4 March 2016
Review of Planetary Endemism
So that the reader doesn’t lose the thread of this series on planetary endemism (and to remind myself as well), I began by attempting to formulate a “big picture” taxonomy of planetary civilizations (Part I), but realized that this taxonomy ought to acknowledge the differences in civilization that would follow from civilizations emerging on different kinds of planets (Part II). Then I focused on the question, “What physical gradient is, or would be, correlated with the greatest qualitative gradient in the civilization supervening upon that physical gradient?” (Part III), and next considered how fundamentally different forms of energy flow would beget different kinds of biospheres, which would in turn result in different kinds of civilizations supervening upon these biospheres (Part IV).
This discussion of planetary civilization in terms of planetary endemism provides a new perspective on how we are to understand a civilization that has expanded to the limits dictated by planetary constraints. I have learned that most attempts to discuss planetary civilization get hung up on assumptions of global political and legal unification, which then inevitably gets hung up on utopianism, because nothing like global political and legal unification is on the horizon so this can only be discussed in utopian terms. Thinking about civilization, then, in terms of planetary endemism allows us to get to the substance of planetary civilization without getting distracted by utopian proposals for world government. And what I find to be the substance of planetary civilization is the relationship of a civilization to the intelligent species that produces a civilization, and the relation of an intelligent species to the biosphere from which it emerges.
Thinking about biospheres
How can we scientifically discuss biospheres when we have only the single instance of the terrestrial biosphere as a reference? In order to discuss planetary civilizations scientifically we need to be able to scientifically discuss the biospheres upon which these civilizations supervene. We need a purely formal and general conception of a biosphere not tied to the specifics of the terrestrial biosphere. Ecology is not yet at the stage of development at which it can make this leap to full formalization, but we can make some general remarks about biospheres, continuous with previous observations in this series.
In the Immediately previous post in this series, Part IV, I considered the possibilities of biospheres that fall short of expanding to cover the entire surface of a planet, and so are not quite a biosphere, but constitute what we might call a partial biosphere. In that post I mentioned the terminological difficulties of finding an appropriate word for this and suggested that topology might provide some insight.
Biospheres and Partial Biospheres
In topology, a biosphere would be what is called a spherical shell, which is bounded by two concentric spheres of different radii. This is the three dimensional extrapolation of what mathematicians call an annulus, which is the area bounded by two concentric circles of different radii. Understanding the biosphere as a spherical shell is a good way to come to an appreciation of the “thickness” of the biosphere. The Terrestrial biosphere may be understood as that spherical shell bounded by the deepest living microbes as the shorter radius and the upper atmosphere as the longer radius. The entry on Deep Subsurface Microbes at MicrobeWiki states: “In oceanic crusts, the temperature of the subsurface increases at a rate of about 15 degrees C per kilometer of depth, giving a maximum livable depth of about 7 kilometers.” The convention establishing the distinction between the upper atmosphere and extraterrestrial space is the Kármán line, 100 km above Earth’s surface. Taking these as the deepest and highest figures, the terrestrial biosphere is a spherical shell approximately 107 km thick, though more conservative numbers could also be employed (as in the illustration above).
A partial biosphere that failed to expand across an entire planetary surface would in topological terms be a punctured spherical shell. Now, a punctured spherical shell is continuously deformable into a sphere, making the two topologically equivalent. This may sound a bit strange, but there is an old joke that a topologist is someone who can’t tell the difference between a doughnut and a coffee cup: each is continually deformable into the other (i.e., both are topologically equivalent to a torus, which is what topologists call a genus 1 surface). In topological terms, then, there is little difference between a biosphere and a partial biosphere (I will discuss a prominent exception in the next installment of this series).
While there is no topological difference between a biosphere and a partial biosphere, there could be a dramatic ecological difference, as a partial biosphere that covered too small of a proportion of a planetary surface would at some point fall below the threshold of viability, while, at the other end of the scale, if it becomes sufficiently extensive it passes the threshold beyond which it can support the evolution of complex life forms. And since only complex life forms produce civilizations, there may be a threshold below which a partial biosphere cannot be associated with a biota of sufficient complexity to allow for the emergence of an intelligent species and hence a civilization.
The extent of a biosphere may place a constraint upon life and civilization emerging from smaller celestial bodies, such as exomoons. So it is not only the possibility of a partial biosphere that may limit the development of complexity in a biota. On the other hand, a system of exomoons, i.e., several inhabitable exomoons orbiting an exoplanet, may have the opposite effect, serving as a speciation pump, leading to higher biodiversity and the emergence of higher forms of emergent complexity. Earlier I suggested that astrobiology is island biogeograpy writ large; a system of inhabitable exomoons, each with its own biosphere, orbiting an exoplanet would offer a particular elegant test of this idea, should we ever discover such a system (and in the immensity of the universe it seems likely that something like this would have happened at least once).
The topology of the biology of a system of exomoons no longer even approximates a biosphere, and this points to the limitation of the concept of a biosphere, and the need for a formalized science of inhabitability that is applicable to any inhabitable region whatever. However, this still is not sufficient for our needs. We must recognize the degree of biological relatedness or difference among separate but biologically related worlds as in the example above.
However exotic the topology of biospheres to be found in the universe, the biochemistry that populates these biologically connected regions is likely to be constrained by the chemical makeup of the universe. This chemical makeup seems to point to vaguely anthropocentric conditions for life in the universe, but this should not surprise us, as it would be a confirmation of the principle of mediocrity in biology. Water and carbon-based biochemistry is the basis of life on Earth, and the prevalence of these elements in the cosmos at large suggests this as the most common basis of life elsewhere.
Not only are there likely to be liquid subsurface oceans on Europa, Enceladus, and other moons of the outer solar system, possibly with a greater total amount of water on some of these small moons than in all the oceans of Earth, so that we know our solar system possesses enormous resources of water, but we now also know that the universe beyond our solar system possesses significant water resources. The discovery of water vapor at the quasar APM 08279+5255 (described in Astronomers Find Largest, Most Distant Reservoir of Water) represents the presence of vast amounts of water 12 billion light years away — so also 12 billion years in the past — demonstrating both the pervasive spatial and temporal distribution of water in the universe. Astrobiologists have been saying, “To find life, follow the water,” but we now know that following the water would take us far afield.
In additional to water being common in the universe, carbon-based organic chemistry is also known to be common in the universe:
“Astronomers who study the interstellar medium… have found roughly 150 different molecules floating in space… The list boasts many organic (which is to say, carbon-containing) molecules, including some sugars and a still controversial detection of the simplest amino acid, glycine…”
Seth Shostak, Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2009, p. 260
Thus, not only is water pervasively present in the universe, but so also are the basic molecules of organic chemistry. I had something like this in mind when in previous post (and elaborated in Not Terraforming, but Something Else…) I tried to outline what might be called variations on the theme of carbon-based life:
“…if life in the outer solar system is to be found, and it is significantly different from life of the inner solar system, how do we recognize it as life? How different is different? It is easy to imagine life that is different in detail from terrestrial life, but, for all intents and purposes, the same thing. What do I mean by this? Think of terrestrial DNA and its base paring of adenine with thymine, and cytosine with guanine: the related but distinct RNA molecule uses uracil instead of thymine for a slightly different biochemistry. Could something like DNA form with G-U-A-C instead of G-T-A-C? Well, if we can consider RNA as being ‘something like’ DNA, then the answer is yes, but beyond that I know too little of biochemistry to elaborate. As several theories of the origins of life on Earth posit the appearance of RNA before DNA, the question becomes whether the ‘RNA world’ of early life on Earth might have also been the origin of life elsewhere, and whether that RNA world matured into something other than the DNA world of terrestrial life.”
I think this is similar to some of the points made by Peter Ward in his book Life as We Do Not Know It, in which Ward wrote:
“…the simplest way to make an alien would be to change DNA slightly. Our familiar DNA is a double helix made up of two on strands of sugar, with the steps of this twisted ladder made up of four different bases. The code is based on triplet sequences, with each triplet either an order to go fetch a specific amino acid or a punctuation mark like ‘stop here.’ Within this elaborate system there are many specific changes that could be made — at least theoretically — that would be ‘alien’ yet might still work.”
Peter Ward, Life as We Do Not Know It: The NASA Search for (and Synthesis of) Alien Life, New York et al.: Penguin, 2005, p. 66-67
Ward considers variations such as changing the backbone of RNA, changing or adding proteins, changing chirality (the direction of the DNA spiral), changing solvents (i.e., a medium for biochemistry other than water), and substituting proteins for nucleic acids. All of these, I think, count as variations on the theme of carbon-based life, which is what we are to expect in the universe rich in carbon-based organic molecules.
Alternative biochemistries with methane-metabolizing microorganisms as described in the recent paper Methane metabolism in the archaeal phylum Bathyarchaeota revealed by genome-centric metagenomics might also be consistent with the dominant chemistry observed in the universe, and would constitute slightly more exotic variations on the theme of carbon-based life. Just as we will have investigated the subsurface oceans of the moons of the outer planets and will know how readily biochemistry emerges in these environments before we even pass the threshold of our own solar system to become an interstellar civilization, so too we will have the opportunity within our own solar system to investigate alternative biochemistries in environments such as Saturn’s moon Titan.
Both water and carbon-based organic chemistry are common in the universe during the Stelliferous Era in the same way that planetary surfaces are common loci of energy flows during the Stelliferous Era; indeed, planetary surfaces provide the vehicle upon which water and carbon-based organic chemistry can produce emergent complexity from energy flows.
The observable universe, then, is rich in planets, in water, and in organic molecules — everything for which one might hope in a search for life. There is no reason for our universe not to be a living universe, in which biochemistry is as common — or will be as common — as as there are planetary surfaces providing energy flows consistent with life as we know it. However, these multitudinous opportunities for life will be constrained by the prevalent organic chemistry of the universe, and this points to variations on the theme of carbon-based like. Other forms of life may exist as outliers, just as biospheres may be driven by energy flows other than insolation, but these will be unusual.
As a provisional conclusion we assert that the same reasoning that leads us to planetary surfaces as the “Goldilocks” zone for energy flows during the Stelliferous Era also leads us to carbon-based life forms employing liquid water as a solvent during the same period of cosmological natural history.
Having thought a bit about the different kind of biospheres that might be possible given different forms of energy flow (Part IV), I have realized that these are probably outliers, and, if we remain focused on civilizations of the Stelliferous Era, insolation of planetary surfaces will be the primary source of energy flows, hence the primary basis of biospheres during the Stelliferous Era, hence the primary basis of civilization up to the point of development when biocentric civilization transitions into technocentric civilization and is no longer exclusively dependent upon a biosphere.
That being said, other sources of energy flow may play a significant role. Radioactive decay has played a significant role in the temperature of Earth (not taking account of radioactive decay, which was not then known, was the reason for Lord Kelvin’s attack on Darwinian time scales). Extrapolating from our own biosphere, we would expect to see a variety of biospheres in which stellar insolation is supplemented by other drivers of energy flow.
Later in the Stelliferous Era, when planetary systems have a greater proportion of heavy elements (due to the process of chemical enrichment), the habitable zone may move further out from parent stars because of the increased availability radioactive decay and natural fission reactors contributing relatively more to the energy flows of biospheres. The increased availability of heavier elements may also eventually impact biochemisty, as forms of life as we do not know it become more likely as the overall mixture of chemicals in the universe matures. The farther we depart in time from the present moment of cosmological natural history, the farther we depart from likely energy flows and biota depending upon these energy flows, until we reach the end of the Stelliferous Era. All that I have written above concerning the Stelliferous Era will cease to be true in the Degenerate Era, when stellar insolation ceases to be a source of energy flows.
For the time being, however, throughout the Stelliferous Era we can count on certain predictable features of life and civilization. Civilization follows intelligence, intelligence follows complex life, and complex life follows from habitability that passes beyond the kind of thresholds described above. Thus the cohort of emergent complexities found in the Stelliferous Era can be traced to the same root.
We may even discover that planetary biospheres exhibit a kind of convergent evolution, not in terms of specific species, but in terms of the kind of biomes and niches available, hence ecological structures to be found, and even the kinds of civilizations supervening upon these ecological structures. For example, I wrote a post on Civilizations of the Tropical Rainforest Biome: on another world with a peer biosphere and an intelligent species, any civilizations we found emergent in the equivalent of a tropical rainforest biome (high temperatures and high rainfall year round) would probably share certain structural features with civilizations of the tropical rainforest biome found on Earth.
The civilizations of planetary endemism, then, include all those classes of sub-planetary civilizations defined by regional biomes, prior to the emergence of a planetary civilization. Each regional (sub-planetary) civilization is consistent with its biome (i.e., it can supply the needs of its agents with the resources available within the biome in question), and in so far as the resources in a given biome govern what is possible for a biocentric civilization emergent within that biome, each such civilization is forced into a kind of uniformity that the institutions of civilization then take up in a spirit of iteration and refinement of a model (i.e., the iterative conception of civilization). When civilization expands until civilizations emergent in distinct biomes are forced into contact, resulting in communication, commerce, and conflict, new forms of planetary scale uniformity emerge in order to facilitate interchanges on a planetary scale.
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● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Introduction (forthcoming)
● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part V
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25 February 2016
The inability of the financial sector to price political risk is being made painfully clear by the “Brexit” situation and what it portends for Europe, for the EU, and for global finance. Now, “Brexit” is an unlovely neologism — much like “Grexit,” from which I believe it derives, both being conjunctions of the names of nation-states with the word “exit,” meaning an exit from the Eurozone, and, symbolically, ouster from Europe, the European project, the European idea — but I will employ it anyway, as it has rapidly become the convention.
It is important to observe that there are no good outcomes for the Eurozone in the wake of the British referendum on Brexit. If Cameron gets his way and Britain retains its EU membership, it will maintain this membership under specially negotiated terms, which demonstrates unambiguously that all members of the EU are equal, but some are more equal than others. If the British people vote against the deal and Britain voluntarily secedes from the EU, it will mean that one of the strongest economies in the EU, including the fabled banking center of London, have chosen to leave the EU, like the first rat leaving a sinking ship.
It isn’t just Britain and Brexit, of course. There is the lingering aftermath of the financial crisis, which began with the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US, spread contagion-like to Europe, but was never resolved satisfactorily because of the financial difficulties of southern European nation-states like Italy and Spain, but especially Greece. Decisive and definitive action to reform Europe’s banking sector could not be pushed through under these circumstances, and now these unresolved problems are manifesting in unexpected and unintended ways due to the refugee crisis in Europe.
I am not predicting financial collapse in Europe, nor I am predicting social collapse in Europe; nor I am predicting large scale social turmoil. Europe is a very civilized place; the Europeans, by and large (and after spending hundreds of years killing each other), understand that it is in their interest to maintain economically, politically, and socially stable societies in which as many citizens as possible can live stable and prosperous lives. The approximately 500 million people in the EU are not going to suddenly shutter their shops, close their businesses, and stop buying things. Business as usual will continue, with interruptions and disruptions. Europe is, however, facing an existential crisis every bit as momentous as the Civil War that tested American unity as a nation-state. The basis of unity is distinct, and the test is distinct, but the danger is parallel.
We all know that, in cases of warfare, violent revolution, or even extreme social turmoil, that a financial position can unwind with shocking rapidity, leaving investors (typically, those investors slowest to respond to the crisis) holding the bag. The combination of financial ruin and the suddenness of its occurrence can be too much for some, and this is when we see people jumping out of windows rather than facing life as impoverished has-beens. It is no surprise that financial traumas of this kind, that emerge not from predictable market forces, but from human, all-too-human events, driven by emotion, passion, and and what Keynes called animal spirits, are put behind the market as quickly as possible, as the survivors go about the again-predictable business of picking up the pieces and going on with life.
Investment advisers like to tell potential investors that “market timing” is irrelevant, and that a prudent and long-term investor will consider market spikes and dips as somehow too petty to notice, almost beneath contempt. But if you invest your life’s savings in something as stable as bonds (like the investors in WPPSS, the Washington Public Power Supply System) or even in the very corporation that employs you (as with Enron employees who were actively encouraged to invest everything in Enron stock), and these apparently stable investment vehicles go sour due to reasons that have little to do with investment strategies, there is nothing left over to get back into the market. Yes, of course, the market will recover again, in time. By that time your retirement may be long over and you will have lived your final years in poverty before dying penniless. In the big picture such instances of individual suffering are unimportant and irrelevant, but to the individual who loses everything, it is everything.
This investment advice to disregard market timing is a rationalization and justification of the inability of the financial sector to price political risk. Political risk is a blindspot for finance capital, and as the world becomes more economically and politically integrated, this blindspot is becoming a serious stumbling block both to understanding and to action.
We have good economic models to describe how even complex industrialized economies function. But an economic model of a society is only a partial model of society. Sometimes business as usual continues even as a society is disrupted by political and social unrest (like the growing US economy despite Civil Rights protests in the 1960s and Vietnam war protests in the 1970s), but sometimes political and social unrest can cross a threshold beyond which business as usual ceases and the political and social unrest become the focus of all attention and business as usual does not recommence until the turmoil is resolved and business begins again under changed circumstances, sometimes even under changed institutions (as happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union).
A more complete model of society would include social and political factors in a way that the social sciences have not yet been able to pull off. At the end of this process would be a model of civilization itself, including economic, political, social, religious, and other factors. I have often pointed out that we lack a science of civilization, and the financial blindspot in pricing political risk is a perfect practical example of what it means to be without a model of civilization.
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18 February 2016
In earlier posts of this series on Civilizations of Planetary Endemism we saw that planets not only constitute a “Goldilocks” zone for liquid water, but also for energy flows consistent with life as we know it. I would like to go into this in a little more detail, as there is much to be said on this. It is entirely possible that energy flows on a planet or moon outside the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ) could produce sufficient heat to allow for the presence of liquid water in the outer reaches of a planetary system. Indeed, it may be misleading to think of habitable zones (for life as we know it) primarily in terms of the availability of liquid water; it might be preferable to conceive a habitable zone primarily in terms of regions of optimal energy flow (i.e., optimal for life as we know it), and to understand the availability of liquid water as a consequence of optimal energy flow.
Our conception of habitability, despite what we already know, and what we can derive from plausible projections of scientific knowledge, is being boxed in by the common conceptions (and misconceptions) of biospheres and CHZs. We can posit the possibility of “oasis” civilizations on worlds where only a limited portion of the surface is inhabitable and no “biosphere” develops, although enough of a fragment of a biosphere develops in order for complex life, intelligence, and civilization to emerge. We do not yet have an accurate term for the living envelope that can emerge on a planetary surface, but which does not necessary cover the entire planetary surface. I have experimented with a variety of terms to describe this previously. For example, I used “biospace” in my 2011 presentation “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” but this is still dissatisfying.
As is so often the case, we run into problems when we attempt to extrapolate Earth sciences formulated for the explicit purpose of accounting for contingent terrestrial facts, and never conceived as a purely general scientific exercise applicable to any comparable phenomena anywhere in the universe. This is especially true of ecology, and since I find myself employing ecological concepts so frequently, I often feel the want of such formulations. Ecology as a science is theoretically weak (it is much stronger on its observational side, which goes back to traditional nature studies that predate ecology), and its chaos of criss-crossing classification systems reflects this.
There are a great many terms for subdivisions of the biosphere — ecozone, bioregion, ecoregion, life zone, biome, ecotope — which are sometimes organized serially from more comprehensive to less comprehensive. None of these subdivisions of a biosphere, however, would accurately describe the inhabited portion of a world on which biology does not culminate in a biosphere. Perhaps we will require recourse to the language and concepts of topology, since a biosphere, as a sphere, is simply connected. The bioring of a tidally locked M dwarf planet would not be simply connected in this topological sense.
If we conceptualize habitable zones not in terms of a celestial body being the right temperature to have liquid water on its surface, or perhaps in a subsurface ocean, but rather view this availability of liquid water as a consequence of habitable zones defined in terms of the presence of energy flows consistent with life as we know it, then we will need to investigate alternative sources of energy flow, i.e., distinct from the patterns of energy flow that we understand from our homeworld. Energy flows consistent with life as we know it are consistent with conditions that allow for the presence of liquid water on a celestial body, but this also means energy flows that would not overwhelm biochemistry and energy flows that are not insufficient for biochemistry and the origins and maintenance of metabolism.
Energy flows might be derived from stellar output (thus a consequence of gravitational confinement fusion), from radioactivity, which could take the form of radioactive decay or even a naturally-occurring nuclear reactor, as as Oklo in Gabon (thus a consequence of fission), from gravitational tidal forces, or from the kinetic energy of impacts. All of these sources of energy flows have been considered in another connection: suggested ways to resolve the faint young sun paradox (the problem that the sun was significantly dimmer earlier in its life cycle, while there still seems to have been liquid water on Earth) are the contributions of other energy sources to maintaining a temperature on Earth similar to that of today, including greater tidal heating from a closer moon, more heating from radioactive decay, and naturally occurring nuclear fission.
It would be possible in a series of thought experiments to consider counterfactual worlds in which each of these sources of energy flow are the primary source of energy for a biosphere (or a subspherical biological region of a planetary surface). The Jovian moon Io, for example, is the most volcanically active body in our solar system; while Io seems to barren, one could imagine an Io of more clement conditions for biology in which the tidal heating of a moon with an atmosphere was the basis of the energy flow for an ecosystem. A world with more fissionables in its crust than Earth (the kind of worlds likely to be found during the late Stelliferous Era under conditions of high metallicity) might be heated by radioactive decay or natural fission reactors (or some combination of the two) sufficient to generate energy flows for a biosphere, even at a great distance from its parent star. It seems unlikely that kinetic impacts from collisions could provide a sufficiently consistent flow of energy without a biosphere suffering mass extinctions from the same impacts, but this could merely be a failure of imagination. Perhaps a steady rain of smaller impacts without major impacts could contribute to energy flows without passing over the threshold of triggering an extinction event.
Each of these exotic counterfactual biospheres suggests the possibility of a living world very different from our own. The source of an energy flow might be inconsistent, that is to say, consistent up to the point of making life possible, but not sufficiently consistent for civilization, or the development of civilization. That is to say, it is possible that a planetary biosphere or subspheric biological region might possess sufficient energy flows for the emergence of life, but insufficient energy flows (or excessive energy flows) for the emergence of complex life or civilization. Once can easily imagine this being the case with extremophile life. And it is possible that a bioregion might possess sufficient energy flows for the emergence of a rudimentary civilization, but insufficient for the development of industrial-technological civilization that can make the transition to spacefaring civilization and thus ensure its longevity.
Civlizations of planetary endemism on these exotic worlds would be radically different from our own civilization due to differences in the structure and distribution of energy flow. Civilizations of planetary endemism are continuous with the biosphere upon which they supervene, so that a distinct biosphere supervening upon a distinct energy flow would produce a distinct civilization. Ultimately and ideally, these distinct forms of energy flow could be given an exhaustive taxonomy, which would, at the same time, be a taxonomy of civilizations supervening upon these energy flows.
However, the supervenience of civilization upon biosheres and biospheres upon energy flows is not exhaustive. Civilizations consciously harness energy flows to the benefit of the intelligent agent engaged in the civilizing process. The first stage of terrestrial civilization, that of agricuturalism and pastoralism, was a natural extension of energy flows already present in the bioshere, but once the breakthrough to industrialization occurred, energy sources became more distant from terrestrial energy flows. Fossil fuels are, in a sense, stored solar energy, and derive from the past biology of our planet, but this is the use of biological resources at one or more remove. As technologies became more sophisticated, in became possible to harness energy sources of a more elemental nature that were not contingent upon extant energy flows on a planet.
It may be, then, that biocentric civilizations are rightly said to supervene upon biospheres. However, with the breakthrough to industrialization, and the beginning of the transition to a technocentric civilization, this supervenience begins to fail and a discontinuity is interpolated between a civilization and its homeworld. According to this account, the transition from biocentric to technocentric civilization is the end point of civilizations of planetary endemism, and the emergence of a spacefaring civilization as the consequence of technologies enabled by technocentric civilization is a mere contingent epiphenomenon of a deeper civilizational process. This in itself provides a deeper and more fundamental perspective on civilization.
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● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Introduction (forthcoming)
● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part IV
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13 February 2016
In my previous posts on planetary endemism (see links below) I started to explore the ideas of how civilization is shaped by the planet upon which a given civilization arises. I began to sketch a taxonomy based on developmental factors arising from planetary endemism, but I have realized the inadequacy of this. As I have no systematic idea for a taxonomy based on a more comprehensive understanding of planetary types, I must undertake a series of thought experiments to explore the relevant ideas in more detail. This I intend to do.
I should point out that taxonomy I began to sketch in my 2015 Starship Congress talk, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” — a taxonomy employing a binomial nomenclature based on a distinction between economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure — still remains valid to make fine-grained distinctions among terrestrial civilizations, or indeed within the history of any civilization of planetary endemism. What I am seeking to do now to arrive at a more comprehensive taxonomy under which this more fine-grained taxonomy can be subsumed, and which, as a large-scale conception of civilization, is consistent with and integrated into our knowledge of cosmology and planetology.
While I have no systematic idea of taxonomy at present taking account of types of planets, I think I can identify a crucial question for this inquiry, and it is this:
What physical gradient is, or would be, correlated with the greatest qualitative gradient in the civilization supervening upon that physical gradient?
In other words, if we could experiment with civilization under controlled condition, systematically substituting different valuables for a given variable while holding all over variables constant, and these variables are the physical conditions to which a given planetary civilization is subject, which one of these variables when its value is changed would produce the greatest variation on the supervening civilization? A qualitative change in civilization yields another kind of civilization, so that if varying a physical condition produces a range of different kinds of civilizations, this is the variable to which we would want to pay the greatest attention in formulating a taxonomy of civilizations that takes into account the kind of planet on which a civilization arises. Understood in this way, civilization, or at least the kind of civilization, can be seen as an emergent property with the physical condition given a varying value as the substructure upon which emergent civilization supervenes.
Some gradients of physical conditions will be closely correlated: planet size correlates with surface area, surface gravity, and atmospheric density. These multiple physical conditions are in turn correlated with multiple constraints upon civilization. With the single variable of planet size correlated to so many different conditions and constraints upon civilization, planet size will probably figure prominently in a taxonomy of civilizations based on homeworld conditions. Large planets and small planets both have advantages and disadvantages for supervening civilizations. Large planets have a large surface area, but the higher gravity may pose an insuperable challenge for the emergence of spacefaring civilization. Small planets would pose less of a barrier to a spacefaring breakout, but they also have less surface area and probably a thinner atmosphere, possibly limiting the size of organisms that could survive in its biosphere. Also, there may be a point at which the surface area on a small planet falls below the minimum threshold necessary for the unimpeded development of civilization.
Planets too large or too small may be inhabitable, in terms of possessing a biosphere, but may be too challenging for a civilization to arise. Any intelligent being on a planet too large or too small would be faced with challenges too great to overcome, resulting in what Toynbee called an arrested civilization. But how large is too large, and how small is too small? We don’t have an answer for these questions yet, but to formulate the question explicitly provides a research agenda.
Other important physical gradients are likely to be temperature (or insolation, which largely determines the temperature of a planet), which can result in planets too hot (Venus) or too cold (Mars), and the amount of water present, which could mean a world too wet or too dry. A planet with a higher temperature would probably have a higher proportion of its surface as desert biomes, and possibly also a greater variety of desert biomes than we find on Earth, while a planet with a lower temperature would probably possess a more extensive cryosphere and a large proportion of it surface in arctic biomes. And a planet mostly ocean (i.e., too wet), with extensive island archipelagos, might foster the emergence of a vigorous seafaring civilization, or it might result in the civilizational equivalent of insular dwarfism. Again, we don’t yet know the parameters the values of these variables can take and still be consistent with the emergence of civilization, but to formulate the question is to contribute to the research agenda.
I think it is likely that we will someday be able to reduce to most significant variables to a small number — perhaps two, size and insolation, much as the two crucial variables for determining a biome are temperature and rainfall — and a variety of qualitatively distinct civilizations will be seen to emerge from variations to these variables — again, as in a wide variety of biomes that emerge from changes in temperature and rainfall. And, again, like ecology, we will probably begin with a haphazard system of taxonomy, as today we have several different taxonomies of biomes.
Civilizations (i.e., civilizations of planetary endemism during the Stelliferous Era) supervene upon biospheres, and a biosphere is a biome writ large. We can study the many terrestrial biomes found in the terrestrial biosphere, but we do not yet have a variety of biospheres to study. When we are able to study a variety of distinct biospheres, we will, of course, in the spirit of science, want to produce a taxonomy of biospheres. With a taxonomy of biospheres, we will be more than half way to a taxonomy of civilizations, and in this way astrobiology is immediately relevant to the study of civilization.
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● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Introduction (forthcoming)
● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part III
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11 February 2016
When I wrote Civilizations of Planetary Endemism I didn’t call it “Part I” because I didn’t realize that I would need to write a Part II, but my recent post on Night Side Detection of M Dwarf Civilizations made me realize that my earlier post on planetary endemism, and specifically using planetary endemism as the basis for a taxonomy of civilizations during the Stelliferous Era, was only one side of a coin, and that the other side of the same coin remains to be examined.
As we saw in Civilizations of Planetary Endemism, during the Stelliferous Era emergent complexities arise on planetary surfaces, which are “Goldilocks” zones not only for liquid water, but also for energy flows. As a consequence, civilizations begin on planetary surfaces, and this entails certain observation selection effects for the worldview of civilizations. In other words, civilizations are shaped by planetary endemism.
One aspect of planetary endemism is temporal, or developmental; this is the aspect of planetary endemism I explored in the first part of Civilizations of Planetary Endemism. Another aspect of planetary endemism is spatial, or structural. The developmental taxonomy of civilizations in my previous post — Nascent Civilization, Developing Sub-planetary Civilization, Arrested Sub-planetary Civilization, Developing Planetary Civilization, and Arrested Planetary Civilization — took account of the spatial consequences of planetary endemism, but in a purely generic way. The spatial limitation of a planetary surface supplies the crucial distinction between planetary and sub-planetary civilizations, while the temporal dimension supplies the crucial distinction between civilizations still developing, and which may therefore transcend their present limitations, and civilizations that have stagnated (and therefore will produce no further taxonomic divisions).
My post on Night Side Detection of M Dwarf Civilizations suggested an approach to planetary endemism in which the spatial constraint enters into a civilizational taxonomy as more than merely the generic constraint of limited planetary surface area. In that post I discussed some properties that would distinctively characterize civilizations emergent on planetary systems of M dwarf stars. In some cases we can derive the likely properties of a civilization from the properties of the planet on which that civilization supervenes. This is essentially a taxonomic idea.
The idea is quite simple, and it is this: different kinds of planets, in different kinds of planetary systems (presumably predicated upon different kinds of stars, and of different kinds of protoplanetary disks that were the precursors to planetary systems), result in different kinds of civilizations supervening upon these different kinds of planets. Given this idea, a taxonomy of civilizations would follow from a taxonomy of planets and of planetary systems.
What kinds of planets are there, and what kinds of planetary systems are there? It is only in the past few years that science has begun to answer this question in earnest, as we have begun to discover and classify exoplanets and exoplanetary systems, as the result of the Kepler mission. This is a work in progress, and we can literally expect to continue to add to our knowledge of planets and planetary systems for hundreds of years to come. We are still in a stage of knowledge where classifications for kinds of planets are emerging spontaneously from unexpected observations, such as “hot Jupiters” — large gas giants orbiting close to their parent stars — and we do not yet have anything like a systematic taxonomy yet.
Since we want to focus on peer life, however, i.e., life as we know it, more or less, this narrows the kinds of planets of interest to far fewer candidates, though ultimately we will need to account for the planetary system context of these habitable exoplanets, and in so doing we will have to take account of all types of planets. There has been a significant amount of attention given to habitable planets around M dwarf stars (one of the reasons I wrote Night Side Detection of M Dwarf Civilizations), which are interesting partly because there are so many M dwarf stars. We can derive interesting consequences for habitable planets around M dwarf stars, such as their being tidally locked, though we have to break this down further according to the size of the planet (since gravity will have an important influence on civilization), the presence of plate tectonics (as a tidally locked planet with active plate tectonics would be a very different place from such a planet without plate tectonics), the strength of the planet’s electrical field, and so on.
Other kinds of planets that have come to attention are “super-Earths,” which are rocky, habitable planets, but larger than Earth, and therefore with a higher surface gravity (therefore with a greater barrier to the transition to spacefaring civilization). The observation selection effects of the transit method employed by the Kepler mission favor larger planets, so the Kepler data sets have not inspired much thinking about smaller planets, but we know from our own planetary system with the smaller Earth twin of Venus, which is too hot, and the smaller yet Earth twin Mars, which is too cold, that the habitable zone of a star can host several Earth-size and smaller planets. When some future science mission makes it possible to survey exoplanetary systems inclusive of smaller worlds, I suspect we will discover a great many of them, and this will generate more questions, like the ability of a smaller planet to maintain its atmosphere and its electrical field, etc.
One way to produce a planetary taxonomy for the civilizations of planetary endemism would be to take Earth as the “standard” inhabitable planet, and to treat all planets inhabited by peer life as departing from the terrestrial norm. We already do this when we speak of Earth twins and super-Earths, but this could be done more systematically and schematically. This, however, does not take into account the parent star or planetary system, so we would have to take our entire planetary system as the “standard” inhabitable planetary system, and work outward from that based on deviations from this norm.
The above is only to suggest the complex taxonomic possibilities for civilizations based on the kind of planet where a civilization originates. I don’t yet have even a schematic breakdown such as I formulated in my previous post on planetary endemism. The variety of planetary conditions where civilizations may arise may be so diverse that it defeats the purpose of a taxonomy, as each individual civilization would have to be approached not as exemplifying a kind, but as something unprecedented in every instance. Still, the scientific mind wants to put its observations in a rational order, so that some of us will always to trying to find order in apparent chaos.
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Kepler Orrery III animation of planetary systems (also see Kepler Orrery III at NASA)
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2 February 2016
This post is intended as a quick addendum to my post The Apotheosis of Emergent Complexity, in which I considered, in turn, the respective peaks of star formation, life, and civilization during the Stelliferous Era, as exemplifying significant forms of emergent complexity in the universe.
The apotheosis of emergent complexity recognized in that earlier post — when stars, life, and civilization are all represented — can be further narrowed in scope beyond the parameters I previously set. With the sole examples of ourselves as representing life and civilization, we can acknowledge a minimal form of the apotheosis of emergent complexity already extant, and as long as our civilization endures and continues in development it retains the possibility of seeing further emergent complexities arise. Among the further emergent complexities that could arise from terrestrial life and civilization is the possibility of this life and civilization expanding to other worlds. A simple expansion would represent the spatial and temporal extension of emergent complexity, but life and civilization almost certainly will be changed by their adaptation to other worlds, and this adaptive radiation on a cosmological scale may involve the emergence of further emergent complexity (in which case a fourth peak would need to be defined beyond stars, life, and civilization).
An expansion of terrestrial life and civilization into the universe that constitutes an adaptive radiation on a cosmological scale, is an event that I have called the Great Voluntaristic Divergence (in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation) — “great” because it takes place on a cosmological scale that dwarfs known adaptive radiations on Earth by many orders of magnitude, “voluntaristic” because both the direction and the nature of the radiation and the adaptation will be a function of conscious and intelligent choice, and “divergence” because different choices will lead to the realization of diverse forms of life and civilization not existing, and not possible, on Earth alone. We can think of the Great Voluntaristic Divergence as a “forcing” event for the principle of plenitude. I have noted previously that cosmology is the principle of plenitude teaching by example. When the principle of plenitude works at the scale of the cosmos and at the level of complexity of civilization, further emergent complexity may yet transform the universe.
If we take the peak of emergent complexity as beginning with the Great Voluntaristic Divergence, this peak of emergent complexity so conceived will end with the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event (which I first formulated in my Centauri Dreams post Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica?). Once star formation ceases, the remaining stars will burn out one by one, and, as they wink out, the planetary surfaces on which they have been incubating life and civilizations will go dark. Any life or civilization that survives the coming darkness of the Degenerate Era, the Black Hole Era, and the Dark Era, will have to derive its energy flows from some source other than stellar energy flux concentrated on planetary surfaces, which I noted in my previous post, Civilizations of Planetary Endemism, typify the origins of civilizations during the Stelliferous Era.
If life and civilization endure for so long as to confront the end of the Stelliferous Era, there will be plenty of time to prepare for alternative methods of harnessing energy flows. Moreover, I strongly suspect that the developmental course of advanced civilizations — the only kind of civilizations that could so endure — will experience demographic changes that will bring populations into equilibrium with their energy environment, much as we have seen birth rates plummet in advanced industrialized civilizations where scientific medicine reduces infant mortality, lengthens life, and increases the costs of child-rearing. When the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event is visited upon our distant descendants and their successor institution to civilization, their horizons will already have been altered to accommodate the change.
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30 January 2016
During the Stelliferous Era planetary surfaces are uniquely suited for emergent complexity such as life and civilization. Planetary surfaces are by their nature complex, being the interface between planet and planetary atmosphere. Planetary surfaces are moreover a “Goldilocks” zone for energy flows during the Stelliferous Era; energy flows on stars themselves are too great for life, while energy flows in space (in the clouds of gas and dust that surround a star) are too little for life. Planetary surfaces, then, provide “just right” energy flows at the interface of atmospheric gases and the minerals constituting the planet. If emergent complexity is going to arise during the Stelliferous, it is going arise here, hence civilizations begin on planets.
That civilizations begin on planets during the Stelliferous Era has certain consequences. Civilizations originate at the bottom of a gravity well, and if they are to expand beyond a planetary surface, they must reach a level of technological sophistication adequate to lift off from its homeworld a demographically significant proportion of its population of the intelligent organism upon which the civilization supervenes. This is the first and the most significant of the horizons of spacefaring civilization, and the spacefaring horizon that provides the initial overview effect of the civilization’s homeworld.
What this means is that there is thus a natural tendency to planetary endemism among civilizations of the Stelliferous Era. In my posts on planetary constraints I outlined the limitations imposed upon a civilization the development of which is limited to the surface of a planet. These constraints include: 1. the spatial constraint, 2. the temporal constraint, 3. the gravitational constraint, 4. the agrarian constraint, 5. the population constraint, 6. the energy constraint, 7. the material constraint, 8. the ontic constraint, and 9. the endemic constraint. These constraints define the scope of the civilizations of planetary endemism.
A planetary civilization is the limit (and, some might argue, the telos) of planetary endemism. Let us define a planetary civilization as a single civilization uniquely determined by the biosphere of a single planet, which means that, for planetary civilizations, there is a one-to-one correspondence between civilizations and their homeworlds. (Here “planet” is to be understood in the broadest possible sense, including dwarf planets, moons, and so on.) In my post Origins of Globalization I argued that terrestrial civilization today is a planetary civilization (and I further commented on this in Civilization and Uniformity).
In the particular case of terrestrial civilization, a single planetary civilization has emerged from the concrescence of multiple civilizations formerly geographically isolated. Once we think of civilization in this schematic and formal way, at least some alternatives to the particular pattern of terrestrial development become obvious. For example, civilization might begin at a single geographical locus on a planet, and spread outward from there, rather than originating independently on multiple occasions. Even given these alternative pathways to planetary civilization, from the most formal perspective these are variations on a theme of planetary civilization, and the big picture distinctions we can make, and which we can expect to be exemplified in the case of other civilizations (if there are other civilizations), can be narrowed to a few classes. If we think of planetary civilization as a classification in a developmental account of civilization, other classifications naturally grow out of this idea. For example:
● Nascent Civilization What I have also called proto-civilization, are cultures on the verge of producing civilization, i.e., intelligent species at a level of social organization immediately anterior to the threshold of civilization. The Human World of the Upper Paleolithic frequently approximated nascent civilization.
● Developing Sub-planetary Civilization Before a civilization or civilizations reach their planetary limit, they may be called sub-planetary. A sub-planetary civilization still undergoing development, and retaining the capability to expanding to its planetary limit, is a developing sub-planetary civilization. As noted above, developing sub-planetary civilizations may be one or many prior to converging upon a planetary civilization.
● Arrested Sub-planetary Civilization A less-than-planetary civilization that has ceased in its development and so no longer retains the capability of expanding to its planetary limit may be called an arrested sub-planetary civilization. Arrested sub-planetary civilizations, which constitute instances of suboptimal civilization, and will eventually become extinct when planetary conditions eventually change beyond the ability of the civilization to adapt. A sub-planetary civilization is, by definition, a geographically regional civilization, so it is a civilization predicated upon the ecological conditions of a particular region of a planet, and is probably limited to inhabiting one or two biomes of its homeworld. This makes an arrested sub-planetary civilization especially vulnerable to extinction, and, in fact, many local civilizations in terrestrial history have gone extinct leaving no successor civilization (e.g., Minoan civilization, Nazca civilization, etc.).
● Developing Planetary Civilization A civilization that has reached the limits of its homeworld, and yet continues in its development, is a planetary civilization on the cusp of making the transition to becoming a spacefaring civilization. While such development might be cut short by the realization of some existential risk, there is nevertheless a distinction to be made between a planetary civilization in possession of the resources (potentially) to make the transition to spacefaring civilization, and a civilization that happens to reach the limits of its homeworld, but which has no hope of making the transition to spacefaring civilization.
● Arrested Planetary Civilization Arrested planetary civilizations, like arrested sub-planetary civilizations, are also a species of suboptimal civilization, and are also subject to inevitable extinction. However, arrested planetary civilizations are somewhat less vulnerable and more robust than arrested sub-planetary civilizations, since the ability to establish a planetary civilization means that transportation and communication networks unify the homeworld and the civilization in possession of such an infrastructure can compensate for regional ecological changes that could mean the end for a geographically regional civilization. Thus, in general, it is to be expected that arrested planetary civilizations can endure for a longer period of time than arrested sub-planetary civilizations, though a planetary civilization is, in turn, likely to endure for a shorter period of time than a spacefaring civilization, which latter possesses access to far greater resources and can achieve redundancy on a scale than no planetary civilization can achieve.
It is interesting to observe that a sub-planetary civilization might seek existential risk mitigation through redundancy by “seeding” copies of itself in different regions of its homeworld. How would we distinguish between such a project and more familiar categories of civilizational expansion or colonization? I will not attempt to answer this question at present. However, I will make the further observation that this approach to redundancy is closed off to any planetary civilization, whether arrested or still in the process of development.
Several of the terms I have employed here are admittedly rather awkward; my point is to try to capture the most general, “big picture” features of a civilization as we might observe its development from outside. For if SETI, in any of its forms, is eventually successful, we will be scientists of civilization looking from the outside in, and if there are many civilizations to be discovered, they will be roughly sortable into a handful of varieties. The varieties of civilization outlined above are based on the root idea of a planetary civilization, which is in turn based on the idea of the planetary endemism of civilizations, which is likely to be a feature of the Stellierous Era.
The argument implied in the above classification is that this classification possesses a certain conceptual naturalness as a consequence of its being rooted in structural features of the universe in which we happen to find ourselves. A different universe, or a different kind of universe, or a universe with a different natural history, might demand a scheme for the classification of any civilizations it hosted which differed from the above, which is an artifact of particular conditions. Thus if we depart sufficiently from the Stellierous Era, a different taxonomy for the classification of civilization may be necessary. For example, in the case of Degenerate Era civilizations, which would probably consist of civilizations descended with modification from civilizations of the Stellierous Era, the above scheme of classification would not likely be very helpful.
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20 January 2016
Our first view of Earth was from its surface; every other planet human beings eventually visit will be first perceived by a human being at a great distance, then from orbit, and last of all from its surface. We will descend from orbit to visit a new world, rather than, as on Earth, emerging from the surface of that world and, only later, much later, seeing it from orbit, and then as a pale blue dot, from a great distance.
With our homeworld, the effect of looking up from the surface of our planet precedes the overview effect; with every other world, the overview effect precedes the surface standpoint. We might call this the homeworld effect, which is a consequence of what I now call planetary endemism (and which, when I was first exploring the concept, I called planetary constraint). We have already initiated this process when human beings visited the moon, and for the first time in human history descended to a new world, never before visited by human beings. With this first tentative experience of spacefaring, humanity knows one world from its surface (Earth) and one world from above (the moon). Every subsequent planetary visit will increase the relative proportion of the overview effect in contradistinction to the homeworld effect.
In the fullness of time, our normative assumptions about originating on a plant and leaving it by ascending in to orbit will be displaced by a “new normal” of approaching worlds from a great distance, worlds perhaps first perceived as a pale blue dot, and then only later descending to familiarize ourselves with surface features. If we endure for a period of time sufficient for further human evolution under the selection pressure of spacefaring civilization, this new normal will eventually replace the instincts formed in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) when humanity as a species branched off from other primates. The EEA of our successor species will be spacefaring civilization and the many worlds to which we travel, and this experience will shape our minds as well, producing an evolutionary psychology adapted not to survival on the surface of a planet, but to survival on any planet whatever, or no planet at all.
The Copernican principle is the first hint we have of the mind of a species adapted to spacefaring. It is a characteristic of Copernicanism to call the perspective borne of planetary endemism, the homeworld effect, into question. We have learned that the Copernican principle continually unfolds, always offering more comprehensive perspectives that place humanity and our world in a context that subsumes our previous perspective. Similarly, the overview effect will unfold over the development of spacefaring civilization that takes human beings progressively farther into space, providing ever more distant overviews of our world, until that world becomes lost among countless other worlds.
In my Centauri Dreams post The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight, I discussed the possibility of further overview effects resulting from attaining ever more distant perspectives on our cosmic home — thus attaining an ever more rigorous Copernican perspective. For example, although it is far beyond contemporary technology, it is possible to imagine we might someday have the ability to go so far outside the Milky Way that we could see our own galaxy in overview, and point out the location of the sun in the Orion Spur of the Milky Way.
There is, however, another sense in which additional overview effects may manifest themselves in human experience, and this would be due less to greater technical abilities that would allow for further first person human perspectives on our homeworld and on our universe, and rather due more to cumulative human experience in space as a spacefaring civilization. With accumulated experience comes “know how,” expertise, practical skill, and intuitive mastery — perhaps what might be thought of as the physical equivalent of acculturation.
We achieve this physical acculturation to the world through our bodies, and we express it through a steadily improving facility in accomplishing practical tasks. One such practical task is the ability to estimate sizes, distances, and movements of other bodies in relation to our own body. An astronaut floating in space in orbit around a planet or a moon (i.e., on a spacewalk) would naturally (i.e., intuitively) compare himself as a body floating in space with the planet or moon, also a body floating in space. Frank White has pointed out to me that, in interviews with astronauts, the astronauts themselves have noted the difference between being inside a spacecraft and being outside on a spacewalk, when one is essentially a satellite of Earth, on a par with other satellites.
The human body is an imperfectly uniform, imperfectly “standard” standard ruler that we use to judge the comparative sizes of the objects around us. Despite its imperfection as a measuring instrument, the human body has the advantage of being more intimately familiar to us than any other measuring device, which makes it possible to achieve a visceral understanding of quantities measured in comparison to our own body. At first perceptions of comparative sizes of bodies in space would be highly inaccurate and subject to optical illusions and cognitive biases, but with time and accumulated experience an astronaut would develop a more-or-less accurate “feel” for the size of the planetary body about which he is orbiting. With accumulated experience one would gain an ability to judge distance in space by eye, estimate how rapidly one was orbiting the celestial body in question, and perhaps even familiarize oneself with minute differences in microgravity environments, perceptible only on an intuitive level below the threshold of explicit consciousness — like the reflexes one acquires in learning how to ride a bicycle.
This idea came to me recently as I was reading a NASA article about Saturn, Saturn the Mighty, and I was struck by the opening sentences:
“It is easy to forget just how large Saturn is, at around 10 times the diameter of Earth. And with a diameter of about 72,400 miles (116,500 kilometers), the planet simply dwarfs its retinue of moons.”
How large is Saturn? We can approach the question scientifically and familiarize ourselves with the facts of matter, expressed quantitatively, and we learn that Saturn has an equatorial radius of 60,268 ± 4 km (or 9.4492 Earths), a polar radius of 54,364 ± 10 km (or 8.5521 Earths), a flattening of 0.09796 ± 0.00018, a surface area of 4.27 × 1010 km2 (or 83.703 Earths), a volume of 8.2713 × 1014 km3 (or 763.59 Earths), and a mass of 5.6836 × 1026 kg (or 95.159 Earths) — all figures that I have taken from the Wikipedia entry on Saturn. We could follow up on this scientific knowledge by refining our measurements and by going more deeply in to planetary science, and this gives us a certain kind of knowledge of how large Saturn is.
Notice that the figures I have taken from Wikipedia for the size of Saturn notes Earth equivalents where relevant: this points to another way of “knowing” how large Saturn is: by way of comparative concepts, in contradistinction to quantitative concepts. When I read the sentence quoted above about Saturn I instantly imagined an astronaut floating above Saturn who had also floated above the Earth, feeling on a visceral level the enormous size of the planet below. In the same way, an astronaut floating above the moon or Mars would feel the smallness of both in comparison to Earth. This is significant because the comparative judgement is exactly what a photograph does not communicate. A picture of the Earth as “blue marble” may be presented to us in the same size format as a picture of Mars or Saturn, but the immediate experience of seeing these planets from orbit would be perceived very differently by an orbiting astronaut because the human body always has itself to compare to its ambient environment.
This is kind of experience could only come about once a spacefaring civilization had developed to the point that individuals could acquire diverse experiences of sufficient duration to build up a background knowledge that is distinct from the initial “Aha!” moment of first experiencing a new perspective, so one might think of the example I have given above as a “long term” overview effect, in contradistinction to the immediate impact of the overview effect for those who see Earth from orbit for the first time.
The overview effect over the longue durée, then, will continually transform our perceptions both by progressively greater overviews resulting from greater distances, and by cumulative experience as a spacefaring species that becomes accustomed to viewing worlds from an overview, and immediately grasps the salient features of worlds seen first from without and from above. In transforming our perceptions, our minds will also be transformed, and new forms of consciousness will become possible. This alone ought to be reason enough to justify human spaceflight.
The possibility of new forms of consciousness unprecedented in the history of terrestrial life poses an interesting question: suppose a species — for the sake of simplicity, let us say that this species is us, i.e., humanity — achieves forms of consciousness through the overview effect cultivated in the way I have described here, and that these forms of consciousness are unattainable prior to the broad and deep experience of the overview effect that would characterize a spacefaring civilization. Suppose also, for the sake of the argument, that the species that attains these forms of consciousness is sufficiently biologically continuous that there has been no speciation in the biological sense. There would be a gulf between earlier and later iterations of the same species, but could we call this gulf speciation? Another way to pose this question is to ask whether there can be cognitive speciation. Can a species at least partly defined in terms of its cognitive functions be said to speciate on a cognitive level, even when no strictly biological speciation has taken place?
I will not attempt to answer this question at present — I consider the question entirely open — but I would like to suggest that the idea of cognitive speciation, i.e., a form of speciation unique to conscious beings, is deserving of further inquiry, and should be of special interest to the field of cognitive astrobiology.
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The Overview Effect
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14 January 2016
David Christian and Stephen Jay Gould on Complexity
The development of the universe as we have been able to discern its course by means of science reveals a growth of emergent complexity against a background of virtually unchanging homogeneity. Some accounts of the universe emphasize the emergent complexity, while other accounts emphasize the virtually unchanging homogeneity. The school of historiography we now call Big History focuses on the emergent complexity. Indeed, Big Historians, most famously David Christian, employ a schematic hierarchy of emergent complexity for a periodization of the history of the universe entire.
In contradistinction to the narrative of emergent complexity, Stephen Jay Gould frequently emphasized the virtually unchanging homogeneity of the world. Gould argued that complexity is marginal, perhaps not even statistically significant. Life is dominated by the simplest forms of life, from its earliest emergence to the present day. Complexity has arisen as an inevitable byproduct of the fact that the only possible development away from the most rudimentary simplicity is toward greater complexity, but complexity in life remains marginal compared to the overwhelming rule of simplicity.
When we have the ability to pursue biology beyond Earth, to de-provincialize biology, as Carl Sagan put it, this judgment of Gould is likely to be affirmed and reaffirmed repeatedly, as we will likely find simple life to be relatively common in the universe, but complexity will be rare, and the more life we discover, the less that complex life will represent of the overall picture of life in the universe. And what Gould said of life we can generalize to all forms of emergent complexity; in a universe dominated by hydrogen and helium, as it was when it began with the big bang, the existence of stars, galaxies, and planets scarcely registers, and 13.7 billion years later the universe is still dominated by hydrogen and helium.
Here is how Gould characterized the place of biological complexity in Full House, his book devoted to an exposition of life shorn of any idea of a trend toward progress:
“I do not deny the phenomenon of increased complexity in life’s history — but I subject this conclusion to two restrictions that undermine its traditional hegemony as evolution’s defining feature. First, the phenomenon exists only in the pitifully limited and restricted sense of a few species extending the small right tail of a bell curve with an ever-constant mode at bacterial complexity — and not as a pervasive feature in the history of most lineages. Second, this restricted phenomenon arises as an incidental consequence — an ‘effect,’ in the terminology of Williams (1966) and Vrba (1980), rather than an intended result — of causes that include no mechanism for progress or increasing complexity in their main actions.”
Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, 1996, p. 197
And Gould further explained the different motivations and central ideas of two of his most influential books:
“Wonderful Life asserts the unpredictability and contingency of any particular event in evolution and emphasizes that the origin of Homo sapiens must be viewed as such an unrepeatable particular, not an expected consequence. Full House presents the general argument for denying that progress defines the history of life or even exists as a general trend at all. Within such a view of life-as-a-whole, humans can occupy no preferred status as a pinnacle or culmination. Life has always been dominated by its bacterial mode.”
Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, 1996, p. 4
Gould’s work is through-and-through permeated by the Copernican principle, taken seriously and applied systematically to biology, paleontology, and anthropology. Gould not only denies the centrality of human beings to any narrative of life, he also denies any mechanism that would culminate in some future progress of complexity that would be definitive of life. Gould conceived a biological Copernicanism more radical than anything imagined by Copernicus or his successors in cosmology.
Emergent Complexity during the Stelliferous Era
How are we to understand the cohort of emergent complexities of which we are a part and a representative, and therefore also possess a vested interest in magnifying the cosmic significance of this cohort? Our reflections on emergent complexity are reflexive (as we are, ourselves, an emergent complexity) and thus are non-constructive in the sense of being impredicative. Perhaps the question for us ought to be, how can we avoid misunderstanding emergent complexity? How are we to circumvent our cognitive biases, which, when projected on a cosmological scale, result in errors of a cosmological magnitude?
Emergent complexities represent the “middle ages” of the cosmos, which first comes out of great simplicity, and which will, in the fullness of time, return to great simplicity. In the meantime, the chaotic intermixing of the elements and parts of the universe can temporarily give rise to complexity. Emergent complexity does not appear in spite of entropy, but rather because of entropy. It is the entropic course of events that brings about the temporary admixture that is the world we know and love. And entropy will, in the same course of events, eventually bring about the dissolution of the temporary admixture that is emergent complexity. In this sense, and as against Gould, emergent complexity is a trend of cosmological history, but it is a trend that will be eventually reversed. Once reversed, once the universe enters well and truly upon its dissolution, emergent complexities will disappear one-by-one, and the trend will be toward simplicity.
One could, on this basis, complete the sequence of emergent complexity employed in Big History by projecting its mirror image into the future, allowing for further emergent complexities prior to the onset of entropy-driven dissolution, except that the undoing of the world will not follow the same sequence of steps in reverse. If the evolution of the universe were phrased in sufficiently general terms, then certainly we could contrast the formation of matter in the past with the dissolution of matter in the future, but matter will not be undone by the reversal of stellar nucleosynthesis.
The Structure of Emergent Complexity
Among the emergent complexities are phenomena like the formation of stars and galaxies, and nucleosynthesis making chemical elements and minerals possible. But as human beings the emergent complexities that interest us the most, perhaps for purely anthropocentric reasons, are life and civilization. We are alive, and we have built a civilization for ourselves, and in life and civilization we see our origins and our end; they are the mirror of human life and ambition. If we were to find life and civilization elsewhere in the universe, we would find a mirror of ourselves which, no matter how alien, we could see some semblance of a reflection of our origins and our end.
Recognizable life would be life as we know it, as recognizable civilization would be civilization as we know it, presumably following from life as we know it. Life, i.e., life as we know it, is predicated upon planetary systems warmed by stars. Thus it might be tempting to say that the life-bearing period of the cosmos is entirely contained within the stelliferous, but that wouldn’t be exactly right. Even after star formation ceases entirely, planetary systems could continue to support life for billions of years yet. And, similarly, even after life has faded from the universe, civilization might continue for billions of years yet. But each development of a new level of emergent complexity must await the prior development of the emergent complexity upon which it is initially contingent, even if, once established in the universe, the later emergent complexity can outlive the specific conditions of its emergence. This results in the structure of emergent complexities not as a nested series wholly contained within more comprehensive conditions of possibility, but as overlapping peaks in which the conditio sine qua non of the later emergent may already be in decline when the next level of complexity appears.
The Ages of Cosmic History
In several posts — Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica? and A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era — I have adopted the periodization of cosmic history formulated by Adams and Greg Laughlin, which distinguishes between the Primordial Era, the Stelliferous Era, the Degenerate Era, the Black Hole Era, and the Dark Era. The scale of time involved in this periodization is so vast that the “eras” might be said to embody both emergent complexity and unchanging homogeneity, without favoring either one.
The Primordial Era is the period of time between the big bang and when the first stars light up; the Stelliferous Era is dominated by stars and galaxies; during the Degenerate Era it is the degenerate remains of stars that dominate; after even degenerate remains of stars have dissipated only massive black holes remain in the Black Hole Era; after even the black holes dissipate, it is the Dark Era, when the universe quietly converges upon heat death. All of these ages of the universe, except perhaps the last, exhibit emergent complexity, and embrace a range of astrophysical processes, but adopting such sweeping periodizations the homogeneity of each era is made clear.
Big History’s first threshold of emergent complexity corresponds to the Primordial Era, but the remainder of its periodizations of emergent complexity are all entirely contained within the Stelliferous Era. I am not aware of any big history periodization that projects the far future as embraced by Adams and Laughlin’s five ages periodization. Big history looks forward to the ninth threshold, which comprises some unnamed, unknown emergent complexity, but it usually does not look as far into the future as the heat death of the universe. (The idea of the “ninth threshold” is a non-constructive concept, I will note — the idea that there will be some threshold and some new emergent complexity, but even as we acknowledge this, we also acknowledge that we do not know what this threshold will be, nor do we known anything of the emergent complexity that will characterize it). Another periodization of comparable scale, Eric Chaisson’s decomposition of cosmic history into the Energy Era, the Matter Era, and the Life Era, cut across Adams and Laughlin’s five ages of the universe, with the distinction between the Energy Era and the Matter Era decomposing the early history of the universe a little differently than the distinction between the Primordial Era and the Stelliferous Era.
The “peak Stelliferous Era,” understood as the period of peak star formation during the Stelliferous Era, has already passed. The universe as defined by stars and galaxies is already in decline — terminal decline that will end in new stars ceasing the form, and then the stars that have formed up to that time eventually burning out, one by one, until none are left. First the bright blue stars will burn out, then the sun-like stars, and the dwarf stars will outlast them all, slowly burning their fuel for billions of years to come. That is still a long time in the future for us, but the end of the peak stelliferous is already a long time in the past for us.
In the paper The Complete Star Formation History of the Universe, by Alan Heavens, Benjamin Panter, Raul Jimenez, and James Dunlop, the authors note that the stellar birthrate peaked between five and eight billion years ago (with the authors of the paper arguing for the more recent peak). Both dates are near to being half the age of the universe, and our star and planetary system were only getting their start after the peak stelliferous had passed. Since the peak, star formation has fallen by an order of magnitude.
The paper cited above was from 2004. Since then, a detailed study star formation rates was widely reported in 2012, which located the peak of stellar birthrates about 11 billion years ago, or 2.7 billion years after the big bang, in which case the greater part of the Stelliferous Era that has elapsed to date has been after the peak of star formation. An even more recent paper, Cosmic Star Formation History, by Piero Madau and Mark Dickinson, argues for peak star formation about 3.5 billion years after the big bang. What all of these studies have in common is finding peak stellar birthrates billions years in the past, placing the present universe well after the peak stelliferous.
A recent paper that was widely noted and discussed, On The History and Future of Cosmic Planet Formation by Peter Behroozi and Molly Peeples, argued that, “…the Universe will form over 10 times more planets than currently exist.” (Also cf. Most Earth-Like Worlds Have Yet to Be Born, According to Theoretical Study) Thus even though we have passed the peak of the Stelliferous in terms of star formation, we may not yet have reached the peak of the formation of habitable planets, and population of habitable planets must peak before planets actually inhabited by life as we know it can peak, thereby achieving peak life in the universe.
The Behroozi ane Peeples paper states:
“…we note that only 8% of the currently available gas around galaxies (i.e., within dark matter haloes) had been converted into stars at the Earth’s formation time (Behroozi et al. 2013c). Even discounting any future gas accretion onto haloes, continued cooling of the existing gas would result in Earth having formed earlier than at least 92% of other similar planets. For giant planets, which are more frequent around more metal-rich stars, we note that galaxy metallicities rise with both increasing cosmic time and stellar mass (Maiolino et al. 2008), so that future galaxies’ star formation will always take place at higher metallicities than past galaxies’ star formation. As a result, Jupiter would also have formed earlier than at least ~90% of all past and future giant planets.”
We do not know the large scale structure of life in the cosmos, whether in terms of space or time, so that we are not at present in a position to measure or determine peak life, in the way that contemporary science can at least approach an estimate of peak stelliferous. However, we can at least formulate the scientific resources that would be necessary to such a determination. The ability to take spectroscopic readings of exoplanet atmospheres, in the way that we can now employ powerful telescopes to see stars throughout the universe, would probably be sufficient to make an estimate of life throughout the universe. This is a distant but still an entirely conceivable technology, so that an understanding of the large scale structure of life in space and time need not elude us perpetually.
Even if life exclusively originated on Earth, the technological agency of civilization may engineer a period of peak life that follows long after the possibility of continued life on Earth has passed. Life in possession of technological agency can spread itself throughout the worlds of our galaxy, and then through the galaxies of the universe. But peak life, in so far as we limit ourselves to life as we know it, must taper off and come to an end with the end of the Stelliferous Era. Life in some form may continue on, but peak life, in the sense of an abundance of populated worlds of high biodiversity, is a function of a large number of worlds warmed by countless stars throughout our universe. As these stars slowly use up their fuel and no new stars form, there will be fewer and fewer worlds warmed by these stars. As stars go cold, worlds will go cold, one by one, throughout the universe, and life, even if it survives in some other, altered form, will occupy fewer and fewer worlds until no “worlds” in this sense remain at all. This inevitable decline of life, however abundantly or sparingly distributed throughout the cosmos, eventually ending in the extinction of life as we know it, I have called the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event (ESMEE).
If we do not know when our universe will arrive at a period of peak life, even less do we know the period of peak civilization — whether it has already happened, whether it is right now, right here (if we are the only civilization the universe, and all that will ever be, then civilization Earth right now represents peak civilization), or whether peak civilization is still to come. We can, however, set parameters on peak civilization as we can set parameters on peak star formation of the Stelliferous Era and peak life.
The origins of civilization as we know it are contingent upon life as we known it, and life as we known it, as we have seen, is a function of the Stelliferous Era cosmos. However, civilization may be defined (among many other possible definitions) as life in possession of technological agency, and once life possesses technological agency it need not remain contingent upon the conditions of its origins. Some time ago in Human Beings: A Solar Species I addressed the idea that humanity is a solar species. Descriptively this is true at present, but it would be a logical fallacy to conflate the “is” of this present descriptive reality with an “ought” that prescribes out dependence upon our star, or even upon the system of stars that is the Stelliferous Era.
Civilization need not suffer from the End Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event as life must inevitably and eventually suffer. It could be argued that civilization as we know it (and, moreover, as defined above as “life in possession of technological agency”) is as contingent upon the conditions of the Stelliferous Era as is life as we known it. If we focus on the technological agency rather than upon life as we known it, even the far future of the universe offers amazing opportunities for civilization. The energy that we now derive from our star and from fossil fuels (itself a form of stored solar energy) we can derive on a far greater scale from angular momentum of rotating black holes (not mention other exotic forms of energy available to supercivilizations), and black holes and their resources will be available to civilizations even beyond the Degenerate Era following the Stelliferous Era, throughout the Black Hole Era.
In Addendum on Degenerate Era Civilization and Cosmology is the Principle of Plenitude teaching by Example I considered some of the interesting possibilities remaining for civilization during the Degenerate Era, and I pushed this perspective even further in my long Centauri Dreams post Who will read the Encyclopedia Galactica?
It is not until the Dark Era that the universe leaves civilization with no extractable energy resources, so that, if we have not by that time found our way to another, younger universe, it is the end of the Black Hole Era, and not the end of the Stelliferous Era, that will spell the doom of civilization. As black holes fade into nothingness one by one, much like stars at the end of the Stelliferous Era, the civilizations dependent upon them will wink out of existence, and this will be the End Civilization Mass Extinction Event (ECMEE) — but only if there is a mass of civilizations at this time to go extinct. This would mark the end of the apotheosis of emergent complexity.
The Apotheosis of Emergent Complexity
We can identify a period of time for our universe that we may call the apotheosis of emergent complexity, when stars are still forming, though on the decline, civilizations are only beginning to establish themselves in the cosmos, and life in the universe is at its peak. During this period, all of the forms of emergent complexity of which we are aware are simultaneously present, and the ecologies of galaxies, biospheres, and civilizations are all enmeshed each in the other.
It remains a possibility, perhaps even a likelihood, that further, unsuspected emergent complexities will grace the universe before its final dissolution in a heat death when the universe will be reduced to the thermodynamic equilibrium, which is the lowest common denominator of existence as we know it. Further forms of emergent complexity would require that we extend the framework I have suggested here, but, short of a robust and testable theory of the multiverse, which would extend the emergent complexity of stars, life, and civilizations to universes other than our own, the basic structure of the apotheosis of emergent complexity should remain as outlined above, even if extended by new forms.
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7 January 2016
An official announcement has been made that North Korea has successfully tested an H-Bomb; global response to this announcement has been both skeptical and critical. Here (in part) is the official announcement from the English language version of KCNA (Korean Central News Agency, run by the DPRK) from DPRK Proves Successful in H-bomb Test:
The first H-bomb test was successfully conducted in Juche Korea at 10:00 on Wednesday, Juche 105 (2016), pursuant to the strategic determination of the WPK. Through the test conducted with indigenous wisdom, technology and efforts the DPRK fully proved that the technological specifications of the newly developed H-bomb for the purpose of test were accurate and scientifically verified the power of smaller H-bomb. It was confirmed that the H-bomb test conducted in a safe and perfect manner had no adverse impact on the ecological environment. The test means a higher stage of the DPRK’s development of nuclear force.
It is thought unlikely that North Korea has the technological and engineering expertise to produce an H-bomb, but it is generally conceded that this is nevertheless possible, and, if the announcement is true, it is an unwelcome development that has already been officially denounced by the UN Security Council. Nation-states skeptical of the H-bomb claim made by North Korea have already moved to condemn the development, just in case it may be true.
There are good reasons for skepticism in the international community. Not only are the seismic signatures of the test smaller than would be expected from an H-bomb, but North Korea has a long history of bluster regarding its weapons systems. The DPRK relies as much on the bluster as on the weapons systems themselves for deterrent effect.
In How Scientists Know the North Korea Blast Probably Wasn’t an H-Bomb: It’s too similar to earlier explosions. we read regarding the DPRK nuclear weapon test:
“An actual hydrogen bomb has a seismic signature similar to an atomic weapon’s. But its explosive yield is in the much larger megaton range. It’s more likely North Korea ‘turbo-charged’ a normal atomic explosion by adding a small amount of tritium to the bomb’s core rather than inventing a miniature hydrogen bomb from scratch.”
There are several separable issues in this paragraph that should be distinguished. Miniaturization of a nuclear device is distinct from the capability of building the device, although the more progress a nation-state makes in miniaturization, the better the weaponization of a ballistic missile (another technology that North Korea has been pressing to develop). There is a first threshold of a nuclear device small enough to be delivered by an ICBM, and a second threshold of miniaturization when MIRVed ICBMs become possible. But presumably the reference to a “miniature” hydrogen bomb refers to the small size of the seismic signature and the DPRK’s own reference to the test being of a “smaller H-bomb.” A smaller fusion device is a greater technical and engineering challenge to build, but it does not require a distinct design (i.e., inventing from scratch). There have been several disputed nuclear tests (particularly those conducted by Pakistan) upon which nuclear scientists disagree whether the tests were “fizzles” or whether a more severe test was purposefully conducted in order to obtain a more rigorous result. Until actual test data are made publicly available (not likely for a hundred years or more) we cannot know the answer to this question, and we similarly cannot know the answer in relation to the DPRK tests.
In regard to what this article refers to as a “turbo-charged” fission device, boosted fission weapons are an important aspect of nuclear technology that any aspiring nuclear weapons power would want to master. It is entirely possible that North Korea’s most recent nuclear test is a boosted fission device that is more powerful than an unboosted fission device but less powerful than a “true” fusion device, and indeed there is a sense in which even “true” fusion devices are boosted fission bombs, as much of the yield even from a Teller-Ulam configuration device is from boosted fission, although the term “true” H-bomb is usually reserved for a fully scalable two-stage device.
As for inventing a hydrogen bomb from scratch, if Ulam and Sakharov could each independently converge upon essentially the same design sixty years ago, there is no reason that a North Korean nuclear scientist could not come up with essentially the same design again from “scratch” — except that is isn’t from scratch. Once the idea has had its proof of concept and everyone knows it can be built, it is only a question of whether a nation-state is going to invest the resources into building such a device.
The first Soviet fusion device was also controversial in its time: the US was skeptical that the Soviets had the technology and expertise to build a fusion device, and indeed the first Soviet fusion device was not a “true” fusion device like the Ivy Mike test of the US, but was rather Sakharov’s “sloika” or “layer cake” design — more powerful than a simple fission device, but less powerful than the first fusion device detonated by the US. But the Soviets rapidly closed the gap, and Sakharov eventually hit on the same design that Stanislaw Ulam had earlier and independently arrived at in the US.
The technology of an H-bomb is significantly more challenging than that of an A-bomb. To produce a simple fission weapon it is only necessary to possess a sufficient quantity of fissionable material and bring this material together into a critical mass. The basic idea is simple, though the engineering challenge is still difficult. While quite a few details of A-bomb design are available in open sources, exact details necessary to building a successful device are classified secrets of all nuclear weapons powers. A simple gun-type device achieves critical mass by using an explosive charge to rapidly drive together to sub-critical masses into a single critical mass (this is the design of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima). A more difficult design to master is an implosion device, in which critical mass is achieved by a symmetrical implosion of concentrically layered fissionables (this is the design of the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagisaki).
Constructing an H-bomb requires mastery of an implosion-type fission device that is used to trigger the more powerful fusion device. As with fission weapons, all the design ideas of fusion devices are available in open sources, and the only difficulty in constructing such a device is, firstly, obtaining the fissionables for the fission trigger, and, secondly, mastering the engineering details of compressing the fusion secondary by means of the fission trigger. We know that North Korea can produce a fission weapon, likely of an implosion type, so it is really only a matter of engineering before the North Koreans are able to employ their fission weapon technology to produce a fusion device. All of this requires time and effort and a dedicated work force, but there is nothing in principle secret about the production of an H-bomb.
In Weapons Systems in an Age of High Technology: Nothing is Hidden I emphasized, even in a time of escalating state security and the culture of the universal surveillance state, that there are no secrets in high technology weapons systems. High technology weapons systems are a function of advanced science and an industrial base that allows for the large scale application of scientific ideas in military technologies. Science itself functions through openness, so that the ideas behind even the most well-guarded weapons programs are developed out in the open, as it were.
Even if the largest and most powerful nation-states attempted to create a small cadre of scientists to develop new science in secret, this closed community would be out-paced in its scientific development by the open community of scientific researchers. It is almost impossible — not entirely impossible, but almost — to make high technology weaponry derived from “secret” scientific advances that cannot be bettered by weaponry designed and built on the principles of publicly available science. This is a reality of industrial-technological civilization that we cannot wish away. At a time when science was the province of isolated geniuses and no political entity in existence had a fully industrialized infrastructure, a secret weapon like Greek Fire could be maintained in secrecy for hundreds of years, but this is no longer the world that we live in.
The technology of the H-bomb is now more than sixty years old. If we consider the pace of technological change in other fields, sixty years is like ancient history, so we should not be surprised when sixty year old technology is developed by poor and backward nation-states. In the early and remarkably prescient anthology ONE WORLD or NONE: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb Oppenheimer’s contribution noted that one of the effects of nuclear weapons was to make destruction far cheaper than in the past:
“In this past war it cost the United States about $10 a pound to deliver explosive to an enemy target. Fifty thousand tons of explosive would thus cost a billion dollars to deliver. Although no precise estimates of the costs of making an atomic bomb equivalent to 50,000 tons of ordinary explosive in energy release can now be given, it seems certain that such costs might be several hundred times less, possibly a thousand times less. Ton for equivalent ton, atomic explosives are vastly cheaper than ordinary explosives. Before conclusions can be drawn from this fact, a number of points must be looked at. But it will turn out that the immediate conclusion is right: Atomic explosives vastly increase the power of destruction per dollar spent, per man-hour invested; they profoundly upset the precarious balance between the effort necessary to destroy and the extent of the destruction.”
ONE WORLD or NONE: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb, Edited by Dexter Masters and Katharine Way, 1946, “The New Weapon: The Turn of the Screw,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, p. 24
Oppenheimer’s observation remains true seventy years later, and what it means today is that even one of the most impoverished and mismanaged economies on the planet can afford to build nuclear weapons. Most nation-states do not build nuclear weapons because of the international pressure not to do so, but rogue states or pariahs of the international community are unconcerned about their standing among other nation-states, and pursue nuclear weapons programs in spite of sanctions and disapproval, valuing military power over international reputation.
In terms of international reputation, North Korea does not even scruple to offend its single ally and sponsor, China, and to do so at the expense of pet projects of the regime. The members of Moranbong Band, reportedly hand-picked by Kim Jong-un, canceled their first scheduled international concert in Beijing and returned to North Korea (North Korean pop band cancels Beijing concert, leaves for home) because the North Koreans would not remove images of North Korean missile launches from videos to be projected during their performance (cf. Kim Jong Un Spurns Xi’s Efforts to Bring Him in From the Cold by David Tweed), but probably also because North Korea knew that China would strongly object to their nuclear test.
Whether or not the North Koreans can build a “true” fusion device at present, whether or not they were lying about their nuclear test, is beside the point. What is relevant is that they have an active nuclear weapons research project and intend to continue with the development of nuclear weapons until they possess a credible nuclear deterrent as the ultimate expression of regime survivability. We can count on the DPRK continuing their development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and eventually even submarine-launched ballistic missiles. All of these are difficult and expensive yet decades old technologies that can eventually be mastered by a determined nation-state.
We know that the North Korean regime cannot survive indefinitely, because tyranny cannot endure, but we also know that tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail. While it is difficult to imagine that what follows the North Korean regime could be worse, China can easily imagine this: millions of North Koreans fleeing over the border and destabilizing parts of China, and eventually a unified Korea that is an ally of the US sharing a border with China. In this, the Chinese and the North Koreans can agree, as for both the “nightmare” scenario is regime collapse that destabilizes Chinese and ends in the removal of the ruling elite in North Korea. The “nightmare” scenario for Seoul and its allies is a North Korean nuclear strike against South Korea, Japan, or the US mainland.
Given the North Korean regime’s dedication to assuring its own survival through the possession of a nuclear deterrent (an imperative shared by the Communist Party elites in China), the interesting question is not the details of the present state of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, but whether the North Korean regime can persist for a period of time sufficient to produce a truly robust and viable strategic deterrence, complete with MIRVed SLBMs. If the North Koreans can attain this level of technologically sophisticated deterrence within the next few decades, even if the regime fails (as with the Soviet Union) the successor power will still retain a powerful bargaining chip, and can present itself as Putin’s Russia today presents itself: as a world power, even if a world power of questionable stability. The privileged political and military families that run the country today could then count on retaining at least a part of their privileges for their descendants. If, on the other hand, the DPRK collapses ignominiously before converging upon a viable strategic deterrence, South Korea will likely manage the transition, privileged families will lose all of their power, and South Korea will almost certainly completely dismantle the strategic defense programs of the North Korean regime. Nothing will remain of the DPRK, under this scenario, except for the stories of the horrors of its rule.
The generals running the country, who present themselves in public as dutifully taking notes while the “Dear Leader” dispenses his wisdom, are looking out for themselves and their heirs. In any transition, the ruling Kim family will lose its position. The excesses of a dictatorship, then, are borne as the opportunity cost of ensuring the ongoing power and privileges of a ruling elite regardless of the details of the transition of power when the North Korean regime inevitably fails and falls. The military and their cronies in business and government are prepared to hang on to power for the long term, as they have seen similarly entrenched elites hang on to power in nation-states like Egypt, which have passed through revolution and regime change with little underlying change.
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