30 April 2011

Gaia's body

A newish detail from the deep:
huge currents hundreds of kilometres wide... picks up material from the vents and transports it long distances. In this way, large swaths of the ocean that would otherwise be bereft of life-giving nutrients - like those emanating from this black-smoker chimney - get fertilised.
-- report, paper

28 April 2011

Brainless wonder sails by the trees

Navigation by mangrove for the box jellyfish: 'a specialized type of eye is constantly peering through the water surface.' (paper)

A related post here.

27 April 2011


A shooting star
The ocean floor too far below
to drop anchor
A haiku about the Red Paper Lantern Jellyfish by Dughal Lindsay podcast in the series One Species at a Time.

19 April 2011

Somewhere towards the end

There is no shortage of fantastical ways in which people imagine the end of humanity. Some of them lead to harmful behaviour. Putting aside cults, scare-mongering and general foolishness, however, the ultimate end of our species is a matter with which we need to engage seriously. And that is one of the reasons I think Kathleen Jamie’s On Rona is a small masterpiece: intentionally or otherwise, it allows for a meditation on human extinction. [1]

Our species has probably only come close to complete extinction once, in the remote past. [2] Given the stupendous numbers of us alive today and our energy and resourcefulness/ruthlessness, it can seem hard to believe that our end will ever actually come, barring some an unforeseen and/or uncontrollable cataclysm. [3] But while our future may be indefinite, it is surely not infinite. [4]

How do we relate to this apparently remote fact emotionally? How should we? Is it really so much harder for an individual to relate to than the fact of his/her own mortality?  Perhaps we can go with Lawrence Krauss: 'We shouldn’t be depressed that we’ll disappear; we should be thrilled that we’re here right now.' [5]

Most of us would want the final end to be far away -- for the story of humanity to have a long way to go as yet. (For those of us who love our children, the idea that they or their successors will face tragedy and annihilation can seem unspeakably painful.)  But would not an endless future, were it possible, be -- well -- rather boring?  Even a very good story can get tedious if it goes on too long. There's a kind of incontinence to imagining an endless future. [6]  The best stories by contrast, have an arc through time. (If we imagine trans-human or post-human stories we should do so with great caution and humility. [7])

We know enough to understand that in the near term the world needs mindfulness and cherishing.  Some of the most relevant stories for the 21st century are, therefore, likely to centre on ways that we try to manage and control our appetites and fears, and on attempts to repair the world (and our ways) -- on efforts to slow the rate at which the whole universe of natural beings is turned into an undifferentiated 'standing reserve' of energy. [8]

The counter-desecration phrasebook suggested by Finlay Macleod and further sketched by Robert Macfarlane might help.  Such a phrasebook would recall and revive some of the ways in which people comprehended the world before industrialization. It might contain equivalents to (for example) the Gaelic phrase Rionnach maoim, which means 'the shadows cast on moorland by cumulous clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day.'  This 'unfeasible'  phrasebook, writes Macfarlane, would stand, 'not as competitor to scientific knowledge and ecological analysis but as their supplement and ally.' [9]

It's a beautiful idea. And if it is 'unfeasible' then this does not have to be because of competition or contradiction between scientific and poetic ways of seeing. To take just one example, the fact that algae such as Chroomonas (and possibly other life forms) exploit quantum phenomena can only enhance our sense of wonder.   No, the unfeasibility would have more to do with the likelihood that a mythic (dreamtime) state of mind (being) is hard for us to access in a sustained manner because we cannot pretend innocence of the history of our civilization.


1. That, at least, is one of the resonances I find in the piece. (Wiser readers may disagree!) Certainly, On Rona contains much else. Consider, for example:
I had the sensation I always have on Atlantic Islands, in summertime, when the clouds pass quickly and light glints on the sea -- a sense that the world is bringing itself into being moment by moment.
This sentence captures very well something I tried to approach in Hypnagogia when I suggested that, though superficially stationary, an island can be like a boat and so resemble Nicholas Humphrey's image for consciousness itself. The shifting seas make more readily apparent the fourth dimension of time through which the island/boat travels (although if Julian Barbour is correct, time itself is an illusion).

2. The Toba catastrophe theory holds that between about 77,000 and 69,000 years ago the impacts of a volcanic super-eruption reduced humans to a small number of breeding pairs. Plagues and famines throughout subsequent human history, though catastrophic, have only extirpated humans locally. Perhaps the moment we came closest to extinction in recent years was the Cuban missile crisis, although it's likely that a remnant would have pulled through even the worst nuclear winter and repopulated the planet.

3. In With eyes wide shut, George Monbiot writes:
We live in a dream world. With a small, rational part of the brain, we recognise that our existence is governed by material realities, and that, as those realities change, so will our lives. But underlying this awareness is the deep semi-consciousness that absorbs the moment in which we live, then generalises it, projecting our future lives as repeated instances of the present. This, not the superficial world of our reason, is our true reality. All that separates us from the indigenous people of Australia is that they recognise this and we do not.
4. For Werner Hertzog that end is quite imaginable.  Talking to Lawrence Krauss, Cormac McCarthy and  Science Friday presenter Ira Flatow ( 8 April 2011), Herzog said, 'It is quite evident that humans as a species will vanish quite quickly - maybe two or three hundred years, maybe three thousand years, maybe thirty thousand years. It doesn’t make me nervous that soon we’ll have a planet that doesn’t contain human beings.'   For more on Herzog and 'the necessary catastrophe' see Hari Kunzru's fine profile.

5. Same source as footnote 4. Krauss's sentiment can be taken as a kind of species-wide positive thinking of the kind recommended by Steve Jobs for the individual (if not necessarily followed by the corporation he leads. [Added 30 April: see this too]). We need to recognize our limits in order to be human. Indeed, as Adam Gopnik writes, 'Perhaps our intelligence is not just ended by our mortality; to a great degree it is our mortality.' See also The Most Important Fact.

6. In a meditation on Crusoe's island, the novel, rare birds and the death of his friend David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen notes boredom as a great enemy in his life. DFW was mentally ill, but boredom with self and with species is not necessarily insanity. Indefinite life extension seems deeply mistaken. As was recently written of Ray Kurzweil, 'One wonders how much of life he is missing by overthinking death.'

7. I think I share Giles Fraser's unease about Sam Harris's readiness to sacrifice humanity to the cause of a greater being. As Martin Rees and others have seen, perhaps more clearly than Harris, we have hardly begun to get our bearings on the non-human future. As Paul Broks wrote after interviewing Rees in 2010 :
We may, as a species, be suffering the cosmic equivalent of Anton’s syndrome, the neurological condition in which patients rendered totally blind by damage to the visual cortex believe they can see perfectly well. Perhaps the universe is an act of imagination. There’s no “perhaps” about it. The universe is an act of imagination, which is not to say there’s no “real world out there,” rather that our construction of it is shaped, and inescapably confined, by the powers of the human mind. Perhaps on a cosmic scale we are cosmically stupid.
An open-ended possibilianism, a la David Eagleman may be the way to go.

8. 'Standing reserve' (Bestand) is from Martin Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology (1949).  The struggle to prevent mindless destruction may be lost much of the time, but that does not mean one should give up. As Cormac McCarthy put it in his conversation with Krauss and Hertzog, 'Just because I am pessimistic about a lot of things, that’s no reason to be miserable about them.'  See also Towards a Green Stoic Philosophy.

9. A Counter Desecration Phrasebook by Robert Macfarlane appears in Towards Re-enchantment: Place and Its Meanings (2010) along with Kathleen Jamie's On Rona and essays by nine other writers.

15 April 2011

'Flanked by beast and machine'

The brain, [Bronowski] understands, is not just an instrument for action. It is an instrument for preparation; it both drives the human hand and is driven by it; it is an instrument wired to learn, control speech, plan and make decisions.

...[Bronowski] reminds us that from the printed book comes "the democracy of the intellect" and that humans are primarily ethical creatures.
-- from Tim Radford's review of the reissued Ascent of Man.
In a 2006 article about the Turing Test, the Loebner Prize co-founder Robert Epstein writes, “One thing is certain: whereas the [human decoys] in the competition will never get any smarter, the computers will.” I agree with the latter, and couldn’t disagree more strongly with the former...

...No, I think that, while the first year that computers pass the Turing Test will certainly be a historic one, it will not mark the end of the story. Indeed, the next year’s Turing Test will truly be the one to watch—the one where we humans, knocked to the canvas, must pull ourselves up; the one where we learn how to be better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers; the one where we come back. More human than ever.
-- from Mind vs. Machine by Brian Christian

14 April 2011

Island life

Daily, our sense of time slowed, days expanded like a wing. The days were long in the best, high-summer sense; at night we put up storm shutters on the bothy to make to dark enough to sleep. Time was clouds passing, a sudden squall, a shift in the wind. Often we wondered what it would do to your mind if you were born here, and lived your whole life within this small compass. To be named for the sky or the rainbow, and live in constant sight and sound of the sea. After a mere fortnight I felt lighter inside, as though my bones were turning to flutes.
-- from On Rona, a small masterpiece by Kathleen Jamie

8 April 2011

Climbing in 190 dimensions

Those who have looked at the night sky—not the dim remnant visible in cities, but the bright complexity seen in high, dark places—can appreciate the task assumed by Wochner et al [who] describe the construction of an RNA enzyme (a template-dependent primed RNA polymerase) that emulates an ancient molecule that would have been crucial in the “RNA world,” believed to have predated DNA- and protein-based life. To find this enzyme, they searched vast molecular populations, holding potentially many, many more RNAs than the visible universe has stars...

...An RNA polymerase capable of Darwinian evolution is now a large step closer. In the old days (say, 2007), we could template product RNAs that were only 8 to 11% as long as the polymerase. Now we are at 48%. One prediction of the 190-dimensional view is that there is likely to be a route leading up to longer RNA transcripts, if only we can find it. With luck, the very next slopes will take us to Darwinian altitudes, where we have not been before...
-- from Climbing in 190 Dimensions by Michael Yarus

7 April 2011

A sea of stories

Frank Rose's thesis that new technologies enhance our immersion in stories looks worth serious attention, but my guess is that the San and the Homeric Greeks (not to mention Don Quixote) were no less deeply immersed in their stories.

A recent report from India even suggested traditional story telling is making a comeback there.

'...not as we know it...'

Another strange discovery is a previously unknown Deinococcus — a group of bacteria known as the world's toughest — capable of tolerating γ-ray exposures 5,000 times greater than those survived by any other known organism, despite living 15 metres beneath the permafrost. These levels of radiation have never existed on Earth, so the source of the bacterium's resistance is a mystery. Theories put forth so far include that the microbe had an extraterrestrial origin...[and] at this point, no theory has been discarded.
-- from Antarctic microbes live life to the extreme

5 April 2011

The levers of extinction

Carl Zimmer's survey of research and discussion on the matter of the sixth extinction and the role of climate change (Multitude of Species Face Climate Threat) is useful:
scientists who study the impact of global warming on biodiversity are pushing back against the pressure for detailed forecasts. While it’s clear that global warming’s impact could potentially be huge, scientists are warning that it’s still impossible to provide fine-grained predictions.
At a talk on the future of life in Oxford last Sunday Kathy Willis said that while climate change is a matter of huge concern, the direct destruction of natural habitat by human activity on the ground is a much greater threat to biodiversity in the 21st century.

Prof. Willis pointed out that during the PETM, when CO2 concentrations were over 1000ppm (?), tropical forests thrived to a far greater extent than they do today. The implicit corollary (as I understand it): reduce degradation/deforestation and tropical forests will do OK. [For a different view see the note added on 2 May below]

I asked her whether a (presumably) much greater rate of change in atmospheric concentrations during the 21st century (a hundred years or so as against 10 to 20,000 years 55.8mya) could make a difference? Her brief, informal answer was: the rise in CO2 at the time of the PETM was also rapid (constrained, she said, to less than 10,000 years).  She did, however, think that the current rapid rate of change in ocean pH was a significant cause of concern for the marine biota.

P.S. 30 April: Michael LePage has good overview of some instances of human forcing of evolution, and the question of extinction

P.S.  2 May: William Laurance is less optimistic. In an overview of the impact of climate change on tropical forests he concludes:
we know that climates have changed in the Earth’s past, and that species have shifted their latitudinal and elevational ranges in response to this. However, even in periods of rapid warming, such as the interglacial periods of the Pleistocene or the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, temperatures rose only at a few percent of the rate happening today. On top of this, the impacts of future climate change will be worsened by massive habitat loss and fragmentation. The synergistic impacts of these combined body blows could well be the greatest of all threats to tropical biodiversity.

2 April 2011

Souls and machines

A couple of small exercises in reframing and/or speculation channeled by Adam Gopnik:
Perhaps our intelligence is not just ended by our mortality; to a great degree it is our mortality.

Perhaps the real truth is this: the Singularity is not on its way -- the Singularity happened long ago. We have been outsourcing our intelligence, and our humanity, to machines for centuries.

Martin Heidegger thought:
The relation of human being(s) to language is undergoing a transformation the consequences of which we are not yet ready to face.

Carnival of the Blue

Carnival of the Blue XLVI is here.

1 April 2011

Five elephants

You carry more microbes in you this moment than all the people who ever lived. Those microbes are growing all the time. So try to imagine for a moment producing an elephant’s worth of microbes. I know it’s difficult, but the fact is that actually in your lifetime you will produce five elephants of microbes. You are basically a microbe factory.
-- from The Human Lake by Carl Zimmer

Gut bacteria may influence thoughts and behaviour notes the Neurophilosophy Blog, but Mike the Mad Biologist cautions:
It's de rigueur to begin a microbiome talk by stating that ninety percent of the cells in the human body are bacterial. Then there's a statement about how we should regard these microbes as another organ, like your heart or liver. And that's where things go off the rails.

The microbiome is not an organ. Those critters are not your 'friends.' They're not necessarily your 'enemies' either, but many of them function like a protection racket--get rid of them, and really bad news moves in.

The blind switchbacker

The conventional explanation [for evidence of long periods with little or no evolutionary change] has been that evolution is usually slow because selection is weak. But [that apparently slow change] is perfectly consistent with strong selection providing it fluctuates...Rather than going somewhere slowly, [natural selection] usually goes nowhere fast.
-- from Evolution in the Fast Lane by Michael Le Page