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Richard Dawkins: The tyranny of the discontinuous mind

The New Statesman guest editor's Christmas issue essay.

What percentage of the British population lives below the poverty line? When I call that a silly question, a question that doesn’t deserve an answer, I’m not being callous or unfeeling about poverty. I care very much if children starve or pensioners shiver with cold. My objection – and this is just one of many examples – is to the very idea of a line: a gratuitously manufactured discontinuity in a continuous reality.

Who decides how poor is poor enough to qualify as below the ‘poverty line’? What is to stop us moving the line and thereby changing the score? Poverty/wealth is a continuously distributed quantity, which might be measured as, say, income per week. Why throw away most of the information by splitting a continuous variable into two discontinuous categories: above and below the ‘line’? How many of us lie below the stupidity line? How many runners exceed the fast line? How many Oxford undergraduates lie above the first class line?

Yes, we in universities do it too. Examination performance, like most measures of human ability or achievement, is a continuous variable, whose frequency distribution is bell-shaped. Yet British universities insist on publishing a class list, in which a minority of students receive first class degrees, rather a lot obtain seconds (sometimes subdivided into upper and lower seconds), and a few get thirds. That might make sense if the distribution had three or four peaks with deep valleys in between, but it doesn’t. Anybody who has ever marked an exam knows that the bottom of one class is separated from the top of the class below by a small fraction of the distance that separates it from the top of its own class. This fact alone points to a deep unfairness in the system of discontinuous classification.

Examiners go to great trouble to assign a score, perhaps out of 100, to each exam script. Scripts are double or even triple marked by different examiners, who may then argue the nuances of whether an answer deserves 55 or 52 marks. Marks are scrupulously added up, normalised, transformed, juggled and fought over. The final marks that emerge, and the rank orders of students, are as richly informative as conscientious examiners can achieve. But then what happens to all that richness of information? Most of it is thrown away, in reckless disregard for all the labour and nuanced deliberation and adjusting that went into the great addition sum. The students are bundled into three or four discrete classes, and that is all the information that penetrates outside the examiners’ room.

Cambridge mathematicians, as one might expect, finesse the discontinuity and leak the rank order. It became informally known that Jacob Bronowski was the “Senior Wrangler” of his year, Bertrand Russell the Seventh Wrangler of his year and so on. At other universities, too, tutors’ testimonials may say things like, “Not only did she get a first: I can tell you in confidence that the examiners ranked her number 3 of her entire class of 106 in the university.” That is the kind of information that really counts in a letter of recommendation. And it is that very information that is wantonly thrown away in the officially published class list.

Perhaps such wastage of information is inevitable: a necessary evil. I don’t want to make too much of it. What is more serious is that there are some educators – dare I say especially in non-scientific subjects – who fool themselves into believing that there is a kind of Platonic ideal called the ‘First Class Mind’ or ‘Alpha Mind’: a qualitatively distinct category, as distinct as female is from male, or sheep from goat. This is an extreme form of what I am calling the discontinuous mind. It can probably be traced to the ‘essentialism’ of Plato – one of the most pernicious ideas in all history.

For legal purposes, say in deciding who can vote in elections, we need to draw a line between adult and non-adult. We may dispute the rival merits of eighteen versus twenty-one or sixteen, but everybody accepts that there has to be a line, and the line must be a birthday. Few would deny that some 15-year-olds are better qualified to vote than some 40-year-olds. But we recoil from the voting equivalent of a driving test, so we accept the age line as a necessary evil. But perhaps there are other examples where we should be less willing to do so. Are there cases where the tyranny of the discontinuous mind leads to real harm: cases where we should actively rebel against it? Yes.

There are those who cannot distinguish a 16-cell embryo from a baby. They call abortion murder, and feel righteously justified in committing real murder against a doctor – a thinking, feeling, sentient adult, with a loving family to mourn him. The discontinuous mind is blind to intermediates. An embryo is either human or it isn’t. Everything is this or that, yes or no, black or white. But reality isn’t like that.

For purposes of legal clarity, just as the eighteenth birthday is defined as the moment of getting the vote, it may be necessary to draw a line at some arbitrary moment in embryonic development after which abortion is prohibited. But personhood doesn’t spring into existence at any one moment: it matures gradually, and it goes on maturing through childhood and beyond.

To the discontinuous mind, an entity either is a person or is not. The discontinuous mind cannot grasp the idea of half a person, or three quarters of a person. Some absolutists go right back to conception as the moment when the person comes into existence – the instant the soul is injected – so all abortion is murder by definition. The Catholic Doctrine of the Faith entitled Donum Vitae says:

From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence . . . modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, the program is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life . . .

It is amusing to tease such absolutists by confronting them with a pair of identical twins (they split after fertilisation, of course) and asking which twin got the soul, which twin is the non-person: the zombie. A puerile taunt? Maybe. But it hits home because the belief that it destroys is puerile, and ignorant.

“It would never be made human if it were not human already.” Really? Are you serious? Nothing can become something if it is not that something already? Is an acorn an oak tree? Is a hurricane the barely perceptible zephyr that seeds it? Would you apply your doctrine to evolution too? Do you suppose there was a moment in evolutionary history when a non-person gave birth to the first person?

If a time machine could serve up to you your 200 million greats grandfather, you would eat him with sauce tartare and a slice of lemon. He was a fish. Yet you are connected to him by an unbroken line of intermediate ancestors, every one of whom belonged to the same species as its parents and its children.

“I’ve danced with a man who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales”, as the song goes. I could mate with a woman, who could mate with a man, who could mate with a woman who . . . after a sufficient number of steps into the past . . . could mate with ancestral fish, and produce fertile offspring. To invoke our time machine again, you probably could not mate with Australopithecus (at least not produce fertile offspring) but you are connected to Australopithecus by an unbroken chain of intermediates who could interbreed with their neighbours in the chain every step of the way. And the chain goes on backwards, unbroken, to that Devonian fish and beyond. On the way, about six million years into the past, we would encounter the ancestor we share with modern chimpanzees. It so happens that the intermediates, like the common ancestor itself, are all extinct. But for that (perhaps fortunate) fact, we would be connected to modern chimpanzees by an unbroken chain of intermarrying links. Not just intermarrying but interbreeding – producing fertile offspring. There would be no clear separation between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. The only way to maintain our human-privileging laws and morals would be to set up courts to decide whether particular individuals could ‘pass for human’, like the ludicrous courts with which apartheid South Africa decided who could ‘pass for white’.

And of course the argument extends to any pair of species you care to name. But for the extinction of the intermediates which connect humans to the ancestor we share with pigs (it pursued its shrew-like existence 85 million years ago in the shadow of the dinosaurs), and but for the extinction of the intermediates that connect the same ancestor to modern pigs, there would be no clear separation between Homo sapiens and Sus scrofa. You could breed with X who could breed with Y who could breed with ( . . . fill in several thousand intermediates . . .) who could produce fertile offspring by mating with a sow.

Humans are clearly separable from chimpanzees and pigs and fish and lemons only because the intermediates that would otherwise link them in interbreeding chains happen to be extinct. This is not to deny that we are different from other species. We certainly are different and the differences are important – important enough to justify eating them (vegetables are our cousins too). But it is a reason for scepticism of any philosophy or theology (or morality or jurisprudence or politics) that treats humanness, or personhood, as some kind of essentialist absolute, which you either definitely have or definitely don’t have. If your theology tells you that humans should receive special respect and moral privilege as the only species that possesses a soul, you have to face up to the awkward question of when, in human evolution, the first ensouled baby was born. Was it when the first Homo sapiens baby was born to parents belonging to whatever species is considered to be our immediate predecessor (erectus, ergaster, heidelbergensis, rhodesiensis, no matter, the argument stands regardless)? There was no such baby! There never was a ‘first’ Homo sapiens. It is only the discontinuous mind that insists on drawing a hard and fast line between a species and the ancestral species that birthed it. Evolutionary change is gradual: there never was a line, never a line between any species and its evolutionary precursor.

In a few cases the intermediates have failed to go extinct, and the discontinuous mind really is faced with the problem in stark reality. Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) and lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) breed in mixed colonies in Western Europe and don’t interbreed. This defines them as good, separate species. But if you travel in a westerly direction around the northern hemisphere and sample the gulls as you go, you find that the local gulls vary from the light grey of the herring gull, getting gradually darker as you progress around the north pole, until eventually, when you go all the way round to Western Europe again, they have darkened so far that they ‘become’ lesser black-backed gulls. What’s more, the neighbouring populations interbreed with each other all the way around the ring, even though the ends of the ring, the two species we see in Britain, don’t interbreed. Are they distinct species or not? Only those tyrannised by the discontinuous mind feel obliged to answer that question. If it were not for the accidental extinction of evolutionary intermediates, every species would be linked to every other by interbreeding chains.

Where else do we see the tyranny of the discontinuous mind? Colin Powell and Barack Obama are described as black. They do have black ancestors, but they also have white ancestors, so why don’t we call them white? The complication in this case is the weird convention that the descriptor ‘black’ behaves as the cultural equivalent of a genetic dominant. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, crossed wrinkled and smooth peas and the offspring were all smooth: smoothness is ‘dominant’. When a white person breeds with a black person the child is of intermediate colour but is labelled ‘black’: the cultural label is transmitted down the generations like a dominant gene, and this persists even to cases where, say, only one out of eight great grandparents was black and it may not show in skin colour at all. It is the racist ‘contamination metaphor’ of the ‘touch of the tarbrush’. Our language is ill-equipped to deal with a continuum of intermediates. Just as people must lie below or above the poverty ‘line’, so we classify people as ‘black’ even if they are in fact intermediate. When an official form invites us to tick a ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ box I recommend crossing it out and writing ‘human’.

In US presidential elections every state (except New Mexico) has to end up labelled either Democrat or Republican, no matter how evenly divided the voters in that state might be. Each state sends to the Electoral College a number of delegates which is proportional to the population of the state. So far so good. But the discontinuous mind insists that all the delegates from a given state have to vote the same way. This ‘winner take all’ system was shown up in all its fatuousness in the 2000 election when there was a dead heat in Florida. Al Gore and George Bush received the same number of votes as each other, the tiny, disputed difference being well within the margin of error. Florida sends 25 delegates to the Electoral College. The Supreme Court was asked to decide which candidate should receive all 25 votes (and therefore the presidency). Since it was a dead heat, it might have seemed reasonable to allot 13 votes to one candidate and 12 to the other. It would have made no difference whether Bush or Gore received the 13 votes: either way Gore would have been president.

I am not saying the Supreme Court should actually have split the Florida delegates. They had to abide by the rules, no matter how idiotic. I would say that, given the lamentable constitutional rule that the 25 votes had to be bound together as a one-party block, natural justice should have led the court to allocate the 25 votes to the candidate who would have won the election if the Florida delegates had been divided pro rata, namely Gore. But that is not the point I am making here. My point here is that the winner-take-all idea of an electoral college in which each state has an indivisible block of members, either all Democrat or all Republican no matter how close the vote, is a shockingly undemocratic manifestation of the tyranny of the discontinuous mind. Why is it so hard to admit that there are intermediates, as New Mexico uniquely does? Most states are not ‘red’ or ‘blue’ but a complex mixture.

Scientists are called upon by governments, by courts of law, and by the public at large, to give a definite, absolute, yes-or-no answer to important questions, for example questions of risk. Whether it’s a new medicine, a new weedkiller, a new power station or a new airliner, the scientific ‘expert’ is peremptorily asked: Is it safe? Answer the question! Yes or no? Vainly the scientist tries to explain that safety and risk are not absolutes. Some things are safer than others, and nothing is perfectly safe. There is a sliding scale of intermediates and probabilities, not hard-and-fast discontinuities between safe and unsafe. That is another story and I have run out of space.

But I hope I have said enough to suggest that the summary demand for an absolute yes-or-no answer, so beloved of journalists, politicians and finger-wagging, hectoring lawyers, is yet another unreasonable expression of a kind of tyranny, the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.

Alison McGovern
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Forget universal basic income - this is how we can include voters in economic growth

The links between economic growth of the country and that of the people, families and towns have broken. The state can fix them again. 

Economic policy is always boring, until it’s too late.

Pensions. How they are funded, who they cover, what happens if they fail. Boring. Until it was too late.

Mortgages. Who has them, who needs one, who should have one. Boring. Until it was too late.

Finance. Capital markets, their products, their structure, their risk profile. Boring. Until it was too late.

You see the point I’m making. It’s easy to look away from numbers. The data doesn’t necessarily tell us an obvious story. And then one day, a catalyst sparks an unforeseen, if, with hindsight, predictable event, and we all wonder why we didn’t see it coming.

Something similar happened with the Brexit vote. Of course, it was a perfect political storm: an overconfident Prime Minister calls a referendum that he only needs to have to pay off his right flank, safe in the knowledge that the mainstream voters and the leadership of the Labour party will carry him through. Except he forgets that there is someone more despised than even his right flank - him. 

But beneath all of that, the Brexit vote revealed a divided country. Between those who felt that Britain as it was before the referendum offered them a decent enough – if imperfect - future, and those who felt it offered them nothing of the sort. 

Could we have seen it coming? Perhaps we could. Take two graphs.

Real wages are still, today, on average below what they were in 2008, nearly a decade ago. At the point of the referendum, average wages were yet to return to the level they hit eight years earlier. The difference between real and nominal wages is inflation. People have watched prices steadily drift up while their wages have remained stubbornly flat. Not an overnight shock, but a long drawn out crisis all the same.

Vast numbers of pensioners (over 60 per cent of them) voted to leave the European Union, and pensioners incomes have not seen the same fall as incomes for the working age population (in fact they rose by 19 per cent in real terms in the last 10 years). But it is important not to overinterpret the data with hindsight. After all, there are nearly 32m British people of working age. That surely should have been enough to carry the vote, had far too many people had so little reason to back the status quo.

In the years running up to the crucial Brexit vote, the economy was, by and large, moving ahead. But in the case of the most crucial, most noticeable, economic transfer - a person’s wages - the economy was not moving ahead at all. In fact between the crash and the 2015 general election, wages largely only fell, and since then, pay has struggled to make up ground, against a picture of an otherwise ‘growing’ economy.

Worst of all - nearly 4m households in measurable (and therefore known) poverty include someone at work. Of the 17m Brexit voters, some were wealthy retired voters who always hated Brussels. But how many more simply had too little to lose, and couldn’t stand David Cameron?

The problem with all this though, and the reason we didn’t see it coming, is that no one’s life is a graph. I mean, we are all data points. But no one feels like a data point. And people are notoriously bad at providing logical, graph-like, mathematical reasons for their political judgements. "My individual wages have failed to keep pace with growth in the economy at large," said no person on no doorstep, ever. Unhappiness with what is on offer manifests itself in lots of different ways but it isn’t likely to be an analysis of the macro-economy.

We all know of course that people are much more likely to connect with politics (and politicians) emotionally. That is how we make our choices. But our emotions are informed by the facts of our life and are responses to the facts we see. So, whilst the graphs above cannot tell us all we need to know about why Remain lost, they do tell us about some facts likely to impact on the choices we make.

The challenge is to work out how we can change the trends shown on the graph, and how this in turn will affect those who lost out over the past decade. What can be done to repair the link between economic growth and economic growth for all?

This challenge is to create "inclusive growth". Or as I think of it, making sure there is a hard chain which links growth in the economy overall to the growth of wages and incomes of the many. When the country rises, so must all within it.

The hard links in the chain are what should have kept our country together. They are the rules that should have meant that the British economy doing better meant individuals, families, towns, cities all doing better too. You can see from the graphs above that the rules worked between 1997 and about 2005. Our country grew, and we all grew in capacity with it. But then the model stopped working. And 11 years later people were asked to vote for the status quo, even though the status quo was clearly failing the many.

We will never be able to see the trends until it is too late. We need rules that shape our markets, including the labour market, to achieve an outcome that people can see and feel in their pockets. Analysis of the past is only any good if it can help shape the future. 

It’s not enough to say that somehow our economy is rigged against people, as if this was one great fiddle. Rather, we should remember that policy choices have consequences. 

Now some people suggest that the correct response to falling wages, and precarious work, is some sort of universal benefit, or citizens’ income. But recent Fabian Society research demonstrated that the vast majority of people – about 80 per cent - feel positive about their work even despite the story told here about wages. So even if it were practical for government to raise taxes in order to transfer something in the region of the state pension to every person in our country, it hardly seems like it would be popular. 

If people, in general terms, actually like their work, the problem is then making sure they get paid enough and get promotions. It means recognising what the past decade has taught us: that the growth of the economy must mean economic growth for all within the economy, or else there will be consequences.

So, the question remains: what are the hard links in the chain between the economic growth of the country as a whole, and economic growth of the people, families and towns within it?

Unfortunately, this is where the boring stuff still matters. You can get paid more if you have better prospects. That means a buoyant labour market, and the skills to participate in it.

Now the government say that they are addressing the challenges in our economy by investing in infrastructure, through an industrial strategy. And along with buzzy new ideas like universal basic income (where citizens are guaranteed a certain income), everyone in politics loves announcing campaigns for new railway lines (me included). Trains are big, fast, expensive and showy. But travelling to work by train tends to be the preserve of those who already have a high-skilled job and are commuting some distance. We should worry a little more about those who get the bus to work.

Then take those who work in low-pay sectors like care, retail, hospitality, or construction. Each sector has its own challenges, but one thing that unites of all these sectors is the likelihood of people working in them to be working below their potential skill level. Hopefully our new metro mayors will be able to provide better education opportunities for those at or near the minimum wage. But what about in those areas without mayors? Do they fall even further behind? Skills transfers matter much more for future growth than a massive financial transfer like universal basic income.

And in case anyone should think that I have forgotten, with less than 15 per cent of people in the private sector represented by a trade union, it is little wonder that workers have insufficient power to command better wages. Our labour market leaves too many people on their own, without the strength of collective bargaining to get them a good deal.

Universal basic income fails for another crucial reason. It would fail for the same reason that tax credits were economically effective but open to political challenge. For most people, the part of government, of the state, that they wish to defend are the things they can see, they can touch, emotionally engage with. The hospital their child was born in, that cared for a sick parent, the school they went to, the park they played in with their grandchild. They prefer to earn their wages, and do a job they enjoy. Transfer payments from the state are always harder to defend, as the history books attest. 

So for me, truly inclusive growth means making the most of the institutions we already have – colleges of further education for example – and building new ones like universal quality childcare. Many members of our workforce are prevented from returning to work after the birth of a child, simply because of the cost of childcare. Universal free childcare would allow many more women to go back to work or have the time to gain more skills, should they want to. Moreover, good quality childcare would benefit all of our children by narrowing the attainment gap. These hard links in the chain - the links that ensure that growth in Britain involves economic growth of all of those people and places within it - are, in fact, the institutions of the state. 

These are the platforms Labour governments have built for ordinary people to stand on. But these are the very institutions under attack from current government policy. If we’re going to rebuild the chain, then the government must change tack. We need to develop new ideas and solutions and the all-party parliamentary group on inclusive growth can be a place to bring people together across the party divide. Theresa May has spoken about an economy that works for all. Now’s the time to protect the institutions that can deliver that economy and inclusive growth, before it is too late.

The APPG on Inclusive Growth's 'State of the Debate' event with the OECD, World Economic Forum, RSA and IPPR is on Tuesday 21st February at 6.30pm at Parliament. See www.inclusivegrowth.co.uk for full details.

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.