A Different Hal
As most of us know, HAL is the very awkward computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey, whose main aim seems to be one of taking humanity back to the dark ages. He wanted neither astronaut (Bowman and Poole) discovering the truth and sought the most devious ways to prevent any likelihood of finding out the real nature of the mission heading for Jupiter. HAL malfunctioned and was totally the opposite of what had been expected from him/it.
Here we have a different kind of Hal. He, not it, was concerned with how humans thought and his argument was humans thought in ways that were, well, perhaps a bit like HAL so to say! He of course didn’t say that but upon reading this particular person’s work, its clear he thought humanity was headed for a future not quite so salubrious with its current modes of thought. In fact it too was malfunctioning.
This in question is Conrad Hal Waddington, or C. H Waddington (1905-1975) as he was commonly known. His business was that of being a noted biologist but he also had an eye on the future of human development and how it was, so far, going wrong. In this respect he was also a social philosopher of note.
My first introduction to C. H. was by way of his posthumous publication, Tools for Thought. Its illustrations were sketches created by the artist Yolanda Sonnabend.
This somewhat crude approach employed to illustrate the book gave it an interesting look, this in part being because Waddington had a strong interest in the arts, and believed there was an immense connection between this and how our systems ultimately developed. He believed one could see science depicted in the arts. Yolanda’s work reflects the struggles Waddington faced in attempting to illustrate and put across ideas that were considerably different.
Many of the sketches are evocative of Rorschach’s ink blot tests. In other words despite the apparent crudity they were in fact a quite simple way of putting over the various ideas postulated in the book. It worked well most of the time, but not always. Because they were strikingly different they became easy to memorise/recall and that is the Rorsach element I mention.
Examples of Sonnabend’s work. Above: artwork created for Tools for Thought. Below: the original colour version of the triangle depicted above. Source: Edinburgh University Genetics Blog
I dont know why, but when I first bought Tools for Thought, my impression with Waddington’s work was so great that a further second hand copy was bought. Perhaps I was afraid of losing the one one valuable copy and having none to consult.
Tools for Thought was undoubtedly one of my first stepping stones towards investigating and ultimately collecting works by people who didn’t view society in the usual way. These came from a very wide range of sources, science, physics, philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism and others numerous genres.
Waddington’s work was published just ten years after another equally momentous work that sought to change the field of how humans thought lived and built their societies and one that to was added to my collection.
This other book was Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and I think in many ways Waddington’s work, although not so widely recognised, ranks up there with many other publications of note such as Reasons and Persons (Derek Parfitt), Godel, Escher & Bach (Douglas Hofstader), Deschooling Society (Ivan Illich) and the more salubrious Dancing Wu Li Masters (Gary Zukhav.) These and quite a few more are some of my favourite works that depict different approaches in thought and understanding.
Instead of mathematics, physics, quantum mechanics and so on, Waddington attempted to explain his ideas using largely non complex systems of thought. His approach wasn’t heavy, in that it required prior knowledge of other systems to understand the ideas being put forward. He asserted that his work ‘needed no mathematics from its readers.’
Waddington begins his book by saying “I doubt if there has ever been a period in history when a greater proportion of of people have found themselves frankly puzzled by the way the world reacts to their best efforts to change it, if possible for the better.”
His idea was that we needed to move beyond the ‘Conventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group’ (or as he says, COWDUNG.) His explanation was this acronym “is memorizable, appropriate and accurate enough.” No doubt it was his subtle way of saying society is no better than a pile of cow dung 🙂
One of my favourite quotes from Waddington’s book is this: “It seems always to be easier to make a Good Theory of something which is besides the point and boring rather than of anything which goes to the heart of the matter. The world may be a plateful of oysters, but it is only the empty oysters which open at all easily.”
Tools for Thought is not a brainwashing book of any sort. There’s no conversion program to be had (thank goodness!) Rather it offers the tools by which one can begin to question and analyse the processes by which we humans have long been accustomed to. Waddington puts these on the table and leaves them there for the reader to experiment with.
Wikipedia says he was “an old fashioned intellectual” so its quite difficult to see how his book can be considered as something akin to being ‘old’. There’s nothing old in one who has concerns for a humanity that is clearly taking over nature lock, stock and barrel and creating incredibly intertwined systems, which, in his own words, were ‘a complex of complexes.’
Tools for Thought: Sonnabend’s chreod. Compare with illustration below.
There is one particular pathway Waddington followed which clearly led to Tools for Thought. This is the concept of chreods. Its not a groundbreaking word such as, say, memes (which means an idea that is perpetuated and multiplied) but chreods has somewhat similar connotations, things are perpetuated and spread along the same track but ultimately become limiting.
In other words things get stuck in a rut. Sadly chreod still does not feature in dictionaries, but it derives from his theory of epigenetics and tells us that when a thing begins its very difficult to divert its course.
A scientific detail of epigentical pathways, or chreods as Waddington called them. The ball is initially free rolling but soon enters one of a number of valleys, thus limiting its potential.
These follow generally defined pathways, and illustrates how society does indeed follow particular pathways which become both more restrictive and more complex. This is why, in Waddington’s view, society is so complex, and stuck in many ways that are not necessarily good. Its like a record stuck in the same groove.
Waddington cites Lenin whom he says clearly sensed the social and political landscape of the time in Russia and knew it was time for a revolution. Lenin thus pushed Russia down a chreod. Of course we know what happened. It became a gully that was very difficult to climb out from as well as being extremely difficult to sort out.
In a lot of ways, Waddington didn’t think computers were good. This is the 1970s so the notion of computers was still in its infancy and it would still be twenty years before the Internet even entered public consciousness. He wasn’t 100% against them however.
Yes he does describe computers as ‘a sad fate’ but then goes on to explain that people creating computers actually have no idea what they are doing and that will inevitably lead down a gully or two. Pretty much the same is postulated for AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the view is that different thought processes are necessary to build successful robots which would act and think like humans. To put it simply, we are not even anywhere on that path yet.
Overall Waddington’s view was that we are building incredibly complex systems that do not allow for innovation, experimentation, even diversity, and will ultimately lead to the early demise of humanity.
In terms of academic life C. H. Waddington was for many years a professor of genetics at Edinburgh University and also director of its Institute of Animal Genetics. In 1972 at Edinburgh Waddington established the School of the Man-Made Future basically establishing the themes he wrote in Tools for Thought, as well as his other posthumous publication, The Man-Made Future (1978.) In 1975 the school hosted a conference in London entitled The Future as an Academic Discipline. This was held at the CIBA Foundation 6 to 8 February 1975. The School ceased after Waddington’s death in September 1975.
Although he doesn’t rank on the same level as say, Darwin or Einstein, Waddington’s portrait photographs were considered important enough to be included in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. Although these are not on public show, here is a link to the three portraits the gallery has.
One of the copies of Tools for Thought I have comes from a very strange source. It was once part of the library of the Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board, Ealing. This organisation, established in 1966, is now the Hotel and Catering Training Company Limited and based in Hammersmith. Waddington’s book is an odd choice for such an institution, perhaps they were hoping hotel traders and caterers would be enamored to utilise possible paradigm shifts in their thinking! Exciting new recipes to be thought out and entirely new ways of running hotels for example? The book was added to their collection as soon as the 1975 Paladin paperback edition was released.
The library’s stamp within the book.
Was this book ever lent out? Course not! Obviously it wasn’t even looked at either! Nor once was it stamped and taken out on loan. Eventually it was deleted from the collection (as a stamp inside the book asserts.) It found its way into my collection via the usual charity shop. As this is some thirty years odd years or ago, I can’t remember where but may have been the huge Oxfam book shop in Dalston near where I lived.
The book’s unused loans label.
Tools for Thought was published in the first quarter of 1977, so we have now attained the fortieth anniversary of this important book.
Other links to C. H. Waddington’s life and work:
Waddington as the originator – and father – of epignetics
Commentary: The Epigenotype by C.H. Waddington
More About Waddington: Socialism, Science, and Epigenetics
Letter from Francis Crick to C.H. Waddington