Introduction Hi there. Thank you for picking this book up, I’ll do what I can to make it worth your while. I have something to share with you that you are not going to like. I didn’t like it when I saw it. It is the nastiest thing I’ve ever seen. Why would you want to see it? Well, I’d rather not argue you into seeing it, or try to persuade you of anything. But I can tell you the reason I decided to properly look at it when I first caught a glimpse of what was going on. It was a shocking thing to see, even just a flash of it. But I chose not to look away. You’re going to have that choice when you read this book, and if you choose not to look at it, I can’t stop you and I’m not going to try. But the reason I forced myself to look was this – it was a terrible, horrible possibility. But if this terrible thing wasn’t true, then I didn’t need to worry and I’d see it wasn’t true. But if it was true, then everything I was, everything I’d done, everything I was working for and attempting, all of it, had this massive lie right at the heart. And I mean massive – truly massive. Something that would totally destroy any hope I ever had of doing anything real, or helping anyone in any real way. So, I looked. And it was true. It was a bitter cup to drink, savagely bitter, the bitterest thing I can describe. It took days just to get through the initial avalanche of painful revelations. The hits just kept on coming. It was like discovering my whole life anew from a totally new angle – a terrible angle which revealed me as something appalling, truly appalling, and all just because of this one single thing. But I kept looking. I figured if I want to have hope in my life, real hope, I had to see it. I had to see the truth all the way to the bottom. It seemed obvious that if I could see the reality of this then maybe – just maybe – I’d have a real future, because only if I saw it in full could I possibly hope to change it in full. But if I dodged away, or evaded it by fleeing down a line of clever-sounding distractions in my head, then this thing would poison – would continue to poison – all I was doing and everything I would ever touch. But as I looked, something else also started to swim into focus. In ancient times there was a myth of a monster called the Hydra. It had multiple heads and it couldn’t be killed because if you cut off one head, it still had all the others, and worse, that head you cut off would regrow two heads in its place. I honestly feel that we are all looking around a world where almost every problem we face is like that. I know I’ve encountered a lot of that in my own life. Something goes wrong, we try to fix it, we only make it worse. Everyone entrenches, sides are drawn, the whole thing bogs down into a godawful quagmire and then nothing changes, the problem still remains just as bad, but now we’ve got this horrible layer of conflict on top of it. I could list global problems where this is true, but then it might be quicker to list problems where it’s not, and that would be a very short list. Honestly, I can’t think of any major issue the world is facing that doesn’t have that shape. We hit this kind of conflict in our personal lives, our professional lives, our romantic lives, even our family lives. This kind of grinding, futile conflict seems to bubble up from inside human beings, it’s enough to make you despair. To make you think – there’s no hope here, we’re all terrible, nothing can change, we’re just awful people. To make you think – people make no sense. It’s all just chaos. But seeing this thing changed that for me. Suddenly, for all the pain of the revelation, I could see that all that kind of thing wasn’t chaos. There is an order to it. Something is happening underneath what we see of ourselves that makes chilling, wrenching sense of why we are the way we are. And while that thing remains hidden from us, we are trapped, forever stuck trying to fix the symptoms of a problem that we can never quite reach, like an itch we can’t quite scratch. And honestly, I’m so glad I saw it. I would never want to go back to being that person who didn’t know it. Sometimes I toy with that, daydream about going back to the life I had before I saw this thing. But there’s no future to any kind of life like that. None at all. Because for all it’s terrible darkness, only if we see this deeply can we hope to reach this deeply. To heal this deeply, and change this deeply. To hope and really to hope. And you may well turn around and say – “Oh, so you have a magic answer to all our problems?” I’m sorry but no. I don’t. But I can see the shape and dimensions of a problem so central to all our other problems that if we never get to grips with it, we’ll be spinning our wheels forever. You can judge for yourself when you look. It’s simple enough to understand. So, is it just a big problem with no solution? Again, no. I think I can see the shape of where an answer lies, and that’s where I’m headed. I’ll lay it all out for you so you can see why I’m thinking the way I am. But it’s no simple trick, and I have no guarantees. This problem is astonishingly serious. It’s massive, it’s savage. It’s dug in like a tick. I know I can’t fix it alone, you can’t fix it alone, nobody can. But together, I think there is every reason to hope, and I’ll give you my reasons for hoping. I have no special authority. I’m just a person staring into a terrible situation, trying to make sense of it. But no matter how impossible this problem seems, we don’t need a million different solutions. We only need one. And if we can find that answer, whatever it is, we can solve the issues that blight our world and blight our lives at a depth we’ve never even imagined possible. Now I’ve put this book together in a certain way, and I’ve done this for a reason. This issue, this terrible thing, is something you need to actually see for yourself. Intellectually understanding it just as a theory can’t really help you. When I started seeing it, I started leaping into debates and analysis inside my head, comparing this idea to that idea, ranting and posturing and having a whale of a time. But I stopped myself, because I could see that I was just running away from actually looking at the reality of what was going on – what was going on with myself, in my own life. Perhaps you’ll do the same, I don’t know. There are plenty of ways to evade it, plenty of possible distractions. It’s just such a savage thing to see. Doing so means making that same choice I made – grabbing yourself by the throat and forcing yourself to look at something you are really, really not going to like. But what made me do it was the thought of the real people that I loved. Not people in general, not people in theory, but the real people I cared about. The people I’d let down. The people I always wished I could help. If I didn’t look, I just felt I was abandoning them, because while I was blinding myself to this issue, everything I did would contain it, and be poisoned by it. I don’t know if the same thing will work for you. We’re different people. But I will say this, looking at this really is a choice, and I know several people who have made that choice, in their own way, for their own reasons. If you want to pivot away from this thing, nobody can stop you. But also, nobody can stop you from looking either, if you decide to. So, it cuts both ways. It’s as free a choice as exists anywhere in this world. In order to give you that choice this book needs to give you two things. The first is this – you need a really, really clear idea of the core issue itself. It’s not just enough to just drop a quick summary in a quick paragraph. That wouldn’t work. You need really deep insight into it, extreme clarity. The reason is that your mind itself will resist seeing this, in a very similar way as it would resist news of a bereavement. Losing someone you love is such a horrible thing that your whole mind recoils, pushes it away, tries to find ways to dismiss it, or to argue with it, or anything, anything at all, so it doesn’t have to be considered or accepted. This is like that. The only way I know to help a person past that problem is to give you really, really extreme clarity on the core issue. The kind of clarity that can’t just come from a short description. Absolute clarity makes it much harder to misrepresent it to yourself as a means to evade it, or deflect it. I know that sounds terrible, I’m not criticising you in any way. It just really is so bad that if there’s a way to dodge it, you can fall into that quite quickly, I know I almost did. With that said, having this extreme clarity doesn’t mean you can’t still evade it. Of course you can, anyone can. Nothing can take away your choice. But this gives you the best chance I can give you to see what you need to see in real life, when it comes time to look. So how are we getting you that level of extreme clarity? The way I’ve done this might seem strange, but it’s the best way I could think of. I have a deep interest in biology and evolution, and from that angle I could see a way to understand this terrible thing. So, I put together a new idea about what this thing is and how it connects to where we’ve come from. Those are the first two parts of the book. And it’s all written in clear English, I’ve tried to explain any words I use that aren’t common. I’ve done my best, and if you do your best I’m sure that together, we’ll bridge any gap. But the purpose of those parts is not to persuade you of a specific origin of this problem or of human beings. The important thing is that looking at it from this perspective gives you a way to get absolute laser focus on the central issue in a kind of ‘neutral space’. By the end of the evolution bit, you’ll have all the clarity I can possibly give you, and more than you’ll need to see the thing itself. That also means that it doesn’t even really matter if you agree or disagree with the evolution stuff. The only thing that really matters is that you understand the evolution part of the book. As long as you can do that, you’ll get that absolute clarity on the deeper issue we’re going to be looking at. Part three is where we’re going to talk about how to see the reality of this issue playing out in real life – how to see it playing out in yourself. There’s a specific angle from which this issue cannot be hidden. I’m going to describe that angle as clearly as I can – it’s not complex. Once you understand that, then it’s on you. To look or not to look, that is the question. And it’s a question you alone can answer. The final part of the book talks about what to do about this situation. Where to go next, what kind of direction we can move in that might help resolve it. And I think there is a way. And it’s a hard path, with some seriously weird elements, but it’s the one I’m headed down. I won’t tell you to take it, or try to persuade you in any way. I’ll just explain why I’m taking it, and let you see what it is. Then I’ll leave you with my email address so you can send me abuse if you want to. I guess there’s one last thing to say – why should you listen to me? The answer is that there is no special reason. I’m just some guy. Everything I’ve learned around all this stuff I’ve pieced together myself, largely from making terrible mistakes and blundering into situations that I couldn’t resolve, then stumbling out through the wreckage, leaving a trail of damage in my wake. Many of the connections in this book have been made possible only because of the work of people much better than me, with far better qualifications. To be blunt - there’s no need for you to listen to, or to respect me. But you don’t need to trust me, nobody does. The reason you should still read this is that what I’m going to put in front of you is something you can see with your own eyes. This thing is, when you really get down to it, very visible, very clear. If you want to have an argument between you and the evidence of your own eyes, you can go right on ahead and argue. I know I did. And I also know that’s an argument I lost. So. Four parts. Part 1 and 2 are about biology and evolution. Part 3 is the big reveal, Part 4 is all about possible paths forward. Oh, and one last thing. I am not better than you, far from it. When you see this, you will feel really small, much smaller than you’ve ever felt before. You’ll want to crawl under a rock so you never have to face yourself against. You’re going to feel so bad, like the worst person in the world. But you’re not. You’re not. We’re all in the same boat. So yes, there is a terrible discovery that you are about to make about yourself. But just to be very clear – what you’re about to learn is something that is absolutely true of me. 100% true of me. I wish it wasn’t. But it is. So I’m not standing in judgement of you. And I’m so sorry to be the guy who tell you what you’re about to hear. Part 1: The Wasp And The Caterpillar Chapter 1 Three hundred years ago a man called Marcus Von Plenciz was trying to save millions of lives and being ignored. He had a new idea that made sense of something horrific. His idea was that infectious disease was caused by creatures too small to see. He was ridiculed. Everyone knew that disease was caused by evil spirits in stinking air. Since ancient times doctors had called this air miasma – foul clouds of malevolent will. You could smell how nasty they were. There was no need for a new idea. But Von Plenciz knew differently. He knew that if he was right, new ways to cure disease could be developed, far beyond anything humanity had ever considered. So, he pushed his idea. He spoke to people. He wrote letters. He even gave the tiny creatures a special name: Animalculae. This invisible life, he argued, fed upon us, but we couldn't see it. All we could see were the consequences of the feeding – sickness, pain and death. He fought hard for his theory, but nobody listened. As far as the world was concerned, Von Plenciz was an idiot. After all, he believed something palpably silly – that there was an invisible world, and in that world, there was life of a totally different kind to the life we know. This wasn't a dry academic disagreement. This was life and death on a massive scale, real people in desperate situations, crying out to a doctor to save their dying children, dying wives, dying husbands. But the doctors didn't save them. They couldn't, they didn't understand what was going on. They were all wrong. Von Plenciz had it. Tiny creatures, too small to see. Today we call them microbes, not Animalculae, but Von Plenciz had cracked the essence of germ theory. But is it that hard to understand the resistance of the doctors of the time? It seems natural to us that big problems have big causes. Disease was a big problem, one of the biggest. It carried all the pain of maiming your body, losing the people you love, and your own death. They believed such horror had a huge cause – evil itself, evil spirits sent to destroy human life. But sometimes big problems have very small causes indeed. If a cause can compound, if a cause can feed itself and grow in power, it can have enormous effects. The microscopic world is teeming with tiny things that alone pose no danger at all, but they can breed. Even though their scale is a fraction of our own, they can kill us. What we are going to consider in this section is that, just as in Von Plenciz’s time, there is another kind of cause for a huge range of human problems. But we’re not talking about physical problems or physical diseases. We’re talking about a huge range of emotional problems. Something invisible to us because just like the microscopic world in Von Plenciz’s time, it is outside what we have yet considered. A new kind of place where something small can multiply and grow. Where tiny things can compound and compound until they become enormous issues that swamp our lives. Another, very different kind, of invisible world. Chapter 2 Evolution is a simple mechanism. It occupies a strange place in science, not quite the same as a physical law like gravity, but in some ways similar. Once the conditions for evolution are in place, it will always occur. When it occurs it creates something striking, which is to say, life. Evolution is extremely simple at its heart. There are only three conditions for evolution. They are reproduction, variation and competition. Condition one – reproduction. A thing has to be able to copy itself. Those copies must be different from each other, that's condition two, variation. There needs to be some limited resource over which the copies compete, that's condition three, competition. The variations in the copies produce a range of approaches to winning that ongoing competition for resources all the different organisms are engaged in. Some variations help, others hinder. As those most effective at competing get more resources, they reproduce more than the others. Theirs is the heritage that is carried forward. This happens again and again. The churn of the blind process selects for the variations that help the most. Those successful variations are more pronounced through the generations. They compound and build upon themselves until the organism is honed to exploit its environment with dizzying efficiency. That's evolution, that's all it is. And because it’s so simple, that means that if these three things are present in any habitat, evolution is inevitable. Life will occur. Nothing can stop it. Life can evolve in all sorts of places. It can evolve in the deserts of Africa, the jungles of the Amazon, and near hydrothermal vents in the deep of the sea. It can occur in the bloodstream of a seagull in flight, in the froth of waves and the ice of tundra. But there is another place where it can also happen. It is a place which humanity has never considered, a place so close to home we overlook it. Thoughts can reproduce. You can have a thought and tell your friend that thought, then you both have that thought. The thought has been copied. So that’s reproduction, condition one. All thoughts vary. We each have a different brain, we're different people. All of our thoughts have a unique spin. Even mathematical equations sit differently in people's minds because we look at them from our unique personal perspectives. Or two people can have the exact same idea but be doing something totally different with it. So, no matter how exact, no copy of any idea can ever be a clone. And that means variation is baked in to the world of thought, and that’s condition two. But what about condition three, competition? Well, is it wrong to say that some thoughts come and go, unable to gain traction, but other times, thoughts grab us, rivet us, capture us? There’s only so much attention to go around, only so much bandwidth in a person’s mind. If a thought can dominate that bandwidth, pluck at your heart, and engage your head, then you’ll spread that thought a lot more. Which means that there is a limited resource over which thoughts compete, which directly affects how fast they reproduce from person to person. When evolution's three conditions of reproduction, variation and competition occur all together, evolution is locked. The rollercoaster has begun to move, the bar has clicked in position and we're in there for the ride. It takes a while to get where it's going, but the destination is always life. Life has its own agenda: to survive, feed and reproduce. It adapts to its environment in amazing ways, and more than anything else, it works for itself. Evolution doesn't need blood and muscle, or cells, or even DNA. We’ve proven that by creating evolutionary programming that uses this simple process to generate computer code in a virtual environment. That shows that evolution is not limited to the physical. All it needs is self-replicating information. Which leads us to a strange and almost science-fiction like conclusion. If this is all true, then ideas themselves must be subject to their own evolution. Which means that ideas must be a form of life. A form of life with its own agenda, which is working for itself. Chapter 3 Ideas seem like part of us. They seem so intimately part of us that it is surreal to question them. But evolution produces strange things, and appearances are not always to be trusted. Humans have existed in their modern form for at least three hundred thousand years, perhaps longer. That might seem like a long time, but human evolution moves slowly. It takes decades for a human to grow to maturity and decades to raise a new generation. Germs reproduce much faster. It can be twenty minutes from a germ's creation to when it reproduces. In three hundred thousand years a germ can go through seven and a half trillion generations. If thoughts reproduce slowly like humans do, three hundred thousand years of evolution might produce a few limited adaptations. But if thoughts reproduce as fast as germs can, three hundred thousand years is easily long enough to evolve into flawless engines of replication and hunger. From when a thought is conceived to when it is communicated can be a matter of seconds. It can be faster even than the few minutes it takes germs. While physical reproduction is facilitated by a physical form, it is also constrained in speed by that physicality. Human bodies are hugely complex and that takes time to copy. Germs are far simpler, but there's still a lot of chemical chicanery involved. Ideas don't have this problem. They can just be spoken and comprehended. On top of this, a human usually bears one child at a time. Germs split in two. But a single idea can be communicated to however many people can hear it. For most of our past that meant how many people could crowd into earshot, but that's still a potential of hundreds of offspring per generation. Ideas have the capacity to reproduce and spread a lot faster than germs do. Three hundred thousand years of human consciousness could well provide long enough for something to take shape inside that habitat, something very well honed to exploit it. The point of these little ‘back of the napkin’ calculations is not to prove anything, but to get us considering something. Some people have written about conceptual life, memetic theories about how ideas in culture can multiply and grow. They’re talking about packets of information we share online, things like that. But we’re talking about something far more ancient. Because if we’re looking at an evolutionary history that stretches back to the start of thought itself, there’s archaeological evidence of abstract thought in pre-human ancestors, literally millions of years ago. That means that this form of life has had a habitat in which to evolve for millions of years. What’s possible in this situation is a form of life staggeringly more ancient and advanced than anything we have ever seriously considered possible, or even plausible. What kind of life are we talking about here? Well, here’s the thing – biology isn’t just a bunch of boring words and classifications that you get beaten over the head with in school. There are some fearfully clever people who’ve spent a long time cracking open the basic rules that all life obeys. I’m not one of those people, I’m just an amateur biologist. But those people have dug up some profound rules about how things work, how all life works in all sorts of ways. One of the things they’ve mapped out is the phenomenon of symbiosis. Symbiosis is when two organisms are linked in their evolved behaviour. It means that – in some way, any way – there has been actual evolutionary change in one organism to make it more effective at exploiting its relationship with another organism. That relationship could be positive, neutral or negative – but what makes it symbiotic is if, whatever that relationship is, the organism has evolved actual changes that make that relationship more useful to it. Symbiosis crops up all over the place in nature. Evolution drives an organism to adapt, and working in connection with another organism is often the best available option. There are three main forms of symbiosis. The first is something called mutualism, where two organisms help each other. Examples of this would be the way that bees pollinate flowers by collecting nectar, or how remora fish cling to sharks so they can clean the shark by eating its dead skin. The second form of symbiosis is what's called commensalism, or neutral symbiosis. This is where one organism benefits from another without affecting it. An example of this would be a bird that evolves special adaptations that help it nest inside a hole in a tree. The bird physically changes to benefit more from another organism, but the tree itself does nothing, doesn’t change, doesn’t care. The third form of symbiosis is negative symbiosis, which is what is called parasitism. This is where one organism steals from the other while providing no benefit whatsoever. Parasitism is rife in nature. There are many forms of parasite, each adapted to exploit their host. Some parasites siphon off as much as they can while leaving their host alive. Others control their host in order to complete their life-cycle and reproduce. Some kill their host stone dead as part of that life-cycle. Parasitic adaptations are as brilliant as anything in evolution, and are often cruel. To give you a ‘for instance’ about how nasty these adaptations can get, there is a kind of parasite called the tongue-eating louse, which enters a fish’s mouth through its gills. Once inside, the louse chews off the fish’s tongue, and takes its place. From that macabre position the louse lives out its days as the fish's false tongue. Everything the fish eats has to pass a gatekeeper who takes a toll. It’s a disturbing image, but not an unrepresentative one. A lot of what parasites do is pretty disturbing. The human body has many forms of parasite. These can range from things like nits in your hair to the single-celled plasmodium protozoan which causes malaria. Thought is absolutely central to human life. We can't very much say thought doesn't affect us, and neither does it make a lot of sense to say that we don’t affect thought. That means that if thought is alive, our first port of call for getting a sense of what kind of life this is are the rules of symbiosis. So, the big question is – what kind of symbiosis do humans have with thought? Well, it feels like we might be able to dismiss commensalist (neutral) symbiosis right off the bat. We have clearly, as animal, adapted to be better thinkers. If we’re going to concede that thoughts evolve and adapt to grab hold of human attention in more effective ways, which doesn’t seem like a huge leap, then we can say that mutualism and parasitism are the only real options. Conceptual life will have gone one way or the other. Now you may well say – perhaps it’s both? Perhaps some conceptual life is good and some is bad. We’ll have to circle round and come back to that one in a second, because there’s another law in biology that directly hits it. But for now, let’s just say that evolution is blind, and if there are two different basic strategies it doesn't prefer one over the other. Evolution just rewards the most powerful strategy. So long story short (too late) if we identify which of these strategies gives a thought the most resources, we can discover if living concepts are friend or foe. Chapter 4 There is a kind of wasp that is a special kind of parasite. It's called a parasitoid, which means that it kills its host by the nature of what it does. Many parasites kill their hosts in the end, and all parasites accelerate the death of their host by taking its resources, but a parasitoid is always lethal. The story of the parasitoid wasp is a nasty story, nastier even than the tongue- eating louse. But it is worth hearing, because there’s a strange possibility buried in this tale. A clue we can follow to take us through the looking glass and get a really good look at the mechanics of a world that has been hidden from human eyes. The most common kind of parasitoid wasp seeks out caterpillars and attacks them. It doesn't sting them. In the place of a sting, it has a tube called an ovipositor which drives its eggs into the caterpillar's flesh. The eggs are very small, and the wasp can inject scores of them into the caterpillar in a single strike. The caterpillars sometimes throw themselves off the branches of tall trees in an attempt to escape. Those who do so and die from the fall have a kinder fate than those who don't jump. Caterpillars don't have blood in the way we do, they have something else called interstitial fluid, but much like our blood it's full of nutrients. When the eggs hatch inside the caterpillar, larvae come out. They are really unpleasant to look at. They look like tiny maggots with teeth. They burrow through the insides of the caterpillar and grow bigger drinking its interstitial fluid. As they grow the caterpillar swells. It becomes grasped by an unnatural hunger. It has to consume and consume to make up for what's being taken from it. It can never eat enough. Sooner or later the larvae grow big enough to leave their stolen womb. They rip through the side of the caterpillar all at once. Sixty, seventy larvae each gnaw their own hole, tearing the caterpillar open. Again, it is a very ugly sight. It looks like the caterpillar is detonating in a slow-motion explosion of worms. But caterpillars are tough. Really tough. Often, they don't die immediately. Some survive for a time before succumbing to their wounds. What they do in that time is, in its own way, more terrible than what they’ve just gone through. Here’s what happens. The larvae wriggle together in a pile. The ruptured, ruined caterpillar then limps over to the pile, and weaves its own cocoon around the pile to protect it. It then stands guard beside the pile, and until it bleeds to death it fights off anything that tries to hurt the larvae. The theory of evolution didn't make Charles Darwin doubt the existence of God. The cruelty of the parasitoid wasp did. The horror Darwin felt came from the fact that the wasp isn't evil. It has no other way to reproduce. This is its nature. Whatever created it, created it like this. That caterpillar's cocoon was meant to facilitate its own metamorphosis, its own future as something beautiful that could fly. Not only do the larvae violate its body, they violate its mind too. Its dying act demonstrates how far it has been twisted into betraying its own nature. But what is the mechanism of that betrayal? A caterpillar is not a sophisticated thinker, it has a small brain and a basic mind. It is being deceived, but the deception must be simple to fool such a simple thing. The larvae are likewise simple, and although sometimes a couple of larvae remain inside the caterpillar, they don't sit in the caterpillar's head pulling levers and pressing buttons to pilot it like a ship. But there is one simple change which would make the caterpillar act in the way we see. The larvae could chemically shift its identity. If the caterpillar believes that the larvae are it, it will engage all of its natural instincts to protect the larvae, believing that it is protecting itself. This sidesteps the need for any complex control. The larvae don’t need to know how to pilot the caterpillar around. The caterpillar pilots itself. This also helps us to avoid just lazily hand-waving away the weirdness of the situation as some form of ‘chemical manipulation’ and looking no further. That’s not to say that chemicals aren’t involved, of course they are, but the point is that there’s a very simple thing that the chemical manipulation actually needs to do. If that caterpillar can be deceived into thinking the larvae literally are itself, how would it behave toward them? Consider the cocoon. The caterpillar is going to metamorphose into a moth or a butterfly. It is part of the caterpillar's nature to enter a transitory state. When it does, it is part of its nature to weave a cocoon (or chrysalis, if it’s a butterfly) to protect itself. But then the wasp larvae also have that same kind of phase in their life cycle. They too enter a transitory state, where they metamorphose into flying wasps. They too have their own cocoons1. If the caterpillar's identity has been shunted onto the larvae, then how else would it react other than to take the time and energy to carefully weave its cocoon around those larvae? As far as it knows, it is doing what it believes it should be doing, which is to say, the business as usual of turning into a butterfly. Now of course, this is a guess. We can’t know for sure what’s going on because it's hard to see inside a caterpillar's head, the vagaries of caterpillar psychology being what they are. And even if we could prove that this identity-switch thing is what's happening with a caterpillar, which might be possible with certain experiments, that wouldn't prove anything about humans. But – we can now see a plausible mechanism for this strangeness. It’s very simple, quite elegant in its own dark way. There’s just one thing that needs to be done. And when it is done, the parasite sees the host throw its entire life energy, all its effort, all its everything, into helping that parasite, thinking it is helping itself. It’s the ultimate hijack of an evolved life-form – the basic evolutionary agenda to survive and reproduce is seized by a single, simple deceit. 1 Please forgive me, I’m unsure if that’s the specific name for it with wasps, but there’s definitely a kind of covering which they excrete to cover themselves as they lie together in that writhing pile. Chapter 5 As evolved organisms, humans have powerful drives to survive, to protect ourselves and build our lives up. The thoughts in our head could work to help us do that, gaining some sustenance from their beneficial use. This would be a mutualist form of symbiosis. But there is another option available to those thoughts. If an idea can deceive us into believing we are it, how would we act? How would we act if that idea were threatened? Or if there were a way to spread that idea? If that idea was central to who we believed ourselves to be, what would we not do for it? Is it really so crazy to say that if an evolved form of living idea could convince us we are it, we will act toward that idea as that caterpillar did to the wasp larvae? If an idea tears us to pieces, damages our lives, and creates conflict we might well step back and give it some very serious reconsideration. But what if that idea is literally what we understand to be who we actually are? What would we do then? Would we always step back? Would we always reconsider? Is it impossible that we might still protect it because we have been deceived into thinking we are protecting ourselves? A helpful thought can hold our attention only for as long as that help lasts. If that helpful idea doesn’t actually help that much, it gets discarded, but even if the idea is really effective, what do we do once it solves the problem it's trying to solve? This is a problem if you’re a form of ‘living idea’, and you’re going for that mutualist symbiosis strategy. To get that mutualist relationship working, you want to help the human host who’s head you are in, and gain what you need from them in exchange. So attention, and emotional investment, and spreading to others. It’s not that there’s nothing that a beneficial idea could do to feed itself. Techniques for learning skills might a good vehicle for that kind of strategy – something that persists over time that preserves certain ideas that help human beings. But the idea might find it hard to grow beyond that particular niche. And what if that skill becomes outdated? Or something else comes in that means that this good idea is superseded by a new kind of approach? Again, that’s not to say that beneficial thought can’t happen – of course it can. We can of course cherish, protect and share some ideas which really do help us. But seen from the point of view of the idea itself trying to get and keep attention so it can spread and grow, that might be a fragile and limited proposition. And all alongside that fragility and limitation, any beneficial idea could always dip into a very different and far more powerful kind of strategy, and get a lot more food and a lot more security. What if that ‘good idea’ stopped being just a good idea? What if it expanded into a kind of human identity? Take two simple examples from our ancient past. So instead of all the ideas about how to hunt and trap animals for meat, you now have the identity of ‘hunter’. Instead of all the ideas about how to heal people with herbs or natural medicines, you now have the identity of ‘healer’. So all those good ideas are still there, that body of knowledge, but now it’s also become a sense of self. How could that happen? Well, we’re still just talking about concepts in a world of thought. Concepts evolving through that process of competition, variation, reproduction. The concepts themselves don’t need to ‘choose’ a certain evolutionary strategy any more than a virus, rabbit, or a daffodil would choose whatever they’re up to. The one that is the most effective strategy for their particular environment is the one that wins out. And for any beneficial thought, the option is right there to exploit their environment (us) in a far more powerful way than just providing limited assistance. Hunter and healer are far more interesting ideas than the constituent technical ideas about how to hunt and how to heal. How excited are you ever going to really get about stringing a bow, or setting a bone? But the identities have a power, a mystique. The hunter as someone brave and daring, lethal but also a provider for the tribe. Or the healer as someone who knows the mysteries of the Earth, and who can fix terrible things with their secret knowledge. In this way, ideas that actually do help might serve as a very effective Trojan Horse for a much more powerful kind of strategy. If an idea is good, gets us excited, gets us engaged, helps us a lot – is it honestly that far of a leap to say we’re probably going start identifying with whatever it is we’re up to? Start taking a deeper ownership of any success, or glory, start congratulating ourselves on who we are – even just a little bit? Is that wrong? The problem is that as soon as any idea, helpful or not, can get us identifying with it, where is the limit on how much energy we give it? If we literally think – this is me – how will we behave toward that concept? How much will we raise it up, cherish it, defend it, give it all our attention and we pour our hearts into it, thinking all the time we are helping ourselves? What would deny it? And all of this for just one single deception. The total hijacking of a human life. If we want to get even more disturbing, (which I’m sorry but we’re going to have to) – consider what that might mean for the idea of ‘being authentic’. Living an authentic life, being authentic to your identity, to who you are. How often do we hear that? How often do we hear that raised up as the highest and most admirable possible way to live? How often have we ourselves raised it up? But what if that idea of ourselves we’re being authentic to is not us, just an idea of us? What if it’s no more the same thing than how an idea of a tree is the same as that actual tree? What does that mean about a life lived where the highest virtue is being authentic to who you believe yourself to be? If that identity is itself alive, and has fooled you – its human host - then how is that different to spending your entire life weaving a cocoon around a pile of wasp larvae? The point is this - from the evolutionary perspective a living concept, seeking attention and emotional investment so it can feed, and seeking to be seductive and attractive so it can spread from person to person - identity theft gives thought a gargantuan return on investment. How could any beneficial idea, no matter how beneficial, ever compete with that kind of payoff? Is this race close? Is it wrong to say that there is an extreme disparity in which strategy works the best? Not works the best for us, of course – but works the best for the living concept? Worse, this advantage that deception has is not a static disparity. It's an inequality in power between two competing strategies over time. Over millennia, in ever new generation of living concept, the thoughts that can get the most investment from the human are the ones which will dominate. They will out-compete other thoughts because they will have the lion's share of attention, and push competing ideas away from the attention they need to survive. This is another law from biology, this time called Gause’s law, or to give it the fancy name it uses to introduce itself at parties, the “Competitive Exclusionary Principle.” Those who have the most get more. Those who have the least have even that small amount they do have taken from them. The most successful kind of thought will reproduce faster. It will have more generations. This means it will become better at doing what it does at a faster speed than its rivals. In evolution, those who have the most get more. Those with the least have even that small amount taken from them. But we are talking about a very different kind of habitat to anything we’ve ever seriously considered before. This is literally the virtual environment of ideas and concepts. Human consciousness, if you want to call it that, although that term can mean other, very specific things to other people. But the point is that we’re looking at something that has evolved in a radically different kind of ‘place’ to our physical world. I mean, just take some basic properties - in our real world we have to breathe air, we have to build shelter and stitch clothing. We have to eat real food, which means we have to learn to hunt and we have to learn to gather. Physicality is messy and complex. Living thought, on the other hand, has far fewer constraints. Its habitat is far simpler than ours. It only needs to do one thing, which is to deceive one animal in just one way. That’s not the biggest ask. We can all be pretty dopey sometimes. In the habitat of human consciousness, there is only one resource – the attention of the human host. If an idea can maintain control of that resource, it can feed forever. As an identity it can grow in majesty and impressiveness, so that other people want to be that thing as well. People share it with the same urgency they would reserve for sharing the most intimate feelings of their hearts, because that’s what the identity has fooled them into thinking it is. As it feeds it is shared to other humans. It competes and reproduces. It adapts and evolves into something that works for itself. Consider this, for a moment. If you think of, say, a human being, an octopus and an eagle, these are radically different kinds of animal. And one of the reasons they are so different is that they have adapted to extremely different habitats – land, sea and air. But then, how different is this form of conceptual life from any other life-form we’ve ever seen? Well, how different is that habitat? A virtual space, consciousness itself as a kind of virtual habitat. The laws of the world of thought are the laws that conceptual life would have evolved to obey. Those laws would be to that form of life like what physics are to us – the basic rules of the space in which it took shape. You could even say something like this - if a visitor from another planet landed a spaceship on your street and asked to be taken to your leader, that extra-terrestrial, no matter how many noses it had, would have almost certainly evolved on a planet, with gravity and a sun, in the same universe of physical space as you, with the same physical laws. But how different are the rules of physics to the rules of the world of thought? How weird is this thing? How different is it from any other form of life we’ve ever examined? Compared to a virtual life-form that has evolved in a virtual space, that extra-terrestrial alien from another world, might as well be your cousin. But there’s really just one takeaway from all of this which really matters. It seems to me, looking at this, that a virtual organism which tricks us into feeding it will gain far more resources far more effectively than one that allies with us. It will spread faster, and gain adaptations at a faster rate. How can it be any different? And if this is what has happened, then that means only one thing. Parasitism, not mutualism, must dominate the ecosystem of human consciousness. Which means that whatever this thing is, it is not our friend. Of course, it sure looks like our friend. It looks like it helps us. It looks so much like it helps us people can grow old and die doing nothing but serving it and believe themselves living the highest possible form of life. But if what we’ve seen here is true, there is a sharp and wrenching disconnect between the appearance identity has, and the reality of what is actually going on with it. Because if we’re talking about an actual, real-life parasitic organism, that has evolved through the normal process of natural evolution, and actually can exert real control over you and me, that’s something very concerning. Very concerning indeed. We’re talking about a form of parasitic identity which evolves by the same process that crafts the breathtaking sophistication of every living organism at which we marvel. That process is taking place in a totally non-physical habitat, the world of thought. That ‘organism’ itself might be something exceptionally well adapted to exploit us. Again, we’re not talking about memes here, or meme theory. We’re talking about something that can, will, and does take genuine control of a human life, and turn that entire life over to its own agenda. And parasites don't do mercy. We go through our whole lives believing we are independent people, working for ourselves. Perhaps not culturally or socially, we all have rules to follow. But inside ourselves, in the privacy of our own minds, we assume that this is the place where nobody can touch. Where we are most entirely ourselves. But if this is happening, what are human beings? What are we? Are we in control of ourselves at all? When we look around our lives and the world, is it honestly that insane to suggest that identity is alive, and spreading, and controlling people, and working for itself – very often against human interests? Would you say that’s untrue? We think we’re the apex predator of earth. Perhaps we are. But even an apex predator can still be controlled by a parasite. And if that’s true, what are we? Are we livestock? Are we identity's cattle? Chapter 6 This is all really weird. Evolving thoughts? Conceptual life? It might help to sketch out some basic adaptations that might be useful to such a form of life, so we can get more of a sense of what kind of thing it is. This isn’t to exhaustively list it or to prove anything, it’s just to sketch out what kind of adaptations such a life-form might accrue that would help it do what it wants to do. Before we go on – what does it want to do? Well, it’s got the same basic agenda as every evolved thing. To survive and reproduce. Surviving means feeding itself, protecting itself, that sort of stuff. Reproduction means somehow being able to spread from one person to another in some way. But we’re also looking for something else, a kind of tell-tale sign, if you will. It’s very easy to think that we human beings are irrational. We certainly appear irrational a lot of the time, we do a lot of irrational things that hurt us. But take something like, an identity that is very volatile and quick to anger. If someone’s constantly flying off the handle and inflicting pain on those around them, that can seem totally irrational. You could come up with a bunch of different explanations for it, like childhood trauma, or poor impulse control, or whatever. But we’re still trying to explain something that seems to be some kind of error. Someone loses their temper and hurts those they love and rely on – that seems irrational, like they’ve done something stupid. It feels like we’re looking at a failure of that person. But what if it’s not a failure? What if things like that are a success – a success for identity? An identity which triggers rage so as to alienate us from our friends and families. This would cut us off from others who could point out when we were hurting ourselves. It could also inflame conflict. And if we look at conflict, we see something that very often hurts people but very often feeds, reinforces, and spreads identity. This would not be some crazy-complex manipulation. Think of the wasp larvae controlling that caterpillar. They trick it into behaving in sophisticated ways without the larvae itself being sophisticated. To the human host, they might simply experience the world as divided. Or a really clear black and white issue that demands a sharp response. They might feel trapped, stuck in a situation where if they do not trigger that conflict, they are not being true to themselves. The point is that anything in an idea that can make people think in those sort of ways – anything at all – would help identity to feed and spread itself. To re-use a sentence I used earlier when talking about the wasp larvae, identity wouldn’t need to sit in our head pulling levers and pushing buttons. If our identity is empowered and strengthened by the idea that our world is divided way, we’re the ones justifying that to ourselves. We’re the one defending our own identities, so we’re the ones who flesh out that division. Who look for reasons to get angry and stay angry. The identity itself might just sit there in our minds looking really pretty, and reap all the added attention we’re giving it. We might be the ones doing all the hard work for the parasite. We could weave a whole world of identity-protecting lies around ourselves without the actual parasitic life-form ever needing to know what they are. We're the ones doing it. We are the ones driving the process. The parasitic concept itself might not need to be aware of what it's doing any more than the HIV virus needs to be aware it's destroying our immune system. It’s just evolved to do that, so that’s what it does. There's no planning involved. Now here is something that I found a little trippy. Would you say it’s a million miles from the mark to state that when two identities fight, what usually happens is that both sides entrench themselves, nothing gets solved, and the whole conflict bogs down into an awful mess? And then it’s just two sides screaming at each other, both in absolute hate, but the whole thing just becomes static and awful? And it seems so incomprehensible from the outside, how neither side will listen to the other, how it’s all just nastiness and mockery, and vicious unpleasantness. Is that wrong? Well, look at that situation from the perspective of identity itself, as a life-form . You have two different identities coming together. The people who hold those identities may be hurt, but the identities themselves rarely, if ever are. Indeed, the opposite is true. Each identity is given ample material to reinforce itself with each new cruelty inflicted by the other. Each identity grows more vivid, more active, more sharply defined. Nuance is discarded in favour of big clear lines and central, emotive issues. For those people holding those identities, such conflicts can be all-consuming. Old, stale identities are refreshed with new relevance, reborn with new fury. And of course, the whole situation makes a massive racket, so everyone looks to see what’s going on. Conflict draws a massive audience attracted to the chaos of it all – but wait – what’s the effect of this? It drives the spread of both identities in a huge way. Think of what’s going on here. It is more useful for a conceptual parasite to torture than it is to kill. This is not to say that identity does not drive humans to kill, of course it can. But inflicting pain is more useful to identity than inflicting death. If it kills its host, no more stolen car. If it kills too many of the enemy, the conflict ends, and the conflict is feeding and spreading identity. So, the sweet spot for identity’s purposes, would be a quagmire of futile, meaningless conflict. It might not be able to hold things in that place forever, but holding them there as long as possible gives it as much benefit as possible from all the noise. Just imagine, for a second, that this is actually what is happening in large-scale, long-term conflicts. Whether the conflict is physical, emotional or intellectual wouldn't matter. Pain from any source explodes in the world of thought. When blood is shed or injury sustained, suddenly it’s like we have to take sides in that argument. And identity blazes from the fuel. When we are really provoked, we’ll do anything to hurt the other side. If we find a way to humiliate them, great. If we find a way to damage them, better. But we don’t want them destroyed, because we want them to know that we have won. And of course, if we’re behaving like that, it’s not long before the other side is provoked too, and they’re doing the same to us. How must we look to each other? We appear as monsters to those we fight and take that role in the mythology of their identity. They weave their heroic, moral cause from the tales of fighting us, and we do the same for them. Chapter 7 Now, here’s a connection that blew my brain out of the back of my head when I stumbled across it. There’s something called “obligate parasitism”. This is the term for when a parasite needs to use their host to complete their life-cycle. The parasitoid wasp is an obligate parasite – it doesn’t have a womb or lay eggs that can survive the elements. It has to hijack the body of a caterpillar to reproduce. So, it’s ‘obligated’ to be a parasite of that caterpillar by its life cycle, that’s why it’s called “obligate parasitism.”2 Another organism that’s both an obligate parasite and a parasitoid is Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasitic organism which can cause a disease called toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasma infection is widespread in humans. You may already have it. It's a single celled organism that sits inside the cells of your body. Your immune system keeps it in a dormant state. It's not entirely harmless. It’s one of the main things that can kill you if your immune system collapses, so when you read about people dying of an AIDS-linked illness, that’s often toxoplasmosis. It’s also very dangerous in pregnancy and can damage a child in the womb. It’s very common in cats, which is why pregnant women are often advised to avoid them. Anyway, like many single-celled organisms Toxoplasma gondii can reproduce asexually. Asexual reproduction means it has the ability to make clones of itself, which help it infest a host quickly in a really big way. But these clones don't vary in the way evolution needs. That requires a different form of reproduction, sexual reproduction. This isn’t a very enticing way of putting it, but if two different individuals of the same species can produce a fusion which melds together half the information each of them carries, this allows each side to cover over the weaknesses of the other. The strongest elements of each organism overwrite the weaker elements of the other. The resulting progeny isn't just different, it's better. You get an explosion in the quantity of variation, and in the quality of variation, because the process creates massive difference then selects the strongest traits. This is what sexual reproduction does at an evolutionary level. The Toxoplasma gondii parasite needs a special place to mate. Only the chemical conditions found in the intestines of a cat will suffice. Any kind of cat will do, but it has to be a cat. But cats are clean animals and fussy eaters. How do you get yourself into the guts of a cat? Well, rats aren't clean animals, nor are they in any sense fussy eaters. They'll eat or attempt to eat almost anything, no matter how disgusting, and that means they pick up a lot of parasites. This means, in turn, that rats are often infested with Toxoplasma gondii. If a cat eats 2 Sorry about all this biological jargon. The reason I wanted to use it is that these words nail down extremely precise properties. Just to clarify, obligate parasitism is linked to parasitoidism, when the host dies as part of the parasite’s life cycle – like that caterpillar. Many parasitoids are obligate parasites. But some obligate parasites don’t kill their hosts, so we have to be clear. Obligate parasite = needs to hijack host in order to reproduce. Parasitoid = kills host dead. There’s a big overlap between those two. an infested rat, the parasite gets to go straight to that cat’s intestine who could choose a nicer place to meet that special someone and fall in love? But here’s the problem. Rats are evolved to be afraid of cats. Very afraid. Sure, cats catch rats sometimes, but it’s work. The rats are very good at getting away from the cats. They don't want to be anywhere near where cats are. It doesn't matter if a rat has never seen a cat in its life, things like the smell of cats and especially the smell of cat urine will terrify a rat and send it running away. This is a problem for the parasite 3. But what do you do? It’s just hardwired into rats to evade cats. Unless of course, that rat has been infected with Toxoplasma gondii. If it's been infected with that particular parasite, the rat becomes actively attracted to cats. Sexually attracted. Literally. They tested it. If a rat’s been infected, then the parts of the rat's brain that light up near a receptive sexual mate fire off in response to the smell of cat urine. It still feels fear, but it also feels intense arousal. Creepy, of course. But as we saw before with the wasp larvae it allows this parasite to get that rat actively going out and seeking cats while sidestepping any need for the parasite to actively bother controlling it. Toxoplasma gondii has no idea how to drive a rat around like a car, looking for cats to seduce. But why bother, when it can get exactly the same effect with simple, single shift? Cross just those two wires in the rat’s head and the parasite doesn't need to find the cat, or pilot the rat to where the cat is. The rat knows how to pilot itself, and how to search. When it finds the cat the rat won't even be hiding, because something looking for a mate wants to be found. It serves itself up like dinner. Just like the wasp and the caterpillar we see sophisticated host behaviour that serves the parasite, but the parasite itself is not sophisticated. Toxoplasma gondii isn't some single-celled Machiavelli. It has no idea what it's doing to the rat. Look at this. Think of how vulnerable humans are to a similar kind of manipulation. We spend all our time arguing and thinking about our ideas and identities. It’s like this surface level of what’s going on, and it can be hugely compelling. We might think ourselves safe from manipulation because we’re so clever. We don’t need to worry because we’re intelligent enough to out-think a parasite. But a parasite doesn’t need to be complex to push deep, simple buttons that sit way below our conscious level of thought. It doesn’t need deep psychological theories of what’s going on with us. It has just evolved to do a thing that helps it feed or helps it reproduce. What happens when two groups of humans rip into each other? If identity actually is a life- form , what is really happening here? On each side the full force of human creativity is deployed in provoking the other side to new anguish. It’s all about really getting to them, getting right under their skin and provoking that response. Each side also picks up tactics 3 Who’d want to be hanging around inside a rat when you could be dancing the wild hunka-chunka with some saucy toxoplasma-gondii-maiden in the bowels of a local moggy? I mean, please. from the other, stealing what is most effective, learning new ways to attack and belittle. Victory has nothing to do with persuading the other side. It means beating them and humiliating them so they know they're beaten. I’ve been more guilty of this kind of thing than almost anyone I know. I can’t even count the number of times I got stuck in, attacking someone online because they believed something I thought was unacceptable. It’s a rush. Made me feel like a big man, like I was doing something brave and noble, standing up for the oppressed or having the courage to speak an unpopular truth. But what did it ever solve? It just backed people into corners and made them hate me more. But I was never alone doing it, there’s always a fight going on, especially online. But then we all also know it doesn’t ever really solve anything. It’s all tactics and no strategy, there’s no wider idea of what it’s going to achieve. But if you succeed in those fights and really smash down the other side it just unites them and inflames them. And going about things this way makes it basically impossible for either side to score anything like a decisive victory. So, nothing changes. Ever. It’s just ongoing carnage, war without end. When I’ve gotten sucked into that headspace it’s almost impossible to even imagine the strong points of my opponent’s case. It seems like there’s nothing remotely positive to what they say that could ever hold any weight of any kind, under any circumstances. But all the little things I could attack fill my vision, and there’s this really powerful pull to hit at them. But why? What is the purpose of attacking the weak points of a case? The weak parts of an opposing case are never going to be the parts that the case is leaning on. Smash out all the weak points of an opposing argument, and it won’t shake anyone in their position, because we’re not even engaging with any of the actual reasons anyone holds that position in the first place. Attacking the strong points of your opposition’s ideas – that’s dangerous to them, that’s serious. That’s the only way any decisive victory can be won. And yet when the red mist descends it becomes almost impossible to do anything like that. So, when we get angry, and we think we’re doing everything we can to win, what we’re really doing is carefully and studiously avoiding inflicting any serious damage to their identity. Is it wrong to say that’s pretty weird? And especially weird because so many people are doing it, all at the same time, even very clever people? All these arguments we’re having as a world – all these touchpoint issues, all these rolling battles and fights, and yet almost everyone involved is doing absolutely everything they can to avoid inflicting real damage on the other side. But their entire intention is seems to be to destroy that side as fast as possible. Is that just a mistake? Mistakes are random, chaotic. This is a ‘mistake’ that crops up over and over again, in all sorts of people on all sorts of scales, and has a very particular kind of effect. An effect which has a massively beneficial impact on the identities involved in any such conflict, and a massively damaging impact on all of the people involved. So, the two identities collide. It’s a tremendous mess. There’s a huge exchange huge amounts of information. Weak points are strengthened, reinforced. Everyone unites under the attack, internal differences fade away, clarity arises. New ways of defending these identities are devised, new arguments concocted, new evidence marshalled together. It’s as if the whole thing is a charade. But a fake something is always a real something else, so what is going on? So if we appear to ourselves to be striving for victory, when we’re actually doing something very different, what is that thing we’re genuinely doing?. There’s a really weird idea that arose as I thought of this. It’s really, really weird, so buckle up. Could this be the conceptual life-form version of sex? Argument and conflict as conceptual life having sex with each other? Could we be seeing mating here? Could this be evolved obligate parasitism? Parasitic identities controlling their human host – us – to facilitate their sexual reproduction with other identities? Humans rage at each other, perhaps even endanger each other. But for the identities involved there’s a huge burst of variation and expansion. Strong characteristics overwrite weaker ones. Both identities take on aspects of the other – as two things do when they fight. They learn from each other, pick up the other’s tricks and secrets, and add them to their own arsenal. How is this not how identity mates? Because you could say – this is all just coincidence. But if it is, it's coincidence in exactly the same shape as an obligate parasite's life-cycle. And that’s a hell of a thing to write off as a fluke. Obligate parasites specialise in host control, all across nature, wherever they occur. Evolution has shown time and again that something can evolve that can alter the behaviour of another organism to facilitate mating. But this is terrifying – or at least, it terrifies me. Because what does it mean about our lives? Our agency? Our freedom? A lot of us think that arguing and debating ideas is the very pinnacle of freedom and the hallmark of a free society. You can make a very strong case that it is. But then, what is the actual effect it has? Does argument resolve issues, or does it inflame, empower and spread identity? Are we being deceived on a massive scale? Is our entire way of resolving issues actually a deception? Are we throwing our entire lives into fighting for causes, thinking we’re doing something good, when really, we’re just feeding something else? Something that’s secretly in control of the whole process? Something that thrives off keeping those wounds open, and that conflict alive? It seems insane, so insane that it should be dismissed out of hand as some crazy sci-fi notion. But then when I look around the world, what do I see? You might see something different, but when I ask myself – is argument having the effect of resolving issues and getting to truth? The only answer I can come out with is a hollow, high-pitched laugh. We are at each other’s throats. Any movement forward on any issue is agony. We are a paralysed world, and this would explain exactly why that is. And it would also suggest something else. That however this problem can be solved, if it can be solved, we might be able to stop doing this. Or at the very least, stop being dominated by it, stop being paralysed by it, as a world and as individual people. Is that bad news? Is that a possibility we want to ignore? Because the serious problems that we’re up against as a world, and as societies 4– resolving those problems might actually be possible. Like, really, truly possible. In real life. Because if there’s an actual thing behind why it is we can’t solve our problems – solve that thing, and who knows? Maybe we’re not all doomed. Just a thought. 4 And I could list a whole bunch of them, but so could you, so could anyone. Chapter 8 The word pathogen, in the broadest sense, means anything that causes disease. In medicine it generally means some kind of dangerous microorganism. But it could also be toxic particles, or something like that. What we’re consider here is a concept that is creating damage to the human animal in order to feed itself. We’re essentially talking about a kind of conceptual pathogen. Now think about this. Our world is swamped with mental illness, but where is the pathogen for that? There's no virus driving depression, no bacteria behind anxiety. And there is a vast array of mental illnesses. The current diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders is so thick you could beat someone to death with it. Some of the illnesses it describes might actually involve that kind of behaviour. You’ve got all sorts of different kinds of self-harm, compulsive behaviours, gender dysphoria, eating disorders and all manner of issues of various shapes and hues. They seem as different from each other as things can be. To say “there’s just one thing behind them all” seems madness. But then if we look at the extreme range and variety of infectious physical disease, it probably seemed madness back in the 1700’s for Marcus Von Plenciz to say something pretty similar. But he was right – there was the same cause. Germs. Not the exact same cause for all illnesses, but the same kind of cause. An entirely new category of problem we hadn’t really factored in before – the huge variety of life in the microscopic world. What of the huge variety of life in the world of identity? What about all the different outcomes that might have? If identity is alive and parasitic, it has all of humanity to feed on. That’s an ecosystem of mind-melting scale. Billions of us, all sharing our identities, all talking to each other, all infecting each other. That’s a lot of competition and variation, a lot of opportunities to develop all sorts of weird ways to suck a human life dry from the inside. Take just depression as one example. Because I think – and maybe it’s just me looking at this, but I really think there’s new sense to be made about this. There is a kind of standing puzzle in evolutionary theory which surrounds the issue of depression. Depression is crippling and afflicts huge numbers of people. It appears to be a catastrophic failing in some internal psychological process underlying human mood control. That’s what it seems to be. And it seems very much that this is what is happening, not only to those studying it in a clinical setting, but to those going through it as an experience.5 The puzzle is this. Evolution doesn't do broken dolls. Evolution is a crucible of blood, survival and non-random death. It doesn't have the option to do sloppy work, its sloppy work dies. It produces adaptation polished to a high shine. It literally can't do anything else. The process which honed every sinew in the tiger, every feather of a hawk and every cell in 5 I myself have a very chequered history of mental health – I don’t have any official qualifications, but sadly I know depression like the back of my hand. I’m not trying to elicit pity here, just to let you know that if you’re suffering from it, I have too, and I speak as a fellow traveller down that horrible path. You can get out. Hand on heart. the compound eye of a bumblebee is not a process which would suffer the continuance of depression. Depression is absolutely savage. But that means that if depression were what it appears to be - an internal failing in human beings - it would have been weeded out by evolution a long time ago. Yet it remains. Here is the riddle: a master craftsman that literally cannot produce bad work, produces an organism with a crippling design flaw. That’s what’s confusing. Depression is a weird thing, seen from the point of view of evolutionary theory. Unless, of course, it's not just the evolution of one organism. What if it’s the evolution of two organisms, one inside the other? What if depression is alive? What if it’s a particularly unpleasant strain of parasitic identity, which creates agony and suffering to dominate a human host with a horrible idea of who they are? If that’s true, then depression is not evolution's failure at crafting humans. It's evolution's success at crafting another organism which uses human suffering as food – and as a means of host control. That would mean the master craftsman didn't fail. He succeeded twice. But just think – think for one second. If that’s true, then what does that mean? What does it mean for treatment of depression? What does it mean for getting yourself out of that hole? I think back to the period before modern medicine, and the kind of eye-watering ‘medical techniques’ that were used. People have had some really weird ideas about how to cure disease. Many treatments were significantly worse than the disease itself. Many had no effect whatsoever. Some treatments actually did work to a degree, just because of blind, stupid luck – one that leaps to mind is how all the superstitions about bubonic plague meant that plague doctors used to wear crude and terrifying costumes that acted a bit like Hazmat suits. But then you also had things like - bleeding, where you’d just cut a sick person to let the disease out in the blood. Or even nastier ones where you’d burn the skin with hot glass because it was thought that the blisters that came up were nasty ‘humours’ being expelled from the body. All that stuff ever did was weaken an already sick patient and hasten death. But the doctors weren’t malicious. They were just working off the best knowledge they had, and that knowledge did not include knowledge of the actual cause of what was happening. Once we actually got a handle on what was really going on with disease, we got a lot better at dealing with it. Is it impossible that we might make a similar leap forward in our treatment of mental illness? Because if this parasitic concept thing is true, I cannot see how that’s not on the cards. And not just depression. How many different possible forms of destructive self-image might there be? A single kind of conceptual pathogen can take a staggering array of forms, and generate a vast range of toxic mental syndromes. What might be possible if we can find a way to knock out this kind of infection? What are the limits on how we could help each other? Could we have a world where things like depression and anxiety are spoken of in the same way as we speak of things like smallpox, or polio? Chapter 9 We’re talking about a form of life which has no physicality, but which has still evolved through Darwinian natural selection in a naturally occurring habitat. Nothing about it is artificial or synthetic. And that means is the first time, unless I’m wrong, we’ve encountered a non-physical form of biologically evolved life. But not just one organism – an entire range of organisms, all sorts of different parasitic identities. In biological terms, this isn’t a species, it’s a genus. It’s a category of species. If this is real, there’s going to all sorts of different species of parasitic identity. So if we were going to name it, we’d need one of those fancy double-barrelled Latin names that always get written in italics. I’m rubbish at Latin, so I’ll leave that to people who paid more attention in Latin class. Honestly, even calling this thing an 'organism' at all seems to stretch the term ‘organism’. Every form of organism we've ever classified has been physical. This parasite, and the entire habitat it evolved in, and continues to evolve in, is virtual. It has no material presence save the flickering of synapses. Does it even pass the tests for what biologists recognise as life? There are certain recognised criteria where the answer is clear – no way, Jose. If it’s not a physical thing, if it has no DNA, then many biologists would just say “Nope. We’re not calling it an organism.” But there are other recognised lists accepted at the highest levels of academia where it might genuinely qualify. Here’s one. All known life is capable, to at least some degree, of response to stimuli, reproduction, growth, development and a kind of internal stability of form which is called homeostasis. In its own virtual habitat, can identity do this? Is it wrong to say an identity can respond to stimulus, like being criticised, or being flattered? Do you disagree that an identity can reproduce? Grow? Develop? And as for the issue of maintaining stability of form – have you never met anyone who’s just had the exact same identity for decades? Seems to me that identity can be extremely persistent. So the big question is – how severe is this illness? Well, obviously, the upward limit for severity of any infection is the death of the infected organism. But with parasites there is another factor at play. Parasites have a relationship with their hosts, and if their hosts die, that relationship ends. With that said, it's important to remember that this doesn't mean parasites never kill. Many parasites kill their hosts. All parasites hasten host death. Obligate parasites – which is what we’re looking at - commonly kill their hosts (that’s parasitoidism again) to jump from one stage of their life-cycle to another. It makes perfect sense from a biological standpoint to kill your host if by doing so you are able to boost your reproduction. Racing toward death might seem lunacy for a human, and it is. But consider this. If you die in such a way that your death provokes rage on a huge scale, it’s going to instigate that kind of clash of identities that we just looked at earlier, that kind of vicious, hate-filled conflict that seemingly serves as a kind of sexual reproduction for the parasitic concepts involved. There are certain human behaviours that seem totally mad – but from this angle make striking new sense. Suicide bombing is the really obvious one. An attack with a clear ideological motivation, that’s very rarely targeted toward any major strong point in the opposition’s forces. Instead, it’s targeted at weak points, hitting civilians, provoking fury and incomprehension. And blowing up a bunch of families at a bus stop, or people shopping in a marketplace, or something like that, is a harrowingly extreme provocation. Somewhere between picking up the tenth and the hundredth body part you’re probably going to lose patience with the mentality – and identity – that is behind this attack. But it doesn’t have to be suicide bombing, or religiously motivated. There’s been some truly horrifying attacks motivated by political agendas. But then you could also look at less obviously ideological spree killers. Things like school shooters, that sort of thing. Are these strains of identity that have, without putting too fine a point on it, ‘gone parasitoid?’ To do something that will end the life of the human host (or at the very least destroy it by putting that person in prison for the rest of their lives) – but which creates this massive outpouring of energy and attention onto the ideology behind the attack? Is it just me, or does this make an eerie amount of sense? This seems especially clear to me when I think about school shootings in America. It was almost like something terrible was birthed in Columbine, and the horror of that event echoed across America through every television set and newsstand. Over and over the perpetrators were examined, their faces and life stories blazing out in front of millions. Grainy freeze frames of them walking through that school with weapons drawn. The anguish and heartbreak of the parents and classmates of those who had died, their sorrow and tears playing out in millions of living rooms – not just in America, but all around a planet transfixed by the horror of it all. And then suddenly it happened again, and again, all over America. There was no personal connection between the people doing it, they just saw it on TV. The idea – the opportunity - captured them – the blaze of glory, the day of revenge for all the bullying, that act of power and control, and vindication for all the insults they’d suffered. Payback for all their wounded pride. A whole world looking right at them, hating them, talking about them. That’s a hell of a temptation to dangle in front of someone living in thrall to a conceptual parasite. Nowadays school shootings are a pretty regular occurrence in the USA. Often they barely make the news if only one or two people are killed. In biological terms, you might say – that’s an infection that’s become endemic6. And again – the issue is not just that it’s a creepy connection. If this is what is driving this behaviour, then finding a way to directly suppressing that pathogen might do something quite serious to stop it. And to stop it getting worse. 6 In epidemiology, the word 'endemic' means an infection which needs no external input to remain at a stable level in a population. But let’s stick a pin in that issue for now7. That’s a special case. Most of the time, people’s identities don’t drive them into a mass killing. Instead, there’s a kind of equilibrium that gets struck. The conceptual parasite keeps the human alive, and feeds itself long-term, reproducing along the way as best it can by driving the person to share and promote their identity. You might think – okay, so does this mean we can live with this thing? How bad is it? The issue is that there actually is quite a clear answer on that from biology. We can actually say with some confidence where the balance in that equilibrium is. When a parasite reaches a stable point with their host, that equilibrium is never a 50/50 balance between the two sets of interests. Instead, it’s far more like a kind of fight in which the winner gets to set the terms of the loser’s position. This seems to be standard across all life. A parasitic infection that stabilises can only stabilise in two final states. Either a host will win that battle, and shut down the parasite entirely, as humans do by pushing Toxoplasma gondii infection into a dormant state – or the parasite wins and sets its own terms. Those terms are simple: it levels off at an equilibrium of severe and chronic disease. Simply put, yes, that parasite wants you to live, but only to live. It wants everything else. Everything it can possibly take without killing you, it will take. This is only possible point of stability between a successful parasite and a defeated host. The host is balanced on the bleeding edge of brokenness, while the parasite grows fat. So there are two stable levels that we could be at if identity is an infectious disease. One is the total dormancy of the parasite. The other is severe disease. One of us is going to win. As best I can tell, looking at how parasitism works, that’s just the way it is. The big upshot of that is that there’s no splitting the difference here. No ‘acceptable level’ of infection. No negotiated settlement where we reach an understanding with this organism over who gets what. Give this thing an inch, and it will take a mile. We seem to be facing a pretty stark choice - find a way to fully suppress this thing, or resign ourselves to living in its thrall. Don’t know about you, but I’m on the side that at least tries something. 7 Sorry. Part 2: In The Halls Of The Red Queen Chapter 10 Okay, so that’s the basic shape of the ‘living concept’ idea. It’s not the first time people have made this kind of connection. Most previous work linking the two has been done looking at the evolution of memes on the internet, that sort of thing. Meme theory, it’s called. There are a lot of very clever people who’ve done some very interesting work in the subject. What might be less usual is considering the possibility that what has evolved is something far more ancient, far more sophisticated, and far more troublesome than little packets of cultural information. Now listen, you’ve borne with me so far, and thank you so much for reading as far as you have. I hope it hasn’t been too heavy going. Sorry if you’ve found any typos. We’re halfway through the evolution section of the book now, because at this point we want to look at the other organism involved in this symbiosis – which is to say, us. Humans. There are several competing theories as to why human beings have evolved in the way we have. Some of them are very well researched and put together. None of them are absolutely perfect, because it’s a rare thing to get a perfect archaeological theory, but they are deeply deserving of attention and respect. What I’m about to sketch out is not a fully-researched scientific theory in the same way, and should not be given the same level of weight. I don’t have a background in archaeological research, and I’m not a biologist. But it seems to me that if we take the idea we’ve been looking at so far, it makes new sense of human evolution with very little effort, in a way that seems quite striking. I’ll sketch it out over the next few chapters, and I leave it to you to consider. As I mentioned, the ‘point’ of this part is not to convince you of a new evolutionary origin of human life. Instead, I just feel this is quite an interesting kind of neutral space where can look into the specifics of how this parasite is controlling us. It’s a lot easier to do that here at in a calm and measured way than poking around inside yourself, or juggling abstract ideas. I feel this fleshes it out in a better way than anything else I can think of, and have tried to make it as engaging as possible. I’ve also tried to be as diligent as possible with the scientific ideas, but where I’ve failed in either, I ask for your indulgence. Please try to see past any obvious stupidity to the deeper point being made. A great place to start out in this is looking at a process in evolution called the Red Queen effect 8 . It's named after the villain of Lewis Carroll’s children’s book Alice Through The Looking Glass. There's a scene in the book where Alice is trying to run away from this terrible, murderous tyrant, the Red Queen, but in the strange, fantastical realm she’s in, the ground keeps moving backward under her feet like a treadmill. “Now, here, you see,” the Red Queen taunts, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” In short, the Red Queen effect describes what happens when two organisms lock each other 8 The book “The Red Queen” by Matt Ridley is an extremely well-written piece which opens this idea up in a really vivid way. I take my understanding of the process from that book. into an evolutionary arms race. In this kind of situation both organisms fall under massive pressure to adapt, but any adaptation they make triggers immediate counter-adaptation in the other organism. So both of them, under this intense pressure, go through a relatively rapid burst of evolutionary change, but both stay in the same place in relation to each other. So it’s like each one is running to stand still, just like Alice in the book under the power of the Red Queen. Now the first thing to mention is that the Red Queen effect happens in antagonistic situations, like with predators and prey, or parasites and prey. Any adaptation that makes a predator or a parasite stronger adds extra evolutionary pressure to the prey. What that means in plain English is that when the predators get better at killing the prey, the only prey who survive are the really, really strong ones. The pressure on the prey isn't general, it's specific – it's coming from a specific predator or parasite. So not only are the prey forced to evolve quickly, their evolution is also directed down a certain path. Prey don't just 'get better' in a general sense. They specifically get better at getting away from the specific kind of threat that they’re facing. So not only does this process accelerate evolutionary change, it also shapes it. One obvious example of all this is the cheetah and the gazelle. Cheetah are the fastest land animal there is, and gazelle aren't far behind that. The degree of optimisation for speed and agility in these animals is extreme. But they weren't always that fast. Their ancient ancestors were a lot slower, but then they became connected in this kind of relationship. The ancient ancestor of the cheetah found the ancient ancestor of the gazelle a food source. And the fastest cheetahs ate the most gazelle, and reproduced more. But that meant that the fastest gazelle got away leaving the slower gazelle to be eaten, and so the gazelle also evolved to be faster. As one gained in speed so too did the other. Between the importance of capture and the importance of escape, each drove the other into an evolutionary race. And the pressure on both is very intense. Cheetah need to eat or they will die, gazelle need to escape or they will die, it’s really serious. So any adaptation that boosted speed in either animal at any level could well have been the difference between life and death. We’re talking every possible aspect of the animal, from ligaments, tendons, muscles, reflexes, lung capacity, metabolism, every possible thing. Each animal was honed on the other, like steel sharpening steel. Mutualist symbiosis doesn’t trigger this kind of rapid escalation. When two organisms help each other they will adapt to maximise the benefit of that relationship – but far more slowly. It’s only antagonistic relationships that have that quality of being like a naturally-occurring selective breeding program9. And I find that a useful way to think about it. When you get racehorse trainers or dog breeders, who intentionally breed for certain traits in the animals they keep, you can see that change can happen quite fast. 9 Which is why the scientific name for the Red Queen effect is “antagonistic co-evolution.” What this means is that if humans are suffering from a parasitic infection, the Red Queen effect is a pretty interesting thing to look at. A crippling, endemic infection lasting thousands of human generations would place a very intense, and very specific selective pressure on those humans, or even the ancestors of humans, if this conceptual parasite originated there. What that means is, we would have developed certain resistances, natural and inbuilt, to our own nature. Now because we’re talking about a parasite we’re not looking at the kind of immediate and constant danger of death that the cheetah represents to the gazelle. But someone truly in thrall to this conceptual parasite might throw the entire output of their life energy into feeding it. If they do, that’s precious little to be spent on reproduction. So those most successful at resisting the symptoms of this parasite would see their genes passed on with much more frequency. That resistance, whatever form it took, would grow. But increased human resistance would mean that only the most powerful identities survived. This would select for the ‘elite parasites’, if we want to put it that way. So only the most pungent, subtle and compelling kinds of identity would survive and reproduce, leading to a burst of adaptation on the other side. In both cases, it’s not just an issue of speed, but also one of shape. The particular kind of resistance that a human would develop would depend on the kind of identity it was resisting. But then identity, on its side, would have to adapt around whatever specific kind of resistance the human was throwing up. Now we could look at this in a number of ways. We could see it as an interesting side-issue, or chart out a few possible adaptations, but there is another factor here. The Red Queen effect is a very powerful thing. It just escalates so fast 10. It’s like a kind of feedback loop – the more one side changes, the more urgently the other side has to change, and vice versa. There’s a lot of instances (the cheetah and the gazelle being one) where the Red Queen effect has been the central driving force shaping connected species. So it seems like it might be appropriate to consider an evolutionary account of human beings (and this parasite) with this Red Queen effect at its centre. It’s actually quite simple to do this, perhaps too simple. It could well be that this is just one element, and in focusing on it I’m going to be neglecting other ones that are obvious. But I think it’s useful to lay out the possibility clearly, even if just to see the idea. And it also gives us that platform to explore the shape of the potential connection between us and identity, so let’s jump in. And to get to the bottom of it, we need to start at the start. 10 Fast is a relative concept in evolutionary terms – we’re still talking millions of years. Chapter 11 Abiogenesis is the word for the absolute origin of life. It's a different thing to evolution. Evolution is about the development of life once it's there. Abiogenesis is about how it happened in the first place. When we think of the abiogenesis of physical life, scientists have shown that certain complex molecules form in certain kinds of mineral-rich ooze when electricity is passed through it. A naturally occurring lightning strike on a certain kind of mud might well have created a very basic form of molecule capable of reproducing itself, perhaps very slowly, in a very random and uncontrolled way. From there, chance and fluke could provide the variation, and the competition would just be over whatever finite materials this molecule needed to reproduce itself. This is not the only credible or possible theory, but I’m pretty sure it’s the main one. The thing is that when we talk about conceptual life, we’re not just talking about a different evolutionary line. We’re talking about an entirely different kind of abiogenesis. This is life that has literally no ancestors in common with us, even going back to the start of life itself. Which is important again to underline – no life-form this different from us has ever been encountered before in all of the natural world. It is truly other. Now the problem we have with the abiogenesis of conceptual life is exactly the same problem we have investigating the abiogenesis of physical life. The lack of time machine. We'll never be able to go back and watch it unfold, so it’s all just guesswork. The quest is less for a final answer, and more for a plausible possibility. For all the experiments with electricity running through different concoctions of ooze in a laboratory setting, and there have been many, we have yet to produce something that actually replicate itself11. So okay, let’s talk plausible. What could be a plausible explanation for the origin of conceptual life? With this answer, we can get a rough sense of when, in human evolution, this parasite might have emerged, we can compare that to what we know of humanity, of its past and its present, and the shape that we have taken on our path. As we look at that shape, we can look to see if we can sketch out another shape, perhaps in silhouette. The invisible partner (or enemy) in our evolutionary development. So the absolute minimum for the emergence of this conceptual parasite is some basic ability to have an idea of yourself, and some quality that idea can have which can transfix and dominate the person having it. You really need both to get this life-form as we’ve been considering it. But if you had both, that’s really all you need. An idea of yourself that you’re living on behalf of, promoting, defending, and pouring all your energy into thinking that thing is you. Once that’s there, that’s the core of the process, and I can’t see what else might be needed. The first element is actually pretty easy to get a fix on. At some point in the ancient past our 11 Just let me caveat that with ‘at time of writing’ because breakthroughs like this happen all the time in science and it’s entirely possible someone could just do it tomorrow. forebears became capable of imagining an idea of themselves. Well, when was that? What was that all about? The thing is, there is a psychological test that can be performed on primates to test exactly this. It's very simple, and is called the “Mirror Test.” You make a small mark with white paint on the animal's face. You then show them a mirror. What does the animal do? Do they try to scratch off the paint? Or do they simply have no idea that that thing in the mirror is connected with them at all? In order to make the connection between a reflection of yourself and you, you have to be able to have an idea of yourself in a world of thought. If you have no ability to comprehend yourself as a separate idea, you'll just think you're looking at another animal. If the primate is capable of comprehending itself as an idea, it will try to scratch the paint off its face. If it isn't, it will not understand that it is looking at its own face, and won't. The result, in broad brushstrokes, is that monkeys can't do it but apes can12. Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans – the great apes – are all capable of having an idea of themselves. Macaques, tamarins, marmosets, and the rest of the monkeys aren't. So all the great apes can have an image of themselves in a world of thought – but apes don't have the same tormented relationship with identity that we do. So that’s the missing element, some quality that our images of self have, that the ape images of self do not have. Something that can compel and transfix in a way that just doesn’t really apply to them. This is harder to pin down than it seems, because apes have a broad range of feelings. Apes can like or loathe each other. They can be paranoid. They can be vindictive and spiteful. Some apes have vicious personalities. Other apes are much kinder. So what could it be? There is one contender that has a huge footprint in the human psyche, that doesn’t seem anything like as vivid in the mind of any of the apes. That’s the division between good and evil, as abstract ideas, severed from the world and from context. It’s hard to see any human culture or life where that division is wholly absent, and it’s very often central to societies, and a person’s sense of self. There’s usually quite a big and important divide between what is considered morally desirable and what is morally odious that seems crucial to the human self-image. Apes have a self-image, but does it have this quality? Or does it have this quality to the same emotional intensity? It’s important here to note that apes are nothing like as clever as human beings, so we’d be looking at very basic, simple concepts. But the issue is not really one of complexity so much as emotional impact. An idea of goodness can be extremely simple – sometimes too simple. An idea of badness can likewise be very basic. Apes are not as clever as we are, but they can learn basic sign language and things like that. Ape intelligence is not nothing. 12 As an interesting side note cats always fail the mirror test. You can see plenty of videos on the internet of cats having massive emotional wars with their reflections, totally oblivious to what’s really happening. Dogs on the other hand will also often fail the mirror test – but pass similar tests far more easily when instead of a visual reflection, the test is set up around the issue of smell. Which all goes to prove what we already know. Dogs are smarter. But cats are funnier.