Sadness and science

Today is a sad day. I received a letter from the family of Dr Elaine Morgan, author of The Scars of Evolution and other inspirational books on human evolution, letting me know that Elaine died last Friday. She was 92 years old and had lived a wonderfully full life, so her passing is not a tragedy. But it is still sad that such an inspirational, intelligent, kind and humble woman is no longer with us.

She has been a tremendous inspiration to me. It was reading her books on the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH), and her ideas in the seminal “The Descent of Woman”, that led me to write Watermark. But it wasn’t only what she wrote that I found inspirational. Her bravery and dedication in taking on the scientific establishment in arguing the case for the AAH was a wonderful example to us all that there should be no holy cows in science. If science really is an objective search for evidence, then challenges to accepted thinking would be welcomed, you would think. But that wasn’t the case for Elaine, and her trials and tribulations in getting the role of water in human evolution taken seriously shone an interesting light on the difference between the ideal view of what science is, and how it is actually practiced.

The philosophy of science fascinates me. But that term, “philosophy of science” confuses some people. What is there to be philosophical about? Science is an entirely objective pursuit, surely. But, it is carried out by humans, so can it really be entirely objective? And, do we want it to be? Perhaps objectivity is a laudable goal, but maybe one that will never be achieved. In any case, there is something chilling to me about the idea of an entirely objective scientist, motivated only by evidence and not by an acceptance or understanding of the human condition (whatever that may be!). Elaine was motivated by the human condition. By the curiosity and wonder that is characteristic of our species. It may be true of other species, but we have no way of knowing that, at present. We do know it about ourselves, though.

There are four books that have had an enormous effect on my understanding of science:

  • “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” Karl Popper
  • “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” Thomas Kuhn
  • “What is this Thing Called Science?” Alan Chalmers
  • “The Descent of Woman” Elaine Morgan

All four are fascinating, but of those four, Elaine’s book has had the greatest influence on me, probably because I’m a woman who, like her, had become heartily sick of the “man the hunter” theories of human evolution. Men stood up to hunt better, men made and used tools, men have strong upper bodies for spear-chucking etc etc. Women co-evolved as a side-product; they were relegated to picking up berries off the floor, making themselves sexually attractive to men and looking after the resultant babies. But what about this great big thing in our heads? That’s what really differentiates us from all other species on the planet. All the time our brains were evolving to be larger and larger, there was very little change in the tool sets we were making. Sorry, men were making. We just didn’t need all that brain power to bang rocks together a bit more accurately.

The arguments are very persuasive that our brains developed to accommodate language, and so it must have given us a significant advantage to be selected for so effectively. And with language came music and laughter and empathy and all the “touchy-feely” stuff which had been ignored in theories of what drove human evolution. We are fundamentally communicators, not hunters. Sure, we have to hunt and scavenge to survive. But many species do that very effectively in social groups; lions, wolves, orca etc.  You don’t need a massive brain like ours to do that well. And which sex is generally accepted to be more adept at language? I leave that question hanging 🙂

Elaine has been described as a “housewife” in newspaper and media articles many times, as if there is something truly amazing about looking after a family and being able to think outside the box. I agree with Elaine; humans have evolved the way we have because women were, and still are, adept at doing both.

Rest in peace Elaine. You lived a wonderful life.

Pen on paper

closed book on tableI use computers all the time and wouldn’t dream of going back to writing on paper as a matter of course. The convenience of word processing, and being able to blog and tweet to my heart’s content, is a wonderful convenience.

But, that doesn’t mean I have lost the thrill of a blank, fresh, crisp piece of paper, just waiting to take its first mark. I love stationery shops too. Ranks of coloured paper, card, pens, markers, envelopes… mmmmmmm. My writing improves when I’m in one of these moods;  a nice plump pen with a good grip and a smooth roller tip just sliding over paper in a notebook, leaving a satisfying trail of words. The writing changes the nature of the paper, too. It feels fuller, completed, and sounds muted when the pages are turned. I love to just feel the pages. To leaf through them and listen to the words rustling on the page.

So you can imagine my delight when, in a magic shop in Glastonbury, I found a deep green leather-bound book of hand-made paper, with a scarlet velvet inside cover. Blank. Empty. Waiting. It’s by my side as I write this now, and I can hardly wait to start writing in it. But I will wait. In the book I’m currently writing, The Salt Man, archaeologists find a journal. When I’ve completed the journal part of the book on my computer, my beautiful leather book with a Green Man embossed on the soft leather cover will contain the hand-written version. And I will enjoy the tactile, sensual experience of writing it in ink, on paper.  Because writing is a physical activity, as well as a mental one.

ash man and closed bookI wish I could carve wood. I greatly admire those who can. I’m amazed at how they can see a shape in the raw piece, and release it with saws and chisels. The picture on the right is of a carving in my garden created by Ian, a genius we met at a country fair. I love Green Men, and this ash branch had a rather grumpy one hiding in it. Ian found him, though.

Physical writing with a pen on paper is the nearest I can get to carving. It has a similar sense for me; seeing the shape of the words on the paper, and setting them loose to run across the page. It will take a lot of self-control not to start writing soon in my green book. But it will be worth the wait.

Transmedia and virtual worlds; a new identity

My new house smallWell, I’ve created my author avatar in Second Life (EJKay2013) and have my own little home to retreat to when it all gets too much 🙂 . Now I’m on the lookout for a small piece of land to start building the transmedia environment for Watermark. I’ve been active in virtual worlds for the past 5 years as an educator, so it feels quite strange being there as an individual resident. It will actually take me some time to get used to being a different avatar. It is strange how much I’m attached to my work avatar. To me. To us.

Or perhaps it isn’t that strange. I spend a lot of time as a tutor in-world, and I meet my students there all the time. In fact, that’s the only way I meet them as the course takes place by distance learning. I’ve tutored students in the UK and New Zealand this year, and more will be joining in September from the USA and other countries. So for me, the virtual world has a sense of real place. My avatar is a social extension of me, just as my students’ avatars are. When we all meet in world, we are all “there” in a very real way.

An important aspect of my sense of identity with my avatar is how she looks. This has meant discovering the wonders of virtual world shopping! But it has also given me the opportunity to consider the outward appearance that best represents the inner me. And that depends on what role I’m in at the time. The professor me is not the same as the writer me. So how should my author avatar look? How do I feel in that role? I’m not sure yet. I think she needs to evolve along with the environment.

Fall between_001I’ve found some land I like for sale by auction on the Second Life website. I’ll bid on this over the next day or so. It’s completely bare and about 10 feet underwater at the moment, as you can see! But it can be raised and terraformed quite easily. And then I can begin to work on creating the environment where the extended story can take place.  Hope my bid is successful!

Why stand up?

wading baboon“Baboons don’t enjoy getting their feet wet. But the banquet of flowers and juicy snails is just irresistible.” David Attenborough, Nature’s Great Events, BBC1, 15th June 2013.

Walking on your two back legs isn’t that unusual in nature. Birds have evolved to do it, most likely from dinosaur ancestors that walked on their back legs. Kangaroos get about very efficiently on two legs too. But it is more common for mammals to stay on four legs, as it takes less balance and generally means you can run faster, either in the direction of prey, or away from predators. Humans are the only apes that habitually walk on two legs, although other apes, and monkeys, aren’t totally quadripedal as they do sometimes stand up and walk.

So what makes an ape start to walk on two legs? It can’t be because it would make them good hunters in the future. It can only be because it confers an advantage at the time. That’s the way natural selection works. And that’s the problem I have with the idea that we began to walk and run on two legs in order to hunt more efficiently. Sure, our large bum muscles do make us good walkers and runners now, but in the earliest days of transition from walking on all fours to walking on our back legs, we didn’t have those developed muscle groups. We were probably as slow and awkward as the baboon in the picture above. So why did we do it?

The baboon is wading through flood waters in the Okavango delta in Botswana, an inland river delta that doesn’t reach the sea. The delta is a large geological depression in the ground and the water, which comes from highlands in Angola, is evaporated in the baking heat of the desert and transpired by the plants in the delta.  Once a year this desert area receives a flood of around 11 cubic kilometres of water. And it isn’t unique in Africa. There are similar inland deltas today in Sudan and Mali.

Suppose a group of apes, some of the common ancestors of humans and chimps, were living in or near an area that was affected by geological land movement. This movement effectively cut them off from other apes of the same species when it became permanently flooded.  The stranded apes would have to wade from small island to small island. Good waders would be more likely to meet mates who were also good waders. Mums that stood up and waded wouldn’t risk drowning babies that were hanging onto their belly fur. Natural selection at work. And we’d be very likely to eat quite a bit of fish and other aquatic food sources rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. Brain food.

It’s not that fanciful, or unlikely. It is at least worthy of consideration as a possible root of bipedalism.

Transmedia storytelling in virtual worlds

dragons in the den 1In my day job as an education innovator, I do a lot of work in virtual worlds. In fact, I’m the director of a Master’s degree that runs entirely in a virtual world called Second Life. Over the past 6 years or so I’ve become fascinated by these environments. They are such powerful places for simulations and role play in almost every academic subject you could think of. That’s not to say they replace activities and experiences in the physical world. Not at all. But virtual world simulations and role plays can help students to have experiences that are dangerous, unethical or just downright impossible in the physical world, but that are valuable learning experiences for their future practice. For example, I’ve led students through very realistic accident investigations in Second Life to prepare them for undertaking such investigations when they qualify. And, we’ve built a dragon’s den where students from a range of subject disciplines can pitch ideas for their assessments. Of course, on one occasion we tutors couldn’t resist dressing up our avatars as dragons for a pitching event 🙂 .

As a writer I’m also fascinated by the potential of these environments for extended storytelling. “Transmedia” or multi-platform storytelling has been around for a while, and has come to prominence more recently with examples like The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, an updated telling of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice through the medium of video logs (vlogs) on YouTube. The audience can also leave questions for the characters and they answer them in later videos at particular points in the series. I like the idea of including an audience in a story and seeing how it evolves. And I’m captivated by the idea of creating an environment in a virtual world that enables that to happen.

Watermark book coverThere are two stories in Watermark. One takes place around 1.5 million years ago, and one in the modern day. In the book it’s the modern day story that’s developed and told to a conclusion. A conclusion. Not the only possible one. And the ancient story could also be developed in its own right. Because those characters are pre-human, there is a lot of scope for playing with ideas. Participants’ Homo ergaster avatars could roam the shores of what is now Lake Turkana in Kenya, playing out what might happen after Nimue is murdered.

I’m intent on doing this some day, hopefully not too far in the future. I have a good friend who is a great virtual worlds designer and we’re already hatching plans. We’ll have to see how they evolve.

The cold water reflex

water drop smallAll mammals exhibit a cold water reflex. When our faces hit cold water our heart rate slows down, and if we become submerged the blood to our extremities gets reduced, protecting the core temperature and reducing the oxygen demand. Some evidence might suggest that this is more prominent in humans than in our ape relatives, and proponents of the aquatic ape hypothesis (AAH) point to this as one of the possible sources of evidence for some form of aquatic past for human species.

But that’s not the cold water reflex I’m writing about here. Some humans exhibit a different type of reflex. When they hear a new idea, or see someone excited by the blue sky potential of something different, they have an uncontrollable urge to pour cold water on it. I’ve come across this very many times in my work as an education innovator in universities, but it isn’t confined there. It doesn’t seem to be solely a function of someone’s job either, although that can have an influence. If you have responsibility for a budget then clearly you’ll feel that you have to take that responsibility seriously and not take unreasonable risks. But that doesn’t mean pouring cold water on ideas.

My background in risk has helped me to understand this tendency, or at least recognise some of the worldviews held by people who exhibit this reflex. It seems to come partly from a view that change is dangerous; that the world is basically a risky place, and that the “safest” way to proceed is to try to keep a check on change, or at least attempt to control it in some way. But this is futile. The world IS change. Growth and life are pure change, nothing else.  And, trying to control change is not even the safest way to proceed. Just because something feels safe, it doesn’t mean that it is. We tend to feel safest with things that are most familiar to us, but statistically they can be the most dangerous. Homes are the places we’re most likely to hurt ourselves; close friends and family are most likely to kill us. No, actually, not true. It’s even closer to home than that. We are most likely to kill ourselves. Worldwide, more people die from suicide than murder and war combined. Check it out if you don’t believe me.

As a writer, I guess my gripe is mainly about the difficulty in trying to sell new ideas to agents and publishers. This is a well-known phenomenon, and J.K.Rowling’s difficulties in getting the first Harry Potter book published are legend. Agents and publishers want to work with established authors as they know that they have an audience and that their books are therefore more likely to sell. So how do you become an established author? I’ve tried self-publishing (Watermark is self-published) but your work disappears in the millions of books available now.  Advertising effectively is very expensive; social networking ads just don’t work. So you can imagine my delight when I started to find publishers who are actively seeking out new authors, and looking for new ideas 🙂 I’m going to start making some contacts with them over the next few months, and my only hope is that they don’t have a bucket of cold water balanced on the metaphorical front door.

Time and tides

Sunset off the port side“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune: Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

Shakespeare is my favourite author, by a long way. It seems a bit predictable and trite to say it in some ways, as he’s had such an amazing effect on the English language. But even though I’ve been seeing his plays and reading his work since I was first introduced to him in school at the age of 14, I still never fail to be moved by the way he expressed ideas. The quotation above is from Julius Caesar (Act 4, scene iii) and perfectly captures the masterful way he used metaphor in his writing. Paraphrased, it means “just go for it!” But metaphor says so much more. In Shakespeare’s use of the sea to evoke a sense of rising up to an opportunity, we also are reminded how easily we can get carried along by circumstances (currents) and how hard it can be to steer a direct course to a goal.

I find writing often feels like being on a rough sea. Some days I’m lifted by ideas and experiences; on other days I’m sliding down the wave into a trough of self-doubt. Can I really do this? Is this idea actually any good? Does the story have enough complexity and pace to keep a reader enthralled? And sometimes the sheer energy required to paddle back up to the top of the wave feels like too much. I’ll just stay here at the bottom. That’s much easier.

This week has been a week at the bottom of the wave. My day job is very demanding at the best of times, but at the moment it’s particularly busy. I love it, though, so I’m not complaining. And I’m planning to reduce my working hours in September to concentrate more on writing, so I’m not too worried about the ups and downs. But I’ve still been feeling like I have to expend more and more energy to try to get back up to the top of that wave. Then I remembered the Shakespeare quotation above, and it brought to mind a particularly rough crossing of the North Sea I experienced on a cruise ship a couple of years ago.  Storm force winds and high seas battered the sides of the ship as it ploughed on; up and down, up and down. And then it struck me. It went up and down with no effort. The sea did all that work. As long as the ship kept moving forward, the ups and downs were by the by. It just had to float.

And that’s all I have to do. Just float. Just wait for the ideas and enthusiasm to rise up again. Because I know they will. And I’ll take full advantage of them when they do. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading Shakespeare.