Steve Arnott looks at the icy gas giant moons Europa and Enceladus and investigates how unmanned robotic missions have overturned previous scientific thinking on the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system.
Reader, let me ask you a couple of simple questions. They’re not trick questions – you either know the answer or you don’t. I’m hoping your answer, right or wrong, can provide an instructive beginning for this short article.
If your answer to 1. was ‘one – the Earth’ and to 2. ‘the Pacific Ocean’, then you haven’t been watching enough Discovery Channel, I’m afraid, and have at least a few years of catching up to do in your science knowledge. But I’m not surprised if you didn’t know the answer. There’s a current advert for an all singing all dancing household android device on telly where it’s asked the latest news headlines and replies that geysers of water have been observed erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa. In fact, these geysers were first observed years ago. Science and space stuff rarely features as headline news these days, even when the implications of the discoveries our remote machines are making out in the dark reaches of our solar system have paradigm shifting implications.
The correct answer to question 1, according to the best scientific data and observations we currently have, is that there are three planetary bodies in our solar system with free flowing salt water oceans: our own Earth, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s small moon Enceladus. The correct answer to question 2 is not the Pacific, but the sixty to 200 kilometres deep ocean of Europa, locked under its frozen surface ice, and which scientists believe has twice the volume of salt water than all the surface water on Earth put together.
If you did know the right answers then go to the top of the class – but I’m really writing this for those on the left who some of this stuff has passed by, hoping to share some of the wonder and importance of the cresting wave of scientific knowledge on free water elsewhere in our galactic backyard, and thus the realistic possibility of extra-terrestrial life existing and being discovered within the life time of this generation; depending on how old you are, perhaps your lifetime.
So how do we know this stuff? How do we know that free flowing salt water exists under water ice crusts on moons so far away that using current propulsion technologies it takes our robotic explorers 7 – 10 years to get there?
Let’s deal with each of the two moons – and the two - oceans separately, before bringing our narrative to a conclusion.
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, a gas giant with no less than sixty four moons. Most of these are relatively small, but there are four moons considered to be the major moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. These are the Galilean moons, named after their discoverer, the renaissance giant Galileo Galilea . All of these moons are of major scientific interest. Europa is the second moon out from Jupiter and until relatively recently was, yes, thought to be icy, because of its high albedo (light reflectivity), but basically a dead ice ball in space. And, of course, ice needn’t imply the presence of water. Other substances, much more inimical to life can freeze to an icy mass at the correct temperature.
The Galileo space probe mission to the Jovian system in 1996 changed all that. Much closer and more detailed examination of Europa than had been possible with previous Jupiter missions, Pioneer and Voyager, showed a water ice surface with darker regions that were mineral rich, a changing active surface, and long, strange lines of various lengths and breadth criss-crossing the surface. Crucially, Galileo magnetic field data also
“…showed that Europa has an induced magnetic field through interaction with Jupiter's, which suggests the presence of a subsurface conductive layer. The layer is likely a salty liquid water ocean. The crust is estimated to have undergone a shift of 80°, nearly flipping over (see true polar wander), which would be unlikely if the ice were solidly attached to the mantle. Europa probably contains a metallic iron core.’”
Planetary geologists recognised the line features as similar to a phenomena often seen at Earth’s own icy poles, where cracks in the ice allow subsurface open water at higher temperatures to rise above the ice mantle and then rapidly freeze, causing parallel lines or ridges to develop along the crack. Further examination of Europa’s lines (or linae) showed that nearly all were parallel ridged in this way, that many were relatively recent geological features, and the spectroscopy confirmed the composition as mainly water ice.
Europa, approximate natural colour, imaged by Galileo spacecraft
The startling conclusion was that under Europa’s frozen ice shell was a world girdling subsurface ocean, many, many kilometres deep. But how could this possibly be? So far away from the sun – many hundreds of millions of miles farther away than our own Earth in its comfortable ‘goldilocks’ zone – where was the heat coming from to keep such a vast quantity of water in a liquid state?
The answer emerged from the fundamental physics of gravity. Just as the moon’s orbit on the Earth produces tides on the surface of our homeworld, all planetary bodies exert tidal forces on one another to a varying degree – from the very, very small, to the large and significant. Mathematical modelling of the tidal effect that Jupiter and its other moons caused on Europa showed that the moon was constantly being stretched and flexed by these huge tidal forces. Here was a source of heat powerful enough to maintain water in a liquid state even out in the frozen depths of the outer solar system. The kinetic energy of the tidal stretching of Europa’s solid core would generate vast amounts of heat which would seek to escape outwards. Such heat would be enough to maintain water at a liquid state except near the surface where too much heat would be lost directly to space and the ice would freeze.
(If you are sceptical about this try getting a small but softish rubber ball, and squeeze it in your hand for a minute or so – you will feel the temperature rise as the kinetic energy you are transmitting to the ball turns to heat.)
This was a powerful explanatory model for all the data Galileo was sending, at it also excited astro-biologists tremendously. Not only was liquid water present under the surface of Europa in almost inconceivable oceanic quantities, but the heat generated at the interface between ocean and rocky mantle was such that tectonic, volcanic and ‘smoker’ activity would be likely. The discovery of ‘extremophiles’ – such as large tubeworm colonies - in the deepest parts of Earth’s oceans, where the pressure, dark and heat were immense had shown that life could not only exist in such conditions, without direct sunlight for photosynthesis, but actually flourish.
Europa is thought to have existed in its current state for some three billion years – a huge potential evolutionary timescale. And although it exists in a highly radioactive environment so deep inside Jupiter’s huge magnetic field, its icy crust probably shields much of its oceanic depths from the most harmful effects of that radiation. In any case, radiation that causes mutations at the right rate in a life rich environment where there are selectional forces at play is not necessarily a bad thing for biological evolution.
Could there be basic or even more complex life forms living in Europa’s ocean? As yet we just don’t know, of course. But over the space of a few years Europa has probably overtaken Mars as the place scientists think it most likely we might find extraterrestrial life in the solar system.
Enceladus is the sixth largest moon of the great ringed gas giant Saturn, and at about 1/10th the size of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, has a surface area approximately the size of the UK. Little was known about this moon until the Voyager mission of the eighties other than a very high albedo indicating likely surface ice. Again, as was the case with Europa, it was a recent and significant robotic mission to the outer planets that has vastly increased our knowledge about Enceladus.
The Cassini probe of 2005, according to Wikipedia, discovered
“…a water-rich plume venting from the moon's southpolar region. This discovery, along with the presence of escapinginternal heatand very few (if any) impact craters in the south polar region, shows that Enceladus is geologically active today. Moons in the extensive satellite systems of gas giants often become trapped inorbital resonancesthat lead to forced librationororbital eccentricity; proximity to the planet can then lead totidal heatingof the satellite's interior, offering a possible explanation for the activity.”
Analysis of the out gassing and its chemical composition has suggested a substantial body of subsurface water. The discovery and analysis of the so-called ‘Tiger Stripes’ of Enceladus – four long fractures with ridges rising on either side located near the south pole – have solidified this picture and organic compounds discovered through spectrographic readings of these tiger stripes have again caught the interest of astro-biologists, pointing to the possibility of a subsurface ocean where at least some form of microbial life may have evolved.
Artists impression of surface activity on Enceladus
Sceptics point to the relatively small size of Enceladus and its much lower age compared to Europa – one billion years as compared to three billion – as reasons for caution in considering it a possible home for life, but other scientists have pointed to the organic compounds within the subsurface water as a reason for optimism. Indeed
NASA scientists at a conference on Enceladus in May 2011 were quoted as saying
“(Enceladus) is emerging as the most habitable spot beyond Earth in the Solar System for life as we know it.”
To boldly go?
Water is essential to carbon based life ‘as we know it, Jim’. The discovery of such vast quantities of free flowing water on planetary bodies elsewhere in our solar system together with independent sources of heat energy and organic compounds means that there is certainly the possibility of life having emerged separately on these worlds. Of course, we cannot find out whether that possibility has been realised without going there and taking a closer and more detailed look.
Either way the answer to the question would be a hugely instructive one not just for science but for the whole of the human race. If life has evolved separately twice in just one stellar system then the bookies would probably stop taking bets – it would be a racing certainty that life was ubiquitous throughout our universe wherever it gets sufficient time to take hold. Failure to discover life where the conditions are ripe for it on the other hand might indicate that its much more difficult than we previously thought for life to get going. Such a discovery would make the little green blue ball we call home all the more precious.
Manned missions are probably ruled out for the foreseeable future due to the crisis of capitalism – and in any case, high levels of radiation make a manned trip to Europa with current technologies a death sentence. Closer and more detailed studies by robotic missions are certainly a possibility however, and one was already in the pipeline, only to be effectively shelved, at least for the time being, due to NASA budget constraints.
The Europa Jupiter System Mission was still in the planning stages, but it is not inconceivable a new Europa probe or probes could be launched in the next decade or so.
I’ll (almost) finish by extensively quoting an interview carried in Astrobiology magazine with Brad Dalton who was in charge of drafting up the proposal for the EJS mission.
“Scientists have dreamed of sending a surface lander or even asubmarineto investigate Europa's ocean, but Dalton says the current vision for EJSM does not include any such instrument.
"We tried very hard, within our cost and mass constraints, to come up with a realistic lander concept," says Dalton. "The truth is, for the amount of mass and cost it adds, it's very difficult to include sufficient scientific capability to make it worthwhile. Part of the problem is in understanding the surface well enough to constrain the design. Once you get there, of course you are going to want to dig -- and that is just outside of the current fiscal reality."
model of subsurface ocean, Europa
Dalton says they considered sending a probe that would slam into the ice at high velocity. Such an impactor could provide a lot of information about the composition of the icy shell – just like the impactor did for the Deep Impact mission to a comet. The orbiter itself even could act as the impactor at the end of the mission. However, says Dalton, "this brings up some nightmarish planetary protection issues."
"After a lot of discussion and head-scratching, it became clear that we really need to look before we leap," says Dalton. "There is a lot we can do from orbit, (work) that needs to be done before we can send the kind of lander everybody seems to want."
Still, Dalton says that a lander has not been absolutely ruled out. "There are some minimal instrument concepts still on the table, but nothing like a Viking or a Phoenix (lander)," he says.
One such minimal instrument could be a seismometer, in order to get a sense of how much and how frequently the ice shifts on Europa. The seismometer also could include a mass spectrometer to determine what sort of chemistry takes place within the ice.
This mission could answer the question of whether there is life on Europa by analyzing the ice shell. The underlying ocean on Europa occasionally wells up out of cracks in the ice shell and washes over the surface, erasing features like impact craters. If life is carried in these waters, then their remains could now be frozen in the ice and an orbiter could detect them.”
Whatever form forthcoming missions take and whenever they happen, what they find out could be epoch making, so a thought.
If the type of missions we want to launch to Enceladus or Europa (or even Mars) are currently beyond the fiscal means of any one nation – even a superpower like the USA – then why not a joint international mission funded by all of the worlds major space agencies and drawing together all the talents of scientists across the globe?
Finally, finally. If this article has sparked your imagination, seek out the movie Europa Rising, featured in our final still below. It's not 100% scientifically accurate, but it is food for thought, and a minor SF classic that slipped under most peoples' radar.
A bit like the fact that the biggest oceans in the solar system aren't on Earth, actually.
Other articles by Steve Arnott in The Point include:
(science and ideas)
(Darwinist-Marxism, evolution/revolution, post-capitalism)
(culture, education, The Culture)
(independence, socialism, progressive policy ideas)
(poetry, verse, fiction)
A new abridged Capital aimed at working people of today interested in Marxism? Sounds like an excellent idea. By way of an introduction, Bruce Wallace eases us into the 'difficult' first three chapters of Marx's great book.
Marxist World is about to publish an abridged edition of Karl Marx’s Capital Volume I for workers interested in Marxism. This is a welcome project, but how many readers will just give up after the first chapter? What is it about the first three chapters of Capital that induces a headache? True, some of the language is a bit outdated (arcane) but the argument is logical enough once you get used to the vocabulary. No, the difficulty isn’t in the language but in the revolutionary philosophy that lies behind Marx’s critique that he applies in the opening three chapters and extends throughout his masterpiece.
It is the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), and without it Marx couldn’t have written Capital. However, it isn’t Hegel’s pure ideas that are applied in Capital but Marx’s critique of them. This short article doesn’t intend to elaborate on the content of Marx’s critique of Hegel as this is highly complex and involved, although it begins with Marx’s earliest writings such as The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in 1843 when Marx was only twenty-five.
In lieu of a longer piece on Marx and Hegel, I have borrowed from Marx's Capital, Philosophy and Political Economy by Geoffrey Pilling (1980) which, amongst other things, explores the use of Hegel’s philosophical system by Marx in constructing his critique of capitalist production. It is a pretty rare book and deserves a full review but is available freely on the Marxist Internet Archive and deserves close study. Of particular interest is Chapter Four on the ‘Significance of the Opening Chapters of Capital’.
Use-Value and Exchange-Value
What we are presented with in the first three chapters of Capital is a parade of forms. For instance, Marx addresses value in relation to the commodity where he says that the elementary form of value is contained in the simple equation 20 yards of linen = 1 coat and he writes:
The inner opposition contained in the commodity of use-value and value is thus manifested by an external opposition; that is the relationship of two commodities of which the one counts immediately only as use-value, the other immediately as exchange-value, or in which both of the opposite determinants of use-value and exchange-value are apportioned among the commodities in a polar manner (Marx 1867).
What does Marx mean by this? Essentially there are different forms of value inherent in commodities that only find an expression through the process of market exchange. The two forms are use-value and exchange-value (note that for simplicity I refer to there being two forms of value inherent in the commodity i.e. use-value and exchange-value. However, Marx refers to numerous different forms of value, including intrinsic value, elementary-form of value, equivalent-form of value, relative-form of value, expanded-form of value, general-form of value and universal form of value).There forms are only expressed when commodities meet one another in the market place in the motion of exchange as Marx explains:
The opposition or contrast existing internally in each commodity between use-value and value, is therefore, made evident externally by two commodities, being placed in such relation to each other, that the commodity whose value it is sought to express, figures directly as a mere use-value, while the commodity in which that value is to be expressed, figures directly as mere exchange-value. Hence the elementary form of value of a commodity is the elementary form in which the contrast contained in that commodity between use-value and value, becomes apparent.
The value of the commodity linen is expressed by the bodily form of the commodity coat; the value of one by the use-value of the other.... Thus the linen acquires a value-form different from its physical form (ibid).
We should remember that these value forms are not physical entities as such but depend on relations between people in the form of production and exchange. They are not material in the sense that they can be removed, isolated and dissected like an organism, but they are real.
Marx shows that in the process of exchange one form of value is expressed in another. ‘Use-value becomes the form of its manifestation, the phenomenal form of its opposite, value’.
What did Marx mean by the phenomenal form? He does not mean, as is often misunderstood, that this is merely an illusion or a mirage. The coat does take on a phenomenal form of appearance to us as a coat and the reason it appears to us like this is because its manifestation is as a real coat, as a use-value; a coat that can be worn. Its value form is hidden from us beneath the surface sensual appearance of its phenomenal form.
This is one reason why Marx continuously refers to the super-sensible or supernatural to attempt to convey the shape shifting nature of capitalist production. It is difficult to grasp that the capitalist social relation has different forms of manifestation. Some appear in corporeal bodily or phenomenal form like coats and other commodities when beneath the surface lies labour-power, exploitation and value.
The use of the term the phenomenal form comes up again and again in Capital and particularly in the opening chapters. If one does not grasp this key idea, it makes understanding the rest of Capital difficult. And here Marx is totally indebted to the work of Hegel and particularly to his Phenomenology of Spirit.
When Marx refers to the phenomenal form of appearance of anything he is referring to its actual real manifestation. Let me take the example of the financial crisis of 2008. Marxists will refer to the capitalist crisis manifesting itself as a crisis beginning in the financial system. Banks did in fact crash along with stock markets. The phenomenal form of appearance of the crisis was initially as a financial one. The financial crisis was all too real but this was not the essence of the crisis, which had much deeper roots in capitalist production itself, hidden from most of us. Hence one will search in vain for explanations of the crisis purely in financial terms because it only deals with the surface appearance of one manifestation of capitalist production.
The two forms of value inherent in commodities represent a contradiction in that use-value and exchange-value are polar opposites. The contradiction is never overcome in the elementary value form. As the commodity is, for Marx, the cell form of capitalist production, then the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value lies at the heart of crisis formation. As we move through higher value forms, such as the money-form, the original contradiction remains unresolved and is, in the Hegelian term, sublated (or in German, Aufhebung, which has the apparently contradictory implications of both preserving and changing). Thus the possibility of a failure to realise the exchange-value through a failure to sell is always present.
With the expansion of capitalist production, commodity exchange is generalised, and so the individual relation between linen and other commodities becomes lost ‘with the whole world of commodities’ in the money form, so Marx emphasises:
It is thus that for the first time that value shows itself in its true light, as a congelation of undifferentiated human labour. For the labour that creates it, now stands expressly revealed as labour that ranks equally with every other sort of human labour, no matter what its form, whether tailoring, ploughing, mining etc (ibid).
Marx begins with the single commodity, rising through higher forms of value, from the semblance of the relations of the elementary value form to their appearance in the higher forms, thus showing that what looked like mere chance is now revealed as a necessity in the expanded form. Or in another sense, moving from the abstract, through many determinations, to the concrete.
Marx. 1867. Capital Volume I, Chapter One. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm
Pilling, G. 1980. Marx's Capital, Philosophy and Political Economy. https://www.marxists.org/archive/pilling/works/capital/
First published at http://marxistworld.net/
Why the pro-indy parties would do well to take up the policy of a Scottish Public Patenting Fund.
It’s taken almost as a given – and even by some opponents of Scottish independence - that our tiny nation of five million people has traditionally punched well above its weight in the scientific world and in the world of invention and innovation.
Historically we are the nation of James Clerk Maxwell – the giant of world physics upon whose shoulders Einstein himself stood; of James Watt, Alexander Fleming and John Logie Baird. In more recent times, the work of Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University in anticipating the Higgs boson drove world particle research and the building of the Large Hadron Collider. Dolly the Sheep – the world’s first cloned mammal – was a pioneering product of Ian Wilmut and his team at the Roslin Institute. Our gaming industry has had many pioneers and world leaders.
There are many other examples – and perhaps you can think of them. One thing is certain, in Scotland’s universities and research establishments, right now, new pioneering work is being done across whole ranges of fields that, in the future, could literally change the way we live and work, and potentially be multi-million pound earners for those who hold the patents.
It’s also the case that those same scientists working in pioneering fields often find it difficult to secure funding for their research, and have to look to private industry for that funding. In turn, private companies, particularly pharmaceutical and biomedical companies, will often expect a share of any patent, or even, in extreme cases, the whole patent to be registered in their name – thus enabling them to exploit it to the full financially and often against the interest of the majority of society. Ally that fact to the justified sense that Scots as a whole have not always benefitted fully from the research, innovations and inventions that our country is responsible for, and its not difficult to see a potential ‘gap in the market’ for a public patenting policy that can both increase and fund leading research AND ensure that Scotland as a nation benefits fully from any patents and discoveries that ensue.
The policy we would like to offer up to all of the pro-independence parties for consideration we call the Public Investment and Patenting System, and it calls for the setting up of a Scottish Public Patenting Fund by the Scottish Government which – as the name suggests – would be wholly publicly owned. Its straightforward aims would be as follows:
1) To contribute to the Scottish Common Weal by funding or part funding leading research and development in leading and innovating scientific sectors in Scotland in return for patent rights or part patent rights on new products, processes and inventions that arise.
2) To invest return from said patents in the Fund, with a view to both greater investment in Scottish R&D and theoretical scientific work, and to make an annual contribution from the fund to the Scottish Exchequer after costs once in profit
3) To develop science and innovation in Scotland across all sectors as a matter of public policy
Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier win US Breakthrough Prize in Science for discovery of the CRISPR gene editing technique. What scientific breakthroughs might come from Scotland in the next ten or twenty years, and how might thye benfit us directly?
Starting from a fairly small expenditure base, say, £10 million per annum for running costs and an initial annual investment fund of £30 million, the aim would be to build up a portfolio of research partners and publicly owned or partially publicly owned patents that over time would see net monetary value flow back into the fund, placing it into a permanent public surplus so that Scottish R&D essentially pays for itself, and the fund is able to take surpluses it generates and plough them back into the treasury of an independent Scotland to be used for education, health, roads, housing or whatever else the democratically elected Government of the day chooses to prioritise. (Perhaps, at some point in the future we could go mass participatory and have an annual digital vote on just what that surplus should be spent on!)
The fund should also have the option of agreeing the Salk route with research partners and scientists (after Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine pioneer who refused to patent the vaccine he invented and simply put it ‘out there’ for the public good). Such ‘Open Sourcing’ couldn’t be general and universal, of course, otherwise the purposes of the fund would not be met, but it should be an option in cases of widespread or immediate international need.
It would be good to have a feasibility study done on this by academics, who could both establish to what degree this can be achieved within the current or coming powers of the Scottish Parliament, and who could project potential fiscal gains from such a fund for the short, medium and longer terms. The Point – as a volunteer project – doesn’t have the funds to pay for that kind of academic research. But a future Scottish Government could if it wished to take up the policy.
It would be necessary to make sure the right people were taken on – scientists, futurists, people with the Common Weal idea in their hearts and heads – to head up such a fund. We would need qualified science people with the right measures of boldness, caution and nous to ensure the people’s money was being invested wisely in research with long term potential benefits – and not wasted.
And we would need clear contractual guidelines that would reassure scientists, universities and researchers that there would be no academic interference from Government on ideological or political grounds in the scientific process; that the science would remain pure and peer reviewed.
But – if all those things can be done – we believe this policy is a potential winner that can both put our small nation firmly and permanently on the world map as a leading centre for scientific research AND ensure all of Scotland benefits financially in a direct sense from that research in the future. It is, of course, a policy for the medium to long term. Any fund takes time to build up. However, Scots are already familiar with the concept of an oil fund from the independence campaign, a policy The Point also wholeheartedly supports.
The Age of Oil is coming to an end over the next few decades (though hopefully not before an independent Scotland can get some real benefit from it). The Age of Science could just be about to become a Golden Age. Proper public investment now, with proper public returns could see Scotland benefit massively from a whole range of new inventions and discoveries, from biogenetics, to space research, to nanotechnologies, new medicines and treatments, new renewable energy technologies, new industrial processes and internet and social media innovations.
A Scottish Public Patenting Fund would be a significant but modest success if it broke even after the first five years, made modest profits in the next five, and then was able to contribute a few hundred million every year to the Scottish Treasury
- but in all honesty we think it could be so much bigger than that.
Considering the potential of our people and our scientific and learning institutions, and what might emerge from those people and institutions over the next five, ten or fifteen years, we believe a Scottish Public Patenting System and Fund could be a game changer; that in thirty years time it could conceivably match or dwarf the huge financial success of Norway’s Sovereign Oil Fund.
Politicians often don’t think very much about the future – at least not much further than the next budget or the next election. But we believe they should, and that this is an idea that can help the people of Scotland both create the future and benefit from the future.
SNP, Solidarity, Greens, Rise – and anyone else who may be listening – it’s over to you.
Steve Arnott continues his series of articles on Darwinism and Marxism with a look at what neuroscience tells us about how the ultimate evolved organ so far known in nature – the human brain – achieves consciousness.
In previous issues of The Point I have outlined the basic case for the left abandoning its traditional knee jerk hostility to biological evolutionary based accounts of human nature, and argued that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that the terms of the old nature versus nurture debate are redundant. A modern Theory of Persons must note that both what is given to human nature through evolution and the expression of genes and what is given to us by our personal histories in the world, our environment, our social interactions and culture are wholly necessary for the full and diverse expression of our personalities, consciousness and humanity. Further, I argued that far from weakening the ideas of socialism, such a view strengthens the case for a progressive, liberal, socially and economically just society.
Secondly, I explored the connection between game theory and the work of Robert Axelrod, Robert Trivers, William Hamilton and others - ideas outlined in Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue and Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene - and argued that the left needs to outgrow its shameful and wilful misinterpretation of this work as a) biological determinism and b) providing ideological cover for free market capitalism with the idea that 'human nature' is inherently selfish. In actuality, this body of work is about understanding the evolutionary bases of altruistic and co-operative behaviour in species and, if anything, shows the adaptive power of co-operation and social organisation. Human beings are capable of selfishness, but they are also capable of working together in solidarity for common goals and purposes. The weight of evidence shows that there is no scientific reason why a socialist society could not work provided that socialist society understood and acted upon a genuinely scientific understanding of human nature.
In two articles in The point's predecessor publication, the Democratic Green Socialist, my colleague Gary Fraser, basing himself on the work of Steven Pinker and others has outlined why 'the blank slate' view of human consciousness, adopted from enlightenment liberalism by both Marxist Leninists and modern social constructivists, is scientifically untenable and has damaged the cause of socialism throughout the 20th century and the early decade of the 21st, outlining some of the confusions, paradoxes and downright absurdities such a position leads to, and arguing for a new and progressive socialist politics based on evolutionary psychology and a proper scientific understanding of human consciousness.
These articles, 'The Left and the Denial of Human Nature' parts 1 and 2 we hope to republish here in The Point at some future date.
It is clear that a small group of writers and thinkers based around The Point magazine have begun to challenge many of the accepted shibboleths of the left and to promote the beginnings of a new synthesis between evolutionary thinking and the sphere of civil society and left politics through a pro-science, pro-rationalist approach.
I have referred to this as Darwinist-Marxism, though others may see that as too prescriptive or even too ambitious. Other phrases I have used are A Theory of Persons, and for the purposes of a catchy but appropriate title for this long series of essays, which may become a book, I have borrowed Professor Dawkins poetic phrase The Conspiracy of Doves.
What is necessary now is to put some 'meat on the bones' of this developing worldview. Though I seek no monopoly on the discussion and development of this work, and indeed, will encourage others convinced of its core truths to write and develop ideas and aspects of their own in relation to blank slate-ism, evolutionary psychology, and their relationship to contemporary or historical political debates and so on, over my next three or so contributions or so it will fall on me to begin to make good on some of my promises in outline I made when I embarked on this project back in issue 4 of this magazine.
A little further down the line I need to show why the fundamental ideas of Marx are scientific and universally relevant – not simply by virtue of repeated assertion of the fact by vanguardist committees, or even in the terms Marx and Engels themselves posed the question - but in the narrower and more rigourous terms of the key and broadly accepted definitions of scientific activity and postulates from the philosophy of science, including in terms of Karl Popper's idea of 'falsifiability'. I will also want to develop the idea that Leninist 'blank-slate-ism' was a tragic departure from Marx's more rounded view that human beings possessed both social and species being. As with all of these 'heretical' ideas I expect such an article to be controversial. Research is under way and I hope to post an article or articles covering these matters on the The Point sometime over the next year.
Beginning with the Brain
Firstly, however, in order to lay the ground for a synthesis between Darwinism, Marxism and a scientific theory of human nature and consciousness, it will be desirable to equip the reader interested in these ideas with a basic understanding of the best available dialectical and materialist theory of human consciousness; of how the remarkable, rich and differentiated phenomena of consciousness arises in nature from the human brain. Although we have previously critiqued simplistic leftist views of human nature, blank slate-ism and so on, and emphasised how human personal and social consciousness can only arise through both nature and nurture acting in dialectical concert, it is not enough, I wager, to simply deal with those generalities – important as they are.
The reader will be better placed to understand the whole from a philosophical and political perspective with a decent lay comprehension of the multifarious and multiply connected physical processes that make consciousness possible – that make you and the process that is you possible, and that in turn make the social interaction that is us possible. To do so we shall have to touch on neuroscience. Specifically, in this chapter and the next, I want to outline in a little detail the best and most experimentally robust theory we have of how consciousness arises from the grey matter of the brain. This is the theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS) or Neural Darwinism, as postulated by Nobel prize winning immunologist, Director of the Neurosciences Institute and President of the Neurosciences Research Foundation, Gerald Edelman, and his co-worker Giulio Tononi.
Edelman – A controversial genius?
Gerald Edelman did not start his professional life as a neuro-scientist, but as an immunologist. Had he not turned his interest to the science of how our brains work, and how the matter of our brains gives rise to the unique and multi-layered thing we called consciousness, he would still have secured his place in the scientific pantheon for his work on how the human immune system – and by evolutionary implication – all animal immune systems worked.
He shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1972 with Rodney Robert Porter for a fundamental and important discovery on how the immune system operated that ran contrary to previous models in a counter intuitive and surprising way. Previously it had been thought that anti-bodies operated like a cellular 'magic putty', moulding themselves in some way to fit round the molecules of invader viruses and therefore neutralise them. Indeed, this is probably still the 'folk wisdom' picture that most people have in their heads of how their immune system works when they get a cold or some other virus. Edelman dubbed this an 'instructional' model of immunology – the attacking virus carries information about itself which then instructs the antibodies towards a match.
What Edelman and his co-workers showed contrary to this picture was that the body constantly produces and has at its disposal a plethora – a reserve army – of antibodies with a wide range of molecular fits (which it carries as a result of multi-generational evolutionary adaptation), and that when a virus invades the body the closest match of antibody will massively increase in number according to its ability to neutralise the invading virus. This model Edelman described as a 'selectional' or Darwinian system, by which he meant that it was much closer to the model of population thinking and selection for adaptive traits by environmental selection than any instructional or information based theory.
It was this fundamental insight – that there could be important aspects of human biological processes existing in somatic (body) time that could be best understood as evolution mirroring itself i.e. as selectional, adaptive processes that themselves had been selected for over evolutionary timescales – that Edelman carried with him into his work and second career as a neuro-scientist.
Until relatively recently, although certain aspects of brain function had been well mapped out and a functioning neuro-anatomical model of the brain existed, what gave rise to those functions and how the different areas of the brain worked together to produce consciousness was not well understood. The 'problem of consciousness',
how the 'mere' matter of our gray squidgy wet seven pounds of brain can give rise to all the differential and rich experiences that we all have subjectively and individually and refer to collectively and objectively as consciousness, was regarded by many as intractable.
In philosophy, 'central state' materialists argued that the brain was, of course, the mind, and that no consciousness could exist without brain activity – but no coherent biological theory of how the brain did this was offered as part of the package. A few retreated into some sort of unspoken Cartesian dualism (what Nietzche bluntly called 'the soul superstition'). Others put forward the concept of epiphenomenalism – the ridiculous idea that conscious experience is merely a by-product of the hidden workings of the brain. One physicist, Roger Penrose, even wrote two lengthy books full of Godelian mathematics arguing that consciousness could only be understood when we had a complete theory of quantum gravity. How quantum gravity – presumably a universal constant – could produce self awareness, intelligence, and mathematics in human beings but not in trout or wombats or mice was not explained. (You may disagree on the question of mice if you are a fan of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)
The most popular model of the brain in philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence studies at the time I was doing my undergraduate thesis on the subject – and co-incidentally when Edelman's work on the subject was just coming to wider non-specialist attention – was the functionalist or computational model of intelligence/the brain/consciousness (the three are sometimes but not always interchangeable in the literature).
In this view, slow but steady progress could be made in understanding the operation of consciousness by breaking it down into its various functions – seeing, interpreting, hearing, responding to environmental stimuli and so on, and then trying to work out how such processes could be understood and perhaps replicated or simulated computationally. It would be wrong to suggest this approach has been completely fruitless. Breakthroughs – slow and steady, right enough - have been made in the field of artificial or simulated intelligence. We now have machines that can replicate aspects of intelligent behaviour, and in some aspects far exceed it.
No-one, however, is suggesting that Asimo, the robot, or Deep Blue, the chess playing computer actually are intelligent in the same we are, or are in any way conscious or aware. They are machines. Their simulation of aspects of behaviour or intelligence results from their clever mathematical programming by human beings. Remove that and they are simply inert objects. Further, it is clearly easier to simulate certain aspects of intelligence than others. Some processes lend themselves easily to a computational model and others do not. A program to read and manipulate pixels on a screen or deliver guided missile to its target is 'clever' but relatively easy to devise. No-one has yet produced a robot clever enough to ride a bicycle around an obstacle course, paint an original picture, or bake a cake in any kitchen in the world it found itself, let alone fool someone face to face that it is a human being in a Turing test.
Into this dominant functionalist/computational model strode Gerald Edelman (some – cruelly and wrongly, in my view - might say blundered, rather than strode). Edelman, who by now was a well established neuroscientist, with decades of work and experimentation behind him and who had published three well received specialist academic books outlining his brain theories – Neural Darwinism, Topobiology and The Remembered Present – argued that the brain did not work like a computer, and that attempts to model or understand the material bases of consciousness on the basis of the functionalist/computational model were doomed to failure or, at the very least, severe limitation.
Edelman argued that the brain did not operate on a computational or 'instructional' basis. The environment was not simply computer tape processed by the brain and then 'read' and responded to on a pre-programmed basis. In any case, who or what was doing the 'reading' or the 'programming'? Who or what created the self-awareness of conscious acts? In the absence of a traditional programmer we were back to a sort of dualism, where consciousness could not be explained by the complexity and organisation of the matter itself, but required 'spook stuff' or a homunculus, or even an infinite regression of homunculi seated somewhere in the brain. Further, methodologically, Edelman could not comprehend why philosophers of mind, artificial intelligence scientists and others did not take as their empirical starting point the one example of a substrate of sophisticated consciousness and self awareness that we know exists and functions – the biology of the human brain.
"What is it these scholars are missing, and why is it critical?
They are missing the idea that a description of the mind cannot proceed "liberally" – that is, in the absence of a detailed biological description of the brain. They are disregarding a large body of evidence that undermines the view that the brain is a kind of computer. They are ignoring evidence showing that the way in which the categorisation of objects and events occurs in animals and in humans does not at all resemble logic or computation. And they are confusing the formal power of physics as created by human observers with the presumption that the power of physics can deal with biological systems that have evolved in historical ways."
- Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire
Fundamentals of TNGS
As one might guess from the name of Edelman's theory – neuronal group selection – Edelman and his supporters posit that the brain, like the immune system and evolution by natural selection is a selectional system.
TNGS argues fundamentally that the brain is a selectional system at multiple interlocking and dynamically linked levels.
Firstly, that the gross anatomy and potentialities of the brain have been selected for over evolutionary time scales, and that consciousness in all of its richness and functions can only be understood if first and foremost we consider it as having adaptive power in relation to the survival and prospering of the organism in which it is embodied.
Secondly, that our genes code for the development of the morphology of our brains both during embryonic development, and, post birth, in response to our environment as individuals with unique histories; certain individual neuronal cells and groups have the capability to move, extend and develop within the brain topobiologically (topos meaning place); this dynamic development is both made possible, and constrained, by both our genetic inheritance and the natural morphological limits the expression of such genes gives rise to.
Thirdly, the brain itself, through a system of re-entrant mapping linked to evolutionarily determined value systems distinguishes salient events for the organism, - such as, for instance, successfully locating a mother's teat, distinguishing between sounds and sights, or responding to danger. Specifically, in relation to humans, it is involved in an infant pushing the right button to get its toddler's toy to make a pleasing noise, or lifting a cup successfully, after some near misses, in order to drink, and later, learning to ride a bike, build a wall, select the right gear while driving, or compose a symphony. This system selects, in somatic (body) time, neuronal groups which are successful in firing and linking with other neuronal groups in such a way as to produce an optimal survival/adaptive based response to stimuli. This constantly ongoing process in response to our environment produces multiple contemporaneous firing of neuronal groups selected for specific functions across the brain and leads to the adaptive ability to perceive or construct a scene.
This concept of re-entrant mapping is probably the single most important pillar on which the theory of neuronal group selection rests. It is these multiply connected and recursive extended connections between neuronal groups in multiple areas of the brain and across multiple brain functions that ultimately allow contemporaneous and co-ordinated neuronal response to sapient events in the environment of the organism and 'classify' them according to the adaptive and survival value for the organism. Importantly, because these neuronal selections take place in body time and in response to an individuated environment these are not only general species based responses to salient value, but are qualitatively developed, as a person develops, into individual characteristics and historical preferences that are of adaptive value to the individual. Edelman and Tononi write:
If we consider the combinatorial possibilities for re-entrant selection across (the brain), even after allowing a number of neuro-anatomical constraints to operate, we begin to glimpse the remarkable power of neuroanatomy in a selectional system. A jungle or food web, like the brain, has many levels and routes for the passage of signals but has nothing corresponding to re-entrant neuroanatomy. Indeed, if asked, what characteristic uniquely differentiates higher brains from all other known objects or systems, we would say "re-entrant organisation".
Lastly, while these first three conditions exist to a greater or lesser extent in all animals with brains, the human brain, with the biggest size, most complex morphology, and a relatively plastic neo-cortex, has evolved these relationships to such a degree of dynamic functionality that we not only possess 'a remembered present', the comprehension of an immediate scene (recall but not memory) like most animals – dogs for instance – but, further, we possess as a species the ability to recall or, more correctly, reconstruct memories, to imagine and plan, to consider the future, to reflect upon the past, to be aware that we are aware. At this level we have become not just a social animal, but a conscious social animal.
Whether we are aware of it or not, in this arena adaptive selection has found its highest expression - our social being. We interact as social beings in society and we can reach the most sophisticated form of selection – conscious selection of ideas, aesthetics, moral choices, philosophies and competing arguments. These conscious choices, however, do not necessarily do away with our rawer appetites, and at times can be in direct competition with them. Nor can they normally be made purely in the abstract, seperate from the social, cultural and economic superstructure in which we are embedded. I will deal further with the remembered present and how in higher brains this develops into full consciousness in part two
I know I have probably thrown just thrown a number of terms at you that you not have heard before. I counsel patience. We will consider the neuro-anatomical 'mechanics' in a little more biological and explanatory detail in a moment. Although it is impossible to adequately convey or deal with the richness of a theory originally expounded in hundreds of thousands of words in a few thousand I hope the reader will stick with me through some of the more complex biology (and occasionally philosophy of mind) and be rewarded by an understanding at a lay level that is at least sufficient to see where this is leading in terms of the overall thesis I am outlining. Firstly, however, it will be necessary to briefly touch on some of the misunderstandings some of Edelman's formulations and writing have given rise to.
Everything in the Garden...
The philosopher Daniel Dennett in his often excellent and seminal work Darwin's Dangerous Idea affords Edelman only two dismissive mentions in footnotes. Although slightly less churlish in his own book on the subject at hand, Consciousness Explained, (it isn't) he sums up Edelman and TNGS thus:
"Edelman is one theorist who has tried to pull it all together, from the details of neuro-anatomy to cognitive psychology to computational models to the most abstruse of philosophical controversies. The result is an instructive failure. It shows in great detail just how many different sorts of question must be answered before we can claim to have secured a complete theory of consciousness, but it also shows that no one theorist can appreciate all the subtleties...Edelman has misconstrued, and then abruptly dismissed, the work of many of his potential allies, so he has isolated his theory from the sort of sympathetic and informed attention it needs to be saved from its errors and shortcomings."
- my emphasis
Dennett writes from a functionalist/computationalist perspective so it's perhaps understandable that Edelman – always a handy one with the polemical phrase for television or the media – has ruffled feathers with what often appears to be a peremptory dismissal of that entire field. Edelman sometimes does tilt at windmills out side of his own field of neuroscience and sometimes he gets it wrong. For instance, in a postscript to Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, he challenges Noam Chomsky's view on linguistics, particularly the view, based on the universality of rules of syntax across the human species, that all human beings must possess a what Chomsky has called a language acquisition device.
Chomsky, of course, isn't suggesting that there is anything inside our heads apart from the matter of our brains, and I would argue that the view of human consciousness inherent in TNGS as requiring both innate, evolutionarily determined, species specific features and a dynamic capability to respond to environmental novelty is not necessarily dichotomous with Chomsky's work.
Similiarly, Dennett and others are concerned that Edelman makes a category error in dismissing computationalism. They see Edelman's war cry for an understanding of the biology of the brain as a basis for approaching the complex processes of consciousness as a rejection of the idea of 'substrate neutrality' – that consciousness is a material process that, in theory, should not be dependent on any particular substrate i.e. the carbon and water based brain, but should in theory be possible in other suitable media. They worry perhaps that Edelman's critique of functionalism and computationalism as a method of understanding consciousness implies a rejection, for instance, of Alan Turing's fundamental mathematical insight that all physical and mathematical processes can, in theory, be represented and computationalised by a universal machine consisting of a (potentially infinite) series of ones and zeroes. This is the insight on which all modern computing is fundamentally based.
Although there are times when I wish Edelman was a little more careful and a little less provocative in his language, I don't believe he thinks anything other than that consciousness may well be, and probably is, substrate neutral. He specifically talks about the development of artificial consciousness in the future, uses computational modelling in his own experiments and very much sees consciousness as a process rather than a substance or a thing. He speaks of Turing's 'powerful' mathematical tool and I don't believe he rejects the principle of universal computation at all.
Finally, Edelman suffers from his own success; not only in dissolving the falseness of the dichotomies within the nature/nurture debate; between reductionism and complexity or emergence, and between innateness (what is given by nature to human consciousness) and what is brought to our conscious selves through interaction with the global environment; but in showing the interdependence and dialectical relationship of these things through the penetrating lens of Darwinist thinking.
Some on the reductionist/innateist side of the argument cannot forgive him for his attempt to describe this complex and emergent nature of consciousness, or his stress on the uniqueness of individual histories and the importance of environmental input in somatic time in the development of our abilities, sensibilities and sense of self. On the other side, would be 'holists' and 'nurturists' view him with suspicion because his theory also implies acceptance of human nature, a substantial degree of innateness, and an adaptive explanation for the commonalities we experience and feel as humankind, wherever we hail from and whatever our culture.
I can only appeal to those who have rejected or passed over Edelman for these reasons to revisit him and think again. We should not throw out a substantial baby because of some muddied bathwater.
I will not argue in this narrative that Edelman is absolutely right about everything or that TNGS is complete in all respects and cannot be improved upon, only that it is, so far, as backed by massive evidence, the best theory we have available; that it is a materialist theory, a theory of emergent phenomena, a theory of mind as process not substance, and a theory that, to use Marx's terms, encapsulates and places in their proper relationships both our species being and our social being. Edelman and his co-workers have been refining and developing the theory for over two decades. As Edelman and Tononi themselves say in Consciousness: How Matter becomes Imagination
"Our claim is that we may capture the material bases of mind even to the extent of having a satisfactory understanding of the origins of exalted things, such as the mental. To do so, we may have to invent further ways of looking at brains and their activities. We may even have to synthesize artifacts resembling brains connected to bodily functions in order to fully understand those processes. Although the day when we shall be able to create such conscious artifacts is far off, we may have to make them – that is, use synthetic means – before we deeply understand the processes of thought itself. However far off the date of their construction, such artifacts shall be made. After all, it has been done at least once by evolution. The history of science, particularly of biological science, has shown repeatedly that apparently mysterious or impassable barriers to our understanding were based on false views or technical limitations. The material bases of mind are no exception."
So how does my brain work then?
The structure of the brain is incredibly complex and incredibly important. Some have criticised the ideas of Edelman as over emphasising the plasticity of the brain and, in particular, the cerebral cortex. But it is unarguable that this plasticity has been shown; from cases where certain patients have suffered brain damage and other areas of the brain adapt to that function, or from experiments where electrical stimulation of parts of the cortex have produced reports of highly individuated sensations from experimental volunteers – such as 'that makes a Metallica song go through my head' or 'that makes me think of my mom baking apple pie'.
But just as children require reasonable and consistent boundaries in order to develop, the brain requires structure in order to facilitate adaptive plasticity. It also requires a massive number of possible neuronal groups and mappings from which to select in response to environmental or social stimuli, and to novelty in the world. In selectional system high redundancy allows significant adaptive differentiation.
"The adult human brain weighs about three pounds and contains about 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons. The most recently evolved outer corrugated mantle of the human brain, the cerebral cortex, contains about 30 billion neurons and 1 million billion connections, or synapses. If we counted one synapse per second we would not finish counting for 32 million years. If we consider the number of possible neural circuits (in the brain as a whole), we would be dealing with hyper-astronomical numbers: 10 followed by at least a million zeroes. (There are 10 followed by 79 zeroes, give or take a few, of particles in the known universe)."
- Edelman, Tononi, Consciousness
Bearing this in mind, TNGS identifies three main topological arrangements of fundamental neuro-anatomy in the brain:
1. The thalamo-cortical system
The thalamus is reciprocally connected by re-entrant maps to the cerebral cortex. Different cerebral cortical areas and their associated thalamic nuclei are highly specialised and are associated with specific types of environmental stimuli; visual, acoustic, tactile etc
2. The cerebellum, hippocampus, basal ganglia and cortex
This is a system of parallel and unidirectional extended nuclei linking the cortex to the cerebellum, hippocampus and the basal ganglia.
The cerebellum is concerned with the co-ordination and synchrony of motion and also appears to have substantial involvement in certain aspects of thought and language.
The basal ganglia, whose nuclei project to the thalamus and back to the cortex and is known to be involved in the planning and execution of complex motor and cognitive acts. Significantly, this system is dysfunctional in Parkinson's and Huntingdon's diseases.
The hippocampus sends multiple projections to and from multiple cortical areas. Current neuroscience theorises that this system probably subserves many functions but it certainly plays a major role in consolidating short term memory into long term memory in the cerebral cortex.
3. The value system
A diffuse fan of extended nuclei which projects to huge portions of the brain and possibly all of it. The origins of this fan is found in a relatively small number of neurons in the brain stem and hypothalamus, two parts of the brain which evolved very early, and which consist of
- The noradregenic locus coeruleus
- The serotegenic raphe nucleas
- The dopaminergic nuclei
- The cholinergic nuclei
- The histaminergic nuclei
As the names of these nuclei suggest they are responsible for the chemical stimulation of neuronal groups in positive reinforcement of adaptive responses for the organism to the environment. You will probably recognise and be familiar with some of the chemical compounds underlying these systems and which may or may not be associated in your mind with brain activity and the drugs and chemicals which are known to alter it – adrenalin, dopamine, serotonin etc. This system affects not only neural activity but neural plasticity. It yields selection. That is to say, an adaptive change to synaptic response strength.
How this complex tri-partite structure is capable of constructing a coherent scene, a 'remembered present' in terms of our conscious experience, and how, in higher brains that is built upon to further levels of coherence – a remembered past, and imagined future, reason, rationalisation, tastes and aesthetics, desire and longing and regret – will be developed further in further issues of The Point.
For now it is enough to note that this theory renders any notion that it is only, or 'mainly', nature or nurture, evolution or environment, that plays the true critical role in the development of our mind as laughable as the idea that earthquakes can be predicted by chicken's entrails. And, that in outline at least, we have a neuro-scientific theory of mind that has no need of any ghosts in the machine.
Our beautiful brains have been built by natural selection over evolutionary timescales as a response to innumerable environments.
They have built a structure capable, when fully functioning, of allowing adaptive value led selection in body time of neuronal groups and sufficient neural plasticity to allow response to novelty in given environments.
In so doing, from matter, nature has given rise adaptively to a process, an emergent phenomena, the thing we call consciousness, which is dependent on and derives from the organisation of the matter, but is more than simply the matter itself because it requires an interpenetrating and interlocking factor; the external world.
In turn, this has created a relatively new thing on this Earth – a group called homo sapiens that has both species being and social being. We may want to refer to such creatures as Persons and a global theory of their species being and social being as a Theory of Persons. (There may be others who fit this view of 'person' - apes, dolphins, whales, elephants, artificial and alien intelligences and so on - but I'll deal with that further down the line).
A brain without the environment it has been evolutionarily built to interpret, respond to, and survive in, remains a squidgy mass and nothing more. Consciousness would not develop. An environment without a brain structured adaptively to respond to it, and any novelty it might throw up, is like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest. It may still exist but it will never be the subject of conscious thought.
In terms of what it means to be human, to be a person, it is no longer a question of nature or nurture, but nature via nurture, and nurture via nature, to use Matt Ridley's celebrated phrase.
Blank slate-ism, its corollary, fundamentalist social constructivism; and its opposite, biological determinism, are, all three, dead as the dodo.
Steve Arnott, March 201 4
Bright Air, Brilliant Fire – Gerald Edelman, Penguin Books
Consciousness: How matter becomes imagination – Gerald Edelman & Giulio Tononi, Penguin Books
Consciousness Explained – Daniel Dennett, Penguin Books
Darwin's Dangerous Idea - Daniel Dennett, Penguin Books
Nature via Nurture – Matt Ridley, Harper Perennial
Steve Arnott's The Conspiracy of Doves
Part of the ideological armoury deployed to defend the status quo is the idea that socialism is impossible because ‘human nature is inherently selfish’. Is it? Or does modern Darwinism tell us something rather different? Let’s take as an unlikely starting point the following unlikely question, which by the end of this chapter I hope to have at least partially answered.
What do TV quiz shows like Deal or no Deal, Goldenballs, Who wants to be a Millionaire and the ‘reality’ show Big Brother have in common with one of the most important findings of modern biology in the 21st Century?
One of the advantages of being a socialist activist is that you rarely have time to watch TV – being out fighting for a better society is not only a good thing in and of itself, it also saves the brain from the sclerotic effect of today’s mind-numbing schedules of crass game shows, stagey docu-soaps, and whatever the latest fly-on-the-wall, lowest-common-denominator, piece of voyeurism happens to be.
However, anyone who has done a degree in philosophy, economics or biology would probably recognize one of the key contributions to twentieth century thought at work in any one of the mass entertainment programmes mentioned above – that is, the concept and practice of Game Theory.
After all, these programme makers are very clever – if not necessarily very moral. Perhaps the very stuff that makes Deal or no Deal or Millionaire exciting viewing for millions; the calculations and trade offs; the element of risk taking or knowing when to stop is something that strikes a chord somewhere in our brains; in our inherent and complex human nature.
In Noel Edmond’s Deal or no Deal, for instance, contestants are asked to open boxes representing varied cash values - from pocket money up to one containing £250, 000. As boxes are eliminated from the game, an off-screen ‘banker’ will offer contestants sums of money to settle and leave the game. Contestants have to weigh up the odds of being better off accepting the banker’s offer or continuing on to win the big prize, or of course, perhaps leave with nothing or next to nothing.
In Millionaire contestants not only have to answer questions; they have to make a series of considered decisions about whether it is in their ‘rational self interest’ to proceed to a further level of difficulty and perhaps lose money or win more, or to settle for what they have. In Big Brother contestants can form alliances, deceive their housemates and try to get competitors nominated for eviction – but they also have to weigh up whether such behaviour may count against them both with their fellow housemates and the viewing public. We shall leave aside for the moment whether it can be in anybody’s ‘rational self interest’ to seek such a shallow 15 minutes of fame.
The ‘Game Theory’ theme reaches its purest form in the afternoon show Goldenballs, however. Skipping over the complex preliminaries which are a bit like Numberwang from Mitchell and Webb, the programme ends with two contestants and a big pot of the filthy lucre. Each contestant has a button they can push representing their choice of what do with the money.
One button means Share, the other Take Everything. The contestants are allowed to speak with each other, truthfully or deceitfully, and to ask questions to try and guess at each other’s character or intention. At the end of the process, each contestant must choose which button to push – without knowing the other contestant’s true decision. It you haven’t seen it works like this: If both contestants press Share, they receive half of the money each. If one presses Share, and other presses Take Everything, the greedy one walks away with all of the money and the co-operator wins nothing. If both press Take Everything, both lose everything.
I saw this gruesome ritual only once but immediately understood its proletarian late afternoon circus entertainment value. More often than not the contestants would end up in mutual destitution, or one cynical, lying opportunist would walk away with all the cash while the more trusting citizen of this mini-society would end up with zilch. The similarity to a much studied phenomenon in this online magazine (beginning with capital and ending in -ism) was not entirely coincidental. Game Theory has often been seized upon by pro-capitalist and neo-liberal economists and theoreticians to justify capitalist market laissez faire economics as a natural product of the operation of ‘rational self interest’.
Making sense of selfishness?
As someone whose background is in philosophy rather than economics, what struck me about all of these programmes and the basic versions of Game Theory they were employing could also be understood as variants of one of the oldest “thought experiments” in moral philosophy – The Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Prisoner’s dilemma type games are applicable whenever there is a conflict between co-operation (the common good) and self interest, and they can have many different forms. In the original, two prisoners are held in separate cells facing a 10-year sentence. If one prisoner grasses on the other, the other will face the full sentence and the defector will go free. If both stay silent there is no evidence and both are free to go. If both grass on each other, both will get 5 years.
To understand the influence this thought experiment has had on both economics and biology we have to leave our ethics – and perhaps our socialist values and preconceptions at the front door for the moment, to return to them later. What matters here is what a bourgeois economist might call the rational self-interest. Working it out logically, what is the best course of action each prisoner can take for him - or herself? The problem has to be understood mathematically.
Bearing in mind that one prisoner has no idea what the other prisoner will do, that his choice is made blind; he has a one in four chance, if he stays silent, of going free and similar odds for silence, of landing the ten year term. Likewise, he has a one in four chance, if he grasses, of going free, but a one in two chance of avoiding the ten year sentence, because if both prisoners talk the sentence is only five years. On a purely algorithmic basis then, selfishness (so we are told), will always pay better odds.
It is little wonder then, that capitalist economists for many years have used such games theories to justify the predatory nature of the capitalist system as inevitable. Altruism and co-operation may be nice ideas, but, they tell us, since, like the eponymous prisoner we can never rely on other human beings to keep up their side of the agreement, we are compelled likewise, by rational self interest, to always put ourselves first.
Such ideas have also made the crossover into biology, particularly evolutionary biology, and thence into culture and sociology. What is Darwinian natural selection but ‘the survival of the fittest’, a pitiless struggle of each organism against its environment and its contemporaries for the right to reproduce? (Incidentally, this was a term coined not by Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of the great evolutionist and one of the first promoters of primitive eugenics).
Of course, unlike the prisoners in the Dilemma game, genes are not making conscious choices. Darwinian selection takes place because of variation across populations of species in given environments and over multi-generational time-scales. Natural selection is a blind algorithmic process tending towards optimum fits to specific eco-systems, food supplies and modes of biological reproduction. Those individuals of a species which have heritable characteristics which tend to enable them to survive long enough to reproduce in a given environment will pass on those inherited characteristics, while those individuals of a species lacking those characteristics will tend to die out prior to mating. Consequently, the favoured characteristic (better camouflage, a better facility with language, a keener ability to smell blood over large distances, etc.) will tend to increase in a given population group over time, until that characteristic becomes a defining characteristic of the species, or until a new species is created whose genetic adaptations are so markedly different from its parent species that it can no longer successfully mate with it.
All organisms are the way they are today because they all had ancestors who successfully passed on their genes. It is a scientific tautology that no-one reading this has ancestors who died childless.
Marxists accept this scientific view of constant creation and the emergence of new species. Indeed, as pointed out elsewhere Marx was a great admirer of Darwin and sent him a complementary copy of the first volume of Capital. But capitalist society tends to interpret the findings of science in terms of its own dominant ideology. For those with vested economic interests to propound in culture, education and politics, both economic games theories, imbued with the idea of rational self interest, and the notion of the selfish gene seemed to be a welcome addition to the ideological armoury of capitalism.
Of course, they argued, as good liberals we could always try to ameliorate the worst effects of human nature, but nevertheless science had showed, had it not, that as human beings individually we were driven fundamentally by the ‘selfish’ desire of our genes to reproduce, and as human beings socially and economically, perhaps also partially as a consequence of that very genetic hard wiring, we were compelled always to act in our own self-interest, even at the expense of others. Surely, such a scientific ‘double whammy’ rendered any concept of socialism, of collectivism, of a society based on co-operation and solidarity, a mere pipe-dream?
Fortunately, as almost always proves to be the case, these same capitalist ideologists are guilty of both hopeful opportunism and bad science. As one of Richard Dawkins’s close co-thinkers, Matt Ridley, points out in his 1997 book The Origins of Virtue, far from the real evidence indicating such a bleak picture for biology and humanity, all the best evidence from both recent evolutionary studies and the further development of games theory into more ‘lifelike’ and complex scenarios seems to show that co-operation, reciprocation and collectivism are at least as much a part of our social and biological make-up as selfishness, and may be even more critical to our development as a species than had previously been thought.
What evidence is there then for this thesis? How do modern Darwinists know that co-operation, reciprocation and collective solidarity are at least as much a part of our social and biological make-up as self-centredness and individual ego?
Hawks, Doves and Tit-for-tat
Ridley points out that when Prisoner’s Dilemma type games are played repeatedly between partners or multiple players where one player can remember whether another is trustworthy or defects against him, then an entirely different set of results begin to show up.
One of the first to demonstrate this was a biologist in the 70s called John Maynard Smith. He was the first to see the connection between games theory and what he called ‘evolutionarily stable strategies’. Although natural selection is a wholly blind, non-teleological process, given the huge numbers involved statistically in evolving populations, selection for competitive advantage in a population could usefully be imagined and modelled as rationally optimum from the ‘point of view’ of the organism in relation to its fitness in its particular environment. The big biological mystery was: If self-interest was always rational then why did animals in the wild not turn upon one another at every opportunity?
He set up a game called Hawks and Doves, which was played out as a mathematical model using computers. A Hawk always Took Everything, if we can refer back to the version of Prisoner’s Dilemma in the Goldenballs game show. A Dove always Shared. Not surprisingly, Doves did fairly well in game scenarios against other Doves, Hawks tended to drive each other to extinction, but Hawks always profited when they came up against Doves – until the Doves were wiped out and hawks only had each other to predate on.
No evolutionary stable strategy there. But Maynard Smith’s insight and genius was to devise a third category of game player - Retaliator. Retaliator was a Dove that turned into a Hawk when it met one. This proved to be an enormously successful strategy. Whenever the game was played Retaliator soon became the “species” to dominate the game space.
A number of years later a political scientist named Robert Axelrod who, like ourselves, was interested in the natural logic of co-operation, confirmed and developed these findings. He set up a Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament on computer and invited people to submit programs (strategies). Surprisingly the eight best (most successful, most evolutionarily stable) programs were all, first and foremost, co-operators. None of them initiated Hawk-like behaviour, and the most successful was a program designed by a man called Anatol Rappaport, a concert pianist with an interest in the politics of nuclear confrontation. His program, Tit-for-tat, was astoundingly simple.
It began by co-operating, but it had a memory. It would then simply do whatever the other program did last time. If the other guy Shared, fine. If he Took Everything, Tit-for-tat would retaliate next time. If, on the third occasion the other program moved back to sharing, Tit-for-tat would return to co-operating behaviour also.
Axelrod explained the success of the program thus:
“What accounts for Tit-for-tat’s robust success is its combination of being nice, retaliatory, forgiving and clear. Its niceness prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble. Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual co-operation. And its clarity makes it intelligible to the other player, thereby eliciting long term co-operation”.
Finally, by moving from a two-prisoner, two-cell reductive scenario to a more complex and - dare I say it - dialectical scenario, with multiple players with memories and the ability to adopt and develop strategies, Games theory had begun to show results a bit more like how the mass of humanity act in everyday life (or, perhaps we should say, would probably act if human relations were not distorted by social and cultural power of capitalism).
The race was now on to find examples in biology of co-operation, both between individuals of species, and in the cellular aggregates that constitute organisms themselves.
Bloodsuckers and baitballs
In 1983 the biologist Gerald Wilkinson detailed an example of co-operation in biology that mirrored almost exactly Rappaport’s Tit-for-tat program. He had studied vampire bats in Costa Rica. The bat’s main source of food is blood sipped from small cuts in large animals at night. Occasionally bats will, of course, go without a blood meal, but after sixty hours without blood the bat is in danger of starving to death.
Wilkinson discovered the Costa Rican bats had ‘devised’ a way around this problem. Fortunately, when a meal is found the lucky bat can usually drink more than it immediately requires. This allows it to donate the surplus to another hungry bat by regurgitating the extra blood mouth-to-mouth. The bats tend to roost in the same tree hollows over a number of years and seemed to have developed the ability to recognise and memorise each others generosity to one and other. A bat that has received blood in the past will, in turn, donate to its benefactor. A greedy bat that refuses blood will be refused blood in turn. And this is not simply bats looking after their own genetic heritage by looking after their kin – most of the bats studied were not directly or indirectly related. Here was something that was perfectly explicable in terms of Game theory and Dawkin’s ‘selfish gene’ approach, but ran counter to the simplistic ideological conclusion of right wingers who have distorted these ideas and claim that ‘survival of the fittest’ necessarily means selfish behaviours predominate in the natural world or are dominant.
Ridley terms this phenomenon reciprocity, and details interesting examples amongst primates, sea-going mammals and others (the co-operation of bees and ants can mostly be explained by kin selection. Drone bees strive to pass on their genes through the genes of a near relative, the Queen.) He even cites the instances of ‘cleaning stations’ at coral reefs; specific spots where larger fish go knowing they can be cleaned of parasites by smaller fish and shrimps, and those smaller creatures know in turn that, at that spot, for that time, they will not be eaten by the larger fish. A clear example of both entirely instinctual and developed teamwork and social co-operation can be seen in the underwater footage of dolphins herding a bait ball...and the sardines, entirely unconsciously, following swarming behaviour aimed at the genetic survival of the shoal rather than the individual.
I won't go into massive detail on the manifold examples that can be quoted from the animal kingdom, and many of both our close and distant genetic cousins - it would turn a 3, 500 word chapter into a mini-series. I would urge you, rather, to read the key popular book on this The Origins of Virtue (or at the very least watch a few Attenborough's with these thoughts in mind. Not withstanding the fun pic of a mouse on a frogs back that heads up this chapter, once you look for examples of reciprocity, altruism and co-operation in the living world it turns up everywhere. A caveat: Ridley, a writer for the Telegraph and Chairman of Northen Rock when it went bankrupt, is no socialist. He's a social liberal, but a free marketeer in the mould of Adam Smith. This shows itself in Origins when Ridley tries to turn his own argument on its head in a chapter called The Tragedy of the Commons - an ill thought through and historically flawed polemic at odds with an otherwise brilliant and scholarly piece of work.
Ridley's central story is, in fact, it is co-operation, rather than self-interest seems to permeate the world of biology, even at the level of the organism or individual cell. “Genes team up to form chromosomes”, he tells us. “Chromosomes team up to form genomes; genomes team up to form cells; cells team up to form complex cells; complex cells team up to form bodies...”
And, of course, bodies team up to form schools, flocks, herds, clans, tribes and societies.
Eternal human ‘nature’ or pre-dispositions to learn?
In the previous chapter I attempted to begin to deconstruct the left’s one sided relationship with the ages old ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. I also began to stake out my argument that Marxists should be wary too of their learnt tendency to ‘bend the stick’ in the relationship between genetics – the biological given – and what we assimilate through the environment and culture. We are clearly not simply blank pages upon which great social experiments can be writ (or anything else for that matter). We are creatures with a certain genetic heritage, drives and instincts. It is important, however, to understand what that means. Ridley, in the introduction to his book, sums it up:
“Instincts, in a species like the human one, are not immutable genetic programs; they are predispositions to learn. And to believe that human beings have instincts is no more determinist than to believe they are products of their upbringings”.
Humans have the innate capability both to be incredibly selfish and heroically altruistic. The potentiality for co-operation and self interest are hardwired into us, it would seem, but they are only potentials. Co-operation, or self-interest, the Hawk or the Dove, can only be realised in our interaction with a real, living complex society.
In this sense Marx began the completion of Darwin, 150 years ahead of schedule, when he said that ‘conditions determine consciousness’ – but only if we understand ‘conditions’ to mean both our environmental and social conditions, and the historic evolutionary conditions over species’ deep time that have selected our innate predispositions.
The overwhelming good news from the modern Darwinian understanding of Game Theory or the Prisoner’s Dilemma is this: There is nothing in biology or economics which precludes a different, better and more harmonious way of organising society. There is nothing in our nature which would doom a genuine socialist project before it even began. Whatever other immediate problems may face us in the struggle to build a new society, we can rest assured that as a matter of fact we are not simply dreamers, wasting our time.
As a Marxist I have always believed one can be an optimist and a realist about the human race at the same time. It was a human brain that revealed the evolutionary processes behind the creation of species, a human brain that began the development of scientific socialism, and a human brain that gave us Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. Similarly, human brains, bounded and surrounded by capitalism and class society and with their worst instincts and prejudices let rip, engineered the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Coming full circle, and on a more mundane level, it was a human brain that gave us the emotionally manipulative Big Brother and the aforesaid Goldenballs.
But the message from science is plain: the game is on, and the Hawks needn’t win.
The choice, both individually and collectively, is ours.
Recommended reading to accompany this chapter
The Origins of Virtue – Matt Ridley
On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – Erich Fromm
Steve Mowat recently attended an Energy Politics Conference in Aberdeen that discussed North Sea Oil and argues it’s time to move away from private ownership and the market economy to public and community ownership, sustainability and environmentalism.
In the United Kingdom public investment in roads, schools, healthcare, policing, and postal services provide a basis for peace, justice, democracy, and fortune to flourish. If proceeds of wealth are used for the benefit of society the basics of civil life can be conducted in an enlightened manner. After 1945 the British people realised something. If it’s conceivable to kill millions of citizens in conflict, then it’s possible to build a compassionate society based on crucial collective assets. Make no mistake; public utilities encourage further innovation, and prosperity. These were initially funded on post war American loans for reconstruction. In recent years however a culture of rolling back social investment has gotten us into a terrible situation. This has gone hand in hand with corporate gluttony without a thought for civilization. Queries have started to arise. In the boom days, deregulation was the way forward. This thirty year disregard for the functions of services benefiting the populace undermines the foundations of capital and the nation itself. Like the leaning tower of Pizza, an empire built on sand, will decade by decade weaken. At some point the structure will collapse. The same is true of a banking and perhaps energy domain build on crumbling social investment.
Sit up, boys and girls! Have you been paying attention?
Are you 'au fait' with the latest scientific developments? Or don't you know your bunsen burner from your Vasimir Plasma Engine, your Singularity from your Steady State?
Culled from various rigorously researched sources, take Spacebound Ape's 'Big Science' Quiz - and find out whether you're an 'A' student or a 'could try harder' in the world's most important and fastest changing discipline.
This reprinted article is by way of a semi-apology. I haven't found the time to write my usual science piece for this issue of The Point, so here is an article of mine on the space race and some thoughts on it from our first issue a couple of years back, so its a bit of science history, a bit of internationalism and a bit of - maybe- controversy. The Point has grown by leaps and bounds since its first issue and we now have a much bigger readership than we had back then, so chances are many of you will be coming to this article for the first time. Hope you enjoy it and that it provokes some thought.
The untimely death of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on another world, and a descendant of Scots, touched many millions across the world. It seemed to remind us of a different, better era. By way of tribute we republish an article by Steve Arnott written on the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission which takes a look at a subject rarely touched on by the left when discussing the Soviet Bloc and the cold war – the space race and the historic achievements that came from it.