Tag: Nature Magazine

Where to for democracy?

Good people must resist what is going on!

My sub-heading was prompted by that very well-known saying, “All that evil requires to succeed is for good people to do nothing.”

That saying came to me when I was reading a recent essay published by Professor Richard Murphy over in the UK. I am referring to his article entitled: Nature reckons science is watching as democracy rides over a cliff.

Here’s the extent of Richard’s short post:

This comes from Colin Macilwain in the latest edition of the massively influential journal ‘Nature’, and I quote in the public interest and as it reinforces the arguments I have made today:

But at the top [of science] there is paralysis: leading scientific organizations do little except chase money and reinforce the ruling nexus of politics and finance — even since the financial crisis of 2008, which discredited the free-market philosophy that underpins that nexus. I argued years ago (see Nature479, 447; 2011) that scientific leaders had failed to respond in any meaningful way to that collapse, and I’m still waiting.

The political structure of the West is in deep trouble, and should it fall apart, there will be plenty of blame to go around. Most will go to political and financial elites, or to rowdy mobs. But some will belong to people in the middle who have taken public funds, defended elites and then stood back and watched as democracy got ridden over a cliff.

I think that fair comment and recommend the rest.

If one now goes across to that post from Colin here’s what one would read in the opening paragraphs:

The elephant in the room we can’t ignore

16 March 2016

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC last month was one of the best I’ve witnessed in more than 20 years of regular attendance. The policy sessions were packed and genuinely stimulating. I met tons of smart, influential people I hadn’t seen for ages, and we all enjoyed a good chinwag about how better to engage with the public — the meeting’s theme for 2016.

The only trouble was what was going on outside the hotel — in the United States and the world at large.

Colin then makes the point that is neatly articulated in the extract that was published by Professor Murphy and is republished above.

I don’t have any answers other than wanting to share this with you, dear reader. For decent, ordinary folk must be aware of the multiple threats to our Western democracy that are taking place.

Just as I want to share with you an example of what a good honest person and his adorable Labrador get up to. An example from my old country (and Richard Murphy’s home country).


Dog Refuses to Leave the Side of Near-Death Man Trapped in Mud


When one false step left Martin Kay literally drowning in ice-cold mud in the English countryside, he quickly found out who his two best friends are. Turns out one of them is a dog.

Holly Blue is a typical Labrador who has never met a tree trunk or a blade of grass that doesn’t smell good. So when Martin took out her leash one recent afternoon, his dog was over-the-moon with expectation of the crisp afternoon air and a landscape of wintery fields. Neither of them had any inkling that this simple walk would soon turn catastrophic.

This day, the two set out along a different route through England’s historic Thornham Parva village. Though it was a very cold day, the skies were clear and there was no reason for concern, or so it seemed.

“I hadn’t walked that route for about two years,” Martin said. “When I came across the mud, I tested the ground at the side and it felt firm, but as I walked into the middle the ground began to sink. I called for help but nobody heard me.”

Minutes turned into hours and Martin simply couldn’t extricate himself from the mud. Holly Blue circled anxiously, but there was nothing the dog could do except to stand guard beside her friend. She never left his side.

“I eventually drifted off,” Martin said. “I wasn’t optimistic about being found, but I wasn’t panicking – it was too cold for that!”

Fortunately, Martin’s good friend was scheduled to pick him up that day and when Martin didn’t return home, his friend grew concerned enough to call the police. Martin was reported missing to the police at 7:30 in the evening. Other friends and neighbors had already begun searching for Martin themselves, but they were all focused on his usual route, not realizing that he’d gone in a different direction.

Police used a thermal imaging camera during helicopter sweeps from above. After some time they came across a heat signature that appeared to be the warm body of dog curled up at the edge of the bog. According to police, indeed Holly Blue was found first, and sighting her led them to Martin. Watch a portion of the rescue below.

Police Constables Luke Allard and Clare Wayman were the first on the ground.

“The field was in the middle of nowhere and we were relying on the light from the helicopter and torch light,” Allard said. “When I got to Mr Kay I took hold of his hand and he wouldn’t let go – I told him he would have to let go or I wouldn’t be able to help him.”

Unfortunately Allard and Wayman began getting stuck themselves while trying to extricate Martin, so they covered him with their own jackets to keep him warm while waiting for reinforcements.

Martin was in and out of consciousness as he was taken to West Suffolk Hospital. When he awoke, he was told how Holly Blue had helped save his life.

“It was the first and the last time she had been called into action,” Martin said in an interview with Global News. “She’s a very loyal dog.”


Now compare the behaviourial values of Martin Kay, Holly Blue and everyone else who ensured this had a happy ending with those being demonstrated in the first part of this post!

It’s no sinecure to say, once again, how urgent it is for humankind to learn from our fabulous dogs!

The habit of doing nothing!

Last word for a while on the power of meditation.

This is not a single topic blog. But the last few days have brought such a wealth of marvellous stuff that I couldn’t resist this final, for the time being, post on the benefits of slowing down, of taking a break – meditation, in other words.

First, and I wish I could remember from whence it came, I found this essay by Bertrand Russell In Praise of Idleness It’s a wonderful piece of writing from one of the great masters of the art.  Take this extract from just the first paragraph, (and the photo insertion is from me!):

Bertrand Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970)
Bertrand Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970)

I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. Everyone knows the story of the traveler in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This traveler was on the right lines. But in countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Then from out of the Transition Network stables came this interview by Rob Hopkins with Sophy Banks on the Power of Not Doing Stuff.  Just going to pick out a couple of exchanges that really struck me.

Sophy, I’m sure you get asked the question lots of times, but how would you describe Inner Transition ? What’s Inner Transition for you?

I gave a talk about Inner Transition in Canada just recently, and someone said “what I want from the talk is, what’s the most succinct story? What’s the E=mc² of Inner Transition?” The way that I’m talking about that at the moment is to say the absolute core of Inner Transition is that in our groups, within ourselves, in our relationships, in what we’re doing in our communities, how can we be creating a culture that supports us to be in a state of feeling resourced, feeling empowered, feeling seen and appreciated? With the understanding that when we have those kind of external conditions, we find ourselves in a state where we’re the most open to new ideas, the most open to connection, the most able to build relationships with people who are different from us.

That’s the core of it, to understand that internally we can be in different inner states, we can be in a state where we feel stressed and closed and driven or whatever, or we can be in a state where we’re open and creative and learning and available. That’s one way of framing Inner Transition, how do we keep recreating that?

Part of it, I think, is when we’re all in that state of being open and creative and connected with each other and with ourselves, we make the best decisions. We’re able to take the longest and the widest view, we’re able to see the consequences of what we do, so there’s also something which has really been resonating for me. That’s not only the process we need for Transition, that’s the end-state we want to get to. Part of what’s not working in our culture is that lots of the people with a lot of power who are making really key decisions are in a state of constant stress and pressure and having to make very narrow decisions, decisions based on very narrow viewpoints.


One of the expressions you’ve been using increasingly over the last couple of years is “healthy human culture” and this idea that that’s ultimately the aim of Transition, to enable that and to create that. What does that mean? Can you define “healthy human culture”?

This is where my enquiry took me. I got really interested in seeing polarities and dualities – people have been doing that for centuries – about our culture and calling it dualistic. I came across Riane Eisler’s work. She talks about basically two kinds of human culture. One is based on partnership and one is based on domination. I got really interested in that and the question what if that’s true? It’s a big proposition.

If that’s true, what’s underneath that and what is it about what goes on inside us that we’re constructed, the way we’ve evolved, that causes that to be so, that there are these two stable states? I feel like I’ve been looking at lots of different territories, I’m really interested in trauma and how that affects us in the creation of the unconscious that comes through trauma.

This whole thing about how we create unintended consequences. The idea that anybody could have sat down and designed the consequences that we’re living with is inconceivable. However dysfunctional people were and however much they’re interested in wealth or power or anything, I just don’t believe that anybody intended it to be like this. How do we get this as a by-product of something that’s natural and…just who we are, who we’ve evolved to be.

So for me, the question around “healthy human culture” is one of the inner. What’s the inner state of a culture that creates partnership, learns to live within its resources, that’s oriented towards joyful, pleasurable existence, that has a belief about ourselves as humans that we’re trustworthy and generous and want good things for the future, good things for our children. What I see very very strongly: in a lot of the depth work that I’ve done, what I see is when you peel away a lot of the damage, what you find is a profound and I could say universal. In my experience (I haven’t worked with the psychopaths and the most damaged people) but that sense that if we’re healed and whole what we want is to love each other and do good in the world.

Then there’s another state we could be in, which comes back to your first question, where we feel under-resourced, disempowered, under attack. There’s not enough and I’m taught that other people are selfish, violent and greedy so I need to fight for what I can get. In order to have status I’ve got to have stuff, I’ve got to prove myself. With that goes a whole lot of very difficult feelings.

I’m very interested in that idea, that in unhealthy culture we have a whole lot of unmanageable feelings centred around shame and not being good enough that we then disown – I can’t deal with that in myself, I’ll put it on to you, I’ll find somebody else to have that experience and then I’ll watch it in them and feel OK about myself. It’s really interesting to look at cultures of domination and colonialism and capitalism and power-over as being driven by the need to not feel stuff myself, but grab enough power so that I can do it to somebody else.

The whole driver for those things is a psychological state of splitting and projection. When I bring that back to me and what culture I create in my relationships and my groups, you see it out in those big systems in the world but it’s also a very precise way of understanding and discerning what culture do I make in this room with these people, around splitting and projection or unity.

That’s quite a big answer! The short answer is “healthy human culture” is that one where we reel resourced, empowered, connected, appreciated and safe. Those seem to be the 5 things. If we have those, we are in that state of openness and availability and connection and learning and receptivity and then taking good action instead of action that creates a problem somewhere else in the system.

It really is a fascinating and thought-provoking interview.  Go and read it in full, or better still, find somewhere to sit and relax, close your eyes and listen to it.

Moving on.

There was an article in Nature about the BrainNeuroscience: Idle minds – Neuroscientists are trying to work out why the brain does so much when it seems to be doing nothing at all.

For volunteers, a brain-scanning experiment can be pretty demanding. Researchers generally ask participants to do something — solve mathematics problems, search a scene for faces or think about their favoured political leaders — while their brains are being imaged.

But over the past few years, some researchers have been adding a bit of down time to their study protocols. While subjects are still lying in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners, the researchers ask them to try to empty their minds. The aim is to find out what happens when the brain simply idles. And the answer is: quite a lot.

Again, a very important read so do go across and read it in full.  Because, you will come to this:

Zen and the art of network maintenance

Raichle favours the idea that activity in the resting state helps the brain to stay organized. The connections between neurons are continually shifting as people age and learn, but humans maintain a sense of self throughout the upheaval. Spontaneous activity might play a part in maintaining that continuity. “Connections between neurons turn over in minutes, hours, days and weeks,” says Raichle. “The structure of the brain will be different tomorrow but we will still remember who we are.”

Or perhaps the activity is part of the reshaping process, tweaking connections while we idle. Several teams have reported changes in resting connectivity after language and memory tasks and motor learning. Chris Miall, a behavioural brain scientist at the University of Birmingham, UK, and his colleagues have shown that spontaneous activity at rest can be perturbed by what has just happened. The team scanned volunteers at rest, and then asked them to learn a task involving using a joystick to track a moving target. When the participants were scanned at rest again, the team could see the effects of motor learning in the resting networks. That study, and subsequent work along the same lines, suggests that “the brain is not only thinking about supper coming up, but it’s also processing the recent past and converting some of that into long-term memories”, says Miall. The network changes are specific to the tasks performed.

So, hopefully, anyone who has read this post and who would like to slow down, to practise the art of doing nothing, will be eager to learn how. Well, keep reading!

Yesterday, I referred to Leo Babauta’s website.  Thanks to Leo’s wonderful ‘uncopyright‘ offer, I am free to republish his ‘How To Meditate‘ guide.

How to Do It Daily

There are lots and lots of ways to meditate. But our concern is not to find a perfect form of meditation — it’s to form the daily habit of meditation. And so our method will be as simple as possible.

1. Commit to just 2 minutes a day. Start simply if you want the habit to stick. You can do it for 5 minutes if you feel good about it, but all you’re committing to is 2 minutes each day.

2. Pick a time and trigger. Not an exact time of day, but a general time, like morning when you wake up, or during your lunch hour. The trigger should be something you already do regularly, like drink your first cup of coffee, brush your teeth, have lunch, or arrive home from work.

3. Find a quiet spot. Sometimes early morning is best, before others in your house might be awake and making lots of noise. Others might find a spot in a park or on the beach or some other soothing setting. It really doesn’t matter where — as long as you can sit without being bothered for a few minutes. A few people walking by your park bench is fine.

4. Sit comfortably. Don’t fuss too much about how you sit, what you wear, what you sit on, etc. I personally like to sit on a pillow on the floor, with my back leaning against a wall, because I’m very inflexible. Others who can sit cross-legged comfortably might do that instead. Still others can sit on a chair or couch if sitting on the floor is uncomfortable. Zen practitioners often use a zafu, a round cushion filled with kapok or buckwheat. Don’t go out and buy one if you don’t already have one. Any cushion or pillow will do, and some people can sit on a bare floor comfortably.

5. Start with just 2 minutes. This is really important. Most people will think they can meditate for 15-30 minutes, and they can. But this is not a test of how strong you are at staying in meditation — we are trying to form a longer-lasting habit. And to do that, we want to start with just a two minutes. You’ll find it much easier to start this way, and forming a habit with a small start like this is a method much more likely to succeed. You can expand to 5-7 minutes if you can do it for 7 straight days, then 10 minutes if you can do it for 14 straight days, then 15 minutes if you can stick to it for 21 straight days, and 20 if you can do a full month.

6. Focus on your breath. As you breathe in, follow your breath in through your nostrils, then into your throat, then into your lungs and belly. Sit straight, keep your eyes open but looking at the ground and with a soft focus. If you want to close your eyes, that’s fine. As you breathe out, follow your breath out back into the world. If it helps, count … one breath in, two breath out, three breath in, four breath out … when you get to 10, start over. If you lose track, start over. If you find your mind wandering (and you will), just pay attention to your mind wandering, then bring it gently back to your breath. Repeat this process for the few minutes you meditate. You won’t be very good at it at first, most likely, but you’ll get better with practice.

And that’s it. It’s a very simple practice, but you want to do it for 2 minutes, every day, after the same trigger each day. Do this for a month and you’ll have a daily meditation habit.

Now to the close.

Beautifully rendered thanks to Terry Hershey.  For on his website there is this:

When I pause, I put myself in a new or different environment.
When I pause, I create spaces–or sanctuaries–in which renewal can be born.
When I pause, I allow my soul to savor, relish, value, honor, welcome, see, celebrate, wonder, and to experience grace.

Enough said!

From wolf to dog!

The science behind our fabulous dogs.

I was doing some research for another writing project about the history of the domestication of the dog and came across a peer-reviewed article on The National Center for Biotechnology Information website, here in the USA.  The article was entitled: Genome-wide SNP and haplotype analyses reveal a rich history underlying dog domestication. The website link is here.  (As an aside, if you drop in here and look at the NCBI sitemap it may well serve as an excellent resource.)

Anyway, the dog domestication article is, of necessity, highly scientific but nonetheless worth the read.  Here’s a taste from the Abstract.

Advances in genome technology have facilitated a new understanding of the historical and genetic processes crucial to rapid phenotypic evolution under domestication 1,2. To understand the process of dog diversification better, we conducted an extensive genome-wide survey of more than 48,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms in dogs and their wild progenitor, the grey wolf. Here we show that dog breeds share a higher proportion of multi-locus haplotypes unique to grey wolves from the Middle East, indicating that they are a dominant source of genetic diversity for dogs rather than wolves from east Asia, as suggested by mitochondrial DNA sequence data 3

But what really caught my eye was Figure 1, a wonderful illustration of the links between all the breeds of dogs and the grey wolf.

Neighbour-joining trees of domestic dogs and grey wolves.
Neighbour-joining trees of domestic dogs and grey wolves.

From:Nature. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2012 November 9.
Published in final edited form as: Nature. 2010 April 8; 464(7290): 898–902.
Published online 2010 March 17. doi: 10.1038/nature08837

Copyright/License ►Request permission to reuse

Branch colour indicates the phenotypic/functional designation used by dog breeders 8,9. A dot indicates ≥95% bootstrap support from 1,000 replicates. a, Haplotype-sharing cladogram for 10-SNP windows (n = 6 for each breed and wolf population). b, Allele-sharing cladogram of individuals based on individual SNP loci. c, Haplotype-sharing phylogram based on 10-SNP windows of breeds and wolf populations. d, Allele-sharing phylogram of individual SNPs for breeds and wolf populations. For c and d, we note breeds where genetic assignments conflict with phenotypic/functional designations as follows: 1, Brussels griffon; 2, Pekingese; 3, pug; 4, Shih-tzu; 5, miniature pinscher; 6, Doberman pinscher; 7, Kuvasz; 8, Ibizian hound; 9, chihuahua; 10, Pomeranian; 11, papillon; 12, Glen of Imaal; 13, German shepherd; 14, Briard; 15, Jack Russell; 16, dachshund; 17, great schnauzer; and 18, standard schnauzer. Gt, great; mtn, mountain; PBGV, petit basset griffon vendeen; pin., pinscher; ptr, pointer; ret., retriever; shep., shepherd; sp., spaniel; Staf., Staffordshire; std, standard; terr., terrier. Canine images not drawn to scale. Wolf image adapted from ref. 31; dog images from the American Kennel Club (http://www.akc.org).

The diagram on its own was a bit of a struggle but looked at in conjunction with the research paper was much better understood.  Another reason for going to the original article on the NCBI website is the interesting range of links to other scientific papers that may be seen to the right-hand side of the screen. For example:

Coat variation in the domestic dog is governed by variants in three genes.

mtDNA data indicate a single origin for dogs south of Yangtze River, less than 16,300 years ago, from numerous wolves.

that included this in the Abstract:

The mean sequence distance to ancestral haplotypes indicates an origin 5,400-16,300 years ago (ya) from at least 51 female wolf founders. These results indicate that the domestic dog originated in southern China less than 16,300 ya, from several hundred wolves. The place and time coincide approximately with the origin of rice agriculture, suggesting that the dogs may have originated among sedentary hunter-gatherers or early farmers, and the numerous founders indicate that wolf taming was an important culture trait.

Ancient DNA evidence for Old World origin of New World dogs.


Mitochondrial DNA sequences isolated from ancient dog remains from Latin America and Alaska showed that native American dogs originated from multiple Old World lineages of dogs that accompanied late Pleistocene humans across the Bering Strait. One clade of dog sequences was unique to the New World, which is consistent with a period of geographic isolation. This unique clade was absent from a large sample of modern dogs, which implies that European colonists systematically discouraged the breeding of native American dogs.

If you needed a reminder of the Pleistocene period, as I did, there’s a helpful Wikipedia entry here.

The final link that I wanted to highlight was this one, for all dog owners who worry about the health of our dogs.

The legacy of domestication: accumulation of deleterious mutations in the dog genome.


Dogs exhibit more phenotypic variation than any other mammal and are affected by a wide variety of genetic diseases. However, the origin and genetic basis of this variation is still poorly understood. We examined the effect of domestication on the dog genome by comparison with its wild ancestor, the gray wolf. We compared variation in dog and wolf genes using whole-genome single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data. The d(N)/d(S) ratio (omega) was around 50% greater for SNPs found in dogs than in wolves, indicating that a higher proportion of nonsynonymous alleles segregate in dogs compared with nonfunctional genetic variation. We suggest that the majority of these alleles are slightly deleterious and that two main factors may have contributed to their increase. The first is a relaxation of selective constraint due to a population bottleneck and altered breeding patterns accompanying domestication. The second is a reduction of effective population size at loci linked to those under positive selection due to Hill-Robertson interference. An increase in slightly deleterious genetic variation could contribute to the prevalence of disease in modern dog breeds.

Have to say that there are some fabulous learning opportunities from the enormous range of websites available nowadays.