Weapons are tools

Maybe humans are what happens high intelligence evolves in an animal that also has hands, and dolphins are what happens when comparably—if not still more extravagant—intelligence evolve in an animal without hands.

Hands basically get you an appetite for punching people in the head. It makes us tool users, but the distance between the hammer you use to knock open your coconut and the hammer you use to knock open the head of the other CroMagnon you’re not too keen on is zilch. There’s no difference at all.

D. Graham Burnet on Radiolab talking about some of the ideas behind John Lilly’s experiments with dolphins.

I’d all but forgotten about John Lilly’s dolphin experiments, but what struck me here was the intimate relationship between tools and weapons. It’s quite obvious when you think about it, but it’s not something I’ve thought about much before. My son’s dual obsession with both tools and weapons makes a bit more sense now (and is a bit more scary).

Books are like sharks

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

This is the third thing that I wanted to pull out from Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.

Douglas Adams is right. Books—physical books—have been around for centuries. They’ve spent a long time being adapted to all the things we need them to. I’ve encountered the current limitations of ebooks lately.

I’ve mentioned Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation on this blog a few times. I read it on my Kindle and iPhone. It’s a great book, but reading the foot notes was often a pain. It was a lot of moving back and forth. It got to the point that I ignored most of the footnotes, whereas if I’d been reading the physical book, I would have just glanced down at the bottom of the page.

I’ve also been reading Run Less, Run Faster recently. Determining a training plan means moving across several tables that contain racing plans, cross training suggested and suggested paces. I found this virtually impossible to do in an ebook. So much so, that I ordered the a physical copy of the book.

I also don’t think these are insurmountable issues. The problem right now is that many books are written with a physical book in mind. As people start writing and designing books knowing they are likely to be read across a range of devices, things like footnotes and tables will be presented differently and in a more usable way.

What I do think is interesting is that when I’m reading fiction, it doesn’t really matter what format I’m reading it in. Well, unless it’s something like Infinite Jest or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which are experimenting with the conventions of physical books). But most works of fiction have made the transition to ebooks without any issues. Again, Neil Gaiman has something to say about this.

We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens. I do not care – I do not believe it matters – whether these books are paper, or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing. But a book is also the content, and that’s important.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

Tales. Stories. They’ve outlasted the format they were written in. Whether in song, on papyrus, on potsherds, on scrolls, or in a book. Stories pass easily from one format to another. Burroughs said language is a virus for outer space, but I think it’s stories that are viral, inhabiting whatever format is available at the time.

One final thought. If books are like sharks, then stories are like dogs. They’ve adapted and evolved along with us. They are both a big part of what make us human. Our technology advances—stone carvings, agriculture, paper, cities, the printing press, the Internet and ebooks—but dogs and stories have stayed with us and easily adapted to those changes.

Natural cooperation

The two fundamental principles of evolution are mutation and naturalselection. But evolution is constructive because of cooperation. New levels of organization evolve when the competing units on the lower level begin to cooperate. Cooperation allows specialization and thereby promotes biological diversity. Cooperation is the secret behind the open-endedness of the evolutionary process. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of evolution is its ability to generate cooperation in a competitive world. Thus, we might add “natural cooperation” as a third fundamental principle of evolution beside mutation and natural selection.

Martin Nowak, reviewed five rules for the evolution of cooperation (PDF). In doing so, he argues strongly that cooperation is one of the fundamental mecahnisms underlying evolution.

David Rand takes this idea further. In the video below, he quickly covers three of the five rules outline by Nowak (direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity and network reciprocity). He then takes this further, showing data from his own research that shows that people are more likely to be cooparative if they make quick, intuitive decision and more selfish if they take longer to reflect on their decision.

The idea of natural cooperation is an interesting contrast (or perhaps complement) to the idea of the “selfish gene”

(found via Yochai Benkler’s The Unselfish Gene in the July 2011 issue of HBR)

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All you need is feet

“We have this idea now that all you need to run is a pair of shoes. It’s a common statement, right? Well, it turns out that’s not true. You don’t need shoes. All you need is feet.”

I’ve been researching barefoot running as one way of improving my form. Much of my reading, references Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, which I have yet to read.But there are also a lot of references to the research done on barefoot running by Daniel Lieberman of Harvard.

His hypothesis is that humans evolved over two million years ago to run barefoot when the African forests gave way to the savannahs. Much of the research he’s done seems to support this hypothesis, showing that a forefoot strike—which is much more common among barefoot runners—generates less impact than a heel strike.

The video is a great place to start getting an understanding of how barefoot running could help contribute to an improved running form. The Nature paper he coauthoured is also fascinating, but is much more technical. I had to get to grips with a lot of vocabulary that I hadn’t encountered since studying biology in college.

The morals of an ape

I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

In the New York Times, Frans de Wall discusses the evolution of cooperation and altruism. Along the way he raises a spirited defence of our innate sense of morality and, interestingly, of religion.

Update: August 13, 2014

I’ve just watched Frans de Wall’s TED talk, where he discusses the same subject. It worth watching if only for the fairness experiment they did with capuchin monkeys, which starts around 13 minutes.

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Baby slings & cyborgs

One of the major ways we get around the smart biped paradox is by growing infant’s head after birth… And that means that you are coping with an ever more helpless child. So the argument is that the baby sling is invented by bipedal Australopithecine females because they need that for their energy equations… Once you have solved that, it doesn’t really matter whether you keep its bum in a sling for a week, a month or a year. And therefore you have opened the way for selection pressures to actually act on increased intelligence…

[I]t’s the other way round to the way we normally think about it. We normally think about intelligence developing until we got smart enough to invent things. I’m arguing that in fact we’ve got to see very dexterous relatively small-headed bipeds doing inventing which leads to the terms of evolution changing. And that process I believe is still going on.

Archeologist Timothy Taylor argues that the invention of the baby sling lead to our ancestors evolving larger brains. More interestingly, he argues that this is still going on: we are developing technologies that change the way we evolve.

Coincidentally, the word “cyborg” was coined fifty years ago, and to celebrate Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon is curating 50 Posts About Cyborgs. I’m slowly making my way through them. Highlights so far are Tim’s own post, What’s a Cyborg?, and Kevin Kelly’s Domesticated Cyborgs.

So how did I get from baby slings to cyborgs? I’ll let Kevin Kelly tell you:

If a cyborg means a being that is part biological and part technological then we humans began as cyborgs, and still are. Our ancestors first chipped stone scrapers 2.5 million years ago to give themselves claws. By about 250,000 years ago they devised crude techniques for cooking, or pre-digesting, with fire. Cooking acts as a supplemental external stomach. Once humans acquired this artificial organ it permitted them to evolve smaller teeth and smaller jaw muscles and provided more kinds of stuff to eat. Our invention altered us.

We tend to think of our relationship with technology as something recent, as shiny and new as an iPhone. That’s not the case. It has been this way from the beginning, since before we became human. We like to think that we’ve created the technologies we use, but increasingly it looks as if they created us.

Also related: Your Posthumanism Is Boring Me

Darwin: What’s the Big Idea? (Part 1)

Yesterday, Joanne and I went to see the Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum. It’s a fairly large exhibition, and we only managed to see a little over half of it. Nevertheless, I’m already very impressed. We’ll be returning to see the other half later this month.

The exhibition feels very comprehensive, nevertheless, it feels very accessible. The reason for this is that the exhibition concentrates on several aspects of Darwin’s story. There is the science, obviously, about which more later. The exhibition also allows you to follow an adventure story: a bright, young man gets the chance of a lifetime to see the world. And there is also the story of Darwin the man and his relationships, both within the scientific community and with his own family.

What most impressed me was the gradual way in which the exhibition introduced Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin’s letters and notebooks take centre stage here. The exhibition picks out key moments in the voyage of the Beagle and explores how each of those moments contributed to the slow genesis of his “big idea”. It is absolutely fascinating, and very well done. At the end of the section of the voyage of the Beagle, the idea of natural selection (or at least of evolution) seem almost obvious. At the same time, you emerge with an appreciation of Darwin’s hard work and eye for detail.

The design of the exhibition also deserves a mention. It is perfect. It feels simultaneously Victorian and contemporary (think McSweeney’s / The Believer with a slight steampunk edge). The graphics are colorful and eye-catching, without being over the top. The brass-edged glass cases in the Beagle section feel suitably nautical. A detail as simple as the faux stitching along the edges of the labels in the document cases captures a sense of a time when most documents were hand-written.

I have only two small criticisms of the first half of the exhibition.

The first is not really a criticism of the exhibition itself. We were told that an hour and half would be plenty of time to see the whole exhibition. It wasn’t. I’d recommend giving yourself at least three hours if you want to take in the whole thing. Fortunately, the folks at the Natural History Museum were kind enough to give us vouchers to come back to see the second half of the exhibition.

My second criticism — and it is really more of a regret — is that some of the scientists featured in the short film at the end of the Beagle section sounded almost defensive. On second thought, that ever so slight tone of defensiveness may have been appropriate given that the second section explores the reasons that Darwin took almost 20 years to publish his theory. From my brief glimpse at that part of the exhibition, it also explores the ongoing reaction to his theories.

Despite these small criticisms, the exhibition is a must see. The amount of research and hard work that has gone into it is worthy of Darwin himself. It is certainly worth the £9 entry fee.

Update: We also visited the London Ice Sculpting Festival, which Joanne has covered on her blog and I uploaded some photos to flickr.