Britain's moving story

New studies of names and genes are confounding core beliefs about being British. We are unadventurou

We like to believe that we live in a fair, meritocratic society that encourages geographical and social mobility. Politicians - from left and right - take it for granted that ability and effort will usually be rewarded, that the coal miner's clever daughter will be allowed to be a lawyer if she wants and that the millworker's artistic son will have the chance to become a landscape gardener. Similarly, it is assumed our citizens will always be able to travel and move around the country to take up new careers and opportunities. Yet recent research on the movement of families around the country suggests that such notions are misguided. Our society is far more rigid and unyielding than we suppose. The British way of life is not one of unfettered freedom of movement but is marked by the fact that most people stay put and remain near their families - unless forced to travel. These points are vividly demonstrated by the example of the village of Guisborough in North Yorkshire.

Guisborough has little claim to fame. A pleasant dormitory suburb of Middlesbrough, it is marked by modest affluence and the ruins of a nearby 12th-century priory.

There is one odd feature about the village, however: an unexpectedly large number of surnames that clearly have no connection with north-east England. Names like Magot, Tregonning and Laity are found in the town and in the surrounding countryside. These families turn out, as you might guess from the names, to be Cornish in origin.

Nor is Guisborough alone in having this unexpected south-western connection. The nearby village of Skinningrove does, too, as do several other outlying villages and suburbs around Middlesbrough. Here you will find Curnows, Treloars, Tre mains, Trembaths and Oldses mixing with names such as Hodgson, Robson, Stephenson, Hutchinson and Atkinson that are more typical of the area.

But why? How did these Cornish people end up in north-east England in such numbers? And, more to the point, what does their presence there signify today? These questions have intriguing answers I discovered while researching my book Face of Britain, an examination of how modern technologies - DNA analyses and computer databases - are transforming our understanding of Britain's past. Indeed, those Cornish names, and the current social status of the families that bear them, can tell us much about the state of the nation today, in particular about the idea that we live in a just, meritocratic society.

First, let's look at the reason for those Cornish names on Teesside. Their appearance is the result of the collapse of tin mining in Cornwall in the 19th century. Faced with starvation, families moved en masse to north-east England so that they could take up jobs in the one industry to which they were accustomed: mining. But instead of hewing tin ore from the Great Polgooth and other pits, they came to Teesside to dig coal to fuel the industrial revolution that was then taking its grip of the area. Given that few miners then lived beyond the age of 30 - thanks to dust-induced diseases such as phthisis - the migration demonstrates how desperate their circumstances must have been.

The Cornish-Middlesbrough link thus gives us a poignant insight into 19th- and early 20th-century life. That we can plot it so precisely is thanks to the work of Professor Paul Longley, whose team at University College London has created a database of nearly 26,000 British surnames that is now being used to analyse British population changes. The surnames in this database appeared in the Great Britain census of 1881 as well as on the 1998 electoral register, and their distribution is displayed on a map of the British Isles that anyone with a computer and a broadband connection can now access.

People stay put

Simply log on to www.spatial-literacy.org and key in a surname. You will then be presented with a colour-coded map showing the distribution across Britain in 1881 and in 1998 of any name that appeared in the 1998 electoral register more than 100 times. Attenborough produces a purple region of highest concentration around Nottingham; Sykes around Huddersfield; Widdicombe around Torquay and Plymouth; Ramsbottom in south Lancashire; Pettigrew around Kilmar nock; and McKie in the south-west tip of Scotland. Then, if you put in some of those Cornish names - such as Tregon ning, Curnow and Olds - you can see the result: a purple patch for each name in Cornwall, and an intriguing yellow splodge, which indicates a modest level for the name's frequency, around Teesside.

However, the research undertaken by Longley and his colleagues contains a great deal more than surnames and their geographical distribution. The researchers have also studied indicators and details of economic and social status based upon type of neighbourhood, as suggested by postcode. Other factors, including property values, educational attainment, employment levels, financial data and health statistics, have also been included in their analyses.

And when this information is applied to the descendants of the Cornish mining families, who had lived a life of grim poverty in the 19th century, it becomes clear they fared little better in relative terms in their new home town of Middlesbrough in the 20th century. Many of them, according to Longley, still live in poor housing and some are on social benefits. Educational standards are low and they lack professional qualifications. The passage of more than a century has produced no change to their lot. The past hundred years may have brought general improvements to health and education, but the descendants of those Cornish migrants remain in low socio-economic groups. "The Cornish families of Teesside are just one example," says Longley. "Getting out of the rut is harder than we might believe."

One problem is that we are blinded by stories of startling individual success: the Charles Dickenses of our Victorian past who rose from poverty to achieve wealth. We conclude that society is fluid and fair, particularly to enterprising migrants. In fact, cases such as that of Dickens are the exception. The norm is social immobility, a point you will be persuaded of if you compare the two maps produced by Longley's database - the ones for 1881 and 1998.

If you flick between the two maps for most names, you see the spread of families from a specific heartland to other areas of the country. Thus you might be inclined to conclude that Longley and his colleagues have demonstrated the flexibility and geographical mobility of British people during the past century. In fact, that is not what is being displayed. If we compare the two sets of maps, the old and the new, the really striking aspect is that the original pockets of surnames on 1881 maps remain exactly where they are on the maps of 1998. So, yes, some people move on, but a greater number stay put.

"What we see most in the 1998 maps is just a blurring of surname hot spots as a few people head off and start up lives somewhere else," says Longley. "The real surprise for us was the extent to which people appear to stay where they are. Moving on to a new life in a new location is too traumatic for most people and so they stay where they are, getting on with their lives much as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did before them." Therefore, the idea that we are increasingly socially mobile may be a myth. Journalists and academics may move about the country but most people stay put.

That is the real lesson from these new studies: that the nature of British society has changed far less than we previously supposed. Indeed, many scientists now believe that most of the genes of the British people today can be traced back to the very first people who settled on the land more than 12,000 years ago. We may have some added Viking blood or Anglo-Saxon genes but deep under our skin, most of us are still Stone Age hunters. Similarly, Longley's research shows that our social structure is rather inflexible and resistant to change. Movement to the top is a slow business.

Loyal wives

Although the lack of mobility of the average Briton may appear depressing, our attachment to place has thrown up other, more satisfying findings. One recent programme of research revealed that British women are marked by their startling fidelity. This was shown by studying the Y chromosomes of British men. This bundle of DNA confers masculinity and is passed on, like a surname, from father to son. Professor Mark Jobling of Leicester University has found that if you compare surnames with Y chromosomes, you get a surprising match. Discounting common names such as Smith, Jobling found that two men with the same surname, chosen at random, had a 50 per cent chance of also having the same Y chromosome.

Thus all these distinctive pedigrees across the country - the Attenboroughs, Pettigrews, McKies and Ramsbottoms - that stretch back into the 13th and 14th centuries to the days when surnames were created still carry the genetic signature of their creators. Dozens of generations are involved in these pedigrees, it should be stressed, yet any one would have been broken by a single act of infidelity by a woman over all those centuries. (Infidelity by a father would have no effect on the genes of his family, but if a mother had had a lover who impregnated her with a male child, the link between the family Y chromosome and the family name would have been severed for that boy and for all his male offspring. Some scientists have a special name for this phenomenon. They call it "male introgression into the surname pool". The rest of us know it as cuckoldry.) Yet this does not seem to have happened in the vast majority of families studied by experts. Bryan Sykes, the Oxford geneticist, sees the trend as clear evidence of the faithful nature of British women. "We see very, very little of this in the British Isles," says Sykes. "These genetics studies suggest the illegitimacy rate in this country is less than 1 per cent."

That is a controversial finding. Past levels of illegitimacy, in terms of children not conceived by their assumed fathers, have been estimated at more than 5 per cent in Britain. "Our work flatly contradicts those figures," says Sykes. "In fact, family life in Britain has been a lot more stable and trusting than it has been given credit for."

"Face of Britain" by Robin McKie is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). The accompanying television series is scheduled for March

Do-It-yourself

Who? Log on to http://www.spatial-literacy.org and type in your surname.

What? A map will show you the distribution of your name around the country according to the 1998 electoral register.

Where? Go to the 1881 map to see the distribution of your family name at the time of that year's census.

Why? That's the interesting question. Why, for example, did the Blairs move south? Why did the Becketts hardly move at all? Did the Tebbits never need to get on their bikes? And what was the Hattersley link with the Highlands after 1881?

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge