Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Intelligence of Grass: Part 1

The Intelligence of Grass

Part One

The Making of Intelligence

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 it is in the New Testament that the notion that "God is Light" becomes of central importance to Christianity.  In the Gospel according to St John Jesus tells us 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 beliefs of the early church as subversive and threatening. Pontius Pilate tried to quench the flames of belief in early Christians by crucifying Jesus The authorities only succeeded in driving his followers into the darkness of windowless basement churches where they went on secretly worshipping "the light of the world".  Just 64 years after Jesus' death the Christians were being blamed by Nero for the burning of Rome. 

Chapel of Saint Ananias, Damascus, Syria, 1st century
The faithful wanted to worship "the light of the world" in their basement churches, an obvious solution was 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 could be utilitarian, but as an object of worship it was an artificial and blasphemous representation of the light of God (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 1215 when 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 the 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 stone 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 only load bearing when they are buttressed on both sides which prevents the heads of the pillars 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 given a detailed account of the evolution of Gothic architecture because it is such a good example of technological evolution in response to narrow cultural demands.   Kings College Chapel represents the paradigm of technical know-how that had been gathered and passed down the generations by builders who wanted to build huge windows within the constraints of heavy, brittle stone; they ended up making the biggest latticed stone structures it is possible to build.  The lattice has been sculpted so that every last stone is squashed and locked by gravity and is doing an essential job to keep the building upright.  I will call these type of optimised structures "Goldilocks balanced structures", meaning objects that have been optimised to fit with conflicting requirements, in this case the structure is a stone roof across a wide span supported on unsquashable stone walls that have huge holes cut out of them.

If Kings College Chapel had been built in an earthquake zone it's delicate brittle structure would not have lasted long .  Technological evolution is about filling very specific cultural niches. The ancient Japanese Buddhist Heian culture built tall multi-story pavilions that would survive earthquakes, most famously the pagoda at Horyu-ji, Nara which is the oldest wooden building in the world.

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

The Horyu-ji pagoda is constructed 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 a bit like the waving branches attached to a tree trunk .  This pagoda is another Goldilocks balanced structure inspired to fit into another cultural narrative, it is higher than Kings College Chapel and nearly twice as old.

Pagoda at Horyu-ji Temple

When we look around us we see a world that is filled with examples of human evolved know-how, just look at how precisely the component parts of your mobile phone have been optimised and assembled to fit in your handbag or trouser pocket; it represents an series of interlocking Goldilocks balances between battery life, weight, size, strength and usability.

Sometimes technological evolution creates stable sweet zone environments so that its machines can be designed to run efficiently and super-smoothly, human transport provides just such an example of  co-evolution between machine and artificial environment.

“‘The Machine,’ A.D. 1640–1750.” From Sir Walter Gilbey’s Early Carriages and Roads

When we look back at the stage coach of the 17th century we find that a 65 mile journey from London to Cambridge was an arduous two day bone-shaking trauma along the rutted tracks of drovers lanes, by the 1830s, through the miracle of human ingenuity, the tracks were improved and with some modest improvements in the technology of the carriages they were making the same journey in more comfort in one day .

Over the next two hundred years our roads have developed into smoothed tarmacked runways that provide a stable environment along which our modern cars can glide at constant speeds of 80 mph, 16 times faster than the 17th century horse drawn coaches and a lot more comfortable.  Inter-locking goldilocks balances with environmental constants are a common theme in Darwinian evolution too.  In our daily lives we are familiar that our body temperature is constant, we also know that when our temperature rises by a degree or two we begin feel ill, if it rises by 5 degrees the machinery of life breaks down and we die.  This is because our metabolism has evolved to run smoothly within in a narrow and stable sweet zone.  Asking our metabolism to run outside the narrow parameters of the sweet zone (which are between 96.5 - 98 c) is a bit like trying to drive  a sports car  across a waterlogged field.

Darwinian co-evolution does not only happen within the confines of our bodies, we all know that plants would die without the bees that pollinate them, and the bees would die without the plants that feed them nectar.  Co-evolution also occurs at microscopic ecological levels between species of animals, plants and a host of single celled microbes; bacteria, viruses and phages that are so small and well hidden that we are almost completely unaware of their existence.  The building blocks of our bodies are of a complex type of cell called Eukaryotes, inside each eukaryotic cell are structures called mitochondria that have their own DNA and divide like bacteria.  It is believed that  two billion years ago the ancestors of mitochondria were single prokaryotic cells that somehow made their homes inside eukaryotic cells where they were welcomed as power generators, as the relationship developed the mitochondria amalgamated themselves into becoming just one more functioning part of their hosts.   In technological evolution we get similar examples of symbiotic partnerships between machines, perhaps we can see the development between cameras and Iphones.

When we look at the evolving technological achievements of our species, which have been made possible through our unique ability to apply science and reason, it looks to us as if our way of evolving machines surpasses the abilities of Darwinian evolution.  It has taken nature 3.5 billion years to produce flying birds, the mammalian eye and brains.  In stark contrast it has taken a mere 5,000 years ago for humans to go from inventing the cart wheel in Sumeria to creating civilisations that have learnt to build cathedrals, aeroplanes, cameras and computers.

Cart wheels were invented about 5000 years ago 
Onager-drawn cart on the Sumerian 2,500BC (Image Wikipedia)

It is an astonishing fact that our technological evolution has happened at a speed five hundred thousand times faster than Nature. 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 bird; our cameras see wider spectrums of light than any eye and our computers solve maths equations at speeds far faster than the brains of our Nobel prize winners.  We can even fly to the moon.  History seems to demonstrate that we humans are far better at evolving machines that will overcome physical challenges than Darwinian natural selection, how dumb is Nature?

As technological evolution gathers pace so does our understanding of how the natural world does things. New cognitive sciences lets us take a cold rational look into our own brains and see how consciousness and intelligences are tied to the purely physical activities of brain structures; glial cells, hormone releasing glands, synapses, dendrites, myolin sheaths and neurotransmitters.  Scientist who work in this field begin to see the brain as a sort of "machine" with this mysterious thing we call spirit or conciousness.  Inevitably they ask themselves "if we are better than nature at making machines then surely we can simulate neural networks with our computers, and eventually we will re-create intelligence?".   Hand in hand with our desire to know about how nature works comes the hubristic niggling belief that we are nearing God's right to create spirit in machines.

Pygmalion & Galatea by Lasarasu

We have always had these fantasies, our ancient myths speak of our making creations like Galatea and Frankenstein that come to life and more recently the popular TV series like Humans have androids that seek to acquire souls like those given to us by Nature. It was an almost inevitable that amongst our first responses to the development of computers was the genesis of a challenge to test machines for (intelligent) thought.  In 1950, over 65 years ago, Alan Turing, who is most famous for his pioneering work with designing and developing code breaking computers at Bletchley Park during World War II, set the Turing test.

Alan Turing

The Turing test is supposed to test whether machines can exhibit intelligent behaviour that is indistinguishable from that of a human.  Turing supposed that when a human is unable to distinguish between answers given by a machine and answers given by a human, then the machine has become intelligent.

The Turing Test (Wikipedia)

Turing's test was conceived during period when psychology was dominated by various narrow-minded  schools of "Behaviourism".  Behaviourists believed that all science must be testable, otherwise it was not science, they were particularly impressed by Pavlov's famous demonstration that dogs could be trained to salivate to the sound of a bell and aggressively rejected the intervention of nebulous unmeasurable influences into their studies and models of the mind.  During Turing's day the Behaviourists sidelined discussions on consciousness by introducing a theory of "epi-phenomenology" and within academic circles the study of consciousness, feelings and even emotions were taboo subjects. Epiphenomenology explained away our consciousness and feelings as being a mysterious and irrelevant by-product of the mechanical processes of the brain that had no useful purpose. Turing's test seems to fall into the trap of assuming that consciousness was either irrelevant to thought or would spontaneously re-occur when the mechanics of thought were replicated in a correct manner.  His test is almost a variant of the commonly quoted aphorism that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck?  If you cut the duck in half and find out its brain is made of wire and transistors you can still classify it as a duck because the wires inside the duck replicate the mechanics of the mind, so in Turings day the fact that the duck's brain was not made of flesh and bones did not preclude the duck from having consciousness and intelligence.

This attitude still prevails in the style of our reporting on advances in Artificial Intelligences, usually comparing them with feats of the human mind..  In 1997 a computer called Big Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess, this year AI passed a new milestone when a machine called Libratus beat four of the world’s best poker players in a gruelling 20-day tournament. Poker is harder than chess because each player players don’t get to see each other’s hands and have to correctly interpret misleading information in order to win.  At the populist end of are our dumb cars and phones that have "smart" technology to talk with us and answer questions,  robots that have been developed as companions for the lonely and elderly and a virtual assistant called Alexa that has received 250,000 marriage proposals.  Recent AI  machines often do not come out of the box fully programmed, they need to be taught and learn their jobs.  For many people computers are already passing the Turing test and are intelligent, but for others virtual intelligences are examples of the computer industries becoming better and better at creating fraudulent illusions of consciousness in machines.

There is a well used thought experiment called "the Chinese Room Argument"

You are asked to imagine yourself inside a closed room with an instruction book an a post box through which you receive messages from a Chinese person on the outside.  When you get the messages you look in the instruction book and match the squiggles against the reference book and follow instructions, you end up posting some squiggles back to the outside world.  The Chinese person outside the room thinks you understand how to read and write Chinese, inside the room you have no idea what the messages were about or how you replied.

The trick behind  Artificial Intelligence (AI) is exposed in Jeff Hawkins' book On Intelligence (2004) where he tells us about his thought experiment:   "....a typical neurone can reset itself in about 5 ms, a modern (2004) computer do one billion operations in a second"...... "A human can perform a significant task in much less than a second.  For example, I could show you a photograph of a cat and ask you to determine if there is a cat in the image".......(Not a bear?)......"This task is difficult or impossible for a computer to perform today (2004), yet a human can do it in reliably in half a second or lessBut neurones are slow, so in that half second, the information entering your brain can only traverse a chain of one hundred neurones long.  That is, the brain "Computes " solutions to problems like this in one hundred steps or fewer, regardless of how many total neurones might be involved.......a digital computer attempting to solve the same problem would take billions of steps.  One hundred computer instructions are barely enough to move a single character on the computers display".  Big Blue, Libratus and Alexa achieve "intelligence" by following billions of instructions that would take a human brain years to compute. AI, as we know it, has been achieved through making a Chinese room with hugely superior computing speeds combined with huge data storage, but the engineers who designed the programs had no intention to include emotions or consciousness into the mechanics of how their machines work.  The machines they have made beat our minds on many tasks whilst on others they struggles to do relatively simple things that the human brain controls with ease.

When we look at intelligence we meet a paradox, I call it the Intelligence Paradox:  This is a hi tech Camera,

Like your I-phone the camera contains many components; data storage, zoom lens controls, flash, viewing screen, apertures, batteries and WiFi.  Each component is exquisitely optimised to Goldilocks balances that fit within carefully defined sweet zones of the model of camera. The camera is a typical example of an technology that has been evolved using the powers of reason and filled many niches for every occasion.  As mentioned earlier some niche cameras have evolved to become components inside I-phones, a bit like mitochondria have migrated from being stand alone single celled bacteria into being power generators inside Eukaryote cells.

Contrast this with an eye which is made of millions of cells that collect billions of particles of information about light that is sent to a brain where the data is re-assembled by trillions of neurones with zillions of synapses to create virtual moving images in the black depths of your head.  

If the eye is the result of the dumb forces of Darwinian evolution, why do we need intelligence and reason to make the less complex camera? Before Darwin we answered this paradox by believing that a divine intelligence used reason to create the world,

William Blake "Ancient of Days"

today we have lost that defence and we have face this challenge to our notions of what intelligence is.  After the Behaviourist's taboo against scientists studying emotions and consciousness faded attention focused on the role of emotion in decision making.  It is now understood that "somatic tagging" of our emotional responses to objects and situations provide us with swift subliminal guidance about what to do next, and these responses, along with reflexes, keep us safe from danger.  Reason, and deliberate analysis give us forethought, but in real life situations where split second decisions have to be made these sorts of intelligences are too slow and indecisive when measured against the speed and efficiency of emotion led decision making.  Reason evolved to provide an extra layer of opportunity to weigh and correct the emotional guidances when or after they go wrong.  Reason gave our species forethought, design abilities for toolmaking and other huge competitive advantages when hunting other animals, but as pointed out in Antonio's Damasio's seminal book, Descarte's Error and by Joseph Le Doux in his work on fear responses and emotional trauma, reason is one part of a suite of intelligences that are available and useful to us for our survival. 

The Internet, which arrived at a moment when we were escaping from Cartesian views of consciousness (Descaete's Dualistic ideas) and outdated Anthro-centric views about what intelligence is, has opened doors for a much wider discussions between many disciplines; Could Darwinian forces be called intelligent? Typical of this sort of reasoning is Guy Claxton's modern approach in his book  Hair Brain Tortoise Mind (1997) where he describes intelligence thus: "At its most basic, intelligence is what enables an organism to pursue its goals and interests as successfully as possible in the whole intricate predicament in which it finds itself".  Twenty years later, in his new book (2016) Claxton defines intelligence even more succinctly as the "knowledge to do "what is the best thing to do next?".  Claxton's descriptions embeds intelligence with evolutionary creative forces and leads us to expect that intelligence is a natural outcome of Darwinian evolution, in which case we must expect to find intelligence embedded in early products of Darwinian evolution too.  Single celled life forms like bacteria and even viruses, some of which have as few as 7 genes, should be intelligent too.  In the last decade a tidal wave of evidence has flooded in to support this prediction.

In this film you will see how single celled slime moulds learn to navigate through a maze to food.

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

Intelligence really becomes useful for survival when microbes combine and interact with each other as multicellular organisms.  Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells that need to work together and communicate with each other, this inter-cellular communication is commonly intelligent, to pick just one example from this year; 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 the enteric system of our guts which has such a large concentration of brain cells that it is sometimes been called "the Second Brain".  It is now thought that every organ; the heart, the liver or the skin contributes intelligent communication with the whole body.

The intelligent communication that is going on between our own cells and the microbiome in our guts are a 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 a mere two pints of microbial life, but even though small by weight their smallness makes them outnumber our own bodies cells, they contain 300 times more DNA than we have received genetically from our parents. 

Image :

This has led to a new idea that 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, cancer and influence mood swings and decisions made by our brains.
At the heart of the life as a holobiont is the need for the symbiotic partners to communicate and co-operate, and intelligence make these relationships work better.  The bacteria in your stomach may not share your genes but it does share a common interest in the well-being of the community.  If the microbiome in your stomach die your immune system fails too and toxic foods are no longer being neutralised.  Your body is interested in the well-being of the microbiome in your stomach, and the microbiome have a stake in your well being.   A sense of well  being is perhaps the first and most basic feature of consciousness and self awareness.  

This use for intelligence is also useful for interaction between holobiants, communal and social interaction has the same gaols as interaction between the microbes in your stomach

Look at this beautiful structure of a blade of grass.  A single strand of Coxfoot grass that grows a metre tall is less than half a centimetre thick at its base, it is La Sainte Chapelle of Nature, an optimised Goldilocks balance and physical marvel

The grass is only a stem whilst it is making its seed, after it seeds are spread it decays back into the soil.  In the cold winter months the seeds sleep in the soil waiting to erupt and grow in the spring sunshine and be a meter tall again.  Our bodies are like this, we are never really still, even when asleep we are dreaming, breathing and ageing.  Living things are events, which is different from La Chapelle which is a thing that can only survive by being absolutely still in a non earthquake zone. La Sainte-Chapelle looks unchanged from the day is was built 800 years ago.  The Stones in the walls of do not talk with each other, that is the point, they are held together by the laws of physics not by the need to keep the event of life on the road.

La Chapelle made of inert stone, looking the same as it did 800 years ago

Likewise the transitors and wires and silicon chips in my computer do not grow old, they just gets battered and worn out.  The nearest your computer gets to looking after its well being is to flash a light to tell you to recharge the battery  There is no need for intelligent conversations with the wires and chips, there is no need for the computer to monitor the sense of well being of its components, and there is no need for the computer to develop consciousness to keep it safe in a world of constant change.  

Without the Darwinian evolution of intelligence, or consciousness for that matter, intelligence would would never have existed.  Intelligence exists because it is necessary to keep the event of life on the road.  Life could never blossom without Natures invention of intelligence.  And Consciousness, that too is another aspect of intelligence, another invention of the deaf, dumb and blind but perhaps intelligent watchmaker.



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)

The Chinese Room

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.