Never look at trees the same

When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.

I cannot remember a book that has affected me as much as the hidden life of trees.  Written by a German forester Peter Wohlleben, it contains stories of pain, opportunity, luck, loss, sharing, community, interdependence and equality. A tree is not just a tree, it seems.

Unfortunately, there is some controversy, and I am not capable of separating fact from anthropomorphic embellishment. Are trees really somewhat “conscious” (my word) of, and looking out for, their “children”? I don’t know.

But given reasoning, Wohlleben’s firsthand experience, and the numerous studies he cites, there must be a grain of truth to the notion that plants are more than I had imagined. That my tendency to rip up leaves as I walk along is not a victimless crime. That the “pain” compounds through generations.

Probably what struck me most were the descriptions of community, of interdependence. Passing on nutrients, creating shelter for one another. Partly because it requires the least blind belief – of course trees are better off together than alone. But also because it provides examples for the rest of us.


Scientists in the Harz mountains in Germany have discovered that this really is a case of interdependence, and most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.

I don’t want to stretch this analogy too far, but of course this could describe us, with a few tweaks. That it doesn’t is a choice. Would trees be the same if given a choice?

A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old…

…To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer…

Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping aroundfor as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.

(My emphasis)


Time to update our democratic models

Throughout childhood and until late adolescence, our brains are building their internal models of what is out there and how it all works –physical, social, emotional and so on. After that, our core beliefs harden and we find change, according to Professor of Psychiatry Bruce Wexler, ‘difficult and painful’. The power of our many cognitive biases skews our view. We attack unwelcome information. The gravity of our personal worlds attracts us to other, similar worlds –people who ‘see it like we do’, whose opinions give us the warm, reassuring pleasure of comfort, familiarity, safety. It all thickens the illusion that our way is the trueway.

I’ve just finished reading The Heretics by Will Storr. It’s part investigation, part memoir, as Storr embeds with homeopaths, faith healers, neo nazis and others with “weird beliefs”.

I’m slowly going through my notes and may pull out some more, but the thing that consistently struck me throughout is what this means for institutional design.

Our democracies absolutely were not built, and have not evolved, with our more sophisticated understanding of how people build beliefs and make decisions. How fallible our memories are, how we capitulate to group think, react and then build post hoc justifications (etc.).

Meanwhile those who wish to take advantage of us certainly have.

In that strange, chemical and alchemical moment when an unconscious decision is made about what to believe, how much is genetic, how much is rational, how much is concerned solely with reinforcing our dearly held models of the world? And how does personality collide with all of this? How does the character of the decider – all that complex emotionality, the calculation of possible outcomes, the current state of mind, the kaleidoscope of motives, the autobiographical heromission – pollute the process? With these questions, we have struck rock. There is no answer.

(My emphasis)

An island of stone money?

The Island of Yap plays host to one of economics’ most interesting stories. It’s said that the inhabitants of Yap used gigantic round pieces of limestone as a form of currency.

I’ve encountered this story in a few popular books and even a podcast, but the academic literature seems pretty thin. I’ve just started my research, but I can only find a few papers and books with more than a passing allusion to the stones.

And many of the few references are to one book from 1910, called, funnily enough, the Island of Stone Money. I’m not going to dwell too much on the book itself as it’s so full of orientalism the author thought nothing of beginning:

"Like all other primitive people (it hurts one’s feelings to call them savages or even uncivilized, – one is too broad and the other too narrow) they are shy at first, either through mistrust or awe…"

But the book is a good starting point to investigate the stones. It’s got an entire chapter on money and currency. And it’s all there – fei stones, sea shells, coconuts. Anything you’d want to trade on an island paradise.

"…as far as mere existence is concerned in Uap, there is no use for money. But nature’s ready- made clothes, though useful, are not ornamental, and the soul of man, especially of woman, from the Equator to the Poles, demands personal adornment."

Of course, there are a few criteria for something to be considered money. It has to be a medium of exchange, a store of value and a unit account. And looking through this story, the stones do appear to tick all the boxes.

They are used for exchange. Although, mainly for high value transactions, as they are cumbersome and rare. These same two points also make them a rather convenient store of value – they were created hundreds of miles away, on another island, in another time, and are far too big to be stolen. And the book clearly denotes several goods in terms of the fei.

The book even makes a halfhearted stab at connecting the stones with the labour theory of value.

"Here then the simple-hearted natives of Yap, who never heard of Adam Smith nor of Ricardo, or even if they should hear of them would care no more for them than for an English song from the phonograph, have solved the ultimate problem of Political Economy, and found that labour is the true medium of exchange and the true standard of value."

But there’s one great story that exemplifies the problem with taking this book at face value.

"…my faithful old friend, Fatumak, assured me that there was in a village nearby a family whose wealth was unquestioned, – acknowledged by everyone, and yet no one, not even the family itself, had ever laid eye or hand on this wealth; it consisted of an enormous fei, whereof the size is known only tradition; for the past two or three generations it has been, and at that very time it was lying at the bottom of the sea!… The purchasing power of that stone remains… as valid as if it were leaning visibly against the side of the owner’s house…"

The entire thing is anecdote. We need something more.

Ideas are nothing without execution

Robert Hooke is the poster boy for the notion that it is not sufficient to have a good idea.

As I’ve lugged Lisa Jardin’s biography of Hooke around over the past few weeks, it’s been hard to explain who exactly Hooke was. You may remember him as the ugly cretin in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series.

But Hooke was so much more than that caricature. He was a brilliant polymath who coined the term "cell", redesigned much of London along with Christopher Wren, built instruments for Robert Boyle, and was long-standing curator of experiments in the early years of the Royal Society.

He dabbled in so many things. Had so many ideas. But no one I encountered had ever heard of him. Hooke consistently got himself 90% of the way there, but it was others that scored the goals.

"…Hooke is the man who almost made great discoveries now tied to the names and enduring fame of others: Boyle’s law of pressure of enclosed gases; Newton’s inverse square law of gravitational attraction; Huygen’s theory of the isochronous pendulum clock; Harrison’s longitude timekeeper.

It’s the notion that Hooke came up with Newton’s inverse square law of gravity, or inspired it, or something in between, that best illustrates this point. From my little research, it seems clear that there is something to Hooke’s claim. But it was undoubtedly Newton that had the mathematical brilliance to prove it, and for that he is remembered and Hooke is not.

It wasn’t enough to have the idea. The idea is nothing without execution.

"In Newton’s mind, priority lay with the person who had produced the mathematical proof of the elliptical motion of the planets, not the one who had proposed such a motion hypothetically in conversation, as part of a broad speculative discussion of planetary movement."

I really recommend The Curious Life of Robert Hooke by Lisa Jardine. I’ve now read a few of her books, loved them all, and am shooting for the set.

The curious life of Charles Darwin

Your ideas are the sum of your influences. This is something I first came across in Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From:

“ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

And it’s this concept, what Steven Johnson calls the "adjacent possible", that kept coming to mind as I read Paul Johnson’s brilliant, short biography of Charles Darwin.

The story is packed with Darwin’s influences, from Malthus to Lyell, and, of course, The Beagle. These are the dots that Darwin eventually joined in his scientific work.

"At intervals in the five-year voyage, Darwin was able to spend a total of three years and one month on land, traveling widely… He shot a wide variety of birds and animals, went on an ostrich hunt, studied the effects of a large-scale earthquake, observed a major volcanic eruption, and visited at length tropical rain forests, high mountains, sierras, pampas and other grasslands, rivers, lakes, and a wide variety of scrub and brushwood areas, as well as scores of native villages, settler towns, mines, and cities."

As we can see from that one passage, Darwin was voracious. In an age of specialisation, its easy to forget that people like Darwin dabbled, slowly expanding horizons and building up the bricolage.

"In 1838 he came across… Malthus’s Essay on Population… This had a huge emotional impact on him, equivalent to the ones he had felt when he first experienced the savages of Tierra del Fuego…"

"He liked to have several projects going at once and switch from one to another as the spirit or the excitement generated by results moved him – from zoology to botany to physiology or anthropology, from insects to plants, the invertebrates, to men, and back to insects again."

The voracity of the ideas doesn’t even seem to matter. Even in Darwin and Malthus’ day, the evidence was against Malthus’ Iron Law of Population. But it inspired something else and was reworked. The important point is to be open to fresh thinking.

"Darwin was a polymath. It was his great strength. Without the breadth as well as the depth of his knowledge, it is doubtful whether Origin could have succeeded.

This is a great, short intro to Darwin. Although, it will probably leave you wanting more. If anyone has any suggestions for a longer Darwin bio I’m all ears.