Tag Archives: science fiction

Four legs good, three legs better

Having grasping hands (and having them coordinate with the eyes) is one of the important things that distinguishes primates from other mammals. And a special version of bipedalism, which allows hands to specialize for manipulation, and feet for locomotion, is one of the first things that distinguishes hominins from other primates, even before hominin brains get big.

You find the same arrangement — a pair of arms with hands and a pair of legs with feet – with most science fiction aliens. (For TV and movie science fiction this just reflects the fact that aliens, pre-CGI, were mostly played by actors made up with pointy ears or fur suits or whatever.) But there are wilder possibilities, with no Earth analog. One of the most imaginative is the Pierson’s Puppeteers invented by Larry Niven:

“…. I was fed up with humanoids. Chad Oliver in particular, an anthropologist, wrote story after story claiming that this is the only workable shape for an intelligent being. The puppeteers were my first attempt to show him a shape that could evolve to intelligence. …”

puppeteers

The Puppeteers’ brains are safely tucked away inside their bodies, but they have two “necks” ending in “heads” each including one eye, one mouth, and a set of “fingers” around the lips. And the body has three legs. Decapitation is bad news for a Puppeteer,  like having a limb amputated, but not a death sentence.

Even more exotic are Vernor Vinge’s “Tines.” These are dog-like aliens who have evolved a short-range ultrasonic communication system that transmits information at such a high baud rate that a pack of half a dozen separate organisms is integrated into an enduring single individual with a shared consciousness. Losing one member of the pack is more like losing a limb, or having a stroke, than like the death of an individual. The mouths of the pack act together, as coordinated as the fingers on a hand, allowing the Tines to build up a medieval level civilization. (Vinge is a computer scientist, not an evolutionary biologist, however, and he glosses over some potential problems in Tine sociobiology: “all for one and one for all” is all very well, but which member of the pack actually gets to pass on their genes when it’s time to mate?)

But we don’t have to travel to other planets to find alternatives to two hands / two feet:

Elephant trunks, for example, let elephants browse while avoiding the need for a giraffe/diplodocus-style long neck. The trunks even have “fingers” (2 for African elephants, 1 for Asian elephants) that are sensitive enough to pick up a single piece of straw.

Even more exotic are octopuses (octopi, octopuses) – easily the smartest invertebrates, solitary creatures with little social life, but very handy with their tentacles. Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher and scuba diver gives his take here.

We’ll spend a lot of time on Logarithmic History asking how human beings got to be such an extraordinary species. Hands are an important part of the story, although the elephant and octopus cases suggest that hands (or their near-equivalent) are merely unusual, not absolutely unique to humans and near relations.

The bottomlands

There’s a book from back in 1954, now out of print, called Engineer’s Dreams by Willy Ley (who was most notable as a spaceflight advocate). The book lays out various grandiose engineering projects that people have proposed over the years. Some of these dreams have actually been realized: after centuries of people talking about it, there is now a tunnel under the English Channel.

Others … well …

One project the book discusses is damming the Congo River, creating a huge lake in the Congo basin, then sending the water north to create another huge lake in Chad. (There’s a small lake there now, almost dried out, which was a lot bigger 10,000 years ago when Africa was wetter.) From Lake Chad, the water would be sent further north to create a great river – a second Nile — running through Libya into the Mediterranean. All that fresh water is just running uselessly into the Atlantic now. Why not send it someplace where it’s needed?

Another engineer’s dream is to refurbish the Mediterranean Sea by building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar. This actually isn’t an impossible project. The strait is less than nine miles across at its narrowest, and about 3000 feet deep at its deepest. A dam across the strait would have some dramatic consequences. The Mediterranean loses more water from evaporation than it gains from the rivers running into it. The difference is made up by a flow of water from the Atlantic. Cut this off, and the sea will start shrinking. You could let the Mediterranean drop 330 feet before stabilizing it, run a huge hydroelectric plant at Gibraltar, and open up a whole lot of prime Mediterranean real estate.

Sadly, whenever people have dreamed great dreams, there have always been small-minded carpers and critics to raise objections. Okay, so maybe the mayors of every port on the Mediterranean would complain about their cities becoming landlocked. And maybe massively lowering the sea level in an earthquake-prone region would lead to a certain amount of tectonic readjustment before things settled down.

So probably the Gibraltar dam will never be built (although Spain and Morocco are considering a tunnel). But we’ve seen already that Mother Nature sometimes plays rough with her children, and it turns out (although Ley couldn’t have known this back in the 50s) that damming the Mediterranean has already been done. The story begins back in the Mesozoic (late March), when the Tethys Sea ran between the northern continent of Laurasia and the southern continent of Gondwanaland. The sea was still around 50 million years ago (April 11) when whales were learning to swim. But it has been gradually disappearing over time. When India crashed into Asia and raised the Himalayas, the eastern part of the sea closed off. And as Africa-Arabia moved north toward Eurasia, a whole chain of mountains was raised up, running from the Caucasus to the Balkans to the Alps. The Tethys Sea was scrunched between these: what’s left of it forms the Caspian, Black, and Mediterranean seas.

Starting about 6 million years ago, the story takes a really dramatic turn. The continents were in roughly there present positions, but the northern movement of the African tectonic plate, plus a decline in sea levels due to growing ice caps, shut off the Strait of Gibraltar, sporadically at first. With water from the Atlantic cut off, the Mediterranean began drying out. By 5.6 million years ago, it had dried out almost completely – the Messinian Salinity Crisis. (The Messinian Age is the last part of the Miocene Period). There were just some hyper-saline lakes, similar to the Great Salt Lake in Utah or the Dead Sea in the Near East, at the bottom of an immense desert more than a mile below today’s sea level. The Nile and the Rhone cut deep channels, far below their current levels, to reach these lakes. This lasted until 5.3 million years ago, when the strait reopened and a dramatic flood from the Atlantic restored the Mediterranean.

All this was happening just around that time that hominins were committing to bipedalism. Did the cataclysmic events in the Mediterranean basin have some influence on hominin evolution in Africa? At this point we can’t say.

Harry Turtledove, prolific writer of alternative history, has a novella, Down in the Bottomlands, set on an alternative Earth in which the Mediterranean closed off, dried out, and never reflooded. In the novella, terrorists are plotting to use a nuclear weapon to reopen the Mediterranean desert to the Atlantic – sort of Engineer’s Dreams in reverse.

Consider her ways

106-100 million years ago.

There are some pieces of paleontology that really stand out in the popular imagination. Dinosaurs are so cool that even if they hadn’t existed we would have invented them. (Maybe we did, in the form of dragons. And look ahead (or back) to early April for the dinosaur-griffin connection.) Also, as I suggested in a previous post, transitions from one form of locomotion to another – flightless dinosaurs to birds, fish to tetrapods, land mammals to whales – really grab the imagination (and annoy creationists) because the largest and most distinctive named folk categories of animals (snakes, fish, birds) are built around modes of locomotion.

Evolutionary biologists tend to see things differently. Turning fins into legs, legs into wings, and legs back into flippers is pretty impressive. But the really major evolutionary transitions involve the evolution of whole new levels of organization: the origin of the eukaryotic cell, for example, and the origin of multicellular life. From this perspective, the really huge change in the Mesozoic – sometimes called the Age of Dinosaurs – is the origin of eusociality among insects like ants and bees. An ant nest or a bee hive is something like a single superorganism, with most of its members sterile workers striving – even committing suicide — for the colony’s reproduction, not their own. (100 million years ago – corresponding to March 29 in Logarithmic History — is when we find the first bee and ant fossils, but the transition must have been underway before that time.)

Certainly the statistics on social insects today are impressive.

The twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominate the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment. As humans are to vertebrate animals, the eusocial insects are to the far vaster world of invertebrate animals. … In one Amazon site, two German researchers … found that ants and termites together compose almost two-thirds of the weight of all the insects. Eusocial bees and wasps added another tenth. Ants alone weighed four times more than all the terrestrial vertebrates – that is, mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined. E. O. Wilson pp 110-113

E. O. Wilson, world’s foremost authority on ants, and one of the founders of sociobiology, thinks that the origin of insect eusociality might have lessons for another major evolutionary transition, the origin of humans (and of human language, technology, culture, and complex social organization). In his book The Social Conquest of Earth he argues that a key step in both sets of transitions was the development of a valuable and defensible home – in the case of humans, a hearth site. Wilson returns to this argument in his book Genesis: The Deep Origin of Human Societies, just published, which I’ll get around to saying more about here eventually. On the same topic, Mark Moffett’s book The Human Swarm: How Human Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall,  asks how it is that we somehow rival the social insects in our scale of organization.

One trait found in both ants and humans is large-scale warfare. Wilson gives an idea of the nature of ant warfare in fictional form in his novel Anthill. It’s an interesting experiment, but also disorienting. Because individual recognition is not important for ants, his story of the destruction of an ant colony reads like the Iliad with all the personal names taken out. But Homer’s heroes fought for “aphthiton kleos,” undying fame (and got some measure of it in Homer’s poem). The moral economy of reputation puts human cooperation in war and peace on a very different footing from insect eusociality. (Here’s my take on “ethnic group selection,” which depends on social enforcement, perhaps via reputation.)

Consider her ways” is the title of a short story by John Wyndham, about a woman from the present trapped in a future ant-like all-female dystopia. It was made into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The title is from Proverbs 6:6, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.”

The People of the Wind

140-133 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 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.

Solution unsatisfactory

December 1943 – January 1949

In 1940, when the world war in Europe was mostly England versus Germany, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a short story called Solution Unsatisfactory (published in 1941). Heinlein anticipated the development of nuclear weaponry, although in his version, the weapon took the form of a radioactive dust that could easily wipe out a whole city, instead of a bomb. In the story, the new superweapon raises the horrific possibility of mass annihilation. The main character, Colonel Clyde Manning, summarizes it this way:

Here is the probable future, as I see it, potential in the smashing of the atom …. Some power makes a supply of the dust. They’ll hit us first to try to knock us out … But our army … would have planes and a supply of dust somewhere where the first dusting wouldn’t touch them. Our boys would bravely and righteously proceed to poison their big cities. Back and forth it would go until the organization of each country had broken down so completely that they were no longer able to maintain a sufficiently high level of industrialization to service planes and manufacture dust. … The other nations would get in the game. It’s a vicious circle that cannot possibly be stopped until the entire planet has dropped to a level of economy too low to support the techniques necessary to maintain it. My best guess is that such a point would be reached when approximately three-quarters of the world’s population were dead of dust, disease, or hunger, and culture reduced to the peasant-and-village type.

After the dust has been used to force Germany to surrender, and after a brief nuclear war between the United States and the “Eurasian Union” (clearly the Soviets), Manning takes the only way out of the trap. He uses the new weapon to establish a world-wide military dictatorship, with a monopoly of airpower and atomic weaponry, staffed by an international military force independent of any one nation and under his personal command. The narrator concludes:

For myself, I can’t be happy in a world where any man or group of men, has the power of death over you and me, our neighbors, every human, every animal, every living thing. I don’t like anyone to have that kind of power. And neither does Manning.

Curiously, Bertrand Russell, later famous as a better-Red-than-Dead disarmament campaigner, followed the same logic in The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War, published in 1946. In his view, the future might hold an atomic war in which “destruction will continue until disorganization makes the further manufacture of atomic bombs impossible.” But there was a more hopeful alternative:

It is entirely clear that there is only one way in which great wars can be permanently prevented, and that is the establishment of an international government with a monopoly of serious armed force. An international government, if it is to be able to preserve peace, must have the only atomic bombs, the only plant for producing them, the only air force, the only battleships … Its atomic staff, its air squadrons, the crews of its battleships, and its infantry regiments must … be composed of men of many different nations; there must be no possibility of the development of national feeling in any unit larger than a company.

Sometimes you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, or at least threatening to break them:

Stalin … will have to be persuaded … to permit the creation of an effective international government. … The only possible way … is by a mixture of cajolery and threat, making it plain to the Soviet authorities that refusal will entail disaster, while acceptance will not.

I don’t know if Russell was a science fiction fan. (He did write some science fiction stories, which are not any better than Heinlein’s stabs at philosophy.) His agreement with Heinlein is more likely a case of great minds thinking alike – and in this case a little too rationally – about human affairs.

The Alteration

A subgenre of science fiction is “alternative history.” What would the world be like if history had taken another path? If the Axis powers had won the Second World War (as in Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, among many others)? If the South had won the American Civil War? If King Oswy of Northumbria had decided differently about the date of Easter at the fateful Synod of Whitby? Or (going waaay back) if the Chicxulub asteroid had missed Earth, or the Cambrian had turned out differently?

Or suppose the Protestant Reformation had never happened? That’s the premise of several novels, including The Alteration by Kingsley Amis. Amis’s novel is set in an alternative 1976, in which Martin Luther long ago became Pope Germanicus, and the Catholic Church dominates most of the world, apart from the Turkish Empire, and some freethinkers in New England. The world is a dystopian theocracy, with a rigid caste system, where “science” is a dirty word. Amis has fun fitting characters from our own timeline into his alternative history. Himmler and Beria are Monsignors from Almaigne and Muscovy. Sartre is a renowned Jesuit theologian. Mozart lived a long life, and wrote a Second Requiem, in memory of a gifted composer, Beethoven, who died young .

The main figure in the novel is an English boy, Hubert Anvil. Hubert is a fan of banned underground science fiction books, like the alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick, about an alternative world – not quite our own – in which the Protestant Reformation actually did happen. In that alternative world within Hubert’s alternative world,

Invention has been set free a long time before. Sickness is almost conquered: nobody dies of consumption or the plague. … The inventors are actually called scientists, and they use electricity. … They send messages all over the Earth with it. They use it to light whole cities and even to keep folk warm. There are electric flying machines that move at two hundred miles an hour. [And] there’s a famous book which proves that mankind is descended from a thing like an ape, not from Adam and Eve.

But Hubert also has an angelic boy’s soprano voice, which he will lose in a few years at puberty, unless … Hence the sinister double meaning of the title, The Alteration.

Amis is both a very talented writer, and a science fiction fan, and the book is well worth reading. The latest edition has an introduction by science fiction writer William Gibson.

Our first beer, a toast

We tweeted about the first known alcoholic beverage, from China, last week. Today comes another landmark in the history of alcohol, with the first known evidence for beer brewing, from Iran (based on chemical tests of ancient pottery jars). You can find a popular discussion of beer archeology here.

It’s likely that alcohol production goes back earlier than either of these dates. It may even go back before the beginning of agriculture. It’s probably gone on long enough for populations with a long tradition of farming to acquire some genetic adaptations to the availability of alcohol.

People in traditional societies are not just concerned with subsistence – with earning their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. They often put a lot of work into non-subsistence production that raises their prestige. There’s a big literature in anthropology on “costly signaling” (related to conspicuous consumption; for example) concerned with this phenomenon. Archeologist Brian Hayden proposes that the origin of agriculture itself was motivated not so much by subsistence pressures, as by the desire to produce luxury foods for feasts. The potential for alcohol production in particular might have spurred the early domestication of grains.

In that convivial spirit, moving from the distant past to the far future – even to the end of the Universe – here is a toast to the brewmasters, from the last novel by science fiction writer Jack Vance:

The waiter departed to fill the orders. He presently returned with four tankards, deftly served them around the table, then withdrew.

Maloof took up his tankard. “For want of a better toast, I salute the ten thousand generations of brewmasters who, through their unflagging genius, have in effect made this moment possible!”

“A noble toast,” cried Wingo. “Allow me to add an epilogue. At the last moments of the universe, with eternal darkness converging from all sides, surely someone will arise and cry out: ‘Hold back the end for a final moment, while I pay tribute to the gallant brewmasters who have provided us a pathway of golden glory down the fading corridors of time!’ And then, is it not possible that a bright gap will appear in the dark, through which the brewmasters are allowed to proceed, to build a finer universe?”

“It is as reasonable as any other conjecture,” said Schwatzendale. “But now.” The four saluted each other, tilted their tankards, and drank deep draughts.

Jack Vance Lurulu p. 181