27 March 2024


A young graduate who had read English at Oxford, and with whom I was corresponding, once referred to jokes about ageing. Certainly they are common.

The first thing one notices about them is that they all depend on the implicit or explicit introduction of ‘other people’ into the situation. In some way or another, they all say, ‘I am living out a life-cycle as other people have done before, or as my contemporaries are also doing now.’ I do not think you could make a joke out of being the first or only person to find himself enmeshed in the conditions of mortality.

Two questions arise: what makes this reference to the widespread occurrence of mortality funny, and how is one to account for its sedative effect? (Plainly, the effect of the joke is one of reconciliation to the situation, rather than a spur to action.)

Freud would no doubt claim that the funniness arose from the reference to an underlying anxiety. The behaviourists would no doubt say that a thing was funny if accompanied by the action of laughing. I don’t feel particularly enlightened by either suggestion. There is only one nonsane joke: it is about attempting the impossible. It is extremely hilarious, but I do not think that it resembles any form of sane funniness. There is one other existential form of laughter: this is the laughter of relief. Again, I cannot feel that it sheds light on sane humour.

I will hazard a guess why sane people make jokes about growing old. What the joke means is ‘I am as degraded as everybody else, but at least everybody else is as degraded as I am.’ This is funny in the same way that other references to one’s concealed hatred of other people are funny, and it explains why the joke functions as a sedative. (‘At least I can see everyone else rotting at the same time I do; at least I can hear them screaming while I’m being tortured myself...’)

Come to think of it, does not all sane humour depend on references to one’s concealed hatred of other people? My studies of the Reader’s Digest certainly suggest this. ‘Human relationships’ seem to consist of continual reminders that your ‘friend’ sees you as identified with your most degrading limitations. (But loves you just the same, of course. That is, he wants you to be like that.)

Extract from Advice to Clever Children, pp.74-75.

26 January 2024

Genes and social class

It has been estimated that the proportion of a person’s intelligence which is inherited from his or her parents is upward of 50 percent.

However, there is great resistance to the idea of heritable intelligence.

A theory popular with some academics is that Victorian and Edwardian middle-class intellectuals believed in heritability because it fitted with the view that the class structure of society was fine as it was. Francis Galton, author of the 1869 book Hereditary Genius, is among those accused of defending this view. Galton was the first to study twins to determine the relative contributions of ‘nature versus nurture’, a phrase he coined. In a 2001 paper on Galton,* David Burbridge quotes history professor Simon Szreter who claims that:
‘Galton provided an important new intellectual leadership for the view that factors of heredity, and not environment, were the source of all observable class and race differences. ... Galton himself was almost exclusively interested in social class differentials in British society. [He was] one of the principal ideologues and champions of a professional meritocracy as providing the constitutional ideal for British society ... his hereditarian, professional model was the paradigm English meritocratic representation of social structure.’
Using the pejorative term ‘ideologue’, Professor Szreter makes Galton sound like an apologist for the class structure of Victorian Britain.

However, David Burbridge points out that whatever Galton’s private views on this issue were, in his public writings he was wary of making assertions of the kind that Professor Szreter attributes to him.
... nowhere does Galton put any weight on his study of twins to support a claim for a hereditary basis of the differences between social classes. But what in fact were Galton's views on heredity and social class? It is surprisingly difficult to answer this question. Galton’s published comments on social class are few and scattered. Nor, at least until very late in his career, do his private notes and correspondence show much interest in the structure of British society.
Academics hostile to the idea of heritability may find it useful to paint a picture of their opponents as dogmatic, and biased by personal interests. At least in Galton’s case, this picture, David Burbridge argues, is wrong.
[Galton’s] apparent reluctance to engage in any explicit and extended discussion of social class and social mobility may have stemmed from an awareness that quantitative data were lacking. On at least two occasions he called for investigations in this area. At some point Galton himself appears to have planned an enquiry into social mobility.

* David Burbridge, ‘Francis Galton on Twins, Heredity and Social Class’, British Journal for the History of Science, 34, pp.323-340. The quotation by Simon Szreter is taken from his book Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain 1860-1940, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

30 October 2023

Genes, leadership and monarchy

The idea that ability is partly inherited continues to be controversial, for reasons that seem to have more to do with ideology than scientific evidence.

If ability does in general have a heritable component, this would go some way towards explaining the existence of social classes.

Hereditary monarchy was for many centuries the most common form of political system, and the heritability of talents may help to explain this.

In 2013, researchers at University College London published evidence that leadership ability does have a genetic basis. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve at the UCL School of Public Policy commented as follows on the paper* by him and his colleagues which appeared in The Leadership Quarterly:
We have identified a genotype called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations [...] The conventional wisdom — that leadership is a skill — remains largely true, but we show it is also, in part, a genetic trait.

* Here is a link to the full paper:

13 October 2023

Two brief essays on education

Good parents
In order to be a socially approved parent it is necessary not to ‘push’ your child. There is a social myth to the effect that great harm (of a quite unspecified kind) can be done by ‘pushing’ children.
   There is no corresponding myth about any harm that can be done by frustrating children; in fact, of course, ‘frustrating’ a child is not a possible concept. Even if it were ever admitted that a child had not been given opportunities for developing its abilities, this cannot possibly have done them any harm. This follows from the general principle that no social action towards an individual has any harmful consequences.

Once upon a time a headmistress said of me, ‘It will be good for her not to be treated as an exception.’ I found it very difficult to understand how she could even imagine that she honestly meant something by this, let alone something benevolent, since the sentence seemed to me to have the status of ‘It will be good for this horse to be treated as a dog’. The use of the word ‘good’ in particular eluded me, until I reflected that there was in existence an expression ‘The only good Injun is a dead Injun’, and no doubt she meant something like that.

Taken from: The Corpse and the Kingdom.

06 September 2023

The cult of creativity

One weakness of the pursuit of creativity is that it focuses attention on what seems to you to be significant (which admittedly is the only way you have of evaluating what might be significant), so that the tension between the subject or observer and external (unknown) reality is relatively weakened.

This is clearly why creativity is so popular as an educational catchword. If everyone tries to do some multiplication exercises, there is an objective standard of what constitutes doing it right. People will succeed differentially, and get some feeling of their limitations vis-a-vis objective reality.

But if everyone is told to paint or write creatively, and express themselves, no comparison with an external standard arises in any obvious way. It is a popular educational position nowadays to ‘encourage’ children to write what they feel, and worry about the niceties of grammar and punctuation when they have become good enough at self-expression. Of course, they never do get round to the grammar or punctuation.

Another drawback of the pursuit of creativity, or ‘interest’, is that there is little scope in life for this sort of ‘interest’, and a population of people who have been persuaded that they should despise everything that isn’t ‘interesting’ is very much at the mercy of society. To get anything purposeful done seldom requires a great deal of inspirational activity, but does require a lot of activity of a kind which is by no means ‘interesting’ in itself. This is the way reality is.

02 August 2023

Out-of-the-Body Experiences

My colleague Charles McCreery has recently published his book on out-of-the-body experiences. This is available from Amazon.

Here are links to the Amazon UK page:
and the Amazon USA page:

The book should appeal to anyone interested in any of the following topics:
• out-of-the-body experiences
• hallucinations and apparitions
• lucid dreaming

08 July 2023

The common good?

Here is another extract from Ayn Rand’s book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Rand expresses scepticism about the ‘common good’, a concept popular with collectivists.
“The common good” is a meaningless concept, unless taken literally, in which case its only possible meaning is: the sum of the good of all the individual men involved. But in that case, the concept is meaningless as a moral criterion: it leaves open the question of what is the good of individual men and how does one determine it?

It is not, however, in its literal meaning that that concept is generally used. It is accepted precisely for its elastic, undefinable, mystical character which serves, not as a moral guide, but as an escape from morality. Since the good is not applicable to the disembodied, it becomes a moral blank check for those who attempt to embody it.

When “the common good” of a society is regarded as something apart from and superior to the individual good of its members, it means that the good of some men takes precedence over the good of others, with those others consigned to the status of sacrificial animals. It is tacitly assumed, in such cases, that “the common good” means “the good of the majority” as against the minority or the individual. Observe the significant fact that that assumption is tacit: even the most collectivized mentalities seem to sense the impossibility of justifying it morally. But “the good of the majority,” too, is only a pretense and a delusion: since, in fact, the violation of an individual’s rights means the abrogation of all rights, it delivers the helpless majority into the power of any gang that proclaims itself to be “the voice of society” and proceeds to rule by means of physical force, until deposed by another gang employing the same means.

26 April 2023

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was the pen name of Alice O’Connor (born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum), a Russian-American writer and philosopher. Her most notable works were the novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Rand condemned the initiation of force as immoral, and opposed statism and collectivism, but was also against anarchism. She was in favour of laissez-faire capitalism, and was one of the strongest supporters of liberty in her time.

The following quote is from her 1966 book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
In a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary. Men are free to cooperate or not, to deal with one another or not, as their own individual judgments, convictions, and interests dictate. They can deal with one another only in terms of and by means of reason, i.e., by means of discussion, persuasion, and contractual agreement, by voluntary choice to mutual benefit. The right to agree with others is not a problem in any society; it is the right to disagree that is crucial. It is the institution of private property that protects and implements the right to disagree and thus keeps the road open to man’s most valuable attribute (valuable personally, socially, and objectively): the creative mind.

13 March 2023

New book: The Corpse and the Kingdom

My new book, The Corpse and the Kingdom, is now available from Amazon.

Below is an extract.


What you are perceiving seems to be a physical universe and it seems to be possible to infer certain things about the past history of this universe. It is possible to suppose that your consciousness is a by-product of physical and chemical events in your organism, and that other people are conscious in a similar way to yourself as a result of similar events in their organisms.

The human race, of which you are a part, seems to have been on the planet on which you are living for a very small part of the inferable history of the physical universe. The lifetime of the human race, and the space it occupies, is infinitesimal even in relation to the time and space that the human race is able to infer in the physical universe that surrounds it. It is inferred that there may be millions of other stars as well able to possess life-bearing planets as our sun. It is inferred that previous life forms on this planet, such as the dinosaurs, occupied it for tens of millions of years.

The human race has a strong tendency to believe that what the human race regards as good and valuable is of great importance. What is important to a human being (and in what other sense could the word important have meaning) is to be determined by reference to the local consensus of belief about what is important in the social environment which surrounds that human being.

Amazon UK
Amazon USA
Amazon Canada
Amazon Australia

13 January 2023

Are schools bad for people?

Extract from chapter ‘Dozing in the staff room’, in:

It’s your time you’re wasting: A teacher’s tales of classroom hell, by Frank Chalk (pseudonym):
The group [of teachers] on the next table are discussing one of the ‘Please make me famous, I’m desperate’-type programmes that seem to be on the telly every night these days. When I first started teaching, and we’re not talking in the Dark Ages, most teachers were reasonably serious-minded people who wouldn’t have given a moment’s thought to this tripe. Now the staff room is littered with dog-eared copies of Heat, OK and Garbage (OK, I made the last one up). The group [of teachers] chatting about the show seem quite fascinated by it; at least, they show a working knowledge of the various characters and their moronic machinations.

I must admit I really cannot understand this mad desire to be famous, although I know it inhabits almost every single one of my pupils. I can understand people wanting to be rich, because it increases the options available to you and should, in theory, take away financial worries (although no doubt it brings its own problems). But the desire to be known by everyone strikes me as plain weird.*

* Frank Chalk, It’s your time you’re wasting, Monday Books, 2006, p.66.