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Human Errors

Human Errors
by Nathan H. Lents
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Ah, man, that paragon of animals. In form and moving how express and admirable, whose eyes are in backward and whose sinuses are upside down. Nature loves a good joke but all too often we are the punch line. Our eyes are miracles of evolution certainly but by a quirk of early development the light sensing cells face the back of the socket (octopus eyes, with their independent evolution, are the right way round). Our smushed up faces have forced the drainage channel of our main sinus cavities to the top, leaving us with a legacy of blockages and infections our dogs never have to worry about.

So far we’re only on page 11 of ‘Human Errors’, where author Nathan H. Lents reminds us that “we are the long-term products of short-term actions.” In a further half dozen chapters covering anatomy, diet, genetics, reproduction, disease (warning: not suitable for hypochondriacs) and the brain, Lents outlines, in a genial if occasionally gallows-humourish style, some of the many errors and snafus that a myopic evolution has saddled us with.

Take that alphabet of vitamins we need to stay healthy. Becoming omnivorous a few million years ago was a useful survival trick but it took the evolutionary pressure off elsewhere. The GULO gene, for example, allows animals to make their own vitamin C. A few million years ago, a random mutation banjaxed the gene in our primate ancestor. In a forest full of vitamin C-rich fruit nobody noticed but start waking upright and heading out into the big, wide, fruit-free world and suddenly everybody gets Scurvy. Our ability to eat anything has turned into a requirement to eat everything.

Despite our dietary drawbacks we’ve spread ourselves around quite a bit so you’d think that reproducing would be something we’re good at. It turns out the wonder is not how well we reproduce but that we reproduce at all. Besides the obvious problem of our giant heads that made birth one of the leading causes of death for our ancestors, we suffer from a litany of sub-optimal reproductive design choices. That’s the way genetics works – a quick-fix solution for today with no thought for tomorrow.

Our genes, in general, are a bit of a bad news/good news situation. Good news: our cells reproduce with a 99.999% etc accuracy. Bad news: there’s around 100 quintillion chances a day to muck things up. Good news: most of those mistakes won’t hurt you. Bad news: that’s because most of your DNA isn’t actually you but a billion years of accumulated junk. Good news… well, actually, it gets hard to tell the good news from the bad here. All that DNA – dead viruses, duplicated duds and genes that just like to get up and go for a wander – might be bad for you individually but make the species mutable and adaptable.

The most successful of those adaptations is our big brain but Lent’s chapter title ‘A Species of Suckers’ is a clue that even here there are problems. One chapter doesn’t really do justice to the many ways our cerebral shortcuts bamboozle our rational selves but Lents manages to hit a lot of the high – or rather, low – points of our biases, delusions, illusions and irrationality. On the plus side, we’ve discovered monkeys are as bad at economics as we are (though that might be a bit of a low bar).

In the last section, musing on the future of humanity, Lents’ perky prose takes a slightly darker tone. Evolution hasn’t finished messing us about yet. We are on the cusp of being able to re-write our biology while at the same time being on a ‘collision course with our own industrialisation’. We have the tools to save ourselves but do we have the will? If not, Lents wonders, will that prove to be the ultimate human error?


The Intelligence Trap

The Intelligence Trap
by David Robson
Published by Hodder & Stoughton

“No ordinary man could be such a fool”
George Orwell

The thing about really smart people is that they are people first and really smart second. Sometimes a distant second. Starting with a decades long study of genius children and the doomed friendship between Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle, science journalist David Robson sets out to convince us that smart doesn’t always mean sensible. Honestly, it’s not a hard case to prove. He lines up studies showing nearly half of Mensa members believe in astrology or alien visitation, PhD’s make poor gamblers and people with high IQ’s are more likely to face financial distress. Overall, says Robson, the correlation between high IQ and rationality is very weak. We even have a word for it; dysrationalia – an inability (or disinclination) to think straight.

At the opposite end of the Dunning Kruger scale, the highly intelligent face a bunch of cognitive biases of their own and when clever people are wrong they can be wrong big time. Robson quotes a scary statistic of 80,000 deaths a year in US hospitals being due to misdiagnosis and tells the story of Brandon Mayfield, a US lawyer arrested for the Madrid Train bombings. Two experts mismatched his fingerprints and investigators even mistook his daughter’s Spanish homework for travel documents placing him at the scene. An inability to learn from mistakes is also prevalent. A dozen, nearly identical, close shaves preceded the Deepwater Horizon blowout as well as the Air France Concorde crash in 2000.

All of these cognitive flaws – and many, oh so many, more – are nothing new. Writers and philosophers have been lamenting them for millennia. Robson namechecks Scorates, Descartes and George Orwell and while I was reading on the train, Simon & Garfunkle chimed in with their own take; “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” courtesy of my iPod’s playlist! But while the problems are ago-old, what is new is that science, rather than art, is being brought to bear on them. Research is rooting out how and why these errors occur. How often and under what exact circumstance are biases likely to show up? Spoiler: ‘everywhere’ and ‘all the time’. “The people who think they are already immune are probably most at risk”, says Robson. He owns up to his own shortsightedness and even in the midst of reading a book about cognitive biases I managed to galumph straight into an egregious example of my own (buy me a drink sometime and I’ll tell you all about it). All is not lost though. Robson spends the better half of the book recounting a variety of procedures and practices that various organisation have developed to counter bias effects.

In places he sounds like some New Age guru when he talks about ‘mindfulness’ and ‘evidence-based wisdom’ but bare with it, there’s plenty of practical advise too. Thinking a problem through in a second language mutes emotional responses. Doodling as you talk improves your memory. Jotting down your gut reaction and analysing evidence for it afterward improves accuracy. Arguing both sides of a problem – like a solo chess game – gives you a wider appreciation of opposing positions. Even just a little humility can go a long way to preventing errors – you’re probably right but what if, on this one occasion, you weren’t? On a wider scale, Robson explores anti-bias systems put in place by the US navy and Nuclear power industry that have massively reduced human error.

Our intelligence is broadly a matter of biology but, says Robson, how to avoid its drawbacks and use it to its greatest advantage is a wisdom we can, and should, all learn.

Empty Planet

Empty Planet
The Shock of Global Population Decline
by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
Published by Robinson

Overpopulation has been the bugbear of civilisation from Malthus to Attenborough. Every few years a new milestone is reached – 6 billion, 7 billion, 8… UN forecasts have us on track for an 11 to 18 billion population by century’s end. How can the planet survive all those hungry mouths and carbon footprints? Well, say Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson in ‘Empty Planet’, it won’t have to.

There are a lot of numbers in ‘Empty Planet’ but the most important one to remember is this: 2.1. That’s the number of children each woman must have on average during her lifetime to keep a population level. The authors haven’t just rounded up statistics though, they’ve done the footwork too by talking to demographic experts the world over and face-to-face interviews with focus groups on almost every continent. From immigrant workers in the US, Asian university students and Belgian young professionals to Delhi and Kenyan slum dwellers, – everywhere women have a choice, they choose to have fewer children. The authors are quite clear on the cause of this demographic shift. The economic miracles in the developing world that have lifted millions out of poverty also vacuum the young from the land into city life where children stop being hands to help and become mouths to feed.

It took Europe two centuries to go from 6 children per woman to under 2. It’s taken the developing world just two generations. Today, most of the planet has a birthrate below that magic 2.1 figure.  British women have an average of 1.8 children, slightly higher than the overall European figure of 1.6. Russia’s birthrate is 1.7. America has 1.9 babies per couple (0.95 for Millennials). Chinese women have 1.6 while Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia are 2 or less. The fertility rate in large cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing and Shanghai is below 1. The baby booming fuel that powered the population explosion has run out and, while our numbers are buoyed by all those old folk who stubbornly refuse to die (yet), the year of ‘peak child’ has come and gone. We’ll never see that 18 billion. Not even the 11 billion. The human race, the authors claim, will peak at 9 billion some 20 to 30 years from now and then decline.

Fewer people mean less pollution and cheaper housing sure but it’s not all wine and roses warn the authors. It also means fewer taxpayers to support a graying population plus fewer workers and consumers to drive the economy. They point to Japan as a present day example. “The diminishing working population is one of the biggest causes of long term recession”, says economist Naoyuki Yoshido. Japan today, Bricker and Ibbitson say, is everywhere else tomorrow. One solution, at least for a while, is immigration. ‘Empty Planet’ paints a near future world where countries scramble to attract immigrants rather than turn them away and a US that maintains it’s economic hegemony over an ageing East by dint of it’s appeal to hungry, young workers.

It’s hard to convince people that a book on population demographics is a gripping read (not even a single graph!) but it is. On every page the authors give us hope (and the figures to back it up) that the specter of a teaming, choking, starving world that’s haunted the popular imagination of generations will soon be banished. I could argue with some of their data (which might be editorial choices rather than error) but there’s so much data. Even if some of the information is flawed, the overwhelming direction is down. If Bricker & Ibbitson are correct, people reading this book (and this review) will live to see the human population decrease. Not through war or famine or disaster, but through choice.

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.