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The Runaway Species

The Runaway Species
by David Eagleman & Anthony Brandt
Published by Canongate Books Ltd

Let’s start with Freckles the Spider Goat and her web fluid. She is not, as you might imagine, a deleted character from an animated Marvel movie but rather the solution to the difficulty of extracting valuable, super tough silk from millions of spiders. Instead, geneticists spliced the relevant spider genes into goat DNA producing Freckles – a mixture of both species who secrets spider silk in milk. It’s the sort of blending of two disparate elements that David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt suggest is part of the trifecta of ‘bending, blending and breaking’ pre-existing ideas that underlies human creativity. In “The Runaway Species’, the authors set out to convince us that art, science, technology, commerce and even the ‘work in progress’ that is human culture, all dance to these same three notes.

Blending and bending examples from science and technology are relatively easy to dig up. “I invented nothing new”, said Henry Ford, “I assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work”. That sentiment is just as apposite for the modern age. Page 37 shows a picture of Apple’s first iPod beside an engineer’s preliminary sketch. They’re pretty similar – size, shape, screen, control wheel etc. Except that the sketch isn’t from Apple’s engineers but part of a digital music distribution system developed by British inventor Kane Kramer 20 years before Apple’s ‘revolutionary’ ideas saw the light of day.

Art isn’t immune to these influences either. The authors recount the work of John Lowes who dissected Coleridge’s library to discover sources for every image in the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Lowes claimed that the books of his library ‘rained their secret influence’ on everything Coleridge wrote. That’s not so say that creation can be reduced to some sort of production line system. After all, many artists had access to the same inspirations but only Picasso produced Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Cases of ‘breaking’ things to create something new are maybe not quite so prevalent but the authors scare up a reasonable batch of disparate examples. There are airport antenna towers that literally break – folding in two upon impact to avoid damage to overshooting planes. In the arts we have EE Cummings poetry and Bach’s Fugue in D Major (Brandt’s musical influence clearly showing). We also get a brief history of the development of the MP3 music standard, though claiming its inventor ‘broke’ existing digitisation methods by throwing out unused frequencies is a bit of a stretch.

We need to accept risk, to let our imaginations scout far ahead as well as close to home suggest the authors. We need incremental changes and far out ideas to make sure we don’t get overtaken in art, fashion, science or industry. Stick too close to a winning formula and you become Blackberry. Stray too far ahead and you risk becoming the new New Coke. The authors are unabashedly enthusiastic in applying their suggestions to industry but stray uncomfortably close to Zuckerburg’s ‘move fast and break things’ philosophy which has proven to have some less than optimal human fallout. This dark side to constant innovation – the people left behind – barely rates a mention.

The ideas expressed in ‘The Runaway Species’ have their own roots in popular culture. Forty years ago James’ Burke’s ‘Connections’ covered some of the same ideas of interconnectness though Eagleman and Brandt refine and expand them into wider areas. In some respects though their central thesis is not the main draw of this book. The thing that kept me glued to “Runaway Species” was the many vignettes and detours into the backgrounds of their various examples. Whether it’s Einstein’s blouse design, Edison’s cement piano or a 19th Century Elon Musk’s midnight experiments with electric trams, the book is an intensely interesting read with something on every page to keep the science – or culture – magpie engrossed.



Utopia for Realists

Utopia for Realists
by Rutger Bregman
Published by Bloomsbury

“Progress is the realisation of Utopias”
Oscar Wilde

Don’t let the slightly tree-huggerish title of ‘Utopia for Realists’ put you off. There are crazy ideas here but – based on historical data, field trials and research – they are crazy idea that just might work. Author Rutger Bregman starts off by reminding us that we already occupy, with our unlimited, food, drink, warmth and medicine, what passed for a medieval Utopia. Of course our Utopia is riddled with problems those old dreamers never conceived of. The biggest problem for Bregman though is that our expectations of what we can achieve as a society have become ‘dramatically eroded’. As a society, says Bregman, we have lost the ability to imagine real change and have much of our reward system backward. Being paid a lot of money doesn’t make you important while being important doesn’t mean you’ll be paid a lot of money. A 9 day refuse strike brought New York to its knees while a three month bank strike hardly fazed Ireland.

Even the people making the money seem aware of the absurdity. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”, says a Facebook employee while a stockbroker tells him “I’d like to do something genuinely useful but I can’t take the pay cut.” Half the responders to a Harvard Business Review survey claim their job has no meaning or significance.

So, what’s to be done? It’s not that we don’t have solutions that have been shown to work. Homelesness? Give people homes. Poverty? Give people money. Dwindling secure employment? Give people a basic income. These may sound ridiculously simplistic but Bregman quotes study after study that shows the simplest solution is often the best.

For example; in the US, the state of Utah has all but eliminated chronic homelessness by the simple expedient of giving away free housing while saving $5000 per person in social service, police and court time. A similar pilot programme in the Netherlands reduced vagrancy by 65% and drug use by half while saving double the initial investment in social support services.

The idea of a Universal Basic Income (or ‘venture capital for the masses’) is something Bregman spends quite a bit of time on. It’s good for every percent of society he argues. “How will you get (production line robots) to pay you union fees?” asked Henry Ford’s grandson. “How will you get them to buy your cars?” responded union leader Walter Reuther. UBI has a surprisingly long history. William Pitt the Younger tried to get a version of UBI passed into law in the late 1700’s but his plan was scuppered by high-minded moralists fearing the depravity and wantonness of a population without starvation nipping at it’s heels. Even President Nixon tried to introduce a form of UBI not once but three times. Today the problem with free money, free housing and basic income is political and moral rather than financial Bregman insists. The right don’t think the poor deserve money and left don’t trust them to spend it wisely.

Politicians only discourse within popularly accepted boundaries but those boundaries can be stretched by extreme claims. Outrageous ideas can then slide along the ‘unthinkable-radical-acceptable-sensible-popular’ spectrum until they reach ‘policy’. Right now, that’s happening for extreme right wing ideas but it can work just as well the other way if we can make the message of progress and hope louder than the message of fear says Bregman.

The changes ‘Utopia for Realists’ suggests in our social and industrial landscape may look hopelessly unrealistic at the moment, but then, Bregman reminds us, once upon a time so did the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and gay marriage. ‘Utopia’, it turns out, is a moving target.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century
by Yuval Noah Harari
Published by Jonathan Cape

“Careful now”
Dougal, Father Ted.

I usually only review books I believe are worth a reader’s time and effort in this column. That will not be quite the case on this occasion. Having recommend Harari’s earlier ‘Sapiens’ (with reservations) and ‘Homo Deus’ (with even more reservations) and thus contributed by some microscopic extent to his fame as a 21st century intellectual, I feel some responsibility to those who might purchase ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ on the strength of that reputation. I’m afraid my reservations this time overshadow any recommendations I might make. Mostly.

In his previous works, Harari covered the great sweep of history. With ’21 Lessons’ he narrows his perspective to the more immediate future and, in so doing, loses his voice. He has reduced himself to just one more “careful now” prophet on shelves full of Cassandras. On occasion, Harari does bring his training as a professor of history to bear in ’21 Lessons’ and gives us glimpses of the grand historic perspective that was the strength of his earlier works but these bright spots are few and far between.

Harari’s narrative rambles through politics, religion, society, technology and the human mind. For the most part I can’t fault the ideas he expresses – they are clever, profound, insightful…and familiar. His politics reminds me of Noam Chomsky, his religion of Richard Dawkins, his society of Alex Evans, his technology of Max Tegmark and his insights on the mind may as well have come straight from David Eagleman. Even his “if a description of the future doesn’t sound like science fiction it’s definitely false” line, while pithy, is essentially a rephrasing of Arthur C Clarke’s 1960 intro to ‘A Vision of the Future’. Harari’s writing style is more polished and less prickly this time round but ’21 Lessons’ is like reading a book by the second guy to invent the wheel.

On top of the rewound wisdom, Harari add his own twists which more often hew towards the trivial rather than the profound. He provides a decent breakup song list, tells us about the salacious decoration in early synagogues, talks about the benefits of meditation and has an interesting take on Disney’s ‘Inside Out’. Some of his other insights are of, let’s say questionable, value. He suggests “scientists should start writing Science Fiction” but I think a couple of obscure authors such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Forward, Alastair Reynolds, EE Smith, Stephen Baxter, Ken Macleod, Carl Sagan etc, etc, etc, may have got there first. He gives a weirdly aggressive hard sell for the Buddhist world view – “that’s the truth, get over it”. And as for the pages he spends on the theme of ‘if religious folk are going to heaven why be upset about dying’? Well, he’s not wrong per se but I recall having this discussion, almost verbatim, with friends 40 years ago. It’s literally schoolboy philosophy. I kept waiting for the punchline, some clever twist to provide new depth but it never turned up.

There are great and important themes covered in ’21 Lessons’ but they’ve mostly been explored further and explained better elsewhere. The title gives the impression you are going to learn something new about the world or, at least, get original perspectives on approaching it’s many problems. Other than the doubtless unintended lesson of ‘don’t sign a three book deal if you only have two books in you’, Harari’s woolly meanderings come up wanting.

If I were to recommend the only book you were going to read this year, well, ’21 Lessons’ wouldn’t be it (try Hans Rosling’s ‘Factfulness’). Still, it does amalgamate a bunch of good ideas – even if they are somewhat mangled through Harari’s idiosyncratic filters – so I suppose you could do worse.


by Hans Rosling
Published by Sceptre

 I’d like you to imagine a better world. A world where 80% of the world’s people rather than 20% have access to electricity, where 80% of children rather than 20% have been vaccinated and where 90% rather than 60% of girls are enrolled in primary education. Now squint your eyes and furrow your brow and wish real hard for that world… Wow! You must have wished super-duper hard because it worked!

Not convinced eh? Okay, I fibbed a bit about the wishing but the numbers are real. Enormous change for the better has swept the world in our lifetimes says the late Hans Rosling in ‘Factfulness’. Almost everybody, almost everywhere is healthier, better fed, educated and richer than ever but it’s a change we missed because our instincts lead us astray.

Rosling starts off his book with a little multiple-choice quiz covering a bunch of population metrics from income and violence to child mortality and education. It’s a quiz he’s given during hundreds of lectures to everyone from school kids to members of the World Economic Forum. Regardless of age, education or experience, every audience scores way below average. There’s something in the human psyche, some instincts, that makes us want to see the world in the darkest possible light despite decades of steady improvement. In ten chapters, Rosling explores just what those instincts might be and gives us some tips (handily summarised at the end of each chapter) to counter our built-in ‘somber spectacles’ that lead us to think all is lost when actually all is to be gained.

The ‘third world’ we grew up with no longer exists says Rosling. Instead he divides the world into four income dependant sections from the dollar a day extreme poverty of Level 1 to the $30 a day wealth of Level 4. The gap between us and the world of famine, war and natural disasters on TV is not a gap at all. Some five billion people live there. Not poor, not rich, they get by on very roughly $10 a day (and if you think $10 a day isn’t much, ask the man who has $1). That’s five billion people with access to food, medicine, electricity and education who are working, raising families and leading ordinary, peaceful lives. Even the Population Bomb seems to have bombed. According to the UN, 90% of the world’s parents – regardless of their country or religion – already average just over two children and that number is dropping (Iran has a lower birthrate than the US).

This would make headlines if it happened overnight but it happened over 20, 30, 50 years in increments so small that even the people it was happening to hardly noticed. When journalist Lass Berg returned to an Indian village he photographed in the 1970’s, the well dressed, TV owning villagers in their concrete houses refused to believe his photos of earth floors, clay walls and half naked children – “that can’t be here, we were never that poor”.

Rosling isn’t some Panglossian Pollyanna pretending all is sweetness and light. A billion people are still desperately poor, wars and repressive regimes beset the world and global warming is a challenge to all. He is though (or rather was until his death last year), a cheerleader for the human race. Through his Gapminder Foundation website, worldwide lectures, Youtube videos and TED talks (all highly recommended) he reminds us that yes, we have some way to go but look how far we’ve come! A hundred years ago nearly 90% of people lived in grinding poverty. Today that’s down to 9%.

‘Factfulness’ definitely oversimplifies some things but this isn’t a grim book of warnings telling us to save the world, it’s a book of hope showing us we already are.

Built on Bones

Built on Bones
by Brenna Hassett
Published by Bloomsbury Sigma

“The dead never lie” says archaeologist Brenna Hassett. In this case, the tale they tell is of our 14,000 year journey from cave to condo. It’s a story of changing diets and changing lifestyles that reshaped our very bones. It’s new diseases in old places and old diseases in new places. It’s deprivation, famine, inequality and violence in all its forms from war to endemic spousal abuse. It’s also a story peppered with archaeological hijinks and amusing observation.

For the most part Hassett writes engagingly about a subject she clearly loves but her enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of her and she strays off into superfluous detail about symptoms, strains and alternate theories of transmission for various medieval diseases. These off-topic wanderings resulted in a narrative that exceeded my interest at several points (your mileage may differ). The dead may not lie but they sometimes bang on a bit.

The Future of Humanity



The Future of Humanity
by Michio Kaku
Published by Allen Lane

“The Future of Humanity’ is very much a ‘never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width’ kind of read. I have whole books covering subjects to which Kaku devotes a page or two. He races through the subject matter like a skimmed stone, splashing briefly across topic after topic without any danger of plumbing their depts. On the other hand there are a LOT of topics.

Everything from Artificial Intelligence to bioengineering, starships and transhumanism is thrown into the mix here. There’s nothing new, some that’s quite old (Bussard Ramscoops from the ‘60’s) and you can find more details on everything scattered online. Still, Kaku’s artless optimism reminds me of old Clarke and Asimov popular science books. It’s the sort of thing I would have devoured in my early teens and I think that might be an excellent potential audience. Imagine the title reads ‘A Beginner’s Guide to the Future of Humanity’ and you’ll get exactly what you expect.


The Copernicus Complex



The Copernicus Complex
by Caleb Scharf
Published by Allen Lane

It’s a big (like, realllllly big) Universe but given what we’ve discovered about the menagerie of planetary systems around other stars in the last 20 years, Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University, suggests that we may be far less cosmologically insignificant than we thought. In a winding argument by way of history, astronomy, biology and a very comprehensible account of Bayseian reasoning, Scharf contends that we actually live in a particularly privileged point of spacetime – a cosmic “2 or 3 % club”.

The strongest chains of reasoning can’t budge the fact that we currently have only one example of life in the universe but we are, as Scharf says, “on the cusp of knowing”. The next generation of space probes and telescopes may be good enough to find life – if life is to be found – on alien worlds. Until then, ‘The Copernicus Complex’ is the state of the art – of our ignorance.


But What If We’re Wrong?

But What If We’re Wrong?
by Chuck Klosterman
Published by Amberley

Almost everyone has been wrong about almost everything almost all of the time throughout history so what will future ages say we’re wrong about today? The problem of course, is that while we may all admit to the possibility of being wrong in general, nobody wants to admit to being wrong about anything in particular. In ‘But What if We’re Wrong?’ Chuck Klosterman wants us to think of today as seen from the future. Can we tell which ignored artist or derided culture will recontextualise our society for 22nd or 32nd Century eyes? Well no, not in any detail anyway but if we examine what and how we remember things from the past, perhaps we can get a feel for the sort of things that tend to ‘stick’ historically speaking.

It’s unlikely there will be another explanation for why the sky is blue and probability theory is looking pretty solid but there’s still plenty of room for error on the science front. Physicist Brian Greene admits that future scientists may consider our theories of gravity as laughable as Aristotle’s who thought stones fell to the ground because they just really wanted to be there. Neil deGrasse Tyson is more bullish, claiming that there haven’t been any significant paradigm shifts since the Copernican revolution moved us from the centre of the Universe (though I’m pretty sure Germ Theory was equally as upsetting to the medical status quo. Ask Ignaz Semmelweis).

Klosterman has spent much of his career writing about the music scene, and while there are a couple of gaffs in his grasp of science, he fares better with the arts. What matters now, he points out, isn’t necessarily what matters in the long run. Sales are irrelevant when the people who did the buying are dead. Take a time machine back to the golden age of Rock & Roll and you’ll be far more likely to hear Nelson Riddle, Les Baxter and Tab Hunter than Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry or Fats Domino. ‘Moby Dick’ was a massive flop that ruined Melville’s career but today it’s the archetypical ‘classic’ novel. “The future literary cannon will be populated with the types of people who are currently excluded from it,” Klosterman says. Perhaps, he suggests, they will arise from some social group you can currently ridicule in public without fear of censure (my money is on authors of online fan fiction).

What seems to matter most when it comes to the longevity of art is less what’s there than what future generation can read into it. We read Jane Austin for the erotic subtext she never mentions. Will people in the 22nd Century watch ‘The Matrix’ for its exploration of the transgender experience at the end of the 20th Century? Those red and blue pills might take on a wholly different symbolism in the light of the Wachowski’s transition from brothers to sisters.

No matter how cherished our institutions, how emphatic our values, they are, ultimately, transitory says Klosterman. Much of what now seems obvious to us in retrospect was preposterous in prospect. Future historians might consider Regan’s presidency a time of mass delusion. Obama’s skin colour may rate as small a footnote as JFK’s religion. Perhaps even (American) football will all but vanish in the next 25 years. If you think the latter unlikely I’d remind you how fast smoking and smokers went from popular to pariah.

Ultimately, what will be elevated and what neglected from our little fretful hour will depend on the tastes of whoever’s doing the remembering. Tastes that almost certainly won’t match ours. It will be people we would most likely consider weirdos, says Klosterman, who get to decide what matters about the past because it’s weirdos who care the most.

There wasn’t quite room for this in the printed version but I have to give a quick nod to the designer, Nicole Laroche, for the understatedly clever and subtle cover. As you can see from the image, the cover is plain text on a white background with nothing to indicate that it is actually printed upside down (i.e. spine on the right). When displayed on a bookshelf as intended – with the cover text the right way up – the very act of picking up the book and discovering you are, in fact, holding it wrong, is an instant and palpable evocation of the author’s theme.

1947: When Now Begins

1947: When Now Begins
by Elizabeth Asbrink
Published by Scribe

These are difficult times. Huddled refugees flee countries riven by war. Religious intolerance turns brother against brother in paroxysms of violence. The spectre of terrorism haunts the world and resurgent racism we though long defeated rises up to spew old hate in new voices.

The book title might give a clue that the difficult time I’m referring to is not our present predicament but rather some 70 years in the past. ‘1947: When Now Begins’ by Swedish journalist Elizabeth Asbrink (translated by Fiona Graham) is part history, part biography, part philosophy that– if I may be permitted an old reviewing cliché – defies easy description. That being the case, I’ll try a difficult description.

History, as tackled by Asbrink, is a bit like Google Maps. There are plenty of histories that allow you to glide over the past at will, scrolling over ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, wars of your choice etc. Asbrink ignores this grand sweep for the temporal equivalent of zooming in to deposit us into a street view of some unfamiliar place buzzing with detail.

Zoom – we’re reading Simone de Beauvoir’s love letters to Nelson Algren. Zoom – Per Engdhal’s underground railway is ferrying SS offices to Argentina. Zoom – Christian Dior finds his ‘new look’ and Vogue magazine banned in Britain. Zoom – the British fleet is blockading Jewish refugees. Zoom – George Orwell almost dies on Jura. Zoom – Thelonious Monk is performing at Minton’s Playhouse. Zoom, zoom, zoom… All of these people building a shared zeitgeist and unknowingly birthing our modern world. It’s easy to think of de Beauvoir reading about Dior’s travails for instance or Orwell listening to news of the blockade on the radio – each individual part of the background action for the other’s personal dramas.

Structurally, the book concentrates on an examination of the single titular year with occasional narrative tendrils sneaking briefly forward and backwards in time for context. Each of the vignettes is followed by hops and skips across monthly chapters which are divided into sections a couple of lines or a couple of pages long. Location subheads of Paris, Rome, Cairo, London etc are still patinated here with the remnants, courtesy of the telescope of time, of a noirish mystique.

The writing is spare but descriptive with the intimacy of pages plucked from a diary (if the diary was written in the third person). Elegant, staccato sentences pepper a commentary more reminiscent of E.E. Cummings poetry than any history book you might have read. Motivated variously by passion or pragmatism, the characters – rather the real people – pivot around events and each other, accreting what we call history but they, for the most part, would have just thought of as living their lives.

Asbrink necessarily ignores vast swathes of history. There’s little about the international finance helping to rebuild the post-war world and almost nothing about the politics of the US or Europe. China’s civil war goes unremarked. The subjects she does cover are not evenly divided either. Far more time is spent on the partition of Palestine than the partition of India for instance. But Asbrink isn’t ‘looking in’ on events, she’s taking us into the private lives of the people looking out. Their street level view is just as narrow and parochial and as intensely personal as our own.

What ‘1947: When Now Begins’ does well is help us place our daily lives and our interesting times in a broader historical context. It reminds us that the people for whom history was headline lived in a world at least as complex and conflicted as today, in many ways far more so. If they persevered and built a better world perhaps we can too.



by David Eagleman
Published by The Canons

“‘There’s Someone In My Head But It’s Not Me”
Pink Floyd

Ah, there you are. At least, there you think you are. If you look closely, says Neuroscientist David Eagleman, it turns out that the bit of you that thinks it is you mostly isn’t there at all.

‘Incognito’ is not a brand new book but a reprint of Eagleman’s 2011 opus on the brain. Much like Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ in the same year, it helped define a new paradigm in our understanding of the human mind for the early 21st Century. Other authors have built upon his work – I’ve reviewed some of them here – but ‘Incognito’ remains a highly readable introduction to the new science of (lack of) self.

Eagleman wants to convince us that, while we’d like to think of our consciousness as the CEO running the company of us, it’s more like some back-room maintenance guy. Largely ignored when things are running smoothly, it gets trotted out only when something doesn’t work as expected and shooed back to its closet when everything is ticking over. For most practical purposes the mental heavy lifting is being done for us by anonymous suites of non-conscious mental processes whose tireless efforts we happily credit as our own.

“Much of who we are remains outside of our opinion or choice”, says Eagleman and he doesn’t lack for examples to support his case. Christmas Clubs prevent savers blowing their money during the year. Drinkers know to keep alcohol out of the house to avoid temptation. Dieters negotiate a ‘20 minutes on the treadmill for one KitKat’ deal with themselves. If we are the singular beings we claim (I think, therefore I am), asks Eagleman, just who is negotiating with whom here?

Like a dogged detective chasing down a suspect, Eagleman searches Free Will’s usual haunts. Each time though, finding only the smouldering cigarette, the still warm coffee cup, the swivel chair creaking as though consciousness has just now got up and left the room. For such a manifest characteristic it proves amazingly elusive. James Clerk Maxwell claimed his famous equations ‘just came to him’, Coleridge could only write ‘Kubla Khan’ under the influence of opium. Kenneth Parks drove 14 miles to murder his in-laws – while asleep. Who takes the credit? Who gets the blame? “It is not clear how much the conscious ‘you’ gets to do any deciding at all”, Eagleman concludes.

There are those who fear this new paradigm of “my brain made me do it” will absolve criminals of blame with courts letting them run riot in the streets. No so claims Eagleman. Our biology is our behaviour and ‘blame’ is the wrong question. The real issue facing lawmakers is whether harmful behaviour is ‘modifiable’. “Our prisons”, he claims, “have become our primary mental health care institutions”. Inflicting punishments on the mentally ill has little influence on future behaviour he reminds us and suggests that a more neurologically aware approach to criminal behaviour would be safer and more humane all round.

It should be noted that not all neuroscientist agree with Eagleman’s views on the minimal role of consciousness. Paul Bloom, author of ‘Against Empathy’, feels there is a larger role for free will. Unfortunately, our intuition may not be a good guide here. What evidence there is – from catching baseballs to pressing buttons in the lab – indicates that free will is more post-hoc rationalisation than primary motivator.

It may be that some future research will discover a more prominent role for self awareness but in the meantime we may have to get used to having only a walk on part in the story of our own lives.