Review: A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall


2015, Prometheus Books

This is indeed a fascinating and comprehensive collection of “deluded” crowd behaviours. It includes over 100 well-documented and referenced examples of such behaviours, grouped together into a taxonomy of 14 different ‘categories’. Those categories include rumours and gossip, urban legends, fads, crazes and manias (each has a different definition!), stampedes, panics and riots, and the more intriguing anxiety hysterias and classical mass hysterias.
In each chapter, the authors first take us through their definition of a given category, and then present a group of well-referenced historical examples, describing the circumstances of each mass delusion from start to finish.

Some of the cases revealed are truly fascinating. There are witch hunts, UFO and Big Foot sightings, the urban legends of alligators in sewer systems, and various disturbing cases of ‘motor hysteria’, in which those affected suffer tremors and fits as a result of their mass delusions.

There is also the case of the (in)famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast – this did indeed cause a major community panic, and even loss of life – but not in the United States as I (and perhaps many others) had always understood. In 1938, Orson Wells gained some notoriety by broadcasting a contemporary version of H.G. Welles’ story of invading Martians. The incident was re-popularised in the 1970s made-for-TV movie “The Night that Panicked America”. But the authors of the current book give that incident barely a passing mention as a rather limited ‘small group’ panic. Obviously it caused a stir, but was by no means an actual panicking of all of America.
The story of real significance actually occurred in Ecuador in 1949, when a similar realistic-sounding broadcast of invading aliens was made by a radio station that truly panicked the city of Quito. When the locals learned they had been deceived, they became a rioting angry mob, trashed the radio station and brought about the deaths of 20 people. The impact of the South American incident was clearly more profound than the Orson Wells broadcast, but the former seems to be all but unknown today.

The book is not without its flaws and weaknesses, however. Here are three, in order of importance, beginning with the trivial.

Proofreading. I’ve come to expect the occasional typo in just about every piece of professional writing I read these days. This book seems to have more to its fair share, especially in the first half. And there is also at least one howler where the concluding sentence of a paragraph appears to contradict the original point being made. These editing errors aren’t so numerous to be that big a deal, of course. Or at least, they shouldn’t be. But I found they occurred just often enough to be an annoying distraction.

Referencing. The liberal use of references is a testament to the authors’ expertise and depth of research in the field. However, I was still bugged by a couple of points. When a book contains citations, I’m the type of reader that keeps one thumb in the references and the other as a current page marker, flipping “in real time” between the two whenever a citation appears.
To repeat: The references are one of the strong points of the book. But I was disappointed by (a) the high degree of reliance on secondary sources (many of which didn’t feel fully accurate or persuasive), and (b) the over-use of ibid. If there are only one or two pieces of source material describing a particular event, we only need one or two citations at the end of the paragraph. We don’t need one every second sentence pointing back to the same source.

Treatment of Religious Beliefs
While we have here a well-curated collection of irrational human behaviour in tribes and crowds, I feel that the mass delusions of religious beliefs are let off far too easily. Sure – there is certainly coverage of some religious-inspired oddities, like self-flagellation, the Salem witch hunts, worshiping the image of Jesus in a tortilla, and the Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown mass suicides. However, the field of religious beliefs and practices – the traditions, the psychology, the counter-intuitive rationalisations – is rich for further expansion, and much has been left on the table that could have been explored in this context.
One might fairly argue that dealing with religious beliefs wasn’t the intention here. But if that is so, then the error is in the title of the book itself. Rather than being A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, a more accurate label might have been A Colourful Collection of Irrational Crowd Behaviour. After all, not all rumours and pieces of gossip, or fads, or stampedes or riots, for example, are necessarily driven by “delusion”. On the other hand, why should it be assumed that poisoning oneself in order to board a comet to heaven is any more delusional than, say, the belief that a piece of bread is an actual (not metaphorical) piece of the body of Jesus Christ, or that Muhammed actually ascended to heaven on a winged horse? Delusions of this type are some of the most popular of all time, and are sadly all but neglected here – not simply by example, but as representative of some of the most powerful aspects of human tribal psychology.

Despite its limitations, this is still an excellent collection of material that I can see myself dipping back into from time to time, whenever I want to recall examples of popular, irrational crowd behaviour.
3 out of 5.

Naturopath takes it personally when I challenge their profession

For reasons that will become clear, it is worth stating upfront that I got into the habit some time ago of copy-pasting and/or screen-shotting Facebook discussions whenever they became “interesting”.

Anyway, so I have a business colleague and Facebook friend that is a proponent of the new “wellness” industry, including naturopathy.  It’s no big deal; for the most part I’m content to live and let live.

The other day, a (rather innocuous) post appeared in my feed as a result of my friend’s added comment.  The original post (OP) was by a naturopath and described some simple recommendations for dealing with “gastro” (eg., ginger tea, barley water with lemon juice, stewed apples… that kind of thing).  The post ended with the advice to take some probiotics, and to “See your naturopath”.

I guess I was feeling a little cheeky that day, so I added my own comment.

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-professionAnd thus began an opinionated, but largely friendly to-and-fro in the comments section of the OP.  Here is my friend’s initial Facebook response to my comment:

S[…]: Don’t get me started Paul 😉 I’ll just say E[…] recommends seeing a doctor for a diagnosis – so does my other friend K[…] who like E[…] has many credentials and years experience (not all naturopath’s are the same just as not all doctor’s are). Over the years if I had listened to the doctors only I would have several parts of my body missing and be heavily medicated – however I’m in 100% good health. I also observe the difference in ageing friends between those who have relied on Doctors versus those who have made a point of being very mindful of how they treat their body. Drugs are often a quick fix that don’t deal with the root cause of the problem. I now see doctors (and naturopath’s) who have a balanced point of view recognising the connection between mind and body. Watch the documentary The Connection – plenty of highly credentialed doctor’s backing this up!

It was difficult to leave things at that, so there were a few more comments to follow.  My comments are the light blue blocks. My friend/colleague’s comments are in green.  The OP-maker naturopath’s comments are in red.

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession1When someone suggests to me to “bring it on!!!”, that’s even harder to decline.  Hence…:


This would be good place to close things off.  We’d both made our points, and I was left feeling somewhat superior, having responded to a challenge with an argument that, other than the appeal-to-anecdote, had no comeback.

However, in the meantime another participant had joined the discussion in a different comment under the original post, replying to my earlier remark about demonstrating evidence. The new commenter is in yellow.  Previous participants eventually joined back in too:

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession3(My comment was truncated in Facebook screenshot. Here it is in full text…:)

P[…]: “…any naturopath can demonstrate concrete evidence…”

Of what…? That type of claim is so open-ended as to be meaningless.

“…as far as I know they are regulated…” OK, so what exactly do you know about the regulation of naturopaths in Australia? I’ll admit I know nothing about it. I suspect there is no consistent regulation at all, and until shown otherwise, I don’t believe they are subject to anything like the same types of scrutiny and practice controls as real doctors.

And the next comment, about evidence, from my colleague:

S[…]:Evidence: I’m sick – Doctor diagnoses. Recommends life time of drugs after removing or tampering with essential part of my body. I see trusted naturopath. Follow advice, take natural medicines. I am fully healed no pharmaceuticals, recurrence, chronic illness or surgery. Times this experience by at least 10 over my life time, and another 5 based on the experiences of people known to me personally and I would say that’s all the concrete evidence I need. But everyone has to do what works for them 😉

The responses below take us to the end of the main commentary, but there was some more “side dialogue” and activity that I’ll describe afterwards:


Of course, I certainly was not suggesting that “anyone with a medical degree should be trusted more than [anyone else]…”.  Hence I tried to conclude the discussion by re-emphasising the point that I was making in the first place:

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession6Aaanyway, as I said before, this was a good place to leave things.  Both of us had made our points, and it was time to move on as far as I was concerned.

However… Remember that remark earlier in the comment thread about regulation and scrutiny?  Well, that resulted in another short discussion in parallel with the one above.  As a reminder, this is the last sentence of the relevant remark that I made earlier:

…I suspect there is no consistent regulation at all, and until shown otherwise, I don’t believe they are subject to anything like the same types of scrutiny and practice controls as real doctors.

Which triggered this:

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession7Now, I didn’t actually expect an answer to be forthcoming to my question, since our good doctor had apparently already made up their mind that I was “brick wall”.  Furthermore, in the intervening time, I’d already checked it out myself.  In Australia, medical practitioners are registered with AHPRA: The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.  In fact, our naturopath here appears on that register – as a practitioner of Chinese medicine, including acupuncture.  But this is just a side-note, because the qualifications of our naturopath were never in question.  I never raised this as part of the discussion – I was simply challenging the “field” as a whole.

Having said that, it is worth mentioning at this point that our naturopath does not appear on AHPRA’s register as a practitioner of naturopathy, btw.  But that’s ok, because no-one in Australia appears on the register as a practitioner of naturopathy. And the reason for that is simply because naturopathy is not recognised by AHPRA.

No surprises so far.  What happened next, however, was a surprise.  The following morning, my question above (about the regulation of naturopathy in Australia) and my entire final reply to my friend/colleague – the one that ends with “These are not sound bases for knowledge or health” – were excised from the comment thread.
So, I added a new comment:


And that was the end of that.

Or so I thought. Because an hour later, the following appeared:

naturopath-takes-it-personally-when-i-challenge-their-profession9There was no way I could let that be the last word!  Here is my (final) response:


That was a satisfying way to conclude the whole discussion.

Arguably, though, our naturopath did actually have the final say.  A short time after this, every single comment on the original post either made by me or referring to me was deleted.  Everything you see in this post was wiped.

The original content was the naturopath’s own feed of course, so she’s well within her rights to manage comments as she sees fit.  So I’m not complaining about that fact, since I have my own channel here to document the discussion.

Archer on Old Testament Law

In this post I produce a mashup – in the form of a short script – of two of my current interests: The irrationality of Christian belief, and my favourite tv cartoon show for adults: Archer.
The inspiration for this comes from the coincidental timing of this blog post elsewhere, and my current and ongoing enjoyment of the dialogue and characters in Archer.

[Warning: Contains adult themes and immature sexual references. And probably isn’t funny.]

Archer on Old Testament Law

Archer is made up as an archetypal Jesus, including a white cloak, long hair and a beard. Lana is Mary Magdalene. All other characters are dressed as peasants appropriate to the place and time, but reflecting their ‘normal’ characters. Malory reclines on various cushions and rags with an eye mask on, hugging a gourd to her chest.

Archer [Monotone as appropriate for a biblical reading]:
Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

You mean, like, throwing up?

What the hell are you talking about, Archer?

That’s Jesus, Cyril.

Whatever. What are you saying?

It means that what makes you a good person is what you say, not what you eat.



Jesus… Isn’t what you do more important than what you say?

I mean… Sure. If you’re going to take that attitude, then, I suppose…

Lana [as Mary Magdalene]:
Archer, it’s not like you’re telling us something we don’t already know.

Goddammit, Lana – I mean Mary – will you please call me Jesus, or by my full title as your Lord and Saviour…!

Oh, you have got to be kidding me.

Gee, Lana, I guess it is easy to forget that I stopped you from being, ah… what was it again…? Oh, that’s right. Stoned to death!

They weren’t really going to stone me.

Cheryl [Chuckling]:
They totally were!

… And why, as a woman of loose morals, you put out for every uncircumcised moron this side of Judea, but you can’t bring yourself to do the horizontal crucifix with the one guy that saved you from a goddam psychotic, murdering, middle-eastern lynch mob?

Because you’re an asshole.

Archer [Shouting]:
I’m the Son of God!

Sterling, could you keep it down, please? I’m struggling with the fires of Nebuchadnezzar inside my brain right now and I could really do without all the shouting.

Lana [Laughing]:
What the shit are you talking about?

Mother… Tell them. Please…

Malory [Lifting the mask from one eye]:
Sigh– I was young. I didn’t know what was involved. He plied me with [sipping from the wine gourd] alcohol…

Didn’t know…? Plied you with alcohol? You were date-raped!

Oh, there’s no need to go all social-warrior, Lana. I wouldn’t say “raped” exactly. I mean, this was an event of –ahem– Biblical significance…


Wow – [giggling] Mrs Archer. Kudos to you. How do I get me some of that biblical action…?

Can we please get back to what defileth thee?

OK, Arch- I mean, Jesus…

Archer [rolls eyes]:

You said that which goeth into the mouth NOT defileth a man…


Except for pork, oysters, and various water fowls, right?

What about ocelots…?

Well, no. Anything you eat ends up in your stomach, and therefore eventually gets “cast out into the draught”. So I mean, that means you can eat whatever you want. Ok?
But I wouldn’t suggest eating an ocelot. Ocelots are totally awesome.

But we’ve never been able to eat bacon and shellfish.

Pam [Gnawing a pork knuckle]:
Wait – is bacon bad or something?

What, apart from being associated with stroke and congestive heart failure…?

Lana, it’s 32 A.D. There’s no possible way you could know that.
Pam, pigs are an abomination, as well anything else with a cloven hoof.

What’s a cloven hoof?

A camel toe.

Pam [Laughing, tugging her draping clothes upwards into her crotch, pork knuckle still in hand]:
Ha ha! Let’s keep a look out for some abominable ‘cloven hoof’ action, then…
[No response.]
What? Nothing…?

The point is, Pam, that Archer – I mean, Jesus – is saying we can now eat bacon, even though it’s illegal.

Bacon is illegal? Since when…?

Only since God told Moses that, like, a thousand years ago.

Pam [Laughing]: Well, shit, there’s a memo I’m glad I missed!
Wait [hiding the pork knuckle behind her back] – the penalty isn’t stoning, is it? I mean, if we get to chill out and pass around a massive Bob Marley, I’m totally fine with that as a punishment. But if it means getting actual rocks thrown at your head, well…

They’d tie you up first, right…?

So, Archer, what about all that stuff you said before about not coming to destroy the law, but to fulfill it…?

Hey, Ray, that’s a very good question!

What – Ray? No – Cyril – that’s not a very good question at all. In fact, it’s a very dumb question.

So… Are we keeping all of the laws about stoning people who work on Sundays, or aren’t we?

No, Krieger, we are not stoning people who work on Sundays…

What about the laws about not wearing clothing made of mixed threads, or not sowing fields with multiple crops?

Again, Cyril, no, these are not laws we need to enforce any more. People just went a bit too crazy with all that Old Testament stuff. I mean, like you said, it’s 32 AD. It’s not, like, the Bronze Age.

So if we’re not enforcing those laws any more, how can you be here to “fulfil” them?

Archer [Exasperated]:
Jesus Christ, Cyril, you’re the goddamn lawyer here. You tell me!
Maybe – just maybe – it’s because as the one and only human incarnation of the supreme, singular, non-contingent creator of all existence, I’m not about to – I don’t know – say that all the Old Testament laws were just mistakes and now we have to start from scratch again.
God. Doesn’t. Make. Mistakes!

Err… I’m confused.

Yep – me too.

So am I.

Malory [Still under her mask, taking another swig from the gourd]:
Sterling, we’re all confused, including me, and I’m supposedly the mother of the Son of God.

Please, mother, can’t you at least call me Jesus..?
Of course you’re confused. That’s why I’m here.

Well, so far, you’re not helping.

What? Not helping? I suppose you’d say that all of those blind, lame and leprous peasants I just healed were disgruntled now that I didn’t leave them anything to bitch about for the remainder of their short, miserable lives?

So, what – are you now going to take away the earthly suffering of every single person in the world? Coz, you’ve kinda set up that expectation now.

I mean, that’s not the point…

Well, what is the point, Archer? Because performing a few faith-healing miracles here and there, while giving us mixed messages about which of God’s laws we should obey and which we should forget about it isn’t exactly setting a consistent platform for theism.

Well if you’d all just shut up and listen for five minutes, I’ll try to explain.
All of the laws of Moses are perfectly valid laws – for the time of Moses. Some of them we keep – like the 10 Commandments – and some we don’t have to worry about any more – like not eating bacon, or crabs. I’m here now…

Pam: [Snicker…]

Archer: [Forcefully]
I’m here now… [Calmly] to provide a transposition, or a refraction, of the old Moses laws for our current times.

Lana [Laughing]:
A transposition…?

What do you mean by a “refraction”?

Malory [Still under her mask]:
Sterling, what in the name of three types of hell and the holy spirit are you crapping on about…?

Jesus! Look, it’s quite simple, you people. I was obviously put here to give all of humanity an updated perspective of everything that’s good. Think of me as a glass prism, that bends the light of the laws of Moses. The actual details of the old laws weren’t important. What was important was just that people obeyed them for God as well as for themselves.

So really, the law that you’re here to fulfill is just that we should obey God.

That’s right, Ray. Now you’re getting it.

Even if God says you can’t eat camel toes?

Pam, God doesn’t care about you eating camel toes, or anything else for that matter. I’m here to show that the obedience of humanity to God is a constant throughout time, and those old laws, which were appropriate for that time and place, are now refracted through my presence. It’s like everything else in the Old Testament – like the talking snake, the fall of man, the flood of Noah, and what have you – so that all of these things can now be seen properly. In the way they should be seen.

As made-up stories.

What? Goddammit, Lana! Haven’t you been listening? NOT made-up stories. True stories. Just…. refracted.

[No response.]

Everyone but Archer: [Simultaneous collective burst of laughter]

Pam [Quiet aside]:
Cloven hooves! [snicker]

On John Dickson On Stephen Fry

John Dickson has published a response to Stephen Fry’s recent little hypothetical of what would you say if you met God…? 

After reading this piece twice, I was left still confused about who it is actually targeted at, but I’m now concluding that, despite the ‘thought experiment’ challenge offered within, it is actually targeted at the potentially wavering faithful, and not atheists at all.  The title sub-clause (…if You’re a Christian) seems to verify that.  Even so, it doesn’t offer those folks anything more than a call to stay the course and to remember that God really does love you.

As to Stephen Fry’s comments, Dickson says:

…there are reasons it cannot succeed as a logical case against God’s existence or goodness.

Except that – and this is the key flaw in Dickson’s piece – Fry was not making an argument for the non-existence of God.

He was answering a question based on a set up statement of conditional logic.  In other words, “… if the Christian God turned out to be real, and you got an audience with Him, what would you say?”

He was not asked “what is your reason for not believing in God?”.

What follows then is a rather pointless invitation from Dickson, apparently based on the above incorrect assumption (ie., that Fry was making the argument from evil as a demonstration that God doesn’t exist) to try and view the issue through the eyes of a Christian.

To what end?  Most atheists that would even bother to consider this already recognise that Christians are satisfied with the answer about God’s eternal mystery. Patronisingly walking us through Christian thinking, as if there will be some new revelatory material to be discovered, demonstrates only that there is still nothing new or powerful to be added to arguments of theism. It does remind us, however, that one of the almost defining characteristics of belief seems to be a blasé and irresponsible credulity.

… the extravagant, unnecessary display of divine love in the cross provides adequate warrant for taking God on trust for everything else.

And there we are.

The atheist might dismiss this as the “God’s ways are mysterious” cliche, but it is surely just cool logic: God is all-knowing and we are not, so there’s an obvious knowledge gap to recognise.

This brings us back to Stephen Fry.  Indeed, atheists are not at all satisfied by the God-works-in-mysterious-ways position.  Hence, with the opportunity to have a 1-on-1 the Big G Himself, Fry’s question about suffering is a perfectly reasonable one, given that He’s chosen a moment only after our mortal death to make Himself known without ambiguity to the honest sceptic.  Indeed, the real opportunity then would then be God’s, to set the record straight about a few things.

I have attempted the atheist form of the thought experiment. I am just hoping atheists will return the favour and acknowledge that, on Christian assumptions, suffering remains emotionally unsettling but not intellectually crippling.

The point is already made above that this is windmill-tilting.  But Fry has already taken the thought experiment one step further, at Gay Byrne’s invitation, by assuming that the Christian God is indeed real.  Furthermore, there may indeed be a morally cogent bigger picture to evil and suffering that our mortal minds couldn’t comprehend, as Dickson insists.  Therefore, if God is capable of showing Stephen Fry that he is indeed real, then He should be able to answer Fry’s question. Right?

Richard Dawkins in Sydney

It was fantastic to have the opportunity to see Richard Dawkins in Sydney this week at an event hosted by The Atheist Foundation of Australia.  R Dawkins was paired with Leslie Cannold in an interview format presentation. The evening started with a brief discussion of Dawkins’ newly-released autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, including a reading of a charming eulogy that he gave at the funeral of his academic mentor, Mike Cullen.

Using pre-submitted-by-the-public questions as prompts, Cannold guided the interview/conversation into various topical areas, such as:

  • The “social ants” disagreement between Dawkins and EO Wilson, in which Wilson disparagingly referred to Dawkins as a “journalist”!
  • The atheist bus campaign by Ariane Sherine.
  • Dawkins’ social media activity (especially twitter), and the resulting controversies (eg., see previous blog post)
  • Sexism in general, and specifically within Islam.  This point also led into a discussion on the so-called rise of “Islamophobia”, and for a moment it appeared that Cannold was trying prompt the claim that Islamophobia was actually A Real Thing, citing the example that the Christian Bible was just as bloodthirsty as the Qu’ran.  But Dawkins was having none of that, reminding her and the audience that Islamophobia was a nonsense term. Furthermore, he made the point that in comparison to Islam, Christianity had at least by-and-large moved out of its dark ages – in particular, Christianity has no earthly penalty apostasy or for being the victim of rape, it doesn’t cut off peoples’ hands or stones them to death, and for the most part doesn’t treat women as second-class citizens.
  • Discussion of homeopathy (a successful scientific demonstration of homeopathy “…would win not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but for Physics also…!”), placebo effects, and a short video clip of an interview segment between Dawkins and Deepak Chopra… Although the segment shown was fairly mild by Deepak standards.  To paraphrase Cannold at that point, ‘that doesn’t seem so bad…’, to which Dawkins replied “you haven’t seen the half of it…!”. Certainly there was no inclusion of any of Deepak’s bat-shit-crazy quantum healing claims.

The format then switched to audience Q&A, and along with dozens of others, my own hand was among the first to go up.  And… I was staggered, and frankly a little overwhelmed, that it was me who got the very first turn on the microphone!

Although I had my question already prepared in my mind a few days in advance (with no realistic expectation of the probability of getting to actually ask it), the oppressive sense of the audience around me and the significance of the moment had me fumbling over my words like a nervous kindergartner.  Damn.

(Actually, I did try to break the ice by beginning simply with: “Hi Richard. Love your work.”  It eased my nervousness for about the first two seconds of my actual question.)

However, I managed to get the gist of it out. To my delight, RD both understood it and answered it with the passion that I’d hoped for.

To paraphrase the question:

You’ve been criticized by various religious “intellectuals” as being unsophisticated in your philosophical views. In particular, on the infinite regress problem (“…who made God…?!”), David Bentley Hart, and other Christian apologists, say you make a simple category error.  Do you have any response to that?

(Actually, the written form of the question I had prepared was far more clear than the above, but my delivery of it was far less articulate than the above.)

Without hesitation, RD began with a forthright “Yes, I do.” I was still on a buzz from my 15 seconds of spotlight, and so I can’t do justice here with an accurate recall of his eloquent reply.  I only hope that the AFA have a video recording of this, and that perhaps sometime we’ll get to see it on Youtube.

He described in simple terms the obvious realities of scientific parsimony, and that necessarily any intelligence capable of deliberately creating a universe must be complex. The claims of the sophisticated religious intellectuals, that either God was “infinitely simple”, and/or that He somehow exists outside of time and space, are special pleading** and plainly nonsense, and there is no reason why we should accept these forms of apologetics and every reason to reject them.

** RD may not have actually used the term ‘special pleading’ – or indeed any of the other words in the arguments I’ve paraphrased here!  In my mind this is basically how he answered the question, which was met with a vigorous audience applause.

Lots more interesting questions followed, and a few less so.  There was a quick one on his opinion of the federal government chaplaincy program for Australian schools, to which the reply was (to paraphrase again), ‘I usually avoid these types of questions on domestic politics, but in this case I have to say it’s a disgrace!’. Which was met by much cheering and applause, of course.

One of the more memorable moments was potentially more controversial, and the questioner forewarned of this, concerning a comparison between the problems of sexism experienced by Westerners versus those of Muslim women. But RD handled this beautifully, by refusing to diminish the experiences of Western women, while stating that his own, stronger concern was now for the horrific treatment of women in Muslim countries – including “mild” treatments, such as having to wear veils, not being allowed in public without a male chaperone, and not being allowed to drive, through to honour killings, stoning to death of adulterers and execution of rape victims, and so on.

The night ended with this answer, and the formalities closed with Leslie Cannold thanking Richard, and Michael Boyd (the AFA president) thanking Richard and Leslie.  If not for the need to retrieve children from babysitter care, I would have happily waited for over an hour in line for an autographed copy of An Appetite for Wonder!  Alas, the book signing for me will have to wait until his next public visit to Sydney.

“Life Begins at Conception”


I found myself recently in another one of those online religion-vs-atheism arguments, this time following the controversial Twitter remarks of Richard Dawkins on the morality of allowing a Down Syndrome foetus to run to a full pregnancy term, rather than terminating it in favour of a ‘healthy’ pregnancy.  Of course, despite Dawkins’ attempt to explain his position thoroughly and apologetically, the holier-than-thou brigade have continued to demonise him and ignore the logic of his explanation.

However, the core topic of that particular discussion is not what this post is about.  Rather, I want to focus on a related issue that came up in the course of the ‘debate’, which was basically about abortion.  Much of the religious opposition to Dawkins was concerned with the dogma that any deliberate termination of a foetus was immoral because it equated to the taking of another human life.  It is this point that I took exception to, because there is no universally-agreed moment at which a human life begins.


In terms of defining when legal abortions can take place, this varies among western countries.  It is subject to debate, informed by scientific and medical experts primarily on the basis of how mature and responsive the central nervous system is at any given stage. Of course, a particular stage of development of the brain and nervous system does not provide any basis for marking where a human life begins.  Instead, it provides at least a guideline for scientific and medical experts to make a judgement about what kind of pain or suffering could be experienced by a foetus. This in turn allows law-makers, and society-at-large, to draw a (somewhat) arbitrary line at a particular stage of foetal development, up to which they are mostly ‘comfortable’ with elective terminations.

However, defining ‘human-ness’ is even harder than this. 

Prenatal “Human-ness”

Few would likely argue that a healthy newborn isn’t fully human.  It has all the physical features of a human and it is recognised, loved and valued as such by its family. But the newborn is not likely to be self-aware in the same sense that an adult or even an older infant is.  It has no conscious concept of the human society that it has just been born into. It has no ability to formulate or enact decisions and is totally dependent on others for its survival. Despite this, we generally accept that a baby is fully human – a legitimate member of our society.

One could argue that until a baby has been born alive that it is not yet human, because it is not a participant (not even passively) in any human society.  However, most folks would reject this, particularly an expectant mother, who might claim that they have already been bonding with their child while it is still in the womb.  Furthermore, there is not a great deal of physical difference between prenatal baby in the final weeks of pregnancy and postnatal one. Hence an argument that “human-ness begins at birth” is not one that will ever likely find universal agreement.

I argue that ‘human-ness’ isn’t a quality for which we can have any kind of useful scale.  While we can identify stages of prenatal development and reasonably describe various features and functions as being more developed, there is no point in talking about a foetus being ‘more human’ according to this timeline.  The pro-life / anti-abortion movement will probably agree with me on this point.  However, this is likely where our agreement will end if they choose to claim that a human life begins at the moment of conception.


The term ‘conception’ has been used and defined, primarily by Christians and more specifically by Catholics, as the moment when a human life begins in utero.  And this is indeed a convenient and intellectually satisfying label, because it refers specifically to the fertilisation of the mother’s egg by the father’s sperm.  The combining of the separate DNA of two people to create the new and different DNA of a new individual.  It’s not possible to have a more specific start-of-life-defining-moment than this, right?

Furthermore, modern science has even helped us to define this moment – after all, it is only relatively recently in human history that we’ve had the techniques and the understanding to recognise what genetic material is and how it combines during sexual reproduction.  We now know that a zygote is uniquely different to the individual gametes from which it is formed.

But let’s step back from this apparent physical reality for just a moment, and at least recognise that this claim is more a philosophical than it is a practical one. As well as providing us with the knowledge of gametes and zygotes, modern science and medicine also tell us that between one third and one half of all fertilised eggs are lost spontaneously (aborted) early in the first trimester of pregnancy and often before the woman even knows that she is pregnant.  Spontaneously aborted embryos are almost never (as far as I know) mourned as losses, either by the mother or by society at large. These types of losses can be reasonably characterised as ‘biologically natural’ – in fact they are often due to chromosome abnormalities or other biochemical factors that are just not compatible with a healthy pregnancy or offspring.

Lost embryos and zygotes are not considered to be human deaths by most people and by society at large. We do not hold funerals for them, and don’t recognise them as ever truly being human.  Hence the claim that a zygote (the scientific label given to the result of a conception) is a human is at best a philosophical claim only, not one that applies in practice.  Let’s return to this point later.

 The (Abridged) Biochemistry of Conception

If we’re going to rely on the moment of conception as our definition for the start of a given human life, then we should understand this as clearly and as specifically as possible.  As described above, the ‘pro-conceptionists’ will claim that they’ve got this pinned: The combining of the separate DNA of two people to create the new and different DNA of a new individual.

However, this description is not a single event. It is a process – a cascade of numerous, complex events that really have no specific beginning or ending.  When we use a word like conception, we need to understand that this is an artificial label that we apply, with some arbitrariness, to the events that start with approximately the time that a sperm enters an egg, and ends approximately with the formation of a zygote before it divides into the so-called daughter cells of the new embryo.  These events are not exact, unless one can give a very precise – in fact, an infinitesimally precise – definition to the specific biological events involved.

In particular, consider the (approximate) moment when a sperm cell bonds to the cell membrane of the unfertilised egg.  Do we have a new human life at this point? Most will argue no, because the key criterion in defining life from conception was concerned with the combining of the separate haploid chromosomal complement to make the diploid complement of the resulting zygote. Technically, this combination happens as the in-process zygote is preparing biochemically for its first mitotic division.

Despite the animated descriptions in various youtube videos of the fertilisation process (and there are some good ones out there), the combination of the sets of DNA is not a temporal singularity. In other words, it is not an instantaneous event – it takes some time, even though it may be short, for that to occur.

 How Much Genetic Material has to Combine?

If you’re going to insist on calling ‘conception’ the unique new-human-moment, you need to ask yourself if this process were to be halted after, say, 10% of the separate DNA material was combined, would you have lost a life at this point?  Surely it makes no sense to think of this moment as being only 10% of a new human life.

What about if it reaches just over 50%?  Does a half round up to the full?  An undergraduate biologist will be able to tell you that 50% of a chromosomal complement is a long way from compatibility with life, and if this were indeed the biological result, the outcome would be one of those spontaneous embryonic abortions referred to earlier.

Well, what about at 100% combination then?  Again, no, because a diploid complement that was missing a very small proportion number of chromosome pieces here and there – depending on which ones they were, could certainly be compatible with life.  This is not uncommon in fact, because bad genes on one chromosome are frequently compensated for by those on the ‘good’, matching chromosome.

The problem with this proportion-of-DNA-combination approach is that there is no number that can apply in any given case, because it all depends on which pieces of DNA combine successfully. One only has to extend this understanding to recognise that there are no unambiguous biological criteria for defining the instant of when not-a-new-human-life material switches to become definitely-a-new-human-life material.

Therefore, if one persists in saying that conception is the moment, because that’s when maternal and paternal DNA is combined into a new cell, then one is still equivocating on the precise, singular moment of human-ness. The process of conception actually occurs within a smear of time, with no specific beginning and no specific end.

And so we come full circle to Richard Dawkins, who has described other natural processes in similar terms in his 2011 article on The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind.

A Philosophical Argument

There are two objections I’ve encountered to this observation. The first is that this argument doesn’t matter, because even at the moment of the sperm meeting the egg, or upon penetrating it, we already have a potential new human anyway.  However, this counter-argument misses the key point that one’s decision of when a potential new human begins is still entirely arbitrary. With this viewpoint, one could say that they were a potential human as soon the gametes within their own parents’ cells were formed, or even trace a pointless regression back through one’s ancestral genetic formations to the very beginning of life on earth.

The second objection I’ve heard is that biochemically dividing up the events at conception like this is ‘splitting hairs’, with a reference to Zeno’s paradox thrown in. (I had never heard of this before, so I had to look it up before I could determine that it was (or rather, they were) irrelevant to the issue).  Superficially, this objection seems to have merit. Because yes – in dissecting the process of human fertilisation down to tiny time slices, in which we could hypothetically observe the progressive appearance of diploid DNA, we’ve gone beyond the practical definition of conception and the practical account of what makes one human.  However, when we’re dealing with biology on the scale of ‘conception’, as discussed above, we’re no longer in the realms of practicality. We’re in the murky, ambiguous, equivocating and unresolved depths of philosophy.

So finally, if you must insist on sticking with the label of ‘conception’ as your definition of the start of human life, you really ought to think it through. Understand that not only does your label have no practical relevance, but it is philosophically flawed as well.