The Brain in Pain

You can stop reading now, if you want. Or can you? Are your decisions really your own, or are you and all other human beings merely spectators in the mind-arena, observing but neither influencing nor initiating what goes on there? Are all your apparent choices in your brain, but out of your hands, made by mechanisms beyond, or below, your conscious control?

In short, do you have free will? This is a big topic – one of the biggest. For me, the three most interesting things in the world are the Problem of Consciousness, the Problem of Existence and the Question of Free Will. I call consciousness and existence problems because I think they’re real. They’re actually there to be investigated and explained. I call free will a question because I don’t think it’s real. I don’t believe that human beings can choose freely or that any possible being, natural or supernatural, can do so. And I don’t believe we truly want free will: it’s an excuse for other things and something we gladly reject in certain circumstances.


Continue reading The Brain in Pain

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Tattoo Your Ears

“The most merciful thing in the world,” said H.P. Lovecraft, “is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Nowadays we can’t correlate all the contents of our hard-drives either. But occasionally bits come together. I’ve had two MP3s sitting on my hard-drive for months: “Drink or Die” by Erotic Support and “Hunter Gatherer” by Swords of Mars. I liked them both a lot, but until recently I didn’t realize that they were by two incarnations of the same Finnish band.

Cover of "Die by the..." Swords of Mars
They don’t sound very much alike, after all. But now that I’ve correlated them, they’ve inspired some thoughts on music and mutilation. “Drink or Die” is a dense, fuzzy, leather-lunged rumble-rocker that, like a good Mötley Crüe song, your ears can snort like cocaine. But, unlike Mötley Crüe, the auditory rush lasts the whole song, not just the first half. “Hunter Gatherer” is much more sombre. Erotic Support were “Helsinki beercore”; Swords of Mars are darker, doomier and dirgier. They’ve also got a better name – “Erotic Support” seems to have lost something in translation. Finnish is a long way from English: it’s in a different and unrelated language family, the Finno-Ugric, not the Indo-European. So it lines up with Hungarian and Estonian, not English, German and French. But Erotic Support’s lyrics are good English and “Drink or Die” is a clever title. They’d have been a more interesting band if they’d sung entirely in Finnish, but also less successful, because less accessible to the rest of the world.

Es war einmal eine Königstochter, die ging hinaus in den Wald und setzte sich an einen kühlen Brunnen. Sie hatte eine goldene Kugel, die war ihr liebstes Spielwerk, die warf sie in die Höhe und fing sie wieder in der Luft und hatte ihre Lust daran. Einmal war die Kugel gar hoch geflogen, sie hatte die Hand schon ausgestreckt und die Finger gekrümmt, um sie wieder zufangen, da schlug sie neben vorbei auf die Erde, rollte und rollte und geradezu in das Wasser hinein.

Some Indo-European


Mieleni minun tekevi, aivoni ajattelevi
lähteäni laulamahan, saa’ani sanelemahan,
sukuvirttä suoltamahan, lajivirttä laulamahan.
Sanat suussani sulavat, puhe’et putoelevat,
kielelleni kerkiävät, hampahilleni hajoovat.

Veli kulta, veikkoseni, kaunis kasvinkumppalini!
Lähe nyt kanssa laulamahan, saa kera sanelemahan
yhtehen yhyttyämme, kahta’alta käytyämme!
Harvoin yhtehen yhymme, saamme toinen toisihimme
näillä raukoilla rajoilla, poloisilla Pohjan mailla.

Some Finno-Ugric


All the same, being inaccessible sometimes helps a band’s appeal to the rest of the world: the mystique of black metal is much stronger in bands that use only Norwegian or one of the other Scandinavian languages. Erotic Support haven’t joined that rebellion against Coca-Colonization and tried to create an indigenous genre. They’re happy to reproduce more or less American music using the more or less American invention known as the electric guitar. But amplified music would have appeared in Europe even if North America had been colonized by the Chinese, so I wonder what rock would sound like if it had evolved in Europe instead. It wouldn’t be called rock, of course, but what other differences would it have? Would it be more sophisticated, for example? I think it would. The success of American exports depends in part on their strong and simple flavours. “Drink or Die” has those flavours: it’s about volume, rhythm and power. It’s full of a certain “drug-addled, crab-infested, tinnitus-nagged spirit” — the “urge to submerge in the raw bedrock viscerality of rock”, as some metaphor-mixing, über-emphasizing idiot once put it (I think it was me).

Cover of "II" by Erotic Support

Erotic Support are “beercore”, remember. Beer marks the brain with hangovers, just as tattoos mark the skin with ink. And just as loud music marks the ears with tinnitus. There are various kinds of self-mutilation in rock and that self-mutilation can have unhealthy motives. It can be an expression of boredom, angst, anomie and self-hatred. Unsurprisingly, Finland has the nineteenth highest suicide rate in the world. Beer, tattoos and tinnitus are part of the louder, dirtier and loutier end of rock: unlike Radiohead or Coldplay, Erotic Support sound like a band with tattoos who are used to hangovers. “Drink or Die” is a joke about exactly that. But what if rock had evolved in a wine-drinking culture? Would it be less of a sado-masochistic ritual, more a refined rite? Maybe not: the god of wine is Dionysos and he was Ho Bromios, the Thunderer. His brother Pan induces panic with loud noises. But black metal looks towards northern paganism: it’s music for pine forests, cold seas and beer-drinkers, not olive groves, warm seas and oenopotes.

Erotic Support don’t create soundscapes for Finland the way black metal creates soundscapes for Norway, but they do create beer-drinkers’ music, so they do express Finnishness to that extent. Swords of Mars, being darker, doomier and dirgier, are moving nearer an indigenous Finnish rock, or an indigenous Scandinavian rock, at least. This may be related to the fact that genes express themselves more strongly as an individual ages: for example, the correlation between the intelligence of parents and their children is strongest when the children are adults. Erotic Support create faster, more aggressive music than Swords of Mars, so it isn’t surprising that they’re the younger version of the same band. In biology, the genotype creates the phenotype: DNA codes for bodies and behaviour. Music is part of what Richard Dawkins calls the “extended phenotype”, like the nest of a bird or the termite-fishing-rods of a chimpanzee. A bird’s wings are created directly by its genes; a bird’s nest is created indirectly by its genes, viâ the brain. So a bird’s wings are part of the phenotype and a bird’s nest part of the extended phenotype.

Both are under the influence of the genes and both are expressions of biology. Music (like bird-song) is an expression of biology too, as is the difference between the music of Erotic Support and Swords of Mars. As brains age, the behaviour they create changes. Swords of Mars are older and not attracted to reckless self-mutilation as Erotic Support were: it’s not music to precede hangovers and induce tinnitus any more. Sword of Mars aren’t trying to tattoo your ears but to educate your mind.

The Isle of the Torturer

Front cover of The Doors of Perception by Aldous HuxleyAldous Huxley (1894-1963), the author of Brave New World (1932) and After Many A Summer (1939), is a bad but interesting writer. One of his bad but interesting books is The Doors of Perception (1954), in which he discusses mescalin and mysticism. I like this comment a lot:

In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important question: Who influenced whom to say what when? (Op. cit., pg. 61 of the 1985 Panther paperback)

It’s an insightful and entertaining point. There are analogous questions in biology: what genes influence what and where do they come from? But biologists can answer questions like that much more precisely, because genes are physical entities, susceptible to precise chemical analysis. They can be easily mathematized, turned into statistics, tested for correlations and other patterns. We can’t yet do that to “words and notions” and get the same precise answers. That’s why it’s sometimes easier to answer questions about human prehistory over hundreds of millennia than about human history over decades. For example, we now know that ancient human beings migrating from Africa picked up genes from Neanderthals and a lesser-known group called the Denisovans, while those human beings that stayed behind in Africa picked up genes from other archaic hominids.

But we don’t know whether the Californian author Clark Ashton Smith (1894-1961) influenced the British author Ian Fleming (1908-64). At least, I don’t know, because I think I am the first person to raise the possibility. After all, they aren’t obvious literary associates: Smith wrote highly ornate fantasy set on a quasi-mediaeval far future earth; Fleming wrote vice-and-violence spy-thrillers set in contemporary Europe, America and Japan. And in the Caribbean, which is why the question of CAS’s influence occurred to me. Fleming was the creator of James Bond and one of his Bond adventures, published in 1958, is called Dr. No. It is named after its anti-hero, a Chinese-German megalomaniac called Doctor Julius No who lives on the mountainous island of Crab Key near Jamaica. He is conducting research into the human capacity for suffering:

“Silence!” Doctor No’s voice was the crack of a whip. “Enough of this foolery. Of course it will hurt. I am interested in pain. I am also interested in finding out how much the human body can endure. From time to time I make experiments on those of my people who have to be punished. And on trespassers like yourselves. You have both put me to a great deal of trouble. In exchange I intend to put you to a great deal of pain. I shall record the length of your endurance. The facts will be noted. One day my findings will be given to the world. Your deaths will have served the purposes of science.” (Op. cit., ch. XVI, “Horizons of Agony”)

Front cover of Dr No (Pan paperback)

He is talking to James Bond and Bond’s companion, the beautiful blonde Honeychile Rider. Bond will have to run an “obstacle race, an assault course against death”, which is designed to be unbeatable. Meanwhile, Honeychile will be “pegged out” on the mountain-side as part of another experiment. With sadistic relish, Doctor No reveals what will happen to her:

“This island is called Crab Key. It is called by that name because it is infested with crabs, land crabs — what they call in Jamaica ‘black crabs’. You know them. They weigh about a pound each and they are as big as saucers. At this time of year they come up in thousands from their holes near the shore and climb up towards the mountain. … The crabs devour what they find in their path. … And tonight, in the middle of their path, they are going to find the naked body of a woman pegged out — a banquet spread for them — and they will feel the warm body with their feeding pincers, and one will make the first incision with his fighting claws and then… and then…”

And then Honeychile faints. But, like all the best super-villains, Doctor No mixes sensibility with his sadism. This is what Bond and Honeychile first see when they step from a lift into the heart of Doctor No’s underground lair:

It was a high-ceilinged room about sixty feet long, lined on three sides with books to the ceiling. At first glance, the fourth wall seemed to be made of solid blue-black glass. … Bond’s eye caught a swirl of movement in the dark glass. He walked across the room. A silvery spray of small fish with a bigger fish in pursuit fled across the dark blue. … What was this? An aquarium? Bond looked upwards. A yard below the ceiling, small waves were lapping at the glass. Above the waves was a strip of greyer blue-black, dotted with sparks of light. The outlines of Orion were the clue. This was not an aquarium. This was the sea itself and the night sky. The whole of one side of the room was made of armoured glass. They were under the sea, looking straight into its heart, twenty feet down.

Front cover of Dr No (Pan paperback)

Bond and the girl stood transfixed. As they watched, there was the glimpse of two great goggling orbs. A golden sheen of head and deep flank showed for an instant and was gone. A big grouper? A silver swarm of anchovies stopped and hovered and sped away. The twenty-foot tendrils of a Portuguese man-o’-war drifted slowly across the window, glinting violet as they caught the light. Up above there was the dark mass of its underbelly and the outline of its inflated bladder, steering with the breeze.

Bond walked along the wall, fascinated by the idea of living with this slow, endlessly changing moving picture. A big tulip shell was progressing slowly up the window from the floor level, a frisk of demoiselles and angel fish and a ruby-red moonlight snapper were nudging and rubbing themselves against a corner of the glass and a sea centipede quested along, nibbling at the minute algae that must grow every day on the outside of the window. (Op. cit., ch. XIV, “Come Into My Parlour”)

Yes, the sea-window is a fascinating idea, but where does the idea come from? Here is another literary character, King Fulbra, in the underground domain of another sadist:

After descending many stairs, they came to a ponderous door of bronze; and the door was unlocked by one of the guards, and Fulbra was compelled to enter; and the door clanged dolorously behind him. The chamber into which he had been thrust was walled on three sides with the dark stone of the island, and was walled on the fourth with heavy, unbreakable glass. Beyond the glass he saw the blue-green, glimmering waters of the undersea, lit by the hanging cressets of the chamber; and in the waters were great devil-fish whose tentacles writhed along the wall; and huge pythonomorphs with fabulous golden coils receding in the gloom; and the floating corpses of men that stared in upon him with eyeballs from which the lids had been excised.

That is from Clark Ashton Smith’s short story “The Isle of the Torturers” (1933), which was originally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Like the evil King Ildrac of Smith’s story, Doctor No lives on an island, tortures people and has a glass wall set onto the undersea. But that is not all they have in common. Here is Fleming’s description of Doctor No:

He stood looking at them benignly, with a thin smile on his lips. … (Bond was to get used to that thin smile) … Bond’s first impression was of thinness and erectness and height. Doctor No was at least six inches taller than Bond, but the straight immovable poise of his body made him seem still taller. The head also was elongated and tapered from a round, completely bald skull down to a sharp chin so that the impression was of a reversed raindrop — or rather oildrop, for the skin was of a deep almost translucent yellow.

It was impossible to tell Doctor No’s age: as far as Bond could see, there were no lines on the face. It was odd to see a forehead as smooth as the top of the polished skull. Even the cavernous indrawn cheeks below the prominent cheekbones looked as smooth as fine ivory. There was something Dali-esque about the eyebrows, which were fine and black, and sharply upswept as if they had been painted on as makeup for a conjurer. Below them, slanting jet black eyes stared out of the skull. They were without eyelashes. (ch. XIV, “Come Into My Parlour”)

When King Fulbra is shipwrecked on Uccastrog, the Isle of the Torturers, this is his first sight of its inhabitants:

The people drew near, thronging about the barge and the galley. They wore fantastic turbans of blood-red, and were clad in closely fitting robes of vulturine black. Their faces and hands were yellow as saffron; their small and slaty eyes were set obliquely beneath lashless lids; and their thin lips, which smiled eternally, were crooked as the blades of scimitars. (“The Isle of the Torturers”)

Fulbra surrenders to them with misgivings and is taken to the throne-room of his fellow king, where his misgivings grow:

Soon he came into the presence of Ildrac, who sat on a lofty brazen chair in a vast hall of the palace. Ildrac was taller by half a head than any of his followers; and his features were like a mask of evil wrought from some pale, gilded metal; and he was clad in vestments of a strange hue, like sea-purple brightened with fresh-flowing blood. About him were many guardsmen, armed with terrible scythe-like weapons; and the sullen, slant-eyed girls of the palace, in skirts of vermilion and breast-cups of lazuli, went to and fro among huge basaltic columns. About the hall stood numerous engineries of wood and stone and metal such as Fulbra had never beheld, and having a formidable aspect with their heavy chains, their beds of iron teeth and their cords and pulleys of fish-skin. (Op. cit.)

Master of the Crabs from Weird TalesThe similarities between Doctor No and “The Isle of the Torturers” are obvious. But how likely is it that Fleming had read Smith’s story and then incorporated elements of it into his novel, consciously or unconsciously? Smith wrote of a tall, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned king who ruled an island and oversaw ingenious tortures. Fleming wrote of a tall, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned scientist who ruled an island and oversaw ingenious tortures. The scientist also used crabs as weapons, like the wizard Sarcand in Smith’s story “The Master of the Crabs” (1948):

So saying, he raised his hand and described a peculiar sign with the index finger, on which the ring flashed like a circling orb. The double column of crabs suspended their crawling for a moment. Then, moved as if by a single impulse, they began to scuttle toward us, while others appeared from the cavern’s entrance and from its inner recesses to swell their rapidly growing numbers. They surged upon us with a speed beyond belief, assailing our ankles and shins with their knife-sharp pincers as if animated by demons. I stooped over, striking and thrusting with my arthame; but the few that I crushed in this manner were replaced by scores; while others, catching the hem of my cloak, began to climb it from behind and weigh it down. Thus encumbered, I lost my footing on the slippery ground and fell backward amid the scuttling multitude. (“The Master of the Crabs”)

And that doesn’t exhaust the parallels between Smith’s stories and Fleming’s novel. Here is more of Doctor No’s appearance:

The bizarre, gliding figure looked like a giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin-foil, and Bond would not have been surprised to see the rest of it trailing slimily along the carpet behind. (ch. XIV, “Come Into My Parlour”)

This is from Smith’s story “The Coming of the White Worm” (1941):

At sight of this entity, the pulses of Evagh were stilled for an instant by terror; and, following quickly upon the terror, his gorge rose within him through excess of loathing. In all the world there was naught that could be likened for its foulness to Rlim Shaikorth. Something he had of the semblance of a fat white worm; but his bulk was beyond that of the sea-elephant. His half-coiled tail was thick as the middle folds of his body; and his front reared upward from the dais in the form of a white round disk, and upon it were imprinted vaguely the lineaments of a visage belonging neither to beast of the earth nor ocean-creature. (“The Coming of the White Worm”)

I can’t claim that it’s probable that Fleming had read Smith or even a strong possibility that he did so, but the shared elements are suggestive. The fact that Doctor No and King Ildrac are both tall could easily, on its own, be a coincidence: size is an obvious and widely used marker of importance and dominance. But each additional similarity reduces the possibility that Fleming was inventing Doctor No ex nihilo. He was certainly familiar with American popular culture and the cheap publications in which Smith’s work appeared. Here are descriptions from two more Bond novels:

There were two or three all-night diners to choose from and they [Bond and a girl called Solitaire] pushed through the door that announced “Good Eats” in the brightest neon. It was the usual sleazy food-machine — two tired waitresses behind a zinc counter loaded with cigarettes and candy and paper-backs and comics. (Live and Let Die, 1954, Chapter XII, “The Everglades”)

At 12.30 they [Bond and his companion Felix Leiter] stopped for lunch at The Chicken in the Basket, a log-built Frontier-style road-house with standard equipment — a tall counter covered with the best-known proprietary brands of chocolates and candies, cigarettes, cigars, magazines and paperbacks, a juke box blazing with chromium and coloured lights that looked like something out of science fiction … (Diamonds Are For Ever, 1956, Chapter 10, “Studillac to Saratoga”)

Smith’s themes – death, pain and suffering – would certainly have appealed to Fleming, who practised sado-masochism with his wife Ann and returned again and again to those themes in his Bond books. This is from You Only Live Twice (1964):

“That is so. You are indeed a genius, lieber Ernst. You have already established this place as a shrine to death for evermore. People read about such fantasies in the works of Poe, Lautréamont, de Sade, but no one has ever created such a fantasy in real life. It is as if one of the great fairy tales has come to life. A sort of Disneyland of Death. But of course,” she hastened to add, “on an altogether grander, more poetic scale.” (Op. cit., Part 2, ch. 17, “Something Evil Comes This Way”)

So it seems that Fleming had read and appreciated Poe and Lautréamont. If he had come across Smith’s work during his trips to America, I suggest that he would not have dismissed it. And it may indeed have influenced his novel Dr. No. Perhaps literary forensics will be able to confirm or reject the hypothesis in future by analysing patterns in Smith’s and Fleming’s work.

At present, the influence of the obscure Californian Smith on the world-famous Briton Fleming remains just that: a hypothesis. But I think there is a stronger case for another influence, this time flowing in the opposite direction: from world-famous Briton to obscure Californian. I quoted above from “The Master of the Crabs”. Here is some more:

Even as we veered landward through the crystalline calm, there was a sudden seething and riffling about us, as if some monster had risen beneath. The boat began to shoot with plummet-like speed toward the cliffs, the sea foaming and streaming all around as though some kraken were dragging us to its caverned lair. Borne like a leaf on a cataract, we toiled vainly with straining oars against the ineluctable current.

Heaving higher momentarily, the cliffs seemed to shear the heavens above us, unscalable, without ledge or foothold. Then, in the sheer wall, appeared the low, broad arch of a cavern-mouth that we had not discerned heretofore, toward which the boat was drawn with dreadful swiftness.

“It is the entrance!” cried the Master. “But some wizard tide has flooded it.”

We shipped our useless oars and crouched down behind the thwarts as we neared the opening: for it seemed that the lowness of the arch would afford bare passage to our high-built prow. There was no time to unstep the mast, which broke instantly like a reed as we raced on without slackening into blind torrential darkness. (“The Master of the Crabs”)

NKing Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggardext comes the encounter with giant crabs quoted previously. So Smith’s short story describes a boat drawn by an irresistible current beneath a low entrance to an encounter with giant crabs. Now try H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain (1887), a sequel to King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Haggard’s adventurers are hunting wildfowl on a lake when they are caught in a strong current:

We realized our danger now and rowed, or rather paddled, furiously in our attempt to get out of the vortex. In vain; in another second we were flying straight for the arch like an arrow, and I thought that we were lost. Luckily I retained sufficient presence of mind to shout out, instantly setting the example by throwing myself into the bottom of the canoe, “Down on your faces — down!” and the others had the sense to take the hint. In another instant there was a grinding noise, and the boat was pushed down till the water began to trickle over the sides, and I thought that we were gone. But no, suddenly the grinding ceased, and we could again feel the canoe flying along [on an underground river]. … (Allan Quatermain, Chapter IX, “Into the Unknown”)

By the river’s edge was a little shore formed of round fragments of rock washed into this shape by the constant action of water, and giving the place the appearance of being strewn with thousands of fossil cannon balls. … And here … we determined to land, in order to rest ourselves a little after all that we had gone through … It was a dreadful place, but it would give an hour’s respite from the terrors of the river, and also allow of our repacking and arranging the canoe. Accordingly we selected what looked like a favourable spot, and with some little difficulty managed to beach the canoe and scramble out on to the round, inhospitable pebbles. … The gloom was so intense that we could scarcely see the way to cut our food and convey it to our mouths. Still we got on pretty well, till I happened to look behind me — my attention being attracted by a noise of something crawling over the stones, and perceived sitting upon a rock in my immediate rear a huge species of black freshwater crab, only it was five times the size of any crab I ever saw. This hideous and loathsome-looking animal had projecting eyes that seemed to glare at one, very long and flexible antennae or feelers, and gigantic claws. Nor was I especially favoured with its company. From every quarter dozens of these horrid brutes were creeping up, drawn, I suppose, by the smell of the food, from between the round stones and out of holes in the precipice. (Allan Quatermain, Chapter X, “The Rose of Fire”)

The similarities between Allan Quatermain and “The Master of the Crabs” seem stronger and clearer than those between “The Isle of the Torturers” and Dr. No. Haggard is widely read even today, in the twenty-first century, and was hugely popular in Smith’s lifetime. It is very difficult to believe that Smith was not familiar with most or all of his work. But if he borrowed ideas from Allan Quatermain, he transformed what he borrowed and produced a better and subtler story. He was, in fact, a much better writer than his probable influence H. Rider Haggard and his putative influencee Ian Fleming. That is part of why he achieved little of their success: he wrote too well, transcending his genre but not the ghetto of his genre.

That’s my opinion, at least, but I can’t prove it, any more than I prove that Smith influenced Fleming or Haggard influenced Smith. Nevertheless, I would argue that the quality of a literary work is a mathematical phenomenon, dependant for its power on the way it manipulates the implicit mathematics of the language faculty in a reader’s brain. Given this, I think that it will some day be possible to analyse two texts mathematically and give objective reasons for preferring one to another. If that happens, I think Smith will be shown to be a literary equivalent of Mozart or Bach, far above the entertaining but crude pop or rock’n’roll of Haggard and Fleming.

It’s already apparent that the patterns of literature are akin to the patterns of music: like poetry, prose has rhythms, melodies, motifs and so on. Words are equivalent to notes, or rather to chords. A word has both a sound and a meaning, or layers of meaning. On the page or screen it has a shape too, but how important word-shapes are in good writing is a difficult question. Shape may be most important in onomastics, or naming systems. Compare two names: Katherine-with-a-K and Catherine-with-a-C. The letter C is more attractive than the letter K and I think the second spelling of the name is more attractive too. So would Smith’s Isle of Torture “Uccastrog”, with a double-c, be more effective as “Ukkastrog”, with a double-k? Or does the guttural sound clash effectively with the elegant double-c?

Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift

I think the latter and I think “Uccastrog” is an example of Smith’s onomastic skill. But the name has echoes of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which describes the “great prophet Lustrog” (pt. 1, ch. IV) and the islands Luggnagg and Glubbdubdrib (pt. III). Smith certainly read Gulliver’s Travels and certainly shared Swift’s sardonic and satirical tastes. But how much did Swift shape those tastes, rather than merely chime with them? As we saw at the beginning, Aldous Huxley playfully reduced literary scholarship to a game of “Who influenced whom to say what when?” But it’s also a case of “What influenced whom to be influenced by whom?” Did Swift shape Smith, or merely chime with what was already there? If Clark Ashton Smith and his Isle of Torture did not influence Ian Fleming and Dr. No, how we do explain the shared elements? The shared personality of Smith and Fleming? Their shared genetics? Their shared reading of yet another text of which I am not aware? The questions can unwind for ever. But as we wait for science to answer them, the texts and their dark pleasures remain.

Ave Aves!

Front cover of Collins Bird Guide by Lars SvenssonCollins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (second edition), text and maps by Lars Svensson, illustrations and captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström, with a significant contribution by Peter J. Grant, translated by David Christie and Lars Svensson (HarperCollins, 2009)

A literate musician can read a score and hear a symphony in his head. I wonder whether the mega-minds of the future will be able to do something similar with genomes: read a DNA recipe and see the animal or plant cooked from it. The mega-minds will need to know about the oven, that is, the womb, egg or seed, but then musicians need to know about instruments, not just notes. The code can’t exist in isolation: it needs a world to be realized in and a musician’s mind can mimic that world.

But mega-minds aren’t here yet for genetics, so we have to use books like this to see the product of DNA-recipes. Collins Bird Guide is effectively a genetic cook-book or genomic score, but we don’t see the naked genes, just the dish or symphony cooked or played from them. Lars Svensson describes thousands of birds of all shapes, sizes, colours, diets and habitats, from the huge golden eagle, Aquila chrysaetos, which can carry off a lamb, to the tiny goldcrest, Regulus regulus, which isn’t much bigger than a bumblebee. But these two, like all other birds, have a common ancestor: when you see a bird sitting in a tree, it is also, metaphorically speaking, sitting in a genetic tree whose twigs, branches and boughs spring from a single trunk. One DNA-recipe has turned into many under the influence of natural and sexual selection.

Birds, which often come in very distinct male and female forms, offer lots of good examples of sexual selection. One of the most spectacular examples isn’t native to the region covered by the book, but it has been introduced here. And so there are pleasant surprises in store for some European ornithophiles. I once came across a wild-living golden pheasant, Chrysolophus pictus, early one morning in a park in northern England. I thought for a moment that I was hallucinating: the bird has a crest of spun gold, a scarlet breast and belly, and an orange/black “nuchal cape”, or neck-feathers, that “can be raised like a fan when displaying” (“Partridges & Pheasants”, pg. 59). It also has yellow legs, blue wings and a long, attractively patterned tail. “Unmistakable!” notes the book.

That’s true of the ♂, at least. The ♀, whose eyes and brain are responsible for the spectacular appearance of the ♂, is undistinguished and similar to the ♀ of Lady Amherst’s pheasant, Chrysolophus amherstiae, whose ♂ is again “Unmistakable!”, thanks to the sexual selection of its ♀. These closely related species are native to eastern Asia and “occasionally hybridize” in Britain (pg. 59). In other words, their common ancestor was fairly recent and their DNA recipes can still work together. But these hybridizations may also be a function of small populations and restricted habitat in Britain. “Function” is the operative word: birds, like all other forms of life, are mechanisms with inputs, throughputs and outputs. For a pheasant, some of the input is sense-data. The throughput is the processing of sense-data in the brain. The output is behaviour: for example, mating with a less-than-ideal partner under the restricted conditions of Britain.

All this can be modelled mathematically, but in the widest and deepest sense it already is mathematical: the human invention of mathematics, with a small “m”, is a symbolic representation of Mathematics with a big “M”. Mathematical symbols represent entities and operations and are manipulated according to logical rules. This mimics the inter-play of entities in the real world, which are subject to the rules of logic implicit in physics and chemistry. Human mathematics is fallible, albeit self-correcting. The mathematics underlying reality realizes the pipe-dreams of the papacy and is infallible, in the sense that it never disobeys the rules by which it is governed.

But this infallible mathematics can fail the entities for whom it operates: birds can die young and fail to reproduce or have fewer offspring than their competitors. But this is the fuel of a larger mechanism: evolution, which is a mathematical process. Genes mutate and vary in frequency under the influence of natural and sexual selection, inter alia. Birds offer more good examples of the effects, because they have wings, beaks and feet. These are mathematical mechanisms, shaped by and for the physics of a particular environment: wings have input from the air and provide the output of flight. Or the output of swimming: some wings are adapted for movement underwater, as in the cormorants, or Phalacrocoracidae, whose beaks are adapted for seizing fish and feet for paddling.

Sample page from Collins Bird Guide by Lars Svensson

You can look through this book and survey the varying geometry of wings, beaks and feet, from gliding gulls to hovering warblers, from seed-cracking finches to flesh-tearing owls, from tiny-toed swifts to wading egrets. The tool-kit of the common ancestor has become many tool-kits and evolution has been morally neutral as it has worked its multiplicative magic. The feet of the odd and endearing wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria, are adapted to clinging onto vertical rock; the feet of eagles and owls are adapted to puncturing nerve-filled flesh. And presumably each species enjoys using its adaptation. A distinct psychology will accompany each distinct wing, beak and foot, because no organ can change in isolation: it is evolving within the environment of the body, influencing and influenced by other organs, in particular the brain.

But changes in the brain aren’t easily visible. If they were, some parts of evolution would be much less controversial: racial differences in human intelligence, for example. But races differ in other ways: in their attitudes to animals, for example. One generalization is that northern Europeans like listening to songbirds and southern Europeans like shooting them. So it’s not surprising that this book was originally published in Swedish as Fågelguiden, Europas och Medelhavsområdets fåglar i fält (1999). It would also be interesting to see the statistics of ornithological publishing in Europe. Those statistics will reflect genetic differences in the white European race, and so will readers’ reactions to the book.

My interest is partly aesthetic and mathematical, for example, and I quail at the thought of learning the differences between what bird-watchers call “little brown jobs”: the various kinds of warbler are hard enough to tell apart in pictures, let alone in the wild. But things can get even worse at night: Lars Svensson notes of Savi’s warbler, Locustella luscinioides, that “A possible confusion risk at distance and at night in S and C Europe is the mole-cricket” (“Warblers”, pg. 318). Birdsong and bird-cries are another aspect of ornitho-mathematics, but it’s hard to represent them in print: “kru-kih karra-kru-kih chivi trü chivi chih” (clamorous reed warbler, Acrocephalus stentoreus, pg. 322), “glipp-glipp-glipp” (common crossbill, Loxia curvirostra, pg. 386), “trrsh, trre-trre-trre-rrerrerre” (sand martin, Riparia riparia, pg. 258), “pyük…popopo…” (pygmy owl, Glaucidium passerinum, pg. 226), “brrreep, bip bip bip” (red phalarope, Phalaropus fulicarius, pg. 162), and so on.

In an electronic manual of ornithology, you’d be able to hear the songs, rather than imagine them, but electronic manuals, by offering more, in some ways offer less. Because the book has so many species to cover, it can’t describe any species in detail. So there are occasional fleeting comments like this:

Asian Desert Warbler, Sylvia nana V*** [= rare vagrant in northern Europe]… has the peculiar habit of sometimes “tailing” the Desert Wheatear [Oenanthe deserti] (“Warblers”, pg. 310-1)

The accompanying illustration shows a desert warbler standing under a small bush and peering out at a nearby wheatear. It’s anthropomorphic and anthropocentric to be amused by the behaviour, but ornithology is a human invention and humans don’t have to be purely scientific. I get a boy-racer thrill from another “V***” bird, the white-throated needletail, Hirundapus caudacutus:

Big, with heavy compact body, neckless, stub-tailed (shape somewhere between fat cigar and “flying barrel”). Flight impressively fast, the bird seems to draw easily away from other swifts (though these are still fast flyers!). (“Vagrants”, pg. 415)

That I would like to see. In the meantime, I have this book and the multiplex mutational mathematics it captures in pictures and words.

Neuclid on the Block

How many blows does it take to demolish a wall with a hammer? It depends on the wall and the hammer, of course. If the wall is reality and the hammer is mathematics, you can do it in three blows, like this:

α’. Σημεῖόν ἐστιν, οὗ μέρος οὐθέν.
β’. Γραμμὴ δὲ μῆκος ἀπλατές.
γ’. Γραμμῆς δὲ πέρατα σημεῖα.

1. A point is that of which there is no part.
2. A line is a length without breadth.
3. The extremities of a line are points.

That is the astonishing, world-shattering opening in one of the strangest – and sanest – books ever written. It’s twenty-three centuries old, was written by an Alexandrian mathematician called Euclid (fl. 300 B.C.), and has been pored over by everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Bertrand Russell by way of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Its title is highly appropriate: Στοιχεῖα, or Elements. Physical reality is composed of chemical elements; mathematical reality is composed of logical elements. The second reality is much bigger – infinitely bigger, in fact. In his Elements, Euclid slipped the bonds of time, space and matter by demolishing the walls of reality with a mathematical hammer and escaping into a world of pure abstraction.

• Continue reading Neuclid on the Block

Paradigm Lost

Genius schmenius — genetics is sooooo 1950s:

But Paul Martin, a sociologist at the University of Sheffield, UK, is surprised that geneticists are still pursuing this line of research. “I think most people would say that’s the wrong paradigm, when most educational research suggests that social factors are incredibly important,” he says. “Strategically, this seems like something of a throwback.”

Chinese project probes the genetics of genius

See? Sense and decency. That’s because sociology is a proper science. Nearly as proper as psychoanalysis or astrology, in fact.

Flesh and Binary

It’s odd that probability theory is so counter-intuitive to human beings and so late-flowering in mathematics. Men have been gambling for thousands of years, but didn’t develop a good understanding of what happens when dice are rolled or coins are tossed until a few centuries ago. And an intuitive grasp of probability would have been useful long before gambling was invented. Our genes automatically equip us to speak, to walk and to throw, but they don’t equip us to understand by instinct why five-tails-in-a-row makes heads no more likely on the sixth coin-toss than it was on the first.

Dice from ancient Rome

Dice and gambling tokens from ancient Rome

Or to understand why five-boys-in-a-row makes the birth of a girl next time no more likely than it was during the first pregnancy (at least in theory). Boy/girl, like heads/tails, is a binary choice, so binary numbers are useful for understanding the probabilities of birth or coin-tossing. Questions like these are often asked to test knowledge of elementary probability:

1. Suppose a family have two children and the elder is a boy. What is the probability that both are boys?

2. Suppose a family have two children and at least one is a boy. What is the probability that both are boys?

People sometimes assume that the two questions are equivalent, but binary makes it clear that they’re not. If 1 represents a boy, 0 represents a girl and digit-order represents birth-order, the first question covers these possibilities: 10, 11. So the chance of both children being boys is 1/2 or 50%. The second question covers these possibilities: 10, 01, 11. So the chance of both children being boys is 1/3 = 33·3%. But now examine this question:

3. Suppose a family have two children and only one is called John. What is the probability that both children are boys?

That might seem the equivalent of question 2, but it isn’t. The name “John” doesn’t just identify the child as a boy, it identifies him as a unique boy, distinct from any brother he happens to have. Binary isn’t sufficient any more. So, while boy = 1, John = 2. The possibilities are: 20, 21, 02, 12. The chance of both children being boys is then 1/2 = 50%.

The three questions above are very simple, but I don’t think Archimedes or Euclid ever addressed the mathematics behind them. Perhaps they would have made mistakes if they had. I hope I haven’t, more than two millennia later. Perhaps the difficulty of understanding probability relates to the fact that it involves movement and change. The Greeks developed a highly sophisticated mathematics of static geometry, but did not understand projectiles or falling objects. When mathematicians began understood those in Renaissance Italy, they also began to understand the behaviour of dice, coins and cards. Ideas were on the move then and this new mathematics was obviously related to the rise of science: Galileo (1564-1642) is an important figure in both fields. But the maths and science can be linked with apparently distinct phenomena like Protestantism and classical music. All of these things began to develop in a “band of genius” identified by the American researcher Charles Murray. It runs roughly from Italy through France and Germany to Scotland: from Galileo through Beethoven and Descartes to David Hume.

Map of Europe from Mercator's Atlas Cosmographicae (1596)

Map of Europe from Mercator’s Atlas Cosmographicae (1596)

But how far is geography also biology? Having children is a form of gambling: the dice of DNA, shaken in testicle- and ovary-cups, are rolled in a casino run by Mother Nature. Or rather, in a series of casinos where different rules apply: the genetic bets placed in Africa or Europe or Asia haven’t paid off in the same way. In other words, what wins in one place may lose in another. Different environments have favoured different sets of genes with different effects on both bodies and brains. All human beings have many things in common, but saying that we all belong to the same race, the human race, is like saying that we all speak the same language, the human language. It’s a ludicrous and anti-scientific idea, however widely it may be accepted (and enforced) in the modern West.

Languages have fuzzy boundaries. So do races. Languages have dialects and accents, and so, in a sense, do races. The genius that unites Galileo, Beethoven and Hume may have been a particular genetic dialect spoken, as it were, in a particular area of Europe. Or perhaps it’s better to see European genius as a series of overlapping dialects. Testing that idea will involve mathematics and probability theory, and the computers that crunch the data about flesh will run on binary. Apparently disparate things are united by mathematics, but maths unites everything partly because it is everything. Understanding the behaviour of dice in the sixteenth century leads to understanding the behaviour of DNA in the twenty-first.

The next step will be to control the DNA-dice as they roll. China has already begun trying to do that using science first developed in the West. But the West itself is still in the thrall of crypto-religious ideas about equality and environment. These differences have biological causes: the way different races think about genetics, or persuade other races to think about genetics, is related to their genetics. You can’t escape genes any more than you can escape maths. But the latter is a ladder that allows us to see over the old genetic wall and glimpse the possibilities beyond it. The Chinese are trying to climb over the wall using super-computers; the West is still insisting that there’s nothing on the other side. Interesting times are ahead for both flesh and binary.

Appendix

1. Suppose a family have three children and the eldest is a girl. What is the probability that all three are girls?

2. Suppose a family have three children and at least one is a girl. What is the probability that all three are girls?

3. Suppose a family have three children and only one is called Joan. What is the probability that all three are girls?

The possibilities in the first case are: 000, 001, 010, 011. So the chance of three girls is 1/4 = 25%.

The possibilities in the second case are: 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110. So the chance of three girls is 1/7 = 14·28%.

The possibilities in the third case are: 200, 201, 210, 211, 020, 021, 120, 121, 002, 012, 102, 112. So the chance of three girls is 3/12 = 1/4 = 25%.