Sunday, 6 April 2014

Leo Computers Diamond Jubilee Reunion



 I have just returned from the Leo Computer Society's Diamond Jubilee Reunion which was held in the Hall of the Middle Temple and there was a good turnout with about 150 people who had worked with the pioneering Leo Computers, together with some friends. In my case I had programmed a Leo III computer at Shell Mex and BP, Hemel Hempstead between 1965 and 1967, before moving on to work with English Electric Leo Marconi between 1967 and 1970 (when it had become ICL).

As always, at such events, there were short presentation from some of the pioneers and there was a chance to exchange stories with old collegues, although as time goes by there are the inevitable news of someone who has passed on since the last reunion. At the previous reunion I had not found anyone who had worked at Hemel Hempstead at the same time as I was there - but this time I met two - and also several regulars from the time I worked at Computer House, Euston.

Of course, when I was working in the 1960s I only saw a small part of the action and the reunion gave me a change to talk to people who had worked on the design of the hardware through to programmers and systems analysts who had worked on different applications for different organisations - a stimulating experience.

There was some original hardware on display, and photographs of the Leo computers - and a good display on manuals. On the historical front I was interested to here that the old Intercode assembler program is now up and running so that anyone who has a program from that date can now run it.  There was also an appeal to see if anyone had a listing of the CLEO compiler and it would then be possible to compile historic CLEO programs. 

CLEO (Clear language for Expressing Orders) was an interesting high level language which could be considered as a hybrid between CODIL and Algol - and it was the first language I ever used. I was one of the first programmers to use CLEO as their first language in 1965 and quickly became an expert in it. However for some application I later learnt to use Intercode. At the time John Ruddle was the chief programmer at SMBP and when the company was planning to move from batch processing using magnetic tape storage to a system with online capabilities he wanted me to work on the operating system requirements of the computer that would replace the Leo IIIs. My interest in computers was at the human end - and I objected the the proposed move - which is how I came to work on the options from transferring the complex sales contract application onto the new machine. This decision had a big effect on my life as my investigation into the sales system led directly to my later research into CODIL.
[For a detailed account of my early programming experiences see Working with Leo III Computers at SMBP, 1965-1967]

The Death of Individuality - How original ideas can be suppressed

My approach to human intelligence is that we have the same logically rather crude symbolic pattern recognition and pattern processing language as animals. The difference is that we have learnt cultural techniques for speed learning. As a result I was excited to read Alex Pentland's opinion piece in the New Scientist this week entitled "The death of individuality". He writes:
If somebody else has invested the effort to learn some useful behaviour, then it is easier to copy them than to learn the effort to learn it from scratch by yourself. If you have to use a new computer system why read the manual if you can watch someone else who has already learned to use the system? People overwhelmingly rely on social learning and are more efficient because of it. Experiments such as those from my research group show us that, over time, we develop a shared set of habits for how to act and respond in many different situations, and these largely automatic habits of action account for the vast majority of our social behaviour.
A key factor of my evolutionary brain model (diescussed on this blog) is that once cultural information becomes more important that trial and error learning it pays to parrot your elders, and accept what they say without question. One of the tools that is passed from generation to generation, and is continually refined, is language. The better the language the faster you learn - so the more you can learn. This explains the explosive growth of human culture that started perhaps 100,000 years ago. The brain didn't change - instead we reached a tipping point in language development which made accelerated learning possible. So Alex's suggestion that we tend to work in copycat mode fits very well with my model.

However Alex's model also explains how the establishment-questioning research into CODIL actually started - and also why I had difficulty in promoting the research.

So how did CODIL begin. My chemistry Ph.D. involved extensive searches in the chemistry literature looking for patterns which could be related to a particular theoretical model. My first job as an information scientist also involved scanning large quantities of information, looking for, and reporting on, exceptional situations which might affect my employer's research and development program. In 1965 I moved into computers - working on one of the most complex sales accounting system that had been implemented anywhere in the world. After a year I was asked to look at the problems of transferring the contracts system (the most complex part of the whole process) to a new computer with (by today's standards) very crude online facilities. At that date very few people had any real experience of online working and I approached the problem with the experience I have gained looking for patterns in complex manual information systems. Without thinking I worked with the assumption that the world of contracts is too complex and too dynamic to be accurately and economically predicted in advance. What is needed was a system which will work symbiotically with the sales staff  and I suggested how it could be done.

Unintentionally I had stepped outside the society of "computer specialists" who thought they were very clever because they could make computers do things that ordinary people could not do. My boss was expecting a rule-based system - because that is how everyone knows computers work. What we need, he said, was a comprehensive explicit definition of all the valid contract structures - and I had come up with an contract description language based on how the sales staff viewed the problem - leaving the systems analysts and programmers with comparatively little to do. This was obviously ridiculous.I didn't realise it at the time but what I was suggesting was a pattern rather than a rule based approach - because I was used to looking for patterns in complex open-ended real world situations. I was told the idea was "research" and I should forget it - and under normal circumstances that would be the end of it. After all it is easier, and far more profitable career-wise, to conform with the people around you expect ...

However at this point I was offered a job by a computer company to do market research on the next generation of computers in an environment where new ideas were welcome. It rapidly became clear that many large computer systems had similar problems and I realised that it might be possible to generalize my earlier idea to provide a "white box computer." The proposal was to build a central processor which had a user-friendly symbolic assembly language and could work in partnership with humans to handle a wide range of opened real world tasks. The idea was actively supported by the UK commercial computer pioneers David Caminer and John Pinkerton until a company merger to form ICL resulted in the sales division being closed down!

In fact the work continued for some years - but in a computer environment - which proved to be the wrong environment for blue sky research which questioned the foundations of computer science. In his article Alex later says:
Our culture and the habits of our society are social contacts, and both depend primarily upon social learning. As a result, most of our public beliefs and habits are learned by observing the attitudes, actions and outcomes of peers, rather than by logic or argument. Learning and reinforcing this social contract is what enables a group of people to coordinate their actions effectively.
 The more successful something is the more people will go along with it - and in terms of new ideas affecting society there can be very few, if any things, more successful than the computer. We have now reached the stage where virtually everyone knows that computers are black boxes which have to be programmed by very clever people. By now most adults of working age will have been taught about computer programming - even if they never succeeded in doing it. And of course the "very clever" computer experts will control the funding of research. You might think (in an ideal world) a user-friendly white box pattern processing machine would be an advantage over the current user-unfriendly black box rule-based stored program computer. However any individual making this suggestion will be going against the strongly held society view of the most successful technology ever. Because my research was done in a computer environment I was surrounded by people who were strongly committed to the society view of computers. If I could have my life again one of the lessons I might want to retain is "Don't have unconventional ideas - because asking questions which do not conform to society's preconceptions can be a very dangerous thing to do"

Of course now that I have retired I no longer have to be a copycat. I am free to do the blue sky research which was impossible when I was working in the rat race for funding when I had to earn a living in the computer industry. Now I far better understand the theoretical aspect of what I had been doing in term of how the brain works on one side - and how in mathematical terms the ideas can be related to the theoretical aspects of computer science. Simply by re-examining my past work I can see how my human-computer language can be modified to map onto a network of neurons and it should be possible to explain how simple and logically not very sophisticated processes at the neuron level are sufficient to support powerful language and intellectual ideas as long as there is an effective copycat speed learning mechanism and enough brain capacity.

But of course I am an individual - and Alex is talking about the death of individuality. I am now free to think what I will, and to explore mental paths which were not open to me when I had to conform to earn a living. But society behaves as if original ideas only arise if the originator is trapped within some narrow specialism, is working in a well established academic box, can easily get his work peer reviewed by the establishment experts, and  has plenty of funding. The problem is that I am now outside every box that society looks in to find new and original ideas. I am 76, no longer have links with a university, and my only resources (apart from some 20 years of research data from the 1970s and 80s) is a personal computer, a small pension, and what I can find on the internet.

Alex Pentland has published a book with the subtitle "How Good ideas spread" - but his article describes a mechanism that means that individual ideas which do not conform to society's expectations can just as easily be lost.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Relaxing with another Limerick

The boastful old man was aware
That the top of his head was quite bare
"It should be quite plain
That the size of my brain
Means that no room is left for my hair."

Sunday, 16 March 2014

So a cat has been microwaved

This box can be lethal
Let me be honest. I don't feed the birds in my garden in order to provide the pampered neighbours' cats with fresh meat. So cats are not my favourite animal - but they are animals and I know enough about how microwaves work to be horrified at the idea of any animal being microwaved alive - even a cat.

But it is possible for the state, in some cases encouraged by the lynch mob attitude of the crowd, to be equally cruel to humans. I know that only too well.

In the current case a seriously mentally ill young lady called Laura had a pet cat which she dearly loved, and cared for from a kitten. Animals can be a great comforter and healer for the mentally ill and I am sure there were many times when the presence of that friendly ball of fluff helped to keep her spells of depression away.

But she also had a pet goldfish - and the cat killed the goldfish. And the young lady was very upset and decided to punish the cat so that it would know it shouldn't kill her fish. So why not put it in a box with a door and a revolving table and switch on the turntable.I am sure that, given the alternative, she would never have put the cat into a normal oven and switched then on - as she would know that the heat would hurt the cat, and she didn't want to hurt it. Of course she would know that if you put a microwaveable bowl of food in the oven the bowl remains cool by the food heats up - and so the cat isn't food - so everything would be O.K.  But of course that not how microwaves work and the cat suffered. And the poor girl was horrified that she had lost her pet in such a distressing way.

So what good has the trial done. To be honest it might have encouraged a few people with a lynch mob mentality to donate the the R.S.P.C.A.  But otherwise the trial, the sentences, and the publicity will have done no good whatsoever.

First it has told the whole world and his wife that if you want to kill an animal (for instance those unwanted kittens that have just been born) you could try microwaving them. I am sure the girl didn't mean to kill the cat but every year there many people who end up with unexpected kittens or puppies that they don't want but who now are aware of another means of disposal thanks to the R.S.P.C.A. generated publicity. 

Secondly a girl who is obviously seriously mentally ill (she is only 23 and has been sectioned 20 times) is going to prison which will do her no good at all. When my daughter Lucy  was seriously mentally ill she spent 5 months in prison on remand (she hadn't been convicted of anything) and ended up in "The Muppet House" - effectively in solitary confinement in a strip cell because she was too ill to conform to prison discipline. If Lucy had been an animal the R.S.P.C.A. would have strongly objected to the way she was treated ... I sincerely hope that Laura will get over the experience of imprisonment and not kill herself, as Lucy did. What happened had serious consequences in the family - but that is a story for another time.

Thirdly the publicity will not help the average tabloid reader to understand the millions of other people with mental health problems. Having pets and working with animals can be an important stage in recovery, and unfortunately many live in accommodation which already makes it difficult. Having a pet can give you both the pleasure and responsibility of caring for another being which responds in an affectionate way. By helping the patient a pet can can speed recovery and reduce the pressure on the most seriously under-funded parts of the N.H.S.  If this case ends up by making it harder for other mentally ill people to have pets it will increase the demands on the N.H.S.

What happened to a poor little cat called Mowgli has happened and I am sad - even if I am not a cat lover.. Dragging the case before the courts with maximum publicity will almost certainly make it more likely that some cats will suffer a similar fate, and could make things worse for many people with mental health problems who are helped in their recovery by taking on the responsibility of owning a pet.

So to the R.S.P.C.A. who brought the case, to the magistarte Micheal Marks, and to the N.H.S. who failed to give Laura the level of support she needed - thank you for nothing. You should all be ashamed of yourselves..

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Time to relax with a Limerick

The Boat Inn Public House at Jackfield, near Ironbridge in Shropshire, flooded by the River Severn
A man shouted "Take down de sign"
For the floods have begun to decline
"You can get to my pub
In a car, not a tub
And I do serve some excellent wine."
The above limerick was inspired by the recent extensive flooding in England, with some places in Somerset having been flooded for over two months, together with extensive flooding along the Thames.

However the extraordinary levels of rain here (hopefully the worst is over) coupled with the extremely cold weather in North America, and the extreme heatwave in Australia a year ago, all suggest that we all need to take global warming very seriously. Many people will find that the boxes in which they live and work are no longer suitable due the increasing number of extreme weather events which are predicted.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Evolution of Intelligence and the Nye-Ham debate

Like many other people I have seen the debate “Is creation a viable model of origins in today's modern, scientific era? between Bill Nye and Ken Ham and I have my opinions about the views expressed. As a scientist and an atheist my views on the scientifically deduced origins of the universe, of life, and the scientific tools that have been developed to tell us about them are similar to Bill Nye and I agreed with the views he put forward. Every time Ken Ham used the Bible to support his view that everything was created by some supernatural being in six days about 6000 years ago I felt like laughing about how anyone could be so stupid.

I have read many reviews of the debate which take a similar point of view and which dismiss Ken Ham, and the Creation Museum which he runs as a fraud. They ridicule his plans to build an arc to model the one Noah is said to have built at the time of the alleged Biblical flood, and his interpretation of the "kinds" of animal that he wants to put into it. However there are Creationists who think that Bill Nye is totally wrong because he did not recognise the obvious truth as revealed by the Bible.

But who is right? As a human I obviously back Bill Nye, because one of the limitation of the human brain is the tendency to confirmation bias, and Bill and I have many common views about the issue so his views reinforce mine. But I am also a scientist, and as Bill was promoting the scientific view of the world surely I must support him. Perhaps? But scientists are supposed to be objective and should not prejudge an issue but stand back and look at what was going on in the debate in a dispassionate manner. And as a scientist who is interested in the evolution of the brain I am aware that such extreme differences in viewpoint are not confined to the debating floor, but that wars have been fought between people whose views of the world differ violently. But we all have the same brain - so how can we differ so vehemently?

Let us take a simple less contentious example.

I have lived most of my life in England and I know a robin when I see one on my bird table. I have a nest box which they have used, and I love to see the newly fledged young birds being feed by their parents every summer. I know what a robin is and can recognise them anywhere.

I have also worked in Australia and the Australians are fine upstanding people who can always be trusted - because they know what a robin is. You only have to look at an Australian robin to immediately recognise it. It is the right shape and size and moves around in the vegetation in exactly the way one might expect. Of course it doesn't have a red breast - they actually come in a variety of different colours - but of course the colour of the feathers is only a superficial matter.

I have also visited North America and the people who live there must all be idiots. They think this bird is a robin when any fool can immediately recognise it as a species of thrush. I find it hard to imagine how anyone who knows anything about anything could make such an obvious mistake. The only similarity is that it has a red breast and as I have already pointed out (it doesn't seem how many time have you to say something  some people just don't want to listen) the colour of the feathers is only superficial.

So now you know why I trust Australians and think Americans are fools. ...

But wait a minute. I am being inconsistent. When listening to the Nye/Ham debate I trusted Bill Nye to tell the truth - AND HE IS AN AMERICAN, and I thought Ken Ham was a fool - AND HE IS AN AUSTRALIAN! What has gone wrong?

What is happening in the brain? We don't all have an identical dedicated spot in our head to store a concept labelled "Robin." Each of us will have an amorphous network of memories which will include the memory of the word "Robin." One of my earliest memories may well have been the children's poem "Who killed Cock Robin" and my mental images may have been shaped by the fact that when I was at boarding school I often walked in the woods where David Lack had done the pioneering work described in "The Life of the Robin." While we may agree on the word "Robin" and use it in similar contexts our individual mental networks will be unique and may not have a lot in common. An Australian robin is compatible with my personal mental image of a robin, while a North American robin is not.

And if Bill Nye and Ken Ham have virtually identical biologically evolved brains we need to ask why the way they view the world they share with us in such different and logically incompatible ways. Again a personal example helps to pinpoint the problem.

The concept of mirror neurons suggests that the same parts of our brain's neural network may be involved when we perceive or do something, and when we think of it, but the way this happens can vary from person to person. When we think of something as being "blue" are our brains interpreting the world in the same way?. This was brought home to me after the death of one of my daughters and my doctor recommended counselling sessions to help with the post traumatic stress. There was no problem in agreeing with the therapist as to which items were coloured blue. The difficulty arose when she suggested that when I was having difficulty in getting to sleep I should try to think that everything was bathed in waves of blue light. Of course it didn't work. The therapist was working on the assumption that when I was thinking about the concept "blue" this was activating parts of the neural network concerned with vision. However when I tried to follow her advice it was as if a crowd of people were subliminally whispering the "word" blue in my ear, which was not so conductive to sleep.

Clearly Bill Nye's internal brain model of the bible is totally different to Ken's. In Bill's mental model it is just one of a number of very different historical stories, written by people, with no understanding of modern science, in an attempt to explain their origins and history. However Ken and his followers appear to have a mental model in which The Bible is a fundamental truth as important as the truth of “2 + 2 = 4” is to Bill and me.

If we stop paying politics by asking the question “Who is right?” or “Who won the debate?” we are left with the more interesting question “How does does our understanding of the evolution of human intelligence explain why different people have such incompatible views of the world we live in?” If Bill could have played this card – by using our understanding of how the brain has evolved over the last few million years to explain why Ken believed such unrealistic views - he would have a killer argument.

But of course he cannot use such a card because there is a black hole in brain research. There is a vast mountain of knowledge which gives clues as to how the brain works – in many disciplines from neuroscience to philosophy – but you can search the scientific literature in vain for an evolutionary model which explains how activity at the neuron level can lead to activities such as the Nye/Ham debate. And of course a model based on the stored program computer is dangerous as programs require a designer to create them ... playing into the hands of those who argue that “God did it. God was the designer.


May I suggest that the reason why we are having so much trouble in understanding the evolution of intelligence is that we are looking for a modern version of the Philosopher's Stone, and are putting our intelligence on a pedestal as something very special. In contrast we don't say that a super computer is more intelligent that a tiny personal computer – because we know that while one is supercharged with much more and faster memory any intelligence lies in the way they are programmed. May I suggest that our brain, at the neural code level, is no more than a supercharged animal brain, using the same logical mechanisms. We can learn more about how the brain works by looking at the serious limitations of our brains (selective learning, confirmation bias, the unreliability of long term memory, the ability to hold contradictory views, accepting the views of charismatic leaders without question, etc.) than by studying in depth the “very clever” things we do. Only once we understand how an animal brain make decisions, with such potential serious inbuilt limitations when scaled up, should we start to look at how evolution helped the human brain to bootstrap itself up to support minds such a those of scientists such as Bill Nye and creationists such as Ken Ham.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The War against a powerful enemy - the Climate

We have a powerful enemy who is attacking us with water bombs and has already damaged thousands of houses, disrupted transport, damaged our food supply, and done perhaps billions of pounds damage. Our leaders appear unafraid
Think action can just be delayed
     Yet we see climate change
     Means the weather is strange
And the future, of course, is betrayed
.
 A year ago the same enemy attacked Australia with heat bombs while the United States has been attacked by wind bombs and more recently ice bombs. What is worse is that the enemy has a paymaster who is providing the means to construct even more powerful weapons. In fact this enemy already has enough resources to continue even more powerful attacks for maybe a hundred years or more.

If this was a human enemy we would have already declared war, and blockaded the paymaster.  But it is not a human enemy. The enemy is the climate, and we are the paymaster by using more and more fossil fuel!

While there may be public relation style sound bytes from our leaders their response to the dangers remind me of Lloyd George's conclusions about the outbreak of the First World War. He wrote:
"The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay."
The problem is that we are all trapped in boxes which restrict our options. Most obviously we cannot run away from the Earth to some other heavenly body. And while there is talk about the problem at the International and national levels what is actually done shows that our leaders have no real understanding of the seriousness of the emergency but, like Nero, fiddle away playing their own factional tunes.

At the grass roots level we are (nearly all) addicted to paying the paymaster, while those we elect to rule us are addicted to the ballot box, and pander to the strident calls of those who have not yet suffered in the attacks. Few are capable of demonstrating competence in science and appear to have learnt their leadership skills from the Duke of Plaza-Toro who In enterprise of martial kind, When there was any fighting, He led his regiment from behind (He found it less exciting).

This means that they will kowtow to those who have suffered, rather than organize a planned retreat to a defensible position. It will be interesting to see the long term (= up to next election) reactions to the current floods. If I buy a shop and then go out of business because a new supermarket is built nearby nobody pays me compensation. People who have bet on a looser, even if it looked to be a dead cert, are loosers. That is a fact of life. If someone buys a house on a flood plain because they like to be near a river and changes in the flow of the river make it it uninhabitable in the long term that should be their hard luck. Of course money needs to be spent on fighting the enemy, but this can only be done if we draw suitable battle lines, as would be done if we were fighting a "real war" with human enemies. If some areas along the coast and along our river banks have to become no mans land it will avoid us pouring good money after bad.

We must also stop spending billions preparing to fight the last war, with billions being spent on Trident - and new aircraft carries when we are getting on quite well at present without one. Plans to build more airports (which are efficient ways of paying the climates paymaster) need to be reconsidered. Silly ideas of building one on tidal flats should be laughed out of court. If in the First World War someone had proposed building an airfield in no mans land they would probably have been shot for treason - but perhaps not as Lloyd George's quote really illustrates that the idea of having incompetent leaders is nothing new.

We also have to stop paying the paymaster as individuals. In 1990 I flew To Australia in a Box. The purpose of the journey was to provide a system which would hold and index scientific information on issues relating to climate change and on the way I wrote an article relating to the impact my journey was having on the environment. However my journey was wasted as the project was cancelled as being unnecessary, apparently because our leaders considered that it would never happen.

If we are ever to win the battle against an increasingly unpredictable and unfriendly climate we need real leaders at the helm - and not ones who are unable to put the common good against narrow sectional interests.

Some Hope ...

Saturday, 8 February 2014

During the 1970s I didn't know I was being mansplained!

Mansplain- delighting in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation……. To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether (Urban Dictionary, 2013).
Of course one of the reasons I didn't know is the word hadn't been invented - and I had never heard of it until I read a post on Paige West's blog entitled My Year in Mansplaining. Both the definition, and Paige's post are highly sexist in that they suggest that it mansplaining involves a man putting down a woman that they disagree with. If Paige had been a coloured man I am sure the complaint would have been about racism. It is very easy to assume that if you are in a minority (sex and sexual orintation, race, nationality, disability, etc) the reason that someone put you down is automatically because of your membership of a minority.

In fact the approach is one used by many "experts" who encounter people who have ideas which do not fit into the expert's personal knowledge and beliefs. Experts frequenlty encounter many people whose ideas are based on shaky foundations and for example a professor of physics may not be able to spare much time on explaining, yet again, why perpetual motion machines are impossible. Some will use a pretty unpleasant brush off approach because they do not have the time or inclination to think outside their personal mental box. I run a web site which gives specialist advice on family history and I face a similar problem when people who have never read an elementary guide to genealogy ask a trivial question which they could have found the answer online themselves in seconds if only they had read "the ****ing manual". I try and be polite, helpful  and not condescending, without spending time I cannot really afford, but some of them might well feel I was simply brushing them off.

As a result I have commented on Paige's post, giving details of my own experience as followed:
While sexism may well be part of the problem in some cases my own experience (as a male research scientist) is that the approach is used by many high status academics (and others) to crush new ideas which do not conform to their expectations. It may not be deliberate in that they may be suffering from extreme confirmation bias and have difficulty in understanding “awkward” ideas and it is easier to reject rather than spend time creative thinking.
An example is appropriate relating to the “Artificial Intelligence” research I was doing in the 1970s. The A. I. establishment were researching games with a closed set of well defined rules such chess, and formal logic problems using sophisticated mathematical techniques. I was looking at computer intelligence from a completely different starting point. My research started after I looked at a working commercial system involving about 250,000 customers and 5,000 products, where the problems were a poor human-computer interface, and the fact that real world marketing involves customer contracts, products, government imposed regulations and competitors activities which were continually changing. I set up a prototype system to test out my idea, and much to my surprise I found it was very good at solving many of the formal logic problems one could find in contemporary A. I. Publications.
But could I publish? Of course not! Any papers had to get passed  establishment peer reviewers. Papers which included the result of computer simulations of perhaps a dozen recognised A. I. problems were returned “too theoretical, will never work.” I also got many verbal put downs along the lines that “A.I. is a very specialist field and people with a commercial computer background could not possibly understand it” and “You can't expect us to understand what you are doing because all competent A.I. Software is written in the pop2 computer language.” In desperation I sent a paper to the top U.S. Journal and got a rejection with four anonymous reviews. Two were vicious mansplaining rejections, one reviewer admitted he did not understand it, and one liked it. I was so dispirited that I abandoned any more research in this direction. It was only years later that I found the covering letter and read it right to the end. The editor would have known who the reviewers were, and perhaps their willingness to accept new ideas, and he actually urged me to continue as there was almost certainly something in what I was doing to annoy people so much!

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

More evidence for the braided human evolutionary tree

New DNA studies are being published all the time and the latest have been highlighted in the press - with the journalists looking for short term headlines and missing the main lesson.  The headline relates to the identification of Neanderthal DNA in non-African humans - and the fact that it appears to be related to Chrone's disease, diabetes, etc. Perhaps the best popular account is by the BBC.

Some accounts briefly mention the fact that the genes that have been retained are not randomly distributed but are mainly related to the skin and hair. These are areas which could be connected with living in a colder climate, helping the sapiens newcomers from Africa to more rapidly adapt to the colder European climate.

What none of the popular accounts say is that this represents an important piece of evidence about human evolution. It demonstrates that when two human sub-species interbreed evolution among the offspring can select the most useful features of both species. And if it has been proved to happen once it probably happened many times. There is already evidence of interbreeding with the Denisovans and other as yet unidentified subspecies (at least as fossil remain have been located). I suspect more relevant papers will appear in the not too distant future.

If we consider the environmental changes over the last 3-4 million years there have been numerous changes in the environment in Africa, which means changes affecting both large scale and small scale environmental niches. There will also have been a number of "shock and awe" environmental disasters caused by super volcanoes disrupting the food chain. Faced with such challenges a species with a degree of intelligence and a simple but effective culture which includes primitive tool making is likely to split into groups which move into different ecological niches. Some might be pursuit hunters of larger animals, some might trap fish in rivers, while others subsist on shell fish in the sea. Some may make more use of tools while others might make more use of vocal calls to communicate while hunting. The case of Darwin's finches - where one species has split into a number which exploit different food sources is well known. Something similar seems to be happening with the orca - where different pods around the world use very different hunting techniques, which are undoubtedly culturally related in what is clearly a very intelligent species.

If the "tribes" of early hominins remain separated for long enough each will start to evolve changes which suit their chosen niche, and the most successful will survive. When interbreeding occurs the "hybrid" next generation will combine features from both parents, and over the following generations the best combination of features will be selected - as we now know happened when modern man met up with Neanderthals. Such splitting and recombining would allow different features to develop in parallel - and also provide a test bed where some features,  present in some fossil species, could be tried out and found wanting.

If we assume that human subspecies can still interbreed with some success after being separated an average of a quarter of a million years this allows a dozen iterations in the last three million years, with Homo sapiens being a particularly successful hybrid about 200,000 years ago.

Monday, 3 February 2014

What do human and chimp genes tell us about the brain?

Adam Benton has recently posted Chimps have undergone more positive selection than humans which includes the following diagram showing the changes in genes between chimps and humans.
Where the positively selected genes are expressed in both chimps and humans
Where the positively selected genes are expressed in both chimps and humans
I have posted the following comment:
What is really interesting is that there is no major peak relating to the brain – which suggests that there have been no significant changes to how the brain works – although I suspect that the peak for “immature” is because there have been major changes on this front to allow humans infants to have more time to “load” their brain with learning.
I am working on a model of the brain’s neural code protocol which suggests that it is highly resistant to evolutionary change – and the work so far suggests that the difference between humans and apes is basically one of rate of learning. When cultural know-how of a group reaches a critical level it becomes advantageous to concentrate on copying ones parents and other adults. However trail and error copying is slow, and things would speed up with just a simple language where the adult can explain how to use tools, and not just imitate. And language is just a tool – so if you can talk about better tools language can also bootstrap itself to higher levels over the generations.
To speed up the process even more, it the infant brain uncritically accepts language as the main tool, and language starts to use abstract terms, learning is greatly accelerated. (i.e. if you can tell a child what characterizes a mammal he does not have to learn about lots of different mammals.).
My works suggesting possibly three explosive changes leading to our current levels of intelligence – none of which mean any significant change in the neural code mechanism. (1) simple language allows better tools (2) language expands to allow abstract terms – allowing more information to be packed into less learning time (3) people specialize so that it is not longer necessary for everyone to learn the complete cultural package. The first two would lead to pressure to evolve a bigger brain to hold more cultural information. The third actually frees some of the brain’s capacity to diversify into imaginative tasks such as music and the arts which may have no obvious evolutionary advantages (apart from selection of a sexual partner).
There is a side issue relating to some of the clever Chimps in captivity – as if the big difference between humans and chimps (apart form brain size) relates to the way the adults train the children, it would seem possible that chimps which have been taught by humans will lean more effectively that chimps brought up by their chimp parents.
So do you agree that the results you give suggest that the main differences between human and human brains are the capacity and they why information is conveyed between generations.
Adam replied:
I have written about some research that indicates in many ways the human brain is a scaled up chimp brain, so I can see how not a lot of genetic change would be needed to produce our noggin. So in essence I agree with you, although I hadn’t really considered the way information is conveyed. Now you bring it up though it does seem kinda obvious