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The Ratchet Effect

April 8 2009

I have just been to the Royal Institute in Albemarle Street in London for the first time. I heard a learned discussion on how the human brain creates and appreciates Art. No-one has a clue how our brain does it! Only one of the panel of three eminent scientists and a sculptor, thought we would ever know. He was Dr. Colin Blakemore.  He maintains that there is space for belief in a universal creator if you believe in such a thing, as well as the opportunity for individual humans to create if they want to.  Everyone has that capacity even if they don’t use it.

Another panelist, Dr. Jonathan Miller introduced me to a new thought, worked out by Michael Tomasello of the University of Leipzig. One of the things that distinguishes humans from animals is their capacity to move on with a kind of ‘ratchet effect.’

Spiders are programmed to spin their intricate webs and tiny termites build their nests some 10 metres high. They are social animals, and don’t just build their nests - they defend them. But that was all they could do, or had ever done. They had not advanced.

Humans, on the other hand, had the capacity to move forward, and had done so. Some humans however have all the characteristics of the termite!  Political and religious bigots, for instance – and those who devise policies for special educational needs!

It’s never too late to change.   We are human after all.