TED2008: Who are we? Answers from Louise Leakey, Wade Davis, Jill Taylor, Stephen Hawking and Chris Jordan

(Running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California. First session.)

TED2008 goes under the theme "The Big Questions", and it opens with THE big Shakespearian question: "To be, or not to be". Actor Michael Stuhlbarg offers a stunning interpretation of the entire soliloquy from "Hamlet":

To be or not to be, that is the question;
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them.

Etcetera. Stuhlbarg is a rising star among Shakespearian actors. This next summer, he will play Hamlet in Shakespeare in the Park, in New York’s Central Park.

And then Chris Anderson, TED’s Curator, introduces Louise Leakey. She is the third generation of her family to dig for humanity’s past in East Africa. Last August, with her mother Meave as part of the Koobi Fora Research Project, she dug up Homo Habilis bones dated 1.5 million years back, that may rewrite the hominids’ evolutionary timeline.
"Who are we? We are just an upright, walking. big-brain, superintelligent big ape. We belong to the family called Hominidi. We are the species called Homo Sapiens Sapiens. We are one species of about 5500 mammalian species that exist on Earth today, one of probably 16 upright-walking apes that have existed, and the only one (except for the bonobos) that exist on Earth today. We evolved from common ancestors with the gorilla, the chimpanzees and the bonobos. We have a common past and we have a common future, and it’s important to remember that all of these great apes have come from an interesting evolutionary journey as we have. It is this journey that has been the focus of the past three generations of my family searching for fossils in Africa. When we find a fossil, we mark it with GPS coordinates, take digital pictures, then begin to excavate it slowly using picks and brushes. Let me take you back to Africa 2 million years ago, to the Rift Valley (If you want to become a fossil, you want to die in a place like the Rift Valley, where flows bring sediments that bury you fast, and later move the terrain so that your bones resurface for people like me to find them). Two million years ago, one of our ancestors lived along Lake Turkana. Homo Erectus (she shows a skull) lived alongside three other species there (picture above). Members of his species later started moving north and east, leaving Africa (90’000 generations ago) and beginning his spread across the globe. Until 30’000 years ago at least three species of hominids lived on Earth.
Who are we today? We are certainly a polluting, wasteful, nasty species, with a few nice things thrown in perhaps. We have a much larger brain than our ape ancestors. Is this a good evolution, or will it lead us to be one of the shortest-living species on Earth? What makes us different is our collective intelligence. We have reached an extraordinary number of people on this planet. We are certainly the only animal that makes conscious decisions that are bad for our species. It’s important to remember that we all have an African origin. We have a common past and share a common future. Evolutionarily speaking we are just a blip, sitting on the edge of a precipice. But we have the tools and the technology to communicate what needs to be done to hold it together. Will we do that?"

Jay Walker is next. In the 1990s he founded Priceline.com (and made
millions), but last time I asked him how he would define himself, he
said "inventor" — his company Walker Digital owns indeed many patents
— but probably "Renaissance man" fits him, too. The TED2008 stage is
furnished with several dozen items from Jay’s personal library —
"artifacts of the history of human imagination", he calls them —
including one of original Sputniks made in 1957, an Enigma encryption
machine from World War II, precious manuscripts (and a page from a Gutenberg Bible),
fossils, and other amazing items.

Anthropologist Wade Davis is probably one
of the most influential western advocates for the world’s indigenous
cultures (and has already given a speech at TED in 2003, watch it
). A National Geographic explorer, Davis has been particularly
vocal about the rate at which cultures and languages "at the edge of
the world" are disappearing.
"Culture is the product of imagination. By the time Neanderthal disappeared in Europe 27’000 years ago, there was already art. I spent two months studying the caves in southern France. Clearly at some point we are all of an animal nature, and at some point we aren’t. The most amazing thing about upper-Paleolithic art it’s that it lasted 20’000 years. If we all are brothers and sisters and share the same genetic material, then we all share the same genius and creative acuity. All people are simply cultural options, different visions of life itself. Let’s go to Polynesia. Tens of thousands of islands. I recently sailed with the Polynesian navigators. These are the people that can name 250 stars in the sky. I made a film called "The Buddhist science of the mind". Matthieu Ricard once said "Western science is a major response to minor needs". The Tibetan monks told us: we don’t really believe that you went to the Moon, but you did; you don’t believe that we can achieve enlightenment in a single life, but we do." Wade takes the audience on a tour of some of the world’s cultural customs and metaphors and initiation rituals and baroque spiritualities and cosmic beliefs — from Latin America to the Inuits — and how many of these cultures cannot understand why Westerners do what they do to the world. "None of these peoples are disappearing. Actually, the world is not flat, it remains a rich tapestry, a rich topography of the spirit. They are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human. When I ask that question they respond with 6000 voices. Our industrial society is scarcely 300’000 years old. That short lifespan should not let us believe that we have all of the answers. There is indeed a fire burning over the Earth, taking not only plants and animals, but some of the world’s brilliance.  50% of the world’s 6000 languages are no longer taught to children. If we are the engines of cultural destruction, we can also be, and must be, the facilitators of cultural survival".

This year, TED is experienced by two audiences: the attendees in
Monterey, and a smaller group — about 300 — who are watching it from
Aspen, in the walls of the Aspen Institute, with TED producer Kelly
Stoetzel playing host. Some of the speakers and performers are actually
in Colorado, and the first to be piped into the TED main hall via
satellite is standup poet Rives (see three of his past performances here).

Chris Jordan focuses his lenses on the consequences of human behaviour,
and particularly on how we consume
. A series of photos he did a few
years back examines the "Intolerable beauty" of the vast amounts of
stuff we make and consume, from mountains of discarded cell phones and
electronic waste to skyscrapers of containers or crushed cars.
His work focuses on the behaviour we all engage in unconsciously, and when millions of people engage in these behaviour, then it can add up to serious consequences. His
newest series, "Running the numbers", gives a dramatic visual life to
statistics of American consumption, things like 11’000 Americans dying from smoking every day; the 2.3 million inmates in US prisons; 320’000 visits to hospital emergency rooms that are due to abuse and misuse of prescription drugs  Chris’ pictures are incredibly powerful. Seen from a distance, they amount to beautiful pieces of art. But then you zoom in, and the texture reveals itself. For instance, statistics say: "In 2006 every
month 32’000 breast augmentation surgeries were performed in the US
It’s becoming a popular high-school graduation gift. Chris illustrates it like this:


Zoom in:


Zoom in again, and you discover he used 32’000 Barbie dolls to create this picture:


"The reason why I do this is that we aren’t feeling enough, and part of the reason is because the information we have to work with is made of gigantic numbers, and these are numbers that our brains have difficulty in understanding and processing. That’s why I try to translate these numbers into visual messages that can be felt, in the hope that they help each of us to face the big question: how do we change, as a culture, and how do we each, individually, take responsibility for our own behaviour. I’m not blaming anyone. This is just who we are right now".

After a brief and brilliant intermezzo by musician Sxip Shirey, Chris Anderson introduces a surprise speaker who was not mentioned in the program is next: physicist Stephen Hawking, author of "A brief history of time".
The keynote has been recorded just a couple of hours ago, from Hawking’s home in Cambridge, UK (photo right). Hawking,
who’s almost paralyzed by the incessant progression of ALS and speaks through a synthetic voice, offers a short history of the universe and asks whether we are alone in it ("I think it’s quite likely that we are the only intelligent civilization in several hundreds light years"). 

Jill Bolte Taylor is incredible: she’s a neuroanatomist (brain scientist) who has suffered a stroke and studied it "from inside", as it happened, while her brain functions shut down one by one: motion, speech, memory, self-awareness. It took her eight years to recover, and to become a spokesperson for the possibility to come back.
"I studied the brain because I have a brother who’s been diagnosed with a brain disorder, schizophrenia. What are the biological differences between the brains of individuals diagnosed as "normal" and those diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder? On the morning of December 10 1996, I got my own mental illness: in the course of four hours I watched by brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process information. I could not walk, talk, think.


If you’ve ever seen a human brain (she shown a real human brainpicture above): it has two hemispheres. The right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor, while the left emisphere functions like a serial processor. So they process information differently, they think about different things, they care about different things, and I would say that they have very different personalities. Our right  hemisphere is all about this very moment, righ here right now. It thinks in pictures, Information in the form of energy sterams in simultaneously through all of our sensory system and then  it explodes into what this present moment feels like. I’m an energy being connected to the energy alla around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. And through that we are all connected. And in this moment we are perfect, whole, and beautiful.
Our left hemisphere is a very different place. It thinks linearly and methodically. It’s all about the past and about the future. It’s designed to take that collage of the present moment, and pick out details after details, categorize them, associate them with all of what we have learned in the past, and project into our future possibilities. It thinks in languages. It’s the internal chatter that connects us to the external world. It’s the calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. And most important it’s the voice that tells me "I am". And as soon it says that, I become separate from you. That’s the portion of my brain that I lost on the morning of my stroke.
On that morning I woke up to a pounding pain on the back of my eye. It just gripped me, then released me, then gripped me, then released me. I got up trying to perform my usual routine, jumping on my exercise machine, and I realize that my hands look like claws. It’s like as if my consciousness had shifted away. I got off the machine and walked and realized that my body had slowed down, every step was very rigid. I stood in my bathroom ready to go into the shower and looked down at my arm and realized I could no longer define the boundaries of my body, of where I begin and where I end, the molecules of my arm were like blended with those of the wall, am all I could detect was energy flowing. Then the chatter in my brain went silent. For a moment I was shocked to be in the total silent. Then in an instant my left hemisphere came back online, and I realized that I needed help; then I drifted out again, into "la-la-land"; then in again. I was walking around my apartment, telling to myself: I have to get to work. Then I realize: I’m having a stroke. And my left hemisphere tells me: wow, this is so cool, how many brain scientists have the chance to study that from the inside? But I need to get help. I get to my office, I pick up a card, I can’t figure out what’s on it, my brain is back in la-la-land. Then I have a wave of clarity. Drifting in and out. (She goes on describing the difficulties of dialing a phone number and communicating to get help, unable to read the number, "because the pixels of the words blended with the pixels of the background"), and then I would wait for a wave of clarity. It took me  45 minutes to find the right number.
I’m in an ambulance towards the hospital and I realize that I’m no longer the choreographer of my life. Maybe the doctors will give me a second chance, maybe not. And right there, I just feel my spirit surrender — I say goodbye to my life.
When I awoke, I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. My life was now suspended between two strains of reality: information streaming in but I could not pick voices out from the background noise. Sounds were so loud and chaotic. I just wanted to escape because I could not identify the position of my body in space. I felt enormous and expansive, and my spirit soaring. I found nirvana. I remember thinking: there is no way that I can squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside my tiny body. But then I realized: I am still alive. And if I found nirvana, then anyone who’s alive can find nirvana. And I pictured a world full with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate people who knew that they can come to this space at any time. What a gift a stroke can be to the way we live our lives. That motivated me to try to recover.
Two and a half weeks after the hemorrhage, the surgeons went in and removed a blood clot the size of a tennis ball. It took me eight years to completely recover. So who are we? We are the life horsepower of the universe, and we have the power to choose moment by moment who we want to be in the world, we can choose the consciousnesses of our right hemisphere or that of our left hemisphere. These are the "we" inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe the more time we spend choosing the peace of our right hemisphere, the most peace we will project into the world and more peaceful our planet will be."