A sack of tech cats

Reading Long Shot by Kate Bingham and Tim Hames for the Telegraph, 15 October 2022

“Not only were we building the plane as we were flying it,” writes Kate Bingham, appointed by Boris Johnson in May 2020 to chair the UK Vaccine Task Force, “we were flying in the dark and simultaneously writing the instruction manual, and fielding endless petty questions from air traffic control asking about the strength of the orange juice we were serving to passengers.”

The tale of Britain’s vaccination effort against Covid-19 ends happily, of course: the task force arranges for clinical trials, secures 350 million doses of six vaccines, oversees any amount of novel infrastructure for their manufacture and distribution, and delivers Covid-19 as close to a knock-out blow as one could reasonably dream of.

At the time of Bingham’s first phone call, in January 2020, things looked rather different: it seemed to this British venture capitalist, who had no specialist knowledge of vaccine development, that she was being asked to take responsibility for a huge amount of government expenditure “that would, most likely, prove completely wasted.”

Vaccines normally take decades to develop, while viruses can mutate in a matter of weeks. There was, Bingham insists, very little chance of success.

Britain’s internationally celebrated vaccine development and production regime was set in motion, from something like a standing start, by a team, that included a bomb disposal expert, an Indian rowing star, an Italian consultant, a former ambassador, a football pundit, and the redoubtable Ruth Todd, whose day job was to see that submarines were delivered on time. This is a book about the skills and experiences necessary to build extraordinary ventures under pressure. Although the science is sketched ably enough here and there, this is not a science book.

Bingham’s background is in drug discovery — a notoriously unpredictable business where some of the brightest minds in biochemistry stake their future careers on one roll of the clinical-trial dice. VCs, if they’re wealthy enough, can spread their risks over a few dozen companies, but even they barely survived the dot-com crash of 2001. Bingham’s one of the new breed that emerged from the wreckage, an investor altogether more interested in managing the companies she helps create than in driving start-ups into premature IPOs. She still carries in her DNA an instinct for spreading risk, though: the VTF spent 4.6 billion on six vaccines in the hope that one might work, one day, maybe.

Coming up to speed with the science was no easy task, even for a major biotech player. There was no shortage of brilliant work to choose from, but little way of telling what innovations would pay off on time. Bingham salutes the work of Robin Shattock at Imperial College, London, graciously acknowledging that his “amplified mRNA” technology, which triggers large immune responses from very small amounts of vaccine, will surely be mature enough to help combat the next pandemic (and be in no doubt, there will be one). [Iona, “amplified mRNA” is a separate (though related) technology to the mRNA tech harnessed by Pfizer]

On the other hand, those teams who were fully ready were anxious to make an impact. Bingham only found out about Oxford University’s non-profit vaccine partnership with AstraZeneca over the radio, and Pfizer, partnering with BioNTech, much preferred to throw its own money at things than rely on any taskforce handholding.

Choreographing this sack of tech cats was not, says Bingham, her hardest task, and with the help of Tim Hames (a former chief leader writer for the Times) she patiently anatomises how she weathered the formless paranoia of politicians, the hampering good intentions of civil servants, and (most distressing of all, by some measure) the random mischief-making of government communications demons.

The ears of the National Audit Office may burn (she dubs their “help” a foolish and expensive joke); most everyone else emerges from this tale with due credit and generous thanks. Indeed, Bingham’s candid account will be uncomfortable reading for those who nurse a dogmatic hostility to “insiders”. Bingham’s husband is Jesse Norman MP, then the financial secretary to the Treasury. Bingham has no difficulty demonstrating that this has nothing to do with anything, but that didn’t stop the Guardian’s jibes, its “chumocracy” tables and the rest.

The trouble is, given a problem as complex and fluid as democratic government, expertise is only authoritative in relation to some particular subject. Without insiders — those with firsthand knowledge in a particular affair or circumstance (like, yes, the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings, who insisted the VTF should be handled as a business) — experts are merely preaching in the wilderness. On the other hand, without experts to inform them (people like Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser) insiders have nothing to offer but windbaggery.

Knowledge and power must meet. Bingham and Hames’s accessible, edge-of-the-seat account of how British innovators vaccinated the UK and much of the rest of the world is also a quiet, compelling, non partisan argument for dialogue between business and politics.

Being kind to the blarney

Reading Yuval Noah Harari’s How Humans Took Over the World (Unstoppable Us 1) for the Telegraph, 9 October 2022

“And just think how sad the last mammoth must have been all on her own,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, as he invites his pre-teen audience to contemplate our species’ long track record in wiping out countless varieties of big animal (giant flightless birds; elephantine sloths; the list is long).

Harari is spreading his young person’s history of humankind across four illustrated volumes. This is the first, and describes how we managed to exterminate our way to planetary dominance (so a certain mawkishness is allowable). Following the Bauplan of Harari’s 2011 adult bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, we can reasonably look forward to a triumphalist futuristic fourth volume in which all the monsters that terrified and/or fed our ancestors are resurrected by our CRISPR-wielding post-human descendants and released into some sort of 3D-printed world zoo.

Why survey such a vast sweep of evolutionary history through the keyhole of “what we really know”? Why not say what you’ve got to say, and leave the error-correction to your young reader’s own curiosity and further reading? When I was a kid, Patrick Moore was still writing about Venus’s already rather unlikely world ocean. I was inspired by such unchained speculation, and I don’t think I sustained any lasting intellectual harm.

But we are where we are: the world is haunted by the spectre of untruth and is besotted with the wisdom of crowds, and Harari is at pains in his afterword to point out how carefully staff at Penguin and his own “social impact company” Sapienship weighed every sentence and every illustration, lest it might misrepresent something or “hurt people”.

As a consequence, How Humans Took Over the World is, for all its many strengths, one of the least odd books I have ever read.

How Humans Took Over the World is an easy-to-read epic that sets out to be scrupulously truthful about what we do and do not know about the past. In simple, direct terms, Harari explains that we’re the only species that believes stories; stories enabled cooperation; and cooperation made it possible for us to smother and consume large amounts of the planet.

Harari’s ebullience as a storyteller is infectious. No sooner does he dry his eyes over the fate of the mammoth, than he is gleefully explaining how easy they were to get rid of. (With that long a gestation period, and that small a herd, you only had to kill a couple of mammoths a year to wipe them out.)

Harari’s concludes that we’re not a very nice species. This is risky, if only because self-hate is cheap and saves us the trouble of doing anything or changing anything about ourselves. The gloomy shade of Jean-Jacques Rousseau hovers over Harari’s dismissal of religion as a means by which powerful hominins cozened an unfair quantity of bananas from their weaker brethren. The idea that religion might be humanity’s millennia-old effort to tell uplifting stories about itself, all in the teeth of cosmic meaninglessness and the inevitability of death, gets no look-in here, though Harari still spends an inordinate amount of time being kind to the blarney and tosh spun by animists and shamans, those snake-oil salesmen of yore.

Harari’s setting us up for a thunderous and inspiring last chapter, in which we see Homo sapiens poised to use its storytelling superpower to more constructive effect.

If thousands of people believe in the same story, then they’ll all follow the same rules, and this is why we rule the world (“whereas poor chimps are locked up in zoos”).

To save the world we have been so busy consuming, we need to come up with a story about ourselves that’s better than the ones we’ve told each other in the past (or, to be less judgemental about it, a story that’s better suited to our planet’s present).

“If you can invent a good story that enough people believe,” Harari writes, “you can conquer the world.”

It is unlikely that this will be written by Harari. Though he’s packaged as a seer, there’s little in his work that is truly surprising or sui generis.

His chief skill — displayed here even more remarkably than in his work for adults — is his ability to spin complex material into a rollicking tale while still telling the truth.

A baffling accident of history

Watching Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes for New Scientist, 28 September 2022 

“Hundreds of birds are falling out of the sky every day,” complains Nadeem Shehzad, by far the grumpier of the two cousins whose life’s work is to rescue the injured raptors and waterbirds of Delhi. “What amazes me is that people go on as if everything’s normal.”

People, in Shaunak Sen‘s award-winning documentary, aren’t the only ones making the best of things under Delhi’s polluted skies. The city is also home to rats, pigs and frogs, mosquitoes and turtles, cows and horses and birds, and especially black kites, who have come to replace vultures as the city’s chief recycling service, cleaning up after the city’s many slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

The film follows Nadeem, his brother Mohammad Saud and their young cousin Salik Rehman as they struggle to turn their family obsession into [https://www.raptorrescue.org] a fully fledged wildlife hospital. No sooner is yet another funding bid completed then their meat mincer breaks down. No sooner is a wounded bird stitched up than there’s a power cut and all the lights go out. What happens to the family’s sewer connection when the monsoon arrives does not bear discussing.

These struggles are compelling and yet this is not really a film about humans. It’s about, quite literally, “all that breathes”. The humans are just one more animal trying to eke out a living in this alien place called Delhi: not a bad place, but not a human place neither: more a baffling accident of history.

The cousins compare notes on the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan while, barely two kilometres away, religious riots tear up the streets. Feral pigs cross a nearby stream. A millipede eases itself out of a puddle, even as a passing aeroplane casts its reflection in the water. The film’s first shot is a sumptuous pan across a rat-infested rubbish dump. Filmed at a rodent’s eye level, bare inches from the ground, a fascinating, complex, dramatic world is revealed. Later, we hear how Hindu nationalists are presenting the city’s muslim population in terms of disease and hygiene. Any European viewer with an ounce of historical sense will know where this thinking can lead.

Whether or not one picks up on all the film’s nested ironies is very much left to the viewer. Sen’s method is not to present an argument, but rather to get us to see things in a new way. Of the film’s main subject, the black kites, Sen has said, “I want audiences to leave the theater and immediately look up”.

Achieving this requires a certain amount of artifice. Viewers may wonder how it is that a tortoise reaches the top of a pile of garbage just in time to watch a motorike career around a distant corner. Individual shots took days to capture; some took much longer. The human conversations are a little more problematic. After consuming so many slipshod hand-held documentaries, I found the conversations here a little too on-message, a bit too polished to be true.

But why cavil at a powerful and insightful film, just because its style is unfamiliar? Filmed between 2020 and 2021 by German cinematographer Ben Bernhard, supported by Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi, All That Breathes inhales extreme close-ups and cramped interiors, exhales vertiginous skyscapes and city skylines.

The story of Delhi’s black kites, regularly injured by the glass-coated threads used to fly paper kites — one of Delhi’s favourite leisure activities — might have been better served by a more straightforward story. But then the kites would, in the same breath, have become a small, contained, even inconsequential problem.

The whole point of Sen’s film, which won a Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is that the kites are a bell-weather. We’re all in this emergency together, and struggling to fly, and struggling to breathe.

A balloon bursts

Watching The Directors: five short films by Marcus Coates, for New Scientist, 31 August 2022

In a flat on the fifth floor of Chaucer House, a post-war social housing block in London’s Pimlico, artist Marcus Coates is being variously nudged, bullied and shocked out of his sense of what is real.

Controlling the process is Lucy, a teenager in recovery from psychosis. Through Coates’s earpiece, she prompt Coates in how to behave, when to sit and when to stand, what to touch, and what to avoid, what to look at, what to think about, what to feel. Sometimes Coates asks for guidance, but more often than not Lucy’s reply is drowned out by a second voice, chilling, over-loud, warning the artist not to ask so many questions.

A cardboard cut-out figure appears at the foot of Coates’s bed — a clown girl with bleeding feet. It’s a life-size blow-up of a sketch Coates himself was instructed to draw a moment before. Through his earpiece a balloon bursts, shockingly loud, nearly knocking him to the ground.

Commissioned and produced by the arts development company Artangel, The Directors is a series of five short films, each directed by someone in recovery from psychosis. In each film, the director guides Coates as he recreates, as best he can, specific aspects and recollections of their experience. These are not rehearsed performances; Coates receives instructions in real-time through an ear-piece. (That this evokes, with some precision the auditory hallucinations of psychosis, is a coincidence lost on no one.)

So: some questions. In the course of each tricky, disorientating and sometimes very frightening film, does Marcus Coates at any point experience psychosis? And does it matter?

Attempts to imagine our way into the experiences of other beings, human or non-human, have for a long while fallen under the shadow of an essay written in 1974 by American philosopher Thomas Nagel. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” wasn’t about bats so much as about the continuity of consciousness. I can imagine what it would be like for me to be a bat. But, says Nagel, that’s not the same as knowing what’s it’s like for a bat to be a bat.

Nagel’s lesson in gloomy solipsism is all very well in philosophy. Applied to natural history, though — where even a vague notion of what a bat feels like might help a naturalist towards a moment of insight — it merely sticks the perfect in the way of the good.

Coates’s work consistently champions the vexed, imperfect, utterly necessary business of imagining our way into other heads, human and non-human. 2013’s Dawn Chorus revealed common ground between human and bird vocalisation. He slowed recordings of bird song down twenty-fold, had people learn these slowed-down songs, filmed them in performance, then sped these films up twenty times. The result is a charming but very startling glimpse of what humans might look and sound like brought up to “bird speed”.

Three years before in 2010 The Trip, a collaboration with St. John’s Hospice in London, Coates enacted the unfulfilled dream of an anthropologist, Alex H. Journeying to the Amazon, he followed very precise instructions so that the dying man could conduct, by a sort of remote control, his unrealised last field trip.

The Directors is a work in that spirit. Inspired by a 2017 residency at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London, Coates effort to embody and express the breadth and complexity of psychotic experience is in part a learning experience. The project’s extensive advisory group includes Isabel Valli, a neuroscientist at King’s College London with a particular expertise in psychosis.

In the end, though, Coates is thrown back on his own resources, having to imagine his way into a condition which, in Lucy’s experience, robbed her of any certainty in the perceived world, leaving her emotions free to spiral into mistrust, fear and horror.

Lucy’s film is being screened in the tiny bedroom where her film was shot. The other films are screened in different nearby locations, including one in the Churchill Gardens Estate’s thirty-seater cinema. This film, arguably the most claustrophobic and frightening of the lot, finds Coates drenched in ice-water and toasted by electric bar heaters in an attempt to simulate the overwhelming tactile hallucinations that psychosis can trigger.

Asked by the producers at ArtAngel whether he had found the exercise in any way exploitative the director of this film, Marcus Gordon, replied: “Well, there’s no doubt I’ve exploited the artist.”

Dreams of a fresh crab supper

Reading David Peña-Guzmán’s When Animals Dream for New Scientist, 17 August 2022

Heidi the octopus is dreaming. As she sleeps, her skin changes from smooth and white to flashing yellow and orange, to deepest purple, to a series of light greys and yellows, criss-crossed by ridges and spiky horns. Heidi’s human carer David Scheel has seen this pattern before in waking octopuses: Heidi, he says, is dreaming of catching and eating a crab.

The story of Heidi’s dream, screened in 2019 in the documentary “Octopuses: Making Contact”, provides the starting point for When Animals Dream, an exploration of non-human imaginations by David Pena-Guzman, a philosopher at San Francisco State University.

The Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius thought animals dreamt. So did Charles Darwin. The idea only lost its respectability for about a century, roughly between 1880 to 1980, when the reflex was king and behaviourism ruled the psychology laboratory.

In the classical conditioning developed by Ivan Pavlov, it is possible to argue that your trained salivation to the sound of a bell is “just a reflex”. But later studies in this mould never really banished the interior, imaginative lives of animals. These later studies relied on a different kind of conditioning, called “operant conditioning”, in which you behave in a certain way before you receive a reward or avoid a punishment. The experimenter can claim all they want that the trained rat is “conditioned”; still, that rat running through its maze is acting for all the world as though it expects something.

In fact, there’s no “as though” about it. Pena-Guzman, in a book rich in laboratory and experimental detail, describes how rats, during their exploration of a maze, will dream up imaginary mazes, and imaginary rewards — all as revealed by distinctive activity in their hippocampuses.

Clinical proofs that animals have imaginations are intriguing enough, but what really dragged the study of animal dreaming back into the light was our better understanding of how humans dream.

From the 1950s to the 1970s we were constantly being assured that our dreams were mere random activity in the pons (the part of the brainstem that connects the medulla to the midbrain). But we’ve since learned that dreaming involves many more brain areas, including the parietal lobes (involved in the representation of physical spaces) and frontal lobes (responsible among other things for emotional regulation).

At this point, the sight of a dog dreaming of chasing a ball became altogether too provocative to discount. The dog’s movements while dreaming mirror its waking behaviours too closely for us to say that they lack any significance.

Which animals dream? Pena-Guzman’s list is too long to quote in its entirety. There are mice, dogs and platypuses, beluga whales and ostriches, penguins, chameleons and iguanas, cuttlefish and octopuses — “the jury is still out on crocodiles and turtles.”

The brain structures of these animals may be nothing like our own; nonetheless, studies of sleeping brains throw up startling commonalities, suggesting, perhaps, that dreaming is a talent to which many different branches of the evolutionary tree have converged.

Pena-Guzman poses big questions. When did dreaming first emerge and why? By what paths did it find its way into so many branches of the evolutionary tree? And — surely the biggest question of all — what are we do with this information?

Pena-Guzman says dreams are morally significant “because they reveal animals to be both carriers and sources of moral value, which is to say, beings who matter and for whom things matter.”

In short, dreams imply the existence of a self. And whether or not that self can think rationally, act voluntarily, or produce linguistic reports, just like a human, is neither here nor there. The fact is, animals that dream “have a phenomenally charged experience of the world… they sense, feel and perceive.”

Starting from the unlikely-sounding assertion that Heidi the octopus dreams of fresh crab suppers, Pena-Guzman assembles a short, powerful, closely argued and hugely well evidenced case for animal personhood. This book will change minds.

 

 

Some rude remarks about Aberdeen

Reading Sarah Chaney’s Am I Normal? for new Scientist, 10 August 2022

In the collections of University College London there is a pair of gloves belonging to the nineteenth-century polymath Francis Galton. Galton’s motto was “Whenever you can, count”. The left glove has a pin in the thumb and a pad of felt across the fingers. Placing a strip of paper over the felt, Galton could then, by touching different fingers with the pin, keep track of what he saw without anyone noticing. A beautiful female, passing him by, was registered on one finger: her plain companion was registered on another. With these tallies, Galton thought he might in time be able to assemble a beauty map of Great Britain. The project foundered, though not before Galton had committed to paper some rude remarks about Aberdeen.

Galton’s beauty map is easy to throw rocks at. Had he completed it, it would have been not so much a map of British physiognomic variation, as a record of his own tastes, prejudices and shifting predilections during a long journey.

But as Sarah Chaney’s book makes clear, when it comes to the human body, the human mind, and human society, there can be no such thing as an altogether objective study. There is no moral or existential “outside” from which to begin such a study. The effort to gain such a perspective is worthwhile, but the best studies will always need reinterpreting for new audiences and next generations.

Am I Normal? gives often very uncomfortable social and political context to the historical effort to identify norms of human physiology, behaviour and social interaction. Study after study is shown to be hopelessly tied to its historical moment. (The less said about “drapetomiania”, the putative mental illness discovered among runaway slaves, the better.)

And it would be the easiest job in the world, and the cheapest, to wield these horrors as blunt weapons to tear down both medicine and the social sciences. It is true that in some areas, measurement has elicited surprisingly little insight — witness the relative lack of progress made in the last century in the field of mental health. But while conditions like schizophrenia are real, and ruinous, do we really want to give up our effort at understanding?

It is certainly true, that we have paid not nearly enough attention, at least until recently, to where our data was coming from. Research has to begin somewhere, of course, but should we really still be basing so much of our medicine, our social policy and even our design decisions on data drawn (and sometimes a very long time ago) from people in Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies?

Chaney shows how studies that sought human norms can just as easily detect diversity. All it needs is a little humility, a little imagination, and an underlying awareness that in these fields, the truth does not stay still.

Driven by ghosts

Watching Explorer by Matthew Dyas for New Scientit, 3 August 2022

Explorer is a documentary about Ranulph Feinnes, the first man to circumnavigate the earth from Pole to Pole without recourse to flight.

It is a film full of ghosts. Its subject emerges slowly from snatches of previous documentaries, interviews, snatches of home movies, headlines. The film touts Feinnes’ unknowability: a risky strategy for audiences new to the man and his achievements, though the intrigue pays off handsomely in time.

Feinnes is not a man driven by mysterious and delicate internal forces. This is a man driven, simply and directly, by ghosts. Four months before his birth, Feinnes’s father was killed by a German landmine in Italy. His grandfather also died in the service of his country. It was young Ranulph’s intention to follow in their footsteps. Brought up in a household of indomitable women, he wanted to live up to the dad he never knew.

It was Feinnes’s first wife and former childhood sweetheart Ginny who devised the expedition that would make Feinnes a household name and make her the first woman to be awarded the Polar Medal. Seven years in the planning, Feinnes’s three-year Tranglobal expedition, from 1979 to 1982 was, with hindsight, the last of the great hero-projects of western expedition-making. The advent of satellite photography and instantaneous satellite communication has made much human adventure redundant, and undermined our old notions of physical heroism. In an era of extinctions and climate change, the notion of a human “pitting themselves against nature” has acquired a slightly “off” flavour.

Prevented by a stretch of open water from reaching the North Pole in 1984, Feinnes has long been one of our most eloquent witnesses to global warming. Nay-sayers will say there is something rotten at the heart of a white man’s exploration of what to him are far-off places. Feinnes’s expeditions since 1984 all point to something that should agitate us far more; that all over the world, the ice itself is rotting. The man lost fingers after hauling a sled out of polar water that shouldn’t have been water. Far from losing his already tenuous relevance, Feinnes is for many the ravaged poster child of our most contemporary crisis.

People who complain about Feinnes are rather like people who complain about us “mucking about in outer space”; they wildly over-estimate the costs involved, while wildly underestimating the value generated. Take the example of Transglobal: the expedition was put together from favours, donations and sponsorship. Careers were established in countless fields, from oceanography to biology to engineering, and 650 companies reaped the rewards of their association with the adventure.

Feinnes and his wife were unable to have children. When the couple applied to adopt a child, they were turned down because they didn’t have a stable enough income. Feinnes still struggles with money. Now a widower in his late seventies, remarried and father of one, he relies on plying the lecture circuit, driving sometimes ten hours a day to get from venue to venue, and sleeping in his car to avoid expensive bed-and-breakfasts.

Stomping through winter-time surf to ease the symptoms of suspected Parkinson’s disease, this old man is, by his own admission, still struggling to live up to his father. Pushing himself to the limit of his declining powers, he comes into focus at last as a tragic figure. But what is tragedy, if not a way of giving shape and meaning to a life that, by definition, is bound to end in decline and death?

Explorer’s achievement is to reach the source of Ranulph Feinnes’ heroism. The explorations, while staggering achievements, are mere way-stations. The goal is a life that has wrought as much good out of the world as it can.

“The idea that life is absurd bothers him”

Reading Life As Told by a Sapiens to a Neanderthal by Juan José Millás and Juan Luis Arsuaga for the Telegraph, 27 July 2022

In 2013 the oldest known human DNA was discovered, in a complex of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain. It belongs to an early hominid, Homo heidelbergensis, who lived 400,000 years ago, and to whom we owe the invention of the fireplace.

Arsuaga has built an illustrious career around excavations in Atapuerca, a site humans have occupied continuously for a million years, from the dawn of Homo sapiens to the bronze age. He knows a lot about how humans evolved, and he is an eloquent communicator. “As he talked,” the novelist Juan José Millás recalls, “I realised what a great sense of the theatrical Arsuaga had. He was a master of oral storytelling. He knew when he had his audience, and when he was running the risk of losing them. He endeared himself by combining intellectual precision with a kind of helplessness.”

It’s Aruaga’s eloquence that first persuaded Millás that the two of them should collaborate on a book — a Boswellian confection in which Millás (humble, curious, a klutz, and frequently brow-beaten) follows Arsuaga around with a dictaphone capturing the great man’s observations. “In Spain,” he remarks, early on, “there are two principal periods: the first runs from the Neolithic to 1958, at which point the social planning by the Opus Dei technocrats comes in. Until then, the countryside was a place full of people, full of voices, life here was not a sad thing, there were children running around. It would be like walking down the street. By 1970, the countryside was empty, there was nobody left.”

Millás casts Arsuaga as the representative of Homo sapiens: articulate, eclectic, self-aware and tragical. Millás casts himself as Homo neanderthalis, not quite as quick on the uptake as his more successful cousin. Neanderthals are a species not exactly lost to history (Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, after all) but no longer active in it, either.

The idea is that Arsuaga the high-brow leads our beetle-browed narrator hither and thither across northern Spain, on foot or in his trusty Nissan Juke, up lost valleys (to understand the evolution of hunting) and through deserted playgrounds (to grasp the mechanics of bipedalism), past market stalls (to grasp the historical significance of diet) and into a sex shop (to discuss the relative size of primate testicles) and building, bit by bit, a dazzling picture of the continuities that exist between our ancient and contemporary selves.

For many, the devil will be in the detail. Take, for example, Millás’s Neanderthals. He is not exactly wrong in what he says about them, but he is writing, in the most general and allusive terms, into a field that is developing frighteningly fast. It‘s hard, then, for us to know how literally to take the author’s showier gestures. Millás says, about that famous interbreeding, that “The Sapiens, being the smart ones, did it out of vice, while the Neanderthals, who were more naïve, did it out of love.” With Neanderthal intelligence and sociality a topic of so much fierce debate, such statements as this may be met with more scepticism than appreciation.

This is as much a buddy story as it is a virtuosic work of popular science. In unpacking our evolutionary past, Millas also brings his human subject to light. Arsuaga holds to the tragic view of life espoused by the fin de siecle Spanish essayist Miguel de Unamuno. Millás, a more common-or-garden depressive, finds Arsuaga’s combination of high spirits and annoyance hard to read. Deposited on the outskirts of Madrid, and half suspecting he’s been actually thrown out of Arsuaga’s Nissan, Millás realises that the palaeontologist “experiences sudden bursts of sadness that he sometimes conceals beneath an ironic demeanour, and sometimes beneath passing bad moods. I think the idea that life is absurd bothers him.”

Aruaga’s tragic sense entends to the species. We are the self-domesticating species: “To the Neanderthal,” he says, “the Sapiens must have seemed like a teddy bear.” We have evolved social complexity by shedding the adult seriousness we observe in less social mammals. (“I’ve been to Rwanda, looking at old gorillas,” says Aruaga, “and I can assure you they don’t play at all, they don’t laugh at anything.”) Over evolutionary time, we have become more playful, more infantile, more docile, and we have done this by executing, imprisoning and marginalising those who exhibit an ever-expending list of what we consider anti-social traits. So inanity will one day conquer all.

I wish Millás was a less precious writer. Very early on the pair arrive at a waterfall. “What had we come here for?” Millás writes: “in principle, to see the waterfall, and perhaps so the waterfall could see us, too.” Such unredeemable LRBisms are, I suppose, a form of protective coloration, necessary for a novelist and poet of some reputation: an earnest of his devotion to propah lirtritchah.

It’s when Millás forgets himself, and erases the distance he meant to maintain between boffins and scribblers, that Life becomes a very special book indeed: a passionate, sympathetic portrait of one life scientist’s world view.

You wouldn’t stop here for gas

Reading Lyndsie Bourgon’s Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in the Woods for the Telegraph, 12 July 2022

Worldwide, the illegal timber trade is worth around 157 billion dollars a year. According to oral historian Lyndsie Bourgon, thirty per cent of the world’s wood trade is illegal, and around 80 per cent of all Amazonian wood harvested today is “poached” (a strange term to apply to timber, which would struggle to fit into the largest poche or pocket — but evocative nonetheless). $1 billion worth of wood is poached yearly in North America.

Bourgon focuses her account on thefts from public lands and forest parks of the Pacific North-West. There are giants here, and Methuselahs. “Old-growth” trees, more than two hundred years old, are intagliated with each others’ root systems, with fungal hyphae and with other soil systems we’ve barely begun to understand. Entire ecosystems may stand or fall on the survival of a single 800-year-old red cedar — an organism so huge it may take weeks or months to saw up and remove from the forest, leaving a trail of sawdust, felling wedges and abandoned equipment.

That the trade in such timber was not sustainable has never been a secret, and to save some of the world’s oldest and biggest trees, the Redwood National Park was established in 1968.

But while the corporations received compensation for their lost profits, the promised direct government relief for workers never materialised. “Do you know what it’s like to work 20 years, then sleep in a pick-up truck?” asked Seattle’s archbishop Thomas Murphy, at a 1994 summit attended by the new president, Bill Clinton; “A way of life is dying.”

North America’s oldest timber companies were founded near the town of Orick, on the banks of the Redwood Creek in Humboldt County, California. Orick’s first commercial sawmill opened in 1908. Orick is now home to just under 400 people. You wouldn’t stop here for gas on your way to a luxury cabin on US Forest Service land, or a heated yurt by Park Canada.

To live in Orick is to feel the walls closing in: one woodsman turned poacher, Danny Garcia, likens the sensation “to having your car break down in the middle of nowhere — you’ve no cash to fix it and no way out.”

This, says Garcia, is where his “tree troubles” started, but he wasn’t the first to go sawing chunks out of giants. His partner in crime Chris Guffie says: “I’ve been at it for so doggone long. It’s like Yogi Bear and the park ranger.”

“To begin to understand the sadness and violence of poaching,” says Bourgon, “we need to consider how a tree became something that could be stolen in the first place.” Like it or not, conservation has patrician roots: in the 1890s, organisations like the New York Sportsmen’s Club lobbied to ensure access to game and fish for its members. Dedicated hunting and fishing seasons suited their sporting clientele, but as a letter to a Wyoming paper put it: “When you say to a ranchman, ‘You can’t eat game, except in season,’ you make him a poacher, because he is neither going hungry himself nor have his family do so…”

Remove land from a community, Bourgon argues, and you make poaching “a deed of necessity”. So why not buy the land and give it back to its people, along with the tools to protect and manage it. Going by the experiences of the 59 community forests that now dot the province of British Columbia, community forests create twice as many jobs as those run by independent industry.

Of necessity, however, Bourgon spends more pages explaining the workings of a solution more palatable to central authority: an ever-more interconnected system of police surveillance, involving cameras, magnetic plates, LIDAR and, most recently, genetic testing. Even as Bourgon wrote this book, a genetic map was being assembled to make wood products, at least in the Pacific North-West, traceable to their original growing locations. The brilliance of this effort, spearheaded by Rich Cronn at the Oregon State University at Corvallis, cannot hide the fact that it is facilitating an age-old mistake: substituting enforcement for engagement.

Bourgon gives a voice both to the rangers risking their lives to save some of the planet’s oldest trees, and to poachers like Danny Garcia whose original sin was his unwillingness to leave the home of his ancestors. Full of the most varied testimonies, and by no mean fudging the issue that timber poaching is a crime and an environmental violation, Tree Thieves nonetheless testifies to the love of the woodsman for the wood. Drive through Orick sometime, and you will discover that communities are an ecology, too, and one worthy of care.

“Does it all stop at the tree?”

Watching Brian and Charles, directed by Jim Archer, for New Scientist, 6 July 2022

Amateur inventor Brian Gittins has been having a bad time. He’s painfully shy, living alone, and has become a favourite target of the town bully Eddie Tomington (Jamie Michie).

He finds some consolation in his “inventions pantry” (“a cowshed, really”), from which emerges one ludicrously misconceived invention after another. His heart is in the right place; his tricycle-powered “flying cuckoo clock”, for instance, is meant as a service to the whole village. People would simply have to look up to tell the time.

Unfortunately, Brian’s invention is already on fire.

Picking through the leavings of fly-tippers one day, the ever-manic loner finds the head of a shop mannequin — and grows still. The next day he sets about building something just for himself: a robot to keep him company as he grows ever more graceless, ever more brittle, ever more alone.

Brian Gittins sprang to life on the stand-up and vlogging circuit trodden by his creator, comedian and actor David Earl. Earl’s best known for playing Kevin Twine in Ricky Gervais’s sit-com Derek, and for smaller roles in other Gervais projects including Extras and After Life. And never mind the eight-foot tall robot: Earl’s Brian Gittins dominates this gentle, fantastical film. His every grin to camera, whenever an invention fails or misbehaves or underwhelms, is a suppressed cry of pain. His every command to his miraculous robot (“Charles Petrescu” — the robot has named himself) drips with underconfidence and a conviction of future failure. Brian is a painfully, almost unwatchably weak man. But his fortunes are about to turn.

The robot Charles (mannequin head; washing machine torso; tweeds from a Kenneth Clark documentary) also saw first light on the comedy circuit. Around 2016 Rupert Majendie, a producer who likes to play around with voice-generating software, phoned up Earl’s internet radio show (best forgotten, according to Earl; “just awful”) and the pair started riffing in character: Brian, meet Charles.

Then there were three: Earl’s fellow stand-up Chris Hayward inhabited Charles’s cardboard body; Earl played Brian, Charles’s foil and straight-man; meanwhile Majendie sat at the back of the venue (pubs and msuic venues; also London’s Soho Theatre) with his laptop, providing Charles’s voice. This is Brian and Charles’s first full-length film outing, and it was a hit with the audience at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In this low-budget mockumentary, directed by Jim Archer, a thunderstorm brings Brian’s robot to life. Brian wants to keep his creation all to himself. In the end, though, his irrepressible robot attracts the attention of Tomington family, his brutish and malign neighbours, who seem to have the entire valley under their thumb. Charles passes at lightning speed through all the stages of childhood (“Does it all stop at the tree?” he wonders, staring over Brian’s wall at the rainswept valleys of north Wales) and is now determined to make his own way to Honolulu — a place he’s glimpsed on a travel programme, but can never pronounce. It’s a decision that draws him Charles out from under Brian’s protection and, ineluctably, into servitude on the Tomingtons’ farm.

But the experience of bringing up Charles has changed Brian, too. He no longer feels alone. He has a stake in something now. He has, quite unwittingly, become a father. The confrontation and crisis that follow are as satisfying and tear-jerking as they are predictable.

Any robot adaptable enough to offer a human worthwhile companionship must, by definition, be considered a person, and be treated us such, or we would be no better than slave-owners. Brian is a graceless and bullying creator at first, but the more his robot proves a worthy companion, the more Brian’s behaviour matures in response. This is Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit in reverse: here, it’s not the toy that needs to become real; it’s Brian, the toy’s human owner.

And this, I think, is the exciting thing about personal robots: not that they could make our lives easier, or more convenient, but that their existence would challenge us to become better people.