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…


Today is 10/10/10, which is not only one of the relatively rare occasions on which one can write the date without fear of ambiguity in today’s cosmopolitan world, but also the binary expression of the number 42, and hence the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.

How can I let that pass without a short memorial to Douglas Adams? After all, it won’t come around again for another century and by then I’ll be getting on a bit and might not remember.

But what memorial? I’ll start with one of my favorite quotes. It’s of no import whatsoever but it still makes me laugh every time I think of it, and what’s bad about that? It’s Douglas in his best P.G.Wodehouse mode. The man was a genius at saying things in a way that catches us short:

‘Dirk, please, if you would,’ said Dirk, grasping his hand warmly, ‘I prefer it. It has more of a sort of Scottish dagger feel to it, I think. Dirk Gently is the name under which I now trade. There are certain events in the past, I’m afraid, from which I would wish to disassociate myself.’

‘Absolutely, I know how you feel. Most of the fourteenth century, for instance, was pretty grim,’ agreed Reg earnestly.

Dirk was about to correct the misapprehension, but thought that it might be somewhat of a long trek and left it.

But here’s something more relevant to both the date and the theme of this blog. Back in the late 90’s my colleagues and I organised a really enjoyable conference on Artificial Life, to which Douglas came. I’d asked him to chair a debate but he balked at this and decided to give an impromptu talk instead (well, fairly impromptu – he tried it out on Richard Dawkins and me the night before in the bar). It was a triumph. Ann transcribed it for us and it now rests for the sake of posterity in Douglas’s official biography. The whole transcript is pretty long (and anyway it’s available on the web in various places), so I’ll just quote a short section for auld lang syne:

I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry [Yaeger] (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that, if it means nothing, not only has no information gone into it but no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.

And he was.

So what did Douglas think about 42? I have a small personal insight into that, because Ann asked him to sign a copy of my all-time favorite book, for my 42nd birthday present. I’ll post that too, because the Web perhaps doesn’t fade as badly as paper. That was over ten years ago. Poor Douglas didn’t make it to my age.

A note found floating on a pond

“…So what exactly was this superlative achievement of evolution? What was it that finally separated us from the animals and made us who we are — ducks?

Wings are not unique to us, of course, and have even evolved several times, although primitive versions of real wings – the ones that would ultimately culminate in duck wings – seem to have emerged in the early Oligocene.  But the important anatomical features that set us apart from mere animals – the qualities that make us so special – apparently didn’t evolve until much more recently. Our elegant webbed feet, for instance, are key to our dominance of the water’s surface, and our aquiline beaks enabled us to spend less time underwater looking for food, giving us the leisure to develop philosophy and mathematics. The latest DNA analysis suggests that these features are quite recent and true ducks actually split off only a few million years ago from our primitive canard cousins. This discovery is somewhat humbling, and provides yet another nail in the coffin for the unscientific but still widely held belief that we were created uniquely by Daffy, in His image, and given dominion over the fishes of the sea. This is no longer a tenable hypothesis and most educated ducks today recognize that we did in fact evolve from more primitive animals and have achieved our position at the very top of the evolutionary tree only comparatively recently in geological terms.

We ducks are beautifully adapted to our world. Other species sometimes have some interesting adaptations too, of course: snakes have lost their limbs and so can perform a rudimentary swimming motion, while certain primates have even lost their feathers (in mammals these are known as “hair” and lack significant waterproofing qualities) and hence had to evolve unnaturally bloated brains in order that they can keep themselves warm by seeking shelter. Nevertheless, nothing could be prized more highly than our beautiful voices, which are, without question, unique across the animal kingdom. Canardologists have been able to show that certain other, closely related species to ourselves, are capable of superficially similar utterances, but it is very clear that these are not true quacks. To the untrained ear they resemble quacking but they clearly lack genuine syntax and scientists regard them as at best a kind of squawk. Quacking is not possible without our highly evolved beaks, and some theorists even hold that our ability to quack is a consequence of strange quantum-mechanical interactions within the pecten on the edges of our beaks, which could not be replicated, either in nature or in misguided attempts to create Artificial Quacking, known as AQ [see Vaucanson, 1738].

The many races of ducks on our waters today are, of course, one species,  and we must celebrate our differences whilst recognizing our common heritage. To our shame it was not until 1967 that Mandarins were legally recognized as ducks at all by Mallard society, but the time has come to put aside these superficial differences. Coots and Moorhens are merely primitive cousins but the presence of our elegant beaks and our stunning voices should be enough to qualify the rest of us as equal members of Anatidae. Today our attention must be focused on more pressing issues: our profligate over-fishing in particular threatens the food chain and hence the entire planet. We need to become better stewards, or else our lakes and streams may one day become dry, worthless land and we will have to return full-time to the air, like our primitive ancestors.”