Are you after my research group’s website?

October 20, 2015

This is my personal blog with opinion, politics, and poetry. If you are after my official research group’s website, please navigate to

The naturalness of altruism

September 19, 2016


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

June 22, 2016


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.

EU Politics: Facts and Prejudice

June 8, 2016

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.

Data from:


European History Lesson Number 1: The British Save the Day

June 2, 2016



May 29, 2016

note290516_01.jpgWe 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.

La inteligencia de las máquinas — Miguel Ángel Quintanilla Fisac

April 29, 2016

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 […]

via La inteligencia de las máquinas — Miguel Ángel Quintanilla Fisac

Why I have not asked to be a UK subject (yet?)

April 12, 2016
Screenshot from 2016-04-13 00:06:20I feel disenfranchised. As a citizen of a different EU country living in another, I am not allowed to vote in Parliamentary elections where I live (the UK), while exercising that right in my country of origin (Spain) has become increasingly difficult. When I recently vented my frustration at my friend Philip Howell, himself a Briton living in Germany, he asked the obvious question: Why don’t you apply for British citizenship? It was a good question. I certainly love the UK and I have made deep commitments to it – so why not? Answering it made me articulate some thoughts that had been lurking under the surface. Here is what I told my friend:
  1. The oath of allegiance. As a naturalised citizen, I would have to take it. Those who are born British only have to in particular cases – principally if they join the armed forces. Whether I believe in it or not is beside the point (after all, even Galileo admitted the Sun revolves around the Earth when it came to the rub). In fact, my deep love for this country probably means I would be quite ready to do a lot for it. The point is that a different standard of patriotism is required from naturalised citizens. I am not comfortable with that – in some senses it would make me feel more like a second-class citizen than I do now.
  2. I would lose some of my rights as a Spanish citizen. Although the UK and Spain have, relatively recently, signed a double-nationality agreement, when you become a citizen of a second country you have to give up some of your rights as a citizen of the first. In particular, you lose the right to seek consular assistance in your original country when you are in the new one. So I would gain some rights (particularly the right to vote in UK parliamentary elections) but lose others.
  3. Deep down, I do not believe in nations. I think the rights and responsibilities of citizens should be defined by our common humanity and our actual individual circumstances, not by some abstract legal constructs of nationhood and citizenship which often do not reflect the much more complex, multi-faceted reality of people’s lives. Somehow applying to become a national of a particular country seems like an endorsement of the very idea of nationhood – which has given us so many evils and does so much to distort every debate about how best to live together.

In summary, my current legal status as a citizen of Spain who is a permanently-resident, tax-paying resident of the UK I think reflects the complexity of who I am much better than the apparent simplification that would be afforded by becoming a UK citizen. That said, the potentially massive loss of rights I would incur if the UK left the EU would seriously reduce my options. Were I to decide to stay in the UK after such an event, I might decide that becoming a UK citizen is the better option. By doing this I would become, on paper, a much simpler entity – a British subject living on British soil. I think the primary motor of the whole Leave campaign is a yearning for simplicity in a world that has become too hard to understand for many people. But you cannot wish away complexity by writing on a piece of paper. My belief is that Brexit would not bring about that simplicity – it would lead to chaos and injustice for everyone.

The simplicity so many people yearn for can only be achieved via a cultural shift. We must move beyond trying to explain the present world using the categorisations that worked well in the past, but which are no longer relevant. Our ideal should be “Imagine”, not “God save the Queen”. I think giving citizens of an EU country living in a different one the vote might be a step in the right direction.

PS: When I expressed the above views to my friend Philip and asked him about his own situation he told me that he took up German citizenship four years ago. As a result, he did not feel disenfranchised as I do. All that was required from him was a more pragmatic attitude towards the symbolism associated with naturalisation than I manage to exhibit. I couldn’t help thinking that his attitude and mine fitted in with long-held national stereotypes: British pragmatism vs the type of Quixotic attitude only a Spaniard could manage to sustain for so long. Another layer of complexity or one of the dangerous simplifications I deplore?