Latin summer

Four recommendations from an array of Latin American dance, music and culture on its way to the UK.

Over the next two months, Britain will play host to a variety of Latin American performers. Ballet dancers, platinum selling artists and Lucha Libre stars will jet over the Atlantic for your entertainment, most of them for one night only. Performers from all over the continent are set to play in London and elsewhere - the summer of 2011, it would seem, is a Latin one.

Things culminate with the annual Carnival del Pueblo in Burgess Park, south London, in August, as well as the CASA Latin American Theatre Festival in October.

To make things easier, here are four artists that come highly recommended:

Juan Luis Guerra

The giant of Latin American music is yet to appear in the UK. Despite selling thirty million albums worldwide, winning two Grammy awards and fifteen Latin Grammys for good measure, this week's performance will be Juan Luis Guerra's first in London.

The Dominican giant's sound is a product of his birthplace and he only ever composes songs himself. Initially using the rhythms of merengue and bachata, he struck out in all directions folding in salsa, son, Latin pop and even recording mash ups with African artists like Congo's Diblo. The artist himself describes his music as 'full of energy [...] romantic, danceable and made for reflection'.

When we spoke to Juan Luis Guerra he raved about his debut in the country of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. As well as playing to an English crowd for the first time in his twenty-five year long career, he is looking forward to having a pint of ale in a proper English pub, followed by a session in Abbey Road studios.

Asked whether he was concerned about the British and their two left feet, he replied that the 'Latin Americans in the audience will take care of them', and that even in Japan last year he found an unlikely community of bachata aficionados (so much so that he wrote a song about it ).

Como No will be hosting Juan Luis Guerra y 4.40 on Wednesday 22 June at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo. Tickets can be bought from the HMV call centre, on 0843 221 0100. They are also available from Ticketmaster twenty-four hour Ticketline, on 08448 44 47 48. Visit www.ticketmaster.co.uk for further details. Doors 6.45pm

Carlos Acosta

Carlos Acosta is one of the most recognized Latin Americans in London. Haling from Cuba, he won a string of international awards before he joined the Royal Ballet in 1998 and became a Principal in 2003.

The rags to leotard story goes that Acosta was a young rebel who danced to Michael Jackson on the streets of La Habana. Then, at thirteen, he saw a Cuban Ballet performance that would focus in his mind his future profession.

Nowadays he is known for being able to pull of that leap, and for choreographing increasingly biographical work. This year's offering, Premieres Plus, features new creations and collaborations with renowned international dancers and musicians. The pieces have been devised by Acosta, combining his classical training with more contemporary styles.

It has been reworked from the 2010 project of the same name and will be performed in three separate venues. Collaborating with dancers from Rambert Dance Company, Ballet Boyz graduates and an overwhelming number of other international movers, this is one not to be missed.

Carlos Acosta will be performing at the London Coliseum from 27 - 30 July. He will be at The Lowry, Salford Quays, Manchester, on 24 and 25 July and Birmingham Hippodrome from 18-20 August.

Calle 13

Calle 13 is much more than just a band. They are poets, satirists, political activists even, whose unique sound has far surpassed the reggaetón scene they were associated with in the past. They combine Latin American folk music, Afro-beat, ska, polka, salsa with blunt political messages that have earned them the reputation of being some of the most innovative music makers going.

The group is made up of the fraternal Calle 13 ('kai-yay tray-say'), René Pérez Joglar (Residente), and Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (Visitante). The trio's music is a call to action: a torrent of passionate rants about anger, political disillusionment, and international inequality. That said, the obnoxious base line and beats behind each song means that for every crowd there is a floor-filler, whatever their musical bent.

Calle 13 is renowned for giving infectious, raucous concerts, captivating audiences with the range and quality of their music. With an eleven-piece band behind them, this promises to be a powerful, witty and memorable show.

Calle 13 will be hosted by Como No in association with the Barbican, and will be performing at the Hackney Empire on Saturday 8 July 2011. Tickets can be bought from the Box Office 0845 120 7550 www.barbican.org.uk/blaze. Doors 8pm - 2am.

Lucha Future

Recent comments from BBC TV's Top Gear presenters regarding Mexico and its people have been responded to by the stars of Mexico's finest, Lucha Future. The legendary Queen of the Ring, Cassandro, has challenged Clarkson, Hammond and May to a bout in the ring at London's Roundhouse, "If they want to know what Mexico is really like, I'll let them know in five minutes flat".

Lucha Future will see luchadores like Blue Demon Jr., El Paso's lip-locking Cassandro and the acrobatic Magno run, fly and muscle their way across a London ring this week.

Bursting with heroism and villainy, the masked athletes clad in leotards and latex will be putting the hurt on each other, with feats of agility (and slapstick) that the perma-mulleted WWF fights of the past could not even hope to emulate.

To add yet more spice to the mix live music will be served up courtesy of Tijuana's Bostich & Fussible (Nortec Collective) and their Mexican gumbo of Norteño, electronica and techno.

Lucha Future will be on at the Roundhouse, Camden from Friday 24 June - Sunday 26 June. They will also be at The Sage, Gateshead, on 28 June, and Brighton Dome on 2 July.

Mark Maughan writes for Candela magazine

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times