Life and Consciousness – Chapter 2

The Knowledge of Good and Evil 1

Why do humans argue about what’s right and what’s wrong? Why don’t they just know? Birds do; bees do, and for all I know, even educated fleas do. They just know stuff. Birds will happily set off on journeys of thousands of miles with no map, and politely taking it in turns to lead the flock. No squabbling, no “We should have turned left back at that last island”. They just know where they’re going, each and every one of them. And it’s not simply blind instinct, some primordial urge. Now that the weather’s warmer, a lot of them just don’t go. Too much bother. And they’re getting Robins in the Arctic along with the other tourists taking advantage of the opportunity to see new places. So it’s not as though they are condemned to repeat all their behaviour until it fails to work for them and they die out. The OM is more flexible than that, and the proof is that as the environment changes, the strategy, and therefore the behaviour, changes along with it. OMs are rational, or at least the responses they stimulate are.

So why can’t we just know stuff? We always have to stop and think. We have to work things out before we know. “But we can!” you say. “We have an OM faculty, too. We can tell stuff from other stuff.” Well, -ish. When I compare us to, say, my dog Freya, we don’t come off so well. She is, I have to tell you, in her 16th year now, and she has recently had to yield to her human contemporaries on superiority of knowledge, but when she was little, there was no holding her. At the start she and her newborn human counterpart were level pegging at nipple finding and suckling, but from then on, she streaked ahead. A month later, when the average human infant is little more than a doorstop and worse, one that is sensitive to draughts, Freya was fully aware of her environment, recognised her mother and siblings, and was walking, admittedly on four legs, but who doesn’t start like that?

Another couple of weeks (still no major change in our representative) and she had begun to learn how social structures, specifically packs, work as hierarchies, and by three or four months old had begun to acquire language, in the form of instructions, and most importantly, the concept of names. Naming is a crucial milestone in the intellectual development of any creature. First of all it (almost) goes without saying that for naming to work with any degree of accuracy, what is named has to be identifiable, which is to say that the OM faculty has to be in place.

We know that by this point in a puppy’s development it can identify its pack, the members of its own litter, its mother, the kennel staff by function, its owner and that pack, as well as its place in the overall scheme of things with all the relationship management that involves. However, it does not necessarily follow that these entities need be labelled. All these categories also exist in the wild, with the exception of kennel staff obviously, and when we study groups of, say, antelope, we frequently name them for our own convenience and to help orient the inevitable film crew, but there is no clear evidence that the animals themselves use names. We know, for instance, that in a herd of elephants all the members know their own mother and who the matriarch is, and they express this knowledge in their behaviour, or get a clip around the ear if they don’t, but we know of no associated icon or sound they use that represents that knowledge. Nonetheless, that capacity must exist.

We established earlier that for the OM faculty to be able to identify a specific lion on a specific occasion, or even more, to be able to identify a particular clump of grass as potentially concealing the lion in question, it has to have available to it all possible instances of both predator and grass under all possible circumstances and conditions. In short, it has to access a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of its environment that includes not only all relevant past experiences but also all possible future permutations.2

One consequence of this, although not immediately obvious, is that the OM at each hierarchical level is the basic conceptual unit for that level. When we say ‘duck’3 we mean all possible ducks under all possible conditions. That is the meaning of the word. There is no imaginable duck that is excluded by the term ‘duck’. Your child’s kindergarten rendering may stretch the concept, but is included if she says so. Which brings us back to naming. If we want to be more specific than all ducks, we have to name what we mean. ‘Mallard’, say. But ‘Mallard’ again includes all possible Mallards under all possible circumstances. The Mallard OM is the basic conceptual unit at that level. I once had a duck called George. To me that was precise enough; I only had one duck, and George was his name. However, no matter how individual and specific, he was but one instance of ducks called George, which is a probably small but imaginable category, and even in his case, my OM of him covered all possible instances of George under all possible circumstances. I could always recognise him. He limped a bit which made it easier.

Freya knows the word ‘dinner’, amongst many others. Like most dogs, she can even spell it, although I suspect she thinks DINNER is just the polite form of the word. She also knows, and occasionally obeys, commands like ‘sit’ or ‘here’. Most importantly, and as a prerequisite, she knows her name. When I say ‘Freya’, she knows I mean her, just as when you say ‘Fido’ or ‘Derek’, your dog knows you mean him/her. No dog ever goes “Who? Me?” Regardless of their willingness to comply with whatever command follows, they know you are talking about them. They are aware that they exist independently of you and the world around them. They know that you are aware of them as individuals, and that you are aware that they are aware of you, and so on ad infinitum. If you’ve ever watched a stand-off between a dog who doesn’t want to go home and an owner who does, you know what I mean.4

To know your own name is to know yourself; or rather, to know that you have a name is to know that you have a self.5 Armed with this knowledge, and fully equipped by Nature with a complete understanding of how the world works, Freya set out at the age of four or five months to conquer it. Which she has more or less done, with our aid and guidance. When I say “fully equipped”, I don’t mean that she, or any animal, was born with an innate OM for traffic lights, for instance, or indeed traffic, but she has acquired them through experience and instruction from us just as she would have from her initial pack.6 The human infant at this point is still astonished to find hands at the end of his or her arms, although it never fails to delight.

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There is clearly a major difference between human and animal intelligence. Of course, our ‘duck’ OM does essentially the same job as the duck’s own ‘duck’ OM, although theirs will have a lot more on sexual attractiveness and mating fitness, while ours includes duck à l’orange, which for them would be frankly depressing. But, once we are past the infant stage, we are much smarter than ducks. Most people assume that this has something to do with the size of our brains, and probably it does when compared to ducks, but Neanderthals had brains at least as big as ours, as did Homo heidelbergensis (well, almost; definitely within our range), and where are they now? What use were their brains to them? The human brain is an expensive piece of kit, with 22 times the energy demands of an equivalent amount of muscle, and nothing like as much use in a fight, although handier in the planning phase, obviously. So why have such a big one?

We’ve had two brain growth spurts during our evolution, one about one and a half to two million years ago when Homo habilis was around and Homo erectus first appeared, and sort of roughly when tool making began, so there may be a link there; and the second somewhere between half a million and two hundred thousand years ago, when, according to the archaeological record, approximately bugger all happened. Our great leap forward, when creativity first appears, and art and religion are first practised, called for no new brain matter to be added. That was around 50,000 years ago, which means that for at least 150,000 years we were lugging around half again as much brain as we needed, assuming that we are using it all now, which is far from certain.

Some of the extra is just a function of overall size, of course. Homo habilis was small, around four feet tall, five at the most, whereas Homines heidelbergensis and ergaster could top six feet, and that extra distance from the ground and their own extremities meant that nerve signals had to travel faster just to keep in control. That demands better conductivity, which in turn means greater myelination to protect the axons, and that means a larger brain just to do the same job; essentially just upping the specs.

At the same time, for small people to have large babies with even larger brains, something has to give. Until very recently7 it was believed that the thing that would have to give would be the pelvic bone, which would make it very difficult to get about at any speed. Fortunately, it turns out that human babies are born very sensibly at precisely the point that the mother has no more energy to spare for its continued growth in her womb. This means that, from the point of view of the baby’s development, she gives birth slightly prematurely, before the baby’s skull has fused properly, and is still flexible enough for the brain to continue to grow afterwards to any size it wants. We know this is what happened because that is how we do it now. A full third of a modern infant’s brain is added post partum.

No, this issue isn’t about what humans have; it’s about what animals have that we don’t. And what might that be? “Why, instinct!” I hear you cry. “Curse you for your tenacity,” say I, but even this time, close but no cookie. Instinct is defined8 as “an inheritable (???) and unalterable (???) tendency (???) of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason (???)” Taking the question marks in reverse order, running away from lions is hardly unreasonable, a ‘tendency’ is hardly fixed, ‘unalterable’ makes no sense to animal trainers, and ‘inheritable’ has no established mechanism.

The waters are also muddied by association with conditioned response experiments of the Pavlovian and Skinnerian type. Pavlov famously established that dogs will salivate if they think food is on the way, but then so do I. The fact that for me it’s a dinner gong9 and for them it’s a different kind of bell doesn’t seem enough to base a reputation on; and Skinner’s classical10 conditioning of a pigeon to peck at a plate or turn around in order to receive a reward does not seem to me to involve a lack of reason.11 In fact, no one who has ever held down an ordinary job would take exception to having their behaviour described as being based on “an inheritable and unalterable tendency … to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason.”

If all we’re saying is that there is an instinctive drive to earn a living when the opportunity presents itself, then the definition is too loose. A lot is made of the fact that the dogs continue to salivate even if the food doesn’t arrive, but so what? So, again, do I. Blackpool is a great leveller. The gong is often rung without checking with the kitchen. A lot of this is, I think, due to a misinterpretation of Occam’s Razor.12 13 Under its influence, for example, Pavlov tried to reduce the reactions of his subjects to a set of impersonal responses that involved no sentience on the part of the animal, presumably under the impression that the resulting data would be, in some way, more scientific. However, especially if you watch the experiments themselves, it is clear that the simplest explanation of the dogs’ panic when they see that they are about to get an electric shock is that they see they are about to get an electric shock. If you want to test my interpretation, go up to any dog, even one that has never been hit by you, and raise your hand as if you are about to strike it. With absolutely no prior conditioning the dog will respond exactly as you would under the circs, assuming you don’t mind cowering in public. Or it may bite, so be careful out there.

This kind of argument is usually accompanied by a charge of anthropomorphism, which apparently is a terrible thing to say, but the fact remains that, in zoology particularly, some suitably tailored version of John Wisdom’s Other Minds theory will generally have superior predictive strength to any of the conditioning theories when it comes to behaviour. And it works the other way, as well. If I were to come up behind you as you are walking on the sidewalk and blow a car horn, you are going to jump out of the way. The startle response will account for your jumping, but “out of the way” is strategic, based on previous experience, even if there actually turns out to be no car, just me and a horn. What do we call all that? Instinct? Your response is immediate, in the sense of unmediated, and you don’t give a lot of thought to it, but it’s not irrational. It’s what a used-car salesman would call pre-reasoned. And it’s what any animal would do. Remember the earlier ‘speedy exit’ prerequisite for becoming an ancestor.

At the same time, I have to concede that animals do have good strategies for almost all situations they are likely to encounter hardwired into their systems from birth, and we just don’t. They’ll be running while we’re still discussing it. We lack the necessary instincts.14 We’ve kept the OM faculty intact, and even babies understand that things fall when you let go, and so on, but we’ve almost entirely lost what’s called the Fixed Action Patterns (FAPs), the innate behaviours with which animals respond to events. So how, in the absence of pre-established strategies to help us survive, did we make it thus far, even eventually coming to dominate the world they are trying just to survive in?

Well, we became very good at not knowing what to do. Always knowing what to do, particularly if it is successful, will inevitably stifle innovation. The good is the enemy of the best. That was what did for the dinosaurs. They were incredibly successful. For every thousand years Homo Sapiens has been on this planet, they were here a million. They were perfectly adapted, each to its own niche, and extraordinarily efficient. So when the environment abruptly changed, they had no Plan B; there was no redundancy to fall back on. Even today success and efficiency are the great killers of industries, as we’ll discuss.15 But as individuals, not knowing what to do has really worked for us.

In the absence of FAPs, we have had to work it out. For that a big brain is very handy, and by an extraordinary and fortunate coincidence, at that point in our evolution we already had one. The timing, of course, wasn’t critical, as I’ve said. By then we’d had the brain for 150,000 years before it came into its own, so to speak, so technically it’s an exaptation to go from enhancing motor skills, or whatever its original justification was, to providing a substitute for genetic memory. However, one of the human brain’s primary characteristics is its plasticity, its ability to adjust to circumstances, so it’s difficult to say whether any physical change was required to adjust to the memory failure. We don’t have any actual prehistoric brains to look at; just the boxes they came in. On the other hand, modern skulls are a different shape. We have much more room at the front for the pre-frontal cortex where our not so fixed action patterns are decided on, so perhaps that’s a clue. Also, Ralph L. Holloway of Columbia University’s Department of Anthropology in New York16 has estimated that in modern humans the amygdala, which is involved in direct control of the four Fs (Fight, Flight, Feeding and Family),17 is about half the size it ought to be based on the prehistoric evidence, while the diencephalon whose job is primarily to keep the cortex informed about everything from autonomic responses to all kinds of sensory input,18 is about half again as big as it ought to be. Both of these are consistent with the kind of brain reorganisation you might expect in response to a failure of genetic memory. Certainly if you’ve read Clan of the Cave Bear or any of the other books by Jean Auel, this whole idea will be familiar to you.

Anyway, one way or another, we have largely lost our unmediated responses to external events, and we have replaced them with thought-out strategies. When did all this happen? First, a little background: as Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague has pointed out, there is a problem with Darwinian evolution, namely that, while it works really well in asexual reproduction which preserves the entire genome, sexual reproduction must tend to dilute any beneficial chance mutation before the benefit to the individual can be selected for, either sexually or by the environment. Flegr’s complaint about the Origin of Species is that it scarcely touches upon, of all things, the origin of species, i.e. how they come to exist.

Bear in mind that it is in the nature of DNA to keep species stable, a feature that is enormously valuable in a stable environment. While asexual reproduction may occasionally result in an anomaly that will persist from that point on, subject to suitability, sexual reproduction, with its choice of parental DNA, allows even potentially beneficial mistakes to be corrected in at least some of the offspring, and for the species as a whole to go on unchanged. Given that most species are well suited to their environments, they persist in essentially the same form until the environment changes drastically.

“Aha!” you say, “And that’s where the environmental pressure kicks in.” True enough, that’s going to happen eventually, but with sexually reproducing species there will probably be no mutation available to act upon, and so the species will die out. Essentially Flegr’s theory of frozen plasticity says that a mutation becomes a species if it meets the demands of a new environment, then stabilises, and then waits patiently for extinction. That is, of course, what the fossil record shows; fully formed examples of each species in turn, with no ‘missing links’. Gould et al’s theory of punctuated equilibrium says much the same thing, but this still leaves the problem of how a species establishes itself in the first place, ready to be chosen as the successor to its soon to be extinguished cousins.

Let it be said that, for the most part, this doesn’t happen. In the vast majority of cases, 98-99%, the species simply dies out, and there is no successor. At the same time, variants can come into being and coexist for some time. We and chimpanzees had a MRCA19 about six myagot, and we’re both still here, which is more than can be said for the rest of the Homo family who have all disappeared.

The key issue here is sequence. Environmental pressure has nothing to do with the origin of species. Each species has to do that for itself. Only then can the selection process begin. So how do they do that? Flegr suggests you need any or all of the following:

  1. Small population size, either as a result of isolation – living on an island, for instance – or an overall population bottleneck resulting from some natural disaster, or both;
  2. Genetic drift within that small population: genetic drift is an effect of random sampling of parental genes in sexual reproduction. It can result in some gene variants coming to dominate in the population just by chance. If they happen to have phenotypic effects that are beneficial, then obviously selection could play a part, but even neutral genes can accumulate in this way;
  3. Genetic draft: drafting results from the fact that genes generally travel in groups, which is to say that for every beneficial gene selected for, you will tend to get its neighbours as well. They will therefore accumulate in the population as if they, too, were being selected;
  4. Founder effect: even if randomly selected, any small population is going to be less genetically diverse than the large population from which it comes. However, there may also be some shared characteristic that qualifies individuals to be members of the founding group – the ability to fly as far as the island, for instance. Either way, the characteristics of the founding population will influence its subsequent development in ways that differ from the original population, for good or ill;
  5. Baldwin effect: named after an American psychologist called James Mark Baldwin, this is now a general principle which says that any individual coming up with a successful variation in behaviour creates selective pressure towards adoption of that behaviour within the group, implying favourable selection of those with a natural propensity for that behaviour (Think tall people and dunk shots).  That’s the modern, general form, and you can see how it would work, assuming that the capacity for such adoption exists. Monkeys washing potatoes in the ocean, initially to get the sand off, but later just because they preferred them that way, would be another example. Presumably they like the saltier taste, but I’m just guessing. However, back in 1896 when he wrote about this, Baldwin had a much more specific case in mind. He was hoping to explain why a capacity for generalised problem solving would tend to replace specific, genetically coded responses. Unfortunately, and it is a bit vague, the mechanism his and the later evo-devo20 version seem to imply, requires a pre-existing disposition that still has to be genetically explained, otherwise it’s a bit too Lamarckian. Why are the approaches mutually exclusive, for example? On the other hand, Baldwin could conclusively demonstrate that the effect he was trying to explain had in fact occurred, if only in humans;
  6. Assortative mating: this refers to the two poles of sexual selection, choosing a mate that is either similar (my soul mate) or dissimilar (opposites attract). To a great extent speciation depends on individuals with the mutation at least attempting to mate with another member of the soon-to-be species, especially in the early stages. Positive assortative mating will tend to reduce genetic variation and negative assortative mating will tend to increase it. To get a separate species started you want something that stops short of incest, but not too far short.21 A sort of managed in-breeding, if you will. A small enough population will do that for you.

So, is there a moment in our past that includes all, or at least most, of these factors? Well, it happened to us, Homo sapiens sapiens, so it must have been some time between a couple of hundred thousand years ago, when the first anatomically modern humans, along with the Neanderthals, appear in the fossil record, and about 35,000 years ago when Cro-Magnon man, who is definitely one of us, appears in Europe. I’m not going to be more precise about these dates because, essentially, nothing happened then. What did happen, as I’ve said, was a) the Mount Toba eruption, which may or may not have intensified the last glacial period, but certainly caused a volcanic winter that lasted a decade or more, and would have had a disastrous effect on habitats and food supplies; b) at around the same time, according to the genetic record, many of the great apes, including humans, were severely reduced in numbers, and have been recovering ever since, with humans specifically, who were never very numerous according to analysis of the human genome, down to between 10,000 and 2,000 individuals, although not necessarily all in the same place. It is more likely that small, isolated pockets survived, as did the Neanderthals and Homo floresiensis.

So Flegr’s basic conditions for speciation, although it never actually came to that, were met: small, isolated populations refined and defined by their ability to survive extremely harsh conditions. Adam was born around this time, and the major emigration from Africa began.22 Obviously, this was also a time of radical change when fixed responses to the environment would be likely to fail and there would be an evolutionary premium on the ability to come up with new ideas. Time for the Baldwin effect to show up. I should point out at this stage that I am saying all this with 20/20 retrovision, otherwise known as hindsight. Baldwin wasn’t looking to define an effect that might occur; he was looking to explain the effect that had occurred. He knew, as we do, that the humans who migrated from Africa had already lost their genetically coded responses and had developed more general problem-solving skills. He just wanted to know how, or perhaps why. I have to confess that I am not a great fan of the Baldwin effect when it comes to such complex behavioural adaptations as the one that gave rise to modern human society. FAPs are inherited by species and must have been acquired at some stage in their evolution, but even with animals there are considerable difficulties in picturing the mechanism that does that, even on evolutionary time-scales. I think mine is basically a second-law objection: you can break a computer with a baseball bat, but it’s hard to fix one with it. Steven Pinker said it better at a conference on the evolution of the human brain: 23 “Any complex system can be damaged by a single hit, whereas it’s harder to imagine a single hit that would suddenly give a complex system a new talent,” especially, as I say, at the cost of a superior talent it already had. It appears more likely to me that the very efficient and effective genetically coded responses masked an inherent mental capacity for problem solving, such as Freya uses for getting around in traffic. Once genetic memory had failed, the brain’s natural plasticity allowed it to compensate, albeit with a comparatively slow and clumsy, if ultimately very useful, substitute system, the prefrontal cortex.

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If you think I am being unduly harsh about the human intellect, let me remind you that while Freya at six months was fully mature and had within her the accumulated wisdom of her entire species, human infants have to be taught, by experience if nothing else, not to set fire to themselves. No wonder it now takes a quarter of a century to transfer even a portion of human knowledge to the next generation. Consider the way dogs greet each other. If we were to do that, not only would we find it socially awkward, but we would be unable to use the information gained. If we need to analyse the smell of someone’s anal gland, we require a lab, and I mean the place with test tubes, not the dog. Freya, on the other hand, is immediately fully informed about her new acquaintance, its internal wellbeing and its role in her immediate social sphere, through her tracking of the various lampposts around the neighbourhood.

At the same time, I am not suggesting that our back-up plan has no merits. Baldwin was right. Freed of the constraints of genetically coded responses, we have been able to dominate the world, and to a great extent, the fate of all species is now in our hands, for good or ill, as I say. It has taken just about 50,000 years for one of a few struggling bands of survivors of the bottleneck to make it out of East Africa and spread across the globe. 50,000 years is not long in evolutionary terms. We and chimpanzees, for instance, parted ways six million years ago or so, and our recent history is within the margin of error for that number. But we’re not that different even now. If we teach them, chimpanzees can communicate, use language, use tools, including computers. They can count, faster than us on occasion.24 And that’s now. 50,000 years ago you would have been hard put to it to tell us apart. The big difference back then was that we used rocks as tools and we could control fire, while they used wooden tools, just as they do now, and huddled together for warmth, just as they do now. Rocks and fire make it into the archaeological record; wood and huddling don’t.

Before 50 kya, however, there is no sign of what we would now consider human activity in any of the sites we inhabited. We call people of this time hunter-gatherers, but that implies a level of organisation that just wasn’t there. We didn’t fish, for instance, even though we had pointy sticks and the fish were plentiful. We didn’t trap. We made spears with flint points, but they were not designed for throwing. If you wanted to kill something with one, you had to go right up to it and stab it, which was dangerous if it was of any size. In general, it seems that our preferred approach with large game was to wait until something else killed it, or it just died, and make do with what was left. Even the sites where we camped show no signs of the organisation found after 50 kya. People just did what they did where they did it, and the evidence of their occupation is randomly strewn across the site. There was no art, apart from some putative beads of dubious origin. Certainly nothing as elaborate as the average Bowerbird now could whip up in an afternoon.

After 50 kya all this changed. We started fishing. We made much better and more varied tools and weapons; we learned to hunt. We organised our dwellings by functional areas, and decorated them and ourselves. We traded with other branches of the tribe, and we buried our dead with ritual and care;25 basically everything we do now, just on a smaller scale. In an evolutionary blink of an eye, we were suddenly us, the future rulers of the planet. And what happened to all the others? The other humans? Not a clue. Bear in mind that, even if you go back a million or more years to Homo antecessor, the MRCA for us and the Neanderthals, the global human population only numbered in the tens of thousands, so we were always an endangered species, just not suited to life in the primordial bush. Even Homo heidelbergensis, for all his size, was never going to win in a straight fight with a sabre-toothed cat, so imagine little Homo floresiensis’s dismay when faced with a mouthful of feline canines each half his height and intent on piercing him. They’re all gone now, the entire genus Homo, including all other branches of Homo sapiens, with the sole exception of us, the children of Adam. Even the Neanderthals, who managed to make it all the way through the Toba times, eventually died out 30,000 years ago at the seaside in Portugal, if all tales be true. No one knows why. We are suspected by some of having had a hand in it, in which case it was the beginning of our grand old tradition of pointless genocide, because there was plenty of room for both of us, even at the seaside. On the other hand, the other great apes made it to today, and are now protected by us, so we’re not all that bad.

We had language at this time, or rather I should say, we still had language. I don’t just mean the ability to vocalise. Anyone who has hung around International Arrivals at a decent sized airport knows the human race is capable of making every kind of sound, call, squeak, moan, grunt, grimace, click and gesture in the service of language, and we’ve probably pretty near always been able to do so, for at least the last million or so years.26 No, what I mean is that, when we lost our FAPs, we did not lose the associated OM faculty – we could still tell rocks from grass – so we were left with a complete model of the world and how it works onto which to map any labels we needed. As Steven Pinker says, reality must precede language; “Reality just is.”27 Things are named, names are not ‘thinged’.28 That’s why all languages refer to largely similar, if culturally distinct, OMs that are tethered to the underlying reality. Whatever pointer a language uses – cat, gato, chat, kočka – it will point to an OM that has the capacity to reflect all instances contained in all other languages.

Like any other animal on the planet, we’ve always had the meanings. So why did we need the words? Well, we lost our FAPs because we lost all genetically coded responses, our entire survival strategy. When we look at grass, we just see grass; when an antelope looks at grass, it not only sees food as well as the threat of a concealed predator, but looking also triggers the related fixed response. More to the point, when a second antelope looks at the same grass it sees the same thing and the same response is triggered. They don’t have a lot to talk about. They have shared experience, shared memories, shared judgement. They know what to do. We don’t. When we look at something we, too, see it from the perspective of our experience and memories, and we base our judgement on these, but ours are ours alone. For us to share a common view of the world, we have to communicate it. That’s what the word means. Animals have no such need.

Dogs, for example, can be bred for personality traits. Freya is a Tibetan Terrier, and has the dispositions of her breed. You can’t do that with humans. Like a dog’s, a human’s personality is a product of his or her experience and accumulated memories, but the human experience is isolated, that individual’s alone. It dies with them. It’s the primary reason that it is impossible to clone people. You might get someone physically similar in appearance, but the elements that constitute the individual are not genetically coded in humans. Take monozygotic twins – the Krays, for example. Genetically identical, but one a homosexual paranoid schizophrenic, the other not. Both murderous gangsters, of course, but that’s more of a lifestyle choice.

I’m not, of course, saying that animals do not understand the concept of language. Dogs, as we know, at a minimum understand naming and commands, while chimps, faced with our incomprehension, can recognise the need for some form of semiotics, and will happily learn to sign or use a keyboard to communicate not merely their material needs but also more emotional, even sentimental, feelings. None of this depends on vocalisation, for them any more than for the mute or deaf of our own species.29 The key to language is the availability of the concept, not the sign or symbol that evokes it and, courtesy of the OM faculty, most animals have a very large potential vocabulary.

As often happens in this world, Charles Darwin started this particular ball rolling with his book, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”, and the latest, perhaps even more famous, example of his thesis is the baby panda sneeze that I hope is still running on YouTube. Darwin saw that “… the young and old of widely different races, both with man and animals, express the same state of mind by the same movements.” What’s interesting to me is that these expressions are among the few residual FAPs left to us after Adam that are directly connected with those aspects of being human that we value: love, concern, grief, even surprise. Nonetheless, I also have to include running away from danger, striking back, aggression under stress, etc., because they, too, of course are inherited responses, so evidence of shared FAPs. I just don’t have the same warm feeling about them.

As you might expect, Darwin’s book has been criticised as anthropomorphic and Lamarckian but, given that the subject is shared expressions of emotion and therefore inherited FAPS, it’s not clear what the critics were expecting. Evolution only works on heritable traits; everything else dies with the individual. At the same time, all evolutionarily stable behavioural responses have to begin somewhere. However that works, it’s not going to be neo-Darwinian, although Darwin himself seems quite comfortable with it. We’ll go into all this in more detail later, but it’s worth pointing out that emotions are generally difficult for geneticists. Take altruism, for example. We all know it exists. In fact, as a society we hugely admire altruists, although not necessarily to the point of emulating them. Yet many evolutionary biologists and geneticists are greatly offended, one might even say threatened, by the idea that animals and humans can behave altruistically towards each other, even across species barriers. They refer to it always as alleged or apparent altruism. This is largely due to Richard Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene” theory30 that suggests that all evolution is driven by genes needing to propagate themselves, or near copies thereof, at the expense of others. We’ll go into this in much more detail, too, later, but right now let’s just take it that that’s not how evolution works.

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