Book on the Evolution of the Human Brain

The Human Brain Evolving: Paleoneurological Studies in Honor of Ralph L. Holloway, edited by Douglas Broadfield, Michael Yuan, Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth. Stone Age Institute Press, Gosport Indiana and Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. 2010.

This is another book I got much cheaper than the cover prise through Oxbow Books’ bargain catalogue. The book is a collection of papers from a two day conference by the Stone Age Institute in April 2007 to celebrate the life and work of Ralph Holloway, one of the great founders of the field. Holloway as he explains in the first paper in which he gives his personal perspective, started out studying metallurgy at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia in the 1950s. He then moved to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he took courses in anthropology and geology. After this, he enrolled in the Ph.D. programme in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. There he became interested in exploring how evolution had shaped the development of primate brains. His interest in this area led him to do research in the brain casts from australopithecine skulls in South Africa, where his mentor was professor Phillip V. Tobias. In 1969 he settled down to study paleoneurology fulltime. His decision was partly made by the testicular trauma he suffered the previous year by the cops while in a student demonstration in New York. This gave him considerable with Prof. Tobias as the struggles he was having against apartheid and the fuzz in South Africa.

As Holloway himself explains, any study of the evolutionary development of the specialised structure of the human brain was very strongly discouraged when he was a student. The simple assumption was that humans got more intelligent as their brains got bigger. There was no investigation about how the particular areas of the brain, in which specific brain functions are located, developed. Indeed this was actively and vehemently discouraged. He says that his first mentor at Berkeley was Professor Sherwood Washburn, who kindly suggested that he take various courses in anatomy. When Holloway told him that he wanted to take the course in neuroanatomy, however, Washburn was horrified, and said that he would no longer be Holloway’s mentor if he did so, fearing that it would make him too specialised to be a physical anthropologist, an argument Holloway found unconvincing. He goes on to point out the paucity of material in physical anthropological textbooks from the 1950s to the present, pointing out that only one, published in 2008 actually does because its co-author, John Allen, is a neurologist.

The book’s contents include the following papers.

Chapter 1: The Human Brain Evolving: A Personal Retrospective, Ralph L. Holloway.

Chapter 2: The Maternal Energy Hypothesis of Brain Evolution: An Update, Robert D. Martin and Karen Isler.

Chapter 3: The Meaning of Brain Size: The Evolution of Conceptual Complexity, P. Tom Schoeneman.

Chapter 4: Human Brain Endocasts and the LB1 Hobbit Brain, Ralph L. Holloway.

Chapter 5: The Fossil Hominid Brains of Dmanisi: D 2280 and D2282, Dominique Grimaud-Herve and David Lordkipandze.

Chapter 6: The Evolution of the Parietal Cortical Areas in the Human Genus: Between Structure and Cognition, by Emiliano Bruner.

Chapter 8: Study of Human Brain Evolution at the Genetic Level, by Eric J. Vallender and Bruce T. Lahn.

Chapter 9: Brain Reorganisation in Humans and Apes, by Katerina Semendeferi, Nicole Barger and Natalie Schenker.

Chapter 10: Searching for Human Brain Specializations with Structural and Functional Neuroimaging, by James K. Rilling.

Chapter 11: Structural and Diffusion MRI of a Gorilla Brain Performed Ex Vivo at 9.4 Tesla, by Jason A. Kaufman, J. Michael Tyszka, Francine “Penny” Patterson, Joseph M. Erwin, Patrick R. Hof, and John M. Allman.

Chapter 12: The role of Vertical Organisation in the Encephalisation and Reorganisation of the Primate Cortex, Daniel P. Buxhoeveden.

Chapter 13: The Evolution of Cortical Neurotransmitter Systems Among Primates and their Relevance to Cognition, Mary Ann Raghanti, Patrick R. Hof, and Chet C. Sherwood.

Chapter 14: Sex Differences in the Corpus Callosum of Macaca fascicularis and Pan troglodytes, by Douglas C. Broadfield.

Chapter 15: Dental Maturation, Middle Childhood and the Pattern of Growth and Development in Earlier Hominins, by Janet Monge and Alan Mann.

Chapter 16: Perikymata Counts in Two Modern Human Sample Populations, by Michael Sheng-Tien Yuan.

Chapter 17: Mosaic Cognitive Evolution: The case of Imitation Learning, by Francys Subiaul.

Chapter 18: The Foundations of Primate Intelligence and Language Skills, by Duane M. Rumbaugh, E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, ,James E. King and Jared P. Taglialatella.

Chapter 19: Hominid Brain Reorganisation, Technological Change, and Cognitive Complexity, Nicholas Toth and Kathy Schick.

Clearly this is a written at an advanced, technical level for a specialist academic audience. I’ve done little but skim through it so far, but have found some fascinating facts. For example, Holloway’s paper on the brain of the Flores Hobbit recognises that it does share some features of modern microcephalics, but also others that are very different. This could mean that the creature could have been an archaic hominid suffering from a peculiar form of neurological defects that now no longer exists.

Emiliano Bruner’s paper argues from the study of Neanderthal and Early Modern Humans that modern humans’ parietal lobes are actually larger than would have been predicted by evolutionary theory for hominids of our size.

Anne Weaver’s paper argues that, in contrast to the standard view that this area of the brain has not evolved in the course of the development of modern humans, 30,000 years ago the size of the Cerebellum increased relative to the Cerebrum. The cerebellum is the part of the human brain dedicated to motor coordination and related tasks.

Douglas Broadfield’s paper on sex difference in chimp brains takes further Holloway’s and Kitty Lacoste’s 1982 paper, which controversially showed that that the corpus callosum in women was larger than those of men. His study of this part of the brain in chimps shows that this development is unique to humans.

Paleoneurology is still controversial, and Holloway holds some very controversial opinions. He’s an evolutionary reductionist, who considers culture to be the sole product of evolution, and religion and politics to be intrinsically evil. It’s an opinion he recognises is not held by the vast majority of people.

He also laments how the anthropology course at Columbia has abandoned physical anthropology, and been taken over completely by social anthropology, stating that the majority appear ‘postmodern, post colonialist, feminist and political’. This led to him being marginalised and isolated at the faculty.

He also states that it is stupid, for reasons of ‘political correctness’ not to consider that the same evolutionary processes that have shaped the different physical forms of the various human races, have not also affected their mental capacities and evolution too. He describes this research as intensely political and near-suicidal, and describes how he was accused of being a Nazi because of his investigation into it. He states that one critic described it as the kind of research that got his relatives put into concentration camps.

Professor Holloway is clearly a decent, humane man, who has in his day stood up for liberal values and protested against institutional racism. However, while he states that the neurological differences between male and female brains are ‘more or less accepted’ today, there are still women neurologists, who argue against them. More recently they’ve argued that sex difference in the brain are a continuum between the extremely male and extremely female, with most people lumped somewhere in between. In fact, the sex differences in the brain are so small that you simply can’t tell by looking whether a brain is male or female.

Furthermore, anthropological science was used in the period of full-blown European colonialism to justify White rule over their non-White subject peoples, and certainly has been used by Nazis and Fascists to justify their persecution of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and other ‘subhumans’. After the War, the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley cited scientific papers on the differences in intelligence between the races to argue for a form of apartheid that would lead to the complete separation of Blacks and Jews from White, gentile Brits. This would affect only those, who were allowed to remain in Britain, because their culture was compatible with White, gentile British civilisation. See the section 13, ‘The Colour Question in Britain, Immigration, the Racial Question’ in his wretched book, Mosley – Right or Wrong, published by Lion Books in 1961. And of course, like all Fascist after the War, Mosley denied that he was actually racist!

Holloway knows from personal experience just how touchy this subject is, and is aware that the lower IQ scores made by Black Americans is still a subject of intense and acrimonious debate. But he thinks it silly to rule out the question of racial differences in human brain structure because of current political dogma.

This is too complacent. My impression here is Prof. Holloway has this rather more tolerant view of the acceptability of this direction of neurological investigation, because he is a White man from a privileged background. After all, in the 1950s very few working or lower middle class Americans could afford to do a university or college degree. It simply has not affected him personally, although he has stood on the barricades to denounce racism and support other liberal causes during the student unrest of the late ’60s. The same applies to women. In the second edition of the BBC popular science programme QED in the ’80s, a female scientist presented a programme on how male scientists down the centuries had tried to argue that women were biologically inferior, before concluding that ‘the tables are turning’.

Racial neurology and the neurology of gender differences is particularly dangerous now with the rise of the Alt Right and real White supremacists and Nazis surrounding Donald Trump, and the whole milieu of the Republican party and Libertarians in America. These are intensely racist, despising Blacks, Asians and Latinos, and using scientific evidence like the highly controversial ‘Bell Curve’ to argue that Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites. I’ve also seen the islamophobes argue that Muslims also shouldn’t be allowed into Britain from the Middle East and Pakistan, as the average intelligence of the people from those regions is 75! Which to my mind is just ridiculous.

I’ve also heard from a friend, who keeps up with the latest neurological research by talking to some of the scientists involved, that recent studies of neuroplasticity have cast doubt on the amount of specialisation of brain function in specific brain regions. Moreover, everyone’s brain, male and female, is weird up differently. We may in fact know far less about the nature of the human brain, a point made by the neurologist and Humanist Professor Raymond Tallis in his book, Aping Mankind, written against precisely this kind of reductionism, which tries to reduce human cognition and culture by viewing it solely in terms of Darwinian theory in which humans are simply another species of ape.

This is a fascinating book, and offers many insights into the evolution of the human brain. But this is an area that is still developing, and intensely controversial. As such, other scientific opinions are available and should be read as well.

Kevin Logan on Milo Yiannopolis’ Editor’s Notes

I’ve been avoiding talking too much about politics this week as I simply haven’t had the strength to tackle the issues in as much detail as they deserve. Quite apart from the fact that the issues that have been raised in the media this week – the continuing running down of the NHS, the growth of food banks, homelessness and grinding poverty, all to make the poor poorer and inflate the already bloated incomes of the Tory elite, all make me absolutely furious. I’ve been feeling so under the weather that, quite simply, I couldn’t face blogging about them and making myself feel worse mentally as well as physically.

But this is slightly different.

Slate has published a piece about the guidance notes Alt-Right Trumpist cheerleader Milo Yiannopolis has got from his publishers at Simon and Schuster. In this short video, scourge of anti-feminists, racists and general Nazis Kevin Logan goes through the notes, and it’s hilarious.

There are pages and pages of them. And the more you read, the funnier it gets.

You remember Milo Yiannopolis? He was one of the rising stars of the Alt-Right. He’s anti-feminist, anti-immigration and in many peoples’ eyes, racist, although he’s denied that he actually has any Nazi connections. All this despite the fact that he was filmed in a bar getting Hitler salutes from a party of Alt-Right fans.

He was the IT correspondent for Breitbart, many of whose founders, managers and leading staff are racists, and have been described as such by the anti-racism, anti-religious extremism organisation and site Hope Not Hate. Yiannopolis has constantly denied that he’s racist or bigoted by playing the race and sexuality card. He’s half-Jewish, gay, and his partner is Black. And so he argues that he can’t possibly be prejudiced against people of different ethnicities and gays. Well, possibly. But he has said some extremely bigoted, racist and homophobic comments, quite apart from his anti-feminism.

He describes himself as ‘a virtuous troll’. Others just call him a troll. That’s all he is. He’s only good at writing deliberately offensive material, but is otherwise completely unremarkable. But he’s British public school elite, and so Americans, who should know much better, assume that somehow he’s more cultured, knowledgeable, better educated and insightful than he actually is. Sam Seder commented on Yiannopolis that if he wasn’t British, nobody would take any notice of him. I think it’s a fair comment. But it does show the snobbery that goes with class and accent. Incidentally, when I was a kid reading comics, my favourite characters were the Thing in the Fantastic Four, and Powerman, in Powerman and Iron Fist. And it was partly because of their accents. Stan Lee has a terrible memory, and to help him remember which character said what, he used to give them different voices, sometimes based on who was in the media at the time. He made the Thing talk like Jimmy Durante. He was a space pilot, but his speech was that of New York working class. I liked him because he was kind of a blue-collar joe, like my family.

The same with Powerman. He was a Black superhero, real name Luke Cage, who had been subjected to unethical medical experiments to create a superman by a corrupt prison governor after being wrongly convicted. I didn’t understand the racial politics around the strip, but liked the character because he was another lower class character with a working class voice. He also had the same direct approach as the Thing in dealing with supervillains. Whereas Mr. Fantastic, the leader of the Fantastic Four, and Cage’s martial artist partner in fighting crime, Iron Fist would debate philosophically how to deal with the latest threat to the world and the cosmos, according to the demands of reason and science in the case of Mr. Fantastic, and ancient Chinese mystical traditions, in Iron Fists’, the Thing and Powerman simply saw another megalomaniac, who needed to be hit hard until they cried for mercy and stopped trying to take over the world or the universe.

But I digress. Back to Milo. Milo was due to have a book published, but this fell through after he appeared on Joe Rogan’s show defending child abuse. Yiannopolis had been sexually abused himself by a paedophile Roman Catholic priest, but believed that he had been the predator in that situation. From what I understand, the victims of sexual abuse often unfairly blame themselves for their assault, so I’m quite prepared to believe that something like that happened to Yiannopolis. What was unusual – and revolting – was that Yiannopolis appeared to feel no guilt and regret at all about the incident.

Very, very many people were rightly disgust. He got sacked from Breitbart, along with a lot of other companies, his speaking tour had to be cancelled, and the book deal he had managed to finagle fell through.

Well, as Sergeant Major Shut Up used to say on It Ain’t ‘Alf Hot, Mum, ‘Oh, dear. How sad. Never mind.’ It couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke, and Yiannopolis got a taste of the kind invective and vitriol he poured on the ‘SJWs’ and the Left.

He appeared later on to ‘clarify’ his statement – not an apology – saying that he now knew he was the victim of child abuse, and stating that he didn’t promote or approve of the sexual abuse of children. But the damage was done.

Now it seems Yiannopolis’ book deal is back on, though Simon and Schuster really aren’t happy with the manuscript.

Comments include recommendations that he remove the jokes about Black men’s willies, doesn’t call people ‘cucks’, and stop sneering at ugly people. One of these is particularly hilarious, as his editor writes that you can’t claim that ugly people are attracted to the Left. ‘Have you seen the crowd at a Trump rally?’ Quite. I saw the front row of the crowd at BBC coverage of the Tory party convention one year, and they were positively horrific. It seemed to be full of old school country squire types, as drawn by Gerald Scarfe at his most splenetic.

The guidance goes on with comments like ‘No, I will not tolerate you describing a whole class of people as mentally retarded’, and then factual corrections. Like ‘This never happened’. ‘This never happened too.’ ‘No, you’re repeating fake news. There was no Satanism, no blood and no semen’. At one point the editor demands that an entire chapter be excised because it’s just off-topic and offensive.

Here’s the video.

There probably isn’t anything unusual in the amount of editing that Simon and Schuster require. Mainstream publishing houses often request changes or alteration to the manuscript. It happens to the best writers and academics. Years ago I read an interview with the editors of some of the authors of the world’s most influential books. One of them was Germaine Greer’s. Greer had sent in a manuscript about cross-dressing in Shakespeare. A fair enough subject, as there’s a lot of female characters disguising themselves as boys in the Bard’s plays. But she had the insight that Greer was far more interested in gender roles, and suggested she write about that instead. And the result was The Female Eunuch.

At a much lower level of literature, Private Eye had a good chortle about one of ‘Master Storyteller’ Jeffrey Archer’s tawdry epics. Apparently the gossip was that it went through seven rewrites. Ian Fleming’s editor for the Bond books, according to one TV documentary, was a gay man with a keen interest in dressing well. Which is why some of the sex in Bond was less explicit than Fleming intended, but also why Bond became suave, stylish dresser fighting supervillains in impeccably cut dinner suits.

No shame in any of this, then. But what makes it funny is that it’s happened to Yiannopolis, who seems to have been too much of an egotist to think that anything like it could ever really happen to him. Looking through the comments, it’s also clear that the editor really doesn’t like his bigotry, and the invective he spews against racial minorities and the disadvantaged. I got the impression that he or she really didn’t want to have anything to do with book, but has presumably been told they had to work with Yiannopolis because the publishers were going to put it out anyway, no matter what anyone else in the company felt.

And the editor’s clear dislike of his bigotry is a problem for Yiannopolis, because he’s a troll, and that’s just about all he does: pour out sneers, scorn and abuse, like a male version of Anne Coulter, another right-winger, who’s far less intelligent than she thinks she is. And I know that grammatically standards are a bit looser now than they were a few years ago, but when you have the comment ‘This is not a sentence’, it’s clear that Yiannopolis is failing at one of the basic demands of any writer from the editors of small press magazines to the biggest publishing houses and newspapers and magazines. They all insist that you should write properly in grammatically correct sentences. But Yiannopolis has shown that he can’t do that either.

As for the kind of literary snobbery that used to look down very hard on comics and graphic novels, while promoting opinionated bigots like Yiannopolis as ‘serious’ writers, my recommendation is that if you’re given a choice between going to comics convention or seeing Milo, go to the comics convention. You’ll be with nicer people, the comics creators on the panels are very good speakers, and themselves often very literate and cultured. I can remember seeing Charles Vess at the UKCAC Convention in Reading in 1990. Vess is a comics artist, but he’s also produced cover art for SF novels. He gave a fascinating talk about the great artists that have influenced him with slides. And one of the highlights was listening to the publisher of DC, Roy Kanigher, who was very broad New York. Didn’t matter. He was genuinely funny, to the point where the interviewer lost control of the proceedings and Kanigher had the crowd behind him all the way.

Which shows what a lot of people really know already: just because someone’s got a British public school accent, does not make them a genius, or that they’re capable of producing anything worth reading. Comics at their best can be brilliant. They open up children’s and adults’ imaginations, the art can be frankly amazing and quite often the deal with difficult, complex issues in imaginative ways. Think of Neil Gaiman, who started off as one of the writers at 2000 AD before writing the Sandman strip for DC. Or Alan Moore.

Yiannopolis is the opposite. All he does is preach hate, trying to get us to hate our Black, Asian and Latin brothers and sisters, despise the poor, and tell women to know their place. He has no more right to be published, regardless of his notoriety, than anyone else. And the editor’s demand for amendments show it.

Oh, and as regarding publishing fake news, he’d have had far less sympathy from Mike, if by some misfortune Mike had found himself as Yiannopolis’ editor. Proper journalists are expected to check their facts, which Mike was always very keen on. It was he was respected by the people he actually dealt when he was working as a journalist. The problem often comes higher up, at the level of the newspaper editors and publishers. In the case of Rupert Murdoch, I’ve read account of his behaviour at meetings with his legal staff that shows that Murdoch actually doesn’t care about publishing libellous material, if the amount of the fine will be lower than the number of extra copies of the paper the fake news will sale. Fortunately it appears that Simon and Schusters’ editors don’t quite have that attitude. But who knows for how long this will last under Trump. The man is determined to single-handedly destroy everything genuinely great and noble in American culture.

Share and Enjoy! The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Predicted the Tutorbot

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/12/2017 - 5:52am in

‘Share and enjoy’ is the company motto of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, a massive robotics conglomerate best known for its incompetence and shoddy workmanship in Douglas Adams’ Science Fiction classic, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The company and its products are so substandard, that its complaints division now occupies the major landmasses of three whole planets.

And while, according to Adams, the great Encyclopedia Galactica defined a robot as a machine designed to do the work of a man, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as ‘your plastic pal who’s fun to be with’.

And we’re coming closer to that reality every day. Yesterday and today, BBC 2 have been running a short documentary series, Six Robots and Us, in which six families and other groups of people take care of six robots designed to help them with their particular problems. One of these is Fitbot, a robotic fitness instructor, which was given to a group of people trying to get fit. In tonight’s episode, the people of a shop take custody of Shopbot, are robotic store worker, to see how they get on. And there are two children with learning difficulties, one of whom is autistic, who are given Tutorbot, to see if it can help them overcome their difficulties at school.

Douglas Adams predicted something very similar in the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy way back in the ’70s-80s. In the second series of the radio version of Hitch-Hiker, there’s a device called an autoteach, a kind of computer teacher. It gives the student facts, and then starts asking questions to get the student to think through the issues. If the student gets an answer right, they get to press a button on the autoteach, which stimulates their pleasure centres. And at the end of the lesson, after the students has laughed and screamed with pleasure when they get the answers right, the autoteach asks them to press the other button. This give the autoteach itself a dose of pure pleasure, so that part of the story ends with the autoteach laughing like a maniac.

Ok, so Tutorbot, with its humanoid shape isn’t quite like that, and it doesn’t electronically stimulate the pleasure centres, mercifully. But the idea’s more or less the same: an intelligent machine to teach children.

As for the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy defined them as ‘a bunch of mindless jerks, who will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.’

I didn’t see all of yesterday’s edition, because I went to bed early due to this cold. The next programme is on tonight, 28th December 2017, at 8.30. Aside from the cold, what went through my mind while watching the programme was all the jokes in Hitch-Hiker about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

Here’s a clip from YouTube from the 80s TV version of Hitch-Hiker, where the Book talks about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and robots.

Paintings of British Spaceplane MUSTARD

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/12/2017 - 3:32am in

This is awesome. It’s another couple of piccies from the SF art page, 70sscifiart, and it’s one of the entries for the 18th June 2017. They’re illustrations from a book on space about the MUSTARD spaceplane, a reusable space vehicle designed in 1964 by the British Aerospace Corporation. The scientists and engineers, who designed it realised that it was wasteful and expensive to build rockets that would last only for a single mission, before being mostly discarded.

Their solution, MUSTARD, effectively consists of three spaceplanes linked together. There’s the main craft, which flies into space, and two supporting planes, which serve to provide fuel to the main craft, helping it reach orbital velocity. When their fuel was used up, they broke away from the main plane, and flew back to Earth.

I first came across the MUSTARD project in an issue of the space/ science fiction magazine New Voyager back in the early 80s. This described the project, and interviewed some of the scientists and engineers involved. I think the problem with it is that it was probably far too far ahead of its time. I can remember reading that they estimated that the vehicle would start breaking even after 50 journeys. Now, looking at the economics of the space shuttle, that’s probably acceptable today. The only way the Space Shuttle remained competitive compared to the other launch vehicles developed by the Russians, the Europeans, India, China and Japan is because its subsidized by the American government. If you left it to market forces, it’d be uncompetitive. It’s another example of the way market forces are absolutely wonderful, but only so long as they don’t hurt big business and the ‘national interest’.

There were also probably political reasons for its cancellation as well. Britain at the time was also developing its own space rocket, Black Arrow, which successfully launched a satellite into space in 1975, to date the only British satellite that’s been launched by a British rocket. At the time Britain was involved in a European project to build a space rocket, with various stages built by the French, British and Germans. All of the other stages were failures with the exception of the British, and the project eventually fell apart. The civil servants in charge of British space research did not feel that there was a sufficient market to support an independent British rocket launcher, and instead decided that we’d piggy-back on the Americans.

The French, on the other hand, persevered, and developed their massive successful Ariane rocket, which is actually much more economical and performs better than the US space shuttle did. Which shows how farsighted the French can be when it comes to developing new technologies. Unlike our politicos, who seem to want to get everything cheap from someone else.

Tragically, the space shuttle was beset with problems, which resulted in a series of horrific catastrophes. The best known of these is probably the Challenger disaster, which led to the programme being suspended for years while the Shuttle was being examined and redesigned. Then there was that terrible incident a few years ago where the Shuttle exploded just when it was re-entering the atmosphere, breaking up over the US. This has led to the Shuttle being cancelled, and America reliant for manned spaceflight on the Russians.

I don’t doubt that the design for MUSTARD was sound, and it would have been way ahead of the other competing spacecraft if it had been built. Unfortunately, economics, politics and the will to do it weren’t there.

On the Political epistemology of The Last Jedi (III): prediction vs understanding

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 28/12/2017 - 11:14pm in


art, Film, Science

I like thinking about the Jedi because one way to understand them is as (military-)priestly-experts-of-nature who can (partially) control forces. This control of forces is, as Chaim Saiman notes, generally superior to mere weapons technology. In the first three episodes of Star Wars, they are an extra-democratic power in the (proper, and increasingly disorderded) functioning of the galactic democracy.* Unlike modern conceptions of the scientific-priestly, they are not really rule (technocratic-bureaucratic) followers, but rely quite a bit on contextual judgment. (It's not that they lack rules, but (recall) they violate them.) All episodes explore the ethical and political dimensions of such access to and control of natural power. But occassionally, the movies also explore the epistemic dimensions.

One of my favorite moments in The Last Jedi is Rey's remarkable confidence in her ability to see the future. She literally gambles her life on it. Even if one allows that her decision to do so may be influenced by her attraction (in all dimensions) to Kylo Ren (and her desire to save him), she has the courage of her convictions. And she can see the future: she correctly predicts it.

But it turns out that the succesful capacity to predict the future is not sufficient for wise action. For, the movie reveals two limitations: (a) she fails to interpret properly the nature of the predicted outcome--she thinks (the correctly anticipated)) Kylo Ren's rebellion against Snoke means that he will join forces with her [she never considers it may be a tactical alliance to depose Snoke]; (b) she fails to foresee the further, unintended consequences of her action, namely opening the way to Kylo Ren's supreme rule. Her failure of interpretation is caused (c) by her inability to understand Kylo Ren's soul/character (or by wishing the best for him, etc.).

In what follows I focus on a-b, but I should remind the reader that in (c) she merely echoes the original Jedi order's failure with Anakin Skywalker (it is an odd mistake because Luke emphasizes the failures of the Jedi);** again it is notable that Jedi powers themselves are revealed to lack knowledge  of characters/souls. Of course, the suggestion is not that Jedi powers prevents knowledge souls--Yoda has such knowledge--, but there is a consistent hint that Jedi power creates a form of overconfidence in which one fails to pay attention to other insights worth having. The original Star Wars trilogy showed that lack of knowledge of souls is destructive to the political art, and this theme is continued in The Last Jedi.

These days, many of our sciences of nature are betting on data-driven prediction devices (bayesian, artificial learning, etc.). Increasingly such devices are black-boxing the source or grounds of the predicton. Because such approaches dramatically outperform others, we should increasingly expect the ruling  image of science to emphasize prediction (rather than explanation, or exposing causal structure). [I have already seen papers doings so!] In the old days prediction was also valued, but predictive capacity is quite compatible with instrumentalist, anti-realist conceptions of science (and so it was thought that realism required something more, etc.). Being able to foresee the future in virtue of control of the force is like black-boxed predictive machine. One does not, thereby, have the tools to correctly interpret the future.

The Last Jedi teaches us that predictive capacity is not sufficient for practical judgment and may, in fact, sometimes undermine it. (It's an open question, of course, if getting rid of Snoke is an improvement over what follows it--stay tuned for the next episode.) The suggestion is not to give up on the force and do without prediction. But throughout the series we are taught that control of nature and predictive power are not sufficient for wise action. (Perhaps wise action would make a boring movie, too.) Something more is needed: such something more is interpretive capacity of human character. (I am not suggesting this is exhaustive: the importance of faith/steadfastness and trust in human goodness are recurring themes, too.) 

But there is a more fundamental point lurking here: throughout the last centuries we are constantly offered a choice between hermeneutic and exact sciences. So much so that 'science wars' have become a cliched trope to be rediscovered every generation (by folk who too frequently lack historical self-awareness of their own rediscovery). The intellectual and disciplinary divisions of labor merely reinforce these divides. But Star Wars correctly suggests this is/are (a) false opposition(s). The interpretive and predictive sciences can complement each other when agents rely on them to make choices; and to allow myself a moment of melodrama, we may say that -- in light of the huge challenges facing humanity -- without welcoming the insights and predictions of both forms of understanding we are likely to make (ahh) sub-optimal decisions.   




*Writing in the Atlantic, Saiman is incorrect to suggest that the failure of organized religion is a novel feature of The Last Jedi. As I noted yesterday; it has repeatedly failed.

**Han Solo had also misjudged Kylo Ren, but his flaw was that (in addition to counting on filial loyalty), he trusted his own rhetorical/persuasive abilities too much.

RT Shows Clip of Triple Suns Seen in China

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 28/12/2017 - 7:17pm in

This is a bit of fun and Fortean weirdness to cheer people up after the gloom and chaos of the seasonal weather and the continuing Tory destruction of the NHS, the economy, and everything decent in our society. A couple of days ago, RT put up this very short video of the triple suns seen in the sky over Hailun City. The blurb for the video states that it mesmerised the residents, and appeared at about half eight in the morning.

It’s an illusion, of course, which the RT blurb duly mentions. I think these type of illusions are called Sundogs, or parhelion. The large, middle sun is the real sun, whose light is refracted by ice or water crystals in the Earth’s atmosphere, thus creating the illusion that there are two smaller suns either side of it. It’s been seen several times in history. I think one appearance is recorded in one of the medieval chronicles for the 12/13th centuries, where three suns were seen by the people of one particular county in England.

I have read attempts to explain the strange creatures seen by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel as sundogs. When these appeared in the sky before him, they were travelling in strange vehicles like wheels, which also had other wheels revolving within them. This doesn’t actually sound like a sundog to me, and I think the incident is far better explained as a visionary experience. Of course, the UFO crowd have also tried to claim that what Ezekiel saw were really visiting extraterrestrials in their spaceships, following the theories of Von Daniken and the like. I really don’t believe that explanation either. Von Daniken’s ideas have been massively influential in promoting the ‘ancient astronaut’ hypothesis – that Earth has been visited throughout its history by aliens. But it’s also been extensively critiqued itself. Von Daniken got much of his facts wrong, and misinterpreted the archaeological and anthropological evidence he used to support his ideas.

But whatever your view of visiting aliens and UFOs, I think we can all enjoy this strange and weirdly beautiful spectacle.

STEM Sells (Buyer Beware)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/12/2017 - 11:32pm in

STEM. It sounds sciencey, doesn’t it? A stem is a type of cell, after all, as well as one of the two structural axes of a vascular plant, or tracheophyte. There are also “stem groups” in evolutionary biology, and Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy, and Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modellers. Probably there’s a group of physicists somewhere who play Jean-Michel Jarres covers and call themselves “The Stems”. Yes, STEM is a sciencey acronym for the sciencey twenty-first century.

STEM, as 3QD readers will know, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. And it is the go-to concept for anyone concerned with the future of our embattled species, especially when it comes to questions of how that species will continue to reproduce itself under conditions of waged labour and property and profit. Ever on the lips of politicians or at the fingertips of commentators, it is the universal remedy, not only to economic problems, but also to problems of social inclusion and democratic participation. Wondering about what kind of jobs we’ll be doing in the future? Think STEM. Worried about the future place of women in the workforce? Think STEM. Beginning to doubt the wisdom of sending yet another generation of kids to college, where they can accumulate yet more student debt and keep the financial sector ticking over? Think STEM.

Well, STEM schtem, I say, at least until someone can tell me, in a bit more detail, what it is our kids are supposed to be doing with all these sexy, STEMMY skills. For to dig down past the bland assertions of Bill Gates and his analogues, through all the rather vague pronouncements about generic skills and job clusters and coding and systems thinking and the like, is to discover, well, not much at all. I must have read at least fifty reports on the importance of STEM in the last couple of years, and nearly all of them cite the same statistic that 75% of the fastest-growing occupations will require workers with a STEM education. Little mention is made of what these sectors are, or of how big those sectors might become (regardless of their rate of growth), and when one digs down a little further most of them seem to lead back eventually to a handful of slightly aged studies. It’s all beginning to smell a bit fishy. What is going on?

One thing that’s going on, of course, is that policy makers and analysts are trying to grapple with what we all agree is an epochal change in the nature of our economy – a fourth technological revolution in which robotisation/automation will come to displace – is already displacing – a massive number of occupations currently performed by us higher primates. Nor will all of the most vulnerable jobs be the unskilled, low-paid ones at the “bottom”; unlike previous technological revolutions, this one threatens occupations in the middle of the income scale, and is set to bring about as a consequence an increasing “polarisation” of the workforce, with manual and menial workers at one end and higher white-collar professionals at the other. This will increase inequality, which will in turn impede mobility (such as it is) between the classes. It also has the potential, of course, to generate massive unemployment.

Those who think this is likely to happen – let’s call them the Cassandras for now – are urging us to think out of the capitalist box – to prepare for the coming “jobocalypse” and, indeed, for the crisis of realisation – i.e. the inability of business to realise its profits in a marketplace denuded of well-paid consumers – that is bound to follow hard on its heels. These commentators will often call for a reinvention of social democracy based around a guaranteed income, a shorter working week and so on, and the more intellectually ambitious among them will see this as a stepping stone to a new “post-capitalist” society. That emerging technologies such as 3D printing rely on digital information that can be stored and shared for free gives a tantalising bit of credibility to this hope.

Those who take the alternative view – the Pollyannas, until further notice – suggest that the fear of what John Maynard Keynes called “technological unemployment” is overstated, and that it is far more likely that the capitalist economy will adapt, as it has adapted before, to radically changed and changing conditions. They point, not unreasonably, to the anxieties of politicians and commentators of the past – US economist Wassily Leontief, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Keynes himself – and invite the Cassandras to consider their record of prediction in this connection (not good). Capitalism, they say, will cope with the disruption, just as it coped with disruptions in the past. The washing machine did for the laundry maid, but the laundry maid went on to other things, and anyway who wants to do the fricken laundry! It is here that STEM tends to make its appearance.

There’s no denying that the Pollyannas make some very makeable points, but they seem to me to be in some danger of perpetrating at least two fallacies. (I’m hoping Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse will tell me if I’m wrong on this.) The first is a fallacy of composition: just because emerging technologies haven’t destroyed the capitalist economy in the past doesn’t mean that emerging technologies won’t destroy the capitalist economy in future – a capitalist economy, by the way, that is doing a pretty good job of destroying itself, if certain economists are to be believed. The second fallacy is our old friend the non sequitur: just because the future is going to be more technologically advanced than the present doesn’t mean there will necessarily be more jobs in technology. It can’t have escaped the Pollyannas’ notice that the robots are made and maintained by robots, which are made and maintained by other robots, or that some of the “fastest-growing” professions are going to remain, well, pretty small. Biomedical engineering is growing at a cracking rate but I haven’t seen many biomed jobs advertised in the local prints.

There is more than a whiff of groupthink about this, as well as a sense that certain interests are being snuck in under Panacea’s petticoats. Fear of economic decay and defeat – “Look at China surging ahead!” – is a tactic long deployed by lobbyists, and I’ve no doubt that having an oversupply of STEM-educated labour will be good for those industries hoping to benefit from future technologies. (Such an oversupply would allow them to control wages – i.e. to keep them low.) Meanwhile regular references to STEM allow politicians to sound in control – to sound as if they have a plan for the future. My own Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, rode in to power singing the praises of the new tech and assuring his fellow Australians – who are just now beginning to feel the effects of the end of a resources boom – that “There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.” Since then he’s managed to recommit his party to the coal industry and screw up the national broadband network.

That much of the STEM-related material (and the Pollyannaish excitement surrounding it) heralds from the universities gives it a cachet it wouldn’t otherwise have. But education is a sector, too, and it lobbies just as aggressively as any other. Is it too cynical to suggest that, perhaps, our universities might look kindly on solutions that ensure a cascade of fresh bodies through their doors? In Australia education is now the third biggest export, and the foreign students who partake of it a valued source of casual labour. One doesn’t have to view the tertiary sector as a corrupt adjunct of the business community to entertain such reservations.

Education, of course, is the thing to which New Democrats of the Bill Clinton variety reflexively referred their base when they dropped their commitment to much of the architecture of post-war social democracy. Investment in it was supposed to translate into a new, and newly educated, workforce, as well as square the political circle between the priorities of social liberalism and those of the emerging, globalised economy. Education, and its close friend meritocracy, would replace the focus on equality of outcome with a focus on equality of opportunity, the effect of which is to rationalise and valorise the “flexibility” – i.e. precarity – that we all now feel in our neoliberal paradise. As risk has been transferred from capital to labour, the higher education sector has exploded. Both sides of politics now accept this situation and frame their policies with reference to it.

What we’re faced with now, it seems to me – and the STEM shtick is a part of this – is a kind of capitalist utopianism with education at its centre. Not only will the universities plug holes in the emerging economy; they will also create the entrepreneurs and innovators who will invent that economy, while also evolving the “clean” technologies that will save our over-baked planet from extinction. Moreover, by attracting more “women and girls” into STEM subjects they will ensure that the rewards of tomorrow will be equally shared among the sexes. Well spank me red and call me “Elon”, if we haven’t just solved the problems of the world in a single, sexy, sciency soundbite!

Rather than simply hoping for the best, as per the prescriptions of utopian capitalism, might not our time, or some of our time, be better spent thinking about what kind of world we actually want on the other side of this? Even if the Pollyannas are right and capitalism thrives in this new environment, is “jobs and growth” the be all and end all? The new tech offers opportunities for an entirely new relationship with work and an entirely new economy. But governments, which could be discussing ways of socialising this new technology, instead only think about capitalising it, or rather about enabling debt-encumbered Millennials to capitalise it for them, down the road. That is the subtext of much STEM-speak: “Hold tight, and an army of capitalist boffins – energetic mini Zuckerbergs and Musks – will keep us all afloat for another century.”

As an unofficial spokesperson for the Cassandra camp, I can assure you that we are not at all nihilistic about our species’ future. It’s just that we think that another version of what we have now – an eight-hour day and a five-day week, jobs full of pointless busywork – isn’t much of a prospect, frankly. Nor are we down on STEM “skills”. Speaking for myself, I’d love a few of those, if only so I can fix some of the obsolescent crap that capitalism obliges me to buy with my meagre wages. But that’s knowledge I can get for free, increasingly, via the YouTube tutorial. See what the new technology can do!

What I’m saying is that it’s us who are the real Pollyannas and the Pollyannas who are the real Cassandras. Capitalism is a dying system and new technologies hold out the prospect of a comfortable and meaningful existence beyond it – a life in which there will be plenty of time to contemplate the glories of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To that end, I recommend an alternative course of study, on history, ownership and political economy. HOPE. Sounds politicy, doesn’t it?


First published at 3 Quarks Daily

Pirate support for creation of a national space agency

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/08/2017 - 1:48pm in

Pirate Party Australia supports in principle the government’s call for a review of the space industry capability in Australia. This is an opportunity for the government to win back trust lost in the technology sector through implementation of the short sighted fibre to the node model for the National Broadband Network. A rapidly expanding Australian […]

Are the Humanities More Digital than the Sciences?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/03/2016 - 11:33pm in



A panel discussion with Howard Hotson, Andrew Prescott, Dave De Roure and Heather Viles Are the Humanities More Digital than the Sciences? A panel discussion with Howard Hotson, Andrew Prescott, Dave De Roure and Heather Viles. Part of the Humanities and the Digital Age TORCH 2016 Headline Series. The presumption is often that the relationship between the humanities and sciences will be one-way, and that it will be the humanities learning from sciences. But what can sciences learn from the way that the humanities are using digital output for their research?

Too Valuable to Die?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 14/10/2015 - 9:16pm in

Silke Ackermann, Nigel Biggar and Liz Bruton debate the ethics of science and scientists going to war Silke Ackermann (Director, Museum of the History of Science) Liz Bruton (Co-curator, “Dear Harry”… Henry Moseley: A Scientist Lost to War) and Nigel Biggar (Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford) will discuss the ethics of scientists going to war in response to the current Museum of the History of Science exhibition exploring the life and legacy of talented English physicist Henry Moseley.

When Moseley was killed on the battlefield at Gallipoli in August 1915, newspapers on all sides of the conflict denounced his tragic death with one English newspaper headline proclaiming that Moseley was "too valuable to die". Moseley's death contributed to a changing attitude to scientists and science going to war with scientists and engineers being kept away from the frontline. Instead the work of scientists and engineers - research and expertise - is used to meet military goals with scientific research increasingly relying on military funding.

In this discussion, the speakers discuss the ethics of scientific research being used for military ends as well as whether scientists being held back from frontline service means others serve and die in their place.