A serf’s overview of an important book by Jane Jacobs, ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations.’


Say, Who Commands the Enterprise?

Remember when Mao Tse-tung decreed the economy of China was to take a Great Leap Forward?

Remember when Khrushchev at the United Nations foretold a Soviet economy that would overtake America’s and thereafter ‘bury’ the West?

Remember, after the Second World War, when the British thought they were constructing a prosperous welfare state?

The recipes and ideologies for accomplishing their economic goals may have differed in each of these nations, but in each, a similar disillusionment. Macro economy entrusted with the theory and practice of fostering national and inter-national economies has become a shambles.

Consider the funds poured into Marshall Plan post-war development of Europe. The Marshall Plan was touted as a successful venture yet the realities were there to see. While aid did become self generating to the economies of the Netherlands and West Germany, funding conspicuously failed to metamorphose stagnant economies like the economy of Southern Italy or that of Great Britain.

Jane Jabobs observes that since that time many already advanced countries, among them the United States, have also become victims of an insidious problem, the problem of stagflation, a combination of rising unemployment and inflated prices. In theory this should not exist, but it does.

This does not compute!

Keynes’ quantifiable fiscal interventions yielding quantifiable predictable results were tried and found wanting. As the Keynes’ camp succumbed to stagflation and bafflement, the Monetarists had a go, attaching inflation with high interest rates and cuts in government spending. But turned out, Monetarists’ measures to fight inflation were ruinous to many producers and their workforce and measures to help producers enlarged government deficits. Via state run policies of price subsidies and over-manning enterprises, the Marxist economies, too, were hit by stagflation.

Attempts to save their theories by tortuous claims that the intervention see-saw works indicated that structural flaws have not been taken into account by economic planners. They do not understand, says Jacobs, how to catalyse development in backward countries and they do not understand how to prevent developed economies from slipping backwards themselves.  (Chapter 1 ‘Fool’s Paradise.’)

Questioning mercantilist assumptions of gold and silver reserves as the source of a nation’s wealth, Adam Smith in his great work, ‘Enquiry into Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations’ argued that wealth came from capital and labor and from domestic and foreign trade. What he did not question was the mercantile view that nations are the salient entity for understanding the structure of economic life. Jacobs argues that once we remove the mercantilist blinkers, we can’t help seeing that most nations are grab bags of very different economies, of rich and poor regions within the same nation. (Ch 2, ‘Back to Reality.’) She quotes Henry Grady editor of a newspaper in Atlanta, in 1889 describing a funeral he had attended in Pickens County some eighty miles away:

‘The grave was dug through solid marble but the marble headstone came from Vermont. It was in a pine wilderness but the pine coffin came from Cincinnati. An iron mountain over-shadowed it but the coffin nails and the screws and the shovel came from Pittsburgh…The cotton shirt on the dead man came from Cincinnati, the coat and breeches from Chicago, the shoes from Boston, the folded hands were encased in white gloves from New York, and around the poor neck, which had worn all its living days the bondage of lost opportunity, was twisted a cheap cravat from Philadelphia.’ (Op cit.)

The items Grady mentions were products of American cities replacing imports instead of interminably importing them from London or other English cities. And behind the items lay other products, often innovative adaptations, lathes, knives, dye vats, freight axles. These products were not generated in rural areas but in cities. Economic life, Jacobs demonstrates, develops by grace of innovation in cities; it explodes by grace of import replacing, which are functions of city economies.

We Have Lift Off!

Charles Sabel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1982, described the proliferation of small firms that occurred a decade earlier in clusters of small cities between Bologne and Venice, firms employing as few as five workers, specialising and innovating in every phase of production of textiles, automatic machine tools, automobile and agricultural equipment, the process feeding on itself as parts in a chain reaction.

Cities own regions, the artifacts of cities, may benefit from the opportunities the city generates. Not all cities generate city regions. Atlanta did not but New York and Boston did so. The expansion that derives from city import replacements consists of five forms of growth, abruptly enlarged city markets for new and different imports, new uses for technology, increased numbers and kinds of employment, increased growth of city capital, increased transplant of city work into non-urban locations as older enterprises are crowded out.

The largest city region in the world today is Tokyo’s, says Jacobs. She describes the benefits of an expanding city region on the rural village Shinohata, as the five forces of expansion came to bear. Beginning in the late 1950’s, people in Shinohata found they could make good money from things not previously in demand, like peaches and grapes, ornamental plants for city gardens, and increasing demands for their rice crops. Productivity soared through purchases of labor saving devices. Oak mushrooms were a new product in demand. In the 1960’s three farmers began expanding oak mushroom production with a new method of growing them by stacked log production. By the 1970’s these farmers had forth to fifty thousand logs each and by using heated glass houses in winter, were making daily shipments to Tokyo all the year round. The villagers themselves were the first to admit that the wealth of the community was not because they were more innovative than their forebears, but due to the benefits of Tokyo’s regional expansion.

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Lost in Space.

When those five forces reach out into distant regions as they always do, it’s as if a city’s bonds unravel at the borders of the city region and their separate strands, in supply regions, distort into bizarre economies and eventually shrink into poverty.

Jacobs shows this effect in Uruguay, which for several generations was un unusually rich supply region. Most of the population of Uruguay had migrated from Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century and to spur immigration, the government had encouraged homesteading. Efficient homesteaders supplied meat, wool and leather, but little else, to distant markets and could afford to import what they needed, refrigerating unites, cranes, and other things necessary to keep their advanced transport and communication systems going, along with hospitals, schools and theatres.

Uruguayans called their country ‘the Switzerland of South America.’ Turned out it wasn’t. In the 1950’s, countries in Europe that had been begun to recover from the effects of the Second World War became preoccupied with protecting their own meat and wool producers from competition, while ranchers in Australia and New Zealand were seeking to enlarge their own markets. In the meantime, substitute products for wool and leather were  being  manufactured. Uruguay’s exports and imports plummeted. To pay welfare and transfer payments the government began printing money and Uruguay is now a third world economy. What they did, they did well, notes Jacobs. What they did not do was create a productive city diverse economy for themselves.

Other supply regions, New Zealand, New Brunswick in Canada, Appalachia, Central and Southern Scotland, have the same problem of narrow specialization. France today has only one import replacing city, Paris, and rural France is a stunted supply region.

An Act of Faith.

‘Say, I’m from the guvuhmint and I’m here to help you …’  If you happen to live in a supply region, forget it because the only forces which transfer economies, argues Jane Jacobs, are the five great forces of markets, new technologies, jobs, and city transplants that occur organically.

Money from immigrant workers sent home to supply regions doesn’t help. The new funded taxi breaks down, its owner hasn’t earned enough to pay for its repair.

Subsidies and grants providing labour saving technology puts traditional subsistence farmers, often women, off the land. Large capital projects like the Volta Dam in Ghana resettled 80,000 people on to poor farmland most of whom are now probably landless indigents.

Transplants by order to outer regions brings in self sufficient industries like Lockheed,  that do not  contribute to the region’s economy and government industries that are inflexible and a drain on the national economy.

Taking a look at history, when the Roman Legions pulled out of their western empire in Britain and Europe, these regions sank into subsistence living, the period known as the Dark Ages. Rotation of crops dropped under pressure of survival and were then forgotten, metal agricultural tools wore out and were not replaced, whole ranges of manufactured and craft good disappeared from economic life. Well woven cloth became a lost skill, except for one small enclave in the low countries. A bright future for Europe was probably touch and go. For a new city to form, requires one or more initial cities with which to begin its initial trading.

To Boldly Go Where …

Luckily for Europe there was a little settlement on the mud flats and marshes at the head of the Adriatic which discovered a market for salt and later timber, with nearby Constantinople. But Venice, this pioneer city of the European economy, did not remain a mere supply depot. It began  diversifying its own products  and producing a market for other supply depot settlements to the north and west, which then, each in its turn, began to build up its own city production.


Lots of examples around of leaders trying to generate, by top down planning,  the economic miracle that was Venice and its surrounds. Peter the Great attempted it in Russia, the Shah  of Iran attempting to buy a developed economy by selling oil, but it seems that development is a do it yourself process, As Jane Jacobs reminds us, all of today’s developed economies were once backward economies yet managed to transcend their backwardness by building up city import production.

 Danger Will Robinson.

Jane Jacob presents a hypothesis of flawed feedback from national currencies. Jacobs argues that today we take for granted the benefits of multiple currencies being replaced by a few to create stability in economic life. She argues that this assumption warrants questioning if you understand how feedback controls from currencies work in their own terms, that national currencies have an inbuilt flaw because nations are not discrete economic units. What ever export or city happens to contribute most heavily to the national exports is apt to be the region or city best served by the national currency. If one city and its region get the edge, argues Jacobs, we must expect that the edge, once gained will become self reinforcing because the more heavily its production will weigh in the total and foreign trade of the nation’s cities and the more closely the feedbacks will suit that specific city. But it won’t coincide with the differing needs and timing of other cities and over the passage of time nations will become dominated by one dominant city and others becoming passive and provincial. (Ch 11, ‘Faulty Feedback to Cities.’ )

To illustrate the flaws in national currency, Jacobs offers an analogy of a group of people with their own diaphragms and lungs but who share one single breathing centre. In this bizarre arrangement, the breathing centre would receive a consolidated feedback on carbon dioxide but without discriminating among the individuals producing it, some sleeping, others walking or running, etc. Of course no such flawed system could survive in nature but nations, from this point of view, receive currency feedback where the predominant message makes no distinctions between the differing units.

Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore have a built in design advantage that many cities of the past enjoyed with their own currencies triggering specifically appropriate feedback corrections to specific responding mechanisms Montevideo in Uruguay would have benefited from such admonitory currency feedback  as would have many cities in the US today. During the last eight decades, city after city in America, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Seattle, Detroit have declined, due to the structural flaw that goes with the territory of national currency. Jane Jacobs’ pessimistic conclusion:

‘We must be grateful that world government  and a world currency is only a dream …As far as I can see, there are no remedies at a city’s or a nation’s command whatever, short of separation in the pattern of Singapore, for correcting the flaw.’ (Ch 11.)

Jane Jacobs identifies what she calls ‘Transactions of Decline,’ ( Ch 12.) policies and transactions that make it impossible for cities, handicapped  by currency flaws in any case, to renew themselves. The policies and the transactions she identifies as killers of city economies are “

(1) Prolonged and unremitting military production.

(2) Prolonged and unremitting subsidies to poor regions.

(3) Heavy production of trade between advanced and backward economies.

Regarding war production, Jacobs observes that cities, not prolonged military production, incubates economic life, History shows that military developments do spur civilian economic developments  and conversely, civilian technology spur military technology, but only when production oscillates between them. Prolonged military production, however, retards development and drains the earnings of cities.

The trouble with transfer payments and unremitting subsidies, not just one-off disaster relief donations, is that they feed voraciously on the earnings of cities and divert earned city imports to regions that do not develop through replacing imports. Heavy trading with backward economies reduces inter-city trade and opportunities to serve as good customers for one another’s innovation, with no ongoing benefit to developing backward economies as import replacing cities themselves.

Is It Dead, Jim?

I’m not going to say much about the pessimistic conclusions of the two final chapters of Jane Jacobs’ book regarding the predicaments of modern cities and whether we might be able to bell the cat.  A few suggestions to stave off decline. Avoiding VAT imposts on improvisation, avoiding nation-wide or international product standards hindering economic development other than the relatively few standards strictly required for health and safety… Cities solve pressing problems themselves and may then export their solutions to one another and the rural world. Attacking monopolies … when Bell Telephone Systems’ monopoly was broken endless varieties of new products appeared.

Says Jacobs:

‘These are instances in which a nation, without damage to itself as a political unit, has made a little more room in itself for open-ended economic drift.’
(Ch 14, ‘Drift.’)

A Serf ponders.

Jacob’s ‘Cities and the wealth of Nation’s reminds a serf of Nassim Taleb’s book, ‘Anti-Fragile,’ in which Taleb sees ‘experts ‘ transferring fragility to others  and would welcome addressing top down asymmetries of risk by the ancient code of Hammurabi.’ ( Re ‘Hammurabi’ see me 12th  Edition of Serf Under-ground Journal.)

If you’ve read Taleb’s “Antifragile’ and his other book, ‘The Black Swan,’ you’ll be aware that ‘experts’ and governments are no more successful than individuals at predicting the fuchure, even ‘experts’ like Paul Ehrlich, say, or  Alan Greenspan or Joseph Stiglitz.

‘It is obvious to anyone before drinking time’ says Taleb ‘ that we can put a man, a family, a village with a mini town hall on the moon, and predict the trajectory of planets or the most minute effect in quantum physics, yet governments with equally sophisticated  models cannot forecast revolutions, crises, budget deficits, climate change. Or even the closing prices of the stock market a few hours from now.’ ( ‘Antifragile.’ Ch 8, ‘Prediction as a Child of Modernity.’)

Taleb describes Switzerland, with its small central government, as economically the most robust place on the planet. He tells the tale of another economy, the province of northern Levant, prosperous for over twelve thousand years, from the time of pre-pottery neolithics to traders on the silk road right up to the trading souks, or traditional markets, of the twentieth century.


Two events ended all this. After World War1 one region of the northern Levant was integrated into the newly created nation of Syria and separated from the rest, which is now part of Lebanon. Up to then, the entire area had been part of the Ottoman Empire, largely autonomous as long as taxes were paid. Cities minted their own coins and operated as city states where commerce flourished.

Hey, how ter transform gold into mud … When the socialist Baathist Party came to power it centralized government, removed the souks and enforced statist laws. The effects were immediately visible. Aleppo and Emesa went into instant decline and trading families departed to New York, New Jersey, Beirut and Lebanon.( NT Ch 5 ‘The Souk and the Office Building.’)

So can we predict the fate of the West and its nations? Jane Jacobs has a go and offers some hard case studies on decline of the cities. She may well be right but there’s NassimTaleb reminding us that humans aren’t all that good at predicting. Say, we serfs recall those Dark Ages but then Venice rose from the marshes like a phoenix from its ashes. Today we have Switzerland in the west, Singapore in the east, with small government and good currency feedback … black swans abound, the next innovation …?



Ever git that locked in feelin’ that’s common ter serfs? …  Sometimes in Spring when yer in the fields hoein’ turnips, yer watch the welcome swallows flyin’ fast and free over the fields, returnin’ from their long migration … You wish, serf, you wish.

The Wise Move, the Good Stay Still.

Concerning journeys and interconnections. In ‘A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Fung Yu Lan quotes Confucius in the Analects:

‘The wise man delights in water, the good man delights in mountains. The wise move; the good stay still. The wise are happy, the good endure.’ (V1,21.)

This quote by Confucius, Fung Yu Lan says, suggests something of a different mind set between the people of ancient China and those of ancient Greece that relates to their geographical experiences. China is a continental country. From the time of Confucius until the end of the 19th century, no Chinese thinker had the experience of venturing upon the high seas, whereas Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, living in a maritime country, traveled from island to island. There are two expressions in Chinese which can be translated as ‘the world.’ One is ‘all beneath the sky,’ the other, ‘all within the four seas.’ Fung Yu Lan observes that to a maritime people like the Greeks, these would not be synonymous expressions.

The ancient Chinese and Greek philosophers also experienced different economic and social conditions. In China, most people made their living by agriculture. In the thinking of the Chinese philosophers, there is a distinction between what they refer to as ‘the root’ and ‘the branch.’ Agriculture is concerned with production, ‘the root,’ and commerce is merely exchange, ‘the branch.’ Throughout history, philosophy and policy gave emphasis to the root and slighted the branch. The two honorable classes of Chinese society were the scholars, who were usually landlords and whose fortunes were tied up with agriculture, and the peasants who worked the land. The lowest classes of society were the artisans and merchants who dealt with the branch.

In the’Lu-shih Ch’un-ch’iu,’ a compendium of various schools of philosophy written in the 3rd century B.C, there is a chapter entitled ‘The Value of Agriculture’ comparing farmers with merchants. Simple farmers, their material properties complex and difficult to move, do not abandon their country in times of war and are obedient and unselfish. Corrupt merchants, disobedient and selfish, have simple property, easy to move, and are able to abandon their county in times of danger.

Confucianism and Taoism, the two main Chinese philosophies,  says Fung Yu Lan, (p19.) though ’poles apart from one another, yet are also the two poles of one and the same axis and both express, in one way or another, the aspirations of the farmer.’ Confucianism reflects and rationalizes the social system of an agrarian society based on the family, Taoism expresses an unworldly idealization of nature.

The poetry of the two philosophies reflect these different attitudes:

‘The Master said.’ by Confucius.

’The Master said,
“It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused.”
It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is
“It is from music that the finish is received,”
The Master said,
“The people may be made to follow a path of action.
But they may not be made to understand it.’

The Taoist poet T’ao Ch’ien:

‘I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach,
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant mountain hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we express it, words suddenly fail us.’

Over the Sea.

‘All things are made of water, ‘said Thales of Miletus, believed to be the first of the Greek philosophers. This view may not be as far fetched as it first appears, says Bertrand Russell, (Wisdom of the West.) Hydrogen, the stuff that generates water, has been held, in our time, to be the chemical element from which all other elements can be synthesized. Living near the sea, Thales would easily have observed that the sun evaporates water, that mists rise from the surface to the clouds, which again dissolve in rain.

Thales lived on the Ionian coast, a busy cross-roads for trade and commerce. The centuries preceding Athens’ experiment in political democracy had seen the development of a new sea faring class, dramatized in Homer’s two great epic poems, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey.’ Among the civilizations of the world, Greece was a late-comer, but what changes it brought. Western civilization has evolved its great philosophic and scientific traditions from these beginnings in Greece, two and a half thousand years ago.

When Greeks took to the sea and began to trade and build colonies around the Aegean Sea, coming into contact with other cultures, the old tribal certainties began to weaken.The philosopher Heraclitus developed the idea that all things are involved in some form of movement, a concept of change unfamiliar to tribal societies where social customs were regarded as god-given immutable regularities. Another philosopher, Democritus, formulated the doctrine that human institutions, language, customs, laws, are man-made, followed on by Socrates’ teachings in Athens, that we are responsible for our individual actions and his argument, in the spirit of scientific criticism, that we should have faith in human reason but avoid dogmatism.

You Will Not Move.

Socrates pupil, Plato, rejected the faith in an open society, expressed by these earlier philosophers. Born into a period of political turmoil, the period of the Peloponnesian Wars and its aftermath of civil war and epidemics, Plato sought to arrest all change. Through his theory of immutable essences, Plato was able to extract something permanent from the Heraclitean process of flux and historical corruption. From his theory, Plato was able to argue for a return to a previous golden age period that might stem the tide of change by creating an hierarchical social system based on Plato’s  necessary ‘noble lie’ of the metals in men.

Like ancient Greece, prior to the entrenched hierarchical system that developed in China under the Ming Dynasty, there was a time when China might have engaged with the rest of the world. In the period when the Tang Empire came to an end and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms fought incessantly, China experienced its most spectacular burst of invention and prosperity. By the late 1000s Chinese were masters of silk, tea, porcelain production, paper and printing and made coke from coal to smelt high grade iron. Industrious peasants were working for cash as well as subsistence and using their cash to buy goods.

Then came the calamities of the Mongol invasion and the Black Death. The Black Death,  as in Western Europe, decimated the population and presumably resulted in surplus land to supply disposable income. In Western Europe however, there were regions of independent city states run by merchants who would adapt positively to these challenges. China was governed by the Ming emperors who nationalized industry and created state monopolies for salt  iron, tea, foreign trade and education. The first of these Emperors, Hongwu, forbade all trade and travel without official permission, forced merchants to register an inventory of their goods once a month, and permitted peasants to grow food only for their own consumption .

Before the Ming period, China had been extending its sea power for three hundred years. Chinese merchants had developed a trade network in spices and raw materials with Indian and Muslim traders to the fringe of the Indian Ocean. By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, China had reached a peak of naval technology, including development of the magnetic compass, that was unsurpassed in the world. The second Ming Emperor, wishing to impress Ming power on the world, had a massive treasure fleet built, greater than the Spanish Amada, which made seven voyages, sailing as far as East Africa.

China had the means to trade with the world and the Chinese people were ready to do it but Yong-le’s successor brought an end to China’s maritime history by banning ship building and trading abroad. This was steered by the Emperor’s officials who instinctively distrusted innovation as a threat to their own positions. As Matt Ridley points out in ‘The Rational Pessimist,’(Ch5,) the officials had high status and low salaries, a combination that bred corruption and rent-seeking.

Postscript: China has a rich history of peasant rebellion before and following the Ming dynasty era. Chinese society was founded on Confucian principles of an established social order in which each human being accepts his or her destiny as a constituent element. The mandate of Heaven guarantees the overall harmony of this world. Only if this harmony is disrupted through degeneration of dykes and canals, crop failures and failure to maintain grainery reserves collected by the taxes of the peasants, may the emperor, as its holder, and his corrupt bureaucracy be overthrown. Peasant rebellions were frequent and were sometimes powerful enough to bring down an emperor, including the Ming emperor in the seventeenth century. But as one dynasty was replaced by another, sometimes a new dynasty of a peasant leader, Chinese society was never able to free itself from the historical fabric of ancient China. No industrial revolution in China.

An Anatomy of Melancholy.

Robert Burton, Oxford don, devoted an immense amount of scholarship in ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ to showing that travel was a cure for melancholy, for depressions brought forth by the sedentary life. Nature itself shows the way…

‘The heavens themselves run continually round, the sun riseth and sets, the moon increaseth, stars and planets keep their constant motions, the air is still tossed by the winds,  the waters ebb and flow, to their conservation no doubt, to teach us  that we should ever be in motion.’

Geoffrey Chaucer was aware of it :

‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtu engendred is the flour:
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tender croppes, and the yonnge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve course yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.’

(‘Canterbury Tales.’)

Melville’s Ishmael knew it too:

‘Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … and especially whenever my hypos gets the upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.’

Bruce Chatwin in ‘Songlines’quotes Darwin’s example of Audubon’s goose that when deprived of its pinion feathers, started out to walk the  yearly migration journey on foot. Darwin also describes ‘the suffering of a bird, penned up at the season of its migration, which would flail its wings and bloody its breast against the bars of its cage.’

Say, here’s another journey, and what a journey. Giulio Tonono, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has written a book exploring the mysteries of human consciousness entitled, ‘Phi ; A Voyage From the Brain to the Soul.’

A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul.

Tononi’s book is not a scientific paper but instead, a poetic narrative with a dreaming Galileo as its central character. With Galileo, we are taken on a journey of discovery about different facets of consciousness and as in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ the traveller is accompanied on his journey by a guide.

Galileo’s voyage is in three parts. In each part Galileo’s guide is a different famous scientist. The first guide is Frick, the biologist Francis Crick, who reveals to Galileo, through meetings with historical figures suffering from different brain diseases, the parts of the brain that reveal consciousness. The second guide is the mathematician Altura, Galileo is hard of hearing and mishears the name Alan Turing. Turing debates with Galileo his belief that even simple machines can produce conscious experience.Galileo’s third guide, known only as the old bearded man, is Charles Darwin, who conducts Galileo through the implications of Phi, the concept of integration of ideas that Galileo dubs ‘consciousness.’

This allusive voyage through the labyrinth of consciousness is by way of metaphor and rich imagery and a medley of voices talking to each other, even including the echoing narrative of a bat in a cave. At the end of each chapter, a mysterious note taker comments and gives context to the artistic and scientific references. Some examples:

Chapter 4 Cerebellum. In which it is shown that the cerebellum, though having more neurons than the cerebrum, unlike the cerebrum, does not have consciousness.

Cerebelum 1


 Cerebellum 2


   Chapter 16. Integrated Information, the Many and the One. In which is shown that consciousness  lives where information is  integrated by a single entity above and beyond its parts

 conciousness 1


 conciousness 2

   Chapter 27, Consciousness Evolves. In which it is said that animals are conscious too.


Evolution 1

evolution 2

Well, time ter git out and about, I guess …

Gaudama Buddha’s last words to his disciples: ‘Walk on!’

Wilhem Kempff , ‘The Tempest.’ Beethoven



Dedicated to the memory of Max Anacker, global citizen with a distinguished career in Chemical Engineering, denizen of Climate Etc and Serf Under-ground Journal, witty and wise.

While laughter and the nature of the comic have been the subject of many earnest studies, I do not propose to burden the reader, or myself, in their detailed pursuit. Rather a selection supported by illustration from the cornucopia of comedy, examples from film, the cartoonist armoury and from the litera-chure.

Extracts on Laughter.

# ‘The most striking thing about the people of the Western Desert was their ready laughter.’The neighboring Aranda men used to say of them, ‘They are always laughing. They can’t help it.’
(Carl Strehlow in ‘The Songlines’ Bruce Chatwn,  (Picador) P305.)
# ‘That laughter is proper to man is a sign of our limitations, sinners that we are  …Laughter, for a few moments, distracts the villein from fear. But law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God.’
(Blind prophet The Venerable Jorge in ‘The Name of the Rose,’ Umberto Eco. (Picador) p 474.)

# ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’
(Mr Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Jane Austin, (Penguin) p 343.)

Theories on Laughter.

# The Superiority Theory of Aristotle focusing on the darker side of comedy, specifically that we laugh in response to our elevation over others’ unfortunate situations or social standing. Tsk!

# The Relief Theory of Sigmund Freud that focuses on laughter and humour as a form of  emotional release, funneling energy away from pent up emotions and, you guessed it, sexual repression.

# The Incongruity Theory of Immanuel Kant in which something funny revolves around derailed expectations or an effective, unpredictable punchline that takes us by surprise.

Then there’s Henry Bergson’s theory in his essay, ”Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic,’ which includes some of the above, particularly the incongruous, and more, ‘with no aim of imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition,’ instead seeking ‘a practical acquaintance, such as springs from a long companionship.’ …  Say, I like that.

So what does Bergson’s long acquaintance with the comic uncover? Herewith some extracts and let’s see how they fit with the divine comedy, well ‘human’ comedy actually.

Henri Bergson on Comedy.

‘The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside of what is strictly HUMAN. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it  – the human caprice whose mould it has assumed.’

‘Here I would put out a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE of FEELING which usually accompanies laughter, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.’

… Hmm, more of this later.

‘To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all, we must determine the utility of its function, which is a SOCIAL one.’

Say, could laughter, as an evolved instinctive response, be linked to social survival, kinda’ like the zig-zag dance of the Stickleback in me previous edition on ‘Virtue and  the Selfish Gene?’  Jest askin’.

James Thurber Cartoons ‘The Overt Act ‘and ‘The Battle on the Stairs.’

1 + 2

James Thurber ‘The Thinker.’


So what do we laugh at? Seems what makes us laugh is a rigidity of attitude, ‘closely akin to mere absentmindedness. …The rigidity is the comic and laughter is the correction. What life and society require of us is a constantly close attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation, together with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to adapt ourselves in consequences.’

Maxwell Smart, always good for a laugh concerning a comic inelasticity of mind. Take his calling for the ‘Cone of Silence’ in his private talks with the Chief.You might almost consider it a fetish.



The Maxwell Smart single dimension character demonstrates a difference between comedy and tragedy in presentation of character, the generic in comedy, compared with individual decisions in tragedy. While the vices in each may be similar, ‘the vice capable of making us comic is, on the contrary, that which is brought from without, like a ready-made frame into which we are to step. We do not render it more complicated, on the contrary, it simplifies us.’

Think Jane Austin’s cannon of comic characters, Mr Collins, Mary Bennet, Mrs Elton, deficient in self awareness, defined by self satisfaction.

‘The whole party were assembled … and Mrs Elton  in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting or talking. Strawberries and only strawberries, could now be thought of and spoken of. “The best fruit in England – everybody’s favourite  – always wholesome. – These the finest beds and finest sorts. Delightful to gather for one’s self – the only way of really enjoying them .Morning decidedly the best time – never tired – every sort good – hautboys very scarce -Chili preferred – white wood finest flavour of all – price of strawberries in London – abundance about Bristol – Maple Grove – cultivation – beds – when to be renewed – gardeners thinking exactly different – no general rule – gardeners never to be put out of their way – delicious fruit – only  too rich to be eaten much of – inferior to cherries – currants more refreshing  – only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping – glaring sun – tired to death – could bear it no longer – must go and sit in the shade.’
(‘Emma’ Ch17. The Strawberry Picnic.)

Many comedies have a generic name as their title whereas ‘drama, even when portraying passions or vices that bear a name, so completely incorporates them in the person that their names are forgotten., their general characteristics effaced, and we no longer think of them at all, but rather of the person in whom they are assimilated, hence the title of a drama can seldom be anything else but a proper noun.’

Well yes, ‘Oedipus,’ ‘Othello,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Medea’ versus ‘L’Avare,’ ‘The Miser,’  ‘Le Misanthrope,’ or maybe butcher,  baker, lawyer, thief, characters defined by prescribed behavior and habit, so moving us to laughter where tragedy may  arouse in us emotions of pity, fear or sympathy.

In Moliere’s L’Avare, the actions of the miser, Harpagon are so controlled by his avarice that it is no sooner repressed than it goes off again like a spring. When Valere points out to Harpagon the wrong that he would be doing in marrying his daughter to a man she does not love, then points out the character flaws of this man that Harpagon would compel his daughter to marry, Harpagon  exclaims, ‘No dowry wanted!’ as a repeating burst every few minutes.’No dowry wanted!’ His exclamation, recurring so repetitively suggests a machine set going by an automatic mechanism.

Of Comedy in Movement.

‘A man running along the street stumbles and falls; the passers by burst out laughing. They would not laugh at him, I imagine, could they suppose that the whim had suddenly seized him to sit down on the ground. They laugh because his sitting down is involuntary … A RESULT IN FACT OF RIGIDITY OR OF MOMENTUM, the muscles continue to perform the same movement when the circumstances of the case called for something else …’

‘The victim of a practical joke is in a position similar to that of a runner who falls – he is comic for the same reason. The laughable element in both cases consists of a certain MECHANICAL INELASTICITY just where one would expect to find the wide-awake  adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being.’.

In life, movement never halts but is ever-changing. In comedy movement becomes gesture. The more unconsciously the gesture is repeated, the more puppet-like, the more striking the comic effect.

(JacquesTati ‘ Playtime.’)

Of Comic Physiognomy.

‘When we speak of expressive beauty or even expressive ugliness, when we say that a face possesses expression, we mean expression that may be stable, but which we conjecture to be mobile. It maintains in the midst of its fixity, a certain indecision in which are obscurely portrayed all possible shades of the state of mind it expresses, just as the sunny promises of a warm day manifests itself in the haze of a spring morning. But a comic expression of the face is one that promises nothing more than it gives. It is a unique and permanent grimace. One would say that the person’s whole moral life has crystallized into this particular set of features. That is why a face is all the more comic, the more nearly it suggests to us the idea of some simple mechanical action in which its personality would be forever absorbed.’

‘We shall now understand the comic element in caricature. However regular we may imagine a face to be, however harmonious its lines and supple its movements, their adjustment is never altogether perfect: there will always be discoverable the signs of some impending bias, the vague suggestion of a possible grimace, in short some favorite distortion to which it seems to be particularly inclined. The art of the caricaturist consists in detecting this, at times, imperceptible tendency,  in rendering it visible to all eyes by magnifying  it.  He makes his models grimace, as they would do themselves if they went to the end of their tether. Beneath the skin-deep harmony of form, he divines the deep-seated recalcitrance of matter.’



Take Off That Mask, Cape, Hat!

In contrast to living supple behavior, Heni Bergson likens comic situations to the mechanical actions of a child’s toy, a marionette or a jack-in-the box.

‘This view of the mechanical and the living dovetailed into each other makes us incline towards the vaguer image of  SOME RIGIDITY OR OTHER applied to the mobility of life, in an awkward attempt to follow its lines and counterfeit its suppleness. Here we perceive how easy it is for a garment to become ridiculous. It might also be said that every fashion is laughable in some respect. Only, when we are dealing with the fashion of the day, we are so accustomed to it that the garment seems, in our mind, to form one with the individual wearing it. We do not separate them in imagination. The idea no longer occurs to us to contrast the rigidity of the covering with the living suppleness of the object covered.’

‘Suppose, however, some eccentric individual dresses himself in the fashion of former times: our attention is immediately drawn to the clothes themselves, we absolutely distinguish them from the individual, we say that the latter is DISGUISING HIMSELF, as though every article of clothing were not a disguise! – and the laughable aspect of fashion comes out of the shadow into the light.’

Heh, remember those flared trousers and weird hair styles of the nineteen seventies?

‘Let us then follow this logic of the imagination in the special case at hand. A man in disguise is comic. A man we regard as disguised is also comic. So by analogy, any disguise, any masquerade, is seen to become comic, not only in a man, but in a society also. See James Thurber, ‘Battle of the Sexes’.


‘Let us go on to society. As we are both in and out of it, we cannot help treating it as a living being. Any image then, suggestive of the notion of a society disguising itself, or of a social masquerade, so to speak, will be laughable. Now such a notion is formed when we perceive anything inert or stereotyped, or simply ready-made, on the surface of living society. There we have rigidity over again, clashing with the inner suppleness of life. The ceremonial side of life must therefore always include a latent comic element, which is always only waiting for an opportunity to burst into full view. It might be said that ceremonies are to the social body what clothing is to the individual body: they owe their seriousness to the fact that they are identified, in our minds, with the serious object with which custom associates them, and when we isolate them in imagination, they forthwith lose their seriousness. For any ceremony, then, to become comic, it is enough that our attention be fixed on the ceremonial element in it, and then we neglect its matter, as philosophers say, and think only of its form.’

(Fellini ‘Roma’ Costume Parade.)

The Language of Comedy.

For the language of comedy we must make a distinction between the comic expressed   in language and the comic created by language itself. The former could possibly be translated into another language whereas it is generally impossible to translate the latter.

The comic created by language, ‘owes its entire meaning to the structure of the sentence or to the choice of words. It does not set forth, by means of language, special cases of absentmindedness in man or in events. It lays stress on lapses of attention in language itself. In this case it is the language itself that becomes comic.’

‘It would seem that what is called wit is a certain DRAMATIC way of thinking about words. Instead of treating his ideas as mere symbols, the wit sees them, he hears them and, above all, makes them converse with one another like persons.’

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -neither more nor less.”
“The question  is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
(‘Through the Looking Glass.’ Lewis Carrol.)

And for an isolated phrase to be witty, it must bear some sign within itself of evident absurdity, either a palpable error or contradiction. Take for instance the remark by one of the characters in a play by Labiche, ‘Only God has the right to kill His fellow-creature.’

‘A COMIC MEANING IS INVARIABLY OBTAINED WHEN AN ABSURD IDEA IS FITTED INTO A WELL ESTABLISHED PHRASE FORM. ..Sometimes too, the effect is a complicated one. Instead of one commonplace phrase form there are two or three  which are dovetailed into each other … This Reciprocal Interference of two sets of ideas in the same sentence is an inexhaustible source of amusing varieties.’

‘Cecily:  You, I see from your card, are Uncle Jack’s brother, my wicked cousin Ernest.’
Algernon:  Oh! I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily.You mustn’t think that I am wicked.
Cecily:  If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.’
Algernon: ( looks at her in amazement.)  Oh! Of course I have been rather reckless.
Cecily:  I am glad to hear it.
Algernon:  In fact, now you mention the subject, I have been very bad in my own small way.
(The Importance of Being Ernest. Act 2.)

A comic meaning is also achieved by a process of inversion, by putting the object in place of the subject, for example, in Lewis Carrol’s ‘ Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter poses a riddle: “Why is a raven like a reading desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.
” Do you mean that you think that you can find the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.”
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least    -at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.”
“You might just as well say,” said the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe.”

‘TRANSPOSING THE NATURAL EXPRESSION OF AN IDEA INTO ANOTHER KEY,’ is another potent source of comedy. ‘The means of transposition are so rich and varied … the comic is here capable of passing through so great a number of stages, from the most insipid buffoonery up to the loftiest form of humour and irony’ Transpose the solemn into the familiar, the result is parody, … make small things large,…exaggeration, is always comic when prolonged and especially when systematic ….

The divine Chaucer, the little to the big, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, a farmyard drama.



Tsk, I haven’t even mentioned the Marx Brothers or Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in ‘The Producers!’ 9  … Or Eddie Cantor!



Say, why are there so many of us out there drawn to the novels of Jane Austin or to the television series, ‘Foyle’s War,’ revisiting them again and again? Seems ter me it’s our fascination with the characters and their emotions, especially the main characters, in the context of the moral world depicted in each, a world where good sense and individual integrity are important.

In Jane Austin’s novels, Socrates’ dictum,’Know thyself,’ underpins the misunderstandings and romantic coming together of the main characters. It gives emphasis to the flaws of the comic characters whose intensely revealing conversations suggest no likelihood of self-knowledge. In ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ there’s the vulgar Mrs Bennet looking for wealthy husbands for her daughters as in Jane Austin’s ironic opening lines in the novel, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged,’ and there also the pompous and unaware Mary Bennet and Mr Collins. In the novel,’Emma’ there’s the revealing comments of two social climbers, The Reverend Elton and his wife, and in ‘Persuasion,’ Anne Elliot’s unfeeling, narcissistic family. They won’t change.

The romantic involvement of the main characters depend on their capacity to learn by their mistakes. Without resolving their misunderstandings about each other, no happy ending, letter required from Mr Darcy to Elizabeth, and recognition by Elizabeth of her own mistakes:

‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried; I who have prided myself on my discernment! … How humiliating is this discovery! yet how just a humiliation! … Till this moment I never knew myself!’

 For a happy ending, shocked self awareness required from Emma:

‘How improperly had she been acting by Harriet. How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! … How to understand the deceptions, she had been practising on herself and living under! The blunders, the blindness, of her own head and heart!’

In the most painful of the romances, the broken engagement of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in ‘Persuasion,’ it is not Anne who needs to grow into consciousness but Captain Wentworth. Fated to be the regretful observer of other people’s folly, Anne must wait for Captain Wentworth’s  process of reappraisal, the famous letter:

‘ You pierce my soul.  I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late  … I would not have waited these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine.’

And then there’s the attraction for us of Foyle’s War, set against the backdrop of the Second World War and Britain under the threat of invasion. You’ve got Chief Inspector Foyle and his team, second in charge, Milner, and Foyle’s driver, Samantha Stewart upholding law and order on the home front.

You might say here at Hastings Police Station, the perceptive Christopher Foyle is the guardian of civilized values. ‘Thou shalt not cheat or murder thy neighbor.’ And people do, cheating their neighbors or profiteering from the war, stealing fuel, art works, secrets and killing for passion, revenge or to conceal other crimes. Foyle and Milner, himself a casualty of war, an amputee, and the sympathetic Sam Stewart, in an understated way, are all deeply committed to the moral world they work to uphold. When Foyle is ordered to overlook a serious crime by someone important to the war effort, he resigns in protest. Thank goodness, for a very good reason, he agrees to return to duty in the next episode or things would likely have got a lot worse in Hastings.

So what about this moral virtue thing?

Selfish Genes and Such.

Sometimes yer get tired of the dismal selfish gene and prisoner’s dilemma game theories telling us serfs, evolving as we have from the animal kingdom, ter fergit altruism and ethics, they’re really jest us fooling ourselves, a light show of convenient  mutual benefit scenarios concealing what’s below, the wired in mean and nasty self. Tsk, there’s that Charles Darwin, in himself a model of reliability and altruism, coming out with his evolutionary bombshell that existence is nothing but a universal struggle between living organisms competing for existence. Cooperation? There’s that Richard Dawkins telling us that group behavior has little to do with cooperation. The behavior of ants and  bees and the  behavior of our nearest genetic relatives chimpanzees and ourselves, evolved to benefit our selfish genes.

Any chance that sometimes, some of us humans just may act without benefit to ourselves, put trust and altruism before personal gain? Hmm…In his book, ‘The Origins of Virtue,’ Matt Ridley presents from a socio-biological view point, the arguments surrounding the development of human morality, exploring how genetics can be used to explain certain traits of human behavior, in particular, human morality and altruism.

Say, the argument from evolutionary inheritance doesn’t begin well. On cooperative behavior in the animal kingdom, for the fore-mentioned ants, bees and the chimpanzees, selfishness rules, helping your sister ants or bees or the relatives in your primate tribe though Dawkins may call it kin-altruism, really amounts to helping your self …

And Animals R Us – aren’t they?

So what about us?  Animal behavior has profound implications for the study of the human mind, as Helena Cronin in ‘The Ant and the Peacock,’ (1991) argues,  that ‘to erect a biological apartheid of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘ is  to ‘cut  ourselves off from a particularly useful source of  explanatory principles .’

Ridley’s book abounds in case studies of animal and human behavior regarding those four great drives of living species, drives of hunger, sex, fear and aggression. One case study he presents, from the 1970’s and 1980’s involves Arnhem chimpanzee politics.  In 1976 a chimp called Luit became the dominant alpha male in a study group by dominating the previous alpha male, Yeroen. Prior to the take over, Luit had tended to join forces with the chimpanzees that had just won fights but once he became alpha he switched allegiances to the underdogs to stop fights  and keep on top of any potential rivals. However Luit was soon toppled by a conspiracy between an ambitious but not so strong young chimp, Nikkie, who formed a coalition with Yeroen. Nikkie and Yeroen had a deal that Nikkie could have the power if Yeroen, as the power behind the throne. was allowed a large share of the sexual favours of the female chimps. But then Nikkie started reneging on the deal. After several such incidents Nikki was no longer alpha male and Luit was back in power.

Matt Ridley sees a parallel with human alliances in history, the chimp scenario uncannily like events in the War of the Roses with the English queen, Margaret of Anjou, (married to henpecked Henry V1,) as Luit, Edward 1V as the usurper Nikkie and the wealthy Earl, Warwick the Kingmaker, in the part of Yeroen. Following his initial support for Edward, the increasingly disenchanted Warwick formed an alliance with Margaret to drive Edward into exile. Edward later killed Warwick in battle, captured London and had Henry V1 murdered. The theme of kings and leaders reined in and dominated by individually weaker coalitions is a common one in human history all the way up to the American Constitution.

In chimpanzee troops, the most important coalition is the one between adult males of the same group against all adult males of the enemy troop when danger threatens ‘abroad.’ Aggressive group defense of territory and raids against rival chimpanzee troops, is nothing more than an extension of the coalition building we see in Nikkie and Yeroen. When Luit became alpha male he supported losers against their persecutors. Matt Ridley argues that alpha males thereby play an important pacifying role, the reason possibly being to prevent the break up of the group. When a troop of chimpanzees go on a raid, the alpha behaves as if he must get the backing of his coalition partners before launching an attack.

Ridley compares this behavior to groups of closely related men living together as a social unit. In the same manner as chimpanzees, feuding and raiding between groups is chronic.
The historical enmity of the Scottish clans, territorial fights between France and Austria, Russia and Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia, hey, Europe’s map is shaped by battle between neighbors. As Geoffrey Blainey observes in ‘The Causes of War,’ most of the European wars of the last four centuries occured between near neighbors. The Manchester Theory that increasing foreign travel and cultural exchanges promote peace is not borne out by the evidence.  Anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, who lived among the ‘fierce Yanomamo people of Venezuela in the 1960’s observed the almost routine   warfare and raiding between villages. So highly is aggression valued in the culture that Chagnon observed that of six feast ceremonies intended to build war alliances, two of the six ended in fighting between guests and hosts.  (Chagnon ‘Yanomamo’.)

And what is the significance of all this fighting? Well Darwin’s expression, ‘the struggle for existence’ is sometimes erroneously interpreted as the struggle between different species. As Konrad Lorenz observes in his book ‘On Aggression,’ that fight to the death you see in movies between a tiger and a python or the python and a crocodile isn’t what Darwin had in mind. A struggle between predator and prey is not a fight in the real sense of the word.  From many excellent photographs it can be seen that a lion, in the moment before it springs on an antelope, is in no way angry, not growling, ears not laid back or showing other well-known expressive movements of fighting behavior. The counter-attacking by prey, on the other hand, such as crows mobbing a hawk, is more related to aggression.

The selection pressure of contests between different species, contests between predator and prey, may influence evolution selection of functions like swiftness of prey or leaping ability and sharp claws development of predator but in reality, as Lorenz notes, the struggle that Darwin was thinking of that drives evolution forward, is the competition between near relatives. ‘What causes a species to disappear or become  transformed into a different species is the profitable ‘invention’ that falls by chance to one or a few of its members in the everlasting gamble of  hereditary change.’ ( Lorenz, Chapter 3.)

Darwin raised the issue of the survival value of fighting. He concluded that it is always favorable to the future of a species if the stronger of two rivals takes possession of either the territory or the desired female. And so often, says Lorenz, the truth of the past is still a truth but only a special case. Ecologists have recently demonstrated another essential function of aggression, that is, that unless the special interests of a social organization demand a close aggregation of its members, it is expedient to spread its members as evenly as possible over the available habitat and avoid exhausting its sources of nutrition. Lorenz’ studies of coral reef opportunities for niches of specialized, poster-coloured fish and the fighting reactions elicited against interlopers wearing the same poster colours has the effect that each species keep measured distances from nutritional same group  species. The signals of song birds proclaiming territories serve the same purpose.  (Lorenz, Ch 3.)

Concerning us being jest a vehicle fer our selfish genes, what about our prevalent  groupish and generous  behavior of sharing food with others of our species?

Huntin’ and Fission.

Well other primates do it too, predominantly sharing meat, it’s about hunting as a cooperative male enterprise and the payoff involved. Chimps do it for sex. Meat is not a large item in their diet and their favored prey, small colobus monkeys, when shared in the troop, seem scarcely worth the effort of the hunt.  A study of the chimpanzees in Tanzania, shows that whether a male troop of chimpanzees decide  to hunt their favored prey or not depends on the presence in their party of a female chimp in oestrus. If the hunt is successful, the hunters will preferentially give some of the catch to the receptive female. And surprise, surprise, the receptive female is most likely to bestow her favours on the males that are the more generous with meat.

Matt Ridley considers that it’s not unreasonable to assume that human hunting started for the same reasons as for chimpanzees and may still be a factor in big game hunting. In modern hunter gather groups, there does appear to be a connection between the number of hours a week a tribe hunts large game and sexual promiscuity of the group. Studies of keen hunting tribes of South America, the Ache and Yanomamo and the African Hadza tribe compared to the  intermittent hunting groups, the puritan Hiwi and largely faithful !Kung suggest that keen hunters have more affairs. In their studies of the Hadza tribe and big game hunting, Kim Hill and Kristen Hawkes argue issues of reciprocal generosity, Hawke argues intangible rewards of social generosity for the hunter who kills the giraffe. Hill claims that with so much meat, no one’s going to notice the successful hunter passing on a choice cut to the nubile wife of a neighbor. (Ch 6, Ridley.)

Be that as it may, there are other reciprocal benefits of hunting for humans involving division of labour between men and women and the bonds of marriage. Sexual division of labour is part of virtually all societies and it’s noticeable that men and women segregate their jobs even when they share them.

So why did male hunting change from a seduction device to being part of a deal with one or two wives?  Out on the grasslands where we originated, division of labour was a survival benefit. The high protein supplied by the hunter was high energy food but there was always the risk of the failed hunt. The women’s gathering of tubers and plants was less high energy but a reliable food security so sharing meat and vegetables meant both were better off. Then there’s sharing with the tribe. Meat represents luck. The hunter who catches two armadillos today and shares with the men who failed to kill anything at all, which is likely to happen 40% of the time,  is a sort of reciprocity in which one man trades in his current good luck for an insurance against his future bad luck. And of course there’s the cooperation required in hunting really big game. Even free loaders get some of the kill.

So the gist of our genetic inheritance would seem to be a blend of individualist
aggression and groupishness based on self interest. Is that it? Animals r us? Well not exactly.

Alike but Different … Viva la Difference!

Deriving lessons from nature can be a tricky business as Matt Ridley notes. You need to steer your craft carefully between the Scylla of direct animal parallels and the Charybdis of emphasis on human uniqueness. Nature doesn’t rule, culture does. Even Dawkins claims that ‘Man’s way of life is largely determined by culture.’ ( ‘The Selfish Gene.’ Oxford 1977 p 177.)

A surprising theory has begun to emerge in recent years that the human brain is not just better than other animals’, it is different in fascinating ways. It is equipped with special faculties to enable it to explore reciprocity. Reciprocity in society may be an inevitable  part of  our natures – an instinct, we don’t need to be taught it against our better judgement, natural selection has chosen it to enable us to get more from social living.

Heh, if life is just a competitive struggle, why is there so much cooperation around and why are so many people such eager cooperators. We live in towns, work in teams, our lives are a web of inter-connections, families, friends, colleagues, we seem unable to live without each other.

Matt Ridley describes an agricultural society in North America, the Hutterites, as an example, rather like bees, of cooperation and interdependence. The Hutterites praise selflessness and mete out harsh penalties against acts of selfishness. Unlike bees, however, the Hutterites are not all related. Ridley observes that in most human societies, as in the Hutterites, altruism is praised and nepotism frowned on, our cultures, for all their differences, are comprehensive at the deepest levels as expressions of love, loyalty, jealousy and hierarchy. We define virtue almost exclusively as pro-social behavior,’we are all Hutterites at heart.’ ( R Ch 2.)

Those Big Game Theories.

Well we still have to explain that Hutterite behavior which exhibits reciprocal altruism.
The well known Prisoner’s Dilemma theory suggest some answers. The original form of the dilemma depicts two prisoners charged with a serious crime, each interviewed separately, and offered a deal if they confess. If a prisoner confesses, he is imprisoned for just six months, the other gets 20 years. If both confess, they each end up with 10 years imprisonment. Logic of the situation is to confess since neither prisoner can trust the other. However, when people are asked to play repeat games of Prisoner’s Dilemma they start to cooperate.

In 1979, political scientist Robert Axelrod, set up a tournament of fourteen variations of Prisoner’s Dilemma in which the cooperative ‘nice strategies, especially the game of Tit-for-tat came out on top.  As Axelrod explained, Tit-for-tat’s success is its combination of being naive retaliatory, forgiving and clear. Its niceness prevents its actors getting into unnecessary trouble, its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual cooperation and its clarity makes it intelligible to opponents, thereby bringing about long term cooperation.  Trouble is with these games, including Tit-for-tat, all strategies are defined in advance unlike responding to real world problem situations. So Martin Novak and Karl Sigmund designed a new tournament where, as in the real world, uncertainty prevails, and came up with a new winning strategy, Pavlov, (misnomered, as its behavior is the opposite of reflexive.) Pavlov is nice, establishing cooperation like Tit-for-tat, but also has a vindictive streak that enables it to exploit naïve cooperators such as ‘Always Cooperate.’  Thus it does not allow a cooperative world to lapse into a too trusting Utopia where free riders flourish.

Pavlov had originally been unsuccessful in the earlier tournament where all strategies were defined in advance, but in this new and more realistic tournament allowing for probability and learning, Pavlov quickly adjusted its probabilities to the extent where its supremacy could not be undermined by ‘Always Defect’ strategists. It was, says Ridley. a truly evolutionary stable strategy . ( R Ch 4.)

So do animals and humans use Pavlov? Seems they do, and not just Hutterites and some other primates. Sticklebacks venturing out on predator inspections choose partners that are consistently good cooperators. This indicates that sticklebacks are able to recognize each other and remember which fish can be ‘trusted.’ Pretty remarkable considering that  only the higher mammals are generally considered  to have sufficient brain power to recognize each other  as individuals and have memory of  outcome of past behaviors.

And we as humans as a species, and in whatever culture, appear to be uniquely aware of cost benefit exchanges. According to test responses to social contract puzzles like the widely administered Wason Test, people are not so good at looking for rewards and losses when these are not illicit in some sense, but are very good at detecting cheating. ‘The Wason Test seems to tap into a part of the human brain that is a ruthless and devastatingly focused calculating machine.’ (R Ch 7.)

To Bond or not to Bond. What are the Questions?

There’s a fascinating chapter in Lorenz ‘On Aggression’  called ‘The Great Parliament of Instincts,’ in which he  argues that ‘it is an error to assume that the big four instincts – hunger, sexuality, flight and aggression -are irresistible tyrants whose commands brook no contradiction.’ ( L Ch 6.)  Lorenz describes studies of ritualized response fixed motor pattern in animals which he calls ‘little servants of species preservation.’ ( L CH11.)

The zig-zag courtship dance of the male stickleback is a conflict of two drives, aggressive protection of territory and desire to mate with the intruder. Other aggression channeling rituals he describes are the appeasement dance of cranes and the bonding triumph ceremony of greylag geese. The graylag geese triumph ceremony rules the lives of the geese more than any other drive, and is performed throughout the year involving not just pairs of geese but whole groups of individuals. In all these bondings, even stickleback, personal recognition in varied environmental situations is essential. With herd formation as a means of protection from predators, recognition of individuals is not required, all that’s necessary is to be able to get lost in the crowd.

Humans have not only developed rituals but rich cultures to promote human bonding and exchange contracts. Neurology and situation tests indicate that our complex brains have  propensities for empathetic bonding and the ability to assess violations in our exchanges with one another. Religious practices are an example.  When we experience bad luck we are prone to attribute it to the anger of the gods because of something we have done. Trade mutual deals are other major exchange practices.

Curiously, in recent years economists, who have founded their discipline on the question of ‘what’s in it for the individual,’ have begun to reconsider. Much of the innovation in recent years has been based on a discovery that people are motivated by something other than self interest. Robert Frank, an economist looks at the part played by emotions, what Adam Smith called ‘moral sentiments,’ in our problem solving. Frank calls this  the commitment problem.  (L CH 7.) Emotions are profoundly irrational forces that Frank says cannot be explained by material self interest though they have evolved, like everything else in human nature, for a purpose.

We use our emotions to make credible commitments for example two friends making a deal to start a restaurant, one as chef, the other book keeper. Since each has the opportunity to cheat, a rational person would not choose start the restaurant, so losing,  as Frank says, the opportunities the enterprise could represent. The entrepreneurs risk trusting each other based on perceived shared emotions of shame and guilt regarding cheating. Similarly a farmer fences in his cattle knowing that his neighbor’s rage and obstinacy may lead him to sue, even at the cost of ruining himself in the process.

And love commits us to a relationship. A Dutch ornithologist discovered that if the male  of a pair of breeding blue tits is wounded, the female will quickly seek another male to mate with, behavior we regard as callous. Another observation is of a pair of breeding storks that don’t recognize each other at each annual reunion but simply return to the same nesting site. In humans, ‘our emotions,’ as Frank has put it, ‘are likely guarantees of our commitment.’ ( R Ch 7.)

So where are we now? What Game Theory indicates is that reciprocal altruism, a provisional altruism, is an environmentally stable survival strategy and is therefore as genetically based as is aggressive self interest, two diverse genetic instincts with two opposing drives, in humans processed by our complex brains, ( don’t forget that the human brain is different from the brains of other animals,) and reacting within complex cultural environments. What other living species are able to create cultures, reflect on experience, imagine new scenarios or empathize with the experiences of others, as we do?

What emerges as the bottom line, of course, is that we are stuck with an altruism that’s linked to genetic self interest, but as a biological species, could we realistically expect anything else? And what if, say, as children of the gods, we had been created as perfect beings, where would be the virtue in that – we couldn’t help being good.

More worthy that we humans hafta’ struggle seems ter me. And sometimes, as Robert Frank observes,’The honest individual is someone who values trustworthiness for its own sake. That he might receive a material payoff for his behavior is not his concern.’  (R Ch7.)

Jumping in the Deep End.

Well we’ve heard what he said, she said, so what do you and I think regarding the shifting sands on which we fallible humans build our value systems? Herewith a serfs leap in the dark.

Take friendship. There’s Michel de Montaigne, the most skeptical of men, who made a
life-time study of his own behavior but could find no motive for his friendship with Steven de la Boetie, – ‘that unspotted friendship which we have so sincerely, so entire and inviolably maintained between us … whereas there is no commerce or business depending on the same but itselfe … because it was he, because it was my selfe.’  (Montaigne Essay ‘Of Friendship.’)

Hmm … sounds like altruism ter me.

Then there’s that historic figure Socrates who died for his principles. Charged by the Athenian Senate with corrupting the youth of Athens through his teachings, Socrates refused to escape when urged to by his friends:

‘I cannot abandon the principles which I used to hold in the past simply because this accident has happened to me … Do you imagine a city can continue to exist  and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgements which are pronounced in it have no force but  are nullified and destroyed by private persons?’  (Crito, Plato.)

Sacrificing yer life fer yer principles …altruism, I’d say.

And then there’s those acts of sacrifice you occasionally read of in the newspapers where someone attempts to rescue a total stranger from drowning or a burning building, actions where the altruist sacrifices his or her life for others. Schopenhauer has something to say about this:

‘There is something really mysterious, something for which Reason can provide no explanation and for which no basis can be found in practical experience. It is nevertheless of common occurrence, and everyone has had the experience. It is not unknown even to the most hard hearted and self-interested. Examples appear everyday before our eyes of instant responses of this kind, without reflection, one person helping another, coming to his aid, even setting his own life in clear danger for someone he has seen for the first time, having nothing more in mind than the other is in peril of his life.’ (S.1840.)

And something else that’s really mysterious. I’d say, is the pursuit of the sublime that we find in great art. You know the feeling you sometimes get when you see the moon suddenly emerge from behind clouds, or hear a sudden call of a bird in the night, a kind of, well, rapture, the kind of experience you get from great art.

In ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’ James Joyce examines this response to art, a feeling of unimpeded lyric life beyond the feelings of desire or aversion experienced in daily life. James Joyce observes that great art is ‘static’ unlike advertising art that moves you to desire, which he calls pornographic art, or proselytizing art,  which is didactic, evoking aversion. The elements of great art are its wholeness, its harmony, and what Joyce describes as its radiance.

When you listen to great music like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

or view a great art work like Rembrandt’s etching, ‘Christ Healing the Sick,

the harmony of the parts to the whole, the perfection of the form, resonate with something inside us. Ego seems dissolved, as suggested by the famous lines of Henry Vaughan’s poem, ‘The World:’

‘I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
As calm as it was bright:’

In great Greek and Shakespearean tragedies we witness the ego driven responses of an Oedipus or a Macbeth with composure, our human understanding is enlarged beyond the merely didactic by this unified experience with its plenitude of values. The emotions invoked by great literature are our most generous and insightful regarding the human condition, pity, terror and empathy rather than loathing or aversion. And then there’s comedy, we laugh at our human weaknesses, so Jane Austin-ish, so uniquely a human attribute. Have yer heard the joke about the ….. ?

Can the striving for perfect form and its majestic or comedic achievement by a great artist be explained by the theory of the selfish gene?  I do not know but I’d be surprised if it could. Can we find on the record, examples of selfless behavior that we recognize as truly altruistic? I’d say so, don’t know what you would say.



All the world’s a stage …






Because Greek tragedy and comedy
originated with a chorus that danced
and sang at the Theatre of Dionysus,
a reading of the Orestia, Oedipus, Medea,
or a modern on-stage re-enactment,
can’t recapture the power of those early
dramatisations of human foolishness,
acts of adultery, ambition, anger and
the gods interference in these affairs,
leading on to disaster or, at  least,
satirical jokes, – performances by a chorus
of young men trained for military service,
singing and dancing at maximum intensity,
bet they had the Athenian audience
sitting on the edge of their seats.






She wasn’t going to
put up with it, and her
a mere girl, defying
the State, Euripides
tragedy, ‘Antigone,’
possibly the first debate
on separation of Church
and State.






Masks, like the spots and stripes of
tigers or leopards lurking in undergrowth
may be a cover up for sinister intent,
for a Macbeth, say, who smiles and smiles,
yet may, behind that smiling mask, be  
a damned villain waiting for nightfall
to carry out an undercover
nefarious (or murderous) event.

Just as likely though, wearing a mask
may be concealment for a shrinking self
the donning of a protective covering
like the turtle and the whelk, or as in classic
drama, putting on the mask of an Achilles,
now there’s a way for an un-heroic actor
to become a hero, just for one day.






In the Bard’s pantheon of villainy
I suppose Macbeth and Richard the third
run neck and neck. Same motive
prompted each, naked ambition
requiring the violent removal of king
and kinsman, double default in the
overturning of the heavenly order,
an order intended for duplication
here on Earth. ‘Fair became foul,’
indeed, and ‘foul fair, for this
nefarious and duplicitous pair.

Macbeth’s crimes, from murder of king/cousin
then chain reaction on to assassination of
a trusted friend, regressing from bad to worse
with the slaughter of Macduff’s innocent wife and
children, even Lady Macbeth couldn’t come at this.
Richard destroys brother/king, does this make it worse?
Little princes, trusting nephews, murdered in the tower,
does it make it less heinous that Richard is crippled?
Perhaps his hunch back set him apart,
froze human sympathy from his heart,
the heart has its reasons, perhaps?

Then there’s Iago, I’m placing him in the pantheon
though he didn’t actually murder anyone
until Act Five, and one of them was but a knave,
the other only a wife who wouldn’t back him in
his calumny. Do these count against the catalogue
of killings by the other villains? Maybe not if you
leave out Iago’s other malevolent actions at a distance,
his machinations to spread doubt and confusion in
Othello’s mind.That’s what Iago’s about, not ambition
but all embracing malice, spreading misery
and mayhem wherever he gets the chance.

It’s difficult, isn’t it, making these fine
distinctions regarding murder and mayhem?
Numbers’game? Maybe motivation ? So many
ways of assessing assassination in the canon.
Macbeth’s hot ambition, thinking he’d get away
with just one crime, he and Lady Macbeth
thinking they could handle the guilt. Richard,
pathologically icy, forget guilt, had his reasons
via dissembling nature, read his opening speech.
With Iago, it was malice, that’s it, pervasive
malice against the world and everybody in it, acts
of malfeasance for kicks, helping him wile away
the weary hours …tomorrow and tomorrow and …






There’s a play that makes me laugh, written down
under – that’s Australia, name of ‘Miss Tanaka,’
a kind of musicale,  kabuki,  drama mix set in Broome.
Opens with a witty meeting, beneath a tropic moon,
between the Jewish manager of a pearl shell business,
he’s newly arrived from Europe, nineteen thirty-nine,
and the son of an old pearl diver crippled by the bends.
From the start there’s misunderstanding but underneath,
a subtle understanding, between the two young men.

“Charles – Charles Alanquon Rubin Mott –
The Mott family? The Anglo-Oriental Pearl-Shell Company?”

“Kaz -u – hi – ko.”

“No speaka da English?”

“It’s my name.”

“A thousand pardons.But you’re – ?”  

“Japanese father.”

And when the Japanese father, Mr Tanaka, pursued
for gambling debts promises his several debtors
each the hand in marriage of his beautiful niece,
supposedly arrived from overseas, the son’s obliged to
take on the role of Miss Tanaka, try to solve the mess.
You can guess the rest – everyone falls in love with the
oh – so enigmatic and attractive Miss Tanaka including –
you guessed it, the Jewish manager – witty conversations
between the two, as before, but now compounded by
Miss Tanaka’s flirtatious charm, all this taking place
against a background of kabuki staged-fights by suitors
and a cherry blossom dance, that climax in
a proposal of marriage and an almost-acceptance,
so Shakespearean, and you could say, bitter-sweet,
all this just as a predicted violent typhoon hits Broome,
… and I won’t tell you the rest …






The tempest (?) –  reality or apparition(?)

All within a play of course, nice play
on how we human actors create our
own living dramas that clash with,
or sometimes catch an intimation of,
a mysterious reality out-there, perhaps.
Why the play’s very theme’s ‘deception.’  
The very events we witness here on
Prospero’s  island – used to be Caliban’s
but now it’s not –  we view because of it.

Everyone’s landed on the island because
of a take-over deal between Antonio,
Prospero’s brother, and Alonso, king
of Naples, that robbed Prospero of
his dukedom in Milan, Alonso and
Antonio now brought to shore and
judgement by a seeming tempest, dire
spectacle of storm and shipwreck that
Prospero has ordered with his magic.

The play’s the thing, of course, to catch
the conscience of the king and perhaps
of Antonio, planned by that master
manipulator, Prospero, and ministered
by his airy servant Ariel. Nothing
but transmogrified scenarios from
beginning to end, masques, and music
that sends the actors into dreaming sleeps
like tricksy Ariel’s song to Ferdinand:

Full fathoms five thy father lies …
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Magic’s in the air and in the language too
that resonates with strange conjunctions
like ‘sea-change’ and ‘sea-swallowing’
and ‘heart-sorrow’ and ‘spell-stopped.’

Not that the actors need much confusing
when you see how easily they deceive them-selves.
Do Gonzalo and Antonio describe the same island?
One describes a place advantageous to life,
the other ‘as’twere perfumed by a fen.’
Then there are the case studies of confused identity,
Stephano mistaking Caliban for a moon-calf,
Caliban thinking Stephano fell from heaven,
Miranda seeing Alonso and Antonio for the first time,
marvelling at beauteous man-kind and exclaiming:
‘O brave new world that has such people in it.’

And just to confuse the audience, consider the
final scenario where Prospero addresses us
across the stage proscenium, breaking the magic,
you’d say, except that he’s asking us to release him
and his acting crew, asking us to breath air into the
sails of his craft and send him on his way back to Milan.
What are we supposed to do? Any wonder that
 the audience departs the play still held in a kind
of waking dream.






Neolithic tribes began it to invoke fertility,
stave off famine. Egyptians on the Nile
continued mimicking the sun in a ritual dance.
Visigoths and Greeks and Gauls also did it,
sliding in a circle round some focal symbol,  
maybe fire, or idol, or tree, or may-pole,
while chilly Lithuanians and Letts up north,
likely imbued it with a bit more energy,
tempo multo-vivacissimo.

Meanwhile down south, leaping high as the corn,
tribal Africans surpassed them all by their riotous,
mimetic and ecstatic variation.






Scent of tea roses wafting
in the air, coupes of sparkling
champagne at the bar, art deco
lighting creating a golden
atmosphere for the tea dance.
Tinkling piano, ‘I’ve got you
under my skin,’ couples gliding
across a parquetry floor,
doing their best to emulate
Ginger and Fred’s perfect






Dancing the tango, slow uncoiling,
moving to the pulsing, breathing music
in unison with his black eyed partner
all gravitas and grace. On the dance floor
he’s a god.

The last tango, it’s over, he hurries home,
needs a clean shirt, tango shoes
polished to the utmost gloss …
and he’s out of there
in a rush.





‘Technique,’ Fokine said,
‘is mere means to expression,’
if you don’t know that …






Height of the cold war, I remember
in one of those bleak news reels
my father used to watch on T.V,
in the middle  of filming troop movements
and views of subdued people in grey
industrial towns, the camera moves in
to focus on soldiers, a smiling Cossack.
Suddenly he’s down on his haunches,
in a puddle, does the famous
Cossack  improbable movements, defiant
dance against the elements, O Kalinka,
 – and everyone’s entranced.






The Final Act in classic drama
is when the hero gets the girl,
(in comedy) or at least attains
some understanding, (in tragedy)
while in both, (comedy and
tragedy) the villain gets his or her
come-uppance. Whereas in real life,
lacking an author’s direction, a finale
likely ends in a less-ordered, well,
messy really, (non)-resolution.



In me very first edition of Serf Under_ground Journal  I referred ter Plato, up-there on the hill, advocating  a political system to arrest all change, a system  to create a society of equilibrium, a ship of state steered by a philosopher king.

Nassim Taleb, in his book ‘The Black Swan,’ questions the possibility or desirability of this, given that out-there, black swan events abound, those Hume’s thanksgiving-turkey-events that are impossible ter predict.

In his next book, ‘Anti-fragile,’ Nassim Taleb takes ‘The Black Swan’ to its natural and prescriptive conclusion. Since black swans dominate society and history, Taleb’s problem is how to avoid interference with things we do not understand, what he calls the complex fourth quadrant zone, avoid the errors made by men in suits, the ‘experts,’ who think that what they do not see is not out-there, or what they do not understand does not exist.

The Anti-fragile is beyond resilient.

Taleb describes the anti-fragile as the opposite of fragile, not just dealing with volatility but learning from it. Anti-fragile is beyond resilient, it’s the process of benefiting from shocks in evolution, cultures, technical modifications, it’s the examples of economic and corporate success in dealing with the unknown. Becoming anti-fragile, Nassim Taleb says poetically, is learning how to love the wind, how to domesticate the mysterious and the opaque.

He presents a chart, a triad mapping:  (F) fragile domains in human affairs, (R)  Robust domains in human affairs  and (A) Anti-fragile. For example:
*Knowledge: (F) Academy. (R) Experience (A) Erudition.

*Errors: (F) Hate mistakes.( R) Mistakes are just information. (A) Love mistakes since they are small.

*Education : (F) Classroom. (R) Real life. (A) Real life and libraries.

*Political Systems: (F) Centralized Nation State. (A) Decentralized Federation of City States.

*Biological and economic systems: (F) Efficiency optimized, ( R) Redundancy (A) Degeneracy.(Functional redundancy.)

Stressors are cool.

That which is inanimate, when subject to stress either undergoes fatigue or breaks. That which is living is both fragile and anti-fragile. A human body, to a point, can benefit from stressors and self repair though we eventually wear out, hopefully leaving behind genes or a book etc.

Stressors are information. Your body is a complex system that gets information not via logical apparatus but through stress via hormones or other messages we haven’t discovered yet. In small children, pain is risk management.

In our ancestral habitat we humans were prompted by natural stimuli, fear, hunger, desire, that made us work out and keep fit for our environment. Taleb relates a story about Mithridates, King of Pontus, who ingested measures of toxic substances to build immunity, practicing hormesis, which was well known to the ancients, the  knowledge that a little bit of an otherwise harmful substance can benefit an organism by triggering resistance and other healthy effects. Things that are anti-fragile benefit from volatility, suppress volatility and they will weaken and die. We all know how our muscles atrophy after a long illness. Comfort can also weaken us via physical disuse and modern diseases.

Taleb’s book ‘Anti-fragility’ is about how not to be the thanksgiving turkey or even how to be a turkey in reverse, figuring out the difference between true and manufactured stability. Volatility is information. Variations can act as purges, for example, small forest fires compared to conflagrations that do extreme damage. For similar reasons long periods of economic stability are not good for the economy. Firms become weak during long periods of prosperity and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate under the surface. The longer one goes without a trauma the worse the damage when it occurs. A volatile market doesn’t let people go such a long time without a clean-up of risks, thereby preventing such market collapses.

Denying hormesis, the natural anti-fragility of organisms, comes from top-down government playing conductor. We fragilize systems by denying their randomness, putting them in the procrustean bed of cushy and comfortable – but harmful moderation. Taleb notes the irony of  Lenin, creating his project of the great top-down centralist State, spending much of his time writing in Switzerland, the most robust small government State on the planet.  

Modern States – Blind ter Opacities.

Say, those politicians, economists and academics out-there err when they think they can confidently predict and control complex events even a little way into the future. Tsk!  Why we can’t even predict the stock market a few hours from now. Much of our modern structured world has been harming us with top-down policies, subject ter what Nassim Taleb calls ‘Soviet-Harvard’ delusions, over estimations of the scientific knowledge of a phenomenon,  which try to do precisely this.  

Taleb identifies the top-down problem as hubris. The largest fragilizer of society and greatest generator of crises is the over confidence of platoists with absence of skin in the game. Bureaucrats, bankers and academics have too much power and no real accountability, They get the upside and the citizens get the downside when the nerds make errors. Think Erlich, Sachs, Stiglitz and Greenspan. Some amnesiac ‘experts,’ like Stiglitz, forget their errors in judgement and later write I- told-you-so-books telling how they predicted the crisis they actually helped bring about.

A main source of the economic crisis that started in 2007, Taleb identifies in the iatragonics of the attempt by the uber fragilista ‘expert,’ Alan Greenspan, to iron out the ‘boom-bust cycle’ causing risks to go hide under the carpet and accumulate there until they blew up the economy. The same naïve interventionism was also applied by the UK government of fragilista Gordon Brown whose own grand mission was to ‘eliminate’ the business cycle.

Artificia docuit fames, Sophistication is born out of hunger.

Volatility is information as Taleb notes, yet we tend to focus on post traumatic stress disorder while ignoring post traumatic growth, how persons harmed may surpass themselves. Innovation comes out of trouble, problem situation trial and error.

Artifia docuit fames. : The excess energy from over reacting to setbacks is what motivates innovation. Think of those uneducated tinkerers that initiated the Industrial Revolution, Arkwright developing the water frame, Kay inventing the flying shuttle, Hargreaves inventing the spinning jenny.

Hmm even a serf understands this. Necessity is the mother of invention. Innovation doesn’t come from putting someone through the Harvard Business School class taught by a highly decorated Professor who has never innovated anything. Matt Ridley, in a well-known TED TALK, ‘When Ideas Have Sex, ‘ recognized the unforeseen beneficial consequences that free exchange of goods and ideas through human trading may bring about. It’s another argument for black swan effects since you cannot forecast collaborations, direct them or see where they’re going… not top-down, but bottom-up innovations that have changed the world.

Some Nassim Taleb Handy Hints fer Non-predictive Decision-making.

By grasping the mechanisms of anti-fragility we can build a guide ter non-predicting decision making under uncertainty says Nassim Taleb.

Get out of the fourth quadrant top down- decision making and inter looking at yr options.
In face of lack of knowledge, first do no harm.  So if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, eschew noble intent meddling. Tsk! Let volatility hold sway. Procrastinate. Keep yr options open and keep outta’ debt, yr more resilient that way. There’s lots more in Nassim Taleb’s stimulating book but that’s enough fer now. Enough ter remind yer that the open society is cool.


Big Wind. Theodore Roethke.

Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Cracking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.



On the littoral uncertainty prevails.

Herewith a serf’s synthesis of previous editions of the Serf Under_ground Journal, expanded by a collection of serf poetry concerning living on the littoral.

If yer’ve read ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Taleb, regarding uncertainty and humanity’s poor record in prediction – demonstrating how prediction is influenced by confirmation bias and black swan events coming out of left field to surprise us – n yer don’t need a serf ter tell yer that we can’t be certain what the fuchure holds.

One of history’s early observers of confirmation bias, Michel de Montaigne, in his essay, ‘Of Custom and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received,’ recognized how easily we succumb to the tyranny of old tribal views, nothing so outlandish that cannot be demonstrated in public practice somewhere in the world.

So what of the predictions of doomsayers, Thomas Malthus, Paul Erlich et al?  Well, it’s all there on the record. We know how The Reverend Mister Pessimist, Thomas Malthus, argued in his ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ in 1798, that a golden age in the future could never be attained because population had a tendency to increase more rapidly than food. In the interim it didn’t happen but that didn’t deter other predictors of catastrophe like Paul Erlich in ‘The Population Bomb,’ 1969, or members of The Club of Rome with their ‘Limits of Growth,’ 1972.  Despite the best seller status of the books, their predictions were a flop.

This from Max Anacker on Judith Curry’s blog, ‘Climate Etc,’ 20/06/13 @ 4.23am:

‘Population increased in a whopping 1.7x from 1970 to 2010 at a compounded rate of over 1.6% per year. But at the same time, agricultural output, i.e. crop yield of major crops, (rice, corn wheat,) increased by 2.4 x.’

Something the doomsayers did recognize, however, even though they were wrong about predictability, was that – naychur – is – dangerous.

And so another aspect of life on the littoral – Nature is dangerous and don’t you forget it.

Consider how precarious was life fer the average peasant living in Europe, Asia or Africa during the 40,000 years, prior to the Industrial Revolution. For all that time, daily life centered on gathering or producing enough food jest ter stay alive. In the West, as in Asia, whether in 1500 or 1800, yer typical family lived close to the bread-line. Grain provided more than 80% of the family diet, in Asia, rice, in the West, bread and porridge, soup or in hard times, thin gruel. Famine was a widespread and common occurrence. The great famines of India, 1022-1033-1052, wiped out entire provinces, the 1064 famine and out-break of the plague in France killed 100,000 people.

Seems climate has always been variable and unpredictable. The period of the 1600’s, was a bad time fer serfs. Advancing glaciers in Europe were an object of terror. Glaciers swallowed up French, Swiss, Italian and Austrian farms on the foothills of the Alps. Sometimes processions of villagers, led by a priest, would journey to the edge of a glacier to pray that it would halt.

Historian, Tony Brown’s research, ‘The Long Slow Thaw,’ documents events of this period, known as ‘The Little Ice Age,’ and evaluates and reconstructs the Central England Temperature record from its beginning in 1659. This highly scrutinized temperature record is the oldest instrumental record in the world today. In his study of CET, Tony Brown incorporates in his study the cooling of the LIA, and a prior Medieval Warming Period, both identified by Hubert Lamb, first director of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit. (CRU.)

The wealth of cross referenced historical data, temperature records, almanacs, diaries, that Tony Brown presents, support Lamb’s research and the European Chronicles of LIA periods of intense cold, of glacier advances and harvest failures.

Hmm … weather is variable, maybe that’s the only certainty in climate studies.

Living on the littoral as we do, better adapt and try our best to be anti-fragile.


Let’s begin with cheap energy, the back-bone of the anti-fragile economy, its contribution ter human welfare can hardly be exaggerated.

Once upon a time all work was done by humans using their own muscle power. Then came a time when some humans, pharaohs ‘n such got other people, the serfs, ter do the work for them, building pyramids, digging ditches, trampling grapes and so on.

With the Roman Empire came the age of oxen, then horse power, each a major step fer human kind. In turn, with the invention of the water mill, yer getting’ the introduction of inanimate power. Later, in the low countries, where water power was not an option, the invention of the windmill, along with the burning of peat, enabled Holland in the 1600’s to become the workshop of the world. But it was the invention of the steam engine, triggering the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800’s, and the use of stored fossil fuel energy in coal  keeping it going, that gave us economic lift off.

Fossil fuels were a game changer. For while renewable technologies are self replenishing, when they become exhausted overtime, their renewal is too slow ter meet demand. And while fossil fuels are not infinite, coal is sufficiently abundant ter allow an increase in both economic activity and population to a point where they generate sustainability without hitting a Malthusian ceiling.

Even today problems of storage and intermittency limit the efficiency of renewable energies. Peter Lang, a geologist and engineer with more than 40 years experience in energy projects throughout the world, including R&D and policy advice to governments, reviewed and costed a University of NSW study  ‘Simulations of  Scenarios with 100% Renewable  Electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market.’ (Elliston et al 2011a) While the NSW University study provides no costing of the renewable scenarios it did recognize that even with highly optimistic assumptions, renewable energy has insufficient capacity to meet peak winter demands, no capacity reserve and is dependent on a technology, gas turbines running on bio-fuels, that exist only at small scale and at a high cost,’

Peter Lang costs the four scenarios of the Elliston study and a fifth scenario, nuclear powering his paper, ‘Renewables or Nuclear Electricity for Australia – the Costs.’ Peter Lang  28th April 2012. ( Ref Serf Under_ground Journal, 3rd Edition. ‘Energy’s A Staff of Life.’)

Peter Lang’s costing is done on the basis of * CO2 emissions intensity, * Capital cost,
* Cost of electricity and * CO2 abatement costs. He finds compared to the four scenarios, nuclear is roughly ¼ the cost in relation to CO2 emissions intensity, 1/3 the Capital cost. 1/3 Cost of Electricity and 1/3 CO2 abatement costs. Of the four renewable scenarios the fourth has the lowest cost electricity but has CO2 emissions that are 2.8 x higher than nuclear.


Classical economists considered innovation belongs outside the system of economics like earthquakes, climate or war. Joseph A. Schumpeter argued, on the contrary, that innovation and entrepreneurship, moving resources from old and obsolete to new and more productive employments, is the very essence of economics. For Schumpeter the basic fallacy was an assumption by John Maynard Keynes and other economists that the healthy economy is an economy in static equilibrium whereas Schumpeterr argues that a modern economy is always in dynamic disequilibrium. Schumpeter’s economy is not a closed system, but is forever growing and changing.

As soon as one shifts from the axiom of an unchanging self contained economy to Schumpeter’s growing, changing economy, what is called profit becomes not something stolen from the workers, but the source of capital formation to defray the costs of the future, the costs of maintaining jobs and of creating new ones. Profit is the cost of staying in business, the cost of a future in which nothing is predictable except that today’s profitable business is tomorrow’s white elephant.  

Liberty of the Individual And Free Speech.

When the Athenians became a maritime society coming in contact with different laws and social customs, a strange thing happened. They began to recognize that laws and social customs were man-made and were therefore able to be criticized and changed.

In sixth century BC Athens, Pericles expressed this recognition in his great Funeral Oration delivered after the first battles of the Peloponnesian War, when he used the occasion to celebrate Athenian democracy:

‘We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of political action, but as a preliminary to acting wisely.’ And ‘while only a few may originate policy, we are all able to judge it.’
In the Athenian society of Pericles Funeral Oration, justice is sounding particular to individuals and not simply for the good of the state. Must say serfs like the idea of individual freedom and democratic guvuhmint, not top-down authority with its siege mentality censorship laws and ‘we will tell you what you need ter know.’

And living on the littoral where uncertainty prevails, serfs also favour policies by guvuhmint that foster productivity and adaptability ter what ever tsunami comes ter land. Regarding uncertainties, this from Faustino, former economic and policy adviser to both the UK and Australian governments and also to the Queensland government:

‘As a policy economist, I’ve often said that we can’t sensibly make long-term economic forecasts or projections, and that it is not possible to base policy on them. …  I have seen, time and time again, the dangers of high spending, long-term government projects.  …  
A system which allows decentralized decision-making by those with skin in the game and relevant knowledge and expertise is likely to produce far better results and will be more adaptable when forecasts inevitably prove wrong.’

(Posted on Climate Etc 16/05/13 @11.45 a.m.)




‘They were never wrong,
the old masters,’ says
Auden, ‘about suffering,’
when someone, Icarus say,
is falling from the sky,
near-by revelers, heedless,
in their pleasure – boat,
just sail on by.

Then there’s the old masters
on survival, Shakespeare’s Lear,
out in all weathers,
Dostoevsky on tenement life
in the raw, and more,
Roethke on what goes on in
root cellars, all life’s rich variety
explored in the litera-chure.


Naychur is dangerous and don’t
you forgit it. That speckled thrush
that chortles so sweetly has
just devoured a worm. You yrself
might escape harm if you
remind yourself, often, that
‘Nay – chur – is – dangerous!’

Dangerous. as the tiger, burning
bright, that even in sleep is
likely to overlay its cubs, or
dangerous, as voracious fire,
devouring all before it, spitting
out the charred remains, oh so
contemptuously, as it leaps
upon a forest glade, gullies
and all that lie therein,
animal and vegetable, nothing
vegan about fire … or
in contrast, there’s ice, some say
it’s worse than fire. Remember
poor Otzi, Bronze Age traveller,
snap-frozen in the Tyrol
in a sudden storm, swallowed
by one of those hungry
glaciers that engulf whole
villages, churches where
praying congregations seek
insurance from the elements
to no avail. Nay-chur has its way.


At the ocean’s edge, glittering crustaceans
And shelly treasures mesh,
Like a Chanel garment that’s beaded at the hem.

Today she wears her palest satin robe
That dips and dimples as she moves,
Swishing like a Venetian princess
Who glides across the marble floor of her palazza
To the deep accompaniment of a muted cello.

Don’t be fooled. Beneath that civilized exterior
Lie Freudian depths, fathoms of instincts blind,
Kelp coiling, slithering serpent entwined.
And like Medusa she rises up,,
Naked save for a necklace of whale bones
And the smashed hulks of ships,
To glory in, recoil from, and glory in,
The savagery unleashed.


Splash! In he goes.
finesse there’s none
but in pelican measure -
meant success -


Plans go awry
the centre (usually)
does not hold.
Just when you
think you might
seize the day,
turns out something
(usually) gets in the way.
Oh well, keep saying
‘you live to fight
another day,’ whatever
catch phrase that
suffices to ward off
melancholy or
despair, don’t
go there.


Within the stone – walled hive
the rustling of cardinal silk,
while on the slopes outside,
peasants scrabble
for scraps from the priests’ table.


Newcomers have moved into
the tenement tree. Epigone,
lorikeet interlopers asserting
gangland claims on its clusters
of winter flowers. Upper story residents,
a pair of crested doves, are already
moving out, can’t stand the noise.
‘Ours!’ shriek the new tenants, ‘It’s ours!’
They’ll defend the tree, or even
one blossoming branch, if need be,
against all comers, as long as
the seasonal flowers hold out.
Then, like itinerant workers when
the seasons change, they’ll move on.


The rift valley changes in the fading light, and
In deep caverns the Prince of Darkness stirs.
Against the night, the small band make
A circle at the fire, its yellow flames
Reflected in their eyes. Night falls, beyond
The fire-lit circle the big cats prowl.

The tribe survive dark nights and living in
An arid land. A stray thunderstorm creates
A brief oasis – follow the lightning – on
To greener pastures – be always on the move,
What’s next? The shaman’s rain dance, then
After ancient wells and boat construction
-    aquaducts.


In ancient  Mediterranean ports
Phoenician trading craft, triremes, fishing boats,
Carrying exotic goods
And seditious thoughts.


O, we are creatures of the light, of enlightenment,
Drawn by the light flickering on the river,
The riffling silver threads disturbing its opacity,
Drawn to the litter of stars that spark
In the dark abyss of night, to the harvest moon,
Palpable as a globed fruit, forgetting that
Its light’s reflected from the sun,
Shine on, O shine, harvest moon.

Seeking through poetry and science to probe
The secrets of the heavens and deep abyss.
We yearn for honey from the golden hive,
Enlightenment – O.


Across the antique crowd at the antique fair
I see her face so vulnerable and young,
Enclosed in the antique silver frame
She seems to ask, “Why am I here?”

Cherished daughter held in the silver frame,
A whisp of Venetian lace caught at her throat
With real pearls, she seemed secure within
The family walls, but here she is, alone without a name.

What sad event has brought her here,
A childless marriage, perhaps her early death?
Uncaring grandchild? Relatives from overseas
Selling the estate, don’t know or care?

We all seek certainty but there’s none,
Except the certainty that things must change.
We collect antiques, shore up the family home,
But dynasties fall, plans soon come undone.


A nest has fallen to the ground.
Though so cunningly made it could not withstand
The sudden Spring storm that brought it down
From its niche in a tall pine.

See how meticulously its maker has woven
Each separate blade of grass in and out, each
Blade brought in by air and stitched together
With cob-web by the small beak, the nest
Then shaped by the bird’s round breast and
Inlaid with its feathered down. Already
Ants are investigating the broken
Egg-shells scattered on the ground.



Every year the forest creeps closer,
Small pines encroaching in the meadow,
Tiny outposts in enemy territory.

Seems to the aging couple, days and years
Are also changing, days seem shorter, nights darker,
Does the harvest moon wane faster than before?

Tonight there’s a frost. Against the cold he selects
Another pine log from the pile, lifts it firmly
With his strong forearm, throws it on the fire.

The fire crackles and sends out sparks. In its glow
His wife looks like the girl he married long ago, hair
Glinting, shadows concealing lines around the mouth.

Shadows too, hide his stooped shoulders,
Bowed by years of doing battle with
The elements. In the dark forest, the bark of a lone fox.

Early morning, sun’s already melting the frost.
The postman calls, bringing a letter, a rare event. Foreign
Postmark, the couples daughter arriving from France,
Grandchildren in tow, they’ll spend Easter on the farm.

Outside, the day grows warm,
In the budding plum tree
A thrush bursts forth in song.


Beside the highway
Stands the old tree.
Last of its line,
Rough monument to space and time,
Holding in its crown the sky’s light
And a few white birds,
Then a circlet of stars
As the Earth turns.


‘This rock I hold
in my hand,’ the
geologist said,
‘was here before
Columbus crossed
the Pacific,
even before
Gondwana Land
broke up, this rock
was here.’


You could say
That she was on a quest
Through forests miniature
And dense as any
Hidden valley of the Amazon.

You could say
That hers’ was not a test
Of courage but of skill,
Of learning patterns and
Particulars of living plants.

On her knees she peers
Into another world,
Where hurrying ants follow
Scented trails, and mantids
Lurk in thickets, like ancient beasts.

She has learned that in these forests,
Like Darwin’s archipelago
Where species are distinct,
The banded and the spotted
Clover do not mix.

Knees reddened on hard ground,
Fingers separating lolling plants,
She has found a patch
Of unmarked clover yielding
The mutant talisman.

Ah! She finds another four leaf clover,
Then two more. These
Will protect her family from
Chaotic forces that prevail
Beyond the ordered world of plants.


‘… and they lived happily ever after …’

In grim fairy tales – ‘Yes.’ Despite the harsh
realities of ogres ‘n similar malevolents
turning up in unexpected places, nevertheless
true romance exists, hero and princess get to meet
and all ends well.

… whereas, out on the littoral,
lasting romance is probably a fiction.
Look at all those true stories in the mags,

Likely it won’t last a hundred sleeps,
yet we keep hoping against hope.
Hope springs eternal, look at
the enduring popularity of
T-V soaps.


Rose, do not be destroyed in your heart by the worm
that flies in the night in the howling storm, for rose,
you are a symbol of hope eternal, more
permanent than a stone monument buried in
sand, you speak to us more compellingly than
the passion deferred of a Grecian urn – your
soft, unfolding, cusped perfume speaks to us of
human joy, of the one, the true, the everlasting love,
of the minstrel’s song, of Romeo and Juliet.


A flicker of embryonic dust
In the primordial void
And then …

Eons on from the singularity
An imploding core of
Gaseous cloud explodes, strafing
The fledgling universe with starlit galaxies ….

The wind from the steppes
Shakes the thorn bush in the cleft of stone,
Blowing away the footprints
Where homo habilis has trod,
Singing the stanzas of the world’s creation  ..

Lit by the rays
Of an electric globe,
Like a dusty opal the canvas glows.
The painter loads his brush
With cobalt, to create
A universe.


Across the great continents, drifting
Shadows brush the plains with
Fugitive mist. Distant
Mountains, ridges of lapis lazuli
Rim the sky that lifts
Across latitudes from somber
Indigo to brilliant azurite.

Earth is the water planet,

All its great continents shifting
In a world awash with seas,
Crested waves rifting its shores.
Noah’s flood is with us yet,
Its opal waters inundate the land
With mirrored pools,
Lakes that love the sky.

Water planet,

Viewed from space, like a snap shot
From the gods, a shimmering orb
Netted in a cloud haze.



The shining river mingles with the land
Where bees and trilling birds sound
The old harmonies. Echoing their song
In lifting arpeggios the river reeds respond.