Will Pigs Fly?

Whenever I hear something that is clearly impossible, or at the very least, highly improbable, I tend to look up to the sky.  Friends know, without my needing to say it, my view is “pigs might fly”, or, to save unnecessary words, just “pigs”.  To understand where that marvellous phrase comes from we can turn to a wonderful source, the UK’s Phrase Finder.  To quote:

“‘Pigs might fly’, or as some would have it ‘pigs may fly’, is an example of an adynaton, that is, a figure of speech that uses inflated comparison to such an extent as to suggest complete impossibility (how about that!) … The original version of the succinct ‘pigs might fly’ was ‘pigs fly with their tails forward’, which is first found in a list of proverbs in the 1616 edition of John Withals’s English-Latin dictionary – A Shorte Dictionarie for Yonge Begynners: “Pigs fly in the ayre with their tayles forward”. Withal goes on to reveal “This form of the expression was in use for two hundred years as a sarcastic rejoinder to any overly optimistic prediction made by the gullible, much as we now use “…and pigs might fly”. Why pigs? …  It is probably the bulkiness of the creatures and their habit of rooting in earth that suggests an intensely ramping nature […and it’s nice to have an opportunity to sneak in the little-used ‘ramping’, which means no more nor less than ‘unable to fly’]”. [i]

Look, I must follow another red herring (in this very faunal introduction), and focus on another improbable animal, an intelligent sheep.  You may recall we meet Harold through Monty Python, with a tourist and a shepherd observing sheep standing on tree branches:

Tourist: [looking at the sheep] … why are they up in the trees?

Shepherd: A fair question and one that in recent weeks ‘as been much on my mind. It’s my considered opinion that they’re nestin’.

Tourist: Nesting?

Shepherd: Aye.

Tourist: Like birds?

Shepherd: Exactly. Birds is the key to the whole problem. It’s my belief that these sheep are laborin’ under the misapprehension that they’re birds. Observe their behavior. Take for a start the sheeps’ tendency to ‘op about the field on their back legs. Now witness their attempts to fly from tree to tree. Notice that they do not so much fly as… plummet.   Observe for example that ewe in that oak tree. She is clearly trying to teach her lamb to fly. [both fall] Talk about the blind leading the blind.

…  One thing is for sure, the sheep is not a creature of the air. They have enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perchin’. As you see. As for flight its body is totally unadapted to the problems of aviation. Trouble is, sheep are very dim. Once they get an idea in their ‘eads, there’s no shiftin’ it.

Tourist: But where did they get the idea from?

Shepherd: From Harold. He’s that sheep over there under the elm. He’s that most dangerous of animals, a clever sheep. He’s the ring leader. He has realized that a sheep’s life consists of standin’ around for a few months and then bein’ eaten. And that’s a depressing prospect for an ambitious sheep. He’s patently hit on the idea of escape.

Tourist: Well why don’t you just get rid of Harold?

Shepherd: Because of the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed …

And what exactly are the commercial possibilities of ovine aviation? [ii]

All this is by way of an introduction to the world of black swans.  A black swan is a bird found in Australia.  However, it is also used to describe an impossible or unimaginable event that turns out to be true.  Black swans appear when pigs fly!  Some black swans are used to describe unexpected events of large magnitude with major outcomes, often giving them an important role in history. Such events, sometimes called extreme ‘outliers’ are claimed to play much larger role in our affairs than regular occurrences. [iii]

Since black swans are found here, it is a rather nice coincidence that Australia was something of a black swan.  Long ago there was imaginative speculation about a mystical but non-existent ‘Great Southern Land’.  When discovered, it changed our views about migration and the indigenous peoples of the southern hemisphere.  It also provided a new view of some branches of the animal kingdom, with pride of place going to the duck-billed platypus (whose physiology and behaviour is still throwing up new and unexpected findings).

However, while it is tempting to continue commenting on various other animal and bird elements of the ‘pigs might fly’ world, it is the underlying issue that has caught my interest.

To explain the first of my pigs might fly situations, it might be helpful to go back in time.  For many hundreds of years, Europeans believed the sun, the planets and the stars rotated around the earth.  It made sense, as anyone looking up at the sky could see.  Common sense came under pressure when observers noted that some of the planets behaved oddly, even going backwards at times.  Fortunately, Ptolemy came to the rescue, and developed a model of circles within circles to explain these irregularities.  It looked very complicated, but it preserved the essential element of the system – the earth at the centre of the universe.

Ptolemy’s explanation was an example, if somewhat brief, of “turtles all the way down”, a way of talking about an infinite regress.  The saying come from the mythological story of a ‘world turtle’, that supports the earth on its back.  When asked what the turtle was standing on, the answer was that this turtle rested on the back of an even larger turtle, which itself is part of a column of increasingly larger turtles that continues indefinitely (hence, “turtles all the way down”).  Turtles all the way down is a wonderful image of the way things are:  in the case of the views of the solar system, the underlying belief was about orbits: every planet in the solar system and all the stars rotated around the earth following a circular path.  Once you accepted this belief, it was circles all the way around, and that led to Ptolemy’s model.

Once persuaded of this view, it was almost impossible to shake it off.  Then someone – Copernicus – suggested that the earth rotated around the sun, an inconceivable idea until then, and our perspective of the world of the sun, planets and stars was irrevocably changed.  A similar story can be told about the effect of relativity theory on Newtonian mechanics.

Today, we may be facing another time when pigs might fly in physics, and this relates to sub-atomic particles.  The twentieth century took us on an extraordinary journey, from seeing the atom as a tiny nucleus with electrons spinning around it in a large area of empty space, to the world of elementary particles.  We now read about mesons, muons, quarks and leptons, and such strange objects as the Higg’s Boson.  In order to make sense of the growing body of particles and their constituents, terminology about spin, colour and up- or down-ness have been introduced.  These various curious terms have been brought together using multi-dimensional mathematics, where the behaviour of elementary particles and their interactions are described in terms of ‘strings’ described in eight-dimensional terms.  Recently this moved on to considering ‘superstrings’ and an underlying mathematics of 26 dimensions.  Four dimensions make sense (three for spatial properties, the fourth for time), but past that point, this sounds like maths all the way down.  Ptolemy would be proud!

I am certain you can see where I am heading.  Somewhere out there is a black swan, a key to understanding matter that is quite impossible to imagine right now.  Once we find it, the whole bizarre edifice of string (or superstring) theory may well collapse.  As Copernicus and Einstein did, so the finder of the next black swan will be able to explain more, but with a ‘simpler’ theory, one which is outside of our ability to grasp right now, or even imagine.

We are used to this in science.  All theories are provisional.  A theory is a way we make sense of the world, or some aspect of it, until the theory fails to account for empirical observations, or an alternative theory is more parsimonious in its explanations.

A second area in which pigs might fly has to be brain research.  Our current model of cognition, thinking and even consciousness is bound up in a view of the brain as a computer.  The imagery is seductive: information flowing along conductors (neurons), which ‘fire’ with messages, and receptors decoding the messages with further information flows leading to action.  At the same time, this approach (theory?) also entails the brain developing an increasingly complex model of the environment, a mental model which shapes understanding and behaviour.  We ‘store’ memories, we followed ‘programmed’ responses, with the automatic control centre in the brain (our CPU) managing the complex flow of data.

The model of the mind or brain as a computer is so deeply embedded that we now talk about ‘intelligent’ devices, and ‘self-driving’ cars.  This casual use of words like ‘intelligent’ and ‘self’ helps sustain the belief that we know how the brain works.  It leads to researchers suggesting we are close to ‘solving’ the problem of consciousness, and the Daniel Dennett’s of this world keep writing books to advise we are nearly there. [iv]  By now you know what I think.  This is another area in which I am confident an astonishing insight or finding will lead to an overthrow of the brain as computer model and that this black swan will help us to reconsider what we mean by consciousness in a new light.

Seeing people as information processing machines reminds me of another area of increasing complexity, and yet another where I think pigs might fly.  This is in relation to the hereditary theory of health and illness, which has recently experienced a resurgence, taking us back to the view our behaviour is solely driven by our genetic inheritance.  This recalls a time when scientists had concluded that development was a function of natural processes and nurture a minor side contributor.  Years of research on child development, comparative intellectual development and other studies restored the central importance of nurture in the nature vs nurture debate.  However, right now, we are back to the nature side, with genetics driving just about everything.  It’s genes all the way down!

While not exactly a black swan, current success with immunotherapy in treating some cancers offers an alternative picture.  There are some gene malfunctions that clearly lead to specific illnesses, no argument.  However, instead of seeing most illness as a result of genetic factors, to be treated through gene manipulation, current research indicates physiological systems play a crucial role, especially if damaged or attenuated.  There is evidence many diseases are the result of weakened immune systems, and several cancer cures are being achieved by strengthening the immune response.  This happens to support the “let’s get dirty” theory of child raising:  there is nothing wrong with allowing your child to play outside, get dirty, and even eat food with a tiny bit of natural dirt, as when a sandwich has been dropped on the ground and picked up again.  Having a strong immune system matters.

If we look at the broader field of health care, the targeted drug model is the dominant approach to treatment today, with much of current practice entrenched in this view.  Vast funds are spent searching for drugs to control or eliminate cancer, whether genetically based or cleverly constructed molecules developed by researchers.  On the other hand, other debilitating conditions, like heroin addiction, receive relatively little funding.  This is more than just a matter of money and genetics.  Trying to find a cure for addiction is a demanding and complex exercise.  Most researchers are clear in this case there is no ‘magic bullet’ waiting to be found, a drug to be administered to addicts, which will end all addictive compulsions.  Research on heroin addiction along with other areas of substance abuse make it clear that addiction is a social, a personal and a chemical problem

I am interested in work on cocaine addiction and know we may be able to find a drug that reduces the positive reinforcement effects of cocaine. [v]  However, like many illnesses, this is a disease with a major psychosocial aspect.  To reduce cocaine addiction, we are going to have to find ways to reduce depression and anxiety, and other personality disorders.  We are also going to have to challenge behaviour among groups of disaffected youth, rich and bored executives, and other sub-cultures where getting ‘high’ is seen as desirable or sophisticated.  In this case, the ‘magic pill’ approach to treatment is both misleading and will be ineffective.

Is there a black swan about to appear to totally reshape our approach to health and illness?  It seems inconceivable:  that’s exactly the point.  If we knew a radically different treatment paradigm, we would be thinking about it right now.  It may be on the horizon, but so far away we can’t see it clearly enough to understand or anticipate.  A black swan in the far distance.

There is one more black swan I dream about.  I fear it hasn’t even reached the horizon yet, but when it arrives, it is going to sweep aside a huge endeavour.  Today, parents and students all think about the educational system in terms of classrooms, teachers, curricula and assessment:  the underlying model is that the teacher determines what will be taught, when and where (well, venues and timetables are the province of administrators).  The grateful learners assemble to hear the words of wisdom and strive to learn and pass the exams.  For most people, this is the way the system works.  At the same time, we also know about the system in practice.  We can see many students are often unmotivated, discouraged, and even somewhat rebellious.  Teachers are often tired, their passion diminished by years in the classroom, their commitment to students weakened.  We know the problems, but we can’t see how to replace the crumbling edifice.  It might include elements to do with learning to learn, individualising experiences, available on-demand, as some suggest.  Who knows?

I often talk about a radically new approach to learning, eliminating the focus on the physical classroom in a student centred approach.  A black swan coming soon?  Pigs to that!

[i] https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/pigs-might-fly.html

[ii] http://www.montypython.net/scripts/flysheep.php

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

[iv] Daniel Dennett sprang into fame with the publication of ‘Consciousness Explained’ in 1972 (Back Bay Press); he reignited interest in his views with “From Bacteria to Bach and Back’, Norton, 2017.

[v]  For the sake of complete disclosure, I am a director of Encepheal Therapeutics, a company trying to develop such a drug.  The company is very clear about the limits to which drugs alone will eliminate addiction.