DEC 07 2010
I read about 3 books a year on average, usually out of necessity rather than enjoyment, rather like I read The Sun and the Daily Mail every so often
to see what people are being told. Sometimes, however, it is also a pleasure. The greatest pleasure I had this year came when I opened up Michael Brooks' 2010 paperback 13 THINGS THAT DON'T MAKE SENSE.

I was prepared to be disappointed but instead I enjoyed every moment because Michael Brooks really does make sense. He is also extraordinarily diligent. Admittedly he has the advantage of access through his professional career to resources and contacts that are beyond the reach of the average individual on which to base his research, but he is not part of any herd of thought or prisoner of current orthodoxy. He is a true scientist and a brilliant writer.

This is not so much a review of his work, which I rate as perfection, as an attempt to share the view available by standing on his shoulders. I believe Michael Brooks solid work in analysis of the evidence, ranging from the most rigorously controlled laboratory results to statistical generalities and even anecdotal and individual experiences, weighing each accordingly, succeeds in several instances in pointing the way to understanding what, in the subtitle to his book, are described as The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time.
I intend to show that, contrary to the implication of his title, THEY DO MAKE SENSE.

To appreciate what I am going to write here you should first of all get hold of his book and read it from cover to cover. There are no caveats, I leave you in the safest of hands. Read the prologue, all the chapters in order and the epilogue. I am not going to take things in the same order though, as I hope to achieve the most progress as quickly as possible thanks to the work Michael has done.

I am going to start with the last two chapters: THE PLACEBO EFFECT and HOMEOPATHY. It is logical to take them in that order and they happen to be items in the current political agenda on which we need to reach a majority agreement.


I have in the past for the sake of brevity referred to the Placebo Effect as a known and accepted fact, to be taken into account when analysing a great many human conditions, medical treatments, psychosomatic diseases and homeopathic practice. Brooks quite correctly urges caution in classifying the Placebo Effect as a 'known' until we have come up with a usable definition for it. After taking the reader through an extensive list of experiments, analysis and meta-analysis from which some contradictory conclusions emerge, it is possible to share with Brooks the opinion that the Placebo Effect is indeed real but confined to the brain and (my own words here) to the consciousness, with the proviso that to the extent the conscious and unconscious mind are intimately connected and the latter exercises control of hormones that work throughout the body, it can be said to affect physical body conditions.

That puts a limit on what a placebo can do - a limit
within which the actual effect must be patient dependent in the same way that the effect of hypnosis is dependent on the suggestibility of the subject. The limits are not known, however, because the full potential of any individual mind-body combination to cure malfunction or regenerate or extinguish its parts is not known - all we know is what is usual, recorded, reviewed and generally accepted.

There is also the complication that a reduction of perceived pain in the brain could reduce the supply of chemicals produced by the body and sent to the area of inflammation. The inflammation which is often though of as damage or malfunction may well be part of a protection and healing process. If it has done its job, the speeded recovery and reduction of inflammation may be entirely beneficial. If the absence of perceived pain is on the other hand premature and leads to the patient resuming too early full exercise of a body part that should be rested, both active chemical agent and placebo are potentially unhelpful. We could compare the wish to reduce a 'temperature' in a a child when in fact the rise in temperature plays a vital part in in making conditions hostile to a virus or bacteria.

Brooks notes a 1985 estimate from the Oregon Health Sciences University that between 35 and 45 percent of all medical prescriptions, including diazepam (Valium) are placebos. That is to say that if they are administered without the knowledge and appreciation of the patient they have no effect at all; however you should read the whole chapter carefully to get a handle on the issues. It is important to note that the use of placebos is usually associated to issues of physical pain or mental anxiety.

Brooks has for that reason, I assume, avoided any discussion of placebos administered to animals because like many scientists he does not consider it possible to speculate on animal consciousness or pain in the absence of animal language. It would have needlessly complicated an already difficult task of analysis of data referring to humans. I am under no such restriction, however, and with some experience of animals I can say without doubt that the language barrier is greatly overestimated. In the case of animals that have developed a close relationship with a particular human it is non-existent. The same issues of trust, authority and expectation apply in spades. I will call in aid another extract from Brooks:

A 1954 paper in The Lancet declared that the Placebo Effect is only useful "in treating some unintelligent or inadequate patients"; that seems almost laughable now.

Laughable indeed but possibly enlightening too. I indicates a fear amongst the medical profession of the time that the placebo effect could not only work on everybody but might be an ingredient in the effective action of medicines that in 1954 had not been subjected to double-blind testing we are used to these days. It could well be that when testing new medicines on human guinea-pigs, those with a higher education required some plausible explanation of how the substance was supposed to work. The absence of a satisfactory explanation would totally undermine the placebo effect. A less inquisitive patient would not put the authority of the administering agent at risk.

It would therefore be a matter of education and the habit of questioning authority, not intelligence or 'adequacy' that gave rise to the lazy assumption of the 1954 Lancet paper that only stupid people could be treated by placebo. If issues of trust, authority, confidence and expectation are behind the placebo effect, an intelligent animal receiving a medicament and attention from its owner would be a perfect candidate for placebo treatment and the more the animal is observed and cared for after treatment the more it would be reinforced.


Putting together the work that Brooks has assembled and weighing it carefully I think we can say that although we do not know every detail of the process as it functions in any one individual, and neither are we able to predict accurately the results of any individual treatment, the Placebo Effect is far from being a mystery in some important respects:
1. it would be more strange of there was no such effect.
The Placebo Effect explains what would otherwise be mysterious. A world without it would be difficult to imagine in view of what we know now about biology and the human metabolism. In my opinion it could also be demonstrated in animals but the recording of results when it comes to perceived pain would be difficult.
2. Aspects of it are consistent with what we know of psychosomatic processes and Classical conditioning (also called Pavlovian or respondent conditioning, Pavlovian reinforcement). There is no anomaly in its existence, only some apparent anomalies in the results of investigations that can now be explained.
3. Since it plays a complementary role in conjunction with even the accepted allopathic chemical medicaments, it can at least be expected to play a part in homeopathic treatments to which I will now turn.


In I have already set out my views on Homeopathy and I did not anticipate learning anything new from Michael Brooks, but I was wrong. First of all a quick run-through of important issues on which Brooks and I agreed already:

1. It has been claimed by critics of homeopathy that if ultradilute solutions can have an effect in biology it would 'send science back to the drawing board'. This is clearly not the case as our scientific knowledge at the microscopic level is in no way sufficiently extensive that it could be threatened or invalidated if the suggested properties of such solutions turned out to be true.

2. The structure of a material, not its composition, controls its properties. This is a truth of such significance that I will not enlarge on it here. It is key to the whole of inorganic evolution from the first assembly of matter and gains in significance with the emergence of organic evolution. Suffice to say it might have relevance to the properties of water-based ultradilute solutions.

However, I have never sought to advocate the validity of homeopathic theory; my scepticism has been reserved for the critics, just as it was for the critics of theories of extra-terrestrial life. I was on the other hand interested in supporting homeopathy as evidence-based medicine independent of any particular theory. To this end I have argued that its practice by medically qualified doctors, whose belief in homeopathy is based on experience, is at the very least the unwittingly honest application of the placebo effect, not to mention an effective way to avoid chemical dependency on more expensive drugs with possible side effects.

I followed with interest at the time the saga of Jaques Benveniste, whose son was of assistance to me on conferencing systems in the early days of extending the proto-Internet to eastern Europe and Russia. I was saddened by the way he was treated when Maddox and his team of examiners ran for cover when after pressurised tests they thought his lab assistant had somehow cherry-picked the data and refused to persist in further examinations. But I never thought of questioning the most obvious aspect of homeopathy that goes right back to its origin: the reason for the ultra-dilution.

At the end of his well recorded account of the history and investigations into homeopathy, during which he shows how homeopathic practice, whether based on fact or fiction, is in as big or bigger mess as much of conventional medicine (that is my comparison, he does not 'knock' orthodox practice) due to the idiosyncrasies of its practitioners, Brooks suggests by implication that we separate the objections to the ultradilution from the homeopathic principle. He is right, and I would suggest we now take this further.

The bombshell comes toward the end of the chapter when the work of Vilma Bharatran and Richard Hughes on the chemical roots of homeopathy is discussed and we are reminded that Hahnemann, who started with plant-based treatments that were NOT diluted, had unwanted side-effects which led to the need to dilute them. The original reason for the ultra-dilution is cited now as 'unknown' by supporters and critics alike, and even by those who doubt its necessity. It is not guessed at by Brooks himself. I suggest it is obvious and has nothing to do with physics or chemistry. It is a question of legal liability and economics. I picked this para off the web just now:

'In his early years of practice Hahnemann used doses comparable to those of his colleagues: 5-50 grams of Antimony, 20-70 grams of Jalap Root…his 1796 Essay mentions 'moderate' doses. In 1799 he first announced the principle of the infinitesimal dose, and after 1800 his dose sizes were gradually reduced…' [Coulter, p.400]

The Avogadro constant, NA, is a fundamental physical constant that relates any quantity at the atomic scale to its corresponding macroscopic scale. Inspired by the kinetic gas theory Avogadro proposed his hypothesis in 1811, in order to describe chemical reactions as an atomic process between atoms or molecules. [Author Peter Becker]

So we can see that at the start of the 19th century the science of molecular mathematics was reaching the stage where it could be shown that beyond a certain level of dilution the presence of a substance could not be attributed to its previous presence in the source.

In the interests of economy, legal liability and the avoidance of chemical dependency, Hahnemann would have experimented by reducing his dose and the rest is history.

Perhaps now it is time, if criticism of homeopathy is based on the claimed irreality of the effects of ultradiluted doses, and that this criticism is to be used in an attempt to destroy homeopathic medicine in the UK National Health Service, that research should be pursued in highly dilute, as opposed to ultradilute doses. This does not 'blur the lines' between homeopathy to the extent claimed by purists though it does remove the absolute protection of legal liability for chemically produced side effects. In view of the acknowledged risks from allopathic treatments at undiluted doses this does not seem to me to be a serious drawback. As things stand, homeopathy is evidence-based but not science-based. Can we please try to get it together?

In a helpful coincidence
three days after I wrote the above the BBC broadcast a  programme to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of homeopathy's founding text 'Samuel Hahnemann's Organon of Rational Medicine'


DEC 08 2010

I have taken this next as although it is not unrelated to the previous subjects it is one in which I shall use Michael Brooks' work very differently. While there is nothing to disagree with in his analysis (as I said, I am putting you in safe hands) he has no insights or anything to say that points us in the direction of a solution. His analysis makes sense but he is left at the end where he started. Having shown on the neurological level that we think as we do because of what we are, physically, i.e. brain in a given 'state', he sums up his starting position:

"We do not have what we think of as free will. This inference can be drawn from decades of entirely reproducible experiments, and yet it does not make sense".

10 pages later, when he has concluded that free will is an illusion, Brooks concedes that it is an illusion it makes sense to retain on a number of grounds, not least of moral responsibility. Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker probably put it best. "Free will is a fictional construction," he said. "But it has applications in the real world."

Well, thank you for the spade-work. Now to serious business.

On the neurological level we can accept the reality of external interference in natural processes. Experimental electronic and magnetic devices have proved we can induce limb movement, the desire to move, mood changes that could affect judgement and decisions. Chemicals can alter our perceptions of reality. Brain damage caused by physical intrusion or shock or malignant growth can affect the basic mentality. The extent to which any of this has a bearing on an individual's 'freedom of choice' is a matter of degree and its value, when society has to make a judgement, is a matter for considered opinion. Such a considered opinion is reached every day in courts of law. If an individual is the subject of alcoholic inebriation against their will or without their knowledge, they will not usually be blamed for inappropriate or dangerous behaviour unless it be needlessly violent. If they knowingly indulge in drugs or drink which results in harm or risk to others they will, on the other hand, be judged responsible on the grounds of free will when they indulged and again when they proceeded, knowing they had indulged. This would be Pinker's 'application in the real world'.

Unfortunately a few experimenters wanting to make a name for themselves have tried to make something significant out of the simple fact that it takes us time to make up our minds, even at the most instant and basic level. A series of experiments have proved that processes start in the brain about half a second before the individual being tested decides on a course if action. The originator of such experiments did not have any intention of challenging the reality of free will and it is unfortunate that others have attributed any significance to this time-lapse, and that Michael Brooks should have fallen into the same trap.

For the truth is that it would not matter of it was more or less in a given case than the 350 millisecond average. It could be 10 seconds and still have no bearing on the argument for or against free will. The only point worth making is that is not zero and never could be when it come to the taking of a decision by a conscious human being, because consciousness itself is not a fixed or a timeless state. It is a dynamic conversation. So it will take about half a second for anyone to reach a conscious choice of any sort, maybe a week or more for a high court judge to decide on a sentence, and anything in between for the millions of decisions and choices that humans make and take every day.

Now we have eliminated the significance of the actual time taken to make a decision we can consider the appropriateness. Anyone forced to make a decision in less time than they would like to take over it may well make a decision they regret. Whether the time is curtailed by a second, a minute, an hour, a day, or longer, the freedom of the individual is restricted in proportion to the perceived inappropriateness of the time allowed. That is a relative measure, not an absolute one. The attentive reader will see that already we are getting signals in this train if thought that a big howler has been committed in the posing of the question: do we have free will? In requesting a yes or no answer we are making as little sense as it would to ask the question: Do we play the piano?

Everything is life is conditional. Can we run? Yes if we have legs and have learned to walk first and are not paralysed. Do we have legs? Yes if we are not damaged at birth or later. If we have what most would consider mens sana in corpore sano we can, as we grow up and exchange information with our environment, develop some control over our behaviour. We learn to consider our choices. Our freedom can therefore grow to the extent that we can accept or reject the constraints and opportunities. Nevertheless there are many who will adopt or settle for a demeanour that will categorize them in the minds of others and maybe themselves. I have heard a psychologist on the radio today say "Some people are risk takers, some are not". To the extent that this is true, those who are embedded in such a category do not have as much free will as those who are usually not risk takers but able to take risks if their intelligent consideration concludes that they should break their customary approach.

The educated, informed mind can exercise a veto over what might in an animal be a natural reaction. It is this that defines the difference between humans and their animal forebears, a difference that is not an absolute drawn line precisely because of the points I have already made: everything in life is conditional. Humans may revert or regress to animal behaviour for a variety of reasons and in a number of ways. This can be on the individual level, as we know, but it can also be on a societal level. When the science of epigenetics is better understood (I have just had to add it to this spell-checker) so will these issues be.
Animals act according to instinct unless trained to do otherwise by atypical experience or human intervention. Humans can be trained, train themselves, resist training, rebel against it later, or be remarkably unaware of any of this. Free will demands awareness.

Religion can be a denial of free will in the form of a deliberate subjugation of the individual to an orthodoxy, but that denial of free will could be a free or an imposed choice, a knowingly imposed choice or a 'brainwashing' achieved by indoctrination at an early age. Most of the complications and contradictions that beset humanity in the 21st century are the result, as ever, by the simple-mindedness of authoritarian thinkers and the spasmodic behaviour of their followers. Christianity at its origin was the ultimate championship of free will and personal responsibility but its adoption by society called inevitably for definitions, doctrine and dogma in the cause of social harmony. The failure of these to evolve to be compatible with scientific observation has been the ultimate absurdity of my own lifetime, but catch-up time is here.

The exercise of free will by those released from constraint (be it economic or religious) but untrained in social skills and uniformed or misled in their appreciation of history is also a serious problem. It was not without thought that Marx called religion the opium of the masses, meaning it was both a comfort and a dependency. If the classic dose is to be replaced it has to be with the equivalent of natural chemicals and neurological structure within the brain that achieves a dynamic mind-set that fosters social cohesion such as, in its day, did the best of religious thought and practice.

A deliberate denial of free will is also common practice in a trained and disciplined military organisation. This is the reverse of the pseudo free-will of the lunatic or fanatic, who has no free will at all. A modern soldier, if educated, trained and informed, is in a really hot seat. He may have to refrain from self-preservation to judge in a matter of milli-seconds if he should shoot or hold fire and, as we have seen, half a second is needed anyway for a subconscious assessment which will be taken according to his subconscious 'programming'. Only if all the circumstances he is in have been pre-programmed has he a chance of his decision being both instant and correct. For decisions where he has time to think, his own free will must be exercised. If necessary, in extremis, he can disobey orders, if he believes they are mistaken, and argue his case later. It is up to commanders to choose horses for courses and arguie their case if it goes pearshaped.

We acknowledge that the free will of children is limited because, though they may come trailing clouds of glory, they may also come trailing clouds of shit and be unaware (because unassisted) at an early age of right or wrong in the terms of the law or the norms of society. They cannot be considered as 'free' even if they are well behaved until they been able to develop that internal dialogue that is consciousness to the point they have what we call a conscience. We are therefore correct to limit the punishment of children, or any who cannot tell right from wrong, while at the same time forcefully protecting society from the dysfunctional.

So, there, I have answered the question "Do we have free will" as it should be answered. We can have a very high degree of free will. If we use it stupidly, such as jumping off the Empire State Building to prove we have it, we then no longer have it. If we assume we have it, we may not have it. We can develop it if we think we lack it but we can also abuse it. We can use it to surrender it. We can lose it. An intensive physical and chemical analysis of the human brain is not likely on its own to have anything much more to say on this matter.

In another useful coincidence, the BBC has just broadcast on 11 Dec, 2 days after I wrote the above, a debate beween Tony Blair and Peter Hitchens on the proposition "Religion is a Force for Good in the World" in which Hitchens based his case against the proposition on two main points: first the damage that has been done in the name of religion by its followers, and second on what he considered the abdication of free will to the dictates of either outdated scriptural texts or the opinions of the current human head of a church or religious order. Hitchens won the debate two-to-one because Blair conceded the first point (although able to argue that religious people did good work, much of the good done by religious leaders was, as Hitchens pointed out, repairing the damage done by others of their ilk or their confused followers) and had also shot himself in the foot in advance by converting to Catholicism, a historically religiously intolerant church that preached salvation for its followers alone. This fatally undermined his defence of religion on the grounds that they all held their vital essentials in common. However I shall show in a separate file in due course that Hitchens, who was intellectually at least in arguing his case well, can be shot down on all his actual arguments against any and all religion just as completely as can be Blair in his idiosyncratic defense. Once I have destroyed all their arguments (not their conclusions necessarily!) we can start to make sense.


DECEMBER 10th 2010
I am taking these two together. Brooks took them one at a time, death before sex. In life we must experience them the other way round. Or do we? It is at this very fundamental point in the discussion that we can make an error in our analysis. We use the word 'life' in three senses: life as a phenomenon, life as the subjective experience of an individual, and the life of an individual as observed by their peers and surrounding nature.

Brooks takes us on a fascinating trip through a study of the mechanisms of ageing and death in a search to find the origins. I recommend a careful read of it all. As a quantum physicist he should be accustomed to failure in finding causality from the bottom up and indeed he fails, which is why he puts death in his list of nonsense. Toward the end he muses on the possibility that sex and death are linked in a two-way causal relationship but fails to 'make sense' of either. I think we can.

Observation leads us to to believe that LIFE and particularly INTELLIGENT LIFE is the most organised, interesting, consequential phenomenon in the universal process that we can observe. We can observe past universal development on on the large scale thanks to the finite speed of light which enables us to look back 14 billion years, and on the smaller and lesser scale thanks to the fossil records beneath our feet, radioactive dating and other techniques. The moment we accept any theory of evolution, the study of geometry and mathematics shows us that evolution is dependent on the death of individual phenotypes. It is both imposed and required - so we could not have got here without it. Difficult to make more sense than that!

It may be of interest to study the mechanisms of death, the origin of mechanisms of death, the aspects of death and the infliction of death. But we have to reject in a major way Michael Brooks' premise that death 'does not make sense' when it is a sine qua non of the evolutionary process in any environment we can imagine or simulate. All life is life-after-death-of-life.

Death does not make sense for Richard Dawkins.  It is an anomaly that does not follow from any of his theorising because he has defined the evolutionary drivers in terms that are too limited. That is, in turn, because his understanding of physics, geometry and mathematics is too restricted. This dead end for Dawkins should give us the clue to look elsewhere.

It is necessary to view the tree of life as a whole. A long-living phenotype can experience but cannot evolve genetically. Genotypes did not evolve. Evolution occurred through the EMERGENCE of new phenotypes and sexual selection till with the passage of time and the consolidation of epigenetic refinements a new genotype and a new species is defined - defined for example in an obvious case by the fact that in cannot interbreed with the previous species, though there are other criteria to choose.

However we can also observe that there has been an evolution of evolution. There is no reason to think that from the human race will emerge successful new genotypes with more than two eyes or two legs or five digits, or protective armour. We have machines and technology. So it could be claimed that, since there is no need for continual evolution of intelligent life through the development of new species, therefore the sine qua non for death is removed. No need for better brains (we have computers) or dexterity or speed (automation) so no justification for the evolutionary requirement for death. The rules of chance, possibility, probability and necessity and the dimensional matrix no longer demand the rational inclusion of death. They did, but they may not in the future. So taking the best (or worst) case scenario and moving on, is there another reason why the human life time should not only have been limited to about what it is now, but will be also in the future.

I think there is. Let us use the reductio ad absurdum to find the principle and then adjust to the circumstances.

This is a great moment to pause, giving readers a chance to see if they can get there on their own. I will post more when I have finished on this issue.

DECEMBER 15th 200  DEATH and SEX continued...
In his chapter on death, Brooks mentions the anomaly of the Blanding's Turtle. The oldest known specimen, he tells us was seventy-seven years old in the 1980s, a female still laying eggs. According to Brooks these turtles do not get old and decrepit or show increased liability to disease with age. He assumes (without evidence) that she should still be and an laying. He does not consider as relevant the life-style of the turtle - the fact that it looks old and decrepit compared to most animals from very early in its life and apart from laying eggs spends a life doing very little apart from wandering slowly through the ocean. Nor does he mention they take 15-20 years to reach sexual maturity, and lay an average of only 8 eggs a year. For most turtle species, only one in 100 survives to maturity. I do not have a survival figure to hand for the Blanding's Turtle but it is on the Endangered Species List. Clearly longevity and an apparent lack of ageing in this case is very far from achieving eternal life.

Let us park all that on one side and consider the Sockeye Salmon, not featured in Brooks.

According to Wikipedia: Sockeye are blue tinged with silver in colour while living in the ocean. Just prior to spawning both sexes turn red with green heads and sport a dark stripe on their sides. Males develop a hump on their back and the jaws and teeth become hooked during their move from salt to fresh water.

Sockeye spawn mostly in streams having lakes in their watershed. The young fish, known as fry, spend up to three years in the freshwater lake before migrating to the ocean. Some stay in the lake and do not migrate. Migratory fish spend from one to four years in salt water, and thus are four to six years old when they return to spawn one summer (July-August). Navigation to the home river is thought to be done using the characteristic smell of the stream, and possibly the sun.

There is no mention yet in the unfinished Wikipedia entry of the extraordinary activity of these salmon prior to spawning. There journey upstream in rivers that no human could stand in the shallows due to the violence of the flow, surmounting rapids and waterfalls, is one of unbelievable agility, muscular power and determination after which they spawn and die. A short and at times exciting and energetic but very short life life seems appropriate for the salmon and the species is far from extinction in spite human predation. This year saw a record number of Sockeye returning to Canadian rivers to spawn.

Now consider the Kleiber Ratio (see )

The Kleiber Ratio determines that for every creature, the amount of energy burned per unit of weight is proportional to that animals mass raised to the three-quarters power. Symbolically: if q0 is the animal's metabolic rate, and M the animal's mass, then Kleiber's law states that q0 ~ M3/4. 

Thus a cat, having a mass 100 times that of a mouse, will have a metabolism roughly 31 times greater than that of a mouse. 
Kleiber Ratio’s is universal: “There’s this exquisite interconnectivity.  All the structures have different forms and functions, but all of them adhere to the same scaling pattern.”  Capillaries grow into veins and arteries according to the same three-quarter-power scale.  So also do neural fibres by becoming whole nerves then becoming nerve bindles.  From the mitochondria to the cell to the blue whale, the rule holds through twenty-seven orders of magnitude.

I think we can see here not only some interesting connections between function and life-span but also between what Brooks has titled SEX and DEATH. He says they make no sense because he is taking them as if they could exist separately. I maintain that you have to understand both to understand either, and Brooks, taking them separately, logically can make no sense of either one.

In his chapter on death, Brooks takes us through the mechanisms, attempting to find the reason for death in the mechanisms but then wondering why the mechanisms arose in the first place. Behind all this lies the assumption that a failure to live forever is a failure, could not be part of a success. That a failure to self-repair, being apparently against the interest of the organism, is really and truly, finally and irrevocably against the self-interest of the organism.

The extraordinary achievement of human self-consciousness has given us a great sense of our own importance but blinded some of us to the possibility of a life greater than our own of which we are a part. We either see a human death as a tragedy or evoke a system of personal survival after death to deny it, and this is how we handle our affairs when we have a possible lifespan of less than 100 years. Imagine if you will, if we had a lifespan of 500 years, how badly dealt with we would feel if at the age of 21 we lost a leg in an accident? What if we were born disabled, or just extremely STUPID? And if a lady whose well-paid spouse is killed in an aircraft accident and the airline were proved negligent, thereby depriving him at the age of 50 of 200 years or more of life? Does Michael Brooks still not see natural death in a span of the order of three-score years and ten for most and a limit of about 100 as usual as 'making sense'?

Even if we now remove the need to evolve as the sine-qua-non reason for death, if we were to extent the human lifespan without being able to repair all accidental damages and prevent all homicide we would be making more than a rod for our backs. The beginning of wisdom is to understand that we are dispensable, and that in no way makes the world a cruel or heartless place. Quite the contrary.

So please read Brooks' chapter on death, all of it, as it is excellent and Brooks makes sense. But he is looking in the wrong place.
I maintain that the life-span of organisms, from the fruit-fly and smaller to the whale in size, and the bacteria to the human in intelligence and complexity, is always appropriate. That what is appropriate is what makes sense, and what science needs to understand is what is appropriate and why, and where.

That brings me to SEX

DECEMBER 21st 2010

Reductionists may be saying (or thinking) that my contention that death 'makes sense' because the life spans are 'appropriate' has nothing to do with science, because there is no causality. I would remind them that the most fundamental Darwinism is based on survival, not on construction through causality. So even if fundamental Darwinism is flawed (which it is because it is only a player, not sufficient) it is not only permissible but mandatory to take the coeval, synergistic, symbiotic, cooperative and even parasitic functions of living organisms into account. The attributes that all life forms develop therefore have to be appropriate to the survival of their species and the other species on which they depend. Bear in mind it is LIFE that evolves, not species.

Reproduction by cell-division, asexually initiated, may or may not be more 'efficient' or advantageous for specific genes, but unless you are a Dawkins this is of no significance. Brooks does not set much store by it either and nor should we. Yet we can return to the most reductionist level to find the causality of sex in the basics of geometry. Gravity forces every chemical element to associate to the extent that thermodynamic entropy is overcome by constraint.  Atoms share electrons and bonds form to create molecules. The basic abstract rules of geometry ensure survival by dimensional agreement, complementarity, cohesion. At the next level the same rules may Pi, Phi and and the Fibonacci sequence a feature of the construction of naturally formed organisms that will later form the basis visual attraction. All of this is inevitable if the meaning, not just the mathematics, of Pythagoras and Fermat's theorem are understood.

Next I will by contrast call on Dawkins' better mind in the use of his metaphor 'The Blind Watchmaker', for the eyes which all species of a certain size and autonomy have acquired were not there in the beginning as the evolutionary process gathered pace. Life 'felt its way' as it chose its associations, atomic, molecular and cellular. It felt its way, smelled its way, used every means of detection as autonomy grew, microscopically over millions of years. Nature was indeed blind and its attempts at geometrically based chemical satisfaction (which still takes place in the brains of every modern human) were ruthlessly selected by the inanimate environment. The mathematical basis on which choice was made would billions of years later be the same mathematical basis that produced the macro and micro forms that would govern sexual attraction through visual, aural, oral and olfactory signals between humans today. The proportions of Leonardo's famous human figure are linked to the geometry that gave rise to sexual reproduction.
The eyes of the watchmaker are in the watch. The watchmaker is also is at one with the existence the watch, the past of the watch and the future of the watch.

The autonomy of the single cell, however complex, is of a low order. Two principles emerge early in the evolutionary process which, as with the laws of geometry, continue to guide and determine the success which in turn defines the species that appear and survive for a significant moment in our planetary history. These are: cooperation and the division of labour. These principles are manifest in organisms, super-organisms and the organisations we have built in society, industry and politics. Cooperation started with the sponge, which reappeared billions of years later in fossilised form as flint to play a vital role in the evolution of hominids. As for the division of labour (see this phrase in for example, this sets in soon after the sponge appears. All the sponges we find today have a rudimentary division of labour in the form of specialised funnels and flagellum appendages. The division of labour confers advantages recognised by Darwin in the case of ants. Nowadays we (well some of us) appreciate that the colony, not the ant, is most helpfully regarded as the organism (that is to say the unit of the species). We can call it a super-organism but, if we do, then a single human is a super-organism and better understood as such.

What has all this got to do with sex, death and these two phenomena 'making sense'? Everything. Brooks runs through a host of theories on sex which he discards as insufficient before suggesting (a point I had overlooked when making the same suggestion myself at the end of my discussion on DEATH), that the anomalies of death and sex might be solved together. But he fails to finish the case. I think I have taken it further but there is more to say to wrap it all up.
I just found this.


Most sponges are hermaphrodites, that is, a single sponge can display either male or female tendencies as required. They release living young through the outgoing oscula. The new-born baby sponges resemble plankton and after a few days of free floating will attach themselves to a hard surface and begin to grow. Sponges have a life span of a few months to 20 years or more. They also have the ability to regenerate into new individuals from even the tiniest fragments of the original. This is of particular value when sponge habitats begin to degrade or can no longer support the growing population or if food supplies suddenly diminish. When any of these variables occur the sponges fragment and lie dormant until such time as growing conditions once again become ideal.

Quite a lot there on sex and death which should help us to understand how they both 'make sense' in allowing the most primitive corporate animal to feed and procreate while at the same time being able to regenerate from the smallest remnant. I am told you can put a sponge in a liquidiser and grow a new identical one from the smallest fragment. The sponge you have in the bathroom is the skeleton of a once living animal.

Richard Dawkins once based the progress of evolution on the efficient survival of the gene measured against the winnowing selection of the environment, with random mutations (caused by either radiation or DNA copying errors) being the source of variations on which natural selection operated if any advantage was gained. The higher organisms were in his view driven by this genetically based mechanism, so that even if the gene-shuffling afforded by sexual reproduction advanced the variations the conscious behaviour of phenotypes had little influence on the choice of mate and learned behaviour could not possibly be passed on genetically. But the evidence for epigenetic influence was obvious to many in the mid 20th century []. Had I known this when struggling to formulate the theory in 1984 it would actually not have helped, as it was only the belief I was breaking new ground that got me to write anything at all.

Be that as it may.
given the observed symbiosis and interdependence of the species we know about (let alone the ones we have not yet identified) it would seem to be more reasonable if not to reverse to at least balance the fundamental direction and the level on which selection can operate. When we get to advanced life-forms, sexual selection, whether conscious or unconscious, engages the mental process of animals in proportion (in my view) to their intelligence. The social role of sex could in theory hark back to very primitive life forms. Intentionality and anticipation in animals has been the object and subject of scientific experiments but experience shows us that friendship and companionship between animals, and between humans and animals, can reveal things that pure experiments cannot. The herd instinct can sometimes be be analysed mathematically to show a survival benefit for the species and for a proportion of individuals, but there are very solid examples as different as horses and chickens forming bonds of friendship that are not sexual in any way, and of animals that pine away when their companion of the same or another species departs.

My conclusion after considering all the reason Brooks gives for the reason of finding 'no scientific sense' in either sex or death is that the science and maths engaged in the theories he has examined are insufficient to describe the natural origins because the theories he examines are scientifically and mathematically primitive, and again insufficient to describe the development of sexual activity because they ignore the value of autonomy and intelligence in the life-forms involved. Science that does not include social science cannot be sufficient to describe nature as we know it even at the level of a sponge, which we discover can use sexual and asexual reproduction as required or regenerate in appropriate environments from its smallest fragment. In brief, nothing could possibly make more sense than sex and death, whichever science we use to examine them. They have produce the world as we know it and will produce the future, whether we make a success of life on this planet or not.

Now, working backwards, during the Christmas holiday I will deal with the chapter that lies at the heart of the Michael Brooks Anomaly: LIFE. It will make a lot more sense now!

FEBRUARY 22nd 2011          LIFE

Michael Brooks' header for this chapter is "Are you more than just a bag of chemicals?". My answer is clear. We are more than just a bag, but we are composed of chemicals; the confusion is caused by our ignorance of these chemicals, the structure that supports them in space and time, their capabilities and their origin.  We know a lot, but there is a lot more to know. 11 pages later, after the recital of some fascinating and enlightening information, Brooks writes: "LIFE, for now, stubbornly remains an anomaly; something unique, mysterious and - put simply - special".

I find this curious given that in the preceding pages we find a surplus of reasons why the chemicals we observe, in the conditions we observe, are so likely to have resulted in the life we observe over the time we have now traced that we actually have competing theories, rather than a lack of any, as to how life on this planet started. Oh boy, does it make sense!

There are theories as to how it got started on the planet from chemicals formed here once conditions were appropriate and also theories that it could have arisen from organic chemicals formed elswhere that were deposited on a waiting Earth where, due to the special environmental conditions (particularly the tidal movements caused by the moon), it started and then evolved. So, there is the word 'special' in the right context.

The universe is (amongst its other attributes) an immense machine bound, without fail, to produce the chemicals. What is remarkably special is our planet. That is not to say it is unique in the sense that there are no other planets this size with an appropriate sun and moon and gravity, but they may well be one in a hundred million or a billion or even more. That is special alright, but I will deal with the probabilities elswhere. Given that special environment I think that the science we now agree on is sufficient to conclude that the emergence of life 'AS WE KNOW IT, JIM', is not an anomaly but a norm.

As with all of Michael Brooks' book, though, I encourage you to read all he has written. I am confident you will come to the same conclusion as I, but I will add some comments here on some of the points he raises. We do have to deal with the defintion of life and on that I agree entirely with Brooks that there is no threshold line to be drawn because there is more than one attribute and the number of these that have to be present in a 'thing' to make it animal, vegetable or one of the other forms is a matter for subjective opinion. The attributes are, as suggested, such as the presence of a metabolism, of the ability to grow, of self-reproduction or the production of scions or offspring, of organized complexity. of reaction to the environment, of autonomy. The fewer of these and the lower their degree, the less likely we are to consider the matter under consideration to be 'alive'.

One thing to be noted is that advanced life forms are dependent internaly on lower life forms and externally on peer on life forms of every level up to their peers. Life on our planet, and I would assert on any planet, is vast family of organisms which evolves in symbiosis along with the evolution of its inorganic components. It is not an anomaly, it is the only game in town on the surface of this globe and one that is changing constantly.

Where I go along with Brooks, until it leads him astray, is where he says on page 74 "Such bullish attitudes don't take acount of our ignorance.....if creating life is simply a question of putting the right chemical together under the right conditions, there is still no consensus about what 'right' actually is - for the chemicals or the conditions." Exactly, there are many things we do not know ranging from the basic to the sophisticated. It is only a few years since we discovered that human DNA contains more information than is stored in all the computers in the world in at this time. Although it may be possible to assemble chemicals to create organisms that will 'grow', and even grow into the forms we predesign, in environments we create so that they can 'evolve', it is highkly likely, in my considered opinion, that life as we know it, created by the 4 billion year symbiotic process we are still discovering, in which every bit of that time and space played a part, with what we consider its failures being as important as what we consider its successes, is not something we can imitate in even its earliest stages by slapping stuff together. We can assemble from existing evolved materials, mix and match, insert and change (genetic engineering) but I find it hardly surprising we cannot simulate in the lab what takes a solar system, planet moon and the complete chemical, gravitational and electromagnetic environment to get it started.

Building information is the name of the game, but rather a lot of it. Scientists can so underestimate the material world that is their great passion. They like to say information cannot be lost, but they are not appreciating how it is created. In their frustration, some physicists are now proposing that the information in our world is a hologram produced from a 2-dimensional surface at the boundary of space-time. I can tell them that in a way they do not understand they are, in a sense, right. It is not a holographic projection, however, it is a process of realisation in the realm of experience of which we are at the heart. That word 'realisation' will one day be understood. The way information builds is indeed connected to the extremes of space-time, through the logical abstractions that govern the dynamics that come into play the moment singularity is abandoned in the cause of self-knowledge. I don't ask the reader to follow me there, here and now; so back to the book.

Brooks assembles opinions that, while acknowledging the interest in a reductionist approach, acknowledge it is inadequate as an explication of how things build in a complex environment. Philip Anderson's 'More is different' echoes the opinion of many and for most of humanity science is not the area in which they find the best writings on life. They find it in the writings of Shakespeare, Montaign, Confucius, Tolstoy, Kipling, Omar Khayyam, the King James Bible and the great poets. Life and humanity being a 'fait accompli' for every new arrival, most of them treat scientists who claim it has to be explained to fit their theories as arrogant. I have to agree and am glad to find it said, more and more by eminent scientists, that the more they discover the more the surface of their ignorance expands. Yes, but their knowledge also if they can span the disciplines. How different this is to a century ago, and how reassuring. 'Making sense' is not dependent on our perfect, exact understanding, right now, how everything has come into being; it is a measure of consistence and coherence and plausibility of theories of the past but vitally of its performance in the world we observe today. My case, of which I am certain, is that the world we observe makes sense in every way. The problems we now face are far from random. The paradoxes are there to be solved, leading on further tasks.

I you have not yet had a look, go now to


Continuing here on the discussion of LIFE, there is much to be said on the future of life on Earth. Darwins basic theory of evolution concentrated on mortality as the means of natural selection but it would be more correct to understand the process as related to success in reproduction multiplied by restance to mortality before reaching reproductive capability. Humanity has radically altered the process of evolution through developing technology and medicines. Our medical progress, while impressive, is very short term and confused. To the extent that we use it to save lives and reduce pain it may well be adverse to the survival of our species. There are too many of us making too many demands and expecting far too much of our planet unless we learn very much faster how not to abuse the resources, animal vegetable and mineral on which we depend.

The evolution of evolution is now at last accepted by most biologists but at the same time we are running into a new source of confusion. The refusal of many biologists to get to grips with the realities of epigenetics until now has rendered them blind and confused between adaption and evolution. The obsession with selection by mortality on the products of random selection has resulted in them still talking about 'human evolution' in a general way when it would be simpler to have some new words to describe the changes in characteristics that may be inherited but which are in no way a movement toward a new post-homo-sapiens species. It is possible that such a new species could exist at some time in the future that lives happily in gravity-free conditions. It would have adapted to these and the adaptations accelerated epigenetically in the procreation of similar beings breeding in gravity free conditions. But on the surface of a planet I believe the human form is unlikely to change very much. Machinery will complement our physical shortcomings and communications and education could collectively overcome our individual mental failings, so that biological intelligence will always control the electronic machinery it creates, using only the different limitations of the latter as its asset. After all, the moment a computer can calculatingly lie it is useless.

Above all, it is life itself, universal life that is what our achievement must be, not our own brief candle, even though it is all the brief candles that produce the great event. Only when that is understood, that individual life is supremely important, wonderful and valuable, but its end not a tragedy or disaster even if the cause of it is due to the grossest failure, will the confusion that causes people to see life as an inexplicable anomaly, or a mystery, an unendurable pain or a meaningless disappointment, be removed.