As some of my twitter friends know, I've been whinging about being exhausted, bruised and blistered. While I can't boast an experience of quiiite the level of enjoyment the above apparently suggests to certain people who shall remain nameless (and whose idea of good sex I find slightly unnerving), I'm happy to report I've had a weekend very nearly that fun.
This weekend there's an event called the Ancestor's Trail that takes place in the Quantock Hills in Somerset. It's based on the The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins, and as he commented himself; many writers have had their works turned into films, but how many can boast that they've been turned into a walk? The whole thing's actually carrying on this morning (it's a bank holiday in the UK), but sadly I couldn't make the entire weekend and came home last night.
The Saturday night in particular turned into one of the most bizarre but enjoyable evenings in my experience. I went to the event not really knowing what I expected, but dancing to Russian folk music with Richard Dawkins definitely wasn't high on the list of possibilities I'd considered. I wasn't able to get any photos, but if anyone who was there reads this and has any they'd be willing to share with me please let me know!
On Saturday evening, we were treated to a series of talks by a disparate but consistently charismatic group of speakers. This started with Peter Exley of the RSPB, who delivered a talk on the conservationist work of his organisation in general (hint; despite what you might think, it's NOT just about birds!) and with reference to the Albatross in particular. The link from Coleridge's walk in the Quantocks to his eerie and haunting work The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was irresistible and an excellent tool because it gave each of us, I believe, a sense of depth and an investment in the magnificent bird that we might not otherwise have felt. The RSPB's campaign to save the albatross can be found here if anyone would like to make a donation: http://www.rspb.org.uk/supporting/campaigns/albatross/
Kevin Cox from the World Land Trust was next, and I have to say that some of the figures he delivered were utterly terrifying. The WLT operates by buying up chunks of land in regions where it's in danger of being destroyed by logging or agriculture; in doing so, of course, they save literally thousands of species whose habitat would otherwise have disappeared altogether. They're a small organisation and when one considers what they're up against it might be possible to conclude that they're fighting a losing battle. Cox's passion for his cause, though, was obvious and contagious, and the very smallness of the WLT when contrasted against what they've managed to achieve is a testament to what can be done by a small group of people with enough determination; their donations page can be found here: http://www.worldlandtrust.org/supporting/donate. David Attenborough is a patron of the charity - he would approve!
The next speaker was Dr. Alex Taylor from the MRC lab in Cambridge. Here we made the switch from conservation to "harder" science; his talk about XNA (synthetic and modified DNA/RNA) was meaty and fascinating. I wouldn't be confident enough in my own understanding to try and replicate (ha!) what was said in any detail, but Dr. Taylor's blog can be found here and I promise it'll blow your mind: http://talesfromthenobelfactory.posterous.com/
We had a talk then from Alom Shaha, the author of The Young Atheist's Handbook. For me, speaking honestly, this was the only sour note of the evening. Nobody reacts well to being told they're too stupid/ignorant to be science advocates, atheists - typically somewhat contrary by nature - least of all. Shaha made some very valid points about the comparative difficulty in "coming out" as an atheist from starting points in different cultural backgrounds - which results in the admittedly rather homogenous white, middle-class nature of atheist and humanist groups - but again, the approach was such that my gut reaction was to think "I'm sorry, I'll work on being less middle-class, shall I?!". I should be honest and admit that I have not read Shaha's book. Many people I spoke with at the event said they were very impressed by it, so it's entirely possible that Shaha comes across better in print than in person, or that I reacted badly to one thing he said and became hypercritical from then on. If anyone reading this has read the book, do please let me know what you thought of it in the comments section below!
Then, of course, we had the keynote speech from Richard Dawkins. In writing that, I just caught myself about to call him "the global rock star of atheism", and stopped myself because - having talked with him briefly later in the evening - I understand that he thinks of himself far more as a scientist than as an atheist. A reasonable assertion, in fairness; having read most of Professor Dawkins' books, it does seem unfair on reflection that he's so widely known for a single unbelief among a near infinite number of unbeliefs. Moving on from that, then, Professor Dawkins talked us through the principles of the journey laid out in The Ancestor's Tale, and from there went on to describe some of the ways to think about what would happen if we "replayed the tape" of evolution, and what we could expect by doing so. When I first read the book this concept, this thought experiment, was one of the most fascinating ideas for me. The notion that evolution can be in a sense predictive by looking at how many times certain developments have independently evolved is wonderful; no matter how many times I hear about the diving bell spider it seems too astonishing to be real. The Ancestor's Tale is probably my favourite of Professor Dawkins' books; I recommend it to everyone, and it can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Ancestors-Tale-Pilgrimage-Dawn/dp/0753819961/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346057984&sr=8-1
After the talks, we had the rare and lovely opportunity to drink and chat with the speakers; I was able to ask a slightly moronic question about prion disease of Dr. Taylor (the reason it was moronic was that I hadn't accounted for the energy gradient, but he was very nice about it), and had a good natter with Andrew Copson, the unfailingly charming CEO of the BHA, too.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the gathering, I think, was that virtually everyone had come on their own. This meant that there were few preexisting cliques, so by the end of my two days there I'd had entertaining, informative and often wickedly funny conversations with just about everybody there, and made many new friends. I've commented before that the sense of community and good will at humanist events is remarkable and wonderful; this was possibly the best example I've had yet of that feeling. In fact, if I had to choose a way of making humanism more appealing to theists, then - contradictory as it sounds - I would encourage them to attend science-led humanist events so they can see we're NOT the joyless, humourless, rigidly empirical people we're often portrayed to be.
The big walk took place on the Sunday, and although my feet were ready to fall off by the end of the thirteen-mile human trail it was worth every step. The countryside in the area is achingly beautiful, and the talks of the night before had been the perfect set-up because we all spent the entire hike distracted and entranced by every bird, butterfly and spider we saw. (I also got chased - honestly round in circles for a good five minutes - by an amorous bee to the raucous amusement of the c.120 people who'd just sat down facing in my direction to listen to a poem about the great extinctions, though that was only enjoyable in retrospect.)
Things I have learned this weekend:
If you need new inner soles for your walking boots, get them before the thirteen-mile hike. Ouch.
Scientists can be very nice even when you're asking really dumb questions. Just ask, they're not scary.
When people who live in the country tell you something's ten minutes' walk away, pack your camping gear.
Evolution is really, really cool (I knew that already, but we all need reminding at times).
Humanists and geeks are great fun.
Richard Dawkins can throw shapes with the best of them.
Coffee + alcohol + extreme tiredness can lead to the best of evenings.
Other geeks can recommend a near-endless list of fascinating reading material, and I don't know where to start!