Imagine

chimpanzeeImagination, above all else, is the facet that makes humans so successful. It exists in other creatures; witness a chimpanzee stripping the leaves from a twig and inserting one end into an ant hill. She slowly withdraws it along with a number of ants who have clung to the twig. Deftly, she wipes the twig across her open mouth and eats the ants. It may be learned behaviour but once upon a time an ancestor sat beside an ant hill and imagined what it would be like to be able to extract ants without having to destroy the colony. She imagined inserting a foreign object into a fiercely defended colony and it being attacked by the ants. She saw a twig and imagined it without leaves, sleek and streamlined, the perfect foreign body. Because she imagined it, she experimented, refined her technique and perfected it.

Prior to this breakthrough, no none imagined it possible to extract ants so easily and with so little destruction to the colony. Yet, now it is common behaviour.

Over centuries, human society has developed many ways to solve problems. As hunter gatherers, we co-operated as a matter of life and death. I have no notion of whether these groups were egalitarian but surviving, so-called primitive societies often have tribal leaders or elders suggesting an inevitability of hierarchy in some form or other. As we became settlers, new ways of organising emerged. Governance became expressions of competing political ideologies. These have become synthesised into relative positions on a sliding scale whose opposing points are Left and Right. We have become wedded to the notion of this linear model of political ideas. So much so, that anything that is not fundamentally Left or Right is Centrist or left or right of centre; not, in effect a new idea but a variation of an existing position on the imagined horizontal,sliding scale. And these positions are often held from varying perspectives of what is or is not fair.

The speed of scientific progress in my lifetime has been breathtaking. But our smartness cannot supplant our imperfect humanness. The Internet and social media have great potential in terms of the democratisation of knowledge. But Umair Haque on his recent blog about abuse on Twitter shines a light on an ugly truth. With all our flashes of brilliance, we are still, fundamentally human…flawed.

I find it ironic that the creature with the largest brain often has the smallest mind.

We snipe and we sneer. We resent and belittle. We abuse and demonise those that are other and not we. Why? Because, despite the randomness of the natural world we inhabit, we cling to the notion of fairness. It is fairness or the apparent lack of it that inspires so much of the vitriol we see and hear.

Fairness makes a poor man resent a rich man and a rich man resent a poor man. Fairness drives a thief to take from those who have what he has not. Fairness inspires a man as rich as Croesus to hide what he cannot spend in vaults rather than see it put to any practical use because he earned it (or perhaps inherited it). Fairness makes an otherwise kindly person seethe with anger when a person fleeing bombs and bullets is carrying something as commonplace as a mobile phone. When we allow our imagination to speculate on fairness, we become less human. So long as we believe in fairness, we cannot progress.

Instead, I would argue that we should apply our imagination to the practical, and most importantly, that governments should.

For example; how much political instability in the world is directly or indirectly attributable to the pursuit and use of non-renewable fuels? Is that practical?

Could we imagine spending ten years perfecting a universally accessible renewable energy infrastructure and in so doing eliminating inequality, ending unnecessary conflicts and addressing the refugee crisis?

It is one example of many I could cite where a focus on the practical can challenge entrenched systems of belief, economics and governance. But that takes imagination.

The chimpanzee that perfected the stick technique clearly didn’t keep it to herself. All chimpanzees benefit and despite a few losses, the ant colonies continue to thrive. Imagine that.

Post script:

I caught Brian Eno’s recent John Peel Lecture which set me off on this train of thought. I thoroughly recommend it.

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Darwin’s Origin

Darwin's Origin

So, on Wednesday, despite appalling weather, a small band of enthusiasts gathered to toast the birthday of Shrewsbury’s most famous son; Charles Darwin.

It’s a tradition that began back in 2003 when I founded the Shrewsbury Darwin Festival. The venue is the courtyard in front of the Morris Hall. Darwin’s birthplace is half a mile or so away and it may seem odd that we don’t toast his birthday there. Truth to tell, the former Darwin family seat is not open to the public. It’s the offices of the District Valuer. But that’s not why I chose this alternative venue for the birthday toast.

Beside the gates to the hall stands a smooth boulder just over half a metre in width. It’s known locally as The Bellstone and may have once been used as a parish boundary marker. It’s what’s known in geological circles as an erratic. That’s to say, it ‘aint from around these parts. In fact, you’d have to travel as far north as Cumbria to find this stone occurring naturally (over 180 miles).

Back when Darwin was a fresh-faced (clean shaven) youth, a local amateur naturalist, Mr Coton said to the youngster “the world will come to an end before we learn how this stone came to rest here”

The assumption being that because there is something we don’t presently know or understand, we will never know or understand it. At this point it may be useful to be reminded of Darwin’s lineage.

His grandfather on his father’s side was Erasmus Darwin; physician, inventor, poet and philosopher. On his mother’s side, it was Josiah Wedgwood; innovator, amateur scientist and founder of the Wedgwood dynasty. And both of them were members of the 18th century group known as The Lunar Men; polymaths, revolutionaries and free thinkers all. The nature/nurture debate has been a long one but if Darwin picked up even the merest essence of his grand-parental DNA it would help explain his young enquiring mind. And this young enquiring mind would not have been content with Mr Coton’s take on scientific understanding. In fact, Darwin remembers this incident in his autobiography and recalls sitting in a geology lecture just a few years afterwards and learning about the brute force of the encroaching glaciers during the last Ice Age . How they re-painted the landscape beneath them like a palette knife through oils. And how boulders even bigger than The Bellstone were left dazed and displaced when the ice sheets retreated. And as the explanation unfolded in that Edinburgh lecture hall, Darwin ‘marvelled at the progress of science

It’s also the tradition at the birthday toast to read an extract from the final two paragraphs of Darwin’s greatest work ‘On the Origin of Species’. He’d worked on the book for decades and planned a might tome but when a letter arrived from Alfred Wallace  outlining Darwin’s own theory in startling brevity, he was rushed into print. It could be argued that the result was a better work for all that. Concise and written for the lay man, it was an instant best seller and arguably the first work to further the public understanding of science. After explaining how tiny changes over generations lead to new variations in nature by likening it to man’s breeding of race horses and pigeons to create desirable traits he comes to a simple, startling conclusion; this is what is read out at the birthday toast:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into new forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”

Charles Darwin:On the Origin of Species 1859

 So that’s why we toast Darwin at The Bellstone at noon on the 12th of February every year come rain or shine. Perhaps you’d like to join us next year?

The Darwin Festival is currently run by The Shropshire Wildlife Trust.

Jon leads a Darwin Walk around Shrewsbury for small groups, underlining the importance of early influences on the later development of the great naturalist. Use the contact form below for enquiries.