual has a problem with overweight; data is readily available to assist clinical judgement, for all ages of children, as well as for adults. There is also established practice on how to intervene most effectively once an individual has been identified as having an overweight problem. The NHS’s own publications cover this very well, for children5 and adults6. It is arguable whether we need to engage in more detailed pilot study work for any of the proposals below, though establishing of ever more robust data through control studies is always a great idea.

  1. We need a hard-hitting TV campaign about Type 2 diabetes, to increase understanding of the problem, why achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is important, and why allowing children to get overweight is probably condemning them to a life of relative ill-health and low life expectancy. Hard hitting means real cases, with gruesome pictures to grab the attention.
  2. Direct action by Government to discourage consumption of “empty calories”, eg   taxation on sugary drinks. The BMA has recently advocated just such a move7 . We should put our voices behind the proposal. The soft drinks industry will counter, much as the tobacco industry did against anti-smoking legislation, as it has a lot to lose. It is a powerful lobby, with enormous resources. Coca-Cola’s funding of the Global Energy Balance Network8 is a recent example of this strategy, and it will take a determined Government to avoid being deflected.
  3. Address the overweight issue directly in schools, as tackling the problem as early as possible is the most effective, before people have become “fat adults”. Inclusion of health and diet education as part of the schools national curriculum (in Personal, Social, Health and Economic education, or PSHE) is essential, but it does not go far enough. Schools already have educational attainment targets, with published league tables. We need annual weight monitoring and recording for all school pupils from age 5 up, with some proportion of a school’s budget related to the percentage of pupils who are in the “healthy weight” range. There would of course be objections, just as there are for GCSE league tables, for example because it’s not a level playing field (no, it isn’t), or claims of intrusiveness (no, it isn’t), or fear of being seen to scapegoat overweight children (no, it mustn’t be). These objections can be managed. It would focus some attention in schools to concentrate on the sort of things which impact weight and which schools can influence through their policies and priorities: content/ quality of PSHE teaching, school meals /diet, exercise & sport provision. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.9
  4. More resources in NHS allocated to prevention rather than treating ill health. This is an area where Government policy can and should make a difference. We already have age-related health screening for very specific conditions such as colon cancer, breast cancer, and even abdominal aortic aneurism. How about weight/BMI screening, annually, for everyone, with advice counselling for those who have a problem? Sounds draconian, shades of Big Brother perhaps, but it would certainly bring overweight to the fore of public consciousness. In Germany, for example, if you don’t attend your 6-monthly dental check-up, any treatment required you have to pay for in full. A sanction which might work in UK is to provide free prescriptions for those who attend their annual weight screening, and everyone else has to pay – children and pensioners included. The mindset we should seek to establish is that the NHS is a partnership between the individual citizen and the healthcare system: for the citizen to benefit from the healthcare system, he/she must be prepared to participate actively in managing their own health; if they do, everything is provided, but if they don’t, then they have to contribute to the cost of treatment. I must be clear here – what I am suggesting is not that overweight people (or smokers, for that matter) should be discriminated against by being made to pay. I am advocating that participation in screening for everyone should be incentivized. The aim is not to introduce some sort of hurdle to make healthcare less widely available; it is to expand participation of the individual in pre-emptive health care – helping to prevent problems before they arise. An added benefit of my proposal would be to generate epidemiological data to understand health v weight better, and to provide individual personal data tracking- a useful tool in managing health. This is a big step, so it might be wise to work towards it by carrying out pilot control studies, so that there is strong evidence, before roll-out, that the expected benefits will accrue in practice.
  5. Government policy should focus on getting us out of our cars where possible. A key example is cycling, not just for leisure/sport, but as a means of getting to and from school or work. Investment in more safe cycle-ways, segregated from motor traffic, is an enabler which has to be led at national level. It is happening, but not fast enough. The levels of cycling in the UK compare poorly to those in other EU countries. According to a survey10 by the European Commission, only 4% of UK respondents cycle daily. Along with Luxembourg and Spain, this is the lowest percentage of all EU 28 countries, except for Cyprus (2%) and Malta (1%).  Yet addressing this problem is a win-win-win: lower road congestion/ lower vehicle-related pollution/ better fitness/ lower incidence of weight-related ill-health.


If you think this makes sense, join the campaign. Write to your MP, and reference this post. Spread it on social media. Let’s make the change from a National Illness Service to a National Health Service.





4              Escape the Diet Trap, Dr John Briffa (ISBN: 9780007447763)



7     and







Atheism has killed millions!

Now then, now then. It seems we can’t have any discussion about atheism / theism without mentioning Hitler. There’s an idea (sometimes referred to as Godwin’s law) in Internet discussion forums that once “The Hitler Card” is played, the thread is finished, and whoever mentioned Hitler/the Nazis has automatically lost, whatever debate was in progress.

Amusing or irritating, enlightening a debate or derailing it, the Hitler card does get played rather a lot, and usually there is some sort of tennis match with one side citing evidence that Hitler was a Christian, and the other that he was really an atheist. There is actually quite a lot of evidence to show the former, including quotes from his speeches, or even directly from Mein Kampf : “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

Actually, this doesn’t really matter, in the sense that it doesn’t impinge at all on the central point which many theists want to make, which is that atheism has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, through the tyranny of atheists acting out their atheist principles, or, in short, atheism leads to genocide.

The point I want to argue here is not whether Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan or any other leaders, responsible for unspeakable massacres in our human history, were atheists or not. It is a point about causation.

It is hard to argue that not believing in something could cause you to do anything. Does not believing Bigfoot is real cause you to go out raping and pillaging? Does lack of belief in Thor or Poseidon cause Londoners to go on murder sprees every weekend? Of course not. But the theist might respond that we are inherently inclined to do bad things, and only the force of religious belief is restraining us: we take moral guidance from our religion, and behave well as a result. Or, we are inhibited by fear of God’s judgement from behaving as we otherwise would. The Christian idea that we are all born “sinners”, and need to follow Jesus to be saved from our base instincts, is an assertion often made by those adhering to the Christian faith. I address just such a notion in my post “Without God, there can be no morality (subtext: atheists are immoral/ evil/ untrustworthy)”. I show that it does not stand up. If you want to take issue with that, please read my post and offer your arguments against.

Let’s look at the point about causation in some more detail. It is true that Stalin, for example, led a murderous regime while being an avowed atheist: one of many examples that one could cite of atheists killing people. However, if one is seeking to use the Stalin example to argue that atheism leads to genocide, one must establish that Stalin killed people because he was an atheist. It is not hard to establish association: Stalin was an atheist, and Stalin was responsible for mass murder. But association is not the same thing as causation.

There is an amusing website which shows some statistically high correlations between apparently unrelated phenomena. Here’s one example

spurious correlation

It would be hard to make the case that one of these parameters caused the other – that would be silly. But where we feel intuitively that there might be a connection, and where causation would support our point of view, we are not slow to use statistics to “prove” our case. We as humans are expert at seeing patterns and relationships between events. It is part of how we have developed, through evolutionary biology, to survive as a species: it is a more effective survival strategy to see patterns everywhere around, even if it means sometimes thinking there’s one there when there isn’t, than to fail to see a pattern when there is. That, for example, is precisely why we are prone to superstition.

Returning to the theist argument, we could also draw an association between Christianity, and a large number of seriously bad actions over the centuries. However, theists will offer various reasons why these people weren’t “real” Christians (the “No True Scotsman” fallacy), while at the same time arguing that atheism merely being associated with Stalin is sufficient for atheism to be taken as the cause of his actions.

In some ways, Stalin and Hitler reveal remarkable similarities. They were both dictators, both bent on maximizing their political power. A problem faced by any would-be dictator is how to deal effectively with opposition, which would usually include the religious establishment. One strategy is to co-opt it; another is to destroy it ruthlessly. It can be argued that both Stalin and Hitler adopted both approaches as was expedient at the time. Hitler probably wasn’t a devout believer, but he sometimes espoused and used Christianity overtly, for his own purposes. Stalin imposed an atheistic regime, yet later rehabilitated the Russian Orthodox Church, specifically to grow patriotic support for his war effort.

When considering the history of the world’s most egregious murderous regimes, sorting them into theistic and non-theistic does not provide a clear distinction; sorting them into totalitarian and non-totalitarian is much more useful. Murderous regimes are heavily skewed towards totalitarianism.

When you claim there is a God, I don’t believe you” is not totalitarian. Neither is “I see no evidence for the existence of any gods, and until such evidence is presented, I prefer to live my life on the assumption that there are none”. However, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” certainly is totalitarian.

Totalitarianism is all about absolute power. Lord Acton was spot on when he said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” George Orwell captured the concept elegantly in “Animal Farm”. If by chance you haven’t read it, do so.

And if you’re in a debate about religion v atheism, please don’t try the old chestnut that “atheism” or “atheist ideology” has killed millions. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in God or gods. It has no creed, no ideology. Trying to find such an ideology is a bit like trying to find The Rules of Not Playing Golf, or trying to join a club of people whose common interest is Not Collecting Stamps.

Now, it’s undeniable that some tyrants and despots who were responsible for the death of millions of people were atheists,  and religious people sometimes argue, in order to show the supposed evils of atheism, that they acted out of atheistic zealotry. Such tyrants might have been motivated in part by some idealistic vision of a society they sought to create, and might have seen existing religious observance in the territory they sought to dominate  as an obstacle to their vision of being the absolute ruler,  (note the key distinction between that, and the notion of an “atheist ideology”), but it is very hard to sustain a view that “stamping out religion” per se would be a significant motivating factor.  The reality is much more a complex mix of power, ego (seeking to impose their vision, demanding a position of absolute personal authority), expansionism,  political one-upmanship against rivals,  pre-emptive attack against a perceived threat, tribalism, and/or some economic /strategic factors.

We can make a similar argument in reverse against those atheists who would seek to show the “evils of religion” by arguing that religious tyrants have killed millions out of religious zealotry. Religion might or might not have been a part of the motivation of such tyrants, but it’s unlikely to be as simple as that. The real picture  is much more probably a complex mix of power, ego, expansionism, religious idealism (seeking to convert/ spread the word),  political one-upmanship against rivals,  pre-emptive attack against a perceived threat, tribalism, and/or some economic /strategic factors – yes, much the same list. But in the case of religious tyranny, there is another factor – identification  with any particular religion, or sect within a religion,  is a “badge of difference”, which can and does provide a motivation or excuse to demonise those of other religious persuasion, and justify  attempts to eliminate or even exterminate. Examples are legion: the hijacking of “Christian” identity was part of the holocaust against the Jews; we saw the horrors of Bosnian genocide in the 1990’s; and sectarian violence between branches of Islam has largely driven the disaster we see today across much of the middle east.

 Religion has undeniably had a part to play in a great deal of human conflict, but if you want to live in a healthy and happy society, then it’s a good idea to work against totalitarianism wherever you find it, whether it has a religious label or not.






I was stalked by Donald Trump

The presidential hopeful has caused a furore with his remarks about women but they are no surprise to the broadcaster — he has twice subjected her to a campaign of vitriol

Selina Scott Published: 16 August 2015

Selena Scott 1995

Selina Scott at the National Television Awards in 1995 (

Let’s get Donald Trump’s character assessment of me out of the way first. According to Trump, I am “unattractive”, “pathetic” and “boring”. I am also so “desperate for a man” I “begged” him to arrange a date for me. Add to this that I am “totally uptight and insecure . . . not at all very smart”. And “obnoxious”. Oh, but he wasn’t always that kind about me . . .

Compared with my battle with Trump over the past 20 years I reckon Megyn Kelly, the Fox News television anchor whom Trump trashed controversially after his debate with other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination — retweeting comments about her being a “bimbo” and suggesting she was having a bad day because she was menstruating — had it easy.

All Kelly had done was to ask Trump why in the past he had referred to women as “‘fat pigs’, ‘dogs’, ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals’”.

Smirking, he replied: “Only Rosie O’Donnell,” referring to the American lesbian comedian with whom he was feuding.


I can reveal something about Trump and women that shows his sense of his own fatal attraction to the opposite sex.

In 1994 I was sent to America by ITV to make an hour-long documentary about Trump, who was then emerging as a bombastic New York tycoon with a mouth as big as the tunnel linking Manhattan to New Jersey.

Almost as soon as I was ushered into his office in the Trump Tower he wanted to know the intimate details of the deteriorating state of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, which was big news in America.

“You know Charles. You’ve made a TV programme about him?” Trump asked. “What’s going on with Charles and Diana? I’m on Charles’s side. Diana sounds a handful.”

When the marriage finally broke up and they divorced, Trump saw his chance. He bombarded Diana at Kensington Palace with massive bouquets of flowers, each worth hundreds of pounds.

They were accompanied by handwritten notes expressing sympathy, his great regard for her and the suggestion that they get together.

Trump clearly saw Diana as the ultimate trophy wife. As the roses and orchids piled up at her apartment she became increasingly concerned about what she should do.

It had begun to feel as if Trump was stalking her. I know this because she told me.

I had first got to know Diana in the early 1980s when, while pregnant with William, she visited ITN, where I was the news anchor.

I had expected her to ask questions about the news-gathering process but

in fact she was more interested in intriguing relationships. She was great fun.

Some years later, I was sitting next to Diana at a private dinner. She told me about Trump’s floral bombardment.

“What am I going to do?” she asked. “He gives me the creeps.”

“Just throw them in the bin,” I advised. Diana laughed.

When she died in the tragic accident in Paris in 1997 Trump told friends his biggest regret was that they hadn’t dated. He said that he always thought he had a chance of romance and would have had a “shot” with her.

In the mid-1990s I had my own documentary television company. I had already made a film about Charles, an hour-long documentary about King Juan Carlos of Spain and a programme about King Constantine of Greece. I was then commissioned to explore a more earthy personality. Trump was a natural.

Our first meeting in Manhattan began well enough. His secretary, Norma, was soon addressing me as her “Dear, dear friend” as she booked us into the Plaza hotel on Central Park, which he then owned.

An ocean of red roses from Trump greeted me as I walked into my suite. Later I was shown into his panelled boardroom, crowded with his acolytes, and introduced to them in a curious way: “Gentlemen, I would like you to meet our new partner in the deal . . . the legendary Selina Scott.”

He clearly thought that my programme was going to be an extension of his publicity department, a fanzine promotion. But I was not his “partner”.

I had not gone to America with the intention of doing a hatchet job on Trump — to turn over a stone and see what maggots lay underneath. What I was to discover about him and put in the film, however, led to the first unvarnished examination of the man and his business practices.

It drove Trump mad with rage and he initiated what was to become a long series of threats and vicious letters to me. This would culminate in threats from him that he would sue me for every penny I had and ruin my career.

Two particular episodes in the making of the film were memorable.

First, he suggested that we take a helicopter ride over Manhattan. When we were airborne and the camera was running he pointed to the Empire State Building and told me he owned it.

“What? All of it?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, on camera. “One hundred per cent.”

Later Trump confessed that he only owned 40%, which he then further considerably reduced. (When the film was edited for broadcast we would cut these conflicting statements together, coming out of his mouth to the music of It Ain’t Necessarily So.)

The day after the helicopter trip, I flew with Trump in his private plane, which was emblazoned with his name, to his Italian-style palazzo on the ocean at Palm Beach, Florida.

During the flight, Trump sprawled in a reclining white leather seat and invited me to sit next to him. He constantly leant into me in a conspiratorial, almost flirtatious, manner. I began to feel uncomfortable.

The strange comb-over quiff, the lip-pursing pout that he seemed to practise regularly, the narrowing of the eye to make an emphasis. I thought he saw himself as a dead ringer for Elvis Presley.

For two hours he kept up a non-stop torrent of braggadocio about his deals, his wealth and his feuds.

He told me how he hated a famous female broadcaster (who had merely asked him a pertinent question he didn’t like). He was intent on getting even.

It was clear to me that Trump needed enemies to demonise in order to fire himself up and present himself as a dynamic personality.

Many years later this character trait was to find vivid expression when he hosted the first series of The Apprentice on American television. The full force of his aggression was seen in public for the first time, and he revelled in his catchphrase: “You’re fired!”

For my film, Trump had decided I was to do an interview with him in the grand marble foyer of his antique-packed Palm Beach mansion, Mar-a-Lago, which had once been owned by the heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

All seemed to go well in the interview. I was relaxing by the pool at the hotel afterwards when the cameraman approached me, saying: “Selina, we have a problem.”

The film, inexplicably, had gone from colour to black and white halfway through. This was a technical blip that would render it impossible to broadcast the interview. I would have to bend the knee and ask Trump to do it again.

Putting my professional pride to one side, I told Trump what had happened. He agreed to go through the interview once more.

When we got back to the UK we discovered that the technical fault had only been in the viewfinder of the camera. There was no problem with the colour imprint. This meant we had not one but two interviews with Trump. And when we viewed them we realised that they were gold dust.

True to form, he had contradicted himself between one interview and the other. This meant we could splice the two against each other, revealing that Trump’s relationship with the facts was a distant one.

It was this technique, devastating in the film that provoked uncontrolled fury from Trump and initiated the first of his series of hostile letters to me.

“When you arrived in New York you looked tired and beaten,” he began, “not at all what I expected.” He continued: “Never have I been interviewed by a person who was so totally uptight and insecure about herself. You did nothing but ingratiate yourself.”

The letter rambled on and on. “When the interview started,” he sneered, “you were somewhat obnoxious, repetitive and not at all very smart. I put this down to the fact you were having a bad day.” He ended by assuring me that “I hope you can solve your problems before it is too late.”

ITV’s lawyers were only too aware of Trump’s threats to sue anyone who crossed him. Faced with the threat of legal action if it sold or broadcast the film again, ITV decided not to make a fight of it.

This did not stop Trump bombarding me with further letters and press cuttings eulogising his climb back to riches since the early 1990s, when his business had been in financial difficulties.

In black ink, he scrawled across them: “Selina, you are a major loser. Best wishes, Donald Trump.” Or once: “Dear Selina, I hear your career is going terribly and you have now been reduced to cable. In the meantime I have had the best year in my entire career. Fitting justice isn’t it? Yours very truly, Donald.”

Reflecting now on Trump’s letters, my thoughts have wandered back to his estate in Florida. The house had a strangely musty, antique smell, as if it had been closed up for long periods and only opened for displays of ostentatious wealth and power.

At a party he threw there, he insisted I meet his second wife, Marla, a pretty blonde and aspiring actress, who said very little and seemed a bit submissive. She was holding their child, Tiffany, then just a year old, in her arms. Both were dressed in white.

Trump did not talk at all about Marla; but he did talk proudly about his mother, Mary MacLeod, a Scottish crofter’s daughter who had left the Outer Hebrides in the 1930s. He boasted that she had arrived in America with no shoes and had met his father, Fred Trump, the son of German immigrants, at a dance.

He took me to meet his mother in his penthouse at the top of Trump Tower. Mary Trump clearly wanted for nothing. She wore expensive Chanel shoes, her fingernails were polished scarlet, her hair was perfectly coiffed. There was little left of the Scottish lassie. This was the epitome of a wealthy American matron. She seemed nice.

Later that day we had lunch in the Oak Room at the Plaza, a favoured dining venue for New York’s rich and influential.

In the middle of the meal Trump suddenly seemed agitated. He had spotted an acquaintance weaving his way through the tables towards him. The man tried to shake his hand but Trump would have none of it, waving him away with a swish of his napkin.

“For all I know, this guy may have just come outta the john,” he told me. He seemed to have an almost Howard Hughes-like phobia about cleanliness and germs, which extended to a constant washing of his hands.

For a time, once Trump’s fury over my programme had run its course, the vitriol from him died down — only to be reignited eight years ago after he took over a pristine Aberdeenshire coastline to build a golf course.

I was amused to learn that opponents of Trump’s golf scheme had got hold of a DVD of my documentary and sent it to all the local councillors in Aberdeenshire who would have to vote on whether to approve his planning application. Accompanying it was a note urging them to “know your enemy”.

Trump was furious. He suspected I was behind the distribution of the DVD. I wasn’t — but I was and am passionately opposed to the golf course. This is not fuelled by my animosity for Trump but because of my love for this beautiful part of Scotland, which I know well.

It is part of our natural heritage, a really wild place. Mile after mile of empty beach is protected by the most wonderful sand dunes. I began my broadcasting career nearby in Aberdeen and would often escape there when I had the chance.

The prospect of bulldozers moving in and wrecking the untamed majesty of this coastline horrified me and many others.

I felt so strongly that I sent a message of support to Mike Forbes, the smallholder who was (and still is) refusing to sell his house on land Trump wanted for the golf course.

I think I said that Trump was as ridiculous as the thatch on his head. That was like lighting the blue touchpaper all over again. Trump is very sensitive about his hair.

“Selina Scott was a third-class journalist who is now ancient history and she treated me unfairly,” he said, revealing how the old wounds had not healed. “It was a boring story then and she has since faded into oblivion, where she belongs.”

The letters also resumed. I made it clear to him that if he continued to harass me I would take legal action against him. The letters then stopped.

Trump’s recent run for the presidential candidacy has prompted Vanity Fair to republish a profile of him written in 1990. In this, his first wife, Ivana, is reported to have disclosed that his bedside reading material was a well-thumbed copy of Hitler’s prewar speeches.

As the profile writer Marie Brenner pointed out, these reveal the Führer’s “extraordinary ability as a master propagandist”. I confess to laughing when I heard about it.

And yet despite everything, Trump is well ahead in public opinion to secure the Republican nomination. It has long been his ambition to get to the White House. If he succeeds, God help America and the world.

What about the origin of the universe – doesn’t that need God?

Wow! That’s a bit pretentious, isn’t it, trying to comment about such a huge question? I know I’m not going to be able to add anything to the debate, in terms of insights, but that’s not really what this post is about. Rather, it’s my attempt to set out where the debate lines are drawn, and to respond to the sort of claims I read most days on social media, from the “Must be God” battalions.

It seems intuitive that the universe (something) cannot come from nothing. While this is not necessarily so 7, we can pursue a line of thought on the basis that it is the case. Most physicists now regard the beginning of the universe to have occurred in a “big bang” around 13.8 billion years ago. So what pre-condition or cause existed to allow the big bang to occur?

It is often claimed by theists that the only possible explanation is God, therefore God exists- the so-called first cause argument. There are some problems with this claim. The first is the obvious one of infinite regression. On the premise that everything needs a pre-condition or cause in order to come into existence (the premise which theists rely on for the assertion that God must have been the cause), what was the cause or origin of God? The response is usually something along the lines of God always existed, or He exists outside of space and time. In other words, the rules of physics apply except in the case of God, who gets a unique and arbitrary exemption. This sounds to me like another way of saying “Can’t explain, so I’m going to define the explanation to be outside of our scope to explain”. In other words, it’s supernatural, or magic.

Even if we go along with this line of thinking, we encounter the next problem: defining the characteristics of God. If the only thing we can say about God, from the argument of first cause, is that He is the cause or creator of the universe, then the concept of God does not require any meaning beyond just that. In other words, “God” in this sense could just be a phenomenon of physics. A soon as we start to invoke attributes to this concept, such as a being who is omniscient and knows about and is interested in the lives of individual people, or a being whose involvement was confined to setting up the laws and preconditions of the universe, or a being who engaged himself in the specifics of design of the universe and everything in it, or whatever, we are anthropomorphising the concept, and attaching whatever attributes we want to in an arbitrary way, without the support of any evidence. Therefore the statement “God must exist, in order for the universe to be created” is actually saying no more than a precondition or cause for the universe must have existed, and I’m choosing to call that “God”.

A common objection to this point is to claim that the conditions of the universe we observe are so special and unlikely to have occurred or developed by chance, that not only must there have been a “God” who caused our universe to come into being, but that this “God” must have applied deliberate design intent. This is sometimes called the “fine tuning” argument – if any of the constants in physics had been even a tiny amount different from its actual value, our universe, and life on earth, would not have been able to exist. The fallacy of this argument can be hard for some to accept, as the refutation is somewhat counter-intuitive. Consider the existence of any one individual who exists. That person is known to exist, so the chances of his existence are 100%. However, if one considers the chances of that particular person coming into existence, viewed from even a few generations before, they are infinitesimally small: one particular sperm, of many millions, fertilised one particular egg, for each and every ancestor. If any one of those occurrences had been slightly different, the specific person would not exist. The same applies to the universe that we observe- it exists, so the chances of it existing are 100%. In other words, the properties of our universe are self-selected by the fact that we exist. If our universe were different, we wouldn’t be here; but we are here, so it wasn’t different. The required physical constants and properties of our universe are inevitable. It must have been like that, or we wouldn’t be here to observe it.

Finally, the atheist’s objection to the first cause argument is that it is simply a “God of the gaps”: because science hasn’t got a demonstrable answer, backed with empirical evidence, the answer must be “God”. Theists might feel rather confident about this “gap”, since the problem of the origin of the universe appears to be so difficult and not amenable to resolution by scientific method. We’ll see, perhaps not in my lifetime, but we’ll see.





7 “A Universe from Nothing”, Lawrence M Krauss, 2012.

How did first life come to be, if there is no God?

Before I launch into this vexed issue, I need to dispose of one point about the origin of life and its relationship to the Theory of Evolution. One charge sometimes made against the ToE, in an attempt to discredit it, is that is doesn’t explain how life started in the first place. Well, no, it doesn’t. Nor does it tell you how to fill in your tax return. It never set out to do so. Anyone who attempts properly to understand what the ToE is about will quickly realise that it addresses the origin of species, and how the tree of life followed from the earliest life forms – not how the earliest life forms arose. This is not a weakness of the Theory of Evolution; it is a description of the scope of the Theory of Evolution. If you use this “argument” in debate about Evolution, all you will be revealing is your ignorance of what the ToE is actually about.

However, the very valid and fundamentally important question remains: how did life on earth start? The beautiful image above, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, cannot fail to impress – like Handel’s magnificent oratorio The Messiah, man has created inspirational wonders which grab our emotions. The atheist is just as touched by such things as the devout. But the atheist will always return, in the cold light of day, to the sphere of logic and evidence. Here, a charge often made against a non-theistic viewpoint is that life, even in the simplest life forms, is irreducibly complex, and so could not have sprung into existence by chance chemistry. It required design and intervention, by a complex being: God.

The topic is usually described in terms of abiogenesis, a process by which a living organism arises naturally from non-living matter. No example of abiogenesis has yet been scientifically proven, though several plausible hypotheses exist. Does the lack of an empirically proven example of abiogenesis prove that none could have existed, and that life on earth could not have arisen in that way?

It would seem that many theists would want to say yes, but this is a “God of the Gaps” argument. If anything has not yet been fully resolved by scientific explanation, then the answer must be “God did it”. Over time, the range of issues which science has not explained has narrowed, so there are fewer and fewer “gaps” for religion to fill. But this experience doesn’t prevent the theist using it for whatever “gaps” remain. It is evident that scientific endeavour continues all the time: science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would stop. To the atheist, the right approach to an area which is not understood fully is to work to understand it better, not to fill in the gaps by making stuff up, or to adopt supernatural explanations from ancient religious texts. The theistic view, that one’s religion / holy book provides all the answers, essentially unchanged since written down centuries ago, looks perverse to the atheist, and likely to close down the search for greater knowledge rather than encourage it.

However, a key objection to the theistic view of the origin of life is the matter of complexity. If one argues that life is too complex to have arisen spontaneously, and needed a “designer”, then by definition the designer would need to be complex. So how did the designer arise? Who designed the designer? This is circular reasoning, and requires the “designer” to be exempt from the very requirements that the theistic view invokes, to claim that life had to be designed in the first place. Therefore it takes the understanding of the origin of life no further forward. To the atheist, the view that life started spontaneously in very simple form, and became more complex over an enormous timescale, is much more reasonable. And the timescale on earth is almost unimaginably long for our minds to comprehend- the earliest stromatolites date from around 3,500,000,000 years ago. I could have written “3.5 billion years”, but writing out the noughts gives a better appreciation of how enormous the timescale actually is. In contrast, the Cambrian explosion, when most major animal phyla appeared, was “only” about 542,000,000 years ago. We, homo sapiens, have been on the planet for about the last 200,000 years6 of that time, a blink of an eye by comparison.




Why morality doesn’t come from religion

Judging by what I see on social media, many religious people seem attached to the notion that their morality comes from their religion, and are not shy to say so. They contend that without religion, mankind would descend to brutality and evil. One corollary of this view is the assertion that atheists, by definition, have no morality, and so are evil and untrustworthy. Another is that the religious person who thinks this way actually believes that without their religion to give them moral guidance, or without fear of God, or fear of the eternal fires awaiting them if they do bad things, they themselves would become evil and untrustworthy.

It is a fascinating and much debated point. Without needing to delve too deeply into the philosophical aspects of morality, it is possible to make a number of points to show that this religious view is quite wrong. Indeed, the converse is true: religions have by and large adopted and codified the moral standards, mores, and practices appropriate to the time they were written, with in most cases a bit of bending to promote the interests or prejudices of those doing the writing. Consider the following:

  1. Many religious texts contain elements which are clearly unacceptable by today’s standards of morality. The Bible has many examples of endorsement of such ideas, eg Leviticus 20:9, Psalm 137, 1 Peter 2:18, 1 Samuel 15:3. It is clear that we are able to assess these as unacceptable, and choose not to live by them. This shows that we are applying a moral framework of judgement and interpretation which is external to the Bible itself, rather than blindly following “rules” as written in the Bible. Our moral view sits above the religious text, and allows us to cherry pick which parts we are prepared to accept as “good”, and to discard other parts as inappropriate.
  2. The religious passages which we generally find unacceptable as a guide to the way we should live, such as those mentioned in (1) above, can be seen as justifying what we would regard nowadays as immoral behaviour, while other passages in the same holy book provide what we would regard as sound moral guidance. It is therefore arguable that religion can drive both morally acceptable and morally unacceptable behaviour. There are countless examples of truly awful deeds inspired, according to their perpetrators, by their religious texts. Steven Weinberg had it right when he observed “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion”. When 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal said “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”, he had no idea how graphically his words would ring true as in the 21st century, with the rise of Islamic terrorism.
  3. Some religious texts, such as the Bible, are a collection of writings from many authors over different time periods. As such, they contain evident contradictions about what behaviours are approved of and which not. Although great effort has been expended over the centuries to explain and reconcile, to the objective reader it is clear that the Bible does not offer a single unequivocal standard of behaviour to live by. In fact, there is much disagreement amongst well-meaning Christians today about what the Bible is really telling us we should and shouldn’t do. An example very much in the forefront of debate and legislative enlightenment and change at the present time is homosexuality.
  4. Religions as we know them, with codified rules of behaviour, are relatively recent phenomena. Modern homo sapiens has existed as a species for approaching 200,000 years.6 Religious rules such as those provided in the Bible or the Quran have been around a tiny fraction of that time. It is nonsense to propose that prior to that, mankind had no moral standards to live by.
  5. Various human cultures exist without written codified religions, but which demonstrate behaviours which converge on the same general principles of societal morality as are seen in Christianity and other major religions. The strong indication is that moral behaviour is an intrinsic product of human evolutionary biology – in other words, modes of behaviour (such as altruism) which mitigate in favour of success of the human species.
  6. There is a correlation between high levels of moral behaviour and low levels of religiosity. Countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, where religiosity is low, do not exhibit the sort of evil immoral free-for-all which would be expected if morality depended on religious observance. On the contrary, they are some of the most highly civilised, law-abiding, and enlightened societies in the world.
  7. There is no correlation observed between religiosity and lack of criminal behaviour. In the USA, states which have the highest levels of religiosity also have typically the highest levels of crime, and one might reasonably expect high moral standards to accompany low criminality. Religious people are disproportionately represented within the US prison population, and atheists highly under-represented, in relation to the population at large.

 I hope I’ve made my point. You might be a very good and decent person, and religious at the same time. But please don’t imagine that without your religion, you’d suddenly become evil, or that anyone who doesn’t hold religious views is to be mistrusted and shunned, as morally bankrupt. Don’t be afraid of atheists or atheism.





How old is the earth?

Why should I feel the need to include any comment on this, in a post about religion? There is so much scientific knowledge, in quite separate fields, which disproves any “young earth” ideas. In fact, the science is coherent at an age of the universe of ~13.8 billion years, and an age of the earth of ~4.54 billion years. It doesn’t matter whether you focus on astrophysics/ distance of galaxies, plate tectonics, geology, ice cores, radioisotope dating methods, DNA analysis for life on earth, or whatever, all the data fits together.

Most people worldwide, whether Christian, Muslim, or any other or no religion, and the vast preponderance of scientists, do not have an issue with this, and accept it as proven. So why is it even a question? The answer is the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) movement, exemplified by Answers in Genesis 4, which to a large extent is representative of the whole US Christian fundamentalist movement.

The YEC movement goes back to the work of a seventeenth-century Irish bishop, James Ussher, who used biblical genealogy to work out his view of the “date of creation”. According to his chronology, it occurred at the beginning of the night which preceded the 23rd of October in the year 710 of the Julian period.  In the margin of his text, Ussher computed the date in the Christian calendar as 4004 B.C. So essentially what we have is an ingenious cleric, who in the absence of any corroborating scientific information, and taking his starting point as the literal truth of the Bible, worked out when the creation described in Genesis 1 & 2 “must have happened”. Over time, and with the development of detailed scientific knowledge in the ensuing centuries, the work of Ussher was consigned to the annals of historical curiosities. Few paid it much attention. Then came the infamous Scopes trial 5 of 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee. It was largely driven by the Christian fundamentalist and presidential candidate William Bryan, who recognised the populist advantage in appealing to an electorate who were brought up to a literal view of the Bible. He sponsored a show trial, to attempt discredit Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The particular vehicle was the prosecution of a high-school biology teacher John Scopes for illegally teaching it. Fundamentalists found and used Ussher’s calculation of the date of Creation, still published in the margins of their family Bibles.

Since then, despite all evidence to the contrary, the American Fundamentalist movement stuck to this Biblical chronology, and pretty much uniquely in the USA, it gained some traction as Christian Fundamentalist apologists worked to support it, and do what they could to raise doubts on the veracity of real science. Henry Morris in the mid-20th century in the USA devised and promoted a pseudoscientific explanation which he called “creation science”, as a basis for a religious belief in a recent (less than 10,000 years ago) creation by God. Today, astonishingly, surveys show that over 40% of adults in the USA subscribe to this view. The YEC view is scientifically discredited, and does not stand up to any objective scrutiny, even at a basic high-school level. Nevertheless, the YEC movement persists in the USA, and is even gaining some adherents elsewhere.

With so many people in the USA adhering to a YEC view, and propagating it in education, it cannot just be ignored. It is essentially the same battle of ideas as Christian fundamentalism versus evolution. It threatens to produce a generation of scientifically illiterate Americans, which would do them, and America, a great disservice. Many atheists, and enlightened Christians too, enjoin the battle against the Christian fundamentalist scientific illiteracy of YEC whenever they can.







Atheism and the Theory of Evolution

It is impossible to write about one’s perspective as an atheist without addressing the question of evolution. This shouldn’t be the case, as atheism is simply a lack of belief in a God or Gods, and evolution is a scientific theory about the origin of species. Why should they be seen as linked?

The reason is that the theory of evolution has implications on the origin of mankind, which conflict with beliefs fundamental to many religions, in particular, with the Biblical account of creation in Genesis. Those who dispute the veracity of the theory of evolution always* do so because if they accepted evolution as true, they would need to abandon their strongly held religious (usually Biblical) view on creation, especially the on the creation of man. (*If you know of any exceptions, I would like to hear from you). Most religious people do not generally have any dispute with other areas of science, such as the theory of gravity or the germ theory of disease, because these are not seen to threaten or conflict with the Biblical account of creation or any other tenets of their religious faith. The Christian Fundamentalist /Young Earth Creationist (YEC) movement in the USA is an exception, which I will address later in this post.

Since atheists do not hold religious beliefs, they have no more motivation to challenge the theory of evolution than they would any other scientific theory, ie on the basis of its soundness. Since the theory of evolution is so well established and confirmed as sound, part of the bedrock of scientific endeavour throughout biological sciences and medicine, you will be hard pressed to find an atheist who does not accept it as true and factual. Indeed, there are many theists who accept it too, and see the Genesis account as metaphorical, or allegorical. It is probably a point of some dismay to Christian fundamentalists that the Roman Catholic Church does not take a stand against evolution. The recent well-publicised views of Pope Francis are not a new departure from RC Church teachings; 65 years ago, in the papal encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII said that evolution and Catholic doctrine were not in conflict. So it is quite wrong to attempt to characterise the issue nowadays as polarised between atheism + evolution on one side, and religion on the other – though of course in the early years after the publication of Darwin’s book [1], there was indeed a profound “religion versus evolution” dichotomy.

 The word “believe” is often used by theists with reference to people’s acceptance of evolution as true. Atheists reject that usage when “believe” has a deliberate connotation of religious faith, with an implication of one’s attitude to it being determined by one’s personal belief system. One would not say one “believes” in the theory of gravity, or the theory of germ causation of disease. One accepts them, or not, depending on whether they provide an accurate and useful description of the way the world works.

Those who seek to dispute the theory of evolution frequently exploit the fact that in common English usage, the word “theory” means a speculative idea or hunch, so they can say “Evolution is only a theory”. This is either deliberately disingenuous, or mistaken, since the meaning of “theory” in science is very different. A scientific theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena. A scientific theory summarises a hypothesis or group of hypotheses which have been supported by repeated testing. If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step, known as a theory, in the scientific method, and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon.

Another argument sometimes used to try to dispute evolution is that evolution leads to racism/genocide. While it is quite simple to dispose of such an argument by direct refutation, what is the point being made? Even if I were to concede that evolution does lead to racism/genocide, which I most certainly would not, what would be the consequence? That we should therefore pretend that evolution is not real, and agree to engage in willful ignorance about reality?

In the case of evolution, Darwin first published his book [1] “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, at the age of 50. Darwin was a Christian, and, as would be expected in England in the early 19th century, was brought up to believe in the literal truth of the creation as given in Genesis. He believed that all species were created immutable, by God, and that God created man in his own image, to have dominion over all other life forms. He was in his early 20’s when he set sail on the Beagle, as the ship’s naturalist, in December 1831; the voyage lasted almost five years. Darwin was an avid collector, and thoroughly catalogued and wrote up his findings. It was on the Galapagos Islands that Darwin was struck by observations of how different species of finches on different islands were essentially similar, except for beak size and shape, which were suited to the very different food sources available.

Galapagos finch specimensSimilarly, the island of origin of different species of giant tortoise could be identified by the shape of the carapace, depending on the type of food source available on their particular island. It dawned on Darwin that perhaps not all species were created immutable, and perhaps species might change over time, and new species develop depending on what characteristics were more advantageous for survival in the particular conditions being experienced, such as food source, climate, and predation.

Darwin knew that offspring display some natural variation from their parents, and he knew about selective breeding of domestic animals to achieve desired characteristics. He speculated that if a variation produced for example a finch with a slightly stronger thicker beak, and if this were an advantage in exploiting a food source, then that finch would be more successful, and produce more offspring. Over time, there would be more and more finches with thick beaks. This was the beginning of Darwin’s idea of speciation by natural selection. Once back home in England, Darwin worked for many years amassing and recording his evidence, and developing the detail of his proposition: that species are not immutable, but evolve by natural selection from other species. As a scientist, he could see some specific difficulties with his proposition – areas of lack of explanation, which would in some cases not be resolved until well after his death, with the development for example of DNA analysis. However, he became increasingly convinced that the main thrust of his proposition was compelling, and would have to be published.

But Darwin held back. He was well aware of the implications of his work, and the conflict with the Biblical account of creation; he appreciated full well the implication that man himself was not created by God as a special separate entity, but was part of the natural process of evolution from earlier life forms. He knew this would be seen as utter heresy in the eyes of the Church. His wife was a devout Christian, and he did not want to offend her either. Darwin continued to work for many years, researching and writing, and refining his book, but still declining to publish. He was also troubled by poor health, and by family problems, including the tragic death of one of his children. Darwin was during this time in regular communication with a biologist and professional colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, and they shared information by writing to each other.

In 1858, Darwin received a letter from Wallace, who was in the Far East at the time, in which Wallace set out his ideas on formation of species by natural selection. It was clear to Darwin that Wallace had arrived independently at a proposition virtually the same as his own, though less thoroughly researched and documented. Darwin took the decision to publish his own work, and the first edition of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” [1] was published in 1859. I will skip the detail here about how the work of Wallace and Darwin was introduced to the world of science, and the wider public.

The ensuing controversies are well documented. By and large, a polarisation of views developed between the world of science, which found Darwin’s work compelling and transformational, and the world of Victorian religion, which fought hard to maintain the Biblical idea of creation by God and the special place of man – the idea that man had evolved from earlier hominids (or “apes”) was anathema to the religious establishment of the time, and to say the least, controversial to most ordinary people, who had of course been brought up to accept their particular religion.

Over time, Darwin’s work has been thoroughly examined and tested, as new insights have become available into the detail of its mechanisms. In Darwin’s time, the taxonomic classification of life forms was that provided by Carl Linnaeus. Though his system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still in use today, it was based on observation of characteristics, so inevitably contained quite a few errors. With the much more recent work on DNA analysis, many changes have been made to Linnaean taxonomy, and we are now in a position to determine with a high degree of accuracy the relationships between life forms, and to construct a tree of life with good estimates of the timescales. Darwin’s work has been vindicated, and is completely accepted by science. It is not in any scientific sense controversial or in doubt.

Evolution timeline

Evolution timeline, Beaty Biodiversity Museum, Vancouver


The Biblical account of creation expressed in Genesis, that species were all created immutable, including man, is therefore known to be entirely wrong. Most theologians accept this fact and interpret the Genesis account as allegorical. However, Christian fundamentalists persist with disputing evolution, because evolution and a literal interpretation of Genesis are mutually exclusive.

An example of the rise of Bible-based anti-science is the Answers in Genesis (AiG)[2] movement in USA. Their starting point is a “Statement of Faith” which says

AiG Statement of Faith

This position forces AiG [2] into ever more ludicrous positions in their attempts to undermine science – the “young earth” Biblical account not only conflicts with the Theory of Evolution, but their claim that the earth is less than about 10,000 years old conflicts with just about every branch of science, including geology, plate tectonics, cosmology, nuclear physics/radio-isotope dating, archaeology, palaeontology, biology /DNA analysis, climatology/ice core studies – the list is almost endless.

I will go on the discuss “age of the earth” in another post, but on the topic of the Theory of Evolution, enormous effort is invested, especially in the USA, to try to discredit it. Apologists have used and do use all manner of pseudo-science techniques to convince the unwary or scientifically poorly educated, or those who are keen to latch onto anything which supports their predisposition to a Biblical explanation. For example, the 2nd law of thermodynamics requires the degree of disorder (or entropy) in a system to increase with time, so it is cited as “proof” that evolution cannot be true, and the increasing degree of order evident in life forms must therefore come from an external designer, ie God. This sort of approach is disingenuous and reprehensible, as the apologists know (or should know) full well that the 2nd law of thermodynamics refers to closed systems. The earth is far from a closed system, with a huge external energy source (the sun). To an extent, however, the apologists approach has worked, and what might be termed “creation pseudoscience” (or “creation science” from the Christian fundamentalist movement point of view) has made large inroads in the USA.

As one might expect, wealthy countries (high GDP/head) have greater level of literacy and education, and as mentioned above, lower levels of religiosity. There is a correlation between GDP per head and acceptance of evolution throughout the world. There is one remarkable exception, the USA, which is a stark outlier on the following chart.

Belief in Evolution v GDP per capita


Does this matter? The issue is controversial, and raises very strong feelings. To the Christian fundamentalist movement in USA, it certainly does matter. It represents success in promoting the “literal truth” of creation as told in Genesis, with all species created immutable by God, and man created by God in his image, to have dominion over the earth and all other life forms. It represents success in having people reject the Theory of Evolution, with its inimical implications that man is just another part of the natural order of life forms, having evolved over time from earlier life forms (or as Christian fundamentalists might style it, from “apes”).

To many others, whether atheists, or religious people who do accept evolution, the rise of the creationist movement, and the evidence that upwards of 40% of US adults do not accept evolution as true, is an appalling state of affairs – tantamount to a drive back in time to the dark ages -analogous to the religious fundamentalism we observe in Islamic theocracies. It attracts ridicule on the USA from the rest of the developed world, implies a generation of American young people being brought up scientifically ignorant, greatly handicapped should they wish to follow a scientific career, and a population at large who are ill-equipped, through not having an integrated view of science, to understand the world and make informed decisions, eg on vital matters such as climate change. There is an enormous amount of information available which sets out the arguments for the Theory of Evolution, at whatever depth of detail the reader might want. Much of it is written in a style very accessible to anyone not having the benefit of a scientific education, for example The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins , 2009 [3]. For those people who are of a mind to argue against the Theory of Evolution, as many do, for example on social media such as Twitter, they would be well advised first to read 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense, Scientific American, 2002 [4]. This exposes the main fallacies trotted out by evolution deniers: if you are going to argue based on any of these points, you’d better have a good understanding of this, or you will risk making yourself look an idiot.

The issue of wilful scientific ignorance matters a great deal, and many atheists will be found actively challenging the anti-evolution Christian fundamentalist movement at every opportunity.





1   “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, Charles Darwin, 1859


3   “The Greatest Show on Earth, The Evidence for Evolution”, Richard Dawkins, 2009 

4   “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense”, Scientific American,


“Atheism is a religion”

To the atheist, it is hard to believe that this assertion might be made seriously. Would you call “not collecting stamps” a hobby? Or “off” a TV channel? Or “bald” a hair colour? Or “Not owning a car” as a make of motor vehicle? Atheism is not an obscure or complex notion: it is simply a lack of belief in a God or Gods. It is the antithesis of a religion.

Why then might anyone make such an overtly absurd suggestion? Possibilities are

    • A lack of understanding of what atheism is.
  • Insufficient imagination to comprehend a human mind without a religious belief system, so if someone is atheist, it must be a religious belief system.
  • An attempt at deflection in debate: “you have a religion too, so you can’t argue against me having one”.
  • Projection: someone with doubts about the validity of their own religious views might try to accuse the other person of having religious doubts.
  • An attempt to undermine the atheist’s position by creating a straw man, the “atheist religion”, which they can then demolish.
  • Deliberate adoption of a nonsense position, so that anyone arguing from a rational point of view will recognise there is no point in any further discussion, and walk away. The theist can then claim “victory”.


If you are tempted to try “atheism is a religion” in a debate, you will be disqualifying yourself from any meaningful consideration, and make yourself look rather foolish.

Life for an atheist must be without meaning or purpose

This is a surprising view to most atheists. Atheists tend to have arrived at their worldview because they engage in and value rational thought and evidence, so are deeply curious about the world. To an atheist, the universe is full of awe, wonder, and joy. We don’t need our minds closed down by dogma – we want to be free to explore and understand. Also, we live this one life to the max, because we aren’t wishing our lives away, or hedging our bets, waiting for an afterlife.

We get joy, purpose and pleasure from helping our fellow human beings, and from our relationships with those we love. We don’t base our decisions on some promise of deferred benefit in an afterlife, or some threat of damnation, or on a set of rules written down a couple of thousand years ago, when scientific knowledge was scant by today’s standards, and social mores were very different – for example, when slavery, ie one person “owning” another person, was commonplace and regarded as perfectly proper.

To the atheist, religion encourages people not to question, but to accept religious dogma instead of striving to better understand the world.

However, many religious people will say that the meaning of their lives is enhanced by their religious faith, and that “pleasing God” adds an extra dimension, or purpose, to existence. If you have sufficient confidence that your God really exists, so that “pleasing God” is meaningful to you, then this could be one of the advantages you enjoy by having a religious faith. However, if you take the view that life is “empty without God” or you say “I live only to please God”, then the atheist will usually find that a rather stifling and limited worldview, and have difficulty comprehending how it adds to the purpose and meaning of existence.

Do atheists hate God?

Why put this picture here? Because it is the epitome of dumb, and illustrates perfectly the sort of arrogant bullshit that appears in print and on our computer screens, and why I need to write this post.

This charge, sometimes made against atheists, is that they know God exists, but hate God. This sounds utterly stupid to an atheist, because he knows perfectly well what he himself thinks; it is not possible to hate something you don’t think exists. Furthermore, how could the person making that charge legitimately claim to know the atheist’s thought processes? He might as well say to an atheist: “you know the world is run by magic gnomes living in a celestial teapot, you just hate them”.

From an atheist perspective, it is hard to see why anyone would make such an assertion. Even having thought about it, I am struggling to explain. The following is the best I can do:

  • It’s a sign of limited imagination or power of thought and debate; a childish attempt to push away any challenge to his own belief system. He can’t muster any cogent argument in support of his beliefs, so he just trots out the meaningless mantra “You know God exists” instead.
  • He is so closed-minded he can’t conceive of a mind-set which doesn’t accept his God: any atheist, from his point of view, must be in denial.
  • He doesn’t actually believe what he says at all; it’s a cynical part of a money-making enterprise, as it gains financial support from gullible followers. In the case of Ray Comfort, that case has been made on many occasions by those who see through his methods.  Here is an example

Whatever the motivation, this sort of charge is going to get the same sort of response he’d get if, like a child, he stuck his fingers in his ears and yelled “La la la I can’t hear you”. If the atheist is interested in offering a rejoinder to such nonsense, he might ask “which Gods do you hate, then?”, or “You know Thor exists, you just hate him”; but don’t expect the debate to be very productive.

If atheists don’t believe in God, why do they concern themselves so much with religion?

 This is a very common question. If religious people just got on with their religious beliefs in their own time without impinging on others, and were happy for people of other religions, or none, to do likewise, then atheists would indeed stop challenging. To paraphrase one atheist on Twitter “You can believe that we all have unicorns living in our shoes, for all I care. But as soon as you start telling me how to wear my shoes to avoid upsetting the unicorns, or insist that we include teaching about the unicorns in the school curriculum, then I have a problem with you”.

OK, that might be a rather silly analogy, but it makes the point. As an atheist my view is that society, and in particular laws and education, should be organised on a secular basis. People should have freedom to follow whatever religion they choose, but not to dictate that others must follow it too, or to discriminate against people who follow a different religion, or none. There should be no right to curtail criticism of religion (ie no blasphemy laws) – religion should not enjoy any special protected position. In other words, live and let live – your religion is your business, and I have no desire to interfere, so long as your religion doesn’t interfere with me.

If you are a Christian living in the UK, you would probably be very happy for your child to attend a Christian school, and have a daily act of Christian worship as part of the curriculum. But if you were a Christian living in a locality with a Muslim majority population, you might not be so happy to see your child attend a school where study of the Quran is part of the curriculum. I, as an atheist, would strongly prefer my child’s education to be wholly secular. It is hard for us all to have our ideal, but at least if education is wholly secular, those who want to bring their children up in a particular faith have freedom to do so outside of the school environment. Furthermore, mistrust (or even hatred) of “other” would not be inculcated in young people in schools – from my perspective, a very important point.

Unfortunately, religious tolerance is far from the state of affairs which exists across the world. Many religions see it as their duty to spread their particular religious view to gain as many converts as possible: Christians in particular are charged with a duty to evangelise “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19).

Atheism meme 3

World dominance and imposition of Sharia Law everywhere, is a goal of much of Islam. Most Islamic countries are theocracies, and many are deeply repressive and misogynistic, where personal freedom, especially for women, is very limited. We see terrorism almost anywhere, by religious fanatics, usually but not exclusively Islamic, intent on imposing their distorted worldview on everyone else. In many countries, religious minorities are persecuted, and examples are legion. Homophobia, even draconian laws against homosexuals, are prevalent in many countries, both Christian and Islamic. Even in the USA, virulent homophobia exists, “justified” by interpretation of the Bible. In some states of the USA, atheists are barred from public office. Religious groups seek to interfere / legislate on matters such as abortion – a topic whose huge controversy is driven by religious conservatives. This does not mean that as an atheist, I favour a free-for-all on abortion- far from it. However, if religious views are to play a part in an abortion decision, they should be the religious views of those directly affected, in particular, of the woman concerned.

So long as the religious seek to control, oppress, legislate, or discriminate in the name of their religious beliefs, expect atheists to keep challenging.

Religions- what are they all about, and why are they as they are?

There are many religions in the world today, and many more which were once prevalent which have died out. Some are hugely significant and influential, with many millions of adherents. Some date their origins from a few thousand years ago (eg Judaism), and some are much more recent (eg Mormonism). Most of the main religions in the world today are monotheistic, but some, notably Hinduism, are polytheistic.

Religions tend to be geographical in their reach, and developed in times when worldwide travel, and communication between cultures, was quite rare. To this day, Hinduism is almost exclusively restricted to the Indian sub-continent. Christianity started in the Middle East and Europe, and originally spread to Africa by the work of Christian missionaries, and to the Americas by European colonisation. Although the world today is much more of a melting pot than it once was, with very significant migration of peoples, a map of the world’s religions today still shows marked geographical distinctions.

It is possible to try to count up the number of gods which mankind has believed in, or still does believe in. The number comes to something over 3,000, though if we count in Hinduism, there is an argument for saying it is many millions. Some Hindus would disagree, arguing that the question is meaningless, and the enormous number of Hindu gods all relate to a single supreme soul (Brahman).

 It is evident however, and an inevitable consequence of difference of cultural/geographical origins, that not all religions are mutually compatible; in fact, it is clear that many religions contain elements which are fundamentally incompatible with other religions. A logical conclusion is that they are either all wrong, or only one is right and all the others are wrong. This leads to the position of many (or indeed most) religious adherents that their particular religion is true, and that all other religions, which have conflicting dogma, are false. I have heard said things like this too many times to count: “I have my holy book, I know it is true and inerrant, the word of God. I do not need to concern myself with other belief systems, they are all mistaken.” It is interesting to note, from an atheist’s perspective, that such statements are made with seemingly equal conviction from all manner of conflicting standpoints, most of which are expressed by people who have adopted the religion of the society in which they were brought up – a geographical happenstance. It can even be observed that some followers of ostensibly the same Abrahamic God (Jews, Christians, and Muslims, though many would disagree that Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews) plead in prayer for their God to convert, or even destroy, the followers of the other religions.

Another obvious feature of religions is their tendency to schism. Egregious examples are the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, and the Roman Catholic/Protestant division in the Christian church. Of course, it is a great deal more complex than that, but these two examples account for a huge amount of vehement discord, sectarian violence, and even wars. Christianity is perhaps the most outstanding example of schism, with a huge number of sects or denominations – so many, and with new schisms still arising, that it is difficult to count exactly.

Study of the earliest human societies shows that they engaged in rituals, associated with birth, death, the seasons, etc. It is a fundamental part of the human condition – I would argue, with the evolution* of the modern homo sapiens brain and the development of complex language- to wonder, to seek explanations, and to control the environment. (*If you jib at the word evolution here, please bear with me for now, or go and read my post “Atheism and the Theory of Evolution”, which addresses the topic of evolution and why it is held to be false, or at least controversial, by people with certain religious views). Before more scientific explanations became available, the world would be a terrifying place, with all manner of threats such as disease, famine, drought, storms, thunder and lightning, wildfires, volcanoes, earthquakes, wild animals, etc. Superstitions arose to impose patterns on events – if you doubt this, then look to your own tendency to be superstitious – which gradually became codified by leaders into ritual, attributing events to the actions of supernatural beings who would need to be appeased. In the absence of rational explanation, attribution to supernatural agency would be essentially unavoidable, and if one believed that one’s rituals could affect outcome, comforting and reassuring. So the earliest religions were born: a means to explain the world, and to try to control events.

A consequence of the development and formal codifying of religious beliefs and practices was the link between being a religious leader, looked up to and consulted in one’s society, and power and political control. Religions became more mystified and codified, increasingly the preserve of learned and respected individuals; society was by and large divided into the religious elite, with access to power and resources, and the illiterate masses who were told what to believe. The link between political control and religion was established, and remains largely unbroken to this day.

Societies began to identify themselves by their religious belief system, and the power and influence of their leaders depended on its preservation and propagation. There was (and is) a strong vested interest in religious leaders controlling the adherence of the masses. Apostasy and heresy were serious threats, so religions which adopted dogma and practices which were very prescriptive, and strongly discouraged dissenting views, tended to become dominant. Obvious examples are the Islamic death penalty for apostasy, and the brutal and cruel oppression of the Spanish Inquisition, which ran for over 350 years, from 1478 and only abolished as recently as 1834. Fear and reward was incorporated into religious dogma to maintain control, for example in Christianity, the threat of burning for eternity in the fires of hell for failure to follow Jesus, and the promise of eternal bliss in heaven for being a good Christian. Religious text too is well devised to the same end, for example, Psalm 14.1 (The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good.), and the very well-known Exodus 20.

Indoctrination of the young, too, is an essential feature of most religions. The Jesuit axiom “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man” makes eminent sense if you want to protect and propagate a belief system in your society. It is no accident that many religions put resources and efforts into the young, such as Sunday schools, and sponsoring faith schools. Consider also the Christian practice of christening a young baby, where parents, family, and Godparents make solemn promises to bring the child up in the Christian faith.

If we look back even a hundred years or so, almost everyone adhered to one religion or other – societies were generally constructed with religious belief as one of their main pillars, ie what was taken to be good and proper. Education included a religious element. People with atheistic views were well advised to keep them pretty much to themselves, as progression and acceptance in life, society, and career assumed religious conformity. The 1944 Education Act in the UK[1] prescribed a compulsory act of worship in schools, and remains the law today (though more honoured now in the breach than in the practice). But with the rise in scientific knowledge and awareness, and people’s increased knowledge of other religions across the world, religious orthodoxy in western developed countries became more and more questioned and challenged. It became more acceptable to express views such as “I am an atheist”, or even “religions are wrong, and harmful”. Prominent scientists and authors began to express firmly anti-theistic views (Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, and A.C. Grayling are some of the best known examples). Where religious explanations were countered by rational scientific ones, tensions and controversies arose: in some cases religions retreated onto narrower ground (eg Christianity in the UK and W. Europe), and in others eg (Islam, Fundamentalist Christianity in the USA) the battle lines between religious explanations and rational scientific ones became drawn ever more starkly.


The Gallup Religiosity Index, 2012

By and large, religiosity today is lowest in wealthiest countries, particularly in Europe, though USA is an outlier in the statistics. As reported for 2012 data, the least religious countries[2] are Estonia (16% considering religion important in their lives), Sweden (16.5%), and Denmark (18%). For comparison, the figure for UK is 26.5%, and for USA, 65%.

It is interesting also to study the trend of religiosity with time. The statistics point to a general decline in religious adherence and belief, though in the least developed countries, religion remains almost universal. In Bangladesh and Niger, for example, virtually 100% of people[2] consider religion important in their lives. In the USA, where religious adherence[2] is very high compared to other developed wealthy countries, a general decline is observed: the chart here represents this by percentage of people regularly attending worship in the USA, over the 20 years from 1994.

Decline in US church attendance 1994-2014


To my atheistic perspective, the above is a reasonable, if highly simplified, summary of how religions came to be and why they are as they are, why theocracies exist, and why religion is a source of so much conflict between peoples. If you are reading this as someone with religious faith, you will probably regard it as completely wrong and unsatisfactory. You might even take the view that human morality comes from religion, so an atheist like me must be an immoral and untrustworthy person. If you do, please read my post “Without God, there can be no morality (subtext: atheists are immoral/ evil/ untrustworthy).

You might well say I ignore evidence that your holy book is inspired by God, or the evidence of God’s works all around us. If so, we differ in our interpretation of what constitutes evidence: for me, evidence means “an available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid”. Everything I have yet seen which is cited as “evidence” by theists does not satisfy that definition, nor stand up to even a modest degree of logical scrutiny. I have not been short of counter arguments being proposed to me: I had an upbringing in the Christian church (yes, I’m an apostate); I have done much searching; I have engaged in  theological debate with devout and deep-thinking clergymen and lay individuals; and I have studied the Bible in great depth – a great deal more depth, it would appear, than many of the Christians with whom I have discussed such matters. What it comes down to in the end is that a theistic view has had to depend on religious faith, which by definition is “Belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof”.  My conclusion, for the reasons I have argued in this post, is that religions and their Gods are human constructs, and I see no reason to be convinced of the veracity of any particular religion over any other. If you follow a particular religion, and are convinced that yours is true, then my response is “Show me evidence, or I don’t buy it”.








What is atheism?

Atheism is a simple concept – a lack of belief in a God or Gods. It has no doctrine, no creed, no rituals, no special book saying what is to be believed, or how to behave.

Atheists are a disparate bunch: all they have in common is a lack of belief in a God or Gods. Some atheists will have been brought up without religion in their lives. Many will have been brought up in the religion of their parents / community, but have moved away from that belief system as they reached the age of reason, or even in later life, through having an enquiring mind and valuing evidence. Many will have a deep knowledge of religion and religious texts. Atheists generally have come to the view that there isn’t evidence, which they find convincing, to support the validity of any religious claims.

Most atheists will not claim they are certain that there is no God. What they do say is that they can see no substantive evidence for the existence of a God or Gods, or for any of the ramifications of religions, such as afterlife, reincarnation, heaven, hell, etc. Therefore it does not make sense to live one’s life relying on such things: we have this one life to live, and we want to make the most of it.

The question of certainty often arises in discussion of religion. Any assertion such as “I am certain there are no Gods” or “I am certain that my religious beliefs are true” attracts the burden of proof onto the person making the claim. In the case of atheism, a claim of certainty that there are no Gods puts the person in a difficult position, as proving a negative is problematic, to say the least. That said, some atheists, myself included, will say that they are sufficiently confident that all Gods of religion are human constructs, that for all practical purposes they can dismiss them as such. This confidence is based on the following points:

  • The absence of unequivocal evidence for any God or Gods, and the reasonable expectation that if they did exist, unequivocal evidence should be found.
  • The fact that most, if not all, human cultures have developed belief systems involving Gods, and these belief systems are in many cases mutually incompatible. It is manifestly unreasonable to claim that all these Gods are real: either one set of belief systems is correct, and all incompatible ones are wrong, or all are wrong. If one applies Occam’s Razor, the simplest and most logical conclusion is that all are wrong. A position that one particular belief system, out of all those proposed, is indeed correct, requires clear evidential justification. Despite vehement and strongly argued claims to the contrary by many “competing” religious groups, no such evidential case stands up to the satisfaction of the other competing groups, or to those (ie atheists) who have no predisposition to accept one over any other.
  • No belief system or sacred text has ever been shown to contain information that would not have been available at the time it was written down, or to have any predictive value in relation to future events –despite many sincere efforts to demonstrate them, all claims of supernatural inspiration or prediction are unsubstantiated: they can all be dismissed by rational explanation.
  • Most belief systems and their sacred texts offer explanations of observed phenomena – they attempt to explain how the world/universe works. Over time, these explanations have gradually been replaced by rational scientific ones, and that process still continues. There are no examples of the process going in the other direction.

Action for wildlife: WORLD ELEPHANT DAY

Why am I writing about this? What could one middle class Brit living in relative comfort in cosy suburbia have to say that could add to the debate, or even stimulate action that might change things? Maybe Joe Public has more influence these days than we imagine, with the power of social media. Perhaps I can spark an interest in you, and you might decide you want to play a role too.

I’ve always been passionate about wildlife, right from being a small boy, entranced by grainy monochrome TV documentaries by Armand and Michaela Denis, filming in the Serengeti. I devoured every wildlife book, film, National Geographic magazine, and TV programme I could find. As I grew up, my passion didn’t wane, but it grew into a more rounded appreciation, with understanding about habitat, ecological systems, and interaction  with humans. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, that was all a bit nerdy, perhaps – certainly a minority interest. But look what’s happened since: a wonderful burgeoning of nature documentaries. I can now switch on my TV and have a choice of nature channels, with brilliant colour filming, in terrific detail. One man, and a personal hero of  mine, probably did more than anyone to bring this about: David Attenborough.  It is hard to believe that his seminal “Life on Earth” series was first broadcast over 35  years ago, in 1979. The impact has been to bring wildlife and ecosystems, and a better  appreciation of our place on this fragile planet, into the consciousness of millions of ordinary people.

 A consequence of this is that we care, and want to know more – not all of us, of course, but enough of us to make a difference. Recently I  watched half an hour of discussion on TV between David Attenborough and Barack Obama. Who’d have thought such a thing would happen? And Obama was the one displaying the greater deference; without question, he was sincere. There are grounds for optimism, amid the plethora of bad news we see every day on our News bulletins.

I have had, and still enjoy, the huge privilege of being able to travel the world, camera in hand, watching and photographing wildlife in its natural habitat.  I know I live in charmed times, when worldwide travel is feasible and the wildlife is still there to see. I want it to be there, and thriving, for countless generations to come. But it’s not just the iconic animals we need to preserve and protect, it is the whole ecosystems of which they form a part. We lose those at our peril; but perhaps if we start with a focus on the animals, the need to care for the ecosystems will become an obvious and essential approach.

When Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer recently paid $50,000 to engage in his hobby of trophy hunting (killing animals for fun, to you and me),  and shot a lion in Zimbabwe, he faced furious criticism on social media. At first he didn’t seem to get why people were outraged, saying he didn’t know it was a “special lion”, and the whole thing was properly permitted and paid for. There is no doubt that public opinion has moved, and such activities are seen by many people, even in the USA – the No1 gun nation of the world – as deplorable. Personally I have no animosity towards Mr Palmer – I don’t know the man, and have no concept of how he came to see trophy hunting as a fun hobby- and would take no schadenfreude in seeing him lose his business and livelihood. I would, however, be delighted if this sad episode moved opinion further towards practical protection of endangered species.

While trophy hunting grabs the headlines, it is a flea bite compared to the major threats faced by wildlife. Habitat loss is a huge issue, as human settlements and agriculture expand inexorably, with ever more mouths to feed.  According to a recent UN report, the current world population of 7.3 billion is projected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years and reach 9.6 billion by 2050,  with the growth mainly in developing countries, more than half of it in Africa. You can see the count in real time on Addressing that issue is beyond the scope of this post, but there are related matters which we can and should address. Overfishing of our seas and oceans is a key example. Another is rainforest destruction, especially in Indonesia, for palm oil plantations. The following link is a good introduction: If we ever needed an iconic species to highlight an issue, here it is the Orangutan:

Whaling, too, is an issue which rightly raises strong feelings. Insanely, and despite the 1986 IWC ban on commercial whaling, there are nations still doing it , even if they might try to disguise it as something else. The main offenders are Japan, Norway, and Iceland. The outrage sparked on Twitter, about the whale massacre in the Faroes in late July, will likely lead to cruise lines boycotting the Faroes, by public demand, and a change of policy. We  can add our voices, and live in hope.

I now turn to the main thrust of this post, stimulated by the realisation this week that 12th August was WORLD ELEPHANT DAY. In addition to pressure from  habitat loss, certain species suffer additional pressure because of human trade in body parts: for example, rhino horn and tiger penis attract enormous prices because they are thought in some cultures to have medicinal properties. In the case of elephants, ivory is the prize. The common thread is poaching.

Poachers pursue a dangerous occupation, ever at risk of being imprisoned or killed. Without the incentive of large financial reward, poaching would die away, and with it the threat of extinction of tigers, rhinos, and – albeit on a longer timescale – elephants. But with high prices available to otherwise very poor people, the protection of wildlife at the sharp end is a perpetually expensive, dangerous,  and uphill struggle. The solution therefore has to be to kill the trade: governments of “consumer” countries must be encouraged to take a firm legal stand: specify animal parts which may not be imported, transported, traded, or possessed, and enact legislation which is an effective deterrent.

There is a young but increasingly influential website called It operates petitions worldwide on all manner of topics, and depends for its power on ordinary citizens putting their names to causes they believe in. Here is the text about the current petition on saving  elephants and rhinos from extinction:

There has been an unprecedented increase in the illegal poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa and parts of Indonesia. The elephant death rate from poaching throughout Africa is higher than the rate that led to the international ivory trade ban. Rhinos are being driven to extinction in large part by the demand for the unsubstantiated medical claims of rhino horn. If trends continue, there won’t be any elephants or rhinos left in the wild.

We implore the United States government to provide aid and legal and technical assistance to African and Southeast Asian governments to pursue illegal poachers. We also call on the Obama administration to demand that our trade partners in China, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere vigorously and unambiguously enforce the ban on ivory, enforce all laws protecting rhinos, as well as step up enforcement in the U.S.

Please add your voice to this campaign; you can sign at

There’s a lot of further reading there too, if you want to go deeper into the subject.

Put pressure on your elected representatives – Governments can influence other Governments. Use social media to encourage others to sign up. Without our voices, issues like this will languish near the foot of the priority list.