Happy Anniversary to The Garden of Forking Paths! (And recommended brain food for you)
A year ago, I had a hare-brained idea: to write about whatever I thought was interesting, in the hopes that some people might want to read it. Looking back on the year now past—and some brain food!
A little over a year ago, Elon Musk did me a favor.
He ruined Twitter.
As Musk transformed that hellsite into a bastion of white nationalists, conspiracy theories, and an amplification machine for the people with the worst opinions on the planet—so long as they gave a bigoted billionaire 8 bucks—well, it was the nudge I needed to try something new.
I decided to launch this newsletter. When I did, I made a pledge to myself: to just write about what I thought was interesting, with no other organizing principle.
I did that because so much of social media, newsletters, and the “attention economy” is derived from chasing clicks, which, by definition, means pandering to a crowd of people who already see the world the way you do. Some of it is built on outrage. Some is built on confirmation bias—telling people what they want to hear. Either way, it’s not only bad for society, it’s also profoundly boring. If I chased clicks, writing the newsletter would always feel like ticking a box—and as I’ve already explained, I loathe the feeling of living a checklist existence.
But I’ll be honest: I worried that few people would want to read my thoughts on random topics—not just on the specter that haunts us all, Donald Trump—but also on ideas such as: who had the most kids in history and why it matters; or the evolutionary origins of mitochondria that made us all possible; or about Madagascar’s radio DJ president and the yogurt kingpin he overthrew.
Yet here we are. There are 20,000 of you now, across 50 US states and 147 countries. (Special shoutouts to the 1 person each representing Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Côte d’Ivoire, Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Iran, Belarus, Bolivia, Lesotho, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo). How lovely is that?
I named the newsletter after a wonderful short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. If you haven’t read the story yet, it’s available here, but it’s a story that perfectly captures one of the most profound ideas I know: that the world we inhabit is just one of infinite possible worlds.
The paths that we—and our societies—follow are constantly being diverted, new paths opening, others closing, with every passing moment, as 8 billion individuals make choices and interact with an astonishingly complex natural world. And in that garden of forking paths we all inhabit, every step we take counts, rerouting our trajectory, but reshaping the paths available to others, too.
If there is any unifying principle to this newsletter, it’s the philosophical offshoots of that idea: a healthy dose of awe for the complexity of our world past and present; a curiosity to explore it; and a strong sense that what we do and what we think about is important, because we’re reshaping not just our present, but also choosing the future worlds that others will inhabit.
It is, I admit, a loose organizing principle. And that’s why I’m so grateful to you for sticking with me and sharing your most precious commodity—time—to read my work. I have now written, believe it or not, 91 editions of this newsletter. And it’s been a privilege to have so many of you read, share, and engage with my ideas. What an extraordinary thing that I can be pondering a random idea—like “how tall was Jesus?” while I’m walking my dog—and then have thousands of you interact with that idea when I write it up as a piece about how such measurements shaped the modern world.
So, I want to say thank you. Thank you for reading.
And thank you, especially, for those who have supported my work through a paid subscription. I hate asking for money—truly, it’s mortifying and it makes me feel like I’ve been infected with the world’s worst cringe virus—but your subscriptions make it possible for me to justify spending the lengthy hours researching and writing for you.
So, if you’ve valued my work over the last year and want me to keep at it, please do consider upgrading to a paid subscription to get access to more articles, be able to comment and debate, and, most of all, to support my writing. (It costs only $4.16/month). But it will fund another year of my writing and research.
And, if you’re a latecomer to the newsletter (welcome!), here are some of the highlights from the past year:
Top most read:
A random assortment of other editions that I loved writing:
Recommended Brain Food
Scientists have been studying the nature of cuteness for decades. It’s now widely accepted that we are hardwired to both look and act cute when we’re very young and to respond to cuteness ourselves. When kids are cute, women and men alike pay attention to them and care for them, which not only helps children to survive but also to learn how to communicate and cooperate.
That’s why characteristics that make something cute tend towards the baby-like. Our cuteness detector is generally set off by a big, round head with large, low-set eyes, chubby cheeks and limbs, plus an awkward, tottering gait. Brain scans show that objects with these qualities immediately capture our attention, even before conscious thought occurs. Cute things activate the pleasure centres of our brains and prepare us to act with empathy and compassion. Studies have shown that people are more likely to fill out a survey, sign a petition or offer to help others when the request is accompanied by a puppy or even a cute picture.
As the United States prepared to enter World War I, the government created the first modern state propaganda office, the Committee on Public Information.
The CPI played a role in the intense censorship of media, communication, and speech during the war. But its main function was spreading pro-war messages, including the cartoonish portrayal of German enemies as “the Hun.” The committee’s fourteen departments hired artists, filmmakers, journalists, novelists, and other creative types. Professionals of all political stripes eagerly joined the effort, seeing the promotion of patriotism as a way of serving the public good.
This is a fascinating piece about research into consciousness, making the case that we need to not only think about those beings that are most like us to understand consciousness.
What had been set aside is that animals quite unlike us also use vision. The so-called ‘lower mammals’ also have eyes, since all mammals do. The same goes for birds and most reptiles and fish, with only some blind cave fish who lost the ability. But it isn’t just in these familiar species where we find eyes. The box jellyfish has 24 eyes, with four different types specialised for different tasks. Scallops have around 200 eyes of the same type, which include pupils that can dilate and two retinas. When the study of consciousness is grounded in the study of human-like vision, it makes the field of consciousness studies unapologetically anthropocentric, discounting animal models that might be key puzzle pieces.
More importantly, it also makes the field conspicuously neurocentric. By including only ‘higher mammals’ in the study of consciousness, Crick and Koch replaced the language-centric views of consciousness with a neurocentric one. Now it isn’t language that is presumed necessary for consciousness, but a nervous system.
From the Irish Giant to the Ancient One, is it ever ethical for scientists and museums to study bodies without permission? This is a fascinating piece about the history of the use of human remains in museums—and whether those who are long dead have any rights in the modern era.
These stories affirm that the way the living have treated dead bodies throughout history is never about the dead but about themselves. The living give the bodies of the dead – and thus their own bodies – meaning, whether as relics, museum displays, scientific subjects or ones buried in the ground…
This piece, from Adam Mastroianni, takes aim at the absurd dominance of statistics in social research fields, particularly his own realm of psychology. Statistics have their place, but too often, they’re misused and abused.
It's not just psychologists, of course. 96% of biomedical articles published between 1990 and 2015 included at least one p-value. Neuroscientists have done a lot of soul-searching since a few of them demonstrated that common techniques could show statistically significant brain activity in a dead salmon. The American Statistical Association has also waded into the fray, publishing an official statement on p-values accompanied by 21 different commentaries sporting such titles as, “Don't throw out the error control baby with the bad data bathwater.”
If there's one thing they're really clear on in Catholic school, it's that you shouldn't worship idols. And that's exactly what statistics has become for us—we've turned it from a useful servant into a bad master.
Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens (David Mitchell)
This book, written by one of the UK’s best comedians and former star of the wonderful TV series Peep Show, is a funny, but historically accurate accounting of the early monarchs of England. If you’re interested in English history, but want to laugh too, this is a fantastic book by a lively, erudite, and funny writer.
Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (Cynthia Stokes Brown)
If you’ve never come across the concept of “big history,” it’s a way of understanding the larger sweep of history—not just starting with what has been written down by humans. Instead, it tries to synthesize a variety of fields to understand how we came to be ourselves, and how the vast sweep of history can be better understood with a multitude of realms of thought, rather than just trying to understand the past through traditional history. This book offers a readable introduction to the idea and helps us understand who we are and where we came from.
Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (David Chalmers)
Chalmers draws on a fundamental problem of philosophy — how do we know about the nature of reality? — and updates it for modern technology, with a little dash of The Matrix thrown in. How do we know we’re not all living in a simulation? And does it matter if we are? Chalmers, who is known as the father of the “hard problem of consciousness,” offers a vivid exploration of some of the thorniest philosophical problems through the prism of virtual worlds. And he asks a difficult question that might be just around the corner: if you could live in a virtual world that was far more pleasant than the real one, would you do it?
Back for Season 3, this is spy TV at its finest. Mick Herron’s books (which I also highly recommend) are brilliantly written—the witticisms in the dialogue are some of the best I’ve ever seen in text—and they translate perfectly onto the screen, particularly with Gary Oldman playing the grotesquely likeable character of Jackson Lamb. Helen Lewis of The Atlantic has a brilliant write-up about the series here.
Okay, this isn’t high art, but it was entertaining, interesting, and well-made. It’s the story of the Game Stop short squeeze, an astonishing moment in which the markets got disrupted by small-time traders hoping to screw over the big-time hedge funds. It’s a film about the little guy. And it’s a better film about the little guy than Napoleon, which…sort of sucked? (Also, Napoleon wasn’t that short. But the film should have been).
Thank you very much for reading The Garden of Forking Paths this year. It’s been a blast writing for you—and here’s hoping you’ll stick around for another year. If you’d like to support my work, you can share these articles with friends/family, upgrade to a paid subscription, or pre-order a copy of my new book, FLUKE: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters. Have a lovely rest of your week/weekend!