The Tickle Stick

The Tickle Stick: The Importance of Happiness and How to Get It

Professor Lord Layard, Professor Heather Widdows and Nic Marks Organized by the Centre for Inquiry UK and Conway Hall Ethical Society at the Conway Hall on 22 November 2014

Professor Lord Layard is a labour economist currently working as director of Well-Being Programme at the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance. He was one of the first economists to work on happiness and co-edited the 2012 World Happiness Report.

Professor Heather Widdows. John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics, Department of Philosophy, University of Birmingham. “More perfect, more happy?”

Professor Widdows will consider whether and in what ways appearance and body image – being perfect – is connected to happiness. A current prevalent assumption is that those who are more perfect will be happier. Many women (and men) judge themselves and others on how much they ‘fit’ the dominant ideal, on how perfect they are, and their sense of self often follows from this. That being perfect connects to being happy is often assumed: ‘if I’m thinner, prettier, sexier s/he’ll love me more’ or ‘if I was ten pounds lighter, I’d be happier with myself and my life would go better’.

In checking whether here was any organization with the word “happiness” in the title, his colleague was told:

Your search for happiness has produced no results

The best state of human affairs is when there is the most happiness and the least misery. This has been the best idea of the past 300 years, and represented progress from the age of superstition. This idea is often misunderstood by critics who think that the only thing we want is happiness for ourselves, that this is a selfish idea. In contrast, we start with society and see that, in order to arrive at a good situation for society, individuals must take action to promote the happiness of other people. So, we’re not promoting selfishness at all.

How should we live to produce as much happiness as we can? How should we organize political life and political institutions?

Thomas Jefferson thought that the only legitimate objective of government was to promote the happiness of its people. For a long time this powerful idea did a lot of good, but in the early 20th century it fell out of fashion. Psychologists decided they couldn’t know anything about happiness and economists agreed, paving the way for that abysmal way of measuring the welfare of society by GDP. With the new science of happiness, psychologists changed their minds.

Over the past 20 or so years there has been no rise in happiness in countries that have become richer.

Wellbeing and Public Policy is the nearest thing to the Bible of happiness studies. The object of government is happiness and not wealth.

We can measure happiness by asking people how happy they are, and their answers do convey valuable information. What causes feelings of happiness? Income is correlated with happiness to only a tiny degree. The fraction of variation in happiness is a mere 1%. It’s true that rich people are happier than poorer people, so why hasn’t happiness increased over time? The reason is that people compare their own income with some norm, and it’s a zero sum game. The most important point is that the idea of “getting on” and “getting ahead” are an absolutely fallacious way to produce happiness: if one person goes up, someone else has to go down. It’s an appalling objective for society.

The Department of Education had a “getting ahead” sign to remind everyone what the objective of education is. It’s a hopeless aim! Society needs to look for positive sum games.

Do you think that most other people can be trusted? Only about 30% in the UK and in the US say yes; it used to be 60%. The figure has fallen as we’ve encouraged a competitive culture.


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A duplicitous charade

Hazel Blears is not the only politician who enjoins people “to understand what is the true message of each religion” (see Doctrine esteems division not truth). As Matthew Syed observes (Who are the true Muslims – all or none?), both Barack Obama and Tony Blair resort to a similar language, in this case, when they condemn the so-called Islamic State:

Blair said that Isis possesses “an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message” while Obama went even further, saying: “[Isis] is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of [its] victims have been Muslim… [it] is a terrorist organisation, pure and simple.”

I agree with Syed that the idea of “real” and “false” Muslims — or by extension “real” and “false” Christians — is ephemeral:

With something like science, people who disagree with each other examine the evidence. They debate, they argue, they perform experiments. Sadly, this approach is not available for religious disputes. People with theological differences tend to appeal to divine revelation and differing interpretations of manuscripts that were written centuries ago. This is a problem when it comes to resolving differences, particularly when those manuscripts contain passages that seem, on a cursory reading, to condone violence.

The elephant in the room is of course religion:

It is the idea of received wisdom, divine revelation, the notion that “I have heard the Truth” and that everyone else is deluded. This is the corrupting, anti-rational, distorting engine of religious violence in the Middle East, just as it once triggered Christianity into a bloody civil war.

Today, and illustrating just how much Christianity has been watered down, most Christians “associate truth with evidence, reason and other Enlightenment ideals.”

The one point Syed makes with which I would take issue is his scepticism towards “a rational means of figuring out which of the subgroups has a hotline to God.” It is perfectly straightforward to imagine a situation in which a methodological naturalism could discover a metaphysical supernaturalism. Take any one of the so-called faith healers who have been scamming the gullible for centuries, let them step forward and perform a truly inexplicable “miracle” such as the regrowth of an amputated limb. Such limbs grow every day within the wombs of women all over the world, so it shouldn’t be beyond the ability of someone with a hotline to God.

In any case, it would be hard to explain such an event by appeal to naturalism, and to the extent it was credible and replicable it would also have to be taken as evidence of the supernatural. But, just as no paranormalist has ever claimed the large prize offered by James Randi, we are still waiting for a convincing demonstration of the kind of power the religious assert exists in the universe.

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A brick kiln is no substitute for secularism

To understand the benefits of secularism for both religious and non-religious citizens, it’s instructive to observe what happens in the absence of secularism. Modern Pakistan is an example of a country in which blasphemy is on the increase, according to this piece by Kunwar Shahid:

Between 1986 and 2013 there were 1,274 formal blasphemy accusations, compared to only 14 between 1947 and 1986.

Shahid reports on several Christians who have been accused of blasphemy in recent years, including Asia Bibi, “convicted of blasphemy for allegedly making derogatory remarks about [the] Prophet Muhammad in 2010” and sentenced to death by Lahore High Court, with all appeals to pardon her having been rejected. Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl, managed to flee to Canada after being accused of burning pages of the Quran.

Burning pages of a holy book may cause offence to those who hold that book sacred, but the harm caused is hardly on the scale of suffering of a person who is burned alive. For the devout Muslims in Lahore’s Kot Radha Kishan suburb, outraged when they heard that a Christian woman had burned the holy Quran, a proportionate response was the last thing on their minds:

Soon after the pre-dawn prayers on Tuesday, the prayer leader at the mosque of Chak No 59 switched on the loudspeaker and made [an] incendiary announcement, urging all the male members of the village to gather at a brick kiln in the area.

The cleric is quoted as saying:

O villagers, I have a sad news for you. A Christian woman has burned the holy Quran. Therefore, all reasonable men and even young male children (of this village) are requested to converge at the brick kiln as early as possible…

To secularists in Britain, this is shocking not only because it is such a disproportionate and violent response but because it is wholly contrary to the fundamental secular principle of tolerance to all, regardless of their religion. Without the protection of secularism, in Pakistan, for example, “you can be jailed for reading the Quran if you happen to belong to the Ahmaddiya sect.”

Whatever we think of blasphemy, it doesn’t seem a good enough reason — what could be? — for an enraged mob to first torture and then burn alive a man and his pregnant wife. But then religious belief is itself grossly disproportionate, since it is rooted in faith, an epistemic strategy that disregards the proportioning of conviction to the available evidence.

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That gender thing

Tim Lott writes a self-deprecating introduction to what is actually a not too nauseating list of ten things he “may have learned” about marriage. There’s the usual guff about love being a “language” and an admirably concise entry on the importance of sex:

Do I really need to elucidate?

Of course not, because we all know that sex within a relationship is a Good Thing for all sorts of reasons that we really don’t need to go into. Except, we’re likely to leave out the one reason why there is such a thing in the first place: to propagate genes into the next generation. One clue that Lott isn’t thinking in Darwinian terms is his use of the word “evolution” in Number 6, where its meaning has nothing to do with change due to natural selection.

More interesting from a properly evolutionary perspective is Number 5 on the list, “That gender thing”:

Whether it’s cultural or biological, men and women tend to see the world through separate lenses, have different priorities and different ways of communicating. You can take the view that the sexes are fundamentally the same, and good luck with that as they say. I am not going to be so foolhardy as to reveal my take on what the differences are. I’m merely saying that if husbands and wives don’t take some account of gender variables, they are missing an important part of the jigsaw.

Although he recognizes that this is a minefield and he’s sensibly keeping quiet on just what he thinks the differences are, he is certain that there are differences between the sexes. So far, so good. He’s also sure that these are either “cultural or biological” differences — and here he’s perhaps unwittingly buying into the “ancient dualism” identified by Tooby and Cosmides (see Challenging a narrow view of culture).

Finding the sharp boundary dividing culture and biology may be as fruitless a task as separating out the effects of nature and nurture, or of identifying the ingredients that went into baking a cake. Lott is right that we’re “missing an important part of the jigsaw” but can only point vaguely to “gender variables” — whatever they are. He seems unaware that the missing piece for most people is to be found within evolutionary biology and, especially, within evolutionary psychology.

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The Dark Net

The Dark Net: What Happens Under the Conditions of Anonymity?

Jamie Bartlett at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit on 18 November 2014

Bartlett will talk about his new book, The Dark Net, an exploration of some of the net’s most shocking and unexplored subcultures. This includes the worlds of uncensored drugs markets, internet trolling, neo-Nazis, child pornography, bitcoin and crypto-anarchy. He will examine how people behave under the conditions of real or perceived anonymity online, and what it means for society today.

Who are the internet trolls? Jamie Bartlett has just spent a difficult year finding out. He immersed himself in several shocking subcultures, such as pro-anorexia and pro-suicide sites, neo-Nazis, Bitcoin programmers in Barcelona, and buying drugs off the Silk Road. The overriding emotion threading through all this diversity was one of moral ambiguity: you’d think it would be simple to decide what’s good and what’s bad, but that wasn’t always the case.

He approached the study as a journalist, as objectively as he could and without judgement, and the following are three stories that came out of his investigation.

The first story is about the new drugs markets that have proliferated on the Silk Road. These sit on hidden TOR browsers, which preserve IP secrecy. These servers can’t be located, and they are the Wild West of the internet, where more or less anything goes. They host anything from wikileaks to the new Aphex Twin album to illegal pornography.

The Silk Road looks a lot like Amazon or eBay, with products listings and descriptions and buttons to add to basket and so on. There’s a huge choice, including an amazing range of drugs (even so, the most popular item this April 2014 were fake Tesco £20 vouchers). A further similarity to more familiar marketplaces is that every product is rated by users, and vendors really care about their ratings.

As in any genuine marketplace, one heuristic is to follow what others recommend, and so user reviews of products become very important. Drug dealers selling on the Silk Road are in fact incredibly polite, and the vendor Bartlett bought off ended his email with “kind regards”.

The real innovation has been to introduce market values into what had previously been dominated by monopolies and cartels and the kind of strong-arm tactics that are necessary when dealing drugs on the street.

Bartlett went into these transactions thinking that it was obviously really bad to make all kinds of drugs so easily available at the click of a mouse. By the end he could see that it was in many ways better than scoring drugs on street corners and a whole lot safer. Given that eliminating drugs is probably not going to happen any time soon, it’s preferable for them to be traded within this kind of marketplace.

The most surprising statistic was that the users’ overall satisfaction score was 4.9: users are very satisfied.

The second story is about nationalist groups. These were early adopters of social media, which they used very effectively to organize meetings and demonstrations. Bartlett interviewed Paul (not his real name) several times. Paul is a neo-Nazi with an incredibly vicious online personality, and yet when Bartlett met Paul he found that on a personal level he liked him, and could relate to him (until they started talking politics).

He had been sucked into the world of far-right politics through the EDL, and began spending more and more time online, until he became a moderator. At last, he had a bit of power and he loved it. He ended up leaving the EDL and starting up his own brand far-right nationalism. Who is he offline contrasts with who is trapped within the digital personas he has created for himself.

The success of social media is partly due to drawing in all kinds of people prepared to put in the hours online, including a 16-year-old girl who ran the Twitter account. Disputes can now be over passwords for Facebook pages.

The third story is a disturbing one about child abuse. It raises the question, do images of something that is easy to access encourage criminal behaviour? Michael (not his real name) is a convicted sex offender, who described what turns out to be a typical way into viewing these images. He’s in his 50s, and drifted out of the grey area of barely legal pornography into the age range 14–18 and then younger and younger ages. While some men stay above the legal threshold, Michael imperceptibly went younger and younger, and says that while he used to feel terrible accessing images of children of 8–9 he somehow convinced himself that, not only was it not illegal it was not even wrong.

This story highlights the importance of individual responsibility, since there’s no way a government is ever going to remove all child porn from the internet.

In conclusion, he found these people — even those in trolling groups — far more morally complex, interesting and multifaceted than he had thought when he started out.


The evidence of a link between virtual and actual physical abuse is both inconclusive and controversial. In any case, children are still being harmed even if the viewers of the images are not doing the harming. The difficult question that isn’t going to go away is: what about virtual images?

There is a problem for journalists who have to report on horrific actions such as the beheadings documented in Jihadi videos. In doing so, they also do exactly what the perpetrators want them to do, which is to publicize these actions.

There are actually more freedom fighters and human rights activists on the secret TOR servers, with happen to also have some drugs on the side. There are many reasons why guaranteed anonymity is essential, if you’re reporting on human rights abuses in totalitarian states, for example. Contrary to some views that see the Islamic state as quite sophisticated in its use of social media, actually everything it does is pretty basic.

Internet trolling is not a new phenomenon, but began in the 70s when programmers — “keyboard warriors” — would engage in massive spats over minor coding issues. Some of the best trolls have actually been highly creative, such as Chris Morris and Steve Colbert. Trolling is less to do with trolls and more of a fishing term, where a baited line is dragged across water to see what bites. For some it’s creative, for others, especially on Twitter, it’s simply a chance to scream abuse, the equivalent of shouting at the TV. The online disinhibition effect allows all sorts of guff to be uttered.

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What good is half an eye?

Almost as remarkable as the wonderful fact that evolution by natural selection — unguided by any intelligence — can produce life on earth is the dismal fact that intelligent theologians — guided by unintelligent faith — can promote untruths about evolution. Alvin Plantinga is actually well-disposed towards evolution, at least compared with many believers, and he appears to be well-informed. So it was something of a surprise to read his following claim (Dennett and Plantinga 2011:13):

The eye, the mammalian brain, and other organs remain difficult problems for unguided evolution.

Do they? Only last week at the Royal Institution, evolutionary biologist Professor Andreas Wagner referred to the apparently entirely uncontroversial claim that innovations such as wings and eyes have evolved, independently, many times. Buss deals with this classical objection as follows (208:9):

How could a partial wing help a bird, if a partial wing is insufficient for flight? How could a partial eye help a reptile, if a partial eye is insufficient for sight? Darwin’s theory of natural selection requires that each and every step in the gradual evolution of an adaptation be advantageous in the currency of reproduction. Thus, partial wings and eyes must yield an adaptive advantage, even before they evolve into fully developed wings and eyes.

This objection is therefore surmountable (for more, see The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins). Given Plantinga’s claim that he has learned his evolution from writers like Dawkins, are we to conclude he was not the most attentive of students?

One clue as to how Plantinga has been guided into error is the kind of authority to which he appeals for the above claim (12):

Going all the way back to St. George Mivart, critics have expressed serious doubts as to whether the eye, for example, could have come to be by way of unguided natural selection…

St. George Jackson Mivart was actually a distinguished 19th-century scientist as well as a convert to Catholicism. However, Plantinga ought to realize that what counts as an overwhelming problem for one generation of scientists may have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction in the next, and so citing the previous generation’s anxieties gives a distorted picture of the current state of knowledge.

In any case, even in his own time Mivart had his critics. Here is Sir James Fitzjames Stephen replying to Mivart’s What Is the Good of Truth? (in McCarthy 1986:43):

I am… so completely puzzled by Mr. Mivart’s logic, that I do not propose to attempt to follow it any further.

Stephen was one of England’s outstanding lawyers, and no slouch when it came to understanding and unpicking an argument. So, if we are likewise puzzled by Plantinga’s logic, we are not alone and perhaps we should not feel so bad.

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As You Like It

By William Shakespeare Directed by Declan Donnellan Presented by Cheek by Jowl Screening at the Noël Coward Theatre on 16 November 2014

Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod gave a rousing and brief introduction, Declan Donnellan somewhat shell-shocked to already be part of an archive (he’s been doing Cheek by Jowl for 33 years), and that some of the people in the audience hadn’t even been born when this show was originally staged. This particular production was special in all sorts of ways, and its recording by the V&A was an amazing piece of luck and foresight. He’s right about the specialness of this production: my own memory is not good when it comes to even remembering that I’ve seen a show, especially as far back as the 90s. Out of the hundreds of shows I saw during that decade, I remember this one as having an amazing impact on me, for all sorts of reasons. It was a real pleasure to see the film, which reminded me of some of those reasons why it was such a landmark production, and which also in part dispelled my reservations about watching theatre on a two-dimensional screen. Watching the film in the theatre where I saw the show, with a live audience, helped. Also, the living, breathing, moving actors were entirely absent. A certain Adrian Lester was sat in the seat in front of us (with his wife and two daughters), and Scott Handy was a couple of rows away. In fact, enough of the original cast and production team were there to form an impressive lineup on stage and take some well-deserved applause.

But, to what really matters, which is the play itself. The colour- and gender-blind casting of Lester as Rosalind is obviously one of the noteworthy decisions. For me, however, having now seen the play many, many times, more important from a dramatic point of view was the particular interpretation he embodied. Many Rosalinds begin as they mean to go on — the confidence with which this character ends the play is there at the beginning, as Celia almost plays second fiddle from their first scene together. Not so here. Lester’s Rosalind is studious (she wears glasses and always has her head in a book), and deferential towards the more dominant Celia. (Was this one way in for a male actor taking on a female role? To turn down the volume to ensure all traces of maleness were eliminated?)

The really astonishing decision, which perhaps found an easier origin in an all-male company, was to have Rosalind expect to be recognized by Orlando when they first meet in the Forest of Arden, and to be surprised when he doesn’t. She reacts to his blank look with confusion, bitterness, anger, humiliation — a whole mix of emotions excluding humour. In a play with so much to laugh about and at, here is one key moment when there is nothing funny at all, and yet it is a magnificent moment.

The play begins with a now conventional empty space, and the all-male cast all on stage, dressed in black trousers, white shirts and black braces. The first words are (2.7.142–43):

All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players…

There’s a pause after “men” to allow the group to divide, with the male characters moving stage left, and another pause after “women” to allow a much smaller group (Celia and Rosalind) to move stage right.

The first action is Adam washing some brown stuff off the forearms of Orlando as he recounts his unequal treatment at the hands of Oliver (which picks up on the image of the animals on his brother’s dunghills). When Oliver enters, he confirms Orlando’s report, laughing scornfully at Orlando’s request to be allowed “such exercises as may become a gentleman” (1.1.48–49). The very idea!

In a play that celebrates the liberation of pretence, of counterfeiting, Shakespeare also reminds us there is a darker side to our inability to see past appearances. Charles has charitably come to Oliver to warn him that he means to wrestle for his credit, and may injure Orlando. Oliver confides in Charles that “there is not one so young and so villainous this day living” (101–2). This goes against the general impression of Orlando, who is “full of noble device” and “enchantingly beloved” by everyone. Here, in Oliver’s soliloquy — “that I am altogether misprised” (111) — is the motive for his hatred of his brother. (When he himself is “enchantingly beloved” — by Celia — we will witness his character’s reformation.)

The presence of goodness, or beauty, making badness, or plainness, appear even worse than it is is a theme of the play. Duke Frederick himself had to banish his own brother to gain preeminence, and he instructs his own daughter that she suffers in comparison with Rosalind. Mind you, when we first see Celia and Rosalind together, it is Celia who has the upper hand, literally, as she strokes a recumbent Rosalind. Celia seems the clever one, more resourceful (after all, it’s she who suggests escaping the court), and Rosalind is studious, taking notes as Celia talks.

They seem to find Touchstone tedious, or at least neither that interesting nor that funny. They’re much more absorbed in each other, and even have a little ritual which they perform whenever a man is mentioned: they kiss whatever book they’re holding and wave it in a circle twice around their head. It’s as if, to maintain their female friendship, they must ward off all masculinity with a little spell. This generates powerful emotions later.

For now, they must watch that most masculine of all sporting contests, the wrestling. Le Beau neatly arranges the black rope in a circle, to mark out the ring, and Celia, a little petulantly, a little rebelliously, gives one section a sharp kick, making an ugly indent in an otherwise perfect circle.

Celia finds it very funny that Orlando thinks he’s up for this match (1.2.122–23):

You have seen cruel proof of this man’s strength…

She is making fun of all men and their ridiculous attempts to impress women, and seems determined to remain aloof. Rosalind stands aside, still serious, not joining in her friend’s mockery.

The wrestling itself is brilliantly done, with six actors each picking one part of the rope and then rotating as Orlando and Charles really go for it, throwing each other, kicking, gouging and even biting (Orlando anticipating Suarez at one point). The movement of the six actors, who are chanting as well as moving in a circle, provide a dynamism that adds to what can sometimes otherwise seem a tame affair, and a claustrophobia that exaggerates the jeopardy: it’s do or die for Orlando as the world closes in on him.

Duke Frederick is about to present a breathless Orlando with a medal for his achievement, but withholds it when he learns of the victor’s parentage. Celia congratulates him, less than fulsomely (178):

Sir, you have well deserved…

She pats him on the head, as if she doesn’t want to get too close to a sweating man who’s only just put his shirt back on. Her patronizing gesture paves the way for Rosalind taking off her necklace and holding it out to the still-kneeling Orlando, who doesn’t quite know what to do. The pause lets this tableau sink in, and expands the silence in which he fails to speak, until she moves forward and awkwardly places the necklace around his neck, completing the action that her uncle interrupted.

Celia’s strength of character comes through when she speaks truth to power (1.3.63):

It was your pleasure, and your own remorse…

Her father slaps her face for her forthrightness — no wonder she grabs hold of Rosalind’s hand as she makes a passionate defence of her friend (66–69):

… We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together,
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.

Rosalind, however, pulls her hand away, perhaps beginning to see that she will need independence in matters of the heart, anticipating her response to Celia’s question (93):

Shall we be sundered? Shall we part, sweet girl?

Celia, once dominant, now pleads, and shows some vulnerability at the prospect of their separation. One sign of her desperation is her plan to flee the court — she cannot bear to be alone and almost any risk is worth taking.

The banished duke is played as if he hasn’t quite got a full bag of marbles. Kneeling on the floor, he shakes a handful of pebbles and throws them on the ground (2.1.17):

Sermons in stones…

One lord, behind him, puts his head in his hands at this latest folly. Like Touchstone, he has perhaps been led into Arden not entirely willingly.

This head-in-hands gesture is repeated by Celia as she listens, perhaps for the umpteenth time, to Touchstone’s recounting of his love life, of “the cow’s dugs that her pretty chopt hands had milked” (2.4.40) — too much information!

Celia’s initiative has unwittingly handed Rosalind the dominant role: she came up with the escape plan and naturally chose to put herself “in poor and mean attire” (1.3.106), leaving Rosalind the freedom to choose to suit her “all points like a man” (112). It’s comically clear that this occurred to Rosalind in the excitement of the moment and that she hasn’t really thought it through. She is not used to taking the lead, but now circumstances force her to into an unaccustomed role (relative to both her personality and to the expectations of society). When she first speaks to Corin, we see Lester gently adjust his stance, stretching his left leg forward a little to adopt a more manly pose.

Corin isn’t fooled, or at least he seems to sense who’s boss, and sits next to Celia, who is then subjected to a yokel’s drawl more infuriating, and also slightly scary, than Touchstone’s banter. In fact, she takes Touchstone’s hand as security, as she endures Corin’s creepy attention.

We only notice how gloomy the court has been when Orlando enters to the sound of trumpets and the sight of green banners unfurling to represent the trees of Arden (3.2.1):

Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love…

A few lines later he unwittingly reveals a connection to the bookish Rosalind: “these trees shall be my books” (5).

Corin is already measured in his delivery, but he inserts a big fat pause before “sheep” as he reflects “that good pasture makes fat sheep” (the closeup on the grin that slowly and briefly lights up his otherwise grim demeanour gets a big laugh).

Touchstone mocks Corin for his lack of philosophy, but in fact the shepherd sensibly regards manners as context dependent: you don’t behave in court as you would in the country, and vice versa (an observation that was first made, I think, by an actual ancient philosopher).

When Rosalind finally gets confirmation that it’s Orlando who’s been leaving love poems on the trees (her blind spot here anticipating Orlando’s), she almost does a jig around the whole forest (172):

Did he ask for me?

Lester delivers the two simple syllable “such fruit” (182) with such lasciviousness that the adults in the audience laugh and his daughters squirm. As Celia describes him, lying down, “stretched along like a wounded knight” (185), so too does Rosalind lie down, kicking her heels on the floor at the thought of him.

The thought of him is one thing, his reality quite another. She approaches tentatively where he is sitting down. I think the line “I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit play the knave with him” (226–27) was cut, and instead, and for what seems like an eternity while he looks blankly up at her, she looks down at him, inviting him to recognize her, expecting him at any moment to see through her disguise. Her playful expression drains as it dawns on her he really does have no idea who she is, and she simply asks:

Do you hear, forester?

He replies:

Very well: what would you?

By now she is having to control a rising tide of emotions, which are threatening to turn what should have been a happy reunion into a horrible rejection (is it possible he does recognize her but is choosing to pretend that he doesn’t?).

The next question is put more sharply (229):

I pray you, what is’t o’clock?

It’s a trick question, which enables her follow-up, spoken with some bitterness (231):

Then there is no true lover in the forest…

GBs. Lester gives the word “pain” (244) an extra emphasis, coming as it does at the end of a phrase full of bitter irony:

…he feels no pain…

Rosalind’s anger simmers, surfacing again when a demure, Welsh-speaking Phoebe falls in love with her at first sight, and she has to whisper in her ear that she is “not for all markets” (3.5.61). She leaves Phoebe alone with Silvius, who slumps down in front of his beloved, glad simply to be in her presence. Phoebe delivers her speech on the “pretty youth” (110–34) while looking longingly in Rosalind’s direction, and while fondling and groping an ecstatic Silvius, who can only imagine her caresses are intended for him.

Meanwhile, Rosalind doesn’t quite know what to do when Jaques, who’s in one of his more melancholy moods (and thinking he is Ganymede — the name of Jove’s beautiful pageboy). He moans that his is a special melancholy, all of his own, “compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects” (4.1.12). In fact, he’s depressed because he’s just made a pass at the departing Silvius, who takes the proferred cigarette and continues on his way with a blokish “cheers, mate” attitude. Not at all what the ageing queen was after, who now rests his head in Ganymede’s lap, hoping for a little more affection.

He stands no chance with the appearance of Orlando, but he lingers past his exit, and so Rosalind makes sure there’s no misunderstanding: on “chide God” (25) she places Jaques’s hand inside her doublet to leave him no option but to flounce out, disappointed yet again.

She quickly gets on Orlando’s tits as well, as she cuts too close to the male bone by talking about snails and horns and preventing “the slander of his wife” (43). It’s Orlando’s turn to feel anger, and he slaps Rosalind hard on the cheek.

The strange thing is, Rosalind is actually enjoying the male role so much that, even now that she has the opportunity to “pretend” to be herself with Orlando, she, perhaps unconsciously, continues down the route of laddish banter she began with the reference to cuckoldry. When Orlando asks if she will have him, she replies (81):

Ay, and twenty such.

Orlando is surprised, to say the least, that his future wife might admit to a promiscuous sexual appetite that will not be satisfied with one husband. And why not? If her husband is good, “then, can one desire too much of a good thing?” (85).

This is enough to wind up any man, coming from another man, but it is nothing compared to the next trap Rosalind lays for Orlando, when she imagines him meeting his wife’s wit going to his neighbour’s bed (119–22):

ORLANDO. And what wit could wit have to excuse that?
ROSALIND. Marry, to say she came to seek you there.

This is no merely academic exercise of the imagination, but an exquisitely constructed device to test this potential mate’s commitment to their future relationship, by bringing into the open the real possibility that both partners may be tempted to break that commitment and divert reproductive and economic resources to another party. Dramatically, and brilliantly in this production, it also tests Orlando’s patience to breaking point, so that, when she exclaims “ so, come, death!” (131) he returns on stage giving her a slow hand clap. He has not enjoyed this exchange one bit. Rosalind gives him an earful, warning him not to be “the most pathetical break-promise” (135) and ends with (140–41):

…let time try.

Over and above all vows and promises, it is time that is the ultimate commitment device for long-term mateships: will they be together a year from now, two years, ten?

When they meet Rosalind pauses as if she’s considering whether she should reveal herself. She decides against it, and continues (5.2.41):

Believe then, if you please, that I can do strange things…

They are joined by Phoebe and Silvius, all four snuggling up beneath a blanket as if in bed. Three of these lovers are soon wailing their lot, and Rosalind has to bring them to order (84–85):

Pray you no more of this. ’Tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon.

However, she hasn’t counted on the volatile Phoebe (89):

I will marry you…

Phoebe screams in delight and leaps up at the news, not waiting to hear the condition that follows this promise. Big laugh.

The blanket is soon reused, this time for Touchstone and Audrey and the two pages, who sing “It was a lover and his lass” so beautifully that even Audrey, joining in with her trademark yodel, is compelled to keep time and tune. She also joins in to help out Touchstone’s elaborate explanation of the seventh cause. He gallops through this at a heck of a pace, she chipping in the replies.

The revelation scene is astonishing. When Rosalind speaks to Orlando for the first time as herself, “I am yours” (5.4.90), he turns and walks away. She throws down her bouquet, believing that she is being jilted at the alter and turns to her father. She is mistaken, and Orlando returns, and they kiss, the cast applauding (and Lester’s daughters squirming, again).

The duke presents his ducal medal to Orlando on “potent dukedom” (143), and then Orlando presents the medal to Rosalind, and all kneel before her as their lawful ruler. Celia, with an expression that looks as if she’s sucking on a lemon, reluctantly kneels, and is the first to get up. Meanwhile, Jaques has finally met someone who is prepared to requite his advances: he and Hymen embrace.

Just before this screening, we’d had our first gander round the Witchcraft exhibition at the British Museum, and on the timeless Shakespeare gets a mention: almost every single of his plays contains a reference to witchcraft. As You Like It is no exception, but the way magical words are used implies no endorsement of the supernatural. For example, halfway through the epilogue, Rosalind says (179):

My way is to conjure you…

She conjures with reasons, not with spells. A couple of lines later, Lester removes the earrings and hair band and finishes Rosalind’s speech almost in his own persona. At the very least, several layers of counterfeiting have been removed, and we are gently released back into our own worlds.

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Notoriously open to rival interpretations

Just as reading the Bible (reading the whole thing and not just cherry-picking the “good” bits) has turned many believers into atheists, recognizing the existence of multiple interpretations ought to have a similar effect. We would expect a powerful agent with good intentions and the desire to communicate an important message to as wide an audience as possible to do his or her best to remove as much ambiguity from the message as humanly possible. If this agent is also divine and said to be all powerful and all good, then we’d certainly expect the resulting message to be absolutely unambiguous, with no room whatsoever for interpretation.

The Bible is believed by some to be the Word of God, and yet it can be interpreted by even adherents of the same sect in completely opposite ways (see A family who disagree and Doctrine esteems division not truth).

In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes about the nature of artifacts (1997:328–29):

Daniel Dennett proposes that the mind adopts a “design stance” when dealing with artifacts, complementing its “physical stance” for objects like rocks and its “intentional stance” for minds. In the design stance, one imputes an intention to a real or hypothetical designer. Some objects are so suited to accomplishing an improbable outcome that the attribution is easy. As Dennett writes, “There can be little doubt what an axe is, or what a telephone is for; we hardly need to consult Alexander Graham Bell’s biography for clues about what he had in mind.” Others are notoriously open to rival interpretations, like paintings and sculpture, which are sometimes designed to have an inscrutable design. Still others, like Stonehenge or an assembly of gears in a shipwreck, probably have a function, though we don’t know what it is. Artifacts, because they depend on human intentions, are subject to interpretation and criticism just as if they were works of art, an activity Dennett calls “artifact hermeneutics.”

Alongside paintings and sculpture Pinker could have listed the Bible as perhaps one of humankind’s most magnificent artifacts, if we are judging magnificence in terms of how wide open the artifact is to rival interpretations.

Why would a divine author produce a document that looks as if it’s the product of human intentions and, like every other artifact, subject to precisely the same kind of interpretation and criticism? The existence of such interpretations and criticism is therefore a strong argument in favour of atheism.

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Causing the right mutations

In the Q&A at the end of Arrival of the Fittest, Andreas Wagner referred to the range of mutational effects on an organism: the majority of these are harmful in some way, and a very few are actually improvements. The surprise to some of us was how many (about 30%) have no effect at all.

In Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins emphasizes that while mutation can be random, “it is not critical to the theory that mutation must be random”; the contrast is between mutation as a cause of change and selection, which definitely is not random (Dawkins 2006c:73).

In listening to and reading scientists such as Wagner and Dawkins, it’s clear that no evolutionary biologist thinks of mutations as causeless, nor do evolutionary biologists believe their causes lie in anything other than small-scale physical processes. They most certainly do not consider the possibility that mutations are caused by an intelligent agent. For that hypothesis, one must turn to a theologian.

Most modern theologians have ditched the creationism that was once taken for granted and become accustomed to the idea that organic structure changes over time and was not fixed at the point of creation. Those that do not reject Darwin’s theory out of hand must obviously resist treading the primrose path from evolution to atheism. Alvin Plantinga is quite adept (at least when addressing believers) when it comes to explaining away difficulties that arise for the religious who embrace evolutionary thinking.

In his contribution to a discussion with Daniel Dennett, Plantinga draws our attention to an intriguing possibility (Dennett and Plantinga 2011:6):

…clearly a mutation could be both random in that sense and also intended and indeed caused by God.

Clearly, this is a possibility that has been overlooked by many scientists, from Darwin onwards. Plantinga continues his helpful elucidation of the mechanism of mutation (12):

Clearly God could have created living things by way of natural selection, causing the right mutations to arise at the right time, preserving the relevant populations from disaster, and the like…

Clearly, we are in the realm of clear theological thinking here since Plantinga helpfully flags up most of his paragraphs with this little adverb.

Except, the vigilant reader may have picked up on the idea he slips in of God “causing the right mutations” — does God also cause the wrong mutations, the ones that may lead to deformed and disabled organisms that suffer and die a quick death? Or is God powerless to prevent these mutations from happening, and has to just sit by and watch the painful consequences unfold?

The problem with such providential thinking is that it always diminishes either God’s omnipotence (he can’t prevent the wrong mutations from happening) or his omnibenevolence (he sits by while bad things happen).

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Arrival of the Fittest

Professor Andreas Wagner at the Royal Institution on 13 November 2014

How do innovations arise in biology? Darwin’s theory of natural selection doesn’t tell us, except that they come about by ‘trial and error’. Evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner will show how adaptations are not only driven by chance, but rather by a set of fundamental laws that give rise to a world of biological creativity, and to innovations as diverse as animals that fly and plants that harvest energy from sunlight. Finding where innovations in nature come from begins to place the final puzzle piece in the mystery of life’s rich diversity.

Systems biology applied to evolutionary biology leads to the idea that small events can have cascading consequences way down the line. Andreas Wagner began with a Gary Larson cartoon:

Well, there it goes again… And we just sit here without opposable thumbs.

The basic question is, how do new things originate since life began 4 billion years ago? There have been many dramatic innovations, e.g. wings and eyes, and also many less visible but equally important innovations, such as photosynthesis.

There are three classes of systems that cover all innovations in biology:

  1. Metabolic innovations (e.g. bacteria that can digest molecules that are toxic to other lifeforms).
  2. Regulatory innovations (e.g. genes and circuits).
  3. New macromolecules (e.g. proteins).

In this last category is the winter flounder, which evolved an antifreeze that allows it to survive at temperatures that would freeze human blood.

How can nature be conservative and yet progressive?

Merton’s multiples acknowledges that innovations, e.g. wings and eyes, can evolve, independently, many times. Why is this possible? Here’s Daniel Dennett on the inspiration for the Library of Mendel (1995:107):

The Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges is not typically classified as a philosopher, but in his short stories he has given philosophy some of its most valuable thought experiments… Among the best is the fantasy—actually, it is more a philosophical reflection than a narrative—that describes the Library of Babel. For us, the Library of Babel will be an anchoring vision for helping to answer very difficult questions about the scope of biological possibility…

Here is Borges (2007:54):

…the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols… in other words, all that it is given to express, in all languages. Everything…

Getting back to biology using the analogy that the genetic language is one of the possible languages in the library, the protein “text” thus corresponds to the individual’s genotype, while its “meaning” is the phenotype. The evolving population is the crowd of readers moving up and down and between the hexagonal shafts.

Neighbouring texts can differ by as little as one letter, a difference of one base along the string of bases that make up a gene.

For the protein haemoglobin, there are around 1,900 neighbours, each of which is capable of coding for the molecule. Globins themselves occurs thousands of times all over the tree of life: there are many texts each with the ability to code for molecules that are capable of binding and transporting oxygen. Most of nature’s problems have literally countless solutions scattered throughout nature’s universal library.

Where does the library’s organization come from? The scientific answer is to do with robustness: in a study that eliminated genes from the genome of a particular strain of yeast, it was found that in around 40% of cases elimination had no effect at all — the yeast was highly robust against change.

Such robustness implies innovability, and, somewhat counterintuitively, robustness comes out of complexity (usually, we think of complex machines as being more unreliable since there are more parts to go wrong).

Wagner finished with a quote from Fields medallist Charles Fefferman, who has written about the Platonic nature of mathematics:

There’s something elegant about that, something awe-inspiring. You aren’t creating. You’re discovering what was there all the time, and that is much more beautiful than anything man can create.


Surprisingly, robustness is not energetically expensive.

Genes are islands dotted around in the vast ocean that is the genome, 97% of which DNA is non-coding (previously known as junk DNA). This is a huge playground for evolution.

The spectrum of mutational effects includes about 30% that are neutral. Most of the rest are bad effects (although most of these are small), leaving very few that are improvements. The presence of so much neutrality allows genomes to explore the library without the organism coming a cropper too often.

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