All fall down

Talking to Scott Grafton about his book Physical Intelligence (Pantheon), 10 March 2020.

“We didn’t emerge as a species sitting around.”

So says University of California neuroscientist Scott Grafton in the introduction to his provoking new book Physical Intelligence. In it, Grafton assembles and explores all the neurological abilities that we take for granted — “simple” skills that in truth can only be acquired with time, effort and practice. Perceiving the world in three dimensions is one such skill; so is steadily carrying a cup of tea.

At UCLA, Grafton began his career mapping brain activity using positron emission tomography, to see how the brain learns new motor skills and recovers from injury or neurodegeneration. After a career developing new scanning techniques, and a lifetime’s walking, wild camping and climbing, Grafton believes he’s able to trace the neural architectures behind so-called “goal-directed behavior” — the business of how we represent and act physically in the world.

Grafton is interested in all those situations where “smart talk, texting, virtual goggles, reading, and rationalizing won’t get the job done” — those moments when the body accomplishes a complex task without much, if any, conscious intervention.. A good example might be bagging groceries. Suppose you are packing six different items into two bags. There are 720 possible ways to do this, and — assuming that like most people you want heavy items on the bottom, fragile items on the top, and cold items together — more than 700 of the possible solutions are wrong. And yet we almost always pack things so they don’t break or spoil, and we almost never have to agonise over the countless micro-decisions required to get the job done.

The grocery-bagging example is trivial, but often, what’s at stake in a task is much more serious — crossing the road, for example — and sometimes the experience required to accomplish it is much harder to come by. A keen hiker and scrambler, Grafton studs his book with first-hand accounts, at one point recalling how someone peeled off the side of a snow bank in front of him, in what escalated rapidly into a ghastly climbing accident. “At the spot where he fell,” he writes, “all I could think was how senseless his mistake had been. It was a steep section but entirely manageable. Knowing just a little bit more about how to use his ice axe, he could have readily stopped himself.”

To acquire experience, we have to have experiences. To acquire life-saving skills, we have to risk our lives. The temptation, now that we live most of our lives in urban comfort, is to create a world safe enough that we don’t need expose ourselves to such risks, or acquire such skills.

But this, Grafton tells me, when we speak on the phone, would be a big mistake. “If all you ever are walking on is a smooth, nice sidewalk, the only thing you can be graceful on is that sidewalk, and nothing else,” he explains. “And that sets you up for a fall.”

He means this literally: “The number one reason people are in emergency rooms is from what emergency rooms call ‘ground-level falls’. I’ve seen statistics which show that more and more of us are falling over for no very good reason. Not because we’re dizzy. Not because we’re weak. But because we’re inept. ”

For more than 1.3 million years of evolutionary time, hominids have lived without pavements or chairs, handling an uneven and often unpredictable environment. We evolved to handle a complex world, and a certain amount of constant risk. “Very enriched physical problem solving, which requires a lot of understanding of physical relationships, a lot of motor control, and some deftness in putting all those understandings together — all the while being constantly challenged by new situations — I believe this is really what drives brain networks towards better health,” Grafton says.

Our chat turns speculative. The more we removed risks and challenges from our everyday environment, Grafton suggests, the more we’re likely to want to complicate and add problems to the environment, to create challenges for ourselves that require the acquisition of unusual motor skills. Might this be a major driver behind cultural activities like music-making, craft and dance?

Speculation is one thing; serious findings are another. At the moment, Grafton is gathering medical and social data to support an anecdotal observation of his: that the experience of walking in the wild not only improves our motor abilities, but also promotes our mental health.

“A friend of mine runs a wilderness programme in the Sierra Nevada for at-risk teenagers,” he explains, “and one of the things he does is to teach them how to get by for a day or two in the wilderness, on their own. It’s life-transforming. They come out of there owning their choices and their behaviour. Essentially, they’ve grown up.”

Over-performing human

Talking to choreographer Alexander Whitley for the Financial Times,  28 February 2020

On a dim and empty stage, six masked black-clad dancers, half-visible, their limbs edged in light, run through attitude after attitude, emotion after emotion. Above the dancers, a long tube of white light slowly rises, falls, tips and circles, drawing the dancers’ limbs and faces towards itself like a magnet. Under its variable cold light, movements become more expressive, more laden with emotion, more violent.

Alexander Whitley, formerly of the Royal Ballet School and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is six years into a project to expand the staging of dance with new media. He has collaborated with filmmakers, designers, digital artists and composers. Most of all, he has played games with light.

The experiments began with The Measures Taken, in 2014. Whitley used motion-tracking technology to project visuals that interacted with the performers’ movements. Then, dissatisfied with the way the projections obscured the dancers, in 2018 he used haze and narrowly focused bars of light to create, for Strange Stranger, a virtual “maze” in which his dancers found themselves alternately liberated and constrained.

At 70 minutes Overflow, commissioned by Sadler’s Wells Theatre, represents a massive leap in ambition. With several long-time collaborators — in particular the Dutch artist-designers Children of the Light — Whitley has worked out how to reveal, to an audience sat just a few feet away, exactly what he wants them to see.

Whitley is busy nursing Overflow up to speed in time for its spring tour. The company begin with a night at the Lowry in Salford on 18 March, before performing at Sadler’s Wells on 17 and 18 April.

Overflow, nearly two years in the making, has consumed money as well as time. The company is performing at Stereolux in Nantes in April and will need more overseas bookings if it is to flourish. “There’s serious doubt about the status of the UK and UK touring companies now,” says Whitley (snapping at my cheaply dangled Brexit bait); “I hope there’s enough common will to build relationships in spite of the political situation.”

It is easy to talk politics with Whitley (he is very well read), but his dances are anything but mere vehicles for ideas. And while Overflow is a political piece by any measure — a survey of our spiritual condition under survellance capitalism, for heaven’s sake — its effects are strikingly classical. It’s not just the tricksy lighting that has me thinking of the figures on ancient Greek vases. It’s the dancers themselves and their clean, elegant, tragedian’s gestures.

A dancer kneels, and takes hold of his head. He tilts it up into the light as it turns and tilts, inches from his face, and, in a shocking piece of trompe l’ioel — can he really be pulling his face apart?

Overflow is about our relationship to the machines that increasingly govern our lives. But there’s not a hint of regimentation here, or mechanisation. These dancers are not trying to perform machine. They’re trying to perform human.

Whitley laughs at this observation. “I guess, as far as that goes, they’re over-performing human. They’re caught up in the excitement and hyper-stimulation of their activity. Which is exactly how we interact with social media. We’re being hyperstimulated into excessive activity. Keep scrolling, keep consuming, keep engaging!”

It was an earlier piece, 2016’s Pattern Recognition, that set Whitley on the road to Overflow. “I’d decided to have the lights moving around the stage, to give us the sense of depth we’d struggled to achieve in The Measures Taken. But very few people I talked to afterwards realised or understood that our mobile stage lights were being driven by real-time tracking. They thought you could achieve what we’d achieved just through choreography. At which point a really obvious insight arrived: that interactivity is interesting, first and foremost, for the actor involved in the interaction.”

In Overflow, that the audience feels left out is no longer a technical problem: it’s the whole point of the piece. “We’re all watching things we shouldn’t be watching, somehow, through social media and the internet,” says Whitley. “That the world has become so revealed is unpleasant. It’s over-exposed us to elements of human nature that should perhaps remain private. But we’re all bound up in it. Even if we’re not doing it, we’re watching it.”

The movements of the ensemble in Overflow are the equivalent of emoji: “I was interested in how we could think of human emotions just as bits of data,” Whitley explains. In the 1980s a psychologist called Robert Plutchik stated that there were eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. “We stuck pins at random into this wheel chart he invented, choosing an emotion at random, and from that creating an action that somehow embodied or represented it. And the incentive was to do so as quickly and concisely as possible, and as soon it’s done, choose another one. So the dancers are literally jumping at random between all these different human emotions. It’s not real communication, just an outpouring of emotional information.”

The solos are built using material drawn from each dancer’s movement diary. “The dancers made diary entries, which I then filmed, based on how they were feeling each day. They’re movement dairies: personal documents of their emotional lives, which I then chopped up and jumbled around and gave back to them as a video to learn.”

In Whitley’s vision, the digital realm isn’t George Orwell’s Big Brother, dictating our every move from above. It’s more like the fox and the cat in the Pinnochio story, egging a naive child into the worst behaviours, all in the name of independence and free expression. “Social media encourage us to act more, to feel more, to express more, because the more we do that, the more capital they can generate from our data, and the more they can understand and predict what we’re likely to do next.”

This is where the politics comes in: the way “emotion, which incidentally is the real currency of dance, is now the major currency of the digital economy”.

It’s been a job of work, packing such cerebral content into an emotional form like dance. But Whitley says it’s what keeps him working, ” that sheer impossibility of pinning down ideas that otherwise exist almost entirely in words. As soon as you scratch the surface, you realise there’s huge amount of communication always at work through the body and drawing ideas from a more cerebral world into the physical, into the emotional, is a constant fascination. There are lifetimes of enquiry here. It’s what keeps me coming back.”

Nicholas, c’est moi

Watching Color Out of Space for New Scientist, 12 February 2020

Nicholas Cage’s efforts to clear his debts after 2012’s catastrophic run-in with the IRS continue with yet another relatively low-budget movie, Color Out of Space, a film no-one expects much of. (It’s in US cinemas now; by the time it reaches UK screens, on 28 February, it will already be available on Blu-Ray.)

Have you ever watched a bad film and found yourself dreaming about it months afterwards? Color Out of Space is one of those.

To begin: in March 1927 the author H. P Lovecraft wrote what would become his personal favourite story. In “The Color Out of Space”, a meteor crashes into a farmer’s field in the Massachusetts hills. The farmer’s crops grow huge, but prove inedible. His livestock go mad. So, in the end, does the farmer, haunted by a colour given off by a visiting presence in the land: a glow that belongs on no ordinary spectrum.

This is Lovecraft’s riff on a favourite theme of fin-de-siecle science fiction: the existence of new rays, and with them, new ways of seeing. The 1890s and 1900s were, after all, radiant years. Victor Schumann discovered ultraviolet radiation in 1893. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1896. J. J. Thomson discovered that cathode rays were streams of electrons in 1897. Prosper-René Blondlot discovered N-rays in 1903 — only they turned out not to exist: an artefact of observational error and wishful thinking.

And this is pretty much what the local media assume has happened when Nathan Gardner, the not-very-effective head of a household that is downsizing after unspecified health problems and financial setbacks, describes the malevolent light he catches spilling at odd moments from his well. The man’s a drunk, is what people assume. A fantasist. An eccentric.

The film is yet another attempt to fuse American Gothic to a contemporary setting. Director Richard Stanley (who brough us 1990’s Hardware, another valuable bad movie) has written a script that, far from smoothing out the discrepancies between modern and pre-modern proprieties, manners, and ways of speaking, leaves them jangling against each other in a way that makes you wonder What On Earth Is Going On.

And what is going on, most of the time, is Nicholas Cage as Gardner. Has anyone before or since conveyed so raucously and yet so well the misery, the frustration, the rage, the self-hatred of weak men? Every time he gets into a fist-fight with a car interior I think to myself, Ah, Nicholas, c’est moi.

Even better, Cage’s on-screen wife here is Joely Richardson, an actress who packs a lifetime’s disappointments into a request to pass the sugar.

Alien life is not like earth life and to confront it is to invite madness, is the general idea. But with tremendous support from on-screen children Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer, Cage and Richardson turn what might have been a series of uninteresting personal descents into a family tragedy of Jacobean proportions. If ever hell were other people, then at its deepest point you would find the Gardner family, sniping at each other across the dinner table.

Color Out of Space mashes up psychological drama, horror, and alien invasion. It’s not a film you admire. It’s a film you get into internal arguments with, as you try and sort all the bits out. In short, it does exactly what it set out to do. It sticks.

An embarrassment, a blowhard, a triumph

Watching Star Trek: Picard for New Scientist, 24 January 2020

Star Trek first appeared on television on 8 September 1966. It has been fighting the gravitational pull of its own nostalgia ever since – or at least since the launch of the painfully careful spin-off Star Trek: The Next Generation 21 years later.

The Next Generation was the series that gave us shipboard counselling (a questionable idea), a crew that liked each other (a catastrophically mistaken idea) and Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, who held the entire farrago together, pretty much single-handed, for seven seasons.

Now Picard is back, retired, written off, an embarrassment and a blowhard. And Star Trek: Picard is a triumph, praise be.

Something horrible has happened to the “synthetics” (read: robots) who, in the person of Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner, returning briefly here) once promised so much for the Federation. Science fiction’s relationship with its metal creations is famously fraught: well thought-through robot revolt provided the central premise for Battlestar Galactica and Westworld, while Dune, reinvented yet again later this year as a film by Blade Runner 2049‘s Denis Villeneuve, is set in a future that abandoned artificial intelligence following a cloudy but obviously dreadful conflict.

And there is a perfectly sound reason for this mayhem. After all, any machine flexible enough to do what a robot is expected to do is going to be flexible enough to down tools – or worse. What Picard‘s take on this perennial problem will be isn’t yet clear, but the consequences of all the Federation’s synthetics going haywire is painfully felt: it has all but abandoned its utopian remit. It is now just one more faction in a fast-moving, galaxy-wide power arena (echoes of the Trump presidency and its consequences are entirely intentional).

Can Picard, the last torchbearer of the old guard, bring the Federation back to virtue? One jolly well hopes so, and not too quickly, either. Picard is, whatever else we may say about it, a great deal of fun.

There are already some exciting novelties, though the one I found most intriguing may turn out to be a mere artefact of getting the show off the ground. Picard’s world – troubled by bad dreams quite as much as it is enabled by world-shrinking technology – is oddly surreal, discontinuous in ways that aren’t particularly confusing but do jar here and there.

Is the Star Trek franchise finally getting to grips with the psychological consequences of its mastery of time and space? Or did the producers simply shove as much plot as possible into the first episode to get the juggernaut rolling? The latter seems more likely, but I hold out hope.

The new show bears its burden of twaddle. The first episode features a po-faced analysis of Data’s essence. No, really. His essence. That’s a thing, now. How twaddle became an essential ingredient on The Next Generation – and now possibly Picard – is a mystery: the original Star Trek never felt the need to saddle itself with such single-use, go-nowhere nonsense. But by now, like a hold full of tribbles, the twaddle seems impossible to shake off (Star Trek: Discovery, I’m looking at you).

Oh, but why cavil? Stewart brings a new vulnerability and even a hint of bitterness to grit his seemlessly fluid recreation of Picard, and the story promises an exciting and fairly devastating twist to the show’s old political landscape. Picard, growing old disgracefully? Oh, please make it so!

“I heard the rustling of the dress for two whole hours”

By the end of the book I had come to understand why kindness and cruelty cannot vanquish each other, and why, irrespective of our various ideas about social progress, our sexual and gender politics will always teeter, endlessly and without remedy, between “Orwellian oppression and the Hobbesian jungle”…

Reading Strange Antics: A history of seduction by Clement Knox, 1 February 2020

“So that’s how the negroes of Georgia live!”

Visiting W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives, at the House of Illustration, London, for the Spectator, 25 January 2020

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Massachusetts in 1868, three years after the official end of slavery in the United States. He grew up among a small, tenacious business- and property-owning black middle class who had their own newspapers, their own schools and universities, their own elected officials.

After graduating with a PhD in history from Harvard University, Du Bois embarked on a sprawling study of African Americans living in Philadelphia. At the historically black Atlanta University in 1897, he established international credentials as a pioneer of the newfangled science of sociology. His students were decades ahead of their counterparts in the Chicago school.

In the spring of 1899, Du Bois’s son Burghardt died, succumbing to sewage pollution in the Atlanta water supply. ‘The child’s death tore our lives in two,’ Du Bois later wrote. His response: ‘I threw myself more completely into my work.’

A former pupil, the black lawyer Thomas Junius Calloway, thought that Du Bois was just the man to help him mount an exhibition to demonstrate the progress that had been made by African Americans. Funded by Congress and planned for the Paris Exposition of 1900, the project employed around a dozen clerks, students and former students to assemble and run ‘the great machinery of a special census’.

Two studies emerged. ‘The Georgia Negro’, comprising 32 handmade graphs and charts, captured a living community in numbers: how many black children were enrolled in public schools, how far family budgets extended, what people did for work, even the value of people’s kitchen furniture.

The other, a set of about 30 statistical graphics, was made by students at Atlanta University and considered the African American population of the whole of the United States. Du Bois was struck by the fact that the illiteracy of African Americans was ‘less than that of Russia, and only equal to that of Hungary’. A chart called ‘Conjugal Condition’ suggests that black Americans were more likely to be married than Germans.

The Exposition Universelle of 1900 brought all the world to the banks of the Seine. Assorted Africans, shipped over for the occasion, found themselves in model native villages performing bemused and largely made-up rituals for the visitors. (Some were given a truly lousy time by their bosses; others lived for the nightlife.) Meanwhile, in a theatre made of plaster and drapes, the Japanese geisha Sada Yacco, wise to this crowd from her recent US tour, staged a theatrical suicide for herself every couple of hours.

The expo also afforded visitors more serious windows on the world. Du Bois scraped together enough money to travel steerage to Paris to oversee his exhibition’s installation at the Palace of Social Economy.

He wasn’t overly impressed by the competition. ‘There is little here of the “science of society”,’ he remarked, and the organisers of the Exposition may well have agreed with him: they awarded him a gold medal for what Du Bois called, with justifiable pride, ‘an honest, straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves’.

At the House of Illustration in London you too can now follow the lines, bars and spirals that reveal how black wealth, literacy and land ownership expanded over the four decades since emancipation.

His exhibition also included what he called ‘the usual paraphernalia for catching the eye — photographs, models, industrial work, and pictures’, so why did Du Bois include so many charts, maps and diagrams?

The point about data is that it looks impersonal. It is a way of separating your argument from what people think of you, and this makes it a powerful weapon in the hands of those who find themselves mistrusted in politics and wider society. Du Bois and his community, let’s not forget, were besieged — by economic hardship, and especially by the Jim Crow laws that would outlive him by two years (he died in 1963).

Du Bois pioneered sociology, not statistics. Means of visualising data had entered academia more than a century before, through the biographical experiments of Joseph Priestly. His timeline charts of people’s lives and relative lifespans had proved popular, inspiring William Playfair’s invention of the bar chart. Playfair, an engineer and political economist, published his Commercial and Political Atlas in London in 1786. It was the first major work to contain statistical graphs. More to the point, it was the first time anyone had tried to visualise an entire nation’s economy.

Statistics and their graphic representation were quickly established as an essential, if specialised, component of modern government. There was no going back. Metrics are a self-fertilising phenomenon. Arguments over figures, and over the meaning of figures, can only generate more figures. The French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard used charts in the 1840s to work out how to monetise freight on the newfangled railroads, then, in retirement, and for a hobby, used two colours and six dimensions of data to visualise Napoleon’s invasion and retreat during the 1812 campaign of Russia.

And where society leads, science follows. John Snow founded modern epidemiology when his annotated map revealed the source of an outbreak of cholera in London’s Soho. English nurse Florence Nightingale used information graphics to persuade Queen Victoria to improve conditions in military hospitals.

Rightly, we care about how accurate or misleading infographics can be. But let’s not forget that they should be beautiful. The whole point of an infographic is, after all, to capture attention. Last year, the House of Illustration ran a tremendous exhibition of the work of Marie Neurath who, with her husband Otto, dreamt up a way of communicating, without language, by means of a system of universal symbols. ‘Words divide, pictures unite’ was the slogan over the door of their Viennese design institute. The couple’s aspirations were as high-minded as their output was charming. The Neurath stamp can be detected, not just in kids’ picture books, but across our entire designscape.

Infographics are prompts to the imagination. (One imagines at least some of the 50 million visitors to the Paris Expo remarking to each other, ‘So that’s how the negroes of Georgia live!’) They’re full of facts, but do they convey them more effectively than language? I doubt it. Where infographics excel is in eliciting curiosity and wonder. They can, indeed, be downright playful, as when Fritz Kahn, in the 1920s, used fast trains, street traffic, dancing couples and factory floors to describe, by visual analogy, the workings of the human body.

Du Bois’s infographics aren’t rivals to Kahn or the Neuraths. Rendered in ink, gouache watercolour and pencil, they’re closer in spirit to the hand-drawn productions of Minard and Snow. They’re the meticulous, oh-so-objective statements of a proud, decent, politically besieged people. They are eloquent in their plainness, as much as in their ingenuity, and, given a little time and patience, they prove to be quite unbearably moving.

“If we’re going to die, at least give us some tits”

The Swedes are besieging the city of Brno. A bit of Googling reveals the year to be 1645. Armed with pick and shovel, the travelling entertainer Tyll Ulenspiegel is trying to undermine the Swedish redoubts when the shaft collapses, plunging him and his fellow miners into utter darkness. It’s difficult to establish even who is still alive and who is dead. “Say something about arses,” someone begs the darkness. “Say something about tits. If we’re going to die, at least give us some tits…”

Reading Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll for the Times, 25 January 2020

 

“Me, Washoe”

Watching Nick Lehane: Chimpanzee  at Barbican Centre, London
for New Scientist, 20 January 2020

The puppet, a life-sized female chimpanzee, is made out of wood, rope, carved hard foam and paper mâché. She gazes out at the audience from a raised platform and, through movement alone, weaves her tale. When she was young, she lived as part of a human family. Now she is incarcerated in a research laboratory, deprived of company, her mind slowly deteriorating.

Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman operate the chimpanzee, the sole actor in a puppet play running at the Barbican Centre in London. The play, Chimpanzee, by Brooklyn-based actor and puppeteer Nick Lehane, is a highlight of 2020’s London International Mime Festival. It is a moving story that is attracting attention from neurologists and cognitive scientists along with the usual performing-arts crowd.

Lehane conceived the show after reading Next of Kin, a memoir by psychologist and primate researcher Roger Fouts. Fouts’s tales of experiments in fostering young chimpanzees in human homes had obvious dramatic potential. Then, as Lehane looked deeper, he discovered a much darker story.

The Fouts family’s own chimps enjoyed a relatively comfortable life once they outgrew their human home. But other chimpanzees in similar programmes found themselves sold to research labs, living out almost inconceivably solitary lives of confinement and vivisection.

Modern efforts to communicate with chimpanzees began in 1967 at the University of Nevada, Reno, when primatologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner set up a project to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to a chimp called Washoe. These experiments have so transformed our view of chimp culture that many of the original researchers are campaigning to end the practice of keeping primates in captivity. (It is still legal to keep primates as pets in the UK.)

Chimpanzee vocalisations aren’t under conscious control, but the apes can communicate using body gestures. “This happens naturally in the wild,” says Mary Lee Jensvold, who advised Nick Lehane on his play. A former student of Roger Fouts, she too campaigns to end primate captivity. “And because chimps live in communities that are relatively closed and quite aggressive with each other, each community has its own repertoire of gestures. Where there’s some overlap, there are differences in how the gestures are articulated.”

In other words, each community speaks in its own accent, and this, says Jensvold, “really speaks to chimpanzees being cultural beings“.

As the sign-language studies grew more ambitious, the Gardners and their colleagues Roger and Deborah Fouts took the chimps into their own homes, acculturating them as humans as far they could to encourage communication.

The obvious question – what is it like growing up in a family that contains chimpanzees? – is the only question Roger Fouts’s son Joshua struggles to answer: “The reality is it’s all I knew.” Joshua, now a media scholar, was raised in a family whose rituals involved members that weren’t human, whose human members would sign to each other so the chimpanzees wouldn’t feel left out of the conversation, and the experience has left him with a profound sense that every non-human has inherent sapience. “When I’m walking down the sidewalk, and I see a human walking with their dog,” he says, “I tend to greet the dog.”

Roger Fouts and his colleagues found that their animals used ASL to communicate with each other, creating phrases by combining signs to denote novel objects.

Washoe was the first chimpanzee to wield ASL in a convincing fashion. Others followed: when Washoe’s mate Moja didn’t know the word for “thermos”, he referred to it as a “metal cup drink”. When Washoe was shown an image of herself in the mirror, and asked what she was seeing, she replied: “Me, Washoe.”

The researchers could hardly credit what they were seeing – and some of their peers still don’t. Jensvold believes there may be a cultural conflict at work. “In the US, comparative psychology has historically been a very lab-based science, where you set up these contrived experiments in order to answer your research questions,” she says. “Out of Europe comes an ethological approach, which is really more about taking the time to observe.”

The sign language research has drawn Jensvold and her colleagues into animal welfare and protection. “We can’t keep doing to them what we’ve been doing,” she says.

Joshua recalls the moment his father reached the same conclusion: “About midway through his career, Roger realised that this was an experiment that should never have been done. Out of the desire to determine what it is about humans that makes us special, we’ve effectively condemned these chimpanzees to a life of incarceration. They’re enculturated to our behaviours. They can never be reintroduced to the wild.”

There are no captive chimps in New York, so Nick Lehane’s research for his play consisted almost entirely of watching videos. According to Jensvold, he couldn’t have picked a better form of study. “With video tape,” she says, “you can take close observation down to a minute level.”

By the time Jensvold got involved in Lehane’s project, there was already a performance ready for her to judge. For Lehane, that was a heart-in-mouth moment: “I was afraid that despite our best efforts, we had missed the mark. If anyone was going to think that we had missed something vital about chimp movement or behaviour, it would be Mary Lee.”

He needn’t have worried. “Chimpanzee was phenomenal,” says Jensvold. “I was spotting things that I knew other people in the audience, people who weren’t experts, weren’t going to notice. He captured these incredible nuances.” She pauses: “So the level of suffering that he’s depicting: he gets that right, too.”

How does Lehane’s chimpanzee convey emotion, given that chimp and human expressions don’t overlap at all precisely?

“A lot of it is in the miming of breath patterns,” says Lehane. “Short little pants and hoots look happy; deep intense heaves and cough will register as a different emotion.”

“One of the things I think is so cool about puppetry is that the audience fills in so many blanks,” he says. “I can’t tell you the number of times that someone has said, ‘How did you make the puppet cry?’ ‘How did you make the puppet frown?’ ‘I loved it when the puppet blinked!’ It tickles me because I just didn’t do any of those things.”

Is there a danger here that the audience is merely anthropomorphising his subject, interpreting his chimpanzee as little more than a funny-shaped human?

In answer, Lehane quotes primatologist Frans de Waal: “To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”

 

Cutting up the sky

Reading A Scheme of Heaven: Astrology and the Birth of Science by Alexander Boxer
for the Spectator, 18 January 2020

Look up at sky on a clear night. This is not an astrological game. (Indeed, the experiment’s more impressive if you don’t know one zodiacal pattern from another, and rely solely on your wits.) In a matter of seconds, you will find patterns among the stars.

We can pretty much apprehend up to five objects (pennies, points of light, what-have-you) at a single glance. Totting up more than five objects, however, takes work. It means looking for groups, lines, patterns, symmetries, boundaries.

The ancients cut up the sky into figures, all those aeons ago, for the same reason we each cut up the sky within moments of gazing at it: because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend the sky at all.

Our pattern-finding ability can get out of hand. During his Nobel lecture in 1973 the zoologist Konrad Lorenz recalled how he once :”… mistook a mill for a sternwheel steamer. A vessel was anchored on the banks of the Danube near Budapest. It had a little smoking funnel and at its stern an enormous slowly-turning paddle-wheel.”

Some false patterns persist. Some even flourish. And the brighter and more intellectually ambitious you are, the likelier you are to be suckered. John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court philosopher, owned the country’s largest library (it dwarfed any you would find at Oxford or Cambridge). His attempt to tie up all that knowledge in a single divine system drove him into the arms of angels — or at any rate, into the arms of the “scrier” Edward Kelley, whose prodigious output of symbolic tables of course could be read in such a way as to reveal fragments of esoteric wisdom.

This, I suspect, is what most of us think about astrology: that it was a fanciful misconception about the world that flourished in times of widespread superstition and ignorance, and did not, could not, survive advances in mathematics and science.

Alexander Boxer is out to show how wrong that picture is, and A Scheme of Heaven will make you fall in love with astrology, even as it extinguishes any niggling suspicion that it might actually work.

Boxer, a physicist and historian, kindles our admiration for the earliest astronomers. My favourite among his many jaw-dropping stories is the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. This is the process by which the sun, each mid-spring and mid-autumn, rises at a fractionally different spot in the sky each year. It takes 26,000 years to make a full revolution of the zodiac — a tiny motion first detected by Hipparchus around 130 BC. And of course Hipparchus, to make this observation at all, “had to rely on the accuracy of stargazers who would have seemed ancient even to him.”

In short, a had a library card. And we know that such libraries existed because the “astronomical diaries” from the Assyrian library at Nineveh stretch from 652BC to 61BC, representing possibly the longest continuous research program ever undertaken in human history.

Which makes astrology not too shoddy, in my humble estimation. Boxer goes much further, dubbing it “the ancient world’s most ambitious applied mathematics problem.”

For as long as lives depend on the growth cycles of plants, the stars will, in a very general sense, dictate the destiny of our species. How far can we push this idea before it tips into absurdity? The answer is not immediately obvious, since pretty much any scheme we dream up will fit some conjunction or arrangement of the skies.

As civilisations become richer and more various, the number and variety of historical events increases, as does the chance that some event will coincide with some planetary conjunction. Around the year 1400, the French Catholic cardinal Pierre D’Ailly concluded his astrological history of the world with a warning that the Antichrist could be expected to arrive in the year 1789, which of course turned out to be the year of the French revolution.

But with every spooky correlation comes an even larger horde of absurdities and fatuities. Today, using a machine-learning algorithm, Boxer shows that “it’s possible to devise a model that perfectlly mimics Bitcoin’s price history and that takes, as its input data, nothing more than the zodiac signs of the planets on any given day.”

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem explored this territory in his novel The Chain of Chance: “We now live in such a dense world of random chance,” he wrote in 1975, “in a molecular and chaotic gas whose ‘improbabilities’ are amazing only to the individual human atoms.” And this, I suppose, is why astrology eventually abandoned the business of describing whole cultures and nations (a task now handed over to economics, another largely ineffectual big-number narrative) and now, in its twilight, serves merely to gull individuals.

Astrology, to work at all, must assume that human affairs are predestined. It cannot, in the long run, survive the notion of free will. Christianity did for astrology, not because it defeated a superstition, but because it rendered moot astrology’s iron bonds of logic.

“Today,” writes Boxer, “there’s no need to root and rummage for incidental correlations. Modern machine-learning algorithms are correlation monsters. They can make pretty much any signal correlate with any other.”

We are bewitched by big data, and imagine it is something new. We are ever-indulgent towards economists who cannot even spot a global crash. We credulously conform to every algorithmically justified norm. Are we as credulous, then, as those who once took astrological advice as seriously as a medical diagnosis? Oh, for sure.

At least our forebears could say they were having to feel their way in the dark. The statistical tools you need to sort real correlations from pretty patterns weren’t developed until the late nineteenth century. What’s our excuse?

“Those of us who are enthusiastic about the promise of numerical data to unlock the secrets of ourselves and our world,” Boxer writes, “would do well simply to acknowledge that others have come this way before.”

Can you use a bottle opener?

Visiting the Baltic in Gateshead for Animalesque: Art across species and beings.
For New Scientist, 15 January 2020.

EXHIBITIONS about our relationship with the environment tend to be bombastic. Either they preach doom and destruction, or they reckon our children will soon be living lives of plenty on artificial atolls.

Animalesque at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK, knows better than this. In an international selection of art, sculpture and film, curator Filipa Ramos points out how little we know about other species, and how much we might still learn. With this humility comes hope that we can reform our relations with Earth.

Research has a major role to play, but it can only go so far. One unassuming TV monitor is screening a video from Tupilakosaurus, a long-running project by Danish-Greenlandic artist Pia Arke. It is a telling but not unsympathetic satirical film, in which examinations of a fossil dinosaur throw up folk tales, mangled histories and surreal mountains of paperwork as researchers try to represent and classify the Arctic’s life and history.

Often, we find out about other species only as we are evicting and replacing them. This happened to the Malayan tiger, which now numbers just some 300 wild cats in the Malay Peninsula. 2 or 3 Tigers (2015) by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen is a 19-minute, two- screen video, made using CGI and some very dodgy operatic singing, about the were-tigers of Malayan folklore. As ancestors, companions, competitors, protectors, destroyers and gods, tigers were central to the indigenous culture. Western settlers couldn’t find any there, however, until one sprang out of the forest in 1835 and attacked a hapless surveyor’s theodolite.

Our most stable cross-species relationships are with domesticated animals, even if they are sometimes discomforting or guilt-ridden affairs. In French artist Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), a macaque explores an abandoned restaurant in Fukushima, Japan, an area gutted by the 2011 tsunami. Identifying the species of our protagonist takes a while. You would be forgiven for thinking you were watching a girl, because the macaque is wearing a wig and an eerily beautiful mask (pictured above).

The uncanny collision of categories (girl and pet, puppet and creature) only becomes more dizzying when you discover that Huyghe recruited his “star” from a Tokyo restaurant where the macaque spent many apparently happy hours working as a waiter.

It is a film of great pathos, more moving and less disturbing than this bald description suggests. It speaks to our difficulty understanding other animals, steeped as we are in human concerns.

The difficulty is real, can research help us? Degreecoordinates, Shared traits of the Hominini (humans, bonobos and chimpanzees) (2015) attempts it. For this, UK artist Marcus Coates worked with primatologist Volker Sommer to list questions relevant to all three: do you resolve conflicts using sex? Can you use a bottle opener? Do you kiss? Are you preoccupied with hierarchy and status?

Human answers vary, but so do those gleaned from studying individual chimps and bonobos. The differences between individuals of each of the three species far exceed those across species. Animalesque celebrates what we share – and what we can learn.