Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Intelligence of Grass

The Intelligence of Grass

Will human machines ever have brains equivalent to Nature's creations, or are our machines always going to be mechanical robots that imitate human thought and behaviour?  To get close to answering this question we first have to appreciate why intelligence evolved and what is its function in the natural world.

Part 1 Technological Evolution 

The Church of La Sainte Chapelle

If you ever visit Paris you should take a trip to the light-filled church of La Sainte Chapelle which is a marvel of the flamboyant (Rayonnant) style of  Gothic architecture.
La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris

La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris      photo Francois Didier
When you stand in the centre of the church you will experience a sense height, weightlessness and colour.  The Master Builder in charge of the construction probably worked from simple plans and personal experience with a team that would have been made up of illiterate carpenters, stone masons, craftspeople and their apprentices.   It is extraordinary to think the church. which was completed in 1248, is held up by the downward forces of gravity.  The masons who built this church knew how to control the thrust and counter thrust of the gravitational forces passing through the stones of the building, with this knowledge they channelled the downward thrust of the huge weight of the stone vaulted roof on a journey round the curved stone ribs of the ceiling arches to the heads of slim elegant pillars.  The carriage of the weight at the top of the pillars is supported by external flying buttresses that keep the pillars from splaying outwards.

This fragile church has stood in elegant stability for nearly 800 years ago.   The irony is that the lively illusion of lift we admire so much is held in place by the huge compression from the roof on the inert stones walls below. 

Gothic Architecture and the Cult of the Sun 

Gothic master builders honed their knowledge and designs over centuries.  Their building techniques were tested by trial and error that was passed down the generations, each new generation being driven by the desire of medieval Christians to fill their churches with ever more natural light.

Christianity was not alone in believing light has spiritual meaning, but the development of Christian theology of light is an eccentric and interesting story.  In the old testament God reveals himself to Moses as a burning bush, but the notion that "God is Light" becomes of central importance to Christianity in the New Testament where Jesus tells us in the Gospel according to St John that "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." John 8:12. American Standard Bible 

From the start the Roman and Jewish authorities saw the Christians beliefs of the early church as subversive and threatening. Christianity was born out of the crucifixion of the "Son of God" by Pontius Pilate and the authorities, 64 years after Jesus' death Nero was blaming the Christians for the burning of Rome.  Believers of the early Church were a stubborn lot that went on secretly worshipping "the light of the world" in the bleak darkness of windowless basement churches.

Chapel of Saint Ananias, Damascus, Syria, 1st century
An obvious solution was for the faithful to put the light of tapers and candles on their alters, but in those days candlelight was widely used on the shrines where Pagan's worshipped.   One of the ten commandments is "thou shalt have no other gods before me".   To worship the light of a candle on an alter was to worship a false pagan god!   Of course these windowless basement churches were lit up by tapers and candles, but the Early Christians had a concept that the light from a candle was a artificial and blasphemous representation, quite different from the light of God who was the "light of the world" (daylight). This Christian view about the difference between false candlelight that was worshipped by pagans and true light worshipped by Christians was formally acknowledged at The Synod of Elvira (AD 306) when the Church authorities forbid the use of candles as altar or grave lights by declaring "that candles be not burned during the day in cemeteries for fear of troubling the spirits of the Saints"   

The early Church's proscription against altar-lights lasted until about the time that La Sainte Chapelle was being built; in  1215 Pope Innocent III revised the Christian teachings and made altar-lights acceptable even when the gospels were not being read.   But old habits die hard, in Protestant Europe alter candles were thought to be an example of Popish blasphemy and again banned. In 1536, during the English reformation, Henry VIII reaffirmed "Ye shall suffer henceforth, no candles, tapers, or images of wax to be set before any image  or picture, but only the light that goeth across the church by the rood-loft, the light before the sacrament of the altar, and the light about the sepulchre, which for the adorning of the church and divine service  ye shall suffer to remain" (Vicar- General Injunction). The altars of Anglican churches were candleless for another three hundred years.

During Roman times Christianity was one of many religions, the most dominant cult amongst the soldiers was the Mysteries of Mithras which came from Persia.  Mithras was often depicted either conquering and slaying a bull or sharing dinner with the sun god (Sol).  The soldiers had similar concepts of good and evil and redemption that Christians had, they had a festival called Natalis Invicti that celebrated the birth of their god [Birth of the Unconquerable (Sun)] which was held on 25 December.  In the reliefs below you will see how the Romans made images of the sun god with a halo of fire round his head.

Above Mithras slaying a bull/ below Mithras sharing dinner with Sol

The suppression of Christian beliefs did not work and over the next 300 hundred years the faith spread amongst the ranks of the soldiers who also worshipped Mithras.   Constantine became emperor of Rome after raising the banner of Christianity to gain the loyalty of his soldiers at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312).

Constantine's Roman Empire

After his victory Constantine, an ambitious and pragmatic man, transformed Christianity from being a marginalised, disparate and sometimes fractious underground sect into one of the official religions of Empire.  He set about reorganising Christianity and creating  an official orthodox version of the faith that would support his position as emperor.  

The spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire

In 325 Constantine summoned bishops from across his empire to the Council of Nicaea, effectively the first Ecumenical Council that produced a creed.   The unified Roman Church dropped the Judaic calendar in favour of the Roman one and began a process of melding the old Mithric and sun god traditions of Rome with Christian traditions. Christians and non-Christians were told they should be united in observing the "venerable day of the sun", or Sunday.   Natalis Invicti, the festival of the birth of Sol 25 December, which was four days after the winter solstice (21 December) and nine months after the Annunciation (Lady Day, 25 March) when Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that God had given her a child .    

Temples to the the Egyptian Goddess Isis/Aphrodite, the Queen of Heaven, could be found in many Roman cities.  Isis figurines commonly show her with her baby Horus on her lap and a sun over her head.

Isis, Queen of Heaven with infant Horus - Louvre
Enthroned Virgin and Child, Limosin, France

By 380 Christianity was the official religion of the Empire and Mary became venerated as Queen of Heaven and Christian saints gained the fiery halos previously associated with Isis and Sol.

They even put Jesus in the uniform of a Roman soldier!

6th C mosaic of Christ as a Roman military officer (Ravenna)

As the Church moved out of their dark basements and became the official religion of State the old   temples to Mithras were converted into churches.   Some of today's churches, like The Basilica of San Clement (rebuilt in 1100), have foundations that sit on remains of  earlier Mithric temples.

The Basilica of San Clement, Rome (rebuilt in 1100)

Remains of Mithric temple under St Clements

 Only a short time after Constantine's death there lived a scholarly monk called Jerome (347-420)

St Jerome, Painting by Niccolò Antonio Colantonio.

(St Jerome  translated the bible from Hebrew into Latin)

The natural light coming through the windows of the Roman churches delighted  Jerome.  He even mentions knowing the Church of St Clements on which the Basilica of San Clement (above) was later built.  On one occasion Jerome wrote  "Often I would find myself entering those crypts, deep dug in the earth, with their walls on either side lined with the bodies of the dead, where everything was so dark that almost it seemed as though the Psalmist's words were fulfilled, Let them go down quick into Hell. Here and there the light, not entering in through windows, but filtering down from above through shafts, relieved the horror of the darkness. But again, as soon as you found yourself cautiously moving forward, the black night closed around and there came to my mind the line of Vergil, "Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent'" (everywhere horror seizes the soul and the very silence is dreadful).

Jerome gladly embraced the ideas of Constantine's new reformed church, exchanging the secret windowless basements churches for new opportunities to worship in public in buildings that had windows through which the "light of the world" arrived.  He co-operated with the new world order, translating the bible from Hebrew into Latin (known as the Vulgate) and he was also known for his teachings on Christian moral life and guidance to how woman devoted to Christianity should lead their lives.

The new buildings inherited and built for the early church were Romanesque, an architectural era that spans from the decline of the Roman empire to the beginnings of the medieval Gothic traditions.  Romanesque churches have rounded Roman (Norman) arches like the Romans used on their aqueducts.  They have tall narrow naves, stocky pillars and thick walls that are supported from the outside by substantial external buttresses.  The narrow distances between pillars left limited space that could be used for windows that flooded the natural light of God into the place of worship.
Basilica Saint Sernin (Toulouse 12th Century)

The light in Romanesque style buildings was such an improvement on the underground basement churches the early Christians had been forced to endure, but they were eventually superseded by a development of a new style of architecture that allowed much larger windows and much more light to enter the naves, this became known as Gothic Architecture.

The Evolution of Gothic Architecture

We know we will never squash a stone

but a sharp hit with a mallet on the same slab will crack the stone

this is why a slab of stone used as a beam for a bridge will break under quite light thumping of traffic.

In ancient Greece they placed short and stubby lintels on top of unsquashable tall pillars. The builders knew that it would be dangerous to have longer lintels, so the space between the pillars was always quite narrow.

Remains of Temple of Olympian Zeus Athens
The Roman's made very strong bridges using arches which are so much stronger than lintels.  The Roman's did not invent the idea of stone arches, during the Bronze age stone arches had been used for roofing underground drainage channels and as entrances in city walls.  The Roman genius was to realise that stone arches can be strung together in lines to create long, strong, free-standing load bearing bridges that would not crack under heavy traffic and could be used as aqueducts across wide ravines

Aqueduct Near Nerja, Spain

Arches arranged in a line are load-bearing but when the same weight is put on the centre of a free standing arch the load is redirected into lateral forces that push the heads of the supporting pillars apart!

Free standing arches are load bearing when they are buttressed on both sides to atop the heads of the pillar from splaying apart, for instance an arch in a wall is much stronger than an door with a lintel. Arched entrances in walls can be huge and the arch became a symbol of imperial majesty through which victorious returning armies from their campaigns abroad. 

The Romans built many free-standing Triumphal Arches, these were always built between wide buttresses on each side.  The is a typical Romans arch with rounded top and side doors.

Gothic Arches and Flying Buttress

The Gothic architecture developed pointed arches that have less lateral thrust at the heads of the supporting pillars. 

The pointed Gothic arch was higher and because the lateral forces are smaller the architects began building substantially broader (and higher) arches on top of thinner pillars. The tops of the pillars still needed buttressing to stop them splaying, but this support was now provided by absorbing the lateral forces through the curved arches of flying buttresses.

The Gothic architects further reduced the lateral thrust by reducing the weight of their roofs.  The ceilings of late Gothic Cathedrals are a web of intersecting stone arches, called ribs, which provided the structural strength, and in-between the struts they used lighter materials and thinner stone.  The lighter the roofs the broader the ceiling arches could be..

Churches built at the very end of the Gothic period had considerably higher, wider ribbed ceilings than those found at La Sante Chapelle.  King's College Chapel, Cambridge is amongst the last of the late Gothic churches built, the wide spaces between it's pillars were filled with filigree stonework that supported huge stained glass windows.  During the daytime services "the true light of God" floods into the nave and over the congregation, St Jerome would have loved it.

King's College Chapel Cambridge during the day- no need for artificial light!

I have taken you through the evolution of  Gothic architecture in detail because it is such a good example of technological evolution, optimisation between many conflicting requirements to make an object fit into a cultural niche.  Gothic architecture illustrates how "technological know how" was built up and passed down the generations, the knowledge overcame the constraints of heavy, brittle stone to create the biggest latticed stone structures it is possible to build.  Kings College Chapel is a building where every last stone is squashed and locked into position by gravity and is doing an essential job with all the other stones to keep the building upright.  I will call these type of optimised structures "Goldilocks solutions".

Kings College Chapel is a very delicate brittle structure that would not last long in an earthquake zone, Goldilocks solutions are built for niches, theses niches are very specific.  The seventh century the Heian culture built the Pagodas like the one still standing are Horyu-ji, Nara.  This building is twice as old as Kings College and is the oldest wooden building in the world.

The Horyu-ji is 34.5m tall, 4 m taller than Kings College Chapel

The pagoda is build like a Christmas Tree with all the rooms suspended from flexible pegs on a central pole, when an earthquake strikes the rooms go up and down, perhaps waving a bit like branches attached to a tree trunk .

Pagoda at Horyu-ji Temple

When we look around us we see a world that is filled with so many examples of human evolved Goldilocks solutions, just look at how your mobile phone has been optimised to fit in your pocket; it is an ideal Goldilocks balance between battery life, weight, size, strength and usability. Our species has become expert at evolving technologies that are very finely calibrated to make things that will fit into narrowly defined and functionally useful cultural niches.

Sometimes technological evolution creates a sweet zone in which a technology will work more smoothly.  For instance in the 17th century a stage coach would travel at about 5 miles an hour over rutted tracks, it took two days to travel the 65miles from London to Cambridge.  By the 1830s, with improved roads and carriages, the journey took 1 day.  My battered old old Honda along a smooth runway that runs all the way from my Cambridge to London. Without the sweet zone for my car to work within I would need a tractor and the journey would take perhaps two days.The symbiotic optimisation between vehicle and roads made a car that many times faster than a tractor.  

Part 2 Darwinian Evolution

A Stem of Grass

Drawing the common things of nature confronts us with the absolutely extraordinary.  This happened to me a few years ago when I started to draw blades of grass, like this stem of Cocksfoot.

Cocksfoot grass makes good hay and it probably got its strange name from people who noticed that the seeded heads reminded them of the feet of cockerels.

Evolution has created a plant that is a Goldilocks solution for a narrow niche.  All the plant's energy has to be directed towards speed-growing a stem to book its place in the sun light.  This plant from my garden measured 150cms tall on a 6mm wide base.  

If the plant had grown a thicker stem the Spring speed-growing would not have kept pace with the stalks of its neighbours, if it had been thinner it would have bent and drooped in the shade of its siblings. The only plants to seed are the ones that get the goldilocks balance between growth and structure exactly right; the stems that neither reach the light or bend back into the shade perish without producing seeds.  The breeding stock has preserved in their DNA a memory of where the goldilocks zone is and will sow seeds that in following years will again produce plants with structures that are a miraculous prayer to precious sunlight, every bit as on edge and beautiful as the glorious sunlit nave of La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species image:

Darwin studiously avoided using the word evolution because it had other meanings in his day, but the very last word in his book, the Origin of Species, is "evolved".

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Today the word evolution is synonymous with Darwin and our studies of  Nature Selection, it is also a good word we use to describe the progress of technology and ideas.  In both the evolutionary methods are used to squeeze and mould successful design templates to fit like molten plastic into every new nook, cranny and opportunity that opens up.   As the world changes the Goldilocks structures change with it; if a new ice age sets in the climate gets colder and the animals grow extra coats of fur, likewise the Gothic culture of adulation of natural light gave way to a new Renaissance culture that had lifted the prohibition on alter candles.  Gothic culture, whose primary concern had been big windows in churches, gave way to a culture that needed interior wall space for murals that told stories about the life of Christ.  New Goldilocks structures evolved to reflect the new cultural paradigms for glorifying God.

The Sistine Chapel 1482

 Evolution of Intelligence

In a book I am reading at present, Intelligence in the Flesh by Guy Claxton, in it makes a bold statement.  He says Our bodies are not things, they are "events".  This is not entirely true, our bodies are physical, but his important point is that we are like spinning tops, as long as we keep spinning we stay upright and appear to have stability.

Man made objects are things, I arrive at my desk in the morning and turn on my computer, in teh evening I switch it off.  My body sleeps, when I sleep my brain goes into another mode, the blood still flows and I dream.  In another bold statement Claxton makes an almost flippant definition of intelligence as being the knowledge to do "what is the best thing to do next?".  His point is well made: our intelligence was developed by nature so that we make more variable, well-informed and focused responses about what to do next.  Intelligence was selected for by evolution because it is advantageous for survival.  But how does evolution create such complex solutions?

Descartes - dualism/spirit

Richard Dawkins, in his classic book the Blind Watchmaker (1996) resurrected an 18th century theological metaphor about a mysterious Blind Watchmaker through whose wondrous forces the marvellous and complex objects of nature such as eyes came to be made, today those forces are revealed and known as evolution and natural selection.

The same blind forces that created the eye created intelligence too, in fact given the intentions of survival of the fittest and the obvious benefits of intelligence, it is obvious that if we looked we would find that the blind watchmaker's creations would be teaming with intelligence.  In the last two decades scientists have started looking and indeed intelligences are found wherever cells congregate and interact, most famously in the group behaviour single cellular slime moulds.  Literally bags of Amoeba have been observed to collectively combine to solve the most complex mazes, this amusing video explains it well

This is great video to watch!
In another study the microbes were set up to solve Soduku puzzles (link).

Our bodies are made up of trillion of cells that are all communicating with each other.  It has only recently been realised that a lot of this inter-cellular communication is intelligent, to pick just one example the cells in the walls of our capillaries do not just carry blood, they interact and control the behaviour of stem cells in every organ of our bodies. There is a new word for this sort of intelligent decision making, embedded cognition, and we know it is happening on a grand scale, most notably in our guts.

Claxton says our bodies are not things, we are events, our bodies are in a state of perpetual movement, we are like spinning tops, as soon as we stop spinning we have no stability and we fall apart (we are dead).

Later in the same book Claxton divides his assessment of intelligence into three driving forces  

What do I need?
What actions have I the ability to do about it?
What do circumstances allow?

Our stomachs and guts, which are have autonomous control over digestion, have the enteric nervous system which is largest network of brain cells outside the brain, it so large and intelligent that it has become known as "the second brain".  The second brain is much more than just nervous tissue, it is as the name suggests highly intelligent environment with very complex learning and decision making to deal with a vast array of new chemicals in form of foods and the largest amount of microbes in the body.  Receptor cells (T cells) on gut must be educated and maintained by elaborate signalling between the brain and the microbes, at the same time immune reactions to novel but not dangerous molecules have to suppressed.

Our guts are only a single layer of cells thick, over the top are protective mucous gardens of intelligent microbes that are lovingly fed by our bodies with probiotics.  When we are sick and the body is staving our bodies continue to feed our microbes.  The gardens of symbiotic microbes in the gut are called Microbiome, they are a mixture of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, viruses and macrophagesare that assist our digestion, maintain our immune system and are sending messages to and from our brains.   

We are Holobionts

The intelligent behaviour that is going on between our own cells and the microbiome in our guts are the norm in nature. In some primitive animals like the flatworms 50% of their body weight are microbiome which are nurtured by the animals in special sacks. Our bodies contain only about two pints of microbial life.   Even though the weight of our bodies are mostly cells generated from our own DNA, the microbiota cells are much smaller cells and outnumber our own bodies cells, they contain 300 times more DNA that we have received genetically from our parents. 

Image :

We are not really single entities with a single DNA heritage, we are "Holobionts", symbiotic communities which share multiple lines of DNA heritages which we acquire, exchange, modify and sometimes lose during our lifetimes.  We even acquire DNA that has laterally crossed the cell walls between our bacteria and ourselves.  Our microbiota suppress poisons, viral infection,  autism, Parkison's disease obesity and cancer and control decisions made by our brains.  Microbes also contribute to activity of our subconscious minds, changing our moods, sensual responses and behaviour

A lot of work has been done with germ free mice grown in sterile environments, these mice are sickly  and have drastically underdeveloped immune systems.  They suffer from autoimmune diseases and exhibit undesirable traits. There is speculation that the overuse of antibiotics decimate our microbiome gardens leaving us more susceptible to Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs)

For centuries we have compared our intelligence with other animals and defined ourselves as more Godly than other species. Throughout history we have looked down at dogs and cats as dumb animals, and we have thought that lower animals such as bacteria were a sanitary curse that we must exterminate from our homes and hospitals (actually seeding the environment with probiotics, cutting down bactericides and opening the windows in hospitals to let microbes in reduces the risk hostile infections by superbugs in clinical institutions).

The Turing Test

When we look at our technological achievements through the application of science and reason it looks to us as if our way of evolving ideas surpasses the abilities of natural evolution.  It has taken nature billions of years to produce flying birds, the mammalian eye and brains.  In stark contrast in the 40,000 years since the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution began we have overtaken all the greatest achievements of nature and our progress is getting faster and faster

Cart wheels were invented about 5000 years ago 
Onager-drawn cart on the Sumerian 2,500BC (Image Wikipedia)
It was only 5,000 years ago that we invented the first cart wheel, since then our civilisations have learnt to build cathedrals, aeroplanes, cameras and computers.  During this period our technological evolution has happened at a speed one hundred thousand times faster than nature did the same job. Anyone can see how our buildings are higher and have better air-conditioning than the biggest termite mounds, our aeroplanes and space ships fly faster, higher and further than any birds, our cameras see wider spectrums of light than any eye and our computers store more numbers with greater accuracy and solve maths equations at speeds far faster than the brains of our best mathematicians.  We can even fly to the moon. History seems to demonstrate that humans are better than Dawinian evolution at overcoming physical challenges. 

As technological evolution gathers pace so does our understanding of how the natural world does things. New cognitive sciences let us look into our brains and see how consciousness and intelligences are tied to the purely physical activities of glial cells, hormones, synapses, dendrites, myolin sheaths and neurotransmitters.  With this knowledge we can already make models of the mechanics of thought, neural networks and chemical transactions, so it seems reasonable to expect that it is only a matter of time before man can make physical objects that reproduce the physical events of thought, perhaps using computers to simulate neural networks. There is already so much evidence that we can successfully mimic and compete with nature's intelligences; our cars and smart phones are already talking with us and answering questions, there are robots being developed that will be companions for the lonely and elderly.  Hand in hand with our desire to know about how nature works comes the hubristic niggling desire to one day usurp God's right to create spirit in machines. 

Pygmalion & Galatea by Lasarasu
We have always had these fantasies that when we put the breath of consciousness into machines they will get up and walk, they will be like Galatea, Frankenstein or the androids in the popular TV series Humans, but if we put consciousness into the voices that are coming out of a smart phone how will we know?  Well we have the Turing test. The Turing test takes its name from a challenge set in 1950 by Alan Turing who is most famous for his pioneering work at Bletchley Park during World War II where he built a computer  to decode German communications on enigma machines. 

Alan Turing
The Turing test is supposed to test whether machines are dumb or exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.  It has been supposed that when a machine passes this test it will show that are at last able to think like humans.

The Turing Test (Wikipedia)

But passing the Turing test does not really prove consciousness.  It only tells us that we are talking to a very complex machine that knows how to find correct answers (known as the Chinese room phenomena - see link below).

Turing's error of Judgement
In the middle of the twentieth century, when Turing devised his test, it was very unfashionable to study consciousness.  Consciousness went against the prevailing theories of Behaviourism and was considered an "epiphenomenon" that the Blind Watchmaker had never intended to put into her creations; a mysterious and irrelevant by product of the mechanical processes of the brain.  Turing was assuming consciousness might re-occur if the mechanics of thought were repeated in a correct manner.

Turing and his generation overlooked that there is a big difference between the evolution of man made objects and the evolution of species made by Nature: Man made objects such as cars are made of inert parts; tyres, glass windscreens, metal panels, carburettors, computers, batteries and wires. Even if intelligence is put into the dashboard of the car the tyres remain inert.  The computer on the car dashboard might tell you to change a tyre but it is not interested in the well being of tyre.  If a tyre breaks or wears out it does not affect the running of the engine or shape of the headlights and it takes the external intervention of an outside intelligence to get the car running smoothly again.  Likewise your talking smart phone will tell you the battery is running low and needs recharging, but you have maintain the battery and replace it when it gets old

When we look at the La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris we see the church looking the same as it did 800 years ago, the church is made of inert stone.

When an ancient building falls apart the stones don't change shape or decompose, when an old statue loses its head the legs are unaffected and stay the same.

Victory of Samothrace - the Louvre image:

There is no symbiotic relationship between the head of a statue and the arm of a statue,  The well being of the arm is not the responsibility of the statues head,

When we look at a picture of a blade of grass

Indiangrass | Johnston Seed Company

we see something that was, since the photo was taken the grass has seeded, the stems have been blown over in the winter winds and the structures have decomposed back into the soil from whence it came. 

In contrast the blind watchmaker makes her creations out of living cells that are the building blocks of bodies that interact within a gardens of intelligent microbes (the dominant species on our planet).  Nature's species are interactive Holobionts within living communities. 

There is a second difference; Man made objects are defined, they are objects in a world of objects, teh rubber tyre goes over the asphalt road.  Nature does not define the boundaries of her objects, we developed out of a soup of microbes and our bodies still belong and are part of that soup.  WE never separated from our origins. 

One way to unravel this question is to consider what we know about the differences between the methods and outcomes between "evolution by natural selection" and "evolutionary development through thought, reason and construction" (science and technology).  When we look at this problem through this eyeglass it becomes clear that technology approach to intelligence has been on another track from those of nature.  Conciousness was born and nurtured in a cradle created by the methodologies of nature, it was not "invented"!

We need to  begin at the beginning, that is examine if intelligence is to be found in the most primitive forms of life that were the bedrock from which intelligent life emerged.

sorry this post is unfinished, i published it too early and it is going to take a while to finish



We Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (2016) - an easy read, highly recomended

Intelligence in the Flesh by Guy Claxton (2015) - Embedded Cognition


Light in the Early Church:

St Jerome:

Plant growth:

Mithraic mysteries

Halo (religious iconography)

Microbial intelligence - a big selection of articles on the latest research

Intelligent Capillary cells

American Microbiome Institute - Intro to Human Microbiome

Microbiome and Healthcare Paper; the rise of Non communicable diseases because of over use of antibiotics -

Teaching bacteria to solve Sodoku puzzles

The Chinese Room

Hōryū-ji Temple complex

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Kanneh-Mason Family - Videos

This is Sheku, he is the third of seven Kanneh-Mason children.  This year Sheku was crowned BBC Young Musician and the Year (2016).
Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing the Cello
Following his success Sheku was invited to perform at two BBC Prom concerts and has signed a contract to make CDs with Decca.  Sheku has a distinctive mop of hair and is cool.

Sheku Rees Kanneh-Mason

Sheku has a beautiful elder sister who has a huge smile and wears her plaited hair as a mantle threaded with gold.  Isata (pronounced Ice-i-ta), reached the piano finals in BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 and was awarded The Walter Todds Bursary for the most promising musician not to reach the Grand Final (she was unlucky to come up against the overall winner in the finals of the piano section).  Isata studies at the Royal Academy of Music and is well on the way to becoming a concert pianist. I always think she plays from the heart and looks like an Egyptian queen.

Isata Megan Kanneh-Mason
This is a picture of the the seven children:

The Kanneh-Mason children have exotic Sierra Leonian names; Sheku (cello, 17), Isata (pianist, 20), Braimah (violinist, 18), Mariatu (cello and piano 7), Konya (piano and violin 15), Jeneba (piano and cello 13), and Aminata (Violin and Piano 11).

Kadiatu (Kadie) and Stuart Kanneh Mason with Sheku and Braimah (2015 Nottingham Post)

The Nottingham family are a rich cultural mix; Kadiatu's mother is Welsh and married to a man from Sierra Leone, their English father Stuart has parents who immigrated from Antigua.  The family rejoice in their cultural diversity, they all have Welsh names and continue their close ties with Wales, the Caribbean and Sierra Leone.  Both of their parents have always loved classical music and learnt to play the piano as children, so it was a natural decision for them to buy a piano after their first child was born; Kadiatu also played the clarinet as a child and is an academic whilst Stuart has a physics degree and masters degree in maths.  Stuart commutes to work in London from Nottingham, instead of buying smart cars and other luxuries every penny the family earns has been channelled into giving their children the best opportunities in life.  Isata chose the piano which seems to have influenced the other children to follow her into musical careers.

When we met the Kanneh-Masons at the Tenby Arts Festival in 2015 we were blown away and became instant fans.  We have got to know this lovely family better after they gave a concert at Lampeter House in the Spring 2016.  A few weeks ago they came and recorded You Tube videos in our home, these are the results (it is essential to listen through good speakers):

Personally I find it most moving to see the whole family playing together

The Kanneh-Masons Six - Medley

but they are all virtuosic and play solos or together in smaller groups.  In these two videos Sheku plays duets with his elder brother Braimah who is studying the violin at Royal Academy of Music.  

Braimah and Sheku - Bloch Prayer from Jewish life

Braimah and Sheku - Ajde Jano

When the three eldest perform together they call themselves "The Kanneh-Mason Trio".  It is worth looking up you tube videos of their performances of Shostakovitch.  For us they played Rachmaninov Trio élégiaque No.1

 The Kanneh-Mason Trio
Rachmaninov Trio élégiaque No.1

Shekus' younger sisters, Konya and Jeneba, are both accomplished pianists.  Konya was not satisfied with her recording of Debussy, it sounded ravishing but she insists it was flawed.  This is Jeneba (13) playing a Chopin's Etude Op.10, No.4

Jeneba Kannah Mason - Chopin Etude Op.10, No.4

We also made videos of  Isata and Sheku playing a duet

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Masons - Gaspo Cassadó - Requiebros

 and two pieces of Isata playing solo

Isata Kanneh-Masons - Rossini/Ginzburg Cavatina of Figaro 

Isata Kanneh-Mason - Liszt Les jeux d'eau à la villa d'este

The Kanneh-Masons have an official website: BBC have made a documentary about the Kanneh-Masons that is called Young, Gifted and Classical to be screened on November 20 on BBC4

We could not have made these videos without the help of Alberto Bona of Arepo Productions and Nick Swannell (sound engineer)


I am not particularly knowledgeable about music, often I have to work harder than others to track the melodies, rhythms and musical structures in complex classical pieces, but the emotional rewards are always worth it. From the moment I first saw this family I was a fan, this is why:

Music is found in all cultures however primitive or isolated.  It is as if nature has encoded Music into our DNA and it is as essential to humanity as language and speech.     Some years ago I read a book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body" by Prof Steven Mithen, in which he posited that music and singing were precursors to language.  He painted an  image of groups of Neanderthals without language abilities dancing, grunting and warbling around their hearths for tens of thousands of years until the language speaking Homo sapiens arrived to Southern Europe with cave painting and sculpture.   He suggested that musical activity in our hominid ancestors generated empathy and set off a chain of brain development that in Homo sapiens mutated into our abilities for "theory of mind", intensely complex self knowledge, social and cultural cohesion, and that from these musical beginnings language was born.  Music led to the development of language followed by the big bang of creativity that led to agriculture and civilisation.

Mithen was speculating and maybe he is wrong, but his point is a good one; music  harmonises emotions across audiences in extremely powerful ways.  This trait was well known to ancient generals who marched their armies to music in the safe knowledge that this will make their soldiers more comradely and willing to sacrifice their lives for each other and their tribes, in our present day society music still has a strong place in rituals that bring marriages, families, tribes and nations together; what would the Olympics be like without the collective playing of each other's national anthems from around the world?
In my quest to improve my drawing I had an idealistic view that art has a good purpose, as I have grown older I have come to see that  purpose to be about reaching inside each other's minds and sharing qualia in a mingling of spirits, but I have never been so naive as to believe that producing or loving good art automatically equates with having a well developed sense of humanity.  Tyrants like Stalin loved the ballet and Hitler loved watercolours and architectures, but the humanising effects of art were not enough to stop them being responsible for the deaths of millions of there fellow citizens.  This is a sad fact;  Art's power to bring us together in a mingling of our spirits can be embraced, ignored, subverted and misused.  My conclusion has been that art, like speech, comes with responsibility. I have always questioned goodness and badness in art and often asked myself if there is such a thing as purity in art?

The Kanneh Masons are fascinating to know.  The family seem to be bonded in a warm glow of empathy and cooperation.  The eldest sister started the process, but now they are all in it together, sharing tunes, unifying melodies and harmonies within their family.  In the little time I have been with them I have witnessed this depth of communication and extreme closeness.  They are not unique, they are ordinary people, but it has been wonderful to watch what has happened inside their family which seems to me to be one of the purest expressions of "good art" I have ever experienced.  In this troubled world we need more families like the Kanneh-Masons and more "good art".


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Best of this Summers Drawings.

I have not been abroad this summer, but at weekends and on sunny evenings I have been out drawing  at Wiseman's Bridge where the beach was often crowded with families and holiday makers.

Many say hello because they already know me from previous years.  This sketch brings back vivid memories of little Ava and Lola walking on the beach with their father and dog
Ava, Lola and her father 7 June  2015
but I cannot remember which was Ava and which was Lola.

These children are Emelia and Harrison Frost

Emelia and Harrison
I think their father is an engineer and their mother Nicki is a primary school teacher in Sheffield

Nicki Frost with her Children

Drawing in public spaces is social, very often when I arrive children will greet me and sit in a crowd around me, others times I am left alone. When I am being watched it is a bit like reading out loud in a classroom, they expect me to put on a show, work fast, pay attention and not make mistakes, but  I do not meet all the people I draw.   Such was the case with this drawing, one of the best of the season, it evokes memories of a moment alone after the crowds had dispersed for supper.  In the crisp twilight air excited chattering and laughter travelled towards me, down the way a little girl in a blue polka dot dress was patting her grandfather's head and giggling, they were looking across the sea towards a distance horizon that was the lit with the dying embers of reflected sunlight in clouds. 

My other favourite haunt is Manor House Wildlife Park where the children interact with the animals 

This year I have been studying how the form of the body changes as we grow.  I have made images of babies with their mothers

and toddlers

making their first wobbly steps

A toddler called Mali

and I have been trying to capture how very small children walk and run,

which is different from the older children like this boy

and  these two sisters from Pakistan with flowers in their hair.   Sanzay (7) and Lalina's family have come to Pembrokeshire because their father is a doctor in Haverfordwest.   Sanzay's dress was embroidered with flowers too and they had one more even younger sibling who I did not manage to draw.

Most of all I have been working on my portraiture.  For many years, almost every evening between 9.30pm to 2.00am, I have been making scribbled drawings of moving faces from television. The scribblings are a technical learning excises to help my subconscious brain build a detailed and structured virtual model of the head and face.   Making the mental construction feels like putting together a three dimensional virtual jigsaw puzzle with movement, the learning involves developing the shape of the pieces as well as fitting them together.  After these sessions I sometimes have very vivid hallucinatory dreams of the shapes and relationships of the pieces I am trying to grasp and assemble, as these elements have coalesced my drawings of faces have become easier to make and more of a likeness.

This is an image drawn whilst watching a television costume drama (I think Wolf House).  A drawing like this represents the present state of my virtual model with some added embellishments. 

The long summer's evenings have been an opportunity to make drawings from real people and to check how well my portraiture has developed since last summer.  This image of  a teenage girl at Wiseman's Bridge demonstrates how my models are transposed into idealised portraits of  real people:

A Teenage girl with flowers in her hair June 2016

But the teenage girl is a drawing about classic idealised beauty, it is not about personality. It represents the first stage in learning to draw and make art.  Only recently did I understand how closely my drawing technique mirrors the way the subconscious mind creates that glorious technicolour cinema experience we call sight.  In the centre of the brain, sitting above the tip of the Brain Stem, is an organ called the Thalamus. It is comparable in size to the two halves of an unshelled walnut, with the nut-shell joining in the horizontal plane.

The  Thalamus (Wikipedia)
Brain scientists sometimes call the thalamus the brain's relay station, this is because all the raw sensory data (except smell) from the eyes, ears, tongue and skin is transmitted through the thalamus to specialised areas for further analysis and processing.  For instance visual data is collected at the retina and sent along the optic nerves to the thalamus before being relayed on to Visual Cortex in the Occipital Lobe at the back of the skull.

Eye : Thalamus : Visual cortex

But the thalamus is much more than just a relay and distribution station, it also recognises patterns,  analyses and processes the data. It was recently discovered that when we are looking at an object six times more visual information is travelling from the cortex to the thalamus than from the thalamus to the visual cortex. This is counter intuitive, how is it that sight is using more information coming from inside the brain than from the eyes that are looking at the outside world? 

Eye : Thalamus : Visual Cortex : Internal model

There is a theory that the thalamus is supplementing incoming sensory data with virtual images generated by the cortex: Suppose you are looking at a set of traffic lights, analysing all the raw visual data sent from the eyes will tell your brain that the lights are in a black box on top of  pole.  The brain has seen the black box and pole many times before and expects it to be there, what it really wants to know is when will the lights change from red to green?  The brain already has a virtual model for the traffic lights in its mental vocabulary, so instead of wasting energy analysing the raw visual data to produce a new virtual pole, it reuses the one it has pre-made in it library of experiences. The mind confines its collection of the raw visual data from the outside world to the one piece of information it wants to know about above all others; when will the lights change from red to green?  As a system this method makes perfect evolutionary sense because it is so energy efficient, it also has the benefit of being a top down system that provides the rational sentient brain, through its control of the eyes, free will to spotlight which news is being brought into the visual arena.  In contrast when we are dreaming and consciousness is absent, the technicolour screen is lit up with hallucinations that have been entirely created from our mind's visual libraries.

The other thing to note is that this energy efficient system does not waste time analysing the raw data for information that is unimportant to the job at hand.  Less analysis makes sight faster, faster sight gives faster decision making, faster decisions make us more adept at taking advantage of situations and faster to escape from danger.  When the lights change from red to green we have an opportunity to move forward at once, when they turn back to red we stop at once. If we dithered we would get killed.

One of the commonest remarks from onlookers watching me draw is "you draw so fast, how do you do that?".   If I observe myself whilst I am drawing I can see how I am generating pictures on paper. It appears that I am using the same method as sight, my hands make marks within the context of ghostlike virtual images held in my mind's eye. These ghosts are gently modified by my sentient mind as the drawing  develops on the paper.  Whilst I am drawing my eyes spotlight the area where new marks are to be made.  For instance when drawing a cheek bone the sentient mind directs the eyes to look at the cheekbones and my mind becomes interested in just two things

1.  Placing the marks in the right position relative the ghost and/or modified image of the virtual model on the paper.
2.  The shape of  the cheek bone I am drawing is made by comparing virtual cheekbones generated in my mind against the unique shape of the cheek bone of the subject.

Similarly when I am drawing someone catching a ball I do not waste time and energy wondering which side of the hand the thumb goes, without thinking I can see where the thumb belongs on my virtual model, but when I come to draw the hands my sentient mind does look at my subject's thumb to find out if I should modify the virtual thumb to be a fat or thin thumb, with or without nail varnish?.

The answer to the onlookers is that if I were to slow down and start measuring the size and positions of objects I would lose sight of the virtual model, my system would fall apart. The speed that my drawings take place is a function of the efficiency of the system (an extension of sight).  A few years ago I went to drawing classes where the models sat in static positions for hours, my drawings that took hours were often structurally weaker and less of a likeness than the drawings that were made in seconds from fleeting memories.

Having learnt how to create an image of an idealised face with unique features I want to take my drawing processes one stage further.  I now want to breath life into the drawing and add personality, perhaps by choosing heads with a lot of structural individuality

Man at Wiseman's Bridge, Aug 2016
  or opening the jaw as if the subject has just moved and taken an inward breath.

or using gesture and body language

Little Boy on a Bench
or by adding interesting hairstyles, possessions and gait

Lady at Heathrow airport 2016

But the most important way to add personality is through facial expressions.  Adding facial expression is the hardest thing to do well because they are movements of the eyes and soft tissue that float over the immoveable bone structure. For these images the artist has to use complex multidimensional virtual models which combine knowledge of static bone under-structures with knowledge of how the soft parts move over the bones.  I have not done nearly enough studying in this area, it is the work for the remainder of my life, at present my mental representation is not up to making convincing drawings of symmetrical smiles.

Ironically strong structural individuality together with slight lob-sided facial expressions are quite easy to do.

A policeman at the Millennium Centre April 2016
Another big subject I am always attempting to draw are relationships, such as images of parents holding children.  In Western art we have many images of mothers with children, Madonnas.  There are less images of fathers with their children.  At Wiseman's Bridge it is very often the fathers that are playing most intimately with their children, perhaps the summer holidays are the only opportunity that they get to spend whole days with their families.  I find the father-child relationships very appealing to draw

This image is statuesque

and this one has warmth

and of course  there are the young mothers too

and finally there are the pets they bring to the beach, dogs with tongues that hang out and run over the sand and play in the surf and are constant companions to their owners

I have also been working on plants, but those can wait for further posts.