Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

The accidental story of two times five and base ten

November 23, 2020

Humans have used many different bases for number systems but the use of base 10 is overwhelmingly dominant. There are instances of the use of base 5, base 6, base 20 and even base 27. In spite of many attempts to replace it by base 10, base 60 has fended off all rationalist suggestions and remnants remain entrenched for our current mapping of time and space. For time periods, base 60 is used exclusively for hours, minutes and seconds but base 10 for subdivisions of the second. Similarly for spatial coordinates, degrees, minutes and seconds of arc are still used but subdivisions of the second use base 10. (Some of the other bases that appear in language are listed at the end of this post).

In terms of mathematics there is no great inherent advantage in the use of one particular number base or another. The utility of a particular choice is a trade off first between size and practicality. The size of the base determines how many unique number symbols are needed (binary needs 2, decimal needs 10 and hexagesimal 16). There are many proponents of the advantages of 2, 3, 8, 12 or 16 being used as our primary number base. Certainly base 12 is the most “fraction friendly”. But all our mathematics  could, in reality, be performed in any number base.

At first glance the reasons for the use of base 10 seems blindingly obvious and looking for origins seems trivial. Our use of base 10 comes simply – and inevitably – from two hands times five digits. In recent times other bases (binary – base 2- and hexadecimal – base 16 – for example) are used more extensively with computers, but base 10 (with some base 60) still predominates in human-human interactions (except when Sheldon is showing off). The use of base 10 predates the use of base 60 which has existed for at least 5,000 years.

It is ubiquitous now but (2 x 5) is not a consequence of design. It derives from a chain of at least three crucial, evolutionary accidents which gave us

  1. four limbs, and
  2. five digits on each limb, and finally
  3. human bipedalism which reserved two limbs for locomotion and left our hands free.

The subsequent evolutionary accidents which led to increased brain size would still have been necessary for the discovery of counting and the invention of number systems. But if, instead of two, we had evolved three limbs free from the responsibilities of locomotion, with three digits on each limb, we might well have had base 9 at the foundations of counting and a nonary number system. The benefits of a place value system and the use of nonecimals would still apply.

It is more difficult to imagine what might have happened if limbs were not symmetrical or the number of digits on each limb were different. No human society has not been predominantly (c. 85%) right-handed. But left-handedness has never been a sufficient handicap to have been eliminated by evolution. Almost certainly right-handedness comes from the asymmetrical functions established in the left and right-brains. The distinction between the functions of the two sides of the brain goes back perhaps 500 million years and long before limbs and tetrapods. By the time limbs evolved, the brain functions giving our predilection for right-handedness must already have been established. So, it is possible to imagine evolution having led to, say, 6 digits on right fore-limbs and 5 digits on left fore-limbs.

I wonder what a natural base of 11 or 13 would have done to the development of counting and number systems?

Why four limbs?

All land vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) derive from tetrapods which have two sets of paired limbs. Even snakes evolved from four-limbed lizards. 

Tetrapods evolved from a group of animals known as the Tetrapodomorpha which, in turn, evolved from ancient sarcopterygians around 390 million years ago in the middle Devonian period; their forms were transitional between lobe-finned fishes and the four-limbed tetrapods. The first tetrapods (from a traditional, apomorphy-based perspective) appeared by the late Devonian, 367.5 million years ago. Wikipedia

It would seem that – by trial and error – a land-based creature, fortuitously possessing two pairs of limbs, just happened to be the one which survived and become the ancestor of all tetrapods. The evolutionary advantage of having 4 limbs (two pairs)  – rather than one or three or five pairs – is not at all clear. Insects have evolved three pairs while arachnids have four pairs. Myriapoda are multi-segmented creatures which have a pair of limbs per segment. They can vary from having five segments (10 legs) to about 400 segments (800 legs). The genes that determine the number of limbs determine many other features also and why two pairs would be particularly advantageous is not understood.  It could well be that the two pairs of limbs were incidental and merely followed other survival characteristics. The best bet currently is that

“You could say that the reason we have four limbs is because we have a belly,”

All of us backboned animals — at least the ones who also have jaws — have four fins or limbs, one pair in front and one pair behind. These have been modified dramatically in the course of evolution, into a marvelous variety of fins, legs, arms, flippers, and wings. But how did our earliest ancestors settle into such a consistent arrangement of two pairs of appendages? — Because we have a belly.

According to our hypothesis, the influence of the developing gut suppresses limb initiation along the midgut region and the ventral body wall owing to an “endodermal predominance.” From an evolutionary perspective, the lack of gut regionalization in agnathans reflects the ancestral absence of these conditions, and the elaboration of the gut together with the concomitant changes to the LMD in the gnathostomes could have led to the origin of paired fins.

The critical evolutionary accident then is that the intrepid sea creature which first colonised the land, some 390 million years ago, and gave rise to all tetrapods was one with a developing belly and therefore just happened to have two pairs of appendages.

The tail, however, is an asymmetrical appendage which may also once have been a pair (one on top of the other) but is now generally a solitary appendage. But it is controlled by a different gene-set to those which specify limbs. In mammals it has disappeared for some and performs stability functions for others. In some primates it has functions close to that of a fifth limb. But in no case has a tail ever evolved digits.

Why five digits on each limb?

When our ancestor left the oceans and became the origin of all tetrapods, four limbs had appeared but the number of digits on each limb had not then been decided. It took another 50 million years before a split distinguished amphibians from mammals, birds and reptiles. The timeline is thought to be:

  • 390 million years ago – tetrapod ancestor leaves the oceans
  • 360 million years ago – tetrapods with 6,7 and 8 digits per limb
  • 340 million years ago – amphibians go their separate way
  • 320 million years ago – reptiles slither away on a path giving dinosaurs and birds
  • 280 million years ago – the first mammals appear


The condition of having no more than five fingers or toes …. probably evolved before the evolutionary divergence of amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians) and amniotes (birds, mammals, and reptiles in the loosest sense of the term). This event dates to approximately 340 million years ago in the Lower Carboniferous Period. Prior to this split, there is evidence of tetrapods from about 360 million years ago having limbs bearing arrays of six, seven and eight digits. Reduction from these polydactylous patterns to the more familiar arrangements of five or fewer digits accompanied the evolution of sophisticated wrist and ankle joints–both in terms of the number of bones present and the complex articulations among the constituent parts.

By the time we reach the mammals, five digits per limb has become the norm though many mammals then follow paths for the reduction of the number of effective digits in play. Moles and pandas evolve an extra sort-of adjunct digit from their wrists but do not (or cannot) create an additional digit.

…….. Is there really any good evidence that five, rather than, say, four or six, digits was biomechanically preferable for the common ancestor of modern tetrapods? The answer has to be “No,” in part because a whole range of tetrapods have reduced their numbers of digits further still. In addition, we lack any six-digit examples to investigate. This leads to the second part of the answer, which is to note that although digit numbers can be reduced, they very rarely increase. In a general sense this trait reflects the developmental-evolutionary rule that it is easier to lose something than it is to regain it. Even so, given the immensity of evolutionary time and the extraordinary variety of vertebrate bodies, the striking absence of truly six-digit limbs in today’s fauna highlights some sort of constraint. Moles’ paws and pandas’ thumbs are classic instances in which strangely re-modeled wrist bones serve as sixth digits and represent rather baroque solutions to the apparently straightforward task of growing an extra finger.

Five digits is apparently the result of evolutionary trial and error, but as with all things genetic, the selection process was probably selecting for something other than the number of digits. 

Science Focus

All land vertebrates today are descended from a common ancestor that had four legs, with five toes on each foot. This arrangement is known as the pentadactyl limb. Some species have subsequently fused these fingers into hooves or lost them altogether, but every mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian traces its family tree back to a pentadactyl ancestor that lived around 340 million years ago. Before, there were animals with six, seven and even eight toes on each foot, but they all went extinct at the end of the Devonian period, 360 million years ago. These other creatures were more aquatic than the pentadactyl animals. Evidence in the fossil record suggests that their ribs weren’t strong enough to support their lungs out of water and their shoulder and hip joints didn’t allow them to walk effectively on land. 

Five digits on our limbs are an evolutionary happenstance. There is nothing special that we can identify with being five. It could just as well have been six or seven or eight. That the number of digits on each limb are not unequal is also an evolutionary happenstance predating the tetrapods. It is more efficient genetically, when multiple limbs are needed, to duplicate the pattern (with some variations for mirror symmetry and for differences between paired sets). When each limb is to carry many digits it is more efficient to follow a base pattern and keep the necessary genetic variations to a minimum. 

By 280 million years ago, four limbs with five digits on each limb had become the base pattern for all land-based creatures and the stage was set for base 20. And then came bipedalism.

Why bipedalism?

Bipedalism is not uncommon among land creatures and even birds. Some dinosaurs exhibited bipedalism. Along the human ancestral line, bipedalism first shows up around 7 million years ago (Sahelanthropus). It may then have disappeared for a while and then appeared again around 4 million years ago in a more resilient form (Australopithecus) which has continued through till us. What actually drove us from the trees to bipedalism is a matter of many theories and much conjecture. Whatever the reasons the large brain evolved only in bipedal hominins who had a straightened spine, and who had maintained two limbs for locomotion while freeing up the other two for many other activities. The advantages of being able to carry things and throw things and shape things are considered the drivers for this development. And these two free limbs became the counting limbs.

It seems unlikely that a large brain could have developed in a creature which did not have some limbs freed from the tasks of locomotion. Locomotion itself and the preference for symmetry would have eliminated a three-limbed creature with just one free limb.

Two limbs for counting, rather than 3 of 4 or 4 of 4, is also happenstance. But it may be less accidental than the 4 limbs to begin with and the 5 digits on each limb. An accidental four limbs reduced inevitably to two counting limbs. Together with an accidental five digits they gave us base 10.

Other bases

1. Oksapmin, base-27 body part counting

The Oksapmin people of New Guinea have a base-27 counting system. The words for numbers are the words for the 27 body parts they use for counting, starting at the thumb of one hand, going up to the nose, then down the other side of the body to the pinky of the other hand …… . ‘One’ is tip^na (thumb), 6 is dopa (wrist), 12 is nata (ear), 16 is tan-nata (ear on the other side), all the way to 27, or tan-h^th^ta (pinky on the other side).

2. Tzotzil, base-20 body part counting

Tzotzil, a Mayan language spoken in Mexico, has a vigesimal, or base-20, counting system. ….. For numbers above 20, you refer to the digits of the next full man (vinik). ..

3. Yoruba, base-20 with subtraction

Yoruba, a Niger-Congo language spoken in West Africa, also has a base-20 system, but it is complicated by the fact that for each 10 numbers you advance, you add for the digits 1-4 and subtract for the digits 5-9. Fourteen (??rinlá) is 10+4 while 17 (eétàdílógún) is 20-3. So, combining base-20 and subtraction means 77 is …. (20×4)-3.

4. Traditional Welsh, base-20 with a pivot at 15

Though modern Welsh uses base-10 numbers, the traditional system was base-20, with the added twist of using 15 as a reference point. Once you advance by 15 (pymtheg) you add units to that number. So 16 is un ar bymtheg (one on 15), 36 is un ar bymtheg ar hugain (one on 15 on 20), and so on.

5. Alamblak, numbers built from 1, 2, 5, and 20

In Alamblak, a language of Papua New Guinea, there are only words for 1, 2, 5, and 20, and all other numbers are built out of those. So 14 is (5×2)+2+2, or tir hosfi hosfihosf, and 59 is (20×2)+(5x(2+1))+(2+2) or yima hosfi tir hosfirpati hosfihosf.

6. Ndom, base-6

Ndom, another language of Papua New Guinea, has a base-6, or senary number system. It has basic words for 6, 18, and 36 (mer, tondor, nif) and other numbers are built with reference to those. The number 25 is tondor abo mer abo sas (18+6+1), and 90 is nif thef abo tondor ((36×2)+18).

7. Huli, base-15

The Papua New Guinea language Huli uses a base-15, or pentadecimal system. Numbers which are multiples of 15 are simple words. Where the English word for 225 is quite long, the Huli word is ngui ngui, or 15 15. However 80 in Huli is ngui dau, ngui waragane-gonaga duria ((15×5)+the 5th member of the 6th 15).

8. Bukiyip, base-3 and base-4 together

In Bukiyip, another Papua New Guinea language also known as Mountain Arapesh, there are two counting systems, and which one you use depends on what you are counting. Coconuts, days, and fish are counted in base-3. Betel nuts, bananas, and shields are counted in base-4. The word anauwip means 6 in the base-3 system and 24 in the base-4 system!

9. Supyire, numbers built from 1, 5, 10, 20, 80, and 400

Supyire, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Mali has basic number words for 1, 5, 10, 20, 80 and 400, and builds the rest of the numbers from those. The word for 600 is kàmpwòò ná ?kwuu shuuní ná bééshùùnnì, or 400+(80×2)+(20×2)

10. Danish, forms some multiples of ten with fractions

Danish counting looks pretty familiar until you get to 50, and then things get weird with fractions. The number 50 is halvtreds, a shortening of halv tred sinds tyve (“half third times 20” or 2½x20). The number 70 is 3½x20, and 90 is 4½x20.

11. French, mix of base-10 and base-20

French uses base-10 counting until 70, at which point it transitions to a mixture with base-20. The number 70 is soixante-dix (60+10), 80 is quatre-vingts (4×20), and 90 is quatre-vingts-dix ((4×20)+10).

12. Nimbia, base-12

Even though, as the dozenalists claim, 12 is the best base mathematically, there are relatively few base-12 systems found in the world’s languages. In Nimbia, a dialect of the Gwandara language of Nigeria, multiples of 12 are the basic number words around which everything else is built. The number 29 is gume bi ni biyar ((12×2)+5), and 95 is gume bo’o ni kwada ((12×7)+11).

Why did we start to count?

October 12, 2020

Counting and the invention of numbers and the abstractions enabling mathematics are surely cognitive abilities. Counting itself involves an abstract ability. The simple act of raising two fingers to denote the number of stones or lions or stars implies first, the abstract ability to describe an observed quality and second, the desire to communicate that observation.

What led humans to counting and when?

Before an intelligence can turn to counting it must first have some concept of numbers. When and how did our ancient ancestors  first develop a concept of numbers and then start counting? …….. 

It seems clear that many animals do distinguish – in a primitive and elementary way – between “more” and “less, and “few” and “many”,and “bigger” and “smaller”, and even manage to distinguish between simple number counts. They show a sophisticated use of hierarchy and precedence.

Some primates show some primitive abilities when tested by humans

…..  Rhesus monkeys appear to understand that 1 + 1 = 2. They also seem to understand that 2 + 1 = 3, 2 – 1 = 1, and 3 – 1 = 2—but fail, however, to understand that 2 + 2 = 4. ……

But even chimpanzees and monkeys rarely, if ever, use counts or counting in interactions among themselves. The abilities for language and counting are not necessarily connected genetically (though it is probable), but they are both certainly abilities which appear gradually as cognition increases. Mathematics is, of course, just another language for describing the world around us. Number systems, as all invented languages, need that a system and its rules be shared before any communication is feasible. It is very likely that the expressions of the abilities to count and to have language follow much the same timeline. The invention of specific sounds or gestures to signify words surely coincided with the invention of gestures or sounds to signify numbers. The step change in the size of brains along the evolutionary path of humans is very likely closely connected with the expressions of the language and the counting abilities.

The ability to have language surely preceded the invention of languages just as the ability to count preceded the expressions of counting and numbering. It is not implausible that the first member of a homo erectus descendant who used his fingers to indicate one of something, or four of something else, to one of his peers, made a far, far greater discovery – relatively – than Newton or Einstein ever did.

We must have started counting and using counts (using gestures) long before we invented words to represent counts. Of course, it is the desire to communicate which is the driving force which takes us from having abilities to expressions of those abilities. The “cooperation gene” goes back to before the development of bipedalism and before the split with chimpanzees or even gorillas (at least 9 million years ago).

The simple answer to the question “Why did we start to count?” is because we could conceive of a count, observed it and wished to communicate it. But this presupposes the ability to count. Just as with language, the ability and the expression of the ability, are a consequence of the rapid increase in brain size which happened between 3 m and 1 m years ago.

I am persuaded that that rapid change was due to the control of fire and the change to eating cooked food and especially cooked meat. The digestion of many nutrients becomes possible only with cooked food and is the most plausible driver for the rapid increase in brain size.

Raw Food not enough to feed big brains

………. our brains would still be the size of an ape’s if H. erectus hadn’t played with fire: “Gorillas are stuck with this limitation of how much they can eat in a day; orangutans are stuck there; H. erectus would be stuck there if they had not invented cooking,” she says. “The more I think about it, the more I bow to my kitchen. It’s the reason we are here.”

Can gorillas find a role in the world?

April 19, 2020

Some 40 million years ago there was a primate which was the common ancestor of all the current great apes. The primates were established first in Africa and Asia and then some found their way, somehow, across the ocean to South and Central America. They were restricted to forest areas and were not to be found in northern climes (Europe, N America, Asia). Great deserts and mountain ranges were a major barrier to their spread. They did not reach Australia even though the body of water to be traversed was shorter than that to S America.


Non-human primate range

The appearance of new species of apes was not something that happened across the entire range of the primates. In South and Central America, apes did not evolve. Gibbons and orangutans only appeared in South-East Asia. Gorillas, chimpanzees and the precursors of humans appeared only in Africa.

Knowledge about evolution has exploded in the last century especially now as genetic analysis is getting into its stride. But the common feature with the growth of knowledge is that the questions, too, grow. Why did the ancestors of all apes break away from the parent primate line? What survival advantage led to the gibbons separating from the ancestral ape line to become a separate species? The survival advantages then that caused the speciation of the gorilla ancestors are probably no longer valid now. When a species evolves and a new species appears, the parent species may become extinct, or may well continue down other, separate evolutionary paths. But not all these many paths can be successful. At any given time many of the ongoing evolutionary paths being followed will – and must – be dead-ends leading eventually to the extinction of the dead-end branches. The appearance of every new species must have been because some non-standard individuals, in that place, at that time, exhibited some survival or reproductive advantage over their more “standard” relatives. Clearly the pressures and conditions that caused orangutans and gibbons to appear in SE Asia were not of significance in South and Central America. Neither were the conditions and pressures which caused gorillas and chimpanzees and the species homo to appear in Africa of significance in other parts of the world. Equally the conditions in Africa did not give rise to gibbons or orangutans.

What then were the advantages of being a gorilla – when gorillas evolved – that are now of very little benefit?

The reasons for the splits at A, B, C, D and E are still more a matter of speculation rather than of knowledge.

The current status of a species can only be measured by its numbers. Dinosaurs may once have been of high status and were clearly successful for a long time but – as with every other extinct species – they are all, now, failed species. (Since birds do originate from the dinosaurs then they, at least, represent some very successful current species). If we consider just the surviving ape species (gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans), there is a striking difference in their current status as species.

We have to go back about 40 million years to find a common ancestor. The most striking difference is that which separates humans from all other species – the control of fire. It makes the “fire and cooked meat” theory of human brain development seem very plausible.

Smithsonian Magazine:

Thus, the unprecedented increase in brain size that hominids embarked on around 1.8 million years ago had to be paid for with added calories either taken in or diverted from some other function in the body. Many anthropologists think the key breakthrough was adding meat to the diet. But Wrangham and his Harvard colleague Rachel Carmody think that’s only a part of what was going on in evolution at the time. What matters, they say, is not just how many calories you can put into your mouth, but what happens to the food once it gets there. How much useful energy does it provide, after subtracting the calories spent in chewing, swallowing and digesting? The real breakthrough, they argue, was cooking.

I find watching gorillas (on film) compulsive. When I have seen them in zoos, they are magnificent but deeply tragic figures. They radiate a benign strength which is more than impressive. They are quite intelligent. It is claimed they have an IQ around 40 -50, though applying human IQ tests on them is largely meaningless. Their motor skills develop faster than with human infants and even if some have learned the meaning of some human words, gorillas do not have language. Gorillas are a dying species and, as such, are a failing species. “Conservation” is concerned with the survival and protection of individuals and groups. Though laudable, these efforts only freeze the species within the shrinking habitat they are comfortable with and in the unsuccessful form they have reached.

The gorilla as a species has reached an evolutionary dead-end. I don’t want gorillas to disappear, but to keep them in their frozen, unsuccessful, evolutionary state in zoos or reserves or protected habitats does not seem right either. The conservation practiced today, which makes no provision for the further development of a species, is both unethical and immoral. Other species which adapt and find a role to play in the world of today are not threatened. It is not necessary for a species to find that role within human society as livestock and household pets do. But the survival of livestock and pets is as slaves to humans. Birds and insects remain free of human control but have adapted to varying degrees and continue together with humans. Fish and sea-creatures don’t compete for habitat with humans but do constitute prey. Foxes and rodents and even urban leopards are adapting to continue in freedom and in parallel with humans. It is more difficult for primates. The challenge is to find a way for a species to develop and move forward in the reality of a world dominated by humans. When conservation denies reality and merely tries to go back to some scenario from the past it does no service to any species.

How then can we find a free and meaningful, role for gorillas (or tigers) in a world dominated by humans but which is not an evolutionary cul-de-sac?


Apocalypse Now (yet again) or the false god of biodiversity

May 7, 2019

Here we go again.

The UN (who else) has its annual freak-out about a million species being threatened by humans. (There are about a trillion species on Earth). The 6th mass extinction is upon us! The solution is mass suicide by humans! The humans left will be happily dead ever after. Failing that we could have World Government.

When life on earth began, there was no biodiversity. As individual life-forms survived environmental changes, new species were created. Sometimes the parent species survived and sometimes not. Sometimes the new species did not survive further changes. The results of survival we call evolution. As for anything else there is an optimum number of species for any given environment, in any given place at any given time. Too many species is a worse thing than too few. Too few, and new species will always be formed to exploit the available environment. Too many, and every species is miserable.

All invasive species are – by definition – successful species. All endangered species are – also by definition – failing species. “Protecting” failed, but somehow attractive, species is entirely an emotional response by humans but it has no rational purpose. The rational and responsible approach to biodiversity would be to genetically modify failing species to survive or to let them become extinct in a world where they have no place.

Judging by the posts I have been driven to write in recent years, I must find all sanctimonious, self-righteous apocalypse predictions somewhat obscene.

Mass extinctions correct for evolution’s greater than 99% failure rate

Earth has too many failed species and 30% need to go extinct

There was no biodiversity to begin with

Raging biodiversity – “One trillion species on earth”

I just repeat my post from 2018.

The biodiversity myth (or How many species should there be?)

How many species should there be?

In any given environment, even with no change in the environment, natural selection will see to it, given enough time, that the number of species will increase to fill the available space. Competition between species will increase with increasing biodiversity. Species incapable of coping with the competition will restrict themselves to protected niches or disappear. As environment changes, modifications will also follow. As environment changes, species which were once viable may become extinct, continue in a suitable niche or adapt.

As far as we know the earth is the only planet on which life has developed.


Time and the laws of the Universe were established soon after the Big Bang singularity occurred some 13.8 billion years ago. ………… The earth itself was formed when it congealed about 4.54 billion years ago……. Chemistry between atoms and molecules happened. About a billion years later chemistry became biochemistry. Somehow RNA molecules (the RNA world) appeared. Some of these were replicating molecules. Some of these arranged themselves into single celled organisms. Single celled life began. Around 500 million years ago, complex multi-cellular life took off.

In the 500 million years since there have been at least 10 major extinctions and 5 Great Mass Extinctions. The last one was around 50 million years ago when the large dinosaurs “disappeared” (though that disappearance may have taken many thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years). Nevertheless it was the spaces left vacant in the environment which enabled, and were filled by, the mammals and in turn the primates and humans. …..


When the encyclopedia in your pocket is wired into your brain

January 20, 2019

All human knowledge is not, yet, available on the web. All the knowledge which is available on the web is not, yet, available to each of us. But all that is available on the web is already available to each of us who has a connected smart phone in a pocket. With every connected smart phone there is an encyclopedia in a pocket.

But using such an encyclopedia is not, yet, instantaneous. It is not yet a part of your brain. It is not just the choice of browser or search engine (e.g. Google) or the repository (e.g.Wikipedia). You still have to search the web. You still have to ask the right question. You still have to discard the advertisements and the fake news and select the relevant information. It takes a little time. By the time you find the right answer the conversation may have moved on to another topic, such that presenting the information you found in your pocket may be embarrassingly irrelevant.

Nevertheless, everyone with a connected smart phone now has an encyclopedia in their pocket. And, I would guess, this encyclopedia will be implanted and connected to the brain within the next 50 years.

We are already in the age of implants.

Currently, implants are being used in many different parts of the body for various applications such as orthopaedics, pacemakers, cardiovascular stents, defibrillators, neural prosthetics or as drug delivery systems. Concurrent with the increased life span in today’s world, the number of age-related diseases has also increased. Hence, the need for new treatments, implants, prostheses and long-term pharmaceutical usage as well as the need for prolonging the life span of the current techniques has increased. 

Implants where thoughts can be used to control computers are already with us. Brain-computer interfaces (BCI’s) which were first thought of in the 1970s are now with us to stay.

image from

When drone warfare emerged, pilots could, for the first time, sit in an office in the U.S. and drop bombs in the Middle East. Now, one pilot can do it all, just using their mind — no hands required.

Earlier this month, DARPA, the military’s research division, unveiled a project that it had been working on since 2015: technology that grants one person the ability to pilot multiple planes and drones with their mind.

“As of today, signals from the brain can be used to command and control … not just one aircraft but three simultaneous types of aircraft,” Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, said, according to Defense One.

….. Back in 2016, a volunteer equipped with a brain-computer interface (BCI) was able to pilot an aircraft in a flight simulator while keeping two other planes in formation — all using just his thoughts, ….. In 2017, Copeland was able to steer a plane through another simulation, this time receiving haptic feedback — if the plane needed to be steered in a certain direction, Copeland’s neural implant would create a tingling sensation in his hands.

We cannot yet, at will, without noticeable delay, mentally call for and access some particular information from the entire store of human knowledge.  But it is no longer science fiction to imagine people with an implant which has all the abilities of a mobile, smart phone. It will be an implant where the input/output interface would no longer require the use of fingers or the reading of a physical screen. Your thoughts (and perhaps also sub-vocalisations) would be sufficient to trigger the appropriate questions to the web. The answers would be projected onto your eyes or enter your brain subliminally. Humans would have to become far more practiced not only at distinguishing between interfacing with the external world and internally connecting with the web, but also with mental multi-tasking in a way never required before.

Maybe not in 10 years but surely within 50.


And then came counting

August 25, 2018

Origins of human cognitive development go back a lot longer than was once thought. Our first bipedal ancestors who came down from the trees more than 5 million years ago, had  already some concept of “more” and “less” and  perhaps even of rudimentary numbers upto 3 (as rhesus monkeys have today). Genetic analysis of ancient bones is showing that the origin and development of modern humans needs to be taking the Neanderthals and the Denisovans into account and perhaps has to go back at least to the time of a common ancestor from over 1 million years ago. Just considering the last 200,000 years is no longer enough.

I have no doubt that the mastery of fire, the eating of cooked meat, the growth of the brain and, above all, the increased need for cooperation were interconnected and drove human cognitive development. Whether developments happened in one place and spread or happened at many places, perhaps at many times, will always be a matter of speculation. But it is not so difficult to come up with a not implausible time-line of the key developments which gave us first counting and then tallying and arithmetic and geometry and now complex number theory. The oldest evidence we have of counting are tally-sticks from over 50,000 years ago. But counting surely started long before that.


What led humans to counting and when?

The origins of base 60


Invasive species and opposing natural selction

June 1, 2018

Sweden is planning to declare the mouflon to be an invasive species. It would then be politically acceptable to eradicate the species.

“The mouflon (Ovis orientalis orientalis group) is a subspecies group of the wild sheep (Ovis orientalis). Populations of O. orientalis can be partitioned into the mouflons (orientalis group) and the urials (vignei group). The mouflon is thought to be one of the two ancestors for all modern domestic sheep breeds.” – Wikipedia


I find much of “conservation” sanctimonious, hypocritical and illogical.


Extinction is normal

April 17, 2018

Living things evolve, dead things can be remembered but extinction is normal.

I have no objection to expressions of regret, but I find the hand-wringing and sanctimonious claptrap about the extinction of species, languages and cultures illogical and without thought. I don’t miss the dodo or any of the dinosaurs. I don’t miss Latin or Sanskrit (even though I had to sit through boring lessons in both). It is only a natural course of development that isolated Amazonian tribes have disappeared as their members have joined the rest of the world. I don’t miss the cannibalistic cultures which have disappeared. The recent splurge of nonsense about the “death of the last known male, northern white rhino” was a case in point. It may be a matter of some regret that this particular individual died a natural death, but the end of an unfit sub-species of rhino is not an event requiring the mawkish sentimentality that flooded the media.

Extinction is normal.

Species evolve to survive or they go extinct. Languages evolve and they die when they are of no use to anyone anymore. Cultures evolve and merge with other cultures or they try to remain separate as a distinct, (often racial) identity by isolation and inevitably they die out. The cultures that disappear don’t survive because they are not viable in the world they live in. Regret is one thing, but trying to artificially protect non-viable species, languages or cultures or peoples by putting them in a “zoo” is mawkish and irrational and, ultimately, unethical. Keeping backward tribes isolated to “preserve” their cultures and freezing them into backwardness (by preventing them from merging or being absorbed by the world) is immoral. Freezing individuals from unfit species in a zoo, and neither helping them to evolve nor allowing the species to go extinct, is immoral. Preserving dead languages is of academic interest and does not prevent the extinction of languages which no longer serve a useful purpose.

To the best of our knowledge there are about 7,000 languages recognised today. Depending upon when language began (between 50,000 and 200,000 years ago) between 90 and 99% of all languages are now extinct. Written languages are much younger of course. An extinct language is a matter of history. Some languages evolved and produced versions still in use today. Others did not. We know about some of these because they developed writing and left some records which have survived. Languages die a natural death when they stop being used. Of course there is nothing wrong in speakers of dying languages trying to revitalise them. Governments have sometimes tried to promote particular languages (French, Hindi), and sometimes to suppress some (Welsh, Sami). Languages have been invented (Esperanto or Klingon). Most of these attempts of artificially creating, protecting or suppressing language are futile. The ultimate arbiter of language (and of grammar and of spelling) is usage.  The real question should not be whether a language is “endangered” and should be protected but whether a language serves any useful purpose. If it does, it will survive. If it does not, it should not survive. Endangered languages should be recorded for history and allowed to die in peace.

We don’t know how many species are alive today. Estimates have ranged from 10 million to 14 million, of which over 86 percent have not yet been described. A 2016 study even concludes that Earth currently has 1 trillion species. Whatever the actual number, what is known is that over 99% of all species that ever existed are now extinct. By the time a failing species is formally considered to be endangered, it is almost irrelevant to the ecological system it is embedded in. Tigers, as an example, are restricted only to areas of captivity (whether zoos or reserves). Even in some reserves where they are nominally free, the species is of no great significance to the bio-system. A species may well be going extinct because it is losing habitat to humans, but that in itself is a failure of that species. Some species are adapting to man, but where conservationists intervene to “protect” species they always do so by freezing the species into some form of captivity. They never try to help that species to adapt genetically to survive in its new environment. This form of conservation may be emotionally satisfying for humans but is of little consequence in the sustainable survival of the endangered species. Evolution produces far more failed species than successful ones. The detritus of evolution needs to be cleaned out from time to time. A mass extinction is one way to muck out the evolutionary stables. Currently there are too many species surviving and around 30% probably need to be washed away into extinction.

As with language and species there is much energy and misguided thinking expended in the protection of “indigenous peoples” and outdated, non-viable cultures. Much of this “protection” is about “freezing” these humans and their cultures into unsustainable conditions in what are effectively human zoos or reserves.

There are approximately 370 million Indigenous people in the world, belonging to 5,000 different groups, in 90 countries worldwide. Indigenous people live in every region of the world, but about 70% of them live in Asia.

The long term survival of tribes and indigenous peoples is by them joining or being absorbed by the mainstream or of reaching a critical mass such that they can have an autonomous survival. Genetic isolation (or genetic purity as practiced by some groups) is not sustainable in the long term. The Sentinelese are still apparently in the “stone-age” and both isolated and captive. Is it better (for whom?) to allow them to remain isolated and doomed or to bring them into the mainstream which would effectively eliminate them as a separate but backward culture?

Extinction is normal for peoples, languages, cultures and for species. To struggle against extinction is just a part of survival and also normal. But when extinction does occur, it may be a matter of regret and even of sorrow, but it is normal and morally neutral. But “conservation” by freezing language or culture or species or peoples into a “failed” condition is immoral.


Evolution is indifferent to species survival

Conservation denies tigers a future as a species

There was no biodiversity to begin with


Life exists as a succession of identities

November 18, 2017

Life is an abstract concept manifested as living things. The thread of life has no discernible beginning.

Life – to be life – must be manifested in an entity capable of reproduction. The elements displaying life either continue or come to an end. The thread is carried as a possibility by every sperm and every egg but the sperm and egg cannot themselves reproduce. Most of these possibilities come to an end before the two combine. If – and only if – a sperm and egg do combine, then life continues as, and within, a unique identity created by that combination. It is the creation of the identity – at conception – which continues life. About one in 300 billion sperm survives to combine with about one in 200 eggs to create an identity. It is a unique genetic identity. That identity, first as a fetus may end before birth. Or it may continue after birth as a child. It may grow to be an adult human and give rise to further sperm or eggs before itself coming to an end. When that identity qualifies to be considered a human entity and protected by society is a choice for the societies and the individuals concerned. Most societies start assigning the identity some rights and protections before birth but only after about 20 weeks of life as a fetus.

There is little doubt, however, that a unique genetic identity is created at conception, whether in a test tube or in a womb. At what stage of development that identity achieves consciousness and then self-awareness is not certain but almost certainly only after a rudimentary brain has formed. That would be some weeks after conception but probably some little time before birth. At what point that identity is to be afforded legal “rights” is then a matter for the surrounding society to determine.

Until the identity reaches birth – whether by natural or by artificial means – it has no options and no choices to exercise. Whether self-aware or not, its existence is in the gift and the power of others. It starts acquiring choices and freedoms of action only after birth, as allowed or constrained by its own development and the rules of the society it finds itself in.

Life then only exists as a succession of identities.

To trace the beginning of life would require going back from identity to identity to the specific cells some 3.7 billion years ago. A collection of sperm and eggs may contain the elements for life to continue but do not in themselves constitute life. The beginning of an identity is not the beginning of life. But the act of conception brings a unique identity into being and it is surely the beginning of a specific new life.

Life may be continuous as a concept but can only be realised and manifested as a succession of unique, discrete identities.


Evolution is indifferent to species survival

November 11, 2017


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