Mapping the human enome


The human genome project started in 1990 and continues today (I guess with ever decreasing marginal return) towards the exhaustive mapping of the core physical cells which make us. Definitions vary on when the project will be ‘complete’ but as Ray Kurzweil points out, we are accelerating towards whichever version of completeness you chose, as the technology to sequence the genome improves. This is a finite task.

This is of course very impressive.

But it will tell us absolutely nothing about why I used to hate my 13+ geography teacher, why Lindsay Lohan chose to throw away a promising acting career, what drove Tony Hancock to take his own life or how to sell a new type of toilet paper to anyone.


What we would need for that is an equivalent map of motivation?

I’m talking about a kind of super-matrix of Maslow needs, helping us to start to understand how the decisions we take are actually part of a broader model of interconnected behaviours and reasons we behave and think in certain ways – whether those motivations are primal, like the physiological elements of the hierarchy of needs, or more sophisticated like much discussed concept of ‘self actualisation’.

Such a model would certainly be useful in looking at tactics we use to address behaviours and behavioural problems, whether serious issues in development or less-serious issues (23 year olds are simply not buying enough cranberry juice), so why hasn’t it been done, or does it simply exist and I’ve been unable to find it? (Wikipedia lists the emotions here:, there is something interesting in this:

What sort of cook book would we be writing here? Will we – like chemists – come up with a long list of basic emotions from which all others will be cooked, or will we – like physicists – find a key emotion or two which sits as the basis of the entire system, and from which everything can be made?

I think we’re looking here at a system we can reduce to few components, maybe even one, the fear of death. From this fear we can start to derive many of the decisions  that fill our daily lives. Death drives us to build a physical and mental security and to want to be part of wider, social groups. Death makes us want to reproduce, to extend our legacy beyond our actual lifetimes.

How about belief systems in major external factors, like religion and patriotism. Surely such otherwise peculiar behaviours start to make sense when we can see how they relate to a complex map of beliefs based on more fundemental conditioning we have undergone.

So I propose a first draft of a tree of decision making which is as follows (and many many apologies for doing it in smart art). image

The one thing that strikes me absolutely immediately is that so many of the immediate motivations relate so directly to areas provided for my religion. In Connected, Nicholas Christakis argues that belief in a higher-power can support the desire to be part of a network, it also – often – supports the need to think beyond one’s death and many many aspect of family life and social cohesion. Put more broadly, the need to understand moral codes, seems to link directly to the model I have outlined.

The areas shown here seem to be amongst the most primal. Where we can relate the behaviour we are trying to foster to these motivations, we will be far more likely to drive adherence. Magazine editors have long known that money, sex and chocolate sell. Apple have unleashed the powerful allure of group status and immediate clique membership.

Perhaps I’ll not get to the bookshelf of densely packed information shown at the top (in the Wellcome Collection’s physical readout of the human genome) but I’m going to keep exploring this concept, trying to find motivations which just don’t fit. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the idea.

Taught out

Ken Robinson at RSA

Ken Robinson (presenter of the excellent TED talk ‘Do schools kill creativity‘) has recently appeared onto the web in another presentation at London’s RSA on how paradigms need to change in education to keep up with the changing circumstances we face in society.

(It’s a long talk at 55 minutes but well worth setting aside the time).

This talk comes a week or so after an interesting story in The Economist into what – if anything – can be learned from looking at schools abroad (paywalled). In that piece, the Economist urges caution in merely borrowing shiny snipets from foreign education success stories, advising instead that education departments should look to leading performers (such as Finland) to understand the harmonious and aligned nature of the ambitions of unions, teachers, parent the government and so on, as well as the underlying cultural difference which underwrite much of the education success.

Robinson’s take is startlingly different. He’s sees he problem as requiring a fundemental change in approach. Our current system, he believes, is highly influence by the Enlightenment (a belief in the superceding power of reason) and the industrial revolution. Because of that background, our system is orientated around producing workers fit for an industrialised society. And, until recently, it has also been tightly geared to producing them in the right proportions: lots of workers, some middle managers, and a few doctors and lawyers.

Isn’t this exactly what school intake felt like, even as early as 11? As a class-decider? Wasn’t that even what it was like 10 years ago, getting through university admission.

But now, Robinson argues, when we are unable to make confident predictions beyond next Tuesday, we should  be looking to educate children more broadly in adaptability and creativity; we should be looking to remove our prejudices about the differences between vocational and academic; and we should be very wary of training lateral thinking out  of our children.

The school system, Robinson maintains, is also often very faddish. Is ADHD really on the rise? Robinson points to a map showing incidence of the  problem in the US. What we see is occurence strongly correlated to particular states where we would expect the most information overload. It is, in fact, he argues an epidemic of the faddish sort amongst parents and teachers.

Echoing some of the thoughts in Faris Yakob’s ‘I believe children are the future‘, Robinson points out that humans are the only species that imagines things; the only race that tries to predicts it future, or understand its position in the cosmic scale. And that this imagination should be cherished and encouraged, not stubbed out with Ritalin and other supressant drugs.

As usual, Robinson is incredibly engaging, amusing and insightful. But for me, the most interesting thought was about the concept of current schools as ‘industrial’ artefacts – not just in the structure of their output but in their methods and practices. In his talk, Robinson suggests that perhaps we want to return to something more organic (or agrarian?).

How do schools actually work? In many ways they do appear to echo mass-production industrial practicies. Children are batched through, they are treated in very standard ways. Defects are collected together at the end of the line, individual workers (teachers) do not necessarily have the ability to respond to different circumstances differently, the ciriculum is the same for every child (Henry Ford’s: ‘any colour, so long as it’s black’).

And, so, to come back to my other pet topic – should we actually be thinking about how we can learn from lean to empower teachers (as a group, not just as individuals) to create more individualised schooling, or to do more to shape the schooling which is available more to the individual child (engineering challenge I guess in Lean) that comes into the system. And how also can we minimise the inventory effect (grouping pupils by age in Robinson’s language).

Want to try some more Lean principles? What about: ‘deliver as fast as possible’; ‘amplify learning’ (from one pupil to the next); ‘decide as late as possible’ (that’s certainly not something that’s made it into schools in this country); ‘see the whole’; ‘build integrity in’….

The answer appears to be about allowing much more flexible teaching and marking to foster exactly the sort of creativity most kids are born with.

Let’s hope Robinson keeps on his crusade. And the educators start to learn from this – more radical -thinking, rather than just borrowing from our neighbours in Europe and the US.