Talking More Bollocks about Cox

If you read my original Talking Bollocks About Cox and you go on to read what I have to say below, you may begin to suspect that I am just some kind of sycophantic fan-boy for the "ever-lovely Professor Brian Cox" (see below). Nothing could be further from the truth. As a Yorkshireman, my toes curl just as much as yours when he uses the Lancastrian word "sing-ging" in place of "singing" and I've even had cause to disagree with some things he has said (see eg The Science Delusion (in defence of philosophy) para 5). But when people write complete bollocks about a comrade-geek's splendid TV programmes, I simply can't restrain myself any longer.

So here's my "fisk" of an article that appeared today in the Grauniad (my bits all in blue):

Brian Cox's Human Universe presents a fatally flawed view of evolution

Humans do not stand at the top of a ladder of creation, above the apes and below the angels, superior to all other species
True(ish). It's not a ladder, it's a bush and there are no such things as angels or creation. As for "superior", that's a value judgement. Depends on your values. We are "on top" and "superior" and "above the apes" (most of us) if you measure cleverness. But have we said anything Brian would disagree with, or has misled us over, here?

In The Human Universe, Brian Cox speaks with awe and reverence of our uniqueness as a species. Photograph: BBC When I watched the first episode of Human Universe, a televisual emission on the BBC presented by the ever-lovely Professor Brian Cox, [there it is] I held my breath. I am usually allergic to tales of The Ascent of Man, but I thought – and hoped – that we’d outgrown the idea of evolution as a linear narrative leading from archaea to astronauts.

Yep. It's not "linear", it's more like a bush. But you can trace a line back from astronauts to archaea. Did he say "linear"?

So I exhaled markedly about halfway through when he lined up several skulls of antique varieties of human in order of increasing brain size, and then posited climate change as the driver for each observed increase in size. To be sure, Cox didn’t actually say that one skull was definitively ancestral to the next, but there was a definite sense of post-hoc-ery going on, as human beings adapted to each new environment by expanding their brains, rather than (say) expanding their livers, or going somewhere else, or becoming extinct.

Yep. "He didn’t actually say that one skull was definitively ancestral to the next". Yes, lots of alternative things could have happened. Yes, we didn't go extinct. We know that because we're here. What's your point?

As a child I watched the late Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man with appropriately reverential awe, and it’s clear that Cox is ploughing the same furrow. He can go further than Bronowski, though, by interposing scenic shots from the International Space Station and getting into the lives of astronauts. Fair dues, but here is the first of several too many eggs in the pudding.

He's "ploughing" a "furrow" and ending up with "too many eggs"? Yes but once he reached the top of the trees it was plain sailing from then on!

Cox talks about finding our place among the stars, when the ISS is hardly more than several solar-powered baked bean cans in low-earth orbit. Fewer than 20 people (all men) have set foot on any other body in the solar system – the moon – and none more recently than 1972. Plans to return people to the moon or go anywhere else are, to be charitable, at the pipe-dream stage. To talk of our place among the stars is at best premature, at worst hubristic.

Eh? "Several solar-powered baked bean cans"? Their contents perhaps served up with the surfeit of eggs? It takes a lot to impress you doesn't it? More seriously, Brian Cox is constantly moaning about the fact that we are not putting anything like enough effort into our space programmes, so to accuse him of hubris here is absurd.

But that’s just a quibble, an unsightly pimple on what is a greater problem. Cox speaks, with the prerequisite Bronowskian awe and reverence, of our uniqueness as a species, that we are the only species capable of doing the things we do, by virtue of attributes such as language and writing. Cox turns his boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment from the heavens to the depths of antiquity, the growth of societies and trade and how writing pulled this all together.

But we are "the only species capable of doing the things we do, by virtue of attributes such as language and writing". As for "an unsightly pimple on [..] a greater problem", let's not go there.

It’s this – the assertion of the uniqueness that makes us special – that really gets up my nose, because it’s a tautology and therefore meaningless. Giraffes are unique at doing what they do. So are bumble-bees, quokkas, binturongs, bougainvillea, begonias and bandicoots. Each species is unique by virtue of its own attributes – that’s rather the point of being a species – and human beings are just one species among many. To posit humans as something extra-special in some qualitative way is called human exceptionalism, and this is invariably coloured by subjectivity. Of course we think we’re special, because it’s we who are awarding the prizes.

No. Bumble-bees are not unique when it comes to (say) flying, because birds and bats and even some fish do that too - after a fashion. Humans are unique when it comes to our language and writing and technological achievement.

Science supposedly got out of this hubristic habit in the 1970s when a new philosophy of classification called “cladistics” was adopted, which sought to discover how species were related to one another without reference to the ancestry of any one species from any other one species. The reasoning is clear. Because it’s a fair assumption that all life descends through evolution from a common ancestor, one can safely assume that any species is a cousin in some degree of any other species, and that it’s possible to get a measure of the degree to which they are related.

Ah, "hubristic" again.

What you should never do, however, is line up a series of skulls (all of whom will be cousins) and say one was the ancestor of the other. Whereas it might be so, we could never test or falsify this assertion.

Yes. If you find a hominid skull buried in the ground, the chances are that it's not a direct human ancestor. It's almost certainly the descendent of a cousin of one of our ancestors. As has already been noted, evolution is a bush not a ladder. On the other hand, all the other homonids died out long ago, so any skull you find is likely to be much more similar to that of its (and our) shared ancestor than our skulls are to that shared ancestor. Oh and we can occasionally (admittedly very rarely) obtain DNA from ancient bones and make very testable assertions about ancestry .... though this excursion into Popperianism really isn't of any relevance here.

From this it is clear that human beings do not stand at the top of a ladder of creation, above the apes and below the angels, naturally superior to all other species. Instead, humans represent one twig in a very busy bush of twigs, each one representing one species, living or extinct.

Yep, it's a bush not a ladder. I think we know that. I think Brian knows that.

I wrote a book about all this recently – The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution – which, if I say so myself, is doing rather well, but it’s a source of frustration that Professor Cox is in a better position to get his message across: first, because he’s on TV; and, second, because he’s a lot better looking than I am. Jealous? Of course I am. But more concerned, really, than jealous, because Brian’s message (might I call him Brian? I can? Lovely!) is wrong.

Ah! You've written a book. How many culinary metaphors in there I wonder?

Do I perhaps protest too much?


When I was discussing this on the social media, my friend, the science writer and fellow golden-retriever owner Brian Clegg (another Brian: once I get Brian May on board, I’ll have the set – note to self, write an article about the relevance of badgers to interstellar dust) commented: “Funnily, I have no problem with exceptionalism. If you really doubt human beings are exceptional, please feel free to live in a house built by a bower bird, using tools made by a crow and reading all the books/watching the TV written and made by, erm, remind me which animals write books and make films?”

I think Brian Clegg (no relation I trust) has a point.

Brian (qua Clegg), who has allowed me to quote him, has a good point, but it misses the point I was making, which is essentially this: the attributes of any given species are not transferrable, because they cannot be fully appreciated by members of another species. We humans might very well write books and make TV programmes, but these seem so much more superior to, say, the tools of crows, because they are made and consumed by us, not crows. From the point of view of a crow, a human-made TV programme makes no sense at all and therefore has no value.

There was a group of philosophers-of-science based in Edinburgh and sometimes called the "Edinburgh School" who used to talk like this - and probably still do. "Barmy relativism" my Professor used to call their ideas - rather dismissively - but he was right!

Here’s another example, and perhaps a better one. We all recognise that domestic dogs are highly intelligent, social creatures. However, we do not regard them as self-aware in the same way that (we think) we are, because they cannot recognise their reflection in a mirror as belonging to them. But this test – the so-called mirror self-recognition test – is biased towards creatures for which vision is the primary sensory modality. Dogs generally have very poor vision, but this is more than compensated for by their sense of smell, which exceeds ours in sensitivity at least a hundredfold. This means that dogs can identify scents much fainter than we can detect, and also distinguish between scents.

Barmy relativism.

So when my dogs sniff a lamp post, they do so with the intensity and concentration of a master of wine. It’s no stretch to imagine that, to a dog, the scent of another dog on a lamppost has meaning in every sense as representational as a road sign, a letter, or a message. Scents on lampposts are to dogs what social media are to us: I call it SniffBook. The dogs read and appreciate the status updates left by other dogs, and sometimes leave their comments. To us, these scents are as indistinguishable and as unintelligible as a television programme is to a dog.

Barmy relativism.

Dogs can presumably recognise their own scents and tell them apart from the scents of other dogs as readily as we’d recognise our reflection in a mirror. Would we humans pass for self-aware, based on scent alone? I think not. Neither, then, should we judge the abilities of other animals by own own, unique, species-specific standards.

So what are we left with?
The only valid point in this whole diatribe is that evolution is like a bush not like a ladder. But, as has been noted, Brian knows that and I think everyone else does too. After all, I don't just have humans in my house, I have cats too and rather a lot of spiders. I can see all sorts of birds out of the window, and some bushes, and a ladder too as it happens. It's fucking obvious that evolution is more like a bush than a ladder.
So to arrange hominid skulls in a non-branching line could (I concede) potentially be slightly misleading, but "slightly misleading" a very long way from a "fatal flaw". In any case, where were we actually misled?
We weren't
I too find most television programmes as indistinguishable and as unintelligible as my cats do (I haven't got a dog) but Brian's programme was a very welcome exception. This article, on the other hand, .............