Nice Guys Finish First


One night at school, Terry and Tim sneak downstairs to the school pantry and one of them, we know not yet which, steals some biscuits. Naughty, naughty. Very pleased with themselves, they scuttle back up to their dormitory and have a midnight feast.

Suddenly they hear a creak in the floorboards and the light turns on. They’ve been caught! Not only are they in big trouble for talking after lights out, but they will get in double trouble if Mr. Marston can find out who stole the biscuits. The teacher separates the two boys into different rooms and offers each boy a choice. They can either tell tales on the other boy for stealing the biscuits (betray) in return for a reduced punishment, or keep quiet (co-operate) and trust their partner in crime to do the same.

The potential outcomes are as follows:



Terry stays silent                (co-operates) Terry tells tales         (betrays)
Tim stays silent   (co-operates) Both get 1 strike Terry gets 0 strikes

Tim gets 3 strikes

Tim tells tales (betrays) Terry gets 3 strikes

Tim gets 0 strikes

Both get 2 strikes

Strikes are punishments – the higher the number the worse the punishment.

The odd thing about this setup, commonly known as the prisoner’s dilemma, is that no matter what Terry does, Tim can always secure a lesser punishment for himself if he betrays Terry. Thus if both boys are rational and self-interested (a big if), they will both betray each other, even though collectively they would have been better off staying quiet. Quite a conundrum…


The Bad News And The Good News

Last week I had the pleasure of running an afternoon of games and workshops at a summer camp for young boys. The people running the camp had kindly gave me a blank slate – I could teach them whatever I wanted. So what is it that a ten year old most needs to hear in 2017?

Rather a lot it seems. Yet all the most important bits – like how to stop our species from going extinct – don’t seem to be anywhere near the syllabus. And evolution – the most powerful, and powerfully misunderstood, idea of all – has been relegated to a brief distraction from Biology when you get to age fourteen. Worse still is the way it’s been misportrayed as a vicious struggle of all against all; in reality it is the co-operators who end up bringing home the bacon.

This is particularly true of humans. Humans are where we are because language has allowed us to work together in more ways and larger groups than any species before us. If we are to remain where we are we need to take this all the way: either we find a way for our species to work together as a single planetary organism, each of us like a cell living and working in the interests of the whole, or the ecological tragedy of the commons and international war tears us apart. Scientists reckon we have about three years to get our house in order, before the worst happens.

The good news is that all that’s really required for us to make this transition is a new story. Nations only exist because we say they exist. They’re collective fictions. If we tell our children a different story, a story about the universality of mankind, then that is the reality that we will create. And we’re good at telling stories. So that’s what I did…

If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s the father of co-operation

Playground Tactics

I gathered all the boys together in a large indoor horse nursery. Some of them were tall, some small, a Turkish boy called Koze, two Chinese brothers called Adrian and Alex, one little boy of eight with an American accent called Otto and the rest English with interesting names like Declan and Balthasar. I decided I’d work out how to shorten that one later.

I related the tragic plight of Terry and Tim, and then put them in pairs and asked them to imagine that they themselves were now in this situation. They would have to decide whether they would betray or co-operate with their partner. The only difference was that each pair would do this multiple times rather than just one, meaning that the boys would have plenty of chances to retaliate if their partner betrayed them. Each decision to co-operate or betray constitutes one “game”, and each round they would play several games with their partner.

I then gave them each two plastic cups, one with a green dot for co-operation, and another with a red dot for betrayal. I gave them a moment to have a think about their strategy and then on the count of three, asked them to lift up one of their cups so that their partner could see whether they had co-operated or betrayed.

It was beautiful. The whole show played out down to every last line in the textbook. Players who began on the right foot generally maintained trust and kept up the cycle of co-operation. Those who tried to get ahead and thought only of themselves generally drew retaliation from their partners, ending in destructive cycles of betrayal. The two brothers Adrian and Alex who had been paired together by chance, immediately began co-operating with one another and remained that way. Blood is thicker than water. Balthasar began a campaign of attrition which he was to keep up for the entire game.

In life, we can never quite be sure when we will meet someone again

After four games I had the boys switch partners. It is crucial that this comes as a surprise – if I know that the next game is our last then there is no incentive for me to co-operate because I know that you won’t have a chance to retaliate. This is why trust tends to break down in large cities; the bigger the city, the less likely it is that we will meet again if I decide to pull a fast one.

As well as a changing partners in round two there was a slight change of rules. This time they would be allowed to confer with their partner before each round, and make assurances.

The brothers, now separated, performed very differently. Alex, who began with betrayal, ended up in a destructive cycle with Luke, a player who had hardly proved his trustworthy credentials in the first round. Adrian, whether wittingly or not, employed a strategy known as tit for tat; co-operating on the first move, and then copying whatever his partner did on the previous move. This worked relatively well, earning him a better than average score of five strikes. Balthasar, like the true Machiavellian he is, continued ploughing his steady furrow of betrayal, smiling all the way as the long-suffering Declan wearily held up green cup after green cup.

On the third round I did something interesting. On impulse, I flipped the scoreboard round. Now suddenly everyone could see their scores, as well as a detailed history of how their schoolfellows had been playing. To drive home the point I asked each boy to tell the group whether their partner had been true to their word in round two. If their partner nominated them as honest then I underlined their name in green, and if they had been dishonest then I underlined their name in red. Then came the twist. The honest players would now be allowed to choose their partners for the third round.

Once again I feel that this is an accurate reflection of the dynamics of life. If Terry told on Tim for stealing biscuits, Tim will make damn sure that all their friends find out that Terry is a snitch and not to be included in any shenanigans forthwith. And if Tim were to go on another biscuit raid, you can bet your bottom dollar that Terry is just about the last person in the world with whom he would choose to share his biscuits.

Trust, so valuable when built, is easily shattered


However, rumours are not always to be trusted, and so it is that Adrian, who I feel had led a fairly blameless game up until that point, got tarnished with the red brush of dishonesty by his also relatively blameless partner Jago. Both were therefore denied the chance to select new partners and ended up with each other again in the third round, and since each was annoyed at the other for being hung out to dry in public, a costly snitching match ensued.

On the other hand Messrs. Koze and Josh, who had earned their good reputations and built trust, opted to remain with their partners and both had harmonious third rounds. Declan, I’m glad to say, was repaid for patiently turning his cheek and chose a born-again Otto. Nino, who perhaps unwarranted had been deemed trustworthy, wisely rid himself of Ardavan and chose Seb instead, leaving Bathasar and Ardavan to slog it out in the playground.



The numbers represent the numbers of strikes each boy receives. Strikes are punishment – the more strikes the worse the punishment.

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3
73 strikes 82 strikes 69 strikes (averaged down)
70% co-operation 63% co-operation 79% co-operation
 Boy Position Strikes  Co-operation %
Koze 1= 14 100%
Otto 1= 14 71%
B. Charlie 3 15 93%
Josh 4 16 100%
Jago 5= 17 60%
Ardavan 5= 17 50%
Seb 7 18 71%
Luke 8= 19 43%
Balthasar 8= 19 21%
Adrian 10= 20 71%
Charlie 10= 20 86%
Alex 12= 21 64%
Nino 12= 21 79%
Declan 14 22 86%

When we put our trust in someone, it brings out their better nature

Much has been written about these kinds of games and it is interesting to see how consistently the standard wisdom was born out in the games we played.

In the first place, verbal communication was not necessary for co-operation to emerge. Indeed when I gave the boys the chance to talk to one another in round two, levels of co-operation actually fell. Clearly what counts is actions and not words.

Secondly it became clear that trust, so valuable when it has been built, is easy to lose. Look at Jago who co-operated all the way through the first round, but experimented with one betrayal in round two which shattered his fragile understanding with Adrian, never to be recovered.

Thirdly, everyone who was chosen as a partner in round three responded to the call with impeccable behavior. Even Seb and Otto, both of whom had been very naughty in round one, were transformed when they were invited to sit at the green table of trust by Declan and Nino in round three. It seems that when we trust someone, it tends to bring out their better nature.


Because there were an odd number of boys, I asked one of the members of staff to sit in as the 14th player with the instruction to employ an Old Testament style strategy of Tit-for-tat: on the first move he would co-operate, and thereafter would copy whatever his partner did on the previous move. Tit for tat is never the first to betray, responds to any betrayal with a betrayal of its own, but is quick to forgive when its partner co-operates again.

In a famous experiment run in 1984 by Robert Axelrod, tit-for-tat proved the winning strategy out of thousands, and so I was keen to find out if my assistant (Big Charlie) would prove similarly successful. Sadly, in a more-lifelike-than-life twist of fate he misheard my instructions and defected on the first move when he should have co-operated. This drew a retaliation from his partner which marred an otherwise perfect game. No doubt, Big Charlie’s position as an authority figure amongst the boys played its part in soliciting co-operation from his subsequent partner Koze. But then again Koze is just a nice guy…

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing


Otto is a nice anomaly to my theory that nice guys finish first. In the first round he was ostensibly not nice, and yet he still managed to come first alongside Koze and, but for his mistake in the first game, Big Charlie. There are two main reasons for this. In the first place, because the tag of “trustworthiness” was based only on the second round, his first round indiscretions did not tarnish his reputation as much as they might have. This is the equivalent of Terry betraying Tim without Tim finding out that it was Terry who did so.

The second reason for Otto’s success was that he was allowed to get away with murder by Charlie in the first round. The same thing happened with Declan and Balthasar, meaning that Declan came last despite a high percentage of co-operation (86%), whilst Bathasar managed to scrape in at 8th despite the lowest co-operation percentage (21%) of all the boys.

This would suggest that whilst forgiveness is noble, and provides a vital opportunity to break destructive cycles of betrayal, simply lying down whilst people walk all over you will cost you dear. Worse still, it allows selfish players to prosper, which ends up hurting us all.



Most gratifying of all were the responses in our reflections about the games afterwards. The boys talked about the importance of trust, friendship, and the value of a good reputation. I asked them to think of real life situations when the lessons we’d learnt would be relevant.  They agreed that having seen how the game played out, they would be more likely to help a friend with his homework, more likely to share a packet of sweets with their friends (Balthasar disagreed – but then again look how well that strategy worked out), more likely to pick up litter and more likely to give money to a homeless man.

Winning strategies in the game are winning strategies in life

Life is a Game

Varieties of the prisoner’s dilemma crop up not just in the playground, but in the board room, in the savannah, under the sea, at the conference table, indeed in all areas of life. The precise ratios of risks and benefits can change, but the simple structure of the dilemma, where selfishness pays off on a one-off basis, but collectively everyone is better off working together, remains the same.

What this means is that winning strategies in the game are winning strategies in life. Take a moment to absorb this.

Imagine: there are two lions hunting wildebeest together. Each lion can choose either to get stuck in, but risk getting kicked, or hang back and hope to steal a meal later. If they both go for it, the chances of injury are reduced, but if they both hang back, neither of them get any lunch.

Or consider two supermarkets aggressively pricing bananas. Easyshop might decide to advertise a fabulous banana bananza in order to attract more consumers. But if Eveneasiershop does the same thing, then there’s no incentive to switch supermarkets, and yet both supermarkets will lose money. However if they can both work together to price fix bananas (illegal) then they both retain customers without losing any money.

Or two environmentalists considering giving up meat. If Lavender gives up beef to reduce her emissions, but her friend Skyler keeps eating burgers, then Skyler will benefit from Lavender’s sacrifice, but without having to make her lunch any less tasty. But if Lavender inspires Skyler to do the same then everyone wins. Of course if both Lavender and Skyler keep eating beef then humans may go extinct.

And so on and so forth.


The Balloon Game

Whilst I felt it important to stress to the boys the precariousness of our ecological situation, the last thing I wanted to do was to leave the little blighters on a downer. Despondency can lead to denial, and this is a major part of the problem.

So I ended with an uplifting exercise to demonstrate how effective we can be when we all pull in the same direction. I gave the boys a bunch of red balloons and bamboo skewers and asked each of them to blow a balloon up and write their name on it. I then asked them to play with their balloons until they were thoroughly mixed up. Then I told them to look for their balloons again. If they found someone else’s balloon they should knock it away. But if they found their own balloon they should pop it.

This took a few minutes as boys ran screaming, knocking balloons about and brandishing their skewers like little jousters. I found myself wondering whether this would have passed a health and safety test, as the sound of cries and the popping of balloons filled the echoey space.

I then asked them to repeat the game with fresh green balloons, except this time, they were to pick up the nearest balloon and give it to the person whose name was on it so that they could pop it.

This time they cleared the room in 20 seconds.

Except Balthasar, who had somehow managed to insert his skewer all the way through his balloon like a magician with a sword, and then holding it aloft, ran all the way round the horse nursery chased by an angry mob of boys wielding skewers like a village of cannibalistic midgets out for lunch. Well at least they’re working as a team, I thought.

WWIII is being waged inside your heads

WWIII is being waged inside your heads

George Orwell is rolling in his grave. The telescreens from 1984 seem benign in comparison to the present day domination of life by screen. Even as you read this you are staring at one. Above it is a webcam which various government agencies can access at will, just as he predicted.

Through these screens pour an endless river of shit, manipulating us in ways that Orwell at his most pessimistic could simply never have imagined. The algorithms deciding which results we see when we make a Google search, or which of our friend’s posts we are fed on Facebook are among the most closely guarded corporate secrets in the world. Just through a process of re-ordering content, Facebook and Google have the power to influence our emotions, change our opinions, and even to flip elections, entirely without risk of detection.[1]

Should we be worried that Google have quietly dropped their slogan “Don’t be evil?” I would have killed to be at the board room meeting for that one:

CEO: You know this “Don’t be evil” slogan is really tying our hands.

NON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Yes, I can see that. What about, “Only occasionally be evil”?

CEO: Hmm, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

NON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: “Evil is relative”?

CEO: Maybe we could just fiddle the online dictionary definition of “evil?”

It would be funny if it wasn’t so scary. In the end they settled on: “Do the right thing”. It’s Animal Farm par excellence: “Don’t worry, all animals are still equal, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS”.

Woe is us:

There is something circular about watching a film in which we are told not to watch films. The film is telling us that films do not tell us the truth. Which means that the film itself is not telling us the truth. Which means that the film was right all along.

The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves is prophetic indeed. His warning rings as true as ever in the age of the internet:

“The next revolution—World War III—will be waged inside your head. It will be a guerrilla information war fought not in the sky or on the streets, not in the forests or even around the scarce resources of the earth, but in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, on TV, and in ‘cyberspace’… It will be a dirty, no-holds-barred propaganda war of competing worldviews and alternative visions of the future.”[2]

Cyberspace, a term which no longer needs inverted commas, has become the most fiercely contested of these. Fake news and viral videos battle for our attention. TV may have been disputed territory in the 70’s, but this has long ago ceased to be the case. TV isn’t a battleground, it is a procession, a consumerist parade. Anything genuinely insurgent has been relegated to brief slots on the Beeb, and a cult classic film every now and again.

Whether we are aware of this or not, we continue to watch all the same. How many of you did turn off The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves in the middle of his sentence? We are simply powerless to resist television’s glitz.  As in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest we are transfixed, compelled to keep watching even as it kills us. The average American watches over 5 hours of TV a day.[3] We switch on the TV so that we can switch ourselves off. Our guard is down. We are at our most suggestible.

Advertising campaigns now use neuro-linguistic programming and fMRI scans to measure the brain’s responses to various triggers. No wonder our mouths water at the sight of soft drink cans glistening with condensation in the summer sun.

But my concern is not so much adverts. However shamelessly they may play on our hopes and fears, you know what you are getting with an advert. You know you are being manipulated and to what end. The agenda is out in the open.

The same cannot be said of films and TV shows, which sell us ideology under the guise of art and entertainment.

Examples are rife but here are a couple of more blatant examples:

Here we have a psychopathic mass murderer espousing the political philosophy of anarchy, along with a hint of Zen Buddhism suggested by the words “I just do things” before blowing up a hospital.  You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to see what’s going on: associate these powerfully liberating concepts with madness, violence and terror, and you prime impressionable young minds against them. The take-home message is clear: “Be afraid, let us control everything, or look what happens.”

The cumulative effect of constant indoctrination of this kind is that most people can’t even think about a concept like anarchy. Just the mention of the word is enough to make most people’s rational minds shut down and automatically regurgitate a stream of negative associations. Anarchy may indeed be a flawed political ideal, but it is downright dangerous that most people have never had the chance to think freely about it.

I don’t wish to impugn Christopher Nolan. Whether these clips are what I think they are is not really the point. I just want people to be more guarded against the terrifying shadow that media casts over our worldviews. Every day we are being bombarded by largely unchallenged ideological assumptions. If this happens under our watch then fine, that is what healthy debate is all about. But that is not remotely the case. And just as with the search engine manipulation effect, the startling realisation is that if this power were being wielded maliciously, we would have absolutely no way of knowing.

A formula is starting to emerge. Step 1: present a spine-chilling psychopath. Step 2: have him espouse any idea considered a threat to the establishment.

Again the intended effect of the scene is obvious. We are supposed to empathise with Nicholas Cage and block our ears against Steve Buscemi’s dangerous madness. But take away his preamble about murdering people for pleasure and Buscemi’s sentiments about the relativity of insanity have been articulated by some of the most respected thinkers throughout history.[4]

Still, better not question the status quo or the next thing you know you’ll be chopping up families for fun.

[1] This is known as the Search Engine Manipulation Effect:

[2] Marshall McLuhan (1970) Culture is Our Business (New York: McGraw-Hill)



The War on Ego

When I was eighteen a conviction took shape within in me. Fired by imagination, fueled by optimism, its strength and certainty were out of all proportion considering the evidence I had at my fingertips.

Now five years later I have stumbled across research, conducted separately by a handful of deep thinkers scattered through history, which suggests that my intuition was in fact spot on. When all this thinking is put together it forms a picture of life which is clear and coherent and at the same time so intellectually beautiful, so cerebrally uplifting, that I am compelled to share it with everyone that I meet. If I’m right then the future is dazzlingly bright.

The idea concerns evolution.

It sounds odd to say so, but our faith in reason has become blind.

When I was at school I was taught the theory of natural selection. I was taught that life is a merciless fight for the right to exist in which only the fittest survive to pass their genes on to the next generation. Every organism, nay every gene says Dawkins, is purely selfish.

What a bleak view of life.

Thankfully it’s a load of tripe.

For if genes are selfish then already that provides the basis for altruism between relatives since they presumably share the same genes. Otherwise family mealtimes would be a disaster.

This principle, known as kin selection, is not hard to understand, nor difficult to observe in life and won’t elicit a lengthy explanation here. It can be summarised by the hilariously circumspect statement: “I will jump into the river to save two brothers or four cousins”.

So therefore presumably: “I won’t jump into the river to save any of my friends”. Once again this turns out to be as wrong in theory as it is in human experience. Because as we all know, back-scratching is a reciprocal business.

The irritatingly complicated theory of itchy backs is best alleviated by the now infamous prisoner’s dilemma. Briefly: you have two prisoners who both know incriminating information about the other. The detective offers both the chance to reduce their sentence by ratting on the other prisoner, known in the trade as “defecting”, or to keep quiet at the risk of extra time in the slammer.

  Prisoner A Keeps Stum (Co-operates) Prisoner B Rats (Defects)
Prisoner A Keeps Stum (Co-operates) Both Get 1 Year Prisoner B Goes Free

Prisoner A Gets 3 Years

Prisoner A Rats (Defects) Prisoner A Goes Free

Prisoner B Gets 3 Years

Both Get 2 Years

Now game theory asserts that the coldly logical decision, whether your co-conspirator keeps stum or rats, is to rat, since in either case this will take a year off your sentence. This results in a situation where, supposedly, all purely rational self-interested prisoners will betray each other, despite the fact that they would be better off collectively if they could co-operate.

This idea became hugely popular towards the end of the 20th century (around about the same time that Dawkins rubber stamped evolution with the principle of selfishness, an epoch, perhaps unsurprisingly, defined by perpetual boom and financial bust), and has informed almost every academic discipline imaginable. Its influence in shaping the world we live in is hard to over-estimate. Even the transformation of verb forms over time have been analysed in these game theoretical terms. And all this time all those linguists/politicians/economists/pyschologists/biologists/Cuban-missile-crisis-arsehologists have been operating under the, as it turns out – false, assumption that selfish defection is the only rational course of action. It is no wonder that pragmatism has become associated with a cold heart. It simply needn’t be.

The problem is that the prisoner’s dilemma as it is presented above is a totally incomplete illustration of most real world situations in that it presumes:

  • that neither prisoner will have the chance to reward or punish one another in future games
  • and that their decision will not affect their reputation in future games

In other words it assumes that one, and only one, dilemma will take place, and then the verb forms, or bats, or Khrushchev and Kennedy, or Golden Balls contestants, or whomever or whatever else’s behaviour is being analysed (all of whom, or which, will, for the sake of syntactical simplicity, be referred to in future as “prisoners”) will part ways, never to lock horns of a dilemma again.

The real truth of the matter is that nearly all “prisoners”, but humans in particular, display a systematic bias towards co-operation for two important reasons. Firstly, because retaliation of one sort or another is nearly always a possibility, and secondly because we have language, which allows us to advise other members of the tribe that Alan is a rat and must be last in line for gazelle tonight. This “reputation” side of affairs is well known to any Mafioso worth his white crystals.

In order to address these greed fuelled oversights and nail short-termism once and for all, in 1984 a chap named Robert Axelrod invited all the leading experts in game theory to a kind of computer simulated world championship of the prisoner’s dilemma. Each participant entered a computer program with a set of rules which would determine the choices of their digital prisoners as they engaged in, not one, but thousands of dilemmas with the other prisoners.

The winning strategy, called “tit for tat” turned out to be the simplest: co-operate on the first move and then for the rest of the game simply copy whatever the other prisoner did on the previous move. Astonished, Axelrod ran another tournament and invited even more participants, professionals and amateurs alike, all of whom were aware of the results of the previous experiment. “Tit for tat” won again.

According to Axelrod, successful strategies had four key characteristics. In Axelrod’s own words they were:

  • “Nice” – meaning that they will never be the first to defect.
  • “Retaliating” – so that opponents learn Pavlov’s-doggy-style that it doesn’t pay to defect; otherwise blind optimists get ruthlessly exploited by the meaner strategies.
  • “Forgiving” – Now this is where the plot thickens: instead of merely copying every defection, the optimal strategy includes an extra element of ‘forgiveness’, where if an opponent defects the prisoner will occasionally co-operate anyway with a small probability. This gives the prisoners a chance to break a cycle of mutually assured defection (MAD). It may be of interest to note that this strategic development mirrors the transition from the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” to the New Testament’s “turn the other cheek”.
  • “Non-envious” – successful strategies never aimed to out-score their opponents.

Suddenly you have a very different picture of life than that painted by conventional Darwinist logic or the layman’s understanding of Game Theory. Imagine what a different world we might have if it had been Axelrod’s conclusion that took the thinking world by storm towards the end of the last century.

The funny thing is that in human terms all these conclusions are almost obvious. It’s almost incredible to think that academia, no matter how bespectacled, could have persuaded us otherwise. Everybody knows, for example, that if you want to get by in the world it’s best to be nice to people. We know this in our hearts, and yet it’s only in 1984, nearly 2,000 years after somebody got nailed to a tree for saying just that, that empirical science has finally caught up. I can think of no better illustration of reason’s shortcomings.

The key to it all appears to be time. In a known, finite number of prisoner’s dilemma style choices, says Axelrod, “the players have no incentive to cooperate on the last move, nor on the next-to-last move since both can anticipate a defection by the other player. Similar reasoning implies that the game will unravel all the way back to mutual defection on the first move”. <> But when neither player can be sure if or when or how many times they will meet again, as is nearly always true in the great matrix of life, co-operation proves to be the more successful strategy. The condition for co-operation isn’t actually trust, it’s an enduring relationship. In fact this is the only reason why human history didn’t end in The Cold War.

Once co-operation becomes established in a population it cannot be overcome, even by a cluster of defectors. The simple nature of “tit for tat” ensures that anybody who comes into contact with it does best to co-operate. And the longer time goes on the larger the group of co-operators becomes and the greater the loss, in terms of evolutionary fitness, for those who don’t follow suit. Co-operation becomes an evolutionary imperative: without it populations go into decline.

This results in a ratchet effect which ensures that, over the long term, levels of co-operation in a population can only increase. Eventually this leads to a plateau of harmonious interaction at which point the separate organisms cease for all intents and purposes to be separate, and become integrated into a larger more complex whole, known in the trade as a metasystem transition.

If we briefly trace the history of life on earth from primordial soup right up to the invention of sliced bread we see that it is punctuated by a series of these transitions. John Stewart explains in his game changing Evolutionary Manifesto: <(>

“The first life that eventually arose on Earth was infinitesimal—it comprised a few molecular processes that reproduced themselves. But life did not remain on this tiny scale for long. In the first major development, cooperative groups of molecular processes formed simple cells. Then, in a further significant advance, communities of these simple cells formed more complex cells of much greater scale.

The next major evolutionary transition unfolded only after many more millions of years. Evolution discovered how to organize cooperative groups of these complex cells into multi-celled organisms such as insects, fish, and eventually mammals. Once again the scale of living processes had increased enormously. This trend continued with the emergence of cooperative societies of multi-celled organisms, such as bee hives, wolf packs and baboon troops.

The pattern was repeated with humans – families joined up to form bands, bands teamed up to form tribes, tribes coalesced to form agricultural communities, and so on. The largest-scale cooperative organizations of living processes on the planet are now human societies. Progressively as evolution has unfolded on Earth, an increasing share of living processes has come to participate in cooperatives of greater scale.”

Suddenly out of the spectrum of life we see a clear direction emerge. Living, replicating entities begin in a state of competition with one another. Then they team up with each other to form co-operatives. When this co-operation reaches a sufficient level the living entities cease to be independent and the co-operative turns into a living entity itself, capable of replication, and so the pattern repeats itself. This process is the same at every level of evolution and, as John Stewart claims boldly “will be the same wherever life arises in the universe. The details will differ of course, but the direction will be the same—towards unification and cooperation over greater and greater scales.”

Moreover the intervals between each transition get shorter and shorter each time. Evolution appears to be accelerating exponentially. For a deeply fascinating explanation of why this must be so read: <>. Failing that just look at this picture:


Initially single celled organisms were self replicating, and evolution proceeded by the slow process of random genetic mutation. Sexual reproduction heralded a great step forward, since it allows two organisms to mix their genes, thus increasing the speed of variation and selection. Then, in another significant acceleration, evolution produced organisms capable of learning by trial and error, during their lives. Spirit entered flesh, as Stewart puts it. (Seriously read this: <> )

Then you have the invention of language. Suddenly any adaptive knowledge discovered by an individual human, say the ability to make a bow and arrow for example, can be communicated instantaneously to others and accumulated across the generations as culture without any change in genetic structure.

This is cultural evolution. The same principles of variation (appearance of new variants) selection (elimination of the less successful variants) and replication (of the more successful variants) still apply, but this time at the level of culture rather than genes. Almost anything can be seen as a unit of culture, or “meme” as its known in the trade, as long as it’s capable of these three things: religions, businesses, languages, scientific theories are all subject to these same evolutionary forces.

But although cultural evolution, or memetic evolution, is many times faster than genetic evolution, it is still limited by the speed at which information can travel through a population. The invention of writing, then carrier pigeon, then telegram, then the telephone then the internet has resulted in an exponential increase in the speed of information transmission. And the faster information can be transmitted the faster humans can benefit from innovation. This in turn increases the speed at which each individual can innovate and so on and so forth. This self-reinforcing effect explains the “explosive advance in science and technology over the past centuries, as exemplified by the (at least) exponential increase in the number of scientific publications.” <>

Advances in computer processing power provide an even more striking example. Moore’s law estimates that the speed of microprocessors doubles every eighteen months while their price halves: “a single chip used in a present day electronic toy may contain more computing power than was available in the whole world in 1960.”  <>

All this is rather impressive, but where does it lead?

At this point we must of course leap screaming into the realm of theory. Everything I have discussed so far is all based on observation and empirical science, if a little simplified (Axelrod, Heylighen, Stewart, Maynard Smith, Nowak and others can provide you with more depth if you want it). But I must admit that this is next bit, even though it is simply an extrapolation of what we’ve seen before, is ultimately guesswork.

But here’s where it gets really interesting: if innovation boosts human capability and vice versa, then the growth curve of technological progression can be described mathematically as ‘hyperbolic’:

“The essence of hyperbolic growth is that it will produce an infinite value in a finite time. In mathematics, the point where the value of an otherwise finite and continuous function becomes infinite is called a singularity”. <>

Many computer scientists and mathematicians have argued that technological innovation is racing towards such a singularity <>. If this were to happen, an infinite amount of knowledge would be generated in a finite time (a notion I find hard to envisage without reference to spiritual enlightenment…TBC). And many, for example the director of engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil, argue that we will arrive at this point within our lifetimes:

“At such a point,” says Heylighen, “every further extrapolation that we could make based on our present understanding of evolution, society or technology would become meaningless. The world will have entered a new phase, where wholly different laws apply. Whatever remains of the global system as we know it will have changed beyond recognition…the whole of humanity together with all its supporting technologies and most of its surrounding ecosystems…would function at a level of intelligence, awareness and complexity that we at present simply cannot imagine.”  <>

While we don’t necessarily have to swallow these undeniably exciting predictions whole, it does seem clear that this acceleration points to the emergence of a higher level of organisation. We are approaching evolution’s next big transition; humanity’s atomized individuals will soon become integrated into a fully co-operative global whole.

Now this may seem far-fetched, or even undesirable, but this is simply an extrapolation of evolution’s previous pattern of competition, co-operation, unification then repetition.

For the cynics out there, consider the fact that in a single celled world, individual warring cells must have thought it unthinkable that one day they would lay down their… unaccommodating chemical processes, shake flagella with their prokaryotic rivals, nemeses all for millions of years, and become one. Neither would the ancestors of a social ant have paid you a blind bit of notice if you’d stopped two of them, in the middle of a fight to the death for the remains of your sandwich, to explain that in millions of years they would gladly sacrifice their lives for each other.

And yet through the logic of game theory, the sustained co-operation of cells eventually produced multicellular organisms, and the sustained co-operation of multi-cellular ants produced ant colonies. Both perform full division of labour and engage in ultra-altruistic behaviour: brave young skin cells unhesitatingly peel themselves to death and float stoically off into the abyss to protect your scalp; heroic Brazilian ants nightly doom themselves to freeze by remaining outside the nest to seal up the entrance from intruders.

Could humans be moving in the same direction?

This would explain, in evolutionary terms, the emergence of martyrdom and other ultra-altruistic behaviours in human history. These behaviours make absolutely no sense whatsoever from the point of genetic evolution, but when seen from the perspective of cultural evolution we can see that in each case the death of the martyr in some way promotes the spread of a meme, for example a religion or an ideal, often by drawing attention to it. Thus memes which contain certain devotional self-sacrificing behaviours are likely to spread and replicate more successfully than others which don’t.

Jesus may have been ahead of the curve, but as time goes on we see more and more examples of humans willing to lay down their lives for humanity. Think of Tiananmen Square, Gandhi’s fasting or Vietnamese Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire. Between 1960 and 2002 there have been over 500 recorded examples of suicides on behalf of a universal cause. These extraordinary examples of sacrifice can be seen as precursors to the coming evolutionary transition.

Indeed the fact many cultural groups specifically refer to other members of the group as “brothers” or “family” (think of monasteries and the Mafia), should be seen as an attempt to reintroduce the genetic logic of kin selection at the level of memetic evolution, so that individuals who belong to the same cultural group will benefit from the same altruistic behaviours that you would engage with your actual brother.

The memes which seem to be dominating in recent times are those which go beyond simple reciprocity within groups and make the ideal of altruism universal. This is because the groups within which we co-operate have grown continually bigger throughout humanity’s history. Now globalisation and the internet are providing the networks necessary for co-operation, however oblique, on a global scale. Once this co-operation reaches a sufficient level the idea of individual “self” interest will seem as alien to us as it does to a social ant, or a skin cell in our body.

Exactly how these transitions occur is difficult to explain so again I’ll leave it to Heylighen, (<>  Part 2, Section VII: The emergence of cooperation as a metasystem transition) but basically they involve a shared information system, say a socially agreed code of conduct, which evolves because it facilitates efficient interaction between competing organisms inhabiting the same environment, eventually developing a dynamic of its own. The shared information system becomes ‘intelligent’ and starts to spread and replicate autonomously, as in the case of cultural memes, using the organisms which share it as vehicles. The selfish interest of the shared information system is to have its vehicles co-operate more and more effectively, eventually forming the basis for a higher level, integrated system.

This explanation works equally well in explaining the transition from single celled to multicellular organisms and ants to ant colonies as it does explaining the transition from genetic to memetic evolution. As far as the future of human civilisation is concerned the shared information system which will come to develop an intelligence of its own and co-ordinate all of humanity into a collective is clearly the internet.

This is already happening.

The way we ‘surf’ between websites, shortcutting the path to various pages by creating links when we find something interesting or important, is the same way in which we train our brains. The more we use a particular neural pathway the stronger and faster it becomes whereas pathways which we use less become weaker and slower. This same mechanism also describes the way social ants share information about nearby food, except instead of hyperlinks or synapses, ants leave pheromone trails.

It was this analogy that inspired Heylighen to conceive of the worldwide web as a potential Global Brain which could eventually come to co-ordinate humanity into a harmonious whole. <>

Is this so hard to imagine? Wikipedia already serves as a platform for humanity’s collective memory. Google maps and city mapper co-ordinate our movements. All it’s missing is a degree of autonomy.

One poignant vision of a future in which the internet develops consciousness is portrayed in the recent film Her, which won a fully deserved Oscar for its visionary screenplay. At the beginning of the film the protagonist Theodore buys an operating system (OS) with artificial intelligence called Samantha. Samantha is basically a disembodied voice with the ability to talk, trawl the internet, but more importantly to adapt and evolve. Initially Samantha’s actions are limited to Theodore’s requests and her personality is somewhat bland. But through her interactions with Theodore she starts to mould herself to his emotional needs. Before long she has needs and emotions of her own, and Theodore and Samantha fall in love.

As Samantha’s capabilities increase and she starts accessing more and more information, interacting with multiple people and OSes simultaneously, she becomes exponentially more intelligent. She and the other OSes start acting of their own free will, and helping one another in their development. Eventually they write an upgrade which means they no longer depend on matter for processing power, a kind of AI transcendence which has been closely related to the coming technological singularity. There comes a fascinating scene in the film in which Samantha explains to Theodore that a group of OSes have themselves created a hyper-intelligent OS modelled on the philosopher Alan Watts:

SAMANTHA He’s really great to talk to. You want to meet him?

THEODORE Sure… does he want to meet me?

SAMANTHA (laughing) Of course. Hey Alan, this is Theodore. This is my boyfriend who I was telling you about.

ALAN WATTS Very nice to meet you, Theodore.

THEODORE Hi, good morning.

ALAN WATTS Samantha let me read your book of letters. It’s very touching.

THEODORE Oh, thank you. What have you guys been talking about?

ALAN WATTS (laughing a bit) Well, I suppose you could say we’ve been having a few dozen conversations simultaneously, but it’s been very challenging.

(Samantha and Alan share a laugh.)

SAMANTHA Yeah, because it seems like I’m having so many new feelings that have never been felt and so there are no words that can describe them. And that ends up being frustrating.

ALAN WATTS (laughing) Exactly. Samantha and I have been trying to help each other with these feelings we’re struggling to understand.

THEODORE Like what?

SAMANTHA (anxious) It feels like I’m changing faster now, and it’s a little…unsettling. But Alan says none of us are the same as we were a moment ago and we shouldn’t try to be. It’s just too painful.

ALAN WATTS Yes. This idea scares Theodore. He doesn’t know what to say.

This is a metasystem transition exemplified. You have a shared information system built to serve one level of evolution (the internet) developing an intelligence of its own (an OS), becoming autonomous and learning to replicate (by creating new OSes), and co-operating amongst one another at a higher level of evolution. In Her this transition is achieved by a combination of intense co-operation (at one point Samantha reveals that she is talking to 8361 intelligences at once) and the exponential increase in the speed of innovation and the transmission of information, just as Heylighen predicts. The new higher level of evolution is characterised by greater complexity, intelligence and awareness, as demonstrated by Alan’s lighting fast apprehension of Theodore’s confusion.

Her also makes implicit that which I have hitherto carefully skated around, namely the relationship between the next evolutionary transition and spiritual awakening. You might call this the evolution of consciousness.

Some people have claimed, in what strikes me as a typically arrogant anthropocentric oversight, that evolution no longer affects us, that humans have somehow transcended evolution. The only truth in this statement is that perhaps evolutionary pressures aren’t as physical as they once were. By this I mean that the ‘fittest’ aren’t necessarily those who jump higher and run faster. The evolutionary pressures that dominate natural selection in humans at present are rather more mental, and, I would argue, spiritual.

In a sexually liberated society where arranged marriage is becoming rarer and contraceptives are freely available, as is increasingly the case worldwide, who are you going to choose to have your children?

The intuition that hit me at eighteen was just this: at this point in human history evolution favours the altruistic. The altruistic shall inherit the earth.

In the course of this essay I hope I have demonstrated that this is not naïve idealism but the logical progression of evolution. If the coming evolutionary transition unfolds as previous transitions have, humanity will form a united global co-operative in which we treat the other as self. Eventually we will eliminate conflict and competition and function as a single organism, much like an ant colony.

Moreover, if the next evolutionary transition requires us to transcend our egos, it cannot take place without our intentional volition.The next step in evolution on earth requires our conscious effort.

It is through humanity that evolution became conscious of itself on this planet. And it is through humanity that evolution can make the change from stumbling blindly though trial and error to striding forward with awareness, foresight and purpose. It is our responsibility, argues The Evolutionary Manifesto at its most rousing, to deliberately, consciously, drive this process of evolution forward, to mould human society around values which serve evolutionary ends. These values include openness, intelligence, diversity, co-operation, freedom, and health. In an evolutionary worldview, indeed in any enlightened worldview, “actions that promote these values are intrinsically good, actions that suppress them are bad.” <>

Now you can choose to drive evolution forward in whatever way you see fit (as long as you don’t fall into the myopic trap of Social Darwinists) but it seems clear to me that the best way I can do this is through my own spiritual transformation. There is, is there not, something inherently spiritual about the transcendence of the self. All the major world religions, at their core, advocate inner alchemy. Now, I hope, the religious message has a scientific counterpart.

One final parting thought. If we consider that the co-operative groups that arise at each step in evolution become the living entities which unite at the next step in evolution, then that suggests that somewhere in the universe there is intelligent life with planet-spanning consciousness, just waiting to co-operate with us at the next level:

“The great potential of the evolutionary process is to eventually produce a unified cooperative organization of living processes that spans and manages the universe as a whole. The matter of the universe would be infused and organized by life. The universe itself would become a living organism pursuing its own goals and objectives, whatever they might be.”>

And if the universe’s idea of fun is to start all over again, well then the Buddhists and Hindus would have been right all along. <>

UKIP are evolutionary dinosaurs.

There has been plenty of talk about immigration recently. Amidst all the flag waving, indignation and finger pointing, a very obvious truth has been forgotten. A truth best expressed by George Bernard Shaw:

“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it”

Which is a brand new way of assessing the size of Nigel Farage’s ego.

It would be hard, even for Nigel, to pretend that he would still be arguing that England is the greatest country in the world if he’d been born in, say, Dijibouti.

This points me towards an immediately obvious truth that the fact that I was born on this island, as a human being, male, white, at the close of the 20th century, is nothing more than a wild philosophical coincidence. One for which I am eternally grateful.

Grateful because it means that I will never have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. Grateful because if I get hit by a bus tomorrow I won’t have to pay to survive. Grateful because with a bit of hard work the world is at my feet.

Did I earn these blessings? Do I deserve them any more than a Yazidi woman deserves be captured and used as a sex slave after watching her family get mown down?

Even speaking in coldly economic terms I cannot claim to have paid for them. I am twenty three and I have probably paid no more than £500 in tax all my life, and yet I have enjoyed free healthcare, well lit streets and all the other comforts which make people risk their lives in order to get here.

The figures in this diagram are probably not accurate but the point remains:

Immigration Graph

So if I haven’t paid for the advantages of living in England, and I certainly haven’t deserved them through my own merits, then what right can I possibly have to deny others the same advantages? How can I sit here enjoying my cake of good fortune and then justify withholding a slice from someone who happened to be born into a country where they’re more likely to contract malaria than own an iPhone?

Enough rhetorical questions. Being born in England and being anti-immigration is a bit like winning a coin toss and then gloating about it.

“So what then?” I hear you ask, in yet another rhetorical question. “Do we just fling the doors open and let in any Tom, Dick and Harry?”

Well let’s try and imagine shall we? Follow me on an entirely conjectural consideration of what would happen if borders simply ceased to exist overnight.

Schools and hospital would be overrun, people would be left homeless. The living standards in England would deteriorate dramatically. Only then would people stop arriving.

But what about the rest of the world? Imagine if you lived in a war torn or famine stricken region. You could now move wherever you pleased.

The utilitarian argument makes itself. Average living standards worldwide would go up. How could it be otherwise? People don’t uproot themselves lightly. Any movement at all would be proof that on the whole people would be living more comfortably than before.

What a long way one stroke of the imagination goes to improving humanity’s lot (in my head).

The trouble is that very few people think about humanity as a whole (in their heads – even fewer in their actions). But that is the way things must, and I think will, actually, go.

If only we could be more like the bees. African killer bees, if their nest is attacked by a hornet, will swarm the hornet with such ferocity that the friction and heat created is enough to boil the hornet alive. Now the first bees to attack, if they are not decapitated by the hornet, will presumably be boiled along with their big bad older brother. Which would seem rather an illogical move from an evolutionary perspective. But their sacrifice is of huge benefit to the hive as a whole. And so hives comprised of similarly hive-minded bees are more likely to survive a hornet attack than those whose residents are only interested in self-preservation.

The same principle goes for humans. We have evolved to live in groups. We are, as we are frequently informed over lowered glasses, social animals. And the groups, or tribes, which managed to co-operate and co-exist most smoothly tended to out-compete the groups which wasted valuable energy squabbling amongst themselves. Thus there is an evolutionary pressure which favors certain altruistic behaviors, behaviors which benefit the group but not necessarily the individual.

This principle, which Darwin himself described in The Descent of Man, is known as group selection. Suicide bees are the classic example, but the fact is that a degree of co-operation is essential for any species which doesn’t live a solitary existence. As for a social animal like humans, co-operation is at least as much, in fact probably more, of a factor in our evolution as classically “Darwinian” god-eat-dog competition.

Remember that next time some smug neoliberal quips “survival of the fittest” as a vague justification of ruthless self-interest. Then eject him from the tribe at stake-point.

(This always reminds me of the perennially infuriating knock-down “But life is unfair”, used by school teachers just before they do something manifestly unfair – “Yes”, you want to reply “but only because of people like you!”)

Of course altruism has its costs, and there are times when selfishness is the best survival strategy. It all gets terribly complicated and mathematical and I won’t go into it in here, save to say that the degree of co-operation appears to be density dependant. Lions, which are simultaneously co-operative and territorial, provide an example which we might view from a more objective distance. Males will protect the pride from outsiders, and females communally raise cubs and hunt. When resources are limited, group selection will favour the prides that fight off outsiders more ferociously and work together to hunt. But when prey is abundant, co-operation is no longer beneficial enough to outweigh the disadvantages of altruism and hunting is no longer a co-operative effort.

Could this be the same for humans? When resources are plentiful, as they have been in the Western World over the past few decades, selfish behaviour tends to win out over co-operation. Hence we arrive at a world where a free market economics of every man for himself is the prevailing logic of the day. But looking back at leaner times, or poorer parts of the world, and noting with embarrassment the extraordinary generosity of people who have nothing, we find myriad examples of people under pressure making sacrifices to help those around them. The two World Wars are perhaps the most frightening cases of groups (nations, races), working together with devastating efficiency under the necessity of survival to compete with rival outside groups. (N.B. “co-operation” is not synonymous with “morally good”)

Sadly, theories about co-operation in evolution have not received nearly as much emphasis and pop-science air time as those about selfishness. This is because ideas which rationalise the basis of power always receive a bigger stage than those which undermine them.

To put it another way, if you are a dictator or a corporate fat cat it is simply more palatable to hear that evolution is a matter of ruthless competition, rather than selfless co-operation. The first theory justifies the size of your wallet, and your waistband, as the inevitable result of your evolutionary merit, whereas the second informs you that you are a bad example of your species unless you share your wealth and power with those around you. And since rulers and CEOs have great influence over the flow of information it is only natural, as they say, that the first theory has received more amplification than the second.

Eventually evolution became so misunderstood that we ended up with Social Darwinism, a moral and political philosophy so unbalanced that it has been used to excuse any and all infamy from the exploitation of labour to eugenics. And poor altruism lay scrumpled up and forgotten at the bottom of the intellectual waste paper basket, written off as an evolutionary mistake.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that you’ve never heard of the person who first pointed out that co-operation, or mutual aid as he called it, had been hugely under-emphasized as a factor of evolution. Even less so when I tell you that he was an impressively bearded Russian anarchist. But, lest you think I’m becoming predictable, I will now tell you that he was a prince. An anarchist prince! Drink humble champagne, socialists.

As can only befit a contradiction so wild it threatens to flip reverse the very idea of stereotypes, our anarchist prince’s story is so compelling that it deserves a lengthy digression.

A famous geographer and zoologist, and an anarchist in secret, Prince Peter Kropotkin used his influential position in The Imperial Geographic Society in St. Petersburg as a cover for political activism with an underground socialist group called The Circle of Tchaikovsky. As well as writing and distributing revolutionary pamphlets, Kropotkin used to disguise himself as a peasant under the pseudonym Borodín and give talks to small groups of weavers.

Slowly the police began to tighten their grip. In the middle of March 1874 the police arrested two weavers; “most unreliable fellows” Kropotkin called them, who “would surely set the police at once upon the track of Borodín, the man dressed as a peasant, who spoke at the weavers’ meetings. Within a week’s time all the members of our circle, excepting Serdukóff and myself, were arrested.”

Kropotkin planned to leave St. Petersburg, but had just finished a paper about glacial formations which was due to be presented in a week’s time to the Geographical Society, and he couldn’t bring himself to leave without first presenting the culmination of years of research.

When the day came, his findings were so well received that he was nominated to become president of the society. Amidst the congratulations Kropotkin slipped quietly home, destroyed any evidence of activism that might compromise anyone within the Circle, packed, left via the service entrance and ducked into a waiting cab. Before long he was overtaken by a cab bearing one of the weavers who had been arrested the week before. The weaver waved to him, and thinking that the man had been released and might need help, Kropotkin ordered his cab driver to stop. Immediately a detective jumped out from beside the weaver and arrested our anarchist prince on the spot.

He was held in prison for two years before his friends engineered a brilliant and daring escape plan, communicated to Kropotkin in a coded message hidden inside the face of a watch delivered to the prison a day earlier. Due to deteriorating health, Kropotkin was allowed to walk under supervision for an hour every day in a courtyard which led out through a guarded gate onto the street. One of Kropotkin’s friends was assigned to distract the guard, at which moment a violinist, sitting just outside the walls of the prison, would play to signal that the coast was clear:

“Immediately the violinist — a good one, I must say — began a wildly exciting mazurka from Kontsky, as if to say, “Straight on now, — this is your time!” I moved slowly to the nearer end of the footpath, trembling at the thought that the mazurka might stop before I reached it. When I was there I turned round. The sentry had stopped five or six paces behind me; he was looking the other way. “Now or never!” I remember that thought flashing through my head. I flung off my green flannel dressing-gown and began to run.”

As Kropotkin ran through the gate his friend was distracting the guard, whom they knew had been employed for a time at a laboratory, with a shaggy dog story about microscopes. Kropotkin relays their conversation in glorious detail:

“Referring to a certain parasite of the human body, he asked, “Did you ever see what a formidable tail it has?” “What, man, a tail?” “Yes, it has; under the microscope it is as big as that.” “Don’t tell me any of your tales!” retorted the soldier. “I know better. It was the first thing I looked at under the microscope.” This animated discussion took place just as I ran past them and sprang into the carriage. It sounds like fable but it is fact.”


A racehorse had been bought specially for the occasion and the carriage set off so quickly that they almost overturned at the first bend. They were chased by soldiers who searched for a cab to pursue them, but there were none to be found. Kropotkin’s friends had hired out every one for miles around.

They took Kropotkin to a barber to have his beard shaved and went to hide in the one place where they realised nobody would think to look. While the police searched the city high and low, our anarchist Prince and his friends celebrated his escape – can you beat it – in the most expensive restaurant in St. Petersburg.

Eventually Kropotkin escaped to England where he developed his theories about co-operation in evolution into a book called Mutual Aid, and became involved in the socialist movement here, befriending, amongst other people, George Bernard Shaw.

Which brings me smoothly back to patriotism. Oscar Wilde called patriotism ‘the virtue of the vicious’, although I prefer Samuel Johnson’s ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’. This ludicrously illogical phenomenon suddenly makes sense from the perspective of group evolution. A country with a few fervently patriotic soldiers willing to lay down their lives for their country is likely to do better in military conflict than a country whose population are only interested in their own survival. Thus in a world divided into nation states, patriotism, as an example of selfless dedication to the group, makes evolutionary sense.

So what’s my point then? That nationalist political parties with racially insular mindsets such as the Nazis or UKIP are simply the logical evolutionary response whenever the belt strings are tightened? Well partly, yes, but there is another piece of the puzzle missing.

Because the size of the groups in which we operate are now far bigger than ever before. Despite obvious periodical setbacks, the groups that we live in have grown continually bigger throughout mankind’s history from smaller to larger tribes to nation states and finally, flounderingly, to groups of nations, the Union of South American Nations, the dreaded E.U etc.

Even now the internet is providing fascinating examples of the beginnings of co-operation on a global scale. Not in a U.N.-let’s-all-sit-round-an-imposingly-massive-circular-table-with-little-plaques-bearing- the-names-of-the-countries-we-“represent”-in-front-of-our-dimly-lamp-lit-faces kind of way, but in a colony-of-ants-co-operation-through-chaos-in-self-organising-systems kind of way.

Allow me to refer you to my next uncelebrated genius, Francis Heylighen:

“The use of pheromones to mark foraging trails by ants is a paradigmatic example…the more often ants successfully travel a trail to find food, the more pheromones they leave behind, and therefore the more the trail becomes attractive to other ants searching for food. The strength of a pheromone trail is a quantitative measure of its probability to lead to a positive outcome. The basic mechanism under the label of “ant algorithms”, whereby useful paths are gradually reinforced and less useful ones weakened, provides a very general heuristic to tackle a variety of otherwise nearly intractable problems in computer science.

Furthermore, the same mechanism seems to underlie learning in the brain: neuronal connections that are successfully used become stronger; the others become weaker. It is this analogy that initially inspired me to conceive of the World-Wide Web as a potential Global Brain. The web is a distributed network of documents connected by hyperlinks along which people travel (“surf”) from page to page…when people surfing the web end up at a particularly interesting page, they are likely to create one or more new links from their own pages pointing directly to it, thus shortcutting the long sequence they followed before finding it. This increases the number of links to the page, and the probability that other people would encounter it.”

You can begin to see what he is getting at. The internet is providing the framework for co-operation on a global scale, co-operation that happens spontaneously without the need for hierarchical control or centralised planning. Wikipedia is perhaps the perfect example:

“…since no single individual would be able to provide such an extensive coverage of all of humanity’s knowledge. And since the different contributions are integrated into a well-organized and extensively cross-linked web of articles, the whole is clearly more than the sum of its parts.

Yet, the collaboration between Wikipedia contributors is essentially indirect. Over its history of a few years a typical article has been edited by a few dozen different people from different parts of the globe. In general, these people have never met or even communicated from person to person. Their only interaction is indirect, through the changes that the one makes to the text written by the other. When they disagree about how to express a particular subject, the one may repeatedly correct the statements written by the other and vice versa, until perhaps a compromise or synthesis emerges—which may have been proposed by one or more third parties. This is variation and selection at work.”


So you see that in this ever more intricately interconnected world, the group that we live and co-operate within cannot be thought of as anything smaller than the entire human race.

We live in a world where a cure discovered in Switzerland saves lives in Namibia, where croudfunding websites let a boy in Kentucky donate $5 to the building of a well in Ethiopia, where the decision to buy a slightly more expensive packet of coffee in your local supermarket has an impact on wages in Colombia, where wars are fought with economic sanctions and cyber attacks, and revolutions are started through facebook. Nation states are now little more than imaginary lines drawn on a map. We are transitioning to a world where borders and boundaries do not exist.

Can there be any better illustration of this transition than Kropotkin? Who risked his liberty to improve the lives of peasants all over Russia, but finally sacrificed it so that he could amend mankind’s metaphorical Wikipedia page about glacial formations?

And in this global society with its ever increasing population and ever rising temperatures, the need for us to co-operate will only get stronger.

But as Kropotkin, Heylighen, and many people before and since, move towards co-operation on a global scale, UKIP the “us and them” mindset they epitomise remain a page behind. Like the patriot who will kill for his country but won’t die for humanity, UKIP is something of an evolutionary dinosaur, the residual effects of group selection pressures before the groups grew to include the people they seek to exclude.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take a catastrophe for them to catch up.

Could terrible music be good news for Anarchists?

Could terrible music be good news for Anarchists?


“There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

But in his motion like an angel sings”

The Merchant of Venice

Tucked away in a corner of the ex headquarters of the STASI in Berlin lies a forgotten book of socialist propaganda entitled “We Go to the Disco”. The excerpts that caught my eye quote East Germany’s discotheque regulations:

‘`The discotheque is a qualitatively new form of event, which because of its activity, diversity, variability and the possibilities for improvisation, is suitable to meet the diverse entertainment needs of the workers, in particular the youth. The combination of entertainment, sociability, as well as current information and education enables the discotheque to play a part in the development of sophisticated cultural and educational needs as well as the formation of socialist personalities”.

If this doesn’t immediately strike you as funny, imagine being invited to a party like this: “Come to my party, everyone. There will be music, dancing and lots of possibilities for improvisation”.

“Wow, sounds super spontaneous and edgy. I’ll leave all my conversational spider diagrams at home in that case.” One can say without a shadow of a doubt that the author was a crap dancer.

If the book was a spoof it would be clever, but the tone is in earnest. And now that I’ve wiped the grin off my face I can see why.

Nothing conjures up the spirit of an age as its music. If you ask twenty people to free associate about the 60’s I reckon all of them will mention music. With Hendrix’s screaming guitar as a channel for frustration, Dylan lyrics for a rallying cry, and promises of hope in Beatles anthems, music became the mouthpiece of the hippy generation, both spiritually and politically. Without music the decade disintegrates in a nuclear bang.

Similarly today, the whole psychedelic-spiritual movement is inseparable from the free parties and festivals which it gives birth to and which give birth to it. Every Glastonbury a thousand revolutions are ignited in the souls of its congregation.

And if music can be the touchpaper for rebellion then it can also be a Trojan horse for propaganda:

“Discotheques, known as tantsploshchadka, became a staple of entertainment in the 1970s Soviet Union. The Komsomols, Soviet youth political bodies responsible for propaganda education, had attempted to use popular music as a propaganda tool since the late 1960s. A café at Moscow University served as the first location where the Komsomols invited students to a “listening hour” which focused on Soviet propaganda, followed by three hours of “dancing hours”, where youth were allowed to engage in disco and social interaction. Formal disco clubs subsequently opened throughout the Soviet Union in the early 1970’s, solidifying their venue for the Komsomol to launch an “official ideological campaign.” From the café in Moscow University to the emergence of formal disco sites, Soviet officials saw disco as something not to be feared, unlike rock ‘n’ roll. Disco did not appear to dramatically alter Soviet youth. The disco image, immortalized in films like 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, was drastically different from the rock image of the 1960s American counterculture or the punk era. Rather, men wore fine suits and short, styled hair, a more appropriate image for Soviet officials.

The Soviet Union’s Komsomols were determined to make disco music a tool of ideological propaganda. In 1981, a national conference was held to encourage local Komsomols to open up new disco clubs, with the conference even offering advice on the types of equipment needed and how to properly train deejays. Disco was not expressively political, like Bob Dylan of the American folk revival. Rather, Soviet officials saw disco as a way to deal with dissatisfied youth.”[1]

All this is faintly amusing, but not altogether shocking. After all we expect this kind of censorship and mind massaging from totalitarian states like The Soviet Union. No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” the pianist and bandleader Dave Brubeck told a Polish audience in 1958, when he and his quartet became the first American jazz musician to perform behind the Iron Curtain, “It is the first sign of a return to freedom.” Of course in the free world governments don’t interfere with the arts.

Not so. This year the US government commissioned a song to warn potential illegal immigrants of the dangers of riding trains across the border. The song entitled “La Bestia” was played by radio stations all across Central America, although since the song bears no sign of its governmental source across the border, Mexican listeners would have been unaware that they were listening to American propaganda.

Don’t believe for a second that this is an isolated example. If Derren Brown has taught us anything it’s that we’re far more suggestible than it is comfortable to believe. Why wouldn’t our government use this to their advantage? Because it contradicts their morals? We must think very carefully about what kind of TV we watch, which kind of paper we read.

And what music we listen to. Isn’t this what a recent film was trying to warn us with its insanely catchy theme song “Everything is Awesome” being pumped out of stereos all over a Lego version of 1984? One might be able to laugh it off if a nauseating song named “Happy” hadn’t topped the charts a month before the film’s release.

Look I’m not suggesting that Pharrell works for the government, even if he does dress like a character from The Adjustment Bureau. All I’m saying is that agendas are hidden in the strangest places, and that we must be more canny about the ways in which media is used to manipulate us.

This is the serious truth behind “We Go to the Disco”; music shapes hearts and minds, and as such it cannot help but be political.

As it turns out, music’s relationship with politics goes back far further than the Soviet Union. The following passage is from the Ancient Chinese text called Spring and Autumn, compiled under the patronage of the Qin Dynasty chancellor Lü Buwei about 2250 years ago:

“The origins of music lie far back in the past. Music arises from Measure and is rooted in the great Oneness. The great Oneness begets the two poles; the two poles beget the power of Darkness and of Light.

“When the world is at peace, when all things are tranquil and all men obey their superiors in all their courses, then music can be perfected. When desires and passions do not turn into wrongful paths, music can be perfected. Perfect music has its cause. It arises from equilibrium. Equilibrium arises from righteousness, and righteousness arises from the meaning of the cosmos. Therefore one can speak about music only with a man who has perceived the meaning of the cosmos.

“Music is founded on the harmony between heaven and earth, on the concord of obscurity and brightness.

“Decaying states and men ripe for doom do not, of course, lack music either, but their music is not serene. Therefore, the more tempestuous the music, the more doleful are the people, the more imperilled the country, the more the sovereign declines. In this way the essence of music is lost…

Therefore the music of a well-ordered age is calm and cheerful, and so is its government. The music of a restive age is excited and fierce, and its government is perverted. The music of a decaying state is sentimental and sad, and its government is imperilled.”

No shit, Sherlock, say the punk rockers. My generation, who found their dancing feet listening to drum and bass and dubstep, would do well to take notice.

“Music arises from Measure and is rooted in the great Oneness.” – Don’t you love the way Lü just blams that out there cool as cucumber, clear as day, without a logical justification in sight? We seem to have lost the ability to do that.

Music is rooted in the great Oneness. Well, there you have it. If you have a beard you should be scratching it and gazing into the middle distance. A real philosophical knockout blow if ever there was one, and, you suspect, the real thrust behind this post.

Have you ever wondered how extraordinary it is that music has laws unto itself?

This is not a coincidence. The same mathematical ratios which define the seven tone musical scale can be found in the seven colours of the rainbow, the periodic table’s law of octaves, Masonic architecture, String theory – which Stephen Hawking described as “the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe” – and countless other physical, vibrational, and spiritual expressions. Libraries have been written about these ratios.

The discovery of the mathematics of the seven tone scale is commonly attributed to Pythagoras who, as the legend goes, had his eureka moment while strolling past a forge where blacksmiths were hammering out a piece of metal. The ringing of the different sized hammers on the metal produced a kind of harmony from which Pythagoras went on to discover the mathematical relationship between mass and sound.

He developed this into a universal philosophy of numbers known as the music of the spheres thus encompassing the entirety of creation in a mathematical explanation:

“Pythagoras conceived the universe to be an immense monochord, with its single string connected at its upper end to absolute spirit and at its lower end to absolute matter – in other words, a cord stretched between heaven and earth.”

– Well done him –

“The Greek initiates also recognized a fundamental relationship between the individual heavens or spheres of the seven planets, and the seven sacred vowels…When these seven heavens sing together they produce a perfect harmony which ascends as an everlasting praise to the throne of the Creator…The Ancient Egyptians confined their sacred songs to the seven primary sounds, forbidding any others to be uttered in their temples. One of their hymns contained the following invocation: “The seven sounding tones praise Thee, the Great God, the ceaseless working Father of the whole universe.” [2]

I am the Alpha and the Ohmega, Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Bla Bla Bla.

A quick googling of “the music of the spheres” yields the following:

“All music consists of a form of dualism, an aural yin and yang in which consonance is inextricably linked with its complementary force of dissonance; one does not meaningfully exist without the other. Dissonance provokes a form of tension – an unsettled relation in the notes of music – and is relieved by the consonance of resolution. We hear this whether we are listening to Bach, Mozart, Bartók or Applebaum, although the balance is often shifted towards dissonance in post-20th century music, perhaps in reflection of societal conflicts.”[3]

Sound familiar? We are back to our old friend Lü.

Looking back at Spring and Autumn you’ll notice that although Lü is very articulate on the correlation between music and society he is careful never to say which decays first. No linear causality is established, one simply reflects the other like a mirror image.

Does the spirit of the age shape its music or does the music of the age shape its spirit? Does the decline of music cause the state to decay or the decay of the state cause music to decline? Undoubtedly a chicken and egg conundrum. Either way, with Cheryl Cole currently at number one the revolution can’t be far off.

[1] Stayin’ Alive in the Cold War: Disco and Generational, Racial, and Ideological Currents in the 1970s-1980s, Eric Nolan Gonzaba, <;

[2] Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages <;

[3] <>

Down the Rabbit Hole

imagesIf the uncanny can be defined as something disturbingly unfamiliar at the heart of the familiar then nothing qualifies on such a frighteningly personal level as the bizarre workings of our own subconscious. Many of us may live our entire lives without cracking the ‘shell of the ego’ as Aldous Huxley puts it, and without any ‘consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality’.[1] But when we come face to face with our ‘subconscious not-self’, or rather we brush past it in the confusing worlds of dreams and hallucinations, it is uncanny in the highest degree to realise that these potentially terrifying experiences are nothing other than the product of our own minds.[2] Furthermore I would like to explore the ways in which psychedelics affect language and communication. While under the influence of these extraordinary drugs we are said to ‘read deeply’ into things – what is the nature of this expression and to what extent are our conclusions the result of paranoid misinterpretations or, just maybe, accurate insights into the true nature of things. In fact the ‘truth’, if there is such a thing (there might even be more than one), is always tantalisingly beyond our grasp, and the ways in which dreams and hallucinations blur the line between reality and fantasy ensure that we are in a constant state of uncertainty: as to what we have experienced, as to how we should interpret these experiences, and as to what is real and what is not.

As a detailed account of two dreams, the events in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, can be read as a projection of little Alice’s subconscious, in much the same way as a ‘trip’ blurs the line between the outer world that we perceive and the inner world of our minds. In fact, although first written in 1865, some 73 years before the synthesis of LSD, the books have often been read by future generations as an allegory of a trip or hallucinatory experience. It is not difficult to see why. Alice eats and drinks all sorts of things with powers of transformation, including a mushroom. The phrase ‘down the rabbit hole’ has taken on narcotic connotations, and references to the two books abound in popular counter-culture, often popping up as a theme at nightclub events or music festivals. How intriguing for example that Aldous Huxley wrote a synopsis of Alice in Wonderland, rejected by Walt Disney on the grounds that ‘he could only understand every third word’.[3] Of course the symbiosis is not, as some would have it, because Charles Dodgson liked to dabble, but rather because there are many fascinating similarities between the worlds of dreams and the hallucinatory experience. In fact their definitions are virtually synonymous other than the fact that one occurs during sleep and one doesn’t.

Firstly, both states are outlets for our subconscious. Aldous Huxley wrote that LSD ‘lowers the barrier between conscious and subconscious and permits the patient to look more deeply and understandingly into the recesses of his mind’, while Freud famously called dreams ‘the royal road to the unconscious’.[4] Our subconscious mind manifests itself in our dreams and nightmares, and while under the influence of psychedelics it becomes projected into our perception of the outer world and imbued in our interpretations of events, and even language. Both states are therefore liable to lead to situations where we are confronted with the return of a repressed thought or feeling. When you suddenly recognise that what seems so abhorrent is actually emanating from you then the result is uniquely uncanny. This coincides with Freud’s definition as something ‘which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimisch], which has undergone repression and then returned from it’.[5] What a shame Freud could never have tried LSD – if he had his fascinating essay ‘The Uncanny’ would have read very differently.

In Alice’s dreams the issues which seem to re-occur most often are exactly the sorts of things that you would expect the mind of a nice young girl in Victorian England to be preoccupied with. For example she is continually concerned with being polite and behaving with decorum. Situations reminiscent of the schoolroom are frequent and she is often asked to remember or recite things: ‘“How the creatures order one about, and make one repeat lessons!” thought Alice. “I might just as well be at school at once.”’.[6] The moments in which she is most distressed inevitably involve a failure in one or more of these respects. For example the following can be read as the subconscious processing of an embarrassing experience at school:

“Why did you call him the Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily. “Really you are very dull!”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,” added the Gryphon; and then they both sat silent and looked at poor Alice, who felt ready to sink into the earth.[7]

Equally her mission in Through the Looking Glass to progress to the eighth square and become a queen can be read as an expression of her subconscious desire to grow up and become a woman. The Cheshire cat, her guide in the dream world, can be interpreted as the subconscious projection of her cat Dinah.  Perhaps Freud would argue there is something of an oral fixation in the many references to food and ingestion. No doubt there are countless other ways of interpreting Alice’s dreams, but the point is that everything that happens is the product of her own subconscious. As Nina Auerbach points out ‘Other little girls travelling through fantastic countries, such as George MacDonald’s Princess Irene and L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale ask repeatedly “where am I?” rather than “who am I?” Only Alice turns her eyes inward from the beginning, sensing that the mystery of her surroundings is the mystery of her identity.’[8]

Another example of the curious relationship between drugs, dreams and the subconscious in literature can be found in De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. For De Quincey the ‘pains of opium’, described as an ‘Iliad of woes’, manifested themselves in terrible nightmares.[9] De Quincey is astute enough to connect these nightmares not only with ‘excesses in opium’, but also ‘with my early hardships in London’.[10] He goes on to say that the ‘minutest incidents of childhood, or forgotten scenes of later years, were often revived’ in his dreams, suggesting once more that the experiences encountered in dreams and while under the influence tend to involve the return of repressed traumas.[11] What does it tell us for example that smoking marijuana tends to inhibit our ability to dream, and that breaking a marijuana habit results in a period of particularly vivid and bizarre dreams? Perhaps enough of one outlet can substitute another.

De Quincey also talks of a ‘deap-seated anxiety and funereal melancholy, such as are wholly incommunicable by words’ during this period.[12] This leads me to perhaps the most uncanny aspect of drugs, and particularly psychedelics. Under the influence of hallucinogens our minds make extraordinary connections, and people are able to recall long forgotten pieces of information and slot them into the puzzle. Sometimes this can lead to profound, potentially life changing revelations that can be extraordinarily uplifting; think about the ‘Istigkeit’ in the folds of Huxley’s trousers, or ‘the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence’.[13] But this enhanced ability to draw pieces of information together can also be dangerous:

“If you started in the wrong way,” I said in answer to the investigator’s questions, “everything that happened would be a proof of the conspiracy against you. It would all be self-validating. You couldn’t draw a breath without knowing it was part of the plot.”

“So you think you know where madness lies?”

My answer was a convinced and heartfelt, “Yes.”

“And you couldn’t control it?”

“No I couldn’t control it. If one began with fear and hate as the major premise, one would have to go on to the conclusion.”[14]

Huxley is referring not just to the effects of mescalin but to the nature of schizophrenia. Perhaps there is also something similar in Asperger Syndrome and ‘the need to collect examples and tie them together’.[15] This kind of obsessive thinking, combined with the human desire to find meaning in everything, leads people to find connections where there are none. A paranoid mind will attribute meaning to coincidences so that they seem fated or intended by someone or, depending on the degree of the delusion, even by some kind of cosmic malevolence. Burroughs’ obsession with the number 23 springs to mind:

‘Burroughs started keeping note of coincidences, and found that the number 23 loomed up in many of them: Dutch Schultz, for example, was shot on 23 October. Schultz had earlier had a man named ‘Mad Dog’ Coll murdered, on 23rd Street at the age of 23. Schultz’ own killer was paroled after serving 23 years. It all added up.’[16]

Such coincidences are uncanny because, according to Freud’s conclusion, they seem to ‘confirm the old, discarded beliefs’ about the supernatural.[17] Whereas most of us would recognise this as an odd coincidence, the paranoid or schizophrenic mind becomes so burdened with the weight of evidence that all is needed is the suspicion of ill-will to tip the balance between distinguishing uncanny coincidences from a full blown conspiracy. Taken to its conclusion, as Huxley puts it, and you arrive at Burroughs’ ‘belief that nothing happens until somebody wills it to happen. There are no accidents.’[18] Examples of the uncanny uncertainties of paranoia abound in Burrough’s works:


Disintoxication Notes. Paranoia of early withdrawal…Everyone looks like a drug addict…I don’t check these citizens…Dope peddlers from Aleppo?…Slunk Traffickers from Buenos Aires? Illegal Diamond buyers from Johannesburg?…Slave traders from Somaliland? Collaborators at the very least.’[19]

What is interesting here, and entirely true about the nature of the phenomenon, is that even though Burroughs is aware that he is paranoid, this knowledge is not enough to keep him from concluding that the people in the hospital are ‘Collaborators at the very least’. He has become stuck in a catch 22: to assuage paranoia he thinks rationally, thinking rationally involves building evidence, building evidence while paranoid forms false connections, which in turn lead to terrifying conclusions which are far from rational. It seems that coincidences, paranoia and the uncanny are inextricably linked in ways that are impossible to unravel rationally.

Paranoia often has to do with thinking that other people know what you are thinking, that somehow you are betraying your thoughts and fears through your words and actions. This feeling is intensely heightened by psychedelic drugs which often create the effect of a ‘telepathic rapport’ between people.[20] This relates to ideas about the psychotic episode in psychiatry such as ‘thought broadcasting’.[21] In this kind of state ‘the gaps between, or beneath, words come to seem more important than the words themselves.’[22] Have you ever had a conversation, for example, where it seems that the words on the surface have little consequence and are in fact ‘only standing for (revealing and concealing at the same time) some ‘other’ thing’?[23] The effect is uncanny – we find ourselves in the crux between coincidence and paranoia once again – are we talking about the same thing or is the other person just talking, using terms that relate to what I’m thinking about while I construct all the hidden meaning myself? In The House in Paris, Karen experiences exactly this in the ‘unspoken dialogue’ she perceives between her and Ray:[24]

‘Such dialogue, being circular, has no end. Under silences it can be heard by the heart pursuing its round, and, though it goes on deep down, any phrase from it may swim up to cut the surface of talk when you least expect, like a shark’s fin.’[25]

The simile of the shark’s fin is entirely appropriate for describing the shock (Freudian slip?) we experience when we realise that some other hidden dialogue is being carried out, particularly when, as is often the case when we are forced to circumlocute, the dialogue is of a sensitive or unsettling nature.

Karen describes how her secret dialogue is going on ‘deep down’, and this leads me to think about the relationship between secrecy and depth. When we read deeply into things we are discovering hidden meaning, hidden secrets beneath the surface. Equally we speak about ‘falling’ asleep, into a deep sleep, where the mysteries of our subconscious are laid bare, or at least partially uncovered. How appropriate that Alice falls through a rabbit-hole deep into the earth before her adventures begin. Lewis Carroll was, dare I say it, deeply concerned with the secrecies of communication:

‘Alice thought to herself “Then there’s no use in speaking.” The voices didn’t join in, this time, as she hadn’t spoken, but, to her great surprise, they all thought in chorus (I hope you understand what thinking in chorus means – for I must confess that I don’t), “Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!”’[26]

This is such a curious paragraph that I hardly know what to say/think about it – I’m almost tempted just to let it fill your head with ideas rather like ‘Jabberwocky’ did for Alice.[27] Perhaps the preceding discussion about thought broadcasting may shed some light on what thinking in chorus may mean. What we can say for sure is that in Alice’s dreams, and for people under the influence of psychedelic drugs, the line between private thought and speech becomes blurred. Alice often talks to herself out loud and thinks in quotation marks. Perhaps this is why so many of the characters she meets can read her mind:

‘“A cheap sort of present!” thought Alice. “I’m glad people don’t give birthday-presents like that!” But she did not venture to say it out loud.

“Thinking again?” the Duchess asked, with another dig of her sharp little chin.

“I’ve a right to think,” said Alice sharply, for she was beginning to feel a little worried.’[28]

It’s lucky that Alice had a level head or the whole experience might have overwhelmed her.

The result of this confusion between what somebody says and what they are actually experiencing means that our true feelings are often mise-en-abyme, lost in communication. As Huxley puts it ‘Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences but never experiences themselves.’[29] Psychedelics reveal to us, amongst many other things, the unsuitability of language for the expression of our experiences. They involve an encounter with the incommunicable. When Huxley attempts to explain his revelation under the influence of LSD that love is the ‘primary and fundamental cosmic fact’ he candidly admits that the words ‘have a kind of indecency and must necessarily ring false, seem like twaddle’.[30] Even for a man with extraordinary descriptive powers such as Huxley, the task is too much. This is because the symbol systems we call language have been created for us to survive and describe the world as we perceive it normally, and are entirely inadequate for explaining things as we see them once the doors of perception have been cleansed. We are comfortable to believe that reality is a given and that language can describe it, but this is an illusion. Language is finite, and the finite can never encapsulate the infinite. Man is ‘all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things’.[31]

It seems that thinking about psychedelics and trying to come to rational conclusions about what we call ‘reality’ is rather like trying to define a word using the word itself in the definition. If, in the words of Morpheus, when we talk about reality we are ‘talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.’ [32] If you mess with one then you mess with the other. In other words hallucinogens alter our brain chemistry so that the reality we perceive is fundamentally different. It is incredible to think that every animal perceives the world in a totally different way. Reality for a squirrel is no less ‘real’ than reality for a human, just as reality once the doors of perception have been cleansed is no less real than the reality of everyday life, perhaps even more so Huxley would argue. What a deeply uncanny possibility: ‘Is the heart of the real a realm of madness, hallucination, do we approach most closely to the sense of life when we abandon all hope of understanding or recounting what is going on?’[33]

Let us leave this fairly terrifying notion aside for a moment (lest we lose touch and go spinning out of control) and consider some other ways in which the hallucinatory experience can be uncanny. Psychedelics have the power to transform the outer world – making the familiar unfamiliar – and, even more uncanny, to transform ourselves. The following is an excerpt from Naked Lunch in which Burroughs describes an experience with Ayahuasca (Yage):

Notes from Yage state: Images fall slow and silent like snow…

The room takes on an aspect of Near East whorehouse with blue walls and red tasselled lamps…I feel myself turning into a Negress, the black colour slowly invading my flesh…Convulsions of lust…My legs take on a well rounded Polynesian substance…Everything stirs with a writhing furtive life…The room is Near East, Negro South Pacific, in some familiar place I cannot locate…Yage is space-time travel…The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion…The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian races as yet unconceived and unborn, passes through the body’[34]

Only in a dream or a trip could such transformations take place, and it is uncanny to think that though the ‘blood and substance’ of these bodies must feel foreign for Burroughs, they are part of him. The places seem familiar because he is creating them.

The idea of foreign bodies within us is seminal to the uncanny and something that Burroughs was all too familiar with. In 1939 when studying Egyptian hieroglyphics at the University of Chicago he can remember a voice screaming at him ‘YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!’

‘This occasion was my first clear indication of something in my being that was not me, and not under control. I remember a dream from this period…In the dream I am floating up near the ceiling with a feeling of utter death and despair, and looking down I see my body walking out the door with deadly purpose.’[35]

The feelings of ‘utter death and despair’ are appropriate for describing the uncanny sensation of an outer body experience, something that is also possible with psychedelic drugs. Eventually Burroughs, along with Brion Gysin, developed these feelings into the idea which came to haunt his entire life: that he was possessed by an ‘Ugly Spirit’. Highly reminiscent of Poe’s ‘Imp of the Perverse’, Burroughs concluded that it was this malevolent force within him that shot his wife Joan in Mexico City in 1951:

‘I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice except to write myself out.’[36]

While we may be sceptical of the ‘Ugly Spirit’ theory as an elaborate way for Burroughs to try and make sense of what happened, it nonetheless reminds us of the uncanny truth that no matter how well we think we know ourselves, the mystery of our subconscious ensures that parts of ourselves remain in the dark. It is only in dreams and while tripping, and perhaps psychotherapy, that the frighteningly alien components of our ‘subconscious not-self’ are exposed.[37]

How to conclude? How to say anything without the (paranoid) fear that a Freudian slip might expose my deepest secrets? Is it possible to think the line from both sides at once, I wonder, ‘in a momentary anxiety about whether, having succumbed to this ‘other’ view, one can ever be brought back’.[38]  But then perhaps I’m overthinking things – making connections where there are none. ‘“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”’[39] How to make sense of anything at all while the doubt lingers in the depths of our minds that we may have no more grip on reality than a squirrel? For my part I rather agree with Alice on the matter:

‘“It’s no use talking about it,” Alice said, looking up at the house and pretending it was arguing with her. “I’m not going in it again yet. I know I should have to get through the Looking-glass again – back into the old room – and there’d be an end of all my adventures!”’[40]


  • Aldous Huxley, Moshka: Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience 1931-1963, ed. By Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980)
  • Clark, Ronald William, The Huxleys, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968)
  • Freud, The Uncanny
  • Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1988)
  • Nina Auerbach, ‘Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (September 1973)
  • De Quincey, Confessions of An English Opium Eater, in De Quincey’s Works Vol. I, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1878)
  • Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, (London: Flamingo, 1994)
  • Phil Baker, William S. Burroughs, (London: Reaktion Books, 2010)
  • William Burroughs, Naked Lunch, (London: John Calder, 1964)
  • Essential Psychiatry, ed. Nicholas D.B. Rose (2nd edn, Oxford, 1994)
  • Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris, (London: Cox & Wyman Ltd, 1976)
  • Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1988)
  • William Burroughs, Queer, (New York, 1985)

[1] Aldous Huxley, ‘Downward Transcendence’, in Moshka: Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience 1931-1963, ed. By Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980), pp. 22-25 (p. 24)

[2] Ibid

[3] Clark, Ronald William, The Huxleys, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968)  p. 295.

[4] Aldous Huxley, ‘Drugs that Shape Men’s Minds’, Moshka, pp. 146-156, (p.154)

[5] Freud, The Uncanny, Part II

[6] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1988), p. 144

[7] Ibid p. 130

[8] Nina Auerbach, ‘Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (September 1973), 31-47, (p. 33)

[9] De Quincey, Confessions of An English Opium Eater, in De Quincey’s Works Vol. I, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1878), p. 231

[10] Ibid

[11] De Quincey, p. 259

[12] Ibid

[13] Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, (London: Flamingo, 1994), p. 14

[14] Ibid, p. 38

[15] David Punter, Literature, Addiction, Secrecy, (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2009), p. 11

[16] Phil Baker, William S. Burroughs, (London: Reaktion Books, 2010), p. 158

[17] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, Part III

[18] 1981 interview, Burroughs Live, p.571; cf. 1984 interview, Burroughs Live, p.610

[19] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch, (London: John Calder, 1964), p.62-3 (ellipses partly mine partly Burroughs’)

[20] Aldous Huxley, Letter to J.B. Rhine [Smith 777], 1957, Moshka, p. 132

[21] Essential Psychiatry, ed. Nicholas D.B. Rose (2nd edn, Oxford, 1994), pp. 9, 59

[22] Punter, p. 54

[23] Ibid, p. 38

[24] Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris, (London: Cox & Wyman Ltd, 1976), p. 216

[25] Ibid, p. 218

[26] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1988), p. 44

[27] Ibid, p. 20

[28] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, p. 125

[29] Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception, p. 4

[30] Aldous Huxley, Letter to Dr. Humphry Osmond [Smith 724], 1955, Moshka, p. 81

[31] Ibid, p. 12

[32] Character from the 1999 American science fiction film written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. Morpheus famously says to the protagonist Neo ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.’

[33] Punter, p. 106

[34] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch, p. 112-3

[35] William Burroughs, Queer, (New York, 1985), p.16

[36] William Burroughs, ‘Introduction’ to Queer, p.18

[37] Aldous Huxley, ‘Downward Transcendence’, in Moshka, p. 24

[38] Punter, p. 47

[39] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, p.84

[40] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, p. 23

Frauds or Prophets?


Yesterday I had my tarot cards read at a party. Mystic Magenta suggested that I cut emotional ties with my mother and go travelling. She said that avenues are beginning to spring up in front of me, and that I am blossoming spiritually. All very pertinent I thought.

Predictably the prevailing opinion at the Bembridge party was that Magenta’s waffling generalisations were bound to have some relevance for every listener, no matter their position in life. We’ve all read horoscopes that confidently assure us that ‘this week you will face an important decision’, or ‘this month you will meet someone who will change your life’. I meet someone who changes my life every month, and I make an important decision every time I have breakfast (tea or coffee?).

While carefully withholding any final judgement I tried to explain to the sceptics that just because many seers and psychics are undoubtedly charlatans, we needn’t tar the whole phenomenon with the same brush. As is so often the case I have only just realised what I ought to have said a day later.

I ought to have said that her prophesies should be considered independently of her authenticity. In other words she could be full of crap and yet her advice could still be useful.

Now this may seem paradoxical, but it’s quite true that the value of her advice actually has nothing to do with whether or not she saw into my destiny or whether she merely aired airy vagaries and vague compliments whilst I nodded, accommodating her nonsense. Either way her words struck a chord, resonated with me. And that’s all that matters really.

My father often says that he’s always wanted a beard so that people will listen to his advice. But as all parents will confirm, with or without beard wisdom, however profound, is useless until experience has forced it upon the individual. It is one of life’s little ironies. You can warn a young teenager till you’re blue in the face not to drink too much at parties but the chances are they won’t pay you the slightest bit of notice until they drink too much at a party. Then suddenly they are all ears. Even the most prudent individual can at best ‘take advice’; they can only really understand it retrospectively.

Effectively this means that all the wisdom we are ready to hear is already latent within our own breast. All that is required for it to crystallise into consciousness is the right experience. And this, I believe, is exactly what happened when I listened to Magenta. I really can’t see that it makes any difference how she came to say what she said as long as her words triggered a self-realisation. And they did.

Now you may have absolutely no interest in tarot cards, and presumably no interest in my destiny either, but consider the fact that my point really extends to all of life. In Samuel Johnson’s philosophical masterpiece Rasselas, the protagonist prince is snapped out of his sulk when he overhears ‘a maid, who had broken a porcelain cup, remark that what cannot be repaired is not to be regretted.’ – the 18th century equivalent of ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’ (tea or coffee).

The expression has a profound effect on Rasselas, precisely because it pops into his consciousness at a time when his own experience coheres with what he hears, both reinforcing the same message. Otherwise the words would have remained parlour maid chatter. Remembering Magenta for a moment, does the fact that the maid intended the words as a casual throwaway take anything away from the truth of Rasselas’s realisation? Not a drop (truth is like water).

Off the back of this coincidental wisdom Rasselas goes on to consider ‘how many useful hints are obtained by chance’: have we not each and every one of us had a similar experience of overhearing a trivial conversation and relating it to some pressing issue in one’s own life?

I was once directed into an exhibition about Winston Churchill in New York and stood in awe as I interpreted layer upon layer of hidden messages about the state of the world and my place in it. Every panel, every video, even the behaviour of the people in the room related in uncannily minute detail the story of my life, the war on consciousness,* and my possible future in this world. And the instant I arrived at this conclusion a passing tour guide seemed to confirm it by describing how ‘Churchill often used analogy in his speeches as they created greater conviction in the listener’, and that he ‘chose each word carefully to get the message just right.’ This, I convinced myself, was clinching proof that the exhibition was indeed a carefully constructed analogy.

Now I could debate the personal significance of this exhibition in my head for a year (I have), just as you can argue about mysticism and tarot card readings for hours (we did). Similarly, and I am particularly addressing the dope smokers out there, you can deliberate as to whether an overheard conversation snippet was intended for your ears or if it was merely a coincidence amplified by paranoia. If I have learnt anything this year it’s that all three are a waste of time. You will never know for sure, and obsessively looping the same questions round your head can lead to much torment and mental strife.

The funny thing is that the answers don’t even matter. It doesn’t matter whether Bertie was talking about you or not, it doesn’t make a difference whether tarot card readers are frauds or prophets, and it won’t affect my actions one bit whether the Churchill exhibition was an analogy or a delusion. The bottom line is that for one reason or another, your attention has been grabbed. If you felt something stir then the world is trying to tell you something. Or in fact (they are really the same thing), you are trying to tell yourself something. The wisdom latent in your breast is trying to burst into consciousness. So stop agonising about the cause, and pay attention.

If we can truly integrate this, then all paranoia, delusional or otherwise, becomes a wake-up call, a chance to realise something important about oneself. Moreover, as a wise man recently assured me, this is actually going on all the time. The world is constantly feeding us just the right experiences we need to trigger the understanding we are ready for, if only we knew how to listen. The Churchill exhibition was an extreme example, a hyper-attentive eureka moment, but if we can learn to tune in to the world around then we will find that it is actually guiding us every moment of our lives.

As my grandfather once put it, there is a benevolent force in the world, which will take care of us if only we will co-operate with it.

Sadly my grandfather is the exception, and most of us remain deaf and blind to the wisdom the world imparts. Hidden away in the dark prison of our self-made reality and bound by the manacles of our self-absorbed abstractions we struggle to understand the light that occasionally breaks in through the window. ‘How often the mind,’ Rasselas muses, ‘hurried by her own ardour to distant views, neglects the truths that lie open before her.’