Horace Barlow

Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane
Filmed by Sarah Harrison
Interview Length: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Interview date: March 5, 2012

Description of Interview

Horace Barlow is a neuroscientist who is also grandson of the Victorian physician Thomas Barlow and the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. In this extended interview, Barlow speaks of his life and of his childhood memories growing up with parents who were, in his own words, “members of the intelligentsia and upper middle classes.” Barlow recalls how a great deal of his parents’ friends were in fact family relatives. Not all friends were related however, and we also learn of his mother’s friendship with the Bateson family. His mother was the geneticist, Nora Barlow, a student of William Bateson and friend to his wife Beatrice. When the Batesons’ son, Gregory, fell in love with Margaret Mead during his fieldwork in Bali, it was Horace Barlow’s mother who went out to “inspect” her on behalf of the family.

Horace Barlow’s account of the ensuing visits by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson to the Barlow family home thus provides us glimpses into the personal lives of two prominent anthropologists. Yet more importantly perhaps, we also learn of the “mingling” of different scientific trajectories. One cannot help but wonder about the possible enduring influences such encounters might have upon the development of intellectual thinking. Indeed, Horace Barlow may not have been intellectually close with Gregory Bateson, but they did share “extended” interests in cybernetics and psychology. Barlow goes on to speak of his life work as a neuroscientist and of his most notable work with “frogs’ eyes,” as well as his move between the United Kingdom and the United States, of his dying mother, and finally, belief in God. 

Video Index and Transcript

0:05:07 Born in Chesham Bois in 1921; I have known about my connection with Charles Darwin - my great-great grandfather - since I was very small; my mother was a Darwin, the eldest child of Horace Darwin; my father was the oldest son of Thomas Barlow who had the distinction of having a disease named after him, and was the physician to Queen Victoria's household; he had distinguished between two forms of scurvy - scurvy-rickets as it is sometimes called - rickets due to shortage of vitamin C whereas the rickets commonly known in England was due to lack of vitamin D; I saw a lot of him as he used to come to inspect his grandchildren; he was a wonderful old man; in 1929 my family moved from Chesham Bois to the house that he had built in 1901; the rewards for being a famous physician then were large, but he also came from a cotton family in Lancashire; my mother was very enthusiastic about her grandfather and in those days thought he was rather under-rated, though by the time she died she realized that public opinion had risen almost to the point of matching her own; I knew Gwen Ravarat [writer of 'Period Piece'] as quite a formidable character; her mother was American and she was married to a French man; my parents were members of the intelligentsia and upper middle classes, anxious not to be regarded as aristocratic; an enormous number of our friends were in fact our relatives, so the house was always full of other Darwins and Wedgewoods, so we saw a lot of them; my father rose to be a senior member of the Civil Service; he read classics at Oxford before joining the Civil Service; he continued in it long after normal retirement and had many other occupations in London; he had much less influence on me than my mother; she took the attitude that bringing up children was not his job; I realized that my mental attitudes were not those of a classical scholar at Oxford but much closer to my mother's; she was one of William Bateson's "students" though she never came to the University, but she worked in Bateson's group counting seeds; she tried to make me a botanist but I rebelled against that, though not against science; she was very observant and would always be pointing out Darwinian details; I don't ever remember going to Bateson's house in Granchester as a child; William Bateson's wife was a friend of my mother's; when Gregory Bateson was out in Bali he met Margaret Mead; Beatrice Bateson, his mother, felt she was too old to go out and inspect her so she sent my mother instead; she flew off in an Imperial Airlines plane and we saw her off from Hendon; that must have been 1937-8; my mother got on very well with Margaret Mead - she was not altogether convinced by her, but very impressed by her breadth of knowledge and energy; she came and stayed with us many times; I was even more sceptical than my mother and thought she was a very impressive person; Gregory was born 1904 and my mother, in 1886, so there was quite a big age difference between them; I never got on close intellectual terms with Gregory even though we were to some extent interested in the same sort of thing, both in cybernetics and psychology, and his ideas were always interesting; however, my model of a scientist was taken from my mother and not from Gregory; my mother was interested in genetics and the paper for which she was famous was on the reproductive system in plants like cowslips; my mother reasoned like a scientist whereas Gregory was a guru - he liked to think things out for himself; he obviously influenced many others too; I saw him once or twice when I went to Berkeley

13:51:16 I was always interested in mechanical events and didn't take to botany; the natural history side of botany did not seem that real, and I was much more interested in steam engines; I remember our first car and the moment it came up the drive; it must have been about 1925; my father had driven it home having bought it in London; he was not a good driver and made terrible noises with the gears; my mother was much better; I was good at mathematics at school and not good at languages which gave them serious worries that I would not pass common entrance to get into a public school; I did succeed eventually as Winchester had a bigger weighting factor toward mathematics than to most foreign languages; my first school was a day school in Chesham Bois; I then went to a preparatory school run by relatives of the day school; it was a boarding school and I think I went about the age of six; I remember not liking it; I was rather a solitary boy; my mother was left partly in charge of the two youngest Cornford children; Gwen Ravarat, my mother and Frances Cornford [née Darwin] grew up together as children; Hugh Cornford was at the same preparatory school as I was; I was bullied and survived it in the way people do; I didn't mind very much about people's opinion of me so the bullying didn't hurt as much; I was good at some sport, archery for instance; for some reason the headmaster was an archery fan; the school was called Shortenhills; I do remember the headmaster, who had been an artillery officer, had an interest in mathematics; I remember almost all of the other teachers - M. Picarde who taught us French, Major Lownes, and there was one grubby sort of person who also taught us French who was only there for one term; I went on to Winchester; my parents had looked at other schools, some quite advanced and not all public schools; one of my brothers went to Marlborough, the other to Winchester; I was not an outstanding mathematician; at Winchester I can remember certain teachers; Winchester has a system of house tutors and Eric James, later headmaster of Manchester Grammar School, was mine; unlike many other masters at Winchester, he was liberal even somewhat left-leaning; I remember at the time of Munich there were only four people in the whole house of forty pupils who were in the least doubt that Chamberlain was a hero, whereas my mother, in particular, having connections with all sorts of people in Germany, knew what was going on; several German refugees came to stay with us in England; in the last summer holidays before the war we had two visitors from Germany; one was the son of quite a prominent Nazi, the other was a Jew who already foresaw what would happen and got out early; one had to be rather tactful about how they interacted with each other

25:18:12 At Winchester I was interested in photography; I was also interested in music but not good enough at it; I was taught piano to begin with but only reached about grade three; we had an aunt whom I later liked very much; she used to sing folk songs and I couldn't stand that; I later took up the flute and played in orchestras; I still play; music has been important in my life; I don't like listening to music as background; there is a quartet club in Cambridge and I still go to that quite often; I used to be in a quartet which met mostly in my house, but the first and second violins got married, had children, and the quartet came to an end; my taste is for early classical music in the main, but music has never taken over my life as it does with some mathematicians and other academics; it has been quite important but not overwhelmingly so

28:43:21 Eric Lucas was the biology teacher at Winchester, though I didn't do any there; I thought I was going to come here to do the natural science tripos, so physics and chemistry; this was just at the beginning of the war, and under strong pressure from my mother, I was encouraged to do medicine, partly that at the beginning of the war the Government became aware that it was going to be short of doctors, and exempted all medical students; I joined the biology course at Winchester right at the end, and spent my first two terms here cramming organic chemistry and biology in order to get through the first M.B.; my father went to Oxford but I had reacted against classics; for science, Cambridge was reckoned to be better, and also there were family links here; I came to Trinity; in those days it was just a matter of picking up the telephone, because it happened that one of the tutors at Trinity had been at school with my father, at Marlborough

31:47:05 At Cambridge there were many people, and I became selectively friendly; I had been friendly with Hugh Cornford from my preparatory school and he remained a friend; he was a general practitioner in Cambridge for a long time; he was one of the saintliest people I know; I only remember his father as an old gentleman in an armchair; his mother was more obviously neurotic, and had a breakdown when her son, John, was killed in Spain; Francis, his father, was the writer of 'Microcosmographia Academica'; Dirac was at John's at the time but I don't think anybody knew Dirac; William Rushton, Andrew Huxley and Alan Hodgkin were there but were contemporaries of my brothers who were older than me; I did not have supervisions from any physicists as I was then doing biological subjects; William Rushton did influence me but I can't think of any others; I don't think my chemistry teachers were particularly distinguished whereas Rushton was; he was from Gresham's, Holt, which produced a number of distinguished people, including Hodgkin; my parents had considered sending me there too; Lord Adrian was a friend of the Darwins in Cambridge, and his son Richard was there

38:10:05 Despite the war, there was always plenty to do in Cambridge; I opted out of the Home Guard into a division of it as a motor cycle despatch rider; that was great fun as we were expected to get to know the highways and byways of Norfolk; you had to provide your own motor bike, and at weekends you went off on trips into the countryside; the academic course was compressed and people probably worked a bit harder; the University kept most of it going with the supervision system, so it didn't really make all that much difference; the Rockefeller Foundation set up a series of medical scholarships using money that had been set aside for post doctoral students from Europe which could not be used for that purpose at the time; they spent the money on medical students instead and I was lucky enough to get a scholarship; I was supposed to go to medical school in America as soon as I left here, but I had got involved in an operational research group run by C.L. Brown on diving, at Hampstead in London; they wanted me to stay there so I delayed going for a year; that was a very good year as it was my first experience of working in a research lab for any length of time, and was also the first salary that I earned; this was in 1943; I was working on physiological problems of divers and discovered that that was the life for me, and not the cotton industry or other things that I was offered; I went to America after that for two years as a medical student at Harvard; the British Government forbade one being qualified as a doctor there in case one might become a doctor in America, however Harvard refused to be dictated to and went out of their way to give me one

42:45:04 America might have been thought to be a safer place than England at the time, but of the twenty of us that went at that time, two were torpedoed, another two got tuberculosis, and another two stayed on; America evolved to suit foreigners, so we were welcomed and had a very good time; they worked very hard and I was quite shocked when I came back after two years, and finished off at University College, just to find how little work English medical students did; that was despite the clinical training in England being better than in America as students here were given much more responsibility, and actual experience of clinical work; came back just at the end of the war; at the time one could qualify without doing any work as a resident in a hospital; I did that, and then had to decide whether to enter the rat race and do the necessary number of residencies and house jobs; as I wanted to do research I thought I ought to start straight away, so I enrolled as a PhD student with Lord Adrian; again that was simple once you had managed to get hold of him; I pursued him to the Physiology lab but he had a way of going down the central staircase two steps at a time very close to the wall, so he escaped me once or twice; at that time he was Master of Trinity; William Rushton had been my director of studies; Adrian was my doctorate supervisor but I only saw him about once a month in the lab; he was not exactly encouraging, but as soon as I wanted to do something different I don't think I ever got anything but negative advice; I decided that I wanted to work on physiology of vision and had a contemporary who was also doing that; it was at a time when you couldn't get money for grants very easily but there was an enormous amount of surplus war equipment for making neurophysiological apparatus; I you could get all this in government surplus stores for ridiculous prices; it was sold by the pound weight; much equipment was also made in our very good workshops; I had wanted to follow the work of Keffer Hartline on frog's retina, but was dissuaded by Adrian who said that he was a very clever man, a warning that I shouldn't go into that field; I worked first on eye movements and that was a matter of finding a good way of recording them; at that time there was a theory that eye movements were important as scanning images was a topic of interest with regard to television development; if that had been the case there was thought to be a lot more to be found out by following eye movements; in fact the pattern of eye movements was known since the early 1900s to be jerky movements from one fixation point to another so didn't encourage that theory at all

53:20:00 I failed to get a Fellowship at Trinity the first time I applied, but I did get one in 1950; I was there for the next three or four years although this included a year at Steve Kuffler's lab in Baltimore just before he moved up to Harvard; I went from Trinity to King's and from there to Berkeley, so by the time I went to Berkeley I had already spent three years in America; I was in King's for eight or nine years and then had an offer from Berkeley which sounded fun; however there was a long delay before I got my visa and I actually heard that I had got it on the day that Kennedy was assassinated; my first impression of King's was how different it was from Trinity; there was always a lively conversation going on somewhere at King's high table but not at Trinity; I knew Dadie Rylands but was not one of his boys; Noel Annan was elected Provost during that time; his predecessor, Shepherd, I thought was a disappointment; Noel was lively, as was Kendall Dixon and Maurice, son of A.V. Hill, a geologist; Donald Parry was amiable and also a neurophysiologist like me; I don't think the intellectual calibre of people at King's was as high as at Trinity, but they were a less gloomy lot and more apt to talk to each other; I stayed in America almost ten years and enjoyed that; I was teaching in the optometry school and the teaching was quite easy; to fit a pair of glasses you don't need to know an awful lot about optics or physiology; there was interesting research going on and I was able to do what I wanted, and Berkeley is a very nice place

Second Part

0:05:07 I left Berkeley partly because my marriage was breaking up and I had more links back in Cambridge; all my links with people here are long-lasting and deep whereas in America things are constantly changing, and the average time that a person stays in the same place is much shorter; also my mother was old and dying, and I came back to a very nice job as a Royal Society Research Professor where my total commitment was writing a 200 word summary of my activities each year; at that time it was a job for life although I was one of the last; I think it was right to change it as I think that if you want to make the best use of people you should not appoint them for life; confining my work to neurophysiology, I was one of the first people to realize how much, and the type of analysis, has to go on early in vision in order for us to see as we do; this is so particularly with regard to the statistical aspects of vision, the fact that we infer so much from so little, and things like that; of course we already have learnt so much of the statistical facts, these are not things that we say exactly what we have learnt, but we know that if we let go of a penny it drops; as the facts about the environment and the way the world around us behaves, we already have expectations formed; it is because of those expectations we can predict as well as we can; this principle goes right through perception and cognition; this was not the way people thought of the brain when I started in the 1940s, and is very much the way in which people think of the brain now; I am not talking about high-order patterns like the work of Piaget on infants, but things at a very elementary level; one of the first things showing how extremely sensitive the eye is in this regard, concern the actual detection of single quanta of light, and that you can get down to the graininess of light itself; this limits your perception under a wide variety of circumstances; you have got to have an efficient statistical machinery there otherwise you won't be able to do it; without this you will not have the mechanisms for determining what is associated with what; this is at very much a pre-Piagetian level; some information we receive is permanent and we do not need to do more than note any changes; work on redundancy reduction has often been misinterpreted; what you are really doing is using the redundancy that you have acquired knowledge of in order to understand better what is going on now; the only definition of intelligence that makes sense to me is this using of statistical regularity which you detect in order to make inferences about the present, past, and in some cases, the future; there is a very big difference in the way of thinking about statistics now than was prevalent when I was at school; I was very lucky both here, and later in London, knowing people like Tommy Gold and Donald Mackay who understood the statistical aspects of information; rather few people, even now, understand information theory and what redundancy is and isn't; I think it has a revolutionary effect on what the brain is doing all the time; you can't create new information - that is like believing in spontaneous combustion, which statistical mechanics shows is impossible; what you can do is filter; the fact about the world that is missing from earlier views is what an enormous amount of regularity there is; if you take any object or state of affairs, it is going to be almost exactly the same an instant later; if you look at language, the half a million words in the English language can not be arranged randomly and make any sense at all; the same is true of images; if you take random noise and record it on film you can't see anything there; the only thing one sees in an image are the statistical regularities; in one single frame you don't get very much, but in sequences of frames there is a lot that is shared between them and those are the things you see; if things are arranged in a line, you detect the line immediately, but without the patterned element you don't see the line; in such a case to say that in seeing you remove redundancy is the reverse of the truth, redundancy is what you see; it wasn't until after the war that the full significance of information theory for understanding the brain appeared, because people didn't appreciate the importance of language and all our senses being composed of redundant features; economy of thought was one of the earlier ways of describing this and can be traced back to the nineteenth century; it has now come to fruition with cybernetic devises, which is why it had taken time; even people most deeply involved in trying to do computer pattern recognition, didn't really fully appreciate the significance of this as far as perception was concerned; having been tutored by people like Tommy Gold, Donald Mackay and others, I reckon I am one of the earliest generation of people interested in psychology, who have understood the significance of this

15:25:12 My early work was on frogs' eyes; Hartline's early work had shown there were four different types of ganglion cell; we now appreciate that there are now closer to four hundred types, and each telling the brain something different, about a much larger pattern in a particular region; the simplest example of this is motion; I think it true to say that even though there were lots of illusions associated with motion which have been known since the nineteenth century, the fact that what is crucial in the modern understanding of the subject is that motion is one of the simplest types of patterns we detect; you can't have motion without knowledge at two different positions in time and space; what motion tells you is that something has changed, a coordinate change in position and time of occurrence; once you have got a signal for motion, rather than a separate occurrence of things at two different times and places, then you can get joined motion at different parts - it expands the alphabet that you can use in information theory terms; it is clear that the kind of things that we do use to express our subjective experiences are very complex elements of this type; I still think it is unappreciated how significant this is; I am very lucky having lived and worked in this time as it is such an important principle which applies to so much of perception

19:53:09 Ideas come when thinking to myself, when having a bath or just lying in bed, relaxing; one is always trying to see relations where one hasn't seen them before; novel ideas tend to come when one is not doing anything else; religion is not important to me; I think that saying that you don't believe in God is a very foolish thing as it doesn't explain why so many people talk about it, there has got to be more to it than that; also I think one has to respect what some godly people say and some of the things they do; I wish one could make more sense of it but I don't think the godly people have done a very good job; I was never baptised or confirmed so have never been a practitioner, and I don't miss it; I like all the manifestations; I think that science provides some hope of acting more rationally to handle the social and political problems we have to deal with; if you regard religion as a way of perpetuating a way of thought that might have been lost, then that's fine.