Social complexity/connection

Deep history and the robot future


I reviewed four new science books for The New York Times. They span millions of years, beginning with the birth of humanity and ending with a serious look at AI. 

Stolen lives

In the August issue of The Monthly, I write about the half-million Australian children who were incarcerated in "orphanages" in C20th Australia.

The issue is now on newsstands. It's available online to subscribers, and will become free in a month.

Who are the half-million?

Many Australians today are familiar with the Stolen Generation and the Child Migrants but they don't realize that these groups are a portion of 500,000 children (many not 'orphans' at all) who were separated from their families and experienced great cruelty in government and religious institutions and small group homes.

Typically, if their stories get any attention, they are presented as long ago tragedies. But the story of Forgotten Australians is still unfolding. "Homies," as many call themselves, want crucial information about their identity that was taken from them, but neither the federal nor state governments will take responsibility for giving all of it back. Homies also seek a justice that was withheld from them, but no Australian government will hold a Royal Commission. Meanwhile, the legacy of long-closed institutions lives on in the health, housing and family lives of these now grown-up children.


The most comprehensive book about homies is "Orphans of the Living" by Joanna Penglase, which came out of Penglase's Ph.D. research. It's a gripping account, and an extraordinary example of investigative research. Penglase's subjects were in many ways invisible; they didn't talk about being homies in public and they weren't in touch with each other.

When Penglase's book was published, it received the same treatment that the homies did. It was mostly ignored. The only figure in the Australian media who paid attention was, surprisingly, Bert Newton. He flew Penglase interstate and interviewed her on his TV show. Newton grew up near an orphanage, he said, and he had always wanted to know what went on behind its walls.


I had never heard of "Forgotten Australians" before I started work on this article, and when I mentioned it to family and friends, none of them had either. I asked Penglase how such a large demographic could still be so invisible. She said:

The indifference to our history now is rather similar to the indifference to our fate when we were children. Any care was good enough and it didn't really matter what happened to us in Homes, we were lucky to be looked after. It was as if once you did (undeservedly) get cared for, you just had to put up with whatever else went along with that. People often say in excuse, "Oh, but times were different then, people thought differently," and of course that's true. We can't judge the past on today's standards. But what I say to that is, that the staff in Homes, and the managers, and all the various people associated with 'child welfare' as it was known then, all of those people would never have considered that type of care good enough for their own children.

The memoir "An Orphan’s Escape: Memories of a lost childhood" by Frank Golding is a beautifully written account of life in an institution.


Another book (recommended to me though I didn't get a chance to read) is After the Orphanage by Suellen Murray from RMIT. Murray interviewed many care-leavers about their life after the instititution.

Senate report

The Forgotten Australians report from the 2004 Senate Inquiry, an incredibly readable account, can be found here.


Each state has dealt with the issue of records in different ways, some better than others. The March 2012 Victorian Ombudsman's report into the storage and management of ward's records states that Victoria's measures were "piecemeal and ultimately unsuccessful."

In their investigation, the ombudsman's representitives examined a selection of records from a large group of previously un-indexed boxes. They found numerous documents about specific allegations of sexual assault of children by home staff, with statements from the police, wards and home staff. The boxes that held these files were marked for destruction.

The ombudsman's report can be downloaded from this page.


In a public hearing for the Senate Inquiry, Senator Andrew Murray interviewed Peter Quinn, who had worked at DoCS from 1951 to 1992, and was at that time researching a Ph.D. on the history of juvenile corrections in New South Wales. His remarks pertained to juvenile correction, but he said he was also very familiar with child welfare homes. Quinn said:

...the priority for both politicians and officials was not the wellbeing of children but cost cutting and economy. That in my view was essentially because it was believed that there was a delinquent class which was criminal, self-perpetuating, beyond redemption and therefore not worth spending money on.


... institutional forms of care persisted because they were cheaper even though they were known to be damaging to children.

The transcript of this interview can be downloaded from this page (select 03/02/2004 Parramatta).

Andrew Murray, who played a crucial role in driving the inquiry, has since been active in placing the history of homies on the national curriculum.


To learn more about Forgotten Australians visit CLAN. Victorians can also visit Open Place. CLAN has a list of related groups in different states.

Find and Connect can be found here.

Be excellent to one another

Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, believes that it's just as natural to be nice as it is be mean. Man may be wolf to man, as the old saying has it, but de Waal points out with casual eloquence in The Age of Empathy that wolves are often... Slate.

Civilization and its discontents

If you took a planet and a handful of genes, you could pose some great questions about human nature and then run experiments to answer them. Instead of asking how much altruism, cooperation, creativity, or any other human trait is hard-wired, you could adjust the wiring yourself. First, you would work out how tightly behaviors and abilities could be programmed into the genome. Then you would create many societies with starkly different predispositions and compare their progress. In one country... Slate.

Only connect, Superman

The intricate ways humans connect with one another to co-create reality help explain the origin of language and culture in some very interesting ways. Most recently, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney published Baboon Metaphysics, exposing the layers of social hierarchy in a baboon group in Botswana. The way the baboons parse their society is like a basic syntax. This week's New Scientist points to a funny account of the social connectedness of superheroes and villains in the Marvel universe. Guess who has the better social network?