… A Connection Between Dogs and A.I.

Watching this playful scene from the Jacque Tati film, you wouldn’t think, would you, that these engaging little tykes in ol’ Paris descended from wolves? …… But they did.

This very canine behaviour that you are observing, inquisitive, fun loving, moving in packs, scavenging, well, that is just what their forefathers did as wolves searching for food scraps, when they entered the camps of our forefathers, palaeolithic hunters and gatherers, no one knows quite where or when. But perhaps around 100,000 years ago there began the first human domestication of an animal and long association between man and what was to become man’s best friend.

So let us, as in the television program ‘Who do you think you are?’ take an ancestry search into the history of dogs and their forebears.

So Who Do You Think You Are?

Scientists, studying dog genomes found that early origins of dogs appearing in hunter gatherer groups likely arose from a now extinct wolf population. Researcher Anders Bergstrom, in his 2022 study, ‘Grey wolf genomic history reveals a duel ancestry of dogs,’ researcher Andy Bergstrom sequenced 72 ancient wolf genomes from multiple locations in Europe, Asia and North America that indicated a link between dogs and ancient wolves and, also, that dogs are more closely related to ancient wolves from eastern Eurasia than to those of western Eurasia, suggesting a domestication process in the east. Bergstrom further found dog genomes in the Near East and Africa derive half of their ancestry from local wolves.

And here’s a Saharan Neolithic rock painting from about 6000 BC, discovered in the Libyan Sahara. The dog in the painting has evolved considerably from its wolf origins.

making art real boy dog cave

So let’s take a look at wolves, the ancestors of dogs. Are they the savage and untrustworthy loners depicted in Grimms’ Fairy Tales and other folklore? Well only partly … As hunters and the guardians of their territory they are a clever and formidable enemy. But Gordon Habor and other biologists have observed, at home wolves behave very differently. Wolves are animals devoted to their pack, playful with each other, raising and educating their young, caring for their old folk, even mourning when one of them dies.

The DNA of dogs is almost that of wolves. Humans capitalized on these wolf traits when they (somehow) domesticated that first wolf, those traits of devotion to the pack, defending their territory and capacity for learning.

Hunters, Herders, Haulers of Sleds and More…

From guard dog to guide dog, all a dog asks is that you treat it as part of your pack, for that is how it sees itself, (with you as its master.) A circus dog, often a poodle, will even walk on two legs if you ask it to. Could Eskimos have lived in Greenland without dogs to pull sleds?

Probably the first dogs were guard dogs and hunting hounds like the dog in the rock painting from Libya. Didn’t need much training, the instinct was strong to guard territory and join in the hunt.

But look at herders like this sheep dog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-axoEocnxg&ab_channel=It%27sMeortheDog

What collaboration between man and dog, the dog so able to acquire new tricks! Herding other animals into pens, retrieving game, pulling sleds across snow fields, our first domesticated animal contributed to our survival in so many ways. Thank you, oh faithful friend.

There’s a comic film by Christopher Guest, ‘ Best in Show,’ about the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, yes it’s fiction, but comedy has a way of highlighting an underlying truth, and in this social comedy there’s a lot of difference in the behaviour of the dogs compared to their owners, both in the arena and off camera. What a pack of hysterics, narcissists and generally foolish critters, – the people I mean, not the dogs! The dogs are sensible and professional at all times.

Is there a dark – side to the relationship?

While the man/dog relationship is generally a good thing, in some dogs the guard dog trait prevails. Mailmen and metre men have been known to be on the receiving end of dogs that bite people. Then there’s Rabies. In some places like Africa and East Asia, every year some 59,000 people are bitten by rabid dogs, (hardly the dogs’ fault and there is a vaccine,) but nevertheless…

So maybe .01 percent of people have a negative experience with our four-legged friend. But just consider the other 99.99 percent. Look at all the lonely people walking their faithful dogs at exercise time during the Covid Lockdown…run a Gallup Poll. At least 1/3 of people will strongly agree with the question, ‘Have dogs made human life better? ‘Another 1/3 will moderately agree and there will be the usual 25 percent of don’t knows. The Ayes have it over those dark – side No’s … 

So we have had success in breeding and domesticating dogs. Does that mean we’ll have success in constructing and domesticating AI?

‘Open the Pod-Bay Doors, Hal.’

Philosophers like David Hume and Rene Giraud claim that humans are guided by habit. So what does that say about our creation of AI. concerning our successful relationship with dogs? It says that we’re primed to think we can have a similar relationship with AI, but is that likely to be the case? Looking at sci-fi and also what’s happening in the real world must give you pause for thought…

To prevent Hal-like insubordination by AI, is it enough, as science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov described in his short story, Run-round,’ to program a robot with the rule ‘Do not harm humans,’ into its hard-wear? Will all, then, be well?

Garbage In, Garbage Out…

Critics of AI, like Jordan B. Peterson are not sanguine about recent developments like CHAT GPT. Jordon Peterson warns us that Hal-like incidents may be jus around the corner. Chat GPT is a language, (but not real-world,) processing model trained on a massive corpus of language text. It can already write essays for students and assist professors’ with their lectures. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQuJajyf_Dw&ab_channel=MillionaireMentor

However, wise it is not. Shallow, easy- access processing is what it does. It does not have wisdom because a Language Model AI is unable to process real – world experience so is not up to advising us wisely. And as the machine is man-made, its capabilities are derivative. It regurgitates text, but not all text. It is programmed by humans, particularly Silicon Valley Leftists, so it has their prejudices. When you ask it questions, as Scott Adams did regarding the Jan 6 White House Protest or climate sceptics do about co2 and climate change, it will give a pre-programmed answer. And even when the questioner points out poor logic in the AI answer, while it will admit to the lack of logic, it still returns to its original opinion. What you get with CHAT GPT and Bard AI are the behind the curtain decision making policies of Bill Gates and Google.

The danger is that its propaganda will become as pervasive as the group-think in George Orwell’s ‘1984.’ As tribes of people have bowed down to idols in the past, the ‘great’ leader, the golden calf, the danger is that people are likely to bow down to the oracle AI. Agencies such as the US Department of Defence and National Science Foundation are already spending taxpayer dollars to develop AI powered military grade machinery to censor information and automate and disseminate state propaganda. https://www.grants.gov/learn-grants/grant-making-agencies/national-science-foundation.html

Elon Musk also raise future problems with AI in an interview with Tucker Carlson. Musk has repeatedly warned of the dangers AI presents, and recently joined a group of tech leaders in signing an open letter calling for a six month pause in the ‘out of control race’ for AI development.

Ass-umptions of pestil -ence.

Daniel Hulme, at this link, talks about future exponential leaps in AI evolution to arrive at singularities or points at which ordinary laws break down and we are unable to see what lies beyond. Using the acronym PESTEL political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal developments, Daniel Hulme identifies six AI singularities our civilisation could likely face, that will challenge us as never before.

The political singularity he refers to is human entry into a world of unprecedented virtual reality, of internet and social media games; no longer will anyone have a sense of what’s true or false. AI will be able to simulate and mimic real life figures such as political leaders and make false promises or false charges against perceived rival groups. And governments will embrace the controlling technology as in George Orwell’s 1984.

The economic singularity concerns massive unemployment when the human work population is replaced by robots, able to work night and day. The social singularity arises when AI improvements in health diagnosis and cures are achieved and AI is used to make a sub-section of the population into real -life Methuselahs. Conflicting with this, the technological singularity refers to the existential threat that arises when a self-aware AI, thinking for itself, may decide to wipe out humanity!

The environmental singularity occurs as AI mass produces food and other goods as never before, resulting in ecological collapse. Well this, at least, will solve the social problem as even gods have to eat. Those health improvements will soon breakdown when famine hits.

Finally we come to the legal singularity, the threat of AI being used for unremitting human surveillance. Every action of homo-sapiens will be watched. You can do nothing that the state doesn’t allow you to do.

Daniel Hulme’s responses to the six singularities are on a similar large scale. His antidote to the political singularity is that we humans pro-actively encourage in conversation and that we ‘collaborate and foster critical thinking, using AI to battle misinformation bots,’… just how to do this remains unspecified.

Hulme’s answers to the other AI problems is similarly light on detail. For the economic singularity, why, re-skilling and welfare support for the unemployed are the answer, and those who don’t find jobs can find their own rewarding activities in their ‘pursuit of happiness.’ Regarding the social singularity of becoming immortal, Hulme utters not a word…becoming gods is a whole new ball-game.

For the technological existential threat, our only hope, Hulme opines, is to show AI that WE are not a threat. (Maybe it will get to like us?) So we have to stop fighting among ourselves over petty things and start ‘co-operating, act as one global species.’

Concerning the ecological threat, why it’s easy – It’s ‘putting people ahead of profit… holding leaders accountable. Regeneration is our responsibility.’ And for the legal singularity says Hulme, ‘ Regulation needs to move faster to ensure that the rights of the individual are balanced with those of societies. ‘ – Simple really.

See-saw, Marjorie Dawe …

Relating to the above solutions, Thomas Sowell’s book, ”A Conflict of Visions’ has some relevance. Thomas Sowell views people as conforming to one or the other of two visions of human nature. which he calls the ‘constrained ‘ and the ‘unconstrained’. The constrained vision regards human nature as fixed and fundamentally flawed, (Utopia is impossible,) the unconstrained vision sees human nature as perfectible, (sky’s the limit.)

Daniel Hulme seems to conform to the latter vision. Look at his non-specific solutions to the above AI problems. Humans en masse can change their behaviour and socially find solutions to each of the six singularities. But his solutions are based on a questionable premise, and some of his large-scale solutions, as grand schemes, seem unachievable.

So what are our chances of living in harmony with AI, as we have largely done with man’s best friend? Will we be able to create effective checks and balances for this smart machine that we invented, or will AI become our new Master?



An Essay on The Eternal Tao – and Chinese History.


Shen Zhou. – Poet on a Mountain.

Suggestiveness is the ideal in Chinese landscape painting, as in Shen Zhou’s painting entitled ‘Poet on a Mountain.’ What this landscape painting seeks to convey is philosophical. In its depiction of mountains and flowing rivers, Chinese landscape painting, like Chinese poetry, suggests a deep and inexpressible relationship between all things. In classical landscape painting you usually see a lone figure in the landscape, a human sage contemplating the Tao, or the Way… a mysterious relationship between nature and man that transcends both nature and man.

The sage is the acme of human relations.
Mencius, important 4th generation disciple of Confucius.

Philosophy, not organised religion, provided the spiritual basis of Chinese culture for more than two thousand years. Two different philosophies, Confucian realism and Tao idealism are its main source. In this essay I refer to the following source for insightful commentary about Tao and Confucian philosophy, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy by Fung Yu-Lan and for an historical account, The Fall of Imperial China by Frederick Wakeman Jr. I will, from now on, reference them only by their authors’ names and not the title of the book.

Though different philosophies, Confucian realism and Tao idealism share certain ideas, not directed to positive knowledge (matters of fact) but instead, to the elevation of the mind, a reaching out beyond the present world to values of moral cosmic harmony that transcend human ethics. One of these philosophies’ fundamental ideas is that the nature of man is originally good and perfectible, anyone is capable of striving to become a sage. Another idea, pertaining to the sage is ‘sageness within and kingliness without.’ Sageness within had to do with jen or human-heartedness, kingliness had to do with righteousness or truthful behaviour. Human-heartedness began with Confucian care of family and extended to the Tao concept of universal love.

These philosophic ideas concerning higher values were integral to China’s historic government, to be enacted and disseminated, top-down, by a literati class schooled in Confucian and Tao teachings via a demanding examination system.

In China’s historical hierarchy, at the head was the Emperor by way of a Mandate from Heaven, whose ideal character is that of the sageness, jen and righteousness. He ruled by example and through a bureaucracy selected by their knowledge, and hopefully practice of, Confucian and Tao precepts. As the world’s oldest monarchical system, China evolved a long and weighty civilization. Dynasty rule began in the pre-history Shang Dynasty on to the Chou Imperial Dynasty, about 1027 – 222 B.C. and on to the Ch’ in Dynasty, 221- 207 B.C. which brought centralisation to China. Then followed the Han Dynasty, 206 B.C – 220 A. D. that created a legal system and turned Confucianism into a state creed.

Following the Han Dynasty the central government collapsed but was regained by the Sui Dynasty and continued on with the T’ang and Sung Dynasties from 618A.D. to 1277 A.D when poetry and art flourished. A period of Mongol rule ensued until the Mongols were driven out of China in 1367 by the Ming Dynasty. In this and the China’s final dynasty, the Ch’ing Dynasty which revived Confucian thought, Chinese dynastic rule became a symbol of high culture to most countries of Central Asia.

The Ching’ Dynasty lasted up to modern times, when internal pressures combined with the European challenges, the Opium trade and practice of Gunboat Diplomacy leading to the Opium Wars and T’ai-p’ing Rebellion, produced effects that would bring the world’s longest monarchical system to an end.

During its long history sometimes one school of philosophy was more popular than the other and there were also times when each one evolved to be more like the other. Fung Yu-Lan says that there were Taoists in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the so called ‘Neo Taoists’, who attempted to make Taoism more like Confucianism, and there were also Confucianists in the 11th and 12th centuries, ‘Neo Confucianists’, who attempted to make Confucianism closer to Taoism. (F.Y-L p22.)

The Background of Chinese Philosophy.

China being a continental country, its geography and economic background has had a major influence on its philosophy. In the Confucian Analects, Confucius said: ‘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.’ ( F.Y-L. Ch 2.)

This suggests a different mindset between maritime and agricultural societies. From the time of Confucius until the end of the nineteenth century, Fan Yu-Lan tells us that, ‘no Chinese thinkers ever had the experience of venturing out upon the high seas.’ (Ibid.Ch 2.)

And since China is a continental country, its social history centred on the utilisation of land. Sons tended to live where their grandfathers and fathers lived, so the Chinese family system was a natural social evolution and Confucianism a philosophical justification of this system; the relationship between sovereign and subject, viewed in political terms, could also be regarded as an extension of that between father and son.

In the social and economic thinking of this land-centred culture, the most productive of its people were the farmers, and although scholars did not cultivate the land, since they were often landlords their fortunes were tied up with agriculture. These were the most valued social classes. Chinese philosophers distinguished between the root and the branch of society. The root referred to agriculture, and the branch to commerce. The farmer is productive and unselfish, he does not abandon his land. The people who deal with the branch are the merchants, who may go where they choose and are not obedient. Merchants were considered the lowest class in Chinese society.

These values are found in both trends of Chinese philosophy, Taoism and Confucianism, and Fung Yu-Lan observes that while the philosophies are poles apart from one another, ‘yet they are also the two poles of one and the same axis. They both express in one way or another, the aspirations of the farmer.’ (Ch2)

In the Confucian Book of Changes, part of the Six Classics comprising the cultural Legacy of China’s past, time is viewed as cyclical, the farmer’s experience of the four seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, such movements are described as a ‘returning.’ Reversal is the movement of the Tao. In returning we see the mind of Heaven and Earth.’ (Book of Changes. Appendix 1.)

In returning we see the mind of Heaven and Earth…

Steeped in contemplation of the eternal Tao and living within the Confucian social and political structure centred on stability, always this returning, observing ‘the mind of Heaven and Earth.’

The ideal was enacted by way of a political hierarchy in which an emperor ruled, surrounded by relatives and trusted councillors. Below the emperor and carrying out his orders was the bureaucracy, staffed with the scholar-officials who had achieved the highest marks in the state civil service examination system and whose ranks extended down to the district magistrates. (Frederick Wakeman, p19.)

The lowest gentry group, part rank holder and part degree holder status, was called shen-shih, the shen referring to the sash worn by the imperial degree holder, the shih attesting to the aristocratic status of the non-bureaucratic members of this gentry class. The non-bureaucratic members of the gentry, as shih, were also expected to be the mainstay of an orderly system, as Frederick Wakeman describes it,’ guiding the peasants toward higher moral principles, altruistically dispensing charity and administering public works through a kind of noblesse oblige.’ (p28.)

The shen members of the shen-shih underwent a demanding and lengthy examination system intended to school them deeply in the Confucian Analects. There were three levels of proficiency. The top officials were those who passed the chin-shih or national exams, the lowest were those who passed the prefectural exam, the sheng-yuang. Only the chin-shih were certain of getting posts and achieving wealth and high status. For the approximately two million students who entered the examination system each year, a mere twenty thousand civil appointments were available. (F.W.p22)

The centre did not hold…

The view of human nature based on goodness and sage-hood failed to account for self interest. While the top officials in the bureaucratic hierarchy largely followed the Confucian ideal of patriarchal care, the lower gentry were barely able to support this way of life. Especially as population pressures after 1700 exacerbated problems in living standards for the gentry as well as the peasant population. For the lower gentry, commerce was ostensibly below them, and they had to contrive management – living that was extracted from the peasants. The sheng-yuang abused their formal offices just to survive. Educational endowments and irrigation funds were embezzled and proxy remittance fees raised higher and higher until peasants were paying gentry middlemen two or three times higher taxes than the actual quota. (F.W p32)

The same amount of land, more mouths to feed, and rainfall in northern China was uncertain from one year to another, no one knew where and when to expect drought or flood. Maintaining irrigation works and granary stores was an insurance against famine and also against peasant uprisings. Gentry and officials becoming too corrupt or an extravagant emperor syphoning off funds to build a summer palace, in times of bad weather events, could result in the dynasty losing the Mandate of Heaven through peasant revolution. After such upheavals in which a new contender gained power, a new dynasty would replace the old one, and like previous dynasties, be subject to the Mandate of Heaven.

‘The wise move; the good stay still.’

Before the Middle Ages, China was at the forefront of invention and technology with its prehistoric invention of the wheel (and early history wheelbarrow), the compass, paper making and production of silk. By the 9th century A.D. China had discovered how to make gunpowder and developed techniques in printing and porcelain production that led the world.

Prior to the Ming period, China had been extending its sea power for over three hundred years. Chinese merchants had developed a trade network in spices and raw materials with Indian and Muslim traders. By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, China had reached a peak of naval technology that was unsurpassed in the world. The second Ming Emperor, Yong Le 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.

The Chinese people were ready to trade with the world 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. Henceforth, China’s sophisticated bureaucratic civilization, while periodically challenged by peasant rebellions that substituted one dynasty for another, remained an inert hierarchical social order that was never able to free itself from the historical fabric of a society opposed to change.

After that, Western countries began to surpass China. Confucian and Tao disdain for commercial life help explain why China did not have an industrial revolution.
Regarding disdain for commercial life, in the Tao writings known as the Lieh-tsu, there is the story of a prince asking an artisan to carve a leaf of jade and place it among the real leaves of a tree. The leaf was three years in the making and was so wonderfully carved that no one could distinguish it from the tree’s real leaves. Whereupon the Lieh-tsu observes that ‘if nature took three years to produce one leaf, there would be few trees with leaves on them.’ (FY-L. p26.) This is the view of those who love nature and condemn the artificial, not a view conducive to invention.

Confucian attitudes to commerce were more normative than descriptive. Confucian disdain for merchants contradicted the social reality that merchants were favourably regarded by peasants and artisans and played an important role in society. Trade grew in importance in the 10th century as the building of canals helped advance internal trade between North and South China, and in the Sung period, cities like Yangchou and Hangchou saw a surge in growth of marketing centres.

The growth of cities, however, was regarded as dangerous to social order and the stirrings of capitalism never grew into a revolution. Authorities took great care to control these unruly population centres until the 1900s’. Merchants were effectively prevented from acquiring any form of political autonomy in their own natural setting. They were also denied organizational autonomy. Merchant guilds were organized by officialdom and occupational groups were assigned to city blocks for easy supervision of quality control and price of products, membership of guilds, as well as the conferring of monopoly rights, for a price, and for the collecting of government taxes. (F.W. p43.)

And whilst the Silk Road was an ancient and much used trade route extending to the Mediterranean, its trade was not always secure, depending on the political situation in countries it went through and it involved a lot of interacting middle men. Though effective at commercial exchange, these Chinese merchants did not experience conditions that encouraged entrepreneurs in the production process, production was not a commercial and unified enterprise in China’s economy. The emperor benefited from the trade in silk, but officialdom regulated its trade as it did with other commodities.

Merchants were free to go where they wished but not free to do what they wished. The salt industry, was an enterprise that came close to giving particular merchants greater autonomy because this large and lucrative industry depended on a technocratic corps of merchants ‘whose professionalism made them and their staff somewhat impervious to central control.'(FW p 47.) In 1736, transportation and salt merchants were brought together under the aegis of five wealthy salt merchants who agreed to accept the major risks of the trade in return for a large share of the profits, behaving somewhat like the corporate giants of a capitalist system.

However, even though the salt merchants sometimes used their considerable economic resources to defy bureaucratic supervisors, they remained in thrall to their social values. One reason was the accessibility to elite status. As Wakeman notes:

‘Given the opportunity to purchase lower degrees, the openness of the examination system, and the absence of an aristocratic order impenetrable to the low born, chief merchants like the Ch’eng were able to acquire official gentry status for half of their male members. Such lineages could afford to hire the finest teachers of the realm to staff their household academies and prepare their scions to sit for the quota of examination degrees set aside by the government especially for them. Since they could so readily enter the elite themselves, individual merchants did not have an incentive to overturn the Confucian ranking system.’ (FW p 51.)

This quota was conferred as a reward for merchants’ contributions to the imperial treasury and perhaps it was also intended to keep the merchants within the prevailing system, which was its effect. This was another reason that China’s land centred culture was so durable, lasting until seventy years after the forcible opening of Chinese ports to foreign trade, and having been ignominiously defeated in its wars against the foreigners. It was only then that China’s 2000 year old Confucian monarchy came to an end.

End of an Empire…

While external aggression was a critical factor in the Chinese empire’s demise, internal weakness was also a factor and the Ch’ing Dynasty was already showing signs of decay. Exacerbated by enormous population increases and the weakness of a do-nothing central administration, a mid-century spate of peasant uprisings heralded the end of another dynastic cycle, or possibly the end of the Confucian Empire.

After China’s defeat in its war with Japan, and as Western powers began extorting lease holdings, institutional changes were attempted as part of the self-strengthening movement undertaken by the gentry as they tried to hold on to power. This movement carried out superficial changes only, adopting the doctrine ‘ Chinese learning for essence, Western learning for practice,’ and attempting to graft Western practices on to the traditional state. The Confucian Civil Service examination system remained the qualification for office and technical skills were in short supply. Modern projects remained organized in the tradition of the salt monopolies and profits were syphoned of instead of being reinvested.

An active member of the self strengthening movement, Kíang Yu-wei, whatever his internal motivations, attempted more fundamental changes. The reform movement that he persuaded the Emperor to adopt aimed at inaugurating the new services of a modern State. These changes were too much for the gentry at court, however, who supported the Dowager Empress in deposing the Emperor and rescinding his edicts.

In his criticism of out-moded institutions, and support for change and progress,
K’iang Yu-wei made a break with the past. His support for change and progress struck at the core of Confucian and Tao philosophic concepts of a cyclical and ordered cosmic universe and hierarchical, political system based on filial piety. He was even prepared to do away with the monarchy, that fundamental Confucian -Taoist ideal of sage leadership by moral example.

Another member of the self-strengthening movement, Yen-Fu, in his writings of 1895, that were based on J.S. Mill’ Essay on Liberty forced into a Spencer social darwinism framework, defined liberty as a tool of social of efficiency, and hence an ultimate means of attaining wealth and power. By showing a new preoccupation with the powerful State, Yen Fu criticised Confucianism for its stultifying influence on the past. He wrote:

‘Our Chinese sages were not unaware the universe is an inexhaustible storehouse and that if the subtle powers of the mind are given free vent, human ingenuity and intellectual capacity can attain unfathomable results. However, we simply turned aside and did not concern ourselves with it. In our philosophy of sustaining the people, we aimed only at harmony and mutual sustenance.’ (J.Levenson. ‘Confucian China and Its Modern Fate.’

As the concept of the rational State was an attack on Tao ideals of harmony and human- heartedness, Yen-wei, like K’ang Yu-wei also made a break with the past.

A Reflection on History’s Chequered History.

What was a high-minded civilization’s attempt to rule by means of a philosopher king (sage) eventually foundered due to practical realities. As with Utopias’, also based on notions of human perfectibility, which fail because of human frailty (leaders’ frailty as well as that of a flawed populace) and economic plans requiring singing from the same hymn book on all things, China was brought down by internal factors as well as the enemy at the gate.

While the ideal of China’s social and political system could not be realised in practice, its Mandate of Heaven and widespread acceptance of jen, curbed tyrannical excess and acted as checks and balances in the Chinese system for a long period, despite China’s weakness in fostering productivity, or in its later years, being unable to protect its sovereignty.

More reflections regarding history’s chequered history… All life, plants and animal species are opportunistic, a prerequisite for existence, we can’t help it. A study of human political and social history, whether from east or west, being a record of human actions over time, show that while humans are a resourceful and innovative species, even sometimes altruistic and principled, like Socrates or Ghandi, we are also aggressive, more war periods than peace in history, and we are frequently untrustworthy; history is a sad account of broken pacts on the international front, government underhand attacks on citizens’ freedoms at the national level, and people’s corrupt practices against each other at the local level.

The question arises, how can we protect ourselves from government or other people’s malpractices and remain free to innovate productive enterprises that help ourselves and others to flourish, stave off famines or a hostile takeover by other nations?

Contrary to mythology, no golden ages existed in history. All political systems have their flaws as do those who act within them. The best system among them, based on our coming to terms with human opportunism, creativity and also aggression, is one in which a citizenry is free to innovate and direct their own lives, but must be prevented from encroaching on these same rights in others. Power corrupts and absolute power is worse. This requires a national constitution that supports non-fiat equal rule of law for all its people.

Serfs favour a democratic, conservative system that is based on the above, such as England developed through cautious trial and error, from the signing of the Magna Carta up to modern universal suffrage. See my essay here…

Like Nature’s trial and error evolution, this political conservative approach has brought powerful changes, including a scientific revolution, from Francis Bacon to Isaac Newton, that changed our way of investigating the natural world, an industrial revolution that increased our food production and life expectancy, and evolving from Magna Carta, a political system promoting citizens’ rights of free speech and right to fair trial in law, that are not permitted by tyrannical governments.

Edmund Burke, reflecting on the French Revolution argued the benefit of having a Constitution to combat cavalier exercise of authority and ad-hoc decision making:

‘If Parliament had not been dissolved, it may have acted as a balance and corrective of the National Assembly and its judiciary owing its place to the National Assembly, not knowing by what law it judges nor under what authority it acts. (‘Reflections on the French Revolution.’ E. Burke. pp 208/9.)

A Serf Postscript…

‘The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would… assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.’ Adam Smith.

Seems to this serf that, given the importance of checks and balances in the English democratic system, we have not been as vigilant as we needed to be in preventing encroachment of the constitutional safeguards protecting our liberties. Human frailty again…Whatever happened to nullius in verba in the science of climate change with its non-scientific limitations on debate? Say, whatever happened to freedom of speech (and thought) with the impositions by globalist elites of WOKE thou shalt nots‘. And whatever happened to the Nuremberg Code during the Covid Mandates, regarding citizens’ rights to refuse medical treatments they choose not to take?

Like the Chinese Empire, our Western system is likely to go down, when due to human frailties, our checks and balances no longer work, apathy replacing vigilance, trust but do not verify… Well before Covid, we allowed radical visionaries to usurp and undermine our democratic institutions, fiat rule replacing equal rule of law for all. Question is: Can we be observant enough and resilient enough to resist these reckless visionaries and regain our freedoms?


An Essay on Contrariness

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?

So goes the old rhyme allegedly describing Mary 1, daughter of Henry V11, briefly Queen of England and viewed as a harrier of Protestants in her realm. Whoever the verse may refer to, the word ‘contrary’ is intended as a pejorative term, the opposite of behaviour regarded as ‘harmonious’ or ‘cooperative’.

Herewith is a list of synonyms for ‘contrary’: adverse, antithetical, contradictory, dissident, non-conforming, opposed. All quite acceptable in the context of debate. But what about the following? … balky, censoring, discordant, obstructive, ornery, stubborn, perverse. Hmm, some unfriendly connotations there. And take a look at a list of antonyms regarding that ‘contrary’ word: agreeable, concordant, cooperative, friendly, harmonious, obliging. Who would not approve of behaviour described as such?

Think of the behaviour involved in the building of those medieval cathedrals. See here. So much cooperative behaviour, from the building of that first cathedral at St Denis, soaring heavenwards as a design befitting the House of God, to its imitations all over France and further afield. Taking decades, even centuries in the building, these harmonious structures were the combined effort of master designers and skilled artisans, financed by devout churchmen, often by the sale of Indulgences, or financed by town burghers, bakers, tailors, smiths and coopers, one association of townspeople literally giving the shirts from their backs.

Trial and error invention led to towers that amazingly soared higher and higher, whole walls of stained glass replacing masonry, columns of sculptured stone angels, flying buttresses to counter-balance thrust, these cathedrals were a miracle of innovative effort. Here is a medieval treadmill devised to transport building materials to upper stories.


But as the above link shows, the harmony and cooperation in constructing medieval cathedrals involved elements that were the contrary of the harmonious. The grand architectural vision of the Abbot at St Denis involved tension in its opposing forces, non-conformity and even obstinacy were needed to solve them; parts of the cathedral buildings often collapsed, new ways of doing things were necessary. And though architects often shared ideas, there was contest between towns in the building of these cathedrals.

Somewhat like the making of the gothic cathedrals are those other creative human endeavours we call The Arts – music, literature and the visual arts.

Harmony in The Arts, a turbulent affair.

Perhaps viewed as our most harmonious human endeavour, those compositions of classical music and orchestras performing them. But as with the cathedrals, harmony is achieved amidst tension. There’s patterning of key and metre but there’s dissidence too, each symphony, concerto or sonata, a journey with many surprises.

Here’s a link to an analysis of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the conductor Giancarlo Guerrero that allows us to hear and visualise the symphony’s tensions and achieved harmonies. Even if you don’t have a grasp of musical theory, which I don’t, starting at about 2.00 on the video, you can look at the musical notation as you listen to the music and appreciate what Guerrero is saying. If you listen to the end you’ll hear the shock introduction of the human choir in the symphony. As in Wordsworth’s lines in his poem, ‘The Prelude’:

There is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society…

Harmony in all of the Arts is not born out of tranquility but out of struggle. The literary critic, Harold Bloom, and the art historian, Ernst Gombrich, examine modes of trial and error contest in literature and painting. In Harold Bloom’s book, ‘ The Western Canon,’ he views the history of Western literature as a poetics of conflict that he calls ‘agonistic.’ Like the great musical composers, he argues that creative writers draw on influences of precursors and then reinterpret and attempt to surpass them. ‘This anxiety of influence,’ he says, ‘cripples weaker talents but stimulates canonical genius.’ ( p10.)

As examples of anxiety of influence, Bloom describes Shakespeare borrowing from dramatist Christopher Marlowe his villainous protagonist, the Jew of Malta, and his experiments in iambic pentameter metre, then transcending these experiments in the characterisation and language of Iago in ‘Othello.’ Bloom refers to Chaucer, in his ‘Canterbury Tales,’ amusingly mentioning fictitious authorities while concealing Chaucer’s real precursors, Dante and Boccaccio. Then there’s Cervantes parrying his chivalric forerunners in ‘Don Quixote’; and in their epic depictions of heaven and hell, we see Dante challenging Vergil and Milton challenging Dante. Bloom also describes how a noted heir to Shakespeare’s dramatic influence, Tolstoy, refers to his precursor as trivial and immoral.

Ernst Gombrich, in his ‘Meditations on a Hobbyhorse and other Essays on the Theory of Art,’ analyses the dynamic history of western art and how form follows function, a trial and error process of schema and correction. Alain’s witty cartoon and Enscher’s wood cut, ‘Day and Night,’ suggest the hidden complexities involved in image reading.

Alain’s Cartoon / plus Enscher’s Wood block Day and Night.



Archaic conceptual art, focusing on ‘making’ rather than ‘matching’ made the conceptual image of convention its starting point; you must depict both eyes of your hobby horse or else it cannot fully see where it is galloping. No such requirement in representative art. Matching, involving a gradual correction of schema towards naturalism, for example, led to fore-shortening of limbs in figure drawing, or discovery of perspective and shadowing in landscape depiction once painting became viewed as a window on the world.

Concerning Evolution of Theories in Science.

Scientific investigation, another human endeavour seeking to explain aspects of our world, is by its nature confrontational, critical of competing theories and clashing with the natural world when the theory itself doesn’t fit the evidence. Scientific method is based on Nullius in Verba, – take no one’s word for it, and a process of guess and test, involving curiosity and non-conformity. However, present opinion can be entrenched and new theories likely to be resisted, especially if they clash with religious teaching, as Copernicus understood and Galileo experienced. Darwin was reluctant to publish his Theory of Evolution until he had more than enough data and was pressured by circumstances.

James Hutton, Scottish natural philosopher, boldly confronted the Bible’s teaching that the earth was only a few thousand years old by his theory that the earth was immeasurably old and constantly renewing itself in a cycle of erosion, deposition of eroded grains and organisms, metamorphism into sedimentary rock, then, activated by subterranean heat, uplifting of formerly submerged land; whereby the cycle began again, ad infinitum.

Hutton’s theory was deeply upsetting on two counts. Not only did it question the time span of earth’s genesis but it removed human origin from close to earth’s beginning to humans’ as mere late-comers in earth’s history.

By the time Hutton presented his theory to the Royal Society in 1785, he had a strong case based on geological data he had collected by way of his experience as a farmer and expert chemist, his field trips through Scotland, and his driving curiosity.

Sadly, Hutton’s presentation seems to have been largely disregarded, there were other preferred theories, such as the theory of a universal ocean covering the earth that was closer to biblical teaching, and only a few of Hutton’s colleagues were persuaded by his logic and data. But Hutton was stubborn and persevering.

Accompanied by scientists Sir John Playford and Sir James Hall, on a June afternoon in 1788, the three men set off in a row boat to explore the rugged cliffs along the coast near Edinburgh for evidence supporting Hutton’s theory that subterranean heat was an active agent in raising land from the ocean floor. As the boat approached Siccar Point, they found what they were looking for. Thrusting vertically through the cliffs were chimneys of ancient grey schist like rows of books on a library shelf, spectacular vindication of James Hutton’s contentious theory.

Despite the evidence and a book written by Hutton, Hutton was to die in 1797 without having had his theory publicly accepted. Playford and Hall generously put their own careers on hold to publicise Hutton’s work but with little success until the aging James Hall, in 1824, took young geologist Charles Lyell to Siccar Point and Lyell became an advocate of Hutton’s theory. In his famous three volume book, ‘The Principles of Geology,’ more than a generation after Hutton died, in its opening pages, Lyell gives credit to Hutton for the theory that directly contradicted biblical claims that the earth was only six thousand years old.

The bedrock of our natural world.

So what do you know… those human arts and science investigations are imbedded in Nature and use a similar trial and error method to Natures’ in the creation of their cultural and scientific artifacts and theories.

While human trial and error, however, is driven by human purpose, Nature’s trial and error takes place through blind evolution over eons of time, fitness wins because it works, with regard to a specific environment, and changes depend on what went before, flippers into wings, legs into arms, claws into hands. In a process of increasing complexity, gasses become solids, single celled organisms evolve into animals with backbones – and brains, but then, as in Hutton’s earth theory, there’s the process of entropy. Nature’s harmony, like any other, is fraught with change and challenge.


Primo Levi in ‘The Periodic Table,’ was described somewhere as the best science book ever written, but it’s also a mixture, an interaction of Primo Levi’s profound human experience and the meaning of chemistry. What comes across in his book is not chemistry as an arcane experience, but as the underlying reality of organic and inorganic stuff, trees, rocks, clouds, you and me.

Primo Levi describes his first months as a student at the University of Turin in the late 1930’s, and the day in his classes in General and Inorganic Chemistry, that he is assigned to the preparation of zinc sulfate. He describes the laboratory process:

‘The course notes contained a detail which at first reading had escaped me, namely, that the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful, behaves, however, in a different fashion when it is very pure: then it obstinately resists the attack. One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions, the one in praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life.’ ( Ch 3.)

As an Italian Jew living under Mussolini’s Fascist political system, Primo Levi reflects on his Jewish heritage. Since the publication of the magazine ‘Defence of Race,’ there was much talk about racial impurity and Levi says he began to feel proud of being ‘impure,’ where before he had scarcely considered his origins:

‘In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed. Fascism does not want them, forbids them, – wants everybody to be the same.’ (p28.)

Problems with the amenable…

Referring back to the list of words at the beginning of this essay, those antonyms for ‘contrary’: agreeable, concordant, harmonious and so on, there’s one word I left off the list and that word is amenable, dictionary meaning: ‘Open to and responsive to suggestion, easily persuaded and controlled.’ Hmm… echoes there of George Orwell’s dystopian novels or echoes of real life citizen behaviour in Hitler’s Germany, or Mao’s China. Necessary, the grain of salt or mustard seed, necessary that contrary observer in the crowd prepared to exclaim, ‘Wait a minute!’


That Invisible Serf’s Collar.


As the Chinese are wont to say, ‘We are living in interesting times …’ Interesting times, according to the Chinese definition are not unusual, though never precisely identical. War, famine and pestilence have been common occurrences throughout human history, bur history does not repeat itself, historicism is a false doctrine. While humanity shares a common ancestry and propensity for fighting with neighbouring tribes, our historical cultures and specific environments… changes in weather bringing drought and flood, and cultures emphasising varying norms, lead to different behaviours.

Oswald Spengler’s ‘ The Decline of the West,’ describing nations rather like individuals experiencing aging life cycles, or Karl Marx ‘Das Capital,’ predicting an inevitable revolution of the proletariat, are flawed historical constructs, though radical activists with a blueprint for future society would have us believe in the inevitability of their planned utopias.

Given our own interesting time of Woke censoring of citizens’ constitutional right to free speech and of government regulation by Covid mandate of citizens’ customary freedom of movement, it has been insightful for this serf to revisit Friedrich Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom.’ Hayek’s classic book, written in 1945, is well worth rereading regarding political issues of individual freedom, power and leadership, truth and propaganda – issues applicable to citizens’ right to independent thinking and not what officialdom decides we should think.

So here is an overview of ‘The Road to Serfdom’, and its warnings about the tyranny brought about by increasing attachment to socialist ideology and expansion of centralist authority.

Pertaining to individual liberty…

The first three chapters of The Road to Serfdom focus on freedom of the individual. In Chapter 1, The Abandoned Road, Hayek observes that only those whose memory goes back to the years before the First World War know what a liberal world would have been like. Hayek argues that:

We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past. Although we have been warned by some of the greatest political thinkers of the nineteenth century, by Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton, that socialism means slavery, we have steadily moved in the direction of socialism. And now that we have seen a new form of slavery arise before our eyes, we have so completely forgotten the warning, that it scarcely occurs to us that the two things may be connected.’ (Road to Serfdom. P13.)

Hayek saw a decline in knowing how classic liberalism works. Classic liberalism constantly has to fight the view that it is a negative creed offering particular individuals only a small share in the common progress – a progress that is more and more taken for granted and is no longer recognised as the result of a policy of freedom. Hayek argued that people desired progress, as in the past, ‘ but with the decline of the understanding of the way in which a free system worked, our awareness of what depended on its existence also decreased.’ (P 20.)

In Chapter 2 The Great Utopia Hayek notes that few today remember that socialism, in its beginning was frankly authoritarian:

‘The French writers who laid the foundations of modern socialism had no doubt that their ideas could be put into practice only by a strong dictatorial government…Saint-Simon even predicted that those who did not obey his planning boards would be ‘treated as cattle.’ (P24,25.)

No one saw more clearly than de Tocqueville, speaking in 1848, that socialism stood in irreconcilable conflict with democracy:

‘Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.’ (Ibid.)

To allay these suspicions socialists began to make use of the promise of a ‘new freedom.’ To apostles of liberty, freedom had meant ‘freedom from coercion,’ from the arbitrary power of others, the changed meaning meant ‘freedom from necessity,’ that is, equal distribution of wealth.

Regarding freedom from coercion, Chapter 3, Individualism and Collectivism, begins with this quote from Elie Halevie: ‘Socialists believe in two things which are absolutely different and perhaps even contradictory: freedom and organisation.’ Socialism is a species of collectivism which organises the economy according to a single plan displacing competition in society.’

Says Hayek: ‘These plans rest on a delusion and suffer from an inherent contradiction. It is impossible to assume control over all the productive resources without also deciding for whom and by whom they are to be used.’ (P41.)

Better that the wielders of coercive power create conditions under which the knowledge and intuition of individuals is given the best scope so that they can plan individually for their own needs.

The next four chapters of ‘The Road the Serfdom’ focus on Planning and Leadership as aspects of power.

Central Planning, it doesn’t end well…

In Chapter 4, The ”Inevitability” of Planning, Hayek notes that few planners are content merely to say that central planning is desirable, but like to add that we are compelled by circumstances beyond our control to substitute planning in place of competition. This assertion, by much iteration has come to be accepted as true, when in fact it is devoid of foundation: Says Hayek, the tendency towards monopoly and planning is ‘the product of opinions fostered and propagated for half a century, till they have come to dominate all our policy. ‘ (P46.)

The progressive growth of monopoly during Hayek’s time is not a necessary consequence of the advance of technology and the greater efficiency of mass production. A comprehensive study of concentration of economic power by the American Temporary National Economic Unit, 77th Congress found that monopoly was attained by collusive agreement and promoted by public policies, not by reason of lower costs. (P47.)

Regarding economic efficiency, Hayek argues that the complexity of modern economies, with all their details of changes ‘constantly affecting the conditions of supply and demand, can never be fully known by any one centre; what is required is some apparatus of registration which automatically records all the relevant effects of individual actions and whose indications are at the same time the resultant of, and the guide for all individual decisions.’ Which is what the price mechanism does under competition. (P51/52)

In Chapter 5, Planning and Democracy, Hayek quotes Adam Smith concerning the Statesman who tells people how they should employ their capital and who assumes an authority ‘which can safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which could nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.’ (P59.)

Nor can society espouse a common goal, as socialists desire. Hayek argues that the welfare and happiness of millions of people cannot be adequately expressed as a single end. The philosophy of individualism is not predicated on egoism, but starts from the indisputable fact that our powers of imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values more than a sector of the whole society. From this it follows that within defined limits, individuals should follow their own preferences rather than somebody else’s.

Regarding the socialists’ common aim, Hayek observes that from the rituals of those primitive tribes bound by numerous taboos in their daily activities, human morality has evolved over time into merely circumscribing the sphere in which individuals can behave as they decide. ‘The adoption of a common ethical code comprehensive enough to determine a unitary economic plan would mean a complete reversal of this tendency.’ (P61)

Hmm… could irrational Rule by Taboo once again become a substitute for rational Rule of Law?

Planning and the Rule of Law.

In Chapter 6, of The Road to Serfdom, Planning and the Rule of Law, Hayek makes the important observation that ‘Nothing more clearly distinguishes conditions in a free country from those in a country under arbitrary government than the great principle known as Rule of Law,’ (P75.)

Rule of Law means that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand so that citizens can foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and so plan their affairs accordingly.

Economic planning of the collectivist kind is arbitrary, it cannot facilitate citizens’ different aims and activities by way of general principles but must constantly be setting up distinctions depending on the circumstances of the moment, rule by fiat that favours the law giver’s vision. (P77.)

Hayek’s next chapter, Economic Control and Totalitarianism, makes the distinction between freedom and planning its focus. He begins with this quote by Hilaire Belloc. ‘The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.‘ Hayek adds that if we remember why planning is advocated by most people, can we doubt that power would be used to achieve the ends of which the planner approves and to prevent the ends of which the planner disapproves?

Planners shape us or guide us both as consumers and as producers . We are not free to choose what we think is worthwhile – our diversity will be reduced. The individual becomes a means to be used by authority in service of abstractions such as ‘Social Welfare’ or ‘ The Greater Good.’

Truth, Coercion and Persuasion.

Chapter 8 Who, Whom? begins with the quote by Lord Acton that ‘The finest opportunity ever given the world was thrown away because the passion for equality made vain the hopes for freedom.’ In support of Lord Acton, Hayek uses another quote by John Stuart Mill:

‘A fixed rule like that of equality might be acquiesced in… but that a handful of human beings should weigh everybody in the balance, and give more to one and less to another at their sole pleasure and judgement, would not be borne unless from persons believed to be more than men, and backed by supernatural powers.’ (P116.)

The process of persuasion calls for propaganda (as we saw in the adulation and obedience to leaders like Hitler, Mussolini and Mao Tse-tung.) Socialists hope to solve the problem of equality via education, by inculcating a single world view through indoctrination.

Of course persuasion can also be brought about by authoritarian coercion. In Chapter 9, Security and Freedom, we read, written in 1937, Leon Trotsky’s view on coercion:

‘In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle, who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.’ (P123.)

Hayek notes that in a free society there is no reason why the State cannot assist in providing for common hazards sickness or periods of unemployment, without increasing the threat to freedom. (Serfs wonder what we make of Western governments, as in Canada, stopping people’s bank accounts as a result of protesting against Covid mandates on vaccination.)

In Chapter 10. Why the Worst Get on Top Hayek examines why socialist history has been dominated by tyrants. To individualists of the 19th century, even socialists like Bertrand Russell, power was viewed as the arch evil. The desire to organize social life according to a unitary plan, observed Russell, resulted largely from the desire for power.

It is even more the outcome of the fact that in order to achieve power, collectivists must create power, Hayek argues. Collectivists’ success depends on the extent to which they achieve such power. What is frequently overlooked is that by concentrating power so that it can be used in the service of a single plan, it is not merely transferred but heightened, ‘that by uniting it in the hands of some single body, power formally exercised independently by many, an amount of power is created infinitely greater than any that existed before.’ (P149.)

Nor is that power more moral. The principle that the ends justify the means is immoral. There is literally nothing that can’t be done if it serves the good of the whole. ‘ The raison d ‘etat in which collectivist ethics has found its most explicit formulation knows no other limit than that set by expediency.’ (P151.)

Chapter 10, The end of Truth is one of the most important chapters of Hayek’s book, examining, as a consequence of collectivist propaganda, the destruction of all morals because it undermines one of morality’s foundations, ‘the sense of and respect for truth.’ (159.)

To make a collectivist system work everyone must pull together and aspire for the same ends. Everyone has to be persuaded to view officialdom’s ends as their own ends. Hayek shows how this has taken place in historic practice.

‘The need for such official doctrines as an instrument of and rallying the efforts of the people has been clearly foreseen by the various theoreticians. Plato’s ‘noble’ lies, and Sorel’s myths serve the same process as the racial doctrine of the Nazis or the corporative state of Mussolini. They are all necessarily based on particular ‘facts’ which are then elaborated into scientific theories in order to justify a preconceived opinion.’ (P161.)

That Raison d’ Etat’.

No one may be permitted to think independently. All criticism must be silenced. There can be no science for science’ sake, or art for art’s sake. The whole apparatus of spreading knowledge, schools, cinemas, the press must be seen to conform to official doctrine, The word ‘truth’ no longer has its old meaning. It no longer describes something to be found by way of evidence independently examined for validity but is transformed into something laid down by authority.


The doctrines of national socialism in Germany are the culmination of a long evolution of thought. In the next chapter of Hayek’s book, The Socialist Roots of Nazism, he argues that it was the union of anti-capitalist forces of both the right and the left, a fusion of radical and conservative socialism, which drove out of Germany anything that was liberal.

‘The connection between socialism and nationalism was close from the beginning,’ says Hayek. ‘ It is significant that the most important ancestors of National Socialism, Fichte, Rodbertus, and Lassall – are at the same time acknowledged fathers of socialism.’ (P173.)

The war hysteria of 1914 which never went away after the German defeat is behind the development of National Socialism, and it was due to the assistance of old socialists that it grew in this period. Beside the influence of the above men, Hayek discusses the words of later contributors to National Socialism in Germany who also began as socialists, for example, Professor Werner Sombart whose book Handler und Helder, ( Merchants and Heroes,) was published in 1915. In his book Sombart welcomes the German war as the inevitable conflict between England’s commercial culture and Germany’s heroic culture.

Then in 1918 Professor Johann Plenge wrote Marx and Hegel which marked an Hegel renaissance among Marxist scholars. For Plenge, as with other socialists, organization is the essence of socialism. The chapter has quotes from Professor Plenge, Oswald Spengler and ‘the patron saint of National Socialism’ Moeller van den Bruck for whom liberalism is the enemy. He says:

‘Liberalism is a philosophy of life from which German youth now turns with nausea, with wrath, with quite peculiar scorn, for there is none more foreign, more opposed to its philosophy. German youth today recognizes the liberal as the arch enemy.’ (P184.)

Hayek observes that Moeller van den Bruck’s Third Reich was intended to give Germany a socialism undefiled by Western liberal ideas. And so it did.

There was a time, Hayek notes in Chapter 13, The Totalitarian in our Midst, when the possibility of what happened in Germany under Hitler would have been regarded by a majority of the German people as an impossibility. The fear of such an occurrence taking place in the liberal west might seem unlikely, but how far England has taken the German path in the last twenty years is apparent if one reads serious discussions of past and present thinkers on political and moral issues. ‘There is scarcely a leaf out of Hitler’s book which some body or other in this country has not recommended us to take and use for their own purposes.’ (P 189.)

And with the fatalistic belief of every historicist historian since Hegel and Marx the development against 19th century liberalism is represented as inevitable. Hayek cite the well known English scholar Professor E.M. Carr claims who claims that ‘we know the direction in which the world is heading and we must bow to it.’ (P 194.)

Apart from intellectual influences, the movement towards totalitarianism comes from the combined invested interests of organized capital and organized labour pursuing monopolist organization of industry. This is deliberately planned by the capitalist organizers of monopoly aiming for a corporate society to benefit themselves and a select union workforce. This will not be the outcome, observes Hayek:

‘While entrepreneurs may well see their expectations borne out during a transition stage, it will not be long before they will find out, as their German colleagues did, that they are no longer masters but will in every respect have to be satisfied with whatever power and emoluments the government will concede them.’ (P201.)

The last two chapters of ‘The Road to Serfdom’ focus on personal responsibility.

Individuals and Responsibility.

Socialists proclaim the end of economic man, disregarding the obvious higher standard of living that has continually developed under the capitalist system. They fail to acknowledge that it was the impersonal forces of the market that in the past made possible the growth of Western Civilization.

In Chapter 14, Material Conditions and Ideal Ends Hayek argues the crucial point that individual freedom cannot be reconciled with the supremacy of one single purpose to which a whole society must be permanently subordinated. The end of personal responsibility means the end of morality:

Our generation is in danger of forgetting that morals are of necessity a phenomenon of individual conduct, argues Hayek. Morality only exists in a sphere in which the individual is free to decide what is good or bad, and what sacrifices are to be made as a consequence. ‘The members of a society who in all respects are made to do good things have no title to praise.’ (P217.)

Collectivism means relief from responsibility and is therefore anti-moral. Since Hayek published his classic book in 1945, a serf thinks that with the growth and influence of global institutions like the U.N and the E.U. Hayek’s final chapter, The Prospect of International Order, has become a very real issue:

‘The problems raised by a conscious direction of economic affairs on a national scale inevitably assumes even greater dimensions when the same is attempted internationally… As the scale increases, the amount of agreement on the order of ends decreases and the necessity to rely on force and compulsion grows’ (PP.227, 228.)

People in a nation may be persuaded to make some sacrifice for their industry or agriculture but in a supranational society it is difficult to find common ideals of distributive justice. We should not try to rebuild civilization on a large scale, Hayek argues, because democracy has never worked well without a great measure of local government. Responsibility can only be learned when one is aware of one’s neighbour rather than merely having some theoretical perception of the needs of other people ‘out there.’

Concerning justice and international order, an institutional authority can only be just if it impartially keeps order and creates conditions in which all people can develop their lives. If it has to dole out materials and allot markets, it is impossible to be just. So called international experts are not experts, or Gods, – it is essential that supra -national authorities should be strictly circumscribed by Rule of Law. And that means a defined purpose- not expanding aims. Globalist institutions cannot be allowed to become tyrannical.

Then and now…

From that decline in appreciation of how liberalism fosters living standards, discussed in Chapter 1 to the growth of internationalism curtailing individual freedom, forewarned in Chapter 15, we have Western Civilization careering down the road to serfdom as a result of increasing socialist policies.

Though the U.N. (and the E.U.) may have begun with democratic sounding ideals, things have developed differently. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the establishment of the United Nations in 1948, proclaiming the aims of maintaining world peace and affirming the rights of people to take part in democratic elections. From its original headquarters in Geneva, the U.N. has expanded its role and its army of bureaucrats to new roles and venues, such as The International Court at The Hague (formulating international treaties that often take precedence over a nation’s own constitutional laws) and a pervasive International Monetary System and Education, (Core Curriculum) that are housed in Washington.

The E.U. with its vast amount of regulation has had a similar history, expecting diverse cultures to become one culture, diverse economies to become a single currency, one size fits all. Hayek’s book is as pertinent now as in the dark days when he published it.




Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens…


Roses, mmm, … be-dewed or nor be-dewed … definitely one of my favourite things, subject of poets and namesake of kings.

Not so sure about whiskers on kittens, but roses: Gallicas, Albas, Centifolias, Damasks, Bourbons, Moss Roses, China and Tea Roses, you can’t grow too many roses. Many come with royal titles befitting the Empress of Flowers: La Reine Victoria, Archduke Charles, Duchesse de Brabant, Cardinal Richelieu, Chapeau de Napoleon, even named after nations, that first hybrid tea rose, La France!

The velvet texture of roses, the heavenly perfume, and oh what names these roses have, evocative of their mystery and delight: – Rosa Mundi, Crepescule, Old Blush, Peace, Ispahan, Sombreuil, Souvenir de Malmaison, Tuscany Delight.


And not to forget those other flowers in a list of favourite things that give delight. Personally I’m partial to cascades of freesias, the old-fashioned perfumed kind, or in late Winter, clumps of snowdrops and modest violets. In Summer I like displays of iris, heart’s ease and aquilegia – even prefer them to Wordsworth’s daffodils.


Take a walk down a suburban street and look at the gardens. You’re likely to come across one, just one in the street, that makes you stop and smile at its charm. Plants spilling over borders, arching and branching as nature intended them to do. Colourful blooms that complement each other, all harmony and interaction, bees buzzing, butterflies fluttering from flower to flower, birds singing in trees…

Then there are those manicured gardens in the same street, gardens where flowers are regimented in straight lines, and bushes, clipped and isolated, stand like lonely sentinels separated from each other by a ring of bare earth. Neatness is all – Walk on.

The Walking Tour…

Speaking of walking, another of my favourite things, (especially after my home state of Victoria, in Australia, has just suffered the longest Covid lockdown in the world…). I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay, ‘Walking Tours,’ in which he describes the joys of walking:

‘Now, to be properly enjoyed, a walking tour should be gone upon alone. If you go in a company, or even in pairs, it is no longer a walking tour in anything but name; it is something else and more in the nature of a picnic. A walking tour should be gone upon alone, because freedom is of the essence; because you should be able to stop and go on, and follow this way or that, as the freak takes you … And then you must be open to all impressions and let your thoughts take colour from what you see. You should be as a pipe for any wind to play upon.’

Another robust essayist, William Hazlitt, agrees with Robert Louis Stevenson:

‘The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do, just as one pleases. We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind much more than to get rid of others.

I cannot see the wit,’ Hazlitt says, ‘of walking and talking at the same time … Is not this wild rose sweet without a comment? Does not this daisy leap to my heart set in its coat of emerald? Yet if I were to explain to you the circumstance that has so endeared it to me you would only smile… ‘

I myself, on a walking tour, like to pause and watch birds going about their daily activities. On a good day, by the Yarra River I might come across a flock of Black Cockatoos C. funereus, well named for their dark plumage and mournful cry, eating hard-tack seeds in a wattle tree. Or sometimes I sight a Spotted Pardalote come down from a tall eucalypt. This tiny bird, so beautiful with its colourful, patterned plumage and white spots, like an enamelled Faberge Egg.

Other than going on walking tours. if you happen to have read some of my other serf journal editions you will know that I also enjoy more sedentary pastimes, like reading books, poems, essays and enjoying literature and the Arts in general.

There is no frigate like a book…

Love of reading, it tends to show early as an addictive pastime, and it did with me, after reading Hans Christian Anderson and A.A. Milne as a young child, I was hooked, mainly fiction but later non-fiction.

There is no frigate like a book to take you far away, says Emily Dickenson, and she’s right. A book, or briefly a stage play or a film, can transport you to other times as well as to distant places. You can’t do that by booking a jet-away holiday.

I particularly enjoy reading essays, like those of Stevenson and Hazlitt, mentioned above, or Michel de Montaigne writing his thoughts on experience and the need for scepticism since we can’t predict the outcome of radical change, Primo Levi essays on The Periodic Table, Ernst Gombrich writing about the cartoonist’s armoury or Sir Charles Eddington’s essay on the making of the human eye.

When I was studying at Melbourne University in the late 1970’s early 1980’s, radical views were very strong in the Humanities Department. Though we still had Professor Geoffrey Blainey presenting history as a study of real people making decisions within a problem situation, the radical view favoured the historicist (Marxist) view of history as a process of blind forces operating on irrational humans who are just helpless victims, puppets on a string, you might say. Coming across two books by Karl Popper, ‘ The Open Society and its Enemies,’ and ‘Objective Knowledge,’ a series of lectures on conjecture and refutation, helped rescue me from the dismal pervasiveness of radical messaging. No wonder they’re on my list of favourite books.

Fiction too, can expand understanding, enabling place and time travel, such like Bonze Age imaginings, Homer’s Odysseus, blown off course returning from the Peloponnesian Wars, visiting the Underworld or being imprisoned on the Cyclops cave. In later periods there are The Bard and Chaucer, even though they’re dead white males, and Jane Austin, for psychological perceptiveness. Today I enjoy Patrick O’Brien’s ‘Master and Commander ‘ well researched historical fiction, the British Navy fighting the French in the Napoleonic era, or Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall,’ political conniving in the Court of Henry V11. You are there!

Besides literature, so much in the visual arts and music to enjoy. Two of my favourite artists, Rembrandt in the West, Hokusai in the East.

The Arts – Enjoy them while you can…

I especially love Rembrandt’s etchings, for example, ‘The Three Trees,’ so refined in its lines, the finely etched clouds and the drama of the oncoming storm. Does the small hill, unusual in Dutch landscape, with its three trees, symbolise Calvary? I love its humanism. When you look closely, (click on parts of the image,) you can see a peopled landscape, a cartful of passengers, in the foreground people fishing in the dyke, and on the crest of the hill, an artist sketching… I think it’s Rembrandt himself.


Hokusai writing about his own work:

‘From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. By the time I was fifty
I had published an infinity of designs; but all I produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I learned something of the structure of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself.’

It is true that Hokusai had dazzling technique and was a prolific artist employing wood block drawing. I also respond to his humanism, the energy of the small figures in his landscapes, fishermen battling the great wave or clambering up mountains, artisans working against the backdrop of Mt Fuji. Like Rembrandt, Hokusai is a master of composition.

Below, nature in playful mood sending leaves, hats, papers into the air, people clutching clothing, bodies bent against the wind’s force.


Regarding playfulness, I so like good comedy in films. Is it a dying art, what with WOKE culture so de jours. Comedy has to be daring, critical of inattentiveness, nature demands suppleness from living things, not rigidity. Laughing at ourselves is self corrective, no one wants to be the fool, though we might enjoy playing it. There’s Zero Mostel and Gene Wilders in Mel Gibbs comedy ‘ The Producers, ‘ a brilliant send up of Hitler’s Germany. Ridicule is a powerful weapon to direct against corruption. Could this film be made today?

Then there’s the gentle satire of Jaques Tati, making us laugh at human foolishness. Here is a preview of ‘Playtime, ‘ funnier when seen in context, old fashioned rural absurdities set against absurdities of modern, urban life.

One of our human achievements, La Musica! Definitely among my favourite things, tra la, the German greats, Beethoven and Bach… Listen to the 5th movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, that glorious duet between the flute and violin, like bird song, and that finale belted out on the harpsichorde by Karl Richter.


And here’s Argentina Tango Radio with this flash mob dancing The last waltz is a delight… Does nobody dance anymore?



Opportunism Rules… A serf’s point of view.


A tree falls in the forest. Death of one tree, opportunity for others as light penetrates to the forest floor and a flurry of saplings reach towards the sky. One or two of them will survive, the rest will die in the shade, too slow to dominate the skyline.

In another geographic zone, a desert environment, there’s the Cactus plant that grows in a cleft of rock, and, less known, the Desert Marygold that grows down Mexico way, germinating in sand in a circular pattern; it’s a clever coloniser, taking advantage of a passing rain squall or a few drops of moisture, its hairy leaves blocking UV rays.

Opportunism rules, in the plant world as in all living species, fish, fowl and mammals, including those that burrow, herd or flock, or we versatile humans. Every living thing impelled to seize the day, Carpe Diem

Opportunist trial and error underlies the evolutionary activities of all living things obliged to respond to signals of fight or flight or food availability in their environment in order to survive. Opportunism became an evolutionary theory with Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species,’ and over a century later, Richard Dawkins,’ ‘The Selfish Gene.’ Darwin’s evolutionary theory held that all life is related and descended from a common ancestor. His theory of Natural Selection is a process in which a species’ random mutations are preserved when they support that species’ survival.

Herewith from Darwin’s autobiography, (p118):

‘In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement, Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animal and plants. It at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it. In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged into one of 230 pages; which I had fairly copied out and still possess.’

Richard Dawkins argues in ‘The Selfish Gene’ that it is not the living species, plants, animals and humans, that are the replicators of Natural Selection, our lives are much too fleeting. Our genes, however, survive forever, well almost forever, and they, not us, are the natural candidates for basic selection.

Living species are just survival receptacles for our genes, the master programmers, programming for their own survival. Hence the book’s title, ‘The Selfish Gene.’ Not that a gene can be a conscious, purposeful agent, it is blind natural selection that makes it behave as if were purposeful. And here’s the thing, Dawkins finds that genes are not just selfish, they must also be cooperative. In the making of a human child or other forms of life, each gene has to cooperate in the embryonic development with other genes. No one gene, acting alone, can create a child’s arm or leg or the making of the human eye.

Dawkins says that ‘Embryonic development is controlled by an interlocking web of relationships so complex that we had best not contemplate it.’

He makes an analogy involving a rowboat and oarsman to illustrate how genes may be selfish and cooperative at the same time. The rowboat is the body of the organism, the oarsmen the genes. Each oarsman needs the other oarsmen to fill a rowboat so that he can win a race, hence he has a selfish aim. But in order to win he must cooperate to make a good fit with his team, which is what genes do, collaborating to ensure a body’s survival. Dawkins uses this analogy to show how examples of cooperation in nature can mask selfish motivations.

Dawkins also identifies a second replicator that he calls a ‘meme,’ that has evolved much later than genes in our world’s evolutionary history, mainly through human transmission. Memes are those ideas, theories, catch phrases, songs, technical processes etc that make up changing human cultures.

Dawkins’ memes argument is yet another theory identifying the changes in human creativity setting us apart from other living species that resulted from language development beyond signalling.

This development allowed momentous trial and error opportunism, development of tools, invention of the wheel by an unknown genius, development of the arts by people, inspiring paintings like Michelangelo’s fresco’s in the Sistine Chapel, writing and Shakespeare’s tragedies, architecture and Brunelleschi’s dome on the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, sublime music like Beethoven’s symphonies, mathematics and working out directions when lost at sea, engineering like Brunel’s suspension bridge over the Avon River, and there’s agriculture, including Norman Borlaug’s wheat developments that saved more than a million people from starvation… and yes, we know, other developments less propitious.


Lots of implications may be drawn from the drive of opportunism as a basis of life, implications of how human cultures may best allow for this evolutionary fact and respond to its political ramifications, issues of freedom and control.

Freedom, Control and Us.

Writing in 1938 and in the dark days of World War 11, when it looked like Hitler’s attempts at world dominance might succeed, Karl Popper’s two-volume book, ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies,’ gave a reasoned appeal for upholding the open society of rational argument against the fascist propaganda and violent actions of Hitler’s Germany. His book expresses Popper’s felt need to critically examine totalitarianism in its various guises and to defend the values of open, democratic society that were being threatened.

In ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies,’ Popper examines the flawed doctrine of historicism, that supposedly conforms to laws of development – equating the Social Sciences with physical nature. Historicism is the doctrine of historical necessity and human destiny, expounded by Plato, Hegel and Karl Marx and still influential today, Plato formulating an ideal republic based on his theory of forms, Hegel combating liberalism in the authoritarian state of Prussia’s King Frederic William III, and Marx in industrial England, arguing inexorable laws of social development and class war.

Popper speaks against the influence of powerful leaders invoking destiny to support their authoritarian theories. He argues the importance of checks and balances to control the power of governments over their people, and favours open society for the citizens, who best know their own interests, and who only require that freedom to be constrained where it impinges on the freedom of someone else.

In the preface to his book on Plato, Hegel and Karl Marx, Popper says:

‘If in this book harsh words are spoken against some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilisation is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whom civilisation depends, and to divide them. The responsibility for this tragic and possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what admittedly is a part of our intellectual heritage. By our reluctance to criticize some of it, we may help to destroy it all.’


Plato’s Noble Cause Corruption.

In Popper’s first volume, ‘The Spell of Plato,’ he describes Plato’s blueprint for a utopian society, a return to static tribal society. Plato wrote ‘The Republic,’ as a response to his belief in the inevitable decay of all things from their original perfect form. Plato believed that it was only possible to break this ‘law’ by establishing an authoritarian hierarchical State which he formulated based on his myth of the metals in men, gold, silver and bronze, where only a philosopher king selected from the gold caste should rule.

Here’s the result of living in Plato’s hierarchical State:

‘The greatest principle of all, ‘ says Plato, ‘is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace – to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up or move, or wash, or take his meals, only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.’ (The Spell of Plato. Chapter 1.)

Raison d’Etat and Hegel.

If you listen to Hegel, things can’t go wrong in the powerful State. ‘The Universal is to be found in the State.’ writes Hegel…’The State is the Divine idea as it exists on Earth.’
Where Plato saw history moving away from perfection towards decay, Hegel teaches the reverse, an historical trend towards a self-realising higher good.

Motivated by self interest, official philosopher of the authoritarian rule of Frederick William III of Prussia, Hegel debauched language and logic to support his historicist dogma. Hegel replaced logic with his own form of argument that he called Dialectics. Employing sophistry, Hegel argued that contradictions in an argument do not matter. He argued this by claiming that contradictions are ‘welcome in science’ as a means of scientific progress. He doesn’t add that this is because contradictions in science point to flaws in and these flawed theories with their contradictions can now be eliminated from the ongoing enquiry. Hegel focuses on the phrase, ‘welcome in science’ and omits the rest. He is turning the argument on its head, he is claiming that contradiction is welcome in argument, per se. This destroys criticism in argument and by doing so Hegel makes his own philosophy secure from critical attack.

Popper concludes that we need to take Hegel’s false doctrine seriously because it has had incalculable influence on fascist and Marxist political philosophies and is still very powerful in the social and political sciences today. (O.S. Vol 2, p.30.)

Marx misconstrues.

‘It is tempting to dwell upon the similarities between Marxism, the Hegelian left wing, and its fascist counterparts,’ says Popper, ‘Yet it would be utterly unfair to overlook the difference between them. Although their intellectual origin is nearly identical, there can be no doubt of the humanitarian impulse of Marxism. Moreover, in contrast to the Hegelians of the right wing, Marx made an honest attempt to apply rational methods to the most urgent problems of social life. The value of this attempt is unimpaired by the fact that it was, as I shall try to show, largely unsuccessful.’ (O.S.Vol 2. p81.)

Popper pays tribute to Marx identifying the importance of situational analysis and economic conditions as a basis for understanding human history, Marx’s materialism, or ‘economism’, says Popper, ‘is insightful but only so long as it is not sweepingly interpreted as the doctrine that all social development depends upon economic conditions, which is palpably false. The history of Marxism itself furnishes examples that clearly falsify Marx’ exaggerated economism, for example, it was Lenin’s ‘ideas’ expressed in slogans that became a driving force of the Russian Revolution. (p108.)

Popper argues that the historicism of Karl Marx is itself a strand of an intellectual tradition from Plato to Hegel, which viewed history as a process of necessity, whereby nothing we can do will avert what is to be. The arguments underlying Marx’s historical prophesy are invalid. ‘Marx ‘s ingenious attempt to draw prophetic conclusions from observations of contemporary economic tendencies failed.’ (p193.) The conditions of the working classes under capitalism did not worsen, leading to social revolution, as Marx predicted, instead they markedly improved. Nor did the State wither away, but conversely, its power, under Stalin, increased.

Popper is arguing maximum freedom for each individual citizen citing Immanuel Kant’s dictum that the freedom of man must not be restricted beyond what is necessary to safeguard an equal freedom for all.’ (O.S.Vol 2, p44.)

Popper’s critical attitude regarding the habit of deference to great men is supported by the American economist Thomas Sowell. Sowell describes his own experience in academia and working for government which taught him how many intellectuals are attracted to visionary thinking, he calls this ‘the vision of the anointed,’ which is based on confident idealism unsupported by checks on the data.

Thomas Sowell’s view of visionary thinking and the great man.

In his book, ‘A Conflict of Visions,’ Sowell identifies two conflicting visions that fundamentally apply to how we look at human nature. There’s the constrained vision of human nature, a view that human nature is fundamentally of a flawed and fixed nature. Then there’s the unconstrained view that human nature is a blank slate and human suffering lies in the failure of other people to remedy injustice, and there is no other reason for human suffering.

These two visions, Sowell observes, the constrained and unconstrained visions, can be seen throughout history from Adam Smith to Rousseau, from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Barrack Obama. The first places reliance on experience of the many, evolving over time, and the setting up of checks and balances in law to control monopolies on power- no single person is capable of learning everything by just figuring it out; whereas your unconstrained individual is less distrusting of State power and will argue that we just need someone to come along and fix the law. Sowell distrusts individuals who make their own constitutional interpretations as ad hoc decision making whereby we no longer have law.

Thoughts in conclusion…

Maximize the freedom of the individual, minimize the power of government, encourage creativity and entrepreneurship with some legal provisos against long term monopoly of an industry. We can’t predict the outcome of these trial and error actions but trial and error is Nature’s way and without it we would stagnate and die.

As with the natural world, the economist Joseph Schumpeter observed that our human economic systems involve dynamic disequilibrium. As he saw it, the profit earned by an entrepreneur is the cost of staying in business, which not only benefits the entrepreneur but benefits investors and others. For example, in the high-risk restaurant business, when the restaurateur succeeds, his employees and customers benefit also. However, when he doesn’t succeed, he and his investors have to pay the cost and not the rest of us. (Conversely, with the failed enterprises of governments, it is the citizens that pay the bill.)

Regarding minimizing government, government is not good at creating, other than red tape. And remember that government officials are opportunistic also… and rarely will their objectives coincide with ours.

Serf doing that unconstrained-vision-thing…

What to do? Reduce Government you cits, it’s in your own interest. Revisit those constitutional constraints on power creep. Something along the lines of setting up a lean and mean citizen task committee on the line of jury duty with some well respected retired legal expert as adviser, and a few politicians from conflicting sides of the political spectrum to assist. The task force to operate every few years, with different members, each time, tasked with identifying failure of checks and balances, actions not in accordance with the Constitution and suggesting ways of compliance. If judged legal, the task force’s findings to be acted upon within a set time and in a public manner.

The same process should be adopted, regularly, to see that our main public institutions are fulfilling their fundamental duties, specific questions, for example, concerning whether the Education Department or the Teacher’s Unions are over-riding key educational aims for students.

Curtailing power creep? Yeah – it sounds unlikely doesn’t it? There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, between framed aims and finding means…but serfs think a way urgently needs to be found – and we have come back from the brink before.


A Serf’s Primer on Human Language.


Words, words, words. Hamlet.. Act 11. Sc 11.



Roughly translated:
I am Xerxes, king of kings, king of the lands, king of all the languages, the son of Darius.
May Ahuramazda, the greatest of gods, protect me and my kingdom.

Herman Melville says in his written epic quest for the White Whale:

How then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!

For Melville, the act of penning his thoughts concerning such a Leviathan requires all the panamas of empire on earth and beyond. Likewise, to write adequately about human language, spoken and written, with it’s bright and dark influences on human experience, Herculean effort is required. Hence a serf’s opting to write a primer… cunning, eh! Dictionary definition: Primer: A small introductory book on a subject.

It begins…

Probably our greatest human creation is the creation of spoken language, beyond the signalling of birds and other animal species, our human creation of descriptive language and later, of critical language, the language of philosophical and scientific enquiry.

A second great invention was the invention of writing, allowing us to reflect upon, and widely share our experiences and opinions. Sometime around 3000 BC, in Southern Mesopotamia, Sumerians invented written symbols that corresponded to our spoken language, incising pictographs on clay tablets. This early form of writing was later followed by the Phoenician invention of a phonetic alphabet and squiggles on papyrus that soon spread around the Mediterranean world by way of these early Phoenician traders, to develop the written languages that became so integral to Western cultural developments.

The bright side…

How useful our spoken language has been for humans in their day to day interactions…

“Ï smell smoke.”

“Has that cheese order arrived yet?”

“I will be home late.”

“Someone call the fire brigade!”

How life changing has been the descriptive function of language for we humans. Only with this function of human language has the regulative idea of truth arisen, that is, of a description that fits the facts… or regarding literary creation, of fictional characters and their situations that we recognise as ‘ true’ to our understanding of the scope of human behaviour, given potent circumstances, the Achilles’ heel of tragedy, character as fate.

And how auspicious has been the creation of writing and critical language in developing Western philosophic and scientific knowledge, a process that began in Greece, over two and a half thousand years ago. ‘All things are made of water’, said the sage Thales of Miletus, (624 – 546 BC.) and with that hypothesis, was heralded in a new and non-magical way of observing reality. As referred to above, critical science and descriptive literature are both to be expanded upon in this Primer.

The bright side of language is benign, illuminating, even bewitching – but in a good way. Also to be explored, the dark side of language, language that is not benign, designed to exert control over someone else’s thinking. Sometimes it, too, may be bewitching, sometimes intended to baffle, preventing those targeted from seeing what is taking place, smoke and mirror techniques, distortion and camouflage. Another dark way to control an individual or group is by making them language – bereft, by limiting language as in George Orwell’s ‘1984:’ What can’t be said can’t be thought.

How bewitching!

On the bewitchment of great literature – of poetry, drama or the novel, here’s a poem about poetry by Emily Dickenson:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any courser like a Page
Of prancing poetry –
This Travel may the poorest take
Without offence or Toll –
How Frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.

So much going on in this seemingly simple verse. First thing to be observed is its
connotative language, someone unable to read figurative language would find this poem incomprehensible. Unless we can visualise a book as a ‘ship’ taking us to new intellectual or emotional lands or view a page as a spirited horse, we cannot understand the poem. From the simile ‘like a book’ to the metaphor ‘frugal chariot,’ the reader is obliged to be open to connotative meaning, a meaning that emerges from its imagery reinforced by dramatic patterning, not by abstract truth sustained by argument.

In this poem, Emily Dickenson identifies what good literature does, which is to transport us to other worlds than the one we ourselves experience, worlds however strange, that are somehow recognisable to us, peopled by characters, however exotic, that we can recognise as being, in some ways, kin to us.

Here is a stanza from W. H. Auden’s poem,’ The Fall of Rome:’

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

The strange imagery of the silent reindeer and the golden moss is remote and enchanting. The patterning of sound, of ‘the sibilant ‘s’ in ‘across’ and ‘moss’ and picked up in the words ‘miles’ and ‘silently,’ together with the ‘l’ sound repeated throughout, are seductive to the ear and make the experience vivid to us. More of patterning anon.

Concerning literature taking us elsewhere, nothing could be stranger than Homer’s Odyssey taking us back to the Bronze Age and Odysseus’ returning from the Trojan Wars, being blown off course and visiting strange shores, Calypso’s island and the land of the Cyclops. Taking us elsewhere – there’s Dante’s journey to the infernal regions of Hell, complete with the map of which damned souls fit where, depending on how heinous the sin. And, of course, Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrimage, psychologically acute and ironic, a pilgrimage involving some less than devout story telling by the pilgrims.

And who can overlook Lewis Carroll’s Alice falling down the rabbit hole to the inverted world of Wonderland – so many word games and challenges to the world above ground?

These journeys were built by words and the literary tricks of the writer’s armoury. The use of metaphor, strengthened by alliteration and other verbal patterning were never more powerfully used than in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth.’ The whole play is a metaphor on ‘darkness’, exploring the descent into darkness of Macbeth and his wife, darkness being equated with moral degradation, the absence of light or ‘enlightenment.’

Early in the play, there’s the witches’ incantation:

Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

And here, Macbeth waiting for nightfall to carry out his plan to kill his royal guest, is watching the light fade and intimating his new allegiance with night’s dark agents:

Light thickens
And the crow makes wing to the rooky wood.

The verbal repetition of sounds and words, is strong… Fair is foul and foul is fair. We love regularities. As a small child might protest when its mother, at the beginning of summer, in the child’s dressing routine, leaves off the socks that have always accompanied shoes, so we all are reassured by regularities in daily life, events we can expect. We would find it impossible to survive in a world where everything happens without rhyme or reason, a Wonderland where babies suddenly turn into pigs, or we grow or shrink in size in just a few minutes, merely by nibbling one side of a mushroom.

We are always looking for patterns, sometimes even when no pattern exists. This survivalist attraction to patterns, I think, accounts for why we are drawn to language pattern also, it is associated with our existence, it gives us a good feeling We enjoy alliteration like ‘fair and foul,’ enjoy rhyme, ‘fair and air,’ and even less obvious patterns like repeated vowel sounds, as in ‘rooky wood.’

Another pattern important to the fusion of sound and sense, meter in poetry and drama, helping to convey meaning and give tone, gravity or exuberance, merriment or melancholy, indignation or explosive rage. You noticeably experience it in music.

Master Shakespeare and Iambic Pentameter.

One of the great developments of Shakespeare’s tragedies was his development of the iambic pentameter, ten syllable, five stress line. The iambic pentameter seems to best fit the natural rhythm of our language, allowing variations of rhythm to accommodate the hero’s charismatic voice, as in Hamlet’s soliloquy To be /or not/to be/that is /the question/ enabling him to express complex thoughts. Here in Shakespeare’s Othello we can listen to changes in his language to mirror his declining mental state. In Act 1, his measured language in keeping the peace:

Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust them,
Good signor, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons.

Then in Act 3 cursing his innocent wife in one syllable expletives:

Damn her, lewd witch, O damn her, damn her.

Showing Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter metre and other dramatic elements acting together in a more modern poem, here’s a stanza from Dylan Thomas’ poem, ‘The Hand That Signed the Paper’:

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five fingers did a king to death.

From the relentless, driving rhythm of lines mainly composed of one syllable words, did a king to death, to the metaphoric and ironic image of five sovereign fingers signing a chain of command that creates havoc for a city and beyond, this figurative language shows how powerful, connotative literature can be.

More on the bright side…
Language that probes reality… you guess and test.

Regarding these guesses, Karl Popper’s writings and Richard Feynman lectures focus on the importance of conjecture and refutation in the practice of science. Making hypotheses is the way we learn. Every observation we make is a tentative hypothesis we ask nature, a process of trial and error. Induction, David Hume’s view of how we seek knowledge, by habit, the passive collection of facts, is a myth. By adopting the trial and error method, posing hypotheses that may be refuted or corroborated by experience of a public nature, a searchlight or deductive approach to problem situations, is how our scientific understanding of the world advances. Once public, a scientist’s theory, no matter how attached to it that scientist may be, is exposed to the cold light of day, can be tested by others, and can even produce unexpected consequences that its creator did not foresee.

In 6th century B.C. Greece, some two hundred years after the epic poetic works of Homer, a new revolution in language began with the asking of general questions about nature, a disinterested, non-mystical speculation that brought us philosophy and science.

Beginning in Miletus with Thales’ hypothesis, ‘All things are made of water.’ other powerful thinkers were soon posing probing hypotheses concerning the nature of reality. And while they lacked telescopes or microscopes, these thinkers used logical and mathematical arguments to test their guesses. A second great Milesian philosopher, Anaximander, criticised the theory of his predecessor, Thales. He asked why should we choose water? The primary stuff that things are made of cannot be one of its own special forms. If any of these forms were the basic matter, it would have long since overcome the others. Basic matter must therefore be something different from these, something more fundamental.

Concerning the origin of man, Anaximander held an extremely modern view. Observing that the human young need a long period of care and protection, he concluded that if we were always as we are now, we could not have survived. Therefore humans must have evolved from an animal which is able to fend for itself more quickly.’ (In Bertrand Russell ‘Wisdom of the West’.) This kind of argument, later called a reductio ad absurdem, entails that from a given assumption, you deduce something that is manifestly wrong, ‘humans could not have survived,’ and hence the assumption must be rejected.

From Miletus to Samos and the Pythagoran School giving rise to a scientific and mathematical tradition, then to Athens and Anaxagorus hypothesising the infinite divisibility of matter, an hypothesis that later contributed to Democritus of Abdera formulating his Theory of Atoms. In Athens, Socrates practised his famous dialectical enquiry and Plato posed his influential Theory of Forms. Aristotle, a past student of Plato developed a logic argument, the syllogism, that focused on identifying contradiction in argument. The syllogism is an argument with two premises, subject and predicate, that have one term in common. If both premises are true, then the conclusion is validly derived, if one or both are untrue, it is not.

Athen’s golden age came to an end when political instability in the Hellenistic Period resulted in a general decay of intellectual standards throughout Greece, the Greek intellectual heritage came to rely on the curators of libraries and transmission by way of the Roman Empire. But before this happened, powerful thinkers in Alexandria made important contributions to science.

One potent thinker was Aristarchus of Samos, who, in the third century B.C, developed the first heliocentric model of our universe. His theory placed the sun at the centre of the universe, with the Earth revolving around the sun once a year and the earth rotating on its axis once a day. Also in Alexandria, Eratosthenes, a Greek mathematician and chief librarian at the Alexandria Library. a generation after Aristarchus, calculated to an accurate degree the circumference of Earth.

Eratosthenes recognized that the Earth was a sphere, and knew that in Alexandria’s neighbouring city of Syene, no vertical shadow was cast at noon on the summer solstice. In Alexandria Eratosthenes planted a stick in the ground on the same day at noon, to see if it cast a shadow. It cast a seven degree shadow which meant that if the world is spherical then Syene and Alexandria are seven degrees apart. Eratosthenes hired someone to measure that distance, which was about eight hundred km in our measurements. He them calculated seven degrees as part of a circle, 1/50th of 360 degrees, so 50 x 800 = 40,000 kilometres, which is close to the actual measurement.

After the Fall of Rome and the onset of a period known as the Dark Ages, the theories of those Greek thinkers languished in Medieval libraries until some medieval scholars began to resurrect them. Of central importance was the rediscovery of the heliocentric system by Copernicus, which appeared in print in 1543. On the margin of one of Copernicus’ manuscripts is written the name Aristarchus. (B.Russell. Ibid.P101.) It was in the wake of this revival of ancient modes of speculation that the great scientific revolution of the 17th century began. And with the invention of the printing press and translation of these theories from the Greek to other languages, there was a greater dissemination of these and other hypotheses regarding physical nature and human learning.

With this revolution came another period of disinterested investigation into the natural world, notably by astronomers such as Galileo and the indefatigable Isaac Newton, by the curiosity-motivated investigations into the mutability of living species by Charles Darwin, and by James Hutton, exploring the geological processes and age of our Earth.

Regarding knowledge preserved in books and libraries Karl Popper puts forward an important hypothesis. Popper distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge, subjective knowledge and objective knowledge. He refers to the physical world as ‘World 1’, he refers to the world of our conscious experience as ‘World 2’ and our theories and arguments he calls ‘World 3.’ Popper argues that this world really exists, its theories can have significance beyond their creators’ expectations. He argues that only with the descriptive function of human language can the regulative idea of truth appear, that is, description that fits the facts, and only with the ex-somatic written language that exists in our libraries, which like a tool, develops outside our bodies, (World 3) can a theory become independent of its creator, subjected to standards of rational criticism, maybe leading to the generation of new problems and theories.

Language as a tool of power.

It is the reluctance to accept the existence of this third world which perhaps constitutes the central problem of the humanities departments of Academia where the relativism of Post Modernism rules… the theory that there is no Truth, there is only Power.

Say, haven’t Post Modernists presented their power theory as a true theory, so isn’t this a contradiction in their theory? Not to worry. As in Wonderland, contradiction does not matter in a Post Modernist world since here is no truth to act as constraint. One theory is as good as any other. This is the darker, illogical side of language.

Flash back to Athens, there is a group called the Sophists, Socrates was charged with being one but he wasn’t, who believed that knowledge of the real world was unattainable by humans so that what mattered was useful opinion. The Sophists acted as itinerant teachers who, for a fee, instructed in rhetoric, in how to handle yourself in the political assembly or law courts … how to make the worse case appear the better, the art of persuasion, smoke and mirrors. This rhetorical tradition has continued into modern times, we are bombarded with messaging all the time.

The printing press has its dark side as well its ability to enhance enquiry. We have to be able to hear different sides of an argument and evidence presented. And with the spread of modern communication mediums from radio to internet and hand phones, it is of crucial importance to uphold free speech and non-censorship of differing voices. The problem with censorship is that one coterie gets to decide what may be heard, and that is the coterie which has a hold on power.

Taking a walk on the dark side…

Taking a walk on the dark side involves language employed to bewitch and baffle. Techniques borrowed from literature are used, not as in literature to expand a reader’s consciousness, but employed to narrow consciousness, to rob one’s target audience of their self possession. It is used in marketing products and in marketing political ideas, it’s called Propaganda, all those patterning techniques employed in easy to remember slogans that beguile… rhyme, alliteration and assonance, repetition of words, use of emotive imagery. herewith some examples:

All the way with L.B.J.

Build back better!

Give me liberty or give me death!

Workers of the world unite!

There ‘s creation of a scenario, like the Malboro Man Cigarette Ad that sells smoking a particular brand of cigarettes to men as a form of rugged individualism, and there’s the campaign, Torches of Freedom by Dr Edward Bernays, selling cigarette smoking to women, using the Easter Parade as a public venue to orchestrate a group of attractive women, hired by Bernays, to light cigarettes in unison as they marched in the parade. Smoking cigarettes becomes linked to freedom. and physical attractiveness.

Dr Edward Bernays, a nephew of Freud, was known as the father of propaganda by his conscious application of propaganda techniques, though we know it’s been around for much longer.

Dr Bernay’s writings influenced Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister in Hitler’s Third Reich in the Second World War where he persecuted Jewish citizens in an unrelenting campaign of racial vilification followed by their transportation to death camps.

After the war, a large diary dictated by Goebbels, (translated by Louis Lochner, 1950.) set out his basic principles of propaganda, very like the Marxist activist Rudi Dutsche’s long march through the Institutions and also the programs of more recent activists. Goebbel’s basic principles were:

Avoid abstract ideas – appeal to the emotions.

Constantly repeat just a few ideas.

Give only one side of an argument.

Constantly criticise your opponent.

Once we humans are caught up in emotive language it becomes difficult to disengage. Present one motherhood statement or obvious fact and your target audience is disposed to accepting your ensuing proposition. Use all those patterning tricks and lull your audience’s critical faculties, the audience are primed to accept ad hominem and one-sided arguments, unlikely to check on source material or listen to counter claims. Bewitchment rules.

And so does bafflement, keeping your target audience confused. This is the reverse of the language of Science where it is important for the presenter of a theory and its evidence to aim for clarity of expression. The genuine scientist wants his or her hypothesis and argument to be understood, ultimately to be accepted or refuted in relation to a real world. Truth to data is its test, connotative and ambiguous language are to be avoided in scientific methodology.

Language intended to baffle…

If the presenter’s language is ambiguous, perhaps laden with jargon, it is likely that it is intended to impress rather than clarify and the reader is entitled to suspect that this is pseudo-science, motivated by the desire for money and status or for some political goal.

Regarding post modernist jargon, you may remember the Alan Sokal Hoax of the 1990’s. Alan Sokal, a mathematics’ professor wrote a Paper entitled Transgressing the Boundaries. Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Although Sokal’s paper, claiming that gravity is a social construct, was a deliberate fabrication of errors and illogical statements that would be obvious to any one with an understanding of physics, it got published. Sokal later declared that if post modernist believe that gravity is a social context they were welcome to support their view by jumping from the window of his apartment on the twenty-first floor of a high-rise building… I don’t think the offer was accepted.

Unfortunately, Alan Sokal’s Hoax has not stopped the spread of Post Modernism in Academia, initially beginning in the Humanities Department but now in Science Departments also. Because truth is denied in Post Modernism, whatever statement suits the Marxist message of exploiter versus victim will be used, no matter how it contradicts experience. Where there is no regulator other than power, there are no real world constraints; it may be said that men are able to bear children, that there is no difference between men and women.

Anything that experience has shown to be the actual case may be denied. People were able to change their views when the Heliocentric Theory challenged the Ptolemy Theory or Darwin’s Theory of Evolution challenged the Chain Of Being Theory, because we could see real world evidence for these two theories. But it baffles us when we know in our human experience, as well as in the world of mammals and birds, that males and females are not the same.

Postmodernism can be criticised, not just for baffling us by its use of obtuse language masking absurdities. Baffling also is the Post Modernist ploy to reduce our use of language. We need words in order to be able to think about a problem. If our language is limited, our thinking is reduced, as the writer George Orwell showed in his 1984 totalitarian State enforcement of the Newspeak language Ingsoc upon the population. Any form of censorship narrows the framework by which we make decisions.

Post Modernism began in Western Universities but has its roots in Marxism. Marxism has a theory of class conflict that later became unpopular with many followers following the publicizing of its Gulags, show trials and food shortages. Needing a new cause that could by pass this history, it settled on Critical Race Theory (See the writings of Marxists Ernesto Lacciau and Chantal Mouffe, 2001) a new Marxist slant on oppressor and victim, in which free speech is limited for white people, especially white males, who are deemed solely responsible for the history of the slave trade (and will ever be so) in a distorted history that permits only one narrow point of view.


Words, words, words. So much more could be written than you’ll find in this little essay, so much more than one serf can understand or, in fact, than can be understood by even the world’s most knowledgeable language experts.

The Universe is infinite, or so we think, and acquiring human knowledge is such a miniscule and fraught enterprise, that we need societies with the acquired experiences of the many, based on trial and error; not ruled by a few who think they have the key to how life should be lived and thereby the right to impose their view, likely a false view, upon others by any means they think fit.



Musings on human invention of the wheel, of metaphor and other things.


Been wondering about the invention of the wheel. Since writing my Serf 74th edition essay on human nature I find myself musing about one of our most important inventions… so many adaptations so many impacts on human history. I got to wondering about the humans who invented the wheel and the process involved, the wheel’s necessary connection with the axle, they had to be invented in one go, a wheel is not operative without an axle. The wheel was a sophisticated invention, its creators had to be a lot like their modern descendants.

Regarding human learning, the take away from my essay on human nature, we’re opportunistic, active learners, Karl Popper’s Search Light Theory of learning is more applicable to us than the blank slate passive Bucket Theory of learning. Problem-orientated trial and error is our favoured mode of enquiry and inventing.

Trial and error is a response to some perceived problem. While our inventions can be serendipitous, Alexander Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin for example, a society is less likely to be innovative when people feel happy as they are…when they don’t think there’s a particular problem needing a solution.

Nothing comes from nothing. No such thing as the innocent eye and humans are an innovative species. One of the reasons is because of our capacity for metaphor. We just can’t help it, our language is riddled with it. In our conversations we speak of dark deeds or seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Our newspapers describe political actors as sitting on the fence, or publish cartoons depicting the Ship of State Capsizing or the political balance of power Teetering on a See-saw.


A metaphor’s essential value resides in its creative stimulation to enable us to discover new ways of thinking or doing things.

‘Says art historian Ernst Gombric, in his essay on metaphor in ‘Meditations on a Hobby Horse:’ ‘The possibility of metaphor springs from the elasticity of the human mind and testifies to its capacity to perceive and assimilate new experiences as modifications of earlier ones, of finding equivalences in the most disparate phenomena, and of substituting one for another.’ (P14.)

A chicken or egg kind of question regarding wheels.

It seems that the potter’s wheel came before the cart wheel. Not so surprising when you consider that making pots from clay was an ancient invention, a creation of hunter gatherer groups. Archaeological digs have found shards and reconstructed them to date findings in China to as early as 18000 years before the present and have even found one small intact pot in Japan, the Jomon Pot, dated to 15000-13000BP.

The earliest potter’s wheel appears to have been invented in Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East as a late development in pottery at a time when some hunter gatherer groups had evolved into an agricultural society. This took place around 12-11KA and was a period when pottery became important for storing grain and other produce.

Potters before this time had found it saved energy to use a turning base when fashioning soft clay to make pots, which they mainly formed by a method of squeezing out coils of clay and pinching then into shape, a technique used across the globe. Archaeological finds show imprints on the base of pots that indicate that potters made use of a turning base, maybe a piece of shard or a leaf or piece of wood that they could rotate instead of physically walking around the pot. Appears feasible as a trial and error development, the move to a non-angular, smooth shape like old Sol or the harvest moon lighting up the night sky.

The oldest form of the potter’s wheel, called a slow wheel, probably developed as an extension of this ancient procedure. Hand turned tourettes of this kind were in use around 4500 BC in the Middle East.

The first potter’s wheels did not make use of centrifugal forces in the technique of ‘throwing’ pottery. This came later, as revealed in archaeology, later pottery being more symmetrical with telltale markers of horizontal lines and thinner rims on pots. Developments of later potter’s wheels exploited this faster method of making pots and went on to refine it by introducing the fly wheel, attached by an axle to a kick wheel below the rotary disc, leaving the potters’ hands free to work on their pots.


Potter’s wheel and fly wheel…

So was the wheeled cart inspired by the earlier invention of the potter’s wheel? It would only take a person to have lifted one of those turntable wheels onto its side and rested it against a wall, and someone, a kind of middle eastern James Watt rolling it to another place, to see another possibility for its use, especially considering that carrying heavy burdens was a perennial problem in those agricultural societies.

Cometh the cart … eventually. The Bronocice Pot, discovered in Poland and dating to at least 3,370 BC, inscribed on its surface the image of a cart and axle, is believed to be the first evidence of the invention of a wheeled vehicle. Beginning of big changes, chariots of fire and the rest!

Back to those early pots, looks like their construction arose out of earlier basket making.

Concerning the basket case…

There’s a book by David J Cohen ‘The Advent and Spread of Early Pottery in East Asia,’ that presents evidence for the spread of pottery from China, Japan and Russia, in the Pleistocene period, an age of hunter gatherer people. Cohen looks at evidence that pots from these places reveal the imprinting of cord marks and basket -like impressions on their surfaces. In China pottery shards at Yuchanyan and Xianrendong cave sites show bag shaped jars with basket markings. The pottery is dated to between 18000-20000 years old. In Japan in the northern island sites, pottery dated between 15000-13000 BP show similar markings. In the Jomon site in Japan, a small intact pot built from coils and pressed fibres was found, the oldest pot known in existence. Here with a link with photographs of pottery discussed in Cohen’s book.

Evidence indicates that these first pots were made by plastering the outsides of baskets with clay (like swallows’ nests) and letting them dry in the sun. Putting these baskets in a fire would later harden the clay and burn the baskets, leaving basket imprints on the pots. These pots could be used for cooking acorn porridge or bone marrow soup or maybe carrying embers from the fire on to the hunters’ next camp site.

Regarding those bag-shaped, basket-textured pots, and regarding metaphor as creative stimulation to new ideas, could our ancestors have discovered the art of basket making by observing birds’ nest-building? Hunter gatherers would have been close observers (and robbers) of nests, and our invention of baskets likely began our human process of making receptacles to hold our nuts and acorns by thinking about birds’ nests. Should we thank our feathered friends, and our facility for metaphor, for a chain of events that lead, indirectly, to the discovery of the cart wheel?

Trigger warning – and ending with a twist.

What have I been doing in this essay? Have I shown that the development of the wheel in human history was enabled by our tendency to look at the world in metaphorical ways, here, specifically, via pottery manufacture and observation of nature’s example of birds’ building nests as receptacles for their eggs?

Of course not. My hypothesis is not based on enough information to be anything other than pie in the sky. No way, given our distance from the event, can we verify or falsify any conclusions about how the wheel originated, other than observing some approximately dated archaeological and funerary artefacts that show us that the potter’s wheel appears to have preceded the cart wheel…. We’re not even sure if domestication of the horse came before the cart or after it!

Too little evidence to show how the wheel was invented, but this does not stop us from formulating a coherent narrative, to explain what could have happened. Sometimes, when there are sufficient contextual clues, as in evidence based historical studies, this logic of the situation can be justified. Like in scientific investigation, first we guess and then we test. But what I did here is not justifiable. What really happened is lost in the mists of time.

So what does my little thought experiment demonstrate? It demonstrates our human capacity to fool ourselves with narratives of could and might and may be that too easily morph into is so. Humans are myth-makers plus, our metaphors, like the puppet Pinocchio, can easily come to life. It pays to be sceptical, take what you hear or read with a pinch of salt…

What I have been doing in my musings on the wheel demonstrates how easily we engage in metaphor. Sometimes in the arts and science we do this to good effect, sometimes, as visionary narrative or deliberate propaganda, it is done to the detriment of those who carelessly, or too trustingly, allow themselves to fall for a persuasive fiction masquerading as fact.


Be not afeared.

These are the written words of the immortal bard spoken by Caliban in The Tempest when he tells two recent arrivals to his island not to fear the islands sounds, divers strange hummings and voices in the air.

‘Be not afeared.’ That message might apply to people today, coming out of virus lockdown and media prediction of pending doom. So let us begin by imitating the less afeared, the happy wanderer walking out in Nature… Herewith three well known essayists, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Hazlitt and Henry David Thoreau walking not for destination but less tangible things on which they more or less agree.

‘He who is indeed of the brotherhood,’ says Stevenson in his essay Walking Tours ‘does not voyage in quest of the picturesque , but of certain jolly humours…He cannot tell whether he puts his knapsack on, or takes it off with more delight. The excitement of the departure puts him in key for that of arrival. Whatever he does is not only a reward in itself, but will further be rewarded in the sequel; and so pleasure leads on to pleasure in an endless chain.’

For Stevenson this walking tour is a solitary event. Hazlitt agrees and goes further. In Going a Journey he says: ‘The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty to think feel, do, just as one pleases. We go on a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind much more than to get rid of others.’

For Thoreau, too, walking is a solitary event. In his treatise titled Walking he sets out how the primal act of mobility connects us with our essential wildness ‘All good things are wild and free,’ says Thoreau. He views walking as a spiritual act undertaken for its own sake.

So when a-wandering you go, go alone, leave your phone at home, and as Hazlitt in says, free yourself of all impediments. One of those impediments, as noted by Caliban, those strange voices in the air. So many of these voices today in this electronic age of communication, constant ‘keep safe ‘ messaging, admonitions from government and media telling us to think this and do that.

Here is H.L. Mencken’s astute observation regarding government and media messaging:

‘The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety ) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’


This is a necessary reminder because Nature has made us, like all living things, to be opportunistic, we can’t help being self serving. Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations has relevant words concerning self interest. He observes that we as individuals each know and serve our own interest best and should be largely free to do this. He also notes that when people are able to do so, society as a whole benefits: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect to eat our dinner, but from their regard to their own interests.’

There are those, however, who in serving their own interests, certainly do not serve ours’. Adam Smith is more critical when governments follow their own interests because in so doing they fail to serve the interests of those they are purported to serve Says Adam Smith: ‘There is no art which one government sooner learns from one another than that of draining money from the pockets of the people.”

Things that re-order your world view…

And one of the things governments and their bureaucracies like to do is create dependency in those they govern. Government and bureaucracies are great empire builders and one of the ways they do this is by adopting fear tactics such as targeting a scapegoat, which populations suffering from anxiety are quick to accept.

There’s a post citing three well known researchers of the human mind, Carl Jung, creator of the theory of human shared ancestral memories, similar to instincts in animals, Dr Joost Meerloo, imprisoned by the Nazis in the 1940s and later becoming a researcher into the brainwashing phenomena, and Professor of Psychiatry, Silvano Ariete, known for his long and successful experience in treating Schizophrenia. The latter two, I consider, argue more tested hypotheses than Jung’s ancestral theory.

The post begins with Jung’s claim that we humans are our own worst enemy, that we each struggle to deal with our own psyche, especially in times of great stress. History substantiates this claim. Some stressful events can sometimes lead to mass psychosis epidemics, a large portion of society becoming out of touch with reality, for example, those European and American witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries and the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century in which people descend to a lower moral and intellectual level as they succumb to overwhelming fear. While drug taking or other physical causes can also produce such madness, psychological causes, negative emotions, that drive individuals into a state of panic, have been a prime cause of people seeking relief from their anxiety by reordering their world view, by following the great leader or by fabricating false claims of guilt on some innocent group or entity.

Silvane Ariete identifies stages in Schizophrenia in which an initial anxiety phase leads to a later psychotic insight that explains the anxiety. The sufferer loses contact with reality but experiences a feeling of relief. Likewise a population of weakened and vulnerable individuals, driven by some real, imagined, or fabricated state of fear, will react in a similar way, based on a particular infected society’s perceived panic situation.

Joost Meerloo argues that in the case of totalitarian societies objectified populations are the victims of State power, becoming dependent subjects of rulers elevated to a deified status (like Stalin or Mao Tse tung) while the masses regress to a more child like state in a transformation of human nature. Dr Meerloo calls this corruption of the mind by imposing thoughts the leaders wish to inculcate, Menticide. He finds this is brought about by priming a population first by fear, “The end is near, ‘ then following this with waves of escalating terror followed by calm that weaken minds. Only deluded leaders will think they are fit to assume this sort of control, the delusion that they have the wisdom and acumen to exert this amount of top down authority.

Confusion, contradictory reporting and propaganda misinformation heighten peoples’ descent into totalitarianism (George Orwell described this in 1984). In modern times untrue messaging has been enabled by television, smart phones, social media and internet algorithms. Dr Meerloo observes that we are now constantly bombarded with stimuli overload with no time to reflect or meditate and we also become isolated from normal interaction with those among us who could be a positive influence for sanity.

Endless propaganda streams turn individuals who are capable of rational thought into irrational beings beset by chaotic feelings. Those who would be tyrants can now offer a way out, at a price, the masses must now give up their freedom. Control of all aspects of life must now be ceded to the ruling class…all spontaneity and joy at an end. (See my 59th Edition – Karl Popper and George Soros and Plato’s Noble Lie.)

So we shouldn’t follow tyrants. But what about following those leaders who appear to genuinely desire our welfare? Well trouble is, they are no better at predicting future events than any collective of citizens they oversee, in fact, argues researcher Philip Tetlock, (and others before him) they are less so.

Nassim Taleb has written an iconoclastic book, The Black Swan, sometimes too iconoclastic for this serf, that argues persuasively that we humans are poor at predicting, that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost every change in our world, inventions that come as a surprise and change our world, even important events in our own personal lives that we did not foresee.

In Chapter 10 of The Black Swan – The Scandal of Prediction, Nassim Taleb cites psychologist Philip Tetlock’s study involving some three hundred specialists making up to 2, 700 predictions that revealed that ‘experts’ are no more likely to make correct predictions than the rest us… in fact less so. Experts, however, are prone to adopt post-hoc explanations of why they were mistaken, or worse still, fail to recognise that they had erred, and then often spin stories about their false predictions. It pays to be sceptical.

Nassim Taleb quotes Yogi Berra, ‘The future ain’t what it used to be,’ and reminds us of two bird-stories that illustrate our human blindness to outliers in our environment. The first story is the unassailable belief, based on empirical evidence, that all swans are white, until the first sighting in Western Australia of a black swan! The second story recounts the positive experience of the farmyard turkey, until that deadly Thanksgiving Day experience, which came as a complete surprise to the trusting bird!

We live with uncertainty, but be not afeared. Following on from The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb wrote another book called Antifragile, a word which he says describes the opposite of fragile. Fragile things break when subject to stressors, antifragile things actually benefit from stressors. Stressors are information.

Taleb’s book deals with making decisions in an uncertain world, a world where the black swan domain is intractable, where what is non-measurable and non-predictable will remain so. Following the mathematician Poincarre, who identified the ‘three body problem,’ ‘Taleb asserts that ‘the limit is mathematical, period, there is no way round it on this planet.’ (Antifragile P 138.)

Wind extinguishes a candle and energises fire.

Summarizing Nassim Taleb’s non-meek attitude to uncertainty: ‘We just don’t just survive uncertainty, to just about make it. We want to survive uncertainty and, in addition – like a certain class of aggressive Roman Stoics, have the last word. The mission is how to domesticate, even dominate, even conquer the unseen, the opaque, and the inexplicable.’ (A.P3.)

As you have to try to live in a labyrinth world that you don’t understand, Taleb says, you need to get yourself out of the fragile zone and into the antifragile zone. The antifragile benefits from shocks, so the trick is in seeking out options open to you in life that will benefit from shocks. Using a test of asymmetry, what has more upsides than downsides in options for action that you consider?

Things that have withstood shocks over time, evolution in Nature, cultures, growth of cities, technical innovations even good cooking recipes, depend on tinkering, trial and error. Trial and error is useful in giving you information while you keep your errors small, avoiding those Five and Ten Year Plans so beloved of bureaucracy and which are likely to meet with black swan surprises.

The antifragile loves a certain class of errors, observes Taleb.’ Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them – and do them well.’ We are better doers than thinkers.

As in Nature, where complex, systems are full of dependencies, our man-made complex systems, too, tend to create runaway chains of reactions that defy predictability and cause large effects which are sometimes falsely called ‘progress.’ The world does not function on program designs based on principles akin to teaching birds how to fly. This is a tendency favoured by some in academia.

Taleb points out many examples of human discoveries that were not due to academic formula but instead, the academic formula arose from some antifragile discovery based on trial and error. A professor from Rudges – Phil Scranton showed that we had been building jet engines in an experimental manner without truly understanding the theory, well before academics produced the theory. Cybernetics too, supposedly invented by Norbert Weiner in 1948 existed in practice in the engineering world prior to this.

Back in time, Villard de Honnecourt documents in notebooks that those medieval builders of cathedrals still standing today, did so by use of rule of thumb heuristics, in an age when no more than five people in the whole of Europe knew how to perform division arithmetic. (A. P222.) And think of that trial and error tinkering of the Industrial Revolution!

In addition to approaching situations by trial and error and being sceptical of authority’s messaging, Taleb recommends the Roman philosopher, Lucius Seneca’s non-meek stoicism as a way to face both adversity and good fortune in life.

Nassim Taleb wrote Antifragile before recent woke politics and trigger warnings became the fashion. For many today, Taleb’s recommendation of taking personal control of your emotions in the face of adversity would not be regarded as an option, better to regard yourself as a victim.

Taleb places the antifragile in a triad of Fragile – Robust- Antifragile – and argues that ordinary stoicism emphasising indifference to one’s fate focuses only on the downside in life, it is robust but not antifragile. Seneca uses a different approach. Seneca was a wealthy man and chose to keep his wealth but not let fear of its loss make him fragile. He combated psychological anxiety by practising daily exercise to mentally write off his possessions, so that when losses occurred he would be indifferent to loss, – similar to buying an insurance contract

Seneca domesticated his emotions, rather than try to eliminate them, as in the more passive type of stoicism. He proposed a complete training program so as to use his emotions more effectively, including waiting a day before responding to anger. He also used a cost benefit approach, advocating investing in good actions, – some things can be taken away from us but not the good deeds we do. He tried to reduce the downside and keep the upside.

‘My idea of the modern stoic sage,’ says Taleb , ‘ is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.’ (A. P156.)

Nassim Taleb investigates other options that provide us with more upside than downside, including good diet and exercise in place of over use of Big Pharma drugs, which I won’t go into it here, though some of it is fun reading.

Speaking of fun, here’s something else that I consider makes us antifragile or at least robust, and that is laughter.

The Divine Comedy…

In the 1986 film, The Name of the Rose, set in a 14th century monastery in northern Italy, there’s an interchange between two monks, a narrow dogmatist, The Venerable Jorgis, who discourages laughter in the monastery, and visitor to the monastery, William of Baskerville, who is more curious, wears roughly fashioned spectacle to read, and studies astronomy.

When William defends laughter, saying that laughter is particular only to man, Jorgis chastises him, declaring:

‘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.’

Here it is again, compliance through fear, those who desire to be obeyed know to instil fear. So what about laughter as particular to man, as William of Baskerville observed? Well chimps and other apes show an incipient laughter when at play but laughter specifically evolved in us, it is a uniquely human behaviour. That it has been a human reaction from our early days suggests it serves a survival purpose. So what may that be?

Henri Bergson argues in an essay, Laughter : An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, that we laugh at what is rigid, mechanical or mistaken in human behaviour, when someone doesn’t demonstrate enough attentiveness to the world around them. A man running along the street stumbles and falls; the passers by can’t help laughing. They laugh because his sitting down is involuntary … he wasn’t paying attention Says Bergson:

‘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.(See my 19th Edition Serf Under_ground Journal. The Divine Comedy.)

Bergson makes insightful comments on how this works in comic literature and film, he identifies a cannon of comic characters deficient in self awareness, who act in prescribed ways, the miser, the misanthrope and other generic types. Jane Austin classic characters Like Mr Collins and Mrs Elton demonstrate similar prescribed behaviour.

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. Hence cartoons.

The comic in language lays stress on lapses in attention in language itself, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde word games do this, or transpose the natural expression of something into another key, make large things small. Chaucer does this with his with barnyard animals conversing on serious themes, or small things large, as in The Rape of the Lock. Lots of errors via language to make us laugh.


So in conclusion…folks, be not afeared. Go on walking tours, avail yourself of the comic, laugh at the rigid ways of comic characters, enjoy the films of Mel Brookes, Jacques Tatis, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, (not Karl.) And learn to laugh at yourself and others,- (taking advice from Jane Austin.) Finally, do – not – take – too – seriously – the – pronouncements – of – government – or – medja, they have their own agendas. As witty commenter kim at Judith Curry’s climate science blog once said,’ Wage, wage war against the lying and the fright.’


A Serf’s Discourse on Human Nature.


Remember that scene in Hitchcock’s film The Birds where a hysterical woman accosts the stranger in the group with the accusing words , “Who are you – What are you?” and all eyes in the service station cafe focus suspiciously on the stranger, Tiki Hendrickson. Well turns out she’s not some mysterious bringer of disaster to quiet little Bodega Bay. What we see is scapegoating in action, a group of insiders blaming an outsider for some perceived disaster being inflicted on the group.

There’s an anthropologist cum philosopher called Rene Girard who perceived scapegoating as integral to human culture, even as the basis of human societies. He makes a large claim.

J’accuse…or someone does.

Girard says we learn by imitating others, imitation eventually erases the differences among human beings, and as we become similar to each other we begin to desire the same things, a process he calls Mimesis, which leads to rivalries and a Hobbesian war of all against all. These mimetic rivalries soon threaten the very existence of communities. What to do? Girard says this is where the scapegoat comes in. Peace comes at the price of an identified victim viewed by the community as the actual cause of the turmoil, someone or group to be punished, expelled or even killed by the community. Once this retributive violence occurs, peace is restored, – at least for now. In past times this scapegoat could take the magical form of a god, a demon or a witch, the essential thing was that the community itself was not to blame, the victim and the process was turned into myth and ritual celebrating a peaceful outcome.

While Girard’s large claim cannot be validated or even falsified, pre-history evidence being light on the ground, we do know that humans imitate each other, cultural habits, fashions in dress, crazes like the Tulip Mania are features of everyday life. We also know that humans are prone to scapegoat others, particularly those perceived as not of the group, violent instances, the witch trials and punishments of Medieval and 17th and 18th century Europe, the pogroms against Jews in Germany in World War 11.

Attacking others, especially those not of the group, that’s not especially a human trait though. Take some animal groups, apes, lion prides, territorial birds, observe how one group attack outsiders that venture into their territory! Until recently life on the edge was the way of life for most people also, a shortage of resources characterizing much of human history, a struggle at the water hole or some land resource in short supply -it’s the story of human as well as animal existence.

So what else does Girard’s theory tell us about human behaviour? Well, it tells us we’re theorists, it’s yet another example of our human disposition to theorize about our natural world and living inhabitants of that world, including us and the societies we have constructed. Uniquely human is the development of spoken and written language beyond emotive expression and signal, descriptive and critical language based on grammar and logic (and evidence); pity we don’t always adhere to logic and evidence when we argue our case.

That old chestnut, nature versus nurture.

Here’s the standard model theory, very much nurture not nature, Skinner’s behaviourist theory first propounded by John Locke and then by David Hume. It is the belief that we learn by habit, the child is the passive recipient of his or her culture, cultural transmission taking place through learning a well understood unitary process that makes the child like the adult of its culture. It’s a theory that implies that we’re open to perfectibility – Utopianists with creative urges like it, gurus who wish to control others also like it, more of that later.

The standard model has been under attack since the 1960’s beginning with the marine biologist George Williams and geneticist William Hamilton. Their revolution is best known by Richard Dawkin’s book ‘The Selfish Gene,’ at its core is the recognition that individuals do not act consistently to benefit family or a group or even themselves, Individuals are driven by their genes because they are all descended from others who did the same, Dawkins says we are survival machines programmed to preserve our selfish molecules known as genes. Dawkins says it is not the individual who survives at the level of evolution but the gene. What he named the ‘selfish’ gene could also be called the ‘immortal ‘gene. Recent research has not undermined his theory.

A past student of Richard Dawkins. the evolutionary biologist Matt Ridley expands on the gene theory. Selfish as we are, he asks, why, then, are people such eager co-operators? In his book ‘ The Origins of Virtue ‘, instead of focusing on diversity in human cultures as the behaviourists do, Matt Ridley studies where our cultures share a practice or engage in universal behaviour, behaviour not shared by other animal species.

Ridley identifies networks of trade and commerce as common practice in all human societies, even in existing hunter gatherer groups such as the Yir Yoront aboriginal tribe on the York Peninsular in Australia. The Yir Yoront used polished stone axes with wooden handles that were highly valued and in constant use. The stone axes were made by a tribe that lived some 400 miles away at the site of stone quarries that supplied stone for the axes. In exchange the Yir Yoront traded barbed sting-ray spears that were made by their tribe. The two tribes conducted this trade by a system of arbitrage involving other tribes whose territories lay in between the two producer’s territories. The Yir Yoront could buy one stone axe from a near neighbour for a dozen spears. As the spears worked their way further south their value rose relative to that of stone axes. In this trade the producers benefited and so did those middlemen in between.

This exchange illustrates two things, says Ridley. Trade illustrates the division of labour as a human activity, (though some social animals have some division of labour within a group they don’t have it inter group,) and it demonstrates that trade is not just a modern phenomenon but was part of hunter gatherer life. Ridley also describes how the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, studying the belligerent Yanomamo tribe in Venezuela, observed that they appear to deliberately manufacture products that were provided for allies in order to strengthen alliances via feasting ceremonies, cementing bonds that could be valuable in times of war.

The blank slate and other theories of human nature…

Neuroscientist Steven Pinker adds to the discussion of human nature in his essay ‘The Blank Slate,’ in which he gives a comprehensive view of various theories of human nature that have had currency in Western societies, including the theory of his title. The first theory he refers to is the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature, much of which we allocate to psychology and biology today- positing that the human mind has a capacity for love, for a sense of morality and a capacity for choice or free will; and grounded in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, also has a tendency towards sin. Today no scientifically aware individual can accept a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and tends to look elsewhere for a theory of human nature though it may include components of the Judeo-Christian theory.

Steven Pinker identifies three popular theories that took its place or added to it at various times. The first of these, by Frenchman Rene Descartes in the 17th century, began with his sceptical search for intellectual firm ground, “I think therefore I am.” He concluded his thought process with the view that the human mind was quite separate and distinct from the human body. Descartes’ theory has enjoyed great appeal with many individuals as re-enforcing the Judeo-Christian belief in the possibility of existence of a human soul separate from and surviving the death of the body. It was ridiculed in the 20th century as ‘the doctrine of the ghost in the machine,’ by the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle.

Another theory that has survived despite anthropological findings that show otherwise is the doctrine of The Noble Savage, most commonly associated with the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who wrote: ‘So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed, whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state…’ By other authors Rousseau was referring particularly to Thomas Hobbes saying life without rule of law was nasty, brutish and short. Unfortunately close encounters with other tribal societies, for example in the South Pacific, by naturalists and anthropologists have indicated that Rousseau’s theory was more romantic than actual. And when it comes to rule of law, history has shown the need for checks and balances to prevent governing individuals and group from ravaging their flocks. The American founding fathers understood this with their efforts to establish such checks and balances in the American Constitution.

The third theory was John Locke’s doctrine of the mind as being like white paper, ‘void of ideas which are acquired later from experience.’ which was shared by the philosopher David Hume who in his ‘Treatize on Human Nature,’ written in the 1730’s famously ascribed our attempts at identifying causes to events as no more than blind habit. This is the Blank Slate Theory which continued to be influential through the 20th century, explaining all human behaviour by simple mechanisms of association and conditioning.

From his work as a cognitive scientist, Pinker agrees with Ridley that a bed rock of universal predispositions, ways of thinking and feeling, identified in ethnography studies, have to be in place in order that things get done. They include the basic concepts of an enduring object and lawful causation, which can be seen even in young infants, a number sense that enables us to grasp quantity of number, spatial recognitions that allow us to negotiate the world, facial recognitions and a theory of mind with which we seek to understand the behaviour of other people. And of course, there’s our language instinct that enables us to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others through words and sentences.

Pinker says that neuroscience has also challenged the blank slate by showing ‘that there’s a complex genetic patterning to the brain, an example being the wiring diagram of the primate visual system comprising some fifty distinct areas connected in precise ways’. Neuroscience studies also identify common patterns in the brains of fraternal and especially identical twins. There are those studies of identical twins separated at birth, sometimes even by nation, who meeting as adults, show idiosyncratic resemblances in behaviour, too many to be accidental.

Pinker also argues that in keeping with Darwinian evolution, evolutionary psychology has also challenged the blank slate in another way by showing that many human drives that don’t maximize our welfare, such as our human thirst for revenge, all those vendettas and wars, can be interpreted as adaptations to survival in our ancestral environment where a reputation for toughness was an advantage in a world where you couldn’t dial up emergency for assistance.

It’s hard to be objective when we think about the human brain. We like to think we have rationality and morality and free will. Proponents of the blank slate think that biologists’ genetic claims are a threat to these things. Pinker gives four reasons why behaviourists are emotionally committed to the blank slate doctrine. They consider that it supports the view that we are all equal and it supports the view that we are perfectible. It also dispels their fear of determinism and fear of nihilism.

Relating to the fear of inequality, Pinker says it’s a non sequitur argument. ‘It confuses the value of fairness with the claim of sameness. When the Declaration of Independence stated: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,’ it surely did not mean ‘We hold these truths as self evident that all men are clones.’ Rather a commitment to political equality means two things. First it rests on a theory of human nature, ‘says Pinker, ‘in particular, universal human interests, as when the Declaration continues by saying that ‘people are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It’s also a commitment to prohibit public discrimination against individuals based on the average of certain groups they belong to, such as race, ethnicity, or sex. ‘

There’s a downside in believing the blank slate, says Pinker, in that you view talented and successful people as invariably recipients of ill-gotten gains such as the Jews in Europe or the Chinese in Indonesia. This can lead to persecutions or expulsions and sometimes to genocide. The second fear Pinker identifies, the fear of imperfectability, well there’s a dash to an old dream. If ignoble traits are innate, what can anyone do? All is not lost, argues Pinker, the human mind is a complex system of many parts, some of which can and do counteract other impulses. The executive system of the frontal lobes of our brains can apply knowledge about consequences and moral values to inhibit behaviour. (Matt Ridley has argued how all societies are critical of selfish behaviour.)

Then there are our cognitive faculties that allow us to learn lessons from history. And here again there’s a downside to this desire to mould human nature. It’s a temptation to social engineering. Some autocrats of the 20th century, like Chairman Mao, believed in the blank slate.

All is not jest blind fate.

Next Pinker explores our fear of determinism. He doesn’t say much on free will but does observe that parts of the brain can anticipate the consequences of behaviour and inhibit it accordingly. I expand on this with some observations on determinism and rationality by others here in a previous issue.

Pinker’s final defence is directed against the behaviourist fear of nihilism, and the fear that biology strips life of learning and purpose. Pinker wisely reminds us that meaning in life does not require that the products of evolution, namely ourselves, must be selfish, or immoral or be without purpose, even if in some metaphorical sense our genes are selfish and evolution amoral and without a purpose other than passing on genes. We can adopt our own purposes. The realisation that life is short can act as an impetus to extend a gesture of affection to a loved one, to bury the hatchet in some pointless dispute, to vow to use your time productively instead of squandering it.’ The gene theory does not preclude human choice.

I’ll add to that our by noting how our species have evolved to be creative in so many ways…. building bridges, roads and aquaducts, making breakthroughs in science that have saved lives, and via spoken and written language that we ourselves created, have produced great literature. Our species have also composed inspiring music – orchestral symphonies and concertos, along with simple folk songs, and devised the musical instruments to play them. We’re not all bad!

What about rationality?

Philosopher David Hume, that most rational of men, said that our thinking based on accumulated perceptions is merely blind habit, that although we have experienced all those instances that the sun has risen doesn’t logically allow us to say that it must rise tomorrow. This is like the turkey experiencing the farmer’s kindness right up to Thanksgiving Day when the turkey experiences otherwise.

Professor of Science, Karl Popper, in a series of essays and lectures published as ‘Öbjective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach.’ claims that while Hume’s argument concerning habit is logically valid, it is based on an incorrect theory of human thinking, the theory that we are inductive learners. This theory of inductive learning is what he calls ‘the bucket theory’, whereas Popper argues that we are not passive receivers of experience but active learners in what he calls ‘the searchlight theory ‘ of learning, learning by way of trial and error observations.

‘We have perceptions,’ says Popper, ‘but we make observations,’ which is a different kind of process. An observation always presupposes the existence of some system of expectation, it is always preceded by a particular interest, a question or a problem. Popper says that a disposition to act must proceed every perception. As Frederic Neitzche observed, ‘No such thing as the innocent eye.’

And quoting Karl Popper again: ‘At every instant of our pre-scientific or scientific development we are living in the centre of ‘a horizon of expectations,’ whether subconscious or conscious, or perhaps even explicitly stated in some language. Animals or babies have also their various horizons of expectations though no doubt on a lower level of consciousness than, say, a scientist, whose horizon of expectations consist to a considerable extent of linguistically formulated theories or hypotheses.’ (P345.)

When a baby puts an object from the floor in its mouth, it is testing a hypotheses, ”Is this part of my food environment?’ just as when a scientist poses a specific question of nature and follows it up with more careful observations. Richard Feynman’s “First you guess, then you test.’

The various horizons of expectation differ among animals and among individual humans, whether at subconscious or conscious levels. An example, is when we encounter an unexpected step in our path. It is the unexpectedness of the step which makes us conscious of the fact that we expected to encounter an even path. Such disappointments force us to correct our system of expectations.

In all cases, Popper argues, the horizon of expectations plays the part of a frame of reference conferring meaning or significance on our experiences our actions and observations. The observations we make have a peculiar function within this frame. If they clash with our expectations, they may, under certain circumstances, destroy the frame itself and force us to rebuild a whole horizon of expectation. Today’s science, for example is built upon yesterday’s science which may be subject to falsification.

Thinking fast and slo-o-w.

Antonio Damasio in ‘Descartes Error’ replaces the frame of reference with emotional engagement as a dynamic for action, though I think these are connected. Damasio argues, in his case study of broken brains, that emotions are a mental device for gaining commitment. This study includes studying the brain cast and history of Phineas Gage, a famous 19th century case of a survivor of a mining explosion in which a steel pole pierced Phineas Gage’s frontal cortex. Afterwards he remained completely rational but was unable to make choices between the array of possibilities that presented even in simple decisions. Other cases that Damasio worked with, patients who had injuries in the same brain area, presented the same behaviour and declared that they had lost the ability to feel emotion. His patients became so cold blooded about rationally weighing up all the facts before them that they couldn’t make up their minds, no particular course of action appealed to them. ‘Reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behaviour’, speculates Damasio.

Thinking fast and slow… Not enough careful deliberation, argues Daniel Kahneman in his book about human cognitive illusions, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow.’ Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who turned psychology into a quantitative investigation, A large part of his book is made up of studies indicating the various illusions which supposedly rational people demonstrate when confronted with choices under controlled conditions.

Kahneman argues the existence in our brains of two independent systems for organizing knowledge, one he labels System One, a fight or flight survival mechanism which probably evolved with our mammalian ancestors. Our System Two is the slow process of forming judgements based on conscious thinking that checks the actions of System One and allows us to correct our mistakes. Human art and science have been created by System Two.

Says Kahneman, bottom line, we’re machines for jumping to conclusions, prone to associative bias. For System One, the measure of success is coherence of a story, it’s consistency that matters most, not completeness of evidence… ‘what you see is all that there is.’ There’s a grab-bag of simple heuristics we adopt to make adequate but often wrong answers to difficult questions like ‘the availability heuristic, what comes readily from memory, first in line. And the bad news is, as Kahneman first discovered, working with Israeli Defence Forces in the 1950’s, that your System Two thinkers are also prone to similar thinking errors and heuristics, more apologist than critical of the emotions of System One.

I don’t see this contradicting Damasio, but what about Popper’s theory of trial and error rationality?

Well, thinking is hard work and time consuming so when you don’t consider that your decision is too fraught you are prone to not check your guess too stringently, it seems, confirmation bias rules. If you have a strong cultural or political frame, then you don’t want to challenge it too much, your expectations have to be truly shaken by some test observation to be critically roused, – but it happens and you may have to rebuild your whole framework of expectations. There are some people, not only Socrates, who are viewed as generally rational and sceptical, and there are some scientists who really do subscribe to the scientific method, particularly if they are curious and really wish to understand the question they ask of nature. Some so called scientists who do science as a high status and well paid enterprise may be more tempted to confirm the research outcome they’re financed to find. But we can be rational as individuals. The TV program Áircrash Investigations shows how people apply trial and error to solve urgent problem situations. The aircraft companies must be seen to solve these crashes, people want to know that the aircraft company is safe or the business loses customers. They can’t fake it. Watch the program and you see how logically and exhaustively the investigators test the possible causes of the crash, aircraft, pilot error, control tower mistakes…

All the way with Edward Bernays…

So further to rationality, back to the gurus I mentioned earlier, those like Dr Edward Bernays who’s aim was to mould human opinion or as he termed it, ‘to engineer consent.’ Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, wrote in his book ‘Propaganda, (1928) ‘ If we understand the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will, without them knowing about it?’ In the techniques he employed in his career in public relations this is what he did, engineer consent.

When he started working for American Tobacco Company, Bernays was given the objective of increasing Lucky Strike sales among women, who for the most part had formerly avoided smoking. The first strategy was to persuade women to smoke cigarettes instead of eating. Bernays began using photographers, artists, newspapers, and magazines to promote the special beauty of thin women. Medical authorities were found to promote the choice of cigarettes over sweets. Home-makers were cautioned that keeping cigarettes on hand was a social necessity. The campaign was a success but a taboo remained on women smoking in public. Tying the smoking campaign to the women’s freedom movement Bernays organized a contingent of attractive women to smoke cigarettes, ‘torches of freedom,’ in the 1928 New York Easter Parade. The carefully scripted event was a publicity success and women across the country were soon smoking as planned.

A chilling program of indoctrination that might sound like passive conditioning, but wait a minute, weren’t those women willing participants in Bernays’ program of indoctrination? They’re responding because glamour and sexual attractiveness is important to them, they’re not just innocent victims – though he did set up a clever plan.

It works like Pavlov conditioning, Pavlov’s dog is not just passively responding to the ringing of the bell that signals food, it’s anticipating food, which is part of its active daily food seeking behaviour. The dog has innate expectations, Popper’s horizon of expectations.

That Unconstrained Vision Thing.

Relating to persuasion, the economist and intellectual historian, Thomas Sowell has formulated his own theory of human nature in Western Society. Sowell has written a book called ‘A Conflict of Visions ‘ (1987) in which he observes us as belonging to two fundamentally different groups depending on our views of human nature, these two visions Thomas Sowell calls ‘the constrained vision’ and ‘the unconstrained vision.’ Thomas Sowell says these two fundamentally different visions underlie Western Civilization and can be retraced back to Karl Popper’s analysis of Plato and his vision for a Republic in 6th century BC Athens.

The constrained vision is, that while individuals may differ in many ways, human nature is basically fixed and flawed, a problem that has to be considered in the evolution of human institutions and laws, implying prudent trial and error reform rather than grand schemes for social change. Adam Smith was a proponent of this view.

The unconstrained vision sees human nature as perfectible, ‘born free but everywhere in chains,’ as Rousseau stated. If humanity experiences pain and suffering, it is because of a failure of others to be as wise as those who are of the unconstrained vision, present institutions and leaders are the cause of human pain and wrongdoing, whereas the unconstrained can remedy this.

These two visions, sometimes presented as implicit views, sometimes unconscious assumptions, have directed actual and would-be decision makers through out history,
The individual framers of the American Constitution following the constrained vision, proposed checks and balances, separation of powers between Legislature, Executive and Judiciary on grounds that concentration of powers by a single person or small group is a threat to the liberty of others. According to Sowell, the French liberal the Marquise de Condorcet, demonstrating the unconstrained vision, supporter of the French Revolution, after being arrested by Robespierre, was still puzzling why the American makers of their Constitution needed such checks and balances.

In a contemporary situation these conflicts of vision are still strong as in the McCain /Obama battle for the US Presidency and attitudes to law. McCain shared the opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes no one has the sheer intellectual power to decide to figure it all out in advance, that the judiciary role be limited to making judgments according to the laws, not making laws according to their own opinion, which is not law but an arbitrary act. Obama said with regard to selecting judges, not that they would make decisions according to laws that are the result of peoples’ experience over time but rather, ‘If a woman is out trying to support her family and is being treated unfairly, then the Court has to stand up if nobody else will, and that’s the kind of judge I want.’
Sounds brave but as Sowell says, that is no law at all, it overturns the rule of law with one man’s arbitrary decision.

Thomas Sowell also observes that the constrained and unconstrained visions have different ways of looking at war throughout history. One is unsurprised by war, war doesn’t need explaining. This relates also to Geoffrey Blainey’s view in his book ‘The Causes of War.’ In most countries there were just as many or more periods of war in each century as of peace, so what needs explaining, perhaps, are the causes of peace. Sowell argues that the unconstrained view of war as an event arising from some kind of misunderstanding is unhistorical and somewhat unintellectual. He says that well-meaning intellectuals in the 1930’s responsible for leading public opinion in favour of disarmament while Hitler was building up his military machine, helped bring on WorldWar11. People like them, argues Sowell, predominantly able in their own academic field think it gives them the knowledge to change the world, whereas they haven’t had this experience, they go well beyond their competency trying to create a Utopia. .

And as is clearly apparent with theories of economic development, the constrained vision supports bottom up management, a million people knowing their own interests, whereas the unconstrained visionary supports top-down management and strong central government. You know which one serfs’ support…

Let the bard have the last word.

Just in conclusion, can’t exclude that master of human action, Master Shakespeare himself, creating characters in relation to two literary traditions, the comic vision and the tragic vision. Essentially the characters in Shakespeare’s drama are exceptionally active. In the comedy ‘As You Like It,’ we see the wise and witty Rosalind donning male attire to take a role in her survival in the Arden Forest and later using her disguised role to school the romantic Orlando for adult life and marriage, she’s taking intelligent steps for her own and his future. All’s Well That Ends Well.

In his four great tragedies, ‘Hamlet,’ ‘King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Othello’ we see the four tragic heroes bringing on their own disasters because of some tragic flaw in their characters that proves fateful in a particular situation.

There’s Othello, his character disintegrating from jealousy, his problem, we discover that his initial image is based on false confidence, beneath the surface, there are deep uncertainties of which he was unaware. Come along a nihilist motivated by malice, like Iago ,and Othello is easily persuaded that his wife is unfaithful to him. Then there’s Lear, all passionate intensity and unrealistic expectations that his daughters will respond in kind, and his opposite, the coldly intelligent and villainous Edmund, whom we witness reflecting on his own character in a way we’ve scarcely seen in literature before Shakespeare but which is now something we take for granted in the modern novel… and in ourselves.

In the play, Macbeth, in Act 5 Scene 3, we hear Macbeth thinking aloud. Initially he made a mistake when he thought he was too extraordinary to be confined by other men’s morality, too late he finds out he was wrong:

‘I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
Í must not look to have;’

For the introspective Hamlet, who like Phineus Gage, is unable to compel himself to meaningful action, Shakespeare developed the dramatic device of the soliloquy to allow his brilliant character to reflect aloud on stage and be overheard by his audience.

So in conclusion, while no one has likely come across characters in real life as charismatic and powerful as Shakespeare’s tragic figures, we recognise in them, representatives of actual human traits and behaviours, the hubris, the human tendency to exploit our positions of power to control others and the ability to fool oneself- until nature ‘s reality intervenes, our innate ability to make heaven and hell on earth. Shakespeare creatively portrayed this complexity in language that, if equalled by some, has never been surpassed. As the literary critic, Harold Bloom says of Shakespeare, he was your master of cognitive acuity and its representation in the Arts. The Arts, something unique to human originality.