Friday, August 30, 2013

Review of Birds and people

Nunivak man with raven maskette

I've written a review of Birds and People by Mark Cocker for the September edition The Literary Review. The text is online here.

Man came to awareness surrounded by birds.
                                                          — Graeme Gibbons

From Barely Imagined Beings: Evolving with a Mountain

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Surrounded by more or less ghostly objects

This is the second of two posts relating to The Death and Life of the Frontier, an article published in the first quarterly (print) edition of Nautilus. It expands on a couple of points in the last paragraphs of the article, marked here in bold. The first set of notes is here. An excerpt from the article is online here.

We should not dismiss our potential to innovate more intelligently and benignly in the future than has been the case in the past. 

In Arctic Dreams Barry Lopez reports a reflection from an archaeologist on the legacy of long-gone indigenous peoples of the high North: “Everything we are is in our spirit.”  Some poets in our own culture have said as much. Henry David Thoreau wrote:
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. 
Richard Jefferies wrote
Time has never existed, and never will; it is a purely artificial arrangement. It is eternity now, it always was eternity, and always will be.
Dreams can contain much darkness as well as light. Lopez describes a find at an Ipiutak burial site at Point Hope, Alaska:
A small carved caribou hoof was protruding on a shaft from the pelvic region of a human skeleton. Clearing away more earth revealed that this long ivory shaft penetrated the entire vertebral column and emerged in the skull, where it curved forward in space where the mouth would have been. It terminated in a miniature hand, opened in supplication. 

With our vastly greater knowledge and capabilities, what else might we yet conceive?

The physicist David Deutsch suggests that the human capacity to explain the fabric of reality may one day give our successors the ability to extend the duration of a main sequence star such as the Sun. This is a staggering thought, perhaps a hopeful one. One thinks of Thoreau at his happiest, writing next to his beloved “ Earth's eye,” Walden Pond:
These may be but the spring months in the life of the race...The sun is but a morning star.
But there are other, bleaker possibilities. Stanisław Lem warns:
Someone who is capable of switching stars on and off will also be capable of annihilating whole inhabited globes, transforming himself in this way...[into] a criminal on a cosmic scale.
Wade Davies is more hopeful:
The path we have taken is not the only one available. Our not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet.
Jonathan Bate writes:
The dream of deep ecology will never be realised here on Earth, but our survival as a species may be dependent on our capacity to dream it in the work of our imagination.

Image: Figures in Red Boat by Peter Doig

Elephants all the way around

The Erdapfel: Sail west from Lisbon and your landfall is in Japan

Here is the first of two sets of notes relating to The Death and Life of the Frontier: a Voyage to the Limits of the Knowable, an article I've written for the first quarterly (print edition) of Nautilus. An excerpt from the article is online here. The second set of notes is here.

Aristotle noted... [that] constellations on the southern horizon rise in the sky as you travel south.
He added, drily, that the Earth must be a sphere “of no great size, for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be quickly apparent” in the position of the constellations. The first known attempt to measure the Earth's circumference was undertaken by Eratosthenes in around 240 BC. He compared the angle of a shadow cast at noon in Alexandria to one made simultaneously at Syene (modern day Aswan) nearly 500 miles due south and derived an estimate accurate to within 2% of the actual value, 24,860 miles. 

The Erdapfel...a terrestrial globe made in Nuremberg in 1492
This was not the first globe to be made since the fall of classical civilization. The Persian-speaking astronomer Jamal ad-Din had presented one to Kublai Khan in Beijing in 1267. But it is the oldest to survive. 

Prehistory’s almost unimaginably vast contours.
A sense that the world is massively old is not new. Aristotle believed it was eternal. “Where the dust blows through these heights there once shone a silent sea,” writes [wrote] a Chinese poet of the first millennium. Hindu cosmology teaches that the universe and the world are created, destroyed and re-created in cycles of about 4.32 billion years. But such accounts were intuitive and impressionistic. 

Darwin's vision...was not, in the end bleak.
In addition to being an intellectual triumph the theory of natural selection was grounded in compassion and humility.  The full quote from Darwin, with emphasis added here, is:
let man visit Ouranoutang in domestication, hear its expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken to; as if it understands every word said; see its affection to those it knew; see its passion & rage, sulkiness, & very actions of despair; ... and then let him boast of his proud pre-eminence ... Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.
Darwin's theory has been applied with success in fields as diverse as drug design and artificial intelligence. There is even a hypothesis of cosmological natural selection, in which black holes (surely one of the most imposing frontiers we know of in the universe) are mechanisms of reproduction for multiple universes within a multiverse.

Chimpanzees grieve for non-related individuals.
[Maggie Koerth-Baker writes]: Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, is convinced that an ape death he witnessed gave him a glimpse into something significant, especially because the animals acted so thoroughly against their own interests. “As a person, I can tell you what it feels like to watch,” says Hare, who describes the experience as emotionally intense. “As a scientist, though, you’re supposed to rely on ideas that can be tested and falsified. And how could you possibly do an ethical experiment here?” Hare studies how chimpanzees and bonobos solve problems, and in 2007 he happened to see one of our closest evolutionary relatives die. He was at a bonobo orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Lipopo, a newcomer to the orphanage, died unexpectedly from pneumonia. Although the other bonobos could have moved away from his body and traveled anywhere in their very large, heavily forested enclosure, they chose to stay and groom Lipopo’s corpse. When their caretakers arrived to remove the body, the vigil morphed into a tense standoff. 
In the video Hare took, Mimi, the group’s alpha female, stands guard over Lipopo’s body. When the caretakers try to push the corpse out of the enclosure with long poles, Mimi fights them, viciously. She grabs the poles with both hands, wrenching them away from Lipopo. She calls to other bonobos, who help her fend off the humans from two sides. Even when the vet arrives with a tranquilizer gun, Mimi stands her ground, her mouth open wide in a scream that’s inaudible in the silent film. Mimi wasn’t related to Lipopo. In fact, she barely knew him, Hare told me. But Mimi was willing to risk an encounter with a gun to protect the body of a mere acquaintance. “That’s why I started to cry,” Hare said. “I don’t know why she did it.” 

Microbes in stupendous abundance.
Micro-organisms may have played a role in keeping conditions on Earth favourable for the continued flourising of life almost since inception. The geologist Minik Rosing suggests that early in the planet's history they accelerated the geological process that led to the formation of Earth's continents through the production of lubricating clays. This allowed for the steady and continuous churning of minerals useful to life from within the Earth's mantle.

Who would object to 100 or even 120 years of
See (e.g.) The Case for Enhancing People by Ronald Bailey. The Pew Research Centre found that when asked whether they, personally, would choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, a majority of U.S. adults (56%) say “no.” But roughly two-thirds (68%) think that most other people would. 

The Singularity
Ray Kurzweil sees no barrier to the supposedly imminent emergence of intelligence vastly superior to humans via technological means – Kurzweil believes “we will become the machines” and that this is a good thing. Consciousness, uploaded onto computers, will become eternal. Lost loved ones will even be restored to life in a computer simulation that seems just as real to those within it as our world does to us.

There is any number of things one could say about Kurzweil's vision. Here are three. First, his vision may be at least as, if not more probable than the world envisaged in the Terminator and Matrix films in which hostile intelligent machines take over. Although robots are likely to become increasingly able to learn and evolve, it is hard to see how genuine autonomy will come to pass. Systems that look autonomous will probably be the creatures of states, corporations or other actors including criminals for a long time to come.

Second, most scientists who study the human brain are deeply sceptical of Kurzweil's claims about the feasibility of uploading one, at least for the next several decades. David J Linden, professor of neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, writes that “Kurzweil [confuses] biological data collection with biological insight. The unstated but crucial foundation of [his] scenario requires that at some point in the 2020s a miracle will occur...” Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at N.Y.U., says “Kurzweil doesn’t know neuroscience as well as he knows artificial intelligence [which is not well], and doesn’t understand psychology as well as either.”

Third, despite these objections there is a chance, and in my view a good one, that something with a passing resemblance to what has unkindly been called the rapture for nerds will eventually come to pass, albeit not within several decades. As the engineer and futurist Roy Amara famously said, “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” If computers go on getting faster and better at learning – something that is likely to happen even without the development of quantum computing (which really would be a game changer) – and if the right conditions and selective pressures are in place, then the sky's the limit. 

The Anthropocene is likely to be a time of rapid and unpredictable environmental change.
Among the triggers of change may be runaway global warming via mechanisms such as a rapid release of arctic methane.

end Permian
I asked Paul Wignall about recent press reports (here and here) suggesting a meteorite played a role. He replied:
Ah yes I guess [this] paper, just available online, is what is attracting all the media attention. The authors still have the problem that the crater is too old, allowing for the error bars they can special plead that it could just about be the right age. Other problems are that gas hydrates (their preferred source of methane) are not usually found in such large amounts in shallow basins, they are more typical of deep continental slopes. Again special pleading could just possibly make an exception. And would a meteorite impact cause fracking? Who knows but I like the convergence of past and present worries!

Perhaps, one day, an abundance of elephants in the most surprising places will be part of our world again.
See Yadvinder Malhi on the legacy of lost giants and Gomphotheres of the Rambunctious Garden. If Malhi is right restoring elephants could increase the resilience of rainforests.  (Also, here's the reference for "It's the Ecology Stupid")

Biodiversity loss is a systemic phenomenon 
Bill Adams quotes this line from a paper published in Nature in 2013 which quantified the ways in which threats to 25,000 endangered species on IUCN Red Lists were linked to the production of 15,000 commodities in 187 countries via more than 5 billion supply chains. Adams continues: 
The economic machine that consumes biodiverse habitat has its foundation in the world economy. As that economy grows, demands made on the biosphere increase. Particularly in the rapidly industrialising countries of Asia, the standard economic growth model is having some success in helping people to escape poverty, and others to become rich. This is admirable but also, for a conservationist, very disturbing. Global consumption of raw material and energy (and production of wastes) has risen inexorably. Poor countries pursue the model of the rich, and poor people, understandably, dream of becoming wealthy. The problem is that biodiversity shrinks before the combined onslaught of people and wealth. The Western model of consumption is unsustainable for any but a few, and the model has to change in rich and poor countries. Focusing conservation efforts on residual pristine landscapes is a way to treat symptoms not causes. It is displacement behaviour.  the real issues are elsewhere.

What else might we yet conceive? 
Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation.

You must change your life. Peter Solterdijk writes:
Whoever has not been seized by the concept of the oversized does not belong to the species Homo sapiens. The first hunter in the savannah was already a member; he raised his head and understood that the horizon is not a protective boundary, but rather a gate for the gods and dangers to enter.

Friday, August 23, 2013


The list is enough in itself

Boy foaming at the mouth