Rethink

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Rethink
by Stephen Poole
Published by Penguin Random House www.penguin.co.uk

Corpenicus was wrong. At least according to Steven Poole in ‘Rethink: the surprising history of new ideas’ that is the conclusion any reasonable scientist would have come to in the 16th Century. The heliocentric model of the solar system explained observations no better than Tycho Brahe’s geoheliocentric theory where the planets revolved around a sun that in turn revolved around Earth. It also failed to meet predictions other astronomers made of its consequent Coriolis effect. There’s never been any scientific theory that was free of troubling anomalies Poole reminds us and science is not a smooth progression where old ideas are overthrown by new and better ones. Rather it’s a tangled web of influence and inspiration where clever ideas are heartbreakingly lost, dismissed or forgotten only to be re-discovered and re-imagined lifetimes later. “Shiny new ideas can have surprisingly deep roots”, says Poole and often, in the race for the new and innovative, we forget how much invention is re-invention.

One of the problems those 16th century astronomers had was a lack of sufficiently accurate tools to detect the Coriolis effect they correctly predicted as a consequence of Copernicus’s theory. The same problem dogged Democritus of Athens. He had to wait two and a half thousand years for his theory of atoms to be accepted (as late as 1908 by some holdout physicists) and his Kosmoi idea of multiple universes has only in recent decades come back into fashion. Sometimes a clever idea is just too radical, too threatening or just from the wrong sort of person says Poole. Sometimes though, the problem is that good ideas often start out as ‘black boxes’ where you can say what is happening but not the how or why. Gregor Mendel’s black box was the gene, for Lamarck, epigenetics and for Ignaz Semmelweis it was germ theory (still frighteningly ignored in some modern hospitals).

Poole singles out some chief names from the legion of the wrong such as Malthus, Lamarck and Sheldrake and attempts to stitch together their tattered reputations. It is worthwhile, he suggests, to check what each actually said rather then what decades of detractors claim they said. Sheldrake’s suggested theory-disproving experiment has never been performed and it’s arguably only a mis-translation that made Charles Darwin and not Jean Lamarck the Father of Evolution.

‘Rethink’ is a book of ideas about ideas and it’s just stuffed full of wonderfully enticing, brain bending concepts – old ideas that are resurfacing across a wide range of subjects. Philosophy gets a name check with the PocketStoic app and Pythagoras’s ‘Panpsychism’ that holds consciousness as a cumulative rather than emergent property of matter. Politics gets a suggested revival of democracy that will probably get Poole on a government watch list and a renaissance of the Heath government’s universal basic income. When it comes to food, Poole reminds us that Francis Bacon’s frozen food experiment spent four hundred years in history’s deep freeze before Clarence Birdseye thawed it into a food empire. Victorian suggestions that ‘land shrimp’ might be a practical protein source are logical but I can’t say I find the idea of a bag of cricket flour Chirps appetising. And while we’re on the unpalatable: what’s so bad about eugenics?

I can just see some of you puffing up in outrage at that last one. Sure it’s an idea appropriated by monsters into a circus of horror says Poole, but before you break out the pitchforks and torches, consider; you don’t have to go back more than a couple of generations to find ancestors who would be casually racist, misogynistic, anti-semitic homophobes by modern standards. Which of your firmly held mores asks Poole, will send a shiver down the spine of your great-grand kids? Should banning the choice of harm outlaw the chance of help?

The clearest results, our firmest conclusions, must always be considered provisional approximations. Just something good enough to work with until something better comes along even if that something is salvage from history’s scrapyard. ‘Rethink’ is an excellent way to shake up your dogmas with the shock of the old.

Soonish

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Soonish
by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith
Published by Particular Books www.greenpenguin.co.uk

The brain as a giant ball of cats is the image that stays with me most strongly upon finishing “Soonish – ten emerging technologies that’ll improve and/or ruin everything” by Kelly & Zach Weinermith. Some of you may be familiar with the authors’ webcomic (www.smbc-comics.com) or podcast (www.sciencesortof.com). In ‘Soonish’, the Weinersmiths brings the same brand of lighthearted philosophical science humour – and cartoons – to bear on a bunch of emerging technologies.

For all it’s clowning, ‘Soonish’ is a refreshing, level-headed antidote to the breathless hype of press-release, pop science articles. The authors delve into the intricacies of each of the ten topics on offer here (without getting too technical), talking to the scientists working at the coal-face of discovery and outlining what could go wrong, what could go right and how far along we are to either of those outcomes. Of course, these are, as advertised, emerging technologies, so the usual answer for everything from space elevators to bioprinting is ‘not as far as we’d hoped’. Some of the science may live up the promise but in a period of time probably much longer that you’ve hoped/dreaded – more ‘ish’ than ‘soon’ (except maybe for Crisper gene editing which really could feck/fix things up in the near term). In science, a lot of promising research never pans out and sometimes what seems like a good idea isn’t. ‘Soonish’ is pretty much a textbook on managing expectations. Space will remain expensive, super strong bionic replacements for your feeble human limbs are not on the cards and you won’t be 3D printing a new liver from your stem cells any time soon (best put down that Margarita).

Beyond science sensationalism, the Weinersmiths uncover a world of real human scientists (often with cool names you could never get away with in fiction – Skylar Tibbits, David Duff with his bucket of stuff, Dr Elvis) making amazing advances and discoveries while facing what might turn out to be insurmountable problems. Along the way are fascinating asides like the Canadian rocket scientist assassinated by Mossad, why you breath through one nostril at a time, a scheme for an ethical transplant organ market and why your dog can get a vaccine for Lyme disease but you can’t.

The authors have kindly invited critics to come alone to their dark basement where they have promised snacks. I’ll be happy to accept a cookie by post – which will immediately be placed in a sealed, sterile environment and destroyed by fire (one of the authors is a brain parasite researcher. Fool me once…). Despite the mortal threat to mild mannered book reviewers I should mentions some minor caveats.

In the chapter on augmented reality the authors lament their sources talking up the already defunct Google glass but go on to use the almost equally defunct Pokamon Go as an example of what AR can do (incidentally, you can try out a bit of AR yourself by downloading the Soonish App that sprouts a little animated orbital tower from the book’s cover). Experienced armchair scientists might balk at the Sesame Street level explanations of ideas such as fusion, DNA replication and neurology that open each chapter and some of the metaphors are a bit strained (except for the aforementioned giant ball of cats which is bang on). I only spotted one factual error (p31) about a space tether being in orbit. Still, they correctly point out that it’s only the geosynchronous part that has orbital speed by the end of the chapter so I’ll maybe give them a pass here.

Overall, ‘Soonish’ is an equally good read for the mildly future-curious and the science nerd in your life – especially if the science nerd is you.

Life 3.0

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Life 3.0
by Max Tegmark
Published by Allen Lane www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk

‘Life 3.0’ by physicist Max Tegmark is an intriguing little book nestled snugly in the embrace of a rather longer and somewhat less interesting work. A simplistic story about a group of brave computer scientists who invent AI and save the world (any similarity to Tegmark’s own ‘Future of Life Institute’ with it’s commendable ‘save the world’ goals being purely co-incidental) is followed by a couple of retread chapters on the history of computers and some facile speculation on the nature of intelligence. Tegmark then conflates computation with cognition and Evel Knievels across this Grand Canyon size issue without a backward glance.

Fortunately ‘Life 3.0’ kicks into gear with chapter 3 and five brief quotes showing Go champion Lee Sedol plummeting from calm confidence to bewildered defeat as he’s soundly trounced by the Alpha Go AI. From here Tegmark moves on to how deep learning systems work and the benefits we can see from correct application of such systems. There’s also the – sometimes terminal – drawbacks from poorly implemented systems in finance, medicine and, of course, war. ‘Humans in the loop’ have, time and again, saved the world from nuclear Armageddon. Can we, asks Tegmark, rely on our AI systems to do the same no matter how many billions we spend on them?

On a less existential note we get some job seeking advice for the AI age – what sort of areas to train for, what fields to avoid. Eventually though, warns Tegmark, we will need a new economic paradigm. We are now automating the work of our minds the way we previously automated the work of our muscles and we’ll need to be careful to avoid suffering the same fate as horses after the invention of automobiles. ‘Job optimists’ argue that it won’t be the glue factory for the lot of us since new technology always brings new jobs. Tegmark has a nice pie chart of relative US employment numbers showing where those new jobs are. You have to go down 21 places to find them though. Everything above that being jobs our grandparents would have done and many now threatened by automation.

Tegmark spends quite a lot of the middle part of the book exploring several outcomes of a possible AI ‘intelligence explosion’ (expected anywhere from 30 years to never) – extinction to utopia and everything in between. We need, he says, to find some way to instil our values, if we can even figure out what they should be, into the nascent AI express as it thunders past the sleepy provincial station of human intelligence (far away, far away, RIGHT HERE, far away). Tegmark repeatedly stresses the importance of making informed choices now or the future we get – the next ten, hundred, million, billion years – is unlikely to be the future we want. Get it wrong we’ll be condemning not just ourselves but the whole of eternity to a lifeless, zombie existence. No pressure then.

Eventually we wash up, as most AI talk does, on the shores of the ‘hard problem’ (or, as Tegmark subdivides it, the ‘really hard problem’) of consciousness. Physical scientists seem content to cover in a chapter what neuroscientists feel uncomfortable condensing to a thousand pages and Tegmark is no exception. “Consciousness is the way information feels when processed in complex ways,” he concludes. Hmmm…

I have some reservations about ‘Life 3.0’ but fortunately each chapter comes with bullet point summaries. You can usefully skim the bits about computer history, AI conferences and the founding of FLI that somewhat awkwardly sandwich the meat of the book without missing too much of importance. That filling is mostly original, perceptive and challenging ideas. It paints a picture of a species that’s unwittingly stumbled into a Red Queen’s race. And we’re standing still.

Behave

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Behave
by Robert Sapolsky
Published by Bodley Head/Penguin Random House www.penguin.co.uk/vintage

The next time you’re up for parole make sure your case is heard immediately after breakfast or lunch. In a survey of 1,100 judgements 60% of paroles were granted just after eating (and 0% immediately before lunch).

That advice comes from Neurobiology. It’s a pretty new field that’s been quietly undergoing a ‘Moore’s Law’-style growth of it’s own since the start of the Century. Little is clear cut and nothing is simple but what Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky gives us in ‘Behave’ is a snapshot of that fast-moving field, what it says about why people behave as they do, how we can guard against the worst and encourage the best of those behaviours in ourselves and others.

When it comes to making decisions we are, frankly, a mess. Study after study shows how inordinately fickle and pathetically malleable our decision-making is, how quixotic our imagined sense of ourselves as rational actors, how mutable our definitions of them and us. Context – biological, evolutionary and cultural – is everything.

“You have to think complexly about complex things” says Sapolsky. ‘Behave’ is two and a half pounds of complex thinking dense with insight and relevance and expressed in language that is clear, witty and humane. Were I to highlighting interesting passages I could leave this book fluorescing yellowly by my bed as a nightlight. Here’s some random tidbits…

Any peruser of Sunday Supplement science knows all about the brain. About the amygdale – the ‘fear centre’ that doesn’t work in psychopaths. About testosterone or the MAO-A ‘warrior gene’ making you aggressive or oxytocin making you all lovely dovey. Except none of that is true. The amygdala has multiple, subtle and far reaching effects, testosterone and MAO-A can make you *less* aggressive and oxytocin can make you a jerk.

Bankers cheat more on economic tests. Big surprise I know but don’t go riding off on your high horse just yet. When primed to think about how much better off they are than poorer people, so does everybody else.

The preponderance of the 7R ‘dissatisfaction gene’ may have pushed our ancestors to spread around the world 20,000 years ago.

Fun stuff but Sapolsky doesn’t shy away from the worst of us – the massacre of the village of My Lai, GI’s sending home Japanese skulls as souvenirs, a million Tutsis hacked to death in the Rwanda genocide and cultures where Fido is a menu item. Closer to home, the smiling faces of ‘honour killing’ victims stare back at us from page 290 so we can feel the visceral horror of children killed by their own parents.

These are all difficult passages to read and it’s easy to see how hatred can bloom – even mild mannered academics can fantasise (in gruesome detail) about torturing Hitler. There’s no shortage of Thems for an Us to hate but it doesn’t have to be that way says Sapolsky. The ‘banality of good’ and ‘cold blooded altruism’ are some of the unique concepts he explores to show (with examples from South Africa and Northern Ireland) how we can use our knowledge of Neurobiology on the personal and international level to build lasting peace.

Perhaps all this is for the mercurial masses and not sensible, ‘constant-as-the-North-Star’ folk such as yourself but consider those parole judges. Making decisions is their job. They train for years, are chosen specifically for their capability for careful deliberation and yet whether they’ve just had a sandwich is a better predictor of their decisions than experience, politics or morals.

In the last chapter Sapolsky draws some conclusions you may not agree with. I can get behind the abolition of the criminal justice system, not so much his ‘free-will-of-the-gaps’ stance. Predominantly though, ‘Behave’ is a brilliant spotlight illuminating blood-soaked cognitive bear-traps we’ve been falling into for millennia and behavioural limitations we have literally evolved to ignore. Particularly in these benighted times it is an extraordinarily relevant and significant work.

Against Empathy

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Against Empathy
by Paul Bloom
Published by Bodley Head www.penguin.co.uk/vintage

Who would be against empathy? Murders, psychopaths, commuters on public transport who watch Youtube without earphones? Monsters all surely? In fact, argues author and psychologist Paul Bloom, empathy is at the root of a lot of violence and psychopaths are perfectly capable of empathising with victims (there’s no excuse for the earphonless Youtubeers though – they really are monsters).

Everybody from self-help gurus to presidents have told us we need more empathy, even that we’re facing an ‘empathy crisis’. Not so says Bloom. The problem isn’t that the world has too little empathy but rather that we have too much of it. Using empathy as a moral guide often does more harm than good because, as Bloom, sets out to convince us, empathy is inherently unfair, shortsighted, racist and innumerate.

But surely empathy makes people kind, it opens their hearts (and pockets) to help the suffering of the world? Again, no, argues Bloom. What all those pictures of hungry children and desperate refugees do is focus the kindness of people who are already kind. It’s a spotlight saying ‘look at this suffering, alleviate this pain’. The problem with spotlights is all the things they don’t illuminate. The media coverage of the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting where 20 student lost their lives saw so many toys and presents flooding the town that a warehouse had to be hired to store the useless gifts. The 300 school aged shooting victims (and 24 fatalities) in Chicago that year were largely ignored. Relying on empathy can backfire too – as the story of the woman living near a Concentration Camp illustrates. She wrote a strong letter asking that the appalling cruelty she saw every day be stopped… or at least moved to where she couldn’t see it.

To be fair, Bloom isn’t wholly against empathy. It has some limited uses and it’s a built-in feature after all. Toddlers and even rats will work to alleviate another’s suffering but empathy often stops at your tribe’s border (whether you define that as your species, your race or your sports team). You care more about your child’s grazed knee than the death of a thousand far-away strangers. A good attitude for a parent says Bloom but a very bad one for policy makers and a poor moral guide for the treatment of others.

If empathy is so bad how come nobody has noticed until now? Perhaps because the benefits so often attributed to empathy are confused with other morally good states – compassion, warmth, understanding. Buddhists out there may recognise some of Bloom’s arguments as they mirror the philosophies of ‘great compassion’ versus ‘sentimental compassion’ – feeling for rather than with. Bloom quotes studies showing that training in compassion rather than empathy generates feelings of kindness, a greater willingness to help and prevents burnout.

He wanders into the field of politics too. Differences between left and right boil down, not to a lack of empathy in one or the other camp, but rather a difference in focus as to whom we should be empathising with. Both have their own (mutually antithetical) sacred cows, both demand retribution for transgressions and the more empathic people are the harsher the punishments they mandate. Passion and zeal, he contends, are often associated with good while ‘cold’ reason is the preserve of evil. In real life, those two are often reversed

There are some quibbles. Bloom comes across as hypocritical in his early dismissal of neuroimaging technology since he leans on it heavily in later sections to support his position. He also has some (circa 2016) views on the basic sensibility of the body politic which sound hopelessly naïve today. These grumbles don’t affect his central premise though and while our biological and culturally predisposition to empathy makes the ‘head over heart’ argument a tough pitch, Bloom sells it well.

To Be a Machine

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To Be a Machine
by Mark O’Connell
Published by Granta Publications www.grantabooks.com

To see ourselves as others see us is a gift according to Robert Burns and in “To Be a Machine”, author Mark O’Connell gives us that gift. I say ‘us’ here to mean the sort of people who would pick up a book with the subtitle “adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers and the futurists solving the modest problem of death”.

Curiously, O’Connell isn’t one of those people. He has a PhD in English Literature (his prose is all elegant allegories and recondite references) and usually writes, well, arty stuff for arty people. “In no sense was this my world”, he says so why is a New York Times literary critic writing a book about transhumanists?

Inspired by the fragility of his new-born son O’Connell admits to a fascination and a certain sympathy for the motivations of the transhumanist movement but he denigrates pretty much everything they actually do or aim towards. He doesn’t have time to worry about the worst case scenarios because he’s too busy being terrified by the best case ones.

But this is the strength of this book – O’Connell’s jaundiced ‘everyman’ take on a subject that’s way too often hyped to the hilt by gosh-wow tech journalists. “ To be a Machine” is a reality-check on a paradigm of technological threat and promise that has snuck upon us almost unopposed. Can we really “transcend the condition of humanity through technology” or is it all just stuff and nonsense? O’Connell goes on a whirlwind tour to find out – from the hopeful dead of Alcor to the DIY cyborgs of the Grinder movement to, frankly, a lot of odd people doing odd things. If, along the way, you find yourself disagreeing with the idea of artificial intelligence destroying humanity being “so childish as to be hardly worth thinking about” is that because he doesn’t have a deep enough grasp of the issues or because you’ve drunk too much of the geek apocalypse Kool-Aid? To be fair, O’Connell himself vacillates – even he can’t be sure if it’s the transhumanists who are crazy or he is. Either way, through O’Connell’s eyes we can take a step back and perhaps see a little wider. Starry-eyed futurism is often funded by military contracts and motivated not by common good but more efficient violence. It’s also amazing how, from certain perspectives, the new ideas of technological utopia resemble re-packaged old ideas – religion for those unable to believe in a god.

The ‘innocent abroad’ approach does have drawbacks though. There is a whiff of PT Barnum and carnival freak-show about the way O’Connell parades the colourful cast of characters from the transhumanist circus. He’s not writing about the ideas so much as the people who have the ideas. Actually, for the most part, he’s writing about the people who follow the people who have the ideas – the kooks, not the chefs. Laura Deming, a brilliant MIT researcher exploring serious life extension technology gets 3 pages, Zontan Istvan driving a coffin shaped RV across the states in his presidential bid gets 30.

O’Connell’s lack of background in the sciences shows at times too. For example, a casual mention that all the body’s cells are replaced every 7 years merits a researched footnote rejoinder – neural cells are (mostly) for life. Well yes. You know that, I know that, pretty much anyone who might have an interest in reading this book knows that. It’s obvious from context that the interviewee knew that and probably assumed O’Connell did too. That he clearly didn’t makes you wonder what other nuances have slipped through the illusion of a common language.

Overall though, despite the cynicism – actually, because of the cynicism – ‘To be a Machine’ offers a fresh perspective on the debate and sets the all too human players of the transhumanist drama on a bigger, older and more familiar stage.

 

Reality is Not What It Seems

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Reality is Not What It Seems
by Carlo Rovelli
Published by Allen Lane www.greenpenguin.co.uk

For decades String Theory has been the tail wagging the physics dog when trying to reconcile the estranged but hugely successful theories of Einstein’s curvy spacetime and the pointillist quantum realm. There remains a teeny little problemette though – it hasn’t produced a single result in 30 years. But it’s not the only puppy in the window and in ‘Reality is Not What it Seems’ physicist Carlo Rovelli would like us to consider the outcast runt of the litter – Loop Quantum Gravity.

So what is Loop Quantum Gravity? In this case, about half the book. The first half being a quick history of physics for the last couple of thousand years. Starting with Anaximander in the ancient Greek city of Miletus – the Ionian League version of MIT by Rovelli’s account – we get a pocket history of 2000 years of physics. This could have been a dull little exercise re-treading old ground but Rovelli keeps it bright and breezy. From Democritus’ theory of atoms through the tragedy of Matvei Bronstejn and the autistic genius of Paul Dirac, Rovelli uses brief vignettes to explore how our understanding of reality morphed and simplified across the centuries.

Loop Quantum Gravity (what say we just call it LQG from now on eh?) doesn’t rely on new discoveries but rather reframes what we already know. It’s an approach that worked for Copernicus, Newton, Galileo and Einstein says Rovelli. While each of these – originally bizarre – theories have earned their stripes with confirmation via observation and experiment, LQG isn’t there yet. It hasn’t made any predictions or passed any observational tests. In Rovelli’s words it has yet to “pass it’s exams” (in fairness, String Theory has been blowing off it’s own exams for decades).

Having laid the groundwork Rovelli finally gets down to the nitty-gritty. And a very gritty nitty it turns out to be . What Rovelli and the other LQG researchers are trying to do is quantasise spacetime. Essentially, break Einstein’s smooth curves into jaggy quantum steps. There are two main legs to the argument. First is spacial atoms. Not particles in space, but Planck volume particles OF space. There’s quite a bit more about the intersections of forces and fields but that’s the very basic idea.

The second leg is that we have to dispense with time. All we ever actually measure is motion, says Rovelli, – of pendulums, springs, vibrating atoms – never time itself. This is not a particularly original thought. Newton wrote about it 300 years ago as did Roman philosopher Lucretius 1800 years before that. Schoolchildren regularly re-discover the idea. My own personal epiphany “there is no time, only motion” is scribbled in blue biro inside the cover of my school Log Table book. Rovelli however, wants us to take the idea at face value – to abandon the no longer useful illusion of time as a separate entity and speak only of the interactions of matter. This is a simple yet intriguing idea which will be probably be of no use whatsoever as an excuse when your boss asks why you’ve been late three times this week (unless he’s a physicist researching LQG in which case – give it a shot). Despite the complex issues Rovelli mostly stays away from equations but like an overexcited translator he does lapse into his natural language of mathematics when he can’t quite find the right words. Thankfully such occasions are rare and usually confined to the footnotes

With String Theory looking more and more like a dead end, Loop Quantum Gravity may turn out to be the next big thing. If so, ‘Reality…’ is a handy guidebook to the even stranger realms of physics we may be obliged to navigate.

A Brief History of Everybody Who Ever Lived

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A Brief History of Everybody Who Ever Lived
by Adam Rutherford
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson www.orionbooks.co.uk

Christopher Lee claimed to be descended from the Emperor Charlemagne. According to geneticist Adam Rutherford in “A Brief History of Everybody Who Ever Lived”, he was quite correct. Unfortunately that’s not as impressive as it sounds as you and everybody else is also descended from Charlemagne – and Charlemagne’s stable mucker-outer as well. In fact, Rutherford says “Everyone alive in the 10th Century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today”. Over the course of history the threads of our heritage cross and re-cross like the tracks of an ice skater and it takes only three thousand years for everyone to be descended from anyone in history. This new and complex picture of human heredity is being revealed by the latest genetic investigation techniques and Rutherford does his best to untangle the how and why of what’s turning out to be less of a family tree and more of a Gordian knot.

Sometimes those skater’s tracks I mentioned cross too closely and they fall through the ice. As a cautionary tale Rutherford recounts the story of the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty that took the idea of ‘keeping it in the family’ a little too literally so that grandmothers and great-grandmothers were often the same people. Don’t get the idea that inbreeding is limited to royalty though. A quarter of the 2500 Britons in a 2015 survey classified as inbred to some degree. Mostly first cousins but parent/child, brother/sister and uncle/niece offspring were all represented (Icelanders – with their tiny genetic base – actually have an App that helps them avoid that genetic tripwire).

“Scientists discover a gene for X” is a headline you’ve probably seen a few times. Unfortunately it’s mostly fiction. At best, Rutherford informs us, scientist discover a gene which, in conjunction with other genes and the environment, might predispose people to X to some degree. A slightly less sexy headline to be sure. He’s equally happy to debunk the claims of ‘find your ancestors’ gene search companies. Sure, one of your ancestors may have come from a fishing village on the banks of the Danube a thousand years ago but a thousand years ago you had a million ancestors. They came from everywhere. The book absolutely blows away the myth of ‘pure’ bloodlines. The traits we associate with race – skin, hair, eyes – are superficial and transitory. We are a mongrel species (actually several species since we contain a pinch of Neanderthal and a dash of Denisovan among others) and to a geneticist an appellation like white or black “is no more a race than ‘long distance runner’” says Rutherford. It’s a useful and apposite lesson even if Rutherford bangs that particular drum a little too loudly in places.

To show just how recent these revelations are Rutherford includes a photo of a bet geneticists took in 2000 – just as the Human Genome project was getting going – on just how many genes the human race would turn out to have. All are vast overestimates. It requires many more genes to create the humble banana than a human being. The Human Genome project may have produced zero cures for genetic conditions but that wasn’t the point says Rutherford (yes, yes it was) but it’s provided us with a window into a vastly wider genetic world. Everything is connected to everything else, genes influence each other in subtle and complex ways, environment impacts how those genes are expressed across generations and promising early successes in finding single genes for disease such as cystic fibrosis turn out to have been fruit so low hanging it was practically on the ground.

This story of everybody who ever lived is turning out to be quite a bit more intriguing that anybody had thought. “A Brief History…” not only tells you lots of cool new stuff and shakes up what you thought you knew but it makes you think about it afterwards.

Homo Deus

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Homo Deus
by Yuval Noah Harari
Published by Penguin Random House www.penguin.co.uk

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Carl Jung

Ah, that difficult second album. Or, in this case, difficult second book. ‘Homo Deus’ extends Harair’s earlier work on humanity’s past into a history of the future. Sort of. Historians don’t necessarily make great futurologists (but then neither do futuroligists) and despite Harari’s brilliance ‘Homo Deus’ is a little like eating the best ice cream in the multiverse sprinkled with the occasional fly.

Harari is a big picture sort of guy, at his best with the grand sweep of history but he falters on smaller scales. ‘Homo Deus’ is an infuriating read for those of a Humanistic/liberal disposition (and perhaps even more so for those of the theistic bent). After careful consideration I think the problem is with his definitions. For Harari ‘religion’ is any belief or value system. Christianity and Communism differ only in the details. His caviler hijacking and re-defining of categories is tremendously irksome. I nearly spat out my tea when I read that Humanism is “the worship of man” (probably the only thing Humanists would agree it isn’t). However, just when you think he’s lost the plot entirely he’ll go and say something insightful to keep you reading. If you can get past these – fairly major – hurdles you’ll find arguments which will probably make you uncomfortable but which you might, if you’re being honest with yourself, grudgingly come to accept have some merit.

Humans, Harari argues, are in danger of “losing their value because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.” The broadly liberal / western system of values is just one more belief system no different from thousands of extinct predecessors in human history. It sprouts not from high-minded ideals but from a rich economic substrate. As economics jerks and judders into something unprecedented during the 21st Century perhaps so too will our values and morals. We are destined to fall, he suggests, not to the straw men of regressive theology or intolerance but to a ‘new religion’ of Dataism replacing the moral value of people with the moral value of information alone.

‘Homo Deus’ is certainly more challenge than comfort to the currently beleaguered ideals of any flavour of liberal humanism. It may seem like I’m just adding another rock to an already floundering ship in recommending this book, so why am I? Because we got complacent.

Civilisation is on the ropes, reeling from a series of body blows dealt by a resurgence of racism, isolationism and intolerance. In a fight we thought we were slowly winning, we now see we may really loose. It’s comforting to see the other guys as fueled by fear and lead by bigots and buffoons. In the immediate sense that may even be true but further back, they are themselves, Harari points out, being driven by the sort of inexorable historical momentum that’s pushed previous societies to ruin. Harari is certainly no fool or bigot. He espouses the values of a liberal civilisation while challenging their mechanisms and mandate. You’ll find no comforting echo-chambers here, just a smart, eloquent (if faintly sneering) author writing things that will have you muttering ‘that’s ridiculous’ under your breath on the commuter train (and, at least, gaining some additional seat space thereby) as you mentally marshal counter arguments.

‘Homo Deus’ is an irritating book. Its value lies not in its predictions of a particular future history – even the author admits that’s a fool’s game – but by compelling the reader to argue. By showing that our current values are not inviolate or historically inevitable ‘Homo Deus’ challenges us – perhaps not always in the manner Harari intended – to take a wider view, see past the immediate issues, and exercise the atrophied skill of defending (or amending) our principals in the face of oppositions more relentless, far-ranging and implacable.

The Idiot Brain

idiot-brain
The Idiot Brain
by Dean Burnett
Published by Guardian Books / Faber & Faber www.faber.co.uk

Here’s a tip. If you have to tell a joke, make sure you tell it to a bunch of people together. According to Dean Burnett in ‘The Idiot Brain’, people are 30 times more likely to laugh in a group than alone so that clever quip that’s greeted with a stony silence one-on-one will have them rolling in the aisles en-mass. That we should find humour in groups we never would alone is one of the brain’s many hiccups, mishaps and glitches that Burnett sets out to explore.

We can’t really blame the brain for it’s little foibles though. It’s doing it’s best to guide us through our complex modern lives with a self-assembled patchwork of junkyard mental machinery designed for completely different uses. After all, says Burnett, the first fish to crawl out of the sea wasn’t racked with self-doubt and thinking “This is the last time I play truth or dare with Gary”. As you can tell from that line, ‘The Idiot Brain’ is not a serious and somber account but rather firmly wedged at the popular end of popular science. That’s not to say it’s shallow. Burnett is an honest to goodness neuroscientist with letters after his name and everything – but the science is snappy and couched in a folksy humour. It’s the titchiest bit forced in places but mostly evokes a genuine smile.

The book is stuffed with plenty of entertaining and informative snippets in chapters on fear, intelligence, personality and more. Sleep is a prime topic where we have more questions than answers but some intriguing hints. For instance; we don’t sleep because of exhaustion. The metabolic activity of the body drops only 5% while asleep. Even hibernating animals enter a sleep state and actually use more energy to do so.

Then there’s memory. Burnett likens it to a computer but it’s not a computer you’d want to own. It erases or alters random files, runs everything through an ego filter to inflate self importance and flashes up your stash of Care Bear erotic fan fiction at the most inopportune moments. Unfortunately we can’t turn ourselves off and on again to fix this problem. We also have a working memory so small it would have embarrassed the boys at Bletchley Park. In compensation, our long term memory is tremendously good at storing stuff though recall seems to be very context dependant. Learn something while in a scuba suit under water and you might have to go diving again to remember what it was.

After a little bit of a slow start with a chapter on seasickness, Burnett races over far more mental territory than I can go into here. For example, he explains what all six of your nervous systems do, why you can remember everything about that old school friend except their name, why really smart people can do really stupid things (you know who you are), why ‘heads-up displays’ are a bad idea for pilots,… golly this is a long sentence isn’t it? Don’t worry. We’re nearly there…the rocky foundation of personality testing, why you’ve never heard of a ‘comfort salad’, how anger is good for you, why group polarization means that, ‘yes, we are all individuals’ and that ‘normal’ is more general consensus than fundamental fact.

‘The Idiot Brain’ is everything you want in a light science read – clever, funny, engaging and stuffed full of intriguing facts and the latest (occasionally clashing) theories. The information is fresh and bite-sized wrapped for even the most casual of armchair scientists but don’t worry if there’s something you don’t understand. As Burnett points out, your brain will make sure you’ll remember that you did.