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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.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.