Saturday, 13 May 2017

Why I Turned to Sharks

I was a wildlife artist when my husband and I moved to Tahiti, so I went out each morning looking for something to paint. The fringe lagoons lay glimmering turquoise and silver under a ringing blue sky, protected by a barrier reef and sheltering an intricate lighted world that put fantasy to shame. Fish of every imaginable shape and colour gazed from the coral formations, ranged across the white sand, and travelled purposefully though the blue. There seemed to be so much life that even the water sparkled with it.

One morning I was roaming upon the barrier reef, lost in a spell. The sunshine ran in golden lines across the coral and flashed upon the fish. It was mesmerizing. When I raised my eyes, a grey shark of about my size was moving languidly towards me and all my lights went on. Everything about her was just right—her curves, her fins, her face—the inarguable shape of shark. Nothing had prepared me for the sight of that splendid creature gliding forth through the rushing landscape, as graceful as a snake.

Having observed the wildlife of the mountains all my life, my knowledge of sharks was limited to the information gained from watching the movie JAWS many years before. All that remained from that brief education was that they bit and badly. Very badly. Essentially, if you met one you died.

So, expecting her to fly into attack mode at the sight of me, I held my breath and drifted behind a coral. But she paid me not the slightest attention as she passed just a metre away. Her smug little face actually looked bored. I moved to keep the coral between us, but when I peeked out to see her again, she was gone as if she never had been. Soon after that, a second shark passed close by from behind as I headed homeward one evening at twilight. Breathless at such fluid beauty and understated power, I followed. But she quickly drew ahead, became a moving shadow, and vanished in the darkness.

I began to seek out sharks each day on my underwater forays. I loved to explore along the barrier reef and peer across it under the layer of pouring water. Sometimes a shark came wriggling across, surfing over the reef to arrive in a cascade of champagne water. When the bubbles vanished, it often approached to turn a circle around me, its eye fixed on mine.

The shark was the first wild animal I had met who came to me instead of fleeing.

They were so intriguing. Shark behaviour was very different from that of the terrestrial wild animals I had known, and their intelligent flexibility and the complexity of their actions soon convinced me that they had been badly underestimated by science.

So I launched an intensive study of the reef sharks using the local lagoon, identifying each one by its markings, and keeping track of subsequent sightings. Soon I could recognize three hundred individuals on sight. I wanted to find out what they were like, not only as animals, but as individuals. I wanted to know them. Used to patiently observing wild animals for long periods, I treated them as I would any other new species. I had no preconceived ideas about them.

Being able to recognize them as individuals revealed a new dimension of their lives, and I had the feeling of a window opening onto another world, one so separate from human daily life that it might just as well have been on another planet.

But when, much later, I acquired an Internet connection, the information about sharks that I found on-line bore no relation to the animals I knew so well. Most entries mentioned only shark attacks, and discussions focused on those too, along with shark movies and shark fishing.

Everyone seemed to think that they were vicious. Indeed, the difference between true shark behaviour and their awful reputation was so exaggerated that most people, it seemed, should forget everything they had ever heard about sharks, and start learning about them all over again.

When I contacted Professor Arthur A. Myrberg, a shark ethologist at the University of Miami, he told me that no one else had studied sharks long-term underwater and encouraged me to publish my findings. Myrberg had worked with Konrad Lorenz and was a friend of Donald H. Griffin, author of Animal Minds, the seminal book establishing that animals are capable of thinking. 
Cognition is the word used to describe reasoning in animals, which is a process of sequential thinking that has nothing to do with instinctive reactions. Myrberg and several colleagues were searching for more evidence to support this important new field of zoology, called cognitive ethology.

So, when he was invited to speak on the subject of shark cognition at an international symposium at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Myrberg wrote to every known researcher—more than fifteen throughout the world—whose work had anything to do with shark behaviour. Yet no one had found any evidence that could even be speculated to suggest that sharks were thinking, and all but one doubted that such an ancient line of animals were capable of any higher mental abilities.

So he described the situation to me, concluding, "And so it must be shown, as difficult as it is to show, evidence that cognition may well be present rather than to disregard any consideration."

I had been keeping notes on apparent cognitive behaviour in wild animals for decades, so sent him several pages of examples of shark behaviour that suggested cognition. Arthur used my observations to form the bulk of his presentation at the symposium.

Afterwards, he wrote:

“Three days of talks and discussions resulted in agreement among those present that animal cognition can be openly discussed, and that term and its processes need not be treated as a non-scientific entity any longer."

Though more than a decade has passed, mine is still the only long-term underwater study of shark behaviour ever carried out. Traditional shark science is dominated by 'fisheries science,' which has denied any higher abilities to them, even the ability to feel pain. Nor has it offered much information about the way sharks behave, because the popular practice of shark tagging keeps the researcher at a distance from the animal.

My upcoming book, The True Nature of Sharks, fills the need for real information about sharks and the actions they take, to help debunk the destructive myths about them that have effectively erected a barrier to their conservation.

Here is information that can only be found by taking the time to observe these unusual creatures underwater, as animals and individuals, with an open mind.

Ila France Porcher  

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The True Nature of Sharks

My latest book on shark behaviour is finally getting close to its release date. It has taken a long time to write and research what others have found about the actions that various species of sharks will take, their intelligence, and their social lives.

As a life long observer of wildlife, I recognized as soon as I began meeting wild sharks that their behaviour was very different from that of the mammals and birds we are more familiar with. So for fifteen years I spent most of my spare time watching them underwater to learn as much as I could about what they are like as animals and individuals. 

For seven of those years, I kept track of hundreds of individual reef sharks using a lagoon, and could recognize more than three hundred on sight. Studying them as individuals opened a new dimension on their lives, revealing their companionships, their emotional responses, and the way they socialized. These studies were supplemented by observing other species--tiger sharks, lemon sharks, and bull sharks--for shorter periods of time.

Many of the actions that sharks will take indicate that they are thinking, rather than acting on instinct alone, and it became clear that they have been badly underestimated by science. No one in the marine science community has done equivalent studies of sharks underwater, or any similar study involving long term underwater observation of wild sharks.

Yet, though almost nothing was known about what sharks are really like, they have been presented for the past several decades as monsters by fishermen and in the media. So my book also examines the current state of shark science, which is inseparable from fisheries, and how and why it has failed this whole line of animals. At this time many species are plummeting into extinction. 

The knowledge that sharks are intelligently aware, feeling, and thinking about the events in their lives means that we cannot continue to regard them as being automatons, cold and senseless. As Professor Emeritus Alan Kamil wrote about pinion jays, 

"Awareness of the cognitive abilities of these animals forever changes our perception of them and their place in nature, and ours." 

If you love discovering new, intelligent wildlife behaviour, you will love this book, which will make the mysterious world of sharks come alive for you. Like my first book, The SHARK SESSIONS, it is fully illustrated.


Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Question of Consciousness

The current science of consciousness has been widely discussed on the Internet, and considering the many claims that soon we will be blessed or damned by conscious machines, it is remarkable how little is known about it. 

The essential question involves explaining how a physical universe gives rise to non-physical intelligent awareness, and this boggles everyone, because it is explainable by no current scientific knowledge, physical or quantum.

There are various theories, two of which are considered the most promising. One, which is favoured by traditional science and supports the idea that computers could be conscious, holds that after a certain level of complexity is reached, consciousness emerges naturally, all by itself. In neurology, consciousness is always mentioned in connection with the human brain, which, of course is the most complex. Quantities of rambling text, much of it of a speculative and highly philosophical nature, have been written on the theory, including such unexpected claims as Daniel Dennett's, that his thermostat was conscious.

When I read of it, this raised my suspicions immediately, since at the time, I was formulating an argument, based on research from other fields of science, that my sharks felt pain when they were finned. My pleas that they be protected in the middle of their slaughter were laughed at by fishermen, who claimed that science had proven that fish could not feel pain, because it was impossible that they were conscious because they lacked a human brain.

Yet, no study had been done to determine this; the idea was nothing more than a declaration by fishermen scientists, that lacked supporting evidence. Were a human brain necessary for sentience, then the pet phenomenon would be impossible.

Further, in the same year, different researchers had found that fish were capable of all the varieties of cognition (with the exception of imitation), that had been identified in the "higher" animals, including primates. Others felt that cognition is impossible without consciousness in some form, since the act of cognition indicates the presence of an intelligent awareness that is doing the thinking.

No brain is simple, as anyone who has watched the activities of a spider will appreciate.

It seemed extraordinary that scientists believed that their thermostats were conscious, but that animals who shared up to 80% of their genes, were not. This was one of the first indications I found of how wonky science has become, and formed the backdrop to my research into the subject of consciousness.

The idea that consciousness can be created by man has always been a high-profile one, and has captured the public imagination through science-fiction tales and films that have made intelligent robots seem possible. The current efforts by artificial intelligence research (AI) to imitate the human brain, (sometimes by creating a machine with as many connections in it as the brain has), have been more widely publicized than other areas of research into consciousness.

More importantly, the hype that surrounds it has been of vital importance in generating grants for further research into AI.

But, apart from the point that this theory minimizes the difference between the intensively programmed machine, and the self-serving living creature, it directly predicts high levels of consciousness where most people would deny that consciousness is possible, such as in your CD.

Here is a bit of a description, written by John Horgan on March 22, 2016:

“Like heaven, the Singularity [the name for the union of man and machine] comes in many versions, but most involve bionic brain boosting. At first, we'll become cyborgs, as brain chips soup up our perception, memory, and intelligence and eliminate the need for annoying TV remotes. Eventually, we will abandon our flesh-and-blood selves entirely and upload our digitized psyches into computers. We will then dwell happily forever in cyberspace, where, to paraphrase Woody Allen, we'll never need to look for a parking space.

Singularity enthusiasts, or Singularitarians, tend to be computer specialists. . .”

A worrying point in this scheme, that has not come up in any discussions that I have found, is that computers not only just compute without comprehension, but they use only decimal numbers. Yet, there are an infinity of numbers which are impossible to write as decimal numbers. For example, the number one third, easily comprehended by the smallest child trying to cut a cake into three for him and his two sisters, becomes 3.3333333. . . ad infinitum in decimals, so any computer would soon round it off!

You don't have to go very far with numbers to find such surprises. Another example, represented perfectly for all life forms on Earth in the shape of the sun and full moon, is the relationship between the diameter and the circumference of a circle—the irrational number pi. Pi, and all such other numbers that go on and on without foreseeable endings, are rounded off by computers!

Would such over-simplified approximations to the true universal values still result in the generation of consciousness? No thoughts on this obvious point have been offered! That such inconsistencies are considered irrelevant seems quite an assumption for those claiming to be on the verge of producing conscious machines, when those machines cannot even represent one third correctly.

Given the mind-boggling complexity of the universe—we are personally about halfway in size-scale between the universal and the sub-atomic ranges of sizes—human considerations are really fairly simple.

Though in the eighties, exaggerated claims were made about the conscious machine that would soon be created, as time passed, none of the algorithms (combinations of mathematical formulae) originally postulated to imitate cognitive functions were successful. Many of the leading AI labs eventually shut down, and no new algorithms have been developed. The progress that we have seen since, has been due to advances in complexity, miniaturization, and size, which have increased the computational power of computers, but have not given them the power of understanding.

You can demonstrate this to yourself by typing any short piece of writing into Google Translate, to see how well it is translated into a different language of your choice. The poor ability of robots to translate phrases from one language to another is due to the inability of the computer to understand the words. Those meanings are conceptual, not computational.

Yet, robot hype continues at a high pitch, though, like everyone else, the researchers involved have no idea what consciousness is, or what is required for its manifestation.

The other main theory of consciousness was put forth and argued by Roger Penrose, a mathematician at Oxford, and originator of black hole theory, among other things. He believes that consciousness, along with quite a few other things in this universe, is essentially not computable, so no computer could ever be conscious, no matter how big it might be. He postulates that consciousness is a manifestation of quantum mechanical behaviour.

He regrets that biologists are unaware of how matter really behaves, because they ignore the actions of matter at a sub-atomic level, which, after all, takes place all the time all around and within us, not just in physicists' particle accelerators.

You have likely heard of the big problem in physics—that the laws found that govern the universe, as described by such lights as Euclid and Einstein, do not agree with those found in the sub-atomic world of quantum mechanics. One of the curious things about quantum mechanical behaviour, is that at a very small size scale, our universe becomes a mush of probabilities—probabilities that this or that will come down.

The peculiar aspect of this phenomenon is that it appears to be conscious awareness of the probabilities, that makes one or the other actually come to pass. The name given to the transition from the probabilistic state to the collapse into reality is reduction. The need for consciousness to trigger reduction, is another clue to it, that appears in a completely different way.

The subatomic reality is not like the mechanical one we can see, nor does it operate by the same rules, and no one, not even the rocket scientists, have found a way to picture it in their minds. Decades of experimentation in which this was tested repeatedly, and mind boggling mathematics, were necessary before it was accepted at all.

Penrose started one chapter in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, by describing a poor lost man trying to walk home from the pub, and not being able to figure out which way to go. He sits down, gazes at the moon, and goes up, instead. He goes into Plato's world.

Plato first described a world we could access only by the intellect, one which appears to have an independent existence outside of space and time, where the transcendent laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry, music, and maybe even ethics and beauty, exist. Only by going there can we understand the world and the universe, and Plato's world reveals itself to each of us through conscious reflection.

An example of something that exists only in Plato’s world is the square root of minus one. This is the number which, when multiplied by itself, will give minus one. While at first glance this could seem like nothing more than a mathematical joke, since all numbers when squared are positive, the square root of minus one has proved indispensable for working out some of the details of the functioning of the universe--the behaviour of subatomic particles cannot be understood without it!

The mathematical phenomenon known as the Mandelbrot set is the solution to an equation invoking the square root of minus one.

The illustration shows it graphed, and then a part of the set magnified over a million times. The intricate boundary does not change on magnification, which is one of the qualities of a fractal.

The remarkable beauty of the graphed Mandelbrot set, named for BenoƮt Mandelbrot who found it, was inaccessible until we developed the computational power to unveil it. Yet, it was always there in Plato's world!

Music, too, leads us into Plato’s world, and since some birds sing using the humanly defined scale, it appears to be accessible to other species.

Roger Penrose offered this way of conceiving the idea. He describes three worlds, the mental world of consciousness, the physical universe, and Plato's world, or the place where mathematical reality lies. He calls the relationships between them the three profound mysteries.

As shown in the diagram, in the physical world appears consciousness, which reflects and finds Plato's world, the truths of which lie behind the manifestation of the physical world.

Working with a biologist, Stuart Hameroff, Penrose has developed his complex theory of quantum consciousness further, since, and has written more books on these subjects, including Shadows of the Mind, and The Road to Reality.

There are other theories discussed at the conferences on the Science of Consciousness, including one that states that just as rats cannot do arithmetic, so we are not capable of comprehending consciousness, though of course, we can't give up!

Others cover a vast range of subjects including evidence from altered mental states, taking hallucinogenic drugs, and the realms of the paranormal.

Yet, in all of these writings on the subject, an assessment of how consciousness manifests in life on Earth has not been mentioned. Its as if only humans and their machines are of any concern, though evidence of cognition has been found in all animals studied, from the great apes to sharks, octopi, bees, and even Paramecia. These are one-celled animals, so they have no brain, or even nerves, yet they can learn, remember, and make decisions based on whether or not they were in a place before, and whether or not, when they were there, they had a good time (Armus et al 2006, Day and Bentley 2016).

This fact throws cold water on some of science's assumptions that only "higher" animals are capable of cognition in the sense I had to argue it for the sharks. And if one-celled animals show this level of awareness, it leads to the question of whether or not such awareness may be an intrinsic aspect of life itself.

Yet, the question of life is not included in the discussions of consciousness, possibly because that would exclude computers!

This strange state of affairs ably represents the current state of disconnection apparent between science and the facts, a subject I will return to again. And, in contradiction to what traditional science (which in the case of sharks means "fisheries") claimed, my beloved sharks suffered when they were finned and died.

Ila France Porcher, author of The Shark Sessions