Chapter 3 - What Hawaii Tells Us About Evolution
 

Terence: The subject of this particular trialogue is Hawaii, what this island tells us about evolution, and how it relates to island ecosystems and their evolutionary process generally. The task falls to me because as chance would have it, in the course of my life I have visited most of the major theaters of evolution that involve island groups considered to be exemplars of the various types of island groups on the planet.

Hawaii, where we are recording this trialogue, is a group of mid-ocean volcanic islands. The only other mid-ocean volcanic island groups in the world are the Azores, the Canaries and the Seychelles. They offer great contrast to Hawaii, particularly the Seychelles, which as a portion of the Madagascar land mass has been above water some 300 million years, perhaps longer than any other place on the planet.

 

There the evolutionary process offers a dramatic contrast to the far more recent evolution in the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiian Islands represent the unique case, because of the size of the volcanic calderas and of the vents beneath the Pacific floor that have created them. In fact, these vents and volcanic conduits are the largest on the planet.

 

What we have in Hawaii is a tectonic plate sliding slowly toward southern Russia and Japan that is crossing over a weak place in the Earth's crust, a place where the core magma of the planet lies a considerable percentage closer to the surface than anywhere else on earth. The result of this situation is a series of islands formed in the same spot that each, after its volcanic birth, is rafted away on the continental plate towards the northwest.

The life in the Hawaiian islands shows 30 to 35 million years of indemnification using the ordinary rates of gene change that biologists recognize. Nevertheless, geologically speaking, no Hawaiian island is over 12 million years old.

 

The obvious interpretation of these facts is that life arose out here on islands which no longer exist, and as islands rose and fell, the life hopscotched from one island to another. Indeed, the dispersal rate of birds, tree snails, and other organisms moving eastward from Kauai across Oahu, Molokai and Maui to the Big Island, Hawaii itself, shows that this gradient is still operable.

 

The forests of Hawaii are the most species-poor forests of the major islands. Hawaii is species poor because animals are still arriving here from the other islands. Nevertheless because these volcanoes are so huge, Hawaii has a complete range of ecological systems, from sea level to 14,000 feet, virtually the entire range on the planet in which life is able to locate itself.

 

The volcano itself, Mauna Loa, is by volume the world's largest mountain, because is is already a 14,000 foot mountain when it breaks through to sea level, having risen from the Pacific floor, and in this part of the world the Pacific Ocean is 13,000 feet deep. This mountain was enormous before it ever broke water. It now rises 13,000 feet above sea level, and its sister mountain, Mauna Kea, is shorter by only 120 feet.

What has been created out here is a very closed ecosystem far from any continental land mass. The forms of life which arise here arise on rafted debris or tucked into the feathers of migratory birds or in some other highly improbable fashion. What we see here is a winnowing of continental species based on extreme improbability. As an example, a very common Sierra Nevada wildflower of no great distinction apparently arrived millions of years ago as a single seed on Maui, and by that crossing has created a mutated race of plants that we know as the Hawaiian Silversword, one of the most bizarre endemic plants that the island has produced.

In terms of islands within islands and the fractal adumbration of nature; it's very evident here. For example, because the island is created by a series of lava flows of varying ages, there is a constant process in which ecosystems become islanded by lava flows. And so you have a series of micro-islands of species that develop independently of each other even though they may only be some few miles apart, but separated by a landscape so toxic and desolate that there is very little intermixing of genes.

 

This is thought to have been a formative factor in the evolution of the Hawaiian fruit-flies, Drosophila, which of course were very useful in early studies of genetics because the chromosomes of the Hawaiian Drosophila are ten thousand times larger than the ordinary Drosophila and in the era before electron microscopes you could actually color band these with certain dyes.

 

Using chromosomes of these Hawaiian Drosophila, early chromosome studies went forward.

In terms of extrapolating all of this particular natural history data into some sort of general model, I think what life on the island brings home to us is that the earth itself is an island. I've been saying for many years that one of the most revolutionary yet totally trivial and predictable revolutions sure to come in biology is the recognition that models of island isolation or species dispersion across oceans can easily be expanded to the three-dimensional ocean of outer space.

 

Very clearly viruses, prions, gene fragments, molecularly coded information, percolate between the stars as a statistically very low component of the general cosmic dust and debris. Indeed, there have been many attempts to establish this idea, by Fred Hoyle and others. Recently a theory of the cometary origin of life has been put forward. It seems to me perfectly obvious that in time these notions will be embraced; after all, viruses can freeze down to crystalline states that are almost minerals.

 

And as for a dispersion between celestial bodies, it's now generally agreed that a number of meteorites that have been recovered in the Antarctic are in fact fragments of Mars.* So the work on island dispersal patterns and the statistical mechanics of this process will eventually, I think, play a role in modeling how life is dispersed throughout the galaxy.

 

* This trialogue was recorded prior to the 1996 discovery of fossil life in a meteor of Martian origin (click below image).

Some of the other islands that I've been fortunate enough to relate to are the Indonesian islands, which are the absolute other end of the spectrum of the class of tropical islands. What we have here in Hawaii, as I said, is mid-ocean islands far from continental floras and faunas, while Indonesia is in fact a submerged continent.

 

As recently as 120,000 years ago, Indonesia, from Sumatra to New Guinea, was a single land mass which paleobiologists refer to as Sundaland. In the process of this shallow continent's subsidence, the sea filled in the low spots, so that today there is a direct correlation between species differentiation on any two Indonesian islands and the depth of the sea between them. These correlations have been shown over and over. One of the great conundrums of 19th century biology was the so-called problem of Wallace's line.

 

Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer with Darwin of the principle of natural selection, believed that between the islands of Bali and Lombok and then going west of Celebes you could draw a line which represented the line of convergence between the Austral-Papuan biogeo-graphical zones and the Asian-Malayan zones.

Statistical studies, Ernst Mayr's principally, have disproven this notion. However, I have collected butterflies and stood in the forests on both sides of Wallace's line in several places and I completely understand Wallace's observation and in fact wonder about Mayr's conclusion. Wallace concluded that these forests are very different; the bird calls, the butterflies, and the flora - all seemed different.

 

But what Mayr seemed to show was that there was no distinct line. There was a gradient from Australia to Malaya in one direction and Malaya to Australia in the other direction. Island groups like this, and I haven't mentioned the Galapagos but they are another example, are such obvious laboratories of speciation that when Darwin and Wallace and Walter Henry Bates and other 19th century biologists who were grappling with the so-called species problem set out to do their fieldwork, they could not fail to be impressed by this peculiar theme and variation.

 

They could not understand whose fingers strung the harp until they realized that similar populations separated by catastrophe such as the arrival of ocean water or a lava flow, then come under very slightly different selection pressures which cause slightly different physical characteristics to be taken on. In the Amazon Basin for example, you can move 2,000 miles and have only about a 15% replacement in butterfly species. In Indonesia you can cross a strait of water 20 miles wide and have a 17% replacement of butterfly species.

 

Darwin and Wallace visited these places, both continental floras and faunas and the island situations, and through careful observation they finally understood what the mechanism of speciation was. And it's a wonderful thing, you know. Take for example butterfly diversity, that is a situation where diversity itself confers adaptive advantage. Because butterflies are largely predated upon by birds, it's been shown in numerous studies that birds hunt a target image. They have an image of their prey.

 

If through the chance recombination of genes your wing color or wing shape pushes you outside the target spectrum, you will be ignored and survive.

Ralph: Like us!

Terence: And so variety itself becomes a premium in the evolutionary game. Novelty itself then is preserved because novelty confers an adaptive advantage in this situation, for birds and butterflies. I think the implications of these things lie close to the surface. Earth is a small island, we are making great changes in its ecological parameters, we are affecting plant and animal populations. By studying how evolution has shaped island groups, we can appreciate our own small cosmic island and perhaps eventually draw politically empowering conclusions from that.

Rupert: What a wonderful overview, Terence. A real delight. There remains a major evolutionary puzzle. Islands have a tremendous role in speciation, as all evolutionists believe, and of which both Darwin and Wallace provided classic examples. Then in places where there are contacts through island chains the flora can be extremely species-rich, as in the Malaysian-Indonesian archipelago, one of the great creation centers of species in the world. That's the kind of tropical forest I know best, having lived in Malaysia. From what you've said, this evolutionary creativity arises from a combination of isolation on islands, plus mingling of two totally radically different floras, giving rise to all sorts of new possibilities and combinations.

Terence: And the process was pumped by the repetitive comings and goings of the sea which repeatedly islanded populations and then reunited them.

Rupert: And presumably also pumped by the ice ages not only through changes in sea level, but also through the compression of all forms of life towards the tropics, followed by a pole-wards migration of species at the end of each ice age. All this makes sense for the centre of evolutionary creativity in the Malaysian-Indonesian archipelago. The problem is that it doesn't explain that other great centre of evolutionary creativity, the Amazon basin.

Terence: The answer is very simple. It has simply been above ground a very long time. In other words, the Malaysian-Austro-Papuan situation is fairly recent, probably the map has looked as it does no more than 7 or 8 million years. The Amazon on the other hand has been above water 280 to 300 million years. So simply being in the tropics with 3, 4, 5 breeding seasons a year for many organisms, and never being inundated by sea water or catastrophe allowed that incredible climatic speciation on a continental land mass.

 

You're right, it didn't happen as far as we know in Africa, although Africa's so heavily impacted by human beings that any notion of its original natural history is impossible. But that's the short answer, that it was above water a long, long time.

Rupert: But then we have two methods of prolific evolution. One depends on being around a long time, as in the case of the Amazon. The other depends on isolation, climatic pumping, mixing of gene pools and so on.

Terence: What pumped the Amazon situation on a micro level is the meandering of rivers. You see, it's very hard in a climaxed forest situation for any new species to gain a foothold. But because rivers meander and destroy forests and create sand bars and the intermediate zone of uninhabited land, so-called pioneer species can move in there.

 

And that's where the speciation is taking place. Carl Sauer estimated that before the advances of human culture it was the meandering rivers that were the main force for modern plant evolution on this planet. A vast amount of shifting of boundaries goes on, and it's in that shifting boundary zone that mutants, new forms, can get hold. That's why a pioneer plant species will have the following characteristics. It will be an annual and it will be a prolific seeder. It will be herbaceous, not woody. In short, it will be a weed.

 

And that's what a weed is, a pioneer species, a tremendously predatory species designed for open land, utterly unable to compete in the forest, but in open land able to take over very well.

Rupert: Yes, but while isolation, new environments and so on, explain one side of evolution, I think there's another side which Darwinism can't explain, because it puts too much emphasis on natural selection. J.C. Willis, the great British botanist who worked in Ceylon and knew the Asian flora well started off as a keen Darwinian, but was forced to the conclusion that much evolution took place by divergent mutation, rather than natural selection.

 

For example, in Ceylon and India there are many species of water plants in the family Podostemaceae that live in streams with leaves that float on water, with many different leaf forms. Any attempt to account for a particular leaf form in terms of adaptation to water flow fail because leaves of quite different shape seem to do just as well, and can flourish side by side.

Terence: Well, the Hawaiian Hapu here is an excellent example. Here we have the two tree ferns, two distinct species, distributed in a ratio of 50-50. One has little black stickery stems and the other has a fuzzy brown soft stem. What selective pressure caused stickers to work for one and not to work for the other, when they're standing right next to each other? Seems to me there must be drift of genes or simply variety for its own sake.

Rupert: Life is constantly trying out new forms. Unsuccessful novelties are weeded out by natural selection. A few are a wild success. But many novel forms may work equally well, and survive equally well, like the two species of tree ferns in your Hawaiian forest. There may just be lots of equivalent species, where you've got novelty for novelty's sake. They are not all closely shaped and sculpted by natural selection.

Ralph: Well, getting back to Hawaii here, it seems, if I understood you right, that what's unique about Hawaii is the Hawaiian Islands are young, and they're maximally oceanic islands, far from any continents. And the process of the population of a new island from a neighboring island is visible, even in the present, and then we see a certain pattern is repeated over and over again, even in the course of a century.

 

So it seems to me that these different examples you were talking about conflate two different processes more or less projected upon the same screen. One is a purely biogeographical process which could at least be imagined to be operating the same way without any evolution. We have only the same species that were found on Maui suddenly appearing on Hawaii by a process of dispersal.

 

Some species are successful at pioneering, and help create an ecology suitable for the second species, and their space-time patterns are developed one upon another, very interesting fractal movies that to begin with would have nothing to do with evolution.

On top of that, you have - I'm not sure about the relative time scales of this - then you have an evolutionary process involving speciation either during or after the colonization of a brand new island. Is evolutionary process essential to the population of the new island or isn't it?

Terence: I think in the short term it isn't and in the long term it is. Because many forms of life are arising in these islands, it's not home free. New arrivals must contend with this kind of islanding by volcanic flow that I mentioned, and other large-scale catastrophic events that have gone on in the Hawaiian Islands. Basically I think that what we see here are genes being mixed and stirred at a faster rate than in most places and that's without mentioning the vast number of plants and animal introductions brought by human beings.

 

One of the other unique things about Hawaii that I didn't enumerate is that human beings arrived late and this absence of long term human impact gives us a clearer picture of what's happening. It's almost as though Hawaii is a speeded up microcosm of the earth itself, probably eight-tenths of the big island is in the pre-archeozoic phase - in other words, almost abiotic - and then large areas are covered by lichen, with a fern or two here in the crevasses.

Ralph: You used the word pumping, and I like that. There's a sort of a forcing or coupling or a codependence between these different processes, physical ones, as for example new lava flows, the meandering of rivers, or the appearance of islands, and space/time evolutionary processes.

Terence: Really the ice ages are the pump. They raise and lower sea levels. They create deserts and drop humidity. They force change. And they are probably driven by fluctuations in the dynamics of the sun.

Rupert: I should just point out that the evolutionary process looks rather different if you take morphic resonance into account. Habit formation then becomes a much more important evolutionary process. Individual organisms adapt to new environments. You can take seeds from a given plant and grow them at different altitudes and in different climates, and in many places they survive. But in these different environments, the plants grow differently. Grow them there over several generations and they develop a new group habit, stabilized by morphic resonance, without the need for genetic change.

Terence: Well, adaptive behavior is that small margin of adjustability that is supposedly not genetically driven.

Rupert: Habit formation and the inheritance of these habits by morphic resonance could enable evolution to occur much more rapidly than neo-Darwinians suppose possible, because they ascribe almost everything to slow statistical changes in gene frequencies. Instead of mere random mutation and natural selection, you have the positive adaptation of animals and plants themselves to a new environment.

 

They often react and respond in a creative way, forming new habits of life appropriate to the environment. So the creative adaptation of life to new circumstances, in my view, is not a matter of minor adjustments. What we are seeing is the innate creativity of life in action. Not blind, random mutation, not just physical forces, not just natural selection, but a creativity inherent in all life.

 

Morphic resonance would enable these new habits to be stabilized and inherited.

This theory suggests that not only can habits be passed on by morphic resonance from generation to generation, but also by morphic resonance forms and habits could jump from place to place. This could, for example, help to account for the parallel evolution of marsupials in Australia with placental mammals on other continents.

Terence: It would augment the natural selection of separated genes in general.

Rupert: Yes, these things work together. There's still natural selection of gene pools; but creative adaptation and spread of new habits take place as well. I suppose the thing about Hawaii that puzzles me most is why there haven't been more species and more forms of life in Hawaii. In the rainforest here we see only half a dozen or so species of tree, whereas in Sumatra or in the Amazon, there would be hundreds.

Terence: Again, the answer is time - 200, 300 million years versus 20 million years. That's what it is.

Ralph: There's so many reasons to fail here. I personally find the environment harsh, lush as it may look to you or other people, and I suppose that one way a new species could fail is through having bad habits. There may be habits that manifest visually to us only in terms of spatial patterns. The colonization of the black lava by the Ohia tree appears in a certain fractal pattern in which there are characteristic frequencies of distances that may have to do with the distance the seeds fly in the wind or something like that.

 

There is a certain spatial pattern which is the necessary one for survival that has a kind of a morphic resonance. I mean there wasn't a space/time pattern in the physical substrate itself. And other species, although they would look equally strong or stronger in the sense of phylotaxis, when dispersed in the lava they can't make it because their spatial characteristic is wrong.

 

So the change of a species that may not involve DNA could be a change of habit in terms of the spatial distribution. It could just be response to a nutrient because of the change in size and therefore characteristic distance in the space/time patterns. We seem to see that - first we see the lichen, the lichen creates just a minimum of degradation of the surface that makes it possible for the Ohia tree to grab hold.

 

And the lichen, as the pattern is obviously fractal, sort of characteristically fractal, and the lava surface is fractal as well, and fractal means that there's a resonance across scales, then the lichen scale, which is much smaller - there may be many kinds of lichen, but only this one grows because its fractal pattern has the right basic form, something like a time wave, so that as a matter of fact it's compatible with the bare rock.

 

And then the Ohia tree is compatible with its fractal pattern apparently on a much larger scale which nevertheless resonates harmoniously as opposed to other species that might be disharmonious. And this harmony, this capability of a certain space/time pattern, is a habit which may change and adapt in a way that requires no change in DNA at all, a nongenetic variation, just dependent on some kind of morphic field.

Rupert: You are talking about the evolution and development of whole ecosystems. I think what's interesting about this island, the Big Island of Hawaii, is that this forest ecosystem gets established on the slopes of the volcano, but is wiped out again and again through new lava flows. When lava flows are recolonized, an entire ecosystem has to move, not just single species. So it has to be an exceptionally portable ecosystem. Maybe that's why it has to travel light.

Terence: Good point.

Ralph: Coming back to this question of the morphogenetic field of an entire ecosystem, I just want to ask you about this. In this creation myth of the Hawaiian Islands ecosystem that you described, there are islands which have already disappeared and ecosystems have jumped from them onto Kuai and so on.

 

But as I understand it, these islands are rafting along over this more or less stationary hot spot. Those early islands were right here where we are sitting today, also very distant from any continental land mass. So is Day One of biology on the Hawaiian Island chain a result of long-distance dispersion?

Terence: Yes.

Ralph: Nothing happened until the right lichen arrived after millions of years?

Terence: Well the lichen I suspect can probably be found in air samples above any point on the planet.

Rupert: Say you've got spores as the first colonizers.

Terence: Yes, and then the ferns come next, which also propagate by spores. The reason the non-flowering plants conquered the planet, if you think about it, is because the planet was like Hawaii. It was new lava, it was covered with lava flows, and the ferns could get hold. We think of ferns as soft, somehow spoiled plants. Actually, they're the toughest plants there are. When we study biology they teach you about Psilotum, related to the ancestors of the ferns. The forest here is full of Psilotum plants, I can point them out to you. They're tough.

Ralph: But how do they get here? These spores are carried by birds?

Terence: Well sure, by spores. Mud on the feet of migratory birds could carry millions of spores.

Rupert: The duck's foot theory. More necessary for the transport of seeds than spores, which are so small and so light that they can be carried over long distances in the air.

Ralph: Well I think there's a startup problem. I just can't imagine that the frequency of ducks flying is enough to explain the arrival of correct species and in the correct temporal sequence. I mean they would have to be dumping literally dumptruck loads of different genetic materials on a daily basis on a brand new island in order to have a chance to get started.

Terence: No, studies with banded birds show that there's a lot of material moving around and a million years is a long time, a number of improbable things can go on in a million years.

Ralph: Well I've been here for a week. I have not seen a new species of bird arrive from the mainland.

Terence: Well stick around.

Rupert: Okay, let's accept the duck's foot hypothesis, especially in relation to migratory birds. Birds do migrate from place to place over large distances, including many species in Hawaii, which has migrants from different continents. But which is cause and which is effect? No one knows the evolutionary basis for migration.

Terence: No, I don't think it is migratory birds. I think the process is primarily one of a novelty, unusual events, catastrophe. The greatest storm of the century, every century.

 

Ralph: Birds blown off course.

Terence: Birds blown off course. Now that happens. A single big storm veering off course might equal a century of ordinary dispersal.

Rupert: But there are far more regular migrants. And migratory patterns of birds evolve. For example, new ones have appeared in Europe in a matter of a few decades, as in the case of the blackcap. Birds of this species that nest in Germany and Austria traditionally migrate in the winter to the western Mediterranean. But over the last 30 years, an ever-increasing proportion migrates to England instead, where they find abundant food on garden bird tables.

But how would species of migrants find out about Hawaii in the first place? Rather than individuals being blown here by chance or whole flocks of them starting out lemming-like from the coast of California in the hope of finding an island 2,500 miles away, they may in some way have known that there were islands there to go to. Perhaps this could happen through a kind of collective map which they share with other migratory birds.

 

Some migratory species knowing about Hawaii may enable others starting off in that direction to follow a kind of preexisting flight path, rather like airline flight paths. When we flew here to Hawaii outside the window about a hundred feet away there was a vapor trail, which we followed exactly for two hours; it was presumably from the previous jet flight to Hawaii.

Maybe in bird migrations many species follow the same path, as many northwestern European species follow the Mediterranean coast of Spain and cross over the Straits of Gibraltar into North Africa, and North American migrants tend to follow four main north-south "flyways."

Maybe when the Hawaiian Islands appeared, long-distance migrants like albatrosses or other large seabirds noticed them and started coming here. Somehow this got into a general bird navigation map, and other species started coming. The appearance of new land channeled bird migration routes towards it. The word got around and increasing numbers of species started coming here if only to rest on the way across the Pacific. Then the ducks' foot hypothesis would be very plausible.

Ralph: A new island in the Pacific, tell the albatrosses, and the birds do their job as sort of a pack train to bring as much genetic material as rapidly as possible and dump it on the new island.

Rupert: Somewhat like an adventure of Doctor Doolittle. But the question of how migratory birds found Hawaii raises the further question of the original Polynesian people who found it. One possibility is that they were keen observers of migrant birds and noticed that birds set off from their islands in a particular direction and months later came back again. It would therefore be a fairly simple deduction that if you followed the migrant birds you'd reach land sooner or later.

Terence: That's right.

Ralph: That's what "East is a big bird" means. But following the birds is no less of a mystery than the birds themselves being able to migrate. So either the people could follow the birds, who navigate by some unknown mysterious means, or the people could have had access to similar mysterious means themselves, and when a new island comes up then the information is somehow injected into their own migration patterns in their canoe rides from one island to another.

Rupert: In terms of human migration, these islands are now the limit of the westward migration of Europeans, having gone right across North America, subjugating the natives and trying to eliminate their culture, the whole process has moved here. We can see it happening before our very eyes, and in evolutionary terms it's the opposite of everything we've been talking about so far. Now there's no separation of the islands from the TV networks and other cultural forces of America.

Terence: One of the most frightening trends I think in modern culture is the wish to build shopping malls everywhere. There is a mentality that would like to turn the entire planet into an international airport arrival concourse. That's someone's idea of Utopia.

Ralph: There appears to be a double gradient here with the eastward migration of Asian people balancing the westward migration of European people, and this is actually the interface where the double gradient can produce an increase in novelty and new mutations, and a forward leap perhaps, of human evolution, could begin here.

Terence: A standing wave forming here as forces move both east and west.

Rupert: So can we point to any human creativity in Hawaii which exemplifies the cultural equivalent of the Malaysian Archepelego? Or is it more like a stalemate with roughly half of the island's population coming from the East and half with the West, with the native Hawaiians trapped in between?

Terence: Well, a Pacific Rim culture is hypothesized to be emerging, and Hawaii is central to all of that. It's equidistant from Sydney, Lima, Tokyo, and Vancouver.

Rupert: Have they adopted the slogan, "Hawaii, the Pacific Hub" ?

Terence: If they haven't, I'm sure they're not far behind. The presence of the world's largest telescopes here make it a center of world science, at least in astronomy. I think the world's first, second and third largest telescopes are on this island, with an identical twin of the largest being built 200 yards away from it.

Rupert: So it's a centre for linking humanity with the stars.

Terence: We're looking out from the top of Hawaii, chosen paradoxically for being the darkest place on earth.

Ralph: From here they'll see the next wave of ducks' feet departing for Biosphere II.

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Chapter 4 - Homing Pigeons
 

Rupert: In my book, Seven Experiments That Could Change The World,1 I focus on areas of research that have been neglected by orthodox institutional science because they don't fit into its present view of the world. As we have already discussed (Chapter 1), this research can be done on very low budgets.

The experiment I propose with homing pigeons is one of the most expensive in the book, but even so need cost no more than about $600. In spite of over a century of research, we really haven't a clue how homing pigeons find their way home. You can take a homing pigeon 500 miles from its loft and release it, and it will be home that evening if it's a good racing bird.

 

Pigeon racing enthusiasts do this regularly. The birds are taken away from the homes in baskets on trains or on lorries. Then the baskets are opened, the pigeons circle around and fly home. It's a very competitive sport. Pigeon fanciers win cups and cash prizes, and good racing birds can sell for as much as $5,000.

Pigeon homing is a phenomenon that everyone agrees is real. Moreover, many other species of birds and animals can home, including dogs and cats, and even cows. But no one knows how they do it. Charles Darwin was one of the first to put forward a theory. He proposed that they do it by remembering all the twists and turns of the outward journey.

 

This theory was tested by putting pigeons in rotating drums, and driving them in sealed vehicles by devious routes to the point of release. They flew straight home. They could even do this if they were anesthetized for the duration of the journey. The birds could still fly straight home. So these experiments eliminate theory number one.

Another theory is that they do it by smell. This is not intrinsically very plausible, since, for example, pigeons released in Spain can home to their loft in England downwind from the point of release. There is no way the smells could blow from its loft in England, to Spain, against the wind, but the birds get home. Experimenters have blocked up pigeons' nostrils with wax, and they get home. They've severed their olfactory nerves, poor birds; they still get home.

 

They've anesthetized their nasal mucosa with xylocaine or other local anesthetics, and they get home just the same. So smell cannot explain their homing abilities.

The next theory is that they do it by the sun, somehow calculating latitude and longitude from the sun's position. To do this they would need a very accurate internal clock. Well, pigeons can home on cloudy days, and they can also be trained to home at night. They don't have to see the sun, or even the stars. If they can see the sun, then they use it as a kind of rough compass, but it is not necessary for homing. You can shift their time sense by switching on lights early in the morning, and covering their loft before sunset.

 

For example you can shift their sense of time by six hours. Now if you take such birds away from home and release them on a sunny day, they set off roughly 90 degrees from the homeward direction, using the sun as a compass. However, after a few miles they realize they're going the wrong way. They change course and go home.

Then there is the landmark theory. The use of landmarks is inherently unfeasible, because if you release the birds hundreds of miles from where they've been before, landmarks can't possibly explain their finding their home, although they undoubtedly use landmarks when they're close to home, in familiar territory. In any case, this theory has been tested to destruction, by equipping the pigeons with frosted glass contact lenses, which mean they can't see anything at all, more than a few feet away.

 

Pigeons with frosted glass contact lenses can't fly normally, and indeed many refuse to fly at all. Those that will fly do so in a rather awkward way. Nevertheless, such birds can be released up to 100 miles away or more, and although some of them get picked off by hawks, others can get within a few hundred yards of the loft. They crash into trees or telegraph wires, or flop down onto the ground, showing that they need to see the loft in order to land on it.

 

But the amazing thing is that they can get so close when they are effectively blinded. Sometimes they overfly the loft, and then within a mile or two, realize they've gone too far, turn around and come back.

This leaves only the magnetic theory. Until the 1970s, most scientists were very reluctant to consider this possibility, because magnetism sounded too like "animal magnetism," mesmerism, and a whole range of fringe subjects they didn't want to mess with. It also seemed unlikely that pigeons could detect a field as weak as the earth's.

 

However, it has been shown that some migratory birds can indeed detect the earth's magnetic field; they do seem to have a kind of compass. However, even in principle, a compass sense cannot explain homing. If you had a magnetic compass in your pocket, and you were parachuted into a strange place, you'd know where north and south were, but you wouldn't know where home was. You would need a map as well as a compass, and you would need to know where you were on the map.

But perhaps the pigeons have an extraordinarily sensitive magnetic sense, by which they can measure the dip of the compass needle. A compass needle points straight down at the north pole and is horizontal at the equator; the angle of dip depends on the latitude. So if pigeons not only have a compass but can measure the dip of the needle, they might be able to work out their latitude. This could, in theory, enable them to know how far north or south they had been displaced.

 

But if they are taken due east or west of their home, the angle of the field is exactly the same as at home, and pigeons can home equally well from all points of the compass.

In spite of these inherent theoretical difficulties, the magnetic theory has been taken seriously by many scientists, not because it is particularly convincing, but because they think there must be some mechanistic explanation, and this is all that's left. Nevertheless, this theory too has been refuted by experiment.

 

To disrupt the magnetic sense, pigeons have been treated experimentally in two ways.

  • Firstly, they've had magnets strapped to their wings or their heads, in order to disrupt any possible magnetic sense.

  • Secondly, they've been degaussed by being put in extremely strong magnetic fields that will disrupt any magnetically sensitive parts within them. These demagnetized pigeons and pigeons with magnets strapped to them can still get home.

(The first experiments of this kind in the late 1970s seemed to show that magnets could reduce their ability to home on cloudy days; however, these initial results turned out to be unrepeatable, and many experiments have now shown that pigeons can home, even on cloudy days, when any possible magnetic sense is disrupted).

That's the current state of play. Every hypothesis has been tested, and tested to destruction. They've all failed.

 

The one remaining that you occasionally hear is,

"They can hear their home from hundreds of miles away, because of extremely sensitive hearing."

Even this won't work, because pigeons that can't hear can still get home. All the theories have failed. Nobody has a clue how they do it, although this ignorance is often covered up by vague statements about "subtle combinations of sensory modalities," without giving any details as to what this might mean.

Pigeon homing is the tip of the iceberg. There are many other phenomena to do with migratory and homing behavior in animals which are unexplained, including the migration of cuckoos, Monarch butterflies, salmon, and so on. Human beings may also have a directional sense, probably best developed in nomadic people like Australian Aborigines, South African bushmen, and Polynesian navigators, and least developed in modern urban people. In summary, pigeons, like many other animal species, seem to have navigational powers which are inexplicable in terms of known senses and physical forces.

The experiment that I'm proposing is very simple, and I can outline it briefly. The evidence suggests there is an unknown sense, force or power, connecting the pigeons to their home. I think of it as a kind of invisible elastic band, stretched when the birds are taken away from their homes, pulling them back and giving them a directional sense.

 

I'm not bothering at the moment to theorize about the possible physical basis of this, whether it's part of existing physics, an extension of nonlocal quantum physics, or whether it requires a new kind of field. That question is open.

Using this simple model of an invisible connection, the experiment I'm proposing is the converse of those done so far. The usual experiments involve taking the pigeons from the home, and watching them return. By contrast, my experiment involves taking the home from the pigeons, using a mobile pigeon loft, which is essentially a shed mounted on a farm trailer.

I've actually done this experiment, first in Ireland and secondly in eastern England. So far, I haven't been able to carry it past the first training phase. I found, however, that it is possible to train pigeons to home to a mobile loft. They don't expect their home to move any more than we do, and the first time you take them out, you move their home just a hundred yards.

 

When you release them they can see perfectly well that it's not where it was before. They go on for hours flying round the place where it was before, until they go into the loft in its new position. That's just how we'd behave if we went home found our house a hundred yards down the street. Most of us wouldn't just go straight in; we'd probably go round and round in circles, around the place where it was before, looking awfully puzzled.

 

That's what pigeons do. If you keep doing this, after three or four times, they just get used to it, realizing they're nomads or gypsies now. After this kind of training, they can find their home up to 2-3 miles away within ten minutes and go straight in.

During the First World War the British Army Pigeon Corps had 200 mobile lofts in converted London buses. There's still one army that uses mobile pigeon lofts, the Swiss army, and they are doing some fascinating research. Unfortunately some of it is classified, being a military secret.

To go forward with the experiment, after you've trained the birds, you move the mobile loft 50 miles downwind from the point of release, so they can't smell it. If the pigeons find it quite quickly, flying straight there, this would suggest there's an invisible connection between them and their home. The next question would be, is it between the loft itself, or the other pigeons? To test this you leave some of their nearest and dearest in the loft, or you take the nearest and dearest somewhere else, to seeing whether they find the nearest and dearest, or whether they find the physical structure of the loft.

How the experiment will turn out, I don't know. If there's a new power force or sense involved, what might it imply? What might it tell us? Where would we go from there? This is the question I want to raise with you.

Ralph: Let me ask you for a couple of details. When they race the pigeons and these home lofts are all in different cities, different streets, and so on, how does it work? Does the wife of the pigeon racer sit at home and when the mate comes, pull out the cellular telephone and call headquarters?

Rupert: The racing pigeon has a little ring on its leg for the race, with its number and the race number. When it enters the loft, the pigeon fancier captures the bird, takes this ring off, and using a sealed time clock issued by the local racing pigeon federation, stamps the ring with the time it comes home. When they send in these tags with the time stamps they calculate from the point of release, the straight-line distance to each loft, divide the distance by the time, and get the average speed.

Ralph: Do they account for difficulties and anomalous obstacles encountered along the way?

Rupert: No. If they're killed by a sparrow hawk, they don't win the race.

Ralph: Does the home loft that they're racing to contain family members?

Rupert: Yes.

Ralph: There's a whole bunch of pigeons in the loft, and only one or two of them are racing?

Rupert: There are several racing systems. The birds need a motive to go home fast. In the winter, they don't home very well. Races are usually held in the spring or the summer when they've got mates, eggs and young, so they have an incentive to get back to their family. One widely practiced method is called the jealousy system, dependent on the fact that pigeons are monogamous, forming pairs that last at least for a year.

 

The pigeon owners wait until the birds have paired up, then they take away the bird that they're racing, and let another bird approach its mate. Then the racing bird is taken away. When released it returns home really fast.

Ralph: The stronger the motivation, the tighter the morphogenetic elastic band.

Rupert: Yes.

Ralph: Now that I'm getting the elastic band theory down I'm ready to risk speculating on the question. This is my fantasy.

First of all, accepting the premise that ordinary fields won't do as an explanation, let's assume it's a kind of ESP. I'm thinking of bats, which have been studied in a room just like this one, with wires strung through it. In the daytime the bat will fly around missing the wires and avoiding the wall, using vision primarily, we suppose. At night they do the same thing without vision, using sonar.

 

Suppose, based on bats, that the brain and the mind are able to image the results of sonar experiments, in the same kind of image that the eyes form. In other words, instead of only hearing the sound and trying to compute where the echo's coming from, the bat actually sees the room with its ears, in the same kind of representation as the visual. Then if somebody suddenly turns the lights on, the bat wouldn't hesitate and fall to the ground because it has to switch from system A to system B.

 

The visual representation of the room would exactly overlay the sonar image. Similarly, dolphins have this huge melon-shaped sensory organ that receives sonar waves. Both in the case of bats and dolphins, the visual/sonar representation is more three-dimensional than ours. This would give them, in a way, a kind of a higher IQ.

 

Dolphins and whales, who also use sonar, may sense almost the entire planet as a three-dimensional object, with its curvature and so on.

If there were a sixth sense that homing pigeons and monarch butterflies have, and maybe us to a degree, then I'd suppose it would work like that. Going back to our pigeons, after they're rotated, doped, transported 500 miles and released, with this sixth sense it would consult a very detailed three-dimensional road map of the entire planet, orienting the holographic three-dimensional image with the visual world, rotating things around to get them aligned, and then flying in the map.

 

Things like smells, the sun, the magnetic field, are factors, and they'll act as a kind of label on the map.

This still doesn't explain how they get home. They would have to know where home is marked on the map. Given a sixth sense with a complete road map of the world as a three-dimensional object containing smells, trees, magnetic fields, the sun and the celestial polar constellations and so on, there must be some kind of beacon where home is supposed to be. Even in this sixth sense theory, that remains a mystery. The pull of some sort of morphogenetic rubber band is one idea, if there's an obstacle between pigeon and loft, there would have to be some way to find a way around it.

I think the rubber band theory is too simple. Considering jealousy and so on, the longer the rubber band is pulled, the tighter it gets, which is the opposite of most fields that we know, where the farther you get away from home, the weaker is the pull. I would think that the rubber band is more like a beacon that's a part of this whole field. Then the question is how is the physical information of a location, especially a recently moved location, inserted into the field.

 

This would be the final mystery to fill in the picture.

Terence: It seems to me, if I can download this into language, that the problem is not with the pigeon, but with the experimenter. We know from studying quantum mechanics that things are not simply located in space and time. This error is what Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. I've always felt that biology is a chemical strategy for amplifying quantum mechanical indeterminacy into macrophysical systems called living organisms.

 

Living organisms somehow work their magic by opening a doorway to the quantum realm through which indeterminacy can come. I imagine that all of nature works like this, with the single exception of human beings, who have been poisoned by language.

 

Language has inculcated in us the very strong illusion of an unknown future. In fact the future is not unknowable, if you can decondition yourself from the assumption of spatial concreteness.

The answer to how the pigeon finds its way home is that a portion of the pigeon's mind is already home, and never left home. We, gazing at this, assume that pigeons, monarch butterflies, and so forth, are simpler systems than ourselves, when in fact, our assumption of the unknowability of the future creates a problem where there is no problem. It's only in the domain of language, and perhaps only the domain of certain languages, that this becomes a problem.

To put it simply, if you had the consciousness of a pigeon, you would not have a diminutive form of human consciousness, you would have a consciousness that we can barely conceive of. The consciousness of the pigeon is a continual awareness extending from birth to death, and the particular moment in space and time in which an English-speaking person confronts a pigeon is, for the pigeon, not noticeably distinct from all the other serial moments of its life.

 

The problem is in the way the question is asked, and in the way human beings interpret the data that is deployed in front of them. After all, in the animal world, the future is always rather like the past, because novelty tends to be suppressed. Most things that happen have happened before and will happen again.

 

My expectation would be that what we're seeing when we confront these kinds of edge phenomena in biology is a set of phenomena which, when correctly interpreted, will bring the idea of quantum mechanical biology out from the realm of charge transfer, intracellular and subcellular activity, and into the the domain of the whole organism. I'm not sure this is the solution, but it does cause the problem to disappear.

Ralph: Are you saying that the entire life history of the pigeon is more or less determined at the outset, including the trip away from the loft and the trip back?

Terence: It never went anywhere. It's only when you've laid over this a three-dimensional grid imposed by language that there appears to be a problem. In other words, there's some kind of a totality involved, but we section and deny it, and then come up with a dilemma.

Rupert: What about the pigeons that get picked off by sparrow hawks on the way home?

Terence: They doubtless see that as well. The real question I'm raising is to what degree does language create the assumption of an unknown future? To what degree does it dampen a sense of the future that I imagine to be very highly evolved in the absence of language?

Rupert: It's hard for me to grasp. Do you mean that when a pigeon is released, part of its mind is still at home, in the future, and this in some sense helps it to get back to the loft?

Terence: You and I have talked about this before. You've always implied that the morphogenetic fields drive, push from behind.

Rupert: No, I've always said they pulled from in front.

Terence: Then they're attractors. I am partly saying that, and partly that the consciousness of the organism is distributed in time in a way that makes it capable of doing miracles from our point of view. From its own point of view, there's nothing unusual going on at all.

Ralph: You wouldn't be at all surprised if, as a matter of fact, the race was won by a clever pigeon that actually vanished at the point of release and simultaneously appeared back in the loft.

Terence: You're seeing it as some kind of virtual tunneling, as an amplified quantum mechanical effect. Perhaps this is the solution to the spontaneous combustion mystery. We pay great lip service to the idea that quantum mechanics is very important for life and so forth. Well, the mechanical nature of things at a quantum physical level suggests that if life is an application of those processes, then our apparent entrapment in three-dimensional space with an unknown temporal dimension is almost, you would say, habitual, not intrinsic. This seems very reasonable to me.

Ralph: I think your idea is good. I like it. If consciousness extends over a certain span of time, even a few days, it would explain a lot of things in the pigeon world. I still think it's important to know whether the future is totally determined, or if the consciousness of the future includes several alternatives. In the case of several alternatives, sooner or later the pigeon is presented by a fork in the road and has to decide which way to go.

 

I think we're still missing here some kind of mechanism for the pigeon to follow the stretched rubber band of its own consciousness, occupying an extended region of space and time, so that its ordinary physical body ends up back where its consciousness ends. How does it do it?

Terence: An analogy would be when you run a cartoon or a film backwards, and there's a spectacle of wild confusion, but miraculously, everything manages to end up in the right place. It isn't that there really aren't choices for a pigeon when it comes into awareness, but that it comes into all the awareness it will ever have. It's like having your deathbed memories handed to you at the moment of birth.

 

Essentially, for the pigeon, it's a kind of play. It knows what's going to happen, its life unfolds as anticipated, but it doesn't even know that it knows. The pigeon doesn't have the concept "anticipated." It's we who are observing that have that concept, and we alone are tormented by an anxiety of the unknowable future, an artifact of culture and language.

 

Things like monarch butterflies, pigeon homing, and some of these other phenomena are clues to us that imputing our consciousness into nature creates problems in our understanding.

Ralph: That means that except for ignorance caused by the power of language, we would have the consciousness of a pigeon and therefore see our entire lifetime. According to this view, the baby pigeon chick, upon pecking out the shell, is waking from a dream, looking around and realizing that, "Oh damn, I'm the one that's going to have to race three years from now and they're going to put this other jerk in there with my mate."

Terence: You use language to portray the state of mind of the pigeon. That immediately collapses its four-dimensional vector into three dimensions and it becomes no longer a pigeon, but a person talking like a pigeon.

Ralph: Is the pigeon then aware or unaware of its entire history from birth until death?

Terence: It's aware, but it's not aware that it's a history.

 

Ralph: Experienced as one timeless moment.

Terence: We could go further with this and say this explains our own curious relationship to the prophetic and anticipated. Instead of, like the pigeon, having a 95% clear view of the full spectrum of our existence, by opting into language we have perhaps a 5% view of the future. We're tormented by messiahs and prophecies, and we lean toward astrology and computer modeling and all of these advanced tools that give us a very weak and wavering map of the future which we pay great credence to and worry a great deal about.

 

I'm suggesting that if we could step away from language that we'd fall into a timeless realm where darkness holds no threat and all things are seen with a kind of great leveling and all anxiety leaves the circuits.

 

Perhaps this is what Zen masters do and teach.

I'm suggesting one more version of The Fall. From the fourth dimensional world of nature, complete in time, we fell into the limited world of language and an unclear future and hence into great anxiety and conundrums like how do the pigeons find their way home.

Ralph: This suggests that we should stop talking and writing books and just hum.

Terence: I've always felt that. Rather like a pigeon.

Ralph: Is this a polite way of saying that Rupert's current book and homing pigeon experiment is a total waste of time even if it only costs $10?

Terence: I think all experiments as currently understood are futile, because all, including I assume the experiments in Rupert's book, make the assumption that time is unvarying, and I don't believe that time is unvarying. I didn't intend to open this up on a general frontal attack of the epistemic methods of modern science, but in fact the idea that time is invariant is entirely contradicted by our own experience and is merely an assumption science makes in order to do its business.

Ralph: I believe that we have a case here of multiple personality in action and now I'm going to undertake to prove it. You are now suffering from hay fever. Suppose that Rupert had in his book an eighth chapter on an experiment with homeopathic medicine, and the outcome of it was that a flower power was discovered which absolutely and instantly cures hay fever. Would you then be interested in the result?

Terence: Sure, but as a practical matter, I don't think we should confuse our ideologies with our sinuses. You see, I would like to redefine science as the study of phenomena so crude that the time in which they are imbedded is without consequence. I suppose ball bearings rolling down slopes fall into this category.

 

The things which really interest us; love affairs, the fall of empires, the formation of political movements, happen on a different scale, and there's no theory for much of what happens in the human world. In the human world the invariance of time forces itself upon us, so we create categories of human knowledge outside of time, like psychology or advertising or political theory, that address the variable time that we experience.

 

Then we hypothesize a theoretical kind of time, which is invariant, and that is where we do all the science that leads us into these incredibly alienating abstractions.

This goes back to Newton, who said time is pure duration. He visualized time as an absolutely featureless surface. Now take note that Plato's effort to describe nature with perfect mathematical solids was abandoned long ago, because nowhere do we meet perfect mathematical forms in nature. The only perfect mathematical form that has been retained in modern scientific theory is the utterly unsupported belief that time, no matter at what scale you magnify it, will be found to be utterly featureless.

 

There is absolutely no reason to assume this is true, since all experiential evidence is to the contrary. The problem is, if we ever admit that time is a variable medium, a thousand years of scientific experiments will be swept away in an instant. It's simply a house of cards that's better left where it stands.

Rupert: This seems to go a little bit beyond the problem of pigeon homing.

Terence: It addresses the problem of experiments as a notion.

Rupert: If we take what you are saying down to the level of pigeons again, it turns out to be an elaborate version of the rubber band theory; "the rubber filigree," or something like that. Let's say we perform the experiment of moving the loft; it could show us something that goes beyond anything contemporary science would expect. It might or might not fit with your all-time theory.

Terence: It does fit.

Rupert: Nevertheless, here we have an experiment, crude though it is, which would show that the existing scientific model is very inadequate. The rubber band theory involves a kind of attraction to the home and in that sense involves a pull in time, so it does raise all these questions about the nature of time.

Terence: Do you have a theory about how it works? I don't see how morphogenetic fields are particularly helpful here.

Rupert: Yes. I think the morphogenetic field would include both the pigeon and its loft. You can separate them by moving the loft or by moving the pigeon. Either way, they're part of a single system. The pigeon's world includes its loft, its home, its mate, and all the rest of it. When you move them, they're now separated parts of a single system, linked by a field. The pigeon is attracted within this field, back toward the home which functions as an attractor.

 

This is where Ralph and I have a different view of attractors. The pigeon is pulled back toward the field, not needing a road map of the whole of Britain. A road map is irrelevant. It just feels a pull in a particular direction.

Ralph: It's like the angel theory; that when I come to a fork in the road, a guiding angel appears from behind a tree and tells me which way to go.

Rupert: Roughly speaking, it is. You just feel a pull in a particular direction. You don't even think about it. I think that's how the pigeon does it, subjectively. I don't think it necessarily needs to see the whole of its future from egg to grave. I think it feels a pull towards home by this kind of invisible rubber band, which is actually like a gradient within the field towards an attractor which is its home.

 

That's how you'd model it mathematically. You wouldn't have to bring in the whole of the rest of Britain and a road map. If it did, however, need a road map to the whole of Britain or Europe, we'd have to ask the question how would it get it? It might tune into the collective memory of all the other pigeons that have ever gone on homing races. If a pigeon could access the collective pigeon psyche, or the collective memory of other species; if all birds could link up to what all other birds could see, then they would indeed have access to a global map of the world.

 

I think that's probably going further than we need in this rather limited case.

In the case of young cuckoos migrating in the autumn from Britain to South Africa, independent of the parents that they leave a month earlier, they must be tuning in at least to a kind of collective cuckoo memory that includes features of the landscape over which they fly. The rubber band theory wouldn't necessitate even that.

Ralph: There still seems to be a mathematical or cognitive problem, when the loft is moved. The dynamical system, which extends essentially over the whole of the planet, wherever the pigeon may be released, has to receive the feeling of which direction to go. The question arises, how does the attractor, the loft, extend its field and directional instructions all over the planet? I don't think that the idea of morphic resonance helps here, because in the case of the moving loft, no other pigeon has flown to it.

Rupert: I'm not talking about morphic resonance, I'm talking about the field itself. morphic resonance is a memory. Say you have a pile of iron filings and a magnet. The filings are drawn toward the magnet and you see lines of force between them. When you move the magnet, you see an immediate response.

Ralph: The loft itself simply functions as a magnet in another field which is not an electromagnetic field; a sort of emotional field.

Rupert: When you move the loft and it's just like moving a magnet. Automatically the iron filings or whatever respond. That's basically the model I'm suggesting.

Ralph: And the reason that I can't find my car in the parking garage is because I'm not emotionally attached to it and I've never been in love with it. I should get an Italian car.

Rupert: In the human realm it could apply to finding people. My wife Jill does an experiment in her workshop where people form pairs and they first find each other by humming with their eyes closed. After they've got that, they find their partner just by feeling where they are and heading in that direction. I've tried doing this experiment with our children on the assumption that with children this effect might be very strong, and it turned out one of them was extremely good at finding me. Then I discovered he was peeping.

Maybe bonds between pigeons and their homes are comparable to the bonds between people and other people. Indeed, they may be related to the kind of social bonds that hold society together. When we say the bonds between people, we may mean something more than a mere metaphor.

 

Perhaps there is an actual connection. We have many examples from the human realm, as when a child falls ill miles away and its mother immediately starts worrying and rings up to find out what's happening. This may be another manifestation of the same kind of rubber band effect. It may be an aspect of social bonding.

 

The motive of pigeons to go home is social, not merely geographical. If it hasn't got mates, it doesn't bother. In the case of migratory birds, bees that have to forage out from their hives and then come back, there must be some way in which the social bonds extend into a geographical dimension and then become spatial, directional bonds to find the home group.

There are cases reported by naturalists that when packs of wolves go out hunting, a wolf may be injured, and stay behind in a kind of lair. The pack goes on and kills an animal, quite silently, no baying. Then the wounded wolf take the shortest line from where it was to the place of the kill and joins the rest of the pack for its meal.

 

The tracks show that it goes in a straight line without following scents, because it can do this when the wind is blowing the wrong way. This kind of social bond and linkage may be fundamental.

Ralph: There's a kind of agreement here that there is a sixth sense that's a field phenomenon, like the quantum field. It's a social field, involved with the flocking of birds, the schooling of fish, and with herds of animals and packs of wolves. To answer the question you posed when you started us off; what would this teach us, or mean to us in terms of our future?

 

It could be that humans are somehow divorced from the significance of this field, so whenever their guardian angel speaks, they always do the opposite. If we want to understand the population explosion, the demise of the planet, all these wars, the manifestation of hatred and sources of evil, a candidate for the disharmony in the human species would be its disconnection with this field. Here's where Terence's idea comes in, that somehow to submit to language is to lose our connection with the field.

 

We've all done experiments in not speaking, for example meditation and dreaming, where the antitheses of language has an opportunity to come forward and re-connect us to this field.

 

For people like Americans, who watch television seven hours a day, there may somehow not be enough time away from language.

Terence: Notice that most prophetic episodes are dreams. This supports my point, that we've lost connection with a kind of fourth-dimensional perception that for the rest of nature is absolutely a given.

 

Rupert: Why do you think it's a given in the rest of nature?

Terence: Because there are many, many cases of this kind of thing. Animals that are put in the pound by the owners who are moving, and then the owners move seven hundred miles and the animal escapes from the pound and it doesn't return to the ancestral home; it returns to the new apartment in a different city.

 

The monarch butterflies, the homing pigeons, a whole host of mysterious phenomena become utterly transparent and trivial if you simply hypothesize that for them, the future doesn't have this occluded character that it has for us as a result of our acquiescence in language behavior.

Rupert: It's not just a problem in time, it's a problem in space.

Terence: They see themselves at every point in their life, not just the high or low points.

Ralph: They're a minute ahead of where they are, so they just go that way.

Terence: In other words they can always see their goal from where they are. They navigate through time in the same way that we navigate through space. I mean, if you were a two-dimensional creature, the things that we do, navigating in three-dimensional space, would be absolutely mysterious and generate all kinds of metaphysical speculation and hypotheses.

 

Why should nature imprison itself within a temporal domain?

 

Clearly, for us it's an artifact of language. We talk about future tenses, past tenses that aren't descriptive of the future and the past; they create it. That's why I put in the possible exception of human languages where this is not happening and therefore they are much closer to animal perception. The "mysterious" behavior of Australian aborigines, or the Hopi. These people seem capable of things that to us are like magic, but the magic is all done by knowing what's going to happen. If they simply imbibe the animal's understanding, then to them it's trivial.

 

This is the most elegant explanation, not requiring new, undetected fields, or any of these other somewhat cobbled-together mechanisms.

Rupert: Just another dimension.

Terence: We know it's there. There's no debate about that. I've always noticed that all the magic done by shamans in aboriginal society, especially the ones that are using psychoactive plants, suddenly becomes not so mysterious if you simply assume that, by perturbing the ordinary brain states and ordinary language states, they let in this hyper-dimensional understanding. Look at what shamans do; they predict weather and they tell the tribe where the game has gone, both requiring a knowledge of the future.

 

They rarely lose a patient, meaning they know who's going to make it and who isn't, so they can refuse all cases destined to be fatal. All these examples of shamanic magic can easily be explained by the simple assumption that they can to some degree perceive the future. Animals operate from this place to begin with. What is the shaman's strategy for attaining his special knowledge?

 

He becomes like an animal, he is master of animals, he dresses in skins, he growls.

Ralph: He talks to pigeons.

Terence: He talks to the animals, perturbing his brain state with ordeals or drugs or other techniques. The very close association of the shaman to the animal mind suggests that it's the clue to entering this atemporal or fourth dimensional perceptual sphere.

Rupert: In the Christian tradition the principle symbol of the holy spirit - that which gives inspired prophecy, shamanic-type gifts of healing, all the gifts of the spirit, including speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, and intuitions of various kinds - is the pigeon. The first Biblical story of the pigeon is in the story of Noah's ark, where the pigeon was sent off and came back with the olive twig.

 

Right from the beginning the pigeon is a messenger who can find out things in distant places and return, bringing back the information.

 

You could say that central to the whole Western tradition, this shamanic thing of becoming like an animal, in this case somehow entering the mind of a pigeon, or in some way assimilating to the state of the pigeon, is the basis of the gift of knowledge, prophecy, and spiritual power.


 

Notes

1 Rupert Sheldrake, Seven Experiments that Could Change the World (London: Fourth Estate, 1994).

Back to Contents
 

 

 


Chapter 5 - The World Wide Web
 

Ralph: I first fell in love with the World Wide Web in the winter of 1993-94 ,when it was about one year old. And my obsession with the Web grew so rapidly that I have written a book on it called The Web Empowerment Book.

 

My motive was to wake people up to the existence of this thing before it's too late, and get them involved in order to participate in the creation of our future. But when I go around trying to tell people about it they say,

"Well what is it? And how is it different from the Internet?" and so on.

I'll start by trying to tell you this.

By now everybody is familiar with the Internet. It's on the cover of all the big magazines and there are about 100 books about it. From my perspective there are now four different levels of citizenship on the Internet, which is a new ground. A new territory has been discovered. It's the new world, it's frontier-land. Frontier and pioneer are the words that you hear prominently in connection with the Internet.

 

Here we are in Hawaii where it's the ideal place to study the rules of dispersion of species in the context of biogeography, and not only actual biogeography. We also have the situation of the long-range dispersion of this new medium, over the ocean, approaching Hawaii. Now it's 3,000 feet away and in a few months connections to the World Wide Web will have arrived here where we're sitting.

The four levels of citizenship in the Internet: first of all, you have acquired a connection to it, that is you have located an Internet provider, a machine that somebody owns that's highly connected to the Internet and to which you're weakly connected by having an account on that machine, a telephone number, and a modem.

 

At the first level of citizenship on the internet, all you can do when you call your Internet provider is send and receive mail and read news bulletins that various people have posted, the front page of the New York Times or something like that. On the second level you attain the capability to do everything that the Internet was capable of about a year ago, things like gopher, where you can search for a book that exists somewhere in the world.

 

Almost all libraries of the world, even in very small countries, have now connected their card catalogues to the gofer system. This is itself a rather interesting self-organizational system taking place within the new frontier-land. These are capabilities that characterize the Internet on citizenship level 2.

Level 3 is where you become aware of the World Wide Web and you're able to enter that level of organization. It's another self-organizing system, where people have what amounts to amateur radio broadcasting stations, and they're able to post all kind of materials that are related to the Internet such as pictures, sounds, moving pictures, and moving pictures with sound, and most importantly, hypertext, which is the characteristic mode of the World Wide Web.

 

Many people are familiar with hypertext from HyperCard or some other multimedia programs on personal computers. Hypertext means that you have text, with some words highlighted, so that when you move your cursor there and click, something happens. There's a terrific range of things that can happen, including getting lost in space, getting disconnected, and so on. The usual thing to happen is that you jump to another hypertext document, which is somewhere else in cyberspace, where you do not know.

 

So it seems that these very distant pieces of text are highly interconnected, that the links between all the different pieces of text existing electronically in cyperspace have somehow multiplied through the intentional insertion in ordinary text of these jump stations where one jump will get you somewhere else. Jumps have anchors where you click to begin the jump, and where you land.

So the hypertext medium, this mode, characterizes the World Wide Web and the Internet on level 3. For World Wide Web citizenship, you need a special program called a browser, of which there are many available free on the Internet. For entry to level 3 of the Internet you need to be first on level 2, where you can log into somebody else's machine and copy their files.

 

And these files, which are very valuable programs, like browsers, are available for free all over the Internet, and you just grab one, put it on your hard disk, and simply by double-clicking there, that's the open sesame for entrance into level 3 on the World Wide Web.

At this level the World Wide Web is already much more interactive than television. It's got everything that television's got - it's got feature-length movies and so on, but you can deal with it more interactively. It's much more interesting than television. I would say it would be a very bad time to invest money buying stock in traditional media companies like film and television feature productions.

 

So after browsing around for a while, your citizenship on level 3 becomes boring, because you would really like to publish your own material. That's level 4 where you are able to create a sufficiently intimate connection between your own computer and the Internet, so you can broadcast your own materials and other people can browse them.

So those are the levels. And the way I discovered the World Wide Web was through CD-ROM, a medium that most everybody is familiar with. There's a goldrush in the CD-ROM business. It's considered the great opportunity for adult entertainment and intellectual communication and so on, because on a CD-ROM, which costs about the same as a book to produce, you can put a book. You can put an entire encyclopedia. You can put a thousand volumes of text or hypertext. Or you can put one hour of video or audio.

 

Now there are thousands of titles available, pornographic films, old movies, educational materials, encyclopedias, learning environments for mathematics. When you put the CD-ROM in your computer you're presented with some kind of menu, like the table of contents in a book, but all of the items on the front page are linked through hypertext, so clicking them gets you somewhere.

You still have to learn how to navigate all the materials and more interesting ones have literally millions of links. So to use them embeds you in a multidimensional space of information, the navigation of which is done through intuition. Some people have become very adept at navigating these higher-dimensional spaces through more interesting CD-ROMs, many of which are games.

 

I feel that CD-ROMs are a temporary phase and will soon be replaced by the World Wide Web. But now, since you know what CD-ROMs are, you can imagine the World Wide Web even if you've never been there. I think we will have all the CD-ROMs in the world available on the Internet. Say you're interested in biogeography, then there will be ten CD-ROMs on biogeography on the Internet. They're all available on the World Wide Web. Furthermore, at little cost you can publish your own, if you've achieved level 4 of citizenship on the Internet.

 

You can publish your own CD-ROM, little teeny ones or great big ones, on the World Wide Web. That means that whatever is published by you is accessible to the entire world, at least this virtual world of the World Wide Web. Well what is going on? With the browser I could take you on a tour where you would see a lot of sights. What you see out there is literally tens of thousands of interesting projects in an early state of creation. And that means there are tens of thousands of people essentially devoting all of their waking hours to creative works for which there is no return except the joy of creativity.

 

We have a region of absolutely unbridled, unrestricted creativity on a scale that boggles the mind, a scale never before seen. And what are people doing? Why are they doing this? It's all because people involved in this field feel, as I do, that there is a window of opportunity for the creation of a new future. So that brings me to my particular focus for our conversation on the World Wide Web.

 

It seems to me and to other people who are careful observers of the scene that the miracle for which we've been waiting, the Aquarian Conspiracy, is actually happening. The Internet is the substrate, the aphysical substrate as it were, for the creation of a new future. And of all the people who have predicted this event in some detail in the past, the one that impressed me the most for his understanding of what's actually happening now is Teilhard de Chardin.

 

His concept of the noosphere described the World Wide Web without using these terms, without any reference to an electronic aphysical substrate. Now I would use the metaphor of the neural net, an abstraction of neurophysiology concepts. The individual souls in the picture of Teilhard de Chardin are the interconnected nodes of a neural net.

His vision of the omega point was a prophecy of 500 years in which the quality and the number of links between the individual nodes suddenly began to grow substantially, as a paranormal phenomenon. Telepathy, intuition, sensitivity, consideration, love or something would amplify the strength of the connection between the different souls and so on. And in this neural net would be created the supermind, the noosphere.

 

This is the process he called noogenesis.

I believe that the World Wide Web is, as a matter of fact, the noogenesis of the noosphere. This is it. What could happen? There's a spectrum of possibilities. My interest now is to try to contribute to the creation of the future by encouraging the future evolution of the World Wide Web in a certain direction, a spiritual direction.

Connecting up to the Web happens to be rather difficult at this point, and maybe that's why the kinds of people that you find on it now are not a wide spectrum of humanity. For example, women are sparse. But this situation is temporary. And after you've connected up, it doesn't require any special training to use it. It's like the Macintosh desktop.

 

You just take the mouse and start clicking away and find everything - the Encyclopedia Britannica, the population of India, the current surf conditions. In one of these volcanoes up here there is an eight-legged robot crawling around taking video pictures. Those pictures are available in the World Wide Web. You can see them now. SimCity, one of the most popular and educational games in the PC world these days, has a multi-player version which can be played on the World Wide Web.

 

Disparate browsers of the World Wide Web come across a SimCity in process of construction and they can ask for permission and join in the game.

So that's an idea what the World Wide Web is about, and how I see it as an opportunity to participate in spiritual evolution. Suddenly our opportunities in ordinary media pale in comparison with the new opportunities presented on the Internet in the form of this World Wide Web on level 4.

Terence: It's very interesting. I love hearing you talk about it because your enthusiasm is infectious. It's a kind of ultimate technophilia that you've embraced here, I mean God as computer. I agree completely. I think this is the presence we've been waiting for, this is the outer shell of the Omega Point that history has been moving toward. The implications are mind-boggling and difficult to discern.

 

Is this biology preparing to shed its physicality and decamp into another dimension? Isn't it interesting that it is ultimately wires, bolts, electrons, yet it's prophets reach for the language of theology to describe what is happening. This is nothing less than a manifestation of the incorporeal body of God in human society. It is the end of history as far as I can see.

 

We've been talking since the sixties about boundary dissolution, interconnectivity, so forth and so on, assuming these things would arrive in pharmacological potions. But it appears that global electronic connectivity is a very powerful, practical competitor for that.

It is disturbing, you put your finger on it, the absence of the feminine. I wonder if perhaps the first World Wide Web was 100% female and has existed for millennia, and that the extent of the role of the engineering mentality is to hard wire the whole thing, bringing the guys up to speed and introducing them to the reality of boundaryless communication and an intuitive sense of wholeness, completion, and so on.

Ralph: Do you think we should call it the Second Web?

Terence: Yes, women have always spun and moved in these webs and now men, in the process of being feminized, are learning this trick, but implementing it in the way they know best, which is through technology. I cannot see the edges of this. I think you're right, that the thing we have prayed for, that seemed so unlikely, that seemed in fact to require - and no pun is intended - a Deus ex machina.

 

A Deus ex machina is now with us. And what's wonderful is that it's cut down no forests, it creates no new slums, it is in fact invisible. And so the people who might for various reasons seek to slow it down, to subvert it, to manage it, are in fact unaware of it. They are perfectly in control of the land masses of the planet, of the plutonium, of the petroleum, but they do not understand that these are not the key to the game.

 

The key to the game is information and connectivity. And in that domain, this thing seems to have a morphogenetic dynamic of its own. I would be interested in what you have to think about it, Rupert, as the proponent of the morphogenetic field.

 

Irrelevant, or a shining example or metaphor of what you are talking about?

Rupert: I don't know what to make of it. I find my skepticism being activated. My own experience is that I already have access to vast amounts of information and ideas. All London's libraries are around me, I can get incredible amounts of information through newspapers, stacks of unread magazines, the huge amount of mail I receive, and so forth.

 

My problem is having time to read what's already there. What Ralph has described, people browsing idly through the net, finding out amazing nuggets of information here and there, and creating without need of recompense, presupposes a vast amount of leisure. And somehow I can't get this picture into focus because it doesn't come from the reality I know.

 

This may just be British cynicism surfacing, but I can't quite see how this fits into the lives of people who have to make a living. I can see it as a leisure pursuit, a hobby, like ham radio.

Terence: In the past, if you sought information, you would seek only as far as you had to, and that would be usually your local library. And the quality of your conclusions would inevitably be infected with a kind of parochialism. For instance, in the Old World, if you wanted a picture of the Mona Lisa, you would look up Leonardo da Vinci in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

On the World Wide Web, if you want a picture of the Mona Lisa, you call up the camera in the gallery that is staring at the Mona Lisa. You don't call up a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, you call up the thing itself. Human beings are defined by localism. What kind of world would it be if there were no localisms? In other words, if concepts like British, Somali, Chinese, were utterly meaningless, because everyone moved in the same cultural superspace?

 

It has been said of capitalism, which also has tried to create a homogenous culture of social space, that it does it by appealing to the lowest common denominator, by forcing Bedouins and the Witoto to watch Dallas or something like that. It seems to me the argument for the Web is that it preserves diversity. It really celebrates all information without bias.

 

And Ralph neglected to mention, although I am sure he is aware, the original Internet was constructed by the American military, as a system of communication specifically designed to survive a thermonuclear attack. Hence, it has been designed to be indestructible. There is no central control to bomb or blow up. Hence, the very people who created the Internet find it impossible to control.

Ralph: Its great appeal is that it's out of control.

 

Terence: It's chaotic, friends.

Ralph: We always wondered what would happen if you let creativity go in an infinite sphere of resources, what would happen, and here it is. Well, the World Wide Web is not really comparable to the traditional sources of information like books and magazines. But suppose it were. Suppose that there was nothing on it but books and magazines. Still, the access to all that information has suddenly changed. Now, all those books in the British Museum are not really accessible.

 

Access is severely restricted. There are six billion people in the world and they just won't fit. Through the Internet people can have free access to all these materials. It's true that at popular sites at the moment, you may have to wait in line. But the access is amplified by factors of hundreds of thousands. That's the most obvious thing that's changing.

Terence: The other thing I think that it's hard to predict the impact of, is that no matter how obscure your field of interest or your self-definition, you can find the others - third world handicapped lesbian mothers will all be able to communicate with each other.

Ralph: New communities in other words.

Rupert: It seems fine if you know what you're looking for. But when I read the Guardian newspaper in the morning, although I'm particularly interested in certain kinds of things, there are a whole lot of other things that I see that I wouldn't normally look for. I would never dial up half these things.

Ralph: The Guardian newspaper is on the World Wide Web, and furthermore, it's indexed. Now you read a book. Many of us start reading a book from the back, we like to have a look at the index, see if it's a large one or a small one. I see this book on Island Ecology, it's got 60 pages of index in three columns, I think "This is a great book."

 

Many books on the World Wide Web are indexed completely, every single word is in the index. That means it's much easier to find what you're looking for.

Rupert: Okay, let's say it is this amazing resource. The next question is, what kinds of research project or creativity do you want to do on it? I can think of several examples right now. One is Terence's chosen field, the quality of time. Terence is interested in his particular time wave, but I'm more interested in the empirical side of it, starting not from the theory but from data that show fluctuations, for example sunspot data, accident reports, suicide statistics, freak storms, and so on - all those things that could reflect changing qualities of time.

 

I myself wouldn't be able to do much with them, because I don't have the mathematical skills to do a correlation analysis, and all the other things that you could do to compare vast data sets. A new kind of research into the quality of time would be possible through the World Wide Web. I can easily see that possibility.

 

I can also see that the number of people who are really interested in this might be very small.

Terence: It seems clear that a general quality of the late 20th century culture is that opportunity flourishes. As some of us are moving off to access the central computers of the World Wide Web, some of us can't read the ingredients on cereal boxes. A lot of people are going to fall through the Web. They've fallen through every web in history. And so then an issue emerges, is this something being created for an elite? And what kind of an elite is it?

 

It's certainly not an elite of wealth, it's an elite of intelligence. Now notice that throughout history the most oppressed group has not been the Jews, the Irish, the Blacks. They've all taken their hits, but the most consistently oppressed group of people throughout human history have been smart people. And now comes a tool for smart people, utterly incomprehensible to nudniks, that is essentially the equivalent of the hydrogen bomb.

 

And if in fact consciousness expansion is to be our salvation, then this must be it - as chaotic as the Web is, it is a controlled psychedelic experience, spreading through the populace at the highest levels of intelligence.

Ralph: It's more like a one-way psychedelic experience. After one hit of LSD or something, your mind is altered permanently. After you have browsed and gotten used to this phenomenon, it's almost impossible to forget it. Or ever go back.

Rupert: Ralph, since you can speak from experience, which I certainly can't, what breakthroughs or actual benefits have you personally derived from the World Wide Web, other than the vision of what it could be in the future?

Ralph: I would say the most evident and significant aspect in my life affected by the World Wide Web is my motivation for authoring. I am ready to give up writing books or intellectual activity other than sitting in a garden speaking as we are right now. Publishing a book that's read by 1000 people or publishing an article that's read by 100 people is an awful lot of work for no result whatever, even though I love the process of making books. I have a thousand ideas for writing books.

 

There's just no reason to continue. Now, however, I see that I can freely self-publish all my creative energy. My World Wide Web site has been cruised by probably a hundred thousand people just in one year.

Terence: And you sell advanced mathematical software. What if you were selling dildos?

Ralph: People may be unaffected by what I write, and that's okay, but at least there will be the possibility. That somehow motivates me to do more work. Furthermore, using electronic tools, preparing material to be published electronically is very seamless.

 

So I find I can go at a much greater rate. I'm planning to do about four volumes a year. I have a dozen ideas waiting as I always have, but for the first time I anticipate completing them all shortly and making them available to people who will actually access them, discuss them, and do something similar in response.

 

They'll publish a book back.

Rupert: Heaven forbid. I have a dreadful prospect awaiting me when I return home next week from Hawaii, a stack of mail several feet high which I know will contain at least 20 thick envelopes containing exactly what you're talking about - people's creative work in progress. Theories of the universe, why Einstein went wrong, why evolution should be understood in a new way.

Ralph: I have a stack too. You don't have to read them all -

Rupert: But the idea of torrents of this stuff pouring into my computer is enough to put me off totally. Because the amount of creativity around already is far too much in my opinion. I don't know that we need more.

Ralph: Well out of a stack 30 feet high of manuscripts you might find one valuable one. Out of all these cranks there will be one...

Rupert: I know, but then one would be in the position of the editor of a magazine with the unenviable task of looking through mounds of unsolicited manuscripts and trying to decide which is publishable. I'm grateful to them for doing this: I would hate to have to do it myself. On the World Wide Web we each have to be our own editor.

Ralph: No, people will publish whatever they please without restraint, and then people will browse whatever they please without restraint, and what we're talking about is a thousand fold increase of creativity all over the planet, like people who have never had an opportunity to create. They put a window into the World Wide Web in a public place in Los Angeles and who crowded around it were gang members who saw that they had the opportunity to participate in society for the first time. More creativity can't be bad.

Terence: If you view cyberspace as an informational environment, what's being said is you get much more interesting evolutionary situations out of species-dense environments than very sparsely inhabited environments, and I think what Ralph is saying is that the ideological environment of human culture is about to change to the equivalent of an Amazonian rainforest. It has been an Arctic tundra.

Rupert: Yes, I can see it leading to a great proliferation, like speciation in the Amazon. Already we have an incredible speciation of interest. Just go into any magazine store and there are hundreds of magazines on incredible specialist topics - rabbit breeding, motorbike repairs, windsurfing, model train collecting, and so on.

Ralph: It's wonderful!

Rupert: Yes. But the thing is that vast proliferation of special interest groups and speciation of subcultures doesn't have what Teilhard de Chardin has in his vision of the noosphere, which is not just thousands and thousands of little groups with special interests communicating worldwide, but some unifying principle of humanity. I can easily see how there could be groups discussing their experiments with psychic dogs and cats -

Ralph: That's why we've got to get busy and put more out there.

Rupert: But the Web is based on endless proliferation or fragmentation or differentiation. Where are the unifying principles? Global capitalism hardly seems enough.

Terence: The Internet is a kind of super organism. It dissolves national boundaries, it dissolves class controls, religious controls, it creates a holistic organism. It may not be that it's going to make the world better for white, male intellectuals. That may not be its purpose at all. It may be that it has an emergent telos of its own and that asking what it's for would be like a beetle asking what its evolution is for.

 

I think it will supersede us. I don't know how much monkey meat will be connected to the World Wide Web when the Web is complete. It may shed the monkey meat somewhere along the way.

Ralph: Here we diverge. It would be a huge disappointment if Rupert's fantasy turned out to be the actual future of computer evolution. What I see in the future is that somehow the exalted self-image of humanity will be corrected, that we will end up after a spiritual transformation in a better relationship with the biosphere so that we can have a future.

 

And achieving that depends on a fantastic acceleration in the process of education so that people get information. I'm struggling to put on the World Wide Web ecological models that people can actually play, ecological games like SimCity in which you see what happens if you cut down the Amazon jungle completely, and so on. This information can become widely accessible in a form that doesn't even require literacy. And the World Wide Web itself will, I think, become extinct in a very short time.

 

This is a transitional phase in which a divine process is set in motion giving us the necessary ingredients to evolve into a species which can actually coexist sensitively with the environment.

Terence: I look forward to a day when people will live on an ecologically balanced earth: a few hundred million healthy, well-fed, intelligent people who will appear to be physically at a very aboriginal level of cultural expression, but if you could transpose yourself into the body of one of these people you would immediately notice that when they close their eyes, there are menus hanging in space, and those menus are the interface to the cultural dimension, which is not to be seen or touched anywhere but in the mind.

 

Not my mind, but collective mind.

 

The World Wide Web could be a seed for the creation of a global telepathic collectivity.

 

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