“One cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance”

Reading David Flusfeder’s Luck for New Scientist, 6 April 2022 

The Russian novelist Fyodor Doystoyevsky was a gambling addict. He believed, if he could only maintain his composure, the various strategies and “systems” he dreamt up to beat the roulette wheel would one day pay off. But no strategy can game pure chance.

David Flusfeder’s book is not about randomness, or statistics, or the behaviour of numbers. It is, quite specifically, about luck, defined as “the operations of chance taken personally.” Flusfeder is a semi-professional poker player, and knows whereof he speaks.

His eccentric, insightful meditations focus on Fortune’s favourites and its gulls — from the Marquis de Dangeau, 18th-century Versailles’ wiliest card shark, to Thomas Bastard, Oxford University’s most comprehensively shunned epigrammatist. Weaving backwards and forwards through western history, Flusfeder encounters more familiar figures too, from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Niels Bohr to four-times lottery winner Joan Ginther, “the luckiest woman on Earth”.

In an effort to stop his project sprawling, Flusfeder has given its structure over to chance. The 14 essays here are largely self-contained, and they have to be, since they’re presented in an order determined by an on-line randomiser.

Doystoyevsky’s experience predominates. Even after he managed to cure himself of his addiction, the novelist retained the conviction “that in games of chance, if one has perfect control of one’s will, so that the subtlety of one’s intelligence and one’s power of calculation are preserved, one cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance and to win.”

Flusfeder reckons poor Fyodor was born in the wrong place; he should have been playing poker with French settlers in New Orleans, for the card game they invented in 1829 really does reward composure, and nerve, as well as luck.

Not that poker is an altogether rational pursuit. If it were, then Flusfeder would not be wearing green underpants to every important game. Superstition abounds on the poker circuit, as it does wherever people wield little or no control over their lives. Professional tennis, where “there is so much time to think, and doubt, and lose the learned rhythms of technique, and to be afraid”, is awash with fetishes, tics, and absurd pre-match “routines”.

Superstition, according to Flusfeder, is not some primitive psychic excrescence that can be discarded. It’s merely the florid expression of heuristic thinking, without which we wouldn’t be able to function at all. We don’t constantly re-evaluate the world. We make reasonable assumptions about how it works, and we rely on those assumptions. We develop habits. We conjure up a deterministic world in which what happened yesterday reliably guides our actions tomorrow.

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood.

This attitude, caught so superbly by the poet Alexander Pope, works well enough for day-to-day life, but trouble attends our efforts to institutionalise such thinking. Swathes of economic practice, and not a little theory, are predicated on this nonsense — the idea that past results are a guide to future performance.

Statistician David Spiegelhalter, who studies the public perception of risk, is blunt about this: probability does not exist outside the mind, he says: “It is not an objective aspect of the world. It’s a way to operationalise a belief.” At best it’s the map for a territory that, being unbounded, is immeasurable and unknowable.

Vulnerable to the vagaries of chance, how should we conduct ourselves?

Rather than cower timidly, avoiding all randomness, we might develop prudence, seizing opportunities while sidestepping unnecessary risks. Still, against the vicissitudes of fortune, prudence is a thin shield indeed.

Virtue may be our better armour. A life lived with honesty and integrity will at least feel consistent, whether we are suffering adversity or enjoying good fortune.

Or as the early renaissance poet Petrarch put it, “Many times whom fortune has made bond, virtue has made free.”

Now and again they kill people

Reading Andrew Scull’s Desperate Remedies for the Telegraph, 3 April 2022

Are mental illnesses real?

Well, says, Andrew Scull, they hurt; they blight lives; now and again they kill people. So there’s that.

But are they illnesses in any recognisable sense? They can’t be cured. Some people, after years of suffering, experience complete remission for no reason. The search for reliable genetic markers for schizophrenia and major depression has proved a snark-hunt. And so on: Desperate Remedies is the story of what happens when the world stubbornly refuses to reward our efforts at rational understanding.

There are two traditions in psychiatry. The first, greatly shaped by our experience with syphilis, assumes that mental illness is an organic failing, perhaps the result of an infection. Henry Cotton is the unlovely poster child of this tendency, a man whose fin de siecle war on “focal infection” involved the surgical removal, of teeth and tonsils first of all, then colons and cervixes, and then just about anything his knife could reach — and killed very nearly half his clientele.

The other tradition, mindful especially of those traumatised by war, assumes mental illness is grounded in individual experience. At its psychoanalytic height, in the twenty years following the second world war, it could blame just about everything on the parents. The Hungarian-American psychoanalyst Franz Alexander believed that “the asthmatic wheeze was the ‘suppressed cry’ of a patient suffocated by an over-attentive mother.” The current crop of trauma therapies — springing from the roots of 1960s-era PTSD like mushrooms after a spring rain — is the latest lurid flowering of this tradition.

Meanwhile psychiatrists — the poor bloody footsoldiers in this intellectual conflict — have been treating ordinary people in oversubscribed, underfunded institutions (or in the absence of those institutions, where “care in the community” holds sway). It’s their “desperate remedies” — from shock therapies to lobotomies — that form the core of this book.

Andrew Scull’s erudite, precise, blisteringly critical history of 200 years of psychiatry spends many pages explaining what happens when overambitious clinicians meet clients deprived of their rights. (Not everyone in the profession is a Nurse Ratched, but it’s worth remembering that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was drawn from personal experience.)

In spite of everything, Scull still holds out the narrow possibility that psychiatry has a future, if it would only calm down and own up to its limitations. In the psychopharmological present, for instance, much that we’re told works, doesn’t work. Or doesn’t work for very long. Or is accompanied by so many side effects that many feel they would be better off if it didn’t work. What actually works doesn’t work nearly as well as the press says it works. And — the cherry on the cake — we don’t know why it works. (Any piece of folk wisdom you may have picked up about “dopamine imbalances” or “serotonin levels” is almost certainly wrong.)

The opioid crisis in the United States is a public health scandal that’s been waiting to happen since the early 1940s, when Arthur Sackler, among others, worked out how to couch drug advertisements as clinical information. In its wake, the efficacy of countless drugs is being reassessed. Old trials are being picked over, old claims re-examined. The result? “GlaxoSmithKline has all but closed its psychiatric laboratories,” Scull remarks, surveying the ruins left by this latest “paradigm shift” in psychiatry; “AstraZeneca has essentially dropped internal research on psychopharmacology, and Pfizer has dramatically reduced its spending in the psychiatric arena.”

Were all their efforts quackery? Of course not. It is easy (and cheap) to cherry-pick horror stories from Scull’s impassioned history. But his far more worrying point is that plenty of the effort expended over the last 200 years was intelligent, sincere, and honestly conducted — and that, too, has brought only marginal and temporary relief to the suffering mind.

 

A normal process

Reading What Is Regeneration by Jane Maienschein and Kate MacCord for New Scientist, 30 March 2022

Some animals are able to regrow lost or damaged parts. Crabs and lobsters regenerate whole tentacles and claws. Many more animals have lifecycles that involve the wholesale shedding and regrowth of certain tissues. (Unlike hydras and some worms, we humans cannot regrow our heads; but we can regrow our fingernails.)

Regeneration is such a peculiar property, it is surprisingly often ignored or discounted. The 18th-century French naturalist René-Antoine Réaumur spoke to people who made their living by fishing and was surprised when they dismissed stories of limb regeneration as mere “fables”. (His own somewhat bloodthirsty experiments on the local crayfish showed otherwise.)

So is regeneration a mere oddity? Is there any underlying logic to it? And what does it have to do with the grander mysteries of birth, death and development?

Jane Maienschein directs the History and Philosophy of Science Project at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Kate MacCord administers the centre’s effort to study how regeneration works across the scales of complex living systems. This book is their collaborative effort to understand why regeneration occurs when it does, and whether the regeneration of communities (the gut flora in your intestines after a course of antibiotics, say, or the regeneration of woodland after a forest fire) bears anything more than a semantic relationship with the kind of regeneration those crayfish enjoyed in the weeks following their unlucky encounter with M. Réaumur.

Regeneration turns out to be one of those simple, discrete, observable phenomena that, the closer we look at them, seem to vanish into thin air. For instance, when we think about regeneration, are we thinking about regeneration of structure, or regeneration of function, or both? How we think about regeneration impacts whether and where we think it occurs.

The authors’ history of regeneration begins with Aristotle and ends with Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz’s current work on cellular signalling. Their account pivots on Thomas Hunt Morgan (better known as a pioneer of chromosomal genetics) and in particular on his book Regeneration of 1901. Morgan, more than anyone before or since, attempted to establish clear boundaries around the phenomenon of regeneration. The terminology he invented remains useful. Restorative regeneration occurs in response to injury. Physiological regeneration describes replacement, as when a bird moults its feathers or an elk its antlers and a new structures grow in their place. Morphallaxis refers to cases of reshaping, as when a hydra, cut to pieces, reorganises itself into a new hydra without going through the normal processes of cell division.

Morgan’s observations and analysis established that the mechanisms of regeneration are not (as our authors put it) “a special response to changing environmental conditions but, rather, an internal normal process of growth and development. Nor is regeneration an evolutionary adaptation to external conditions, even though the process may be useful.”

So here’s the problem: if the mechanisms of regeneration cannot be distinguished from the mechanisms of growth and development, what’s to stop everything regenerating all the time? What dictates lawful regrowth, and why does it happen only in some tissues, only in some species, and only some of the time?

Far from being an interesting curio, regeneration turns out to be a window through which we glimpse the tightly imbricated (if not impossibly entangled) feedback loops from which the living world, at every scale, is composed. The words of geneticist François Jacob, writing in 1974 and quoted here, barely conveys the scale of the challenge the authors reveal: “every object that biology studies is a system of systems.”

No wonder that regeneration remains largely a mystery; that hopeful regenerative therapies using stem cells usually fail (and usually for unfathomable reasons); and that even the simplest ecosystems elude our control.

Maienschein and MacCord take fewer than 150 pages to anatomise the complexities and ambiguities that their simple question throws up. It is to their further credit that they do not make the biology any more complex or ambiguous than it has to be.

Don’t stick your butter-knife in the toaster

Reading The End of Astronauts by Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees for the Times, 26 March 2002

NASA’s Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built, is now sitting on the launch pad. It’s the super heavy lifting body for Artemis, NASA’s international programme to establish a settlement on the Moon. The Artemis consortium includes everyone with an interest in space, from the UK to the UAE to Ukraine, but there are a few significant exceptions: India, Russia, and China. Russia and China already run a joint project to place their own base on the Moon.

Any fool can see where this is going. The conflict, when it comes, will arise over control of the moon’s south pole, where permanently sunlit pinnacles provide ideal locations for solar collectors. These will power the extraction of ice from permanently night-filled craters nearby. And the ice? That will be used for rocket fuel.

The closer we get to putting humans in space, the more familiar the picture of our future becomes. You can get depressed about that hard-scrabble, piratical future, or exhilarated by it, but you surely can’t be surprised by it.

What makes this part of the human story different is not the exotic locations. It’s the fact that wherever we want to go, our machines will have to go there first. (In this sense, it’s the *lack* of strangeness and glamour that will distinguish our space-borne future — our lives spent inside a chain of radiation-hardened Amazon fulfilment centres.)

So why go at all? The argument for “boots on the ground” is more strategic than scientific. Consider the achievements of NASA’s still-young Perseverance lander, lowered to the surface of Mars at the end of 2018, and with it a lightweight proof-of-concept helicopter called Ingenuity. Through these machines, researchers around the world are already combing our neighbour planet for signs of past and present life.

What more can we do? Specifically, what (beyond dying, and most likely in horrible, drawn-out ways) can astronauts do that space robots cannot? And if robots do need time to develop valuable “human” skills — the ability to spot geographical anomalies, for instance (though this is a bad example, because machines are getting good at this already) — doesn’t it make sense to hold off on that human mission, and give the robots a chance to catch up?

The argument to put humans into space is as old as NASA’s missions to the moon, and to this day it is driven by many of that era’s assumptions.

One was the belief (or at any rate the hope) that we might make the whole business cheap and easy by using nuclear-powered launch vehicles within the Earth’s atmosphere. Alas, radiological studies nipped that brave scheme in the bud.

Other Apollo-era assumptions have a longer shelf-life but are, at heart, more stupid. Dumbest of all is the notion — first dreamt up by Nikolai Fyodorov, a late-nineteenth century Russian librarian — that exploring outer space is the next stage in our species’ evolution. This stirring blandishment isn’t challenged nearly as often as it ought to be, and it collapses under the most cursory anthropological or historical interrogation.

That the authors of this minatory little volume — the UK’s Astronomer Royal and an award-winning space sciences communicator —
beat Fedorov’s ideas to death with sticks is welcome, to a degree. “The desire to explore is not our destiny,” they point out, “nor in our DNA, nor innate in human cultures.”

The trouble begins when the poor disenchanted reader asks, somewhat querulously, Then why bother with outer space at all?

Their blood lust yet unslaked, our heroes take a firmer grip their cudgels. No, the moon is not “rich” in helium 3, harvesting it would be a nightmare, and the technology we’d need so we can use it for nuclear fusion remains hypothetical. No, we are never going to be able to flit from planet to planet at will. Journey times to the outer planets are always going to be measured in years. Very few asteroids are going to be worth mining, and the risks of doing so probably outweigh the benefits. And no, we are not going to terraform Mars, the strongest argument against it being “the fact that we are doing a poor job of terraforming Earth.” In all these cases it’s not the technology that’s against us, so much as the mathematics — the sheer scale.

For anyone seriously interested in space exploration, this slaughter of the impractical innocents is actually quite welcome. Actual space sciences have for years been struggling to breathe in an atmosphere saturated with hype and science fiction. The superannuated blarney spouted by Messrs Musk and Bezos (who basically just want to get into the mining business) isn’t helping.

But for the rest of us, who just want to see some cool shit — will no crumb of romantic comfort be left to us?

In the long run, our destiny may very well lie in outer space — but not until and unless our machines overtake us. Given the harshness and scale of the world beyond Earth, there is very little that humans can do there for themselves. More likely, we will one day be carried to the stars as pets by vast, sentimental machine intelligences. This was the vision behind the Culture novels of the late great Iain Banks. And there — so long as they got over the idea they were the most important things in the universe — humans did rather well for themselves.

Rees and Goldsmith, not being science fiction writers, can only tip their hat to such notions. But spacefaring futures that do not involve other powers and intelligences are beginning to look decidedly gimcrack. Take, for example, the vast rotating space colonies dreamt up by physicist Gerard O’Neill in the 1970s. They’re designed so 20th-century vintage humans can survive among the stars. And this, as the authors show, makes such environments impossibly expensive, not to mention absurdly elaborate and unstable.

The conditions of outer space are not, after all, something to be got around with technology. To survive in any numbers, for any length of time, humans will have to adapt, biologically and psychologically, beyond their current form.

The authors concede that for now, this is a truth best explored in science fiction. Here, they write about immediate realities, and the likely the role of humans in space up to about 2040.

The big problem with outer space is time. Space exploration is a species of pot-watching. Find a launch window. Plot your course. Wait. The journey to Mars is a seven-month curve covering more than ten times the distance between Mars and Earth at their closest conjunction — and the journey can only be made once every twenty-six months.

Gadding about the solar system isn’t an option, because it would require fuel your spacecraft hasn’t got. Fuel is great for hauling things and people out of Earth’s gravity well. In space, though, it becomes bulky, heavy and expensive.

This is why mission planners organise their flights so meticulously, years in advance, and rely on geometry, gravity, time and patience to see their plans fulfilled. “The energy required to send a laboratory toward Mars,” the authors explain, “is almost enough to carry it to an asteroid more than twice as far away. While the trip to the asteroid may well take more than twice as long, this hardly matters for… inanimate matter.”

This last point is the clincher. Machines are much less sensitive to time than we are. They do not age as we do. They do not need feeding and watering in the same way. And they are much more difficult to fry. Though capable of limited self-repair, humans are ill-suited to the rigours of space exploration, and perform poorly when asked to sit on their hands for years on end.

No wonder, then, that automated missions to explore the solar system have been NASA’s staple since the 1970s, while astronauts have been restricted to maintenance roles in low earth orbit. Even here they’re arguably more trouble than they’re worth. The Hubble Space Telescope was repaired and refitted by astronauts five times during its 40-year lifetime — but at a total cost that would have paid for seven replacement telescopes.

Reading The End of Astronauts is like being told by an elderly parent, again and again, not to stick your butter-knife in the toaster. You had no intention of sticking your knife in the toaster. You know perfectly well not to stick your knife in the toaster. They only have to open their mouths, though, and you’re stabbing the toaster to death.

How to appropriate a plant

Visiting “Rooted Beings” at Wellcome Collection, London for the Telegraph, 24 March 2022

“Take a moment to draw a cosmic breath with your whole body, slower than any breath you have ever taken in your life.” Over headphones, Eduardo Navarro and philosopher Michael Marder guide my contemplation of Navarro’s drawings, where human figures send roots into the ground and reach with hands-made-leaves into the sky. They’re drawn with charcoal and natural pigments on envelopes containing the seeds of London plane trees. When the exhibition is over, the envelopes will be planted in a rite of burial and rebirth.

What are plants? Garden-centre curios? Magical objects? Medicines? Or trade goods? It’s hard for us to think of plants outside of the uses we put them to, and the five altars of Vegetal Matrix by Chilean artist Patricia Dominguez celebrate (if that is quite the word) their multiple social identities. One shrine contains a medicinal bark, quinine; in another, flowers of toxic Brugmansia, an assassin’s stock-in-trade; In the third sits a mandrake root, carved into the shape of a woman. Dominguez’s artistic research sits at the centre of a section of the exhibition entitled “Colonial violence and indigenous knowledge”.

Going by the show’s interpretative material, the narrowly extractive use of plants is a white western idea. But the most exciting exhibits reveal otherwise. From 400 CE there’s a fragment of the world’s earliest surviving herbal, painted on papyrus (we have always admired plants for what we could get out of them). Also from the Wellcome archives, there’s a complex map describing the vegetal “middle realm” of Jain cosmology — obviously a serious effort to establish an intellectual hold on the blooming and buzzing confusion of the plant world. Trees and their associated wildlife are reduced to deceptively simple and captivating shapes in the work on paper of the artist Joseca, whose people, the Yanomami, have been extracting foods and medicines from the Amazon rainforest for generations. His vivid plant portraits are not some classic Linnaean effort at the classification of species, but emotionally they’re not far off. Joseca is establishing categories, not tearing them down.

Bracketing the section about how imperial forces have “appropriated” useful plants (and thank goodness for that! cries the crabbed reviewer, thinking of his stomach as usual) are more introspective spaces. Ingela Ihrman’s enormous Passion Flower costume dominates the first room: time your visit just right, and you will find the artist inhabiting the flower, and may even get to drink her nectar. Not much less playful are the absurdist visions — in textile, embroidery and collage — of Gözde Ilkin, for whom categories (between human and plant, between plant and fungi) exist to be demolished, creating peculiar, and peculiarly endearing vegetal-anthropoid forms.

“Wilderness” is the theme of the final room. There’s real desperation in the RESOLVE Collective’s effort to knap and chisel their way towards a wild relationship with the urban environment. Made of broken masonry and pipework, crates and split paving slabs, this, perhaps, is a glimpse of the Hobbesian wilderness that civilisation keeps at bay.

Nearby, Den 3 is the artist SOP’s wry evocation of the old romantic mistake, cladding misanthropy in the motley of the greenwood. Rather than vegetate on the couch during the Covid-19 pandemic, SOP built a den in nearby woods and there enjoyed a sort of pint-size “Walden Pond” experience — until lockdown relaxed and others began visiting the wood.

At its simplest, Rooted Beings evokes a pleasant fantasy of human-vegetable co-existence. But forget its emolient exterior: at its best this show is deeply uncanny. The gulfs that exist between plant and animal, between species and species, between us and other, serve their own purposes, and attempts to do as Navarro and Marder suggest, and experience the world as a plant might experience it, are as likely to end in horror as in delight. “As you are very slowly dying while also staying alive,” they explain, “your body becomes the soil you are living in.” Crikey.

Strife, crime, depravity and recycled urine

Watching Rudolph Herzog’s Last Exit: Space for New Scientist, 16 March 2022

Documentary-maker Rudolph Herzog uses the likelihood (or otherwise) of humans colonising other worlds to structure this peculiar dash through the besetting space concerns of our day; for instance, how will we copulate in space? How much antimatter do we need for a journey to Proxima Centauri B? And how much extra skin do each of us need before it’s worth us bio-engineering human photosynthesis?

Closer to home — and here’s where Last Exit: Space begins — how will the first Martian colonists survive their cosmic ray-doused journey to the Red Planet? How will they stand a planetary surface ten times more radioactive than the surface of the Earth? And how will they survive each other’s company, hunkered down in sub-surface bunkers, “enjoying drinks of recycled urine”?

A traditional documentary might look for answers through the press offices of ESA or NASA. Not so Rudolph Herzog, whose father Werner, narrated and executive-produced this film. In signature Herzog style, Rudolph side-steps the pundits, and goes instead after people whose real lives are already shaped by the conundrums of space travel.

In the Negev desert, the Austrian Space Forum puts a not-too-sophisticated-looking Mars EVA suit through its paces. In Denmark, volunteers at Copenhagen Suborbitals build their first full-size rocket to propel one of their number past the Karman line and into the record books as the world’s first amateur astronaut.

Among the naysayers, space anthropologist Taylor Genovese compares the likely living conditions on Mars to working in an Amazon fulfilment centre, while Judith Lapierre, sole female crewmember of the Moscow Isolation Experiment in the late 1990s, explains how this study in close-proximity living ended with her alleging sexual harrassment against a Russian crewmember — which in turn seems to have led to her ostracism from the space community. If we can’t get along with each other on Earth, what chance do we have in space? Short of any number of technological miracles, a visit to another star will require a starship capable of supporting entire generations of human beings, such are the distances and journey times involved: Lapierre’s testimony suggests to the Herzogs that our spacefaring future will be one of “strife, crime and depravity”.

In that case, we might be better off staying put. This, surprisingly, is the advice of a cleric of the mystical Dawn Valley community in Planaltina, Brazil. The followers of former truck driver Tia Neiva believe they receive energies from visiting extraterrestrials from Capella. These same extraterrestrials advise against bodily journeys between the stars. As the cleric explains, since we evolved on this planet, we are hardly likely to thrive elsewhere.

Last Exit: Space pays a high price for its wide-eyed, catch-all approach to the subject; the lack of analysis on show here is frustrating. On the one hand we are regaled, yet again, with tales of “the human pioneering spirit” — as though humans were destined to explore and become somewhat less than human when not exploring. There’s really no anthropological evidence for this. Many is the culture that has stayed put and literally tended its own garden.

Set in false opposition to this straw man are an astonishing assortment of dystopian fantasies. Space corporations will control our water! Space corporations will control our air!

More likely, space corporations wielding mining robots will want as few people in space as possible. (While one isn’t obliged to mention robots in a movie of this sort, I’d contend that without them, it’s very hard indeed to say anything sensible about the economics of outer space.)

Astronaut Mike Foale and astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz provide the documentary with small but penetrating voices of calm. Space is an additional field of human endeavour, not an escape route lest the endeavour go wrong — say, by laying waste to the planet.

I’m as much of a space nut as anyone I know. But, to answer the question Werner Herzog poses at the beginning of his son’s charming, if somewhat unfocused documentary — “Do we need to seek our destiny among the stars?” — I do hope not.

Not quite a coincidence

Reading Antone Martinho-Truswell’s The Parrot in the Mirror for New Scientist, 9 March 2022

Organisms adapt over evolutionary time to their changing surroundings. This creates, over time, a living world of quite jaw-dropping diversity. It also generates some astonishing coincidences — if “coincidence” is quite the right word to describe how two quite unlike species, adapting to identical environments, end up looking and behaving the same. For instance, the pangolins of Africa and the armadilloes of South America look like close cousins; in fact they’re more closely related to humans than they are to each other.

Convergent evolution doesn’t have to be so visually obvious. Take humans and birds: few readers will take on trust Sydney-based zoologist Martinho-Truswell’s assertion that we “look like a strangely featherless bird”.

By the time I finished The Parrot in the Mirror, though, I found that image both compelling and reasonable. Martinho-Truswell explores the traits shared by humans and birds, from our unusual longevity to our advanced social skills, from our parenting styles to our intelligence and even our use of language. These, the author argues, are all extraordinary examples of convergent evolution at work.

Crudely, Martinho-Truswell’s argument goes like this:

Once birds could fly, they could elude almost all predators. And since they were unlikely to be eaten in any given year, it made sense for birds to go on living, producing more eggs and offspring. Increased longevity followed. With longevity came increased intelligence. Long-living animals need to be smart because they get to be the parents of young who develop over a longer period. And because longer development requires a bigger egg and a bigger yolk sac, and because an egg can only get so big, most birds hatch out very immature, helpless young, that require enormous amounts of care. This care is provided by pair bonded parents, sometimes supplemented by a larger community, hence the evolution of complex social behaviour and language (or song, at any rate).

The human story is a twisted mirror-image of the avian one. Communal behaviour among primates promoted the evolution of intelligence, and this reduced the likelihood of predation. Longevity followed, boosting intelligence further, to the point where big-brained human young have to be born immature and helpless so as not to kill their mothers in childbirth.

For different reasons, then, humans and birds evolved measurable intelligence. But how do we compare our abilities? Can we even talk about bird smarts and human smarts in the same sentence?

Martinho-Truswell’s handling of this subject is very well done. A balance has to be stuck between precision and imagination. On the one hand, a duckling’s ability to imprint upon its mother shortly after the moment of its birth puts it well ahead of chimpanzees, parrots, pigeons, crows and even human children, but this one hardwired ability doesn’t necessarily make the duckling more intelligent. On the other hand, it would be a dull observer indeed that did not see in Irene Pepperberg’s thirty-year study of language use in Alex, an African Grey parrot, quite staggering evidence of advanced cognition. (Alex not only asked questions; it asked them, and got annoyed if people offered dumb responses.)

Containing the niceties of convergent evolution in a straightforward narrative is not easy. Evolutionary causes and effects do not follow each other in neat, storybook fashion, and there’s always the temptation, reading this book, to take Martinho-Truswell’s acts of narrative shorthand at face value and suppose that humans, 50 million years behind parrots in the evolution of intelligence, somehow became more human by actually mimicking their distant avian cousins. (Distant cousins indeed, by the way: the last common ancestor of birds and mammals died out 320 million years ago.)

But it is surely better to be very slightly misled by a gripping story than to be bludgeoned by a dull one. Martinho-Truswell has written a superb introduction to a surprisingly complex and fraught field of study. Having read it, you will not look at yourself in the mirror in quite the same way.

 

How to prevent the future

Reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s How to Stay Smart in a Smart World for the Times, 26 February 2022

Some writers are like Moses. They see further than everybody else, have a clear sense of direction, and are natural leaders besides. These geniuses write books that show us, clearly and simply, what to do if we want to make a better world.

Then there are books like this one — more likeable, and more honest — in which the author stumbles upon a bottomless hole, sees his society approaching it, and spends 250-odd pages scampering about the edge of the hole yelling at the top of his lungs — though he knows, and we know, that society is a machine without brakes, and all this shouting comes far, far too late.

Gerd Gigerenzer is a German psychologist who has spent his career studying how the human mind comprehends and assesses risk. We wouldn’t have lasted even this long as a species if we didn’t negotiate day-to-day risks with elegance and efficiency. We know, too, that evolution will have forced us formulate the quickest, cheapest, most economical strategies for solving our problems. We call these strategies “heuristics”.

Heuristics are rules of thumb, developed by extemporising upon past experiences. They rely on our apprehension of, and constant engagement in, the world beyond our heads. We can write down these strategies; share them; even formalise them in a few lines of light-weight computer code.

Here’s an example from Gigerenzer’s own work: Is there more than one person in that speeding vehicle? Is it slowing down as ordered? Is the occupant posing any additional threat?

Abiding by the rules of engagement set by this tiny decision tree reduces civilian casualties at military checkpoints by more than sixty per cent.

We can apply heuristics to every circumstance we are likely to encounter, regardless of the amount of data available. The complex algorithms that power machine learning, on the other hand, “work best in well-defined, stable situations where large amounts of data are available”.

What happens if we decide to hurl 200,000 years of heuristics down the toilet, and kneel instead at the altar of occult computation and incomprehensibly big data?

Nothing good, says Gigerenzer.

How to Stay Smart is a number of books in one, none of which, on its own, is entirely satisfactory.

It is a digital detox manual, telling us how our social media are currently weaponised, designed to erode our cognition (but we can fill whole shelves with such books).

It punctures many a rhetorical bubble around much-vaunted “artificial intelligence”, pointing out how easy it is to, say, get a young man of colour charged without bail using proprietary risk-assessment software. (In some notorious cases the software had been trained on, and so was liable to perpetuate, historical injustices.) Or would you prefer to force an autonomous car to crash by wearing a certain kind of T-shirt? (Simple, easily generated pixel patterns cause whole classes of networks to draw bizarre inferential errors about the movement of surrounding objects.) This is enlightening stuff, or it would be, were the stories not quite so old.

One very valuable section explains why forecasts derived from large data sets become less reliable, the more data they are given. In the real world, problems are unbounded; the amount of data relevant to any problem is infinite. This is why past information is a poor guide to future performance, and why the future always wins. Filling a system with even more data about what used to happen will only bake in the false assumptions that are already in your system. Gigerenzer goes on to show how vested interests hide this awkward fact behind some highly specious definitions of what a forecast is.

But the most impassioned and successful of these books-within-a-book is the one that exposes the hunger for autocratic power, the political naivety, and the commercial chicanery that lie behind the rise of “AI”. (Healthcare AI is a particular bugbear: the story of how the Dutch Cancer Society was suckered into funding big data research, at the expense of cancer prevention campaigns that were shown to work, is especially upsetting).

Threaded through this diverse material is an argument Gigerenzer maybe should have made at the beginning: that we are entering a new patriarchal age, in which we are obliged to defer, neither to spiritual authority, nor to the glitter of wealth, but to unliving, unconscious, unconscionable systems that direct human action by aping human wisdom just well enough to convince us, but not nearly well enough to deliver happiness or social justice.

Gigerenzer does his best to educate and energise us against this future. He explains the historical accidents that led us to muddle cognition with computation in the first place. He tells us what actually goes on, computationally speaking, behind the chromed wall of machine-learning blarney. He explains why, no matter how often we swipe right, we never get a decent date; he explains how to spot fake news; and he suggests how we might claw our minds free of our mobile phones.

But it’s a hopeless effort, and the book’s most powerful passages explain exactly why it is hopeless.

“To improve the performance of AI,” Gigerenzer explains, “one needs to make the physical environment more stable and people’s behaviour more predictable.”

In China, the surveillance this entails comes wrapped in Confucian motley: under its social credit score system, sincerity, harmony and wealth creation trump free speech. In the West the self-same system, stripped of any ethic, is well advanced thanks to the efforts of the credit-scoring industry. One company, Acxiom, claims to have collected data from 700 million people worldwide, and up to 3000 data points for each individual (and quite a few are wrong).

That this bumper data harvest is an encouragement to autocratic governance hardly needs rehearsing, or so you would think.

And yet, in a 2021 study of 3,446 digital natives, 96 per cent “do not know how to check the trustworthiness of sites and posts.” I think Gigerenzer is pulling his punches here. What if, as seems more likely, 96 per cent of digital natives can’t be bothered to check the trustworthiness of sites and posts?

Asked by the author in a 2019 study how much they would be willing to spend each month on ad-free social media — that is, social media not weaponised against the user — 75 per cent of respondents said they would not pay a cent.

Have we become so trivial, selfish, short-sighted and penny-pinching that we deserve our coming subjection? Have we always been servile at heart, for all our talk of rights and freedoms; desperate for some grown-up come tug at our leash, and bring us to heal?

You may very well think so. Gigerenzer could not possibly comment. He does, though, remark that operant conditioning (the kind of learning explored in the 1940s by behaviourist B F Skinner, that occurs through rewards and punishments) has never enjoyed such political currency, and that “Skinner’s dream of a society where the behaviour of each member is strictly controlled by reward has become reality.”

How to Stay Smart in a Smart World is an optimistic title indeed for a book that maps, with passion and precision, a hole down which we are already plummeting.

Free the sea

Reading Chris Armstrong’s A Blue New Deal for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Chris Armstrong, a political theorist at the University of Southampton, believes that the institutions and laws that govern our oceans are too fragmented, too weak and too amenable to vested interests to address the inequalities that exist between developed and developing nations.

Nor, he says, do they protect the marine environment from destruction, and this at a time when there’s been a 30 per cent increase in ocean acidity (since 1900), when the global fishing effort has grown ninefold (between 1970 and 2008), and the globe’s pursuit of oil, gas and minerals is increasingly being directed off-shore.

Ocean governance has been shaped by two contrary impulses: the idea of the freedom of the high seas, given shape in Hugo Grotius’s The Free Sea of 1609; and the idea — rather more familiar to landlubbers — of enclosure, by which a coastal state is entitled to exclusive control and enjoyment of its immediate marine environment.

Grotius’s vision of oceanic free-for-all allows anyone with the wherewithal to exploit an ocean resource as much and as often as they desire. Armstrong allows that this was not entirely unreasonable, given the limited technology available at the time to even the wealthiest nations. Clearly, though, it needs reform for the 21st century, given only a handful of rich nations have access to the expensive technologies involved in sea-bed mining and mineral extraction.

Enclosure is perhaps the more recalcitrant tradition. The idea behind “territorial waters” is ancient, but Armstrong sensibly explains it by reference to the 1968 article by the ecologist Garrett Hardin, in which he claimed that “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.

The trouble is, this isn’t true. The historical record is full of examples of resources held in common, and governed equitably for hundreds of years. The much vaunted “tragedy of the commons” is a piece of rhetoric, not a proven truth. And as Armstrong rightly points out, “the real tragedy for individual ‘commoners’ was enclosure itself, which saw them being evicted from the land by wealthy landowners.”

In 1994, a new Convention on the Law of the Sea established Exclusive Economic Zones extending for 200 nautical miles from nearly every shore. Within these zones, resources are subject to the jurisdiction of the coastal state. By this myopic reasoning, landlocked countries were excluded from a share of the spoils of the sea. (This matters, as access to the sea is essential for economic health. Armstrong points out that 9 of the world’s 12 poorest countries are landlocked). It did nothing to prevent richer nations from licensing, on predatory terms, rights over the EEZs of countries too poor to exploit their own territory. And it gave every state-owned atoll, rock, and island an exclusive patch of sea to exploit, extending 200 miles in every direction. And which states own these rocks? Former colonial powers, of course. Thanks to the 1994 convention, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Australia now command the resources of more than 45 million square kilometres of ocean.

What can be done?

In 1959 a treaty established Antarctica as a place of peace and international cooperation — a commons in other words. Eight years later, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 did the same for the worlds beyond our own. So it is not beyond our legal capacities, Armstrong argues, to govern our oceans along principles of common management, benefit sharing, and even technology transfer between rich and poor nations.

Where Armstrong comes unstuck is in his ideas for enforcement. It’s all very well to dream up a “World Ocean Authority” whose deliberations no state would have the power to veto or depart from. But what omnipotent and omniscient power will drive all this selfless sharing, I wonder? Not, I would bet, the destitute seamen of the Gulf of Thailand; nor the blue whales and other non-human stakeholders of our increasingly stressed oceans.

Plastic astronauts

Watching Petrov’s Flu, directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Petrov (Semyon Serzin) is riding a trolleybus home across a snowbound Yekaterinburg when a fellow passenger mutters to a neighbour that the rich in this town deserve to be shot.

Seconds later the bus stops, Petrov is pulled off the bus and into the street, and a rifle is pressed into his hands. Street executions follow, shocking him out of his febrile doze—

And Petrov’s back on the trolley bus again.

Ambitious, mischievous, rich in allusions to Russian history, literature and cinema, Petrov’s Flu is also (lest we forget the obvious) a painfully precise, gut-wrenching depiction of what it’s like to run a high fever. Seeing the world through Petrov’s sick and disjointed point-of-view, we find the real world sliding away again and again, into often violent absurdity.

The worst is over. Petrov is on the mend. But it takes us the longest time before we can be confident that his friend, the drunken mischief-maker Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), is real, while Sergey (Ivan Dorn), the struggling writer pal who browbeats poor Petrov on every point (and is determined to achieve literary immortality through suicide), is a figment of Petrov’s own fever-wracked consciousness.

As Petrov’s fever breaks over the course of the film, fantasy and reality begin to separate, and what we might have feared was just a bag of bits (some tender, some shocking, all horribly entertaining) turns out to be a puzzle that, once complete, leaves us exhausted but eminently satisfied. Petrov turns out to be a comic-book writer, separated from his wife but still dedicated, as she is, to their son, who for his part is determined not to let his own fever stop him attending a kids’ New Year party.

Petrov’s Flu begins as a sci-fi movie. The whole city languishes under an epidemic that arrived accompanied by lights in the sky; Petrov’s wife (Chulpan Khamatova) is possessed by a demonic alien force during a library poetry reading; here and there, UFO-themed street graffiti come to life and wiggle across the screen.

As reality and hallucination part company, however, it becomes something different: a film about parents and children; about creative work, pretension and ambition; also, strongly, about Russia’s love of science fiction.

At its birth, western science fiction, and especially American science fiction, celebrated adventure and exploration. Russian sf has always been more about finding and building homes in a hostile environment. (The film’s location here is apposite: wintry Yeketerinburg, just east of the Urals, may as well be on the moon.) Russian sf is also strongly religious in spirit — and was indeed for many years one of Russia’s very few outlets for spiritual feeling, under a regime devoted (often brutally) to the suppression of religion.

The aliens in Russian sf invariably offer some form of redemption to a struggling humanity, and Petrov’s Flu, for all its iconoclasm and mischief, is no different. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Petrov, mad with fear, in dashing with his son to a local hospital, when the pair are intercepted by a kindly UFO.

Such are Petrov’s fever dreams, coloured by his space-crazy childhood and his adult career drawing comic books. At one point he remembers his mum and dad decorating a Christmas tree with festive plastic astronauts; Petrov’s possessed wife, meanwhile, pursues her latest hapless victim among the climbing-frame rockets and spaceships of a delipidated playground.

Fans of Andrei Tarkovsky (director of sf classics Solaris and Stalker) will enjoy director Kirill Serebrennikov’s knowing nods to key moments in those films. But it would be a mistake, I think, to watch this film purely for the in-jokes. True, Petrov’s Flu is shocking and funny contribution to Russia’s centuries-old tradition of absurdist literature. But it’s also a film about people, not to mention an extraordinary evocation of febrile delirium, and its assault on the mind.