John Parrington

The Last Englishman

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Roland Chambers, Faber & Faber; £20

I was interested in this new biography of Arthur Ransome because of revelations about him that first surfaced in 2005. Ransome is, of course, best known for his Swallows and Amazons children's books that made him as famous in the 1930s as J K Rowling is today. Yet Ransome was also in Russia in 1917, where he wrote one of the best defences of the revolution I have ever read. Indeed, many in the British establishment denounced him as a Bolshevik and enemy of the state. So far so good, except that four years ago MI6 released files purporting to show that Ransome had been on their payroll.

Darwin and Wallace

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Pete Wearden and Nick Grant's letters make interesting points about Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace but they also contain flaws that need addressing (Feedback, Socialist Review, March 2009).

Pete suggests that Darwin makes concessions to imperialism with his statement that "races or species of men...replace one another, so that some finally become extinct". In fact Darwin could be viewed here as quite accurately seeing proto-humans as being like parallel branches on a tree, with only one leading to the modern human form, rather than stages on some ladder of progress.

Charles Darwin: Revolution of evolution

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Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace formulated the theory of evolution and fought for its acceptance across the scientific community, writes John Parrington.

I recently made a pilgrimage to Westminster Abbey. I was not there for religious or aesthetic reasons, but to visit the grave and honour the memory of Charles Darwin, who was born 200 years ago this month.

Critique of Intelligent Design

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John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, Monthly Review Press, £10.95

The subject of this book is so-called "intelligent design", the idea that the biological world is so complex that it could only have arisen through the work of a creator.

This was once the accepted view of society, until Charles Darwin showed in the mid-19th century that all organisms on earth, including human beings, evolved through the process of natural selection. Now right wing fundamentalist Christians in the US are trying to foist this discredited idea back upon us.

Bad Science

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Ben Goldacre, Fourth Estate, £12.99

Under modern capitalism our lives are increasingly dependent on scientific and technological advances, from mobile phones and MP3 players to the latest drug or surgical treatment. Yet at the same time there is also much public fear and misunderstanding about science. In Bad Science Ben Goldacre, most widely known for his Guardian column of the same name, investigates the consequences of such fear and ignorance, specifically in relation to the biomedical sciences and the various alternative health movements that have sprung up in opposition to them.

The Stuff of Thought

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Steven Pinker, Penguin, £25

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, first came to prominence with his book The Language Instinct, a popular account of Noam Chomsky's theory that all human beings are born with an innate capacity for understanding and utilising the complex rules of language. Subsequently Pinker wrote How the Mind Works, which claimed to unlock the secrets of the human psyche using the new science of "evolutionary psychology".

From great to disgrace

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When Nobel prize winner James Watson made racist comments about black people and intelligence last month, he was using his scientific credentials to legitimise bigotry.

It has been said that if the 20th century was the age of the atom, the 21st century will be the epoch of the gene. With the completion of the human genome project we are offered a future in which the genetic basis of disease has been fully worked out and medical treatment is tailored to each individual.

Science: Turning Stem Cells into Cash

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John Parrington asks who is to blame when scientific research becomes fraud.

Anyone who has lived in a house that suffers from subsidence will know that tensions and instabilities in the foundations of an apparently sound building are sometimes revealed by cracks that suddenly appear without warning. A huge crack in the edifice of biomedical science appeared recently when what appeared to be a major scientific breakthrough, the creation of tailor-made stem cells from cloned human embryos, published in the prestigious journal Science, turned out to be a fabrication.

Only Skin Deep

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Race is a social construct.

This book claims to have discovered new evidence of a biological basis for race. Until recently the dominant view was that black people were significantly different in biological terms from whites. Such a view was dealt a hammer blow when scientists started to compare the actual genetic differences between races.

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