The tragedy of the commons

grazing cows and the tragedy of the commons“Don’t worry darling, there are plenty more fish in the sea ” said my mother as she comforted me after my girlfriend dumped me in 1983. It was little solace to my heartbreak then: a platitude worn thin by careless usage. It is even less use today, because it is no longer true. Sorry Mum. There aren’t plenty more fish in the sea.

Cefas, the government fisheries laboratory, has announced that  there are only one hundred adult cod left in the North Sea according to their estimates. Yes, that’s right only a hundred. Mature cod can live for up to 25 years and reach lengths of 6 foot. In 2011, a North Sea survey of catches showed not a single fish that was older than 13 years. Cod become more fertile as they get older. Most cod are caught when they have barely reached sexual maturity, on average when they are 4 years old. If there are no older fish, there are no eggs and larvae to perpetuate future generations. In the early 1970s, trawlers were catching 360,000 tons of cod a year in the North Sea. This year the catch is only 32,000, less than one tenth of the previous level but still 50% higher than the sustainable limit according to Cefas.

What makes this even sadder is that it is not a new story. It has happen before. In 1992, the Canadian Government finally banned all cod fishing in the Grand Banks following the complete collapse of the fish stocks. In Newfoundland, 35,000 fishermen became unemployed overnight, devastating the local economy and ending a traditional industry with a 500 year pedigree. The fishing moratorium was intended to last only 2 years to let the fish stocks recover. Sadly, this did not happen. It is only now, 20 years later, that cod stocks are recovering again but they are still at only 10% of previous levels. So the current collapse of the North Sea cod fishery is merely repeating a journey down a well worn tragic path*. If you plan on going fishing soon make sure to check out the best fishing kayak.

The crisis of the cod fisheries in both Newfoundland and now the North Sea were well flagged many years in advance. So the real question is  “Why didn’t someone do something about it before it was too late?” The short answer is that they couldn’t. The collapse in fish stocks had a ghastly inevitability; a high-sided luge track leading to disaster.  This phenomenon is known as the tragedy of the commons. Individuals acting in self interest deplete a common resource, even though it is in no one’s long term interest for this to happen. It was first observed by Thucydides and Aristotle, then resurfaced in the arguments over the British Enclosure Acts in the 18th Century but was most precisely defined in economic terms in a paper by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. It is also an excellent example of the reversal of virtue at a catataxic boundary.

In the tragedy of the commons, the word “tragedy” does not imply unhappiness and sorrow but rather the inevitableness of destiny, a remorseless working of logic to its inescapable conclusion. The logic working here is the economic concept of marginal utility. Picture an area of common ground – maybe a village green. Local cattle herdsmen have the right to graze their animals there. Gradually the number of cattle increase until the size of the herd is greater than the amount the grazing land can support. This is the catataxic boundary. The time when more of the same becomes different. Each individual herdsman is faced with a choice: should he put more cows on the pasture or fewer?  At this point the marginal utility equation comes into effect. He gains all the benefits of putting his extra cow on the common, but the negative effects are shared amongst all. He owns the cow but he does not own the commons. So the marginal utility to him as an individual is an overall positive: he gets all the upside, others share the downside. Therefore the logical course is for him is to keep putting more cows on the pasture until it is destroyed.

There are many examples of the tragedy of the commons and it is central to many of the problems of the modern world. Traffic congestion, email spam, the destruction of the rain forest, water shortages, pollution, global warming and overfishing all examples of the abuse of the commons. In each case, a slight gain to a self-interested individual results in a major detrimental effect to the larger community. So, for example, the new car owner gains some mobility but causes traffic congestion for everyone else. The online marketer gets a tiny positive hit rate as he clogs up the internet with spam. A farmer’s borehole to irrigate his parched crops lowers the water table for everyone else. Likewise,illegal logging, factory fishing fleets and toxic waste from chemical plants destroy the environment for every one else.

So what is the solution? In 18th century England the answer was obvious. Put the commons into private ownership. If the same man owns both the cow and the land, there is an economic incentive for effective stewardship. He owns all the upside and all the downside and so will manage both to positive effect. This was the argument behind the hugely unpopular “Inclosure Acts”: acts of parliament that allowed large landowners to expropriate  common land, turfing off peasant farmers and enriching themselves in the process. The Highlands of Scotland were cleared of crofters who then emigrated to the USA and in turn expropriated land from the native indians through similar trickery with title deeds. In England, a landless working class was created to feed the newly emerging “dark satanic mills” depicted in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony. Karl Marx, living in London and watching from the sidelines, saw this as the first act in the class struggle that would eventually lead to the triumph of the proletariat. He outlined a different solution to the tragedy of the commons. He believed that the commons should be owned by the state not private individuals; hence, communism.

Since then, more nuanced solutions have emerged. Elinor Ostrom, who sadly died this June, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her work on the tragedy of the commons problem. Her solution was neither private nor state ownership, but local, communal ownership. She call such a solution “common pool resource” (CPR) management.  After years studying pasture management systems in villages in Africa and Nepal, she codified a set of rules which would enable common resources to be exploited in a sustainable way. In essence, these involve clear cut boundaries between entitled locals and outsiders and a strong set of property rights and sanctions administered in a self determined way by the local community. To some, this CPR solution is the holy grail: a temperate middle path between the twin evils of rapacious capitalism and spirit-crushing communism. But others will notice that this solution the problem requires the introduction of a different type of evil: xenophobia.

CPR requires a clear division between locals who have ownership rights and outsiders who don’t. There needs to be a line drawn between “us” and “them”. Through rose tinted spectacles, CPR is the idealised English village community; good neighbours, earnest vicars, friendly grocers, church fetes, a good local school and a cracking village pub. Take off those spectacles and you see small mindedness, nimby attitudes, petty chauvinism, corrupt local councillors, disapproving frowns from behind twitching lace curtain and the all the ghastly wrangling of the local housing committee.

Any system that encourages the demonisation of outsiders and foreigners is surely to be deplored. One headline in the weekend press was more tragic than the story about disappearing cod. It was the killing of the US Ambassador in Libya. J.Christopher Stevens was  a Peace Corps veteran, fluent in arabic with a deep knowledge of the Middle East; surely just the type of of ambassador Libya should welcome. He was killed by militant Islamists enraged by an offensive movie put on YouTube by a US citizen on the West Coast. It seems so unfair that a sympathetic arabist in Libya should be killed in retaliation for the actions of a crazed bigot in California, but to a xenophobe all foreigners are the same.

So the tragedy of the commons has three solutions, all with potentially negative side effects. Is there nothing positive to be said? Yes, there is. Let’s look at the mirror image of the tragedy which we could term the “comedy” of the commons or the “inverse commons”. This is where a small negative to an individual results in a major positive benefit to the community. Those who believe in the economic utility function would classify this self-harming, altruistic behaviour as impossible. But not only does it exist, it is the basis of a lot of successful business models in the new information economy.  The best example is Wikipedia where individuals contribute their knowledge for free for the good of the greater community. The “inverse commons” concept is also at the heart of the “facebook” social networking revolution and open source software movement.

On a lighter note, even cod shortage may have a silver lining. Fewer cod has meant a boom in the population of the crustacea that the cod feed on. It looks like you will be swapping your “cod and chips” for “scampi and chips” in the future…

* For those who are interested in further reading on the subject, I highly recommend Cod by Mark Kurlansky (Vintage, 1999) and The End of The Line by Charles Clover (Ebury Press, 2004).

The hour between dog and wolf

There is an old French aphorism that calls sundown ‘the hour between dog and wolf’.  At dusk,  the familiar domestic pet turns into a rabid hunter.  Dusk is the hour of metamorphosis. This is how Jean Genet puts it in his 1986 memoir “The Prisoner of Love” (Un Captif  Amoureux):

[The hour] between dog and wolf, that is, dusk, when the two cannot be distinguished from each other, suggests a lot of other things besides the time of day … the hour in which … every being becomes his own shadow, and thus something other than himself. The hour of metamorphoses, when the people half hope, half fear that a dog will become a wolf. The hour that comes to us from at least as far back as the Middle Ages, when country people believed that the transformation might happen at any moment.

I spent last weekend at the Hop Farm festival, a three day mini-Glastonbury in Kent. Since it is British Sumer Time, the sun does not go down until 9.30pm so the headline acts are hitting the stage at dusk. We had two grand old men of rock: Peter Gabriel on Friday and Bob Dylan on Saturday. Both of them underwent a metamorphosis at dusk, since neither were presenting their seminal rock tunes in their original form. In both cases, their back catalogue had been radically transformed to such an extent that it was almost unrecognizable. I had heard a rumor about possible fleas or ticks in the fields around the festival so I made sure to check for ticks. To help with fleas I stripped and showered as soon as I got home, and so no critters ( more nitenpyram reviews)! Back to the main event with the two men of rock.

Dylan first. Listening to his incomprehensible growling and barking interspersed with the occasional yelp,  it was definitely a lupine transformation but I could not tell if it was a dog or a wolf. It was more like a metamorphosis frozen between the two, like a ghastly science experiment gone wrong or the dog monster from John Carpenters The Thing. The creature was clearly in excruciating pain judging from its piteous yowling, as was the audience that had to listen to it. More puzzling was the fact that the big video screens to the side of the stage were stuck on a single long shot showing a tiny figure in a white hat – exactly like the view from where I was standing – which made the whole thing utterly pointless. Technology negated by a man so vain that he had banned all close ups of his 71 year old face.

When he came on he was greeted with a huge cheer befitting his iconic status, but by the fourth song half the audience had drifted away to the other stages (Primal Scream, Gary Numan, New Order). This left a hard core knot of Dylan Fans in the gathering gloom exchanging quizzical glances as they tried to work out what song His Bobness was actually singing – sometimes it took until the second chorus to work it out.

Was I disappointed ? No. I last saw Dylan live 25 years ago when things were pretty much the same but just with a faster tempo. He has been on a never ending tour ever since. There is a PE ratio for live shows. Not the Price/Earnings ration beloved of financial analysts, but a Performance to Expectations ratio. Seasoned concert goers know that that Dylan is always the lowest ranked on this basis (followed by Van Morrison in a close second). The greatness of his artistic halo is repeatedly shattered by the awfulness of his live show.  The concert promoters had crowed in the advance publicity that this was to be Dylan’s “only UK Show in 2012”. Now we know why…

Peter Gabriel, in contrast, was terrific. His metamorphosis was triggered by setting himself an artistic constraint: no drums or guitars. So his rock oeuvre had to be completely reinterpreted for an orchestra to play…with spectacular results. The audience was still playing a game of  “guess the song” but in a good way.  The orchestral versions of his songs brought new resonance and meaning to his work. It is good example of how an artist can take a risk and and reach new heights.

The interesting point is how self-imposed restraint promotes artistic excellence.  Rhyming poetry has more artistic merit than blank verse, and blank verse more so than prose.  Art house movies often use black and white rather than colour. Peter Gabriel’s ‘no drums or guitars’ restriction was in a similar vein. But the best example of “high art through restraint” is calligraphy. Picture the master calligrapher standing in front of a blank sheet of paper with his inked up brush in his hand. The ink is black – no colour is allowed. The character he must paint is pre-defined. Even the very order in which he makes the strokes is set by centuries of historical convention. Yet despite, or maybe because, of all these constraints he produces something of such transcendent beauty that it is seen as the ultimate art form by more than half the world: the true mark of a civilised man.  Artistic endeavour must be honest; a truthful expression of inner conviction. This is pithily summed up in this maxim:  Lies cripple the artist. To this we can add another: a strait jacket sets him free.

Excellence through restraint was also very much on show in the movie I saw as I was recovering from the festival weekend. This was X Men – First Class. The restraint in this case being that there are pre-formed familiar characters – a lot of them – all of which have to be woven into the story.  This summer’s blockbuster Avengers Assemble, which I also enjoyed, carries a similar burden with four strong hero characters (Hulk, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man) all having to be fitted into a single movie. With X-Men – First Class we also know where we have to end up because this is a prequel. So unlike a typical story, we already know the ending and the character ‘development’ is similarly constrained. The fun and skill comes in delivering us (the audience) to that pre-agreed destination through the most enjoyable route. This is the storytelling equivalent to a third option on your satnav that lets you chose not the fastest, nor the shortest route but the most scenic.

The dilemma at the heart of the X Men movies is this: is being a mutant a disease from which you should be cured ? Or is it a beauteous and natural thing that should be celebrated. Should Wolverine be transmuted back into a domestic pet? In the movie the answer is no. So the series can be read as a thinly veiled critique of right wingers who believe that being ‘gay’ or ‘different’ is something that can be cured.

This month also sees the publication of a new book entitled “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk-taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust” by John Coates, a successful Wall Street Trader turned Cambridge neuroscientist. Coates took saliva swabs from 250 traders on the dealing room floor over a two week period. He then plotted testosterone levels against risk taking and trading performance. Those with higher testosterone levels took bigger bets, greater risks and subsequently made the most money.

In the book,  John Coates seeks to explain “irrational exuberance” of the markets through blood biochemistry – testosterone and other hormones coursing through the veins of amped up traders in the dealing room causes them to be overconfident, take unnecessary, irrational risks and so cause financial bubbles. Having found a ‘reductionist’ explanation for financial excess, maybe it can now be ‘cured’ ?

In my view, the error underlying this blood chemistry approach is the idea that financial bubbles are a mistake – something that needs to be eliminated or cured. The X men movies make the same point. Bubbles are not a mistake, they are a naturally occurring phenomenon, part of the fabric of nature. Their existence is not a sign that something has “gone wrong” but that everything is working fine. They may be inconvenient and cause financial damage but this is to misapply a human concern to an entity on a higher level. It’s the same type of error as calling the law of gravity “immoral”

King Canute ordered his throne to be carried in to the shallows of a rising tide. The reason normally ascribed is that he believed he could command the waves. In fact, his intention was to mock his courtiers and to demonstrate he was not all powerful: he could not control the waves. The tides follow their own cycles, dictated by celestial bodies in a higher dimension beyond the control of man. Likewise financial cycles, belong at a higher level.

Set up three levels: blood chemistry, trader, market. We can join the dots with two causal arrows pointing upwards crossing the catataxic boundaries like this: blood chemistry controls the trader, the trader controls the market. Our we could reverse them and have the causal arrows pointing downwards. If we want to control the market (eliminate financial bubbles and crashes) we must control the trader and to control the trader we must control the hormones. This leads to some rather farcical conclusions. This reductionist argument is really a reductio ad absurdum. Maybe the FSA should prescribe testosterone suppressant drugs in order to eliminate boom and bust? Or maybe firms should only employ women on the dealing floor?

Just as it is wrong to view the trader as purely a product of raging hormones  (drunk driving excuse- the booze made me do it). So it is wrong to see the market as purely an amalgam of traders. To do so is to make a catataxic error. Each entity belongs on its own level with its own rules. The point is that you can not control the market. King Canute knew that a thousand years ago. Some of us are still struggling to understand that now.

Microsoft’s management kills innovation

Vanity Fair this month has a great article titled “Microsoft’s lost decade”. It describes how the corporate giant lost its way and changed from being an indomitable technology Titan to a has-been. Just as IBM did a decade earlier. The reason? A management technique known as “stack ranking”. Every business unit had to rank a certain percentage of its employees as “top performers”, “average” or “poor” and this effectively crippled the company’s ability to innovate. In contrast, Apple (for decades underdog to Microsoft) generates more revenue with a single product  – the iPhone – than the whole of Microsoft Corp.

“Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Kurt Eichenwald writes in Vanity Fair. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

This internal competition vs external competition is a catataxic debate and it lies at the heart of the resurgent interest in group selection theories of evolution. The question is whether the natural selection that drives evolution acts at the level of the group or at a genetic level. If evolution is the “survival of the fittest”, then the question becomes the fittest what? Is it the fittest group? The fittest species ? The fittest individual? The fittest set of genes ? This question about “which level rules” is the essence of catataxis.

In social animals such as ants and termites you can clearly see a form of individual altruism: insects that sacrifice themselves for the good of the colony as a whole. This seems to imply that natural selection is operating at the level of the group. However, Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” pins natural selection definitively to the genetic level. He explains the “self sacrificing ants” in a bottom-up genetic way. The ants in the colony are all related to each other; they share the same genetic material. So in sacrificing yourself for the sake of the group you are still indirectly propagating your genes. This genetic cause of altruism is summed up in Hamilton’s Rule which states that the degree of altruism depends on the degree of genetic relatedness. It can be summed up in this grim biologists joke :

I will lay down my life for two brothers, four nephews or eight cousins

Other biologists such as David Sloane Wilson see a group selection argument for altrusim which goes like this: If you mix a group of selfish people and altruistic people together, then the selfish people will always win. They act in their own self interest and exploit the generous altruists. But if you move up a level and observe the competition between groups then you see a different effect. Groups that are full of altruists working cooperatively together outcompete groups full of selfish people fighting each other. So at a group level teams of altruists win, but at an individual level selfish people win. So, turning this around, you can say that wherever you see altrusitic behaviour then it is a sign that competition between groups is a stronger force than competition inside groups. Or, as Microsoft has found out, when management emphasises internal competition the group as a whole will fail.

This “level of selection” controversy is still a hot topic of debate amongst biologists. In this June’s issue of Prospect Magazine,  Richard Dawkins wrote an excoriating review of a book by fellow biologist Edward Wilson titled “The Social Conquest of Earth”. Wilson was arguing for the theory of group selection outlined above. Dawkins violently disagreed. His review concludes “…this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force…”. This vigorous denunciation provoked a huge backlash. The Dawkins article received more responses than any other in Prospect Magazine’s history. In effect, it was the atheist equivalent of watching the Pope beat up the Archbishop of Canterbury on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The debate also provides a controversial conclusion for management consultants. If you want your company (group) to win then you should embrace the cult of mediocrity. Suppress internal competition and focus on external competition.

In fox hunting circles, when the Master of the Hounds is training a new pack, he takes the dogs for their first outing in spring to see how they perform. He then shoots both the first few pack leaders and the last few stragglers, keeping the mediocre middle performers because he knows they will form the most effective team.

Could this translate across to corporate management. Is the secret to commercial success to sack not just your worst salesmen but also your best? Let me know what you think….

Lynn Margulis and the Eukaryotic Cell

When you think of evolution what image first springs to mind? It’s probably a hall in the Natural History Museum filled with fossils. All the dinosaurs, trilobites, coelacanths and ammonites together make an awesome menagerie of extinct creatures. The stepping stones of evolution are laid out before you in rock and bone. But there is something wrong with this picture – it’s just depicting animal evolution which means it is only telling part of the story. There are five other kingdoms of life (plants, fungi, protozoa, bacteria and archaea) and animals showed up relatively recently. Life on Earth started 4 billion years ago but the first animals evolved 0.5 billion years ago, half-way through the last quarter of the game. So that fossil hall in the museum is like a history of the world that only covers one continent in recent time. A history of the world that starts with American Independence and never strays beyond its borders. (Yes. I know. For many Americans that really is the history of the world but bear with me)

Most famous evolutionary biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Haldane, Maynard Smith, etc) come from a background in zoology. Their expertise is in the comparative study of animals. Lynn Margulis, who died aged 73 in November last year, was different. She was a microbiologist who focused on the evolution of eukaryotic cells (cells with a nucleus) and became convinced that the scientific consensus was wrong. The mainstream thinking was that the engine driving the evolution of species was random genetic mutation in which only the fittest survived. Margulis agreed that natural selection picked winners but disagreed about how the competing variants were created. She believed that evolution was driven by the symbiotic cooperation of organisms: the competitors in the race worked together rather than competed with each other. The mainstream saw the creation of new species as a divergent process; just as twigs and branches diverge from the trunk of a tree. Margulis believed that new species were created by a process of fusion and merger. She wrote a paper about it in 1966 called “ Symbiogenesis: the origin of eukaryotic cells”.

And then nothing happened. In fact, worse than nothing. Fifteen academic journals rejected her paper. One actually said “Your research is crap. Don’t ever bother to apply again”. Maybe it was because she was a woman. Maybe it was her abrasive personality and appalling temper. After extensive reworking, she finally managed to get her paper published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. It was a groundbreaking piece of work. For the first time, the evolution of cells had been properly examined: a history of a continent that was not America had been published. The response from the mainstream was…..complete silence. No one bothered to respond because no one really cared.

And then, very gradually, the years passed and data began to trickle in to support her theory. A single cell is more complex than you might imagine; it’s more than a nucleus in a little sack of protoplasm. The diagram below shows that there are 13 different entities inside it. The crucial evidence to support her theory came when scientists discovered that some of these entities had DNA that was different from the nucleus. The DNA of mitochondria, chloroplasts, basal granules and plastids is not the same as the DNA in the nucleus. This implies that a cell, the fundamental building block of all animals, is a fusion of different bacteria-like creatures. At some time in the past, a group of different bacteria clumped together to form a eukaryotic cell. This cell was dramatically more successful that the individuals composing it and became the basis of all higher lifeforms. The living creatures that we see around us all stem from that initial cooperative merger. Nature is not wholly “red in tooth and claw”.

1. Nucleolus
2. Nucleus
3. Ribosome
4. Vesicle
5. Rough endoplasmic reticulum
6. Golgi apparatus (or “Golgi body”)
7. Cytoskeleton
8. Smooth endoplasmic reticulum
9. Mitochondrion
10. Vacuole
11. Cytosol
12. Lysosome
13. Centriole

 

 

 

Lynn Margulis’s theory has now become scientific orthodoxy and her book “Symbiosis in Cell Evolution” is seen as a classic of 20th century biology. Her concept of symbiogenesis is at the core of the fifth catataxic maxim “Today’s groups are tomorrow’s individuals”. Time acts to drive individuals up the catataxic ladder. In a social history of the world, families become tribes, tribes become nations, nations become empires and all long before the founding of America. So too in biology. Bacteria merge to become eukaryotic cells, single cell creatures merge to become multicellular plants and animals, and the resulting flora and fauna knit together to form complex ecosystems.

Europe: the Federated States of Catataxia

Catataxis means level confusion and the Eurozone crisis is a catataxic one. I will explain the problem with the state(s) of Europe in a moment, but first a little bit more background about the state of catataxia.

When things start to get bigger, sooner or later a certain point arises when there is a discontinuity. Getting past that requires a transformation in structure or organization. To get to the next level, something more than just size must change. Think of the biggest insect in the world. It will not be more than a foot long. Those giant ants towering over houses in 50’s sci fi movies are a physical impossibility. A creature with an exoskeleton reaches a physical limit to growth. There comes a time when the muscles required to move the external carapace get so big they can not be contained inside that carapace. Think of an enormously fat knight; his armour is so heavy he can no longer lift it. So in order for an ant to grow to be the size of an elephant, he has to cease to be an ant. His body form must be reorganized. His exoskeleton needs to be replaced by an exoskeleton. Mammals have endoskeletons: internal bones not external shells. Mammals range in size from a tiny shrew to a gigantic blue whale. That “exo to endoskeleton ” transformation marks a catataxic boundary: a discontinuity in a smooth linear expansion. A necessary reorganisation before further growth can continue.

Hence, the catataxic maxim “more of the same is different”. Let’s look at a corporate example instead of a biological one. A common cause of failure amongst small companies is not that that they fail to adapt when things are going badly but when things are going well. Sudden rapid growth can be just as dangerous as a declining market. As they expand quickly to become a big company they face a number of complicated hurdles, mostly to do with internal organisation. They must develop more robust systems in HR, admin, compliance and legal. They must navigate through a deadly miasma of corporate structure and org charts. This is the equivalent of the “exo to endo” transformation: the ant becoming the elephant. To most employees, this pointless bureaucracy and red tape is a big dead weight; sapping energy, crippling natural agility and dragging down performance. It is true that an ant can perform prodigious feats. Insects can carry many times their own weight or jump many times their own height. An elephant can’t jump at all, but it is BIG and that brings many different benefits.

Let’s look at a social example. When two or three people go out to dinner in a restaurant it is quite easy to settle the bill: just split it down the middle. But with 12 people there, suddenly the argument is all about who had the lobster to start with and how much wine did Jimmy drink. More of the same is different. It’s hard for a big group of people to pay the bill. Often its best to appeal to a higher authority: someone picks up the tab and takes a chance by sticking it on his corporate credit card. That way some higher level corporate entity can sort it out.

And so back to Europe. Everyone agrees that there should be a bailout for the Eurozone but no one wants to pay the bill. There is no leadership and no one to take charge because they can’t. There is no institution big or powerful enough to deal with it… yet. In Europe, we are privileged enough to be watching the ant turn into an elephant before our very eyes. Yes, this will require upheavals, reorganisations and much red tape. In the end, the Federated States of Europe will emerge. This lumbering, dull witted mastodon, much mocked and stung by the agile insects around it but big enough to crush them without even noticing.

The press has delighted in pointing out that the Groupe de Francfort, the eight public figures including Merkel and Sarkozy that are attempting to lead the response to the Eurozone crisis, are largely unelected and therefore have no democratic legitimacy. But then again, no one lauds a catataxic transformation. Have you ever heard a front office employee praise a corporate decision to double the number admin staff and increase red tape. This transformation is happening because it is an inevitable consequence of scale. Globalisation has made the existing structures redundant or unfit for purpose, and new institutions must replace them. It is a naturally emergent phenomenon driven by the environment, like a high tide or a wildebeest migration.

The ant must turn into an elephant. The Groupe de Francfort is its emergent head. A catataxic boundary must be crossed. It is a necessary transformation before growth can continue.

Catataxic Rice

One of the best catataxic aphorisms is this “You are not stuck in Traffic. You are Traffic”. It invites you to step above your instinctive personal view of things and see the broader context, and your place in that context. It encourages you to “see the wood for the trees”, to get some perspective on the matter.

Here is an interesting parallel in Japan. As always, Japan absorbs interesting ideas from outside and, by putting their own spin on them, transmutes them into something sublime. Remember the crop circles on the farms in the West of England? A trigger for much mystic speculation, they were eventually shown to be a destructive but whimsical prank carried out by drunken yokels with some ropes and planks. Geometric patterns carved into the breast of Demeter, the goddess of grain. The agricultural equivalent of a cheap tattoo, or, in an urban setting, tagging a wall with spray paint.

In Japan, they have turned this “graffiti” into art. By planting different strains of kodaimai rice with yellow or purple leaves in precisely the right places among the traditional green leaved tsugaru variety, their paddy field becomes canvas. A picture that gradually becomes visible as it grows; not imposed destructively from the outside but nurtured and organically emergent from the seed.

The trend started in the village of Inakadate in Aomori Prefecture in Northern Japan but has since spread to other regions. The patterns are carefully worked out on computers before planting in May, and by September the “rice art” has fully developed and is ready for harvesting. Of course, you can only see it from a distance and after some time has passed. That is the catataxic part. When you are knee deep in the muddy water planting tiny grains its hard to perceive the big picture. That belongs on a different level.

See this you tube clip to watch the picture growing before your eyes ….

 

Close up
Medium shot
The big picture

 

 

A murmuration of starlings

Catataxis means “more of the same is different”. Warhol’s silkscreen prints of 32 Campbell’s soup cans seems to say “more difference is the same”. In his wall of near identical soup cans, each is different “variety” but they are all essentially the same. In other words you may have ‘choice’ but no real variety.  Choosing one of them is no real choice at all. That static image, made in 1962, was a portentous warning of the future.  You probably feel it most today when you are surfing through the 999 channels on your satellite TV. You have far more ‘choice’ than twenty years ago but there is nothing you want to watch.

Warhol’s soup cans miss one  key feature: things are not static but dynamic. Computer generated imagery ( CGI) on those TV programs fills in the background crowds in a battle scene, or adds the herds of dinosaurs in a science documentary.  They can make realistic crowd behaviour by using a ‘flocking’ algorithm. This has three simple rules: go in the same direction as everyone else, try to be in the middle and don’t bump into other people. By instructing each computer generated agent in the crowd to follow those rules they create  realistic  flocking behaviour; the herd of dinosaurs looks real.

Those three rules of flocking behaviour are also the rules for the supermarket buyer or TV executive. We can take them one by one. First, you have to follow the current trend. You have to respond to what is popular or you will have no customers. Second, you have to be in the middle. Your job is to get as many customers as possible and, by definition, they are clustered around the middle. Third, don’t bump into other people. Your product needs to be slightly different or you will get sued for copyright infringement.

The reason why everything on TV looks a bit the same is that the people who commission the shows are  flocking. So a better metaphor for consumerism than Warhol’s soup cans is a flock of starlings on a winter evening. As the birds group together in the darkening sky, the patterns they make coalesce and fragment unexpectedly. Three simple rules make something complex and startlingly beautiful. It is jittery, unstable, individually free but bounded by the group and impossible to predict. It is a group effect , a catataxic effect. This is the modern consumer economy: an evening murmuration of the starlings

The instability comes from the balance of two opposing forces. There is the push of trying to be different and the pull of trying to belong. This is classic teenage angst. It’s no coincidence that advertising gurus peg the aspirational age at 17. This is the age that everyone in the modern consumer economy would like to be. It is the nexus of cool. Those younger than 17 want to be just like those older kids. They aspire to the maturity and freedom of a 17 year old. Those older look to recapture their youth. So if you pitch your product at 17 year olds you will hit a much broader market. That’s where trends are born. It’s the centre of gravity of the starling flock.

Mistletoe in Winter Trees

As I was driving to the hospital the other day I saw this

Mistletoe in winter trees

Those round things high up in the trees are not nests. That is mistletoe. You can understand why the Celts thought it had magical properties. It is part of the tree that is still green (sorry my photo does not show that so well) and so in the depth of winter  holds the promise of spring. That is the reason why it is used in Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Mistletoe is also a symbol of male fertility. The berries if you squeeze them give off a sticky white juice that looks similar to semen. This sticky juice is the mechanism that the plant uses to propagate itself. Mistletoe is a parasite. Its roots are not in the soil but the branches of its host tree. So unlike other plants (but like Onan), if its seed falls to the ground it is barren. The seeds can only germinate if they are attached to the branch of another tree.  Birds do this when they eat the berries.  They wipe their beaks clean on another branch and the sticky juice attaches any uneaten seeds to a new host.

Anyway, when I saw this out of my car window I was struck by the thought that mistletoe  is also a metaphor for catataxis. Mistletoe has its roots not in the ground but in the sky. As a parasite, it is a second order plant. A sky borne floating plant that belongs at a different level and follows different rules.

How to be immortal

The first human became immortal in 1951 in a laboratory in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A cell line was created from a tissue sample from a cancer patient called Henrietta Lacks. These “HeLa” cells have since been used for medical research throughout the whole world. They were used to develop the first polio vaccine in the 1950s and for research into cancer, AIDS, radiation, cloning and genetic mapping. Some 300 scientific papers a month are published about research using HeLa cells. This story is told in the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Human cells can grow outside the body so long as they are kept in the right conditions. They need a cell culture plate, the right temperature and a mix of nutrients and gasses. Most cells can only divide around 50 times before they die. This is known as the Hayflick limit. It is caused by an accumulation of small errors when replicating the DNA. The key factor is the length of the telomeres at the end of the DNA strand. The more the DNA is copied, the shorter the telomeres get.  Cancer cells have an enzyme called telomerase which protects the telomeres. That is what makes cancer cells infinitely replicative. Cancer cells kill you because they are immortal and you are not. One goal of cancer research is to find something to inhibit the telomerase and make them like normal cells which age and die.

Cells get more complicated the closer you look at them. A body has organs like the brain, liver or heart to do specific tasks. Cells have similar subsystems called organelles. The typical parts of an animal cell include a nucleus, mitochondria, a Golgi body, vacuoles, ribosomes and lysosomes. In fact, a cell looks like a complete organism in its own right. A cell respires, digests, excretes and reproduces – all you could wish for in a good husband. There is even a form of cellular memory exhibited in the immune system.

The ‘cell as organism’ proposition should not come as a surprise. Single cell creatures were the only form of life on earth for the first 2 billion years, so they are quite capable of looking after themselves. Multicellular creatures like us evolved from loose colonies of single cell creatures. So a human being can be viewed as the emergent result of a community of 50 trillion cells.

The family of Henrietta Lacks started a law suit to claim financial compensation for the use of the HeLa cells. This is where the catataxis comes in. Is the HeLa cell line still in some way Henrietta Lacks? Did she die in 1951 or is she still alive?  If someone is selling vials of your mother’s cells, do they belong to you?  The Supreme Court of California says no. Their ruling is that a person’s discarded tissue or cells are not their property and can be commercialised. Tell me what you think…

The myrmecologists debate

Adam Tofilski studies ants. In particular, he is interested in Forelius pusillus, a Brazilian ant. He spends three years videotaping a sandy patch of dirt at the edge of a sugar cane field at Fazenda Aretuzina in Brazil. Such dedication deserves a reward, and in this case it pays off. He finds something extraordinary. Some ants are deliberately sacrificing themselves for the sake of their colleagues. Ants forage in the daytime but at dusk they return to their nest. As they go back into the hole, they deposit sand particles around the entrance. This make a flat eliptical pile of sand, partially sealing the nest.  A few ants are left outside to kick sand from this pile over the entrance to disguise it. These few are left stranded outside the colony and die of cold in the night. Greater love hath no ant than to lay down its life for a friend.

Dr. Tofilski from Krakow University in Poland publishes his paper in “The American Naturalist” in Nov 2008. He rightly points out that other insects show sacrificial behaviour. Bees leave their stinging barb in the flesh of attackers and then die. Some termites rupture their abdomens to release a sticky fluid that entangles enemies. But these suicidal defences are only used when the nest is under attack. The Brazillian ant, Forelius Pusillus, is sacrificing himself preemptively to close the entrance of the nest each evening. Even without an enemy present, they are laying down their lives to die outside in the cold. It sounds as noble as Captain Scott of the Antarctic.

Ants are social insects, related to wasps and bees. Ant societies have a division of labour, communicate amongst individuals and have an ability to solve complex problems collectively. It is these similarities to to human societies that make them so fascinating to the myrmecologists who study them. There are over 12,000 species of ant. They have colonised every part of the Earth and are arguably the most successful creature on it. They account for 20% of the total weight of all land animals.  But the most fascinating thing about them is this: they are so social that no one is sure whether to classify the individual ant or the whole colony as the key organism.

Its easy to see a colony of ants as a creature in its own right: a super-organism. Ants have specialised roles such as workers, soldiers, foragers, drones and fertile queens. This division of labour means that the ants are working for the good of the colony. They are doing what the super-organism wants. The colony as a whole exhibits a form of intelligence and is able to do things that the individuals can’t. It behaves like a living creature: it moves, it metabolises, it grows and reproduces. With the army ants of South America, the colony itself is constantly on the move through the jungle attacking large prey en masse. When the colony gets too big, it “reproduces” by splitting in two. Leafcutter ants have four different castes of workers producing food in an elaborate chain. Leaves are cut, cleaned and fed to a special fungus that grows in gardens in their nests. The ants eat the fungus not the leaves. This is a super-organism with a complex digestive system.

Let’s shift perspective and view the colony as the organism rather than the ant. What then shall we make of Forelius pusillus, the Brazilian ant? It is no longer a poignant story of self sacrifice. They are just a few disposable cells sloughed off by the organism. Its a bit like exfoliating with a pumice stone in the bath. Do you shed a tear when you pull out your nail scissors? Do you feel sorry for the clippings when you throw them away? Its not really suicide…