15 February 2010


"Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out," advises Jaron Lanier. [1] It's a good enough cue for a pause in this blog while I crack on with the book with which it's associated.

[1] You Are Not A Gadget (2010)

13 February 2010

The sixth idea

Paul Nurse discusses five 'big ideas' in biology in a lecture presented recently at the Royal Society (and elsewhere). [1] They are:
the cell;
the gene;
evolution by natural selection;
life as chemistry; and
biology as an organized system.
His passion peeks through most clearly when discussing the complexity of the cell, which in a tiny space manages hundred or thousands of chemical reactions simultaneously: 'wonderful! extraordinary!'

Nurse concedes there may be other big ideas. Ecology for one. It would be good to hear more from him and other scientists on this topic. Ecology is a field of scientific research and, inevitably, an ethical endeavour. [2]

In The Long Childhood (1973), Jacob Bronowski writes:
Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures.
Hugh Raffles (2010) notes Roger Caillois:
a form of the marvellous that does not fear knowledge but, on the contrary, thrives on it.


[1] Posted in the video archive here

[2] Nurse's moral concern as well as his wonder are apparent in a remark almost in passing to the effect, that given we are related to all life the question of stewardship for our 'relatives' follows. See, e.g., Cairns on eco-ethics

12 February 2010

Creatures of two worlds

Robert Macfarlane's celebration The Wild Places of Essex includes at least two animals from in-between places:
The Common seal displays incredible colours: russets, coppers, burnished browns. The result of the mud on which they haul out. London clay naturally rich in iron oxide: Rust, basically. Wild creatures stained the colour of iron and industry.

The Knot which in great flocks is "more extraordinary" even than a giant flock of starlings. It has to do, says Macfarlane, with their winter colours: "They're silver and white. The effect of this is that as the light hits them they 'ping' brightly like little flecks of snow or ice. Then they turn as a group and they vanish. It's almost as if they've slipped out of our dimension into another and then they turn again and they're into our world, visible again. It's absolutely mesmerizing to watch.
This otherwordlyness, this feeling of other creatures moving in and out of our dimension and our perception is part of what fascinates me about Essex; these portal moments when you glimpse into another world running beside ours in parallel with it.
Macfarlane continues:
My grandfather was very involved in the development of Radar during the Second World War, and he told me once about what the Radar scientists called 'angels'. By this they meant flocks of birds which came in off the coast or up river estuaries. The radar detected these palping strange shapes and the scientists called them angels.
Jesse Smith has argued that nature films today are "often beautiful, usually interesting, and rarely important":
for the vast majority of viewers, the time spent before the movie or TV screen is time lost from actual encounters with nature, which, when ultimately made, can be fraught with disappointment.
But The Wild Places of Essex, available on iPlayer in the UK until 10 March, is a must see.

P.S. my review of the book on which it's based is here.

10 February 2010

The chameleon, the octopus and the fox-terrier

The scepticism of Michel de Montaigne shares something with the pragmatism of William James. Here's Montaigne:
The chameleon takes on the colour of its surroundings but the octopus assumes whatever colour it likes to suit the occasion, hiding, say from something fearful or lurking for its prey. The chameleon changes passively, the octopus actively. [sic] We change hue as well, from fear, anger shame and other emotions which affect the colour of our faces. That happens to us, as to the chameleon, passively. Jaundice, not our will, has the power to turn us yellow.

Such characteristics in other animals which we realize to surpass our own show they they have, to an outstanding degree, a faculty which we classify as ‘occult’. Similarly, animals probably have many other characteristics and powers which are in no way apparent to us.

...Let an intelligent man imagine human nature created, from the beginning, without sight: let him reflect how much ignorance and confusion such a defect would entail, how much darkness and blindness there would be in our minds. We can see from that how vital it would be for our knowledge of truth if we lacked another sense, or two or three senses. We have fashioned a truth by questioning our five senses working together; but perhaps we need to harmonize the contributions of eight or ten senses if we are ever to know, with certainty, what Truth is in essence. [1]
And here's James:
Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!—we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life? The African savages came nearer the truth; but they, too, missed it, when they gathered wonderingly round one of our American travellers who, in the interior, had just come into possession of a stray copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and was devouring it column by column. When he got through, they offered him a high price for the mysterious object; and, being asked for what they wanted it, they said: "For an eye medicine,"—that being the only reason they could conceive of for the protracted bath which he had given his eyes upon its surface.

...And now what is the result of all these considerations [and others outlined in the longer article]? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. [2]

[1] Apology for Raymond Sebond (1576). [Montaigne repeats a fallacy still widespread today that chameleons only change colour to camouflage themselves. In fact, some species also change into bright colours for display purposes. But his main point -- that some animals, such as the octopus, possess capacities that humans do not -- still holds.]

[2] On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings (1899)

9 February 2010

A trait and an 'illusion'

Here are two points from Jaron Lanier:
People are one of a great many species on Earth that evolved with a 'switch' inside our beings that can turn us between being individuals and back animals. And when we switch ourselves into a pack identity we really change, and you can feel it yourself sometimes when you're online and you get into a conflict with somebody over something silly that's hard to draw yourself out of, or if you find yourself in a group interaction when you're ridiculing somebody, or completely excluding and not communicating with some opposing group. These are all signs of the pack mentality within people. And what we see online is that we have designs that seem to be particularly good at pressing that pack identity button. Human history is more or less a sequence of tragedies brought about by the switch within us being turned to the group or pack mentality and then bad behaviour following from that. And if we have a technology that's good at turning the switch we should be very mindful of it.

I am a great believer that people are in control if they just have the thought that they could be...I don't think machines can become clever. I think all of the claims made for artificial intelligence are false. It's a game we play with ourselves in which we make ourselves stupid in order to make the machines appear to be clever. There are many examples of this. Perhaps the most dramatic was the bankers who were prepared to cede their own responsibility and think that algorithms could tell them about credit risks, causing a global financial disaster. But there's a boundless capacity for people, who are a very socialised species, to give the computer the benefit of the doubt and pretend the search engine actually does know what you want, and none of this is ever true. We don't understand how the brain works. We can barely write good software at all and we certainly can't write software that does what a brain does...The danger though is that so many technologists who are seduced by the illusion [of AI], who want to nurture a life form within the computer, that they make designs that erase humans to in order to create the illusion that it's happening. So there's a very strong alignment between the software designs that I criticize and the tendency to want machines to appear to be coming alive. [1]
Lanier warns against taking matters discussed in his new manifesto out of context, so one should tread carefully, particularly if -- like me -- you have haven't yet read it! With that in mind, and waiting for a copy to arrive, two points:
1) The binary individual/pack animal may apply to a lot of human behaviour, but there's often more it than that. [2]

2) The ideas that humans can be in control if they choose and AI is an illusion are profoundly humanist and challenge what looks like an emerging orthodoxy. They are to be taken very seriously. Even if Lanier is wrong and AI does emerge in the long run, it seems plausible that many will project its existence before it becomes real. There would be several motives for this including vested political and financial interest, and a human tendency to detect agency where it does not exist. [3]


[1] This is my rough transcript of some of the things Lanier said to Quentin Cooper in an edition of Material World broadcast on 4 Feb 2010.

[2] See, for example, Mary Midgely on Hobbes.

[3] See, for example Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran. In The Chess Master and the Computer, Gary Kasparov quotes from Igor Aleksander's How to Build a Mind (2000):
By the mid-1990s the number of people with some experience of using computers was many orders of magnitude greater than in the 1960s. In the Kasparov defeat they recognized that here was a great triumph for programmers, but not one that may compete with the human intelligence that helps us to lead our lives.

7 February 2010

A fish imagined by the Jero tribe

Bol is a large fish and is known to swallow big animals such as pigs. It hides its head in the seabed, in the sand and can be recognized by the Andamanese easily as it rests in the muck, in shallow water near the bay area.
-- from stories of the Andaman islands. [1]

Image: a Spotted eagle ray, which I guess to be an inspiration for the Bol. The largest things this ray eats are shrimps and crabs but with a wingspan of up to three metres, or ten feet, you can see how people might imagine it could eat something much larger.

[1] The death of the last fluent speaker of Andamanese language of Bo was reported this week (Survival International, BBC). Razib Khan at Gene expression is vexed by hype and misleading statements. And he's right that the Andamanese are not the ancestors of other living people and that their language is no older than anyone else's. But he misses a main point: with their passing the world loses ways of being.

6 February 2010

A barely imagined state of being

Generally, we moderns follow Epicurus: "where death is, we are not." It is not possible to imagine what it is like to be dead because in death there is no imagining. [1]

We do, however, have a powerful sense of 'living death', a state of minimal existence in which agency/freedom is utterly absent. For this reason (and perhaps for others [2]), we sympathize with the 'dead' Achilles when Odysseus sees him in Hades:
By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive
than rule down here over all the breathless dead. [3]
So what to think about those who retain something like awareness in what had appeared to be a vegetative state?
One of the most difficult questions you might want to ask someone is whether they want to carry on living. But...the scientific, legal and ethical challenges for doctors asking such questions are formidable. "In purely practical terms, yes, it is possible...But it is a bigger step than one might immediately think."

One problem is that while the brain scans do seem to establish consciousness, there is a lot they don't tell us. "Just because they can answer a yes/no question does not mean they have the capacity to make complex decisions"..
. [4]


[1] Some take a different view. For example, David Eagleman:
In the moment of transition between life and death only one thing changes: you lose the momentum of the biochemical cycles that keep the machinery running. In the moment before death you are still composed of the same thousand trillion, trillion atoms as in the moment after death. As you degrade, your atoms become incorporated into new constellations: the leaf of a staghorn fern, a speckled snail-shell, a kernel of maize, a beetle's mandible, a waxen bloodroot, a ptarmigan's tail feather. But it turns out your thousand trillion, trillion atoms were not an accidental collection, each was labelled as composing you, and continues to be so wherever it goes. So you're not gone, you're simply taking on different forms.

Instead of your gestures being the raising of an eyebrow or a blown kiss, now a gesture might consist of a rising gnat, a waving wheat stalk and the inhaling lung of a breaching beluga whale. Your manner of expressing joy might become a seaweed sheet playing on a lapping wave, a pendulous funnel dancing from a cumulo-nimbus, a flapping grunion birthing, a glossy river-pebble gliding around in eddy. From your present clumped point of view this afterlife may sound unnervingly distributed, but in fact it is wonderful. You can't imagine the pleasure of stretching your redefined body across vast territories, ruffling your grasses and bending your pine branch and flexing an egret's wing while pushing a crowd towards the surface through coruscating shafts of light...
[2] Few have the equanimity of Epicurus or Lucretius. For Philip Larkin, their poise was specious. Perhaps in the haze of terror attendant on two different conditions both of which we abhor -- actual death and 'living death' -- the distinction between the two is erased in the mind.

[3] Robert Fagles' translation  (The following added on 25 Jan 2011: In a review of All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Susan Neiman remarks:
Achilles’ speech in Hades — the first poetry that Plato wanted to expunge from his ideal republic — is one key that suggests Homer’s heroes, like the rest of us, had a great deal of trouble with suffering and evil, those things that make the meaning of life problematic.
[4] from Giving the 'unconscious' a voice. P.S. 9 am: In report here, Helen Gill says that one person who had been in a locked-in state for eight years expressed not anger but frustration at not having been able to communicate. But this feeling may not be universal. Against the assumptions made in this post, could some in such a state actually be happy? Or could the question be irrelevant? In the same report, Colin Blakemore warns against jumping to the conclusion that people who show a degree of awareness in what had appeared to be VS are conscious in the way we normally think of it.

Image: David Octavius Hill with his daughter Charlotte, probably 1843

P.S. 23 Feb 11: Most locked-in people 'are happy.'

5 February 2010

Galaxy zoo

Most of the spiral galaxies that decorate our universe have emerged from surprisingly violent pasts, it is reported. They grew their delicate spiral arms after being mashed into a pulp by vast collisions.

Our own spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, is probably one of the few exceptions. It has rotated serenely, undisturbed except by the impact of a few small dwarf galaxies, for about eleven billion years.

It's predicted, however, that Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in about two and half billion years. The resulting 'hyperkinetic smashup' is likely to result in something that looks like this, the colliding Antenna Galaxies:

4 February 2010

Chroomonas, the quantum algae

While physicists struggle to get quantum computers to function at cryogenic temperatures, other researchers are saying that humble algae and bacteria may have been performing quantum calculations at life-friendly temperatures [of around 21 C] for billions of years.
-- NS report on Coherently wired light-harvesting in photosynthetic marine algae at ambient temperature (doi:10.1038/nature08811)

Two imaginary trans-animals

The mynah birds in Aldous Huxley's Island which are trained to fly around all day calling 'Attention, attention' and 'Here and now!'

Daniel Dennett's parrots, which could be artificially selected to say 'Boo Chomsky!' without instruction.

3 February 2010

Roads less narrow

A profile of W D Hamilton included reminders of some of the ways in which he saw nature as a vast psychedelic drug enterprise:
  • Clouds as creations of micro-organisms for their own propagation [1]
  • His own death as a liberation into startling new forms [2]
Of the latter he wrote:
I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.

[1] Spora and Gaia: how microbes fly with their clouds (1998)

[2] My intended burial and why (1991 and 2000)

1 February 2010

Recollection: a companionable form

Now let a man watch his mind while he is composing; or, to take a still more common case, while is trying to recollect a name...Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current and now yielding to it in order to gather further strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind's self-experience in the act of thinking.
-- from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, quoted by Richard Holmes in A Meander through Memory and Forgetting.

The river Duddon