Logo: A Beautiful Miniature Book

Book Chats on Authors.

"Extended Phenotypes and other things..."

“When two people do the same thing, it is not the same thing after all”. P. Syrus. Epg 338.
This issue last updated August 2020.

Though we hesitate to distract the reader too early, from the knife edge task of deciding whether this is the Web-Page for you, may we draw your attention to something other than these words and images on the screen in front of you?

A crowd of people may contemplate a rainbow, but in optical terms each person, being in a different position, actually sees one that is unique to them…

“Somewhat similarly, while I cannot know where you are as you read this, We do know that what you are looking at is all inside the back of your brain and represented, no one knows quite how, by an image a few millimetres across and upside down on your retina and furthermore, unique to you. You might as well be sitting in the dark and observing the scene through a virtual reality helmet! Your surroundings really are there, in a grey sort of way (your brain does the colouring in), but the image on the screen that you are now working with, is, unfortunately, where we say it is. We say unfortunately, because extraordinary and far reaching though the process is, most people including myself find the notion a little unsettling”.


I quote these words and those below, slightly edited, from my colleague's book “Consciousness Reconnected”*. 

We are in fact talking about what it is to be conscious.


We came by these words again recently, via a rather curious route. While dipping into the literature of  c 100 BC, We were struck by how contemporary sounding some of these ancient aphorisms were. We all know that “A rolling stone gathers no moss” (also  P. Syrus), but consider the one above. It could be written yesterday by any student of psychiatry or neurophysiology!


“Similarly, were you, the reader of this web page, to get up, cross the room and reach for your dictionary or router say, you would do so by stepping into a three dimensional set of your own making, projected onto the outside world from that tiny inverted scene,  mediated somehow by apparatus at the back of your brain”.


At this point I want to make a segue (perhaps riff  would be a better word) on the interrelatedness of Steinberg's “out there” (a 3-D stage set of your own making) and the “in there”, inside my own head. My mental life and world model that I carry around with me (in fact my ideal bookshop), is processed by my cerebral cortex and continuously compared to the upside down image on my retina. I stress, the main “out there” is my actual bookshop (see image below left...) and the “in there”, the bookshop of my imagination, that I strive to create and offer, and for which no digital image is available.

But wait...let's step back a pace and clamber way down our evolutionary tree.......

In part, a spider's “out there” is its web, a beaver, its dam, a bird, its nest.

We (I) have discovered "The Extended Phenotype" (Richard Dawkins.,** and published by The O.U.P. in 1983).

Could not my bookshop be my own extended phenotype?

After all, the spider did not go to school, did not read “web making” books, and its parents certainly did not teach it. It's in its genotype, coded somehow chemically as algorithms in the spider's DNA. [P.S. The interested reader could do no better than read Chapter 2 "Silken Fetters" in Richard Dawkins "Climbing Mount Improbable", currently enjoying its 20th anniversay year].

I, in turn, find this a little unsettling, but, and it's a big but, it follows the logic that my bookshop is my extended phenotype (in a thicket of genetic information, culturally modified, and “my personal life-experience” modified).


I am so pleased with this train of  thought, that for six years it has had pride of place over our shop door, and as a provocation to any passing biologist (read: zoologist, ethnologist, geneticist.....), see right hand image above...

None have objected so far, but many have enjoyed the insider joke contained in the logic and many delightful discussions have ensued over the years.


As a physicist by training (.."....truth and facts at all costs, Bob". Third Year Tutor. B.Sc. QMC. 1962) one hesitates to conjecture on a discipline for which I have no training, but, hey, there is one intriguing fact to which I can attest. …

It is this, I have never, ever, felt so comfortable in my skin, since putting into action  an impulse (urge..compulsion..) first felt stirring forty years ago, and continuously updated in the light of personal experience.

Algorithms in the genes! Well, far fetched as it sounds, I can't see anything wrong with the observation that the trait of provider might be favoured in evolutionary terms (after all...“It's in the blood”.....is a phrase in common usage).

Perhaps at this point one needs to log off (it's 2.30 am again)...

*Derek Steinberg...an appreciation...

* "Consciousness Reconnected: Missing Links Between Self, Neuroscience, Psychology and the Arts". Derek Steinberg. CRC Press. 2006. 
** Quote: “It doesn't matter if you never read anything else of mine, please at least read this”. Richard Dawkins.1983.


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