When Education Becomes a Social Game

I have written in a previous blog about our modern world’s propensity to rank and monetise all that is of human interest (https://johnhtfrancis.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/capitalism-and-social-information). Equating intangibles with money is no modern invention; even barbaric societies in Europe around two thousand years ago used to price life and settle blood feuds with money. Nevertheless, the degree of practice across cultures in our days is quite clearly a by-product of ubiquitous modern consumerism. Education, which association with higher purpose is enshrined in the minds of most of us, is not immune to this trend. Capitalism on the whole is an effective economic system, or rather family of economic systems; there are however areas where raw capitalism should not belong, and one of them is, in my opinion, education. Education’s first mission, above any other, is the advancement of knowledge, technology, and understanding.

In theory, education provides individuals and groups with knowledge and skills, and educated people employ in practice some of what they have acquired in order to derive various benefits, including monetary ones. Only, there has been a growing twist: education has been increasingly used as a way to rank both people and institutions and then distribute income accordingly, often in a quite detached manner from actual utility. In other words, an implicit ranking through education is being used to entitle people and institutions to a certain slice of the economic pie. Now this fact may not matter much for those blessed with inherited wealth and are therefore financially independent, but for most people, it is a consequential mechanism. Worse still, social ranking happens among ones who have the same vested interest, giving all of them a false sense of importance. There is nothing wrong in having a selection process and in attributing merit based on selection, but it all depends on how the selection is made and on the nature of the merit given.

The long-term damage from practices and perceptions centred on social ranking, and behind it money, can be great. Bluntly put, when the purpose of those giving and seeking education becomes just that of acquiring higher social status in order to make money out of it or obtain larger grants than the next institution in line, then the long-term effect can be terrible. It is the typical case of short-term, complacent and self-serving behaviour leading to long-term degeneration of general utility. The malpractice in education, so to say, is both at the institutional and broader social levels. It concerns the modes by which many academic institutions operate; the ways by which societies interpret educational curriculums and ‘brands’; and the transmitted attitudes to young minds. I am not attempting to bash some prestigious institutions to which I was not able to have access – on the contrary, I was there.

Universities and research centres compete based on number of publications, rankings in journals, and calibre of professors, among others. I dare say that such metrics all have questionable relation to actual epistemological and technological merits. Research centres equally aim to attract certain economic benefactors; it does not take much to reckon the type of publications that they may favour in such a setup. The practice of appealing to particular third party interests is well utilised in business schools (most of them split hairs to get differentiated), but the situation is far from being limited to business education. Even when there are technological benefits from institutional publications, they often focus on ‘low-hanging fruit’ type of technologies rather than ambitious and risky long-cycle ones. And in educational systems where money prevails or where student selection is less meritocratic, these types of practices are arguably worse.

Is education primarily for the betterment of the individual or is it for chasing bigger money? For most people, the answer seems to be the second one. The ironic fact is that while traditional education provides on aggregate those who have it with above-average money, it is rarely the right path towards the ‘big money’ for which they long. Moreover, curriculums and schools become, based on some vague generalisations, brands to use when suitable for the purpose of more income. The media and entertainment industries add their own perceptions too; we see movie stars wearing the jerseys of a handful of Ivy League schools and reporters quoting some university as if it holds the monopoly of knowledge. As a result, flocks of students travel every year from aspiring nations to American and European universities, with their parents’ hard earned savings, principally to add these brands to their resume. Learning from professors with more knowledge and experience; building a network of mutually synergistic relationships among colleagues; and striving to be among the few who make the cut in a certain field, all are commendable objectives. Only, they are the beginnings of an educated life and not an eternal guarantee of economic entitlement. Rare are the people who follow through with consistent and continued effort.

It is no surprise that many of the inventors of new business and financial paradigms have been school dropouts or individuals who have taken distance from the educational establishment. Some of such inventors are in fact plain anarchists. Societies like to praise high risk & return behaviour, but the reality is that, with a few exceptions, social structures force most traditionally educated individuals into low-to-medium risk & return. Masses are sorted into income distribution systems based on their type of education; it is a vision comparable to the socioeconomic model that the old barons of industries, who were incidentally founders and benefactors to many of today’s reputed institutions in the US, had imagined.

The silver lining may be that an alternative is possible today. In older times, knowledge was indeed more centralised and localised; it is however more accessible now outside traditional systems, remotely and in a distributed manner. Gaining knowledge by those who wish to look for it can cost less than in previous times, and a great deal of it is in fact free. One is not required to pay hefty fees; sincere effort and motivation are that which is most needed. Indeed, people pay the hefty fees more for the social ranking and the branding rather than the actual knowledge.

The key question remains, if you had all the money and luxuries in the world, would you still think it worthy to seek an educated life?

JHTF

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On Happiness and the Environment

In our modern times, achieving happiness seems to be a priority. Only ego validation – in the form of career fulfilment, personal success, and fame, or their less flattering versions of vanity shows and chase for online followers, views, and ‘likes’ – can compete with individual happiness today to the top of the list. And although happiness has, quite understandably, always been an important human goal, there were times where promoting a certain idea or particular beliefs; where defending certain values; where furthering an institution, team, or nation; and, hopefully for some still, where achieving familial and group betterment, all were as or more important than individual happiness. Notwithstanding, great deal of recent talk and media are dedicated to the topic of happiness, as if it is the ultimate end goal of human existence. In societies where some of the religious beliefs have been shed, this has become an all the more important subject.

Without a doubt, happiness is a needed state of experience to all living beings, and the alleviation of suffering in particular is of primary importance. But happiness is the result of something else; it is not an enduring end goal that one finds and clings to like a gold chest. It is wrongly assumed that hedonism is simply the blind search for pleasure, and Epicurus’ advocacy of happiness is quite different from that which is commonly construed today. Moreover, what makes us happy at one stage of our lives is not necessarily the same at another stage; we are endowed with different characters that enable us to be happy differently; and of course, happiness cannot be equated with material prosperity, the latter being only a contributor, if at all.

Happiness is an emotional state that the agent experiences as the result of certain interactions with the outside world, other agents, and/or one’s own being (as with meditation or working out). It is limited in time and is actually quite rare. In fact, we spend most of our time not being overly happy, and it is a normal aspect of the human condition. Otherwise, happiness would cease to be that special thing to which we long. All else in the individual being equal, the type of happiness to which he aspires and which he ultimately realises, and all the consequences of this realisation, are factors of the environment in which he evolves. I have previously talked about the importance of the environment and its influence on the behaviour of any individual, no matter how strong or detached she can be; this is part of the reflection on the influence of the environment, only focused on the particular aspect of happiness, which has become a sort of pop culture torch.

Happiness is a somehow vague concept; it is common for two individuals to say that they are happy while experiencing slightly different feelings in the least. Happiness takes on different variants; it can resemble satisfaction; it can be a psychological state of peace and serenity; it can be an ego trip; it can be the excitement of action after restlessness; it can be tranquillity in cherished routine; it can be a feeling of reward after achieving a long sought objective (a case of dopamine rush); it can result from strong social bonding (a case of oxytocin rush); it can be sensual pleasure; and it can be relief from pain (a case of endorphin rush). There are different ways of reaching happiness; some are more ephemeral than others, and some are physical while others are cognitive. Nevertheless, it is rather clear that most of us need to experience on a not-too-rare of a basis one or several of those feelings, and that some of those ‘feel-good’ emotions can, temporarily or more permanently, compensate for the lack of others. When we lack one particular variant of happiness, we try to compensate for it by seeking more of another, even sometimes to the point of becoming addicted to such compensation.

The variants of happiness and the offsetting of one by another are central to the relation between the environment in which we live and the kind(s) of happiness that our environment favours. Consequently, some environments can be more constructive or pervasive in the manners in which they promote certain variants of happiness and limit others. The environment is the nation, the city, the neighbourhood, the media culture, the Internet, the workplace, and other. In some environments, the prevalent way of achieving happiness is through consumption and spending; in some, it can simply be family and human relations; and in others, it takes place through conflict, and even oddly through violence and warfare. Some people realise happiness through exploring the world of meaning, and some do so by probing truth and science. Prevalent variants of happiness can require increased consumption of particular resources or they can come with greater long-term cost. For instance, we say that inviting people to enjoy smoking leads to a society with higher cancer rates in the future.

In the same way that changes to incentives influence people’s behaviour, changes to the environment can alter the sources from which humans draw most of their happiness. Simple as it is, I find this to be an important sociological fact that is seldom considered when addressing the subject of happiness. Happiness is ultimately shaped by human interactions, fulfilled values, the perimeter in which a human being operates, and the incentives and rewards to which he or she is subject. We can live in environments where all lead to temporary, hindering and resource-consuming forms of happiness; and we can live in environments with enduring, humane and synergistic forms of happiness. Environments change dynamically, and such changes come to impact the way people become and stay happy. And importantly, we often have partial power to alter an environment or take ourselves out of it. The way Buddhist disciples in the mountains draw their happiness from contemplation is different from the way winning gamblers draw their happiness in Las Vegas or Macau; both are at some point feeling happy and fulfilled, and both can feel the satisfaction of having achieved something, only in remarkably distinct ways. The archetypical story of the rich and famous person who ‘has it all’ ending up miserable, with substance abuse problems, and dead by suicide or overdose can be better understood through such environmental considerations.

Once we admit the environmental impact on happiness, then we can deduce two easy correlates: (1) Happiness in societies with different climate, geography, demographics, and cultural environments can be different in kind, and arguably some of it can be more sustainable than other; and (2) Material well being and technological development only favour certain variants of happiness by changing the environment. From personal experience, I am inclined to say that the most enduring forms of happiness in society are those that grow organically and measuredly with culture; in several newly formed or economically changing cities, if you probe, you tend to find human relations weaker, and people falling on consumption and maybe temporary vanity as a way to compensate – repletion is the sovereign source of melancholy, as William James said.

It also reminds me of something J. M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad said in The Penguin History of the World, when talking about the great development of Ancient Greece while contrasting it with the limited means with which people there lived at the time, “That civilization was rooted still in relatively simple economic patterns; essentially, they were those of the preceding age. […] Such men were the typical Greeks. Some were rich, most of them were probably poor by modern standards, but even now the Mediterranean climate makes a relatively low income more tolerable than it would be elsewhere.” I suspect that, even today, many low-income people find life more tolerable, and even more enjoyable and happy, than the rich living in harsher environments.

JHTF

Five Trends and Their Impact on Today’s Geopolitics

A great deal is being said on the geopolitical and security fronts; they warrant this short piece. Terror attacks; migrant crisis; resurgence of extremes; demagogy and populism; isolationist tendencies and calls for trade barriers and secessions, the world’s public discourse is rife with them. We feel that we are in the midst of some major geopolitical transitions, and as it is often the case with geopolitics and the media, there are determining trends that are addressed only too little; they are, for the most part, of a socio-economic nature. Five trends underlie most of the current geopolitical rhetoric in my view.

The first one of those trends may seem at odds with the news: wealth is rising globally, mostly driven by the economic development and increased technological penetration in several populous countries in Asia and emerging markets. The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving back East, after having moved constantly West from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution and the economic rise of the USA. In fact, the largest part of this economic shift has already taken place and it explains the commodities super cycle that we had witnessed globally and which has come to a rather abrupt end 5-6 years ago. A slower continuation of this shift East will follow now, that is until India, if at all, undertakes the same type of economic breakout as China, at which point this centre of gravity will accelerate further East again. Given the large populations of Asia, all of it means that the world is, in general, getting less poor and less underdeveloped – and this is rather wonderful.

The second important trend is the dominance of the services sector in the economies of all developed nations. We live in a world where services constitute more than two-third of the economic output of developed countries, even those countries with reputed manufacturing sectors such as Germany and Japan; and with the continued automation, interconnectivity, and advancement of artificial intelligence, this trend towards more services is likely to continue. French farmers may pursue their protests, but it will not change much to the fact that agriculture is today only a small and decreasing percentage of the economies of all developed nations.

By combining the first and the second trends, we can easily see that the West, Japan, and China, among others, are becoming less dependent on foreign commodities, in relative terms to their past, even if some of them still need to import a great deal of them for their economies to function properly. It explains the current economic struggle of many commodity-exporting countries, as well as the wish for a geopolitical ‘pivot’ of the USA and Europe out of the Middle East and Africa towards the Pacific region.

A substantial percentage of the population of advanced economies is getting older and retiring; this is the third important trend. As this generation of ‘baby boomers’ is both the holder of the greater part of the wealth in developed economies and the one that requires the most of the state benefits of pension and healthcare, the political landscape in developed countries has become divided and deadlocked; and should we add to this observation the job losses in low-skill sectors as a consequence of the first and second trends, we see how it all converges to lead to a rise in income and wealth disparities in developed nations, despite the global economic prosperity. Populism; tendencies to retrench; inability to reform social contracts on pension and healthcare; changes to taxation as a way of transferring wealth from one group to another; and blame games (e.g. against the rich, the bankers, or foreign migrants), all become effective political means for garnering votes. Many people want to change the system drastically; many people feel the need to blame or attack someone; but different social groups have, simply, contradictory views on how the economic systems should be changed, given their conflicting priorities. Opposing extremes emerge, and the traditional political parties see themselves stuck in the middle.

The Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa have high number of youth coming to the job market, and most societies in these regions are having great difficulty adjusting to the pace of demographic change, which is fuelling tensions, inequalities, and political disillusionment. Things are only made worse by the traditional reliance of these regions on the export of commodities at times where the developed world does not need them as much anymore and, therefore, is not as interested in intervening politically in these countries as much either. When a great number of young people are looking for subsistence without finding one, it almost always results in tectonic shifts within a country. Moreover, the failure of most countries in the Middle East at effective economic and political self-governance since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the chaos of the Iraq war, and the missed chances at democracy following the Arab Spring, all add to the mix of political tension, which seems to be reaching its apex in our days. The result is a wide geography marred by 1848-like revolutions mixed with Thirty Year War-like sectarian strife. One ought to say that continental Europe also missed its chance at democracy immediately following its populous revolutions, and it is only in the late 19th century and early 20th century that democracy started to effectively take hold in it. As the problems worsen and the chaos endures, anarcho-nihilist and destructive movements start to attract more in the youth. Not finding their place in society, some in the youth start to wish only for the destruction of everything, including their own person; they are joined by some of the marginalised youth in the developed world. In this particular case, the anarcho-nihilist ideology is wrapped in religious cloth for further validation. Furthermore, given that most of the troubled countries belong to a religion distinct from that of the developed world and, we must admit, have a long legacy of conflict with it, the tension becomes quickly a global religious one. The US and Europe want to disinvest themselves from the Middle East and Africa towards the higher priority regions of East Asia, but, in an integrated world, the troubles coming from these regions will not allow them to easily escape from the challenges.

And finally, there is the salient fifth trend of rising expectations about what constitutes good lifestyle and good livelihood. With the fall of barriers of information and, hence, of barriers to social comparisons, there has been a sharp transformation of expectations about what constitutes a successful and worthy life. Something has outrun even our technological advancement and our economic prosperity, and it is our expectations about how easily and fast technology and economic prosperity should be delivered to us; they have become, simply, unachievable. We cannot all become billionaire tech entrepreneurs or multimillionaire fashion icons; we cannot all have the latest supercars and the finest luxury items; and we cannot all afford traveling the world constantly looking for new entertainment. And yet, this is what is being ‘sold’ to us everyday due to the fall of barriers of information. With the fast penetration of technology in our lives, we have witnessed great gains in productivity, but also certain complacency towards the ‘more… faster… now…’ I reckon that a large part of the economic malaise about which everybody seems to be talking – whether in the US, Europe, or China – can be explained not by economic figures, but by the run of material expectations of most people; it stands at odds with the wonderful prosperity and technological democratisation that the world has realised over the past decades. This run of expectations, mirrored by the incessant leveraging to meet them, is, in my view, the most alarming of all trends; it represents a dangerous potential of destruction from within. Often, we do not realise how good we have it until we lose it – ask any pre-war generation.

If we combine the third and the fifth trends, we explain a great deal of the anger at the domestic level; and if we combine the first, fourth and the fifth trends, we explain a great deal of the anger at the global level.

As these trends evolve or dissipate, and many factors can come to influence each, so will the doomy political rhetoric, the dissatisfaction, and the incessant promises of something unattainable. The reasons behind the current geopolitical trends are understandable, and their roots are less sensational, of a general conspiracy kind, or of a tribal/clash-of-cultures kind. Unfortunately, violence and the fear of other draw more interest than cool observation; too many in politics and the media take advantage of this fact without a shred of self-respect. But that is nothing new in human history either.

JHTF

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Onto the Next Gear

The Age of Artificial Intelligence, the age where intelligent machines play a central role in our society and in our economy is here. This is not science fiction or the prelude to a Hollywood movie; this will be the reality for most of us starting the later part of the twenty-first century. With search engines, bots, drones, and prototypes of self-driving cars, we can already perceive first glimpses of these agents of artificial intelligence. I do not wish to call for general alarmism but, rather, to only too briefly discuss what may be an important inflexion point in the history of human progress, as a handful before it. The coming-together, with enough industrial maturity for large-scale production, of our semi-conducting and digital technologies; our algorithmic and computational knowledge; and our mechanical technologies will usher a new age upon us. After the mastery of fire; agriculture and animal husbandry; the alphabet and abstract scripts; the forging and casting of bronze then iron; and the birth of empirical sciences and the industrial revolution, self-adapting artificial intelligence is, likely, the next driver of a great change to our way of life, our socio-political structures, and even our ethics. If this indeed turns out to be our next technological high-plateau, it will have, as those abovementioned that preceded it, many deep implications on all human societies.

Some of these implications will be on our professional endeavours and our socio-economic structures. Since the dawn of agriculture, some human beings have relied on the surplus production of others for material sufficiency. Agricultural surplus allowed for hierarchical social structures, but also for greater possibility of leisure; and from there, more time for speculation, aesthetics, knowledge development, invention, and discovery. In fact, manpower surplus has shaped social structures and traditions across the globe for millennia. Only, in the age of smart and adaptive robotics en masse, this economic way of being will be challenged, as the surplus on which we will depend shall increasingly come from technological agents. This will not happen overnight; it will be a gradual process. Nonetheless, a critical mass will be reached in the not-so-distant future, even in the services sector, and I fail to see how this will not precipitate important socio-political changes and reorganisations. Possibilities include more deflation stemming from gains in productivity (e.g. we can already take notice of numerous products and services that have become cheaper and more accessible over the past decade with digitisation and the Internet); the question of ownership of the distributed productive capacities (i.e. who will own these widely available smart robots, certain monopolies or all of us?); the problem of subsistence of low income populations, those who would be deprived from such smart agents and whose livelihood depends on providing services replaced by robots; and even, changes to the traditional ways of exchange of goods and services, including the notion of money itself. Furthermore, as it is unfortunately often the case with new technologies, intelligent robots will have direct consequences on the conduct of human warfare, as we already see with the increased usage of drones.

Other implications will be philosophical and ethical, with the increased dissociation between intelligence and consciousness on one side, and biological life on the other, even as far as the transfer and continued functioning of human consciousness and memory following biological death. In addition to the problems of ‘immortality’ it might generate, developed and self-recognising artificial intelligence will expose us fresh to ethical questions that have preoccupied some thinkers for millennia but remained fringe specialist subjects up until now. The problem of what makes personhood will become of a more general importance in society with the coming of enduring artificial consciousness and greater self-learning and self-adapting artificial intelligence. Equally, the problem of what makes someone human will emerge again with the emergence of alternative developed consciousness; and this problem will theoretically be as vivid as when Homo sapiens co-existed with its cousins of the Homo genus, such as Homo neanderthalensis, who equally had developed consciousness (not that Homo sapiens bothered then with what makes them human; they mostly cared about staying alive). This time around, we will be facing another co-existing consciousness, only of the ‘artificial’ kind. Again, these are not fanciful scenarios today but in the remit of where artificial intelligence can take us. The ethical and legal implications are evidently tremendous, and the other equivalent ‘ethical earthquake’ would be to come face-to-face with a sophisticated and conscious alien civilisation. Ironically, it is quite likely that we will create artificial consciousness before meeting any such outside civilisation.

On another aspect, the frontier between virtual and real will become blurrier with the expansion of an intelligent digital world. ‘Virtual reality’ and reality as we have envisaged it so far will be harder to distinguish. The body does not differentiate easily, especially without prior awareness of their origin, sensations triggered by virtual vs. real drivers. Furthermore, one of the main ways by which we distinguish the virtual from the real is in the prevalence of the latter. All of this is subject to change with widespread artificial intelligence. We only have to think about us living constantly in a self-adapting virtual environment initiated by our own; or think about what a robot finely imitating a baby would do to our parenting instincts. And if we have a tendency to anthropomorphise biological animals, it will indeed prove difficult for our conscious control to constantly alert us against sensations caused by a well-engineered virtual reality or human-like robots.

These are only some of the deep implications that an age with mass-scale developed and conscious intelligence will likely bring.

JHTF

Our Revolution Against Evolution

One can make different interpretations of the Darwinian theory of evolution, and several of these interpretations continue to preoccupy and divide even the specialists in present evolutionary debates. Notwithstanding, three key consequences from Darwin’s theory are generally agreed by most who subscribe to it; they are that:

  • Human beings do not possess any fundamentally different nature from that of other living forms; any difference is a matter of degrees of evolution. To quote Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man, “Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”
  • Various forms of life constantly struggle and compete to live; some win and some lose in the process. “[…] one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings – namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Charles Darwin, On the Origins of Species.
  • Suffering is a fact of life; it is even one of the modus operandi of Nature – after a few documentaries on any wildlife channel, this reality becomes evident rather quickly. “[…] the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.” Charles & Francis Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin.

These ideas in themselves are far from being original to Darwin; he has however the merit of grounding them in scientific theory. That we are all of the same nature has been part of pantheistic religions, such as Hinduism and Taoism, for millennia; that the fittest (in fact, in Darwinian theory it is not necessarily the fittest but, rather, the most adaptive) survives was a subject of Empedocles following the philosophical development of Strife by Heraclitus in Greek Antiquity; and that there is great suffering in the world, or that even life is suffering (or more accurately ‘unsatisfactoriness’) is a pillar of Buddhism with Dukkha.

Being as they are, these three precepts could be taken as eternal and indubitable facts of life; only, part of human civilisation, through greater awareness, is forcing its own, different mark on Earth. Despite a long history of violence and, in many cases, cultural and ethnical exterminations, and despite many human groups today remaining violent and only responding to power, coercion, and fear of death, there is a distinct trend developing in human society: a growing number of us are taking greater ethical measurements from the first of the abovementioned precepts – that we are all not that different – and increasingly rejecting the other two precepts. Many humans in the world today are working against the universality of generalised struggle, violence, and suffering in life, be it within our own species or extending to other species.

This may seem wrong to say at first, when we continuously read about violence and wars in the news; when we hear constant rhetoric about humans abusing and subjecting Nature for their own selfish pleasures; when we know that many species are on the verge of extinction; and when we realise that we farm and kill billions of animals annually for food and clothing. Only, we are not all as evil and cutthroat as the news might indicate. In fact, if we were so, there would be no ‘real’ Nature left in the world today, as we have the technological capability to fully wipe it out. There would also be many more wars than there is, given that we number in the billions on the planet. In judging human nature and its impact on our planet, we often omit the fact of our large number in billions of people walking this earth, which makes the selfish actions of few percentage points substantial in absolute terms; we also tend to forget about the millions of relief and charitable organisations working in the world today, not to mention daily acts of kindness; and we do not account for the billions of people and millions of animals we protect, give to, defend, or make part of our families. When it comes to damages to Nature, for example, our most dangerous action typically stems from lack of awareness about the consequences of our behaviour, magnified by our large numbers and our greater technological footprint, more so than premeditated aggressive will against other forms of life in the name of gene dominance.

Through greater awareness and capacity for ethical judgment, humans could be in the midst of a revolution against classical evolution and many of its selfish and painful ways; we are exerting greater empathy and sympathy from the realisation that we are all fundamentally not that different, and we have the technology to do so. By accepting the first precept, we cannot but become open to forms of compassion, acceptance of other’s personhood, or, at the very least, a certain degree of respect. As such, human differences appear circumstantial and often the result of chance; and by becoming aware of the reality of suffering of all living beings, we come to feel that we are all in it together. We come to care, even when we choose to reject anthropomorphism. Moreover, through the drive for universal ‘pursuit of happiness’, we strive for evermore technology in order to alleviate suffering and dissatisfaction – constant and eternal happiness being a utopia notwithstanding.

In our days, we do not throw away the sickly and the weak in the name of better genes, and we feel more pain when we are made aware of animal suffering and abuse, where classical evolution tells us not to care in the name of our ‘better’ survival. When we see someone in pain, we do not shrug and say this is life, but we look for the technology at our disposal to try to remedy the pain. We do not have to, but we do so nonetheless. We care, and we care even more when we realise that other living beings, human and otherwise, are not fundamentally that different. We have more technology and awareness today to fight this fight, but we are also exposed to greater threats that make this fight more consequential. In response to those who argue that there must be some general indirect utility behind our compassionate actions within the human community and outside it, I genuinely doubt that we always do so strictly from the point of view of maximisation of some general utility, intentional or otherwise. We are social and affective beings, and it is often enough for us to realise that what is around us is not of an alien nature; that the animal condition is not stranger to ours; and that we are all small in the grand scheme of things, to extend this sociability and affection beyond a small group of individuals. Other mammals have also been witnessed to act in similarly compassionate ways within their species and outside it. And the more we become conscious that what is around us is not that different from us, the more difficult it becomes for us to dismiss the other one as a mere threat to our existence, a competing gene, a tool, or food.

Respecting a living being does not preclude you from defending yourself from it if threatened or in the case of animals not under the threat of extinction killing it for food on need basis; it does however preclude you from disposing of it unnecessarily and recklessly without the slightest awareness; it does also preclude you from exerting on it unwarranted pain and remaining agnostic towards, or even enjoying, its pain. There is a general trend today towards rejecting blind servitude and commoditisation of other living beings – it is a key reason for why brutal practices in the food industry are often kept hidden from a public eye increasingly unaccepting of its practices. Only, we all do so imperfectly; we generally care less about people with whom we do not associate; we might give money to a charity but pass by a person in distress with indifference; we tend to care more about charismatic animals than others; and we still largely disagree about the criteria to use for defining legal and moral personhood, such as subjectivity, consciousness, or emotional reciprocity. Nevertheless, we are bringing our own morality into Nature. We have a choice, and, whether we want it or not, we are continuously making this choice. Thinking that we can leave Nature to be and just watch it develop in isolation is simplistic; we cannot but interact with our environment, under all its forms, as all things interact. By the fact of breathing we interact with our environment. We can look to minimise the effects of our living and our technology, but we cannot look to eliminate them. I argue that we should not look to remove ourselves entirely from the equation even if we can; and I say so while being a conservationist at heart.

Our stand against ruthless evolutionary ways is far from certain. Our technological capabilities are quite meaningful today and our numbers are great in comparison with other animals. Both these facts make the battle a highly unpredictable one; it is enough for a minority to steer in the wrong direction and put technological capabilities to the wrong use for precipitous developments to ensue. But even if we ultimately lose the battle of bringing a balanced morality in our approach to Nature – one that is different from selfish, cutthroat, and unstable domination – it is a cause worth fighting for in the name of collective identity. In the long run, the whole universe will change including the existence (or not) of our own species; we therefore have a choice in the matter regardless of conjectural long-term outcome.

The classical model of evolutionary theory goes something like this: each form of life only cares, directly and indirectly, about the preservation and the propagation of its own genes (or DNA). Each gene cares about itself and strives to conquer as much as possible of the living world. And in this race between various DNAs, the ones which endure the longest with changes in environmental conditions, the ones which compete better, and the ones which mutate more effectively under extreme environmental changes are those which are likely to persevere the longest, albeit in an evolved manner, in the phenomenon of Life in general. Darwin, who was a highly sensitive and tormented recluse, and who reportedly turned physically ill when watching or hearing people in pain, was astounded by the prominence of suffering and strife in life; evolutionary competition seemed to him to be the reasonable explanation. Only, this classical interpretation of evolutionary theory (the “selfish gene” theory) might turn out to be the wrong interpretation. Instead of selfish DNA, there is actually the possibility of selfish RNA (it is a possibility and not a proven fact). In a paper published earlier this year (cf. The ribosome as a missing link in the evolution of life, Journal of Theoretical Biology, February 2015, Volume 367), Meredith and Robert Root-Bernstein have argued that all life forms could simply be perceived as different homes for ribosomes. rRNA or Ribosomal RNA might actually turn out to be of greater importance than DNA, and it might have preceded DNA in the evolutionary genesis, rendering the latter a mere stored assembly instruction. To quote from the article, “Ribosomal RNA, in short, is not just a structural scaffold for proteins, but the vestigial remnant of a primordial genome that may have encoded a self-organizing, self-replicating, auto-catalytic intermediary between macromolecules and cellular life.” Superior DNAs might have indeed prevailed in life forms out of evolutionary circumstances, but DNA propagation may not actually be the primary objective of Life; replication of ribosomes could be more important for Life, and that means seeking all ways of replication. And I may be going too far with my conjecture by saying that we could even envisage the ‘selfish’ RNA leaving more room for compassion and refusal of suffering as a mode of being than the selfish DNA.

“Much love much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love.” Charles Darwin.

JHTF

Working on the Story

Anyone who is mildly curious has tried, at least at some point, to make sense of the world around and has attempted to look beyond first appearances; a curious mind asks questions – I guess this is what curiosity is mostly about. Questions can concern why things are the way they are, and why people behave the way they behave. Of course, a young and curious person is unable to go far in answering such questions without the help of people around him. And so, in the first steps of the momentous task of answering this type of questions, the young and curious relies on what people in his immediate environment, his parents, his siblings, his teachers, and his friends tell him; he accumulates their tales, and he adds to them some of his own with time. As he grows older, more people contribute additional tales; some of such people are living individuals, while others are passed away; some are immediate contacts, while others are known only indirectly; all, however, participate in one way or another to his general understanding of things. Numerous tales get forgotten with time (or at least one thinks so); others evolve; and all get mixed together somehow.

If the curious person is percipient enough, she notices, rather quickly, that what people tell her or have told her does not always work well with what she, for herself, can observe; of course, much of what they tell her is also quite contradictory in itself. Moreover, she notices that what she tells herself does not work that well with what she observes either. And if the curious person has practiced science, in one field or another, or, in other words, if she has learned to test and verify the validity of statements told by others or created by herself, then it becomes all the more apparent that most of these statements, by her and by others, do not hold well together. Following such difficulties, many curious minds give up and simply enjoy life; some may specialise their search in one particular area and focus less on the rest.

I have few things I may be able to say about this challenge, although I will not claim to have resolved it. I find that the difficulty arises not necessarily in how things of the world are, but, rather, in how they are told and why they are told in certain ways; the challenge is in what is being told. Having considered these difficulties for some time now, it is clearer to me that the crux is with the stories we form and trade. The influence of stories may seem obvious to warrant too much thinking; only, what may not be as obvious is to what extent stories influence our lives.

You may have suspected by now that I am building up to some kind of announcement so, despite my general rule of seldom using this blog for marketing purposes, I will go ahead and say it: I would like to share with you first, followers of this blog, that I am about to publish a new work on the Story. In fact, I have been dedicating energy over the past years to thinking about the Story under many angles and about its impact on all that is around us; this work has now reached a level where I find it appropriate to publicly share some of it. My work on the Story will be published in three parts, and each part will treat this subject in a different manner. I call it a trilogy; only, it is not a fictional trilogy but a mixed one. The first part of this work will be published this summer, and the two other parts will hopefully follow separately over the coming several months.

Below are extracts of the description of The Story in Three Parts:

What if all the world around us unfolds in certain ways while we, human beings, constantly tell ourselves different stories about it? What if what we call human understanding is nothing else than stories we make up about some of the world’s events, stories that are for the most part either flawed or incomplete? And if that is the case, to what extent do we do so and why do we even do it? What if we have always been living more in our stories than in the real world? These are some of the important questions John H.T. Francis addresses in his new trilogy The Story in Three Parts. […] Each part of this Trilogy highlights the central role of the Story to human meaning and understanding in a different way: simply through a story (Part I); in a theoretic-philosophical way (Part II); and in a practical way (Part III).

JHTF

News of Gloom and Doom

I am sure it happened to many of you as it often happens to me. You open a news channel or website and all you hear or read about is doom and gloom. From one place to the next, stories of murder, death, and suffering succeed each other; it sometimes sounds as if Armageddon is upon us. The same themes of violence and threats are repeated, again and again, to put anyone in a dark and anxious mood. Violence is spreading; talk about diseases like SARS or Ebola that threaten to turn into mass epidemic surface every now and then; people kill each other on ethnic and religious grounds; and people fight each other over economic rights. Politicians play up threats for political gains and media outlets repeatedly trumpet threats of an almost tribal kind, hidden in modern clothing. I have news for you: we live in one of the most secure and prosperous periods in humanity. Whether you measure it in world mortality rate, real GDP per capita, or technology penetration, we are frankly blessed to be living in such prosperous times. In saying this, I am not trying to belittle the tragedy of people today; some people continue to suffer greatly, there are still many injustices in this world, and we have serious risks of regressing to general barbarous and close-minded behaviour. However, in the grand scheme of things, such threats and tragedies have always existed, and their proportion to world population continues to decline. In fact, cardiovascular diseases and lung diseases and infections kill many more today than terrorism and ethnic violence; and outside death by natural causes, road accidents are commonly top of the list. On average, we would have had much greater trouble, economic difficulties, and greater threats to our lives to deal with if we were born a century or two ago. So how can we explain this discrepancy between the dark spirit the news can put us in and the reality of our world affairs?

The answer is likely twofold: (1) Evolutionary; and (2) The result of the combination of greater numbers and lower information barriers. I will not dwell too much on the first; suffice to say that we are biologically predisposed to pay more attention to potential threats to our existence than the good things that happen to us, which we take most of the time for granted. We always want more, and it does not take us much to get alarmed. It is a sort of genetic ‘better-be-safe-than-sorry’ attitude we have.

I would like to focus on the second of these reasons. We live in a world with many more people, and so, with many more human events and affairs than decades ago. In addition, we have the technological capability of reporting anything we want much faster than before and to many more people than before. World population was less than 2 billion at the beginning of the 20th century; it reached 3 billion around 1960; and we are more than 7 billion people in the world today. When you are 7 billion people, you can have more stories of violence than when you are 2 billion, and when you have the technology to transmit information faster, you can report more stories of violence and gloom. And so, if you have a tendency to only report stories of a violent or threatening kind, you will find more stories to report on when you are 7 billion people, even if the percentage of tragedies is on the decline. In this way, you can end up with news filled with sad stories if you wish it to be the case. One of the important roles of media outlets is to report on potential threats and to increase the general public’s awareness about injustices and violence in the world. But diverse news, reflective of the grand picture is also responsible news. The world is much bigger than what is being generally reported, and more is happening in our human affairs. Someone who is looking at the news today may get the impression that all that there is in this world revolves, at any one point in time, around a handful of stories.

The world we live in is a world where hundreds of millions of people of different religions, ethnic backgrounds, orientations, and nationalities live and cooperate peacefully with each other. It is a world of many more joys and much more comfort. It is a world enriched with technology and knowledge. There are economies of billions of people trading with each other and interacting with each other in this tremendous interactive system that is our world economy. And intercultural relationships are probably at their historical high, even in percentage terms. Next time we look at the news, let us not forget that, and let us not have few stories condition our opinion entirely. These stories of tragedies are serious and some require immediate action; what is currently happening in Syria and Iraq, for example, in terms of slaughter, savageness, and wiping out of human heritage is beyond revolting. We should continue to pay great attention to world threats, and our recent history of relative peace is no guarantee of that peace continuing. Things can turn destructive faster than we might realise and this has happened before in history. For instance, few nuclear incidents are enough to change all our peace dramatically. But, whenever we can, we should also take some time to enjoy the peace we may have been blessed with compared with our forefathers. Some of us today may not be as lucky to have such economic or political peace, even if their percentage is decreasing, and some choose to only see the negative side of things; we ought, as a matter of basic empathy, to wish for others the greater peace we might have and be grateful for peace when we have it, rather than constantly being alarmist.

In our modern times, we have a greater challenge of maintaining this bizarre duality of seeing the big picture, which is improving, and continuing to pay attention to multiplying threats and tragedies.

JHTF