stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Inspirational Books

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.

Groundbreaking.

Sentience

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

5 Best Books On Consciousness

Recently I was approached by Ben Shepherd at shepherd.com and asked to choose five books for a list of my designing. I decided at once to choose the five best books explaining the mystery of consciousness, and my choices have just been published. Regular fans of my blog will recognise most or all of the titles, but on the page I’ve also added more personal description of how I came across each book and what they mean to me. Here’s the page!

my 5 choices

A New Book From Nicholas Humphrey

It looks as though, eleven years after his last book Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey is to publish a new work called Sentience. Here’s the link I stumbled across…

Here’s the news at publishers MIT. I am thrilled to hear of this new book by a truly brilliant man.

James Lovelock’s Influence On Me

I discovered James Lovelock’s work by accident. Hunting for environmental books one day in a secondhand bookshop, I saw one called Gaia. The blurb on the back was intriguing…

It was some time between the mid 1980s and 1988 when I picked up that book and bought it, little knowing what an impact it would have on me. When in 1988 I wrote the first draft of a novel that eight years later would become my debut Memory Seed, the notion of a self-regulating planet fired my imagination to new heights. I knew little of the controversy created by the Gaia Hypothesis at the time – all I knew was what an amazing idea it was, and how well supported by the evidence James Lovelock presented in his book. To me, Gaia’s existence was self-evidently true.

That was rather a naive view, I think, borne on sheer enthusiasm for the concept. Lovelock sophisticated his ideas throughout his later life, supporting it with better and more expansive evidence, so that many of the scientists who rejected the hypothesis when it was first proposed became convinced of its value. And indeed, Gaia Theory, as it is now, has made several predictions all tested in the real world and shown to be true.

My novel Memory Seed however did take a bit of a liberty with Lovelock’s idea. In 1992, when I wrote the second draft of the novel, all the main elements of the published book were present, including the concept of our planet “fighting back” against a humanity which has harmed it. That concept was meant to have both metaphorical weight and real weight. I regret this a little now, since of all people Lovelock found annoying, hippie types who misinterpreted his theory were the worst. However, I did not myself imagine Gaia to be a conscious entity taking deliberate decisions, my science background making the ideas of positive and negative feedback in self-regulating systems perfectly acceptable – and anyway, I had encountered them in my thinking about consciousness and AI. But I did take the metaphorical side of Gaia Theory a bit far in Memory Seed, allowing literary motives to outweigh scientific. I know it’s only fiction, but I do feel a bit bad about it all now.

In Urbis Morpheos I tried to reset the imbalance by conceiving of a scenario where an apparently active Gaia and an apparently active Agaiah, the former Gaia and the latter a construct of the manufacturing ecosystem, fight for control of planet Earth. I’m not entirely sure I succeeded, but, hey, it was SF set a million years in the future…

But back to James Lovelock. This was a man who had a life of extraordinary achievement. We shall not see his like again. Quite apart from the brilliance of the central idea of Gaia Theory, he also invented the electron capture device which allowed us to realise the danger of the ozone hole years before it otherwise would have become apparent, and invented numerous other amazing devices. He wrote superb, thought-provoking books of truth, of science, of deep knowledge. Perhaps above all he was a truly independent scientist, scorning and spurning the way science is done these days within vast, impersonal corporations in hock to capitalist masters. He had the opportunity to allow his mind to range widely, as almost no scientist these days does. He was one of a kind: a genius, an inspiration. I strongly suspect the main reason he survived to be 103 was that for all his days he had a profound meaning to his life: the advancement of humanity’s ideas about the planet we live on. I think David Attenborough also benefits from this attitude to life. Lovelock never stopped thinking, writing, working. His was a life of deep meaning, of wonder at the incredible planet we live upon. He will be missed, yet he will live on through his legacy; and that legacy, being scientific ideas proven to have universal truth, will be a part of humanity all the way into the far future.

He gave us a gift, wisdom, which is the greatest gift of all.

RIP James Lovelock

Very sad news yesterday.

Guardian obituary here.

A Mithen Celebration

Recently I’ve been re-reading for research purposes a couple of books by Steven Mithen, so I thought the time was appropriate to write an appreciation of his enormous contribution to research into human evolution.

Professor of Archaeology at Reading University, his career has been decorated with many highlights. I first came across him when I stumbled upon a book entitled The Prehistory Of The Mind (1996), which turned out to be fascinating reading. Actually I didn’t get it at first, but after a second reading I realised what a remarkable description of the evolution of the human mind it was.

Mithen is known for his concept of cognitive fluidity, which, in a nutshell, suggests that “modular” aspects of the proto-human mind – in particular the social module, the language module, the technical module and the natural history module – all operated independently of one another during the long evolutionary process leading to homo sapiens. Slowly, these modules merged. Using supplementary ideas suggested by various other evolutionary scientists, Mithen’s book theorises that the language and social modules first merged, allowing the development of consciousness itself, which is a feature of the mind necessary for survival in highly complex social groups (cf Dunbar and Humphrey). The beauty of Mithen’s idea is that it explains the otherwise baffling: why cultural stasis marks hundreds of thousands of years of proto-human existence. This fact has always been difficult to explain. But if the mental modules were separate, no technical knowledge – for example how to sophisticate stone tools – could have been passed on, for example via language, leading to cultural stasis. All such knowledge would have been learned by imitation alone. The book is a brilliant description of the likely path of human mental evolution – an inspirational read.

mithen

A second work was the remarkable The Singing Neanderthals (2005). In this work Mithen delves deeper into one of the aspects of life not elaborated upon in his previous book: the evolution of language. This, of course, is a tricky and highly contentious area for debate, so Mithen’s contribution was always going to make fascinating reading. His essential thesis is this: proto-language was holistic, mimetic and musical. It consisted of sounds and gestures, which in one indivisible utterance described something. This was not compositional language like ours, which can be cut up into sections for infinite communicative possibilities. The brilliance of the work though is how Mithen develops this notion into a timeline for the separation of the proto-language into our kind of language and music, the latter of which, separated, became our vehicle for emotional expression. This book is another terrific, thought-provoking read.

singing n

Between the above two books came After The Ice (2003). In it, the impact of alterations in climate owing to the planet’s Milankovitch Cycles was developed into a global description of massive changes in human culture, not least the change from hunter-gatherer societies to those depending on agriculture. Cutting edge research about life during the Ice Age brings veracity to a very well written narrative. (This book would benefit from being read alongside Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel, I think.) What might be called “eye-witness accounts” bring a vivid feel to much of the book. It’s more of a survey of prehistory than the two theoretical earlier works, and it’s a wonderful read.

after i

None of these three books require any prior knowledge other than that human beings evolved and there needs to be an explanation of the process. What the reader brings is a sense of wonder and the desire to learn about our prehistory.

Highly regarded by his peers, and a terrific writer, Steven Mithen has opened up the possibilities which we have for developing a description of our evolution. All three of these books come highly recommended from me.

(A Prehistory Of The Mind here.)

Mithen

Dorothy Rowe RIP

I discovered Dorothy Rowe and her work by accident. Reading Erich Fromm and Nicholas Humphrey at the time, I was attracted by book cover quotes citing the humane quality of her work, her interest in meaning and uncertainty, and her capacity for compassion for those in psychological distress. As Fay Weldon put it: ‘She sets us on the road to personal and political utopia – if only we would take it.’

Born in Australia, ill during childhood, and suffering difficult family circumstances, she somehow had the inner strength not only to come through those times but to use her experiences in her work. A trailblazing explorer of depression, she came from an entirely different place than her overwhelmingly male counterparts, explaining that depression was a condition of meaning, not necessarily of biology.

As a feminist and an atheist she was fearless. I loved her quote that the Christian church “… gave her plenty of work as a psychologist.” She derided the way men run the world and did a huge amount for the feminist cause, for which we all, male or female, should be grateful.

Her books were amazing. Gifted with a clarity of prose that matched her insight, every book was full of gems. Beyond Fear was of particular importance to me, although the true significance of its message didn’t reveal itself to me until I was a bit older. Her work on money, meaning, success, and the nuclear bomb was all groundbreaking.

Alongside Fromm and Humphrey she was one of my great influences, which was why I dedicated the second volume of the Factory Girl trilogy, The Girl With One Friend, to her. Alas she was not as well known as she could have been. Her books were as complex and hard-hitting as real life, which meant she did not find the wide audience she deserved. She offered no easy answers because she grasped that life is difficult, requiring effort and persistence in order to find peace, love and happiness. Truth therefore was fundamental to her, and she realised that our best interests lie in facing up to it, not ignoring it or pretending some random spiritual belief system to be true. But even at the height of her writing success that was not an easy sell to those used to the platitudes of Californian self-help gurus.

We are fortunate to have so wonderful a legacy as the work of Dorothy Rowe. Perhaps in years to come her books will be reassessed and made more popular by those who, like me, consider the truth of our human lives to be the benchmark for a compassionate, peaceful, just and wise society.

dorothy

Thinking Big: Gamble, Gowlett & Dunbar

This is one of the best surveys of the evolution of the human mind that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few…

Presented by Robin Dunbar (very well known in the field, and originator of the Dunbar Number), Clive Gamble and John Gowlett, Thinking Big: How The Evolution Of Social Life Shaped The Human Mind is the written culmination of a major, well-funded anthropology project called Lucy, whose intention was to investigate the social brain theory of human evolution. In a nutshell, this theory as presented in the book uses archaeological evidence, evidence from the great apes and from remaining hunter-gatherer societies to show how the need to grasp increasingly complex social interactions – represented by the Dunbar Number of the species in question – led to the evolution of the brain, of the human mind, and, although the authors almost never refer to it, of consciousness.

The Dunbar Number is the number of individuals that an individual can keep in mind in genuine social interactions, and for human beings it is around 150. This number comes up in all sorts of circumstances, showing how we, though technologically advanced, are true to our ancient roots. 150 comes up in social media, in military organisation, in English village life, and in a myriad other places. Apes have smaller numbers, chimps smaller still, reflecting the fact that their social networks are smaller.

Beginning with a survey of the anthropological field, the authors then move through our ancestors of 2.6 million years ago, through later hominids, and then through homo heidelbergensis, homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens to show how all the evidence links together in support of the social brain theory. Human ancestors living in increasingly complex societies faced immense selection pressures from themselves, as only those able to keep in mind complex relationships were able to thrive. Interestingly, the evolutionary pressure from environmental factors (eg climate change) is comparatively played down.

There is also an explanation for one of the more puzzling events in our past, the “cultural revolution” of 40,000 years ago, when music, sculpture and art all appear in the archaeological record. This mystifying and very sudden explosion of culture is more easily explained by the preceding slow and steady emotional and psychological development of homo sapiens, which the authors point out leaves no trace, but which is clear from their evidence. Here they cite laughter, music and chanting, and family life, with only the latter leaving faint “real” marks in our environment.

This really is an exceptional book, confirming Thames & Hudson’s place in providing outstanding work in the field of archaeology, anthropology and human evolution. The authors should be proud of their achievement.

thinking_big

Quiet by Susan Cain

There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.

This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.

The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.

This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.

“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”

This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.

quiet