The People of the Wind

146-139 million years ago

John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, used to challenge writers with new premises. One of his challenges was to imagine an alien that is to mammals as mammals are to reptiles. Science fiction writer Poul Anderson took up this challenge by inventing the Ythri, flying intelligent aliens of the planet Avalon, for his novel The People of the Wind. The Ythri were able to support the high metabolisms necessary for flight because they had a special system for supercharging their bloodstreams with extra oxygen.

Since Anderson’s time, we’ve learned that birds – and some dinosaurs – are actually somewhat Ythri-like. To begin with, consider non-dinosaur reptiles, like lizards: their sprawling posture means that their legs compress and expand their lungs as they run, so they can’t run and breathe at the same time. (David Carrier, a biologist at the University of Utah, was a main guy to figure this out.) If you had traveled back in time to the Paleozoic, before the dinosaurs took over, and if you had good endurance training, you would have found the hunting easy, because the sprawling reptiles of the time would not have been able to run away for more than a short sprints. The predators to worry about would have been ambush hunters, not endurance hunters.

Dinosaurs got around these constraints in the first place by running bipedally (although some later reverted to quadrupedalism). And it now looks like at least some of them also had the sort of respiration we find in birds. Lungs are only part of birds’ respiratory systems. Birds also have an extensive network of air sacs running through their bodies, and even air passages in their bones. Air moves in both directions, in and out, like a bellows, through the air sacs, but only one direction through the lungs. This allows for more efficient circulation than mammalian lungs, where air has to move both in and out of the lungs. Just recently (2008), it’s been shown that Allosaurus, only distantly related to birds, had the same system, so it was probably widespread among dinosaurs. This breathing system may have helped dinosaurs to survive low-oxygen crises at the end of the Triassic, and flourish in the low oxygen Jurassic and Cretaceous. It may also have helped one group of dinosaurs to evolve into birds.

Anderson’s book isn’t just about respiratory physiology. It’s also about perennial issues of loyalty and identity. Avalon also has human settlers, who have so absorbed Ythri values — some of them even yearning, impossibly, to be Ythri — that they fight for an independent Avalon against an expanding Terran Empire. (Compare the movie Avatar.)

We’ll have more to say about bipedalism and breathing — and language — when human evolution comes up.


Archaeopteryx, Bird, Fish, Snake

154-147 million years ago

The first Archaeopteryx discovered, found in 1861, is the most famous fossil ever (barring maybe some close human relations). It came at the right time, providing dramatic evidence for the theory of evolution.


There may be psychological reasons why Archaeopteryx had the impact it did. Here’s my argument anyway:

According to Jorge Luis Borges, the following is a classification of animals found in a Chinese Encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

  • Those that belong to the Emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken a flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

Although some scholars have taken this list seriously (Hi, Michel Foucault!), there’s no evidence that this is anything but a Borgesian joke. Anthropologists have actually spent a lot of time investigating the principles underlying native categorizations of living things, and found they are not nearly as off-the-wall as Borges’ list. These categorizations obey some general principles, not quite the same as modern biologists follow, but not irrational either. (Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science is good popular review of ethno-biology, the branch of anthropology that studies different cultures’ theories of biology and systems of classification Did you know there are specialized brain areas that handle animal taxonomy? Or try here for a scholarly treatment.)

At the highest level is usually a distinction between plants and animals. This doesn’t necessarily match the biologists’ distinction between Plantae and Animalia, but rather usually follows a distinction between things that don’t and do move under their own power. Even babies seem to make a big distinction between shapes on a screen that get passively pushed around, and shapes that move on their own. i.e. are animated.

Among larger animals (non-bugs/worms) the first large scale groups to receive a label of their own are almost always birds, fish, and snakes, in no particular order. These categories are telling: each represents a variety of locomotion (flying, swimming, slithering) other than the stereotypical mammalian walking/running. (Many folk classifications lump bats with birds and whales with fish, and they may also separate flightless birds like the cassowary from others.) So whether a creature moves on its own, and how it moves are central to folk categorizations of living kinds, even if not to modern scientific taxonomy. And so finding an animal that seems to be a missing link between two (psychologically) major domains of life — birds and terrestrial animals — is going to be a Big Deal, cognitively, upsetting people’s ideas that it takes God’s miraculous intervention to create animals that fly, or to condemn the Serpent to slither.

Amborella Day

205-194 million years ago

1 galactic revolution ago

The Triassic ends 201 million years ago with another major mass extinction (the fourth, by the usual count, after the end-Ordovician, end-Devonian, and end-Permian). Not quite as bad as the end-Permian (“only” 75% of species go extinct). This coincides with the formation of the Central Atlantic LIP (Large Igneous Province), which now includes a lot of eastern North America, northeast Amazonia, and western North Africa. So the end Triassic mass extinction may be the result of volcanoes spewing lava and carbon dioxide as Pangaea splits into Laurasia (North America, most of Eurasia) and Gondwanaland (South America, Africa, Antarctica, India, Australia).

The succeeding Jurassic Period will be when dinosaurs become the dominant vertebrates on land. The mammals around are mostly shrew-sized and nocturnal.

Not as conspicuous is another evolutionary innovation: the ancestors of Amborella, a rare shrub found in the wild only on New Caledonia, split off from the other angiosperms, ancestors of all other flowering plants, 200 million years ago. (This was suspected for a while, and confirmed in 2012 with the sequencing of the Amborella genome.) We can call this the origin of flowers. Amborella has clusters of small white flowers, with male and female separate.


People expect to get flowers on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, but not on March 17. But Spring is gearing up in the Northern hemisphere. So surprise someone with flowers for Amborella Day!

In Memoriam, Paleozoic

256-243 million years ago

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote his poem “In Memoriam AHH,” in response to the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Several cantos consider the bleak lessons of paleontology – not just the myriads of deaths, but the specter of species extinction. Tennyson finished the poem in 1849, a decade before “The Origin of Species,” when the possibility of non-divinely-directed evolution and the reality of mass extinctions like the end-Permian were becoming part of general awareness.


Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.


‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

For one answer to Tennyson’s anguished question about human extinction, there’s an argument that says we can estimate how much longer humanity has got from just basic probability theory. It comes from astrophysicist Richard Gott, and goes like this: Homo sapiens has been around about 200,000 years. It’s not very likely that we’re living at the very beginning or very end of our species’ history, just like it’s not very likely that a name chosen at random from the phone book will come at the very beginning or the very end. Specifically, there’s only a 2.5% chance that we’re living in the first 2.5% of our species’ life span, and only a 2.5% chance we’re living in the last 2.5% of our species’ life span. So do the math, and there’s a 95% probability that our species will last somewhere between .2 million and 8 million years.

This might also explain the Fermi paradox – we, and other intelligent species aren’t likely to colonize the galaxy. But it’s only fair to add that a lot of other people (the physicist Freeman Dyson, for example) think this gloomily Tennysonian conclusion is an abuse of probability theory.

The worst of times

260 million years ago: the Capitanian mass extinction

A capsule summary of the evolution of life on Earth goes like this: There is steady progress in adaptation, driven especially by arms races, sometimes involving competitors, sometimes predators and prey. But this progress is interrupted from time to time by catastrophes – mass extinctions resulting from extrinsic causes, sometimes astronomical, but more often geological. (We’ll see much later in the year that a similar summary of human history goes like this: steady progress in the scale of cooperation driven by arms races, with occasional catastrophic interruptions, often associated with the spread of epidemic diseases.)

The geological causes of mass extinctions have been coming into focus lately. Many mass extinctions co-occur with the formation of Large Igneous Provinces (LIPS), regions where vast amounts of lava have flowed out of the earth, triggering a whole cascade of changes: the destruction of the ozone layer by halogen gases, global warming induced by CO2 and methane, and anoxic seas.

Large Igneous Provinces aren’t always associated with mass extinctions. What makes some episodes of massive lava flow particularly destructive is that they produce short circuits in the “planetary fuel cell.” The development of complex life has depended on the separation between an oxygen-rich, electron-hungry atmosphere and a reducing, electron-stuffed planetary interior. Some of the biggest setbacks to complex life have happened when  lava flows from deep in the Earth’s interior punch through carbon deposits on their way up, and bridge this chemical gap between surface and interior.

The mass extinction 260 million years ago, the Capitanian, is not one of the classic five greatest mass extinctions, and has been overshadowed by the mother of all mass extinctions, the end-Permian, which happened just 8 million years later. But it took a major toll on living things, from marine organisms to dinocephalians. (The dinocephalians – more closely related to mammals than to dinosaurs, ranging up to hippo sized, and including both herbivores and carnivores – went entirely extinct with the Capitanian.) The Capitanian extinctions coincide with, and were probably caused by, the formation of Emeishan LIP, now in southwest China.


A book published recently, The Worst of Times, pulls together the latest evidence that the Capitanian was the beginning of an 80 million year period in which mass extinctions were exceptionally common. Apparently the formation of the supercontinent of Pangaea and the Panthalassic superocean made living things particularly vulnerable to volcanically induced extinctions. Once Pangaea breaks up, mass extinctions are less frequent, and generally have different causes.  The death of the dinosaurs had an extra-terrestrial cause, and the mass extinction we’re in the middle of results from the activities of one very unusual species.


Nature red in tooth and claw

You’re trying to live without enemies. That’s all you think about, not having enemies.

Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry

Enemies are the most important agencies of selection.

Geerat Vermeij, Evolution and Escalation

Much of what we’ve been seeing since the onset of the Cambrian, Saturday February 27, is the outcome of evolutionary arms races, leading to steady improvements in teeth, claws, armor, and mobility. It may well be that the onset of predation is what triggered the Cambrian explosion in the first place. The paleontologist Geerat Vermeij argues that arms races and escalation – not adaptation to the physical environment – are the greatest cause of progressive evolution.

We’ll see when we start getting into human evolution, biological and social, that enemies – other people especially – and arms races go on being a major motor of change. But arms races and escalation are going to look different in human evolution than they do in most non-human evolution. People are super-cooperators, and violent competition in humans tends to involve more group-against-group competition, with rival groups monopolizing and competing over territory. And in the human analog of predation – the formation of stratified societies, where elites live off the mass of the population – the human “predators” commonly band together under the aegis of the state to regulate their competition. At their best, human elites are more like sheepdogs and less like wolves.

Arms races operate with greater intensity in some environments than others. Races are more intense on large landmasses than small. Hence the common pattern in both biological evolution and human social evolution that isolated small continents and islands are especially vulnerable to invasion when their isolation ends. And arms races may be more intense, and the pace of evolution correspondingly greater, in the (more or less) 2-D terrestrial environment compared to the 3-D oceans.

Yet there may be something else involved in the initial move onto land – it’s sometimes among refugees from arms races that the greatest evolutionary advances arise. Fish moving onto land may have been doing it partly to get to someplace where enemies were weak or scarce. Human analogs might be the early Ionian Greeks fleeing the Dorian invasions, the settlers of Polynesia lighting out for the territories to escape a lowly position in a social order of ranked lineages, or the New England Pilgrims fleeing an un-Godly England. Or Vermeij himself – he is competitively handicapped, having lost his sight at three years old, but has made a distinguished career studying shelled invertebrates by touch.

Coals to Newcastle

339-321 Mya

It seems like Gaia really went on a bender in the late Carboniferous, getting drunk on oxygen. By some estimates, the atmosphere was over 30% oxygen back then, compared to 21% today. Living things took advantage of the opportunity. Insects apparently face an upper limit in size because they rely on diffusion through tracheas instead of forced respiration through lungs to get oxygen into their bodies. With more oxygen in the air, this limit was raised. The Carboniferous saw dragonflies with a wingspan up to 70 centimeters, and body lengths up to 30 centimeters, comparable to a seagull.


This happened because plants were turning carbon dioxide into organic matter and free oxygen, and the organic matter was accumulating. With carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere, the late Carboniferous and subsequent early Permian saw a reduced greenhouse effect, and global cooling. This was another Ice Age, with ice caps around the southern pole.

A lot of organic carbon ended up being buried. Much of the world’s coal, especially high quality anthracite, has its origin in Carboniferous tropical forests. Western Europe and eastern North America lay in the tropics at the time, and got a particularly generous allotment of coal. Three hundred million years later this bounty would fuel the early Industrial Revolution. (Thanks partly to some of my Welsh ancestors, who helped dig it up back in the day.)

coal age