Pleasure – and Superego of Pleasure-Seekers

In a recent viral video, the Dalai Lama can be seen asking a seven-year-old boy, at a widely attended public ceremony, to give him a hug and then, “Suck my tongue.” The immediate reaction from many in the West was to


Earth Day 2023: What Einstein Would Say About Climate Justice


I Can hear climate change in my sister’s cough. Aaron Saad, Worlds at Stake

Earth Day is on April 22nd and the theme this year is “Invest in the Planet”.  There is no further elaboration in this message as to who should invest; of what nature that investment should be; or how one should invest.   But then, we can turn around and say that we have a history of talking about it, from 1992 in Rio with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development to the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) right down to COP/27 (27th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC)  in Egypt in November 2022.  In the process, we have coined some fancy terms – like heat dome; wet-bulb temperature; climate anxiety; climate grief; carbon neutral; net-zero; emissions trading; carbon pricing; carbon offsetting.  Aaron Saad, in his book Worlds at Stake: Climate Politics; Ideology and Justice has added to this jumbled maze of terminology the word “Solastalgia” which denotes a homesickness we might feel without ever leaving our home, where we lament how comfortable we were before climate change started roasting us with global warming, causing floods, forest fires, unnaturally frequent tornados and the like.

Now, we are desperately trying to achieve a 1.5% degree world (measured against pre industrialized world levels of warming) without doing anything much about it. This is where the celebrated Albert Einstein comes in with his lasting definition of stupidity – doing the same wrong thing and expecting a different result. Post COP/27 responses of the more influential States to what Antonio Gutters, Secretary General of the United Nations called for  at COP/27 – a global climate pact –  amply resonate the Einsteinian definition of stupidity.  Despite the fancy words of climate conventions  and the 1.5% aspirations, what strikes one in this confederacy of pomp and circumstance is the diversity of opinion and approach.  China and India – two of the biggest users of coal – have given every indication that they intend to keep using coal, let alone reduce their use. Of the big polluters, only Britain and Australia had at the time presented new climate targets. The United States and China had not submitted anything, while the European Union was working on a redefinition of the National Voluntary Contributions to reflect the additional cuts that will result from plans against the energy crisis and to release Russia’s gas.

One of the greatest obstacles to combatting climate change at the global level is the lack of political will which can be put down to the arbitrary and capricious stance adopted by States.  This feckless insouciance of States to come to a cohesive and coordinated unity in acting as one in the battle against global warming acts as a serious problem.  As of September 2022, only 38 countries had filed their National Adaption Plans.  These plans are calculated to reduce vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, by building adaptive capacity and resilience; facilitate the integration of climate change adaptation, in a coherent manner, into relevant new and existing policies, programmes and activities, in particular development planning processes and strategies, within all relevant sectors and at different levels, as appropriate.

COP/27 ended with the retention of the 1.5c goal (compared to preindustrial levels) and an agreement on a fund to compensate developing countries for losses and damage caused by the climate crisis. However, the conference failed to agree on concrete steps to wind down the use of fossil fuels. which organizes Earth Day gives some ways we as individuals can contribute: plant trees; reduce plastic consumption; participate in advocacy; eschew wasteful fashion trends and generally “vote Earth”.  This is certainly a proactive list for citizenry.  However, as Aaron Saad says correctly “These are not solutions to an urgent and worsening moral crisis.  Real solutions call for a political program of response that has morality as its core and its overriding priority”. The morality Saad speaks of can be linked to climate justice which in turn would at least partially make reparations (to the planet) against a “climate debt” owed by the major polluters over the years.  Saad cites in his book two main  factors to consider the moral aspect of climate justice: the major polluters over a sustained period of time – throughout the ages in fact – have been developed countries and therefore they must bear primary responsibility;  the second factor is that historically, contributions of carbon emissions to the atmosphere have been extremely unequal : “ just six developed countries account for 41% of cumulative emissions from 1751 to 2020: The United States (24.4%); Germany (5.45%); The United Kingdom (4.7%); Japan (3.9%); Canada and Australia combined (3%).  The entirety of Africa accounts for just 2.9% and India 3.4%”. However, in 2023 China has taken the lead with 13.8% of pollution in the historical context, producing goods for consumption in Europe and North America in particular.

If climate justice is to be administered, Saad suggests the need to answer five questions: who ought to do what: who will be impacted and why; what the moral significance of climate impacts is (which inevitably touches on human rights); whose concerns matter; and most importantly, what is driving the crisis and preventing responses. Once these questions are answered, climate justice – in all its moral imperative – should have an implementation  tool that would strengthen enforceability which in turn  would obviate Einstein’s definition.

My Take

This defining issue for humanity’s sustenance cannot be solved nor comprehensively discussed in a short essay.  However, a good start would be to identify the issue from scratch progressively as follows.  We are aiming at global warming of 1.5°C  which is to limit the increase in the global average surface temperature compared to the pre-industrial period (1850–1900). COP/27 saw many countries agreeing to pursue efforts to this limit in the Paris Agreement of 2015, which aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its recent report, says that  global warming of 1.5°C is likely to be reached between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. As already discussed, so far, the 193 States comprising the international community of nations have given no indication that positive measures adequate to reach this goal are being taken. The recommendation of the IPCC, if exceeding this limit is to be avoided, is that global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) should fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

Lock step with this goal is the compelling requirement to achieve rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and industrial systems. These transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options. The attendant benefits of restricting warming to 1.5°C, compared to 2°C or higher, are clear: lower risk of climate-related impacts on human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth. This cannot be achieved without significant costs and trade-offs.

What should be done?

To avoid doing the same wrong thing by pledging goals without political will and resolute determination achieved through a proactive and effective mechanism that is implementable globally, some initial agreements should be reached. For one, new fossil fuel infrastructures should be prohibited. Much of the current energy structure may have to be decommissioned. This era that we are Contemporaneously, tin – Capitalocene (an off shot of Anthropocene) – in terms of neo-liberal market economics of control exerted by huge multinational corporations and climate change deniers would have to be reexamined. More government involvement in terms of implementable policy and regulation should be encouraged.  Contemporaneously, there should be more spent on research and development that would pave the way forward to a green economy.

One way to achieve this goal is to fit into a relatively new concept called the Global Administrative Law Theory (GAL) – also sometimes referred to as legal pluralism – which came to light in the first decade of this Century.   The GAL Project is focused on an emerging field of research and practice where administrative law-type mechanisms that address issues of transparency, participation, accountability, and review operate within the parameters of global governance.

The GAL theory posits that administrative law and its principles must be applied not as a mutually exclusive realm but in conjunction with the principles of international law and other related disciplines.  Like domestic administrative law, GAL could be an amalgam of a scholarly approach or methodology and a set of actual norms, “practices,” or activities or mechanisms.  In other words, GAL would be a combination of the legal rules, principles, and institutional norms that apply to administration from a global perspective rather than a structure that demonstrates and exhibits a mere intrastate legal and political realm of authority.

To enforce climate justice we have to go back to the very beginning of the Bible where in The Book of Genesis (1:26-28)  it is said “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”.

To rule over the world, we must have enforceability founded on unswerving political will.  For now, all that we know is that we have botched our mandate as defined in the Book of Genesis.

The Fear of AI Is Overblown—and Here’s Why


by Bappa Sinha

The unprecedented popularity of ChatGPT has turbocharged the AI hype machine. We are being bombarded daily by news articles announcing humankind’s greatest invention—Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is “qualitatively different,” “transformational,” “revolutionary,” “will change everything,”—they say. OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, announced a major upgrade of the technology behind ChatGPT called GPT4. Already, Microsoft researchers are claiming that GPT4 shows “sparks of Artificial General Intelligence” or human-like intelligence—the Holy grail of AI research. Fantastic claims are made about reaching the point of “AI Singularity” of machines equalling and then surpassing human intelligence.

The business press talks about hundreds of millions of job losses as AI would replace humans in a whole host of professions. Others worry about a sci-fi-like near future where super-intelligent AI goes rogue and destroys or enslaves humankind. Are these predictions grounded in reality, or is this just over-the-board hype that the Tech industry and the VC hype machine are so good at selling?

The current breed of AI Models are based on things called “Neural Networks.” While the term “neural” conjures up images of an artificial brain simulated using computer chips, the reality of AI is that neural networks are nothing like how the human brain actually works. These so-called neural networks have no similarity with the network of neurons in the brain. This terminology was, however, a major reason for the artificial “neural networks” to become popular and widely adopted despite its serious limitations and flaws.

“Machine Learning” algorithms currently used are an extension of statistical methods that lack theoretical justification for extending them this way. Traditional statistical methods have the virtue of simplicity. It is easy to understand what they do, when and why they work. They come with mathematical assurances that the results of their analysis are meaningful, assuming very specific conditions. Since the real world is complicated, those conditions never hold, and as a result, statistical predictions are seldom accurate. Economists, epidemiologists and statisticians acknowledge this and then use intuition to apply statistics to get approximate guidance for specific purposes in specific contexts. These caveats are often overlooked, leading to the misuse of traditional statistical methods with sometimes catastrophic consequences, as in the 2008 Great Financial Crisis or the LTCM blowup in 1998, which almost brought down the global financial system. Remember Mark Twain’s famous quote, “Lies, damned lies and Statistics.”

Machine learning relies on the complete abandonment of the caution which should be associated with the judicious use of statistical methods. The real world is messy and chaotic and hence impossible to model using traditional statistical methods. So the answer from the world of AI is to drop any pretense at theoretical justification on why and how these AI models, which are many orders of magnitude more complicated than traditional statistical methods, should work. Freedom from these principled constraints makes the AI Model “more powerful.” They are effectively elaborate and complicated curve-fitting exercises which empirically fit observed data without us understanding the underlying relationships.

But it’s also true that these AI Models can sometimes do things that no other technology can do at all. Some outputs are astonishing, such as the passages ChatGPT can generate or the images that DALL-E can create. This is fantastic at wowing people and creating hype. The reason they work “so well” is the mind-boggling quantities of training data—enough to cover almost all text and images created by humans. Even with this scale of training data and billions of parameters, the AI Models don’t work spontaneously but require kludgy ad-hoc workarounds to produce desirable results.

Even with all the hacks, the models often develop spurious correlations, i.e., they work for the wrong reasons. For example, it has been reported that many vision models work by exploiting correlations pertaining to image texture, background, angle of the photograph and specific features. These vision AI Models then give bad results in uncontrolled situations. For example, a leopard print sofa would be identified as a leopard; the models don’t work when a tiny amount of fixed pattern noise undetectable by humans is added to the images or the images are rotated, say in the case of a post-accident upside down car. ChatGPT, for all its impressive prose, poetry and essays, is unable to do simple multiplication of two large numbers, which a calculator from the 1970s can do easily.

The AI Models do not have any level of human-like understanding but are great at mimicry and fooling people into believing they are intelligent by parroting the vast trove of text they have ingested. For this reason, computational linguist Emily Bender called the Large Language Models such as ChatGPT and Google’s BART and BERT “Stochastic Parrots” in a 2021 paper. Her Google co-authors—Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell—were asked to take their names off the paper. When they refused, they were fired by Google.

This criticism is not just directed at the current large language models but at the entire paradigm of trying to develop artificial intelligence. We don’t get good at things just by reading about them, that comes from practice, of seeing what works and what doesn’t. This is true even for purely intellectual tasks such as reading and writing. Even for formal disciplines such as Maths, one can’t get good at Maths without practicing it. These AI Models have no purpose of their own. They, therefore, can’t understand meaning or produce meaningful text or images. Many AI critics have argued that real intelligence requires social “situatedness.

Doing physical things in the real world requires dealing with complexity, non-linearly and chaos. It also involves practice in actually doing those things. It is for this reason that progress has been exceedingly slow in Robotics: current Robots can only handle fixed repetitive tasks involving identical rigid objects, such as in an assembly line. Even after years of hype about driverless cars and vast amounts of funding for its research, fully automated driving still doesn’t appear feasible in the near future.

Current AI development based on detecting statistical correlations using “neural networks,” which are treated as black-boxes, promotes a pseudoscience-based myth of creating intelligence at the cost of developing a scientific understanding of how and why these networks work. Instead, they emphasize spectacles such as creating impressive demos and scoring in standardized tests based on memorized data.

The only significant commercial use cases of the current versions of AI are advertisements: targeting buyers for social media and video streaming platforms. This does not require the high degree of reliability demanded from other engineering solutions; they just need to be “good enough.” And bad outputs, such as the propagation of fake news and the creation of hate-filled filter bubbles, largely go unpunished.

Perhaps a silver lining in all this is, given the bleak prospects of AI singularity, the fear of super-intelligent malicious AIs destroying humankind is overblown. However, that is of little comfort for those at the receiving end of “AI decision systems.” We already have numerous examples of AI decision systems the world over denying people legitimate insurance claims, medical and hospitalization benefits and state welfare benefits. AI systems in the United States have been implicated in imprisoning minorities to longer prison terms. There have even been reports of withdrawal of parental rights to minority parents based on spurious statistical correlations, which often boil down to them not having enough money to properly feed and take care of their children. And, of course, on fostering hate speech on social media. As noted linguist Noam Chomsky wrote in a recent article, “ChatGPT exhibits something like the banality of evil: plagiarism and apathy and obviation.”

Credit Line: This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Author Bio: Bappa Sinha is a veteran technologist interested in the impact of technology on society and politics.

We Are Living Through a Paradigm Shift in Our Understanding of Human Evolution


There’s a paradigm shift underway in our understanding of the past 4 million years of human evolution: ours is a story that includes combinations with other Homo species, spread unevenly across today’s populations—not a neat and linear evolutionary progression.

Technological advances and a growing body of archaeological evidence have allowed experts in the study of human origins and prehistory to offer an increasingly clear, though complex, outline of the bio-historical process that produced today’s human population and cultures.

For the most part, the public is presented with new findings as interesting novelty items in the news and science coverage. The fuller picture, and the notion that this information has valuable implications for society and our political arrangements, doesn’t usually percolate into public consciousness, or in centers of influence.

But there is an emerging realization in the expert community that humanity can greatly benefit from making this material a pillar of human education—and gradually grow accustomed to an evidence-based understanding of our history, behavior, biology, and capacities. There’s every indication that a better understanding of ourselves strengthens humanity as a whole and makes connection and cooperation more possible.

The process will realistically take decades to take root, and it seems the best way at this point to accelerate that process is in articulating the big picture, and giving people key footholds and scientific reference points for understanding.

I reached out to discuss some of the bigger conclusions that are emerging from the research with Professor Chris Stringer, who has been at the forefront of human evolutionary understanding for decades. Stringer helped formulate the “Out of Africa” model of our species’ origins and continues to pursue pioneering projects at the UK Natural History Museum in London as research leader in human origins in the Department of Earth Sciences.

Jan Ritch-Frel: A good place to start is that we know that today’s humans produced fertile offspring with relative Homo species that had separated from us hundreds of thousands of years ago, and this went on with ancestor species for as far back as scientists are able to trace. This is against a backdrop that for primate species it was possible to produce fertile offspring with other species sharing a common ancestor as far back as 2 million years—with a generally decreasing chance of success across the passage of time and divergence between Homo species.

Chris Stringer: We know that our species produced some fertile offspring with Neanderthals, and with Denisovans. We also have negative evidence that there were limits on infertility between some of the Homo species because we don’t find a lot more evidence of it in our genomes (at least at the level at which we can detect it)—thus matings between more distantly related species either didn’t occur, were not fertile, or we can’t detect them at the level of our current technology.

There are barriers, and we know that in our genomes today, there are areas of deserts where there’s zero Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA. And we know that some of those deserts are in areas that influence things like speech and vocalization, and how the brain works. There are also suggestions that male children may have been less fertile or infertile compared with the female children of those hybrid matings. At the level we can detect it, there is no strong evidence so far of infertility between Homo sapiens and our more distant relatives such as Homo floresiensis or Homo naledi.

So we don’t yet know all of the Homo species which could have hybridized or did hybridize during the last 2 million years, but certainly some of them would have been interfertile. We know that we, Neanderthals, and Denisovans were interfertile, for example.

Ritch-Frel: Unpacking what you’ve said here, it changes the coordinates of how we explain human evolution to ourselves—not a linear progression, but a series of combinations, of different groups that occasionally produced advantages for survival. In some cases, survival for a migrating Homo population could be assisted by hybridizing with a resident species that had survived in a region for hundreds of thousands of years or more, picking up their adaptions—to the immune system, to the ability to process oxygen, or other traits—not to mention the informational exchange of culture and lifestyle.

The more one learns about this, the easier it is to see that the passage of time is better thought of as just an ingredient in the human evolutionary story. With this in mind, it’s easier to grasp how far astray the concept of “primitive” can take us in understanding ourselves and our evolutionary process.

As the world begins to put this information at the center of human education, it’s so important to get the root words right as best we can.

Stringer: “Archaic” and “modern,” “human” and “non-human”—they’re all loaded terms. What’s a human? And there are many different definitions of what a species is.

There are some people who only use “human” for sapiens, and then the Neanderthals even wouldn’t be human. I don’t agree with that, because it means that we mated with “non-humans” in the last 50,000 years, which I think makes the conversation very difficult.

In my view, the term “human” equates to being a member of the genus Homo. So I regard the Neanderthals, rhodesiensis, and erectus as all being human.

And the terms “modern” and “archaic”—these are difficult terms. And I’ve tried to move away from them now because on the one hand, the term “modern” is used for modern behavior, and it’s also used for modern anatomy, so these terms get confused. For example, some ancient human fossil findings have been described as “anatomically modern” but not “behaviorally modern”—I think that’s just too confusing to be useful.

When we look at the early members of a Homo species, instead of having the term “archaic,” as in having “archaic traits,” I think it’s clearer if we use the term “basal.” Basal puts us on a path without the confusion and baggage that can come with terms like “archaic,” “primitive,” and “modern.” In this usage, “basal” is a relative term, but at least one where we can come up with criteria (such as skeletal traits) to delineate it.

It helps here to consider the evolutionary process outside of Homo sapiens. Neanderthals had a process of evolution as well from the period they split off with our common ancestor. Neanderthals at the end of their time were very derived, quite different from how they started potentially 600,000 years ago, and yet under conventional thinking they are called “archaic” (compared with us “moderns”). Over the period of hundreds of thousands of years, they developed a number of new physical features that were not there in the common ancestor with Homo sapiens. For example, they developed a face that was pulled forward at the middle, a spherical cranial shape in rear view—even some of the ear bones were a different shape. And like us, they evolved a bigger brain. The derived Homo neanderthalensis looked quite different from their ancestors 300,000 years earlier.

So let’s scrap the verbal framework of “primitive” and “archaic” and “modern” and go with “basal” and “derived” along both our and the Neanderthal lineage.

Ritch-Frel: Another recent shift in understanding is the story of how we learned to walk. A growing body of research suggests it happened on tree branches and that our arms had a role to play in providing balance.

Stringer: When you look at orangutans and gibbons, who are our close living relatives over in Southeast Asia, we see that when they’re in the trees they already are walking upright, and they branch walk. Some of the tenderest leaves and fruits are out on the ends of branches, so using their longer arms, they will actually walk along the branches, supporting themselves by holding on with one or two hands to the branch above. And then they can also jump across easily from the ends of the branches to the next tree, to carry on feeding.

So the view is that this is a physique that is pre-adapted to bipedalism. Their bodies are already part-adapted to an upright posture, and the pelvis is already in a situation where they can support themselves on two legs. The working idea would be that our ancestors went through a similar stage where they were branch walking, feeding in the trees, beginning to regularly get their body into an upright position. And then when they come down between trees, the trees maybe start to thin out if areas become drier, and they stay upright as they walk between the trees until they get to the next clump of trees.

I don’t think we really have a very convincing evolutionary alternative scenario. Consider that this adaption to bipedalism takes place over millions of years. If you imagine a creature that is on all fours, what’s going to make it start walking upright and do it for long enough for the skeleton to be modified by evolution to become fully bipedal? They have to survive along the way of that process. Very difficult to imagine.

People like Darwin originally speculated that bipedalism came out of the need to use tools or carry things, and it’s certainly useful to do those things, once you are bipedal. But what’s going to modify a skeleton, modify the musculature and all of that, in the way that evolution tells us that primates evolve over the course of generations?

Ritch-Frel: Taking that point as to the origins of learning to walk, it leads into the discussion on two Homo fossil groups found in Southeast Asia, Homo floresiensis on the island of Flores, Indonesia, and luzonensis in Callao Cave on the island of Luzon in the Philippines—and floresiensis with an adult height at somewhere only a bit over a meter tall.

Floresiensis caught the attention of the world public back in 2003. We were presented with the discovery of a “primitive creature,” one that more often gets called an “it” than a person. The more curious members of the public who dig deeper into this discovery are usually told that these “hobbits” were a product of evolutionary dwarfism, often found on islands, where larger creatures are reduced in size from resource constraints and smaller gene pools. Always present in discussions about floresiensis is a focus on their small “primitive” brains. We’re beginning to learn that size may not matter as much as the layout of the brain when we compare ourselves to our ancestors and their core capacities. (I’ll ask you more about this later on.)

More recently, in 2019, archaeologists announced a fossil discovery found almost 2,000 miles away in the Philippines currently given a species name Homo luzonensis that has a lot of similarities to floresiensis.

Until their discovery, it was thought that the first hominins/humans to arrive in Southeast Asia were Homo erectus, who is known to have left Africa about 2 million years ago.

It’s notable that some experts argue floresiensis was able to walk, but not run. And that floresiensis’s humerus, the upper arm bone, was longer than its femur, the upper leg bone. This is typical of a body type adapted for climbing. The wrist bones also point to climbing. That kind of evolutionary branch, I understand, goes back closer to somewhere beyond 2.5-3 million years ago, and would force a rethinking about which Homo species locomotion style first left Africa and possibly set the stage to influence and hybridize with African relatives who came after.

Floresiensis/luzonensis is an area where there is no consensus among the experts—and the public might find the schools of thought illustrative about the frontiers of our understanding about the human evolutionary story.

Stringer: Some experts argue that the most convincing scenario is that the floresiensis material is derived from Homo erectus—that this is a dwarf form of Homo erectus that somehow got to Flores, underwent dwarfing, and… retained some erectus characteristics. We know erectus left Africa approximately 2 million years ago. Some of the dental features of floresiensis have been suggested to be clear evidence of an erectus ancestry. For this idea to work, floresiensis would have needed to have an ancestor who independently developed or redeveloped basal features—features which look more like ancestral features of previously developed species in Africa. As you’ve mentioned, the body proportions, the upper body that seems to show adaptations for climbing. Perhaps floresiensis may have gone back into the trees for feeding. That’s a possibility.

This dwarfing process would have had to occur subsequently in the island migration process in Southeast Asia. That is a scenario which some people who know their Homo erectus fossils will argue is there. That’s one school of opinion on floresiensis.

And on the other hand, you have some experts working along the lines you’ve alluded to, that actually this is evidence of a pre-erectus exit from Africa. A Homo habilis or even an australopithecine grade came out of Africa, somehow got all the way over to Southeast Asia, in terms of fossils we know about, and maybe on Luzon in the Philippines as well for Homo luzonensis. In favor of that, we’ve got these basal features in the wrist bones and in the pelvis and the shoulders, and the smaller brain.

That’s a pretty convincing scenario. But if you agree with that, then you’ve got to conclude that some convergent, or independently similar, evolution in their teeth toward Homo erectus had to happen. Aspects of the skull look erectus-like. Floresiensis has a small face that’s tucked under the cranial vault, which required some derivation. Floresiensis would have had to have both independent similar evolution to erectus, and a return to some more basal elements of their ancestors.

There is a compromise view, that floresiensis is the product of a basal erectus. Some of the erectus skeleton fossils found at a site called Dmanisi in the country of Georgia, they’re much smaller-brained. One of the fossils has a brain size not too different from floresiensis.

We could be starting from an erectus that’s smaller-bodied, smaller-brained, and maybe then it could have gotten across to Flores eventually, and evolved and survived there for more than a million years. We have to bear in mind that we actually don’t know the full anatomy of erectus anyway. So what were the wrist bones like in Dmanisi? Were they like those found in Flores? We simply don’t know yet, because they’re not preserved so far.

In any of these cases you’ve also got the mystery of how they even got to Flores—there are no land bridges there that appear when sea levels drop during ice age periods. The people who argue floresiensis was more closely related to humans via the erectus line suggest there was a capability of maybe using watercraft to get to Flores.

But the other option is that its arrival on Flores was accidental. Tectonically this part of Indonesia is one of the most active areas in the world, caused by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. There was a major tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004. People were found out at sea days later, surviving on clumps of vegetation. That was something that happened in the last 20 years. When you’ve got a time scale of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of years potentially, these “rare” events can happen. We know that’s how many other animals must have gotten across to these islands between Java and Papua New Guinea/Australia.

It’s possible that some ancestors of floresiensis were maybe foraging in mangrove swamps on the coast, and a tidal wave ripped a whole area away, and they’re left in there, and somehow miraculously a few weeks later they arrive on Flores or on another island, because it could have been accomplished in stages. It doesn’t have to be straight all the way to Flores.

Ritch-Frel: Whether floresiensis rafted by design or accident, there is this other piece of evidence that we identify with human advancement—stone toolmaking. Archaeologists found at two sites on the island of Flores tools associated with butchering meat that are 700,000 and even over a million years old.

With floresiensis, we have a body that was perhaps unable to run, able to walk, but better suited for climbing. We have a brain described as tiny, yet able to make tools. Turning to the 2013 discovery of Homo naledi in South Africa, we have 230,000-to-300,000-year-old evidence of another Homo species that had curvature on the finger bones that is associated with primates who spend their time climbing, and also a hand bone structure that allows people to bring complexity in their toolmaking. It has a foot structure similar to ours. Like floresiensisnaledi also has a brain much smaller than ours, but also like floresiensis, it has a similar brain structure. Tools have been found in the area that the archaeologists believe may have been created by naledi.

The archaeological team that is working on the naledi site tells us there is evidence of a culture with traits that we and our cousin species would recognize—returning to the same cave to deposit their dead, and using fire to navigate it. Neanderthals left a record of depositing dozens of their dead in a cave in Spain called Sima de los Huesos about 430,000 years ago. Whether what we are looking at in these caves are cases of mass murder or ritual or something else, we just don’t have the evidence to say. In Bruniquel cave in France, we have evidence of Neanderthal use of fire and potentially habitation in the cave at least 175,000 years ago.

Remembering the dead, of course, is not unique to us. Elephants visit and mourn the remains of their relatives and herd members throughout the decomposition process. Chimpanzee mothers will carry their dead infants with them for days.

Stringer: Naledi is very intriguing. We can explain the survival of floresiensis long term and its divergent evolution in isolation, and Homo sapiens doesn’t get there until maybe the last 50,000 years, and then floresiensis disappears. But in the case of naledi, we’ve got it in South Africa, on a continent where we’re pretty sure Homo sapiens had already evolved, where other Homo species, such as rhodesiensis, were present. And yet naledi is surviving in South Africa with an ape-sized brain successfully, seemingly, and may be spending its time deep in the cave systems there.

I have been one of the critics of the intentional burial disposal idea, because I’ve argued that “How complex could the behavior be of a creature with a brain the size of a chimpanzee or a gorilla?”

But I’m more than happy to be surprised by much greater complexity in Homo naledi when peer-reviewed research makes the case for it (which may be soon).

Ritch-Frel: There’s a big emphasis on the size of the brains of our relatives in the public and expert conversation on human origins, for comparing ourselves to our ancestors and cousins. In the case of floresiensis and naledi, the public conversation keeps returning to how small their brains are. Naledi had a brain size of 600 milliliters; each of us has around 1,300. Could that be a bit of a red herring in terms of their core capacities? Should we be putting more emphasis on the layout of the core brain structures? Does that deserve to get some more emphasis in comparison to us?

Stringer: The whole question of brain size and complexity of behavior, it’s been a long-running debate.

Neanderthals and sapiens have relatively big brains in the Homo family. You can see a rough correlation between increasing behavioral complexity in stone tools and the size of the brain. It’s a rough correlation, not a one-to-one. That’s why I think naledi is going to be very important, because if the research team demonstrates complexity of behavior I think it will certainly put a nail in the coffin of the idea that a small hominin brain can’t accomplish complex things.

Ritch-Frel: Given that, and going back to some of the tree-dwelling morphologies retained, is it fair to wonder now whether the intelligence that humans tend to prize about themselves and use as a marker of our difference from other animals was developed up in trees rather than exclusively on the ground? We know that young chimpanzee females make dolls, for example, with which they simulate child-rearing.

Stringer: I think even looking at chimps and gorillas, they have clear intelligence greater than most other creatures, most other mammals. Certainly it was there in the common ancestor. So I think the common ancestor of us and chimps about 7 million years ago already had complex behavior and potentially even toolmaking behavior at that early stage.

Why not? So I think yes, it could have started to develop in the trees. And as I say, orangutans are intelligent too. So I think the common ancestor would’ve had that degree of intelligence. But there are arguments that by the time we get to Australopithecus, there has been some restructuring of the brain, which implies maybe a reorganization for more complex thought.

Ritch-Frel: We now know that there are at least as many as five distinct human species that were living on Earth as recently as 70,000 years ago: Homo sapiensneanderthalensisdenisovafloresiensis, and luzonensis. And we can demonstrate through several lines of evidence that they not only had different anatomy, but that they also had varying physical capacities, and behavioral traits or tendencies.

A 1-meter-tall human species in Indonesia had a foot that made running difficult. Research tells us that Neanderthals tended to be aggressive, be morning people, have depression; that they would have struck us as dogmatic, and that they had repetitive behaviors.

On top of this, we also know that sapiens across the planet today carry genomic material from hybridizing with at least six Homo species, some of whom we think went extinct as an independent, separate species long before 70,000 years ago. Two of these species we can name, Neanderthal and Denisovan, and the other four science hasn’t named yet—but we have genomic evidence for these “mystery ancestors.”

It’s not yet part of the public conversation, but can you see a future where people might identify themselves and their behaviors as typical of their family, religion, regional origins, and also of their inheritances from ancestor species in an environment where understanding ourselves strengthens the bonds of cooperation and provides us with a universalizing framework of relatability?

Stringer: There’s definitely evidence of sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals, and that is still thought to be one fairly closely related group of Neanderthals that hybridized with Homo sapiens. But for Denisovans, it’s at least three different population groups of Denisovans who diversified approximately 300,000 years ago that interbred with Homo sapiens in different parts of Asia and Southeast Asia.

And back to your question about identity. Yes, I think that we know from studies of what the Neanderthal DNA is doing in us today that bits of Neanderthal DNA are related, for example, to whether you’re a morning or an evening person. We know that some bits of Neanderthal DNA have given protection against COVID. The age of menopause and the start of menstruation. Addictive behavior appears to be related in some cases to bits of Neanderthal DNA.

There are suggestions that autism, schizophrenia, certainly autoimmune diseases, they also are influenced to an extent by the presence of Neanderthal DNA, and probably we will find similar things for Denisovan DNA. So it’s certainly affecting us, our core biology, our personalities.

And for Denisovans, in some populations there’s double the amount of Denisovan DNA than Neanderthal DNA. Populations in Southeast Asia have Neanderthal DNA at the same level as, say, Europeans or Asians, but they’ve got an additional maybe 4 percent of Denisovan DNA. So theoretically we imagine that’s going to have an even greater effect. We know it affects the immune systems, but it may have other effects as well.

Credit Line: This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Deception Through the Ages: Tracing the Evolution of Cheating from Genetic Selfishness to Political Lies


Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, ‘The Liars of Nature and the Nature of Liars: Cheating and Deception in the Living World’ published by Princeton University Press

She is pregnant. Raising a child takes a lot of time and energy, yet she is short of both. Homeless, she has no choice but to find somebody else to take care of her baby—for free. It’s not easy, but she knows how to pull it off. She scouts around and spots a cozy house in a quiet neighborhood. The young wife of the family looks caring and has just given birth to a new baby, so is a perfect choice as a surrogate. She hides herself and waits in the vicinity, keeping watch on the house. Opportunity presents itself when the new mother takes a short trip to get some food. She sneaks in and switches the baby with her own. Then she heartlessly throws the victim’s infant in a dump.

What you have just read is a cold-blooded murder case, one that takes place in nature when a female cuckoo bird sneaks her egg into a warbler’s nest. The cuckoo is cheating, though the scenario doesn’t quite fit Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the verb “cheat”: to “act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.” Cheating in humans usually involves an element of intention. In the larger biological world, however, establishing intent is neither easy nor necessary. For biologists, as long as organisms act to favor themselves at the expense of others—especially in situations when cooperation is expected—they are cheating.

This book is about the behavior, evolution, and natural history of cheating. Although, in common usage, the word “cheating” is often interchangeable with “lying” and “deceiving,” the three words differ in connotation, nonetheless. Furthermore, lying and deceiving involve two very dif­ferent biological processes, as we will unveil in the next two chapters. In light of this new insight, the word “cheating” refers to both lying and deceiving in the book.

Cheaters are everywhere in the biological world, according to our broadened definition of cheating. Monkeys sneak around for sex; possums, well, play “possum,” as they are famous for when pursued by a predator; birds scare rivals away from contested food by crying wolf— emitting alarm calls that are normally used to warn others about an approaching predator; amphibians and reptiles are master impostors, altering their body color to blend into their backgrounds; stickleback fish protect their eggs and babies by misdirecting their cannibal peers away from their nests; defenseless caterpillars ward off predators by masquerading as dangerous animals such as snakes with big false eyes (see color plate 1); squids escape from predators by ejecting ink to create a “smoke screen” in the water. Examples of lying and deceiving behavior in animals can go on and on.

What may surprise you is that cheating doesn’t require a brain, or even a neuron, as many plants are cheaters as well. For example, most orchids mimic the aromas of their pollinators’ food. Around 400 orchid species, however, evolved a more audacious tactic: they fool male pollinators by mimicking the smell and appearance of female insects to take advantage of eager males who seek opportunities to mate (see color plate 2). Even more amazing, these plants can keep male pollinators aroused by preventing them from ejaculating. Thus, the unsatisfied male pollinators will keep going in search of another female—including a female-apparent flower—to mate with. Since these males are highly promiscuous, they are extremely effective in spreading orchid pollen.

Fungi cheat too. For example, truffles—mushroom-like species that form fruiting bodies underground—emit a steroid called androstenol that mimics the pheromone of wild boars. Androstenol is produced in the testes of adult boars and has a musty odor to the human nose. When female pigs sense the truffle aroma, they will dig exuberantly for the source. What they don’t know is that they are being suckered by something bearing no resemblance to the swine beau they are hoping for. The only outcome of their passionate fervor is spreading spores for the truffles. Mission accomplished for the fungi that deceive.

Complex organisms such as plants and fungi cheat; so does singlecelled life. A good example is the slime mold (or social amoeba) known by its scientific name, Dictyostelium discoideum (or “Dicty” for short). When starved, the slime mold amoeba cells gather together to form a mobile, slug-like structure. The “slug” moves as a unit until it finds a suitable spot and then grows into a fruiting body made of a spore-producing head mounted on a thin stalk. The entire thing is shaped like a lollipop or a maraca (a rattle-like percussion instrument popular in Latin America) . The cells in the head, which consists of 80% of all cells, will seed the next generation when food becomes plentiful again. The other 20% of the cells consigned to the stalk, however, rot away after completing their mission—to raise the head so that the spores can scatter far and wide, like dandelions spreading their fluffy seeds in the wind. If you were a slime cell, where would you prefer to end up—the head or the stalk of the fruiting body? The head, of course! Because only in the head do you have the opportunity to pass your genes to the next generation.

If you were a cell in the stalk, your genes would be destined for an evolutionary dead end. Who, in the biological world, wants to be relegated to an inferior status, without a chance to reproduce? Fortunately, this isn’t a major issue when amoeba cells have the same genetic makeup, like identical twins. When cells share an identical set of genes, it matters little as to which cells seed the next generation. However, when a fruiting body is made of a chimera of two or more types of cells, where many of the genes are dif­ferent, conflict ensues. They all compete to be part of the fertile head rather than play a supporting role in the sterile stalk. As one might expect, dif­ferent cells play dirty in order to make it into the prized head by any means necessary, including cheating. Some types of cells, enabled by certain genetic mutations, defraud others by sending more than their fair share of “representatives” to the head, a maneuver similar to political gerrymandering. Moreover, once they have made it to the head, they produce noxious chemicals to prevent latecomers from getting into the lifeboat for the next generation. Recent studies have revealed that more than 100 mutant genes are implicated in this amoeba cheating scam.

Copyright © 2023 by Princeton University Press

Scientists reveal mechanisms behind complex color patterns in petals

Chinese scientists have revealed the mechanisms underlying the formation of complex color patterns on Nigella orientalis (Ranunculaceae) petals.

Researchers from the Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Sciences analyzed the cellular bases, chromogenic substances, reflectance spectra, developmental processes, and underlying mechanisms of complex color pattern formation on N. orientalis petals by conducting detailed morphological, anatomical, biochemical, optical, transcriptomic and functional studies.

They discovered that the complexity of the N. orientalis petals in the color pattern is reflected at multiple levels, with the amount and arrangement of different pigmented cells being the key, according to a research paper published in the journal New Phytologist.

By tracking the formation process of color patterns, researchers also found that biosynthesis of the chromogenic substances of different colors is sequential so that one color or pattern is superimposed on another.

Expression and functional studies further revealed that a pair of R2R3-MYB genes function cooperatively to specify the formation of the eyebrow-like horizontal stripe and the Mohawk haircut-like splatters, according to the research paper.

The Unintended Consequences of AI


There is nothing new about “chatbots” that are capable of maintaining a conversation in natural language, understanding a user’s basic intent, and offering responses based on preset rules and data. But the capacity of such chatbots has been dramatically augmented in recent months, leading to handwringing and panic in many circles.

Much has been said about chatbots auguring the end of the traditional student essay. But an issue that warrants closer attention is how chatbots should respond when human interlocutors use aggressive, sexist, or racist remarks to prompt the bot to present its own foul-mouthed fantasies in return. Should AIs be programmed to answer at the same level as the questions that are being posed?

If we decide that some kind of regulation is in order, we must then determine how far the censorship should go. Will political positions that some cohorts deem “offensive” be prohibited? What about expressions of solidarity with West Bank Palestinians, or the claim that Israel is an apartheid state (which former US President Jimmy Carter once put into the title of a book)? Will these be blocked as “anti-Semitic”?

The problem does not end there. As the artist and writer James Bridle warns, the new AIs are “based on the wholesale appropriation of existing culture,” and the belief that they are “actually knowledgeable or meaningful is actively dangerous.” Hence, we should also be very wary of the new AI image generators. “In their attempt to understand and replicate the entirety of human visual culture,” Bridle observes, “[they] seem to have recreated our darkest fears as well. Perhaps this is just a sign that these systems are very good indeed at aping human consciousness, all the way down to the horror that lurks in the depths of existence: our fears of filth, death, and corruption.”

But just how good are the new AIs at approximating human consciousness? Consider the bar that recently advertised a drink special with the following terms: “Buy one beer for the price of two and receive a second beer absolutely free!” To any human, this is obviously a joke. The classic “buy one, get one” special is reformulated to cancel itself out. It is an expression of cynicism that will be appreciated as comic honesty, all to boost sales. Would a chatbot pick up on any of this?

“Fuck” presents a similar problem. Although it designates something that most people enjoy doing (copulation), it also often acquires a negative valence (“We’re fucked!” “Go fuck yourself!”). Language and reality are messy. Is AI ready to discern such differences?

In his 1805 essay “On the gradual formation of thoughts in the process of speech” (first published posthumously in 1878), the German poet Heinrich von Kleist inverts the common wisdom that one should not open one’s mouth to speak unless one has a clear idea of what to say: “If therefore a thought is expressed in a fuzzy way, then it does not at all follow that this thought was conceived in a confused way. On the contrary, it is quite possible that the ideas that are expressed in the most confusing fashion are the ones that were thought out most clearly.”

The relationship between language and thought is extraordinarily complicated. In a passage from one of Stalin’s speeches from the early 1930s, he proposes radical measures to “detect and fight without mercy even those who oppose collectivization only in their thoughts – yes, I mean this, we should fight even people’s thoughts.” One can safely presume that this passage was not prepared in advance. After getting caught up in the moment, Stalin immediately became aware of what he had just said. But instead of backpedaling, he decided to stick with his hyperbole.

As Jacques Lacan later put it, this was a case of truth emerging by surprise through the act of enunciation. Louis Althusser identified a similar phenomenon in the interplay between prise and surprise. Someone who suddenly grasps (“prise”) an idea will be surprised by what she has accomplished. Again, can any chatbot do this?

The problem is not that chatbots are stupid; it is that they are not “stupid” enough. It is not that they are naive (missing irony and reflexivity); it is that they are not naive enough (missing when naivety is masking perspicacity). The real danger, then, is not that people will mistake a chatbot for a real person; it is that communicating with chatbots will make real persons talk like chatbots – missing all the nuances and ironies, obsessively saying only precisely what one thinks one wants to say.

When I was younger, a friend went to a psychoanalyst for treatment following a traumatic experience. This friend’s idea of what such analysts expect from their patients was a cliché, so he spent his first session delivering fake “free associations” about how he hated his father and wanted him dead. The analyst’s reaction was ingenious: he adopted a naive “pre-Freudian” stance and reproached my friend for not respecting his father (“How can you talk like that about the person who made you what you are?”). This feigned naivety sent a clear message: I don’t buy your fake “associations.” Would a chatbot be able to pick up on this subtext?

Most likely, it would not, because it is like Rowan Williams’s interpretation of Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. According to the standard reading, Myshkin, “the idiot,” is a saintly, “positively good and beautiful man” who is driven into isolated madness by the harsh brutalities and passions of the real world. But in Williams’s radical re-reading, Myshkin represents the eye of a storm: good and saintly though he may be, he is the one who triggers the havoc and death that he witnesses, owing to his role in the complex network of relationships around him.

It is not just that Myshkin is a naive simpleton. It is that his particular kind of obtuseness leaves him unaware of his disastrous effects on others. He is a flat person who literally talks like a chatbot. His “goodness” lies in the fact that, like a chatbot, he reacts to challenges without irony, offering platitudes bereft of any reflexivity, taking everything literally and relying on a mental auto-complete rather than authentic idea-formation. For this reason, the new chatbots will get along very well with ideologues of all stripes, from today’s “woke” crowd to “MAGA” nationalists who prefer to remain asleep.

Courtesy: Project Syndicate

Sudden Death of a British Airways Pilot – Medical, Legal And Human Aspects


Death is the handmaiden of the pilot. Sometimes it comes by accident, sometimes by an act of God. ~ Albert Scott Crossfield ~ Medical Aspects

On 11 March 2023 an article in the U.S. Sun reported that “a British Airways pilot collapsed and died shortly before he was due to captain a packed jet. He had been preparing to fly from Cairo in Egypt to Heathrow Airport but had a heart attack in the crew’s hotel”.

Infrequently, one hears news of such a sad event:  of sudden pilot incapacitation and death, both while flying an aircraft and otherwise. The World Health Organization reported in 2020 that “in 2019, the top 10 causes of death accounted for 55% of the 55.4 million deaths worldwide. The top global causes of death, in order of total number of lives lost, are associated with three broad topics: cardiovascular (ischaemic heart disease, stroke), respiratory (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections) and neonatal conditions – which include birth asphyxia and birth trauma, neonatal sepsis and infections, and preterm birth complications”. Of this, cardiovascular disease is one of the most prominent in occurrence.

Reports of pilot deaths, particularly while piloting aircraft, sometimes appear in media reports. Aviation,  Space, and Environmental Medicine in 2012 recorded that  “In 2004 there were 16,145 UK/JAR professional pilot license holders. Of the notified medical events, 36 presented as incapacitations; half were cardiac or cerebrovascular… There were four sudden deaths. The type of incapacitation varied with age. A male pilot in his 60s had 5 times the risk of incapacitation of a male pilot in his 40s. The annual incapacitation rate was 40/16,145 = 0.25%”.

BBC on 6 October 2015 reported that “Capt Michael Johnston, 57, was flying the plane with 147 passengers and five crew on board when he “passed away while at work”, as per the announcement of the airline. It was also revealed that he had double bypass surgery in 2006.  Live Science of 27 September 2013 reported  “ A pilot’s heart attack turned a United Airlines flight to Seattle into a dramatic scene where passengers attempted to save the pilot’s life, and one helped the co-pilot make an emergency landing in Boise, Idaho. The pilot died at the hospital, according to news reports. A midair heart attack is a scary scenario for sure, but the incident last night (Sept. 26) was unusual — heart attacks on flights are rare, and deaths are even rarer. A study of medical emergencies on five major airlines over a nearly three-year period showed that, of the 12,000 passengers who experienced some form of medical emergency during a flight, 0.3 percent (38 people) suffered cardiac arrest, in which the heart stops. The number who died over the study period was 31, according to the study, which was published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine”.

Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine in March 2004 went on to say “The Chicago Convention in 1944 to standardize practices where uniformity would improve air navigation. In subsequent annexes to the original convention, the regulations that standardize personnel licensing and rules of the air were established that guide the medical requirements for pilots and aircrew today. After evaluation of available data and the potential risks at different times during a flight, ICAO set a goal of less than 1% risk of pilot incapacitation per year to guide the standards for medical examinations. Gastrointestinal issues, earaches, faintness, headache, and vertigo are the most common causes of incapacitation. Less common but more dangerous debilitations such as alcohol intoxication and sudden cardiac death have been implicated in mishaps, so screening for these risks carries high importance”.

Medical assessments carried out periodically on pilots are generally indicative of a pilot’s health but are not a guarantee against unforeseen health conditions. 

The Aeromedical Office of the Airline Pilots Association reports that approximately 42 persons with rhythm disturbances contact the office annually. “Over one half of these persons have experienced syncopal episodes, with 5 to 10 in-cockpit syncopes per year. In a review of 102 syncopes over 5 years, less than half were attributed to ventricular arrhythmias. The majority of individuals with ventricular arrhythmias were permanently disqualified from flying, while most individuals with syncope believed to be bradyarrhythmic returned to flight after evaluation.

In Western Europe cardiovascular causes are the most common cause of loss of flying license, and the main cause for disqualification of pilots on medical grounds is cardiac arrhythmia  – frequent ventricular premature beats, nonsustained VT, and paroxysmal atrial fibrillation were the most common problem arrhythmias

The evidence suggests that the incapacitation risk limits used by some states, particularly for cardiovascular disease, may be too restrictive when compared with other aircraft systems, and may adversely affect flight safety if experienced pilots are retired on overly stringent medical grounds. States using the 1% rule should consider relaxing the maximum acceptable sudden incapacitation risk to 2% per year”.

Legal and Regulatory Aspects

Legally, a pilot is in a special category: the same as a surgeon who is in charge of a person’s health and a can driver or bus driver in charge of a passenger’s security.  Only, a pilot has to ensure the safety of hundreds of passengers all at once.  Inasmuch as an airline would be guilty of negligent entrustment in handing over a plane full of passengers to an improperly licensed pilot, a pilot would be guilty of gross negligence – the highest form of negligence –  if she jeopardizes the security and safety of the passenger in her charge. 

The International Civil Aviation Organization addresses the issue of pilot’s health requirements under Annex 1 (Personnel Licensing) to the Chicago Convention of 1944 and provides further guidance in  Procedures and requirements for the assessment of medical fitness which  are contained in the Manual of Civil Aviation Medicine (Doc 8984). The International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the trade association of airlines – in its guidelines for flight crew requires the following: the absence of any medical condition or any suspected medical condition that may lead to any form of acute functional incapacity; the absence of any existing or former medical condition – acute, intermittent or chronic – that leads or may lead to any form of functional incapacity; the absence of any use of medication or substances which may impair functional capacity; minimal requirements to the necessary functions such as vision and hearing.

ICAO’s Annex 1 provides that, to satisfy the licensing requirements of medical fitness for the issue of various types of licenses, the applicant must meet certain appropriate medical requirements which are specified as three classes of Medical Assessment:  Third Class: This is the most basic of the medical exams. It is required for those attempting to earn a student pilot license, recreational pilot license, and private pilot license.; Second Class: This one is required for anyone attempting to earn their commercial pilot license; First Class: A first class medical certificate is required in order to earn a airline transport pilot certificate.

The United States Federal Aviation Administration states that the main differences between these is how in depth the exam gets and how often you have to have it done. Much of the 3 tests are very similar although the first class medical exam is required to be done annually and includes an Electrocardiogram test if the applicant over the age of 40.

.Recommendation of Annex 1 suggests that from 18 November 2010 States should apply, as part of their State safety programme, basic safety management principles to the medical assessment process of licence holders, that as a minimum include: routine analysis of in-flight incapacitation events and medical findings during medical assessments to identify areas of increased medical risk; and continuous re-evaluation of the medical assessment process to concentrate on identified areas of increased medical risk. This is followed by the recommendation that the period of validity of a Medical Assessment must begin on the day the medical examination is performed.

Here, validity means acceptance as truth or fact which would go towards recognizing a pilot’s suitability to fly an aircraft. An air carrier which wet leases an aircraft to another carrier would be guilty of negligent entrustment.  So would any air carrier who employs pilots without checking if the pilot has a valid license.

Human Aspects

Although we tend to glamourize those in aviation, from the confident captain to the glamourous cabin attendant even down to the humble chap in overalls who helps put he aircraft in the sky, they are all human, like the rest of us, subject to the vulnerabilities of humanity.  When the I was working at ICAO I once had a meeting with an airline pilot who had been commanding a flight from Europe to Asia.  His young first officer, just 38 years old, had been complaining about a pain in his back on the onward flight to Europe.  He had informed the captain that it was “just a backache” and that he would get it checked by his brother who was practicing medicine in the city they were bound for.  On the return flight the next day, over Zurich, the first officer had mentioned to the captain that his back ache had returned and that he would leave the flight deck for a few minutes to rest.  A few minutes later a visibly upset cabin crew member had rushed into the flight deck and told the captain that the first officer had died.

The captain had been grief-stricken as the first officer was a good friend as well as a trusted colleague  He had to fly alone the rest of the flight, with mental acuity and equanimity, and when I asked him how he managed the flight he said the worst feeling was the feeling of loneliness in the flight deck, which was overwhelming.  The flight deck is a lonely place, even if there are two persons in it. Dr. Vivek Murthy, one time Surgeon General of the United States writing in the Harvard Business Review said: “Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher”.

Heart attacks often come from nowhere, with no prior warning.  However, what must be borne in mind, in the case of pilots is that pilots have negative factors that affect them that other professionals may not have, such as crew fatigue due to overscheduling, disturbance of sleep cycles caused by night flying and missing family events and celebrations, not to mention being away from home constantly.  The overbearing loneliness factor may add to this.

Flight MH 370 – 9 Years On


“The loss of MH370 points us to an immediate need. A large commercial airliner going missing without a trace for so long is unprecedented in modern aviation. It must not happen again”. ~ Tony Tyler, Director General, International Air Transport Association (2014)

Just after  midnight on 8 March 2014 A Boeing 777 Malaysian Airlines aircraft operating Flight MH 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur on its  way to Beijing. 227 passengers and 12 crew were on board. A short time later, the aircraft was lost on radar between the air traffic control areas of Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City.  Neither the aircraft nor the passengers or anything related thereto has been found so far except for a part of a wing and a few other pieces seemingly coming from the aircraft which were found off the coast of the French Reunion islands, Madagascar, and Mozambique, spawning theories that the plane could have veered off to somewhere in the Indian Ocean – a fact claimed to have been supported by data driven evidence. 

All that is known is that at around 1.01 a.m. the aircraft had reached an altitude of 10,700 meters. The source of data transmission in the aircraft –  The Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) – on the performance of the aircraft had  send its last transmission at 1.07 am and blipped off at around 1:19 A.M. and at 1.21 the last communication from the crew had been recorded whereupon   the plane’s communication between the aircraft and air traffic control ceased.  This was  when the transponder that communicated with the air-traffic control had got switched off just prior to Flight MH 370 entering Vietnamese airspace over the South China Sea. 

The Theories

Theories – unsubstantiated by cogent proof  – abound.  Netflix last week came out with a three-part series which had three theories.  One was that it was the pilot who veered off into the Indian Ocean from the designated flight path and crashed the plane in the sea after it ran out of fuel. The second theory was that someone or some people hijacked the aircraft and flew it perhaps to Kazakhstan.  The third theory was that the plane was carrying dangerous cargo (which had been loaded in Kuala Lumpur under armed escort) bound for China which was effectively precluded from getting there, perhaps by someone carrying out  an armed attack on the plane in mid air.

The three theories came “supported” by some incredible facts.  With regard to the first theory, the pilot in command – a seemingly respectable and respected family man who had tons of experience as a pilot with no history of professional irregularity, could have knocked off the electronics, thus making the aircraft invisible to radar; de pressurised the cabin; and put all persons on board to sleep (while he had put on a long lasting oxygen mask and despatched the First Officer out of the flight deck and locked the door), just to trash the aircraft in the Indian Ocean when the fuel tanks emptied.  This drastic theory was based on the fact that the pilot had applied  a similar deviating route (of going way South into the Indian Ocean) on his home simulator for fun. Thankfully, all concerned ruled out the pilot theory, when the other two theories saw light.

The second theory was that there could have been a Russian connection, as three Russians were on board. One was in first class where here was a “trap door” on the floor, unlocked, which led down to the computer centre of the aircraft.  One of these three, it was surmised,  could have surreptitiously gone down and disabled all electronic functions of the aircraft, disabled the flight crew and taken the aircraft to say, Kazakhstan.

The third theory – interception – was that someone thought the huge consignment of dangerous and sensitive cargo should not have been allowed to get into the hands of the Chinese, therefore two large aircraft (with huge dishes of some sort fixed on them that could disrupt electronics on any object below them) flew over MH 370 and somehow and possibly “blew up” the aircraft when the captain of MH 370 refused the commands from above to land in some place like the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. Or the aircraft may have landed somewhere in the Indonesian Islands and that is why there is no debris flying around.

Reparation for Loss

Watching this series, I felt intensely sorry for the families left behind who were interviewed. All of the above do not help the grieving father and husband who had lost his wife and two children; a wife whose husband left for Beijing for a job; and a young wife whose husband was a member of the cabin crew on the flight. They never returned.

Technically, as both Malaysia and China have ratified the Montreal Convention of 1999, the dependants are entitled to compensation for death or injury of the passengers on board (not the crew as they were under an employment contract with the airline).  But there is a snag.  The passengers are not proven to be dead or injured. This compensation would come from the insurers of the airline.  As for Malaysia, as the aircraft bore the nationality of the State,  some accountability would have to accrue.  The BBC reported in 2014 that “the families of passengers on the missing Malaysian passenger plane have begun to receive initial compensation payments of $50,000 (£30,000). So far six Malaysian families and one Chinese family have received the money, and insurers are assessing the claims of 40 more Chinese families. Relatives of all 239 missing passengers can claim up to $175,000 each”.  How this was computed was not revealed, although in the context of Malaysian Airlines, the Montreal Convention is clear – that once death or injury is established, there will be a preliminary sum of 100, 000 Special Drawing Rights (around 132,720 US $) which is paid with no questions asked.  The plaintiffs can claim more than this amount but beyond the 100,000 SDRs the carrier can circumvent a claim for a higher amount if the carrier proves that: (a) such damage was not due to the negligence or other wrongful act or omission of the carrier or its servants or agents; or (b) such damage was solely due to the negligence or other wrongful act or omission of a third party.

There is also a provision – Article 28 – which admits of advance payments or upfront payments if required by national law, where the carrier should make advance payments without delay to a natural person or persons who are entitled to claim compensation in order to meet the immediate economic needs of such persons. Such advance payments do not presuppose a recognition of liability and may be offset against any amounts subsequently paid as damages by the carrier.  

My Take

This absolute mystery at this time of sophisticated technology available through the application of satellite tracking cries out the question “why can’t we have a system of global tracking of any aircraft wherever they are”? Admittedly, on the face of it this is a simple enough question. However, for there to be global tracking of airborne aircraft (or aircraft under the sea or anywhere in the world for that matter) there would have to be some sort of reporting apparatus installed in an aircraft. Of course, one size might not fit all types of aircraft and such a system might take years to perfect.

Whatever the cause might have been for us to believe “beyond reasonable doubt” that there are no survivors; or whether the aircraft disappeared as a result of human intervention or technical malfunction, it is not for us to question our faith in whatever religious doctrine we believe in. As someone crudely put it: “shit happens”. 

Ultimately it boils down to the grief-stricken relatives who are still waiting for an answer from the authorities. There is no point in blaming divine intervention. We bring these things upon ourselves. Rabbi Kushner has some wise words to say in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People: “The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are”. Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner, in one of his articles alludes to the possibility that : “not everything that takes place in the world has a purpose or comes from God. Efforts to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering in the world with God’s justice are a waste of time because they proceed from the false premise that everything that takes place in the world comes from God and has a purpose”.

I believe it is definitely not appropriate to ascribe the disappearance of the aircraft to an inadequacy of divine intervention. As the Dalai Lama once said: “According to the Latin root of the word “religion” would mean “to bind again”. Now how does the concept of binding or tying up come to be applied as the common term for all our various teachings? The common enemy of all moral precepts laid down by the great teachers of mankind is selfishness of mind. For it is just this which causes ignorance, anger and passion which are at the root of all the troubles of the world”.

Perhaps it all boils down to randomness, which seems to leave me with no alternative but to accept Rabbi Kushner’s wise words: “If you have been brave enough to love, and sometimes you won and sometimes you lost; if you have cared enough to try, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t; if you have been bold enough to dream and found yourself with some dreams that came true and a lot of broken pieces of dreams that didn’t, that fell to earth and shattered, then you can look back from the mountaintop you now find yourself standing on, like Moses contemplating the tablets that would guide human behavior for a millennia, resting in the Ark alongside the broken fragments of an earlier dream. And you, like Moses, can realize how full your life has been and how richly you are blessed. ”

This is how I see the passengers of Flight MH 370 to whom these thoughts are lovingly dedicated. I am still hoping  they will come back to us.

Eight Contradictions of the Imperialist ‘Rules-Based Order’


The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has now moved the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been to the symbolic time of the annihilation of humanity and the Earth since 1947. This is alarming, which is why leaders in the Global South have been making the case to halt the warmongering over Ukraine and against China. As Namibia’s Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila said, ‘We are promoting a peaceful resolution of that conflict so that the entire world and all the resources of the world can be focused on improving the conditions of people around the world instead of being spent on acquiring weapons, killing people, and actually creating hostilities’.

In line with the alarm from the Doomsday Clock and assertions from people such as Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, the rest of this newsletter features a new text called Eight Contradictions in the Imperialist ‘Rules-Based Order’ (which you can download as a PDF here). It was drafted by Kyeretwie Opoku (the convenor of the Socialist Movement of Ghana), Manuel Bertoldi (Patria Grande /Federación Rural para la producción y el arraigo), Deby Veneziale (senior fellow, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research), and me, with inputs from senior political leaders and intellectuals from across the world. We are offering this text as an invitation to a dialogue. We hope that you will read, circulate, and discuss it.

We are now entering a qualitatively new phase of world history. Significant global changes have emerged in the years since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. This can be seen in a new phase of imperialism and changes in the particularities of eight contradictions.

1. The contradiction between moribund imperialism and an emerging successful socialism led by China.

This contradiction has intensified because of the peaceful rise of socialism with Chinese characteristics. For the first time in 500 years, the Atlantic imperialist powers are confronted by a large, non-white economic power that can compete with them. This became clear in 2013 when China’s GDP in purchasing power parity (PPP) overtook that of the United States. China accomplished this in a much shorter period than the West, with a significantly larger population and without colonies, enslaving others, or military conquest. Whilst China stands for peaceful relations, the US has become increasingly bellicose.

The US has led the imperialist camp since World War II. Post-Angela Merkel and with the advent of the Ukraine military operation, the US strategically subordinated dominant sections of the European and Japanese bourgeoisie. This has resulted in weakening intra-imperialist contradictions. The US first permitted and then demanded that both Japan (the third-largest economy in the world) and Germany (the fourth-largest economy) – two fascist powers during World War II – greatly increase their military expenditure. The result has been the ending of Europe’s economic relationship with Russia, damage to the European economy, and economic and political benefits for the US. Despite the capitulation of most of Europe’s political elite to full US subordination, some large sections of German capital are heavily dependent on trade with China, much more than on their US counterparts. The US, however, is now pressuring Europe to downgrade its ties to China.

More importantly, China and the socialist camp now face an even more dangerous entity: the consolidated structure of the Triad (the United States, Europe, and Japan). The US’s growing internal social decay should not mask the near absolute unity of its political elite on foreign policy. We are witnessing the bourgeoisie placing its political and military interests over its short-term economic interests.

The centre of the world economy is shifting, with Russia and the Global South (including China) now accounting for 65% of the world’s GDP (measured in PPP). From 1950 until the present, the US share of the global GDP (in PPP) has fallen from 27% to 15%. The growth of the US’s GDP has also been declining for more than five decades and has now fallen to only around 2% per year. It has no large new markets in which to expand. The West suffers from an ongoing general crisis of capitalism as well as the consequences of the long-term tendency of the rate of profit to decline. 

2. The contradiction between the ruling classes of the narrow band of imperialist G7 countries and the political and economic elite of capitalist countries in the Global South.

This relationship has undergone a major change from the heydays of the 1990s and the height of US unilateral power and arrogance. Today, there are growing cracks in the alliance between the G7 and Global South power elites. Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, India’s largest billionaires, need oil and coal from Russia. The far-right Modi-led government represents India’s monopoly bourgeoisie. Thus, the Indian foreign minister now makes occasional statements against US hegemony in finance, sanctions, and other areas. The West does not have the economic and political ability to always provide what power elites in India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey need. This contradiction, however, has not sharpened to the degree that it can be a focal point of other contradictions, unlike the contradiction between socialist China and the US-led G7 bloc.

3. The contradiction between the broad urban and rural working class and sections of the lower petty bourgeoisie (collectively known as the popular classes) of the Global South versus the US-led imperial power elite.

This contradiction is slowly becoming sharper. The West has a great soft power advantage in the Global South amongst all classes. Yet, for the first time in decades, young Africans have come out to support the expulsion of French troops in Mali and Burkina Faso in West Africa. For the first time, the popular classes in Colombia were able to elect a new government that rejected the country’s status as a vassal outpost of US military and intelligence forces. Working-class women are at the forefront of many critical battles of both the working class and society at large. Young people are rising up against the environmental crimes of capitalism. Growing numbers of the working class are identifying their struggles for peace, development, and justice as explicitly anti-imperialist. They are now able to see through the lies of US ‘human rights’ ideology, the destruction of the environment by Western energy and mining companies, and the violence of US hybrid war and sanctions. 

4. The contradiction between advanced rent-seeking finance capital versus the needs of the popular classes, and even some sections of capital in non-socialist countries, regarding the organisation of societies’ requirements for investment in industry, environmentally sustainable agriculture, employment, and development.

This contradiction is a result of the decline in the rate of profit and the difficulty of capital to increase the rate of exploitation of the working class to a sufficient level able to finance increasing investment requirements and remain competitive. Outside of the socialist camp, in almost all of the advanced capitalist countries and in most of the Global South – with some exceptions, especially in Asia – there is an investment crisis. New types of firms have arisen that include hedge funds such as Bridgewater Associates and private equity firms such as BlackRock. ‘Private markets’ controlled $9.8 trillion worth of assets in 2022. Derivatives, a form of fictitious and speculative capital, are now worth $18.3 trillion in ‘market’ value but have a $632 trillion notional value – a value more than five times higher than the world’s total actual GDP.

A new class of information technology-based network-effect monopolies, including Google, Facebook/Meta, and Amazon – all under full US control – have emerged to attract monopoly rents. US digital monopolies, under the direct supervision of US intelligence agencies, control the information architecture of the whole world, outside of a few socialist and nationalist countries. These monopolies are the basis for the rapid expansion of US soft power in the last 20 years. The military-industrial complex, the merchants of death, also attract growing investments.

This intensified speculative and monopoly rentier accumulation phase of capital is deepening a strike by capital against necessary social investments. South Africa and Brazil have seen dramatic levels of deindustrialisation under neoliberalism. Even advanced imperialist countries have ignored their own infrastructure, such as the electricity grid, bridges, and the railway. The global elite has engineered a tax strike by providing huge reductions in tax rates and taxes as well as legal tax havens for both individual capitalists and their corporations to increase their share of surplus value.

Tax evasion by capital and the privatisation of large swathes of the public sector have decimated the availability of basic public goods like education, healthcare, and transportation for billions of people. It has contributed to Western capital’s ability to manipulate and gain high interest income from the ‘manufactured’ debt crisis facing the Global South. At its highest level, hedge fund profiteers like George Soros speculate and destroy the finance of entire countries.

The impact on the working class is severe, as their work has become increasingly precarious and permanent unemployment is destroying large sections of the world’s youth. A growing section of the population is superfluous under capitalism. Social inequality, misery, and desperation are abundant. 

5. The contradiction between the popular classes of the Global South and their domestic political and economic power elites.

This manifests quite differently by country and region. In socialist and progressive countries, contradictions amongst the people are resolved in peaceful and varied ways. However, in several countries in the Global South where the capitalist elite has been fully in bed with Western capital, wealth is held by a small percentage of the population. There is widespread misery amongst the poorest people, and the capitalist development model is failing to serve the interests of the majority. Due to the history of neocolonialism and Western soft power, there is a decidedly pro-West middle-class consensus in most of the large Global South countries. This class hegemony of the local bourgeoisie and the upper stratum of the petty bourgeoisie is used to block the popular classes (who make up most of the population) from accessing power and influence.

6. The contradiction between US-led imperialism versus nations strongly defending national sovereignty.

These nations fall into four main categories: socialist countries, progressive countries, other countries rejecting US control, and the special case of Russia. The US has created this antagonistic contradiction through hybrid warfare methods such as assassinations, invasions, NATO-led military aggression, sanctions, lawfare, trade war, and a now incessant propaganda war based on outright lies. Russia is in a special category, as it suffered more than 25 million deaths at the hands of European fascist invaders when it was a socialist country. Today, Russia – which notably has immense natural resources – is once again a target for complete annihilation as a state by NATO. Some elements of its socialist past are still present in the country, and there remains a high degree of patriotism. The US’s goal is to finish off what it started in 1992: at a minimum, to permanently destroy Russia’s nuclear military capacity and install a puppet regime in Moscow in order to dismember Russia in the long term and replace it with many smaller, permanently weakened vassal states of the West. 

7. The contradiction between the millions of discarded working-class poor in the Global North versus the bourgeoisie who dominate these countries.

These workers are showing some signs of rebellion against their economic and social conditions. However, the imperialist bourgeoisie is playing the white supremacist card to prevent a larger unity of working people in these countries. At this moment, workers are not consistently able to avoid falling prey to racist war propaganda. The number of people present at public events against imperialism has diminished precipitously over the last thirty years.

8. The contradiction between Western capitalism versus the planet and human life.

The inexorable path of this system is to destroy the planet and human life, threaten nuclear annihilation, and work against the needs of humanity to collectively reclaim the planet’s air, water, and land and stop the nuclear military madness of the United States. Capitalism rejects planning and peace. The Global South (including China) can help the world build and expand a ‘zone of peace’ and commit to living in harmony with nature.

With these changes in the political landscape, we are witnessing the rise of an informal front against the US-dominated imperialist system. This front is constituted by the convergence of:

  • Popular sentiment that this violent system is the main enemy of the people of the world.
  • Popular desires for a more just, peaceful, and egalitarian world.
  • The struggle of socialist or nationalist governments and political forces for their sovereignty.
  • The desires of other Global South countries to reduce their dependence on this system.

The main forces against the US-dominated imperialist system are the peoples of the world and the socialist and nationalist governments. However, there must be space provided for integrating governments that wish to reduce their dependency on the imperialist system.

The world currently stands at the beginning of a new era in which we will witness the end of the US global empire. The neoliberal system is deteriorating under the weight of numerous internal contradictions, historical injustices, and economic unviability. Without a better alternative, the world will descend into even greater chaos. Our movements have revived hope that something other than this social torment is possible. 

We hope that Eight Contradictions in the Imperialist ‘Rules-Based Order’ will stimulate debate and discussion and assist us in our broader Battle of Ideas against toxic social philosophies that seek to suffocate rational thought about our world.

What Google Street View Can Say About the Quality of Life in Your Neighborhood

In a remarkable new study, the broad-brush patterns between how we use and mark public space and our collective well-being were investigated in 2022 by Quynh C. Yue and colleagues who analyzed 164 million Google Street View images from locations across the United States. The study extracted information on the built environment with a focus on the directionality of traffic, the incidence of crosswalks and sidewalks, and the presence or absence of street signs, which foster way-finding. The information collected on the built environment was then compared with census-tract, health information for those neighborhoods that were included in the Google Street Views.

The researchers found that legible, accessible paths that eased movement and communication had positive health impacts. Traffic restrictions, like an abundance of single-lane roads, indicative of lower levels of urban connectivity, were correlated with chronic health conditions and lower levels of mental health. Walkability indicators such as crosswalks and sidewalks were associated with better health, including reductions in depression, obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Street signs and streetlights were also found to be associated with decreased chronic conditions. Overall, living in neighborhoods with a built environment that supports social interaction and physical activity leads to positive health outcomes.

But what factors or social mechanisms underpin these correlations? For this contemporary study, that question is not easy to answer as we neither can pinpoint the history of town/urban planning for each street view, nor do we know the governmental or individual decisions and actions that created each different community-scape. Here, turning to archives of history and ground plans of past cities may hold some clues.

Humans interact, cooperate, and form social configurations at many different scales with the sizes of our social networks highly variable. Many of us are part of household units. Members of different households often join forces or get together to form sports teams, or block associations, or work groups. Some of us live in small communities, others live in neighborhoods of variable extents, and most of us are affiliated with metropolitan areas or cities, states, nations, along professional associations, and market networks. In general, human affiliations and groupings have systems of governance that encompass the rules of the game, the norms, institutions, and modes of leadership. For humans, past and present, institutions and governance to a degree set the different parameters in which we live, work, cooperate, and interact.

Archaeologists faced with the challenge of defining the nature of, as well as variation and change in, governance over time rely on the material remains and residues of past human behaviors and actions to extract clues about politics in the past. Monumental architecture, statues of rulers, written texts, material symbols of office or the markers of royal position all can provide essential glimpses of individual aggrandizement, the personalization of clout, or alternative political forms in which power was more shared and distributed. But of late, archaeologists also have begun to examine the spatial layouts and allocations that are visible through the plans of ancient cities, arrangements of urban architectural components, and other indicators of socio-spatial behaviors to compare the variation in governance across human institutions.

In their writings, which draw on a comparative, quantitative study of 30 premodern states and empires from across the globe, Richard Blanton and Lane Fargher have made a strong case that legible and open urban plans that afford widespread access to services and power tend to be associated with more collective, less autocratic forms of governance. Urban forms, like grid systems that facilitate way-finding, allow travel and access to be more open and equal. Broad public spaces afford opportunities for the exchange of both information and material. Blanton and Fargher opine that less transparent, less efficient uses of space tend to degrade participation, voice, and economic efficacy, thereby underpinning and indicating less equal political relations and consolidations of power.

Blanton and Fargher also link variation in governance to degrees of inequality with more collective political forms fostering broader well-being and economic equity, while more autocratic regimes tend to associate with higher amounts of inequality and more disparate outcomes in regard to health and well-being. In large part, these differences correlate with the greater provisioning of public goods and services by more collective governments, which contribute to biological, material, and emotional well-being. Additionally, more autocratic regimes were found to be more prone to social disruptions and unrest, which degrade well-being. Blanton and Fargher find statistical support for these relations in their sample. Their findings, in conjunction with recent studies in other historical regions, provide strong cross-cultural indications that governance, construction and uses of social space, and well-being are all behaviorally linked.

While caution is in order, the findings from the Google Street Map study do show clearly that socio-spatial arrangements have clear and direct impacts on human health and well-being, and that the built environments that we collectively construct can signal broader values and differences in governance. In a specific recent example in the news, the shift toward autocracy in Turkey coincides with restrictions in public access to what was the largest civic space in the nation’s biggest metropolis. Human cooperation and the institutions through which we implement it take different forms. These social ties and arrangements leave discreet on-the-ground signatures. How closely do these urban signatures and patterns correspond with equity, well-being, health, and sustainability? And, how much can we learn by examining these relationships in the past? The next era of archaeological research, aiming to document the relationship between shifts in governance and changes in urban layouts and access, should provide us with important answers.

This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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