A traditional reedcutter at work on the Norfolk Broads. Photograph: Getty Images
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The frisson of autumn on the Norfolk Broads

A reminder is that we share a habitat and a common experience with other creatures.

Mid-autumn, just before our boat goes into dry dock for the winter, has a special frisson on the Norfolk Broads. The reeds begin to bleach and reflect the sunsets, so that for a while the water appears to glow brighter as the dusk closes in. The last migrants leaving for Africa cross with the first arriving from the tundra, the swallow flying under the goose. This week the local kingfishers have reappeared, darting between moored-up cruisers and skin-diving between their hulls. We’ve seen otters close to for the first time, one rolling right in front of the boat with a huge bream in its paws.

But the rain and cold that have permeated 2012 are still casting shadows on all species that depend on the sun. Flying insects, the birds that eat them, the raptors that prey on the insectivorous birds have gone into guerrilla mode; hiding out in remote, sheltered redoubts, working unsociable hours, keeping= silent to conserve energy. It’s happening below the radar of most of us and just how much damage has been done won’t be known until the year’s records are analysed. It’s unlikely to be good news.

Does it matter either way? Short of outright extinction, is the fraying and fragmentation of species of any real consequence to us? The government seemed to think so when it set out its
 green agenda and acknowledged that biodiversity was essential to the earth’s survival and what it liked to call “quality of life” (ours, that is). Now, this commitment has gone the way of all its other green pledges. In the past few months the government has junked the advice of two of its own scientific advisory committees. The biologically absurd and culturally objectionable badger cull has been given the go-ahead (albeit delayed until next year). Incontestable evidence that neo-nicotinoid insecticides are one of the causes of the collapse of bee populations has not made a dent in Defra’s support for them.

Now Defra has asked the Law Commission to rationalise wildlife protection laws in the UK. Not a bad idea, perhaps, given the piecemeal way they’ve accumulated over the past hundred years. An updating would provide an opportunity to bring legislation into line with new ecological threats, and with our new understanding of the crucial importance of wild species to the earth as a whole. But this is not what the Law Commission has in mind at all. The first duty of wildlife law, it has put on record, is to “provide the framework within which wildlife can be controlled, so that it does not interfere with the conduct of human activity” – a principle that is equivalent to saying that the prime object of child protection laws is to ensure the wretched infants don’t get in the way of their parents’ career opportunities. The commission concedes that the law should protect individual animals from harm, but only if that harm is “above a permitted level”.

It’s not clear if these barbarous, commodifying guidelines were dumped on the commission by Defra. They certainly sit snugly with the government’s social and economic project. But they may equally show the UK legal establishment returning to its default position on wildlife. The status of a wild organism in common law is as potential property. While it is free and alive, it belongs to everybody, or, more correctly, to nobody. But by being “rendered into possession” – the legal euphemism for killing or capturing – it is turned into goods, the property of the owner of the land on which it’s taken. The notion of wildlife as part of the family silver – private inheritance more than common heritage – melds seamlessly into the idea of it as disposable nuisance, and many early protection laws carried an exception clause concerning “interference with legitimate human activity”. But this is the first occasion when the exception has been made the guiding principle.

As a principle for legislation it’s not only irrelevant but actively hostile to the conservation of our archipelago’s biodiversity, as well as offensive to anyone who regards living organisms as more than entries on a cost-benefit ledger. The problem is that we don’t have an agreed alternative scale for the “value of species”. That clunking, portmanteau term “biodiversity” doesn’t help. Like “natural capital” it’s an intruder from corporate-speak, defining species as commodities, whose numbers can be simply and demonstrably totted up. By this crude index a perilously rare species barricaded in a nature reserve counts equally with an ocean-wide phytoplankton fuelling an entire ecosystem. They’re both just ticks in a box, a place where the trader meets the twitcher.

Nor is our current attitude towards nature’s “usefulness” (the implicit opposite of the Law Commission’s “interference with the conduct of human activity”) remotely appropriate. By
useful, we mean useful to us – and visibly so. We may have grudgingly admitted pollinating insects into the realms of the utilitarian but not the predators that attack the parasites of the pollinators. We allow agricultural fungicides to leach into the groundwater and collaterally damage a “useless” (and probably unlovely) tree-root fungal symbiote and wonder why hedgerow oaks are withering . . .

The interdependence of species is far too complex for us to make crass and anthropomorphic judgements about what is and what isn’t “useful”.

In September a huge fin whale beached on the East Anglian coast at Shingle Street. It was thin and in distress and eventually died, despite Herculean efforts to get it back into the water. For a few days it became a kind of shrine, while the authorities worked out what to do with it. People flocked to the beach to see the sinuous carcass with its prodigious maw. They came out of a sense of wonder, or morbid curiosity, or simple melancholy. A great leviathan had lost its way and become embarrassingly dead meat. In the end utilitarianism triumphed.
The whale was carted off on a lowloader to a processing plant, where its blubber was rendered down for biofuel.

Were those of us who thought it would have been more fitting to bury the body on the shore guilty of sentimentality as well as serious impracticality? This is not a “conservation of biodiversity” issue: the loss of one fin whale is neither here nor there. But the fate of its remains nags us with another challenge: how we conserve the meaning of wildlife – which may underpin our so far feeble attempts to save it physically.

I’d like to argue that we should respect wild organisms for their own sake, because they’re here. But I’m aware that this is a philosophical conceit and that “their own sake” is really code for “my own sake” – or at least my aesthetic and moral satisfaction. The philosopher Edward L McCord’s book The Value of Species tries to find a compromise. He argues that “individual species are of such intellectual moment – so interesting in their own right – that they rise above other values and merit enduring human embrace.” This raises utilitarianism to an intellectual level but for me still fails to do justice to the sheer breadth of the experience of living in a world alongside other species.

Gliding west at last light on the Broads, the answer often seems self-evident. In October the pinkfeet geese return from Iceland. The great scrolls of birds unwind across the sky so high up that they make yet another plane of colour, their bellies lit pink by the sun long after it has sunk out of sight. But they’re not remote in any other sense. The ebb and flow of their chatter, the calligraphy, the waving scribbles of birds (“taking a line for a fly”, to misquote Paul Klee) speaks plainly about the company of one’s kind on great journeys.

The Broads are full of such moments. The spring duets of cranes, segued trumpetings that can carry half a mile and which are couched in a minor third, an interval found in every musical culture on earth. Swallowtail butterflies folding their wings to fly through raised sails. A strange aquatic plant called hornwort, which on very hot days, in a few unpolluted pools, fizzes with so much transpired oxygen that the stems “jiffle” against each other and sing like Aeolian harps.

The Broads – medieval open-cast peat mines that were inundated during a climate shift in the 13th century – have just had a “biodiversity audit” and the results are jaw-dropping for anyone who regards them as no more than a watery holiday camp: more than 11,000 species, including a quarter of the entire country’s tally of conservation priorities.

But the statistics say nothing about the kind of relationships that are possible with this cornucopia of life forms. A few hours before the geese fly in to roost we round the corner in Somerton Dyke, where the whirligigs begin. Everyone looks out for these engaging beetles, just a few millimetres long, as they drift about in flotillas close to the reeds. They shine in the sun, like beads of mercury, and every few seconds the entire gang bursts into a frenzy of high speed, near-miss swirling, a waterborne roller derby. It’s comic and touching and so far unexplained – except that, like the flights of geese, it feels intuitively comprehensible, a kind of dance about the companionships of crowds.

Whirligigs are ancient animals, whose family emerged more than 200 million years ago in the Triassic period. They have no known predators, because of an extraordinary skin coating, which is a highly scented, toxic and antibacterial wetting agent. Their hind legs work like paddle- steamer wheels and give whirligigs the highest acceleration of any aquatic animals. They do not “interfere” with any human activity, nor are in any way practically useful to us (though I suspect that pharmacologists and nano-engineers will be looking at their bactericidal moisturiser before too long). And though they have undoubted “intellectual moment” it’s not at all clear why they touch one so. You round a corner and there they are, at the usual address, and if they’re not you begin to worryand miss them.

This is nothing to do with anthropomorphism or manufactured empathy. It comes, for me, from something I can only describe as a sense of neighbourliness; the emotion the poet John Clare felt so powerfully for his fellow commoners, of all species. Neighbourliness is not friendship. It doesn’t demand reciprocity. It’s based on sharing a habitat, on the common experience of place and season and the hardships of weather. It might provide a bridge across that great conceptual divide between us and other species.

Richard Mabey’s most recent book is “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” (Profile, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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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.

***

 

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