Steam Power

I just wound up my cuckoo clock and it got me thinking.

A few weeks ago my friend’s 13 year-old son came to stay with me for a couple of weeks and he was quite interested in my cuckoo clock (a gift from his mother, as it happens). He’d never seen a mechanical clock before.

Partly I think he was intrigued by the roughness of it – the fact that it only kept good time if you fiddled around with the length of the pendulum and adjusted it for the changing seasons. It amused him that you had to wind it up twice a day and if you pulled gently on the weight it would run faster. It was neat, he thought, how good the 3D interface was – you could almost believe it really was a little wooden cuckoo that poked its head out of the door every half hour.

But it made me sad, because he could see that here was a device that did something purely because one bit pushed on another bit. It excited him in a nebulous, yearning sort of way, as if somehow he was getting a tantalizing glimpse into some Great Truth that had hitherto been denied him by the education system.

And in a way he was. He knew nothing about clockwork. How could he? How often does a child bump up against an escapement mechanism these days? How is he or she to discover the relationship between cogs and multiplication? It’s all gone.

Or rather it’s all still there but we can no longer see it.

I love our digital age. I love the fact that a television is now a computer that merely simulates a television. I love gesture-driven interfaces and I love CPUs that run at microwave frequencies. But then I was able to know how it all works. I can still see in my mind the clockwork principles from whence these miracles arise, even though I can no longer see the cogs.

As a young boy I took locks and clocks to pieces, because that’s what was available. I found out why they went wrong when I clumsily broke some part or another, and often when they’d gone wrong I could put them right again. Sometimes I could put them together in new ways to do new things.

In my teens I graduated to old TV sets and ex-military radio receivers. My dad built me a shortwave radio with an 80-foot aerial, a single valve (vacuum tube), and a 90-volt battery (yes, 90 volts!). I could see the glow of the heater and feel its warmth. Unlike clocks and watches, which oscillate a few times per second, this was dealing with oscillations in the thousands and millions of times per second but it was still concrete enough to be within my ken. I could still sense what it was doing and how it did it, because I could take what I knew about clocks and relate it to what was going on in this glowing glass bottle and its associated capacitors (which themselves were nothing but rolls of paper and foil). The reactance in its tank circuit was a pendulum in my mind; the rectifying diode was a ratchet.

But all this has gone. There are no governors, no escapements, no gear ratios. The closest most children can get to direct contact with mechanical principles these days is a bicycle. If they ever go outside. Technology has become magic again.

Is it any wonder so many people believe nonsense nowadays? Is it any wonder people can’t grasp the true age of the earth, don’t understand climate change, can’t fix their cars when they go wrong? We’ve taken away all the things that allow us to understand our world. It has all become abstract and hidden.

When I sit here typing things on my PC, my mind still knows what is really happening inside the machine in terms of bits bumping into other bits. It’s not a mystery. I’m in control of it; it’s not in control of me. But this is in large part because I used to be able to take clocks to pieces. This is because I used to ride on steam trains. This is because I’ve poisoned myself, electrocuted myself and shortened my life by playing around with forces of nature that are now secreted away in mute plastic packages, beyond reach.

My whole conceptual framework is founded on concepts that I can see in my mind’s eye because I’ve felt them with my own hands. Mechanics provided me with the keys to unlock the natural world. Ratchets and levers and coils and damping and thrashing and flows and regulators are the building blocks of my understanding of the entire world. Without those I would understand very little.

What chance has a child, these days? What chance even their parents?

As Arthur C. Clarke put it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But today that’s virtually ALL technology. What is it like to know how to use your X-Box but not have a clue what is going on inside it? You can take it apart, but what good does that do? You can stare at a CPLD or an MCU all you like, but nothing ever moves.

People cope. People live fruitful and interesting lives. But is it really any surprise that so many of us believe bizarre ideas? One arrangement of brass gizmos looks much like another if you don’t realize that one of them is an escapement – one of the greatest inventions of mankind. So why wouldn’t one “theory” of the creation of the earth look much like another? Who can separate creationist claptrap from the beautiful theory of evolution if they just look like different arrangements of arbitrary ideas? Who can understand that global warming sometimes means really cold winters if they have no underlying grasp of dynamics? It took until the 17th Century before William Harvey was able to elucidate the circulation of the blood in terms of pumps and pipes, but if nobody knows any more how a pump works, what use is this metaphor today?

I don’t know what we do about this. Perhaps I’m fretting about nothing – it’s perfectly normal for people, once they reach a certain frail age, to lament the loss of skills that their generation cherished. We still have brilliant young computer engineers, so someone’s getting a proper conceptual development somehow, even if they don’t get exposed to clockwork any more. But nevertheless, I think the lack of transparency in modern technology may have significant consequences for our conceptual development that we haven’t yet begun to unravel.

Time will tell, or at least it will if I remember to wind the clock.

To be or not to be?

Today, the citizens of Mississippi are voting to decide whether a fertilized egg should legally be considered a person. The polls are apparently pretty evenly balanced.

I’ve heard all sorts of discussion on this topic, and on the rare occasions it manages to rise above the level of shouting and name calling, it seems to come to rest instead on the usual cop-out argument of any US political debate: the question of whether such a law is “constitutional” or not.

Huh? I’m sorry? What about the question of whether it makes any fucking sense or not?

I don’t think I’ve heard a single person discuss the biology of the issue. Not one. It’s like it doesn’t matter. I suppose I can understand that (in the sort of way that one might “understand” why a drunk falls into puddles) from the perspective of the Religious Right, for whom the question is presumably theological, not biological. I suppose they have some vague and unsubstantiated feeling that conception is the moment at which God inserts a soul into the cell, and hence from that moment on it’s as much a person as you and I.

But come on! Fertilization is just the moment at which a haploid sperm injects another 23 molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid into an egg cell, returning its complement to the normal 46 molecules so that it can resume dividing. The mechanism for this is really amazing, but it’s not magic. No souls are involved, just chemistry. Where is the “person” in 23 strands of polymer? Or indeed 46?

The sperm cells have half the normal DNA, but they developed from cells that had a full complement, just as a fertilized egg does. So does that mean the billions of spermatogonia in my testes are people too? Those born with Down Syndrome have an extra chromosome 21, does this make them superhuman? Or is it the truth of the matter that this is all just based on some ignorant, ancient belief that men “bestow life” on an egg, which women simply carry in their bellies while it grows up?

It’s not even reasonable to say that fertilization is the “moment at which a cell becomes committed to growing into a human.” Every point before that is equally precipitate: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You can’t fertilize an egg until you have one, and the switch inside a stem cell that commits it to produce an egg cell rather than any other kind of cell is just as defining a moment. The vast majority of unfertilized egg cells never go on to produce babies, but then neither do the majority of fertilized ones. There’s really no defining point of being; it’s all just a gradual process of becoming.

Clearly an unfertilized egg is not a person, which is quite a relief, given that every woman of child-bearing age would thus be guilty of murder once a month. A sperm had better not be a person either, or I’m guilty of wiping out more people per day than all the wars in history put together. At the same time, an eighteen year-old clearly IS a person. Killing teenagers often seems pretty desirable but despite the temptation I imagine most of us would consider it wrong. So we have a process, at one end of which something is not a person while at the other end it is. If letting a sperm cell die is not murder but bumping off a teenager is, then how do we decide when and under what conditions we handle the legal, ethical and moral transition from the one state to the other?

This is an incredibly difficult question and we REALLY ought to be having a proper grown-up, thoughtful debate about it. But instead we’re treated to simplistic, hysterical dogma from both sides. It won’t be long before we know how to grow one of my cheek cells into another human being. Does that make my body a hundred trillion people? We already know that identical twins are two people borne from a single egg cell, so when is a fertilized egg cell one person and when is it two? How is Mississippi law proposing to untangle that one?

Only the ignorant would think that the moment of fertilization is the “point” at which a cell becomes a person, or even a sensible place to draw an otherwise arbitrary line. The quality of debate is shocking. Meanwhile, every day, EITHER people really are getting murdered in their thousands because women are having abortions at some specified stage of pregnancy OR women (not to mention their partners and perhaps the children themselves) are having their lives needlessly ruined by being prevented from having one. The problem isn’t going away and it isn’t going to get any simpler. We urgently need to find the right answers, but are we even asking the right questions?

What does it MEAN to murder someone? What does it mean to have the right to live? Did the skin cells I rubbed off my foot this morning when I put my socks on deserve a right to live? Perhaps “life” is the wrong question. Perhaps a group of living cells’ collective rights depend on whether they KNOW they’re alive? Perhaps they collectively have to be able to suffer, to have plans and hopes that get thwarted, before killing them becomes wrong. But what does it mean to know? What does it mean to suffer? What is consciousness? What is it like to be an embryo? A baby? A three year-old? An octogenarian with Alzheimers? What is it that murder takes away and from whom or what can it be taken? Is “killing” a three month-old embryo worse than killing a three year-old cow in order to make hamburgers? How do we know?

We really should have answers for this stuff by now. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, for heaven’s sake. But not only do we not know the answers, we barely even understand or take the trouble to think clearly about the questions. Meanwhile, people are walking into voting booths in Mississippi today (and doubtless in many other states in the near future, regardless of what happens in MS today), to make a judgement call that will or will not outlaw all forms of abortion, the morning after pill and many forms of contraception. On the basis of what? Religious dogma that can’t even call on scripture for meaningful comment? Gut feeling? Personal bias? Sympathy for babies? Sympathy for women? Misogyny? Guesswork?


Plus ca change?

I love it when serendipity brings me the answer to a question that hasn’t even been asked yet. It happens to me all the time. Yesterday Vegard sent me a great video about our lack of intuition about exponential functions and how that relates to the energy crisis and the population explosion. Then this morning John asked me a question in connection with an apparently unrelated but deeply shocking thing I posted on Facebook about the Spanish Catholic church having stolen 300,000 newborn babies, telling the parents they had died and then selling them into adoption. Serendipitously, I think the former nicely illustrates part of the answer to John’s question, which was stimulated by the latter, so I decided to write a post on it.

I hope John doesn’t mind if I quote his (partially rhetorical) question in full, because it’s interesting:

I also bring attention to the recent London riots – the English government finding it necessary to offer free “parenting lessons…” What are the root causes of such going on? Why would the planet’s most intelligent inhabitants happily stray from time-honoured behaviour that is widely known and demonstrated to be “good and sensible”, building nations and bringing progress, safety and wealth? Why do humans derail themselves when they know better? From where come the flies in the ointment? I would be interested in YOUR take! best John

First some caveats: John is a conservative and I’m a liberal – we don’t see eye to eye on a number of things, most notably religion. But we argue fairly and earnestly (not to mention heatedly!) and we both try with honesty to get to the bottom of things. So it’s a bit unfair of me to stand up on my soapbox like this alone. If John violently disagrees with me and opts to comment then please look for that below. Fair’s fair.

The other thing is, my answer isn’t really an answer to John’s specific question, more an answer to why I think questions of this sort understandably seem to many people to be worth asking. Such questions lie at the very heart of conservatism. The crux of the whole conservative world view is, “why break with tradition?” To a conservative, the fabric of modern society is crumbling – the old, sure ways are being lost, and radical, revolutionary changes are wrecking everything. Conservatism is a counter-revolutionary philosophy. That may not be everyone’s conscious, deliberate view of what it’s all about, but nevertheless it’s fundamental to the psychology and philosophy of conservatism – hence the name.

And a lot of other very influential philosophies then hang from this one. The “old, sure ways” in question were once those of the monarchic, top-down, stratified society that existed before the French Revolution. That’s where the terms “left wing” and “right wing” originated and that’s the legacy of debate and division that fueled the development of the United States constitution. Today’s conservatism (and indeed liberalism, although from the opposite wing) inherits much of the ideology that stemmed from those revolutionary days, and as a consequence, conservatism isn’t just about conserving the old ways whatever they may be; it’s about conserving certain deeply held beliefs about what is right and good for society, especially the concept of hierarchy. It’s why conservatives tend to be religious (in an Old Testament sort of way); because they feel that we need a moral compass from on high. Conservatives believe in the need for the rule of law, including moral law, and see rebellion and “mob rule” as a breakdown of society. They also tend to see inequality as a necessary factor in society, for various and rather subtle reasons. Egalitarianism is the province of liberals, not conservatives, and what we see as fairness and compassion, conservatives tend to see as encouraging laziness, removing hard-working people’s right to a reward, and so on. The two sides look at the same things in radically different ways. These feelings we each have are deeply, deeply ingrained in our respective psyches.

I’ve written before about the possibility that this is something really innate to the human mind; that perhaps we inherited both the chimapanzee-like dominance hierarchy, and the bonobo lassez faire, make-love-not-war behaviours from our common ancestor. But John’s excellent question is not so much about “why this, not that?”; it’s more about “why now?”. And here’s my suggestion for part of the answer to that. I appreciate it’s not the whole answer by any means, but I think it’s relevant.

I think the assumption that is innate to conservatism – indeed essential to it – is that things worked okay in the past, so what’s all this nonsense about revolution? The conventional liberal response to that would be “it was never alright in the past; only alright for some.” But that’s not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that things are very often “alright in the past” and then cease to be alright, yet nothing has to change for that to happen.

This is where the excellent lecture that Vegard sent me comes in. I recommend you watch it, because it’s beautifully presented and interesting from its own perspective as regards resources and population, but it’s an hour long, so here’s the meat of it:

The lecturer is Albert Bartlett, and his central thesis is that we humans are really, really crap at understanding exponential growth. He says, for example, that we don’t bat an eyelid at the news that something is growing by 7% per year – 7% seems like nothing. And then we read in the papers that “crime has doubled in a decade” and we freak out. But 7% per year is the same thing as doubling in a decade!

7% per year doesn’t mean something grows by 7% of the original value every year, of course; it means it grows by that much of the previous value. If you plot the curve of such steady growth, you find that it climbs really gently for ages but then starts to accelerate until it suddenly skyrockets heavenward. Face one way and it’s basically flat; face the other and you’re looking at a brick wall. And yet it’s just steady growth. A town that had 1,000 inhabitants in 1900 and grows at 7% per annum will have 2,000 inhabitants by 1910, 4,000 by 1920 and so on. By the year 2010 the population will be over a million. By 2050 it would be 16 million.

Bartlett then goes on to give us the shocking bottom line: during each doubling time (each decade, for 7% per annum growth), the change in any single decade is larger than all of the decades up to that point added together. You can see how counterintuitive that makes things when you think about a situation like this: Suppose we’ve been using coal for 150 years, at a growth rate of 7%. By the year 2010 we find we’ve only used up half of all the coal that exists. Half the coal is gone after 150 years but the other half remains, so we’re doing okay, right? The rest probably won’t last another 150 years but we needn’t worry for ages yet, surely? Except it will all be gone by 2020! It took us 150 years to use up half of it, but only ten more to use up the other half. That just doesn’t feel right, and so we don’t notice, or don’t believe what the figures tell us. By the time it starts to dawn on us, it’s one minute to midnight and we’re screwed. Who would have thought that starting to worry about energy conservation when we still have half of our resources left is potentially too late for us to do anything about it? But it’s true. Even if we find out there’s twice as much coal under the ground as we thought, it makes damn all difference.

And this, I think, has something to do with John’s question. At two levels.

If we’re tracking up an exponential curve, then sticking to our “good old ways” really doesn’t seem like a problem. Until the curve starts to skyrocket. When we look backwards we see everything has continued pretty much as normal and stayed pretty stable, but when we look forwards we see an explosion just ahead of us. I can see how that looks frightening (as it should) and why it seems like things were going great but now they’re going wrong. Yet nothing actually has to alter for this to be the case; it’s just a natural consequence of steady change. I think society has now reached such a point on a number of axes at once. It’s not that the natural world order is being threatened by Bolshevic revolutionaries who want to screw up the happy times of the past, despite what people like Glen Beck believe. It’s that the “happy times of the past” have led, inexorably and inevitably, to a time where those practices and mores have ceased to work. Nay, caused a disaster. Nothing has to go wrong or be destabilized for that to happen – it’s just exponential growth.

But what, exactly, is growing? Well, as Professor Bartlett points out, population is a major factor in this. The ways we used to live worked just fine when the human population was low, but it has been growing steadily since forever, and it’s now one minute to midnight. Our population is skyrocketing and such a growth is completely and utterly unsustainable. It will not be sustained, whether we like it or not, and we’ve left it too late to put it right gently. The old ways simply cannot and will not work. Revolutions of many kinds – political, military, social and technological – are absolutely inevitable, and in very short order. We live in interesting times, and the only thing we can say with certainty is that the “good old days” are useless to us now. We can never recover them and we’re fools to try to hang onto them. Do the math.

But there’s also another sense in which conservatism versus liberalism hits up against exponential change, and that’s capitalism. Conservatives are pretty uniformly advocates of capitalism, especially the resistance to regulation. Liberals tend to have mixed views on capitalism in general, but tend to favor regulation as a means towards egalitarian ideals.

The thing about capitalism is that it doesn’t follow the central theory of economics, as elucidated in the steady growth days of the early twentieth century. Back in those days, when the curves were still fairly flat, it was hard to distinguish between two contradictory models for how economic systems work, and we picked the wrong one.

A fundamental assumption in many economic models is that of the law of decreasing returns. Things tend to balance themselves out. Negative feedback rules. If you own a mine and do really well at first, you’ll eventually mine out the lode and profits will start to fall again as extraction becomes more difficult and expensive. Decreasing returns. If people don’t like your product or your corporate practices, or workers don’t like their work environment, the customers will fade away and finding workers will get harder. Or so it was claimed.

But that was pretty naive, because the universe is stuffed full of both negative AND positive feedback. Indeed the universe IS the effects of combining negative and positive feedback (but that’s a long story!). Positive feedback follows the law of increasing returns: To he that hath is given more. And the law of increasing returns is fundamental to capitalism, whether we like it or not.

Back in the days when people went west in search of gold, diminishing returns tended to hold sway. You’d stake your claim, work hard, extract your glinting reward and feel good. But gradually the cost and effort of extraction would make that reward smaller and smaller, and eventually the claim would be worked out. Those who didn’t see that coming often ended up destitute. But although that seems like negative feedback – a resistance to change that brings things back towards the status quo – it’s actually positive feedback. And like all positive feedback loops, there’s a null point. If you remain below the null point, all the forces pull you down and down. If you don’t have enough gold to make ends meet, you can’t hire labor or buy decent tools and your ability to capitalize on your claim falters and fades. But you just have to be lucky enough to get over the hump; over the null point; to find things change very rapidly in the other direction. If your gold seam is just good enough, you can make a profit and invest that profit in workers to do the digging. And then maybe buy a second mine, which, if you’re still lucky, doubles your profits. So then you can buy a fourth, and an eighth, and a sixteenth…

The people who get rich in an unrestrained capitalist system need skill and hard work as well as luck, but the reward is not proportionate to skill or effort. A billionaire is not a million times more industrious than someone whose entire assets run to a thousand dollars. It’s simply that the billionaire managed to cross to the positive side of the null point, while the pauper didn’t make it. In such a system, all other factors being equal, two people who start out almost but not quite identically, can experience radically different outcomes. Capitalism, due to positive feedback, is a watershed. If I stand on a hill a few miles from here and pee towards the west, it’ll end up in the Pacific; if I pee to the right, it’ll end up in the Atlantic. Massive change from tiny differences.

Unrestrained capitalism is inherently like this. Those that hath, get given more, while those that hath not, lose everything. There’s actually a well of negative feedback in the middle of the curve, which keeps many of us relatively stable and stuck in the middle, but that’s getting too complex for this post. The thing is, everyone is entitled to a reward for their hard work and diligence, but because of positive feedback both the reward and the punishment tend to be way out of proportion. In fact it’s very, very easy, due to nothing more than random noise, for someone who’s more industrious and skilled, especially if they also happen to have scruples, decency and compassion for their fellows, to end up in the gutter through no fault of their own, while people who hardly deserve it go on to garner enormous wealth.

Without negative feedback, for instance in the form of a welfare safety net at the lower end and progressive taxation to damp out spiralling wealth at the higher end, such an explosion of inequity is ABSOLUTELY inevitable. But it won’t seem like a problem at first. Not even for a long time. The curve rises only gently for most of its history. But one day it will start to take off and skyrocket, and we passed that day some time ago. When over a third of the wealth belongs to only 1% of the population, and the bottom 40% of the people have to make do with less than 1% of the total wealth spread between them, we know we’ve stepped over the edge. At that point – the point we have reached now – massive change to the fundamental fabric is inevitable, because the present rate of change from “business as usual” is unsustainable.

Much the same is true when it comes to raping the earth of its resources. Capitalism is a system of increasing returns, but those increasing returns come at an increasing cost. The more successful a company becomes or the more successful an economy becomes, the faster it extracts resources. Yes, diminishing returns will set in eventually, when all the resources have gone or become too diffuse to extract. But the “to him that hath is given more” property of unregulated commerce ensures that this rate of change takes us by surprise. We might think we were doing great with the “old ways” up to now and with a bit of diligence we still have a long way to go, but in reality it’s one minute to midnight. Watch Albert Bartlett’s lecture to see how giant corporations (via naive journalists and crooked politicians) contrived to capitalize on their success by lobbying and marketing the idea that we have more than enough coal and oil to last us hundreds of years. And then remember that we only believe such things because we’re so easily fooled by exponential growth. 150 years to use up half the coal; 10 years to use up the other half…

So it seems to me that “the good old ways” that conservatives wish we could hang on to or return to are what created the coming revolution. It’s inevitable that looking backwards gives us the view that we were comfortable and doing just fine, while looking forwards fills us with fear. It’s a natural consequence of our human inability to understand exponential change. But when you add to this the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating, in large part because of the positive feedback and spiralling of inequity inherent in the very worldview that seems to those of a reactionary bent to have worked so well for us up to now, then an explosion is not just inevitable but imminent.

How that explosion plays out is an unknown, but the reasons behind it are pretty clear. The kids occupying Wall Street and other cities seem to be pissed off about any number of different things and it’s easy to say they’re unfocused and just into rebellion and demonstrations for the hell of it. But it doesn’t really matter what they actually say; it doesn’t even help to feel smug if they lose their current admirable level of cool and end up being violent; the truth is, their existence was inevitable and the underlying reasons for their disenchantment with the good old days were an event just waiting to happen. It’s written in the curve. Disenchanted people do bad things sometimes, and revolutions do fracture society. But at the same time, there never was a golden age, and the “tried and trusted” ways of the past are at least in need of rethinking from the ground up. The rule of law can only go so far, so I hope people don’t rely on it for so long that it needs to hold back a tidal wave.

And the old ways caused this, albeit unintentionally; they cannot possibly be the solution to it. We have to have change in the fabric of society, and we can either opt for managed change or we can wait until one second to midnight and suffer the consequences (if that time has not already passed). It’s not only wrong that so much wealth is locked up in so few coffers while the number of poor and suffering is increasing exponentially; it’s totally unsustainable.

My thanks to John and Vegard for the stimulation!


Just an idle thought:

I’m watching Wall Street being occupied, and became fascinated by the degree to which the Media and assorted right-wing morons are glibly disparaging the Wall Street protestors for “not having any coherent demands.” That in itself is just pathetic, since we all know what their demands are and why they’re not something that can be written on a bumper sticker.

But it made me think: What a powerful and terrifying prospect that could be, if you genuinely have something to feel guilty about: For people to gather in numbers, look you in the face and then not tell you what their demands are.

Imagine a bunch of people walked up your driveway today and just stood there, staring at you impassively through the window. Imagine they kept doing that, day and night, without a word. Every time you walk into a room, there’s someone with their face pressed up against the glass, looking at you and giving nothing away. How long would it be before you started searching your conscience? Frankly, I’d probably be offering them all my money and admitting to crimes I’d never even committed within minutes! But if I HAD committed crimes, or even willingly gone to work and done a mundane job in the financial sector, knowing that there was a little uneasiness in my gut about the ethics of it but not being willing enough to rock the boat or suffer the consequences of resigning, then I think I’d probably be quaking in my shoes. Before long I’d be suggesting my OWN concessions to make them go away. And who better to figure out how to put the mess right?

Of course the major flaw with this kind of reasoning is that I do actually have a conscience, and a sense of empathy, and most of the people responsible for the current scandal in America and around the Western world don’t. It’s their most characteristic feature by far. Maybe if you are completely clueless (or simply don’t give a s**t) about what is going on inside other people’s minds and how they feel, then being faced with thousands of impassive faces, looking at you accusingly and making no demands of you whatsoever, would merely cause you to shrug and say “why should I care?” before going about your business. Unfortunately, such a psychopathic mindset is the primary qualification for being the sort of person who is causing all the trouble, whether on the inside of Wall Street’s towers or on the outside cheering it on. But if there’s even a glimmer of empathy inside the brains of these people then staring blankly at them and waiting for THEM to do something is probably a damned good way to unnerve them, I’d have thought.

Incidentally, a few years ago I bizarrely found myself lying on my front lawn, head to head with a journalist called Jon Ronson. We were lying head to head for a magazine photo and shortly after that he made me climb a tree, but I’ve really no idea why a journalist like Jon in particular would be sent to interview an artifical intelligence researcher. Unless it was to uncover what a bunch of kooks we all are. Anyway, a while back I was driving through the Arizona desert listening to NPR and a voice came on that I recognized. It was Jon, talking about a book he’d written about psychopaths. After our encounter on the lawn, I was glad to note that I wasn’t in it. But if you’re looking for some light but insightful reading about a kind of mind that (being a reader of my blog) you are most unlikely to own yourself but may be uncomfortably aware that you share a planet with, then I thoroughly recommend it. It’s called The Psychopath Test: A journey through the madness industry.

P.S. How ironic that Steve Jobs died today. This is an iPhone-fuelled revolution, for sure.

Seeing the wood for the trees

A while back I wrote a piece about bonobos and chimpanzees – how different they are and how human political differences might be a reflection of these two ways of life.

One thing that struck me about bonobos is that they are separated from chimpanzees by nothing more than a river. The Congo River is apparently what separated two populations of their common ancestors a couple of million years ago and prevented them from interbreeding. One population went on to become modern chimpanzees and the other bonobos. Once their genes were no longer able to mingle, it was inevitable that they would diverge from each other in both physiognomy and behavior.

What was it about the south side of the Congo that favored collaboration and appeasement instead of dominance and aggression? I have no idea, but it needn’t have been very much at all. The tiniest difference in habitat could lead to a change in culture (such as a shift in the roles of males and females) and this in turn would have knock-on effects. Positive feedback would soon lock in these changes and drive an expanding wedge between the two populations.

In modern humans, chimpanzee-like right-wing behaviors and bonobo-like left-wing behaviors coexist, but very uneasily. Empathy, for instance, serves different purposes in each mode: “socialism” (with a small “s”) is fundamentally based upon empathy in the form of sympathy – the understanding that other people suffer like we do, and if we help and support each other we can minimise this suffering for all. “capitalism”, meanwhile, makes use of empathy to outwit other people. A CEO who can walk into a business meeting and immediately grasp what everyone around the table is thinking will come away with a better deal. The consequences of this difference are profound. To a libertarian conservative, for instance, government is an unwanted imposition – a Them who controls Us. It’s an Alpha Male to be feared, opposed and ideally got rid of. Meanwhile, from the perspective of a liberal, the government actually is us; it is the collective will; the way we look out for each other. It’s no wonder the two sides fail to understand each other. In America and the UK this tension is very strong at the moment and it sometimes makes me feel that humans must be descended from the interbreeding of two previously separated species, because the two points of view aren’t very compatible and evolution might have been expected to opt for either one or the other. Bonobos and chimpanzees certainly did.

All this came back into my mind this morning when I read this article in Machines Like Us. The gist of it is that Australopithecus afarensis appears to have walked upright on two feet, in roughly the front-of-foot way that we humans do, rather than the bowlegged way that other primates do. And they did this almost four million years ago at the latest – around the time the human bloodline separated from the chimp/bonobo bloodline.

It made me wonder what kind of “Congo river” might have separated the two lines, and it’s really not hard to imagine. Chimpanzee and orangutan feet are designed for living in trees – their mastery of the arboreal mode of transport is astounding from the perspective of a human being, whose feet are utterly useless for dangling from branches. Every time I watch a primate leap confidently from branch to branch I find myself in awe and not a little envious.

But suppose the trees thin out? There are clear limits to how far apart branches can be whilst still being able to support two hundred pounds of leaping flesh. When trees get too thin on the ground, primates have to climb down and walk. For a quick dash, followed by a rapid climb back into safety, chimpanzee feet are ideal, but there will come a point when efficient running becomes far more important than efficient climbing and leaping. There are no tigers in the trees (which is basically why primates live in them), so being a bit ungainly in the canopy is not nearly as serious as being unable to reach the safety of the next trunk. The evolutionary advantage of good running feet would very quickly be tested, once running became necessary.

And what then? Once you perform better on the ground than in the canopy, you can free your hands. You have to watch out more carefully for predators and find ingeneous ways to thwart them (even using sticks as weapons, maybe). Sex becomes different. Meetings tend to happen face-to-face instead of face-to-ass. Perhaps females carrying young need protection. You are presented with vistas that exceed a mere wall of leaves. A thousand things have suddenly changed, and each of those thousand things would go on to create a thousand other changes. And all because the trees got too far apart to leap between.

Perhaps this was all it took to make the human race? Perhaps we’re just the descendants of incompetent leapers who had to evolve bizarre and expensive tricks like literature and intelligence in order to survive on the ground when we could no longer stay hidden in the trees. As we dash (by elevator) from the safety of our office-trees to the safety of our house-trees and climb the wooden stairs to bed, on feet and hips that are very much designed for the ground, it’s sobering to think that most of what we see around us might have been caused by a bit of a lingering drought, four million years ago.

Maybe I should go for a run…

Are you a chimpanzee or a bonobo?

This interesting article points out that the hominid branch of the evolutionary tree has split several times. The earliest side-shoot led to orangutans (bless their hearts!) and a slightly later one led to gorillas. A short time after this, a third split gave rise eventually to humans, while the final division (so far) separated the other bloodline into bonobos and chimpanzees. To put it another way, bonobos and chimps are more closely related to each other than either of them is to humans, but all three of us share an older common ancestor.

Chimpanzee (Click for photo source)

The article then goes on to ask what this common ancestor was like. Was it more Pan-like (chimp/bonobo) or more Homo-like (human)?

In answer to the question, the author points out that there are actually large differences in social behavior between chimps and bonobos, despite them having a recent common ancestor. Furthermore, she suggests, we humans show both types of behavior, so perhaps the common ancestor of all three species showed this variety too. Perhaps humans retained the more generalized or variable social structure of our common ancestor, while chimps and bonobos represent specializations.

But this intriguing speculation about the distant past rather glosses over something important about our modern selves, I think. Humans are not some kind of vague mush of chimp and bonobo features. Individual people and individual cultures have a marked tendency to gravitate towards one camp or the other, and they tend to show a good deal of antipathy towards the opposing camp. Collectively, we show characteristics of both species, but individually we tend to be either chimpanzee-like or bonobo-like, as I hope to explain.

Presumably chimpanzees live in an environment in which adopting only one particular mode of life has proved perfectly stable and useful, while bonobos occupy a different niche and went the other way. Meanwhile, the environment the human line found itself in might have fallen into one of two categories: 1) neither the chimp nor bonobo extremes were ideal, and some kind of less polarized social structure worked best, as it may have done for the common ancestor; 2) the environment kept changing, so our gene pool retained the capacity for both options because it paid to be able to adopt whichever mode best suited the times. At different periods, the proportions of “chimp” and “bonobo” phenotypes would have fluctuated, perhaps through epigenetic means.

But here’s the thing: these two lifestyles are mutually incompatible. You can’t have a dominance hierarchy that is flat; you can’t have a patriarchy that is also a matriarchy; you can’t have an alpha male if everyone is going around having sex all the time. But humans seem to have inherited a choice, and it seems to me that the fight for which choice is best is still very much being fought. What I’m wondering is whether this is the very fight that is today being fought at the ballot box and the altar…

Let’s compare Pan troglodyte and Pan paniscus a little to see what I mean. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just quote from the article:

“If we start with modern chimps and bonobos, they manifest some striking behavioral differences. 1) Chimp societies are characterized by strong male dominance hierarchies, whereas bonobo societies have strong female dominance hierarchies. 2) Chimp males have been documented to engage in warfare with neighboring troops and kill troop members, whereas such behavior has not been observed in bonobos. 3) Chimp males are known to engage in infanticide, again a behavior unreported in bonobos. 4) Chimps engage in sex only when females are in estrus (“heat”), at which times males make great efforts to monopolize females and hence guarantee paternity. By contrast, bonobos engage in sex often (ten times per day has been reported) and throughout the estrus cycle, and seem quite disinterested in keeping track of paternity. 5) Homosexual sex has not been observed with chimps, whereas it occurs frequently between female and often between male bonobos.”

Mention of infanticide was what first caught my eye, because I’d just read this disturbing article about how men in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) not-infrequently waterboard their babies (yes, really) in order to instill in them a fear and respect for authority. Another sentence also caught my eye: “it’s unlikely that FLDS leaders such as her ex-husband (who is now a bishop) would follow [such new laws], much less extend legal rights to women or stop the practice of abandoning boys who are surplus in a community where the older, powerful men arrange the marriages and take multiple wives.”

Polygamy? Aggressive male dominance hierarchies? Alpha males? So what is the FLDS church, then, if not a bunch of chimpanzees? I don’t know about infanticide, specifically, only the waterboarding, but it’s not uncommon in other masculine monotheisms such as fundamentalist Islam.

The FLDS is admittedly a pretty freaky organization, but the chimpanzee qualities clearly extend to all the monotheistic religions to some degree, and the more fundamentalist they are, the more this is true. Aggressive in-group/out-group antipathy is fundamental to all, whether it be the ancient Tribes of Israel, modern Islamic or Christian antisemitism, or the Saved versus the Damned. An aggressive dominance hierarchy is a fundamental aspect of these religions too: The Judeo-Christian-Muslim god is unquestionably the alpha-male of all alpha-males, and Right-wing Christianity in the US is very much about doing what you’re told. Take this video, for instance – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually argue for a dictatorship before, but the more you think about it, the more obvious it becomes that this rather extreme video is only saying out loud something that is implicit in fundamentalist monotheistic religions today.

What about homophobia? And what about the repressive puritanical attitude towards sex generally? Fundamentalist Christianity is very much a patriarchal dominance hierarchy with aggressive and sexually repressive features. It is exactly what an alien anthropologist would expect if we were closely related to chimpanzees.

Bonobo (Click for photo source)

And yet we’re also closely related to bonobos. These are the hippies of the primate world: laid back, “make love not war” creatures who opt for a flatter, or at least less aggressive, hierarchy. Their matriarchal societies seem to have more in common with our older, polytheistic or animistic religions, filled as these are with goddesses and a virtual supernatural soap-opera of social interactions. Bonobos, I might point out, are also the hominids with the most upright gait and sophisticated tool use, if not also the most language ability. If you were to meet one of our ancient Homo ancestors, he or she would probably look more like a bonobo than a chimpanzee. Bonobos are the hippie intellectuals of the forest. This doesn’t make them better than chimpanzees – each is best adapted to a certain environment, but when we humans try to describe our species, we tend to do so in a way that emphasizes our bonobo characteristics over our chimpanzee ones. Although, to be fair, perhaps that’s simply because it’s the bonobos amongst us that tend to write the history books!

Human hippie intellectuals tend to be political liberals. Is this mere coincidence? Perhaps not. Perhaps the political Left and Right are modern-day equivalents of the dichotomy that pushed chimpanzees and bonobos into separate niches?

The terms Left and Right originated in the French Revolution. On the right of the president sat the supporters of the king – those in favor of a very strong (male or honorary-male) dominance hierarchy. These were people who preferred the old feudal system, in which all men are not equal. They thought that social capital should be unevenly distributed, so that kings and dukes held most of the wealth. They were the ones “loyal to religion.” Today, they fear God, they fear the government and they would like others to fear them. These are the people who most support aggression as a means to solve problems (e.g. by preventing gun control, supporting high military spending and condoning wars). Their lack of empathic, egalitarian tendencies makes them oppose social care programs such as healthcare. They tend to be sexually repressive, homophobic and often somewhat misogynistic. They are concerned about in-group/out-group (e.g. the Birthers, who believe against all the evidence that Obama is not American). (Oh, and who is it that is most scared that we evolved from apes? Few people know much about bonobos but everyone knows about chimpanzees, so I’m not surprised the Far Right are uncomfortable about their past; they perhaps recognize themselves in it.)

If chimpanzees ever develop really complex social organizations, this is what they will be like. Remember Planet of the Apes?

Of course, such a simplistic characterization has its difficulties. For instance, an ardent Republican might accuse the Left of chimpanzee-like infanticide, given their respective stances on abortion. But perhaps even this has its explanation. The anti-abortion lobby is driven more by emotion than reason. Witness a billboard I saw in Florida recently that said “at 18 days after conception a baby’s heart is already beating”, which it then misleadingly illustrated with a picture of a six month-old foetus, not a tiny fish-like embryo as it should have been. What difference does it make that its heart is working (rather than, say, its kidneys)? It’s a meaningless observation designed to appeal to our basic instincts, and who is it that cares most about kin? Who is programmed to appeal to the alpha-male (i.e. God) to decide what’s right? Who has the least to gain from female choice?  Hint: it’s not our inner bonobo.

Similarly it’s not simply a matter of Left and Right, because the extreme Left is just as totalitarian and “daddy knows best” as the extreme right. It’s more like the extreme right versus the center (which in the US is generally called the Left).

And why are leftists progressives and the Right conservative? Aside from a possibly greater tendency for bonobos to use tools I don’t know of anything in principle that would make one social system more progressive than the other. Presumably it’s an historical accident: we’ve just been through a couple of thousand years during which the chimpanzee model dominated, thanks in large part to Christianity and Islam. An earlier Age of the Bonobo may or may not have existed in the evolutionarily recent past (the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, say), but from the perspective of our era it seems quite new, not really gathering momentum until the 1960’s. So we would expect it to represent the progressive stance, and to make the chimpanzees amongst us feel under threat and act more conservatively.

Either way, it seems possible to me that the bonobo and chimpanzee lifestyles might offer hints about the deep, primitive impetuses that drive us humans. Mere logic sure as hell doesn’t. It might explain why our political system has two quite persistent ideologies. It may have something to say about the emotional and instinctive factors that underly the current desperate attempts of the religious right to regain their hold, and why right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity go together at all (despite much of the message of the New Testament). It may tell us what really lies underneath the present startling and troubling attempts in US politics to reinstate an oligarchy, if not a theocracy. It may explain why some people are willing to lie and deceive in order to get what they want, because cognitive dissonance is less painful than suppressing our primitive urges (which we don’t consciously understand). It may even explain why it’s virtually impossible for liberals and conservatives to understand each other at the most fundamental level. Perhaps all of this is because some of us are chimpanzees and some of us are bonobos; perhaps we are born or raised with fundamentally different assumptions.

You may have guessed that I’m biased towards the Bonobo Way of life. Perhaps the Day of the Chimpanzee is now an anachronism – an inappropriate adaptation to our new niche. I hope so. Perhaps, with luck, it will soon be over.

<fade up Imagine, by John Lennon>

Postscript: Aha! I just found this, which looks really promising: Our Inner Ape, by Frans de Waal. It seems that somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about may have explored this topic already. I guess I could have saved myself an afternoon’s work! I’ll read it and report back.

You want me to sit on WHAT???

Imagine that the motor car as we know it had never been invented – suppose we’d developed electrical technology long before the internal combustion engine.

Now suppose someone came up to you and proposed the following: “I want you to go and sit in the back of that metal box and lock yourself in. Under your seat is a bomb made from twelve gallons of liquid petroleum. Petroleum is extremely explosive and there’s ample there to turn you into cinders. A bit of static electricity from wearing synthetic clothes is more than enough to ignite it, but for your comfort and convenience we’ve also routed it close to a very hot pipe and carry it via easily chafed tubes to the front, where we deliberately expose it to 15,000 volts of electric sparks. Ok? How do you feel about that?”

From that perspective the motor car doesn’t seem nearly so benign or reasonable, does it? In these days of consumer protection, can you seriously imagine such a thing being made legal? And yet we not only accept it as normal but we casually pack our children inside one and hurtle at closing speeds of 120mph, a few inches from some random stranger doing the same thing.

But it’s just what you do, isn’t it?

Belief in gods is just like this, as far as I can see. It was once the only explanation we had, and it seemed eminently reasonable at the time.

We humans were faced with, and perhaps uniquely able to examine, all sorts of major scientific puzzles about the world around us: How did it come to be? How did such complexity arise? Why am I able to speculate on all this in a way that a rock doesn’t seem able to do? What’s it all for? Why am I somewhat like other creatures and yet apparently so different? Why is it all so damn painful?

These were excellent questions, and led to a series of excellent answers. Like all scientific theories, these proposed answers have been subjected to challenges and gradually adjusted in the light of new information. First it wasn’t at all obvious that trees and maybe even rivers don’t have a first-person experience of life in the way that we do, so animism was an early scientific theory that sought to explain growth and movement and purpose in terms of some animating influence, and hence the theory of spirits was born.

Later, analogies with the contemporaneous development of social order in humans led to the notion that events in the non-human world were also orchestrated by intelligences. The apparently erratic and cruel nature of life’s events was perhaps best explained in terms of power struggles and the emotional personalities of invisible beings – a pretty good reflection of what humanity was itself going through at the time. An extremely elaborate and sophisticated set of sub-theories were developed within this paradigm and such polytheism worked very well for thousands of years.

Eventually, some quite logical inferences brought a group of researchers to the conclusion that such a society of gods must have a leader, and that their particular favorite god was the best candidate. This theory worked so well (although not for very scientific reasons) that it eventually led to the theory that all these other gods weren’t really gods at all – just angels, or devils, or false gods that should be denied. Moreover, since the whole of existence must surely have had a single-point beginning, it was clearly this deity, the All-Father, who created it. Nothing so complex could conceivably have created itself, so this made a lot of sense. Just like Newtonian Mechanics before Einstein came along, a massive body of literature was developed around it and the theory looked pretty secure.

I’m grossly over-simplifying this progression of scientific theories, I know. I simply can’t do them justice in a few paragraphs and I have a  specific point to get on to. But I hope you can accept that animism, to theism, to monotheism is a rational, thoughtful, scholarly progression of explanations of the world and our place in it, drawn from careful observations and then refined, both gradually and via distinct paradigm shifts, through the use of logical challenges to the predictions it made. Apart from the difficulty of performing actual experiments on such matters until recently, this process of philosophical enquiry is essentially science. Religion is science. Or at least it was until it started insisting upon blind faith.

At every stage in the process, some people refused to go along with the flow. Either they didn’t believe the new evidence, they didn’t hear about it at all, or they had too much invested in the previous paradigm. There are still animists. There are still polytheists. Even amongst a single line of monotheists there are three distinct schools of thought, each focused around a particular moment in the history of its development – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s hard to let go of a conceptual framework that has infiltrated one’s entire life.

You may have noticed that I’ve missed out a stage in this progression of philosophical ideas. Beginning around five hundred years ago, a series of observations that were entirely consistent in spirit to all the others that led to them began to cast serious doubt on some of the basic tenets. That, too, is far too big a tale for a paragraph, but whilst Bronze-age people had developed a highly sophisticated understanding of the motions of planets that seemed to confirm the need for divine control, medieval scholars were able to show that this complex set of requirements became massively simpler and more mechanical if we let go of the notion that our planet is at the center of the universe. Such an hypothesis was very persuasive but it called into question some deeply held assumptions about the existing theory, which by this time was rather heavily built upon the notion that humans (or at least some tribes of humans) were special, and all this complex theological machinery really required us to play center-stage. It didn’t go down well. (Apparently nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.)

Much, much more has happened since then. The new theory of planetary motion led to a rapidly growing understanding of how a wide variety of things that we’d formerly assumed could only happen if an intelligence caused them to happen, can actually be better explained in terms of quite simple regularities, which we call physical laws. The accumulating evidence about the age of the Earth and how its rocks have formed failed to square with some assumptions in the older cosmology about how it had been created. And in the 19th Century a couple of very methodical and painstaking studies seriously began to erode the assumption that the world is too complex to have arisen without someone to create it. This was a bit of a shock, but it did at least help us to deal with some very longstanding philosophical difficulties with the existing theory, such as “if the complexity of the universe can only be explained by intelligent design, the same argument must apply to the even more complex designer, so who or what created him?”

To cut a very long story short, a massive, MASSIVE amount of evidence has accumulated in the past five hundred years that required another paradigm shift in our cosmology. The explanations we had before – of spirits, of warring otherworldy beings, of an all-creating all-father – no longer fit the facts. These changes were at first incremental and capable of being absorbed by modifications to the existing theory, but eventually a Kuhnian paradigm shift became necessary to account for what is now known. Like all honest science, the theory had to be abandoned and replaced.

But like all other paradigm shifts in the history of our collective attempt to understand our world, not everyone feels in a position to let go of the old world view. The same reasons apply now as ever: some are ignorant of these new developments; some understand them but genuinely don’t believe them (although this time I think that’s a very small minority, if anyone at all); and some have too much invested in the old ways to change.

Unfortunately, some of this latter group are determined to pull the wool over people’s eyes and deny this accumulated evidence, either for personal gain or to protect their own insecurities. Others are somehow able to engage in doublethink and believe two mutually contradictory ideas at the same time. But the majority, I suggest, are simply too used to it to see the problem.

We think nothing of sitting our children on top of a bomb and driving them to school, because that’s what we’ve always done. The technology arose in rougher times, when such things didn’t seem so unreasonable. But I submit that, if the idea were proposed for the very first time today, we’d find it utterly ludicrous. We’d say it was a monstrous suggestion that would lead to thousands of deaths every year. And we’d be right.

I further suggest that, if history had been different and we hadn’t passed through these (at the time entirely reasonable) stages in our scientific explanation of the world, and someone came up to you today and suggested for the very first time that the universe was put together by an alien intelligence, that there was a heaven and a hell, that you were born sinful and doomed to hell unless you could convince this deity that you believed in him, and all the rest, you’d be rather more likely to believe that it makes sense to sit on a bomb and throw sparks at it.

By the way, should any of you wonder why I write posts about religion in a blog about artificial life, there is a reason: My work is about answering the very same questions that led to these stages in our religious/scientific development. Many of the things that in prior theories required supernatural agency – souls, consciousness, a vital spark, are nowadays amenable to examination. By trying to create life in the laboratory, especially somewhat abstract forms of life, as opposed to fairly slavish copies (see, for instance, Craig Venter’s lab’s work), I hope to gain more insight into what it means to be living, conscious, spiritual entities. I’m just continuing the work started by our stone age ancestors.

Discuss. I know you will 🙂