Thursday, 6 March 2008

Criminology, Disease and Lucky Rafting Monkeys Part 1

One of our readers, Burt Russle, posted a comment on the Freakonomics review post which provides some quite interesting further insights into other celebrity authors plagiarising work and vaingloriously profiteering of the back of the unattributed concepts, writing and research of others.

Of particular interest to me in the article Burt forwarded (see: ) is that the author in question claimed that an unattributed research assistant inserted large quantities of written text into his book without him knowing that it was plagiarised. Whichever way you look at that case you can see that the academic in question is cheating someone - either the original author of the plagiarised work, or else the book buying public who purchased the professor's book believing him to be the sole author.

I believe I may have experienced something similar as a consumer of books. Let me explain.

I have been a long time fan of the biologist and Darwinist Professor Richard Dawkins (that's him on the right) - I loved his best selling book 'The Selfish Gene' and also his more controversial 'The God Delusion'. On that basis, my girlfriend bought me a copy of his 2004 book: "The Ancestors Tale".

Unlike Dawkins' other books, which I was barely able to put down and loved almost every page of, I found The Ancestors Tale more boring and hard to read than James Joyce's Ulysses (the only other book I have never finished once started) and was unable to get more than a third of the way through it before giving up, because the tedious subject matter and dense writing style was literally killing me. What could be the possible reason for this? I suspect, and I know that I could be wrong here, but I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that on the inside cover the book we are told that it is authored by Richard Dawkins, with additional research by Yan Wong. The telling question here that I ask myself is this: Did Yan Wong write any of the text in the book, and if so, how much? OK - 'nuf said on that score because its a speculative dead end.

But one very small section of that book did interest me. At pages 148-150 Dawkins writes about how both disasters and beneficial natural phenomenon do happen against extreme odds.

The Lucky Monkey Principle

In what we might conveniently refer to as the Lucky Monkey Principle, Dawkins explains how species can travel thousands of miles from one land mass to another and colonise it by chance.

What happens is that during fierce tropical storms pieces of swampland or natural rafts made up of trees and other debris containing live animals (often those that were bedded down in trees etc for the night before the storm struck) can against huge odds transport live animals across oceans to dry land many, many miles away. He writes (Dawkins 2004. p 148):

"The point about intercontinental rafting of monkeys, or rodents or anything else, is that it only has to happen once, and the time available for it to happen, in order to have momentous consequences, is way outside what we can grasp intuitively. The odds against a floating mangrove bearing a pregnant female monkey and reaching landfall in any one year may be ten thousand to one against. That sounds tantamount to impossible by the lights of human experience. But given 10 million years it becomes almost inevitable."

And the interesting bit for us humans is what Dawkins later goes on to write (p150) about this principle:

"I can't resist remarking how chilling this kind of 'it only had to happen once' logic becomes when you apply it to contingencies nearer home. The principle of nuclear deterrence, and the only remotely defensible justification for possessing nuclear weapons, is that nobody will dare risk a first strike for fear of massive retaliation. What are the odds against a mistaken missile launch: a dictator who goes mad; a computer system that malfunctions; an escalation of threats that gets out of hand? what are the odds against a terrible mistake, initiating Armageddon? A hundred to one against, within any one year? I would be more pessimistic. We came awfully close in 1963."

So what's the link between all this and disease and criminology and Bent Society?

Well, there might be none, if it turns out that I've been tormented to complete insanity by reading and commenting on that spurious and poisonous junk-science-drivel written about crime and criminologists in Freakonomics. On the other hand, Monday's post (next week) will once again be exploring yet another quite rational but strangely unexplored area of criminology and life in modern Britain.

Actually, I hope its the latter.

Until then, dear reader.

Dr Society


Dawkins, R. (2004) The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. London. Orion Books.