Edgies on Extinction [1]

View the entire 1hr+ session (above), or click on the links below to the indivual 10-minute talks.


(1 hour, 13 minutes)

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: When we spoke with John Brockman about the Extinction Marathon he suggested, as a second part—as I mentioned in previous marathons we got the Edge community to realize maps and different formulas, and John thought today it would be wonderful to do a panel with UK based scientists who are part of the Edge community. We are extremely delighted that we now will have four presentations by Helena Cronin, by Chiara Marletto, by Jennifer Jacquet, and by Steve Jones. We welcome Steve Jones back to the Serpentine because he was part of the 2007 Experiment Marathon with Olafur Eliasson. The entire panel will be introduced by Molly Crockett. Molly is an associate professor for experimental psychology and fellow of Jesus college at the University of Oxford. She holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Cambridge and a B.S. in neuroscience from UCLA. Dr. Crockett studies the neuroscience and psychology of altruism, of morality, and self-control. Her work has been published in many top academic journals including Science, PNAS, and also Neuron. Molly Crockett will now introduce Helena, Chiara, Jennifer, and Steve. We then, together with Molly and all the speakers and John, give a panel after that.


MOLLY CROCKETT:  I’m very, very pleased to introduce Helena Cronin. She’s the co-director of the Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the director of Darwin at LSE at the London School of Economics. She has many notable publications including the edited series, Darwinism Today, and the award winning, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today, that has been featured in the New York Times’ Best Books and Nature’s Best Science Books of the Year. Her current research interests focus on the evolutionary understanding of sex differences. Let’s give a very warm welcome to Helena and welcome her to the stage.

HELENA CRONIN: Hello, everybody. It’s a great pleasure to be here. A strange thing happened on the way to a better world in pursuit of an admirable quest, that is, a world free of sex discrimination where you’re judged on your own qualities and not your sex. Truth and falsity went topsy-turvy. The truth—the silence of sex differences—became dangerous, unmentionable, and in its place the conventional wisdom, which is a ragbag of ideas that have long been extinct but are kept ghoulishly alive by popularity, became the entrenched orthodoxy influencing public thinking, agendas and policy-making, and completely crowding out science and sense.

My aim is to show you why the current orthodoxy should be abandoned and why, if you really care about a fairer world, the science does matter. It matters profoundly. I’m going to take two examples, both about the professions, because they very well epitomize the orthodox litany: how society systematically discriminates against women, and how at work they are victims of pervasive sexism.

Here are the conventional wisdoms. Women in ghettos: Why in medicine are men from surgery, women from pediatrics? In law, men from corporate, women from family? In science, men from physics, women from sociology? It’s because women are ghettoized into stereotypically female professions and specialties where prestige and pay are the lowest. Why is it always men at the top? The highest positions and prizes, whether influence or income, heads of state, CEOs, professors, Nobel laureates. Why? Because for women there’s a glass ceiling; for men, there’s a glass elevator. "Well," you might be thinking, "isn’t that conventional wisdom true? Isn’t the evidence compelling?" No. Nonsense.

Thank you. It’s wholly misconceived. It’s both ignorant of modern science, and it’s fighting battles that have already been won. Before I explain to you about that, I’ve got two caveats. One is about averages. We’ll be comparing averages, not differences, between individuals. Try not to think in individuals, but about differences between groups. Specifically, how characteristics are distributed differently in the two groups—males and females. Second, let me stress that I’m emphatically not denying that discrimination exists. I’m not denying that. Rather, it can’t be the whole story and it certainly isn’t the story in the way that it’s generally told.

Let’s get straight to some science of sex differences, and I’ll start with tastes, that is, with interests. There’s an experiment in which sex stereotyped toys—trucks and dolls—were given to mixed sex groups. I’m sure that all of you would guess correctly which sex preferred which, but these males and females were vervet monkeys. Now consider newborn babies. Even at one day old girls prefer a human face and boys prefer mechanical mobile.

Neither those monkeys nor babies had been brainwashed, socialized, stereotyped, ghettoized, or any of these other things, and they hadn’t even encountered toys or mobiles previously. Rather, what these results of these little experiments captured is an evolved sex difference in interests. Women are far more interested in people, and men are far more interested in things. This difference is one of the largest of all psychological differences between the sexes, and also it’s by far the largest when measured in career interests. That difference in career interests, by the way, hasn’t changed over the past century since records were first kept even though there have been massive social changes. That still stands out as the largest difference in career interests. What’s more, it’s been found that a person’s interests are the most powerful predictor of what their entire career will be like, even more so, surprisingly, than talent.

Look at females in the UK professions. From over eighty percent in the people-oriented down to six percent in things-oriented, well, ghettoization? Really? It might not be choice. By the way, even those six percent female engineers are overwhelmingly in bioengineering, that is, working with people or other living things. Even women in the top one percent of mathematical ability—one percent; that’s very, very high—choose instead, unlike their male counterparts, careers working with people. Again, people and living things, biosciences, doctors and so on. Yet the conventional wisdom stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that women’s own interests might be a cause of what career’s they're in.

Now to temperaments and men at the top. Men are vastly more competitive than women. I’ll tell you why very quickly, a quick evolutionary sketch. Give a man fifty wives and he’d have children galore, but a woman with fifty husbands? No advantage whatsoever. Natural selection favored men who competed strenuously for mates, and all men now are descendents of those victorious competitors. From this, much follows.

Men are far more ambitious, status-seeking, hierarchical, single-minded, opportunistic, persevering, risk-taking. Their entire life strategy is a far higher risk, higher stakes game and far more dedicated to winning. They notoriously find any area to be first, most, biggest, best. I got from the Guinness Book of Records: beer mat flipping, haggis hurling, or extreme ironing. There are worse ones than that I can tell you. And they even appropriate all the summits. This was recently held in Paris: the Global Summit of Women.

Meanwhile, what are women like? Well, they’re far less of all the above, that’s the best way to think of it. Obviously, greater male competitiveness alone pushes men to the top powerfully, but science also reveals another such sex difference. It’s to do with the tails of these statistical distributions, that is, the ends of the curves. For all sex differences in all species—this is not just humans—there’s a difference in the shape of the tails. Among males, the variance—that’s the difference between the best and the worst, the most and the least, or whatever it is, tallest and shortest—is far greater than among females. Females tend to cluster around the mean—that curve there in the middle. The tails are far less far apart, but among males the variance can be great, huge. Males are almost bound to be overrepresented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of this, I hasten to say, metaphorically as more dumbbells but more Nobels.

An extreme example of the right-hand tail, which even these scientists who found it said in the paper is staggering for the ability in mechanical reasoning, in the top nought point one percent, that’s admittedly a very rarified atmosphere. Try and guess what the male female ratio is. It’s 236:1. That’s how far the Nobels-dumbbells effect can push the difference between males and females. Greater male variance, as you can see in that extreme example, can profoundly influence male-female differences, particularly those that most enrage conventional wisdom, that is, the predominance of men at the top, always looking to the top, never at the dumbbells. Nevertheless, greater male variance has become what in the states is called a third rail issue, that is, touch it and you die, and that precludes any investigation of what is a very potent cause.

Sex differences stem ultimately from different reproductive strategies, but they pervade our entire psychology, and their distribution differs, giving rise to differences between the two groups. The life priorities of men and women are not identical, I repeat, not identical, because the orthodoxy conflates equality and sameness. Constantly when people are concerned about equality, what they immediately jump into instead is sameness, but you can’t expect sameness in males and females. On average there are these differences.

Conventional wisdom began with an injustice, with women being denied choice just because they were women, but that’s morphed into a deeply misguided quest: sameness of outcome for males and females in all fields, 50/50, fifty percent. Well, that’s not good enough. Conventional wisdom is a science-free zone with factoids where facts should be, and a dreadful jargon generator where theories should reign. It’s outrageous that it should be taken seriously at all, that it occupies a position where science and evidence should prevail, and that it dominates policy even though its precepts have long been rendered utterly extinct, first, by a scientific understanding of sex differences, and second, through political progress against sex discrimination.

Now, science doesn’t dictate goals. I’m not saying it’s only science, but it can help us to achieve our goals. As Marx didn’t ever quite say: If we want to change the world, we first need to understand it. And how can we forge a fairer world if we allow beliefs that are long extinct to stand in the way of what is indispensable—the Darwinian science of sex differences.

Thank you.


MOLLY CROCKETT: I’m pleased to welcome our second speaker, Chiara Marletto. She’s a quantum physicist working at the University of Oxford. She’s a bit of a polymath. She’s dabbled in Italian literature, engineering science, and quantum computation. Currently, she’s working with David Deutsch on constructor theory, which is a new fundamental theory of physics, and this touches on ideas that have been traditionally regarded as highly emergent and derivative, so for example, information, human knowledge, and the nature of life. Let’s welcome Chiara to the stage.

CHIARA MARLETTO: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here. I’ll try to give a physicist’s perspective on extinction. I’ll start with a thought that evolution is a physical process. What we mean by that is whether or not it can occur, and under what circumstances is set by the laws of physics that are the rules that control and constrain the behavior of every object in our universe. The very fact that extinction can occur tells us a remarkable fact about our universe. That is to say, there are things that are capable of undergoing extinction.

What are those things? Well, they have several distinctive properties, but in the first place they must display some sort of resiliency, a tendency to remain instantiated in physical systems. Under our laws of physics, physical systems have a tendency to fade away, so the only way that resiliency can be achieved is by those things being copied from one physical instantiation to a new one when the former is about to erode. This resiliency is the very reason why we talk about their going extinct at all.

To understand what I mean, consider a bacterium for instance. What can go extinct is not the particular set of atoms that instantiates the bacterium because that changes every moment, what can go extinct is the recipe for the bacterium—its genome, its DNA sequence—which can last for billions of years. That is what biologists call a replicator. It has the property of being copied from one generation to another and, in fact, it has the property of striving for being copied. It can cause transformations that are directed to its own replication and retain the property of doing so again and again. What we’ve now come to is that what can undergo extinction can be generally characterized as being a replicator that tends to remain instantiated in physical systems and can cause transformation to occur, retaining the property of causing them again and again.

There is a new fundamental theory of physics that’s called constructor theory, and was proposed by David Deutsch who pioneered the theory of the universe of quantum computer. David and I are working this theory together. The fundamental idea in this theory is that we formulate all laws of physics in terms of what tasks are possible, what are impossible, and why. In this theory we have an exact physical characterization of an object that has those properties, and we call that knowledge. Note that knowledge here means knowledge without knowing the subject, as in the theory of knowledge of the philosopher, Karl Popper.

We’ve just come to the conclusion that the fact that extinction is possible means that knowledge can be instantiated in our physical world. In fact, extinction is the very process by which that knowledge is disabled in its ability to remain instantiated in physical systems because there are problems that it cannot solve. With any luck that bit of knowledge can be replaced with a better one.

In constructor theory, knowledge has a central role because it’s a principle of constructor theory that whatever transformation is not forbidden by the laws of physics can be performed to arbitrary high accuracy provided that the requisite knowledge is created. Note that there are no intermediate possibilities; either something is forbidden by the laws of physics, or it can be achieved given enough knowledge. This places knowledge center stage in our universe and in fundamental physics. So how does knowledge come about? 

Well, here we come to extinction again because the laws of physics do not contain knowledge in this sense, neither do the initial conditions of our universe. The idea that they do, which is called creationism, is anathema to everyone here. It’s an interesting insight from constructor theory that the only way knowledge can be created under these laws of physics is by a non directed process of trial and error correction steps. This is true of both natural selection and of the knowledge-creating process that occurs in people’s minds.

Here we come to a fundamental distinction between the two because in natural selection the only way a non-adequate theory or idea, a non-adequate recipe for a bacterium, can undergo extinction is by actual death of the organism that it happens to be traveling in about. This is a feature of natural selection, but it need not be so in general for extinction. In fact, in human minds what happens is that whenever a theory is found to be parochial, that is to say, there are problems it cannot solve, the way it is eliminated, the way it undergoes extinction, is by criticism. Criticism is tentatively directed to progress, and it’s a fundamentally nonviolent process, which does involve death if not of obstructions. As Karl Popper put it, we can "let our ideas die in our place."

It seems that with the emergence of thinking abilities—which of course emerged by natural selection—a new kind of extinction has become possible that doesn’t involve death, that is based on criticism and on actually criticizing obstructions. It is this kind of extinction, which is not only crucial for the creation of new knowledge, but with the constructor theoretic insight it is part of the very process where our endeavors to perform transformations that are not forbidden by the laws of physics take place. This is how constructor theory lets us see how extinction can be a constructor for future possibilities. Thank you for listening. 


MOLLY CROCKETT: Our next speaker is Jennifer Jacquet. She’s an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University. She’s an environmental social scientist interested in large-scale cooperation dilemmas with interests in overfishing, climate change and the wildlife trade. She has a new book coming out in early 2015 called Is Shame Necessary? It’s about the evolution function and future of the use of social disapproval. Hopefully she’ll tell us a little bit about that in her talk. Let’s welcome Jennifer to the stage.

JENNIFER JACQUET: Well, I have to go after a philosopher and a physicist, so my talk’s going to be quite literal about the extinction of species. I stay up at night worried about this. Maybe to some of you that’s a normal thing to do. I even spoke to a woman who studied survivor guilt and asked her if she has many patients who complain that the human species is surviving while all these other species go extinct. She said it was "not a presenting symptom." Maybe I’m a little strange. I think it’s a misplaced anxiety about my own mortality.

I am worried about the 870 or so species that have gone extinct since the 16th century, which I would call conspicuous extinction—things that we are watching disappear. Extinction is itself a little misleading because it’s this binary category; you’re either alive, or you’re extinct. We know that while there are these 870 specialist species—and there are certain ones that, to me, stand out—there are also a bunch of other species on the brink, which people like Jonathan Bailie spoke about. I’ll get into those in a moment.

Some of the species that I stay up worrying about and mostly lamenting—I know I’m not alone on this because a friend of mine is torn up that there are no longer giant sloths around—is the Steller's sea cow, which went extinct in 1768 just after twenty-seven years of having been discovered by the Russians, although the Aleuts knew they were there. Another species that I’ll mention and speak about is the Pinta Island giant tortoise, Lonesome George.
The first one, the Steller's sea cow, the largest Sirenian that ever lived and a close relative of the manatee, or the dugong, lived up in the Aleutian territory, Alaska. The records that we have of it are from Georg Steller, the naturalist, and this is an excerpt from his writing I just wanted to share with you because it’s the kind of thing that makes me wish they were still around. He writes:

They are not afraid of man in the least, nor do they seem to hear very poorly, as Hernandez asserts contrary to experience. Signs of a wonderful intelligence, whatever Hernandez might say, I could not observe, but indeed an uncommon love for one another, which even extended so far that when one of them was hooked, all the others were intent upon saving him. Some tried to prevent the wounded comrade from [being drawn on] the beach by [forming] a closed circle around him; some attempted to upset the yawl; others laid themselves over the rope or tried to pull a harpoon out of [his] body, in which indeed they succeeded several times. We also noticed, not without astonishment, that a male came two days in succession to its female which was lying dead on the beach as if he would inform himself about her condition. Nevertheless, no matter how many of them were wounded or killed, they always remained in one place.

Big mistake, sea cow. These are the kind of historical ecological records that we have of the sea cow, which is no longer around and which makes me a little less fulfilled as a human being.
I dream about the sea cow or imagine what they would be like to see in the wild, but the case of the Pinta Island giant tortoise was a particularly strange feeling for me personally because I had spent many afternoons in the Galapagos Islands when I was a volunteer with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Lonesome George’s den with him. If any of you visited the Galapagos, you know that you can even feed the giant tortoises that are in the Charles Darwin Research Station. This is Lonesome George here.
He lived to a ripe old age but failed, as they pointed out many times, to reproduce. Just recently, in 2012, he died, and with him the last of his species. He was couriered to the American Museum of Natural History and taxidermied there. A couple weeks ago his body was unveiled. This was the unveiling that I attended, and at this exact moment in time I can say that I was feeling a little like I am now: nervous and kind of nauseous, while everyone else seemed calm. I wasn’t prepared to see Lonesome George. Here he is taxidermied, looking out over Central Park, which was strange as well. At that moment realized that I knew the last individual of this species to go extinct. That presents this strange predicament for us to be in in the 21st century—this idea of conspicuous extinction.
As I mentioned, it’s this binary category, but there is another category that scientists like to use: ecological extinction. Again, these are some of the species that have already been mentioned, like the pangolin or things living on the edge. These are species that haven’t had that final curtain call, but they don’t perform their ecological function in the natural world as they once did. The 500 remaining mountain gorillas, or four remaining northern white rhino match this category. There are about 17,000 known species in this category, but a big overlooked group that I work on is in the oceans—fish and wildlife, which we call seafood—are also part of this ecological extinction.
A friend of mine went into—this to me is so conspicuous that it’s happened since the 1950s, since people were taking photographs of the largest fish they’ve ever caught in the Florida Keys—she went into newspapers, and in the archives people had submitted photographs of their best ever fishing day. What’s great is that any time people are submitting photographs to an archive they submit what they think was the best that they did. This is—Loren McClenachan, with credit to her—a sample of some of those photos. Again, this is the Florida Keys, lots of goliath groupers in the ‘50s. This is the sport fishing from this family. Traveling into 1960s, here’s the ‘70s, the early ‘80s, things have already changed.
You can see that snappers have taken over where the goliath grouper once was. The fish are smaller. This is the photo she took while she was there. This is just to show you that these species are not extinct. The goliath grouper is on the endangered species list. It still lives and breathes, but it is not in the same numbers performing the same ecological role as it once did. This, to me, is very conspicuous. We have the photographs to show it, but it’s something that most of us don’t think about regularly.
The final category of extinction is one that economists came up with: economic extinction. It was this idea that species will become so rare that they would be difficult to find and pricey to find, and finding them would be so expensive that no one would go out to hunt them. A lot of work out there has disproven this idea of economic extinction on the fact that rarity actually increases value. Some of the experimenters who have worked with this have done some very clever things to show that rare species—which are the darker bar—people are more willing to climb stairs—this was in a zoo in Paris—to see rare species; they’re more willing to get wet with a sprinkler; they’re more willing to pay to see rare species; they’re more willing to spend time looking at them. They did all these things to just show the psychological tendencies, and this perception that rarity increases value has had some very negative impacts on species. The fact that rarity increases value also shows your wealth to your audience, or increases the likelihood that you want to collect wildlife essentially. When wildlife becomes rare, often its value goes up so much that, rather than economic extinction at all, the price is so high as in the case of bluefin tuna that over exploitation is the most likely outcome. The people working on this call this the anthropogenic Allee affect.
This aspect of the work where rarity increases value, where it gets interesting, is in this conspicuous angle where it links to conspicuous consumption, not just in terms of wildlife collection and trade—stag beetles, obviously all these large mammal furs—but also in the issue of let’s say, shark fin soup that you serve at your wedding. That’s a very common tradition in Chinese culture, and the act of serving shark fin soup is to show your generosity. Sharks were, in the case back in the previous eras, very dangerous to catch and therefore very rare. It was meant to display this generosity to your guests, conspicuous display.
The thing about shark fin soup: they come from sharks, not surprisingly, and they come from sharks from all over the world. Trying to focus the conservation efforts on the supply side is quite difficult. A lot of sharks come from the tropics as well where we know governance structures are not as much in place. In the case of conspicuous consumption with wildlife or rare species in general, we sometimes need to figure out whether to focus on the supply side or on the demand side of the equation, as opposed to on the demand as I was mentioning as mostly for shark fin soup at weddings. Sharks are also caught in bycatch for the seafood we eat though, too.
In some rare cases, this was a store in Hong Kong that I was in. These are sawfish, which are a form of shark. Again, their bony appendage being used as a conspicuous display of wealth. In the cases with these species, not only can we look at demand, but we can look at how we can use reputation to change people’s norms and values. We also know that rarity increases conservation value, and that’s exactly what a friend of mine did in Vancouver. She was in her early 20s, just got concerned about the issue of shark fin soup and is of Chinese birth. She launched a wedding competition, with no resources at all, just out of her parent’s basement essentially, between wedding couples that they could, on Facebook, submit a plan and proposal and video about not serving shark fin soup at their wedding, why they were doing that, and then the community would vote on which couple they liked the most. That couple would get a free honeymoon to swim with sharks, and her campaign which was, again, very low resource, just a lot of her tenacity, latched onto this idea of reputational benefits from not serving the wild species.
What’s great about it is some people said, "Oh, well, there could be a black market then. You might move it underground," but it’s conspicuous consumption. The whole reason to have shark fin is to show your wealth, so the idea of this becoming some sort of black market idea is very unlikely. As a result, this tactic which she started in 2010 has spread to places like Hong Kong where the demand’s even greater, and the potential for reputation and shame and honor and using that conspicuous element of the wildlife trade and shark fin and species like that plays a real potential in the future for saving them. 

Thank you.

STEVE JONES 10-MINUTE TALK (Permalink) [5]

MOLLY CROCKETT:  Our last speaker is Steve Jones. He’s an emeritus professor of genetics at University College London and he’s an author of several popular science books. He’s one of the world’s top experts on the genetics of snails, and has also studied the genetics and evolution of fruit flies and humans. He frequently lectures and broadcasts on various aspects of biology and other sciences. His career has taken him far and wide to universities in the United States, Australia, and Africa. Let’s welcome Steve for our last talk.

STEVE JONES:  Thanks for that. I come in as the bearer of an apparently almost extinct genetic signature, which is the Y chromosome, so it’s appropriate that I should read last on the list. That's all I’m going to be talking about. I’m going to be talking about extinction in the human sense, about the way in which human differences across the world are very quickly eroding away. It’s well known, the famous phrase, "No man is an island, no woman is an island either." Nowadays as we’ve heard in the last talk, "No island is an island because everything is being homogenized." The Galapagos, for example, many of their creatures have been driven to extinction by other creatures that come in from outside by migration.

What I wanted to talk about is somewhat of a parallel of that in human populations. If you were to go to a textbook on human biology from the time of Darwin or a bit later, you would certainly get an image that looked a bit like this. This is an image of the so-called races of humankind—racial types, as they called them. I’m not going to go into the question of whether there are real races of humankind because there aren’t. It’s interesting to note that until quite recently people assumed, and scientists assumed too, that the human species was divided into distinct groups that were biologically different from each other and had been isolated from each other for a long, long time.

Well, to some extent that was true. Until quite recently, human populations were isolated from each other. That’s changing quite quickly. I can illustrate that perhaps by a simple experiment. Can you shake hands if you don’t mind? You don’t have to. Can you shake hands with one of the two people next door to you? For about half of you, I have just introduced you to your sixth cousin. That’s a surprising fact, but it is true. What I’m saying is that for about half of you, two of you shared an ancestor who lived at about the time when the Origin of Species was written in 1859 and when Darwin went to the Galapagos.
For a population like the modern British population, or the modern European population, we are it might seem, more closely related to each other on average than you might have imagined. Were I to be giving this talk in Pakistan—which I probably wouldn’t go down particularly well—if I were to do the experiment again, for about half of the people shaking hands, they would be shaking hands with their first cousin. They would be shaking hands with somebody who shared an ancestor with them who was alive during the Second World War.  

What that tells us is that the European population is much more open in biological terms, much more admixed, as we would say, than our populations say in Pakistan where people don’t move very much. They tend to marry within groups, and families stay closed within families. That effect is quite striking. Pakistan is much more inbred than Britain, and the question is what is going to happen in the future. Are we going to remain as these isolated groups, as some places still are, or are we going to become even more admixed?
We can put some figures on how inbred—how closely related—we are bound to be. Let me show you a picture of the end of the world. This is the apocalypse according to William Blake. As we all know, if we've read the book of Revelations—clearly written by a paranoid schizophrenic—it’s filled with terrifying things that are going to happen at the end of time. Everybody who has ever lived will come up from the grave and will stand ready for judgment on the plain of Armageddon. It will be decided whether they are good or evil. Good people, a very small proportion, will go to heaven. Everybody here at the Serpentine Gallery is clearly a good person, so you’re all safe. If you were to go, for example, to the Frieze Art Faire, you would certainly burn in hell for the foreseeable future.
Now that’s an interesting story because it has a reflection from history. Here we have a picture of Armageddon itself. This is the Israeli city in northern Israel called Megiddo. It’s now a tell; it’s now under excavation, I’ve been there. Megiddo was a thriving city in Israel, which was destroyed in 722 BC by King Sargon of the Assyrians, who came in like a wolf on the fold and destroyed the city, killed lots of people, and drove the rest into exile.
The people of Megiddo generated a myth, quite a common one, that someday in the future they would be reunited. The lost tribes of Israel will come together Har Megiddon in Megiddo on the plain. That’s where this idea of Armageddon comes from. Well, this happened in 722 BC, so let’s count how many people would be at the event if everybody who had lived was to be there.
We all know that we have two parents, each one of us, four grandparents, most of us, eight great-grandparents, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256. If that were the case all the way back to 722 BC, how many people would be assembled ready for judgment? Here’s the sum: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096. I used to do this when I was eight in the bath. Little did I realize I’d spend my life doing it. You would have approximately 100,000,000,000,000 (a hundred million million) supposed ancestors, which would be more than enough to cover the whole surface of the earth two or three people thick. What that tells us is we have to share ancestors. We have to be inbred because there’s no room on the family tree. We are all related to each other to some degree.
In fact, everybody in the world descends from somebody who lived approximately in 4,000 BC, which interestingly enough is the biblical estimate of the time of the Garden of Eden, but that’s another story. However, the extent to which we share ancestry differs very greatly from place to place and is changing very, very quickly, which means extinction for lots of, at the moment, separate groups.
Now, how are we going to study this? One way we can study it of course, is by looking at pedigrees. As you perhaps heard at the introduction, I’ve wasted my life by working with snail populations and genetics. I’m one of the world’s top six experts on snail population genetics. The other five tend to agree; there aren’t many of us. I’ve also worked on fruit flies and I’ve even lured myself to work on humans.
Now there is a human equivalent of the humble fruit fly, which is of course the royal family. Royal families are wonderful for genetics because they are defined by pedigrees, so they keep an account of how many ancestors they have. If you look at particular royal families, they’re often very, very separate from each other because they marry within themselves. Perhaps the classic example is the royal family of Spain.
Let’s take, for example, Alfonso XII, who was the king of Spain in the 19th century. Alfonso XII married Ena, who was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, and she, Ena, brought in the famous hemophilia gene to the family. That’s another story. If we were to do the rules for Alfonso XII and go back for seven generations, he should have 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 different ancestors seven generations back.
But if we look at the pedigree, it turns out that seven generations back he had only eight ancestors. That’s because it was cousin marriage after cousin marriage after cousin marriage. That was true for plenty of people. It’s fortunately for us less true for the royal family, who lives just that way down the road. They’re rather outbred. But plenty of royal families are inbred, and if you look at their pedigrees in more detail what you get is lots and lots of loops—people marrying their relatives. That’s still very common.
Another way you can look at patterns of isolation is to look at a particular attribute, which is inherited and which is easy to study and is very cheap to study because all you need to study it is a phone book—the surname. There’s a whole area of genetics which works on the biology of surnames—second names in the European system—passed from father to son and to daughter but daughter’s change or changed their names on marriage.
This was discovered by the chap who founded our own laboratory at University College London, Francis Galton, who was Charles Darwin’s cousin and the founder of that rather dubious science called eugenics. Galton was a highly talented man and interested in many things. He was interested in human quality most of all. He made, as far as we know, the only beauty map of the British Isles ever made based on the little brass counting device he held in the palm of his hand and went from city to city counting the local females on a five-point scale from attractive to repulsive. The low point was in Aberdeen and the high point, you’ll be glad to learn, was in South Kensington, just here, so not much has changed.
That’s an eccentric thing to have done, but he did more interesting things than that. He had the habit of going on walking holidays in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland—very poor, very isolated mountain villages. He went one year and settled down in a little village. He discovered something very strange, which was that everybody in that village— prepare yourself for a terrible joke—had the same second name. They were all called Spaghetti.
He climbed over the mountains to the next village, settled into the inn, asked people what their names were. Everybody had the same name, but it was a different one—Pasta. In the next village—Cannelloni, and so on. This for the moment made him think that this was because it was advantageous to be called Spaghetti in village One and Pasta in village Two, but after a moment’s thought that showed it wasn’t true. It turned on the fact that people within the village married somebody else from the village. If he looked into the pedigree of the village, ten generations ago there was a family called Pasta, a family called Spaghetti, a family called Cannelloni. But each generation now and again a man had no sons, so his name disappeared. In time one name took over. What you can do is to look at isolation by asking how many surnames there are in a particular place in relation to the number of people. By doing that, you’re asking how many Y-chromosomes there are in a particular place.
Here’s a map of Britain, rather perverse because it’s altered in terms of population number. The warmer the colors, the more surnames there are in relation to the number of people. You can see London, which is nice and warm, has lots and lots of surnames in relation to the number of people. West Wales, which is where I come from, is blue and cool. It’s cool in many ways, but it’s cool in the surname way, which means that there aren’t many surnames in relation to the number of people. The northern islands of Scotland are even cooler; there are very few surnames in relation to the number of people. In other words, people are staying within their own group. They’re marrying within their own group. They’re keeping a biological identity. Now that’s interesting in many ways. It means you can immediately tell yourself by looking at the New York phone book say that New York is a much more mixed and outbred population than, say, Oslo. In fact, the mean number of surnames, people per surname in the New York phone book is two-and-a-half. In Oslo it’s sixty because again, a much more isolated population.
That’s important, not just because of curiosity, it’s important in health terms. If you look at the patterns of outbreeding and inbreeding across the world, you can see that some populations remain strongly isolated and separate from others within the same area. The warmer the color, the more inbreeding. You can see, for example, in Pakistan, which I’ve talked about, the extent of cousin marriage is so high and the extent of uncle-niece marriage is so high, which is even closer, that people are very closely related to each other within particular populations.
In Britain it’s much less, in North America it’s much less again. That has an effect on health. This is the patterns of mortality and morbidity of children. In Branford, British Pakistanis versus the European population of Branford, you can see there’s about a doubling in the mortality and morbidity of children. It’s important from the point of view of medicine. People in Branford are now more and more aware of this and there are attempts to reduce the amount of cousin marriage, which has not being particularly successful.
It’s also interesting from the point of view of evolution. We know very well from fossils that humans, we’re all Africans. We got out of Africa maybe 80,000 years ago and spread across the world, getting to the new world only about 20,000 years ago. If you look across the world from our birthplace in Africa and ask how much variation is there within particular populations, it turns out that—the red lines are the tracks which we walked across the world, roughly speaking—if you measure the distance from Addis Ababa, walking distance, you get this amazing fit between the amount of genetic variation in a particular population and the distance from birthplace. That’s because, as we moved, we were inevitably in small, inbred groups. If you go into Europe let’s say, quite close to Africa, we’re not particularly invariant. If we go to Eastern Asia, less variable again. If we go to Oceania, places like Tahiti or the Southern tip of South America, we’ve lost about a third of our genetic variation. That tells us over history we’ve been rare animals and the further we’ve moved away from our homeland, the more reduced we’ve become and the more different these populations are for purely random reasons from their ancestors.
The question then arises: What of the future? Well, in fact, we’re in a moment in which we’ve reversed the processes, which have driven human evolution since it began. First of all, there’s very little natural selection anymore, although that’s a different story. But second and more important, we’re no longer in most places doing this business of marrying people which we are related to.
In London, which is a very outbred city, among young children under 10 in London who’ve got one Afro-Caribbean parent—mother or father—the other parent—father or mother—is white European. That barrier, based on the genetics of skin color, is breaking down very quickly. Interestingly enough, what determines who you will marry in London is not your skin color but overwhelmingly it’s your educational level. Education level, whether you’ve both got degrees or one’s got a degree and one left school at 16, education level is five times more important in choosing a mate in London than is skin color, so those barriers are breaking down.
We can see in other ways how that’s happening. What we can do, we can ask a simple question, and I’ll ask you to ask yourselves this question. How far apart was the birthplace of yourself and your partner, if you have one, compared to the birthplace of your mother and father, your mother’s mother and your mother’s father and so on? I can guarantee for almost everybody that that figure has enormously increased in just two or three generations.
Mine’s a bit extreme. My wife was born in New York, 3,000 miles away. My parents were born in West Wales in two villages three miles apart. I once gave this lecture and a student at the back shouted, "And it shows!" I hope it doesn’t. The marriage distance can tell you something too. The surnames, the reason is of course that people are beginning to move. You no longer have to marry the boy or the girl next door; you can get on your 747 and marry the boy, or the girl, from the other side of the world. In some ways, perhaps the most important event in human evolution was the invention of the bicycle or indeed the 747, which is bringing the peoples of the world together and getting rid of these patterns of small isolated groups.
I’ll just end up by showing another clue which shows how powerful, important, and advantageous this effect is. This is a map of the surname, my name, Jones in 1881. You had to make one percent of the population to get onto this map. You can see we were tucked away behind Offa’s Dyke in Wales. Here’s the figure of Jones in 1998 and the Jones’s are on the move. We’ve got to Oxford. We haven’t got to Cambridge yet. And that’s true of everybody. There’s an enormous movement and mixture of names and of genes.
What's happening to our species is that there is extinction, but I look to that, unlike the extinction in the animal world, as being a very positive effect and not a very negative one. I do hope you agree with me.

Thank you.

The Edge Extinction Panel, Moderated by Molly Crockett
Helena Cronin, Chiara Marletto, Jennifer Jacquet, Steve Jones, John Brockman, Hans Ulrich Obrist

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Maybe before we start to moderate the panel, it would be great to hear a few words from John, who brought us all here together.

JOHN BROCKMAN: One interesting thing that comes through the disparate talks is what happens when you drop the word "biology" into a conversation. In Helena's world, or in Steve's classroom in medical school—in terms of extinction—one thing that's extinct for a lot of people is science itself. I was interested in an article I read about your experiences in the classroom, if you care to talk about it or not. Helena I've heard on the radio debating people about the distinction of sex differences. It seems like what happened in 1975, starting with the work of Robert Trivers, was the introduction of what became known as realistic biology of mind: the idea that we're mammals, we can be studied the way we study mammals, and we're biological entities. A lot of people have a problem with that.

STEVE JONES:  Yeah, that’s true. You’re talking about a specific and slightly unfortunate interaction, which a lot of biologists in this country have had, which is strong resistance by particular religious groups to being told about evolution. I refer at UCL, which is a very heterogeneous bunch of students, to Islamic students who send in petitions and write letters saying they shouldn’t have to listen to talk about evolution. My response to that is you can’t do biology without listening to evolution. It’s like doing English and not believing in grammar, or doing physics and having doubts about gravity. It doesn’t work. That is a concern.

In some ways there’s a matching and more subtle concern which is more important. There is, among many educated people and many people of a liberal persuasion—I would like to think I have one of those attributes—an unwillingness to accept the facts of biology. It is the case, as Helena suggested to us—although it’s grossly overstated—there are biological differences between males and females in many ways in behavior and other things; they’re used unfairly. There is a heritability of intelligence, which you only have to say that and heaven falls upon you mainly because people don’t understand what the word  "heritability" means. It means far less than what the papers tell you it means. I don’t know why anybody wants to study heritability at all. It’s almost a meaningless statistic.

The answer about science is science stands by itself. It doesn’t care what people think about it. The universe didn’t care about the inquisition, it continued circling around. Genetics is like that. Genetics is a scientific way to make sex boring. That’s what I do professionally, and we discover things that may be uncomfortable. But if they’re uncomfortable, too bad. The morals have to be put on one side. That’s the issue: people unwilling to accept the truths of science on ideological grounds. It doesn’t matter what the ideology is, it's the unwillingness to accept the truth that I don’t like. 

MOLLY CROCKETT:  Helena, did you want to add to that?

HELENA CRONIN:  Yes. There is a problem about the ideology, and it’s winning. For example, policy-making is entirely made on the grounds that males and females are the same and, roughly speaking, if females aren’t the same as males it’s because they’re being held back in some way. There are all sorts of attempts to get 50/50 percents in engineering, for example, which is ludicrous because on average there is much less interest in that area. I’m not talking about ability, just less interest.

Similarly, one of the most egregious examples I came across recently, which I’ll share with you just for the fun of it, was the Institute of Physics of all institutions which, started off its recent report with the idea that we need more engineers, more physicists, more hard scientists. Yes, of course, we all agree with that. Then they noticed that there aren’t as many women as men doing it. Then the problem suddenly changed halfway through the report, and it ended up in an Institute of Physics report was suggesting we shift more males over into the humanities and so on, so we’ll get more 50/50 even if very few women are doing engineering. There will be so few men there anyway, so it would be more evened up.

Now that’s a kind of madness. I know this sounds as if it can’t be true. That’s the kind of madness you get when you’re trying to impose an ideology that assumes you must have sameness otherwise you can’t have fairness. You can have fairness, and you should be treated fairly on the grounds of who and what you are. You don’t have to be the same as anybody else in order for that to happen.

CROCKETT:  Can I just push a little bit on that? You’ve made a compelling case that a lot of the differences we see in gender distribution in different career pathways are naturalistic. They seem to be evolved traits that were in response to some selective process, but of course in philosophy there’s this famous notion that you can’t derive an "ought" from an "is," and I want to ask you about the ethics of this. I wonder what are the implications of your research for the more ethical question about what should we be trying to encourage, and also related to this idea that having more homogeneity in anything is detrimental to the survival of an idea, of a field. I’m just wondering how the ideas about how things are, are related to how they should be.

CRONIN:  I entirely agree with you about keeping that distinction, and that’s why I feel it’s important that we understand what Steve said—the difference between science and ideology. But from the point of view of what we should encourage, well, we should encourage things, for example, we need more doctors. If we need more engineers, we should encourage it. But we should encourage people to be doctors or engineers. What we don’t want to do is discourage anybody who has a real interest and wants to do something, whether that’s a woman being an engineer or a man doing something typically feminine. It's a very, very simple thing, but the planning of what you need in society and which people you encourage to go for it are two different things

CROCKETT:  Great. I had a question, which probably many of the people on this panel could answer in different ways, and that’s to do with the extinction of ideas. A lot of talks touched on this and, of course, John has recently hosted at Edge the Edge Question about what scientific ideas are ready for retirement. Chiara, during your talk you spoke a lot about how knowledge can survive and be resilient, and it seemed like your theories were touching on what makes an idea survive, and I’m just wondering if you could turn this on its head a little bit and talk about how an understanding of resilience and survival might inform us of how certain ideas that maybe shouldn’t survive do survive and fail to die. You mentioned creationism, and I’m sure there have been talks today about climate change denial. I’m just wondering what can we get theoretically.

JB:  There’s also very credible ideas like dream theory that may or may not be worth retaining, but they’re mainstream.

CROCKETT:  Yeah, I’m just curious your thoughts on that.

JB:  So we’re not just talking about creationism.

CHIARA MARLETTO:  I think ideas and knowledge in general are to be judged in terms of how many problems they can solve. It could be the case that certain ideas that appear to be wrong to some of us haven’t shown the fact that they aren’t parochial and they can’t solve certain problems. One should just insist on criticism, criticizing those ideas and showing by watertight arguments that there are problems that they can’t solve and possibly that sometimes they are the very reasons why we get stuck on a problem. Also, there’s an interplay between the reason why certain ideas that seem to be wrong are resilient and our background knowledge. This connects to the phenomenon by which, despite our moral standards having improved, we still have certain phenomenon like the fact that apparently women are a minority yet in scientific subjects. Well, that’s just because there are certain ideas that haven’t been criticized well enough. It's just part of the progress that humanity does, criticizing them but in a pacific way and without seeing conspiracies anywhere.

CROCKETT:  Moving from the criticism of ideas to the criticism of cultural practices or the practices of companies, I’m just wondering, Jennifer, if you could tell us your thoughts on whether there is anything fundamentally different about the extinction versus resilience of ideas versus cultural practices and behaviors that might harm the environment.

JENNIFER JACQUET:  It would be very hard for me at least to separate those two things categorically. Maybe you have a different sense. So much of what we practice is based on ideology. Maybe there are certain things that are unlikely to go away, like a desire to gain prestige, but how that manifests itself does change very much over time. We maybe can recognize what some people would call like the meta norms, but then also recognize that within that meta norm ideas and practices change constantly. It’s maybe more an area like that you’re dealing with would be something about how do we go up against people who say that this is a cultural tradition that shouldn’t go extinct, and it’s at odds with extinction itself. That is a very sensitive and difficult area that science has a pretty big role, but values ultimately will come into play.

JB:  Jennifer, what happens when you do an experiment and you get a result that’s contrary to the values you’re pushing?

JACQUET:  What do you mean? You mean with me?

JB:  Well, it seems you know the answer before you do the experiment.

JACQUET:  You as in me or one?

JB:  In terms of the work you’re doing. Science is you run experiments and you find out are they false, are they true, are they not true. You have an agenda. So is it science? What happens if you do an experiment and it gives you the answer that’s contrary to what you’re espousing culturally?

JACQUET:  You’re trying to make the distinction that some people don’t have an agenda, but it’s not clear to me that’s the case. It’s not clear to me that anybody is entirely removed from the values of their discipline or their field. Again, the philosophers that I work with have pointed this out so many times, that every discipline has its own indoctrination process into what you have to believe for things to proceed.

CRONIN:  It's important to realize that whatever your agenda is, if you want to achieve it, you’ve got to know how the world is. It’s no good trying to shape the results of your experiments to your agenda. If you find something contrary to your agenda, that’s going to be extremely useful for you. Science just tells you the way the world is. It can tell you how to kill somebody. It can tell you how to keep them alive, and that doesn’t say whether you’re a murderer or a doctor.

JONES:  There’s a phrase from Bateson, who was an early geneticist, and he said,  "Treasure your exceptions." That's an important thing to say in science because he bred fruit flies. When I’m breeding fruit flies, I’m doing an experiment with students. Now and again things go wrong. Bottle number 1,210 doesn’t give you the right result. What I’m invariably saying and many scientists say:  "Damn, another fly got in," or "I labeled it wrong." You throw it away and, of course, that’s the last thing you should do. That’s the biggest treasure you’ve got is the exception, and that’s the thing which is very hard to get on board. You do have an agenda. The famous case, which more than one person on this panel will know much more than I do, was Lord Kelvin, who said in 1904 to Britain’s physicists,  "Give up doing physics. It’s all done. We understand it. Go and do something more interesting." The next year, quantum mechanics, relativity. Physics in effect collapsed.

There was a huge resistant to that, but in the end everybody said,  "All right. You’re right. We have to start again from the beginning, " and that’s what you have to do. I have to tell you, I’m looking forward to the headline sometime in the near future which says: "DNA Is Not The Genetic Material". That’s much closer than most people think. DNA is a small part of the machine. We have all the influences being on it. DNA may turn out to be unimportant. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? If only you could strip people of their Nobel prizes but you can’t.

CROCKETT: Thank you, Steve.

JB:  It’s interesting. At one of the Edge Master classes, there was a two-day debate: Daniel Kahneman taking on everybody about priming, and he finally said,  "Belief is not an option. It’s based on the facts," but two weeks ago and two years later after these various studies showed that some of the priming studies are not as solvent as people thought they were, he’s backtracking, which backs up what Jennifer is talking about.

JACQUET:  My other addition I would add to that is that the true scientific spirit which was exactly what you were saying is open to revision. I would never, on the basis of one experiment, accept some dogmatic approach to anything. If you’re not open to revision on any idea—physical sciences are a little less open than the social sciences, which have to be very open because human behavior is so varied and culturally dependent—that’s the problem.

CROCKETT:  Thanks, Jennifer.

OBRIST:  The bad news is that we’re out of time. The good news is that this wonderful conversation can continue. It can continue of course on Edge and also on EXTINCT.LY. I wanted to thank Chiara, and Helena, and Jennifer, and Molly, and Steve, and John. Thank you so, so very much, and thanks to Edge.

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