Cormac McCarthy, the celebrated American novelist, author of ten novels, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, is publishing his first-ever non-fiction science essay in Nautilus magazine. Called “The Kekulé Problem,” it explores the unconscious and the origin of human language, and is the cover story of the March/April issue.  “The Kekulé Problem” was published online on April 20th at www.nautil.us.

The essay presents a new, surprising side of one of American’s greatest writing talents. Readers of his novels, which include The Road, No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses, may not be aware that for more than two decades McCarthy has been a senior fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, a science research center.

In his introduction to McCarthy’s essay, David Krakauer, president of SFI, notes that McCarthy is an aficionado in subjects ranging from the history of mathematics to the nature of the conscious. We learn he has been debating the nature of the unconscious mind for two decades.

McCarthy’s essay is a groundbreaking, humanist take on a foundational question in science, and a remarkable window into the self-conception of one of America’s greatest living writers. The essay can be read online, purchased in print form through the magazine’s online store at shop.nautil.us, or found in bookstores across the United States and Canada.



The Kekulé Problem

by Cormac McCarthy


I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”

Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.

A logical place to begin would be to define what the unconscious is in the first place. To do this we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.

All animals have an unconscious. If they didn’t they would be plants. We may sometimes credit ours with duties it doesn’t actually perform. Systems at a certain level of necessity may require their own mechanics of governance. Breathing, for instance, is not controlled by the unconscious but by the pons and the medulla oblongata, two systems located in the brainstem. Except of course in the case of cetaceans, who have to breathe when they come up for air. An autonomous system wouldn’t work here. The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died. (How do they sleep? With half of their brain alternately.) But the duties of the unconscious are beyond counting. Everything from scratching an itch to solving math problems.

Did language meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.

Problems, in general, are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking—in any discipline—is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived—a sort of milepost—so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe that you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.

I’ve pointed out to some of my mathematical friends that the unconscious appears to be better at math than they are. My friend George Zweig calls this the Night Shift. Bear in mind that the unconscious has no pencil or notepad and certainly no eraser. That it does solve problems in mathematics is indisputable. How does it go about it? When I’ve suggested to my friends that it may well do it without using numbers, most of them thought—after a while—that this was a possibility. How, we don’t know. Just as we don’t know how it is that we manage to talk. If I am talking to you then I can hardly be crafting at the same time the sentences that are to follow what I am now saying. I am totally occupied in talking to you. Nor can some part of my mind be assembling these sentences and then saying them to me so that I can repeat them. Aside from the fact that I am busy, this would be to evoke an endless regress. The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.

There are influential persons among us—of whom a bit more a bit later—who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness. Somewhat like vision, perhaps. But vision we now know is traceable to perhaps as many as a dozen quite independent evolutionary histories. Tempting material for the teleologists. These stories apparently begin with a crude organ capable of perceiving light where any occlusion could well suggest a predator. Which actually makes it an excellent scenario for Darwinian selection. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I don’t know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.

There are a number of examples of signaling in the animal world that might be taken for a proto-language. Chipmunks—among other species—have one alarm call for aerial predators and another for those on the ground. Hawks as distinct from foxes or cats. Very useful. But what is missing here is the central idea of language—that one thing can be another thing. It is the idea that Helen Keller suddenly understood at the well. That the sign for water was not simply what you did to get a glass of water. It was the glass of water. It was, in fact, the water in the glass. This in the play The Miracle Worker. Not a dry eye in the house.

The invention of language was understood at once to be incredibly useful. Again, it seems to have spread through the species almost instantaneously. The immediate problem would seem to have been that there were more things to name than there are sounds to name them with. Language appears to have originated in southwestern Africa and it may even be that the clicks in the Khoisan languages—to include Sandawe and Hadza—are an atavistic remnant of addressing this need for a greater variety of sounds. The vocal problems were eventually handled evolutionarily—and apparently in fairly short order—by turning our throat over largely to the manufacture of speech. Not without cost, as it turns out. The larynx has moved down in the throat in such a way as to make us as a species highly vulnerable to choking on our food—a not uncommon cause of death. It’s also left us as the only mammal incapable of swallowing and vocalizing at the same time.

The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species were not protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they weren’t there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. I suggested once in conversation at the Santa Fe Institute that language had acted very much like a parasitic invasion and David Krakauer—our president—said that the same idea had occurred to him. Which pleased me a good deal because David is very smart. This is not to say of course that the human brain was not in any way structured for the reception of language. Where else would it go? If nothing else we have the evidence of history. The difference between the history of a virus and that of language is that the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not. The virus comes nicely machined. Offer it up. Turn it slightly. Push it in. Click. Nice fit. But the scrap heap will be found to contain any number of viruses that did not fit.

There is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.

Influential persons will by now, of course, have smiled to themselves at the ill-concealed Lamarckianism lurking here. We might think to evade it by various strategies or redefinitions but probably without much success. Darwin, of course, was dismissive of the idea of inherited “mutilations”—the issue of cutting off the tails of dogs for instance. But the inheritance of ideas remains something of a sticky issue. It is difficult to see them as anything other than acquired. How the unconscious goes about its work is not so much poorly understood as not understood at all. It is an area pretty much ignored by the artificial intelligence studies, which seem mostly devoted to analytics and to the question of whether the brain is like a computer. They have decided that it’s not, but that is not altogether true.

Of the known characteristics of the unconscious, its persistence is among the most notable. Everyone is familiar with repetitive dreams. Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I don’t know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?

To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is machine for operating an animal.

What is at work here? And how does the unconscious know we’re not getting it? What doesn’t it know? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?)

The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

We don’t know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point, the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not, for the most part, come in narrative form. We have to do that.

So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course, that’s what we are saying. Except that he didn’t say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being, he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course, they don’t think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually, a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didn’t precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old.

They haven’t explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.

One hundred thousand years is pretty much an eyeblink. But two million years is not. This is, rather loosely, the length of time in which our unconscious has been organizing and directing our lives. And without language, you will note. At least for all but that recent blink. How does it tell us where and when to scratch? We don’t know. We just know that it’s good at it. But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesn’t much like language and even that it doesn’t trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

Apart from its great antiquity, the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot. Unless one is an Asperger’s case. In which event memories, while correct, suffer from their own literalness. The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.

When you pause to reflect and say: “Let me see. How can I put this,” your aim is to resurrect an idea from this pool of we-know-not- what and give it a linguistic form so that it can be expressed. It is the this that one wishes to put that is representative of this pool of knowledge whose form is so amorphous. If you explain this to someone and they say that they don’t understand you may well seize your chin and think some more and come up with another way to “put” it. Or you may not. When the physicist Dirac was complained to by students that they didn’t understand what he’d said Dirac would simply repeat it verbatim.

The picture-story lends itself to a parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use. And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad, it doesn’t include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic. No one speaks. These are very old dreams and often troubling. Sometimes a friend can see their meaning where we cannot. The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesn’t say that you can’t ask for help. Parables of course often want to resolve themselves into the pictorial. When you first heard of Plato’s cave you set about reconstructing it.

To repeat. The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not. Or not yet. You have to be careful about inviting Descartes to the table. Aside from inheritability probably the best guide as to whether a category is of our own devising is to ask if we see it in other creatures. The case for language is pretty clear. In the facility with which young children learn its complex and difficult rules we see the slow incorporation of the acquired.

I’d been thinking about the Kekulé problem off and on for a couple of years without making much progress. Then one morning after George Zweig and I had had one of our ten-hour lunches I came down in the morning with the wastebasket from my bedroom and as I was emptying it into the kitchen trash I suddenly knew the answer. Or I knew that I knew the answer. It took me a minute or so to put it together. I reflected that while George and I had spent the first couple of hours at cognition and neuroscience we had not talked about Kekulé and the problem. But something in our conversation might very well have triggered our reflections—mine and those of the Night Shift—on this issue. The answer, of course, is simple once you know it. The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break. When later I told George what I’d come up with he mulled it over for a minute or so and then nodded and said: “That sounds about right.” Which pleased me a good deal because George is very smart.

The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die? What does it think about that? It appears to represent a gathering of talents rather than just one. It seems unlikely that the itch department is also in charge of math. Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?

Cormac McCarthy is a board member and senior fellow of the Santa Fe Institute.

Over the last two decades, Cormac and I have been discussing the puzzles and paradoxes of the unconscious mind. Foremost among them, the fact that the very recent and “uniquely” human capability of near infinite expressive power arising through a combinatorial grammar is built on the foundations of a far more ancient animal brain. How have these two evolutionary systems become reconciled? Cormac expresses this tension as the deep suspicion, perhaps even contempt, that the primeval unconscious feels toward the upstart, conscious language. In this article Cormac explores this idea through processes of dream and infection. It is a discerning and wide-ranging exploration of ideas and challenges that our research community has only recently dared to start addressing through complexity science.

—David Krakauer

President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems, Santa Fe Institute


Gaia Vince discovers that analyzing the genetics of ancient humans means changing ideas about our evolution.


The Rock of Gibraltar appears out of the plane window as an immense limestone monolith sharply rearing up from the base of Spain into the Mediterranean. One of the ancient Pillars of Hercules, it marked the end of the Earth in classical times. Greek sailors didn’t go past it. Atlantis, the unknown, lay beyond.

In summer 2016, Gibraltar is in the throes of a 21st-century identity crisis: geographically a part of Spain, politically a part of Britain; now torn, post Brexit, between its colonial and European Union ties. For such a small area – less than seven square kilometers – Gibraltar is home to an extraordinarily diverse human population. It has been home to people of all types over the millennia, including early Europeans at the edge of their world, Phoenicians seeking spiritual support before venturing into the Atlantic, and Carthaginians arriving in a new world from Africa.

But I’ve come to see who was living here even further back, between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, when sea levels were much lower and the climate was swinging in and out of ice ages. It was a tough time to be alive and the period saw the species that could, such as birds, migrate south to warmer climes, amid plenty of local extinctions. Among the large mammal species struggling to survive were lions, wolves and at least two types of human: our own ‘modern human’ ancestors, and the last remaining populations of our cousins, the Neanderthals.

By understanding more about these prehistoric people, we can learn about who we are as a species today. Our ancestors’ experiences shaped us, and they may still hold answers to some of our current health problems, from diabetes to depression.

Everyone of European descent has some Neanderthal DNA in their genetic makeup

I’m picked up outside my hotel by archaeologists Clive and Geraldine Finlayson, in a car that itself looks fairly ancient. Typical for this crowded little peninsula, they are of diverse origins – he, pale-skinned and sandy-haired, can trace his ancestry back to Scotland; she, olive-skinned and dark-haired, from the Genoese refugees escaping Napoleon’s purges. How different we humans can look from each other. And yet the people whose home I am about to visit truly were of a different race.

We don’t know how many species of humans there have been, how many different races of people, but the evidence suggests that around 600,000 years ago one species emerged in Africa that used fire, made simple tools from stones and animal bones, and hunted big animals in large cooperative groups. And 500,000 years ago, these humans, known as Homo heidelbergensis, began to take advantage of fluctuating climate changes that regularly greened the African continent, and spread into Europe and beyond.

Neanderthals were thriving from Siberia to southern Spain by the time a few families of modern humans made it out of Africa around 60,000 years ago.

By 300,000 years ago, though, migration into Europe had stopped, perhaps because a severe ice age had created an impenetrable desert across the Sahara, sealing off the Africans from the other tribes. This geographic separation enabled genetic differences to evolve, eventually resulting in different races, although they were still the same species and would prove able to have fertile offspring together. The race left behind in Africa would become Homo sapiens sapiens, or ‘modern humans’; those who evolved adaptations to the cooler European north would become Neanderthals, Denisovans and others whom we can now only glimpse with genetics.

Neanderthals were thriving from Siberia to southern Spain by the time a few families of modern humans made it out of Africa around 60,000 years ago. These Africans encountered Neanderthals and, on several occasions, had children with them. We know this because human DNA has been found in the genomes of Neanderthals, and because everyone alive today of European descent – including me – has some Neanderthal DNA in their genetic makeup. Could it be that their genes, adapted to the northerly environment, provided a selective advantage to our ancestors as well?

After driving through narrow tunnels on a road that skirts the cliff face, we pull up at a military checkpoint. Clive shows the guard our accreditation and we’re waved through to park inside. Safety helmets on to protect from rockslides, we leave the car and continue on foot under a low rock arch. A series of metal steps leads steeply down the cliff to a narrow shingle beach, 60 meters below. The tide is lapping the pebbles and our feet must negotiate the unstable larger rocks to find a dry path.

I’ve been concentrating so hard on keeping my footing that it is something of a shock to look up and suddenly face a gaping absence in the rock wall. We have reached Gorham’s Cave, a great teardrop-shaped cavern that disappears into the white cliff face and, upon entering, seems to grow in height and space. This vast, cathedral-like structure, with a roof that soars high into the interior, was used by Neanderthals for tens of thousands of years. Scientists believe it was their last refuge. When Neanderthals disappeared from here, some 32,000 years ago, we became the sole inheritors of our continent.

I pause, perched on a rock inside the entrance, in order to consider this – people not so different from myself once sat here, facing the Mediterranean and Africa beyond. Before I arrived in Gibraltar, I used a commercial genome-testing service to analyze my ancestry. From the vial of saliva I sent them, they determined that 1 percent of my DNA is Neanderthal. I don’t know what health advantages or risks these genes have given me – testing companies are no longer allowed to provide this level of detail – but it is an extraordinary experience to be so close to the intelligent, resourceful people who bequeathed me some of their genes. Sitting in this ancient home, knowing none of them survived to today, is a poignant reminder of how vulnerable we are – it could so easily have been a Neanderthal woman sitting here wondering about her extinct human cousins.

Gorham’s Cave seems an oddly inaccessible place for a home. But Clive, who has been meticulously exploring the cave for 25 years, explains that the view was very different back then. With the sea levels so much lower, vast hunting plains stretched far out to sea, letting people higher on the rock spot prey and signal to each other. In front of me would have been fields of grassy dunes and lakes – wetlands that were home to birds, grazing deer and other animals. Further around the peninsula to my right, where the dunes gave way to shoreline, would have been clam colonies and mounds of flint. It was idyllic, Clive says. The line of neighboring caves here probably had the highest concentration of Neanderthals living anywhere on Earth. “It was like Neanderthal City,” he adds.

Deep inside the cave, Clive’s team of archaeologists have found the remains of fires. Further back are chambers where the inhabitants could have slept protected from hyenas, lions, leopards and other predators. “They ate shellfish, pine seeds, plants and olives. They hunted big game and also birds. There was plenty of fresh water from the springs that still exist under what is now seabed,” Clive says. “They had spare time to sit and think – they weren’t just surviving.”

He and Geraldine have uncovered remarkable evidence of Neanderthal culture in the cave, including the first example of Neanderthal artwork. The ‘hashtag’, a deliberately carved rock engraving, is possibly evidence of the first steps towards writing. Other signs of symbolic or ritualistic behavior, such as the indication that Neanderthals were making and wearing black feather capes or headdresses as well as warm clothes, all point to a social life not so different to the one our African ancestors were experiencing.

Clive shows me a variety of worked stones, bone and antler. I pick up a flint blade and hold it in my hand, marveling at how the same technology is being passed between people biologically and culturally linked but separated by tens of thousands of years. Other sites in Europe have uncovered Neanderthal-made necklaces of strung eagle talons dating back 130,000 years, little ochre clamshell compacts presumably for adornment, and burial sites for their dead.

These people evolved outside of Africa but clearly had advanced culture and the capability to survive in a hostile environment. “Consider modern humans were in the Middle East perhaps 70,000 years ago, and reached Australia more than 50,000 years ago,” says Clive. “Why did it take them so much longer to reach Europe? I think it was because Neanderthals were doing very well and keeping modern humans out.”

© Tom Sewell

But by 39,000 years ago, Neanderthals were struggling. Genetically they had low diversity because of inbreeding and they were reduced to very low numbers, partly because an extreme and rapid change of climate was pushing them out of many of their former habitats. A lot of the forested areas they depended on were disappearing and, while they were intelligent enough to adapt their tools and technology, their bodies were unable to adapt to the hunting techniques required for the new climate and landscapes.

“In parts of Europe, the landscape changed in a generation from thick forest to a plain without a single tree,” Clive says. “Our ancestors, who were used to hunting in bigger groups on the plains, could adapt easily: instead of wildebeest they had reindeer, but effectively the way of capturing them was the same. But Neanderthals were forest people.

“It could’ve gone the other way – if instead the climate had got wetter and warmer, we might be Neanderthals today discussing the demise of modern humans.”

Although the Neanderthals, like the Denisovans and other races we are yet to identify, died out, their genetic legacy lives on in people of European and Asian descent. Between 1 and 4 per cent of our DNA is of Neanderthal origins, but we don’t all carry the same genes, so across the population around 20 per cent of the Neanderthal genome is still being passed on. That’s an extraordinary amount, leading researchers to suspect that Neanderthal genes must be advantageous for survival in Europe.

Interbreeding across different races of human would have helped accelerate the accumulation of useful genes for the environment, a process that would have taken much longer to occur through evolution by natural selection. Neanderthal tweaks to our immune system, for example, may have boosted our survival in new lands, just as we prime our immune system with travel vaccines today. Many of the genes are associated with keratin, the protein in skin and hair, including some that are linked to corns and others that play a role in pigmentation – Neanderthals were redheads, apparently. Perhaps these visible variants were considered appealing by our ancestors and sexually selected for, or perhaps a tougher skin offered some advantage in the colder, darker European environment.

Some Neanderthal genes, however, appear to be a disadvantage, for instance making us more prone to diseases like Crohn’s, urinary tract disorders and type 2 diabetes, and to depression. Others change the way we metabolize fats, risking obesity, or even make us more likely to become addicted to smoking. None of these genes are a direct cause of these complicated conditions, but they are contributory risk factors, so how did they survive selection for a thousand generations?

‘Why did it take [humans] so much longer to reach Europe? I think it was because Neanderthals were doing very well and keeping modern humans out.’

It’s likely that for much of the time since our sexual encounters with Neanderthals, these genes were useful. When we lived as hunter-gatherers, for example, or early farmers, we would have faced times of near starvation interspersed with periods of gorging. Genes that now pose a risk of diabetes may have helped us to cope with starvation, but our new lifestyles of continual gorging on plentiful, high-calorie food now reveal harmful side-effects. Perhaps it is because of such latent disadvantages that Neanderthal DNA is very slowly now being deselected from the human genome.

While I can (sort of) blame my Neanderthal ancestry for everything from mood disorders to being greedy, another archaic human race passed on genes that help modern Melanesians, such as people in Papua New Guinea, survive different conditions. Around the time that the ancestors of modern Europeans and Asians were getting friendly with Neanderthals, the ancestors of Melanesians were having sex with Denisovans, about whom we know very little. Their surviving genes, however, may help modern-day Melanesians to live at altitude by changing the way their bodies react to low levels of oxygen. Some geneticists suspect that other, yet-to-be-discovered archaic races may have influenced the genes of other human populations across the world.

Interbreeding with Neanderthals and other archaic humans certainly changed our genes, but the story doesn’t end there.

I am a Londoner, but I’m a little darker than many Englishwomen because my father is originally from Eastern Europe. We are attuned to such slight differences in skin color, face shape, hair and a host of other less obvious features encountered across different parts of the world. However, there has been no interbreeding with other human races for at least 32,000 years. Even though I look very different from a Han Chinese or Bantu person, we are actually remarkably similar genetically. There is far less genetic difference between any two humans than there is between two chimpanzees, for example.

The reason for our similarity is the population bottlenecks we faced as a species, during which our numbers dropped as low as a few hundred families and we came close to extinction. As a result, we are too homogeneous to have separated into different races. Nevertheless, variety has emerged through populations being separated geographically – and culturally, in some cases – over thousands of years. The greatest distinctions occur in isolated populations where small genetic and cultural changes become exaggerated, and there have been many of them over the 50,000 years since my ancestors made the journey out of Africa towards Europe.

According to the analysis of my genome, my haplogroup is H4a. Haplogroups describe the mutations on our mitochondrial DNA, passed down through the maternal line, and can theoretically be used to trace a migratory path all the way back to Africa. H4a is a group shared by people in Europe, unsurprisingly, and western Asia. It is, the genome-testing company assures me, the same as Warren Buffet’s. So what journey did my ancestors take that would result in these mutations and give me typically European features?

Interbreeding with Neanderthals and other archaic humans certainly changed our genes, but the story doesn’t end there.

“I was dumped by helicopter in the wilderness with two other people, a Russian and an indigenous Yukaghir man, with our dogs, our guns, our traps, a little food and a little tea. There we had to survive and get food and furs in the coldest place on Earth where humans live naturally – minus 60 degrees.”

Eske Willerslev lived for six months as a trapper in Siberia in his 20s. Separately, his identical twin brother Rane did the same. When they were teenagers, their father had regularly left them in Lapland to survive alone in the wilderness for a couple of weeks, fostering a passion for the remote tundra and the people who live there, and they went on increasingly lengthy expeditions. But surviving practically alone was very different. “It was a childhood dream, but it was the toughest thing I have ever done,” Eske admits.

These experiences affected the twins deeply, and both have been driven towards a deeper understanding of how the challenge of survival has forged us as humans over the past 50,000 years. It led Eske into the science of genetics, and to pioneering the new field of ancient DNA sequencing. Now director of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Eske has sequenced the world’s oldest genome (a 700,000-year-old horse) and was the first to sequence the genome of an ancient human, a 4,000-year-old Saqqaq man from Greenland. Since then, he has gone on to sequence yet more ancient humans and, in doing so, has fundamentally changed our understanding of early human migration through Europe and beyond. If anyone can unpick my origins, it is surely Eske.

First, though, I go to meet his twin Rane, who studied humanities, went into cultural anthropology and is now a professor at Aarhus University. He’s not convinced that his brother’s genetic approach can reveal all the answers to my questions: “There exists an uneasy relationship between biology and culture,” he tells me. “Natural scientists claim they can reveal what sort of people moved around, and they are not interested in having their models challenged. But this cannot tell you anything about what people thought or what their culture was.”

To put this point to Eske, I visit him in his delightful museum office, opposite a petite moated castle and in the grounds of the botanic gardens – there could scarcely be a more idyllic place for a scientist to work. Greeting him for the first time, just hours after meeting Rane, is disconcerting. Identical twins are genetically and physically almost exactly the same – looking back, many years from now, at DNA left by the brothers, it would be all but impossible to tell them apart or even to realize that there were two of them.

Eske tells me that he is increasingly working with archaeologists to gain additional cultural perspective, but that genetic analysis can answer questions that nothing else can. “You find cultural objects in certain places and the fundamental question is: Does that mean people who made it were actually there or that it was traded? And, if you find very similar cultural objects, does that mean there was parallel or convergent cultural evolution in the two places, or does that mean there was contact?” he explains.

“For example, one theory says the very first people crossing into the Americas were not Native Americans but Europeans crossing the Atlantic, because the stone tools thousands of years ago in America are similar to stone tools in Europe at the same time. Only when we did the genetic testing could we see it was convergent evolution, because the guys carrying and using those tools have nothing to do with Europeans. They were Native Americans. So the genetics, in terms of migrations, is by far the most powerful tool we have available now to determine: was it people moving around or was it culture moving around? And this is really fundamental.”

What Eske went on to discover about Native American origins rewrote our understanding completely. It had been thought that they were simply descendants of East Asians who had crossed the Bering Strait. In 2013, however, Eske sequenced the genome of a 24,000-year-old boy discovered in central Siberia, and found a missing link between ancient Europeans and East Asians, the descendants of whom would go on to populate America. Native Americans can thus trace their roots back to Europe as well as East Asia.

And what about my ancestors? I show Eske the H4a haplotype analyzed by the sequencing company and tell him it means I’m European. He laughs derisively. “You could be and you could be from somewhere else,” he says. “The problem with the gene-sequencing tests is that you can’t look at a population and work back to see when mutation arose with much accuracy – the error bars are huge and it involves lots of assumptions about mutation rates.

“This is why ancient genetics and ancient genomics are so powerful – you can look at an individual and say, ‘Now we know we are 5,000 years ago, how did it look? Did they have this gene or not?’”

The things that we thought we understood about Europeans are coming unstuck as we examine the genes of more ancient people. For example, it was generally accepted that pale skin evolved so we could get more vitamin D after moving north to where there was little sun and people had to cover up against the cold. But it turns out that it was the Yamnaya people from much further south, tall and brown-eyed, who brought pale skins to Europe. Northern Europeans before then were dark-skinned and got plenty of vitamin D from eating fish.

It is the same with lactose tolerance. Around 90 per cent of Europeans have a genetic mutation that allows them to digest milk into adulthood, and scientists had assumed that this gene evolved in farmers in northern Europe, giving them an additional food supply to help survive the long winters. But Eske’s research using the genomes of hundreds of Bronze Age people, who lived after the advent of farming, has cast doubt on this theory too: “We found that the genetic trait was almost non-existent in the European population. This trait only became abundant in the northern European population within the last 2,000 years,” he says.

It turns out that lactose tolerance genes were also introduced by the Yamnaya. “They had a slightly higher tolerance to milk than the European farmers and must have introduced it to the European gene pool. Maybe there was a disaster around 2,000 years ago that caused a population bottleneck and allowed the gene to take off. The Viking sagas talk about the sun becoming black – a major volcanic eruption – that could have caused a massive drop in population size, which could have been where some of that stock takes off with lactose.”

While ancient genomics can help satisfy curiosity about our origins, its real value may be in trying to unpick some of the different health risks in different populations. Even when lifestyle and social factors are taken into account, some groups are at significantly higher risk of diseases such as diabetes or HIV, while other groups seem more resistant. Understanding why could help us prevent and treat these diseases more effectively.

It had been thought that resistance to infections like measles, influenza and so on arrived once we changed our culture and started farming, living in close proximity with other people and with animals. Farming started earlier in Europe, which was thought to be why we have disease resistance but Native Americans don’t, and also why the genetic risks of diabetes and obesity are higher in native Australian and Chinese people than in Europeans.

“Then,” says Eske, “we sequenced a hunter-gatherer from Spain, and he showed clear genetic resistance to a number of pathogens that he shouldn’t have been exposed to.” Clearly, Europeans and other groups have a resistance that other groups don’t have, but is this really a result of the early agricultural revolution in Europe, or is something else going on?

Eske’s analysis of people living 5,000 years ago has also revealed massive epidemics of plague in Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 years earlier than previously thought. Around 10 per cent of all skeletons the team analyzed had evidence of plague. “Scandinavians and some northern Europeans have higher resistance to HIV than anywhere else in the world,” Eske notes. “Our theory is that their HIV resistance is partly resistance towards plague.”

It could be that the cultural changes we have made, such as farming and herding, have had less influence on our genes than we thought. Perhaps it is simply the randomness of genetic mutation that has instead changed our culture. There’s no doubt that where mutations have occurred and spread through our population, they have influenced the way we look, our health risks and what we can eat. My ancestors clearly didn’t stop evolving once they’d left Africa – we’re still evolving now – and they have left an intriguing trail in our genes.

At the Gibraltar Museum, a pair of Dutch archaeology artists have created life-size replicas of a Neanderthal woman and her grandson, based on finds from nearby. They are naked but for a woven amulet and decorative feathers in their wild hair. The boy, aged about four, is embracing his grandmother, who stands confidently and at ease, smiling at the viewer. It’s an unnerving, extraordinarily powerful connection with someone whose genes I may well share, and I recall Clive’s words from when I asked him if modern humans had simply replaced Neanderthals because of our superior culture.

“That replacement theory is a kind of racism. It’s a very colonialist mentality,” he said. “You’re talking almost as if they were another species.”

Professor Eske Willerslev is a research associate at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which is funded by a core grant from the Wellcome Trust, which publishes Mosaic. 

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

The Net: The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet


A must see documentary from 2003 that has gone unnoticed by the vast majority. This film explores a broad scope of political and intellectual history from the 1940s through the turn of the century. It addresses the history of the formation of the Internet, the experiments with LSD in an attempt to understand how the mind can be harnessed to develop a new world order without totalitarianism or fascism, and the development of cybernetics as an attempt to merge man and machine into a new species.

From THE WHOLE EARTH CATALOG to the birth of ISIL, this somewhat disjointed film attempts cover and blend the many movements and ideas that have been lying in silent isolation beneath the current of events that have created our individual lifetimes. -KHF



Published on Mar 16, 2012

Full version of Lutz Dammbecks 2003 documentary.
Highest quality on YouTube.

The Net explores the complex back-story of Ted Kaczynski, dubbed by the CIA as the “Unabomber”. An inquiry into the rationale of this notable figure situates him within a late 20th Century web of technology – a system that he grew to oppose. Incorporating a subversive approach to the history of the Internet, the documentary combines speculative travelogue and investigative journalism to trace contrasting counter cultural responses to the cybernetic revolution.

For those who resist these intrusive systems of technological control, the Unabomber has come to symbolize an ultimate figure of refusal. For those that embrace it, as did the early champions of media art like Marshall McLuhan, Nam June Paik, and Stewart Brand, the promises of worldwide networking and instantaneous communication outweighed the perils.

Working through themes of utopianism, anarchism, terrorism, and providing insights on the CIA, LSD, Project MK-ULTRA, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Dammbeck provides a fascinating view of the wider picture of the most famous neo-luddite.

—Shortened and altered summary originally from Amazon.com



Das Netz: Blotters, Bombers, and Cybernetic Trauma



Das Netz is a German documentary directed by Lutz Dammbeck, a strange mosaic of the collision of covert history, scientific development, and popular culture. Ostensibly it’s about the case of the Ted Kaczynski, the brilliant mathematician-turned-“Unabomber” who between the years of 1978 and 1995 engaged in a bombing campaign against industrial civilization. Holed up in remote cabin in the woods near Lincoln, Montana he fashioned weapons that he then mailed to his victims, many culled from the ranks of the “Digerati” – the top-elites of the then-emergent fields of computing and information technology development. While many would be satisfied creating a linear narrative, a documentary snaking through Kaczynski’s life as a mathematical prodigy who lost his mind, Dammbeck choses instead to ask the question of why? Not satisfied with the charge of insanity, the filmmaker strikes out to navigate a twisty terrain in search of causation, something that would explain why an individual who was expected to become one of the leading mathematicians of our time would flee civilization to wage a protracted war against technology – the very force that trajectory of his mathematical fields was propelling forward. In the end, this question becomes a guiding compass in the loosest sense of the word, holding together an unwieldy array of facts and tangents that span decades.


Dammbeck’s journey takes him to the offices of John Brockmann, a notable of the Digerati who cut his teeth in New York City’s avant-garde scene of the early 1960s before becoming the literary agent for many of the top thinkers and leaders in the fields of technoscience. The trail then leads him to Brockman’s close friend Stewart Brand, where we’re treated to an interview with the guru on a cramped houseboat on the California coast. Like Brockman, Brand is one of the Digerati, renowned as the founder of the early online community known as the WELL. He was present at the launch of Wired magazine, the official organ of the delirious Silicon Valley-style capitalism defined by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron as the “Californian Ideology.” And like Brockman, Brand emerged from the New York avant-garde, and after filling his mind with the writings of Buckminster Fuller, Norbert Wiener, and Marshall McLuhan, struck out for the West Coast. He joined up then with the author Ken Kesey, who, having recently encountered LSD through the CIA’s notorious MK-ULTRA program, banded together the Merry Pranksters. Brand recounts for the camera his role in setting-up the Prankster’s Acid Tests, where participants were introduced to the drug while immersing themselves in complex, multi-media environments with a psychedelic soundtrack provided by a band called the Warlocks – later to find fame as the Grateful Dead. From this foundation, the archetypal image of the 1960s was born: the hippy counterculture, in full revolt against the Puritan society that their parents hoped to pass down.


Das Netz draws our attention to the fact that Kaczynski was teaching mathematics at the University of California at Berkley in 1967, not far from the ground zero of this counterculture at its height. It also draws our attention to Kaczynski’s self-made cabin in the forests of Montana, which was fashioned from plans advertised in the Whole Earth Catalog. The Catalog, in turn, was a publication devised by Stewart Brand as a means to provide tools for the communalist movement – those in the counterculture who sought a ‘back-to-the-land’ lifestyle far removed from despotic urbanism and the overreaching arms of the state. Years later, the communes that so motivated the Whole Earth Catalog would be resurrected online as the WELL, itself an abbreviation for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. For Dammbeck, lurking behind this shifting kaleidoscope of history lurks LSD – first in the hands of CIA, which then seemed to have passed the reigns on to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

All this sounds like the making of a great conspiracy theory, which in many respects Das Netz can easily be read as. And indeed, many of these same facts have become fodder a vast multitude of them. But I don’t think that’s the ultimate point of Dammbeck’s documentary. As we watch, the narrative splits fractures and spins, becomes increasingly incoherent in regards to its initial goal. Here’s the Esalen Institute. Here’s the brains behind ARPA, the early creators of the internet. Here’s a play-by-play of the Unabomber’s arrest by FBI agents. Here’s some reflections on Kurt Gödel and his incompleteness theorems, which posits that there will always be true, yet unprovable statements. Like Kaczynski, Gödel suffered from increasingly debilitating paranoia that would, in the end, claim his life. This what Das Netz is really about: paranoia, and the impossibility of avoiding it in our age of complex systems and dizzying array of machines that govern every action in our waking lives. It speaks to the ontological instability that we are all subjected to, in the prefabricated, yet modular, environments crafted for us by the stipulations of non-stop, 24/7 neoliberal capitalism. It foregrounds, without speaking it, that inevitability of solipsism that Baudrillard spent a lifetime probing and diagnosing.

Readers of this blog will have noted the ongoing fascination with cybernetics, in particular its role as the defining governmenality of the neoliberal ideology. This is one of the reasons I find Das Netz so appealing: it’s all there, from Norbert Wiener’s attempts to build anti-aircraft batteries through collapsing man and machine together in the pseudo-metaphor of the servomechanism, to the movement of Wiener and his theories into biology, to the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation’s Macy Conferences. It was there that cybernetics became articulated as the ideal instrument of liberal governance: a self-steering machine, a literal governor for maintain homeostatic social systems in a state of equilibrium. While Dammbeck doesn’t mention it, it was after these conferences that the CIA begin subsidizing social science seminars around the Western world to promote cybernetics as a unified science, their experts speaking urgently of the need to win out the “cybernetics gap” allegedly forming with the Soviet Union.[1] Maybe we can feel that familiar paranoia creeping in when we consider that the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation was soon receiving money from the CIA to host a series of seminars, modeled on the Macy Conferences with many of the same participants in tow, to begin studies in LSD.



One of the great novels to bring together cybernetics, the 60s, and the encroachment of paranoia is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which may be very well the model for what Dammbeck attempts to carry out in Das Netz. Pynchon’s protagonist, Oedipa Maas, finds herself ensnared in a worldwide conspiracy between two different mail distribution companies, which the novel articulates in terms of cybernetic systems on two levels: the literal level (it’s dealing with communication systems) and the metaphorical level (language drawn from cybernetics and information theory abound). To make matters worse for Maas, however, is that the conspiracy itself might not even exist. Uncertainty lurks at the center of Pynchon’s novel, which like an unstable cybernetic system veers off on a positive feedback loop, far from any sense of linearity. Like the exploding counterculture, she “moves from a uniform, univocal, suburban America to an America characterized by infinite multiplicity, an America where anything can happen and where events can have any number of meanings.”[2] But is this freedom or control? Maas reflects that she finds herself feeling “trapped between the zeros and ones of an enormous computer.”

Pynchon carries the themes of cybernetics and paranoia over to his next novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, which foregrounds many of Norbert Wiener’s primary concerns by focusing much of the plot on missile trajectories and the blurring of flesh with weapons systems in the context of the Second World War. Conspiracies again abound in text, snaking their way through the heart of the conflict as competing interests rush to lay claim to the mysterious “Rocket 00000”. Along the way, readers are treated to scenes of wealthy industrials participating in occult rituals (with dubious outcomes), the dipping of characters into shared hallucinations, and the breakdown of linear perspective in the collapse of Calvinistic deterministic universals in the face of quantum indeterminacy. At one point the character of Edward Pointsman (a Pavlovian psychologist with a penchant for determinism and control) pauses to ask “Suppose we consider the war itself as a laboratory?” Andrew Pickering, in his brilliant analysis of emergence of the cyborg sciences (cybernetics, game theory, systems analysis and the like) in the halls of World War 2’s military-industrial-academic complex, uses this quote as his launching pad. For Pickering, this complex itself is a cyborg system that begins at the intersection of these three dimensions, before spilling out into the social arena.[3]

Das Netz, too, looks at the war as a laboratory, but engages not so much in the careful analysis through STS (science and technology studies) techniques that Pickering privileges, opting instead to probe the hard to discern feedback loops between self and society that cybernetic principles were soon applied to. If the war is a laboratory, it is a laboratory for studying what is inside the human, what makes it tick and move, desire, fall in line or move far from order. Pickering, in later analyses, would unveil that the foundations of wartime cybernetics can be found in attempts to study the brain, particularly when it is in abnormal states: experiencing trauma, hallucination, mystical experience, so on and so forth.[4] For Dammbeck, cybernetics emerges as a direct heir to behavioralism, a conclusion shared by the historian of science of Peter Galison.[5] If a human is like a computer, it is capable of being reprogrammed – or so the postwar cyberneticians believed. The brain is an error-correction mechanism that asses the environment, calculates statistical probability paths for action in that environment, and chooses what appears to be the proper action. Change the environment, shift the nature of the feedback system linking brain to environment, and the human effectively becomes changed.


Dammbeck insists that the Macy Conference participants were motivated by The Authoritarian Personality, a sociological study published in 1950 that carried out statistical measurements of individual outlooks and personality traits in search of the ‘fascist personality’. The work utilized a unit of measure described as the “F Scale” (F for fascist), the application of which the authors of the study hoped to reveal what elements in American society could be altered to avoid a slippery slope into fascism. Buried deep in The Authoritarian Personality are Marxist roots: the study’s key author was Theodore Adorno, the exiled philosopher from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, and much the work that informed the development of it was undertaken by the School in Germany years prior. But to suit the conditions of the Cold War and the American values that were to be instilled, these Marxist roots were in fact obfuscated – something most evidenced by the removal of any overt reference to class relations and its impact on individual psychology (the key aspect, perhaps, of Frankfurt School analysis as a whole).

While there seems to be little evidence suggesting a direct relationship between Macy Conferences and The Authoritarian Personality, one of Adorno’s colleagues from the Frankfurt School, psychologist Kurt Lewin, was an avid participant in the Macy Conferences. He was long acquainted with many of its key organizers, having years earlier been a member of the Committee for National Morale (a wartime social science organization/propaganda outfit) with Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. The overarching focus of the CNM (which I discuss in my earlier essay Into the Mystic) was to analyze the conditions that led to the rise of fascism in Germany, which was quickly diagnosed as something intrinsic to one-way communication media platforms. The singularity of unilateral communication left the German people fragmented; by extension, multi-directional media would create what they called the “whole person”, one capable of rejecting fascism for an embrace of the “Democratic Personality”. The CNM doesn’t feature in Dammbeck’s narrative, but is the subject of a recent book by Fred Turner titled The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties.[6]


Turner traces the ambitions of Mead, Bateson, Lewin, and psychologist Gordon Allport, among other CNM participants, to the creation of what he calls “surrounds” – modular architectural spaces infused with multimedia systems that would allow spectators to play an active role in shaping the experience. This, they felt, would education the individual on his or her relationship to the greater social totality, something necessary for building an open society. As Turner shows, the concept of the surround came to inform the multimedia aesthetics of the New York City avant-garde, from John Cage to his students at Black Mountain College to Andy Warhol and his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It also became the inadvertent prototype for the “happening” and the “be-in”, the outbreaks of mass spontaneity that defined the 60s countercultural experience. In one illuminating section of the book, he shows how the concept of the surround was deployed by the art troupe USCO to illustrate life inside systems that did not differentiate between machine and man. A young Stewart Brand was a participant in USCO’s mystically-tinged, technological happenings; when he moved to the West Coast and joined Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, he imported the concept straight into the infrastructures of the Acid Tests. The counterculture, the mass exodus from the Fordist disciplinary society, seems to be for Turner the inevitable accident of the social scientist’s attempt to remake the world in the image of American liberalism – just as the turning on of their children’s minds through LSD was the accident of the CIA’s own forays into the world of psychedelic drugs.

“Our humanism is scientific,” wrote communication specialist Lyman Bryson in 1947, “because we believe in the control of social change by intelligence and experience… we shall use social engineering to solve the problem of setting up the conditions of freedom, but not to determine what men shall do with freedom when they get it.”[7] This concept, of defining the parameters of freedom in the service of liberal corporatism, was the over-arching desire of a vast network of social science and communication studies institutions, think-tanks, and study groups bound together by interlocking members and funding bodies. In the early days of the Second World War, this funding was carried out primarily by the Rockefeller Foundation – also the philanthropy behind earlier behavioral psychological research and later cybernetic studies. This funding would continue, with the philanthropy being joined by the Ford Foundation and the CIA. One key institution, for example, was the joint Harvard-MIT Center for International Studies (CENIS), which with Ford Foundation and CIA money and direction would become the hotbed of modernization theory, an approach to foreign policy that saw American liberalism as the highest stage in historical evolution (this perspective would go on to provide the intellectual and policy frameworks for the American excursion into Vietnam).[8] “We later became convinced,” one CENIS member later recounted, “that our strongest psychological weapon was our potential ability to help the nations of the free world achieve political stability by helping them expanded their productivity and their standards of living.”[9]This particular perspective became known described as the promotion of People’s Capitalism, an inversion of Soviet propaganda stylings to describe the Fordist affluent society, the world of washing machines and coca-colas, happy factory workers and family values.


By looking at the swirling menagerie of individuals, institutions, policy papers and academic articles from this time, we glimpse into the heart of the liberal postwar state itself. It is the rhetoric of inclusiveness, stability, harmony and trust – the balancing of interests between states, between races, between the self and society, to achieve an idealized homeostasis (assuming, of course, that this homeostasis took place in the context of Keynesian state capitalism). And yet a dark underbelly laid beneath the surface. American People’s Capitalism was to be everything that fascism was not; almost the entirety of the social scientists’ concerns were motivated by finding a fix-it for the massive error that had created Nazism. While the vast majority singled in on the relationship between media and the structures of society, others went further. Notable here was Dr. Ewen Cameron, a president of the American Psychopathological Association and the World Psychiatric Association, who attributed the Third Reich to cultural, social, biological and racial factor intrinsic to the German people. They were, he argued, naturally aggressive; going further, he soon applied these notions to society as a whole. The conclusion he came to was similar to the mainstream of liberal social scientists – that society had to be properly managed to navigate society – but he differed by asserting the ‘weak’ of society had to phased out by the rigorous application of the behavioral sciences.

In 1943, Cameron received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to set up Allen Memorial Institute for Psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal; he became the first director of the institution and went to work establishing a global psychiatric network. By the 1950s his primary focus was schizophrenia; a cure for the ailment, he wagered, could be found by deconstructing the patient’s psyche and reprogramming it from the ground-up. To pursue these ends he subjected unwitting patients to bizarre and increasingly violent experimentations. Subjects were placed in sensory deprivation tanks up to sixteen hours a day, followed by multiple rounds of electroshock therapy. Sometimes they were kept sedated for nearly two months at a time, while at other points their psyches were bombarded with heavy doses of hallucinogenic c drugs – including LSD. This process was called depatterning, described by Cameron as the bringing of the patient to the “desired level of disorganization” capable of disturbing his or her “space-time”. This will ensure, he continues, that the patient will live “in a very narrow segment of space time. All aspects of his memorial function are severely disturbed. He cannot well record what is going on around him. He cannot retrieve data from the past.”[10] At this point, the process of psychic driving was to start. The patients became subjected to endless audio loops whilst under the influence of muscular paralytic drugs and hallucinogens. With their inability to resist exposure to the messages, Cameron believed that he could construct new personalities from the ground up. Through psychic driving a “reorganization of the personality might be brought about without the necessity of resolving conflicts or abreaction or the reliving of past experiments.”[11]


Cameron’s work was subsidized by the Rockefeller Foundation, but most of the funds flowed form the Human Ecology Fund; one board member of this organization was Adolf Berle, a Wall Street lawyer who had announced the advent of corporate liberalism with his 1932 book The Modern Corporation and Private Property. Margaret Mead, meanwhile, was another recipient of research grants, as were a host of anthropologists and social scientists, the majority of which were intimately related to wartime and post-war research institutions.[12] The founder of the Human Ecology Fund was a neurologist by the name of Harold Wolff, later to have been recruited in the endeavor by CIA director Allen Dulles as part of the MK-ULTRA program. The Human Ecology Fund as a whole as a well-crafted front organization for the agency, bestowing grants to established researchers such as B.F. Skinner to maintain an air of authenticity.[13] Quite frequently, the recipients of the funding did not know that their research grants were ultimately traceable to the CIA’s coffers, or that their research into psychology was to be instrumentalized to “to develop new techniques of offensive/defensive intelligence use” (to quote Wolff).[14]

Describing the activities of the Human Ecology Fund, Adolf Berle wrote in his personal journal “I am frightened of this one. If the scientists do what they have laid out for themselves, men will become manageable ants.”[15] His words recall directly Norbert Wiener’s great fear for the cybernetic project he helped inaugurate – that it would assist to “organize the fascist ant-state with human material.”[16]


Henry A. Murray was many things: a leading Harvard psychologist, an authority on the works of Herman Melville, and a staunch advocate of World Federalism. He was a student of Alfred North Whitehead, and was close to later countercultural icons like Timothy Leary and Lewis Mumford. His early reflections for measuring personalities would lay the foundation of the methodology used in Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality. He designed psychological aptitude tests for the OSS during World War 2, and served on the advisory board of the Committee for National Hygiene alongside fellow OSS officer Frank Fremont-Smith – an executive at the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation and a key organizer of the Macy Conferences. Murray was also close friends with the Committee on National Morale’s Gordon Allport, with whom he founded Harvard’s Department of Social Relations in 1946. There is much existence to suggest that Murray was also entangled in the CIA’s MK-ULTRA network, and that the Department of Social Relations was its key institution on the Harvard campus.

Between 1959 and 1962, Murray carried out a series of strange tests designed to measure the functioning of an individual under extreme stress. While the details remain hazy, the test subjects – exceptionally bright undergraduates – were faced with techniques that Murray had developed in the OSS, and later perfected for the Navy (with the aid of a Rockefeller Foundation grant). “In one part of the experiment, subjects were pressured to respond to questions asked under extreme duress, with bright lights and cameras pointed at them and electrodes attached to their bodies.”[17] At other points, the students were forced to endure “vehement, sweeping and personally abusive” attacks, including having their most cherished ideals rigorously and forcefully deconstructed. While the majority of the participants in Murray’s study have remained anonymous, others have come forward to report PTSD-like symptoms that persisted long after the events. One such test subject was Ted Kaczynski.

Was this the event that drove Kaczynski away from the world of mathematics and science, and into a process of becoming that ended in a small shack in the woods of Montana? It is near impossible to say, but it is the question that lurks at the heart of Das Netz, the small fragile piece that holds the whole historical narrative together. In his interview with Dammbeck, Stewart Brand describes Kaczynski as something of a “countercultural hero” – and indeed, his flight away from industrial civilization in search of pristine nature resembles that of the communalist of the 1960s. Like Kaczynski, they too were all the offspring of an experiment whose outcome seemed certain, but was moored in uncertainty. Perhaps it is that proximity to uncertainty and unknowability that drove Kaczynski to the lengths he went to, to become the Unabomber.


Dammbeck certainly thinks so. In the most fascinating segment in Das Netz, he arrives at the house of Heinz von Foerster, another cybernetician (and editor of the Macy Conference’s official papers, a task he was recruited for by Margaret Mead) who become a countercultural icon. Von Foerster describes to Dammbeck the philosophies of radical constructivism, taking the logical positivism of early Vienna scientific philosophers to their relativistic extreme. When it comes to physics, he says, the theoretical construct of the “particle” does not exist, and only serves to hide holes in theories. At the end of all things, it is only theories that exist, and each is nothing more than a story told to explain the “origin of the universe.” “And yet, he tells Dammbeck, “All theories are correct because they can all be deduced from other theories. It goes on deducing indefinitely. That’s the good thing about it. You can go on forever.” Dammbeck, in his fascination with Godel’s conclusion of fundamentally unknowability, is obviously enticed with von Foerster’s constructivism, which seems to embody the most exciting aspect of the counterculture’s appropriation of cybernetics: the possibility of endless multiplicity. Unlike Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas (and Kaczynski, for that matter), von Foerster does not find himself lodged in the probability space dictated by the functions of the computer. Dammbeck, in a series of letters, attempts to get Kaczynski to comment on Godel, only to receive a philosophy much akin to von Foerster’s own, but moored deeper in that unavoidable sense of paranoia:

In your last letter you asked me about the mathematician’s imagination. You probably assume that mathematicians always imagine something mathematical. But that’s not true. Experienced mathematicians seldom think of mathematics. Usually they imagine flowers, sunshine, and birds singing in spring. Perhaps now and then they think about women, but they don’t do that very often for they are pure in heart. How is it, you will ask, that mathematicians don’t think of mathematics constantly? I must tell you that mathematicians are not scientists, they are artists… Apart from the most elementary mathematics, like arithmetic or high school algebra, the symbols, formulas, and words of mathematics are have no meaning at all. The entire structure of pure mathematics is a monstrous swindle, simply a game, a reckless prank. You may well ask: ‘Are there no renegades to reveal the truth?’ Yes, of course. But the facts are so incredible that no one takes them seriously. So the secret is in no danger. 

How can one speak truth to power if power is but an abstraction, the oscillation moving through simulation and simulacrum? For Stewart Brand, it was the communalists, and perhaps for Dammbeck, it is Kaczynski. Early in Das Netz he browses an anarchist bookstore in Seattle and finders the published copies of the Unabomber’s Manifesto, sitting alongside Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky. The film refracts and images and clips of the famous Battle of Seattle, where thousands of protestors pushed back against the neoliberal system in the form of the World Trade Organization, slips across the screen. We know the usual story: the radical anarchist enclaves full of people like John Zerzan and their role in those protests in 1999, and their interesting primitivist defense of Kaczynski. Beyond this, one might see a reflection of the Unabomber’s cabin being fashioned from suggestions in Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in the anarchist’s interest in the Manifesto, as if non-linear feedback loops trace themselves out down through the decades. The counterculture had rejected the liberal world system designed by their parents in their laboratories, and these protestors were rejecting the neoliberal world system designed by their own parents – that is, the generation of the counterculture itself.


CA_Battle in Seattle_banner

Throughout Das Netz, we hear news clips playing in the background describing the events of September 11th, and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. While we’re drawn to make a comparison between Kaczynski and the fighters in the streets of Seattle, we’re to draw yet another to the attacks of al-Qaeda. By the time this had happened, the cybernetic system of governance drawn up in the postwar years had mutated far beyond the expectations of the social scientists. Cybernetics, communication platforms, and social engineering had been a grand bid for rational management, a methodology that allowed states and their citizenry to make decisions in an increasingly complex world. And yet by the end of the 1960s, it was clear that social management could not work in such a linear format. At Ford Foundation-funded spaces like the RAND Corporation and the Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences, these systems became internalized in an idealized form of the individual. Instead of having these systems guide policy, policy was transformed by these theorists of rational choice to create the environmental frameworks where these systems became the individual’s reality. The state’s goal became one of establishing the artificial environment in which self-modulation, in accordance with the flows of the market, would serve as a vast order of self-regulation. By the 1990s, this was the crushing order that the Zapatistas, the Seattle protestors, and the alter-globalization movement tried to push back. By 2000, with the return of the conservatives to office, this world order seemed to be all but absolute – only to fall messily to ground in the collapse of the World Trade Centers – felled by the unexpected offspring of yet another failed experiment.

Here, in 2015, I’m also reminded of ISIS, crawling out of the rubble of Iraq and seizing upon opportunities provided by a failed democratic revolution in Syria. We can see all the social media platforms – these postmodern descendants of the multi-media systems longed for the postwar social scientists – being reverted against the West, the subversion of popular memes and iconography used to shatter the linearity of our consumer society. I’m also reminded, however, of the usage of media in this country to obscure reality for what it is, be it the attacks on immigrants and Muslims by Donald Trumps, or the ongoing climate change denial by a well-greased PR campaign. I’m reminded that a government agency is recorded data from every phone call, text message, email, website visit, and Gmail chat conversation being carried out not only by myself, but possible every person, everywhere. That computer-geek whistleblowers can be chased across the world by a sovereign government bent on keeping its secrets, aided by hacker organizations, is reflection of much our world resembles the world less and resembles more a science-fiction novel. That few seem to honestly care makes it all more perplexing. Looking at this strange, contorted and fragmented whole, the overwhelming weirdness of our times cannot help but trigger that creeping paranoia, that unavoidable solipsism. How could such chaos come from such ambitious design? And how could it possibly be real?


[1] On the CIA, the “cybernetics gap”, and the role it played in the early stages of the ARPAnet, see Richard Barbook Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village Pluto Press, 2007, pgs. 150-154, 164-168

[2] Lois Tyson Psychological Politics of the American Dream: The Commodification of Subjectivity in Twentieth-Century American Literature Ohio State University, 1994 pg. 102

[3] Andrew Pickering “Cyborg History and the World War 2 Regime” Perspectives on Science, vol. 3, no. 1, 1995

[4] Andrew Pickering The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future University of Chicago Press, 2010. For a continued dialogue on the relationship between cybernetics and trauma, see Matteo Pasquinelli (ed.) Alleys of Your Mind: Augmented Intelligence and Its Traumas Centre for Digital Cultures, 2015

[5] Peter Galison “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision” Critical Inquiry Vol. 21, No. 1, 1994

[6] Fred Turner The Democratic Surround:  Multimedia & American Liberalism from World War 2 to the Psychedelic Sixties University of Chicago Press, 2013

[7] Ibid, pg. 59

[8] For an excellent history of modernization theory, see Michael E. Latham Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and Nation Building in the Kennedy Era University of North Carolina Press, 2000. On modernization theory, computer simulation, and the Vietnam War, see Barbrook Imaginary Futures pgs. 221-252

[9] Turner, The Democratic Surround, pg. 232

[10] Ewen Cameron “The Depatterning Treatment of Schizophrenia” Comprehensive Psychiatry Vol 3, No. 2, April, 1962 http://www.naomiklein.org/files/resources/pdfs/depatterning.pdf pg. 3

[11] Quoted in Mary D. Young Encyclopedia of Asylum Therapeutics, 1750s-1950sMcFarland, 2015, pg. 276

[12] David H. Price “Buying a Piece of Anthropology” Anthropology Today Vol. 23, No. 3, 2007 https://wikileaks.org/w/images/AT-june07-Price-PT1.pdf

[13] Ibid.

[14] Michael Otterman American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and BeyondPluto Press, 2007, pg. 24

[15] Quoted in Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil, HarperCollins, 1995, pg. 265

[16] Norbert Wiener The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society Houghton Miffln, 1950

[17] Kirsten G. Studlien “Murray Center Seals Kaczynski Data” The Harvard Crimson July 14th, 2000 http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2000/7/14/murray-center-seals-kaczynski-data-plondon-buried/?page=2


Into the Mystic: Capitalism and the Structuralization of Spirituality

synthetic zerØ

images (6)

In his fantastic book The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, Paul N. Edwards forwards a quasi-literary reading of the way power and subjectivity operate in the age of the computer, focusing primarily on the lineage running from the Vannevar Bush’s  Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to the birth of cybernetics and their proliferation during the Macy Conferences to the electronic battlefields of Vietnam, and, finally, to the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative – the “Star Wars” program that propelled the growth of Silicon Valley and its corollary Californian Ideology, as well as the globalization of information technology across the 1990s. For Edwards the collision of massive government subsidies and steering of computer research and the geopolitical imperatives of the Cold War – dressed in the rhetoric of “containment” – produced the metaphoric construct for which the book is titled: the…

View original post 10,698 more words