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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Monday, 29 August 2011


On Friday 26th, I was at an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where the topic under debate was the Kindness of Strangers. How do we understand "the good" in an evolutionary framework? Taking part were Oren Harmon, author of the George Price biography I've been recommending (The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness), along with Dominic Johnson, Reader in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, and Ruth Chadwick, director of Cesagen at the University of Cardiff, with our own Steve Sturdy in the Chair. Oren signed my book which was nice, because I'd been scribbling my own gibberish all over it...realizing I was doomed to write a poem made of their thoughts rather than a proper report of my own.

So forgive me everyone. But here goes.


That we invented language
then Language invented us.
So we could experiment on strangers -
Knowing all the time
That the best way to be thought to be good
Is to be good.

That the same electricity fires in action, memory and imagination
That the mind doesn’t care what’s really there.

That if selflessness did not exist
We’d have to have invented it.

That biological altruism is a fact
while psychological altruism is an intention -
so if we can learn to pretend to be scared
By the fictional mechanics of a horror film
Can we not learn to be good the same way?

(Why not?
Why does that sound wrong?)

Is there an architecture for choice
A place where choosing the good is more likely to happen
If we get it’s dimensions right?
Can we learn how not to be God
And still live in a nice place?

Like a thrush feeding a baby cuckoo
We balance saints and bastards.
Love is not altruism
But it’s all we’ve got, unfortunately -

What we find in the world
And in ourselves
Is all we have to work with

That we do feel we ought and ought not
And we hate the people who take advantage of us for feeling that way.
Does it matter if it’s biology or not?
If it’s only culture we’re still stuck with it.

That only God is one thing or the other
Life, however, is on a spectrum somewhere
Process not article
Always tense, strung between futures.
Kant and his starry nights
And necessary assumptions
was crossing his fingers, really

So how did the sociopaths take over?
Why are people so deficient in sympathy in charge of everything?
Well, who else would want the job?

Anyone who wants the presidency
Should on no account ever be offered it.

(Douglas Adams said that)

That all human kinship is partly choice by now -
Reciprocity with your parents, your children.
Complex relationships are evolved things too
So is anthropoesis, anthropic delusion
Memory and hope
The future tense...
How can kinship selection explain someone giving money to save the whale?

The parable of the sower:
That he or she who invented the future
- foregoing today's bread for tomorrow's harvest -
was a slave, don’t forget.

"I rebel
Therefore we exist."

(Albert Camus - L'Homme Revolte")

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011 - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.

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