Saturday, April 25, 2009

God 'will not give happy ending'

Page last updated at 19:11 GMT, Thursday, 26 March 2009

God 'will not give happy ending'

Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Williams often speaks out on environmental issues

God will not intervene to prevent humanity from wreaking disastrous damage to the environment, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned.

In a lecture, Dr Rowan Williams urged a "radical change of heart" to prevent runaway climate change.

At York Minster he said humanity should turn away from the selfishness and greed that leads it to ignore its interdependence with the natural world.

And God would not guarantee a "happy ending", he warned.

Dr Williams has often spoken out about environmental issues.

'Ultimate tragedy'

Speaking on Wednesday he said just as God gave humans free will to do "immeasurable damage" to themselves as individuals it seemed "clear" they had the same "terrible freedom" as a human race.

Robert Pigott
Robert Pigott, religious affairs correspondent

Along with his dramatic urging for people to achieve a personal "conversion" in their attitude to the environment, Archbishop Williams is using the opportunity to teach a slightly more sophisticated take on what Christianity says about the issue.

The concept of a loving and forgiving God has always been central to Christian teaching, even if some traditionalist evangelicals do anticipate the approach of a world-ending apocalypse.

Dr Williams is reluctant to allow Christians to use their faith in a benevolent God - or their fatalism about an apocalypse - to opt out of personal responsibility for the planet Earth.

His key message was about free will - the idea God exercises no control over what people choose to do.

He has used the economic recession to ask fundamental questions about what constitutes genuine wealth and wellbeing, and to argue material consumption has not brought true happiness.

Dr Williams evidently sees the potential for similar lessons to emerge even from the looming crisis over climate change.

"I think that to suggest that God might intervene to protect us from the corporate folly of our practices is as unchristian and unbiblical as to suggest that he protects us from the results of our individual folly or sin," he said.

"God's faithfulness stands, assuring us that even in the most appalling disaster love will not let us go - but it will not be a safety net that guarantees a happy ending in this world."

Without a change of heart, Dr Williams warned, the world faced a number of "doomsday scenarios" including the "ultimate tragedy" of humanity gradually "choked, drowned, or starved by its own stupidity."

The poorest and most vulnerable and our children and grandchildren would pay the heaviest price for climate change, he added.

A Greenpeace spokesman welcomed the speech: "Hundreds of thousands of people are dying every year because we haven't taken the necessary steps to stop climate change.

"Whilst there's nothing wrong in hoping for a miracle, relying on one does seem to be more than a bit reckless.

"We need to all do what we can now, or we're giving up on this world."

Friends of the Earth's executive director, Andy Atkins said: "Humans are responsible for escalating climate change. We have a choice as to how we respond, but we and future generations will live with the consequences of this generation's choice."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the British Humanist Association said: "The fact that god is not going to help us handle climate change will come as no surprise to many.

"But nor will the reinterpretation of ancient texts to be about stewardship rather than dominion, or indeed any faith in some non-human support.

"What may help us to manage it is human reason and the application of technology, and a recognition that we are on our own on this earth and must handle our own problems."

Medics 'can mend a broken heart'

Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Friday, 27 March 2009

Medics 'can mend a broken heart'

Broken heart
Medics can help you recover from a broken heart

Scientists have found it is possible to mend a broken heart.

US researchers studied 70 patients with "broken heart syndrome", a recognised condition linked to stressful or emotional events.

All these patients recovered, most after being given aspirin or heart drugs, even though 20% were deemed critically ill.

The American Journal of Cardiology study says the condition is probably caused by a surge in stress hormones.

Broken heart syndrome, known medically as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, was first described by Japanese researchers in the early 1990s.

Even though symptoms mimic those of a heart attack such as chest pain and shortness of breath, broken heart syndrome does appear to be temporary and completely reversible - if treated quickly.

The patients studied by the researchers from two hospitals in Providence, Rhode Island were diagnosed with broken heart syndrome between July 2004 and April 2008.

Spring breaks

Around 67% of patients had been exposed to some sort of physical or emotional distress - such as bad news about a family member, a domestic argument, severe physical illness or a car accident - just before the onset of symptoms.

There does seem to be an association between this condition and a very stressful event
June Davison, British Heart Foundation

Six patients presented with heart-induced shock and three had abnormal heart rhythms which required emergency treatment.

Two-thirds of the patients - almost all post-menopausal women - had experienced a very stressful physical or emotional event just before arriving at the hospital with heart attack-like symptoms.

Overall, the majority of those in the registry were prescribed aspirin or heart drugs such as, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors and statins while in hospital.

Even though a fifth were were critically ill and required emergency treatment to keep them alive, all the patients survived the first 48 hours and experienced a full recovery.

The researchers also discovered that, unlike heart attacks which tend to occur in winter, broken heart syndrome cases tend to occur in the spring and summer months.

'Rarely fatal'

Dr Richard Regnante from the Miriam Hospital, who led the research, said this seasonal pattern could help understand the condition.

"Some believe it is simply a form of a heart attack that 'aborts' itself early and therefore doesn't leave any permanent heart muscle damage.

A broken heart just needs time to digest the pain and get back on track with the help of friends, relatives and some shopping
Maeth P, UK

"Others say that the syndrome has nothing to do with the coronary arteries and is simply a problem with the heart muscle.

"Since the seasonal pattern of broken heart syndrome that we observed is opposite of what it seen with heart attack patients, our findings suggest - but certainly do not prove - the latter theory may be correct."

He added that the study could help heart specialists and A&E doctors manage patients with the condition.

"Although there is much we're still learning about broken heart syndrome, we do know that it is rarely fatal as long as patients are fully supported with medications, respirators and other critical devices in the first 48 hours."

Dr Regnante and his team are now recruiting patients with broken heart syndrome for a new study which will use ultrasound images to look at whether the condition causes internal damage to the heart.

June Davison, a spokeswoman for the British Heart Foundation, said: "There does seem to be an association between this condition and a very stressful event.

"But not enough people have been affected to provide hard evidence of what happens and what actually causes it.

"However people do seem to make a full recovery."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sisters 'make people happy'

Page last updated at 00:03 GMT, Thursday, 2 April 2009 01:03 UK

Sisters 'make people happy'

Primary playground
Sisters "make families more open and willing to talk about problems"

Sisters spread happiness while brothers breed distress, experts believe.

Researchers quizzed 571 people aged 17 to 25 about their lives and found those who grew up with sisters were more likely to be happy and balanced.

The University of Ulster said having daughters made a family more open and willing to discuss feelings.

They said the influence of girls was particularly important after distressing family events such as marital break-ups.

The findings are due to be presented at the British Psychological Society in Brighton on Thursday.

During the study, participants filled in psychological questionnaires which researchers used to assess a range of issues, including whether they had a positive outlook and any mental health problems.

Emotional expression is fundamental to good psychological health and having sisters promotes this in families
Professor Tony Cassidy, lead researcher

Lead researcher Professor Tony Cassidy said: "Sisters appear to encourage more open communication and cohesion in families.

"However, brothers seemed to have the alternative effect.

"Emotional expression is fundamental to good psychological health and having sisters promotes this in families."

He said many of the participants had been brought up in families where parents had split and the impact of sisters was even more marked in these circumstances.

"I think these findings could be used by people offering support to families and children during distressing times.

"We may have to think carefully about the way we deal with families with lots of boys."

Geri Burnikell, co-ordinator of the charity Support Line, which offers counselling to young people and families, said: "This is very interesting and certainly chimes with our experiences.

"Boys tend to internalise problems and in families where there are lots of sons, I can see that can cause problems.

"I think the most important thing in these circumstances is to give people someone independent to talk to outside the immediate family unit."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Obama publishes 'torture' memos

Page last updated at 21:12 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 22:12 UK

Obama publishes 'torture' memos

The US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (file picture)
The memos may justify CIA techniques used at sites like Guantanamo Bay

The US has published four secret memos detailing legal justification for the Bush-era CIA interrogation programme.

Critics of the programme say the methods used amounted to torture.

President Barack Obama has also issued a statement guaranteeing that no CIA employees will be prosecuted for their role in the interrogation programme.

Some in the CIA wanted parts of the memos to be blacked out, fearing full disclosure could trigger lawsuits against agents, reports suggest.

The release of the memos stems from a request by civil rights group the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Harsh techniques

Three of the documents were written in May 2005 by the then acting head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), Stephen Bradbury.

They gave legal support for the combined use of various coercive techniques, and concluded that the CIA's methods were not "cruel, inhuman or degrading" under international law.

Those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice... will not be subject to prosecution
US President Barack Obama

The fourth document, dating from 1 August 2002, was written by OLC lawyer John Yoo and signed by his colleague Jay Bybee.

It contained legal authorisation for a list of specific harsh interrogation techniques, including pushing detainees against a wall, facial slaps, cramped confinement, stress positions and sleep deprivation.

The memo also authorises the use of "waterboarding", or simulated drowning, and the placing of a detainee into a confined space with an insect.

Announcing the publication of the memos, Mr Obama said: "I believe that exceptional circumstances surround these memos and require their release.

"Withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time," he explained.

But he also gave an assurance that "those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice... will not be subject to prosecution."

Interrogation critics

The memos show for the first time the extent and the substance of the Bush administration's assurances to its intelligence operatives that what they were doing was not torture, and not against the law, says the BBC's Adam Brookes in Washington.

Critics of the Bush administration's interrogation programme say the memos provide evidence that many of the methods amount to torture under US and international law.

There was a rift within the Obama administration about whether the documents should be made available to the public in full or should be partially redacted.

Attorney General Eric Holder and White House Counsel Greg Craig were vocal supporters of full publication of the memos, according to reports.

But CIA chief Leon Panetta and deputy director John Brennan called for portions of the memos to be blacked out, or redacted, the New York Times reported.

The intelligence officials were concerned that full disclosure would set a precedent for future exposure of the agency's sources and methods, and would threaten America's relationship with allied intelligence services.

But civil liberties campaigners said anything short of full publication would undermine President Obama's attempts to paint himself as more transparent than his predecessor.

During his first week in office, President Obama issued an executive order officially outlawing the use of harsh interrogation techniques by the CIA, and forcing the agency to adhere to standards laid out in the US Army Field Manual.

Ants inhabit 'world without sex'

Page last updated at 01:51 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 02:51 UK

Ants inhabit 'world without sex'

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Mycocepurus smithii ant
These ants do not need males

An Amazonian ant has dispensed with sex and developed into an all-female species, researchers have found.

The ants reproduce via cloning - the queen ants copy themselves to produce genetically identical daughters.

This species - the first ever to be shown to reproduce entirely without sex - cultivates a garden of fungus, which also reproduces asexually.

The finding of the ants' "world without sex" is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Anna Himler, the biologist from the University of Arizona who led the research, told BBC News that the team used a battery of tests to verify their findings.

Unusual evolution

By "fingerprinting" DNA of the ant species - Mycocepurus smithii - they found them all to be clones of the colony's queen.

And when they dissected the female insects, they found them to be physically incapable of mating, as an essential part of their reproductive system known as the "mussel organ" had degenerated.

This species has evolved its own unusual mode of reproduction
Anna Himler
University of Arizona

Asexual reproduction of males from unfertilised eggs is a normal part of some insect reproduction, but asexual reproduction of females is "exceedingly rare in ants", wrote the researchers.

"In social insects, there are a number of different types of reproduction," explained Dr Himler. "But this species has evolved its own unusual mode."

She and her colleagues do not know exactly why this particular species has become fully asexual, and how long ago the phenomenon evolved.

They are carrying out further genetic experiments, which will enable them to estimate how long ago the evolutionary change occurred.

No sex please

There are advantages to life without sex, Dr Himler explained.

"It avoids the energetic cost of producing males, and doubles the number of reproductive females produced each generation from 50% to 100% of the offspring."

But combining genetic material in sexual reproduction gives future generations many more advantages.

"If we're more diverse, we're more resistant to parasites and disease," explained Laurent Keller, an expert in social insects from the University of Lausanne.

"In a colony of clones, if one ant is susceptible to a parasite, they will all be susceptible. So if you're asexual, you normally don't last very long.

"But in ants we're seeing more and more reports of unusual methods of reproduction," added Professor Keller, who was not involved in this study.

He also points out that social insects, like ants, may be particularly well suited to this type of reproduction because it enables the queen to control the caste and sex of all the offspring in her colony.

The first farmers

Dr Himler's interest in Mycocepurus smithii was originally sparked not by their unusually biased sex ratio, but by their ability to cultivate crops.

"Ants discovered farming long before we did - they have been cultivating fungus gardens for an estimated 80 million years.

Ants on fungus garden
More interested in gardening than sex

"They collect plant material, insect faeces and even dead insects from the forest floor and feed it to their crops," she said.

Many different species of ant - including the famous leafcutter ants - cultivate fungi, relying on it for nutrition.

But this particular species is able to grow "a greater number of crops than other ant species", she explained.

"When we started to study this species more closely, we just weren't finding any males. That's when we started to look at them in a different way."

Since the fungus crop reproduces asexually, Dr Himler thinks it might give the ants some kind of advantage "not to operate under the usual constraints of sexual reproduction".

"There is certainly more work to be done in this system," she added. "We're quite excited about the direction this research might take us, and its implications."

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Paris liberation made 'whites only'

Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Monday, 6 April 2009 11:48 UK

Paris liberation made 'whites only'

By Mike Thomson
Presenter, Document, BBC Radio 4

French troops march through Paris, 18 June 1945, pic credit: Eric Deroo
Many of the "French" division which led the liberation of Paris were Spanish

Papers unearthed by the BBC reveal that British and American commanders ensured that the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944 was seen as a "whites only" victory.

Many who fought Nazi Germany during World War II did so to defeat the vicious racism that left millions of Jews dead.

Yet the BBC's Document programme has seen evidence that black colonial soldiers - who made up around two-thirds of Free French forces - were deliberately removed from the unit that led the Allied advance into the French capital.

By the time France fell in June 1940, 17,000 of its black, mainly West African colonial troops, known as the Tirailleurs Senegalais, lay dead.

Many of them were simply shot where they stood soon after surrendering to German troops who often regarded them as sub-human savages.

Their chance for revenge came in August 1944 as Allied troops prepared to retake Paris. But despite their overwhelming numbers, they were not to get it.

'More desirable'

The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted his Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.

I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division
General Frederick Morgan

Allied High Command agreed, but only on one condition: De Gaulle's division must not contain any black soldiers.

In January 1944 Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, "confidential": "It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.

"This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white."

At the time America segregated its own troops along racial lines and did not allow black GIs to fight alongside their white comrades until the late stages of the war.

Morocco division

Given the fact that Britain did not segregate its forces and had a large and valued Indian army, one might have expected London to object to such a racist policy.

Yet this does not appear to have been the case.

Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle wanted Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris

A document written by the British General, Frederick Morgan, to Allied Supreme Command stated: "It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco.

"Every other French division is only about 40% white. I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division."

Finding an all-white division that was available proved to be impossible due to the enormous contribution made to the French Army by West African conscripts.

So, Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units.

When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead.

Pensions cut

In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish.

We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war... France has not been grateful. Not at all.
Issa Cisse
Former French colonial soldier

The British and Americans got their "Whites Only" Liberation even though many of the troops involved were North African or Syrian.

For France's West African Tirailleurs Senegalais, however, there was little to celebrate.

Despite forming 65% of Free French Forces and dying in large numbers for France, they were to have no heroes' welcome in Paris.

After the liberation of the French capital many were simply stripped of their uniforms and sent home. To make matters even worse, in 1959 their pensions were frozen.

Former French colonial soldier, Issa Cisse from Senegal, who is now 87 years-old, looks back on it all with sadness and evident resentment.

"We, the Senegalese, were commanded by the white French chiefs," he said.

"We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war. Forced to follow the orders that said, do this, do that, and we did. France has not been grateful. Not at all."

Chimpanzees exchange meat for sex

Page last updated at 23:20 GMT, Tuesday, 7 April 2009 00:20 UK

Chimpanzees exchange meat for sex

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Male chimp shares meat with female
Share and share alike: a male chimp will give up his hard-earned catch for sex

Chimpanzees enter into "deals" whereby they exchange meat for sex, according to researchers.

Male chimps that are willing to share the proceeds of their hunting expeditions mate twice as often as their more selfish counterparts.

This is a long-term exchange, so males continue to share their catch with females when they are not fertile, copulating with them when they are.

The team describe their findings in the journal PLoS One.

Male chimp with meat
Meat is an important, protein-rich food for chimpanzees

Cristina Gomes and her colleagues, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, studied chimps in the Tai Forest reserve in Ivory Coast.

She and her team observed the animals as they hunted, and monitored the number of times they copulated.

"By sharing, the males increase the number of times they mate, and the females increase their intake of calories," said Dr Gomes.

"What's amazing is that if a male shares with a particular female, he doubles the number of times he copulates with her, which is likely to increase the probability of fertilising that female."

High value

Meat is important for the animals' diet because it is so high in protein. Since female chimps do not usually hunt, "they have a hard time getting it on their own," explained Dr Gomes.

Female chimp and baby
Males might share meat with a female one day, and only copulate with her a day or two later
Cristina Gomes
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The "meat for sex hypothesis" had already been proposed to explain why male chimps might share with females.

But previous attempts to record the phenomenon failed, because researchers looked for direct exchanges, where a male shared meat with a fertile female and copulated with her right away.

Dr Gomes' team took a new approach. In a previous study, she had found that grooming exchange - where the animals take it in turns to groom each other - happens over long periods, she related. "So we thought, why not meat and sex?

"We looked at chimps when they were not in oestrus, this means they don't have sexual swellings and aren't copulating."

"The males still share with them - they might share meat with a female one day, and only copulate with her a day or two later."

Dr Gomes thinks that her findings could even provide clues about human evolution.

She suggests this study could lay the foundations for human studies exploring the link between "good hunting skills and reproductive success".

"This has got me really interested in humans," she said. "I'm thinking of moving on to working with hunter-gatherers."

Michael Gurven from the University of California in Santa Barbara studies human behaviour in communities of hunter-gatherers in South America.

He told BBC News that the direct link between success in hunting and reproduction highlighted by this study could "help in our thinking about humans".

Professor Gurven, who was not involved in this study, added that the nature of this exchange of meat for sex is "kind of like pair bonding in humans, because it's long-term.

"This highlights something we haven't seen in chimps before."

The story of Nigeria's 'untouchables'

Page last updated at 09:30 GMT, Tuesday, 7 April 2009 10:30 UK

The story of Nigeria's 'untouchables'

By Andrew Walker
BBC News, Enugu, Nigeria

Pastor Cosmos Aneke Chiedozie
Cosmos Aneke Chiedozie wants to break the stigma of being 'Osu'

Pastor Cosmos Aneke Chiedozie is about to make an admission that virtually no Nigerian like him would be prepared to make.

"My grandfather was an Osu," he says.

He is standing outside his church in Enugu, south-eastern Nigeria, clutching his Bible which he believes has saved him from being a marked man.

Among the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria the Osu are outcasts, the equivalent of being an "untouchable".

Years ago he and his family would be shunned by society, banished from communal land, banned from village life and refused the right to marry anyone not from an Osu family.


The vehemence of the tradition has weakened over the last 50 years.

Prof Ben Obumselu
I remember when I was a child, seeing the Osu and running away
Prof Ben Obumselu

Nowadays the only trouble the Osu encounter is when they try and get married.

But the fear of social stigma is still strong - to the point that most would never admit to being an Osu.

They fear the consequences for their families in generations to come or at the hands of people who still believe in the old ways.

It took the BBC a long time track down an Osu willing to talk, Igbo journalists, human rights advocates, academics and politicians could suggest no-one.

It was only by chance that Cosmos admitted his family were Osu after an interview with the Pentecostal church - known to oppose the tradition.

Now a born-again Christian, he has had a hard fight to escape the stigma of the Osu.


People say the Osu are the descendants of people sacrificed to the gods, hundreds of years ago.

The village said the reason I was ill was I was being possessed by the spirit of my grandfather, and he was angry that we had rejected the old ways
Cosmos Aneke Chiedozie

But an academic who has researched Igbo traditions says he believes the Osu were actually a kind of "living sacrifice" to the gods from the community.

"I remember when I was a child, seeing the Osu and running away," says Professor Ben Obumselu, former vice-president of the influential Igbo organisation Ohaneze Ndi Igbo.

"They were banned from all forms of civil society; they had no land, lived in the shrine of the gods, and if they could, would farm the land next to the road."

"It was believed that they had been dedicated to the gods, that they belonged to them, rather then the world of the human," he said.

Nigeria's growing cities began to break down such traditions of village life, he says.

"If someone lives in Lagos these days, the only time a person may come into contact with it is when they are planning to get married. They go home to tell their families, their parents turn around and say, 'No you can't marry because they're Osu.'"


Cosmos' father had denounced the traditional beliefs that made him an outcast from society.

Traditional masquerade spirits
The Osu are considered to be 'living sacrifices" to spirits

He raised Cosmos to be a Christian too, hoping the bloodline of the Osu would be broken.

But when Cosmos was a child his grandfather died and at around the same time Cosmos fell sick.

"The village said the reason I was ill was I was being possessed by the spirit of my grandfather, and he was angry that we had rejected the old ways," he said.

The village elders put pressure on his father to initiate Cosmos into the old traditions and culture.

It was either that, or he would die, they said.

So he left church, learnt about the spirits and his status in the village.


But this ostracism, he now believes, left him without "moral direction".

He became an itinerant smuggler and outlaw, bringing in goods illegally over Nigeria's northern border from Niger.

The continued belief in ritual avoidance has caused great harm to society
Prof Ben Obumselu

Eventually he was arrested and thrown in jail.

"It was in the prison yard that I was born again," he said.

"When I believed in the old ways, I could not marry or be part of my community," he said.

"Now I've been born again, I have rejected all that, and my wife, she is born again too, and doesn't care about it either."

His wife's family had also rejected the traditions of the Osu and did not object to their daughter's choice of husband.

Education advantage

Other Osu have been able to use the ostracism to their advantage, says Mr Obumselu.

Unable to make a way in village life, some Osu embraced "Western" education and became Nigeria's first doctors and lawyers, he says.

Consequently many of modern Igboland's prominent families are Osu.

So why does the stigma remain?

Mr Obumselu says the traditions have a lingering hold on people because they are not sure how much power the "old ways" still have.

Traditionally the Osu are treated as a people apart, but were never the victims of violence.

But today some community conflicts have erupted between people each accusing the other of being Osu, Mr Obumselu says.

"The continued belief in ritual avoidance has caused great harm to society, especially in Enugu."

Pentecostal churches, like Mr Chiedozie's, are having an effect and a growing population may also drown out the stigma of being Osu, says Mr Obumselu.

"After all, if in 1800 there might only be a handful of Osu in any place, in 2000 it may be a third of the village!"