Ustinov Global Citizenship Programme

The Selfish Gene

By Marianna Iliadou

‘Have you heard of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene?’ ‘Do you want to know more about replicators, vehicles, memes and the so-called ‘genes-eye view’ of evolution?’ Since its advertising, this event looked very promising. But we were even more amazed by the presentation and explanation given by Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes!

We invited Dr Stibbard Hawkes, from the Anthropology Department of Durham University, to talk about Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene written in 1976. Dr Stibbard Hawkes started with Darwin’s theory of evolution, natural selection and its three rules: replication/reproduction, differential reproduction and mutation. To do this, our speaker used an amusing representation of how organisms replicate themselves; choosing M&Ms to illustrate this was indeed amusing and got the participants’ attention and a few giggles.

However, much of this has been said before Dawkins. So, what was his contribution to the field? Dawkins used the gene as the smallest unit as opposed to organisms and this is why he called his approach a ‘gene’s-eye view of evolution’. But why ‘selfish’? Dawkins’ later regretted using this term, as most people associate it with the human behaviour of being selfish. However, what Dawkins meant was that genes endeavour to replicate themselves and hence, figuratively, are selfish. Genes are immortal, while organisms can ‘die’. This is also related to the survival of the fittest, meaning, in simple terms, those that are better in copying themselves. In fact, according to Dawkins, genes are often rather more cooperative than they are selfish as, using Dawkins’ ‘rowing’ analogy, they cooperate like rowers in a boat. Actually, it is when genes don’t work together that anomalies, such as cancer, take place. Also, his book The Selfish Gene is very popular, because for the first time someone used common language to describe evolution, addressed to a non-specialist audience.

Continuing with the theory of evolution, Dr Stibbard Hawkes explained that with replicators in asexual reproduction the whole genome recombines, and the disadvantage is that if a mistake or a ‘mutation’ occurs all the future generations are stuck with the same mistake. This could be very serious, as the genome, a result of asexual reproduction, can accumulate deleterious genes in an irreversible manner (‘Muller’s ratchet’). On the other hand, in sexual reproduction the gene becomes separable from the genome and the advantage is half of the future generations can escape from deleterious genes. Human beings are diploid organisms (they have two sets of homogenous chromosomes) and have haploid sex cells that are recombined to create a new one.

Finally, our speaker talked about the concept of the meme (yes, a meme as we all know it and use it in social media). It was Dawkins that first used the term ‘meme’ in The Selfish Gene. There are some replications that cannot be explained, and Dawkins uses the term ‘meme’, using the metaphor of a virus, as anything that has the ability to convey from one person to another with an attempt of copying itself accurately. Memes, as opposed to what we saw before, spread through the behaviour they generate.

After the presentation, some of the questions posed were related to demographic transition, mutation and whether it can be seen as a good thing, Neanderthals, and gene editing techniques. Most importantly, there was a clarification that we shouldn’t refer to genes as superior or inferior, but rather as better or worse at copying themselves in particular environments.

Special thanks to Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes for his kind presentation and to everyone who attended the seminar.

Women Priests in the Church of England

By Marianna Iliadou

Is it possible for women to become priests? The answer is yes when it comes to the Church of England.

On Friday 9th March 2018, Café Politique hosted an event on women priests in the Church of England. The idea behind the event was to explore women’s empowerment and involvement in areas traditionally dominated by men. Additionally, the seminar offered a great opportunity for students with different backgrounds to get to know more about the Church of England and the British culture.

The event kicked off with Mr Alex Fry, PhD Student in the Department of Theology & Religion and Pastoral Tutor of St John’s College. Mr Fry discussed the particular circumstances that ‘allowed’ for this development in the Church of England: Henry VIII of England and the series of events in the 16th Century that led to the English Reformation (separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church); the rise in the number of English protestants; the mix of Evangelicals and Catholics, as well as other important cultural and key social changes. It is true that after the two world wars, women in the absence of men started doing jobs traditionally held by men. This way, women’s autonomy outside the household was increased.   

But when did the ordination of women in the Church of England commence? It was in 1994 that the first ordination of women took place in Bristol. Before that, it was possible for women to be deacons or carry different duties, without being paid. Feelings were varied regarding the first ordination of women. There were also fears regarding the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Church of England. It is remarkable that only 30 years after the first ordination did it become possible for women to acquire higher positions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In 2015, Libby Lane became the first woman bishop, holding the third most senior position within the Church of England.

After presenting these historical facts, Mr Fry then continued with his own research, namely why some male clergy reject the validity of women’s ordination in the Church of England. After explaining his research method, he shared with us some of the comments made by male clergy. Most of the comments were around the differences between men and women and that there is a God-given order that men do some things better than women and vice versa.

Then the baton was handed over to Revd Lindsey Goodhew, Associate Minister and Student Worker in St Nicholas Church, Durham. Revd Goodhew was trained at Cranmer Hall at St John’s College, served as deacon in 1993 and was ordained priest in July 1994. She was present at the event to share with us her first-hand experience as a female ordained priest.

When Revd Goodhew began her training, women were not allowed to be priests, so she started without knowing if she would end up as a deacon or priest. However, after being ordained, she started her work in Bristol, then Cambridge and York and the last 9 years in St Nicholas Church, Durham, mentoring students. During these years of practice, she has not faced some of the challenges and prejudice some other female priests have faced and her experience has been overall very positive. The different treatment she faced at the beginning of her vocation to the priesthood had to do more with her age than her gender, as she was very young when ordained and had to deal with some paternalistic behaviour from a number of men.

Nonetheless, what was more challenging for Revd Goodhew is the fact that both she and her husband are priests. The difficulty consists in the fact that priests need to be free whenever possible, as there is still a (very) male model of ministry that is based on a male priest having someone back home doing everything so that they are free to fulfil their call 24/7.

The event ended after the floor was opened for the Q&A session. Through a lively interaction between the two speakers and the audience, some of the main issues discussed were the role of the figure of Mary in the Anglo-Catholic culture and whether this shows a general attitude towards women, the possibility of inter-faith discussion about women in leading roles within religion, the text of the Bible and whether it serves as a basis for the distinct role of women and men, etc.

Special thanks to Mr Alex Fry and Revd Lindsey Goodhew for their kind participation and to everyone who attended the seminar.

The October Revolution, Lenin and a new Dialectic

By Steven Male

On October 25th 1917 (November 7th), Lenin announced to the citizens of Russia “we have deposed the government of Kerensky”, and thus the world’s first self-proclaimed socialist government was established. This year, on the 100th anniversary of this momentous event Café Politique invited Professor Alastair Renfrew to Fisher House for a discussion.

But was the October Revolution all that momentous? Whilst Professor Renfrew did not deny the significance of the October Revolution, he did provide some important reflections on how the event has been mythologised, and on how western liberal historiography has treated Lenin.

For starters, the October Revolution was neither the beginning of a revolution nor the end. In fact, it is fair to say that a year of revolutions began with the February Revolution in 1917. In his talk, Renfrew explained how this led to the formation of a weak Provisional Government with a revolving door of ministers, which failed to alleviate famine, provide economic stability, and prevent continued military disaster. Both the July Days and the Kornilov Affair highlighted Russia’s ineffectual leadership and, according to Lenin, the inevitability of an armed uprising. Renfrew’s talk carried on to clarify the specificity of this historical time. Previously Lenin had theorized the importance of armed revolution because he believed the bourgeoisie would never willingly give up power, but by October 25th 1917 the Bolsheviks simply stated their willingness to govern by providing peace, work and bread. Kerensky’s Provisional Government offered no resistance. Opposition came from disparate parties in the ensuing civil war which ended in 1923. The next year, Lenin died, and Stalin emerged as his successor. Under Stalin, Lenin and the revolutions were mythologised. In 1928, Eisenstein’s famous film October presented the revolution as a violent struggle. Stalin, Renfrew noted, portrayed Lenin as a godlike figure in order to establish legitimacy.

Meanwhile, western liberal academics have equally mythologised Lenin in what has been a successful attempt to delegitimise his character and the revolution. For Professor Renfrew, Western historiography has presented Lenin as begetting Stalin since without Lenin there could be no Stalin, no terrors or five-year plans. Interestingly, Renfrew noticed, Lenin is considered both as an anarchist and a dictator, despite these being opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. Professor Renfrew then discussed the subjective and ideologically motivated historiography of the West. However, Renfrew’s attempt to dissociate Lenin with the Cheka (Soviet Secret Police) and the Red Terror that occurred under Lenin’s watch –involving wide spread repression and violent atrocities – needs to be reappraised.

Professor Renfrew’s most convincing arguments were centred on Lenin’s ability to create practical doctrine that related to specific circumstances. In fact, Lenin succeeded in creating a tightly controlled, disciplined vanguard party that could educate and lead the proletariat. This might be authoritarian in nature but the authoritarian context of Tsarist Russia made it impossible to be a social democrat. The idea of the vanguard party derived from the necessity of the political environment and Lenin’s, great mistake, according to Renfrew, was not abolishing this vanguard party after the revolution. For Renfrew, Lenin’s ideology did not beget Stalin; Lenin’s last writings emphasised that Stalin could not be trusted to lead. Rather Lenin placed too much authority in too few people and, for this reason, Stalin was able to depose of his rivals.

The necessity to adapt to changing circumstances is the key lesson of Lenin’s career and the October Revolution. Lenin’s objective, according to Renfrew, was an open dialectic political system. That this never emerged after the revolution was a result of the continued power of a vanguard party.

Professor Renfrew concluded his talk with his reflections on the need for a modern dialectic. The October Revolution was driven by a combination of Marxist doctrine and political necessity. Modern political discourse lacks all doctrine in Professor Renfrew’s view, and this is difficult to disagree with. There is a consensus that class is no longer an issue in British politics, which in Renfrew’s opinion is an abnegation of responsibility. Housing is currently the most significant crisis after Brexit; yet there is no doctrine on how such issues might be resolved. Finally, Renfrew remarks, there is a crisis in statehood. Marxist theory emphasises that the state is necessarily oppressive; the state is the force with which elites contain the working class. For Marx, the state must be destroyed. It is ironic, then, that the greatest threat to the state has been the emergence of advanced financial capital and technology. The fundamental challenge for political theorists and policy makers is to establish new open dialectics that enable the state to re-establish its authority and mitigate the negative effects of capitalism.

Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?

By Nadin Hassan

Last week, Café des Arts and Café Politique co-hosted a screening of the documentary “Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?” (2017), featuring British writer, broadcaster, and former politician Trevor Phillips. Speaking from his experience in the field of politics, Phillips explores the suppression of free speech by politically undesirable elements of the population and its connection to the rise of far-right populist politicians in the United States and Europe. He presents an overview from the cut-and-dry cases of free speech that should not be accepted (a man who writes online threats of sexual assault to a woman who petitioned for Jane Austen to be featured on the £10 bank note) to more complex cases (a case of an anti-immigrant protest in London that city authorities restricted to an isolated part of the city in order not to be in the public eye). Phillips’ argument, entirely unrelated to the actual substance of these figures, was simply that there should be no control to free speech, even from more conservative members of society. A truly liberal state, he argued, should not be repressing any voices or alienating people from the public sphere, but rather encouraging dialogue over differences.

The discussion afterwards was particularly interesting. Students brought up topics such as the fine line between the adoption of other cultural styles and cultural appropriation, as well as the position of authority on mediating between contesting views, such as presented in the case of a feminist speaker who student groups attempted to ban from speaking at Cardiff due to her controversial opinions about transgender women. Even among the students attending the discussion, there were heated debates around cultural sensitivity and admissibility of offending comments, such as the case of UCL Professor Tim Hunt’s resignation due to a sexist joke. The only point of agreement seemed to be that threats of violence may not be tolerated in the public sphere. It confirmed Trevor Phillips’ message and highlighted the challenges of encouraging conversation from different political and social perspectives, and focusing on the topic of discussion objectively without discrediting the opposition. It is a topic to which all facets of society should focus their attention, as globalization and urbanization bring ongoing tensions, and so far, the only respite for the unheard voices – the anti-immigrant groups, the supporters of traditional gender norms, the population reeling from the economic consequences of the shutdown of traditional industries – seems to be the glimmering beacon of the far right and its promises to serve as the ‘voice of the people’.

Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?

In view of the recent rise of right-wing populism in the West, the GCP will screen a documentary featuring the contemporary debate about political correctness. In this documentary, the presenter (Trevor Phillips) will take us through different perspectives of the dynamic interaction between the fine line of political correctness and freedom of expression – through recent political events as well as recent social phenomena such as internet hate crime.

Philips argues that fear of offending minorities has stifled legitimate debate over controversial socio-political issues, stating that this has backfired for Western Liberals and led to recent political earthquakes such as the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s presidency.

The documentary screening will be featured alongside a discussion where certain research questions will be discussed. For example, a central one exploring the link between changing social narratives on political correctness, consequent alienation of certain demographics of the electorate and changes in their traditional voting patterns.

Join us at Sheraton Seminar Room on 28th November at 7pm to explore the arguments behind a very current global political and societal debate and to have a casual debate about it, along with some refreshments and nibbles of course!

A Bombastic Beginning: Café Politique Scrutinises the Construction of Geographical Spaces

Reposted on 

by José Luis Mateos-González

On 11 October 2016, Café Politique kicked off the academic year hosting a multidisciplinary seminar examining discourses around the representation of geographical spaces within the British and European contexts. Under the title ‘Britain, Europe and the rest of it: Myths and Narratives’, the event propagated new ways of understanding statehood formation from the perspectives of the European Union’s Arctic policy, Victorian literature, and the debate around multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and Brexit.

To begin with, the event – which was overwhelmingly successful, judging from its turnout –scholars from the Global Citizenship Programme at Ustinov College introduced their teams, activities and plans for the year.

Afterwards, Jarno Valimaki, a scholar from Café Politique and chair of yesterday’s session, introduced the three main speakers of the evening, which came from a myriad of research fields in the Social Sciences and Humanities: Michael Laiho, PhD candidate at Durham’s Geography department; Tom Spray, PhD candidate at Durham’s department of English studies; and Dr. Ipek Demir, assistant professor at the department of Sociology of the University of Leicester.

The first speaker, Michael Laiho, put forward an account of his own research, which scrutinises European territory in the context of the European Union’s Arctic policy. Arguing that political elites have long anticipated a call for Arctic environmental protection and resource extraction, Mr. Laiho asked the questions “why now?” and “why an EU Arctic policy?”. Using Foucauldian discourse analysis, he tried to answer these questions claiming that “carbon” as hydrocarbons and CO2 emissions is mythologised in EU policy to promote European interests offshore in the Arctic ocean.

The second speaker, Tom Spray, explored the relationship between Scandinavian literature and British national identity in the nineteenth century. His presentations considered two key literary figures of the nineteenth century Britain – Walter Scott and William Morris – and examined how their idealised models for British nationality were influenced by a cultural renaissance in northern Europe, as Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain rediscovered a Germanic past largely overlooked by academics of the seventeen-hundreds.

Finally, Dr. Ipek Damir, engaging in a conversation about how discourses favourable to the exit of the UK from the European Unions have framed Brexit as “taking the country back”, explored cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism against the current political backdrop. Moreover, she also discussed how the latter two intertwined with contemporary debates around race and difference. She argued that multiculturalism was never about purely recognising diversity; it was about questioning national homogeneity and allowing minority groups to make claims and participate as equal citizens.

Following Dr. Damir’s presentation, the chair took some questions from the ground. The audience engaged in a fascinating discussion on the issues covered by the presentations. A question regarding Dr. Damir’s presentation was particularly challenging, as it argued that class politics may hold the key to understanding the Brexit referendum result. Notwithstanding, Dr. Damir put forward polling data that showed that voting patterns varied across ethnic groups. From Café Politique, and based on the feedback we received, we are sure that the audience will want to engage in future events.

Do you want to know more about Café Politique? Contact us at ustinov.cafepol@durham.ac.uk

Remote Warfare: Drones, Intelligence and Private Military Companies – Hosted by Café Politique

Reposted on the 

By Jarno Välimäki

On 28 February, Café Politique tackled a theme that, for many, is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. From the 1980s’ film ‘The Dogs of War’, and Barack Obama jokingly threatening the Jonas Brothers with predator drones, to the news coverage, and many documentaries of intelligence operations, all the aspects covered in this event have certainly attracted wide public attention. However, these issues are less well-covered from the academic side, and Café Politique thus set out to fill this vacuum. Indeed, our seminar with Dr. Oldrich Bures, Professor Ian Leigh, and Dr. Kyle Grayson attracted what was perhaps the record attendance of the year for Café Politique – more than 60 people, although it must be noted that Dr Grayson suspected it was the free wine that attracted the people.

After a short delay due to a shortage of chairs, the event was kicked off with Professor Leigh and his presentation on accountability and oversight in intelligence operations, followed by Dr. Grayson’s take on the cultural politics of targeted killing and drone warfare. Last but not least, Dr. Bures examined the role of the private military and security companies in UN Peacekeeping Operations. Judging on the intense look of concentration on most of the faces in the audience, all of our speakers managed to bring new and interesting aspects of remote warfare into the spotlight. Indeed, after the last presentation we had a lively Q&A session, and even after the event itself there were some interesting conversations happening in the Fisher House about remote warfare and our event.

Clinton’s Defeat: US Election Hosted in Fisher House by Café Politique

Reposted on the 14th October 2017

By Jarno Välimäki

At around 6 in the morning all the posters in Fisher House were taken down. Some of them said ‘bad hombres’ or ‘nasty woman’, others talked about the infamous wall that ‘Mexico will pay for’. CNN was still on and they had not called the winner yet, but we appeared to have done just so. Now those posters seemed inappropriate and tasteless. The next day I heard someone say: ‘The posters would have been funny if Clinton had won.’ Indeed, the posters certainly looked as if they were waiting for Clinton’s victory celebrations.

Clearly, few of us in Fisher House actually expected Clinton to lose, including our guest lecturer Dr Neil Visalvanich, who after his insightful and very informative lecture was described as ‘a proper Democrat’ by one American Ustinovian. To be fair, in no way did he promise us that we would have the first ever female president of the USA. Yet, the crowd seemed very optimistic, and positively nervous. One could sense the buzz in the air when people were queuing for pizza and given bingo cards with phrases that might be mentioned during the broadcast. As one GCR committee member explained, the crowd was even more energised than before the Brexit night earlier this year.

Once the results started coming in, every time Clinton had secured a state the crowd started cheering. However, the more the race tightened, the more one was able to spot stats and graphs on many mobile phone screens. The record was, as far as I know, six simultaneous graphs on one screen. It seems that Ustinovians do not only take the election results, but also the process of following the counting and announcement of votes, very seriously. And serious it became! The statistics gave less and less of a chance for Clinton’s win every time a new result came in. By constantly monitoring this change, and reporting it, I myself managed to annoy a friend of mine, who was an enthusiastic Clinton supporter. The disbelief, with a bit of denial, was now suddenly real. No one was playing bingo anymore.

If the results shocked us, for Clinton they were ever more shocking, and most people had already gone to bed before she appeared on TV. None the less, Clinton finally gave her concession with these words: ‘This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it. It is– it is worth it’. That morning I among others learnt very painfully that if you stay up until 7.30am, it will be hard to get up for your 9am lecture, which seemed like the only lesson learnt from that night. But having heard Clinton’s speech, it is clear that her words should be the most important lesson we take home from that night.

If you would like to get involved with Café Politique or would like to find out more, email ustinov.cafepol@durham.ac.uk.

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