Now there is a shiny new hoarding with Rosalind Franklin's name included, so some things, at least, can be remedied in this world.
Here's one good deed in a naughty world. When I reviewed Jenifer Glynn's memoir of her sister Rosalind Franklin in the Guardian a few months ago I commented that the nascent Francis Crick Institute at St Pancras has a hoarding proclaiming that Crick deduced the DNA structure with Watson, Maurice Wilkins "and others". Rosland Franklin was still an un-person in the biomedical establishment, it seemed. A few days later, someone had felt-tipped her name in.
Now there is a shiny new hoarding with Rosalind Franklin's name included, so some things, at least, can be remedied in this world.
Poetry, Mimicry, Camouflage and Colour
Brought up on the dichotomy between the two cultures, I was science streamed at school but from adolescence yearned for the sexier arts. But in the early 1980s I found that the two cultures were coming together through an intriguing medium. I was working as a natural history desk editor, whilst beginning to publish poems in my spare time. This was the time of the brief flowering of Martian poetry: Craig Raine’s use of elaborate visual simile and metaphor to defamiliarise our responses to the world and make it new. I seized upon the technique greedily and found myself writing poems in which a bonfire “is a dragon who swallows his tail”, “auditioning rockets blow their chance to be stars” and so on.
At the same time, my natural history editing was introducing me to mimicry, warning coloration and camouflage in nature. Here were butterflies masquerading as dead leaves; an alligator with a tiny pink protuberance on its tongue that it used as lure; Ityraea bugs that collected in large numbers on twigs to choreograph an imitation flower stalk. These creatures were clearly Martian poets avant la lettre or perhaps Magrittean surrealists: “These insects are the petals of a flower stalk” or “This is not a flower stalk”.
This convergence seemed to me very productive: there was at the time the first hints of the emerging science of biomimetics, in which some of nature’s creatures were beginning to furnish technical solutions such as self-cleaning surfaces inspired by the sacred lotus plant, the leaves of which never get dirty. It occurred to me that the biomimetic scientists, looking for new phenomena, ought to cultivate the Martian habit. Similarly, poets might profit from looking at nature through the lens of mimicry and camouflage.
Armed with this new mindset, I thought I’d discovered a new case of mimicry in the form of the sperm whale’s lower jaw. This is a strange, pencil-thin organ beneath the enormous bulging head of the whale. Sperm whales do battle with and eat vast quantities of the mysterious giant squid. The narrow lower jaw with its serried teeth looks suspiciously like a squid tentacle. Could this be a case of luring behaviour, like the alligator and its little pink worm-like lure?
I wrote the idea up as a column in New Scientist under the title. ‘Martian Science and the Sperm Whale’s Jaw’ but just to show that the Two Cultures divide was alive and well, all references to Martian science were deleted by the magazine. It was published under the blandly uninformative title: ‘Science and the sperm whale’s jaw’.
I then discovered, of course, that cross traffic between art and mimicry in nature was not entirely new. The art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich had written about the way in which representational images existed in nature long before the first easel was set up or even the first bulbous fertility goddess was carved: the butterfly masquerading as a dead leaf; the alligator signifying wriggling worm on its tongue, the fresh water mussel that fashions a fish- shaped mass of eggs on its shell to attract the fish it needs to incubate the eggs – all of these were examples of nature creating symbols that stood for something else. Gombrich wrote:
The art historian and critic could do worse than ponder these miracles. They will make him pause before he pronounces too glibly on the relativity of standards that make for likeness and recognition.
So mimicry was a useful weapon against postmodernist relativism. Gombrich went further: of the eyespots that appear on so many insects, he wittily observed: “They . . . . represent, if you like, the Expressionist style of nature.”
Another pioneer of the relationship between form in nature and art was the maverick Scottish biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948). Thompson was a mathematician and a classicist as well as a biologist regarded as being outside the biological mainstream because – contra Darwin – he thought that physical forces directly acted on living things to shape them. Actually Darwin and Thompson were both, in a sense, right.
D’Arcy Thompson’s work also had an aesthetic component. He regarded beauty as the product of graded curves that shift in a smooth manner from one radius to another in response to the conflicting tug of different physical forces.. In this he was anticipated to some extent by the 18th century painter and print maker William Hogarth and his Line of Beauty. In The Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth regarded the serpentine S curve as the type of beauty. In reversing the curve to create the S shape the radius has to morph smoothly from one value to another. Hogarth was in fact a proto-D’Arcy Thompson, an artist with a scientific temperament, relishing the shapes that nature fashioned in human bones, muscles and flesh. Writing of limbs he observed:
…you will see how gradually the changes in shape are produced; how imperceptibly the different curvatures run into each other.
Taken together, Hogarth, Darwin, D’Arcy Thompson and Gombrich provide a powerful sense of an aesthetic continuum between nature and human art but it’s fair to say that this is still a minority position. One reason, perhaps the main reason, is the strange status of form in science– its relative neglect.
Science, in the three and half centuries since its inception has relentlessly pursued the atomistic, material cause of everything, to the neglect of form. It is this bias that led Francis Crick and James Watson to blurt out to a pub audience in 1953: “We have discovered the secret of life”. But the DNA structure and the genetic code told us nothing about the creation of biological form. Every cell of any one creature contains the entire complement of DNA – the genome. So where do the organs and the shape and pattern of the creatures come from?
It is only in the last 30 years that enough has been known of biological pattern making to have enough material to discuss artistic and natural form making on an equal basis. But, as with every subject, there is a pre-history. There are unsung pioneers.
After D’Arcy Thompson, the second great prophet of morphology is Alan Turing. In 1952 almost nothing concrete was known about the biological mechanism of pattern formation. Like D’Arcy Thompson, Turing noticed patterns in living things that could be explained by physical processes but they were somewhat different patterns to Thompson’s.
Long before chaos theory, Turing showed mathematically how chemicals diffusing through biological tissue and reacting could become unstable and lead to complex patterns such as the markings on snail shells, leopards, jaguars, giraffes, and Friesian cattle. If the chemicals concerned were such as to determine the fate of cells, ie to switch on or off certain key genes, or were growth hormones, the result would be growth and/or patterning in the form of the prepattern laid down by the diffusing chemicals. He coined the term morphogen for such diffusing chemicals and some of these have now been found.
Turing’s paper on morphogenesis appeared long before the science of embryology developed a molecular dimension. It has now been shown how many of the patterns in nature can be generated by such algorithms, equations that feed back in to themselves. Some of these patterns can be generated by purely chemical reactions and they can be seen in nature, in slime moulds, for example. The convergence of mathematics, chemistry and natural forms demonstrates a powerful principle that governs all pattern formation.
A piece of natural morphology that interests us, scientists, artists and the rest is the human face? How does it form? It is well known that the human face is not truly symmetrical. “Not my best side” we say because we are all somewhat lop-sided in the face. There is a very clear reason for this. The face does not grow symmetrically outward from a centre. Instead, our evolutionary past makes sure that parts of the embryo have to produce great contortions to arrive at the face. The two halves start off in different places and much of the lower face has to be fashioned from what were once fish gills. This process is so time sensitive that it sometimes fails, the two halves of the mouth not meeting properly. That is cleft lip and palate. With a normal face, you can see from how much it changes shape in the womb that faster or slower growth of any part will produce radically different faces.
How does an artist capture these graded contours of a face that were produced by biological growth patterns? The problem for an artist has is that the human hand – drawing freehand – has no access to D’Arcy Thompson’s graded forms. A good draftsman has to find an equivalent in hand-eye coordination for those curves of nature. It is of course possible and we celebrate those artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, who have tapped into this mode of mimicking nature. But notice the asymmetry of the face in Picasso’s drawing of his wife Francoise Gilot. The curves certainly grade in a fine D’Arcy Thompsonish way but we actually like a little asymmetry. As Francis Bacon wrote: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”
What are biological forms for? Much of life’s beauty would seem to be strictly “all this useless beauty” from the point of survival but in fact beauty is valued in the process of sexual selection as the guarantor of overall fitness. Much of the colour in nature derives from sex: the co-evolution of flowers and insects producing the bright lures of the plant kingdom. Then there’s the mating colouration of birds, the iridescent patches on mallards, the jewel boxes of tiny humming birds. Above all, there is the peacock’s tail, whose colour is not due to pigments at all, but to nanostructures on the feathers that create iridescence in a similar manner to the rainbow patterns you see on compact disks. Human males do not have bright mating plumage, but much of what we take to be quintessentially human is the result of these traits being selected by partners in our remote evolutionary history. There is thus a sense in which we have evolved our own human form.
Sexual Selection was Darwin’s “other theory” and he developed it at great length in The Descent of Man. In the process upsetting many aesthetically and spiritually minded Victorians, especially Ruskin, who reacted with dismay to the idea that sex was behind most of the beauty in nature.
There is one other category of pattern making, besides sexual selection – which is in fact the subject of my book Dazzled and Deceived. These are patterns intended to deceive: to make a creature disappear or to look like something else: mimicry and camouflage. Nature often goes to outlandish lengths to achieve this, such as the mantis that has adopted the colouring and some of the patterning of an orchid. It lurks in the flower and preys on visiting insects, exploiting the attractive power of the flower. The form of the mantis appears to have totally dissolved into the orchid.
Something magical happens when colour overflows forms delineated by lines. This happens in both nature and in military camouflage in the technique known as disruptive coloration. If you want to obscure a familiar outline, one technique is the paint a totally different colour pattern, very deliberately flouting the boundary lines of the object.
This also began to occur in art when, in fauvism, the separation of line and colour entered mainstream oil painting. In art, separating blocks and washes of colour from the form delineating by lines is not intended to deceive as it is in nature. It is done for élan, for the thrill of the effect it creates: jouissance.
Separating line and colour creates a characteristic airiness that is psychologically pleasing. Naturalistic painting from the Renaissance to the 20th C is heavy with the weight of the world but we crave moods in art that can create the illusion of escape from this gravitational pull. The classic 20th century exponents are Dufy and Matisse. In Dufy’s Champs de Blé, the wheat is a wash of spectral red, greens and blues, as if the wind had learnt to paint in colour.
We see in Dufy and Matisse that the pleasure we take in line (Hogarth’s Line of Beauty and D’Arcy Thompson’s graded forms) is independent of the pleasure we take in colour. Combining colour and line patterns that are somewhat independent of each other produces a stereoscopic pleasure.
The patterns of nature are there by necessity but we can create purely gratuitous patterns and also to see connections that nature would never conceive of. I was very struck by the artistic criticism of Darwin that when he wrote about aesthetics he chose “low” examples – photography for instance which in its infancy was not regarded as an art at all.
We can learn a great deal about representation of images from these “low” forms, as Gombrich pointed out. In cartoons, for instance, the human is often conflated with other living or non-living forms. In Gombrich’s essay, 'The Cartoonist's Armoury', he cites Charles Philipon's portrayal of the King of France Louis Philippe as a pear. A secondary meaning of “poire” in French is fathead, so the cartoon is both visually insulting, in emphasising the flabby jowly features of the King and a verbal insult too. Gombrich comments: “Thus a play on words and a visual joke were happily combined”.
This is akin to the purely verbal technique that Craig Raine drew attention to, when Dickens in Dombey and Son, wrote of Miss Tox: “It was observed by the curious, of all her collars, frills, tuckers, wristbands, and other gossamer articles - indeed of anything she wore which had two ends to it intended to unite - that the two ends were never on good terms, and wouldn’t quite meet without a struggle”. What Dickens is saying in this elaborately extended conceit is that she is poor and can’t make ends meet.
And for an example of a visual-verbal pun beyond the low art of cartooning we can turn to Picasso. A word-to-image parallel to Dickens’ Miss Tox occurs in Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937) who literally goes to pieces, her face fracturing into splinters, tears, jagged gnawed fingers.
To return to nature. Richard Mabey has written of mimicry and luring in nature: “If all these interpretations were being done consciously we would be tempted to call it art. Or perhaps a set of brilliant puns. Perhaps both”.
Aditya Chakrabortty writes in the Guardian today about “how the people at the top of some of our biggest businesses have used their positions to extract [my italics] money, rather than earn it, and how politicians and regulators have connived at this organised looting”.
This reminds me that the deepest analysis of what is happening in the world’s economies today comes from Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (see my review). Their message, in a nutshell is that there are two kinds of economy: inclusive and extractive. Inclusive economies are what the West possessed until recently, with wealth widely shared. Extractive economies are those of desperately poor dictator-ridden countries like Zimbabwe or slightly richer undemocratic countries like Russia. The concept of the extractive economy is an important one. As a few people like Chakrabortty have realised, Western societies are becoming extractive rather than inclusive. This is the road to ruin because to reconstitute an inclusive society from an extractive one is extremely difficult, as Acemoglu and Robinson point out in many vivid examples.
My quote of the day comes from the Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg: " We had to wait more than 2000 years to prove that Democritus was right when he said that matter was made of atoms". He said this in the Observer in the context of the disovery of the Higgs boson and what might or might not come next. But how great to hear a major physicist come out and say that about atomism. There has been a mealy-mouthed, postmodern tendency to play down the great thinking of the early Greeks who came up with the atomic theory. It wasn't just a lucky fluke that happened to be right. If you read Lucretius, the best source for this philosophy, you'll see that it was fully thought out in the most ingenious and brilliant way
Mint moth 'plague'
Am currently experiencing a very pleasant plague of mint moths (Pyrausta aurata) in the garden. They live on the copious marjoram that we've had for 25 years but I've never seen them before. They are very beautiful tiny moths and this wet summer does not seem to have deterred them one iota.
Why Prehistory Matters
These are great days for deciphering the human story. The ability to sequence the DNA of humans and proto humans such as Neanderthals is changing our ideas about human evolution and human migration. Other investigative techniques such as analysing fatty residues in ancient pots are shedding new light on the greatest cultural change in the 200,000 year old history of Homo sapiens: the agricultural and pastoral revolutions of around 10,000 years ago.
Fine but, at a time of great turmoil and uncertainty in the actually existing human society, aren’t these minority pursuits? Studying our pre-industrial past isn’t going to help us solve our current problems.
But that would be wrong because understanding how and why humans have faced such crises before is exactly what we need in order to solve our crises – if any kind of solution is possible.
What the past teaches first of all is that we have been lulled into thinking that the benign climatic conditions that have attended our rapid rise from the first farming to the age of social media and resource depletion is somehow our birthright. For the first 190,000 years of our existence, conditions were generally unfavourable. The industrial revolution began in a newly benign (on a geological timescale) Europe which for around 98,000 of the last 110,000 years had been covered in ice much of the time.
Human beings evolved out of necessity in coping with drastic climate reversals. When the climate became more benign the skills honed under adversity were brought to bear on more productive questions and the dramatic rise of civilisation resulted. But in pointing to past climate change we have to confront the simplistic ideas of the global warming deniers.
There is no doubt that we would have to face drastic climate change one day even if we had not conducted the experiment of releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gases. The world has warmed and cooled dramatically in the past without our input and there is no reason to think the future will be any different. Unless – and this is a faint possibility – unless human activity, in Gaia fashion, is actually creating and maintaining the benign conditions that suit us. There is some evidence that this has been the case until the surge in CO2 emissions in the last 150 years. Without burning fossil fuels humanity was probably heading for another ice age. The cycle of alternating ice ages and interglacials was well established before we interfered with it. The last interglacial lasted around 17,000 years and the one we’re living through began around 12,000 years ago. As recently as the 1960s the kind of scientists who today warn about global warming were urging the explosion of a few nuclear weapons at the poles to melt some ice and warm the world up.
But the fear of a new Ice Age in the ’60s was founded on little real data; the position now is very different. A vast amount of data from ice cores and global temperature measurements support the hypothesis of man-made global warming.
Climate change has always driven human development. Agriculture probably developed through necessity; the Industrial revolution in Britain certainly did. So we will have to change: our way of life really is unsustainable.
Climatic disasters in the past such as the Toba volcanic eruption of around 74,000 years ago almost certainly reduced the human population to very low levels. There is no reason to suppose that we won’t have to face extreme conditions like this again. It is sometimes thought that our technology will see us though any such event. But tornados flatten towns in the American mid west every year and forest fires burn out suburbs and there is nothing we can do about them, save evacuate the population in good time, thanks to our satellite surveillance. Japan’s hi tech did not prevent the total erasure of coastal settlements following the tsunami – and here even the warning system didn’t work.
The most obvious effects of global warming are well known: sea level rise inundating coastal settlements, with accompanying acidification of the ocean and loss of shelled creatures and corals; changed patterns of rainfall leading to collapse of agriculture in some regions and mass migration; more violent storms, leading to loss of life and destruction of property on a large scale. But there is a lesser known danger that is beginning to loom larger. It is known from the geological record that ice sheets depress the landmass by hundreds of feet. When the ice melts over land the earth bounces back by a similar degree. Scandinavia is still rising from the loss of the ice sheets 12,000 years ago. Earth movements of this magnitude trigger earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. A rash of volcanic activity could have a devastating impact on agriculture if a nuclear winter scenario developed in which clouds of ash obscured the sun for several years. The toll of earthquakes and tsunamis on human life is already at a high level – greater than this and this sum of human misery would be intense.
The big lesson of the human and climatic past is that if it is possible to avoid provoking such a new geological era of massive climatic instability and increased volcanic activity, we should do so because, if such an era should ensue, we would have no defences against it. As it happens, we do have such a course of action open to us: it is mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions. It is exceeding strange that with this simple equation on the table most of humanity currently is in denial.
It is frequently alleged that there is a deep psychological problem for people with their average lifespan of 80 years in taking geological time scales seriously. Most members of the human species throughout its entire history can only have cared for or understood their own generation and the ones immediately before and after them. As Larkin wrote: “we are not suited to the long perspectives”. But the long perspective I’m talking about has only been known to us for a very short time and in the more rational parts of our mind we must surely be able to understand what it means for us? And it could be that in considering global warming we won’t have to overcome our natural limitations to understand that we must do something now for the sake of the world 50, 100, or several hundred years ahead. Because the increasingly detailed record of climate change shows that the act of global warming that made our world possible – a rise of around 6 degrees C from prevailing Ice Age temperatures – took place in a mere decade. That is how tipping points happen. They tip.
Most of the attention in the latest banking scandal has centred on fixing the Libor rate but the mis-selling of complex derived financial products to small businesses that don’t need them, can’t understand them, and are in danger of being bankrupted by them is equally significant. The headline case in the news was a Halal butcher now paying £64,000 a year for a financial product that was supposed to hedge against changes in interest rates!
These derivatives started the financial crisis – credit default swaps (CDS), collateralised debt obligations (CDO) and the rest and they are at the heart of the disaster. They and practices such as short-selling and spread betting on commodities were justified by the industry as ways of supposedly making the market more efficient. But what they actually did was create the biggest instability in history. And, even if they hadn’t created the crash, in reality they were derivatives designed to impoverish the real economy and make rich the operators of this shadow banking operation.
The word decadence has experienced a slippage of meaning in recent times. Most people think instantly of depraved sexual behaviour but what it really means is a state in which over-elaborated, parasitical, and unproductive practices have come to dominate over productive and useful ones. As such, derivatives, which do not deal with good and services but with derivatives of goods and services (ie the price something might have in a year’s time), are decadence defined. We are told that derivatives trade more than the entire planet’s GDP. But how can this be? Money is a means of exchange between different acts of production. It prices the activity of labour in producing goods and services against the cost of buying them. Innovations in finance once made world trade flourish but these financial innovations are parasitical devices that are destroying the real economy. CDOs and CDS’s came tricked out in fancy, purportedly infallible mathematical equations. It was all fraudulent. The only equation you need to know is:
Derivatives = decadence
I'm a writer whose interests include the biological revolution happening now, the relationship between art and science, jazz, and the state of the planet