Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey

Regular readers of this blog and fans of my work in general will know the very high esteem in which I hold Nicholas Humphrey: our Darwin of the mind. Originator of the social intelligence theory of consciousness, philosopher and psychologist, his books have enthralled and inspired me ever since I saw his The Inner Eye television series in the mid-1980s. Now, eleven years after his last book, comes a new work.

First of all, Sentience is fascinating, beautifully written, thought-provoking and important. But more than that, to my mind it is true. Everything Humphrey writes here, which in some ways sum up his huge contribution to the field of the understanding of consciousness, has that feel of being fundamentally correct. The tale he is telling matches reality.

The book falls into three thirds, the first giving the background to Humphrey’s journey through life and the questions he asked himself as he pondered various unknowns: consciousness… why, and when? This summary is vital for the following two parts, one of which deals with our phenomenal experiences (the redness of a poppy, the sweetness of sugar, etc), and one of which sums it all up in a new perspective, drawing at all times from evolutionary reasoning.

It’s this latter third which I think is groundbreaking. The issue for the vast majority of philosophers dealing with qualia in the brain (that is, how the redness of red can be generated and experienced by “mere” neuron activity) is how to make the leap from neurons to private mental experience. There’s a couple of sentences in this book which I suspect may be the most important Humphrey has ever written. They read: Remember how it emerged in the earlier discussion that when, for example, you project phenomenal redness onto a poppy, you are in effect making a bridge to other sentient beings. You’re seeing the poppy as being ‘rubropotent’ – as having the power to evoke red qualia in another like yourself.

Isn’t that extraordinary? Other philosophers look at one brain in isolation and try to pin down the mind/body relationship therein, but that’s their mistake. Conscious brains, human brains, never exist in isolation. They grow, develop and mature only in social groups. Personally, I think this cultural blind spot has a lot to do with men dominating such intellectual discussions, men who in comparison with women have little grasp of the true importance of relationships.

This, then, is the brilliance of Nicholas Humphrey. He grasps the fundamental role of social relations in the evolution of consciousness. He never loses sight of that evolutionary history, and indeed uses it to underpin the truth of his theory.

As he notes early on in the book, his intellectual and philosophical journey has been rather a lonely furrow. I hope this exceptional work changes all that. It certainly deserves to. It’s more than worthy of being added to his outstanding canon of work. Trailblazing, compelling and true.


Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Subtitled The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, this book swiftly became a classic as rumour of its excellence spread. I really enjoyed it, for insight, for originality and for its science.

Each of eight chapters deals with an aspect of the topics in question, beginning with the tree of life and Darwinian evolution. Octopuses are cephalopods, evolving alongside molluscs and splitting from the vertebrate group six hundred million years ago, i.e. before the Cambrian Explosion. This in itself is a fundamental part of the author’s argument, in that cephalopods seem to have evolved intelligence in a completely different way to vertebrates, an origin sourced in the enigmatic Ediacaran biota. Next up comes a chapter on the evolution of nervous systems and remembered experience, before what in my view is the most significant and interesting chapter, dealing with sensation and perception, and the rise of internal experience. I sense a debt to the work of Nicholas Humphrey here, not least from his book Seeing Red.

Subsequent chapters deal with colour changes on cephalopod skin, and the difference between too much “bandwidth” with not much to say (octopi) and not enough with too much to say (baboons) – an intriguing distinction I’ve not seen before. The remaining chapters deal with experience and language, inner monologue, the relationship between lifespan and metabolism, and finally a look at an octopi heartland, Octopolis off the Australian coast, which the author knows well.

All in all, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, which I much enjoyed, and which complements the more recent Metazoa rather well. Both these works are significant additions to our understanding of the evolution of animal minds.

New book

I’m pleased to say that next year Iff Books will be publishing a new work called I Am Taurus. This is a bit of a departure for me, owing to events in the publishing world – a move from genre fiction to nonfiction. The book is short, and describes the history of the Sacred Bull, all the way from Lascaux in 17,000BCE to Spanish bullfighting. I wrote it this summer, and really enjoyed the experience. I am planning two sequels, I Am The Moon and I Am Mars. This new book was inspired by reading the very first page of Jo Marchant’s superb The Human Cosmos, which I reviewed on this blog in March. More details as they arrive…

Aurochs bull & Pleiades star cluster.


Regular readers of this blog will know why I am a happy man today.

The Hidden Landscape by Richard Fortey

A classic in popular geology since 1993, this updated book by Britain’s favourite geologist and consumer of mushrooms is a tour de force of witty, informative and entertaining writing. Beginning in the wilds of (geologically speaking) the most ancient part of Britain, the Scottish uplands, this superbly well written jaunt then covers the rest of Scotland, Wales and the Midlands, the Westcountry, then the more youthful parts of England, ending up on the swiftly eroding coasts of East Anglia. The style is somehow light and academic, with diversions presented as charming interludes, most of them confirming the author’s erudition and wit.

My favourite chapters of course were those dealing with my own places: Shropshire, North and Mid Wales, and other parts of the Marches. The author is a fan of the extraordinary and complex geology of the Church Stretton area, which is a bonus. All in all, a terrific read. Very enjoyable.

Why Rings Of Power Is Crap

First of all, yes I have watched it. After the first couple of episodes I realised it was most likely going to be rubbish, but, decent fellow that I am, I gave it a bit more time to improve. It got worse.

My reasons for calling it crap are fivefold: the overall concept, the accents, the look, the music, and the execution.

This series is basically a group of fans doing everything they can to attach Tolkien’s name to their new television work. It exists for no other reason. It’s not required, it doesn’t begin to touch the mood, subtlety and flowing script of the original film trilogy, and it hasn’t even found a coherent story amidst the scraps of Second Age material Tolkien’s estate allowed the writers to use. Some parts, eg. the Numenorean harbour, do look spectacular, but frankly the overall look is stodge veneered in CGI gloss; and if they can’t even spend their money on making it look special, why bother? As for the overall look and concept… you could use exactly the same film footage, change the story so it’s set in some half-arsed version of Constantinople, and nobody would notice.

The accents – which have rightly caused a storm of annoyance – are spectacularly crass. As usual, the whimsical, straw-haired Harfoots are characterised by being Irish. There’s no other way to say it: this is cultural appropriation. It’s so carelessly blatant you wonder about the focus groups the script writers used, if any. And Lenny Henry – what was he thinking? Lenny Henry is a fantastic, subtle and highly intelligent actor, but this… this is embarrassing. Inevitably, the dwarves are Scottish. Some of them are just a couple of checks away from wearing kilts. I kept expecting the bagpipes to be hauled out. Just ridiculous. Meanwhile, the elves all appear to have gone to school at Eton. I think if there’s one aspect of this tv car crash which disgusts me the most, it’s those accents. And while I’m on the topic… I’m presuming there won’t be a Welsh cultural appropriation. There never is, is there?

The look? Shite. Who on earth designed Elrond’s hairstyle? It looks like he’s wearing a hedgehog that’s spent an hour in a wind tunnel. As for Durin’s beard… is that proper Highland sheep’s wool they used? I bet it was. And the trio of wolves in episode 5, well, they did look as though some small CGI progress had been made since Jurassic Park. Then there’s the overall look, which aims to replicate that of the original film trilogy. Yes, if you want to eat nothing but chocolate I’m sure that’s very nice for a while. But soon chocolate begins to pall. Also, on its own, its not terribly nutritious.

As for the music… this is quite the most anonymous score I’ve ever heard. It literally has no content. It sounds as though the composer threw a couple of staves of descending scales into a vat of lemon Flash. As for the cod-Irish tune accompanying the Harfoots migration… could that have been any more offensive? I’m not sure it could have. I think we hit peak offence there.

So to execution. If you’re going to throw in sixth form prose like “in order to see the light you have to touch the dark,” do it once per episode, not every bloody minute. Some of the dialogue in the later Numenorean council scenes made Lucas’ second Star Wars trilogy sound like Shakespeare. Pretentious, ponderous and portentous doesn’t begin to cover it. And while we’re on the subject of words beginning with p, we’ve begun calling it Rings Of Poo in my home. Meanwhile, the other aspect to this is all the re-writing. For instance, the elves will die overnight because of mithril? Really? Overnight, eh? I hear the sound of Tolkien rotating in his grave. And did they really need to waste an entire episode with Galadriel on the sea, not to mention five episodes refusing to tell us anything about the strange old man in the meteorite?

To balance this diatribe, there is some good stuff. The guy playing Sauron is excellent, and his orcs all look suitably horrific. But that’s about it.

I began watching Rings Of Power suspecting it was going to be a mess, and poor quality too, but if it had been good I would have been perfectly happy to change my mind. Its worse than a mess and worse than poor. It has been ripped bleeding from the less important part of Tolkien’s world, then inflated with hot air to unrecognisable proportions. What is so galling is how comprehensively un-Tolkien the whole thing is. With skill and diligence the makers have wrung out every last drop of Tolkien’s vision, until absolutely nothing is left. I suppose, in the end, some will laud that as quite a feat.

The Anti-growth Coalition

A variation. We’ve got to own this shit Truss is talking about.

The “Anti-growth Coalition”

I’m with the “anti-growth coalition.”

How Religion Evolved by Robin Dunbar

Buying this was a no-brainer for me – the right subject, a favourite author. The book is readable, plausible and enjoyable.

In ten chapters Dunbar covers his ground, pointing out at the beginning that this is not a book about the theological or historical aspects (the usual framework) of religion, rather it hopes to deal with neurological and associated aspects, dipping where necessary into sociology and psychology.

The chapters cover a discussion of what Dunbar calls the mystical stance, by which he means the underlying assumption that there is another realm which can be accessed by mystical processes, then consequences of belief, how it works in communities, the social brain, ritual and the central place of synchronous actions, prehistory, the Neolithic, then a look at cults and schisms. It’s all interesting, often fascinating, and I broadly agreed with what is presented. This book is written from the perspective of human beings, who have brains operating in a certain way and who sense and perceive as a consequence in a mode which can be demonstrated to be universal. There is a hint of David Lewis-Williams here, although he’s not named.

The book creaks a bit towards the end, with a not terribly inspiring look at cults and charismatic leadership. The final chapter on schisms is presented in a fairly dry way, with the author baffled by why so many religions split up and fragment. But the answer is obvious: narcissism, both individual and group. Dunbar does seem to be aware of this phenomenon, since he grasps that groups of extremists for instance are disconnected from reality.

The best chapters are those in the central part: prehistory, the Neolithic, and the chapters on how the human brain responds to synchronous ritual. These really are fascinating, and very well written and presented. Here Dunbar truly gets to grips with why it was inevitable that spirituality appeared, then evolved into religion as we know it.

There is perhaps too little about the changes 5,000 years ago when patriarchy really began to take over. Dunbar mentions some differences between male and female, but not enough, and it rather gets in the way of the other stuff. That’s a minor criticism however.

Overall: excellent. The positives outweigh the negatives, and the new material on human brains and the evolution of religion via the mystical stance is superb. Recommended to all who don’t care what religious people believe, but who do care about humanity and why religion started and continues to this day. The author concludes by pointing out that much of what religion provides is neurologically essential for human beings. He sees no equivalent appearing. Well, yes… but it is rather too early for the humanist equivalent to appear!