Yesterday the phrase, “A conspiracy of laughter” floated into my mind. Quite what prompted it I don’t know, but I warmed to it anyway. It is what we need I thought. Today I remembered that I had written something about it on my blog, so I did a search. There it was on 20 June 2003,”A Conspiracy of Laughter”. Reading through it looking for a suitable extract, I thought why not reproduce it in full, So I have:
“I have long been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, whose New Yorker articles are reproduced on his site. What I like is the way that in his writing he comes up with fresh insights and unexpected patterns of connections. In one of his latest pieces Group Think:What does ‘Saturday Night Live’ have in common with German philosophy?”“, drawing on Randall Collin’s book, “The Sociology of Philosophies”, he He goes on to talk about a group surrounding Erasmus Darwin, who, as described by Jenny Uglow in her book, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World”“, illustrate the importance of informal, social interaction in the process of innovation.
“What were they doing? Darwin, in a lovely phrase, called it “philosophical laughing,” which was his way of saying that those who depart from cultural or intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence.”
After I first read this I went round confidently misquoting my discovery of “a conspiracy of laughter” to any one who would listen. But as I have found before sometimes a misquote can be as telling as the real thing. I think in this time of what Seth Godin calls the Fundamentalists – people who “believe that they have found the one and only truth, and they can’t abide changing old rules in light of new data.”, we need as many conspiracies of laughter as we can find.”
Prompted by a posting in the excellent 3Quarks I found my way to an article by Robert M. Sapolsky in Foreign Affairs, “A Natural History of Peace”, where he argues:
“Humans like to think that they are unique, but the study of other primates has called into question the exceptionalism of our species. So what does primatology have to say about war and peace? Contrary to what was believed just a few decades ago, humans are not ‘killer apes’ destined for violent conflict, but can make their own history.”
Sapolsky is a subtle thinker, whose combination of field work and lab work gives him an interestingly nuanced view of the interaction between genes, environment, social context and physiology. While I have somewhat provocatively titled this post, “What can we learn from baboons?”, it would perhaps have been more accurate to ask “What can we learn from Robert M. Sapolsky?” and my answer would be “a lot”.
These days we are bombarded with advice about how and why we should change our lifestyles if we are to live healthy and productive lives. So we should eat “five a day”, stop smoking, drink moderately, take exercise, maintain the correct bmi and so on. What generally gets left out of all this is the importance of the nature of our social interactions and the very real physiological impact they can have on our health. To put it crudely – inequality kills.
One of the lessons I draw from Sapolsky is the vital importance of a sense of control over our lives for good health. This insight can be useful on an individual basis for formulating strategies to cope with the physiological impact of any sense of insecurity and inability to influence events in our lives.
And here, perhaps there is something we can learn from the baboons. Sapolsky’s account of the baboons that simply opted out of struggle for position in the hierarchy is one of the most optimistic things I have encountered for years:
“A handful of these guys simply walked away from it over the years. Nathaniel was one, and Joshua was another. They had the lowest stress hormone levels you’ve ever seen in male baboons, and outlived their cohorts.”
But the more important lesson is political. The evidence to me seems overwhelming that if we could shift our institutions and organisations so that the individuals within them felt that they had more power over their work and lives and a greater sense of solidarity with those that they work and live with, we would probably have both more effective and healthier institutions and organisations. Such a shift, would of course, mean moving away from the fragmented individualism that has been propagated over the last twenty or so years to a greater recognition that we are social beings and that a true individualism is more likely to thrive in a co-operative and collaborative context than one where individual competition is all.
Anyway, that is my reading of Sapolsky. Take a look at these and see if you agree:
“Stress, Neurodegeneration and Individual Differences”
A fascinating video of one of his lectures filled with good stuff one you get past the rather over long introduction.
A BOZO OF A BABOON: A Talk with Robert Sapolsky
My first encounter with Sapolsky at Edge back in 2004 where I warmed to his account of the drop out baboons.
Of Monkeys and Men
Another good interview from The Atlantic.
And finally, do read, “A Natural History of Peace” in Foreign Affairs, which has some of his latest thinking about this stuff.
My friend Michael Renouf is getting close to completing his plan of producing an illustration a day for year on April 7. Over that time he has produced an extraordinary body of work – witty and clever. Go take a look at Non-Stick Plans and see what I mean.
I’ve been planning to write something about the curious paradox of our system where financial markets operate in a free market fantasy detached from the world the are supposed to be servicing and our public services have adopted the old Soviet fantasy of centralised targets. In both cases we are beginning to see clear signs of reality biting back and the nonsenses of the past twenty years or so unravelling.
However, once again Simon Caulkin has beaten me to it:
“We live in strange times. In the private sector, market rules are so degraded that it has become the role of companies in the real economy, some built up over decades, to act as chips tossed around by high rollers in the City supercasino. Meanwhile, the public sector is in the grip of a central planning regime of a rigidity and incompetence not seen since Gosplan wrote Stalin’s Five-Year Plans.
You think I exaggerate? Well, as Exhibit A, consider the hedge funds that borrow company stock in order to vote for or against a proposal – a merger or takeover, say – not to further the interests of the company, but to make their previous bet on the firm’s share price come true. For Exhibit B, name another government since Leonid Brezhnev’s that prescribes 198 targets for local government, numbers and postings of junior doctors, reading methods for teachers in primary schools, cleaning techniques used in hospitals and how GPs should organise their appointment diaries.
Already individually dysfunctional in their own way, in combination these diametrically opposed management extremes deliver not the fabled ‘third way’, or at least not in any manner intended, but an unholy mess, from which we get the worst of both worlds.”
Johnnie Moore opens a recent post on brainstorming with the caveat, “(Long slightly rambling post ahead)”. And, yes, the post that follows is both quite long and quite rambling and herein lies its strength. Although the focus of the piece is on brainstorming and some of Johnnie’s reservations about the process, the rambling nature of piece opens up spaces to to explore a whole range of crucial issues about how we can work productively and creatively together and the obstacles we place in the way of doing so.
I would urge you to go to this post, read it carefully and then join in the discussion that I hope will follow. There is much to be mined here.
The part I want to focus on here is where he talks about the importance of “noticing”. Paying attention is one of the central tenets of purposive drift. Those who have been following my ramblings will have noticed that a point I keep on returning to is the way that many of the plans and processes we adopt get in the way of us noticing what is actually going on. Or as Johnnie put it in an earlier post, “pay more attention to what is happening and less to your notion of what should be happening”.
In his brainstorming post, Johnnie suggest that, “… instead of having innovation programmes, we might try noticing programmes”. My sense is that the successful adoption of a “noticing programme” could be the biggest step that any one could take to transform an organisation in a positive way. What do you think?