This is my personal blog with opinion, politics, and poetry. If you are after my official research group’s website, please navigate to http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/strongcorrelations.
Just after hearing the sad news of Leonard Cohen’s death I realised I could still recite most of First We Take Manhattan. This is a song I was quite obsessed with as a teenager, when it had just come out. Also I’m Your Man. Luckily I had parents who had bought the album – it was certainly not marketed to my age group. I was fascinated by this dark, brooding, powerful character who could be manly and intellectual and threatening and tender; who perceived the injustices in the world and the tension between love and action. Who knew the New World Order emerging from the fall of the Berlin Wall was rotten inside and that, one day, we would have to fight. I did not understand then the reasons for my fascination. Cohen had lived more than me and knew how to express it. I’ve lived a bit now and know what he meant
Our culture tends to assume that selfishness is natural, while altrusim requires an explanation. But why?
This question sprang to my mind the other day, while I was reading John Brashaw’s “In Defense of Dogs” (a book I am enjoying greatly – but that’s a different topic). I noticed a statement, made in passing, that whereas biologists do not feel the need to explain altruism in animals when it is directed towards members of the individual’s family, when this is not the case it always calls for an explanation. I get the impression that this is quite a well-established and reasonable view: when an individual helps a member of its family to survive, it is aiding the propagation of some of its genes – half when we help our offspring, one quarter when we help a sibling, one eighth when we help a first cousin, and so on. In contrast, helping a completely unrelated individual does not help the helper’s genes to propagate.
But then I thought: what if the other individual is of the same species? It does not help any of your genes, but that individual shares the same genome – the genome of your species – so you are helping your genome, and therefore your species, to survive. It would be reasonable to expect that species may have evolved whose evolutionary strategy includes altruism towards individuals of the same species, which would have given that species a competitive advantage against other species. This seems to me quite reasonable. But if we start to think that way, then we have to ask: what about helping individuals of other species? All species on Earth share the use of DNA as the gene-encoding substrate, so species that ehlp other species are contributing to the survival of DNA-based life. In fact, when you think of it, it is evident that all life on Earth is cooperating on a global scale, e.g. the plants capture CO2 and release oxygen that we breathe. While DNA-based lifeforms are not in direct competition with other forms of life, they may have been in the past, and in any case the DNA-based living Earth is always competing with the alternative, dead Earth. So again, if different species had not helped each other out perhaps there would be no life on Earth.
So I think a more reasonable approach is to consider that there is a hierarchy of levels of organisation, and at every level cooperation is essential to make the whole possible (see figure). There are even some intermediate levels, for example oxygen-breathing lifeforms helped each other in competition with sulfur-based ones, for example. So although when you look at the nitty-gritty of individual interactions between individuals there seems to be a lot of competition going round, I think the big story of life on Earth is one of cooperation.
I think this part of a more general theme: in life, in society, and even at the microscopic level in the interactions between myriads of atoms or electrons inside materials, cooperation leads to behaviours that can reinforce themselves and survive, while pure competition leads to and “averaging out to zero”. So what is natural is coopertation and leads to what we observe -be it life on Earth or the magnetic field of a nedymium magnet.
It is also, incidentally, a nicer way to look at the world than the victorian cut-throat tinge with which natural evolution is often described.
Thank you. Whatever the result of tomorrow’s referendum, the last months have been really tough on EU citizens who, like me, decided to settle in the UK long ago and have found our legitimacy as members of this society under question, and under fire, and without any say in the matter. This has been difficult, but my many friends who have come out as staunch supporters of the role people like me play in this country have made it so much easier. I still believe, in spite of this dreadful referendum campaign, that the UK is one of the most open, tolerant, and advanced countries in the world. Whatever happens tomorrow, I do not regret the choices I’ve made: to raise my child as a Briton with dual nationality; to become a member and advocate of the UK scientific and academic community; or to let the love for this wonderful country seep in until it became part of who I am. But without my friends I wouldn’t be in such a good place. THANK YOU.
With the coming EU referendum here, in the UK, I am having to dig out of the Net lots of information for the benefit of Facebook friends and fellow Facebook group members so I’ve decided to start putting some of it up here for more general consumption.
The EU is where old failed politicians go to die.
The vast majority of EU politicians are Members of the European Parlient (MEP’s – similar to MP’s). The MEP’s elect the President of the Commission (similarly to how MP’s elect the Prime Minister) who then appoints his/her commissioners.
MEP’s are not particularly old. In actual fact, a 66-year age gap separates the youngest from the oldest MEP in the European Parliament that came out of the 2014 elections. The youngest MEP is 26 years old. The average age of MEP’s in the current European Parliament is about 50 – the same as in Westminster.
More importantly, tje perception that once you are an MEP it is a stable job which will last for life is very mistaken. Only about half of the MEP’s got re-elected, with the other half going on to do other things with their lives. As a point of comparison, two thirds of Westminster MP’s were relected at the 2015 election. So being a Westminster MP is a much more secure job than being a European MEP.
We are curious because curiosity gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage: curious people knew where there were dangers, where to find food, where to find shelter. A curious person held a branch on fire rather than running away from it – not because she or he guessed it could come useful for cooking, for heating, or as a weapon or a source of energy – but because they were intensely curious about it. It’s our most useful instinct.
Curiosity-led scientific research is the collective embodiment of human curiosity. It is helping us to survive and develop as a species. The moment we stop doing it will be the beginning of the end for our species.
We must fight to enshrine social support for curiosity-driven research. That’s research we do because we want to know, not because we want to achieve something. That’s the type of research that will save our civilisation from global warming, from hurtling meteorites, from dangerous microbes – from everything that, without our curiosity, we would never even have known about.
Estos días estamos celebrando en el Instituto de Estudios de la Ciencia y la Tecnología el seminario anual de doctorandos, en el que los estudiantes exponen y discuten los avances que han conseguido en sus investigaciones durante el último año. Allí se tratan multitud de asuntos relativos a nuestra cultura científica y tecnológica y se […]