There are many forms of collective creation that run the whole spectrum, from merely coloring in someone else’s existing drawing to the actual creation of a thing from scratch. Often this spectrum of distinction is lost in the rush to embrace the amazing and wondrous, collectively created works like Wikipedia and, um, Zagat guides—these being held up as models for the possibility of collective creation of all and every kind of activity—from politics to newspapers. I’ve maintained a fair amount of skepticism about the idea of crowd sourced creative works for some time, which is not to say some of them don’t work incredibly well. But, they’re not all the same. To me, even though Wikipedia is indeed an example of the wisdom of crowds producing an amazing work—one that is possibly better than those that are top down in their inception—it seems that the claims made for this kind of creative process are often a little misleading. Each Wikipedia entry is not vetted or added to by everyone—by the lumped masses—but by self-appointed experts on each subject. Then, after these experts have had their say, we, the masses, tend to accept on faith that they have haggled amongst themselves over a particular subject to determine what will be included and the accuracy of what is in the entry. Of course, everyone considers themselves an expert on some subjects…
I’m not going to claim that only folks nominated as experts should be trusted to manage our world and create the things we enjoy and consume. I’d be the last person to believe that a college degree or experience in a field gives one a guaranteed wise perspective—would you trust a Rumsfeld? Often, it’s the perspective of amateurs that is more accurate than the professionals who are embedded and entrenched within their field of work. That said, nature seems to have found that some level of specialization is proven to work on some level. Though it seems clear that certain ants are designated as “experts,” and are deferred to as such, I admit that I have a bias against deferring to experts. Despite the sound social management system of ants that is responsible for their long survival—a system that we often believe that we might do well to emulate—I refuse to believe that the bankers who got us into our current economic mess are the best minds to get us out of it. Similarly, I sense that one maybe shouldn’t trust the military in evaluating and establishing their own budgets. It happens over and over—the police have proven they can’t be trusted amongst themselves. Economists? Oh, forget it.
The popular hive analogy, which compares insect societies to human interactions and creation, is often applied to the idea of many doing and creating what one alone cannot. Even in the hive though, there are “experts”—worker bees are given right of way to accomplish their tasks by the other bees because it seems that everyone recognizes no one can do their job as well as they can—there is not a mass consensus meeting or discussion amongst the entire hive about the role of these worker bees. For example, it is assumed they know best how to forage for food. Like the worker bee, the area of expertise of Wikipedia contributors may vary widely, potentially covering topics from Glee to String Theory. When one of these experts writes an entry, and then annotates and/or expands on it, we (in some sense) assume they are wise and perceptive in their particular field. Also, we assume these contributions have been vetted by that expert’s peers—not by everyone. So we, the non-expert readers, give respect.
With ants it is similar. Certain worker ants (all of whom are female) have designated tasks. A quick smell, via an antennae brush, identifies what a specific worker is best at doing—foraging, cleaning debris elimination, guarding—and no one tries to “tell them” how to do their jobs. There are no bosses. It is possible for the worker ant to switch jobs, but usually, as with humans, that opportunity arises when the colony is relatively young. After that, the job pool, one’s career, is more or less set. Though, there are always reserves of other ants underground that are recruited if a new food source suddenly becomes available (Thank you Deborah Gordon’s TED talk 2003).
One of the ways an ant figures out what is going on is oddly similar to the Google search algorithm—it “counts” how many encounters it has with a specific kind of worker. Based on these encounters, the ant can deduce that there is, for example, a major clean up in progress. Instructions and situations in progress are not “described,” but are inferred by the aggregate of encounters.
The consensus “rules” of OWS were (are?) possibly a more accurate example of real crowd (or democratic) decision-making. How did the OWS group, who struggled to maintain their leaderless and self-organized identity, ever make decisions? They endorsed the idea of consensus as opposed to voting. The word consensus comes from a Latin word meaning, “feel together”. Consensus means everyone (eventually) arrives at a place where they will give consent, although they might not be in 100% agreement. The distinction seems a little vague to me.
The well-reported use of hand signals, as a means of reaching this consensus, was adopted (microphones weren’t allowed due to noise restrictions) by the movement. One would be very tempted to ask who exactly decided that consensus would be the mode for decision-making? Who and how was that decision made?
Many of the participants found the assembly and consensus reaching process a bit tedious and boring—some would wander off from lack of interest.
Maybe the ants are on to something. They too have no leader (the queen lays eggs but doesn’t manage the colony via smell, as used to be thought) nor do they have a central control. On the surface, this sounds very democratic—even anarchistic. A completely leaderless society—that works! Although it might appear this way to us when viewed from a distance, you, as an individual ant, are very much programmed by your evolved instincts and your innate reaction to smells and behaviors. While having no leader might imply absolute freedom, there are other restrictions among insects. The leader, the guide, the rules, are not external, but are built into you as an individual.
Therefore, it statistically appears as if there is no free will in the ant colony. Each individual seems to go about their task without questioning things or stopping to ponder why or what for. But, maybe on the individual level, to each ant, they feel like there is, in fact, free will. Maybe they do agonize and make specific decisions. Maybe they have simply “learned” that following the aggregate tends to give the best results for the colony as a whole. They may feel that they have made a personal decision to join along with everyone else; they may also feel that they have acted of their own free will and are not forced into joining a specific program or activity. They’re acting in consort because, from their point of view, they want to…. or so they may be telling themselves. Maybe, their “government” is internalized.
According to Gordon, when you look inside of ant colonies, the behavior seems pretty haphazard. They’re not the well-oiled, smoothly functioning machines we might expect from a species that has survived for millions of years. As in human society, the behavior of individuals is not predictable. We all, as individuals, appear to be acting on our own—but just as it is with the ants, there is a kind of decision-making based around aggregate behavior. I’m not sure how this translates exactly—how this process works with people. Does it mean that if everyone is “drinking the Kool-Aid,” I intuitively “decide” that I should too? If everyone watches Kim Kardashian, then I better join the bandwagon and do what everyone else does? If the ants appear to have some sort of free will on an individual level, but in actuality it is mostly an illusion, does the same apply to us?
How Does Anything New Come Into Existence?
I’m curious as to whether or not what we call creative works can come into fruition as a result of the contributions of countless individuals. Must a creative work inevitably be guided by the tyranny of one person’s vision—or at least a very small group (Pixar films, for example)? Can the crowd write a great novel? A symphony, or pop song? A feature film? (Hollywood films are notoriously made by a committee—and the results speak for themselves). Do we all have a kind of innate (possibly unconscious) wisdom that can profitably guide us to influence and direct the track and arc of a creative work? Do these deep instincts, if trusted and tapped into accurately, and without bias, result in a work that is inevitably true? Is this why we feel cheated when a Hollywood movie has an obviously happy ending tacked on? Do we sense that the instinctively “true” ending was abandoned? Or, is this why the happy ending was tacked on in the first place? Is the happy ending what we instinctively want in a narrative? (Is this making any sense?). If, to some extent, a sense and structure of narrative is innate, then are authorship and writing skill overrated? Superfluous?
A parallel to the question of how new works come into being are some ideas that seem to be related to collective creation, but that might not really be the same at all. Are open-ended works (e.g. video games in which the players determine details of the story) and self-generating works—such music and visual programs that accept outside input but are designed to endlessly generate content on their own—truly collectively created works?
There is an established tradition of what are called indeterminacy in music—a not so new idea that has now migrated to digitally programmed works (musical and otherwise). In these earlier musical works, used by John Cage and many others, the player was allowed to determine how long to hold a note—and sometimes, what note to play from a set of given choices. Terry Riley’s “In C” is like this, as is Cornelius Cardew’s “The Great Learning.” These are all works that almost always end up sounding wonderful, despite being as open ended as they are. The marvel is why they don’t go off the tracks. We expect that, given free reign, chaos will inevitably result. Though, it doesn’t seem to—not always, anyway.
Maybe what is key is that the overall shape of the work has been cleverly pre-determined. There is free will involved in the choices the players are given, but within very severe limitations. One might say that this process is a way of fostering the illusion of free will. Maybe it proves that these compositions and social mechanisms, when cleverly “designed” can appear as though they allow for free will but, in actuality, they involve lots of restrictions—which have the effect of guiding the structure and the finished work to be something beautiful.
Cage used other devices to introduce chance and randomness into the “decision-making” process, but the “programmer” was always lurking. More recently in music, this process has been moved into the digital realm—with algorithms that do their best to randomize the choice of notes, along with other aspects of a composition. The Buddha Machine is a good example of this—a transistor radio sized device that plays endlessly changing sounds, chosen by the program, from a given set of notes and sounds. There is, as one would expect, no arc to these compositions—no beginning, middle and/or end. They are merely states of being, not substitutes for narrative.
These indeterminate scores can be viewed a bit like the literature that emerges out of oral traditions—the great epics and sagas. The process is not so different than what occurs in a lot of folk music as well—blues songs that get passed from area to area and subtly altered each time someone new sings them… but the main thrust of the story and the song tends to remain consistent. Everyone recognizes the song despite every interpretation being absolutely distinct.
There was a text version of this process called Consequences. It’s a bit like Mad Libs, though it originated much earlier (pre-1918). One creates a sentence by filling in the following blanks (from Wikipedia, of course):
Then the resulting “story” is read (for example):
Could one write a whole book this way? William S. Burroughs used an aleatory (chance) literary technique that he and Brion Gysin popularized, called cut-ups. Cut-ups are created in two steps: by cutting a finished text into pieces and rearranging the words and then, by folding the linear text and looking for resonant bits of text when overlapped and placed next to one another.
There is the visual equivalent—collectively produced artwork like the Exquisite Corpse drawings. The Surrealists created these images based on an old parlor game. The idea is that 3 or more people contribute to a “body” by drawing on a folded piece of paper and then passing it around without knowing what the next person will contribute below the fold. Restricted by the rule that one is obliged to draw either the upper, middle or lower portions of the body the resulting monsters are, yes, beautiful and strange things whose authorship we could say belongs to an invisible 4th entity.
Here is a Chimera collectively drawn by Joan Miro, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy. They sort of didn’t adhere to the normal rules (in which you are to add normal body parts appropriate to your segment):
I’d argue that all of these forms are in fact authored. The programmer that sets the ball in motion, the one who determines the set of simple rules is, in these cases, the author. While you often get marvelous things through these algorithms, I’d be inclined to think that what you don’t get is a coherent story arc, complex characters or even a consistent vision—musical, lyrical or visual. That is, unless the framework has already been provided by a “programmer.” Follow a framework modified with embellishments, modification, additions, etc.—as in the oral tradition of storytelling—and, as a result, you get a coherent form.
Some of our most resonant works of literature have emerged out of the tradition of oral storytelling and do not have a single author credited. The tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights, for example, is composed of stories that have all been embellished, edited, written and molded by an unknown multitude of individuals over a long period of time. The stories hold up, and continue to move us today, as do the folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana epics are similarly composed by a host of unknowns, as is the Bible. These all were all derived from oral traditions—in which each storyteller would add subtle embellishments and refinements to suit the local culture, time and place. The basic story arc would tend to be maintained and serve as a skeletal framework—though, in many cases, we can see where successive refinements over time completely altered the “message” of the tales. We know this because people wrote down some of these tales at different stages of their evolution and transformation.
The Old Testament tales are, in many cases, embellished versions of stories that were told (sometimes even written down) for hundreds of years. Though, by the time the stories came to exist as they do today, they had already morphed into tales that emphasized the overthrow of the older matriarchal society and spirituality by a more rigid patriarchal one. (There’s a very nice analysis of this in the back of the Crumb comic version!)
Even though these particular tales changed their emphasis in a majority of cases, usually not too much fundamentally changed in the narrative framework. The embellishments were mostly superficial… until the cumulative effect of the changes became something more profound. When reading these works, one can often sense the fragmentary nature of the chapters and episodes—many of which contradict one another. At other times a plot point or explanation is dropped for political reasons, leaving one wondering why there was a sudden shift in tone of a story or the behavior of a character. A single author would be less likely to contradict him or her self. But often, if we take each single episode—such as a single Grimm’s tale or one of the tales out of the Arabian Nights—it is often consistent, incredibly well constructed, efficient and resonant—like a tool honed by use over centuries.
These stories behave like living creatures that have evolved over time—adapting themselves, over and over again, to the psychological needs of the listeners and the creative embellishments of the narrators and their audiences. They’re not, and never were, fixed stories with an Ur version—there never was a primal text. They survive and maintain their resonance by mutating, changing and adapting to the world around them. As soon as they become fixed, they die (in a sense). They become a work that is somewhat ossified—rooted in a specific time and place. Then, the core narrative quickly resurfaces in another form—a film, TV show or popular novel.
Folk, blues, house music, pop, hip hop and lots of other musical genres might be viewed the same way—not so much as individual songs or acts of unique creativity, but as the cumulative result of many creative narrators pitching in to tweak a form that already has a given and collectively accepted shape and framework. The equivalent of the narrative arc of a story is already there in these song forms, and we songwriters, producers and singers are the storytellers in our own oral tradition—putting our own spin on an existing form, but not making substantial changes in the form itself. The point is, a lot of music that we think of as being individual acts of creation might actually be narrators contributing to what might be viewed as a larger epic work.
Though I am not a griot or epic bard, I am in my home studio making subtle adjustments and contributions to a form that came before me, and will later be picked up by others. I have the illusion of free will, of creating work and forms from scratch, but I am merely embellishing. Of course, successive embellishing will eventually lead one far from home…
That said—I believe I lean towards work that has a consistent vision. Don’t we want to feel that the version of a song, movie or narrative we have just spent time listening to, reading or absorbing is consistent—that every part was considered by its author, so as to adhere to a coherent vision? We assume that collective works don’t have the same intention as authored works. This view doesn’t totally exclude the author as a creative contributor to an ongoing epic storytelling effort though, as one still might hope for consistency from a narrator, songwriter or storyteller, even if the individual works that result are essentially modifications of something recurring and familiar.
Architecture Without Architects is the title of a wonderful picture book, by Bernard Rudofsky, that came out in 1964. The pictures are presented as evidence that exquisite, “authorless,” architecture has existed for thousands of years—and that, despite not being designed by one person, it rivals individually designed works in beauty and, above all, practicality. One might view the simple and elegant furniture of the Shakers the same way. The buildings Rudovsky chose evolved much in the same way folk stories and oral narratives did—to best meet the demands of each place and society, while also maintaining an aesthetic and spiritual appeal.
Was the latter aspect an unintended consequence of meeting local and practical needs? Could one say that these entities that have evolved over time tend to be beautiful because we recognize that some deep parts of ourselves are expressed and manifest in them? Is the beauty a layer that is, in fact, serving another equally practical function that is as important to human beings as keeping out the cold or ventilation? Is the need for beauty and elegance also something practical?
It seems that the beauty these buildings possess is not an aspect added on, an appliqué, but an integral consequence of every other aspect of these kinds of works. When every other aspect is true and integrated, maybe you automatically get beauty. These buildings and houses have evolved so that they have a spirit of life deeply ingrained in them. By recognizing this, by sensing that these qualities are in there, we find the resulting structures beautiful.
In his book Rudovsky includes single-family homes, as well as monumental works.. All of them were molded over time by a kind of collective will and impulse; none were built by just one designer. The design is not open to anyone-—it’s clear that not everyone in the community would have voted on where the chimneys go—there are folks who know how to thatch a roof, for example, better than others. But, it’s the evolutionary process that tells the community, and the specialized workers within it, that maybe there is, indeed, a best place for a chimney or a best size for eaves—and that this wisdom shouldn’t be ignored.
Here is a vernacular plantation house in Hawaii and the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu:
There are other types of architecture, not designed by “individuals,” and these are not so different from the mosque above—like these giant termite mounds in Australia (near Darwin):
Here’s a cross section—they’re not just mounds of dirt or refuse from the tunnels:
The chimneys and air vents from underground allow the hot air, in the parts of the world where these things are built, to escape—so that the precious nurseries deep inside can maintain a constant temperature. It’s a fairly sophisticated bit of building and HVAC for a creature whose brain is the size of a pinhead. However, one might say that if you combine all of those pinheads, you get a more substantial mental capacity.
However, I’m not sure size is what matters. Heh heh. A fairly simple algorithm—rules and behavior that don’t require a lot of brain cells—can set in motion what, in retrospect, seems like a very complex bit of creation. So if over time evolution arrived at a structural solution by adapting to the situation at hand, and by using just a few rules, When these rules are set, the mental capacity of each individual doesn’t have to be so “big” at all. Everyone (or all of the workers anyway) can, and does build these incredible things instinctually.
Recently, there was a short film posted on the web of some scientists who poured concrete into an anthill to see what the network of nurseries and tunnels might look like. After the concrete (10 tons of it!) set, they painstakingly dug away the surrounding dirt to reveal an entire (miniature) futuristic city.
Here’s a blurry still:
And a blurry close-up of passageways and chambers:
And a link to the video (it’s short):
It’s easy to see how incredibly impressive the city is that these little things constructed. Overlap this town over a medieval city in Europe, in the Maghreb or in the Middle East, and one might see an almost an identical layout. It makes one think that: (A) we haven’t come so far, and (B) maybe the “hive mind” concept is more literal than metaphorical. Maybe we have retained elements of the insect mind, and we use and are guided by that, to order, build and organize our own cities. Like storytellers and songwriters, maybe in urban planning, we are merely embellishers too—we are reworking the same forms over and over, making slight adjustments to fit our own needs.
Others have preferred to view the social insects, not as social cities composed of individuals, but as single super organisms—more like one being made up of millions of semi-autonomous crawling “cells.” This would mean that these towering termite mounds and the tunnels of the ant colonies might represent the clothing or shell that belongs to a collective whole being. The mound is like the skeleton and the skin of a large creature. This view makes the cooperation of the little critters seem more like the cooperation and symbiosis of the cells and bacteria that make up our own bodies. The chambers are like the organs in our own bodies—each with its specific function and specialized job functionaries.
If we make that leap, then we too can be seen as sophisticated works of “soft” architecture. Just like the cities of the ants, bees and termites, one would never imagine that our little cells would be able to individually make and organize a structure as complex as we are. If we reorient our viewpoint, and can see ourselves as a kind of ant colony, we get a frightening insight that maybe our sense of free will is not much more than that of the ants and termites. Our most beautiful cities, and maybe we too, are not much more sophisticated than those of the social insects.
I recently read an article about a group of Swedish neuroscientists: Björn van der Hoort, Arvid Guterstam and Professor H. Henrik Ehrsson, who conducted an experiment called, “Being Barbie.” Their findings explain how our perception of our bodies determines our perception of the world. Here’s a summary of what they did:
They built a rig that allows them to substitute other body images for your own. Their experiment was based on two models—a tiny sized Barbie (or Ken) and a 16-foot tall giant sized model. You lie on a table, wear a video helmet and when you look down at “yourself," you see not your own torso and legs but these models as if they were your own body. They encourage this belief by having a stick touch your leg while another stick touches your virtual body. You see the padded stick touch the Barbie body and at the same time you feel something—another padded stick—touching your own leg. This really locks the illusion into place.
So far, this might seem merely like a nifty parlor trick—albeit one I’d love to participate in. But there’s more to it than simply fooling the eye.
What the scientists point out is that their “trick” emphasizes that your perception of the whole world is affected by the size of your body image. If you perceive your body as Barbie size then the chair across the room now seems both giant and incredibly far away. That hand that touches your leg, in that instance, appears to be that of a giant. Like Alice after she drank from the vial, you believe that you have shrunken (or grown in the case of the giant body model they built).
What you see in the room doesn’t change. Your eyes, with their stereoscopic vision and depth perception, should tell you that the room and its furniture are normal. Wouldn’t one think that our eyes would at least tell us the “truth”—that the chair is still where it was and is a normal size chair? Wouldn’t you think that our eyes would counteract this trickery? That we’d instinctively realize that the doll body was a Barbie torso and that the chair is not miles away and giant? We assume that it is our eyes that transmit to us a kind of objective visual truth—but it seems these other factors can and do influence how we interpret what we see. They can override that “objective” truth. It seems that our “vision,” or at least how we interpret it, is quite malleable, and our body image has an unexpectedly huge influence on how we see the rest of the world. One can only imagine what an anorexic or bulimic young woman sees! Maybe these women would benefit, or at least get a measure or relief, from wearing the rig and experiencing their body image in the form of little Barbies?
This experiment is evidence that our vision, our image of the world around us, is even more subjective than we might have thought it was. What we believe is our “true” version of the world around us, a vision we assume matches that of everyone else, is merely the one (among many) that accommodates and is modified by our particular body image. Who knows how many other factors might similarly affect our image of the world?
It was then a small leap from discussing this experiment with some friends to a conversation regarding our current situation in which we are continually confronted with unreal body images in magazines and ads. Surgically enhanced, photoshopped and artificially tanned bodies are nothing new. For decades, Playboy centerfolds have been a mash up of drawings and cartoons aimed at men and photographs of what are purported to be real women. The visual clues that trigger a man’s lust, along with other factors that would make a woman desirable, seemed, in these images, fairly easy to exaggerate and emphasize. With digital and other image manipulation techniques, combined with surgical modification, we now have a whole race or super people parading in front of our eyeballs. Not just in centerfolds, but on TV, newspapers, tabloids, fashion magazines and yes… in real life. I recall sitting at on outdoor café in West LA marveling at the new heightened version of the female species that paraded in front of me. Now, the poor male who has evolved over millennia to respond instinctively to such clues is continually manipulated and completely helpless. For example, one might “know” that what they are looking at is photoshopped but, as in the Swedish experiment, one’s gut responds, as it will, despite any rational cognitive dissonance.
Likewise, women who view similar types of images—for example, the surgically and digitally enhanced images of celebrities and models—are also subject to succumbing to the power of these new bodies. Maybe not necessarily as objects of lust (as some men might instinctively to the centerfolds), but as body images they might emulate and aspire to. They too believe that what they are seeing is “real,” despite intellectually knowing that a picture has been doctored or an actress, reality star or celebrity wife surgically enhanced. These visual buttons and triggers that are being pressed are deeply ingrained in us as a species—mere rational thinking is powerless as a way of discounting them. Ordinary women (and men) naturally then hold up these doctored images of an ideal humanity as something to be strived for. Despite knowing better, they believe that this look can (and should) be achieved through a mostly simple and prolonged effort. Stick to one’s exercise regimen and maintain one’s diet and then, you too will look like the folks in the magazines. Sure, some surgery wouldn’t hurt either. This, we know, is a recipe for heartbreak… or even worse, a kind of insanity—as no amount of exercise and diet will ever make a human being look like the images being dangled in front of us.
We instinctively want to believe that a merit-based world exists—that with some hard work, focus, time, effort and perseverance, you too will be rewarded with the body you see on the billboard. The same also applies to our notions of economic well-being. As a result, you have Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich (among many others) implying that poor people are poor simply because they aren’t trying hard enough (note the clever segue from Barbie to politics and economics). The implication is that poor people, or anyone who isn’t successful, just aren’t applying themselves or trying hard enough. Also, that less than fabulously attractive people similarly aren’t going to the gym enough. The corollary is that Bill and Newt are as wealthy as they are because they worked hard. This, excuse me, is bullshit. Donald Trump definitely received a few handouts from his father.
Sadly, this dissonance between what is possible image wise, and what is being aimed for by many normal women, is making many of them nutso. They exercise like crazy but still don’t quite match the girl on the red carpet. What gives? Must one need eat even less or switch to a new exercise regimen?
I was told recently that fashion designers and retailers now have to alter the cut of women’s garments to accommodate the extreme diets and surgically enhanced bodies that prevail among certain classes and in specific regions of the US. This swath of enhanced and altered bods runs from southern California across the southwest to Florida and Georgia. The silicone belt, one might say. Clothes cut to fit unenhanced, naturally evolved women’s bodies don’t fit these gals anymore… or at least they tend to look weird in them because they need clothing that accommodates a disproportionately bigger top and a smaller bottom.
Spent author and evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller suggests that these new body images are short-circuiting the criteria of evaluation for mate selection that has evolved over eons. Sexual selection is the other aspect of Darwin’s theory. Darwin proposes that how and with whom we mate with is at least equally as important to our “survival” and determines the course of evolution. For example, it used to be that a woman with perky breasts probably indicated that she is under a certain age. The same could be said for indicators such as lack of wrinkles, thin waists and non-grey hair. From a Darwinian point of view, these clues point to these women as prime candidates for mates—they appear both healthy and of prime child bearing and rearing age. According to Miller, these, along with similar markers, no longer can be guaranteed to signify what they have for eons. These days our rational sense might tell us that a woman or man is of a certain age, but now quite often the visual cues don’t match—there is a weird conflict between what we see and what we “know.” Which are we to believe? Will we be like the participants in the Being Barbie experiments and the men ogling centerfolds? Will our instincts override our “knowledge?” It seems they usually do. Advertisers and fashion magazines know this, and use it to their advantage.
One might read all this as a criticism (and probably some of it is) of these increasingly ubiquitous body modifications and enhancements. Although, one could equally say that if God didn’t want us to use the tools at our disposal—be they scalpels or pixels—then he wouldn’t have invented plastic surgery or Photoshop. Like “dressing to impress,” maybe these tools are just medical and digital extensions of our natural tendencies to put our best foot forward. In which case, we’ll collectively just have to adapt to this new wrinkle (sorry for the pun).
I mused about all this before, in a previous blog post, so this is a return to and extension of that one.
I recently read a long article in Archaeology called “Should We Clone Neanderthals?” It’s serious — various bone fragments and other bits have been found in recent years, and as gene sequencing and cloning technology have gotten faster and cheaper, it’s not pure science fiction anymore.
When I saw that headline online, I thought to myself, “Didn’t they already make that movie?” (No, I think that was about a frozen caveman.) And then I remembered, “Hey, didn’t Neanderthals have a larger brain capacity than us?” They did — not by much, but they did have bigger brains. Some scientists discount this, saying they had more body mass as well, but that was largely made up of muscle mass — in other words, they were stronger than us too. It goes on — their bones were thicker, too. One theory is that those muscles and strong bones were crucial because in their world, the taking down of game was often hands-on, with only the aid of stone tools, which were used at fairly close range. I would maintain, though the scientists don’t say it, that they might have been more quick-witted and clever than us too…in order to be able to survive in the harsh, dog eat dog conditions of the time.
Though we have always portrayed “cavemen” as lumbering dimwitted brutes, that might just be an expression of our own species-specific xenophobia; the survivor in any situation always thinks that they are superior, and their survival is the proof. But many very smart species, not to mention large chunks of human civilization, have died out, been overrun, failed to adapt or persisted in habits that were against their own best interests. We’re not the first ones to foul our own nests — we’re just not gone…yet. Evolution is not the same as progress — we’re not “getting better” as we’d like to believe, or improving along some giant timeline. We just happen to be well adapted and lucky at this particular moment. Some of our inessential abilities will wither, and others will emerge and evolve as time goes by. But better or not better is not the right way to judge what we are.
The Neanderthals did interbreed a little with Homo sapiens, the other branch of the human tree — but for the most part, their numbers started dwindling about 30,000 years ago. Maybe the environment was changing, or maybe Homo sapiens were more social, and in unity lay strength. Maybe they became too good at hunting, and depleted their own food resources; hunters require plentiful game, and wide areas of wilderness to allow that game to flourish. Maybe some of those animals disappeared or moved to other parts of the continent. Whatever happened, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Neanderthals were stupid — or at least stupider than us, which is the point.
Other abilities and traits of these folks: they could talk. They almost certainly had a language. They had religion, and ceremonies for their dead. Paleontologists surmise that their broad, projecting noses allowed them to breathe more easily when chasing prey, and also in cold weather. Total athletes, except they had short legs.
They developed more rapidly than we do. Puberty came early, and by age 15 they were fully matured. Most scientists now think they had red hair.
Most likely, they didn’t live as long as we do — though one might question if what some of our own elderly citizens go through is really living. They were probably lactose intolerant — except as babies — as that adaptation in humans didn’t occur until recently, and even then mostly in zones of intense dairy farming. They lived in small groups or clans, and though they weren’t as social as some other proto-humans, they weren’t complete loners either. They may have had symbiotic relations with animals prevalent at that time. And like Native Americans, the Inuit and indigenous Australians, they would get drunk easily and intensely.
So, how likely is this cloning?
According to the Archaeology article, cows and goats have been cloned successfully numerous times. Dolly, the cloned sheep, was a famous precursor. But it’s not easy. The last ibex (a kind of small goat) in the Pyrenean area was felled by a tree branch in 2000, and the genetic sequence gang and clone club all made attempts to bring it back. They used her DNA to reconstruct 439 eggs. Only 57 of those developed into embryos, and most of those didn’t develop further — the one that did died of lung failure hours after being “born.” So there are no guarantees, but scientists keep trying. Given the focus and intense interest in cloning, many assume all of this will be possible and less risky before too long. A clone of a woolly mammoth is under way.
But should we do it?
As outlined briefly above I think it’s clear that should a successful Neanderthal be “brought back,” he or she might be smarter than us. Do we want to introduce a human that is smarter (and stronger!) than the rest of us into our world? Imagine the body of Mike Tyson mixed with the devious smarts of Kenneth Lay (Enron) with maybe some Einstein thrown in. Who’s working on this movie? Someone should be. I’m scared already.
It was pointed out in the article that Neanderthals would have human rights. Here’s a great story: Stuart Newman tried in 1997 to patent a genetic sequence that mixed attributes of humans and chimpanzees — in an attempt, he said, to prevent anyone from ever creating such a creature. The US patent office denied him, claiming that it would be against the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery. Not animal rights, but slavery. (Of course, this means that the nightmare hybrid possibility is still legally possible.)
Having human rights, a cloned Neanderthal would be able to freely walk out of the lab as soon as it felt the urge. No one could legally stop it.
To make the story even more intriguing, many of the scientists, viewing the Neanderthals as social beings, claim that it would be cruel, sad and unethical to bring back just one — a single being without its family, mates and some similar beings to interact with who might also have some identical social and sexual tendencies and drives. However, creating a whole little clan of these critters, who have the right to go off and live their own lives — and presumably reproduce — and, it seems, are smarter and stronger than us…well, skip ahead a few years, and I see where this movie is going.
Didn’t this guy used to play in a Norwegian metal band in the ’80s?
I see the little clan emigrating from the lab to a part of our planet that is still suitable for their inbuilt propensities — Siberia maybe, or parts of Canada. They might request to be left alone, and to have their own “nation.” Over time they will multiply and maybe figure out how our world works — after all, they made quantum leaps in tool making, amongst other things, in their own time. Should they then realize, or come to believe, that they are indeed better than us, they might wonder why it is that we are in control. It wouldn’t seem fair to have us, the weaker dummies, running the world, would it? They might decide to assert themselves. Fred and Barney, Wilma, Betty and Bamm Bamm — no joke.
I read a review of the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human in the NYRB. As usual the article summarized much of the book’s ideas. The author, Richard Wrangham, argues that the eating of cooked food by early protohumans was, to a large and unacknowledged extent, what enabled them to walk upright, get brainier, become more social and even to verbalize. In a nutshell, he says that since cooked food allows a more efficient transfer and absorption of nutrients than raw food does, the digestive track could evolve into a smaller-sized part of the animal (raw foods require large stomachs and long digestion), which then allowed the little guys to begin to stand up more, as their bellies were smaller. It also enabled the brain to evolve into a larger organ, as large brains require a lot of nutrition only available to hominids by eating cooked food. I’m beginning to see how some of these factors converged in ways that were lucky for us.
Cooking, Wrangham claims, necessitated that some part of the household guard the hearth (and children), and it also meant that groups larger than a single family were more practical. It’s been argued by others that the increased social interactions of early humans were what formed many of the brain’s pathways that determine how we behave and get along, or don’t get along. These new complex social structures also required larger brain capacities, as others have suggested… and both allowed and demanded the evolution of language to help mediate some of that social drama.
Wrangham also says that once we started eating cooked food, our mouths and jaws no longer had to be equipped mainly for tearing, ripping and intense prolonged grinding… which left early mouths available for other purposes — vocalizing… and maybe singing, too?
It’s an amazing argument — to tie all these crucial protohuman attributes to cooking. And equally interesting is how each attribute facilitated the others — all seemed to be interdependent.
Needless to say, Wrangham doesn’t buy into the relatively recent raw food movement — which claims that we humans are more naturally engineered for eating uncooked food, which is therefore presumed by adherents of this movement to be better for us. The assumption there is that early man and woman didn’t cook. Wrangham says that if they didn’t cook they wouldn’t have survived, and could never have evolved into us, as cooked food is so much more efficient at delivering nutrients. He says that standing and talking would never have happened on a diet of raw foods.
I bike down past the avenue of banks here in Frankfurt, the banking capital of Germany, towards the center of town. One wonders how the guys I see moving in and out of these antiseptic lobbies are doing these days. I pass about a km of just banks, one after another, in almost identical buildings — many I’ve never heard of.
I arrive at the old town square, which, like much of this town, was bombed out — so, though it looks to be centuries old, at least in style, it’s not — it’s a re-creation. The old square was rebuilt from scratch. Nonetheless, it has some charm and the tourists throng here, and some sit outside and drink a pilsner even though it’s still chilly. In Hannover, where we’ll be in a few days, there is a town hall building that displays a huge model of the city at the end of the war.
There wasn’t much left — that’s obvious. Almost every building — most of no military value — was at least partly destroyed. Therefore there are very few old buildings in the centers of these towns — though further out, a couple of kms from the center of Hannover, there are streets lined with frilly old mansions.
I find the museum, the SCHIRN KUNSTHALLE FRANKFURT, that I’ve been to on a previous visit. (At the time, it was presenting the results of a local archeological dig — displayed as if it were contemporary art.) Now it has a show about the effect of Darwin on art. It’s an incredible show that includes reactions to evolutionary theory at the time his books came out, and less directly obvious influences in the arts as his ideas filtered down over decades. It made me realize that curators can indeed pull together shows that tell a story, and are both surprising and emotionally engaging. I was becoming cynically resigned to thinking they were mere adjuncts to galleries and collectors — helpful in those folks’ marketing schemes, and many of them are just that — but this venue, if indeed the show originated here, seems to encourage loftier and more creative thinking.
Naturally, many found Darwin’s suggestion — that humans were descended from apes, and that the world had not been as it is since God created it — hard to swallow. Frederic Church, a Hudson River painter of majestic landscapes, was one example. His paintings of awe-inspiring landscapes — one of his massive and detailed tropical manifestoes in visual form was exhibited here — were claimed as evidence that Edens such as these couldn’t possibly have arisen out of mere chaotic forces, as Darwin proposed. His wildly popular blockbusters were viewed as proof of creationism.
Here is one (not by Church) that depicts the Divine emergence of humans from some kind of protoplasmic matter. It’s all a bit sci fi — but sci fi located in the distant past.
Further on the exhibit presents work by artists, illustrators and biologists, all as equals. Scientific illustration and fine art were both affected by Darwin’s ideas. There are some giant, sexy and dramatic paintings of imaginary caveman life: here’s one by Léon-Maxime Faivre done in 1888 called “Two Mothers.” The intruder mother is a wild beast — a dark shape near the cave entrance — and I guess the painting shows us that as rough as our ancestors might have been, their mothering instincts and sexy bods were just like ours.
Not quite Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC, but seems like a similar idea at work here.
A man named František Kupka did this one, called “Antropoides,” in 1902. Here it seems we see the boyfriend of a proto-human fighting what appears to be a chimpanzee for the hand of his lady, who watches the fate of her possible future mate dispassionately, as ladies sometimes do.
Why would a chimpanzee want a woman who’s not a chimpanzee? Maybe proto-human gals were irresistible to all creatures? Anyway, caveman art seems to have been an entire genre — tastefully left out of most art history books. Too bad. Another of these caveman paintings also represents a struggle — survival of the fittest being an (inaccurate) summation of Darwin’s theory. It seems the artists began to see the world as one fast field of competition. Life as struggle. Chance and accident figure in too, as genetic mutations are sometimes random — the idea that the world arrived by chance is inspiring and frightening.
An artist named Martin Johnson Heade went to South America, inspired by Church’s example, and did a series of amazing paintings of Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds (ca. 1870-1883). There was a whole room of them here. To me, they are typical of a kind of alien eroticism that is still pretty damn seductive — as it must have been for him.
Around this time (1886) Harvard was commissioning the Blaschka brothers to do their glass versions of plants and sea creatures. Ostensibly these were made for practical, not artistic reasons — so that students could study specimens that couldn’t be easily preserved. These glass pieces, like the flower/bird paintings, consistently have a strangely erotic vibe.
Other biological drawings in the show were the famous microscopic sea creature drawings by Ernst Haeckel, which are maybe ever so slightly less erotic, but equally alien. It’s a little hard to pin down the effect these drawings have: maybe they show how amazing it is that all this peculiar stuff evolved, or maybe some of these artists were of a more creationist bent, and are in fact saying that only a strange and distant (and slightly pervy) God could have come up with such a menagerie.
Haeckel, at least, believed in evolution — though he was a Lamarckian. Unlike Darwin, he believed that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” as one would have on a license plate — that organisms and their genes evolve new characteristics in their own lifetimes, and pass those traits on to their babies.
From a review in the Financial Times of the show’s catalogue (Darwin, Art and the Search for Origins):
“Haeckel was a promising zoologist whose life was devastated when his wife Anna Sethe died, leading him to abandon religion in favour of Darwinian theory. Trying to recover by the Mediterranean, he walked along the seashore and noticed a jellyfish in a tidal pool. Its delicate yellow tendrils reminded him of his wife’s braids; he sketched it, named it ‘annasethe’ after her, and begun the detailed drawings of marine life that were to revolutionise 19th-century understanding of the microcosmos.”
“It was such images, adapted and developed into monumental canvases that scandalised Vienna at the turn of the century. Klimt’s 1899 mural ‘Philosophy’, with its endless cycle of birth and decay, proposed humanity as a mere tool of nature for the mindless, unchanging purpose of reproduction.” [Link]
People with hairy faces were seen as a living link to our remote past — weird remnants of prehistoric life that had suddenly erupted into the present:
Similarly, monkeys were now borderline human:
There was a whole genre of monkey art — monkeys as judges, as politicians, as Darwin, you name it. This painting is called “The Studio Visit”… maybe there’s a similar one of music critics?
Equally inspiring to artists was the idea that weird, fantastic creatures sprang into being to fill evolutionary niches. Work began to feature imaginary specimens, many of them mythological and surreal, and many now within the realm of possibility. Here’s a large bronze sculpture by Jean Carriès of a cross between a frog and a rabbit — why not?
Giant salamander-like creatures loom over tiny humans in a work by Alfred Kubin.
Monsters, formerly creatures of the unconscious or the id, were no longer just figments of the imagination. Jules Verne, Conan Doyle and HG Wells imagined whole worlds hidden in the jungle, undersea or deep in the Earth. Nature has produced creatures as strange as anything we can imagine, so why limit ourselves? The show takes us into the 20th century — surrealists and others are creating their own monsters and hybrid beasts. Max Ernst has a room of frottages (rubbings) with titles that imply imaginary plant life.
Lastly, the show asks, “Where are we going?” If we evolved from tiny, strange and sexy things into what we are now, then what could the world become in the future? The curators responded with some Ernst paintings of apocalyptic landscapes. Hmmm. Some of his technique does derive from random blots, smudges and smears — so along with many others, he might be saying that like genetic selection, sometimes randomness or change might be as good a generator of material as anything — and then the artist (or the environment, in the case of evolution) decides if that image or mutation is worthy.
Well, this line of reasoning might be a little convoluted, but who knows? It’s not a completely unreasonable leap. The show’s other conclusion was that for many 20th century artists, desolation might seem as likely a future as anything else — which I believe they linked to evolutionary theory and its randomness. In this case, though, that feeling might be more related to WWI and its devastating effect on optimism, at least temporarily.
There’s been a lot of buzz in the last week or two surrounding some scientists’ claims that, with about $10 million, they could bring a woolly mammoth back to life. DNA from the mammoth’s hair samples could be used to fertilize an elephant egg, if a modification allowed the egg to accept DNA with a few mismatched genes. Then the fertilized egg would come to term inside an elephant, and whoosh — mama would have a surprisingly hairy baby.
Whether this Jurassic Park scenario is followed through now or later (when further developments might make it easier), it does seem fairly inevitable. Another article lists, somewhat facetiously, some of the other extinct critters that could be brought back — among them a 6-foot marine scorpion that lived in shallow waters. Imagine treading on one of those when you go to the beach.
And, of course, people have wondered whether or not our own ancestors, like the Neanderthal man, might be resurrected from hair and other samples belonging to the proto-human. (To be accurate, some believe Neanderthals are NOT our direct ancestors, but a distinct line of proto-humans that fizzled out.) They probably could be revived, as could the “Hobbit” people who used to live on the island of Flores in the Pacific, though convincing a person, obviously a woman, to volunteer to bring a caveman to term in her belly might be a bit much to ask. But who knows? Imagine the publicity!
This notion brings an interesting scenario to mind. I seem to remember reading some years ago that Neanderthals had larger brain capacities than we do. (This is debatable, but let’s accept it for now.) Maybe it was relative to their body mass, but at any rate, judging by brain size alone they must have been pretty smart. Most likely, they were smarter than us. Maybe not smarter in ways that we would instantly recognize — say, sitting down and taking an SAT test. But definitely intelligent in ways that would have given them the needed survival skills for life in a harsh environment, featuring encroaching ice (due to climate change), saber-toothed tigers, and our woolly friends. These guys may have been quick-on-their-feet thinkers, and WAY more street smart and cunning than we are now.
Could it be that over eons, as the world warmed up and societies formed and grew, the world may have become a somewhat cushier place, in which all of the skills that Neanderthals possessed are no longer needed in such abundance? In nature as in life, why try harder?
So, as I imagine it, evolution would eliminate — select against — this animal with the oversized brain, as it would any other animal with some superfluous organ or appendage. Brains require a lot of blood and care, so reducing its size to just what was needed would give a definite advantage. Most people will find this idea hard to believe — that evolution would dumb us down. But why not? We wrongly, I think, persist in believing that evolution is some kind of “progress” — a series of more or less linear improvements in each species — and that animals alive today, including us, are therefore “better” than what came before. Xenophobic thinking, seems to me. Critters that came before, and stayed around way longer than we did, were extremely evolutionarily successful in that they had adapted beautifully to the environment that existed around them. For example, if present-day animals were somehow transported back millions of years, we might find ourselves less suited for survival than our hairy pals. We’d be the ones that would go extinct. Evolution is not absolute.
So then what happens if we bring Mr. Smarty Pants back to life? If he were joined by some of his mates, wouldn’t they eventually realize that they were smarter than us? Would they bide their time, hiding their agenda, and ultimately sabotage our world, taking charge of our pathetic unintelligent mobs? Cornelius may indeed have been smarter than Charlton Heston; those movies might not be as far-fetched as we thought.
This does seem like an interesting basis for a film — done somewhat differently than “Planet of the Apes” or “Caveman” — in which a frozen guy is thawed out. It’s often portrayed that we’ll build machines that will become our betters, that will eventually dominate us. But wouldn’t it be a curious twist if it were our own past that came to dominate us? Consider a prequel to “Planet of The Apes”: if Neanderthal dude lived in our world, perfectly adapted for hunting and other survival skills, with heightened senses and quick reflexes, wouldn’t it make sense that he’d have no use for cushy bachelor pads, molecular gastronomy, universities, books, computers or money? No doubt he could master that stuff, but he might find it all boring and unnecessary. Our super-smart new rulers would let our infrastructure and institutions slowly crumble, having no need for them. We ignorant mobs may cling to our money, comfortable suburban houses and celebrity culture, which soon might wither from lack of support from the new hairy bosses. We'd be back to the Planet of the Apes scenario, with dust and dried leaves blowing through Redmond and Cupertino. We might fight and struggle, for a while, and strike back with our bulky, inefficient WMDs, but the infinitely wilier and cleverer proto-versions of ourselves would outsmart us every time.
A recent issue of New Scientist magazine (8 December 2007) included an article in which two scientists, Tony Martin and Vera da Silva, claim that behaviors they identified in Amazon River dolphins are clear examples of dolphins having culture. What kind of behavior is it? Square dancing? Art exhibits? Pottery?
It seems some males in a few populations of dolphins carry objects — bits of weed, a stick, a lump of clay. The carriers turn out to be among the guys most successful in mating and in prompting aggression within their group. So, the “wearing” of these cool accessories must make you somewhat sexier than the other less dressed up guys. Or they are offered as “gifts" to the gals. Females and the kids don’t carry this stuff, which they claim rules out the rationale that the carrying is simply a form of play — if that were the case everyone would join in.
Lest we think that it’s only the boys who have culture, Geoffrey Miller proposes that this kind of sexually selective behavior requires that the object of affection — the females mostly — be culturally literate in order to determine whose weeds are the coolest, most sophisticated, and the sexiest. No good getting all dressed up if no one notices. I would assume that some fine distinctions have evolved as well — that a clump of weeds say, carried a certain way identifies the dolphin as one of the cutting edge weedies as distinct from the tired stick clique.
The phenomenon has been spotted amongst geographically separate groups of dolphins. And they’re not sure if the behavior is ancestral (taught by elders or by the previous generation), or if it has evolved independently over and over in different areas, the way humans scattered across the globe sometimes develop similar buildings, rituals and behaviors. Either way, these guys claim it can be considered culture. Previously, scientists had only allowed chimps and humans into that club, but now maybe the rabble will be storming the velvet ropes.
What is culture? In the NS article it’s described as a complex skill (or behavior) that is spread and maintained by social learning rather than being a genetically fostered behavior, or one that the local environment might simply encourage. This description defines by exclusion: culture isn’t the making of things or a certain set of behaviors, but depends on how those behaviors are learned and transmitted. You could have the best table manners in the world, but if they’re merely instinctual, then you’re not cultured. Others define culture as using things or behaviors symbolically — and by that definition these dolphins seem to qualify too. When applied to people, this umbrella definition of symbolic behavior includes codes and prescribed manners of dress, language, religion, rituals, etiquette, morality, cuisine, and on and on. Inevitably, some of those products of culture in dolphins will be invisible to us; we won’t be able to know their religion, if they have one — not now anyway.
Using the definition put forth in NS — the one that excludes genetic environmentally prompted behaviors — would be, I think, to claim that to a large extent people don’t have culture either. I would say this is the case because our culture is maybe less learned than we’d like to think. I tend to agree with Miller and some others that what we call culture is essentially a very complicated and elaborate form of sexual display, some of which is learned and some of which is emergent, that is, strongly encouraged through genetic selection. This is different than a peacock’s tail display, which is sexual, but not a behavior — the peacock is born with his fancy outfit, whereas the dolphins, like people, have to do a little work to look their best.
I suspect these cultural and symbolic behaviors are mostly emergent in both people as well as dolphins and chimps. Maybe there aren’t specific genes that specify witty raconteur, financial dealmaker or rock star (though maybe there are?), but instead genes that encourage those types of display to evolve and emerge during one’s lifetime. Propensities for behavior are passed on genetically in people, just as they are in animals. These behaviors are not as clear-cut as instinctual behaviors — there’s more learning and skill mastering involved. But DNA might play a larger role than we would like to think, and our distance and segregation from our animal pals might not be as great as we presume. Moreover, our cultural manifestations might be parallel from society to society, with more similarities across geographically disparate peoples than we’d like to think too.
So, if this is true, then people don’t have nearly as much of what they define as culture as is commonly held. We have truckloads of what we call cultural behaviors, but if we only count the ones that are exclusively and entirely learned, there might not be too many left. If we subtracted all the parallel behaviors across human cultures on the basis of genetic influence then what are we left with?
In the past, another way of excluding members from the culture club was tool use — for a long time it was assumed that only humans used or fashioned tools. Then chimps were seen carefully choosing thin sticks and fashioning them into tools for extracting delicious honey ants. After that, more and more examples of animal tool use were spotted and acknowledged. Even in dolphins, it turns out. In an inlet called Useless Loop (Useless Loop!!), dolphins pluck specifically shaped sea sponges and use them as protective gear when probing the ocean floor. Some of the scientists who have spotted the sponging behaviors claim it is learned socially — the dolphins teach their kids how to sponge — which qualifies this kind of tool use as a form of culture.
Liz Hawkins, a scientist in New South Whales, Australia, also claims to have identified two hundred distinct dolphin whistles so far, all of which are contextual, qualifying them as comprising a language. The scientists don’t know what they all mean yet. “Bob’s got a nice wad of weeds there” might be one sentence.
If we broaden the definition a little bit we can still call ourselves and our societies cultured, but we might have to admit some new members.
According to Einstein we’ve got a little over 4 years. Here’s a quote from him:
And in today's NY Times it says that more than a ¼ of the honeybees in the U.S. have vanished. The article continues with a lot of head scratching as to why but sort of says “gee, we dunno.”
In Speigel, the German newsmagazine, they say, “Beekeepers on the east coast of the United States complain that they have lost more than 70 percent of their stock since late last year, while the west coast has seen a decline of up to 60 percent.”
A month or so ago I read a similar article that said the bees were disappearing out west. Then, a few weeks later, I read a seemingly unrelated article that said that growers of GM tangerines were furious with beekeepers for allowing their bees to wander into the GM-planted fields.
The explanation for their anger is simple. GM crops have been carefully and sometimes expensively modified to have certain desirable characteristics — seedless tangerines, in this case. Bees, as an important part of the chain of life, cross-pollinate plants by “accidentally” rubbing pollen from one flower onto another further away. This is not really an accident, for, as Einstein points out, life as we know it has come to depend on it happening. If this “accident” or “byproduct” ceases we are goners.
Anyway, though it was not mentioned in the tangerine article I asked myself if the two articles could be related — if GM agribusiness could be trying to eliminate bees.
Call me a conspiracy nut, but it sure sounds likely to me. They are the ones who would principally benefit — they have a motive and incentive.
Would a civilization commit suicide? You bet they would — they’ve done it all the time. I read Jared Diamond’s book Collapse and, sure enough, according to him culture and greed trump common sense and reason every time — although in many cases it took a disaster like a drought or war to push things over the tipping point.
Breathers (AKA — discrete breathers): A phenomenon in which energy piles up in an irregular and non-linear fashion, rather than dispersing evenly, as one might expect it to do. Some scientists are now saying that non-linearity is the norm in nature, despite most physicists’ tendency to focus on linear phenomena. To me, not only is “breather” a cool and creepy sounding word, but the implied non-linearity around us seems like a potentially useful metaphor for all sorts of non-physical things.
The Local Bubble: A region of interstellar space (through which we are traveling right now) where, as a possible aftermath of a supernova, space is emptier than the space around it. A lacuna in space.
Heliosphere: A gigantic magnetic bubble around our sun, enclosing all the planets, made by the solar wind (a “wind” of charged particles streaming from the sun). This bubble “protects” the solar system, and us, from receiving an excess of cosmic rays.
Local Fluff: A cloud of interstellar gas and dust, much of which floats around inside the local bubble. We are traveling thought the local fluff now (bring your dustbusters) — and will be for the next 10 to 20 thousand years, a blink of the eye in space-time. Mutation rates of life could have been affected by the amount of cosmic rays hitting the earth, it is thought.
The Heliopause: The boundary or outer edge of the Heliosphere. A turbulent area. We can’t accurately measure interstellar space (or the “interstellar medium”) because the Heliopause is in the way. Voyager 1 and 2 are approaching the Heliopause — right now Voyager 1 is in the “heliosheath” — the thinning part of the Heliosphere just before you reach the boundary. It will cross into interstellar space in 10 years. Then The Fluff will have a chance to listen to Chuck Berry.
Lastly: There are 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells in the human body. That means we are basically a means for bacteria to become mobile, to complete their life cycles and to procreate. We think they are living off us, but it is we who are living for them.