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Accidents of life

Darwinian theory was the best idea of all time, but why did it take so long to evolve? And what if w

If you have overdosed on Darwin this anniversary year, the great man himself is partly to blame: he was inconsiderate enough to publish On the Origin of Species when he was exactly 50. The resulting coincidence of sesquicen­tennial with bicentennial was bound to excite the anniversary-tuned antennae of journalists and publishers. Anniversaries are arbitrary, of course, dependent on the accident of our having ten fingers. If we had evolved with eight instead, we would have to suffer centenaries after only 64 (decimal) years, and style gurus would prate about the changing fashions of octaves instead of decades.

Incidentally, it is not far-fetched that we might have evolved a different number of fingers. The pentadactyl limb (five digits on each) has become a shibboleth of vertebrate zoology, and even animals such as horses (which walk on their middle fingers and toes) or cows (two digits per limb) have lost the extra digits from a five-fingered ancestor. But the lungfish-like group of Devonian fishes from which all land vertebrates are descended included species with seven (Ichthyostega) or eight (Acanthos­tega) digits per limb. If we were descended from Acanthostega, instead of from an unsung five-fingered cousin of the same fish, who knows what feats of virtuosity pianists might now perform with 16 fingers? And would computers have been invented earlier, because hexadecimal arithmetic translates more readily than decimal into binary?

Historical accidents of this sort are rife, contrasting with the illusion of good design to provide some of our most convincing evidence that evolution happened. Sometimes the legacy of history goes beyond arbitrary accidents, and spills over into downright poor design. The vertebrate retina is installed backwards, facing away from the light, which perforce has to pass through a carpet of nerves on their way to the "blind spot" where they dive through the retina, bound for the brain. In spite of this we see tolerably well, because natural selection is good at cleaning up after its bodges. But an engineer who produced such a travesty of design would be fired instantly. The retina is a legacy of remote history.

For whatever reason lost in some Devonian swamp, our ancestors evolved with ten fingers. And that is why Darwin was exactly half a century old when he published the book that set us on the path to understanding the whole of life - its diversity, complexity, beauty, compelling illusion of design, and every detail such as why we have the eyes, fingers and toes that we do.

Mysterious gap

But why did Darwin wait until he was 50 before publishing his great idea (the best idea anyone has ever had, according to the distinguished philosopher Daniel Dennett)? The idea of natural selection came to Darwin more than two decades earlier, in 1838. He wrote out a pencil sketch of it in 1842, then a fuller version in 1844, which he asked his wife Emma to publish if he should die. Then nothing: the mysterious gap. If you were a young man of 30, in possession of the best idea anyone had ever had, would you sit on it until you were 50?

When Darwin eventually did write On the Origin of Species, he was jolted into it by another travelling naturalist, Alfred Wallace, who had the same brilliant idea in 1858. Again in an accident of history, Wallace, who was recovering from a malarial fever on the Indonesian island of Ternate, chose to send his manuscript to - of all people - Charles Darwin.

A potential priority dispute was averted by the gentlemanly behaviour of both protagonists and the smooth diplomacy of Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker. These elder statesmen of science arranged for Wallace's and Darwin's papers to be read, in their absence, at the Linnean Society in London in 1858, where the great idea fell completely flat and was ignored by all. We remember Darwin more than Wallace because he wrote the book, published in 1859, which fell anything but flat and revolutionised our world for ever.

Hypotheses to explain Darwin's delay range from "He didn't want to upset his pious wife" to "He wanted to get all his ducks in a row before the shooting began", and there may be truth in both. But I remain mystified by the larger question of why humanity as a whole waited until the 19th century. On the face of it, any one of Newton's achievements - optics, gravity, the laws of motion, the differential and integral calculus - seem more difficult, yet Newton's annus mirabilis pre-dated Darwin by nearly two centuries. The proof of Pythagoras's Theorem, and others of Euclid's elegant compendium, pre-date Darwin by more than two millennia.

Once again, Darwin's achievement doesn't seem all that difficult. Why did it elude Aristotle? And everybody else - great philosophers, mathematicians, anatomists, thinkers and achievers of all kinds down the centuries? Why did this simple but staggeringly powerful idea have to wait until the middle of the 19th century before bursting into our consciousness through the medium of two Victorian naturalists? And why, even today, do so many people have difficulty grasping it?

So, what is this best of all ideas, the idea of evolution by natural selection? It is really the principle of the sieve, multiplied a billionfold and applied cumulatively over billions of years. Every generation is a gene sieve (Darwin didn't put it this way, because he didn't know about genes). The genes that fall through the sieve are the minority that drop through from the current generation to the next. In order to do so, the individuals possessing them have to reproduce. And in order to reproduce, they have to survive. Surviving is difficult. There are predators waiting to pounce, diseases waiting to strike. Incompetence takes its toll in missed footfalls or unheeded signals of danger.

Reproduction, too, is an obstacle course. The individual has to find a mate, woo her with alluring feathers or smells, fight off rivals with talons or antlers, feed the young and protect them from marauders. In any generation, only a minority of individuals will become long-term ancestors. The vast majority of animals that ever lived have no surviving descendants. And the genes that jostle and jockey for position in every generation are the genes that, without a single, solitary exception, have passed through the bodies of an ancestral elite, the tiny minority who managed to become ancestors.

The genes that exist are the genes that made it through a million sieves in cumulative cascade. And what was it that made them do so well? They co-operated, through the intricate processes of embryology, with other successful genes to build an unbroken succession of elite individuals, equipped by them to become ancestors. That is why the qualities of the elite are the qualities inherited by every animal and plant: because existence is tough, and competition sorted out the ancestors from the failures

An arms race

The exact equipment for survival varies from species to species, for there are many ways to survive: streamlined wings, in the case of swallows; powerful flukes in whales and spades in moles; bewildering camouflage and mimicry in insects; shimmering tail feathers in birds of paradise. All these are the outward and visible levers that propel the genes that made them through the sieves of the generations. And, to complicate matters, the survival techniques of each species open windows of opportunity for others to exploit, as Darwin recognised.

Wherever you see elaborate and complicated machinery in a living body, it is usually the end product of an arms race, run in evolutionary time, each side accumulating improved equipment to outdo the other - an arms race between predators and prey, between parasites and hosts, even between males and females of the same species.

The modern theory of evolution by natural selection can be expressed mathematically, in a calculus of changing gene frequencies. Darwin was no mathematician and he knew nothing of genetics, but he had the essence of this great and simple idea, and he expressed it with the luminous clarity of one of the greatest minds ever to emerge from the process of evolution that he discovered.

Richard Dawkins FRS was the first Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. His latest book is “The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution" (Bantam Press, £20)

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism