Rewilding: Who are we to dictate what species live where?

The idea of “rewilding” the environment with depleted species seems sound. But, warns John Burnside, we mustn’t manipulate the world — which wasn’t built around us — just to suit our impractical fantasies.

 
Unnatural instinct: some of our ideas about wildlife conservation are as absurd as putting a stuffed deer in a concrete jungle
Photo: JFB/The Image Bank/Getty Images
 
In the western Swiss town of Saint-Léonard there is an underground lake, 300 metres long and 20 metres wide, a chill, black reach of primeval water (the air temperature a constant 15°, the water cold enough to freeze in winter) that stands in stark contrast to the warm, mineral-rich vineyards 70 metres overhead, where Pinot Noir and Cornalin du Valais grapes are raised on the valley slopes to produce the Saint-Léonard appellation wines that remain one of Europe’s best-kept culinary secrets. For many years, the lac souterrain was also a secret; known only to the fungus gnats that bind their larvae to the walls of its cave, it remained unexplored until the 1940s, when it was first opened up to the public. Today, it is run as a commercial tourist attraction, with the usual gift shop and café, the cave illuminated discreetly from end to end to reveal the various features – incidental marks in the stone roof resembling a witch, a gorilla and various other creatures, including a fairly credible sea lion with a beach ball poised precariously on its nose – that are pointed out by the gondoliers who punt around 80,000 tourists a year back and forth across the enchanted waters, doling out jokes and geological data and singing snatches of opera and other songs.
 
One of the lieder that recurs throughout the 40-minute visit is Schubert’s “Die Forelle”, sung wordlessly, but rather tunefully, by the gondolier who piloted my boat – and, soon enough, the reason for this choice is explained. Those fungus gnats may be the only living species native to this lake, but in the black depths, moving slowly and, for the most part, invisibly between the lit grottoes and the darkest water, waves of huge trout glide back and forth, waiting to be fed.
 
Introduced some years ago, they have grown large and, it would seem, prosperous in this alien habitat; though by the time the guide announces their presence with a longer phrase from “Die Forelle”, while tossing them the only food they will ever eat, I am wondering if anyone else on the tour boat shares my sense of irony. It’s a mixed group and several of them recognise the Schubert and hum along; most are German speakers, and may well have grown up with the song or the poem (by Christian Schubart) on which it is based, so I imagine someone else here remembers the images of brightness and clarity that run through the text, beginning with its invocation of “einem Bächlein helle” (“a bright little stream”) and continuing with a description of “Des muntern Fischleins Bade/Im klaren Bächlein zu” (“the cheery fish’s bath/in the clear brook”), the only hint of darkness coming when a treacherous fisherman deliberately muddies the water (“macht/Das Bächlein tückisch trübe”) and so captures the disoriented and temporarily blinded fish. 
 
In this poem, the trout’s fate is poignant, not just because it is caught and killed, but also because it is cheated of its natural element, which is as much light as it is water. Granted, the darkness in which these subterranean lake trout dwell is hardly the worst environmental sin that anyone has ever committed (in fact, it is clear that the guides are rather fond of their charges); nevertheless, there is no small irony in gaily singing this particular song to fish that have been plunged, like prisoners in some medieval dungeon, into a condition of unchanging murk, bewildered, lightless, and as strange to themselves as they are to the world into which they were spawned.
 
On the other hand, I may just be overreacting. As a child, I was consumed with a near-obsessive curiosity about what the world felt like for other creatures. How did the moles in our neighbour’s garden experience the bottles he buried over their runs to catch the wind, and so fill their domain with eerie howls and whimpers? What was the poisoned mouse thinking when it crawled into the corner of our kitchen to die, much more slowly than I had been led to believe, the horrified, intrigued child huddled over it, unable to take the decisive step of “putting it out of its misery”? I had been told about that duty we human beings had to other animals: if they were suffering, we had to be capable of plucking damaged songbirds from the grass and necking them as we walked, just as I’d seen an older cousin do, without a moment’s pause. Yet it always seemed odd to me that we did not visit similar mercies on our own kind. If it was wrong for animals to suffer needlessly, why was it right for people? The implied explanation for that, of course, was that human suffering is never needless: we are put on earth to be divinely tested and redeemed (which, to my seven-year-old self, seemed particularly cruel and just a little perverse, considering God had created the world and everything in it, sinners included. Why hadn’t He just made us virtuous and happy, and saved everyone a whole heap of bother?).
 
Theology aside, other contradictions remained: if we were to show mercy to animals at the hour of their death, who was it that gave us licence to be so very vile to them while they lived? And why were we so incurious about their ways of seeing and knowing the world? In my first year of high school, a teacher read us the story where Leonardo da Vinci goes to the market each day and buys up all the caged songbirds just so he can set them free, but all of us, pupils and teacher alike, knew that, two classrooms away, the biology lab was full of caged mice and frogs, some, if not all of them, waiting to be dissected.
 
When I was obliged to perform that experiment, I remember being puzzled that nothing in the internal workings of the animal seemed to relate, in any way, to how it experienced the world: these now-diminished bodies were mechanisms for respiration and excretion, furred bundles of kidney and liver and heart, the brain ignored, the possibility of a soul passed over or denied. I was painfully disappointed because, though I could not have put it into so many words then, I wanted to catch a glimpse of myself through another animal’s eyes, to imagine the confusion or delight I might occasion when I walked home through the woods each afternoon, a strange cloud of scent and movement to a passing bird, or a hunting fox, and I wanted to feel the kinship that might arise out of the knowledge that, like the other creatures with whom I shared my part of the world, I lived inside a web of signs that could, by some magical transformation in my own nature, become legible: wet musks suspended in a hedge, trails of pheromone streaking across a dew-sodden lawn, dialects of song in the hawthorn bushes along Oakley Road.
 
Meanwhile, in geography class, I learned why this state of awareness was unavailable to me. There was no critique then of modern agricultural methods and the many “improvements” in farming and land management that my parents’ and grandparents’ generations had witnessed, but even as a child I felt, rather than understood, the harm done: whole, complex terrains cleared on one continent in order to create vast monocultures of crops from another; the buffalo of the Great Plains, with the grasses they fed upon, eradicated by cattle and railways; swaths of Kenya, or Brazil, denatured by the introduction of coffee or rubber; local farmers and hunter-gatherer communities across the world ruined to create golf resorts and hunting trails for the ultra-rich. This cavalier attitude to the supposedly God-given world was not confined to foreign parts; as I came to learn, the entirety of Scotland, from John O’Groats to Gretna Green, had been rendered fiercely non-native, for entirely commercial reasons: first, with the enclosure of land for sheep, the rural population displaced to Australia and Wyoming (where many visited the very tragedy they had suffered upon native peoples), and then with the introduction of grouse and pheasant to land that had once been Caledonian forest.
 
Whenever any of this was acknowledged as mildly unfortunate, my teachers quickly pointed out that it was inevitable: after all, no one could stand in the way of progress, and to imagine otherwise was naive, or sentimental – and so we progressed, to rampant deforestation, the acidification of the oceans, a depletion of the soil that is now, to any sane person, terrifying, and an alienation from other life forms that, in spite of a constant diet of educational nature documentaries, allows us to contemplate wholesale species depletion and extinction with something only just short of equanimity.
 
To my child self – and to the angry and bewildered adult I became – the only explanation for that placid compliance with somebody else’s progress was a fatal insistence on human entitlement to the land and the sea and all that dwells therein. To preserve that sense of entitlement, we erected a complex web of superstitions and misinformation about the natural world comparable, say, with those erected by whites in regard to native people and slaves, because the gravest threat to that cavalier sense of entitlement is our own curiosity about the other, and the consequent shame of eventually understanding, and being unable to reverse, the harm we have done – not to the other, but to what we once felt more comfortable describing as our own souls.
 
In 1913, Gertrude Stein penned the now celebrated line: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” It is an appealing idea: no matter what symbolism or significance we impose upon the natural world, it remains itself, intact and indifferent to our representations, to what one might call our schematics. A rose is a rose is a rose; it is not a symbol of romantic love, or beauty – or Rosa moyesii var fargesii. It exists before, and independently of, its name, or our perceptions. Stein’s is an attractive, if rather blithe proposition – but the truth is, because human beings are so powerful, so ready and able to manipulate other living things, the independence of the rose per se from its nomenclature, or from any other aspect of our perception of it, is moot. In metaphysical terms, a rose may well be entirely separate from its name or imposed significances, but in the physical world, how human beings see a living creature may, quite literally, determine its fate. So, while there is something wonderful about Stein’s New World assertion of the rights of the rose to be itself and apart from us (and there is a truth here, too, at the level of more than the simple law of identity), for a more complex appreciation of how perception influences its object, and the possible damage that can ensue, we must turn to a prose poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, written in French towards the end of his life (while he was living 30 kilometres or so from Saint-Léonard’s underground lake), a few years after Stein’s first (though not final) assertion of essential roseness. What follows is my own rough version of that poem, published as “Cimetière” in Exercises et Évidences:
 
Is there an aftertaste of life in these graves? And do the bees find in the mouths of these flowers an almost-word that is silent? O flowers, prisoners of our instinct for happiness, do you return to us with death in your veins? How to slip free from our hold? How not to be our flowers? Might not all these petals be the way a rose distances itself from our gaze? Does it not want to be rose and only rose, a rose that is nothing but rose? Nobody’s dream under so many eyelids?
 
As attractive as it is, the idea that nature can exist beyond our dangerous “instinct for happiness” is never the whole story. We may be prepared to stand and wonder, we may be capable of respect for other lives, but we are just as likely to dissect, or genetically modify, or patent the natural world as we are to revere it. More likely, perhaps. Rilke’s question, here, is not about the nature of the rose, but about the nature and power of our perceptions – or rather, the unwarranted power we grant ourselves when we name things, the widespread notion that, once a living thing has been named, or categorised, or genetically decoded, it belongs to us, ours to do with as we please.
 
Clearly, some changes in that proprietorial view of the world as “resource” and “natural assets” have been slowly and painfully formulated over the past four decades and, with this gradual shift in attitude, new ways have emerged of imagining our relationship to what we think of as “nature” (an entity from which, it seems, we still feel at least partly exempt). With each step of the way, new concepts have been introduced, only to turn into buzzwords and finally, as the business world sensed the coming danger, either “obvious fallacies” or interchangeable items on the PR greenwashing menu. To combat this constant threat of appropriation, the ecology movement has had to keep moving all the time, reformulating, reimagining, redefining – and now, as the supposedly new term “rewilding” transmogrifies from great idea to cliché before our eyes, we have a chance to observe the machinery at work.
 
In eco-critical thought, rewilding is not a new idea – it emerged partly from the establishment of national park initiatives in various countries, in a number of different guises – but it has certainly become more inventive and even radical in the past several years. The Florida-based Wildlands Network, for instance, exists to support and encourage those who are “urgently restoring, protecting and connecting our best wild places throughout North America because people need nature, and nature needs space to survive”.
 
I, for one, rather baulk at the word “best” here, but the project itself is hugely deserving of support and it would be good to see more networks of this sort in place elsewhere, perhaps with more ambitious agendas regarding land ownership and use. Other “rewilding” projects concentrate on specific animals and habitats, such as the recent and so far highly successful reintroduction of hairy-nosed wombats into a 105-hectare eucalyptus forest in Queensland, or the RSPB’s longstanding project to bring white-tailed/sea eagles back to the UK – and it has to be said that only the most miserable of cynics would not be cheered by such schemes: any initiative that helps to reverse even a little of the damage done so far should be applauded.
 
If we are not careful, however, we might well end up patting ourselves on the back for achieving what amounts to yet another series of manipulations of other species and the environment we supposedly share, while maintaining the proprietorial status quo. We may succeed in reintroducing wombats or sea eagles to places that have lost them, but at the back of our minds Rilke’s ghost may still be asking the same, possibly eternal, questions: are they our sea eagles? Are they our hairy-nosed wombats? If they are, then they depend on our goodwill for their survival, so we can easily predict what will happen to them if they even hint at interfering with some local worthy’s commercial interests. In the past six years, the RSPB’s sea eagle project has chalked up an advance with the establishment of a new population on the east coast of Scotland – yet even as that story was released, concern was being expressed about the future of these birds, whose survival is threatened by many of the same hazards that caused them to vanish from our shores in the first place (the last British white-tailed eagle was shot in 1918). As the naturalist Stephen Moss pointed out on BBC Nature this spring, a range of factors threatens the long-term establishment of sea eagles in the UK, from “collision with power lines and vehicles to the continued use of poisoned bait by some land managers on the mainland which, although illegal, is still widespread”.
 
This is an important point: rewilding projects at present depend on the goodwill of “local communities”. (As the Guardian noted in its coverage of the wombat story, the creatures’ new home is “part of a cattle property, owned by the Underwood family, near St George in southern inland Queensland. The Underwood family donated the land to the government for the wombats to live in. It was an unusual partnership between a farming family and the government, but one that is working, because of the family’s interest in wombats.”) Although I would be the first to argue that the mere existence of the likes of the Underwoods – and other such families worldwide – is cause for celebration, this approach to rewilding does raise the same island-enclave questions with which classic conservationism has been plagued for centuries now.
 
Under certain circumstances, it may well be possible to introduce protected areas of “wild” in an otherwise hostile world, but this should be only the first step in an overall process of deep change and expansion. As the Oxford University biologist Clive Hambler notes, “Reintroducing species to ranges they have been driven from in historical times is a key conservation tool. It’s particularly important to reintroduce species which are ‘ecological engineers’ – such as burrowing wombats, because the way they change the physical landscape benefits so many other species.”
 
This clearly points to rewilding as a step in a larger transformative process – and perhaps the most interesting development in the concept over the past 30 years has been the recognition that there is an alternative to managed, local rewilding based on possibly temporary or grudging goodwill. If some researchers are to be believed, the most successful examples of this alternative may be found in the most surprising places. 
 
Chernobyl, for example. For some time now, reports emerging from this supposed dead zone have suggested that almost everything ecologists predicted after the 1986 meltdown has failed to happen. Indeed, as far as the wildlife around the old nuclear plant is concerned, things could not be better. When researchers from Texas Tech came to the area to study the dynamics of a radioactive wasteland and the damage done to local ecosystems, they were amazed to find a kind of modern-day Eden that, in spite of the high radiation count, was lush, diverse and swarming with animal, bird and insect life. There were several reasons for this happy accident. One member of the study team (Ron Chesser, a radiation biologist) pointed out that “proximity to the reactor has very little to do with how much radiation dose an organism is experiencing. You can come to the reactor from the east and actually not experience a huge change in the radiation background. However, if you approach it from the west . . . you’ll see a very dramatic increase in radiation background.”
 
Nevertheless, the evidence of natural abundance was astonishing; indeed, Robert Baker, the director of Texas Tech’s Natural Science Research Laboratory, has described the 20-mile exclusion zones in glowing terms (no pun intended). “The countryside is beautiful,” he said. “The animals and plants are in greater numbers now than if the reactor had not gone down. The ecosystem is as it was before humans started living out there – except for the radiation.
 
“It seems as though normal human activities associated with agrarian society are more destructive than the world’s worst nuclear meltdown.” So – could it be that, to save the world from ourselves, we need not one, but many Chernobyls?
 
Well, not as such; though there are those who, like Susanne Posel, the chief editor of OccupyCorporatism, think that this is what the powers that be have begun to envisage. “It may be quite possible that the global elite may be willing to allow current nuclear plants to continue to deteriorate and become hazardous because they provide the means by which conservation lands could be established,” she says. “By using their globalist think-tank universities and controlled arsenal of scientists, the radioactive effects could be amplified in the public’s perception, simply as a ruse to keep humans off the land. If this scheme were successful, eventually there could be massive areas of land deemed uninhabitable for humans across the globe simply by allowing a nuclear disaster to occur.”
 
I see no reason to be blasé about such suspicions – if US policy in Iraq has taught us anything, it is that governments are prepared to contemplate the virtual destruction of significant human populations in their pursuit of resources. However, setting aside such justifiable fears for a moment, I do think we can learn a good deal from the Chernobyl example. For, with all the goodwill and local initiative in the world, we are not about to rewild anything until we change our way of thinking about our place in the creaturely world. We will not be in a position to rewild, or even preserve what is left of what we now think of as wild, until we can picture ourselves as wilder and more of a whole with other creatures.
 
As Robinson Jeffers suggests in the 1938 poem “Carmel Point”, we must learn to “unhumanize our views a little, and become confident/As the rock and ocean that we were made from”. If it is to become an important force, “to rewild” will have to mean not merely the reintroduction of attractive, “useful” or symbolic species to designated stretches of terrain, or the setting aside of conservation islands and post-meltdown nuclear sites, but an unhumanised reconsideration of what we mean by “wild” – and, to my mind, such a reconsideration would be purely academic if it did not contain a revaluation of the wild as truly indispensable, more vital in every sense to the overall narrative of this world than any and all human wishes and appetites.
 
Legend has it that Rilke, whose love of roses informs his oeuvre from beginning to end, died from complications following a wound he got by pricking his arm on a thorn while gathering a bouquet of roses for the great Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui. On one level, this seems a cruel irony, yet I cannot help feeling that Rilke might have seen it otherwise – and the inscription on his grave may even bear this notion out.
 
A variant on the final lines of “Cimetière” it reads: “Rose, o reiner Widerspruch, Lust,/ Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter so viel Lidern” (very roughly: “Rose, o pure/sheer contradiction, passion/delight/inclination, no one’s sleep under so many eyelids”). Surely, if we accept the legend, we must also accept that no other epitaph so honours the instrument of the deceased’s passing. Death is a death is a death is a death, but legend, at its best, transcends contingency to reveal the allegorical details we lost sight of centuries ago. In that light, might we not see Rilke’s death and transfiguration as a kind of symbolic rewilding, in which the roses he set out to collect were no longer his, and so no longer endangered by an all too humanised instinct for happiness?
 
John Burnside regularly writes about nature for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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