Saturday, 23 March 2019


March 25th is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary. This event is mentioned only in St. Luke's Gospel, but since Christ was born at the winter solstice (though this date is not to be found in any Gospel), it was logical that he should be conceived at the spring equinox.
   The subject was always a great favourite with artists, especially in the Italian renaissance. The setting is almost always the same. Mary is wearing her traditional colours of red dress and blue cloak, and she is sitting in a cloister or loggia. Often she is shown reading a book, open at the prophecy of the birth of the Saviour. Gabriel usually enters from the left of the picture. Sometimes he carries a white lily, symbolising Mary's purity. Often there is a white dove, or a single narrow shaft of light.
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This version by Lorenzo Lotto is not typical of the genre, but I love it because of the cat, which has seen the archangel and is suitably 
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Until 1753 England used the Julian calendar, which had become increasingly inaccurate, and March 25th was the start of the New Year; but then Lord Chesterfield pushed through Parliament his reform to bring the country in line with the continental Gregorian calendar. The start of the year was changed to January 1st, and eleven days were added to the year to catch up with correct dating. However, the financial year did not change, and continued to start at March 25th plus eleven days.
   A glance at a newspaper horoscope will show that the astrological year still begins with the sign of Aries, the Ram, starting at the spring equinox in March.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Do Animals Have Rights?

Animals do not have any legal rights. They cannot be prosecuted in a court of law, or be called to give evidence, they cannot sue or be sued, and it is very doubtful whether they can inherit money or property. So what is usually meant when we talk about "animal rights?

It has been pointed out that pain, and the fear of suffering future pain, are important tools in aiding survival. For instance, because we know that burning is painful, we are therefore afraid of being burnt, and we know to treat fire with caution. Without pain and fear, we wouldn’t survive long!
Psychological pains, like shame, jealousy and loneliness, stem from our being animals who live in herds. Herds always have hierarchies, and we want to find our place in them. At the same time, virtues such as generosity and courage, which involve placing the wellbeing of others above our personal benefit, also stem from the herd-instinct.

Descartes thought animals were mere machines; what we might nowadays called programmed robots; but this is plainly incorrect. We all know that the animals that are close to us, like cats, dogs, horses etc, certainly feel physical pain in a similar way to us, and seem to feel some psychological pains as well. But these creatures are mammals; genetically similar to us. Does the same apply to reptiles and fishes? And what about invertebrates, such as snails? They presumably feel physical pain, but what about fear? E.g. humans endure psychological pain if they know they could be tortured or executed, or will suffer an unpleasant disease. Can animals anticipate suffering in this way? We know that in the end we shall all die. Do animals know this?
To take an even more extreme example: Plants are certainly sensitive to light and in some cases to touch. But they have no brains and no central nervous systems, so we can be certain that they cannot experience fear, but what about pain?

Similarly, we know that domesticated and farmed mammals can communicate to some extent. But does this communication merit being called a “language”?  Is it capable of transmitting abstract ideas that can be understood by a listener? We have no way of knowing.

If animals can be considered to have "rights", these cannot be the same rights as we have as humans. Since the first Cruelty to Animals law was passed at the start of the 19th century, they have had some legal protection (though the laws only apply to vertebrates). It is much debated how far this applies to hunting and shooting, and to the extermination of “vermin”. Should we always try to draw a clear distinction between hunting for “fun” and hunting for food (including some,though not all, fishing)?
Is it wrong to kill rats, which eat stored grain and spread disease? What about the Masai who kill lions which eat their cattle? Or from the opposite extreme, can it be wrong to kill mosquitoes in order to eradicate malaria?

Animals for farming
It has been argued that ever since farming began in the Neolithic period, there has been a “social contract” between man and his animals: not so much with the individual beasts as with the species. The animals and their offspring would be looked after, fed and sheltered in winter and protected against diseases and wild beasts; and in return they would provide milk, wool etc. In the end the animals could be killed for meat, but they would have led a more comfortable life than in the wild, and the species would survive. One downside of farming is that, after generations of domestication, if farm animals and pets were suddenly released into the wild without any support from humans, the great majority would soon die.
(If veganism became general, farm animals would quickly become extinct, bar a few who might be kept as pets. Are vegans happy about this prospect?)   

Medical experiments, etc
We can all accept that it is surely wrong to inflict unnecessary pain on animals. The key word here is obviously the adjective! If we concede this, how do we decide what is “necessary”?
I think we would all agree that there is a big difference between testing cosmetics and testing potentially lifesaving drugs or medical techniques (e.g. transplant surgery). It is obviously necessary to test whether these work (for which must be tested on mammals resembling us), and whether they have unpleasant side-effects. It is surely not envisaged to test them on humans! (Except possibly in very mild cases, and only on volunteers. Or perhaps not even then: in a dictatorship, is "volunteering" a meaningful and acceptable concept?)

Ultimately, it must be conceded that animals are less important than humans. Or are some animals more important than some humans? That seems to me to be an extremely slippery slope. I would not feel safe living in a society in which someone else could decide that my life was less important than that of an animal!

Monday, 4 March 2019

The last man to discover an alien life-form

Magro looked across the greensward. It always reminded him of home, and it was hard to remember that this wasn't Earth, that the plants beneath his feet weren't grass, and that the trees in the distance were wholly foreign.  Amongst the trees stood one of the enigmatic buildings with which the expedition had become familiar: a cylinder of silvery metal, somewhat higher than a man, capped with a dome, without any visible windows or doors. None of the humanoid beings who inhabited this planet was currently in sight.
   As well as feeling nostalgic, Magro felt depressed. They had been on this planet for almost a hundred of its days, and yet they had discovered nothing useful at all; about how its climate might change with the seasons, about its ecology and geology, about its wildlife (if any), and least of all about its inhabitants. After endless tests, the air was finally recognised as breathable and the crew had been able to remove their helmets. But the water from the streams and the fruit on the trees were still out of bounds: they contained no obvious poisons, but there were chemicals which it was feared might cause stomach disorders. Then there were the inhabitants ......
   The crew had met them soon after landing, but were yet to make any meaningful contact with them. Someone had christened them the "Noids", for they looked distinctly humanoid. They were about the same height as humans, and they were entirely hairless. It was impossible to distinguish betweeen men and women, and there were never any children on view. They all dressed alike, in a simple shift reaching to the feet, so they gave the impression of gliding as they moved. They had ever been heard talking to each other.
   Infuriatingly, they showed no interest in making contact with their visitors. They ignored the spaceship entirely, and when they encountered the crew they bowed slightly and then moved on. They appeared to walk around randomly, in ones and twos, never in groups. They were never heard to utter a sound, and were never seen eating or drinking. Whatever did these strange people do? Magro wondered, for perhaps the hundredth time.
   Azarin, one of the crew, came running towards him. "I've just discovered something!" he called, gabbling in his excitement. "I saw one of the Noids entering a cylinder!"
   "Go on!"
   "Yes! He walked up to it, and suddenly a door opened and in he went! And I looked, but I couldn't see any sign of a door at all! So I sat outside for ages, waiting for him to emerge, but he never did. What do you think's going on?"
   "How can I say? For all we know, it could just be a lavatory! They aren't very big, those cylinders: no room for more than two or three people inside."
   "No. Unless, of course, they contain steps going down underground".
   At this point Telemar, the commander of the mission, who must have been listening to the conversation after approaching unobserved, intervened to say, "Has it occurred to you that all this has been set up for our benefit? A scenario very close to life on earth has been specially created here; only they haven't got it quite right.
   "Consider: the air is breatheable, but contains too many rare gases. The water has trace elements that make it unsafe to drink. These plants under our feet look like grass, but they aren't. The fruit on the trees could be eaten, but the chances are that you'd be spending a long time on the toilet afterwards. Then again: there aren't any animals or birds. There aren't even any insects! I haven't seen an insect. Have you? And as for the Noids... have you never suspected that they might be robots? They aren't the slightest bit interested in our spaceship. Can you imagine chimpanzees, or even cattle, completely ignoring a strange new object that suddenly appeared in their territory?
   "So: whoever might be in charge of this planet: how are they doing this? and even more importatly, why?
   "We could try forcing some truth out of them!" Azarin said.
   "Well, we could kidnap one of the Noids. We wouldn't hurt him: just take his clothes off, perhaps, and see what he'd got underneath. Anyway: make him communicate. Or we could blast our way into one of the cylinders. Or perhaps ignore the Noids entirely, set up the heavy digging equipment, and see if there's anything useful to be had here".
   Telemar shook his head. "No; for a variety of reasons. Firstly, because, as you well know, we're strictly forbidden to use violence towards indigenous inhabitants unless we're in serious danger. Which at the moment, we're not; though we might be if we followed your suggestions. Whoever set up this ridiculous planet for us must be extremely intelligent; extremely powerful. Who knows what might follow if we started to get aggressive? Intergalactic war maybe?"
   "Well,have you any bright ideas?" Magro asked.
   "None at all. And in any case, we'll be leaving this planet soon enough."
   "Leaving? whatever for? are we running out of food, or what?"
   "Yes, but there's more to it than that. You don't understand the politics of it. Voyages like this are fantastically expensive. It was made clear that this was our last shot, and if we didn't discover something really profitable, that would be it. Even the food for the trip was cut back, to save money, so we can't stay here much longer even if we wanted to. And what's happened? We've discovered a planet that makes no sense, inhabited by creatures (if they are really creatures!) which make even less sense. So we'll go home having achieved precisely nothing. And that will be that. Goodbye to any further explorations". 
 Magro looked across the grass that wasn't grass, through the trees that weren't trees. The spaceship stood there, shining and silent and redundant.