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The end of nature’s mystery

Michael Barrett, a leading research scientist, spends his days stripping life down to its chemical c

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. He then spent six days knocking together everything upon earth: millions of living species and even more now extinct ones. Yet it is not easy for biologists to believe in God the Creator; 50 years of extreme reductionism have removed much of nature’s mystery. We know all about the genetic code, and how the chemical composition of DNA can be translated into the panoply of proteins that shape cells and drive the chemical reactivity that defines each species. My job involves stripping tiny microscopic parasites down to their bare chemical components, which I compare to those of mammalian cells. I seek subtle differences that could allow us to construct molecules that interfere with parasite, but not human, chemistry. These experiments, we hope, will lead to the formulation of new drugs in our fight against disease.

Spending one’s time deconstructing life to its chemical components does, however, lead one to ask just what it is. If I took each and every chemical that comprises a cell and mixed them together, I would create nothing more than a chemical goo. There are, of course, organising principles that make life far more than the sum of its chemical parts. For some, an intelligent

designer could do this. Elsewhere, a relatively young discipline called systems biology aims to combine knowledge of the cellular chemical parts list with high-power computation to try to identify whether those organising principles themselves are no more than a mathematical consequence of self-assembled parts and time.

So far, for all our posturing, no one has come close to creating a living organism from a non-living, “abiotic” start. Craig Venter, famed for his profit-driven efforts to sequence the human genome, is making much fanfare about his attempts to “create” a new life form. In reality, however, all Venter is aiming to do is add a new, synthesised, genetic blueprint to a preorganised cellular system. This is an extreme version of the genetic engineering of microbes that has been going on for several decades now.

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he conspicuously evaded an explanation of man’s position in the evolutionary tree. He also failed to touch on just how the whole thing got going. Naturally, he did have thoughts on the subject. “But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, &c. present, that a proteine [sic] compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes,” he wrote to his friend the botanist Joseph Hooker in 1871.

By the early 20th century the great British geneticist J B S Haldane had transmuted Darwin’s “warm little pond” into the so-called “primordial soup theory”, evoking a watery planet, warm and rich in gaseous chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. In 1953, the American Stanley Miller tried to

re-create such a primordial soup in the laboratory. He set up a series of test tubes containing water, many of the proposed gases and a supply of electric sparks to mimic the lightning-charged atmosphere of early earth. Remarkably, those simple gases were easily converted into some of the basic organic chemicals typically found in living organisms. Miller’s success led to the hope that it would be only a matter of time before simple biochemicals could be turned into the more complex molecular strings characteristic of living cells today. But decades of ever more sophisticated experimentation have failed to yield significant advances.

Proponents of the “abiotic” origin of life point out that the four to five billion years of earth history is rather longer than the 56 years since Miller’s experiment. Some scientists believe that life could have evolved anywhere in the universe and then been carried on comets from solar system to solar system, from planet to planet. Such astrobiological origins would lead to a vastly increased probability that conditions suitable to spark life were met somewhere.

As a biochemist, I retain faith in the notion that life evolved through spontaneous chemical reactivity. One theory points to life emerging during the Hadean Aeon in the hot depths of the ocean. This era covers the first half-billion or so years of Planet Earth’s history, when volcanic matter was constantly spewing up through the ocean floor, heating water and causing an extraordinary mix of chemical constituents. The problem with this idea, however, is that the molecules forming in such conditions diffuse throughout the ocean, so diluting them to negligible levels.

The British geologist Mike Russell and Bill Martin, an American evolutionary biologist, adapted the so-called iron-sulphur world theory to try to lead us from simple chemical reactions to entities recognisable as living cells. Iron-sulphur complexes are among the best chemical catalysts that we know today, and iron and sulphur are abundant in volcanic exhalations. Many of the proteins (called enzymes) that catalyse the reactions of cellular life today use little iron-sulphur clusters, buried deep within their structures.

According to Russell and Martin, iron-sulphur deposits within tiny cavities in Hadean rocks (think, for example, of the holes in pumice stone – only smaller) could have catalysed the for­mation of a multitude of biochemicals. In the enclosed environment of those cavities, these chemicals could accumulate. Some molecules can actually catalyse their own production. Many evolutionary biologists today believe that some time after the first chemical burst, the emergence of so-called ribonucleic acids (RNAs) provided a huge expansion in self-replicating and, critically, mutating chemistry. Today, we know that RNA can fold in ways to drive its own assembly, and to catalyse the formation of other molecular configurations as well. Complex novel chemicals could emerge. Among these would be the structures we know as lipids, which are capable of forming self-sealing membrane bags. These lipid bounded bags could then free the chemical reaction chambers from their rocky confines. The first free living cells would be born. The processes of Darwinian evolution would then select those that were able to survive and replicate the best.

The individual steps of Russell and Martin’s theory are feasible. But did they happen? Obviously it is difficult to obtain definitive proof for events that occurred billions of years ago. So we have to accept that many of the steps in this, and other origin theories, as is often said, “could happen given enough time and the right conditions”. Divine interventionists can rightly argue that the abiotic, chemical view is no more proven than the existence of their omnipotent Creator.

The unrelenting deconstruction of life’s mysteries to their chemical bare bones, however, leaves me believing that we really are no more than a bag of chemicals; our oldest ancestors no more than a string of self-assembling molecular building blocks; our very consciousness nothing more than the output of a chemically driven series of electrical impulses, selected ultimately, perhaps, to ensure the propagation of a seminal chemical reaction.

Michael Barrett is professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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