Christopher Williams (academic)

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In Chengdu, China, with students and colleagues, 2008

Christopher (Chris) Williams (born in London) is an English academic. He held posts at the universities of Bristol, Birmingham, Cairo, Cambridge, London and the United Nations. He is an invited Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and magistrate.

At school he taught himself to play the trumpet and gained a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, aged 16. He then became Head of Brass teaching at Wells Cathedral School and a tutor at Dartington College of Arts. In 1980 he left the UK to teach at the Cairo Conservatoire, Egypt, working with Samha El-Kholy, and was principal trumpet of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. Here he became interested in disadvantage and poverty, and taught at the Al Noor Wal Amal School for blind children. In 1985 he broke the cultural boycott of South Africa to be a principal trumpet with the PACT (SABC) Symphony Orchestra, to experience apartheid. He taught music in the Alexandra, Gauteng township, and co-founded the Johannesburg-based education NGO for street-working children, Street-wise,[1] with Jill (Swart) Kruger. This became the topic of a PhD, his 'first degree'. He then held Fellowships from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concerning disability rights, and the Economic and Social Research Council within the Global Environmental Change Programme.


Within the tradition of eclecticism (selecting what is best from various sources or systems) Williams uses Edward O.Wilson's multi-disciplinary consilience[2] approach to academic inquiry—a 'jumping together' of knowledge—to understand and address specific problems.

Williams has written for a wide range of academic and other public media, including the Korea Herald, China Daily, and Times Higher Education, and has appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, BBC World Service and TV News 24, Kazakhstan and Korean government TV, Australian radio (ABC), and Vancouver Radio. He has been reported in The Independent, Daily Mail, The Scotsman, The Guardian, Indian Express, Suzhou Daily, Kuwait News, Yonhap News, The Chosun Ilbo, and Hansard, and has been an invited speaker for the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations University (UNU), UNEP/GIWEH (Geneva), UNESCO/UNU (Korea), UNESCO World Heritage Institute (China), National Assembly for Wales, and the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.

Ideas—Human intelligence and human security[edit]

Williams' conceptual work explores "how and why we learn, don't learn, and behave in the context of the new global threats".


His book Terminus Brain (1997) explores how and why the human brain is the only part of the eco-system at risk from its own behaviour:'Environmentally-Mediated Intellectual Decline' (EMID) caused by the presence of environmental neurotoxins (e.g. mercury, lead), the absence of vital environmental micro-nutrients (e.g. iodine, iron), and synergistic effects. He identifies 'pertinacity' (extreme tenacity) as a distinct human trait which permits infinite 'coin placing' instead of random 'coin tossing' decisions, leading to linear species-destructive behaviour. He also asks whether environmental degradation could lead to regressive brain evolution.

"The human brain is now at risk from itself. Like a terminus, it is an endpoint of our environmental mistakes, but it is also a starting point of those mistakes and of their correction.... Our brain is the only thing in the ecosystem that directly jeopardises its own wellbeing, which suggests a unique form of ecological vulnerability. The human brain should logically be a priority of environmental concern, but it is not."[3]


Linking evolutionary psychology and the anthropological concept of cultural lag, in 2002 he also discussed the problem of 'brain lag'—the inability of our modern but 'Stone Age brain' to perceive the current technological threats that it has created. Risk information needs to be presented as 'enhanced difference' to 'make the invisible visible' by creating 'false norms within false norms'. A related theory of 'social impetus' proposes that analysis of technological development in relation to our evolutionary psyche can help to understand and predict social change.[4]

"For millions of years the risk-learning process has principally been through natural selection. Humans who could not sense danger through the heat or smell of fire, or the roar or speed of a tiger, did not survive and reproduce…Our genome did the fundamental learning not our brains…The human genome is not attuned to the new security risks, and probably now never will be. As a species and as individuals, how we learn about risk is how we survive."'[5]

Global leadership[edit]

While working with Kennedy Graham, at the United Nations University Leadership Academy, he realised that focussing only on the 'down-system' aspect of global learning was inadequate. He contributed to the Club of Budapest book Global Survival edited by Ervin László and Peter Seidel (2006), about 'Educating world leaders'.[6] This 'up-system' analysis was extended in Leadership accountability in a globalising world (2006), which critiques 'global feuding' and Abrahamist 'retributive accountability', sees an IT-enhanced evolutionary dislike of cheating as hastening accountability, and predicts a shift in moral authority from West to East. It includes a Global Leadership Responsibility Index based on a study for the UN University, Leaders of integrity: ethics and a code for global leadership (2001).[7]

"The weakness of those who abuse their power—the bullies and the cheats, village or global—is that they usually fail to see that their power changes in relation to the changing power and ethics of the population around them. And in a fast changing global world this self-deception will increasingly bring about their downfall."[8]

In 2010 he contributed evidence to the Iraq Inquiry.[9] The Researching Powerful People project develops new methodologies for researching power, elites and leadership.[10]

De-linking war and violence[edit]

As part of the Society of Friends Preparing for Peace (PfP) initiative he, with Korean scholar Yun-joo Lee, proposes that, whilst war intrinsically entails the use of force, this need not be perceived in terms of violence. They quote Sun Tzu (500BC), from The art of war—"The supreme act of war is to win without fighting…Thus those skilled in war subdue the enemy's army without battle.... They conquer by strategy"—and argue that in the last half century, war in the East, for example in Korea, has been less violent than the 'retributive accountability'[11] wars in the West, notably in Iraq and Northern Ireland. They also suggest that violent political and religious leaders should be viewed as people with mental health problems, and any response planned on the basis of that assumption.

"War is made in the minds of men, but in the mind of particular men—those who are leaders. If the idea of war as political force is to change, the minds of those with power must change."[12]


From field-work about humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan he, with Iranian occupational therapist, Farzaneh Yazdani, argues that the term 'rehabilitation' is often inappropriate. In the context of John Gray's view that western utopianism explains much international political violence,[13] a promise of 'rehabilitation' can represent 'pre-emptive deceit'[14] to excuse and permit creative destructionism. They prefer '(h)abilitation'—to make able.

"Without a concept of rehabilitation, 'intervention' can be an act of wanton destruction…If the rehabilitationist myth is not questioned, our political leaders might become like omnipotent surgeons who will risk any operation on the basis that the rehabilitation therapists can clear up any resultant harm."[15]

Understanding omnicide[edit]

Williams asks, why are human beings set on self-harm and even destruction? What is the "species mental disability" that causes this behviour, and what can be done about it?[16] He sees a possibility that information and education about the acute terminal decline of humanity, possible omnicide and extinction—caused by factors such as environmental change, new technologies, and war—may create ' iatrogenic meaninglessness', which could itself become a threat to human survival and wellbeing.

"The dilemma for education is that we are 'dammed if we do and dammed if we don't' teach about the scale and consequences of global self-harm.[17] The ultimate purpose of education is not just to learn, it is to increase well-being through learning."[18]

Ideas in action—Global justice[edit]

Children's rights[edit]

Engagement with the problems of street children and working children included work for the European Commission in Kabul, Greek and Turkish Ministries of Social welfare, and US Department of Labour in Lebanon.

"Education for underprivileged children is decanted through projects and programmes, whilst everyone else goes to school. We do not call elitist fee-paying establishments 'NGO educational programmes proving residential care for advantaged children.'... To define those on the streets as separate and different poses convenient questions but with unsustainable answers; to recognise and react to them as being like others and part of a coherent educational picture, presents a crucial challenge."[19]

Disability rights[edit]

His study of Crime and abuse against people with learning disabilities (1995) contributed to the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, witness support schemes and other policy changes which made the justice system more responsive to the needs of disabled victims.

"Within the space of a few years we have torn down the Berlin Wall, Northern Ireland's 'peace lines', and the barriers of apartheid, greatly enhancing global security. Surely it is not so difficult to see and dismantle the barriers that stand between people with learning disabilities and the achievement of justice, enhancing the personal security of people who have been out of sight for too long."[20]

Environmental justice[edit]

His edited book Environmental victims draws attention to the problem of 'environmental victim syndrome' and the legal status of the unborn victim. It argues that existing law on poisoning and assault could provide precedents to redress harm caused by pollution, and for a reversal of the burden of proof in environmental cases.[21] In April 2009, France accepted this reversal in relation to people who suffered health problems from nuclear testing in French Polynesia. He also proposed the concept of 'loss costs' when assessing environmental harm.[22]

"Hit a child on the head with a hammer, causing intellectual impairment, and the event is seen as a question of justice, with medicine attempting to heal the damage. Drive a car with leaded petrol, causing intellectual impairment in countless children, and the outcome is seen only as a medical problem, redress being unlikely."[23]

Education and global justice[edit]

He frames 'education and global justice', in the context of elites who have, throughout history, constructed their empires and power by 'importing the goods and exporting the bads'. Williams provides a critique of the view that global justice must rely on nation states and modern institutions. He argues that justice is intrinsically global, because a sense of fairness and an antipathy towards cheating are part of our evolutionary psyche. Through educational social networks, such as Islam, visions of global justice have been promoted as a 'global public good' for many centuries.

"In the uncertain context of a planet in decline, those who do best will not be those who predicate their survival on exporting 'bads' and importing 'goods'...the most important personal resources will be intellectual not material. The survival of the fittest will be the survival of the smartest and fairest, not of the fattest."[24]


See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Wilson, E.O. (1998) Consilience: the unity of knowledge ISBN 0-316-64569-9
  3. ^ Terminus Brain: the environmental threats to human intelligence. (1997), p. 3. ISBN 0-304-33856-7, ISBN 0-304-33857-5
  4. ^ Leadership accountability in a globalizing world. (2006) ISBN 978-1-4039-8696-2, ISBN 1-4039-8696-7 Chapter 3.
  5. ^ (2002) 'New security risks and public educating: the relevance of recent evolutionary brain science'. Journal of Risk Research, 5(3). p. 244.
  6. ^ Laszlo, E. & Seidel, P. (eds) (2006) Global survival. ISBN 1-59079-104-5
  7. ^ Leaders of integrity: ethics and a code for global leadership. (2001) UN University Leadership Academy: ISBN 9957-424-01-7.
  8. ^ Leadership accountability in a globalizing world. (2006), p. 232 ISBN 978-1-4039-8696-2, ISBN 1-4039-8696-7
  9. ^ Dossier demolished,
  10. ^ Researching power, elites and leadership. London: Sage.
  11. ^ Leadership accountability in a globalizing world. (2006) ISBN 978-1-4039-8696-2, ISBN 1-4039-8696-7, pp. 120–126
  12. ^ (With Lee, Yun-Joo) 'The minds of leaders: de-linking war and violence', in Walker, B. (ed.) (2005) Preparing for peace – asking experts to analyse war, Westmorland General Meeting: Kendal, p. 208. ISBN 0-9550527-0-X
  13. ^ Gray, John (2007) Black mass: apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia. ISBN 978-0-7139-9915-0
  14. ^ Williams, C. (2011)'Learning to redress preemptive deceit: The Iraq Dossier', SAGE Open. DOI10.1177/2158244011427060
  15. ^ (With Yazdani, F.) (2006) 'The rehabilitation paradox: street working children in Afghanistan', Diaspora, indigenous, and minority education. 3(1), p. 20.
  16. ^ 'Understanding omnicide', unpublished lecture at Trinity College, Oxford, 28 February 2011
  17. ^ Williams, Chris (2009) 'Sometimes information poses a global threat' in Korea Herald, 3 Nov., p. 4.
  18. ^ (With Yazdani, F.) (2009) Law and wellbeing, Philosophical practice, 4:1, 393–406
  19. ^ (1990) 'Education and street children' unpublished PhD thesis, School of Education, University of Birmingham, p. 392 (Available on micro-fiche, British Library).
  20. ^ Invisible victims: crime and abuse against people with learning disabilities. (1995) ISBN 1-85302-309-4. p. 112
  21. ^ Williams, C. (1996) 'An environmental victimology' in South, N. & Beirne P. (2006), Green Criminology, Ashgate: London.
  22. ^ (1997) 'Environmental victims: arguing the costs', Environmental Values, 6(1):3–30.
  23. ^ Environmental victims: new risks, new injustice, (1998) (Ed.) ISBN 1-85383-534-X. ISBN 1-85383-524-2. p. xiv
  24. ^ (2010) Education and global justice: from nation to neuron, Educational Review, 62(3), 343–356.

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