1 " By the time Albie is my age I will be long gone, or, best-case scenario, barricaded into my living module with enough rations to see out my days. But outside, I imagine vast, unregulated factories where workers count themselves lucky to toil through eighteen-hour days for less than a living wage before pulling on their gas masks to fight their way through the unemployed masses who are bartering with the mutated chickens and old tin-cans that they use for currency, those lucky workers returning to tiny, crowded shacks in a vast megalopolis where a tree is never seen, the air is thick with police drones, where car-bomb explosions, typhoons and freak hailstorms are so commonplace as to be barely remarked upon. Meanwhile, in the literally gilded towers above the carcinogenic smog, the privileged 1 per cent of businessmen, celebrities and entrepeneurs look down through bullet-proof windows, accept coktails in strange glasses from the robot waiters hovering nearby and laugh their tinkling laughs and somewhere, down there in that hellish, stewing mess of violence, poverty and desperation, is my son, Albie Petersen, a wandering minstrel with his guitar and his keen interest in photography, still refusing to wear a decent coat. "
2 " Darwin singled out the eye as posing a particularly challenging problem: 'To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.' Creationists gleefully quote this sentence again and again. Needless to say, they never quote what follows. Darwin's fulsomely free confession turned out to be a rhetorical device. He was drawing his opponents towards him so that his punch, when it came, struck the harder. The punch, of course, was Darwin's effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees. Darwin may not have used the phrase 'irreducible complexity', or 'the smooth gradient up Mount Improbable', but he clearly understood the principle of both. 'What is the use of half an eye?' and 'What is the use of half a wing?' are both instances of the argument from 'irreducible complexity'. A functioning unit is said to be irreducibly complex if the removal of one of its parts causes the whole to cease functioning. This has been assumed to be self-evident for both eyes and wings. But as soon as we give these assumptions a moment's thought, we immediately see the fallacy. A cataract patient with the lens of her eye surgically removed can't see clear images without glasses, but can see enough not to bump into a tree or fall over a cliff. Half a wing is indeed not as good as a whole wing, but it is certainly better than no wing at all. Half a wing could save your life by easing your fall from a tree of a certain height. And 51 per cent of a wing could save you if you fall from a slightly taller tree. Whatever fraction of a wing you have, there is a fall from which it will save your life where a slightly smaller winglet would not. The thought experiment of trees of different height, from which one might fall, is just one way to see, in theory, that there must be a smooth gradient of advantage all the way from 1 per cent of a wing to 100 per cent. The forests are replete with gliding or parachuting animals illustrating, in practice, every step of the way up that particular slope of Mount Improbable. By analogy with the trees of different height, it is easy to imagine situations in which half an eye would save the life of an animal where 49 per cent of an eye would not. Smooth gradients are provided by variations in lighting conditions, variations in the distance at which you catch sight of your prey—or your predators. And, as with wings and flight surfaces, plausible intermediates are not only easy to imagine: they are abundant all around the animal kingdom. A flatworm has an eye that, by any sensible measure, is less than half a human eye. Nautilus (and perhaps its extinct ammonite cousins who dominated Paleozoic and Mesozoic seas) has an eye that is intermediate in quality between flatworm and human. Unlike the flatworm eye, which can detect light and shade but see no image, the Nautilus 'pinhole camera' eye makes a real image; but it is a blurred and dim image compared to ours. It would be spurious precision to put numbers on the improvement, but nobody could sanely deny that these invertebrate eyes, and many others, are all better than no eye at all, and all lie on a continuous and shallow slope up Mount Improbable, with our eyes near a peak—not the highest peak but a high one. "
" Keynes was a voracious reader. He had what he called ‘one of the best of all gifts – the eye which can pick up the print effortlessly’. If one was to be a good reader, that is to read as easily as one breathed, practice was needed. ‘I read the newspapers because they’re mostly trash,’ he said in 1936. ‘Newspapers are good practice in learning how to skip; and, if he is not to lose his time, every serious reader must have this art.’ Travelling by train from New York to Washington in 1943, Keynes awed his fellow passengers by the speed with which he devoured newspapers and periodicals as well as discussing modern art, the desolate American landscape and the absence of birds compared with English countryside.54
‘As a general rule,’ Keynes propounded as an undergraduate, ‘I hate books that end badly; I always want the characters to be happy.’ Thirty years later he deplored contemporary novels as ‘heavy-going’, with ‘such misunderstood, mishandled, misshapen, such muddled handling of human hopes’. Self-indulgent regrets, defeatism, railing against fate, gloom about future prospects: all these were anathema to Keynes in literature as in life. The modern classic he recommended in 1936 was Forster’s A Room with a View, which had been published nearly thirty years earlier. He was, however, grateful for the ‘perfect relaxation’ provided by those ‘unpretending, workmanlike, ingenious, abundant, delightful heaven-sent entertainers’, Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and P. G. Wodehouse. ‘There is a great purity in these writers, a remarkable absence of falsity and fudge, so that they live and move, serene, Olympian and aloof, free from any pretended contact with the realities of life.’ Keynes preferred memoirs as ‘more agreeable and amusing, so much more touching, bringing so much more of the pattern of life, than … the daydreams of a nervous wreck, which is the average modern novel’. He loved good theatre, settling into his seat at the first night of a production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country with a blissful sigh and the words, ‘Ah! this is the loveliest play in all the world.’55
Rather as Keynes was a grabby eater, with table-manners that offended Norton and other Bloomsbury groupers, so he could be impatient to reach the end of books. In the inter-war period publishers used to have a ‘gathering’ of eight or sixteen pages at the back of their volumes to publicize their other books-in-print. He excised these advertisements while reading a book, so that as he turned a page he could always see how far he must go before finishing.
A reader, said Keynes, should approach books ‘with all his senses; he should know their touch and their smell. He should learn how to take them in his hands, rustle their pages and reach in a few seconds a first intuitive impression of what they contain. He should … have touched many thousands, at least ten times as many as he reads. He should cast an eye over books as a shepherd over sheep, and judge them with the rapid, searching glance with which a cattle-dealer eyes cattle.’ Keynes in 1927 reproached his fellow countrymen for their low expenditure in bookshops. ‘How many people spend even £10 a year on books? How many spend 1 per cent of their incomes? To buy a book ought to be felt not as an extravagance, but as a good deed, a social duty which blesses him who does it.’ He wished to muster ‘a mighty army … of Bookworms, pledged to spend £10 a year on books, and, in the higher ranks of the Brotherhood, to buy a book a week’. Keynes was a votary of good bookshops, whether their stock was new or second-hand. ‘A bookshop is not like a railway booking-office which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye. To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon’s entertainment. "